Science in brief

Your look at science headlines from around the world
Mirka Loiselle/THE VARSITY
Mirka Loiselle/THE VARSITY

Alarming rates of self-harm linked to weight-loss surgery

U of T researchers conducted a study that suggests the occurrence of post-surgery self-harm trauma has risen by more than 50 per cent. Most importantly, the natures of these surgeries are all related to weight loss. 

Weight-loss surgeries (otherwise known as bariatric surgeries) can include either bypass surgery or a procedure called gastric banding. These procedures are increasingly common as they have proven to be very effective at aiding morbidly obese patients to lose weight. However, it is the idealistic expectations for their recovery in the patients themselves that have become problematic.

With bariatric surgery it is easy to expect a better quality of life with increased opportunities, both of which are frequently achieved. That said, sometimes patients have unrealistic expectations, which interacts with pre-existing low self-esteem, to contribute to the increase in self-harm occurrences.

The study, which was conducted using data from more than 8,800 patients, exposed an increase of 54 per cent in self-harm tendencies with patients who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, the most common self-harm act being intentional overdose. These statistics emphasize the importance of pre- and post-operation psychological assessments.

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, there should be a “multi-disciplinary team” in place for patients undergoing bariatric surgery. This includes a dietician in combination with medical and surgical care and psychological council. Essentially, psychological well-being is a side effect that should and must be monitored just as much as physical side effects.

— Alaina Wallace

Shots fired against witchweed infestation

A biology professor and a chemical engineer from U of T have developed a new approach to study a parasitic plant that affects more than a 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Striga, also known as ‘witchweed,’ grows by invading the roots of a host plant and siphons off the nutrients and water intended for the host. The seed of the parasitic plant can detect the plant hormone Strigolactone (SL), which is released by growing crops through their roots, and, in turn, cause the parasitic seed to germinate.

“Striga infestations alone are responsible for billion dollar reductions in crop yields in the developing world,” said Dr. Peter McCourt, professor at the Department of Cell and Systems Biology at U of T.

Along with Dr. Alexei Savchenko from the Department of Chemical Engineering, the two groups teamed up to study the biochemical pathways used by striga to detect plant growth. They have identified 11 SL receptors in striga that are possible candidates for eliciting the germination cue for striga.

Their discovery, which was published in the journal Science, was made possible by transferring all the striga receptors from striga to arabidopsis — a model organism used in biological studies.

“Arabidopsis is a lab friendly plant that is easy to manipulate for genetic experiments,” McCourt explained. “So putting the striga SL receptors into arabidopsis is a safe and efficient way to study these receptors.”

They hope to streamline the development of herbicides specific to striga germination.

— Krishanth Manokaran

Undiagnosed Depression Harms Productivity

According to a new study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), as many as 40 per cent of Canadian workers show symptoms of depression — over half of whom do not recognize that they could benefit from treatment.

The inability to recognize depressive symptoms, which has also been reported in similar studies in the United States and Australia, is a significant factor affecting drops in productivity in the workplace.

“This barrier has a significant impact on health and work productivity, and is an area where employers can focus efforts to reduce work productivity loss,” said Dr. Carolyn Dewa, the lead author of the study and head of CAMH’s Centre for Research on Employment and Workplace Health.

The findings of this study are especially significant given that mental illness currently costs the Canadian economy an estimated $51 billion each year, with loss of productivity contributing to approximately a third of that figure.

The correlation between depression and productivity loss is neither new, nor surprising, as depression has long been shown to impede cognitive functioning.

What is troubling, however, is the number of workers with symptoms of depression who remain untreated.

The study also investigated the effect of treatment on productivity and found that those experiencing severe depressive episodes who received treatment were seven times more likely to be highly productive than those who were not treated, which suggests that the ability to recognize signs of depression and seek help should be a priority for workplace mental health strategies.

— Indhu Rammohan

Pump it up

The human body holds many secrets that have yet to be discovered. Recently, a team of researchers led by U of T professor Anthony Gramolini have made an important discovery involving the proteins present on the membrane of the heart.

An account of over five hundred proteins on the membrane were found to have a connection to the contractibility of the heart. This discovery could eventually have a big impact on the way we treat cardiovascular health.

Gramolini explained that in the first paper published, the team had focused on one specific protein, called  ‘Tmem65’, but the next step of research will focus on doing in-depth research for all of the proteins.

“Now, as we move forward with this information, we hope that we can provide a greater understanding of how the heart cells contact each other, how they communicate, and ultimately how they function,” Gramolini said. “Our goal is [to] gain greater insight into how cardiac cells function, how these new proteins may contribute to that function, and whether any of these proteins when defective might cause cardiac disease.”

— Mishka Danchuk-Lauzon

Misplaced Protein responsible for ALS and Dementia

A team of researchers at U of T have managed to identify a genetically similar cause for Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and for Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), a disease that affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain and effects behaviour.

ALS ­— also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease is named after the famous baseball player who was diagnosed with it — is a neurological disorder that results in muscular weakness that can subsequently lead to paralysis.

Both diseases are known to be heritable.

Dr. Janice Robertson and her team at the U of T have managed to develop the first antibodies to track a gene, named ‘C9orf72,’ which is said to be the cause of many cases of inherited ALS. The gene is present in both normal and diseased cells.

Robertson discovered that a particular protein from this gene surrounded the nucleus of the motor neurons in healthy cells, in contrast to the abnormal cells whereby the protein moves to the outer membrane of the cell.

The aberrant location of the protein thus prevents transport of other essential proteins, resulting in cell death.

By restoring the pathway functionality and returning the misplaced protein to its original location, using drugs that are available, researchers hope to develop treatment options for ALS and FTD.

Further research towards better understanding the role of the C9orf72 gene continues.

— Ishaan Goel

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