Jack Steinberger (1921–2020)

Particle physicist who shared Nobel for discovering muon neutrinos.

By Christine Sutton

When particle physicist Jack Steinberger began his career in 1945, scientists knew about only a handful of subatomic particles. Today, dozens are evident, and their basic building blocks are codified in the standard model of particle physics. Steinberger, who has died aged 99, contributed throughout — from discovering particles to grouping them. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988 (with Melvin Schwartz and Leon Lederman) for a 1962 experiment that revealed the existence of two distinct types of an enigmatic particle: the neutrino.

Neutrinos barely interact — they can pass right through Earth. They have no electric charge and respond to the ‘weak’ nuclear force, which acts within atomic nuclei and governs radioactivity. They were predicted in the 1930s, to account for the unexplained energy released alongside electrons in radioactive decay. Steinberger and his colleagues showed that there was more than one type of neutrino. They found a second, associated with the muon — a particle similar to the stable electron but 200 times heavier and with a shorter lifetime. Steinberger also helped to pin down the properties of quarks, the ultimate constituents of protons and neutrons.

Born into a Jewish family in Germany, Steinberger was evacuated soon after the Nazis came to power, arriving in the United States in 1934. His foster parents in Chicago, Illinois, ensured that he received a high-school education and reunited his family there in 1938. Steinberger first studied chemistry at the University of Chicago. He joined the US Army on his graduation in 1942, less than a year after the United States entered the Second World War. He worked with physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on the use of radar to improve the accuracy of aircraft bombing.

After the war, Steinberger returned to the University of Chicago to pursue physics research. He was supervised by Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, who had demonstrated the first nuclear chain reaction. Fermi, who had also worked on the theory of the neutrino and coined its name, pointed him to a puzzle concerning the decay of the muon, which had been found in cosmic rays in 1936. The particle broke down into an electron and missing energy. Steinberger attributed the energy to not one but two neutrinos, a hypothesis he confirmed experimentally in 1948.

The desire to exploit new facilities and techniques was a hallmark of Steinberger’s research. In 1949, he joined the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, where he used an innovative accelerator to study another cosmic-ray particle, the pion. He showed the existence of the short-lived electrically neutral pion, the lifetime of which he had earlier calculated theoretically. But he left for Columbia University in New York City in 1950, owing in part to his refusal to sign an anti-communist oath. There, he exploited the newly invented bubble chamber — which reveals trails of fast-moving particles in liquid propane or hydrogen — to make discoveries about the plethora of new particles that were being unearthed. These included ‘strange’ particles, so called because they decay more slowly than expected.

It was at Columbia that Steinberger and his colleagues conducted their Nobel-prize-winning experiment. Steinberger’s former student Schwartz worked out how to make a beam of high-energy neutrinos. The team harnessed a new accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York, and built a fast-acting detector that made particle tracks visible as trails of sparks. It was on a massive scale. A 13.5-metre-thick steel shield, made from armour plates from scrapped warships, was used to block all particles except neutrinos, and a 10-tonne spark chamber was constructed to spot the ones produced.

Steinberger moved to Europe in 1968 to CERN, the particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. The multiwire chamber, which had just been invented there, was able to collect data thousands of times faster than a bubble chamber could. Steinberger used it to extend his studies of strange particles. In 1983, he led the design and construction of a large experiment called ALEPH to exploit CERN’s Large Electron–Positron collider. In 1989, ALEPH helped to demonstrate that there can be no more than three types of neutrino — the electron and the muon neutrinos, and a third associated with the tau particle, another ‘heavy electron’ discovered in 1975. This neatly completed the story that Steinberger had begun with his PhD thesis.

Steinberger retired from CERN in 1986, but continued to work with ALEPH researchers until the mid-1990s. He extended his interests to astrophysics and climate change, and in 2015 joined other Nobel prizewinners in signing the Mainau Declaration, urging governments to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Jack Steinberger was admired for his instinct and prowess as an experimental physicist, his intellect as a teacher and supervisor, and for being a great friend. He was not always right — after losing one bet with theorist friends about an aspect of physics, he paid up with good wine. He had a deep interest in how nature works, and enjoyed mountaineering and sailing.

Uninterested in prizes, he often reiterated his belief that “the pretension that some of us are better than others [is not] a good thing”. He felt he been dealt lucky cards in his life, and expressed his deep gratitude to the Chicago family who gave him opportunities as a child. In his words: “You have only one life: whatever crops up, crops up.”

Study reveals brain damage of patients with COVID-19

Study uncovers blood vessel damage and inflammation in COVID-19 patients’ brains but no infection.


In a new study, scientists from the National Institutes of Health conducted in-depth brain scans of COVID-19 patients. They spotted hallmarks of damage caused by thinning and leaky brain blood vessels in tissue samples from patients who died shortly after contracting the disease.

The surprising fact was there were no signs of SARS-CoV-2 in the tissue samples. It indicates that the damage was not caused by a direct viral attack on the brain.

The brains of patients who contract the infection from SARS-CoV-2 might be sensitive to microvascular blood vessel harm. The outcomes recommend that this might be caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the virus.

Avindra Nath, M.D., clinical director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the senior author of the study said, “We hope these results will help doctors understand the full spectrum of problems patients may suffer so that we can come up with better treatments.”

COVID-19 is mainly a respiratory disease, but it also affects the brain. Patients often experience neurological problems, including headaches, delirium, cognitive dysfunction, dizziness, fatigue, and loss of the sense of smell. The disease may also cause patients to suffer strokes and other neuropathologies.

Several studies have shown that the disease can cause inflammation and blood vessel damage. In one of these studies, the scientists found evidence of small amounts of SARS-CoV-2 in some patients’ brains. Nevertheless, scientists are still trying to understand how the disease affects the brain.

This new study was conducted on brain tissue samples from 19 patients who had died after experiencing COVID-19 between March and July 2020. Samples from 16 of the patients were provided by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City, while the department of pathology provided the other 3 cases at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City.

The patients died at a wide range of ages, from 5 to 73 years old. They died within a few hours to two months after reporting symptoms. Many patients had one or more risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Eight of the patients were found dead at home or in public settings. Another three patients collapsed and died suddenly.

For the study, a special, high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner was used. The scanner is 4 to 10 times more sensitive than most MRI scanners.

Using the scanner, scientists examined samples of the olfactory bulbs and brainstems from each patient. These regions are thought to be highly susceptible to COVID-19. The scans revealed that both regions had an abundance of bright spots, called hyperintensities, which often indicate inflammation, and dark spots, called hypointensities, represent bleeding.

Scientists then used the scans as a guide to examine the spots more closely under a microscope. They found that the bright spots contained thinner blood vessels than normal and sometimes leaking blood proteins, like fibrinogen, into the brain.

This appeared to trigger an immune reaction. The spots were surrounded by T cells from the blood and the brain’s immune cells called microglia. In contrast, the dark spots contained both clotted and leaky blood vessels but no immune response.

Dr. Nath said“We were completely surprised. Originally, we expected to see the damage that is caused by a lack of oxygen. Instead, we saw multifocal areas of damage that is usually associated with strokes and neuroinflammatory diseases.”

“So far, our results suggest that the damage we saw may not have been not caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus directly infecting the brain. In the future, we plan to study how COVID-19 harms the brain’s blood vessels and whether that produces some of the short- and long-term symptoms we see in patients.”


Journal Reference:
  1. Myoung-Hwa Lee et al., Microvascular Injury in the Brains of Patients with Covid-19, New England Journal of Medicine (2020). DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2033369 

Flat Earthers tried to sail to the edge of the world… and you can totally guess how it went.

A couple of Flat Earthers in Italy violated the current pandemic lockdown in an attempt to sail to the mythical “edge of the world.”

As IFLScience reports, the pair set off from their home to prove that the edge of the world was located south of Sicily (???). Their target was the tiny island of Lampedusa, which rests in the Mediterranean Sea. There’s no clear reason why the couple believed that this island represented the edge of the planet but Flat Earthers, despite all agreeing that the Earth isn’t a sphere, can rarely agree on anything else. This isn’t a surprise.

Anyway, the pair cruised across the sea toward what they believed was their destination. Unfortunately, their navigation skills were roughly as good as their ability to comprehend basic scientific facts, and ended up on the island of Ustica instead. Ustica is actually north of Sicily, while Lamedusa is south of it. The two geniuses managed to end up over 200 miles north of where they were trying to go.

The couple, who sold their car before embarking on the journey, were quickly quarantined by health officials due to the ongoing pandemic crisis. Despite this, they ran away once more, jumping on their boat and sailing for the edge of the world, only to be caught again hours later.


The chair of the Harvard University Department of Astronomy says alien technology visited Earth in 2017

A Harvard professor believes that we were visited by an alien object in 2017.

In his upcoming book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, theoretical physicist Avi Loeb lays out his theory about a peculiar-shaped object that entered our solar system several years ago.

The interstellar object—named “Oumuamua”—was first observed through the Pan-STARRS telescope at Hawaii’s Haleakala Observatory in 2017. Researchers determined that it had passed through the ecliptic plane on Sept. 6 from the direction of Vega, a star in the Lyra constellation that is about 25 light-years away from our planet. Just three days later, Oumuamua—Hawaiian for “scout”—began accelerating toward the sun, before it eventually came closer to Earth on Oct. 7, “moving swiftly toward the constellation Pegasus and the blackness beyond,” according to Loeb.

Some scientists claim Oumuamua, which is believed to be the first interstellar object detected in our solar system, was simply another comet; however Loeb—the chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department—dismisses that assumption, as it relies too much on the “familiar.”

“What would happen if a caveman saw a cellphone?” he wondered while talking to the New York Post. “He’s seen rocks all his life, and he would have thought it was just a shiny rock.”

Loeb says there are two big details that suggest Oumuamua wasn’t just a comet, but rather a piece of alien technology. The first detail is the object’s dimensions, as it was determined to be “five to 10 times longer than it was wide.” Loeb argues the cigar-like shape isn’t typical for a natural space object.

But the theoretical physicist says the biggest detail that supports his theory is Oumuamua’s movement.

“The excess push away from the sun, that was the thing that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Loeb explains that the sun’s gravitational force would cause a natural object to move faster as it approaches, and eventually push the object back, causing it to move slower as it moves away. Loeb points out that this didn’t occur with Oumuamua, which accelerated “slightly, but to a highly statistically significant extent” as it moved further and further away.

“If we are not alone, are we the smartest kids on the block?” Loeb asked. “If there was a species that eliminated itself through war or changing the climate, we can get our act together and behave better. Instead, we are wasting a lot of resources on Earth fighting each other and other negative things that are a big waste.”


Bad news for liars: Scientists discover an ethical and effective lie-detection method

Most people lie occasionally. The lies are often trivial and essentially inconsequential – such as pretending to like a tasteless gift. But in other contexts, deception is more serious and can have harmful effects on criminal justice. From a societal perspective, such lying is better detected than ignored and tolerated.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect lies accurately. Lie detectors, such as polygraphs, which work by measuring the level of anxiety in a subject while they answer questions, are considered “theoretically weak” and of dubious reliability. This is because, as any traveler who has been questioned by customs officials knows, it’s possible to be anxious without being guilty.

We have developed a new approach to spot liars based on interviewing technique and psychological manipulation, with results just published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Our technique is part of a new generation of cognitive-based lie-detection methods that are being increasingly researched and developed. These approaches postulate that the mental and strategic processes adopted by truth-tellers during interviews differ significantly from those of liars. By using specific techniques, these differences can be amplified and detected.

One such approach is the Asymmetric Information Management (AIM) technique. At its core, it is designed to provide suspects with a clear means to demonstrate their innocence or guilt to investigators by providing detailed information. Small details are the lifeblood of forensic investigations and can provide investigators with facts to check and witnesses to question. Importantly, longer, more detailed statements typically contain more clues to a deception than short statements.

Essentially, the AIM method involves informing suspects of these facts. Specifically, interviewers make it clear to interviewees that if they provide longer, more detailed statements about the event of interest, then the investigator will be better able to detect if they are telling the truth or lying. For truth-tellers, this is good news. For liars, this is less good news.

Indeed, research shows that when suspects are provided with these instructions, they behave differently depending on whether they are telling the truth or not. Truth-tellers typically seek to demonstrate their innocence and commonly provide more detailed information in response to such instructions.

In contrast, liars wish to conceal their guilt. This means they are more likely to strategically withhold information in response to the AIM instructions. Their (totally correct) assumption here is that providing more information will make it easier for the investigator to detect their lie, so instead, they provide less information.

This asymmetry in responses from liars and truth-tellers – from which the AIM technique derives its name – suggests two conclusions. When using the AIM instructions, if the investigator is presented with a potential suspect who is providing lots of detailed information, they are likely to be telling the truth. In contrast, if the potential suspect is lying then the investigator would typically be presented with shorter statements.

The experiment

But how effective is this approach? Preliminary research on the AIM technique has been promising. For our study, we recruited 104 people who were sent on one of two covert missions to different locations in a university to retrieve and/or deposit intelligence material.

All interviewees were then told there had been a data breach in their absence. They were, therefore, a suspect and faced an interview with an independent analyst. Half were told to tell the truth about their mission to convince the interviewer of their innocence. The other half were told that they could not disclose any information about their mission, and that they should come up with a cover story about where they had been at the time and place of the breach to convince the analyst of their innocence.

They were then interviewed, and the AIM technique was used in half of the cases. We found that when the AIM technique was used, it was easier for the interviewer to spot liars. In fact, lie-detection accuracy rates increased from 48% (no AIM) to 81% – with truth-tellers providing more information.

Research is also exploring methods for enhancing the AIM technique using cues which may support truth-tellers to provide even more information. Recalling information can be difficult, and truth-tellers often struggle with their recall.

Memory tools known as “mnemonics” may be able to enhance this process. For example, if a witness of a robbery has provided an initial statement and cannot recall additional information, investigators could use a “change perspective” mnemonic – asking the witness to think about the events from the perspective of someone else (“what would a police officer have seen if they were there”). This can elicit new – previously unreported – information from memory.

If this is the case, our new technique could become even more accurate at being able to detect verbal differences between truth-tellers and liars.

Either way, our method is an ethical, non-accusatory and information-gathering approach to interviewing. The AIM instructions are simple to understand, easy to implement and appear promising. While initially tested for use in police suspect interviews, such instructions could be implemented in a variety of settings, such as insurance-claim settings.


Kids who head soccer balls are more likely to develop dementia, neurologists say

Alarm bells are ringing in sport about the risk of a group of chronic, neuro-degenerative diseases, commonly understood as dementia. There is an increasingly large body of evidence which has identified that small, repetitive collisions of the brain inside the skull cause this disease.

More high-profile players from England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad are getting dementia and heading the soccer ball is to blame. It is now time for a blanket ban on heading until the age of 18, and from then on it should be closely monitored and reduced.

It is not just the big collisions that end with players being carried off the pitch or taken to hospital for tests that appear to be causing the problem. It is the small, daily collisions – the ones which happen with routine. Research has found that one particular form of dementia (known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE) seems to only exist among those who, as part of routine activities, incur these regular assaults to the brain.

What is CTE? Dr. Ann McKee explains.

This issue was touched upon in the improperly titled Will Smith movie Concussion (because the disease is located in thousands of small hits, not one big one) and the Netflix Documentary, Killer Inside, about the NFL player, Aaron Hernandez who suffered from CTE. Indeed, recent research on American football has shown that 3.5 years of play doubles the chances of dementia.

This issue is now gaining attention in the UK, with research showing a shift in attitudes in rugby union, and within the “Beautiful Game” as well.

Repetitive impacts

Jeff Astle, a member of England’s 1970 World Cup squad, became the first British soccer player confirmed to have died from CTE – classed as an industrial injury. Astle’s family had long claimed it was heading the ball that was to blame. But it was only when England’s 1966 World Cup-winning heroes began to be diagnosed with dementia that the soccer world really took notice.

This link cannot be dismissed as a result of older, heavy balls that were replaced by lighter balls in recent years. This is a myth, as both older and new balls weigh 14-16oz. And while older balls got heavier when wet, they traveled slower and were less likely to be kicked to head height in games.

Recent studies show that heading the ball, even just 20 times in practice, causes immediate and measurable alterations to brain functioning. These results have been confirmed in other heading studies and are consistent with research on repetitive impacts that occur from other sports such as downhill mountain biking, resulting from riding over rough terrain.

More worryingly, in a large study of former professional soccer players in Scotland, when compared to matched controls, players were significantly more likely to both be prescribed dementia medications and to die from dementia – with a 500% increase in Alzheimer’s.

These findings finally pressured the FA into changing the rules for youth soccer. In February 2020, the FA denied direct causation but followed what America had done five years earlier and changed its guidelines concerning heading the ball.

The current guidelines don’t stop children from heading the ball in matches, but they do forbid heading the ball as part of training until the age of 12 – when it is gradually introduced. These measures do not go far enough.

A new campaign, called Enough is Enough, and an accompanying seven-point charter was launched in November which calls for a radical intervention into heading in soccer. Former England captains, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham have supported it, while 1966 legend Sir Geoff Hurst has also backed a ban on kids heading the ball.

And the players union, the PFA, has now called for heading in training by professional players to be reduced and monitored.

The demands in this charter will be costly, as they concern aftercare for those with dementia and more expensive research into the issue. But the most significant demand they make is to protect professional players from dementia by severely limiting header training to no more than 20 headers in any training session with at minimum of 48 hours between sessions involving heading.

These progressive policies should not be delayed by those in the sport, such as the medical head of world players’ union Fifpro, Dr Vincent Gouttebarge, who claimed that more research is required. Governing bodies can no longer take half measures or call for further discussion. This discussion has been taking place for 50 years.

Bring in the ban

Brain trauma in sport is not a medical question, it is a public health crisis. If the evidence is strong enough that the PFA has advocated “urgent action” to reduce heading in training for adult athletes, then heading policies for children – in both training and matches – need to be drastically revised as a matter of urgency.

While media attention focuses largely on the tragedy of lost soccer heroes, this is a much larger problem for youth players. Less than .01% of the people who play soccer in this country play at the professional level – but almost half of all children aged 11-15 play the game.

If children are permitted to head the ball between the ages of 12 and 18, this means six years of damaging behavior. Children are not able to make informed decisions and need to be protected. There is no logical reason for the ban on heading soccer balls in training to stop at the age 12. Headers can wait until 18. The sport will survive just fine without them.

Rep Jim Jordan Schooled by Historians for Suggesting Founding Fathers Would Oppose COVID Measures

Jim Jordan, the Republican congressman from Ohio, was treated to some free history lessons on Twitter after he wrongly suggested on Tuesday that the Founding Fathers would have objected to measures like stay at home orders that are intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“60 million Americans are subject to a stay at home order or curfew.11 million are right here in Ohio. What would the Founders say?” Jordan tweeted on Tuesday morning.

Shortly after, historians very quickly pointed out that this isn’t a hypothetical, there actually is an answer to Jordan’s question: The way George Washington and other founding fathers responded to a smallpox epidemic that happened during the American Revolution.

“In July of 1776 the entire … city of Boston was closed so they could safely inoculate for smallpox. It lasted months and no one could leave once it began. They did it again in 1778,” Andrew Wehrman, a history professor at Central Michigan University, tweeted. “The Founders would be proud that the government was protecting its citizens from disease.”

“There was a massive smallpox epidemic during the American Revolution. George Washington quarantined the infected, refused to let people from hot spots travel to his army, and even sent a thousand soldiers to Boston to prevent the spread there,” Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton University, tweeted in response to Jordan’s tweet.

Indeed, during the American Revolution, smallpox began spreading within the Continental Army and amongst civilians in Boston. To help prevent further spread, Washington isolated those suspected of being infected and prevented anyone from Boston from entering the military zone, according to National Geographic. Washington later had soldiers undergo variolation — a precursor to vaccination in which a dose of the live virus was inserted into a patient’s arm — to increase immunity against smallpox.

At the end of 1777, according to National Geographic, around 40,000 soldiers had been inoculated and infection rates dropped from about 20 percent to 1 percent.

Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale University specializing in American history, noted that the Founding Fathers would “say a range of things” but would “agree on the existence of something called the ‘common good.’”

“‘The Founders’ would understand — profoundly — the risk inherent in epidemics. [They] didn’t fully understand the cause or cure of curses like cholera and yellow fever, but they understood the need for group action of some kind to fight it,” Freeman wrote in response to Jordan’s tweet.

Hugging booths change lives at nursing home

What started out as an Eagle Scout project consisting of tape, plastic and PVC pipe ended up being a creation that changed the lives of elders at a Mississippi senior care facility.

Cooper Williams, 17, of Madison, designed and built hugging booths for the Martha Coker Green House Homes in Yazoo City. Residents there, much like those at other assisted living homes, had not been able to hug loved ones since March when the coronavirus pandemic hit Mississippi. Williams’ hugging booths made that safely possible.

‘I got the idea from my mom,’ Williams said. ‘She used to work at a nursing home and she brought the idea to me. My grandmother knows the director at the Martha Coker nursing home, so we chose to do it there.’

Williams turned to the internet where he found images of various types of barriers that allowed people to hug. He settled on a design that consisted of a PVC pipe frame with a plastic shower curtain liner taped to it. Then he cut holes in the liner and attached enclosed sleeves fashioned from a plastic table cloth.

In the end, he had a protective barrier that allowed the residents at the home to hug visitors without fear of contracting COVID-19.

‘I made six of them because they have six different homes,’ Williams said. ‘So, I built one for each home.’

The booths arrived at the home in late November and Julie Hoffman, executive director of Martha Coker Green House Homes, said they have made a big difference in the quality of life of the residents who had been limited to distanced porch visits and window visits with loved ones.

‘You can just see the twinkle in the elders’ eyes,’ Hoffman said. ‘I tear up every time I see them hug.

‘It’s made them come back to life. It’s given them hope. Just to touch family members – it’s been phenomenal. The human touch – that’s what means so much.’

Kathleen Griffin, 84, a resident of Martha Coker Green House Homes, said the months of not being able to hug her children were difficult to bear.

‘It was horrible,’ Griffin said. ‘Those are my children.

Eddie Jo Ward, 86, is also a resident and she praised the hugging booth after being able to hug her daughter, Pam Golden.

‘It feels wonderful since I can’t get any closer to her than this,’ Ward said. ‘It’s a wonderful invention.

Golden said the booth has helped her cope with the situation as well.

‘The guy who built this must have a really big heart to think about doing something like this for the elders because I know a lot of them don’t get to see their family much at all. It felt good to get a big hug and stay close.’

Williams said he didn’t realize the impact his project would have on the residents until he saw the reactions when they used it and were able to hug family members for the first time in months.

‘I didn’t expect how much it would, but it made them very emotional,’ Williams said. ‘It made me really happy I did that. I didn’t realize quite how much it would mean until I really saw it.’


Aphantasia causes blind spots in the mind’s eye

If you were asked to draw a picture of your grandparents’ living room from memory, could you do it? For most people, certain details are easy to visualize: “There’s a piano in the corner, a palm by the window and two seashells on the coffee table.”

But for others, such a task would be almost impossible. These individuals have a rare condition called aphantasia, which prevents them from easily recreating images in their mind’s eye—in fact, the phrase “mind’s eye” may be meaningless to them.

“Some individuals with aphantasia have reported that they don’t understand what it means to ‘count sheep’ before going to bed,” said Wilma Bainbridge, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who recently led a study of the condition, which can be congenital or acquired through trauma. “They thought it was merely an expression, and had never realized until adulthood that other people could actually visualize sheep without seeing them.”

Bainbridge, who is an expert on the neuroscience of perception and memory, decided to experimentally quantify the differences between aphantasic individuals and those with typical imagery on a specific set of visual memory tasks. The goal was to better characterize aphantasia, which is little-studied, and tease apart differences between object and spatial memory.

For the study, published in the journal Cortex, Bainbridge and colleagues showed photographs of three rooms to dozens of individuals with both typical and limited imagery. They then asked the participants in both groups to draw the rooms, once from memory and once while looking at the photo as a reference.

The differences in the memory experiment were striking: Individuals with typical imagery usually drew the most salient objects in the room with a moderate amount of detail, like color and key design elements (a green carpet, rather than a rectangle).

Individuals with aphantasia had a harder time—they could place a few objects in the room, but their drawings were often simpler, and relied at times on written descriptions. For example, some wrote the word “window” inside an outline of a window rather than drawing the windowpanes.

While people with aphantasia lack visual imagery, they appear to have intact spatial memory, which is distinct from imagery and may be stored differently, according to Bainbridge. People who are congenitally blind, for example, can still describe the layout of a familiar room.

As such, individuals with aphantasia were able to place the objects that they did remember in the correct location within a room most of the time, just like those with typical imagery, even though they couldn’t remember many details.

And surprisingly, even though people with aphantasia remembered fewer objects overall, they also made fewer mistakes: They didn’t create any false memories of objects that hadn’t been in any of the rooms, and placed objects in the correct location—but the wrong room—only three times.

“One possible explanation could be that because aphantasics have trouble with this task, they rely on other strategies like verbal-coding of the space,” Bainbridge said. “Their verbal representations and other compensatory strategies might actually make them better at avoiding false memories.”

By contrast, people with typical imagery made fourteen mistakes overall, and regularly included objects that hadn’t been in the photographs. In one instance, a person even drew a piano into a living room that had only contained a fireplace, chairs and a couch. Bainbridge said this could be because they were drawing on their visual memories of other living rooms—something people with aphantasia couldn’t have done.

Both groups drew more objects, made no mistakes and scored equally well when they were asked to simply copy the photographs, suggesting that the difference is real and specific to memory, not artistic ability or effort.

Recognition is also not affected: People with aphantasia knew which pictures of rooms they had already seen when shown them a second time, and also recognize family and friends—though they cannot visualize their faces without seeing them.

Aphantasia has only come to light recently as a psychological phenomenon. Bainbridge said that’s due in part to famous people—including Ed Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar, and Blake Ross, a co-founder of Firefox—stepping forward and writing about their lack of experience with visual imagery, thereby calling attention to the condition.

Since aphantasia affects only a small percentage of the population, Bainbridge and her coauthors recruited participants from online forums where people with the condition have shared their experiences to ensure a large sample size of 61 aphantasic individuals and 52 controls with typical imagery. The drawings of both groups were scored objectively by almost 2,800 online volunteers.

Bainbridge said the study adds to a growing body of research that validates aphantasia as an experience and demonstrates key differences between object and spatial memory.

With co-authors Zoe Pounder and Alison Eardley at the University of Westminster and Chris Baker at the National Institute of Mental Health, she is hoping to further explore aphantasia as it is manifested in the brain, by using MRI scanning to elucidate some of the mechanisms behind imagery in typical and aphantasic individuals.


How Are ‘Super Agers’ Protected From Alzheimer’s and Mental Decline?

by Alan Mozes

Some older folks are still sharp as tacks and dementia-free well into their 80s and beyond. Now German researchers have uncovered a possible reason why: Their genes may help them fend off protein build-up in the brain.

The finding is based on a study of brain images of 94 participants, all aged 80 or older. They were characterized by the amount of tau protein tangles and beta-amyloid protein plaques found in their brains.

Those who scored highest on memory tests — so-called “super agers” — had brain protein profiles similar to those of healthy folks who were much younger. In other words, they had very little build-up of tangles and plaques.

But those who were aging normally and scored lower on memory tests had more tangles than younger people. And those who had already been diagnosed with mildly impaired thinking skills had a greater build-up of both tangles and plaques.

“In simple terms, ‘super aging’ refers to exceptionally high cognitive functionality, even when you turn 80 or 90 years old,” said lead researcher Merle Hoenig. She’s a postdoctoral fellow at Research Center Juelich and the University Hospital Cologne in Germany. Queen Elizabeth, she said, would be one famous qualifier.

Abnormal build-up of both tau and plaques are considered a warning sign for impaired thinking, according to the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

But some older people seem to have little or no mental deterioration even into their 80s or 90s.

The New York Times recently profiled a Colombian woman who was at high risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease due to an inherited genetic mutation. But it never happened. When she died at age 77 of cancer, she only had mild dementia, the first symptoms of which appeared six years earlier.

It turned out that she also carried another rare gene mutation. And while she did develop an extremely high build-up of beta-amyloid plaque, that second genetic mutation appeared to protect her from a similarly large build-up of tau tangles.

Hoenig said super agers seem to benefit from some sort of similarly protective dynamic.

“In our study, we observed that super agers do not appear to accumulate aging-associated proteins, such as tau and amyloid pathology,” she noted. “In contrast, normal agers did present tau pathology, arguing that this ‘proteinopathy’ may be part of the normal aging process.”

But what might keep brain protein in check?

Hoenig suspects the answer probably lies in some combination of lifestyle choices and genetic predisposition. The new study didn’t examine the effects of lifestyle choices, and she said more research is needed.

On the genetic side, Hoenig said the new findings point to a need to explore the “molecular signature” in the brains of individuals who are resistant to the build-up of age-related proteins.

That could lead to development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other aging-associated illnesses, she said.

Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific operations with the Alzheimer’s Association, said there is evidence to suggest that genetics play a role in Alzheimer’s risk and possibly even protect against it.

Researchers are already searching for ways to use that evidence to prevent or delay build-up of tangles and plaques, and to find new methods to improve delivery of nutrients both within and across brain cells.

Snyder said the Alzheimer’s Association and the Tau Consortium have 13 programs in the works designed to do exactly that. Those efforts will likely have bearing not only on future treatment of Alzheimer’s but also on other tau-influenced diseases, such as fronto-temporal dementia and lewy body dementia, she said.

The report was recently published online in JAMA Network Open.

More information

Learn more about tau tangles and beta-amyloid plaque at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

SOURCES: Merle Hoenig, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, Research Center Juelich, and University Hospital Cologne, Germany; Heather Snyder, PhD, vice president, medical and scientific operations, Alzheimer’s Association, Chicago; JAMA Network Open, Dec. 11, 2020, online