Colour-blindness- It’s not just black and white

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Calum Kirk

SciBar on the 21st of March saw BSA volunteer and science writer, Joe Crutwell entertain a packed room with his personal and research experience of Colour-blindness. Joe has more than mere scientific curiosity for the topic, having been diagnosed with red-green colour-blindness at the age of 10. He later had the opportunity to study the condition from a genetic and neuroscience perspective, during his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

Three proteins, collectively called opsins are needed for people to be able to differentiate colours. The instructions for the proteins are found on the sex chromosomes. The position of the instructions mean that the condition occurs far more often in men than in women. Joe went onto explain the different types of colour-blindness and their genetic causes. These range from mild forms of red-green colour-blindness all the way to seeing only in black and white.

Joe led us through his personal journey. It was interesting to hear how colour-blindness is tested for, using Ishihara diagrams (see below). And how the stigma attached to people with colour-blindness in countries like Japan is such that people spend hours learning how to cheat the tests, so as not to be diagnosed. In the UK there are few restrictions on the occupations of people with the conditions, except being in the armed forces or being an electrician. Joe led us through the fascinating world of accidents throughout history that have been blamed on colour-blindness, including a train crash in 1875 and many people jumping traffic lights! These kinds of cases have resulted in a number of countries not allowing people to drive if they are colour-blind.

Ishihara Test

Can you spot the number?

The latest research in colour-blindness has focused on curing or improving the colour vision of those with the condition. Joe was given the opportunity to try on a pair of colour correcting glasses by a scientist running a study at Newcastle University. The study will look at how effective the glasses are, and researchers are currently recruiting colour-blind volunteers. Joe gave us a great insight into the psychology of whether trying on the glasses could actually make the person with colour-blindness feel worse about having the condition, after all it is hard to miss something you have never experienced. The prospect of trying them on raised questions such as ‘Is trying them on going to ruin my life? Will everything seem really dull when I take them off? Despite his reservations Joe plunged in and found that for him, though they made everything brighter and cleared, the effect soon wore off. The suggestion so far has been that while they improve colour perception, they don’t actually make people able to pass the Ishihara test, however we will have to keep an eye on Joe’s blog to find out about the results of the current study!

After having a breather and recharging our beer glasses, Joe fielded lots of questions covering all aspects of the condition, from what it is like to have it as a child when you don’t really know what other people are seeing to how we could use gene editing methods to cure the condition in the future.

Join us for our next SciBar event on the 25th April, where Dr Elizabeth Heidrich, will be telling us about her research on how we can get energy from our waste.

If you or one of your relatives is colourblind and living in the North-East area, contact Cat Pattie at C.E.Pattie1@newcastle.ac.uk or @C_Pattie1 on Twitter if you would like to help further research into the condition.

Joe’s blog can be found at inacrutshell.com

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Epilepsy Drugs and Pregnancy: A Doctor’s Dilemma?

Words by Joe Crutwell, Edited by Calum Kirk

Our November SciBar was presented by Dr Rhys Thomas. An epilepsy researcher and honorary consultant. Dr Rhys put the SciBar patrons in the position of a clinician, allowing us to see the difficult balance that must be struck while making decisions for a patient.

Classifying epilepsy, which affects approximately 1% of people in the UK, is not easy. It is a chronic condition, but it’s symptoms are intermittent and can be severe. It is a brain disorder, but can manifest at any age. It has underlying genetic triggers but an environmental correlation has been shown with factors such as economic deprivation.

Despite this knowledge, the exact causes of epilepsy are not known, but this has not stopped many treatments being discovered that help alleviate the seizures that are the main symptom associated with the disease.

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One of these treatments, which has been used in epilepsy treatment since the 1960s , is sodium valproate . It is unclear how the treatment works as it was discovered, like many early drugs, by accident. It has a documented history of being able to halt the occurrence of seizures whilst having a relatively low rate of side effects, with one very important and very worrying exception.

After researching records of valproate use in pregnant women, it was discovered that there seemed to be a significantly higher risk of birth  defects, including intellectual defects, if a woman is on valproate during her pregnancy.

Despite these findings being quickly incorporated into advice given by medical professionals, as of 2017 almost one-fifth (18%) of women taking sodium valproate didn’t know the risks this medicine can pose during  .

These worrying side-effects coupled with the lack of patient awareness led to sodium valproate being prominently and negatively featured in the media, with some publications referring to the drug as “worse than thalidomide .”

There is another side to the story of Valproate however. Being the most effective epilepsy drug, any deviation from this treatment increases the risk of seizures. Epilepsy causes a high number of deaths in pregnancy. So despite valproate being worse in pregnancy, in men and non-pregnant women it is by far the drug of choice .

After describing all of the up to date information outlined above, Dr Rhys then left it up to the audience of the SciBar as to what they would prescribe for an epileptic patient who has become pregnant and is already on valproate. Was the right decision to keep the person on the drug, risking potential abnormalities, or change them to another, increasing the risk of a seizure?

After much discussion, the audience agreed there was not always a ‘right’ answer in these situations, especially as you cannot know the outcome until after the decision has been made. This is why current methods in medical practice involve patient-shared decision making. The patient is given all the resources possible to understand the potential benefits and risks of the treatment, and able to take a part of that important life decision into their own hands.

This was the British Science Association’s last SciBar of 2017, thanks for everyone who attended and made the events as popular as they are. If you missed us, keep an eye out on our Facebook and Twitter for what events we have coming up in the New Year!

For current UK advice about epilepsy and pregnancy follow this link: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/epilepsy-pregnant.aspx

 

Star waves and hue’s Clues: What can light and radio signals tell us about outer space?

Words by Joe Crutwell, Edited by Lucy Eland

At this month’s SciBar, we were treated to a talk by Dr Nick Walker, a lecturer and researcher at Newcastle University. Dr Walker specialises in both astrochemistry (studying the chemical make-up of outer space) and spectroscopy (the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation). While these may both sound like quite “out-there” topics in their own different ways, Dr Walker brought everything back to earth with an in-house (or rather ‘in-pub’) demonstration.

Recreating an experiment from 400 years ago, Nick showed us how you can split light into a spectrum of colours using nothing more than a camera and an intense light source. For the work Dr Walker discussed, this intense light source was stars.

In the early 1900’s the director of Harvard Observatory, Charles Pickering, hired a group of women to process astronomical data relating to the spectrum of stars. This data helped create the “Hertzsprung-Russell” diagram, pictured below, that charts stars on a scatter plot based on their temperature and visible light wavelength.

Hertzsprung-Russel_StarData

It is possible to learn something about the chemical makeup of an object by studying the colour of light it emits. Nick described how scientists in the 1800’s worked out the chemical makeup of the sun by looking at the wavelengths of the colours it does not emit. This process was extended to other stars to give us a stellar fingerprint of our surrounding space.

This act of breaking up and studying visible light can be performed on other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from extremely fast gamma waves to slower radio waves. Radio waves are detected by installations such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, as radio waves are able to permeate through earth’s atmosphere.

These radio telescopes are capable of detecting specific molecules in space. As such, the desire in the scientific community has been to try and detect the presence of organic molecules in space. These molecules are known to be a precursor to life, and may help us answer one of science’s great questions. Did the building blocks of life come into being on earth, or did they land from outer space?

These questions are still to be answered, but spectroscopy is on the case. Telescopes looking at the infra-red spectrum can tell us about stellar dust, the molecules that make up stars. Dr Walker stated that this dust may help us understand where all this complex chemistry originates. Various probes have been sent into space to examine this cosmic dust, including the Cassini probe, which recently was sent crashing into Saturn at the end of it’s twenty year mission.

The next SciBar will be examining one of the most complex products of this sophisticated organic chemistry, our brains! More specifically, Dr Rhys Thomas from Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience will be giving a talk on epilepsy and pregnancy. Join us on the 29th of November!

Genes, stats and rats – with juggling, songs and raps

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Joe Crutwell

This month’s SciBar saw Dr Lynsey Hall explain her research on the genetic basis of depression, through the medium of comedy!

Lynsey, a statistical geneticist from Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine, explained the types of genetic variation that can occur using juggling and references to Mickey Mouse’s uncontrollable broom production spell from Disney’s Fantasia (a stop gain mutation!).

During her PhD research, she hoped to detect the genes responsible for depression using a Genome Wide Association study, or GWAS. This technique takes the genetic data from people both with and without depression, and does a huge ‘spot the difference’ between the two. Though according to Lynsey, doing a GWAS for depression is more like a misprinted ‘Where’s Wally’ with no Wally! After a frustrating period she did a statistical power calculation and realised that the chances of finding genes for depression are extremely small. This is because depression is both very common and difficult to quantify, with symptoms varying widely between different people. Another difficulty is that for the current methods people are only divided into ‘depressed’ or ‘healthy’ groups, and depression is just not that black and white.

The difficulties with statistical power and the need for experiments that can test possible drugs on rats led Lynsey to look for other ways to measure depression. The test that Lynsey guided us through was a rat cognitive bias test. To put it simply, rats are put in a maze of sandpaper-lined tubes and sand-pits. The sand-pits contain either a cheerio and a tube of smooth sandpaper or chocolate and a tube of rough sandpaper. The rats were then trained up to make sure that they knew how to find their favourite treat (chocolate, obviously!). Researchers replaced some of the sandpaper with one of medium roughness, and used this as a measure of how optimistic the rats were. Do the rats go for the tubes with the medium roughness sandpaper in the hope that there is chocolate? It turns out that depressed rats assume that the medium roughness paper will just lead to another cheerio, and the happier rats dare to hope for more chocolate. Endless days of running rats through mazes during her PhD led Lynsey to write ‘Bowl digger’ to the tune of ‘Gold Digger’ about one of her rats, which she performed for us to much applause.

Discussion of the prevalence of depression and mental health problems amongst researchers in universities, a hot news topic at the moment, drew the talk to a close. The trials, tribulations and pains of carrying out scientific research to get a PhD were summed up perfectly in Lynsey’s final song for the evening ‘Friday I make graphs!’ (to the tune of The Cure’s, ‘Friday I’m in love’)

A lively discussion followed about the difficulties of categorising and measuring depression, how rates of depression vary between men and women, as well as whether all rats prefer chocolate to Cheerios.

You can keep your eyes peeled for the next Scibar event on the BSA facebook page. In the meantime you can give Lynsey’s past comedy sets from Bright Club on Youtube a watch, to get a flavour of what we were treated to this week.

Bacterial babble: The science of how microbes communicate

Words by Joe Crutwell, Edited by Lucy Eland

July’s SciBar was on the science of how bacteria talk, and PhD student Ajay  Tiwari’s thought-provoking presentation certainly got the audience gossiping.

Unlike Ajay’s audience, bacteria do not have vocal chords or mouths, so are unable to enjoy chatting about science over a pint, as attendants on the 25th of June did. Instead, they must find other ways of communicating with each other.

This form of communication is known as “Quorum sensing”, and occurs when bacteria secrete signalling molecules into the environment around them, which can then be absorbed by other bacteria close-by.

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When a large number of bacteria releasing these signals are close together, there will be a larger concentration of these released molecules. This increased concentration is a signal to the  bacteria that they can ‘work together’ and coordinate responses to their environment. This can happen both within the same species and between bacteria of different species.

A great example of this is the bacteria Allivibrio fischeri, an organism that lives inside squid species such as the hawaiian bobtail. The bacteria communicate and collectively produce enough light to help the squid ward off predators.

Until recently it was thought quorum sensing was the only method by which bacteria could communicate, but recent research has revealed another way: Bacterial Nanotubes. These large biological bridges can form between two neighbouring bacteria and create ‘information highways’, which allows cells to exchange much more information than quorum sensing alone. As Ajay put it, “If quorum sensing is the bacterial wi-fi, then nanotubes are the wired connection”.

So is this bacterial communication just harmless gossip, or sly scheming? What are these bacteria saying behind our back (and in our bodies)? Well, this information has potentially worrying medical consequences, as it allows bacteria to exchange small amounts of their DNA, known as a ‘plasmid’. The movement of plasmid DNA has been shown in labs to allow the passage of genes that make bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, now that scientists are aware of these methods of communication, they are researching ways to make these bacteria gossip a little less. Rather than yelling “shut up!” into a petri dish, scientists have been blocking nanotube formation and quorum sensing, greatly reducing the bacteria’s ability to form colonies. It is this congregation of lots of cells in the same place that causes the most severe aspects of many diseases, due to the concentrated release of toxins.

Whilst for the health of our bodies we don’t want bacteria to congregate and chat, we actively encourage you to come and mingle at the next SciBar, taking place on the 22nd of August. There, Lynsey Hall will be taking us on a fascinating musical genetic journey.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming events!

Sun science; plasma, eruptions and the apocalypse!

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Joe Crutwell

PhD student Thomas Rees-Crockford enlightened the audience at The Old George with his research into the science of the sun. Tom, a first year PhD student from Northumbria University Physics Department, has been studying prominences and eruptions that happen above the sun’s surface, almost 93 million miles away.

The evening began with a pint and a quick physics lesson on the fourth state of matter, plasma. The enthusiastic audience was eager to learn more about this substance, and the other gases that make up our sun.

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We were shown some awesome satellite footage of the sun and its prominences, the amazing tubes of densely packed plasma, that are moved around the stars surface by magnetic fields and other forces. These huge structures can be between 10,000 and 100,000 km in length and are a cool 10,000 degrees kelvin! Still too hot to handle, but a lot cooler than the sun’s surface.

When these prominences become unstable, after between a minute and a month of appearing, they either fade out (boring!) or erupt (much more fun!). A successful eruption, known as a ‘coronal mass ejection’ (CME), expels the matter out and away from the sun’s surface and in some cases, towards us. This doesn’t always spell disaster though! When we see the Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) it is as a result of one of these CMEs, as the matter expelled from the sun collides with our atmosphere’s gas particles and results in this incredible light show.

Many more beers and questions followed, including discussions of whether we could use the energy from such eruptions for something useful, how predictors of the northern lights are made, what the methods used to study these eruptions are, and how cool the Kielder observatory is! (https://www.kielderobservatory.org/)

The potentially apocalyptic effect of the earth being hit head-on by a massive CME was discussed at length. The somewhat reassuring conclusion was reached that if we don’t all die, we will just have to live without any of our electronic devices, knocked out by magnetic forces. (A fate worse than death for some.)

Hopefully that won’t happen for a while, which means you will be able to join us for the next SciBar event on the 25th of July, where Ajay  Tiwari will be telling us how bacteria talk to each other.

If you would like to see some of the images and satellite footage used by scientists like Tom, who are studying solar physics, it is available to the public at www.helioviewer.org.

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Photo gallery

SciBar May 2016 – “Does detecting gravitational waves mean gravity is more than a theory?” Dr Sam James

SciBar April 2016 – “Taking Stem Cells to the Front Line” Professor Che Connon