We’ve got it in the bag!

Hello faithful readers,

Be sure to check out the full issue or pick one up this September!

Until then, here’s some highlights:

Irish Novelist Paul Murray talks literary homicide and hacking 300 pages off his novel Skippy Dies right here!

Colleges and UTSU need to learn how to play nice and work together

Look Down. Now Up. We’ve got a cool breakdown of the shoe for you

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto-oh wait, you’re not a mr.

Should TORONTO get an NFL Team?

Well that’s it for now folks. Enjoy the rest of your summer, we’ll see you soon!

alt text

New sports complex to be built at Varsity Stadium

U of T is set to gain a valuable athletic and student asset in the form of the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, announced last month with work scheduled to begin in the spring of 2012. The Goldring Centre will be located alongside Varsity Stadium at Bloor and Devonshire.

The $58 million Centre will be funded in part by a $22.5 million investment by the Ontario Government, alongside private donations including the $11 million donated by the Goldring family.

The centre will “open up additional sports science research space for graduate students and undergraduates in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health,” according to Anita Comella, Assistant Dean, Co-Curricular Physical Activity and Sport. Comella notes that “kinesiology and health education students will benefit from the opportunity to conduct research in labs [that the new Centre will contain].”

alt text

Facilities will “not [be] allocated only to high performance athletes,” explains Comella, and the “only space that University of Toronto students will not be able to access will be the research labs, unless they are conducting research in them.”

Any benefits of increased research will not be restricted to high performance athletes alone. Comella explains that there will be a high degree of “knowledge translation across a wide spectrum of programs, impacting varsity athletes, whether Varsity Blues or our Olympic athletes, [as well as] coaches and students.”

alt text

A theoretical example of such knowledge translation cited by Comella would be the application of “hydration research to the way we run Camp UofT,” suggesting that the products of theoretical work will extend beyond athletic competitors to general health and fitness.

The Pan-Am Games Athletics Centre currently being built on the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus will include the Canadian Sports Institute Ontario (CSIO) Project, which will serve as a national high performance centre after the Games are completed. However, Comella says there will be “no duplication,” despite the similarities between the two projects coming up on the two University of Toronto campuses.

According to Comella, moving to UTSC will “provide CSIO with an institute space.” She further explains the Faculty of Physical Education and Health is “in partnership with CSIO,” and that this is likely to lead to a “regional centre at the Goldring Centre” to complement the central administrative and institutional space being built at UTSC.

Apart from the research facilities, the Goldring Centre will feature a strength and conditioning centre and spaces for a number of sporting and health activities.

Other facilities at the Goldring Centre will include a 2,000-seat field house that can be used for basketball and volleyball. The field house will be an additional venue alongside the basketball courts at the existing University of Toronto Athletics Centre.

The Goldring Centre is also expected to accommodate expanded facilities for sports medicine. Andrea Prieur, Head Therapist at the David L. Macintosh Sports Medicine Clinic at the University of Toronto, notes however that space allotments for the design for the Centre haven’t yet been completely confirmed. According to Prieur, the sports medicine facilities at the Goldring Centre will be “brand new, [with] nothing to compare it to for what we have at the moment.”

Current construction forecasts set the completion date for the Goldring Centre sometime during the summer of 2014.

What if: the NFL in Toronto?

Toronto may finally score its own team in the National Football League, if the longstanding rumours of the NFL’s plans for Canadian expansion are to be believed.

“[Players] will always aspire to play in the NFL, because that’s the top league, the best of the best, where everyone wants to make a name for themselves,” says Varsity Blues men’s football head coach Greg Gary. Gary’s no stranger to pro football: he’s played in both the NFL, with the Los Angeles Rams, and the CFL, with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Gary believes that a NFL team in the city would create opportunities for student athletes both on and off the field. “Maybe they’d be able to get a job as a ball boy or something similar on their way to the pros, if that’s a path they choose to take.”

As far as on-field opportunities go, “there is a huge difference between the people who are physically capable of playing in the two leagues. While I think there are always going to be guys who can make the transition from college ball here in Canada to the pros, the CFL and NFL are just different when it comes to style of play,” said Gary.

Hugo Lopez is a prime example to of the idea that the playing opportunities for student athletes would not necessarily change with an NFL team in the city. Lopez played for the Varsity Blues, and yet while the Argos showed interest in him at the combine hosted at Varsity Stadium, he went to the Edmonton Eskimos. There is no guarantee that U of T student athletes would get to play for their hometown team, or even play at all, in the NFL.

“[There is a difference] in preparation at the college level or even before that,” says Gary. “The guys in the NFL are trained to go after one position specifically, and do it well; here in the CFL, guys have to be capable of playing different spots.”

For example, “a linesman here in the CFL wouldn’t be able to play linesman exclusively in the NFL, he’d have to play outside linebacker or defensive end, thanks to the size and weight of the guys over in the States.”

U of T’s football program plays football CFL style: three downs, larger fields, larger footballs and unlimited motion before the snap. However, it is unlikely that the presence of an NFL team in the city would change the way football operates at the university. The Varsity Blues are a part of the OUA , and if they were to change the way they played football, they would likely be declared ineligible to play competitively against other universities in Ontario.

As a city with avid fans of nearly every sport, Toronto simply makes sense as a home for an NFL team. Would it draw fans from, say, the Toronto Argonauts? “There are always fans of both leagues, of course,” says Gary. “At the same time, you’re still going to have people who watch just the CFL and people who watch just the NFL. Even if an NFL team came to Toronto, Argos fans are still going to be Argos fans; Ti-Cats fans are still going to be Ti-Cats fans.”

As for commercial operations and reputation, Toronto’s existing professional major league teams are an indicator of the potential in the city. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, are an Original Six team, and the Toronto Raptors have one of the largest fanbases in all of North America. Even the Blue Jays — Toronto’s rep in the MLB — are fairly well known, having won the World Series twice in the early 1990s.

“An NFL franchise is a huge deal,” says Gary, “and it brings with it a lot of new jobs especially for people working in the stadium itself.”

There are roadblocks to a possible Toronto team, of course. For all the revenue they generate, NFL franchises are valued at almost $1 billion each. The culture of American football isn’t nearly as established up in Canada as it is in the United States. Another major problem is that Buffalo — just 45 minutes away from Toronto — already has a football team, the Buffalo Bills. “The Bills are pretty well entrenched in Toronto,” Gary noted, “Yes, they’re not very good right now, but that is [Buffalo’s] team, you know.”

Perhaps acknowledging this fanbase, the late Ted Rogers, founder of media giant Rogers Inc., had already arranged for the Bills to play the Miami Dolphins in Toronto this December. The possible success of Rogers’ push for a team could be gauged by the number of tickets sold for the upcoming Redskins–Bills game.

There is also no shortage of people in high places who would like to see an NFL team in the city. Councillor Doug Ford, brother of mayor Rob Ford, recently told thescore.com, “[The NFL] have to take care of the problem in Los Angeles first. Two teams are kind of in play here: Jacksonville’s number one; New Orleans is the other. So there’s two teams. Once they take care of Los Angeles, we’re going to fly over to New York, set up a meeting with [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell and give him our pitch.” Ford also noted, “they can’t keep ignoring a market this size.”

While the NFL is popular in Canada, the CFL has a core audience of fans. The two leagues already have broadcasting schedules worked out, with CFL games being aired on Thursdays, Fridays and occasionally Saturdays, and the NFL airing on Sundays and Monday nights.

“Even in America, where I’m from,” Gary says, “the CFL now has one game a week broadcast to the general public. They’re two different games, of course, but people in the States are getting a better view of what we do up here north of the border.”

With files from theScore.com

Science in Brief

A new study composed of three experiments by the University of Toronto and Tufts University shows that male sexual orientation can be accurately identified by heterosexual women close to the peak of ovulation. Results from the first experiment showed that women closer to the peak of ovulation were more accurate in judging male sexual orientation based on grey-scale photos of gay and straight men. In the second experiment, the women tended to identify photo targets of straight and lesbian women mostly as straight, suggesting that fertility during ovulation is only useful when determining male sexual orientation. The photos used in these two experiments were controlled for emotional expression and attractiveness. The third experiment went further by manipulating the reproductive relevance of the male subjects. Women induced to have romantic or mating-related thoughts were drastically more precise in judging male sexual orientation than women who were not.

Source: Science Daily

So… where’s this event taking me?

Recalling an event can transport you into the past, bringing to mind the context of former similar events. For example, it’s easier to remember Jim’s great party this year if you can remember the horrible nosedive it took last year. Evidence of a neural basis for episodic memory — memory for the recall of events like Jim’s party — was found in a recent study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University. During the recall of retrieval cues, they found a neural signature (a pattern of brain electrical signals) of the temporal context in which the cues were encoded. In other words, when the brain formed a memory for an item, it did so by encoding it within a time interval that is later reinstated during recollection — thereby allowing for “mental time-travel.”

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study recruited epilepsy patients who were part of a separate study so that researchers could use their already implanted electrodes to directly monitor brain activity.

Components of neural activity shown to play a role in memory creation and retrieval were measured. While brain activity was recorded, the participants took part in a free recall memory experiment. They first studied a list of common nouns, completed a brief distraction task, and were then asked to recall the words in no particular order. Upon recall, researchers found brain activity showed higher neural similarity in words that were positioned closer together in the studied list (hence, “temporal” context reinstatement). In recalling words, participants were also recalling the “contextual state” associated with the word. The authors of the study suggest that, “by showing that a component of the neural activity retrieved during memory search shows graded similarity to the brain states observed during the study of neighboring stimuli, we provide neural evidence for temporal context reinstatement in humans.”

alt text

This experiment provides the first neurobiological evidence of a phenomenon described by the temporal context model of episodic memory. The model, developed by Marc W. Howard and Michael J. Kahana in 2002, posits that when people recall an event, they also recall the context in which the event took place. This allows a memory to become episodic: linked to the time at which it occurred. The theory also suggests that recollection of the temporal context triggers recall of subsequent events — explaining why participants in the study tended to recall list items in succession.

Consequently, when we try to retrieve information about something that happened in the past we end up retrieving unrequested details about the experience as well. When Jim recalls his recent party, he may not only remember the sword swallowers but also that he was highly intoxicated. The authors believe this notion is in line with Tulving’s claim that episodic memory retrieval is like mental time travel. Kahana, a researcher in the study, describes temporal context reinstatement more intuitively: “When I remember my grandmother, for example, I pull back all sorts of associations of a different time and place in my life; I’m also remembering living in Detroit and her Hungarian cooking. It’s like mental time travel. I jump back in time to the past, but I’m still grounded in the present.”

Although this memory study doesn’t provide a complete description of how episodic memory works, it does mark an important step in understanding what happens in the brain during event recollection. More research has yet to be done; the authors suggest an important future goal would be to pinpoint the areas of the brain involved in the process of context reinstatement. In the meantime, others will discuss how these exciting new findings sprout changes in the study of episodic memory.

The nightmare of RBD

Catching a good night’s sleep can make you feel like a million bucks. But for some of us, the quality of sleep we manage to get is always compromised by a sleep disorder. A recent study by U of T researchers has discovered a link between human REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Those who suffer from RBD experience a loss of muscle powerlessness, and inevitably begin to act out their dreams.

In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. John Peever, lead author of the study, explained how dream enactment caused by RBD can be dangerous for both the dreamer and their bed partner. “In the middle of the night, the person will throw themselves through their closet door or break their wife’s neck. It often results in the wife tying her husband to their bed in order to protect herself,” Peever explains.

alt text

The cause of RBD is unknown; evidence shows the disorder may be due to reduced brain inhibition of particular neurotransmitters. The main goal of the current study was to see whether mice with deficient glycine and GABA transmissions exhibited REM motor behaviours. Glycine and GABA transmissions act as inhibitory neurotransmitters during REM sleep, helping to keep muscle atonia, which is the loss of muscle strength.

When asked about brain inhibition works in mice, Peever replied that “we know symptoms, we know what happens, but we don’t know what part of the brain has gone wrong. We need to look to see if the inhibitor part of the brain is degenerating.”

In order to study brain inhibition in mice, the mice were genetically altered so that they exhibited 70 per cent glycine reduction and 91 per cent reduction in GABA receptor inhibition. This combination mirrors the mutation common to human receptors in RBD patients. The mice were also given melatonin and clonazepam, drugs commonly used to treat human RBD.

When the mice consumed the drugs, researchers found that brain inhibition was strengthened for the duration of the drug intake. However, once treatment was terminated, RBD symptoms came back. Peever explains that “it’s like when you’re on Advil for a headache. The Advil helps relieve the pain but has not helped to cure it. The symptoms can keep coming back.”

These findings leave the door open to finding a cure for RBD and making advancements in drug treatments. Advancement in RBD treatment is an important goal because, as revealed by the study, 60 to 80 per cent of RBD patients also suffer from Parkinson’s disease. When asked about the significance of RBD treatments, Peever replied, “If we treat RBD we could have direct implications for the discovery of the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.”

Finding underlying triggers for RBD could help save lives and prevent further advancement of diseases. Although Parkinson’s is just one disorder linked to RBD, the sleep disorder is associated with stroke and brain lesions. The current study provides evidence that impaired inhibitory transmission triggers are a potential mechanism for RBD. Peever noted that “there could be many causes and triggers for RBD. …[I]t is important to understand that RBD may not cause Parkinson’s, but provides us with a link. Both disorders could be caused by the same thing which is why they are associated together.

“The bottom line is we need to develop a drug that will cure these diseases instead of just helping the symptoms. If we can discover more links then we will begin to understand more about both disorders,” says Peever.

Lab grown meat: Fact or fiction?

Suppose eating meat didn’t have to involve livestock. Some folks would be concerned, while others may dwell on its possible taste and texture. As it so happens, since the early 1950’s, scientists have been trying to figure out how to grow animal muscle tissue in vitro. The idea is to produce cultured meat that offers the same, if not better, benefits of conventionally produced meat.

Why would anyone want to eat muscle tissue grown in a petri dish rather than on good old animal bone? Isn’t this unnatural? Although cultured meat may not invoke the same primal pleasure as its animal-derived counterpart, it is nevertheless an important component of environmental sustainability. A report by Hanna Tuomisto and Joost Teixeira de Mattos that appeared in this past June issue of Environmental Science & Technology concluded that cultured meat has a substantially lower environmental impact than conventionally produced meat. Their report compared the two kinds of meat based on the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water, and land used for the production of 1000 kg of meat. Producing cultured meat required less energy than producing beef, sheep, salmon, and pork — but not poultry. Cultured meat emitted the lowest greenhouses gas and used both less water and land per kg compared to production of natural meats. Overall, the differences weren’t small: in most cases over 90% less energy was used in the production of cultured meat.

In addition to these environmental benefits, there are also health issues to consider. Proponents of cultured meat claim that fat content would be more controllable and thus would enable healthier meat-eating. The dissociation between meat and animal would also mean fewer opportunities for the bacterial contamination of meat, thus reducing the spread of food-borne illnesses.

Humans are not the only animals that stand to benefit from large-scale production of cultured meat. Large feedlots are notorious for their mistreatment of animals and have prompted a small yet influential proportion of the population to shun meat-eating altogether. Availability of cultured meat may alleviate the ethical dilemmas associated with the treatment of animals in such places — treatment commonly referred to as animal cruelty.

Perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of large-scale cultured meat production would be its public acceptance. It seems clear that many people would feel uncomfortable eating something “unnatural.” Scientists are busy tweaking meat culture methods to improve taste and texture, but some consumers may still be unable to cope. Alternatively, it is possible that a large number of people may not even notice the difference. It seems unlikely that the people constituting one of the largest market for meat — the fast food industry — investigate the origins of their food. But if it is easy to turn a blind eye to the meat industry in an attempt to avoid an ethical dilemma, perhaps with time the birthplace of a juicy cultured burger will also be overlooked.

Yet, despite obvious environmental benefits, cultured meat will not be on the menu anytime soon. Methods of production are still being worked out for processed meats like ground beef and sausage, and more difficult on-bone meats are even further away. For now, proud carnivores can rest assured their steak comes straight from the cow.

I Robot, you scared

A celebrity staring at you with a frozen expression can be somewhat titillating — until you realize she is actually just a wax model. While her physical resemblance to a living human is an impressive work of art, it may be slightly creepy to some.

This uncomfortable perception of ‘creepiness’ is marked by a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley” effect. The term stems from the idea that an agent’s likeability increases with the prominence of humanoid characteristics, but suddenly drops when the similarity becomes too extreme and disconcerting. It’s not that the concept of a mechanical agent must inherently irk us or that every agent with an artificial smile is guaranteed to induce chills. Rather, it’s simply that the agent appears human without actually being human. The “uncanny valley” effect may be symptomatic of the brain generating a prediction error as it tries to match incoming humanoid features against a database of unique human characteristics.

alt text

The effect, originally based on anecdotal evidence and then later investigated in the fields of robotics and computer graphics, is an increasingly important topic in neuroscientific research. Findings from a study published in this past April issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggest the discomfort is due to an intuitive disconnect between the perceived agent’s physical appearance and bodily motion. The group of researchers conducted a functional MRI study on participants’ neural responses to video clips of agents performing common actions like waving, nodding, and picking up a piece of paper off a tabletop. The agents were divided into three conditions: android, human, and robot. The android, named Repliee Q2, was modeled after the actual human featured in the human video clip. As for the robot, its features were highlighted by stripping it down to its metal innards, such that it looked unmistakably inanimate.

Upon viewing the video clips, participants were immediately told which videos featured either a robot or human and were then put through the fMRI scanner. Once inside the scanner, participants were shown dozens of two-second videos of the agents spread 500ms apart.

The most significant change in brain response occurred when subjects were shown the android, specifically in the regions of the parietal and frontal cortex. Repetition suppression was strongest in these regions under the android condition because the processing of the android stimulus caused neural conflicts as the brain tried to match android features with human ones. In other words, the brain tended to freak out when it saw the android because it was trying to figure out what it meant.

In contrast, fMRI results showed that participants had no trouble processing the correspondence between human appearance and human movement or robotic appearance and robotic movement. Ayse Pinar Saygin, the corresponding author of the study, explains this smooth association as the brain “… looking for its expectations to be met — for appearance and motion to be congruent.”

This need for congruency, exhibited by the “uncanny valley” effect, extends to the likeability of anthropomorphic robots, as well as characters in video games and animated movies. Characters that share low to moderate human characteristics like dolls, cartoon animals, and R2D2 often elicit more positive responses compared to the animated characters in the film The Polar Express or more modern androids like Repliee Q2.

Perhaps one day we will become more accustomed to humanoid agents as they increase in ubiquity. Do the robot.