Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Anti-smoke laws decrease hospitalization and deaths

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

Monday, October 29, 2012

Physical exercise makes you smarter

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

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Science and the transition to open access to literature

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fertility drives female desire for attractive males

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

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Using microbes instead of needles for vaccines

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Immune system can 'taste' when our body is invaded

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

Monday, October 22, 2012

Scientists jailed after false earthquake prediction

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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The search for DNA on Mars

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

A life-threatening disease does not make one religious

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

Lab-grown kidney appears functional in animals

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Stress in relationships differs for men and women

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Planet found to orbit four suns

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Social contact can relieve physical pain

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

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Man jumps from space at 39km altitude - update

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

Electronic implant able to relieve migraine

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Finding reveals cause for failure of transplanted organs

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

Friday, October 12, 2012

Discovery reveals planet made of diamond

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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Eating tomatoes associated with lower risk for stroke

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

Nobel Prize awarded to quantum physics researchers

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

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stem cell researchers awarded Nobel Prize

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

Smart pill bottle helps patients adhere to drug regime

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Smartphone app helps patients sort out pills

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

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Liking someone affects brain processes

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

Science network Researchgate has 2 million users

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

Friday, October 5, 2012

Disgusted rats help us understand nausea

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

A quick way to relieve symptoms of depression

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

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Surgery goes into space

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