September 27, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

More Things You Didn’t Know About Your Body

You can live in it without knowing much about it, but these facts should add to your sense of awe.

Why pens have rubbery grips. That’s actually the title of an open-access paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on September 25.The answer points to some interesting facts about your fingers and fingertips.

Why does gripping a pen, tool, or handle feel more secure when it is coated with a rubbery material? The keratin of the skin outer layer is stiff and rough at a small scale. When encountering a smooth, stiff, and impermeable surface, such as polished metal or glass, the actual contact area is initially small as is the friction. Because the keratin softens when it is hydrated by the moisture secreted from the sweat pores, it requires many seconds for the contact area to increase to the value reached almost instantaneously with a soft material, such as a rubber. This mechanism might be used by our tactile sense to identify materials and has implications for the design of tactile displays.

Fingerprints are the result of this slow contact change. Moisture from the sweat pores softens the keratin in the skin and provides firmer contact, but this process takes about 20 seconds. Even though smooth glass and metal were not part of our ancestors’ daily experience at creation, we can easily lift a glass or grab a handrail. All that soft materials like rubber do is speed up the full contact, providing a better grip. As the European scientists say, this knowledge can help engineers make better displays that employ the sense of touch.

Positioning the muscle nuclei. Something happens in muscle cells automatically that we should be glad about. The nuclei migrate to the edges of the cells. When they don’t, bad things happen. Getting the nuclei to the edges requires a force that has just been studied by scientists in Portugal. In an article titled, “May the force be with you,” Science Daily explains,

A hallmark of muscle cells is the unique position of their nuclei at the cellular periphery. In multiple muscle diseases, this nuclear positioning fails to occur. Although the severity of symptoms varies amongst affected individuals, these diseases result in a gradual loss of muscle function that leads to a loss of autonomy….

Researchers devised a unique protocol that allowed them to design a theoretical model to explain this natural phenomenon. The model was then tested in the laboratory and lead to the identification of the forces involved in nuclear movement at a molecular level.

The article doesn’t say why muscles need their nuclei at the periphery, but points out the various muscle diseases and results of aging result from loss of the forces that keep nuclei where they belong.

Growing healthy blood vessels. Researchers at the University of Heidelberg found two proteins that are essential for the growth of blood vessels, Medical Xpress reports. Named YAP and TAZ, these proteins must work properly to prevent serious vascular defects during development. Remember that all proteins come from DNA codes which are transcribed then translated into chains of amino acids. Those chains must then be folded and sent to their correct location to function.

YAP and TAZ are the effectors of the Hippo signalling pathway, which has been identified as a central regulator of organ size and tumour growth. As co-transcription factors, the two proteins bind to certain transcription factors to regulate gene transcription, the process by which genetic information is copied from DNA to RNA, ultimately resulting in specific protein formation. In order to do this, YAP and TAZ must be activated and move to the cell nucleus.

The Vagus Nerve and a Remarkable Rip Van Winkle Story

A man in a coma for 15 years is showing signs of consciousness thanks to a new treatment involving vagus nerve stimulation. “The vagus nerve connects the brain to many other parts of the body, including the gut,” Science Daily says. “It’s known to be important in waking, alertness, and many other essential functions.” Vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, has already shown promise for epileptics and people with depression.

By implanting a vagus nerve stimulator in his chest, and stimulating the nerve on and off for six months, researchers tested the man’s reactions as, for the first time, he showed ability to respond to questions. This shows that brain disabilities once thought irreversible can be overcome.

Amazing FactsTo test the ability of VNS to restore consciousness, the researchers, led by Sirigu and clinicians lead by Jacques Luauté, wanted to select a difficult case to ensure that any improvements couldn’t be explained by chance. They looked to a patient who had been lying in a vegetative state for more than a decade with no sign of improvement.

After one month of vagal nerve stimulation, the patient’s attention, movements and brain activity significantly improved, they report. The man began responding to simple orders that had been impossible before. For example, he could follow an object with his eyes and turn his head upon request. His mother reported an improved ability to stay awake when listening to his therapist reading a book.

The team has published these promising results in Current Biology. The condition formerly called “vegetative state” is now called “unresponsive wakefulness” says New Scientist. Now he is able to do things he never could before:

As soon as the stimulation started, the man began to open his eyes more often. After a month, he began to track people around the room with his eyes. He was even able to respond to requests to turn his head from one side to the other. He also attempted to follow an instruction to smile. The team have [sic] not yet used these movements to ask him questions, such as whether he is in any pain.

His scores on the “coma recovery scale” suggested he could now be defined as being in a minimally conscious state – in which a person has partial conscious awareness.

Although the man may never walk or talk again due to the severe brain damage he suffered from a car accident in 2001, the ability to respond is a relational “handle” that caregivers and loved ones long for, especially after 15 years of no reaction at all. New Scientist posted a related story, “Meet the team who ‘woke’ a man from 15 years in vegetative state.”

At Evolution News, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith considers the moral implications of this breakthrough: “as this research proceeds, let’s care for these seriously disabled patients — both apparently unconscious and conscious — as full and equal members of the moral community,” he says, recalling the decision to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube in 2005. “And let’s think twice before removing sustaining treatment that can only have one result: a protracted and perhaps, painful death.”

Do scientific discoveries indicate a trend showing that the human body and brain are easy to understand? Are they looking more and more like easy things to evolve by chance? Of course not. That’s why it is long past time to ditch the ‘Darwin-of-the-gaps’ strategy of explanation, and return humans to the exalted status that the Bible gives them: ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ beings created in the image of God.

 

 

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