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

October 14, 2021

How acupuncture actually works

Researchers at Harvard and Fudan University in Shanghai, China, have shown acupuncture with low-intensity electrified needles can switch off systemic inflammation in mice and rescue them from severe sepsis. Stimulating an “acupoint” just below the knee activates specific nerve cells called Prokr2­-expressing neurons, which then send signals up the spinal cord to the brain. The brain propagates those signals down the vagus nerve to the kidneys, where they stimulate the adrenal glands to release anti-inflammatory molecules. In the big picture, the work suggests electroacupuncture stimulation may be able to selectively inhibit inflammation in specific parts of the body (like a swollen knee) without suppressing the whole immune system. Nature

Winter swimming could help spur weight loss

Taking a brief polar bear plunge into icy water followed by a long stint in a hot sauna—a seemingly torturous pastime called “winter swimming”—could actually be a viable way to lose weight, according to a small study at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, where the activity is popular. The study followed seven healthy young men who took winter swim dips 2–3 times a week and eight control subjects who did not take the plunge. The researchers found that winter swimming appears to lower the body’s core temperature slightly and increase metabolism, allowing people to burn more calories at the same levels of activity. Cell Reports Medicine

New nutrient profiling system seeks to demystify healthy food choices

Researchers at Tufts University in Boston have developed a nutrient profiling system they call the “Food Compass,” which assesses raw ingredients and processed foods according to how healthful they are. They analyzed 8,032 different snacks, meals, and beverages based on expanded criteria including not only fat, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, but also additives and processing, and then assigned them all rankings on a scale of 1–100. The foods tested range from raw raspberries (ranked highest, at 100) to instant noodle soup (ranked a lowly 1). This tool is publicly available, and the researchers say it should help guide consumer choice, food policy, and industry decision-making. Nature Food

Home birth with a midwife can be as safe as birth center delivery

For years, the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have insisted that hospitals and accredited birth centers are the safest settings for giving birth. According to researchers at University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Bastyr University in Seattle, however, this might not always be the case. In a large study looking at outcomes of more than 10,000 births in Washington State between 2015–2020, researchers found that when midwives are well integrated into a community’s health system, home births are just as safe as those at licensed freestanding birth centers. Obstetrics & Gynecology

More health risks for long-haul space travelers

Blood samples taken from five cosmonauts before and after each spent months aboard the International Space Station from 2016–2020 show a worrying trend, possibly revealing profound ill effects of low gravity on the brain. After analyzing the blood, researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, found elevated levels of the pathogenic marker proteins NfL, GFAP, and the amyloid protein Aβ. Back on Earth, the blood levels of these proteins returned to normal over hours and days, but their elevation after months in orbit suggests a long stint of weightlessness could have a broad impact on the human brain and that brain injury could be a previously unknown risk for people undertaking long-duration spaceflight. JAMA Neurology

Biomedical cryptography tool allows decentralized data sharing

One of the challenges of large-scale genomic studies is restricted access to personal health data, tightly governed by privacy laws like HIPAA and GDPR. Compliance, in practice, means holding data in central, secure locations and makes sharing it within a single institution a challenge—and between institutions almost impossible. To change this, researchers at EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) developed a novel “federated” analytics tool, called FAHME, which uses a technology known as multiparty homomorphic encryption to separate the data from its analysis. In a study this month, they showed that their system allows researchers to securely access and analyze large datasets in the cloud while keeping specific identifying information encrypted and unavailable locally. Nature Communications