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.


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.


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.