Christmas toys playing a role in scientific discovery

Toys aren’t just sitting under the Christmas tree patiently waiting to be opened, they are also playing a significant role in scientific research at Cardiff University.

Right across the University, the gifts old and young might receive this year are helping further our understanding of human development, democratising biomedical research, or helping shed light on some of the universe’s unanswered questions.

Barbie and the brain

Researchers have found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone.

The study, in collaboration with Mattel, is the first to use neuroimaging data to understand brain activation during natural doll play, providing insights into the developmental aspects of this type of play.

They found that the pSTS, a region of the brain associated with social information processing such as empathy, was activated even when children played with dolls on their own, regardless of gender.

"We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other."

Making video games more inclusive

Video games are now one of the most common forms of entertainment. About half of all gamers are female, but there are still stark imbalances in how video games represent different genders.

Researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Glasgow conducted the largest-ever study of dialogue in video games, analysing over 13,000 characters in 50 role-playing video games. The study revealed twice as much male dialogue as female dialogue on average. In 94% of the games studied, male dialogue outweighed female dialogue. This included games with multiple female protagonists like Final Fantasy X-2 or King’s Quest VII.

The same imbalances were found in minor characters and persisted even when taking into account player choices about protagonist gender and optional dialogue.

While the team also found the proportion of female dialogue is slowly increasing, they calculated that if this trend were to continue, it would still take more than a decade to reach parity. Furthermore, there were few characters in non-binary gender categories: only 30 out of 13,000, or about half as much as in real life.

LEGO in the lab

A 3D bioprinter constructed entirely from LEGO has been engineered by a team from Cardiff University to create affordable, scalable and reproducible tissue models.

Imagined, designed and built by Dr Christopher Thomas, Dr Oliver Castell and Dr Sion Coulman from Cardiff’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the printer is capable of printing biological material - such as skin cells.

Dr Coulman said: "We set out to create a bioprinter that anyone can build, with minimal funds and that’s exactly what we have achieved. Our paper intentionally details every element of the build, including the specific LEGO parts used, as well as its capability, so that it can be easily replicated in any lab, anywhere in the world."

Human tissue samples are needed for biomedical research to help advance scientific understanding of thousands of medical conditions as well as to develop effective treatments. While 3D bioprinting offers hope for the development of these samples, it can be prohibitively expensive and off-the shelf devices can often be limited in their useability in the lab.

Dr Castell added: "We’ve demonstrated that, despite being constructed from an inexpensive and simple construction tool, this bioprinter is highly engineered and achieves the required level of precision to produce delicate biological material without any compromise in its performance."

Printing skin using Cardiff University’s 3D bioprinter made from Lego

While the research is still in its infancy, it is hoped that in the future, the LEGO 3D bioprinter could help further our understanding of disease, contribute to tissue engineering and repair, and enable personalised medicine through the printing of cultured patient cells.

The Cardiff team is already undertaking further research to create viable skin models through the bioprinter which could be used to test treatments for skin disease and skin cancer, or to create skin grafts to replace damaged skin.

Dr Castell said: "By making our printer readily available, we hope researchers will adopt this technology to share expertise and develop the model with additional LEGO components for the benefit of the entire biomedical research community."

A celestial Christmas

For aspiring astronomers, a telescope might be on the list to Santa this year.

And while many of the researchers at Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy still remember their very first bit of stargazing kit, they now focus their efforts on observations made by facilities costing millions and sometimes billions of pounds.

Some are working on observations made by the Webb Space Telescope - the largest, most powerful and most complex telescope ever launched into space.

An international programme led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, Webb launched on Christmas Day 2021.

The premier observatory of the next decade, it will enable astronomers worldwide to study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of stellar and planetary systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

And Cardiff University’s astronomers have already started to do just that, using Webb to unlock mysteries of exploding stars , analyse planets that may support life and reveal structures that no previous telescope could detect.