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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by: Sarah Fox

The astronomy of astrology

It’s been a while since I last posted so instead of talking about the details of using telescopes or taking astrophotographs, I will discuss what for many people are two interchangeable terms: astronomy and astrology. More specifically, this post shows how some interesting oddities of astrology can also interest astronomers.

As a reminder, astrology is the study of the movements of celestial objects with the goal of predicting or justifying life events while astronomy is the scientific study of the properties, interactions and evolution of celestial objects. While I feel that our life choices are not influenced by the movement of the Sun across the zodiac constellations, or the alignment of certain planets I do think that people who believe in astrology may find significant interest in the evidence-based view of the universe astronomers take.

Lets begin by discussing an interesting tenet of astrology: star signs. The 12 signs of the western zodiac are based on the constellations which lay along the path on which the Sun appears to travel over the course of a year. Your star sign should ideally relate to the constellation which the Sun passes through on the day of your birth. But, most the time things are not this simple.

Every year, as the Earth orbits the Sun, the line of sight between us and one zodiac constellation is blocked by the Sun, this means that, as viewed from Earth, the Sun will appear to be sitting within this constellation. However, the dates associated with the star signs have not been technically correct for around 2000 years, i.e. the constellation in which the Sun appears the day of your birth may not fit with your star sign.

This is caused by a discrepancy between the way we define a year and changes in the movement of the Earth. As a society, we define a year as starting on a set date (the 1st of January) and running for a given number of days (365 – or 366 on a leap year). However, a year in astronomical terms is defined as the time it takes for the Earth to revolve once around the Sun, and these two measurements do not necessarily match up.

Figure 1. The position of the vernal equinox in the night sky. The Sun currently passes through this point on the ecliptic (red line) on 20th March. Graphic taken from Stellarium.
Figure 1. The position of the vernal equinox in the night sky. The Sun currently passes through this point on the ecliptic (red line) on 20th March. Graphic taken from Stellarium.

Specifically, in astronomical terms a year consists of the time period between vernal equinoxes. The vernal equinox occurs when the ecliptic (the line the Sun makes across the sky in one year) crosses the celestial equator (an imaginary line projecting out from Earth’s equator into space), see the blue arrow in Figure 1.

However, due to the fact that the Earth slowly wobbles on its axis every 26000 years (called Precession), the date of the vernal equinox slowly shifts by about 1 day every 70 years. The effect of this shifting equinox is that the position of the Sun within different constellations slowly changes, therefore, the Sun may be in a different constellation during the month of your birth than it was when astrological charts were first drawn up. Below is a table comparing traditional star sign dates with the actual position of the sun on these dates.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 22.36.38

The table also includes the length of time the Sun spends in each constellation. As a convenience in astrology, the star signs are given equal lengths. However, in reality, constellations have different sizes and cut across the ecliptic at different angles. The Sun spends 44 days in the constellation Virgo but only 8 days in Scopius (making true solar Scorpios a rare breed!). You may also notice an unfamiliar constellation: Ophiuchus (the serpent barer), it’s a large constellation but only a small part of it is actually crossed by the Sun in early December. Strangely this was known in ancient times but not included as a sign of the zodiac.

Gemini - 2015 Gemini - 28015Figure 2. The motion of the stars over thousands of years changes the constellations. Nearby stars (such as Pollux) appear to move faster. Graphic taken from Stellarium.
Gemini – 2015
Gemini – 28015Figure 2. The motion of the stars over thousands of years changes the constellations. Nearby stars (such as Pollux) appear to move faster. Graphic taken from Stellarium.

So when will the traditional star sign dates once again match up with the position of the sun within these constellations? Well, this could happen in about 24000 years, after the Earth has completed a full precession rotation. However, by then the stars themselves will have moved relative to each other, changing the shape of the constellations forever. In Figure 2, the constellation Gemini (my true solar star sign) is shown as it appears now (2015), and how it is projected to appear after 26000 years of star movement (date 26000 + 2015).

All of this serves as a reminder that the universe does not neatly fit into equally spaced constellations or fixed calendars, instead it is amazingly complex and constantly changing. So perhaps astrology can be a starting point for peoples’ interest in the universe, or at least to getting a better understanding of the science behind the horoscopes.

Post by Daniel Elijah

Animal consciousness

When I was a child, living in Poland, we believed that on Christmas Eve animals can speak human language. I waited till the magical time – midnight, and listened, but our dogs and cats did not take the opportunity to tell us what was on their mind. This tradition could have originated from the belief that the spirits of our ancestors could speak through the animals, or perhaps it referred to the presence of animals at the birth of Jesus. Either way, some scientists think that other species of animals have more in common with us than we think.

Bottlenose dolphins hesitate and waver when they are uncertain of the correct answer. Image by NASAs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bottlenose dolphins hesitate and waver when they are uncertain of the correct answer. Image by NASAs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You might not be surprised to hear that dolphins have the skill of metacognition, that is the ability to think about, or oversee, their own thinking (Smith et al., 1995). In humans metacognition is related to self-reflection and self-awareness (Smith et al., 2012) . An example of this ‘thinking about thinking’ is the ‘tip-of-the-tong’ experience (when you are sure that you know something but cannot quite bring it to mind).

Researchers presented dolphins with sounds of different pitch, asking the animals to indicate the pitch of a given sound by touching response paddles (Smith et al., 1995). They increased the difficulty of the task by making some sounds very similar, therefore confusing the dolphins. In recognition that some sounds would be hard to differentiate, the dolphins were given the option to press a paddle indicating that they were ‘uncertain’ of the pitch of the sound. The ability to decline completion of a task due to uncertainty is an important aspect of metacognition. In humans the answer ‘I don’t know’ is thought to be based on the internal reflection: how likely is it that I will respond correctly? The less certain we are of our response, the more we hesitate. The dolphins in the experiment did indeed use the option ‘uncertain’ to decline completing the task when they thought it was too difficult. Moreover, this uncertainty was reflected in their behaviour:  when sure of the response, dolphins swam towards the paddles so fast that the splash sometimes damaged the experimenters equipment. On the other hand, when they did not know the answer, they slowed, wavered and hesitated.

Monkeys know when they do not know. Image by Jack Hynes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Monkeys know when they do not know.
Image by Jack Hynes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Other animals also showed the ability to monitor their own thinking. Similar to results seen in dolphins, macaques also show signs of metacognition. Specifically, when asked to decide whether the number of dots on the computer screen was smaller or greater than a value that they had learned before (Beran et al., 2006), macaques showed signs of hesitation and uncertainty when the task was hard. Other researchers asked the monkeys to match currently presented images to previous samples (Hampton, 2001). The more time elapsed between the pictures, the more ‘uncertain’ responses the animals gave. This was interpreted as an example of meta-memory – the ability to monitor our memories and decide whether they are clear enough to give a correct answer.

Does this mean that at least some animals, such as monkeys and dolphins, have consciousness? That depends on the definition of consciousness. Is hesitating and worrying about own performance enough? Do we need more sophisticated tests? Perhaps some of us  (especially those living with pets) need no tests at all to feel that we have a lot in common with non-human animals and that we share our existence with them.

Post by Jadwiga Nazimek

The Whaling Industry – Dubious or Justified?

Whaling is a big part of human history. The Norwegians have been whaling for over 4,000 years and the Japanese for even longer. No matter what your personal feelings and opinions of whaling, it is a historic practise that is still being used today.

800px-Whaling_in_the_Faroe_IslandsBeginning in the 1960s there has been a sharp decline in the number of whales killed by hunters. This hasn’t been due to a lack of need for whale meat but, rather, as a result of there simply being fewer whales. Whales have gestation periods of 7-13 months and very rarely have more than one calf at a time. When you consider that thousands were once being killed each year, it’s easy to understand why they were unable to maintain their population numbers.

As fewer and fewer whaling ships were meeting with success, the International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946 to try and solve this problem. It tried to help by placing protection orders on certain species of whales that had suffered the most. All whale populations continued to decline though so, in 1986, the commission placed a complete ban on whaling for all its members.

This ban is still in place, however, due to loopholes, over 30,000 whales have been hunted

and killed since 1986 by members of the International Whaling Commission. This mainly comes from three countries – Iceland, Japan and Norway. Iceland left the Commission and then re-joined under a ‘reservation’ whereby it didn’t have to recognise the ban, although this has actually caused some countries to not recognise Iceland as a member.

Japan makes use of a loophole permitting hunting for scientific research, however they have just last year been told that at least one of these research programmes involved killing unnecessarily. Killing whales for research purposes may first appear to be more understandable than commercial hunting but in Japan, when the research has finished, the whale’s carcass is sold and a profit is made. Of course, not everything is as straightforward as it may first appear, but it really does seem to be a commercial venture that just has to allow the bodies to be first used for research.

762px-The_King_of_the_Seas_in_the_Hands_of_the_Makahs_-_1910Out of the three countries, Norway is the only one that appears to be upfront about its opinions. The Norwegians made it clear when the ban was coming into place that they didn’t agree with it and, instead of trying to use smoke and mirrors to hide their intentions, they have carried on whaling openly. This may not be agreeable but somehow appears a lot less morally dubious to my mind.

There is one final exception to the ban, which pertains to Aboriginal Substance Whalers. These are communities that hunt using traditional methods, carrying on the practises their ancestors began. The International Whaling Commission recognised the need to preserve this way of life and protect these communities’ culture. Therefore, in the terms of the ban, they are allowed to hunt whales if no profit is made.

There can be a lot found about whaling in the media, often from very extreme sides. It’s not just whales that are hunted in the oceans (think of all the fish in the fishmongers). Yet even species whose numbers are running low don’t receive nearly the same attention from the media as whales. Why? Well, simply because we are humans and can empathise with mammals more easily than with other animals.

This doesn’t mean that caring about whales is wrong, it just means we need to view the facts when it comes to the whaling industry. We need to think about which countries allow whaling, and why they do it. We need to think about the role the whales have in the ecosystem. We need to balance facts. You may be for whaling, you may be against it, but a clear fact is that hunting is possible without causing such a crash in the population numbers as has been seen in the case of whale species.

Post by: Jennifer Rasal


Why are whales killed?

Cleaning Air with Poetry: Surprising Uses of a Titanium Dioxide Catalyst

The 21st Century has brought with it a growing acceptance of the severity of climate change, with Forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) projecting a 2°C rise in global temperature by 2050 based on current levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The recent Paris Agreement of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference brought a global consensus to make efforts to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2050. However, despite such promising commitments, the majority of measures to combat global warming and anthropogenic pollution have so far been directed only towards the prevention of further damage being done. It is likely that more innovative methods may be required to help reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases and to improve the air quality of urban environments, where smog is having a severe effect on public health.

One such innovation with green potential involves a clever application of catalytic nanoparticles. Refreshingly, this innovation originated from collaboration between the arts and science, and is invigorating in its use of the natural curiosity and creativity of humanity to address man-made issues. Through this article, I aim to describe to you how you yourself can assist in removing harmful pollutants from the air simply by walking along a street, or even just by reading a poem.

Pollutive gases can be broadly divided into two groups: The greenhouse gases (such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide), which absorb radiation in the upper atmosphere, and toxic surface-level pollutants (such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides (NOx)). Surface-level pollutants are predominantly derived from industrial or transport emissions, and in London alone are believed to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year.

Actively reducing levels of air pollutants is likely to require some form of catalytic process (put in mind the catalytic conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen performed by plants), and so efforts have recently been made to neutralise toxic surface-level pollutants through use of synthetic catalysts in urban environments (where both the concentration of pollution, and people, is at its greatest). These catalysts hold significant promise for the future, and it was through the work of Prof. Tony Ryan that I was first introduced to the potential of one such catalyst, the titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticle.

CatClo-treated jeans displayed in Sheffield’s Winter Garden. Photograph courtesy of Helen Storey Foundation.
CatClo-treated jeans displayed in Sheffield’s Winter Garden. Photograph courtesy of Helen Storey Foundation.

Nanoparticles are materials on the scale of a millionth of a millimetre. With such miniaturisation comes a substantial increase in available surface area on which reactions can take place, and often a change in chemical properties. When exposed to sunlight, TiO2 nanoparticles provide a catalytic surface for the production of peroxides, which can then react with nitric oxide to produce nitric acid and nitrates, effectively removing the toxic nitric oxide from the breathable atmosphere (1,2).

The current applications of TiO2 nanoparticles include the coating of walls and windows of buildings, and surfaces of pavements and roads (3,5), although the true motive behind this use is not to reduce pollution. TiO2 nanoparticles also confer a self-cleaning property as the lipophilic TiO2 attracts a layer of water between a surface and dirt particles, allowing dirt to simply wash away with rainfall. By such applications alone, concentrations of nitric oxide have been shown to fall by 20-60% (6,7).

A particularly inspirational use of TiO2 nanoparticles arose from the collaboration between Prof. Ryan and the fashion designer, Prof. Helen Storey. This meeting of arts and science led to the development of CatClo, a laundry additive of TiO2 nanoparticles which, when washed into clothing, imbues them with the nanoparticles’ photocatalytic quality. It is predicted that CatClo-treated clothing would remove roughly 5 grams of nitric oxide per day when worn in an urban environment, equivalent to the daily nitric oxide emissions of the average car (8). Although the CatClo additive is eventually removed by subsequent repeated washes, the additional antibacterial effect conferred by the nanoparticles may extend wearable time between washes.

Prof. Ryan has further demonstrated the versatility of TiO2 nanoparticles through an art installation involving prestigious poet, Simon Armitage. Penned by Armitage, a poem entitled ‘In Praise of Air’ was displayed in the centre of Sheffield, printed on 10 m x 20 m material ingrained with TiO2 nanoparticles. This installation was estimated capable of removing the nitric oxide emissions of as many as 20 cars daily.

Installation of the “photocatalytic poem”, In Praise of Air, in Sheffield. Present are Simon Armitage (right), and Prof. Tony Ryan (left). Photo from
Installation of the “photocatalytic poem”, In Praise of Air, in Sheffield. Present are Simon Armitage (right), and Prof. Tony Ryan (left). Photo from

Just such a merging of arts and science is what separates the projects of Prof. Ryan from other scientific endeavours combating climate change, and it stands as a striking example of how the applications of an invention can be brought to a wider audience by simple, yet creative, means.

More information can be found regarding CatClo at

Post by: David Young


1.    Ohko, Y., Nakamura, Y., Fukuda, A., Matsuzawa, S. & Takeuchi, K. Photocatalytic Oxidation of Nitrogen Dioxide with TiO2 Thin Films under Continuous UV-Light Illumination. J. Phys. Chem. C 112, 10502–10508 (2008).

2.    Toma, F. L., Bertrand, G., Klein, D. & Coddet, C. Photocatalytic removal of nitrogen oxides via titanium dioxide. Environ. Chem. Lett. 2, 117–121 (2004).

3.    Shen, S., Burton, M., Jobson, B. & Haselbach, L. Pervious concrete with titanium dioxide as a photocatalyst compound for a greener urban road environment. Constr. Build. Mater. 35, 874–883 (2012).

4.    Chen, J. & Poon, C. Photocatalytic construction and building materials: From fundamentals to applications. Build. Environ. 44, 1899–1906 (2009).

5.    Hüsken, G., Hunger, M. & Brouwers, H. J. H. Experimental study of photocatalytic concrete products for air purification. Build. Environ. 44, 2463–2474 (2009).

6.    TX Active® The Photocatalytic Active Principle. (2009).

7.    Tx Active®. (2006).

8.    Pollution-busting laundry additive gets set to clean. (2012).

This Christmas remember: Wash your hands not your turkey!

2169185215_c80cc1d607_zWith Christmas fast approaching, many of us will be stocking up ready for a festive feast – the centrepiece of which is usually a nice plump goose or turkey. But this year, alongside preparations to ensure your bird is moist and mouthwatering, it’s important to also keep in mind the dangers associated with putting your turkey under the tap!

Raw poultry provides a home for Campylobacter and Salmonella – the most common causes of food poisoning in the UK. In fact, in 2014 it was found that approximately 7 in 10 chickens sold in British supermarkets were contaminated by Campylobacter. But don’t fret, as a rule, good kitchen hygiene and thorough cooking are usually enough to avoid infection.

However, there is one important aspect of kitchen hygiene which seems to be regularly overlooked, this being the importance of not washing your bird before cooking. Placing a turkey under the tap causes an invisible storm of bacteria to spray from your meat, settling on anything within range (from clean utensils to previously sterile working surfaces). This cross contamination significantly increases the risk of infection to yourself and your family.

2187298129_ea44b55d86_zLast year almost 900 people took part in a national survey carried out by researchers at the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool which found that around 50% of participants always or usually washed their turkeys under the tap before cooking. This means that, despite warnings from the food standards agency, the message is still not getting across.

This year the Brain Bank wants to add our voice to this campaign and keep our readers healthy over the festive period. So, this Christmas make sure to treat your favorite bird correctly and remember – Wash your hands not your turkey!

Wishing wish you all a happy and healthy holiday!

Post by: Sarah Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by: Sarah Fox

When sleep becomes a person’s worst nightmare!

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 19.39.49At the end of a long, hard day, many of us relish the comfort of our beds. We snuggle under the covers and with a satisfying sigh, welcome the sweet onset of sleep. But for some people, sleep is not such a pleasant experience. Here’s three conditions likely to turn sleep into someone’s worst nightmare:

1) Sleep paralysis

Waking up and not being able to move or speak is a terrifying prospect. But for some people, this nightmare can actually be a reality. People who suffer from sleep paralysis may experience periods, either as they wake up or when they are falling asleep, when they feel conscious but are unable to move a muscle, sometimes for up to a few minutes. During this time, the individual may also experience a crushing sensation in their chest or disturbing hallucinations.

Despite being described in various ways throughout history, the term “sleep paralysis” was first coined in 1928 and is believed to be caused by a disturbance in a person’s normal sleep pattern. Briefly, our sleep occurs in approximately 90 minute cycles consisting of two stages: the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage, which makes up about 75–80% of our sleep, and the REM stage. It is while we are in REM sleep that we experience our most vivid dreams. During this sleep-stage, our brain also sends signals to our muscles inhibiting movement. People with sleep paralysis tend to wake during REM sleep, therefore finding they cannot move or speak as their muscles are still paralysed. As a consequence, this disorder is often associated with risk factors that affect one’s sleep (e.g. stress and narcolepsy) and treatment tends to focus on addressing the related conditions.

2) REM behaviour disorder

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 19.39.57In contrast to sleep paralysis, REM behaviour disorder is characterised a by a lack of muscle inhibition while a person is in the REM stage of sleep. Consequently, people with REM behaviour disorder tend to act out their dreams physically and verbally (e.g. kicking out, screaming, etc.). This can be both distressing and potentially dangerous to themselves and any poor souls sharing a bed with them. In fact, 35–65% of people with this condition report having caused injury to themselves or their bed partner. As one may expect, diagnosis of REM behaviour disorder often follows as a result of such injuries.

REM behaviour disorder usually occurs in people over 50 years old, and may be a risk factor of disorders associated with neurological decline (e.g. Parkinson’s disease). At present, treatments for the condition focus on symptom control using medication (e.g. clonazepam) and ensuring one’s sleep environment is safe.

3) Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious, and highly distressing, condition where someone will intermittently stop breathing repeatedly while they sleep. This is often accompanied by heavy snoring and disrupted sleep resulting in excessive daytime tiredness. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea which, as the name suggests, occurs when a person’s airway becomes blocked due to the muscles and soft tissue collapsing during sleep; and central sleep apnea, a rare form of the condition, where the brain fails to signal to the muscles telling them to breathe. If left untreated, both forms of sleep apnea can lead to serious medical conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), low oxygen blood levels (hypoxemia) and stroke.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 19.40.11Diagnosis of sleep apnea is primarily based on measuring the number of times a person stops breathing per hour (≥15 or ≥5 in combination with other symptoms e.g. excessive daytime tiredness) while they sleep. Doctors will also look for the presence of risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure, as indicators of the condition. Sleep apnea is usually a lifelong condition but can be managed in a number of ways from making lifestyle changes (e.g. losing weight or sleep on one’s side) to using a therapy called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a mask linked to a ventilator which applies mild air pressure to keep the airways open.

Despite the obvious differences between these three conditions, sleep paralysis, REM behaviour disorder and sleep apnea all have one thing in common – they make going to sleep distressing, and sometimes harmful, for those living with them. So don’t take for granted a good night’s rest; for people with these sleep disorders, sleep may be a nightmare waiting to happen.

Post by: Megan Barrett

Rock pooling isn’t just for children!

First year Marine Biology students exploring the rock pools. Photo by Jack Davis
First year Marine Biology students exploring the rock pools. Photo by Jack Davis

Just recently, my University course took a trip down to Plymouth, during which we went down to a rocky shore covered with rock pools. Now, on a field trip at University level, you would probably expect some complex sampling, evaluation and weird but wonderful science experiments to take place. Amazingly, however, our assignment was simply to look into the pools.

As someone did joke, that is something toddlers do when they are on their summer holidays. But the lecturers did have a point with this apparently simple exercise: rock pools are not as basic as they might first seem.

The variety of life found in these isolated little lagoons was astounding. In a pool of water measuring just 1 square foot, you could find animals and organisms from so many different phyla: crustaceans, Macro algae, polychaetes, echinoderms, molluscs, bryozoans, hydrozoans. Such a diverse cross-section of life in such a relatively tiny home, and each organism with its own stories to tell and secrets to keep.

The Wordly and the Wary
Now, if there was ever an old man with a tale to tell it would be the chiton. The one we managed to find was only 2cm long and crawled around showing off its species’ distinctive body armour-plated back, which made it look almost like a cross between a woodlouse and a limpet. Incredibly, the chiton species evolved over 400 million years ago (in comparison, humans only just came along around 250,000 years ago). For me, that is an incredible thought. This species has seen so much and lived through so much, whilst it’s unlikely that the human race will survive for that long itself.

Next we come to the crabs, probably the best-known of the rock pool dwellers. Fast in their movements and partial to hiding beneath seaweed, they can evade rock-pooling beginners. However, in just one trip, we uncovered members of 3 different species: a velvet swimmer crab (Liocarcinus depurator), an edible crab (Cancer pagurus) and a common shore crab (Carcinus maenas). All display the same stereotypical crab shape, but each has its own variations. Edible crabs have blac-tipped claws and, like the name suggests, the velvet swimmer crab’s back feels velvety if you are lucky enough to get close. Of the three crabs this one is the most aggressive, so watch out for the claws!

Balanus sp. Photo by Xanthe Ginty

The Well-Endowed Barnacle
Barnacles covered the area we explored and, whilst they usually close their shells when isolated in rock pools, we were lucky enough to find a couple actively feeding. It’s a strange sight to see – the barnacles open their shells and stick their ‘feet’ out (yes, they technically lie on their backs with their legs in the air) which look like tiny rakes that fan through the water before being pulled back inside again.

Speaking of probing protuberances, I’m very sorry, gentlemen, but prepare to feel emasculated. If a barnacle grew to the size of a human then its penis would be over 20m long! Very impressive but also a clever adaptation. Barnacles are sessile organisms (meaning they don’t move) so a male’s large penis allows him to reach females that might not be right next to him.

Actinia sp. Photo by Xanthe Ginty

Tentacles and Terrors
Moving on, we also found in our rock pool a number of alien-like anemones, tentacles ready and waiting for something to float by to pull in and eat. The most common anemone we found was the usually red, occasionally green, beadlet anemone (Actinia equine). It’s simple to distinguish beadlet anemones from other species – just stick your finger in (gently, so as not to hurt them)! Dangle your fingers amongst their tentacles and you’ll feel them trying to pull you in. You might even feel a slight painless tingle as they try to sting you  However, once they realise you’re too big, they will close up to hide away. It’s this closing up that reveals their identity, as other species can’t draw completely into themselves.

Finally, we came across a ferocious predator – the dog whelk (Nucella lapillus). This mollusc hunts related species and drills a hole in the shell of its prey before injecting digestive enzymes. Trapped by its own shell, the prey is completely helpless as the enzymes break it down whilst it’s still alive. Once it’s reduced to a soup of body parts, the dog whelk sucks out the juices, leaving behind the coffin of its victim.

These were just a few of the different species we found on our trip to Plymouth. Our lecturers were right though, spending time just looking in rock pools can really teach you a lot. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy rock pooling and you certainly don’t need to be an expert to identify things. A sea shore identification guide will cover the basics.

So, next time you’re heading down to a beach in England, look out for that rock pool and go exploring in a whole different world. Don’t overlook the small white barnacles clinging to the rock, keep a careful eye open for what treats you may find hidden in the cracks, and don’t forget to play with the anemones. Even 30-year-old marine biologist lecturers can’t resist that temptation!

Post by: Jennifer Rasal


The theory of feeling good

Psychology, especially in the context of health care, is usually associated with treatments for mental illness and attempts at relieving misery and suffering. There is, however, an area of psychology that looks beyond what goes wrong in human mind, instead focusing on understanding and enhancing good things such as happiness and positive emotions. You might ask: why would anybody concern themselves with studying something that stems naturally from good fortune and achievements? Well, some research suggests that it is the other way round: that happiness itself can lead to blessings such as good relationships and financial security (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005)

Enjoying time with others can lead to valued relationships. Image courtesy of panuruangjan at
Enjoying time with others can lead to valued relationships. Image courtesy of panuruangjan at

One theory which attempts to explain the link between happiness and good fortune is the ‘broaden –and –build’ theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001). According to this stance, feelings of joy, pride, contentment, love and interest help us build long-term resources such as health and job satisfaction by broadening of our thoughts and actions. You might have noticed that stressful situations focus your thoughts on the immediate problem. On the other hand, joy is often associated with playfulness and creativity, interest and exploration, contentment, pride, dreaming about future success, playing, exploring and savouring experiences with those close to you. Further, curiosity can become expertise, whilst affection and enjoying time with others might turn into valued friendships. These resources can increase our resilience, helping us to deal with the difficulties of life.

Resilience can be thought of as the ability to find opportunities, adapt to limitations and recover from misfortune (Cohn et al., 2009). According to some research, this skill of living through changing circumstances is an important link that connects positive emotions and life satisfaction. In other words, joy, pride, gratitude and other good feelings might increase life satisfaction indirectly, through strengthened resilience. And remember that happiness or satisfaction do not equal the absence of negative feelings (Cohn et al., 2009). We can experience sadness or anger during one part of the day and joy or enthusiasm during another. For example, when a loved one dies, resilient people still experience positive emotions amidst their longing and grief (Bonanno et al., 2005). Evidence also suggests that the strengthening effect of good feelings on resilience is stronger than the weakening effect of negative emotions (Cohn et al., 2009). So we don’t have to avoid feeling bad; we just need to also feel good.

Happiness may increase activity and well-being. Image courtesy of nenetus at
Happiness may increase activity and well-being. Image courtesy of nenetus at

Not all studies conclude that the link between positive emotions, resilience and happiness is definitely causal. Some researchers found that when they asked participants to write down their feelings at different points in time, they could see a correlation between positive emotions and resilience. This approach raises the question of causality. However, another study showed that people can influence their own wellbeing by practicing certain approaches to life. For example, after ten weeks of counting their blessings participants slept better, exercised more and felt physically better (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). This suggests that experiencing positive emotions such as gratitude can actually improve wellbeing. It remains to be seen, however,  whether these effects apply to people with mental illness, e.g. depression, those with extremely high negative emotions or extremely low positive emotions, or those affected by a long-term, intensely stressful events (Cohn et al., 2009).

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek


Bonanno, G. A., J. T. Moskowitz, A. Papa, and S. Folkman, 2005, Resilience to loss in bereaved spouses, bereaved parents, and bereaved gay men: J Pers Soc Psychol, v. 88, p. 827-43.

Cohn, M. A., B. L. Fredrickson, S. L. Brown, J. A. Mikels, and A. M. Conway, 2009, Happiness unpacked: positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience: Emotion, v. 9, p. 361-8.

Emmons, R. A., and M. E. McCullough, 2003, Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life: J Pers Soc Psychol, v. 84, p. 377-89.

Fredrickson, B. L., 2001, The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions: Am Psychol, v. 56, p. 218-26.

Lyubomirsky, S., L. King, and E. Diener, 2005, The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?: Psychol Bull, v. 131, p. 803-55.

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