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Nod Off to Take Off

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Your brain will function better after a good siesta, say researchers.

If you are a teacher and catch students napping in your class, fret not. The youngsters may not learn what you teach, but will certainly grasp the next lecture very well. This was the conclusion of some sleep researchers, unveiled at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego. Napping during the day not only consolidates memory but also improves the brain. The activity is necessary not just for babies; it’s important for adults and old people too, say researchers.

Matthew Walker of the University of California in Berkeley investigated the effect of long afternoon naps on students’ learning ability. His team found that the more you remain awake during the day, the more the brain loses its ability to learn.

At the University of Arizona, professor of psychology Lynn Nadel and his team investigated the effect of napping on babies, and came to the same conclusion — babies learn to abstract better when they nap.

At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Marcos Frank found something more fundamental — the brain reorganises itself during sleep, and this reorganisation is essential to learning.

Together, neuroscientists are learning new facets of this seemingly passive activity. The brain does not switch off during sleep. In fact, it remains active, in a different way from when you are awake.

“Sleep is a far more complex activity than we thought,” says Walker. What his research shows now is that the brain has a limited short-term memory capacity, and it needs sleep to free up this space frequently by sending some facts to long-term memory. And it can perform this activity only during sleep. This much is now clear, but things get a bit murky after that.

Walker experimented with 40 volunteers, half of whom took a 90-minute nap in the afternoon. When the two teams learned things at noon and at 6pm, the team that did not nap performed much worse the second time.

“We chose a 90-minute nap to provide for a full sleep cycle,” says Walker. This cycle includes stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. REM is a dream state of sleep, and was long thought to be the most important phase of sleep. Non-REM sleep is in three stages — 1, 2 and deep sleep. Memory consolidation occurs during stage 2 non-REM sleep, which during the night constitutes 50 per cent of our sleep cycle.

You enter stage 2 non-REM sleep within 15 minutes of falling asleep, and the brain remains in this state for another 40-50 minutes. So for a nap to really enhance learning, it needs to last an hour.

“We do not know yet whether shorter naps are enough,” says Walker. The scientist also hints at another fascinating aspect of sleep — many older people are known to sleep less, and this could be one reason why they have poorer memories. We would know this in the future, when scientists investigate the mechanisms behind sleep and learning.

At the University of Arizona, Nadel and his team tried to investigate the effect of naps on 15-month-old babies. They created an artificial language, with nonsense sounds but having a close relationship structurally — like subject-verb agreement — with English. Like in the Berkeley experiment, babies in this exercise learned before and after naps. Those who napped were able to translate their previous learning to understand what they learned after the naps. In other words, they were able to generalise their knowledge of sentence structure to understand new phrases better.

What they found was slightly different from the Berkeley team’s finding but was equally important. If babies nap within a specific period after learning a new task, they learned to abstract better.

This kind of learning, the ability to detect patterns in a piece of information, is vital to learning many things in later life. Napping is effective only if it happens within four hours of learning. Babies thus need to nap to understand what they learn during the day.

While these are significant findings, Marcos Frank found something fundamental — the young brain grows more connections during sleep. Frank’s earlier research had indicated that the brain was fundamentally different during sleep from during wakefulness.

This difference is in aspects: electrochemical activity, proteins synthesised and biochemical activity. In early development, during the first five years of one’s life, this reorganisation during sleep becomes critical to its capabilities in later life. “We have some evidence that what happens during early years cannot be acquired in later life,” says Frank.

What this means is clear enough. Babies who are deprived of sleep can develop brains that are deficient. While this may not happen for healthy babies, many who suffer from sleep apnea — a disease where you wake up periodically — can have poorly-developed brains by adulthood.

However, while the research shows how important sleep is for our brains, we still do not know everything about this vital daily exercise. It still remains a puzzle, and hopefully the next few years will throw more light on it.

Source: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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Algae May Harbour SARS Cure

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A protein from algae might help in treating Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) infections, suggests a new study.

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Researchers from University of Iowa have found that mice treated with the protein, Griffithsin (GRFT), had a 100 percent survival rate after exposure to the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV), as compared to a 30 percent survival for untreated mice.

GRFT is believed to exert its anti-viral effects by altering the shape of the sugar molecules that line the virus‘ envelope, allowing it to attach to and invade human cells, where it takes over the cells’ reproductive machinery to replicate itself.

Without that crucial ability, the virus is unable to cause disease.

“While preliminary, these results are very exciting and indicate a possible therapeutic approach to future SARS or other coronaviral outbreaks,” said Christine Wohlford-Lenane, senior research assistant at the department of pediatrics University of Iowa and the lead author of the study.

GRFT not only stop the virus from replicating, but also prevented secondary outcomes, such as weight loss, that are associated with infection.

“We are planning future studies to investigate prophylaxis, versus treatment interventions with GRFT, in the SARS mouse model in collaboration with Barry O’Keefe at the National Cancer Institute,” she said.

“In addition, we want to learn whether mice protected from SARS by GRFT develop protective immunity against future infection,” she added.

The research was presented at the American Thoracic Society‘s 105th International Conference in San Diego.

Source: The Times Of India

 
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Naps with Dreams Improve Performance

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………..

Researchers led by Sara C. Mednick, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, gave 77 volunteers tests under three before- and-after conditions: spending a day without a nap, napping without REM sleep, and napping with REM sleep. Just spending the day away from the problem improved performance; people whostayed awake did a little better on the 5 p.m. session than they had done on the 9 a.m. test. Taking a nap without REM sleep also led to slightly better results. But a nap that included REM sleep resulted in nearly a 40 percent improvement over the pre-nap performance.

Source:
The study is published June 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Exercise

Hands Free of Stress

If you’re one of those people who sits in front of a computer for hours, typing away, try this simple yet effective way to release tension in your forearms, wrists and fingers. Make a habit of taking breaks throughout the day to perform this exercise. When your hands and arms are relaxed, you’ll feel less stress in your neck and shoulders.

STEP-1. Sitting in your chair, back away from your desk and bend your arms to a 90-degree angle, bringing your elbows close to your waist. With forearms parallel to the ground, tuck your fingers in and squeeze each of your hands as tight as possible. Hold for 5 seconds.

 

STEP-2. Open your hands as wide as possible, spreading your fingers apart. Flex your wrists by moving your fingers up and back, simultaneously pushing your wrists forward. Hold for 5 seconds, trying to keep your hands fully stretched. Repeat this move three times — and remember to do the exercise 5 or 6 times a day.

Source: Los Angeles Times

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Oxidative Stress Extends Lifespan

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego claim to have identified a mechanism of oxidative stress that prevents cellular  damage.

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“We may drink pomegranate juice to protect our bodies from so-called ‘free radicals‘ or look at restricting calorie intake to extend our lifespan,” said Dr Trey Ideker, chief of the Division of Genetics in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine and professor of bioengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

“But our study suggests why humans may actually be able to prolong the aging process by regularly exposing our bodies to minimal amounts of oxidants,” Ideker added.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS), ions that form as a natural byproduct of the metabolism of oxygen, play important roles in cell signalling. However, due to environmental stress like ultraviolet radiation or heat or chemical exposure the ROS levels can increase dramatically, resulting insignificant damage to cellular damage to DNA, RNA and proteins, cumulating in an effect called oxidative stress.

The scientists claim to have discovered the gene responsible for this effect.

One major contributor to oxidative stress is hydrogen peroxide. While the cell has ways to help minimize the damaging effects of hydrogen peroxide by converting it to oxygen and water, this conversion isn’t 100 percent successful.

During the study, the researchers designed a way to identify genes involved in adaptation to hydrogen peroxide.

To figure out which genes might control this adaptation mechanism, the team ran a series of experiments in which cells were forced to adapt while each gene in the genome was removed, one by one, covering a total of nearly 5,000 genes.

They identified a novel factor called Mga2, which is essential for adaptation.

“This was a surprise, because Mga2 is found at the control point of a completely different pathway than those which respond to acute exposure of oxidative agents,” said Ideker.

“This second pathway is only active at lower doses of oxidation,” Ideker added.

“It may be that adaptation to oxidative stress is the main factor responsible for the lifespan-expanding effects of caloric restriction,” said Ideker.

“Our next step is to figure out how Mga2 works to create a separate pathway, to discover the upstream mechanism that senses low doses of oxidation and triggers a protective mechanism downstream.”

Click to see : Extend Your Life By Eating Right

Sources: :The study is published in PLoS Genetics.

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