MagnetoMemory


We are constantly making new memories, at the same rate as we live them. But most of these will be lost, since they contain information we don’t really care about, like a boring bus trip or walking down the street. But some memories are more important and so remain in our mind, like those of family and friends, and it is a really heartbreaking when due to illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease they disappear.

hippocampus

The hippocampus controls memory formation

This new invention is therefore something to hope for. Scientists from Northwestern Univeristy, Chicago, discovered that when they applied a magnetic field on a patient’s brain their memory performance would be boosted. This was investigated in a trial, where two sets of patients were given either this treatment, called TMS for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or a placebo. After, they were provided with images of people’s faces, and when a picture was shown, some words were read aloud. Once this was done, the patients were given a couple of minutes, and then tested to see if they could relate the images to the words they had heard. Those that had been given TMS scored better in the test than those without it.

But how does TMS actually work? Well, it has been known for quite a while that the nervous system works by a series of impulses of electricity. The brain is no different, so if you want to stimulate the brain, you want to apply an electric current to it. This can be done with drugs or surgery, but what makes TMS special is that it is non-invasive, so it doesn’t enter the patient’s body, making the whole procedure easier and somewhat safer. The magnetic field that flows through the brain creates an electric field, which stimulates the brain. If this is done in the right area, it can enhance certain abilities.

To improve memory, the immediate assumption would be to treat the hippocampus with TMS, since this is the area were most of the brain’s work on memory happens. But the hippocampus is too deep in our brains, so the magnetic radiation wouldn’t reach it well enough. Therefore, the researchers decided to work on a more superficial part of the brain that indirectly stimulates the hippocampus. The new electric current flowing through the brain caused memories to last longer, specifically the associative memories (those that link something to something else). However, the effects seemed to last for 24 hours only.

Still, with enough research, TMS could develop into an efficient treatment for memory-loss diseases, but care has to be taken since the brain is very delicate and even the slightest of changes can cause a chain reaction.

The Ebola Crisis


There’s been a lot of attention in the media recently regarding the ebola outbreak in Central Africa, so I thought it would be useful to learn the basics of this disease which has already killed more than 1000 people, and then move on to the drastic measures that have been taken to fight it.

ebola

The ebola virus has caused hundreds of death so governments from all around the world are uniting to fight it

 Ebola, being a virus, works by entering the host’s cells, and manipulating them so it produces proteins to make more viruses rather than proteins to make new cells. It acts specifically on endothelial cells, those that cover our skin, line our blood vessels and other tubes in our bodies. To protect itself from being attacked by the immune system, the ebola virus makes cells produce a special glycoprotein which affects the mechanism with which white blood cells detect intruders, so it goes by undetected and can reproduce inside the cells.

 The effects this has on the sufferer are diverse but horrible. They range from fever and headaches to severe internal bleeding. So far, there is no treatment, much less a cure or a vaccine, although there is a lot of work towards it. However, when a patient comes into a hospital with those symptoms, and eventually gives positive for ebola, there are ways to prevent the lethal effects of the virus, which can be mortal in 70% of the cases. Usually, he is given plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and can be prescribed procoagulants (drugs that stimulate blood clotting) in the later stages of the infection to stop large internal bleeding.

 Since the start of the pandemic last December, it has become the largest ebola outbreak in recorded history, and although governments worldwide are fighting its spread and the WHO (World Health Organisation) has declared it a global public health emergency, the virus is still working its way through the population. At the moment, there are about 1700 infected people, all living in Africa, and all from only 4 countries, but without measures could expand to others. Fortunately, ebola is not airborne, and the only way to pass it on to someone else is by fluid exchange, for example by blood.

 Due to the high incidence of the virus, there have been outstanding exceptions to the usual drug control. For example, it hit the news last week that the American government had approved the use of experimental drug ZMapp to treat two infected civilians in the USA, which then expanded to treating priest Miguel Pajares in Spain. After his death on the 12th, the WHO announced it was now legal to treat infected people in Africa with unlicensed drugs. However, ZMapp, the most popular one, is running out, so other countries like Canada are now donating other drugs which although are on the experimental phases, are thought to help treat ebola.

 This situation is unheard of, and of course many people think it is unethical to treat humans with drugs whose efficacy and side effects are not completely known. But WHO says that the situation calls for extreme measures, so any chance of helping the diseased should be used. Even better, the people who are given those drugs will be closely monitored, and they will be treated as part of a clinical trial. This could eventually help identify effective drugs against ebola and at some point stop this catastrophe.

Rosetta Pioneer


rosetta spacecraft

The Rosetta Spacecraft, an inspiration to all other spacecrafts

After ten years of travelling (Are we there yet?), the spacecraft Rosetta, lead by investigators in ESA (European Space Agency), has finally reached its destiny: the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

Since the 2nd of March of 2004, the explorer has travelled the unimaginable distance of 400 million kilometres, and it was only now, on the 6th of August of 2014, that it managed to move close enough to the comet and actually obtain a relative velocity of 1 m/s compared to the space rock. This makes Rosetta the first man made object to rendezvous with a comet.

67p comet

[67P Comet] Does it look like a rubber duck to you?

 67P, which resembles a rubber duck due to the odd shape formed by two rocks fusing in space, is of interest because it was formed from the remnants of the original formations in the beginning of our Solar System, so it could provide vital information on water and the origin of life. That’s why Rosetta will now spend the next 16 months investigating 67P’s characteristics, first from 100km away to study its shape and eventually moving closer. But Rosetta won’t work alone. A small probe named Philae will soon land on the surface of the comet, after scientists at the ESA decide on a safe landing spot. Once there, it will dig into the surface and analyse what its composition, and even use X-rays to visualise the structure. Meanwhile, the dusty and icy comet will travel at 55000 km/h towards the Sun, heating up expelling dust which Rosetta will analyse.

There’s a lot to be learned form this comet, and this will take time, but after ten years, the climax of the story has only but started. Be prepared to hear amazing discoveries from this dedicated project.

Cancer’s Gene Struggles


It’s been a very productive week for cancer research. There’s been a new protein discovered which almost tricked everyone into thinking it was helpful against cancer, and scientists found that just by cancelling some genes tumour growth can occur. Seeing as interesting these discoveries are, let’s delve into them.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the p35 gene. This section of the DNA produces a protein, called p35 protein (who knows why), that can detect abnormal cells, and then start to kill them to prevent them from reproducing, therefore preventing a tumour from forming. This has been known for more than 30 years, and by now we thought we knew all there was to know about it. But the discovery of a variant of this gene hit the news this week. Said gene is called the p35-psi gene, which produces another protein, chemically similar to the p35 protein, which also caused an inflammatory reaction in mutated cells, just like p35 does. But after further study, scientists discovered it does the complete opposite of its cousin: it encourages the growth of cancerous cells. The mechanism works by p35-psi teaming up with another protein, cyclophilin D, which together change the mitochondria organelle so the whole cell itself transforms into a new type, similar-looking to a muscle cell, which usually precedes a cancer.

This opens up a door of possibilities for cancer treatments. New drugs could target cyclophilin D, to stop the transforming process from occurring. Or they could suppress the p35-psi gene to stop it from producing the harmful protein in the first place

 

Cancer Cells

Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, even if they have a mutation which would normally be eliminated

Now moving on to the second piece of news.

We all know how mutations can lead to cancers, but the novelty here was that inactivating genes also caused the disease. This can be done through a process called epigenetic methylation, because a methyl group is added to a gene and so prevents it from being transcribed.

Epigenetic methylation occurs naturally in our cells, and actually helps them repair their DNA. But when this process occurs over and over by continuously exposing the same genes to methyl groups, they might just end up permanently attached, effectively cancelling the gene.

The problem, however, is that it is not known for certain whether epigenetic methylation is a cause of cancer or if cancer causes this methylation. In the study carried out, scientists added a new gene into mice cells, a gene that specifically attracted methyl groups and caused methylation in nearby genes. And speaking of tumour suppressing genes, the team in this investigation concentrated on the effects of methylating gene p16, which also prevents the growth of tumours. Over the course of the experiment, those mice with the injected gene had an increased chance of developing cancer, especially in areas like the spleen or the liver.

Although this information does seem to indicate methylation causes cancer, some researchers argue that maybe when they added the new methylating-prone gene, they messed with the already existing genome so it mutated and turned the cell cancerous.

However, since methylation definitely has an effect on cancer, the group of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where the experiment was carried out, will now focus on investigating a way of reversing this process in cancer cells.

It is interesting to note that methylation occurrence can be linked to our diet, since methyl groups come from the food we consume. Some products like green tea and broccoli help decrease methylation rate, so it might be time you had a sip of some delicious tea just in case.

Pikachu Bacteria


Similar to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, scientists have discovered a type of bacteria that live only on pure electrons. Found in the seabed, in mud or rocks, these bacteria survive by extracting electrons from the surface of nearby materials, and after processing them and using their energy, they excrete them.

Although it sounds like a very simple and basic organism, its way of life is actually quite smart. In more evolved beings like us humans, we use many complex molecules to obtain energy: sugar and oxygen, which turn into ATP, and all this respiration process to end up with energy for survival. These bacteria manage to eliminate these useless (to them) intermediates, and just function with the basic electrons. They go for the easy route, whilst we masochists use larger molecules when all we really need are the electrons in those molecules.

electricity bacteria

These unimaginable bacteria live in electricty and from that they can extract everything they need to survive

However, these are not the first bacteria found to have this peculiar lifestyle. Other species, like the Shewanella or Geobacte bacteria do pretty much the same thing, but the novelty in this case is that the new bacteria can be found in large numbers by just applying a slight current through some seabed rocks. The fascinating experiment studied the microbiome of said rocks and analysed it, to determine how much voltage each of the new 8 bacteria species needed to survive. This eventually led to the recreation of those conditions in a culture, using a battery and an electrode to supply the energy to the bacteria. This simple way of life also raised a question: How much do these bacteria essentially need to survive? If all they need is electrons, by constantly feeding them these in a set of electrodes, they could theoretically live forever.

And as always, what some would call ‘greedy scientists’ are looking for ways to earn some profit out of their discoveries. In this case, it’s the possibility of automated biomachines, where these robots could carry out jobs with no necessary electrical input, only their ability to use power from their surroundings.

Unruly HIV


HIV is still fighting back. After famous claims of having rid a baby of the HIV virus and therefore ‘curing’ it, a few months later the child seems to be affected again.

The news an 18 months old baby had been ‘cured’ from HIV spread like wildfire in the scientific community. This promising medical feat was accomplished by treating a newly-born baby, daughter of an HIV-sufferer, with three antiretroviral drugs (those drugs used to treat HIV). But after a period of 18 months, the treatment was stopped, and the baby left, and nothing more was known of her. Or at least that was the case until March this year, when during blood analysis, after almost a year with no drugs, the girl was found to have no HIV virus circulating in her blood.

This was praised by many scientists as being the solution to the HIV problem- providing the drug in the very early stages of the disease, a tactic which was already known to help treat more effectively the disease. But their hopes were crushed this week when in another check up the patient had plenty of the viruses in her body. This, together with high levels of the antibodies for this virus and a decrease in white blood cells, concluded she was no longer ‘cured’ from the disease.

A possible reason for this reappearance is the fact that HIV virus, although mostly found in the blood, can sometimes hide in other tissues, so when a person is treated with antiretroviral drugs, it only kills those virus cells in the blood. The effect the medicine had on the infant was of wiping out the virus in her blood, so that there were so few virus cells hidden in the rest of her body that her own immune system was capable of handling the rest. Obviously though, this balance was unstable and it was interrupted, setting off an increase in the virus population so the disease was in effect again.

hiv virus

This is an example of an HIV virus, which causes HIV and can lead to AIDS. Its cure has been sought after for a long time, and it seems we still have to work towards it

Researchers have concluded that there are other factors that control the limitations of the virus in the body, not only numbers, so it is their goal to find these and exploit them to increase the effect of antiretroviral drugs. This could ultimately lead to more effective drugs which could be taken less regularly but still maintain the virus at bay. Another objective is to develop a new treatment that targets the hidden virus cells too, so that the numbers can be reduced even further and maybe someday the virus can be completely wiped out from the body.

Superviruses: Worth the Risk?


We can all recall the swine flu pandemic in 2009 which managed to kill over 500,000 people in just a year. Fortunately, most of us are now partially immune to said virus, and can now be treated as the normal winter flu. But this isn’t the end of the story.

Professor Kawaoka is the lead researcher at the Wisconsin University’s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, and is also known for previously re-creating the Spanish flu virus. For the last 4 years, he has been working the H1N1 virus to modify it so it can completely evade the human immune system. His mechanism was to isolate those strands of the original influenza virus that weren’t affected by our antibodies and allow them to reproduce, to create a group that, due to its viral protein content, doesn’t cause any immune response.

Now, the reason for this study is that it could have real applications, because a model of how viruses can mutate to evade our system could be used to design new and more efficient vaccines, or other methods to prevent mass infection.

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The biosafety committee responsible of approving such studies is mostly in favour of Kawaoka’s investigation, but other scientists are not as happy. Through this experiment, the researcher has effectively created a virus strain that if released, could infect most of the population who would also be unarmoured to defend themselves from it. It is the first time someone has allowed a dangerous virus to be mutated over and over again to change its characteristics, so the consequences could be very grave. However, Kawaoka argues that viruses with special proteomes that can escape immune system detection already exist in nature, so the investigation is relevant to possible dangers we face by the natural world.

Another criticism is the laboratory where this research is being conducted. It now has a level-3 biosafety rating, which is still one lower than the maximum rating, reserved only for the most dangerous pathogens. Even worse, the bulk of the experiment, where the virus was handled, was carried out in a level-2 lab, increasing the risk of an accidental release of the virus.

The results haven’t been published yet, but are written and ready to go. This is another danger, because all this information could also be used for research in the fabrication of new weapons in biological warfare.

In my opinion, it is clear that scientists need more information in the viral field. We need to prepare for the unknown dangers and this can only be achieved through research, which many times involves some sort of danger. But to minimise these, we should not only focus on investigating the viruses, but also in improving the safety in our laboratories, making sure the risk of a leak is virtually zero. Furthermore, the information obtained from said research should be carefully dealt with to prevent any danger of a deliberate release to cause a pandemic.

Happy Selfie, Curiosity!


The iconic robot has joined the trend and taking this peculiar image of itself to celebrate his first Martian year in the red planet. He arrived there the 5th of August of 2012, but since a year in Mars takes longer to happen than in Earth, only now has Curiosity reached this milestone. It has been plenty of time for the machine to surprise scientists everywhere with its discoveries, which we will recount in its honour.

Curiosity Selfie

The acclaimed robot takes the first selfie on Mars

On the 27th of September, it was announced the Rover had discovered an ancient riverbed. Of course, there was no water in it, so how did they know it was a river bed? This conclusion was reached because the robot found small, rounded boulders, instead of the sharp ones with jagged edges that usually occur, and the most common explanation for rocks being smooth and curved is due to flowing water transporting them for long distances and eroding them. However, doubt lies as to whether it was actually water flowing, and not some other liquid or maybe even a gas like CO2, but since there are hydrated minerals in Mars, it is most likely water was the liquid. But even if it was an actual river, it doesn’t immediately mean life on Mars exited, because there were no traces of carbon in the area so it is impossible to say if there had actually been living organisms in the area.

September was a busy month, since at that time Curiosity also shone more light into the methane mystery in Mars. In past studies, some scientists had concluded there was a high abundance of methane in Mars, and since methane is mostly produced by living beings, such as cows and rice, some though this was proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. But after 8 months of analysing the atmosphere, the rover concluded there was little to none methane there. In fact, it estimated there was only 1 part per billion of methane in Mars. However, it is arguable that some methane is trapped in the planet, so Curiosity will be doing more detailed investigations in the future.

Those are the main ventures pursued by Curiosity, and it has plenty of time to investigate further, since the original 2-year-mission was prolonged indefinitely. For now, please join me on wishing the rover a late Happy Birthday!

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(By the way, this is my 50th post in Science for Scientists after 2 and a half years of blogging. It was about time, right?)

The Heroine of Tanning


It’s summer: the time for ice cream, spending the day in the beach, and therefore, sun bathing. But apparently this relaxing activity is not as simple as you may think.

When people are exposed to ultra violet radiation, like that coming from the sun, it causes melanocyte cells in the skin to produce melanin, a pigment which absorbs radiation to protect the skin. So when people sun bathe, they produce more melanin which darkens their skin. It also increases Vitamin D production, but can lead to skin cancer and faster ageing skin.

512px-Alpha-neoendorphin.svg

An endorphin, a substance which gives pleasure, and can be released due to exercise, food and now sunlight!

Up until know, doctors had tried to raise awareness of the dangers of this practice, but it seems things are getting worse. A new study published in ‘Cell’ suggests that constant and prolonged exposure to UV light can be addictive. This theory had already been proposed, with some known cases, but it has now been explained and backed up with an experiment on mice. These were shaved to expose their skin and were then subjected to UV light exposure for a controlled period of time a day, similar to the amount a human would get when sun bathing on the beach. After weeks of this practice, it turned out the mice had produced more beta-endorphin, a substance similar to morphine and heroine, which results in a positive feeling when detected by the sensors in the brain. The pleasant nature of this is what makes the mice crave it more, causing an addictive response, where the mice seek out the stimulus that is causing the endorphins to be released.

It was also found out that the mice showed tolerance to the UV radiation, just as an addicted person does to a drug after using it for a while. Scientists found that over time, they needed to increase the amount of UV light they shone for the mice to produce as much endorphins as before.

It is definitely an interesting study, which adds up to the dangers of being exposed to too much sunlight. That’s why we should be careful with the light exposure we go through everyday, taking care of using sunscreens and trying to reduce as much as possible the time we spend directly under the sun.

Welcome Ununseptium


The periodic table is like a big family, where every now and then a new member appears and joins the fun. Well it looks like we may have found this new character which could possibly become the largest element ever created.

ununseptium

Ununseptium has 7 shells, and belongs to the halogen group

This is Element 117, which was confirmed in an experiment who wasn’t even searching for it. It happened in Germany, where a group of scientists lead by Mr. Düllmann were actually looking to create element 119, an even heavier element. But it takes time to analyse the data produced by that experiment, so meanwhile they decided to try and make some Element 117, as a check to see if their detectors were working correctly. They certainly were, and in the process they created this interesting element for about a tenth of a second, until it decayed. It was made by bombarding atoms of calcium (atomic number 20) with atoms of berkelium (atomic number 97), which would then fuse together to form a heavy 117 atom.
However, this is not the first time this element has been synthesised. It has occurred twice before, in Russia, where scientists made the element in 2010 and once again in 2012.

The confirmation of this element’s creation means the organisations responsible for new elements (both The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and that of Physics) will have to revise the data collected, to ultimately add this element to the Periodic Table. But don’t get too excited about this; it took 3 years of revision for them to accept elements 114 and 116. So we still have time to carry out new experiments and find out more about it.

Unfortunately, research in this element can be quite slow. As I said before, you need berkelium, an extremely rare element which only occurs in nuclear reactions, but has a short half life so it can take a lot of time to gather the necessary amounts.

A major surprise of this experiment is the discovery of a new Lawrencium isotope. Symbol Lr, Lawrencium has an atomic number of 103, and while element 117 was decaying, they discovered a new form of this element, which although doesn’t have many applications, can be used to expand our knowledge on the magnificent elements of the Periodic Table.