Tag Archives: Science

Medical Implants of the Future May Be Powered by Sugar

It’s like something out of a science fiction magazine, but leave it to MIT to turn science fiction into science fact. A study published in the June 12th edition of PLoS ONE reveals a new glucose powered chip that literally will create an interface between brain and machine. The glucose “fuel cell” brings hope that in the future we will be able to help paralytics regain control of their limbs using neural prosthetics powered by this new technology.

Glucose is basically the sugar that can be found in our blood. It is the usable form of energy that our bodies use to power our muscles and our brain. The glucose powered fuel cells can be seen, pictured below, on a silicon wafer.

Glucose Fuel Cell
Glucose Fuel Cells on Silicon Wafer (Courtesy PLoS ONE)

The new fuel cells strip electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current. Implantable electronics are nothing new. Consider the pace maker, for instance. Many heart patients are alive and well today due to the tiny electronic module that keeps their heart in perfect rhythm. Oddly enough, scientists in the 1970’s originally proved they could power a pacemaker using glucose but due to some inefficiencies with an enzyme necessary to run them, they eventually decided to use lithium ion batteries instead. The difference in this new technology is that it contains no biological components whatsoever. It can generate hundreds of microwatts which can be used to power “ultra-low-power” implants.

Location, Location, Location

One of the groundbreaking aspects of this new research is not only that the fuel cells are powered by glucose, but also its placement in the body. Before this study, any research done using glucose fuel cells relied on blood or tissue fluid. This research suggested using cerebrospinal fluid which basically is a sugar filled barrier that surrounds the brain. One reason is that this fluid basically contains no cells that would stimulate an immune response. The other reason is that it is so rich in glucose. Due to the relatively small amount of glucose needed to power these fuel cells, no adverse affects are expected to occur in the brain.

Research like this is very encouraging especially for those who have lost use of their limbs due to paralysis. However, it may be a few years before we see this research being used in practical medical setting. If you would like more information, you can read the MIT press release http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/glucose-fuel-cell-0612.html, or for a more technical experience you can find the published study at this link http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038436.

 

Alzheimer’s Vaccine Provides New Hope

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most dreaded diseases known to man. Unlike many other diseases, Alzheimer’s is being diagnosed in increasing numbers and the outlook for any patient is pretty bleak. There is good news being reported out of Sweden where researchers from Karolinska Institute have seen encouraging results of an experimental vaccine. The results are so encouraging, it is now being considered for testing on a larger scale.

alzheimer
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The study was led by Bengt Winblad, Professor of Geriatrics at Karolinska Institute. The new vaccine is called CAD106 and is designed to turn on the body’s natural defenses against beta-amyloid, which is what contributes to plaque build up in the brain. The study was conducted over a three year period and had very good results. 80 percent of the patients involved in the study developed their own antibodies  against beta-amyloid. Even more encouraging, was the fact that there were no serious side affects from the vaccine. The previous clinical studies done 10 years ago were not so lucky. The researchers believe that this is a “tolerable” treatment for patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Now they will need to conduct studies on a larger scale to confirm their findings. The study was published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that affects memory and behavior. It is the most common form of dementia. Below, is a link to a brief video with some statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association. In about a minute, it can show the staggering reality that is Alzheimer’s better than I can explain.

I have personally seen the effects of dementia on one of my grandparents. It is such a humiliating and painful thing to watch. I hope that this study will encourage more research and eventually come up with better treatment or even better, a cure. If you or a loved one are affected by Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association has a lot of resources on their website which can be found at the following link: http://www.alz.org/living_with_alzheimers_4521.asp.

Strange New Zealand Reptile Chews Food

You may have heard the old saying that you should chew your food 32 times for good health. Like most mammals in the world, we humans tend to chew our food to aid in digestion. A commonly held theory has been that the ability to chew food is linked directly with high resting metabolisms observed in mammals. However, a new study suggests that this perception may not quite be a reality. Scientists from the University College of London observed chewing in a New Zealand reptile called the Tuatara.

tuatara
Tuatara (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Most reptiles use repeated bites to break down food or in the case of snakes, simply swallow their food whole. This unique lizard however, uses a very complex chewing method to break down its food. One of the surprising discoveries with this reptile was that its ability to chew seemed to have no bearing on its metabolism. It uses its bottom jaw to push food in between two rows of upper teeth and then is able to move the lower jaw in sort of a sawing motion.  The researchers produced a video describing this process. See below to watch it in motion.

[Video Link]

 

Lead author Dr Marc Jones, UCL Cell and Developmental Biology, said, “The slicing jaws of the tuatara allow it to eat a wide range of prey including beetles, spiders, crickets, and small lizards. There are also several grizzly reports of sea birds being found decapitated following predation by tuatara.” The tuatara is actually a descendant of reptile that existed during the time of dinosaurs. Though its jaws are a rarity in today’s animals, there is fossil evidence showing that this system of chewing was once widespread among its ancestors. The study was published in the The Anatomical Record.

Tuatara

Sleep Apnea Linked to Increased Cancer Risk

This is one of those articles that hits home on a very personal level for me. A New York Times article published May 20th, 2012 introduced two studies that show a possible correlation between sleep apnea and increased cancer risk.

CPAP Mask
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue surrounding the airway relaxes and collapses to obstruct the airway during sleep. Very often it will cause snoring and sometimes choking. The best way to diagnose sleep apnea is to do a sleep study. A few years ago my wife noticed that I would often stop breathing during the night and would gasp for air and make choking noises. I was completely unaware of my condition. I had a sleep study performed. They hooked me up to all kinds of probes to monitor my breathing, oxygen levels, and heart rate. In 2 hours I stopped breathing a total of 117 times. Needless to say, this is not ideal sleep.

Sleep apnea is an extremely dangerous condition. It has already been linked to increased hypertension and stroke. Now two studies are saying that it could lead to increased cancer risk. A Spanish study focused on low oxygen levels and how it might affect cancer risk. Of the thousands they studied, those whose oxygen levels were the lowest were most likely to receive a cancer diagnosis during the study period. A University of Wisconsin study found that people with moderate sleep apnea doubled the likelihood of death from cancer, while severe patients were more than four times likely to die from cancer.

There is still some debate about whether other factors such as weight and exercise could be other contributing factors to the cancer risk. However, coupled with the cardiovascular risks, sleep apnea is a serious condition that should not be taken lightly. Most of the time it is treated with a machine called CPAP (pictured above)  which means constant positive air pressure. You wear either a full face mask or a nose mask and it applies air pressure to keep your airway open while you sleep. It took me some getting used to it but now I find it is hard to sleep without it. A little aggravation to me is worth it compared to the negative affects of sleep apnea.

Mysterious Manta Rays’ Marvelous Journeys Revealed

Conservationists with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Exeter, and the Government of Mexico recently teamed up to study the migrations of Manta Rays using satellite telemetry. The studied revealed never before known secrets of these beautiful creatures. The study was published in the online journal Plos One.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Though these creatures can grow up to 25 ft and eerily resemble an underwater bat, they are completely harmless to humans. It is feared that these wonderful creatures are becoming endangered and have already been listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This particular study’s results were a little unsettling because it showed previously unknown data about the migration of this creature.

Scientists spent a few days off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula tagging the rays with satellite transmitters. The results were astonishing. The rays traveled 1100 Kilometers (over 600 miles) and stayed mostly within the territory of Mexico. Like whales, these rays swim with their mouths open so they can feed on plankton. The unsettling part of this study however, is that only 11% of the areas they swam were considered protected. In fact, they often swam in major shipping routes in the region. This means there is a strong chance they might come in contact with a ship and incur injury.

“Studies such as this one are critical in developing effective management of manta rays, which appear to be declining worldwide,” said Dr  Howard Rosenbaum, Director of WCS’s Ocean Giant Program. Hopefully this will provide much needed information about how we can protect these beautiful creatures and maybe educate the public about their migration patterns. Other dangers lurk for the manta rays. They are often cut up for shark bait and used for medicinal purposes. Education is key to protecting the manta rays. As more is learned about them and shared with the public at large, hopefully more can be done to protect their habitat and ensure their future.

Don’t Know Whether a Word Is Real or Not? Ask a Monkey!

Reading – the primates are doing it right! A group of baboons was studied by the team of scientists led by Jonathan Grainger of CNRS and Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France and they found that they can indeed read – and do so quite well.

The Underlying Science

When we read words, we use information we have acquired about those words over years. The information is primarily about the content of letters in the word, but involves many other forms as well, including an association of certain events, colours, personalities, emotions etc. The information relating the letters and how they are arranged in the word, called orthographic information, is the primary step taken by anyone learning how to read. This is the primary source of information that one uses to distinguish between real words and nonsense combination of letters. Humans have achieved a level of sophistication that even allows the concept of intricate spelling, identifying mistakes in spelling and etymology.

The study shows that orthographic information can be developed without any preexisting knowledge. That’s enough of abstract technical talk. In the experimental context, that simply means that the monkeys were really good at discriminating between actual words and nonsense ones.

How the Study Was Conducted

The monkeys were made to feel completely at ease, them being allowed to eat food and participate in the experiment at their own convenience. They could stop and start whenever they wanted. In the testing booths, they were presented with a four letter combination, either a sensible one like ‘WASP’ or something nonsense like ‘FSEV’. They could then tap at a plus sign on a touchscreen if they thought that the word was real, or an oval one if they reckoned that the word was just another combination of letters.

Of course, the monkeys were trained over a period of one and half months before this experiment, which, if you wanted to point out, would be much lesser than what a human child would take to learn words. Especially given the number of words involved. One baboon (VIO) got 81 words and another (DAN) got 308 words out of a total of 7832 non-words with nearly 75% accuracy! I am impressed.

The paper reporting the study appeared in Nature: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6078/245.abstract

This just shows that reading and orthographic skills are not so rare in the primate family. All primates might be taught to read, to different degrees of success. The day is not far away when you’ll be able to chat online with a monkey… or you might have already done that.

How to Live Longer – From a 103-Year Old Nobel Laureate Who Still Works

She won a Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1986 for discovering “nerve growth factor” or NGF, which is an important protein for survival of neurons. She still attends work everyday! So what’s odd there? Rita Levi Montalcini, the woman in question, is to be 103 years old on April 22nd. And the best is this: she might actually know how to live longer.

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, the wonder woman

Her Story

Dr. Levi Montalcini’s is an amazing story. She obviously has great genes and might also be helping their cause in keeping her alive much longer than the normal human lifespan. It is probably ironic, and definitely sad, that she was discriminated against during the 2nd World War for being a Jew. Benito Mussolini, following the extreme Nazi example, introduced the “Law of Races”. She moved from Italy to Belgium in 1940 and then to America, where she worked on proteins. This is when she stumbled upon NGF.

The Secret

What’s her secret? It is possible that even she doesn’t know exactly, but she does use eyedrops containing NGF. It is very possible that NGF retards brain and nerve degeneration, keeping the senses keener for longer and the person alive.

She now works as a “Senator for Life”, a title which she apparently takes a bit too seriously. Yes, she attends work every single day and also gives speeches. She is now a moderate Left-Center supporter, beginning her political career at the age of 90.

Benjamin Button has serious competition from this Nobel Laureate who seems to get greener every passing day!

Miami Blue Butterfly Receives Federal Endangered Species Status

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have designated the Miami Blue Butterfly as an endangered species. The sad news was announced via a press release on April 5, 2012.

Miami Blue Butterfly

This small butterfly used to inhabit an area stretching from the Florida Keys up to Daytona. It isn’t a migratory butterfly like the Monarch, so it has pretty much been confined to these areas. Many human factors such as agriculture and development threaten the butterfly. Environmental factors such as climate change have threatened it as well.  It appears now that the population has shrunk so much that they are only found on a few remote islands in the Keys.

The U.S Fish & Wildlife Service press release states:

Under the ESA, it is illegal to kill, harm or otherwise “take” a listed species, or to possess, import, export, or engage in interstate or international commerce of a listed species without authorization in the form of a permit from the Service.

Hopefully through conservation efforts, more can be done to save these little butterflies and their habitat. Just as humans can be a threat, we can also be good stewards and do more to conscious of impact our choices make on the environment as a whole. If you would like to learn more about conservation efforts visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife website at http://www.fws.gov.

Discovery of 3.4 Million Year Old Partial Foot Proves “Lucy” Walked with Cousins

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History announced yesterday the discovery of a 3.4 million year old partial foot from the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia. The discovery proves that there was more than one prehuman hominid that roamed the earth at the same time as the infamous “Lucy” or Australopithecus afarensis. Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was the lead author and project leader of this magnificent expedition. His analysis will be published in the March 29th edition of the Journal Nature.

Fourth Metatarsal
Fourth Metatarsal from the Partial Foot (Courtesy of Cleveland Museum)

It appears that this particular hominid was a tree dweller judging from the big toe of the foot. While “Lucy’s” toes were pretty much aligned like modern humans, this species had an opposable big toe. This was definitely an unusual find. Co-author and project co-leader Dr. Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University said, “These fossil elements represent bones we’ve never seen before. While the grasping big toe could move from side to side, there was no expansion on top of the joint that would allow for expanded range of movement required for pushing off the ground for upright walking. This individual would have likely had a somewhat awkward gait when on the ground.” Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie explains the find in the video embedded below.

(Video Link)

This discovery puts to rest the long standing thought that there was only one prehuman species that existed between 3 and 4 million years ago. Unfortunately, scientists cannot assign a species to this partial foot because an associated skull has yet to be found. Research in the area will continue in hopes that will find a matching skull.

For more information  about the Woranso-Mille Project, visit the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website at http://www.cmnh.org/site/Index.aspx.

Study Shows More Girls Are Born in Adverse Times

Proverbs 17:17 says, “a brother is born for adversity”, but new research suggests that he won’t be born in adversity. Shige Song, a demographer and sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York published a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B which found that during a great famine the ratio of boys being born took a sharp drop.

Baby Boy
Baby Boy - Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Studies have shown that some animals alter the sex of their offspring during times of famine but, it has been hard to document that in humans. Song studied birth records of 300,000 Chinese women dating from 1929 to 1982. During the period dating from 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong, political leader in China, unveiled the “Great Leap Forward” campaign. It was meant to be a means to bringing China from an agrarian society to an industrial society. It was an abysmal failure and created a famine that killed many Chinese people. About a year after the Great Leap Forward began the ratio of boys being born compared to girls took a sharp dive. In 1960 there were 109 boys being born for every 100 girls. By 1963 there were only 104 boys being born for every 100 girls. As famine conditions eased up so did the ratio of boys increase.

Song told Live Science that “investment on male children is a high-risk, high-return game, so you want to do it only if you are in very good situation”. Song compared the situation to non-dominant male lions living in a pride. In this scenario it is not  likely that non-dominant lions would be able to pass on their genes even once in their lifetimes. From an evolutionary standpoint, this lion was a bit of waste. “In good conditions, invest in sons; in poor conditions, invest in daughters,” he said. “The evolutionary argument goes that anybody who can do this survives, anybody who cannot, they go away”, Song stated.

There are still some considerations that need to made before this theory is widely accepted. Some skeptics point that  famine conditions might not be the only factor to consider here. There were a lot of physical and psychological stressors that may need to be considered as well.