Hubble Reveals Nebula Features

The Hubble telescope has revealed unusual new features of the famous nebula known as the "Red Rectangle," a double cone of dust and gas spurting into space from opposing sides of a dying binary star.

Seen from the side, the nebula looks like the laddered layers of a spider's web in the new image, but Goddard Space Flight Center astrophysicist Ted Gull said the two longest wings are actually opposing dust and gas funnels that may be spinning like tornadoes, creating the banded appearance.

"To put it simply, though, we just don't know" exactly why the nebula is shaped the way it is, Gull said in a telephone interview. The "star" is actually a pair of dying stars that have thrown off their outer shells to create the dust and gas cloud, he said.

Gull was one of the original astronomers who in the early 1970s studied the Red Rectangle as one of the most powerful sources of infrared light in the heavens. The light is created by reflections from the particle clouds.

"When we first saw it from an Earth telescope, it looked like a red blob," Gull said. Later observations yielded a doughnut, but only with the advent of Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 did Gull rejoin lead scientist Hans Van Winckel, of Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, and other colleagues to obtain the latest image.

"Every time there is an advance in technology, we try to look again," Gull said. "This is a lifetime project."

-- Guy Gugliotta

Rest May Aid Memory-Impaired

Some people with short-term memory problems because of injuries or other causes can hold on to new memories for much longer if they experience a period of quiet rest after learning something new, according to new research.

Patients with amnesia often have intact long- term memories but problems with short-term memory. They also have difficulty converting new learning into long-term memory.

"The question is: What makes short-term memory disappear?" asked Nelson Cowan, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, in Columbia.

In an experiment with Italian patients with amnesia, researchers told the patients four stories over two days. After each story, the patients were put into different settings, some of which placed new mental demands on them. Invariably, after an hour, none of the patients remembered the story.

In one setting, however, researchers placed the amnesiacs in a quiet, dark room for an hour. It was so silent that some of the patients fell asleep.

When tested immediately afterward, however, four out of six patients remembered most of the story. Cowan said patients were ecstatic to have formed a long-term memory. The psychologist suggested the technique offered a way to help people with amnesia acquire new learning.

The patients who still could not remember the story were those with brain damage in the temporal lobe. Cowan said the technique offered clinicians a way to distinguish among different kinds of amnesia.

Cowan published the study last month in the journal Brain along with colleagues Nicoletta Beschin and Sergio Della Sala.

-- Shankar Vedantam

Team Shrinks Fat Cells in Mice

A technique similar to one developed to shrink cancerous tumors appears promising for destroying fat cells, new research suggests.

For more than two decades, medical researchers have been developing drugs that target blood vessels supplying blood to tumors as a way to fight various forms of cancer.

A team of scientists at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and colleagues decided to try the same strategy as a possible treatment for obesity, which has become epidemic in the United States.

The researchers first identified a substance, dubbed prohibitin, that homed in on blood vessels supplying fat tissue. They then attached the substance to another agent that causes cells to commit suicide.

When the researchers gave the compound to mice that had become obese from eating a high-fat diet, the animals' body weight returned to normal within weeks, the researchers reported in the June issue of the journal Nature Medicine. The drug did not appear to have any significant adverse side effects.

"If even a fraction of what we found in mice relates to human biology, then we are cautiously optimistic that there may be a new way to think about reversing obesity," said Renata Pasqualini, who helped conduct the research.

-- Rob Stein

Nebula "Red Rectangle" is shaped like a spider web.