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Nobel Prize, Ancient humans and the Autism debate

Hi everyone! I meant to post this last Sunday, but as you can see, I’ve been running a little behind schedule. Nevertheless, it’s time for a short review of what has been happening in the world of science, and last week has been an interesting week as far as that goes. Let’s start with the big news.

Announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prizes

Earlier last week, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the names of the recipients of the 2015 Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine, Physics and Chemistry. Here’re the announcements from the official website

Tu Youyou 1951
Tu Youyou in 1951

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 was divided, one half jointly to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” and the other half to Youyou Tu “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria“.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 was awarded jointly to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2015 was awarded jointly to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar “for mechanistic studies of DNA repair“.

We’ll be exploring each of these awards in more detail in the coming week, along with a brief look at the life and career of each of the eight awardees.

Hands and Feet of ancient humans

homo naledi photo
Photo by GovernmentZA

In late 2013, a pair of explorers entering a cave in the Rising Star system in South Africa stumbled upon a narrow chamber filled with what looked like human bones. It soon became clear that the bones belonged to a human species that no one had ever seen before. Over several weeks of excavation and digging, more than 1500 bone fragments were found, belonging to at least 15 different individuals. The new species was named Homo naledi (a nod to the cave of origin, ‘naledi’ means ‘star’ in the Sotho language). Homo naledi had features both primitive and modern – diminutive in size, small- brained, but with a bone structure eerily similar to modern humans. This week, researchers published their analysis of the hand of Homo naledi, as assessed from bone fragments found in the Rising Star cave.

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Demystifying the Brain – the Brains of our Ancestors

Author’s note – This is the second post in a series titled ‘Demystifying the Brain‘. In this series, I will discuss some fundamental neuroscience concepts, and try to explain what scientists have been able to discover so far about how our brains work. You can find previous posts in the series here. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, do leave a comment below. 

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
–Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975)

australopithecus lucy photo
Photo by Tim Evanson

Remember last week, when we discussed what the brain is, what it does, and how it goes about doing its job? We learned that the brain is a specialized part of the nervous system – the system which helps control and coordinate our actions. The brain controls the body by sending electrical signals through long bundles of connecting fibers called nerves. The nervous system is also responsible for receiving information from our senses (sight, hearing etc.) and building our worldview using that information. We talked about the energetic costs of maintaining the brain, and why some species may have chosen to maintain a small brain size in exchange for conserving more energy.

Today, however, we are going to take a slightly different approach, and go on a brief tour through the history of our species. And while doing this, we are going to try to answer a basic question – how could a structure as complex as the human brain ever have evolved?

As is the problem with any question of this nature, the answer must come through indirect means. Since we cannot invent a time machine (yet) and open a window into the past to observe evolution in action, our only recourse is to figure out what happened using two lines of evidence. The first set of evidence comes from the fossilized remains of animals, plants or other artifacts that have been preserved naturally; in these, we can look for missing links, or lost stages in evolution. The second method is to look at all the different groups of organisms living today and use their similarities and differences to estimate how far back in evolution they diverged from each other – i.e. when did their last common ancestor live and walk the earth?

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