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Feb. 28, 2013 at 7:18 PM   |   Comments

Study: Left-hand turn, cellphone don't mix

TORONTO, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Traffic accidents can happen because the brain has a hard time when both making a left-hand turn and talking on a hands-free cellphone, Canadian scientists say.

Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto say most serious traffic accidents occur when drivers are making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection because it requires a huge amount of brain activation and involves far more areas of the brain than driving on a straight road or other maneuvers.

If drivers are also talking on a hands-free cell phone "that could be the most dangerous thing they ever do on the road," St. Michael's neuroscientist Tom Schweizer said.

The researchers tested healthy young drivers operating a driving simulator located inside a high-powered functional MRI, allowing the scientists to map in real time which parts of the brain were activated or deactivated as the simulator took them through increasingly difficult driving maneuvers.

The researchers found making a left-hand turn required the most brain involvement.

They also reported that when the drivers were also involved in a conversation, the part of the brain that controls vision significantly reduced its activity as the part that controls monitoring a conversation and attention was activated.

"Visually, a left-hand turn is quite demanding," Schweizer said. "You have to look at oncoming traffic, pedestrians and lights, and coordinate all that. Add talking on a cell phone, and your visual area shuts down significantly, which obviously is key to performing the maneuver."

"This study provides real-time neuroimaging evidence supporting previous behavioral observations suggesting that multitasking while driving may compromise vision and alertness. 'Hands free' not does mean 'brains free,'" he said.


Legal rhino horn trade urged to save them

BRISBANE, Australia, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- A legal trade in rhino horn may be the only chance to save the imperiled animals from extinction, an Australian environmental scientist says.

Duan Biggs of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and University of Queensland, writing with three colleagues in the journal Science, argues a global ban on rhino products has failed and death rates among the world's remaining black and white rhinos are soaring due to illegal poaching to supply insatiable international demand.

"Current strategies have clearly failed to conserve these magnificent animals and the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn," Biggs said.

"As committed environmentalists we don't like the idea of a legal trade any more than does the average member of the concerned public," he said. "But we can see that we need to do something radically different to conserve Africa's rhino."

The entire world demand for horn could be met legally by humanely shaving the horns of live rhinos and from animals that die of natural causes, the scientists said.

The Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011, and the researchers estimate there are only 5,000 Black Rhinos and 20,000 White Rhinos left, mostly in South Africa and Namibia.

"Skyrocketing poaching levels are driven by tremendous growth in the retail price of rhino horn, from around $4,700 per kilogram [$2,130 per pound] in 1993 to around $65,000 per kilogram [$25,00 per pound] in 2012," they wrote.

"Rhino horn is now worth more than gold," the scientists noted, explaining the growth is attributed to soaring demand by affluent Asian consumers for Chinese medicines.

Rhinos grow almost 2 pounds of horn each year and the risks to the animal from today's best-practice horn harvesting techniques are minimal, they said. They cited the legal trade in farmed crocodile skins is an example of where legalization has saved a species from being hunted to extinction.


Building blocks of life may be in space

GREEN BANK, W.Va., Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The discovery of prebiotic molecules in interstellar space suggests some basic chemicals key to life may have formed between the stars, U.S. astronomers say.

Using the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to study a giant cloud of gas some 25,000 light-years from Earth, near the center of our Milky Way galaxy, scientists say they found evidence of a molecule thought to be a precursor to a key component of DNA and another that may have a role in the formation of the amino acid alanine.

"Finding these molecules in an interstellar gas cloud means that important building blocks for DNA and amino acids can 'seed' newly-formed planets with the chemical precursors for life," Anthony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory said.

The newly discovered interstellar molecules, which may have formed on dusty ice grains floating between the stars, are intermediate stages in multistep chemical processes leading to biological molecules, the researcher said.

"We need to do further experiments to better understand how these reactions work, but it could be that some of the first key steps toward biological chemicals occurred on tiny ice grains," Remijan said.


Scientists probe preserved mammoth's brain

YAKUTSK, Russia, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Russian scientists said they've begun to study a well-preserved mammoth brain to see if it will yield clues to the extinct animal's behavior.

"This discovery holds great scientific significance," Albert Protopopov from the Academy of Sciences in Yakutia in remote Siberia told RIA Novosti. "This is the first time scientists have gotten their hands on the brain of an animal that lived tens of thousands of years ago, and one that's in such good condition."

The baby mammoth nicknamed Yuka, found in 2010 in Yakutia, is believed to have lived around 39,000 years ago and is thought to have been around 10 or 11 years old at the time of death.

The brain is in excellent condition, scientists said.

"This allows us to study not only the morphological features of the mammoth brain, but also, most importantly, to understand particular aspects of their behavior, something that has not been possible to date," Protopopov said.

While the carcass "is exceptionally well preserved," he said, "the skin shows marks made by claws and teeth of cave lions, and tear marks from stone tools used by early humans."

The research work on the mammoth brain is being carried out in Moscow, he said.

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