The brain bank comprises a group of scientists from the North West of England eager to enthuse and entertain with their scientific banter. To learn more about who we are see the our 'about' page. You can also find us on twitter @brainbankmanc or email us [email protected]
I’ve already downloaded the app and am having a bit of fun logging my weekly activity. It seems I’m all systems go during the week but make up for it by lazing around over the weekend!
The challenge promotes healthy living and the positive use of data and technology in health and research. It’s also an opportunity for citizens across Greater Manchester to help advance science’s understanding of how low-intensity exercise improves heart health. Scientists know that intense exercise, like marathon running, will reduce your resting heart rate. But, they know less about how well moderate exercise such as walking can cause this reduction. Hopefully data from this app could provide an answer.
Participants will be able to track their steps through the Nokia Health Mate app, which also allows users to measure their pulse rate using their smartphones camera. Although this does take a bit of practice… Actually I was a bit worried by how my pulse spiked from simply climbing the stairs to my office, I’m blaming my technique but perhaps I just need a bit more gym time?
The project will be delivered across Connected Health Cities four city regions including Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, Liverpool and the North West Coast and Newcastle and the North East. Each region will be able to see how the amount of steps they have taken over the period compares to the others’.
As well as daily updates on the dedicated website, each week users get personalised feedback with information about their progress and how they compare to others from across the North – A bit of healthy northern competition! Throughout the eight weeks of the challenge CHC and Nokia will keep people motivated with motivational content, seasonal tips to get moving more, hundreds of fitness tracker give-aways and awareness messages on how to keep your heart healthy.
After the 8-week period de-personalised data will be sent to The University of Manchester’s Connected Health Cities programme where data scientists will look for changes in heart rate across the study period.
Prof John Ainsworth, Director of Connected Health Cities said:
“More effective use of data and technology has great potential to deliver health benefits for all of us. The CityMoves study is a great example for people to see the positive impact that their data can have.
“In CityMoves study we aim to develop a better understanding of the relationship between increased physical exercise and resting heart rate, a key indicator of health.”
To join the programme participants can register at nokia.ly/citymoves, choose their team and begin measuring their steps and watch as they rise up their team’s leader board.
If pain had a colour what would it be? Perhaps a throbbing headache would be a deep purple while a night-time leg cramp might be an intense flash of red jolting you from your slumber? If you were asked to describe the colour of your pain what would it be? And are there common colours associated with different types of pain?
Sometime ago I worked on an Arthritis Research UK (ARUK) stand at the Manchester (science?) Festival. Members of the public were asked to tie ribbons onto a skeleton to show where they experienced pain. The result was fascinating – so many people had knee problems! What was also fascinating to me was the public’s willingness to share their pain stories and get involved with demonstrating where their pain appeared. After this event it occurred to me that people might associate pain with, or experienced it as, a colour but I had no way of testing this theory. Then, I spotted a notice for the Citizen Scientist Showcase, part of the Manchester Science Festival. They were looking for members of the public to set up a stall and promote their own project as part of the Salford Science Jam. Just the avenue I was looking for! This means that I now get to explore my idea, and festival visitors get to contribute to an amazing visual mosaic that has an artistic value all its own.
My idea is really simple. Members of the public use a post-it note, piece of paper or maybe even a tablet if we can get the whole thing digitised to draw the colour, and possibly the shape, of their pain. I’m expecting everything from red blobs to electric green squiggles. These individual pieces of art will then be collected and displayed as a wall mural / mosaic showing the full spectrum of colours and shapes making up our perceptions of pain.
At the end of the day we will have a mosaic which beautifully combines the science and art behind our pain. The beauty of the exercise is that it can be carried out time and again either as a stand-alone piece or as part of a larger project with each event feeding into a larger work of art. I hope that this little project will create a legacy, perhaps informing further pieces of research looking at how colour can be used to help people describe their pain symptoms. Perhaps this could even lead to new avenues in the alleviation or relief of pain!
The Citizen Science Showcase takes place at Salford University’s Media City Campus on Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd October from 11.00 am to 4.00pm each day.
I’m really excited about working on my first piece of “research”. So, if you would like to contribute to this work or have any comments or advice, I love to hear from you.
When it comes to healthy eating I’m absolutely useless. Spending extended periods of time in the kitchen is my idea of hell, especially when I could be doing better things (like blogging about how I don’t like spending time in my kitchen). So, when meal time comes around, I usually either rely on my long suffering husband’s culinary skills or trust in the marketing I see on supermarket shelves, erring towards products labeled as as ‘Fat Free’, ‘Healthy Living’ or ‘Nutritious’. This has always seemed like a pretty solid game plan and I’m sure I’m not the only one who uses this method to try and move towards a healthier, more balanced diet.
However, as part of my interest in health apps, I downloaded the NHS’s Change4Life app which allows you to play food detective, scanning different products and giving a simple overview of how much sugar, saturated fat and salt they contain and the results were pretty eye opening.
The app looks friendly enough with it’s vibrant yellow background and quirky cartoon interface but after a few well meaning scans I started to feel that this app was probably not my friend.
My first scan was something I knew would flag up as being unhealthy but I wanted to see just how bad it actually was. So I scanned a box of my favourite chocolate cereal and waited for the result. What I found was pretty shocking. It seems that, for each bowl of tasty chocolate goodness, I’m actually eating the equivalent of 3 cubes of sugar and half a sachet of salt. Since the recommended daily sugar intake for an adult woman is 25 grams (just over 6 sugar cubes), this means that one bowl of my favourite cereal is about 44% of my recommended sugar fix for the whole day – talk about starting the day off on the wrong foot! I must admit I felt that I may have been happier not knowing this information but I certainly wouldn’t be healthier.
After this chocolatey revelation, I thought I’d use the app to perform a broad sweep of a range of products in my local supermarket, focusing on those marketed as being healthy.
One of the most striking things I found as I scanned around the shelves was that a fair number of products which I always assumed were relatively healthy, usually because that was how they were marketed, just weren’t.
I’m not going to name names (download the app and try for yourself) but here are a few of the shockers that I uncovered:
Sticking with my theme of breakfast revelations, I scanned a pack of popular breakfast biscuits which are marketed as ‘A perfect source of nutritious sustained energy’. I found that each portion contained almost a whole cube of sugar (1 sixth of your daily allowance in one, supposedly healthy, biscuit), 0.2 grams of saturated fat, and 0.2 sachets of salt. The app’s handy traffic light system rated sugar in this product as being high (red) while saturated fat and salt were both medium (orange). So perhaps this is not the best breakfast option?
Next I decided to move away from breakfast and try out a lunch option. The lunch pot I scanned was marketed as a ‘light lunch’, which I, and I’m sure many others, would assume should be a healthy option. This product was a winner when it came to sugar and saturated fat, being low (green) for both but then I looked at the salt. Registering as medium for salt content, one portion contained the equivalent of 3.6 sachets, that’s almost 2 grams or around a third of your daily recommended intake. Although salt often takes a back seat to sugar and saturated fat when we talk about healthy eating, it’s important to know that too much salt in our diets can increase our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s recommended that we don’t eat more than 6 grams of salt per day, that’s less than one teaspoon!
From here I thought I’d move on to look at a few larger ready meals, focusing on supermarket own-brand ‘healthy living’ meals. I was hopeful. The first meal I scanned was low in sugar but contained 5.1 grams of saturated fat and 0.6 grams of salt per portion, this registered as being medium or orange for both. My next two scans sadly seemed to followed the same trend.
So, although there were exceptions, it seemed that many of the meals and snacks I scanned which were marketed as healthy or balanced were actually much less healthy than I would have first thought. I also noticed a trend that products which were marketed as being ‘low fat’ were often particularly high in sugar. I guess this is the trade off the manufacturers make but perhaps it should state on the packaging ‘low in fat but packed with sugar to compensate’.
Finally, and one of the biggest revelations for me, was when I tried comparing a named-brand wheat biscuit breakfast cereal with the supermarket’s own-brand alternative. The named brand cereal was one of my first ‘all green’ scans with low levels of sugar, saturated fat and salt – pretty much what I would have expected from a simple wheat cereal. However, when I scanned the supermarket’s own product I was suddenly confronted by a unnerving orange traffic light for salt.The app showed that the own-brand cereal contained 0.3 grams of salt per serving, compared to 0.1 for the named brand. I think this is still at the lower-end of medium but I was shocked that this difference existed at all between two brands of what is essentially the same product. I guess that this proves, even if we think we know a product, it’s important to be sure exactly how different brands alter their ingredients.
For me, playing with this app has been amazingly interesting. Although the information the app gives you is no different from what you could read yourself on an ingredients list, the app interface gives you a quick and easy way to gauge, in a comparative way, how healthy each product really is. It also offers tips for healthier alternatives and recipes which has given me something extra to think about during my weekly shop.
I’m not going to kid myself though, I’m no saint when it comes to food and I don’t think I ever will be but I know how important it is to try and maintain a reasonable balance. This is why the most worrying discovery I made using this app is not the amount of sugar and fat in the foods which I know are bad for me (the things I try to eat in moderation) but it’s the figures the app shows for foods I would otherwise have assumed to be a ‘healthy alternative’. So, I really do recommend downloading the app and trying it out for yourselves, it may just be the fist step on the path to a healthier life.
Working in the area of medical research I hear a lot about cancer. From the development of algorithms that can predict who is most at risk of developing the disease to the best ways to support patients through surgery, the big C is still top of the research agenda for many academics. Therefore, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that when I sidestepped away from neuroscience into the broader field of health research I wasn’t entirely prepared for the deluge of cancer research about to fall on my lap.
But this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, especially since it is currently suggested that one in 2 people will, at some point in their lives, develop cancer and that deaths from cancer are higher in Greater Manchester than the rest of the UK. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding these facts excessively scary and, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea that one in 2 of us will suffer from cancer at some point in our lives (flip a coin, heads you win tails you lose).
However, it’s exactly these feelings of fear and disassociation I want to explore.
With the sword of Damocles resting maliciously above our heads and knowing that our best weapon against the big C is early diagnosis, is it time for cancer to be dragged out of the shadows and for us all to have a good look?
Earlier this year I took my mum to a talk called ‘Identity and Illness’ which was billed as an exploration of the way we build our identities up around our illnesses and what role diagnosis plays in this process. For some reason I built this up in my mind as being about mental illness, a topic I’m very interested in, and was shocked when we turned up and found that it was actually an exploration of how a cancer diagnosis influences identity. It had been a long day at work, I was tired and cancer was not something I wanted to think about. However, I’m glad I avoided the temptation to stick my fingers in my ears and hum loudly because the discussion soon took a very interesting turn. The speakers began to question why as a society we bury our heads in the sand when it comes to cancer, softly repeating the mantra it won’t be me, when the upsetting truth is that it’s pretty likely to be you and that your best chance of survival is vigilance and acceptance. Why are we so reluctant to confront illness as part of our everyday lives and would that feared diagnosis be easier to stomach if information, frank discussion and disease role models were a more common part of our daily lives?
People just don’t want to talk about serious illness and it’s rarely addressed in the media. Who else was shocked last year by what seemed to be the sudden death of David Bowie shortly after releasing his poignant music video Lazarus (“look up here I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”). In fact, studies suggest that it’s not rare for people to try to hide serious illness, with a quarter of people actively hiding their diagnosis from colleagues and, if possible, even from their family and friends.
But, however far under the rug we try to sweep illness it won’t go away. No family is immune and it can affect people of any age, wealth, profession and education. So, would we be better off opening the box on cancer and other serious illnesses and trying to integrate them back into society. Should illness be the norm rather than just our dirty little secret and would this mindset improve diagnosis, survival rates and the quality of life for sufferers?
Perhaps encouraging more transparency and better dialogues would even go some way to tackling some of the damaging and pervasive myths surrounding cancer. It’s much easier to build up false narratives around something which is hard to see than around things which are common parts of our everyday lives.
I do recognise that this is a difficult topic but it’s one that needs to be addressed. Rather than fearing illness, we should be prepared to increase our awareness, using all the knowledge at our disposal to recognise the earliest symptoms and be prepared to fight as soon as it raises its ugly head. And yes, like many of you, I know that no matter how loud my logical brain shouts that illness and cancer are just a part of life and that knowledge is our best weapon, there will always be a part of me that wants to hide away and ignore it. But, cancer research is moving forward in leaps and bounds and survival rates associated with early diagnosis have never been higher. So, it’s never been more important to face this monster head on – shout it’s name from the rooftops and assert that we will beat it.
I don’t know about you but the first thing I do after arriving at work in the morning is grab a cup of coffee. Like many say ‘I can’t function without it’. In the UK alone over 50 million cups are consumed in just one day! So what exactly is it about coffee that makes us crave it so much?
Although originally native to the tropics, the coffea plant is now grown in over 70 countries around the world, producing two main types of coffee, Coffea Canephora (also known as Robusta) and Coffea Arabica. Harvested coffea fruit (also known as cherries) are dried to reveal the beans which are then hulled and polished. Beans are then roasted, releasing the caffeol oil (which is stored within the bean and gives them their distinct brown colour and aroma). Among other chemicals found in these beans is caffeine, the chemical responsible for the stimulatory effect of coffee. Caffeine is absorbed into the body through the small intestine, where it is then able to cross the blood-brain barrier and produce the psychoactive effects associated with coffee consumption.
Chemically speaking caffeine is what is known as a purine. It stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) by blocking the action of adenosine (a molecule involved in cellular communication through the second messenger cAMP). cAMP acts on the CNS promoting drowsiness and preventing arousal, basically making us tired. In the morning when we wake up, levels of cAMP in the body are relatively low. As the day progresses cAMP builds up and binds to adenosine receptors found in the CNS. cAMP then acts as a messenger triggering downstream effects which make us drowsy. Caffeine prevents drowsiness by acting as an antagonist of cAMP, temporarily blocking it from communicating its downstream message. This blockage also promotes the release of other chemicals such as acetylcholine which can stimulate the body. This stimulation leads to increased alertness and focus, aiding in concentration and performance.
However, like with most foods, we’re constantly hearing about the associated diseases and medical problems coffee could cause; cancer, heart disease and long term addiction to name a few. But, how much of this is true? Well actually very little. Like many of our guilty pleasures, caffeine in moderate amounts has no negative effects on healthy adults. In fact you would need to consume a whopping 15-20 cups of coffee per day to overdose (I think most people would struggle with that)! In terms of caffeine addiction, it is possible to experience mild psychoactive withdrawal if consumption is stopped, but this affect is mild compared to the withdrawal experienced when coming off other psychoactive drugs.So, whilst you should definitely not substitute coffee for water, our favorite fuel is still a safe morning essential – go procaffinate!
Throughout my degree in marine biology, we were always encouraged to attend as many career and interest-related events as possible. One of my passions is climate change mitigation. Therefore, when I saw that Zero Carbon Liverpool (ZCL) had managed to secure a few fully funded places to the ‘Zero Carbon Britain: Making it happen’ short course at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), I had to do some research. CAT was founded in 1973 by businessman turned environmental activist Gerard Morgan-Grenville in an abandoned slate quarry site near Machynlleth, Wales. Originally established as a small community experimenting with alternative methods of construction and food production, CAT is now an award-winning facility that promotes low-energy technologies and sustainable living.
I remember thinking to myself ‘what better place to learn about the clean energy revolution than in a hippy-ville turned research institute!’ I was so excited by the prospect of visiting CAT, I immediately applied for one of the funded spots on the course. A few days later, I found out that I would be off to visit the beautiful region of Mid-Wales, to engage with CAT’s vision of a modern, zero-emission society.
Centre for Alternative Technology
I managed to get a lift to CAT from Jo (one of the co-founders of ZCL) and her fiancé Adam. We were also joined by Lindsay, a fellow zero carbon enthusiast. We set off from Liverpool on an overcast afternoon and reached our destination a little over two hours later. Upon arriving at CAT we were soon surrounded by lush greenery, which had recolonized the disused quarry. The novice terrestrial naturalist within me instinctively started looking out for various flowering plants in bloom and instantly regretted not bringing my vegetation ID guide.
We arrived slightly before tea time, so Lindsay and I decided to wander around and check out the facilities on site. I found out that we would be staying in the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) building for the entire duration of the course and that our course activities would also be based in and around WISE. The building has numerous environmentally friendly additions, for example the adoption of the rammed earth technology, a construction technique that uses natural aggregates such as clay, gravel, sand and silt; as well as incorporating reed beds for waste water treatment. We also found, scattered on the CAT trail, various environmentally friendly innovations all of which were labeled explaining why and how they were more sustainable then other, more common, alternatives. One can easily spend hours on the trail but the dinner bell rang and we headed back to the CAT café to enjoy a delicious vegetarian curry. Afterwards, we went to the bar for a couple of drinks. Coincidentally, a local folk group were having their weekly practice, which provided us with some much-appreciated musical entertainment.
Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the future
The next day was the start of the ZCB course which focused on the possibility of an alternative future. We were introduced to the many contributing factors to climate change. These include but are not limited to industrialization, population growth, capitalism and diet. As of June 2017, the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) level has reached 408.84 parts per million (ppm) (Mauna Loa Observatory), well over the pre-industrial 280 ppm in the mid-1700s. This unprecedented amount of CO2 is much more than can be absorbed by natural processes. The excess CO2 traps more heat in the atmosphere, which leads to global warming and a cascade of negative effects, such as regional flooding and droughts. If the world’s population continues its dependence on fossil fuels to support our ‘modern’ lifestyle, these negative effects will continue to accelerate. These are the reasons that climate change is often deemed as the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation. Even though world leaders are aware of how pressing the matter is, this is a battle against time. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but feel deflated about the future of our climate.
However, my pessimism was quickly dissipated by Alice Hooker-Stroud, the former ZCB research coordinator, when she explained that CAT’s research has shown that current technology is sufficient for the UK to achieve a net zero greenhouse gas emission now, without having to wait for the ‘silver bullet’ of future technologies or potentially dangerous nuclear power. She reiterated that we need to: 1) ‘power up’ renewable energy, with a concentration on wind power; and 2) ‘power down’ our current energy demand, by improving home heating efficiency, supporting the electrification of vehicles less air travel. This all sounds very familiar but I was both doubtful and curious as to whether we could ‘keep the lights on’ – even when there’s no wind and the sun isn’t shining.
The answer, apparently, is a resounding ‘yes’ – CAT’s modelling has shown that a ZCB future would produce a surplus of energy 82% of the time – by using ‘smart’ appliances, storing excess electricity and using carbon neutral synthetic fuels, any shortfall could be overcome. Last but not least, through diet changes (mainly by reducing meat consumption), 75% of the land currently used for grazing livestock can be repurposed to grow more biomass required to support the ZCB energy system; or be restored back to forest or peatlands to capture carbon.
Zero Carbon Britain: Making it happen
The Paris Climate Agreement states that globally we must reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, therefore there really is no option but to embrace the zero-carbon future. We spent the second day exploring the big question – What’s stopping us?
Researchers have shown that we are not limited by technology but rather a combination of economic, cultural and psychological barriers. They believe that climate change in the modern world is not a root problem but a symptom of consumerism and a disconnection from nature and from other human beings. Changing how millions of people live is a unique challenge in itself and can only be overcome if actions are carried out at global, national, local and individual levels. There is no act too small and no act too bold. However, some things
that are beneficial include lobbying climate legislation, divestment from the fossil fuel industry, investing in zero carbon projects and community energy, challenging climate skepticism in the media, improving carbon literacy, promoting communications…the list goes on. There are countless solutions to this wicked problem but collective action is the key.
I left CAT with a new-found sense of optimism for our zero-emission future. It is often easy to assume that others care less about climate change (amongst other things) than you do. This blog is my contribution to spreading climate positivity. What will yours be?
I would like to thank Zero Carbon Liverpool for giving me this invaluable experience. If you would like to get involved with Zero Carbon Liverpool’s work locally, get in touch with them on Twitter and Facebook.
The Zero Carbon Britain reports can be accessed here.
There’s no point denying it, at one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of being ‘hangry’. Whether you’re a frequent culprit or just an occasional offender, getting angry when hungry is a common crime in many households, and one that can result in arguments, ‘fallings out’ and even a night spent sleeping on the couch. But is it really our fault or is there a more biological reason to blame? An increasing body of research suggests our blood glucose may be the real culprit.
The glucose we obtain from our diet is a key source of energy, required for our bodies to function and delivered to all of our cells via our blood. Out of all the organs of the body, our brain is the most energy-consuming, using around 20% of the energy our bodies produce. It also relies almost completely on glucose as its energy source, making an efficient supply of this sugar essential to maintaining proper brain function. This is particularly true for higher-order brain processes such as self-control, which require relatively high levels of energy to carry out, even for the brain. Since self-control allows us to resist such impulsive urges as out-of-control eating or aggressive outbursts, if our brain does not have sufficient energy to perform this process, our ability to stem these unwanted impulses can suffer.
Given such evidence, it therefore makes sense that low levels of blood glucose, like those experienced when we are hungry, could plausibly lead us to become more aggressive. The association between blood glucose and level of aggression has been observed in multiple studies, including Ralph Bolton’s 1970s research of the Quolla Indians. These Peruvian highlanders are well-known for their high rates of unpremeditated murder and seemingly irrational acts of violence. Having observed both this behaviour and a strong sugar craving among the Quolla Indians, Bolton decided to investigate the possible link between hunger and aggression. In agreement with his hypothesis, Bolton found that the Quolla Indians commonly experienced low blood glucose levels, and that those with the lowest levels tended to be the most aggressive.
In another, more recent study, similar findings were observed in college students who took part in a competitive task. Participants were randomly assigned to consume either a glucose beverage or placebo drink containing a sugar substitute. Following this, participants then competed against an opponent in a reaction time task, which has been shown previously to provide a measure of aggression. Before beginning the task, the students could set the intensity of noise their partner would be blasted with if they lost. As predicted, participants who drank the glucose drink behaved less aggressively towards their partner, choosing lower noise intensities, compared with those who had consumed a sugar substitute. This suggested that hunger-related aggression, or ‘hangriness’, could be ameliorated by boosting one’s glucose levels.
One notable (though some may argue rather dark) study into the ‘hangry’ condition investigated the relationship between blood glucose and aggressiveness in married couples. As well as pitting spouses against each other in a similar reaction time task to the one described above, participants were also given a voodoo doll of their partner and told to stick pins in the doll each evening, depending on how angry they were at their partner. (Warning, do not try this at home). As with previous studies, lower levels of blood glucose resulted in participants blasting their spouses with higher noise intensities and sticking more pins in the voodoo dolls, suggesting greater levels of anger and aggression.
While these studies do not necessarily ascertain causality, the relationship between low blood glucose and the tendency to become aggressive makes biological sense, since glucose is the main energy source our brains need to control such negative impulses. As observed in studies and experienced by many of us, ‘hangry’-related crimes can also be easily avoided by supplying the potential offender with food, further supporting the role of glucose in hunger-related anger. So next time ‘hangriness’ threatens to ruin the harmony in your household, fill your mouth with food rather than foul language, and save yourself a night banished to the couch.
Lamiece Hassan on why unlocking the potential of smartphone data could be the next frontier for health research.
I have an addiction to my smartphone. It helps me to navigate not only the streets of my adopted home city of Manchester, but life in general; everything from banking to shopping, scheduling, videoing, networking, dating and, on occasion, making phone calls. And it helps me to monitor things, like my patterns in exercise, diet and sleep. I’m the type who posts annoying screenshots of their step count on Instagram after a big night (#danceallnight). To some this could seem a somewhat unhealthy, yet common, obsession. However, I’m keen to learn how our increasing attachment to technology can actually help to generate new insights into health and disease and benefit others.
You see, your smartphone is a sort of digital Swiss Army knife, jam-packed with vital sensors and tools that collect, process and transmit all manner of data. Furthermore, it’s a constant companion, always on and always with you, effortlessly tracking your everyday routines. To researchers like me, who would otherwise have to dedicate significant time and effort to collecting these data themselves, smartphone apps are appealing, inexpensive tools for generating a wealth of high quality data on everyday life on a mass-scale. Moreover, this type of ‘big data’ could hold the key to better understanding and treatments for many health conditions – like seasonal allergies, dementia and Parkinson’s.
One area where patient data is currently lacking is seasonal allergies. Allergies are basically the result of the body’s immune system ‘misfiring’ and incorrectly responding to harmless substances or ‘allergens’, such as pollen. These allergies are very common in the Western world. One in four people will experience an allergy at some point in their lives and this number is increasing. However, the causes are unclear. Dr Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at The University of Manchester, explains the situation: “The rise in seasonal allergies like hay fever could be down to all sorts of things – such as changes in pollen exposure, pollution or maybe a lack of childhood exposure to germs. We have good quality data on many of the suspected causes but we don’t know how people are actually being affected. Gathering real-time data on a mass-scale about when and where symptoms occur could really help to change all of that.”
A nationwide study is currently underway to fill in these blanks and try to better understand seasonal allergies, all using a smartphone app called #BritainBreathing*. Allergy sufferers act as ‘citizen sensors’, using the app to keep a daily log of their symptoms (or lack thereof) like sneezing, itchy eyes and wheezing and track them over time. The app automatically does the rest, automatically sharing anonymised reports with the research team, with a time-stamp and approximate location.
Whilst sometimes trivialised, hay fever symptoms can be severe for some people and it is often associated with other conditions, such as asthma and eczema. Caroline, now 32, has had all three since childhood: ” I’ve had eczema since I was a baby, then I got hay fever and asthma later on around primary school age. At one point I was constantly on antihistamines.” Could a smartphone app help people like Caroline get a better handle on what their triggers might be? “When you’re young everyone else manages it for you, but when you get older you need to build up a picture in your own head to start to think about triggers: what is it, where was I, what was I doing at the time? Everyone carries their phone around now so that would be a good place to start.”
Indeed, decoding data has been key to other recent breakthroughs in the world of allergy research. Whilst big is often beautiful, advances in statistical methods have arguably been just as important to unlock the insights hidden within the data. For example, combining data from several long-term studies (which collectively tracked almost 10,000 children from birth) helped researchers to question the stereotype of the so-called “allergic march”; a supposedly classic progression of symptoms starting in childhood, beginning with eczema, then progressing to wheeze and finally hay fever. Using sophisticated analysis techniques, researchers showed that individuals fall into one of several ‘profiles’ and that this classic sequence is much less common than once thought (less than 7% followed this pattern). Findings like these appear to strengthen the case for acknowledging how variable patterns of allergic conditions can be, with slightly different symptoms and trajectories.
Teaming smartphone data with data from research studies like these has, to date, been an area with largely untapped potential. However, researchers are increasingly recognising the opportunities in bringing together different sources of data – including smartphones, wearable fitness gadgets and medical records – to shed light on diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s. For example, the 100 for Parkinson’s project invited people to use a smartphone app to track aspects of their health (including sleep quality, mood, exercise, diet and stress) for 100 days and donate their data to research.
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. Some have expressed concerns about the quality of data, the ability to produce meaningful analyses and safeguarding personal information. However, the ability to work with the public to build large datasets to allow us to gain insights into both health and disease states mean that it’s an option increasingly being considered by a large array of scientific and medical fields. Is the smartphone the future of health research or is the challenge of disentangling the complex data generated by constant tracking more trouble than it’s worth? We’ll just have to wait and see. I, for one, think it’s an opportunity too big to pass up.
*The free Britain Breathing app is available on the App Store and Google Play now.
In temperate regions such as the UK, our ecosystems experience seasonal dynamic fluctuations, as our moderate climate slowly fluctuates throughout the year. These fluctuations follow an annual trend, with many species of tree blossoming in spring before shedding their leaves in an impressive colourful autumn display leaving just bare branches through the winter days. In sync with this, animals appear to breed as temperatures increase yet hibernate through cooler days.
For those of you living in Liverpool, student or otherwise, it is well known that Sefton park is one of the most popular places to visit for its aesthetic beauty. I have lived in Liverpool for 4 years and have always been intrigued by the ecosystems it has to offer. Here I have documented how the park changes throughout the year by capturing photos at four different occasions between September 2016 and May 2017:
The science behind these changes is fascinating. One of the most noticeable differences observed in the park can be seen in the trees, specifically in how their leaves reflect the fluctuating seasons. Throughout the winter months, trees enter a period of dormancy in order to survive the low temperatures. However, despite their stark dormant appearance, deep within their branches they are actually busy maintaining themselves through respiration and enzyme synthesis and preparing for the coming spring.
As spring approaches, these trees begin to bud leaves and flowers, a change brought about in response to an increase in temperature and light availability. Throughout the summer months, different shades of green dominate the park. It is the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll which gives leaves their vibrant green colour. This pigment enables plants to absorb energy from sunlight, specifically, it absorbs light in the blue and red portions of the electromagnetic spectrum while reflecting the near-green portion, therefore producing the vivid shades of green we see throughout the summer.
The breakdown of chlorophyll in the autumn reveals carotenoids in the leaves causing them to change from green to yellow/orange and creating a variety of colour throughout the park. Eventually, leaf abscission occurs.
Leaf abscission refers to the controlled process by which trees shed their leaves. This occurs from the Abscission zone (at the base of the leaf’s stem). Abscission zone cells differentiate in early plant growth and are able to respond to a number of environmental stressors and plant hormones. When light levels start to reduce and chlorophyll is degraded, levels of the plant hormone auxin decrease which in turn increases sensitivity in the abscission zone to another hormone ethylene. When the plant is exposed to ethylene cell wall-degrading enzymes such as cellulase and polygalacturonase are activated and abscission occurs.The trees then enter dormancy and the process repeats itself. There is a clear seasonal regulation of growth. And, it’s not only trees which follow this cycle, other flowering plants also respond to changes in seasons and sunlight which, in turn, allows many insects and mammals to thrive building a complex and beautiful ecosystem around these plants.
The images included in this article provide a visual representation of how our planet constantly changes. Sefton provides city dwellers with the ability to witness these changes first hand throughout the year – and we can guarantee you a mystical view on whatever day you decide to visit.
Take home message: Next time you take a trip to Sefton, have a look at the forever changing ecosystems and think about the biological processes occurring beneath the visual changes.
A few months ago, I became involved with a group called Moss Code. Their aim is to use computer coding to inspire and engage with people from the strongly Afro-Carribean Manchester suburb, Moss Side. I was made aware that the Afro-Carribean culture actually has a strong heritage using fractal-like sequences in their art and architecture. Please see this TED talk on the subject. My hope is to try and make a simple computer program for people to generate their own unique fractal patterns, with the possibility of printing them onto t-shirts and fabric bags! So in this post I want to share some of the amazing details of fractals and how such complex behaviour arises from surprisingly simple mathematics.
Figure 1 shows a range of different Julia Set fractals despite containing very different patterns, they are all generated by the same equation, z = z² + c. So how does such complex behaviour arise from this simple equation? It all hinges on how the variable z grows when you iterate the equation. To clarify, when you iterate an equation you use the answer from the previous calculation as the input to the next.
Lets use a simple example. Say z starts at 0, and c = 1. The value c is a constant and cannot change, only z is able to change. The first iteration gives z = 0² + 1 which is 1. Now z=1, so the next iteration will be z = 1² + 1, which is 2. The next iteration gives 5, then 26, then 677, then 458330, then 210066388901, and so on. You can clearly see that z grows very quickly.
However, for some values of c, the value z stays much the same even after many iterations. You can try to tweak c to find the point between z remaining stable and shooting off towards infinity. If you try this, you’ll find that there is no simple cut-off point but a complex, chaotic region that we recognise is actually the basis of the fractal pattern. In Figure 2, I show this chaotic region by plotting the number of iterations the equation goes through before z reaches a predefined limit.
It begins changing very slowly and predictably, but at some point it becomes chaotic. Sometimes the equation requires many iterations to reach the limit, while given another very similar value of c, the number of iterations required becomes very low. What is causing this behaviour? The simplest answer is positive feedback, or a runaway effect.
This effect is illustrated in Figure 3. Here the blue line increases sharply upwards while the green line fluctuates only slightly. The differences between the two lines is that the value c is altered by 0.003577. For the blue line this change is enough to make it go through a very rapid self-sustaining increase. While the green line goes up but then decreases again. It is this property of z and c that lies at the heart of creating the beautiful fractals in Figure 1.
The fact that the equation z = z² + c can decrease might be confusing. Surely, as z gets large, squaring it would just make it larger. Even if z is negative then squaring it will just turn it positive. So why doesn’t z get ridiculously large for all values of c? At this point it is important to say that both the values of c and z are not actually normal numbers, they are complex numbers.
Normal numbers are exactly what you would expect…each number is a single value which can be positive, negative or a fraction/decimal or all of these things. Complex numbers are a bit more…well, complex. They contain two components; a real number and an imaginary number. The real number is essentially the same as a normal number but the imaginary number (which is represented using either i or j) can become a negative number when it is squared, a normal number can never do that. It is this imaginary component of c and z that allows the equation z = z² + c to decrease when it is iterated.
Now we have cleared that up, lets break down what’s going on in a fractal image. The fractals shown in Figure 1 are simply showing the number of iterations needed for z to reach a threshold (in this case, 100). The two axes represent the different values of the real and imaginary components of the complex number c.
To get the colour of the image, we simply count the number of iterations needed for z = z² + c to reach 100. In the bottom of Figure 4, only 30 iterations were required, meaning the z increased quickly. Closer to the nucleus of the spiral, z increased more slowly, meaning the number of iterations the rises. If you followed the spiral inwards for ever, you would find that z would never reach the threshold and the number of required iterations would be infinite.
So to summarise, the amazing complexity of fractals is actually based on a simple equation or rule. In this post, I have only covered one type of fractal…the Julia Set. There are of course many others, such as the famous Mandelbrot set, Cantor set, Koch snowflake and many others, each with their own set of rules and equations. In my opinion, fractals are most remarkable because these abstract mathematical patterns are actually seen everywhere in the natural world; from small-scales such as Alveoli in your lungs or crystals of ice on a windscreen, to the large-scales like the outline of a coastline or the structure of galaxys. Fractals really bridge the gap between the simple mathematical world and the real world whilst providing amazing beauty along the way.