Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Category: Uncategorized (page 3 of 6)

Top 5 research articles I read this week

Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour physiological processes throughout a light/dark cycle. In other words, how your body responds to daylight/nighttime. It’s obvious to say that (most) people wake up in the morning feeling energized, to then feeling like napping (or taking a siesta) in the afternoon, to being awake again later in the night until you eventually fall asleep. Remarkably, this activity pattern is conserved across many species, down to rodents and even fruit flies- yes, those teeny, tiny flies feeding on your bananas at home. So, why is this even a concern? Altered activity patterns and disrupted sleep is seen in many neurological diseases and psychological disorders.  Seeing the same characteristic in different health conditions is unlikely a coincidence, suggesting your “biological clock” is somehow associated with your mental health. To further investigate what really goes on, scientists need to turn to a simple model organism for their research experiments, such as the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

Here are the top five scientific articles I recently read this week relating to circadian rhythms/sleep in Drosophila:

  1. Sitaraman, D., Aso, Y., Chen, N., Felix, M., Rubin, G.M., and Nitabach, M.N. 2015. Propagation of homeostatic sleep signals by segregated synaptic microcircuits of the Drosophila Mushroom Body. Current Biol 25:2915-2927.
  2. Seidner, G., Robinson, J.E., Wu, M., Worden, K., Masek, P., Roberts, S.W., Keene, A.C., and Joiner, W.J. 2015. Identification of neurons with a privileged role in sleep homeostasis in Drosophila melanogaster. Current Biol 25:2928-2938.
  3. Larkin, A., Chen, M., Kirazenblat, L., Reinhard, J., van Swinderen, B., and Claudianos, C. 2015. Neuroxin-1 regulates sleep and synaptic plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster. Euro J Neurosci 42:2455-2466.
  4. Mazzoccoli et al., 2016. A Timeless link between circadian patterns and disease. Trends Molec Med 22(1):68-81.
  5. Abruzzi, K., Chen, X., Nagoshi, E., Zadina, A., and Rosbash, M. 2015. RNA-seq profiling of small numbers of Drosophila Methods Enzymology 551:369-386.

Move Over Biopsies…Make Way for the Spit Test!

With surprising accuracy saliva can point to head and neck cancer. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine identified tumor DNA in the saliva. The DNA contains distinctive mutations associated with cancer and makes it easy to identify. As a tumor sheds parts of its genetic code into its surroundings, some of the DNA will be incorporated into the saliva allowing for detecting. Currently, there are no screenings for head and neck cancer because it does not improve the mortality rate of those types of cancer patients; so the saliva test could possibly increase survival chance through earlier treatments.

However, this study has one major flaw. The results obtained were not compared to healthy individuals, so the effectiveness of the spit test is still unclear. More research needs to be conducted to determine if this test is worthwhile, but at its current stage, it seems to be very promising.


The cluelessness of vaping; so whats the buzz?

Vaping, which was recently added to the dictionary in 2014, is becoming a new craze. “Vaping” is essentially the new term for “smoking”, you “vape” an e-cigarette and “smoke” and cigarette. It is the inhalation and exhale of vapor containing nicotine or other chemical substances, produced by an electronic cigarettes or similar devices that are battery-operated and use a heating element to heat a liquid cartridge.

“Vape” juice is made of nicotine mixed with a base (most often propylene glycol) and flavorings. The growing popularity is increasingly fast, especially amount young adults. There are hundreds of brands, thousands of flavors, but they are all unregulated by the FDA. This raises a few questions: what chemicals are people exactly inhaling if this product is unregulated? Can’t people say one thing and it be another? What are the health’s affects? We don’t know if the second hand smoke from an E-cig is less, just as, or more dangerous than that of a cigarette. Nicotine is also an addictive substance. There are a number of affects nicotine has on the brain in terms of development, memory and retention, and behavioral and cognitive behaviors. Recent studies show noticeable amounts of cancer causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde from the heating up of propylene glycol. There is so little known about E-cigarette smoking, at least in the public eyes, there needs to be something done.

The public is unaware of the full health effects of electronic cigarettes. There are too many potential consequences to keep a blind eye to it. With no safety checks and requirements, anything goes and often people do not understand what they are consuming. Why vape when there is not an understanding of its consequences? Restrictions and warnings need to be put in place. Any way you light it, not smoking at all is the best way to go.






APOE4: a double edged sword

It is commonly thought that mental stimulation will decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers from Mayo Clinic found that for the majority of the Alzheimer’s population keeping mentally and physically active will only slow the progression of symptoms, not the actual disease.

In the longitudinal study 393 participant, between 70 and 89 were asked to report their mental and physical activity and were then imaged to look for Alzheimer’s disease progression. The study specifically look at the APOE4 gene in this study. APOE4 is an allele of APOE (apolipoprotein E) increases the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and associated with an earlier onset. APOE is involved in making a protein that carries cholesterol and fat int he bloodstream. The study found those who had the APOE4 gene not only showed a decrease in Alzheimer’s symptom progression but also a decrease in progression of the actual disease in certain parts of the brain with mental and physical activity. 

Do not count out mental and physical stimulation just yet. There has been many studies that support how lifestyle enrichment helps delay onset of cognitive impairment and it helps prevent other disorders such as diabetes.



Loneliness, A Stealthy Contagion

Since you already have your phone out or computer screen up, take a moment and check how many Facebook friends, Twitter and Instagram followers, and whatever other social media connections you have.


Now, how many of those individuals would you consider a close confidant?  After posing this question to in a recent American study, Professor John Cacioppo found that 25% of the participants said they had “no one at all.”


Cacioppo, a Professor at the University of Chicago, has been investigating loneliness pathology and its public health consequences for over two decades.  In the early 1990s Cacioppo introduced the scientific community to a new field, social neuroscience, and has since demonstrated the importance of understanding and analyzing the need for stable bonds within social species, namely the human race.


Seemingly counter-intuitive, Cacioppo has found that “often times, fewer is better” when it comes to the quantity of one’s connections.  Some people have countless networks yet feel lonely because of the increased likelihood that motivations (of material gain, for instance) can impede true connection.


Such large and ultimately fruitless social systems lend themselves to the contagious quality of loneliness.  “I have become lonely for some reason and you are my friend,” Cacioppo illustrates.  “As a suddenly lonely person I am now more likely to deal with you cautiously, defensively, as a potential threat to me [because you might leave and add to my pain].”  Consequently, more negative social reactions will burgeon and rot the relationship, “so that is one less confidant for both of us.”


Cacioppo’s findings have could advocate for public health and policy reform.   The incidence rate of loneliness is high: one in four people regularly feel lonely.  Early death by factors related to chronic loneliness is increased by 20%, the same rate as those fatal factors related to obesity.  Though a direct cause-effect relationship between loneliness and heart disease and cancer can’t be drawn, there are serious health implications including sleep fragmentation and poor immune system function.


What does this research mean in the context of mounting social media use?  Roughly two-thirds (65%) of American adults use social networking sites.  Both the 18-29 and the 30-49 age brackets have seen increases.  The latter group has increased from 8% to 77% social media users since 2005, and compared with a mere 12% in 2005, 90% of young adults are on social media.  What could this mean for the prevalence of loneliness and related health consequences?  Is there a decrease in confidant quality associated with a growth in social media?

Perhaps the use of  “social” as a modifier for media is as ironic as your friend’s Facebook post of a “Forever Alone” meme.



How Your Poor Sleeping Habits Can Influence Your Eating Habits (Like the Munchies)

Ever had the munchies? Rumor has it that you can get them without consuming marijuana via sleep deprivation. If you’re trying not to gain weight, you may want to consider your poor sleeping habits. After a poor night’s sleep, your body is more likely to crave sweet, salty, and high-fat snack food, and more of it, too.

What we call the “munchies” actually comes from a chemical response to marijuana on the brain. Marijuana throws off the balance of the endocannabinoid system and its signals (such asendocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG), but so can your body’s lack of sleep. 2-AG levels seem to rise when your body is sleep deprived, causing you to be hungrier than usual. In other words, the combination of marijuana with a lack of sleep can be extremely counterproductive to anyone seeking to lose weight or even maintain it.

A new study conducted by Erin Hanlon further indicates that sleep-restricted subjects showed 2-AG levels up to 33% higher than non sleep-restricted subjects. These subjects are also seen to choose snacks that contain 50% more calories than those than non sleep-restricted subjects choose. A sleep-deprived body may also simply be craving more energy, since it doesn’t have much as a result of its lack of sleep.

Sleep-deprivation’s effects mimic those of the “munchies” that marijuana can give you. Rethink your sleeping habits if you’d like to snack less, and be aware on how poor sleeping habits can influence your body as much as a drug.



Plastic Pollution in the Ocean Could Reduce Its Ability to Store Carbon

Earlier this month, Environmental Science and Technology published a study examining the effects that plastic pollutants may have on the biological systems of the ocean, and ultimately found that plastic pollution may slow down carbon storage. One of the ways that microscopic pieces of plastic are processed through the ocean is through zooplankton digestion. The zooplankton ingest microplastics, and excrete them within their faecal pellets. This process then allows the microplastics to sink with the faecal pellets and move away from the surface of the ocean and enter the marine food chain. This study is the first to examine the impact of microplastics on the zooplankton feces and the other marine life that depends on them.


The researchers found that the feces with microplastics in them are sinking much slower than uncontaminated feces, causing the movement of microplastics away from the surface of the ocean to slow down. Futhermore, the downward movement of these pellets is a significant part of the biological pump, moving carbon, nutrients and particulate organic matter into deeper waters. This process provides food for bottom dwellers, and stores carbon in the depths of the ocean. Due to the slowing of this process because of microplastic pollution, the pellets are more prone to consumption, fragmentation, or degradation along the way, therefore fewer pellets are reaching their destination, and ultimately, less carbon is being stored in the depths of the ocean.


Ultimately, much more research needs to be conducted to fully understand the complex processes that impact the ocean’s ability to store carbon, but if our plastic pollution is harming the way that our earth can combat our air pollution, we may be in bigger trouble than we thought.




Cole, Matthew et. al. “Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets”. Environmental Science and Technology. February 11, 2016.


Can fear rescue an ecosystem?

The only thing we have to fear is lack of fear itself, says new research in predator ecology. According to researchers from the University of Western Ontario, as published in Nature Communications last Tuesday, fear of predators can be enough to produce a cascade of changes in ecosystem structure, even when there are no predators around (Suraci et al., 2016). These findings shed some interesting new light onto the role that top predators play in an ecosystem, and may even provide us with insight towards how we can repair habitats suffering from a shortage of these long-persecuted, yet ecologically crucial, creatures.

In the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, raccoons have become a downright menace. With humans having locally eradicated all of their natural predators (cougars, wolves, and black bears), these secondary “mesopredators” have run amok, to the detriment of local bird, fish, and crab species. By playing recordings of predator sounds through speakers placed around the islands, and using non-predator sounds as a control, the researchers sought to determine if they could transform the species composition of the island ecosystems by merely convincing the raccoons that predators were near. Sure enough, the introduction of predator sounds led to significant rebounds in the prey populations previously ravaged by the overzealous raccoons, as well as corresponding declines in the populations of species consumed by those prey, in turn. Thus, by harnessing the raccoons’ instinctive fear of predators, the experimenters were able to directly manipulate multiple levels of the Gulf Islands’ ecosystem structure.

Due to their position at the top of the food chain, apex predators can exert profound effects on their respective ecosystems: keeping prey populations down, and all other species impacted by said prey in balance, as a result. Unfortunately, from as far back as the Pleistocene, apex predators have also been a major target of hunting activity, due to the danger they present to humans and livestock. Loss of these species often gives rise to surges in mesopredator populations, which can have serious destabilizing effects on the ecosystem as a whole (Prugh et al., 2009). For this reason, the restoration of predator species has become an issue of great concern to modern conservation. That the fear of predation, in and of itself, may have the power to manifest changes in ecosystem function is not a new concept (Laundré et al., 2001), but this groundbreaking study marks the first true experimental confirmation of this theory.

Before we may claim the ability to reform disturbed ecosystems with only the power of sound, however, some key issues remain to be resolved. For starters, this experiment took place over the course of only one month. It is impressive that such a significant recovery was achieved over such a relatively short timeframe, but without any actual danger of predation accompanying the artificial predator noise, these sounds may lose their threatening nature over time, and the reversal of any effects they may have produced on a given ecosystem would be likely to follow. Additionally, the researchers were merely able to partially reverse some of the trends plaguing an already heavily-disrupted ecosystem. To actually return the ecosystem of the Gulf Islands to its original state, such as it was before the loss of its native predator species, we will surely need more than a few strategically-placed speakers. 

Nevertheless, these findings still certainly represent a significant step along the way to determining how best to heal the lasting effects of mankind’s unfortunate predator-killing habit.



Suraci, J. P., Clinchy, M., Dill, L. M., Roberts, D., & Zanette, L. Y. (2016). Fear of large carnivores causes a trophic cascade. Nature Communications 7, 10698, doi: 10.1038/ncomms10698.

Laundré, J. W., Hernández, L. & Altendorf, K. B. (2001). Wolves, elk, and bison: reestablishing the ‘landscape of fear’ in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A. Can. J. Zool. 79, 1401-1409, doi: 10.1139/z01-094.

Prugh, L. R., Stoner, C. J., Epps, C. W., Bean, W. T., Ripple, W. J., Laliberte, A. S., & Brashares, J. S. (2009). The Rise of the Mesopredator. Bioscence 59 (9), 779-791, doi: 10.1525/BIO.2009.59.9.9.

The Drink of Choice: Tea or Coffee?

When you walk into a cafe, should you order a cup of coffee or a cup of tea? Both beverages have health benefits.

Coffee: Research has shown though many studies, that coffee may reduce dementia or Alzheimer’s. The benefits of coffee may help type 2 diabetes also. Due to the higher caffeine content in coffee, it has the ability to relax the lung’s airways in individuals with asthma. The caffeine can also help contracting blood vessels in the brain and reduce migraines. The Harvard School of Public Health did research in over drinking coffee and no effects were seen in drinking up to 6 cups of coffee in one day.

Tea: Tea is filled with antioxidants and potential cancer-fighting properties. The National Cancer Institute at NIH claims tea reduces the rick of cancer and is a therapeutic drink that relaxes oneself.  Since tea is made from leaves of the Camellia sinensi, benefits from this plant are seen in all teas. The polyphenols, or a group of plant chemicals, are believed to be involved heavily in health benefits including protecting cells from DNA damage. Tea also hydrates one’s body and is better for your teeth then coffee.




10 Benefits of Drinking Tea Over Coffee




Conscious Coffee Drinker

A New York Times piece contemplated the benefits a non-coffee drinker is missing out on. There many scientifically proven pros, such as decrease risk of melanoma, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer just to name a few. As any good article would, it also mentions the negative effects of daily coffee consumption. Coffee is a drug and is addictive so withdrawal occurs, and the user will need a cup to reach a normal state. Not to mention, there are side effects of insomnia, heart burn, and shakiness for some with a metabolism that doesn’t take coffee well.

Many articles list the benefits of coffee before workout, but a woman of 150lb should not have more than small cup (16oz) and the coffee should have milk and cinnamon to substitute cream and sugar.

The New York Times article fails to differentiate between black coffee and coffee with additives such as sugar, half & half, and name brand purchased cups that adds hundreds of calories to what was originally only 2 calories.

Don’t be fooled to believe that a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato a day will save you from illness and help shed some fat. A consistent amount, with little to no sugar and little to no milk, along with plenty of water and adequate sleep will make coffee a boon to the body.





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