ICYMI: 2023 research round up

Here’s a look back at ten top research stories of 2023
Published: 21 December 2023


Searching for signs of alien life in our own solar system  

Scientists have long been captivated by the possibility of discovering evidence for extraterrestrial life in the universe. While many of the world’s largest telescopes are pointed toward distant galaxies and star systems, some think there’s a strong possibility that life could be detected much closer to home. In a new collaboration with a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Professor Nagissa Mahmoudi of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is investigating potential biosignatures on two of our solar system’s moons: Europa, orbiting Jupiter, and Enceladus, orbiting Saturn. 

How does vaping affect the lungs?   

Teen vaping has been on the rise, with reports of rapidly increasing use across North America. While some consider vapes to be a useful tool for smoking cessation, new research from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) supports a growing public health concern about potential adverse health consequences. Researchers found that inhaling e-cigarettes can cause cellular and molecular changes that could have potentially damaging effects on the lungs down the road. They exposed mice to the equivalent of 60 puffs of a mango-flavored Juul (a brand of e-cigarettes popular with youth and young adults) per day for four weeks. They found that even low exposure to aerosols from the Juul had significant impacts.  

Reducing fatigue and errors among nurses working night shifts 

Nurses exposed to 40 minutes of bright light before their night shifts feel less fatigued and make fewer errors at work, according to a study led by McGill University. The nurses also slept better after their shifts. “Healthcare workers are experiencing high levels of fatigue due to staffing shortages, difficult schedules, and heavy workloads. Further, the cost of medical errors has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars per year in North America,” says Jay Olson, the senior author of the recent study in Sleep Health, who completed his PhD at McGill University and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto.  

Addressing violent extremism in Quebec  

Violent extremism in Canada is now considered a significant public health issue requiring prevention programs. At the same time that a surge in far-right movements has become a top concern for national security, Ottawa continues efforts to bring home and reintegrate women detained in Syria after travelling to join the Islamic State. A study calls for more specialized services to assess and treat radicalized individuals with mental health disorders who may be vulnerable and whose distress may be expressed through violent behaviour. The study was led by a team of Montreal researchers including McGill University Professor Cécile Rousseau, who is part of the Polarization Team in Quebec, a specialized clinical group addressing violent extremism attached to the Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. 

What areas should Canada protect to save species at risk of extinction?  

At the recent COP 15 conference in Montreal, Canada committed to protecting 30% of its land by 2030, but which areas are most crucial to protect for at-risk species such as the spotted turtles? In a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, McGill University researchers overlayed maps of species at risk to find hotspots where many species live together. They found that hotspots often overlap. For example, more than half the hotspots for at-risk birds are also hotspots for at-risk insects. One of these 100 square kilometre areas could contain more than 130 at-risk species. 

Genes shed light on why men and women experience different depression symptoms 

Depression is widely reported to be more common in women than in men, with women twice as likely to receive a diagnosis than men. A new sex-specific study from McGill University has found that there are differences between male and female genes and how they relate to depression. In a study of more than 270,000 individuals, the researchers found that sex-specific prediction methods were more accurate in forecasting an individual’s genetic risk of developing depression than prediction methods that did not specify sex. The researchers found 11 areas of DNA that were linked to depression in females, and only one area in males. They also found that depression was specifically linked to metabolic diseases in females, an important aspect to consider when treating women with depression. 

The science behind playing music in sync 

Music is a collective experience that binds people together. From orchestral play to audiences handclapping, synchronization lays the foundation for all musical interactions. But what explains our ability to get in sync with someone or act in lock step with a group? To find answers, McGill University Professor Caroline Palmer and her colleague Professor Alexander Demos from the University of Illinois Chicago are using mathematics and social theory to better understand how musicians synchronize their music making in groups. “Synchronization is a human tendency to align our behaviors in time with others. It’s necessary for many survival skills and can impact how we view our relationships with others in our group. In fact, previous research has shown that people become more prosocial when they engage in synchronous rhythmic behaviours such as clapping, music making, dancing, marching, and drumming,” says Professor Palmer. 

Is digital media use a risk factor for psychosis in young adults? 

On average, young adults in Canada spend several hours on their smartphones every day. Many jump from TikTok to Netflix to Instagram, putting their phone down only to pick up a video game controller. A growing body of research is looking into the potential dangers of digital media overuse, as well as potential benefits of moderate digital media use, from a mental health standpoint. A recent McGill University study of 425 Quebecers between the ages of 18 and 25 has found that young adults who have more frequent psychotic experiences also tend to spend more time using digital media. Interestingly, the study, which surveyed the participants over a period of six months, also found that spending more time on digital media did not seem to cause any change in the frequency of psychotic experiences over time, said lead author and psychiatry resident at McGill, Vincent Paquin.

Assessing unintended consequences in AI-based neurosurgical training 

Virtual reality simulators can help learners improve their technical skills faster and with no risk to patients. In the field of neurosurgery, they allow medical students to practice complex operations before using a scalpel on a real patient. When combined with artificial intelligence, these tutoring systems can offer tailored feedback like a human instructor, identifying areas where the students need to improve and making suggestions on how to achieve expert performance. A new study from the Neurosurgical Simulation and Artificial Intelligence Learning Centre at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University, however, shows that human instruction is still necessary to detect and compensate for unintended, and sometimes negative, changes in neurosurgeon behaviour after virtual reality AI training. 

The world needs more empathy—here is how science can harness it  

In a world grappling with deep-seated division and social upheaval, empathy has become more critical than ever. But science suggests when it comes to evoking empathy, our imagination is more powerful than we previously thought. A new study, led by McGill researchers, reveals how the different ways to experience empathy affect our willingness to help others. “Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of another person and is vital for prosocial behaviours. However, we know that empathy isn’t just one thing – we can experience it very differently, either as personal distress or compassionate concern for that other person,” explains McGill psychology professor Signy Sheldon, and the study’s co-author. 

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