Top 10 Latest Science News: January 2018

Read about Augmented Reality surgeries, artificial muscles and the effect of exercise on your heart in the January iteration of the latest science news from Ionizer!

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It’s time to quench your scientific curiosity with yet another bundle of the latest happenings in the science research world. Last month we came across the discovery of a new form of matter after bose-einstein condensate and the biggest black hole dicovered so far! 

January was equally filled with exciting scientific discoveries and here is a quick round of the top 10 most interesting things you must know about!

Latest Science News from January 2018

1. AR To Revolutionize Surgery

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The surgeon’s view.
Image Credit: Philip Pratt, et al. Eur Radiol Exp, 2018

Amidst the latest science news of 2018, let me first tell you about my number one pick.

A team at the Imperial College London is set out to help surgeons improve the outcome of reconstructive surgery by making one big change in the procedure: replacing the handheld scanner that uses ultrasound (to detect blood vessels underneath the skin), with the Microsoft HoloLens.

The HoloLens, as the name suggests, enables the wearers to interact with ‘holograms’ by immersing them in ‘mixed reality’ (augmented + real). The HoloLens, in general, is a ‘self-contained’ computer headset. The holograms are made visible through the visor. To see how the amazing HoloLens works, have a look at the video below:

The team carried out a number of procedures at the St. Mary’s Hospital where the surgeons used HoloLens while operating on the patients who were being operated for reconstructive lower limb surgery. You would, of course, want to know how now that you know the concept of how HoloLens works.

The team used HoloLens to overlay images of the CT scans on the patients’ legs, hence enabling the respective surgeons to ‘see through’ the surgery. The surgery procedures were all successful. The team firmly believes that this new tech can help improve surgical outcomes for patients as it helps the surgeons find and then reconnect the main blood vessels during the reconstructive surgery.

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Dr. Philip Pratt, lead author of the study, and Research Fellow (in the Department of Surgery and Cancer) proudly claims that his team is among one of the very first to have successfully utilized HoloLens in the Operating Theater. He was quoted saying, “Through this initial series of patient cases we have shown that the technology is practical, and that it can provide a benefit to the surgical team. With the HoloLens, you look at the leg and essentially see inside of it. You see the bones, the course of the blood vessels, and can identify exactly where the targets are located.”

In the future, the team has high hopes for automating the process even further.

Full Release: Imperial College London, European Radiology Experimental

You just read about something pretty epic above. You’re at the stage where you feel what else has technology got to offer that could possibly surprise me anymore. You’re wrong, my dear friend, very wrong. This field never ever ceases to amaze. Meet the second pick for the latest science news from January 2018.

2. Swallowable Sensors Unveiling the Mysteries of Your Tummy

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This is a close up of the ingestible gas-sensing capsule developed by researchers at RMIT University.
Image Credit: RMIT University/Peter Clarke

Let me tell you that as of now, the now in which we exist, there are vitamin-pill-sized ingestible capsules that can help figure out everything that’s going on inside your tumtum and send the data to an app on your phone. These swallowable sensor-capsules are engineered by a team of researchers at the RMIT University located in Melbourne, Australia. The team speculates that their brainchild is capable of revolutionizing the way in which gut disorders are prevented, detected and diagnosed.

The swallowable pill is capable of detecting and measuring the gut gases (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide) in real time, and then send the recorded data to your phone.

The researchers are also of the opinion that they have quite possibly unveiled an entirely new immune system mechanism in the human body, the existence of which was previously unknown, unheard and un-thought of.

They observed that the stomach releases oxidizing chemicals to fight foreign compounds that prolong their welcomed-stay in the gut. This possibly indicates a gastric protection immune mechanism against foreign bodies. It is something which has never been reported before.

During the trials of the pill, the team found out that the colon may contain oxygen. In the words of study lead and co-inventor of the capsule, Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, “Trials showed the presence of high concentrations of oxygen in the colon under an extremely high-fiber diet. This contradicts the old belief that the colon is always oxygen free. This new information could help us better understand how debilitating diseases like colon cancer occur.”

Presently, doctors rely on either surgery or fecal matter to analyze gut microbes, but this new tech changes everything. It offers an invasion-free method to measure the gut microbiota.

The ingestible sensor capsules have passed human trials and have proved to be safe and harmless. The team is now set on commercializing the technology.

Full Release: RMIT University, Nature (Electronics)

3. Alcohol Damages DNA, Increases Risk of Cancer

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Image Credit: Pexels.com

It is nothing new when I say alcohol is bad for you. We have all repeatedly been told about the numerous harms of alcohol intake. However, this time, when I say it is harmful, I mean gravely, fatally harmful.

A recent study conducted by a team of scientists from the Cancer Research UK shows how alcohol causes damage to DNA in stem cells, further increasing the risk of cancer.

In this particular study, researchers used mice to demonstrate the permanent genetic damage caused due to exposure to alcohol.

At the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, mice were given diluted ethanol (alcohol). The scientists then used ‘chromosome analysis’ and ‘DNA sequencing’ in order to examine the damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical produced when the body processes and breaks down alcohol. On further study, they found that acetaldehyde can damage DNA and permanently alter DNA sequences within the blood stem cells.

Faulty or damaged stem cells can pave way for the development of cancers. The researchers claim that these findings have helped them understand how alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of the development of at least 7 types of cancers, including bowel cancer and breast cancer.

In the words of scientist and lead author of the study, Professor Ketan Patel, “Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells. While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage. Our study highlights that not being able to process alcohol effectively can lead to an even higher risk of alcohol-related DNA damage and therefore certain cancers. But it’s important to remember that alcohol clearance and DNA repair systems are not perfect and alcohol can still cause cancer in different ways, even in people whose defense mechanisms are intact.”

As per the data collected by the team, it is known that within the UK, alcohol contributes to 12,000+ cancer cases every year, so cutting down a bit on the amount you drink wouldn’t possibly hurt.

Full Release: Cancer Research UK, Nature

4. ‘Muscle Memory’ Exists at a DNA Level

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Image Credit: Pexels.com

A recent, intriguing research published by a team of researchers from the Keele University has shown that human muscles are capable of containing a ‘memory’ of earlier growth at the DNA level. The genes in the muscle ‘remember’ periods of skeletal muscle growth and this memory helps them allow the muscle to grow larger later in time.

The team from Keele, along with researchers from the Universities of Liverpool John Moores, Northumbria and Manchester Metropolitan, using the latest genome-wide techniques, discovered the genes of over 850K+ sites on human DNA ‘marked’/’unmarked’ with specific chemical ‘markers’ or ‘tags’ when the muscle grows due to exercise, then goes back to normal, and then grows back again due to exercising in later life.

 

 

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These markers or tags tell the genes whether they should be inactive or active, instruct them to turn off or on without causing any change to the DNA.

This research is important, especially when it comes to athletes.

Consider the growth of an athlete’s muscle due to exercise and activity. Consider then that the athlete in context gets injured and loses muscle. The genes accountable for ‘muscle memory’ may help the recovery of the muscle once these genes are activated.

However, now consider another scenario of an elite athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs. Their muscle may retain this growth’s memory. So, even if they get caught and are banned for a short period of time, they may continue to be at an advantage over the other players due to the earlier drug usage. Hence, the drugs can create long-lasting changes thanks to the ‘muscle memory’, making the short-term bans unnecessary as well as rendering them useless.

Full Release: Keele University, Nature

5. Proper Exercise can Help Your Heart Stay Young

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Image Credit: Pexels.com

An optimum amount of exercise begun in time can reverse the damage in aging hearts, as per the latest study conducted by a team of researchers at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM). IEEM is a collaboration between UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

Exercising can help prevent the risk of heart failures in the future, if and only if it is enough exercise and if it is begun in time. For the process to actually be beneficial and of any substance, it should begin before the age of 65. It is during that time period of a person’s life that the heart still has some plasticity and an ability to remodel itself.

The exercise regimen includes four to five workouts per week; generally in the form of half-an-hour long workout sessions, along with warm-ups and cool-down exercises.

The study was conducted with the help of 50 participants who were divided into two groups.

One group received supervised exercise training for two consecutive years, and the other group participated in balance training and yoga.

After the span of two years, studies showed that the participants who exercised had an 18% improvement in their maximum oxygen intake while performing the exercises, and also more than 25% improvement in the elasticity of the left ventricular muscle of the heart.

To find out about the exact exercise regimen, read the full release on the website of UT Southwestern Medical Center, the link to which is provided below.

Full Release: UT Southwestern Medical Center, Circulation

6. J147: The Alzheimer’s Drug that Turns Aging Cells Youthful

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The experimental drug J147 is something of a modern elixir of life.
Image Credit: Salk Institute

Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences developed an experimental drug called J147 in 2011. It was developed after much research and study on compounds from plants that displayed the ability to reverse cellular and molecular signs of aging in the brain. J147 is a modified version of curcumin, which is found in the curry spice turmeric.

J147, the then experiment, has now been dubbed the ‘modern elixir of life’. In mice, it has reversed aging and treated Alzheimer’s disease. What was previously not understood, was that how this drug was capable of reversing the process of aging at the cellular and molecular level. This puzzle was solved when a study was published on January 7, 2018, in Aging Cell. As per this study, the drug basically binds to a protein in the mitochondria (fondly known as the ‘powerhouse of the cell’ as it generates energy). Once it does that, it makes aging cells appear more youthful.

The mitochondrial protein that J147 binds with is called the ATP synthase, which has previously shown to control aging in flies and C. elegans worms. The researchers showed that by manipulating the activity of the ATP synthase (which is to help generate adenosine triphosphate or ATP), neuron cells could be protected from multiple toxicities related to the aging brain.

On further experimentation, it was found that the modulating activity of the ATP synthase with the J147 led to healthier and more stable mitochondria.

J147 has completed the FDA-required toxicology testing in animals. Now, funds are being sought to initiate clinical trials in humans.

Full Release: Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, Wiley Online Library

7. Self-healing Devices Mimic Muscles

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HASEL actuators can be designed as soft grippers to handle and manipulate delicate objects, like this raspberry.
Image Credit: Keplinger Lab / University of Colorado Boulder

Soft Robotics is a relatively new field with a number of persistent challenges in the face of the brave researchers who struggle day and night working to create the next-gen robots.

Robots that are not metal droids, but soft and ‘human’. Opposed to the stiff metal droids, soft robots have huge potential considering that they can adapt to dynamic environments and are much more suited for close interactions with humans.

One of the major challenges in this field is the lack of actuators, or ‘artificial muscles’ which can replicate and demonstrate the versatility and the performance of real, biological muscles.

But…

That’s old news.

In the NEWs, we have HASEL.

The Keplinger Research Group in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (at the University of Colorado at Boulder) has developed a new class of electrically activated, soft devices that mimic the expansion and contraction movements of natural muscles.

As if this wasn’t enough,

-These devices can be constructed from low-cost materials

-They can self-sense their movements

-They can self-heal from electrical damage

They are HASEL – Hydraulically Amplified Self-healing Electrostatic actuators!

The HASEL actuators can perform a range of tasks, from grabbing delicate objects to lifting heavy weights.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

The HASEL actuators are at par with the speed, efficiency, and strength of biological muscles. Their versatility may inspire a new generation of prosthetic limbs.

Full Release: University of Colorado (Boulder), Science Robotics, Science

8. Unhappiness Among Screen-addicted Teens

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Image Credit: Photo by Tofros.com from Pexels

Psychology professor, Jean M. Twenge from the San Diego State University was convinced that screen-addicted teens are unhappier compared to the rest. So, along with colleagues Gabrielle Martin (SDSU) and W. Keith Campbell at the University of Georgia, she set out to explore the link between screen time and adolescent life-satisfaction.

They processed data from the ‘Monitoring the Future (MtF) longitudinal study’, a national survey of more than a million U.S. teens in the grades 8, 10, and 12.

The survey had questions regarding how often the students spent time on their phones, computers, and tablets. It also had questions regarding their ‘live’, ‘in-the-flesh’ social interactions as well as regarding their overall happiness.

As per their study, they found that teens who spent a lot of time in front of their screens either playing games or texting or video-chatting or using social media, in general, were less happy in comparison to the teens who employed their time majorly for sports, social interactions, and other off-screen activities.

Professor Twenge carries the firm belief that it is the screen trend that causes the unhappiness, even if the study does not show any causation for the same.

As per Twenge, “The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use. Aim to spend no more than two hours a day on digital media, and try to increase the amount of time you spend seeing friends face-to-face and exercising — two activities reliably linked to greater happiness.”

Full Release: Science Daily

9. The Effective Brain Pacemaker

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Image Credit: Pexels.com

Most of the researchers take on the Alzheimer’s disease by focusing on improving the patients’ memory. Going off the main road, the researchers at the Wexner Medical Center (The Ohio State University) wanted to try the much-avoided path of trying to slow down the memory decline in the Alzheimer’s patients. The aim was to slow down the deterioration of the decision making and problem-solving skills in the patients.

The team wanted to see if bringing a ‘brain pacemaker’ into the scene would help improve functional, cognitive and behavioral abilities in the patients. So, it was a ‘first ever’ when they surgically implanted thin, electrical wires into the frontal lobes of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. This implant is called the Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) implant. It has been compared to the cardiac pacemaker, for it performs a similar function with respect to the brain instead of the heart.

Director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute, and co-author of the study, Dr. Douglas Scharre, is a neurologist who focuses primarily on treating patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

He was of the opinion that because the frontal lobes hold our capabilities of problem-solving, organizing and planning, as well as carrying out good judgments, there would be the possibility that by stimulating this region, the Alzheimer’s symptoms in patients would slow down.

And this is precisely what he did.

To everyone’s happiness, he turned out to be right.

It was found in the pilot study that stimulation of the frontal lobes can reduce the pace of the performance decline observed in people with early stage or mild Alzheimer’s.

Full Release: Wexner Medical Center (The Ohio State University), IOS Press

10. Cognitive Training for a Younger Brain

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Brain imaging revealed more energy efficient brains in the cognitive training group compared to the exercise and waitlist control groups.
Image Credit: Michael A. Motes, et. al., Neurobiology of Aging, 2018

We are all aware of the toll that old age takes on our brain. Our decision making becomes a blur, our ability to plan and organize becomes clouded. All in all, the cognitive decline that comes with aging is unforgiving, unavoidable and persistent. However, as per the research of a team at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas (Dallas), there might be a ray of hope in this relentless situation.

The researchers conducted a clinical study that involved adults aged 56-71. After being given cognitive training, the participants’ brains were more energy-efficient, i.e., they performed tasks easier than before. This was found out by the team by studying the neural activity of the participant while they performed a task.

The cognitive training used the SMART program – Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training – developed at the Center for BrainHealth.

The various strategies included in the cognitive training were:

-Focusing on the most relevant information and filtering out the rest

-Ways to continuously synthesize information and encourage and formulate deeper thinking

-Inspiring innovative thinking, etc.

To read about the entire study, check out the full release in the links mentioned below!

Full Release: University of Texas (Dallas), Neurobiology of Aging

Do you think I’ve missed out on an interesting piece of news? Let me know in the comments below!

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