Stay Sharper For Longer

With the advent of old age, incidences of misplaced keys and embarrassing moments of forgotten names occur more often. It is well understood that certain cognitive skills start to decline and others improve as you inch closer to becoming a senior citizen. Yet, there are some 70-year-olds who can still beat those at 50 on a memory test. How do they retain such abilities and how can that knowledge be used to our advantage?

Results emerging from a unique study ‘Midlife in the United States’ (MIDUS), have shown that there might indeed be ways to slow down the inevitable slide. Margie Lachman, psychologist at Brandeis University and principal investigator for MIDUS, found education to be the most essential element of mental fitness. For middle-agers, a university degree obtained during younger days can slow the brain’s aging process by up to a decade. Read more »

Little Brains in a Dish

In 1953, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the chemical structure of DNA turned biology upside down. Deciphering DNA as a molecular means of storing and passing on genetic information opened the genetic tool chest that now allows us to interact specifically with our genes. Now, six decades after Watson and Crick’s discovery, biology continues to gather momentum. As the most recent instalment of our rapidly-expanding knowledge of life, our generation has witnessed the birth of another revolutionary concept with enormous potential: stem cells. Read more »

Pericytes: Turn Your Fat Into Bones

“Like a spider on a tube”: this is how Professor Bruno Péault, Chair of Vascular Regeneration, describes his particular cell of interest. Pericytes, literally surrounding cells, can be found, as their name suggests, wrapped around small capillaries in the human body. They are stem cells, capable of generating cell types such as cartilage, bone, and smooth muscle and, although they were first described over a century ago, their true importance wasn’t established until very recently. Read more »

Much Ado About Snacking

Obesity in developed countries, in particular the United Kingdom and America, has reached epidemic proportions. Human beings, it seems, are hard-wired to steadily acquire reserves of fat over long time scales, eating a tiny excess of calories every day when food is in plentiful supply. A rough estimate suggests that eating a daily excess of 120 calories (or one chocolate biscuit) over the course of a decade results in a gain of 50 kg of fat. The amount of weight-loss products and designer diets has boomed in proportion to rich nation's waistlines, though this has had little clear impact on the incidence of obesity. Two recent studies tried to shed light on our eating habits, and how we might go about changing them. Read more »

Metabolic Syndrome and the Disease of Kings

What did Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Alexander the Great, and Henry VIII have in common? Apart from all being renowned historical figures, they all suffered from gout. Most people have heard of gout, but far fewer know any further details - aside from its associations with the hedonistic lifestyles of the privileged that founded gout’s popular handle: the ‘disease of kings’. This alias does not mean that if you are one of the gentry you will inevitably suffer from this form of arthritis, nor does it suggest that waking up in the middle of the night in agonising rheumatoid pain is indicative of a Euromillions win. Whilst gout has been shown to be linked to a richer, more luxurious diet it also has a close association with metabolic syndrome, a widespread disease, which knows no class boundaries. Read more »

Let there be life

Humanity is expected to live up to the imagination of science fiction writers and leave behind our Earth. In the words of the visionary Carl Sagan, so far we have only “waded a little way out” from the “shore of the cosmic ocean”. We landed on the Moon, set up camp on board the International Space Station (ISS), and recently completed the first private cargo trip to the ISS. Space colonization would require a giant leap forward, but we arguably already have the tools to make the gap Read more »

Currently in Transit

I remember my first viewing of a Venus transit vividly. It was during a physics lesson and I was thirteen years old. Our physics teacher led us out onto the school field, where he had set up a telescope that projected an image of the Sun onto a white piece of paper. It was a clear morning, perfect for viewing a transit. In small groups, we gathered around the telescope to see a small black circle move very slowly across the lower portion of the Sun’s face. No living person at the time had seen Venus pass in front of the Sun before, as the last transit was in 1882. Somehow, I felt quite lucky to be alive to witness such an event. I was fascinated by the little black circle of Venus, and even more so when my physics teacher told us that we might be lucky enough to see it once more in our lifetimes. Read more »

Dwarf Planets Come Out of the Shadows

You may remember the headlines: "Pluto demoted!", "Pluto loses status as planet". It was 2006, and the discoveries of planetary bodies similar in scale to Pluto led to astronomers re-defining what it meant to be a ‘Planet’. A leading astronomer in the field who has discovered several Pluto-sized objects, Michael Brown, has since adopted the informal moniker ‘Pluto Killer’ (he has also written a book: How I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming). But what are these planetary bodies that re-defined what we call a planet? Read more »

Magnifying the Potential of Mobile Phone Microscopes

If you’re not up on your geeky gadgets, you might have missed the recent spate of mini-microscopes that have surfaced over the past few years. Thanks to widely available consumer electronics, several nifty mobile phone hacks can now allow you to see the world up close. While recent advances put affordable and impressive magnifying power in your pocket, these smaller, cooler microscopes aren’t just gimmicks; they may be the key to revolutionising global medicine and sparking the public’s interest in science. Read more »

Khan Online Academy Change Science Education?

Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard graduate, had been helping his young cousin Nadia with her maths homework over Yahoo! Messenger, but when they couldn’t be online at the same time he began making video tutorials. To check her understanding, he added software that would generate questions related to the tutorial topic. Only once she could correctly answer 10 problems in a row was she allowed to move on to the next topic. Read more »

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