Placebos: Tricking the Brain, Targeting the Body

Author: Shweta Ramdas
Editors: Charles Lu, Whit Froehlich, and Scott Barolo

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Placebo or Nocebo?

Last year, when I pooh-poohed my mother’s alternative medicine regimen, she said, “But these actually work well for me, because I believe in them!” My mother had just outsmarted me with science.

The placebo effect is one of the most remarkable yet least understood phenomena in science. It is a favorable response of our body to a medically neutral treatment (sugar pills, anybody?): in other words, a placebo is a fake treatment that produces a very real response. This is attributed to a physical reaction stemming from a psychological response to the administration of therapy. You could say that a patient sometimes gets better anyway—how many times have we waited out the common cold—and you would be right. This natural return to the baseline which can happen is not considered the placebo effect, which is an improvement in response to a treatment.

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What Does Smoking Do to Your DNA?

Authors: Shweta Ramdas

Editors: Irene Park and Kevin Boehnke

Smoking 1
Figure 1. Smoking is known to cause at least 14 different types of cancers, although it is not clear how or why.

 

We have known tobacco to be a cause of many cancers for decades now. It is associated with it least 14 types of cancers (see Figure 1). Less understood is how tobacco causes cancer. The short answer—it causes mutations. Tobacco smoke is a mixture of many chemicals, including at least 60 carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals).

A trans-national team of researchers has begun unearthing the distinct types of mutations caused by tobacco smoke to better understand the biological pathways leading to tobacco-induced cancer. They found that tobacco causes specific types of DNA damage in organs directly exposed to smoke (like the lungs) and that smoking tobacco generally leads to higher rates of mutation in all tissues. Understanding how the chemicals in tobacco smoke cause mutations can help scientists identify new and emerging mutagens and design better treatment strategies.

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It’s all in the family! But how? The biology of inheritance Part 2

Author: Shweta Ramdas

Editors: Molly Kozminsky, Christina Vallianatos, Bryan Moyers

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last five years, you have definitely come across headlines to the tune of “Researchers Find Gene for X”, where X can be anything from happiness, to political affiliation, to your preference for cilantro. There are quite a few people who respond to these studies with “but surely that’s not genetic!” I work on the genetics of psychiatric disorders and have fielded this question from most people with whom I discuss my research: “Isn’t something like depression just caused by things that happen to you or your upbringing? Why do we place the blame on genetics instead?”

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What the octopus genome can tell us

Author: Shweta Ramdas

Editors: Irene Park, Ada Hagan, Alisha John

The team at MiSciWriters certainly finds cephalopods fascinating, and we aren’t alone. Last year, the octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) was added to the growing list of organisms whose genome sequence is known.

Octopuses belong to a class of organisms called cephalopods, which literally means ‘head-feet’ (members of the cephalopod family have a head and tentacles or arms). These tentacles enable the creatures to do some very clever maneuvering, such as escaping their aquariums to eat crabs outside their tanks. It’s no surprise then that these are the most intelligent amongst invertebrates and now new information about the octopus genome can tell us more about these fascinating creatures.

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It’s all in the family! The biology of inheritance, part 1

Author: Shweta Ramdas

Editors: Molly Kozminsky, Jimmy Brancho, Kevin Boehnke

 

Harry Potter has his mother’s eyes. From his father, James, he inherits his black hair, his ability to play Quidditch, and a certain predisposition to mischief. We are all unique combinations of our parents, receiving half our DNA from each. In the genetic lottery, our parents’ genes are scrambled and spliced to create a new individual who carries on the family’s long tradition of snoring into one’s sheets. But besides a rickety knee, shortness of stature, and preferred pizza toppings, what else can we blame on our parents?

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Mother’s protein intake can affect her child’s weight

Author: Shweta Ramdas

Editors: Ada Hagan, Alisha John, Bryan Moyers, and Irene Park

Google “diet for pregnant or nursing mothers”, and you’ll be swamped with web pages recommending foods that help the baby and foods to avoid. There has been considerable research indicating that the diet of pregnant mothers can affect the child’s health (including risk for schizophrenia). But how? And are these effects long-lasting, or do they wear off once the child hits adulthood?

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