Medical News Today: New IBD treatments may combine antifungals and probiotics

illustration of gut bacteria
Research suggests that combining antifungals with probiotics may help in the treatment of IBD.
A new review now published in the journal Digestive and Liver Disease suggests that new treatments for inflammatory bowel disease might come from combining antifungals with probiotics to promote a healthy balance of microorganisms throughout the gut.

The reviews’s authors describe how they earlier discovered that certain bacteria and fungi appear to work together to form stubborn biofilms that can aggravate gut inflammation in Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

IBD is a long-term illness in which the immune system wrongly attacks the cells of gastrointestinal tract, or gut, to cause painful inflammation. As well as pain, symptoms can include diarrhea and passing blood.

There are two main forms of IBD: ulcerative colitis, which affects the colon, or large intestine, and the rectum; and Crohn’s disease, which can affect any part of the gut.

There are thought to be around 1.6 million people in the United States living with IBD, most of whom discovered that they had it before they reached the age of 35.

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Friendly fungi essential to gut health

For some years, researchers have been using genetic tools to investigate how the trillions of microorganisms that live in the gut contribute to health and disease.

“Unfortunately,” says lead author Mahmoud A. Ghannoum, Ph.D. – of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in Ohio and Case Western Reserve University, also in Cleveland, OH – “most research has focused on studying only the bacteria while overlooking a key player, fungus.”

In earlier work, Dr. Ghannoum and team used “deep sequencing” to study the genetic makeup of microorganisms in the mouth. This yielded “unexpected findings revealing that humans are colonized with numerous fungal species.”

Then, in a later study, the researchers discovered that the guts of patients with Crohn’s disease had much higher levels of two bacteria (Escherichia coli and Serratia marcescens) and one fungus (Candida tropicalis) than healthy relatives without the disease.

Further investigation in the laboratory showed that the three organisms “cooperate in such a way as to form large, robust biofilms capable of activating the host immune response.”

While that study was not the first to reveal that collaboration between fungi and bacteria affects human health, it was the first to show a link to inflammation in Crohn’s disease.

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Probiotics should also tackle gut fungi

In the new review, the team revisits these findings and makes the case for combining antifungals with probiotics when considering new treatments for IBD.

They discuss how fungi and bacteria work together not only at the level of organisms, but also between “kingdoms.”

The authors also point out that their earlier research not only revealed that fungi play a key role in gut health, but that it also shows how “overgrowth of the fungus due to imbalance” can damage the “mucosa,” or lining of the gut.

They conclude that efforts to develop new probiotics should take into account the evidence on how fungi and bacteria may work together in IBD.

One approach, they suggest, might be to eliminate the overgrowth of undesirable fungi first, and then administer a probiotic that combines both beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi to restore the balance in the gut.

Our groundbreaking discovery that bacteria and fungi both play a critical role in health and disease has tremendous implications not only for understanding the disease process, but also for [the] development of potentially life-changing treatments for those who suffer from chronic digestive diseases.”

Dr. Mahmoud A. Ghannoum

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Medical News Today: The human brain contains ‘waste pipes,’ study reveals

MRI brain scans
MRI brain scans confirm the existence of lymphatic vessels in the brain.
Groundbreaking research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that the brain has lymphatic vessels, allowing it to process “waste” leaked from the blood vessels. This may shed fresh light on the relationship between the brain and the immune system.

The body’s lymphatic system relies on lymphatic vessels to absorb, process, and return proteins and interstitial fluid – that is, the fluid that surrounds tissue cells in the body – to the bloodstream. The fluid carried by the lymphatic vessels is called “lymph.”

There are three main functions of the lymphatic system: to help keep blood volume and pressure constant, to fight foreign agents as part of the immune system, and to absorb fat and fat-soluble vitamins.

Lymphatic vessels are distributed throughout our bodies, but so far, there has been little evidence to suggest that the brain also contains them. In a medical treatise from 1816, an Italian scientist suggested the existence of such vessels, but this notion was rejected until fairly recently.

A study on mice from 2015 showed that lymphatics vessels were present in the rodents’ central nervous system, suggesting that the same might be true for humans and other primates.

Now, a team of researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – led by Dr. Daniel S. Reich – has confirmed that human brains also have lymphatic vessels. More specifically, they were noted in the dura, or the thick outermost membrane that surrounds the brain.

“We literally watched people’s brains drain fluid into these vessels,” says Dr. Reich. “We hope that our results provide new insights to a variety of neurological disorders.”

The researchers’ findings have recently been reported in the journal eLife.

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Lymphatic vessels revealed by MRI scans

Dr. Reich and team used noninvasive methods to ascertain the presence of lymphatic vessels in the human brain.

They worked with five healthy volunteers and three marmoset monkeys whose brains were scanned using MRI, following injections with different kinds of contrast agents.

These are substances stand “stand out” during an MRI scan, thus allowing scientists to better visualise blood vessels in the brain.

First, the researchers injected the volunteers with gadobutrol, the molecules of which are small enough to leak out of the blood vessels and into the interstitial compartment of the brain.

The initial MRI scan only highlighted the blood vessels in the dura, but some additional imaging adjustments also revealed thinner highlighted lines. These, the researchers hypothesized, were lymphatic vessels that had picked up the contrasting agent that had leaked out of the blood vessels.

Next, Dr. Reich and team decided to test their hypothesis by injecting one human participant and one monkey with gadofosveset. This is another contrasting agent made up of larger molecules, which minimized the possibility that these would leak out of the blood vessels.

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As expected, new MRI scans showed the highlighted blood vessels but revealed no trace of other kinds of vessels.

This, the researchers explain, suggests that their hypothesis was correct: there are lymphatic vessels in the dura that pick up fluid elements from the interstitial compartment of the brain.

Some evidence of the existence of lymphatic vessels was also found in three autopsied human brains. Two of the samples were collected from the duras of a 60- and a 77-year-old with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), and one from a 33-year-old with refractory epilepsy.

“For years,” says Dr. Reich, “we knew how fluid entered the brain. Now we may finally see that, like other organs in the body, brain fluid can drain out through the lymphatic system.”

Dr. Reich and colleagues are next hoping to investigate what implications their findings bear from a clinical perspective. For instance, they would like to see whether, or how, the lymphatic system functions – or malfunctions – in people diagnosed with neuroinflammatory conditions such as MS.

These results could fundamentally change the way we think about how the brain and immune system inter-relate.”

Dr. Walter J. Koroshetz, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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Medical News Today: Bilingualism: What happens in the brain?

Bilingual education
Both languages that a bilingual person knows are switched on, even when communicating in only one of them. How does the brain cope?
In our increasingly global society, bilingualism – or the ability to speak two languages – is on the rise. How the brains of bilingual people differ from their monolingual counterparts is an emerging area of research.

Attitudes toward bilingualism have changed significantly in the past 50 years. Gone are the days when using a second language in the home was frowned upon, labeled as confusing for children and supposedly holding back their development.

Instead, the number of bilinguals has been rising steadily. Data from the United States Census Bureau show that between 2009 and 2013, around 20.7 percent of people over the age of 5 spoke a language other than English at home.

This number has more than doubled since 1980, when it stood at 9.6 percent.

With a rising number of bilingual people comes increased research into the science that underpins this skill. Do the brains of bilinguals differ from those of monolinguals? And do bilinguals have the edge over monolinguals when it comes to cognitive functioning and learning new languages?

As a member of a bilingual household, I was keen to investigate.

Dispelling myths

A 2015 review in the journal Seminars in Speech and Language explains how bilingual children develop their language skills, dispelling commonly believed myths.

According to authors Erika Hoff, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and Cynthia Core, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing science at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., newborns can distinguish between different languages.

They are also capable of developing vocabulary in two languages without becoming confused. When bilinguals mix words from different languages in one sentence – which is known as code-switching – it is not because they cannot tell which word belongs to which language.

Interestingly, children seem to naturally develop an understanding of who in the house speaks which language early on, and they will often choose the correct language to communicate with a particular individual – a phenomenon I have witnessed with my daughter, who is exposed to both German and English.

Mixing languages does not seem to hold bilingual children back from learning both languages, but it takes longer to learn two languages than to learn one. While there is a tendency on the whole for bilinguals to lag behind monolinguals in their language development, this isn’t true for all children.

Scientists are now starting to unravel the mysteries of the bilingual brain and shed light on the advantages that having this skill may bring.

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Competing languages

Viorica Marian – a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL – and colleagues published a study last month in the journal Scientific Reports, investigating which areas of the brain are involved in language control.

The research involved 16 bilingual individuals who had been exposed to Spanish from birth and to English by the time they were 8 years old.

Prof. Marian explains in the paper that “[b]ilinguals’ ability to seamlessly switch between two distinct communication systems masks the considerable control exerted at the neural level.”

In fact, when a bilingual person hears words in one language, the other language also becomes activated. Scientists think that the brains of bilinguals adapt to this constant coactivation of two languages and are therefore different to the brains of monolinguals.

In her study, Prof. Marian also sought to clarify which brain regions are involved when bilinguals are faced with words that sound similar. In monolinguals, this “phonological” competition occurs only between words from the same language.

But bilinguals have similar-sounding words from their second language added into the mix.

Neural plasticity

In monolingual people, areas in the frontal and temporal language regions – more specifically, the left supramarginal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus – are activated when faced with phonological competition.

The study results show that different areas of the brain are needed to cope with phonological competition from within the same language, compared with between-language competition.

“We found,” Prof. Marian explains, “that the size and type of the neural network that bilinguals recruited to resolve phonological competition differed depending on the source of competition.”

When competition occurred between two languages, bilinguals recruited additional frontal control and subcortical regions, specifically the right middle frontal gyrus, superior frontal gyrus, caudate, and putamen, compared to competition that occurred within a single language.”

Prof. Viorica Marian

She concludes that “[t]hese findings demonstrate the considerable neural plasticity that enables bilinguals to process speech in spite of linguistic competition from multiple sources.”

Neural plasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt to the environment and new experiences, is crucial in cognitive functioning. Do bilinguals, therefore, have an advantage when it comes to cognitive function?

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Cognitive health

Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, and her team study the effect of bilingualism and cognitive function using a combination of behavioral and neuroimaging methods.

Prof. Bialystok told me that “[t]he cognitive functions that have been shown to be impacted by bilingualism largely concern attention – the ability to focus attention on relevant information and shift attention as needed.”

“This attentional control,” she explained, “is one of the most central aspects of cognitive function throughout life and is a big part of cognitive decline with aging. Therefore, anything that boosts these attention systems has the potential to also sustain cognitive function in older age.”

Medical News Today reported on a study in 2013 that showed that bilinguals – even those who are illiterate – developed symptoms of dementia significantly later than monolingual individuals. These results are echoed in Prof. Bialystok’s research.

We attribute these protective effects to better maintained attentional control that has been developed through the ongoing use of attention needed to manage selection between two jointly-activated languages.”

Prof. Ellen Bialystok

Task switching

A paper written by Prof. Bialystok’s group and published in the journal Cognition earlier this year investigated the ability of bilinguals to switch from one task to the next – a skill that serves as an indicator of cognitive functioning.

First study author John Grundy, Ph.D. – a postdoctoral research fellow in the laboratory of Prof. Bialystok – writes that the “experience of bilingual infants that requires them to pay attention to multiple sources of input within various linguistic contexts makes it adaptive for them to rapidly disengage attention from stimuli once they are processed so that attention can be re-engaged to currently relevant stimuli.”

In three studies involving a total of 145 bilingual and 126 monolingual individuals, participants completed a test to study their ability to switch between types of stimulus displays wherein different responses were required.

The results show that bilinguals were faster at disengaging their attention from one trial so that they could focus on the next trial when a different response was required.

As this ability contributes to life-long cognitive health, bilinguals may be at a clear advantage.

But while there is plenty of evidence showing that cognitive decline is slower in bilinguals, do they also have an advantage when it comes to learning additional languages?

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From bilingual to polyglot

Earlier this week, Sarah Grey – an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Fordham University in New York City, NY – reported in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition that bilingual individuals learn new languages more quickly than monolinguals.

For their study, Prof. Grey and colleagues taught bilingual Mandarin and English speakers and monolingual English speakers an artificial language called Brocanto2.

Using electroencephalogram analysis, the team found clear differences in the brain waves of both groups when they were listening to sentences in the language.

Bilingual people showed a brainwave pattern called P600 by the end of the first day of training. This pattern is specifically found when individuals process their own language. The monolingual group only started to display the P600 brain waves by the end of the 1-week training session.

“We […] find that bilinguals appear to learn the new language more quickly than monolinguals,” explains Prof. Grey.

Now, with this small study, we have novel brain-based data that points toward a distinct language-learning benefit for people who grew up bilingual.”

Prof. Sarah Grey

Studying the brains of bilingual people is a complex task. As no two individuals are alike, no two bilinguals are either.

However, an increasing interest in the topic, coupled with an increasing number of bilinguals in our society, means that researchers are starting to get to the bottom of how this ability affects the brains and life-long cognitive abilities of those, such as my daughter, blessed with the skill.

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Medical News Today: Cancer: 40 percent of all cases related to obesity, overweight

senior man checking his waist circumference
Seniors over the age of 50 who are overweight or obese are at high risk of developing certain types of cancer, suggests a new report.
A new report warns about the role of obesity in cancer. As many as 40 percent of all cancers are related to obesity, according to the new research, which suggests that these cancers would be preventable if weight was kept under control.

The report, entitled Vital Signs, was compiled by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in collaboration with researchers from the National Cancer Institute.

C. Brooke Steele, of CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, is the first and corresponding author of the report.

The findings are particularly important given the alarming statistics on obesity in the United States. Between 2013 and 2014, the CDC note, as many as 2 in 3 adults were deemed overweight or obese.

Being overweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 kilograms per square meter, and obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 kilograms per square meter and over.

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Studying obesity and cancer diagnoses

Steele and colleagues examined cancer incidence rates using data from the U.S. Cancer Statistics 2014, as well as looking at trends between 2005 and 2014.

More specifically, the researchers looked at the 13 types of cancer that have traditionally been associated with being overweight and having obesity. These include a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma, postmenopausal breast cancer, colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, gallbladder cancer, and gastric cardia cancer.

Additionally, the researchers looked at cancer of the kidney, liver, and thyroid, as well as ovarian and pancreatic cancer. The report also examined meningioma, which is a slow-progressing type of brain tumor, and multiple myeloma.

Steele and team grouped and analyzed the data by sex, age, ethnicity, geographic area, and the site where the cancer appeared.

The researchers analyzed trends both with and without the incidence of colorectal cancer. As they explain, this is due to the fact that screening for colorectal cancer can reduce incidence because the procedure often detects the colorectal polyps before they become malignant.

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Around 630,000 obesity-related cancers

Overall, in 2014, approximately 630,000 people in the U.S. received a diagnosis of one of the aforementioned cancers, which represents a staggering 40 percent of all diagnosed cancers. 

The incidence rate was particularly high among adults aged 50 and above. In fact, 2 in 3 of these cancers occurred in those aged between 50 and 74.

Gender-wise, more cancers were linked with obesity in women than in men. And more specifically, 55 percent of the cancers affecting women and 24 percent of those affecting men were related to obesity.

Regarding obesity-associated cancers, these rose by 7 percent between 2005 and 2014. By comparison, the incidence of cancers not associated with obesity declined by 13 percent during that time. Colorectal cancer also decreased by 23 percent, most likely due to screening practices.

“The burden of overweight- and obesity-related cancer is high in the United States,” say the authors.

They add that it “might be reduced through efforts to prevent and control overweight and obesity,” and they conclude that “[c]omprehensive cancer control strategies, including use of evidence-based interventions to promote healthy weight, could help decrease the incidence of these cancers in the United States.”

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who is the director of the CDC, comments on the findings.

A majority of American adults weigh more than recommended – and being overweight or obese puts people at higher risk for a number of cancers – so these findings are a cause for concern […] By getting to and keeping a healthy weight, we all can play a role in cancer prevention.”

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald

The CDC have also released a video for public awareness, which you can watch below.

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Medical News Today: Is chocolate good for our skin?

Woman eating chocolate
Can chocolate protect our skin from sun damage?
Packed full of antioxidants, chocolate is increasingly gaining a place among the circle of healthful foods. Some studies show that chocolate may protect the skin from damaging sunlight. However, not all researchers agree.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a moderate amount of chocolate – especially dark chocolate – is good for our gut health, cholesterol levels, and brain. It may even lower the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

The health benefits of chocolate are thought to be due to the high levels of antioxidants found in one of the nation’s favorite snacks.

But what about our skin health? Can chocolate prevent skin aging, sunburn, and possibly even skin cancer?

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Chocolate and sunlight

Too much sunlight leaves most people with sunburn. However, excessive sunlight exposure is also a key contributor to skin cancer and skin aging.

Could chocolate, with its high antioxidant levels, protect us from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays? Some believe that it could.

The raw cocoa bean has very high levels of flavanols, a type of antioxidant. But most of these are lost during the process that turns the bean into the chocolate that we know and love.

That being said, chocolate manufacturers are now experimenting with new processes that preserve higher levels of antioxidants.

A study by led Prof. Wilhelm Stahl – from the Institute for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany – and colleagues investigated whether higher antioxidant levels in chocolate could improve the skin’s ability to withstand damage from UV radiation.

For the study, 24 women consumed a chocolate drink that contained either 27 milligrams of flavanols (normal chocolate) or 329 milligrams (high-antioxidant) each morning for 12 weeks.

Prof. Stahl found that the skin of participants who had consumed the high-oxidant chocolate drink did not become as red when exposed to a controlled dose of UV radiation.

But is there a difference between a chocolate drink and solid chocolate?

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Conflicting evidence

In order to further examine the effects of high-antioxidant chocolate, Dr. Stefanie Williams – from the Cosmetic Science Group at London University of the Arts in the United Kingdom – and colleagues performed a study with 30 participants.

The volunteers ate 20 grams of either high-antioxidant or standard chocolate every day for 12 weeks. The high-antioxidant chocolate contained in excess of 600 milligrams of flavanol per portion, while the normal chocolate had fewer than 30 milligrams of flavanols.

What the authors found correlated with Prof. Stahl’s results; the skin of the participants who had eaten the high-antioxidant chocolate was not as sensitive to UV damage.

But the most recent clinical study by Dr. Sylvie Dodin – a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at St. François d’Assise Hopital, Université Laval in Quebec, Canada – and colleagues did not see the same effect.

For their study, Dr. Dodin and her team used the same high-antioxidant chocolate that Dr. Williams used for her research. But rather than eating 20 grams of chocolate in one sitting each day, the 74 women participating in the study ate 10 grams of chocolate three times per day for 12 weeks.

However, contrary to the findings of Prof. Stahl and Dr. Williams, the consumption of high-antioxidant chocolate did not have a protective effect in the participants.

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The one difference that the authors noted was that skin elasticity, or suppleness, was increased in the high-antioxidant chocolate group.

Chocolate and skin health

So, the jury is still out on whether or not chocolate is a panacea for preventing UV skin damage.

While much is known on the benefits of chocolate on cardiovascular, brain, and gut health, the field of skin research is still in its infancy when it comes to the effects of chocolate.

For now, it might be best to rely on other forms of skin protection and simply enjoy chocolate as part of a healthful, balanced diet.

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Medical News Today: Sleep’s role in memory consolidation unpicked

woman sleeping
New research has started to unpick the mechanism that allows sleep to enhance memory consolidation.
Sleep spindles, a type of brain activity recorded during stage two of sleep, has repeatedly been associated with improving brain plasticity and consolidating memory. Scientists are now drawing closer to explaining the mechanism behind this effect.

It is known that sleep is vital to our normal daily functioning, and that a lack of proper nightly sleep can seriously affect our cognition and general well-being. For instance, Medical News Today recently covered a study that linked disturbed sleep with dementia, and another that investigated the correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sleeplessness.

Yet many of the mechanisms underlying the impact of sleeping patterns on behavioral and cognitive disorders remain unknown.

Sleep falls into two categories: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Scientists have also identified four different phases in which sleep occurs. Each of these is characterized by different brain activity types.

  • Stage one NREM. This refers to the transition from a state of wakefulness to a state of sleep, during which normal brain activity slows down. It is a stage of light sleep, from which one can easily be awoken.

  • Stage two NREM. This is also a stage of light sleep, yet it is slightly deeper than the one before. This stage is also transitional – this time from the light initial sleep to a state of deep sleep. It is characterized by short bursts of electrical activity, some of which are known as “sleep spindles.”

  • Stage three NREM. This is a state of deep sleep during which brain activity slows even more. In this stage, the muscles fully relax, and heartbeat and breathing slow down. Immersion in this stage is associated with feeling refreshed the morning after.

  • REM. This is the stage of sleep during which dreaming happens. In this stage, brain activity patterns are mixed, with electrical brain waves sometimes peaking and sometimes slowing down.

Sleep spindles and ‘adaptive brain changes’

Emerging research from the Humboldt and Charité Universities in Berlin, Germany, has looked at the mechanism that allows sleep spindles – a part of stage two NREM – to improve brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize by forming fresh neural connections.

“It is becoming increasingly clear,” explains lead study author Dr. Julie Seibt, from the University of Surrey in Guildford, United Kingdom, “that sleep plays an important role in [the brain’s] adaptive changes.”

“Our study tells us that a large proportion of these changes may occur during very short and repetitive brain waves called spindles,” she adds.

The researchers have recently published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

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Dendritic spikes tied to sleep spindles

Dr. Seibt and her colleagues performed their research first on mice who were exposed to 12-hour cycles of light alternated with dark and given free access to both food and drink, and then on freely behaving rats.

The researchers used electroencephalogram testing to record sleep spindles in stage two NREM. Also, since previous research indicated that dendritic calcium spikes were also associated with improved brain plasticity, the researchers set to measure those, too.

Dendrites are the branched receiving ends of neurons, which allow nerve cells to “pick up” electric signals, and the levels of calcium detectable at the intercellular level are indicators of neural activity.

Dr. Seibt and team found that dendritic calcium spikes increase in frequency during stage two of sleep, and that they are linked to sleep spindles, which have been associated with memory formation and learning.

This activity, however, was only observed in the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain.

“Sleep spindles,” explains Dr. Seibt, “have been associated with memory formation in humans for quite some time but nobody knew what they were actually doing in the brain.”

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“Now,” she continues, “we know that during spindles, specific pathways are activated in dendrites, maybe allowing our memories to be reinforced during sleep.”

The researcher hopes that these new insights into how sleep helps memory consolidation may eventually allow scientists to devise new ways of tackling memory disorders.

“In the near future, techniques that allow brain stimulation […] could be used to stimulate dendrites with the same frequency range as spindles,” she explains.

This could lead to enhance[d] cognitive functions in patients with learning and memory disorders, such as dementia.”

Dr. Julie Seibt

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Medical News Today: Playing video games may ‘enhance learning’

man playing a video game
People who play video games regularly have more active learning- and memory-related brain regions than those who don’t.
In a learning test, people who play video games performed better than those who don’t, and their brains appeared to be more active in regions linked to learning and memory.

So concludes a study from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany that was published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

The researchers explain that recent studies have suggested that playing video games may benefit cognition. However, the brain mechanisms involved are poorly understood.

They focused on “a widely unexplored area in gaming research” called “probabilistic category learning.” This type of learning concerns acquiring and classifying knowledge and using it to predict future events.

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Weather prediction task

A traditional way of testing probabilistic category learning is the so-called weather prediction task, which researchers use to gain “insight into implicit forms of learning, cognitive flexibility, and the use of feedback signals in the brain.”

For their investigation, the team recruited 17 video gamers and 17 non-gamers. They recruited the video gamers on the basis that they spent at least 15 hours per week playing action-based video games. The non-gamers either did not play at all or did so only infrequently.

Both groups played the weather prediction task. As they completed it, the researchers used MRI to record their brain activity.

To complete the task, the participants had to look at three cue cards with different patterns on them and then predict the weather. They were asked, “Will there be sun or rain?” They were then told straight away whether their answer was right or wrong.

As each card is only a partially accurate predictor of the weather, the correct answer is determined by the probability predicted by the combination.

For example, a combination of cue cards might contain: a card whose pattern means a 20 percent chance of rain and 80 percent chance of sun; a second card that means 80 percent chance of rain and 20 percent chance of sun; and a third that means 60 percent chance of rain and 40 percent chance of sun. The outcome of this combination would be rain.

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Gamers retained more factual knowledge

The subjects performed the task again and again, with different combinations of cue cards. Thus, by receiving feedback, they learned which card combinations were related to which weather condition.

After they finished the task, the participants completed a questionnaire that tested how much knowledge they had retained about the cue card combinations.

The researchers found that the video gamers performed much better at predicting weather outcomes from cue card combinations than the non-gamers.

Even though some of the cue card combinations had a high uncertainty, the gamers still out-performed the non-gamers.

When the researchers analyzed the participants’ questionnaire responses, they found that the video gamers had retained more factual knowledge about the cue card combinations and the associated weather outcomes.

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‘Gaming trains the hippocampus’

Analysis of the MRI scans revealed that both gamers and non-gamers showed the same level of activity in brain areas that are linked to “attention and executive function” and certain “memory-associated regions.”

However, the scans also showed notable brain differences between gamers and non-gamers. For example, the gamers showed stronger activity in the hippocampus and other brain areas that are important for “semantic memory, visual imagery, and cognitive control.”

“We think that playing video games trains certain brain regions like the hippocampus,” says first study author Sabrina Schenk.

The study’s findings are likely to be significant not only for young people, but also for older generations, because reduction in memory is linked to changes in the hippocampus.

“Maybe we can treat that with video games in the future,” suggests Schenk.

Our study shows that gamers are better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorize facts – especially in situations with high uncertainties.”

Sabrina Schenk

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Medical News Today: Eustachian tube dysfunction: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

The eustachian tube runs from the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat. If this tube becomes plugged or infected, it can cause eustachian tube dysfunction.

There are a few different causes of eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD), and certain factors may make a person more at risk. Eustachian tube dysfunction is often easily treated at home, although persistent symptoms may require a trip to the doctor for treatment.

What are the eustachian tubes?

eustachian tubes
The eustachian tubes (red tube at the back of the ear in diagram) drain excess fluid and regulate ear pressure.

The eustachian tubes are canals on each side of the face that run from the back of the nose and upper throat to the middle ear. They remain closed most of the time but will open as a person swallows, chews, or yawns.

The eustachian tubes help regulate ear pressure and drain excess fluid from the middle ear, moving it to the throat to be eliminated.

The canals in these tubes are tiny so blockages can happen for many reasons. Blocked eustachian tubes can cause discomfort and hearing problems, and any of these symptoms can be referred to as ETD.

What causes ETD?

ETD covers a broad range of symptoms and has a range of potential causes. Season allergies and illnesses that create inflammation in the area, such as the flu or cold, are common causes of ETD.

Sinus infections can also trigger ETD, as a sinus infection causes the eustachian tubes to become inflamed or filled with mucus. More serious infections can cause ETD as well.

Simple changes in altitude or air pressure may also trigger ETD. Driving up a mountain or sitting in a plane can cause ETD, and even just riding the elevator in a tall building may be enough for some people to develop unpleasant symptoms.

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Risk factors

scuba diving
ETD symptoms may be triggered by scuba diving and high altitude hiking.

It is common to experience ETD occasionally, but some people get symptoms more regularly than others. People who smoke may be more at risk for experiencing ETD, as smoking damages the delicate hairs in the throat and middle ear.

People who are obese may also be more likely to experience ETD symptoms. This is because fatty tissue deposits can form around the eustachian tubes, making it more likely that they will become closed off.

People with allergies may also experience ETD more often, as allergies can cause increased mucus and congestion.

Engaging in certain activities may also put a person more at risk for pressure changes, which could trigger ETD symptoms. These activities include things like:

  • hiking at a high altitude

  • rock climbing

  • skiing or snowboarding

  • scuba diving

Children are also more at risk for ETD, as their eustachian tubes are much smaller and so more likely to become clogged by mucus or germs. A child’s immune system is also less able to fight off infections, as it is not fully developed. Children have more frequent colds and sinus infections, which are direct causes of ETD.


Symptoms of ETD can vary from mild to severe and may be different for each person. Common symptoms include:

  • a plugged feeling in the ears

  • ears feeling like they are filled with water

  • tinnitus, or ringing in the ear

  • muffled hearing or partial hearing loss

  • ticking or popping sounds

  • pain and tenderness around the ear

  • a tickling or tingling sensation

  • trouble with balance

The length and severity of ETD symptoms depend on their cause. For instance, if ETD is caused by a change in altitude, these symptoms will often go away as the body adjusts to the pressure or reaches a lower altitude.

On the other hand, ETD caused by an illness or infection can last much longer. Anyone with symptoms of ETD that last more than 2 weeks should see a doctor. Children with symptoms of ETD should see a doctor sooner, as the symptoms of ETD are similar to an ear infection.


ETD is often easily diagnosed during a visit to a doctor. The doctor may ask questions about hearing changes, pain in the ears, or feelings of pressure. They will also look inside the ear using an otoscope, checking for any signs of infection or blockages.

If ETD is being caused by another illness or disorder, the doctor may ask questions about that as well in order to determine the correct treatment.

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The symptoms of ETD will usually clear up on their own. If another illness is causing the symptoms, they will resolve once the underlying illness is treated.

Home remedies

lady putting a piece of chewing gum in her mouth
Minor ETD symptoms may be treated by forcing a yawn or chewing gum.

If the symptoms of ETD are bothersome, some simple home remedies may help. Minor ETD symptoms, such as those caused by a change in altitude or air pressure, can be treated by chewing gum or forcing a yawn.

Many people also find that the symptoms of minor ETD can go away as they swallow, so drinking or having a snack may help. These remedies help open and close the eustachian tube and relieve the pressure.

Children experiencing minor or temporary ETD symptoms can eat a snack or chew a piece of gum. Giving an infant a bottle or pacifier may help relieve the symptoms.

Minor to moderate symptoms may be relieved using a saline nasal spray or irrigation system. Sometimes dried mucus or other particles can get stuck in or near the eustachian tube and cause symptoms. Clearing the passageways can help eliminate anything clogged in the passage.

Ear candles

Despite what many ear candle manufacturers say, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found no valid evidence that ear candles will help clear symptoms of ETD. Ear candles are not a recommended treatment for any ear-related symptoms.

Over-the-counter medication

Depending on the cause, some over-the-counter drugs may help with ETD symptoms. Someone who experiences ETD caused by allergies may find relief using antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or loratadine (Alavert, Claritin).

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may help with pain and swelling.

Medical intervention

If the symptoms of ETD are caused by a bacterial infection, a doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics. This may be a topical treatment or an oral antibiotic. In severe cases of ETD, a doctor may prescribe oral steroids as well.

Long lasting, severe cases of ETD are not common but can require extensive and sometimes invasive treatments. In some cases, fluids build up behind the eardrum and cannot escape through the dysfunctional eustachian tubes. In these cases, doctors may make a small cut in the eardrum to help with fluid drainage.

People who experience frequent severe ETD may be treated using pressure equalization tubes. These are implants that balance the pressure in the ears and help reduce the chances of middle ear infections. New treatment methods, such as eustachian tube balloon dilation, are also being studied.


ETD is common, but most cases resolve with little or no help. Treating the underlying cause is the best way to treat and prevent recurring symptoms of ETD.

Children or adults who get frequent ear infections should talk to a doctor to consider more thorough treatments.

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Medical News Today: Kojic acid: Side effects and benefits

Kojic acid is a chemical produced from different types of fungi. It is also a by-product of fermented soy sauce and rice wine.

Kojic acid is sometimes used in the food industry as a natural preservative. One of the main uses of kojic acid, however, is in some health and cosmetic products.

In this article, we look at how kojic acid is used, what possible health benefits it might have, and what the potential risks and side effects are.

How is kojic acid used?

brand less beauty products
Kojic acid is mainly used in health and beauty products.

Kojic acid is sometimes used in health and beauty products to lighten the skin. It may be used to treat skin conditions, such as sun damage, scars, and age spots.

The science behind how kojic acid works as a lightening agent involves its effect on melanin production.

Melanin is a naturally occurring pigment in the body that gives the eyes, hair, and skin their color. An amino acid called tyrosine is needed to support the production of melanin.

Kojic acid works by blocking tyrosine from forming, which then prevents melanin production. Decreased melanin production may have a lightening effect on the skin.

Kojic acid is most commonly used in cosmetic products, such as creams, lotions, and serums. It is also used in some soaps. Many products with kojic acid are intended for use on the hands or face.

Products containing kojic acid can also be used on other parts of the body, such as the legs and arms. The concentration of kojic acid in cosmetics is often between 1 and 4 percent

Certain products containing kojic acid, such as serums, are meant to be applied to the skin and left on and absorbed. Some products, such as soaps, are applied and washed off.

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Potential benefits of kojic acid

The benefits of using products containing kojic acid may include the following:

  • Anti-aging effect: Products containing kojic acid may lighten the skin, which can improve the appearance of age spots and sun damage. The reduction of dark spots can have an anti-aging effect.

  • Treat melasma: Kojic acid may also be helpful in decreasing melasma, which is darkening of the skin due to pregnancy.

  • Decrease the appearance of scars: Kojic acid may also reduce the discoloration of scars. Although the acid does not improve the thickness of scar tissue, it may reduce dark pigmentation associated with certain types of scars. Lightening the scar may make it less noticeable.

  • Antifungal benefits: Kojic acid is also thought to have some antifungal benefits. It may be helpful in preventing and treating certain fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot and yeast infections.

  • Antibacterial effects: Kojic acid may also provide antibacterial benefits. It may help decrease the chances of developing common types of bacterial skin infections.

Is kojic acid safe?

fda approved stamp
Cosmetic products are not regulated by the FDA.

Before using products containing kojic acid, it is important to make sure they are safe.

Cosmetic products are not regulated the same way medicines and foods are. Cosmetic products are not required by law to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being sold.

The FDA do have a voluntary registration program for cosmetic manufacturers in which companies can report how their products are made. Also, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel reviews safety.

A review of kojic acid found that some studies in mice suggested there was a link to tumor growth when the acid was used in high concentrations.

However, this link was weak since kojic acid is slowly absorbed into the circulation. It is unlikely that levels would become high enough to cause cancer in humans.

According to the reviewers, the available data suggest that the use of products containing kojic acid with a concentration of 2 percent for products left on the skin is considered safe.

The CIR Expert Panel agreed that kojic acid could be safely used in cosmetic products.

Raw kojic acid is available, but it is not recommended for skin use. Kojic acid should be diluted to concentrations of no more than 4 percent. A concentration of 1 to 2 percent is recommended to reduce the chance of skin irritation.

Trying to add raw kojic acid to creams or lotions may be difficult and result in levels that are irritating to the skin. Using pre-made skin lotions and creams that already contain kojic acid in specific concentrations may be a better option.

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Risks and side effects

Although the use of products containing kojic acid may be considered safe for most people, there are some risks and possible side effects.

Side effects may include:

Skin may sunburn easily

Using kojic acid may make someone more likely to develop a sunburn. Melanin helps protect the skin from sun damage due to UV rays.

Since kojic acid prevents melanin production, it leaves the skin more vulnerable to sunburn.

Contact dermatitis

Kojic acid can lead to contact dermatitis in some people, especially those with sensitive skin.

Contact dermatitis can cause a rash, itching, and dry patches of skin. In severe cases, pain and blisters can develop.

The concentration of kojic acid in creams, serums, and soaps may vary by manufacturer. Products with a higher concentration of kojic acid may be more likely to lead to irritation.


doctor looking at the skin on a patient s arm
Before using any products containing kojic acid, people may be recommended to talk with a dermatologist.

Kojic acid may be helpful for people who have dark spots on their skin due to sun damage, aging, or scars. Some people with certain skin conditions or allergies may be advised not to use kojic acid, however.

It is always best to talk to a dermatologist to make sure using products containing kojic acid is safe.

A dermatologist can also provide recommendations on specific products, including the frequency of use and the concentration strength.

Some people may see results after a few weeks, although it may take longer in certain situations. Products containing kojic acid may only be recommended to be used for a brief time.

When choosing products, people should be sure to follow their directions for use. It is also important to make sure the product contains the concentration of kojic acid recommended by a dermatologist.

People who develop a rash or irritation when using products containing kojic acid should stop using them immediately. If symptoms do not clear up in a few days, it is best to see a doctor.

People should not use kojic acid on skin that is already red or irritated. It should also not be used on broken skin.

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Medical News Today: Brain response to unfairness ‘predicts depression’

newtons cradle on a blackboard
The results of a new study have shown that the brain’s response to economic inequity can predict depression.
New research finds that brain responses to unfair treatment in a computer game involving money rewards can predict whether healthy people will develop symptoms of depression.

The researchers, from the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Osaka and Tamagawa University in Tokyo, both in Japan, have published their findings in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Experts suggest that the imaging study offers new insights into how mechanisms in the brain might explain the link between economic inequity and depression.

Depression is a global public health problem that affects more than 300 million people, and it is the “leading cause of disability worldwide.” In the United States alone, depression affects around 7.6 percent of people aged 12 and older and cost the nation $210.5 billion in 2010.

People living below the poverty line in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to have depression than people living at or above it.

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Economic inequity and depression

In their study report, the researchers write that economic inequity has become “an increasing concern for society,” and they cite previous studies that have linked it to depression and other psychiatric diseases.

They refer to large studies, such as Whitehall II, that have found links between “economic gaps and major depression, where economic and material disadvantage are crucial in explaining depressive symptoms.”

However, because the brain mechanism underlying the link is less well understood, they decided to investigate it further.

The team used functional MRI to scan brain activity of healthy individuals as they played a computer game wherein they were asked to accept or reject offers to split a pot of money between themselves and a “virtual partner.”

There were three types of offer: one in which the two players received equal shares of the money (“equity”); another in which the participant got more (“advantageous inequity”); and another in which the virtual partner got more (“disadvantageous inequity”).

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Individualists and prosocials

At the time of playing the game, the participants were also asked to complete two other tests: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and a test that measures their “social value orientation.” They also completed the BDI a year later.

The team found that the participants with “individualist” social orientation tended to be more selfish and keep the money in unfair advantageous offers.

In contrast, the “prosocial” participants tended to be more self-sacrificing and rejected offers wherein the money was not split equally.

The researchers then analyzed measures of brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus in response to types of offer and depression scores.

It was found that for the disadvantageous offers, the response in the amygdala and hippocampus predicted current depression scores and changes in symptoms 1 year later. This was true of both prosocials and individualists.

But when the team analyzed the results for advantageous offers, they found that the amygdala and hippocampus responses only predicted depression in prosocials.

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‘Critical effect on mood’

The researchers note that these various predictions “were not possible using participants’ behavioral and socioeconomic status measures.”

They suggest that the findings show that even healthy people’s response to inequity may have “far-reaching implications for their mood.”

They call for further studies to build on the results to find ways to better identify and protect people from mental illness.

In an accompanying commentary, Megan Speer and Mauricio Delgado – both of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ – describe the research as “thought-provoking” and suggest that it “highlights potential risk factors that can precipitate or exacerbate the debilitating nature of depression.”

These findings suggest that sensitivity to economic inequity has a critical effect on human mood states, and the amygdala and hippocampus play a key role in individual differences in the effect.”

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