Medical News Today: Chronic appendicitis: What you need to know

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Medical News Today: Need more sleep than most people? Blame your genes

Some people need more sleep than others, and a new study has found that our personal sleep requirements may be down to our genes. So, you’re not lazy after all — it’s your DNA’s fault.
Man asleep with alarm clock
Scientists ask why some people can’t get out of bed.

Some people can function perfectly well on just a few hours of sleep, while others need a good 10 hours or more each day to remain chipper. Famously, Donald Trump claims that he only needs 3–4 hours in bed each night.

This isn’t news, of course; these differences are well-documented. However, until recently, very little was known about why such variation exists.

A recent study set out to understand why some individuals appear to be able to burn the candle at both ends while others need to spend half of their lives under the sheets.

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What is sleep for, anyway?

Overall, sleep is still a relatively mysterious beast. Despite spending around one third of our lives in slumber, its exact roles are still being unpicked.

We know that it is involved in memory consolidation and probably gives cells and tissues a chance to rest, regenerate, and clear out the day’s buildup of metabolic trash.

A lack of sleep also seems to impair the immune system, so it might be involved there, too. We really don’t know the full ins and outs of sleep, though.

When you consider that, when in the wild, animals must lie unconscious in the dark, surrounded by potential predators, you realize just how important sleep must be. But there is a counter-argument that lying still and quiet might be a better way to avoid becoming someone else’s snack than moving around all night.

Either way, the fact that so much of our lives is dedicated to sleep means it must be pretty darned important.

The latest research to peer into the puzzle of sleep comes from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Their findings are published this week in the journal PLOS Genetics.

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Sleepy flies

In this study, the team wanted to get a handle on the mechanisms that underpin why some people need more sleep than others. The scientists hoped that the findings might offer some clues into two conditions at either end of the scale: insomnia, or not being able to get enough sleep, and narcolepsy, which is a condition characterized by intrusive “sleep attacks.”

Scientists know that circadian rhythms, or daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness, are involved in our individual sleep patterns. These cycles are under genetic control, so it seems reasonable that genes are playing a part in sleep duration, too.

The current study aimed to pin down the elusive genes that might have a hand in this variation. The researchers — led by Susan Harbison, Ph.D., an investigator in the Laboratory of Systems Genetics at NHLBI — used a fruit fly model. Yes, it may seem bizarre, but fruit flies have their own version of sleep.

In fact, all animals that have been studied to date experience something at least a little bit like sleep, which is further evidence of sleep’s importance.

They selectively bred 13 generations of fruit flies to produce either long-sleepers (18 hours per day) or short sleepers (3 hours per day), the Donald Trumps of the fly kingdom. And so, without adding, subtracting, or meddling with the fly’s genetic code, they were able to produce strains with wildly different sleeping habits.

What is particularly interesting about this study is that we created long- and short-sleeping flies using the genetic material present in nature, as opposed to the engineered mutations or transgenic flies that many researchers in this field are using.”

Susan Harbison, Ph.D.

“Until now,” she adds, “whether sleep at such extreme long or short duration could exist in natural populations was unknown.”

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They then compared the genomes of the two strains, looking for genes that varied between them.

A total of 126 differences across 80 genes were uncovered. These genes were involved in a wide range of vital developmental and cell signaling pathways, and some are known to be involved in brain development, memory, and learning.

According to the study authors, the fact that so many genes appear to be involved “suggests that sleep duration in natural populations can be influenced by a wide variety of biological processes, which may be why the purpose of sleep has been so elusive.”

The good news is that neither the long- nor short-sleepers saw a reduction in lifespan — which is particularly good to know.

Although this is only a small part of a very large puzzle, it is a particularly interesting part. Additional research using human populations is likely to offer up more insight into the strange phenomenon we call sleep.

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Medical News Today: Could a cup of hot tea each day reduce the risk of glaucoma?

A new study has discovered that the risk of glaucoma — a fairly common eye condition in the older population that can result in loss of vision — was lower in people who drank hot tea every day.
a cup of hot tea and a pair of glasses
Could one cup of hot tea per day have a protective effect against the onset of glaucoma?

Glaucoma is an eye condition characterized by damage to the optic nerve, which may result in partial or total loss of eyesight. Risk factors for developing glaucoma include age, a medical history of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.

According to recent data from the National Eye Institute, in 2010 alone, 1.9 percent of the North American population aged 40 and over was diagnosed with a form of glaucoma.

Coffee consumption has previously been associated with an increased risk of developing glaucoma, due to increased intraocular blood pressure.

However, the results of further research were split, with some indicating that moderate coffee consumption did not affect the risk of glaucoma, and others obtaining mixed results.

Furthermore, some studies hypothesized that the consumption of other caffeinated and non-caffeinated drinks could also influence the risk of developing glaucoma.

So far, this notion has not been verified, since most of the research addressing the link between drinks and the risk of heightened intraocular pressure referred to small, and thus inconclusive, population samples.

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Recently, scientists from Brown University in Providence, RI, and the University of California in Los Angeles have decided to compare how the consumption of various drinks — including hot tea, decaffeinated tea, iced tea, coffee, and soft drinks — influence the risk of glaucoma.

“No study to date has compared the effects of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, tea, and soft drinks on glaucoma,” write the researchers.

“The objective of this study,” they add, “is to examine the association between consumption of various caffeinated and decaffeinated beverages and glaucoma.”

The results of the study were published yesterday in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Lower risk for tea drinkers

Lead study author Connie Wu and her colleagues analyzed data sourced from the 2005–2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which gathered the medical data of around 10,000 people.

The survey used a range of tools, including interviews, physical examinations, and blood samples, aiming to give a detailed pictured of health in the United States population.

The team chose the 2005–2006 survey because it also gathered data on glaucoma diagnoses. That year, 1,678 participants agreed to share full eye test results, and of these, 84 adults were found to have a form of glaucoma.

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As a part of their assessment, the participants were quizzed on their drinking habits, including how much coffee, hot tea, decaffeinated tea, soft drinks, and iced tea they had drunk over the past year, and how often.

The researchers found that the participants who drank hot tea every day had a 74 percent lower risk of developing glaucoma than those who didn’t.

To ensure the consistency of these results, the team also checked for potential confounding factors, such as a history of diabetes and smoking habits.

No links were found between glaucoma risk and any other type of beverage taken into account in the study, including coffee — both caffeinated and decaffeinated — as well as decaffeinated tea, iced tea, and soft drinks.

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Is the relationship causal?

The scientists warn that this is only an association noted in an observational study, so no cause-effect relationship should be inferred without further analysis.

The study also had other limitations, such as the small number of participants with glaucoma and a lack of detailed information about the timeline of diagnosis.

Other missing information refers to how much of the beverage the hot tea drinkers actually had each day, what kind of tea they consumed, and how it was brewed, which may have swayed the findings.

Still, the study authors note in their paper that “[t]ea contains phytochemicals and flavonoids [types of active chemical compounds found in plants], which have been observed to have anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties associated with the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.”

Thus, the researchers suggest, it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to consider that the consumption of tea could have a protective metabolic effect.

Wu and colleagues also refer to existing studies that have proposed that glaucoma may, in part, be an effect of oxidative stress and neurodegeneration, which are two processes linked to aging and breakdown at cellular and molecular levels.

Taking into account the potential protective effect of hot tea consumption when it comes to cell aging and damage, the researchers suggest that further efforts should be dedicated to investigating the role of this common, and much-loved, beverage.

“Further research is needed to establish the importance of these findings and whether hot tea consumption may play a role in the prevention of glaucoma,” the team concludes.

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Medical News Today: Ten causes of epigastric pain

Epigastric pain is felt in the middle of the upper abdomen, just below the ribcage. Occasional epigastric pain is not usually a cause for concern and may be as simple as a stomach ache from eating bad food.

There are many common digestive problems associated with epigastric pain, as well as a range of other underlying conditions that can cause pain in that area.

Serious cases may be life-threatening, and it is important to work with a doctor to understand the difference between a simple cause of epigastric pain and a more serious underlying condition.

Ten causes of epigastric pain

Epigastric pain is a common symptom of an upset stomach, which can be due to long-term gastrointestinal problems or just the occasional bout of indigestion.

1. Indigestion

man with hand on chest
Epigastric pain is felt just under the ribcage and is generally not a cause for concern.

Indigestion usually occurs after eating. When a person eats something, the stomach produces acid to digest the food. Sometimes, this acid can irritate the lining of the digestive system.

Indigestion can cause symptoms such as:

  • burping
  • bloating in the abdomen
  • feeling full or bloated, even if the portion size was not big
  • nausea

These symptoms are often felt alongside epigastric pain. While indigestion happens to everyone from time to time, it may be a sign that a person is intolerant of something they have recently eaten.

2. Acid reflux and GERD

Acid reflux occurs when the stomach acid used in digestion gets backed up in the food pipe (esophagus). Acid reflux usually causes pain in the chest and throat, which is commonly known as heartburn. This feeling may accompany epigastric pain or be felt on its own.

Other common symptoms of acid reflux include:

  • indigestion
  • burning or aching chest pain
  • feeling like there is a lump in the throat or chest
  • an acidic or a vomit-like taste in the mouth
  • a persistent sore throat or hoarse voice
  • a persistent cough

Ongoing acid reflux can damage the food pipe and may cause gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. People with GERD experience epigastric pain and symptoms of indigestion frequently and may require treatment and dietary changes to manage the condition.

Some cases of GERD can lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, where the tissue of the food pipe starts to look like the tissue in the intestines.

3. Overeating

The stomach is very flexible. However, eating more than necessary causes the stomach to expand beyond its normal capacity.

If the stomach expands considerably, it can put pressure on the organs around the stomach and cause epigastric pain. Overeating can also cause indigestion, acid reflux, and heartburn.

4. Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance can be another cause of epigastric pain. People who are lactose intolerant have trouble breaking down lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

For people with lactose intolerance, eating dairy can cause epigastric pain and other symptoms, including:

  • stomach pains
  • cramps and bloating
  • gas
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea

5. Drinking alcohol

Moderate drinking is usually not enough to upset the stomach or intestines. However, drinking too much alcohol at once or excess alcohol over long periods of time can cause inflammation in the lining of the stomach. This inflammation can lead to epigastric pain and other digestive issues.

6. Esophagitis or gastritis

Esophagitis is inflammation of the lining of the food pipe. Gastritis is inflammation of the lining of the stomach. Esophagitis and gastritis can be caused by acid reflux, infections, and irritation from certain medications. Some immune system disorders may also cause inflammation.

If this inflammation is left untreated, it can create scar tissue or bleeding. Other common symptoms include:

  • acidic or vomit-like taste in the mouth
  • persistent cough
  • burning in the chest and throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • nausea
  • vomiting or spitting up blood
  • poor nutrition

7. Hiatal hernia

A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach pushes up through the diaphragm and into the chest. This may be due to an accident or weakened diaphragm muscles.

In addition to epigastric pain, other common symptoms of hiatal hernias include:

  • sore throat
  • irritation or scratchiness in the throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • gas or especially loud burps
  • chest discomfort

Hiatal hernias typically affect older people and may not cause epigastric pain in every case.

8. Peptic ulcer disease

Peptic ulcer disease is when the lining of the stomach or small intestine has been damaged by a bacterial infection or by taking too much of certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Symptoms of peptic ulcer disease can include epigastric pain and signs of internal bleeding, such as stomach pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

9. Gallbladder disorder

Issues with the gallbladder may also cause epigastric pain. Gallstones may be blocking the opening of the gallbladder, or the gallbladder may be inflamed. Specific gallbladder symptoms can include:

  • intense pain near the upper right side of the stomach after eating
  • clay-colored stool
  • jaundice or yellowing skin
  • loss of appetite
  • gas and bloating

10. Pregnancy

It is very common to feel mild epigastric pain during pregnancy. This is commonly caused by acid reflux or pressure on the abdomen from the expanding womb. Changes in hormone levels throughout pregnancy can also aggravate acid reflux and epigastric pain.

Severe or persistent epigastric pain during pregnancy can be a sign of a more serious condition, so a woman should visit her doctor if experiencing any unusual symptoms.

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man having an endoscopy
An endoscopy may be carried out to find the cause of unexplained epigastric pain.

Diagnosing the cause of epigastric pain is essential to ensure proper treatment. A healthcare professional will likely ask a series of questions about the pain and any additional symptoms.

If the cause is unclear, they may order tests, including:

  • imaging tests, such as X-rays, ultrasound, or an endoscopy
  • urine tests to check for infections or bladder disorders
  • blood tests
  • cardiac tests


Treating epigastric pain will vary according to the cause. For instance, if overeating frequently causes epigastric pain, a person may wish to eat smaller portions and ensure they are eating filling foods, such as lean proteins. They may also want to avoid foods that cause gas.

Conditions such as GERD, peptic ulcers, and Barrett’s esophagus may require long-term treatment to manage symptoms. A person should work with their doctor to find a treatment plan that works for them.

If a doctor thinks that taking certain medications is causing the condition, they may recommend switching to a new drug or reducing the dosage.

Over-the-counter or prescription antacids to help reduce frequent acid reflux and epigastric pain caused by stomach acid may be helpful.

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When to see a doctor

Occasional epigastric pain is not usually a cause for concern, but anyone with severe or persistent epigastric pain should see their doctor.

Symptoms that last more than a few days or that occur more than twice a week on a regular basis would be considered persistent.

A visit to the emergency room may be necessary in some cases. Signs of severe complications that require prompt treatment include:

  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • intense pressure or squeezing pain in the chest
  • coughing up blood
  • blood in the stool
  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea lasting more than 24 hours in adults
  • high fever
  • extreme fatigue or loss of consciousness

Many cases of epigastric pain can be treated and prevented by making small changes in the diet or lifestyle. Even chronic symptoms can be managed well with medications and dietary changes.

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Medical News Today: Silencing ‘junk’ gene could halt tumor growth

After investigating unexplored regions of the human genome, researchers have discovered a new non-coding gene that appears to play an important role in cancer development.
strand of DNA in blue
What was previously thought to be junk DNA turns out to be important in the development of cancer.

The gene is in an area of the genome that does not contain instructions for making proteins. At one time, it was thought that this non-coding area was just irrelevant “junk.”

However, as technology has advanced, more and more genes are being found in this “dark matter” that are proving to be significant for health and disease.

In a paper published in the journal Cell, scientists from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor reports that while the new gene does not code for a protein, it has a “direct impact” on cancer cells. They found that silencing it stopped tumors from growing.

DNA and RNA, genome and transcriptome

The human genome contains all the instructions that are required to build and maintain cells. It carries this information in 20,000–25,000 genes in a long, winding, double-stranded molecule called DNA.

An instruction contained in DNA is not obeyed directly from there. It is first “transcribed” into a single-stranded molecule called RNA that mirrors the DNA sequence, and the total of all the transcripts held in a cell is known as the cell’s “transcriptome.”

Thus, while the genome rarely varies from cell to cell, the transcriptome varies depending on the type of cell.

By analyzing RNA, researchers should be able find out how and when the genes contained in DNA are switched on and off in different cells.

For example, it may be that analyzing the transcriptome will reveal that an unknown gene is highly expressed in cancer cells and not in healthy cells. This may indicate that the gene is important for cell growth.

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Non-coding genes are not necessarily ‘junk’

The transcriptome is held in several different types of RNA. The main one, messenger RNA (mRNA), carries the script, or code, for making proteins, which are the molecules that do a lot of the work in cells. Non-coding RNAs carry scripts transcribed from DNA that do not make proteins.

For a long time, it was believed that the large part of the genome that does not contain instructions for making proteins was junk DNA. These so-called non-coding genes were also referred to as dark matter because so little was known about them.

But as sequencing technology has become more advanced, scientists have discovered that while the dark matter part of the genome may not ultimately yield proteins, it does produce non-coding RNAs that play an important role in the cell biology of health and disease.

Over the past 20 years, many new classes of non-coding RNAs have been found, including one called long non-coding RNA (lncRNA), which is a strand of RNA that has more than 200 building blocks, or nucleotides.

In the new study report, the researchers describe how they found and characterized a lncRNA that they discovered to be the same in zebrafish, mice, and humans.

This raised their curiosity because it is rare to find this type of RNA “conserved” across different species. Could this mean that it played a fundamental role in cell biology?

They named the lncRNA “Testis-associated Highly-conserved Oncogenic long non-coding RNA” (THOR).

Senior study author Arul Chinnaiyan, a professor of pathology at Michigan Medicine, says that they decided to focus on THOR because it appeared to have “been selected by evolution for having important functions.”

What the researchers discovered was that the highly conserved lncRNA is important for cancer development, and that silencing it stopped tumors from growing.

THOR highly expressed in cancer cells

In previous work, they had already identified thousands of potential lncRNAs that might be useful to study further after mapping the landscape of the dark matter. They chose to study THOR for two reasons: firstly, because it was “evolutionarily highly conserved,” and secondly, because it was highly expressed only in one type of normal adult tissue: the testes.

Because THOR is highly conserved in zebrafish as well as humans and mice, they were able to study how it works in zebrafish models, says Prof. Chinnaiyan.

But as they investigated THOR further, they found that it was also highly expressed in some cancers, particularly melanoma and lung cancer, and that it played a direct role in cancer development.

Experiments using laboratory-grown cancer cells expressing THOR showed that silencing the gene slowed tumor growth, and that overexpressing it speeded it up. Also, normal cells lacking THOR developed normally, suggesting that it only has an effect on cancer cells.

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Silencing THOR ‘inhibits cells proliferation’

Prof. Chinnaiyan says that they went through “a lot of lncRNAs,” and most of them did not show such a clear function as THOR.

In further experiments, the team found that THOR interacts with insulin-like growth factor-binding proteins (IGFBPs), which are thought to help keep RNAs stable. They found that silencing THOR blocked the activity of IGFBPs.

“If we perturb THOR function,” Prof. Chinnaiyan says, “we disturb the ability to stabilize RNA. This inhibits cell proliferation.” The researchers also found that overexpressing THOR caused cells to grow faster.

They suggest that THOR might serve as a target for cancer drugs because inhibiting it does not interfere with healthy cells.

The fact that we found THOR to be a highly conserved lncRNA was exciting.”

Prof. Arul Chinnaiyan

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Medical News Today: 3-D printed prostate may improve surgical accuracy

A groundbreaking 3-D prostate model lets surgeons explore a patient’s anatomy in detail before operating. This new level of simulation could improve patient outcomes.
3-D prostate model
A new 3-D prostate model may improve prostate surgery outcomes.
Image credit: M. McAlpine, University of Minnesota

All surgery comes with certain risks. With prostate surgery, these include erectile dysfunction and urinary problems.

Precision is vital to avoid excising healthy tissue, and the key to success is preparedness. Before opening up a patient, surgeons rely on scans and basic simulations — but there’s only so far they can go.

In recent months, a team of scientists from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) has been pushing the boundaries of surgical simulations further than ever before.

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A new wave of 3-D models

In the past, medical scientists and engineers have produced accurate and personalized models of organs using MRI scans and 3-D printers. Although visually accurate, the touch and feel of these models is far from authentic.

The NIBIB team, however, have gone one or two steps farther and created a completely new breed of prostate model.

In order to create this innovation, they joined forces with with a host of engineers and physicians from several departments across many institutions.

These included the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Urology, and Surgery at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the WWAMI Institute for Simulation in Healthcare in the University of Washington in Seattle, and Fiber Sciences and Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

The new technology doesn’t just look like a prostate; it feels like one, too. Šeila Selimović, Ph.D. — who is director of the NIBIB program in Biosensors — discusses the project, saying, “This project illustrates how successfully mechanical engineers and medical doctors can collaborate and develop novel and promising technologies for medical treatment.

Selimović continues, “The combination of this novel and unique 3-D printer with the prostate glands MRIs and prostate tissue samples is what enabled the researchers to create a 3-D printed prostate mimicking the real organ in terms of shape, size, and texture.”

The model was created using specially created silicone-based polymer “inks,” designed carefully to mimic the consistency and mechanical properties of a prostate. The research teams’ findings have been published in the December issue of Advanced Materials Technologies.

The inks were used to print the prostate model, which resulted in an anatomically accurate organ model, with the same elasticity and softness as the actual organ.”

Michael McAlpine, Ph.D., principal investigator

Earlier prostate models were useful for surgical planning, but with this life-like 3-D model, it is even possible to practice the surgery — including such actions as probing, cutting, and suturing.

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Immediate surgical feedback

Going one step farther, the model includes sensors that give surgeons real-time feedback as they interact with it. As McAlpine explains, “You can think about it like the children’s game of Operation when the guy’s nose lights up if you fail to remove the shin bone without bumping your forceps into his leg.”

He continues, “Our graphic readout of the amount of pressure being applied to the prostate model parallels the Operation patient’s nose lighting up to indicate that you’ve got to try again — a little more gently next time.”

The following video demonstrates the capabilities of the 3-D organ:

“This quantitative, real-time feedback could change how surgeons think about the personalized medicine and preoperative practice,” says lead study author Dr. Kaiyan Qiu, at the University of Minnesota.

The research shows how successful collaboration between multiple and disparate specialties can be. In the future, these types of models could be extended to other, more complex tissues and organs.

And, looking even farther down the line, McAlpine explains, “I think of this as the ‘Human X’ project. If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create ‘bionic organs’ for transplants.”

It seems that the future is bright for 3-D surgical models.

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Medical News Today: What is Treacher Collins syndrome?

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    Damlar, I., Altan, A., Turgay, B., & Kiliç, S. (2016, December 27). Management of obstructive sleep apnea in a Treacher Collins syndrome patient using distraction osteogenesis of the mandible. Journal of the Korean Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, 42(6), 388–392. Retrieved from

    Herlin, C., Genevieve, D., Vincent, M., Chaput, B., & Captier, G. (2016, August). Treacher Collins syndrome: A systematic review of evidence-based treatment and recommendations. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 138(2), 374e–376e. Retrieved from

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Medical News Today: From brain to lips: What causes stuttering?

We already know that stuttering is linked with unbalanced brain activity, but the nitty-gritty of the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. But now, researchers offer new explanations about the brain’s role in stuttering.
illustration of communication
Scientists are getting closer to revealing the full brain mechanism standing in the way of fluent speech.

Stuttering is a speech impairment wherein the fluency of speech is affected, with the speaker often repeating the syllables or sounds of one word compulsively. Stuttering tends to set in during early childhood, and over 5 percent of children experience it.

Stuttering usually goes away by adulthood, but it does persist in around 1 percent of the adult population and might lead to a decreased quality of life, depending on its severity.

By comparing the brains of adults who stutter and those who don’t using MRI scans, scientists have observed that people whose speech is affected exhibit asymmetries in the brain regions responsible for verbal communication.

But so far, the exact brain mechanisms at play in have been mysterious. Now, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the University Medical Center Göttingen — both in Germany — have uncovered fresh details about what happens in the brains of adults who stutter.

“Parts of the right inferior frontal gyrus are particularly active when we stop actions, such as hand or speech movements,” explains first study author Nicole Neef, of the Max Planck Institute.

“If this region is overactive,” she adds, “it hinders other brain areas that are involved in the initiation and termination of movements. In people who stutter, the brain regions that are responsible for speech movements are particularly affected.”

The current study used MRI to identify the specifics of the mechanism related to hyperactivity in the right hemisphere of the brains of stuttering adults. Its findings were recently published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

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‘Fine-tuning signals’ affected in stuttering

Neef and colleagues worked with 31 adults (15 females and 16 males), aged 36 years, on average, who had been stuttering since childhood, as well as 34 control participants (17 females and 17 males), aged 35.5 years, on average, who do not stutter.

All were free of neurological impairments and they did not use any drugs, and those who stuttered were matched as closely as possible for age, sex, education, and “handedness” — that is, whether they are right- or left-handed — with the controls.

The researchers thought that this speech impairment may be tied to the disruption of signals in the left inferior frontal gyrus, a region of the brain tied to the programming of physical speech movements, and in the left motor cortex, responsible for the regulation of these movements.

“If these two processes are sporadically inhibited, the affected person is unable to speak fluently,” Neef observes.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers performed MRI scans on all the participants, comparing the results for the adults who stuttered with those obtained from the control group.

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They asked the subjects to picture themselves uttering the names of the months, so that the brain activity related to speech could be examined without disrupting the MRI assessment.

Neef and colleagues specifically looked for altered fiber tracts — clusters of axons, the long fibers of brain cells that allow neurons to connect and communicate — in the brain regions related to speech in the right hemisphere of the brain.

They found that in the brains of those who stuttered, the frontal aslant tract — a neural pathway that has been tied to speech fluency — sent more signals than it normally would in the brain of a person without stutter, thus causing more activity at the destination.

“The stronger the frontal aslant tract,” explains Neef, “the more severe the stuttering. From previous studies we know that this fiber tract plays a crucial role in fine-tuning signals that inhibit movements.”

“The hyperactivity in this network and its stronger connections,” she continues, “could suggest that one cause of stuttering lies in the neural inhibition of speech movements.”

The findings offer brand new insights into the brain mechanisms that are responsible for stuttering, focusing particularly on the role of an overactive right hemisphere in preventing the natural flow of speech-related physical movements.

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Medical News Today: Parkinson’s: Could this existing drug halt disease progression?

Researchers have discovered that a molecule in the tapeworm drug niclosamide might be able to protect against Parkinson’s disease-related neuronal damage. The findings bring us closer to slowing or even stopping neurodegeneration in this disease.
elderly hands holding tablets and water
An existing drug may soon be used to successfully treat Parkinson’s disease.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that around 500,000 individuals in the United States have Parkinson’s disease, and that each year, about 50,000 people are diagnosed with the condition.

The illness does not have a cure yet, but researchers are hard at work trying to better understand it and design drugs that slow down the degeneration of the neurons.

Recently, scientists have been focusing on a key protein called PINK1, which is believed to have a protective role against neurodegeneration.

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Dundee in Australia examined the role of PINK1, in the hope that it would “lead to the development of new drugs which could be designed to ‘switch on’ PINK1 to the benefit of patients with Parkinson’s.”

Now, researchers from the same university — in collaboration with scientists at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom — may have found such a drug.

The team was led by Dr. Youcef Mehellou, from the University of Cardiff’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Dr. Miratul Muqit, who is a consultant neurologist at the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee.

They show that a drug normally used to treat tapeworm infections may bring us closer to halting Parkinson’s-related neurodegeneration.

Erica Barini is the first author of the paper, and the findings have now been published in the journal iChemBioChem.

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Tapeworm drug activates protective protein

The drug is called niclosamide, and the new research shows that it contains a molecule that effectively activates the PINK1 protein.

Additionally, the study shows that the drug and its analogs can boost PINK1 performance in brain cells and neurons. “Notably,” the authors write, “we detected for the first time PINK1-Parkin pathway activation in neurons and demonstrated that it can be triggered by small molecules.”

Niclosamide is approved and has been used safely in humans to treat helminth, or tapeworm, infections for around 50 years. The drug is currently being trialed for treating various human cancers and rheumatoid arthritis.

Repurposing existing drugs can be a cost- and time-effective way of addressing conditions that are notoriously difficult to treat.

“Our data [suggest] that niclosamide and/or its analogs could have therapeutic benefit in slowing down Parkinson’s disease,” write Barini and colleagues. However, they concede, more in vivo studies in animal models of Parkinson’s are required to further validate this hypothesis.

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“Using [niclosamide], we demonstrate for the first time that the PINK1 pathway is active and detectable in primary neurons,” the authors write.

The researchers conclude, “Our findings suggest that niclosamide and its analogs are robust compounds to study the PINK1 pathway and may hold promise as a therapeutic strategy in Parkinson’s and related disorders.”

This work represents the first report of a clinically used drug to activate PINK1 and may hold promise in treating Parkinson’s disease […] This is an exciting stage of our research, and we are positive about the long-term impact it could have on patients’ lives.”

Dr. Youcef Mehellou

“We will now take our findings to the next level by evaluating the ability of niclosamide to treat Parkinson’s disease in disease models,” Dr. Mehellou adds.

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Medical News Today: What is leukopenia?

Leukopenia is a condition where a person has a reduced number of white blood cells. This increases their risk of infections.

A person’s blood is made up of many different types of blood cells. White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, help to fight off infection. Leukocytes are a vital part of the immune system.

People who have leukopenia have fewer white blood cells than they should. This makes them more likely to get infections.

This article explores the effect leukopenia has on the body, what causes it, and the treatment options available.

What is leukopenia?

White blood cell surrounded by red blood platelets.
White blood cells help the body to fight infections. A person with leukopenia does not have enough white blood cells.

Leukopenia is a condition where a person has fewer white blood cells in their bloodstream than they should. Leukopenia is diagnosed with a blood test called a complete blood count or CBC.

A healthy white blood cell count is between 3,500 and 11,000 white blood cells per microliter. A person with leukopenia may have fewer than 3,500 white blood cells per microliter.

White blood cells are made in the bone marrow and are critical for the immune system. Having too few of them means the body is less able to fight off infections and diseases.

There are five types of white blood cells. Each helps to protect the body from a different kind of infection:

  • Neutrophils: These make up 55 to 70 percent of total white blood cells. They help fight off fungal and bacterial infections.
  • Lymphocytes: These are the second most common type of white blood cell. They protect the body from viral infections.
  • Basophils: These are the least common type of the white blood cells. They are involved in inflammatory reactions to allergens.
  • Monocytes: These are the largest of the white blood cells. They play a role in fighting off bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They also help mend tissue that has been damaged by inflammation.
  • Eosinophils: These fight parasites and play a role in allergic reactions and conditions, such as asthma.

There are five kinds of leukopenia, each one corresponding to the type of white blood cell that is affected.

Leukopenia vs neutropenia

The terms leukopenia and neutropenia are often used interchangeably. However, they refer to slightly different conditions.

Leukopenia is an umbrella term that refers to a reduction in any of the white blood cell types.

Neutropenia is a type of leukopenia but refers specifically to a decrease in neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell.

A person’s neutrophil count is an important indicator of their infection risk.

An absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is a test that doctors may carry out to decide a person’s overall health. This test can help to diagnose conditions that include leukemia. It can also help assess the body’s response to treatments, including chemotherapy.

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Woman on sofa with blanket, suffering from fever, sweating, and chills.
A person with leukopenia may be more prone to infections, which may cause symptoms such as fever, sweating, and chills.

There are no specific symptoms of having a low white blood cell count. However, when someone has leukopenia, they are more likely to get infections. The symptoms of infection include:

A person with leukopenia may have other symptoms that relate to the cause of their low white blood cell count. The different causes of leukopenia are explored below.


There are several medical conditions that cause leukopenia by interfering with the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow.

Other conditions cause leukopenia by destroying white blood cells rather than affecting their production. Leukopenia may also be the result of some treatments and medications.

Conditions that may cause leukopenia

The following conditions may cause leukopenia:

  • Viral infections: Acute viral infections, such as colds and influenza may lead to temporary leukopenia. In the short term, a viral infection may disrupt the production of white blood cells in a person’s bone marrow.
  • Blood cell and bone marrow conditions: These can lead to leukopenia. Examples include aplastic anemia, overactive spleen, and myelodysplastic syndromes.
  • Cancer: Leukemia and other cancers may damage the bone marrow and lead to leukopenia.
  • Infectious diseases: Examples include HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis. According to a 2015 study, women with tuberculosis are more likely to develop leukopenia than men.
  • Autoimmune disorders: Some of these kill white blood cells. Examples include lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Birth disorders: Also known as congenital disorders, these may lead to leukopenia. Examples include Kostmann syndrome and myelokathexis.
  • Malnutrition: Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies may lead to leukopenia. Examples include deficiencies in vitamin B-12, folate, copper, and zinc.
  • Sarcoidosis: This is an overreaction of the immune system that leads to small areas of inflammation in the body. It can also affect bone marrow.

Treatments and medications that may cause leukopenia

Cancer treatments may affect a person’s white blood cell count, leading to leukopenia. Examples that may have this effect include:

Certain medications can also affect the number of white blood cells in someone’s blood and may lead to leukopenia. Medications that can have this effect include:

  • interferons to treat multiple sclerosis
  • lamotrigine and sodium valproate for epilepsy and as mood stabilizers
  • bupropion, an antidepressant and smoking cessation medication
  • clozapine, an antipsychotic medication
  • minocycline, a common antibiotic
  • immunosuppressants, such as sirolimus, mycophenolate mofetil, tacrolimus, and cyclosporine
  • steroids
  • penicillin

If a person is unsure of the generic name of the drug they are taking, and if it will affect their immune system, it is a good idea for them to ask a doctor.


If a person’s body is fighting off infection, this may affect their white blood cell count. They may have slightly fewer white blood cells circulating in their bloodstream. This condition is called pseudoleukopenia.

Pseudoleukopenia is the stage before leukopenia. If a person’s white blood cells continue to decrease, they may go on to develop leukopenia.

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Young male doctor speaking with mature female patient.
Treatment is usually based on the specific cause of leukopenia.

If a medication is causing leukopenia, a doctor might recommend that a person stops taking it or tries a different type. A person should never stop or change their medication without first consulting a doctor.

If a person has cancer and their chemotherapy is causing leukopenia, they may need to pause their treatment to allow their white blood cells to replenish.

Treatments that use growth factors, such as granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, may help leukopenia. These are often used when chemotherapy is causing leukopenia or if the cause is genetic.

A 2015 study found that when chemotherapy was used alongside a drug called erlotinib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, the risk of leukopenia was much lower.


The following home treatments and behaviors may help a person with leukopenia improve their condition and reduce their risk of infection:

  • eating a healthful diet
  • getting plenty of rest
  • avoiding cuts and scrapes
  • practicing good hygiene to avoid germs

Treatment may also be needed for any infections that result from a reduced white blood cell count. This might include antibiotics or antifungals.


Treating leukopenia may involve pausing medication or treatments. This may be problematic if the underlying condition is serious, such as cancer, but doctors will help a person work around the condition.

A doctor will regularly check a person’s white blood cell count if they have a condition known to cause leukopenia.

Getting regular blood tests helps leukopenia to be identified early and treated before it leads to complications.

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