This Week In Science

Pot has new potential
A recent study has found a new potential use for marijuana in patients with autoimmune disorders. Researchers at the University of South Carolina discovered that THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, can suppress the body’s immune system through epigenetic pathways. THC can change molecules called histones, which surround the DNA, and may alter the function of certain genes. These findings suggest that marijuana could therefore be used to treat autoimmune diseases that cause chronic inflammation, such as arthritis and lupus.

Fetal cells: a new treatment for Parkinson’s disease
Researchers at McLean Hospital discovered that fetal dopamine cells transplanted into the brains of Parkinson’s patients remained healthy and functional for 14 years. The scientists analyzed the brains of five patients who received fetal cell transplants over 14 years, and they found that the patients’ dopamine transporters and mitochondria were still healthy up until the patients’ deaths. While some other similar studies have experienced corruption within the transplanted cells, this particular study was successful in proving that transplanted cells could stay healthy. Published in Cell Reports, these results show promise for the transplant field to move forward and may reduce the need for dopamine replacement drugs in the future.

Blond jokes: no longer valid
A team of Stanford University scientists has found that a single nucleotide shift from adenine (A) to guanine (G) in a region of chromosome 12 is responsible for the lighter color variant that leads to blond hair. This genetic change only influences hair follicles, so no other cells (like brain cells) or body regions are affected. According to study author David Kingsley, the change that causes blond hair is certainly not linked to levels of intelligence and “is, literally, only skin deep.”

The importance of sleep
New York University medical researchers have found important physical evidence of how sleep enhances learning by strengthening new memories. By examining genetically-engineered mice that expressed a fluorescent protein in neurons, the scientists tracked the growth of dendritic connections in the motor cortex. After performing a task, the well-rested mice showed much more growth in their dendritic spines, re-activating the brain cells that were first activated when they learned the task. According to the study authors, this suggests that sleep is so critical for learning because this neuronal activation is “quite important for growing specific connections within the motor cortex” and for facilitating long-term memory. Just remember to sleep after class, not in it.

 

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