Could flickering lights fight Alzheimer's? Early research looks promising

An early feasibility study finds a potential new treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Photo by N Kamalov on Unsplash

For the past few years, Annabelle Singer and her collaborators have been using flickering lights and sound to treat mouse models of Alzheimer's disease, and they've seen some dramatic results.

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A cancer immunotherapy technique may prevent diabetes

Engineered immune cells have prevented Type 1 diabetes in mice.

Credit: GERARD JULIEN via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Nearly 2 million Americans suffer from type 1 diabetes — a condition that causes drastic spikes or drops in sugar levels and, in turn, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. It's a condition that must constantly be monitored, something that a lot of diabetics find mentally exhausting.

One diabetic, Naomi, told the BBC that she couldn't handle "the physical or mental challenges of diabetes anymore," and struggled to monitor her blood sugar levels multiple times a day. Naomi's struggle isn't unique — it's called diabetes burnout.

There's no cure for type 1 diabetes. However, researchers at the University of Arizona have adapted a cancer immunotherapy technique that has produced promising results in treating diabetes (in mice). The researchers engineered immune cells to fight off rogue T cells (immune cells that go haywire and attack the body) that can damage the pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes.

This new technique would prevent that from happening — and if it works in humans, it could be an exciting first step for diabetics like Naomi.

T cells and diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a kind of autoimmune disorder, which is hypothesized to occur when rogue T cells attack the pancreas's insulin-producing beta cells. As a result, a patient with type 1 diabetes is unable to regulate their blood sugar levels effectively.

Patients must take artificial insulin daily to avoid all this. If they don't, they run the risk of amputation, coma, or even death.

To prevent the development of this disease, scientists behind the new research, published this November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, planned to stop the attack at its source — the rogue, pathogenic T cell.

The research team bioengineered a T cell that looks and behaves just like the rogue T cell they're trying to eliminate, which they named 5MCAR.

This bioengineered T cell can target and kill the pathogenic T cells on its own or order natural T cells to do it. Both approaches are designed to prevent healthy pancreas cells from being attacked.

Michael Kuhns, the study's lead author and an associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona, says that this design was a way to take advantage of evolution's natural process instead of reinventing the wheel.

"We engineered a 5MCAR that would direct killer T cells to target autoimmune T cells that mediate type 1 diabetes. So now, a killer T cell will actually recognize another T cell. We flipped T cell-mediated immunity on its head," said Kuhns.

Essentially, the idea is that the engineered T cells would target the rogue T cells and turn the rest of the immune system against them, too — thus, stopping the damage that causes type 1 diabetes.

The results

To see how well this worked in practice, researchers tested their engineered T cells in a rodent model of type 1 diabetes and found that the engineered T cells were incredibly effective at finding and attacking rogue T cells.

"When we saw that the 5MCAR T cells completely eliminated the harmful T cells that invaded the pancreas, we were blown away," says Thomas Serwold, co-author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

"It was like they hunted them down. That ability is why we think that 5MCAR T cells have tremendous potential for treating diseases like type 1 diabetes."

The human question

Of course, success in mice models does not necessarily mean that this treatment will be effective in humans. Similar CAR T cell therapies have been approved by the FDA to treat blood cancers, but while they have shown early success, there have also been several deaths during clinical trials.

All and all, targeted T cell therapies may have a promising future for fighting these diseases and disorders, but further research will need to be done before these can confidently and effectively be brought to humans.

Scientists can induce out-of-body experiences without drugs

This discovery could lead to better treatments for PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and epilepsy.

Credit: Lucas Benjamin via Unsplash

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Feeling centered and in control of your body is a part of being human that we take for granted in our daily lives. But for millions of people suffering from post-traumatic stress, epilepsy, or another neuropsychiatric condition, this sense of self can slip out their hands in moments of "dissociation."

These dissociated states, which are often described as out-of-body experiences, are not inherently harmful in themselves, but they can be extremely disorienting and affect a person's quality of life. And even stranger than these moments is that scientists do not have a good understanding of how or why these states occur.

But new research published this September in the journal Nature may have just gotten closer to figuring it out than ever before — using mice, a human, and some advanced brain-scanning technology. This new knowledge could bring us closer to targeted treatments for PTSD and epilepsy.

The "God Helmet" Can Give You Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences

Starting With What We Know

While scientists did not know exactly what in the brain causes dissociative states, they did know that certain drugs, like ketamine, could also induce these states. So, to start, the researchers wanted to look into the brains of mice to see what was happening when ketamine sent them into the mouse-equivalent of a dissociative state.

To determine whether ketamine was in fact eliciting a unique brain state, researchers gave the mice a sampling of different sedative or hallucinogenic drugs, including two other drugs like ketamine known to cause dissociation.

The brain activity of these drugged mice showed electric oscillations in a part of the brain called the retrosplenial cortex — an area of the brain responsible for memory and navigation. Importantly these oscillations did not occur in response to other types of drugs, like LSD.

On a closer look, the researchers saw that these low-frequency oscillations were restricted to just a small part of the retrosplenial cortex. For a drug like ketamine, which causes activity across a wide swath of the brain, it was unexpected to see activity like this in such a concentrated area.

A Stimulating Time

To determine if these specific brain patterns and the dissociative states were actually connected, the researchers tried to elicit this response in the mice without ketamine, using neural stimulation. (Since mice can't actually express to scientists whether they're experiencing a dissociative state, the researchers went off their responses to physical indicators, like feeling their paws touch a hot plate but not licking them to cool down, instead.)

In these undrugged mice, scientists modified two proteins in the retrosplenial cortex to be sensitive to light and exposed them to alternating blue and yellow light as stimulation. When exposed to these lights, the mice displayed the same blunted responses to stimuli as they had when under the ketamine-induced state.

But what does this mean for humans? In a patient with pre-existing electrode implants in their brain, the research team stimulated an analogous part of the human brain and found they were able to reliably stimulate a dissociative state.

Future Implications

In addition to being an exciting discovery in itself, the researchers are also hopeful that further exploration of dissociative experiences in humans could lead to new targeted treatments for disorders that cause them, including PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and epilepsy.

Less tangible — but just as interesting — the study's senior author, Karl Deisseroth, said that this could help scientists better understand what chemical reactions in our brain create our sense of self.

"This study has identified brain circuitry that plays a role in a well-defined subjective experience," Deisseroth, a professor of bioengineering and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said. "Beyond its potential medical implications, it gets at the question, 'What is the self?' That's a big one in law and literature, and important even for our own introspections."

Electric eels and gladiator blood: the curious beginnings of modern medicine

Hippocrates overturned conventional wisdom and invented modern medicine.

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  • Ancient "medicine" once consisted of sacrificial offerings and divine petition. Disease was a supernatural infliction; health was a gift.
  • Hippocrates invented medical science, and his theory of the humors and holistic health dominated Western medical thought for more than two thousand years.
  • Today, medicine is much more disease centred, and perhaps something has been lost from the Hippocratic doctor-patient relationship.
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Ketamine infusion: The new therapy for depression, explained

The treatment is here, but are we ready?

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  • Ketamine is the first hallucinogen approved for therapeutic use in the U.S.
  • Research has shown ketamine is effective at treating depression.
  • Though ketamine infusion therapy is now being offered at hundreds of North American clinics, there are unaddressed dangers in the current ketamine gold rush.
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