Booze and Brain Damage

There are many factors that can drive an organism to drink. Some might have a genetic predisposition—others might want to poison a parasitic wasp before it consumes them from the inside out. On ERV, new research shows “the epigenetics of the cells in the brains of alcoholics is messed up;” specifically, alcoholic brains express transposable genetic elements (such as endogenous retroviruses) more frequently. Smith writes “the authors think that ERVs are not just a marker of the damage caused by alcoholism, but that the ERVs are actively contributing to the brain damage due to alcoholism.” But does the expression of ERVs encourage alcoholism, or vice versa? Meanwhile, on Brookhaven Bits & Bytes, new research shows that dopamine receptor D2 can prevent alcohol-induced brain damage. Justin Eure writes, “mice without those dopamine receptors experienced brain atrophy overall and shrinkage of the cerebral cortex and thalamus. […] The corresponding regions of the human brain are critical to processing speech, sensory information, and forming long-term memories.” Eure continues, “Previous studies indicated that the absence of dopamine D2 receptors also increases the odds of alcohol addiction – meaning that without D2, alcoholism is both more likely and more dangerous.”

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Genetic Mutability

We’ve all heard of bird and swine flu, but bats, which comprise “about a fifth of all known mammalian species,” also carry a diverse host of viruses. By swabbing the rectums of little yellow-shouldered bats, researchers in Guatemala discovered a new influenza virus that defies easy classification. Flu viruses are described by two key genes—hence the name ‘H1N1.’ Tara C. Smith writes “The novel bat virus was a completely new H type—type 17 (provisional, they note, pending further analyses). The NA gene was also highly divergent.” Smith continues “the authors did do some molecular work suggesting that these novel bat viruses could combine with human viruses and form a functional recombinant virus.” It’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile Abbie Smith explains why some individuals won’t develop immunity from a vaccine. She writes “Measles needs a protein on the surface of your cells in order to successfully mediate infection: CD46.” The virus must interact with this protein to infect a cell, but antibodies generated by a vaccine get in the way. Looking at the CD46 gene, researchers found that “children who had mutations at the right spot, in a particular flavor, seemed to respond better than others. But if a child had a mutation at the right spot, but not a mutation of the right flavor, they didnt respond as well.” Luckily, herd immunity can protect non-responders—as long as everyone else gets vaccinated too.

New Avenues to Knowledge

Science publishing is at a crossroads. On We Beasties, Kevin Bonham says that early scientists “communicated amongst themselves in person or in letters or in books. They shared discoveries freely and it was possible for an individual human to be aware of almost the entire sum of human knowledge.” As the pace of discovery accelerated, scientific journals became instrumental in recording and disseminating knowledge. But today, while earnest researchers must “publish or perish,” and millions of students stand to benefit from open access, publishers themselves are focused on turning a profit. Bonham debunks the antiquated advantages of classical journals, and envisions a future where “distribution of scientific knowledge returns to the model of the 19th century – free and openly distributed – but now also instantly and globally distributed at the same time.” Meanwhile, on Confessions of a Science Librarian, John DuPuis joins the boycott against publisher Elsevier in response to their “excessive commercial avarice” and encourages other librarians to take a stand. And on Aarvarchaeology, Martin Rundkvist outlines his involvement with progressive publishing—and invites us to download his new book, free of charge.

Not Enough to Swallow

On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle writes that a wide array of drugs, from antibiotics to steroids to diuretics and chemotherapeutics, are in short supply around the country. Hoofnagle explains, “The drugs affected span all classes, what they have in common is they are all generic.” Because of the low profit margin on generic drugs, “manufacturers try to cut costs where they can, they export production abroad (and away from FDA oversight), and keep supplies low.” Quality suffers, and with only a few companies producing certain drugs, disruptions can have far-reaching (and deleterious) effects. Should government subsidize the manufacture of generic medicine, or take it away from the free market? On Respectful Insolence, Orac covers a far simpler course of treatment: wishing, and hoping, and thinking, and praying. New studies show that alternative medicine is no more effective than a placebo, but one advocate says the placebo effect is proof of the Law of Attraction. Maybe surgical patients can just visualize more anaesthetic? Finally, Abbie Smith cannot believe that the FDA has granted expedited approval for a daily pill to protect against HIV infection. Smith writes that in large clinical trials, “Tenofovir didnt work well at all […] There is *no* experimental evidence to suggest that is a good idea right now.” The drug could actually lead to more new infections—and cause permanent kidney damage.