Friday Roundup: Cancer and HIV Cures, New Human Ancestor, and “Happiness Buttons”

For this week’s Friday Roundup, actual humans (not rats) are being cured of cancer and HIV, and ancient humans bred with an unknown species. Happiness centers in the brain are being discovered, and laziness and fatness might have nothing to do with each other. A record breaking laser is blowing up atoms, Germany set a new record for green energy, and if you want to remember something: rest your eyes for a while.

Anti-Cancer Vaccine Works on Humans

The University of Tübingen reported that a vaccine developed to treat kidney cancer extended patients’ lives by much longer than chemotherapy, and with way fewer side effects.

The vaccine contained artificial versions of peptides produced by cancerous cells. This familiarized the immune system with the cancerous peptides, allowing the patient’s own immune system to start attacking the cancer.

Similar vaccines have been developed before and were able to reduce tumors, but they didn’t extend the patient’s lifetime. This marks a tremendous step forward.

Prof. Dr. Arnulf Stenzl, who supervised the studies, said this technique could possibly be used on different types of cancer as well.

Related: Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer-And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place

Cure for HIV?

Two men who received bone marrow transplants appear to be free of the HIV virus, although the researchers are hesitant to say they have been cured until they can be absolutely sure.

The men were unlucky enough to have both HIV and cancer, which was the reason for the bone marrow transplants. Unlike most patients, they remained on their anti-viral medications while they received the transplant.

Immune system cells are produced by bone marrow. The anti-viral medications appear to have prevented these new immune system cells from becoming infected with the virus. Meanwhile, the old immune system cells died off.

In both cases, the new HIV free cells appeared to replace the infected cells. Unfortunately, the likelihood of finding a compatible bone marrow donor for every person with HIV is low, but this breakthrough means the future of HIV treatment is promising.

These results may sound similar to the “Berlin patient,” who was cured of HIV after receiving a bone marrow transplant. The difference is that the Berlin patient received a transplant from somebody with a rare mutation that made them resistant to HIV.

In this case, the patients merely received “standard” bone marrow transplants.

Related: The Origins of AIDS

Ancient Humans Interbred With an Unknown Species

Reconstructed Neanderthal Head

This may surprise some of you, but we actually already know that ancient Europeans and Asians successfully mated with Neanderthals. In other words, all non-African humans have some ancestors who weren’t quite human. If you have non-African ancestors, somewhere between 1% and 4% of your DNA came from Neanderthals, the stereotypical cavemen.

African DNA, especially among hunter-gatherers, hasn’t been sequenced very often, however, until now. And the results may be even more surprising. It looks like they interbred with a non-human species as well. But at this point, what that species was is a big fat question mark. There’s nothing in the fossil record to tell us what this species was at this point.

The study also found that the amount of genetic diversity among African hunter gatherers is much larger than expected. They discovered 5 million new genes by sequencing only 15 people. You would probably need to sequence over 10,000 Europeans to find that many new genes.

Related: The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry

Oxford Explores the Possibility of a “Happiness Button”

Starting in the ’50s, scientists found that when certain areas of the brain were electrically stimulated, patients would crave the resulting sensation. When given the opportunity to push a button that stimulated this area of the brain, they would do so compulsively.

For quite some time, scientists assumed that this was the “pleasure” center of the brain, and noticed that it was related to a natural chemical called dopamine.

But starting about a decade ago, scientists began to question this assumption. When they genetically engineered rats with low dopamine, the rats still licked their lips when fed sweets, an indication of pleasure. Instead, the rats simply made no effort to seek out food.

In other words, dopamine wasn’t causing pleasure, it was causing desire.

Dopamine plays an important part in addiction. This revelation likely explains why addicts want drugs, even though they often don’t find them satisfying.

Studies conducted by Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge found that other networks in the brain, which are located near the “wanting” networks, are associated with what would be more appropriately called pleasure.

The natural chemicals in the brain associated with pleasure, rather than wanting, resemble morphene and marijuana.

However, even stimulating these centers of the brain directly doesn’t seem to result in any kind of perpetual bliss. Other networks in the brain act like gauges. This is why we eventually get bored of activities that feel pleasurable to us. These areas of the brain eventually tell us that “enough is enough” and it’s time to move on to something else.

Addiction, whether it’s to drugs or compulsive eating, appears to be related to a disconnect between wanting and pleasure. When our internal gauges fill up, most people stop wanting. Addicts appear to have a disconnect in their brain that prevents them from registering this sense of “fullness,” as though they were pumping gas into a car even after it started overflowing.

A deeper understanding of these networks may allow us to treat compulsive behavior, addiction, and depression (which is often described as an inability to feel pleasure).

Related: Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin

Laziness May Have Nothing to Do With Fatness

The idea that Americans, and Westerners in general, are fatter is often attributed to “laziness,” or a lack of physical activity. This concept is so well understood that it is rarely challenged.

But a new study of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, called the Hazda, suggests that this theory has a fundamental flaw. While it was clear that the Hazda were more physically active than people in the modernized world, their average expenditure of energy was almost exactly the same.

The study suggests that the amount of energy our bodies consume each day is physiological, and isn’t affected by our culture. This means nutritionists and health experts may need to completely re-evaluate what is causing people to get fat in the first place.

This may be related to other studies that suggest intestinal bacteria causes obesity. From The 4-Hour Body:

Why is obesity so much more common today than it was even a few decades ago?

Researchers are starting to find bacterial clues that may point to an answer. There has been a profound shift in our populations of gut bacteria-the little creatures that live in our digestive tracts-and studies show the changes as correlated with fatness.

Then again, another recent study suggests that inactivity is a bigger health threat than smoking. The study relies on figures from death as a result of diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases thought to be related to inactivity.

Of course, if obesity really isn’t caused by inactivity, we may have to rethink how we interpret studies like this.

Record Breaking Laser

A new laser built at Berkeley shattered previous records by releasing a quadrillion watts of power. (No, it’s not a made up number, it’s 1015). The pulse lasted for just 40 femtoseconds. (Again, not made up. A femtosecond is 10-15 seconds). It is capable of doing this once every second.

The laser and ones inspired by it will be used to create particle accelerators much smaller than the Large Hadron Collider, which is 17 miles around (though it won’t be able to achieve comparable results, either).

The laser works by creating an intense shock wave of plasma, which accelerates electrons, resulting in subatomic collisions. The laser will cause the electrons to absorb 10 billion electron volts of energy, which is comparable to the energy contributed from a particle accelerator 2 miles in length.

In contrast, the laser is only one meter long.

Related: A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC

To Boost Memory, Rest Your Eyes

A study by Michaela Dewar found that volunteers were much better at remembering a short story if they were asked to sit in a dark room and rest their eyes for 10 minutes after hearing it. This was true a half hour later as well as a week later.

Ironically, however, other studies suggest that the ability to forget is also an important part of memory. Some forms of amnesia are actually the result of too many memories, and an inability to sort through them.

Studies suggest that it is possible to forget memories merely by committing to forgetting them, despite the “don’t think of a pink elephant” mantra that might have us expecting this to be impossible.

Related: In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

Germany’s Record Setting Green Energy

Germany is making renewable energy a reality. Last year they already had reached an impressive 21%, but now they’re up to 25%. They are currently the world leader in green energy.

The largest contributor was wind energy, making up 9.2%. Biomass was up to 5.7% and solar was at 5.3 percent. (Biomass is renewable because it pulls CO2 back out of the air when it is grown before harvesting). While solar is a small contributor, it is also the one that saw the largest growth, up by 47 percent, making it a promising option.

And there’s more good news on this front. Researchers at the University of Toronoto have broke a new record for solar cells using quantum dot technology. The new solar cells can convert 7 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, making them almost 40% better than previous incarnations.

Related: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Solar Power for Your Home

A Magnetic Higgs Transition is Observed

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