Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
In response to devastating hurricanes, Dominican anoles have developed a grip that's 10 times stronger. Are we witnessing evolution in real time?
- After Hurricane Maria, anole species on the island of Dominica developed super strong grips.
- This development may be one of the fasted rates of evolutionary change ever recorded.
- Climate change will likely to result in more intense hurricanes, but not all species will adapt so quickly.
Creating more neural circuits through visual landmarking not only benefits your spatial orientation, it could keep Alzheimer's disease at bay.
- Journalist M.R. O'Connor writes "paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment" could help offset neurodegenerative diseases.
- The initial signs of dementia are short-term memory loss and disorientation; both deal with spatial orientation in some capacity.
- While getting lost is no fun, visual landmarking is an extremely important skill.
It's a big, bold plan.
- At an Amazon event, actor Robert Downey Jr. announced plans to launch a foundation that would use robots and nanotechnology to clean up the environment.
- The foundation is called the Footprint Coalition. Details of the foundation's plans are unclear.
- Researchers are exploring a variety of ways that nanotechnology could help protect the environment.
Speaking at Amazon's Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas this week, Robert Downey Jr. announced plans to start a foundation that would use robotics and nanotechnology to clean up the planet. In true Tony Stark fashion, his goal is bold.
"Between robotics and nanotechnology, we could clean up the planet significantly, if not totally, in 10 years," said Downey Jr., adding that he'd been speaking with experts about the plan, according to Variety. "God I love experts. They're like Wikipedia with character defects."
Downey Jr. posted a snippet of his talk on Instagram.
The actor said he's concerned about the environment.
"I have this quiet sense of crisis," he said, acknowledging that his lifestyle has been less than environmentally-friendly, according to Variety. "I'm a one-man carbon footprint nightmare colossus."
The foundation is called the Footprint Coalition, and it'll reportedly launch in April 2020, though it's unclear exactly what it plans to do. A website for the foundation currently lists a newsletter sign-up but little else. Downey Jr. is also currently working on an eight-episode YouTube docu-series about A.I. that's scheduled to air sometime in 2019.
How could nanotechnology improve the environment?
Researchers are exploring a variety of ways that nanotechnology — which seeks to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular level — could help protect the environment and curb climate change. Some examples include improving the efficiency of solar panels, generating less pollution during manufacturing, cleaning up oil spills, and creating stronger, lighter materials.
But one of the most exciting potential applications for nanotechnology, in relation to the environment, lies in using nanomaterials to convert CO2 to make products.
"Nanomaterials can convert carbon dioxide into useful products like alcohol," Arun Chattopadhyay, a member of the chemistry faculty at the Center for Nanotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, told Scientific American. "The materials could be simple chemical catalysts or photochemical in nature that work in the presence of sunlight."
But the main problem with this approach — and with most nanotechnology strategies — is cost; it's still unclear how to make nanotechnology economically viable. What's more, the extremely tiny scale of nanoparticles raises unique questions about potential health risks. Still, it's entirely possible researchers will find ways to surpass both of these barriers as nanotechnology continues to get cheaper.
When it comes to leadership, we're quite picky on who we let govern us.
- Research suggests that human beings are equipped for, and even prefer, a kind of mild hierarchy.
- However, there is a certain alchemy behind successful leaders. For instance, we don't want leaders that are too powerful or too autocratic or are too able to impose punishment on ourselves.
- The best leaders foster connections, friendships, and cooperation among their subordinates.
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