New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 33 new articles in PLoS ONE today. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. You can now also easily place articles on various social services (CiteULike, Mendeley, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with just one click. Here are my own picks for the week - you go and look for your own favourites:

Business Return in New Orleans: Decision Making Amid Post-Katrina Uncertainty:

Empirical observations on how businesses respond after a major catastrophe are rare, especially for a catastrophe as great as Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans, Louisiana on August 29, 2005. We analyzed repeated telephone surveys of New Orleans businesses conducted in December 2005, June 2006, and October 2007 to understand factors that influenced decisions to re-open amid post-disaster uncertainty. Businesses in the group of professional, scientific, and technical services reopened the fastest in the near term, but differences in the rate of reopening for businesses stratified by type became indistinguishable in the longer term (around two years later). A reopening rate of 65% was found for all businesses by October 2007. Discriminant analysis showed significant differences in responses reflecting their attitudes about important factors between businesses that reopened and those that did not. Businesses that remained closed at the time of our third survey (two years after Katrina) ranked levee protection as the top concern immediately after Katrina, but damage to their premises and financing became major concerns in subsequent months reflected in the later surveys. For businesses that had opened (at the time of our third survey), infrastructure protection including levee, utility, and communications were the main concerns mentioned in surveys up to the third survey, when the issue of crime became their top concern. These findings underscore the need to have public policy and emergency plans in place prior to the actual disaster, such as infrastructure protection, so that the policy can be applied in a timely manner before business decisions to return or close are made. Our survey results, which include responses from both open and closed businesses, overcome the "survivorship bias" problem and provide empirical observations that should be useful to improve micro-level spatial economic modeling of factors that influence business return decisions.

Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America:

Concern over climate change has led the U.S. to consider a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions. Here we illustrate the land-use impact to U.S. habitat types of new energy development resulting from different U.S. energy policies. We estimated the total new land area needed by 2030 to produce energy, under current law and under various cap-and-trade policies, and then partitioned the area impacted among habitat types with geospatial data on the feasibility of production. The land-use intensity of different energy production techniques varies over three orders of magnitude, from 1.9-2.8 km2/TW hr/yr for nuclear power to 788-1000 km2/TW hr/yr for biodiesel from soy. In all scenarios, temperate deciduous forests and temperate grasslands will be most impacted by future energy development, although the magnitude of impact by wind, biomass, and coal to different habitat types is policy-specific. Regardless of the existence or structure of a cap-and-trade bill, at least 206,000 km2 will be impacted without substantial increases in energy efficiency, which saves at least 7.6 km2 per TW hr of electricity conserved annually and 27.5 km2 per TW hr of liquid fuels conserved annually. Climate policy that reduces carbon dioxide emissions may increase the areal impact of energy, although the magnitude of this potential side effect may be substantially mitigated by increases in energy efficiency. The possibility of widespread energy sprawl increases the need for energy conservation, appropriate siting, sustainable production practices, and compensatory mitigation offsets.

Recognition of Handwriting from Electromyography:

Handwriting - one of the most important developments in human culture - is also a methodological tool in several scientific disciplines, most importantly handwriting recognition methods, graphology and medical diagnostics. Previous studies have relied largely on the analyses of handwritten traces or kinematic analysis of handwriting; whereas electromyographic (EMG) signals associated with handwriting have received little attention. Here we show for the first time, a method in which EMG signals generated by hand and forearm muscles during handwriting activity are reliably translated into both algorithm-generated handwriting traces and font characters using decoding algorithms. Our results demonstrate the feasibility of recreating handwriting solely from EMG signals - the finding that can be utilized in computer peripherals and myoelectric prosthetic devices. Moreover, this approach may provide a rapid and sensitive method for diagnosing a variety of neurogenerative diseases before other symptoms become clear.

Man Bites Mosquito: Understanding the Contribution of Human Movement to Vector-Borne Disease Dynamics:

In metropolitan areas people travel frequently and extensively but often in highly structured commuting patterns. We investigate the role of this type of human movement in the epidemiology of vector-borne pathogens such as dengue. Analysis is based on a metapopulation model where mobile humans connect static mosquito subpopulations. We find that, due to frequency dependent biting, infection incidence in the human and mosquito populations is almost independent of the duration of contact. If the mosquito population is not uniformly distributed between patches the transmission potential of the pathogen at the metapopulation level, as summarized by the basic reproductive number, is determined by the size of the largest subpopulation and reduced by stronger connectivity. Global extinction of the pathogen is less likely when increased human movement enhances the rescue effect but, in contrast to classical theory, it is not minimized at an intermediate level of connectivity. We conclude that hubs and reservoirs of infection can be places people visit frequently but briefly and the relative importance of human and mosquito populations in maintaining the pathogen depends on the distribution of the mosquito population and the variability in human travel patterns. These results offer an insight in to the paradoxical observation of resurgent urban vector-borne disease despite increased investment in vector control and suggest that successful public health intervention may require a dual approach. Prospective studies can be used to identify areas with large mosquito populations that are also visited by a large fraction of the human population. Retrospective studies can be used to map recent movements of infected people, pinpointing the mosquito subpopulation from which they acquired the infection and others to which they may have transmitted it.

Craniometric Data Supports Demic Diffusion Model for the Spread of Agriculture into Europe:

The spread of agriculture into Europe and the ancestry of the first European farmers have been subjects of debate and controversy among geneticists, archaeologists, linguists and anthropologists. Debates have centred on the extent to which the transition was associated with the active migration of people as opposed to the diffusion of cultural practices. Recent studies have shown that patterns of human cranial shape variation can be employed as a reliable proxy for the neutral genetic relationships of human populations. Here, we employ measurements of Mesolithic (hunter-gatherers) and Neolithic (farmers) crania from Southwest Asia and Europe to test several alternative population dispersal and hunter-farmer gene-flow models. We base our alternative hypothetical models on a null evolutionary model of isolation-by-geographic and temporal distance. Partial Mantel tests were used to assess the congruence between craniometric distance and each of the geographic model matrices, while controlling for temporal distance. Our results demonstrate that the craniometric data fit a model of continuous dispersal of people (and their genes) from Southwest Asia to Europe significantly better than a null model of cultural diffusion. Therefore, this study does not support the assertion that farming in Europe solely involved the adoption of technologies and ideas from Southwest Asia by indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Moreover, the results highlight the utility of craniometric data for assessing patterns of past population dispersal and gene flow.

Adolescent Engagement in Dangerous Behaviors Is Associated with Increased White Matter Maturity of Frontal Cortex:

Myelination of white matter in the brain continues throughout adolescence and early adulthood. This cortical immaturity has been suggested as a potential cause of dangerous and impulsive behaviors in adolescence. We tested this hypothesis in a group of healthy adolescents, age 12-18 (N = 91), who underwent diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to delineate cortical white matter tracts. As a measure of real-world risk taking, participants completed the Adolescent Risk Questionnaire (ARQ) which measures engagement in dangerous activities. After adjusting for age-related changes in both DTI and ARQ, engagement in dangerous behaviors was found to be positively correlated with fractional anisotropy and negatively correlated with transverse diffusivity in frontal white matter tracts, indicative of increased myelination and/or density of fibers (ages 14-18, N = 60). The direction of correlation suggests that rather than having immature cortices, adolescents who engage in dangerous activities have frontal white matter tracts that are more adult in form than their more conservative peers.

Episodic Memory in Detoxified Alcoholics: Contribution of Grey Matter Microstructure Alteration:

Even though uncomplicated alcoholics may likely have episodic memory deficits, discrepancies exist regarding to the integrity of brain regions that underlie this function in healthy subjects. Possible relationships between episodic memory and 1) brain microstructure assessed by magnetic resonance diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), 2) brain volumes assessed by voxel-based morphometry (VBM) were investigated in uncomplicated, detoxified alcoholics. Diffusion and morphometric analyses were performed in 24 alcohol dependent men without neurological or somatic complications and in 24 healthy men. The mean apparent coefficient of diffusion (ADC) and grey matter volumes were measured in the whole brain. Episodic memory performance was assessed using a French version of the Free and Cued Selective Reminding Test (FCSRT). Correlation analyses between verbal episodic memory, brain microstructure, and brain volumes were carried out using SPM2 software. In those with alcohol dependence, higher ADC was detected mainly in frontal, temporal and parahippocampal regions, and in the cerebellum. In alcoholics, regions with higher ADC typically also had lower grey matter volume. Low verbal episodic memory performance in alcoholism was associated with higher mean ADC in parahippocampal areas, in frontal cortex and in the left temporal cortex; no correlation was found between regional volumes and episodic memory scores. Regression analyses for the control group were not significant. These findings support the hypothesis that regional microstructural but no macrostructural alteration of the brain might be responsible, at least in part, for episodic memory deficits in alcohol dependence.

Thelytokous Parthenogenesis in the Fungus-Gardening Ant Mycocepurus smithii (Hymenoptera: Formicidae):

The general prevalence of sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction among organisms testifies to the evolutionary benefits of recombination, such as accelerated adaptation to changing environments and elimination of deleterious mutations. Documented instances of asexual reproduction in groups otherwise dominated by sexual reproduction challenge evolutionary biologists to understand the special circumstances that might confer an advantage to asexual reproductive strategies. Here we report one such instance of asexual reproduction in the ants. We present evidence for obligate thelytoky in the asexual fungus-gardening ant, Mycocepurus smithii, in which queens produce female offspring from unfertilized eggs, workers are sterile, and males appear to be completely absent. Obligate thelytoky is implicated by reproductive physiology of queens, lack of males, absence of mating behavior, and natural history observations. An obligate thelytoky hypothesis is further supported by the absence of evidence indicating sexual reproduction or genetic recombination across the species' extensive distribution range (Mexico-Argentina). Potential conflicting evidence for sexual reproduction in this species derives from three Mycocepurus males reported in the literature, previously regarded as possible males of M. smithii. However, we show here that these specimens represent males of the congeneric species M. obsoletus, and not males of M. smithii. Mycocepurus smithii is unique among ants and among eusocial Hymenoptera, in that males seem to be completely absent and only queens (and not workers) produce diploid offspring via thelytoky. Because colonies consisting only of females can be propagated consecutively in the laboratory, M. smithii could be an adequate study organism a) to test hypotheses of the population-genetic advantages and disadvantages of asexual reproduction in a social organism and b) inform kin conflict theory.

Enrichment from Birth Accelerates the Functional and Cellular Development of a Motor Control Area in the Mouse:

There is strong evidence that sensory experience in early life has a profound influence on the development of sensory circuits. Very little is known, however, about the role of experience in the early development of striatal networks which regulate both motor and cognitive function. To address this, we have investigated the influence of early environmental enrichment on motor development. Mice were raised in standard or enriched housing from birth. For animals assessed as adults, half of the mice had their rearing condition reversed at weaning to enable the examination of the effects of pre- versus post-weaning enrichment. We found that exclusively pre-weaning enrichment significantly improved performance on the Morris water maze compared to non-enriched mice. The effects of early enrichment on the emergence of motor programs were assessed by performing behavioural tests at postnatal day 10. Enriched mice traversed a significantly larger region of the test arena in an open-field test and had improved swimming ability compared to non-enriched cohorts. A potential cellular correlate of these changes was investigated using Wisteria-floribunda agglutinin (WFA) staining to mark chondroitin-sulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs). We found that the previously reported transition of CSPG staining from striosome-associated clouds to matrix-associated perineuronal nets (PNNs) is accelerated in enriched mice. This is the first demonstration that the early emergence of exploratory as well as coordinated movement is sensitive to experience. These behavioural changes are correlated with an acceleration of the emergence of striatal PNNs suggesting that they may consolidate the neural circuits underlying these behaviours. Finally, we confirm that pre-weaning experience can lead to life long changes in the learning ability of mice.

An Empirical Explanation of the Speed-Distance Effect:

Understanding motion perception continues to be the subject of much debate, a central challenge being to account for why the speeds and directions seen accord with neither the physical movements of objects nor their projected movements on the retina. Here we investigate the varied perceptions of speed that occur when stimuli moving across the retina traverse different projected distances (the speed-distance effect). By analyzing a database of moving objects projected onto an image plane we show that this phenomenology can be quantitatively accounted for by the frequency of occurrence of image speeds generated by perspective transformation. These results indicate that speed-distance effects are determined empirically from accumulated past experience with the relationship between image speeds and moving objects.

Discrete and Effortful Imagined Movements Do Not Specifically Activate the Autonomic Nervous System:

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated in parallel with the motor system during cyclical and effortful imagined actions. However, it is not clear whether the ANS is activated during motor imagery of discrete movements and whether this activation is specific to the movement being imagined. Here, we explored these topics by studying the baroreflex control of the cardiovascular system. Arterial pressure and heart rate were recorded in ten subjects who executed or imagined trunk or leg movements against gravity. Trunk and leg movements result in different physiological reactions (orthostatic hypotension phenomenon) when they are executed. Interestingly, ANS activation significantly, but similarly, increased during imagined trunk and leg movements. Furthermore, we did not observe any physiological modulation during a control mental-arithmetic task or during motor imagery of effortless movements (horizontal wrist displacements). We concluded that ANS activation during motor imagery is general and not specific and physiologically prepares the organism for the upcoming effortful action.

The Relationship of DNA Methylation with Age, Gender and Genotype in Twins and Healthy Controls:

Cytosine-5 methylation within CpG dinucleotides is a potentially important mechanism of epigenetic influence on human traits and disease. In addition to influences of age and gender, genetic control of DNA methylation levels has recently been described. We used whole blood genomic DNA in a twin set (23 MZ twin-pairs and 23 DZ twin-pairs, N = 92) as well as healthy controls (N = 96) to investigate heritability and relationship with age and gender of selected DNA methylation profiles using readily commercially available GoldenGate bead array technology. Despite the inability to detect meaningful methylation differences in the majority of CpG loci due to tissue type and locus selection issues, we found replicable significant associations of DNA methylation with age and gender. We identified associations of genetically heritable single nucleotide polymorphisms with large differences in DNA methylation levels near the polymorphism (cis effects) as well as associations with much smaller differences in DNA methylation levels elsewhere in the human genome (trans effects). Our results demonstrate the feasibility of array-based approaches in studies of DNA methylation and highlight the vast differences between individual loci. The identification of CpG loci of which DNA methylation levels are under genetic control or are related to age or gender will facilitate further studies into the role of DNA methylation and disease.

Aging Affects the Mental Rotation of Left and Right Hands:

Normal aging significantly influences motor and cognitive performance. Little is known about age-related changes in action simulation. Here, we investigated the influence of aging on implicit motor imagery. Twenty young (mean age: 23.9±2.8 years) and nineteen elderly (mean age: 78.3±4.5 years) subjects, all right-handed, were required to determine the laterality of hands presented in various positions. To do so, they mentally rotated their hands to match them with the hand-stimuli. We showed that: (1) elderly subjects were affected in their ability to implicitly simulate movements of the upper limbs, especially those requiring the largest amplitude of displacement and/or with strong biomechanical constraints; (2) this decline was greater for movements of the non-dominant arm than of the dominant arm. These results extend recent findings showing age-related alterations of the explicit side of motor imagery. They suggest that a general decline in action simulation occurs with normal aging, in particular for the non-dominant side of the body.

Accidental Outcomes Guide Punishment in a 'Trembling Hand' Game:

How do people respond to others' accidental behaviors? Reward and punishment for an accident might depend on the actor's intentions, or instead on the unintended outcomes she brings about. Yet, existing paradigms in experimental economics do not include the possibility of accidental monetary allocations. We explore the balance of outcomes and intentions in a two-player economic game where monetary allocations are made with a "trembling hand": that is, intentions and outcomes are sometimes mismatched. Player 1 allocates $10 between herself and Player 2 by rolling one of three dice. One die has a high probability of a selfish outcome, another has a high probability of a fair outcome, and the third has a high probability of a generous outcome. Based on Player 1's choice of die, Player 2 can infer her intentions. However, any of the three die can yield any of the three possible outcomes. Player 2 is given the opportunity to respond to Player 1's allocation by adding to or subtracting from Player 1's payoff. We find that Player 2's responses are influenced substantially by the accidental outcome of Player 1's roll of the die. Comparison to control conditions suggests that in contexts where the allocation is at least partially under the control of Player 1, Player 2 will punish Player 1 accountable for unintentional negative outcomes. In addition, Player 2's responses are influenced by Player 1's intention. However, Player 2 tends to modulate his responses substantially more for selfish intentions than for generous intentions. This novel economic game provides new insight into the psychological mechanisms underlying social preferences for fairness and retribution.


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