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Scientific Chicago with Neil Shubin

“Brain Clock”, Microbiomes, Levitating Pharmaceuticals, Smell & Dark Energy

How does our sense of smell recover so quickly after a cold? Can we prevent diseases associated with obesity? And how can levitation improve drug development? Our science guy, Neil Shubin, joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to help answer these questions and more in tonight's Scientific Chicago.

Cell and development biology professor Martha Gillette and her colleagues at Illinois discovered that metabolism influences time-keeping in the brain; Photo by L. Brian StaufferMetabolism in the Brain Fluctuates with Circadian Rhythm
Ever recall someone saying that they didn’t need an alarm clock because they have an internal clock? Well, in fact, we all have an internal “brain clock” that guides the rhythm of our lives. Organisms carry in their cells a common 24-hour beat that emerges from a tiny brain structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus. A team of scientists at the University of Illinois, led by cell and development biology professor Martha Gillette, examined this structure in mice and rats.

The researchers mainly focused on redox reactions in tissues of the SCN from the mice and rat brains. Redox reactions occur when atoms have their oxidation state changed. A reduction is when molecules gain electrons and oxidation occurs when a molecule loses electrons. Using an imaging method to measure the redox status of tissue, the researchers found that these reactions fluctuate on a 24-hour cycle in the brain clock. Their study revealed that our “brain clock” is partly driven by metabolism.

“The fundamental discovery here is that there is an intrinsic oscillation in metabolism in the clock region of the brain that takes place without external intervention. And this change in metabolism determines the excitable state of that part of the brain,” said Professor Martha Gillette.

“Basically, the idea has always been that metabolism is serving brain function. What we’re showing is metabolism is part of brain function,” said Gillette. “Our study implies that changes in cellular metabolic state could be a cause, rather than a result, of neuronal activity.”

To learn more about this study, click here.

U of C researchers have found that bacteria in the human gut may be one of the key mechanisms that regulate weight gain; Photo by Getty ImagesManipulating the Microbiome Could Help Manage Weight
The old saying, “you are what you eat,” needs a revision to include “depending on gut bacteria regulated by the immune system,” thanks to a new study from the University of Chicago. The study focused on the relationship between diet, bacteria that live the bowel, the immune system and obesity.

Bacteria in the intestine, also called gut microbes, are important in helping aid digestion by synthesizing and absorbing vitamins and nutrients. This study found that mice raised in a germ-free environment, who lacked these gut microbes, didn’t gain extra weight even on a high-fat diet.

“Diet-induced obesity depends not just on calories ingested but also on the host’s microbiome,” said the study’s senior author Yang-Xin Fu, professor of pathology at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Host digestion is not completely efficient, but changes in the gut flora can raise or lower digestive efficiency.”

The researchers say their findings suggest it may be possible to reduce the negative side effects of obesity by manipulate the immune system and regulating microbes.

“Our results suggest that it may be possible to learn how to regulate these microbes in ways that could help prevent diseases associated with obesity,” said Vaibhav Upadhyay, another researcher in the study and an MD/PhD student working in Fu’s laboratory.

However, the authors note that with over 500 different strains of bacteria present in the gut, there’s still a lot of uncertainty as to which specific microbes promote weight gain.

To learn more about the methods in this study, click here.

These drops of solution remain suspended for a long period of time, thanks to the vibrational force of sound waves that keep them stationary in an air column; Photo by Dan Harris/Courtesy Argonne National LaboratoryNo Magic Show: Real-world Levitation to Inspire Better Pharmaceuticals
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are using levitation as a means to improve drug development. Using an acoustic levitator originally developed for NASA, lead scientist and Argonne X-ray physicist Chris Benmore, levitated individual drops of solution containing different pharmaceuticals. By levitating pharmaceutical droplets, Benmore could more easily analyze the conditions that make for the best amorphous preparation.

Pharmaceutical molecular structures are either amorphous or crystalline. Amorphous drugs are highly soluble so they’re more easily absorbed by the body than crystalline drugs.

“One of the biggest challenges when it comes to drug development is in reducing the amount of the drug needed to attain the therapeutic benefit, whatever it is,” said Benmore.

With crystalline drugs this is harder to do because they don’t get fully absorbed by the body.

Argonne researches have already used this method of investigation on over a dozen different pharmaceuticals. The Argonne scientists are currently teamed up with other researches from Purdue University and Arizona State University to identify which drugs will most impacted by levitation.

To learn more about this study, click here. Watch a video of Argonne scientist Chris Benmore demonstrating the acoustic levitator.



Olfactory SystemSmelling a Skunk After a Cold: Brain Changes After a Stuffed Nose Protect the Sense of Smell
While colds or allergies can cause stuffy noses, leaving us with a deterred sense of smell, our bodies are able to recover this sense with remarkable speed, thanks to our brain working overtime. A Northwestern Medicine study found that when the human nose was experimentally blocked for one week, brain activity rapidly changed in olfactory brain regions. These changes indicate that our brain is compensating for our inhibited sense of smell. Once normal breathing is restored, our brain activity resumes back to normal.

“You need ongoing sensory input in order for your brain to update smell information,” said Keng Nei Wu, the lead author of the paper and a graduate student in neuroscience at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When your nostrils are blocked up, your brain tries to adjust to the lack of information so the system doesn’t break down. The brain compensates for the lack of information so when you get your sense of smell back, it will be in good working order.” 

Participants in the study had their nostrils blocked for a week while living in a low-odor hospital room. Researchers found that smell deprivation led to increased activity in the orbital frontal cortex and decreased activity in the piriform cortex. Once normal breathing was restored, the brain’s responses to odors returned to pre-experimental levels.

This rapid reversal could be significant in helping treat those with chronic blocked sense of smell due to either upper respiratory infections or sinusitis. 

To learn more about this study, click here.

World’s Most Powerful Digital Camera Opens Eye, Records First Images in Hunt for Dark Energy
The world’s most powerful sky-mapping machine is capturing breathtaking photos of galaxies from atop a mountain in the Chilean Andes. The photos taken by the Dark Energy Camera may be  Zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, in the Fornax cluster of galaxies, which lies about 60 million light years from Earth; Photo by Dark Energy Survey Collaborationthe key to unlocking the mystery of expansion in the universe.

After eight years of planning, the camera achieved first light on September 12.

“The achievement of first light through the Dark Energy Camera begins a significant new era in our exploration of the cosmic frontier,” said James Siegrist, an associate director within the U.S. Department of Energy. “The results of this survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy, and what it means for the universe.”

The Dark Energy Camera, about the size of a phone booth, was built at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. The most powerful camera of its kind, this instrument allows astronomers and physicists the ability to see light from over 100,000 galaxies up to 8 billion light years away.

Using this new camera, scientists working in the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration will begin the largest galaxy survey ever undertaken.

To learn more about the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration, click here.