This electron microscopic image of two Epstein Barr Virus virions (viral particles) shows round capsids—protein-encased genetic material—loosely surrounded by the membrane envelope. Credit: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030430.g001
It was a good year for medical science as a team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center reported that the Epstein-Barr virus could be linked to seven serious diseases. Best known for causing mononucleosis, it was also found to play a role in systemic lupus, erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and type 1 diabetes.
And a team with members from the University of Milan and the University of Pavia found that leg exercise is critical to brain and nervous system health. In their study with mice, the researchers found that restricting movement for a period of 28 days led to a reduced number of neural stem cells by 70 percent, and neurons did not fully mature.
A team at the University of Reading found that bilingual children who spoke their native language at home had higher intelligence than did those who spoke only one language. They found that Turkish children who spoke one language at school and another at home scored better on IQ tests.
And a team at the Stanford University School of Medicine announced that they had developed a cancer ‘vaccine’ that eliminated tumors in mice. Injecting small amounts of immune-stimulating agents directly into solid tumors caused the immune system to attack the tumors, resulting in the elimination of all traces of them—including distant cells that had metastasized.
Also, a combined team of researchers from the University of Aberdeen and the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that fat consumption is the only cause of weight gain. In their study with mice, they found that sugar and carbohydrates did not lead to weight gain no matter how much was consumed.
And a team with members from South Africa and Germany found that footwear habits influenced child and adolescent motor skill development. In studying children in South Africa, they found that children who went mostly barefoot from age six to 10 developed better motor skills. They found going shoeless improved balance and made them better jumpers.
Also, a study led by Eric Brewe of Drexel University showed that new parts of the brain become active after students learn physics. They found that a part of the brain not normally associated with learning science became active when students worked on physics problems. Their study using fMRI showed that learning physics activated the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.
And a team at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that a ritual for orthodox Jewish men may offer heart benefits. They found that the practice of wearing tefillin during daily prayers could offer some cardiovascular benefits. Tefillin involves tightly wrapping the non-dominant arm with a strap, which could be protective against acute ischemic reperfusion injury.
Another team of researchers made headlines this past year when they announced that most popular vitamin and mineral supplements provide no health benefits. The group with members from St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto conducted a systematic review of popular vitamins and supplements over the years 2012 to 2017 and found the majority offered no positive benefits whatsoever.
Also, a team at UC Davis unveiled human images from the world’s first total-body scanner. Called EXPLORER, the imaging system captures 3-D imagery of the entire human body all at once. The images can be viewed as a rotating figure with internal organs on display. The researchers combined PET and CT scanners to create the new system and reports that image captures take just a few seconds.
And a team at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences found that the brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently. Thirty professional musicians engaged in piano exercises while the researchers studied their brainwaves using EEG sensors attached to their heads. The researchers found that different musical genres require musicians to take different approaches to planning and weighing the steps involved in playing the piano.
Also, a team at the Medical College of Georgia found a link between probiotic use and brain fogginess and severe bloating. They found that patients taking probiotics had large colonies of bacteria breeding in their small intestines, which led to severe bloating and the production of D-lactic as a byproduct of fermentation. Prior research has shown that D-lactic can lead to problems with cognition, thinking and the perception of time.
And a pair of researchers with the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Norway found that IQ scores have been dropping since the 1970s. In their study of 730,000 men entering the national service between the years 1970 to 2009, Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg found that volunteer scores had dropped by an average of seven points per generation.
Also, a team led by Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg, found that a core thinking error underlies beliefs in creationism and conspiracy theories. In their study, 150 college students answered questionnaires, and the researchers found a connection between belief in creationism and conspiracy theories. They suggest this example of teleological thinking is due to a perception of final causes and overriding purpose in naturally occurring events and entities.
And John Leach with the University of Portsmouth reported that people can die from giving up the fight. In his research efforts, he found instances of people simply losing the will to live—quite often after surviving a traumatic event. He notes that giving up the will to live is not the same as suicide, as victims do not cause their own deaths directly; their bodies simply react to their desire to cease living.
Also, a team at the Medical College of Georgia found that drinking baking soda could be an inexpensive, safe way to combat autoimmune disease. They found daily consumption of the common baking ingredient resulted in signaling to the spleen (or more precisely its mesothelial cells) that prevented it from setting off unnecessary autoimmune alarms.
And a team with members from several institutions in the U.K. and one in the U.S. reported that e-cigarette vapor disables key immune cells in the lungs and boosts inflammation. More specifically, they found that the vapor impaired the activity of alveolar macrophages that are responsible for keeping the lungs clean and free of dust, bacteria and allergens. With their activity impaired, a person would be more susceptible to infections and inflammation.
In an unrelated study, a team led by Silvia Balbo gave a presentation at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, reporting evidence that e-cigarettes can damage DNA. They identified three compounds in e-cigarette vapor that were responsible for the damage: formaldehyde, acrolein and methylglyoxal.
A team at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky found that the Ketogenic Diet appears to prevent cognitive decline in mice. The diet, which is heavy on fats and light on carbohydrates, has been popular in the media for most of the year, and appears to offer more than just weight loss. They found it improved neural blood flow, improved the gut biome balance, lowered glucose levels and resulted in weight loss in mice. They also found it helped clear amyloid-beta from the brain—the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
And a team led by Ido Kanter from Bar-Ilan University reports evidence that the brain learns completely differently than we’ve assumed since the 20th century. Since the 1940s, medical scientists have believed that the brain learns by modifying the strength of the synapse. In this new effort, the researchers found evidence of changes to the brain during learning in dendrites—the long arms of neurons. This finding suggests learning is more complicated in the brain than has been thought.
Also, Mel Greaves with The Institute of Cancer Research in the U.K. revealed the likely cause of childhood leukemia. He suggested that the disease happens due to a two-step process. The first is a genetic mutation and the second is exposure to some type of infectious agent. He further suggested that these findings indicated that the disease may be preventable by stimulating the immune system in infants.
And The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in the U.S. produced a report for the Lancet claiming that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Their findings overturned previous studies suggesting that consumption of small amounts of alcohol might have health benefits. The study was part of the Global Burden of Disease effort, and concluded that there are no beneficial health outcomes from alcohol, only negative ones.
The World Health Organization added a revision to its classification manual that suggested compulsive video game playing could be a mental health problem. The problem, they said, was that it could lead to an adverse mental health condition in which a gamer becomes addicted and unable to stop playing. They suggested it is already adversely impacting gamers and their families.
And a team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital reported that the gut influences neurologic disease. In studies involving animal models and human cells, they found a pathway between immune and brain cells that involved central nervous system cells in the brain. They also found that microglia can secrete compounds that induce neurotoxic properties in brain cells, leading to many neurological diseases.
And finally, a team at the University of Wisconsin reported evidence that yogurt may dampen chronic inflammation linked to multiple diseases. More specifically, they found that the effect results from yogurt improving the integrity of the intestinal lining. Their study involved monitoring 120 pre-menopausal women, half of whom were obese, who ate yogurt for nine weeks.