August 7, 2009 1:41 am

Science briefing: Relieving the itch

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Research relieves itching quandary

Itching has long puzzled neuroscientists. They have spent decades looking for itch-specific neurons to explain how the brain perceives itch differently from other forms of pain, but only now has the search yielded a clear answer.

Researchers at Washington University in St Louis have discovered itch-specific neurons in mice and shown that itch and pain signals are transmitted along different pathways in the spinal cord. Reporting in the online version of the journal Science, the scientists say they can knock out an animal’s itch response without affecting its ability to sense and attempt to avoid pain.

“This finding has very important therapeutic implications,” says Zhou-Feng Chen, the study’s principal investigator. It may now be possible to explore itch-specific receptors or signalling molecules “as targets for future treatment or management of chronic itching”, he adds.

Rooks prove fabled ingenuity

In Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher a thirsty bird used stones to raise water in a jug to a level at which it could drink. Now Cambridge University researchers have reproduced the fable in their lab, demonstrating again the extraordinary intelligence of birds in the crow family.

Four rooks in an aviary were presented with a tube of water, on which a worm was floating, although the water was too low for them to reach it. A pile of stone lay nearby. The rooks dropped in enough stones to raise the level and pick up the snack. Two birds succeeded in their first go while the other two needed a second attempt.

In addition they quickly learned to pick larger stones over smaller ones – and, rather than trying to reach the worm after each stone was dropped, they estimated accurately the number needed from the outset and waited until the water level was right before dipping their beak into the tube. The study is published online by the journal Current Biology.

“Corvids are remarkably intelligent, and in many ways rival the great apes in their physical intelligence and ability to solve problems,” says Christopher Bird, study leader.

Similar behaviour has not been seen in wild rooks. “Rooks do not use tools in the wild because they ... have access to other food that can be acquired without using tools,” he says. As Aesop put it: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Unhealthy eating rises in recession

The credit crunch will worsen the obesity epidemic, a German research team warns. People in debt cannot afford to eat healthier foods and their worries lead to “comfort eating”.

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, compared 949 “over-indebted” people with a matched sample of the German population. The level of obesity was more than twice as high in those with excessive debt.

“The recent credit crunch will have health implications for private households,” says Eva Münster of the University of Mainz. “While income, education and occupational status are frequently used in definitions of socioeconomic status, levels of debt are not usually considered. We’ve shown that debt can be associated with the probability of being overweight or obese, independent of these factors.”

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