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A round-up of the latest science and news from Australasia.

Brain Stimulation Solves Puzzle

By Stephen Luntz

Transcranial brain stimulation has enabled people to solve a puzzle they could not previously crack, offering the promise of a smarter future.

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Briefs

By Stephen Luntz

Brief bites of science news

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By Stephen Luntz

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Vitamin D Deficiency Impedes Child Speech

By Stephen Luntz

Further evidence has emerged of the importance of healthy maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy, with children whose mothers had low concentrations of vitamin D in their blood during their second and third trimester more likely to struggle with speech.

“The developing baby is completely reliant on the mother for its vitamin D levels, and what we have shown is that this might have an impact on the child’s brain development,” says A/Prof Andrew Whitehouse of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

Blood samples were taken from 740 pregnant women almost 20 years ago and tested for vitamin D levels. The Telethon Institute has since tracked the children, looking for signs of lasting effects.

Top 10 Ecosystems Under Threat

By Stephen Luntz

Twenty-six ecologists have come together to rate the environmental vulnerability of Australia’s ecosystems, producing an endangered Top 10. Heading up the list are our mountain ecosystems, with global warming, fire and development posing the primary threats.

While it is hardly news that global warming may leave cool alpine species with nowhere to go, the second most endangered landscape is our tropical savannas. They may be mostly far from human activities, but invasive grasses are wrecking havoc on the savannas and many native mammals are unable to adapt to the new arrivals. Moreover, the ecologists agreed that a change in regime from cool, early season fires to larger conflagrations later in the year is pushing much of the top end towards ecological collapse.

Double-take on Malaria Deaths

By Stephen Luntz

The battle against malaria has gained a whole new urgency following an estimate published in The Lancet that it kills almost twice as many people as previously recognised.

Total global mortality is fairly well-known, but estimates of the cause of death are often unreliable in countries where the health system is difficult to access. Dr Alan Lopez of the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health was part of a study using the verbal autopsy tool, whereby the family of those who have died report symptoms. “Verbal autopsy has been used for research purposes in a defined group, but not previously for monitoring population health,” Lopez says.

Injectable Contraceptives Match Pill for Cancer

By Stephen Luntz

Injectable contraceptives carry a similar risk and protective profile for reproductive cancers to their oral equivalents, a South African/Australian collaboration has found.

The use of oral contraceptives is believed to raise the risk of breast and cervical cancer while women are using it and for some time thereafter. On the other hand, the contraceptive pill offers long-lasting protection against ovarian and uterine cancer (AS, March 2012, p.45). The study of women in Soweto found similar effects applied to all four types of cancer among those using injectable contraceptives.

Nanotubes Power Up

By Stephen Luntz

Nineteenth and 21st century technologies have come together with the discovery that carbon nanotubes dipped in nitrocellulose could form lightweight batteries capable of powering very small devices.

Nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton, is a highly explosive material. It was used in film reels until the 1950s, a fact responsible for several tragedies when film caught fire and incinerated an entire cinema. A/Prof Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh of RMIT’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering was on sabbatical at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he helped discover a new application.

Ancient Penguin Reconstructed

By Stephen Luntz

The skeleton of an intimidating ancient penguin has been reconstructed, standing 30 cm taller than any modern relative and sporting a spear-like bill.

The first Kairuku, as the genus has been dubbed, was found in 1977 by PhD student Ewan Fordyce, who was seeking fossilised whales near South Canterbury in New Zealand. Fordyce, who is now a professor of palaeontology at the University of Otago, has been slowly putting together the pieces ever since, with four individuals now known. Related species have been found since the 1840s, but it is only now that a sufficiently complete skeleton has been assembled that we can work out what any of these looked like.

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By Stephen Luntz

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