Random Samples

Science  23 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5657, pp. 463

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  1. Zapping Depression

    Researchers using a special type of brain imaging to explore drug reactions in bipolar patients have stumbled on a tantalizing finding that they hope could lead to a new way to treat depression.

    A couple of years ago, researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, were running depressed patients through a scan called echo-planar magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (EP-MRSI), which shows chemical spectra of medications in their brains. To everyone's surprise, says study director Michael Rohan, a magnetic field physicist, “people who went in for this study came out cheerful.” So a depression scale was added to the exercise.

    Electrical fields in the brain generated by EP-MRSI (left) and TMS (right).


    The result, published in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry, is that 23 of 30 patients showed at least a 50% improvement in mood after the 16-minute scan. And all 11 who were not taking drugs said they felt better. A control group who received sham brain imaging showed little improvement.

    Brain stimulation for depression is not new: Shock treatments are effective against intractable depression, and there has been increasing use of transcutaneous magnetic stimulation (TMS), which can be applied in a doctor's office. But TMS is only moderately effective and can only affect neurons close to the brain's surface. The electrical fields generated by EP-MRSI are about 200 times weaker than TMS, but they go much deeper. “If this type of stimulation could be effective, it's very important to know. It certainly has a different safety profile than TMS,” says TMS researcher Sarah Lisanby of Columbia University.

    “We're very excited about the potential of this,” says Rohan, who is now planning a larger study. “I think we've hit a real magic spot.”

  2. A Different String

    The good ol' six-string guitar may soon have some competition. Two mathematicians have designed a Y-shaped guitar—dubbed a tritar—with a literally unheard-of sound. The tritar was conceived by two mathematicians, Claude Gauthier and Samuel Gaudet of the University of Moncton, Canada. Gauthier, while working on a problem involving infinite sums called a p series, invented a series of “hyperimaginary” numbers lying on a Y-shaped number line. His colleague, Gaudet, wondered how waves would behave on a Y-shaped string. To find out, the two built a model tritar and took it to guitar builder George Rizsanyi in Nova Scotia, who made a playable version.

    Gauthier (left) and Gaudet with tritar.


    The tritar sounds sort of like a guitar, “but it's also got all these wonderful overtones and colors,” says Rizsanyi. Plucking each three-ended string creates unpredictable overtones very unlike the usual ones, which are whole-number multiples of the fundamental frequency, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Sound and Vibration.

    Gaudet and Gauthier are taking the creation to a guitar trade fair this week in hopes of generating some commercial interest. And Rizsanyi, who has built guitars for such notables as Sting and Keith Richards, says he might have one of his famous customers take a pluck at it. The tritar may have more success as a musical oddity than as a mathematical tool—the instrument has offered no new insights into p series.

  3. Self-Sabotage

    “The state has suffered serious losses because for 4 years I was not doing anything useful for it. Now the satellite [the ESA/Chinese Double Star] is being launched as a result of a collaboration between China and the European Space Agency. We would have been ahead of ESA because our ideas were very good. … Now we will have to catch up with them.”

    —Russian physicist Valentin Danilov

    after being acquitted by a jury in Krasnoyarsk on 29 December. He was arrested in September 2001 on charges of selling classified satellite technology information to China.

  4. Stress and the City


    Chronically cloudy and riddled with divorce and unemployment, Tacoma, Washington (pictured above), has been ranked as the country's most stressful city to live in, according to a new survey based on U.S. government data. Other top-stress conurbations are Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and New York City.

    Cities were ranked by nine criteria: rates of divorce, unemployment, and suicide; violent and property crimes, self-reported alcohol consumption and mental health, commute time, and cloudy days. Among the high-stress cities, Miami and New Orleans suffer in particular from violent crime. New Yorkers get depressed and have long commutes, and Las Vegas is a hotbed of suicide, drinking, and divorce.

    The least stressful cities by these indicators include Minneapolis and the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area in New York state. According to this analysis, the presence of universities helps provide economic stability, “lessening the stress caused by economic cycles.”

    The rankings (see http://www.bestplaces.net/) were done by Bert Sperling, whose firm also does surveys for corporate ad campaigns such as “Pet Healthiest Cities” and “Best and Worst Cities for Skin Care.”

  5. Jobs

    Butterfly central. Thomas Emmel was 8 when he collected his first butterfly. Since then he's gathered up 230,000 more. Now the 62-year-old entomologist is in charge of another 4.2 million specimens showcased in a new butterfly conservatory and research center at the University of Florida, Gainesville.


    The $12 million McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Environmental Research, funded through private and public donations, will feature a 17-meter-high vivarium with waterfalls, tropical plants, and other butterfly haunts. It also has room for an expected doubling of its collection in the next 5 years. Best known for helping save two Florida butterflies, the Miami blue (above) and the Shaus swallowtail, Emmel has also endeared himself to homeowners with his manual on butterfly gardens. As director of the center, which moves into its own building in March and expects to have 12 faculty by next year, Emmel plans to continue his efforts to make butterflies into “a welcome symbol of nature that people can identify with.”

    Shaking things up. After 8 years as a lobbyist with the American Geological Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, David Applegate gets to practice some of what he has been preaching. He'll be running the U.S. Geological Survey's $50 million Earthquake Hazards Program, which studies faults and finds ways to mitigate damage from quakes.


    Applegate's background is in tectonics, not seismology. But he's an old hand at trying to raise the profile of hazards research among politicians, whose interest in the subject often fades once the rubble has been cleared away. “I know how much I can push on the outside,” says Applegate. “Now I'll try to push from the inside.”

  6. In the Journals

    Food for thought. A research journal has taken the unusual step of criticizing its own review process for how it handled a paper authored by the editor-in-chief of a sister publication.

    The paper, written by immunologist Ranjit Chandra (below) of Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, reported the beneficial effects on the memory of elderly subjects of a vitamin and mineral supplement that Chandra has patented. It appeared in the September 2001 issue of Nutrition, published by Elsevier. At the time, Chandra was editor of Elsevier's Nutrition Research.

    Last November Nutrition ran a letter from psychologists Seth Roberts and Saul Sternberg claiming that Chandra's statistical analyses were flawed. It also published a note from editor-in-chief Michael Meguid saying “we regret that our peer-review process failed to identify these problems before publication.” The journal also ran Chandra's reply, in which he says that the critics have “an obvious bias.”


    Chandra, who relocated to India after resigning from Memorial University in August 2002, stepped down from the editorship of Nutrition Research last month after 23 years at its helm. He says that the move had made it logistically difficult for him to continue editing the journal and that his departure has nothing to do with the controversy.

  7. Follow-up

    Getting the picture. A municipal court in Los Angeles last month dismissed a $10 million privacy lawsuit by pop diva Barbra Streisand against conservationist-photographer Kenneth Adelman. Pictures of her Malibu estate had been posted on the Web site of his California Coastal Records Project, which contains some 12,000 aerial photographs (http://www.californiacoastline.org/; Science, 13 June 2003, p. 1655). Judge Allan Goodman ruled on 31 December that the pictures were protected by the free-speech clause of the U.S. Constitution.

  8. Nonprofit World

    Higher calling. After 2 decades spent chasing both promising ideas and dead ends for big pharma, virologist Emilio Emini is shifting gears to focus all his energies on one goal: finding an AIDS vaccine that works. Last week, the 50-year-old Emini bid adieu to Merck's vaccines and biologics division, which he's headed since 1997, to join the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).


    As chief of vaccine development at IAVI, a powerhouse nonprofit in New York City funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Emini will help oversee a staff of 40 scientists and shepherd promising candidate vaccines through clinical trials.