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Science Bulletin

Jazz on the Brain

"Jazz is absolutely defined by improvisation," says Charles Limb, who is both a jazz saxophonist and a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. "Once you get past the mechanics of the instrument, you're not as concerned with the execution as the conception." This moment of conception is what Limb and colleague Allen Braun captured in the brain in a recent experiment.
Limb and Braun used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to map the brains of skilled jazz musicians as they improvised a tune. A special keyboard was designed for the experiment with no iron-containing metal parts, which would interfere with the powerful magnets in the fMRI machine. Each musician under study had to lie on his back with his head inside the scanner, playing the keyboard on his lap with one hand.
The study revealed the pattern of brain activity that occurs when composing music spontaneously. Interestingly, it is similar to that which occurs while dreaming. The results offer insight into how the brain enables jazz musicians to enter a sometimes trancelike creative state while performing.

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Science Bulletin

Making Fossils Hear

When did human beings first develop the ability to speak? This remains one of the most exciting and perplexing questions for researchers of human evolution today. Speech, of course, doesn't fossilize, so scientists must hunt for indirect clues that early humans could talk. One route is through DNA. Geneticists can analyze the DNA preserved in early human remains for genes that play a known role in modern speech. Another indirect route is through the fossils themselves. Paleontologists can examine the bones of the vocal tract and compare them to modern humans and chimpanzees. 
The Atapuerca Research Team, an international group of researchers, is approaching the fossil route in a new way. By analyzing fossilized ear bones from skulls found in Sima de los Huesos, a cave in northern Spain, the team is reconstructing the capacity of these 500,000-year-old ancestors to hear sounds. Their work suggests that they could hear much like we do—perhaps to register what others were saying. By studying ear bones of older extinct relatives, the team hopes to clarify how modern hearing ability evolved and the relationship between hearing capacity and the ability to speak.

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Science Bulletin

Mapping Microbes in the Human Body

The Human Microbiome Project, an initiative of the National Institutes of Health, is cataloguing trillions of microbes that live within the human body. Researchers are focusing on numerous body regions—including the skin, hair, mouth, nose, gut and urogenital tract—to identify and study the vast number of microbial species, mostly bacteria, that live there. This project and related research efforts around the world are advancing our understanding of how humans co-evolved with these resident species and how we depend on them to stay healthy. This Human Bulletin presents some fascinating examples of the human microbiome.

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