Julie Payette, Canada’s Governor General, takes on science deniers and bogus science at 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference

On the first day of the 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 1 -3, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario), Governor General Julie Payette’s speech encouraged listeners to grapple with science deniers, fake news, and more (from a Nov. 2, 2017 article by Mia Rabson in the Huffington Post, Canada edition),

Payette was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual Canadian Science Policy Convention in Ottawa Wednesday night [Nov. 1, 2017] where she urged her friends and former colleagues to take responsibility to shut down the misinformation about everything from health and medicine to climate change and even horoscopes that has flourished with the explosion of digital media.

“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she asked, her voice incredulous.

She generated giggles and even some guffaws from the audience when she said too many people still believe “taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough and that your future and every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”

Payette was trained as a computer engineer and later became an astronaut and licensed pilot and in 1999 was the first Canadian to board the International Space Station.

Mia Rabson in another Nov. 2, 2017 article (this time for 680news.com) presents responses to the speech from various interested parties,

According to popular Canadian astrologer Georgia Nicols, Canada’s Governor General should be doing what she can to “keep the peace” with loved ones today and avoid the “planetary vibe” that is urging people to engage in power struggles and disputes.

The advice, contained in Julie Payette’s Nov. 2 [2017] horoscope on Nicols’ website, might have come a day late, though Payette likely wouldn’t have listened to it anyway.

The Governor General made clear in a speech to scientists at an Ottawa convention Wednesday she has a very low opinion of the validity of horoscopes, people who believe in creationism or those who don’t believe in climate change.

Emmett Macfarlane, a political professor at the University of Waterloo said nothing stops a governor general from stating opinions and while there have been unwritten traditions against it, Payette’s most recent predecessors did not always hold their tongues.

Conservative political strategist Alise Mills said Payette went way over the line with her speech, which she characterized as not only political but “mean-spirited.”

“I definitely agree science is key but I think there is a better way to do that without making fun of other people,” Mills said.

There isn’t a lot of data on horoscope and astrology beliefs in Canada but a 2005 Gallup poll suggested around one in four Canadians believed in astrology.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t seem to have any issue with what Payette said, saying his government and Canadians understand the value of science.

Mills said Payette wasn’t just promoting science, she was mocking people with religious beliefs, and specifically, evangelical Christians who don’t believe evolutionary science.

Astrologer Nicols said she had “no wish to take on a woman who is as accomplished as Julie Payette,” whom she notes is a “feisty Libra with three planets in Scorpio.”

But she did suggest Payette would be better to stick to what she knows.

“Astrology is not the stuff of horoscopes in newspapers, albeit I do write them,” wrote Nicols in an e-mail. “It is actually a complex study based on mathematics. Not fairy dust falling from the stars.”

There is one thing I find a bit surprising, Payette doesn’t seem to have taken on the vaccination issue. In any event, it looks like the conference had an exciting start.

Melting body fat with a microneedle patch

For many people this may seem like a dream come true but there is a proviso. So far researchers have gotten to the in vivo testing (mice)  with no word about human clinical trials, which means it could be quite a while, assuming human clinical trials go well, before any product comes to market. With that in mind, here’s more from a Sept.15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers have devised a medicated skin patch that can turn energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat locally while raising the body’s overall metabolism. The patch could be used to burn off pockets of unwanted fat such as “love handles” and treat metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the University of North Carolina.

A Sept. 15, 2017 Columbia University Medical Center news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research further,

Humans have two types of fat. White fat stores excess energy in large triglyceride droplets. Brown fat has smaller droplets and a high number of mitochondria that burn fat to produce heat. Newborns have a relative abundance of brown fat, which protects against exposure to cold temperatures. But by adulthood, most brown fat is lost.

For years, researchers have been searching for therapies that can transform an adult’s white fat into brown fat–a process named browning–which can happen naturally when the body is exposed to cold temperatures–as a treatment for obesity and diabetes.

“There are several clinically available drugs that promote browning, but all must be given as pills or injections,” said study co-leader Li Qiang, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at CUMC. “This exposes the whole body to the drugs, which can lead to side effects such as stomach upset, weight gain, and bone fractures. Our skin patch appears to alleviate these complications by delivering most drugs directly to fat tissue.”

To apply the treatment, the drugs are first encased in nanoparticles, each roughly 250 nanometers (nm) in diameter–too small to be seen by the naked eye. (In comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nm wide.) The nanoparticles are then loaded into a centimeter-square skin patch containing dozens of microscopic needles. When applied to skin, the needles painlessly pierce the skin and gradually release the drug from nanoparticles into underlying tissue.

“The nanoparticles were designed to effectively hold the drug and then gradually collapse, releasing it into nearby tissue in a sustained way instead of spreading the drug throughout the body quickly,” said patch designer and study co-leader Zhen Gu, PhD, associate professor of joint biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.

The new treatment approach was tested in obese mice by loading the nanoparticles with one of two compounds known to promote browning: rosiglitazone (Avandia) or beta-adrenergic receptor agonist (CL 316243) that works well in mice but not in humans. Each mouse was given two patches–one loaded with drug-containing nanoparticles and another without drug–that were placed on either side of the lower abdomen. New patches were applied every three days for a total of four weeks. Control mice were also given two empty patches.

Mice treated with either of the two drugs had a 20 percent reduction in fat on the treated side compared to the untreated side. They also had significantly lower fasting blood glucose levels than untreated mice.

Tests in normal, lean mice revealed that treatment with either of the two drugs increased the animals’ oxygen consumption (a measure of overall metabolic activity) by about 20 percent compared to untreated controls.

Genetic analyses revealed that the treated side contained more genes associated with brown fat than on the untreated side, suggesting that the observed metabolic changes and fat reduction were due to an increase in browning in the treated mice.

“Many people will no doubt be excited to learn that we may be able to offer a noninvasive alternative to liposuction for reducing love handles,” says Dr. Qiang. “What’s much more important is that our patch may provide a safe and effective means of treating obesity and related metabolic disorders such as diabetes.” [emphasis mine]

The patch has not been tested in humans. The researchers are currently studying which drugs, or combination of drugs, work best to promote localized browning and increase overall metabolism.

The study was supported by grants from the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute and the National Institutes of Health (1UL1TR001111, R00DK97455, and P30DK063608).

Notice the emphasis on health and that the funding does not seem to be from industry (the National Institutes of Health is definitely a federal US agency but I’m not familiar with the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute).

Getting back to the research, here’s an animation featuring the work,

Here’s a link and a citation for the paper,

Locally Induced Adipose Tissue Browning by Microneedle Patch for Obesity Treatment by Yuqi Zhang†, Qiongming Liu, Jicheng Yu†, Shuangjiang Yu, Jinqiang Wang, Li Qiang, and Zhen Gu. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b04348 Publication Date (Web): September 15, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

I would imagine that Qiang and his colleagues will find a number of business entities will be lining up to fund their work. While the researchers may be focused primarily on health issues, I imagine business types will be seeing dollar signs (very big ones with many zeroes).

Nanoparticles from tattoo inks circulate through your body

English: Tattoo of Hand of Fatima,. Model: Casini. Date: 4 July 2017, 18:13:41. Source : Own work. Author: Stephencdickson.

For those who like their news in video format, there’s this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news item broadcast on Sep. 11, 2017 (after the commercials),

For those who like text and more detail, scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) have produced a study of the (at the nanoparticle scale) inks in tattoos. From a Sept. 12, 2017 news item on phys.org,

The elements that make up the ink in tattoos travel inside the body in micro and nanoparticle forms and reach the lymph nodes, according to a study published in Scientific Reports on 12 September [2017] by scientists from Germany and the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, Grenoble (France). It is the first time researchers have found analytical evidence of the transport of organic and inorganic pigments and toxic element impurities as well as in depth characterization of the pigments ex vivo in tattooed tissues. Two ESRF beamlines were crucial in this breakthrough.

A Sept. 12, 2017 ESRF press release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, explains further,

The reality is that little is known about the potential impurities in the colour mixture applied to the skin. Most tattoo inks contain organic pigments, but also include preservatives and contaminants like nickel, chromium, manganese or cobalt. Besides carbon black, the second most common ingredient used in tattoo inks is titanium dioxide (TiO2), a white pigment usually applied to create certain shades when mixed with colorants. Delayed healing, along with skin elevation and itching, are often associated with white tattoos, and by consequence with the use of TiO2. TiO2 is also commonly used in food additives, sun screens and paints. Scientists from the ESRF, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Ludwig-Maximilians University, and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt have managed to get a very clear picture on the location of titanium dioxide once it gets in the tissue. This work was done on the ESRF beamlines ID21 and ID16B.

drawing tattookinetics.jpg

Translocation of tattoo particles from skin to lymph nodes. Upon injection of tattoo inks, particles can be either passively transported via blood and lymph fluids or phagocytized by immune cells and subsequently deposited in regional lymph nodes. After healing, particles are present in the dermis and in the sinusoids of the draining lymph nodes. Credits: C. Seim.

The hazards that potentially derive from tattoos were, until now, only investigated by chemical analysis of the inks and their degradation products in vitro. “We already knew that pigments from tattoos would travel to the lymph nodes because of visual evidence: the lymph nodes become tinted with the colour of the tattoo. It is the response of the body to clean the site of entrance of the tattoo. What we didn’t know is that they do it in a nano form, which implies that they may not have the same behaviour as the particles at a micro level. And that is the problem: we don’t know how nanoparticles react”, explains Bernhard Hesse, one of the two first authors of the study (together with Ines Schreiver, from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment) and ESRF visiting scientist.


Particle mapping and size distribution of different tattoo pigment elements.  a, d) Ti and the Br containing pigment phthalocyanine green 36 are located next to each other. b, e) Log scale mappings of Ti, Br and Fe in the same areas as displayed in a) and d) reveal primary particle sizes of different pigment species. c, f) Magnifications of the indicated areas in b) and e), respectively. Credits: C. Seim.

X-ray fluorescence measurements on ID21 allowed the team to locate titanium dioxide at the micro and nano range in the skin and the lymphatic environment. They found a broad range of particles with up to several micrometres in size in human skin, but only smaller (nano) particles transported to the lymph nodes. This can lead to the chronic enlargement of the lymph nodes and lifelong exposure. Scientists also used the technique of Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to assess biomolecular changes in the tissues in the proximity of the tattoo particles.


Ines Schreiver doing experiments on ID16B with Julie Villanova. Credits: B. Hesse.

Altogether the scientists report strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments as well as for conformational alterations of biomolecules that are sometimes linked to cutaneous adversities upon tattooing.

Then next step for the team is to inspect further samples of patients with adverse effects in their tattoos in order to find links with chemical and structural properties of the pigments used to create these tattoos.

Here’s a link to and  a citation for the paper,

Synchrotron-based ν-XRF mapping and μ-FTIR microscopy enable to look into the fate and effects of tattoo pigments in human skin by Ines Schreiver, Bernhard Hesse, Christian Seim, Hiram Castillo-Michel, Julie Villanova, Peter Laux, Nadine Dreiack, Randolf Penning, Remi Tucoulou, Marine Cotte, & Andreas Luch. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 11395 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-11721-z Published online: 12 September 2017

This paper is open access.

Nondirect relationships between the number of hydrogen bonds in DNA pairs and their relative strengths (three can be less than two)

Michael Berger’s Oct. 10, 2017 Nanowerk Spotlight article features research from the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia, (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and acronym ICN2) which has nothing to do with recent vote on independence (for more, see this Oct. 23, 2017 article about how countries such as ‘Catalonia’ and others do and don’t gain independence in The Atlantic),

This is the first report on the electrical characterization of DNA with intrabond resolution.

Specifically, it quantifies electrical forces due to a single hydrogen bond in DNA and provides proof of a non-direct relationship between the number of hydrogen bonds in DNA pairs and the relative strengths of such pairs.

Such understanding of the relative strengths of the forces involved in the specific bonding of DNA as well as its electrical origin provides physical foundations to control mechanisms associated with DNA stability. It could help to develop new methods for the understanding, characterization; and control of relevant events originated at intrabond scales e.g. controlled DNA repair and damage; controlled modification of the expression of the genome; and communications below the single bond limit.

A blackboard representation of the manuscript’s key message: the quantification of the relative strengths between base pairs in DNA due to zipping hydrogen bonds might place on doubt such mechanisms regarding the interpretation of thermodynamic properties of DNA based on the assumption that A/T pairs are weaker than G/C pairs due to the sole difference in the number of hydrogen bonds, 2 and 3 respectively. (Image: Dr. Yamila García-Martínez)

Generally, being able to control DNA stability at the single bond level by means of electromagnetic interactions opens new avenues to induce modifications of the replication and transcription processes of DNA by means of noncontact methods.


Going forward, the researchers will study the effects of external electromagnetic fields on DNA at the level of single bond events. This will have not only an enormous interest in the medical field but also in nanotechnology where it would open the door to non-contact atomic manipulation of DNA – the analogue to the CRISPR gene editing method [emphasis mine] but using electromagnetic fields to drive changes in DNA.

Interesting stuff, eh?

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Unveiled electric profiles within hydrogen bonds suggest DNA base pairs with similar bond strengths by Y. B. Ruiz-Blanco, Y. Almeida, C. M. Sotomayor-Torres, Y. García. PLOS [Public Library of Science] https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185638 Published: October 5, 2017

This paper is open access.

A flexible, organic battery from Northern Ireland

A team from Northern Ireland seems to have made a splash in the race to develop a flexible, environmentally friendly battery. From a Sept. 13, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Experts at Queen’s University Belfast have designed a flexible and organic alternative to the rigid batteries that power up medical implants.

Currently, devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators are fitted with rigid and metal based batteries, which can cause patient discomfort.

Dr Geetha Srinivasan and a team of young researchers from Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) Research Centre, have now developed a flexible supercapacitor with a longer cycle life, which could power body sensors.

Courtesy: Queen’s University Belfast

A Sept. 13, 2017 Queen’s University Belfast press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further,

The flexible device is made up of non-flammable electrolytes and organic composites, which are safe to the human body. It can also be easily decomposed without incurring the major costs associated with recycling or disposing off metal based batteries.

The findings, which have been published in Energy Technology and Green Chemistry, show that the device could be manufactured using readily available natural feedstock, rather than sophisticated and expensive metals or semiconductors.

Dr Srinivasan explains: “In modern society, we all increasingly depend on portable electronics such as smartphones and laptops in our everyday lives and this trend has spread to other important areas such as healthcare devices.

“In medical devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators there are two implants, one which is fitted in the heart and another which holds the metal based, rigid batteries – this is implanted under the skin.

“The implant under the skin is wired to the device and can cause patients discomfort as it is rubs against the skin. For this reason batteries need to be compatible to the human body and ideally we would like them to be flexible so that they can adapt to body shapes.”

Dr Srinivasan adds: “At Queen’s University Belfast we have designed a flexible energy storage device, which consists of conducting polymer – biopolymer composites as durable electrodes and ionic liquids as safer electrolytes.

“The device we have created has a longer life-cycle, is non-flammable, has no leakage issues and above all, it is more flexible for placing within the body.”

Environmentally friendly

While the findings show that there are many advantages in the medical world, the organic storage device could also provide solutions in wearable electronics and portable electronic devices, making these more flexible.

Ms Marta Lorenzo, PhD researcher on the project at Queen’s University Belfast, commented: “Although this research could be a potential solution to a global problem, the actual supercapacitor assembly is a straightforward process.”

Dr Srinivasan says: “There is also opportunity to fabricate task-specific supercapacitors. This means that their properties can be tuned and also manufactured using environmentally friendly methods, which is important if they are to be produced on a large scale, for example in powering portable personal electronic devices.”

Here are links and citations to the two papers mentioned in the press release,

Durable Flexible Supercapacitors Utilizing the Multifunctional Role of Ionic Liquids by Marta Lorenzo and Dr Geetha Srinivasan. Energy Technology. DOI: 10.1002/ente.201700407 First published: 23 August 2017

Intrinsically flexible electronic materials for smart device applications by Marta Lorenzo, Biyun Zhu, and Geetha Srinivasan. Green Chem., 2016,18, 3513-3517 DOI: 10.1039/C6GC00826G First published on 20 May 2016

The first paper is open access and the second paper is behind a paywall.

Brain composer

This is a representation of the work they are doing on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) at the Technical University of Graz (TU Graz; Austria),

A Sept. 11, 2017 news item on phys.org announces the research into thinking melodies turning them into a musical score,

TU Graz researchers develop new brain-computer interface application that allows music to be composed by the power of thought. They have published their results in the current issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) can replace bodily functions to a certain degree. Thanks to BCI, physically impaired persons can control special prostheses via their minds, surf the internet and write emails.

A group led by BCI expert Gernot Müller-Putz from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering shows that experiences of quite a different tone can be sounded from the keys of brain-computer interfaces. Derived from an established BCI method for writing, the team has developed a new application by which music can be composed and transferred onto a musical score through the power of thought. It employs a special cap that measures brain waves, the adapted BCI, music composition software, and a bit of musical knowledge.

A Sept. 6, 2017 TU Graz press release by Suzanne Eigner, which originated the news item, explains the research in more detail,

The basic principle of the BCI method used, which is called P300, can be briefly described: various options, such as letters or notes, pauses, chords, etc. flash by one after the other in a table. If you’re trained and can focus on the desired option while it lights up, you cause a minute change in your brain waves. The BCI recognises this change and draws conclusions about the chosen option.

Musical test persons

18 test persons chosen for the study by Gernot Müller-Putz, Andreas Pinegger and Selina C. Wriessnegger from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering as well as Hannah Hiebel, meanwhile at the Institute of Cognitive Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Graz, had to “think” melodies onto a musical score. All test subjects were of sound bodily health during the study and had a certain degree of basic musical and compositional knowledge since they all played musical instruments to some degree. Among the test persons was the late Graz composer and clarinettist, Franz Cibulka. “The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard. And what is more important: the test persons enjoyed it. After a short training session, all of them could start composing and seeing their melodies on the score and then play them. The very positive results of the study with bodily healthy test persons are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients,” stresses Müller-Putz.

Sideshow of BCI research

This little-noticed sideshow of the lively BCI research at TU Graz, with its distinct focus on disabled persons, shows us which other avenues may yet be worth exploring. Meanwhile there are some initial attempts at BCI systems on smart phones. This makes it easier for people to use BCI applications, since the smart phone as powerful computer is becoming part of the BCI system. It is thus conceivable, for instance, to have BCI apps which can analyse brain signals for various applications. “20 years ago, the idea of composing a piece of music using the power of the mind was unimaginable. Now we can do it, and at the same time have tens of new, different ideas which are in part, once again, a long way from becoming reality. We still need a bit more time before it is mature enough for daily applications. The BCI community is working in many directions at high pressure.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Composing only by thought: Novel application of the P300 brain-computer interface by Andreas Pinegger, Hannah Hiebel, Selina C. Wriessnegger, Gernot R. Müller-Putz. PLOS https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181584 Published: September 6, 2017

This paper is open access.

This BCI ‘sideshow’ reminded me of The Music Man, a musical by Meredith Wilson. It was both a play and a film  and I’ve only ever seen the 1962 film. It features a con man, Harold Hill, who sells musical instruments and uniforms in small towns in Iowa. He has no musical training but while he’s conning the townspeople he convinces them that he can provide musical training with his ‘think method’. After falling in love with one of the townsfolk, he is hunted down and made to prove his method works. This is a clip from a Broadway revival of the play where Harold Hill is hoping that his ‘think method’ while yield results,

Of course, the people in this study had musicaltraining so they could think a melody into a musical score but I find the echo from the past amusing nonetheless.

Vampire nanogenerators: 2017

Researchers have been working on ways to harvest energy from bloodstreams. I last wrote about this type of research in an April 3, 2009 posting about ‘vampire batteries ‘(for use in pacemakers). The latest work according to a Sept. 8, 2017 news item on Nanowerk comes from China,

Men build dams and huge turbines to turn the energy of waterfalls and tides into electricity. To produce hydropower on a much smaller scale, Chinese scientists have now developed a lightweight power generator based on carbon nanotube fibers suitable to convert even the energy of flowing blood in blood vessels into electricity. They describe their innovation in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“A One-Dimensional Fluidic Nanogenerator with a High Power Conversion Efficiency”)

A Sept. 8, 2017 Wiley Publishing news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

For thousands of years, people have used the energy of flowing or falling water for their purposes, first to power mechanical engines such as watermills, then to generate electricity by exploiting height differences in the landscape or sea tides. Using naturally flowing water as a sustainable power source has the advantage that there are (almost) no dependencies on weather or daylight. Even flexible, minute power generators that make use of the flow of biological fluids are conceivable. How such a system could work is explained by a research team from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Huisheng Peng and his co-workers have developed a fiber with a thickness of less than a millimeter that generates electrical power when surrounded by flowing saline solution—in a thin tube or even in a blood vessel.

The construction principle of the fiber is quite simple. An ordered array of carbon nanotubes was continuously wrapped around a polymeric core. Carbon nanotubes are well known to be electroactive and mechanically stable; they can be spun and aligned in sheets. In the as-prepared electroactive threads, the carbon nanotube sheets coated the fiber core with a thickness of less than half a micron. For power generation, the thread or “fiber-shaped fluidic nanogenerator” (FFNG), as the authors call it, was connected to electrodes and immersed into flowing water or simply repeatedly dipped into a saline solution. “The electricity was derived from the relative movement between the FFNG and the solution,” the scientists explained. According to the theory, an electrical double layer is created around the fiber, and then the flowing solution distorts the symmetrical charge distribution, generating an electricity gradient along the long axis.

The power output efficiency of this system was high. Compared with other types of miniature energy-harvesting devices, the FFNG was reported to show a superior power conversion efficiency of more than 20%. Other advantages are elasticity, tunability, lightweight, and one-dimensionality, thus offering prospects of exciting technological applications. The FFNG can be made stretchable just by spinning the sheets around an elastic fiber substrate. If woven into fabrics, wearable electronics become thus a very interesting option for FFNG application. Another exciting application is the harvesting of electrical energy from the bloodstream for medical applications. First tests with frog nerves proved to be successful.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A One-Dimensional Fluidic Nanogenerator with a High Power Conversion Efficiency by Yifan Xu, Dr. Peining Chen, Jing Zhang, Songlin Xie, Dr. Fang Wan, Jue Deng, Dr. Xunliang Cheng, Yajie Hu, Meng Liao, Dr. Bingjie Wang, Dr. Xuemei Sun, and Prof. Dr. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201706620 Version of Record online: 7 SEP 2017

© 2017 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Hallucinogenic molecules and the brain

Psychedelic drugs seems to be enjoying a ‘moment’. After decades of being vilified and  declared illegal (in many jurisdictions), psychedelic (or hallucinogenic) drugs are once again being tested for use in therapy. A Sept. 1, 2017 article by Diana Kwon for The Scientist describes some of the latest research (I’ve excerpted the section on molecules; Note: Links have been removed),

Mind-bending molecules


All the classic psychedelic drugs—psilocybin, LSD, and N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active component in ayahuasca—activate serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptors, which are distributed throughout the brain. In all likelihood, this receptor plays a key role in the drugs’ effects. Krähenmann [Rainer Krähenmann, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Zurich]] and his colleagues in Zurich have discovered that ketanserin, a 5-HT2A receptor antagonist, blocks LSD’s hallucinogenic properties and prevents individuals from entering a dreamlike state or attributing personal relevance to the experience.12,13

Other research groups have found that, in rodent brains, 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine (DOI), a highly potent and selective 5-HT2A receptor agonist, can modify the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that, among other things, regulates neuronal survival, differentiation, and synaptic plasticity. This has led some scientists to hypothesize that, through this pathway, psychedelics may enhance neuroplasticity, the ability to form new neuronal connections in the brain.14 “We’re still working on that and trying to figure out what is so special about the receptor and where it is involved,” says Katrin Preller, a postdoc studying psychedelics at the University of Zurich. “But it seems like this combination of serotonin 2A receptors and BDNF leads to a kind of different organizational state in the brain that leads to what people experience under the influence of psychedelics.”

This serotonin receptor isn’t limited to the central nervous system. Work by Charles Nichols, a pharmacology professor at Louisiana State University, has revealed that 5-HT2A receptor agonists can reduce inflammation throughout the body. Nichols and his former postdoc Bangning Yu stumbled upon this discovery by accident, while testing the effects of DOI on smooth muscle cells from rat aortas. When they added this drug to the rodent cells in culture, it blocked the effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), a key inflammatory cytokine.

“It was completely unexpected,” Nichols recalls. The effects were so bewildering, he says, that they repeated the experiment twice to convince themselves that the results were correct. Before publishing the findings in 2008,15 they tested a few other 5-HT2A receptor agonists, including LSD, and found consistent anti-inflammatory effects, though none of the drugs’ effects were as strong as DOI’s. “Most of the psychedelics I have tested are about as potent as a corticosteroid at their target, but there’s something very unique about DOI that makes it much more potent,” Nichols says. “That’s one of the mysteries I’m trying to solve.”

After seeing the effect these drugs could have in cells, Nichols and his team moved on to whole animals. When they treated mouse models of system-wide inflammation with DOI, they found potent anti-inflammatory effects throughout the rodents’ bodies, with the strongest effects in the small intestine and a section of the main cardiac artery known as the aortic arch.16 “I think that’s really when it felt that we were onto something big, when we saw it in the whole animal,” Nichols says.

The group is now focused on testing DOI as a potential therapeutic for inflammatory diseases. In a 2015 study, they reported that DOI could block the development of asthma in a mouse model of the condition,17 and last December, the team received a patent to use DOI for four indications: asthma, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. They are now working to move the treatment into clinical trials. The benefit of using DOI for these conditions, Nichols says, is that because of its potency, only small amounts will be required—far below the amounts required to produce hallucinogenic effects.

In addition to opening the door to a new class of diseases that could benefit from psychedelics-inspired therapy, Nichols’s work suggests “that there may be some enduring changes that are mediated through anti-inflammatory effects,” Griffiths [Roland Griffiths, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University] says. Recent studies suggest that inflammation may play a role in a number of psychological disorders, including depression18 and addiction.19

“If somebody has neuroinflammation and that’s causing depression, and something like psilocybin makes it better through the subjective experience but the brain is still inflamed, it’s going to fall back into the depressed rut,” Nichols says. But if psilocybin is also treating the inflammation, he adds, “it won’t have that rut to fall back into.”

If it turns out that psychedelics do have anti-inflammatory effects in the brain, the drugs’ therapeutic uses could be even broader than scientists now envision. “In terms of neurodegenerative disease, every one of these disorders is mediated by inflammatory cytokines,” says Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida who in 2013 reported that small doses of psilocybin could promote neurogenesis in the mouse hippocampus.20 “That’s why I think, with Alzheimer’s, for example, if you attenuate the inflammation, it could help slow the progression of the disease.”

For anyone who was never exposed to the anti-hallucinogenic drug campaigns, this turn of events is mindboggling. There was a great deal of concern especially with LSD in the 1960s and it was not entirely unfounded. In my own family, a distant cousin, while under the influence of the drug, jumped off a building believing he could fly.  So, Kwon’s story opening with a story about someone being treated successfully for depression with a psychedelic drug was surprising to me . Why these drugs are being used successfully for psychiatric conditions when so much damage was apparently done under the influence in decades past may have something to do with taking the drugs in a controlled environment and, possibly, smaller dosages.

Nanowire fingerprint technology

Apparently this technology from France’s Laboratoire d’électronique des technologies de l’information (CEA-Leti) will make fingerprinting more reliable. From a Sept. 5, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Leti today announced that the European R&D project known as PiezoMAT has developed a pressure-based fingerprint sensor that enables resolution more than twice as high as currently required by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The project’s proof of concept demonstrates that a matrix of interconnected piezoelectric zinc-oxide (ZnO) nanowires grown on silicon can reconstruct the smallest features of human fingerprints at 1,000 dots per inch (DPI).

“The pressure-based fingerprint sensor derived from the integration of piezo-electric ZnO nanowires grown on silicon opens the path to ultra-high resolution fingerprint sensors, which will be able to reach resolution much higher than 1,000 DPI,” said Antoine Viana, Leti’s project manager. “This technology holds promise for significant improvement in both security and identification applications.”

A Sept. 5, 2017 Leti press release, which originated the news item, delves further,

The eight-member project team of European companies, universities and research institutes fabricated a demonstrator embedding a silicon chip with 250 pixels, and its associated electronics for signal collection and post-processing. The chip was designed to demonstrate the concept and the major technological achievements, not the maximum potential nanowire integration density. Long-term development will pursue full electronics integration for optimal sensor resolution.

The project also provided valuable experience and know-how in several key areas, such as optimization of seed-layer processing, localized growth of well-oriented ZnO nanowires on silicon substrates, mathematical modeling of complex charge generation, and synthesis of new polymers for encapsulation. The research and deliverables of the project have been presented in scientific journals and at conferences, including Eurosensors 2016 in Budapest.

The 44-month, €2.9 million PiezoMAT (PIEZOelectric nanowire MATrices) research project was funded by the European Commission in the Seventh Framework Program. Its partners include:

  • Leti (Grenoble, France): A leading European center in the field of microelectronics, microtechnology and nanotechnology R&D, Leti is one of the three institutes of the Technological Research Division at CEA, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. Leti’s activities span basic and applied research up to pilot industrial lines. www.leti-cea.com/cea-tech/leti/english
  • Fraunhofer IAF (Freiburg, Germany): Fraunhofer IAF, one of the leading research facilities worldwide in the field of III-V semiconductors, develops electronic and optical devices based on modern micro- and nanostructures. Fraunhofer IAF’s technologies find applications in areas such as security, energy, communication, health, and mobility. www.iaf.fraunhofer.de/en
  • Centre for Energy Research, Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest, Hungary):  The Institute for Technical Physics and Materials Science, one of the institutes of the Research Centre, conducts interdisciplinary research on complex functional materials and nanometer-scale structures, exploration of physical, chemical, and biological principles, and their exploitation in integrated micro- and nanosystems www.mems.hu, www.energia.mta.hu/en
  • Universität Leipzig (Leipzig, Germany): Germany’s second-oldest university with continuous teaching, established in 1409, hosts about 30,000 students in liberal arts, medicine and natural sciences. One of its scientific profiles is “Complex Matter”, and contributions to PIEZOMAT are in the field of nanostructures and wide gap materials. www.zv.uni-leipzig.de/en/
  • Kaunas University of Technology (Kaunas, Lithuania): One of the largest technical universities in the Baltic States, focusing its R&D activities on novel materials, smart devices, advanced measurement techniques and micro/nano-technologies. The Institute of Mechatronics specializes on multi-physics simulation and dynamic characterization of macro/micro-scale transducers with well-established expertise in the field of piezoelectric devices. http://en.ktu.lt/
  • SPECIFIC POLYMERS (Castries, France): SME with twelve employees and an annual turnover of about 1M€, SPECIFIC POLYMERS acts as an R&D service provider and scale-up producer in the field of functional polymers with high specificity (>1000 polymers in catalogue; >500 customers; >50 countries). www.specificpolymers.fr/
  • Tyndall National Institute (Cork, Ireland): Tyndall National Institute is one of Europe’s leading research centres in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) research and development and the largest facility of its type in Ireland. The Institute employs over 460 researchers, engineers and support staff, with a full-time graduate cohort of 135 students. With a network of 200 industry partners and customers worldwide, Tyndall generates around €30M income each year, 85% from competitively won contracts nationally and internationally. Tyndall is a globally leading Institute in its four core research areas of Photonics, Microsystems, Micro/Nanoelectronics and Theory, Modeling and Design. www.tyndall.ie/
  • OT-Morpho (Paris, France): OT-Morpho is a world leader in digital security & identification technologies with the ambition to empower citizens and consumers alike to interact, pay, connect, commute, travel and even vote in ways that are now possible in a connected world. As our physical and digital, civil and commercial lifestyles converge, OT-Morpho stands precisely at that crossroads to leverage the best in security and identity technologies and offer customized solutions to a wide range of international clients from key industries, including Financial services, Telecom, Identity, Security and IoT. With close to €3bn in revenues and more than 14,000 employees, OT-Morpho is the result of the merger between OT (Oberthur Technologies) and Safran Identity & Security (Morpho) completed in 31 May 2017. Temporarily designated by the name “OT-Morpho”, the new company will unveil its new name in September 2017. For more information, visit www.morpho.com and www.oberthur.com

I have tended to take fingerprint technology for granted but last fall (2016) I stumbled on a report suggesting that forensic sciences, including fingerprinting, was perhaps not as conclusive as one might expect after watching fictional police procedural television programmes. My Sept. 23, 2016 posting features the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report (‘Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods‘ 174 pp PDF).