The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include panda communication, a new potential treatment for dementia and treating drug addiction with gene therapy.

By Lindsay McGregor

Pandas bamboozled by caller ID

Giant news: when pandas call out to each other, they cannot determine the identity of a caller if the distance between the pair is more than 20m, or the sex of the caller if more than 10m. Scientists conducted research into the pandas’ vocalization signals and the acoustic influences of their surroundings to assess how individual calls differ and if there are maximum distances where recognition is possible.

The surrounding environment can have a great effect on the communication capabilities of mammals. For example, in the open African savannahs, some mammals can communicate over distances of 1km. However, in the Giant pandas’ natural habitat, bamboo plantations, the dense nature of the thickets make such distances impossible. Communication is especially important for solitary animals like Giant pandas: it is essential during mating season and coordinating with a potential mate.

The determination of these distances may shed light on the bears mating habits and allow conservationists to estimate population levels by monitoring vocal activity during the mating season.

Read more about this interesting story here!

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Banish zombies, reduce the symptoms of dementia

Removing ‘zombie cells’ from the brain may resist the effects of dementia. A study was conducted on mice which showed that senescent cells contribute to neurodegeneration and when removed, symptoms were ameliorated.

Senescent cells are cells that ‘sleep’ as your body ages. Previously thought to be inert and harmless, they play a part in the body’s defence against cancer – switching on senescence can halt uncontrolled growth. However, other recent studies have shed a different light on these cells, linking them to a range of diseases: diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s.

Examining mice with a genetic form of dementia showed that they accumulated senescent cells in regions of the brain related to memory and cognition, such as the hippocampus. However, when a genetically modified enzyme was administered, removing the senescent cells, some obvious symptoms of dementia disappeared.

Although the long-term effects of removing the senescent cells are not yet known, this may prove to be an exciting development in the area of drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

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Gene’s addiction

Gene therapists have developed a stem cell implant that can reduce the cravings for cocaine and prevent overdoses. The implant is genetically engineered to produce a modified Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) which can hydrolyse cocaine into harmless products thus eliminating the effects of an acute overdose.

This non-invasive method places the stem cell plant underneath the surface of the skin where it delivers the enzyme directly into the bloodstream. Tests on mice showed that when the implant was used, there was a significant reduction in the mice seeking out the addictive substance, as well as being able to withstand substantial doses of cocaine: equivalent to 12g in a 75kg human.

Showing no obvious side effects, this may be promising in protecting drug users from fatal overdoses and creating cocaine immunity.

Click here to read more about this interesting finding!

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