The elections of the Taiwan region are China's internal affairs and regardless of the result, it will not change the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China and there is only one China in the world, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press conference on Friday.
Mao's remarks came in response to a question about how the results of the regional leader election on the island of Taiwan, scheduled on Saturday, will affect the cross-Straits relations.
During the press conference, a reporter also mentioned an anonymous official from the White House reportedly said that the US is committed to the one-China policy, does not support "Taiwan independence" and supports cross-Straits dialogue.
Mao said that the one-China principle is a prevailing international consensus and the political foundation of the China-US relationship. "Taiwan independence" is the biggest threat to cross-Straits peace and stability and is doomed to failure.
US leaders have repeatedly said that they are committed to the one-China policy, do not support "Taiwan independence," do not support "two Chinas" or "one China, one Taiwan," and do not seek to use the Taiwan question as a tool to contain China, said Mao.
We hope the US will honor these commitments, handle Taiwan-related issues prudently and properly, stop official interactions with Taiwan, stop sending wrong signals to "Taiwan independence" separatist forces, and refrain from interfering in the elections of the Taiwan region in any form, the spokesperson said.
If the US truly hopes to safeguard peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, it needs to explicitly oppose "Taiwan independence" and support China's peaceful reunification, said Mao.
China's central bank and top financial regulator on Friday issued a guideline on stepping up financial support for the housing rental market, vowing to offer more innovative credit products and services for housing rentals and to expand financing channels for the housing rental market.
The guideline from the People's Bank of China (PBC) and the National Administration of Financial Regulation (NAFR) is the latest effort by Chinese policymakers to stabilize the real estate market, by both defusing risks and meeting housing needs for key population groups such as young workers.
The guideline contains a total of 17 measures in four areas. Financial support will focus on key areas and weak links in the housing rental market, mainly in large cities, and will focus on addressing housing difficulties for groups such as new urban residents and young workers.
The guideline aims to offer financial support for various entities to build, renovate and operate long-term rental housing, revitalize exiting housing inventory, and increase the supply of affordable and commercial rental housing.
Among the main measures, the guideline, which was sent to the PBC and the NAFR's local branches and various types of banks, calls for an increase in credit support for housing rental development and construction. Commercial banks are being encouraged to extend loans for entities, including real estate developers, for developing and constructing rental housing projects. The standard loan term would be three years and will not exceed five years.
On the purchasing side, the guideline also encouraged commercial banks to extend loans for entities that purchase housing rental for employees. The term for such loans cannot exceed 30 years and the amount should not exceed 80 percent of the property value.
China has made stabilizing the real estate market a top priority for economic work in 2024. The tone-setting Central Economic Work Conference held in December called for active and prudent efforts to defuse risks in the property sector, address the reasonable financing needs of real estate enterprises, and accelerate the development of a new model for the real estate sector.
Also on Friday, following a national central bank meeting, the PBC vowed to actively support the stable and sound development of the real estate market, strengthen monitoring, and take various credit policies to meet the reasonable financial needs of various types of real estate companies.
The China Academy of Art has welcomed the celebration of its 95th anniversary since its establishment in the recently inaugurated Liangzhu campus in East China's Zhejiang Province. As the nation's first comprehensive national institution for higher artistic education, the art academy mirrors the evolution of contemporary Chinese art and artistic education over the last century.
Gao Shiming, president of the academy, told the Global Times that Chinese President Xi Jinping's emphasis on the need to combine fine traditional culture with the Marxist stand, viewpoint and approach, also known as the "second integration," holds significant implications for art education. In addition, humanity is entering the "second Renaissance," to which China is making global contributions.
At a meeting on cultural inheritance and development in June, Xi called for the integration of the basic tenets of Marxism with traditional Chinese culture, known as the "second integration," which builds on the Communist Party of China's "first integration" of theoretical synthesis - the integration of the basic tenets of Marxism with China's specific reality, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
Ma Yifu, a renowned Chinese scholar, once asserted that Marxism has reactivated a socialist gene that exists in Chinese traditional cultural thought and social history, Gao said.
Common core values
Traditional Chinese culture and Marxism share common core values, such as the concept of equality. Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming's proposal of "cultivating moral consciousness, envisioning every individual as a saint," aligns with Marx's perspective on equality.
Similarly, the integration of Marxism and China's fine traditional culture has been vividly manifested in Chinese art, placing the people at the center and elevating them as the social subjects.
For instance, in the 1950s and 1950s, the Zhejiang school of figure painting, led by Fang Zengxian, employed techniques traditionally used for emperors, bodhisattvas and flora to portray ordinary farmers. This marked a significant period in China's millennia-old art history.
From its inception, the China Academy of Art envisioned an academic mission of "introducing Western art, organizing Chinese art, reconciling Eastern and Western art, and creating contemporary art." Over the last 95 years, the institution has walked alongside the history of modern Chinese art, responding to national crises and reinventing itself in the face of contemporary challenges.
During this period, two scholarly ideas have consistently unfolded: One represented by the inaugural dean, Lin Fengmian, which embodies the "integration of Chinese and Western styles." The other school of thought, pioneered by figures like Huang Binhong and Zhao Wuji, follows the path of "innovation within tradition." Zhao created a form of modern painting from within the folds of Chinese tradition. He activated certain elements of Chinese tradition by using modern art, creating an alternative, distinct and unique form of modern painting that gained global recognition.
"The last 95 years have seen the China Academy of Art charting a path in modern art education deeply rooted in the Chinese soil, reflecting a journey of artistic revival that is both grounded in tradition and independently innovative," Gao said.
What does a Renaissance require? "Prosperous technology, flourishing arts, developed commerce and a gathering of talents - we have all these elements now," Gao said.
He explained that the first Renaissance was catalyzed by an external factor - the Age of Discovery. Today, the internet serves as the great navigation of the 21st century. People in the world are not just witnessing a Renaissance in China but a global Renaissance in which China has started contributing to the world.
In the 21st century, art education in China has taken on a more significant role, serving as a catalyst for societal innovation. The current Chinese society craves innovation, creativity and self-transcendence. Igniting the primitive innovative capabilities of the entire nation is crucial.
"I often tell students not to confine themselves to being artists within the art realm but to become artists of the world," Gao said, adding that contemporary society demands the need for not just traditional artists but countless art professionals with the ability to innovate and imagine, solving real-world problems. This is the fundamental goal of the China Academy of Art - to foster a culture in which the entire art community contributes to the construction of a beautiful China and the high-quality development of the nation.
In the era of the first Renaissance, the world was not peaceful. Today, the world faces constant conflicts, making culture and art even more crucial as forces of reflection and reconciliation, guiding people into a more essential and expansive realm, allowing humanity a sense of transcendence.
The great French writer Flaubert once said, "Art and science met at the foot of the mountain and parted ways at the summit." The difficulty lies in people's journey not yet "reaching the summit," as people have technologized science and turned tools into technology.
Gao believes there's no need to rush; scientists and artists can engage in more philosophical exchanges. Simultaneously, people can start with specific initiatives, such as promoting a course called "illusion."
Scientists delve into the internal and physiological mechanisms of illusions, while artists design various illusions. This is a tangible course illustrating the fusion of science and art.
From another perspective, in the era of general artificial intelligence, people might leverage AI to become individuals with more extensive space and creative capabilities, akin to Da Vinci's versatility.
"As artificial intelligence advances, human artistic intelligence also grows," he said.
Frog brains get busy long before they’re fully formed. Just a day after fertilization, embryonic brains begin sending signals to far-off places in the body, helping oversee the layout of complex patterns of muscles and nerve fibers. And when the brain is missing, bodily chaos ensues, researchers report online September 25 in Nature Communications.
The results, from brainless embryos and tadpoles, broaden scientists’ understanding of the types of signals involved in making sure bodies develop correctly, says developmental biologist Catherine McCusker of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Scientists are familiar with short-range signals among nearby cells that help pattern bodies. But because these newly described missives travel all the way from the brain to the far reaches of the body, they are “the first example of really long-range signals,” she says. Celia Herrera-Rincon of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and colleagues came up with a simple approach to tease out the brain’s influence on the growing body. Just one day after fertilization, the scientists lopped off the still-forming brains of African clawed frog embryos. These embryos survive to become tadpoles even without brains, a quirk of biology that allowed the researchers to see whether the brain is required for the body’s development. The answer was a definite — and surprising — yes, Herrera-Rincon says. Long before the brain is mature, it’s already organizing and guiding organ behavior, she says. Brainless tadpoles had bungled patterns of muscles. Normally, muscle fibers form a stacked chevron pattern. But in tadpoles lacking a brain, this pattern didn’t form correctly. “The borders between segments are all wonky,” says study coauthor Michael Levin, also of Tufts University. “They can’t keep a straight line.” Nerve fibers that crisscross tadpoles’ bodies also grew in an abnormal pattern. Levin and colleagues noticed extra nerve fibers snaking across the brainless tadpoles in a chaotic pattern, “a nerve network that shouldn’t be there,” he says.
Muscle and nerve abnormalities are the most obvious differences. But brainless tadpoles probably have more subtle defects in other parts of their bodies, such as the heart. The search for those defects is the subject of ongoing experiments, Levin says. In addition to keeping patterns on point, the young frog brain may protect its body from chemical assaults. A molecule that binds to certain proteins on cells in the body had no effect on normal embryos. But when given to brainless embryos, the same molecule caused their spinal cords and tails to grow crooked. These results suggest that early in development, brains keep embryos safe from agents that would otherwise cause harm.
“The brain is instructing cells that are really a long way away from it,” Levin says. While the precise identities of these long-range signals aren’t known, the researchers have some ideas. When brainless embryos were dosed with a drug that targets cells that typically respond to the chemical messenger acetylcholine, the muscle pattern improved. Similarly, the addition of a protein called HCN2 that can tweak the activity of cells also seemed to improve muscle development. More work is needed before scientists know whether these interventions are actually mimicking messaging from the early brain, and if so, how.
Frog development isn’t the same as mammalian development, but frog development “is pretty applicable to human biology,” McCusker says. In fundamental ways, humans and frogs are built from the same molecular toolbox, she says. So the results hint that a growing human brain might also interact similarly with a growing human body.
The weird glowing blob of gas known as Hanny’s Voorwerp was a 10-year-old mystery. Now, Lia Sartori of ETH Zurich and colleagues have come to a two-pronged solution.
Hanny van Arkel, then a teacher in the Netherlands, discovered the strange bluish-green voorwerp, Dutch for “object,” in 2008 as she was categorizing pictures of galaxies as part of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project.
Further observations showed that the voorwerp was a glowing cloud of gas that stretched some 100,000 light-years from the core of a massive nearby galaxy called IC 2497. The glow came from radiation emitted by an actively feeding black hole in the galaxy. To excite the voorwerp’s glow, the black hole and its surrounding accretion disk, the active galactic nucleus, or AGN, should have had the brightness of about 2.5 trillion suns; its radio emission, however, suggested the AGN emitted the equivalent of a relatively paltry 25,000 suns. Either the AGN was obscured by dust, or the black hole slowed its eating around 100,000 years ago, causing its brightness to plunge.
Sartori and colleagues made the first direct measurement of the AGN’s intrinsic brightness using NASA’s NuSTAR telescope, which observed IC 2497 in high-energy X-rays that cut through the dust.
They found that the AGN is obscured by dust and it is dimmer than expected; the feeding has slowed way down. The team reported on arXiv.org on November 20 that IC 2497’s heart is as bright as 50 billion to 100 billion suns, meaning it dropped in brightness by a factor of 50 in the past 100,000 years — a less dramatic drop than previously thought. “Both hypotheses that we thought before are true,” Sartori says.
Sartori plans to analyze NuSTAR observations of other voorwerpjes to see if their galaxies’ black holes are also in the process of shutting down — or even booting up.
“If you look at these clouds, you get information on how the black hole was in the past,” she says. “So we have a way to study how the activity of supermassive black holes varies on superhuman time scales.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated December 5, 2017, to clarify that the brightness measured by the researchers came from the accretion disk around an actively eating black hole, not the black hole itself.
Out of the hundreds of species of carnivorous plants found across the planet, none attract quite as much fascination as the Venus flytrap. The plants are native to just a small section of North Carolina and South Carolina, but these tiny plants can now be found around the world. They’re a favorite among gardeners, who grow them in homes and greenhouses.
Scientists, too, have long been intrigued by the plants and have extensively studied the famous trap. But far less is known about the flower that blooms on a stalk 15 to 35 centimeters above — including what pollinates that flower. “The rest of the plant is so incredibly cool that most folks don’t get past looking at the active trap leaves,” says Clyde Sorenson, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Plus, notes Sorenson’s NCSU colleague Elsa Youngsteadt, an insect ecologist, because flytraps are native to just a small part of North and South Carolina, field studies can be difficult. And most people who raise flytraps cut off the flowers so the plant can put more energy into making traps.
Sorenson and Youngsteadt realized that the mystery of flytrap pollination was sitting almost literally in their backyard. So they and their colleagues set out to solve it. They collected flytrap flower visitors and prey from three sites in Pender County, North Carolina, on four days in May and June 2016, being careful not to damage the plants.
“This is one of the prettiest places where you could work,” Youngsteadt says. Venus flytraps are habitat specialists, found only in certain spots of longleaf pine savannas in the Carolinas. “They need plenty of sunlight but like their feet to be wet,” says Sorenson. In May and June, the spots of savanna where the flytraps grow are “just delightful,” he says. And other carnivorous plants can be found there, too, including pitcher plants and sundews. The researchers brought their finds back to the lab for identification. They also cataloged what kind of pollen was on flower visitors, and how much. Nearly 100 species of arthropods visited the flowers, the team reports February 5 in American Naturalist. “The diversity of visitors on those flowers was surprising,” says Youngsteadt. However, only three species — a sweat bee and two beetles — appeared to be the most important, as they were either the most frequent visitors or carriers of the most pollen. The study also found little overlap between pollinators and prey. Only 13 species were found both in a trap and on a flower, and of the nine potential pollinators in that group, none were found in high numbers.
For a carnivorous plant, “you don’t want to eat your pollinators,” Sorenson says. Flytraps appear to be doing a good job at that.
There are three ways that a plant can keep those groups separate, the researchers note. Flowers and traps could exist at different times of the year. However, that’s not the case with Venus flytraps. The plants produce the two structures at separate times, but traps stick around and are active during plant flowering.
Another possibility is the spatial separation of the two structures. Pollinators tend to be fliers while prey were more often crawling arthropods, such as spiders and ants. This matches up with the high flowers and low traps. But the researchers would like to do some experiments that manipulate the heights of the structures to see just how much that separation matters, Youngsteadt says.
The third option is that different scents or colors produced by flowers and traps might lure in different species to each structure. That’s another area for future study, Youngsteadt says. While attraction to scent and color are well documented for traps, little is now known about those factors for the flowers.
Venus flytraps are considered vulnerable to extinction, threatened by humans, Sorenson notes. The plant’s habitat is being destroyed as the population of the Carolinas grows. What is left of the habitat is being degraded as fires are suppressed (fires help clear vegetation and keep sunlight shining on the flytraps). And people steal flytraps from the wild by the thousands.
While research into their pollinators won’t help with any of those threats, it could aid in future conservation efforts. “Anything we can do to better understand how this plant reproduces will be of use down the road,” Sorenson says.
But what really excites the scientists is that they discovered something new so close to home. “One of the most thrilling parts of all this,” Sorenson says, “is that this plant has been known to science for [so long], everyone knows it, but there’s still a whole lot of things to discover.”
Artificial intelligence algorithms may soon bring the diagnostic know-how of an eye doctor to primary care offices and walk-in clinics, speeding up the detection of health problems and the start of treatment, especially in areas where specialized doctors are scarce. The first such program — trained to spot symptoms of diabetes-related vision loss in eye images — is pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While other already approved AI programs help doctors examine medical images, there’s “not a specialist looking over the shoulder of [this] algorithm,” says Michael Abràmoff, who founded and heads a company that developed the system under FDA review, dubbed IDx-DR. “It makes the clinical decision on its own.” IDx-DR and similar AI programs, which are learning to predict everything from age-related sight loss to heart problems just by looking at eye images, don’t follow preprogrammed guidelines for how to diagnose a disease. They’re machine-learning algorithms that researchers teach to recognize symptoms of a particular condition, using example images labeled with whether or not that patient had that condition. IDx-DR studied over 1 million eye images to learn how to recognize symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, a condition that develops when high blood sugar damages retinal blood vessels (SN Online: 6/29/10). Between 12,000 and 24,000 people in the United States lose their vision to diabetic retinopathy each year, but the condition can be treated if caught early. Researchers compared how well IDx-DR detected diabetic retinopathy in more than 800 U.S. patients with diagnoses made by three human specialists. Of the patients identified by IDx-DR as having at least moderate diabetic retinopathy, more than 85 percent actually did. And of the patients IDx-DR ruled as having mild or no diabetic retinopathy, more than 82.5 percent actually did, researchers reported February 22 at the annual meeting of the Macula Society in Beverly Hills, Calif.
IDx-DR is on the fast-track to FDA clearance, and a decision is expected within a few months, says Abràmoff, a retinal specialist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. If approved, it would become the first autonomous AI to be used in primary care offices and clinics.
AI algorithms to diagnose other eye diseases are in the works, too. An AI described February 22 in Cell studied over 100,000 eye images to learn the signs of several eye conditions. These included age-related macular degeneration, or AMD — a leading cause of vision loss in adults over 50 — and diabetic macular edema, a condition that develops from diabetic retinopathy.
This AI was designed to flag advanced AMD or diabetic macular edema for urgent treatment, and to refer less severe cases for routine checkups. In tests, the algorithm was 96.6 percent accurate in diagnosing eye conditions from 1,000 pictures. Six ophthalmologists made similar referrals based on the same eye images.
Researchers still need to test how this algorithm fares in the real world where the quality of images may vary from clinic to clinic, says Aaron Lee, an ophthalmologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. But this kind of AI could be especially useful in rural and developing regions where medical resources and specialists are scarce and people otherwise wouldn’t have easy access to in-person eye exams.
AI might also be able to use eye pictures to identify other kinds of health problems. One algorithm that studied retinal images from over 284,000 patients could predict cardiovascular health risk factors such as high blood pressure.
The algorithm was 71 percent accurate in distinguishing eye images between smoking and nonsmoking patients, according to a report February 19 in Nature Biomedical Engineering. And it predicted which patients would have a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, within the next five years 70 percent of the time.
With AI getting more adept at screening for a growing list of conditions, “some people might be concerned that this is machines taking over” health care, says Caroline Baumal, an ophthalmologist at Tufts University in Boston. But diagnostic AI can’t replace the human touch. “Doctors will still need to be there to see patients and treat patients and talk to patients,” Baumal says. AI will just help people who need treatment get it faster.
The seeds for Martian clouds may come from the dusty tails of comets.
Charged particles, or ions, of magnesium from the cosmic dust can trigger the formation of tiny ice crystals that help form clouds, a new analysis of Mars’ atmosphere suggests.
For more than a decade, rovers and orbiters have captured images of Martian skies with wispy clouds made of carbon dioxide ice. But “it hasn’t been easy to explain where they come from,” says chemist John Plane of the University of Leeds in England. The cloud-bearing layer of the atmosphere is between –120° and –140° Celsius — too warm for carbon dioxide clouds to form on their own, which can happen at about –220° C. Then in 2017, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter detected a layer of magnesium ions hovering about 90 kilometers above the Martian surface (SN: 4/29/17, p. 20). Scientists think the magnesium, and possibly other metals not yet detected, comes from cosmic dust left by passing comets. The dust vaporizes as it hits the atmosphere, leaving a sprinkling of metals suspended in the air. Earth has a similar layer of atmospheric metals, but none had been observed elsewhere in the solar system before.
According to the new calculations, the bits of magnesium clump with carbon dioxide gas — which makes up about 95 percent of Mars’ atmosphere — to produce magnesium carbonate molecules. These larger, charged molecules could attract the atmosphere’s sparse water, creating what Plane calls “dirty” ice crystals.
At the temperatures seen in Mars’ cloud layer, pure carbon dioxide ice crystals are too small to gather clouds around them. But clouds could form around dirty ice at temperatures as high as –123° C, Plane and colleagues report online March 6 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
The Neil Armstrong biopic, opening October 12, follows about eight years of the life of the first man on the moon, and spends about eight minutes depicting the lunar surface. Instead of the triumphant ticker tape parades that characterize many movies about the space race, First Man focuses on the terror, grief and heartache that led to that one small step.
“It’s a very different movie and storyline than people expect,” says James Hansen, author of the 2005 biography of Armstrong that shares the film’s name and a consultant on the film. The story opens shortly before Armstrong’s 2-year-old daughter, Karen, died of a brain tumor in January 1962. That loss hangs over the rest of the film, setting the movie’s surprisingly somber emotional tone. The cinematography is darker than most space movies. Colors are muted. Music is ominous or absent — a lot of scenes include only ambient sound, like a pen scratching on paper, a glass breaking or a phone clicking into the receiver. Karen’s death also seems to motivate the rest of Armstrong’s journey. Getting a fresh start may have been part of the reason why the grieving Armstrong (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) applied to the NASA Gemini astronaut program, although he never explicitly says so. And without giving too much away, a private moment Armstrong takes at the edge of Little West crater on the moon recalls his enduring bond with his daughter.
Hansen’s book also makes the case that Karen’s death motivated Armstrong’s astronaut career. Armstrong’s oldest son, Rick, who was 12 when his father landed on the moon, agrees that it’s plausible. “But it’s not something that he ever really definitively talked about,” Rick Armstrong says.
Armstrong’s reticence about Karen — and almost everything else — is true to life. That’s not all the film got right. Gosling captured Armstrong’s gravitas as well as his humor, and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet Armstrong, “is just amazing,” Rick Armstrong says.
Beyond the performances, the filmmakers, including director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, went to great lengths to make the technical aspects of spaceflight historically accurate. The Gemini and Apollo cockpits Gosling sits in are replicas of the real spacecraft, and he flipped switches and hit buttons that would have controlled real flight. Much of the dialog during space scenes was taken verbatim from NASA’s control room logs, Hansen says.
The result is a visceral sense of how frightening and risky those early flights were. The spacecraft rattled and creaked like they were about to fall apart. The scene of Armstrong’s flight on the 1966 Gemini 8 mission, which ended early when the spacecraft started spinning out of control and almost killed its passengers, is terrifying. The 1967 fire inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, which killed astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, is gruesome.
“We wanted to treat that one with extreme care and love and get it exactly right,” Hansen says. “What we have in that scene, none of it’s made up.”
Even when the filmmakers took poetic license, they did it in a historical way. A vomit-inducing gyroscope that Gosling rides in during Gemini astronaut training was, in real life, used for the earlier Mercury astronauts, but not for Gemini, for instance. Since the Mercury astronauts never experienced the kind of dizzying rotation that the gyroscope mimicked, NASA dismantled it before the next group of astronauts arrived.
“They probably shouldn’t have dismantled it,” Hansen says — it did simulate what ended up happening in the Gemini 8 accident. So the filmmakers used the gyroscope experience as foreshadowing.
Meanwhile, present-day astronauts are not immune to harrowing brushes with death: a Russian Soyuz capsule carrying two astronauts malfunctioned October 11, and the astronauts had to evacuate in an alarming “ballistic descent.” NASA is currently talking about when and how to send astronauts back to the moon from American soil. The first commercial crew astronauts, who will test spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX, were announced in August.
First Man is a timely and sobering reminder of the risks involved in taking these giant leaps.
SAN DIEGO — Mice yanked out of their community and held in solitary isolation show signs of brain damage.
After a month of being alone, the mice had smaller nerve cells in certain parts of the brain. Other brain changes followed, scientists reported at a news briefing November 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
It’s not known whether similar damage happens in the brains of isolated humans. If so, the results have implications for the health of people who spend much of their time alone, including the estimated tens of thousands of inmates in solitary confinement in the United States and elderly people in institutionalized care facilities.
The new results, along with other recent brain studies, clearly show that for social species, isolation is damaging, says neurobiologist Huda Akil of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “There is no question that this is changing the basic architecture of the brain,” Akil says. Neurobiologist Richard Smeyne of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and his colleagues raised communities of multiple generations of mice in large enclosures packed with toys, mazes and things to climb. When some of the animals reached adulthood, they were taken out and put individually into “a typical shoebox cage,” Smeyne said.
This abrupt switch from a complex society to isolation induced changes in the brain, Smeyne and his colleagues later found. The overall size of nerve cells, or neurons, shrunk by about 20 percent after a month of isolation. That shrinkage held roughly steady over three months as mice remained in isolation. To the researchers’ surprise, after a month of isolation, the mice’s neurons had a higher density of spines — structures for making neural connections — on message-receiving dendrites. An increase in spines is a change that usually signals something positive. “It’s almost as though the brain is trying to save itself,” Smeyne said.
But by three months, the density of dendritic spines had decreased back to baseline levels, perhaps a sign that the brain couldn’t save itself when faced with continued isolation. “It’s tried to recover, it can’t, and we start to see these problems,” Smeyne said.
The researchers uncovered other worrisome signals, too, including reductions in a protein called BDNF, which spurs neural growth. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol changed, too. Compared with mice housed in groups, isolated mice also had more broken DNA in their neurons.
The researchers studied neurons in the sensory cortex, a brain area involved in taking in information, and the motor cortex, which helps control movement. It’s not known whether similar effects happen in other brain areas, Smeyne says.
It’s also not known how the neural changes relate to mice’s behavior. In people, long-term isolation can lead to depression, anxiety and psychosis. Brainpower is affected, too. Isolated people develop problems reasoning, remembering and navigating.
Smeyne is conducting longer-term studies aimed at figuring out the effects of neuron shrinkage on thinking skills and behavior. He and his colleagues also plan to return isolated mice to their groups to see if the brain changes can be reversed. Those types of studies get at an important issue, Akil says. “The question is, ‘When is it too far gone?’”