Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

The Mystery Surrounding Sleep

Sleep remains a very mysterious body function. It preoccupies nearly a third of our lifetime, yet scientists and physicians actually understand very little about how sleep works. The mechanisms, molecular pathways, and downstream effects of sleep are actively being explored and investigated by modern scientists. Recent studies suggest that sleep has a much larger role in our daily functioning than we previously thought, and this perhaps creates growing risk factors considering that the CDC reports a third of adults sleep less than seven hours a night.

What We Do Know

While we often think of sleep as our bodies shutting down and becoming inactive for the day, quite the opposite is occurring in the mind. During sleep, our brains are very much in an active state, complex and different than the state of an awake brain.

The brain sleeps in one stage of light sleep, three stages of slow-wave sleep (SWS), and one stage of rapid eye movement (REM). A complete sleep cycle encompassing all 5 stages usually last for 90 to 110 minutes. SWS gives us deep, slow breathing sleep and preoccupies most of our sleep time, and REM interestingly gives us a temporary muscle paralysis and irregular breathing and is when our dreams occur.

We know that sleep correlates with functions of clearing toxins from the brain and reinforcing memory and new information taken in from the day. Sleepiness is caused by a build up of adenosine in our blood as we are active during the day, and during sleep this chemical is broken down. However, the functionality of sleep is speculated to extend much further. Sleep is continuously correlated with moderating behavioral functions of mood and appetite, and sleep-deprivation is correlated with decreased immunity to disease and lower life spans.


What Current Studies Are Investigating

Here are some quick summaries on some recent interesting studies:

1) What you eat may influence how you sleep

The Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center found that daily intakes higher in fiber and lower in saturated fats and sugars yield better sleep and faster rates of falling sleep. Fiber is correlated with more deep SWS sleep, saturated fat is correlated with less SWS sleep, and sugar is correlated with increased arousals from sleep.

2) Sleep deprivation is linked with decreased ability to regulate emotions

Tel Aviv University published in the Journal of Neuroscience that sleep deprivation causes loss of neutrality and impairment of judgement in emotional responses. In essence, loss of sleep causes the loss of ability to sort out levels of important information, which can also result in anxiety from emotional sensory overload.

3) Sleeping problems are repetitively linked with increased risk of diabetes

A new study published in Diabetologia  made a correlation between sleeping problems and an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes in women. Another study by the University of Colorado shows that after four nights of sleep restriction, subject insulin sensitivity decreased by 23% and diabetes risk increased by 16%.

4) Sleep loss makes you more likely to snack and pick poor food choices

The University of Chicago Medical Center published a study in the journal SLEEP that found that sleep loss increases a chemical signal in our endocannabinoid system that highers the desire for for sweet or salty, high-fat snack foods and increases a person’s impulsivity to indulge on them. A person likely burns an extra 17 calories for every extra hour they stay up at night, but will likely take in four times the amount the next day as a result.

5) Teens who sleep less than five hours a night show extended cognitive degradation effects

A study published by Duke-NUS Medical school in the journal SLEEP  shows that a week of 5 hour sleeping nights yields significant reduction of attention, processing, and alertness that aren’t negated after two nights of recovery sleep.


As we can see, sleep involves and is involved in very complex physiological parameters. It’s not just recuperation for the mind, but also a function suggestively intertwined with diet, exercise, immunity, and mental health emotionally and cognitively.

Studies are continuously being conducted every day to get to the bottom of the sleep mystery.  If you’re interested in contributing, the American Sleep Apnea Association and IBM recently launched a mobile app called SleepHealth, a new crowd-sourced citizen science project on sleep. It’s purpose is to help users take learn about sleep health, while also contributing to the first sleep data repository and to current research being conducted by scientists.


Outside: How Jogging in Burundi Became an Act of War

How Jogging in Burundi Became an Act of War (Outside Magazine, 3/18/16)


Hits count, as of 4/5/16: 2,713


As conflicts threaten to boil over—and the body count continues to rise—runners have become both weapons and victims.

Posted by Outside Magazine on Friday, March 18, 2016



Sky and Telescope Magazine Class Assignment

While our classmates shuffled through different magazines, I called across the room and told my group mate to pick the magazine with the pretty purple cover because that one stood out to me. There are many visuals including artist visualizations, tables, wavelength graphics, telescope-generated images, etc. We chose to focus on the cover story, “Into the Heart of the Milky Way.”


On December 31, 2015, the online version of the magazine published a preview for it, while the paper copy magazine came out two months later. We cannot access the online version because it requires you to purchase the digital issue. The visualizations provided for the preview of the digital issue were a few astronomical photos.


From McGill University, we found the PDF for the article. Here, we find the writer’s information and it seems eminent that she is the one promoting the story. She is a researcher at the University; she is an assistant professor, an academic- and not a journalist. She also gave a talk in Northwestern University about her work:


On twitter, the buzz about our story comes from other science-y works such as the Hubble Telescope. Sky & Telescope’s twitter account, which can be found here, discusses astronomy, but not its own stories.


The cover story was tweeted by McGill Space Institute and the magazine only retweeted it.


There is no instagram account in existence for Sky & Telescope…

Flint on the Media

Here’s the story:


For Families in Flint, a Daily Struggle to Avoid Tap Water


And on the media…

NYT Well and Twitter


On instagram


Early last month, Christina Murphy rested her hands on her pregnant belly while watching her children brush their teeth using bottled water. Like many parents in in #Flint, Michigan, Christina spends an inordinate amount of time emptying bottles of water into pots and bowls, where it can be boiled or microwaved for bathing, washing dishes and cooking for her 5 children. “It’s like living in the 1800s,” she told @nytimes. 6 months have passed since families in Flint first learned their water supply was heavily contaminated with lead, and the crisis continues to exact an exhausting daily toll on family life. Local fire stations stock the water, but residents have to pick it up and cart it home every day or every other day. In a 24-hour-period, a family of 4 can easily use up a case of 40 16.9-fluid-ounce water bottles — just for drinking and cooking. @brittanygreeson took this photo of Christina, 35, while on #nytassignment in Flint.

A photo posted by The New York Times (@nytimes) on





And maybe because it wasn’t well covered, someone felt the need to make a carbon copy of the article on a different website…

For Families in Flint, a Daily Struggle to Avoid Tap Water

Half Male, Half Female, Total Animal

Manta in the mirror: evidence for the first introspective fish?

You’ve probably heard of the mirror test: place a mirror in front of an animal, and see if they can recognize their reflection. Quick, easy, fun to try on the family dog, and thus far only ever successfully passed by humans, magpies, and a handful of primates, elephants, and cetaceans (Ari & D’Agostino, 2016). Even human children below the age of 18 months have trouble identifying themselves in a mirror (Lewis, 1979). However, according to a study published in the Journal of Ethology this past March, it may be time to add manta rays to the list of animals capable of displaying self-recognition, and if so, they’d be the first fish to accomplish this feat of cognition… ever.

Researchers from the University of South Florida tried out the mirror test on two giant manta rays living at the Bahamas’ Atlantis Aquarium, placing a mirror in their enclosure for a 16-day period, and they witnessed some truly stunning results. The animals were observed to repetitively circle the mirror, lifting their fins and turning sideways to bare their bellies to the reflective surface, but displayed no aggressive behaviors towards the mirror, nor any of the coloring changes previously shown to occur when a ray meets a new individual (Ari, 2014). These behaviors would seem to suggest that the rays were testing whether their reflection moved when they did, and could even have been trying to use it to view areas of their bodies that are normally out of sight. Both of these things would indicate that the rays recognized their mirror images as themselves.

You can watch a sample of these behaviors, below:

Future replication of this research will be necessary to confirm whether the behaviors exhibited by the two animals surveyed in this study are true of their species as a whole, and whether they do in fact represent the act of self-recognition. It’s possible that these behaviors could have arisen from a general sense of curiosity towards the ray’s shiny new toy, rather than anything truly self-oriented. However, these findings would not be completely unprecedented, as giant manta rays do possess the largest brains of any fish species (Ari, 2011). And after this study, it certainly seems that they can put that big brain to use.



Ari, C., D’Agostino, D. P. (2016). Contingency checking and self-directed behaviors in giant manta rays: Do elasmobranches have self-awareness? Journal of Ethology 34, 1-8.

Ari, C. (2014). Rapid coloration changes of manta rays (Mobulidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 113, 180–193.

Ari, C. (2011). Encephalization and brain organization of mobulid rays (Myliobatiformes, Elasmobranchii) with ecological perspectives. Open Anatomy 3, 1–13.

Lewis, M., Brooks-Gunn, J. (1979). Social cognition and the acquisition of self. New York: Plenum Press. p. 296.

Energy for the Ages

What’s up with Mother Nature? Environmental change, which is the disturbance of the environment often caused by human influences and natural ecological processes, is a huge controversy in terms of finding the best solution or the best way to slow down its damaging effects. Energy scarcity, environmental pollution, and climate change are three major challenges aiding in environmental change. They all have to do with one another but they also share one big common theme: fossil fuels. Energy scarcity has to do with the increasing lack of energy sources such as crude oil. Introducing contaminants into the natural environment triggers environmental pollution. Climate change, which we also refer to as global warming, is the ongoing rise in the temperature, mostly caused from increasing concentrations of green housing gases in the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels supports these three unfortunate outcomes that are affecting the environment.

The Chinese government invests more than any other country in the wind and solar energy business and they have come up with a plan to create a global electricity network. The State Grid Corporation of China, the largest electric utility company in the world, plans to link existing solar farms and wind turbines and/or other electricity plants across four continents (Asia, Europe, Africa, and the America’s). They need to get large investments from all over the world for it to be functional by 2050. The business plan is called the Global Energy Interconnection. The goal is to generate a global network that could mean clean energy for up to eighty percent of the estimated global consumption, clean energy meaning recycled or reusable energy that generates little to no emissions. This would displace fossil fuels as the earth’s principal energy source. Solar farms use hundreds to thousands of panels that convert the suns light directly into electricity. We can put the panels on big motorized towers where the motors allow the panels to track the sun so they have higher electrical output. They put power into the utility grid so businesses and consumers can use the power during the day. Therefore, fewer fossil fuels are burned.

Global Energy Interconnection investigates the current condition and complications of global energy development and with calculated rational and a proper construction method for the development of global energy network. This is hard task and will face difficulties at times, but researchers and analysts involved say that it is possible with the correct funding and with a practical and efficient design. It could be a huge and extremely influential change not only for the environment but also for people. It is important that countries are starting to think about ways to make a difference in the environment for future generations. Energy transmission technology is economical and the proposal is ambitious but the plan is really good news for the world.



What We Do Not Know About HIIT

I’ve been working out for only 20 minutes and yet every square inch of my body is sweating excessively. I’m not sure if my legs can make one more kick because they are shaking uncontrollably. I had just suffered my way through a session of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT.

HIIT compresses an hour or more of traditional exercise into a few minutes of high-intensity training per session followed by a short active recovery period. Studies have shown better improvements in cardiovascular health, metabolic capacity and aerobic fitness for those that participate in HIIT than those seen in continuous moderate-intensity exercise.

Effective HIIT training will help you burn more calories, build lean muscle, lose fat, improve heart health, and increase efficiency. But while the benefits of HIIT are plentiful, there are still plenty of myths out there that will affect your performance.


Myth 1: Everyone is fit for the HIIT workout.

Just like you would not run a marathon without training, you probably shouldn’t over exert yourself on your first HIIT workout either to avoid risk of injuries and muscle soreness. It is better to slowly ease yourself into the HIIT routine. It is better to start with low-intensity aerobic exercise and slowly work build up the strength to do a full HIIT workout.


Myth 2: HIIT is the only exercise you need to lose weight.

Although it is true that a well-designed training program triggers excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, also known as after burn, you will make better progress if you mix traditional strength training with it.


Myth 3: The longer, the better; the more, the better.

A long workout does not necessarily define it as a good one. It must also be efficient to achieve the maximum health benefits. HIIT pushes you to 90% of your maximum heart rate with limited resting time within 20 minutes. This exercise pushes your body hard, so it is important to allow for plenty of recovery time between workouts.




HIV Origins in the U.S. No Longer a Mystery

A theory aims to find an explanation for a specific phenomenon. For researchers at the University of Arizona, theories surrounding the origins of HIV in the U.S. proved to be an important topic. The topic was so meaningful that they conducted a study which aimed to reconstruct the virus’ history in the U.S.

The newest research was presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), and builds off of previous work done on the virus’ origins. Evidence from the genetic diversity of the DNA samples used in the study supports the conclusion that the HIV-1 strain was brought over from Africa to Haiti, where it became genetically diverse, and then brought over to the U.S. However, even with DNA evidence to prove the virus was present during the 1970s, there are still critics that say this isn’t definitive.

In an online article, Ed Hooper discusses his opposing views on the topic, and highlights a number of different theories which he believes are all still plausible to explain the origins of HIV in the U.S. These theories include:

  1. The HIV-1 virus moved from Africa to Haiti and finally to the U.S.
  2. The HIV-1 virus moved from Africa to the U.S. and was then transmitted to a Haitian counterpart.
  3. The HIV-1 virus moved from Africa to Europe, then to Haiti, and finally the U.S.
  4. The HIV-1 virus was carried by an infected mother, child of a prisoner, and was transmitted via a clinical polio vaccine which had been prepared in the Congo and contained the virus.

Like all highly debated theories not everyone is going to come to an agreement on which provides the best explanation. When beliefs and stigma about a virus like HIV have been deeply engrained into a society it can become difficult to change an individual’s mindset the subject. What will often prove to be solid evidence is the information provided from DNA samples, like the ones recovered and sequenced in this study. Sometimes all it takes is that closer look at solid evidence to make an theory definitive, but the real question can you break away from what you’ve already been taught? Can you you believe it?



Belluz, J. 2016. “This new research rewrites the history of HIV in America.” Vox. Accessed from

Gilbert, M. T. P. 2007. “The emergence of HIV/AIDS in the Americas and beyond.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Accessed from

Hooper, E. 2008. “Michael Worobey’s wobbly research into the early history of HIV.” Accessed from

Worobey, M., et. al. 2016. “1970s HIV-1 Genomes Reveal the Early History of the North American HIV/AIDS Epidemic.” Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. Accessed from

Worobey, M. 2016. “HIV Virology: Putting It All Together.” Accessed from



One Fifth of the World to be Obese by 2025

According to a four-decade study recently published in The Lancet, “Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19·2 million participants”, there are 266 million obese men and 375 million obese women in the world as of 2014. These numbers, based on estimates in BMI changes from 186 of 200 countries in the world (99% of the world population), are exceptionally high compared to those recorded in 1975: 34 million men and 71 million women. In the world’s poorest regions such as south Asia, however, populations remain underweight. Nonetheless, global obesity is expected to reach 18% of the male population and 21% of the female population by 2025.

According to the study, the largest increase in average BMI occurred in high-income English speaking countries for men and in central Latin America for women. In most areas in the world, more people are obese than underweight. Whether or not we can blame this on fast food places like McDonald’s is beyond my knowledge, but the study does mention that the dangers of being underweight may be just as bad as those of being obese. Being underweight can lead to an increased risk of mortality in diseases like tuberculosis and increases risks in pregnant women and newborn babies. Perhaps our fattening fast food is an evolutionary boost in disguise. However, if you don’t reside in south Asia, watch out. You could very well become the next statistic.



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