Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Most important discoveries of 2013

2013 was an eventful year for science. Many advances were made in our fight against disease, hunger and thirst. Our world is going towards an energy crises as the petrol, diesel and gas that we use is getting over. Scientists worked on alternate fuels and energy sources, and were rewarded with a few interesting findings. The field of computers is advancing with rapid steps. New materials are being used to build faster and smaller computers. The damage to environment remains a serious concern and a lot of research focused on it.
Over the next few days, I am planning to write about some striking discoveries of 2013 that will have big impact on our lives. I begin with a cure for cancer.

1. Gene Therapy Cures Leukemia
In a landmark piece of medicine, three patients were cured of leukaemia (blood cancer) in March 2013 using gene therapy. The therapy was given to five patients. All of them had received standard chemotherapy, but cancer had relapsed (returned). Their only hope was to receive a bone marrow transplant. Most patients do not survive long enough till bone marrow donation is available.
Scientists used a novel approach to fight against the cancer in blood. They took the immune system cells of the patients, and introduced a new gene in those cells. This gene made the immune system cells to behave like hunters of the cancer cells. The cancer cells have a specific protein on their surface. Our modified immune cells tracked this protein and destroyed the cancer cells.
This technique proved really effective. In one patient, all traces of cancer vanished within eight days. Others took a few weeks. One of the five patients died due to another disease and another died after cancer relapsed. Three were cured.
This result means that we have got a new powerful weapon in our fight against an old and deadly enemy of humankind – cancer. Certainly one of most noteworthy discovery of 2013.

2 - Mind controlled artificial leg
Just as we get ready to sign off 2013 and wave in the new year, I want to dedicate this article to all those who got disabled in accidents, wars, rioting and acts of terrorism during the year. The world remained torn in conflict this year too. An unfortunate result of the conflicts is that a lot of people need artificial limbs.
Artificial legs have been available for many years. In fact, the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has competed in London Olympics and many other events wearing an artificial leg. But it is very difficult to do actions like climbing stairs with these legs.
This year in September, an institute in Chicago demonstrated an artificial leg that is controlled by mind. It means that the person wearing this leg has to only think of the action to do, and the leg will make the movement!
Sounds amazing, isn't it? The way this is achieved is equally amazing. The nerves from the damaged part of the leg are made free and attached to healthy muscle. When the person thinks of moving the leg, brain generates a signal and sends it to these nerves. This signal is picked up by a sensor in the leg. A small computer decodes its meaning and moves the leg as per what the brain wanted to do.
You can watch a video of man walking with the mind controlled leg. It's only about a minute - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQqiKrLnieI
It will take a few years for these intelligent legs to be available in market. They will also have to become cheap so that more and more disabled people can afford them.
I consider this as one of the best gifts of science to the world in 2013.

3. Research on sleep and meditation
Have you made your new year resolution already? If not, I can help you by talking about last year’s research on health. This is path breaking research, because for the first time health in humans is clearly linked to what is called as Gene Expression.
What is gene expression? We can compare it to music. A piano may have lots of keys, but the melody we hear depends on which keys are pressed. Similarly our genes have a lot of instructions, but only some are actually ‘pressed’. Which genes are pressed depends on many factors, one of which is the chemicals present around them. This is called gene expression.
Armed with this knowledge, let’s see last year’s discovery about gene expression and health.
In the study, a group of healthy people with no sleep disorders were allowed to sleep less than six hours for a week. At the end of the week, they were kept awake continuously for about 40 hours. Then a blood sample was taken for testing.
It was a surprising result. The gene expression of 700 genes was altered. Many of these genes were related to immunity, stress reduction and inflammation control.
This is the beginning of a new chapter in medicine. It means that lack of sleep produces chemicals that alter the way important genes are expressed. These changed gene expressions may be responsible for disorders like diabetes and cardiac diseases.
In another important study, a similar experiment was independently done on mediation. A group of people was taught meditation for two months. After training they were told to do half an hour of meditation. A blood test was done before and after the meditation.
It brought up another amazing result. The genes linked to good things like energy metabolism, insulin secretion and aging repair were turned on, whereas those related to bad things like inflammation were turned off.
A lot more research is needed, and such research is going on. But the message is loud and clear. Taking enough sleep and meditation can make you healthy at very basic level – that of genes. How’s that as an idea for New Year Resolution?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why schools should start late

10 year old Neha (name changed) stays in the same building as I do. Everyday, she is supposed to learn an amazing amount of facts. New facts of science and geography, rules of mathematics, dates in history and words in English, are just few of the things she learns everyday in school. Add to that everything she talks to her friends and teachers and all the new movements she does while playing, it’s a huge pile of things to learn and remember. But she has an invaluable friend to help her in this difficult job. It’s called Sleep.
After saying goodnight to everybody in the house, Neha goes to sleep at 10 o’clock in the night. As she sleeps peacefully under her Tom and Jerry blanket, a fascinating process starts in her little brain.
Neha’s brain, like all human beings, keeps memories in two different baskets. We learn many new things every minute. As they come in, they are first stored in Short Term Memory basket. The things in Short Term Memory don’t last long. They fade in a few seconds, but repeating them verbally makes them strong, giving rise to the practice of Rutting.
The other basket is Long Term Memory. Memories here stay forever. When we suddenly remember the fond smell of new books from our schooldays, we are using the Long Term memory. Some of the things in Short Term Memory are shifted to Long Term Memory, rest are forgotten.
Short Term Memory has a limited capacity. So when Neha learns all those facts, rules and dates, her Short Term Memory gets full. New incoming facts will be turned away now, just like your email bounces when the mailbox gets full.
But sleep comes to rescue. During sleep, the Short Term Memory is cleared, memories not only get shifted to Long Term Memory, but are also carefully arranged along with older memories.
So sleep helps Neha in two ways. It clears her Short Term Memory for new learning, and creates good Long Term memories. Most of this work happens in the second half of the sleep.
And that’s why early start that most schools have can be a problem. If the child is sleeping late, and rising early for school, the precious hours of sleep doing this housekeeping work may be lost. Some schools in countries like the US have actually modified their start time to allow children to sleep more.
This clearing of Short Term Memory is important for us working adults too. This is where the afternoon naps come in. But more on that some other time. I have to take a nap now.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The champion body grower

In my article on Oct 28 this year, I talked about achieving enormous life spans, like 1000 years. I mentioned that we need to learn to regenerate organs, if we want to live to be a thousand. Today we will talk about some interesting examples of regeneration, but in animals.
There are many characters in our mythology who could regrow cut limbs and even heads. The Greek mythological hero Prometheus could regrow liver. Hollywood and Bollywood films are ripe with humans and robots who regain cut body parts within no time. Organ regeneration seems to be everyone’s favorite fantasy.
We humans have a few regenerative capabilities ourselves. We heal from wounds and grow new skin. Our Livers can regrow after they are damaged. Liver donors can offer up to half of their livers to the needy and regrow it. But these abilities are a mere nothing when compared to what some animals can do.
Everybody has seen a lizard discarding her tail when attacked by a cat. The cat is fooled by the writhing tail. While it is watching the tail keenly, the lizard escapes. It can grow the tail back, ready to fool the next cat.
Similarly, cockroaches and salamanders can grow a cut leg. Lobsters have similar skills. Snails can even regrow their head!
But everything pales in front of the real champion regenerator – Planarian.
Planarian are a kind of flatworms. They live in freshwater. Most are very small, about a centimeter, but some grow to be a foot long. You can easily find great pictures of them on internet – search ‘Planarian images’ on Google.
If we cut a planarian in half, each part will grow to be a complete planarian in a week or two. You can cut them in four, and four planarian will be created. If you are a avid cutter, you can cut them into up to 279 pieces, and you will get a healthy population of 279 planarians.
Amazing, isn’t it? How can they do it? Planarians have a large stock of cells called Stem Cells. Stem Cells are basically unbranded cells. They are not skin cells, nor muscles nor anything else. They can become any other type of cells. Our growth as Embryos uses these cells. (See my November 29, 2013 article on Development).
When a planarian is cut, stem cells gather around the cut. They convert into the right kind of cells for that place. This continues till the whole body is built.
This astounding ability of planarian is extremely useful for scientists to understand regeneration of organs in humans. Studies are going on in universities all over the world to study this mechanism and apply it to growing human organs.
How old is the oldest planarian? No one knows. But it might help us to live to be a thousand.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gut Bacteria and Autism

Bacteria look at our gut as we look at empty land – suitable to build colonies and settle down. Bacteria are very small and their numbers are mind boggling. Crores and crores of them live in our stomach and intestines. Only some of them are harmful. Most are harmless and some are actually useful. The useful ones help in digestion, repair the damaged intestine and even produce precious vitamins.
When we eat junk food or take antibiotics, some of these bacteria die. This disturbs the peaceful environment in the gut, and causes stomach disorders like constipation or indigestion. Our home remedy of eating curd tries to put these good bacteria back.
In the last few years, scientists are uncovering a connection between these bacteria and a disorder much more dangerous than indigestion – Autism.
Autism is a development disorder. It means that it affects children in their development stage, typically 0 – 3 years. Autism causes a broad range of problems. Autistic children find it difficult to interact socially. They experience anxiety, depression and are very dependent on others.
Problems in genes are supposed to cause Autism. But recent research is throwing up some surprising facts.
Parents of Autistic children say that the children suffer from stomach problems much more than other children. Their behavior worsens when they are suffering from these problems. This prompted scientists to study connection between Gut Bacteria and Autism.
A study was published in July this year. It claimed that Autistic children lack some types of bacteria in their stomach. A paper published last week made a very sensational claim – they treated autistic mice with a type of bacteria, and found that some symptoms of autism were cured.
This research indicates that there is hope for Autistic children and their parents. We must keep in mind that these are preliminary studies and it’s a long way to go for any kind of treatment to become reality.
Autism is an extremely unfortunate condition. I will be watching the developments in this research with hopes for the best.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Boredom and creativity

Computers have memory. Computer memory is divided between permanent memory and working memory. The permanent memory stores all your songs, pictures and movies. Working memory is used for processing.
So when you are reading your birthday wishes on Facebook wall, or writing an email, the computer is using its working memory to temporarily hold the text, pictures and everything else.
Human beings also have working memory, which we use when we are busy at a task, like writing or catching a train. This memory is used to keep all the thoughts about the job at hand.
There is an interesting difference between our working memory and that of the computer. When computer does not need all the working memory it has, the remaining memory remains idle. But that is not the case with us.
When we have more working memory than we need, the rest of the space is filled by wandering thoughts. Sometimes these wandering thoughts become more important than the actual job you are doing. You turn the pages of a book, but your thoughts are somewhere else and later you don't remember a word from the book. We call this daydreaming.
This characteristics of our working memory has two interesting effects:
- Those with more working memory do more daydreaming. But it also means that they have more capacity of focusing when the job requires it. So those who seem more distracted, ironically can do a better job at focusing.
- The wandering thoughts lead to creativity, as they enable more connections between unrelated ideas. Now, if you have a boring task in office, your working memory is not used, so your thoughts wonder, and creativity gets a chance.
So getting bored at your desk is not bad, you can turn it into creative ideas. Did you ever have this experience?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Music training enhances hearing capacity of brain

When we hear speech, the neurons in the brain respond and make meaning out of it. With age, the response gets slower. This is why old people find it difficult to understand fast changing speech. They also have difficulty in understanding talk in noisy environment.
Research suggests that those who have undergone musical training in their childhood have a much faster neuron response to speech. The researchers tested old people who had as less as 4 years of musical training in their childhood. Even though they haven't practiced music in 40 years, their response to speech was better than those who haven't undergone any training.
This advantage is not limited to old age. It means that throughout our life, our ability to hear even in noisy places will be higher if we are musically trained.
This is the first research of its kind. Such facts cannot be confirmed unless many more studies are done. But surely it gives us a reason to learn music, and teach to our kids.
(Link to the research paper http://tinyurl.com/YScNeuro01
- reading only Abstract should be enough)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Brain and the Birth Canal

In human beings, giving birth is a difficult and risky job. No other animal faces such difficulties while delivering babies. Why should it be so?
Sometime during our journey of becoming human from apes, our ancestors became upright and began walking on two legs. This happened 20 lac years ago, or may be even earlier.
One effect of the upright position was that the birth canal became narrow. Giving birth became an ordeal that women go through till today.
At the same time, the human brain was becoming larger. The large size of the brain is one of the things that makes us human. Our brain is around 1.4 Kg, 2% of our body weight. Elephant’s brain is 5 Kg, only 0.08 % of its weight.
So it was a double challenge. The birth canal became narrow and brain became large. In order to make birth possible, the brain of a baby is only 28% of in size at birth. But it is still too large for the narrow canal. Then evolution came up with another trick.
The head of a baby is not one solid ball like us adults. It is made up of five separate parts, joined by soft patches. Search Fontanelle on internet and you can see what it is. The Fotanelle serves two purposes:
- At birth, the head is pressed together so that it can pass through the birth canal.
- After birth, the brain grows rapidly. The Fontanelle allow this growth. One fotanelle closes a few weeks after birth, another sometime after the first birthday of the baby.
The twin challenge of large brain and small canal has another interesting effect- family and societies. The baby’s brain is not complete at birth. So it needs a long time to learn even basic things like eating. To ensure training of the babies, long term bonds like marriage evolved. Family became a very important unit in human culture, owing to a large brain and small birth canal.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

ISRO's shining moment

Last night, 50 minutes after midnight, Indian scientists at ISRO put the Mangalyaan on right on the path to Mars. It was a huge moment!
They did what no country has been able to do before, to get it right in the first attempt.
The nation feels proud for the ISRO team. Lots of wishes from Yours Sciencely on behalf of all its readers for the journey ahead. Way to go!