AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: vivzett

Genetics and Mental Illness

Brain Lobes

Scientists have tirelessly searched through the genetic makeup of people with metal illnesses trying to find a common variation(s) that could account for conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However this has been inconclusive so researchers have turned to epigenetics, the study of how experience and environment effect the expression of certain genes. Epigenetic marks regulate when and how much protein is made with out actually altering the DNA itself. It is believed that these “marks” can affect behavior, and thus may interfere with metal health. This idea was tested in a study with rats.  Researchers proved that affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress, which was then passed on to the next generation. This is thought to be similar in humans and these markers develop as an animal adapts to its environment.  Epigenetic research led scientists to prove that offspring of parents who experienced famine are at a higher risk for developing schizophrenia. Additionally, some people who have autism, epigenetic markers had silenced the gene which helps produce the hormone oxytocin which helps the brain’s social circuit. And therefore a brain that lacks this hormone would most likely struggle in social situations. Thomas Lehner of genomics research at the National Institute of Mental Health says that studies and research have shown that epigenetic modifications impact behavior and he also believes that these effects can be reversed. By studying genes at the “epi” level, researchers are hoping to find patterns that were hidden at the gene level.  Finding and targeting these patterns can lead to more effective treatment of and management of certain mental illnesses. There are many projects and studies at some of the most prestigious institutes, such as Tufts and Johns Hopkins, that are focused on the study of things at the epigenetic level.

Original Article

Further Information:

Epigenetic Markers and Heredity

Epigentetics and Autism 

Genetics and the Brain





Mystery Virus Identified

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment stated that the mysterious virus that killed the farmer in Kansas last summer has been identified as Bourbon virus, named after the county were the patient lived. Doctor Dana Hawkinson, infectious disease specialist, treated the patient for 10 days at the University of Kansas Hospital.  Bourbon virus, a microbe, was identified by the scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after several months of testing.  Doctor J Erin Staples, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC laboratory in For Collins, CO, stated the virus was a type of thogovirus, part of the larger family called orthomyxovirures.  Hawkinson believe that the virus has been around in milder forms for some time now and people have recovered from it.  The patient entered the hospital with symptoms which included high fever, muscle aches, and loss of appetite.  Upon further testing the patients blood showed elevated liver enzymes and low levels of white blood cells and platelets which indicated tick-borne illnesses.  Hawkinson tested the patient for Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Heartland virus, both came back negative.  Heartland virus is also another recently discovered/named by the CDC tick-borne illness.  There is no treatment for the disease  and the best defense is to wear long garments when working outdoors and wearing bug spray containing DEET.  The risk to the public is low especially because mosquitos and ticks are not active in cold weather.

For more information:

Article from NYTimes

Bourbon virus kills farmer

Virus that killed farmer is identified 

Kansas farmer dead

Could There be Good Gene Mutations?

Is there an epic battle occurring within our bodies right now? The classic battle royale between good and bad? I suppose in the body’s case the fight between good and bad genes.  There is a new field in medical research in which researchers are on the quest to find good gene mutations that fight against the disease causing mutations.  One individual, Doug Whitney, sparked the interest of a few doctors because he has fought his genetic odds to be health at 65 years old.  Whitney has a gene mutation, presenilin, that causes early onset Alzheimer’s disease in those who has inherited it. Whitney’s mother and 9 out of his 13 siblings were killed by this mutation and so Whitney’s fate seemed to be sealed.  However when Whitney reached his 40s and 50s having no symptoms he assumed he did not have the gene.  At 62 years old, Whitney, decided he would get a gene test.  He did have the gene.  This was an anomaly, He was doomed to have early onset Alzheimer’s Disease but had absolutely no symptoms. Although Whitney still have changes of getting Alzhiemers but the effects of his bad gene have been greatly delayed by another gene in Whitney’s DNA.  Whitney joined a study at Washington University in St. Louis led by Doctor Randall Bateman which recruited people with the early onset Alzheimer’s disease gene. This attracted the attention of Doctor Eric E. Schadt and Doctor Stephen H. Friend.  Doctor Schadt said that searching for good genes that protect against bad gene mutations is completely turning genetic research on its head.  Researchers have found gene mutations that partially protect diseases like osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.  These good gene mutation’s partial protect have help to develop drugs to help fight certain diseases. Finding good gene mutations are substantially more difficult to find than bad genes, but the search has gotten a little easier with fast and inexpensive methods of sequencing DNA. Doctor Schadt and Doctor Friend decided to start the Resilience Project and search for good gene mutations that counteract bad gene mutations to help develop new break though treatments and drugs. They have contacted the researchers at Washington University, the research that Whitney is currently participating in.

For more information:

Article from NYT

Prokaryotic positive genetic influences

Genetics used for intrusion protection

About genetic testing


Petri Dish Brain Models…Endless Possibilities.

Side View of the Brain

Who would have thought that modern science could develope a brain stimulation with actual brain cells in a petri dish? Well researchers led by Doctor Rudolph E. Tanzi have done just that.  They have made substantial steps in the field of medical brain research specifically in the Alzheimer’s research field. Rudolph E. Tanzi is a prominent neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. One of Tanzi’s colleagues and also a neuroscientist, Doo Yeon Kim, suggested that they grow brain cells in gel. From this suggestion researchers under Tanzi’s lead created a brain scenario in a petri dish and then gave this model Alzheimer’s disease. Tanzi and his group took embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to become any type of cell in the body, and grew them with a mixture of chemicals. Said chemicals cause the stems cells to become neurons, which they then gave those neurons Alzheimer’s genes and were all growing in a commercially available gel in a petri dish. Those genes then caused plaques and later tangles which are indicative characteristics of Alzheimers. Dr Tanzi was quoted, “Sure enough, we saw plaques, real plaques…We waited, and then we saw tangles, actual tangles. It looks like you are looking at an Alzheimer brain.” This manufactured real Alzheimer’s brain stimulation opens new doors for research that was hindered because previously on mice with imperfect formsof the human Alzheimer’s genes. Doctor P. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University states, “It could dramatically accelerate testing of new drug candidates.” Although the Petri Dish Model lacks some real life qualities it can still be utilized as a start for quick, cheap, and easy drug testing. Doctor Sam Gandy of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York states that the new discovery is, “a real game changer.” Tanzi is now starting to test 1,200 drugs on the market and 5,000 experimental drugs, a project that was impossible to perform on mice. Tanzi also wishes to test a protein, amyloid, that clumps into the plaques. He found an enzyme, that when blocked prevents tangles from forming. Dr. Gandy wishes to use the the system to study the influence of genes, such as ApoE4, which contributes to about 50% of Alzheimer’s cases. Dr. Doraiswamy of Duke stated, “The lack of a viable model for Alzheimer’s has been the Achilles’ heel of the field.” Tanzi’s model is the first step towards defeating this “Achilles’ heel” which opens infinite new doors in the research of finding new medications to cope with the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease.

For more Information: 

Official Alzheimer’s Research Page

Neuroscience Research 

Actual Article




Potent Pot and Potential Problems

Marijuana Joint

Does smoking a little “recreational” Pot now and then really cause health problems? The answer is definitively yes.  Doctor Jodi Gilman of Massachusetts General Hospital- Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine was reviewing some brain scans were she noticed something incredibly alarming.  She found when reviewing brains of 20 pot smokers ages 18 to 25 that the nucleus accumbens of the brain of marijuana smokers were notably denser than normal. Gilman along with other researchers at Harvard University and Northwestern University conducted a study on the effects of smoking marijuana(pot) on the young adult brain.  Moderate marijuana use has been proven effect for use by adults to ease nausea and pain, however in a developing young brain, use could be detrimental.  The study took 40 young adults, non-smokers and smokers ( 7 light smokers, 9 medium smokers- light up 3-5 times per week, and 4 daily smokers) brain scans who had no sign of dependency.  These scans showed that in all smoker brains showed irregularities in the structure of the brain, specifically in the nucleus accumbens.  Similar changes were also seen the amygdala which controls memory, emotional and fear responses in the brain. Gilman concluded that these structural abnormalities indicated long term effects of THC on the brain.  Another point of interest in the influence of marijuana use on the young brain, is that the potency of pot smoked now versus pot smoked year earlier has increased.  According to samples seized by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency show that the concentration of THC, the drugs psychoactive compound, the average potency of THC has risen from 3.75 % in 1995 to 13% in 2013. Some types of marijuana products sold for recreation have been noted to have up to 70% of THC.  High-THC marijuana is associated with paranoia and psychosis according to The New England Journal of Medicine.  Nora D. Volkow stated that “We have seen very,very significant increases in emergency room admissions..It can be explained by the fact that current marijuana has a higher potency.”  Alan J Budney, a researcher and professor at Dartmouth Medical School explained that the higher the potency the more addictive marijuana becomes. A study released in 2012 showed that teenages who were found to be dependant on pot before age 18 and who continued using it into adulthood lost an average of 8 I.Q. points by age 38.  These are some serious facts to consider next time you are at a party and marijuana is present. Lighting up a few times just for the fun of it might wreak havoc on your brain in years to come.

For more information:

Link to Article

Marijuana Drug Abuse

NYT- Increase of Pot Use in Teenagers


The Ebola Epidemic: When Will it End?

Ebola Virus

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has captivated international audiences the last few weeks.  Ebola Virus Disease is an often fatal disease which is systemic meaning it attacks all organs and tissue in the body. It can be spread through any human to human contact, making this disease highly contagious. The countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been heavily affected by this disease. On tuesday September 23th the Center for Disease Control (CDC) based in Atlanta Georgia released new projections on the Ebola epidemic in Africa based on computer modeling.  The CDC released a best-case scenario being that if proper measures are taken the disease could be eradicated by January 2nd and a worse-case scenario that if disease is left unmonitored and continues as is, there will be approximately 1.4 million cases by January 2nd.   Doctor Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Ebola epidemic, has stated that since the data was received in August conditions have improved slightly due to increased aid to the affected regions. Another report was released by the World Health Organization (WHO) which stated more conservative figures but also acknowledged that there could possibly be more due to unreported cases. The WHO report brings about the idea that the epidemic may not end and the Ebola virus will perpetuate in West Africa. It is obvious to health officials, such as Dr. Jack Chow, that even in a medium case scenario the amount of hospital beds and aid are rapidly being surpassed by the number of cases. The CDC does acknowledge this impending lack of bed and isolation unit crisis. One solution to this problem is to educate citizens on home care and send home care packages to support this movement.  Although some are dubious, Frieden states that home care had been effective in the smallpox crisis in the 1960s in Africa.  In addition to homecare, Doctor D. A. Henderson explains that funds and food play a huge roll in the containment and elimination of disease because when you give victims money and food there is no need for them to beg or go out to the market for food where they might encounter other human contact. How should this epidemic be handled? Is homecare an effective solution? Where should money be allocated, homecare or hospital expansion?


Link to Article:


To Know or Not to Know: Cancer Risk Gene Testing

Breast Cancer Cells

Genetic mutation testing has been a hotly debated and controversial topic since its initial prevalence in 1990.  Originally genetic testing was used to test females who have cancer in their family history for the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations.  Early detection of these mutations allowed for precautionary measure sure to be exercised prior to cancer even being diagnosed. The hereditary breast cancer risk testing was done mainly by Myraid Genetics but just last year the Supreme Court invalidated Myraid’s patents on the testing of the BRCA genes.  This ruling opened up many windows for the competition of Myraid in the field of genetic testing.  Many other companies and Myraid itself began not only offering BRCA testing but also more elaborate multi gene testing for the same price (apron $4000) as it would have been to test just the two BRCA genes.  This “bargain” influenced many patients to have more genes (up to 25) tested for mutations despite the fact that they may not have a family history to tendency towards certain cancers.  This multiplex testing has raised many eyebrows in the medical field because patients and doctors are getting information that sometimes they are unsure as to what they should do.  Doctor Kenneth Offit of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center stated when referring to multiple gene mutation testing, “because they could be tested,not necessarily because they should be…individuals are getting results we’re not fully educated to council them on. ” However Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is working on setting up a database for more knowledge on genetic testing.  This online forum, the Prospective Registry of Multiplex Testing (PROMPT) will allow for more research to be done and for patients to learn more.   Often genetic mutations are found and doctors are unsure how to react to the information due to lack of knowledge in that specific field of mutation leading to a specific type of cancer with out any family history.   Professor Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington voiced her opinion that, “We need to report back only what is devastating and clearly devastating.”  Meaning she felt that patients and physicians should only receive specific information as opposed to a full list of all the genetic mutations that tested position or inconclusive.  When do we know when to much information become frivolous? When it come to human health, the more we know the better the outcomes.  How will doctors be able to sift through extraneous data to find what truly are indications for higher risk of cancer?  Is this “extra” testing and information skewing the data and prognosis of many patients?


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