The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

March 16, 2023

To sleep, perchance to… mount a more robust humoral antibody response?

A meta-analysis of seven separate clinical studies of vaccines dating back two decades reveals a surprising factor that influences how effective such shots may be at boosting the immune system: a good night’s sleep. The analysis, led by researchers at the Center for Research in Neuroscience in Lyon (CRNL) in Bron, France, showed that insufficient sleep of less than six hours the night before a vaccination is associated with a reduced antibody response—though the effect was more pronounced in men than in women. The researchers say optimizing sleep around the time of a vaccination could boost one’s antibody response, though more research is needed to know exactly how. Current Biology

Mediterranean diet lowers dementia risk

Looking at 60,298 people from the UK Biobank, researchers at Newcastle University found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet lowered the absolute risk of dementia in a simple, dose-dependent manner. In other words, people in the study had lower dementia risk the more they adhered to the diet, which is rich in produce, legumes, fatty fish, nuts, herbs, and whole grains. Now before you scramble to order a sardine green bean walnut mesclun salad for lunch, just know the study design did have certain limitations. It’s unclear, for instance, whether people on such diets tend to follow healthier lifestyles in other ways. The study is also culturally and racially specific and surveyed a predominantly white, British population over the age of 60. Nevertheless, the results build on a growing body of evidence that suggests dietary interventions may be one of the best dementia prevention strategies. BMC Medicine

Hypothesis links common chemical TCE to Parkinson’s

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York are publishing an explosive hypothesis this week that fingers the common industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) as a significant, invisible, and “highly preventable” cause of Parkinson’s disease. If true, the hypothesis has profound ecological health implications since TCE, which is found in everything from adhesives to paint thinners to dry cleaning solvents, is widely used industrially, commercially, and by the military. “The molecule, like radon, evaporates from underlying soil and groundwater and enters homes, workplaces, or schools, often undetected,” the researchers report. Their study is far from definitive, and only summarizes past animal studies, epidemiological studies, and seven detailed case studies. Their basic conclusion is that more research is needed to determine the health risks of TCE, which is also a known carcinogen, but they also raise the need for remediating contaminated land and possibly banning TCE altogether. Journal of Parkinson’s Disease

Spiritual needs in secular health care

Billed as the largest-ever study on spiritual needs—which experts say should be considered a routine part of person-centered, value-sensitive health care—a broad survey of 26,678 adults in Denmark randomly sampled and contacted via email by doctors at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense in 2021 concludes that even in a modern, Western, post-secular society like theirs, where most adults have few formal religious routines, spiritual needs in the health care setting can be profound. More than 80 percent of those in the study said they had at least one strong or very strong spiritual need within the past month—things like missing a sense of life’s purpose or a desire for inner peace. And people who self-reported poor health, low life satisfaction, or reduced wellbeing tended to claim even greater spiritual needs. “[Care] for such needs should be undertaken in Danish society,” the authors write, adding, “it might be similar in other post-secular European cultures.” The Lancet

The “dizzy ape hypothesis”

Why do humans deliberately seek altered consciousness? It’s something that’s seen across cultures and since the beginning of civilization, according to experts—from the ceremonial psychoactive teas of the ancient Mayans to the booming mushroom therapy businesses in modern Oregon today. It could be an evolutionary adaptation, according to two researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Birmingham. They point to the fact that we apparently share a proclivity for experiencing dizziness with great apes, who actively engage in fast rope spinning during solitary play. What that suggests, they write, is that “self-induced altered mental states of our ancestors could have shaped aspects of modern human behavior and cognition, as well as mood manipulation and mental wellbeing.” Primates