Our modern lifestyle is often blamed for the explosion in conditions like asthma, diabetes and obesity - but the evidence that our predecessors didn't suffer such ailments has been hard to come by - until now.
In 2008 a military helicopter chanced upon a previously uncharted group of huts in the remote Amazonas region in southern Venezuela, home to 15,000 Yanomami people.
Thought to have been completely isolated since their ancestors arrived in South America after the last ice age, the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers have never been exposed to modern civilisation - therefore neither have their guts.
The community hunts for small birds and mammals as well as frogs and fish and the occasional tapir. They also eat wild bananas, plantain and cassava.
Water is collected from a stream about five minutes' walking distance from the village.
An international team of scientists has studied the group - whose exact location has been protected - to see what micro-organisms (microbes) lived in and on them.
Some microbes cause disease but the majority are completely harmless but humans couldn't live without them,
The microbes we are born with - which mainly come from our mother's birth canal - form the basis of our lifelong microbiome.
We are literally covered in them, inside and out. But modern life can alter the microbial composition.
Every time you make a memory, somewhere in your brain a tiny filament called a dendritic spine reaches out from one neuron and forms an electrochemical connection to a neighboring neuron. Now a team of biologists at Vanderbilt University has discovered more about how these connections are formed at the molecular and cellular level.
In a series of experiments described in the April 17 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the researchers report that a specific signaling protein, Asef2, a member of a family of proteins that regulate cell migration and adhesion, plays a critical role in this spine formation. This is significant because Asef2 has been linked to autism and the co-occurrence of alcohol dependency and depression.
“Alterations in dendritic spines are associated with many neurological and developmental disorders, such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease and Down Syndrome,” said study leader Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Donna Webb. “However, the formation and maintenance of spines is a very complex process that we are just beginning to understand.”
A promising new treatment for epilepsy directly targets the nerve cells, deep within the brain, that cause seizures. The treatment uses an electronic micropump and an anticonvulsant drug to inhibit the relevant areas of the brain without affecting healthy brain regions. It has had promising initial results on mice in vitro and will now be tested on live animals.
Very few epilepsy drugs successfully make it to clinical practice. Many result in harmful (or potentially harmful) side effects while others are rendered ineffectual by the body's natural defenses, which prevent the drugs from reaching their intended destination. Yet 30 percent of the approximately 50 million epilepsy sufferers around the world are resistant to all existing treatments.
Researchers at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience, École des Mines de Saint-Étienne, and Linköping University sought to combat this problem by devising a treatment that could control epilepsy without affecting healthy brain regions. Their solution involves a micropump 20 times thinner than a hair.
When an electrical current is applied to this micropump, small positively charged molecules – in this case ions that carry the drugs – get flung (or "pumped") towards the target area. Once there, the ions activate the GABA A and B receptors in the brain (these receptors can halt messages being sent to the central nervous system). This leads to an influx of chloride ions into the cell and decreases the resistance of the cell membrane, with the net effect being a reduced chance that the nerve cell will fire (i.e., contribute to a seizure).
The Yanomami "had no exposure to modern antibiotics; their only potential intake of antibiotics could be through the accidental ingestion of soil bacteria that make naturally occurring versions of these drugs," says Erica Pehrsson. "Yet we were able to identify several genes in bacteria from their fecal and oral samples that deactivate natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic drugs."
Though the pain they cause is minor and fleeting, a lot of people still find something pretty unsettling about needles. When it comes to conducting a routine blood test, US-based company Tasso Inc. believes that these unpleasant pricks can be removed from the equation completely. Its ping pong ball-sized HemoLink blood sampler can be operated by the patient at home, and needs only to be placed against the skin of the arm or abdomen for two minutes to do its job.
The roots of HemoLink can be traced back to the Tasso founders' research in microfluids at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was here that observations of circulating tumor cells, immune cells and visions of a medical device startup spawned the beginnings of Tasso Inc., which has just received US$3 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
HemoLink is designed as a low-cost, disposable device made from as few as six injection-molded plastic parts. Inside is a vacuum, which enables a small sample of blood to be drawn from tiny open channels into a small tube through a process known as capillary action. This process is made possible by forces that dictate the flow of tiny fluid streams, even against gravity.
"At these scales, surface tension dominates over gravity, and that keeps the blood in the channel no matter how you hold the device," says Tasso Inc.'s vice president and co-founder Ben Casavant.
Researchers can now make brain cells from the skin cells of patients with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, to better study the fatal disease.
The team used a genetic engineering technique to convert patients’ adult skin cells into “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which can then be coaxed into becoming brain cells.
“We make brain cells out of the patient’s own skin,” says Jeffrey Rothstein, professor of neurology, who directs the Brain Science Institute and the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University.
A psychedelic drink used for centuries in healing ceremonies is now attracting the attention of biomedical scientists as a possible treatment for depression. Researchers from Brazil last month published results from the first clinical test of a potential therapeutic benefit for ayahuasca, a South American plant-based brew. Although the study included just six volunteers and no placebo group, the scientists say that the drink began to reduce depression in patients within hours, and the effect was still present after three weeks. They are now conducting larger studies that they hope will shore up their findings.
The work forms part of a renaissance in studying the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelic or recreational drugs—research that was largely banned or restricted worldwide half a century ago. Ketamine, which is used medically as an anaesthetic, has shown promise as a fast-acting antidepressant; psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in ‘magic mushrooms’, can help to alleviate anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer; MDMA (ecstasy) can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder; and patients who experience debilitating cluster headaches have reported that LSD eases their symptoms.
Our tissue's inability to repair itself as we grow older is thought to correlate with the decline in the presence of stem cells. So it follows that if stem cell function can be preserved beyond the norm, it could have implications for the aging process and adverse effects of tissue degeneration, such as cancer. Scientists from the University of Toronto have followed this line of thinking through research on the mammary glands of genetically modified mice, finding that development of the tissue can be manipulated to avoid the effects of aging.
Led by Professor Rama Khoka, the researchers were investigating the relationship between enzymes that break down and then rebuild tissue, and the inhibitors that regulate this process. Known as metalloproteinases and tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMPs), how these elements interact can dictate the health of the tissue, and whether it effectively regenerates or begins to deteriorate, possibly leading to cancer.
The researchers worked with mice engineered to be missing at least one of the four different kinds of TIMPs, experimenting with various combinations to observe the impacts on tissue. They discovered that removing TIMP1 and TIMP3 caused the number of stem cells to actually increase and continue to function, resulting in breast tissue that remained young throughout the mice's lives.
"Normally you would see these pools of stem cells, which reach their peak at six months in the mice, start to decline," says Khoka. "As a result, the mammary glands start to degenerate, which increases the risk of breast cancer occurring. However, we found that in these particular mice, the stem cells remained consistently high when we measured them at every stage of life."
Technology’s promise of wonderful things in the future stretches from science fiction to science fact: self-driving cars, virtual reality, smart devices such as Google Glass, and the internet of things are designed to make our lives easier and more productive. Certainly inventions of the past century such as the washing machine and combustion engine have brought leisure time to the masses. But will this trend necessarily continue?
On the surface, tech that simplifies hectic modern lives seems a good idea. But we risk spending more of the time freed by these devices designed to free up our time through the growing need to micromanage them. Recall that an early digital technology designed to help us was the continually interrupting Microsoft Office paperclip.
It’s possible that internet-connected domestic devices could turn out to be ill-judged, poorly-designed, short-lived technological fads. But the present trend of devices that require relentless updates and patches driven by security threats and privacy breaches doesn’t make for a utopian-sounding future. Technology growth in the workplace can lead to loss of productivity; taken to the home it could take a bite out of leisure time too.
All the information available online has a strange effect on our brains: We feel a lot smarter than we really are, a new study shows.
In 9 different experiments with more than 1,000 participants, Yale University psychologists found that if subjects received information through internet searches, they rated their knowledge base as much greater than those who obtained the information through other methods.
“This was a very robust effect, replicated time and time again,” says Matthew Fisher, a PhD student and the lead author of the study. “People who search for information tend to conflate accessible knowledge with their own personal knowledge.”
For instance, in one experiment people searched online for a website that answers the question, “How does a zipper work?” The control group received the same answer that they would have found online, but without searching for it themselves.
When later asked how well they understood completely unrelated domains of knowledge, those who searched online rated their knowledge substantially greater than those who were only provided text. Prior to the experiment, no such difference existed.
The effect was so strong that even when a full answer to a question was not provided to internet searchers, they still had an inflated sense of their own knowledge.
“The cognitive effects of ‘being in search mode’ on the internet may be so powerful that people still feel smarter even when their online searches reveal nothing,” says Frank Keil, professor of psychology and linguistics and senior author of the paper.
(MedicalXpress)—Resting state networks (RSNs) in the brain are topographies of neural structures between which lag states propagate due to fluctuations of physical and other activities. Studying these networks reveals information about the functional connectivity of neural structures and regions. Results from various studies have confirmed that brain activity is spatially structured, linked to the representation of function, and has clinical relevance.
Functional connectivity is different from the brain's structural connectivity, which describes brain regions that are anatomically attached to each other. Regions with no structural connectivity can nonetheless have functional connectivity as nodes in a functionally connected RSN. Many common RSNs have been mapped in healthy subjects, and researchers believe that understanding the relationships between these networks can contribute to a fundamental model of brain function.
One of the tremendous advantages of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is the ability to study brain functional activity without the need for subjects to perform complex tasks. Using fMRI to study resting-state functional connectivity yields a wealth of information about different stages of consciousness and patterns of synchronous activity. One of the neurological features that has emerged from such research is the existence of lags in intrinsic activity as represented by fluctuations of the blood-oxygen level-dependent signals (BOLDs), which are temporally synchronous within the somatomotor system.
Last year, researchers at the departments of radiology and neurology at Washington University published an analysis demonstrating that, contrary to the belief that BOLDs were synchronous with resting state networks (RSNs), the lag topography of BOLDs and RSNs is actually orthogonal. Additionally, they established that BOLDs are not attributable to hemodynamic factors and have neural origin.
Scientists have developed “nanoneedles” that have successfully prompted parts of the body to generate new blood vessels, in a trial in mice.
The researchers, from Imperial College London and Houston Methodist Research Institute in the USA, hope their nanoneedle technique could ultimately help damaged organs and nerves repair themselves and help transplanted organs thrive.
In a trial described in Nature Materials, the team showed they could deliver nucleic acids DNA and siRNA to back muscles in mice. After seven days there was a six-fold increase in the formation of new blood vessels in the mouse back muscles, and blood vessels continued to form over a 14 day period.
The nanoneedles are tiny porous structures that act as a sponge to load significantly more nucleic acids than solid structures. This makes them more effective at delivering their payload. They can penetrate the cell, bypassing its outer membrane, to deliver nucleic acids without harming or killing the cell.
The nanoneedles are made from biodegradable silicon, meaning that they can be left in the body without leaving a toxic residue behind. The silicon degrades in about two days, leaving behind only a negligible amount of a harmless substance called orthosilicic acid.
When a vein or artery gets seriously blocked, a common course of action involves replacing it with part of another blood vessel harvested from elsewhere in the patient's body. While 3D-printed and lab-grown blood vessels show promise as alternatives, scientists from the Vienna University of Technology and Vienna Medical University have developed another option – polymer fabric vessels that transform into biological ones, once implanted.
The artificial blood vessels are made from biocompatible and biodegradable thermoplastic polyurethanes.
Liquid solutions of these polymers are spun in an electrical field, causing them to form into very fine threads. Those threads are then woven onto a long skinny spool, where they form the walls of the vessel. Once removed from the spool, an elongated tube of polymer fabric – the synthetic blood vessel – is the result.
Johns Hopkins scientists have discovered that neurons are risk takers: They use minor “DNA surgeries” to toggle their activity levels all day, every day. Since these activity levels are important in learning, memory and brain disorders, the researchers think their finding will shed light on a range of important questions. A summary of the study will be published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience on April 27.
Scientists have long suspected that respiratory viruses—the sort that cause common colds or bronchitis—play a critical role in chronic lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
A new study shows a potential link: immune cells dispatched to the lung to destroy a respiratory virus can fail to disperse after their job is finished, setting off a chain of inflammatory events that leads to long-term lung problems.
The findings stem from research into immune cells called macrophages.
“In general, scientists thought this type of macrophage was involved in the repair of the lung,” says senior author Michael J. Holtzman, a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “That may be true in some cases. But like many things in nature, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.”
When large numbers of this type of macrophage accumulate, they appear to stop orchestrating the immune response against acute viral infections and instead participate in a type of response that is more typically directed against parasites and allergens.
In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted—rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.
In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using 'non-viable' embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.
"I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale," says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes."
Some say that gene editing in embryos could have a bright future because it could eradicate devastating genetic diseases before a baby is born. Others say that such work crosses an ethical line: researchers warned in Nature2 in March that because the genetic changes to embryos, known as germline modification, are heritable, they could have an unpredictable effect on future generations. Researchers have also expressed concerns that any gene-editing research on human embryos could be a slippery slope towards unsafe or unethical uses of the technique.
The paper by Huang's team looks set to reignite the debate on human-embryo editing — and there are reports that other groups in China are also experimenting on human embryos.
Scientists working in the area of pancreatic cancer research have uncovered a technique that sees cancerous cells transform back into normal healthy cells. The method relies in the introduction of a protein called E47, which bonds with particular DNA sequences and reverts the cells back to their original state.
The study was a collaboration between researchers at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, University of California San Diego and Purdue University. The scientists are hopeful that it could help combat the deadly disease in humans.
"For the first time, we have shown that over-expression of a single gene can reduce the tumor-promoting potential of pancreatic adenocarcinoma cells and reprogram them toward their original cell type," says Pamela Itkin-Ansari, adjunct professor at Sanford-Burnham and lead author of the study. "Thus, pancreatic cancer cells retain a genetic memory which we hope to exploit."
One of the body's defenses against deadly cancer cells may have just received a much-needed boost. Researchers at Imperial College London have happened upon a previously unknown protein that ramps up the presence of all-important cytotoxic T cells, which destroy virus-infected and cancerous cells.
The scientists have named their discovery lymphocyte expansion molecule (LEM), which they unearthed while screening mice with genetic mutations. The found that a particular strain of mice was producing 10 times the normal amount of cytotoxic T cells once it had been infected with a virus. The result was an improved ability to contain the virus and a heightened resistance to cancer.
The cause for this boost in immune response, the scientists found, was the huge presence of a particular protein, their new friend LEM. Following this finding, the scientists were able to establish that LEM also regulates the levels of T cells in humans.
These findings could have important implications for the development of anti-cancer therapies. Though the immune system swiftly swings T cells into action once cancer is detected, they are also quickly overwhelmed and unable to spread widely enough to overcome the disease. If the number of T cells can be multiplied, especially if its by a factor of 10, it could bolster the immune systems chances of winning the battle.
A smartphone-based device developed by Harvard Medical School investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital could bring rapid, accurate molecular diagnosis of cancer and other diseases to locations lacking the latest medical technology.
The device uses technology for making holograms to collect detailed microscopic images for digital analysis of the molecular composition of cells and tissues.
“The global burden of cancer, limited access to prompt pathology services in many regions, and emerging cell profiling technologies increase the need for low-cost, portable and rapid diagnostic approaches that can be delivered at the point of care,” said Cesar Castro, HMS instructor in medicine at Mass General and co-lead author of a report in PNAS Early Edition.
“The emerging genomic and biological data for various cancers, which can be essential to choosing the most appropriate therapy, supports the need for molecular profiling strategies that are more accessible to providers, clinical investigators and patients.
People can control prosthetic limbs, computer programs and even remote-controlled helicopters with their mind, all by using brain-computer interfaces. What if we could harness this technology to control things happening inside our own body? A team of bioengineers in Switzerland has taken the first step toward this cyborglike setup by combining a brain-computer interface with a synthetic biological implant, allowing a genetic switch to be operated by brain activity. It is the world's first brain-gene interface.
The group started with a typical brain-computer interface, an electrode cap that can register subjects' brain activity and transmit signals to another electronic device. In this case, the device is an electromagnetic field generator; different types of brain activity cause the field to vary in strength. The next step, however, is totally new—the experimenters used the electromagnetic field to trigger protein production within human cells in an implant in mice.
Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have developed a new type of shape-shifting nanoprobe that can perform high-resolution remote biological sensing not possible with current technology. Around one-tenth the size of a single red blood cell, the nanoprobes are designed to provide feedback on internal body conditions by altering their magnetic fields in response to their environment. The researchers predict wide-spread applications for the nanoprobes in the fields of chemistry, biology, engineering and, one day, to aid physicians in high-accuracy clinical diagnostics.
Dubbed geometrically encoded magnetic sensors (GEMs), the nanoprobes are microengineered from two plates of magnetic metal disks 0.5 to 2 micrometers in diameter and just tens of nanometers thick. These are formed either side of a polymer gel to create a microminiature sandwiched component.
More specifically, the polymer is a layer of hydrogel, a network of polymer chains that are hydrophilic (absorb water) and are able to expand significantly dependent upon the level of the moisture in the environment in which they are used. Similarly, the gel can also contract when the environment is low in moisture. As such, the expanding or contracting of this gel then changes the distance between the two magnetic disks, and in turn increases or decreases the magnetic field.
Geographic tongue (GT) is a medical condition in which the upper layer of the tongue, which consists of tiny hair-like protrusions (called papillae), is damaged due to an expanding inflammation. As a result, red patches devoid of papillae can be observed on the surface of the tongue. A noticeable characteristic of the condition is an evolving map-like appearance of the affected tongue (hence its name).
GT, which is harmless and affects about 2% of the population, was first reported more than 180 years ago. It has been investigated ever since, but the actual cause of the condition remains unknown. GT has been associated with different diseases such as psoriasis. Maps and maths
In a recent investigation, published in New Journal of Physics, we treated GT as a dynamical system – a mathematical description that enables one to examine how something evolves over time – that consists of a large number of coupled (interacting) elements such as the hair protrusions. Each of these elements can be found in one of three states: a healed (unaffected) state, an excited state and a recovering state. Once an element is excited, it then goes through a remission period in which it cannot be excited.
Other well-known natural phenomena that can be treated in this manner include the heart muscle (where the cardiac cells are the coupled elements) and forest fires (where the trees are the elements) – once a fire has started, it then moves to fresh areas until it has burned everywhere that it can. The forest then enters a long recovering period and eventually completely recovers. Systems that can be described in this way fall in the category of “excitable media”.
A similar process also happens with GT. But as it is a chronic condition, it will reoccur at a later time. By identifying GT as a novel example of excitable media dynamics, we were able to examine and visualise the evolution of the condition using numerical simulations.
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