2009 Science News of the Year: Body & Brain

Numbers of passengers arriving from Mexico in March and April 2008 show which cities would have been most vulnerable to H1N1 transmission. Credit : The New England Journal of Medicine ©2009
Numbers of passengers arriving from Mexico in March and April 2008 show which cities would have been most vulnerable to H1N1 transmission. Credit : The New England Journal of Medicine ©2009

H1N1 strikes and spreads
Like the years 1957 and 1968, 2009 will be known as a pandemic flu year. The springtime eruption of a novel H1N1 swine flu strain in Mexico was followed by its rapid spread throughout the world (SN Online: 4/27/09). Early signs that the H1N1 flu virus might be amenable to vaccine development (SN: 6/20/09, p. 12) proved to be correct, and scientists and pharmaceutical companies collaborated to develop, test and distribute a vaccine against the strain. Math models suggested that vaccinating children first would best stem the infection’s spread (SN Online: 9/10/09), but distribution of the vaccine was slower than anticipated.

The H1N1 flu did not mutate substantially during a June-to-September run through the Southern Hemisphere. Even so, it returned to the Northern Hemisphere with a vengeance in the fall (SN Online: 10/9/09). Although the H1N1 flu so far seems to lack the deadly impact of another pandemic strain, the 1918 flu, it does have the capacity to kill people in the prime of life, mainly by progressing to viral pneumonia that starves blood and tissues of oxygen, scientists reported (SN: 11/7/09, p. 13).

The other fat
Three studies show that adults have brown fat, a type of energy-burning fat previously thought to be found only in babies and animals. The fat (in black, above) could be harnessed to burn extra calories and fight obesity (SN: 5/9/09, p. 10).

Surgical preventive
A study shows that being circumcised can reduce a man’s risk of infection by the herpes virus, human papillomavirus and HIV (SN: 4/25/09, p. 10).

Prostate screen
A test for the compound sarcosine may help distinguish fast-growing prostate cancers from slow-growing ones (SN: 3/14/09, p. 10).

Acid blockers
Popular drugs can interfere with anti-clotting medications, a study finds (SN: 3/28/09, p. 11).

Depression gene debate
A combined analysis of 14 studies disputes the idea that a particular gene variant interacts with stressful experiences to promote depression (SN: 7/18/09, p. 10).

New neurons don’t heal all
Neurogenesis does not produce all the cell types needed to repair injuries, a study finds (SN: 5/23/09, p. 12).

Go ahead, donate away
Kidney donors live just as long as nondonors (SN: 2/28/09, p. 10).

Better gestation
Women who get stomach surgery to lose weight before pregnancy have babies that are healthier than those born to women who remained obese during pregnancy (SN: 9/26/09, p. 9).

Good moms
Flu shots for moms-to-be benefit babies (SN: 11/21/09, p. 16).

Short calories
A 20-year study shows that sharply cutting calories while maintaining good nutrition helps rhesus monkeys (such as Canto, below left) age healthier than monkeys on a regular diet (such as Owen, below right), (SN: 8/1/09, p. 9). In another study, the immune-suppressing drug rapamycin is the first molecule shown to mimic the effects of calorie restriction in mice (SN: 8/1/09, p. 9).

Bone preserver
The experimental drug denosumab prevents bone loss in two high-risk groups: men with prostate cancer and elderly women (SN: 9/12/09, p. 13).

Mirror in the brain
Though the existence of mirror neurons in human brains has been disputed, a new study offers evidence that some human neurons mirror actions the same way that monkey neurons do (SN: 9/12/09, p. 11).

Pap smear alternative
Testing women for human papillomavirus is a better way to screen for cervical cancer than the standard Pap smear (SN: 4/25/09, p. 11).

Alzheimer’s and Zzzzs
Sleep deprivation leads to more plaques in mice genetically susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting a lack of z’s may contribute to the disease (SN: 10/24/09, p. 11).

Malarial foe falters
The frontline malaria drug artemisinin shows gaps in effectiveness in Southeast Asia (SN: 12/19/09, p. 15).

Brain bounce-back
A study in rhesus monkeys shows that running protects dopamine neurons from death, adding to evidence that exercise is good for the brain (SN: 11/21/09, p. 8).

Babies got the beat
Newborns display neural signs of detecting a rhythmic beat, a capacity that may be crucial for learning music (SN: 2/14/09, p. 14).

Urine signal
A compound in urine might help doctors distinguish appendicitis from other abdominal problems, avoiding needless surgery (SN: 7/18/09, p. 11).

Early warning
A urine test that detects high levels of tobacco-related compounds might reveal which cigarette smokers are most likely to develop lung cancer (SN Online: 4/19/09).

Tolerance downside
Young men for whom alcohol has little effect face a greater risk of developing alcoholism later in life than those who readily feel alcohol’s effects (SN Online: 5/22/09).

Redefining self
Amputees who feel phantom limbs can learn to do physically impossible body tricks (SN Online: 10/26/09).

Rats as addicts
Junk food elicits addictive behavior in rats, similar to the behavior of rats addicted to heroin (SN: 11/21/09, p. 8).

Thrashers beware
Those who kick and thrash while sleeping may be at an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease (SN: 1/17/09, p. 9).

West Nile defense
Scientists identify immune proteins that defend against the virus (SN: 2/28/09, p. 10).

Herpes re-rears ugly head
A single viral protein can trigger the awakening of a dormant herpes virus in cells (SN: 4/25/09, p. 10).

Mummy hearts
CT scans of preserved ancient Egyptians (below) show hardening of arteries similar to that seen in people today (SN: 12/19/09, p. 14).

R-E-S-P-E-C-T the spleen
A new study shows the spleen (red, above) serves as a holding tank for white blood cells called monocytes, one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection (SN: 8/29/09, p. 10).

From stem to germ
Researchers discover how to transform human embryonic stem cells into germ cells, the cells that give rise to sperm and eggs.

Stopping nerve cancer
In a mouse study, neuroblastoma shows weakness against a new drug that works by freeing up tumor suppressor p53 (SN: 12/5/09, p. 10).

Go with the flow
Blood flow and nitric oxide boost production of blood stem cells in embryos (SN: 6/6/09, p. 11).

Huntington’s crony
Experiments in lab dishes could help explain why only some brain cells are vulnerable to Huntington’s disease. A protein called Rhes may goad the protein huntingtin into killing brain cells in the striatum (SN: 7/4/09, p. 10).

Rheumatoid relief
The anti-inflammatory drug golimumab eases rheumatoid arthritis in some people who fail to benefit from standard drugs (SN: 8/1/09, p. 8)

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