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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photo: model by Tyler Keillor; photo by Beth Rooney

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Investigations ::


Bird-brain brilliance
Testing the claim that some grammar is unique to humans, researchers at Chicago and the University of California, San Diego, trained European starlings—virtuoso songbirds and expert mimics—to distinguish between a normal bird “sentence” and one inflected with extra syntactical elements. Nine of 11 starlings learned to differentiate the patterns, to recognize nonsense syntax, and to extrapolate grammatical rules to grasp other, longer sound patterns. Coauthored by Chicago psychologist Howard Nusbaum and biologist Daniel Margoliash, the study appeared in the April 27 Nature.

Lonely heart builds pressure
Loneliness is hard on the heart, and it’s no easier on the rest of the cardiovascular system. A study in the March Psychology and Aging showed that lonely people posted blood-pressure readings that outpaced those of the nonlonely by as much as 30 points—enough to nudge normal blood pressure into stage-one hypertension. Chicago psychologists John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley surveyed 229 whites, African Americans, and Latinos aged 50 to 68, adjusting for other risk factors like weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, medications, and demographics. Without social connections, the researchers said, lonely people find stress more threatening and cope with it less effectively. Finding friends might have “clinical benefits comparable to lifestyle modifications.”

photo:  citations
Tiktaalik roseae, the “missing link” between sea and land.

Darwin has legs
Straddling the line between fish and four-legged landlubbers, a 375-million-year-old fossil discovered on Canada’s Ellesmere Island may close the evolutionary gap from swimming to walking. Stretching four to nine feet long, the newly unearthed species, Tiktaalik roseae, possessed fins, scales, and a primitive jaw, but also a skull, neck, and ribs. Embedded in its fins were bones resembling land-animal shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Co-led by Chicago paleontologist Neil Shubin, the research team reported its findings in the April 6 Nature.

Cave man no more
After scanning the human genome for variations, population geneticist Jonathan Pritchard has offered the clearest evidence yet for humans’ ongoing evolution. In a paper published in the March 7 Public Library of Science-Biology, Pritchard and fellow researchers detected 700 genomic regions where genes appear to have been affected by natural selection within the past 10,000 years. Among them are genes involved in taste and smell, metabolism, bone structure, skin color, hair formation, and brain function. The scientists analyzed data from 209 unrelated East Asians, Europeans, and Nigerian Yorubans, and their results belie assumptions that human brains ceased evolving in the pre-agricultural past.

Iraq war calculations redux
One day after U.S. bombers filled the skies over Baghdad in March 2003, Chicago economists Steven J. Davis, Kevin M. Murphy, PhD’86, and Robert H. Topel released a prediction for the war’s expense (see “Fig. 1,” June/03). Although the conflict would cost $125 billion, they calculated, the price of peacefully containing Saddam Hussein would edge closer to $630 billion. Three years later, Davis, Murphy, and Topel have revised their economic forecasts. In a March 2006 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, they put the cost of war at $410 billion to $630 billion (in 2003 dollars). Containment, they estimated, would have required $350 billion to $700 billion.