Scientists combine their efforts to understand the Cybercrime Mind

‘Research Report’ b

y Lynne Friedman

Fighting cyber threats requires more than just understanding technology: It requires understanding human nature.

With the aid of a $10 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, computer scientists at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and George Mason University will map out the illicit activities taking place in the cybersecurity underworld in an effort to understand how the cybercriminal mind works.

Among their goals, researchers will investigate how criminals make money, their economic and social relationships and the various ways they interact with victims and defenders to achieve their goals.

This effort is an extension of a decade-long cybersecurity collaboration by the Berkeley and San Diego teams that recently made headlines for charting the complete “value chain” for e-mail spam. By studying both technical and economic relationships involved in making spam profitable, vulnerable links in the value chain were discovered.

For example, the study identified just three banks as handling payments for 95 percent of spam-advertised products. This represents a “choke point” that might be more effectively targeted than trying to address technological issues involving spam.

— More information at

BPA’s real threat is after metabolizing

Bisphenol A (or BPA) is a synthetic chemical widely used in the making of plastic products and is linked to multiple human health threats.

When plastics degrade, BPA is released into the environment and routinely ingested. Because the chemical’s molecular structure is similar to that of estradiol, one of the human body’s three main estrogen hormones, there is concern that BPA can bind to estrogen receptors and in doing so disrupt the body’s endocrine system.

Research from the UC San Diego School of Medicine suggests, however, it is the metabolic changes that take place after BPA is broken down inside the body that pose a greater health threat. A BPA metabolite – a molecule produced when BPA is metabolized — was shown to bind to the estrogen receptor much more strongly than BPA itself.

— The study appears in journal PLOS ONE. News release at

Elusive trigger of suckling behavior found

Suckling by newborns is an example of an instinctive behavior hard-wired into the mammalian brain. But little is known about how suckling and other innate behaviors are coded in the brain, what triggers them, and what represses them. Now, a team led by biologists at The Scripps Research Institute has solved the suckling-response mystery in mice.

Researchers set out to find a specific odor (pheromone) trigger by systematically subtracting maternal fluids (milk, saliva, amniotic fluid) from the environment of newborn mice and hoping to see delay or elimination of first suckling. But it soon became clear that no single component of these fluids triggered the behavior. Instead the results indicated that a blend of chemicals specific for each mouse mother is required to initiate suckling.

However, the mouse brain does not recognize this maternal “signature blend” automatically; it must learn the signature blend before it is able to suckle. This occurs during a narrow time window after birth. Key to all of this is the newborn’s main olfactory epithelium (MOE)—the principal smell organ, located within the nasal passages. In fact, without the MOE, newborn mice fail to suckle and die.

— The findings appear in the journal Current Biology. News release at

Lynne Friedmann is a science

writer based in Solana Beach.