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Vol. LXII, No. 12
June 11, 2010

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Infants Capable of Learning While Asleep

Newborn infants are capable of a simple form of learning while they’re asleep, according to an NIH-funded study.
Newborn infants are capable of a simple form of learning while they’re asleep, according to an NIH-funded study.

Newborn infants are capable of a simple form of learning while they’re asleep, according to an NIH-funded study. The finding may one day lead to a test that can identify infants at risk for developmental disorders that do not become apparent until later in childhood. The study—funded by NICHD and NIMH—was confined to newborns, so researchers do not know whether older children or adults are capable of learning during sleep. Conducted by Dr. William Fifer and colleagues at Columbia University, the study was published May 17 online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers used an electroencephalogram, a machine that records the brain’s electrical activity and converts it into patterns, to record the brain activity of each sleeping infant. A video camera recorded each infant’s facial expressions. The researchers played a tone while a machine blew a faint puff of air at each sleeping infant’s eyelids. In response to the air puff, the infants reflexively squeezed their closed lids tighter. The researchers repeated this nine times, each time pairing the air puff with the tone. For the 10th time in the sequence, however, the researchers played the tone without the air puff. This sequence was repeated over and over again. After roughly 20 minutes, most of the infants (24 out of 26) would scrunch their faces in response to the tone that was not accompanied by the air puff. Moreover, the electroencephalogram detected changes in brain wave activity that occurred simultaneously with the tone, which the researchers interpret as further evidence that the infants had learned to associate the tone with the air puff.

Researchers Publish First Genomic Collection of Human Microbes

The Human Microbiome Project published an analysis of 178 genomes from microbes that live in or on the human body. The researchers discovered novel genes and proteins that serve functions in human health and disease, adding a new level of understanding to what is known about the complexity and diversity of these organisms. The human microbiome consists of all the microorganisms that reside in or on the human body. Outnumbering cells in the human body by 10 to 1, some of the microorganisms cause illnesses, but many are necessary for good health. Currently, researchers can grow only some of the bacteria, fungi and viruses in a laboratory setting. However, new genomic techniques can identify minute amounts of microbial DNA in an individual and determine its identity by comparing the genetic signature to known sequences in the project’s data base. The paper was published in the May 21 issue of Science.

Experimental Vaccine Protects Monkeys from New Ebola Virus

New research has found that an experimental Ebola vaccine developed by researchers at NIH protects monkeys against not only the two most lethal Ebola virus species for which it was originally designed, both recognized in 1976, but also against a newer Ebola virus species that was identified in 2007. Dr. Nancy J. Sullivan of the Vaccine Research Center at NIAID led the study team, which included collaborators from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and CDC. Their findings appeared May 20 in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens. Currently, there are no specific treatments or vaccines available to control Ebola outbreaks. The experimental Ebola vaccine being developed at NIAID has two components, a prime and a boost. The prime consists of a DNA vaccine containing a small piece of genetic material encoding surface proteins from Zaire ebolavirus and Sudan ebolavirus. The boost consists of a weakened cold virus that delivers the Zaire ebolavirus surface protein.

Gene Pattern May Identify Kidney Transplant Recipients Who Don’t Need Life-Long Anti- Rejection Drugs

Researchers have identified a distinct pattern of gene expression in the largest reported group of kidney transplant recipients who have not rejected the transplant kidneys even though they stopped taking anti-rejection drugs. This finding may help identify other transplant recipients who could safely reduce or end use of immunosuppressive therapy. In 2008, more than 80,000 people in the United States were living with a kidney transplant. The findings come from the Immune Tolerance Network, an international research consortium supported by NIAID, NIDDK and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. Their report appears online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. “This study holds promise for identifying kidney transplant recipients who might be able to minimize or withdraw from their use of anti-rejection drugs. However, large, prospective studies will be necessary to determine if the same biomarkers identified in the current study are reliable predictors of immune tolerance,” said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci.—

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