Friday, September 30, 2011

Dominant personality may be hardcoded in the brain

A study with dominant and subordinate mice suggests that personality traits making one a social leader are likely to be hardcoded in the brain. Researchers of the Chinese Academy of Science discovered that a certain part of the brain, when put in an active state, causes animals to behave in a more dominant way. Moreover, when the researchers silenced this brain area, mice were found to be much less dominant than before. Their discovery is yet another link between brain activity and correspondent behaviour, teaching us more about how our brain is a foundation for the personality we develop during life.

Early steps in tumour formation made more clear

A new technique has given us more insights in how cells start to become cancerous. Scientists observed a process called translocation, where one piece of a chromosome breaks off, and promptly gets tied to another one. By discovering in which way the pieces of DNA reconnect, we now have more information in how these rearrangements can induce cellular events that promote uncontrolled growth. For their experiments, scientists of  The Rockefeller University induced DNA breakdown in chromosomes by a specific enzyme that only cuts the DNA at known locations. Thereafter, they observed which pieces of DNA were able to reconnect with the parts that were broken off. The experiments revealed several aspects of this translocation process, that we may use to prevent the onset of cancer, instead of trying to cure it afterwards.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Autism induced in mice to help us study the disease

Psychological diseases, like autism, are hard to study in animals, because they can not think in the way we humans do. However, in an effort to create a mouse model to study autism, researchers have discovered that mice lacking a certain gene display a lot of the typical autism symptoms that are found in humans, like repetitive behaviour. In addition, autistic mice were found to be less social and vocal than their wildtype counterparts. Perhaps even more surprisingly, treating the mice with a drug that is also used to treat autism in humans, ameliorated the symptoms.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rats get partly 'robot brain'

A new step in the development to create fully-fledged bionic robots, as scientists have replaced part of the rat brain by a chip, which is supposed to mimic its functions. The synthetic implant, which replaces the part of the brain called cerebellum, appears to be functioning in anesthetized rats. Researchers from Tel Aviv University showed that animals in which the cerebellum was replaced by the chip could be taught a reflex. Normally, the cerebellum is needed to coordinate reflex behavior, showing that the digital brain is functional. A first step in replacing brain material with a 'robot version', and something we might harness for patients with brain damage, for example due to stroke.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Protein study shows how our brain forms memories

Studies conducted on a protein called kibra shows how our brain creates and erases memories. Scientists from John Hopkins University used a mouse model where they decreased the amount of kibra in the brain, and showed that animals lacking this protein showed less plasticity, which basically means neurons were less able to make new connections and disconnect from other neurons. This process is highly important in the formation of memories, as they consist of various connections between neurons, linking factors such as smell, vision, taste and other parameters into one cohesive image of the past. The kibra study gives us more insight into the highly complex process of memory formation, and might aid us in developing methods to counter neurodegenerative diseases in which the memory function of the brain is altered, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Potent new compounds found to combat flu

Flu epidemics are a yearly recurring event, caused by the mutational strength of the virus that causes the disease: influenza. Because of the high tendency to mutate, and therefore evade our immune system and the drugs we develop, scientists have been looking at new ways to get rid of the influenza virus. A new method focuses at boosting the body's response, instead of targeting the virus itself. Two new lead compounds that are currently being tested showed high efficacy against three strains of influenza, one of them being the famous viral strain that caused a pandemic in 1918, killing between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. The flu currently kills about half a million people in the world each year. A novel protection mechanism could bring down the number of deaths, as well as rendering the need for yearly flu vaccines unnecessary.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Artificial heart cells beat in response to light

Heart cells created in the lab are able to beat in synchronized fashion by externally controlling them with light. This remarkable feature was artificially built in by scientists from Stanford University, by adopting a gene found in algae. The gene, coding for the light sensitive protein channelrhodopsin-2, was inserted in the genome of human embryonic stem cells, which were consequently directed to transform into heart cells, so called cardiomyocytes. These specialized muscle cells are found in the heart, where their synchronized beating causes the contraction and relaxation needed to pump blood in and from the heart. By controlling the beating process externally with light pulses, scientists may have found a new way to generate pacemakers for artificially constructed heart tissue, that can be used in heart regeneration treatment.

Robot legs help in restoring ability to walk

 People with disabilities can learn to walk again with the aid of robotic legs, that have been developed by the Dutch university of Twente. The artificial limbs have a built in pattern for movement that simulates walking. They can either take over walking completely, or support patients that try to walk themselves. According to the researchers, their construct can be used to aid people in restoring their walking capacities. The robot legs are not mobile, which means paraplegics can not use them to walk down the street. But perhaps future versions can be used as replacements for biological legs.

Moderate alcohol consumption reduces asthma risk

A rather surprising study result, presented at a scientific convention in Amsterdam, shows that moderate intake of alcoholic drinks reduce the chance of developing asthma. Participants who rarely or never drink were found to have an 1.4 times higher chance of obtaining the disease, compared to people who drink moderately, at an average of 1 to 6 units per week. In contrast, heavy drinking is associated with an 1.2 times higher risk of asthma development, but their risk is, surprisingly, still lower than those who rarely or never drink. Before you indulge in binge drinking, excessive intake of alcohol is of course still related to developing other health problems.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Protein switch makes cancer cells self-destruct

A new method developed to fight cancer cells uses a switch to make cancer cells produce their own chemotherapeutic drug, which basically kills them from the inside. The therapy consists of two proteins joined together, which are administered to all cells, healthy and cancerous. Thereafter, the first protein serves as a cancer recognition tool, which in turn activates the second protein. After the protein switch is administered to the cells, an inactive chemotherapeutic drug is added to the mix. The second protein of the fused compound then activates the drug, killing the cell from within. If all goes well, the first protein does not recognize healthy cells as cancerous, which in turn inhibits activating the inactive chemotherapeutic pro-drug. Thereby the scientists have created a protein switch that will only turn on an internal cell killing machine when it recognizes a cancer cell. This approach is radically different from current chemotherapeutic therapies, which are often administered without specifically targeting cancer cells, causing damage in healthy cells.

Prehistoric proteins may solve antibiotic resistance

Despite the constant arms race between new antibiotic compounds and the evolution of pathogenic bacteria, an ancient protein, that has not been seen on the earth for 59 million years, is shown to be effective against a wide range of multi-resistant bacteria. The proteins, named cathelicidins, were derived from scanning the genome of wallabies and platypus and are part of the innate immune system. This part of our immune system is present from birth and is non-specific: it recognizes general microbial patterns that are common among bacteria and viruses. It contrasts with the adaptive immune system, that generates 'killer cells' and antibody producing cells in response to specific markers on the surface of microbes. The crude proteins of the innate immune system could prove to be effective in killing bacteria that have adapted themselves in order to become resistant against most antibiotic compounds. Because bacterial resistance is becoming a widespread problem, cathelicidins might be the answer to stop it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Scan reconstructs images from your brain

We might be one step closer to a mind reading device, as scientists have found a way to reconstruct images from a video that people have seen, by scanning their brain. Scientists from UC Berkeley were able to see what others have seen by putting people in an MRI scanner and let them watch YouTube videos for several hours. The data from the MRI scanner was used to reveal what the participants were looking at. Scary enough, the scientists succeeded, partly. They derived shapes, colours and movement from the participants' brain, which were then matched by a computer model that scant through video details from YouTube, of a total of 18 million seconds. Because we visualize everything we see within our brain, it is possible to match brain activity with an image we see with our eyes. But actually harnessing this data to reconstruct a visual image of what people have seen is extraordinary, and could possibly be used to reconstruct other images in our brains, such as dreams.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

CERN claims particles travel faster than light

New experiments at the labs of CERN, who are famous for the Large Hadron Collider, showed that travelling faster than the speed of light might be possible after all. Scientists claim that they have measured certain particles with a higer speed than that of photons, the particles of light. Because their result is so surprising, the researchers are asking others to validate their results. If they hold to be true, it will radically change our view on the world. As far as we know, nothing can travel faster than light. We all know E=MC², though we might not all know what it means, but with these results, Einstein's famous equation may not be right after all. He assumed, like we all do now, that nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Genetic analysis reveals new ways for nerve repair

Neurons are well-known for their poor capacity of regeneration or repair. In the case of brain or spinal cord damage, repair is almost impossible, often leaving permanent damage in the case of stroke or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. While scientists have looked at artificial ways of restoring neurons after damage, a research group has found 70 genes that could be used for repair mechanisms already present in the body. Discovering how these genes work, which proteins they produce and their behaviour after neuronal damage could tell us more about how we can get the body to repair neuronal damage.

Reviving stem cells may improve our life span

The body needs stem cells for the constant renewal of cells. It is said that certain organs can be completely renewed in a few months time, which means stem cells have replaced all of the old cells. This is because differentiated cells have a limited life span, while stem cells have the capacity of self-renewal. However, stem cells also reduce their functionality over time, and scientists hypothesize that the ageing of stem cells correspond to our own ageing process. Turning back the clock on stem cells could help us reach older age, and that is exactly what researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have done. A study with human stem cells showed that rejuvenation is possible, and that typical stem cell properties can be restored.

Electrical stimulation generates memory brain cells

Brain cells, predominantly being neurons, are known for their limited ability to be repaired by the body. In an effort to boost the brain in generating new neurons, scientists have found that electrically stimulating a specific region of the brain generates fresh cells in the so called hippocampus; the memory center of the brain. The Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) was deployed on mice, which caused a twofold increase in new cells, lasting up to a week. The researchers made the mice perform memory tasks, showing that mice receiving the electrical stimulation have a better functioning memory. This could possible be relevant for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other memory disorders.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Genetic code in food may influence our physiology

'You are what you eat' is a saying that is very true, as we build up our organs with the stuff that enters our body through the digestive tract. However, recent research shows that food components may influence more than we previously thought.  A certain type of genetic code, so called micro RNAs, that we readily ingest by eating plant material, is able to influence physiological processes in our body. Scientists found that the micro RNA with number 168α is able to impair our ability to filter cholesterol out of the blood.

'Shark molecule' protects against many diseases

A molecule called squalamine seems effective against an unusual broad spectrum of diseases. It was already known that this molecule, which was originally isolated from sharks in 1993, is able to kill bacteria and protect the body against cancerous cells. Now, researchers have found that squalamine is also effective in preventing cells of being infected by a variety of viruses. In addition, it also prevents eye disease called macular degeneration. Compounds which are effective against multiple diseases are not rare, but squalamine's seems to be effective against diseases that are completely distinct from each other, making it an interesting potential therapeutic agent.

Yawning is linked to regulation of brain temperature

Have you ever found yourself yawning in response to watching other people yawn? This is mostly regarded as a socially developed phenomenon, but new research shows that there might actually be a physiological mechanism driving this behavior. While most of us would think that yawning is a sign of sleepiness, Americans researchers have discovered that people tend to yawn less during the summer. This was tested in the desert climate of the American state of Arizona, which has a relatively large difference in average temperature between summer and winter. According to the scientists, the percentage of participants who yawned in response to seeing pictures of yawning people differed significantly between the two seasons:  in the winter, with lower ambient temperatures, the proportion of people who yawned was much greater, adding to the hypothesis that yawning is a so-called thermoregulator. Therefore, yawning could be a mechanism to cool off the brain, despite simply being regarded as an indication of sleepiness.

Brightest light waves ever created are useful for medical imaging

With gamma ray radiation, which is electromagnetic radiation of a very short wavelength, scientists created a beam a thousand billion times brighter than the sun. With this, they hope to improve imaging techniques in medicine. In order to create this incredible intense beam, researchers at the university of Strathclyde fired laser pulses at ionized gas, causing a release of electromagnetic energy that the world has not yet seen before. The resulting gamma ray beam should be able to visualize structures that with other imaging techniques were too faint to see properly. In addition, the beams could be landing a job as cancer treatment in a new form of radiotherapy. Also worth noting is that the novel method of creating gamma rays is cheaper than conventional methods.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The liver can defend itself by eating immune cells

Normally, the body deploys cytotoxic T-lymphocytes to clear the body of unwanted cells or to defend it from bacteria and other pathogens. These so-called CD8+ lymphocytes have special equipment to for their destructive actions. Normally, when cells need to be cleared from the body, for example because they are cancerous or otherwise damaged, the CD8+ cells are able to do their work undisturbed. Liver cells, however, seem to have found an unusual way to fight back against the immune system. A study conducted in mice shows that liver cells, which are called hepatocytes, are able to eat the CD8+ immune cells and therefore escape destruction.

Software aids in unraveling genetic code

The Craig Venter Institute, named after the scientist that published the full genetic code of the human genome, developed software that makes sequencing DNA a lot easier. Their method is especially useful for bacteria that can not be cultured in the lab: in order to unravel the genetic code with conventional means, billions of cells have to be grown before enough DNA is available to properly assess the genetic sequence. This means that scientists gain access to the possibility of elucidating the genetic code of countless bacterial species, giving us insight in how certain characteristics are stored in DNA, such as resistance against antibiotics and other bacterial behavior. Additionally, we may harness the genetic code we find to create new capabilities for genetically modified micro-organisms.

Intense workouts make you live much longer

Despite the common belief that for the effectiveness of exercise, length is the most important factor, Danish researchers have discovered that it is in fact the intensity of the workout that is most beneficial for your health. A study on cyclists shows that men who ride their bike with high intensity live longer than men who cycle with a low intensity: the difference is on average a stunning 5.3 years. Cyclists with moderate intensity live 2.9 years longer than their low intensity counterparts. The differences for the female groups are 3.9 and 2.2 years longer respectively.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Marker causes cancer cells to light up during surgery

Small tumors can be hard to spot during surgical removal. Often, surgeons cut away extra tissue, just to be on the safe side. A new fluorescent marker developed for ovarian cancer highlights which cells are cancerous, which makes more precise and complete removal of malignant tissue possible. To make ovarian tumors glow, scientists coupled a fluorescent molecule with folate, which is commonly known as vitamin B9. Because most cancers in the ovary express high levels of the receptor to which folate binds, the fluorescent conjugate attaches specifically to tumor cells.

Low-fat yogurt increases an unborn child's asthma risk

Pregnant women better not consume any low-fat yogurt, new studies suggest. According to scientists from Harvard, daily consumption of low-fat yogurt by pregnant women increased the risk on asthma for their offspring by 1.6. It is also linked to an increased risk of hay fever. The study was conducted to assess whether fatty acids from dairy products protect against the development of allergies such as asthma, which makes the outcome quite surprising.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Infrared laser makes electron movement visible

By hitting an atom with a rotating infrared laser, scientists have visualized the path of an electron. For their experiments, they used a special hydrogen ion, composed of two protons and just one electron. Having only one electron is probably easier to track, but nevertheless the result is astonishing: for the first time, we are able to see an electron depart from an atom with our own eyes, and track its movement and behaviour. 

A promising new lead for HIV vaccination

Antibodies that bind to an HIV molecule responsible for entry of the virus into the cell, could possibly be used in a vaccine that protects against HIV infection. Studies have shown that so called broadly neutralizing antibodies (BNAbs) are able to bind to the virus in such a manner that entry into T-lymphocytes, immune cells that are normally infected by HIV, is inhibited. A specific version of these BNAbs, called VRC01 is the most promising when it comes to blocking infection.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New treatment for cancer by virus infection

The vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) is seemingly able to infect cancer cells and kill them. This could open up a whole new area of cancer treatment. According to scientists of the University of Kopenhagen, VSV is able to infect and kill human cancer cells in the lab. Interestingly, the virus has a second way of getting rid of cancer cells: it also prevents expression of certain molecules by the cancer cells, that helps them escape from the immune system of the body.

New stem cell promises spinal cord regeneration

A new type of cell found in the spinal cord possibly functions as a stem cell that is capable of neuronal regeneration. This means that, for example, paralysis, induced by spinal cord injury, maybe cured in the future by activating these cells to produce neuronal tissue. Researchers of the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health used genetic screening to discover a type of cell that shares characteristics with radial glial cells, that are normally involved with the development of the central nervous system in the embryo, but have never been found before in adults. These newly found adult radial glial cells also share a set of genes with other potential neuronal stem cells, but they vastly outnumber them, making radial glial cells a promising therapeutic target.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stem cells from the uterus are effective in diabetes treatment

Stem cells are known for their ability to differentiate into many cell types. It is no wonder that scientists are exploring the possibilities of turning them into cells of our choice, in order to recreate tissues where the body is unable to do so. In a latest effort in the ongoing battle to cure Diabetes, researchers have found that stem cells of the stromal lining of the uterus are seemingly capable of curing the disease in mice. In Diabetes Mellitus type 1 (DM1), the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels, are being destroyed by the immune system. Over the years, many different methods have been explored to restore the insulin producing capabilities of the body. Transplant of pancreatic islets, which include the ß-cells that normally produce insulin, are a promising novel therapeutic for DM1, but turning stem cells into insulin producing factories promises treatment that is less invasive and possibly more effective.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Life could possibly be based on metal

In an attempt to synthesize living cells, Scottish researchers have found a rather unusual way to go about it. In a lab in Glasgow they managed to create cell-like bubbles, called iCHELLs, using metals linked to oxygen and phosphorus. Because the resulting metallic compounds are insoluble in water, all it took was shaking it a bit to let them self-assemble into spheres that have cell-like properties. And apparently, they are more than just bubbles. For example, the oxide atoms in the metallic sphere can form a structure that resembles a pore in the cell membrane, which allows influx and efflux of molecules, a basal and essential feature of cells.

Glowing cats could help in AIDS research

In an effort to create new methods for research on AIDS, scientists have made transgenic cats that possess a green fluorescent glow. How is a glowing cat useful, you might ask. Well, the researchers made a genetic construct that links a gene that protects against HIV infection to a gene that causes green fluorescence, the famous Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). The HIV protection gene is named TRIMCyp, and is derived from Rhesus monkeys, which are known to be HIV resistant. The whole construct is transfected into the germline of a domestic cat, which means as much as that the offspring will have the genetic construct in all of their cells. And it appears that cats possessing TRIMCyp are in fact resistant against HIV. This could be a promising lead for the development of HIV protection in humans.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New social network requires sign-up with stool sample

A new social network has a rather interesting way of connecting people: a German initiative called MyMicrobes aims at connecting people with the same intestinal characteristics. Their purpose is to let people with a comparable set of microbes in their guts connect with each other and share questions and experiences about any intestinal complaints they might have. This involves sharing information about diets and dealing with gastrointestinal nuisances. Currently, there are around 130 members.

Chocolate consumption reduces cardiovascular disease

At the university of Cambridge, scientists discovered that eating chocolate is not only pleasant, it is also healthy. Combining various studies showed that high chocolate consumption decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease with 37 percent. When only considering stroke, the researchers found a decrease in risk of 29 percent. A result many of us will welcome, considering chocolate is something people enjoy eating. However, before indulging in the consumption of vast amounts of the brown goods, do realize that chocolate will still make you fat. The meta-study by the British researchers comprised of a total of 114,000 people.

Because the study consisted of putting together a large dataset from various studies, the researchers gave no explanation for the underlying mechanism that could possibly explain the beneficial effects of chocolate consumption. However, the mechanistic effect of chocolate in the body sparks a lot of interest, so no doubt that we will see a fair amount of research on the matter. I suppose it will not be hard to find participants in a study regarding the consumption of chocolate.

I wonder, if in the future it will be possible to get chocolate bars refunded from your medical insurance.