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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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Also In This Issue

Lab Work: Research Developments

Say Hello to Your Long-Lost Relative

Darryl de Ruiter, a professor of anthropology, was among researchers who discovered a new species of human ancestor through unearthing more than a dozen skeletons in a cave outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, in September.

Deemed Homo naledi (which means ‘star’, after the cave Rising Star in which they were found), these skeletons have a body size similar to small humans but with notably undersized skulls. While their teeth, hands and feet are human-like, their trunks, shoulders and hips are primitive in size and shape.

“This unique combination of characteristics is unlike any previously known human relatives,” de Ruiter said. “There is no question that this is a new addition to our family tree.”

Anthropologists identified at least 15 individual skeletons ranging from infants to elderly adults, while more remains are expected to be recovered with further excavation. It appears that the bodies were placed deliberately in the cave soon after death, a behavior otherwise only known in humans and Neanderthals.

The discovery was published in the open access journal eLIFE and featured in the October issue of National Geographic in addition to a PBS-Nova special titled “Dawn of Humanity” that aired in September.

Sensing a Sign

A smart device that translates sign language while being worn on the wrist could bridge the communications gap between the deaf and those who do not know sign language.

Roozbeh Jafari, an associate professor in biomedical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering, created the watch-like wearable technology, which combines motion sensors and the measurement of electrical activity generated by muscles to interpret hand gestures.

Although the device is in the prototype stage, it recognizes 40 American Sign Language words with nearly 96 percent accuracy. As opposed to other high-tech sign language recognition systems, Jafari’s system foregoes the use of cameras—which can suffer performance issues in poor lighting—and emphasizes user wearability.

“We envision the device collecting data produced from a gesture, interpreting it and then sending the corresponding English word to another person’s smart device,” Jafari said. “The recipient will understand what is being signed simply by reading their device’s screen.”

One Drink, Two Drinks...

A study led by Jun Wang, assistant professor in the College of Medicine, identified neurons in the brain that influence whether one drink leads to another, which could ultimately lead to a cure for alcoholism.

Using an animal model, Wang’s team found that alcohol consumption alters the structure and function of D1 neurons in a part of the brain known to be important in goal-driven behaviors. Periodic consumption of large amounts of alcohol acts on these neurons, making them much more excitable, which means that they activate with less stimulation.

“These neurons are part of a “go” pathway in the brain,” Wang said. “When D1 neurons are activated, they compel you to perform an action, like reaching for another drink. This then creates a cycle, in which drinking causes easier activation and activation causes more drinking.”

When animal models were given a drug to partially block the D1 neuron activation, they showed a much-reduced desire to drink alcohol. “If we suppress this activity, we’re able to suppress alcohol consumption,” Wang said. “Researchers may be able to use these findings to develop a specific treatment targeting these neurons.”

A River Ran Through It

A recent study by a team of international scientists including Texas A&M’s Ryan Ewing, assistant professor of geology and geophysics, found that large lakes and river systems were once plentiful on Mars.

Their work provides further evidence of past water on the desert-like planet. In a separate study, NASA announced in late September that there is firm proof that Mars still has areas of flowing water during its summer months, raising the possibility that the planet could house some form of life.

Using photos taken by the Mars rover Curiosity, Ewing and team members discovered evidence that water systems dried up around three billion years ago in Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide depression with a central mountain that rises 18,000 feet above Martian terrain.

“A complex river system existed in this area probably on and off for tens of thousands of years,” Ewing said, “but for reasons we don’t know, after the river and lake sediments were deposited, most of the water dried up. Still, these photos demonstrate that Mars’ climate was much wetter than what it is today.”

Test Results

  • Disastrous Downpour

    Prepare to be swept away. Sam Brody, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston, is leading a five-year research project between five U.S. universities and their Dutch counterparts to determine how to reduce the deadly impact of coastal flooding.
  • Small Victories

    Snowballing your debts—paying them smallest to largest—might not make sense mathematically, but it may have long-term benefits. According to a new study by economics researchers Alexander Brown and Joanna Lahey, the “small victories” consumers feel after quickly wiping out small debts provide encouragement and motivation.
  • Pass the Plums!

    Texas A&M food science researcher Nancy Turner found that consuming dried plums as part of a regular diet can decrease the risk of developing colon cancer by promoting the retention of beneficial bacteria throughout the colon.
  • It's in the Genes

    Following in your parents’ footsteps isn’t always a choice, says psychiatry specialist Keith Young in the College of Medicine. Just like hair or eye color, emotional tendencies can be inherited too—it all comes down to DNA.
  • Learning Leverage

    Some students perform exceptionally better when taught by a teacher of the same gender, according to a study by Profs. Jonathan Meer and Jaegeum Lim in the Department of Economics.
  • Lending a Helping Hand

    Freshmen engineering students partnered with global volunteer network e-NABLE to create 3-D printed prosthetic hands for 20 children in need. The $30 prosthesis connects to a child’s active muscles via elastic straps.