Alzheimer’s: Darkening Corners of Once Bright Minds

November 26th 1901 saw the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, Alois Alzheimer, historically cement his observations of the first woman to ever be diagnosed with the condition, Auguste Deter, 51 years old.  ‘She sits on the bed with a helpless expression… she looked as if she didn’t understand the question… she seems trying to remember… her spontaneous speech is full of paraphrasic derailments and perseverations’.

Over a century later, the disease’s namesake holds strong.

Alois Alzheimer

Dr Alois Alzheimer

With an estimated 650,000 people in the UK suffering from dementia, set to rise to 1 million by 2021, an ageing population and consideration of how the disease causes once bright minds, to see glints of memories passed consumed into oblivion; the recent rise in research funding towards this field, could not have come sooner.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, with a range of effects, from the characteristic loss of memory to the disintegration of reasoning skills. The root causes remain obscure, however it seems evident that the brain experiences atrophy – a process whereby the brain itself wastes away in accordance with the degeneration of neurons. Spreading over time, this degeneration will affect many areas, such as the hippocampus whose function is linked to memory, and grey matter, involved in the processing of thoughts. On November 4th, 1904, Alois Alzheimer spoke of this ‘unusual disease of the cerebral cortex’. In reference to the post-mortem pathological examination of 55 year old Auguste Deter, he revealed that ‘in the centre of an otherwise almost normal (neuron) cell there stands out one or several fibrils due to their characteristic thickness and peculiar impregnability’; in fact studies have gone on to show an abnormal amount of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brains of affected patients. The unusual ‘thickness’ and ‘impregnability’ Alois described is therefore likely to be a reflection of the protein and fibres building up in the brain, this correlates with a lower efficiency of the transmission of messages, and the eventual destruction of these cells.

‘All in all we have to face a peculiar disease process which has been verified recently in large numbers.’

Alzheimers womanWhile promises of a brave new world, in which disease has been annihilated, never rests far from the consciousness of numerous scientists, the people need to know how to actively impact their own health. While they battle through obstacles in pursuit for the final solution, remember that all knowledge is power and the following aims to outline risk factors; the A.l.z.h.e.i.m.e.r.s of Alzheimer’s disease:

Age – is the greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease. After reaching 65 the risk doubles every 5 years and nearly half the people over 85 have Alzheimer’s. It is apparent that increasing age means increasingly increasing disease susceptibility and understanding the exact reasons for this could not only be of paramount importance to curing Alzheimer’s, but also numerous other age-onset diseases.

Lifestyle – it goes without saying that the decisions we make in everyday life, have a significant impact on our long term health. Stoptober has arrived, so why not take the opportunity to kick those butts out for good – see https://stoptober.smokefree.nhs.uk/ for further information. Controlling high blood pressure/ blood glucose if you have diabetes, reducing cholesterol level, maintaining a healthy weight with regular exercise and a healthy balanced diet – all of these will work towards lowering your risk for this destructive disease. Whilst the market continues to floods with ‘miracle drugs’ claiming a number of arguably beneficial effects, remember to always consult with a practitioner.

Z..umba! – This fun dancercise may be a good way to begin increasing your exercise intake, especially if the thought of a room, full of daunting equipment sends a chill down your spine.

Heart Disease – a number of lifestyle factors and conditions associated with vascular disease and stroke can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, these include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking.

Early detection – In addition to the above suggestions, make sure you take full advantage of regular health checks as you get older. In England, Wales and N.Ireland, only 44% of people with dementia are thought to have received a formal diagnosis.

Inheritance – Genetic factors are known to play a role in the development of some forms of Alzheimer’s disease, as it can be seen to run in the family – one form is a single gene disorder. Three genes have been identified (the strongest being apolipoprotein e4 (APOE e4), it is important to note that they only account for less than 5% of cases and most genetic mechanisms for the disease in families if largely unknown. In additions the early a person experiences symptoms, the stronger the genetic influence on it’s development e.g. symptoms appearing in the 40’s or 50’s. However, having a family member suffer from the disease, does not necessarily put others at risk for various reasons – namely, they may have not had the defective gene/s passed on. If you are concerned about inheritance, consult your doctor who may be able to refer you for genetics counselling and advice.

Mild cognitive impairment – People who suffer from MCI encounter symptoms of cognitive decline and memory difficulties. These symptoms are not strong enough for a dementia diagnosis, however they are more severe than would be expected for their given age – this increases the risk of developing dementia later in life, however delaying or even preventing the progression all together is still possible.

Education – Studies have shown that a chronic engagement in mentally stimulating activities may be associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disesase – including higher levels of formal education, activities such as playing a musical instrument and maintaining a stimulating occupation. In this way, the brain may be developing more connections between neurons.

Relax – Studies have also shown an association between socially stimulating activities and a reduced risk of developing the conditions. Enjoying an active life, packed with personal hobbies and interests may also act in the favour of prevention or slower progression.

Sex – Alzheimer’s disease has a higher prevalence in women (67%) than men (44%).

Is Ageing A Disease?

ageingWith mice being genetically engineered to live 26% longer than average, age-incidence of a broad spectrum of age-related disease being reduced in the lab and dietary restriction significantly increasing lifespan across species, research seeking treatment for ageing is in action. Telomere modification, free radical level reduction and human growth hormone replacement, all dawn as promising avenues, which may not only decelerate, but may one day reverse the changes associated with ageing. Whilst, current knowledge of the biology of ageing remains too incomplete to assess whether interventions, such as the above, will one day extend average and maximum lifespan, one must the core question: Is ageing even a disease?

Diseases should be cured, it is accepted that this includes age-related diseases. From cancer to neurodegenerative diseases, age is the major risk factor for the majority of these serious illnesses. Treating each individual disease, has a relatively small effect on life expectancy, compared to tackling the process of ageing itself was treated. The definition of disease is historically ambiguous and sensitive to cultural perspectives, homosexuality used to be thought of as a mental illness and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease was only defined as a pathology in 1977. Disease is regarded clinically as the state in which the limits of the normal have been transgressed, health is considered in terms of the absence of disease and expected level of function, at a given gender and age. As ageing is universal, it would seem it is natural, but this does not alter the reality that ageing is a deterioration of normal function. If chronological devices exist, all bodies that exist can be said to age relative to the measurements provided by this, in this way physicians are interested in a set of biological changes over time, such as a higher frequency of cells with chromosomal aberrations in the elderly to decreased melanin formation and white hairs (Hayflick 1974), these changes are universal and inevitable. However, universality and inevitability do not disproof ageing as a disease, rather a special type of disease which everyone inevitably endures.

As one ages, a number of pathologies are gained, to include loss of homeostasis and molecular damage accumulation, which result in the same outcome as severe disease states – death. The perspective of modern biogerontology concludes there is little to distinguish ageing from  a disease state, yet there is a reluctance to view ageing itself as a disease. These unremarkable natural processes in the aged, are confidently viewed as disease where they occur in the young, for example consider the premature ageing disease, progeria. Weismann (1891) argued that ageing and debilitation must be seen as the organism’s new mutational and adaptive responses to fluctuating environments, so ageing benefits the population by removing the superannuated and allowing evolutionary change to take place, which implies ageing to be a very natural part of life. Paradoxically, the evolutionary theory of ageing (ageing being a consequence of a reduction in the force of selection against mutations with deleterious effects later in life, leads to accumulation within population alleles with deleterious effects) potentially illustrates ageing as a lethal genetic disease, with no purpose in terms of fitness. It has been put forward, that evolutionary selection rarely act on entire species or population, rather on individuals and their phenotypic traits which may confer an advantage in certain environments, increasing the likelihood of passing on genes. In this way it is more likely that ageing can be seen as a lethal genetic disease, rather than an evolutionary process under selection. So should ageing be redefined? It seems appropriate, furthermore, a clinical redefinition of ageing as a disease state may lead to added benefits, such as proper safety and efficiency testing of anti-ageing treatments.

Obvious personal, social, economic and environmental problems spring to mind when considering life extension, although a similar change occurred since ancient times (e.g. compare Ancient Assyrians Hebrews and Romans to Syrians, israelis greeks and italians today there has been an increase from 35 to 75 years) and human nature has been able to cope, granted this is no proof that it will be able to do it again given a much greater scale of change. Nevertheless, this does not hold as a compelling argument against the research; with a clever enough government, policies can be put in place when the time comes.

Image reproduced from scmnewused.blogspot.com

Right Mind; Appropriate Perception

Artistic impression of the knee joint, inlcuding the often overlooked Popliteus Muscle crossing the back of the knee

Episodic or lifelong knee pain is increasingly familiar to a greater number of people. Amongst young adults, the most common pain is of the lower fraction, just below the patella (knee cap), and towards the inner side of the knee. Clinically this is referred to as Prepatellar Bursitis, common diagnoses are; patella tendonitis, Osgood-shlatter disease, chondromalacia patellae or even plica syndrome.

Yet it is comforting to recognize that what manifested the same in its clinical stage is often treated the same, and non-invasively; surgery is only sponsored in the more extreme cases, and only when propped up with an initial exploratory arthroscopy. The common non-invasive treatment is referred to as RICE; Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.

The proprioceptive idiom is a basic instrument of injury rehabilitation and sports specific training. Though the proprioceptive organ in humans still remains unsolved, many are in agreement that the phenomenon is endorsed at all levels and all body systems; from our skin, our respiratory system, to our eyes; when one fails, others pick up the slack.

With the London Olympics we saw the rise in the popularity of blue sports tape amongst the athletes. While there are many premade support equipments for knee pain like Prepatellar Bursitis, i.e. patella straps or jumpers knee strap, for my part at least, sports tapping has proved more beneficial.

Sports tape not only allows you to determine the degree and specificity of support given, a roll of tape allows you to cater for any other knee, ankle, hip or back problems suffered. All you need is a good quality sports tape, perhaps some under wrap and additional support tape, though this is not always necessary, coupled with an educational video provided by the familiar public video channel.

Taping provides greater skin contact than many premade supports, with the better quality tapes providing new natural movement; this increases our propreoceptive response and as such gives us a greater awareness of our knee and its weaknesses. It is important to note however that like with standard plasters some people may have a reaction to the tapes adhesive.

The Latin hybrid; propreoception, commonly dubbed as ‘own’s one’, owes an embellished footnote to its literate architect, as we see the fruits of decade’s worth of research coming to the fore, alongside the leaps in kinaesthetic understanding; specifically the sense model of body motion.

Bibliography

Bear, M.F. Connors, B.W. Paradiso, M.A. (2007) Neuroscience, Exploring the Brain, 3rd Edition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, USA. Chapter 13; p438

Links

http://www.drdavidgeier.com/injuries/

http://usaproductions.org/resources/team-clinic

http://www.floridaortho.com/foisports/patient_brochure/knee_pain.html

http://www.journalofprolotherapy.com/index.php/prolotherapy-of-the-arcuate-ligament-of-the-knee/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proprioception

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osgood–Schlatter_disease

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plica_syndrome

http://www.drdavidgeier.com/injuries/plica-syndrome/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chondromalacia_patellae

http://www.acti-tape.com/

http://youtu.be/e0Nxioeg314

http://www.springerlink.com/content/9jw3h9lpdjb0npye/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-097X.1990.tb00828.x/abstract

Are You A Man or A Mouse?

How the Mus musculus is furthering our understanding of human inherited diseases

In 1907 Cuenot mated two yellow mice giving an unexpected, unmendelian 2:1 offspring ratio.
5 years later Castle and Little repeated the experiment, determining that 1 in every fourth offspring had died during embryonic development.
Nearly a century ago, mice where already paving the way to crucial discoveries, such as that of lethal genes, imagine what they have taught us to this day.

Are you a man or a mouse?

The film set of a laboratory is never truly complete without several cages of our rodent acquaintances, the Mus musculus. However, it may come as a shock to know that these creatures are lifting the lid on a number of human inherited diseases such as Marfan’s Syndrome, which affects 1 in 4,000 people and Huntington’s disease affecting 1 in 15,000. The concept of man and mouse being essentially constructed by nearly identical genetic instructions seems ludicrous; nevertheless scientifically unravelling our genetic code has brought up numerous startling findings.

The human genome consists of approximately 20,000-25,000 genes, hereditary units of coded information determining specific characteristics displayed by living organisms and unnervingly more than 3,700 are known to have 100,000 germline mutations associated with human inherited diseases. Research is crucial to understand these diseases, though the use of human subjects springs up an endless list of complications, from timescale needed to gather results and observations to unethical risk to life. As a result, scientists use a whole host of creatures to further our understanding of human genetics from the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, to the humble fly, Drosophila melongaster. The questions ‘What exactly do I have in common with these creatures?’ and ‘Surely the research could never be directly applicable to humans?’ may come to mind and are more than fair to ask. The correct term for these creatures is model organisms; organisms such as the Mus musculus with their mammalian origin and 99% genes in common with human beings. In addition, the Haldane report has fully sequences the mouse genome, another advantage to having a much smaller genome than ours. On a practical level, mice are easy to care for, quick to breed and provide results within a feasible timescale. The key is that mice can be afflicted with the same diseases as humans; therefore duplicating a gene such as exon 3 on the cftr allele swiftly creates a mouse model for cystic fibrosis. Experimentation further allows us to understand the nature of the disease, as 40% of the mice died within 7 days due to intestinal obstruction.

The importance of maternal diet during pregnancy is relatively well acknowledged, however a study using mice coat colours, may have mothers-to-be everywhere thinking twice about what they consume. Mutation of the agouti gene by unmethylation led to mice with yellow coat colour, it was discovered that these mice where more likely to be obese as well as prone to diabetes and cancer. Mice with brown coats have methylated agouti genes and these where found to be of healthy weight and at a lower risk of disease. Pregnant yellow mice with a methyl-rich diet birthed brown coat colour mice, indicating that nutrition does genetically affect a foetus during pregnancy also highlighting that human disease such as obesity can be inherited as a result of maternal diet during pregnancy. In another study researchers drew a similar conclusion that nutrition influences gene expression during embryonic development, which was passed down through generations because of epigenetic inheritance; intracisternal A-particle (repeated transposable elements e.g. there are one thousand copied in the mouse genome) (IAP) reterotransposon was inserted in front of the agouti gene to produce patchy mouse coat colour down the female germ line but not the male germ line.

Most recently gene targeting in embryonic stem cells produces mice with alterations to specific endogenous genes, knock-out mice are providing great insight into human inherited disorders as individual genes can be targeted and more advanced techniques are being developed. With over 300 new inherited disease genes being found every year, and one hundred year’s on since their first (if accidental) use, the role of mus musculus in broadening our knowledge of human inherited disorders is unarguably spectacular. So next time a mouse scuttles into the kitchen, perhaps it would be more fitting for it to find a piece of cheese on a plate rather than a mouse trap.

Genetically Modified and Enhanced Foods

In order to feed the growing population that has steadily risen from 5 billion to 7 billion in 20 years, we need to utilize science and technology to make the most of what nature provides.

The USA is the main producer of corn, however over 85% is genetically modified, meaning it has been modified in a lab, enhancing traits such as herbicide resistancy or improved nutritional value.

When crops are destroyed by pests and insects, the financial implications to farmers can be colossal, and the impact on communities of starving people in developing countries.

Using chemicals to stave off the pests has many health hazards and can not only cause water pollution from the run-offs but also cause toxins to enter the environment.

Any method that can protect crops but limit damage to health and the environment could have a place in the production of food.

Genetic modification can help protect the crops from pets without the need for vast amounts of chemical pollutants. Modifications can also protect crops from herbicides so that farmers can spray the field to kill weeds, safe in the knowledge that the sprays do not harm the crop or environment.. This saves the farmer money and labour by not pulling up weeds by hand.

Seedlings can be grown with antifreeze genes, as can fish, to tolerate the cold better and yield a greater load. Similarly, plants that can grow in a harsher environment such as one with drought, in soil with a high salt content or ground water will help communities to feed themselves.

In developing countries where many are malnourished, and survive mainly on rice alone, lacking vital nutrients and minerals, a strain of rice containing these vitamins will help improve the health of the people.

Third world countries may lack facilities to obtain or store medicines and vaccines. Scientists are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes to solve this problem.

Although many countries produce these types of GM foods, this is currently not allowed in Europe, so scientists involved in research and development have devised many clever techniques to enhance food products and help farmers to produce more yield for the money.

Various methods are used to increase crop yield such as treating seeds with a protective layer to deter pests from destroying the seeds, increasing the percentage of crop harvested.

This method has been successfully used on rice which is the main source of nutrition in countries in Asia and Latin America.

The way rice is grown has been changed using an integrated program. High quality treated seeds are grown under special conditions with a specialized growing media. Growers follow a strict protocol tailored to their needs.

This method is GM free, not only increases the yield by 30% but also is more economical with water and far less labour intensive. Instead of spraying entire fields with pesticides and chemicals that affect the environment.

A diet lacking in Vitamin A has been linked to blindness in thousands of children in developing countries. GM foods such as rice can help combat this. Also enhancing food such as corn and producing orange sweet potato rich in Vitamin A enables the 250 million children at risk of blindness.

For the farmer, these methods help to result in a greater harvest. For the person living in the developing world, these methods help the fight against starvation and malnourishment, but what about the consumer in the developed world? Is this the only way forward to keep the majority of the world fed and nourished?

Image reproduced from

In order to feed the growing population that has steadily risen from 5 billion to 7 billion in 20 years, we need to utilize science and technology to make the most of what nature provides.

The USA is the main producer of corn, however over 85% is genetically modified, meaning it has been modified in a lab, enhancing traits such as herbicide resistancy or improved nutritional value.

When crops are destroyed by pests and insects, the financial implications to farmers can be colossal, and the impact on communities of starving people in developing countries.

Using chemicals to stave off the pests has many health hazards and can not only cause water pollution from the run – offs but also cause toxins to enter the environment.

Any method that can protect crops but limit damage to health and the environment could have a place in the production of food.

Genetic modification can help protect the crops from pets without the need for vast amounts of chemical pollutants. Modifications can also protect crops from herbicides so that farmers can spray the field to kill weeds, safe in the knowledge that the sprays do not harm the crop or environment.. This saves the farmer money and labour by not pulling up weeds by hand.

Seedlings can be grown with antifreeze genes, as can fish, to tolerate the cold better and yield a greater load. Similarly, plants that can grow in a harsher environment such as one with drought, in soil with a high salt content or ground water will help communities to feed themselves.

In developing countries where many are malnourished, and survive mainly on rice alone, lacking vital nutrients and minerals, a strain of rice containing these vitamins will help improve the health of the people.

Third world countries may lack facilities to obtain or store medicines and vaccines. Scientists are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes to solve this problem.

Although many countries produce these types of GM foods, this is currently not allowed in Europe, so scientists involved in research and development have devised many clever techniques to enhance food products and help farmers to produce more yield for the money.

Various methods are used to increase crop yield such as treating seeds with a protective layer to deter pests from destroying the seeds, increasing the percentage of crop harvested.

This method has been successfully used on rice which is the main source of nutrition in countries in Asia and Latin America.

The way rice is grown has been changed using an integrated program. High quality treated seeds are grown under special conditions with a specialized growing media. Growers follow a strict protocol tailored to their needs.

This method is GM free, not only increases the yield by 30% but also is more economical with water and far less labour intensive. Instead of spraying entire fields with pesticides and chemicals that effect the environment.

A diet lacking in Vitamin A has been linked to blindness in thousands of children in developing countries. GM foods such as rice can help combat this. Also enhancing food such as corn and producing orange sweet potato rich in Vitamin A enables the 250 million children at risk of blindness.

For the farmer, these methods help to result in a greater harvest. For the person living in the developing world, these methods help the fight against starvation and malnourishment, but what about the consumer in the developed world? Is this the only way forward to keep the majority of the world fed and nourished?

 

In order to feed the growing population that has steadily risen from 5 billion to 7 billion in 20 years, we need to utilize science and technology to make the most of what nature provides.

The USA is the main producer of corn, however over 85% is genetically modified, meaning it has been modified in a lab, enhancing traits such as herbicide resistancy or improved nutritional value.

When crops are destroyed by pests and insects, the financial implications to farmers can be colossal, and the impact on communities of starving people in developing countries.

Using chemicals to stave off the pests has many health hazards and can not only cause water pollution from the run – offs but also cause toxins to enter the environment.

Any method that can protect crops but limit damage to health and the environment could have a place in the production of food.

Genetic modification can help protect the crops from pets without the need for vast amounts of chemical pollutants. Modifications can also protect crops from herbicides so that farmers can spray the field to kill weeds, safe in the knowledge that the sprays do not harm the crop or environment.. This saves the farmer money and labour by not pulling up weeds by hand.

Seedlings can be grown with antifreeze genes, as can fish, to tolerate the cold better and yield a greater load. Similarly, plants that can grow in a harsher environment such as one with drought, in soil with a high salt content or ground water will help communities to feed themselves.

In developing countries where many are malnourished, and survive mainly on rice alone, lacking vital nutrients and minerals, a strain of rice containing these vitamins will help improve the health of the people.

Third world countries may lack facilities to obtain or store medicines and vaccines. Scientists are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes to solve this problem.

Although many countries produce these types of GM foods, this is currently not allowed in Europe, so scientists involved in research and development have devised many clever techniques to enhance food products and help farmers to produce more yield for the money.

Various methods are used to increase crop yield such as treating seeds with a protective layer to deter pests from destroying the seeds, increasing the percentage of crop harvested.

This method has been successfully used on rice which is the main source of nutrition in countries in Asia and Latin America.

The way rice is grown has been changed using an integrated program. High quality treated seeds are grown under special conditions with a specialized growing media. Growers follow a strict protocol tailored to their needs.

This method is GM free, not only increases the yield by 30% but also is more economical with water and far less labour intensive. Instead of spraying entire fields with pesticides and chemicals that effect the environment.

A diet lacking in Vitamin A has been linked to blindness in thousands of children in developing countries. GM foods such as rice can help combat this. Also enhancing food such as corn and producing orange sweet potato rich in Vitamin A enables the 250 million children at risk of blindness.

For the farmer, these methods help to result in a greater harvest. For the person living in the developing world, these methods help the fight against starvation and malnourishment, but what about the consumer in the developed world? Is this the only way forward to keep the majority of the world fed and nourished?

Image reproduced from usahitman.com

The Essential Artifacts?

“Pure science and practical applications push each other” [1].

With the demise of NASA, our attention is drawn to the everyday commodities and understanding gained in receipt of space entrepreneurship; invisible braces, scratch-resistant lenses, temper foam, portable cordless vacuums, freeze drying, water purification, solar energy, and remotely controlled ovens[2]. As we approach the end of 2012 and the beginning of a New Year, once again, we will begin to see movement in support of global nuclear disarmament. As such, I feel it is necessary to review what nuclear science has brought us, discuss what it has done for society, and begin to chart a future without nuclear arms.

Nuclear science is responsible for the creation and the continuing perfection of a number of technologies. Progress in nuclear power efficiency and safety, reduction in cost and aptness of nuclear medicine in diagnostics and treatment, and the humble smoke detector, is a bounty one can be appreciative of [3].  Nuclear science for the purpose of power synergy or arms is often part of political discourse. Though nuclear power and nuclear weapons are both products of nuclear science and both present a definitive risk for human life, the call for nuclear disarmament does not call for; the disassembly of nuclear power (though many anti-nuke campaigns have called for such an action).

On the 12th of November this year public officials will be convene in Brussels to continue discussions on plans and strategies for a future without nuclear arms.  This event is hosted by Global Zero, endorsed by David Cameron and Barac Obama, and is responsible for the gathering and training student leaders for this event [4]. These student leaders will be responsible for spreading the movement and gaining momentum towards creating a world without nuclear weapons.

The threat of nuclear weapons is an instrument that historically has been worn in the monopolies of power.  Nuclear weapons over other armaments have the superior inborn capacity to instil fear in man, a fear that can be invoked with or without their long term materialisations. The press of nuclear weapons has proved an elementary device to help promote awareness and provide some perspective, though more often it is a source to feed mans fears.

Instilling fear in man coupled with authoritarian rule is historically responsible for the world’s most horrendous violations of Human Rights and mass murder. Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority figures demonstrates the capacity of such tools. The Global movement towards disarmament would help remove this fear and provide people with the confidence of voice.

The future is in balance, It is time to watch this space.

References (Harvard)

[1].  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2010) Applied nuclear physics for biomedicine, nuclear security and basic science. URL: http://phys.org/news194720066.html accessed: 20/20/12

[2].  NASA, et al (2012) NASA spin-off technologies. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_spin-off_technologies accessed: 20/10/2012

[3].  Anon, a. (2012) Nuclear Engineering. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_engineering accessed: 25/10/2012

[4].  Global Zero (undated) Brussels (European) Institute 2012. URL: http://www.globalzero.org/institutes/brussels accessed: 20/10/2012

[5].  Anon, b. (2012) Milgram Experiment. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment accessed: 25/10/2012

Bibliography (Havard)

[1].  Public Awareness of Nuclear Science. URL: http://www.nupecc.org/pans/index.html Accessed: 20/10/2012

[2].  World News Inc (2012) European Organisation for Nuclear Research. URL:http://wn.com/european_organization_for_nuclear_research?orderby=relevance&upload_time=today accessed: 20/10/2012

[3].  Adams, R. (2010) Guest Blog at Scientific American – The Influence of Information on an Open, Inquiring Mind. URL: http://atomicinsights.com/2010/05/guest-blog-at-scientific-american-the-influence-of-information-on-an-open-inquiring-mind.html accessed: 20/10/2012

Live Young and Prosper: The Dauer Way

The global average life expectancy during the early twentieth century was 31 years; today it stands at 67.2 years. The “Big Three”: food, health and hygiene are being hailed as miracle life longevity factors; however improving overall quality of life is far more complex than simply extending it. Without actually slowing down the pace at which we age, all this proposes is potentially a greater number of years spent with age related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. But how much do we truly understand about aging?

35 genes believed to determine lifespan have been unveiled by research at the Louisiana State University Health Centre, coding for a wide range of cellular functions they indicate aging is multifactorial. At least four physiological processes are thought to play a role in aging including metabolic control, resistance to stress, gene deregulation and gene stability. Scientists will persevere in unravelling the mystery of aging and the complexity of the process means it may be one of the hardest nuts we will ever try to crack. The very nature of aging makes it difficult to gather substantial data; long term experimentation on human beings is unfeasible due to the crippling time constraints. Nevertheless, when there is a will there is a way and this is where model organisms step in.

Caenorhabditis elegans

The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans makes an excellent aging model organism; living 2-3 weeks, the hermaphrodites among them are able to produce around 300 genetically identical offspring, providing the advantage of allele homozygosis and its small 97 megabase genome is fully sequenced. Most importantly, the Caenorhabditis elegans shares 35% similar genes with us, that are used as candidate human longevity genes and the development stages of each somatic cell are known from zygote to adult worm. Going through the complex developmental processes of embryogenesis, morphogenesis and growth, in four stages (L1, L2, L3 and L4) there is plenty to suggest that what we learn from the Caenorhabditis elegans may be directly applicable to us. When placed in harsh conditions, the L1 and L2 larvae become dauer larvae with delayed development and dark intestines produced by storage of fat. When the harsh conditions subside they re-enter the developmental process, carrying on as normal. This may seem insignificant, however these dauer larvae live 10 times the average lifespan of a normal nematode, in human terms that means reaching the age of about 700!

A study carried out by Golden JW and Riddle DL identified pheromone, food and temperature as dauer-inducing factors. The pheromone is a measure of population density, causing dauer formation at L2 and inhibiting recovery based on pheromone dose. Lack of food causes caloric restriction, a method which has also proven to extend lifespan in rodents. The enhancement of the dauer larvae formation needs exposure to high temperature at L1 stage. Two sensory mutants defective in thermotaxis have altered sensitivity to the pheromone but the pheromone response remains temperature dependent. The ways in which the dauer respond to inducing factors was found to be age dependent, with the older larvae having a greater tendency to recover. The dauer larvae seem to able to control the pace at which that metaphorical clock ticks, no doubt the day we learn to apply this in humans will be pivotal to the very nature of science.

To date the oldest age a human being has got to is 122 years, while average lifespan has certainly increased, maximum lifespan is yet to be understood and manipulated. As technology develops, our knowledge will continue to grow and maybe soon birthday cards will go up to 700 years or more.

Images reproduced from raindeocampo.wordpress.com and web.expasy.org

Breaking Down Bayesian

Science is the river of life.
And as each droplet of knowledge is added to the flow, it advances slightly, modifying what was previously known.

The 1740’s saw Thomas Bayes, an English reverend, conduct a thought experiment that would impress any modern day psychic. With no more than an assistant, two balls and a table, designed so that a ball thrown at random had an equal chance of landing anywhere on the table, Bayes was to predict where the ball had been thrown without even looking.

Thomas Bayes

Brushing all spirits aside, he began to formulate a theorem which would go on to become paramount in genetic risk assessment and association studies. Bayes relied on gaining new information so that he could narrow down the area in which the ball was likely to be, this was done using a second ball and being told whether it had landed to the left or the right of the original ball. Throw after throw saw the area become smaller and smaller, leading Bayes to discover that: Initial Belief + New Data -> Improved Belief

Nevertheless, the element of guess work did not sit well with our eighteenth century academics, resulting in Bayes never publishing his work. It wasn’t until after his death that Richard Price providentially stumbled upon the discovery whilst going through his friends notes. Price re-edited and shared the findings in ‘the Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances’.

With the world bearing a number of exceptional minds, it seems almost inevitable that a theory will be independently rediscovered and Bayesian’s statistical methods are no exception. In 1774, an outstanding mathematician by the name of Pierre Simon Laplace published the mechanism, before awareness of Bayes work. It was only a matter of time before Laplace was enlightened with the initial discovery; this only encouraged him further to develop the theorem, using a huge database – birth records.

Laplace noted that slightly less males than females were being born and having set out a system of inductive reasoning based on probability, he found this to be a recurring trend whilst analysing records from Paris, Naples, St. Petersbury, London, rural France, Egypterica. He went on to state that the trend was ‘a general law for the human race’ and made the Bayes theorem into the mathematical equation that we are familiar with today:

P(C|E) = P(E|C) Pprior(C)
Æ©P(E|C`) Pprior(C`)

Calculating the probability of a particular hypothesis, such as the chances of giving birth to a child who is either a carrier or affected by a certain genetic disorder uses Bayes humble equation, as additional information about the pedigree or genetic testing have been shown to vastly improve the results of genetic risk assessment. Single–SNP tests in genome wide association studies demonstrate Bayesian methods advantageous nature when it comes to assessment of association between genetic variant or other phenotypes.

Centuries have passed since Bayes first etched down the roots of probability, a once laughed at belief stands today as a solid concept, guiding us towards more informed future.

Image reproduced from en.wikipedia.org

The Formation Of Man

546756

The New Year never fails to rein in an eclectic range of resolutions, from the life changing to the downright dumbfounding; nevertheless these feats are attempted in the hope o development. Whether wishful thinking or willpower is permeating 2013’s endeavors, commendable personal development has already been achieved and all before the initial breathe – embryonic development. Details have historically been disputed over what goes into making a Homo sapien; from Aristotle proposing fathers dominantly contributed to their offspring’s characters being disproved be Harvey’s Exercitationes de Generatione Animalum stating it was in fact the egg from which the being came. Even the concept that the whole human form had always existed in a miniature form and grew throughout life was believed by preformationism. With the sequencing of the human genome, increased understanding of its molecular basis, the field of epigenetics as well as developmental biology, processes and theories have been cleared up; both males and females contribute to the characters of their offspring.

Embryonic development retains a certain level of compelling mystery and the beauty of its complexity validates analysis:

Cleavage follows fertilisation, in which the cells divide, increasing in mass with little growth; resulting in overall size not increasing. These cells are totipotent, able to become any cell type within the body, making these stem cells incredibly significant. As time progresses, the cells the cells fate slowly become more and more committed to a particular fate. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to revolutionise both understanding of processes as well as new medication and gene therapies, on the other hand the use of growing human embryonic stem cells strictly for experimental purposes are controversial, leading to great ethical dispute.

After this the vital stage of gastrulation takes place; cell movement establishes three fundamental layers of cells: the ectoderm giving rise to parts such as the skin and nervous system, the mesoderm giving rise to parts such as muscle and bone, and the endoderm giving rise to parts such as the gut, lungs and pancreas.

Simultaneously, a number of other processes take place, for example: axis are determined such as back to front and head to toe, the nervous system is established in neurulation and segmentation is also established; while very vivid in insects, humans to have segmentation in terms of the like of arms and legs made during limb formation.

Overall a single cell has increased fifty trillion fold; so whether finding the cakes to tempting to cut out, losing a battle to procrastination or concluding that the freezing January temperatures are far too grueling a concept to attend that gym session, take comfort in our prenatal conquest.

Embryonic tissue development in animals

Embryonic tissue development in animals

Image reproduced from php.med.unsw.edu.au and bio1151.nicerweb.com

Personalised Genome: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

As new age technology, such as high-throughput sequencing and nanopores, slashes both costs and time needed for genomic analysis, the age where commercialisation of individual one thousand pound gemones dawns. With its inevitable manifestation around the corner, it has never been more pressing to assess impacts, both social and clinical, so that we can truly be prepared for the changes in how the genetic world interacts with everyday life.

epigenetics

As 10,000 new germline mutations are identified annually, and 300 new inherited disease genes highlighted, personalised genomic sequencing could be used to locate, monitor and understand further disease-associated mutations, though this will only be possible if the data is in fact made public. Inheritance of disease will be better understood, which is a very exciting prospect for potential parents, as current prenatal tests only identify a fraction of potential defects. Currently personalised genome sequencing is used for prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing of conditions such as Turner’s syndrome and muscular dystrophy; however these tests are currently available only to high risk children. With the potential commercialisation of sequencing, testing may be readily available to everyone, undeniably changing the way in which these tests are implemented and as with most change, the line between it being positive and negative lies thin.

‘All creatures would agree that it was better to be healthy than sick… well fitted than ill fitted for their part in life; in short that it was better to be a good rather than a bad specimen of their kind’ – Galton

Global screening of embryos for disorders could lead to self directed human evolution, in other words, eugenics. The risk of profitable ‘designer babies’ could lead personal genomics to encounter ethical scrutiny, therefore a balance will have to be struck:

‘Given the power and the authority granted to parents to seek to improve or better their children… at least (by) some forms of genetic selection or alteration (it) seems equally ethically defensible if they are undertaken freely and do not disempower or disadvantage their children’ – Galton

Certain countries have banned inappropriate preimplantation diagnosis, such as that for sex selection in the UK.

After heart disease, cancer and stroke, adverse drug reaction is the fourth most common cause of death for americans, the fast growing field of pharmacogenetics will find genomic profiles vital in the production of personalised medication. Not only would personalised medication reduce deaths from undesirable reaction, but these tailor made gems would benefit both diagnosis as well as treatment efficiency. While focusing on disease, it must be said that it’s susceptibility is complex, often involving multiple genes, with a partial influence of environmental exposure to certain substances, such as carcinogens. Shedding light on perhaps a limitation of sequencing is the reality that it is not likely to have a great deal of predictive power; a study analysing over 53,000 pairs of monozygotic twins for the incidence of 24 diseases, ranging from autoimmune to obesity associated diseases and cancer, implied 2% of women undergoing whole genome sequencing would have mutations linked to ovarian cancer detected; at least a one in ten chance of developing ovarian cancer. However, the remaining 98% having found no mutations would still be at a 1.4% risk, that of the general public; it would be fair to say that the day when sequences produces infallible figures is a while away.

Unfortunately sequencing may also reveal to patients more than they were prepared to know, diagnosing age-onset, incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. And once the diagnosis has been confirmed, who else has the right to know? New guidelines issued by the UK GMC allow disclosure of patient information, given the diagnosis of a genetically heritable disease to family members if it is ‘justified in the public interest’. Genetic availability dawns a problematic issue as the UK lacks a counterpart to the USA Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

There also remains the risk of people missing out on potentially life-saving intervention; as genomic sequencing enable quick, cost-efficient diagnosis and family history has long been collected as a means of assessing risk, individuals may not get tested in the fear of employment and insurance discrimination. Although comfort can be taken in the fact that the US Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health devotes 3-5% of their annual Human Genome Project budget towards studying the ethical, legal and social issues surrounding genetic availability, illustrating how research into the issue is currently active.

Sequencing potentials are astounding; from revolutionising diagnosis of disease to screening embryos for chromosomal abnormalities. Personal genomic sequencing allows useful deviations from the reference genome to be analysed. In turn, these incentivise an increase in the sophistication of modern technology. The ethical issues of pharmacogenetics, eugenics and social discrimination dawn as a result of personal genomic sequencing; although there is evidence that research is going towards investigating problematic issues, with rules and regulations already in place. As time progresses, so will our knowledge, all that remains is the hope that we are prepared for the double helix’s dormant revelations.

Image reproduced from pharmaceuticalshealthcare.blogspot.com

Mitochondrial Disease, Down on Your Knees!

IVFA new approach to in vitro fertilisation, which aims to combat inherited mitochondrial disease has received UK government backing. With draft regulations currently in production, the procedure utilising DNA from three individuals could be in use by 2015.

Maintained exclusively down the maternal lineage, these diseases stem from defects within mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA); found within cellular structures known as mitochondria – dubbed the cells ‘powerhouses’, they function to provide the body with more than 90% of it’s energy. With 1 in every 6,500 newborns being born with mitochondrial defects, 10 couples are set to benefit annually from three person IVF. Developed in the seventies, in vitro fertilisation is the creation of an embryo outside of the womb. For couples considered to be ‘at a higher risk’ of genetic disease, techniques such as preimplantation embryonic screening, aid the segregation of healthy embryos from those with chromosomal abnormalities, to maximise the potential success of the IVF cycle; couples tend to find the reality of IVF, an emotionally, physically and financially draining series of repetitions. With 70% of embryos lost to genetic defects, it seems the support for three person IVF couldn’t have come sooner, yet, fears have arisen that any leniency towards genetic modification of a human being may begin to
culminate in the nonsensical abuse of the science, that is, down the ‘slippery slope’ to eugenics.

Dr David King, Human Genetics Alert, warns of the ‘slippery slope whilst talking on the bbc – ‘The biggest concern is once we cross this crucial ethical line, which says that we shouldn’t create babies that have been genetically altered then it becomes very difficult… we will eventually get to this future that everyone want to avoid of designer babies.’

Pioneered at Newcastle University, three person IVF effectively does what is says on the tin; the mother’s defective mitochondrial DNA is replaced with the healthy DNA of a female donor via egg or embryonic modification. 20,000-30,000 genes from the mother and father, 37 mitochondrial genes from the donor; ~ 0.1% genetic alteration to the child’s germ line sees future generations set to inherit the donor DNA.

The progressive inherited neurometabolic Leigh’s disease which holds a prognosis of rarely more than 5 years for infants, is one of a number of disease which may be tackled by three person IVF – in this light tar-ing the procedure as unethical hardly seems fair. It could be argued that denying people the toolkit from which to build a potential healthy future, redirected away from generations of genetic abnormalities is inexcusable, especially when stringent rules and regulations are being created, as well as monitored, by the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority).

Prof Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England – ‘Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these disease being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them… It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.’

We truly are in the enviable position of watching this story unfold before our very eyes. Despite inevitably bringing with it a number of social, ethical and clinical implications, for families with mitochondrial disease this may the *‘excellent news’ they have been waiting for.

*Prof Doug Turnbull, the director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle university.

Image reproduced from newhopefertilityblog.com

Casts Away!

Image credit: webmd.com

Image credit: webmd.com

New drug may reverse the effects of osteoporosis, but caution is warranted.

A new drug, recently featured in a top medical journal, could be that ‘magic bullet’ needed for the three million UK osteoporosis sufferers. Studies have highlighted a number of benefits, including increased bone formation and bone mineral density, whilst decreasing the bone decay rate.

Osteoporosis sees a general loss of bone particularly in postmenopausal women. This occurs everywhere, but the skull and jaw. Weakened and fracture-prone bones make falling a terrifying prospect. Persistent, unpleasant side effects to current drugs, mean effective therapies are still being sought after.

 A research team, led by Dr Michael McClung, founding member of the Oregon Osteoporosis Center, spent one year evaluating the safety and efficacy of the drug.

”Most osteoporosis drugs work by stopping the progression of bone loss, but they don’t have the capability of rebuilding the skeleton,” McClung said. ”This really is a new day in the consideration of how we treat osteoporosis, with the capability of truly stimulating bone production and rebuilding the skeleton, not simply keeping it from getting worse”. 

 McClung’s team found bone mineral density to increase by 11.3% at the lower spine, large increases of bone mineral density at the hip, as well as decreased bone resorption. Importantly, no significant side effects were observed.

 The drug, which is administered simply via injection, or orally, is designed to exploit a pre-existing bone forming process in the body. A protein, called Sclerostin, interrupts this process so bone is not formed.

 The body naturally needs to control bone formation, very precisely as bone overgrowth could have all kinds of bad consequences.

The drug works by getting rid of Sclerostin, so that bone can be formed once again, in addition to the many other benefits mentioned.

 The current standard treatment for osteoporosis is Teriparatide, a hormone based therapy. It has proved a safe and effective method since 2002. However, the need for daily injection and high cost mean it is not ideal.

 Romosozumab, the sclerostin based therapy, lasts much longer in the body, potentially meaning it can be administered as scarcely as every three months.

 Nevertheless, the novel drugs greatest feature may also be its worst. Sclerostin based therapy persists in the circulation, lasting for weeks or even months; once it has entered the body it cannot be taken out.

Currently in Phase Two human clinical trials, it may be a while before Romosozumab is readily available through the NHS. The initial promising findings must now be coupled with a cautious progression.

Nobel Women

Inventas vitam juvat exclouisse per artes - “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery”

Taken from Vergilius Aeneid, these are the words which adorn the medal of one of science’s most prestigious awards, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The 27th November 1895 saw Alfred Nobel, inventor of the dynamite, give the majority of his fortune towards an international award known as the Nobel Prize; consisting of a personal diploma, cash reward and medal. Actively involved in medical research, it was appropriate that Physiology and Medicine would become amongst the five possible Nobel prizes. But how does one go about being globally acknowledged and celebrated for their work? In none other than Mr Nobel’s words himself, they must ‘have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine’.

The unenviable task to distinguish which discovery has most greatly impacted mankind falls to the 50 Nobel Committee elected-voting professors making up the Nobel Assembly, at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. The Nobel Assembly have a choice of candidates suggested by invited nominators, the candidates selected are then assessed by specifically appointed expert advisors who aid the Nobel Assembly and all these filters set in place to make the best possible decision for that given year. The winner is then ordained a ‘Nobel Laureate’; it’s origin hailing from ancient Greece where circular laurel wreaths, composed of leaves and branches, crowned athletic victors, as well as symbolising honour during poetic gatherings.

Science has long been a largely male dominated field, nevertheless over the past 22 years the number of women making the top 1% of academic scores has risen from 8% to 25%. Women are undoubtedly starting to show the statistics, suggesting males vastly outnumber the females in this field, the door. As a female scientist myself, it’s a promising indication that science will continue to progress into a gender balanced field and with the 200th Nobel Laureate likely to be announced this year, it is fitting to look back at the incredible discoveries women have made in the domain of physiology or medicine.

GERTY CORI

Gerty Cori becomes the first female Nobel Laureate in Physiology or medicine in 1947 for the ‘discovery of the course of catalytic conversion of glycogen’. Amongst the team was her husband, Carl Cori giving the achievement a joyous family element.

ROSALYN YALOW

The 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was shared between Rosalyn Yalow, Andrew V. Schally and Roger Guillemin ‘for the development of radioimmunoassay of peptide hormones’.

BARBARA McCLINTOCK

Barbara McClintock was acknowledged ‘for her discovery of mobile genetic elements’, moreover she stands as the only female in history to obtain an unshared prize! This truly makes 1983 an inspirational year for female scientists everywhere.

RITA LEVI-MONTALCINI

The 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine waste shared between Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen ‘for their discoveries of growth factors’. This discovery was key to furthering our understanding of nervous system development, as the growth factors released by nerve cells where involved in stimulating and regulating the process.

GERTRUDE B. ELION

The 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was shared between Gertrude B. Elion, Sir James W. Black and George H. Hitchings ‘for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment’.

CHRISTIANE NUSSLEIN-VOLTARD

The 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was shared between Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus ‘for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development’.

LINDA B. BUCK

The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was shared between Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel ‘for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organisation of the olfactory system’.

FRANCOISE BARRE-SINOUSSI

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine was shared between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Luc Montagnier and Harald zur Hausen ‘for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus’.

CAROL W. GREIDER and ELIZABETH H. BLACKBURN

2009 saw two women winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, shared with Jack W. Szostak ‘for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres’.

Images reproduced from beckerexhibits.wustl.edu, viciousbabushka.com, en.wikipedia.org, itespresso.it, kids.britannica.com, tuebingen.mpg.de, biography.com, lexpress.fr and wexpo.biz

Artificial organs – science fiction or reality?

Since the dawn of modern molecular biology and cell biology in the 1950s, many people have been dreaming of a day one can create organs in the laboratory from patients’ cell samples. Every year many patients die in hospitals due to malfunctioning or failing organs caused by various diseases or accidents. Organ transplantation from donors has many complications and remains risky due to the rejection of foreign tissues by the immune system.

Compatibility is often rare and researchers have been searching for a solution of this problem for a long time. In recent years there have been great advances in the new so-called field of tissue engineering, which focuses on the creation of human tissues and organs grown in the laboratory. One of the pioneering laboratories has been the Vacanti laboratory in Boston/ MA. The laboratory focuses on the interface between fundamental and translational research. Now, researchers at the Frauenhofer Institut in Stuttgart/ Germany have started to engineer human skin samples and aim to supply 5000 of these every month. Cambridge has just announced a meeting in October on musculoskeletal tissue engineering and Oxford even has a centre for tissue engineering actively involved in this research. The main advantage of the creation of tissues and organs from the laboratory is that they are virtually samples of one’s own body and will not face any rejection. Furthermore, such a technique could eliminate organ shortage, which costs so many lives every year.

However, the engineering of human tissues has been a great challenge for researchers. Until now successful applications in Europe have mainly been limited to the creation of new cartilage that can be transplanted.

Do we need to be afraid? Are all these laboratories fragments of our greatest nightmares stemming from science fiction movies and the fear of the unknown? Are we interfering with something better left alone?

These are all very valid ethical questions and need to be addressed before any such research is conducted. Furthermore, the public needs to know what people are doing and what public research money is spent on. I have been involved in biomedical research for a while now and am happy to comment on any of our readers’ comments.

What will organ transplantation look like in a decade from now? This is something that is likely to concern many of us in one way or another.

Image reproduced from http://newsroom.stemcells.wisc.edu

Did the Earth Once Have Two Moons?

The moon has always been an object of mystic interest to humans. Some nights we see it clearly and bright; during full moon and when the sky is clear. Other nights we look for the moon in vain, for instance when the sky is clouded over.

Interestingly we only ever see one side of the moon, and thus many old tales and even science fiction movies have exploited our fantasies of what we might find on the other side. Recently, even the new cinema blockbuster “Transformers 3” featured the “dark side of the moon”.

Martin Jutzi from the University of Bern/ Switzerland and his colleague Erik Asphaug from the University of St. Cruz/ U.S.A. have now suggested that this may not always have been the case. They speculate that the earth once had two moons, until about 4.5 billion years ago. They were happily circling the earth and may have given the observer a spectacular view at night. Unfortunately life was in its infancy at that time and there were possibly only molecules of the primordial soup inhabiting our home planet.

However, their trajectories around Earth were changing and the gravity of the two moons was attracting them towards each other. Then about 4.5 billion years ago, so the scientists argue, they collided and formed the moon as we know it today. This theory would explain the rough landscape observed by human satellites on the far side of the moon. This dichotomy between the two lunar landscapes has always been a matter of debate. Whereas the near side is low and flat, the far side is deeply cratered.

The theory predicts that both moons were on trajectories of equal distances to the earth until they collided. This story was published in Nature.

This theory would also explain why the far side of the moon experiences volcanic activities until about 800 million years ago, whereas the near side had no volcanic activity long before that. The fact that the lunar crust is much thicker on the far side also favours this collision theory.

Soon, NASA will send another space mission to the far side of the moon to get more data on this mysterious side. It might be unlikely that NASA will discover some strange alien spacecraft but rather gather data about the lunar surface.

This finding is another example of how dynamic the story of our existence may have been. Certainly, the molecules of the primordial soup had a fantastic view at night. Earth must have been a world so alien to us at those days. Unfortunately we will never be able to go back in time and observe.

But as with everything in life and in science. We never really know …

M. Jutzi & E. Asphaug, Forming the lunar farside highlands by accretion of a companion moon, Nature, 476, pp. 69–72.

Images reproduced from http://sos.noaa.gov and www.spiegel.de

Theoretical Highest Temperatures

hot

In science it is well known that the lowest temperature possible is 0K. However is it possible to put the same thinking into finding a theoretical highest temperature? Having researched this I found that there is no conclusive answer, merely several different popular theories on whether we can find this temperature. I also found that this is actually a very controversial topic in cosmology and theoretical physics with physicists from other professions steering well clear.

The first theory comes from the standard model of the universe with the theoretical temperature being the Planck temperature. The Planck temperature equals 1032 K or 100 million million million million million degrees. To put that in perspective that is around a billion billion times the largest temperature that physicists have ever dealt with. And these aren’t day to day temperatures found on earth, these are huge energy events in the universe. In layman’s terms it is really really hot. In the standard model that relies on Einstein’s theory of general relativity this Planck temperature occurred 10-43 seconds after the big bang began. At this moment the length of the universe was 10-35 meters.

However this theory runs into a rather large problem. At these temperatures the laws of physics are more like guidelines. Space and time are concepts that we like to think of as understood. But physicists predict that the energies found in particles are so gargantuan here, leading to gravitational forces between them that are equivalent to all other forces acting on the particles. This is not what it sounds like, in fact gravity and the other three fundamental forces of the universe become a single unified force. No one knows why. Most physicists refuse to even speculate because not enough is known about the quantum nature of gravity.

The second theory is mainly based around string theory. It hypothesises that due to a theory called string gas cosmology, a theory pertaining to the start of the universe, the highest temperature is the Hagedorn temperature. The exact value of the Hagedorn temperature depends on which physicist you are talking to, the most widely accepted value being around 1030 K. The reasons for this value being too complex to explain in one article.

The third theory leans heavily on data collected from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It is one most controversial of the 4 theories here and if proved correct would change the face of physics as we know it. It is also heavily tied in with string theory and the fact that space-time exists in either 10 or 11 dimensions. These extra dimensions are either incredibly tiny, either strings or the Planck scale, or they could be on the TeV scale.

This is the point at which this theory ties into the LHC. Prominent physicist Stephon Alexander speculates that the temperature around the area that the LHC will be observing will be the highest temperature. The LHC will be working at 14 trillion electron volts, this is 1017K and is 15 orders of magnitude below the Planck temperature. That being said this is still 1 billion billion degrees.

The fourth and final theory is probably the most complicated and hardest to get your head around. It is a popular theory that the universe started off at the Planck temperature and then cooled as it expanded to produce this much colder larger universe that we know. However there is evidence to support a theory that the universe started off at absolute zero and then rose as it expanded. However physicists go a step further to say that both could have occurred, according to this theory, the physics at absolute zero is equivalent to that at the hottest theoretical temperature. Some believe that it is logical because below and above these temperatures physics begins to shift and change.

The problem with these theories is that there is so little actual raw data to support any of them. This means that conceivably all of these theories could be completely wrong. Classical relativity supports there being an infinitely high temperature at the beginning of the universe, as well as in the singularity of a black hole. The theories can become even more confusing, with one stating that once you get to infinity (a paradox but an attainable value in this theory nonetheless) you will then go through into negative infinity and back up towards 0K and so on.

To conclude although there are many theories, none can provide the clear proof that shows they are right.

Will It Be a Boy or a Girl?

One of the true wonders of nature and life is birth, and many a times couples have been contemplating the question that has been occupying human beings possibly since the beginning of humankind: will it be a boy or a girl? There are tests available these days, such as ultrasound, which is completely safe, and slightly risky invasive measures such as chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis. Some of us, however, wish not to know what gender the unborn has.

A new study has found that women who started their period at a young age are more likely to give birth to a girl. For a long time a myth held that the sex of the newborn is determined by the father and it was popular to think that increased virility of the father would help producing a boy. The new study published in Human Reproduction now shows how the mother may actually influence the sex of the child (DOI: 10.1093/humrep/der107)

The study encompassed over 10,000 mothers who were asked at which age they had begun their period and that information was correlated with the sex of their baby. Women who began their period at the age of 10 gave birth to girls with a probability of 54 %, compared to 47% for women that started their period at the age of 14. A previous study had demonstrated that women who entered menarche before the age of 12 had higher levels of the female sex hormone Estradiol.

Male embryos are more vulnerable to hormone imbalances, giving the observations more support. The researchers performed a statistical analysis and found that “Women entering menarche outside the normal range, especially those with earlier menarche, may have an increased chance of producing female offspring.”

Another study also showed that men who have many brothers, are more likely to produce male offspring.

However, all these numbers are still very close to the 50 % mark, and such slight changes in percentages may  be statistically relevant, but they do not really give a great insight as to whether one of us will be expecting a boy or a girl. It is evident that many factors play a role in influencing the sex of a child and for sure there will be other population studies to follow. At the end of the day, we will always ask ourselves the question as to what gender a new unborn has? Whatever might be the individual probability, the miracle of life always holds the greatest surprises.

Monty Python summarised the miracle of life in a very humorous way. Maybe life is a miracle and carries its fascination by its mere existence?

 

Image reproduced from: www.hiren.info
Video reproduced from Youtube/ MontyPython

 

ACL Reconstructive Surgery – Knee Destructive?

Damage of the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee is one of the most common serious injuries in young athletes and, reflecting individual activity, is habitually treated surgically.  ACL reconstruction, the gold standard, requires the harvesting of a hamstring or patella tendon graft, which is used as scaffold for new ACL growth. Cadaveric ligament harvesting and transplant is promising, though autologos (own) tissue graft placement is still proffered owing to the reduced risk of graft failure and tissue rejection.

Soft tissue graft harvesting for ACL reconstruction is the current choice amongst surgeons due to the relatively straight forward procedure and recovery seen. However more recent studies have concluded that the patella tendon graft is superior. The shift in muscle dominance required of an ACL vulnerable knee, means hamstring harvesting may be counterproductive. Increase in hamstring strength is crucial to reduce impact within the joint.

Recent studies of ACL injuries comparing patients that opt to delay surgery for early rehabilitation with those that have early surgical intervention and subsequent physiotherapy, show that from the time of operative intervention a similar recovery and success rate is achieved. However those patients that delay treatment demonstrate a higher rate of meniscus damage, suggesting some in this group may have benefitted from immediate intervention. Nonetheless, close to half of those who delay surgery never opt for surgical intervention, with many showing partial to full recovery. Although these assertion may seem to favour no surgical intervention, accept in the extreme of cases, this may not be the case; prognosis is fundamentally an art of intuition.

Physiotherapy therefore remains the key figure in successful rehabilitation with patient education of the utmost importance. Dynamic intervention is paramount; dips in physical fitness promote stiffness and loss in range of motion as well as increased load bearing in the joint, whilst over activity promote relapse. Maintained physical activity inclusive of the knee joint promotes maintenance of tissue integrity and supports repair of damaged tissue conceivably as a result of increased vascularisation. A physiotherapy program built on eccentric exercises focusing on increasing lower body strength to a degree greater than before damage is vital to successful recovery and maintenance of strength is symptomatic of long term stability.

Novel methods for ACL repair are focusing on promoting the body’s own regenerative ability. One such method, aptly named the Healing Response Technique has been used by athletes for the best part of the last decade yielding a superior response, yet formal evaluation seems to be primarily in the clinical testing stage. Kohl and colleagues from the University of Bern and the University of Zurich utilising sheep models (2012) boast:

“The dynamic intraligamentary stabilization technique successfully induced self-healing of ruptured ACL in a sheep model. Knee joints remained stable during the healing period allowing free range of motion and full weight bearing, and no signs of osteoarthritis or other intraarticular damage in the follow up were observed.”

As an individual having come through ACL reconstruction, a partial (50%) menisectomy and with an ACL revision on the cards, I can only emphasise the importance of educating patients, reinforcing the function of physiotherapy and the benefits of maintaining physical activity. There is indeed a call for public funding and investment for non invasive therapy.

Images reproduced from orthopedics.about.com, muscleprodigy.com and buzzle.com

Neutrinos Changing the Face of Particle Physics

Subatomic Neutrino Tracks

Recently the world of quantum physics was thrown into chaos when scientists at CERN in Switzerland appeared to have proved that neutrinos could travel at speeds greater than light. This caused such turmoil as it disproved Einstein’s law of special relativity which, in short, states that mass increases exponentially as it approaches the speed of light. However this was soon seen to be caused from two mistakes: a leaky fibre optic cable and a broken clock. Once these were fixed and tests were rerun the velocity of the neutrinos slowed and was once again surpassed by the speed of light dashing hopes of solid evidence for many exotic physics principles. The neutrinos were in fact travelling within 0.5 nanoseconds (0.5×10-9 seconds) with an error of 8 nanoseconds. This error is being lessened through calculation and is the most accurate measurement of velocity ever achieved.

But the real reason behind this experiment was not for matter to go faster than the speed of light, but to capture evidence of neutrinos ‘shape-shifting’. This ‘shape-shifting’ applies to the three different ‘flavours’ that neutrinos can assume; tau, electron and muon. Before this experiment several other experiments had provided evidence that neutrinos could shift or oscillate between these three flavours. This was a massive turning point in particle physics as it would prove that seemingly ‘massless’ particles actually had an infinitesimally small mass. The reason for the importance of this discovery is that it gives us one of the justifications for there being more matter in the universe than anti-matter.

This phenomenon was first documented in 2010 when the OPERA experiment under the Italian alps showed a lone tau neutrino appearing in a beam of billions of muon neutrinos. However this was cited as experimental error until recently when the test was repeated and the same phenomenon occurred. This second tau neutrino appearing gives physicists reason to believe that it is not experimental error and that there is a scientific basis to what is happening. From this discovery there may have to be a radical change in the way we think about particle physics. However this shape shifting of neutrinos will only happen in very extreme conditions. To produce this phenomenon the muon neutrino was fired 730km from CERN in Geneva taking 2.4 milliseconds. These would be the kind of conditions found only in very extreme cases on the universe, such as a supernova.

This has been cited as one of the most exciting discoveries in particle physics in the past few decades. Roberto Petronzio, INFN chief, feels that this may lead to a completely new form of physics. Scientists could begin to see “new particles, new types of interaction or even new space-time dimensions.” Although these oscillations are incredibly rare and have a low probability of occurring when the number of particles in the universe are taken into account we can assume that huge numbers of these oscillations are taking place every second.

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The Dangers of Cloning – a Popular Myth?

The world of biology was relatively quiet and untainted, whereas other natural sciences such as physics and chemistry had suffered from some bad reputations. Nuclear physics is now associated with the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima and chemistry has been associated with pesticides, dangerous drugs and horrible toxins. But the view on biology changed in 1996 when Dolly the Sheep was born, the first official clone of a mammal.

Suddenly the press went haywire, drawing scenarios of the doom of humanity. The scientists from Scotland were suddenly accused that they had been interfering with the essentials of life and created a monster. Was this the beginning of Frankenstein come true? Certainly not. The streets are still safe and there is no army of human clones trying to invade us as so beautifully demonstrated in Star Wars. But what is the truth about the myth of cloning? How does it affect our everyday lives and what are the biologists cooking next in their laboratories?

Dolly is dead now. She died from lung cancer in 2003 after enjoying only half the life span of a normal sheep of that breed. Since Dolly, many mammals have been cloned, including bulls and horses and none of those has hit the news as vigorously – or maybe the name Bull 86 just did not quite cut it. Why do we clone animals?

First of all, it is important to understand what is cloning. Cloning is a natural phenomenon, just as is nuclear energy. Many organisms in nature reproduce asexually, for example bacteria, some plants and some insects. By definition, two clones are organisms with exactly the same genetic make-up. If a bacteria divides for example, two clones are formed. There are approximately 40 million bacteria in one gram of soil, often from the same clone, and thus two grams of soil has potentially got more clones than Britain has people.

Cloning is a technique used routinely in laboratories and has been since the dawn of molecular biology. It is a tool absolutely necessary to study the fundamentals of life and study mechanisms in cells that ultimately help us understand many diseases. So, cloning seems to be a good word. But why do we need to clone mammals or potentially even humans, which is still illegal.

Interestingly, Dolly was not even a real clone. There are two pools of DNA in a mammalian cells, one the nucleus which is passed on from the father and the mother, and one in the mitochondria, the “power plants” of a cell, which is only passed on from the mother. The mitochondria were not replaced and thus Dolly was strictly speaking not a clone – neither is any of the other mammals that have been cloned since.

Many plants that we cultivate and finally eat are clones. With the technology available we can also use cloning to genetically modify plants in order to increase crops, yield and even taste. Again there is the question as to whether this is necessary.

Despite heated debates and many laws about stem cells, genetically modified food and cloning, once Pandora’s box is open, it usually doesn’t get closed again. Cloning is good and has helped our understanding of the mechanisms of the cell and helped guide the development of many drugs which help millions of people. The question is not as to whether one should use cloning, but rather what is the scientist’s conscience using such techniques. We live in a society with strict moral codes laid upon us, some of them maybe debatable. As society evolves, the moral code also changes. To me, a scientist conducting experiments is responsible for his/her actions. Politics is responsible for laws that try to lead the conscience of people. It surely is our responsibility to understand the needs of society as a whole and help guide scientists to make good decisions and use the knowledge they generate wisely.

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Neanderthal DNA Strengthens Human Immune System

Where do we come from and who are we? Who were our ancestors? Why are we the dominant intelligent species on this planet and what made us be the first organism to create such a technological revolution? Who exactly are we? Who is Homo sapiens?

These questions have been occupying us for a long time and philosophy, religion and science have attempted many different explanations. It is now widely accepted that we have evolved over millions of years and many of our ancestors have been identified and many more are awaiting their discovery.

However, until about 33,000 years ago, at least two intelligent humanoid species lived on this planet: Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). Modern humans were invading Europe from the South at the end of the last ice age. The continent was then inhabited by the Neanderthals who were very closely related to us. These humans were a little stockier and more muscular than modern humans. Furthermore, they had bigger heads with a strong and enlarged forehead and they were perfectly adapted to the cold European climate of the ice age.

But what happened to them? As recently as 2008 it was believed that modern humans pushed the Neanderthals out of their habitats and caused their extinction and that the two species never mated. However, it has now been suggested that both species actually interbred. In modern day Europeans about 2-4% of our genome comes from Neanderthals. This was the conclusion of a study that compared a partially isolated genome of Neanderthals with the DNA of modern humans.  The researchers compared the Neanderthal genome to samples from modern people inhabiting Southern Africa, West Africa, Central Europe, China and Papua New Guinea. Surprisingly, there were more similarities between the Neanderthals and the genes of the non-Africans than between the Neanderthals and the modern Africans. Thus, instead of being extinct, both species actually mixed to give rise to modern day Europeans.

This study was published last year by a group at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig led by Svante Pääbo.

Though it is thought that Neanderthals and modern humans last shared a common ancestor more than 300,000 years ago, the fact that Neanderthals have more in common with modern humans from outside of Africa suggests, that when modern humans migrated North into Europe and Asia between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, they mixed with the Neanderthals.

How would social interactions between these two hominid species have looked like? The Neanderthal was still quite distinct from the modern human.

In addition to this spectacular hypothesis, scientists also believe that interbreeding of different hominoid species such as modern humans and Neanderthals actually strengthened our immune system. The diversity introduced by the different genome has increased our capabilities to fight off bacteria and other deleterious infections and thus positively contributed to our survival and success in dominating our planet. This study was performed by a team of researchers led by Laurent Abi-Rached and Peter Parham of Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

Furthermore, it is also believed that modern humans mated with other coexisting hominid species, such as the newly discovered species dubbed Denisovans, adding to the diversity of modern day humans. In summary, the Neanderthal did not really become extinct at the end of the day. The species has survived in our genes and is part of us today.

The quest to find out who we are and how we came into existence continues and will for sure be a central question in research and philosophy for a long time. This discovery is a small piece in the puzzle and redefines some ideas of our past and most certainly who we really are.

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Drug Effectiveness Diminished in Space

Astronauts on long space missions may not be able to take antibiotics to treat infections or aspirin to treat headaches, simply because drugs have been found to decay much faster in space than on earth. A recent study in the AAPS Journal found, that the half-life of drugs is much lower in spacecrafts orbiting the planet.

This study was conducted by scientists at the Johnson Space Center investigated how the environment in space, such as higher radiation levels, lower gravity, micro gravity, vibrations, a carbon dioxide rich environment and variations in temperature and humidity could affect drug effectiveness.

Four boxes with drugs were flown to the International Space Station (ISS) and four identical boxes were kept at the research centre on Earth. The boxes were returned to earth at varying lengths of time, ranging from two weeks to over two years. The study concluded that a number of drugs stored in space had a much lower potency after storage in space, with most of them actually failing United States Pharmacopeia potency requirements.

“It is important to characterise space-specific degradation products and toxicity limits using ground-based analogue environments of space that include proton and heavy ion radiation, vibration and multiple gravity conditions“, the study claimed.

These studies have profound implications on the usage and packaging of drugs in space. The data also greatly help the understanding of the decay of drugs to improve their storage capacity on earth. This could potentially help save a lot of money each year, as drug deposits have to be cleared regularly due to drugs being out of date. If the understanding of drug storage can be improved, the costs to produce certain drugs can be reduced.

The studies also help to make space travel safer and will help reduce health risks to astronauts, once storage conditions have been optimised. It has to be noted that almost all our modern technology is dependent on space travel and on orbital satellites. The health and safety of our astronauts is thus imperative to the majority of us.

On the long run, the pharmaceutical industry and ultimately ourselves will benefit from these studies by making drugs safer and lengthening their expiry dates.

Du et al., Evaluation of Physical and Chemical Changes in Pharmaceuticals Flown on Space Missions, THE AAPS JOURNAL, 13, 299-308, DOI: 10.1208/s12248-011-9270-0

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A Milestone to Curing Alzheimer’s

Among the diseases most people are afraid of, Alzheimer’s is on the top of the list. This debilitating disease affects many people at old age and can pose difficult situations for the people concerned and their family. Last month scientist at the University of Rostock/ Germany made a spectacular discovery. A scientific group of 20 scientist led by Prof. Dr. Jens Pahnke discovered a new gene which plays a central role in the aetiology of this feared disease.

It is known that Alzheimer’s is concomitant with the development of plaques in the brain, i.e. areas of dying brain cells in the grey matter of the organ. These in turn have been suggested to be linked to amyloid fibres which are protein remnants that get deposited during life. It is therefore believed that Alzheimer’s is caused by the inability of the body to remove these naturally occurring amyloid fibres from the brain.

The researchers found that mice lacking the newly discovered gene have a 12-fold increased of the protein responsible for causing the disease. Thus it is now believed that this gene could be responsible for the regulation of this deleterious process. One of the great advantages of working with mice is that one can observe in a simple animal model in a few months what takes 60-80 years in human brains.

In addition to this new and magnificent discovery, the research group is also already actively involved in trying to find ways to control this gene, i.e. potentially finding therapeutic strategies for Alzheimer’s. Because this discovery is so novel, these therapeutic strategies are completely new and open a new avenue in order to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The group from Rostock University already actively co-operates with a pharmaceutical company in the United States to develop such strategies. In particular a drug already on the market to treat pain and nausea has been very promising in their studies and collaborations. This drug might be able to be developed into a substance actively reducing the risk to develop Alzheimer’s.

In addition, some natural products (i.e. products isolated from plants, corals, fungi etc.) also seem promising in controlling this novel gene. This interdisciplinary research is very important and necessary to advance the medical sciences in our modern society.

The gene concerned might also be exploited as a marker to diagnose the disease early and thus either help the patients to cope with the onset of Alzheimer’s or suggest other preventive measures to postpone the onset by up to 5 years. Until now we do not have such a marker, and it could be the first step for a diagnosis and also a potential treatment.

Such a success is overdue. The exact cause of the disease is still unknown in 99% of the patients and by 2050 between 100 and 360 million people are expected to have dementia. Alone in Britain more than half the population will be above 50 years old and up to 6 million could then have Alzheimer’s disease.

Recently, the new highly successful blockbuster movie “Planet of the Apes – The Beginning” exploited the idea of an Alzheimer’s vaccine for its own purposes. The film was not just successful because of the wonderful CGI and effects, but also because the debate about this disease is a very hot topic.

We at City Connect are looking very carefully what advances will be made on this subject and will report as soon as we hear more news.

If you are interested in getting involved in Charity events regarding Alzheimer’s, contact Alzheimer Research UK, with which City Connect has close ties. It is also represented on our charity section.

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The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics

A few decades ago, the international community published guidelines for athletes, trying to ban performance enhancing drugs in order to guarantee the safety of sportsmen and -women and ensure fair competitions. The phenomenon of enhancing an individual’s performance in sports is also known as doping. Although these guidelines exist for high performance athletes in many countries, many people still take many drugs, which can be dangerous or are illegal in many cases – steroids in the bodybuilding scene being one example.

With the advancement of modern technology, advances in the neurosciences and a vast amount of supplements and drugs available on the market, society now faces similar debates on the front of smart thinking drugs. The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics discusses exactly this issue. It is not surprising that the film industry releases at the same time the new film Limitless, in which the protagonist takes a performance enhancing drug for his brain in order to cope with every day stresses and finish the tasks that otherwise seem to be insurmountable.

The book discusses in particular drugs that have been developed for specialised clinical settings, but have been been widely adopted for a wide range of non-medical purposes. In particular, the psychological and physical effects of drugs taken to enhance mental performance short term disregarding long-term effects, is beautifully discussed in this book. The book is divided into themed chapters and the language has been adapted for the general public, providing a means to bridge the gap between medical jargon and every-day language. This enables to deepen the dialogue between the medical and non-medical world and explains the effects that such drugs have. Society is constantly changing and with the increasing speed of new emerging technology and a change in life styles and massive changes at work environments, stress levels of the average modern human being have increased dramatically over the past decades. It is not surprising, that many of us may seek a quick fix rather than adopting the right coping strategies.

With the advancement of neuro-imaging, there are many novel attempts in combatting neurological cases, such as Alzheimer’s and and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which were were associated with changes in the brain. This has caused a revolution in our thinking and understanding of the human brain, paving the way for the development of many new drugs.

But what happens when people start taking such drugs, which have not been tailored to them and without medical surveillance. Where are the boundaries, also taking into consideration all the supplements available in shops today.

This is an excellent read and will make anyone think, not just about smart thinking drugs, but also about the impact of modern life on the human psyche.

The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, edited by Judy Illes and Barbara Sahakian, is published by Oxford University Press on 7 April 2011.

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Distant Star Moved by Tides

Recently, the scientific Journal Nature published an interesting theory online. Astronomers believe that the surface area of a distant star is influenced by the gravity of a huge alien planet. Earth’s moon is responsible for the tides that we observe here on Earth and equally, so the astronomers argue, the surface of a star is influenced by the gravity of the planets that encircle it.

It has been suggested that the planet, which orbits the star WASP 18 in the constellation Phoenix, would induce huge tides in its star. It has ten times the mass of Jupiter (which in turn has the mass of about 318 earths) and is so close to the star that it orbits it in less than a day.

WASP 18 is situated about 100 parsecs (i.e. 3.26 light years or 31 trillion kilometres) away from our sun. The alien planet was first observed when scientist noticed that the star would dim periodically, hinting towards a giant object passing between us and WASP 18. The planet’s existence was then confirmed by detecting Doppler shifts in the light emitted from the star reaching us.

A Doppler shift is the change of the frequency of a wave (here light) due to the Doppler effect caused by a nearby object to the observed phenomenon (in this case the huge alien planet). This phenomenon is used to determine distances in the galaxy as well as measuring gravitational phenomena in distant stars and galaxies.

However, the planet’s orbit posed an enigma. Planets that lie so close to a star would change their orbit from an ellipse to a circle. But the Doppler shift observed hinted towards an elliptical orbit of the giant planet.

However, Arras et al. argued that the gravity of the planet causes huge tides on the star’s surface, causing the observed change in the light path. Thus, the planet actually has a circular orbit.

Last year, another group of astronomers reported that planetary tides were causing the star HAT-P-7 to bulge, causing its brightness to change depending on which side of the star was being observed. However, if Arras’ team is correct, WASP 18 is the first time that astronomers have actually observed a star’s surface rising and falling in response to the gravitation of an orbiting planet. Arras’ team calculated the speed of the tidal rise and fall with 30 meters per second. These are tsunamis of completely different ball parks than those seen on earth. However, the surface of a star is hot burning plasma and not water, with a temperature of thousands of degrees.

Arras, P., Burkart, J., Quataert, E. & Weinberg, N. N. Preprint at http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.6005 (2011)

Hellier, C. et al. Nature 460, 1098-1100 (2009).

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Diet High in Vitamins and Fish May Protect Cognition and Brain Size

US scientists have found people with high levels of certain vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids in their blood do better in cognitive tests, and are less likely to have brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, which is published online in the journal Neurology on 28 December, is one of the first to investigate a range of nutrients in people’s blood, instead of using questionnaires to assess people’s diets. The researchers believe this method gives a more accurate picture of a person’s food intake, because it does not rely on people’s memory or honesty when answering questions about their diet.

Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland, studied blood samples from 104 healthy older people with an average age of 87, who had few known risk factors for Alzheimer’s. They categorised the participants into eight groups according to the profile of nutrients contained in their blood, and analysed how people in each group performed in a series of cognitive tests.

They found those whose blood contained more vitamin B, C, D and E were the best performers in cognitive tests, while people with higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids also had high scores in these tests. Vitamins B, C and E are mainly found in fruits and vegetables, while vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids are mainly contained in fish.

Conversely, people whose blood had higher levels of trans fats – found mainly in cakes and fried foods – had the worst cognitive scores.

The researchers also analysed MRI scans from 42 of the participants, and found that those whose blood had higher levels of vitamins and omega 3 were also more likely to have bigger total brain volume. In comparison, those with more trans fats in their blood had less brain volume.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:

“One strength of this research is that it looked at nutrients in people’s blood, rather than relying on answers to a questionnaire. It’s important to note that this study looked at a small group of people with few risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, and did not investigate whether they went on to develop Alzheimer’s at a later stage. There is a clear need for conclusive evidence about the effect of diet on our risk of Alzheimer’s, which can only come from large-scale, long-term studies.

“Although there is no sure-fire way of preventing Alzheimer’s yet, we know that risk factors for heart disease and stroke can also increase the risk of dementia. The best advice at the moment is to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and keep healthy by not smoking, taking regular exercise and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check.

“Currently 820,000 people are affected by dementia in the UK and with a rapidly ageing population, those numbers are expected to soar. We urgently need to find ways to prevent dementia if we are to head off a future crisis, and that means it’s vital to invest in research.”

For further information, or to speak with Dr Simon Ridley, please contact Kirsty Marais, Media Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK on 01223 843304, 07826 559233 or email press@alzheimersresearchuk.org 

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