Research stories

Storytelling by a piece of chewing gum, mechanical molecules against superbugs, and other top research news of the week

Impact Insider – Weekly Round Up of Trending Research

Volume 1 | Issue 3

Can’t stick to a diet? Blame your brain circuits!

Why is it so difficult for most people to be on a diet? You’ve said no to junk food (in your mind), but as soon as you hear your friend munching on potato chips, an irresistible urge makes you get some for yourself. Inevitably, you spend the next few hours feeling guilty, blaming yourself for being impulsive. In fact, impulsive eating is what causes serious health problems like binge eating, obesity, and diabetes, among others. In a Nature study, scientists identified the main culprit in impulsive eating habits. They showed that a specific circuit in our brain—which is controlled by melanin concentrating hormone—is the main cause of impulsive eating. Not only this, the scientists are hopeful that finding the exact cause of food impulsivity means that it can be targeted using appropriate drugs, in the hope of treating people facing adverse consequences of impulsive eating. This shows a glimmer of hope for a lot of us who can’t stick to a diet, even if our life depended on it.

The world in black and white: a peak into the mouse brain


For a long time, it was believed that the part of the brain responsible for assimilating black-and-white images responded only to the contrast between the colour tones. A recent study’s findings, however, question this established belief, and these findings were obtained in the most peculiar way.
In this study, scientists observed, using microscopes, the live brains of mice who were watching a classic 1958 film noir, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. They found that around 10 percent of the neurons in the brains of this curious audience responded as expected based on previous research findings, but the rest responded very differently. In fact, a large group of neurons, around one third of all cells studied, did not respond to any of the scenes.
What then, is the function of these neurons? What are the missing steps in the brain’s image processing pathway? The study asks more than it answers, but the findings are a promising map for further research.

A drill to kill: new whirlwind molecular weapon defeats superbugs

The human world today is at threat from an increasing number of nightmarish bacteria that have learnt to thicken their skins and lock out antibiotics. As part of the effort to keep these superbugs at bay, a laboratory at Rice University, Texas, has synthesized a molecular weapon that is lethal to them. The molecules have a paddle-like structure, and spin at a speed of 3 million rotations per second when activated by light. Since the superbugs recognize antibiotics based on their chemical effect, they are helpless against the mechanical boring of this molecule. At the lab, during tests on pneumonia bacteria, the drill alone killed a sizeable portion of the colony. And when antibiotics were sent in through the holes in the bacteria’s bodies, almost all the rest perished.
Plans are afoot to battle the deadly bacteria of skin wounds, intestinal infections, implant infections, and urinary tract infections, with this weapon, and more success is likely to be seen in the near future.

A human’s life history in a piece of chewing gum

 Blue eyed girl

Very recently, scientists from Europe fully sequenced a 5700-year-old human genome at an archeological site in Denmark, from nothing but—wait for it—a piece of contemporary chewing gum! The scientists say this gum was a resinous substance obtained upon heating birch bark—quite common at the time. They were able to provide eerily vivid and fascinating glimpses into the human’s life—she was a young girl with dark skin, black hair, and blue eyes; more closely related to hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe rather than from Scandinavia. DNA fragments of her last meal was also stuck in the gum, and the scientists deduced that the girl had been munching on hazelnuts and duck meat at the time! That’s not it: they also found some bacterial and viral DNA traces and showed that the girl had an Epstein-Barr virus infection. It’s thrilling to imagine that all of this information was provided by just a sequenced genome!

Male scientists praise themselves more than female scientists!

A recent analysis of 6.5 million medical research papers by Harvard University reveals that male scientists tend to call their studies “unprecedented,” “remarkable,” “excellent” and “novel” more often than female scientists do, which contributes enormously to gender differences in pay and promotions. The review covers multiple topics and papers from across different fields of study that have been published in high impact journals. In contrast, women tend to use topic-specific words, in a much-muted tone, possibly to give their research the best chance of acceptance by journals. The lead researcher of the group conjectures that perhaps women have been conditioned by criticism for using positive connotations.

Avantika Deo, Anupama Prakash,Rachana Bhattacharjee, Sharang Kolwalkar,Indrani Das

Image Credits:
‘Chips’ Valeria Boltneva from Pexels,
‘Monochrome’ Omar Alnahi from Pexels,
‘Bacteria’ & ‘Money’ Shutterstock,
‘Blue-eyed girl’ Tom Björklund

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