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How We Understand Others

Face, Head, Empathy, Meet, Sensitivity, FriendlinessPeople who empathize easily with others do not necessarily understand them well. To the contrary: Excessive empathy can even impair understanding as a new study conducted by psychologists from Würzburg and Leipzig has established. “Successful social interaction is based on our ability to feel with others and to understand their thoughts and intentions,” Anne Böckler explains. She says that it had been unclear previously whether and to what extend these two skills were interrelated – that is whether people who empathize easily with others are also capable of grasping their thoughts and intentions. According to the junior professor, the scientists also looked into the question of whether the neuronal networks responsible for these abilities interact. The authors believe that the results of this study are important both for neurosciences and clinical applications. For example, they suggest that training aimed at improving social skills, the willingness to empathize and the ability to understand others at the cognitive level and take their perspective should be promoted selectively and separately of one another. The group in the Department of Social Neurosciences in Leipzig is currently working on exactly this topic within the scope of the ReSource project, namely how to specifically train different social skills.

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Analysis of Dog Genome Will Provide Insight Into Human Disease

WOLFNew research published today in PLOS ONE reveals an improved annotation of microRNAs in the dog genome to further understand its biological role. Providing a platform for future studies into biomedicine, evolution and the domestication of important animals including dogs, cows, horses and pigs. This discovery provides a significant opportunity not only to enhance our understanding of how miRNAs regulate a variety of biological processes in an important model species for studying human diseases, but can lead to further, similar research into the role that miRNAs play in animal domestication.

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Diets Heavy In Fructose Damage Genes Related To Memory And Metabolism, Says Study

high fructose corn syrup sodaHigh-fructose corn syrup is a grocery store staple, an inexpensive additive found in everything from soda to spaghetti sauce. We already know that diets heavy in it are a likely road to obesity and diabetes, but according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health, fructose may also be doing widespread damage to our genes. The study is the first to examine all of the gene networks affected by fructose that result in changes to brain function and metabolism–more than 20,000 genes in total. Although the study was conducted using rats, the researchers report that the majority of the sequenced genes are comparable to those in humans, including more than 200 genes in the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to memory, and 700 in the hypothalamus, the seat of the brain’s metabolic control center. When genes in the brain are disrupted by fructose, say the researchers, a host of health badness is on the horizon. According to Xia Yang, co-senior author of the study and a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, “Parkinson’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder and other brain diseases” are all potential outcomes from gene disruptions caused by fructose.

The UCLA researchers reported that they were able to identify the mechanism by which fructose damages genes in the brain. By altering one of the four nucleotides that make up DNA, diets high in fructose trigger the genes’ “on” or “off” switch, altering their function. Previous rat studies have shown similar gene-altering results, though the research hasn’t yet been replicated in humans.

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Michael Alfaro Awarded the Faculty Student Development DEI Award

Professor Michael Alfaro, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is this year’s Faculty Student Development DEI Award recipient. In the Spring of 2014, Professor Alfaro was one of the campus leaders who was tasked with developing a proposal to establish a diversity course requirement for undergraduate students in the College of Letters and Science. The proposal articulated the goals of the diversity requirement at UCLA as well as set criteria for courses satisfying the requirement, including numerous community-based courses. His leadership in this area contributed to the successful passage of the diversity requirement. Professor Alfaro also chaired the Diversity Implementation Committee that was charged with developing a process for syllabi evaluation, determining demand, and existing capacity for the new requirement and identifying additional resources required to mount the requirement for Fall 2015. He currently chairs both the Diversity Initiative Steering Committee and the Diversity Requirement ad hoc Committee.

UCLA Scientists Unravel the Genetic Evolution of Zika Virus

ZikaVirusHow does a formerly innocuous and obscure virus like Zika transform itself into a feared pathogen inflicting a devastating impact on global health?

A new UCLA study suggests that the virus possesses the ability to mutate rapidly, allowing the current outbreak to spread swiftly around the world. The Cell Press journal, Cell Host & Microbe, published the findings today in its advance online edition. “The Zika virus has undergone significant genetic changes in the past 70 years,” explained senior author Genhong Cheng, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “By tracing its genetic mutations, we aimed to understand how the virus is transmitted from person to person and how it causes different types of disease.”

In sequencing the virus, the team identified substantial DNA changes between the strains, showing a major split between the Asian and African lineages, as well as the human and mosquito versions. “We suspect these mutations could help the virus replicate more efficiently, evade the body’s immune response or invade new tissues that provide a safe harbor for it to spread,” said co-author Lulan Wang, a graduate student researcher in Cheng’s laboratory.

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Scripps Florida Study Identifies Memory Suppressor Gene That Could Hold Key to New Alzheimer’s Disease Treatments

fruit fliesWhile research has identified hundreds of genes required for normal memory formation, genes that suppress memory are of special interest because they offer insights into how the brain prioritizes and manages all of the information, including memories, that it takes in every day. These genes also provide clues for how scientists might develop new treatments for cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have identified a unique memory suppressor gene in the brain cells of Drosophila, the common fruit fly, a widely recognized substitute for human memory studies. The study, which was led by Ron Davis, chair of TSRI’s Department of Neuroscience, was published April 14, 2016, in the journal Neuron.

“Memory processes and the genes that make the brain proteins required for memory are evolutionarily conserved between mammals and fruit flies,” said Research Associate Ze Liu, co-first author of the study. “The majority of human cognitive disease-causing genes have the same functional genetic counterparts in flies.”

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Congratulations to Lauren Phinney

Lauren Phinney, an HBS major, has been selected to receive the jane b semel HCI Appreciation & Recognition Award for 2016. The award was created to recognize UCLA community members who actively demonstrate their support of the principles of the Healthy Campus Initiative in striving to improve the health and wellness of the UCLA community. Awardees initiated and/or implemented programs illustrating the HCI values of fostering high level wellness, encouraging personal responsibility, respecting diversity, striving to reduce health inequities, recognizing the integrative nature of health and wellness within one or more of the HCI’s major areas of concentration: MindWell, EatWell, MoveWell, BEWell and BreatheWell. In essence we are recognizing your actions that support our goal of making the healthy choice the easy choice.

The award will be presented at the Healthy Campus Initiative 2016 Celebration on April 20, 2016 in Pauley Pavilion from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm.

From Genome Research: Human evolution fast-tracked by mutations from anti-viral enzyme

DNAEvolution is thought to proceed through the gradual accumulation of independent mutations in each new generation. In a study published online today in Genome Research, researchers analyzing hominid genomes have discovered thousands of clustered mutations likely resulting from the coordinated activity of APOBEC enzymes, leading to accelerated changes in DNA. Mutations occur through a variety of mechanisms, including mutagenic agents such as ultraviolet radiation, and error-prone cellular processes such as DNA replication and repair. In cancer, it was recently recognized that mutations could occur as the result of human APOBEC enzymes, which deaminate cytosines and lead to many clustered base substitutions in DNA. Interestingly, the APOBEC family, and in particular APOBEC3, have dramatically expanded in copy number in primates. The expansion is thought to be in response to the emergence of primate-specific viruses, which APOBECs target for inactivation. “Our results are at odds with assumptions of mutational models that are at the basis of most genetic analyses, including in medical genetics, evolutionary genetics, and population genetics,” co-corresponding author Keinan said. “It is tempting to suggest that some of the features that make us human are the result of this evolution ‘fast track’ option,” said co-corresponding author Levanon.

The study was funded by the European Research Council, the I-CORE Program of the Planning and Budgeting Committee in Israel, and the US National Institutes of Health.

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