Chocolate Memories

Everyone loves a good cup of hot chocolate, except those weirdos who don’t, but now it seems this tasty treat could actually have tremendous benefits other than its deliciousness.


What’s not to like?

Memory deficit usually comes hand in hand with old age. To shed some light onto this problem, scientists at Columbia University carried out an experiment on volunteers aged 50 to 69. These people were divided into two groups; one was given normal hot cocoa, whilst the other was given the same beverage but with increased amounts of flavanol. Flavanol is a chemical commonly found in chocolate, but which also appears in vegetables, fruits and even tea.

Before the investigation started, the patients had an MRI scan taken, and went through a memory test. In it, the volunteers were shown a group of about 40 shapes, and after a minute, they were shown a larger group of shapes, in which they had to recognize the previous ones. During the three months the study lasted, they were given two cups of the drink every day. After this period of time, MRI scans were taken again and the subjects repeated the test.

The results were astonishing. After being given this high-flavonol diet, the patients of the study had improved their memory by a highly considerable amount. It had even become similar to that of a person 30 years younger, as shown by the memory test. The MRI scans also revealed some striking information. There was an increased blood flow in the dentate gyrus of the patients, an area of the brain in the hippocampus, by almost 20%, which had been previously related to memory problems in elderly people.

But if you’re between 50 and 69 years old, don’t start stuffing yourself with chocolate. The flavonol content of those drinks which enhanced memory was of 900mg, which is 90 times as much flavonol as a normal chocolate bar. However, it is still an interesting discovery, which most scientists agree should be investigated further, in greater trials, and with more variables considered.

Paralysis Cured By A Nose

Paralysis is a terrible condition suffered by over 3 million people, but can actually affect anyone and has very few solutions. In an almost miraculous turn of events, this has now changed thanks to scientists, doctors, and curiously enough, a chef.

David Nicholls is a world-known, Michelin Starred-chef whose son Daniel became paralysed in an accident in 2003. Since then, he has tried everything possible to help his son, including creating the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) which aims to raise awareness of paralysis and fund any promising cure projects.

Spinal surgery breakthrough

Darek Fidyka, showing the extent of his recovery

One of these donations was used by a team of researchers at UCL to pioneer a mechanism for nerve regeneration in spines. They were lead by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, a scientist with a long history in nerve cell innovations. He was the discoverer of ‘plasticity’, a quality our bodies possess by which damaged nerve cells can regenerate. Although this idea was controversial at first, it eventually opened the door for possible repair treatments.

His newest brilliance involves implanting cells from the nose to the damaged area in the spinal cord. But this doesn’t work with any nose cells. It specifically requires OECs, which stands for olfactory ensheathing cells, and their role is to repair broken nerve cells in the nose so that communication between these and the brain is restored, and our sense of smell works correctly.

This idea was applied by a group of doctors in Poland, lead by spinal repair expert Dr Pawel Tobakow, with surprising results. The patient they treated was Darek Fidyka, a man who was stabbed in the back so his spinal cord was cut in two, leaving a gap with severed nerve cells. The operation consisted of implanting Fidyka’s OECs into the gap where these, instead of healing nose nerve cells, would bridge the separated spinal nerve cells so given time and the appropriate rehabilitation, the spine would no longer be divided into two.

And so it happened. Two years later, the nerve cells on either side of the cut have regenerated and the connection between these has been re-established, effectively ‘curing’ the paralysis. The changes to Fidyka’s life have been enormous. Weeks ago, he wasn’t even able to feel his legs. Now, not only is he regaining some feeling, but can also walk and is even capable of driving a car! More patients are waiting to be treated with this method in hopes of recovering from this horrendous condition and to prove this treatment effective enough so even more injured people can be cured and the fullness of their lives restored.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 2

Today, with Jean Tirole being awarded the Economics Nobel Prize, was the last day of the Nobel Prize award season. Last week, we looked into the winners for physiology and physics, so we still have one scientific award to investigate: chemistry.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to… Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”.

Microscopes are a valuable tool for all scientists, from physicists examining subatomic particles to biologists investigating cells. But for many years, it was believed that microscopes were limited in how much magnification they could provide. The smallest they could go was 200 nanometres, or at least that was what they though until these laureates came along. The key to their innovation was brought by the use of fluorescence to increase resolution.

Hell created a mechanism called STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion) to take higher resolution pictures which involved laser lights. As an example, he used an E. coli bacterium coated with fluorescent molecules and a special microscope which emitted two tiny rays of light. One of these excited some molecules so certain parts of the bacterium glowed, whilst the other did the opposite, and made the sample duller. This might seem contradictive, except the centre of the convergence was left to shine, so only a small area was illuminated. A picture was then taken of the glowing part, and the procedure repeated at many angles. Combining the pictures taken, he was able to form an image of an unprecedented resolution.


Imagine being able to look deeper into cells – it’s possible now thanks to this year’s Chemistry winners

This is close to what Moerner and Betzig did. They used fluorescent proteins, which could be activated by short pulses of lights. They shone these onto a different part of the sample every few milliseconds, so they only glowed for a short period of time. By superimposing the images of the lighted parts, they were able to capture individual molecules in images! This amazing method is now called single-molecule microscopy and has been used in a wide variety of studies, from HIV research to gene modification.

Thanks to these men’s work and dedication towards science, we can now see deeper into our world than we have ever done before. A few years ago, we could only look at individual cells, never inside of them. But now, we can actually see what they contain, into their small organelles like mitochondria and the Golgi body that allow cells to do all the complex processes that keep us alive. Not only this, we can actually investigate individual molecules from chemicals, advancing the field of chemistry. Their contribution to our knowledge pool is immeasurable, both directly and indirectly, and for this, they are well-deserving of the Chemistry Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 1

Probably the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize is, for many, the intellectual event of the year, where the world’s greatest scientists are rewarded for their hard work and brilliance. As of yet, only two results have been announced, those for physics and physiology, and the rest will be unveiled as the week progresses.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to… John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the ‘GPS’ system in brains.  

human gps

Not a literal GPS in our head, but a group of cells that enable us to travel

It all started 40 years ago, when O’Keefe was investigating rats’ brains and their response to certain stimuli to understand their behaviour. In one experiment, he found that in a group of nerve cells in the brain, some became active when the rat physically moved to one area of the room, whilst other cells became active in other areas of the room. The conclusion he reached was that this group of cells was making a mental map of the rat’s environment to help it locate itself and move around. The ‘place cells’, as he called them, were a revolution in the field, but it took O’Keene 40 years and two collaborators to win the famous Prize.

The other recipients of the award are the Mosers, a married couple who, working in O’Keene’s lab, examined in more depth the mechanism and using modern technology, discovered that a close group of cells in the entorhinal cortex also helped in movement. What they found was that these new cells could be active in many positions of the room, not just one specific location. ‘Grid cells’ is their name and they do exactly what their name would suggest: they create a grid of their surroundings.

Both the place cells and the grid cells are used in human brains too, and their work is essential for us to be able to travel, even from one room to another, without getting lost.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to… Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for the invention of blue LEDs.

At first sight, it looks like they gave these men a Nobel Prize for inventing a bulb, but it is much more complex than that. First of all, let’s explain what an LED is and how it works. An LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode and it is used to produce light. It works by having thin sheets of material over each other, some of which contain a lot of electrons whereas other don’t and so have positive ‘holes’. When an electron collides with this hole, it emits a photon; a particle of light.

blue led

Making blue light is much harder than it may seem!

Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but only blue light could be transform into white light. The problem is that blue light has a higher energy and therefore very few materials can emit this wavelength. So when Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura discovered gallium nitride, it was a real miracle. This material is special because apart from having electron-rich areas, it can also produce a layer of itself which lacks electrons, so that together, they can react and produce blue light.

This apparently simple mechanism has had unimaginable consequences, which is the main reason why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award them the prize. Blue LEDs gave us the opportunity to make white light by coating the bulb with a substance called phosphor. Thanks to this combination, we now use blue LEDs everywhere, from our TV screens to the lightning in the streets. The advantage it has over the normal, incandescent bulbs is that it can last 100 times longer, and is extremely more efficient. In fact, it is said that if all light bulbs were switched to these energy saving ones we could half the electricity usage by lightning in the whole world.