A Student Panel member writes about Dr Howard’s literature review: how Cot Death is related to carbon dioxide

Dr Howard, a junior doctor at King’s College Hospital, is currently performing research into a possible link between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (the sudden and unexplained death of an infant younger than one year old) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The exact causes of Cot Death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) are still unknown but it is thought that certain environmental factors, such as the mother smoking whilst the foetus is in the womb and the baby being in a smoking household once born, increase the risk of dying prematurely.

Increased CO2 levels make the blood more acidic and normally specialised cells in the brain detect the CO2 molecules, tailoring the breathing rate accordingly, which in this case means speeding it up so that more carbon dioxide is expelled from the lungs and more oxygen is taken in. However, babies that suddenly die may have a problem with the parts of the brain that detect CO2, meaning that the CO2 level goes up but the brain cells don’t respond to it, so the baby dies when the acidity causes injury to body cells, or when the respiratory rate does not change accordingly.

It was previously thought that brain cells responded to the acid in the blood and that only the cells in the brain stem carried out this function. However, it is being discovered that not only are neurones (nerve cells) in parts of the brain other than the brainstem involved, but also that they are responding to the actual molecule of CO2, rather than pH (blood acidity). Therefore, Dr Howard is looking at where the areas of neurones are that contribute to the response to carbon dioxide as well as what they specifically respond to.

Dr Howard carries out searches of current published papers to obtain background knowledge on her research topic. She also compiles information from current medical journals and research in order to say what the latest thinking is. Her aim is to publish her completed paper on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in a journal so that the public and other scientific professionals can access a up-to-date summary of the current research into Cot Death.

I was interested in writing about Dr Howard’s research because I wanted to find out more about the dangers of having an excess of carbon dioxide in your blood, despite it being a vital gas for our survival; it truly lives up to the saying that ‘too much of anything is bad’! What’s more, it was completely new to me that failure to respond to surplus CO2 could be one of the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which therefore made it a fascinating possibility to delve into. Through producing this summary of Dr Howard’s research, I have gained a richer understanding of the condition, which I hope you will too by reading it.

Lottricia Millett, Student Advisory Panel member, Burntwood School

Irish mouse research

As we mentioned in a previous post, Ged and Vicky recently attended The Physiological Society‘s conference in Cardiff.  One of the great things about going to scientific conferences is that it gives you an opportunity to see what research other people are doing, often in areas quite different to your own.  One of the other researchers at Physiology 2015 was Andrew O’Leary, who is working towards his PhD in the Physiology Department at University College Cork in Ireland, under the supervision of Professor Ken O’Halloran.  He has been working on some research examining the effect of low oxygen levels on breathing muscles, but using mice instead of people.  We thought you might be interested to hear about his work and why we thought Irish mice could be useful in our own.Physiology2015 Poster Andrew

We know that when people get certain types of breathing problems, particularly those severe enough to require Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admission, they often suffer from very low oxygen levels (called ‘hypoxia’).  We don’t really know at present what hypoxia over a long period of time does to the respiratory muscles.  In this study, Andrew took two groups of mice and made one group breath air containing only 10% oxygen for up to 8 hours.  The other group breathed normal air (21% oxygen).  The amount of air the mice breathed in and out throughout the experiment was recorded constantly by placing the mice in a special measurement chamber.  At the end of the experiment, the mice were humanely killed and their respiratory muscles were carefully measured in a number of ways.

The first interesting thing is that the mice in the hypoxic gas breathed a bit faster and deeper to start with (this is what humans would do – increasing the amount of air going in and out of the lungs in order to try and compensate for the lower availability of oxygen) but then went back to their normal breathing after about 20 minutes.  Mice are a bit different to humans in that they can reduce their metabolic rate so that their body doesn’t require as much oxygen, like hibernating animals, so this is probably why their breathing rate and depth went back to normal despite the lower oxygen levels.

The respiratory muscles (the diaphragm and a muscle in the neck called the sternohyoid) were weaker in the hypoxic mice at the end of the experiment, with the diaphragms in the hypoxic mice only able to generate 70% of the force of the diaphragms from the control mice.  Other tests that Andrew did showed that genes in the respiratory muscles were behaving differently in the hypoxic mice’s muscles.  The changes in these genes suggested that the mitochondria (the ‘battery packs’ in cells) were not as efficient at generating energy for muscle contractions, and that the cells may have been releasing less calcium (which is used by the ‘contractile machinery’ of the muscle cells) to help the muscle produce force.

While obviously what happens in mice might be very different to what happens in people, we were still very interested in Andrew’s findings.  We have known for a long time that people who are on ICU get weakness in their breathing muscles, and that this is often due to the fact that these patients spend long periods of time on a ventilator.  This means that their breathing muscles don’t have to do much or any work, and so can waste away – a bit like someone’s leg if they break it and it’s put in a plaster cast.  What Andrew’s work might suggest, though, is that the initial illness that causes people’s oxygen levels to drop might also play a part in the weakness developing.  What’s really useful about doing animal research is that you can get a much more detailed picture about how all of the different aspects of muscle function are affected by the hypoxia – it wouldn’t be possible to make all of these measurements in people, and in a patient group there would be a large number of other factors that might be influencing any changes seen.  We think this is a great example of how different types of research can complement one another to move the scientific field forward.  Thanks to Andrew O’Leary and his supervisor Prof O’Halloran for allowing us to write about their research – and for the really fascinating discussion that we had at his poster during the conference.  Watch this space for more Irish mouse news in future perhaps!

Physiology 2015

Ged and Vicky went to The Physiological Society’s annual conference in Cardiff on 6th-8th July.  Vicky was giving a talk about her study measuring breathing muscle activity after people breathe a chemical called methacholine to cause narrowing of the airways.  The talk went very well – people were interested in the topic and asked plenty of questions.  It is always useful to get new perspectives on your research, and conferences provide a really good opportunity for this.

Even better though is hearing about all of the research that other scientists from around the UK and across the world have been doing.  Scientific conferences usually have four ways of sharing information with attendees:  lectures, ‘symposia’, ‘spoken sessions’ and posters.  Lectures are given by leading researchers in their field, and usually involve people discussing the current ‘state of the art’ in a particular topic.  Examples at Physiology 2015 included the laughter lecture we posted about before, and Professor Karin Sipido from  PhySoc3  BelgiumPhySoc4 talking about calcium in cardiac muscle cells.  All of the five main lectures at Physiology 2015 were given by female scientists, as we are celebrating 100 years since women were first admitted as members to The Physiological Society.

Symposia are sessions where a number (usually four or five) prominent scientists give talks on a related area.  These are useful to get a summary of the breadth PhySoc1of research in a field as well as to keep up to date with the current thinking in particular areas.  What’s great about these sessions is that you end up with a large number of scientists with similar interests in one room, so the questions that people in the audience ask the speakers, and PhySoc2the discussions that arise, can be really interesting (and at times can get quite heated!).  These sessions are often good opportunities to come up with new research ideas – Ged was frantically scribbling during the “Sex differences in the physiology of exercise” session!

Spoken sessions, or oral communications, are when researchers (usually more junior ones, like Vicky) give a talk about one study they have done and what the findings from the study were.  These talks are strictly ten minutes long – at this conference they even had traffic lights (0-8 minutes = green, 8-10 minutes = amber, 10 minutes = red = stop), with five minutes after that for questions from the audience.  Luckily Vicky stayed in the time limit and the organiser didn’t have to leap up on to the stage to shut her up!

Posters are displayed in the large conference hall, usually for the whole day but with a set period of time where the main researcher (again, usually the more junior researchers) stand by their posters to discuss their study with other conference attendees who are interested in that field.  Posters are grouped into similar topics to allow people to discuss amongst themselves as well.  We saw a couple of really interesting posters, and we will write about one of them very soon.  What’s useful about a poster is that there is more time to look at the results and really think about what it means, as well as to have a longer discussion with the researcher.  Although in theory it’s more prestigious to be invited to give a talk, it’s often more useful to present a poster as you get more people’s opinions.

One other god thing about conferences is that you get to go to new places!  Ged and Vicky stayed in a nice apartment near Cardiff Bay, and so had a bit of a (windy) walk down by the water before dinner.  It was only a short conference trip sScreen shot 2015-07-21 at 19.09.17o not much time to see anything else, but luckily we got out of Cardiff before the First Great Western train strike.  Not so lucky was the fact that the tube strike had just started when we got back to London – cue a long walk from Paddington station to St Pancras (and blisters on Vicky’s feet – smart conference shoes are not power-walking friendly!).  Still a very worthwhile trip – Ged has been to The Physiological Society’s conferences many times before but it was Vicky’s first time at this conference.  It’s quite different to conferences that are more orientated around patient care – this conference is very science-y and really made you think.  That’s a good thing!  It was really interesting to meet researchers working in very diverse fields, like those doing animal research, and both Vicky and Ged have come away with new ideas and new enthusiasm.  Thanks Cardiff, and thanks Physiology 2015.

Speech and laughter research

Every month, The Physiological Society send an email with details of a senior physiology researcher.  This month it is Professor Sophie Scott, the Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Group Leader for the Speech Communication Neuroscience Group at University College London.  Even though she works in a completely different area to us, her research sounds really interesting and we thought you might like to read about it.  Professor Scott is also giving the Annual Public Lecture at the Physiology 2015 conference on the Science of Laughter on Monday 6 July at 6:30pm, which you can watch on the livestream and The Guardian’s website.

What is your research about?
I study the human brain, and the ways that it lets us communicate with each other, using our voices. I am interested in why we sound the way we do, how we have conversation and how we can decode information from other people’s voices – and I’m also interested in how this can go wrong!

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?
I really wanted to study the psychology of music when I was an undergraduate, and I’m still not entirely certain why that didn’t happen. In fact, the person on whose music psychology research I’d based my undergraduate project took me on to do a PhD, but his interests were more in speech by that time. I have no regrets – voices are amazing.

Why is your work important?
Humans voices – from speech to laughter – are at the centre of most of our social interactions, and being isolated from this can be devastating – both personally and in more clinical terms. When we talk to each other, we share information, but we also make and maintain social bonds, and we even regulate our emotions this way. I can’t think of anything more interesting!

Do you think your work can make a difference?
I hope so. Work from my lab has made a difference to how we conceptualise the processing of speech and voices in the brain, and I have been at the forefront of the push to try and situate vocal communication within the realm of social neuroscience. I’m also one of a handful of scientists trying to take laughter seriously – and I think we might manage to do this!

What does a typical day involve?
Writing, lab meetings, planning studies, discussing data, discussing papers. Without exception, what I enjoy most of all is planning studies and looking at data. I also travel quite a lot, to give talks and go to conferences.

What do you enjoy most in your job?
I always enjoy looking at data. “The pleasure of finding things out” as Feynman put it. One of my post-docs, Saloni Krishnan, has nearly finished a study looking at differences between beatboxers, electric guitar players, and non-expert controls when they listen to music and sounds. The results are so exciting that I can’t stop thinking about them! I literally want to tell everyone, and is so exciting when data really start to make you think.

What do you enjoy the least?

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
I have a secret life doing science-based stand-up comedy. Well, not very secret if you know me, as I bang on about it a lot.

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?
Take the time to find the stuff you really enjoyed studying – it’s your life and your research career, so you should allow yourself to focus on what really grabs your interest. Also, there are lots of different ways of being a scientist and conducting research, so try and spend time in different places and lab and see what styles work for you. Never be afraid to make contact with people and ask to visit their labs – in my experience scientists are very open and inclusive. Also, life is too short to collaborate with people you don’t get on with. Collaborations are brilliant, and you should enjoy them, not suffer through them.