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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 7 November
Geoff Watts
Thursday 07 November 2002
Birds such as the Zebra Finch can help unravel human memory

In this week's Leading Edge, Geoff Watts discovers why peat bogs are polluting the planet, how even quite small amounts of alcohol stop us from spotting mistakes and why our feathered-friends may help shed light on human memory.

A leafy suburb in upstate New York is the unlikely setting for pioneering research into the human brain. But at his field research centre, scientist Fernando Nottebohm is using song birds like the canary, to unlock the secrets of how we remember and why we forget.

It used to be thought that babies are born with all the brain cells they would ever need - more than a hundred billion of them - and that as one ages, these cells start dying off irreversibly until death. But in the early 1980s, one scientist discovered that canaries grew new brain cells in order to learn the new mating songs they need each spring. Fernando Nottebohm wondered how they managed to do this and to his and the world's amazement discovered that the bird's brain grew and then shrank according to its behaviour. Eventually, other animals were found to have the ability to increase the size of their brains at will - rats, monkeys and finally, in the late 1990s, even the human adult brain showed small signs of new cell creation or “neurogenesis”.

Surrounded by more than 5000 canaries and 1500 Zebra Finches, Nottebohm and his team are teaching birds to sing new songs and analysing how their brains are acquiring this new information. As Rami Tzbar reports, they hope to discover whether this process can be 'turned on' in humans and used to slow down and maybe even reverse the progression of chronic and incurable conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Alcohol and Error-Prone Thinking
It's well known that alcohol consumption can impair your ability to process and act upon information. However, a new report suggests that just a few drinks can significantly reduce the brain's ability to catch and correct its own processing errors. Geoff Watts talks to Richard Ridderinkhof of the Department of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam about his teams' finding that relatively small amounts of alcohol can adversely affect the operation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) - a portion of the brain that monitors errors in cognitive processing.

When alcohol-consuming individuals were asked to perform a simple error-detection task, electrical signals from the ACC (a sign of its error-detecting activity) were significantly altered - even when those individuals had blood alcohol concentrations as low as 0.04 percent, equivalent to just a glass or two of wine. Unable to detect errors in their cognitive processing, these individuals were also less likely to make changes in their behaviour to adjust their performance on the task.

Richard Ridderinkhof now wants to look at the effect of alcohol on the error detection mechanism in a driving simulator and hopes to find out whether there's a threshold in blood alcohol concentration at which the ability to process errors starts to deteriorate.

Wildfires Fuel Global Warming

Ecologist Susan Page has been studying the peat bogs in South East Asia for over 10 years. She and her colleagues at Leicester University have calculated that the wildfires that ravaged parts of Indonesia in 1997 spewed around 1 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere - up to 40% of the entire planet's annual carbon emission from fossil fuels. However, most of it came not from burning trees but smouldering peat bogs. So why should such a small proportion of peatland be responsible for such voluminous amounts of carbon pollution?     Join Geoff Watts for this week's Leading Edge to find out.
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