Readers respond to Notre Dame’s uncertain future

Resurrecting sound

Following the April 2019 fire that badly damaged Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral, acoustics researcher Brian Katz and colleagues hope to help restore the cathedral’s iconic sound, Emily Conover reported in “How to restore the legendary acoustics of Notre Dame (SN: 1/18/20, p. 18).

Reader Pamela Dellal found the story moving and comforting. “I am a professional singer who had the irreplaceable privilege of performing in Notre Dame as a soloist, singing music of Hildegard von Bingen dating from the 12th century,” she wrote. “When I heard about the catastrophe, my heart constricted; I felt as if I was losing a friend.” 

Dellal has performed in more than 50 buildings in Europe, Australia and the United States, she wrote. Notre Dame cathedral “was the only space that didn’t simply spread out my sound, but actually picked out individual notes which hung in the space, creating harmony with my subsequent notes. I was not alone; I was singing a duet with the magnificent structure,” she wrote. 

“At that moment, I understood the power of its architecture and how it inspired a revolution in music,” Dellal wrote. “No other space possesses that clarity. If the expertise of Brian Katz is able to restore the unique sound and response of Notre Dame, the entire world will once more be able to experience this phenomenon.”

Traffic jam

When they pile up in brain cells, misfolded proteins called prions can derail energy-producing mitochondria and potentially contribute to cell death, Tina Hesman Saey reported in “Prions clog cell traffic in brains with neurodegenerative diseases” (SN: 1/18/20, p. 11).

Reader Brian Mahood was surprised to learn that prions could diminish or block communication between brain cells. “This might be an irreversible event and thus leave one with ‘holes’ in one’s memory,” Mahood wrote. “I would be grateful if you could clarify this for me.” 

Cell death isn’t great for anything the brain does, including memory, says Science News neuroscience writer Laura Sanders

“But one cell dying on its own, or losing its connections to other cells via prion traffic jams, wouldn’t make a memory ‘hole.’ If that were the case, we’d forget something every time a brain cell died,” Sanders says. Memories are thought to be stored across networks of brain cells, though exactly how is a mystery. “One idea, ironically enough, is a prionlike protein,” she says. 

Brain freeze

A long-term stay at an Antarctic research station may have shrunk a part of crew members’ brains, Aimee Cunningham reported in “Scientists’ brains shrank a bit after an extended stay in Antarctica” (SN: 1/18/20, p. 5).

Reader Dale Cyphert wondered if other areas of the brain became larger when the one part shrank. “Presumably the whole brain didn’t just shrink, but there’s some redistribution of neurological work going on?” he asked.

Other parts of the crew members’ brains did not become larger to compensate for volume loss, Cunningham says. The area of the brain that shrank is especially vulnerable to environmental deprivation. “Although the study is small, the work suggests that the isolation and static environment that the crew members experienced meant this part of their brains wasn’t getting enough stimulation,” she says.

The context in which such brain changes happen matters. Science News neuroscience writer Laura Sanders notes that brain shrinkage doesn’t always imply damage. “Shrinking isn’t necessarily bad,” Sanders says. “And size doesn’t have to track with function.” 

For example, after a woman has a child, her brain shrinks in a way that scientists think specializes the organ and makes it more efficient. “Same goes for teenage brain development,” Sanders says. “Brain connections get refined, and some areas get smaller as the brain matures.”