The Gander

Pat Kelly | 05 Nov 2018 | 0 Comment(s)

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

Winning by a nose

Research published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience has built on previous work on the relationship between how we breathe and brain activity.

The team, from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have determined that people who breathe through their nose are better able to consolidate memories than those who breathe through their mouth. They said previous research on the topic is limited, partly because laboratory animals such as rats and mice are unable to breathe naturally through their mouths.

The researchers asked participants to breathe through either their mouths and noses for 60 minutes on two different occasions and tested their memories on 12 different smells. The team concluded that those who breathed through their noses consolidated memories better than the mouth-breathers.

Dr Artin Arshamian of the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet commented: “Our study shows that we remember smells better if we breathe through the nose when the memory is being consolidated — the process that takes place between learning and memory retrieval. This is the first time someone has demonstrated this.

“The next step is to measure what actually happens in the brain during breathing and how this is linked to memory,” he continued. “This was previously a practical impossibility, as electrodes had to be inserted directly into the brain. We’ve managed to get round this problem and now we’re developing, with my colleague Johan Lundström, a new means of measuring activity in the olfactory bulb and brain without having to insert electrodes.”

He added: “The idea that breathing affects our behaviour is actually not new. In fact, the knowledge has been around for thousands of years in such areas as meditation, but no-one has managed to prove scientifically what actually goes on in the brain. We now have tools that can reveal new clinical knowledge.”

Overcoming overdose 

A recent study has made limited but potentially significant strides into a novel strategy to prevent cocaine overdose.

Researchers from the University of Chicago, US, worked on a genetically-engineered patch of skin transplanted onto laboratory mice, not just to prevent overdoses, but also to treat drug addiction.

They used the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase, which is produced naturally by the human body, to break-down cocaine, and genetically engineered it to generate 4,400 times more of the cocaine-hydrolising effect using CRISPR genetic engineering technology. They then inserted the gene into a one centimetre ‘scaffold’ and transplanted it onto cocaine-addicted mice.

They found that after two weeks, a dose of cocaine that would have proved lethal to the animals had no significant effect, as the enzyme broke-down the cocaine before it could reach the brain.

Furthermore, the cocaine-addicted mice no longer craved the enclosure in which they were fed the drug. The researchers added that the skin patch still worked some 10 weeks after transplantation.

Writing in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the authors said: “Here, we show that the transplantation, into mice, of skin cells modified to express an enhanced form of butyrylcholinesterase... enables the long-term release of the enzyme and efficiently protects the mice from cocaine-seeking behaviour and cocaine overdose.

“Cutaneous gene therapy through skin transplants that elicit drug elimination may offer a therapeutic option to address drug abuse.”

New health threat for children

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expressed alarm at the re-emergence of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a disease that resembles polio and causes one or more limbs in children to become paralysed.

The CDC has ruled-out polio as a potential cause and the  exact aetiology remains a mystery. In AFM, the grey matter in the spinal cord becomes damaged and children initially present with fever and respiratory illness and subsequently, loss of control of a leg or arm.

Thus far, there have been 127 suspected cases, 62 of which have been confirmed, and the illness has spread across 22 US states. While some 90 per cent of cases occur in those aged 18 years or younger, the average age of onset is four years.

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