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Kicking, Sleeping, and Counting: Research Highlights for Science Lovers

08/07/2014
Nathan Blow, PhD

Today, we take a look at recent research sure to surprise and delight. This week: kicking a soccer ball, sleeping in the lab, and counting to 10. Read more...


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The Kicker/Keeper Dilemma

In soccer, penalty kicks are arguably the highest moment of tension on the pitch. Pitting a single kicker, only yards away from glory, against a goalkeeper intent on saving the shot for his team, this is a one-on-one competition nested within a typically team sport. Both players have to make quick decisions here: the kicker has to decide where to place the shot so that the goalkeeper has the lowest probability of making a save, while the goalkeeper must decide, often without any prior knowledge, which direction to move in attempt to block the shot. What are players thinking when making these decisions at that moment? Is there a trend when it comes to penalty shootout kicks? Researchers Erman Misirlisoy and

Patrick Haggard from University College in London decided to look at this question by examining 361 penalty kicks taken from 37 penalty shoot-outs during World Cup and Euro Cup games between 1976 and 2012. Interestingly, the researchers learned that goalkeepers displayed a sequential basis when kicks in the same direction were struck—they tended to dive in the opposite direction on ensuing kicks. Good news for kickers who pay attention, right? But it turns out that kickers failed to exploit this trend in the end, based on the data. For goalkeepers, random decision-making might be the best strategy, while kickers are advised to pay attention to trends. Misirlosoy and Haggard have generated a fascinating article focusing on cognitive competition that anyone with a love of soccer, or an interest in decision-making, should enjoy.

“Asymmetric predictability and cognitive competition in football penalty shootouts” Misirlisoy, E and Haggard, P. 2013, Current Biology 24, 1-5, August 18, 2014.

Sleep Learning

For scientists, sleep is often at a premium. Grad school, postdoctoral fellowships, first faculty positions, grant writing, manuscript submission, tenure decisions, conferences—the list of reasons why we fail to get enough sleep is seemingly never-ending. Given this, finding one of your co-workers asleep in the lab should not come as any great shock. But while you might think this is extremely counterproductive behavior, could it actually be a more productive use of your labmate’s time? For decades, researchers have argued that sleeping is involved in learning and memory, but its role has been tricky to determine. Now Yang et al. present new research in the journal Science suggesting a mechanism for learning and memory consolidation where sleeping actually promotes the storage and reinforcement of new memories. The researchers took a very clever approach to studying this question. Using a fluorescent protein to label dendrites in the motor cortex of the mouse brain, the Yang and colleagues were able to directly image the formation of dendritic spines before and after mouse training sessions. With this method in place, the scientists trained mice, following that training with either sleep or no sleep. In the case of sleep-deprivation (think graduate school), mice showed reduced dendritic spine formation compared with animals that were allowed to maintain normal sleep patterns. More surprisingly perhaps, this reduction in spine formation could not be rescued by either additional training or a subsequent period of sleep. (So catching up on the weekend? No help.) Take a read through this well-done study, and then for good measure, sleep on it.

“Sleep promotes branch-specific formation of dendritic spines after learning” Yang, G. et al. Science, Vol 344, 6188: 1173-1178, 2014.

Counting on your fingers

Alan Turing was a British mathematician whose work famously impacted the worlds of math and computer science. His life in math and his work in cryptography have been the subject of a number of books, plays, and feature films. But what you might not know about Turing is that he also worked on a few problems in biology, including morphogenesis. In a 1951 article in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Turing suggested that chemical substances, morphogens, could react together and diffuse through tissues, initially in a homogenous fashion. However, disruption of that homogenous equilibrium could give rise to a biological pattern, or even a physiological structure. He went on to investigate the theory behind such instability and proposed different biological forms this could take, including how such a system on a sphere might explain gastrulation. Now, more than 60 years later, a team of researchers report that a combination of Bmp, Sox9, and Wnt produces digital patterns during limb development through a Turing reaction-diffusion network. Although other recent publications have hinted at the existence of such systems, the work by Raspopovic et al. is the first to define the molecules, generate supporting modeling data, and provide experimental evidence supporting a Turing reaction-diffusion process during morphogenesis. This wonderful link between the past and the present, which provides a step forward in understanding how complex biological structures arise, makes this article a great one to check out.

“Digit patterning is controlled by a Bmp-Sox9-Wnt Turing network modulated by morphogen gradients” Raspopovic et al. Science Vol 345, 6196: 566-570, 2014.

We hope you enjoyed this collection of research highlights. If you come across an article you think we should highlight in the future, let us know in an email.