Science Interviews


Fri, 13th Jul 2012

Clearing away Huntington's, Altruism in the brain and a Fatally Falling Batman

Albert La Spada, UCSD
Joanna Aisenberg, Harvard University
Yosuke Marashima, University of Zurich
David Marshall, University of Leicester

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Clearing Away Huntingtonís Disease

Two proteins have been identified to fight and potentially treat the neurodegenerative condition, Huntingtonís disease, according to research inHuntington the Journal Science.

Patients with the condition have a gene mutation resulting in mis-folded forms of the protein Htt, which builds up in their central nervous system causing the progressive deterioration of involuntary muscle control, and cognitive decline.

But now, Albert La Spada from the University of California, San Diego has found that elevating levels of the proteins PGC1-Alpha and TFEB, helps clear away mutant forms of Htt preventing their build up and resulting neurotoxic effects.

Albert -   There are features of Huntingtonís disease that are shared by more common neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinsonís diseases and so, if we can develop therapies based upon these strategies, they should not only be applicable to Huntingtonís disease, but also be applicable to Parkinsonís disease, and perhaps other neurodegenerative disorders.



Some like it Hot

Smart materials with the ability to regulate their temperature have been developed by scientists at Harvard University, publishing in the journal Nature.

Modelled on the process of homeostasis in the human body whereby body temperature is maintained at 37 degrees, these homeostatic materials consist of a surface gel layer sensitive to the temperature of its surrounding environment which in response to a drop in temperature, activates the movement of catalyst-containing structures into a second reactant layer where the catalyst initiates an exothermic reaction Ė causing the release of heat.

When the required temperature is restored, the catalyst is removed and the reaction stops.

Joanna Aisenberg led the team who hope to use the technique to control a wide range of environmental conditions.

Joanna -   The prototype material shows that we can maintain a constant temperature.  But in fact, the same strategy can be adapted to create materials that maintain constant glucose levels in the bloodstream or pH in water supplies.  Weíre really thinking now of a whole range of materials that are capable of autonomous self-regulation.



How the brain decides altruism

Altruistic Individuals have more grey matter in the region of their brain responsible for empathy.

Writing in Neuron, Yosuke Morishima form the University of Zurich used fMRI techniques to monitor brain activity in human volunteers as they answered questions about splitting money between themselves and others. His team found that the volume of gray matter found a region of the brain known as the temporo-parietal junction and the level of activity there,  was a strong indicator of how altruistic an individual would be.

Yosuke -   When we look at other people we can't tell whether that person either denies or either generous or selfish.  But our study would partly tell us about an individualís private influence which cannot be transparent.  And also, some behavioural studies have shown that people who are living in really large societies tend to behave more altruistically compared to the people who live in a small societies.  Maybe we might be able to elucidate the cultural influence of brain and on our behaviours.



Not Enough of a Caped Crusader

And finally, the cape used by well-known superhero batman to glide from tall buildings, would, in reality, send him crashing to the ground at high speed.

Physics students at the University of Leicester calculated that the 4.7m wingspan of the cape seen in the recent films by Chistopher Nolan, which becomes rigid as an electric current passes through it, isnít big enough to enable the caped crusader to glide to safety when jumping from a building 150m high.

In fact, the team led by David Marshall worked out the hero would hit the ground at 50 mph.

David M. -   Batmanís cape is maybe not as effective as it could be just because itís too small.  When you look at it compared to a hand glider, itís about half the size that it needs to be so it keeps batman aloft.  Itís okay for moving, he can get to about twice as far as you can fall which is sufficient for getting between buildings, but by the time he gets there, heíll be traveling around about 50 miles an hour.  So, there's a few different ways that he could fix this by getting a bigger cape, or we need some sort of active propulsion system such as jet packs.  Really, Batman needs to find some better way to do with this.

The paper "Trajectory of a Falling Batman" was published in the University of Leicester Journal of Special Physics Topics.



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