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Monday, 27 July 2015

Can we regenerate our hearts?

In ancient Egypt the heart was a revered organ; it was believed to be the source of the soul. According to the Egyptians, all of our emotions, wisdom and even personality traits were thought to originate in the heart. It was one of the few things left inside a body for mummification, whilst the brain - whose only purpose was thought to be the provider of nasal mucus, or a ‘runny nose’ - was simply thrown away. Though we still agree with the vital role the heart plays in life, after more than 5,000 years of study the organ is now generally considered to be well understood. That being said, some scientists believe that the full potential of our heart has not yet been reached. This article aims to explore one of the questions currently being posed by researchers: could our heart regenerate itself?

Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)
Currently, a failing heart requires surgical assistance, such as the installation of a Ventricular Assist Device. Cardioregeneration could make such devices unnecessary. Image by Blausen Medical Communications, Inc. [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Midlife Matters

The really exciting thing about psychology is there are a huge number of unknowns... but for me a really important part is understanding how high level cognition and decision making change in adulthood. - says Lily Fitzgibbon, a researcher in psychology at the University of Birmingham, who is exploring unknown pastures in psychological science.

Middle adulthood, commonly defined as your 30s, 40s and 50s, is a key time for making significant life changing decisions. It is also precisely what the Online Wisdom Lab (OWL) team at Birmingham University want to explore, and they are already underway preparing a suite of apps for members of the public to download and contribute through.

The majority of research into adult psychology is done at universities on the most readily available source of adult volunteers - university students. But perhaps this has led us astray a little, because this means that our current understanding of adult psychology is based almost entirely on the psychology of 18-21 year olds - at least until later adulthood, where some researchers have explored decline in cognitive abilities and its connections to illnesses such as Alzheimer's. Even though I like to think I was a pretty together undergraduate student, I'm not sure I'd feel represented now by the psychology of 18-21 year olds. When I was 21 I tried to take a piano hill walking. I broke into my friends' houses and left them hidden chocolate muffins. I survived for days at a time on free crisps and biscuits alone. I’m no longer the same person I was, just a few years later.

Not only this, but at 21 the human brain hasn't finished growing yet - especially the prefrontal cortex, where higher level thinking and decision-making take place. This region of the brain carries on developing into your mid-late twenties at the very least[1,2,3].

Lateral view of the brain, with the different lobes labelled
On average, brain maturity is reached at around 22, synaptic "pruning" in the prefrontal cortex continues into the twenties and white matter volumes peak in the late thirties. Image credit: BruceBlaus [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If 18-21 year olds are not fully developed, then might we be underestimating the decline of cognitive abilities in old age?

Friday, 10 July 2015

How do we fall asleep?

If there’s one thing everyone has in common, it’s sleep. Regardless of age, gender, race or religion, without enough sleep we fail to function normally. As you’ve probably experienced, a lack of sleep can be detrimental for mood and focus. Lose enough of it and you are more prone to serious health issues like heart disease, diabetes and even death. The amount of sleep we’ve had seems to be one of the things we think about (read: regret) daily, but what about how it happens? This article aims to introduce sleep as a fascinatingly interwoven structure of processes, not just a simple currency of life, exploring the inner workings of the brain that might be responsible for how it happens. The reasons behind how we sleep are distinct from the potential reasons behind why we sleep, which we covered in a previous article (and video).

So, what is sleep? The definition of most verbs (for example, running[1]) describes how it happens. However anywhere you look, sleep is not currently defined in this way. Instead, its physiological effects are outlined. Breathing slows, most muscles are relaxed and the eyes go through varying periods of rapid movement, called REM. Sleep is defined in this way because we don’t know how it happens.

Photograph 'Sleep Like A Baby' ©peasap (CC BY)
We can fall asleep before we've even been born, but how do we do it? Photograph ©peasap via Flickr (CC-BY)