Making a Murderer is Making Viewers Curious About Brain Fingerprinting

Netflix
Netflix

After making its premiere in December 2015, the 10-part Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer helped usher in a new genre in streaming entertainment: true crime binge-watching. Viewers were gripped by the story of Steven Avery, a junkyard owner accused of murdering freelance photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, and the dubious testimony of Avery's 16-year-old nephew—and alleged co-conspirator—Brendan Dassey. Avery had been convicted of a separate crime once before and served 18 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. Holes in the state of Wisconsin’s argument in the Halbach case abound, and grassroots efforts sprung up to argue that Avery had once again been wrongly convicted.

In episode two of season two, which launched on Netflix last week, Avery’s new defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, asks Avery to submit to a curious examination informally known as “brain fingerprinting.” Wearing a head-mounted sensor that looks a little like the Cerebro helmet donned by Professor X in the X-Men comics and films, Avery is exposed to details of the crime only the perpetrator would know. The sensor can purportedly pick up the electrical signals in the brain of someone experiencing a wave of recognition, indicating they might be the guilty party.

In an otherwise grounded show, this felt like an excerpt from a science-fiction series. Is brain fingerprinting really reliable?

The forensics community isn’t really sure.

The test, which was developed by Lawrence Farwell, Ph.D. and first used in an active criminal investigation in 1999, looks for the P300 response—a surge of electrical activity in the brain roughly 300 milliseconds after a person sees something familiar to them, usually a written detail or image. Instead of looking for a physiological response in a polygraph, or “lie detector” test, Farwell’s method confines its reading to the brain via an EEG wave.

Farwell states that the test, which he calls Farwell Brain Fingerprinting, has never resulted in a false-positive or false-negative result. He says research supervised by the FBI, the U.S. Navy, and the CIA has confirmed its accuracy, and Farwell has published papers about the technique in scientific journals. In a case described on Farwell’s website, convicted murderer Terry Harrington was exonerated after he passed a brain fingerprint test and an eyewitness subsequently recanted her incriminating testimony. Farwell even offers a $100,000 bounty to anyone who can beat the test, a prize he says has yet to be claimed.

Critics of Farwell’s technique say his peer-reviewed studies have been limited to just 30 participants total, a small sample size. One study comparing the P300 response to the polygraph found some guilty subjects passed the brain fingerprint test simply by not paying attention to the images meant to trigger a response. Additionally, there have been relatively few tests conducted on truly guilty parties with psychopathic or mentally ill pathologies.

In short: There just isn't enough data to show that brain fingerprinting is as accurate as Farwell claims—or that it should be admissable in court. As for Avery: He passed his test with flying colors.

[h/t Digital Spy]

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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