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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 26.10.15

26 Oct, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Picture perfect?

Some people are more prone to hallucinations than others, according to research published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Credit: University of Cambridge

Credit: University of Cambridge

The new study suggests that hallucinations occur when our normal tendency to interpret the world is intensified by making predictions and using our prior knowledge.

Scientists describe hallucinations as drastic changes in perception; people may see, feel, smell and taste things that aren’t actually there. Those who have hallucinations may also hold beliefs that others find irrational and are unable to understand.

Researchers asked individuals at a mental health service in Cambridgeshire to look at a series of black and white images (similar to the one shown on the left) and say whether or not each image contains a person. Participants were then shown original colour photo that each image is based upon.

Credit: University of Cambridge

Credit: University of Cambridge

Compared to a healthy control group, individuals with very early signs of psychosis were better at predicting and making sense of the ambiguous image once they had seen the original colour photo (see image on the right).

“Having a predictive brain is very useful – it makes us efficient and adept at creating a coherent picture of an ambiguous and complex world,” adds senior author Professor Paul Fletcher, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. “But it also means that we are not very far away from perceiving things that aren’t actually there, which is the definition of a hallucination.

In fact, in recent years we’ve come to realise that such altered perceptual experiences are by no means restricted to people with mental illness. They are relatively common, in a milder form, across the entire population. Many of us will have heard or seen things that aren’t there.” 

Sex cells

B0000057 Confocal of C. elegans Credit: Dr David Becker. Wellcome Images This is a confocal microscope image of a nematode worm (C. elegans). The image is a reconstruction of optical sections made through the specimen. C. elegans is used by scientists in the study of genetics. Confocal micrograph Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see

Credit: Dr David Becker. Wellcome Images

Previously unidentified brain cells of male worms (C. elegans) allow them to recall and search for sex, according to a study published in Nature.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers identified a pair of neurons in the male worm’s brain that show a difference in sexual behaviour between male and female worms.

The neurons, known as ‘mystery cells of the male’ (MCM) change the brain circuit to create behavioural differences in males. These cells affect behaviour so males will prioritise sex over food.

During the study, the worms were conditioned to associate saltiness with starvation. When exposed to different salt concentrations, the male worms moved towards the saltiest areas. This behaviour differed to that of both hermaphrodite worms and males that had their MCMs removed.

Scientists suggest this research has significant implications, and could provide insight into the different behaviours between sexes of other animals, including humans.

Dr Richard Poole, a Wellcome Trust Fellow based at UCL, said: “In the broader picture, it gets at this question of how do men and women think and behave differently. We always wonder, do we have different learning aptitudes or is it social, and in this case, it happens to be genetic”.

Spot check

Credit: Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK. Wellcome Images

Credit: Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK. Wellcome Images

Having more than 11 moles on your arm may indicate a higher risk of skin cancer, according to new research published in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The number of moles on the entire body can be predicted by counting the number found in a small ‘proxy’ area like the arm.

Wellcome Trust-funded researchers studied more than 3,500 female Caucasian twins over an eight year period. Trained nurses counted the number of moles on 17 parts of each person’s body, and also recorded their skin type, freckles, and hair and eye colour. This was then repeated in a larger study with both men and women.

Scientists found that the number of moles on a person’s right arm is the best indicator of the total number on the whole body. Those with over 11 moles on their right arm were more likely to have over 100 on their body in total, and have a higher risk of developing melanoma.

Lead author, Simone Ribero of the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London said: “The findings could have a significant impact for primary care, allowing GPs to more accurately estimate the total number of moles in a patient extremely quickly via an easily accessible body part. This would mean that more patients at risk of melanoma can be identified and monitored”.

In other news…

The film Unseen: The Lives of Looking, supported by our Small Arts Award, has been nominated for the main competition at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen.

Credit: Big Heritage

Congratulations to the Roman Medicine Roadshow team who were awarded the AHI Discover Heritage Award this week for interpretation for a target audience category. The project was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

This week, the Home Office published a report on the number of animals used in medical experiments in 2014. The annual statistics show a fall in the number of animals used in research.

The Wellcome Trust has partnered with the US National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to launch the Open Science Prize – the deadline for Phase 1 is 29th February 2016.

Finally, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust’s Open Access policy, with 10 years of Open Access in 10 numbers!

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