Lisa Sundin; Golden Rice Project; Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

Top Stories: Defining Consciousness, Better Biofuels, and the Brain’s Final Moments

Probing the Brain’s Final Moments

What people experience as death creeps in—after the heart stops and the brain becomes starved of oxygen—seems to lie beyond the reach of science. But the authors of a new study on dying rats make a bold claim: After cardiac arrest, the rodents’ brains enter a state similar to heightened consciousness in humans. The researchers suggest that if the same is true for people, such brain activity could be the source of the visions and other sensations that make up so-called near-death experiences.

Will House Science Panel Need an Ethical Review?

Earlier this month, the chair of the House of Representative’s science committee Lamar Smith (R-TX) subpoenaed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for data from decades-old air pollution studies. Now, the panel’s top Democrat is questioning the wisdom of the move, and has suggested that the committee might need an independent oversight board to approve its use of sensitive data.

A Magnetic Trick to Define Consciousness

Consciousness isn’t easy to define, but we know it when we experience it. It’s not so simple to decide when someone else is conscious, however, as doctors must sometimes do with patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury. In fact, an estimated 40% of patients initially judged to be completely unaware are later found to have some level of consciousness. Now, researchers have come up with an approach that uses the brain’s response to magnetic stimulation to judge a person’s awareness, reducing it to a numerical score they call an index of consciousness.

Fixing Climate Not So Easy

In the quest to head off rising global temperatures, some scientists have argued for steep curbs in how much soot and methane are released into the air. But a new study suggests that targeting such emissions in the next couple of decades may not help reduce rates of global warming as much as we thought.

Want Better Biofuels? Get the Wood Out

Trees and plants contain a component called lignin that helps them stand up straight but also makes it difficult to turn them into biofuel. Now, scientists have figured out a way to remove lignin without making plants fall over or stop growing too much. The new technique makes it easier to get at the sugar-rich cellulose needed to make fuel, and could pave the way for cheaper and better biofuels.