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9 Up-Close Scientific Images from the Wellcome Image Awards

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One winning image: A baby Hawaiian bobtail squid. Image Credit: Mark R Smith, Macroscopic Solutions

 
Each year, the Wellcome Image Awards highlight some of the most fascinating scientific images from around the world, as chosen by a panel of experts from the fields of science communications and medicine. The awards go to photographers and researchers who create “informative, striking and technically excellent images that communicate significant aspects of healthcare and biomedical science,” according to the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity based in the UK. Here are nine of this year’s winning images:

ZEBRAFISH EYE AND NEUROMASTS

Ingrid Lekk and Steve Wilson, University College London

In this 4-day-old zebrafish embryo, a certain gene expressed in the lens of the eye and other parts of the visual system glows red when it’s activated. You can see the lens of the eye, the head, and neuromasts (those red dots around the rim of the image) glowing red, while the nervous system glows blue.

BLOOD VESSELS OF THE AFRICAN GREY PARROT

Scott Birch and Scott Echols

This image was created using a 3D reconstruction of a euthanized parrot. It models the system of blood vessels in the parrot’s head and neck down to the capillary level.

INTRAOCULAR LENS IRIS CLIP

Mark Bartley, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Iris clips can treat nearsightedness, cataracts, and other eye issues. This photo shows an iris clip fitting on the eye of a 70-year-old patient. He regained nearly all his vision after the surgery.

BRAIN-ON-A-CHIP

Collin Edington and Iris Lee, Koch Institute at MIT

Researchers are developing ways to grow miniature organs on plastic chips in order to make drug testing more efficient. Instead of testing pharmaceuticals on people, scientists may one day test them on something like this—neural stem cells grown on a synthetic gel.

#BREASTCANCER TWITTER CONNECTIONS

Eric Clarke, Richard Arnett and Jane Burns, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Here is a visualization of discussions on Twitter using the hashtag #breastcancer. Each dot represents a Twitter user, and its size is based on how many other dots (or nodes) it is connected to. Each line represents a relationship with another Twitter user, and the thicker the line, the more that relationship shows up in the data. This part of the visualization relates to trending data—one tweet retweeted thousands of times.

PIGEON THERMOREGULATION

Scott Echols, Scarlet Imaging and the Grey Parrot Anatomy Project

No, this isn’t just an avian parody of The Scream. It shows the network of blood vessels, visualized using technology created by the same researcher as the parrot image above, under the skin of a pigeon. This dense network allows pigeons to control their body temperatures.

MICRORNA SCAFFOLD CANCER THERAPY

João Conde, Nuria Oliva and Natalie Artzi, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Because microRNAs control the function and growth of cells, they have a lot of potential in cancer therapies. MIT researchers are working on a system that could deliver these short genetic sequences to cancerous cells. It consists of two microRNAs woven like a net with a synthetic polymer.

DEVELOPING SPINAL CORD

Gabriel Galea, University College London

This image shows a mouse’s neural tube, the structure from which the spinal cord develops. In each of the three images, the blue color draws attention to a specific tissue type. In the left image, the blue is the neural tube itself, which forms the brain and spine. In the middle, the blue is the mesoderm, which will become the inner organs. On the right, the blue shows the surface ectoderm that becomes hair, skin, and teeth.

All images courtesy the Wellcome Image Awards

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Bite Helper
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technology
New Gadget Claims to De-Itch Your Mosquito Bites
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Bite Helper

Summer can be an itchy time for anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors. Mosquitos are everywhere, and some people are particularly susceptible to their bites and the itching that comes with them. A new product aims to stop the suffering. Bite Helper, reviewed by Mashable, is designed to stop your bites from itching.

Place the pen-like device over your swollen bite and it will begin to emit heat and vibrations designed to quell the itch. It’s meant to increase blood flow around the area to alleviate your pain, heating your skin up to 120°F for up to 45 seconds. It’s the size of a thin tube of sunscreen and is battery powered.

Most dermatologists advise applying cold to alleviate itching from insect bites, so the question is: Will heating up your skin really work? Bite Helper hasn’t been clinically tested, so it’s hard to say for certain how effective it would be. There has been some research to suggest that heat can help increase blood flow in general, but decrease histamine-induced blood flow in the skin (part of the body’s normal response to allergens) and reduce itching overall. In a German study of wasp, mosquito, and bee stings, concentrated heat led to a significant improvement in symptoms, though the researchers focused mostly on pain reduction rather than itching.

Bite Helper’s technique "seems like a legitimate claim" when it comes to localized itching, Tasuku Akiyama, who studies the mechanisms of itching at the University of Miami, tells Mental Floss. "The increase in the blood flow may increase the rate of elimination of itch mediator from the area." However, before that happens, the heat might also make the itch a little worse in the short-term, he cautions. This seems to be borne out by user experience: While Mashable's reviewer found that using the device didn’t hurt at all, his daughter found it too hot to bear for more than a few seconds.

If the device does in fact relieve itching, though, a few seconds of pain may be worth it.

Bite Helper is $25 on Amazon.

[h/t Mashable]

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The Body
11 Facts About the Thumb
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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.

When it comes to the fingers on your hand, the thumb definitely does its own thing. Thumbs only have two bones, so they're obviously shorter, and they play a very important role that no other finger can claim; thanks to their unique saddle-like joint shape, and a little muscle known as the abductor pollicis brevis, you can bend and stretch your thumbs opposite your fingers to grip things. This is why they're known as "opposable thumbs." To bring you these 11 facts about the thumb, Mental Floss spoke with three experts on this unique digit: Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Houston; Loren Fishman, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, in NYC; and Ryan Katz, attending hand surgeon at the Curtis Hand Center, located at the Medstar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

1. OPPOSABLE THUMBS MAY HAVE FREED UP OUR ANCESTORS' MOUTHS FOR LANGUAGE.

The evolution of a thumb helped our ancestors evolve to be better at defense, allowing for throwing and clubbing activities. Moreover, Fishman says, it may have even contributed to our cognitive function. "Some say this is why we have language," he says, "because we can hold things in our hands and [therefore] use our mouths for something else—such as discussing the functions of the thumb."

2. THUMBS HAVE THEIR OWN PULSE.

You might have noticed that medical professionals take a pulse with the middle and index finger. The reason is because there's a big artery in the thumb, the princeps pollicis artery, and arteries pulse, making it difficult to feel a pulse in a neck if you're using your thumb.

3. THE THUMB SEPARATES US FROM OTHER ANIMALS. MOSTLY.

"The thumb is wonderful. It evolved in such a way that we can use it to do so many amazing things, and it's one of the things that separates us from other animals," Bergin says. A handful of other animals, mostly primates, have opposable thumbs, or toes, as the case may be. These include orangutans, chimpanzees, a phylum of frogs known as phyllomedusa, some lemurs, and giant pandas—although their thumb-like apparatus is really just an extra sesamoid bone that acts like a thumb.

4. TOES CAN BECOME THUMBS.

If you should lose a thumb, fear not, says Katz. "It can be rebuilt by surgeons using your big toe." This specialized surgery uses microvascular surgery techniques to transfer your big toe to your hand, where it will function almost exactly as your thumb did. "The toe is then brought to life by sewing together small arteries and veins under a microscope," Katz says, a complicated surgery that has become vastly more sophisticated over the years. The second toe can be used too, as you can see in this medical journal, but we warn you: It's not for the faint of heart.

5. … BUT IS A THUMB WORTH LOSING A TOE OVER?

It may not seem like a big deal to lose one thumb—after all, you've got another one. But Katz cites the American Medical Association's "Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment" [PDF], which states your thumb is so important that a complete amputation "will result in a 40 percent impairment to the whole hand." In fact, they claim that it would take "a complete amputation of the middle, ring, and small fingers to equal the impairment of an amputated thumb."

6. IT'S BETTER THAN HAVING YOUR HAND SEWN TO YOUR FOOT.

Katz also points out that "there used to be a common surgical procedure for thumb reconstruction, where the patient's hand was sewn to their foot for a period of time." This procedure was called the Nicoladani procedure, after the German surgical innovator Carol Nicoladoni. "It was a precursor to transplant surgery and plastic or reconstructive surgery as we know it today," he says.

7. YOUR THUMB MAKES AN ASTONISHINGLY WIDE VARIETY OF MOTIONS.

Other than pinching and grasping, Katz points out that the thumb "translates, rotates, and flexes all at once." This coordinated set of motions provides strength and dexterity. "Thus it's the thumb that allows us to easily pen an essay, turn a nut, pick up a coin, or button a shirt."

8. THAT DEXTERITY ALSO MAKES IT FRAGILE.

The thumb may appear to only have two knuckles, but it actually has a third, right above the wrist. This is called the first carpometacarpal joint. If that starts to hurt, or gets big enough to look like a bump or a mass, you may have carpometacarpal joint disorder (CMC), a common condition that is partly genetic and partly from repetitive use, according to Bergin. "You can get arthritis in the other joints, too, but this one is the most debilitating," she says. "First it becomes painful, and then you lose the ability to use it." Surgery can help with the pain, but it won't restore full mobility.

9. PAIN IN YOUR THUMB MAY REQUIRE LIFESTYLE CHANGES.

Bergin suggests small lifestyle changes so you don't need to grip anything too hard can make a huge difference, such as buying milk jugs with handles or using an electric toothbrush. "There are a lot of things we can do [to help] on a daily basis that shouldn't affect our quality of life," she suggests.

10. SWIPING RIGHT MIGHT BE DANGEROUS.

While we generally associate thumb arthritis with older people, Bergin says she now sees it in people in their forties and even thirties. Other studies have suggested that frequent phone use can be damaging. "There must be a genetic component to premature wearing of the thumb," she says. If it runs in your family, it's a good idea to be proactive and try to avoid repetitive gripping activities.

11. WHAT IT MEANS IF YOUR THUMB IS NUMB.

If instead of pain you're experiencing numbness of the thumb that extends to your index and middle fingers, you may be showing early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Fortunately, this isn't an emergency. "The condition takes a long time to become a big problem" Bergin says. People can sometimes help the condition by wearing wrist braces and getting physical therapy. If you just can't take it, "you can get surgery at any point if you failed to improve with bracing," she says. The surgery can reduce mobility, but it should take away the numbness and pain.

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