The science behind the stories: drug treatment to slow progress of Huntington’s disease.

Microscope image of a neuron (yellow) showing a collection of Huntington’s disease proteins collecting at it’s core (orange).

Huntington’s is a devastating genetic disease, described by patients as being like “Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease rolled into one”. In most cases the disorder can be traced back to an inherited genetic mutation which increases the length of the Huntingtin gene. The mutated gene harbours an abnormally long sequence of the DNA base pairs C A and G (this type of mutation is known as a CAG expansion). Sufferers commonly have one normal copy of the Huntingtin gene and one mutant copy and, over time, mutant Huntingtin protein builds up in the brain, damaging neurons and ultimately leading to the devastating symptoms of the disease.

A recent wave of articles (here, here, here) suggest that scientists may be on the cusp of a groundbreaking leap in treating this disorder; giving sufferers hope that a new drug could soon stop the march of Huntington’s in its tracks.

This drug has been named Ionis-HTTRx and, despite its dull moniker, it represents a pretty spectacular breakthrough in the field of Gene silencing.

But what is Gene silencing and what does this drug actually do?

Genes are segments of DNA which contain the instructions for making different proteins. These proteins perform a huge range of essential functions in our bodies; from signalling between cells, speeding up biological reactions to forming structural support for our cells.

So, to understand Gene silencing, we first need to understand the journey from Gene to protein.

Genes sit nestled within the tight curls of the DNA double helix. Specialised molecular machinery within the cell’s nucleus can break open the DNA helix and read individual Genes, creating an almost identical, single sided copy of the Gene known as mRNA. You could think of DNA as a hybrid between a ladder and a spiral staircase, while mRNA looks a bit like a small segment of that ladder which has been split down the middle. It is this mRNA which can slip outside the cell’s nucleus and act as a template for the creation of a protein (through a process known as transcription).

How can this process be silenced?

Gene silencing targets mRNA. Scientists have designed molecules which recognise the mRNA produced by specific genes, home in on these strands and stop them from being transcribed into proteins. This means that researchers can target specific proteins and selectively reduce the amount produced in cells.

Ionis-HTTRx is a antisense oligonucleotide which looks a bit like a mirror image of the huntingtin mRNA and, due to its structural similarity to the mRNA, it binds to the huntingtin mRNA stopping the transcription process – therefore silencing the gene’s effect.

Back in 2012 studies in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease found that when this drug was administered directly into the animal’s spinal fluid, mice showed a delay in disease progression and ‘sustained disease reversal’. While the most recent study involving 46 men and women in the early stages of Huntington’s found that 4 spinal injections, each one month apart, lead to a significant drop in the amount of harmful huntingtin protein present in spinal fluid samples. The trial did not last long enough to uncover whether this drop in harmful protein would ultimately translate into a reduction of clinical symptoms but a second trial, aimed at answering this question, is definitely on the cards.

Not only is this discovery exciting for those harbouring the huntingtin mutation, some suggest that the theory behind this treatment could be extrapolated to other conditions – namely Alzheimer’s disease. Our current understanding of Alzheimer’s disease suggests that it is also caused by misbehaving proteins. However, since the genetic causes of Alzheimer’s are more complex and less well understood than those underlying Huntington’s it is yet to be seen whether similar therapies would prove effective in this case.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Healthy eating: not always as healthy as you might think.

I have a confession to make.

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.

Post by: Sarah Fox



Normalising cancer.

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.

Post by: Sarah Fox


I come in peace: Engaging life on a flat Earth

Did you know that the Earth is actually flat, not round and that NASA and the government fuel the round Earth conspiracy?….No, neither did I but this mind-boggling world view is currently gaining momentum on the internet and has recently found its way onto my radar.

To give you a bit of background:

Alongside my vociferous online academic rantings and day job helping researchers and the lay public work together to design and implement health research, I also spend a fair bit of time volunteering with the British Science Association (the BSA). The BSA is a charity and learned society founded in 1831 with many strings to its academic bow; including the standardisation of electrical units (including the Ohm, Volt and Amp). Today it is supported by a huge backbone of volunteers working tirelessly across the country to improve the public perception of science – letting everyone know that there is much more to science than just mind boiling equations and stuffy white haired professors.

Our small group of Mancunian volunteers meet monthly to mastermind and implement a huge range of engagement activities. Over the years I’ve been with the group I’ve found myself designing an endangered species treasure hunt (based on a mash-up of Pokemon Go and geocashing), baking cake pops for an astronomy and art crossover event held on the site of Manchester City centre’s oldest observatory and, just last week, hosting over 40 AS/A-level students at a science journalism workshop.

As a group we work hard to make sure our activities are fun and open to everyone – no matter what their academic background. But, we’re not naive, so we recognise that our reach is still pretty small and that there are many communities in our home city who will never have heard of us. This is why we have been working with a BSA volunteer from our Birmingham branch who’s role has been to help us find out more about Manchester’s hard to reach communities and discover how we can offer them meaningful engagement. It was during one of our meetings she said that she had been in contact with someone who runs a computer coding club for local teenagers and had noticed that some of these youngsters were adamant supporters of the ‘flat Earth’ theory – which is apparently backed up by a number of celebrities including rapper B.o.B who recently went on a amusing and disturbing Twitter rant about the topic.

This got me thinking. If science has never really been your thing, which is fine by the way just like P.E was never my thing, how do you avoid falling down the black hole of conspiracy theories (Illuminati, anti-vaccination, flat Earth)?

These theories offer an alternative world view which can, at first glance, appear to fit much better with the world we see and experience around us every day than the complex and often invisible world of science. Take flat Earth as a example. In our everyday lives we interact with both flat and round objects (compare a table top with a yoga ball) and, from these interactions, we build up an understanding of how these objects work. On a very basic level we see that things fall off a ball, you can’t really balance things on it like you can a table and it has an obvious curvature. Then take a look at the Earth. We can stand and walk along it with no obvious indication of its curvature, water sits flat in rivers and oceans it doesn’t run down the sides of the Earth as you would see if you spilled a glass of water onto a yoga ball. So, assuming you have little or no interest in astronomy (perhaps you live in the city center so don’t get a good view of the night sky anyway) and the mathematics of gravity and scale makes your head hurt, it’s easy to understand why you may choose to mistrust theories which you cannot test or see for yourself.

So, with this in mind, my question is: Is it possible to design activities and interactions that don’t patronise or assume knowledge but enable people to test scientific theories in ways that make sense and allow them to simply observe the outcomes with their own eyes?

We are now hoping to meet with this community, attend some of their activities, make friends and let them know scientists are just ordinary people. Then we want to jump in and put together a small accessible science festival where everyone can have fun and hopefully engage with science on a small scale. I get the feeling it’s not going to be an easy sell but will undoubtedly be worth it if done properly.

My mind is bubbling with ideas, including the possibility of sending a Go-Pro camera up on a balloon and playing back the footage – the possibilities are endless…although sadly our budget isn’t. Whatever happens, I’m excited and will keep you all updated on our progress as things move forward.

For now I want to invite anyone reading this to drop me a line in the comments below. Perhaps you’re an academic who has worked on a similar event and has some ideas, or maybe you’re keen on the flat Earth theory and want to tell us more about what you believe? Either way I’d love to hear from you.

Post by: Sarah Fox

Update: A pretty interesting gif image of a few pictures my telescope loving partner took last night showing Jupiter spinning on its axis – notice how the great red spot moves round. Perhaps we could bring our telescopes along to the festival and have a play 🙂

Why the rat pack don’t do drugs

From awkward school seminars to the topical banter of South Park, we’ve all heard the message loud and clear ‘Drugs are bad….ok?’. And yes, as a rule messing with your brain chemistry is probably not a great idea. But, there are certain nuances surrounding drug use and addiction that you may not be aware of and which could have important implications for how we understand addiction and work with addicts.

Many of us may have heard about studies in the 1960’s involving lab rats and cocaine. In these relatively simplistic studies researchers offered caged rats a choice between regular drinking water and water laced with cocaine. Most animals studied didn’t just favour the drug-laced drinking water, they actively drank so much they eventually killed themselves. These shocking findings lead many researchers and politicians to believe that drugs such as heroine and cocaine were so dangerously addictive that they caused individuals to loose control over their own behaviour. And yes, these drugs can certainly be dangerous however, there was more to this story than these researchers realised.

In the 1970’s Bruce Alexander, a curious psychologist from Vancouver, noticed a big problem with this research. He recognised that all the rats studied in these addiction experiments were housed in small wire cages with no access to any of the things that make a wild rat’s life worth living (i.e. space to explore, a network of furry friends and lovers and things to play with). So Alexander re-ran these early experiments but with one important difference, his rats all lived in the lap of rodent luxury. These lucky rats were residents of Alexander’s Rat Park, where they had space to explore, tunnels to scamper through and friends to interact with. Amazingly, although the residents of Rat Park were curious enough to try drug-laced drinking water, most would then shun this water – consuming less than a quarter of the drugs isolated rats used; and, most importantly, none of Alexander’s rats died from overdoses.

On top of these findings Alexander also discovered that isolated and addicted rats which were subsequently released from their enforced isolation and introduced into Rat Park soon gave up their destructive habits in favour of a normal life.

So how does this change our understanding of addiction?

Professor Alexander argued that his discovery showed that addiction was more than simply a disease which chemically hijacked the brain, instead it could be an adaptation to an individual’s environment and social situation – i.e. addiction is not about you, it’s all about your cage.

In favour of Alexander’s ‘Rat Park theory’ we know that, although following an injury many individuals are prescribed the pain killer diamorphine (a medical name for heroin), we rarely have problems with these patients becoming addicts. Could this be because the patients are able to return home after their stay in hospital to loving supportive families and rewarding careers so no-longer need to rely on these drugs?

Although these finding are compelling and perhaps suggest useful social interventions with regard to treating addicts, it is still important to understand the limitations of the Rat Park and Alexander’s theory. Indeed, it is important to recognise that ‘Rat Park’ oversimplifies a complex societal and biological problem and that this oversimplification may not be beneficial. Research still suggests that certain people have a physical predisposition towards addiction and, despite living socially enriched lives, these individuals can still fall fowl to the addiction cycle. The myriad of research into the biological substrates of addiction could make-up a post in it’s own right, so I will attempt to cover this in more detail in a later article. However, for now it’s important to recognise that even though environment is likely to play a role in addictive behaviours, biology is also important in shaping our vulnerability to addictive drugs and our subsequent success in kicking the habits. This research should all be considered together if we really want to successfully tackle the problems raised by drugs in our society.

Post by: Sarah Fox


How a little Christmas spirit can be good for you

Faced with a disappointing combination of mild wet weather, long working days and the frustrating realisation that Costa have changed their Black Forest Hot Chocolate recipe (spoiler alert it’s no where near as tasty); this year Christmas spirit has so far eluded me. But, this mild winter malaise did get me thinking. What causes seasonal nostalgia, what does it look like in your brain and does it serve any beneficial purpose? So please enjoy a bit of Brain Bank festive research as we search for the true spirit of Christmas.

It has been suggested that the key to Christmas spirit may be familiarity and a sense of nostalgia for times long gone. Indeed, what gets the festive juices flowing more than cheesy Christmas movies, twinkling lights and festive family gatherings – experiences we most likely all share and repeat year after year. Krystine Batcho, nostalgia expert and professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, thinks that this bittersweet sense of seasonal nostalgia really embodies the Christmas spirit and that this feeling may also hold some emotional benefit.

But what exactly is nostalgia?

There was a time when nostalgia was though of as a physical illness. This was exemplified by feelings of home sickness experienced by young soldiers serving away from their families for the first time, often culminating in varying physical symptoms including anorexia resulting from loss of appetite. However, we now appreciate that nostalgia is actually linked with a range of emotions, both positive and negative. One study suggests that the predominant profile of nostalgia is a mix of happiness and sentimentality but, it is also recognised that this can be tempered by the sadness of loss and yearnings for a different time. One thing that is pretty much agreed upon however is that the feeling of nostalgia is universal, cutting across cultures, historical periods and developmental stages – even a child can be nostalgic.

Krystine thinks that nostalgia can also be beneficial. Specifically, she suggests that it helps us to maintain a constant sense of identity in the face of large and often traumatic life changes. It provides us with a tangible link to our own personal past and helps us remember who we are. In fact nostalgia is thought to peak in early adulthood, a time when transition and change can become a big part of our lives (think marriage, college, new jobs!).

The holiday season in particular can evoke strong feelings of nostalgia due to repeated experiences shared year on year. This is especially true in regard to relationships. So many of our holiday experiences centre around interpersonal relationships, family gatherings, religious traditions and cultural customs. Think of the festive classic “Driving home for Christmas” and the nostalgic feelings it summons up regarding reuniting with loved ones for the festive season. In fact, this form of nostalgia can help decrease feelings of loneliness by helping people feel connected to family again, even when they are not physically present.

So what is happening in our brains when we experience festive nostalgia?

One study by Kentaro Oba, from the Department of Frontier Health Science, Division of Human Health Science, Graduate School of Tokyo Metropolitan University, shows a relationship between memory and reward systems in the brain, specifically in relation to childhood nostalgia. This study observes co-activation of both the hippocampal formation and ventral striatum during nostalgic experiences. The connection also appeared to be stronger in people who report feeling a strong sense of nostalgia. This suggests that hippocampal memory and ventral striatum reward systems may work together to produce the beneficial and rewarding feelings linked with nostalgia. The researchers suggest that memory retrieval via the hippocampus during nostalgia can trigger a cascade of reward processes including activity in the hippocampal-VTA (ventral tegmental area) loop and culminating in release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is therefore speculated that, based on the function of this loop, memory and dopaminergic reward during nostalgia may be involved in psychological resilience. Specifically nostalgia strengthens the association between an autobiographical memory and the feeling of reward. This cycle can induce feelings of positivity and may help those experiencing nostalgia to overcome adversity.

Finally, when it comes to the Christmas spirit one group of researchers from Denmark used functional magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint how festive imagery can affect the brain. Although only four people took part in this unusual study, the work suggests that festive feelings may be linked with activation of the frontal, parieto-occipital and subcortical brain regions.

Perhaps Christmas is all in the mind but this is proof enough for me that festive feelings are probably good for you – so pass me another mince pie I think E.T is on TV….

Post by: Sarah Fox



Have yourself a wild winter: Preparing your garden for winter wildlife

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-19-42-10As the last leaves fall from our trees and the outside world beds down for winter, we at the Brain Bank are turning our thoughts to the UK’s wild critters braving this cruel and often unpredictable season.

A quick peek at the BBC’s monthly weather outlook, taking us into the early part of December, shows the typical British weather pattern of unpredictability continuing forward. The jet stream is likely to develop a blocking pattern which prevents prevailing westerly winds blowing low pressure systems across our shores – this should favour a period of quiet weather, although whether this will be cold or mild is still open to doubt.

One thing I do know, however, is that over the last two weeks my garden has experienced mild sunshine, torrential rain, flooding, hail, snow and everything in-between. As I glance from the window to my wardrobe, grumbling about what to wear I can’t help but think – however hard we find this season, the wildlife fighting for survival just outside our doors are undoubtedly having a much harder time than us.

So what can we do to make the festive season just a bit jollier for them?


For birds struggling through the winter months berries can be a lifeline. However, as the season draws on, berry supplies are dwindling and many birds will be in search of another food source – this is where you come in. A well stocked, clean and reliable bird feeder could be the difference between life and death for wintering British birds.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-19-46-09If you are unsure of what to feed your garden visitors you can find an extensive list of common British birds and their dietary idiosyncrasies here. Briefly, sparrows and finches have a preference for seeds while tits enjoy fat unlike thrushes and robins who have an appetite for fruit and worms.

Many feathered garden visitors also have an appetite for our leftovers: fruit cake, mince pie, dried fruit, unsalted nuts, apples and pears are all excellent appetisers for garden birds. Some more timid species like wrens and dunnocks can even be tempted to snack on grated mild cheese sprinkled under trees and bushes.

But be sure you choose the right stuff for your garden gang. Be mindful that birds will not eat anything mouldy or salty (too much salt can be poisonous to small birds). Also, however much you may have enjoyed your Christmas dinner, few birds have a taste for leftover sprouts and turkey fat can stick to their feathers making it harder for them to stay warm and dry. Finally, if you have dogs be very careful of feeding your garden birds grapes or currents since vine fruits can be toxic to dogs.

Finally, although an outdoor winter dip may sound horrific to us, birds need to bathe and drink every day – even when it’s cold outside. So if you can, try to make sure there is fresh unfrozen water somewhere in your garden.


Although our minds may now be firmly fixed on snuggly jumpers and hot chocolate, it’s not uncommon for the UK to experience unseasonably warm days at the end of autumn and in early spring. This unseasonable warmth will often bring bees buzzing out of their winter homes and into your garden. So, to give our buzzing buddies a helping hand it’s always good to ensure your garden has it’s fair share of late and early-flowering plants. Ivy is in flower at this time of year and bulbs, which you can plant now, are a good source of food for bees early in the spring – fritillaries, crocus and snowdrops can also all be buzzing with bees on a sunny day.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-19-48-36A fun, if slightly unusual Christmas activity, would be to make yourself a solitary bee house. With bee numbers dwindling, it’s never been more important for us to take care of these hard working pollinators, this includes providing them with safe winter accommodation. Bee houses can be bought from your local garden center and hung somewhere warm and dry, however it’s also great fun to make one of these yourself. I recently ran a small event at a local botanical garden where we taught youngsters to make their own bee homes. The activity only took 15 minutes, was relatively cheep and of course the kids all enjoyed getting a bit messy – I’m pretty sure the local bee population were quite pleased with the results too! Instructions for two types of homemade bee houses can be found here.

Other wildlife:

It’s also important that we try to create habitats in the sunniest most sheltered parts of our gardens to benefit a wide range of wildlife. Never underestimate the winter warming powers of an old stack of bricks or plant pots in a sunny corner (a favourite of toads and newts) or a pile of wood and leaves (the preferred hidey-hole of hedgehogs and frogs). But, perhaps the most important advice we can offer our winter gardeners is to be a little bit messy… Strategically forget to rake leaves from a sunny corner of your garden or perhaps decide against cutting down the perennials in December. Then make sure you leave all these habitats undisturbed until well into spring. Your local wildlife will undoubtedly thank you for it.

Post by: Sarah Fox

What the frack?: An exploration of hydraulic fracturing in the UK.

For many years I’ve been skirting the sidelines of the debate on hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking), occasionally dipping in and out of articles but usually concluding that I don’t know enough to make an informed decision. However fracking has now come to me, placing itself firmly on my doorstep – so I’ve decided it’s about time I did my research!

I live in Bury, a region in the north of Manchester which, according to the amusingly named website ‘Frack Off’, sits within what is known as an oil exploration block. This being an area of land, typically 1000s of square kilometres in size, which has been ‘awarded’ to an oil drilling and exploration company by the government. Apparently the lucky exploration company with control over my home turf is Hutton Energy.


The reason my home county is such hot property for energy companies is because the ‘British Geological Survey Gas-In-Place Resources Assessment of Bowland Shale’ has suggested that it sits above a large amount of, possibly gas rich, shale rock. Shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock formed by compression of mud (mineral particles and organic matter) over time. It is also incredibly common, forming over 35% of the world’s surface rock. Over millions of years shale becomes buried deep within the Earth and, when it reaches depths of over 2 kilometres, heat and pressure cause organic matter within the shale to release methane gas – it is this ‘natural gas’ which can be harvested to generate electricity for domestic use. The problem with shale gas is that, unlike conventional gas supplies (such as those harvested in the North Sea) which collect in large reservoirs, the methane in shale is trapped by the fine grain structure of the rock. It is only when shale rock is drilled and fractured that the gas is released and can be harvested. This process of fracturing shale rock to harvest methane gas has caused an enormous stir, with supporters on both sides of the debate campaigning ferociously.

But what are the debates for and against this process and how relevant are these to fracking in the UK?

To understand these arguments it is first important to know what hydraulic fracturing really entails and there is no doubt that the process sounds particularly invasive. For starters, shale gas exploration companies will drill large boreholes down into gas-bearing shale rock. These holes will stretch thousands of miles below the surface of the ground and, in many cases, will continue horizontally through the shale rock. These boreholes are then lined with steel and concrete for stability and to limit leakage of fracking-related materials into the surrounding land. Next, a perforating gun is used in the lower segments of the borehole to make a number of small holes in the concrete casing – these holes are concentrated in the parts of the pipe sitting within the shale rock. Finally, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure down the borehole and out of the small holes in the concrete piping. This high pressure water mix causes fractures to develop in the shale rock, while sand within the water lodges in these cracks ensuring that they remain open and porous. This process allows gas trapped within the shale to flow out of the rock and then travel back up through the borehole to the surface for harvesting.

Image credit BBC:

Supporters of this process argue that fracking in the US has significantly boosted domestic oil production, driven down the cost of gas and created many job opportunities. Those in favour also suggest that fracking can generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal – but, be aware that this figure varies depending on sources and that some argue that the atmospheric pollution caused by fracking is actually no better than that of traditional coal extraction. The benefits here are attractive for the UK, especially since our North Sea gas fields are reaching the end of their lives, most of our nuclear plants are planned to close by 2023 and a third of our coal-fired power stations are set to close by 2016 to meet European air quality regulations. So, we are undoubtedly in need of an energy boost. However, it is interesting to note that oil and gas industrial representatives recently told ‘New Scientist’ that “ it would take at least 10 years for the UK to produce a meaningful amount of shale gas, making it a poor substitute for dwindling North Sea production in the short term”

So is fracking fit for purpose, especially considering that many academics agree that a move towards renewable sources of energy is preferable?

Those opposed to the process argue strongly that fracking introduces too many health and environmental concerns to be a viable and safe source of energy. Specifically, many are concerned that methane gas and fracking chemicals could travel upwards through natural fractures in the rock, polluting underground aquifers and further contributing to global warming. It is also suggested that leaks in pipelines could lead to further aquifer pollution. These concerns are certainly valid, however to date there have been very few peer reviewed articles published suggesting that chemicals and methane released by the fracking process have reached local aquifers. It is also argued that these risks can be significantly minimised by strict regulations and regular monitoring. For example, thorough geological surveys should be carried out prior to exploratory fracking to detect pre-existing fractures, pipelines should be strongly reinforced and regularly monitored and chemicals used in the fracking process should be assessed and approved by the environmental agency.

Many opponents to the process also raise concerns that fracking may trigger earthquakes. Again, to date there have been few proven links between fracking and earthquakes. However, one of the few instances where this has been the case was in 2011 when two small earthquakes struck Blackpool close to an exploratory fracking site. Experts suggest that these quakes were caused by lubricated rocks slipping along a small fault line. Cuadrilla, the company in charge of the Blackpool site, propose that they will now monitor seismic activity around all their fracking sites and, if small quakes begin to occur, they will reduce the flow of water into the borehole, or even pump it back out preventing bigger quakes.

Indeed, many of the environmental and health concerns raised against fracking seem to be manageable given stringent regulation and proper monitoring – something which the UK government claim to take very seriously.

In my view more research is still needed to explore the validity of existing environmental concerns while stringent regulations must also be put in place before going forward with further exploratory work. This all leads me to one big question: can we trust those involved in the process to ensure this happens?

On a personal level I’m still not convinced, there does seem to be a strong vested government interest in moving fracking forward – in some cases this is happening to the detriment of local councils and areas of natural beauty. In my mind urgency is the mother of mismanagement so, until I’m convinced that fracking in the UK will be properly managed, local communities will be consulted and engaged as part of the process and this will not be used as an excuse to slow down on development of more sustainable energy resources I think I will remain skeptical.

Post by: Sarah fox



Rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, what’s the connection?

It has recently been reported that a drug currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may also pack a punch in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This discovery may be hailed by the media as a big step forward for AD research but what does it really mean?

To pick apart this discovery, we first need to delve into some background on Alzheimer’s itself:

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 20.47.27Much of what we know about Alzheimer’s disease in the human brain comes from postmortem studies. This means that most of our knowledge is skewed towards late stages of the disease. We know that, in these late stages, patient’s brains are severely shrunken and littered with clusters of abnormal proteins known as amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Many academics acknowledge that if we want to successfully treat AD it’s important that we understand what causes these proteins to misbehave in the first place. This is where scientists picked up on an important link between RA and AD.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease which causes inflammation, pain and swelling in joints. Interestingly, alongside chronic inflammation, many RA sufferers also experience what is known as secondary amyloidosis resulting from deposition of amyloid protein fibrils. This form of amyloid starts life in the liver before being cut into smaller pieces and then deposited in other tissues – importantly this process appears to parallel the deposition of amyloid in the AD brain. Another important parallel between the two diseases is the presence of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) – a pro-inflammatory cytokine. Researchers believe that RA may be driven by TNF and it is also known that AD patients show elevated levels of TNF in their cerebrospinal fluid.

So, is it possible that TNF could play a causative role in both RA and AD and, if so, can modulation of TNF be used as a treatment for both diseases?

In a recent study Richard C.Chou from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Centre collected medical records from over 8,000,000 US patients and his team began crunching numbers in the hope of answering these questions. They found that patients suffering from RA (over 40,000 patients) had a significantly increased risk of also developing AD. In fact, RA patients over the age of 65 were more than twice as likely to suffer from AD than non-sufferers (2.95% of RA patients also suffered from AD in comparison to 1.37% of non-RA patients). What was even more interesting was that patients treated with the RA drug etanercept (an anti-TNF agent) were significantly less likely to suffer from AD than other RA patients.

These results suggest that both RA and AD may share a common mechanism, perhaps linked by the actions of TNF? It also raises the possibility that anti-TNF therapies could have a future in the treatment of AD.

Although this work is just one more piece in the Alzheimer’s puzzle, the implications seem to suggest a role for inflammation and perhaps TNF in disease progression – something which has also been highlighted in previous studies. So, although (as is often the case) more research is needed, it does seem like we are making some significant headway in understudying and hopefully treating Alzheimer’s.

Post by: Sarah Fox




When matters of the mind meet ailments of the body: exploring the power of big data

AFP6E1 Silhouette of a woman sitting by a window in a dim room and holding her head
AFP6E1 Silhouette of a woman sitting by a window in a dim room and holding her head

According to the charity Mind 1 in 4 people in the UK are expected to experience some type of mental health problem each year. Importantly, those suffering from severe mental illness (SMI) also tend towards poorer physical health and higher mortally rates than those without a SMI. This link was investigated in a large longitudinal study published last September in the British Medical Journal from the University of Manchester’s Institute of Population Health and Lancaster University’s Division of Health Research, and offers new insight into the well-established link between poor physical and mental health.

Researchers used data from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) – a powerful not-for-profit research service which has been collecting anonymised medical data since 1987 – to explore SMI across the UK and probe how this is linked to social factors and a range of physical conditions. The researchers collected data annually between 2000 and 2012 from patients suffering from SMI* alongside control subjects with no SMI diagnosis. Control subjects were matched for age, sex and general practice (GP) – 5 controls for each SMI sufferer. The power of this research lies in both the number of individuals studied (more than 300,000 SMI sufferers and more than 1,700,000 matched controls) and the timescale over which the data was collected (12 years) – this being the first study of its kind to analyse mental health data in this way.

From these data the researchers found that the total number of individuals diagnosed with a SMI increased over the period between 2000 and 2010, with this increase being most striking in areas of higher social deprivation (social deprivation being estimated by GP postcode). These findings also highlighted an improvement in SMI diagnosis, indicating that people are now routinely receiving an SMI diagnosis earlier in life.

With regard to the association between mental and physical health the study found that all 16 physical conditions studied** were more common in patients with a SMI than in control patients. It was also observed that, over the study period, SMI sufferers showed a higher yearly increase in diagnosis rates for a range of conditions (including: diabetes, hypothyroidism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic kidney disease (CKD) and stroke) compared to matched controls. This increase appeared to coincide with increased prescription of atypical antipsychotic medication in the SMI group. Indeed, this and previous studies suggest that a range of complex factors may interact in SMI patients to produce this effect. Specifically, a combination of antipsychotic medication, unhealthy lifestyles, social withdrawal and challenges associated with seeking and following medical advice may all lead to poor physical health in SMI sufferers. However, further research is still needed to fully understand which factors play a role in the link between mental illness and poor physical health.

The findings concerning associations between SMI, physical health and social deprivation are more complicated. This study suggests that SMI sufferers living in deprived regions are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, asthma, coronary  heart  disease, COPD, learning disability, osteoarthritis or epilepsy, whereas those living in more affluent conditions are more often diagnosed with CKD,  psoriasis,  cancer,  stroke  or dementia.

Although the researchers involved in this study stress that there are limitations to these findings, some important points have been raised, particularly in relation to mental health care and policy. Specifically, findings suggest that patients suffering from a SMI are indeed more likely to suffer from one or more associated physical condition. This points to the possible benefit of increased training for mental health professionals, especially in recognising indicators of poor physical health and identifying the complex needs of the patients in their care. Also, these results suggest that social and regional factors might influence treatment and diagnosis of certain physical conditions in patients with SMI. These findings warrant further study as this knowledge may be beneficial in shaping and targeting mental health care at the regional level.

With the cost of care for individuals with both mental and physical health problems exceeding the cost of treating either condition alone, it is important that mental health funding be prioritised and that studies such as this be encouraged.

*defined as: schizophrenia, affective disorder or other types of psychoses.

**Hypertension, diabetes (type I and II), asthma, hypothyroidism, osteoarthritis, chronic kidney disease (CKD), learning disability,  coronary  heart  disease,  epilepsy,  chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, stroke, heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia and psoriasis.

Post by: Sarah Fox