Thursday, May 31, 2012

Humans can identify each other's age by smell

Our olfactory senses, the official word for smell, are quite peculiar. They are strongly connected with our feelings, as some things smell repulsive, while other things smell rather appealing. Smell is also strongly associated with memory, as a single scent can bring back elaborate memories of an event in the past. Scientists from the Monell Center have discovered an additional fun fact about smell: it helps us discern age. It appears that human body odours tell us something about how old someone is.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Electronic device can control muscle movement

Muscles are present everywhere in the body and are needed for all movements, both voluntary and involuntary. Ultimately, muscles are under the control of the nervous system, that connects its neurons to all muscles in the body. By sending out neural signals, muscles can contract resulting in movement. There are various diseases that affect muscle function, and many of them are caused by a defect in the nervous system. To restore muscular signalling, scientists from Linköping University have developed a chip that allows for artificial muscle contraction, thereby restoring movement. And by doing that, they have created a whole new chip technology.

Robot keeps students' attention by mind-reading

Almost everyone will agree that school is not always interesting, yet education is of the utmost importance. Teachers require their students' attention, but it is impossible to be sure whether someone is actually listening, or whether his or her thoughts are drifting on to other topics. A robot, combined with a brain scanner, might be a solution: scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a system that detects whether a student is paying attention to the lesson, which ought to aid in memorizing what is being taught in class.

Computer system detects fake smiles

Humans have a facial expression that is known as a smile. According to the definition, it is an expression denoting pleasure, joy, happiness, or amusement. However, smiles can also be faked, or they can be an expression of anxiety; a smile then turns into a grimace. It is not always easy to distinguish between the two, especially if the person smiling is trying to hide something. A computer system developed by MIT is able to detect whether a person is smiling genuinely or tries to express his or her frustration. This helps to create computers that can assess the mood of the user, and act accordingly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Engineers create functioning blood vessels

Creating artificial organs could in the future solve the lack of organ donors and provide increased compatibility for the patient receiving an organ. However, there are several roadblocks on the way, including the lack of vascularisation in artificial tissues. Basically, that means stuff that scientists grow in the lab does not achieve growth of blood vessels, causing a lack of nutrients and oxygen, meaning tissues cannot fully develop. To create a functional organ, a blood vessel system is necessary, which is why scientists from the University of Washington have created a synthetic system that allows for artificial development.

Single gene can make you both smaller and bigger

Genes are the foundation of biology. They basically function as a set of instructions to create a protein with specific properties and functions. Despite this simple setup, genes often collaborate with each other, as biological systems are often complex and require multiple proteins that interplay. That is why, in most cases, there is no such thing as a single gene for a specific phenotype, meaning an observable characteristic. Nevertheless, some genes have surprising effects, such as the one studied by the University of California in Los Angeles, with the unappealing name CDKN1C. An analysis pointed out that variations in this gene can make you both smaller and bigger.

New diagnostic tool can detect diseases earlier

Detecting a disease in its early stages can reduce the impact that it has on the patient, and potentially save lives. That is why tests to diagnose a disease are about as important as the cure or treatment itself. Cancer is an obvious example where early detection matters: if a tumour remains unnoticed, it gets the chance to spread to other organs, after which treatment may be futile. Scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Vigo have created a test setup with a very high sensitivity, rendering much earlier detection of diseases possible.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Genetic discovery paves way for male contraception

When it comes to temporarily reducing fertility to prevent pregnancy, women always have to be the ones taking the contraceptives. Aside from 'neutral' ones like condoms, there are no real male contraceptives used in the same way as the women's 'pill', though there have been some rather unsuccessful attempts. That has something to do with the sheer amount of sperm cells that men produce: it is clear that preventing a single female egg from release is much easier than putting a stop to the sperm production in men, as they are produced by the billions. However, the discovery of a gene that plays a role in development of sperm might actually make male contraception a reality.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Russia to create permanent base on the moon

The Moon is our closest neighbour, and so far it has been the only place outside the Earth where human beings have ever set foot. Us humans live exclusively on Earth, but science fiction has frequently portrayed stories in which we populated other planets. A first step to make this a reality is to set up permanent bases on the moon, something that the Russians are actually planning on doing.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Heart damage can be repaired with patient's own skin

While our body has several repair mechanisms, restoring lost organ function is usually not very easy. Organs such as the brain or the heart often do not recover after damage induced by a stroke or heart attack. When it comes to the heart, parts that do not receive any more oxygen and nutrients due to obstruction of coronary arteries die, leaving the patient with a partly dysfunctional heart. This reduces the pump function of the heart, which can, in severe cases, result in death. Because the body just removes the dead cells and fills holes with scar tissue, scientists are trying to regenerate the heart themselves. Stem cell therapy has been tried, but so far that remains problematic. Now, a study from Israeli researchers has shown how to repair damage by using a patient's own skin cells. It builds upon studies that have used a patient's own stem cells, which were found to be effective to restore heart damage. Isolating skin cells is much easier, meaning the Israeli therapy is of greater interest for clinical use.

NASA Rover takes pictures of landscape on Mars

There are still many mysteries surrounding our neighbour planet, Mars. Until this day it remains unknown whether there were life forms on the planet, and NASA is still investigating its potential to harbour organisms. That is why the space organisation deployed their Mars Rovers, basically little autonomous cars, to drive around the Martian surface, enabling us to study it. A while ago, NASA launched an all-new Rover to search for life, but an older model just snapped a beautiful picture of the Martian landscape, which appears to be taken on a sunny afternoon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mechanism behind 'super-resistant' microbes found

Our constant struggle with bacteria has yielded many resistant species over the last decades. Our antibiotics have become less effective because, due to natural selection, bacteria undergo genetic changes that give rise to resistance. The most well-known resistant species is probably MRSA, which is short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is also known as the hospital bug, because it frequently infects hospitalized patients. While we do have antibiotics to kill the resistant form of S. aureus, evolution does not stop: lately, some MRSA strains have acquired resistance for our last-resort drugs, that are only used when everything else fails. Harvard scientists have discovered the mechanism behind this change, providing clues about how we can develop new strategies, to stay one step ahead of the bacteria.

Scientists create invisible 'spying' device

Invisibility devices are no longer something that is only found in science fiction. Scientists have come up with clever ways to 'hide' objects from reality, and a recent attempt by Stanford University yielded a device that can see without being seen. Their spying device was developed by clever use of materials that cancel out the light that would normally reveal its presence.

NASA snaps picture of beautifully shaped galaxy

I frequently go at great lengths to explain studies and general scientific progress, but sometimes all it takes is a simple picture. NASA is pretty good at delivering stunning pictures of distant stars and galaxies with their special Hubble telescope, that takes pictures while orbiting the Earth as a satellite. They have already published beautiful pictures of the sun and a time-lapse of the Earth. Using the Hubble telescope, NASA managed to find several new planets, including one that consists largely of water. One of their goals is to find Earth-like planets, but a recent publication revealed a picture of a distant galaxy, which is beautiful enough to share.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Being stressed also makes you more social

Nobody likes being stressed out, and nobody likes spending time with people suffering from stress. It often reflects on your mood, but, as a recent study shows, that does not always have to be something bad. At the University of Freiburg, scientists discovered that men who are stressed are also more likely to behave in a social way. This peculiar correlation raises questions regarding what stress does with our body and our feelings. Finding out how we deal with it is very important, as previous studies have already shown that stress causes you to age faster and die younger.

Biomarker predicts response to cancer treatment

Clinicians have a vast arsenal of anti-cancer drugs available to them in order to treat patients. Because there is a lot of variance between cancer types and also between individual patients, there is no miracle drug that cures everyone. It is therefore not always easy to assess what the best treatment option is for a patient: not everyone responds to a drug in the same way, which means it would be beneficial to have the ability to predict whether a tumour is treatable with a certain drug. Scientists from the University of Leuven discovered a genetic variant in patients that predicts whether their cancer treatment will be effective, providing clinicians with a useful tool to come up with a therapeutic strategy.

Hormones make women choose 'bad boys'

It is a commonly heard complaint of men: women who prefer to date guys that are a bad influence to them, while the 'good guys' yield no interest. Scientists from the University of Texas at San Antonio have come up with an explanation for this type of behaviour, and, as might be expected, it likely has something to do with hormonal balances.

Scientists teleport data over a distance of 100 km

Teleportation is something that belongs to the realm of science fiction, but scientists have brought it one step closer to reality. Using principles of quantum mechanics, they managed to teleport data from one place to another over a distance of 97 km. This process is instantaneous, and even though it will not allow us to actually send massive objects such as ourselves through space and time, it will help us by creating quantum networks for exchange of data.

When it comes to cholesterol, nothing is what it seems

Cholesterol has the image of being bad for your health. If you get too much of it in your arteries, it can cause obstructions that result in stroke or a heart attack. The body possesses a complex system of cholesterol transport, of which HDL and LDL are the most well-known molecules. Functioning as carriers, they move cholesterol around, but they do so in different ways. While HDL transports it from the bloodstream into the liver, to be recycled, LDL actually lets cells take up cholesterol. That is why HDL is known as good, and LDL as bad. Many studies have been performed regarding cholesterol metabolism, and the role of HDL, LDL and other carriers is fiercely debated. Now, a study concerning a large number of people found that HDL may not be worthy of the label 'good'.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Oxytocin can help children with autism

Oxytocin is a hormone produced inside the brain, and commonly referred to as the love hormone. It has several functions, including bonding between people, but also sexual behaviour. Not only does it help people have affection for each other, it also functions by establishing maternal behaviour, meaning it helps the mother to establish a connection with her child, even during pregnancy. To the general public, the love hormone is mostly known for its role in breastfeeding after giving birth. However, it has many more functions ranging across a wide variety of social interactions. Lack of oxytocin is associated with adverse social behaviour, and additional proof for this notion is found by scientists from Yale School of Medicine. They showed that oxytocin can help children suffering from autism. As is generally known, autistic kids often have problems with social interaction, and it is caused by brain changes that are, at least partly, induced by genes.

Brain suffers from eating 'bad' fat

With food, it is important to know what you eat. Not everything is equally healthy, and sometimes good and bad forms of a particular food component can be distinguished. Such is the case with fat: it comes in good and bad shapes. They are better known as unsaturated and saturated fats, the latter being the unhealthy one. Saturated variants have been associated with increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, even though this is still being debated. A recent study from Brigham and Women's Hospital revealed that which type of fat you consume also matters for the brain. Changing your diet could therefore help you perform better.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The principles of cellular movement

Cells are the basic building blocks of life. They come in many different forms or shapes, and perform a wide variety of functions. During the embryonic stage of development, cells rearrange, move, multiply and die, showing that our body is not simply a static collection of individually arranged cells. Cells can move, and some types spend their whole life travelling through the body. Signalling mechanisms are necessary to direct cellular movement, and the same is necessary for tissue growth: cells need to know in which direction they should grow so that the tissue forms its correct shape. A collaboration of scientists from Lehigh University and the University of Miami elucidated a basic mechanism that makes cells move, thereby uncovering one of the foundations of 'organised life'.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Scientists use search algorithm for cancer studies

Google uses their Pagerank technology to rank the websites that turn up in its search engine. A higher page rank means a website is more relevant, and it should therefore end up higher in the search results. This technology is used by cancer researchers to uncover proteins that could play an important role in detecting the presence and progression of tumours. Such tools should help clinicians by deciding what kind of treatment their patients need. Previously, scientists already showed that computer simulation can help create new cancer drugs.

To prevent gaining weight, timing is of the essence

People gain weight because they eat more than they should. Obesity and overweight are ever-increasing in incidence, and it is becoming pretty clear that being too heavy will cause severe health problems later on in life. Despite the existence of a wide variety of diets, losing weight is in essence pretty simple: use more energy than you take in. That means regular exercise and cutting down on fatty foods. A recent study from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies shows that not only is it important what you eat, but also when you eat. It can make the difference in becoming obese or not.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Drinking coffee makes you live longer

Having a cup of coffee is a morning ritual for many of us, and some people actually drink it all day long. While much has been said about how healthy, or unhealthy, coffee consumption actually is, scientists from the National Cancer Institute in the USA have discovered that it actually makes you live longer, by decreasing the chance of acquiring many different diseases. While a causal relationship has not been found, it is a promising result for the coffee drinkers among us, including myself.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

High sugar consumption reduces intelligence

Eating and drinking a lot of sugary stuff is known to cause diabetes, as the sudden spike in blood sugar level it induces is not very healthy. It causes increased insulin production needed to rid the body of blood sugar levels that are too high, eventually causing insulin insensitivity due to prolonged exposure. Now, scientists from the University of California in Los Angeles have discovered that sugary foods and drinks also affect your brain. Specifically, consuming a lot of sweet stuff affects your intelligence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Vitamin treatment may help parkinson's patients

Parkinson's disease is renowned for its patients with tremors and difficulty with movement and coordination. It is hard to treat, and a cure has so far remained elusive. Currently, scientists are trying to treat the disease by using brain stimulation or stem cells, but a recent study has revealed that vitamins may also be beneficial. It appears that vitamin K2 can improve the condition of patients suffering from parkinson's.

Scientists observe the 'birth' of an electron

Behaviour of atoms is hard to study due to the incredibly small particles that scientists need to work with. Additionally, at the atom or subatomic level, things behave weirdly, which makes understanding what happens even harder. It is known that atoms consist of several building blocks, including a core of protons and neutrons encapsulated by an electron cloud. Electrons are used to bind atoms together, but they can also detach from an individual atom. The latter process is called ionization, and it turns an atom into an electrically charged ion. Removing an electron from an atom has now, for the first time, been witnessed by scientists.

Bones can be made from stem cells

Stem cells have been touted as tools to regenerate all possible tissues, therefore having an unlimited potential to cure disease. Though it is clear that making a solid treatment based on stem cells is harder than originally thought, scientists are slowly finding better ways to turn stem cells into tissues of choice, ready to be implanted in patients to take over the function of diseased tissue. Recent studies have shown stem cells can be used to treat brain injury, visual impairment, a failing heart, or a damaged spinal cord. There are many more studies being performed, and a recent one from The New York Stem Cell Foundation has shown it is possible to create bone from stem cells.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Eye implant with lasers restores vision in blind people

By deepening our understanding of how the body works, we can create artificial tissues and organs that take over the body's function in the case of disease. When it comes to blindness, scientists are closing in on the development of a device that allows for restoring vision. In many forms of blindness, a dysfunctional retina is the cause of all the problems. Because it consists of light-sensitive cells, called cones and rods, the retina is required to convert incoming light into a neural signal that is consequently processed in the brain to generate vision. Scientists from Stanford University have developed an implant that mimics the function of the light-sensitive cells, generating the required electrical pulses to restore vision for blind people.

Protein found that orchestrates neural communication

Our nervous system is an immensely complex network consisting of many individual cells, called neurons, that are connected to each other. There are different types of neurons, including sensors, that catch the required signals for hearing, seeing and feeling things, but also those that control our bodily functions: all of our muscles and organs are ultimately controlled by the central nervous system, of which the brain is ultimately in charge. Keeping everything, either conscious or subconscious, running at the same time requires an incomprehensible amount of communication and structure, still leaving scientists puzzled at its complexity. While we have already identified many individual molecules that play a role in it, scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College have found one that seems to be at the core of neural communication. By elucidating the workings of this powerful protein, we are able to create new therapies to control body functions.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Touch sensitivity is inheritable and linked to hearing

Your ability to sense that something is touching you is governed by neural sensors that communicate with the brain. Neural cells are also necessary when it comes to hearing, as the sensory input from the ear needs to be transported to the brain, in an effort to make sense of incoming vibrations. Scientists from Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin investigated the underlying genes that govern the function of both touch and hearing, and found that there is a link between the two.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Combining happiness and cancer therapy

The immune system is our first line of defence when it comes to infections by bacteria, viruses or other unwanted intruders. Not only does it protect against foreign invaders, it also helps keeping the body's own cells in check. When cells go bad, they can become cancerous, and that means they need to be cleared from the body. The immune system succeeds in getting rid of bad cells most of the time, but in some cases, tumours find ways to evade detection. That is when they become dangerous, and it explains why scientists have been looking at artificial ways to enable the immune system to kill the cancerous cells. Attempts have been made with a cancer vaccine, but scientists from the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences used opioid stimulation. It is peculiar that the stuff found in drugs such as heroin and morphine is beneficial for our immune system.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Native bacteria fight off intruders in the gut

Our bodies are home to many bacteria. In fact, there are more bacteria in our body than cells, which could make one consider human beings as mere hosts for microbes, instead of independently operating organisms. We find most of the bacteria in our gut, where they help with food digestion. It is a form of symbiosis, meaning mutual benefit, even though it would be disastrous if the bacteria end up in our bloodstream, as they would cause major infection and possibly even death. While sitting in our gut, bacteria fend off  'foreign' microbes, and scientists have revealed how this happens, which sheds light on how certain infections occur.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Music is good for babies' social and communicative skills

Making music has been associated with certain changes in the brain. A recent study has shown that you do not necessarily have to be the one making the music to benefit from its effect on the brain. Even babies, of about one year old, appear to improve certain skills under the influence of music. It may be something parents want to consider when they raise their children.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Discovery paves the way for a lasting flu vaccine

Every year sees the outbreak of a new flu virus that manages to spread around the globe. Even though we are constantly developing flu vaccines to prevent an outbreak, the virus manages to find a way to mutate and prevent eradication. Because vaccines enable the immune system to recognize a specific variant of the influenza virus that causes the flu, it is possible to escape detection by shape-shifting. This is exactly what influenza is doing, but a new concept for a flu vaccine should be able to prevent this. Despite changing appearances, a new vaccine would enable the immune system to recognize the virus and consequently destroy it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Having diabetes causes your brain to shrink faster

Scientists have found an interesting correlation between diabetes and brain size. According to a recent study, elderly people suffering from a condition known as pre-diabetes or full-blown diabetes type 2 show increased deterioration of the brain. While it is normal for the brain to shrink when you get older, a link with diabetes greatly speeds up the process.

Magnetic bacteria can be used to make hard drives

Our electronic devices are getting increasingly organic. Scientists have been trying to make small components out of biological material, or even from whole living organisms. Especially bacteria are helpful when it comes to creating electrical components, such as the individual pixels in a screen panel. Now, it has been shown that special bacteria can be used to create new hard drives, that are supposed to be faster and smaller.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making drugs in outer space

The International Space Station (ISS) that orbits the Earth does more than just enable human beings to travel into space. Studies performed by NASA on the habitable space satellite have revealed how we can improve the way drugs are manufactured. Apparently, the lack of gravity makes for excellent research conditions when it comes to drug delivery systems.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

IVF babies are at higher risk of birth defects

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is a technique used for pregnancy if the natural way fails. It gives many women a second chance at having a child, and is therefore a highly welcomed medical procedure. IVF procedures have been conducted for decades now, but it remains controversial whether this artificial way of conceiving a baby is harmful in any way. Scientists from the University of Adelaide looked at a large dataset and used it to show that an IVF baby has a much higher risk of having defects of some kind at birth. While it is not the first time a study pointed in this direction, it sure is a disturbing result for women wanting a child by artificial means.

Nanoparticles can overcome antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to mankind in our ongoing fight against bacteria. While we have developed many drugs that are able to kill microbes, they have come up with ways of resistance. Our current arsenal of antibiotics is rapidly being degraded because of bacterial adaptation. Some multi-resistant microbes have become very hard to treat, which makes it necessary to develop new drugs. Scientists from MIT and a subsidiary of Harvard Medical School have found a way to kill bacteria effectively using nanoparticles. Previous studies already showed other molecules we may be able to use.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Lack of testosterone makes men fat and diabetic

Testosterone is a well-known male hormone that influences stereotypical features such as aggressive behaviour and muscle growth. Less known is the fact that testosterone is needed during the earliest phases of embryonic stages to divert development from female to male. Therefore, testosterone is an absolute necessity for males, even though females also require it to some extent. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have discovered that the hormone does more than just let males be male. A lack of testosterone has been associated with increased risk of developing diabetes and increase in body weight.

Beehive extract can be used to treat cancer

Sometimes, new treatment strategies can be derived from the most unusual places. Such is the case for a new prostate cancer drug, which scientists obtained from beehives. Apparently, the hives of honeybees contain a substance that can be isolated and used to treat patients. At least, that is what preliminary data from mouse experiments suggests. Previous studies already showed that grape seed extract can be used to treat tumours.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Scientists: diabetes in children is alarming and dangerous

Western societies have seen a dramatic increase in child obesity over the last decade. Our bad diet habits are causing all sorts of problems, such as type 2 diabetes. This form of diabetes has long been regarded as a disease for the elderly, but this is no longer the case. Eating a lot of fatty and sugary foods results in blood sugar levels that our body cannot cope with, despite cranking up the insulin level. When the body can no longer regulate the blood sugar level, medicine steps in. However, while several drugs have proven to be beneficial for adults, they seem to affect children in lesser extent. According to scientists, children that develop diabetes type 2 will suffer from the consequences for the rest of their life.

New method detects early signs of alzheimer's

Using a new diagnostic method, scientists have found a way to detect early signs of alzheimer's disease. Because the illness results in deterioration of the brain over time, it is important to detect it as early as possible, to increase treatment options. The new method, developed by scientists from the National Brain Research Center in India, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is based on a brain scan combined with a tool that assesses brain chemistry. Fortunately, the diagnostic process is completely non-invasive, making it not too hard to bear for patients.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tiny branch-like device can clean blood

Blood is sometimes referred to as the elixir of life, as it provides all tissues in the body with the required nutrients and oxygen. Without the complex system of blood vessels, organisms would never be able to grow larger than a tiny clump of cells. Therefore, our blood is well protected. It is tightly regulated, because small changes in its contents can have big consequences on the body's functioning. Bacterial infections are a constant threat: getting them into our tissues is bad, but pathogens in the blood represents a life-threatening situation. When bacteria infect the blood, it is called sepsis, and it is met with a powerful response of the immune system. This response is so powerful, it can result in death of the patient. Ridding the blood of whatever it is that does not belong there is therefore of paramount importance, which is why scientists from the University of Singapore have developed a device to clean it.

Diagnosing disease by squeezing cells

Cells are the basic units of life that all organisms, albeit in different shapes, are based on. Human bodies contain trillions of cells and are unimaginably complex, with a sheer endless stream of different proteins inside the cell, each with their own function. If our cells are diseased, we suffer from the consequences, but diagnosis is mostly performed on a higher level: cells form tissues and organs, and clinicians focus primarily on looking at the overall function of the tissue. Scientists from the University of California in Los Angeles have found a way to use individual cells as markers for disease, by squeezing them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Humanity is still evolving

It has been hypothesized that modern humans are not evolving anymore. Evolution, of the kind Charles Darwin first publicized, requires selection pressure, and it is thought that our modern society does not offer enough competition to 'weed out the weak'. Research from the University of Sheffield points in the opposite direction, with scientists claiming mankind is still undergoing evolutionary changes. According to them, mankind has shown signs of evolution over the last couple of hundred years.