Saturday, June 30, 2012

Alcohol: a great way to make friends

What alcohol does with a human being is quite well-known, and not everything it induces in terms of human behaviour is agreeable. Still, most of us like to drink a couple of alcoholic beverages in company of others. Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh have now scientifically proven that drinking alcohol together with other people does make things better. They showed that consumption makes positive things more positive, while negative emotions are toned down.

Genetic discovery explains variety of brain disorders

Development of an organism, construction of tissues and even the onset of disease: it all starts with genetics. Genes provide the blueprint for proteins, which in turn form the foundations of all structures. Finding genetic modifications, or mutations, often tell us something about how things go wrong, as a disturbed blueprint leads to malfunctioning proteins and thus disease. Scientists from Seattle Children's Research Institute have found a series of mutations in genes that explain a variety of disorders which predominantly focus on the brain. This includes cancer, but also explains why some people have very large brains or suffer from epilepsy.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Exercise helps to prevent alzheimer's disease

There is much research going on regarding alzheimer's disease. Because it severely impacts the life of the patient and people around him or her, many studies are devoted to find out how we can prevent development of alzheimer's. A previous study revealed that diet may play an important role, but according to scientists from Kyoto University, exercise is actually more important.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Google creates computer network to simulate the brain

The engineers over at Google have been busy with another interesting project in the elusive X lab. After self-driving cars, they now managed to develop a computer system that can learn without human supervision. By connecting over 16.000 processors, they created a network powerful enough to simulate some features of the human brain. Google developers then managed to create an algorithm that turned the powerful computing grid into a 'self-learning machine'. While that may be the first step in order to develop scary machines that are set to take over the world, it actually helps us to understand our own brains better.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Birth of a human captured with an MRI scanner

Birth is a wonderful natural phenomenon. Mammals, like ourselves, carry an unborn child around for a set period of time, after which it is brought into the world as a completely new organism. Most of us only get to see the result of birth: the child itself. However, scientists from a hospital in Berlin, Germany have captured the birth of a child on video with an MRI scanner. It is interesting to see how a woman expels the unborn from her womb.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer

A study conducted by a research group from the University of North Carolina has shown an interesting link between the occurrence of breast cancer and physical activity. It seems that exercise results in a rather dramatic decrease in breast cancer risk, which is relevant for those wishing to remain healthy. Although previous research already showed a correlation between exercise and breast cancer, the researchers from North Carolina made the effort to find out exactly what difference it makes.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Research on deadly H5N1 published, reveals dangers

Dutch and American scientists shocked the world a while ago by revealing that they have successfully modified the H5N1 influenza virus in order to become much more deadly. The study was halted because authorities feared terrorists could use the information in order to create biological weapons. Because just five genetic mutations are necessary to create the deadly variant, there is also a risk that nature itself will 'create' this particular lab virus. Because the benefits of publishing were deemed to outweigh the risks, authorities gave the green light for publishing the results, which has recently been done. The papers from both research groups reveal the dangers of this potentially devastating virus.

Scientists grow human liver inside mouse's head

One of the most promising fields of science is the artificial construction of tissues and organs that can be used for transplantation. After the discovery of stem cells, scientists thought they would be able to make anything and replace damaged tissues and organs in the body. It has proven to be much harder than originally thought, especially the growth of whole organs. To tackle one of the major problems with artificial organs, which is the lack of a blood vessel system providing the nutrients, researchers from Yokohama City University devised an interesting experiment: they tried to grow a human liver inside the head of a mouse.

Binge eating may be stopped by blocking a receptor

Eating disorders are on the list of 'modern' diseases, and are rarely taken seriously. A lot of people think it is simply a state of mind, and not a real thing that deserves treatment. However, the body has various mechanisms to regulate appetite, and, by proxy, food intake. Sometimes, biological intervention is possible, as is the case with something called a binge eating disorder. Scientists from Boston University School of Medicine discovered that by blocking a certain protein, that serves as a receptor for incoming signals, binge eating behaviour can be reduced.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

'Master molecule' to improve stem cell treatment

Stem cells are hallowed as a wonder drug that could potentially restore all bodily damage. Because these primitive cells have the capability to turn into any type of tissue, scientists have tried utilizing them to artificially create tissues that consequently can be transplanted into a patient. Despite these promises, delivering actual treatments has proven to be troublesome. Recent studies have shown some success with restoring heart tissue after a heart attack, but these treatments need to be optimized to let patients fully recover with the aid of stem cells. At the John Hopkins University, scientists discovered that one particular protein on its own may significantly improve creation of heart tissue from stem cells, promising more effective treatment of patients with damaged hearts.

Gut bacteria help us to fight off virus infections

We have a peculiar relationship with bacteria. Some are out there to kill us, but some of them do not harm us at all, and are in fact quite beneficial. Those that live in our intestines help us with food digestion, and their presence makes sure that gut space cannot be taken up by bad bacteria that constantly try to infect us. New research shows that our small friends in the gut do more than just that: they also help us to get rid of viruses. It was already known that having bacteria in our intestines was needed for our survival, but it appears this is true in more ways than previously assumed.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New clues about origin of the nervous system found

Our nervous system is what sets us apart from other animals. We are conscious of ourselves and our surroundings, and our brain makes us able to create things that greatly extend our capabilities of survival. Human beings have a complex nervous system with a central part of which the brain is the most important. Simple organisms lack this central part, and just use simple 'wiring' to control body functions. In evolution, the nervous system has become increasingly complex, and scientists from the University of California in Santa Barbara have found clues about the origin of this magnificent system.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Splitting atoms by using quantum mechanics

The concept of an atom has been used by scientists since the ancient Greeks. While the word is derived from the Greek word for indivisible, we now know that atoms are made up of even smaller building blocks. Researchers have managed to split atoms and create enormous amounts of energy, according to the famous law E=MC². This process, called nuclear fission, is based on radioactivity, and works with expulsion of small particles from the atom core. New attempts from the University of Bonn use the fuzzy mechanics of quantum theory in order to split atoms.

Girl receives vein transplant with her own stem cells

For the first time in medical history, a patient has received a blood vessel transplant made from her own stem cells. After the surgery, the girl, only 10 years of age, recovered successfully and appears to be functioning pretty well with the artificially constructed portal vein, which transports blood coming from the intestines to the liver. The method, developed by the University of Gothenburg, is a prime example of how stem cells can be used to regenerate malfunctioning or dead tissues. Previous studies already showed that it is possible to create such artificial blood vessels.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Scientists measure size of 'phantom limbs'

Hands and feet are ultimately controlled by signals coming from the brain, which direct muscle movement. Our nervous system is very accurate in directing movement, as is visible by the incredibly precise and fine movements of our fingers. The brain cells and the required neuronal wiring for limb control do not go away after we lose one of our limbs, for example after amputation. Because of that, patients sometimes feel pain coming from an arm or leg that does no longer exist. This is called phantom pain and is caused by neuronal pathways that are still active after amputation. Scientists have been able to map what a phantom hand feels and 'looks' like, to precisely determine its size and shape, which tells us something about what such patients experience.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Possible cure for deadly Ebola virus

We have been quite successful in fighting 'invisible' threats such as viruses and bacteria over the last fifty years. The discovery of antibiotics fuelled many cures for infectious diseases that until then remained untreatable. Viruses are a little harder to kill, mainly because they are built in a much more simple fashion, rendering them with less vulnerabilities to exploit. Nevertheless, scientists have been able to develop some anti-viral drugs, even though some viruses remain extremely dangerous. The Ebola virus is an example, which causes haemorrhagic fever and is deadly in most cases of infection. It remains a potential threat to mankind, but luckily scientists from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Canada have developed a vaccine that seems to function as a cure.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bacteria in the gut instrumental for happy feelings

Happiness is a feeling that is generated in the brain by several molecular signals. Especially important is the neurotransmitter serotonin, that functions as the main component of the 'happy brain'. Lack of serotonin is associated with depression, and treatment involves letting serotonin do its job for a longer period of time. Therefore, it is important for our well-being that we have serotonin flowing through our brains, even though there are several other components that play a role in happy or unhappy feelings. Scientists from the University College in Cork have discovered that the levels of serotonin are regulated by something quite unexpected: bacteria.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sleep deprivation makes you want unhealthy food

Despite the fact that we have not quite figured out yet why it is that complex organisms need sleep in order to function properly, we do know it has to be very important. We all know that awful feeling of being sleep-deprived, even though it is still unknown what consequences it has on the long term. Previous research has revealed that a lack of sleep increases food craving, because it activates brain areas involved with appetite. Now, a different study shows that it also increases desire for eating junk food. Altogether, these studies show that sleep deprivation is not only unhealthy by itself, it also leads to unhealthy behaviour.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The 2012 Venus transit

Every so often, celestial objects align in such a way that special effects occur. We have seen it with the moon during a lunar eclipse, but the same can happen with the planet Venus, which orbits the Sun at a closer distance than the Earth. Last night, or just yesterday depending on where you are in the world, something special happened: the Sun, Venus and Earth were aligned in a way that made Venus visible when looking at the sun. In case you did not see it yourself, NASA snapped a few pictures that show this magnificent natural and rare phenomenon.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Migraine origin tracked to female X chromosomes

Headaches are annoying, but especially troublesome are the ones that appear regularly and greatly impede your functioning. Those headaches are collectively known as migraine, and there is little known about the underlying causes for these heavy headaches. Mostly women suffer from migraine attacks, but so far scientists have only been able to hint at why this happens. A study performed by the Griffith University has linked migraine to a genetic area found on the X chromosome, indicating why women are mostly struck by this debilitating form of headache.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Error in immune system makes death much more likely

Analysis has revealed that a slight error in the immune system significantly increases the chance to die from a wide variety of diseases. Puzzling enough, what exactly causes the increase in mortality is unknown, but the error results in an increase in the concentration of a molecule known as a free light chain, which is part of the immune system's weapon arsenal. It is peculiar that such a seemingly innocent rise in the concentration of this particular molecule can cause such pronounced health effects.

The alphabet to write DNA can be easily expanded

The genome, which is the entire collection of DNA that we possess, is an incredibly complex structure with tight regulation. Our DNA is divided over 23 chromosome pairs that each contain many genes that need to be read-out on an individual basis using a wide variety of regulatory molecules and proteins. The genetic code forms the instructions for life, which basically explains why it is incredibly complex. Nevertheless, DNA is pretty simple on a molecular level: it is 'written' using only four letters that match with each other in a specific way. Those letters are called A, T, C and G, and because the DNA structure consists of two entwining strings, A sits opposite of T, while C matches with G. All known forms of life are based on these lines of code, but scientists have discovered that it is relatively easy to add more letters to the DNA alphabet. This gives us more freedom to mess with the foundations of life and create our own applications, and possible even new life forms.

EU launches database for drug side effects

Drugs help us cure diseases and are therefore arguably one of the best inventions of mankind. However, drugs are not perfect, and all of them induce side-effects. Some are more harmful than others, but it is always necessary to carefully document what medicine does to a patient. That is why drugs tested in clinical trials are first administered, in very low doses, to healthy volunteers: scientists first want to know about the side-effects before actually testing something on fragile patients. The European Union has decided to create a database in order to keep track of all the suspected side-effects that drugs cause. This ought to help us increase drug safety and spread awareness about possible side-effects.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Chocolate consumption as a medical treatment

Several studies have pointed out that consumption of dark chocolate can induce health benefits. A large data analysis revealed that it can reduce cardiovascular disease, while another study showed that it functions by restoring 'energy factories' inside our cells. Researchers at the Monash University in Australia asked themselves whether chocolate could be used as an actual medical treatment to prevent a heart attack or stroke, and found that this would indeed be cost-effective. Therefore it may be that doctors will be ordering their patients to eat chocolate in the near future.

Unused brain cells get eaten

When it comes to the brain, it is 'use it or lose it'. That became especially clear when a group of scientists recently demonstrated that those who do not do a lot of thinking, or to be more precise, do not have a cognitive lifestyle, lose their brain cells much faster. Now, researchers from Boston Children's Hospital have found something that might explain why our brains deteriorate faster if they are not used. The immune system appears to eat the neural cells that are not used anymore. Basically, that means 'use it or get eaten', when it comes to the brain.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Project attempts to map the entire brain circuitry

Our brain is an incredibly complex computer with billions of wires and billions of 'calculating units', called neurons. Each individual brain cell, or neuron, can be connected to countless of others by special wires, creating complex patterns and communication pathways. This overwhelming circuitry is hard to grasp and understand, which is why neurologists have more or less studied it by assessing the function of whole brain areas instead of looking at it cell by cell: it is just too complex. In an attempt to learn more about the wiring of the brain, neurologists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are trying to map the whole brain by taking highly detailed pictures of all the cells and wires. This should help us to study the brain.

Friday, June 1, 2012

New therapy can help paraplegics walk again

A paralysis is one of the most severe impediments of life. Paraplegics lose control over, mostly, limb functions because their muscles are no longer working. This is caused by malfunctions in the nervous system, which ultimately controls muscle movement by sending signals coming from the brain. Sadly, a paralysis is also one of the hardest things to cure, as we are currently unable to assert much influence over the nervous system. The body lacks internal repair systems, and attempts to artificially regenerate the required neural networks have been troublesome. A group of scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have developed a way to 'rewire' the nervous system in order to find a cure for paralysis.