March 29, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Body Wonders You Didn't Know About

Here’s a collection of new findings about the body that should make us all stand in awe of what our Creator has provided.

Amazing FactsPhenomenal smell sense:  The human nose can detect a trillion odors, Nature says, – and the actual number might be limitless.  The new estimate is “orders of magnitude above the previous estimate of just 10,000 scents.”  The finding was reported in Science.  Articles in New Scientist, PhysOrg and National Geographic provide more information on this stunning announcement.  The researchers from Rockefeller University say, “It demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.”  The nose beats the eyes and ears!

Visual compression:  The brain compresses images in the prefrontal cortex before the eye performs its rapid, regular movements (saccades), a paper in Nature reports.  To do this, the neurons in the brain have to converge toward the target space of the movement.  What this means is that the brain predicts where the movement will occur, and prepares for it, so that perception is stable in spite of continual motion of the eyes.

Visualizing success:  How does biological vision succeed in the physical world?  A paper in PNAS investigates the subject, a more complex question than first meets the eye.  “Biological visual systems cannot measure the properties that define the physical world,” they note.  Our eyes don’t reach out and measure objects with a ruler, especially when they are in motion, like a baseball flying toward the outfielder’s eyes.  “Nonetheless, visually guided behaviors of humans and other animals are routinely successful.”  How can this be?  It’s a philosophical as well as scientific matter:

Most concepts of vision propose, explicitly or implicitly, that visual behavior depends on recovering the sources of stimulus features either directly or by a process of statistical inference. Here we argue that, given the inability of the visual system to access the properties of the world, these conceptual frameworks cannot account for the behavioral success of biological vision. The alternative we present is that the visual system links the frequency of occurrence of biologically determined stimuli to useful perceptual and behavioral responses without recovering real-world properties. The evidence for this interpretation of vision is that the frequency of occurrence of stimulus patterns predicts many basic aspects of what we actually see. This strategy provides a different way of conceiving the relationship between objective reality and subjective experience, and offers a way to understand the operating principles of visual circuitry without invoking feature detection, representation, or probabilistic inference.

Fetus Facebook:  Neurons in a developing embryo reach out and touch other neurons, forming an integrated network of friends.  This analogy was described by Science Daily describing research at the Beckman Institute.  (Whether this finding required experimentation with embryonic stem cells is a separate question.)  Individual neurons reach out and connect, forming a mass on which the complex neural networks contribute to the human experience of consciousness and intelligence.

Nothing to sneeze at:  God blessed you when you sneezed by giving you a coordinated response to quickly expel dust in the airways.  Live Science says that the sneeze response, technically called sternutation, is nothing to sneeze at.  “This coordinated effort between your respiratory, musculoskeletal and parasympathetic nervous systems results in an impressive feat — the expulsion of air from the body at speeds reaching 93 mph (150 kilometers per hour).

Automatic sip alarm:  Your brain knows when to stop drinking water, Science Daily explains.  “Our brains are hardwired to stop us drinking more water than is healthy, according to a new brain imaging study” at University of Melbourne, the article says.  “The study found a ‘stop mechanism’ that determined brain signals telling the individual to stop drinking water when no longer thirsty, and the brain effects of drinking more water than required.”  Without this mechanism, we might reduce the salt concentration in the blood to a point that would cause swelling of the brain, a potentially fatal condition.  Multiple areas of the brain are involved: “The unpleasantness and aversion of overdrinking is associated with activation in the midcingulate cortex, insula, amygdala, and periaqueductal gray,” the authors say in the study published in PNAS.

Hercules statue at Cornell Univ.

Hercules statue at Cornell

Bone lube:  Why are bones strong yet flexible?  Because they have citrate lubricant, a paper in PNAS says.  Scientists didn’t realize what this 2% citrate was doing in bone.  “The incorporation of citrate between mineral platelets can explain the flat, plate-like morphology of bone mineral platelets and may be important in controlling the crystallinity of bone mineral, which in turn, is highly relevant to the mechanical properties of bone,” they found.  Medical Xpress calls it a “shock-absorbing goo.”  It is “an inbuilt shock absorber in bone that, until now, was unknown.”  You couldn’t live without it.  “Without citrate, all crystals in bone mineral would collapse together, become one big crystal and shatter.”  With the citrate, though, “the crystals stay in flat, plate-like shapes that have the facility to slide with respect to each other.”

The reason for P.E.PNAS reports that physical activity in children and young people contributes to healthy aging.  Bones are more durable in one’s senior years if they had been exercised in youth; that’s a good motivation for physical education (P.E.) programs in school.  “Here we show at an upper extremity site that half of the benefit in bone size and one-third of the benefit in bone strength obtained from physical activity during youth are maintained throughout life, even though the bone mass benefits are lost,” the abstract says.  There’s something for old people, too:  “When physical activity was continued during aging, some mass and more strength benefits were preserved.”  It’s not too late to get off the sofa.

Immunity in the skin:  Certain T-cells (part of the immune system) take up residence in the skin and stay put there, PNAS reported.  “Tissue-resident memory T cells (TRM) form in the skin where they are retained and can protect against subsequent infection.”  TRM‘s were only recently identified.  Studying them, Australian scientists found that they compete for space in this environment.  “Together, these data suggest that skin tissue-resident memory T cells persist within a tightly regulated epidermal T-cell niche.”

Cure for jet lag coming?  Scientists at the University of Manchester believe they have found a mechanism for resetting the biological clock, Science Daily reported.  That would be really handy for long-distance travelers.  “The team’s findings reveal that the enzyme casein kinase 1epsilon (CK1epsilon) controls how easily the body’s clockwork can be adjusted or reset by environmental cues such as light and temperature,” the article says.  The team is hopeful: “As this work progresses in clinical terms, we may be able to enhance the clock’s ability to deal with shift work, and importantly understand how maladaptation of the clock contributes to diseases such as diabetes and chronic inflammation.”

Suckling science:  Believe it or not, the physiology of breast feeding has been poorly understood.  A paper in PNAS finally solved the “biomechanics of milk extraction during breast feeding,” and yes, it involves a sucking action by the baby.  This is a bigger deal than you might think.  A multi-disciplinary team from Israel and America announced:

We have resolved a century-long scientific controversy and demonstrated with a 3D biophysical model that infants suck breast milk by subatmospheric pressures and not by mouthing the nipple–areola complex to induce a peristaltic-like extraction mechanism. Analysis of ultrasound (US) movies demonstrated that the anterior tongue, which is wedged between the nipple–areola complex and the lower lips, moves as a rigid body with the cycling motion of the mandible, while the posterior section of the tongue undulates like a peristaltic wave, which is essential for swallowing. The computational simulations of breast-feeding successfully mimicked the dynamic characteristics observed in US imaging and also predicted the subatmospheric pressure required to draw the nipple–areola complex into the infant mouth during latch-on.

Fortunately, the baby doesn’t have to learn the biomechanics of it.  It just does what comes naturally.

Newfound wonder:  Viewers’ eyes will moisten at the joyful response of a 39-year-old deaf woman, Joanne Milne, hearing her voice for the first time after receiving cochlear implants.  The short video clip posted on Metro News shows her innocent, spontaneous reaction to a biomechanical wonder most of us take for granted.  “I can’t stop crying and I can already foresee how it’s going to be life-changing” she told reporters.

The video clip in that last paragraph provides a glimpse into the joy that the blind, deaf, and lame felt the instant Jesus touched them and healed them.  Jesus always knew exactly what to do, because He is described as the Creator repeatedly in the New Testament (John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, etc.).  All three persons of the Trinity were involved in the design and implementation of everything in the universe.  The evidence of design is so clear, all men are without excuse.  The rebels who suppress the truth and refuse to give thanks can only blame themselves for the judgment to come (Romans 1).

Hopefully we will not have to lose our health before appreciating our physical endowments.  These reports should motivate us to care for them, and to thank our Creator for these intelligent designs and many, many others in the human body.  Such incredible gifts!  How could anyone ascribe these to the chance concourse of atoms?  We vastly underestimate the design in life.  These are but glimpses.  Our Maker thought of everything, so that we could perceive, interact, and love Him.  The scientific findings reported here lead to another conclusion: every human life is sacred.  So many thoughts should rush to our minds as we ponder what we just learned: thankfulness, responsibility, appreciation, wonder – emotions stemming from realities that can profoundly influence our views on politics, ethics, and theology.  Let us bow before our Maker in humble praise, then stand and obey as His grateful servants (Romans 12).



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  • Peter says:

    The “Visual Compression” part is once again a proof of how intelligent we are designed. Modern movie cameras use software stabilizer which can recognize patterns in the picture and align the next picture in order to make the movie more stable. There is nothing new under the sun.

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