How Do Diet Pills Work?

At the moment my life seems to have turned into a horribly gender clichéd romcom, in which I need to lose weight to get into an oh-so-special dress for a wedding. Imagine if you will, the voice-over guy introducing the trailer to my life, ‘Liz Granger is too tight-fisted to buy a new dress, but Liz Granger is about to find out sometimes losing weight to fit into an old dress isn’t as easy as it seems. Can Liz do it? Maybe with a possible love interest, some good friends, a little motivation and an exercise montage…she just might.’ I’m lining up Jen for the role.

Turns out the obstacle in this film would be the fact I like crisps, drink too much wine and avoid exercise.  So what’s a girl (or boy) to do?  There must be a quick fix answer, surely. Well, my fascination with everything that allows you to procrastinate on the internet has led me to some rather shady websites that peddle weight loss pills that promise you can lose a stone in two weeks. With this in mind I decided to look into the ‘science’ of how diet pills work – after all if they look like a real medicine they must work like a real medicine. Maybe I’m just thinking of the placebo effect there. Anyway these are some types of pills I found that you can pop à la the internet:


Yes, apparently if you want to lose weight you need to poop and you need to poop a lot. I can’t quite fathom this one, but I guess the logic is that if the food passes through you quickly enough it doesn’t get absorbed in your intestines. I can’t help but think it would be more pleasant to just eat healthily and not have diarrhoea, but I’m old-fashioned like that. A lot of the herbal diet pills you can buy are actually just weak laxatives and diuretics (diuretics make you pee more). Maybe if it’s natural it’s not as gross.


Most diet pills have caffeine in; there is evidence to suggest caffeine suppresses appetite and it certainly peps you up. I’m not convinced though, I drink a lot of coffee and I don’t think it’s making me any thinner. But then again, maybe if I didn’t drink coffee I’d be the size of a blimp. I’m guessing the caffeine just makes you feel like the pills having some kind of instant positive effect on your energy levels.

Fat Burners and Appetite Suppressants

This is a weird one. Lots of the active ingredients found in diet pills have some evidence to suggest they suppress appetite but they are also often marketed as ‘fat burners’ that speed up the metabolism.  Other fat burners have vague ingredients like ‘açaí berry extract’. Maybe they do burn fat, it’s difficult to say, but with most evidence (when there is evidence) being anecdotal rather than from a controlled trial, I’d be sceptical.

Incidentally, açaí berries are the fruit world’s answer to beefcake the powdered form is a third fat, and 100g of the powdered berries gives you 530 calories – twice as many calories as the same amount of French fries from McDonald’s. The main selling point of açaí berry extract is that it’s supposed to speed up metabolism because it is full of antioxidants. One of the most potent antioxidants that exist is vitamin C, so if consuming antioxidants makes you lose weight, you’d be better off buying a 90p packet of vitamin C tablets. But truth be told, you’d pee most of the vitamin C out and this is almost certainly what would happen with the vitamins in powdered açaí berry. So if I took them I’d pee out most of the goodness but I would still absorb the calories – brilliant.

 A compound called Phentermine is found in a lot of diet pills. It affects the fight or flight chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline (norepinephrine for Americans) and this is thought to suppress hunger. Its actions in the brain are actually pretty similar to those of a family of drugs that include amphetamine. You remember amphetamine, that illegal drug of abuse that is heavily addictive? Although Phentermine is considered a little safer than amphetamine it is still associated with high blood pressure and can affect the heart rate. During most of the 1990s a lot of diet pills contained Phentermine paired up with another compound called Fenfluramine – together they combined forces to make Fen Phen.  After around 10 years on the market Fen was linked to heart disease and was banned. I don’t know about you but that makes me a bit more cautious of diet pills in general.

A popular pill ingredient is p57 derived from a plant called Hoodia. Although there is evidence to suggest it can affect signalling in the brain and suppress the appetite of rats, the rats in question were injected with the molecule directly into their brain. So unless you’re going to inject your brain with p57, (to be clear no one should EVER do that), I’d take that with a pinch of salt.

Another potential appetite suppressant is an ingredient called 5HTP. Your body can convert 5HTP into serotonin, an important chemical messenger in the brain that controls mood and appetite. The problem is that taking in a lot of 5HTP doesn’t necessarily mean it will be made into serotonin. The body has some awesomely complex and amazing mechanisms for keeping all the hormones inside you balanced at the right level. Even if the building blocks for serotonin are available, it doesn’t mean it will be made into it so there’s a good chance you’ll just excrete it (hopefully without the aid of a laxative).

Fat binders

Regular laxative-induced diarrhoea not sexy enough for you? Why not try uncontrollable oil seepage. That’s right, seepage. Fat binders, unsurprisingly, bind to fat and stop it being absorbed. And when it’s not absorbed guess where it goes? These pills tend to make people avoid fatty food for obvious reasons, which also helps with weight loss. It’s pretty crazy we live in a society where people have to be scared of oil seepage to stop eating fatty food. Now where did I put those crisps….

My Options

So, here are my options: something that makes me go to the loo a lot, something that makes me poop fat, a questionable concoction herbal and non-herbal compounds that may or may not work but cost quite a lot of money and finally, lots of caffeine. It’s almost like eating sensibly and exercising might be an easier option.

It’s OK though, the conclusion to my movie is that I gave up and bought a dress that fits me. Don’t get me wrong I’m pretty happy with my size – there’s way too much pressure for women (and men) to be slim for superficial reasons. But thinking about all this did make me want to get healthier because basically I don’t want to get cancer, diabetes, heart disease or any of the other many weight- related diseases.  With this in mind I am going to start exercising more, try to kick the crisps habit and cut down on the wine. I definitely won’t be taking any diet pills, because even if they do work there is no way it is healthy to lose a stone in two weeks, no matter how much you don’t want to shell out for a new dress.

Post by Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

Science: Is it a girl thing?

Last week I was forwarded a link to a, now withdrawn, advert from the European Commission. The link came from a friend with a wry sense of humour and when I first watched the clip I automatically assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek social commentary aimed at rubbing ‘feminist types’ up the wrong way. To me it seemed to play on a negative female stereotype (the fashion-conscious airhead), accentuating how this attitude does not fit with the otherwise serious, male oriented, world of science. The women in the advert were all immaculately preened and shown dancing around in short skirts and high heels, whilst the only legitimate looking scientist was a male sporting a lab coat and staring studiously down a microscope (see the clip below). It was later I realised that, far from being a cheeky misogynist jibe, this was an actual advert produced by the European Commission aimed towards encouraging young women to study science.


It seems, after extensive market research, the European Commission decided this was the best way to foster an interest in science amongst young girls. I assume their research showed that a large proportion of young women are more interested in fashion, beauty and music than differential equations and scientific method. Therefore, they ‘logically’ deduced that: to encourage more women into scientific careers, they had to show how glamourous and sexy this career choice can be. On the surface this makes sense: if you want to market a product (a scientific career) you have to make that product appeal to your target demographic (young women). However, it is not too hard for me, a female scientist, to see how this approach is short-sighted.

The life scientific is one of massive contradiction. Most people only know the romanticised/glamorised view of science as seen on TV: white coats, test tubes and Brian Cox staring knowingly into the middle distance. This view of science is easy to fall in love with. However, look beyond the inspirational sound-bites and you will find the true heart of science; the scientists. Very few of us are your stereotype ‘super genius’ and, as with any worker, we struggle on a day to day basis with insecurity, doubt and frustration but the one thing I believe we all share is an unwavering curiosity and determination, since without this we would undoubtedly fall to the pressures of our field. This curiosity and determination is the key to becoming a successful scientist and something the European Commission’s marketing ignores. Therefore, although the campaign may encourage more young women to study science, if these women enter the field believing a scientific career to be no more than a glamourous asset they can flaunt with their girlfriends over a late lunch, the outcome will undoubtedly be some rather disillusioned women and a number of ineffectual scientists.

That said, although I disagree with the their approach, I cannot deny that there is a lack of women in the higher levels of academia, indeed this is true for the higher echelons of many careers. This is undoubtedly a problem which must be addressed. However, I believe that before we stand a chance of readdressing the balance we must first uncover where the problem actually lies.

As a postgraduate student in the biological sciences, I don’t see a large divide between the number of male and female students in my field and level of study. However, there are undoubtedly fewer women holding higher academic positions (e.g. professor-ships) in this field. Conversely an area where you can see a vast male/female divide, starting as early as A-level, is in the physical sciences. A (male) friend of mine studied physics at university and often recants how there were so few women in his department that they had to organise socials together with the psychology department to ensure a good male/female balance.

statistics from the UKRC and the Athena SWAN charter, in the period spanning 2007-2009
statistics from the UKRC and the Athena SWAN charter, in the period spanning 2007-2009


This raises two questions: firstly, what is standing in the way of women achieving higher academic positions and secondly why do fewer women choose to study the physical sciences and maths?

The first question may simply reflect the fact that, historically fewer women chose the scientific path. Therefore at the higher levels of these fields, where the practising academics tend to be older (40 or above), the more recent influx of women is yet to filter its way up. However another explanation, indeed one that I grapple with on a regular basis, is that there is something about the academic lifestyle which does not appeal to the female mentality.

As I mentioned earlier, the life of a scientist is a constant battle. We spend most our time forming and testing theories, many of which only lead to more questions. Then, once things begin to slot into place, we are expected to defend our methods and findings against the rest of the community, which can often lead the poor researcher back to the drawing board. Although this process is certainly not pleasant it is necessary to ensure our theories are scientifically accurate, especially since mistakes can have devastating consequences. This means that good researchers are not only thick-skinned but also highly motivated, determined and willing to dedicate the majority of their time to their work.

Along with these pressures, the financial rewards of a scientific career are often small. To gain a typical Ph.D. from a UK university the student must first have spent at least three years as an undergraduate, more often four including a Master’s degree (we all know this is an expensive endeavour, more so recently). A typical Ph.D. course lasts an additional 3 years, during which it is rare to earn more than ~£16,000 p.a. Most courses offer an optional unpaid 4th year, which many students (even the most organised and diligent) often use to finish their thesis. Assuming you can defend your work and gain a Ph.D. this qualification usually leads to one of two academic career paths: either a side-step into industry (an area I’m not so qualified to speak about) or a move into a ‘postdoc’ position, usually with the ultimate goal of gaining permanent academic employment. Unfortunately, despite the sheer amount of effort required to reach this stage, postdoc jobs are usually temporary (often lasting only 3-4 years) and do not tend to be highly paid. It is also not rare for a researcher to move through three or more postdocs before finding a permanent position. This means that many researchers are expected to spend the whole of their twenties and often a good proportion of their thirties in relatively low paid, high stress, temporary positions.

Don’t get me wrong; although this may sound bleak, for the right person, science is an ideal career. For the most part you get to be your own boss, you are constantly challenged by new problems, you get to travel around the world presenting your data at conferences and you know that your work is of huge significance to the community, even if it’s just a small part of a larger picture. However, for many people the lack of stability and a sustainable work/life balance will undoubtedly become a stumbling point.

In my experience women are more likely to struggle in positions which do not offer a sustainable work/life balance, especially if they intend to start a family. This may be why you find a large number of female academics moving sideways into more flexible careers such as teaching or medical writing (a predominantly female profession). In my opinion, the high attrition rate of women in the biological sciences does not reflect a difference in intellectual capacity or capability but simply a difference in priorities; men are perhaps more willing to sacrifice relationships and financial stability for their work. If this is the case, I believe there is a problem with a system which allows a number of intelligent motivated scientists who want a more balanced lifestyle to simply fall by the wayside.

The second question (why at most ages there are fewer women studying the physical sciences and maths) stabs at the heart of the age old nature/nurture debate. As far as I know, we cannot say whether the female mind is less inclined to this type of thought or whether the environment in which young girls grow up discourages them from studying these subjects. Either way, I believe the key to tackling the imbalance lies in fostering an interest in these subjects early in life rather than trying to convince teenagers that science is ‘cool’. Indeed, I think a good start would be to provide young girls with some more realistic academic female role models!

– but hey, don’t ask me I’m just a girl…

Post by: Sarah Fox and Louise Walker


The race between science and new doping techniques

With the Olympics being held in London later this year, and the controversial abolishment of lifetime banning for athletes caught using illegal performance enhancing drugs, there has never been a better time to try and cheat your way to the top. The desire to be the best in your field is what drives professional athletes to be at the top of their game. When this desire gets too much, it can push athletes to use illegal drugs and other performance-enhancing methods.

With rapid progress in the field of sports science, the ways by which athletes enhance their performance are evolving rapidly. New methods are emerging that threaten to undermine the efforts of those who try to win honestly.

Recent research has shown that drinking large amounts of green or white tea is enough to mask the illegal use of testosterone in deceptive athletes. The use of testosterone by athletes is currently illegal since it is known to increases muscle mass. Unfortunately it is extremely hard to detect athletes who are using testosterone since the hormone occurs naturally in both men and women. However, some tests are capable of detecting increased levels of testosterone. These rely on looking at the ratio between testosterone and another hormone found in urine, epitestosterone.  A study at Kingston University London has found that tea contains unusually high levels of anti-oxidants called catechins. These inhibit an enzyme required for testosterone to be excreted in urine, meaning that athletes drinking large volumes of tea will secrete less testosterone, so can evade detection by current doping tests. Therefore green tea can effectively help ‘fool’ scientists into thinking that an athlete is clean. Who knew the quintessentially British ‘cup of tea’ could benefit dishonest athletes, pulling the wool over the world’s eyes!

Another potential ‘game-changer’ facing the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is the concept of using doping genes to improve an athlete’s performance. Research at the International Centre of Genetic Engineering and Bio-technology in Italy has found that injecting certain growth genes into mice causes  them to develop significantly more muscle mass than non-treated animals. A virus, acting as a carrier, is used to implant the gene for Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) into muscle cells in the mice. Mice injected with the gene are able to swim for three times as long as normal animals. Along with increased endurance, the IGF-1 gene also triggers production of 10 times more protein than is seen in normal muscles and an increase in genes controlling energy production, muscle contraction and respiration – all vital for a ‘super-human’ sportsman (or woman)!

When testing for indications of this in blood and urine samples from treated mice, there was no trace of any of the implanted gene, protein or virus. This may make it possible for doping cheats to get around the laws! Biopsies of athletes’ muscles would show up differences between the structure of the muscles of a trained athlete and a cheat, however, there are ethical concerns over subjecting athletes to such tests.

At a recent conference held in London, aptly called Tackling Doping in Sport, it emerged that new blood and urine tests were currently under development that could potentially expose ‘DNA doping’. If all else fails, authorities could expose cheats using this method of performance enhancement by creating a biological passport for each professional athlete. This file would regularly record the profiles of an athlete and would indicate when a dramatic change in their fitness is observed.

The idea of a biological passport is considered by some to be controversial. This could mean that honest athletes, who train and compete well within the laws of their sport, may end up being severely penalised because of corrupt athletes who want to cheat their way to the top. It is easy to argue that athletes join the profession knowing they are required to provide fluid samples if requested. However, muscle biopsies and biological passports may be considered a step too far!

Although regulating bodies have identified gene doping as an imminent threat to the sporting community, no athlete has yet been caught using this method.   Due to the growing potential of gene doping, WADA is taking a proactive stance to ensure that athletes attempting to use this method will be identified, and that structures will be in place to test for such cases.

The world of sport is being flooded with novel ways in which athletes can illegally improve their performance. This field is evolving from one where hormones in the body are elevated to improve performance, to a field where athletes could potentially use viruses to interfere with their DNA. The exact nature of how athletes will try to dodge drug tests in the future is not clear, although we can be certain that some will try their hardest! It will be interesting to observe the evolution of ways to test for illegal drugs in sport, to reflect novel performance enhancement ideas. Whatever happened to putting in the hard work yourself, and reaping the benefits?

Post by: Samantha Lawrence

Blame it on the brain: can you be held legally responsible for your brain?

Earlier this year, Edwin Hart Turner (38) was executed by lethal injection after being convicted of murdering Eddie Brooks and Everett Curry in a robbing spree near Mississippi. Shortly before the murders, Turner had been admitted at a mental hospital for depression after an attempted suicide. The defence attorneys’ main argument against Turner’s execution was his unstable state of mental health. Guilty or not guilty, Turner’s lawyers argued that a mentally ill person should be exempt from state execution.

Charles Whitman was a sporty, popular man who became increasingly aggressive and violent, while complaining of ‘tremendous headaches’. In 1966 he shot 13 people dead and wounded 32 others at the University of Texas in Austin before committing suicide. His autopsy discovered a cancerous tumour the size of a walnut invading his amygdala – a part of the brain important in regulating fear and rage.

Currently, the trial of Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik is dividing both social and professional opinion. Breivik, led by his far right-wing views, killed 8 people with a car bomb in Oslo and 69 more on the island of Utoya, a camp for the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. Breivik maintains that he is not legally insane and that he should be held fully culpable for his acts. Legally this would mean the difference between him being sectioned in a mental hospital, possibly indefinitely, or being incarcerated for a very long time. Professional opinions of Breivik’s mental health vary from him being ‘lucid but lonely’, to having personality disorders, including extreme narcissism; paranoid schizophrenia or psychosis; being both suicidal and homicidal; to having ‘a rare form of Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndrome’.

Admittedly, cases such as these aren’t exactly common. However, with further advances in our understanding of mental illness these stories are increasingly relevant, necessitating a level of crossover between neuroscience and legal ethics. This crossover poses a major dilemma for society, the question of how much personal control we have over our own brains and whether or not we can be held entirely responsible for our actions? Must all mass-murderers be, to some extent, mentally ill since they fall so far outside a ‘normal’ moral spectrum? Are we less accountable for our actions and decisions since our brains’ functions are a product of our biology and social influences?

These more general philosophical questions lead us to specific practical questions about how society should act. Should all criminals be psychologically and neurologically tested when being trialled? Should brain scans be used as evidence in a court of law? How should we treat people who have committed terrible crimes but are psychologically or neurologically unwell and should there be a distinction between the two?

At the end of 2011 The Royal Society published a report stating that in the USA, neurological or behavioural genetics were used as evidence for 722 legal defences between 2005 and 2009. In Italy, a woman had her sentence for murdering her sister reduced after the defence lawyers presented genetic and imaging evidence that her brain’s anatomy was different to that of 10 normal women. On the other hand, in 2008 an Indian woman was convicted of poisoning her husband when a scan of brain activity allegedly revealed that she had knowledge of events surrounding her spouses death which could only have been gained through experience. Neuroscientists are now often called upon as expert witnesses and so should have a understanding of the legal and ethical implications of their testimonies.

Following this, there has been a lot of research investigating how people perceive neurological or psychological evidence. In this research, mock-jurors were asked to decide whether a virtual defendant was guilty or ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ (NGRI). The virtual defendants had different levels of neurological or psychological evidence to support their claim of insanity. For example, in some cases medical evidence was provided proving the defendant had suffered brain damage, whilst in other cases the results of psychological analysis was given showing various types of personality disorder. This research found that around 50% of mock-jurors will find the defendant NGRI on the basis of evidence suggesting the defendant has suffered physical brain injury or neurological disease, especially if this is backed up by a brain scan. However, only about 10-12% of mock-jurors find virtual defendants with a personality disorder or psychopathy to be NGRI.

So what does this mean in real life? Today, it is estimated that 90% of UK prisoners have a diagnosable mental illness or substance abuse problem (Office for national statistics). About 1 in 7 of all prisoners in the UK are thought to have four concurrent mental health problems, often not simply associated with the time spent in prison. Also more than half the reported prisoners who commit suicide in prison exhibit symptoms of mental health problems on entering prison. Whether or not these mental health issues preceded or even contributed to their crime is unknown (and I can’t say how one would ever prove that beyond reasonable doubt), but I think that this has huge implications for the prison system. Seeing as people outside prison with mental illnesses are treated as patients rather than criminals, I think the government should focus on treating and rehabilitating, rather than punishing, prisoners who have been incarcerated on their brain’s behalf.

Post by: Natasha Bray

The Flow-Chart of Science

Next time you’re perusing your favourite newspaper or news website, it’s quite likely you’ll come across a headline announcing a new scientific discovery, perhaps saying something like “New drug found to reduce tumour growth in lung cancer patients”. This headline seems simple enough, but don’t be fooled, in order to generate it several scientists, several years and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears (sometimes literally) will have been involved. What makes it all so complicated you may ask? Well to answer this question I have created, for your entertainment and enjoyment, some (very generalised) flow-charts of a scientist’s life, which I hope will provide you with a small window on our world:

#1 Experimentation:


All research starts out with a hypothesis (an idea). Normally, after months of reading around a topic, you build on existing knowledge by proposing your own question. This question may stem from something someone else has discovered, or perhaps a hunch or suspicion you have based on your own previous research. For example, you may propose that “daily intake of a new experimental drug will significantly reduce growth of tumours in lung cancer patients”. The difficult part is working out how to prove this! You must find the best way to design an experiment to answer the question, preferably in the quickest and cheapest way possible.

Designing the experiment is arguably the trickiest part of scientific research. It is important that you can prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the factor you are testing is the sole cause of the effect you are seeing. Taking our cancer-drug hypothesis above, you will need to prove that the experimental drug is the main factor which is causing the reduction in tumour growth. In order to prove this, you need to find a relevant ‘control’ for your experiments. A control experiment largely mimics the actual experiment with the exception of the factor you are testing. To test that a new experimental drug works against lung cancer, you will need to use two groups of individuals (humans, or perhaps experimental animals depending on what stage of development the drug is in) with the same type of lung cancer. The first group will have the experimental drug given to them and the effect it has on the size of their tumours will be monitored. This group is the “experimental group”. However, the data from this group cannot stand alone; you need something to compare it to. This is where your control group (also known in human trials as the “placebo group”) comes in. The placebo group will usually also receive a pill, but it will be inactive, such as a sugar pill. You can then compare the rate of tumour shrinkage between the experimental and placebo groups. If the placebo group also experiences a reduction of tumour growth, then it shows that the effect is not due to your drug, but rather something else.

The selection of the experimental and placebo group is immensely important; you must ensure that the only real difference between the groups is whether or not they receive the drug. For example, if your experimental group are all females but your control group are males, you will not be able to say whether it was the drug or the effect of gender which caused your results. This is much easier to achieve in laboratory settings than in clinical studies (carried out with human subjects) since in a lab you can easily control for factors such as diet and lifestyle in both groups.

Ensuring your experiment works and is properly controlled can often be a serious headache and can take up a significant amount of time. However, once you’ve got your experiment working, then it’s time to get the results. If you’re lucky, the results will prove your hypothesis and you can move on to the next stage. However, there’s also a chance it’ll disprove your hypothesis. This means that you’ll need to generate a new hypothesis and start the whole process again.

So you’ve got your experiment to work, it’s well controlled and it proves your hypothesis. Now you’re good to go, right? Actually, no. Science rarely gives a definitive answer, and what’s more likely is that getting the answer to your original question will produce more questions which need further investigation. You may have noticed several infinite loops in the flow charts (if you follow the “no” answers anyway) – it is sometimes arbitrary when you decide to break the loop and publish your data in a ‘journal’ for the rest of the scientific community to see.

#2 Publishing:

There are several hundred different journals covering all specialities, from general science (maths, physics, biology, chemistry, engineering etc.) to incredibly specific areas such as Alzheimer’s disease. These journals publish “papers” which have been submitted by a group of scientists detailing their research, any relevant data required to back up their claims and explanations of how their work is relevant to the wider community. The important thing about publishing data is that you have a coherent story which is interesting to other people, especially fellow scientists.

So what happens when you finally decide to publish? Firstly, there is a significant advantage in having positive data (results which prove your original hypothesis). A big problem with scientific research is that negative data (results which disprove a hypothesis) are much harder to publish. A positive result is generally regarded as more interesting and a journal is more likely to accept it.

Another thing about publishing is that the data you present has to be of the highest quality. This may mean repeating experiments until the data produced is both convincing and aesthetically pleasing. This could take months to do well. Once you’ve got your data, then you can write your paper, in the style of your intended journal. This again can be a lengthy process.

So you’ve got convincing positive data which you’ve written up as a paper but now what do you do? Well, It depends on which journal you submit to but generally the paper will first be scrutinised by the journal’s editors. This is where they decide whether it’s interesting enough to publish. This can depend on the journal – top-level publications (also known as “high impact journals”), will only accept the highest quality most interesting stories and are quite likely to reject research if it’s not interesting enough. If your work not deemed good enough for your chosen journal the paper is ‘bounced back’ to you and you’ll have to rewrite it for another journal with a lower “impact factor”, or perform more experiments to help back up or round off your story.

If the editors accept your data, they’ll send it for review. This means giving it to (usually) three other scientists who work in a similar field. They thoroughly check the data and ensure that it makes sense. At this point, they may give the green light to publish, but they could also ask for additional experiments or data to add to the story. However, they could also decide that it isn’t interesting or convincing enough to be published in this particular journal. You can then attempt to submit it to a different journal, or you may have to scrap your whole idea and come up with a new hypothesis.

The pay off for all of this time and frustration is finally having your work published and available to the wider scientific community. Fellow scientists around the world will now be able to see what you’ve been doing and what you’ve achieved, making all the blood, sweat and tears worth it. Hopefully your work will make a recognisable contribution towards your field – even small or seemly insignificant discoveries can turn out to be very important later on.

So you’ve published … now what? You guessed it: time for a new hypothesis. Prepare to re-enter the loop and start the whole business over again.

Post by: Louise Walker

Blurring the line between man and machine

In the last few years a small piece of science-fiction has become science-fact. In a recent study a woman, paralysed from the neck down, was able to move a robotic arm using only the power of her mind. Through this robotic appendage she was able to do something she hadn’t done for many years: pick up a cup of coffee and drink from it out without help.
This life changing feat was achieved through the surgical implantation of a computer chip within her motor cortex (the area of your brain which activates when you initiate a movement). The chip detected activity within this region of the brain, forming what is known as a ‘neural interface’. This chip was then connected to a computer which controlled the robotic arm. After some practice, the participant’s brain adapted to the neural interface allowing her to control the arm. What makes this amazing is that despite being paralysed for 15 years, only 20 minutes of adaptation was needed to manipulate the arm adequately.

Coffee served by a robotic arm: almost as expensive as Starbucks (Original work by: Hochberg et al., 2012).

This research is the latest in a long line of studies showing how machines or devices linked directly to the brain (so called “neuroprostheses”) can be controlled by thoughts alone. First pioneered in rodents and monkeys, this technology is now showing promise for improving the lives of many handicapped people. Potentially, anyone suffering from paralysis in the future will be able to regain a degree of independence and control over their surroundings.

These interfaces also have scope beyond treatment of paralysis, they have in fact been applied to the treatment of many different disorders. A few examples include: Locked-in syndrome, a state where a person is completely unable to move or signify that they are conscious. These patients are unable to speak or in some cases even blink. Trapped in a prison of their own body, patients have gone years before anyone has known that they are conscious. Thankfully, neural interfaces have been developed that allow direct control of a cursor on a computer screen and control of text selection systems for communication. For these people, neural interfaces will provide an outlet through which they can communicate with and interact with the outside world. Similarly, a neural interface in the visual cortex connected to a camera has enabled blind subjects to regain some of their sight. Although sight is only restored to a level that allows them to perceive the outline of shapes and to read, this is still an amazing breakthrough.

Right: Stephen Hawking uses a text selection system using input from moving his cheek to communicate. However for someone with locked-in syndrome even this would not be possible. Left: Jens Neumann, who regained his vision with a neural implant.

Taking the research further, the ‘Holy Grail’ would involve a neural interface coupled with muscle stimulation (a therapy already in use). This would give the patient direct control over their own limbs; providing what could be described as a substitute nervous system which could bypass the injury causing the initial paralysis. Although such complex limb control is still just an ambitious long term goal, more basic control is already within reach and is currently being implemented.

And what about amputees? There are already advanced mechanical prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by muscle movements. One example is shown below:

However, whilst the control and range of motion of these hands is already sophisticated, a direct neural implant would provide numerous advantages in the complexity of movement as well as the ability to perceive touch, temperature and position. Were all of these incorporated into a neural interface, a prosthetic limb would feel more like a new arm or leg rather than simply a mechanical appendage.

Of course in fiction, people with neuroprosthetic implants are often depicted as psychotic transhuman abominations bent upon the destruction or corruption of normal society. But, given the brain’s incredible ability to adapt, what sort of non-therapeutic implants should we realistically consider? What if instead of recovering some form of lost function, neural interfaces were instead used by healthy people to gain some new function? For example, what about a new sense? Birds can navigate thousands of miles across featureless ocean by intrinsically perceiving the earth’s magnetic field. If there was a compass in your head that was always on and as easy to interpret as your sense of hearing, you might never get lost again. What if a neuroprosthetic implant allowed you to perceive sounds beyond the normal range of human hearing, like a supercharged hearing aid? Or perceive light beyond the normal range of human vision in conjunction with eye augmentation? You then quite literally would have x-ray vision.

Precisely how neural implants will develop in the next few decades is difficult to predict. Significant technical challenges exist in the long term function of these devices and their ability to resist problems such as tissue deterioration, movement and the body’s own immune response. Despite these issues, they undoubtedly will play a huge role in the lives of people with debilitating injuries, but how much of a role will they play in the lives of the rest of us? We will simply have to wait and see.

Post by: Chris Logie

We are not alone: How the bugs in our gut influence our eating habits.

Your gut is literally teeming with microorganisms, the majority of which are bacteria. Indeed, the single celled squatters residing in our gut are estimated to outnumber our own cells 10:1 (this means that your body contains ten intestinal microorganisms for every one of its own cells!). Although these figures may make you feel uncomfortable, there is nothing sinister about our resident bacterial tenants; in fact scientists believe that the relationship we have with most these bacteria is actually beneficial. These bacteria or ‘microbiota’ help us absorb important nutrients from our food whilst also boosting the guts immune system, making them pretty much indispensable.

However, not all gut bacteria are alike. We know that, just as everyone expresses their own individual compliment of DNA , each individual also houses his or her own host of gut microorganisms. The specific compliment of bacteria resident in your gut depends heavily on environmental factors such as diet and is also liable to change throughout the course of a lifetime. Interestingly, as with DNA, different compliments of bacteria confer different properties to the host, some less favourable than others.

Work with mice suggests that certain types of gut microbiota may make an individual more prone to weight gain. This idea stems from work with three separate groups of mice: fat mice, lean mice and germ-free mice (mice with no detectable gut microorganisms). Scientists found that, unlike normal mice, germ-free animals did not gain weight when fed a high fat ‘Western’ diet. In fact, these mice needed to eat more than normal animals just to maintain a healthy weight. This is presumably because their lack of intestinal bacteria made it harder for them to absorb nutrients from their food. The researchers then moved on to investigate how these germ-free animals responded to infection from different compliments of gut microbes. They infected two separate groups of germ-free animals with gut microorganisms taken from either fat or lean mice. Both infected groups gained weight, however, only animals infected with gut microbes from the fat mice became overweight. These findings indicate that the fat mice may carry a specific array of microbes which promote excessive weight gain.

This research raises the question of how bacteria living in our guts can influence the amount of food we eat and the amount of weight we gain? Findings suggest that by-products generated by gut bacteria can influence both the amount of nutrition absorbed from food and the way the gut signals to the brain telling us to stop or start eating. Since different groups of bacteria will influence these systems in different ways, it has been suggested that the type of bacteria you house could influence both your eating habits and the nutrients gained from the food you eat.

So how do these findings fit with what we already know about weight control and the gut’s microbiome? Although the overall picture emerging from this research area is complicated, there are a few things we can be quite sure of: Firstly we know that our gut microbiota are generally more beneficial than they are harmful (note that although germ-free mice seem resistant to weight gain, they are also much more susceptible to infection and do not live as long as normal animals). We now also know that not all bacteria are equal, with some appearing more beneficial than others. Finally it is widely accepted that the role bacteria play in weight control is just one part of a much larger picture involving genetics, diet and exercise. Therefore, although I don’t think we know enough to claim that ‘good bacteria’ can offer a miracle solution to weight loss, the possibilities for further research into this area are exciting, especially since the gut’s microbiome is easily altered by changes in diet and the use of pro and prebiotics.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Does embryo gender selection have a place in society?

Imagine a world where we are able to manufacture our own ‘designer baby’, where we could choose its eye colour, hair colour or even its build with just a single visit to the hospital. Where would it end? Would we ever be able to achieve perceived perfection in our children?

This may seem like some futuristic sci-fi fantasy, but in-fact it may not be as far off as you think. With rapidly advancing technology it is now possible to select the gender of your baby, like walking into a shop and choosing a book, so who knows what decisions you will be able to make about your child’s appearance and character in the near future. With a growing number of couples opting for so-called gender selection procedures abroad, is it possible that scientists have gone too far? At any rate, this  issue causes a lot of concern and raises the question as to whether gender selection has a place in our society.

So what is gender selection and how does it work?: This is a laboratory procedure which allows parents to choose the sex of their unborn child. Such gender selection can be achieved through a number of pre-implantation methods. The most common of which is known as In Vitro (outside the body) Fertilisation or IVF. In IVF, egg cells are removed from the mother and fertilised in a laboratory using sperm from the intended father. The fertilised eggs are then allowed to develop to a point where they can be separated on the basis of sex, embryos of the desired sex can then be re-implanted into the mother. A post-implantation blood test can also be used to confirm the sex of the baby. However this is often, unlawfully, followed by abortion if the sex is unwanted.

So where does society stand on this issue?: Currently, the UK law on gender selection (The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990, amended 2008)) prohibits selection of embryos on the basis of sex, except in cases of sex-linked genetic disorders. However, in contrast to Britain, countries such as the US and Russia openly practice gender selection for non-medical reasons; this is often rationalised as ‘family balancing’. The pro’s and cons of legalising this procedure are hotly debated, with extreme views held world-wide, this strong polarity in opinion makes the legalisation process extremely controversial.

Perhaps it would be apt at this point to consider the advantages and disadvantages of this type of selection:

One of the most prominent arguments for the legalisation of gender selection hinges on cases where there is a risk of diseases that may be passed onto the foetus. Many agree that when there is a risk of sex-linked diseases such as thalassemia (a blood disorder producing anaemia) and haemophilia (a disorder where blood clotting is impaired) being passed onto a child, it is morally justified to allow gender selection. This argument asserts that gender selection has a place in avoiding genetic conditions and preserving the health of future generations, a point of view that I empathise with. I believe that there is a need for gender selection to select away from life-long illnesses which would impact, not only on the individual, but also on the people that surround them. With rapidly advancing technology and sustained funding for research into such procedures, do we have a moral obligation to use this technology for the ‘greater good’?
It is also argued that, as individuals, we should be allowed the freedom to express our reproductive rights. Since each of us is free to take whatever path we choose when it comes to our own bodies, similar to the right to abort an unwanted child, we should also have the right to decide something as influential as the gender of our baby. However, I think we need to address the issue of whether it is moral to make such important decisions regarding someone’s life on their behalf, and without their consent.

Currently, doctors report an increase in the number of parents opting for abortion after discovering the sex of their baby. This drive to produce a baby of a certain sex can lead to a cycle which may continue until the desired sex is achieved. Some believe that legalising gender selection may help to put an end to the abortion of unwanted babies based purely on their sex. This is particularly relevant in countries such as China where there is huge pressure on parents to produce males to carry on the family name and to look after them when they retire. Here, gender selection is reinforced by the ‘One child’ policy that currently stands, meaning parents who have more than one child can be heavily fined. If gender selection was legalised in countries such as this, then there would be a massive reduction in the number of illegal abortions.

In contrast to this, supporting gender selection could have disastrous consequences demographically. A survey of 1500 couples in Hungary found that, of those who would consider using gender selection if it were made legal, 87% would want their first child to be male. In this case we would be left with a heavily male-dominated population. Such a population imbalance would undoubtedly lead to problems both with reproduction and the general structure of that society.

Many believe that one of the joys of parenthood is the unknown, the beauty of nature, the sheer surprise when you go for your first ultrasound. This opinion upholds that ‘tampering’ with an unborn child is something that should remain outside our control, and should be left to the hands of nature. If it is possible to choose the sex of our baby before it is even born, at what point would we stop trying to control every detail of our offspring, and actually get on with loving what we have been given?

Although it is apparent that making gender selection common practice in the UK should not be taken lightly, it is obvious that there is no clear-cut right or wrong. There are reasons for and against the UK following the US’ lead, and accepting gender selection into our future. In my view there are clearly positive connotations in legalising this procedure when selecting against genetic conditions that would otherwise have a negative impact on quality of life. I believe in cases such as these, society does not have the right to force anyone into having a child with a serious, perhaps even fatal, illness when the technology exists to prevent it. On the other hand, wide-spread legalisation is something I do not whole-heartedly agree with. I believe full legalisation of gender selection may be a step too far since such legislation may quickly lead to a heavily gender biased society whilst also opening the possibility of other types of genetic selection. However, the argument against gender selection centres heavily on leaving things as nature intended, but if this was the case then there would be no need for doctors and medicines, as we would be left to run our natural course without intervention. In conclusion, considerations need to be made based on whether it is morally acceptable to interfere with the course of nature, for medical or non-medical grounds.

With growing scope for genetic intervention the resulting moral maze will undoubtedly remain a topic of debate and conjecture across all walks of society (the above video shows one example of this discussion coming under scrutiny in the music industry).

Post by: Sam Lawrence

Optogenetics: The ultimate ‘light bulb’ moment

If the system underlying the ‘mind’ is a network of neurons constantly firing and wiring, then surely ‘mind control’ could be achieved by controlling the activity of neurons? Imagine being able to switch groups of neurons on and off instantaneously as simply as flipping a light switch. In fact, why not use light itself to control neurons; to control minds? How would you turn neurons deep in the dark depths of your brain into light-responders?……….Welcome to optogenetics (‘opto’ comes from ‘optos’, Greek for ‘visible’).

Science has yet again used a once thought ‘lower’ organism to make massive steps in understanding the way our biology works. The simple algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii looks pretty unremarkable – it swims about generally doing what algae do: photosynthesise, swim, repeat, etc. What makes it interesting, however, is that it can detect which way to swim using its ‘eyespot’. This eyespot, found on the surface of the alga, contains a pore called channel rhod-opsin that opens in response to light (in particular, blue light). When this channel is open, it lets calcium into the cell. In this case, calcium acts like the alga’s engine ignition. The calcium ions activate propeller-like flagellae, which do a sort of tiny breast-stroke towards the source of light.

As well as being an unexpectedly neat way of guiding this humble green blob towards the sun’s rays, this system is also a massively useful experimental tool. Until recently when scientists wanted to activate neurons they tended to rely on either drugs or electrical stimulation. These methods are far from perfect since drugs can be slow and may cause unwanted side effects; whilst electrical stimulation is too imprecise to target very specific groups of cells. Algae have now inspired scientists into designing similar light-responsive systems that they can whack into groups of neurons. With a bit of tinkering these systems can be targeted to any number of different neuron types and can respond to a variety of different coloured light. Some systems are slight tweaks on the basic channel rhod-opsin unit whilst others combine opsins from other types of algae or microbes that react to different coloured lights or for different lengths of time. Whatever the mechanism, these are tools that let you change the activity of specific groups of neurones at will – with millisecond precision.

So what can you do with these light-responsive systems – or ‘phototriggers’? Let’s start with flies. First install the DNA for a phototrigger system into neurons at the base of a fly’s wing, now from this DNA those neurons can construct their very own light-responsive receptors. These neurons become active when a light is shone on them, just like the algae. Shine a light, the neurons become active and fire, telling the wings to beat. Result: we have take-off. And just in case you’re thinking the fly just sees the light and tries to flee, the same happens in decapitated flies. Gross but true! If you want to know more or need to see it to believe it: see here.

So what else can we do with this amazing technology? Well, it has been used experimentally to help us understand a number of brain functions. For example, in order to understand how choices are made, optogenetic techniques were used to switched on and off a flies’ preference for certain smells. This led to the amazing discovery of the fly’s inner critic, an assembly of 12 neurones that govern the decisions flies make. Scientists have also inserted light-responsive elements into more complex animals in an attempt to prove a causal relationship between certain groups of brain cells and a specific behaviour. In the video below, a mouse runs around every time a blue light is shone into its brain, meaning that the switching on of the light-activated brain cells causes the mouse to run. Another study made a mouse ‘prefer’ to freeze on the spot by illuminating – and therefore activating – its reward centres every time it chanced upon a particular place in its cage. These experiments are elegant and powerful because they identify the particular set of brain cells that cause, or lead to some pretty complex actions. More recently, in a bid to unravel the mysteries of how the brain deals with fear and rewards, scientists have used a similar light sensitive system to make rats remember a fearful situation. If mice or rats have minds (the complexities of which, we don’t know), then surely this counts as mind control?


When I first heard about optogenetics, I was gobsmacked at how clever and insightful the technology sounded. A small part of me was originally hesitant, however. I’ve obviously watched too many films that make me almost suspicious of a tool that could potentially enable mind control, or, dare I say it, ‘brainwashing’. Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange springs to mind: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” (Anthony Burgess). The implications of this technology are massive and, without wanting to sound like too much of a film nerd, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ (Spiderman, if you’re wondering). Luckily, though, after reading up on optogenetics, I’ve come round to realise that its potential for good far outweighs the fearsome idea that the technology would be used to construct an army full of mindless, Jason Bourne-esque zombies. Like I said, I watch far too many films.

Instead, the ability to manipulate the brain as we’ve never been able to in the past is being put to good use. Awful diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis – to name but a few – are currently not curable. In an aging population more prone to age-related brain disorders, it’s an increasingly big problem. Optogenetics is a valuable tool with which to study these diseases in order to find treatments. It may even prove a valuable tool in itself – for some Parkinson’s patients, who currently rely on drugs to switch on faulty neurones, optogenetics might offer a powerful alternative with no dodgy side effects. Not only that, but how the brain works is still, to a large extent, a mystery. Optogenetics allows scientists to essentially break the brain apart into its different components to isolate different groups of cells to study how each of them work and affect each other: ultimately leading to our ability to sense, think and act .

Post by: Natasha Bray