Posts Tagged ‘cold’

Brains compensate for a stuffy nose

// August 13th, 2012 // Comments Off on Brains compensate for a stuffy nose // Recent Research

Image by Miguel Angel Pasalodos, licensed on Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

Nothing like a stuffy nose to ruin your day. You sound like a ponce, food tastes like cardboard and you have to sleep with your mouth open for spiders to crawl in. No joke. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine.

But have you ever noticed how quickly your sense of smell returns? Almost as soon as the sniffles are gone, you’re back to sniffing roses, and new research is finding out how our brain can adjust so fast to changes in sensory input.

What I love about this study is how they did it.

For a whole week, 14 people had their noses completely blocked during the day. At night, they slept sans-nose-blockers in a special low-odour hospital room.

A low odour hospital room? All the ones I’ve been to smell weirdly like custard. I wonder if all 14 shared the same room, or if they were spread out… I mean, even if you do have a spesh no-custard hospital dorm, if 14 people spending the night there it won’t be low odour for long.

Brain activity in response to odours changed after a week of smell deprivation in two regions. Activity increased in the orbital frontal cortex, but decreased in the piriform cortex, both are related to our sense of smell.

“These changes in the brain are instrumental in maintaining the way we smell things even after seven days of no smell,” said lead author Keng Nei Wu, Northwestern University Feinburg School of Medicine, in the press release.

“When your nostrils are blocked up, your brain tries to adjust to the lack of information so the system doesn’t break down. The brain compensates for the lack of information so when you get your sense of smell back, it will be in good working order.”

Once the 14 participants were released to sniff wildly, their brains soon returned to normal, showing pre-experimental levels of excitement when offered something smelly.

This rapid reversal in the realm of smell is quite different to sight, where deprivation usually has longer-lasting effects. Wu suggests this could be because smell deprivation is pretty common, given our penchant for catching colds and having allergies. Perhaps it has evolved to be more agile, or perhaps the endless sniffles we get in primary school gave our brains ample chance to practice.

Either way, it seems the quick adjustments by our brains protect our sense of smell, so it can rebound quicker than you can say “the one who smelt it dealt it.”

Wu ends by saying “more knowledge about how the system reacts to short-term deprivation may provide new insights into how to deal with this problem in a chronic context.”

Chronic loss of smell is nothing to be sniffed at (lol.) It really takes the fun out of life. This column, 20 years of living without a sense of smell, was clearly written from the pits of despair for want of a whiff of fabric softener.

ResearchBlogging.orgKeng Nei Wu, Bruce K Tan, James D Howard, David B Conley & Jay A Gottfried (2012). Olfactory input is critical for sustaining odor quality codes in human orbitofrontal cortex
Nature Neuroscience : 10.1038/nn.3186

Sometimes scientists just have to douse experiments in alcohol

// January 15th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research

Superconductor supermarket

Superconductor supermarket. Image by andreasmarx

In which scientists get drunk and pour their beverages on compounds to create superconductors.

It’s no secret that I cook better with wine. I’m not just talking about a dash of red in pasta sauce or half a bottle of cheap white in risotto. I mean, when I’m tipsy I’m generous with the flavours and cook in a twirling, happy sashay of creation. But who knew it was the same with science?

Superconductors are metals at very low temperatures (6 Kelvin) which gain certain properties: Namely that the normal resistance drops to zero and they start conducting electricity incredibly well.

The experiment conducted at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan involved soaking compounds (powders of iron, tellurium and tellurium sulfide) in different fluids, then cooling them and testing how well they conducted electricity.

First experiment: pure water. Results = boring. (10% superconducting volume fraction)
Second experiment: water plus ethanol. Results = yawn. (11%)
Third experiment: pure ethanol. Results = worse than water. (6%)

At this stage, I can only assume the scientists got drunk. They got a variety of different drinks (whiskey, sake, wine, etc) poured out 20 mL shots and soaked the compound in their boozy concoctions. When they tested conductivity, the results were surprising. Whiskey did well, beer did better, and red wine was streaks ahead with a whopping 63% of the material showing superconductive properties. For some reason commercial drinks created better superconductors than pure ethanol and water.

Here’s a graph of the results.

superconducting drinks

Graph by Keita Deguchi

As you can see, red wine is a clear winner, followed by white wine, beer, sake and other commercial drinks. At the bottom is boring old ethanol/water. Clearly what was lacking was a bit of FLAVOUR. That, or oxygen, particulates… actually they don’t know why it happened. More experiments need to be performed. Probably every Friday night from 3pm.

Still, it’s a fantastic case of serendipity. Plus, once the results were in, all the drinks were ALREADY THERE for celebrating! Sweet!

The paper is available free from arXiv – Deguchi K. et al “Superconductivity in FeTe1-xSx induced by alcohol”

How to stop coughing with medicine or chocolate

// May 26th, 2010 // 4 Comments » // Drugs

Image by Peter Pearson

I have been sadly struck down with a cold. So it was with weary steps I took myself to the pharmacy to obtain suitable drugs, and plenty of them. I got capsules which contain paracetamol (painkiller,) phenylephrine (ineffective speed-like drug that used to be pseudoephedrine and now doesn’t really work) and dextromethorphan (cough suppressant.)

Well I’m still coughing… So let’s see what the deal is with Mr. Dextromethorphan. Dexter for short.

Dexter is chemically similar to morphine and codeine. It was first developed to replace codeine as America’s favourite cough suppressant, and has been successful because it is non-addictive and has less potential for abuse. Unfortunately there’s debate about whether it actually works, particularly in children.

It may have less potential for abuse, but people still have a good time on cough medicine. Too much Dexter acts as a dissociative hallucinogen similar to ketamine (aka Special K) or PCP. Possibly you could enjoy watching a TV show of animals through a wide angled lens if you had too much.

If that’s not your cup of tea, why not actually have a cup of tea? Tea contains theobromine, which can suppress coughing. You know what else has theobromine in it? Cocoa. Dark chocolate in particular is a good source of theobromine, and is a delicious alternative to cough medicine. The study reported by New Scientist showed it was more effective than codeine, and better than placebo.

Dexter must have kicked in now, I’m not coughing so much. I always feel spaced out from cough medicine though, and I’m feeling pretty zonked… Methinks I will seek out some large supply of chocolate, just in case.






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