Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.
- New study challenges our current understanding of how the brain recognizes faces. We can often pick out a face or a person in a crowd (e.g., finding Wally/Waldo), but the cellular mechanism via which this occurs has remained poorly understood. Using rhesus macaques, these researchers investigated which neuronal cells are responsible for facial recognition. By varying aspects of the face systematically (e.g., shape, distance between the eyes) and measuring 205 neurons in 2 animals, researchers found that each neuron responded to a specific combination of facial parameters rather than the face itself, using fMRI. In other words “the neuron is not a face detector, it’s a face analyser”, says Leopold. The brain “is able to realize that there are key dimensions that allow one to say that this is Person A and this is Person B.” Subsequent replication and extension using more subjects is warranted, but these findings provide an exciting new avenue of research with regards to face processing. This research was published in the journal Cell.
- Researchers are using animal cognition to make advances in artificial intelligence. Harvard assistant professor David Cox and his team are studying the rat visual cortex by training rats to play a complex object discrimination video game. While the rats are learning the video game, a 2 photon excitation microscope images neural activity in the visual cortex. These images are then used in conjunction with microscopic images of brain tissue slices to make digital maps of of the visual cortex. The hope is that these neural circuits could become maps for artificial neural networks and next generation artificial intelligence. Check out this video on “How to Digitize a Rat Brain”!
- Artificial intelligence system detects pain levels in sheep. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system which uses five different facial expressions to recognize whether a sheep is in pain, and to estimate pain severity. Building on earlier work which teaches computers to recognize emotions and expressions in human faces, Dr. Krista McLennan developed the Sheep Pain Facial Expression Scale (SPFES) in 2016, which can recognize pain with high accuracy. In the current study, Dr. Peter Robinson and colleagues developed machine learning techniques to reduce the time required for humans to learn to use SPFES, as well as the confounds of human bias in interpreting facial expressions. Researchers trained the AI model with a small dataset of about 500 photographs of sheep, and early tests showed that the model could estimate pain levels with about 80% degree of accuracy, indicating the system is learning. The next steps for the researchers will be to train the system to detect and recognize sheep faces from moving images, and to train it to work when the sheep are in profile. Ultimately, this research will lead to better pain detection and faster medical attention. The research was presented June 1 at the IEEE International Conference on Automatic Face and Gesture Recognition in Washington, DC.
- Lifelong protection from allergies a possibility? When your body comes into contact with a foreign particle, for example, pollen, your immune system kicks into play, producing antibodies (Immunoglobulin E). These antibodies travel to these foreign cells, attempt to “neutralize” them and in this process – triggers an allergic reaction. In order to quickly identify and mount a response to foreign particles that your body has encountered before, the body uses “memory” T cells. However, in some cases, this “memory” may be an “overreaction” of the system and once this “memory” is formed it is virtually impossible to be removed. In the present study using
mice, researchers tackled this issue and were able to desensitize these memory cells which overreact to allergens using therapeutic gene transfer. Approximately 50 million American suffer from some form of allergic disease and this research, which is in pre-clinical trials, provides some hope of treatment. This study was published in the journal JCI Insight.
- Type of sugar may treat atherosclerosis, mouse study shows. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis worked with mice prone to atherosclerosis, clogged arteries due to the buildup of plaque, and found that when injecting trehalose, a natural sugar, the immune system “cleans up” this plaque. Babak Razani, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine, and his colleagues showed that trehalose activates TFEB, a molecule that then.goes into the nucleus of macrophages and binds to DNA. This turns on specific genes and leads to additional organelles that act as “housekeeping machinery.” Babak says, “Trehalose is not just enhancing the housekeeping machinery that’s already there,” Razani said. “It’s triggering the cell to make new machinery..” Trehalose is a mild sweetener and FDA approved for human consumption. Plaque degradation is not seen when administered orally. Researchers hope to study trehalose as a potential therapy for atherosclerosis in hopes to find a way to protect its housekeeping properties when given orally.