Daily briefing: Your brain could be controlling how sick you get
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Scientists are starting to decipher how the brain controls the body’s immune responses. Plus, Europe’s first humans hunted with bows and arrows and how the global scientific community can support Ukraine.
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Surprise appearance of arrows in Europe
The first Homo sapiens to arrive in Europe might have hunted with bows and arrows, around 10,000 years earlier than was thought. In a 54,000-year-old-cave in southern France, alongside a H. sapiens tooth and tools, researchers found hundreds of stone points resembling arrowheads — the smallest of which were so tiny that they would have had enough force to kill an animal only if they were shot with a bow. The technology could have been unique to humans: Neanderthals might have inhabited the area at the same time, but there is no evidence that they also took up archery.
Reference: Science Advances paper
New evidence that Neruda was poisoned
Influential Chilean poet Pablo Neruda might have had the deadly toxin-forming bacterium Clostridium botulinum in his system when he died, according to a court-ordered investigation. The Nobel-prizewinning writer, senator and diplomat has long been suspected of having been murdered by the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, soon after the general overthrew the socialist government that Neruda supported in 1973. Remnants of lethal bacterial DNA inside Neruda’s teeth showed similar degradation patterns to Neruda’s DNA, suggesting their presence at the time of his death. But the evidence doesn’t prove that Neruda was poisoned, says molecular geneticist Hendrik Poinar, who helped with the investigation. It’s neither a “closed door” nor a “smoking gun”, he says.
Big step for Google’s quantum computer
Researchers have demonstrated for the first time that they can reduce calculation error rates by using more qubits (the quantum counterparts to the classical bit). Usually, the more qubits there are, the more likely it becomes that they are affected by two errors at the same time. The error-correction procedure using 49 qubits was able to recover from 2 simultaneous errors and with slightly better performance than a 17-qubit version. It’s the second of Google’s six milestones on the road to commercial quantum computers, after performing a calculation that would have taken thousands of years on an ordinary computer.
Russian invasion of Ukraine: one year on
Science is bleeding in Ukraine
“I make a major effort to continue doing science. It’s difficult not only physically but also because of this psychological pressure. To do something creative you need a peaceful time,” says chemist Igor Komarov. He’s one of the around 90% of researchers who have remained in Ukraine, determined to keep the country’s science alive — despite blackouts, lost funds and the constant threat of bombings that have already damaged or destroyed more than one-quarter of the country’s institutes. Many scientists fill any free time with more work, or volunteer for their local communities. “The best idea for living is to have no free time,” says physicist Kseniia Minakova.
Ukrainian science needs the world
When Russia installed a puppet government in the Donbas in the east of Ukraine, geneticist Svitlana Arbuzova and her colleagues moved their state-of-the-art facility, the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Medical Genetics and Prenatal Diagnosis, to Mariupol. In March 2022, soon after the full Russian invasion, the institute’s new home — and the staff’s own apartments — were destroyed. “The courage that Ukrainian people are demonstrating is beyond words, and not only those on the battlefields,” writes Arbuzova. “The first priority should be a full assessment of the state of educational and scientific infrastructure, and collaboration with international partners to restore what has been destroyed.”
Features & opinion
The world must ban AI weapons now
Robots that kill without human supervision aren’t science fiction any more, writes computer scientist Stuart Russell. Russia is already using semi-autonomous cruise missiles against Ukraine. And in 2020, the Libyan interim government used explosive-laden drones to hunt down retreating forces autonomously. Worse might be to come: one person could launch almost unlimited swarms of cheap microdrones — ‘slaughterbots’ — to wipe out political opponents or entire populations. Governments and organizations must put aside flimsy excuses and ban artificial-intelligence weapons now to prevent a “bleak future of robotic threats”, he argues.
How your brain controls how sick you get
Scientists are starting to decipher the biological mechanisms behind a phenomenon that many clinicians are aware of: mental states can have a profound impact on how ill we get — and how well we recover. “Most people probably assume that when you feel sick, it’s because the bacteria or viruses are messing up your body,” says neuroscientist Catherine Dulac. But her team showed that activating a brain structure called the hypothalamus triggered fever and appetite loss, even in the absence of a pathogen. Brain-stimulation treatments for autoimmune diseases and cancer are already nearing clinical trials, although exactly how the brain controls the body’s immune responses is still a mystery.
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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Katrina Krämer, Sarah Skelton and Dyani Lewis
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