Keep your friends close – It may be good for your health

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 10.43.48We humans are social creatures. We love to meet up with our friends, family and partners, and rely on them for support through the good times and the bad. But it turns out we may also rely on our loved ones for our health. Our social ties may be helping us to keep sickness at bay and aiding a longer happier life.

There is no shortage of studies that suggest a potential link between feelings of social isolation and declining health in humans. In a study of 2,101 adults aged 50 years and over, a US-based group of scientists found that over a 6-year period, feelings of loneliness predicted higher rates of depression, a reduction in self-reported health and an increased risk of mortality. In 2010, an analysis of 148 separate studies showed that among the 300,000 plus participants, those with stronger social ties had an increased likelihood of survival.

So what is behind this link? Loneliness is well documented as a risk factor for co-morbidities such as increased blood pressure, obesity, lowered immune response, disrupted sleep, depression and cognitive decline in the elderly. But, is this simply due to the fact that negative feelings of loneliness lead us to take less care of ourselves, resulting in worse health? Or is there something more “biological” going on?

Although the precise biological mechanisms behind the impact of loneliness on our health remain unclear, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest this feeling may affect a Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 10.43.57number of key systems in our bodies, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is responsible for the release of important hormones called glucocorticoids – cortisol in humans and corticosterone in rodents. These hormones help regulate such things as our sleep, blood sugar, heart function and immune response. However, chronic high levels of glucocorticoids have also been linked with disease. Long-term increased levels of cortisol, for example, have been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes and an increased susceptibility to infection, as well as a number of other chronic diseases.

Interestingly, both urinary cortisol levels and HPA activation have been found to be increased in individuals who feel lonely, with higher levels of loneliness associated with greater cortisol increases. However, this effect only appears to be significant in individuals who are chronically lonely, suggesting the length of time one feels lonely for may play an important role in how this impacts upon our health.

Given the detrimental effect loneliness appears to have on our physical and mental well-being, one must wonder what the function of this feeling is? What is the benefit of making us feeling bad?

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 10.44.11From an evolutionary point of view, the aversive nature of loneliness is pretty logical. When we feel socially isolated or our social ties start to waver, we get the desire to reconnect with others. Back when we lived in tribes, maintaining social relationships allowed us to protect each other from predators and hunt more efficiently, thus ensuring the survival of our species. Similarly, our desire to find a mate allowed us to reproduce and ensure our genetic legacy. This is strengthened by an innate desire to care for our children as without a parent’s nurture and love, children would die.

In this respect, it also makes sense that we, as a species, are not alone in our social nature. Studies in social mammals, such as rats and rhesus monkeys, have found that social isolation of such animals can lead to anxious or depressive behaviour, altered physiology (e.g. blood pressure, inflammation, immune responses, etc.) and mortality. Social isolation has been shown to promote obesity and lead to type 2 diabetes in mice and even in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, isolation has been shown to reduce lifespan.

So, it seems loneliness may not just be an unpleasant feeling we all experience from time to time. Evidence suggests feelings of social isolation – particularly if these are chronic – could put us at risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and other health-related co-morbidities, not to mention possibly sending us to an early grave! Despite the negative feeling of loneliness coming with an evolutionary function – i.e. promoting the survival of the species – it certainly seems to be a feeling one may want to avoid. So pick up a phone and call your friends, reach out to your family and organise a meet up. Most importantly, keep those all important social ties strong – it may be good for your health!

Post by: Megan Barrett

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

The dolphins that lend a helping flipper

Interactions between humans and animals can happen on many levels, but it is rare for the human to feel to be the less intelligent half of the relationship. Yet, when humans and dolphins meet, this can often seem to be the case. Generally, humans feel to be the master race, in control and superior to other animals. However, our encounters with dolphins can often demonstrate how they may operate on a level more similar to ours than we realise.

 The Common Dolphin. Photo Credit: NOAA NMFS via Wikimedia Commons
The Common Dolphin.
Photo Credit: NOAA NMFS via Wikimedia Commons

Some pods of wild dolphins have very interesting interactions with small fishing villages, especially in Brazil. Each morning the fishermen lay out their nets ready for the fish and each morning the local dolphin pod arrives and proceeds to herd fish towards the fishermen. If this behaviour wasn’t unusual enough, the dolphins have even begun signalling to the fishermen to tell them when to throw their nets using a system of fin slaps against the surface of the water. This coordination ensures the fishermen have full nets after a very short time.

This behaviour wasn’t trained or instructed by mankind; it is completely natural. But what do the dolphins gain? This is where it becomes a little less clear. Some speculate that they benefit by having an easy time of catching the fish that are trying to escape, but this isn’t known for sure.

 Painting of dolphins from the Bronze Age in Crete.  Photo Credit: H-stt via Wikipedia
Painting of dolphins from the Bronze Age in Crete.
Photo Credit: H-stt via Wikipedia

All that is known is that this strange working relationship is a natural occurrence that will continue on. The fishermen will teach their sons to watch for the dolphins’ signals, and the dolphins will teach their calves to herd the fish.

When humans enter the sea we are, in a sense, invading the dolphins’ home. Yet, even when we place ourselves outside of our natural habitat and get into difficulty, instead of ignoring us or despising us for intruding on their world dolphins are well known for lending a flipper. Stories can be traced back to Ancient Greek legends of dolphins rescuing sailors. This isn’t just a myth though – more recent stories of dolphins staying with lost divers can be found from all around the world.

Here is an instance where the dolphins aren’t just interacting with humans freely but where they are also going out of their way to help us when we’re in distress. They have been witnessed attacking sharks that are threatening people in the water. But, again, why? Why are dolphins choosing to do this? They could be the first animal that has ever shown true altruism (besides humans).

Photo Credit: Claudia14 via Pixabay. Image used under Creative Commons Deed CC0
Photo Credit: Claudia14 via Pixabay. Image used under Creative Commons Deed CC0

The dolphins could drive fish into nets to gain an easy meal, but protecting humans doesn’t show a clear benefit for them. All other animals allow the ecosystem to flow as normal and will not interfere with its course. In these two examples, however, the dolphins have chosen not just to intervene but to intervene to help one species at the expense of another. They drive fish to their deaths so that we may catch them. They stop the sharks from having an easy meal to save the lives of humans.

We speculate about the degree of intelligence dolphins possess and it is well recognised that they are intelligent creatures; so perhaps they are intelligent enough to understand us better than we think. Perhaps, similarly to humans, there are both good and bad dolphins. We hear of dolphins rescuing people only from those that were rescued; we don’t hear about the people that drown because a pod of dolphins ignored them. Some speculate that they are acting more from choice rather than instinct, which would mean they have a higher level of awareness than we first realised.

Unless we can decipher the dolphins’ communication techniques, something we have been trying to do since the 1960’s, we may never know why these magnificent beings occasionally go out of their way to help us.

This post, by author Jennifer Rasal, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.


Room to breath

Recently, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the government must take immediate action to cut air pollution, ordering “that the Government must prepare and consult on new air quality plans for submission to the European Commission… no later than December 31 2015”. This was brought about when the UK was found to be in breach of its duty to achieve legally binding limits for nitrogen dioxide by an initial 2010 deadline. So what exactly is nitrogen dioxide, where does it come from, and why is it so bad for us?

Nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, is a molecule consisting of one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms. It is produced via the oxidation of nitric oxide (NO) in air – natural sources include; lightning, plants, soil and water. However, overall, only about 1% of the total amount of nitrogen dioxide found in urban environments comes from these natural processes. In urban areas, about 80% of atmospheric NO2 comes from motor vehicle exhausts with smaller amounts arising from other sources, include metal refining, and electricity generation from coal-fired power stations.

Lightning is a (small) natural source of nitrogen dioxide (Photo Credit: Diegojaf22 via Wikimedia Commons).
Lightning is a (small) natural source of nitrogen dioxide (Photo Credit: Diegojaf22 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nitrogen dioxide reacts with moisture, ammonia, and other compounds to form small particles. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide can be extremely harmful to humans, because these particles penetrate deeply into the body, damaging the lining of the lungs through abrasion. This can act to reduce immunity to lung infections, and cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, flu and bronchitis. Increased levels of nitrogen dioxide have even more significant impacts on people with asthma leading to fiercer, and more frequent attacks. However, the impacts of air pollution goes beyond asthma and other respiratory diseases, having been linked to heart attacks and strokes; the world health organisation has also formally classified outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen, causing both lung and bladder cancers.

Traffic in not just bad for our stress levels (Photo Credit: Stephen via Wikimedia Commons).
Traffic in not just bad for our stress levels (Photo Credit: Stephen via Wikimedia Commons).

Current figures place the number of deaths caused by air pollution in the UK somewhere between 29,000 and 30,000 a year – which is more than the number of deaths resulting from obesity and alcohol combined. Even more worryingly, a recent study found that these statistics do not factor in nitrogen dioxide, and only include deaths caused by particulate matter (i.e. particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere). The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants is due to publish its findings later this year, where it is predicts that the premature death toll caused by road traffic pollution will be around twice as high as originally thought.

According to DEFRA the average roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide had fallen 15% since 2010.  In addition both nitrogen dioxide emissions and background concentrations had more than halved in the 20 years since the mid 90s. However, whilst nitrogen dioxide emissions from petrol cars have fallen significantly over past 20 years, the emissions from diesel cars have overall shown little change during the same period.

Greater Manchester residents can find out more about the air quality in their local area at the GreatAir Manchester website, which provides daily pollution indices, as well as host of useful resources and advice. The DEFRA air quality website is also a great resource, and provides daily pollution notifications, as well as five-day pollution forecasts. If you have any respiratory problems and are planning on being outside for a long time, then it is well worth checking these websites first, especially if you plan on doing any vigorous activities.

The DEFRA air quality index id based on measurements made by measurement stations like this one in Edinburgh (Photo Credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).
The DEFRA air quality index id based on measurements made by measurement stations like this one in Edinburgh (Photo Credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).

It is important to remember however, that this is not simply a straightforward problem. For example, because of the complex nature of the chemistry that is involved, a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels can actually lead to an increase in surface level ozone, which is also a harmful pollutant, and which in Europe alone is responsible for approximately 20,000 premature deaths a year. You can read more about the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide in this paper.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could be a watershed moment in the UK’s fight to improve air pollution in our urban areas, and with UN statistics showing that over 80 % of the UK’s population is currently living in urban environments, it is important that we act now, before it is too late.

Post by: Sam Illingworth