Researchers challenge claim of historic human brain ‘shrinking’ and 3 other papers you don’t want to miss

By Colm Gorey and Mischa Dijkstra, Frontiers science writers


At Frontiers, we bring some of the world’s best research to a global audience. But with tens of thousands of articles published each year, many often fly under the radar. Here are just five amazing papers you may have missed.

  1. Researchers challenge idea that human brains shrank 3,000 years ago

Last year, an article published to Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution made headlines across the world after it claimed human brains shrank in size approximately 3,000 years ago. This, according to the authors, may have driven by the externalization of knowledge in human societies, thus needing less energy to store a lot of information as individuals. As a result, we developed smaller brains.

However, in a recent article, also published to Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, another team of researchers challenged this notion, questioning several of the original paper’s key hypotheses.

Speaking to his university, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, anthropologist Brian Vilmoare said that “human brain size has not changed in 30,000 years, and probably not in 300,000 years”. In fact, he added, “based on this dataset, we can identify no reduction in brain size in modern humans over any time-period since the origins of our species”.

Along with his co-author Mark Grabowski of Liverpool’s John Moores University, Vilmoare claimed the dataset used by the authors of the initial research was heavily skewed because more than half of the 987 skulls examined represent only the last 100 years of a 9.8m-year span of time.

The scientific debate continues.

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2. Cats that fall victim to wildfires face serious risk of developing blood clots

Previous research published to Frontiers highlighted the serious health consequences caused by wildfires, but now a study posted to Frontiers in Veterinary Science has shone a light on their impact on our feline friends.

The team from the University of California, Davis found that cats who suffered burns and smoke inhalation in urban California wildfires are at risk of forming deadly blood clots. To do this, they examined the platelets of cats treated for injuries following a wildfire in Paradise, California.

They found that cats with wildfire injuries had increased overactive platelets compared to healthy cats or cats with heart disease, in this case subclinical hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. HCM is the most common cardiac disease in cats and causes a thickening of the heart muscle.

The platelets of wildfire-injured cats also released high amounts of microvesicles, microscopic membranous bubble-like structures filled with proteins, which are associated with cardiovascular disease and an elevated risk of clotting.

A previous discovery by the same research team showed that cats injured in urban wildfires had a high incidence of heart problems.

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3. Blood test theorized by Sherlock Holmes author could soon be used by police detectives

In his novel A Study in Scarlet from 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle describes how Sherlock Holmes invents an 'infallible test for blood stains'. In the real world, in 1901, Uhlenhuth developed the precipitin test to detect human blood. Today, the presence of human blood is routinely proven with the chemical phenolphthalein test or the antibody-based RSID™-Blood test. But we can soon expect a revolution in this field, predicts a review in Frontiers in Analytical Science.

The authors, from the commercial company SupreMEtric LLC and the University at Albany, review the potential of fluorescence spectroscopy for forensic science. This technique needs only minute samples, down to a single uL. Fluorescence spectroscopy technique comes into full force when combined with advanced statistical techniques for analysis: it can distinguish between peripheral and menstrual blood, determine traits like age, race, medical conditions, and sex, and even estimate the Time Since Deposition (TSD) by quantifying time-specific changes in blood components.

So far these applications have been restricted to the laboratory, but according to the authors, they could soon be within the standard toolkit of police forces everywhere.

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  1. Key component of drones receives a boost thanks to smart material

Engineers from Ohio State University have designed and successfully tested a more efficient wind sensor for use on drones, balloons and other autonomous aircraft.

These wind sensors – called anemometers – are used to monitor wind speed and direction. As demand for autonomous aircraft increases, better wind sensors are needed to make it easier for these vehicles to both sense weather changes and perform safer take-offs and landings.

Speaking to his university, co-author of the research, Mercelo Dapino, said that besides helping aerial objects cross long distances, accurate wind measurements are also important for energy forecasting and optimizing the performance of wind turbines.

Unlike conventional anemometers which can be expensive to make and consume high amounts of energy, the Ohio State team’s lightweight, low-energy, low-drag and more sensitive to changes in pressure than conventional types. This is down to the use of an electric polymer called polyvinylidene fluoride commonly used in architectural coatings and lithium-ion batteries.

However, more research needs to be done to move the wind sensor concept from a controlled research environment to commercial applications. Their findings are published in Frontiers in Materials.

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