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Breathtaking Science

Biologists home in on the brain area that drives respiration

Nearly 2,400 years ago in a treatise aptly titled "On Breath," Aristotle posed a question that continues to captivate scientists today: "How can we account for the maintenance of the breath inherent in us, and for its increase?" In a suburb just outside Washington, D.C., Jeffrey C. Smith shows just how close modern researchers are to answering that question. With the aid of a powerful microscope, a computer monitor, a loudspeaker, and an array of other devices, he and a colleague use a minuscule electrode to listen in on the electrical activity of a paper-thin disc of living brain tissue. Every few seconds, the speaker crackles with sound.

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