Posts Tagged ‘nose’

Brains compensate for a stuffy nose

// August 13th, 2012 // Comments Off on Brains compensate for a stuffy nose // Recent Research

Image by Miguel Angel Pasalodos, licensed on Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

Nothing like a stuffy nose to ruin your day. You sound like a ponce, food tastes like cardboard and you have to sleep with your mouth open for spiders to crawl in. No joke. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine.

But have you ever noticed how quickly your sense of smell returns? Almost as soon as the sniffles are gone, you’re back to sniffing roses, and new research is finding out how our brain can adjust so fast to changes in sensory input.

What I love about this study is how they did it.

For a whole week, 14 people had their noses completely blocked during the day. At night, they slept sans-nose-blockers in a special low-odour hospital room.

A low odour hospital room? All the ones I’ve been to smell weirdly like custard. I wonder if all 14 shared the same room, or if they were spread out… I mean, even if you do have a spesh no-custard hospital dorm, if 14 people spending the night there it won’t be low odour for long.

Brain activity in response to odours changed after a week of smell deprivation in two regions. Activity increased in the orbital frontal cortex, but decreased in the piriform cortex, both are related to our sense of smell.

“These changes in the brain are instrumental in maintaining the way we smell things even after seven days of no smell,” said lead author Keng Nei Wu, Northwestern University Feinburg School of Medicine, in the press release.

“When your nostrils are blocked up, your brain tries to adjust to the lack of information so the system doesn’t break down. The brain compensates for the lack of information so when you get your sense of smell back, it will be in good working order.”

Once the 14 participants were released to sniff wildly, their brains soon returned to normal, showing pre-experimental levels of excitement when offered something smelly.

This rapid reversal in the realm of smell is quite different to sight, where deprivation usually has longer-lasting effects. Wu suggests this could be because smell deprivation is pretty common, given our penchant for catching colds and having allergies. Perhaps it has evolved to be more agile, or perhaps the endless sniffles we get in primary school gave our brains ample chance to practice.

Either way, it seems the quick adjustments by our brains protect our sense of smell, so it can rebound quicker than you can say “the one who smelt it dealt it.”

Wu ends by saying “more knowledge about how the system reacts to short-term deprivation may provide new insights into how to deal with this problem in a chronic context.”

Chronic loss of smell is nothing to be sniffed at (lol.) It really takes the fun out of life. This column, 20 years of living without a sense of smell, was clearly written from the pits of despair for want of a whiff of fabric softener.

ResearchBlogging.orgKeng Nei Wu, Bruce K Tan, James D Howard, David B Conley & Jay A Gottfried (2012). Olfactory input is critical for sustaining odor quality codes in human orbitofrontal cortex
Nature Neuroscience : 10.1038/nn.3186

New monkey species discovered, sneezes when wet

// October 27th, 2010 // 3 Comments » // Recent Research

Snub nosed monkey

Image reconstructed on photoshop based on similar species and a carcass of the new species. Image by Dr Thomas Geissmann.

Meet Rhinopithecus strykeri, the Burmese snub-nosed monkey that sneezes when it rains. It is covered with black hair from its head to its very long tail, except for its ears and chin beard which have little white tufts. Angelina Jolie lips complete the look.

On it’s flat little face it has an upturned nose and wide nostrils, perfect for rain catching. When it rains they are often found with their heads between their legs. Hating life.

The monkey was found in Northern Myanmar, formally known as Burma. The research was conducted by a team of primatologists including Flora & Fauna International.

It’s new to science, but old news to the local people who already knew it well in Lisu language as mey nwoah and in Law Waw language as myuk na tok te, both mean ‘monkey with an upturned nose.’

It’s like the Margay cat again… we don’t hear about it until it’s documented in a SCIENCE way, in a journal, written and peer reviewed. /rant.

Though they DID interview hunters as part of the fieldwork. One of the hunters even gave them a bag he had made with the skin of a juvenile snub-nosed monkey. I guess that counts.

Other species of snub-nosed monkeys have been found in China and Vietnam, but this one is different in that it is particularly black, especially sneezy, and the skin around its eyes is pale pink instead of blue (among other things.) All snub-nosed monkeys are considered endangered, and it is estimated that the population of this species is only 260 – 330 individuals. Local people and Flora & Fauna International are working to protect the newly found species, but as always conservation is a tough gig.

Below is the citation for the journal article BUT BE WARNED! I couldn’t find it. I tried to resolve the doi and got nada. I searched all through the American Primate Journal and found nothing. I’ll keep checking and see if it comes back. Post a comment if you can find it before me.

ResearchBlogging.orgGeissmann, T., Lwin, N., Aung, S., Aung, T., Aung, Z., Hla, T., Grindley, M., & Momberg, F. (2010). A new species of snub-nosed monkey, genus Rhinopithecus Milne-Edwards, 1872 (Primates, Colobinae), from northern Kachin state, northeastern Myanmar American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20894

UPDATE: Thanks to the comments below who found the journal article. Download it in pdf.

The Japanese bullet train, designed by kingfishers

// July 18th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work

Kingfisher and bullet train

Images by heavenlyvacation and MJTR (´・ω・) on flickr

It’s a beautiful example of biomimicry, nature informing technology. The shinkansen bullet trains of Japan are airplanes on rails, traveling at over 300 km per hour in comfort and style.

Traveling at this speed, tunnels present a problem. When the train enters the tunnel it compresses a cushion of air ahead of it. The compressed air waves become a small shock wave when they exit the tunnel, moving through the air faster than the speed of sound. The tunnel boom sounds like a clap of thunder, and residents complained.

Engineers looked for examples in nature to solve the problem, and they fixed on the kingfisher. When the bird dives into the water for fish it makes hardly any splash. They generated computer models and found that modifying the nose of the train to mimic the kingfisher bill would reduce tunnel boom. The new generations of bullet trains now sport the kingfisher look and are quieter, faster and use 15% less electricity.

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