• scissors
    April 30th, 2014ImogenUncategorized
    Someone please buy me a donkey

    Donkeys have the best ears

    Do your ears ever jump? Occasionally, when I hear a sudden sound I feel something in my ears twinge. This seems to happen more frequently when the sound might be attention-worthy. I’ve asked several people about this and they all think I’m crazy. Surely I can’t be the only one with involuntary ear innervations?

    I have a theory that this is related to ear wiggling. My Grandpa wiggles his ears as a party trick and my mum can be persuaded to as well. Apparerently 15% of the population has the genes necessary for the little ear twitching muscles and these can be inherited.

    The auriculares muscles are leftover from a time when we needed to move our ears to hone in on particular sounds. When alarmed, it makes sense that your ears should prick up to hear better in the same way that your eyes widen so you can see better.

    My only problem is I can’t twitch my ears on demand. What’s the point of useless evolutionary throwbacks if you can’t use them to entertain yourself? I’m going to practice with the ears, and if that doesn’t work then I’m going to eat some grass and train my appendix.

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  • scissors
    November 5th, 2013ImogenUncategorized

    Can you imagine what we would do without proprioception? We would have to carry mirrors everywhere we went so we could eat without sticking food up our noses. I was thinking about this as I was riding the other day and the horse was happily picking her way down a track much narrower than her body. This steed is no sylph and although horses have a much wider field of vision than us she still can’t see all her feet at once. How does she stick to the path?
    Look at this great slow-motion footage captured by Centaur Biomechanics of showjumping horses at last year’s Olympics. The first horse lifts his back feet at the last second to clear the pole. This isn’t a fluke- it’s a well-practiced manoeuvre, but clearing the jump requires them to have a clear perception of how far their feet are from the pole that’s now out of their field of view. This is proprioception. Here are some fun facts on proprioception!

    • The word propriception comes from the Latin word “proprius”, which means “one’s own”

      Liffey on the common

      The best view in the world, brought to you by proprioception!

    • Proprioceptive information is gathered from stretch receptors in the muscles and the joint-supporting ligaments, and also the balance and motion receptors in the inner ear.
    • This sense can be impaired by alcohol, which is why touching your fingertips to your nose is a sobriety test. An error of more than 20mm leads to a failure.
    • You can actually develop better proprioception from things like doing exercises on a wobble board, or juggling, or sport in general. Proprioception pros can do a squat standing on a gym ball (check out a proprioception-honing workout here). A common suggested exercise for teaching young horses better proprioception is to walk or trot them over poles which are raised at one end. Horses don’t like knocking their hooves on the poles so they’ll learn to pick their feet up at the right time.
    • There’s an interesting case where a man forgot how to propriocept (is that a word?) because of a viral infection and he replaced proprioceptive with visual feedback. That means he had to walk around looking at his feet all the time. Very inconvenient!
  • scissors
    January 15th, 2012ImogenUncategorized

    This term I have been enjoying the work for the module “Communication of Scientific Ideas”. One of the pieces of coursework calls for a scientific radio show. I had the pleasure of working with Jennifer Mahoney, Tessa Jones and Amy Yau and we had a great time making it. I think you will agree that Jen has a beautiful radio voice and made an excellent host.

    If you attend carefully you may hear me referred to as ‘Dr’ Imogen House. Alas I have not completed a PhD, I was merely masquerading as a researcher, borrowing the story of Clare Elwell. Clare is a Professor in my home department and I have done another couple of pieces of work based on the interview she gave me a couple of months ago about her fascinating work. Stay tuned for further updates.
    Our show- “The Pink Room” has two fascinating interviews with two up-and-coming lady scientists, and an update on all the latest (a couple of months ago) science news. We hope you enjoy it!

    The Pink Room – episode 1

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  • scissors
    June 24th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    There are those among us who, I know, feel less than fond towards cats (cough, my boyfriend, cough). I am on the opposite camp and am probably in the at-risk group to become a “crazy cat lady” later in life. In evidence of this, last night my cat was sleeping in my bed with me, under the duvet. If this sounds weird to you then all I can say is that you have obviously never been loved by a cat. Anyway, my cat was curled up under the duvet and as I fell asleep I was thinking, how does she not get super hot? Cats do not appear to sweat or pant, so how do they keep cool?

    Marble keepin it real

    As it turns out I am wrong on both counts. Cats do sweat, but only from their paw-pads (not a very large surface area), and they do pant, but only when very very hot. To cope with mild heat they use heat-prevention strategies such as avoiding activity and stretching themselves out on cool surfaces. Even cats know that prevention is more efficient than a cure. That’s because cats are clever. They also wash themselves more. And how does washing cool them down? By evaporation.  And we know how that works.

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  • scissors
    March 13th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    MSG in a bowl, in a packet.

    What does MSG stand for? Makes Stuff Great? Or perhaps, Morbid Sauce Generator. I know which is snappier, but what’s the true story about this food additive? I want to find out how it is supposed to be bad for us and more importantly, whether it actually is.

    I mainly became aware of the controversy over glutamate due to the smug messages of “No MSG” on the front of a growing number of processed foods. I feel I am missing some vital information on why manufacturers think that people don’t want to be eating extra glutamate. Glutamate is a naturally occurring version of the synthesised MSG, which is glutamate stabilised by the addition of salt.

    Some of the various alleged side effects of consumption of MSG are numbness, tingling, headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and for asthmatics, difficulty breathing. This website written by an American takes the form of a chain email, sent out to “inform” friends and encourage them to “blow the whistle on MSG”. The main point against seems to be that scientists inject infant rats with MSG to cause them to become obese so they can be used in studies on diabetes et cetera. However, the author of this article has not mentioned the relative levels found in food and that which the rats are given.

    After checking the cupboards of my student kitchen I was surprised by the lack of monosodium glutamate on ingredient lists. In fact the only place it was freely stated was as the second greatest component of Bouillon Stock Powder. This surprised me, since the product is organic and boasts “all-natural ingredients”. However, like most awkward topics, many other names for glutamate are now in use. These include hydrolysed vegetable protein (in pringles) glutamate (a natural result of the formation of soy sauce and cheese) and main constituent of marmite, yeast extract. Lots of lists also included the cover-all terms of “spices” or “natural flavourings”. Even the soy sauce boasted “no added MSG”, which is a bit misleading since glutamate develops naturally during the fermentation of the soy beans. If you are on a serious MSG-hunting mission then check out this page.

    So basically, MSG is in a lot of things we eat but we might not realise it. This means that if it is actually bad for us then this could be worrying. I contemplated catching some rats from Euston underground and conducting my own experiment by feeding them up with all the stock cubes they could eat. However, my student bedroom is cramped enough already and I signed something for the landlord saying I wouldn’t keep any pets, so I decided it was best to leave it to the professionals. So I looked through some studies to find out whether scientists have found any concrete proof that MSG is harmful.

    The first one I came across is titled “Monosodium Glutamate: Lack of Effects on Brain and Reproductive Function in Rats”. The title betrays the non-result. The abstract tells us that they injected infant rats with monosodium glutamate and then basically  tested whether it had an effect when they had grown into adults. In their words: “treated animals showed no adverse monosodium glutamate effects on the reproductive system and neural morphology”, that is, the cells of their brain and nervous system didn’t seem worse off for the dose of glutamate when they were young.

    Another article seems to think it has found a correlation between MSG and the release of growth hormone in rats. However, the injection of MSG these rats were given happened a few weeks after birth and was dosed at 4mg/g bodyweight. This might not sound like much, but for a 60kg human this is the equivalent to 240g of MSG. That’s like if I ate 20kg of parmesan in one sitting. Disregarding whether that is actually humanly possible, anyone would tell you that eating so much of anything is not going to be a good idea. Which is why although the consequences for the rats in this study were not good, I am dubious of whether this is relevant to our everyday eating habits. For example, you can die from drinking too much water but “normal” volumes of it are essential to our bodily functions.

    As they have been saying for centuries; “everything in moderation”. This also applies to glutamate. So basically, don’t eat more than a significant fraction of your bodyweight in marmite at once and you should be fine. I’m off to enhance my food.

    For more info check out this great article at the Guardian by Alex Renton, entitled If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?”

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  • scissors
    February 12th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    This Study of Arms by Leonardo da Vinci shows the muscles in wonderful detail. You can see how far up the arm the tendons for the fingers go.

    I recently had the pleasure of going with my Dad to see Richard Thompson and band performing at the Royal Festival Hall. The concert was amazing, and from our meticulously booked seats I had a great view of RT’s playing. I was fascinated by the muscles apparent in his right forearm as he plucked and strummed. My dad tells me that Mr Thompson practices for two hours a day (even on tour!) and although his arms are not “hench” (as some of my friends back home may say) and hugely bulky, the muscles for his fingers are certainly well-honed.   As you can see in Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch, there are very few muscles actually in the hand. Fingers are controlled by muscles in the arm and the two are connected by tendons.

    Muscles make us move, but like everything else in the body they can go wrong. What I would like to know today is: what are muscle knots? After looking into the answer I find that it is actually relatively simple, they are parts of a muscle that have contracted, but not relaxed along with the rest of the muscle. Muscles can only pull (never push) so a muscle is either contracted or relaxed. A muscle fibre is made up of lots of filaments that slide over each other to create a pulling force. As the filaments overlap more the muscle becomes shorter and more compact. You can see this in action by looking at your inner forearm as you make a fist. Place another hand on your forearm as you do so and you will feel the active muscle changing shape as it contracts. When I do it my hand is also involuntarily lifted up slightly as the muscle shortens.

    So apparently, these knots are actually known as myofascial trigger points. The most common way to remove them is with massage or using hot or cold packs which will encourage the muscle to relax. You can also use electrostimulation or pulsed ultrasound (woo ultrasound!). I actually had electrostimulation while I was seeing a physiotherapist to correct my spinal scoliosis. I can inform you that it is very relaxing and feels like pins and needles.

    I can’t find much information on why these “trigger points” are painful but I make the educated guess that the pain is due to lactic acid build up as the muscle respires faster than the blood can deliver oxygen to it. This is the same source of pain as when you work a muscle very hard, for instance, when running up stairs. From my own experience, massaging a muscle knot is painful too. Does anyone know why this is?


    If you’d like to know more about how a muscle contractions then here is a great animation I heard about from my physiology course. Even if you’re not interested in all the fancy names (let’s face it, you’re not going to want to learn them all if you don’t have an exam on it) you might find it interesting to see how the components move past each other.

    Happy muscling!

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