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News: The Brain, Racism and Religion

Stem cell news; a surprising root of racism; and a link between education and religion

Image: Red power cell lights

Image: Red power cell lights

Sleeper Cell

To make neurons, stem cells need their neighbors.

Since their discovery, neural stem cells have stubbornly refused to produce neurons in petri dishes, stymieing research aimed at growing new tissue—until now. Duke University scientists have figured out why these stem cells pump out neurons in the mouse brain but are dormant in a dish. There, the stem cells aren't surrounded by their tight-knit group of friends—the previously ignored ependymal cells, which line the brain and spinal cord.

Lead researcher Chay Kuo harvested radial glia (early cells that develop into both stem cells and ependymal cells) from mice and tweaked the culture so that most of the radial glia would become ependymal cells. In past experiments, scientists assumed only the stem cells were important and didn't bother to generate many ependymal cells. After creating this novel culture, Kuo saw the ependymal cells self-assemble into pinwheel-shaped structures around the neural stem cells, using fingerlike membranes to grasp onto their neighbors. Once the pinwheel had formed, the target stem cell started generating neurons. "That was very surprising," Kuo says. "We watched this assembly live in the dish."

In a series of experiments, Kuo confirmed that the ependymal cells give neural stem cells their power. With this knowledge, researchers can finally study how neural stem cells might be used to repair brain injuries. —Rose Pastore

Accidental Bigotry

Racist behavior emerges in the absence of actual racism.

We think of acts of prejudice as emanating from prejudiced attitudes. But new research shows that racist-type behavior stems from our beliefs about prejudice.

White people who believe that prejudice is a fixed trait—that it can't change during a person's lifetime—act more prejudiced toward black people, even if they're totally unprejudiced by implicit and explicit measures, according to unpublished research from Stanford University. They are less interested in chatting with a member of another race or participating in activities related to diversity, and they are more anxious and unfriendly during an interracial conversation.

"Someone who believes prejudice is fixed is terrified of looking racist—not just to others, but to him- or herself," explains study author Priyanka Carr. Our society values equality, yet nearly every member of the majority group worries that he or she is at least a little racist, Carr says. "A situation where this bias could be diagnosed—like an interracial interaction—is very threatening to someone who sees prejudice as fixed, so he'll feel anxious and, ironically, act more prejudiced."

But convince the same anxious majority group members that prejudice is a fluid trait (there's plenty of research suggesting it is), and their biased behavior disappears. "There's a hopeful message here," says Carr. "We can change the discussion about prejudice and fuel a lot of positive behavior." —Andrea Bartz

The Need for Creed

Education curbs dogma, but not religion.

Social scientists have been saying it for years: Education deters religion. As societies become more intellectually sophisticated, religion is less necessary. But for Americans, education affects not whether they believe, but how they believe. Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wondered why religion remains widespread in the U.S., despite some experts' assertions that "only childlike minds and societies need it." With each additional year of education, he found, church attendance increases 15 percent and Bible reading increases 9 percent.

But by the same measure, education led to a 15 percent decrease in the belief that there is one correct religion and a 13 percent decrease in the belief that the Bible is the literal word of God. "This suggests education makes people more open-minded, not less faithful," he says.

Evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber, whose research on 137 countries shows that educated nations have higher levels of nonbelief, was surprised by the findings. "The U.S. might differ from other developed countries,"he admits. "Religious belief is the majority view here, in contrast to Europe, for example, and there may be more religious education throughout life." Plus, Barber compared one nation's aggregate religiosity to another's, while Schwadel studied individuals' education-religion links in America. —Rebecca Searles