Abstract Science: June 8-12
Bugging the mouse brain; the deadly path of MERS; bird flu; and the irreproducibility problem in science. This week in Abstract Science.
(Nature, 6/8/15, Elizabeth Gibney)
The human brain contains 100 billion neurons—with 100 trillion connections— surrounded by structural support cells closely packed together. Scientists would love to be able to track these cells and "listen" in neural conversations, but the field has been hindered by technology. However, findings from a Harvard-led study published in Nature Nanotechnology June 8 and highlighted in Nature News this week suggest it may be possible to wire the brain by simply injecting electrodes into the skull. The scientists implanted conductive polymer mesh consisting of 16 electrical elements into two brain regions of anesthesized mice, where they were able to both monitor and stimulate individual neurons. It's not exactly Steven Spielberg's "Innerspace," but being able to "bug" the brain suggests exciting new ways of studying brain activity. Researchers think the mesh might also be useful in treating movement disorders like Parkinson's disease.
(New York Times, 6/8/15, Choe Song-Hun)
Until recently, the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome was confined to people in that region—mostly Saudia Arabia—or those who had traveled there. But in early May, an outbreak surfaced in South Korea that has spread to at least 95 people and caused seven deaths. Over 2,500 people have been quarantined. One of the biggest unanswered questions about this current outbreak is how such a technologically advanced country could have missed the rash of cases finding their way to emergency rooms. The New York Times takes a closer look at the path of the MERS, which is caused by a coronavirus, finding that peculiarities in the country's health care system and a weak disease tracking system may have contributed to the virus' spread. Another five-alarm virus that global health authorities worry about is the H5N1 virus otherwise known as bird flu. Deadly outbreaks occur from time to time in Asia, but the US has never seen a human case. However, cases do occur in poultry from time to time, including an ongoing outbreak considered the worst in US history, Reuters reports.
(PLoS Biology, June 9, 2015, Leonard Freedman et al.)
There's no doubt that drugs and vaccines prolong lives, but not every idea hatched in the laboratory makes it to the bedside. In fact, about US$28 billion is spent yearly on preclinical research that can't be reproduced by other researchers, a Boston University perspective in PLoS Biology suggests. The authors said this means about 53% of preclinical studies have errors that mean they are not reproducible. Low producibility is an ongoing concern in the life sciences and there are already a number of efforts underway at the US National Institutes of Health as well as in academic settings and industry to address this problem. But a news update in Science about the PLoS Biology perspective found that some experts consider the estimates cited by the BU researchers too high to be believed and sensationalistic.
—Compiled by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery