Cool Science News You Don’t Want To Miss

A 3,300-year-old mummy's healthcare, a blood test that can read your body's internal clock, and predicting who will respond to sugar pills for pain.
September 14, 2018, 2:17pm
Mummy and watch

A man who lived 3,300 years ago may have gotten acupuncture

The Tyrolean Iceman—sometimes called Ötzi—is a preserved glacier mummy who was found in 1991 in the Central Eastern Alps. He lived around 3,300 years ago in the Copper Age, and was killed by an arrow to the shoulder. Ötzi had some other health issues too: His body revealed that he had degenerative diseases of his back, hip, knees and ankles, intestinal parasites, broken ribs and atherosclerosis. He also had 61 tattoos and was carrying some plants with him. The presence of those tattoos and plants led Albert Zink, the director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, and his colleagues to re-evaluate what was found with the Iceman, and ask to what extent he had used or received medical treatment or care.

In a recent study in the International Journal of Paleopathology, Zink and others report that the Iceman’s tattoos were all in forms of stripes and grouped together, and in two areas they form a cross. The tattoos are all close to areas of the body where the Iceman probably experienced pain. Since the tattoos don’t seem to depict any symbols or figures, it “indicates that they were used as a kind of treatment, maybe as an early form of acupuncture,” Zink tells me.

Alongside the Iceman’s other tools they found birch polypore fungus, a fungus that has anti-inflammatory properties and can potentially reduce fevers. A fern called bracken ( Pteridium aquilinum) was found in the Iceman’s stomach, which “is a basically toxic plant that can however be used for the treatment of intestinal parasites,” Zink says.

The researchers conclude that even 3,300 years ago, there was already knowledge about treatments like acupuncture and medicinal plant use. “This definitely requires a certain knowledge of the human anatomy as well as how diseases arise and develop,” Zink says. “I think we just got a small insight into this knowledge, and I hope that in future studies we will be able to trace more evidence of the usage of medical substances.”

A blood test can tell what time it is in your body (and if it matches the time in the outside world)

Our individual circadian rhythms are constantly orchestrating a wide variety of processes in our bodies, like sleep, digestion, blood pressure, body temperature, and much more. Ideally your body’s clock matches up with the 24-hour one in the real world in the right way, but that’s not always the case. “Circadian misalignment” is when your internal clock doesn’t sync up with your environment, and it’s a risk factor for many diseases and disorders, from diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to Alzheimer’s.

A new paper from Northwestern announced a way to measure an individual’s unique physiological time. “For instance, even if it's 8 am in the external world, it might be 6 am in your body,” the press release says.

“We may be able to better predict who is at risk, treat their misalignment, and then monitor their progress over the treatment,” Rosemary Braun, an assistant professor in biotstatistics and preventive medicine at Northwestern, and an author on the study, says.

The blood test, called TimeSignature, measures the activity of about 40 different genes. A person gives two blood samples, taken at different times of the day, and then TimeSignature can “read” the body’s internal clock.

“This is possible because the circadian rhythm doesn't just orchestrate big processes in your body like sleep and digestion; it's also present in every single cell, right down to the molecular level,” Braun tells me. “ In fact, researchers estimate that nearly half of all the genes in your body have an activity that depends on the time of day. By measuring those activity levels, our TimeSignature algorithm can work backwards to deduce the time.”

There’s a lot of epidemiological evidence associating circadian rhythms and disease, but why that is, exactly, is still unclear. Braun says figuring it out was made harder because measuring someone’s physiological time required many hourly samples to be taken. “TimeSignature will enable researchers to include circadian variables in their studies, discover how they are linked to disease, and build precise models that will predict disease risk based on one's internal clock,” she says.

Emotionally self-aware people may respond better to placebo than others

To prove that a drug works, it must be shown to be more effective than a placebo. Sometimes, a medication doesn’t pass this test—but it’s not necessarily because the drug doesn’t work, but because the placebo does . We don’t completely understand yet how placebos—which are completely inert substances—can do powerful things, like help reduce pain.

But new research from Northwestern Medicine found that it might be possible to predict which chronic pain patients will respond to sugar pills. The study looked at around 60 chronic back pain patients who were randomized to get a placebo, drug, or nothing. About half of the people who got a sugar pill showed around 30 percent pain relief, while others didn’t respond. “In the placebo responders in our current study, response size was similar to all medications currently used in such patients,” says Apkar Apkarian, a professor of physiology and senior study author. “Thus, it is as good as medications.”

The placebo responders were predicted by their personality, brain anatomy, and physiology, prior to the start of the trial. “The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger cortical sensory area than people who were not responsive to the placebo,” a release says. “The chronic pain placebo responders also were emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.”

For these patients, the sugar pills can activate circuitry that diminishes pain perception, without an active drug. There are obvious benefits to this: Long-term pain medication comes with risks, one being addiction. Learning more about who will respond well to placebos can reduce those dangers, as well as help us learn more about the placebo effect and apply it to other conditions.

“The classic view is that placebo is unpredictable and uncontrollable,” Apkarian tells me. “Thus clinicians remain hesitant to its utility. The study dispels these notions.”

Science and health reads:

Sperm count zero by Daniel Noah Halpern in GQ

Sperm counts have been dropping for decades. Why? And when will it start to make an impact on our species?

What lucid dreams look like by Susana Martinez-Conde in Scientific American

New studies look at eye movements during lucid dreams, and reveal just how realistic these dreams can feel.

Is this fish self-aware? By Chris Baraniuk in Hakai Magazine

If this little fish with a tiny brain passed a self-awareness test using a mirror, what does that mean about consciousness?

Have I been pooping all wrong? By Shaena Montanari in Healthyish

The pooping accessory I didn’t know I was missing.

Here’s what it’s like to argue before a judge that you should be able to get an abortion without telling your parents by Francie Diep in Pacific Standard.

“One interviewee's guardian ad litem—a person appointed by the court to act in the girl's best interest—made fun of her for ‘not knowing that condoms were considered birth control.’ Another's preached at her about how abortions are wrong.”

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