03 March 2008

Wacky research

Swimming astronauts, pigs that glow florescent green, violent sleepwalkers, and robotic pets in nursing homes – the frontiers of research are morphing into science fiction.

Whereas most health-related research is concerned with things such as the side-effects of medications, finding ideal dosages, and testing whether a treatment really works, there is also a substantial amount of very weird research being done out there.

From swimming astronauts, pigs that glow florescent green, violent sleepwalkers, and robotic pets in nursing homes – the frontiers of research are morphing into science fiction.

Swimming astronauts
German researchers recently reported how they had sent 72 small fish into space. The reason for turning the thumbnail-sized fish, known as cichlids, into swimming astronauts was to see whether they would experience motion sickness.

The rocket was fitted with cameras that recorded how the intrepid fish swam during their historic zero-gravity flight. Apparently, fish show their queasiness by swimming in circles.

One might be forgiven for writing the whole exercise off as an expensive attempt at the Turner prize, or some other award for modern art, but according to the researchers there are enough similarities between humans and cichlids to give the study potential human relevance.

It is probably not worth betting on, but maybe in about ten years time, when a new miracle cure for nausea makes it to your local pharmacy, it would be in no small part due to those 72 brave cichlids.

Will they put a picture of a fish on the box? We can only hope.

Pigs that glow in the dark
If we are not sending animals into space, it seems we are increasingly obsessed with messing around with their genes.

In maybe the most absurd example of this, Chinese researchers have managed to breed piglets that glow florescent green when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Whereas learning how to manipulate genes in order to better treat genetic diseases is certainly one of the most exciting frontiers of contemporary medical research, there is nevertheless something strange and slightly disconcerting about the power to give animals traits they've never had before.

On a similar note, researchers recently managed to engineer the first mouse ever to be susceptible to the common cold. Once again, the promise is that it would boost research into possible human treatments.

Still, while the scientists rejoiced when they saw that first mouse feel his nose clogging up and saw his eyes getting that glazed look, it wasn't such a great moment for mousekind. No wonder they are scared.

Dreaming of electric sheep
In a rather Blade Runner-like twist of events, researchers recently tested how elderly patients responded to robot dogs. And, surprisingly, they found that the health benefits associated with robot dogs were very similar to those associated with real dogs. And by contrast, people who had no dog at all were significantly worse off.

If the findings can be replicated, the sound of little electronic paws may soon be heard in nursing homes all over the world.

And in a somewhat similar vain, an expert recently predicted that sex with robots would be "an accepted part of human life" by the middle of the century.

Whereas a prediction like this is speculative, to say the least, it might not seem so strange once we've welcomed robotic pets and cleaners into our homes. After all, big social changes like this tends to happen gradually.

Violent sleepwalkers
In another recent study, it was found that the idea of murderous sleepwalkers lurking about after dark is little more than a bad dream. Apparently, sleepwalkers are generally quite harmless, providing you don't startle them. It is advised that you simply talk to such a person in a clear voice using simple language.

And in a very weird story from the UK, a hotel group reported that they had observed a seven-fold increase in sleepwalking over the last year. Most of the sleepwalkers were male and scantily dressed. Of course, it should be kept in mind that figures given by a hotel group hardly constitutes serious research.

The story did however get the group's name into newspapers and websites all around the world.

- (Health24, March 2008)

Sources include HealthDay, Sapa, EurekAlert and Reuters Health


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