Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Family: providing more than food and a roof over your head

Have you ever wondered how far the family tree can influence medical conditions, such as anxiety? My research looks at how parents affect anxiety behavior of their children.

Looking to the family tree for answers about our own characteristics. Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

What do I do?

When thinking of ideas for my final blog post, I was searching New Scientist and other science websites and came across an article. It said that if a woman is obese, her children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren have a greater risk for developing obesity and addiction.

Because of my own research, this topic was of interest to me. I have looked at how exercising fathers affect fear behavior (similar correlate to anxiety) in juvenile mouse offspring.

In a paper my colleagues published, they found that male offspring with exercising fathers had reduced fear behavior when compared with females and offspring that didn’t have exercising fathers. Now, we are planning a similar study to look at transgenerational effects.

Transgenera…–what?

I was curious if this reduced fear behavior (anxiety) would be present in subsequent generations. My research (along with colleagues) so far has been looking at intergenerational inheritance.

By intergenerational, I mean one generation of offspring descended from these exercising fathers. Any subsequent generations after that would qualify as transgenerational. From the first generation of male offspring with exercising/non-exercising fathers, they will mate with females to breed another generation.

Connected through many generations. Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Exercise–what should men do?

I have already found some interesting results that I didn’t expect. I found that the exercising fathers were producing markedly less sperm than the control (non-exercising) fathers. This raises an interesting question about whether exercise is beneficial or detrimental to fertility.

Study results in human subjects are usually mixed—one study found that high intensity exercise had deteriorated the quality of semen and another study found that men who exercised had better semen quality than those who were sedentary.

How beneficial is high intensity exercise to men? Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

 

Based on the results of studies, it seems that exercise is beneficial to men but only in smaller, more moderate doses. In society, exercise is stressed as important to maintaining our health but doing a dosage study might better clarify whether it is beneficial or detrimental to sperm fertility.

My supervisor has been interested in doing a dosage study with mice; looking at how long the fathers are exposed to running wheels and whether that has an effect on their semen quality/sperm quantity. He has talked about taking the running wheels out of the cages for a few days or letting them be exposed to the wheels for less time. In my results, the mice have been exposed to wheels for 6 weeks.

The importance of inheritance

I find it interesting to look at the relationships between parents, grandparents and children and how their behavior might be altered because of it. I think it has much relevance for our understanding of medicine.

This research doesn’t just apply to exercise and anxiety. Other studies have looked into the exercise as it relates to causes of trauma, depression, and obesity. I look forward to finding out more about transgenerational effects in the course of my study.

 

For more reading on transgenerational inheritance:

 

Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: myths and mechanisms

 

Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance

 


Community is the best medicine

It may become one of the most innovative medical interventions in recent history. It could save lives and save healthcare systems trillions of dollars. It will revamp treatment programs. What is it? A groundbreaking new surgical technique? A miracle drug? No, it’s simply community.

Social interaction is crucial for health and wellbeing. Photo by Helena Lopes via Unsplash.

Now, I know this all sounds a bit grandiose, so let me give you some hard numbers to back-up my claims.

There is mounting evidence that feeling socially connected to family, friends, peers or neighbours is visceral to physical health and mental wellbeing. In fact, a landmark study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues found that having these strong social interactions improves the likelihood of survival by 50%. Hypothetically speaking, this means that by the time 100 people die, there will be 5 more people alive who have robust social relationships than people with weak ones.

Staggeringly, the study also demonstrated that someone with low social interaction has a mortality risk equivalent to someone who smokes 15 cigarettes everyday, but double that of someone with obesity. Another English study of 4000 participants found that participants with a history of depression lowered their risk of depression relapse by 24% if they joined one community group, or by 63% if they joined three groups.

Participation in community groups, like interest groups, promotes mental health. Photo by Guy Kawasaki via Unsplash

The list of studies that conclusively demonstrate that social interaction underpins health goes on and on. Click here if I haven’t furnished you with enough facts yet, and you want to find out more!

 

Okay, so if social connection is a pillar of health, how can we use it to promote health at a population level?

Across the world, doctors are starting to dish out “social prescriptions” which prescribe patients to participate in collective, community activities, which includes choir groups, exercise clubs, hobby groups and art classes, to name a few. Even though the importance of social interaction in health has only been recently established, 1 in 5 GPs in the U.K. regularly give social prescriptions.

 

What have been the large-scale effects of social prescription?

Well, the University of Westminster conducted a review which found that social prescribing resulted in 28% fewer GP visits and 24% Emergency Department admissions, two reductions which translate to enormous cost saving.

 

But, why does social interaction promote health?

Countless studies have demonstrated that social connections influence health behaviour – like exercise, eating well and adherence to prescribed treatments. One review explains that by having meaningful relationships with others, you grow a sense of responsibility to protect their health, in addition to your own.

Social groups, such as families, influence health behaviours, like diet and lifestyle choices. Photo by Jaco Pretorius via Unsplash

For example, becoming a parent may cause you to eat well because you not only wish to set a good example for your child, but in preparing a healthy meal for your family, you incidentally also eat healthily. Alternatively, in a romantic relationship, your partner may encourage you to eat well and exercise because of the care they have for you. Or perhaps you notice a friend who seems a bit down in the dumps lately, and you make an effort to spend more time with them.

In addition to this, having a strong social network imparts a sense of stability and support which can help individuals buffer stress. This in turn has positive physical outcomes, such as reduction in blood pressure, stress hormones and improved immune system activity.

 

The evidence is clear and the jury is in. Social interactions encourage people to become advocates for their own health, as well as that of the people around them. Hopefully, the promotion of connectedness and community will soon become widely known as a key pillar of health and become a mainstay of medical treatment and prevention. 

 


Gambling gets a high-tech upgrade

Gambling is multi-billion-dollar industry that is very old and encompasses a variety of different games, from slot machines to good old fashion card games. As such casinos spend large amounts of money on ensuring they aren’t cheated or stolen from. Within the last 10-15 years casinos have been using new technology which can give them a big upper hand against thieves and cheaters.

What is it?

The Wynn casino in Las Vegus and a handful of over casinos have installed RFID technology into their gambling chips. What is this you may ask? RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification; It is 2-part wireless identification system. The “tags” are small electrical circuits that can store a small amount of information that allows them to be identified wirelessly by special devices known as “readers”. The tags do not have to contain a power source and are instead can be powered wirelessly, through a process known as electromagnetic induction, when in proximity to a reader (same technology as wireless chargers).

This technology is currently used for many different things including myki, some hotel room keys and it is also used for tagging animals both in the wild and in captivity.

Gambling Chips

Within each gambling chip belonging to the Wynn casino (except for any chips worth less than $5), a RFID is embedded into it with a unique ID stored in it. So, from here any chip can be quickly wirelessly identified with the help of a reader. For one thing this allows casinos to very easily keep track of which chips are currently in circulation. So even if someone did manage to duplicate a chip, they would have a hard time turning it in since it would have the same ID as another one. It also allows them to quickly count chips and log them into a computer, making chip management infinity easier. No more miscounting of chips by a lazy employee.

Wynn casino pocker chips, Photo by Michael Dorausch

 

Potential future uses

By placing RFID readers at the employee exits, tagging chips could allow casinos to prevent theft by their own staff (which let’s be honest, probably happens a lot).

This technology could also help greatly with theft. Should any chips be stolen, they could be mark as “stolen” in the casinos database. From here any attempts to cash these chips in would result in them immediately being identified as stolen and likely resulting in the capture of the thief (or at bare minimum the casino gets its money back). This is already used to some extent however the current implementation definitely has room to grow.

Lastly, should the technology become sophisticated enough readers could be installed within various gaming tables. This would allow a computer to read in all the chips currently on the table, allowing the casino to accurately analysis how chips are spent and used through the casino. It could also be used to subtly rig games such as roulette, although this is illegal in government sanctioned casinos and anyone caught doing it loses their license to run a casino, so we’re probably safe there!

 


Tree Talk: the language of the forests and what we can learn from it.

Trees have been found to talk with each other using a complex network of underground fungi, and we’ve been using this knowledge for new technologies. But with hotter and drier climates, how will this change?

The mushrooms we eat are the “fruit” of some fungi that make up part of the underground communication between trees. Image by Jerry Meaden via Flickr.

Spanning from the tips of tree roots to all throughout the soil, there is a lattice of fungi. We’ve known for a long time that this fungal network—termed mycorrhiza—provide trees with water and nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, in exchange for sugar that the tree creates during photosynthesis. Trees can end up giving 30% of the sugar they create to fungi.

But trees use this fungal network to communicate with other trees.

This network is like the postal system. Through the post, we are connected to people and places across a vast distance; we send each other information through letters, and sometimes we receive packages with things we need or asked for.

Similarly with trees, the way they ‘talk’ is by giving and receiving chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals through this lattice of buried fungi.

Communicating through the ‘wood-wide web’

In every forest that is not too damaged or degraded, each tree is connected to all others. Chemical signals can be sent to nearby trees to alert them of dangers, such as disease or insect attacks. When a neighbouring tree receives this signal, their behaviour changes.

A 3D rendering of tree roots (in yellow) surrounded by a network of fungi (in purple). GIF by Scivit via Wikimedia Commons.

For example, scientists injured Douglas fir saplings that were planted next to ponderosa pines and two things happened. Firstly, nutrients and water were transferred from the Douglas fir saplings to the ponderosa pines via the fungal network. Secondly, and most interestingly, stress signals were sent along the same network, resulting in an increased production of defensive enzymes in the ponderosa pine.

These two things did not happen when the fungal network was severed.

Since researching this underground arboreal information highway more intensely, we now also know that trees can also recognise their genetic relatives.

How this has changed the way we look at trees

Prior to this discovery, forest ecology was built around the simple idea of competition driving forest structure. But it’s not just about competition between saplings and mature trees; the ecosystem also requires cooperation. A sapling in a shaded part of the forest would otherwise be as good as dead if it weren’t for the fungal network allowing nutrients to flow from one tree to another.

Prior to these discoveries, we used to think of a forest as a collection of individual trees. Image by AB Tetra Pak via Wikimedia Commons.

And this knowledge has impacted the way we understand reforestation and species reintroductions.

While trying to save a critically endangered tree species (of which there are only 76 left), Chinese scientists found that the presence or absence of this fungal network in their transplanted saplings was really important for sapling survival. Grown with fungi, saplings had an 80% chance of surviving when transplanted to the forest. But without fungi, survival dropped to 46%.

Going back to your roots

Ecologists are gaining a greater appreciation for the importance of microbes (fungi included) in the functions of ecosystems. Like how we better understand how human gut microbes are affecting our health and behaviour, ecologists are beginning to understand how microbes are affecting the earth.

This increased understanding has led to improvements in reforestation activities, contaminated water clean up, pest and disease control and commercial forestry.

The omnipresent spanner in the works: climate change

However, this new knowledge of how microbes affect the earth is limited. With increasing temperatures and more erratic weather, the impact on microbes is poorly understood.

If microbes cannot survive in this changing world, how will trees, animals or even humans?

Despite this bleak outlook, there’s a positive outcome from all this research. It has shown us that, instead of looking at trees as habitat for a wide range of animals, we should instead see the diverse network of fungi and bacteria under the soil as habitat for trees. If we can better understand and harness these interactions between microbes and their trees, perhaps there’s a way of saving the forests from climate change.

 

———

If you would like to know more about the intricacies of ‘tree talk,’ I recommend you read this interview with Suzanne Simard, one of the first scientists to discover the importance of mycorrhizae to forest health.

 


A quiet night… with a touch of UNBEARABLE PAIN

If you were watching us from a distance, nothing seemed out of place. My sister and I were sitting at the dining table of our house, both studying and completing our assignments. It was a quiet night, and the level of productiveness was at an all-time high.

What was so strange about the situation wasn’t that I wasn’t procrastinating for once – although that in itself was a miracle. What made the whole thing bizarre was that, about 10 minutes later, I was jumping about as though I had ants in my pants, and my sister was rolling her eyes in absolute disdain!

Yes, you may have guessed it. The experience I’ve described is our one and only favourite sensation: pins and needles!

An accurate representation of my two minutes in hell. Source: Jonathan Weatherill-Hunt via Flickr

A sensation worse than death

Ok, maybe I’m overstating it a bit, but it certainly feels like it in those few minutes! And on top of all that, it couldn’t even really be described as pain – it’s more like a very uncomfortable feeling in the affected region of your body.

The feeling of ‘pins and needles’ is a sensation more scientifically termed as paraesthesia. Paraesthesia is typically felt as temporary tingling, prickling and numbness, and most commonly affects the hands, arms, legs and feet. Describing it visually, paraesthesia can feel as though you’ve taken the static from a TV screen and placed it within a part of your body!

Somehow, I can FEEL this image… Source: Arnold Chao via Flickr

Whacking yourself in the funny bone can achieve the same sensation. Try it now if you feel like making yourself miserable but slightly more educated!

But what exactly causes it?

Most of us probably know that the infuriating sensation occurs after one of our arms or legs falls asleep. But what about that leads to this static-filled hell?

Paraesthesia occurs after compressing the nerves and blood vessels travelling through your body. Although it’s commonly thought to be a result of the blood flowing back to the previously restricted area, the feeling itself is largely a result of your sensory nerves.

Sensory nerves run all around your body, relaying information from your skin and muscles back towards your spine and brain (also known as the Central Nervous System). This includes sensations like pain, pressure and temperature.

Nerves are everywhere – they run all around the body! Source: Medium69, Jmarchn via Wikimedia Commons

The compression of your arm or leg restricts the amount of blood that can supply the nerves in that area. As a result, these nerves no longer receive the oxygen supply they need, and the brain is deprived of the sensory information it usually gets – just like a roadblock.

When you finally get out of that awkward sitting position, or rolled off your ‘dead’ arm, the nerves are suddenly receiving their much-needed blood supply again and are able to receive nerve impulses again. Due to the recent lack of activity, these nerves tend to be hyperactive before they reach their normal level of function again – kind of like a reboot and test period. Since so many nerves are firing together at once, we temporarily acquire an uncomfortable feeling – this is the feeling of pins and needles! In the case of hitting your funny bone, we get this sensation because you are essentially hitting the vulnerable area of your ulnar nerve.

It could be worse…

If you thought that was bad, consider this: paraesthesia can also last for far longer periods of time, and can even become a chronic condition. In situations like this, paraesthesia turns from a completely normal experience to something of concern.

Chronic or persistent paraesthesia indicates that there is a problem with nerve function, possibly due to deficits in blood circulation. Such problems are seen in conditions like atherosclerosis, carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetic neuropathy. If you’ve been experiencing long-term paraesthesia, head to your local health care professional for a check-up!

 

 

For more information, check out these links!

A more in-depth article: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151116-why-do-we-get-pins-and-needles

Video by SciShow on the same topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-tMIf3QjWw

 


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