Coronavirus: Chinese researchers find batch of new coronaviruses in bats


Chinese researchers said Thursday they had found a batch of new coronaviruses in bats including one that may be the second-closest yet, genetically, to the COVID-19 virus.

According to the researchers, their discoveries in a single, small region of Yunnan province, southwestern China show just how many coronaviruses there are in bats and how many have the potential to spread to people.

Weifeng Shi of the University of Shandong and colleagues collected samples from small, forest-dwelling bats between May, 2019 and November, 2020. They tested urine and feces as well as taking swabs from the bats’ mouths.

“In total, we assembled 24 novel coronavirus genomes from different bat species, including four SARS-CoV-2 like coronaviruses,” the researchers wrote in a report published in the journal Cell.

One was very similar, genetically to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s causing the current pandemic, they said — a viral sample called RpYN06 taken from a horseshoe bat species called Rhinolophus pusillus.

It would be the closest strain to SARS-CoV-2 except for genetic differences on the spike protein, the knob-like structure that the virus uses when attaching to cells, they said.

“Together with the SARS-CoV-2 related virus collected from Thailand in June 2020, these results clearly demonstrate that viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 continue to circulate in bat populations, and in some regions might occur at a relatively high frequency,” they wrote.

Researchers are trying to find where SARS-CoV-2 came from. Although a bat is a likely source, it’s possible the virus infected an intermediary animal. The SARS virus that caused an outbreak in 2002-2004 was tracked to an animal called a civet cat.

“Bats are well known reservoir hosts for a variety of viruses that cause severe diseases in humans and have been associated with the spillovers of Hendra virus, Marburg virus, Ebola virus and, most notably, coronaviruses. Aside from bats and humans, coronaviruses can infect a wide range of domestic and wild animals, including pigs, cattle, mice, cats, dogs, chickens, deer and hedgehogs,” they wrote.

Most of the samples came from species of horseshoe bats. In 2017, researchers sampling a cave in Yunnan found viruses very close genetically to the SARS virus in horseshoe bats.

Three of the samples described in Thursday’s report were also close to SARS genetically.

“Our study highlights the remarkable diversity of bat coronaviruses at the local scale, including close relatives of both SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV,” they wrote. The bat species they sampled are common across Southeast Asia, including southwest China, Vietnam, Laos and elsewhere.

Although there’s some controversy about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, a World Health Organization report said the most likely source is an animal — probably a bat.

People hunt and eat bats, and bats can infect other animals that are also hunted and eaten by people. Viruses can infect people when they handle or slaughter the animals.



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Researchers edge closer to better flu vaccine for Indigenous people across the world


The research, published in peer-reviewed journal, Nature Communications, was a collaboration between the Doherty Institute, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, the Menzies School of Health Research and CQUniversity.

Professor Katherine Kedzierska, laboratory head from the Doherty Institute, said “we know some populations are at high risk from severe influenza disease and this includes Indigenous people globally”.

The research focused on killer T cells and proteins called HLAs — which vary across individuals and ethnicities – which determine immune responses to different pathogens.

A specific HLA protein that is highly prevalent in Indigenous populations — including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia — can be linked to severe outcomes from influenza.

Researchers identified small fragments of influenza that were then screened to see which of the fragments formed protective targets for killer T cells.

Dr Luca Hensen, research officer at the Doherty Institute, proposed that a universal influenza vaccine could be developed using those targets — which would provoke an “optimal” response from the T cells.

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Gender-based expectations are haunting disaster survivors and researchers want that to change


Men and women are being crushed under the weight of gender-based expectations in disaster situations, a study has found, and researchers say it’s time for a change.

It’s no secret that catastrophic events like bushfires can haunt survivors for decades afterwards, but according to the Gender and Disaster (GAD) Pod project, regret can torment people as acutely as other forms of trauma.

Women are often left to play silent, supporting roles while men are expected to act like heroes, the GAD Pod says, and the suffering of those perceived to have failed can be profound and long-lasting.

“What we found is that men are living with regrets about what they did, what they didn’t do, how they judged their own masculinity, and how others judged them,” GAD Pod manager and Monash University adjunct research fellow Debra Parkinson said.

The GAD Pod project is a partnership between Women’s Health Goulburn North East, Women’s Health in the North and the Monash University Disaster Resilience Initiative.

It found an increase in domestic violence against women following the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009.

“When we were presenting that people said, ‘Well, what about the men?'” Dr Parkinson said.

“So we did qualitative research with 32 men who were severely affected by Black Saturday, and what we found was really stringent gendered expectations for them to be protectors and providers, which was of course impossible on a day like Black Saturday.”

The studies continue to show that nothing has changed since fires of decades past, with men still feeling the pressure to stay and defend properties.

Often men who feel they didn’t meet expectations face mental health issues and some take their own lives.

The research also showed a reluctance in recovering communities to confront family violence linked to disasters.

The GAD Pod research team found that many women were unwilling to share their experiences about domestic violence after the 2020 Black Summer bushfires.

“I can absolutely understand why,” Dr Parkinson said.

“There’s a greater willingness from society to try and find excuses for men’s behaviour, because he was one of the good guys, he was on the truck, he’s a volunteer, he’s a good community man, he’s a good family member.

“So women were told to give him a break, give him some time, he’s not himself.

“They were told that maybe they just needed to be a better wife, maybe they weren’t doing the right thing by their husband, they weren’t being loyal to their community.”

GAD Pod associate Steve O’Malley, who has spent 32 years in the firefighting sector, said discourse and expectations in emergency services needed to change.

“We talk about the hero narrative and hypermasculinity and I’ve spoken in public about it and I’ve spoken in private about it with colleagues and friends throughout the sector,” he said.

“It doesn’t sit well with that many people, to be honest, in the operation ranks.

Mr O’Malley said the role of fire fighters had evolved over time to focus on preparedness, prevention, recovery and reaction.

He said a man’s reaction could be what lingers after the threat has passed.

“Men being the way they are … they may internalise that and not reach out for help if they fear that what they’ve done hasn’t reached up to the expectation that society puts on emergency responders as that hero figure.”

The roles of gender in disaster are being examined as part of The Gender Justice in Disaster: Inspiring Action conference that was launched on Tuesday in Melbourne.

It aims to bring together experts and delegates from across the globe to better understand the lived experience of women, men and gender-diverse people and help shape emergency planning and response.

The conference will operate every Tuesday afternoon and Thursday morning in May via 90-minute Zoom panel sessions, with participants hearing from more than 30 researchers, policymakers and people with lived experience.

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Researchers identify protein produced after stroke that triggers neurodegeneration — ScienceDaily


Researchers with the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern have identified a new protein implicated in cell death that provides a potential therapeutic target that could prevent or delay the progress of neurodegenerative diseases following a stroke.

Scientists from the departments of pathology, neurology, biochemistry, and pharmacology at UTSW have identified and named AIF3, an alternate form of the apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF), a protein that is critical for maintaining normal mitochondrial function. Once released from mitochondria, AIF triggers processes that induce a type of programmed cell death.

In a study published in the journal Molecular Neurodegeneration, the UT Southwestern team collaborated with researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and found that, following a stroke, the brain switches from producing AIF to producing AIF3. They also reported that stroke triggers a process known as alternative splicing, in which a portion of the instructions encoding AIF is removed, resulting in the production of AIF3. Defective splicing can cause disease, but modifying the splicing process may offer potential for new therapies.

In both human brain tissue and mouse models developed by researchers, AIF3 levels were elevated after a stroke. In mice, the stroke-induced production of AIF3 led to severe progressive neurodegeneration, hinting at a potential mechanism for a severe side effect of stroke observed in some patients. Stroke has been recognized as the second most common cause of dementia, and it is estimated that 10 percent of stroke patients develop post-stroke neurodegeneration within one year.

The molecular mechanism underlying AIF3 splicing-induced neurodegeneration involves the combined effect of losing the original form of AIF in addition to gaining the altered AIF3, leading to both mitochondrial dysfunction and cell death.

“AIF3 splicing causes mitochondrial dysfunction and neurodegeneration,” says senior author Yingfei Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology and neurology and a member of the O’Donnell Brain Institute. “Our study provides a valuable tool to understand the role of AIF3 splicing in the brain and a potential therapeutic target to prevent or delay the progress of neurodegenerative diseases.”

The findings are important for understanding the aftereffects of stroke, which strikes nearly 800,000 U.S. residents annually. Stroke kills one person every four minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and about one in every six deaths from cardiovascular disease is attributed to stroke — with ischemic strokes accounting for about 87 percent of all cases. Leading causes of stroke include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and diabetes. Stroke also disproportionately affects certain populations and occurs more often in men, though more women than men die from stroke. CDC figures show Black people have twice the risk of first-time stroke than white people and a higher risk of death. Hispanic populations have seen an increase in death rates since 2013, while other populations have not.

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Materials provided by UT Southwestern Medical Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Researchers map safety experiences of women, gender-diverse people




Researchers from Monash University have teamed up with 20 city and regional councils around Victoria to map the safety experiences of women and gender-diverse people in public spaces. Jessica Longbottom reports.

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3 mRNA vaccines researchers are working on (that aren’t COVID)


The world’s first mRNA vaccines – the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – have made it in record time from the laboratory, through successful clinical trials, regulatory approval and into people’s arms.

The high efficiency of protection against severe disease, the safety seen in clinical trials and the speed with which the vaccines were designed are set to transform how we develop vaccines in the future.

Once researchers have set up the mRNA manufacturing technology, they can potentially produce mRNA against any target. Manufacturing mRNA vaccines also does not need living cells, making them easier to produce than some other vaccines.

So mRNA vaccines could potentially be used to prevent a range of diseases, not just COVID-19.

Remind me again, what’s mRNA?

Messenger ribonucleic acid (or mRNA for short) is a type of genetic material that tells your body how to make proteins. The two mRNA vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, deliver fragments of this mRNA into your cells.

Once inside, your body uses instructions in the mRNA to make SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins. So when you encounter the virus’ spike proteins again, your body’s immune system will already have a head start in how to handle it.

So after COVID-19, which mRNA vaccines are researchers working on next? Here are three worth knowing about.

1. Flu vaccine

Currently, we need to formulate new versions of the flu vaccine each year to protect us from the strains the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts will be circulating in flu season. This is a constant race to monitor how the virus evolves and how it spreads in real time.

Moderna is already turning its attention to an mRNA vaccine against seasonal influenza. This would target the four seasonal strains of the virus the WHO predicts will be circulating.

But the holy grail is a universal flu vaccine. This would protect against all strains of the virus (not just what the WHO predicts) and so wouldn’t need to be updated each year. The same researchers who pioneered mRNA vaccines are also working on a universal flu vaccine.

The researchers used the vast amounts of data on the influenza genome to find the mRNA code for the most “highly conserved” structures of the virus. This is the mRNA least likely to mutate and lead to structural or functional changes in viral proteins.

They then prepared a mixture of mRNAs to express four different viral proteins. These included one on the stalk-like structure on the outside of the flu virus, two on the surface, and one hidden inside the virus particle.

Studies in mice show this experimental vaccine is remarkably potent against diverse and difficult-to-target strains of influenza. This is a strong contender as a universal flu vaccine.

Read more: A single vaccine to beat all coronaviruses sounds impossible. But scientists are already working on one

2. Malaria vaccine

Malaria arises through infection with the single-celled parasite Plasmodium falciparum, delivered when mosquitoes bite. There is no vaccine for it.

However, US researchers working with pharmaceutical company GSK have filed a patent for an mRNA vaccine against malaria.

The mRNA in the vaccine codes for a parasite protein called PMIF. By teaching our bodies to target this protein, the aim is to train the immune system to eradicate the parasite.

There have been promising results of the experimental vaccine in mice and early-stage human trials are being planned in the UK.

This malaria mRNA vaccine is an example of a self-amplifying mRNA vaccine. This means very small amounts of mRNA need to be made, packaged and delivered, as the mRNA will make more copies of itself once inside our cells. This is the next generation of mRNA vaccines after the “standard” mRNA vaccines seen so far against COVID-19.

Read more: COVID-19 isn’t the only infectious disease scientists are trying to find a vaccine for. Here are 3 others

3. Cancer vaccines

We already have vaccines that prevent infection with viruses that cause cancer. For example, hepatitis B vaccine prevents some types of liver cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents cervical cancer.

But the flexibility of mRNA vaccines lets us think more broadly about tackling cancers not caused by viruses.

Some types of tumours have antigens or proteins not found in normal cells. If we could train our immune systems to identify these tumour-associated antigens then our immune cells could kill the cancer.

Cancer vaccines can be targeted to specific combinations of these antigens. BioNTech is developing one such mRNA vaccine that shows promise for people with advanced melanoma. CureVac has developed one for a specific type of lung cancer, with results from early clinical trials.

Then there’s the promise of personalised anti-cancer mRNA vaccines. If we could design an individualised vaccine specific to each patient’s tumour then we could train their immune system to fight their own individual cancer. Several research groups and companies are working on this.

Yes, there are challenges ahead

However, there are several hurdles to overcome before mRNA vaccines against other medical conditions are used more widely.

Current mRNA vaccines need to be kept frozen, limiting their use in developing countries or in remote areas. But Moderna is working on developing an mRNA vaccine that can be kept in a fridge.

Researchers also need to look at how these vaccines are delivered into the body. While injecting into the muscle works for mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, delivery into a vein may be better for cancer vaccines.

Read more: 4 things about mRNA COVID vaccines researchers still want to find out

The vaccines need to be shown to be safe and effective in large-scale human clinical trials, ahead of regulatory approval. However, as regulatory bodies around the world have already approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, there are far fewer regulatory hurdles than a year ago.

The high cost of personalised mRNA cancer vaccines may also be an issue.

Finally, not all countries have the facilities to make mRNA vaccines on a large scale, including Australia.

Regardless of these hurdles, mRNA vaccine technology has been described as disruptive and revolutionary. If we can overcome these challenges, we can potentially change how we make vaccines now and into the future.

Authors: Archa Fox – Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia | Damian Purcell – Professor of virology and theme leader for viral infectious diseases, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity The Conversation

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Researchers discover a genetic link between anxiety and depression


Anecdotally, many people can attest to the way anxiety and depression often come together. But, now, a new study has discovered more than 500 genes that link the conditions together, in research that gives hope for future treatment

According to the World Health Organisation, 4.4% of the global population lives with depression, and 3.6% with anxiety. Often experienced together, anxiety and depression can feel like an unrelenting cycle. One may trigger the other, trapping us in spirals that can be difficult to escape.

Now, a new study from researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Insitute in Australia has verified these experiences by identifying 509 genes that influence both anxiety and depression – confirming the link between the two mental health conditions.

Using genomic data from more than 400,000 participants in the UK Biobank, the team replicated and validated the genetic results in a group of 1.9 million people who had self-reported whether they had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety.

In total, the team found 674 genes associated with either depression or anxiety, noting how three-quarters of those genes were shared. Additionally, they identified 71 regions of the human genome that were not previously associated with anxiety – up from the six regions that had been previously recognised – as well as 29 new regions associated with depression.

Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers believe that these findings could pave the way to a better understanding of these mental health conditions, and how to treat them.

“Not a lot has been known, until now, about the genetic causes of why people may suffer from depression and anxiety. Both disorders are highly comorbid conditions, with about three-quarters of people with an anxiety disorder also exhibiting symptoms of major depressive disorder,” Professor Eske Derks, senior researcher and head of QIMR Berghofer’s Translational Neurgeomics Group, said.

“It’s been observed in the past that people who have both depression and anxiety have more severe symptoms, have the illnesses for longer and are more resistant to treatments. We hope this study will help identify existing drugs that might be re-purposed to better target the genetic basis of depression and anxiety.”

This research is accompanied by news that researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine have found a biological basis for mood disorders, and have developed a blood test for depression and bipolar disorder – marking another step toward understanding the biological basis of mental health.

“Our research provides new insights into the genetic architecture of depression and anxiety and the genes that link them,” says Professor Derks.

“The better our understanding of the genetic basis of these psychiatric conditions, the more likely we are to be able to treat them.”


Need to speak to someone? Connect with a counsellor using counselling-directory.org.uk



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Can one vaccine ward off all coronavirus? Researchers are about to find out


Variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are emerging and becoming dominant around the world. So some vaccines are being updated to allow our immune system to learn how to deal with them.

But this process of identifying and characterising variants that can escape our immune system, then tweaking a vaccine to deal with them, can take time.

So researchers are designing a universal coronavirus vaccine. This could mean one vaccine to protect against different variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Alternatively, a universal vaccine would target many different coronaviruses, perhaps one waiting in the wings to cause the next pandemic.

Here’s where the science is up to and the challenges ahead.

Why would we need a universal coronavirus vaccine?

Coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, belong to a large and diverse family of viruses that infect humans and animals. And a universal coronavirus vaccine might be particularly important under two scenarios.

The first is the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2. The second is the emergence of new coronaviruses that may cause a pandemic in the future. Indeed, SARS-CoV-2 is not the first of the coronaviruses that has “crossed” from animals and can cause severe disease in humans and it is unlikely to be the last.

The design of a universal vaccine against any group of viruses is no small task.(

ABC Coffs Coast: Melissa Martin

)

How do we even start?

Researchers are already designing and testing a universal vaccine against influenza.

If successful, this would avoid needing to tweak the vaccine every year to guard against new variants.

So we can apply what we’ve learnt to designing a universal coronavirus vaccine.

We could look for common features

We could identify parts of the virus common to the entire family of coronaviruses or variants. So we could analyse and compare the genetic sequences of the viruses to find some common ground.

Alternatively, we could isolate immune cells that can react with all coronaviruses or a number of variants. These could be antibodies or T cells (a type of immune cell that specialises in identifying and killing virus-infected cells). Then we could map where on the viruses these target. In other words, we’re looking for a common antigen or group of antigens.

We can then use that knowledge to design a vaccine to teach the immune system how to specifically recognise those parts of the virus.

Several pharmaceutical companies around the world are investigating such approaches against COVID-19, although all are at very early stages of development, and have yet to start clinical trials.

We could make a ‘mosaic’ vaccine

An alternative approach is to make a “mosaic” vaccine. This is a vaccine that contains antigens from a few different variants or coronaviruses.

These are arranged on a nanoparticle — an extremely small biological structure made from proteins that serves as a platform for delivering antigens. Using this approach, our immune system figures out the commonalities itself. It then learns how to generate antibodies that react broadly to all the different viruses.

Scientists from the US have tested this approach in mice. After being vaccinated with the mosaic vaccine, the mice had an immune response against SARS-CoV-2 and a range of other coronaviruses from bats. The results are interesting for two reasons.

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The first is the type of immune response. The mice raised a broad range of neutralising antibodies, the types of antibodies that can stop a virus from infecting our cells and therefore provide the strongest protection. These neutralising antibodies are the main goal of vaccines.

The mice also raised an immune response to bat coronaviruses. This strategy could be useful for providing protection against future pandemics, should a bat coronavirus cross over to infect humans.

But “mosaic” vaccines against coronaviruses have yet to be tested in humans.

So what are the challenges ahead?

The design of a universal vaccine against any group of viruses is no small task. Indeed, universal vaccines against HIV or influenza have been the focus of intense research for years.

Some candidate universal vaccines against HIV or influenza have been assessed in human clinical trials and shown to be safe. However, the efficacy results have generally been modest.

One big challenge is these vaccines need to able to protect against an incredibly large number of possible variants. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 mutates slower than HIV or influenza viruses, so variants may take longer to arise.

The second challenge is establishing long-lasting immunity, which both HIV and influenza universal vaccines have yet to show.

A third barrier to overcome is learning how to anticipate the virus’ next mutation or which animal coronavirus may cause the next pandemic.

So it is likely a universal coronavirus vaccine, whether it aims to cover multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 or animal coronaviruses with pandemic potential, may take years to develop.

For now, we have to rely on reformulating currently available vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 to accommodate the emergence of new variants.

Marios Koutsakos is a research fellow at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.

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Researchers in Thailand have successfully trained six sniffer Labrador retrievers as part of a six-month pilot project to identify the coronavirus in just two seconds – with an accuracy rate of 94.8%



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Researchers find a better way to measure consciousness — ScienceDaily


Millions of people are administered general anesthesia each year in the United States alone, but it’s not always easy to tell whether they are actually unconscious.

A small proportion of those patients regain some awareness during medical procedures, but a new study of the brain activity that represents consciousness could prevent that potential trauma. It may also help both people in comas and scientists struggling to define which parts of the brain can claim to be key to the conscious mind.

“What has been shown for 100 years in an unconscious state like sleep are these slow waves of electrical activity in the brain,” says Yuri Saalmann, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology and neuroscience professor. “But those may not be the right signals to tap into. Under a number of conditions — with different anesthetic drugs, in people that are suffering from a coma or with brain damage or other clinical situations — there can be high-frequency activity as well.”

UW-Madison researchers recorded electrical activity in about 1,000 neurons surrounding each of 100 sites throughout the brains of a pair of monkeys at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center during several states of consciousness: under drug-induced anesthesia, light sleep, resting wakefulness, and roused from anesthesia into a waking state through electrical stimulation of a spot deep in the brain (a procedure the researchers described in 2020).

“With data across multiple brain regions and different states of consciousness, we could put together all these signs traditionally associated with consciousness — including how fast or slow the rhythms of the brain are in different brain areas — with more computational metrics that describe how complex the signals are and how the signals in different areas interact,” says Michelle Redinbaugh, a graduate student in Saalman’s lab and co-lead author of the study, published today in the journal Cell Systems.

To sift out the characteristics that best indicate whether the monkeys were conscious or unconscious, the researchers used machine learning. They handed their large pool of data over to a computer, told the computer which state of consciousness had produced each pattern of brain activity, and asked the computer which areas of the brain and patterns of electrical activity corresponded most strongly with consciousness.

The results pointed away from the frontal cortex, the part of the brain typically monitored to safely maintain general anesthesia in human patients and the part most likely to exhibit the slow waves of activity long considered typical of unconsciousness.

“In the clinic now, they may put electrodes on the patient’s forehead,” says Mohsen Afrasiabi, the other lead author of the study and an assistant scientist in Saalmann’s lab. “We propose that the back of the head is a more important place for those electrodes, because we’ve learned the back of the brain and the deep brain areas are more predictive of state of consciousness than the front.”

And while both low- and high-frequency activity can be present in unconscious states, it’s complexity that best indicates a waking mind.

“In an anesthetized or unconscious state, those probes in 100 different sites record a relatively small number of activity patterns,” says Saalmann, whose work is supported by the National Institutes of Health.

A larger — or more complex — range of patterns was associated with the monkey’s awake state.

“You need more complexity to convey more information, which is why it’s related to consciousness,” Redinbaugh says. “If you have less complexity across these important brain areas, they can’t convey very much information. You’re looking at an unconscious brain.”

More accurate measurements of patients undergoing anesthesia is one possible outcome of the new findings, and the researchers are part of a collaboration supported by the National Science Foundation working on applying the knowledge of key brain areas.

“Beyond just detecting the state of consciousness, these ideas could improve therapeutic outcomes from people with consciousness disorders,” Saalmann says. “We could use what we’ve learned to optimize electrical patterns through precise brain stimulation and help people who are, say, in a coma maintain a continuous level of consciousness.”

This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01MH110311 and P51OD011106), the Binational Science Foundation, and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

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