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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 21/07/14

21 Jul, 2014

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome community.. 

Same genes drive maths and reading ability

AS0000141F22 Child, at primary schoolAround half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, according to a collaborative study published Nature Communications as part of the Wellcome Trust Case-Control Consortium.

While mathematics and reading ability are known to run in families, the complex system of genes affecting these traits is largely unknown. The finding deepens scientists’ understanding of how nature and nurture interact, highlighting the important role that a child’s learning environment may have on the development of reading and mathematics skills, and the complex, shared genetic basis of these cognitive traits.

The study used data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) to analyse the influence of genetics on the reading and mathematics performance of 12 year-old children from nearly 2,800 British families.

Twins and unrelated children were tested for reading comprehension and fluency, and answered mathematics questions based on the UK national curriculum. The information collected from these tests was combined with DNA data, showing a substantial overlap in the genetic variants that influence mathematics and reading.

First author Dr Oliver Davis, from UCL, said: “We looked at this question in two ways, by comparing the similarity of thousands of twins, and by measuring millions of tiny differences in their DNA. Both analyses show that similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths. However, it’s also clear just how important our life experience is in making us better at one or the other. It’s this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are.”

Brain activity in sex addiction mirrors that of drug addiction

Carved ivory statue, in the form of a copulating man and woman, Far Eastern (c) Science Museum, LondonPornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour – known commonly as sex addiction – similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE. However the researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that pornography itself is addictive.

Although precise estimates are unknown, previous studies have suggested that as many as 1 in 25 adults is affected by compulsive sexual behaviour – an obsession with sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviour – which they are unable to control. This can have an impact on a person’s personal life and work, leading to significant distress and feelings of shame. Excessive use of pornography is one of the main features identified in many people with compulsive sexual behaviour. Although there is currently no formally accepted definition used to diagnose the condition.

In this study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, researchers looked at brain activity in 19 male patients affected by compulsive sexual behaviour and compared them to the same number of healthy volunteers. The affected patients were those who had started watching pornography at earlier ages and in higher proportions relative to the healthy volunteers.

The study participants were shown a series of short videos featuring either sexually explicit content or sports whilst their brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses a blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal to measure brain activity.

“The patients in our trial were all people who had substantial difficulties controlling their sexual behaviour and this was having significant consequences for them, affecting their lives and relationships,” explains Dr Valerie Voon, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow at the University of Cambridge. “In many ways, they show similarities in their behaviour to patients with drug addictions. We wanted to see if these similarities were reflected in brain activity, too.”

Option of HIV care at home increases use of antiretroviral therapy

B0004953 Hand with AIDS ribbonAdults in Blantyre, Malawi, who are offered self-testing for HIV infection, and home care, are more likely to start antiretroviral therapy compared to those offered standard HIV care, according to a study funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The study was published in a special HIV/AIDs issue of the journal JAMA, released to coincide with the 20th International AIDS Conference.

Self-testing for HIV infection (defined as individuals performing and interpreting their own HIV test in private) is a novel approach that has seen high acceptance in Malawi and the United States. The process could overcome barriers to conventional facility-based and community-based HIV testing, which can lack privacy and convenience. Despite this, there have been no previous studies in high HIV prevalence settings have investigated the link to HIV care after HIV self-testing, say the study authors.

In 2012, an estimated 35 million individuals were infected with the HIV worldwide. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) substantially reduces the risk of HIV transmission as well as greatly reducing illness and death, raising hopes that high uptake of annual HIV testing and early initiation of ART could improve HIV prevention as well as care. Achieving high coverage of HIV testing in sub-Saharan African countries is a major challenge, due to low rates of HIV testing.

Dr Peter MacPherson, Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Fellow at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said“At a time when universal test and treat approaches to controlling the HIV epidemic are being considered, home initiation of HIV care shows high promise as a simple strategy to improve uptake of ART when HIV self-testing is carried out at home.”

In other news…

We’re refreshing our research framework – find out more in this post from Trust director Jeremy Farrar.

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Professors David Mabey and Polly Roy have both been honoured in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours list.

Congratulations to those behind the Wellcome Trust-supported film Ming of Harlem, which won Best International Film at the Marseille Documentary Film Festival.

Image credits: Anthea Sieveking , Wellcome Images; Stevie Taylor, Wellcome Images, and Science Museum, London

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