Your brain is plastic! [Coffee-byte]

Plastic brain. Source:
We all, have our days when our brain just stops responding to anything we say or want it to do. There are times when it fails you in simple arithmetic like 6 + 9 = ? (did you get that right?) or the change the shop keeper owes you. Sometimes, this happens early in the mornings or sometimes its late in the night, after a hard day's work but at the bottom of it all, we are sure that as

we are getting old, our brain is finding it hard to keep up.

And this is the greatest lie that we tell ourselves!

In reality, the brain is up and running and its ready to learn new things everyday. What you need to ask yourself is whether you are challenging it enough.

Researchers Ping Li and his colleagues at the Center for Language Sciences at Penn State University set out to test this and enrolled a group of 39 native English speakers for their study. Over a period of six weeks, half of the participants in the study were assigned to learn Chinese vocabulary while the others did not. Both the groups of participants underwent functional MRI (fMRI) scans, one at the beginning of the study and one at the end of it. fMRI's is a type of MRI scan that allows us to measure brain activity

Brain scanning technology is quickly approachi...
Brain scanning technology has now reached levels of details that can map our brain activity. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Analysis of these fMRIs at the end of the study period showed that participants who were involved in the learning Chinese vocabulary showed better brain activity than those who were not. The researchers also found that the brain network of such participants was better integrated. Interestingly, participants who performed better (among Chinese learning participants) were also seen to have improved brain activity over their counterparts. 

The most important finding of the study was that this increased brain activity was found to be independent of the age of the participant. This basically means that there is no ideal age to learn a new language. The researchers are confident that findings of this study can be applied to other day to tasks as well and learning something new will help in increasing your brain activity. 

So, there it is! It is official now that your brain is flexible (plastic) when it comes to learning new things and there is no age limit to learn take up a new language or a new skill. Do share this bit of information with your family and friends and why not start off by liking our blog (Coffee Table Science BlogFacebookTwitter | Google+) and making a resolve to read every post that we send your way and let the brain activity flow! 


Yang, J., Gates, K., Molenaar, P., & Li, P. (2014). Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study Journal of Neurolinguistics DOI: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2014.09.004

Wonder why this was not part of Chemistry class, ever!

Belousov–Zhabotinsky Reaction
Like most kids growing up in India, I was encouraged to take up science after my secondary school and expected to make a career in medicine or engineering somewhere. While the debate will always continue whether such encouragement is good for the child or not, as a student of science, there was a lot of information that was being bombarded at me, some of which I liked and some of which I just could not get my head around. Unfortunately, Chemistry features in the list of subjects, I didn't understand completely.

There are so many things that happen in the Chemistry textbook and to make matters worse, it is further divided into Chemistry I and Chemistry II (the organic and the inorganic parts). There was only one way to get past the barrier and that was understand what you could and regurgitate it in the exams to the best of your ability. I think I managed it quite well for my board exams but then came the larger hurdle of biochemistry and knowing the intricate details of various biochemical cycles such as Krebs cycle (citric acid cycle), Urea Cycle or breakdown of Glucose in the body etc. The dry nature of their contents further pushed me away from Chemistry, so much so that we hardly cover any Chemistry in this at Coffee Table Science. But that is some thing we are looking to change in the coming posts and hope this will be a good start. 

While researching a little on the Chemistry frontier for the blog, I came across an amazing phenomenon called Oscillating reactions. Right from the first reaction that was taught in school till date, chemistry was always a means to an end, One component reacted with another or probably even more to form a final product and that was where Chemistry ended. 

We studied chemistry to know how the end product is made. 

Even as we grew up and the famous Krebs cycle was introduced, it was introduced as how A is converted to B and then to C, till it finally returns as A, but not as how beautifully does the cell use its resources to produce energy. In my honest most opinion, it would not have hurt the makers of chemistry textbooks to start with oscillating reactions to get the student interested at least before boring them to death with Friedel-Crafts Alkylation

A common example of an oscillating chemical reaction is the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, where reaction constituents. In the 1950's Russian biochemist Boris Belousov observed that in a mixture of chemicals that consisted of potassium bromate and cerium sulfate among other things, the reaction liquid did not reach an end point but kept oscillating between colours yellow and  colourless. While Belousov tried to publish his findings, the then popular journals dismissed his findings since the results did not agree with the common notion that 

all chemical reactions reach an end point and make a stable product
It was only a decade later that Anatol Zhabotinsky, who was working at the University of Moscow came across Belousov's findings and investigated them further. Unfortunately, he, too, wasn't able to publish his findings at that time and it was only another decade later in 1972 when the mechanism of oscillating reactions was finally published. The reason for colour changes of the solution is the oscillating oxidation state of Cerium which is yellow in a higher oxidation state and colourless in a lower oxidation state.

Since then, there are many reaction mixes that have been described that follow the principle of Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction and one such is shown below using ferroin, which I found on Stephen Morris' YouTube Channel

I am quite sure that had some one showed me this video 10 years ago, my attitude towards chemistry would have been very very different. Would yours have been?

Do let us me know using the comments section below!

Eat your veggies or your doctor will know! [Coffee-byte]

Fresh vegetables are important components of a...
Fresh vegetables are important components
of a healthy diet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We have always been told that fruits and vegetables are good for our health and as we all get health conscious by the day, we do make a conscious effort to eat them, except the ones that we do not like!

Take bitter gourd for instance. Sold as a health drink in the mornings, this supreme vegetable makes for an excellent candidate for lunch or even as a crisp accompaniment with dinner. But we use every excuse in the book to avoid eating it. However, we will not be able to fool ourselves any longer, because our physician will soon know whether we have actually been eating a proper diet or skipping the greens. 

When did this happen? 

This new development is thanks to the research conducted at the School of Public Health and Medicine at Yale University where researchers Susan Mayne and her colleagues have developed a simple blue laser which when held against the palm of your hand can (almost) instantly tell the levels of carotenoid in your skin. Just like monitoring your blood glucose or cholesterol, your physician will now be able to keep records of levels of carotenoids as well and know if you have been following your recommended diet or not! 

The device works on the principle of Resonance Raman Spectroscopy, where the frequency of the laser incident is matched to the object to be studied so that it resonates with it and leads to Raman spectra which can be detected using a receiver and further studied. 

How long does it take? 

The total time to test is hardly a minute with the laser taking a reading of about 30 seconds and the software taking an equal amount of time to analyse the result. In the future, the device could be expected to read and analyse faster, probably in a natter of a few seconds. 

So, it is high time to start incorporating all elements in your diet cause if you are not, your doctor will know! 

RotM: Interview with Prof. Michael Garstang

Professor Michael Garstang

We continue our Researcher of the Month (RotM) series, with an interview with Professor Michael Garstang, Distinguished Investigator and Research Professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virgina. Professor Garstang is also associated with a Simpsons Weather Associates, a private environmental research company and recently published a paper in PLoS One about response of elephants to seasonal changes.  

CTS: For the benefit of our readers, could you please tell us more about your findings in the recent study. 

MG: Elephants, both in legend and in scientific observations, are said to respond to the onset of rains after a protracted period of dry conditions typical of their subtropical dry savanna habitat. In previous research (Michael Kelley and Michael Garstang published in “Animals” (2013)), we demonstrated that elephants are able to hear distant thunderstorms as far away as a few hundred kilometers.  Our research effort was to see if we could demonstrate that elephants did respond to the early  rains and did so by a change in their movement patterns perhaps even triggering their  migrations.

SODAR (SOnic Detection And Ranging) antenna being unboxed at the site of the study.  The antenna is used to determine the sounds used and detected by the elephants. It helps researchers determine what the elephants can and cannot hear.
Image copyright: Mike Garstrang

CTS: When we say movement is observed in elephants, do we see this movement towards the
rainfall region of away from the region?

MG: We found that elephants in western Namibia, a very dry and rugged region known as the Kunene, did in fact change their pattern of movement from those typical of the dry season to a more extended pattern once the rains began.  These rains were as far away as 300 km from the elephant’s location with no rain falling at  the elephant’s location. However, they did not move towards the rain systems but extended their daily movements out  of the river channels and into more rugged topography.

CTS: What might be reasons for this?
MG: They may have learnt over time that they could now extend th

eir territory encompassing the new growth of the wet season away from the permanent water sources they depended upon during the dry season.  They seem to anticipate the rain which is yet to arrive.

CTS: Your study included a set of 14 elephants. Could we consider this to a good representation for entire species of L.africana elephants?

MG: The elephants of the Kunene may still be highly stressed and even residually suffering from the traumatic civil wars which swept over them in the latter part of the 20th century.  They suffered from severe poaching with drastic reduction in numbers so that the elephants we studied were still in small family units (perhaps only 3 or 4 individuals not always closely related) and not typical of the complex multiple levels of association typical in the rest of  Africa.

Our study may thus be of value in demonstrating the ability and manner in which elephants cope with and recover from such traumatic events.

CTS: You are also associated with Simpsons Weather Associates (SWA).  How does data from this study help SWA in its work? 
MG: SWA conducts research into environmental problems.  It has a long history (40 + years) of
involvement in research in the tropics and in elephant habitat. You can find more about activities of SWA at

Tethered balloon that carries equipment to accurately
measure temperature and atmospheric density (and a giraffe
in the background). Image copyright: Mike Garstang
CTS: How will findings from the study help in conservation of these elephants? 

MG: Our findings have shown that a population subjected to severe disruption in an extreme climate responds by limiting movements under dry conditions but expanding into wider territory prior to the onset of rains.  While unable in this study to demonstrate that elephants use infrasound to detect the occurrence of rainfall at locations more than 100 km away, the evidence presented suggests that elephants can detect these rain events and recognize them as the precursors of rainfall in their region.

We believe that a wide range of sound plays a crucial role in the lives of elephants.  These findings move us forward in the understanding of the potential roles that biotic and abiotic sound plays in the lives of elephants.

CTS: How will research work proceed further from here?  

MG:We will continue to analyze existing observations of elephant movements in western Namibia as well as explore other possible signals that elephants might be able to detect.  Since this work is in progress and results are uncertain, speculation about possible findings is premature.  From experience we know that early hypotheses are often wrong and objectives are continually revised and sharpened as work progresses.


Garstang, M., Davis, R., Leggett, K., Frauenfeld, O., Greco, S., Zipser, E., & Peterson, M. (2014). Response of African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) to Seasonal Changes in Rainfall PLoS ONE, 9 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0108736

Kelley, M., & Garstang, M. (2013). On the Possible Detection of Lightning Storms by Elephants Animals, 3 (2), 349-355 DOI: 10.3390/ani3020349

Up Close with a Volcano [Video]

An Erupting volcano Image courtesy:

Volcanoes are of the most dreaded natural phenomenon! The US Geological Survey estimates around 1500 active volcanoes in the world and this number does not include the volcanic activity occurring on ocean floors. But there is a lot that we still need to understand about the  volcanoes. But to study them, we need to get closer to them and this is where the problem arises. The temperatures near an active volcano exceed 1000 degrees Celsius with ease which demands for special apparatus to fight heat and survival.

But a Shenzhen (China) based company has now shown that modern technology can help us reach places that we have never reached before without having to spend billions on development. All one needs to do is use existing technology smartly. Here,you can see how a $1000 quad-copter can bring you up close images of an eruption of a the Bardardbunga volcano in Iceland.

If you are visiting this post looking for some more manly footage of volcano and do no mind spending some additional time for the build up, here's Geoff Mackley, the first person to come closest to the Marum Volcano. 

When Rocket Science Fails [Coffee-byte]

Image source:
Even with all the developments in space technology and successful missions being sent to Mars, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Antares Rocket that supposed to carry supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station, exploded six seconds after take off from the Wallops Flight Faclity in Virginia. 

Although no one was injured, the loss of cargo and devastation at the launchpad would run into millions of dollars for NASA. The real estimate of loss will only be known after a complete analysis is done. The rocket, ferrying cargo to the ISS, was developed and operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has already delivered cargo twice to the ISS. NASA has confirmed that there was no critical cargo on the flight and supplies on the ISS will not be affected by the failure of the mission. 

But irrespective of the losses, the failure of the rocket launch teaches us one important thing about space research, that there is a lot more to learn!

Transplanting a dead heart is now possible! [Coffee-byte]

Heart Transplant
Image source: 
In a ground breaking discovery in organ transplantation, doctors in Australia have been successful in transplanting a heart that had stopped beating for about 20 minutes. Usually, hearts are received from donors who have been declared brain dead but whose hearts are still beating. In this case, the heart had stopped beating but was then revived and then transplanted into a patient suffering from congenital heart failure. This transplantation was conducted at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney with the help of an innovative new device called OCS Heart.

The biggest constraint for heart transplants is that beating hearts can be kept on ice for only up to 4 hours within which they need to be transported and transplanted. This constraint majorly reduces the radius within which a heart can be transplanted to a needy donor. In addition to this, there is also a risk that cold conditions used during transportation may alter the activity of the heart which can be detected only after the heart has been transplanted.

The OCS Heart,on the other hand, maintains the heart is a warm environment where it continues to beat and is constantly monitored for its activity. Developed by TransMedics, OCS Heart provides an opportunity to store the Heart in working conditions for longer time duration, which will not only allow for it to be transported to larger distances but also give surgeons an opportunity to assess the organ before being transplanted. You can see the working of the instrument in the video below. 

The OCS stands for Organ Care System, which basically means that similar technology can be adopted for transporting other organs such as lungs and liver. TransMedics is also conducting clinical trials for these organs and is hopeful of commercially making this technology available soon.