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Screams of Joy and Modern People

Health, psychology and technology were the most popular topics covered by media releases on the University of Zurich’s research projects in 2021. Worldwide, news that the modern human brain evolved in Africa and that we perceive shrieks of joy more intensely than roars of rage were the two most reported stories out of UZH.
Melanie Nyfeler


Skulls of early Homo from Georgia with an ape-like brain (left) and from Indonesia with a human-like brain (right). (Image: M. Ponce de León and Ch. Zollikofer, UZH) Skulls of early Homo from Georgia with an ape-like brain (left) and from Indonesia with a human-like brain (right). (Image: M. Ponce de León and Ch. Zollikofer, UZH)


The University of Zurich media relations team published 84 press releases last year, reporting on landmark research findings from all the university’s faculties. In addition to health-related topics – no surprise in a media environment driven by Covid-19 – new scientific findings in evolutionary history and psychology were also picked up with particular frequency worldwide.

Here are the 10 most successful UZH news releases of 2021 in print and online – on four occasions, more than one billion potential readers were reached online:

1. Modern Brain from Africa
Reported on more than 420 times, the clear front runner is the news that the modern human brain originated in Africa about 1.7 million years ago. Christoph Zollikofer and Marcia Ponce de León of the Department of Anthropology used computed tomography analyses of fossilized skulls to show that the brain enlarged over time, especially in the forehead area. This frontal lobe area is responsible for planning and executing complex patterns of thought and action, and ultimately for language – in other words, for meeting the demands of modern life. The news went around the world billions of times – from Europe to America, through South Africa, India and China. To the Media Release

2. Cries of Joy Perceived More Intensely
Cheers rang out at UZH about a record-breaking potential readership of around 1.7 billion people for the news release Joyful Screams Perceived More Strongly than Screams of Fear or Anger. Sascha Frühholz and his team found that the human brain is better able to process positive cries than alarming ones. A total of 318 articles reported the findings, from El Pais in Spain and The Guardian in the United Kingdom, to the Süddeutsche Zeitung and America’s CNN. To the Media Release

3. New Active Ingredient to Combat Alzheimer’s
The news that the substance aducanumab, discovered at the University of Zurich, has been approved as an Alzheimer’s drug in the USA caused a very big stir, especially in Switzerland. Researchers at UZH and the spin-off Neurimmune succeeded in identifying protective antibodies against protein deposits in the brains of healthy older people as well as those with slow-progressing dementia. It is hoped that the drug can be used to slow progression of the disease. In total, there were 140 print and online articles in Switzerland about this medical breakthrough, and another 170 abroad. To the Media Release

4. Autonomous Drones Go Faster
Competitive drone racing drives innovation: Davide Scaramuzza and his robotics and perception group developed a new algorithm that calculates the optimal trajectory of an autonomous drone around a series of waypoints, at the same time taking into account the drone’s energy capacity. Crucially, the drones controlled by the algorithm fly through a race circuit faster than when steered by professional human pilots. The robot race went global with 307 articles, reaching 1.5 billion potential readers. To the Media Release

5. Unhealthy Sugar Consumption
Too much sugar is bad for you, our mothers always warned us, and now scientists have found yet more evidence to back them up: Philipp Gerber of the Department of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Clinical Nutrition and his team found that a moderate 80 grams of sugar a day – around 0.8 liters of a conventional soft drink – stimulates fat production in the liver and increases the risk of developing diabetes or fatty liver. This bad news for those with a sweet tooth was reported 260 times worldwide, mainly online. To the Media Release

6. Miniature Human Tissue Grown in Space
UZH research aims high, as professor of anatomy Oliver Ullrich demonstrated: His UZH Space Hub, together with Airbus Defense and Space, managed to grow miniature human tissue on the International Space Station. One day, it should be possible to produce 3D organoids in zero gravity conditions for use on Earth. The project attracted national and international media attention: It was reported on 253 times, including in Zeit Online, Stern, and Sputnik in Brazil. To the Media Release

7. Meaningful Marmoset Chatter
Marmosets perceive the vocal interactions between their conspecifics as coherent conversations and also evaluate their content, found the anthropologists Rahel Brügger and Judith Burkart. The news spread quickly, with more than 250 articles reaching around 1 billion potential readers worldwide. To the Media Release

8. Harmless Colds Can Also Protect Against Covid-19
Covid-19 continued to be omnipresent in the media in 2021. Particularly well-received was a study by virologist Alexandra Trkola showing that, in addition to vaccination, immune responses to other, harmless cold-causing coronaviruses may confer some protection against SARS-CoV-2. There were 245 reports worldwide on this cross-reaction as an important piece of the SARS-CoV-2 immunity puzzle. To the Media Release

9. Making Tumors Eliminate Themselves
A new UZH technology enables the human body to produce therapeutic agents on demand at the exact location where they are needed – for example in cases of cancer, According to the study by biochemist Andreas Plückthun and team, the tumor could therefore be made to eliminate itself. Around 220 media outlets worldwide reported on this innovation, primarily online. To the Media Release

10. App to Change Your Personality
It’s not just cells that can change, your personality can too. Psychologist Mathias Allemand, together with an international team, was able to show that a smartphone app can lead to desired personality changes in three months. Three months after the daily intervention, the changes were still noticeable. This positive news that old experience and behavior patterns can be changed in a targeted way was picked up 168 times by the media. To the Media Release

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