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.


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.


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.


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.

Equalitarian Blood

Blood flows around the body all the time, yet we barely see it unless we suffer from an accident. If this were the case, and we lost too much of it, we’d need a blood transfusion. But it is not as easy as just putting blood from one individual into another: you need to test it and make sure the blood is compatible.


Can you guess what antigens these red blood cells have?

This occurs because human blood can be divided into many categories. The most common one is the ABO group classification, which divides blood into four types: A, B, AB and O. In each, red blood cells (those cells specialised in carrying oxygen around the body) have a specific antigen depending on the blood type. For example, if you have group A blood, you will have A antigens; if you have AB blood, you will have A and B antigens; and most importantly, if you have O blood, you will have no antigens.

Each antigen stimulates a response from our immune system to produces antibodies against the other antigens. So if you have blood group A, you will produce antibodies that will destroy cells with antigen B, and vice versa. This is potentially very dangerous, because if you give someone of type A blood from a person of type B, the antibodies can attack each other’s red blood cells and wreck havoc in our bodies.

When it comes to transfusing blood, the best one is group O- since it has no antigens, so there is no way your body can attack it. That is why we call it universal, since it works for anyone, no matter their blood type. This makes it very sought after for blood transfusions, but there isn’t always plenty of it available.

But what if we could convert all blood into O type blood? We can’t change the genotype of adults so that their body produced it, but we can change the blood itself after the blood has been donated. The most successful way to do this would be to insert bacterial enzymes into the blood which can recognise antigens in the red blood cells and cut them off so they are just like red blood cells from O group blood.

In the experiment which created this mechanism, the original enzyme worked mostly with cells from group B only, so to make it effective on cells from group A too they used a very interesting method called directed evolution. It’s just as it sounds: they grew the bacteria that produce this type of enzyme, and slowly mutated their genome (by adding bases to their DNA) so that every generation produced a better enzyme. At the end of the experiment, after 5 generations of bacteria, the final enzyme was produced, which not only could severe A antigens, but was also an impressive 170 times more efficient than the original one.

Yet this method is still not perfect: the enzyme can’t modify all the thousands of red blood cells in a sample of blood and therefore can’t make it completely safe, as there will still be some red blood cells with antigens present. But with enough time, the scientists hope to perfect it and make the technique available so blood transfusions are easier to carry out.

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.

A Chameleon’s Colourful Secret

Chameleons are definitely one of the most fascinating creatures on Earth, and their characteristic colour changes, to camouflage themselves or gain the attention of their mates, can impress both kids and adults alike. As if their ability to change their appearance into anything they’d like wasn’t enough, the mechanism by which they do so could also be unique and worth some credit.

In nature, colours are usually produced by pigments: substances that have a specific colour. For example, our skin gets tan because of a pigment called melanin which darkens it. In chameleons, it was originally thought that they showed one colour because a pigment of that same colour covered their skin, and when they wanted to change colour, a pigment of a new colour just substituted the original one. But it has now been discovered that their colour change, contrary to popular belief, had nothing to do with pigments. It’s actually all because of crystals.

A chameleon’s skin has an outer layer full of specialised cells called superficial iridophores, which have tiny guanine crystals embedded that can reflect light at different wavelengths and so produce different colours. Guanine not only plays an important role for this process, but is also one of the four bases in our DNA, which code for all the substances in our body. When the chameleon wants to change colour, it simply twist these cells around so the distance between crystals changes, which causes the reflection pattern, and subsequently the colour it produces, to change.

chameleon coloured

Chameleon’s can express a wide variety of colours thanks to guanine crystals

This is a very smart design which saves the chameleons a lot of energy and resources on producing and transporting the pigments around. If the animal wants a bluish colour, it just needs to push all these crystals together. For a reddish/yellow colour, just spread them out.

The only thing yet to be discovered is how the chameleons actually modify the superficial iridophores’ shape. In the experiment they carried out to test this new theory, they used salt water to expand and contract the cells and see what effect this had on the colour. But the natural process in chameleons is not necessarily chemical, it could be mechanical. Finding out which one it is is the team from the University of Geneva’s new objective.

Either way, discovering the truth behind this ingenious technique is not only an interesting fact to know about, but could also have real-life applications, for example, in developing computer screens.

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.


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.