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Off-switch for alcoholism?

Australian-led research has potentially discovered a way to treat alcohol addiction with a simple drug.

In a study published in Biological Psychiatry, the team looked at human tissue samples from both non-drinkers and people with alcohol use disorder (AUD), trying to identify potential therapeutic targets.

They found that targeting a specific receptor in the brain – the muscarinic M4 receptor, to be exact – could reduce alcohol consumption and prevent relapse.

“The findings from our study show a lot of promise in how we can work to treat alcohol addiction in the future,” says one of the lead authors, Chris Langmead from Monash University.

“We have had a long-standing interest in the M4 receptor as a novel therapeutic target in the brain,” adds co-author Arthur Christopoulos, also from Monash. “Now that we know this protein can ameliorate habitual drinking patterns and the risk of relapse, we can move towards the next step, which is translating our findings into drug development.”

How not to freeze a battery

The Red Planet is currently populated by NASA’s robotic rovers, running on batteries that require extra heating units to keep them from freezing in the cold Martian nights. But this adds extra weight and energy requirements to the mission.

A porous carbon aerogel improves the low-temperature performance of supercapacitors, which could help supply energy for space missions and polar activities. Credit: Adapted from Nano Letters 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.0c04780

Now, researchers from the US and China have taken the next step in developing an energy system that can operate at extremely low temperatures – without the need for extra heat.

As described in a new study published in Nano Letters, the team created a porous carbon aerogel by 3D-printing it from cellulose nanocrystal-based ink. Further treatment turned it into a lattice-like structure with multiple levels of pores. This allowed the material to preserve ion diffusion and charge transfer at -70°C – thus improving the performance of supercapacitors at low temperature.

The team are now embarking on a collaboration with NASA to further study how this device performs at low temperatures.

Details taken from MS. 632. a) MS. 632: the dripping side-wound. b) MS. 632: rubbed away green cross or crucifix. c) MS. 632: Tau cross with red heart and shield. Credit: Images courtesy of Wellcome Collection

The archaeology of childbirth

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge have conducted biomolecular analyses of a parchment ‘birthing girdle’ dating back to the year 1500, providing insight into the risky business of childbearing in medieval Europe.

Along with other talismans and relics, birthing girdles were often loaned out by the church to pregnant women. Very little is known about them since they were made from perishable materials like silk, paper and parchment.

Medieval English Birth Scroll. MS.632 (c. 1500), Wellcome Collection. The girdle contains prayers and invocations for safe delivery in childbirth. Biomolecular evidence supports its active use. Credit: Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

“We do not know how the girdles were worn, but there are suggestions due to the dimension of the object (long and narrow), that they were physically worn like a chastity belt or girdle, to help support the pregnant women both physically and spiritually,” explains lead researcher Sarah Fiddyment, from Cambridge.

Fiddyment and team used protein analysis on a parchment girdle, which had stains and visual evidence of being worn.

“We have been able to detect a large number of human proteins matching cervico-vaginal fluid, which would indicate active use of the girdle in pregnancy/childbirth,” she says.

“In addition, we detected numerous non-human proteins including honey, milk and plants, which have all been documented in medieval texts as treatments relating to pregnancy and childbirth, reinforcing our evidence of active use of this particular birth girdle.”

How fast is the universe expanding?

Astronomers have come up with a new measure of the Hubble constant in their ongoing quest to determine how quickly the cosmos is expanding. This has been a troubling problem for many years, as estimates made based on the local universe don’t match estimates made by looking further out in space (and therefore further back in time).

NGC 1453, a giant elliptical galaxy in the constellation Eridanus, was one of 63 galaxies used to calculate the expansion rate of the local universe. Credit: Courtesy of the Carnegie-Irvine Galaxy Survey

This most recent estimate, which used a fairly new technique to measure the distances to 63 giant elliptical galaxies by looking at the variance in their light distribution, reinforces the discrepancy. Astronomers came up with an expansion rate of 73.3 kilometres per second per megaparsec – that is, for every megaparsec (3.3 million light-years) away from Earth, the universe is expanding an extra 73.3 kilometres every second.

Though this tallies well with other local estimates, it’s quite different to the 67.4 km/sec/Mpc estimated from measurements from the distant universe. To understand the evolution of the universe and unlock the mysteries of dark energy, astronomers will need to figure out how to solve this mismatch.

Make green energy the default to curb climate change

By studying the Swiss energy market, researchers have found that if green energy is presented as the standard option for consumers, CO2 emissions could be slashed.

The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, analysed data from two Swiss energy companies supplying energy to 234,000 households and 9,000 businesses. The companies structured their products to assign customers the renewable package by default, with options to change to conventional power if they wished.

But both business and private customers generally accepted the default renewable option – even if it was more expensive. Plus, they tended to stay on the greener plan.

The study also busted the myth that if people switch to renewables, they’ll use more energy – six years of energy consumption data showed no evidence for this.

Co-author Ulf Liebe from the University of Warwick concludes: “Our study shows that ‘green defaults’ have an immediate, enduring impact and as such should be part of the toolkit for policymakers and utility companies seeking to increase renewable energy consumption, not only among household customers but also in the business sector.”

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