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Jan 23
Alcohol-fuelled sleep 'less satisfying'
A tipple before bedtime may get you off to sleep faster but it can disrupt your night's slumber, say researchers who have reviewed the evidence.

The London Sleep Centre team says studies show alcohol upsets our normal sleep cycles.

While it cuts the time it takes to first nod off and sends us into a deep sleep, it also robs us of one of our most satisfying types of sleep, where dreams occur.

Used too often, it can cause insomnia.

Many advocate a nightcap - nursing homes and hospital wards have even been known to serve alcohol - but Dr Irshaad Ebrahim and his team advise against it.
Fragmented sleep

Dr Ebrahim, medical director at the London Sleep Centre and co-author of the latest review, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, said: "We should be very cautious about drinking on a regular basis.

"One or two glasses might be nice in the short term, but if you continue to use a tipple before bedtime it can cause significant problems.

"If you do have a drink, it's best to leave an hour and a half to two hours before going to bed so the alcohol is already wearing off."

He said people could become dependent on alcohol for sleep.

And it could make sleep less restful and turn people into snorers.

"With increasing doses, alcohol suppresses our breathing. It can turn non-snorers into snorers and snorers into people with sleep apnoea - where the breathing's interrupted."

From the hundred or more studies that Dr Ebrahim's team looked at, they analysed 20 in detail and found alcohol appeared to change sleep in three ways.

Firstly, it accelerates sleep onset, meaning we drop off faster.

Next, it sends us into a very deep sleep.

These two changes - which are identical to those seen in people who take antidepressant medication - may be appealing and may explain why some people with insomnia use alcohol.

But the third change - fragmented sleep patterns the second half of the night - is less pleasant.

Alcohol reduces how much time we spend in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep - the stage of sleep where dreams generally occur.

As a consequence, the sleep may feel less restful, said Dr Ebrahim.

Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, said: "Alcohol on the whole is not useful for improving a whole night's sleep. Sleep may be deeper to start with, but then becomes disrupted. Additionally, that deeper sleep will probably promote snoring and poorer breathing. So, one shouldn't expect better sleep with alcohol."

The Sleep Council said: "Don't over-indulge. Too much food or alcohol, especially late at night, just before bedtime, can play havoc with sleep patterns.

"Alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, but will interrupt your sleep later on in the night. Plus you may wake dehydrated and needing the loo."

Jan 23
Light in womb 'gives healthy eyes' - in mice
Light passing through the body and into the womb has an important role in the developing eye, US researchers have discovered.

A study, published in the journal Nature, showed that mice spending pregnancy in complete darkness had babies with altered eye development.

It indicated tiny quantities of light were needed to control blood vessel growth in the eye.

The researchers hope the findings will aid understanding of eye disorders.
Light or dark?

If you could journey inside a mouse or a person, there would not be enough light to see. However, tiny quantities of light do pass through the body.

This effect has already been used to film an infection spreading through the body.

Now scientists - at the University of California, San Francisco, and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center - believe that body-penetrating light can alter the development of the eye, at least in mice.

Normally, a network of blood vessels known as the hyaloid vasculature is formed to help nourish the retina as it is constructed.

However, the blood vessels would disrupt sight if they remained, so they are later removed - like scaffolding from a finished building.

The researchers said this did not happen when the pregnancy was spent in total darkness.

The critical period was around 16 days - which is very late in mouse gestation, but corresponds to the first trimester in people.

"It's not something subtle here, it's a major effect on the way the retina develops that requires light going through the body," said Prof Richard Lang, from Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

He said it was a "huge surprise" that this was happening.
Premature babies

The researchers hope their findings may aid understanding of human diseases of the eye, as many are down to blood vessels.

Some babies born prematurely develop "retinopathy of prematurity", when the blood vessels in the eye grow abnormally resulting in damage to the retina and a loss of vision.

Prof Lang said: "In retinopathy of prematurity there is overgrowth of blood vessels and that's what you see in these mice."

The researchers showed that light was activating in the mice a protein, melanopsin, which also has a role in regulating the body clock, and is present in people. However, whether the same processes take place in people or other animals is unknown.

Prof Robin Ali, from University College London, said it was a "fascinating study".

He said more research was still needed, but the findings may lead to considerations of light levels during pregnancy and efforts to grow retinas in the laboratory.

He said: "It gives us a whole new aspect to consider in in the development of the retina.

"It illustrates how much we've yet to understand about the eye."

Jan 22
Leprosy bacteria use 'biological alchemy'
Infectious bacteria have for the first time been caught performing "biological alchemy" to transform parts of a host body into those more suited to their purposes, by a team in Edinburgh.

The study, in the journal Cell, showed leprosy-causing bacteria turning nerves into stem cells and muscle.

The authors said the "clever and sophisticated" technique could further therapies and stem-cell research.

Experts described the discovery as "amazing" and "exciting".

Alchemists may have failed to morph base metals into gold, but a team at the University of Edinburgh has shown that bacteria can transform parts of the body into something more valuable to them.

It is a feat that scientists have already achieved in the laboratory. Skin cells have been transformed into flexible stem cells that can become any of the body's building blocks from heart muscle to brain cells.

One of the researchers, Prof Anura Rambukkana, said: "Our body's cells can be manipulated and why would a bacterium not take advantage of that?"
Master manipulators

Experiments on mice and cells grown in the laboratory showed the leprosy bug infected nerve cells. Then over a period of a few weeks the bacteria began to subvert the nerves for their own ends. The chemistry of the cells changed and they became stem cells.

These can grow and spread around the body, unlike the static nerves.

"This is a stem cell that is generated by the body's own tissue so the immune system does not recognise it and they can get any place they want without being attacked," said Prof Rambukkana.

Those cells could lodge inside muscle and become muscle cells.

"We realised, 'Wow, this is something very, very striking'.

"It's the first time a bacterial infection has been shown to make stem cells, that's the big thing here."

He hopes the findings will increase understanding of leprosy and lead to new ways of developing stem cells - which have been touted as future treatments for a range of diseases.

Prof Rambukkana also believes it is "probable" that other species of bacteria would have evolved the same ability to reprogramme their host.

Prof Chris Mason, a specialist in stem cell research at University College London, said: "The ability of bacteria to convert one mammalian cell type to another is 'alchemy' by nature on a grand scale.

"Whilst this amazing discovery is in a mouse model, it highlights the extraordinary complexity of the interactions between mammals and bacteria and the ingenuity of scientists to uncover disease mechanisms that a decade ago would have been beyond science fiction.

"The next essential step is to translate this valuable piece of knowledge into tangible benefits for patients - a process that may take a decade before its relevance to clinical medicine is fully understood."

Prof Diana Lockwood, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "Their finding that bacteria can reprogramme cells is very interesting and exciting."

However, she cautioned that there was "quite a gap between this and clinical leprosy and I don't think it's going to lead to new treatments".

Dr Rob Buckle, head of regenerative medicine at the Medical Research Council, said: "This discovery is important not just for our understanding and treatment of bacterial disease, but for the rapidly progressing field of regenerative medicine."

Jan 22
Long-term aspirin 'blindness link'
People who regularly take aspirin for many years, such as those with heart problems, are more likely to develop a form of blindness, researchers say.

A study on 2,389 people, in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, showed aspirin takers had twice the risk of "wet" age-related macular degeneration.

The disease damages the 'sweet spot' in the retina, obscuring details in the centre of a patient's field of vision.

The researchers said there was not yet enough evidence to change aspirin use.

Taking low doses of aspirin every day does reduce the risk of a stroke or heart attack in patients with cardiovascular disease. There are even suggestions it could prevent cancer.

One in 10 people in the study, conducted at the University of Sydney, were taking aspirin at least once a week. On average the participants were in their mid-60s.

Eye tests were performed after five, 10 and 15 years.

By the end of the study, the researchers showed that 9.3% of patients taking aspirin developed wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) compared with 3.7% of patients who did not take aspirin.

Their report said: "The increased risk of [wet] AMD was detected only after 10 or 15 years, suggesting that cumulative dosing is important.

"Given the widespread use of aspirin, any increased risk of disabling conditions will be significant and affect many people."

Wet AMD is caused by blood vessels growing in the wrong place. They cause swelling and bleeding which damages the retina.

The process can happen very quickly with vision being damaged in days. Age, smoking and a family history are the main risk factors.

There are already known risks of aspirin such as causing internal bleeding. The research team suggest the risk of damaging eyesight "may also need to be considered".

They acknowledge that for most patients there is "insufficient evidence" to change how aspirin is prescribed.

However, they suggested using the drug may need to be reappraised in high-risk patients such as those with wet AMD in one eye already.

The Macular Society said: "The evidence is now accumulating about the association of aspirin and wet AMD, however, it is not overwhelming at this point.

"For patients at risk of cardio-vascular disease, the health risks of stopping or not prescribing aspirin are much higher than those of developing wet AMD.

"Patients who are taking aspirin because their doctor has prescribed it should not stop taking it without consulting their doctor first."

Matthew Athey, from the RNIB charity, said any concerns should be discussed with a family doctor.

"However, this is interesting research as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of sight loss in the UK, and this study could contribute to our understanding about why some people may develop 'wet' type macular degeneration.

"Further research is needed to clarify and investigate some of the issues raised in the study, however this association may be valuable for doctors in the future when considering aspirin for their patients."

Jan 21
Vitamin B may help migraine sufferers
A team of Queensland researchers is close to developing a new treatment for severe headaches, which consists of vitamin B and folate supplements.

The remedy would help the 20 per cent of migraine sufferers whose condition is genetic, said Griffith University postdoctoral researcher Bridget Maher.

Telling to a news agency she said that it basically reduces the frequency and severity of the migraines, the Herald sun reported.

According to her, one in five people prone to migraines have an enzyme that doesn`t work as well as other people. She said supplementing them with vitamin B and folate can treat that enzyme`s defect.

Migraines linked to genetics are also associated with auras, which refers to the experience of temporary neurological disturbances such as seeing stars, getting pins and needles and numbness.

The team at Griffith is working on the correct dose of the supplements and Maher has asserted that the treatment could be on the market in the next few years.

Jan 21
Loneliness taxes your immune system
Don`t take loneliness lightly -- it could harm your immune system and health, says a new study.

Loneliness spurs production of proteins signalling the presence of inflammation, linked to coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer`s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging, say researchers.

"It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions," says Lisa Jaremka, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Behavioural Medicine Research at the Ohio State University, who led the research.

"One reason this type of research is important is to understand how loneliness and relationships broadly affect health. The more we understand about the process, the more potential there is to counter those negative effects -- to perhaps intervene," adds Jaremka, according to an Ohio statement.
The results are based on a series of studies conducted with two populations: a healthy group of overweight middle-aged adults and a group of breast cancer survivors.

The researchers measured loneliness in all studies using the University of California Los Angeles Loneliness Scale, a questionnaire that assesses perceptions of social isolation and loneliness.

Jaremka presented the research at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans.

Jan 19
Gut bacteria may help protect against autoimmune disease
Mice exposed to normal bacteria of the GI tract (gut microbes) in their early life develop resistance against autoimmune disease, according to new research.

The study may also have uncovered reasons why females are at greater risk of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus compared to males.

Researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) found that when female mice at high risk of autoimmune (type 1) diabetes were exposed to normal gut bacteria from adult male mice, they were strongly protected against the disease.

In this type of mouse strain, more than 85 percent of females develop autoimmune diabetes due to strong genetic risk factors. In contrast, only 25 percent of the females developed the disease after they were given normal male gut microbes early in life.

"Our findings suggest potential strategies for using normal gut bacteria to block progression of insulin-dependent diabetes in kids who have high genetic risk," says principal investigator Dr. Jayne Danska, senior scientist in Genetics and Genome Biology at SickKids and Professor in the Departments of Immunology and Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto.

A second unexpected finding was the effects of the gut microbe treatments on sex hormones. "We were surprised to see that when young female mice received normal gut microbes from adult males, their testosterone levels rose. We then showed that this hormone was essential for the gut microbe treatment to protect against the disease. It was completely unexpected to find that the sex of an animal determines aspects of their gut microbe composition, that these microbes affect sex hormone levels, and that the hormones in turn regulate an immune-mediated disease," says Dr. Danska.

The findings support the ``hygiene hypothesis,`` which suggests that the dramatic increase in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases over the past 50 years results from changes in our exposure to microbes.
Gut microbes are essential for normal development and training of the immune system, for extracting nutrients from our food, and for protecting us from some infectious diseases.

The study was recently published in the journal Science.

Jan 19
Gastric banding an effective long-term obesity solution
Hundreds of obese patients who had lap-band surgery maintained an average weight loss of 26 kilograms for more than a decade after their procedure, an Australian study shows.

Professor Paul O``Brien and colleagues from the Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) at Monash University in Melbourne analysed the results in 3,227 patients who had gastric banding between 1994, when the procedure was first introduced, and 2011.

The patients in the study were averaged at 47 years of age and 78 per cent were women.

Of those patients, 714 had surgery at least 10 years ago and, on average, had maintained a weight loss of 26 kilograms, or almost half of their excess weight.

The weight loss results were similar for the 54 patients in the study who had undergone treatment at least 15 years ago.

No deaths occurred as a result of the surgery or follow-up operations, which were needed in about half of patients.
Weight loss associated with gastric banding was similar to that achieved with more invasive gastric bypass procedures, the research found.

Prof O``Brien said the research showed lap-band surgery was a safe and effective long-term solution for obesity.

Jan 18
Key discovery can help ward off prostate cancer
A key discovery involving a tiny microRNA molecule shows that it could ward off prostate cancer, giving hope to thousands of patients worldwide.

Researchers found that many prostate cancer cells contain less of microRNA molecules, spurring their rapid growth. MicroRNAs are small and, unlike double-stranded DNA, consist of a single strand of nucleotides, encoded in plant and animal genome.

Keith Giles and Michael Epis from Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) Lab for Hormone Dependent Cancer, headed by Peter Leedman, spent several years investigating the role of a microRNA in prostate cancer, the Journal of Biological Chemistry reports.

"We`ve now confirmed that many prostate cancers contain less of this microRNA molecule, and we have some understanding of how this might occur," explained Giles, according to a WAIMR statement.

"Our research suggests that this microRNA normally works as a brake on prostate cell growth, so perhaps if we can put it back into prostate cancer cells then we can restore that brake," Giles said.

Jan 18
Walking cuts risk of early death in elderly by 40%: Study
A short walk just four times a week can reduce the risk of early death in older people by a staggering 40 per cent, a new study has claimed.

Each walk only needs to be a 15-minute stroll in the open air to give elderly a better chance of extending their longevity by a few years, said Italian researchers.

Allowing for a host of other factors from smoking to diet, the walking elderly had a 40 per cent better survival rate than those who did not, the study found.

For ten years, medical experts monitored over 200 residents of an old folks` home. Their average age was 80 and every aspect of their lifestyle, health and habits were noted, the `Daily Mail` reported.

This included their mental state, their diets, their weight, whether or not they smoked or drank coffee or were depressed, for instance. None had cancer or other terminal illness.

Most (around 80 per cent) of the subjects were physically active, said the researchers.

During the decade of study, two in three of the volunteers died, researchers reported in the journal Maturitas, allowing them to look at the differences between them and the survivors.

"Over-all survival was highest for subjects walking in the open air four times a week for at least 15 minutes in comparison to subjects walking less than four times a week," they wrote.

Walking is obviously an easier form of exercise for older people to take up but it also has the effect of holding back heart disease, stroke and other likely causes of death in the elderly.

The fresh air and exercise can increase the efficiency of the immune system to ward off viruses, strengthen bones and reduce obesity.

It can also lead to better physical health which in turn can mean a reduced risk of injuries from falls too.

There are also healthy side effects. Old folk who walked regularly were also more likely to eat healthily and less likely to be depressed, researchers said.

Although the figures were adjusted to take these factors into account, it does suggest that encouraging elderly to walk more would have a variety of benefits, they said.

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