The Science Bit: Part 8 – Alzheimer’s Disease

28 01 2011

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects almost 30 million people around the world. Characterised by worsening forgetfulness, confusion and mood swings, it is a heartbreaking condition both for the sufferer and for their loved ones. Though there is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, several scientific breakthroughs have recently been made that provide encouraging insights into the disease and developments in diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia most often seen in people over the age of 65, seems to be caused by the build-up of structures called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. These plaques and tangles are formed from fragments of proteins that would normally be broken down into harmless substances and recycled into new molecules, but a faulty mechanism in people with Alzheimer’s disease seems to cause these protein fragments to bundle together in hard, insoluble structures that lodge in between and around nerve cells in the memory cortex of the brain. As a result of both amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, the normal transport connections are inactivated and nerve cells begin to die.

A primary research target into understanding more about Alzheimer’s disease is to look at the reasons why these proteins go wrong. Since proteins are the products of genes, genetic investigation is key and so far, at least 4 different genes have been implicated. Researchers are also very interested in the link between Alzheimer’s and Down’s Syndrome, since people with this chromosome disorder tend to age more quickly than most people and also suffer from Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. In fact, a study from the UT Southwestern Medical Center earlier this year (Netzer et al., PLoS One 5(6): e10943) found that reducing the levels of an Alzheimer’s-related protein in the brain seems to improve the ability for mice with a Down’s-like syndrome to learn.

Another line of enquiry looks at the relationship between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease. Cholesterol is usually thought of a “bad” substance that causes heart disease, but a certain amount of cholesterol is actually essential for the synthesis of the cell membranes. Smaller amounts of excess cholesterol in the blood is usually broken down into chemicals called oxysterols, which in turn are then eliminated in the liver and further broken down into harmless substances. Researchers have discovered that people with Alzheimer’s disease seem to have higher levels of certain types of oxysterols in their blood, which suggests that there may be a connection between a faulty cholesterol metabolism and brain degeneration. Building a profile of the types and levels of oxysterol in a person’s blood may help doctors to diagnose Alzheimer’s more quickly.

The most recent breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research, published in Cell this month (Reddy et al., Cell 144(1), 132-142), comes from a team at the Scripps Research Institute which has developed a new way to identify diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. Using thousands of different synthetic molecules called “peptoids”, the team were able to identify disease-specific biomarkers in mouse blood samples. It is hoped that now, by passing the technique over to Alzheimer’s experts, further research may one day lead to the development of a simple blood test that will identify these biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease in individuals who have yet to show symptoms, thus allowing earlier diagnosis and treatment.

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Household bugs – a risk to human health?

27 01 2011

The evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria – so-called “superbugs”, such as MRSA – is a real problem in our hospitals. People entering hospital for routine operations are more and more frequently suffering from complications arising from nosicomial infection with a strain of bacteria that is not killed with conventional antibiotics.

New research published in BMC Microbiology describes findings that implicate farm animals and insects in the propagation of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Because antibiotics are frequently given to farm animals in order to increase meat yield, the natural bacteria in their intestines is developing resistance to these antibiotics. The bacteria, which leave the animal’s body via the faeces, can be spread to humans by dung-dwelling cockroaches and flies.

Read the original article in BMC Microbiology: Insects in confined swine operations carry a large antibiotic resistant and potentially virulent enterococcal community

Read the press release I wrote on this story at EurekAlert: Household bugs – a risk to human health?

Read some of the news articles using this press release:





‘Mum! I’m hungry!’ Hungry chicks have unique calls to their parents

26 01 2011

Scientists studying Jackson’s Golden-Backed Weaver birds have discovered that not only can the parent birds identify their own chicks by the unique sound of their calls, but they can also tell if their chick is hungry, and how hungry.

A press release that I wrote for BioMed Central, following a study published in BMC Ecology, reveals that the more hungry a baby bird is, the more frenetic and unique the call becomes, so that parent birds not only know that they need to gather food for their young, but also how much.

Read the original article at BMC Ecology: The effect of hunger on the acoustic individuality in begging calls of a colonially breeding weaver bird

Read the press release I wrote at EurekAlert: ‘Mum! I’m hungry!’ Hungry chicks have unique calls to their parents

Read some of the press articles that used the press release:





Freelancer.com: Why employers should always stay on-site

23 01 2011

Digger

Why employers should always stay on-site.

Finally, Freelancer.com have written a blog post (see link above) that addresses the issue of why freelance transactions that use the site should be kept within the confines of the Freelancer.com payment system! It’s something I’ve been banging on about for ages now, and I’m pleased that Matt Barrie (Freelancer CEO) has now addressed the issue.

In his blog post, Barrie highlights an email that he received from one of the many disgruntled Freelancer buyers who had released funds to his provider before receiving the completed work. Unsurprisingly, that was the last he ever saw of his money, and surprise surprise, he never received the articles he had asked for. In his email, the buyer ranted and raved about how he felt cheated by Freelancer.com, upset that they had done nothing to help, and even threatened to help blacklist their name by sending anti-Freelancer propaganda materials to 130,000 contacts!

But Freelancer have this guy by the balls – and I’m pleased that this case has been highlighted. As with 100% of the people  who similarly rant and rave about how terrible Freelancer is right here on this blog, the fault lay with the user, not with Freelancer.com at all. For one thing, the buyer was downright stupid to release funds before receiving any work. Though it’s not unusual to pay a deposit upfront for product creation services, freelancers and their clients in the “real world” will never do so without some form of protection, such as a legally binding contract. What’s more, in this case, Freelancer staff uncovered messages between the buyer and his provider in which he gave his Skype ID and email address (Freelancer felony #1) and revealed “I prefer to deal without Freelancer because there is no point paying them money” (Freelancer felony #2).

If you don’t want to pay Freelancer‘s fees, don’t use Freelancer. Simple. Freelancer.com is a business, just like you, as a freelance sole trader or SME, are a business. They want to make money, you want to make money. For providing the infrastructure to allow buyers and freelancers to connect, and to conduct payments, and leave feedback and develop portfolios, I feel that Freelancer.com are entitled to their commission fee. It’s only $5 or 10% of the winning bid (less if you are a Gold member), and if you trust the buyer/freelancer and want to work with them again, there is nothing to stop you then conducting business outside of the system.

Though Freelancer provide the option to send and receive funds externally of Freelancer, I would strongly recommend that you use milestone payments, at least for the first time you work with someone. By placing a milestone payment, the freelancer can see that the buyer has the means to pay them, and the buyer has that assurance that the freelancer has no reason not to complete the work. If a dispute arises, Freelancer.com can only intervene if you have processed the work through their site.

In summary, the two key messages I would want all Freelancer buyers (and freelancers!) to take home from this blog post are:

  1. READ, UNDERSTAND AND ABIDE BY THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS AND THE CODE OF CONDUCT! Contravening any of Freelancer‘s terms can result in account suspension – be warned!
  2. USE MILESTONE PAYMENTS (see Service Buyer – Milestone payments on the Freelancer FAQ page) – at least the first time you work with someone, or until you have developed a trusting working relationship. Remember, there is no protection for you or the freelancer if you choose to conduct business outside of the Freelancer.com system.




It’s grim up North! Northern men have dirtier hands than Southerners

12 01 2011

A study recently published in the open access journal BMC Public Health has found that men “oop North” seem more likely to carry harmful bacteria on their hands. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine took swabs from the hands of commuters travelling through some of the UK’s major rail stations, and the further north they went, the more bacteria – and the more harmful bacteria – they found.The dirtiest men were found to be students and people who worked with soil.

Read the original article at BMC Public Health: Male commuters in north and south England: risk factors for the presence of faecal bacteria on hands

Read the press release I wrote on this article at BioMed Central: It’s grim up North! Northern men have dirtier hands than Southerners

Read some of the articles that used my press release:

The story was also discussed on BBC Radio 5 Live (no longer available)





DVT and pulmonary embolism linked to immune diseases

9 01 2011

Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that people with certain immune-related diseases such as type 1 diabetes, arthritis and lupus are much more likely to suffer complications due to vascular disease – even if they didnt have any cardiovascular problems before.

Having surgery and being laid up in bed increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism anyway, largely because immobility reduces the circulation. Taking certain medications for other diseases might also affect blood flow. Even taking these factors into consideration however, immune disease sufferers still had a significantly greater chance of developing DVT and embolism.

Read the original article at BMC Medicine: Risk of venous thromboembolism in people admitted to hospital with selected immune-mediated diseases: record-linkage study

Read the press release I wrote about this article at BioMed Central: DVT and pulmonary embolism linked to immune diseases

Read some of the stories that used my press release:





The placebo effect: it is what it is

8 01 2011

I’ll confess, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts, fortune tellers or horoscopes. If someone tells me they have a “feeling in their waters”, I tell them to go and see a doctor. And I’m a huge cynic when it comes to homeopathy and so-called “alternative therapies”.

A couple of months ago I read with great interest, not to mention abject horror, the story of 15-year old Crohn’s disease sufferer Rhys Morgan who suffered cyber abuse at the hands of an American nutjob trying to convince people to drink a “natural remedy” called “Miracle Mineral Solution”. MMS, which claimed to treat not only Crohn’s disease, but also cancers, TB, malaria, hepatitis and even HIV infection, apparently has to be taken with citric acid (sold on the MMS website for $3.28 + P&P but is really nothing more than lemon juice). Problem is, MMS + lemon juice = industrial-strength bleach.

The product’s “creator”, a Mr. Jim Humble (who, incidentally has now started his own church), openly tells people to “never stop taking MMS”. And if you start to feel sick? Well “that’s a good indication” because it means that MMS is doing its job, killing bacteria, “eating viruses” (tch!) and ridding the body of toxins! But let me stress again – IT’S INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH BLEACH.

The United States Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada and the UK Food Standards Agency all have health warnings on their websites about the serious dangers of taking MMS. In short, it’s very bad for you and has no proven beneficial effects on any of the diseases it claims to cure (though it will give you a very clean toilet). But what struck me as most bizarre, were the number of people slating the poor lad Rhys Morgan. Rhys, a newly-diagnosed Crohn’s sufferer who had simply joined an online Crohn’s disease support forum looking for advice, help and to meet people who might know what he was going through, was thrown out of the Crohn’s forum for responding in a “threatening way” to advocates of MMS, and he continues to receive hate mail to this day from people who swear blind that MMS is curing their illness (even though they feel sick all the time).

Clearly, this is an extreme case of brainwashing. MMS does have very negative side effects and it is physically damaging to health. But having heard about MMS and Rhys’ story, I’m now seeing miracle stories about miracle cures all over the place. It’s like how you never really notice VW Beetles on the roads until you own one, and suddenly they’re everywhere.

One product that came to my attention recently, via a spam-tweet, was “Pregnancy Miracle TM”, a “holistic and Chinese System for Getting Pregnant and Having Healthy Children”. Holistic *and* Chinese! Wow! Sadly, and very predictably, the website Pregnancy Miracle dot com [link removed because it apparently caused suspension of my WordPress account!] is more than 11,000 words of vague nonsense and gibberish that tells you nothing about how this supposed “miracle cure” works, and plays on the emotions of very vulnerable child-desperate women to get them to part with $39 for an eBook that will impart to them a mixture of common sense health advice and yet more unscientific claptrap.

Don’t get me wrong, with the very obvious exception of MMS, which clearly is very bad for you (I’m not sure you can argue that drinking bleach will ever cure AIDS), there is something to be said for the placebo effect. Scientific evidence exists to say that a sugar pill can work just as well as a headache tablet and the power of mind over matter is a real and helpful thing.  Heck, sugar pills can work just well as a headache pill when the patient *knows* it’s a sugar pill. As the saying goes, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, and if you’ve tried it and it works, then bully for you. My problem with alternative therapies is the pseudo-scientific made-up BS sales pitch that seems to accompany these products and treatments. My latest bugbear is the magnetic bracelet.

Like many people, my New Year’s resolution almost every year is to lose a bit of weight and get fitter. This year I’ve already signed up for a gym membership and as soon as all of the Christmas chocolates and cakes are gone, I promise I’ll start eating more healthily. But one thing I won’t be doing is reaching for my credit card and parting with £29.99 for a Power Balance magnetic wrist band.

Magnetic bracelets are nothing new. They’ve been around as an alternative therapy for years, coming and going in faddy waves and claiming to cure arthritic pain, motion sickness and now, claiming to give you incredible balance, flexibility and increased sporting performance. And how? By a “miracle” (there’s that word again!) hologram that contains an “embedded frequency” that is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”.

Before we all exclaim a collective ”WTF?!”, let it be stressed that yes, actually, these magnetic bracelets have indeed been shown to reduce arthritic pain, motion sickness and improve sporting performance, but what there is absolutely no scientific evidence for is how they do it. It’s a placebo. It doesn’t actually *do* anything, but because we think it does, it works.  As I’ve already said, if it works for you then great – one less expense for the NHS, but personally, I think it is dangerous and highly unethical for the manufacturers of these brands and products to try and blind us with pseudoscience in an effort to make us believe their unfounded claims.

England cricketer Stuart Broad recently tweeted, “Powerband bracelet proved to be ‘no better for you than a rubber band.’ They had me and 2 and a half million others sold on their story!” At least one professional sportsperson has seen the light! The Power Balance website boasts of celebrity advocates including the Beckhams, Justin Timberlake and  Kate Middleton, but the fact of the matter is, wearing an elastic band around your wrist (and, if you so desire, sticking a ”shiny” to the back of your hand to mimic the hologram effect) will improve your fitness and balance in just the same way if you believe that it will. Incidentally, taking regular aerobic exercise and stretching will also have the same effect.








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