Magic Mushrooms: Turning Us Back Into Fun-Guys

We all know not to risk it, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to try magic mushrooms? Well, despite they themselves not becoming legal anytime soon, they may hold the key to unlocking the brains of those suffering with mental health problems.

Magic mushrooms, or Shrooms, are well known for their psychedelic properties and ability to generate mind-blowing hallucinations in the consumer. There are over 180 species of these mushrooms and they’ve often been used for over 7000 years in ancient spiritual rituals as well as to medicate a variety of disorders.

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These mushrooms, for anyone who isn’t aware, are illegal in most countries however the chemical they produce (Psilocybin) isn’t always. It is this chemical that causes the hallucinogenic effect and puts the user into a dream-like state, somewhere between sleep and consciousness.

Researchers at Imperial College, London, have tested the effects of using the chemical from the Shrooms to treat mental health problems such as depression, particularly in individuals who don’t respond well to the usual treatment methods.

The trial they conducted, whilst small, showed promising effects on depressed individuals. Many found that they ceased to be depressed and all individuals felt their mood change in a positive way.

It turns out that the chemical influences two areas of the brain. It decreased the activity of the area of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, such that these emotions reduced. Additionally, it stabilised a collection of different brain regions known as the ‘Default – mode network’.

Both of these effects contributed to breaking the cycles of depression and many of the participants felt as though they had been ‘rebooted’ and given a new lease of life.

Robin Carhart–Harris, a researcher in this study, explained that the brain was essentially clamped – like a crashed computer – and the chemical acted like a factory reset for it; causing the individual to feel more upbeat.

Whilst, self-medicating with magic mushrooms is a big no, the brains of those suffering with mental health problems could soon be rebooted. Hopefully these small fungi’s can aid scientists in solving the problem of mental health in the not so distant future.

About Time.

You may think they’re just a nuisance and in many ways just a little bit gross, however Drosophila, otherwise known as fruit flies, have just bagged themselves a fifth Nobel Prize!

drosophila2s.jpgThey’ve been the study species at the forefront of science for over a century thanks to their easily mapped DNA and prolific breeding rate. Most recently it has enabled three scientists – Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young-  to win the Nobel prize in Medicine for exposing the inner workings of our biological clocks.

All species have an internal biological clock that syncronises with the earth’s light and dark phases and humans are no different. This internal biological clock is known as the ‘Circadian Rhythm’. It is responsible for regulating a variety of mechanisms in the body such as behaviour, hormone levels, metabolism, body temperature and importantly, when we sleep.

These three Nobel Prize winning scientists have uncovered the mechanisms behind the way the rhythm works and found that it is controlled by our genes. A protein is formed in our body which accumulates during the day and then is degraded at night, ultimately controlling the systems of our body over a 24-hour period.

Nobel
Nobel Prize for Medicine

It has long been known that taking lengthy plane journeys that result in jet-lag disrupt the circadian rhythms and when this happens it takes several days for the body to reset itself. What scientists have now found is that things such as eating and using our phones late at night is having not only the same effects as jet-lag but it’s also having the same effects as mutations in the genes responsible for regulating out biological clock. The results of this include cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. This new understanding of how the circadian rhythms work mean that scientists can in future, tailor medical treatments to when’s most effective depending on the biological clock. For example, chemotherapy is more effective at 3am than at other times of day and some drugs may work better at night depending on the regulation of disease specific chemicals in the body.

Maybe next time you’re thinking about having that late-night snack it might be worth getting a good night sleep instead, it could be just what the doctor ordered.

 

How to Glow in the Dark: Squid Style

Bioluminescence* has been witnessed in all kingdoms of life, from fungi to plants to bacteria, however the origins of it are not yet well understood. This beautiful phenomenon is best witnessed in the depths of the ocean, at more than 1000m, where no sunlight can be found, meaning the only light to penetrate the complete darkness is that of bioluminescent creatures.

Cephalopods, which are a group of organisms including squid and octopus, can be founding spanning all depths of the earth’s oceans, but many species have chosen to occupy the darkest depths which has led them to develop bioluminescent characteristics.

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This somewhat crazy characteristic comes with a multitude of uses. It can enable the organism to become camouflaged in its surroundings, mimic other species to avoid predation and can be used in defence such as to startle another organism.

So, back to the origin of these glow in the dark creatures. A recent study has traced the origin of the gene responsible for bioluminescence in cephalopods to a bacterium known as Vibrio fischeri.

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Vibrio fischeri (in a petri dish)

 This tiny bacterium lives in a relationship with the cephalopod which is known as ‘symbiotic’. Essentially this means that they live closely together and regularly interact, whether this be in a positive, negative or neutral way for either party involved.

Vibrio fischeri originally had the gene for bioluminescence known as Reflectin. It is thought that the reflectin gene may have become part of the cephalopod through horizontal gene transmission* from the bacteria into an ancient cephalopod.

The reflectin proteins are able to assemble themselves into blocks and then these are grouped together in the cephalopods skin to allow them to rapidly change colour and emit light under a variety of different circumstances.

We may not know the origin of bioluminescence in every creature we see it in, but it seems we now have quite a good idea of how it came about in our tentacled ocean friends and who knows, maybe it’ll help to take us one step closer to being able to glow ourselves some day…

 

Glossary
Bioluminescence*
The biochemical emission of light by living organisms
Horizontal Gene Transfer*
Movement of genetic material from one organism to another, usually between a single celled organism such as a bacterium and a multicellular organism such as a mammal.

Source
Origin of the Reflectin Gene and Hierarchical Assembly of Its Protein (Guan et al, 2017). 

Is Your Six Year Old Smarter Than a Chimpanzee?

rock paper scissors

Most of us have played the classic school yard game of ‘Rock – Paper – Scissors’ and so we all know the rules. Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors but scissors come back around to beat paper. This quick and simple game is actually a type of transverse pattern, which simply means it is circular and that all elements come back around (the diagram below will help to understand this).

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Transverse pattern of ‘Rock Paper Scissors’ game.

Transverse patterning has been seen in chimps, pigeons and even rats as well as humans. It’s significant because it requires the animal to make decisions based on what is correct rather than what they know isn’t correct. This patterning can be useful as similar mental processes are needed in building relationships, increasing knowledge and general problem solving.

As previously mentioned the game is very simple, but would it be possible for chimps, our closest living relatives, to learn how to play, and if so, how well do they learn when compared to a human child?

An investigation took a group of chimpanzees and a group of children to test this using computer controlled tasks.

To teach the chimps the rules of the game they were presented with each pairing in stages, starting with paper and rock, therefore, learning that paper will always beat rock. This was then followed with rock always beating scissors and, to complete the circular pattern, scissors beating paper.

An almost identical study was repeated with children of learning age, approximately ages three to six. These trials differed as the chimps were passed a juvenile learning stage, but this didn’t stop the children learning the patterns more rapidly than the chimps in all cases.

The chimps however, whilst they had some difficulties in finalising the circularity of the game, were still able to learn the relationships between the different elements and use them in decision making.

There was some variation between the children across the age range, as they got older they were able to learn the patters at a much faster pace and make the associations quicker.  Interestingly, the children learnt the rules of the game by changing their response immediately after being wrong, whereas the chimps took a little longer to make this association.

Whilst it may have taken and average of 307 trials to teach them (compared with just six for children), who would have thought that eventually, a Chimpanzee could learn to play one of our most common playground games? I don’t know about anyone else but I’d love to have a game with a chimp.

Do you think they’d understand ‘best of three’?

chimps

 

A Coffee a Day Keeps The Sweetness Away

A cause for social interaction, a curer of hangovers and a saviour from exhaustion, coffee is by far one of our most valuable products in the modern world.  125 million people worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihoods and that comes as no surprise as there are 55 million cups being drunk in a single day across the planet.

cute coffee
Coffee was discovered in the 9th century by an Ethiopian goat herder who saw how excited Arabica beans made his goats- I can only imagine his confusion until he realised. However, we all now know coffee as being something which gives us a sense of alertness in the morning but new research at Cornell University has found that the caffeine it contains may have other effects as well.

Adenosine, a chemical widely found in nature, has receptors in sweet sensitive taste cells. These receptors are activated by internal adenosine to enhance sweet signals in the taste bud and help to promote relaxation and sleepiness.

Caffeine however, works against this receptor, so it was thought that caffeine could reduce the perception of sweet taste in humans.

To test this just over 100 people were divided into two groups. One group was given decaffeinated coffee and the other given caffeinated coffee with 200mg of caffeine in (an average coffee in the UK contains 95mg).

The participants weren’t told whether they had caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee and when asked they were unable to correctly guess which they had. They then underwent sensory testing.

In a caffeinated condition, all participants rated the sweetened coffee and any sweet solutions that followed as less sweet than the participants in the decaffeinated condition. However, the caffeine had no effect on other taste sensations such as bitterness or saltiness.

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Interestingly, all participants reported feeling more alert suggesting a placebo effect of the aroma and taste of coffee regardless of the presence of caffeine. Although, reactions times didn’t change for the caffeinated or decaffeinated condition.

So, caffeine prevents us from tasting our sugar, who knew? If you’d rather taste your sugar, and I know I would, steer clear of that coffee before you indulge in that cheeky chocolate bar or delightful doughnut.