The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include the power of human contact, an unexpected chance to study autoimmune diseases, and flu driven forgetfulness.
By Tom Hayday
Holding Hands Can Ease Your Pain
Holding hands is one of the earliest instincts we have as children giving us comfort and a sense of safety. However, the real effect that empathetic touch has on our sense of stress or pain isn’t well understood. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Haifa have demonstrated that empathetic touch such as handholding can synchronise heart rate, breathing, and brain wave pattern between people.
The study, published in PNAS, set out to further explore the theory of ‘interpersonal synchronization’ by measuring brainwave activity of heterosexual couples holding hands, sitting near but not touching, or sitting in separate rooms.
The data, recorded using electroencephalography (EEG) caps, showed that merely sitting near your partner can begin to synchronise brain activity. Interestingly, the most striking synchronisation was when hands were held after minor heat pain was applied to the females arm.
Although the study didn’t not report whether this interpersonal synchronisation could also occur in same-sex couples or even between direct family and perhaps platonic friends, it highlights the importance of the effect we can have on others, especially in times of need.
In the constant battle against cancer, a shining light in recent years has been immunotherapy. Unlike classical cancer treatments that aim at killing the cancer cells via toxicity, often damaging healthy tissue in the process, immunotherapy involves training a person’s own immune system to fight the cancer as if it was a bacterial or viral infection. A benefit of this type of treatment is that it is potentially less prone to the detrimental side effects of the more toxic chemotherapies. Immunotherapy also has the potential for the body to protect itself from cancer recurrence without retreatment by training the immune system for the future.
However, researchers at both the Francis Crick institute and the Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle, have started to see unexpected yet exciting side effects to immunotherapy techniques. Some patients currently receiving immunotherapy at Guy’s Hospital have surprised researchers and clinicians alike by developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune disease where lymphocytes and macrophages attack healthy tissue in the joints cause great pain and discomfort to more than 400,000 people in the UK alone. Although this could be seen as a terrible side effect, and it is for an unfortunate few, it has opened a completely new avenue of RA research not before possible.
RA is rarely diagnosed before the disease is in full effect due to the relatively slow development of pain in RA sufferers. This new development will allow researchers to monitor the development of RA from its onset. By enabling research into the early stages of the disease, it may be possible to design more effective treatments that could benefit the lives of so many.
Flu-orget About It!
Ever had the flu and ‘forgot’ to go to work? Yes? Of course you have. However a study from the Department of Cellular Neurobiology, Zoological Institute, TU Braunschweig might just get you off the hook.
The study published in The Journal of Neuroscience has reported that mice infected with certain strains of influenza virus had brain damage that persisted long after the infection cleared up. Mice infected with either H7N7 or H3N2, the latter of which you likely had trouble with this winter, had trouble recalling the location of their food bowls. Not only was this loss of memory witnessed behaviourally but when the researches imaged the nerve cells of infected mice, those infected with H7N7 or H3N2 had considerably less dendritic spines compared with uninfected mice. Importantly, these spines are usually highly expressed in the nerve cells of the hippocampus, which is important for memory formation.
Although the study did not report that this phenomenon may also occur in humans, it would fit nicely with my recent bout of flu and the fact that I forgot to write this edition of Top 3 until not long ago!