The Gander

Pat Kelly | 17 Apr 2017 | 0 Comment(s)

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The Medical Independent blog takes a look at the more unconventional niches in science and research

The life of brain

A study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), US, has shown promise for the future treatment of neurological disorders and revealed that the brain is exponentially more ‘active’ than was previously thought.

It had been believed that dendrites, which are components of neurons, simply transmit currents they receive from a cell’s synapse, generating electrical impulses. However, the team found that dendrites themselves create their own electrical ‘spikes’ — 10 times more so than somas. It was also found that they create these spikes during natural movement in rat models.

Lead author Prof Mayank Mehta, Professor of Physics, Astronomy, Neurology and Neurobiology at UCLA, said: “Dendrites make up more than 90 per cent of neural tissue.

“Knowing they are much more active than the soma fundamentally changes the nature of our understanding of how the brain computes information. It may pave the way for understanding and treating neurological disorders,” he said, adding that the research could also influence the design of more ’brain’-like computer systems.

“We found that dendrites are hybrids that do both analog and digital computations, which are therefore fundamentally different from purely digital computers, but somewhat similar to quantum computers that are analog,” said Prof Mehta.

“A fundamental belief in neuroscience has been that neurons are digital devices. They either generate a spike or not. These results show that the dendrites do not behave purely like a digital device. Dendrites do generate digital, ‘all-or-none’ spikes, but they also show large analog fluctuations that are not all or none. This is a major departure from what neuroscientists have believed for about 60 years.”

The research was published in the journal Science.

Visions of the future in COPD

A study published recently in Nature Genetics comprised the largest ever research into genetic susceptibility to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and included 350,000 participants from 13 countries.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham and University of Leicester, UK, led an international team of 100 scientists from 14 countries in an attempt to better understand the inherent risk for COPD in both smokers and non-smokers and compared 24 million different genetic variants.

It is hoped that the research could lead to more personalised treatment plans for patients with COPD, as it also attempted to identify subtypes of the disease.

It was found that those in the highest-risk genetic group were 3.7 times more likely to develop COPD than those in the lowest-risk group, while in smokers, 72 of 100 in the high-risk group will go on to develop the condition.

Co-lead Prof Martin Tobin from the University of Leicester explained that the main aim of the work was to pave the way for new therapies.

“Our findings point to proteins that will help guide the development of new drugs and to proteins that are targets for drugs already tested for different diseases. This indicates that repurposing drugs already tested for different diseases could be one way to improve treatments for COPD,” said Prof Tobin.

“As a result of this work, we can now better predict who will develop COPD, opening up the possibility of using this information in prevention.

“This genetic information guides future treatments, including the development of new drugs, as well as the repurposing of drugs already tested for different diseases.”

Salad days

The UK government’s pledge to cut rates of E.coli by 50 per cent within three years is under threat, after it was revealed that the rates of E.coli infection have increased in 70 per cent of NHS Trusts in the year up to January 2017.

Further, a paper published in the Health Service Journal has suggested that the rise may be attributable to a larger number of petting zoos and, ironically, Britons’ increased appetite for salads. However, the hike in rates is also attributable to increasing antibiotic resistance, said the authors.

“The government’s plans seem to focus primarily on hospitals, when we know that the majority of E.coli cases are acquired in the community,” said Mr John Illingworth, Improvement Fellow at the UK’s Health Foundation think-tank.

“A more joined-up, whole-system approach will be needed in order to make significant progress, tackling causes in the community as well as in hospitals.”

Figures released late in 2016 showed that 78 per cent of chicken sold in supermarkets in England was contaminated with E.coli. The particular strain found had the potential to remain in the gut for several years and make people resistant to antibiotics when they did suffer an infection.

Wheels of fury

A paper published recently in Psychology: Science in Action examined the phenomenon of road-rage and found that cases contributed to 218 deaths and 12,610 injuries between 1990 and 1996 in the US. It was also noted that road rage incidents increased nearly 7 per cent each year during that time.

Stress and heavy traffic were predictable contributing factors, but it was also shown that those who engage in road rage are also more prone to misuse drugs and alcohol.

A feeling of anonymity and invulnerability also contribute to the propensity for road rage, the authors said, and while the rates of road rage seem high, they are likely to be even higher than thought, as many more people experience the feeling of road-rage without acting upon it by using abusive language or hand gestures, for example.

A recent UK study also showed that 58 per cent of commuters said they have experienced road rage while travelling to and from work and that nearly one-in-10 have become involved in a physical fight with another commuter.

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