Keeping Future Hearts Beating

The heart is a crucial organ for an embryo to progress past 10 weeks old, without it the circulatory system collapses.  Problems with the way the heart beats are known as ‘Arrhythmias’ and these can be just as lethal.

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These heart rhythm problems effect approximately 2 million people annually in the UK. There’s a variety of different types, some of which people can lead a normal life if properly diagnosed but if left untreated can cause serious cardiac issues.

A normal healthy heart contracts from the top down at roughly 80 beats per minute. In a heart with a conduction disorder, like arrhythmias, the heart rate can be faster than normal, slower than normal, more irregular or a combination of these.

One way to treat Arrhythmias is with a pacemaker. This is a medical device which is implanted into the chest to control the rhythm of the heart using low energy electrical impulse to encourage a normal heartbeat.

Pacemakers are usually composed of a generator and battery attached to leads inside the heart. The first fully implantable pacemaker was made 60 years ago and supported the patient’s heart rhythm for 3 hours then had to be replaced by a new device.

Since then technology has come a long way and this has resulted in a smaller device with improved functionality thanks to adjustments made to generator size, battery life and lead design. Modern pacemakers can provide a stable heart beat for 10 years before having to be changed.

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The next generation of pacemakers have two issues to tackle: increasing battery life and having an automatic, involuntary response to the functions of the heart. There is already research into using solar energy to power the pacemakers but more options need to be investigated.

A possible alternative to the electronic pacemaker is the biological pacemaker. These are being produced in different ways. Gene-based approaches made a biological pacemaker in 2002 which was tested on Guinea pigs, it stimulated the release of an electrical current over the muscle cells of the lower heart.

Similarly, cell- based approaches have also been used. This requires a cluster of randomly beating cells to be transplanted into the heart to generate pacemaker activity. There has even been some investigation into using a combination of both gene and cell based approaches, for example, the delivery of cells carrying pacemaker genes into the heart.

Up to now, the delivery methods of biological pacemakers on large animals has required open chest surgery which Is highly invasive and therefor limits the potential for simply repeating it in humans. However, with over 200,000 patients a year undergoing permanent pacemaker implantation it is clear an alternative is needed and biological pacemakers could be just that.

Red Wine: The Elixir Of Life

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As we age, there is an increase in cells that are less effective at performing their functions. These cells are known as Senescent.

There are proteins inside these cells which are responsible for making decisions about the development of cells and tissues. The older we get the more of these decision-making proteins are turned off and so the cells become redundant.

It makes the body more susceptible to disease as it cannot respond as well to environmental stressors.

A team of scientists from Brighton, Exeter and Oxford Universities have been researching the possibility of reducing the aging process by turning the proteins back on.

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They have taken a chemical commonly found in some worldwide favourites, red wine and dark chocolate and, applied it to the senescent cells. Soon after applying the treatment the senescent cells began to divide normally and the proteins were turned back on.

This new research could be the first step in enabling people to live to a normal age but with full health for the duration of their life. It would take the pressure off health care systems for the elderly and reduce the effects of age related disease

Bats Speak Scouse

Bats might not actually communicate with a Scouse accent, or any accent for that matter, but they do have an array of different dialects between colonies, just like we do. However, it’s not the dialects themselves that have scientists excited, it’s how they learn them.

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There are 13,000 species of bat worldwide but this week the Eygyptian Fruit Bat has come into the spotlight because of how it learns it’s vocalisations, which could be useful in understanding how humans learn theirs. It has over a thousand vocalisations all of which essentially mean ‘get out of my way’, which is useful when you live in a packed colony of up to 50,000 members- wouldn’t want to be around there at dinner time.

Egyptian fruit bats develop their communication through ‘vocal learning’, which few other mammal groups do but it is known in humans, whales and dolphins (Check out my second blog post ‘Remixing the old with the new: How do Humpback whales learn their song?’ for more info on that!).

Unlike whales and dolphins though, bats are much easier to manipulate in a lab environment which makes them a useful study organism. Scientists from the Tel Aviv University, Israel, have done just this to investigate whether the bat pup’s vocalisations are more heavily influenced by their mothers call or by the collective noises of the colony.

They took 15 pregnant females and divided them into three groups, each were then exposed to recordings of wild bats with manipulated frequencies. At 14 weeks, after the pups were weaned, their mothers were released back into the wild. Once the pups reached 6 months old it was found that the young bats were emulating the pitch of the recordings they had grown up with.

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This demonstrates that the colony wins; the effect of the colony as a whole is far greater than that of the vocalisations of the mother. It makes complete sense if you think about it as bats grow up in almost total darkness and have one of the best auditory* senses in the mammalian world, so it’s no wonder they’re influenced by all the sounds around them.

The bat pups have now been released back into the wild and it would be interesting to see whether their new sounds ripple through the rest of the colony or if they now have to adapt their calls to suit the colony’s current dialect

 

Glossary
Auditory*
Hearing.

Source
‘Crowd vocal learning induces vocal dialects in bats: Playback of conspecifics shapes fundamental frequency usage by pups.’ Yosef Prat, Lindsay Azoulay, Roi Dor, Yossi Yovel. Published: October 31, 2017 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2002556

Turning Us Back Into Fun-Guys with Magic Mushrooms

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.