Issue 65

Dispatches from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida

March 2, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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Hi friend! I had an exciting change of pace this week—instead of being at my desk in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to visit the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville, Florida location to see some of the research happening down there. (You can read about the program here.)

The biggest takeaway I got from my time here are that our bodies are incredible. They are a brilliant, resilient sacks of cells, which means that by virtue of simply being alive, you are more than enough. Be kind to yourself.

Here are some of the favorite things I learned:

Working hearts need to be both firm and and flexible. (That’s got to be a metaphor for life, right?)

Amy Pollack, a cardiologist at Mayo, explained that ideally, the heart would be like a balloon—nice and stretchy.

Diastolic heart failure is when the heart can pump with a lot of strength, but the muscle is too stiff. As a result, the heart can’t get a good “breath” of blood. Even squeezing at full strength, it’s unable to send enough blood out to the rest of the body.

The result is feeling winded, but it also tricks the kidneys into thinking that the body is dehydrated. The kidneys then send out a slurry of hormones—chemical signalers—that tell your body to hold onto as much water as possible. As a result, patients would feel bloated in addition to being short of breath.

Luckily, diastolic heart failure can be diagnosed with an echo, and it can be managed with certain medications. But like any condition, the best way to deal with it is to avoid it if possible. Heart muscles can become stiff with high blood pressure, which can be the result of eating a lot of salty food or feeling constantly stressed.

Aging may be a proliferation of a specific type of cell found in every organ.

Scientists know what aging is in general, but documenting all the specific biochemical changes that occur as we stick around on this planet has been a big challenge.

One of the changes scientists think may play a part in our body are the presence of a type of cell called senescent cells. These cells don’t have a particular appearance—instead, scientists can find them by looking for a specific set of chemical signatures. They’re found in most organs in the body.

Jan van Deursen, a researcher at Mayo, told us that senescent cells show up when there’s some kind of damage to our genetic material, like UV rays from the sun. When this happens, normal cells are converted to senescent cells as part of the healing process. They stop copying, and send out signals to call in immune cells to help fix the damaged area. This means they help wounds heal, and stop potentially cancerous cells from dividing further.

There’s a catch, though: Senescent cells are immortal, and in large numbers can actually cause harm to the body in the form of conditions we associate with aging, like cataracts or kidney disease.

In mouse studies, eliminating senescent cells has been associated with mice appearing younger and living longer than expected. However, translating this kind of research up to humans for strictly anti-aging purposes has been tricky for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the issue that these cells seem to play a role in our immune system; eliminating them entirely may have dangerous unknown consequences. Second, it’s actually hard to get the US Food and Drug Administration to allow “anti-aging” drug testing because aging isn’t a medical condition—it’s just a part of life. Right?

Bonus read: Check out this feature in Nature (repubbed in Scientific American) from 2017 highlighting more of van Dursen’s work.

The same gene that’s the largest risk factor for ALS is also the largest risk factor for a rare form of dementia.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and as such I tend to cover it the most. But there are other types of dementia, like vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Each of these conditions changes the brain in different ways, but patients with them can to show similar symptoms. Sadly, it’s common for patients to suffer from multiple forms of dementia, especially later in life.

FTD is characterized by a degradation of the front parts of the brain, and tends to show up earlier in life, in a person’s 40s and 50s. A person’s behavior becomes erratic and inappropriate, and more so over time as the brain degrades.

In 2011, Rosa Rademakers, a Mayo geneticist, published some of the first work showing that one of the most commonly risk factors for FTD is a mutation on a specific gene (C9orf72, to be precise)—which happens to be the same leading risk factor for ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease in the US).

What’s still not clear to scientists is why some people with this mutation develop ALS, and others develop FTD. There must be some other genetic or environmental pathway that researchers don’t understand yet. It doesn’t help that both are rare conditions, and so far researchers have only been able to study populations of European decent. There are likely other genetic risk factors for these conditions among other ethnicities that have yet to be discovered.

The scrappiest facts:

Most brains that are donated to scientific research are shipped to research centers via FedEx, from Dennis Dickson, the same neurologist who reviewed Robin Williams’ autopsy and confirmed he suffered from Lewy Body dementia.

The cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls our balance, looks like a tiny tree, a quality that earned it the nickname “arbor vitae,” meaning tree of life.

Your brain has 400 miles (~644 km) of blood vessels.

Scientists are sending stem cells to space to try to figure out how gravity helps them grow in our bodies.

There was once a vaccine for Lyme disease put on the market in 1998, but several anti-vaxxers were so vocal about a potential (and fake) link between the vaccine and arthritis, they caused disinterest in it. As a result, it was pulled from the market 2002.

Ancient Greek doctors knew about strokes, but called them “apoplexy”—which translates loosely to being struck down by the hand of a god.

And finally, I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Sandness, one of the few recipients of a face transplant on the planet. He is doing great, was so excited to talk about having a normal life that now includes a girlfriend. He told us that because his nerves are still regrowing in his face 2.5 years after surgery, he has been practicing kissing on the back of his hand like a middle schooler. It was incredibly sweet.

Quick programming note: For the next five weeks, I’ll be putting all my efforts into a really cool project for Quartz. Unfortunately, that means I’ll have to be absent from your inbox during that time. I’ll be back on April 8 for the big reveal, and of course, things I learned that didn’t make the final cut. See you then!

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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