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.