The Power of Yawning

No one looks pretty doing it yet somehow, when we see someone compulsively distort their face into a yawn, we feel inclined to do the same. We share this odd behaviour with a whole bunch of animals, who each do it for different reasons. Dogs do it when they’re confused, snakes do it to realign their jaws, lions do it to feign indifference in the face of combat, male penguins yawn to woo a mate and guinea pigs do it to scare enemies with their fierce incisors.

tumblr lvs0gjCJSs1qzis54o1 500 The Power of Yawning

You wouldn’t want to encounter this fellow in a dark alley way.

Ancient Greeks and Mayas believed that yawning was the soul trying to escape the confines of the body and that it could only be stopped by covering your mouth. In Hinduism, yawning is considered a religious offense that must be repented by snapping your fingers and thumb and pronouncing the name of Raina. A more ‘sciency’ (yet equally unproven) notion is that yawning helps replenish blood oxygen.

In truth, yawning has only quite recently been husked of some of its mystery:

Us humans, as it turns out, are literally just cooling our brains (try yawning with a cool pack on your forehead). The reason for this is that our brains work best within a narrow temperature range. Staying awake longer than we should can heat up your brain as processes can get a bit out of control. When we go to sleep our brain temperature drops, allowing our brains to deal with some of the damage done during our waking hours. So perhaps yawning is just a quick fix until we can take a nap or sleep

The balance of chemicals in your brain also affects how much you yawn. Endorphins (increased by exercise, orgasms and horror movies) and adrenaline, generally prevent you from yawning while serotonin (increased by most antidepressants and MDMA) makes you yawn more. Why these chemicals affect yawning the way they do is still a bit of a mystery.

6703771645 f21858a47b z 300x199 The Power of YawningYawning is contagious. In fact, just hearing someone yawn or reading about it (sorry…) will do the trick. Amazingly, yawning even breaks the species barrier, with studies showing that dogs and chimps will both mimic a human yawn! The degree of contagiousness amongst humans depends on how emotionally close you are to the yawner. Also, individuals with autism/asbergers syndrome don’t yawn in response to others; leading to the suggestion that this mimicry is based on empathy and may be an accurate index of your empathetic capacity. It certainly makes an interesting way of testing friendships…

So why is it contagious?

It all comes down to mirror neurons in your brain. Generally when you see someone move, certain cells in your brain tend to mimic the action. This helps us to imitate the actions of others, but also to understand them. Actually acting out whatever other people do is usually suppressed (see here for a fascinating talk on mirror neurons and their importance). In the case of yawning, it’s not. The reason it’s not suppressed might not be a coincidence – it smells of evolution. One idea is that it gets social animals to increase their vigilance as a group – so all of them keep a cool brain when on the look out for predators. It could also help signal tiredness to fellow group member, a non-verbal way of saying “it’s bed-time kids”.

So don’t feel bad about yawning. You’re boosting your brain power and showing you care. But you should still cover your mouth. icon smile The Power of Yawning

Post by: Isabel Hutchison

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Dirty Tricks: World Cup Sweepstake – an analysis of 2014′s dirtiest teams

It’s ironic that the Brasil 2014 World Cup was one of the “cleanest” World Cups for some time. Ironic, because this was the World Cup where the Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez had another bout of teething trouble and chowed-down on an Italian shoulder. This hunger aberration aside, the players generally behaved themselves or at least when they did trespass perhaps the officials were prepared to be lenient if indeed they witnessed any wrong-doing at all.

This all brings me to an important consideration that I’m sure has divided many offices – The World Cup Sweepstake. A national tradition. An unmissable ingredient to raise the pulse. The best way to waste a pound.

The competition winner was fairly obvious. As was the runner-up. But then we get into some uncertain waters. The alternative prize at stake in my competition was the dirtiest team. So how to work this one out? Just give it to Uruguay? Or the team with the most red cards? Or the team with the most straight red cards perhaps?

Below is a plot of the yellow and red card statistics for each team, with the number of matches played in the competition in blue. When a player is given two yellow cards in the same game (resulting in a sending-off), this is shown separately to those yellow cards that do not contribute to a sending-off, green and red bars respectively. We can see that Brasil not only wore yellow but weren’t shy of picking up a few bookings here and there too. The Netherlands and Costa Rica also said hello to yellow more than the rest. The teams to the left up to Honduras all had a man sent for an early bath at some stage too. So, is Brasil the dirtiest team?

*Note: Click on graphs to enlarge

WC11 Dirty Tricks: World Cup Sweepstake   an analysis of 2014s dirtiest teams

What we need is a combined yellow and red card statistic.The plot below shows some candidates. Let‘s assume that a yellow card is worth 1 point and a straight red card is worth 3 point so for example a team with one yellow and one straight red would score 4 points.

The question then is how much should a two-yellow-card-red-card (TYCRC) be worth?

The dark blue bars show the values if two yellows is simply worth the sum of two normal yellows i.e. two. The red bars are if its slightly worse but still not as bad as a straight red (2.5 points) and the green bars are if a TYCRC is worth the same as a straight red card (3 points). Purple is slightly worse still (4 points) and finally the light blue bars are if the TYCRC is worth the individuals yellows and the red card values (5 points). We see that in general Brasil are still naughty step contenders. Only when TYCRC is worth 5 do Costa Rica edge ahead.

WC21 Dirty Tricks: World Cup Sweepstake   an analysis of 2014s dirtiest teams

But this still isn’t the whole picture. Obviously if a team played more games then they are more likely to have picked up a booking or two along the way so we should account for this. When we divide the numbers in the plot above by the number of games that each team played we get the plot below.

Now we get that when the TYCRD is worth two single yellows or just a bit more then Uruguay are on top. For any values bigger then Honduras come steaming-up on the inside to take pole position.

WC31 Dirty Tricks: World Cup Sweepstake   an analysis of 2014s dirtiest teamsSo, what does this all mean? Well, personally, I would say that Brasil actually aren’t all that bad after all and that Uruguay are in fact the dirtiest team of the Brasil 2014 World Cup even without taking in to account the on-going antics of Luis the Chewey.

Post by: Nathan Green

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Hooked on Music: the science of the musical ‘hook’

We all know a catchy tune when we hear one, with its repetitive, attention grabbing chorus that you just can’t get out of your head. Those who work in the music industry call this the ‘hook’, and it’s what all musicians strive for when they’re trying to write a hit song. But what is it exactly that makes a hook particularly successful?

Hit songs are often the ones that are the most memorable, and can often be recalled many years later on hearing just a few opening chords. This apparent connection between popular music and memory is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that our ability to recall autobiographical memories is strongest when the memories are associated with a popular song which we may have heard at the time (e.g. Krumhansl & Zupnick, 2013).

Such effects may be attributed to the fact that listening to music activates multiple areas of the brain at once. In research carried out at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, Dr. Vinoo Alluri and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI–which traces blood flow to measure levels of activity in different areas of the brain) to map the brains of participants whilst they listened to a piece of Argentinian tango music. Dr. Vinoo Alluri found that the music not only activated the areas of the participants brains which process sound, but also the areas responsible for processing emotions, movement and creativity.

music1 Hooked on Music: the science of the musical hook

Areas of the brain activated by music:

But what is it, in particular, that makes one song more memorable than another? What is it that makes a song a hit? Dr John Ashley Burgoyne and Professor Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam hope to find out. To help them, they have teamed up with The Museum of Science and Industry to run a citizen science project called Hooked on Music as part of the Manchester Science Festival (23rd Oct-2nd Nov 2014).

 Citizen Science projects are an innovative way for scientists to collect large amounts of data whilst also allowing wide scale public participation in scientific research. The Hooked on Music project does this by inviting users to take part in a number of online games. Depending on their taste (or age!) participants can select music from any decade (from 40s/50s, right up to the present day). They can then test their recognition and recall of the most popular songs from that decade, and decide on the catchiest segments of individual songs. The data collected will be used to help better understand the hook that helps to firmly embed certain songs in our memory.

Understanding what makes a song memorable has applications beyond making a hit. By exploiting the powerful connection between music and memory and developing our understanding of what properties of particular songs have the strongest effect, therapies are being developed to help those suffering with memory difficulties caused by, for example, traumatic brain injuries and dementia. Charities such as Playlist for Life and Music & Memory encourage people to provide family members suffering from dementia with mp3 players containing playlists of songs that have been meaningful throughout that person’s life. The premise is that music will be a powerful trigger for memories that will bring familiarity and comfort and encourage interaction with other family members.

Post By: Catherine Mcguire

 To find out more about Hooked on Music or to take part visit

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Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

In this post I will take a look at the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by de-extinction. I’ll address the issue from numerous angles; though I must admit that a post such as this cannot do more than scratch the surface of such a complex issue. What I hope it will do is spark some debate and encourage you to think about where you stand on the matter. This is an incredibly important field of research and one that warrants debate and discussion. As such, I’d invite you to leave a comment at the bottom of the page if you want to weigh in. So, here we go…


A key argument used to defend the theory of de-extinction is that it will allow humanity to atone for past mistakes. Most, if not all, of the species scientists are proposing to bring back went extinct because of human activities. If we can develop the ability to undo the damage we’ve caused then do we not have a moral obligation to do so?

Cane toad Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

A light-coloured Cane Toad.
Photo Credit: Bill Waller, via Wikipedia

Well, not necessarily! Just because we have the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. There have certainly been instances in which our ‘meddling’ with nature has had only positive results. For example, we wouldn’t have enough food had we not bred crops that grow at a faster rate and with greater yield. However, there have been many cases in which our attempts to improve our own lifestyle has dramatically backfired, as was the case when we tried to introduce the Cane Toad into Australia.

 Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

A Bearded Capuchin Monkey.
Photo Credit: Bart van Dorp, via Wikipedia

Linked into this matter is the horrendously complex question of how morally right de-extinction is as a concept. Mankind is just another species on the planet, naturally selected to achieve dominance in many environments. Therefore, one might argue that any tools and technologies we have developed are the result of our natural intelligence. Other species have learned to use rudimentary tools without us gasping in horror; for example, bearded capuchin monkeys use rocks to open nuts. If you follow this thought process logically you come to the conclusion that ‘de-extinction’ is just another natural application of our intelligence. But, of course, your viewpoint on this depends entirely on whether you set humanity apart from other species.


The other major argument in favour of de-extinction is the fact that the techniques developed in pursuit of that end-goal could be used to help prevent endangered species going extinct in the first place. The biggest challenge in cloning an extinct species is getting the body of a living organism to accept an embryo containingmostly the extinct species’ DNA. If scientists can achieve this, then one could assume that they could do so with species that are not extinct, but endangered. We would then have a way of artificially boosting numbers of endangered species.

The counterpoint to this argument is that such an ability might encourage apathy. Leaving aside the question of our moral right to try and stop species going extinct, would we go to such great lengths to preserve endangered species if we knew we could just bring them back at a later date? Many people would argue that we wouldn’t and that, in trying to be more responsible for the world around us, we might become even less so.

Environmental Impact

 Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

A model of a Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada.
Photo Credit: FunkMonk, via Wikipedia

Here we come to, in my opinion, the main crux of the argument. We have yet to consider how the revived species and the environment into which it is thrust will cope. For long-dead species, such as the woolly mammoth, the environment in which they lived will have changed drastically in their absence, adjusting to function without them. Regardless of whether they were wiped out by man, these species have lost their place in the world.

Let’s consider for a moment just a few of the ways in which the habitat of a species such as the woolly mammoth might have changed over time. Firstly, the climate may have changed. This could obviously mean that our de-extinct species can no longer survive in its old habitat. However, even if it could, if the average temperature or humidity has changed, then the range of other species that the environment supports could have changed drastically too. Animal species might have migrated or died off; plants might have died off or suddenly found themselves able to grow where they couldn’t before; and bacteria and viruses will doubtless have evolved massively over time too.

This leads onto the second major issue – the food web. If the inhabitants of the environment have changed in the absence of the extinct species, then it has no place in the modern-day food web. Quite frankly, even if the species living in an area haven’t changed, if enough time has passed then they will have evolved to survive without the extinct species, meaning it might still cause massive disruption. It might endanger the indigenous populations by outcompeting them or hunting them in a way they have not evolved to cope with, or it could be threatened with ‘re-extinction’ itself!

Finally, I mentioned earlier that bacteria and viruses would have evolved greatly over such a period of time. Well this offers no shortage of complications when trying to bring a species back from the dead. Obviously, a long-dead species’ immune system will be outdated, what with having missed out on potentially millennia of natural selection. We cannot know in advance but it might be that modern-day microbes could wipe out the resurrected species immediately if its immune system could not cope with these new threats.

Also, animals’bodies contain massive amounts of bacteria, which help our bodies to function. We could not digest our food as effectively as we do without bacterial colonisation. It is headache-inducing to try and work out the ways in which the body of a member of a resurrected species would respond to colonisation by all of these species that its ‘ancestors’ never encountered.

In short, it is very difficult to consider every single factor when introducing an organism into an environment in which it simply does not belong. There are often distant, subtle relationships and interactions between parts of an environment that we cannot anticipate.

Zimov Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

Sergei Zimov surveying Pleistocene Park.
Photo Credit: Enryū6473, via Wikipedia

In more extreme cases, scientists may try to make an environment suit the extinct species, rather than going about things the other way round. For example, the Siberian steppe that served as the woolly mammoth’s habitat changed drastically at the end of the Pleistocene epoch (roughly 11,700 years ago). Russian scientist Sergei Zimov has, since the 1980s, been reintroducing flora and fauna into an arctic region of Siberia dubbed ‘Pleistocene Park’ in a bid to recreate the ecosystem that was lost millennia ago. This could, ultimately, include providing a home for mammoths.

Of course, here, we’re talking about manipulating entire environments rather than individual species. It is difficult to know where to draw the line, if one even believes that a line should be drawn anywhere! In my opinion, the line should be drawn before even taking de-extinction beyond being just a theory. I don’t believe that the potential benefits of such an ability outweigh the incredible and unknowable risks that come with playing God in this manner.

As I said before though, I would be very interested to know what you think of this and if you would like to add to my list of arguments. Here, we really have only just begun to consider the ramifications and justifications behind this incredibly controversial area of research.


This SSA 150x150 Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piecepost, by author Ian Wilson, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

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An Energytarian in a Consumer’s World

In a recent twitter conversation, I was discussing with some vegetarian friends about their thoughts on eating insects, when tweets turned to the inevitable conversation about why we make the choices that we do regarding food consumption. This then lead to the rather fabulous phrase ‘energytarian’ (@RosalieTostevin take a bow) being coined to define somebody that eats meat but tries to do so in a sustainable manner, which got me thinking about what it really means to eat sustainably.

Food An Energytarian in a Consumers World

Coming soon to a supermarket near you? (Credit: Shan Lung)

I like to consider myself as being a reasonably eco-conscious eater; I don’t buy eggs from caged hens, I buy fruit in season, I don’t eat whale (well, apart from that one time in Japan, but in my defence I thought I was eating duck). But I could probably be doing a lot better. To see how much better I could be doing let’s have a look at my food diary from last Monday (I feel as though I am preparing for an episode of Secret Eaters):

Breakfast: Protein shake with milk

Lunchtime:  Carrot and coriander soup

Dinner: Chicken curry followed by yoghurt for desert

According to this food emissions calculator, the carbon footprint of my food consumption was approximately 2.3 Kg carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e; the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide in terms of global warming potential). I should point out that I have taken into account the fact that lunch and dinner were both shared with my girlfriend, and also that I have not included the carbon footprint of the spices and protein supplement that I used in these meals. It is also worth noting that these calculations do not include packaging and cooking, and were done assuming that I am based in North America (I am not), but as a basic indicator of my carbon footprint it will suffice.

My eating habits seem to sit quite nicely between the ‘Average’ and ‘No Beef’ according to the detailed analysis of carbon foodprints that was carried out by ‘Shrink That Footprint’ (read more about it on this excellent blog post), which seems like a fair assessment. I try to avoid eating red meats more than three times a week if I can help it, but this is not a hard and fast rule.

tC02e An Energytarian in a Consumers World

My food diary saw me fall somewhere between ‘Average’ and ‘No Beef’; a position that oddly mirrors that of my physique.

There is at least one other major factor that we need to consider regarding eating sustainably, and that is the consumption of water. According to a recent report, it is estimated that it takes over 15 thousand  litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef; to put that into perspective many Africans have to survive on 20 litres of water per day.

Using tabulated values from a 2013 report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the chicken curry that I made used up almost 2,500 litres of water in ingredients alone, i.e. before taking into account the water that was used in the preparation and washing up. From this report, red meats would again appear to be a big no-no for any self-respecting energytarian; although chocolate lovers beware, 1 kg of the good stuff uses up over 17 thousand litres of water!

It would be tempting to say that all would-be energytarians should stick to a strictly vegan diet, although by ‘simply’ giving up beef you can reduce your carbon foodprint and food-based water consumption by over a third. Food for thought this summer as you boot up the BBQ.

By Sam Illingworth @samillingworth

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HIV baby cure: One year on

HIV1 150x150 HIV baby cure: One year onWith over 30 million sufferers worldwide, HIV remains the world’s leading infectious killer. The human immunodeficiency virus attacks the immune system, leaving it unable to fight infections, resulting in AIDS. Improving HIV care is one of the top 10 global health priorities. Therefore, when research published last year suggested a baby had been “cured” of HIV; tabloids quickly began to speculate, with some implying the elusive cure may be closer than we imagined. One year on, with similar cases set to be presented at AIDS 2014, the leading international conference on AIDS, what is the significance of this major breakthrough in terms of tackling the large-scale HIV pandemic?

“Absence of Detectable HIV-1 Viremia after Treatment Cessation in an Infant”

HIV2 300x200 HIV baby cure: One year onIn 2010, a baby was born prematurely to a mother whose HIV was only discovered during delivery.   With no prenatal care, and therefore a high risk of exposure to the virus, the gutsy call was made to begin aggressive treatment with a combination of three antiretroviral drugs at just 30 hours old.  Infection was confirmed soon after and the child remained receiving therapy.

Surprisingly, within days the level of HIV had rapidly diminished and within a month was non-detectable. However, the successful therapy was unexpectedly ceased after 18 months as the mother stopped taking the child to scheduled appointments. When the child was finally examined again, at 23 months, she remained free from infection despite not being on HIV medication. At the time of the paper the child continued to be in remission, gaining the title “the baby cured of HIV”.

Impact on cases involving babies born with HIV

HIV3 HIV baby cure: One year onThe doctors quickly emphasised the therapy proposed was a “functional cure”. With the child recently beginning to shown early signs of infection, it appears the treatment silenced the virus for a substantial period of time rather than eliminating it. In reality, cases involving mother-to-baby transmission are rare. Standard HIV pre-natal treatment can lower the risk to 2%.  Therefore in areas where there are a significantly higher number of cases, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, the main factor is the sub-standard levels of health care rather than the need for new treatment.

Is a new, miraculous treatment now available?

HIV4 HIV baby cure: One year onThe therapy itself wasn’t novel as it used readily available antiretroviral drugs; the “novel” aspect of the therapy was the early approach. This is already known to be advantageous as early aggressive treatment is thought to prevent viral reservoirs forming. HIV reservoirs are what hide the virus, making it resistant to the both the immune system and medication, and form within hours of infection.

Can adults now be cured of HIV?

There has been speculation that the immune response of a newborn is more suited to cope with HIV than an adults. Not only are babies immune systems immature, resulting in a milder reaction to the virus, but they lack the memory “defender” cells that are the target of the dangerous viral reservoirs. However, last year several adults were reported to have undergone a similar “functional cure”. Having undergone early antiretroviral treatment, 14 out of 70 patients remained virus free for at least 3 years, following cessation of therapy. This suggests that 5%-15% of HIV patients could eradicate the virus through early treatment.

Early treatment plans would not benefit current sufferers but could help tackle new cases. While treating the virus as soon as possible seems like an obvious idea, it appears it would be difficult to implement. Not only do 1 in 5 sufferers remain unaware they are infected, but the stigma associated with HIV means many people are reluctant to get tested. Therefore, before getting excited over the potential of early treatment regimes, the bigger challenge of identifying the infection promptly needs to be addressed.

The “functional cure” has provided hope and opened new areas for scientists to explore. Importantly, it strengthened the idea that early treatment is vital. However bigger social and development issues, involving improving health care in poorer societies and ensuring early identification, need to be addressed before the findings can be translated into the “HIV cure” that has been widely speculated.

Post by: Claire Wilson


Persaud, D., et al., Absence of Detectable HIV-1 Viremia after Treatment Cessation in an Infant. New England Journal of Medicine, 2013. 369(19): p. 1828-1835.

Saez-Cirion, A., et al., Post-Treatment HIV-1 Controllers with a Long-Term Virological Remission after the Interruption of Early Initiated Antiretroviral Therapy ANRS VISCONTI Study. Plos Pathogens, 2013. 9(3).

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The decline of the antibiotic – taking medicine back to the dark ages?

Anti biotic 300x211 The decline of the antibiotic   taking medicine back to the dark ages?After being struck down with a particularly nasty chest infection, I initially put off going to see the doctor and instead opted for lots of rest, fluids and self-medication. After suffering at home for a few weeks with no alleviation of my symptoms, I eventually decided enough was enough and went to see the doctor. I was subsequently diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection, after which my  symptoms finally began to ease.

My reluctance to seek medical intervention was due in part to two reasons;

  • My general dislike for going to the doctors
  • Concern over recent news articles discussing the demise of the antibiotic due to over- prescribing.

It is the second of these reasons which seems to be a particular cause for concern.

The evolution of disease-causing bacteria, leading to antibiotic resistance, is a concern which has been high on the scientific agenda for decades. However, the media are only just starting to catch on to the stark reality that faces us. David Cameron has recently taken notice of this impeding issue, referring to the problem as ‘taking us back to the dark ages’. Cameron has called for a review into microbial resistance and has called for drug companies to invest in finding the next generation of antibiotics. But is this too little too late?

If our bodies become infected with foreign bacteria our internal immune system (white blood cells) act swiftly and efficiently to stop the spread of infection – usually before it has the chance cause noticeable symptoms. More often than not, our bodies are able to cope with such an attack without intervention. However, sometimes our bodies become overwhelmed and are unable to cope on their own – this is when we need to seek help from antibiotics.

Antibiotics have been relied on for the last 70 years and are vital in the treatment of bacterial infections (they are useless in the fight against viruses). These drugs work in one of two ways:

  • By interfering with the bacterial cell wall or the contents within – a process which destroys the bacteria (bactericidal).
  • By slowing down the growth of bacteria that can cause illness or disease (bacteriostatic). Thereby, ensuring that the bacteria is no longer able to multiply and infect us.
MRSA 300x286 The decline of the antibiotic   taking medicine back to the dark ages?

MRSA superbug showing resistance to antibiotics as the bacteria (yellow) overwhelm the white blood cells (red).

The development of antibiotics peaked in the 1950’s, after which there was a sharp decline in their development – no new classes of antibiotics have been developed since the ‘80’s! This is perhaps because there is not much money to be made from discovering new forms of antibiotics, so the pharmaceutical industry tend to focus on other, more lucrative, areas of research.

But how exactly does resistance to these drugs occur? When our bodies become infected with bacteria, there is a small chance that some of the bacterial cells show a natural resistance to antibiotics and therefore remain unaffected by the drug. This resistance could be due to a mutation that occurred by chance, or could be as a result of evolution – effectively the bacteria out-smarts the drug. These few remaining resistant bacteria survive, and rapidly reproduce so that the body becomes overwhelmed by this resistant strain. Drug resistance can then be transferred between bacteria through reproduction, physical connections between different cells and also through viruses called bacteriophages.

Resistance 300x278 The decline of the antibiotic   taking medicine back to the dark ages?

The mechanism of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is accelerated by over-use in the health-care and farming industries. Which is a growing concern, as many patients fight with doctors to be prescribed antibiotics for all minor ailments without considering the consequences of using them unnecessarily.

Resistance 2 The decline of the antibiotic   taking medicine back to the dark ages?

Bacteria presented with 4 different types of antibiotic. In three cases the bacteria is resistant to the antibiotic and in one case only the drug is sufficient to treat the bacteria.

Antibiotics are also heavily used for intensive farming. With such a demand on farmers to produce lots of cheap meat, animals are housed in cramped conditions where infections are easily spread. Of course to prevent this spread, copious amounts of antibiotics are often used. This overuse facilitates resistance. Resistant bacteria are then able to spread from farm animals to people via our water supplies, which can then spread further from person to person by physical contact, coughing and sneezing.

Now that we know the extent of the issue of antibiotic resistance, what can be done to tackle the problem both in the short and long term? Currently, drug-resistant superbugs such as MRSA and C.difficile cause 5,000 deaths a year in Britain. This has been controlled to some extent by implementing more stringent hygiene procedures in hospitals such as frequent hand washing and anti-bacterial hand scrubs. However, the occurrence of other resistant bacterial strains are on the rise; E.Coli cases have risen by two-thirds over the last few years.

In the short-term, a 5 year Anti-microbial Resistance Strategy has been put in place by the Department of Health which outlines a number of different points that are effective in the fight against antibiotic resistance;

Aim #1 To understand antibiotic resistance: to collect as much information as possible about the mechanisms that bacteria use to become resistant and to understand how the resistance spreads.

Aim #2 To conserve our current antibiotics: by improving hygiene in hospitals and by educating doctors and nurses about the issue of resistance, and encouraging them to only prescribe antibiotics when absolutely necessary.

Aim #3 To encourage the development of new antibiotics: by providing more incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in antibiotic development.

In terms of addressing antibiotic resistance in the long-term, several approaches can be taken. Firstly, we need to tackle the issue of over-prescribing. Currently, there are no diagnostic tests that allow doctors to determine whether infections are caused by bacteria or virus. So, developing a test that could determine the basis of aninfection would help doctors give the correct prescription. Secondly, drug companies need to create new classes of drugs to tackle bacterial infections. Thirdly, we can try to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming. Lastly more research needs to be conducted into a new innovative approach to tackling infections which uses viruses to treat bacterial infections.

A combination of over-prescribing and the lack of development of new antibiotics means that these drugs are rapidly becoming less effective in their fight against infections. There is the fear that, in the very near future, these drugs will cease working completely and simple things to treat such as cuts and flu will be likely to make us very ill and even cause deaths.  With no suitable alternatives to antibiotics we could be looking at a very bleak future for medicine.  With all of this in mind it is clear to see that the pharmaceutical and medical industry needs to make huge investments into developing new classes of antibiotics to fight these super-resistant bacteria. Alongside this, doctors need to be sure to prescribe these precious drugs sparingly and patients need to be careful not to rely on them so much for minor ailments.

Post by: Sam Lawrence

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