AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

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Fear in Your Genes

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Scientists at the University of Virginia recently conducted a study that suggests a connection between social behaviors and epigenetic markers. The study of these markers could predict the social dispositions of individuals and predict future social issues.

The gene for Oxytocin receptor (OXTR) has the ability to carry various amounts of DNA methylation tags. Those low in methyl tags have a greater ability to utilize oxytocin and therefore have a less amplified fear response. Those with many DNA methyl tags are shown to exhibit a more exaggerated fear response. More finitely, the amount of OXTR methylation affected the amount of brain activity in the amygdala, fusiform, and insula. These regions of the brain are directly correlated with face and emotional processing. To prove this, researchers conducted MRI scans on healthy participants while showing them pictures of angry and fearful faces.

The study not only proved the importance of studying the possible effects of epigenetic markers on susceptibility and resistance to disease, but it also shed a light on the possibility of brain disorders such as autism, anorexia, and depression being linked to DNA methyl tags at the oxytocin receptor.

Broadly, this study changes the way we look at how our environment and upbringing shapes our future susceptibility to illness and disorders. As scientific investigation into this topic continues and expands, we may be able to predict an individual’s reaction to social situations with the prick of a finger.

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Put it all in focus

We’ve all had that moment where we squeeze our eyelids into tiny slits in hoping the blurry paper or board in front of us will clear up and wonder, Why am I making my eyes smaller to see better? That doesn’t seem to make sense! The key is to start thinking of your eyes like a camera, a camera with aperture. When we look at something, photons are passing through our corneas and blending light rays together, which then pass through the crystalline lens and vitreous on their way to the retina. The physical building blocks of the eye, rods and cones, turn photons into electromagnetic impulses that are sent to the brain to be interpreted.

So to get to the point, why do we squint? The truth is our lenses try to focus to the best of their ability but they are not entirely flexible. So blurriness is usually indicative of a lens malfunction, missing the target in the back of the retina. When you focus your eyes on something, there are massive amounts of competing light sources and surrounding stimuli in your peripheral vision which can cloud your eyes focus. Heres where the camera reference comes in: squinting your eyes is comparable to tightening the aperture of a camera, allowing less conflicting light to interfere with the image its focusing on. So in fact, squinting your eyes does not work because it is changing the shape of your lenses, but rather because it is allowing less competing stimuli to interfere with its true focus.
If vision is continually blurry, it may not be a simple malfunctioning of your lens but rather due to physical eye damage, in which case glasses might be a good investment. Maybe we should start to think of the aperture of our personal lives a little more as well, theoretically squinting to focus on important tasks and present moments rather than being distracted by the ever-present stimuli around us. Just a thought…
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Stop Taking Notes

Put down your pencils. Stop taking notes. Scientists have recently proven that you are less likely to remember something once you write it down. Now you all have scientific explanations for not bringing a backpack to school. Scientists began by researching the effects of technology on our memories. Unsurprisingly, they concluded that people who saved information on the computer were less likely to remember it than those who were told the facts verbally. More of this study can be seen in the article “Poor Memory, Blame Google”. It brings up a larger concern; what will the mental capacities of our society come to in our increasingly technological age? This brought Professor Susan Greenfield to investigate the affects of all information processing tactics and their effect on human memory.

She began with the most simple and popular of memory methods, note taking. They split a population of undergraduate students into 2 groups, one that took notes and one that relied on straight memory. They showed them pairs of cards and instructed them to memorize the location. One group wrote it down and the other did not. After the study time, the note-taking group had their notes taken away and the full group was tested on the cards’ location. Surprisingly, the note-taking group performed very poorly in the exercise, far underperforming the memory group.

The scientists concluding that by taking notes, the students were relying on an external form of storage rather than their own synapses. So keep those pencils down, your memory will thank you.

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Contrary Study:

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Antidepressants Change Brain Connectivity After One Dose



Lloyd Morgan- “Despair”

The prescribing of anti-depressants is a controversial topic in that most scientists are unaware how these medications work. Previously, SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) were thought to have taken effect after a few weeks. Recent studies show, rather, that these medications take effect in a matter of hours.

SSRIs are very widely prescribed and frequently studied as antidepressants. They work by fundamentally changing brain connectivity and the way in which the brain undergoes simple processes. New studies are showing that this rewiring of the brain occurs after only one dose of this medication, producing dramatic changes.

The Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences conducted this study by conducting extensive brain scans, allowing participants to let their minds wander so that the lab technicians could accurately measure the oxygenation of the blood flow in the brain as well as the number of connections between voxels in the brain.

This lab yielded interesting results. Scientists discovered that one single dose of SSRI reduced the level of intrinsic connectivity in most parts of the brain, but increased connectivity within the cerebellum and the thalamus.

This study opens up a lot of opportunities for deeper investigation into antidepressants. It can help researchers to understand why some people do not respond well to this form of treatment, and how to better individualize treatments for depression patients. Depression is a serious and life-altering illness that effects every sector of a person’s life. With added research and understanding of treatment methods, there can be hope for the many that struggle with this mental illness everyday.

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