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Science news digest – 20th February 2014

In the science news this week, a monkey controls the movements of another monkey, meningitis vaccine that doesn’t need refrigeration is successful in African trial, and finally… bumblebees are infected by honeybee diseases.

Monkey controls movements of another monkey using its brain

Scientists in the US have used the brain of one monkey to control the movements of another “avatar” monkey, by electrically stimulating the avatar’s spinal cord, reported the BBC.

The hope is that this method could be used to allow paralysed people to regain control of their own body by creating a bypass of the damaged part of their spine, for example.

However, the team at Harvard Medical School carried out their experiments on a master monkey and a sedated monkey, rather than a paralysed monkey as they said they couldn’t justify causing that damage.

The master monkey had a brain chip implanted, which could monitor the activity of up to 100 neurons. The scientists matched up the patterns of electrical activity in the neurons with the physical actions the monkey made.

The avatar monkey had 36 electrodes implanted in the spinal cord, and different combinations of stimulation resulted in different movements.

The two monkeys were then hooked up so that the brain scans of the master monkey controlled the movements in real time of the other.

The sedated avatar held a joystick, while the master thought about moving a cursor up and down.

In 98% of the tests, the master could correctly control the avatar’s arm.

Dr Ziv Williams explained that, "the goal is to take people with brain stem or spinal cord paralysis and bypass the injury.

"The hope is ultimately to get completely natural movement, I think it's theoretically possible, but it will require an exponential additional effort to get to that point."


Meningitis vaccine withstands African heat

The first immunisation campaign in Africa that uses a vaccine which does not need to be stored in a fridge has been successfully completed, reported the Guardian.

MenAfriVac can be kept out of the fridge for up to four days and can be used at temperatures that don’t exceed 40C. The vaccine has not only been successful but has also substantially cut down costs, scientists said.

The vaccine, which is for meningitis A, is the first to be specifically designed for use in the African meningitis belt, where annual epidemics kill thousands. Experts believe  that it could be feasible to develop other vaccines that could be used outside of cold-chain conditions.

A trial held in Benin of MenAfriVac showed that the vaccine could be used at temperatures up to 39C and kept out of the fridge for up to four days without any incidence of the disease in the group.

The vaccine was developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Path, a non-profit global health group, and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. However, it still remains to be seen whether other manufacturers that produce vaccines, for use in countries where refrigeration isn’t an issue, will seek approval to produce more vaccines in this way.

Since 2010, more than 150 million people have been vaccinated with MenAfriVac – there has been no case of meningitis A identified in those who have been vaccinated.


And finally…

Bumblebees infected with honeybee diseases

Researchers have found two diseases, which are usually found in honeybee populations, that are now infecting wild bumblebees, reported the BBC.

Bees that had been infected with deformed wing virus and a fungal parasite called Nosema ceranae were found across England, Scotland and Wales.

Scientists are now urging beekeepers to keep their honeybees as free from the diseases as possible in order to prevent the spread in the already declining bumblebee populations.

“These pathogens are capable of infecting adult bumblebees and they seem to have quite significant impacts," said Professor Mark Brown from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Over the past few decades, bumblebee species have suffered steep declines, and some species, such as Cullem’s bumblebee have gone extinct in the UK.

Much of the problem is driven by destruction of habitats, particularly wildflower meadows, but scientists also believe disease has played a major role as well.

The scientists looked at 26 sites across Great Britain and the Isle of Man and found that about 11% of bumblebees were infected with deformed wing virus (DWV) and 7% were infected with the fungus. By comparison, about 35% of honeybees had DMV and 9% had the fungus.

“A geographical patterning provides us with the information that transmission is occurring among these animals - they are sharing parasite strains," said Prof Brown.

"We cannot say it definitively, but because of the epidemiology, the most likely explanation is that the honeybees are acting as the source of the virus for the bumblebees.

“We have to, at national and international levels, support management policies that enable our beekeepers to keep their bees as free of diseases as possible," Prof Brown said.

"The benefits are not just to the honeybees, they are to the wild bees as well."

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