Highlights of the BMC series: June 2016

Replication and beyond in psychology • Choosing a diagnostic test for suspected hypopituitarism • Virtual reality as a tool for cataract surgery training • Could mobile phones affect brain development? • The role of “citizen science” in biomedical research • Mixed messages in bonobo mating • Latrine communication in urban vs rural rabbits

Psychology: Replication and beyond in psychology

Psychology has been subject to criticism over claims of questionable research practices and has been historically plagued by the under-reporting of both replications and null findings. In recognition of this, BMC Psychology has launched a collection of articles which highlight the need to improve reproducibility in Psychology. Within this topic, the articles included explore the issues of replicating past research findings, the variability of results in meta-analysis and need for triangulation of evidence, the influence of the “testing effect” on online and laboratory studies, the limitations of replication initiatives in increasing trustworthiness in psychology and recommendations to increase the reproducibility of meta-analysis.

Basic and Clinical Endocrinology: Choosing a diagnostic test for suspected hypopituitarism

Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) deficiency is the most serious and potentially life-threatening form of hypopituitarism, a deficiency of one or more pituitary hormones. In this article, the authors review the diagnosis of patients with suspected hypopituitarism and highlight the need to carefully consider which diagnostic test to use, bearing in mind both the individual patient and clinical scenario. Furthermore, the authors conclude that there it is necessary to ensure results are interpreted within the wider clinical context and taking into account also the potential downsides of the selected diagnostic test.

Cataract surgery: Virtual reality as a tool for cataract surgery training

A pervasive general vision illness, cataract affects a large number of people worldwide. Traditional cataract surgical training on live patients or animal cadavers presents a series of problems, however, such as elevated costs and limited availability. The use of virtual surgical simulators could therefore provide an opportunity for medical professionals to develop specific surgical competencies, while avoiding the drawbacks associated with traditional surgical training. This study, published in BMC Ophthalmology, compared the performance of users with different levels of proficiency in conducting phacoemulsification cataract surgery on a virtual platform equipped with a visual guidance system and a set of performance parameters. The authors found that the proficiency of medical trainees and experienced ophthalmologists in this form of surgery could be assessed and distinguished based on virtual performance, suggesting that a virtual reality platform could constitute a feasible proficiency assessment tool for phacoemulsification cataract surgery.

Image of the month

Cataract Surgery Training Simulator, published in the BMC Ophtalmology article above. See the full paper for more images.
Virtual environment of a cataract surgery training simulator, published in the BMC Ophthalmology article above. See the full paper for more images.

Cognition and behaviour: Could mobile phones affect brain development?

With the development of communication technology and a worldwide increase in the use of mobile phones, the potential adverse effects of mobile phone radiation have become an area of great concern in the field of public health. In particular, the effects that exposure to this form of radiation during the gestation period could have on fetal development are a common concern for pregnant women. This study sought to investigate the effects of exposure to mobile phone radiation during incubation on the postnatal social behavior of chicks. Chicks exposed to radiation during this period showed impaired social behaviors after hatching and signs of possible cerebral retardation, which suggests that exposure to mobile phone radiation could have adverse effects on brain development.

Medical ethics: The role of “citizen science” in biomedical research

The need for increasingly larger participant pools in mainstream biomedical research has led many corporate, academic and governmental research programs to adopt concepts like “citizen science” and “participant-driven research” as a means of recruitment. This strategy aims to encourage the public to become involved in research ventures as both subjects and scientists. In this paper, the authors examined the ethical and social implications of this recruitment strategy, surveying examples outside the field of biomedicine, discussing the use of “citizen science” in the biomedical context and finally looking at two specific examples of citizen engagement being used by national science initiatives. They conclude that such initiatives should be based on policy frameworks and that it is essential that all meanings of the term “citizen science,” the contexts in which it is used, and its demands with respect to participation, engagement, and governance are made visible and clear.

Evolutionary Ecology and Behaviour: Mixed messages in bonobo mating

In species where males compete for access to females, females often display sexual signals, such as swelling of the area surrounding the genitalia, typically thought to be an indication of changes in fecundity. These signals may influence male behavior, as males who detect these cues could change their behavior to maximize mating opportunities and reproductive success. Flexibility and dishonesty in the display of sexual signals could therefore offer an effective strategy for females to manipulate the behavior of males to their advantage and maximize the benefits that they derive from male behaviors such as decreased aggression and increased parental care. This study examined the relationship between ovarian hormones and sexual swellings in wild female bonobo chimpanzees, and found that female swelling was not correlated to the actual timing of ovulation and therefore did not always signal fecundity or imminent ovulation. This provides evidence that sexual swellings of wild female bonobos are a dishonest signal of their ability to conceive, potentially preventing males from engaging in the aggressive mate-guarding seen in common chimpanzees.

Behavioural ecology: Latrine communication in urban vs rural rabbits

Latrines play an important role in mammal communication, as these localized sites allow the transmission of information within a social group and between neighboring groups. Latrines deposited along territory boundaries can act as a means of between-group communication, while latrines located in core areas of a group’s territory can facilitate information exchange between the members of the same social group. The importance of each type of marking behavior should vary according to population density and social group sizes, which tend to differ between urban and rural wildlife populations. This study examined variation in latrine-based communication between urban, suburban and rural areas. Rural sites contained the largest latrines and highest latrine density close to the burrow, while latrine dimensions and densities increased with increasing distance from the burrow in urban and suburban populations. This suggests that increased population densities and smaller social group sizes in urban rabbit populations lead to an increased importance of between-group communication, indicating that man-made habitat alterations can directly and indirectly affect wildlife populations.

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