Posts Categorized: Health

UT researchers get rats addicted, then un-addicted, to drugs and alcohol

shutterstock_2180800While keeping Austin weird, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have trained rats to be alcoholics and addicted to cocaine, and thereafter proved a link between the blood pressure medication, isradipine, and a decrease in addiction.

Scientists classically conditioned rats to associate different colors of rooms with a dose of alcohol or cocaine, and found when given the choice, rats would gravitate toward the color room associated with the substance. However, when isradipine was introduced to the mix, the rats steadily began to show no preference for the rooms with doses of alcohol or cocaine.

According to the lead researcher of the study, Hitoshi Morikawa, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas, “The isradipine erased memories that led them to associate a certain room with cocaine or alcohol.”

It used to be believed that people who became addicted to drugs simply lacked the willpower to stop using, which is pretty consistent with the drug-laden bum stereotype we grow up believing and which currently sprinkle the streets outside many a shoe-box-sized apartment in cities.

However, it is now scientific belief that environmental cues, such as sights, sounds and the dingy places you go to use drugs, can facilitate a relapse. Scientists now believe addiction has a lot more to do with classical conditioning than merely a lack of willpower.

The researchers found that the isradipine rewires the brain a bit, helping the addicted rat to dissociate room color with wanting to use drugs or alcohol, essentially helping them forget to be addicted.

Isradipine is already FDA approved as a high blood pressure treatment, which will likely make clinical testing easier, and could potentially help human addicts in the near future. However, it is unclear as of yet whether isradipine will be as effective for humans as it was the rats. Regardless, great news for the alcoholic rat in your life.

Robot Skin, Because You’re Worth It

tattooCyborgs and other theories of humans hybridizing with robot parts have been a common theme for decades, dealing with how technology and humans will ultimately mix. However, it is looking more and more as if, instead of body parts being replaced by robots, we will simply tattoo the mechanics onto our bodies. Tattoos may not be the most ideal method for wearable technology for everyone, however the stick-on and temporary wearable devices that are currently in development may change some people’s minds.

Scientists are working on wearable technology that is as simple as placing a sticker or temporary tattoo onto the desired skin area. The tattoo bends and stretches with the skin, transmitting information back to the wearer. MC10, a company that specializes in wearable technology, announced progress in the BioStamp system. The BioStamp device is the size of a quarter and as thin as the skin it is placed on. The purpose of the device is to monitor and report heart rate, body movement, and other biometric data for health.

In another sector of tattoo technology, L’Oréal is working with scientists to create a patch that will work with their health and beauty products to better understand and treat skin conditions. The stickers can track blood flow and temperature via the sensors and report back to the researcher. The same research team is also working with the patches to control video games.

In a few years, the possibilities for wearable technology like the BioStamp and L’Oréal’s patch are endless. As mechanical devices shrink and storage capacity grows, the science community is looking forward to the medical and entertainment doors that can be opened. Perhaps our children will put a quarter into a vending machine and instead of the temporary tattoos we grew up with, a technology infused tattoo will come out with the latest video game already downloaded on it. Who knows?

You want the pain; you need the pain

shutterstock_40106719Researchers may just have discovered the gene that can keep you from feeling pain. No one wants to feel pain. Depending on its severity, it is uncomfortable, distracting, or debilitating. However, if you don’t feel pain at all, you may be headed for trouble.

Children typically learn very early on to avoid situations that will cause them pain because it is, well, painful. This is as it should be. Pain is just as necessary to human survival as insects are to ecology. The feeling of pain tells us that something is wrong. It could be external (hot surface) or internal (toothache). In either case, it is a warning that you should do something (take away your hand) or see someone (dentist) to find and eliminate the source of pain. In a very real sense, pain is the feeling that keeps us from doing stupid things or letting bad situations continue.

The pain-suppressing gene is called PRDM12, a protein that is present in the developing fetus that helps in growing pain-warning nerve cells. In some cases, however, the gene mutates naturally, and some people are born short of a few pain neurons. Researchers now believe that it may still be present in adults, keeping pain neurons from fully functioning. Theoretically, manipulating the PRDM12 gene may help suppress pain receptors for people who are in constant pain. The study was published in Nature Genetics on May 25, 2015.

The theory has yet to be put into practice, but it will be of great benefit for certain populations. People suffering from chronic and debilitating pain have bigger problems than a potential scalding from a carelessly placed hand. The pain they have is huge, and it is always there. It prevents them from functioning with any kind normality, and if manipulating a gene can help them cope with the pain, then it is a matter of weighing the risks against the benefits.

RBD may be a precursor to Parkinson’s disease

shutterstock_236914165A meta-analysis of studies within a 28-year period indicates that a sleep disorder may be early signs of degenerative brain disorders. The fact that there is no cure for either the sleep disorder or subsequent brain disorder makes this interesting, but ultimately useless, information.

Some people suffer from rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD), where the subject physically acts out their dreams. Now, you are not supposed to be able to do that because the brain usually locks the body down while dreaming. This is most probably a very practical way of keeping you from knocking your sleep partner’s teeth out or your own while dreaming that you are Neo in The Matrix. The fact that you can move while dreaming probably means that something is not working right in the upper works.

Research analysts are now saying about 90% of cases with people with RBD who lived long enough acquired Parkinson’s disease or a similar condition. This means that people that punch, kick, or leap up while dreaming should probably start planning for the day when they will not be able to control their motor functions. Neurologists are saying that RBD is an early warning sign of alpha-synuclein breakdown, which causes Parkinson’s disease.

However, there is no cure for RBD, so there is no real way to put this insight to any good use at this point. It may come in handy someday but right now it is an effective way of putting the scare on the 10% or so RBD sufferers that will not get some type of degenerative neurological disorder in the future.

From Patch Adams to Patch Vaccines

shutterstock_116705086When a person makes the switch from their pediatric physician to an adult doctor, they lose an all too important part of the medical process: the lollipop at the end of their visit. While the promise of a sucker at the end of a doctor’s torture session doesn’t entirely make up for the insertion of a seemingly giant needle into a child’s arm, it does distract from the initial pain. Fortunately for children and adults everywhere, progress in biomedical engineering may soon yield a needless vaccine option.

Katarzyna Sawicka, a recent Stony Brook University PhD graduate, designed a needle-free patch capable of delivering vaccines through the skin in a non-invasive process. Much like a Band-Aid, the product Immuno-Matrix sticks to the skin and uses nanofibers to deliver vaccine molecules. The skin is the largest organ of the body, used primarily as a protective layer for the other vital organs. Previously, the large molecules and other particles of the vaccines were incapable of permeating the skin. However, Sawicka found that by removing and returning moisture to the skin, it would absorb larger molecules, up to 250 times the previously absorbable molecule size.

It gets better. Going back to the skin serving a protective function, Sawicka also found that the skin holds a high amount of antigen, a necessary solution that aids in the vaccination process. Therefore, the delivery of vaccine through the skin requires a smaller dosage than traditional vaccine methods. So far, the team of biomedical engineers has successfully tested Immuno-Matrix with whooping cough, influenza, and anthrax. Studies show that this new vaccination solution is as effective as intramuscular injections.

The large implication of this technology lies in the use of vaccines in less developed and poor countries. Immuno-Matrix does not require sterile needles or refrigeration like traditional vaccine solutions. Further development of this vaccine may result in a panacea for developing countries suffering from curable diseases all over the world.

Self-healing may be hereditary

shutterstock_213336247Do you remember ever feeling a superior glow over all those people who seem to feel better even when they take fake medicine? You probably believe that the gullibility of these people is epic. Well, you might want to tone down that glow a bit, because those people may just have the ability to heal themselves without even knowing it.

This is not precisely what recent neurophysiological studies are saying about genetic traits and the placebo effect, however. What they do say is there is some evidence suggesting that some people respond more readily to treatment they believe they are taking even when they are in a placebo group. A placebo, in case you are wondering, is a pill or substance that has no therapeutic value, but the recipient does not know that. Placebos are typically given to a control group of people in clinical trials to measure the efficacy of a certain medication or treatment in a similar group.

This is a significant finding because it affects the benchmark for clinical studies. People in a control group would have to be screened to weed out those that respond no matter what they get. However, if you take it a step further, it could mean that certain people have the genetic traits that allow them to heal themselves using the power of their conviction, aka their mind. If that seems a bit X-Men-ish, it is what it is.

Rejoice Winos! The Grape Depression is Over!

wineYou’ve had a long week, the latest episode of Scandal is on and all you want to do is put your feet up and enjoy a nice glass of Pinot Noir like Olivia Pope. But as you watch your favorite heroine down glass after glass of delicious red wine, you start to wonder how she’ll function in the morning with the nasty wine headache she is sure to wake up with. Fortunately for Ms. Pope and you, there will soon be a solution for wine lovers everywhere.

University of Illinois scientists are working on a wine that would allow a wine connoisseur to finish an entire bottle with no repercussions, except perhaps embarrassing photos of them dancing on the table. Researchers are developing a genetically- modified yeast that will jointly add even more health benefits to the glorified grape juice as well as reduce toxic byproducts that cause hangovers. Wine, created by fermenting grapes over a long period of time, produces polyploidy strains of yeast. By genetically altering this particular yeast, scientists have increased the antioxidants found in the wine by up to ten times and reduced the side effects the toxic byproducts cause.

The compounds that cause migraines and irritation the next morning are still being discovered as there are several sources of the irritating compounds. One culprit seems to be the skin of the grapes that are left on in red wine for the fermenting process. While drinking white wine may reduce the risk of hangover, the researchers are hopeful that true winos and staunch Catholics will no longer suffer from their love of vino.

We Don’t Need to Sugar Coat it — Stick on Tattoos can Measure Blood Sugar for Diabetics

tattoosSweet news for diabetics out there; the never ending days of pin pricks to your fingers may soon be over. Remember how this past summer, you couldn’t leave the house without seeing those shimmering temporary flash tattoos on every 20-something and under girl you passed? What if those gaudy tats were the answer to reading your glucose levels needle-free?

Researchers at the University of California San Diego are working on technology that puts sensors in temporary tattoos in order to read blood sugar levels. The printed electrodes attached to the temporary tattoo paper generate a current through the skin, drawing glucose in the blood close enough for the sensors to read.
So far, the technology has been tested on seven non-diabetic people aged 20-40 years old. They were monitored eating and drinking a carb-heavy meal while stick on tattoos measured their glucose levels. The result was consistent with measurements taken by the traditional finger prick method.

These sensors were built on the same technology that brought us the GlucoWatch back in 2002. Unfortunately, that invention was found to be too irritating to the skin and quickly became irrelevant. The temporary tattoo revises the technology to use lower, non-irritating electrical currents.

Currently, each tattoo is only a couple of cents to replace. The affordability makes the new technology a wonderful option for those on a budget. And the ease of a daily temporary tattoo is greatly preferred to the glucose level reading contact lenses that Google announced last year.

Eventually the tattoos will have Bluetooth technology capabilities to send real time data to the wearer and their physician. We can only hope the manufacturers see the opportunity in making fashion tattoo options, too.

No need to go to the gym; they can grow muscles in the lab now!

musclesIt’s true. Lab rats at Duke University have just announced that they can now grow muscles in the lab.

Seriously, though, the lab-grown muscles are designed to be a crucial tool to be used in the study of neuromuscular disorders. It would also make it easier to develop new drugs for treating neuromuscular disorders because it can be used in place of actual humans in clinical trials. Researchers show in videos that they were able to simulate reactions in the bioengineered muscles that appeared to mimic native reactions from muscles that were actually attached to humans.

Currently, researchers need to extract sample tissue from a particular patient, grow the muscles, and then test drugs on those to see what happens. If the muscles react the way researchers want it to, the drugs are then used on the actual patient. This way the drugs are customized to factor in individual idiosyncrasies. It’s a bit like having designer coffee, but much less tasty. Scientists hope to eventually do away with the sample and simply grow the muscles from skin stem cells or blood samples, which is much less invasive than taking a tissue sample.

For most people, the development is just one of a series of mysterious goings-on in the labs, but its real world applications are actually awesome, but also slightly creepy. Imagine a disembodied muscle twitching in a petri dish and you can’t help thinking of The Blob.

Of course, although some neuromuscular disorders are due to something going haywire in the muscles themselves, such as muscular dystrophy, most are actually due to something going wrong in some part of the central nervous system. The next step, presumably, is to bioengineer a brain and spinal cord……

What Gain-of-Function is and Why it May not be such a Hot Idea

petri dish Fans of the television series The Walking Dead and any other zombie movie or show out there all ask one question: how? With the exception of The Resident Evil series, which goes into detail into the how, most of these thrillers keep explanations vague. Well, gain-of-function may have something to do with it.

“Gain-of-function?” You may ask, thinking “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Oh, yeah? Here’s another phrase for it: creation of potential pandemic pathogens (PPP). Are your spidey senses tingling now? No? Let us lay it on you then.

Gain-of-function (GOF) is the way researchers refer to experiments they conduct by taking a pathogen like anthrax, or small pox, or any of those nasty little viruses that kicked ass when they first came out, wiping out whole communities before they could be contained, and…get this: making them worse! Nastier, easier to transmit, harder to treat…get the picture?

“Why would they do that?” you may ask. Well, basically they want to know how bad it can get and develop ways to beat it. It’s like thinking about the worst case scenario and making a contingency plan for it. It sounds reasonable in theory, but one wonders if they ever bothered to make a risk-benefit analysis. If any of these reengineered super pathogens ever got out, can you imagine the effects?

“We should tell the government!” Tell them? They fund it! A couple of incidents (that we know of) of accidental exposure to anthrax (just the researchers, thank goodness) and a couple of mislaid (16) vials of smallpox, however, forced them to pull the plug (temporarily) on GOF experiments in October 2014.

Science gone mad, indeed.