Health & Science

The Earth, darkened by the sun; Blocking traumatic memories; Bugs in your snacks; Getting their buzz on; When romance doesn’t fade

The Earth, darkened by the sun

With the peak of the sunspot cycle just a year away, scientists are warning that we’re due for a major solar storm that could knock out power to hundreds of millions of people, disrupt modern communications systems, and plunge the world into chaos. The sun’s “weather” moves in an 11-year cycle, with a period of especially heightened sunspot activity occurring every century or so. Sunspots are actually massive storms that hurl huge quantities of electromagnetic particles into space and bombard nearby planets such as Earth. The last few times the sun’s flares affected Earth, it wasn’t pretty, says a report by the National Academy of Sciences. In 1859, massive solar flares melted telegraph wires all over the country, sparking multiple fires. In 1989, a smaller solar storm knocked out the entire electrical grid of Quebec. Were there to be a once-in-a-century solar storm in a modern world utterly dependent upon technology, the NAS report says, it “would cause significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions.” Scientists from the NAS tell that the electromagnetic fields from big solar flares would cause power surges that would melt transformers and cause blackouts and computer shutdowns for as many as 130 million Americans, leading to “a catastrophic failure of commercial and government infrastructure.”

Blocking traumatic memories

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The block-stacking videogame Tetris is so demanding of the brain that it blocks thoughts of all else, including traumatic experiences, says a new study. Scientists at Oxford University believe that Tetris so dominates the brain’s resources that it can act as a “cognitive vaccine” that could prevent soldiers or crime victims from developing post-traumatic stress disorder, says New Scientist. If a soldier were to play Tetris in some of the hours following a violent event, the hypothesis goes, his brain would be unable to form the memory links that form the basis of a trauma flashback. Oxford scientists tested their theory by asking volunteers to watch hours of troubling, violent videos. Subjects who played Tetris afterward were less likely to experience flashbacks of what they’d seen.

Bugs in your snacks

Few consumers realize that when they eat a food or beverage containing the red dye carmine, what they’re really eating is the crushed bodies of cochineal beetles. Until now, the Food and Drug Administration’s policy has been “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” When using bug-based food dyes, companies are required only to list them on the label as “artificial colors” or “color added.” But eating carmine—which also is blended with other dyes to produce pink, orange, and purple—can be dangerous for some people with allergies, say consumer groups that are pressuring the FDA to require more explicit labeling. “I don’t know where the term ‘bug juice’ came from, but it’s truer than most people think,” safety advocate Michael Jacobson tells Newsday. “Carmine can cause severe allergic reactions, even life-threatening reactions.” Jacobson says that he and his group generally don’t know which foods currently on the market contain cochineal beetles, but names Dannon and Yoplait yogurts as two brands whose labels admit to using the stuff.

Getting their buzz on

What happens when you give bees cocaine? Now we know, thanks to Australian scientists who painted concentrates of freebase cocaine onto the backs of bees in the lab. During the ensuing party, the coked-up bees were ultra-enthusiastic about everyday experiences, buzzing about excitedly and wiggling their bodies when they found nectar-laden flowers. The next day, the bees weren’t as happy, and withdrawal symptoms caused lagging reaction times in performance tests. “What we have in the bee is a wonderfully simple system to see how brains react to a drug of abuse,” researcher Andrew Barron tells The New York Times. By studying how primitive brains react to such drugs, he says, researchers may find ways to stop human brains from responding to drugs and becoming addicted.

When romance doesn’t fade

For most married couples, romance and passion fade after years of familiarity, but new research has found that a few fortunate souls remain wildly infatuated with each other even after decades of marriage. Until Stony Brook University researchers examined the brains of those who claimed undying passion for their mates, most researchers didn’t believe them. “It was always chalked up to self-deception or trying to make a good impression,” social psychologist Arthur Aron tells Newsday. But Aron and his team confirmed through MRI studies of the brains of freakishly loving couples that they respond to each other the same way that people who’ve just fallen in love do. Researchers say these lovebirds may be more common than you’d think. In a phone survey of people in long-term relationships, up to 35 percent reported that the emotional intensity they felt toward their partners had not diminished over the years.

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