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Genetic Superheroes live among us! Hank explains that, along with a research study involving LSD and brain scans in this episode of SciShow News!

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Genetic Superheroes

Brains on LSD

[SciShow Intro plays]

Hank: They might not have adamantium claws or telekinesis like the X-Men, but genetic superheroes may walk among us. These are people who should have serious genetic diseases, according to mutations in their DNA, but they don’t, and we don’t know why.

With more research, scientists working on the Resilience Project are hoping to discover new biological factors that protect humans from disease. Or even new treatments for people who are living with these life-threatening conditions.

In a study published last week in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers analyzed small sections of nearly 600 thousand human genomes, or personal DNA sequences. All these data came from people who chose to use DNA testing companies, and anonymously donated their information for science. After a careful screening process, the scientists found 13 adults with mutations known to cause eight different debilitating -- and sometimes lethal -- childhood diseases. And, here’s the catch: they all had healthy medical records.

One of those diseases was cystic fibrosis, where a mutated gene causes excess mucus production in the lungs and other organs. This can make it really hard to breathe or absorb any nutrients – plus lots of other painful symptoms. Other, rarer conditions cause defects in skull and facial development or severe autoimmune problems. And some are almost always lethal in childhood. So there must have been some factor that protected these people from developing symptoms. And there must be things that scientists don’t quite understand about these diseases.

Ideally, we’d like to learn more from the full genomes and other biological samples of these so-called “genetic superheroes.” But, unfortunately, nobody knows who they are, since all the DNA data were anonymous. And the consent forms that these thirteen people signed /don’t/ give the researchers permission to recontact them -- so, in a way, their secret identities are intact. And they may never know how special they are!

This does make these findings somewhat speculative, though. After all, without actually meeting these people to collect more data, the researchers can’t double-check their results, or prove that there weren’t errors in the health records or DNA tests. However, the Resilience Project hopes to recruit more people who are happy to be recontacted if they turn out to be genetic superheroes. You may even be one yourself.

But let’s move on, from our genes to our brains. Because last week, research groups based in the UK broke through decades of scientific silence and published two separate sets of findings that, for the first time, used modern brain imaging to scan people tripping on LSD.

LSD – or acid – is one of the best-known psychedelic drugs. A dose of LSD can cause visual hallucinations, as well as a sensation known as ego-dissolution, where the sense of self slips away, leaving a feeling that’s been described as ‘oneness with the Universe.’ LSD was widely studied in the 1950s and 60s before it was banned pretty much everywhere. But these days, it’s hard to find funding for any experiment involving illegal drugs -- even carefully-designed experiments that get specially licensed by multiple ethics committees and help us learn new things about our brains. And no funding usually means no science.

Trouble is, the field of neuroscience has advanced a lot in the past fifty years. Which means there’s a huge gap in our knowledge about the possible harms – or even therapeutic benefits – of drugs like LSD. For the studies released last week, the authors got around these problems by getting all the proper legal permissions, plus partly crowdfunding their research through Walacea [WOL-a-see-ah] – which is like Kickstarter for science.

For the experiments, they recruited twenty people with prior experience using psychedelics, hooked them up to a bunch of brain-tracking machines, and injected around one recreational dose -- 75 micrograms -- of LSD. Then, the participants recorded their... experiences... as best they could. The researchers compared these descriptions to the brain scans, to try and piece together the inner workings of tripping-out brains.

Mostly, the hallucinations seemed to affect activity in the subjects’ visual cortex, an area that normally deals with vision. After a dose of LSD, the visual cortex received more blood flow and started communicating more with regions nearby. There was also a drop in the strength of alpha brain waves – which could be connected to a drop in inhibition. Basically, the brain was freewheeling, generating vivid images even when people shut their eyes. And there were other, more widespread changes.

They found that LSD increased interactions between brain regions that don’t often talk to each other, while the brain’s busiest communication superhighways got quieter. One of the researchers described the effect as being kind of like a “unified, more integrated brain,” rather than the usual, more distinct sections -- and a unified brain was strongly linked to that feeling of ego-dissolution.

Overall, the scientists who carried out the studies believe more research about LSD’s effects on the mind reveal more about consciousness itself. They also hope that the success of these trials will encourage more carefully-conducted research into other illegal drugs, so we can understand them better.

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