Protein researchers closing in on the mystery of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a severe disease for which there is still no effective medical treatment. In an attempt to understand exactly what happens in the brain of schizophrenic people, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have analysed proteins in the brains of rats that have been given hallucinogenic drugs. This may pave the way for new and better medicines.Seven per cent of the adult population suffer from schizophrenia, and although scientists have tried for centuries to understand the disease, they still do not know what causes the disease or which physiological changes it causes in the body. Doctors cannot make the diagnosis by looking for specific physiological changes in the patient’s blood or tissue, but have to diagnose from behavioral symptoms.In an attempt to find the physiological signature of schizophrenia, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have conducted tests on rats, and they now believe that the signature lies in some specific, measurable proteins. Knowing these proteins and comparing their behavior to proteins in the brains of not-schizophrenic people may make it possible to develop more effective drugs.It is extremely difficult to study brain activity in schizophrenic people, which is why researchers often use animal models in their strive to understand the mysteries of the schizophrenic brain. Rat brains resemble human brains in so many ways that studying them makes sense if one wants to learn more about the human brain.Schizophrenic symptoms in ratsThe strong hallucinogenic drug phenocyclidine (PCP), also known as “angel’s dust,” provides a range of symptoms in people which are very similar to schizophrenia.”When we give PCP to rats, the rats become valuable study objects for schizophrenia researchers,” explains Ole Nrregaard Jensen, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.Along with Pawel Palmowski, Adelina Rogowska-Wrzesinska and others, he is the author of a scientific paper about the discovery, published in the international Journal of Proteome Research.Among the symptoms and reactions that can be observed in both humans and rats are changes in movement and reduced cognitive functions such as impaired memory, attention and learning ability.”Scientists have studied PCP rats for decades, but until now no one really knew what was going on in the rat brains at the molecular level. We now present what we believe to be the largest proteomics data set to date,” says Ole Nrregaard Jensen.PCP is absorbed very quickly by the brain, and it only stays in the brain for a few hours. Therefore, it was important for researchers to examine the rats’ brain cells soon after the rats were injected with the hallucinogenic drug.”We could see changes in the proteins in the brain already after 15 minutes. And after 240 minutes, it was almost over,” says Ole Nrregaard Jensen.The University of Southern Denmark holds some of the world’s most advanced equipment for studying proteins, and Ole Nrregaard Jensen and his colleagues used the university’s so-called mass spectrometres for their protein studies.352 proteins cause brain changes”We found 2604 proteins, and in 352 of them, we saw changes that can be associated with the PCP injections. These 352 proteins will be extremely interesting to study in closer detail to see if they also alter in people with schizophrenia — and if that’s the case, it will of course be interesting to try to develop a drug that can prevent the protein changes that lead to schizophrenia,” says Ole Nrregaard Jensen about the discovery and the work that now lies ahead.The 352 proteins in rat brains responded immediately when the animals were exposed to PCP. …

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Students on field course bag new spider species

As a spin-off (pun intended) of their Tropical Biodiversity course in Malaysian Borneo, a team of biology students discover a new spider species, build a makeshift taxonomy lab, write a joint publication and send it off to a major taxonomic journal.Discovering a new spider species was not what she had anticipated when she signed up for her field course in Tropical Biodiversity, says Elisa Panjang, a Malaysian master’s student from Universiti Malaysia Sabah. She is one of twenty students following the course, organised by Naturalis Biodiversity Center in The Netherlands, and held in the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The aim of the one-month course, say organisers Vincent Merckx and Menno Schilthuizen, is to teach the students about how the rich tapestry of the tropical lowland rainforest’s ecosystem is woven.Besides charismatic species, such as the orangutans that the students encounter every day in the forest, the tropical ecosystem consists of scores of unseen organisms, and the course focus is on these “small things that run the world” — such as the tiny orb-weaving spiders of the tongue-twistingly named family Symphytognathidae. These one-millimetre-long spiders build tiny webs that they suspend between dead leaves on the forest floor. “When we started putting our noses to the ground we saw them everywhere,” says Danish student Jennie Burmester enthusiastically. What they weren’t prepared for was that the webs turned out to be the work of an unknown species, as spider specialist Jeremy Miller, an instructor on the course, quickly confirmed.The students then decided to make the official naming and description of the species a course project. They rigged the field centre’s microscopes with smartphones to produce images of the tiny spider’s even tinier genitals (using cooking oil from the station’s kitchen to make them more translucent), dusted the spider’s webs with puffs of corn flour (also from the kitchen) to make them stand out and described the way they were built. They also put a spider in alcohol as “holotype,” the obligatory reference specimen for the naming of any new species — which is to be stored in the collection of Universiti Malaysia Sabah. Finally, a dinner-time discussion yielded a name for this latest addition to the tree of life: Crassignatha danaugirangensis, after the field centre’s idyllic setting at the Danau Girang oxbow lake.All data and images were then compiled into a scientific paper, which, via the station’s satellite link, was submitted to the Biodiversity Data Journal, a leading online journal for quick dissemination of new biodiversity data. Even though thousands of similarly-sized spider species still await discovery, Miller thinks the publication is an important one. …

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Canal between ears helps alligators pinpoint sound

By reptile standards, alligators are positively chatty. They are the most vocal of the non-avian reptiles and are known to be able to pinpoint the source of sounds with accuracy. But it wasn’t clear exactly how they did it because they lack external auditory structures.In a new study, an international team of biologists shows that the alligator’s ear is strongly directional because of large, air-filled channels connecting the two middle ears. This configuration is similar in birds, which have an interaural canal that increases directionality.”Mammals usually have large moveable ears, but alligators do not, so they have solved the problems of sound localization a little differently. This may also be the solution used by the alligator’s dinosaur relatives,” said Hilary Bierman, a biology lecturer at the University of Maryland.The study, which was led by Bierman and UMD Biology Professor Catherine Carr, was published online in the Journal of Experimental Biology on March 26, 2014. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Danish National Science Foundation and Carlsberg Foundation.The UMD biologists — along with researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Colorado Medical School and University of Southern Denmark — collected anatomical, biophysical and electrophysiological measurements of alligators to investigate the mechanisms alligators use to locate sounds.”Different vertebrate lineages have evolved external and/or internal anatomical adaptations to enhance these auditory cues, such as pinnae and interaural canals,” said Bierman.First, the team tested how sound travelled around an alligator’s head to investigate whether the animal somehow channels sound, listening for tiny time and volume differences in the sound’s arrival at the two ears to help locate the origin. But the team found no evidence that the animal’s body alters sound transmission sufficiently for the animal to be able to detect the difference. And when the team measured alligators’ brainstem responses to sounds, they were too fast for the animals to sense these small time differences.Next, the team looked for internal structures in the alligators’ heads that might propagate sound between the two eardrums. Viewing slices through the heads of young alligators, the team could clearly see two channels linking the two middle ears that could transmit sound between the two eardrums.Sound reaches both sides of the eardrum — travelling externally to reach the outer side and through head structures to the internal side — to amplify the vibration at some frequencies when the head is aligned with the sound. This maximizes the pressure differences on the two sides of the eardrum, magnifying the time difference between the sound arriving at the ear drum via two different paths to allow the animal to pinpoint the source. …

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Eel expedition 2014 has arrived in The Sargasso Sea

The research vessel Dana is currently in the Sargasso Sea on an intensive research expedition to the European eel’s spawning grounds subsequently following the eel larvae’s drift back to Europe. The Sargasso Sea is a large oceanic area between Bermuda and the West Indies. There are 19 species of eel in the world. Two of them spawn in the Sargasso Sea: The American and The European Eel.In the past 30 years there has been a dramatic decline in the European eel population. Today, the number of young eel returning to the coasts of Europe is just 2-10 per cent of the quantities seen in the 1970s. In 2008, the dramatic decline in eel numbers led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to add the eel to its list of critically endangered species.A characteristic feature of the European eel is that spawning takes place far from the juvenile nursery grounds in Europe, requiring the eel larvae to ride the ocean currents for a 6,000 kilometre return journey across the Atlantic. The expedition will investigate whether climate-related changes in the eel’s spawning grounds or the ocean currents transporting the eel larvae to Europe are responsible for the eel’s sharp decline. The expedition will also gather information on the food preferences of the newly hatched eel — the understanding of eel larval feeding is a prerequisite for successful rearing of larvae and the farming of eel. Farmed eel can be used for re-stocking and using these for consumption would lower the fishing pressure on the population.The expedition brings together almost 40 experts from a wide range of research areas at both Danish and international universities and institutions (including French, German,Swedish and American participants). The expedition, which is headed by Senior Researcher Peter Munk from DTU Aqua, is funded by the Danish Centre for Marine Research and the Carlsberg Foundation. …

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Dental care in school breaks down social inequalities

A new survey conducted by the University of Copenhagen and the World Health Organization (WHO) is highlighting the role of schools in work to promote health and prevent disease.”Children in Scandinavia generally have healthy teeth and gums, largely on account of dental care in schools for all children, the arrival of fluoride toothpaste on the market, a healthy lifestyle and high living standards. But the situation in the poorest countries of the world is very different to that in Scandinavia. However, it is positive to note that the WHO’s Health Promoting Schools Initiative are gaining ground at global level, and that they are gradually wiping out the social inequities in dental health,” says Poul Erik Petersen, Professor at Department of Odontology at the University of Copenhagen, and a Global Health Specialist.From Myanmar to Madagascar”We have collected data based on questions about health and dental care from 61 countries that run health programs in schools. Our findings reveal that those schools that have set up healthy school environments — and which offer all children education in dental health and disease prevention — are generally well-placed to set children on a path to a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives, with regard to issues such as diet, physical exercise, tobacco, alcohol and HIV control.”Around 60 per cent of the countries that took part in the study run formalized teaching in how to brush teeth, but not all countries have access to clean water and the necessary sanitary conditions. This constitutes a major challenge for the health and school authorities in Asia, Latin America and Africa in particular.”Countries in these regions are battling problems involving the sale of sugary drinks and sweets in the school playgrounds. Selling sweets is often a source of extra income for school teachers, who are poorly paid,” explains Poul Erik Petersen.He continues: “This naturally has an adverse effect on the children’s teeth. Many children suffer from toothache and general discomfort and these children may not get the full benefit of their education.”The biggest challenges to improved dental health in low-income countries are a lack of financial resources and trained staff. Schools in the poorest countries therefore devote little or no time to dental care, and they similarly make only very limited use of fluoride in their preventative work. Moreover, the healthy schools in low-income countries find it harder to share their experience and results.Social inequality is a serious problemSocial inequality in dental health and care is a serious problem all over the world:”However, inequality is greater in developing countries where people are battling with limited resources, an increasing number of children with toothache, children suffering from HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases — combined with a lack of preventive measures and trained healthcare staff,” says Poul Erik Petersen, before adding:”Even in a rich country like Denmark, we see social inequalities to dental care, despite the fact that dental health here is much improved among both children and adults. The socially and financially disadvantaged groups of the population show a high incidence of tooth and mouth complaints compared with the more affluent groups.”The Danish model for municipal dental care was principally built up in the 1970s and 1980s. …

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Is bigger really better when it comes to size of labor wards?

Sep. 9, 2013 — New research reveals that large labor wards — those handling 3,000 to 3,999 deliveries annually — have better overall approval rates compared to small, intermediate or very large obstetric units. The study, appearing in Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, a journal published by Wiley on behalf of the Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology, suggests that greater access to in-house obstetricians and auxiliary specialists contributes to the lower obstetric injury claims from patients at large labor wards in Denmark.Nearly one million children were born in Denmark over a 15-year period, with a noted downward trend from 69,000 births in 1995 to 63,440 in 2009. While obstetric injuries are rare, they can be severe or fatal when they do occur. During the same time period, the Danish Patient Insurance Association (DPIA) provided compensation of nearly 300 million Danish kroner (40 million €; $53 million U.S.) for approved obstetric injury cases.For the present study, researchers reviewed DPIA obstetric claims with 1,326 included in the analysis. Financial compensation from DPIA is granted if one or more of the following conditions are met:1. If an experienced specialist in the field in question would have acted differently during examination or treatment thereby avoiding the injury — the “specialist rule,”2. if the injury is caused by defects in, or malfunction of the technical equipment used in association with investigations or treatment,3. if the injury might have been avoided using another available treatment, and this was considered to be equally safe and potentially to offer the same benefits,4. if the injury encountered is serious and more extensive than the patient should be expected to endure.The claims were categorized based on size of the labor unit with small units performing less than 1,000; intermediate at 1,000 to 2,999; large at 3,000 to 3,999; and very large wards with greater than 4,000 deliveries per year.Analysis shows that the overall approval rate for submitted obstetric claims was nearly 40%. …

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Metabolically healthy women have same CVD risk regardless of BMI

Sep. 2, 2013 — Metabolically healthy women have the same cardiovascular disease risk regardless of their BMI, according to research presented at the ESC Congress today by Dr Søren Skøtt Andersen and Dr Michelle Schmiegelow from Denmark. The findings in more than 260,000 subjects suggest that obese women have a window of opportunity to lose weight and avoid developing a metabolic disorder, which would increase their CVD risk.Dr Schmiegelow said: “Obesity and/or metabolic disorders (hypertensive disorders [hypertension, gestational hypertension or pre-eclampsia], disorders in glucose-metabolism [diabetes, gestational diabetes] and elevated cholesterol levels [dyslipidemia]) are well known cardiovascular risk factors. Studies in middle aged men have found that obese and normal weight men have the same cardiovascular risk if they are metabolically healthy. Our study aimed to find out if the same was true for young fertile women.”The study used Danish national health databases and followed 261,489 women who had given birth during 2004-2009 with no prior history of cardiovascular disease. The women were divided into four categories according to their pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI, kg/m2) and presence of metabolic disorders (present/not present) (see figure). The women’s mean age was 31 years.The women were followed for an average of 5 years following childbirth. Discharge diagnoses and data on cause of death were used to determine if the women had a heart attack, a stroke, or died. Metabolic disorders were defined using claimed prescription data related to hypertension, diabetes and dyslipidemia; thus, only disorders being treated were taken into account. The pregnancy-associated metabolic disorders were defined using diagnosis codes.The researchers found that being overweight (BMI≥25 kg/m2) but metabolically healthy was not associated with an increased risk of a heart attack, stroke or a combination of heart attack/stroke/death in comparison with normal weight, metabolically healthy women.Dr Schmiegelow said: “Being overweight but free of metabolic disorders does not seem to be associated with an increased risk in young women in the short term. …

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Impact of AF on stroke risk eliminated with multiple risk factors

Aug. 31, 2013 — Patients with five or more risk factors have the same stroke risk as patients with atrial fibrillation, according to research presented at the ESC Congress today by Dr. Christine Benn Christiansen from Denmark. The study included data on more than 4 million patients from Danish registries over a 10 year period.Dr Benn Christiansen said: “We know that atrial fibrillation increases the risk of ischemic stroke. And in patients with atrial fibrillation or previous ischemic stroke, the risk of stroke increases with the number of risk factors. But until now, little attention has been paid to the association between stroke risk and risk factors in patients without prior stroke or atrial fibrillation. We wanted to explore that association and to quantify if stroke risk was of comparable size in patients with numerous risk factors.”The study included 4,198,119 people aged 18 to 90 years with no history of stroke from nationwide Danish registries during 2000 to 2010. Of these, 161,651 (3.85%) had atrial fibrillation. The investigators compared the risk of stroke in patients with and without atrial fibrillation according to the number of risk factors.The risk factors included in the study were myocardial infarction, peripheral artery disease, arterial embolism, excessive alcohol consumption, heart failure, carotid stenosis, retinal occlusion, chronic systemic inflammation, chronic kidney disease, venous thromboembolism, epilepsy, migraine, diabetes mellitus, hypertension and age >75 years.The rate of stroke was calculated per 100 person-years. Patients with 0 risk factors and no atrial fibrillation had a stroke rate of 0.32 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.31-0.32) per 100 person-years vs. …

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Hunter-gatherers’ taste for spice revealed

Aug. 22, 2013 — Our early ancestors had a taste for spicy food, new research led by the University of York has revealed.Archaeologists at York, working with colleagues in Denmark, Germany and Spain, have found evidence of the use of spices in cuisine at the transition to agriculture. The researchers discovered traces of garlic mustard on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years.The silicate remains of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) along with animal and fish residues were discovered through microfossil analysis of carbonised food deposits from pots found at sites in Denmark and Germany. The pottery dated from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.Previously scientists have analysed starches which survive well in carbonised and non-carbonised residues to test for the use of spices in prehistoric cooking. But the new research, which is reported in PLOS ONE, suggests that the recovery of phytoliths — silicate deposits from plants — offers the additional possibility to identify leafy or woody seed material used as spices, not detectable using starch analysis. Phytoliths charred by cooking are more resilient to destruction.Lead researcher Dr Hayley Saul, of the BioArCH research centre at at the University of York, said: “The traditional view is that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic uses of plants, and the reasons for their cultivation, were primarily driven by energy requirements rather than flavour. As garlic mustard has a strong flavour but little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots with terrestrial and marine animal residues, our findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine.”Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods in this region than is evident from the macrofossil record, and challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste.”The research also involved scientists at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, Institución Milá i Fontanals, Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona, Spain; the Danish Agency for Culture, Copenhagen, Denmark; the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany. And Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen, Schloβ Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany.The research was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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A 700,000-year-old horse gets its genome sequenced

June 26, 2013 — It is nothing short of a world record in DNA research that scientists at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark (University of Copenhagen) have hit. They have sequenced the so far oldest genome from a prehistoric creature. They have done so by sequencing and analyzing short pieces of DNA molecules preserved in bone-remnants from a horse that had been kept frozen for the last 700,000 years in the permafrost of Yukon, Canada. By tracking the genomic changes that transformed prehistoric wild horses into domestic breeds, the researchers have revealed the genetic make-up of modern horses with unprecedented details.The spectacular results are now published in the international scientific journal Nature.DNA molecules can survive in fossils well after an organism dies. Not as whole chromosomes, but as short pieces that could be assembled back together, like a puzzle. Sometimes enough molecules survive so that the full genome sequence of extinct species could be resurrected and over the last years, the full genome sequence of a few ancient humans and archaic hominins has been characterized. But so far, none dated back to before 70,000 years.Now Dr. Ludovic Orlando and Professor Eske Willerslev from the Centre for GeoGenetics have beaten this DNA-record by about 10 times. Thereby the two researchers — in collaboration with Danish and international colleagues — have been able to track major genomic changes over the last 700.000 years of evolution of the horse lineage.First, by comparing the genome in the 700,000 year old horse with the genome of a 43,000 year old horse, six present day horses and the donkey the researchers could estimate how fast mutations accumulate through time and calibrate a genome-wide mutation rate. This revealed that the last common ancestor of all modern equids was living about 4.0-4.5 million years ago. …

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