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Thursday 21:00-21:30
Leading Edge brings you the latest news from the world of science. Geoff Watts celebrates discoveries as soon as they're being talked about - on the internet, in coffee rooms and bars; often before they're published in journals. And he gets to grips with not just the science, but with the controversies and conversation that surround it.
LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to 16 May
Geoff Watts
Thursday 16 May 2002

Babies 'Tune in' to Faces

Why is it that as you age, the ability to differentiate between different speech sounds diminishes if they don't occur in your mother tongue? A look at how babies learn to recognise monkey and human faces may help explain how this "cognitive narrowing" develops in the brain. According to Olivier Pascalis and colleagues, people tune their brains to the faces they see the most within the first year of life, hard-wiring a template against which to compare new visages. They discovered that six-month old infants easily distinguish between individual humans and individual monkeys. Babies older by only three months have an easy time telling apart fellow humans, but telling apart one monkey from another proved nearly impossible. Brain systems for processing visual cues and speech may develop with a similar timing and influence each other. "Although it is difficult to compare directly the tuning of speech perception with the tuning of face perception, there may be overlap between these systems," the researchers write.

Alzheimer's Drug Trial

In this week's Nature, researchers reveal a drug that could erode the protein clumps plaguing sufferers of human amyloid diseases including Alzheimer's and type II diabetes. In these disorders, normally soluble proteins fold abnormally and are laid down as insoluble fibrils that damage tissue. A second protein, called serum amyloid P component (SAP), binds fibrils and makes them particularly resistant to breakdown by the body. Mark Pepys of the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London and colleagues have identified a compound that prevents SAP binding. The compound blocks SAP's attachment site and accelerates SAP degradation by the liver. Amyloid deposits in animal models were reduced by administration of the drug. Initial studies have already been carried out on patients suffering systemic amyloidosis, a rare condition in which widespread amyloid deposits are ultimately fatal. The drug drained the stabilizing protein from amyloid clumps: "It's doing an incredible vanishing trick," says Pepys. Pepys is shortly embarking on clinical trials for Alzheimer's sufferers. "This new approach offers great promise," comments Leslie Iversen of the Wolfson Centre for Age Related Diseases, King's College, London.

The Oldest Fossils?

How far back does the evidence of life on Earth go? As far as clear fossils that you don't need a microscope to see, the answer is about 600 million years. Apart from a couple of worms and some algal growths, everything before that was minute the sort of thing that makes up pond scum. But microscopic algae and bacteria may have ruled the world for three billion years before there were animals, pushing the origin of life back to a time when the Earth was a very inhospitable place covered by volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. The evidence this far back is very limited and extremely controversial. It has lead to claims and counter claims in the scientific literature. Now a laser technique can map out tiny traces resembling bacteria in 3.5 billion year old rocks from Western Australia, measuring their chemical composition as they go. Could this be evidence for the first life on Earth? Geoff Watts hears the evidence.

Diamond Mining

Geoff also visits the richest diamond mine in the world, the Debswana Jwaneng Mine in Botswana where he hears about the latest technology for getting more diamonds out of the rock.

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