Study Breaks: Intriguing Findings From Researchers Across Michigan

Predicting the next pandemic, what we’re learning about mastodons, and other interesting Michigan research to explore.
Stock photograph by Andrea Piacquadio via

Left-Right Brain Pingpong

A University of Michigan psychology lab has identified key features of a brain rhythm that helps the brain’s left and right hemispheres communicate better, according to a study in the journal Cell Reports.

The researchers call this rhythm “splines,” because the brain waves resemble the interlocking teeth of gears. “Spline rhythms … are like the left and right brains playing a game of very fast — and very precise — pingpong,” says lead author and professor Omar Ahmed. “[It] represents a fundamentally different way for the left brain and right brain to talk to each other.” Splines occur during REM sleep and during movement, becoming even more precise at faster running speeds. “This is likely to help the left brain and right brain compute more cohesively and rapidly when an animal is moving faster and needs to make faster decisions,” says U-M doctoral student Megha Ghosh.

The researchers also discovered that spline rhythms are strongest in the retrosplenial cortex, which is one of the first brain regions to become impaired in people with Alzheimer’s disease — a finding that may soon help doctors identify the disease in early stages.

All in the Tusk

One mastodon skeleton unearthed in 1998 near Fort Wayne, Indiana, is helping scientists determine mastodons’ annual migration patterns from millennia ago.

A group of researchers from the University of Michigan and two other Midwest universities analyzed samples from layers of the mastodon’s tusk to reveal changes in the animal’s environment throughout its lifetime. This led to the discovery that, once fully grown, the mastodon migrated annually to a particular summer mating ground in northeastern Indiana.

“The growth and development of the animal, as well as its history of changing land use and changing behavior, … is captured and recorded in the structure and composition of the tusk,” says U-M paleontologist and project co-leader Daniel Fisher.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to document annual migration of an individual animal from an extinct species.

Predicting the Next Pandemic

Researchers at Michigan State University have been awarded $2.7 million by the National Institutes of Health to further develop artificial intelligence algorithms that can predict how viruses will evolve. The team’s models have already made accurate predictions about new COVID-19 variants, including omicron.

“What we’re doing is making our predictions more accurate and more timely,” says Guowei Wei, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at MSU. “And now our work isn’t just for COVID but also for many other viral infections.”

These algorithms could someday help with the creation of universal vaccines and medicines that are more effective against a variety of viral diseases, such as the flu, COVID, HIV, and Ebola — even as they evolve.

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.