A new study published in the journal Nature Communications is reporting a single blood-based biomarker can detect the presence of 13 neurodegenerative disorders, from frontotemporal dementia to motor neuron disease. The test cannot specifically distinguish each disorder but instead is proposed as a way to determine whether patients with memory problems are suffering from the early stages of neurodegenerative disease.
Neurofilament light chain (NfL) is a protein released into cerebrospinal fluid when brain cells are damaged. It can be detected in blood, and researchers have long investigated this biomarker as a way of easily diagnosing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
This new study investigated over 3,000 blood samples from a diverse cohort of subjects with the goal of finding out whether NfL blood levels could differentiate cognitively healthy subjects from those with neurodegenerative diseases.
The research found NfL levels could effectively detect subjects with one of 13 different neurodegenerative disorders, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), frontotemporal dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, even more significantly, NfL levels could be used to identify whether patients with moderate to severe depression were suffering from the early stages of neurodegeneration.
Abdul Hye, joint senior author on the study, says this particular finding means NfL levels could be used in clinical contexts to help doctors determine if a patient’s cognitive symptoms are an early sign of neurodegeneration or another kind of psychiatric problem.
“For the first time we have shown across a number of disorders that a single biomarker can indicate the presence of underlying neurodegeneration with excellent accuracy,” says Hye. “Though it is not specific for any one disorder, it could help in services such as memory clinics as a rapid screening tool to identify whether memory, thinking or psychiatric problems are a result of neurodegeneration.”
Although the study found NfL blood levels could not diagnose specific neurodegenerative conditions, the researchers note the biomarker does have value in tracking nuances within certain groups of patients. High blood NfL levels in Parkinson’s disease patients, for example, were found to signal atypical cases of the disorder. In subjects with Down syndrome high NfL levels were found to correlate with dementia.
“This suggests that the new marker could potentially be used to improve the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in people with Down syndrome, as well as to be used as a biomarker to show whether treatments are effective or not,” explains study co-author Andre Strydom. “It is exciting that all that could be needed is a simple blood test, which is better tolerated in Down syndrome individuals than brain scans.”
As NfL levels naturally rise with age, the new study also offers age-related cut-offs separating normal from abnormal NfL levels. This will help clinicians determine whether NfL blood levels are a sign of neurodegeneration or simply a natural accumulation that comes with aging.
“Blood-based NfL offers a scalable and widely accessible alternative to invasive and expensive tests for dementia,” adds Hye. “It is already used as a routine assessment in some European countries such as Sweden or Netherlands, and our age-related cut-offs can provide a benchmark and quick accessible test for clinicians, to indicate neurodegeneration in people who are exhibiting problems in thinking and memory.”
The new study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Source: King’s College London
Blood-alcohol-measuring earmuff could replace breathalyzers
When someone is really intoxicated, they may not be very cooperative when told to blow into a breathalyzer. There could soon be a more passive but just as accurate alternative, though, in the form of an earmuff that measures blood alcohol levels.
Breathalyzers work by measuring ethanol levels in a person’s breath, which correspond to levels in their bloodstream. Ethanol is also released through the skin, although the concentrations are too low for an accurate reading on most parts of the body. Additionally, the presence of sweat glands in the skin may skew the readings.
Seeking a more reliable alternative, scientists from Tokyo Medical and Dental University instead looked to the ears. Not only is ear skin known to release more ethanol than skin on areas such as the hands or arms, but it also contains relatively few sweat glands. With these facts in mind, the researchers set about modifying an existing set of off-the-shelf protective earmuffs.
In the resulting experimental system, filtered air is pumped into one of the muffs via a hose that runs into a hole at the top. That air passes through the sealed chamber surrounding the ear, collecting emitted ethanol gas as it does so, and is then drawn out of the muff via a hose at the bottom.
That lower hose runs to a separate device known as a bio-sniffer. When “excited” by ultraviolet light, a sensor within that bio-sniffer fluoresces in the presence of ethanol gas – the greater the concentration of ethanol, the more intense the fluorescence.
In lab tests, the earmuff was placed on three male volunteers who had each consumed a set amount of alcohol. At regular intervals over the next 140 minutes, their blood alcohol levels were checked via both the earmuff and a conventional breathalyzer. The readings of the two devices were found to be consistently similar.
It is now hoped that once developed further, the technology could be utilized as an alternative to breathalyzers, and perhaps also as a means of detecting different skin-released gases associated with diseases.
A paper on the research, which was led by Prof. Kohji Mitsubayashi, has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Bionic” vulture is first bird to receive a permanent artificial foot
Although there have already been birds that received strap-on artificial legs, scientists are now reporting the first successful integration of a prosthetic foot directly into a stork’s residual leg bone. They’re describing the animal as the world’s first “bionic bird.”
Named Mia, the bird in question is a female bearded vulture, which is the largest type of flying bird in Europe. She’s housed at the Owl and Bird of Prey Sanctuary located in Haringsee, Austria. Mia was initially brought into the sanctuary with a severely injured foot, which ultimately had to be amputated.
While smaller birds might be able to get by with just one foot, such a loss would make it very difficult for heavier birds (like bearded vultures) to land, walk, or hold down their prey. With these problems in mind, a team at the Medical University of Vienna decided to give Mia a permanently attached new foot.
The group was led by Prof. Oskar Aszmann, who was previously responsible for tasks such as outfitting three human amputees with mind-controlled bionic arms.
For the vulture, the team utilized a process known as osseointegration, in which the base of the artificial foot was joined directly to the end of the leg bone in the bird’s residual stump. Mia began attempting to walk within three weeks of the surgery, and was putting her full weight on the foot after six weeks. She is now reportedly walking and landing normally.
“This concept offers a high degree of embodiment, since osseoperception provides direct intuitive feedback, thereby allowing natural use of the extremity for walking and feeding,” says Aszmann. “For the first time we have now successfully bionically reconstructed the limb of a vulture.”
A paper on the procedure – which also involved Rickard Branemark from San Francisco’s Center for Osseointegration Research – was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Source: Medical University of Vienna
Extraordinary new material shows zero heat expansion from 4 to 1,400 K
Australian researchers have created what may be one of the most thermally stable materials ever discovered. This new zero thermal expansion (ZTE) material made of scandium, aluminum, tungsten and oxygen did not change in volume at temperatures ranging from 4 to 1400 Kelvin (-269 to 1126 °C, -452 to 2059 °F).
That’s a wider range of temperatures, say scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), than any other material demonstrated to date, and it could make orthorhombic Sc1.5Al0.5W3O12 (catchy name, eh?) a very handy tool for anyone engineering something that needs to work in extremely varied thermal environments.
Examples of where this might come in handy include things like aerospace design, where components are exposed to extreme cold in space and extreme heat at launch or on re-entry. Famously, the SR-71 Blackbird was designed to expand so much at its Mach 3.4 top speed that it would liberally drizzle fuel on the runway at ground temperatures; the fuel tanks wouldn’t even fully seal until they heated up. This new material stays exactly the same volume from close to absolute zero all the way up to comfortably over the heat you’d expect to get on the wing of a hypersonic aircraft traveling at Mach 5.
Or there’s things like medical implants, where the range of expected temperatures isn’t so varied but even a small amount of thermal expansion can cause critical issues.
The UNSW team made the discovery more or less by accident: “We were conducting experiments with these materials in association with our batteries-based research, for unrelated purposes, and fortuitously came across this singular property of this particular composition,” says Associate Professor Neeraj Sharma.
After measuring the material using the Echidna high-resolution powder diffractometer at ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron and the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering, the team found an incredible degree of thermal stability. At the molecular level, materials usually expand because an increase in temperature leads directly to an increase in the length of the atomic bonds between elements. Sometimes it also causes atoms to rotate, resulting in more spacious structures that affect the overall volume.
Not with this stuff, which the team observed across that huge temperature spectrum demonstrating “only minute changes to the bonds, position of oxygen atoms and rotations of the atom arrangements.” The team says the exact mechanism behind this extreme thermal stability isn’t totally clear, but that perhaps bond lengths, angles and oxygen atom positions are changing in concert with one another to preserve the overall volume.
“Which part’s acting at which temperature, well, that’s the next question,” says Sharma, who adds, “the scandium is rarer and more costly, but we are experimenting with other elements that might be substituted, and the stability retained,”
The other ingredients, however, are widely available, and bond together using a “relatively simple synthesis,” so the team believes this material should present no impediments to large-scale manufacturing.
The paper is available at the journal Chemistry of Materials, and the video below provides an overview of the material.
Advanced material has zero thermal expansion
Perseverance rover begins first science mission in Mars’ Jezero Crater
After a pretty eventful start to life on Mars that has included capturing the first ever audio recordings on the planet, producing the first ever oxygen on another world and supporting the Ingenuity helicopter throughout its history-making flights, NASA’s Perseverance rover is ready to get down to business. The robot has now departed its landing site for the Jezero Crater to begin its primary science mission, where it will comb an old lakebed in a search for signs of ancient microbial life.
Perseverance left its Octavia E. Butler landing site on June 1 and started heading south toward the Jezero Crater, where its first stop will be a low-lying scenic lookout. From here, mission scientists will survey the crater’s oldest geological features, and switch on the last remaining navigation and sampling systems.
“We are putting the rover’s commissioning phase as well as the landing site in our rearview mirror and hitting the road,” says Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. “Over the next several months, Perseverance will be exploring a 1.5-square-mile (4-sq-km) patch of crater floor. It is from this location that the first samples from another planet will be collected for return to Earth by a future mission.”
To best understand the geology and past habitability of the Jezero Crater, Perseverance will explore two sections of it that contain its deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock, along with other interesting geological features. Called the Crater Floor Fractured Rough (CF-Fr) and Séítah, Perseverance will comb these units for four locations with the most scientific potential for sample collection.
“Starting with the Crater Floor Fractured Rough and Seitah geologic units allows us to start our exploration of Jezero at the very beginning,” says JPL’s Kevin Hand. “This area was under at least 100 meters (328 ft) of water 3.8 billion years ago. We don’t know what stories the rocks and layered outcrops will tell us, but we’re excited to get started.”
Once this first science campaign is complete, Perseverance will return to the landing site with as many as eight of its 43 sampling tubes filled with Martian rock and dust. It will then set off toward Three Forks, the starting point for its second science campaign. This leg of the journey will see Perseverance explore the Jezero Crater’s delta region, which is expected to be particularly rich in carbonates, which are minerals that can preserve fossilized evidence of ancient life.
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