Biotech – The Cutting Edge: spurious correlations (?) & molly-gram

In a week with some notable scandals, not least Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos Founder) starting her 11 year prison sentence for her nanotainer and Edison pitch (a *must watch*), the BMA doesn’t want to miss out: describing how even a 50% pay rise for consultants is a “drop in the ocean”. This week though, we want to focus on how a link between amyloid/astrocytes might help with development of an early-diagnostic for Alzheimer’s. We then look at how chocolate might be good for you, and how granny might be better off with some ecstasy. In addition, we look at how the brain’s walnut-like shape could reveal how brainwaves function, and think ‘skeletal editing’ in chemistry sounds a bit like Star Trek to us.


Moving from correlation to causation? Alzheimer’s (AD) is a topic that we’ve dived into many times, discussing the potential underlying cause and (perhaps controversial) treatments such as Lecanemab and Donanemab. Whilst we are sceptical over the targeting of amyloid plaques for reversing AD (everyone with AD has plaques but not everyone with plaques has AD), it does have uses as a diagnostic. Researchers from Pitt University have now identified a secondary characteristic that could better correlating disease with amyloid presence: the activity of astrocyte (central nervous system) cells. The increased reactivity of these cells (alongside amyloid) seems to be a better predictor of AD progression. A study across 1,000, 60-70 year olds revealed that only people with both abnormal astrocyte reactivity and high levels of amyloid were likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Molly-gram. At a panel event in Wales, Kate Bingham (former chair of the Covid vaccine taskforce) described how the use of psychedelics to treat depression is “an area of real excitement”. Sir Patrick Vallance who was also at the event added that “I don’t think you can slip your grandmother an ecstasy tablet” and that these things must be tested first. We’ve also previously discussed how psychedelics shouldn’t be ruled out as therapeutics eg treating alcoholism (link here) with magic mushrooms.

Phew: chocolate is good for you… forgotten whether you’ve locked the front door…? Well, reach for any food rich in flavanols such as berries and applies (or chocolate). A study, from the University of Columbia, found that flavanol deficient adults which remedied their diet, were able to improve their scores on memory tests (by 11% vs placebo and 17% vs baseline memory). It seems this is due to growth of neurons and blood vessels in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Better safe than sorry – someone call Green & Black’s

Wrinkles can reveal not only your age…but also help us better understand brain activity. A study in Nature has suggested that the shape of the brain (the walnut-like wrinkles) is perhaps a better indicator of brainwave function than the connectome (a complex network of nerves that link the brain cortex). The study used the mathematical theory of waves (eg seismic & electromagnetic) to calculate brainwave propagation based on shape and across 10,000 MRI images found that brainwave propagation was better explain by shape than connectome. 

Engage Star Trek disintegrator... One for the chemists and Trekkies. Scientists are now using “skeletal editing” to swap/insert atoms into molecular backbones, opening up the possibility of ‘designer molecules’. Beam me up