This Week in Research: Night Light; Placebos; Water on Mars

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Those late nights on Facebook could be taking their toll:  according to recent research by Johns Hopkins biologist Samer Hattar, repeatedly staying up late leads to increased risk of depression and learning issues. And while skimping on sleep certainly doesn’t help, Hattar’s research reveals that the real problem is exposure to too much bright light.

“Basically, what we found is that chronic exposure to bright light — even the kind of light you experience in your own living room at home or in the workplace at night if you are a shift worker — elevates levels of a certain stress hormone in the body, which results in depression and lowers cognitive function,” says Hattar. So turn off those night lights, close the shutters, and make sure you’re spending a solid 8 hours in the dark every night.
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Are you one of those people that gets called, shall we say, cranky? (Or maybe “hostile” on bad days?) Then we’ve got some more bad news for you:  according to a team of scientists, including researchers from the University of Maryland, placebos just don’t work as well on angry people as they do on the altruistic.

Placebos are confusing, in that they don’t just trick people into thinking that they’re being helped; they can actually activate the brain’s innate painkilling chemicals, thus having a real effect on dampening pain. This study found that certain personality characteristics (resiliency, altruism, and straightforwardness) were linked with stronger placebo response. “People with those factors had the greatest ability to take environmental information — the placebo — and convert it to a change in biology,” said lead researcher Jon-Kar Zubiet of the University of Michigan.
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Forget about Mars — let’s all move to Mercury! NASA’s Messenger spacecraft — built by our very own Johns Hopkins — has been exploring Mercury for a while, and its most recent observations confirm a surprising hypothesis:  Mercury has abundant water.

Well, water ice — but hey, we’ll take what we can get. The space-ignorant among us (ahem, me) might be surprised to learn that the closest planet to the sun can sustain large ice deposits. But Mercury’s rotational axis is tilted in such a way that there are parts of the planet that are never exposed to sunlight… hence the ice spots.



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