Altmetric Blog

October High Five – Creepy Scientific Findings

Paige Jarreau, 2nd November 2017

Welcome to the Altmetric High Five for October! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.

Our papers this month feature findings that fall somewhere between being creepy and being awesome. It depends on how easily you’re scared. (Big, scary monsters can be awesome, too.)

 

Fireflies. Photo credit: Jon Liu, Flickr.com

Paper #1. The Creepy Decline of Flying Insects

Did you see any fireflies this summer? Our first High Five paper is Halloween worthy – not for the presence of things that go “buzz” in the night, but for the lack of them. The paper, “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas,” appeared in PLOS One this month.

“Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. […] [W]e used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study.” – Hallmann et al. 2017

Nearly 200 news outlets covered the study, some referring to an insect “Armageddon.”

“A recent study found that German nature reserves have seen a 75% reduction in flying insects over the last 27 years. The researchers involved made stark warnings that this indicated a wider collapse of the general insect population that would bring about an ecological catastrophe if left unchecked. But is this an over-dramatisation of a single study in one country, or is there some real cause for concern?” – Paula Kover, The Conversation

Popular Science headlined, “Bugs are buzzing off, and that’s very bad.” The Atlantic headlined, “Insects Are In Serious Trouble.”

“[T]he weight of insects caught in the height of summer, when these creatures should be at their buzziest, fell by 82 percent. […] [W]hat’s behind the insect downfall? Pollutants and pesticides are likely to be a problem. Neonicotinoids—the world’s most popular insecticides—can mess with bees in myriad ways, impairing their memory, befuddling their spatial skills, and preventing them from finding food.” – Ed Yong, The Atlantic

While more studies are needed to determine the true extent and causes of this apparent insect decline, we need to start looking more closely at the impacts of our products on the important activities of insects, including activities that impact our own lives such as pollination.

 

Hal 9000. Credit: laimagendelmundo, Flickr.com

Paper #2. I’m Sorry, Dave. You Lose.

Our second High Five paper brings to mind the (also Halloween worthy) scenes with Hall 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey – “I’m Sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” The paper, “Mastering the game of Go without human knowledge,” was published in Nature this month. Is a self-teaching computer creepy, or awesome?

“A long-standing goal of artificial intelligence is an algorithm that learns, tabula rasa, superhuman proficiency in challenging domains. Recently, AlphaGo became the first program to defeat a world champion in the game of Go. […] Here we introduce an algorithm based solely on reinforcement learning, without human data, guidance or domain knowledge beyond game rules. AlphaGo becomes its own teacher: a neural network is trained to predict AlphaGo’s own move selections and also the winner of AlphaGo’s games. […] Starting tabula rasa, our new program AlphaGo Zero achieved superhuman performance, winning 100–0 against the previously published, champion-defeating AlphaGo.” – Silver et al. 2017

Nearly 100 news outlets covered the study, which also got a lot of attention on Twitter. Smithsonian headlined, “Latest AI Teaches Itself to Play Go With No Human Help: DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero taught itself how to play Go, becoming the greatest player in history in just 40 days.”

“By building its knowledge from the ground up without human biases or limitations, the algorithms could go in directions humans have not yet thought to look.” – Jason Daley, Smithsonian.com

ArsTechnica headlined, “New neural network teaches itself Go, spanks the pros.”

“If you want an AI to identify the Higgs boson in a spray of particles, for example, you have to train it on collisions that humans have already identified as containing a Higgs. If you want it to identify pictures of cats, you have to train it on a database of photos in which the cats have already been identified. But there are some situations where an AI can train itself: rules-based systems in which the computer can evaluate its own actions and determine if they were good ones […] Now, a Google-owned AI developer has taken this approach to the game Go, in which AIs only recently became capable of consistently beating humans. Impressively, with only three days of playing against itself with no prior knowledge of the game, the new AI was able to trounce both humans and its AI-based predecessors.” – John Timmer, ArsTechnica

What else could AIs learn to do? Could they learn to perform tasks that human experts can’t currently do or don’t know enough to do, such as decipher protein folding or solve other complex problems?

More reading:

 

Dreamy Fungus. Credidt: Danil Kazakov, Flickr.com

Paper #3. Magic Mushrooms to Make You Happy?

Our next High Five paper is groovy. “Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanism,” was published in Scientific Reports this month. In case it’s not obvious right off the bat why this study is so newsworthy, you should know that Psilocybin is a psychedelic prodrug derived from mushrooms.

“Decreased depressive symptoms were observed in all 19 patients at 1-week post-treatment and 47% met criteria for response at 5 weeks. Decreased amygdala CBF [cerebral blood flow] correlated with reduced depressive symptoms.” – Carhart-Harris et al., 2017

Over 200 news outlets covered the study, including many mainstream and broadcast channels. Many news outlets headlined, “Scientists treat depression with magic mushroom that can ‘reboot’ the brain.” Forbes headlined, “Magic Mushrooms Show Promise As Depression Remedy By ‘Resetting’ The Brain.”

“The results suggest that when taken in therapeutic doses, the drug ‘resets’ brain areas associated with depression and reduces symptoms for weeks after the initial dose. Researchers administered the drug to a small group of patients who hadn’t responded well to standard depression treatments. […] The results were striking. Brain scans showed significantly less activity in the patients’ amygdala, the brain area central to our stress, fear and anxiety response, and a stabilization of activity in other brain areas.” – David DiSalvo, Forbes

The study, however, is preliminary in that it only looked at a small group of patients and failed to account for a placebo effect, according to Forbes contributor David DiSalvo. But psychedelic mushrooms to treat depression? You can see why this paper made a news splash – and just in time for Halloween parties. But on that note, scientists warn that people with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with psychoactive drugs.

 

Credit: Ronnie Khan, flickr.com

Paper #4. Bee-Killers – Looking for Pesticides in Honey

Our next High Five paper is “A worldwide survey of neonicotinoids in honey,” a report published in Science this month. Bad news for bees… and humans?

“Neonicotinoid pesticides are applied globally. Concern about their impacts has been increasing as evidence for negative effects on bee health and persistence has accumulated. Mitchell et al. looked at the prevalence of these pesticides in honey from across the world and found traces in the majority of samples tested (see the Perspective by Connolly). The neonicotinoid compounds occurred at levels considered safe for human consumption, but the contamination confirms the inundation of bees and their environments with these pesticides, despite some recent efforts to decrease their use.” – Lay abstract, Mitchell et al. 2017

The authors collected honey from nearly 200 sites on six continents with the help of citizen scientists. More samples in North America than elsewhere contained at least one pesticide.

“We found at least one of five tested compounds (acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam) in 75% of all samples, 45% of samples contained two or more of these compounds, and 10% contained four or five. Our results confirm the exposure of bees to neonicotinoids in their food throughout the world.” – Mitchell et al. 2017

The Boston Globe headlined, “Not so sweet: 75 percent of honey samples had key pesticide.” Nature News headlined, “Controversial pesticides found in honey samples from six continents.”

“The study is the first attempt to quantify the presence of neonicotinoids in honey on a global scale using standardized methods. Nearly half of the samples tested contained levels of neonicotinoids at least as high as those thought, on the basis of previous research, to impair bees’ brain function and slow the growth of their colonies. The study also found that 45% of the samples contained two or more types of neonicotinoid.” – Rachel Cernansky, Nature news

The contamination might be too low to affect humans who consume honey in moderate amounts, but for bees (and people who enjoy honey bee pollinated foods and other products), it might represent a more serious problem.

 

Electron micrograph of a Plasmodium falciparum-infected red blood cell (center), illustrating adhesion protein “knobs”. Credit: Rick Fairhurst and Jordan Zuspann, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

Paper #5. Super-parasites

Our final High Five paper describes the spread of a multidrug resistant malaria parasite lineage. The global risk of drug-resistant malaria may not be high, but the scare factor is.

The paper, “Spread of a single multidrug resistant malaria parasite lineage (PfPailin) to Vietnam,” appeared in The Lancet Infectious Diseases this month.

“The spread of artemisinin resistance in Plasmodium falciparum and the subsequent loss of partner antimalarial drugs in the Greater Mekong subregion presents one of the greatest threats to the control and elimination of malaria. [In] a recent sinister development, a single dominant artemisinin-resistant P falciparum C580Y mutant lineage has arisen in western Cambodia, outcompeted the other resistant malaria parasites, and subsequently acquired resistance to piperaquine.” – Imwong et al., 2017

“[T]he team from the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok writes in the October issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, [that] this strain, resistant to an artemisinin combination therapy (ACT), is outcompeting others and becoming dominant in parts of what is known as the Greater Mekong subregion. That’s not only bad news for the region, the researchers say; should this bug spread to Africa, where more than 90% of malaria deaths occur, the consequences could be disastrous. The outspoken head of the Mahidol group, Nicholas White, has urged the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a designation reserved for the most serious outbreaks that pose a global threat.

Science magazine headlined, “Drug-resistant malaria is spreading, but experts clash over its global risk.” While the claims are alarming, some WHO [World Health Organization] experts have taken issue with the study authors’ claims insofar as interpreting what their results mean for world health.

“The critics don’t question the group’s genetic studies of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, but they dispute the interpretation that they spell disaster. ‘This is not a superstrain,’ asserts Dyann Wirth, a malaria researcher at Harvard University who chaired a WHO panel that reviewed the group’s earlier data in December. ‘It has not reached the proportion where the world should panic.’” – Leslie Roberts, Science News

Heard of other creepy scientific findings lately? Let us know!

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