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Genetics: ‘Junk’ DNA inherited from our ancient ancestors could be rewiring our brains, study finds

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genetics junk dna inherited from our ancient ancestors could be rewiring our brains study finds

Some of our brain’s activity could be being guided by so-called ‘junk DNA’ we inherited from our ancient ancestors, a new study has concluded.

The human genome contains all the instructions needed to build and maintain our bodies — however half of it appears to be ‘junk’ that doesn’t code for any proteins.

Much of this mysterious extra DNA comes in the form of transposons — or ‘jumping genes’ — which can move around between people and appear in different places.

It is thought that transposons originated from ancient viruses — and can today be harmful if they have ‘jumped’ into a gene such as to disrupt cellular processes.

However, recently experts have proposed that this ‘junk’ information may in fact play an active and beneficial role in our bodies. 

Working with flies, expert from the University of Oxford have found that transposons appear to be related to specific genes that control our behaviour and emotions.

Some of our brain's activity could be being guided by so-called 'junk DNA' we inherited from our ancient ancestors, a new study has concluded

Some of our brain’s activity could be being guided by so-called ‘junk DNA’ we inherited from our ancient ancestors, a new study has concluded

At Oxford’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, researchers have been investigating transposon activity in unprecedented detail in the brains of fruit flies — which are used a model organism — by means of so-called single-cell sequencing.

Their findings showed that transposons are not active across the whole fly brain, but instead operate in certain areas only, forming distinct patterns of expression.

Moreover, these patterns appeared to be linked to genes located near transposons — suggesting that this ‘junk’ DNA may in fact play a beneficial role in our bodies. 

To investigate further, molecular biologist Christoph Treiber and colleagues used software tools they developed to explore how transposons are expressed.

They found that transposons segments are often part of the messenger RNA sent from neural genes in the cell nucleus out to the cytoplasm where proteins are made.

This suggests that transposons may be used to alter neural function — and act on genes that have roles in such brain activities as the formation of memories and the sleep-wake cycle.

‘We know that animal genomes are selfish and changes that are not beneficial often don’t prevail,’ said Dr Treiber.

‘Since transposons are parts of hundreds of genes in every fly strain that we looked at, we think these physical links likely represent an advantage for the fly.’

‘We now want to understand the impact of these new alleles on the behaviour of individual animals.’

‘Transposons might broaden the range of neuronal function in a fly population, which in turn could enable a few individuals to react more creatively in challenging situations,’ he added.

‘Also, our preliminary analyses show that transposons might play a similar role in our brain,’ said Dr Treiber.

‘Since every person has a unique transposon “fingerprint”, our findings could be relevant to the need to personalise pharmacological treatments for patients with neurological conditions.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Genome Research.

DNA AND RNA EXPLAINED: THE MOLECULES THAT CONTAIN THE GENETIC INFORMATION FOR LIFE

DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – is widely known as the molecule found in the nucleus of all our cells that contains genetic information.

It is shaped like a double-helix and made of small sections called nucleotides. 

Each nucleotide contains a nucleobase, a sugar, and a phosphate group.

The sugar component in this particular molecule is called deoxyribose and makes up the D in DNA.

This is a cyclic carbon-based chemical with five carbon atoms arranged as a pentagon.

At the second carbon atom there is an attached singular hydrogen atom in deoxyribose.

This can also have an additional oxygen attached as well. 

In this case, the oxygenated chemical then forms what is simply known as ribose – the R in RNA. 

The deoxy prefix literally means without oxygen.

Shape of RNA and DNA

RIbose can do almost everything deoxyribose can and also codes for genetic information in some cells and organisms.  

When the oxygen is present it drastically alters how the chemicals bonds and sits alongside other molecules. 

When oxygen is present – in RNA – it can take a variety of shapes. 

When oxygen is not present in this specific location – in DNA – the molecule forms as the iconic double helix. 

Uses of RNA 

DNA is often broken down into RNA and read by the cells in order to translate and transcribe the genetic code in order to make proteins and other molecules essential for life. 

RNA uses three of the same base pairs as DNA: Cytosine, Guanine, Adenine.

The othe base pair, Thymine, is swapped out in RNA for Uracil. 

RNA is also often found in simpler organisms, such as bacteria. 

It is often also a virus, with Hepatitis, flu and HIV all forms of RNA. 

Mitochondrial RNA 

All animal cells use DNA, with one notable exception: the mitochondria.

Mitochondrian are the powerhouses of the cell and turn glucose into pyruvate and then into Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) via the Krebs cycle. 

This process is all done in this one organelle in the cells and ATP is the universal form of energy and used throughout every aerobic organism. 

In the mitochondria there is a small strand of RNA which is unique in the animal kingdom. 

It is passed down from the mother exclusively (the father’s lives in the sperm but is dissolved during fertilisation) and allows humans to trace their maternal lineage back throughout time.  

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AI is trained to ‘predict’ academic performance based on test scores and social posts

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ai is trained to predict academic performance based on test scores and social posts

It may be difficult to predict how well a student will perform academically, but a new innovation can do so just by looking at their tweets – and with more than 93 percent accuracy.

A computer model trained on thousands of test scores and one million social media posts to distinguishing between high academic achievers and lower ones based on textual features shared in posts.

The technology, powered by artificial intelligence, determined that students who discuss scientific and cultural topics, along with writing lengthy posts and words are likely to perform well.

However, those who use an abundance of emojis, words or entire phrases written in in capital letters and vocabulary related to horoscopes, driving and military service tend to receive lower grades in school.

The team notes that by ‘predict’ they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned.

The use of capitalized words, emojis and exclamations were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance. On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users' texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance

The use of capitalized words, emojis and exclamations were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance. On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users' texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance

The use of capitalized words, emojis and exclamations were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance. On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users’ texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance

The study was conducted by a team from the National Research University Higher School of Economics, which employed a prediction model that uses mathematical textual analysis capable of rating words, phrases, topics and other content in social media posts.

Ivan Smirnov, the lead researcher, is the mastermind behind the system and experiment gathered test scores from 2,468 students who took the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA), which is a testing system used to measure pupils’ performance in math, science and reading.

Along with the exam, the dataset included more than 130,00 social media posts from the European social media site VKontakte – a Facebook alternative. 

 The results were compared with the average Unified State Exam, which is the equivalent to the SAT test in the US.

Highest scores include (orange): English words; Words related to literature ; Concepts related to reading; Terms and names related to physics; Words related to thought processes. The lower scores (green) included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service, horoscope terms , and words related to driving and car accidents

Highest scores include (orange): English words; Words related to literature ; Concepts related to reading; Terms and names related to physics; Words related to thought processes. The lower scores (green) included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service, horoscope terms , and words related to driving and car accidents

Highest scores include (orange): English words; Words related to literature ; Concepts related to reading; Terms and names related to physics; Words related to thought processes. The lower scores (green) included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service, horoscope terms , and words related to driving and car accidents

In total, more than 1 million posts of almost 39,000 users were analyzed.

The team also gathered posts shared by students, with their consent, from the European social media site VKontakte – a Facebook alternative.

A total of 130,575 posts were used as the training sample for the prediction model, along with PISA tests.

When developing and testing the model from the PISA test, only students’ reading scores were used an indicator of academic aptitude.

Altogether, the system was trained on 1.9 billion words, with 2.5 million unique words – and the model went to work with ranking textual features in posts.

The use of capitalized words (-0.08), emojis (-0.06) and exclamations (-0.04) were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance.

On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users’ texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance (from 0.07 to 0.16, respectively).

Smirnov explored the resulting model by selecting 400 words with the highest and lowest scores that appear at least 5 times in the training sample. 

The team notes that by 'predict' they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned

The team notes that by 'predict' they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned

The team notes that by ‘predict’ they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned

The cluster with the highest scores include: English words (above, saying, yours, must); Words related to literature (Bradbury, Fahrenheit, Orwell, Huxley, Faulkner, Nabokov, Brodsky, Camus, Mann); Concepts related to reading (read, publish, book, volume); Terms and names related to physics (Universe, quantum, theory, Einstein, Newton, Hawking); Words related to thought processes (thinking, memorizing).

The second batch that indicated lower scores included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service (army, oath, etc.), horoscope terms (Aries, Sagittarius), and words related to driving and car accidents (collision, traffic police, wheels, tuning).

‘Based on these rules, our model identified students with high and low academic performance using Vkontakte posts with an accuracy of up to 94%. We also tried to apply it to short texts on Twitter – successfully,’ says Smirnov. 

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Convalescent plasma therapy DOESN’T cut the risk of dying from Covid-19

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convalescent plasma therapy doesnt cut the risk of dying from covid 19

A scientific trial has poured cold water on the hope that the blood plasma of recovered Covid-19 patients is an effective treatment for the disease. 

Convalescent plasma had shown promise in early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it does not prevent death or severe symptoms.  

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. 

Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient’s prognosis.  

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Convalescent plasma had shown promise in some early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it to be ineffective.

Convalescent plasma had shown promise in some early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it to be ineffective.

Convalescent plasma had shown promise in some early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it to be ineffective.  

It had been previously believed that blood plasma, a yellowish liquid in our blood which contains the antibodies to fight off viruses, could help treat Covid-19. 

In August, US President Donald Trump announced the FDA has given an emergency use authorisation for convalescent plasma to be used as a Covid-19 treatment. 

Other countries, including Britain, have been stockpiling blood plasma so the treatment could be rolled out if it proved effective. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK’s first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma

The findings of the new study, led by Professor Aparna Mukherjee at the Indian Council of Medical Research and Dr Elizabeth Pathak at the Women’s Institute for Independent Social Enquiry, were published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Professor Mukherjee said: ‘As a potential treatment for patients with moderate Covid-19, convalescent plasma showed limited effectiveness.

‘Future research could explore using only plasma with high levels of neutralising antibodies, to see if this might be more effective.’

The study tracked how patients responded to the treatments after one, three, five and seven days. They were also checked 14 and 28 days post treatment. 

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient's prognosis

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient's prognosis

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient’s prognosis

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK's first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma earlier this year

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK's first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma earlier this year

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK’s first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma earlier this year 

At the four-week mark, 44 (19 per cent) of participants in the plasma group either died or their condition worsened and was classed as ‘severe disease’. 

For the control cohort, only 41 people (18 per cent) died or deteriorated. 

The researchers randomised the study to ensure the only difference between the two groups of people was whether or not they received the plasma of a recovered patient.   

Dr Pathak said: ‘This rigorous trial shows that convalescent plasma is ineffective for Covid-19, and its implications should be carefully considered by both safety monitoring and institutional review boards.

There was no difference among patients who had received blood plasma with high levels of antibodies, the researchers also found.

Dr Pathak said: ‘As such, they say, in settings with limited laboratory capacity, convalescent plasma does not reduce 28 day mortality or progression to severe disease in patients admitted to hospital with moderate covid-19.’

However, blood plasma transfusions did improve patients shortness of breath and fatigue, the researchers found.

There were also signs the virus was being neutralised by the plasma’s antibodies after seven days, but this did not prevent the patient’s condition from deteriorating by day 28.

WHAT IS CONVALESCENT PLASMA AND WHERE HAS IT BEEN USED?

Convalescent plasma has been used to treat infections for at least a century, dating back to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.  

It was also trialed during the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza virus pandemic, 2003 SARS epidemic, and the 2012 MERS epidemic. 

Convalescent plasma was used as a last resort to improve the survival rate of patients with SARS whose condition continued to deteriorate.

It has been proven ‘effective and life-saving’ against other infections, such as rabies and diphtheria, said Dr Mike Ryan, of the World Health Organization.

‘It is a very important area to pursue,’ Dr Ryan said.

Although promising, convalescent plasma has not been shown to be effective in every disease studied, the FDA say.

Is it already being used for COVID-19 patients?

Before it can be routinely given to patients with COVID-19, it is important to determine whether it is safe and effective through clinical trials.

The FDA said it was ‘facilitating access’ for the treatment to be used on patients with serious or immediately life-threatening COVID-19 infections’.

It came after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that plasma would be tested there to treat the sickest of the state’s coronavirus patients.  

COVID-19 patients in Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai are being treated with this method, authorities report. 

Lu Hongzhou, professor and co-director of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, said in February the hospital had set up a special clinic to administer plasma therapy and was selecting patients who were willing to donate. 

‘We are positive that this method can be very effective in our patients,’ he said.

Meanwhile, the head of a Wuhan hospital said plasma infusions from recovered patients had shown some encouraging preliminary results.

The MHRA has approved the use of the therapy in the UK, but it has not been revealed which hospitals have already tried it. 

How does it work? 

Blood banks take plasma donations much like they take donations of whole blood; regular plasma is used in hospitals and emergency rooms every day.

If someone’s donating only plasma, their blood is drawn through a tube, the plasma is separated and the rest infused back into the donor’s body.

Then that plasma is tested and purified to be sure it doesn’t harbor any blood-borne viruses and is safe to use.

For COVID-19 research, people who have recovered from the coronavirus would be donating.  

Scientists would measure how many antibodies are in a unit of donated plasma – tests just now being developed that aren’t available to the general public – as they figure out what’s a good dose, and how often a survivor could donate.

There is also the possibility that asymptomatic patients – those who never showed symptoms or became unwell – would be able to donate. But these ‘silent carriers’ would need to be found via testing first.

Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda is working on a drug that contains recovered patients antibodies in a pill form, Stat News reported. 

Could it work as a vaccine? 

While scientists race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, blood plasma therapy could provide temporary  protection for the most vulnerable in a similar fashion. 

A vaccine trains people’s immune systems to make their own antibodies against a target germ. The plasma infusion approach would give people a temporary shot of someone else’s antibodies that are short-lived and require repeated doses.

If US regulator the FDA agrees, a second study would give antibody-rich plasma infusions to certain people at high risk from repeated exposures to COVID-19, such as hospital workers or first responders, said Dr Liise-anne Pirofski of New York’s Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

That also might include nursing homes when a resident becomes ill, in hopes of giving the other people in the home some protection, she said.

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Alcohol: Number of Britons who gave up smoking more than DOUBLED after lockdown

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alcohol number of britons who gave up smoking more than doubled after lockdown

Twice as many people completely quit smoking after the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found. 

Researchers from University College London (UCL) analysed a series of surveys that are taken monthly to examine people’s smoking, drinking and quitting habits. 

They found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

Twice as many people quit smoking — and tried to quit — after the the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found

Twice as many people quit smoking — and tried to quit — after the the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found

Twice as many people quit smoking — and tried to quit — after the the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found

‘The fact we saw rates of quit attempts and cessation increase after the start of lockdown is encouraging,’ said paper author and behavioural scientist Sarah Jackson of University College London.

‘It may be that the pandemic has made people more concerned about the effects of smoking on their respiratory health.’

The World Health Organisation has warned that smoking — which impairs lung function — may make people more susceptible to COVID-19.

However, a number of studies have suggested that incidence rates of SARS-CoV-2 may be lower among smokers than the rest of the population.

‘Stopping smoking brings immediate benefits to health, including for people with an existing smoking-related disease. Now is a fantastic opportunity to join the hundreds of thousands of other people quitting in England,’ Dr Jackson added.

‘Quitting may also have the added benefit of reducing demands on our NHS during these difficult times,’ she noted.

In their study, Dr Jackson and colleagues compared survey data collected as part of the  ‘Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit Studies’ taken from April 2019–February 2020 with similar collected during April 2020, at which point the UK had entered lockdown.

On average, around 1,717 people participated in the monthly surveys before lockdown — while there were 1,674 respondents in April 2020.

The team found that the number of attempts to quit smoking — defined as any serious attempt to give up in the preceding 12 months — increased from an average of around 29.1 per cent before lockdown to around 39.6 per cent in April 2020.

Successful efforts to stop smoking, meanwhile, more than doubled going into lockdown — rising from 4.1 per cent before to 8.8 per cent after.

The survey result also revealed an increased uptake in remote cessation support by smokers during lockdown — with such coming in the form of apps, websites and quitting support telephone lines.

While lockdown appears to have increased the desire to quit smoking, it did not have the same kind of effect on drinking, however — with the prevalence of binge drinking having increased from 25.1 to 38.3 per cent. 

Furthermore, use of evidence-based alcohol support was seen to decrease after the pandemic began — with no counteracting increase in the use of remote support.

The researchers also found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

The researchers also found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

The researchers also found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

‘The observed increase in high-risk drinking is a serious cause for concern and requires a public health response,’ said paper author and behavioural scientist Jamie Brown, also of University College London.

‘The recent Commission on Alcohol Harm recommended investment in services and measures to reduce affordability,’ he added.

‘These findings also have a possible implication for the pandemic: excessive alcohol consumption may reduce vigilance around social distancing and adherence to other protective behaviours.’ 

With their initial study complete, the team are looking to expand their analysis to incorporate addition months after lockdown began.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Addiction. The researchers are also recruiting smokers to take part in a larger study — more information on which can be found on their website.

SMOKING AND THE CORONAVIRUS

Many studies have shown a low prevalence of smokers in hospitals with COVID-19. 

When smokers do get diagnosed with the virus, however, they appear to be more likely to get so sick that they need ventilation, two studies in the review showed. 

If the findings are proven, scientists say it’s likely that it is not cigarettes – filled with thousands of harmful chemicals – that would offer a potential protection, but the nicotine that is beneficial. 

A theory touted by scientists is that nicotine reduces ACE-2 receptors, which are proteins in the body the virus binds to in order to infect cells.

The coronavirus enters cells inside the body via the structures, which coat the surface of some cells, including in the airways and lungs.   

If nicotine does lowers ACE-2 expression, it makes it harder for viral particles to gain entry into cells and therefore cause an infection.  

On the other hand, other studies show that nicotine enhances the action of the ACE-2 receptor, which in theory, puts smokers at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.  

Other scientists say low levels of ACE-2 expression as a result of nicotine may prevent worse damage from viral infection, and there is no evidence that says higher quantities of ACE-2 receptors increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first place.

Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, from the University of West Attica, Greece, who queried whether nicotine could be a cure for COVID-19 in a paper published on May 9, said: ‘Up-regulation of ACE2, though seemingly paradoxical, may in fact protect patients from severe disease and lung injury.’ 

A 2008 study in mice found that getting rid of ACE-2 made the animals more likely to suffer severe breathing difficulties when infected with the SARS virus, which is almost identical to COVID-19.   

Other scientists have turned their head towards nicotine’s ability to prevent inflammation, where evidence is more robust.  

Nicotine has been shown inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF, IL-1 and IL-6, which are involved in promoting an inflammatory response. 

A ‘cytokine storm’ is a phenomenon in which an abundance of cytokines are released in response to infection.   

Doctors have previously said that it’s often the body’s response to the virus, rather than the virus itself, that plays a major role in how sick a person gets. 

A cytokine storm can lead to respiratory failure and the attack of healthy tissues, causing multi-organ failure. 

Therefore, the cytokine storm is being looked at as a target for COVID-19 treatment.  

‘Nicotine has effects on the immune system that could be beneficial in reducing the intensity of the cytokine storm,’ Dr Farsalinos wrote in Internal and Emergency Medicine.

‘The potential benefits of nicotine…. could explain, at least in part, the increased severity or adverse outcome among smokers hospitalized for COVID-19 since these patients inevitably experience abrupt cessation of nicotine intake during hospitalization.

‘This may be feasible through repurposing already approved pharmaceutical nicotine products such as nicotine patches.’ 

Dr Nicola Gaibazzi, who recently published findings on MedRxiv of ‘very low’ numbers of smokers in Italian COVID-19 patients, speculates smoke exposure may bolster the immune system.

He said exposure to cigarette smoke reduces the body’s immune system over time, measured by lower inflammatory markers. 

Therefore, when smokers are infected with a virus like SARS-CoV-2, their immune system is more ‘tolerant’ and does not overreact. 

On the other hand, non-smokers may be more prone to having the sudden and deadly cytokine storm when they are infected with the virus.  

Scientists have stressed that the evidence supporting nicotine as a medicine does not mean everyone should take up smoking. 

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