Monday, December 31, 2012

The best of science in 2012

2012 was a very interesting year for science, but actually this can be said for pretty much every other year. The rate at which scientists discover new things about the universe, life and everything that surrounds it, is astonishing. This article will sum up some of the most interesting pieces of new knowledge and technology that has expanded our understanding of nature and life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Viral therapy 'completely destroys' cancer

Cancer is a disease that is hard to treat. Most therapies aim at stopping growth and attempting to decrease the size of the tumour, but there are hardly any treatments that actually cure the patient. Most famous is of course the conventional chemotherapy which kills cancer cells just a bit faster than that it kills healthy cells. Novel therapies are more targeted, and one way to achieve that is by recruiting viruses. Curiously, HIV seems effective as a treatment for cancer, but scientists are also working with other viruses, such as those that appear effective in brain cancer patients. Now, it appears science has seen another breakthrough, as a group of scientists from the University of Sheffield developed a viral therapy that 'abolishes' prostate tumours.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Genetic variation influences sensitivity to pain

Sensitivity towards pain is not the same in all humans. Some of us are more sensitive to painful stimuli, while others are less affected. In order to find out why some people are more sensitive than others, a research consortium of Chinese and British scientists tried to unravel whether there are genetic factors that are of underlying influence. They found that there is a strong relationship between certain genes and sensitivity to pain. This may eventually lead to novel painkillers and ways to prevent chronic pain.

Scientists device a new computational model of the cell

Our bodies, and those of other animals, consist of many cells that all interact with each other in order to acquire the necessary complexity that makes us who we are. This network of cells is incredibly sophisticated, but there is also a lot going on inside an individual cell. Perhaps the insides of a single cell are even more complex than all of them working together. Cells create proteins to perform various functions, and they do so by reading the information present on the genes on our DNA. In a new attempt to uncover the relationships between genes, their output and their associated hierarchy, scientists from the University of California in San Diego created a computer model that automatically gathers this information.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Genetic modification yields biological pacemakers

Our heart pumps around blood by beating around 50-60 times per minute. It is controlled by electrical signals that come from the brain, and they have the capability to make the heart go faster or slower, depending on the required blood flow. If those signals do not work anymore, the heart stops. In the case of heart failure, patients often get an implant that we call a pacemaker. This is a device that provides rhythmic electrical signals in order to keep the heart going. Obviously, implanting an electric device has its downsides. A study by the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute shows that we may actually be able to recruit the body's own cells as pacemakers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dog shown capable of sniffing bacterial infections

Bacteria are incredibly tiny, and that means that we need special techniques to determine whether a patient has been infected or not. That means taking samples of bodily fluids or tissues from the patient and analysing those in the lab. It takes a while before a sample is analysed, and that means the bacteria has the time to spread. It would be therefore be of great benefit if there was a method that could instantly tell us whether a patient is infected or not, enabling us to isolate them directly. Surprisingly, such techniques are actually realistic, but in quite a different way from what one would expect: instead of complex biotechnology, it appears to be as simple as getting a dog to sniff the patient.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Using foam to stop internal bleeding

The wages of war have resulted in the deaths of many people. For everybody's sake, it would be better to stop fighting altogether, but this does not seem to be realistic. That is why new technology is developed to keep people alive on the battlefield. A recent example is a piece of nanotechnology from MIT that is capable of stopping external bleeding almost instantly. Now, researchers affiliated with DARPA have developed something that could rapidly arrest internal bleeding, in an attempt to keep wounded soldiers alive and get them to a hospital.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

App gives people the motivation to lose weight

Obesity and its associated health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular complications, are increasing in incidence at an alarming rate. It is typically a welfare disease, resulting from bad lifestyle choices such as unhealthy food, smoking and a lack of exercise. Lots of scientific studies are devoted to 'curing' obesity, but the best treatment is still to improve your lifestyle. It really pays off, a recent study showed: healthy living adds, on average, 14 years to your life. The problem is that people cannot find the required motivation to keep up with a healthy lifestyle, but there are ways to improve that. A recent study shows that an application for smartphones may be of benefit when trying to lose weight.

HIV shown to be promising as a treatment for cancer

A couple of months ago, a group of French scientists reported that they found a way to use HIV as a means to treat cancer. They showed some promising results in the lab, indicating that the virus could be a lot more effective than conventional treatments. Now, the first clinical trial has been performed with a similar technique, and it appears as if HIV may indeed be useful in the development of a decent cancer treatment.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Making an old skin look young again

Companies spend a lot of time on convincing us to buy products that boost the skin. They make ludicrous claims about their product and its contents, while most of the skin care products that are on the market have yielded anything but scientifically valid evidence for their claims. Despite all that, scientists are performing research in order to find out how to keep the skin looking healthy. And it appears that some cosmetic products actually may have some therapeutic value, but perhaps not in the way that the companies that produce them originally thought.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Brain implant to aid patients with Alzheimer's disease

Our brain consists of many wires that all connect to each other and communicate by means of electricity. Small electrical pulses travel along the wires and the patterns result in all kinds of behavioural changes in the brain cells that receive these signals. That means electricity is essential for adequate brain function, and therefore it is something that is being investigated as a potential therapy. Previous studies with a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS) showed that it has the potential to reverse brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. Now, researchers have developed a brain implant that can be worn by patients for permanent DBS.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

NASA unveils plans for a new Mars rover in 2020

NASA is betting big time on its expeditions to Mars. A while back, Curiosity landed on the planet and in the wake of the success, the space organisation swiftly announced a follow-up mission planned for 2016. Now, another plan has been unveiled: in 2020, a to-be-developed Mars rover will be sent to the Red Planet to replace Curiosity. However, the plans still need to be given the green light by the American congress.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Brain cooling reduces epileptic seizures

Epilepsy is something like a temporary overload of the brain. The seizures that accompany the disease are defined as "abnormal excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain", which basically means that the thing lights up like a Christmas tree. Seizures can have various causes, but in patients with epilepsy, a cause is often hard to establish. A cure is also not available; with medication it is possible to control the symptoms, but so far it remains impossible prevent seizures. A novel attempt by scientists from the Yamaguchi University to treat epileptic seizures is based on something completely different: they found a way to ameliorate the symptoms by cooling down the brain.

Monday, December 3, 2012

MIT builds foldable Transformers robots

Sometimes science fiction turns into reality. That is the case with the recent success in building a cyborg and achieving teleportation. Speaking of science fiction, everybody knows that the robots from Transformers are not real. However, it could very well be that we will be capable of building such robots in the future. The required technology has been delivered by engineers from MIT.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cells pull themselves apart during division

Cell division is needed to create multicellular forms of life, such as us human beings. Division creates 'daughter' cells that enable tissue renewal by replacing old and dying cells, and it is the driving force behind embryonic development. For example, human beings start as a single fertilized cell, but grow into a collection of billions of cells that all work together. We know a great deal about how cells split off from each other, but it remains a peculiar and interesting phenomenon. New research shows that cell division is similar to the rope-pulling game 'tug of war'.

Making stem cells out of urine

Stem cells are controversial, but the reason for their controversy is slowly being eliminated as science progresses. In the early days, stem cells were gathered from embryos, but nowadays, we can create them ourselves; we are capable of 'reverting' ordinary cells back to a stem cell status, after which they are capable of self-renewal and become any kind of tissue that exists in the body. It is possible to revert skin cells back to stem cells, but scientists have now found a way to make it even easier: kidney cells found in urine are suitable for being transformed to functional stem cells.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Longer sleep time reduces pain sensitivity

A good night's sleep is necessary to function properly, but the exact function of this peculiar state of hibernation is still unknown. It is hypothesized that sleep is needed to give the brain the ability to process memories, as well restore several other functions. Recent research has shown that, if we do not sleep well, it makes us want to eat more, as well as crave for more unhealthy food. Now, a study has shown that an increase in sleep time is able to reduce pain sensitivity.

Friday, November 30, 2012

New drug promising for treatment of Parkinson's

Parkinson's disease affects the part of the brain that takes care of muscle control. Because the brain part responsible for these functions is dying in patients with Parkinson's, the symptoms slowly progress from slight tremors to all kinds of problems that also affect cognition and behaviour. Our ever-increasing knowledge of the brain and its pathology has resulted in several interesting and novel treatments, such as electrical stimulation. In addition, scientists have recently uncovered how vitamins, diet and genes affect symptoms in Parkinson's. However, there is still no proper cure, but a novel drug that is currently being tested has shown very promising results.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Method devised to build our own proteins

Proteins are the basic building blocks of cells, and they have all sorts of functions. Some of them appear as true building blocks that hold the cell together, but others catalyse chemical reactions in the body, and are known as enzymes. There is an enourmous variety in the functions that proteins can perform, which is basically governed by their shape. Proteins are created from long chains that automatically fold into the right position. This folding process is what interests scientists, because we can use it to make our own proteins. A group of scientists has now devised a set of principles to actually make this happen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Looking through the eyes of a monkey

It is not easy to decipher the behaviour of animals, because they have no way of communicating their motives and feelings to us. That is why we have to rely on rather indirect measurements to analyze their behaviour. A new method, developed by the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus literally lets us look through the eyes of animals. Their technique tracks eye movement, and thereby allows us to see what the animal sees. According to the researchers, this helps with improving behavioural studies.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Nano structures aid in studying individual cells

A cell is the most basic form of life there is. Some organisms consist of just a single cell, but us human beings have billions of them. Because we consist of so many individual components, cells need to work closely together. They do so by forming a cooperation of multiple cells that all do the same thing. That is what we call tissue. Communication is very important, and cells normally receive signals from all sides. In the lab, things are a bit different. We use special culture flasks in which the cells attach to the bottom. However, this does not accurately mimic the situation in the body. Scientists from the University of Twente have designed nano structures to grow cells individually, in the shape of a pyramid.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Time is not symmetrical, new study shows

We experience time as a straight line; it only goes forward and never backwards, unless you are playing back a piece of video or audio in reverse. This is something that is never questioned, but the wondrous world of quantum mechanics has taught us to look differently at things that seem obvious. Einstein already proved with his theory of relativity that time differs depending on the observer, but individual particles appear to go one step further. There supposedly is an anti-particle for every particle that has exact opposites characteristics, and that also means that it has a different direction in time. An associated theory is dubbed supersymmetry, but scientists have revealed that time is actually asymmetrical.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Device prints words directly on a blind person's retina

Blindness is very hard to cure, and it is one of the few things for which there are barely any effective treatments. Being blind is often permanent, but newly developed technologies offer a bit of hope for those who are unable to see. For example, a newly developed eye implant based on laser looks very promising, and the same goes for attempts with gene therapy. Now, scientists from the company Second Sight have developed a device that stimulates the retina, which is the light-sensitive tissue of the eye. This way they succeeded in letting blind people read words and even see colour.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Recordings show that fetuses yawn in the womb

Ever so often we discover things that do not seem particularly useful, but are still interesting enough to mention. An example of this is a recent study regarding the phenomenon of yawning. A group of scientists working at Durham and Lancaster University tried to find out whether fetuses also exhibit this peculiar form of behaviour. While we do not actually understand the function of yawning, aside from a rather interesting and recent theory, we at least know that we already do so in the womb.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Engineered bacteria sacrifice themselves for others

Altruism is a form of behaviour thought only to exist in animals that are highly intelligent, such as us human beings. It is defined as having concern for the welfare of others, without having a certain moral obligation. Sacrificing your own life for the well-being of someone else could be considered the ultimate form of altruism, although scientists are still debating whether true altruism exists at all, evolutionary speaking. Scientists have now found such behaviour in bacteria, although this required a bit of modification.

Monday, November 19, 2012

First steps to a functioning brain transplant

One of the hardest tissue types to replace is that of the nervous system. Individual cells, called neurons, are hard to acquire and even harder to grow new in the body. Being able to provide our central nervous system, especially our brain, with fresh neurons may be a way to counter neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. Scientists have already shown capable of growing neurons from stem cells, but a recent study has now provided a way to actually make them functional after transplantation, which is a big step forward towards regrowing parts of the brain.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A 3D-printed self-walking robot based on heart cells

It is amazing what engineers can do nowadays. New technology has allowed us to create our own biological systems that can, for example, be used for transplantation or for the creation of biological robots, otherwise known as cyborgs. An interesting recent example is a project where scientists turned an insect into something that we can control. Now, researchers from the University of Illinois have created a biological machine by printing layers of heart cells and a hydrogel polymer using a 3D printer.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Robot fish capable of interacting with live fish

Robots are getting increasingly intelligent, as we advance in our technology. Nowadays, robots are capable of performing complex tasks, and we are already finding ways to attach robot elements to our bodies, creating so-called cyborgs. It is, however, still too difficult to make robots just as intelligent, or complex, as live animals. Scientists from the University of New York have now set the first steps towards a robot model that behaves just like a fish and is capable of real interaction. Such principles ought to help us change the behaviour of groups of animals, in an effort to preserve nature.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pig DNA unraveled, helps us cure diseases

In various animals, including humans, the DNA sequence is completely known. That means we know exactly, on average, how a genome is built up. Knowing the structure of the DNA helps us to decipher the function of individual genes as well as what it means when we find variations in genetic structures. Because we use various animals as models for human research, it is worthwhile to unravel their genomes as well. This has now been done for the pig, an animal that looks very much like us; we have already been able to harness their organs for transplantation into human beings, which means that genetic research in the pig could very well help us learn more about human disease, leading to cures.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Another possible Earth-like planet found

Recent advancements in technology have allowed for the discovery of exoplanets; planets that exist beyond our solar system. Our own system consists of only a few planets, and it is therefore very interesting to venture deep into space to see what kind of variations we can find beyond those we already know. Such endeavours have led to various interesting discoveries, including a planet made of diamond and a planet that orbits not one, but four stars. In addition, we happen to stumble upon planets that look very much like our own earth, and another example has recently been found: this so-called super earth may even have a similar climate, which means it is an interesting finding in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Low levels of vitamin D linked to long life

The relationship between food and nutritional substances and health are a complex matter, and while we generally know what is good for us and what is not, there are still a lot of things that are unknown to us. This is highlighted by a recent study on the effect of vitamin D and its relationship to longevity, which showed that low levels of the substance is associated with a longer life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Healthy lifestyle adds on average 14 years to life

Everybody knows that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy. We also know that regular exercise is quite beneficial for our health. Nevertheless, diseases such as diabetes and obesity are increasing in prevalence, because adopting a healthy lifestyle is not always easy when tempted with the prospect of laziness and unhealthy food. A recent study, however, does show that adopting a healthy lifestyle is definitely something to consider: keeping a healthy heart would add at least fourteen years of disease-free living.

New ways to predict how diseases will progress

Being able to predict diseases would be very beneficial. It allows us to take preventive measures, which not only spares the patient, but also reduces the costs of healthcare, especially when it comes to chronic diseases. Because we continuously increase our understanding of the pathology of diseases, we find new ways to construct models that predict the onset or progression of a disease. A novel way, developed by the Emory University allows us to predict the progression of various diseases by simply taking a blood sample.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pacemaker can be powered with heart beats

Pacemakers are one of the oldest implantable devices that we use to adjust body functions. Such devices function by generating pulses that instruct the heart to keep beating. This can save the lives of people who are unable to create these pulses themselves, for example as a result of heart damage. A pacemaker makes up for that, but the downside is that it needs batteries in order to be able to generate the necessary electrical pulses. A novel device is supposed to eliminate the need for batteries, saving patients from future surgery.

Man walks with robot leg using only his brain

Our attempts at understanding how the brain works have yielded very interesting results in the last couple of years We have seen paraplegics operate robot limbs using only their brain, and it is even possible to mimic the fine finger movements, allowing for complicated brain-controlled actions. Now, American scientists have come up with something new, as they have found a way to let a person control a bionic leg with his mind. He even proved to be capable to climb one of the highest skyscrapers with the robot leg, using only his brain and his one healthy leg.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Human genetic catalog seeks the origin of disease

In 2003, the first ever complete sequence of the human genome was published. This marked a huge milestone in biology and has lead to lots of post-hoc analysis to discover clues about our evolution, genes and their function and other bits of our DNA. Nowadays, it is a lot faster and cheaper to unravel the entire sequence of a person's DNA, but the costs are still too high to allow large-scale sequencing. Nevertheless, we have accumulated a rather large collection of human genomes, and a group of researchers has just started a project to use this catalogue in the search of the origin of disease.

How habits get hard-coded in your brain

Many forms of behaviour require our attention and conscious thinking. However, we all have our habits; things we have gotten used to and which are performed on 'auto-pilot'. Once we have gotten accustomed to certain patterns of behaviour, our conscious brain is no longer needed, and it can be 'used' for other purposes. It is quite peculiar that habituation helps us to 'relieve' us from conscious control, which is why neurologists from MIT set out to discover what actually happens in our brain.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Anti-smoke laws decrease hospitalization and deaths

Several countries have imposed smoking bans for public buildings in order to reduce a phenomenon known as second hand smoking. It means that non-smokers are no longer harmed by the smoke of others in public areas. Previous research conducted in the German city of Bremen showed that such laws sharply decreased the number of myocardial infarctions, but new analysis involving many more areas all over the world shows that it also leads to a decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths, further reinforcing the theory that anti-smoking laws are a quick win in terms of health benefits, and an example that other governments should follow.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Physical exercise makes you smarter

Exercising is a good way to stay healthy and reduce the chance of acquiring 'modern' diseases such as diabetes or obesity. Recently, scientists have also shown that it can prevent a number of other diseases, such as alzheimer's and breast cancer. And if that was not enough, intense workouts were also shown to increase life span. It is commonly known that everybody, for their own sake, should at least do some exercise, but not everyone feels inclined to do so. A study from the Montreal Heart Institute provides yet another reason to exercise, as they have shown that it not only improves your physical capabilities, but it also makes you smarter.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Science and the transition to open access to literature

If there is anything that goes beyond borders, politics, conflicts and other things that impede globalisation of humanity, it is science. The pursuit of knowledge by scientists is a universal human endeavour, and while differences in perception do exist, science has enough common ground to look past such conflicts. Because of the global organisation of science, it is of paramount importance that scientists have access to data from publications of their peers. Sadly, this process is impeded by scientific journals that charge unreasonably high prices for access and slow down the spread of knowledge. While this blog has already mentioned this issue a couple of times, slowly but steadily science is becoming aware of the problem of access to scientific knowledge. A video from PhD Comics eloquently explains how we can move to open access publishing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fertility drives female desire for attractive males

The bond between men and women is instituted by our biology resulting from billions of years of evolution. Male-female bonding is necessary for sexual reproduction, now the golden standard for successful life (although the a-sexual bacteria are not doing bad either). Because being attracted to the (mostly) other sex is a built-in mechanism directed by our most primitive brain structures, there is a lot of unconscious behaviour going on, which is excellent for scientists wishing to uncover our more primal, animal instincts. In this light, a recent study showed that how close a woman feels to her mate is dependent on how sexually attractive the male person is, and whether the female is in her fertile period.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Using microbes instead of needles for vaccines

Most vaccines are administered by means of an injection, but this method is far from perfect. It requires the use of, mostly disposable, needles, which is a both an environmental and a financial burden. Additionally, needles are generally disliked because of the associated pain, although modern needles hardly cause any. A lot of research is devoted to finding alternatives for needles, as recently demonstrated by the development of laser injections. Now, a group of scientists has developed another alternative, by making use of a special feature of bacteria.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Immune system can 'taste' when our body is invaded

Taste receptors on our tongue are very handy, because they sample our food and process that information, after which it is sent to the brain. We then become aware of what is in our mouth, and that tells us something about whether we should proceed with swallowing or not. However, the taste receptors apparently do more than just discern food choices: scientists found that the immune system uses them to detect presence of foreign invaders, in order to swiftly produce toxins to kill them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Scientists jailed after false earthquake prediction

Seismologists are tasked with the prediction of earthquakes based on the elastic waves that ripple through the earth. This is not an easy feat, as relating wave patterns and other indicators to the time, intensity and location of the quake is not as well developed as we would like it to be. Nevertheless, scientists working as seismologists are employed in areas that are heavy on earthquakes to keep an eye on seismologic developments. In 2009, an earthquake hit the Italian region of Abruzzo, the epicentre being in L´Aquila. In court, the seismologists working in that area were jailed because they were unable to predict the earthquake. It is shocking to see that judges fail to understand that making such predictions holds a very large degree of uncertainty.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The search for DNA on Mars

Our tools to analyze the DNA of living beings has rapidly improved in the last decade, which has resulted in scientists unravelling the genome of various animals, including us human beings. This has lead to a flood of information regarding our genes and function, increasing our understanding of how the body creates its functionality and building blocks. As far as we know now, all existing life is based on DNA. Therefore, in the search of extraterrestrial life, it makes sense to see if we can find traces of genetic material on other planets. DNA pioneer Craig Venter, who was involved in the sequencing project that lead to the first human genome being unravelled, wants to send machinery to Mars, to analyze whether the soil contains traces of DNA, thereby showing that Mars harbours life, either in the present or in the past.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A life-threatening disease does not make one religious

Religion has often been described as 'food for the soul' or 'opium for the masses', catering to a human need for an explanation of the unknown and a sense of consolation for difficult issues such as death. Scientifically speaking, discussions have revolved around the 'use' of religion for human well-being. For example, religion could help one get through a tough situation in life, such as a severely life-impeding disease. Scientists set out to uncover whether the onset of a life-threatening disease turns people religious, but found that this was not the case, indicating that atheists find their own ways for consolation or support.

Lab-grown kidney appears functional in animals

We are getting better in optimizing the compatibility of organs, and have thereby made transplantations feasible, but the lack of available donors is a huge problem. Attempts are being made to get people signed up for donor programs, but this is not enough to cover the gap. Novel attempts are being made to grow artificial organs in the lab. While it has been possible to grow tissues for quite some time, creating a fully-fledged organ suitable for transplantation has so far been impossible. Scientists from the UK and Italy have however succeeded in getting a functional lab-grown kidney transplanted in an animal.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Stress in relationships differs for men and women

It is unlikely to go through a relationship without ever getting into a fight. Most couples occasionally have their disagreements, although some fight more intensely than others. Because men and women are quite different in their behaviour and their way of dealing with stress, it is interesting to find out how both groups respond to stressful situations within a relationship. To this end, researchers from Penn State University set out to discover how men and women respond to certain situations when they are expecting their first child, which can be regarded as a stressful situation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Planet found to orbit four suns

We all know the earth orbits the sun, similar to the way other planets in our solar system do. The ever-increasing abilities of telescopes have revealed that we are by far not the only solar system; our own galaxy contains billions of them, and we have already found other planets orbiting stars. A recent discovery found that stars do not necessarily need to have several planets in their orbit. In fact, a single planet was shown to orbit a total of four stars. So far, no similar discoveries have ever been made.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Social contact can relieve physical pain

Humans are social beings, just like many other intelligent mammals. Not only do we prefer social contact, we actually need it: an experiment in barbaric medieval times revealed that children that never received any social contact died prematurely. While the experiment was supposedly conducted by the order of an alleged mad Roman emperor that tried to see whether language deprivation would make the children hear the voice of angels, it does highlight an interesting primary need for the proper development of a human being. Now, in a perhaps more ethical experiment, social contact was also seen to reduce a certain type of pain.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Man jumps from space at 39km altitude - update

A few of us enjoy the sport of parachuting, which is often performed by jumping out of a plane. While this can be considered an extreme sport, it is nothing compared with what Felix Baumgartner just pulled off: the Austrian jumped out of a capsule hanging 39km above the earth, breaking the record of the highest jump ever made, and the record of the highest manned balloon flight. He landed safely in New Mexico after a free fall that lasted almost 4:30 minutes.

Electronic implant able to relieve migraine

A lot of people suffer from migraine attacks, a condition that can be severely debilitating. It is a form of severe headache that periodically returns and it is tied with malfunctions in the nervous system. Although it is likely to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors, the underlying pathological mechanisms are not well understood. This impedes the development of new treatments, but scientists have come up with a way to decrease the severity in certain migraine patients. An electrical implant that sends signals to the brain was shown to decrease the number of migraine attacks, making it a promising way to give such patients a better quality of life.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Finding reveals cause for failure of transplanted organs

Organ transplantation has the potential to save people's lives. One of the major hurdles, in addition to actually acquiring the necessary organs, is rejection. That means the body rejects the transplanted organ because it is recognized as foreign, and therefore unwanted. Nowadays, we are able to suppress the acute form of rejection that is associated with organ transplantation, but chronic rejection, that develops over the course of many years, has proven to be a lot harder to get rid of. Patients have to take drugs that suppress the immune system to maintain usability of their newly acquired organ, something which is not beneficial for the body's ability to fight off infections. In the search of ways to improve organ compatibility, scientists stumbled upon a small genetic variant that may prove to be important for the success of a transplant.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Discovery reveals planet made of diamond

Planets come in all sorts of flavours. For instance, our own earth is a rocky planet, while others such as Jupiter are gaseous in origin. Due to our fairly recently acquired ability to peer into the depths of the universe, we have started to see that the variety is much larger than originally anticipated. Examples include a recently discovered planet that consists mainly of water, but we have also found examples that look just like our own earth, further reinforcing the hypothesis that somewhere in this universe, there must be other life forms. Meanwhile our search for planets continues: new on the list is a planet that largely consists of diamond.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Eating tomatoes associated with lower risk for stroke

Everybody knows eating vegetables and fruit is healthy. But not my many long-term studies are performed to see what the actual health effects are of regularly eating a certain type of green. We know it is healthy, but to what extent? And how much do we actually need to eat to reasonably lower the risk of undesirable health outcomes? A study performed by Finnish scientists gives an interesting example regarding the analysis of health effects due to fruit or vegetable consumption, by linking tomatoes to a reduced risk of stroke.

Nobel Prize awarded to quantum physics researchers

Physics is perhaps, in the humble opinion of your editor and Alfred Nobel himself, the most pure form of science, as it deals with discovering the laws that govern the world (and beyond) around us. Especially quantum physics has gathered interest in the last hundred years, giving rise to a fascinating and mysterious scientific field that we have only just begun to understand. That is why it seems fitting that the organizing committee awarded 2012's Nobel Prize for physics to two quantum physicists.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stem cell researchers awarded Nobel Prize

This year's Nobel Prize for medicine has been awarded. Last year, the prize was given to researchers in the field of immunology, who discovered the function of an important class of receptors used for the body's response against foreign invaders. For 2012, two scientists working on stem cells have to share the prize, and deservedly so. Their work pioneered the use of stem cells for medicinal purposes, and their work laid the foundation for artificial creation of stem cells, which means the ethically troublesome embryonic stem cells need not to be used anymore, and cloning, which also has important implications for medicine.

Smart pill bottle helps patients adhere to drug regime

Patient compliance to medication is an important topic, because it is known that a rather significant percentage is not very strict with the drug regime laid down by their physicians. Naturally, it is possible to forget to take your pill, especially if you take them daily, but some patients downright refuse to adhere to the medication schedule. Luckily the latter group is quite small. In order to tackle the problem of adherence, a company known as AdhereTech developed a pill bottle that automatically checks whether medication is being taken. And it even has the capability to send the data to the doctors through a cellular network.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Smartphone app helps patients sort out pills

There is an app for almost everything nowadays. Smartphones have also steadily been finding their way into the world of healthcare and medical science. A recently released app from the US National Institutes of Health helps patients identify drugs by taking pictures of pills. By comparing the images with a database, this system ought to help patients taking the right type of pill, should they be taking multiple medications.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Liking someone affects brain processes

Our brain has the capacity to mimic things we see, which speeds up various learning processes. An example is watching someone walk: while that happens, the corresponding brain patterns are activated in your brain as well, creating a pattern of activation that would also occur if you yourself would be walking. This process of copying, facilitated by so-called mirror neurons, has been well-studied and is important for a variety of mammals, including us human beings. Surprisingly, it appears that whether you like someone affects the brain processes that govern this mimicking behaviour.

Science network Researchgate has 2 million users

Facebook recently broke the news that it had reached the milestone of a billion active users on its network. An insanely impressive feat, indicating that one in seven earthlings is frequently found using Facebook. As social media is expanding, niche networks also grow. This is evident when looking at ResearchGate: the social network for scientists has recently broken the 2 million user milestone. While not even near Facebook's numbers, it is an impressive feat for a network that is tailored towards research only. The network also has exciting plans, hopefully leading to a transformation in scientific collaboration, participation and sharing of data.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Disgusted rats help us understand nausea

We all know the feeling of nausea, but the mechanisms of the body that induce such sensations are poorly understood. This is in contrast to vomiting, which is a well-understood bodily reflex. Nausea is a bit more complex, because it involves brain functions that induce a generally unpleasant feeling, something that is more sophisticated than the vomit reflex. Scientists have found an animal model capable of simulating nausea, and that has lead to more understanding about how this phenomenon actually works. In turn, this may improve drugs that include nausea in their list of side effects, which means it could be relevant for chemotherapy in cancer patients.

A quick way to relieve symptoms of depression

Depression is the clinical manifestation of a 'bad mood'. It is characterized by feelings of negative emotions, including sadness, anxiousness, hopelessness, emptiness and worthlessness. A depressed patient is having more than just an occasional bad mood, and it has been associated with lower levels of certain brain chemicals in areas that regulate mood. There are several drugs on the market that try to correct this neuronal imbalance, but there is no definite cure. Now, scientists from Yale University have shown that a well-known substance called ketamine diminishes symptoms of depression within hours. This could be a breakthrough for depression treatment.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Surgery goes into space

It may sound weird, but scientists have recently looked into doing things in space that we normally do on earth. Sometimes, experiments can be performed better when gravity is not present, as has been illustrated before. Because we send astronauts into space, medical procedures also become more relevant without the effect of gravity in place. Therefore, creating tools that can be used for medical procedures in space is highly relevant, and scientists from the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have developed a tool that allows for a variety of medical procedures.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Comet to light up the night sky, brighter than full moon

Every so often stargazers can see shooting stars passing through the night sky. This spectacular phenomenon is not that uncommon, but such events are very short in duration. A comet currently passing by Saturn may however be a tad bit different: astronomers have calculated that when it passes by, it will be brighter than the light coming from a full moon. This will undoubtedly be a spectacular sight and the event is set to happen somewhere next year.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Millions of cancer patients suffer unnecessary pain

Cancer is one of the worst diseases known to man, especially because many forms are hard to treat and are often lethal. Additionally, the disease itself, or even the treatment, can cause a lot of pain. Fortunately, pain can almost always be treated due to a vast arsenal of analgesics. A recent study has shown that despite the availability of painkillers, many cancer patients worldwide suffer from pain as a result from their cancer. According to the lead researcher, the study "paints a shocking picture of unnecessary pain on a global scale".

Biological 'internet' lets cells communicate

The internet basically consists of a bunch of computers that are connected with each other globally. By sending messages back and forth, we gain access to web pages and are able to communicate with other people through the web. This principle also exists in the body: cells communicate with each other using a variety of molecules, such as hormones, chemokines, cytokines. Everything takes place in an endlessly complex network, far beyond our own attempts with the internet. Scientists from the Stanford University Medical Center have found a way to send artificial messages to cells in the body, by harnessing the power of viruses. This way, they have created something that may be regarded as the biological internet, or Bi-Fi, as they have named it themselves.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Predicting drug effect by 'putting the patient in a tube'

Some patients are easy to treat, while others can be very difficult. Even for patients that have the same disease, it is sometimes necessary to opt for a different treatment because of specific indicators that result in a lack of drug efficacy. In such cases, it is worthwhile to explore the use of other drugs, though it is not always clear which ones would work best, and it is of course unethical to use the patient as a guinea pig. A new method, used in oncology, works by taking some of the patient's healthy and diseased cells and putting them into a laboratory culture system. This allows for free drug testing without potentially harming the patient, and a first case study shows such lab predictions can aid treatment decisions by testing and selecting the right drug.

Curiosity finds traces of ancient river on Mars

Mars rover Curiosity has again reported a couple of interesting findings back to earth. Looking at one of its latest images, it appears that there might have been rivers with flowing water on the Red Planet. The picture shows a rocky area that looks very much like earth, which allows for comparison. And it just may be that we are looking at a prehistoric river here, further reinforcing the evidence that Mars once had liquid water flowing on its surface. It is not the first time Curiosity has shown us images.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Beneficial effect of autism drugs still unproven

One of the biggest concerns in healthcare these days is overmedication. That means a patient is taking unnecessary or excessive medications. This is partly fuelled by our attitude of trying to solve everything with a pill, but the pharmaceutical industry also plays a large role by trying to promote use of medicine for indications that do not require drugs at all. Most of this discussion takes place in the realm of psychology and psychiatry. Especially treatment of disturbances in behaviour, such as in autism, has been found questionable. A recent study from the Vanderbilt University reveals that medicating adolescents diagnosed with autism is indeed not proven to be favourable, casting doubts on the current clinical practice in autism treatment.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Iron plays a role in the cause of diabetes

Our lifestyle is becoming an important cause of a variety of diseases which have been steadily increasing in incidence over the last couple of decades. Examples include obesity, various forms of cancer and diabetes. The latter can be caused by an unhealthy diet, as well as other factors. Because diabetes leads to increased risk of various cardiovascular and renal diseases, much research is devoted to finding out the underlying causes of the disease, especially because of the increase in bad lifestyle choices seen in recent years. While we already know a fair bit about diabetes, scientists from the University of Copenhagen  have shown that transportation of iron in the body may be an underlying cause.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fearful memories can be erased from the brain

Our brain controls all parts of our body, but it is also very busy with storing all kinds of information. Memory is a very important aspect, but it can also impair the way we function. Some memories of traumatic experiences can haunt people for years to come or permanently change our personality. It would come in handy if we were able to modify our memory: wipe out the bad, and keep the good. A recent study shows that erasing memories from the brain may indeed be possible. Scientists from the Uppsala University demonstrated a way to wipe newly formed fearful associations.

A healthy diet also matters before pregnancy

It is common knowledge that unhealthy behaviour during pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn child. Therefore, many prospective mothers quit smoking and drinking while carrying a child. New research shows that a healthy diet and behavioural pattern is also important before getting pregnant. The study, conducted by scientists from the Nutrition Research Institute at the University of North Carolina indicates that prospective mothers should not wait with adapting their behaviour until they get pregnant.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

'Birth defect' drug thalidomide useful for lung disease

One of the biggest scandals in the history of medicine is that of thalidomide, or softenon as it is known in some countries. It was developed in the 50's as a drug for morning sickness, pain and to aid sleep, but it was later discovered that there are severe side effects. Pregnant women taking thalidomide gave birth to horribly deformed children, and the drug was consequently pulled from the market. However, the damage was already done, as thousands of babies were born with birth defects. Despite these horrible side effects, the drug has seen some renewed interest, as it has been shown useful in several conditions. A recent study shows that thalidomide might come in handy to treat a severe lung disease.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

More evidence for safety of mobile phone radiation

One of the most prominent scientific topics that is currently being discussed in the public domain, is the question whether electromagnetic radiation coming from mobile phones and cell towers is damaging our health. There have been suggestions that such radiation can cause tumours, but this has never been demonstrated in properly conducted studies. Now, a committee appointed by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health reaffirmed that there are no health risks to be found when it comes to the use of mobile phones or proximity to cell towers.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Microscope shows atom bonds in molecules

Microscopes allow us to see small things that cannot be observed with the eye. Examples include tissue structure, cells, or even individual parts of cells. But as technology progresses, we gain the ability to image increasingly smaller things. Now, researchers have found a way to reveal the bonds between individual atoms in a molecular structure. Basically, it shows us the most fundamental structure of matter, even though atoms themselves are also built up from individual parts. This technology ought to help with studying compounds and their chemical properties.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Existence of dark energy is an 'almost certainty'

Science has taught us a lot about how the world and the universe work, but there are still many mysteries that elude us. One of those mysteries is dark energy, the force that supposedly counters gravity and aids the increasingly rapid expansion of the universe. Because we cannot observe dark energy, there are still many questions regarding its existence. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and LMU University Munich have conducted a study and found that dark energy explains certain phenomena in our universe with a statistical chance of 99,996 percent; an almost certainty. Work on dark energy has already resulted in a Nobel prize.

NASA rover finds 'blueberries' on Mars

There are a lot of things happening right now on Mars, all thanks to NASA. The space organization recently sent its all-new rover Curiosity to the Red Planet, and it has been capturing the headlines ever since.  Curiosity might be the latest and greatest Mars machine, but NASA also has another rover driving around: Opportunity. It was there before Curiosity, and it recently reported back something quite interesting. Apparently, the rover found so-called 'blueberries'; iron-rich spheres that scientists think may hold evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Laser injections could make vaccinations painless

Of all the ways it is possible to get a drug or therapeutic agent administered to a patient, an injection with a needle must be the least favourable. Despite recent advancements that have made the needle part much smaller and therefore less painful, a lot of people still despise the feeling that an injection induces. There have been attempts to decrease the pain or unpleasant sensations caused by needles, but there is only so much science can do. That is why researchers from the Seoul National University have developed something radically different: a laser that replaces the function of a needle.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The placebo effect occurs at an unconscious level

One of the most peculiar treatment effects in medicine is that of a placebo. It is not supposed to work, but somehow patients receiving therapy based on a non-efficacious compound do seem to benefit from it. Placebos do not have any so-called bio-active components, and are often used for comparison with a 'real' drug. Nevertheless, the placebo effect is an interesting phenomenon and it tells us something about how the body itself facilitates and improves treatment. Many scientists have suggested that being aware of the fact that you are going to get treated adds to the placebo effect, but a recent study shows that patients do not have to be conscious about it for a placebo to work.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A doctor's empathy is beneficial for the patient

There is variety between the performance of doctors or physicians when it comes to curing patients. And that is not just because of their ability to prescribe the right pill or send you to the right specialist. Apparently, the level of empathy a doctor has for his or her patients affects clinical outcome. It has been shown that higher empathy results in fewer complications, which obviously is beneficial for the patient.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Scanning the genome for disease in unborn children

Some people have the misfortune to be born with a disease or disability. Such congenital diseases are often of a genetic origin, which means there is something wrong on the DNA. This results in an incorrect blueprint for certain proteins and that can cause life-long problems. With congenital diseases, things go wrong in an early stage: during the embryonic phase of life. While most genetic mistakes result in, often unnoticed, abortions, some children are born with the most horrible dysfunctions. It can be argued that in such cases, it is better to opt for an abortion before an unborn foetus gets the potential to live, although this is still highly controversial. Nevertheless, genetic techniques have made it possible to scan for various of the most life-impeding disabilities, allowing parents to terminate such pregnancies. A review in New Scientist discusses the current state of research in this particular field.

Insight into how stereotypes arise

Around the world there are many different cultures and customs, and that has lead to a great variety of stereotypes. It describes attributes given to individuals belonging to a certain group, while such commonly held beliefs may not accurately reflect reality. Although stereotypes can be a source of comedy, they can also be used in a negative way, for example by leading to racism. Nevertheless, it is interesting to find out how such commonly held beliefs about a group of individuals arise, and scientists from the University of Aberdeen have done just that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Uniting dark matter and dark energy

One of the most elusive topics in physics right now are dark matter and dark energy. We know they exist because their effect is measurable, but we do not exactly know what it is. We observe their effects by looking at the orbits of planets and stars: we know pieces of matter attract each other by the force of gravity, but this effect alone cannot explain what we see. Hence dark matter: which is matter we cannot see but does have gravitational effects. On the other hand, there is dark energy, that opposes the force of gravity and is supposedly responsible for the expansion of the universe. While the details are still incredibly fuzzy, some scientists have come up with a way to unite the two into one single theory and are thereby challenging Einstein himself.

Sleeping closer to your children reduces testosterone

Males differ from females in many ways, but in terms of the underlying biology, testosterone plays a big role. It is frequently defined as the male hormone, and it plays a role in various processes, such as development of male features and also character attributes such as aggression. Additionally, testosterone levels have been found to go up in certain situations, such as winning a sports match. Now, scientists have shown something rather different: apparently, testosterone levels are lower for males that sleep close to their children.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Highly detailed map of the human genome created

In 2003, scientists presented the first complete sequence of the human genome, comprising over 6 billion individual DNA building blocks. Of course, by just knowing the code, you know nothing about its function. That is why shortly after completing the code sequence, scientists started working on the interpretation of the genome. A project called Encode is devoted to unravelling the complete picture of the blueprint that our DNA forms for all life's building blocks. It is known that individual parts of the genetic code can function as genes, each providing the instructions for production of a single protein, but there are many other ways DNA can do its job. The Encode project has so far attributed a function to 80 percent of the genome, which is fairly impressive.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

New record in quantum teleportation

While it sounds like science fiction, it is possible to instantaneously teleport data between two places. It is one of the wonders of the quantum world, and it works with a process called quantum entanglement. Scientists have already shown that they can teleport so-called quantum states over a distance of around 100km. However, a new attempt resulted in teleportation spanning a distance of 143km, which is a new world record. By increasing the distance, we should eventually be able to create extremely fast quantum networks suitable for communication.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Recording of memories can be modified

Your brain has a special way of dealing with memories in order to give them a permanent spot. A brain area called the hippocampus sort of repeats the brain activity associated with a particular event, and does so while you sleep. Basically, your experiences of the day are 'replayed' at night, which results in the neural connections getting a firm spot in your brain. Scientists from MIT tried to manipulate this process in order to study storage of memories more closely. They managed to modify the playback of dreams, thereby possibly opening the doors to modification of memory storage, and possibly even dreams.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Electronic cigarettes pose health risks

Everybody knows that smoking is bad, but it is not that easy to kick the habit if you are addicted to nicotine. Aside from quitting, some attempts focus on replacing cigarettes with an alternative, such as nicotine patches. More recently, the e-cigarette has seen some popularity: it is an electronic version of the cigarette that delivers nicotine through a vapour instead of harmful smoke. While thought to be a lot less harmful, scientists show that such e-cigarettes also pose a high risk for health problems.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Glass shape influences alcohol drinking speed

Alcohol consumption is not that bad, as long as you do not drink too much of it. And while it has been proven to be a great way to make friends, many people, especially teens, drink too much, which often leads to behavioural and health problems. Lots of scientific effort is devoted in order to reduce binge drinking and other bad alcoholic habits; an example is a brain scan method that is able to predict future heavy drinking in youngsters. Now, researchers have found that the shape of the glass that contains the beverage also influences drinking behaviour: apparently, the shape tells us something about the speed we drink its contents with.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Body temperature instructs the biological clock

Our body is full of biological clocks, although most people are only familiar with one of them: the sleep-wake cycle that lasts around 24 hours. It makes us feel tired in the evening and active during the day, and it is closely related to the patterns of sunlight we get daily. In order to instruct this biological cycle pattern, a network of proteins is needed that responds to external cues, such as the aforementioned sunlight. Scientists discovered that temperature is also an important factor governing our sleep-wake cycle.

Scientists find mania gene

In the past, psychological diseases were often regarded as something that cannot be explained on a biological level. Advances in our knowledge of the human body have made clear that this view is incorrect, as many disorders of a psychological nature have a biological background. Perhaps the most famous example is schizophrenia, of which a large portion can be explained by genetic effects. Now, scientists have uncovered the function of a gene that seems to be related to bipolar disorder, a disease characterized by heavy mood swings, varying from depression to mania. They showed that this particular gene is a causal factor for the manic episodes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Using HIV to cure cancer

HIV and cancer are both awful and have serious health impacts. None of us would like to be affected by either one of those, but it seems that putting them together may actually result in something useful. Scientists from the French CNRS institute think we can transform HIV into a tool that helps us fight cancer. It is an interesting idea that helps make something good out of something bad.

Monday, August 27, 2012

First steps to creating a cyborg

A cybernetic organism, or cyborg, is a being that consists of both electronic and biological parts. While that sounds like science fiction, some of us actually look forward to building one. In fact, researchers at Harvard University and MIT have made the first steps in order to create a real cyborg, by creating tissues that are part electronics, part biology. Scientists have increasingly been trying to link electronics with biology, and have already managed to simulate an entire organism with a computer.

Energy drinks improve heart function

Energy drinks have become increasingly popular in the last decade. They promise a quick boost of energy and are therefore used a lot by those of us not getting enough sleep, for example. However, everything comes at a price, which in the case of energy drinks means that such temporary boosts are not good for your health. This is common knowledge, but a recent study from the University of Siena points in a different direction. Scientists argue that energy drinks actually improve your heart function.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Anti-smoking legislation has significant health benefits

In many European countries it is no longer allowed to smoke in public places, such as restaurants or bars. That means smokers need to find designated areas for their unhealthy habits, away from non-smokers. This means that not only is smoking discouraged by such laws, non-smokers also benefit because they are no longer covered by second hand smoke when visiting public places. German research has pointed out that this latter group benefits the most in terms of health from such anti-smoking regulations.

Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, passed away

One of the greatest achievements of mankind was the lunar landing in 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on a place different than the earth. As he said in his own words: 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind'. Sadly, Armstrong's family announced he has passed away at the age of 82. Humanity will have to go on without one of its legends.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Herbal tea as a drug to fight breast cancer

There are lots of old wives' tales and folklore when it comes to herbs or other natural products and their medicinal effects. Lots of the attributed effects are not scientifically proven and mostly rely on the so-called placebo effect. Of course, it would be too easy to just write all of them off as rubbish, which is why some scientists have taken a keen interest into scientifically analysing the effects of certain herbal treatments. As it turns out, some components in herbal tea may actually help to fight breast cancer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Enzyme modification helps burn fat three times faster

Obesity is a growing problem in the western world. The percentage of people that are overweight is increasing at an alarming rate, and so are the concurring diseases, such as diabetes or cardiovascular problems. Much research is devoted to combating this problem, and scientists at the University of Copenhagen have found a molecular trick to make you burn fat much faster. In fact, the speed at which body fat is burned can be tripled.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Evolution favoured menopause to reduce competition

Once a woman hits the menopause, she is no longer fertile, effectively ending her capabilities of reproduction. Evolutionists have wondered why something like the menopause exists. Surely it has no evolutionary benefit to keep an organism alive that has no ability to reproduce, one would think. However, there have been some theories regarding the potential benefits, and an international group of scientists performed experiments to see if one of them holds any truth. They found that the menopause reduces competition in families, especially between in-laws.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo

Whenever there is an outbreak of an Ebola virus, it poses a big problem for the infected population. It is spread by body fluids and various forms of human contact, and can cause severe internal bleeding which often leads to death. What makes it even more dangerous is the fact that there is no cure, despite promising attempts to create one. A few weeks ago, the Ebola virus wreaked havoc in the African country Uganda, killing at least 16 people. Now, the World Health Organisation has confirmed the virus has also been found in Congo, where the death toll has already reached 10.

NASA is planning to send another robot to Mars

NASA recently dropped off its latest and greatest rover on the planet Mars. The machine, called Curiosity, harbours a fully fledged laboratory and a bunch of interesting equipment in order to investigate the Martian surface. Recently, Curiosity beamed a couple of high-resolution pictures back to earth, giving us a clear view of the Red Planet. The whole adventure stirred up a lot of media coverage, and in the wake of its success, NASA announced to send another explorer to Mars in 2016. According to the space organisation, this particular robot will do geological research to discover what lies beneath the surface.

New theory argues universe started with a Big Freeze

In the beginning, there was a Big Bang and it created the whole universe. That is the condensed and oversimplified version of the theory that supposedly started off everything we know exists, about 14 billion years ago. According to the theory, everything was in a extremely hot and condensed state, which resulted in rapid expansion, forming atoms and thereafter more complex forms of matter, eventually giving rise to a wide dispersion of galaxies, solar systems, stars and planets. A new hypothesis from the University of Melbourne states that a Big Bang is not the most accurate model to describe the early phase of the universe. Scientists think it was more similar to a 'Big Freeze', like water turning into ice.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Folding DNA like a trojan horse

DNA is normally shaped like a double helix, which basically looks similar to a spiralling staircase. By building DNA in this particular way, it is possible to form endless chains of genetic material, suitable for read-out by cellular machinery, in order to derive the required information for protein production. However, by changing chemical properties, it is possible to give DNA a different shape, and fold it in ways similar to the way proteins are folded into their unique shape. DNA folding has been used by a group of scientists to create something similar to a trojan horse, in order to help kill cancer cells.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Deciphering the neural code can restore vision

Our eyes are responsible for gathering the required light to create vision in our brains. Light is absorbed on the retina, a layer that is comparable to an analogue film used to capture images or video. In order to get the information to the brain, neural cells transform incoming light to electrical pulses, suitable to be interpreted by the brain. When the retina does not work, no more pulses are sent to the brain, resulting in blindness. This can be overcome with artificial electrical stimulation using implants, but it has proven to be hard to mimic the patterns that neural cells use to communicate with the brain. However, scientists have managed to 'crack the code', enabling us to restore vision to normal levels.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sub-atomic 'soup' reaches highest temperature ever

CERN keeps breaking the boundaries of science with their experiments in physics. A while ago, they reported to have found a candidate for the much sought after Higgs boson, a sub-atomic particle that is supposed to complete the standard model of particle physics. Before that, they found another new particle, by pushing the limits of science by creating high-speed collisions of particles. Such collisions create high temperatures, and CERN now reports to have broken the record of the highest man-made temperature ever, creating a 'soup' of subatomic particles that was supposedly also present during the Big Bang.

State of emergency after West Nile virus outbreak

Outbreaks of West Nile virus are pretty common, especially in the United States. About a decade ago, the number of deaths related to West Nile outbreaks were increasing, as well as the number of deaths due to infection. However, more recent years saw a drop in the number of deaths and mortality rate. Because the virus can cause lethal encephalitis, it is necessary to keep it under control. That is why the mayor of the Texan city Dallas has declared a state of emergency, after a recent outbreak hit a death toll of ten.

Writing a book with DNA

Living beings almost exclusively use DNA to store information necessary to produce the building blocks for biological components. We human beings use bits to store data used for a computer. Scientists from Harvard Medical School sought to combine the two, and managed to 'write' an electronic book by encoding it with DNA. It is one of the first practical applications of genetic code as a substitute for bits and bytes.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Taking the social approach to beat cancer

Social phenomena are getting increasingly popular on the internet. Many people are registered on social networking sites and the concept is also being used more and more by companies. Even research projects benefit from social attempts. Now, scientists think cancer should also be treated with regard for its social features. According to researchers from the Tel Aviv University, regarding cancer cells as a micro-community with the ability to cooperate will enable us to develop new ways to treat tumours.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Side effects from chemotherapy can be greatly reduced

Treating cancer with chemotherapeutics is a double-edged sword. While it is proven to be very effective in killing cancer cells, it also harms healthy tissue, which means clinicians have to balance between an effective dose and the associated side effects. Despite our best efforts, getting rid of chemotherapy and replacing it with more specific treatments will take a while. That is why some scientists instead look at improving chemotherapy instead of finding replacements. Scientists from KU Leuven found that it is possible to greatly reduce the side effects by providing patients with an additional treatment.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fruit fly can be upgraded with artificial DNA

Genes are individual packets containing instructions to produce a specific protein, and they form the foundation of life and evolution. A lot of genetic functions have been discovered by investigating fruit flies: they function as a so-called model organism which scientists have freely used to experiment with. Inducing genetic changes lead to visible, or invisible, changes, and that has helped us a great deal in genetic research. Now, British scientists have managed to modify fruit flies by adding DNA to their genome. This made the little flies produce a modified protein, paving the way for 'DNA upgrades'.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Curiosity sends back hi-res pictures from Mars

About a week ago, NASA's latest space project Curiosity landed on Mars. The car-sized machine with a built-in laboratory is now fully operational, and managed to send a few high-resolution photos back to earth. The Martian landscape is visible in vivid colours and looks much like a typical rock desert on earth. A few of NASA's Mars pictures can be found below.

Singing mice help us study language problems

Did you know mice can sing? A species called S. teguina from the tropical cloud forests in the mountains of Costa Rica have the ability to communicate by song, similar to the way birds do. Their chirps carry over long distances in the wild, and are often used to attract males or to display dominance. Such singing mice are unique to their kind, and are of interest to scientists wishing to learn more about how language develops in humans.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

'Selfish' DNA reduces survival and fertility

DNA is present in every living cell and forms the blueprint for the production of all cellular components. The genetic code is safely stored in chromosomes, located in the cellular core, called the nucleus. A little less known is the fact that a particular cellular component called the mitochondrion packs its own DNA, with its own 'reproduction' cycle. Despite the fact that our cells need mitochondria for energy production, scientists seem to have found a competitive element in mitochondrial DNA, that results in decreased chances of survival and fertility.

Scientists simulate touch with artificial skin

We use our nervous system to record input from the outside world, enabling us to see, feel, hear, smell and touch. Being able to register that our body is touching something is governed by sensory neurons that are present in the skin. They respond to tactile input from the outside world, after which an electrical pulse is sent to the brain, making us aware of what is happening. Scientists have been able to simulate touch by electrically stimulating the skin, something that can be used for various purposes. Virtual touch could be used for surgery and games, for example.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Heavy drinking by teens predicted by looking at brain

Heavy alcohol consumption by minors is an ongoing problem. According to recent studies, teenagers often have no sense when to stop drinking, because the physical effects of the alcohol are different when compared to adults. Because sometimes young people drink so much that they fall into an alcohol-induced coma, it is necessary to do something about it. Scientists from the University of California in San Diego discovered that future heavy drinking by youngsters can be predicted by scanning their brains.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

'Noise' may boost research towards quantum computer

For most people, quantum physics is weird and hard to understand. That is not surprising, because our observations at the sub-atomic level are radically different from what we have come to expect in the 'real' world. A famous example is quantum entanglement; a weird interaction between two particles, that assume each other's opposite form regardless of how far away they are from each other. This sort of behaviour makes instant teleportation of data a possibility, as has recently been shown by transferring data over 100km without a 'physical' connection. When particles on the quantum level interact, that is not only due to entanglement, but also due to something called quantum discord. Often regarded as background noise, but scientists have now found that it may actually be even more useful than applications of entanglement.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

281-gigapixel photo made of an embryo

Because imaging quality has been steadily improving over the last years, making pictures of small biological building blocks such as cells or tissues became possible. Making detailed pictures can help study biological structures or aid by detecting anomalies that point at disease. Dutch scientists working at Leiden University Medical Center created a huge picture with a stunning 281 gigapixels of a zebrafish embryo. The technique they used is suitable for other samples as well, which means it can be used as a tool to study very small structures.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chemotherapy can sometimes increase cancer growth

Therapies for cancer are never very pretty. Scientists struggle with creating treatments that specifically target cancerous cells and leave healthy tissue alone. Radiation therapy, for example, can be targeted directly onto a tumour, but surrounding tissue suffers from it as well. Chemotherapy is another example: basically, it is poison that just kills malicious cells a bit faster than healthy cells. However, a recent study shows that chemotherapy can actually increase growth of tumour cells. Disturbing, but knowing the mechanism helps us to improve therapies.

NASA's Curiosity lands on Mars

At the end of 2011, NASA launched its latest and greatest Mars rover, packed with instruments to investigate the Martian surface and weather. Perhaps more importantly, it is tasked with finding clues that Mars harbours, or has harboured, life. Now, around nine months later, Curiosity safely landed on Mars without a lot of trouble. The rover already sent its first pictures back to earth.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

3D-printed 'exoskeleton' enables use of arms

Printing objects in 3D has rapidly become popular in the last couple of years. A wide variety of objects can be printed, including synthetic things that are relevant for the medical world. Now, a printing company called Stratasys made an 'exoskeleton' that enabled a little girl to use her arms properly. As demonstrated in a video, the plastic print made her cope with a disease called arthrogryposis.

Findings reveal new difficulties for transplantations

There is a great need for more organ donors, because there are not enough replacements, such as heart, kidney or lung, to provide all patients with the organs they require. Because being an organ donor can save lives, in case yours can no longer be saved, getting registered as a donor is something everyone of us should do. However, availability is not the only issue in transplantation. Scientists have had to put in a lot of effort in order to get transplantations to work, because our bodies are not quite prone to accepting organs from others. Due to our increased knowledge, we have gotten transplantation procedures to work, but scientists from the University of California in Berkeley have discovered new difficulties.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A sneeze may function as a 'reboot' for the nose

Sneezing is one of those things we consider normal, despite the fact that we do not quite know what our body uses it for. The same goes for yawning, although there are some theories that involve brain temperature. Now, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania claim to have found why our bodies have developed the sneeze reflex: it appears that sneezing helps to 'reboot' the nose. Basically, it is thought to reset the nasal environment.