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11 Eye-Opening Facts About the Thyroid

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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that lives just below your larynx. Its two halves, or lobes, which rest against the trachea, weigh less than an ounce. The thyroid is under the control a peanut-shaped gland in the brain called the pituitary gland, which in turn takes its commands from the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that works as the communications center for the pituitary—sending messages in the form of hormones to control the release of thyroid hormones from the pituitary.

Once stimulated, the thyroid gland takes up iodide from the foods we eat and converts it into iodine to make the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are then released into the bloodstream, where they help your body regulate so many processes it would take several pages to describe them all. Generally, these hormones dictate your metabolism, digestion, fertility, weight loss, aging, and more.

Mental Floss spoke to a few experts to better understand this small but powerful gland. Here are 11 things we learned.

1. YOUR THYROID INFLUENCES EVERY CELL IN YOUR BODY.

Thyroid hormones regulate the metabolic functions of literally every cell in the body by stimulating nearly all tissues in the body to produce proteins and by increasing oxygen available to cells.

2. IT'S ALSO YOUR BODY'S FURNACE.

You can think of your thyroid gland as your body’s furnace, and your pituitary gland as its thermostat, says Michelle Corey, a functional medical practitioner and author of The Thyroid Cure: The Functional Mind-Body Approach to Reversing Your Autoimmune Condition and Reclaiming Your Health! When the furnace (thyroid) gets too cold, the thermostat (pituitary) senses it and produces TSH to stimulate thyroid hormone production, which warms you up. When the levels of thyroid hormones rise and the furnace gets too hot, the pituitary gland then slows the production of TSH, cooling you down.

3. YOUR THYROID AND YOUR LIVER HAVE A TIGHT PARTNERSHIP.

The liver is the major location where T4 is converted into the active T3. If your liver is taxed for any reason, it can’t do the job of converting these hormones, and you won’t have enough of the active thyroid hormone circulating in your body. As a result, you’ll feel sick and tired, even if you’re taking T4 hormone replacement. “If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid condition, such as Hashimoto’s disease, supporting your liver is critical to recovery,” Corey says.

4. THYROID DISORDERS CAN BE DIFFICULT TO DIAGNOSE.

Often, symptoms of thyroid disorder may go unnoticed “since they are gradual and non-specific,” says Nilem Patel, an endocrinologist at Los Angeles’s Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital. “Left untreated, thyroid disorder can cause disruption in patients’ lives,” he says. Dysfunction in the thyroid can cause the thyroid to overproduce or underproduce thyroid hormones. If you suspect an issue with your thyroid, request tests beyond just your baseline TSH levels, including T3 and T4 levels as well as thyroid antibodies.

5. ANXIETY AND INSOMNIA CAN BE SIGNS OF AN OVERACTIVE THYROID …

Your wee hour tossing and turning, as well as a racing heart and anxiety, could actually be symptoms of hyperthyroidism, or the overproduction of thyroid hormone. Other symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, palpitations, increased heart rate, and nervousness.

6. … WHILE SUDDEN WEIGHT GAIN AND DEPRESSION MIGHT BE CAUSED BY AN UNDERACTIVE THYROID.

When these symptoms seemingly come out of nowhere, they can be evidence of an underproduction of thyroid hormone. Other common signs of a sluggish thyroid include fatigue, hair loss, constipation, dry skin, irregular menses, cold intolerance, brittle hair, slow heart rate, and general lethargy.

7. IT CAPTURES AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT.

“The thyroid is the only gland to take up and trap iodine,” says Alan P. Farwell, section chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and nutrition at Boston Medical Center.

Thyroid hormones are also the only iodine-containing hormones. The thyroid gland not only takes up this element from dietary sources but stores a significant amount of iodinated tyrosines (a kind of amino acid) to maintain thyroid hormones in instances of iodine deficiency.

8. IT STORES A POTENTIALLY LETHAL DOSE OF HORMONES.

The gland can store a very large amount of hormone—so much that if the gland released all of its hormone into the bloodstream at once, it could kill you (this is known as thyrotoxicosis), says Linda Anegawa, a Hawaii-based physician with a specialty in obesity medicine. Fortunately thyroid hormone is very tightly regulated by constant, exquisitely sensitive signals traveling between the brain, the gland, the body’s tissues, and the blood concentrations of the hormone at any given moment.

9. THE THYROID PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE IN PREGNANCY AND FETAL DEVELOPMENT.

To meet the increased metabolic needs of a pregnancy, a mother’s brain stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more hormone. “In the uterus, the fetal thyroid gland begins to function by 18 weeks of gestation. Should the fetus not get enough thyroid hormone from either the mother or from its own gland, severe outcomes can occur including abnormal brain development, abnormal growth of the skeletal system, problems with the placenta, or even miscarriage and increased perinatal mortality risk,” Anegawa says.

10. BALANCING YOUR THYROID MIGHT HELP YOU AVOID CHOLESTEROL-LOWERING DRUGS.

“I sometimes see patients with very elevated cholesterol on cholesterol-lowering medication that doesn’t seem to be working. But then I discover that their thyroid function is off-kilter,” says Anegawa. In these cases, she generally recommends adjusting a patient’s thyroid medicines or beginning treatment for at least six to eight weeks prior to checking the blood cholesterol level. This has helped some of her patients reduce their doses of cholesterol medicines, or stop taking them completely. “[Thyroid hormones] may someday be used as a cholesterol treatment, especially for patients who cannot tolerate statins, the most commonly used drugs,” she says.

11. SYNTHETIC THYROID HORMONE MAY HAVE EXCITING NEW MEDICAL USES.

A specially engineered form of thyroid hormone that only targets heart cells is under research as a treatment for heart failure, Anegawa says. Another form of the hormone, which selectively can enter nerve cells, may someday be a treatment for neurodegenerative disease.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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