How our intelligence changes through life; students flocking to science; deadly energy drinks; and other stories

Bulletins, Media bulletins

Find below discoveries on IQ, epilepsy, energy drinks and more.

Australia rediscovers science

Great news for Australia this week that more students want to do science and engineering.

Why? Because science and engineering underpin the growth of sustainable health communities. Just look at the companies and technologies that are transforming societies: the geeks at Google whose algorithms I’ve already used 100 times today; the astronomers whose discoveries freed computers from their cables; the rare earth minerals inside every phone, the quantum effects that allow us to store every episode of the Simpsons on a small disk. economic growth. And we are of course living longer, healthier lives.

Science at the University of Melbourne was the most popular course in the Victoria with about  9,000 applications, plus nearly 5,000 for biomedical courses. The demand has pushed up the entry score (ATAR) up to 90.15. A decade ago you could get in with a 75.

Science at Monash was the third most popular course with 4500 applications. (Arts at Melbourne was second).

Health science was the top choice in Adelaide with 9443 applications, up four per cent on 2011.  Information technology was up 26 per cent.

I’m told that there’s similar good news around the country but I’ve not dug out the numbers.

How does our intelligence change through life

Nature paper reveals the genetic influence on our IQ as we age

Embargo 6 am AEST, Thursday 19 January 2012

Researchers from Brisbane, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have revisited about 2,000 people who had intelligence tests in 1932 or1947, and shown that genetic factors may account for about a quarter of the changes in intelligence over their lives.

The unique study also suggests that the largest influence on changes in intelligence is environmental.

It still remains for researchers to identify exactly which genes are involved, and this could contribute to understanding and ameliorating cognitive decline.

The latest paper is helping then to hone in on the causes of these changes, and on the underlying question of the roles of genetics and environmental factors in determining our intelligence and how it changes across people’s lifetimes.

In a number of studies since early 2000 the Edinburgh and Aberdeen researchers have shown that, when people took intelligence tests as children and then again in old age, they tended to keep about the same relative score. However, there was also some change: some who did well early on went down a bit, and some who scored poorly as children did better in old age. The researchers are keen to understand what drives these changes in lifetime cognitive ageing.

“Identifying genetic influences on intelligence could help us to understand the relationship between knowledge and problem solving and an individual’s outcomes in life, and especially to understand why some people age better than others in terms of intelligence,” says paper co-author Professor Peter Visscher, from the Queensland Brain Institute and the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute. “We excluded people with dementia.”

“This research was only possible because of remarkable detective work by Professor Ian Deary and his team at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Whalley and his team at the University of Aberdeen,” he says.

In June 1932 and June 1947 intelligence tests were carried out on almost all children born in Scotland in 1921 and 1936, respectively. Ian Deary and colleagues successfully tracked down 2000 of these people who, then aged from 65 to 79, agreed to be re-tested and to give samples for DNA analysis.

The scientists then examined more than half a million genetic markers to work out how genetically similar the individuals were, even though they were not related.

Full release and background at and

One unlucky letter causes an infant epilepsy (issued Sunday)

A 20 year old mystery was solved this week with the discovery that an epilepsy that affects infants is caused by the change of a single letter in one gene. Seizures in infancy are not rare, but this familial epilepsy occurs in probably 60 families across Australia. It can also cause a movement disorder later in life.

The discovery was made by teams from the University of South Australia led by Associate Professor Leanne Dibbens and the Florey Institutes/University of Melbourne led by Professor Ingrid Scheffer. She is the 2012 Asia-Pacific L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate and will receive her award in Paris in March.

Prof Scheffer first started looking at benign familial infantile epilepsy some twenty years ago. “I have now met many families where several members had seizures beginning at around 6 months and the inheritance pattern looked like it was due to a single gene. Sometimes the baby’s parents had a movement disorder that often had not been diagnosed. ” she says.

“Fortunately, while this form of epilepsy can be terrifying for both infant and parents it is self-limiting. Children grow out of it and it doesn’t affect their intelligence. However it can reappear in later childhood or adolescence as a movement disorder. When you try to move a limb, it has a ‘mind of its own’ and moves in an odd direction. For one of my patients this often happens when the light changes at a pedestrian crossing and he goes to cross the road.”

“Another of my patients is a dancer. Just before she starts to dance she has learnt to prepare her body by making a first movement then waiting for a moment for the abnormal movement and sensation to pass.”

More at

Deadly energy drinks

Energy drinks came under attack on Monday from the University of Sydney and the Australian Medical Association. You may have missed another element of the story which NineMSN ran on Sunday, warning that energy drinks can trigger heart attacks.

Professor Chris Semsarian, Head of the Molecular Cardiology Program at Centenary Institute, and a cardiologist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, has called for greater caution when purchasing energy drinks and wants better labelling.

Several of Professor Semsarian’s patients were hospitalised in the past year with heart rhythm problems after consuming energy drinks.

He warns that energy drinks can trigger heart attacks and other life-threatening conditions in young people because they speed up the heart and raise blood pressure.

For someone with an underlying heart condition, this combination of ingredients could have a potentially lethal effect, Professor Semsarian said. More at

Dinner in Vancouver

The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) conference is the largest general science conference in the world and there’s always a big media contingent. We’re holding an informal dinner for journalists at the conference in Vancouver this year. It will be on Sunday 19 February. If you know of any Australian journalists attending then please let them know. Email for more info.

Will we win the SKA?

In February/March we’ll hear if Australia is to be home to the world’s biggest telescope – the Square Kilometre Array – a $2 billion investment. If you’re going to be reporting on this and need background – take a look at our collection of astronomy stories in print and online. In particular take a look at the sections on radio astronomy and the Square Kilometre Array.

Oz research of note, 16 January, 2012

These are stories that grabbed the attention of our senior writer, Tim Thwaites. They’re not ‘our’ stories so go straight to the links in the story for more information please.

Gift of the gab helps plants beat drought

Scientists have found a signal in plants which may act as a drought alarm, allowing them to adapt to drought conditions. The signal was discovered while trying to understand how different parts of the cell communicate with each other under drought conditions in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a relative of canola. Inside every animal and plant cell there are a series of connected pathways, like the production lines of a factory. For it to work efficiently, each department must be able to communicate product shortages, adverse conditions or breakdowns. Scientists have proposed for a while that chemical signals must be sent by a particular “plant department”, or organelle, to the nucleus – the cell’s control centre – for plants to become aware of and adapt to harsh conditions.

Dr Gonzalo Estavillo, Professor Barry Pogson, ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, Research School of Biology, ANU

The Plant Cell;;

Fortunately for men, size doesn’t matter (much)

Canberra biologists have discovered that the male-specific Y-chromosome is shrinking – and it’s happening at different rates across species. The research team discovered that a marsupial’s Y-chromosome is genetically denser than the human Y-chromosome, meaning that animals like the tammar wallaby are bounds ahead on the ‘manliness’ scale. However, even though the Y-chromosome is shrinking, in this case size doesn’t matter. The international study analysed DNA samples from tammar wallabies and found more genes on the male chromosome than expected.

Dr Paul Waters, Research School of Biology, ANU

Smart probe detects termites by ‘hearing’ them eat

West Australian researchers have come up with a sensitive acoustic device that can detect termite infestation by ‘hearing’ them chew through timber. Once detected, the device can immediately send an SMS or email to a pest control firm—with the termites’ GPS location—so they can take appropriate action to protect the property. The device can also detect termite activity in timber bridges and wooden power poles. The developers are looking to commercialise the device in the next 12 months in Australia and say it has the potential to revolutionise the pest control industry. The device is called WiSPr—short for ‘wireless smart probe’ network for acoustic detection.

A/Prof Adam Osseiran, Edith Cowan University, Perth

Quakes unearth Australia’s underground past

Canberra geologists have used the latest earthquake-measuring technology to image the tectonic plate beneath southeast Australia and reveal the continent’s geological building blocks for the first time. The Australian scientists with international colleagues conducted the research using seismometers placed throughout eastern Australia. The instruments – which record ground motions caused by earthquakes as far away as Indonesia, Fiji and Japan – allowed the researchers to probe deep beneath the Earth’s surface and find evidence of some of the key geological events which have shaped the land mass we know today. “The southeast of the Australian continent preserves a rich geological history that spans almost half a billion years. This history involves significant geological events like the opening of the Tasman Sea, the break-up of Australia and Antarctica and more recent volcanic events.

Dr Nick Rawlinson, Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU

New species of fly named in honour of performer Beyoncé

A previously un-named species of horse fly whose appearance is dominated by its glamorous golden lower abdomen has been named in honour of American pop diva, Beyoncé – a member of the former group Destiny’s Child, that recorded the 2001 hit single, Bootylicious. According to the researcher responsible for officially ‘describing’ the fly as Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae, the fly’s spectacular gold colour makes it the “all time diva of flies”.

Bryan Lessard, Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO

Australian Journal of Entomology;

Planets outnumber stars in our Galaxy

New research has found planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception – there are more planets in the Galaxy than there are stars. An international team including five Tasmanian astronomers made the discovery. The team searched for exoplanets (planets outside the Solar System) using gravitational microlensing, which can detect planets over a much wider range of masses and distances from their parent stars (stars that give the planets light and warmth) than other methods. In six years of observations, the Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork (PLANET) and the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) searches discovered three exoplanets on their own and seven more in co-operation with other survey teams.  Although the number of planets that were detected is small, statistical analysis of the microlensing process shows that this is a truly impressive haul. To detect these planets, astronomers have either hit a jackpot despite huge odds against them, or planets are so abundant in the Galaxy that their discovery is almost inevitable.

Dr John Greenhill, School of Maths and Physics, University of Tasmania


Hotter homes produce smarter babies

A hotter home appears to produce babies with better cognitive abilities – but before you turn up the home heater to make your baby brainier, the research was conducted by Sydney researchers on the Australian lizard Bassiana duperreyi. Many other traits in young reptiles are determined by the temperature of the nest, so the researchers looked at how incubation temperature would affect the learning performance of these lizards. Their study found that lizard eggs incubated at higher temperatures resulted in baby lizards with enhanced learning performance.

Joshua Amiel, Prof Rick Shine, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney

Biology Letters;

Fighting illnesses that accompany the latest anti-psychotic drugs

Anti-psychotic drugs for treating serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are effective and often life-saving, but come with unwelcome side effects. They dramatically increase weight as well as the incidence of metabolic disorders such as raised blood fats and Type 2 diabetes, say Sydney-based specialists. In fact, there are measurable effects within 3 to 6 months of starting treatment. The rapid decline in physical health is so clinically significant, and of such concern, that the specialists put together a physical health protection algorithm earlier this year, which they say should run in tandem with mental health treatment. It includes regular and specified measurement of tangibles – weight, waistline and blood chemistry – as well as counselling about lifestyle and diet. The new ‘treatment algorithm’ was adopted by NSW Health in June 2010, and is also being adopted in the UK by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of General Practitioners. Under the aegis of the University of NSW, these clinical researchers have established an International working party on Physical Health in Youth with Psychosis (iphYs), launched in Sydney last month.

A/Prof Katherine Samaras, Clinical Researcher, Garvan Institute of Medical Research; Dr Jackie Curtis, endocrinologist, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney

Early Intervention in Psychiatry;

Long warm-ups fatiguing players

New work shows major sporting clubs may be tiring their players by warming up for too long. Studies by Victorian researchers compared performance after various warm-up routines including one conducted by a first class (Serie A) Italian soccer club. The study showed a specific 6-minute warm-up routine produced better results than the club’s all-encompassing 23-minute routine, which included run-throughs, stretching and change of direction tasks. The players’ speed, agility and jumping performance were all better after the short warm-up – by as much as 7 per cent – while athletes in the longer warm-up showed signs of fatigue.

James Zois, Institute of Sport Exercise and Active Living, Victoria University

Journal of Science and Sport Medicine;

Predators pick prey that balances their diet

University researchers have debunked the dogma that predators aren’t picky eaters, with a new study finding if they are given a choice of foods they will select a diet that maximises their chances of reproducing. The researchers, including an Australian, have shown for the first time that predatory animals choose their food on the basis of its nutritional value rather than just overall calorie content. The findings are based on a study of the ground beetle, Anchomenus dorsalis, a garden insect that feasts on slugs, aphids, moths, beetle larvae and ants.

Prof Stephen Simpson, University of Sydney

Proceedings of the Royal Society B;

New approach to diagnosing anorexia nervosa

A new approach for diagnosing patients with anorexia nervosa has been developed at the University of Sydney. The approach could have a significant impact on the treatment and recovery of sufferers, as well as reducing the strain on public health.  Researchers advocates a move to diagnosing anorexia nervosa in stages of severity, similar to the method used for diagnosing cancer. “At the moment, you can only diagnose anorexia nervosa if you have the illness quite severely already.”

Prof Stephen Touyz, Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders, University of Sydney

Ecosystem biodiversity a key climate change buffer

Preserving diverse plant life will be crucial to buffer the negative effects of climate change and desertification in in the world’s drylands, according to a landmark study. The findings of the multi-author study are based on samples of ecosystems in every continent except Antarctica. They confirm for the first time that the more diverse an ecosystem is, the more ecological functions it performs. It also has implications for carbon sequestration and soil health.

Prof David Eldridge, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW


Costly copulation – research reveals the price of having sex

A recent Sydney study looking at the mating behaviour of the Australian plague locust has found that reproducing has a particularly high cost. The rate at which the locusts are targeted by a predatory species—the black digger wasp—increases significantly during sex. “The startling aspect of these data is that copulation magnified the risk of wasp-mediated death by up to 10 per cent and this happened at a time of maximum reproductive potential for the locusts.” The digger wasp is a parasite that stings and paralyses its prey before dragging it off to a burrow to be buried and eaten alive. It excavates living larders for its larvae, stocking them with the bodies of paralysed insect prey.

Darrell Kemp, Macquarie University

Tourist boats interrupt dolphins’ daily life

While contact with dolphins is often a unique and incredible experience for us, it is important to realise that ‘watching’ activity can have an adverse effect on the dolphins themselves. In cases where human–wildlife interactions turn into large-scale tourism industries, research shows that these activities can negatively impact wildlife by, for example, disrupting resting or feeding. Wildlife tourism therefore needs regulations aiming to ensure both a healthy wild population of animals and satisfactory wildlife encounters for humans.

Andre Steckenreuter, Graduate School of Environment, Macquarie University

Journal of Environmental Management;

Australian-US collaboration leaps ahead in catching spooky light

Experiments with entangled photons have led the way in the burgeoning fields of quantum information, communication and computation in the last decade. Their biggest drawback has always been low photon-detection efficiencies, which has limited their potential applications. Now, a joint experiment by Australian and US labs has fixed this problem, doubling the previous record in entangled photon detection ratio to 62 per cent, and closing the detection “loophole” in the strange phenomenon of quantum steering.

Dr Marcelo de Almeida, The University of Queensland; Prof Andrew White, ARC Centre for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS); Prof Howard Wiseman, Griffith University

Fresh hopes for anti-microbial potential from Aussie native plants

Queensland scientists have discovered promising new anti-microbial properties in a combination of natural-plant ingredients, including two common native Australian plums. The researchers discovered that when small amounts of the kakadu and Queensland Davidson plum are combined with organic acids they display promising new anti-microbial properties. They were looking at how native plants might be used to extend the shelf-life of processed kangaroo meat in pet food, which would help to reduce the industry’s reliance on preservatives such as sulphides.

Dr Yasmina Sultanbawa, The University of Queensland

Scientists pinpoint timing of powerful black hole activity

A West Australian radio astronomer is a step closer to understanding how black holes can launch superfast ‘bullets’ of gas into space, by identifying the exact moment when these ‘bullets’ form. Combining observations from NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope, he led the international team of radio astronomers which made the discovery. Identifying the moment when the ‘bullets’ of gas were launched would assist radio astronomers to better understand the physics of how and why black holes launch fast-moving flows of material outwards, which, in turn, could help to reveal more about similar processes occurring around super-sized black holes at the centres of galaxies.

Dr James Miller-Jones, principal investigator, The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR)


Role of social media in floods coverage and response

Social media sites Twitter and Facebook played a crucial role in disseminating information during the 2011 Queensland floods. That is the key finding of a report released by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) available at CCI researchers focussed especially on the role of Twitter, which was prominently used by the Queensland Police Service during the crisis.

A/Prof Axel Bruns, Dr Jean Burgess from Queensland University of Technology (QUT); A/Prof Kate Crawford, Frances Shaw, University of New South Wales (UNSW)

Earth’s acid coming from nature

Satellites showing that nature is responsible for 90% of the earth’s atmospheric acidity shocked researchers from the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, whose findings have just been published in the journal. Stunned, the scientists approached Australian team to confirm what satellite readings were telling them. By providing data from a ground-based solar Fourier transform spectrometer instrument at the University of Wollongong, the researchers used 15-years-worth of information to verify the satellite’s story: all existing global models had substantially misjudged the main source of formic acid levels on earth – its forests.

Dr Clare Murphy, Centre of Atmospheric Chemistry, University of Wollongong

Nature Geoscience; 

Picky females prefer well-fed males

A good upbringing can make you more attractive to females – if you are a mosquito fish, that is. Researchers from the ACT have shown that female mosquito fish prefer males who had a solid nutritional upbringing, even if the males are superficially identical to their poorly-fed brothers. “Males similar in body size, but differing in developmental history, are not equally attractive to females.”

Andrew Kahn, Jules Livingston, Research School of Biology, ANU.

Biology Letters;

Australia and NZ have highest rates of cannabis use

Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of cannabis and amphetamine use in the world, according to comprehensive research on illicit drug use. Up to 15 per cent of 15 to 64 year olds in the two countries use cannabis, while 2.8 per cent of the same age group use drugs such as speed and crystal meth. The latter figure does not include use of ecstasy. The data is included in a series of papers examining global drug use and law enforcement.

Prof Louisa Degenhardt, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), UNSW

The Lancet;

New international research defends genome-wide association studies

Since 2005, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have successfully identified thousands of genes responsible for common human diseases. Despite these impressive genetic discoveries, criticism has been aimed at GWAS for a lack of immediate therapeutic results, uncertain biological significance of findings, and because the majority of genetic variants associated with common diseases remain unidentified. An international study including two Australians addresses these criticisms and defends the contribution of GWAS.

Professor Peter Visscher and Professor Matthew Brown, The University of Queensland

American Journal of Human Genetics;


More information

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