Winners of The Ig Nobels
Sat, 7th Oct 2006
Part of the show How Cancers Form, Cancer Biology and Future Therapies
In a parody of the real Nobel Prize Awards the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for scientific achievements that make you laugh, then think. Ten awards were passed out this Thursday and this is my highlight. Francis Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and Majed Odeh of Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel share one award for independently finding a cure for severe persistent hiccups referred to as digital rectal massage. Essentially hiccups is caused by runaway signals travelling along the Vagus nerve. This nerve wanders all the way from your brainstem through your neck and chest, finally terminating in the abdomen. Along this path it is responsible for many involuntary actions such as heart rate, sweating, forcing food towards your stomach and also mouth muscles used in speech. A lot of the anecdotal cures for hiccups such as drinking, gagging or applying pressure to your eye sockets rely on somehow stimulating the nerve in other ways to sort of distract it from making you hiccup. When Fesmere had tried all these methods on a patient that had been hiccupping constantly for 72 hours he remembered a method of stimulating the Vagus nerve used to slow runaway heartbeats. Essentially the Vagus nerve was massaged with a finger stuck up the patients anus. However, Fesmere now recommends another method for curing hiccups. An orgasm floods the Vagus nerve with signals and also has the potential to cure hiccups. Sounds like much more fun than his earlier method!
The late Philip May at the University of California at Los Angeles and Ivan Schwab of the University of California at Davis shared an Ig Nobel Prize for ornithology after their investigations into how woodpeckers are able to bang there beaks against trees so hard. If a human tried the same thing their brain would rattle around inside their skulls resulting in a severe concussion. May wondered why this didn't occur in woodpeckers. They found that the woodpeckers they studied had small brains that were more impact resistant and their skulls were formed of a thick spongy bone that helped to cushion the blow and hold the brain firmly in place a bit like packing something in rolled up newspaper. In addition to this the woodpecker has had to evolve a special mechanism to literally stop it's eyes popping out as it hammers a tree. It has membranes across its eyeballs that tighten a fraction of a second before it's beak hits the target holding them firmly in its head.
'GOOD BACTERIA' FIGHT OFF HIV
Scientists have engineered one of the "good bacteria" naturally found colonising the human female genital tract to enable it to produce a chemical called cyanovirin-N, which has powerful anti-HIV effects. Just as some people take probiotic yoghurts as an aid to digestion, the researchers think that their modified bug could be added to the bacterial flora growing naturally in the vagina where it could help to protect the host from infection by the AIDS-causing virus. Cyanovirin-N is naturally produced by a type of blue-green algae called Nostoc ellipsosporum, and it has already been shown in primate experiments to be able to prevent HIV from locking onto and penetrating cells in the vagina. Now, Stanford University's Peter Lee and his colleagues have successfully added the gene for cyanovirin-N to the main chromosome of a bacterium called Lactobacillus jensenii, which naturally colonises the vagina. When the modified bacteria were added to the genital tracts of mice, the researchers were subsequently able to detect small amounts of cyanovirin-N being produced locally. This suggests that it might be possible to use these bugs to provide an effective yet cheap and simple additional line of defence against HIV. This would be especially useful in third world countries such as Africa where several million new cases of HIV infection occur each year, largely because women in these countries have little or no access to effective barrier methods of contraception.