MLB To Test New Experimental Rules In Minor Leagues

Robot umpires and larger bases are just some of the major changes the MLB will be testing out.

Man with Alcohol

Ketamine Studied as Treatment for Alcoholism

Ketamine is a powerful drug with a number of medical applications. While it is sometimes taken recreationally for its sedative and hallucinatory properties, it has also been used as a surgical anesthetic, particularly during the Vietnam War. It can also provide pain relief, and is even being used in the treatment of severe depression. Now, recent research shows that the drug may also be useful for treating alcohol addiction by disrupting positive memories associated with drinking in patients.

Drug addiction is a serious illness, and while alcohol is a legal drug, the effects of alcoholism are devastating, causing psychological and physical problems and leading in some cases to death. Alcohol is also a notoriously difficult drug to quit, as the drug causes physical dependency as well as withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. As such, there exists significant interest in exploring pharmacological aids that can help with alcoholism, and ketamine has emerged as an unlikely candidate.

Embed from Getty Images

The theory for how ketamine can help with alcoholism has to do with the role memory plays in perpetuating addiction. One of the most difficult things for people who are looking to free themselves from drug addiction to navigate is the numerous positive memories they have built up in association with the drug over time, and how these memories inform their decision making. Ketamine is well-known for causing memory loss, and this is the effect that doctors hope will soon be widespread in treating alcoholism.

The research in question involved the use of anesthetic ketamine to deliberately dismantle positive associations people had with alcohol. In the study, heavy drinkers who used ketamine under the direction of the researchers “reduced their alcohol consumption for at least 9 months,” a promising development for the long-term treatment of alcoholism. While ketamine is not a drug that is fully understood, scientists have determined that the drug blocks NMDA receptors in the brain, which are instrumental in allowing the brain to form and restabilize memories.

Embed from Getty Images

In the study, the treatment was targeted to only disrupt positive memories associated with alcohol use. Volunteers were initially presented with images of alcoholic beverages and then prompted to drink a beer. On their next visit, these volunteers were shown the images again, but instead of drinking alcohol received a high dose of intravenous ketamine. The researchers wanted to surprise the volunteers in order to allow the brain to re-write some of the memories associated with alcohol, using ketamine to break the brain’s association between alcohol and rewarding feelings. This group of volunteers was tested against a control group, who received a placebo instead of ketamine, and a third group who were shown pictures of orange juice instead of beer.

After ten days, the group who were shown images of beer and then given ketamine reported a significant decrease in their urge to drink a beer, while the other two groups showed little change. In the following days and months, all three groups reduced their drinking, but the first group showed the most significant reduction in alcohol consumption. After nine months, they had cut their weekly beer intake approximately in half, while the control groups saw a reduction of 35%.

While the results are impressive, the subject needs more research to determine whether the effects can be replicated and exactly how ketamine works in the brain to change memories. The study did not involve brain imaging data, and as such, scientists don’t know exactly what happened to the volunteers’ memories. Also, as ketamine is not completely understood, it’s not clear if there are other effects of the drug that affect alcohol consumption. However, given these promising early results and the relatively good safety record of ketamine use, this recent study provides a good foundation for further research.

Sickle Cell Disease

Genetic Modification Offers Hope for Sufferers of Sickle Cell Disease

It sounds like a far-fetched concept in a science fiction story, but advancements in science have led to the development of technologies that could allow for the genetic modification of cells in human beings, which could treat genetic problems like sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is currently generally incurable and has disastrous health effects in those who suffer from it, as it causes tremendous pain, disabilities, and shortened life expectancy. Sickle cell disease causes a person’s red blood cells to form in an abnormal, flattened shape, causing them to stick to the interior of veins and cause clogs. While medication can help to treat the symptoms of the disease, their efficacy is limited, and the only treatment currently able to cure the disease is bone marrow cell transplant, which is only effective for a small percentage of sufferers and is difficult to obtain.

For these reasons, new evidence showing the efficacy of CRISPR, a technology that enables genetic modification, for the treatment of sickle cell disease, provides hope for the millions of people suffering from the condition. One patient received treatment using the CRISPR technology, which modified billions of cells inside of his body to fix the problem of malformed red blood cells, and the treatment has begun to work in the way doctors had hoped. Not only has the treatment enabled edited cells to produce a protein necessary for the generation of healthy red blood cells, but the treatment has also significantly reduced and nearly eliminated the patient’s symptoms of agonizing pain. 

Embed from Getty Images

The treatment was conducted at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, Tennessee. While doctors are excited and optimistic about the developments, there are still a number of important questions that remain unanswered, as the treatment is still in the early stages of its development. For instance, it is currently unknown what the long-term effects of the treatment will be, whether the treatment will continue to be effective as time goes on, and whether the patient will live a longer life as a result of the treatment. As such, the doctors’ optimism is cautious, and Dr. Frangoul, one of the medical professionals treatment the patient, has said that “it is still too early to celebrate.”

The patient, 34-year-old Victoria Gray of Forest, Mississippi, had volunteered for the experimental treatment, and described the results as a “miracle,” adding that she has hope for her future for the first time after dealing with the effects of the genetic disease for her entire life, a hope which is shared by her medical team, who believe there is a good chance she has been cured with just a single treatment.

Embed from Getty Images

Roughly 100,000 people in the United States suffer from sickle cell disease, as do millions more around the world, the majority of whom live in Africa. If the treatment proves to be as effective as doctors predict, one of the major obstacles is to make the treatment available in different parts of the world, as the existing healthcare infrastructure in Africa is not as robust as in many other parts of the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, has pledged $200 million dollars to fund research into gene-based treatments and to expand their access around the world.

Another patient who suffered from a similar disorder called beta thalassemia received similar treatment via CRISPR, and has not needed a blood transfusion for nine months. While experimental treatments are by their very nature risky, as there are many unknown variables involved, Gray has said the treatment has given her hope, if nothing else. It will take several years before doctors can determine whether the patient is cured of her debilitating condition; however, if early indicators are anything to go by, Gray has reason to be optimistic that the treatment will enable her to live a full life free from the agonizing symptoms of the disease.


New Research Hints at Origin of Life on Earth

While the theory of evolution is broadly accepted as fact among scientists, more controversy exists over explanations for the ultimate origin of life on Earth. However, new research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution sheds light on a potential theory for the origin of living things by attempting to recreate the conditions of the early earth and exploring how they could lead to the development of “protocells,” which are thought to be fundamental “building blocks” of all life. In an experiment, researchers successfully created conditions that led to the development of protocells by replicating the environment of underwater hydrothermal vents, whose combination of heat, alkalinity, and minerals are instrumental in the creation of protocells.

Though multiple competing theories explaining the origin of life exist, including Darwin’s assertion that life probably first evolved in shallow pools of warm water, the theory that life originally began within underwater thermal vents is supported by evidence, including the discovery of some of the world’s oldest fossils nearby these vents. Now, this explanation for the creation of life seems even more likely, as demonstrating the creation of protocells under these conditions is a key argument supporting the theory. Although the results of this research do not definitively prove that life on earth began in underwater hydrothermal vents, the researchers assert that the possibility of this explanation cannot be ruled out.

Embed from Getty Images

Hydrothermal vents are located deep under the Earth’s seas, where minerals from the planet’s crust react with seawater, creating a warm, alkaline, and hydrogen-rich environment. This process leads to the creation of so-called chimneys, which are rich with alkaline and acidic fluids, enabling the formation of complex organic compounds, including, as this new research shows, protocells. These vents emerge spontaneously along fault lines as a result of geological processes, and have existed on Earth for millions, if not billions of years. Hydrothermal vents are known for being areas of the deep sea where life is relatively abundant, as they tend to be populated by shrimp, worms, and clams, who feed off of the energy and materials present around the vents.

This research has strong implications not only for the beginning of life on Earth, but for the potential for life to form elsewhere in space.

Protocells are, in essence, the most basic form of a cell, consisting of a bilayer membrane around an aqueous solution. Previous experiments succeeded in creating these cells in cool, fresh water, but only under tightly controlled conditions. Also, previous experiments attempting to replicate hydrothermal vents have failed to generate protocells which don’t fall apart. In this most recent experiment, however, the scientists identified a flaw with previous research on creating protocells in hydrothermal vents; namely, these experiments used a limited number of types of molecules, whereas in natural environments, you would expect to see a wide range of different types of molecules.

Embed from Getty Images

Whereas it was previously thought that heat, alkalinity, and salt posed obstacles in the creation of protocells, this new research shows that these factors were actually beneficial in the process. This is because head allowed long carbon chains to form into a protocell structure, an alkaline solution helped protocells keep their electric charge, and saltwater helps fat molecules band together, forming more stable structures. What’s notable about this experiment is that while protocells have been created artificially in laboratory environments before, they had never been before created under conditions that match the chemistry of the early Earth.

This research has strong implications not only for the beginning of life on Earth, but for the potential for life to form elsewhere in space. This is because space missions have revealed the presence of similar hydrothermal vents on extraterrestrial bodies, including the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Life on other planets or moons has not yet been discovered, of course, but research into the origins of life on Earth could give scientists a better idea of where in space to look for extraterrestrial life.