AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology


How Fruit Flies Changed Humans’ Understanding of ADHD and Autism

Think about driving on the highway. There may be music blaring on the radio, a friend chatting away in the passengers’ seat, birds flying over head, and hundreds of shiny multicolored cars whizzing by. Still, you focus on the road ahead of you and all the levers you must pull and pedals you must press to complete your drive. Your brain’s ability to focus solely on the task at hand is what scientists refer to as the phenomenon of habituation. Habituation is a when an organism is introduced to stimulus like a sight or sound so many times that the brain can begin to filter it out and no longer respond to it as strongly or at all. This concept of habituation has been known to scientists for years, but poorly understood until now. A study conducted and published recently in the journal, PLOS Genetics, by scientists at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, may finally explain this phenomenon.

Led by scientist and scholar Runa Hamid, the team utilized fruit flies to study how these tiny organisms could learn to tune out specific scents and only focus on the ones they wanted and needed. Fruit flies, also known by their scientific name of Drosophila, are commonly used in scientific experiments as their DNA is shockingly similar to that of humans. For their tests, the team exposed wildtype larvae to certain chemical odors like Ethyl acetate. At first exposure, the flies flocked to this odor. After just 5 minutes, the flies began to avoid this odor and search for other sources of food! However, some flies took longer to become habituated than the rest and some became hypersensitive instead, seemingly being more fixated on the odor the more that they were exposed to it.

The researchers then tested the brain activity of the flies. They found that flies that took longer to tune out the scents and/or became even more sensitive to them had fewer choline transporters in their brains. Produced in the liver, choline is an essential nutrient which helps compose Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which binds as a ligand to the receptor protein to Acetylcholine receptor pathways. As we learned in AP Bio, neurons in the brain release neurotransmitters to diffuse across a “synapse”, the small gap between the signaling cell and the target cell. In this specific case, the Acetylcholine binds to the receptor protein site embedded in the membrane of brain cells and opens the ligand-gated ion channel. However, to make these neurotransmitters, the neurons need transport proteins to bring nutrients like choline into the cell. Without choline, neurons cannot produce Acetylcholine and the cell signaling pathways which Acetylcholine stimulates will not be signaled, or yield a response.

In short, flies with a sufficient amount of choline receptors in the brain produced the neurotransmitters needed to signal the Acetylcholine receptor pathway; These flies were able to quickly adapt to the stimulus provided. The flies that struggled to focus and tune out the scent were proven to have fewer choline receptors, meaning their brains did not produce adequate amounts of Acetylcholine. This helped the scientists conclude that Acetylcholine, specifically the molecules that allow for its thorough production, are necessary components of the phenomenon of habituation.

As the behaviors of poor focus and/or hypersensitivity to stimuli are traits of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders in humans, the scientists believe there is a link between the biochemistry of the fruit flies and humans with these disorders; They concluded that reduced choline transport proteins in the brain of humans are a likely cause of the attention related symptoms of ADHD and Autism. Although further studies will need to be conducted, the high levels of shared DNA in humans and fruits flies mean that our biochemistry is likely wired in similar mechanisms to that of the flies. Thanks to the work of these scientists to understand one poorly understood biological phenomenon, they have opened the door into further research and understanding of another.

Video Games: Can They Be Beneficial to a Child’s Learning and Development?

We’re told that video games are the downfall of today’s youth, but is it possible that there are video games that can help advance today’s youth? Well, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wanted to test exactly that, and thus Project: EVO was born.

They used a fairly new branch of medicine known as “digital medicine.” According to DW Shaffer at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “…”digital medicine” [is medicine] that is potentially more precise, more effective, more experimental, more widely distributed, and more egalitarian than current medical practice. Critical steps in the creation of digital medicine are careful analysis of the impact of new technologies and coordinated efforts to direct technological development towards creating a new paradigm of medical care.” The researchers set out to prove whether or not digital medicine could be used as an investigational treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and co-occurring attention/deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It is statistically proven that as many as 50 percent of children on the autism spectrum experience symptoms of ADHD, with about 30 percent of said children receiving a secondary diagnosis of ADHD. ADHD medications are far less effective, however, in children with both disorders than in those with only ADHD, which led researchers to conduct a study exploring alternative treatments.

The study included 19 children aged 9-13 who had each been diagnosed on the spectrum and experienced co-occurring ADHD symptoms. The care givers of each child, were asked to submit reports of his/her child’s ADHD symptoms, as well as his/her child’s ability to both plan and carry out specific tasks. Participants in the study were given either the Project: EVO treatment, which is delivered via an action video game experience, or an educational activity involving pattern recognition. The researchers were using the TOVA API score, an FDA-cleared objective, to measure each child’s attention.

“Our study showed that children engaged with the Project: EVO treatment for the recommended amount of time, and that parents and children reported high rates of satisfaction with the treatment,” Benjamin Yerys, Ph.D., a child psychologist at CHOP’s Center for Autism Research (CAR) and first and corresponding author on the study. “Based on the promising study results, we look forward to continuing to evaluate the potential for Project: EVO as a new treatment option for children with ASD and ADHD.”

The overall conclusion of the study, found that children engaged with the treatment for 95% of the recommended treatment sessions. The study also found that upon using Project: EVO, children showed improved attention both quantitatively (on the TOVA API score) and qualitatively, with a noticeable reduction of ADHD symptoms. Both parents and children deemed Project: EVO a worthwhile approach for treatment. Though the sample size of the study was small, the study showed that using Project: EVO was both feasible and acceptable; with potentially therapeutic effects.

Did You Know Stress Could Cause…

Sorry! I got distracted. ADHD. Stress can cause ADHD. Many drug companies and family physicians blame ADHD on a chemical imbalance. It is so common in the US to simply get drugs to pacify children’s hyperactivity. In fact, kids as young as “4-year-olds can be diagnosed and medicated with amphetamines like Ritalin

6296020485_1130d59586_m.” (Huffington Post) This is great news for the drug companies… but is this idea that ADHD is solely form a chemical imbalance completely true?

Many people are starting to oppose this idea. Marilyn Wedge, family therapist, found in her cases that a lot of times children’s crazy or abnormal behavior can be attributed to stressful or changing situations. More times than not we forget that everyone from infancy to retirement is affected by stressful situations. Whether they show it or not, or are conscious of it or not, people’s actions are known for being dependent on situations. Though this can be the situation at any age, my article refers mainly to children. Family therapists found that children are like sponges, they soak up the feelings and emotions in any situation and reproduce them in their actions. Marilyn said “Some people may be amazed that a 4-year old child could be so tuned in to his father and have behavior problems because of a father losing his job. To a family therapist, however, this kind of situation is business as usual. We see it every day.” (Huffington Post) So, rather than a simple chemical imbalance, ADHD might be from a stressful environment, and there is no pill to fix that.

This debate brings us back to the nature versus nurture argument. The nature versus nurture argument can be applied to every situation, and it is; and there is almost always people fighting for both sides. The truth is, we may never have a clear answer. In fact, I would argue that most situations are influenced by both nature and nurture. In relation to ADHD, a child could truly have a chemical imbalance or have lack of blood flow to certain regions of the brain. Or, he or she could just as easily be immersed in a stressful situation and have “learned behavior”  from their parents, siblings or anyone that they are near. Do you find that it is much harder to work when you are stressed or something else is enveloping your mind? Do you maybe work best in these situations? Do you, in whatever situation, feel hyperactive and count it as part of your personality? Maybe you don’t have ADHD, or maybe you do. Regardless, you can look at yourself and see the effects of stress on you.


Here are some websites for further research:




The Real Scoop on Artificial Food Coloring

Although artificial colors and dyes have been used in foods since the early 1900’s, the FDA has banned many of them due to health concerns. Thirty-seven artificial colors still remain approved for general food use in the USA, many of which are now prohibited in some European countries. Many of these chemicals have been researched and found to have harmful side effects, but they are still used in popular candies, soft drinks, cereals, and other processed foods.

Americans are now consuming more processed foods and drinks than ever before, and therefore more artificial colors and dyes. Many scientists have researched these common chemicals and found shocking results. The most common blue 1 & 2, citrus red 2, green 3, red 3 & 40, and yellow 5 & 6, have been found to cause a wide degree of side effects. Some have been found to cause cancer, ADHD, neurochemical and behavioral effects, allergies and more. Because of link between artificial dyes and the frequently seen side effects of cancer and ADHD, many European countries such as Norway, France, Finland, The U.K., and Sweden have banned a number of these chemicals from their foods.

It is no secret that these additives have harmful side effects, so why do companies still choose to use them? It is a very simple marketing tactic. “You eat with your eyes”, therefore companies will try to make their food look visually appealing to convince you to buy their products. Using artificial dyes and colors is just one method companies use to attract buyers. Artificial dyes like Yellow 5 have more vibrant and concentrated color than natural ones like saffron or turmeric. They are also much cheaper than natural dyes because companies do not need to use much in order to get the color they want. Artificial colors are also easier to use and their results are more reliable because they are much less sensitive to heat than naturally-derived food dyes are.

Silly Rabbit

(A bowl of Trix cereal made with artificial colors and flavors. The new Trix will go on sale later this year, without its blue and green puffs.)

This news may seem very alarming and upsetting to the average consumer, but there is hope. The FDA requires that companies put their ingredients on the food labels, so you know which foods are organic and which ones have artificial coloring. Research on artificial food dyes has led many consumers to cut out harmful processed foods and sodas from their diet and led to more awareness among buyers. And although there are companies such as Coca-Cola that use harmful cancer causing dyes such like 4-MEI, there are brands like General Mills that are promising to soon cut out all artificial dyes from their cereals by 2017. The new direction American consumers are taking now towards organic and health foods is slowly leading the food industry to change their foods in a healthy way. No longer are some food companies looking for the most vibrant look with their presentation, but rather the healthiest.



ADHD or just Stress?

Common pills for ADHD

Common pills for ADHD

            People tend to turn quickly to medication when a child is not doing well in school or is upset. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even lowered the age to 4 years old that children can be diagnosed with ADHD.  This is how drug companies market a “chemical imbalance” theory for children. However, people are turning to a new view.

Family stress is now seen as toxic to children and root of many emotional and behavioral problems. In a recent Parentlode column, Lisa Belkin from Huffington Post discussed this new view. Family therapists are now trying to help children by looking at their nurturing environment.

For example, a child named Paulie had a  teacher who believed he had ADHD because of his seemingly personality change overnight. When asked about it, he said he was worried about his father who had lost his job and was crying all day. How to fix this problem? Therapists are encouraging parents to reduce arguments at home, not  show their negative emotions in front of their children, and tell their children goods things about their days.

Parents can help their children’s stress by having a healthier communication style.  They also should be aware of keeping a healthy family structure. Spending time together can even help. If parents begin to drift and one parent is overly close to the child, this can place pressure on the child and cause them to develop problems, even autism or ADHD. Over the past couple of decades, drug companies have successfully convinced parents that pills will solve their childrens’ problems. Parents are starting to see past this. Parents are now starting to take on the role of fixing their children’s mental health and not giving them pills or sending them to child psychiatrists.

I chose this topic because I know many people that are taking medication for ADHD and similar diagnosis. I think it is interesting to see other alternatives to these drugs. Also, some of these drugs when combined, have side effects that are still unknown so I find it is interesting to see if there are other solutions.

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