Is life hiding in ice cauldrons on Mars?
Scientists have identified two funnelshaped craters on Mars that may contain water, heat, and nutrients—the ingredients in the formation of life. The odd-looking depressions— one in the Hellas Planitia basin, the other in the Galaxias Fossae region—were first spotted several years ago, but researchers were only recently able to analyze them in detail, reports Astronomy.com. Using equipment that creates a 3-D map from 2-D images, the team from the University of Texas found that both craters are shaped like funnels. The Galaxias depression has debris around it, indicating it was probably caused by an asteroid impact. But the Hellas Planitia crater has similar geological features to the “ice cauldrons” found in Iceland and Greenland, which form when underground volcanic activity melts away surface ice. If the same process occurred on the Red Planet, the interaction of lava and ice would have created an environment with liquid water and chemical nutrients— fertile ground for microbial life. The researchers hope future missions to Mars will explore the craters further. “These features do really resemble ice cauldrons known from Earth, and just from that perspective they should be of great interest,” says University of Iceland volcanologist Gro Pedersen, who was not involved in the study. So far, several missions to Mars have yet to find any evidence of microbes, though some scientists think it’s a matter of looking in the right place.
La Niña’s impact on weather
Months after the conclusion of one of the strongest El Niños in history, the weather system’s lesser-known sister, La Niña, has finally made her arrival. Unlike El Niño, which occurs when ocean temperatures in the Pacific become unusually warm, La Niña cools the surface of the tropical Pacific, altering the storm track over North America and other parts of the world. El Niño was blamed for last year’s balmy winter in the Northeast and soaking rains in the drought-stricken West; La Niña will have the opposite effect, ushering in wetter, cooler conditions in the northern states and exacerbating dry conditions across the South. The weather system “is likely to contribute to persisting or developing drought across much of the southern U.S. this winter,” Mike Halpert of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, tells CNN.com. An ongoing drought in Southern California also is likely to continue. This La Niña isn’t particularly strong, and is expected to last only until spring.
Statins have become the “gold standard” for the treatment of high cholesterol—and a new type of drug known as PCSK9 inhibitors could make them even better. In a recent study, researchers split a group of 968 volunteers into two groups: one taking only a statin, the other combining the drug with evolocumab, a PCSK9 inhibitor. After 18 months, the team measured the participants’ levels of LDL, or “bad cholesterol.” Anything below 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood is considered excellent, and those who were taking only a statin averaged an impressive 93 mg/dL. But those taking a combination of the two drugs averaged an astonishing 36 mg/dL of LDL—an ultralow level generally seen only in babies. “In a sense,” says cardiologist Elliott Antman, who wasn’t associated with the study, “you are turning back the cardiovascular clock.” These striking reductions came with an added benefit, reports Reuters.com: greater declines in dangerous plaques that had accumulated in the patients’ arteries. Plaques shrank in two-thirds of those taking both drugs, but in only half of those taking a statin alone. The only downside of PCSK9 inhibitors is their cost: With some prescriptions priced at $14,000 a year, most insurers are refusing to pay for them.
Paralyzed monkeys walk
In a medical breakthrough that offers new hope to people with spinal cord injuries, scientists have used a brain implant to enable partially paralyzed monkeys to regain the ability to walk. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology implanted the device in the monkey’s motor cortex, or movement center, where it recorded neural activity. This data was then wirelessly routed to a second implant placed on the spinal cord beyond the injured nerves, which triggered the intended movements. Two monkeys fitted with this “brain-spine interface” system regained the ability to walk within days, and were fully mobile after three months. “It was a big surprise for us,” Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist who led the research, tells The Guardian (U.K.). “The gait was not perfect, but it was almost like normal walking. The foot was not dragging and it was fully weight-bearing.” The implant’s components—which took seven years to develop, after 10 years of work on rodents—are already approved for use in humans. But helping monkeys walk using four limbs is much less challenging than enabling paralyzed people to balance and walk on two legs. Nevertheless, researchers believe the technology could be transferred to humans within a decade.
Health scare of the week
Teenage depression rising
The number of young Americans battling depression rose by more than a third in the decade leading up to 2014. In a review of surveys completed by more than 170,000 teens, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 6 percent of boys suffered a major depressive episode in 2014, up from 4 percent in 2005. Among girls, the figure soared from 13 percent to more than 17 percent. It’s unclear what’s behind this worrying trend—and why girls are more at risk. Researchers note that social media use and cyberbullying are much more prevalent among girls, which could make them more vulnerable to depression. Complicating matters, the number of teens being treated for the disorder remains unchanged. This suggests many young people are suffering in silence, increasing their risk for suicide, reports NBCNews.com. Ramin Mojtabai, the study’s leader, said it was “imperative that we find ways to reach these teenagers and help them manage their depression.”