schizophrenia is more common than you might think.

Schizophrenia isn’t a specific, rare or rigorously defined illness. Instead, it covers a wide range of often unrelated conditions, all of which are also seen in people who are not mentally ill.

Which illness frightens you most? Cancer? Stroke? Dementia? To judge from tabloid coverage, the condition we should really fear isn’t physical at all. “Scared of mum’s schizophrenic attacks”, “Knife-wielding schizophrenic woman in court”, “Schizo stranger killed dad”, “Rachel murder: schizo accused”, and

“My schizophrenic son says he’ll kill… but he’s escaped from secure hospitals 7 times” are just a few of dozens of similar headlines we found in a cursory internet search. Mental illness, these stories imply, is dangerous. And schizophrenia is the most dangerous of all.

A crowed street in Edinburgh

Such reporting is unhelpful, misleading and manipulative. But it may be even more inaccurate than it first appears. This is because scientists are increasingly doubtful whether schizophrenia – a term invented more than a century ago by the psychiatric pioneer Eugen Bleuler – is a distinct illness at all. This isn’t to say that individuals diagnosed with the condition don’t have genuine and serious mental health problems. But how well the label “schizophrenia” fits those problems is now a very real question.

What’s wrong with the concept of schizophrenia? For one thing, research indicates the term may simply be functioning as a catch-all for a variety of separate problems. Six main conditions are typically caught under the umbrella of schizophrenia: paranoia; grandiosity (delusional beliefs that one has special powers or is famous); hallucinations (hearing voices, for example); thought disorder (being unable to think straight); anhedonia or the inability to experience pleasure; and diminished emotional expression (essentially an emotional “numbness”). But how many of these problems a person experiences, and how severely, varies enormously. Having one doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily develop any of the others.

Why hasn’t this been noticed by clinicians? Mental health professionals, inevitably, tend only to see the most unwell individuals. These patients tend to suffer from lots of the problems we’ve mentioned – the more difficulties you’re experiencing, the more likely it is that you’ll end up being seen by a specialist – prompting psychiatrists like Bleuler to assume these problems are symptoms of a single underlying condition. But defining an illness by looking only at the minority who end up in hospital can be a big mistake.

The traditional view has been that schizophrenia occurs in approximately 1% of people. But it’s now clear that the sort of experiences captured under the label are common in the general population – frequently far less distressing and disruptive, for sure, but essentially the same thing. Take paranoia, for instance. Almost 20% of UK adults report feeling as though others were against them in the previous 12 months, with 1.8% fearing plots to cause them serious harm. We tested the level of paranoia among the general public by asking volunteers to take a virtual reality tube train ride, during which they shared a carriage with a number of computer-generated “avatars”. These avatars were programmed to behave in a strictly neutral fashion, yet over 40% of participants reported that the avatars showed hostility towards them.

Moreover, triggering the odd sensations associated with schizophrenia is remarkably easy. Go without sleep for a night or two and you’re likely to experience some very peculiar thoughts and feelings (as demonstrated by a recent study of sailors in solo races). Consume a lot of cannabis and the effects can be similar. Meanwhile, a classic study by the psychiatrist Stuart Grassian showed that prisoners placed in solitary confinement were soon prey to hallucinations and delusions.

What all this suggests is that schizophrenia isn’t a specific, relatively rare, and rigorously defined illness. Instead, it covers a wide range of often unrelated conditions, all of which are also seen in people who are not mentally ill, and all of which exist on a continuum from the comparatively mild to the very severe. People with conditions like schizophrenia are simply those who happen to fall at the extreme end of a number of these continua.

What causes psychotic experiences? Research has pointed a decisive finger at living in cities, drug use, poverty, migration, traumatic experiences in childhood and later negative events such as being the victim of an assault. Experiences like paranoia are also linked with a number of psychological traits, such as a tendency to worry, feel depressed, sleep poorly, or jump to conclusions. These factors seem to work in what scientists call a “dose-response” manner: the more of them you experience, the more likely it is that your mental health will suffer.

Genetic factors also play a part, though there’s no evidence for a single “schizophrenia” gene. Instead, a multitude of genes are likely to be involved – with their effect, crucially, conditioned by environmental factors. So the people who end up being treated for schizophrenia aren’t the unlucky few who happen to have inherited a rogue gene. Genetic susceptibility exists on a spectrum too. The more of the relevant genes you possess, the further you are to the extreme end of the spectrum and the less of a push you’ll need from life events to become ill. It’s worth remembering, however, that genetic research into schizophrenia has focused on the people who present for treatment: the severest end of the continua. What it hasn’t done is look at the various types of psychotic experiences across the general population.

Not everyone agrees with these new ways of thinking about schizophrenia. An editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry, for example, lambasted the approach as “scientifically unproven and clinically impractical”. But one thing is certain: deepening our understanding of psychotic problems must be a priority. Diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses change over time, and the same will happen with schizophrenia. Rather than getting sidetracked by day-to-day debates about the symptoms required for a diagnosis, it will be more productive to focus on the individual psychotic experiences, remembering that they don’t only occur in those who come into contact with mental health services but exist on spectra in the general population. This isn’t merely a theoretical issue: if we target specific problems, rather than a loosely defined illness, we’re likely to improve treatment outcomes for the many people struggling with these debilitating experiences.

Antibiotics are ‘not for snot’

Running noses and green phlegm do not mean patients need antibiotics, say doctors and public health experts.

It was described as a “prevailing myth” that the drugs were needed to treat such infections.

Snotty child

Public Health England and the Royal College of General Practitioners said the symptoms were often caused by viruses.

And the use of antibiotics was leading to resistance, they said.

Public Health England said its own research showed that 40% of people thought antibiotics would help a cough if the phlegm was green, while very few thought it would make a difference to clear-coloured phlegm.

Dr Cliodna McNulty, from the organisation, said: “It’s a prevailing myth that anyone with green phlegm or snot needs a course of antibiotics to get better.

“Most of the infections that generate lots of phlegm and snot are viral illnesses and will get better on their own although you can expect to feel pretty poorly for a few weeks.

“The problems of antibiotic resistance are growing. Everyone can help by not using antibiotics for the treatment of uncomplicated infections.”

Taking antibiotics affects the trillions of bacteria that naturally live in the human body and can lead to resistance.

Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Overuse of antibiotics is a serious public health concern.

“Infections adapt to antibiotics used to kill them and can ultimately make treatment ineffective so it’s crucial that antibiotics are used appropriately.”

The green colour in phlegm and snot is the result of a protein made by the immune system to fight infection.

The latest advice comes on European Antibiotics Awareness Day.

Protein coding ‘junk genes’ may be linked to cancer.

By using a new analysis method, researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) in Sweden have found close to one hundred novel human gene regions that code for proteins. A number of these regions are so-called pseudogenes, which may be linked to cancer. The expectation is now that this recently developed protein analysis method, published in the scientific journal Nature Methods, will open up a whole new field of research.

All information about the human genome is stored in the DNA sequence in the , and was mapped in the early 2000s. Genes are defined sections of DNA encoding different types of proteins. In recent decades, researchers have been able to define around 21,000 protein coding , using DNA analysis, for example. In the different cell types of the body, different protein producing are active or inactive, and many medical conditions also depend on altered activity of specific genes.

In humans, only about 1.5% of the human genome or DNA consists of protein-coding genes. Of the remaining DNA, some sequences are used to regulate the genes’ production of proteins, but the bulk of the DNA is considered to lack any purpose and is often referred to as “junk DNA”. Within this junk DNA there are so-called called pseudogenes. Pseudogenes have been considered as non-functional genes, which are believed to be gene remnants that lost their function during evolution.

In the current paper in Nature Methods, researchers present a new proteogenomics method, which makes it possible to track down protein coding genes in the remaining 98.5% of the genome, something that until now has been an impossible task to pursue. Among other things, the research shows that some pseudogenes produce proteins indicating that they indeed have a function.

“To be able to do this we had to match experimental data for sequences of peptides with millions of possible locations in the whole genome”, says Associate Professor and study leader Janne Lehtiö. “We had to develop both new experimental and bioinformatics methods to allow protein based gene detection, but when we had everything in place it felt like participating in a Jules Verne adventure inside the genome.”

The Lehtiö team found evidence for almost one hundred new protein-coding regions in the . Similar findings were made in cells from mice. Many of the new proteins encoded by pseudogenes could also be traced in other cancer cell lines, and the next objective on the researchers’ agenda is to investigate if these genes in the “junkyard” of the genome play a role in cancer or other diseases.

“Our study challenges the old theory that don’t code for proteins”, says Dr Lethiö. “The presented method allows for protein based genome annotation in organism with complex genomes and can lead to discovery of many novel genes, not only in humans but in any species with a known DNA sequence.”

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Single photon detected but not destroyed.

First instrument built that can witness the passage of a light particle without absorbing it.

Physicists have seen a single particle of light and then let it go on its way. The feat was possible thanks to a new technique that, for the first time, detects optical photons without destroying them. The technology could eventually offer perfect detection of photons, providing a boost to quantum communication and even biological imaging.

Plenty of commercially available instruments can identify individual light particles, but these instruments absorb the photons and use the energy to produce an audible click or some other signal of detection.

Quantum physicist Stephan Ritter and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, wanted to follow up on a 2004 proposal of a nondestructive method for detecting photons. Instead of capturing photons, this instrument would sense their presence, taking advantage of the eccentric realm of quantum mechanics in which particles can exist in multiple states and roam in multiple places simultaneously.

Ritter and his team started with a pair of highly reflective mirrors separated by a half-millimeter-wide cavity. Then they placed a single atom of rubidium in the cavity to function as a security guard. They chose rubidium because it can take on two distinct identities, which are determined by the arrangement of its electrons. In one state, it’s a 100 percent effective sentry, preventing photons from entering the cavity. In the other, it’s a totally useless lookout, allowing photons to enter the cavity. When photons get in, they bounce back and forth about 20,000 times before exiting.

The trick was manipulating the rubidium so that it was in a so-called quantum superposition of these two states, allowing one atom to be an overachiever and a slacker at the same time. Consequently, each incoming photon took multiple paths simultaneously, both slipping into the cavity undetected and being stopped at the door and reflected away. Each time the attentive state of the rubidium turned away a photon, a measurable property of the atom called its phase changed. If the phases of the two states of the rubidium atom differed, the researchers knew that the atom had encountered a photon.

To confirm their results, the researchers placed a conventional detector outside the apparatus to capture photons after their rubidium rendezvous, the team reports November 14 in Science.

“It’s a very cool experiment,” says Alan Migdall, who leads the quantum optics group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. But he warns that identifying photons without destroying them does not mean that the outgoing photon is the same as it was prior to detection. “You’ve pulled some information out of it, so you do wind up affecting it,” he says. Ritter says he expects the photons’ properties are largely unchanged, but he acknowledges that his team needs to perform more measurements to confirm that hypothesis.

Ritter notes that no photon detector is perfect, and his team’s is no exception: It failed to detect a quarter of incoming photons, and it absorbed a third of them. But he says the power of the technique is that, for many applications of single-photon detectors, each detector wouldn’t have to be perfect. Ritter envisions a nested arrangement of improved detectors that, as long as they did not absorb photons, would almost guarantee that every photon is counted. Ultimately, that could benefit fields such as medicine and molecular biology, in which scientists require precise imaging of objects in low-light environments.



The SafeFlame device generates hydrogen and oxygen gases using just water and an electrical input. These gases can be combusted in a brazing torch and offer advantages as an alternative to oxy-acetylene and oxy-propane.

single green safeflame

SafeFlame technology comprises three separate features which together represent a major advance in the industry.

  1. The oxygen and hydrogen are generated separately, and their mixture is controlled to deliver a precise stoichiometric, oxidising or reducing flame – an innovation offering unique benefits in brazing applications.
  2. The length of the flame and the heat flux imparted to the work piece can be adjusted instantaneously by adjusting the power input to the electrolyser stack – this provides a more flexible and user friendly solution.
  3. The SafeFlame approach eliminates the need for any stored gases, removing explosion hazards and improving process portability.
  4. safeflame pipe top view

Key features:

  • High flame temperature, high heat flux but uniform heat transfer
  • Quiet operation, silent flame
  • Powered from a standard 230V electricity supply
  • Easy to use
    • Very simple to operate
    • Excellent quality joints can be achieved easily
    • Less likely to overheat or melt work-pieces
    • Manoeuvrable, portable, transportable
  • Inherently safe
    • Easily seen flame
    • Burner remains cool to touch
    • Ultra low emissions
    • No gas cylinders on site
    • No flashback, lift-off or explosion hazards
    • No danger to fire service personnel
  • Suitable for brazing numerous materials
    • Copper, aluminium, steel
    • HVACR, automotive and aerospace applications
    • Flame stoichiometry can be adjusted
  • Low running costs
    • Very low electricity costs for typical brazing operations
    • Very low water consumption rate
    • Good payback periods compared with oxy-acetylene
    • Avoids the insurance costs associated with transporting gas cylinders
    • Avoids the downtime costs of obtaining/changing gas cylinders
    • No need to buy oxygen

Can robots care for the elderly?

Dan Simmons meets the researchers developing technology to help improve life for people in their later years

With the world’s elderly population growing rapidly, scientists are suggesting that robots could take on some of the burden of providing care, support and – most surprisingly – companionship.

A boy born today in Britain is expected to live on average to the age of 89, a girl to 92.

Worldwide 1.5 billion people over the age of 65 are expected to be around in 2050.

In Japan, which has the world’s oldest population, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has allocated 2.39bn yen (£14.3m) in the 2013 budget to develop robots to help with care.

Toyota is developing devices to help carry the elderly or provide mobility support and Toli Corp has created a mat with a wireless sensor that can track and deliver feedback if an elderly person is moving around.

A special robot with 24 fingers has been developed for hair washing and head massage, useful if a person has limited arm movement. It is something Panasonic has also tried out in Japanese hair salons.

The idea of using robotics to care for the elderly is being trialled everywhere from Singapore to Salford.

Robot and Frank Is the friendship between Frank Langella’s character and his robot carer in the film Robot and Frank a sign of things to come?

The Spatio-Temporal Representations and Activities for Cognitive Control in Long-term Scenarios – handily referred to as the Strands project – at the University of Birmingham has received 8m euros (£6.69m) in funding from the European Commission.

The Strands robot will begin trials with an Austrian care provider in May, starting with simple things such as checking fire doors remain unblocked and defibrillators are always present and in the right place.

“We’re trying to free up more of the staff time,” says Dr Nick Hawes.

He says: “One of the biggest complaints of care home staff members is that they don’t spend enough time doing the human interaction and the caring part.

“We’re looking at porter-type tasks and assistance tasks. If the robot could fetch the tray of medicine while the human talks to the residents instead of getting the tray and just dishing out the medicine because they’re short on time, it increases interaction.”

But some projects are hoping robots can take a more active, and personable, approach to care.

Time for lunch?

“Start Quote

Paro is my friend. I like it that he seems to understand human feelings”

Kazuo Nashimura Care home resident

The Mobiserv project – a consortium of eight European universities and care companies – has just finished research on creating a “social companion robot”.

It could provide the elderly with everything from a health and nutrition coach that encourages them to eat healthily and exercise through to a device that lets them know they have not spoken to anyone for a while.

A project in Salford is creating robots that “can help supervise people 24 hours a day”, according to researcher Antonio Espingardeiro.

The Carebot P37 S65 can, among other things, be programmed with speech therapy and object recognition exercises to help people with dementia.

Mr Espingardeiro and his team are currently looking at the comparative advantages and disadvantages between robot care and human care, but he believes robots can provide meaningful interaction to supplement human contact.

Toyota mobility robot
Toyota is creating robots that can assist with mobility, particularly for the elderly

As with a lot of technology, reality is taking its lead from science fiction. In the recent film Robot and Frank, an elderly man is bought a robot rather than being put into a care home.

There is evidence that robots offering companionship are popular with the elderly.

The most popular robot used by the older generation in Japan is Paro, a robot that will not help with the dishes, carry heavy items or administer medication.

But it does look cute, a cross between a seal and a Furby children’s toy.

Paro, a popular Japanese robot
The seal-like Paro has become the most popular robot used by the elderly in Japan

It offers companionship rather than any tangible medical or physical support.

“Paro is my friend,” says Japanese care home resident Kazuo Nashimura,

“I like it that he seems to understand human feelings.”

Some of the robotic community thinks that this is not strictly in the mould of providing tangible benefits to the elderly.

“At no point is that a care robot,” says Dr Hawes.

“There is really no benefit to having that except that it engages people, it facilitates conversation. If you’re one on one with that robot, it’s no more beneficial than having a Game Boy.”

And the emotional reliance on robots seems to go against current campaigns by various charities for the elderly.

“Start Quote

Academics from the University of Edinburgh argue numbers have actually been falling in Britain and the ratio of working adults to dependent pensioners is improving”

Age UK says half of all older people consider the television their main form of company and has set about a befriending service where people can volunteer to go around and chat with lonely people.

It is a service that they think would make a big difference, in a way that robots cannot.

“There is nothing wrong with making smarter use of technology to help people manage health conditions and possibly stay independent for longer,” says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.

“However, it is always important to ensure technology is only used where it delivers real benefits and to recognise that it is no substitute for the human touch.”

Some see the robots as threatening to take the place of care staff or loved ones.

But with so many lonely elderly people, robots are seen by scientists working on robot projects as a first step.

“Some robotic device in a lonely person’s life might improve it,” says Dr Hawes.

“But that shouldn’t disoblige society from finding new ways to give them human contact.

“The idea that we can say, ‘Hey, let’s give them a robot and we don’t have to worry any more’ is the scrapheap approach.”