Pulse 182: Practice Can Improve Mood, Insight, and Purpose

15 December 2020
Giulio Prisco
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It is often said that emotional well-being depends on innate traits that can’t be learned. But scientists at the Center for Healthy Minds of University of Wisconsin, Madison, have presented scientific evidence to the contrary, published in PNAS. It suggests that emotional well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life.

For example, awareness appears to decrease stress and increase positive emotions. And it can be strengthened through mental training practices like meditation.

"There are qualities of a healthy mind that many people don't know are even trainable," says lead researcher Cortland Dahl. "We don't think of them as skills. Many of us have thought we are hardwired to be like this or that, but the reality is these qualities are much more trainable and malleable than we think. It's a very empowering view of the human mind - we can learn to be in the driver's seat of our own mind."

Insight can be trained by getting curious about one’s own preconceived thoughts and opinions. According to Center for Healthy Minds director Richard Davidson, "this has tremendous potential to heal the division and 'othering' that we see in today's society."

Another trainable trait that contributes to emotional well-being is purpose in life. It's associated with positive biological and physical health outcomes.

"It's really the 'how' of well-being," says researcher Christy Wilson-Mendenhall. "Traditionally, the focus in psychology research has been on treatment of mental illness. We're hoping to broaden the conversation to advocate cultivating well-being at any stage, even when you're relatively healthy."

Magnetic Bacteria Delivers Cancer Drug to Tumors

Researchers at ETH Zurich have investigated how to use a magnetic field to control magnetic bacteria. This may be a way to precisely deliver cancer drugs to tumors.

Microrobots inspired by bacteria, small enough to be inserted into blood vessels, are able to tweak the blood flow and direct the transport of drugs. But the ETH researchers are studying how to use real magnetic bacteria, directed by magnetic fields.

A study is published in Advanced Functional Materials. It reports that, with many bacteria in a swarm, it proved possible to move the fluid surrounding them.

The bacteria produce an effect similar to that of a micropump. This means they are able to move active substances present in the fluid in different directions. For example, they can move substances from the bloodstream into the tumor tissue.

Future applications could use synthetic biology to combine the advantages of several bacterial species.

Personal Genomics Device and iPhone App

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have built a mobile genome sequence analyzer. This makes DNA analysis portable and accessible anywhere in the world.

A new iPhone app called iGenomics can be used with a handheld DNA sequencer paired to the iPhone. It allows users to create a mobile genetics laboratory. The iPhone app was developed to complement the tiny DNA sequencing devices being made by Oxford Nanopore.

A research paper is published in GigaScience. It reports that the iGenomics algorithm can quickly map DNA sequences of viral pathogens. And it can identify mutations important for diagnosis and treatment.

iGenomics is available for free on Apple's App Store. And the open source code of the application is available from GitHub.

Therapy Activates Immune Cells Against Cancer

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have proposed a new approach to cancer therapy. A study is published in Nature Communications.

The study shows that a commonly used chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine, can be transformed into a drug that kills cancer cells. This is done in a specialized way, activating immune cells to fight the cancer.

The study reports that gemcitabine, combined with the anti-inflammatory drug celecoxib, was transformed into an immunogenic drug. And the scientists are persuaded that the immune response will perform even better after adding an immunotherapy drug to the regimen.

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