Super Brain Network


Although it may seem directly taken from a science fiction movie, scientists at Duke University have actually managed to connect the brains of several organisms so that without any real communication they have been able to work together to carry out tasks.

In a series of experiments, researchers opened the skull of both monkeys and rats and using electrodes and wires, linked members of the same species together so that, even if they could not share complex thoughts or emotions, they could synchronise their neural activity.

When doing some experiments on rats, the connection was investigated by having one of the animals undergo an electrical stimulus, so its brain activity increased. The other rats, despite not being stimulated directly, automatically changed their neural activity to match that of the first rat, so it looked like they too had received the stimulus, and felt its effects.

But not only does this connection make them more ‘empathic’, it also makes them more intelligent. When scientists sent temperature and atmospheric pressure information into their brains, coded by electrical impulses, the rats could put all the information they had received together and solve problems regarding the chance of rainfall. They could do this by themselves, without any linking, but the brain network helped them obtain better scores.

computer

Linking brains is no longer a science fiction movie plot

With monkeys, three of them were connected through the motor region of their brains, after being trained individually to control a virtual arm with thoughts alone. Once they were connected, each was able to control only certain aspects of the arm’s movement, like only being able to move the arm horizontally and vertically, and even those abilities it had to share with another monkey, so that each had an equal contribution to the movement in that direction. However, as messy as this sounds, they synchronised and managed to work with each together, combining their skills to control the arm and grab an imaginary ball displayed on the computer.

The applications for this are not to make a huge human population brain network, where we can share our thoughts and emotions, as not only are they too complex for it to be possible to share them this way, but it would also be unethical and have privacy issues. However, it can be used in people who have had some damage to their brain. For example, someone who has suffered from a stroke and can no longer talk normally can be connected to a healthy person, so said area synchronises with the healthy area and accelerates the healing process.

Cystic Hallelujah


Cystic Fibrosis is an inherited genetic condition, where specialised cells called epithelial cells, found in the lining of vessels (like the lungs, the intestines, the reproductive ducts…) do not function correctly. Normally, they would produce mucus, a slimy substance that reduces friction and allows substances to pass through the tracts more easily, but when suffering from Cystic Fibrosis, the mucus becomes less runny, so it is not as efficient at lubricating.

The most common treatment is physiotherapy, where an expert massages the chest area to help move the mucus along. This is an important area to do so, since if the mucus in the lungs gets stuck, it could house bacterial infections and cause trouble breathing. But as much as this may help, it still doesn’t cure CF, so infected people may still die quite young (around 40 years old).

A possible solution which has been considered for over a quarter of a century, since the single gene responsible for causing CF had been identified, has been gene therapy. This technique consists of introducing a healthy version of the gene into the cells of an infected person, and using it to replace the mutated version. However, there are several complications involved, and it has never been fully possible to carry this out and obtain good results. But not anymore.

liposome

A liposome is a phospholipid bilayer, which can fuse with cell membranes and release the gene it contains

In a new study carried out on 116 infected people, half received a gene therapy treatment, and half received a placebo. The treatment was a solution of liposomes that carried the desired gene inside them, and which the participants had to inhale so it could easily reach the lung cells. Although both were administered for 9 months, their effects were measured until after 12 months, and to do so researchers in charge measured the volume of air participants would breathe in and out in a set period of time. The results didn’t disappoint. People treated with gene therapy not only saw a stabilisation in their lung performance, instead of the disease’s characteristic downfall, but also had 3.7% better breathing capability than those people who had been given a placebo.

Although it may not sound like an impressive feat, it certainly is. Consider this is only the first time this has ever actually worked, and that it was a scaled down version of the treatment. The dose could definitely be increased so the effects are much greater. And even if the change seems small, it could postpone the need for lung transplants for decades.

The Moon Is Keeping You Awake


You may have heard people justify a bad night of sleep because ‘it was a full moon’, and immediately dismissed it as a myth. Well, think again.

The moon affecting our sleep is not as weird and irrational as it sounds. In fact, it’s not even unheard of in the animal kingdom, as this is known to happen in many other organisms, from small worms to large marine animals, and can not only affect their sleep, but also their reproductive cycles. It even has its own name: the circalunar rhythm.

moon

Now you know who to blame for a lack of rest

But to see if it could happen in humans too, a group of researchers from University of Basel, Switzerland, followed a group of patients who, like normal human beings, fell asleep every night, and every time gave the scientists their opinion on how well it went. Most agreed that on the day of or close to full moon, the sleep quality was lower and they felt less rested. But this could be a subjective or biased opinion by the patients. So the scientists backed this up with the most undeniable proof of all: science.

They measured the hormone levels, brain activity and any eye movements before, during and after falling asleep. In case you’re confused about why bother measuring eye movement; it is because during REM phase, where we actually ‘rest’, our eyes subconsciously move around (in fact, REM phase stands for Rapid Eye Movement phase). After conducting this research at different times of the month, and therefore at different stages in the moon cycle, what they found only supported what the people had said themselves: there was a decrease, of up to 30%, in the people’s brain patterns during sleep. Not only was the quality worse, but it was also shorter, as they took 5 more minutes to become unconscious and in total were deprived of almost 20 minutes of blissful sleep.

This could’ve all been due to a decrease in the levels of melatonin, a very interesting hormone which can be found in animals that somewhat ‘predicts’ when it is going to get dark and prepares us for sleep, so a lack of it could lead to us not sleeping as deeply.

But researchers don’t know how the moon can even affect the amount of this hormone in our body and can end up causing the other symptoms. It’s not the presence of moonlight, as this was eliminated by keeping the test subjects in closed rooms. So this leaves the two most plausible ideas being either that the moon’s gravity somehow manages to affects us even though it is extremely weak at such a large distance, or that humans have a physiological clock inside of them which keeps track of the moon cycles. Although this may sound just bizarre, it already exists; but instead of with the moon, it uses the Sun. You may have heard of it: it’s called the circadian rhythm and it has a great effect on us as thanks to it, our body knows how to behave at the different times of the day.

The test was only done on 33 people, quite a small sample regardless of how standardised the whole procedure was. So in future investigations, larger groups of people should be investigated to not only support these scientists’ hypothesis, but maybe to even find out the mechanism by which the moon manages to ruin a good night’s sleep.

Balding Irony


Baldness affects many people (mostly men) at some point in their lives and a lot of research has been carried out to learn how to prevent it. The secret to doing so might be the most ironic treatment ever: to prevent going bald, pluck your hair.

The science of hair growth is more fascinating than it may seem at first sight. Hairs actually go through cycles: first they grow thanks to the stem cells in the follicle (the anagen phase), then they stop growing (the rest phase), and lastly the hair falls out. But if you manually remove the hair at any of these phases, an interesting process is triggered. The follicle will release cytokines, specifically the CCL2 type, which is a chemical that attracts white blood cells. When these cells arrive, they also release their own set of chemicals that stimulate stem cells so they start producing hair again. However, what’s the point of plucking one hair so that it grows if you already have it?

Well, there’s a trick. Scientists at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, did some experiments with mice where they removed a handful of hair on a specific area of the mouse’s body, and to their surprise, found that not only did the patch of hair grow back, but also stimulated growth in others areas. The catch is that this only happened if a certain amount of hair was removed: there was a threshold for the amount of hair that needed to be pulled out for others to be stimulated.

bald head

Should’ve plucked his hair more often!

This is because the CCL2 signal from one follicle isn’t very large; you need CCL2 to build up so the effects are much stronger and can affect a larger area of the skin. In the specific experiment they carried out, the lowest number of hairs that had to be removed was of 200, which lead to the growth of 1200 hairs. The way these hairs can communicate with each other by accumulation of chemical signals is called ‘quorum sensing’, and it causes the hairs to act like a collective group, as if taking decisions together.

Although the study was carried out on mice, the researchers don’t rule out the fact that it could somehow be used in humans, although some modification may be necessary. It also shows the increasing complexity of the immune system, and possibly sheds some light as to how the mechanism of regeneration is controlled.

The 6th Sense


We are used to people talking about the 5 senses: sound, sight, touch, smell and taste. But scientists are now working on improving these, and even creating a new sense that would enable us to experience the world in a much more heightened way.

For now, it’s all based on an experiment to help blind mice. Since this type of mice isn’t able to see, their sense of direction is severely handicapped. But in the University of Tokyo, a team used a compass like those found in smart phones, albeit a more complex version, and inserted it into the visual cortex of blind mice. It had two electrodes attached, each connected to a hemisphere of the brain. They fired up, sending electric impulses to the brain, whenever the mice’s head turned a certain amount of degrees away from the north direction. Depending on how many degrees, it would change the intensity of the signal on each hemisphere, so for example, when the mouse faced south, the neuroprosthesis would only send an impulse to the left hemisphere. After a week, the mouse managed to interpret these signals correctly and was able to orient itself using this compass, instead of the usual vision.

mouse compass

These mice have a compass in their brain, which helps them overcome their blindness

This was demonstrated by putting the mice in a labyrinth with a prize in the middle, and comparing normal mice, blind mice, and blind mice with the compass. After about 60 rounds of labyrinth trials, the normal mice and those with the compass behaved practically the same, finding the prize in a small amount of time, whereas the blind mice took longer. It seemed like the mice were able to create a map of the labyrinth in their heads, so no matter where they were placed within the maze, they managed to find their way around. Although this did not actually cure the blindness, it enabled them to find their sense of direction and be more independent.

What’s especially interesting is not only that the rats were actually able to ‘see’, but that they could detect this foreign type of stimuli and understand and interpret it correctly. Even though they spent their lives without a compass in their head, as soon as it started working they were able to use it to their advantage, showing the great adaptability of these organisms. This could be extrapolated to use in human beings, and gives hope for a cure/alternative to blindness. Other scientists go further and suggest that it could open a path towards new types of senses, using stimuli like UV or infra red light that, together with receptors like this compass, we could use to see the world in much more complex ways, adding more senses to the pre-existent ones.

Precious Faeces


Treasure hunters spend their lives looking for valuable objects like gold coins and silver ornaments in shipwrecks or archaeological sites, often involving dangerous stunts. But tonnes of precious metals are actually hiding in plain site, right where you wouldn’t expect them: in your faeces.

gold stuff

Who knows where this gold actually came from…

Many products we use in our day-to-day life, like shampoos and detergents, contain precious metals, which gather up in urban pipes. Or they can be found in the food and drink we consume and that, after a while, accumulates in our body until is removed by excretion, which also ends up in the sewage drains. So imagine if this process was carried out by thousands of people, all living together in a city. The amount of valuable elements in the sewage would be outstanding! And so has been confirmed in a study by the US Geological Survey that found out that the concentration of precious metals in a city’s sewage system is comparable to that in an actual working mine.

For example, in a single kilogram of ‘sewage slime’, you can find 0.4mg of gold and 28mg of silver, metals used in jewellery; 638mg of copper, a metal used in electrical wiring and 49mg of vanadium, which has important industrial applications. But in the larger scale of a whole city, it has been calculated that by all these metals being thrown into the sewers, up to £510 million a year are being lost in the UK.

In an attempt to profit from this waste, companies are starting to consider human faeces as a viable source of precious metals. It’d be quite a profitable venture for them, and much greener than traditional mining since instead of using hazardous chemicals in lands where they can contaminate a habitat, they are used in an enclosed factory. And although working with faeces sounds like an outrageous idea and a bad time, it has been done for many years now, as it is used to make plant fertilizers.

As a fortunate side effect, we would actually be making our excrements cleaner and therefore protecting the environment. Faeces not only contain gold and silver, but heavier metals like lead which can be toxic to an ecosystem. By processing our waste, we’d make sure that not only the valuable metals are removed, but the harmful ones too. This idea just gets better and better!

So who knows, maybe someday in the near future you will wear gold bracelets that come from your faeces, or phones with microchips made of components of our waste.

Prophetic Neurones


Being able to tell the future is a superpower that we have all wanted at some point or another in our life. And although it seems like science-fiction material, we actually do have this ability. Granted, it is not as accurate or far-reaching as we would like, but it is still quite impressive and useful at a smaller scale.

In our everyday lives, we often encounter situations where we need to predict what other people are going to do. These can range from normal conversations to arguments, or even playing games. It is precisely this last scenario which can be used to investigate how exactly we are able to foretell other people’s actions.

The game in particular is called Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the experiment consists of having monkeys play this game and examine any patterns in their actions. In this game, two people face each other with two options: either cooperate or refuse to work together. Every different combination of choices yields different results. For example, if one declines and the other cooperates, the one that declines gets a great reward, whereas the other doesn’t. If both cooperate, they both get a smaller reward. If both refuse to work together, they get the smallest prize. So to win the most in this game you have to be good at predicting what your opponent will do and acting accordingly.

A team at Harvard Medical School made monkeys play this game hundreds of times, but did it so that each time the monkeys could see what their companion had chosen. This way, they could base their decision for the next turn on what the opponent had done and predict how they could get the greatest reward.

anterior cingulate

Highlighted in yelllow is the anterior cingulate, where these ‘clairvoyant’ neurones are found

At the same time, their brains were monitored. Specifically, an area called the anterior cingulate, which has been shown to be involved in the decision making process. The results showed that some neurones in this area acted according to a pattern, depending on the decisions the monkeys took. But to make the results more reliable and make sure these cells were responsible, they used some exterior electrical impulses to inhibit them and prevent them from working correctly. By doing this, the monkeys became more selfish and refused to cooperate more often, even though tactically it made no sense, as it would result in a lower prize. Since confusing these neurones caused the monkeys to make different choices, especially involving disconnection from their partner and a lack of prediction of their movements, it is safe to say that the specific group of cells in the anterior cingulate have an effect on foretelling the future.

Although this theory has only been tested in monkeys, the process in humans is thought to work in a similar way, and studying it can help study social interactions between humans, in light of diseases such as autism.

Magnifying Eyes


It is a popular depiction of the futuristic world to show contact lenses that can display smartphone information: text messages, emails, phone calls… Don’t get too excited, this isn’t today’s news exactly. What has actually been created is a set of contact lenses that allow the user to zoom in and out of everyday life.

The gadget is basically a slightly larger contact lens that covers both your retina and the whites of the eye. It is also thicker and much more rigid than normal contacts, but can still be worn comfortably. In addition, it is covered with strips of aluminium mirror forming a circle, which cause light to be reflected many times within the lens, creating a magnification of 2.8 times. For the apparatus to work at its finest, it has to be joined to a pair of electronic glasses. When the subject winks with one eye, it activates the glasses, so they switch from normal mode to polarised mode. Then, they filter light so only light of one wavelength passes through (polarises) and focuses it on the telescopic area of the lens, which gives a zoomed in view. By winking with the other eye, the glass switches back to normal mode so there is no zoom.

At the moment, there have been no human trials due to the risk of harming the eye. The lenses are naturally thick, so it is difficult for air to pass through and keep the surface of the eye fresh and oxygenated. The newest model of this contact includes many little pores that allow air to pass, so the lenses can be worn for a longer period of time with a much lower risk.

contact lens zoom

These lenses were originally planned as a substitute for binoculars for soldiers

Designing these lenses was not only for entertainment or a cool technological device, but rather for medical purposes. These zooming contact lenses can help people with limited visibility, like those with macular degeneration, a disease which affects muscles in the retina. They offer a much easier and practical alternative than surgery or special, expensive glasses.

Mom, Dad and the Mitochondrial Donor


They say three is a party. But in this case, three parents may be just enough parents to save future babies from suffering a crippling disease for the rest of their lives.

We are talking about the mitochondrial replacement procedure. Found in the cytoplasm of a cell, mitochondria are powerhouses which supply it with energy to function and survive. However, they are not perfect organelles, and may sometimes have mutations which cause disease. Unfortunately, this can be passed on to children, since when fertilisation occurs, it uses the mother’s egg cell as the starter cell, and so all of her mitochondria, meaning that any subsequent cells that form from that zygote will carry the mother’s defective mitochondria.

zygote

A human zygote, which would contain a nucleus with genes from the mother and the father, and mitochondria from a donor

To prevent this, scientists have designed a new process, called mitochondrial replacement, to be carried out on women with mitochondrial diseases, allowing them to have children and prevent these from also suffering from the disease. It is done by a form of In Vitro Fertilisation. An egg cell from the mother and a sperm cell from the father are taken, like in normal IVF. The change comes when we add another egg cell, this time from a different woman (a donor). The nucleus of the mother’s egg cell is taken and it replaces the nucleus from the donor egg cell. The sperm is then allowed to fertilise the new egg cell and a zygote is formed which can then be implanted onto the mother and allowed to grow into a healthy baby. This way, the zygote will develop from a cell which contains the mother’s genes, but none of her mitochondria, so the baby is safe.

Messing around with zygotes is never child’s play, and always carries some controversy. In this case, it is due to the questionable effects of adding a third group of genes to a person. Since mitochondria are essential for life, having them come from a different source than the rest of the genome could have unpredictable consequences.

Despite some uncertainty, the UK government has approved this measure, saying there is no real proof it is unsafe. Rest assured, there will be plenty of human trials before it becomes a standard procedure, but at least it’s a brave step towards helping people suffering from these diseases improve their lives.

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.

hotchocolate

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.