Do gut bacteria rule our minds?

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It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity.

In an article published this week in the journal BioEssays, researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way.

Bacterial species vary in the nutrients they need. Some prefer fat, and others sugar, for instance. But they not only vie with each other for food and to retain a niche within their ecosystem — our digestive tracts — they also often have different aims than we do when it comes to our own actions

Read more about the manipulative bacteria in our gut

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Making Huge Strides for Mobility

This exoskeleton, developed by UC Berkeley professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his team, helps people suffering from spinal cord injuries to walk again.

“Many paraplegics are not in a situation to afford a $100,000 device, and insurance companies don’t pay for these devices,” Kazerooni said. “Our job as engineers is to make something people can use.”

To make his exoskeleton affordable, he used the simplest possible technology: a computer and batteries in a backpack, actuators at the hips, and a pair of crutches with buttons that activate an exoskeleton that fits around the legs. The crutches provide stability, an important consideration for paraplegics navigating streets and sidewalks.

“The key is independence for these people,” he said. “I want them to get up in the morning and go to work, go to the bathroom, stand at a bar and have a beer.”

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Powering the world from space

The limitations of using solar power on earth can be anything from bad weather to just the fact that it needs to be daytime.  What if power could be collected both day and night, rain or shine? National Lab researchers at Lawrence Livermore are studying this possibility by launching solar satellites into space.

These orbiting power plants could always be positioned on the day side of earth high above any type of stormy weather.  One of the ways this could work is to have a string of geostationary satellites 35,000km above the earth’s surface that would transmit power back down to earth via microwaves.  Just one of these satellites could power a major US city.

The challenge comes with both the size and the cost.  A single satellite could be as big as 3-10km in diameter and need around 40 rocket launches to get all the materials into space.

Read more about this technology here 

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The squishiness of cancer cells

Cells are tiny, but what they can reveal about our health is profound.

A misshapen nucleus is bad news. For any given cell, the nucleus — the home of most of a cell’s genetic material — generally takes a fairly consistent shape. But when things go wrong and disease takes hold, the nucleus can become deformed.

UCLA’s Amy Rowat explains how an enlarged nucleus is a telltale sign of something gone awry. Corrupted cells with cancerous leanings take on a different texture to healthy cells. They are softer and more malleable, or, as Amy puts it, more “squishy.”

Her research investigates the texture and squishiness of cells in our body, which can have a huge impact on treatments for cancer and genetic disorders. Using tiny instruments, this change in cellular flexibility can be used to diagnose disease, and could one day help determine which treatments might be most suitable for each patient.

While the minutia of a nucleus may initially seem too tiny to focus on if we’re seeking to understand something as complex as cancer, the ‘squishiness’ of a cell may open up a vast array of innovations and breakthroughs. The significance of basic research is just as consequential as applied research. It seeks to answer larger, fundamental questions and offers the possibility of finding answers with wide ranging effects. Sometimes starting with a broader set of questions can lead to a variety of discoveries whose full impact cannot be known at the outset. A collaboration with the UCLA medical school means Rowat’s work could have a meaningful clinical impact on the study and treatment of cancer and other diseases.

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The Next Frontier of Medicine

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Following your gut takes on a whole new meaning as scientists find relationships between the brain and gut bacteria.

The next frontier of medicine isn’t in the depths of an Amazon jungle or in an air-conditioned lab; it’s in the rich and mysterious bacterial swamp of your gut. Long viewed as an enemy within, bacteria in the body have been subjected to a century-long war in which antibiotics have been the medical weapon of choice. But today, the scientific consensus about our body’s relationship with the trillions of microbes that call it home—collectively known as the microbiome—is changing dramatically. From potentially shaping our personalities to fighting obesity, the bacteria in our bellies play a much stronger role in our overall health than we once thought.

Developments in sequencing technology in the last decade have allowed scientists to better understand gut bacteria, and recent studies have shed light on how our digestive systems may mold brain structure when we’re young and influence our moods, feelings, and behavior when we’re adults. Scientists experimenting on mice have found links between gut bacteria and conditions similar to autism and anxiety in humans.

While it’s still early, the implications of better understanding how gut bacteria impacts our minds and bodies could change the way doctors treat myriad conditions, says Michael A. Fischbach, a microbiologist at UC San Francisco (UCSF). “If we use history as a guide, a lot of ideas probably won’t work out,” Fischbach says. “But even if one of them does, it’s a huge deal.”

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Microscopic Nanolasers

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From an electrical engineering researcher at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego:

“It resembles a mushroom cloud, but in fact, it’s one of our microscopic nanolasers, imaged under an electron microscope.  These lasers are among the smallest in the world, so small you could fit a billion of them on an iPhone home button, small enough to one day fit easily on a computer chip to help computers send data using light.

Here, you see the laser partway through our fabrication process, a process that can take a week or more.  In the previous step, the laser was coated with a puffy layer of glassy material, used to keep the laser light from leaking away and to keep the laser’s two electrical contacts separated. At the center beneath this smooth white layer lies the actual laser core.  When my labmate Qing gets to this step, it comes with a sense of relief, since the glassy layer helps strengthen the laser, keeping it from snapping in half.  When this laser’s eventually finished, it will be encapsulated in a thin shell of metal, and emit light through its base.”

The hope is that this technology will one day produce much faster computer chips.

Neuroscape Lab puts brain activity on vivid display

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In Adam Gazzaley’s new lab, the brain is a kaleidoscope of colors, bursting and pulsing in real time to the rhythm of electronic music.

The mesmerizing visual on the screen is a digital masterpiece — but the UC San Francisco neuroscientist has a much bigger aspiration than just creating art. He wants this to lead to treatments for a variety of brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, autism and multiple sclerosis.

Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., opened the Neuroscape Lab in March at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, where he’s developed a way to display a person’s brain activity while it’s thinking, sensing and processing information, allowing researchers to see what areas of the person’s brain are being triggered — or, in the case of certain diseases, not triggered.

Until recently, it was impossible to study brain activity without immobilizing the person inside a big, noisy machine or tethering him or her to computers. At the Neuroscape Lab, subjects can move freely to simulate real-world conditions.

One of its first projects was the creation of new imaging technology called GlassBrain, in collaboration with the Swartz Center at UC San Diego and Nvidia, which makes high-end computational computer chips. Brain waves are recorded through electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical potentials on the scalp, and projected onto the structures and connecting fibers of a brain image created with Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Diffusion Tensor Imaging.

To demonstrate the technology at the lab’s opening, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart donned an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and played a drumming video game designed to enhance brain function, while colorful images of his brain in action showed on the screen. Video games like NeuroDrummer are an entertaining and accessible way that Gazzaley is developing to train the brain.

“I want us to have a platform that enables us to be more creative and aggressive in thinking how software and hardware can be a new medicine to improve brain health,” said Gazzaley, an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center. “Often, high-tech innovations take a decade to move beyond the entertainment industry and reach science and medicine. That needs to change.”