. Scientific Frontline

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The brain's immune cells can be triggered to slow down Alzheimer's disease

Joana B. Pereira, researcher at Lund University and Karolinska Institutet who is first author of the study.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lund University

The brain's big-eating immune cells can slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease. This is shown by a study that is now published in Nature Aging.

The brain's own immune cells are called microglia and are found in the central nervous system. They are big eaters that kill viruses, damaged cells and infectious agents they come across. It has long been known that microglial cells can be activated in different ways in several neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Depending on how they are activated, they can both drive and slow disease development. Researchers from Lund University and Karolinska Institutet have now shown that a certain type of activation of the microglial cells triggers inflammatory protective mechanisms in the immune system:

“Most people probably think that inflammation in the brain is something bad and that you should inhibit the inflammatory system in case of illness. But inflammation doesn't just have to be negative”, says Joana B. Pereira, researcher at Lund University and Karolinska Institutet who is first author of the study.

Machine learning model builds on imaging methods to better detect ovarian lesions

(From left) The top row shows an ultrasound image of a malignant lesion, the blood oxygen saturation, and hemoglobin concentration. The bottom row is an ultrasound image of a benign lesion, the blood oxygen saturation, and hemoglobin concentration.
Image Credit: Zhu lab

Although ovarian cancer is the deadliest type of cancer for women, only about 20% of cases are found at an early stage, as there are no real screening tests for them and few symptoms to prompt them. Additionally, ovarian lesions are difficult to diagnose accurately — so difficult, in fact that there is no sign of cancer in more than 80% of women who undergo surgery to have lesions removed and tested.

Quing Zhu, the Edwin H. Murty Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis’ McKelvey School of Engineering, and members of her lab have applied a variety of imaging methods to diagnose ovarian cancer more accurately. Now, they have developed a new machine learning fusion model that takes advantage of existing ultrasound features of ovarian lesions to train the model to recognize whether a lesion is benign or cancerous from reconstructed images taken with photoacoustic tomography. Machine learning traditionally has been focused on single modality data. Recent findings have shown that multi-modality machine learning is more robust in its performance over unimodality methods. In a pilot study of 35 patients with more than 600 regions of interest, the model’s accuracy was 90%.

To Battle Climate Change, Scientists Tap into Carbon-Hungry Microorganisms for Clues

Electron microscopy images of 7-nanometer-diameter copper nanoparticles (shown left) and silver nanoparticles (center). At right: Electron microscopy image of ultrathin material synthesized from copper and silver nanoparticles, which could potentially be coupled with light-absorbing silicon nanowires for the design of efficient artificial photosynthesis systems. 
Credit: Peidong Yang/Berkeley Lab; courtesy of Nature Catalysis

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have demonstrated a new technique, modeled after a metabolic process found in some bacteria, for converting carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid acetate, a key ingredient in “liquid sunlight” or solar fuels produced through artificial photosynthesis.

The new approach, reported in Nature Catalysis, could help advance carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels linked to global warming and climate change.

The work is also the first demonstration of a device that mimics how these bacteria naturally synthesize acetate from electrons and CO2.

“What’s amazing is that we learned how to selectively convert carbon dioxide into acetate by mimicking how these little microorganisms do it naturally,” said senior author Peidong Yang, who holds titles of senior faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

Breaking the scaling limits of analog computing

MIT researchers have developed a technique that greatly reduces the error in an optical neural network, which uses light to process data instead of electrical signals. With their technique, the larger an optical neural network becomes, the lower the error in its computations. This could enable them to scale these devices up so they would be large enough for commercial uses.
Credit: SFLORG stock photo

As machine-learning models become larger and more complex, they require faster and more energy-efficient hardware to perform computations. Conventional digital computers are struggling to keep up.

An analog optical neural network could perform the same tasks as a digital one, such as image classification or speech recognition, but because computations are performed using light instead of electrical signals, optical neural networks can run many times faster while consuming less energy.

However, these analog devices are prone to hardware errors that can make computations less precise. Microscopic imperfections in hardware components are one cause of these errors. In an optical neural network that has many connected components, errors can quickly accumulate.

Even with error-correction techniques, due to fundamental properties of the devices that make up an optical neural network, some amount of error is unavoidable. A network that is large enough to be implemented in the real world would be far too imprecise to be effective.

MIT researchers have overcome this hurdle and found a way to effectively scale an optical neural network. By adding a tiny hardware component to the optical switches that form the network’s architecture, they can reduce even the uncorrectable errors that would otherwise accumulate in the device.

Cognitive flexibility enhances mathematical reasoning

Multiple categorizations involves presenting students with mathematical problems that can be solved from different perspectives.
Illustration Credit: Calliste Scheibling-Sève

At school or in everyday life, proportional reasoning is essential for many activities. This type of reasoning allows us to adapt the quantity of ingredients in a recipe or to calculate the distance traveled as a function of speed by relying on ratios and proportions. In school settings, certain intuitive conceptions of proportions can mislead students and hinder their learning. A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) shows that multiple categorizations in mathematical problems - the ability to adopt several points of view on the same problem - makes it possible to go past this obstacle. These results open up new perspectives for the learning of mathematics but also for other disciplines. They can be found in the Journal of Numerical Cognition.

Proportional reasoning is a cognitive process that involves ratios and proportions to solve a mathematical problem. This reasoning is regularly practiced and applied in school, but it is also very useful in our daily lives. It allows us to calculate the price of certain products when we shop, to adapt the quantity of ingredients in a recipe, and to convert foreign currencies. It is at play when we understand that a speed of 30mph is equivalent to a distance of 15 miles travelled in 30 minutes. It is also involved in assessing our risk-taking: for example, when we make choices about our health by weighing the effectiveness of a treatment or vaccine against the risks of the disease.

Lychee Peel Powder Can Remove Persistent Dye from Wastewater

The peel of the lychee makes up about 15% of the weight of the fruit.
Photo Credit: Jamie Trinh

The international team of scientists, which includes chemists from the Ural Federal University, found out that chemically modified lychee peel eliminates a very persistent red dye from wastewater. The researchers have developed a new method that can be used to clean wastewater near textile production facilities in an environmentally friendly and cheap way. By doing so, it can prevent disease in humans and save animals, fish and birds that interact with dyed water. It will also help make the world's dirtiest rivers cleaner: the Buringanga River in Bangladesh, the Ganges in India, and the Chintarum in Indonesia, for example. A description of the new method and the results of the experiments were published in the Journal of Molecular Liquids.

"Red dyes emitted in various industries such as textiles, cosmetics, leather, food and plastic are dangerous environmental pollutants. From 20 to 40% of persistent dyes remain in wastewater and cause a critical increase in its acidity and alkalinity. The key factor here is the nature of these dyes. They contribute to increased deposition of calcium salts in organs, are considered highly toxic and pose a serious threat to humans, causing various cancers and mutagenic phenomena at cellular and molecular levels," explains Grigory Zyryanov, Professor of the Department of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry at the Ural Federal University.

Novel sex-determination mechanism revealed in mammals

Amami spiny rat
Photo Credit: Asato Kuroiwa

In mammals, the distinction between male and female at the chromosomal level is due to the X and Y chromosomes. Typically, females have two X chromosomes (XX) while males have an X and a Y chromosome (XY). The Sry gene on the Y chromosome triggers the formation of the testes. However, there exist a handful of rodent species in which the Y chromosome has disappeared, taking with it the Sry gene. The mechanism by which testes development occurs in these species is not fully understood, and is subject to much research.

A team of researchers led by Professor Asato Kuroiwa at Hokkaido University has uncovered the genetic basis for sexual differentiation in the Amami spiny rat, one of the species the lacks a Y chromosome and the Sry gene. Their discoveries were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Amami spiny rat is an endangered rodent found only on Amami Oshima, Japan. It is one of just four mammals known to lack a Y chromosome, alongside its close relative the Tokunoshima spiny rat, as well as the Transcaucasian mole vole and the Zaisan mole vole. In the Amami spiny rat, the the Sry gene is completely absent; thus, it has evolved a novel, unknown sex-determining mechanism independent of Sry.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Blood thinning drug to treat recovery from severe COVID-19 is not effective

The HEAL-COVID trial (Helping to Alleviate the Longer-term consequences of COVID-19) is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and the Cambridge NIHR Biomedical Research Centre. To date, more than a thousand NHS patients hospitalized with COVID have taken part in HEAL-COVID, a platform trial that is aiming to find treatments to reduce the number who die or are readmitted following their time in hospital.

In these first results from HEAL-COVID, it’s been shown that prescribing the oral anticoagulant Apixaban does not stop COVID patients from later dying or being readmitted to hospital over the following year (Apixaban 29.1%, versus standard care 30.8%).

As well as not being beneficial, anticoagulant therapy has known serious side effects, and these were experienced by participants in the trial with a small number of the 402 participants receiving Apixaban having major bleeding that required them to discontinue the treatment.

There was also no benefit from Apixaban in terms of the number of days alive and out of hospital at day 60 after randomization (Apixaban 59 days, versus standard care 59 days).

Following these results, the trial will continue to test another drug called Atorvastatin, a widely used lipid lowering drug (‘a statin’) that acts on other mechanisms of disease that are thought to be important in COVID.

Rock Samples from the Floor of Jezero Crater Show Significant Contact with Water Together with Possible Organic Compounds

A photo of Jezero Crater on Mars. It was taken by instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which regularly takes images of potential landing sites for future missions.
Hi-Res Full-Size Image

Analysis of multiple rocks found at the bottom of Jezero Crater on Mars, where the Perseverance rover landed in 2020, reveals significant interaction between the rocks and liquid water, according to a study published in the journal Science. Those rocks also contain evidence consistent with the presence of organic compounds.

The existence of organic compounds (chemical compounds with carbon–hydrogen bonds) is not direct evidence of life, as these compounds can be created through nonbiological processes.

Perseverance previously found organic compounds at Jezero's delta. Deltas are fan-shaped geologic formations created at the intersection of a river and a lake at the edge of the crater. Mars 2020 mission scientists had been particularly interested in the Jezero delta because such formations are created when a river transporting fine-grained sediments enter a deeper, slower-moving body of water. As the river water spreads out, it abruptly slows down, depositing the sediments it is carrying—and in so doing, traps and preserves any microorganisms that may exist in the water.

Astrophysicists Hunt for Second-Closest Supermassive Black Hole

Illustration Credit: Scott Anttila Anttler

Two astrophysicists at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian have suggested a way to observe what could be the second-closest supermassive black hole to Earth: a behemoth 3 million times the mass of the Sun, hosted by the dwarf galaxy Leo I.

The supermassive black hole, labeled Leo I*, was first proposed by an independent team of astronomers in late 2021. The team noticed stars picking up speed as they approached the center of the galaxy — evidence for a black hole — but directly imaging emission from the black hole was not possible.

Now, CfA astrophysicists Fabio Pacucci and Avi Loeb suggest a new way to verify the supermassive black hole's existence; their work is described in a study published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"Black holes are very elusive objects, and sometimes they enjoy playing hide-and-seek with us," says Fabio Pacucci, lead author of the ApJ Letters study. "Rays of light cannot escape their event horizons, but the environment around them can be extremely bright — if enough material falls into their gravitational well. But if a black hole is not accreting mass, instead, it emits no light and becomes impossible to find with our telescopes."

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