Dispatches

The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

December 9, 2021

“Runner plasma” reinvigorates couch-potato mice

In an experiment reminiscent of the plasma exchange between young and old mice, which has been described in NEO.LIFE, a group of researchers at Stanford University collected “runner plasma” from voluntarily running mice and infused it into sedentary mice. They showed this lowered the baseline expression of neuroinflammatory genes in the sedentary mice and reduced experimentally induced brain inflammation. They traced the effect to an immunoinflammatory inhibitor called clusterin, which is found in the plasma of people and mice who engage in exercise and suggest that it is transferrable therapeutically. Because it targets the cerebrovasculature, it could benefit brain health. Nature

Shifting mealtimes for night shift workers

When people who occasionally work the graveyard shift rotate onto night work, their mealtimes often fall in sync with their work schedules, with lunch late at night and dinner early in the morning. But they would do better to skip meals at night and follow their normal daytime food intake routines until they rotate back off night work, according to a new study by doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Night shifts cause circadian misalignment, throwing the body’s internal genetic and biochemical clocks off balance, and this can impair glucose tolerance and lead to insulin sensitivity and increased risk of diabetes. The study looked at the effects of night eating on 12 men and 9 women who were sequestered for two weeks of simulated night work while either maintaining normal daylight mealtimes or shifting their lunches to the wee hours. It found that restricting meals to daytime prevented the circadian misalignment. Science Advances

Mothers’ mindfulness, diet helps babies

A small, randomized clinical trial involving 1,221 pregnant women at the Sant Joan de Déu hospital and the University of Barcelona in Spain has shown how dietary and mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions in the second trimester can significantly improve key outcomes for babies at birth. The trial, called IMPACT BCN, randomly split the women into three groups of 407: One group was put on a Mediterranean diet, another was assigned yoga and guided meditation, and the third was given standard prenatal care for about five weeks. The intervention groups saw significant reductions in the number of “small for gestational age” births, which are associated with infant mortality and neurodevelopmental problems—though the authors emphasize these interventions should be tested in additional populations before being recommended to pregnant women. JAMA

To sleep, perchance to invent

Thomas Edison famously palmed steel balls in his clutches so that when he drifted off to sleep, his grip would loosen, the balls would fall, they’d smack the floor, and this would rouse him, allowing him to capture whatever brilliant ideas he’d just been thinking about. Researchers at Sorbonne University in Paris have put Edison’s creativity hack to the test in a study of 103 adults who were given mathematical problems that each contained a simple, elegant, instantaneous solution that was not so obvious. When people were allowed to drift off while considering the problems, with EEGs showing they spent at least 15 seconds in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness (a non-rapid eye movement sleep stage called N1), their creative juices flowed freely, suggesting that Edison’s creative sweet spot within the sleep-onset period really does exist. They were more than three times more likely to discover the hidden solution, but the effect vanished if they were allowed to sleep more deeply. Science Advances

Living near green spaces could help with PMS

In a first, researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway have shown a connection between the amount of residential green space surrounding 1,069 Scandinavian women aged 18–49 years and their symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Looking at data from a 2013–2015 multi-center population study called RHINESSA and incorporating satellite-derived vegetation imagery, they found that higher exposure to surrounding greenspace was associated with fewer PMS symptoms overall and lower odds of experiencing four specific symptoms: breast tenderness or abdominal bloating before or at the start of the menstrual period, sleep disruption, anxiety or tension, and depression or hopelessness. Environment International

Global commission advocates for lifelong individualized attention to autism

A commission of patients, advocates, caregivers, physicians, and other stakeholders from six continents has issued a sweeping, forward-looking, and glowingly hopeful report on the future of care for people with autism spectrum disorder. The report advocates a new “stepped care” model of autism treatment that recognizes its complexity and heterogeneity, and it calls for addressing the diverse and long-term needs of people with autism through personalized assessment and care. The commission coined the term “profound autism” to describe autistic individuals who require 24-hour care and are unable to manage their basic daily needs, and they call for prioritizing research “that will result in immediate improvements in the lives of people with autism and their families”—something sure to resonate with many other health communities as well. The Lancet

The neurodevelopment of humor in young children

Stanford University researchers have used an imaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to study the neural basis of humor processing in young children—an important aspect of social development that surprisingly few studies have looked at closely. Imaging the brains of 35 healthy children aged 6–8 years as they watched funny and neutral video clips, they mapped the neural basis of humor appreciation to several areas in the brain, showing that it varied with both age and sex, with boys showing a more pronounced increase in the coherence between brain networks in the frontoparietal region while watching funny videos compared to neutral ones. (No word on whether this accounts for young, male preoccupation with fart jokes, however). PLOS One