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Recent developments in neural science have shone a ray of optimism on individuals suffering with high levels of depression. The latest technology on the horizon involves implanting sensors under the skull which release tiny electrode pulses that target specific parts of the brain.

Patients who undergo the electrode therapy report feeling more alert and poised after treatment, and the technology is also being used for patients who have epilepsy.

In a recent edition of Current Biology, researchers are moving full steam ahead with the ambition of being able to implant a sensor that will detect the on-coming of a depressive episode and will react accordingly, zapping the brain out of its negative associative patterns.

This new kind of treatment has entered the realms of possibility as scientists are starting to fully map out the brain and thus are getting closer to identifying where exactly depression ‘occurs’ in the brain.

In the past, depression was seen more as a “chemical imbalance” where adding more of what was ‘missing’ would restore a patient to better mental health. Now, researchers have switched to a circuit-inspired framework and argue that when different parts of the brain change the way they interact with each other, this can lead a person into a state of depression.

Medics and Psychologists would be wise to explore the science surrounding depression and the various treatments on offer to patients. Being able to talk about state-of-the-art medical practices will show your research skills and make your personal statement or interview really stand out!

We all want a bit of L-O-V-E, from homo sapiens, through to dolphins and of course the various sub-groups of the Heliconius toxic butterfly species.

Scientists are intrigued by two central American sub-species in particular  – the red-winged Heliconius Melpomene Rosina and the white-winged Heliconius Cydno Chioneus. This pair have been part of the same ecosystem for a million years and competed for the same resources and yet have remained genetically distinct with very few instances of interbreeding.

One evolutionary explanation posits that these species haven’t blended through the generations because any off spring would have a blend of wing patterns. This would be a free-for-all for other predators who only identify danger in the distinct red or white-winged patterns of Melpomene and Cydno respectively. Therefore, being an easy target means hybrid butterfly babies don’t live long enough to pass on their own mixed genes.

But why won’t Melpomene and Cydno get it on? The recently published journal PLOS biology attributes this lack of romance to genetics. The team of researches believe to have  found which parts of the genome determine mating preferences.

It’s also understood that there is a link between wing patterning and mating preference. The genes that are said to have an influence on mating preference are located very close to the Optix which is responsible for the colouring of the butterfly species’ wings. Although this is not firmly understood, scientists are optimistic that cameras and machine learning will help identify exactly what the processes are.

This case in genetics is called ‘reproductive isolating’ and it’s definitely a great topic for biologists to explore in their personal statements and interviews.

The maternal bond between mother and child is like no other. Incredibly, research is now suggesting that part of a mother’s off spring stays with her forever as  foetal cells will enter the mother’s body and find themselves a home in the mother’s tissue.

Over many millions of years, the mechanics at play between baby and mother have allowed for optimal development for her baby to grow. What is most intruiging is that some of the foetal cells will enter the mother’s body and due to their malleable nature, are able to develop into tissue by receiving information from surrounding cells in their ultimate landing spot.

Researchers are referring to this as ‘microchimerism’ after the creature called ‘Chimera’ in Greek mythology which is depicted as having a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a snake tail.  

Researchers are now attempting to put this phenomenon into an evolutionary perspective and to work out why this transferal of cells from foetus to mother has come to be. Although our understanding is in its primitive stages, there is speculation that these cells may influence the mother’s ability to get pregnant again.

There are, however, theories that these cells that enter the mother’s body behave like cancer cells and put the mother at greater risk of certain cancers.

Biologists and Medics could use this fascinating topic of microchimerism to make a super memorable personal statement! 

Meet Aloxotl  (pronounced ah-loh-shottle) – most likely the cutest little amphibian you’ve ever seen. A quick google search reveals it and ancient Aztec religion revered it. This gorgeous little creature is almost unbelievable, but don’t underestimate how important its potential may be in revolutionising human history.  

Aloxotls are neotenic and do not fully mature unlike their other salamander counterparts. This means they live out their lives underwater in a ‘Peter Pan’ style prolonged youth. They have been invaluable assets to genetic science and scientists are close to the point of having fully mapped out their entire genome.

This salamander is special because of their uncanny ability to regenerate almost every part of their body including parts of their brain, and in lab environments their gills are able to transform into lungs under the right circumstances.

Studying Aloxotls provides geneticists with incredible insights that could eventually be adapted to human medicine. One ability this friendly-faced amphibian has is to convert cells at the site of injury back into stem cells where they become much more malleable. Although this process has been hitherto mysterious, a fully mapped out genome will give scientists the co-ordinates to zero in on the exact communication between different genes.

However, this story of hope and wonder comes with a serious slice of caution pie. Aloxotl’s in their natural habitats are severely endangered as Mexico City has expanded evermore over the Mexican landscape.

Although Aloxotls can survive in artificial tanks, preserving a wild population is essential if scientists want to be able to apply their insights to the human genome.

Students considering any Biology related degrees should definitely spend more time researching the particulars of the Aloxotl genome and its implications on stem cell advancement. Geographers and Earth Scientists might want to consider the environmental frame of this story as an example of species endangerment through human destruction of natural habitats. 

Fasting has a long history and is central to many of the world’s religions: Yom Kippur is a fast day in Judaism, Ramadan is a fast month in Islam, and Lent is a 40-day fast in Christianity for Roman Catholics.

Uses of fasting can similarly be traced as far back as our primitive cultures, with examples as far ranging as: coming-of-age rites, appeasing violent deities, rituals to avoid catastrophes, and as a preparation tool for war. Fasting has even been used as a form of political protest, with the Suffragettes, the Irish Republicans and Gandhi all using hunger strikes to convey their message.

Described by Paracelsus as the ‘physican within’, the health benefits of fasting, as well as the spiritual benefits, have also be long extolled. The ‘nature cure’ became popular in the 1920s with fasting being used to treat everything from heart disease to headaches. In recent years, the rise of the 5:2 diet (where only 500 of calories are consumed on two days a week) and the 16:8 (where eating is restricted to an 8-hour window) have refreshed the concept of fasting in the public’s eye.

Students applying for History could investigate further into past beliefs around fasting and how charlatans have used extreme restrictive diets as a con in the past.  Those applying for Theology might like to investigate other examples of abstinence in religion.

Millions of people across the world are regularly taking ‘low dose’ (typically 81 milligrams) aspirin in an attempt to ward off heart attacks, strokes and other generally heart related illness.  Yet a trio of studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest that this over the counter consumption will not improve the chance of ‘disability-free survival’ and side-effects will increase the risk of other illnesses related to internal bleeding.

The primary study was a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial where half of the 19,114 participants took 100mg of aspirin a day and the other half were administered a placebo.  The trial, run by the University of Monash Australia, used Australian and US citizens with a median age of 74 and all participants were deemed healthy at the time of enrolment. 

After an average of 4.7 years observation, there was observed to be little difference between the two groups in the contraction of cardiovascular events – with 448 events in the aspirin group compared to 474 in the placebo group. 

In-line with the known side-effects, chances of internal bleeding increased with 3.8% of those on the drug having a serious medical condition, such as stroke and gastrointestinal bleeding, compared to 2.7% on placebo.

The second study went further to suggest that aspirin will significantly increase the chance of a major haemorrhage, mainly in the form of upper gastrointestinal and intracranial bleeding, whilst a third study showed a mild increase in the chance of death, with 5.9% chance in the aspirin group compared to 5.2% in the placebo.  This finding, however, is considered surprising and is likely to undergo further review.

The method used in this trial should be of interest to Biomedical Science applicants and can lead to questions about ways to improve or modify future research.  Medicine applicants can consider the impact this study would have on patient advice and what, if any, influence doctors can have on over the counter use of medication.

It’s normal to experience feelings of worry and fear as a response to stressful situations, as well as physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and difficulty sleeping. For people living with anxiety disorders, however, such feelings can start to take over their lives and don’t necessarily have a rational trigger. Despite around one in five adults suffering from such disorders, little is known about how they actually work on a neurological level. Hence, medication used to treat anxiety disorders control symptoms (for example by increasing levels of serotonin) rather than eliminating any underlying neurological cause.

A recent study, however, has contributed to our understanding of the brain chemistry behind anxiety. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health studied rhesus monkeys using MRI scanners to analyse early indicators of a susceptibility to anxiety disorders later in life. Led by Dr Ned Kalin, the researchers identified areas of the brain that may contribute to anxious behaviour patterns early in life; for example, the central extended amygdala, part of the brain’s reward system. Activity in this region has been shown to correlate with anxious behaviour; by analysing these tightly-woven networks, it is possible to estimate an individual’s overall chance of developing anxiety disorders.  

To test this, the team analysed each monkey’s anxiety level by introducing a human and observing their stress response. They also measured levels of cortisol as another indicator of stress. They then compared this assessment to the results found using MRI technology. As they predicted, monkeys who displayed more anxious behaviour were also found to have increased activity in the relevant elements of the central extended amygdala network. Because the monkeys used in the study were all related to each other to a greater or lesser extent, researchers knew exactly the family connections between all individuals and could calculate to what extent anxiety is hereditary. They found that interplay between Ce and BST, two different nuclei involved in the amygdala network, is highly hereditable. Understanding the hereditary element of anxiety disorders and how early indicators can predict later mental health could eventually point towards new methods of treatment and prevention.

Applicants for Psychology, Medicine, or related fields may wish to think about how such studies could contribute to our understanding of how to treat anxiety and other psychological disorders. Students could also consider the balance between neurological and environmental factors in the development, prevention, and treatment of such disorders

Raw honey is considered to be a natural energy source, antioxidant and handy hayfever preventative, but how different is it to its cousin which is found on the supermarket shelves?

Recent studies have shown that commercial honey is often more than just stored, heated, chemically refined, pasteurised and filtered (if that wasn’t enough). Much of the honey sold in the United States has been declared by food health and safety experts to consist largely of sweeteners, unrefined sugar, corn syrup and a tiny amount of real honey. This process of passing off impure honey as real honey is now known as ‘honey laundering’.

When one imagines cartels dealing in illegal substances, honey isn’t often the first thing to spring to one’s mind, however honey is a very valuable product! The sticky substance is consumed in vast quantities in the States, either in baked products or used as a topping. The US Department of Justice has indicted two American companies for selling mislabelled honey and has handed out several million-dollar fines to other brands.

Honey imported from Asia contains even more horrors than that produced in North America, such as metal toxins and antibiotics. These bee antibiotics are banned in the USA, however the unpleasant taste can be disguised by more added sugar in imports. The Chinese ‘bulked up’ honey can be sold for far lower prices than its real counterparts and, as a result, Chinese honey is subject to heavy duties. To avoid these import taxes, honey from China is often shipped to neighbouring countries, before passing to the US to disguise its original origin.

It can be difficult to judge the difference between real honey and ‘fake’ honey, however there are some subtle signs that a consumer can pick up on. Pure honey should be thick and viscous in texture, have no saccharine aftertaste, and be silky when rubbed between the figures.

Students that desire to study PPE at Oxford or HSPS at Cambridge should examine the ethics that are involved in the sale of ‘natural’ foods. Aspiring Medicine students should consider the harm caused to public health by contaminated honey. Those interested in pursuing the study of Economics should read up on the consequences of a market flooded by counterfeit products.

Matthew Walker writes in his fantastic new book ‘Why We Sleep’ that two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain eight hours of sleep a night. This short article is to give a flavour of the effects of a lack of sleep, and what medical treatments are being developed as a result.

Lack of sleep has an adverse affect on literally every biological system in the human body.

A study quoted by Walker (2017) shows that men who sleep 5 hours a night have much smaller testicles than those who sleep 8 hours or more. Those men who routinely sleep 5-6 hours a night has a level of testosterone of someone 10 years older. This gives an insight in to the impact of sleep on hormonal regulation.

The amygdala is a brain structure responsible for strong emotional reaction. In sleep deprived people, you see around a 60% increase in responsiveness, leading to a lack of regulatory control of emotional response and increased extreme response. You only need to speak to an Oxford or Cambridge University student after pulling an ‘all-nighter’ to find this out for yourself.

The hippocampus – the ‘memory inbox’ of the brain – is particularly affected by lack of sleep. Without sleep, the memory circuits of the brain become ‘waterlogged’ preventing you to absorb new information. For this reason, sleep is incredibly important in education. Schools in the town of Edina, Minnesota, decided to try an experiment to test this. They shifted their school start times from 7.25am to 8.30am, and measured the difference for SAT scores. The result was a positive increase of over 200 points – enough to open up a different tier of university.

As we age, our cognitive ability declines. Another physiological signature of ageing is that sleep also gets worse, especially the deep quality of sleep. It has been discovered that these two aspects of ageing – cognitive decline and worsening sleep – are actually interrelated rather than simply correlated. Most recently discovered, a lack of sleep is a contributive factor to Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (see the bibliography below for some of this evidence).

These discoveries are startling and frightening, but they are also exciting because they allow researchers to develop ways to do something about it.

What is now in the pipeline of being approved for public use is a technology called ‘direct current brain stimulation’, in which electro-pads are applied to the head and a small amount of voltage is inserted to the brain. Current tests of this technology are very promising, showing a measurable impact to physiology. If you apply this to healthy adults, for example, deep sleep brain waves can be amplified, and you can nearly double the amount of memory benefit.

Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. The decimation of sleep is having a catastrophic impact on our health. Sleep is also a fascinating realm of study, in which new discoveries are occurring all the time. These discoveries are, in turn, leading to the development of new treatments, such as ‘direct current brain stimulation’.

Applicants for Psychology, Human Sciences, Medicine, or Natural Sciences are encouraged to explore this topic further and pick up a copy of Matthew Walker’s book, ‘Why We Sleep’ (2017).

Not all superheroes wear capes, and in the 1960s some certainly didn’t wear white coats.

The news this week has centred on a scandal surrounding key UK charities, which was brought to the attention of the world by a whistle-blower. The work of medical ethicist Maurice Pappworth, however, began before the term ‘whistle-blower’ was used in this context.

Pappworth’s controversial book ‘Human Guinea Pigs: Experimentation on Man’ published in 1967, uncovered the terrible treatment faced by patients at the hands of doctors who saw them as little more than lab rats.

Pappworth reported that this shocking behaviour was demonstrated, not only by researchers in hospitals, but also by doctors in other facilities, including: jails, orphanages and psychiatric units. Bravely, Pappworth even named those individuals and institutions involved, leading to the issue being raised in Parliament. ‘Human Guinea Pigs’ raised the point that needless deaths were often caused by the unnecessary treatments patients were subjected too. The headlines at the time were filled with Pappworth’s astonishing comparison of the medical profession to that of Nazi death camps. By speaking out and writing a sensational book, Pappworth was ostracised by the rest of the medical establishment and was labelled as a ‘pestilential nuisance’ in his obituary.

A recent biographical novel written by Pappworth’s daughter on her death bed and published last month, aimed to restore Pappworth to his rightful place in the medical community and the history of Medicine.

Students wishing to study Medicine should examine the ethics of early medical research with human patients. Future Historians should investigate how our perception of certain historical figures can change over time. Philosophy and Theology students may wish to study the moral values involved to producing pioneering medicine.

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