BY ANTHONY KING
Everyone suffers restless nights from time to time. Chewing over failures or worries at the end of the day undermines rest, especially deep sleep. ‘A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,’ wrote author Charlotte Brontë.
A good night’s sleep serves as a tonic. What’s more, it is long recognised that shuteye gives learning and memory a boost. More recently, scientists revealed that the early phase of deep slow-wave sleep is especially important.
‘When you learn something in the evening, that information becomes reactivated during sleep,’ said Dr Bjoern Rasch, who took part in the Horizon-funded MemoSleep project and is a professor at the University of Fribourg.
The Swiss researcher added that ‘Ruminations and negative thoughts increase our awakenings during sleep, make us wake earlier than we want and make us sleep less deeply.’
But there is good news too. Positive thoughts can also be reactivated in brain circuits and, in the process, improve sleep, according to Dr Rasch. He organized an experiment around the whole idea.
His test was a small boon to students in his university who received 50 Swiss francs (EUR 52) for every night they spent snoozing in a comfortable four-bed sleeping laboratory.
The students were connected to an electroencephalogram that monitored their brain waves. They also had their muscles monitored to record when they fell into slumber and what sleep-state they were in.
Some relaxation strategies allow people to fall asleep faster, but don’t change the quality of sleep afterwards, according to Dr Rasch. He played hypnotic tapes with imagery such as a fish swimming in deep water, and with words suggestive of safety and relaxation, for the students.
‘The subjects spent more time in the deeper slow-wave sleep stage after listening to the hypnotic tape,’ said Dr Rasch. ‘We would explain this by an increased reactivation of relaxing and reassuring thoughts during sleep, heard previously during the hypnosis tape.’
In future studies, Dr Rasch hopes to help patients who suffer from insomnia.
‘It could not only help them fall asleep but could actually make their sleep more restful,’ he said. Furthermore, this could aid people with psychological illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, who sleep poorly.
Seahorses and learning
The seahorse-shaped part of the brain called the hippocampus (from the Greek word for seahorse) is especially important for learning and memory. Scientists often use rodents to investigate their hippocampus in learning and sleep.
Rats, for example, are masters at remembering paths through mazes to find foods. The hippocampus is key to this recall.
Dr Juan Ramirez-Villegas uses rodents to probe how mammalian brains store memories – work that could eventually contribute to fighting human illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
As part of the Horizon-funded DREAM project, he discovered that another part of the brain – the brainstem – plays a crucial role along with the hippocampus and becomes active beforehand.
‘It seems like the brainstem is setting up some scenery so that the hippocampus can reactivate memories across different stages of sleep,’ said Dr Ramirez-Villegas, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.
He has attached electrodes to record activity in the brains of rats as they navigate a maze and afterwards as they sleep. Sleeping allows the brain to replay daytime events and etch them as long-term memories.
‘It is very striking that the cells fire in the same order during sleep that they did during learning, but they are more compressed in time during sleep,’ said Dr Ramirez-Villegas.
How we remember
The discovery was surprising because it suggests that the brainstem has an overlooked function in stimulating and changing memory formation. This seems to be true for rodents as much as for primates and, as a result, is likely to be a basic mechanism of the brains of mammals, including people.
The research, while crucial to understanding the basic operation of the brain, could have clinical benefits too. ‘We are untangling the basic principles of memory processes, but we can also use these to ameliorate the effects of memory-related illnesses,’ said Dr Ramirez-Villegas.
The research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Making face creams from coffee beans as cosmetics get greener
By Tom Cassauwers
‘Plant ingredients have always been used in cosmetics,’ said Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at VTT, a Finnish research centre. ‘But in recent years, there’s been a revived interest in plant-based compounds. Consumers are interested in greener and more sustainable ingredients.’
Today, most of the key ingredients used in the €80 billion European cosmetics industry are synthetic or animal-based or taken from wild plants. Producing these ingredients sometimes includes solvents or processes that are unsustainable and are becoming less popular with consumers. Harvesting wild plants also puts natural ecosystems under pressure.
Rischer and other European scientists are investigating how to get more natural and sustainable plant-based ingredients into cosmetic products.
‘We grow plant cells and organs in bioreactors,’ Rischer said. ‘But other partners grow the entire plants in aeroponics and greenhouses or in the field.’
InnCoCells is researching the commercial production of innovative cosmetic ingredients from plants such as basil or aromatic ginger.
‘Our work is currently in a bio-prospecting stage,’ said Rischer. ‘We evaluate different plant species for compounds. We start from a wide range of potential plants and reduce them over time.’
The team aims to develop up to 10 ingredients to bring to the market within the next three years – although it’s still early days for a project that started in May 2021.
‘Finding our way in this jungle of plant options is a challenge,’ Rischer said.
The focus is on the bio-active compounds in cosmetics, meaning the ingredients that create a desired effect such as anti-ageing of the skin rather than ingredients like stabilisers or fragrances. An essential part of the work in InnCoCells is to have the cosmetics do what they promise in a transparent way.
‘Cosmetics need to open up the evidence, so that products actually do what they claim,’ said Rischer. ‘This would really help the consumer make choices. When we buy food, there’s a lot of information on the package helping the consumer. We need to do the same for cosmetics.’
In a separate, just-ended, initiative to green the cosmetics industry, the EU-funded Prolific project transformed plant residues into ingredients for beauty products. The team extracted polyphenols from coffee silverskins, a type of compound useful in cosmetics because of its anti-ageing effects on the skin. The polyphenol extract was standardised and used in a prototype face cream.
Normally, polyphenols are already derived from plants. But the compound is extracted through a chemical procedure resulting in waste that needs to be disposed of carefully. The project applied an environmentally friendly method, called subcritical water extraction, which only uses water under very high pressure to extract the polyphenols from the coffee silverskins.
All in all, the Prolific research used a range of new processes to derive useful compounds from agricultural waste of different plant sources such as coffee beans, fungi and legumes.
‘We use a cascading approach,’ said Annalisa Tassoni, the project’s scientific coordinator and an associate professor at the University of Bologna in Italy. ‘We do a first extraction, after which we look at what remains and try to extract another compound.’
Ultimately the residual fibres were used at different stages of production. Three prototype cosmetics were made by Greek partner company COSMETIC including a face cream, toothpaste and even a container jar that was made from plant fibres.
‘We valorise all the parts of the residues,’ said Georgios Tsatsos, general director of COSMETIC. ‘This goes up to the fibres left after the extraction process.’
Several steps need to be taken before these green compounds can reach the cosmetics market. The techniques used by Prolific in processing coffee are close to being introduced into cosmetics production, but the methods need to be scaled up so that plant-based compounds can compete with synthetic ones.
‘There’s a lot playing in favour of this process for coffee,’ said Tassoni, ‘We opened up perspectives, and confirmed that certain techniques really work.’
While it will be difficult to outcompete all of the synthetic techniques in use in the cosmetics industry, Rischer is optimistic about the outlook for more environmentally sound approaches.
‘The cosmetics market is very big and diverse,’ he said. ‘Consumers are demanding more sustainable and green cosmetics, and within our own niche, we can have an impact.’
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
In fight against male cancer, caring for mental health is a growing priority
By Anthony King
At a hotel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen about 20 years ago, urologist James N’Dow and other doctors met a group of men who had suffered prostate cancer to ask for feedback on their care before and after surgery. The clinicians were stunned by the critical, albeit constructive, responses.
‘Frankly, they felt abandoned,’ said Professor N’Dow, who works at the University of Aberdeen. ‘When we discharged them after surgery, we thought their general practitioners were looking after them and their GPs thought we were.’
Minding the mind
Dealing with the emotional and mental toll of prostate cancer has grown in importance along with detecting and curing the disease itself. Prostate cancer is the second-leading cancer among men in Europe and is sometimes mistakenly viewed as a disease only of old age. It caused an estimated 335 500 cases, or 12.5% of cancers, in the EU in 2020.
Prof N’Dow heads an Innovative Medicines Initiative project – PIONEER – on prostate cancer that seeks to improve diagnosis and treatment. A parallel EU-funded initiative called FAITH is developing an electronic application for cancer survivors that could help spot if the “black dog” of depression is stalking them.
‘Depression is a big thing in post-cancer survivors,’ said Gary McManus, who leads FAITH and works at the Walton Institute for Information and Communication Systems Science in Waterford, Ireland.
Four in 10 men who have been treated for prostate cancer say they are anxious or depressed to some degree, with troubles worsening the more advanced the cancer, according to a 2020 study by Europa Uomo, a European advocacy movement for sufferers of the disease. Prostate cancer can increase the risk of suicide.
Stopping the spread
When prostate cancer is caught early enough, a man can be cured. If it spreads beyond the prostate, the cost of treatment is high and delivers minimal benefit. Usually, the disease will spread – metastasize – to the bones and lymph nodes.
‘It is not curable at that stage,’ said Prof N’Dow. ‘We are still picking up too many men with metastatic disease – and this is a failure of the system.’
Without treatment, the average period of survival from prostate cancer that has spread beyond the gland is about 21 months. With some newer therapies, some metastatic prostate cancer patients can survive five years or more.
Even when the cancer is aggressive, if it is restricted to the prostate gland a patient can be cured by surgery or radiation therapy – or a combination. Almost 95% of these patients are still alive up to 15 years after their diagnosis. Treatment can, however, affect a man’s urinary or erectile function.
Prof N’Dow hails recent EU recommendations to screen prostate cancer in men up to the age of 70 using a blood test and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans based on an individual’s risk. Certain men over 50 and those of African descent or with a family history of prostate cancer are at heightened risk from this cancer and should be targeted for early detection.
Tracking the blues
Amid the efforts to improve detection and cures, FAITH’s planned app highlights the heightened focus on the psychological well-being of cancer patients.
Although it is being tested on people who have overcome lung and breast cancer, the app could be made to work for survivors of the disease in other parts of the body including the prostate.
In its study two years ago on anxiety or depression among men who have been treated for prostate cancer, Europa Uomo said 0.5% felt either one to an “extreme” degree and almost 4% to a “severe” extent. Nearly 11% and 28% fell into “moderate” and “slight” categories, respectively.
A tracker of sorts, the app is being developed by European technologists and cancer doctors working together. The tests are taking place at three hospitals in Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
At home, a wearable watch records movement and sleep patterns that get fed into a phone app. Patients must occasionally answer questions from the app, for example about dietary choices, while a voice module checks for any changes in a person’s speech that may indicate depression.
In all, 27 measurements are being tracked in a bid to uncover which ones could flag a downward trajectory in a patient’s mental health. Performance will be compared against clinical questionnaires that doctors already use to monitor patients.
‘Once the patient is signed out of the hospital, they’re often on their own,’ said McManus. ‘If the hospital gives this app to a patient, doctors can remotely monitor how the patient is getting on.’
The phone app will not send sensitive patient data to the Internet. Instead, an algorithm is updated on the phone and fed back to the development team, which helps improve the app’s performance.
‘We’ll build our algorithm and try to pick out these downstream trajectories,’ said McManus. ‘Then we are basically training the app.’ Eventually, if the app picks up worrying signals, ‘an alarm is raised in the hospital and the patient is contacted,’ he said.
The mental-health aspect of cancer diagnosis and care needs to be improved across Europe, according to Prof N’Dow, who said that this is a central goal of the European Association of Urology, where he is adjunct secretary general responsible for education.
‘The impact psychologically of the diagnosis or consequences of treatment is huge,’ he said. ‘This is something we understood in PIONEER.’
The project has sought to ensure that treatment comparisons take into account the impact on patient quality of life such as sexual, bowel or urinary function. Also crucial has been to identify those outcomes that matter most to patients.
That is why PIONEER has included patients themselves in discussions aimed at determining key unanswered research questions about prostate cancer.
‘Patients understand what they need,’ Prof N’Dow said. ‘Our job is to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and get them back to the life they knew before it was rudely interrupted by disease. The psychological well-being of the patient and their families should be recognized as central to that.’
Research in this article was funded via the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Central Asian Countries Show Commitment to a Cross-regional Approach to Pandemic Prevention
Government officials representing health, environment, and agriculture sectors from all of Central Asian countries participated in a regional ministerial meeting Protecting Livestock and Preventing Pandemics that took place in Almaty today. The participants reaffirmed commitment to cooperating on One Health–a cross-sectoral approach that aims to help the region prevent future pandemics. The participants signed a communiqué giving a formal start to the development of the Central Asia One Health Framework for Action and a call for joint resource mobilization in support of the initiative.
Managing global health risks requires full cooperation between the livestock, environmental and public health sectors, at the national, regional, and global levels. One Health is an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and ecosystems. It recognizes that the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment are closely linked and inter-dependent.
“The case for collaboration on One Health in Central Asia could not be clearer,” said Tatiana Proskuryakova, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “The region shares many common challenges but also strengths and opportunities that can help the region realize One Health. What we are witnessing now is Central Asia setting an example for other regions and countries on how to work together for future generations’ health and wellbeing”.
The event in Almaty builds on the discussions held during a meeting in Tashkent in July 2022 when participants agreed on the need to prepare the Central Asia One Health Framework for Action that could provide a blueprint for the countries in the region to move forward with concrete actions, as well as would include a roadmap for investments at national and regional levels.
More specifically, the Regional One Health Framework for Action aims to contribute to addressing three high-level goals shared among Central Asian countries: pandemic prevention and preparedness, resilience of food systems, and improving regional trade and the competitiveness of agriculture. In addition, the Framework for Action will identify focus areas and mechanisms for regional collaboration, and include a One Health dashboard to monitor progress, while facilitating policy responses to emerging issues.
“Investing in One Health is an investment in humanity’s future. The proposed investment framework helps governments and development partners to avoid the cycle of panic-and-neglect and direct financial resources. This integrated, risk-based approach requires compliance with international health standards and promotes country ownership, while recognizing its global public goods nature. The vast majority of investments in One Health will also result in significant co-benefits, including improving food safety, preserving biodiversity and reducing GHG emissions” said Martien van Nieuwkoop, the World Bank’s Global Director for Agriculture and Food. “The World Bank is collaborating with several countries in Central Asia on this approach, and we are encouraged by the region’s resolve to work together to invest in One-Health as an important building block for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response”.
The development of the Framework for Action will support regional dialogue between networks of decision makers and technical staff, including epidemiologists, veterinarians, and environmental specialists from the three operational sectors. This will be especially useful in cases of transborder disease outbreaks, as it would enable sharing of information, quick integration of new knowledge, and regional action.
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