Thursday, August 21, 2014

What is ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's Disease)?

Through the power of social media, the ALS "Ice Bucket Challenge" has brought massive attention to an often times overlooked but devastating disease.  But understanding ALS and increasing its awareness can be just as invaluable as donations towards finding a cure. 

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - JA5881
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is often known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and affects neurons which control voluntary movements.  This motor neuron disease causes nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord  to degenerate and lose their connection to muscle fibers throughout the body.  When muscles can no longer be stimulated, they become progressively weaker and inactive, eventually leading to muscular atrophy.  Patients begin losing muscle mass and coordination, losing the ability to walk or use their arms, and as well as develop difficulty breathing, speaking, and swallowing.

However ALS does not affect involuntary muscles (such as the heart or smooth muscles), a person's senses (taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing), or their ability to think.  Since there is no cure, most treatment can only slow down the progression of the disease and provide supportive care for the individual.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fathering in Nature

Male Gambel's Quail with chicks BK3015
"Imagine spending four months upside down, half starved, babysitting a brood of tiny eggs under a leaf. Parenting is tough for daddy longlegs living in the Brazilian Atlantic forest, but their efforts aren't in vain. Having a parent to watch over the eggs makes a huge difference to their survival; without one, a third of clutches are eaten. 
Although we humans no longer need to protect our progeny from hungry predators, we are accustomed to thinking that parenting is crucial if offspring are to survive and thrive. Yet, among the myriad organisms on our planet, this is rare. What's more, in those species that do care for their young there is a strong bias towards females doing all the work. That makes the daddy longlegs a real oddity - it is among the few examples where males alone raise the young." - Lesley Evans Ogden, The father enigma: Why do nature's devoted dads care?, The New Scientist, June 14, 2014

Male ostrich on nest BA1407

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Future Treatments for Asthma Attacks Involving the Nervous System

Respiratory System - BY1854
Genetic research is being conducted at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to see how the nervous system responds to asthma attacks, and the possible future of medications that can be used for treatment.  Asthma attacks are triggered by a hypersensitive immune response to exercise, temperature, dust or allergens, leading to the inflammation and constriction of a person's airways.  Sensitive bundles of neurons in the chest, branching from the vagus nerve, control the muscles in the airway that are responsible for contracting and relaxing. 

Researchers performed an experiment on mice by selectively turning off genes which expressed specific nerve cells.  When those mice were exposed to an allergen that would cause asthma-like symptoms, there was no airway constriction despite an immune response.  They also found that immune system molecules may even interact and alter a neuron's behavior to constrict an airway.  Researchers hope to develop drugs that can alter these neurons or its communication with the immune system in order to treat attacks or even reverse a person's hypersensitivity before an attack even begins.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

The Human Networker: Two New Literary Studies

Neanderthals with modern humans, SR2883
"The idea of human as networker is fast replacing the idea of human as toolmaker in the story of the human brain, claim two new books on our evolution
'HELL is other people,' goes Jean-Paul Sartre's famous line. It is a hell that may have created us and our culture, judging by two new books. They show that the idea that we are defined by our struggles to deal with our fellow humans is shaking up archaeology and how we think about the key force driving human evolution." - Alun Anderson, New Scientist, "Beyond the bones: The archaeology of human networks", July 21, 2014

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Two Americans Show Improvement With Experimental Ebola Drug

Ebola viruses, artwork - RC5832
Two American aid workers are currently being treated at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital after contracting Ebola in Liberia during their humanitarian visit to address the current outbreak in west Africa.  Both patients received an experimental drug, known as the ZMapp serum, before returning to the U.S. and have reportedly shown significant improvement.  Until that point in time, the drug had only been successful in animal experiments and had not yet gone through clinical trials to assess its safety and long-term effects.  The use of untested drugs can carry serious scientific and ethical implications, and even if successful, cannot be used in the middle of an outbreak.  The company which developed the drug will begin clinical trials in September, hoping to develop a vaccine by late next year.

The Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever, resulting in internal and external bleeding as well as damage to the nervous system.  Since there is no vaccine or cure, patients can die from dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea if they do not receive early supportive care.  The virus spreads through contact with bodily fluids of infected individuals, often in environments where patients may not be properly quarantined.  The outbreak in west Africa is the worst in recorded history, with nearly 900 deaths since February.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Hunting with Fire: Co-evolution in Australia

Grass Fire FB1779
"Australia's Aboriginal Martu people hunt kangaroos and set small grass fires to catch lizards, as they have for at least 2,000 years. A University of Utah researcher found such human-made disruption boosts kangaroo populations -- showing how co-evolution helped marsupials and made Aborigines into unintentional conservationists." - Science News Daily, August 4, 2014, Kangaroos win when aborigines hunt with fire: Co-evolution benefits Australia's martu people and wildlife, University of Utah

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Surgeon General Calls to Reduce Skin Cancer Rates

Skin cancer screening - SF0878
A report recently released by the surgeon general addresses the alarming rise of skin cancer with an immediate call to action against the most commonly diagnosed and preventable cancer in the country.  It is estimated that skin cancer treatments cost $8.1 billion annually, with almost 5 million Americans requiring treatment and nearly 9,000 deaths from melanoma every year.  The report outlines the increase of incidence rates, especially among young adults, due to outdoor sun exposure and increased popularity of indoor tanning.  The call to action identifies opportunities to reduce UV exposure through public awareness and community involvement, which may include wearing protective clothing and sunscreen, installing structures to provide shade in public areas, or even modifying school policies for the time of day children play outside.
Malignant melanoma - RA0777

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, but is also the most treatable.  Squamous cell carcinoma affects cells in the superficial layers of the skin, and can be treated with many of the same methods as basal cell carcinoma, including cutting out the affected area, freezing the cancer cells, or skin cream medications. Melanoma is the third most common type of skin cancer, and is responsible for the most skin cancer deaths if it becomes malignant and spreads to other systems in the body.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Extrasolar Planets and Planet Formation

Hot Jupiter, Extrasolar Planet BS1853
"Scientists searching for worlds outside of the Solar System say that three such planets — distant gas giants that resemble Jupiter — are surprisingly dry.
The atmospheres of these exoplanets, known as ‘hot Jupiters’, contain between one-tenth and one-thousandth water vapour than predicted, measurements from the Hubble Space Telescope show. The findings, published 24 July in Astrophysical Journal Letters, are at odds with theories of how planets form." - Mark Zastrow, July 24, 2014, 'Hot Jupiter' measurements throw water on theory, Nature International Weekly Journal of Science

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sandstone Arch Formation

Arch Canyon, Arizona 3C2636 
"The fantastical arch shapes of sandstone formations have long been thought to be sculpted by wind and rain. But a team of researchers has now found that the shapes are inherent to the rock itself.
'Erosion gets [excess] material out, but doesn’t make the shape,' says Jiri Bruthans, a hydrogeologist at Charles University in Prague, who led the research. Rather, erosion is merely a 'tool' that works in combination with more fundamental factors embedded in the rock.
These factors are stress fields created by the weight of overlying rock. Under low stress, Bruthans says, sandstone erodes easily. But as stress mounts — as parts of a cliff or pillar are eroded away, for example — the sand grains on the surface of the remaining rock lock together and become more resistant to further erosion." - Richard A. Lovett, July 20, 2014, Sandstone arches form under their own stress, Nature International Weekly Journal of Science

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Marijuana Abusers Less Responsive to Dopamine

Marijuana Leaf, SEM - JA5445
With the legalization of marijuana becoming increasingly prevalent (but no less controversial) in states like Colorado and Washington, research pertaining to the drug's chemical components and their long term effects on the human body remain scarce.  The challenge of studying the affects of marijuana can become quite difficult, as it involves approval from numerous federal agencies that become speed-bumps along the road to research.

However researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, M.D., were able to take a closer look at brain imaging scans of marijuana abusers to see how the dopamine system (the brain's "pleasure chemical") was affected by excessive, long-term use of the drug.  Their findings showed that while both the control group and marijuana abusers produced similar levels of dopamine, marijuana abusers exhibited almost none of the physical responses such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, restlessness, or feeling high.

Cocaine and alcohol abuse has been known to cause a decrease in dopamine production in the brain, though the same cannot be said for marijuana.  This latest research suggests that marijuana abusers can still produce normal amounts of dopamine, but may experience less reward or pleasure from their normal activities, fueling further dependence on the drug that can damage the brain's reward circuitry.

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