March 2015

Alice Tobin

Alice Tobin

Retired Editor

Alice recently finished an MSc in Science, Media and Communication and now works as a communications officer at the Medical Research Council. She did her BSc in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Bath, which included a placement year at Pfizer. Alongside being an editor, she still likes to write and has now started her own column.

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REST: the secret to ageing well

It is no longer enough to simply reach old age, to prolong our lifespan – the new challenge is to stay healthy as we age, to prolong our so-called ‘healthspan’.

Our risk of developing diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, becomes far greater as we age. Yet losing your neurons and memory is not, as once thought, a natural and inevitable part of ageing. And the activity of a transcription factor, REST, in certain brain areas may hold the key to preventing it.

A few weeks ago, I helped out at a stall at Oxford Science Fair. It was a gloriously sunny day, and everyone was in a good mood. Our stall was based around research on neurodegeneration, particularly Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and dementia. Most of the day was spent showing kids how to make neurons out of pipe-cleaners and brain areas out of plasticine, but we had some questions from adults too.

One lady told me that her mother, aged only 50, had an early-onset form of dementia, and no longer recognised her when she went to visit. She would never recognise the two young boys that stood beside her as her own grandchildren, never remember their first words, their first smile, their first days at school. The lady turned to me and asked: Why had this happened? What did her mother do to deserve such a fate? I saw the pain in her eyes, and wished I had an answer to give.

Now, it seems, I do. Lu et al. have published research in Nature [1] that demonstrates how the repressor element 1-silencing transcription factor (REST), also known as neuron-restrictive silencer factor (NRSF), acts to protect neurons in the prefronal cortex (PFC) and hippocampus, two major brain areas affected by Alzheimer's disease.


The spotless mind

What if drugs could be used to erase traumatic memories?

Young again: turning back time in mice

Could we one day combat the aging process?

Where did all the bees go?

What do bees do in winter?

Brainwashed by sleep

What happens to your brain while you sleep? Maybe all it needs is a good clean...

Creating the world's smallest movie

The world's smallest freeze frame film

The battle to end polio

Could we realistically eradicate polio?

Rats given infrared 'sixth sense'

Scientists have given rats a 'sixth sense'

The tongue map: a tasteless myth debunked

Find out why it doesn't really matter where on your tongue you taste your sweets.

Fast food: the first GM fish is ready for our plates

Would you eat a genetically modified salmon? The first genetically modified salmon has been approved for human consumption in the US.

The Real Rudolf

A more detailed look at Santa's friendly reindeer - what tricks do they use to survive the harsh environment they live in?

The Electronic Tattoo: a diagnostic second skin

Whatever you think of Angelina's Asian scripts or Cheryl's barbed wire leg piece,tattoos just got a whole lot smarter. Imagine the possibilities of a tattoo that can monitor your vital signs, recognise your voice and monitor your brain activity!

Waste not, want not: designing better biofuels

Biofuels have had a (justifiably) bad reputation for causing the destruction of masses of rainforest. But genetic engineering of new microorganisms may be able to make use of agricultural waste.

Phantom limbs: treatment with trickery

Alice takes a peek through the looking glass to a world of telescoping limbs and treatment with mirrors.

Optogenetics: shining a light on neuroscience

Understanding neurobiology may now be as easy as flicking a switch...

Frozen alive

How does the Woolly Bear Caterpillar survive sub zero temperatures? Read on to find out more...

Hidden talents of the Autistic

What are the typical characteristics of Autism, how is it triggered and what treatments are available?