Chemicals In Your Couch Could Stunt Kid's IQs; Tycho Brahe Wasn't Poisoned

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Discovered: PBDEs in common household items hinder brain development; 16th century astronomer didn't die from mercury poisoning; brain activity translated into music; belly buttons are swarming with bacteria. 

PBDEs stunt childhood brain development. The chemicals that keep your couch from catching on fire may be the very same chemicals that stunt your children's brain development. By studying pregnant women and their children seven years in the future, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have linked polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) with reductions in attention, fine motor coordination, and IQ levels in children who were exposed to them at a young age. These chemicals can be found in furniture, electronic devices, carpeting, upholstery and other common consumer products made before 2004, when the chemicals were widely banned. "This is the largest and most comprehensive study to date to examine neurobehavioral development in relation to body burden measures of PBDE flame retardants," says lead researcher Brenda Eskenazi. "We measured PBDEs both in the mothers during pregnancy and in the children themselves. It shows that there is a relationship of in utero and childhood levels to decrements in fine motor function, attention and IQ." [University of California, Berkeley]

No plot against Tycho Brahe. 16th century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe is a legend amongst astronomers. He laid much of the groundwork for the field, and managed to be absolutely crazy while doing it. He's the kind of guy who loses his nose in a duel, then walks around with a shiny brass prosthetic in its place for the rest of his life. With traces of mercury found on Brahe after his death, some speculated that he might've been poisoned. Theories abounded as to who would've had the motive to off Brahe, with chief suspects being the Danish king and competing astronomer Johannes Kepler. But researchers led by Dr Jens Vellev, from Denmark's Aarhus University found that there wasn't enough mercury to deliver a fatal blow. "There was mercury in the beard," Vellev says. "But the amount of mercury was as you see in people [alive today]." With mercury poisoning crossed off the list, scientists now believe Brahe died of a bladder infection. Apocryphal sources say that he once refused to leave the banquet table to relieve himself, causing the rupture that would kill him 11 days later. [BBC News]

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Straight off the dome. Every composer necessarily uses their brain to write music, but new technology makes it so that they can draft scores without even consciously trying. Neuroscientists led by Jing Lu and Dezhong Yao of China’s University of Electronic Science and Technology developed a way to translate brain activity into music using EEG and fMRI technology. Electrical fluctuations control pitch, and blood flow regulates volume for these piano scores. The result sounds about as frantic and scattered as you might imagine. In fact, it sounds a lot like free jazz improvisations. "We hope the on-going progresses of the brain signals-based music will properly unravel part of the truth in the brain," the researchers write. [Wired]

Belly buttons are a haven for bacteria. Just as each of us has our own unique genetic code, we each house a staggeringly diverse ecosystem of variegated bacteria—in our belly buttons. North Carolina University in Raleigh and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have teamed up to study these cultures, dubbing their project Belly Button Biodiversity. They swabbed hundreds of people's belly buttons, finding 2368 different types of bacteria, most of which didn't appear on more than 10 per cent of the samples. [New Scientist]

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