The Brain Literally Starts Eating Itself When It Doesn’t Get Enough Sleep

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The reason we sleep goes far beyond simply replenishing our energy levels every 12 hours – our brains actually change states when we sleep to clear away the toxic byproducts of neural activity left behind during the day.

Weirdly enough, the same process starts to occur in brains that are chronically sleep-deprived too – except it’s kicked into hyperdrive. Researchers have found that persistently poor sleep causes the brain to clear a significant amount of neurons and synaptic connections, and recovering sleep might not be able to reverse the damage.

A team led by neuroscientist Michele Bellesi from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy has examined the mammalian brain’s response to poor sleeping habits, and found a bizarre similarity between the well-rested and sleepless mice.

Like the cells elsewhere in your body, the neurons in your brain are being constantly refreshed by two different types of glial cell – support cells that are often called the glue of the nervous system.

The microglial cells are responsible for clearing out old and worn out cells via a process called phagocytosis – meaning “to devour” in Greek.

The astrocytes’ job is to prune unnecessary synapses (connections) in the brain to refresh and reshape its wiring.

We’ve known that this process occurs when we sleep to clear away the neurological wear and tear of the day, but now it appears that the same thing happens when we start to lose sleep.

But rather than being a good thing, the brain goes overboard with the clearing, and starts to harm itself instead.

Think of it like the garbage being cleared out while you’re asleep, versus someone coming into your house after several sleepless nights and indiscriminately tossing out your television, fridge, and family dog.

“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss,” Bellesi told Andy Coghlan at New Scientist.

To figure this out, the researchers imaged the brains of four groups of mice:

  • one group was left to sleep for 6 to 8 hours (well-rested)
  • another was periodically woken up from sleep (spontaneously awake)
  • a third group was kept awake for an extra 8 hours (sleep-deprived)
  • and a final group was kept awake for five days straight (chronically sleep-deprived).

When the researchers compared the activity of the astrocytes across the four groups, they identified it in 5.7 percent of the synapses in the well-rested mouse brains, and 7.3 of the spontaneously awake mouse brains.

In the sleep-deprived and chronically sleep-deprived mice, they noticed something different: the astrocytes had increased their activity to actually eating parts of the synapses like microglial cells eat waste – a process known as astrocytic phagocytosis.

In the sleep-deprived mouse brains, the astrocytes were found to be active across 8.4 percent of the synapses, and in the chronically sleep-deprived mice, a whopping 13.5 percent of their synapses showed astrocyte activity.

As Bellesi told New Scientist, most of the synapses that were getting eaten in the two groups of sleep-deprived mice were the largest ones, which tend to be the oldest and most heavily used – “like old pieces of furniture” – which is probably a good thing.

But when the team checked the activity of the microglial cells across the four groups, they found that it had also ramped up in the chronically sleep-deprived group.

And that’s a worry, because unbridled microglial activity has been linked to brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration.

“We find that astrocytic phagocytosis, mainly of presynaptic elements in large synapses, occurs after both acute and chronic sleep loss, but not after spontaneous wake, suggesting that it may promote the housekeeping and recycling of worn components of heavily used, strong synapses,” the researchers report.

“By contrast, only chronic sleep loss activates microglia cells and promotes their phagocytic activity … suggesting that extended sleep disruption may prime microglia and perhaps predispose the brain to other forms of insult.”

Many questions remain, such as if this process is replicated in human brains, and if catching up on sleep can reverse the damage.

But the fact that Alzheimer’s deaths have increased by an incredible 50 percent since 1999, together with the struggle that many of us have in getting a good night’s sleep, means this is something we need to get to the bottom of – and fast.

The research has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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Health Ministry launches Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine under Universal Immunization Programme

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The Union Health Ministry has launched Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV) under Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) of the country which will protects children against severe forms of pneumococcal diseases.

“’No child should die in the country from Vaccine Preventable Diseases’ is the Goal & Commitment of our government. We stand committed to reducing child deaths and providing a healthier future to our children,” stated J P Nadda, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare while introducing the vaccine in the UIP of the country in a function at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh recently.  Terming this as a historic moment and an exemplary step in India’s immunization programme, the Union Health Minister added that the government is committed to reducing morbidity and mortality in children. Strengthening routine immunization is an essential investment in India’s children and will ensure a healthy future of the country, he noted.

PCV protects children against severe forms of pneumococcal disease, such as pneumonia and meningitis. Currently, the vaccine is being rolled out to approximately 21 lakh children in Himachal Pradesh and parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the first phase. This will be followed by introduction in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan next year, and eventually be expanded to the country in a phased manner.

Pneumococcal disease is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in children under five years of age globally and in India. India accounts for nearly 20% of global pneumonia deaths in this age group. In 2010, pneumococcal pneumonia accounted for approximately 16% of all severe pneumonia cases and 30% of pneumonia related deaths in children under – five years of age in India. Introducing PCV, therefore, will substantially reduce disease burden in the country.

Reiterating the commitment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to save lives of children against vaccine preventable diseases, Nadda said that the Government has taken notable steps in the direction of total immunisation. Under Mission Indradhanush, so far, more than 2.6 crore beneficiaries have been immunized. From 1% annual increase in coverage of full immunization, Mission Indradhanush has resulted in a 6.7 % annual expansion in the immunization cover. “The immunization programme started with providing protection against 6 vaccine preventable diseases, it will now offer protection to our children from 12 diseases,” Nadda said.

The Health Minister further said that all these vaccines were available in the private sector for many years, not only in India but also across the world. “While these vaccines in the private sector were accessible to only those who could afford them, by making them available under the UIP, the government is ensuring equitable access to those who need them the most, the underprivileged and underserved,” Nadda added.

“Pneumonia kills more children under five years of age in India than any other infectious disease. The pentavalent vaccine which was scaled up in all states under the UIP by 2015 protects against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) pneumonia. Now, the introduction of PCV in the UIP will reduce child deaths from pneumococcal pneumonia. It will also reduce the number of children being hospitalized for pneumonia, and therefore reduce the economic burden on the families and the health cost burden on the country,” The Health Minister elaborated.

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Scientists Have Identified 40 New Genes Linked to Intelligence

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Scientists have discovered 40 new genes that appear to be linked to intelligence, and the find could help neurologists understand how the human brain develops key functions associated with thinking.

While the influence of these genes on intelligence is expected to be “minuscule” – a wide variety of factors are known to contribute to our IQ and general intelligence – the discovery could one day allow researchers to untangle the complicated web of ‘nature and nurture’ when it comes to identifying the fundamental causes behind our range of intellects.

Led by Danielle Posthuma from the VU University Medical Centre Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the study combined existing genomic data of nearly 80,000 unrelated adults and children of European descent, and identified mutations across 52 genes that were related to their intelligence scores, according to a variety of tests.

The research was carried out using two different forms of genetic analysis. One identified mutations in a group of 22 different genes, which in combination could account for almost a 5 percent difference in intelligence measurements.

A second analysis that compared whole genes rather than mapping specific mutations found a total of 47 genes, 17 of which had also been found using the first analysis.

All up, 40 of the total number of genes found by both methods hadn’t been previously implicated in intelligence.

To double-check their findings, the researchers applied their results to another genome-wide association study. Since this one didn’t come with a ready-made set of IQ measurements, they used education level as a rough approximation for an intelligence score instead.

Nearly all of the mutations they’d spotted in their previous research once again indicated a relationship with intelligence, while 15 of the 47 genes they’d found in the second analysis also popped up again.

Comparing the identified genes with a database of known pathways identified the genes that were already known to play a role in synapse formation, guidance of the nerve’s axons, and neural differentiation.

One of the strongest correlations between genetics and intelligence were mutations found in a gene called FOXO3, and the coding that promotes its expression.

FOXO3 is part of a pathway that triggers cell death as a result of certain chemical stresses.

Interestingly, the team also found a number of other relationships between genes and characteristics to do with body mass, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

In recent years, the evidence has piled up in support of the view that genes determine the range of many cognitive functions associated with something called ‘g factor‘ – a general measure of cognitive ability that dates back to the early 20th century.

The history of looking to our biology – and especially our genes – to help explain differences in human intelligence is one that has been fraught with controversy, often due to our valuing some cognitive abilities over others.

So while it pays to be cautious, research like this can also help us identify which traits can be influenced by education, diet, or even the microbes in our guts.

And knowing more about the relationship between our cognitive characteristics and our genes might even help us understand more about the evolution of our intelligence, and which direction it’s headed.

This research was published in Nature Genetics.

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ICMR launches Grants Programme for Implementation Research on Maternal and Child Health

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The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has launched the Grants Programme for Implementation Research on Maternal and Child Health.

“Implementation research is the scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation—the act of carrying an intention into effect, which in health research can be policies, programmes, or individual practices (collectively called interventions).”   IR can consider any aspect of implementation – including the factors affecting implementation, the processes of implementation, and the results of implementation, including how to introduce potential solutions into a health system or how to promote their large scale use and sustainability.

The intent is to understand what, why, and how interventions work in “real world” settings and to test approaches to improve them. National Implementation Research platform: Realising the need and relevance, a national platform for technical support for implementation research (IR) has been created to address maternal and child health issues including nutrition. This platform aims to provide opportunity to frame implementation research in the most useful and imaginative way to contribute to effective scale up of MNCH care.

The ICMR’s initiative in this regard is significant as India has made significant progress in reducing under five, neonatal and infant mortality rates and maternal mortality ratio.  However, the rates are still very high in many parts of the country. Under the National Health Mission (NHM) of Government of India, evidence based interventions that improve maternal and child survival are being promoted. Many challenges are being faced by programme managers while implementing these interventions/programmes.

To achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3, efforts are needed to reach healthcare for all by ensuring implementation of known interventions, developing better means of delivery of the existing interventions to address health issues of mothers and children specifically in states with high mortality rates, identifying bottleneck in delivery of health care and finding solutions to remove the bottlenecks.

The ICMR has now called for Letters of Intent (LOI) from research institutions and teams within the country who are involved or interested in implementation research by May 31, 2017.

The priority areas of this programme include Find and implement effective strategies to improve quality of care during childbirth in the public health system to achieve safe and healthy childbirth and early postnatal care; Develop effective strategies for early identification, referral and management of high risk pregnancies with clear links between the different levels of the health system; Find and implement effective strategies for improving Emergency Obstetric Care (EmOC) services to successfully manage maternal and fetal complications; Learn how to effectively implement the new WHO ANC model, to reduce stillbirths and early neonatal deaths; Develop effective delivery of evidence-based care protocols/ algorithms for prevention and management of post partum haemorrhage at different levels of care Newborn Health; and Develop and implement at scale strategies to provide high quality care for small and sick babies in hospitals (SNCUs).

Other priority areas of this programme include Develop and implement strategies at scale for integrated and comprehensive maternal and newborn health care package across the continuum of care (improve link between care in labour room, postpartum ward and SNCU); Strategies to scale up Home Based Newborn Care: Role assignment and rationalization for frontline workers, barrier identification and mitigation, cost effectiveness; Implementation at scale of treatment of suspected neonatal sepsis at outpatient level (sub-centre, PHC, CHC or hospital) when inpatient treatment is not possible; Develop and implement strategies for effective maternal and perinatal and newborn healthcare in the urban areas; achieving high coverage and quality of home-based newborn care in diverse rural / tribal / urban settings; harnessing mobile technology; and Establishing an innovative framework of monitoring and supervision with in-built mechanism of accountability to improve performance of frontline workers and health personnel involved in neonatal care (e.g., physical supervision; engaging PRIs and clients; use of ICT, telemedicine, mHealth).

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This Simple Blood Test Can Predict Cancer as Accurately as a Lump in The Breast

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A common blood test has shown to be just as accurate in predicting any type of cancer as a lump is for breast cancer, and researchers say it’s the most promising detection method for cancer in 30 years.

A high number of platelets (tiny blood cells that help wounds clot) have been linked to an increased risk of all forms of cancer, and scientists are now urging doctors to consider thrombocytosis – a condition where too many platelets are produced in the body – as a detection method for patients who are yet to show symptoms.

“Our findings on thrombocytosis show a strong association with cancer, particularly in men – far stronger than that of a breast lump for breast cancer in women,” says one of the team, Willie Hamilton from the University of Exeter in the UK.

“It is now crucial that we roll out cancer investigation of thrombocytosis. It could save hundreds of lives each year.”

Thrombocytosis affects around 2 percent of people over the age of 40, and it’s been linked to cancer before. What this new study does is establish a stronger link across all ages and genders, and with cancer in all areas of the body.

The researchers looked at 31,261 records of patients in the UK with a high platelet count (thrombocytosis), and 7,969 records of patients whose platelet count was normal.

They found that 11.6 percent of males with thrombocytosis went on to be diagnosed with cancer within a year, compared to 4.1 percent of those without. For females, cancer developed in 6.2 percent of those with thrombocytosis, compared to 2.2 percent without.

If a second high platelet count was recorded within six months, those risks went even higher: 18.1 percent for males and 10.1 percent for females.

A lump on the breast turns out to be cancerous in around 8.5 percent of cases for women aged 50 to 59 years, by comparison.

The researchers report that Lung and colorectal cancer were the types most commonly linked to thrombocytosis.

What’s more, one-third of those with lung or colorectal cancer had no other symptoms of the disease apart from thrombocytosis – which means this could be a very important indicator in the future for cases when cancer wouldn’t otherwise be spotted so soon.

The team says this the first new indicator of cancer to have been clearly identified in the last three decades, with the potential to identify thousands of cancers earlier and save hundreds of lives a year.

While early diagnosis is just one of many factors that affect the chances of someone getting better, it’s known to improve survival rates across all types of cancer.

“We know that early diagnosis is absolutely key in whether people survive cancer,” says one of the team, Sarah Bailey.

“Our research suggests that substantial numbers of people could have their cancer diagnosed up to three months earlier if thrombocytosis prompted investigation for cancer. This time could make a vital difference in achieving earlier diagnosis.”

The research has been published in The British Journal of Medical Practice.