Discovered: We may not have to get yearly flu shots in the near future; brain stimulation causes Tourette's tics; looking for ALS answers in yeast; what separates overeaters from food addicts?
Yearly flu shots could soon be a thing of the past. While other immunizations last for years—even decades—flu vaccines need to be updated every year to effectively prevent people from being susceptible to the virus. Gary J. Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hopes to end the hassle of making people return year after year for a new flu shot. "That’s the goal: two shots when you’re young, and then boosters later in life," he tells The New York Times' Carl Zimmer. "That’s where we’d like to go." And Nabel thinks we'll get there soon, thanks in part to research from Oxford University's Sarah Gilbert. She and her colleagues are working on new vaccines that boost the immune system's virus-killing T cells, rather than the B cells that produce antibodies which latch onto viruses to prevent them from entering cells. The difference would mean going after the base structure of flu viruses, rather than addressing their year-to-year evolution, as current vaccines do. Flu strains kill approximately 500,000 people per year, and a flu pandemic could kill untold millions. [The New York Times]
Computer-generated Tourette's. Hypothesizing that symptoms of Tourette's are caused by over-stimulation of the brain's supplementary motor area, a team of researchers led by Heinrich Heine University's Jennifer Finis wanted to see if they could make Tourette's-free subjects exhibit one of the disease's characteristic tics. The symptom in questions is echophenomena, basically the mimicking of other people's movements and behaviors. The researchers hooked patients up to a machine delivering repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to their supplementary motor areas, finding that those who had this brain region overstimulated through rTMS were three times more likely to mime the movements of someone in a video than the control group. "We suspect that this is a mechanism that might underlie tics more generally than just echophenomena in people with Tourette's syndrome," says Peter Enticott of Monash University in Melbourne, who participated in the research. [New Scientist]
The line between overeating and food addiction. "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," says Kate Moss, who apparently doesn't understand the mind of a food addict. Scientists have been doing lots of research into food cravings lately, and Kelly Brownell of Yale University even developed a Food Addiction Scale to differentiate between overeaters and full-blown junk food junkies. The National Institute on Drug Abuse put forth $6 million toward studying food addiction in 2011. Addicts are drawn to low-nutrient, high calorie food in particular. Rockefeller University neurobiologist Sarah Leibowitz has shown that this kind of fare triggers neurochemical responses in rats—effects not too different from the biological rewards drug addicts experience. And Jeffrey Zigman of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has shown that the hormone ghrelin plays a key role in both drug addiction and compulsive over-eating. Zigman says neurons triggered while binge-eating "likely are the same neurons as when you’re talking about drug reward." Scientists and public health officials will have an uphill battle convincing skeptics that donuts should be viewed as warily as cigarettes, but the study of addiction is certainly starting to show evidence that food and drugs aren't so different for some people. [The Daily Beast]
ALS treatments come be grown from yeast. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known to many as Lou Gehrig's disease, is one of the most heartbreaking diseases. It's a neurodegenerative condition that slowly but fatally robs sufferers of their ability to move, speak, and breathe, and it has no cure and only minimally effective treatments. For a disease as complicated and scientifically baffling as ALS, an extremely simple organism like yeast seems like a strange place to look for treatments. But Standford Univeristy's Aaron Gitler and colleagues have found promising results from studying yeast, and say that their findings could lead to therapies. "Even though yeast and humans are separated by a billion years of evolution, we were able to use the power of yeast genetics to identify an unexpected potential drug target for ALS," says Gitler. He's focussing on an RNA-binding protein called TDP-43, which clumps in the spinal cord neurons of many people with ALS. Being able to replicate ALS-like symptoms in yeast, he believes that his observations could help doctors understand how ALS develops in humans, and perhaps how to slow its progression. [Stanford]