The science behind the headlines: How Chemotherapy could change the lives of thousands suffering from MS.

MS is one of the most common neurological disorder affecting young adults in the western hemisphere, indeed the list of sufferers include a number of high profile names.

oligo-253x300Although scientists are still unsure of exactly what causes the disorder, they do have a good working understanding of disease progression. Symptoms stem from damage to a fatty covering which surrounds nerve cells, known as a myelin sheath. It is this myelin which allows neurons to communicate quickly with one another through a process known as saltatory conduction. In brief, cells called oligodendrocytes (in the central nervous system) and Schwann cells (in the peripheral nervous system) reach out branching protrusions which wrap around segments of surrounding neuron forming a sheath (see image to the left). Signals traveling through myelinated neurons are able to move rapidly by ‘jumping’ between gaps in this sheathing known as nodes of Ranvier. In the case of MS, damage to this sheath causes signalling between neurons to slow down, leading to a range of symptoms.

It is believed that, in the earliest stages of the disease, the body’s own immune cells (cells usually primed to seek out and destroy foreign agents within the body, such as viruses and parasites) mistake endogenous myelin for a foreign body and launch an attack.

Most current treatments focus on suppressing these immunological attacks by inhibiting the patients aberrant immune response. However, this novel and arguably ‘brutal’ new treatment focuses on destroying the patients existing immune system before re-building it again from scratch.

To understand how this treatment works, it is first necessary to give a bit of background into the immune system. Specialised immune cells, designed to protect our body from disease, are generated in our bone marrow. It is these cells which ‘misbehave’ in autoimmune diseases such as MS and can launch an attack our own cells. Key to this process is the existence of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) within the marrow. These cells are precursors to all other blood cells (including immune cells) and, given the correct environment, can develop into any other blood cell (see image below).
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This new treatment requires three important steps:

First, it is necessary to harvest a number of these amazingly versatile HSCs from the patients and store them for later use. HSCs are either collected directly from a patients marrow through aspirations performed under general or regional anaesthesia or harvested directly from blood following procedures intended to enrich circulating blood with HSCs. Since HSCs make up only 0.01% of total the nucleated cells in bone marrow, these must be isolated from samples (based on either cell size and density or using antibody based selection methods) and purified before undergoing cryopreservation.

Next, the patient undergoes chemotherapy, with or without the addition of immune-depleting agents. The purpose of this is to eliminate disease in the patient, specifically by destroying the malfunctioning mature immune cells which are erroneously targeting and destroying healthy myelin. Since chemotherapy has a severe toxic effect and can cause damage to the heart, lungs and liver this procedure is currently limited to younger patients.

Finally, the cryopreserved HSCs removed in step one are reintroduced into the patient, a process called hematopoietic stem cells transplantation (HSCT). Given time, these stem cells develop into new immune cells therefore reconstructing the patients immune system. At this stage it is possible that mature, faulty, immune cells may be transplanted back into the patient from the original sample. Therefore, before transplantation procedures are carried out to ensure that few mature immune cells are contained within the transplant.

Each of these steps comes with it’s own scientific challenges, not to mention challenges for patients including the hair loss and severe nausea linked with chemotherapy. But, so far, this treatment has also lead to some absolutely amazing success stories with one, previously wheelchair-bound, sufferer regaining the ability to swim and cycle. However, doctors stress that this is a particularly aggressive form of treatment and that it may not be suitable for all MS sufferers.

Dr Emma Gray, head of clinical trials at UK’s MS Society, said: “Ongoing research suggests stem cell treatments such as HSCT could offer hope, and it’s clear that in the cases highlighted by BBCs Panorama they’ve had a life-changing impact. However, trials have found that while HSCT may be able to stabilise or improve disability in some people with MS it may not be effective for all types of the condition.”

Dr Gray said people should be aware it is an “aggressive treatment that comes with significant risks”, but called for more research into HSCT so there could be greater understanding of its safety and long term effectiveness.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Your brain on bugs: How the bugs in your gut may influence your mental well-being.

Cuddly microbes: Note - significantly cuddlier than those found in your gut!
Cuddly microbes: Note – significantly cuddlier than those found in your gut!

Did you know that you’re never alone? In fact your body provides housing for a dizzying array of microorganisms. These tiny tag-alongs colonise a number of different ecosystems within the human body, including a whole host which make their home in our digestive system. It is estimated that there are around 1014 microorganism living in the gut, meaning that our guts actually contain around 10-times more microbes than human cells! It is therefore not surprising that scientists are starting to uncover a wide range of effects these internal residents have on our development and overall health.

Historically, neuroscientists have remained skeptical regarding the effects of gut microbes on our mental well-being. However, recent clinical observations and animal studies suggest that microbes in the gut can influence behaviour through alterations in brain physiology and neurochemistry – and now the neuroscience community is starting to take notice.

13924249304_5ba9f7f228_zThe most compelling evidence so far of a brain-gut link comes from mice raised in sterile germ-free conditions – these mice are born by cesarean (to prevent them from picking up microbes that reside in their mothers’ birth canals) and raised in a strictly sterile environment, meaning they don’t come into contact with microbes present in the normal mouse digestive track. Studies in these animals show that germ-free mice have an altered response to stress compared to mice harbouring a normal compliment of microbes. Interestingly, when germ-free mice are moved away from their sterile homes and back into normal cages (where they will be exposed to many microbes), their behaviour does not revert back to that of normal mice, however the behaviour of their offspring does. This suggests that there may be a critical time window, early in development, where microbes have the greatest effect on brain chemistry. This may prove to be an important consideration for anyone having a cesarean birth. Indeed, a small number of hospitals will rub the mouth and skin of babes born through cesarean section with a piece of gauze from the mother’s vagina, to ensure the baby inherits the same vaginal microbes it would have gained through a natural birth.

In addition to this, in 2011, a team of scientists from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, found that they could transfer behavioural characteristics between different mouse strains by simply transplanting gut microbes from one animal to another. For example, it was possible to make shy mice more outgoing by transplanting them with gut microbes from their more outgoing counterparts. Also, some research suggests that transplanting faecal bacteria from humans with IBS and anxiety into mice can cause these mice to become more anxious – a finding which is simultaneously gross and amazing.

It has long been recognised that the brain and gut are connected – indeed, anyone suffering from anxiety is likely to have numerous tales of the negative impact this has on their digestive system. But, how does the gut communicate with the brain? Well, researchers are now starting to find answers to this question.

14599057004_9dc53af6f9_zFirstly, microbes in the gut break down complex carbohydrates into short-chain fatty acids, many of which influence the structure of the blood-brain barrier (a semi-permiable barrier controlling the passage of cells, particles and large molecules into the brain). This means that gut microbes may be able to control what passes into the brain. It has also been found that gut microbes can directly alter neurotransmitter levels – perhaps providing a conduit by which they can communicate with neurones. Specifically, certain metabolites from gut microbes cause cells lining the colon to produce Seratonin (a neurotransmitter often targeted by antidepressant ‘SSRI-type’ drugs). These finding may point towards new and promising research areas in the fight again mental illness.

However, we must be aware that scientists still don’t know how well this research will actually translate into humans. In fact, as we might expect, preliminary research into the brain-gut connection in humans suggests significant complexity and a need for further research. Neuroscientist Rebecca Knickmeyer who is currently working in this field says “There’s probably more speculation than hard data now. So there’s a lot of open questions about the gold standard for methods you should be applying. It’s very exploratory”. So, there may still be a long way to go before we fully understand how your internal ecosystem affects your mental well-being. But, perhaps in the future we may see probiotics prescribed alongside more traditional treatments for mental health problems.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Prepare for the winter home invasion.

As the weather gets colder and the nights draw in it’s not just you and I who like to spend our days snuggled up inside, a whole host of mini-beasts are also clambering to join us in the warmth. So, as a public service the Brain Bank wants to introduce you to some of these unwanted winter lodgers and provide a few tips for evicting them.

Spiders:

8007321219_a02962338f_zArachnophobes beware because autumn is prime breeding season for spiders and you are more than likely to see a number of hopeful young males patrolling your home in search of a suitable mate. But, if playing host to arachnid speed dating isn’t scary enough, a number of residents from the town of Macclesfield have reported finding spiders the size of mice joining in the dating game. These giant house spiders thrived during our disappointingly wet summer and are now looking to reproduce. The average size of a giant house spider is three to four inches (measured diagonally from front to back leg) but residents are reporting much larger specimens. With dark hairy bodies, an impressive leg span and a bite akin to a bee sting (although luckily with fangs unable to penetrate human skin) these giant invaders are without doubt unwelcome guests. Experts suggest that the best way to deter spiders from entering your home is to be fastidious about your dusting. Male spiders find a mate by sampling the silk females spiders leave behind, so where there is no female silk there shouldn’t be any expectant males!

Other Insects:

To survive the freezing UK winters many insect species alter their biochemistry creating high levels of glycerol which lowers the freezing point of their blood – a bit like having their own internal antifreeze. However, despite these adaptations many will still seek out sheltered accommodation to weather the worst of the winter and can end up entering your home. Thankfully, most of your new winter lodgers will stay hidden away until spring. 6599552079_25c20b628d_zHowever, it is not uncommon for warm winter days and central heating to trick your guests into waking up. Insects use cues from their environment to know when to hibernate and when to wake, this can be length of day or temperature and indoor insects can be easily tricked by central heating. This means it’s not uncommon to find the occasional butterfly, moth or ladybird flitting around the house mid winter after being confused by central heating. The majority of wintering insects will remain safely tucked away under your radar. However, if you would rather deter their intrusion the best way is to create physical barriers, sealing up all entry points to your home and ensuring outside plants do not sit too close to your walls. Also be aware that your Christmas tree may be home to a whole array of dormant critters (especially ladybirds) so you may get more than you bargained for when you bring it inside.

Mice and rats:

8365895042_95f8ec379d_zAs the weather gets colder and food sources dwindle mice and rats are more likely to enter our homes in search of sustenance and shelter. These cheeky invaders are happy to make their nests in attics, cellars or under kitchen cabinets emerging at night to nibble on whatever delicacy has been left unprotected. Many also use the warmth and abundant food to continue breeding throughout the winter (Note that a female mouse can have a new litter of 6-8 babies every 3/4 weeks!). The best way to deter these unwanted pests is to secure your home, make sure there are no gaps around doors or in the walls of your house (remember mice and young rats can squeeze themselves through very small spaces). Experts suggest that you plug up existing holes with wire wool – mice and rats can chew through most barriers but are deterred by the texture of this. Also, make sure any food in your kitchen is stored out of reach and in chew proof containers (a loaf of bread in a ground level cupboard is practically an open invitation).

Post by: Sarah Fox

What’s going on in your head?: The science behind our inner voice

As a neuroscientist, one aspect of brain-science that has always intrigued me is the idea that we may never know exactly how another person experiences the world and whether their experiences differ from our own. I know what the red ball (pictured right) looks like to me but how do I know that you’re seeing same thing? In fact, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to see the world through the eyes of someone whose perceptions differ from mine, for example someone with colour or face blindness.

Sadly though, I’ve always assKarl_Pilkington_2008-02umed that my own experiences are disappointingly mundane and ‘average’. That was until ‘life guru’ Karl Pilkington taught me otherwise…

A few months ago, during a particularly long experiment, I was passing time listening to old exerts from the Ricky Gervais show when I came across the following dialogue:

Reading from Karl’s diary: “While I sat listening to The Kinks on my iPod, I wondered if everybody thinks in their accent. I know I do.”

Stephen: What’s this? What are you talking about?

Ricky: How do you know you think in your accent? Tell me a typical thought

Karl: I thought “that’s weird innit?” not “that’s weird isn’t it?” and I thought “I actually think in my accent”

Ricky: No, but, when I think I don’t think the sentence as like I’m saying it, it’s just a thought, the thought appears, it’s conceptual and it’s already there. It’s not like I go, “Rick?” “What?” “Just err… looking at that fella over there were you?” “Yeah, I was yeah. Erm, I was think he looked a bit weird” “Oh, so was I”, I don’t think out whole sentences…

Stephen: Is that how your mind works?

Karl: In a way, yeah

Ricky: Brilliant, it’s great, he has to think out whole sentences!

Stephen: That explains a lot!

This sparked my curiosity since, as far back as I can remember I’ve always thought in complete sentences, often to the extent that I have conversations with myself inside my own head – I just assumed that this was a pretty normal thing to do!

So, I decided to do a bit of my own research into this ‘inner monologue’. This research began life (as many eminent and respected studies often do) on Facebook, where I asked a number of friends:

“What is it like to climb inside someone else’s head? – I’m researching for a post on the inner monologue and, although I think in words like I’m narrating my own life, apparently there are people who don’t…what’s it like inside your head? and if you don’t think in complete sentences, how do you think?”

From this question I got some pretty interesting answers – In brief, most people who responded had some kind of inner voice but few regularly thought in complete sentences or engage this voice in conversation. Some interesting answers included:

“I think in pictures like I’m watching a silent film. In order to submit things to memory I have to have visuals as i struggle to remember audio descriptions. So most of my memory is made up of pictures and that’s how my thought processes work!”

“I sometimes imagine a highly adapted version of something I’ve read or watched – featuring me – and tailored to my real life situation of the time. Less actual words, more images, but like I’m an outsider observing myself observe my situation.”

“I think I only think in words when I’m either a) questioning something (“why’s that there?”) or b) making a decision to do something (“cup of tea!”). I often say such things aloud too when I’m alone.”

“I was wondering about my very minimal inner monologue after talking to my husband about it earlier this week. I find it incredible how most people seem to constantly be thinking in words/sentences. It sounds exhausting to me. I think in actions, visualizations, feelings, impulses and only really have a proper inner monologue when reading or writing. I never know internally what I’m about to say out loud (unless I force myself to do so, or if I’m nervous about talking in specific situations). Often my mind seems blank with no thoughts. I find meditation very easy.”

“I have narrated my life for as long as I remember. Sometimes, when something is particularly challenging, I sort of Parkinson interview myself, as if the problem is now in the past, and I’m discussing how I overcame it….I’ve done that since I was a teenager!”

So, it seems like people experience a huge spectrum of inner ruminations –  from short sharp assertions “cup of tea!” to long complex “Parkinson style” inner interviews.

But what do scientists actually know about this inner voice? Well, unfortunately it seems that this is one topic that’s been neglected by modern science. However, inspired by the theories of L. S. Vygotsky, modern research has now again picked up the baton and started to delve into the inner workings of the verbal mind.

Where does the inner voice come from?:

16931172632_0f1676a803_mVygotsky believed that inner speech starts to develop in early childhood, evolving from a phenomenon known as ‘private speech’. Many young children talk to themselves while playing – I remember I used to talk to myself, I’d also sometimes have conversations with inanimate objects (perhaps a downside of being an only child?). Vygotsky called this dialogue private speech and suggested that it comes from social dialogues with parents which, in later childhood, becomes internalised as inner speech.

This would imply that inner speech relies on the same biological mechanisms as those used when we speak out loud. Interestingly, we know that inner verbalisation is accompanied by tiny muscular movements in the larynx – it’s as though audible speech is almost produced but is then silenced at the last minute. If anyone’s like me, they may have experienced the phenomenon of externalised inner speech: when I’m deep in internal thought I’ve been known to accidentally say things out loud which should have stayed in my head.

Neuroscientists have also found that an area within the left inferior frontal gyrus, known as Broca’s area, is active when we speak out loud and also during inner speech. Intriguingly, if this region is disrupted using magnetic brain stimulation both outer and inner speech can be altered.

And, to answer Karl’s question….It has been suggested that, assuming inner speech derives from childhood verbalisations, the voice you hear in your head should sound like your own voice – as Karl would say “everybody thinks in their accent”.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 17.01.37Interestingly, studies of limericks suggest that this is indeed the case! Ruth Filik and Emma Barber from the University of Nottingham asked participants to read two limericks silently in their heads, these being:

1) There was a young runner from Bath, Who stumbled and fell on the path; She didn’t get picked, As the coach was quite strict, So he gave the position to Kath.

2) There was an old lady from Bath, Who waved to her son down the path; He opened the gates, And bumped into his mates, Who were Gerry, and Simon, and Garth.

All participants were native to the UK, some having northern accents and others southern. In the UK there is a strong regional divide in the pronunciation of the words bath and path, with southerners rhyming bath/path with Garth while northerners rhyme bath/path with Kath (this being the correct way to pronounce things). By tracking participants eye movements the researchers were able to tell when they were reading a rhyming or a non-rhyming sentence. From this they found that both groups appeared to read silently in their own regional accent (although this is not always the case).

So, what does inner speech actually do?

4929178358_dac74312b0_zVygotsky thought that inner speech may help people to perform difficult tasks. Thinking a task through in words may make it easier to accomplish – there are definitely a lot of words going through my mind when I’m building Ikea furniture. Actually, a number of studies have found that people tend to perform worse on tasks which require planning (like playing chess) if their inner voice is suppressed while performing the task.

Recent studies have also found that inner speech often has a motivational quality. In fact, one of my friends offered this example of her inner voice: “I tend to ask myself questions and then think through the different answers. Also I cheer-lead myself along- ‘Right, ok, you can do this!’”.

The self reflective tendency of the inner monologue may also allow us to reflect more on who we are as individuals. Indeed, Canadian psychologist Alan Morin suggests that people who use inner speech more often also show better self understanding: “Inner speech allows us to verbally analyse our emotions, motives, thoughts and behavioural patterns,” he says. “It puts to the forefront of consciousness what would otherwise remain mostly subconscious.” This idea is further supported by a study of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor who reported a lack for self awareness after a stroke which damaged her language system.

But, I doubt my friends who reported the lack of an inner voice suffer from any associated lack of self awareness. Therefore, I’m sure that there are still a number of individual differences which remain unaccounted for in these studies.

The dark side:

2967650878_1f436efd1c_zJust as your inner voice can be your own personal cheerleader giving you a boost when you’re feeling low, it can also be your worst enemy. Alongside my Facebook friends, I also posed my question to a group of individuals who, like myself, have been or are currently struggling with depression and/or anxiety. I was intrigued to find that, of all 30 responses, only a couple of people reported not having an internal monologue and most said that their inner voice was conversational (like my own). Not just this but most also said that their inner voice was ‘nasty’ and ‘cruel’ repeating phrases such as “you are useless” or “you aren’t good enough”.

There are a number of studies which support this observation, specifically suggesting that depressed older people rely more heavily on negative internalised speech than social communications when constructing their view of reality (giving them a negative outlook on life). Indeed, the backbone of cognitive behavioural therapy (a commonly used tool in the treatment of mental illness) relies on teaching individuals to re-frame or alter negative thought processes like those mentioned above – “I can’t do it” may become “it’s a challenge but I’m capable given enough time”

Researchers are still not sure how the inner monologue, negative thought processes and social isolation interact in the case of depression. It may be that withdrawal from social interaction leads to a greater dependence on internal processes or perhaps disordered negative thoughts breed the need to withdraw from society. Whatever the case, a better understanding of the mechanisms behind our inner critics may help understand and treat those suffering from depressive illnesses.

Researchers from Durham University found that around 60% of people report that their inner speech has the to-and-fro quality of a conversation. So, despite Ricky and Stephen’s surprise, it seems that Karl perhaps isn’t that abnormal after all. With inner speech being such a wide-spread phenomenon and knowing its possible links with mental health, perhaps it’s time scientists paid a bit more attention to the little voice in our heads?

Post by: Sarah Fox

The science of silly: Our top 20 science jokes

6883192837_2f82bd2671_zI’m not sure about you but, for me, Sunday hails the end of one long week and the beginning of another *yawn! So, just in time to brighten up your Monday morning, the Brain Bank team have complied a list of 20 of the finest nerdy jokes to keep you smiling through the coming week!

In reverse order:

20) A mathematician walks into a bar and orders a root beer in a square glass.

19) A statistician gave birth to twins, but only had one of them baptised. She kept the other as a control.

18) A psychoanalyst shows a patient an inkblot, and asks him what he sees. The patient says: “A man and woman making love.” The psychoanalyst shows him a second inkblot, and the patient says: “That’s also a man and woman making love.” The psychoanalyst says: “You are obsessed with sex.” The patient says: “What do you mean I am obsessed? You are the one with all the dirty pictures.’’

17) Potassium and oxygen had a boxing match, it ended in a KO

16) There are 10 kinds of people in this world, those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-168915) Einstein, Newton and Pascal are playing hide and seek. lt’s Einstein’s turn to count so he covers his eyes and starts counting to ten. Pascal runs off and hides. Newton draws a one meter by one meter square on the ground in front of Einstein then stands in the middle of it. Einstein reaches ten and uncovers his eyes. He sees Newton immediately and exclaims “Newton! I found you! You’re it! ” Newton smiles and says “You didn’t find me, you found a Newton over a square meter. You found Pascal!”

14) What does a subatomic duck say? Quark!

13) A photon walks into a hotel and the porter asks “do you need any help with your luggage?” The photon replies “no thanks I’m traveling light.”

12) Know any good sodium jokes? … NA

11) What does DNA stand for? National Dyslexia Association.

10) Sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium Batman!

9) A physicist and a biologist tried to get together but, in the end it didn’t work out – they had no chemistry!

8) Why can’t you trust an atom? Because they make up everything.

8494190859_1058dcdf60_z

7) I was up all night wondering where the Sun had gone…then it dawned on me.

6) Why can’t atheists solve exponential equations? Because they don’t believe in higher powers.

5) What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?…Benoit B. Mandelbrot.

4) There’s a new restaurant on the Moon. The food’s great but there’s no atmosphere

3) I have a new theory on inertia but it doesn’t seem to be gaining momentum.

2) If the silver surfer and iron man team up, they’d be alloy’s

1) A blowfly goes into a bar and asks: “Is that stool taken?”

So there are a few of our favorites, we hope they made you laugh! Please add your own in the comments section below.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Research provides a window into the depressed mind – but could this really help to improve the view from the inside?

4241963210_f11f639bed_zThe science blogosphere has been awash this past week with articles exploring a link between depression and damage to part of the brain known as the hippocampus. News outlets, such as IFLS, are claiming that: “Depression Damages Parts of the Brain”. But, where does this assertion come from, is it really so cut and dry, and what impact will this research have on those currently living with major depression?

Firstly, as with many science news stories, the ideas discussed here are far from a new. What is new and exceptionally clever, is the way this study was performed:

As you might imagine, imaging the living brain is not an easy task and different researchers tackle this problem in different ways. This means that data analysis and imaging methods can vary a lot between research groups. Sadly, this lack of standardisation makes it hard to compare data across different studies, which limits the number of patients each study can look at. This is where this new work really shines. Through a massive international collaborative effort, this study has been able to standardise imaging protocols across a number of international labs. The study examines data from a whopping 1728 major depression patients and 7199 healthy controls, meaning that statistically these findings really pack a punch.

Their findings corroborate what other researchers already suspected – that recurrent depressive episodes seem to be accompanied by shrinking of a brain region known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is best known for its role in memory formation, specifically in the conversion of new experiences to permanent long-term memories (think 50 First Dates or Memento). This region is arguably also integral to our sense of self. Without memories of our pasts how do we know who we are or what we want for the future? So, hippocampal damage could hold far reaching implications beyond that of simple memory loss and perhaps even contribute to many aspects of depression.

Now, the question scientists really want to answer is – what happens in the brain to cause depression? This study finds that hippocampal shrinkage is only significant in patents who have suffered from multiple depressive episodes, while patients who have only experienced a single episode have relatively normal hippocampi. This suggests that depression causes hippocampal shrinkage, rather than hippocampal shrinkage leading to depression.

Could this mean that we need to look beyond this brain region for the cause of depression?

Human hippocampus MRI in 3 different planes (marked by green cross)
Human hippocampus MRI in 3 different planes (marked by green cross)

It’s necessary to keep in mind that this work is not conclusive and may only represent part of a bigger picture. Large scale changes in the brain’s morphology, visible on MRI brain scans (as studied here), indicate significant cell loss. It is quite reasonable to assume that in the early stages of major depression, as with many long-term illnesses, changes in the body/brain may be more subtle – think alterations in brain chemistry and communication rather than large scale cell loss. So, although it’s useful to know that major depression can lead to hippocampal cell loss, we cannot yet rule this region out as a main player in the early stages of depression.

But, most importantly, will this research change anything for the >350 million people suffering from depression worldwide?

Well, actually this work feeds rather nicely into another hypothesis of depression known as ‘the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression’. In brief: It is known that stress and depression cause cell loss in limbic brain regions (including the hippocampus). Neurotrophic factors are proteins in the brain which encourage cell growth and multiplication, these are depleted in depressed patients and animal models of the disorder (often specifically within the hippocampus). Some scientists believe that a reduction in neurotrophins, such as BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), begins a cascade which ultimately leads to cell damage and death. Therefore, it is possible that repeated episodes of major depression cause an additive loss of BDNF and perhaps subsequent hippocampal damage. Interestingly, a number of studies also suggest that antidepressants may increase BDNF in depressed patients, suggesting the effects of depression on the brain may be reversible.

So, it seems that when it comes to depression, scientists are slowly piecing together large parts of the puzzle. Although many uncertainties still exist (the brain is a tricky organ to understand), with continued research it is hoped that better treatments may be just around the corner.

Post by: Sarah Fox

What can we learn from Tim hunt’s ‘problem with girls’: A female scientist’s opinion

Tim_Hunt_at_UCSF_05_2009_(4)Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” – This is the ill-conceived comment made recently by Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt. A statement which spawned a spiral of media attention and ultimately lead to his forced resignation from position as Honorary Professor within the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences.

Crass, rude and culturally blind? Tim committed career suicide during his speech in a moment akin to watching a car crash in slow motion. Yes, anyone could have told Tim that this was not a smart move. But, why did an intelligent man who, on paper, doesn’t present as being your typical chauvinist pig make such insensitive comments and what can we learn from this?

From a brief background search, Tim is not someone I would have pegged as a chauvinist. He is married to Professor Mary Collins, a highly successful female scientist and an advocate for women in S.T.E.M subjects. Throughout his eminent career he has also worked with and mentored numerous female academics and has previously acknowledged their contribution to his Nobel winning discovery. Indeed, a number of his former female collaborators and confidants have recently spoken out in support of Tim’s character – including Manchester University’s own President and Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell.

A few years ago I also had the pleasure of meeting Tim with a small group of PhD students. To be honest, at the time I was stuck in an academic rut and felt like science just wasn’t my calling – volunteering for the discussion group with Tim was really just my elaborate way of escaping the lab for a few hours. However, I found the resulting discussion both stimulating and inspiring. Tim presented as a very ‘down to earth’ chap; he extolled the benefits of collaborations in science, acknowledged how hard discovery really is and encouraged us to nurture a healthy work-life balance. Although I certainly didn’t “fall in love with him”, I left with a positive impression of him both as a person and a scientist but, most importantly, I felt rejuvenated and ready to get back in the lab.

So, what happened? Why would a man surrounded by successful professional women make such a tasteless comment? And, was UCL’s response to the media storm that followed justified?

To answer these questions there are three important points we must first consider:

1) Context.

Twitter’s 140 character restriction is pretty limiting when it comes to contextualising statements. So, I’m happy to stand up and say that I don’t really have a clue how Tim’s remarks were delivered, or what his intention was at the time. But, one thing I’m beginning to realise is that reporting of both his intention and, in some cases, his actual words has been far from accurate. One of the most damning examples of this type of shoddy journalism is the observation that many mainstream media sources state that Tim admitted to being a chauvinist during his speech – a statement I believe to be misleading.

Whilst researching this article I listened to the original broadcast of BBC’s Today show discussing Tim’s comments and I was intrigued to hear conference attendee Connie St Louie state that “Tim stood up and said ‘I hope the women have prepared the lunch, I’m a male chauvinist pig”. Was this the comment these articles were referring to? If so, they were without doubt way off the mark in reporting his chauvinistic confession. To my ears this comment was undoubtedly said in jest. Indeed, if I were at the luncheon listening to his speech he certainly would have got a laugh from me! Further to this, I noted that, on the same show, Tim was introduced as “the scientist who said that women are for loving not for science” – if this isn’t a case of twisting his words to better fit their intended portrayal of his character I don’t know what is?

It seems to me that a whole storm of media attention and twitter hashtagging has spawned from a few lines presented without any real context. Personally, I’m waiting for someone to report Tim’s speech in its entirety since, until this happens, I can do little more than watch what’s going on from a comfortable position on the fence.

2)  Zeitgeist

Science is in a state of transition. Gone are the days of the ‘gentleman’ scientist, acting on instinct and funding research into whatever takes his fancy. With the introduction of government funding and charitable contributions, the scientific career path is open to many more people – and this is great. But, one striking observation is that, despite similar achievement and engagement early on in the education system, women still make up a shockingly low proportion of academic scientists (for facts and figures see here). A debate currently rages as to why so few women pursue the scientific career path, is it nature, nurture, or stern looks from the patriarchy? The jury is still out, but one thing is certain, it’s an emotive and very personal topic for many women.

Enter Tim. Speaking at a luncheon for women scientists and engineers Tim was entering a heated emotive atmosphere. Amongst the audience you would likely find a number of women who felt confident and comfortable combining their femininity with an academic career but, undoubtedly many others felt persecuted and let down by a male-driven field. Perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he’d had a little too much complimentary Champagne or perhaps he was used to being surrounded by happy, confident female academics who enjoy the occasional jibe…Whatever the case, Tim missed the mark by a mile and left many believing that he was part of the problem.

3) Reasonable punishment.

So, considering what we know about Tim and about what he said, where does this leave us?

A basic background check on Tim comes up clean, he seems like a pretty reasonable guy and a number of eminent female scientists are happy to defend his character. But, he did make some thoughtless comments, which he later defended – in his statement to the BBC he says “It’s terribly important that you can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that, in my experience, diminishes the science”. This statement certainly makes his comments seem less jocular and lends credence to the idea that there may indeed be a kernel of truth behind his ‘jokes’. But, where should we go from here?

This is where the debate becomes heated. I personally believe that the punishment doled out to Tim does not fit the crime. Alongside a good track record of facilitating and working with female academics, Tim is also an outstanding scientist who, as a whole, seems to be spending his post-research years promoting the scientific career path (to both men and women). Stripping him of his position at UCL and, as a result, also of his other academic positions and making him ‘toxic’ to the industry does not seem appropriate. I’m certainly not suggesting that punishment isn’t necessary, only that we have taken this too far.

I also wonder if this backlash is side-stepping some important questions? Does Tim’s comment about women ‘crying’ highlight a viewpoint held by other academics? If so, is it then pertinent to use this as a springboard into discussions about managing researchers with different personality types and how to get the best out of all employees? Perhaps we can even use this as an opportunity to build a better understanding of existing prejudices in the field and work towards addressing these?

One thing is certain, Tim’s comments and his subsequent treatment have divided opinions both within and outside the academic community. Although I personally believe he has been treated too harshly, I know colleagues who think differently – In a recent Facebook debate, two of my fellow female colleagues had this to say:

I still think it’s sad that he didn’t offer a genuine apology before he ruined his and his wife’s career. Women today might think that they don’t have to be feminist because they have it all, but they have no idea how precarious our position is and how little sexism needs to become rampant again. Mysogyny is an aggressive weed with deep roots and it needs to be stamped on as soon as it raises its head, even as a joke. So I agree that unfortunately there was nothing else UCL could have done.” – Quote: Jadwiga Nazimek

He isn’t being demonized as sexist, he said a sexist thing, followed by a ‘sorrynotsorry’, and therefore has been rightly called sexist. It’s not fair to generalise his personal experience to all women, or in fact to all men, by implying these are female-specific behaviours, and that ‘girls’ are impossible to work with because of them.” – Quote: Sarah Ryan

We’d love to hear your opinions on the topic, so please add your voice to the debate in the comments section below.

Post by: Sarah Fox

5 things politicians can learn from Scientists:

On the 7th of May 2015 the United Kingdom will hold a general election and party political campaigns are now in full swing. As a voter who is currently undecided, I’m fervently rifling through political literature and attempting to navigate jargon as I make my decision. But, as a scientist, I can’t help but feel that politicians aren’t making this decision easy for me. In a funny way, my world is pretty simple. In science, evidence and logic are key and we attempt to follow these to their conclusions. But this seems to be a far cry from the murky world of politics where evidence can be manipulated and jargon and rhetoric hold sway. So, as a public service, I present a list of five things politicians could learn from scientists.

1) There are lies, damn lies and political statistics:

6225881707_9afb3cc3bb_z(1)We live in a world abound with data – from traffic cameras to Google Analytics, computers the world over store vast amounts of information about our lives and the world we inhabit. This is no bad thing of course – knowledge has the power to make the world a better place. However, in unscrupulous or untrained hands, it can also deceive and manipulate.

Data is the currency that scientists deal in and, over the years, we have learned to handle it with care since things are often not exactly how they appear. But, what happens when big data and political aspirations collide?

Any trained orator knows that a light peppering of statistics can seal the deal during a debate, or at least muddy the water enough to breed uncertainty. But, how often do we hear similar sounding stats wheeled out by opposing parties and hailed as proof of very different ideals? Numbers can provide very important insights – but, depending on how you process the numbers, the same data can also give very different outcomes. Whether through honest errors in understanding (yes, numbers are tricky things) or by calculated deception, politicians often throw out dodgy stats in the hope of strengthening their argument and winning your vote – for a few examples see here.

In my opinion, the use of statistics in the current election campaign is doing little more than muddying the water and making the voters’ job significantly more challenging. How many people have the time or inclination to research every figure quoted? Statistics are very informative and key to most policies but, if they are to be used, politicians must also be clear about how the figures were obtained and why they may differ between parties.

2) The world isn’t black and white:

Wouldn’t life be great if all our problems had simple answers? For example, if we believed that all of our country’s financial and social problems could be solved by altering immigration laws, or if I could prepare for the upcoming ‘bikini season’ by simply popping a couple of magic diet pills. Sadly, the world is far from black and white, and oversimplification can often lead to misunderstanding and confusion.

Many voters may crave a ‘quick fix’ to our country’s social and economic problems, just like they may want to lose weight without diet or exercise, but that’s just not realistic! I want to know that policies have been formulated based on all available evidence and that – ‘God forbid’  – politicians are willing to recognise that these may not be perfect solutions and may even require modification in light of further evidence (see point 3). Although hyperbolic slogans may be appealing, it is well reasoned arguments based on clear, well explained facts that will allow voters to really understand the workings of the political machine and enable them to make an informed decision about their vote.

3) Changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of:

How many times have you heard politicians being slated for performing ‘U-turns’? This phrase first gained media notoriety in the early 1970s when Prime Minister Ted Heath had to dump his free-market economic policy in the face of soaring inflation and rampant industrial action. This decision was viewed as an appalling show of weakness by the Tory right and, ever since, political U-turns have been widely derided by the media.

97338266_ed37f724df_zBut, during the current coalition government’s tenure, David and Co have reversed or rethought dozens of policies, from selling off Britain’s forests to taxing our favourite pastry-based snacks. Indeed, recent research by Ipsos Mori suggests that two-thirds of voters want a Prime Minister who acts mainly on the views and opinions of the general public when making decisions, rather than one who trusts solely in his own experience. In our dizzyingly complex world, I am heartened to know that policies are not set in stone and may be modified in the face of new evidence.

This is largely something scientists have been practicing for many years. In fact, all scientific theories are open for modification in the light of new evidence – many theories are widely accepted and would require extraordinary evidence to change but, given significant weight of evidence, anything is fair game. In the world of science, evidence is the one true king and this should also be true for politics. So, lets stop scoffing at political U-turns and be thankful when politicians admit to learning from their mistakes. In the words of Ghandi, “I am pleased when I change my mind because it shows that I have learned and grown wiser.”

4) Clarity is key:

As a scientist, I’m pretty used to sifting through technical jargon in scientific journals. And this is fine since, as a rule, this type of literature is aimed at scientists with a strong background in that particular field. However, as a science communicator, much of my time is spent agonising over ensuring that the material I communicate is accessible, truthful, representative and unambiguous. This is not an easy task but it’s 100% necessary if I want anyone (no matter what their background) to connect with the concepts I’m trying to communicate.

Sadly, I’m starting to think that many politicians enjoy being deliberately vague, evasive and inaccessible. My head spins with inscrutable statistics, vague and meaningless rhetoric, evasive noncommittal answers to seemingly simple questions and statements with little or no substance.

I recognise that, come May the 7th, the box I tick will be important for shaping the future of our country. So, is it too much to ask that politicians work hard to disambiguate their policies and structure their arguments around accessible facts and figures? In fact, sometimes the whole thing makes me question if any of the parties really know what they are talking about… As Einstein once said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”

5) Lets move forward rather than shifting blame:

One political tactic which never fails to drive me mad is when, instead of discussing policies on important economic or social issues, parties waste time blaming their competitors for past failings or denigrating their current policies. My personal view on this campaign tactic came to a head in 2011 with the referendum on the alternative voting system, of which (after reading into it) I was in favour.

In the lead up to the referendum, I was saddened to see how much campaign material avoided the interesting facts behind the vote, choosing instead to plaster campaign literature with pictures of the recently disgraced Nick Clegg. This material seemed to be saying, ‘Nick lied to you about tuition fees, he wants the alternative voting system and he can’t be trusted so it must be a bad thing’. Yes, there was more to the ‘No’ campaign than just Nick Clegg’s face, but this message certainly played a role despite having no relevance to the issues being debated.

Again, in the lead up to this year’s election, I’ve seen my fair share of dodgy and largely irrelevant muck slinging, which I will be ignoring in favour of party policies – here are a selection of some of my personal ‘favourite’ dodgy campaign posters:

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That’s great Conservatives, thanks for the heads up…but I think I may just read through Labour’s policies and decide for myself if I think they will ‘wreck’ our economy…(still think this one is calling out for a Miley Cyrus reference somewhere)
image1
Have they now Labour? Can I see some proof that this would have been different under your government….or even better, why don’t you just tell me how you plan on making things better now.

Now, I’d be lying if I said that all scientists doggedly hunt out the truth without holding any personal grudges or undermining one another’s work – we’re all human. But, in general, scientists gain funding to further their research by explaining how their work will benefit society and increase our understanding of the world, not by slamming other lab groups or accusing them of bad science. And that’s really how things should be.

So, as an undecided voter, I hope politicians will hear my plea… If you want my vote, come to me with clear, well reasoned, policies. Don’t treat me like an idiot and try to gain my support through hyperbole and muck slinging… I don’t expect you to have all the answers, but I do want you to explain your political stance clearly, listen to my views, base your policies on the best available evidence and to not be afraid of changing your stance in the light of new evidence.

Post by: Sarah Fox

But, scientists are far from perfect! for an alternative view and some advice on what scientists could learn from politicians, check out the new post by Ian Wilson, one of our friends at the Scouse Science Alliance.

Chocolate: the science of sweet

image1Rich, sweet and creamy with a sensuous ‘melt in the mouth’ texture. Chocolate is a guilty pleasure many of us share and, with Easter just around the corner, indulgence seems mandatory. But, what effect is our sweet tooth really having on our bodies and is there any scientific merit to claims that chocolate is actually good for us?

The medicinal use of chocolate has a long and rich history, with travel accounts and medical texts (dating from the 16th century) documenting a myriad of uses in the treatment of human disorders. These treatments range from the downright bizarre, to the infinitely plausible. For example:

Francisco Hernández (1577) wrote that pure cacao paste prepared as a beverage treated fever and liver disease. He also mentioned that toasted, ground cacao beans mixed with resin were effective against dysentery and that chocolate beverages were commonly prescribed to thin patients in order for them to gain “flesh.” William Hughes (1672) reported that coughs could be treated by drinking chocolate blended with cinnamon or nutmeg. While De Quélus (1718) wrote that drinking chocolate was nourishing and essential to good health. He said that drinking chocolate “repaired exhausted spirits,” preserved health, and prolonged the lives of old men. – For a more detailed overview of chocolate’s rich history, see here.

But do any of these claims hold water in the face of scientific scrutiny?

Chocolate: a way to the heart.

Dark chocolate and other cocoa products have, on a number of occasions, made the headlines as a dietary supplement and means to decrease blood pressure and modify other cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors (see here and here).

image2This line of research stemmed from observations among the Kuna Indian population in the san Blas Islands of Panama. Members of this population were seen to have particularly low rates of hypertension and CVD, coupled with an absence of age-related increases in blood pressure. Scientists theorised that theses unique medical traits were linked to high levels of cocoa intake amongst this group – On average Kuna Indians consume four 8-ounce cups of unprocessed cocoa drink per day!

One explanation for these findings is cocoa’s high flavanol content – which is thought to confer cardiovascular benefits through its effects on the circulatory system. Indeed, flavanol-rich cocoa may improve functionality of the bodies blood and lymph vessels and reduce various factors which may otherwise increase an individuals risk of CVD.

Alongside flavanols cocoa also contains an organic alkaloid compound called theobromine. The effects theobromine has on the body are pretty similar to those of caffeine, only slower to take effect – so perhaps a hot chocolate before bed time may not be a great idea. Alongside its caffeine-like properties, theobromine also acts as a cough suppressant, many ease the symptoms of asthma and, like flavinols, could improve cardiovascular health.

But, chocoholics beware, these findings do not prove that gorging on the brown stuff is actually good for our health. Firstly, the flavanol content of chocolate varies hugely depending on how the chocolate is processed. In fact, since flavanols are naturally bitter, these are usually thought of as unpalatable in the west and are generally reduced during the processing of our favourite chocolate treats. The cocoa powder consumed by the Kuna indians contains about 3.6% flavanols, while western chocolates range in their flavanol content – the highest being found in dark chocolate at 0.5%, while milk and white chocolate can sometimes be completely flavanol free. This means that, in commercially available chocolate products, the health benefits of flavanol are largely removed by the manufacturing process.

It’s also important to remember that most commercially available chocolate has a high caloric content and contains a significant amount of saturated fat and sugar. We know that excessive caloric intake can lead to some pretty adverse metabolic side effects (weight gain, diabetes perhaps even alzheimer’s disease) which probably negate any health benefits. This means that doctors would generally err against recommending chocolate as part of a healthy diet, with the possible exception of high quality dark chocolate.

So when it comes to a healthy body, the science of chocolate is not exactly black and white (or dark and milk) but, what about the effect it can have on the mind?

Chocolate on the brain:

in 1718 De Quélus wrote that chocolate can “repair exhausted spirits” and many people claim that indulging in the brown stuff can indeed be the perfect cure for low mood. But, how does chocolate effect the brain and, is the hedonistic pleasure of a good binge physical or psychological?

Chocolate consumption has been linked with a number of neurotransmitter systems, which play an active role in appetite, reward and mood regulation (including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins). However, there is currently insufficient evidence that these effects are specific to chocolate, or that they have an overall positive effect on mood.

340234_10100270433865775_1275067435_oInterestingly, although chocolate and junk food are regularly cited as the ‘go-to’ home remedy for malaise, extensive studies fail to find any real or lasting benefits to these binges. In fact, the opposite may be true, as often the guilt associated with a binge can leave sufferers feeling much worse!

So sadly, although a nice chunk of chocolate may provide brief pleasure and comfort, in the long term it’s more likely to prolong rather than abort a low mood.

So, chocolate is a mixed blessing. There’s almost certainly no harm in the occasional indulgence and, when it comes to high cocoa content dark chocolate it could even be beneficial. But, when it comes to our health, chocolate should definitely be considered a treat and not a lifestyle. That said, it won’t stop me enjoying my easter eggs this year!

Post by: Sarah fox

A brief history of getting your groove on:

6975100728_d9edb36f91_zWhether you’re a fan of classical quartets or acid house, one thing is certain; we all love a good tune! Music has the amazing ability to drive our emotions, bring people together and encourage us to dance till dawn. But why should this be the case? It’s easy to understand how pleasure can be derived from food and sex and why bereavement makes us sad. But, what is so special about music? The ability to write a good tune has no evolutionary advantage….or does it?

Novel research from our own fair city (Manchester) is now combining evolutionary biology, physics and neuroscience in an attempt to uncover the mysteries of music and its effect on the brain. This work, led by academic and musician Dr. Neil Todd, has uncovered a biological pathway linking sound, movement and pleasure in the brain. This pathway may have remained elusive for so many years because of its unusual origins. Neil has found evidence that, contrary to the traditional textbook theories, the cochlea is not the only sensory organ in the inner ear capable of responding to sound. His research suggests that the vestibular apparatus, normally associated with balance and spatial orientation, is also sensitive to certain frequencies of sound.

ROSERENASSThis may seem like a kooky idea but, viewed from an evolutionary standpoint, it actually makes perfect sense. In mammalian anatomy, we know that the cochlea is responsible for perception of sound. But, looking back down the evolutionary scale we find that this organ is not always present. Taking bony fish as an example, we find no sign of a cochlea. But, fish are far from deaf; in fact they use their otolith organs (part of the vestibular system) to detect vibrations. Similar to the human cochlea, the fish otolith organ contains an array of tiny hair-cells which can detect vibrations and translate these into a sensation of sound. Alongside fish, there are also many further examples of creatures utilising their vestibular sensors as sound detectors. So, there’s certainly evolutionary precedence for a mammalian vestibular sound processor. But, can humans use this system to perceive sound and, if so, why might this be advantageous?

Using electrodes which measured electrical signals from the neck and eyes (specifically from muscles responsive to vestibular activation). Neil found that the human vestibular system was sensitive to air-conducted sound frequencies ranging from 50-1000Hz, peaking between 300 and 350Hz – just above middle C on a musical scale and a similar frequency to male and female voices. For head vibration the peak sensitivity is even lower, at around 100 Hz. Taking this work one step further, Neil’s group wired up a number of participants looking at electrical activity in the brain and vestibular activated neck/eye muscles simultaneously. This method enabled the group to discern how responses in the brain differed between sounds which activated the vestibular system and those which didn’t. It was discovered that sounds falling within vestibular-activating frequency bands caused activity in auditory cortex and cingulate limbic areas, as well as sub-cortical areas traditionally associated with vestibular activation. This strongly suggests that certain sounds can indeed activate the human vestibular system, but why might this be useful?

Once again peering back through our evolutionary past, we find that many creatures use vestibular-activating sounds as mating signals. Have you ever heard a fish sing? Well, he may not get a turn from the judges on ‘the Voice’, but the male Haddock is one of the most vocal of fish and he uses his alluring voice to snag himself a mate. Male haddock vocalise by drumming on their swim bladder and, if surrounding females, are charmed by this song the music can cause both fish to simultaneously release eggs and sperm. Again, it seems that many creatures use this sense when finding a mate, and many also accompany this behaviour with a kind of dance. Therefore, it is possible that the vestibular sound-sensing system represents an ancient pathway used in mating behaviour – perhaps similar to the recently discovered vomeronasal system used to choose a mate based on pheromones and smell.

6307084759_7527ac5fef_zSo, perhaps our love of music and the intoxicating atmosphere of nightclubs could be the upshot of an ancient evolutionary system linked with fundamental mating behaviour.

Post by: Sarah Fox