Science

Inner ear disorders ‘linked to hyperactivity ‘

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Inner-ear problems could be a cause of hyperactive behaviour, research suggests. A study on mice, published in Science, said such problems caused changes in the brain that led to hyperactivity. It could lead to the development of new targets for behaviour disorder treatments, the US team says. A UK expert said the study’s findings were “intriguing” and should be investigated further. Behavioural problems such as ADHD are usually thought to originate in the brain. But scientists have observed that children and teenagers with inner-ear disorders – especially those that affect hearing and balance – often have behavioural problems. However, no causal link has been found. The researchers in this study suggest inner-ear disorders lead to problems in the brain which then also affect behaviour.

Gene mutation

The team from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York noticed some mice in the lab were particularly active – constantly chasing their tails. They were found to be profoundly deaf and have disorders of the inner ear – of both the cochlea, which is responsible for hearing, and the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance. The researchers found a mutation in the Slc12a2 gene, also found in humans. Blocking the gene’s activity in the inner ears of healthy mice caused them to become increasingly active. The researchers then examined the striatum, an area in the centre of the brain area that controls movement. They found higher-than-normal levels of two proteins, pERK and pCREB. Mice with the gene flaw were given injections of haloperidol, a medicine already used to treat tics – uncontrollable movement – in humans. It was seen to counteract the high protein levels, and mouse activity patterns returned to normal. The researchers suggest the same process could be targeted in people, and that medications could be developed to help manage hyperactivity in children with inner-ear disorders. Prof Jean Hebert, the lead scientist, said: “Our study provides the first evidence that a sensory impairment, such as inner-ear dysfunction, can induce specific molecular changes in the brain that cause maladaptive [counterproductive] behaviours traditionally considered to originate exclusively in the brain.” Anita Thapar, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cardiff University’s Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, said it was an “intriguing study and set of findings”.

Prof Thapar, whose research has suggested there could be a genetic link to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), added: “It certainly raises the issue that we ought to critically consider what contributes to the links between sensory impairments and specific behaviours/disorders.” But she added there should be caution about directly extrapolating the findings to humans. “ADHD, like most neuropsychiatric and medical disorders, is not caused by a single mutation. “On the other hand animal models allow for experimental manipulation in a way that cannot be achieved in humans and the results can help shape hypotheses to test in humans.”

 Does the internet rewire your brain?

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Being online does change your brain, but so does making a cup of tea. A better question to ask is what parts of the brain are regular internet users using. This modern age has brought with it a new set of worries. As well as watching our weight and worrying about our souls, we now have to worry about our brain fitness too – if you believe the headlines. Is instant messaging eroding the attention centres of our brains? Are Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools preventing you from forming normal human bonds? And don’t forget email – apparently it releases the same addictive neurochemicals as crack cocaine! Plenty of folk have been quick to capitalise on this neuro-anxiety. Amazon’s virtual shelves groan with brain-training books and games. (I confess I am not entirely innocent myself). You can fight the cognitive flab, these games promise, if you work that grey matter like a muscle. But is this true? Are sudoku puzzles the only thing stopping the species turning into a horde of attention-deficient, socially-dysfunctional, email addicts – part human, part smartphone? Fear not, there is some good news from neuroscience. But first, it is my duty to tell you the bad news. You may want to put down your phone and take note, this is the important bit.

The truth is that everything you do changes your brain. Everything. Every little thought or experience plays a role in the constant wiring and rewiring of your neural networks. So there is no escape. Yes, the internet is rewiring your brain. But so is watching television. And having a cup of tea. Or not having a cup of tea. Or thinking about the washing on Tuesdays. Your life, however you live it, leaves traces in the brain.

Brain workout

Worrying about the internet is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technologies might bring. People worried about books when they first became popularly available. In Ancient Greece, Socrates worried about the effect of writing, saying it would erode young people’s ability to remember. The same thing happened with television and telephones. These technologies did change us, and the way we live our lives, but nothing like the doom-mongers predicted would stem from them. But is the internet affecting our brains in a different, more extraordinary way? There is little evidence to suggest harm. Here we are, millions of us, including me and you, right now, using the internet, and we seem okay. Some people worry that, even though we cannot see any ill-effects of the internet on our minds, there might be something hidden going on. I am not so worried about this, and I’ll tell you why

We regularly do things that have a profound effect on our brains – such as reading or competitive sports – with little thought for our brain fitness. When scientists look at people who have spent thousands of hours on an activity they often see changes in the brain. Taxi drivers, famously, have a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain recruited for navigation. Musicians’ brains devote more neural territory to brain regions needed for playing their instruments. So much so, in fact, that if you look at the motor cortex of string players you see bulges on one side (because the fine motor control for playing a violin, for example, is only on one hand), whereas the motor cortex of keyboard players bulges on both sides (because piano playing requires fine control of both hands). So practice definitely can change our brains. By accepting this notion, though, we replace a vague worry about the internet with a specific worry: if we use the internet regularly, what are we practicing?

Get a life

In the absence of any substantial evidence, I would hazard a guess that the majority of internet use is either information search or communication, using email and social media. If this is so, using the internet should affect our brains so that we are better at these things. Probably this is already happening, part of a general cultural change which involves us getting better and better at dealing with abstract information. Internet use would only be a worry if it was getting in the way of us practicing some other life skill. If Facebook stopped people seeing their friends face to face that could have a harmful effect. But the evidence suggests this is not the case. If anything, people with more active internet lives have more active “meat-space” lives. Most of us are using the internet as a compliment to other ways of communicating, not as a substitute.

So there is no magic extra risk from the internet. Like TV before it, and reading before that, it gives us a way of practicing certain things. Practice will change our brains, just like any habit. The important thing is that we are part of this process, it is not just something that happens to us. You can decide how much time you want to put into finding pictures of funny cats, bantering on Facebook or fitting your thoughts into 140 characters. There will be no sudden damage done to your brain, or great surprises for your brain fitness. You would be a fool to think that the internet will provide all the exercise your brain needs, but you would also be a fool to pass up the opportunities it offers. And those pictures of funny cats.

 Lung cancer ‘secrets’ to be probed

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Scientists across Britain are to map the genes of the tumours of 850 lung cancer patients in a bid to understand more about the deadly disease. The £14m research at six centres aims to find out how lung cancers become resistant to treatment; they are the most common cause of UK cancer death. The study will trace how lung tumours develop and evolve over nine years. Some 42,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK every year, with about 35,000 deaths from the disease. Scientific progress has lagged behind that made for other cancers – only 9% of patients survive beyond five years. Researchers in London, Leicester, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Aberdeen, will create a genetic profile of each patient’s tumour to study how the cancer changes and evades treatment. Patients with non-small-cell lung cancer patients, which make up about 78% of lung cancers diagnosed in England and Wales, will be recruited.

‘Better understanding’

Lead researcher Prof Charlie Swanton, of Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute and University College London, said success in treating lung cancer had been difficult to achieve, but his team hoped to change that. He told BBC News: “The main hope will be a much better understanding of how non-small-cell lung cancer changes and adapts over time. “And by understanding how it changes and adapts over time, I hope we’ll get a better insight into developing better therapeutics to stop those changes and adaptations from happening.” In one of the largest studies of its kind, scientists will analyse genetic changes inside lung cancers of hundreds of patients from diagnosis and throughout treatment. This will involve sequencing billions of letters of DNA – the equivalent of more than 65,000 human genomes. Scientists hope they will be able to identify common genetic mutations that can be targeted by drugs at different stages of the disease. Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said research into lung cancer had been underfunded compared with other cancers, which was why the charity was now making it a research priority. “Typically we’re diagnosing lung cancer patients very, very late,” he said. “By which time their cancers are already very advanced, they’ve often already spread around the body and often that means that those patients are too ill to go onto a clinical study or for us to get access to a sample of their tumour on which we can then do research.

‘Smoking myth’

“Getting access to that sample is critical for us to be able to understand the disease.” Dr Kumar said it was a myth that lung cancer was just a smoker’s disease as two out of 10 lung cancers were unrelated to smoking. “We mustn’t take our eyes off smoking,” he told BBC News. “We know that smoking causes a quarter of all cancer deaths not just lung cancer – of all cancer deaths “So it is a problem that still needs to be tackled. But it is wrong to think that all lung cancer is caused by smoking.” Some 42,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK every year, with about 35,000 deaths from the disease.

Hubble telescope spots azure blue planet where it rains glass

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Astronomers have found a deep azure blue planet orbiting a star 63 light years away — the first time they’ve been able to determine the actual color of a planet outside our solar system, NASA and the European Space Agency said Thursday. The planet, known as HD 189733b, is a gas giant with a daytime temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit where it possibly rains liquid glass sideways amid 4,500 mph winds, NASA says. The blue color comes not from the reflection of an ocean, as on Earth, “but rather a hazy, blow-torched atmosphere containing high clouds laced with silicate particles,” NASA says. “Silicates condensing in the heat could form very small drops of glass that scatter blue light more than red light.” The space agencies said astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered the planet in 2005 but only now have they been able to use Hubble’s observations to determine the deep blue color.

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The blue color, seen in this illustration, comes not from oceans, but from glass that rains sideways, scientists theorize.

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The Hubble telescope shows the region of sky where the planet was discovered. The findings are in the August 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. To deduce the planet’s color, astronomers measured how much light was reflected off its surface. They used the Hubble’s Space Telescope to look at the planet before, during and after it passed behind its star as it orbited. “We saw the brightness of the whole system drop in the blue part of the spectrum when the planet passed behinds its star,” said Tom Evans of the University of Oxford, the first author of the paper. “From this, we can gather that the planet is blue, because the signal remained constant at the other colors we measured.” The planet is only 2.9 million miles from its parent star, so close that it is gravitationally locked, NASA says. One side always faces the star and the other side is always dark. By contrast, Mercury, the closest planet in our solar system to the sun, is 29 million miles away from the sun at its closest. In 2007, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope measured the infrared light, or heat, from the HD 189733b. It showed day side and night side temperatures differ by about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which should cause fierce winds to roar from the day side to the night side, NASA said. The atmosphere, the space agencies say, is changeable and exotic. HD 189733b is in a class of planets called “hot Jupiters,” which are similar in size to the gas giants in our solar system but instead lie very close to their parent star, the European Space Agency says. “We know that hot Jupiters are numerous throughout the universe,” the ESA said in a statement. “As we do not have one close to home in our own solar system, studies of planets like HD 189733b are important to help us understand these dramatic objects.”

 VOLCANOES

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Volcanoes are dramatic evidence of the powerful forces at work inside the Earth. Eruptions of ash, gas and lava destroy entire cities and kill large numbers of people. Volcanoes also add nutrients to soils, creating perfect conditions for many crops. Some types of volcano make new sections of the tectonic platesthat make up the surface of the Earth. Without volcanoes and our planet’s plates, the dry land we live on would not be renewed, and weathering anderosion by water, wind and ice would eventually carry it all into the oceans leaving Earth a water world. There are three common types of volcano:composite volcanoes, often the most deadly; shield volcanoes, which are large but generally less violent; and cinder cones.

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