ruth williams, science writer & journalist
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Snake Tales.
1 March 2012    abstract.  web site.
As 6-month-old baby Nini slept quietly in the same hut as her older sister and brother, she was unaware that she would become an only child that night. By the time her father, Teteng, entered the hut around sunset, one of the children was wrapped in the coils of a giant python and was being swallowed headfirst. Teteng slashed and killed the snake with his hunting bolo knife, but it was too late. Nini’s siblings were dead. Only baby Nini survived.
Sweet and Sour Science.
1 February 2012.    abstract.  web site.
Imagine sucking on a lemon that tastes as sweet as honey, or munching on what you think is a crunchy candy only to discover it’s a pickled onion. Such is the taste-bud trickery experienced at so-called flavor-tripping parties. The secret to the flavorful deceptions is a small red berry from West Africa called miracle fruit, which itself has very little flavor, but can make sour or acidic foods taste extremely sweet when eaten soon after the berry contacts the tongue. So bizarre is the fruit’s effect that just one taste was enough to convince Japanese food scientist Keiko Abe, of the University of Tokyo, to launch into an entirely new area of study.

Warning signs.
13 July 2011.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
Each week for the past six years, box after delivery box of blood, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and urine samples have arrived at a lab in the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Researchers there have documented, divided, labelled and stored the samples, row after row, in seven enormous freezers.

Some 14,000 samples have been divided into 160,000 tubes — and each one is precious. “We have back-up freezers and alarm systems in case of electrical failures,” says John Trojanowski, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

There's good reason for these precautions. The specimens, accompanied by detailed medical histories, cognitive and clinical measures, and high-resolution brain images, are among the “most highly annotated biological samples in the entire history of Alzheimer's disease research” — at least, that's the claim of the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).

Slowing the decline.
26 August 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
The search is on for disease-modifying treatments for Parkinson’s disease, but, as Ruth Williams discovers, developing a compound is only part of the problem.

Parkinson's disease is characterized by progressive loss of dopaminergic neurons in the nigrostriatal region of the brain. To compensate, patients com monly receive the dopamine precursor levo dopa (l-DOPA) or, less commonly, dopamine agonists such as pramipexole. These relieve symptoms, but deep in the brain, the disease rages on. More neurons are lost, symptoms worsen, complications arise and quality of life dwindles. These treatments also come with an array of unpleasant side effects. Thus, for the past two decades, researchers have been hunting for drugs that slow, stop or, better still, reverse the disease pathology.


Light Mind Control.
18 May 2009.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
Who would have predicted that researchers who spend their days teasing apart the complexities of the human brain would be indebted to pond scum? In some ways, that day has come: Thanks to light-sensitive proteins from green algae and other microorganisms, neuroscientists can now activate and record brain cells with unprecedented precision

US Alzheimer's disease researchers feel the pinch.
May 2011. Shortlisted for a Medical Journalist's Association Award, Winter 2012    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
In the USA, public and political awareness is growing about the importance of funding research into Alzheimer's disease, and yet the National Institute on Aging is supporting fewer and fewer research grant applications. Ruth Williams asks why, and what can be done.
Stroke scans and radiation risk.
December 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
News reports between autumn, 2009, and summer, 2010, claimed that several hospitals across the USA had been overdosing patients with radiation during routine CT perfusion brain scans. Lawsuits are in progress against hospitals and scanner manufacturers, and promises have been made to increase staff training and improve machine safety, but should CT perfusion scanning be a routine procedure at all? Ruth Williams investigates.
Genomics in our own hands.
July 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
After the announcement of the first draft of the human genome sequence, personalised medicine became a major aspiration for the future. Armed with our own genomic information, we supposed, we could predict our disease risks and customise drugs and care to suit. So, how far has personal genomics come in the past 10 years? Ruth Williams investigates.
Neurology at a distance.
April 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
New telemedicine technologies are not only improving neurologists’ access to remote patients and the ability to make diagnoses at a distance, but they are also offering the opportunity to gather anonymous data for research. Ruth Williams reports on assorted innovations in teleneurology and current limitations to their more widespread use.
The human connectome: just another 'ome?
March 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
After the Human Genome Project there came proteomes, transcriptomes, and epigenomes. There was even a Human Microbiome Project launched last year by the US National Institutes of Health. Are neuroscientists just jumping on the ‘ome bandwagon, or is there truly a benefit to deciphering and detailing the human connectome?

A Reliable Recipe for Heart Cells?
October 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
Deepak Srivastava’s group at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, University of California San Francisco, reported in the August 6 issue of the journal Cell that to make heart muscle cells, all you need are three factors and some fibroblasts. But is it really that easy?
Thanks be to Zebrafish.
September 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
During the last 10–15 years, the tiny, tropical, freshwater zebrafish has become one of the most powerful and versatile models for studying vertebrate heart development. Three recent reports in Nature remind us of just how much we owe to this fishy friend of research.
Venter's Build-a-Bug Workshop.
August 2010.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
News reports on May 20, 2010, heralded a new era in scientific research, as well as a new way of thinking about the nature of life. Craig Venter and his team had created a cell controlled by an entirely synthetic genome. So, were the sensational headlines warranted? And just how much of an advance is the latest report from the Venter Institute?
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells and the Promise of Proliferation.
December 2009.    abstract.  pdf.  web site.
Coaxing differentiated cells to become pluripotent is no easy task. But new studies show that switching off a tumor-suppressing pathway can help. So, will these findings bring induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells one step closer to the clinic?