Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Music slows down the ageing process

It is said that if you play a music instrument, it affects the way your brain develops. A recent study has shown musical experiences have a bigger impact than previously thought. It appears that being a musician affects degeneration of the nerve functions. Musical experiences seem to affect the nervous system, the wiring of your body that is ultimately controlled by the brain, in such a way that it ages slower. Because it basically controls all parts of the body, keeping it intact is of the utmost importance. Especially because damage to the nerves can seldom be repaired.

Evolution of mouse-sized to elephant-sized animals

Life on Earth started off small. Nobody knows exactly how it came into being, but we do know bacteria were one of the first on the scene. Over millions and billions of years, life increased in size. Until about 65 million years ago, animals were much larger than we are used to nowadays. Around that time, something wiped out the dinosaurs, and much of Earth's life was lost. Evolution does not sit still, and our planet continued to 'produce' large animals. At the Monash University, studies were performed to uncover how long the evolutionary process needs to get a mouse-sized animal to evolve in an elephant-sized animal.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Yeast has 'shuffle' option to survive stress conditions

Because ever so often there is a mutation in the DNA, species are able to acquire new capabilities. By changing  its blueprint, life exists in all the variety we find today. Most mutations are simply based on chance: when the genetic code is replicated, the cellular machinery makes a mistake once in a while. Cancer cells are more genetically unstable, which means they have a much higher mutation rate, and therefore are able to adapt quicker. The same is true for antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Those who fail to adapt die, but those that gained the right set of mutations survive, giving rise to a resistant species. Researchers from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research found a similar mechanism in yeast. These micro-organisms appear to have a 'shuffle' button to rearrange the chromosomes, which are the packages in which DNA is tidily kept. It seems to be a marvellous and interesting evolutionary mechanism to keep the species alive during stress conditions by trying to find a new genetic arrangement which is resistant against whatever it is that threatens them.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Common genetic variance linked to many diseases

When it comes to genetics, it is often said that we are all the same, but every individual is genetically unique. Our DNA is about 99,9 percent identical, and even between humans and monkeys there is barely any difference. Yet, for every one of the 3 billion pieces of our genome, there are variants. It means that every human being has a unique genome: no other individual is genetically identical. When it comes to genes, there are a lot of variants in the human population. While the differences are usually not that big, there can be some functional differences. It also means some varieties are linked to an increased risk of disease: one of the variants may not function as well as others. Scientists from the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland performed a genetic analysis on many commonly found genetic variants, and found that many of them are associated with an increased risk on disease.

Drug kills most difficult-to-treat cancer cells

Not all tumours are the same. Every cell has the potential to become cancerous and turn to rapid growth in order to create a full sized tumour. Some cells are more adept than others: if a tumour arises from a stem cell, it is often harder to treat than a cancer derived from adult cells from a specific tissue. So-called cancer stem cells are the most difficult to treat because they are hard to eradicate with drugs, and can easily reform into a tumour even if only a few cells remain. In some cases, only a few cancer stem cells are the driving force between tumour growth. The problem is that stem cells naturally function by replenishing tissues and self-renewal. It means we need a more aggressive treatment to get rid of them when they turn malicious. Chinese researchers may have found the answer.

NASA finds Earth's missing energy

A while back, we discovered that a fair amount of the Earth's energy content was missing, by using satellite observations. Researchers found that there ought to be more energy than we can observe by looking at the Earth's heat. NASA performed a study to find missing energy, and found that the oceans have been accumulating more energy than we previously thought. This is important because it may contribute to climate change.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Using grape seeds to battle cancer, and more

Biological products sometimes contain compounds with unexpected qualities. Many of the drugs we have developed are based on chemicals found in plants, and we continue to find new ones that have medicinal value. In a recent study, scientists from the University of Colorado have discovered something that is able to kill cancer cells residing in head and neck. Surprisingly, the tumour killer is found in extract from grape seeds.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Vaccines to significantly improve cancer treatment

Vaccines are mostly used to protect people from infectious diseases by training the immune system. However, it is also possible to train the immune system in order to make it kill cancer cells. Many research groups are developing cancer vaccines, but have so far seen limited success. One of the successful ones made it possible to treat brain tumours with a vaccine, as well as one for breast and pancreatic cancer. The biggest problem with enabling the immune system to fight cancer cells, is that they usually don't possess foreign material that can be used as instigator of an immune response. In addition, tumours have found ways to evade the body's defence systems. Researchers from Trinity College in Dublin have managed to make a cancer vaccine more potent. It could prove to be a big step forward for cancer treatment.

Mysterious skin disorder is probably a delusion

Morgellons disease is associated with strange skin lesions, with patients reporting feelings of bugs crawling up their skin. Though people diagnosed with the disease, which is actually not recognized as a distinct medical condition, have shown to possess skin lesions, the source remained unknown. That is why many clinicians think morgellons disease is actually a psychological manifestation. A study by the CDC has shown this may indeed be the case, shedding light on this mysterious skin disorder.

Non-invasive brain cancer diagnosis made possible

Even though cancer is always bad, the brain is a particular bad place to develop it. It is a densely packed space filled with brain cells and the wires that connect them, which pretty much control our whole body. Brain tumours are sometimes hard to detect, and to confirm a diagnosis invasive surgery is needed, such as a biopsy. For hard to reach tumours, however, a biopsy or surgery is impossible. Scientists from the University of Texas have eliminated the need for such procedures to confirm a diagnosis, by making an alternative, non-invasive test. The test is suitable for some of the deadliest, yet not all forms of brain cancer. It is nevertheless a great improvement for the tricky diagnostics that are involved with such tumours, which is in turn beneficial for treatment.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

DNA screening improves sleeping sickness treatment

Sleeping sickness is a disease that still results in thousands of deaths in Africa each year. It is spread by a parasite that lives inside so-called Tsetse flies, and is transmitted in a similar way as malaria. It is lethal if it remains untreated, and any neurological damage caused by the parasite is irreversible. We have only five functional drugs to combat the disease, which' effect is hampered by adverse effects when given to patients. Because we do not quite understand how the drugs work, a research group from London set out to investigate them, and used a genetic screening system to uncover how the drugs interact to kill the parasite. In the long term, this ought to help us improve treatment for this frequently fatal disease.

Stem cell treatment restores visual impairment

Shortly after scientists have reported on a new therapy to restore vision by means of gene therapy, another research group has shown success in human patients by using a stem cell therapy. A study performed in Massachusetts, USA on two persons with a form of macula degeneration got their vision partly restored after an injection with stem cells. Though there is a fair amount of controversy around stem cell therapy, the study shows how important research on this topic is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gene therapy found to correct blindness

Not being able to see can have many causes. A common form of blindness, found in young and old, is caused by a defective gene, and can be inherited. Scientists from the University of Florida have shown the defect can be repaired in animals, which paves the way for human testing. If it proves to work, hundreds of thousands could get their vision restored.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Many smokers continue despite cancer diagnosis

A survey among patients that were recently diagnosed with either lung cancer or colorectal cancer revealed that a significant proportion of them continued smoking. Despite being diagnosed by a disease that is very likely to result in premature death, they were unable to give up their harmful habit. The survey results are quite surprising, as quitting smoking is paramount to recovery or coping with these forms of cancer.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Face plays role in recognizing sexual orientation

Humans appear to have built-in capabilities to assess someone's sexual preferences based on the symmetry and proportions of one's face. Researchers discovered that self-proclaimed heterosexuals have a higher degree of symmetry in their face. Additionally, it was found that people tend to judge one's sexual preference as being straight if his or her face contains a higher degree of symmetry. According to the scientists, this mechanism has evolutionary benefits.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Studies regarding dangerous H5N1 virus halted

Scientists all over the world have agreed to no longer study a dangerous variant of the flu virus in their labs. After they discovered that their lab strain could easily kill people and spread effectively, the researchers sparked public outcry. After a large round of criticism, no more lab work is done until governments and ethical commissions decide what the best next step is.

Commonly used chemical increases risk of obesity

The use of chemicals known as phthalates in commonly used products such as plastics, medical devices, food processing and personal care products appear to cause weight gain in children. Despite their widespread use, it is not the first time possible health hazards for exposed children have been identified. Their tendency to increase weight in children is attributed to their capabilities of mimicking human hormones.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A lack of sleep increases food cravings

Many complex organisms need sleep, including us humans. Why many animals opt for a temporary loss of consciousness is not fully understood, but it seems to be necessary to restore certain bodily functions, and perhaps to reset the brain. It is known that not getting enough sleep is not quite beneficial for your feeling of well being. Scientists from the University of Uppsala have discovered an additional effect of a lack of sleep: it makes you more hungry.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Social networking challenges traditional science

The system of scientific publications has not changed much in the last couple of hundreds years, despite the digital revolution that is pretty much affecting every discipline. Researchers still publish scientific results in established journals, which appear weekly, or monthly. Despite the overwhelming success of the internet, not many scientists have adopted all the digital tools at their disposal. Currently, it can still take months to publish an article in a scientific journal, because of the sluggish peer reviewed system. However, several scientists have taken up initiatives to change this ancient publishing system. A social network aimed at scientists ought to speed up the process, and make science more open.

How evolution created multicellular organisms

The evolution of life had various key steps that eventually lead up to where we are today. One of them was the formation of the basic components of life known as cells. Human bodies contain trillions of cells, which together form tissues and organs, and thereby giving rise to the complex interactions needed to create self-concious beings like ourselves. Somehow, in evolution, cells had to find a way to stick together and function as one single organism. So far, we did not have an idea about how this came to be, but scientists from the University of Minnesota have managed to replicate the process in the lab, shedding light on a key step in evolutionary biology.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rocks from Mars found on Earth

Small chunks of rock that came from the planet Mars have been found in Morocco. They came down in the form of a meteorite in July last year, but were not yet confirmed to be of Martian origin. Finding such extraterrestrial rocks is extremely rare, and they are a welcome find for scientists that study Mars: they can tell us something about the conditions on the Red Planet. Especially because the rocks are 'fresh'.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sugar metabolism explains how cells prevent death

Cells need a constant supply of oxygen to survive. Additionally, if they are not fed with sugar in time, it will also result in premature death. In nature, animals can never be sure when their next meal is. That is why cells are able to prepare themselves for harsh times, in which food is scarce. They can be trained to withstand low glucose, which is the form of sugar that is used by cells. Likewise, cells exposed to low oxygen can also be trained to survive in lower concentrations. It was long thought the two training mechanisms were not the same, but scientists from Germany and Canada have actually shown they are connected. We may use this newfound information to prevent cells from dying. Especially the ones that are hard to grow back, such as brain cells.

Repair centers protect DNA against radiation

Cells contain several mechanisms to prevent our genetic code from changing or getting damaged. It is possible to break down DNA, by exposing it to radiation. Scientists from the University of California have discovered that so-called repair centers are formed, in which broken parts of genetic code are being repaired. It lead them to believe that radiation at lower doses is not as dangerous as we assume.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

'Nano ears' detect sound made by cells and viruses

Even the tiniest things make sounds, such as cells, viruses and bacteria. We just don't have the necessary equipment to detect it. Scientists from a university in Munich have developed a 'nanophone', which is both tiny and capable of registering sounds that tiny things make. It gives us a way of listening to the noise that cells and microbes make.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tongue probably contains taste buds for fat

It is well known that humans have an affinity for fatty foods. Because of the wealthy abundance of food in the Western world, obesity is rapidly becoming one of the biggest (literally) problems. One explanation for our cravings of food containing high amounts of fat, is evolution favouring the intake of a lot of energy-dense food. After all, in the era of the cave man, you never knew when your next meal was going to be. Though thousands of years have gone by, we still possess those genes. Now, scientists from the University of Washington have discovered that a human tongue probably contains receptors that are able to make us taste fat.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Internet addicts have their brains wired differently

While internet has been a commodity for just a decade or so, there is already a disorder associated with it: internet addiction disorder. Patients 'suffering' from it lack control over their internet use. It may sound as something that is made up to be able to attach labels to people, but scientists have revealed that people diagnosed with this disorder possess irregularities in the wiring of their brain.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Scientists map dark matter around us, provides clue about existence of dark energy

Dark matter is matter that we know is there, but we cannot actually detect. Hence the name. We deduce existence of dark matter by its effect on gravity. There is a big gap between the required gravitational force to hold stars and planets in galaxies together, and the amount of matter we can detect. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh mapped the locations of dark matter in the universe. The map, in turn, tells us something about where we may be able to find something called dark energy. This is equally undetectable, and has an anti-gravity effect, thus opposing the effect of dark matter.

Unravel your entire DNA for just $1000

Sequencing the entire code of our DNA is something we have only been able to do for about a decade. In 2000, the first draft of the human genome, the full sequence of our DNA code, was published. It cost about 10 years to get it, and the costs rose to around 300 million dollars. Nowadays, it is much cheaper to sequence a human genome. At the end of 2012, a machine will become available that reduces the costs to a mere 1000 dollars. Though the machine itself is rather expensive, it will soon be possible for many people to sequence their entire DNA. Having your personal genome at your disposal greatly helps in personalizing medicine. The sequencer will be shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Nicotine improves attention and memory

Nicotine, mostly found in cigarettes, is often seen as addictive and unhealthy. But not all is bad, scientists from Vanderbilt University Medical Center claim. In a somewhat surprising study, they discovered that nicotine is able to improve memory and attention in older people. However, it has nothing to do with cigarettes: participants were given a nicotine patch, applied to the skin.

Brain part that creates delusions uncovered

Delusions are false beliefs that people cling on to, and are often found in psychological diseases, such as schizophrenia. To uncover the brain part that is responsible for these delusional beliefs, scientists compared the brain activity of schizophrenics with healthy people, while subjecting them to tests. They found that dopamine, one of the brain's chemical messengers, was overactive, which makes it harder to discriminate between what is true and what is false.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Females can manipulate gender of their offspring

It has long been thought that males determine what gender their offspring will be. Male sperm cells either contain an X or a Y chromosome, while women only pass on an X chromosome. Because the combination XY results in male, and XX in female, there does not seem to be much a female can do to make more daughters, for example. Research from the University of Exeter, however, points in an other direction. They have shown that 'strong' females have the capability to tilt the balance towards making more female offspring.

Nanoscale material almost instantly stops bleeding

Our blood contains several proteins that help with blood clotting. Normally, they are inactive, but when a vessel starts bleeding, they form a net around the damaged area to prevent further leakage. If the blood clotting is impaired, or when someone is bleeding extensively, death from blood loss can occur. Scientists from MIT have created a substance created from biological compounds on a nanoscale, containing a clotting factor, which supposedly stops bleeding almost instantly. This could help patients with deficient clotting factors, or soldiers on the battlefield.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Protein folding can help us treat many diseases

Proteins are needed for basically all processes during life, and they are created by specialized cellular machinery. Their basic structure composes of a string of amino acids, that are folded into a shape that gives the protein its function. Scientists from Northwestern University have studied how a cell makes proteins fold, and claim their newfound knowledge may help us treat a massive amount of nasty diseases, such as the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and ALS. But also cancer, diabetes type II and cystic fibrosis.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Discovery sheds light on how to treat arthritis

Arthritis is a collection of diseases that affect the joints and make one's body feel rigid and stiff, which impedes movement. There are a lot of causes, but most patients suffer from an underlying inflammation that breaks down the cartilage between bones, which results in typical symptoms. We know it has something to do with collagens, long fibres that from a matrix providing structure to tissues. Scientists have revealed what happens during arthritis with a specific collagen molecule, that is known to play a role in preventing it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The brain's cognitive decline starts at age of 45

A large and long-lasting British study has revealed that our brain's cognitive functions already start to decline at the age of 45. That is much earlier than what previously was hypothesized. Using various testing methods, scientists discovered that the decline affects almost all domains of cognitive performance, such as reasoning, mathematics and memory. Only knowledge of language, our vocabulary, remained intact.

Red wine decreases risk of breast cancer

After years of study, beneficial health effects of red wine consumption are still disputed. A recent study provides new fuel for the already lengthy discussion about its effects, by claiming that drinking red wine can cut the risk of breast cancer. Consumption can adjust hormone levels, which is beneficial for preventing breast cancer. Though, white wine lacked this effect.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Aggressive brain tumour can be treated with vaccine

Vaccines are normally used to protect us from infectious diseases, but they are getting increasingly popular for use in cancer patients. A novel treatment, currently undergoing clinical trials, aims at targeting stem cells of the brain, which are the culprits of an aggressive form of brain cancer. A better therapy for the disease, which goes by the name glioblastoma, is much needed, as most patients die shortly after diagnosis.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A scorpion can use its whole body as eyes

Scientists have just discovered a remarkable feat of scorpions. While they possess as set of eyes just like we humans do, they appear to have an additional one: their whole body functions as an eye, apparently. They seem to be adept in picking up ultraviolet light, something we cannot even see with our own eyes.

Gene found to increase chance of depression

We continue to learn more about the biological mechanisms behind psychological disorders. Recently, scientists have found a gene that is able to increase the chance of developing a depression. While involvement of genetics was already predicted, it is one of the first genes that is proven to be affecting the chance of obtaining a depression.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Muscle growth due to exercise explained

It is commonly known that working out helps build up muscles. Specialized training schemes are available for body builders to help them obtain bulky muscles. Scientists from a French research institute have revealed what it is that helps muscles grow in response to exercise. The findings could have implications for manipulating their growth or recovery.

Electrically stimulating the brain aids in depression

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is a promising technique that modifies the activity of brain areas by electrically stimulating them. It has been shown to work in reducing symptoms of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, but also seems to work in patients that suffer from depression. That is what scientists from Emory University School of Medicine have concluded. Aside from a general depression, the treatment also worked for participants suffering from a bipolar depression, characterized by 'mood swings' that range from depression to mania.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bacteria can be used as biological pixels

Pixels are required to create an image on a display, such as the one you are reading this blogpost on. This is achieved by combining thousands of individual dots. Pixels keep getting smaller to provide us with ever-increasing screen resolutions, but scientists from the University of California have taken small pixels to a whole new level. They used bacteria as a source for pixels that, when aligned, are supposed to form a digital display. According to the developers, these displays will predominantly be used as sensors.

NASA's latest mission aims to find out what goes on beneath the Moon's surface

Two of NASA's spacecraft have just reached lunar orbit, which means they are circling around our Moon. The mission, which is the first of the year 2012, focuses on measuring the strength of gravity caused by lunar mass. We can use this information to tell what goes on beneath the surface of the Moon. In turn, our newfound knowledge will need to explain how the Earth and Moon came to be in our part of the Solar System.