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A year on – recap & meeting my crowdfunders

Eloise specialises in utilising immunohistochemical, genotyping techniques and statistics to identify associative risks for Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology from a large population-based brain cohort.

Almost a year ago I released my crowdfunding campaign to collect funds to carry out my research into Alzheimer’s disease. 66 backers from 8 different countries supported me to continue my research for two months. That got me through some tough times last year, and I’m proud to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I am no longer wary about talking with everyday people regarding my research.

What was especially encouraging was meeting some of my crowdfunders. I gave a seminar late last year, which was attended mostly by family members, and friends and family have inquired how much my research is progressing through normal discussions about daily life. Surprisingly, the majority of my backers did not want anything for their support, apart from the knowledge that they were helping me out. This was quite a shock to me, but has led me to believe I should make the effort to be open about what I do, because to the general public what I do might seem daunting.

I had the very special experience in early Autumn last year to meet some of my crowdfunders in person, and show them around the laboratories. We sat down for almost 2 hours in total and enjoyed a discussion of my research, their queries about Alzheimer’s disease, and some common problems with research on Alzheimer’s disease. It was a pleasant meeting and I was humbled by their interest and encouragement, and at how my campaign had appealed to them.

One year on from my campaign, I have released two publications, below are the links to the abstracts:

  1. Beer Drinking Associates with Lower Burden of Amyloid Beta Aggregation in the Brain: Helsinki Sudden Death Series.
  2. HSV presence in brains of individuals without dementia: the TASTY brain series

I also have a further one under review with my collaborators in Sweden.

I was also requested to write a special piece for a Finnish journal, and currently my funding situation is comfortable until after the summer. I am waiting to hear back on my personal funding applications over the next couple of months, but it’s inspiring to know that I have my colleagues, collaborators, funders, friends, and family around to support me if things get bad again in the future.

I have many new topics that have become interesting to me, and hopefully I will be able to get started on these and share some insight on them in the coming months as I take more confident steps into my career as an academic researcher. One of the topics is the (much neglected) connection between cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s and I will be continuing investigations into Herpes simplex as a pathogenic agent in AD.

Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my crowdfunding supporters for their belief in my research, and me as a researcher.

Until next time!

Other blogs from Eloise:

Could getting a cold sore increase risk of Alzheimer’s?

Painful Science – getting published is tough!

Should scientists learn to pitch?

Surprising findings for beer and Alzheimer’s related brain lesion

My science crowdfunding experience

Working to Reverse an Alarming Trend on Landmines

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We need to clear more landmines every year, not fewer. 

So the latest report from the Landmine Monitor makes for depressing reading: deaths from landmines are at a 10-year high, while funding for clearing landmines is at a 10-year low, and there was a decrease in the amount of land being cleared every year – from 210 km2 in 2014 to 171 km2 in 2015 [1].

With the USA being the single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action [2], the latest developments on the political scene there may indicate that funding will continue to decline, perhaps at an accelerated rate [3] with who-knows what impact on clearance rates.

So, we have to do more with less; and that means we need to speed up the process of clearing landmines itself.

As part of this global effort [4], a team of engineers in the Department of Informatics at King’s College London are developing an explosives detector that will help speed up the process of clearing landmines by reducing the number of false alarms.  This is the problem with metal detectors: most modern landmines are what’s called “minimum metal landmines” – their casings aren’t metal, but plastic or wood; so in order to be able to detect the small amount of metal they contain, the sensitivity of the metal detector has to be turned up to the point where it detects not just landmines, but also any other metal that might be present in or on the ground – discarded nails, cans, broken-off bits of machinery or vehicle parts etc.  These are “false alarms” and make the process of clearing landmines very slow indeed, as every one of them has to be investigated as if it is a landmine.  That’s what makes an explosives detector such an attractive prospect, especially one sensitive to the presence of bulk, rather than just traces of, explosive; it will definitively say if a metal-detection response is due to the presence of a landmine or not.

The KCL explosives detection technology uses pulses of radio-waves to excite responses in explosives at characteristic frequencies.  That’s what gives the technology its discrimination: as the frequency of the response and the way it evolves in time are characteristic of a given chemical compound, the system never confuses an explosive for anything else (or indeed one explosive for another).

So what’s the catch?  The signals are weak, the system needs several tens of seconds to accumulate enough signal to make a decision as to whether there is anything there or not.   That’s why this technology has never found an application in military circles, where speed of operation is a key factor.  This is much less of an issue in the humanitarian (post-conflict) environment, where the over-riding requirement is to find every landmine – it’s still quicker than digging up every bit of metal the metal detector alarms on.  But this creates an additional complication: with no military market, there’s no rush of companies willing to invest in the technology’s development as they could never hope to recoup their development costs through big-ticket, high-volume sales.  So funding for development needs to come from other sources – governments, NGOs and the public.  Finding that funding is a challenge in the current climate, but it’s a challenge the King’s team are ready to meet.

Jamie Barras is leading a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to test the explosives detector. You can find out more here: https://crowd.science/campaigns/landmines/

If you have questions about the detector email jamie.barras@kcl.ac.uk

[1] http://www.the-monitor.org/en-gb/reports/2016/landmine-monitor-2016.aspx
[2] http://www.state.gov/t/pm/wra/
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/13/will-trump-presidency-honour-pledge-stop-sending-foreign-aid-to-countries-that-hate-us-usaid
[4] http://www.findabetterway.org.uk/project/

 

 

 

Sussex cliffs erosion rates are ten-fold in the past 200 years

 

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Coastal erosion study could hold valuable lessons for climate change mitigation.  New research on how the Sussex coast has eroded over the last seven millennia could help provide an insight into how climate change might affect UK cliffs in the future.

In a new paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Colorado, Imperial College London, the British Geological Survey and the Environment Agency describe how they have used a process known as cosmogenic dating to learn how the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head and Seaford Head have eroded.

Cosmogenic dating allows scientists to use the build-up of a specific isotope of beryllium found in rocks at the surface as a kind of rock clock.

As rocks are uncovered on shore platforms by natural processes such as erosion and landslides, these beryllium isotopes begin to accumulate due to exposure to cosmic radiation (the same radiation that causes the Aurora).

Since the rates of accumulation are relatively constant, scientists can measure the rocks, current levels of beryllium to estimate how long they have been exposed near the surface. Measuring rock samples from across the shore platforms allows them to build a record of how coastal erosion has proceeded over the last 7000 years or so.

Their results show that, after thousands of years of relatively steady erosion of between two and six centimetres per year, the rate has increased dramatically over the last 200-600 years to between 22 and 32 centimetres each year.

The researchers speculate in the paper that the increase in erosion could be down to the beaches being gradually thinned out over the last few hundred years at both sites. While sandy beaches can act as a protective barrier between the sea and cliffsides, when they are thinned by alongshore transport, protection is lost and the remaining loose beach material can wear away the cliffs faster, increasing the rate of erosion.

Dr Martin Hurst of the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences said: “One of the challenges of monitoring coastal erosion is that useful historical record only stretches back 150 years or so. Cosmogenic dating gives us the opportunity to roll back the clock much further to make more informed observations about the past.

“What we’ve seen in this case is that the rate of erosion has taken a big leap in the last few hundred years, which we think could well be due to the thinning of beaches.

“As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt through rising sea levels and increasingly regular severe storms, it’s likely that similar thinning could well take place elsewhere in the UK and abroad, quickening the pace of coastal erosion.

“What we’re hoping to do now is use our observations to help underpin a more accurate model of how climate change will affect coastal erosion in the future, which could help authorities make more informed decisions about coastal management.”

Dr. Dylan Rood, co-author from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, states:

“The coast is clearly eroding, and Britain has retreated fast. Our study on British coasts leaves no question that coastal cliff retreat accelerated in the recent past. A nearly ten-fold increase in retreat rates over a very short timescale, in geological terms, is remarkable. The UK cannot leave the issue of cliff erosion unresolved in the face of a warming world and rising sea levels.”

“Cosmogenic isotopes are advancing the science of retreating coastlines in Great Britain and worldwide. These new tools provide a rare insight into how dramatically environmental change and human impact are affecting sensitive coastal landscapes. We still need to better understand how other rocky coastlines have responded to similar changes in the past.”

The team’s paper, titled Recent acceleration in coastal cliff retreat rates on the south coast of Great Britain”, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is available online.

Could getting a cold sore increase risk of Alzheimer’s?

close up. beautiful lips virus infected herpes

Herpes in the brain?

On the back of a very successful (at least on the scientific side of things) year in research, I’ve recently had another article published. Not as fanciful as beer staving off Alzheimer’s disease, but something that has been popping up on news sites all over the world over the past couple of years. That is, an infectious agent causing Alzheimer’s disease – namely the Herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV1 (type 1) generally causes the common coldsore that appears on your face, most often your lips. Another type of the same virus (HSV2) is known to cause genital herpes. Approximately 80-90% of the population are affected with HSV1, and once you get it, it doesn’t go away (it just hides in your nerve cells).

I got interested in this topic a few years back when I came across a paper that showed amyloid beta (Aβ) aggregations (the sticky clumps of protein known as senile plaques that are thought to be a major cause of Alzheimer’s disease) were clumped together at the same location in brain tissue as HSV. Now this doesn’t really answer the question of cause or effect, so I thought I could look at this virus in my brain tissue samples and perhaps be able to see what would come first – virus or brain lesions.

After teaming up with some researchers at Umeå University in Sweden, who have a good detection system set up for analysing HSV, we moved ahead and analysed whether we could find HSV in the TASTY series (one of the brain collections I use). We had 584 individuals’ brain tissue for analysis and found 11 (1.9%) that were positive for HSV in the brain. Of those 11, 6 had Aβ aggregations (~55%). There were also a large proportion of individuals that didn’t have HSV in the brain, but did have brain lesions (160 cases, ~30%).

HSV first infection is usually in childhood, and the youngest age of the cases with HSV in the brain was 43, so this suggests that it happens later on. At least it’s after the initial plaques that appear in the brain (around 30 years). It doesn’t completely discredit the idea that HSV could cause AD, but the fact that so many individuals (160) had brain lesions but no HSV in the brain, suggests something else causes the brain lesions. Although HSV could potentially make things worse. Because we had so few cases with HSV in brain, we can’t really make any assessments on when it is likely to enter the brain – that’s something for our future research! Of course our previous work has shown that the brain lesions already appear around age 30, suggesting that if these are the cause of the disease, it’s starting quite a lot earlier than previously thought. This then strongly suggests that the development of brain lesions is caused by something else, not HSV.

The most significant finding of our study was that there were individuals that had HSV in their brains. That they weren’t suffering from the rare deadly brain infection known as Herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE). They had no symptoms that would suggest HSV was present in their brain tissue. This study was the largest of its kind showing HSV can get into the brain without showing symptoms. Our next step will be to identify exactly which brain region it is found in, and map the potential route for entrance by HSV. It will also be important to identify what triggers the ability of HSV to gain access to the brain of some people, but not others?

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As age increases, you can see a decrease in the percentage of those without brain lesions (No neuropathology, clear bars), and a corresponding increase in those with senile plaques (Aβ aggregations, light grey shaded bars), tangles (NFT, darker grey shaded bars), both combined brain lesions (Aβ & NFT, darker patterned grey bars), Alzheimer’s disease (AD, solid line) and HSV in the brain (HSV DNA positivity, dashed line).

Compared to other studies investigating Alzheimer’s disease patients and controls, which numbered generally under 50 individuals, our study found a very low incidence of HSV in brain tissue. Other studies suggest anywhere from 20 up to 100% of controls (that is non-demented people) have HSV in the brain. It might be that our study criteria was too strict, but even if we included all slightly positive cases, that only equates to a 6% incidence. It is perhaps more likely that our samples are quite old, and were not ‘fresh frozen’ tissues, so we will also perform a similar study on a newer autopsy cohort collected here at the University of Tampere.

So at least for now, you can rest easy that HSV probably isn’t going to cause you to get Alzheimer’s disease. At least that makes me feel better considering during the study and preparation of this manuscript I had about 6 outbreaks of coldsores!!! The paper was published as open access, meaning you can read the whole pdf of the article here: http://dmm.biologists.org/content/9/11/1349

Enjoy!

Painful Science – getting published is tough!

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Eloise tweets @DrEllaOfScience

I thought it would be important to point out a few of the struggles related to being a researcher, and how exhausting some aspects can be. I’m pretty sure many have written about the pains of writing grant applications and how the majority of your submissions are rejected (the national Academy of Finland had just 11% funded from last year’s postdoctoral researcher call). It’s a sad state in reality, but that’s not even the worst of it.

If you are successfully funded, or still trying to publish without funding, there’s an aspect behind it all that is unknown to most of the general population. Publishing your work. It’s not simply a matter of finalising the experiments, analysing the results, writing up your work and bam! New publication added to your list. Noooooooo. Far from it. At least in my experience anyway. I’ve had 7 publications in total. That’s not really a lot compared to many, but 5 of them I’ve been the corresponding author, which means I have the responsibility of checking everything before sending it off to the editors of various journals.

It all starts with thinking about where you want to publish. Go for a high impact factor journal? Impressive on the CV, but can be a lot of work. Open access? Can cost THOUSANDS of euros (at least in the realm of €2000-€3000). Then there’s the topic and scope of the article and journal itself to consider. Lots of things to think about. This is followed by formatting the manuscript text to the chosen journal’s guidelines and then filling in all the forms in the online submission regarding what the article encompasses, and topics covered, suggested reviewers (and reviewers you don’t want to see your work – for various reasons such as they are competitors or you know they have a disagreement with your work), as well as mundane things such as word count and picture files (which need to be of a certain high quality, but not too high initially that they take forever for the reviewers to download).

Submit! And….wait. Reviewers can take anywhere between a couple of weeks and months. Depending on the journal, and the prestige behind reviewers who are well known in particular fields and chosen for their expertise, you can be waiting a long time. Or, as usually happens to me, you get a response from the editors a couple of days later announcing they aren’t interested in your work, or it isn’t broad/specific enough for their journal scope, or “we have so many submissions we can only accept a few,” bla bla bla.

Then, it starts again. Choose a new journal, reformat the entire thing for the new guidelines, which can involve redoing images, reformatting reference lists, reordering parts of the manuscript and different requirements for what should be included in the materials and methods etc… and then submit again. Phew! This can happen multiple times. At least it has for me. On average I send a paper through to about 4 journals before it gets reviewed. And even after being reviewed, it can still be rejected or require a heap of additional experiments before being accepted for publication. It can take in the least months to get a paper accepted for publication, or even years.

Talk about painful. But without sharing our work, we don’t get recognition, can’t develop collaborations, can’t get further funding… So, we persist and hopefully, eventually, we’ll succeed and receive the recognition that we deserve. Just thought you all should know it’s not that simple and get as excited as some of us early stage researchers do when we get things published! J

Good luck to all the other researchers getting their work published out there!

Insights from Animal Behaviour Researcher, Lauren Brent

Dr Lauren Brent from University of Exeter is a biologist interested in the evolution of sociality. Her research asks why social relationships are formed and how they are maintained. Lauren tweets @ljnbrent

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We asked Lauren about her research…

What made you decide to become an academic?

I became an academic because I love the process of independent thought and inquisition. As a young student, I was especially fascinated by the natural world and the behaviour of animals and so could think of nothing better than to spend my time asking questions about how and why the things we observe in nature came to be.

How does your currently research fit into your further research ambitions? 

My main research ambition is to gain a greater understanding of the evolution of social relationships. In particular, I am interested in why social bonds (“friendships”) evolved – i.e. what function do these relationships serve? – and why some individuals are more or less socially integrated than others. I am currently working on a few different but related projects; one on the evolutionary mechanisms that underpin cooperation, and the other on the consequences of social relationships for survival and reproductive success.

Both projects take place at the long-running rhesus macaque field site in Puerto Rico where I do much of my research, and fit nicely into my research ambitious by addressing some of the key unanswered questions in my field.

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This is a picture of two rhesus macaques relaxing at the field site in Puerto Rico where I do a lot of my research

If you had unlimited funding what would you do with it?

With unlimited funding I would initiate a series of field-based projects in species whose social lives are little understood. A key to understanding how and why friendship evolved is the ability to compare what “friends” look like in a range of different types of animals. But since the biology of friendship is a relatively recent area of research outside of humans and other primates, we are currently unable to ask this question.

Animals where data on friendship are missing and would be most useful include many types of mammal, such as the social carnivores, whales, rodents and ungulates, as well as many non-mammals such as schooling fish and colony-living birds.

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Friendships in whales is little understood, this is something that I would like to explore more about if I had unlimited funding.

Have you had any experiments that have been a bit disastrous?

I typically observe the naturally occurring behaviours in animals rather than running experiments. However, things can go very wrong doing this since wild animals almost never do what you want or expect them to do! Working with monkeys can be especially frustrating since they often live up to the cliché that monkeys are mischievous. While attempting to collect data I’ve been pooped on, peed on, shoved, hit, and had many pieces of equipment stolen and chewed beyond recognition.

What are your thoughts on crowdfunding research?

Crowdfunding of research is incredibly important. Research like mine often doesn’t require huge amounts of funding – just a bit of money for flights to field sites and for the few pieces of equipment needed to collect the data. Yet while low-cost research sounds ideal, it can be paradoxically excluded from traditional funding streams precisely because it is low-cost. Crowdfunding is therefore critical for this type of research.

Below is a TED talk by Lauren Brent…

Notes from Walacea:

Walacea’s first successful project was with Dr Andy Radford from University of Bristol, his research investigated friendships in dwarf mongooses, if you are interested in this area of research you can sign up to our newsletter on friendship. We also have a crowdfunding tips newsletter for scientists thinking about crowdfunding and a general newsletter where we share our favourite blogs about research and new projects raising funds that you can support.

Should scientists learn to pitch?

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Innovation and Research Communication Competition

At the beginning of June 2016, I was selected as a finalist in a competition about innovation in scientific research communication. The reason for my nomination was specifically related to my crowdfunding campaign on Walacea and the supposedly novel way I communicated my Alzheimer’s research to the public. The campaign involved a short video which I did in the lab, some written text and offering a few perks to people who supported my work from seminars to a simple postcard. As a result of the campaign I found that people were actually quite curious about my work and interested in what I had to say about it.  Before the campaign I’d assumed that talking about my research with any level of details was likely to be a conversation killer!

The competition  was a fun and enjoyable experience and the winner took home €3000 (which would have been nice). The run up culminated in an online voting system, which I’ll admit I wasn’t prepared for – it involved background work and lots of marketing to my network.  As the only single individual of the 6 finalists (the rest were organisations or collective groups), I was largely doing it on my own which was tough, but I was proud of my efforts and really want to thank my friend Iita for nominating me, the organisers for selecting me, and of course everyone who has supported me throughout the whole (crowdfunding) ordeal! I came runner up out of the 6 finalists which is a a great achievement for me.

This whole event and the social and research aspects of the concept of research communication were very new to me. I took on crowdfunding as a means to acquire financial support and continue the research I enjoy, and learnt the basics as I went. The further on in my campaign, the more I realised what was at stake,  what was required and that more effort lead to more financial support.  In addition good communication was vital! The campaign also gave me a broader view on things that go wrong in science and how engaging the public is a useful and important part of being a scientist.

So, should scientists pitch for funding?

Startup @ Reeperbahnfestival

During the Competition day, I took part in a workshop on the ABC in Pitching. In science, this is not a particularly strong point of interest. People give presentations on their work at conferences and seminars, and some also lecture to students or teach laboratory groups. They usually involve one topic and range in time from 20 minutes up to an hour or more. Plenty of time to get around to what you want to say, and also on the odd occasion to bore people’s pants off.

Pitching is what I imagined entrepreneurs do to get funding to support their business idea and get it off the ground. Wait. Those essential elements are what we as scientists are trying to do. Once you get the ball rolling with support and publications, then things usually take on (to some degree) a life of their own. But in the beginning, you have to put in the hard work.

I now realise more than ever that pitching should be an integral part of a scientist’s every day means. ‘Elevator pitches’ should be the correct way to grab the attention of funding agencies as well as members of the public through crowdfunding and make them interested enough to read on, ask questions and hopefully potentially fund you.  Entrepreneurs would never send a full business plan to a potential investor from the gecko, they send pitch decks, executive summaries and arrange meetings and events…this system works for business so just maybe it could work for science and save everyone lots of time in terms of writing and reading grant proposals?! And infact, this is the system that crowdfunding is using where scientists can create a 5 minute video pitch about their work than a more detailed explanation of what they plan to do.  It worked for my campaign and perhaps with even more pitch practice next time it could work out even better!

Are women taking the helm in Science Communication? 

On a side note, at the competition one thing that struck me about the whole event was the gender difference. The majority of the people there either representing the finalists, or listening and at work promoting science, were female. There was a massive majority of women participants – almost to the realm of 90%!

I was surprised and commented on a number of occasions to different individuals, both male and female, and there was a general consensus that others were surprised too. One comment from a fellow (male) contestant was that if women are going to be the face of science, then that would be okay by him. Is it the age where we start making science sexy too, I wonder? Although that thought shocks me a bit and some of the kit we wear may need a bit of design work…

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I wondered whether this was just a product of the fact this competition was held in Finland with primarily Finnish participants, or whether science communication is primarily undertaken by women throughout the world. A quick google of the topic seems to suggest that “women are more suited to communicating due to their natural style of communication,” thus indicating that perhaps it is not a phenomenon known only to Finland.

In any case, I must admit that I myself have found a fair amount of satisfaction and pleasure in sharing my research and also my experiences through my crowdfunding campaign, radio, magazine, newspaper and tv interviews, as well as this blog, and the continual contact I keep with my supporters and followers. I hope that I continue to be as well received! Thanks for tuning in again!

 

Surprising findings for beer and Alzheimer’s related brain lesions

Could beer have some positive effects on the brain and memory? Eloise, who recently crowdfunded on Walacea has just had a manuscript accepted for publication and she explains about her journey to get there and gives us a few insights into her recent taste of the media limelight in Finland

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Image: Thinkstock

Can scientists be media personalities?

In keeping with the idea that scientists can also be media personalities, I’ve just received an email to be interviewed for a women’s magazine here in Finland. Yes, it’s true. I’m not really sure of the positive fluffy role model image that I could provide, but they are interested in hearing about my crowdfunding adventure. As a colleague earlier said to me “It’s not bad if a scientist is in the news in a positive light”. Well….ok, I’ll go with it.

But I should backtrack a little. I had my manuscript accepted for publication a while back and this week was the early view publication release. Now, that’s nothing to rejoice at in the world of science – although let’s be fair, I haven’t had an article published in four years, so I’m pretty ecstatic about the whole thing – but I believed the concept would appeal to the general population, so thought I’d jump on the bandwagon of press release accompanying research method.

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Well…it certainly has appealed to the public. An article on the University’s website (coupled with an English version – these guys are really getting to know me now!), plus an article in the local paper. Not to sound too arrogant or anything, but that’s kinda THE DREAM….for a scientist. To get your research read by every day people thinking you’re on the way to a cure for such and such a disease. Because let’s be honest, as scientists we all believe our research is finding the ultimate answer to this or that.

I do know however, how the media take your results and rewrite them the way that makes it seem like you HAVE found the cure. Boy have they done that. How many times do we have to read about the next ‘cure for cancer’ or something? Well that’s kind of what they did with my research. But I’m still excited about it, and if you’re interested in actually hearing more about it from my perspective rather than the media’s, I’ll attempt to explain the research itself and the implications.

I was given an older autopsy series to work with on this topic, (compared to the one I usually work with) which had brain lesion data (information about whether the individual had amyloid beta aggregations or plaques) and alcohol consumption data. Amyloid beta aggregations are thought to be the cause behind Alzheimer’s disease. The protein accumulates in clumps and is believed to cause the death of neutrons, which leads to the associated memory loss. The alcohol consumption information involved types of alcohol drunk and an estimate of how much (note this is retrospective data, which is less strong than data collected in real time). The alcohol data came from relatives of the deceased, so to be fair, it’s not entirely rock-solid info. However, it’s interesting enough to show some insight into how these people lived. You’d be amazed at how much you can divulge on a person’s habits when you really think about it.

One final point is that the cohort is a non-demented cohort, meaning that none of them are cognitively impaired, although some had the brain lesions. This could mean that they would have developed dementia if they had lived longer, or may alternatively suggest that these lesions can occur without dementia and there is something else required to cause Alzheimer’s disease.

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Fig 2 shows that beer drinkers had less than half the amount of amyloid beta-immunoreactivity compared with non-beer drinkers. Amyloid-beta aggregations are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ll focus on our most interesting results to keep it simple. We measured the amyloid beta aggregations as a dichotomous variable (present or not) and had a look whether any alcohol amounts or types were statistically associated with the brain lesions. In one of those beautiful eureka moments, the statistical program I use (SPSS, in case you’re wondering) spat out a nice significant result. Beer drinkers were less likely to have amyloid beta aggregations in their brains than drinkers of other types of alcohol.

So does that mean beer is good for you?

Yes, it is possible that beer could be good for you! But before we go jumping to extravagant conclusions, let me bring you back down to the ground. This was quite a small study (125 males – which means the results cannot be assumed to apply automatically to women – sorry ladies!) and when we investigated further it seemed that age had a large part to do with the effect. But this isn’t the end of the story. I have another larger cohort with similar information (with both males and females) where I will look to see if I can find similar results.

Of course it will also be nice to back up our results with a substantial theory as to how and why we found this result. Our thinking is that beer has a number of nutrients that are involved in important mechanisms in keeping cells functioning well. So another step will be to see if we can measure certain metabolites to corroborate our story, of which I’ve made a new collaboration to tackle this topic, through the sharing of my research!

So yeah, beer could potentially be good for your brain. But as I should point out all things should be enjoyed in moderation and a full healthy diet with exercise should be paramount to living a healthy long life!

Read the full article here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acer.13102/abstract

Dating clams to study pollution history on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

Underwater seagrass meadows are disappearing fast, Dr. Kelsey Feser investigates why with the support of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI). 

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Dr. Kelsey Feser

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York, USA is currently running a campaign to support its new dating laboratory.  Before you jump to conclusions, this is not a lab taking the likes of tinder to a new scientific level, it is a lab for gauging the ages of biominerals such as seashells and bones using a technique known as amino acid racemization (AAR) geochronology (for info on how this works see PRI’s project page).  The dating of biominerals and seashells has many applications in research. Fields such as paleontology, tectonics and marine conservation all benefit from accurate dating methods that can help scientists put their samples in temporal context and form a clearer understanding of what has been going on over a period of time.

We spoke with Dr. Kelsey Feser, a paleontologist from Cornell College in Iowa, USA, who is visiting PRI’s AAR lab to date seashells from St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Dr. Feser collected the shells from sediment cores and is using them to investigate the history of seagrass meadows that are threatened by pollution.  During her visit to Ithaca, we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her research and why AAR dating is an important tool for her project…

How did you collect the seashell samples and what can they tell us about human impacts on the spectacular marine environments of St. Croix?

I collected the seashells by digging sediment cores while SCUBA diving in shallow seagrass meadows just off the coast.  The cores were 40cm deep, and contained all of the sand and seashells that have accumulated on the seafloor for hundreds, or even thousands of years.  By picking out the shells of thousands of clams and snails from several depths in the cores we were able to construct a record of how the abundances of these animals have changed over time. 

Dr. Feser coring a seagrass bed in St. Croix

Dr. Feser coring a seagrass bed in St. Croix

Clams and snails are very sensitive to environmental changes, particularly those imparted by human activity, so through this research we hope to determine whether the population changes we found were  caused by nearby sources of pollution.

The sorts of pollution sources that we think could be impacting marine clams and snails in St. Croix include runoff during heavy rains and contamination from a power plant and a large, unregulated dump.

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Human impacts on the coast of St. Croix are not hard to find—Dr. Feser photographed this decaying barge not far from the island’s main power plant.

Why is AAR dating important for your research on St. Croix? What do you hope to learn from the data you are collecting at PRI?

I’ve been working in St. Croix for six years, and the question that keeps popping up is “how old are these shells?”  And it’s not a trivial question.  I am interested in the effects of human impacts on populations of marine clams and snails through time, so it is incredibly important to know how recently these population changes took place.  If they happened 5,000 years ago, humans were likely not the cause!  By sampling in seagrass beds, where a thick root mat anchors the sand and prevents it from getting mixed up by waves, we are hoping to find that the deeper the shells are buried, the older they are. 

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The clam shells being dated are tiny—smaller than a fingernail!

This would help us better interpret the changes we see in clam and snail populations through our cores.  By collecting lots of shell ages throughout a given core, we can answer this question. 

Finally, we want to know how long-lived seagrass beds are through time; this is especially pressing given the alarming declines in seagrass meadows around the world. 

By combining our knowledge of change in seagrass-indicating mollusks, and the ages represented through the core, we can determine over what timescales seagrass beds have remained stable around St. Croix and hopefully improve our understanding of what the human impacts on these ecosystems have been over time. The results of this research could have important implications for the conservation of other types of marine life that rely on seagrass, such as sea turtles. 

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A sea turtle foraging in seagrass, a habitat which, sadly, is in decline worldwide

 AAR is the best option for me because I can date far more shells than I could using a more expensive technique like radiocarbon dating, and quantity is crucial for answering these questions

What have been the benefits of running your samples at PRI?

I was thrilled when I found out PRI was getting an AAR lab! By visiting the PRI lab, I have learned the AAR process first-hand and am processing my own samples. This has provided me with invaluable insight into the steps required to date a shell and has also brought down the cost of sample processing considerably. I also was able to bring along one of my undergraduate students, John Lewis, who is participating in a faculty-student summer research program with me. Neither of us could have gained this “insider’s insight” had we elected to mail our samples to a lab to have them run for us. Additionally, working with PRI researchers like Greg Dietl and Steve Durham has been valuable and hopefully will lead to new collaborations beyond my short stay here in Ithaca.

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Dr. Feser and her undergraduate student, John Lewis, at work in the AAR lab last week

A big thanks to Kelsey for answering our questions. You can learn more about her research on St. Croix in the video below.

Please support our campaign to fund the AAR lab at PRI so that we can continue contributing to important projects by researchers like Dr. Feser!

You can also help us by spread the word about the project! Share on Facebook or tweet about it! 

 

Listen to the bees

There are twenty six different bumblebee species in the UK, and you can see perhaps ten of them in most suburban gardens if you have a few bee-friendly flowers and if you look hard enough. Honeybees are usually common enough too – these slim, brownish insects are of course the ones that give us honey, and that are kept in hives. But this is just the tip of the bee iceberg; there are also leafcutter bees, sweat bees, mason bees, mining bees, carpenter bees and many more, about 270 species in total in the UK!

Picture tweeted by @twaihaku for the #beeboxchallenge

Picture tweeted by @twaihaku for the #beeboxchallenge, click on image to find out more and to check out Prof Dave Goulson’s research proposal that is currently crowdfunding on Walacea and learn more about the photo competition.

Globally, there are an astonishing 20,000 known species of bee (and no doubt many more yet to be described by science). The large majority are solitary creatures in which a female makes her own small nest, rather than living in a colony with a queen and workers as do honeybees and bumblebee. Most people go their whole lives without ever even noticing these little creatures, yet they live all around us, they pollinate our garden flowers and vegetables, and they ensure that wildflowers set seed.

I’ve heard bees describes as tiny flying paint brushes; they are furry, and their fur helps them to collect pollen and hence spread it from flower to flower. When we humans resort to hand-pollinating a crop, for example if we want to ensure a specific cross takes place, we use a paint brush to mimic a bee. But the analogy with paint brushes can be viewed at another level, for without bees, our landscapes would have little colour. Back in the age of the dinosaurs there were no colourful flowers; plant relied on wind to carry their pollen, as grasses and pine trees do to this day, and hence they had no need of brightly coloured petals to attract pollinating insects such as bees. Eventually, plants evolved a much more efficient system to get their pollen moved from flower to flower; they co-opted bees and other pollinating insects, bribing them with sweet nectar, and vying with other plants to attract them via beautiful, scented flowers. The wonderful flowers that brighten our gardens, spring woodlands and hedgerows would not exist if it were not for bees and their kin.  

Worryingly, these vital creatures are in trouble. The modern world poses many threats to them: our countryside has far fewer flowers than it once did, with almost all of our hay meadows and downland having been ploughed up in the twentieth century. Herbicides enable farmers to grow weed-free crops, and where wild flowers do persist in the field margins and hedgerows they are often contaminated with insecticides. On top of that we have accidentally introduced new parasites and diseases from abroad that attack both honeybees and our wild, native bees. As a result, many of our bees are less common than they used to be, and some such as the short-haired bumblebee have gone extinct in Britain.

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This is an example of a short haired bumble bee, sadly now extinct in the UK.

Fortunately, we can all help to reverse these declines. Plant a few more bee-friendly flowers in your garden for a start; there are many to choose from. As a general rule, avoid annual bedding plants which tend to be the end result of years of intensive selection for huge blooms with extra petals, but which have often lost their nectar, pollen and scent, so that they are of no interest to bees. Instead, go for traditional cottage-garden favourites: lavender, thyme, aquilegia, alliums, marjoram, comfrey. Go for ‘single’ rather than ‘double’ varieties; for example single roses and dahlias are great for bees, while doubles are mostly hopeless. Try growing lovage and angelica, which are much loved by some of the smaller solitary bees. Squeeze in some native wildflowers – for example viper’s bugloss is a beautiful purple flower that sits well in a sunny herbaceous border and will attract a cloud of bees.

If you can, buy your plants from an organic nursery, grow them yourself from seed, or plant swap with a neighbour. Otherwise there is a serious risk that the plants you buy might have been soaked in pesticides and could do more harm than good, at least in the short term. Of course you should avoid using insecticides yourself; it is my view that there is absolutely no need for them in a garden setting, where you should have an abundance of natural enemies such as ladybirds and hoverflies ready to munch up pests as they appear. You might also try buying, or better still making, a ‘bee hotel’. These provide holes for solitary bees to nest in, and can be very successful; they are particularly popular with red mason bees, excellent pollinators of your apples and pears. Finally, consider taking part in a citizen science project to gather data on how our pollinators are faring over time.    

Bees have been around for 120 million years or so, far, far longer than we humans have. They have been quietly pollinating our crops since we first started growing them, in the Middle East about ten thousand years ago. Now, after all this time, they are in trouble, and it is entirely down to us. We owe these little creatures. Together, if we all do our bit, we can ensure a future for all of our bees and other pollinators, and ensure that our grandchildren grow up in a world where the buzzing of bees is still a familiar, reassuring sound of summer.

If you would like to learn more about wild bees and other pollinators, read the bestselling books “A Sting in the Tale” or “A Buzz in the Meadow” by Dave Goulson which you can recieve signed copies of through supporting Dave Goulson research on Walacea. Prof Goulson plans to investigate whether neonics or other pesticides dangerous to bees are present in plants sold in garden centres, potentially labelled as bee friendly.

canonuser101

Picture tweeted by @canonuser101 as part of #beeboxchallenge, click on image to learn more about the competition and check out Prof Goulson’s crowdfunding page.

 

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