Beckie's Blog / Students Blogs

From the Very Small to the Very Large: Microbes and Universes (Day 3 with Beckie)

First off why are scientists researching the microbes in contact lenses? Contact lenses provide many advantages, from increased stability of vision during sport, comfort and cosmetic value but what else might contacts be useful for and what can go wrong if you don’t take care of your contacts and their case? Whilst augmented reality contacts might be “a wee bit far fetched” other futuristic aplications of contacts might be in our grasp. Research into lenses that detect glucose levels in the tears of diabetics and change colour in response, and anti-myopia lenses is being undertaken. So what about where it all goes wrong? Many different microbes can cause keratitis: bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. It is important to be able to identify the organisms responsible for the infection due to their different susceptibility to different antibiotics. Whilst bacterial and fungal infection can often be treated with broadspectrum antibiotics acanthamoeba cause roughly 75 cases of keratitis in the UK per year. Acanthamoeba infection is particularly nasty and treatment involves eye drops every hour for the first 3 days and then reduced to 2 hourly, which can be required for months. Acanthamoeba will “hedgehog” in response to stress, the “happy” active trophozoite will form a cyst if challenged with drugs, not useful when we are trying to kill this organism. Instead research into blocking biological pathways that the acanthamoeba shares with plants, but that aren’t required for human cell growth, aim to target this organism by preventing replication. Another feature of acanthamoeba, not only can this organism itself cause infection it is also the Trojan horse of the micro bacterial world. Other organisms can live inside and even piggy pack onto this protozoa.

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A wee bit far fetched but still fun to think about – Augmented Reality Contacts

So what to take away from this lecture: don’t be the contact lens wearer from hell. More than half of people don’t follow advice, putting themselves at risk of infection, and some photos of the contact cases taken from their owners were truly shocking. Also some biofilms, a layer of microbes held together by substances they excrete providing a nutritious environment for quick growth, are invisible to the human eye – just think what might be on the case you are putting your contacts in. Your eyes are immune privileged, the immune system doesn’t work the same as in the rest of the body because the cells are too precious to be damaged by our immune system during a fight. This means you have to take more care to prevent infection to get the benefits out of contacts without putting yourself at risk. Whilst all contact wearers will already know a lot about caring for their eyes, if in the future a energy supply for contacts is found allowing intelligent contacts to be produced for the rest of us I urge everyone else to think about the risks of not following your opticians advice.

Next, over to Why do Some People Become Psychopaths? to learn about Callous Unemotional (CU) traits in children with behavioural problems. Whilst more subtle in children CU traits, such as lacking remorse and guilt, shallow effect, manipulation of others, and the lack of empathy, share striking resemblance to those seen in adult psychopathy and are predictive of developing this condition in adulthood. So what do I know about psychopaths? It turns out very little, last week I got a copy of The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, which taught me that on average 1% of people could be classed as genuine psychopaths. I also came across a TEDtalk Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test presented by Jon from which I took home the message that “everyone is a bit psycopathic”. Is that meant to be comforting? However I am getting ahead of myself as no children are psychopaths and if intervention can be I proved upon the detection of CU traits maybe fewer children will develop psychopathy, back to what actually happened at the festival.

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No children are psychopaths but Callous Unemotional traits can be warning signs of psychopathy in adulthood

It is important to note that children can have behavioural, antisocial problems without CU; these children tend to have aggressive and anxious traits but should they act hostilely they will feel bad for their actions. It is this distinction of empathy that separates the two classes. Research is now showing that children with CU actually have problems processing others distress and even have a dampened stable response, they feel less fear, so might not be able to resonate with others distress as they have little example to compare the feeling to. Indeed fMRI shows that antisocial behaviour with CU traits is associated with lower activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for perceiving treat. Maybe intervention could address this inability to detect distress and through training to improve anti-social behaviours. There may also be a genetic contribution in the development of CU traits and later psychopathy, maybe from genes such as the serotonin transporter which is responsible for emotional reactivity and arousal. Neurodevelopmental genes appear to also be important as boys with increased grey matter are more likely to have CU traits. Importantly, without environmental triggers these genetic factors are not sufficient to influence CU. What can be learnt from environmental conditions is that poor parenting is not associated with increased antisocial behaviours in children with CU but “warm parenting” may be beneficial. It is also seem that children with CU traits respond to rewards far better than social exclusion, such as the naughty step that will work on non CU children, when trying to manipulate behaviour. It is clear that knowledge of this condition is improving and with knowledge comes the ability to improve intervention prior to the development of psychopathy.

A quick coffee on the run to keep my attention for In the Blink of an Eye, looking at how vision is attention dependent and how the world we perceive we see is not actually what we do see. A blog of this event can be found at the British Science Association website. Then a break before sitting back and letting The Quantum Universe wash over me in a rather informal ramble through the strange, amazingly mind blowing, world of quantum theory. Quantum theory describes everything we see around us from the small world inside atoms and molecules, the world of quarks, quasars, and nothingness, to the stars that fill our skys. But then getting your head around how a single object can be in two places at the same time or how a cat (specifically Schrodinger’s cat) in a box can be both simultaneously alive and dead might seem like a daunting task. We need Brian Cox and Jeff Forman to explain the delightfully strange Quantum Universe. At times I did feel a bit out of my depth, a bit like sitting on the beach in the break of the tide but no matter I can always read up on Quantum Theory as Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw have written a book, The Quantum Universe: Everything that can Happen does Happen, so rather than try and explain what were refered to as “insane” concepts (Jeff’s words not mine) I shall direct those of you interested to a book store.

The day ended with a pub quiz, in which the rather large team I was in did not finish last (I have however managed this on several other occasions). Useful facts to know, Bond Street is not a real street in London, there is a motorway the M868, and the Very Large Telescope is found in Chile.

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