London air pollution is restricting children’s lung development – new research

Air pollution is known to contribute to early deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. There is also mounting evidence to show that breathing polluted air increases the risk of dementia. Children are vulnerable, too: exposure to air pollution has been associated with babies being born underweight, as well as poorer cognitive development and lung function during childhood.

Cities including London are looking to tackle the social, economic and environmental costs of air pollution by improving urban air quality using low emission zones. In these zones, the most polluting vehicles are restricted from entering, or drivers are penalised to encourage them to take up lower emission technologies. London’s low emission zone was rolled out in four stages from February 2008 to January 2012, affecting mainly heavy and light goods vehicles, such as delivery trucks and vans.

But our new research, involving more than 2,000 children in four of London’s inner-city boroughs, reveals that while these measures are beginning to improve air quality, they do not yet protect children from the harmful effects of air pollution. It is the most detailed assessment of how a low emission zone has performed to date.

Young lungs

Our study focused mainly on the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, but also included primary schools in the City of London and Greenwich. All of these areas experienced high levels of air pollution from traffic, and exceeded the annual EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). What’s more, they have a very young demographic and are among the UK’s most deprived areas.

Between 2008-9 and 2013-14, we measured changes to air pollution concentrations in London, while also conducting a detailed examination of children’s lung function and respiratory symptoms in these areas.

Every year for five years, we measured the lung function in separate groups of 400 children, aged eight to nine years old. We then considered these measurements alongside the children’s estimated exposure to air pollution, which took into account where they lived, and the periods they spent at home and at school.

Our findings confirmed that long-term exposure to urban air pollution is related to smaller lung volumes among children. The average exposure for all children over the five years of our study was 40.7 micrograms of NO₂ per cubic metre of air, which was equivalent to a reduction in lung volume of approximately 5%.

A long-term effect. Shutterstock.

Changes of this magnitude would not be of immediate clinical significance; the children would be unaware of them and they would not affect their daily lives. But our results show that children’s lungs are not developing as well as they could. This is important, because failure to attain optimal lung growth by adulthood often leads to poor health in later life.

Over the course of the study, we also observed some evidence of a reduction in rhinitis (a constant runny nose). But we found no reduction in asthma symptoms, nor in the proportion of children with underdeveloped lungs.

Air pollution falls

While the introduction of the low emission zone did relatively little to improve children’s respiratory health, we did find positive signs that it was beginning to reduce pollution. Using data from the London Air Quality Network – which monitors air pollution – we detected small reductions in concentrations of NO₂, although overall levels of the pollutant remained very high in the areas we looked at.

The maximum reduction in NO₂ concentrations we detected amounted to seven micrograms per cubic metre over the five years of our study, or roughly 1.4 micrograms per cubic metre each year. For context, the EU limit for NO₂ concentrations is 40 micrograms per cubic metre. Background levels of NO₂ for inner city London, where our study was located, decreased from 50 micrograms to 45 micrograms per cubic metre, over five years. NO₂ concentrations by the roadside experienced a greater reduction, from 75 micrograms to 68 micrograms per cubic metre, over the course of our study.

By the end of our study in 2013-14, large areas of central London still weren’t compliant with EU air quality standards – and won’t be for some time at this rate of change.

We didn’t detect significant reductions in the level of particulate matter over the course of our study. But this could be because a much larger proportion of particulate matter pollution comes from tyre and brake wear, rather than tail pipe emissions, as well as other sources, so small changes due to the low emission zone would have been hard to quantify.

The route forward

Evidence from elsewhere shows that improving air quality can help ensure children’s lungs develop normally. In California, the long-running Children’s Health Study found that driving down pollution does reduce the proportion of children with clinically small lungs – though it’s pertinent to note that NO₂ concentrations in their study in the mid-1990s were already lower than those in London today.

Our findings should encourage local and national governments to take more ambitious actions to improve air quality, and ultimately public health. The ultra-low emission zone, which will be introduced in central London on April 8, 2019, seems a positive move towards this end.

The scheme, which will be expanded to the boundaries set by the North and South circular roads in October 2021, targets most vehicles in London – not just a small fraction of the fleet. The low emission zone seems to be the right treatment – now it’s time to increase the dose.

London opens world’s tallest, longest tunnel slide

This is the world's longest and tallest tunnel slide.

You can now buy tickets for the world’s tallest and longest tunnel slide at London’s ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower.

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Artist Carsten Höller — developing on an initial proposal by Bblur Architecture — has designed the 178 m-long (584 ft) helter skelter, set to open on 24 June. The slide is the latest intervention to the 115 meter-tall (377 ft) Orbit, conceived by Anish Kapoorfor the 2012 Olympics, following an abseiling attraction completed last year.
“Since 1999, I have built a number of slides, both free-standing and attached to buildings, but never onto another artwork as in this case,” says Höller, who installed a pair of spiraling slides at the Hayward Gallery for an exhibition last summer.
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“Now that the two artworks will be intertwined with each other, I see it as one of these double situations that I am so interested in.”
The Orbit Tower slide will be made up of 30 sections — 12 of which are now complete — and feature 12 turns, including a tight corkscrew twist. It starts at a height of 74 meters and has a top speed of 15 miles per hour, taking 40 seconds to go down.
Tickets for the attraction cost £15 ($22) and include access to the Orbit’s viewing platform.
London isn’t the only city expecting a helter skelter either, with plans afoot for a glass slide 1,000 ft up Downtown LA’s US Bank Tower.

London is now recycling energy from train brakes to power their stations.

London is now recycling energy from train brakes to power their stations


London has just finished testing a new system that can collect and recycle energy generated by their Tube trains when they brake, and it’s already powering their stations completely for more than two days per week.

The world-first, five-week trial was conducted on the Victoria line of the London Underground (LU), which reportedly transports 1.2 billion passengers across a total of 76.2 million km every year, with some stations catering to 89 million people. The city reports that it’s already shaving 5 percent off the annual energy bill, which might not sound like much, but that equates to about £6 million (US$9 million) every year that can be spent on improving the line.

“The trial puts London at the cutting edge of this kind of technology and clearly demonstrates how energy from trains can be recovered to power Tube stations, making the network more environmentally friendly and cost-effective,” Matthew Pencharz, Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy, said in a press statement. “This complements our wider work to make other forms of public transport cleaner and greener, including our buses, where we have introduced hybrid and zero-emission technology.”

The technology used is called an inverter system, which has been installed at the Cloudesley Road substation on the Victoria line. The system works by collecting energy generated by the trains when they brake before feeding it back into the power mains as electricity. “In hybrid and electric cars, such recovery systems can help improve range, but in large heavily-packed passenger trains running regularly in one of the most heavily traveled cities in the world, the effects can be significant,”David Szondy writes for Gizmag.

According to the London transport authority, it collected an average of 1 Megawatt hour (MWh) of energy each day, which is enough to cover the line’s biggest stations, such as Holborn, for more than two days. The city will now be running the system permanently.

Another benefit of the inverter system is that by collecting up the energy and turning it into electricity, it prevents the train from converting it into heat. Normally, all that heat energy is radiated throughout the London Underground, and it requires a whole lot of air-conditioning to combat – presumably one of the biggest power saps the stations are dealing with.

“This state-of-the-art regenerative braking system has the potential to transform how we power stations across the … network, unlocking massive power savings and significantly reducing our energy bills,” Chris Tong, LU’s Head of Power and Cooling, said in a press release. “We are committed to doing more to reduce our energy use, and this technology – a world-first for metro railways – is one of a number of innovations we’re embracing to lower our environmental impact.”

According to the local government, this system is just one of a bunch of new initiatives they’re undertaking to make the public train system more environmentally friendly. Earlier this year, they announced that the Greenwich Power Station in southeast London would be converted into a low-carbon power generator for the Tube network, and they’ll be installing six new gas engines to replace existing boilers, which will provide cheaper, cleaner power for their trains.

We have a feeling other major cities around the world will be following suit in the coming decades, not just because it’s better for the environment – you just can’t argue with the economics of renewables anymore, so why fight it?

Scientists ‘print’ new eye cells

human eye
Many teams are researching different ways to repair the sight-giving cells of the retina

Scientists say they have been able to successfully print new eye cells that could be used to treat sight loss.

The proof-of-principle work in the journal Biofabrication was carried out using animal cells.

The Cambridge University team says it paves the way for grow-your-own therapies for people with damage to the light-sensitive layer of tissue at back of the eye – the retina.

More tests are needed before human trials can begin.

“Start Quote

This is a step in the right direction as the retina is often affected in many of the common eye conditions, causing loss of central vision which stops people watching TV and seeing the faces of loved ones”

Clara Eaglen of the RNIB

At the moment the results are preliminary and show that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats―ganglion cells and glial cells.

These are the cells that transmit information from the eye to certain parts of the brain, and provide support and protection for neurons.

The printed cells remained healthy and retained their ability to survive and grow in culture.

Retinal repair

Co-authors of the study Prof Keith Martin and Dr Barbara Lorber, from the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge, said: “The loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases. The retina is an exquisitely organised structure where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function.

Human eye
The retina sits at the back of the eye

“Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.”

They now plan to attempt to print other types of retinal cells, including the light-sensitive photoreceptors – rods and cones.

Scientists have already been able to reverse blindness in mice using stem cell transplants.

And there is promising work into electronic retina implants implants in patients.

Clara Eaglen, of the RNIB, said: “Clearly it’s still at a very early stage and further research is needed to develop this technology for use in repairing the retina in humans.

“The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored.

“Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not.

“It could help boost people’s confidence and in turn their independence.”

Prof Jim Bainbridge of London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital said: “The finding that eye cells can survive the printing process suggests the exciting possibility that this technique could be used in the future to create organised tissues for regeneration of the eye and restoration of sight.

“Blindness is commonly caused by degeneration of nerve cells in the eye. In recent years there has been substantial progress towards the development of new treatments involving cell transplantation.”

Could diabetes drug slow Alzheimer’s?

A trial has begun to see whether a drug used to treat diabetes can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study will involve 200 patients with memory problems due to early Alzheimer’s. Laboratory research suggests that the drug, liraglutide, reduces brain inflammation, improving the growth of brain cells and the connections between them.

Patients will be recruited in London – at Imperial College and King’s College – and sites in Oxford, Southampton and Swindon.

One of those on the trial is 65-year-old Geoff Payne. He became concerned about short-term memory loss three years ago and was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“My older brother died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 79,” he said.

“His disease was spotted quite late and I remember him being almost entirely silent and withdrawn at family gatherings.

 Geoff and Sue Payne

“I wish I’d tried to talk more to him about it. When I finally got my diagnosis it confirmed my own suspicions. I have had the disease for three years but fortunately I have not yet declined substantially.


“My wife and I know what to expect in the years ahead, so we take one day at a time. Hopefully this drug may help.”

Those on the trial will receive a daily injection of liraglutide or a placebo for 12 months. They will have scans and memory tests before and after the treatment.

It’s a decade since the last new treatment for Alzheimer’s was introduced and some major drug trials have failed in recent years.

“New drugs can take decades to filter through and cost billions,” said Dr Paul Edison, Imperial College London, who’s leading the trial.

“Liraglutide is a tried and tested diabetes treatment, so we know it is safe. This trial will show within three years whether it can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s Society is providing more than £300,000 towards the project. Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development said: “This exciting study suggests that one of these drugs can reverse the biological causes of Alzheimer’s even in the late stages and demonstrates we’re on the right track.

“We are now funding a major new trial to bring it closer to a position where it can be improving the lives of people with dementia.’

G8 summit

The need for more research and new treatments will be the key focus of the G8 dementia summit in London on Wednesday.

The Department of Health says health ministers will discuss how they can coordinate and accelerate efforts and try to break down barriers between companies, researchers and clinicians.

Dementia is already a significant global issue, and cases are predicted to rise from 44 million to 135 million by 2050 – a reflection of the growing and ageing global population.

It is thought to cost the global economy £370bn ($604bn) each year and there are concerns that future demands could overwhelm some health services.

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Detecting Cancer with Digital PCR.

Could dPCR be a diagnostics dark horse?

Detecting Cancer with Digital PCRDigital PCR can carry out a single reaction within a single sample, but the sample is separated into a large number of partitions, and the reaction is carried out in each partition individually. [© anyaivanova –]
  • Over the past few years, scientists from a variety of disciplines have applied digital PCR (dPCR) as a potentially useful tool for breast cancer screening, measuring latent HIV reservoirs in patients, and diagnosing hospital-acquired and sexually transmitted infections, among others. Digital PCR and variations on it offer a new approach to nucleic acid detection and quantification.

    Similarly to real-time quantitative PCR (qRT-PCR or qPCR), dPCR carries out a single reaction within a single sample. However, in dPCR the sample is separated into a large number of partitions, and the reaction is carried out in each partition individually. This separation, proponents of the technology say, allows a more reliable collection and sensitive quantitation of nucleic acids.

    And a recent advance in dPCR, droplet digital PCR (ddPCR™), can measure absolute quantities by counting nucleic acid molecules encapsulated in discrete, volumetrically defined, water-in-oil droplet partitions. The technology is said to offer advantages in the field of liquid biopsies, enabling circulating nucleic acids (cfDNA) and circulating tumor cells (CTCs) to be measured in blood. The technique can also detect rare tumorigenic mutations in a high background of “normal” DNA, routinely down to 0.01% and often further.

    But although simple in theory and principle, the technique’s implementation was not, as it was carried out in commercially available 384-well plates with five microliters per partition, requiring large volumes of reagents.

  • The dPCR Arena

    Advanced nanofabrication and microfluidics technologies have now been incorporated into systems that produce hundreds to millions of nanoliter- or even picoliter-scale partitions, but to date, few companies have jumped into the dPCR arena, offering instrumentation platforms that perform dPCR, or both qPCR and dPCR in various configurations.

    In 2006, Fluidigm became the first company to commercialize dPCR. Currently it offers two systems that mix samples with reagents, partition the reaction mixture, and perform thermocycling and read results within each partition. The systems use chips containing microfluidics and valves that partition samples into about 800 reactions, with either 12 or 48 samples per chip.

    Life Technologies, through its 2009 acquisition of BioTrove, now offers two machines that can be used for both digital PCR and qPCR, the OpenArray and QuantStudio 12K Flex. These mix samples with reagents, load mixtures into reaction chambers, run amplification cycles and monitor reactions as they occur. The machines rely on plates that are roughly the size of microscope slide boards with nano-sized holes; capillary forces and careful placement of hydrophilic and hydrophobic surfaces hold samples in place.

    Life Technologies has also introduced the QuantStudio 3D Digital PCR System. This system, which began shipping in June 2013, is built around a high-density, nanofluidic silicon chip that enables up to 20,000 data points. The system’s chip-based approach is meant to simplify workflow, decreasing the number of hands-on steps needed to begin experiments, and reducing the risks of sample contamination and loss of DNA.

    Companies like Bio-Rad and RainDance now market instruments with many more partitions than previously possible using plates with nano-sized holes. In droplet digital PCR, reaction chambers are separated not by the walls of a well but by carefully titrated emulsions of oil, water, and stabilizing chemicals. Samples are put into a machine where they are mixed with all the necessary reagents and dispersed into tiny droplets. The droplets for each sample are transferred into tubes that can be placed in a thermocycler for PCR. Afterward, the tubes are transferred to a droplet-reading machine, which functions like a flow cytometer to analyze each droplet for whether or not a reaction has occurred.

    RainDance, for example, has developed a patented way to put reagents inside of picoliter-sized droplets to encapsulate biology one droplet at a time. Currently, single nucleic acids are placed inside of the droplets. This creates a single-plex PCR reaction inside of each droplet and, the company says, droplets can be generated using one of RainDance’s commercial instrument systems at up to 10,000 per second.

    In an email to GEN, George Karlin-Neumann, Ph.D., director of scientific affairs at the Digital Biology Center, Bio-Rad clarified distinctions between qPCR and his company’s QX200 Droplet Digital PCR™, explaining that either system can quantitate DNA or RNA targets with either Taqman 5’ nuclease assays or fluorescent DNA-binding dyes (SYBR for qPCR, and EvaGreen for ddPCR) run in suitable Master Mixes.

    But, he explained, ddPCR divides a sample reaction into many thousands of small, uniformly sized droplets where each may or may not contain a target template of interest. After thermocycling to endpoint in a standard 96-well plate and thermocycler, the droplets in each well are read and counted in a droplet flow cytometer (or reader) to determine which droplets have the target (“positive” droplets) and which do not (“negative” droplets). The fraction of positive droplets reflects the number of target molecules in the reaction volume, thus yielding the concentration measurement sought.

  • dPCR and Cancer Detection

    And researchers have adopted dPCR for numerous applications including for analysis of several parameters in cancer patients. In study results published in Clinical Cancer Research last March, researchers from the Royal Marsden Hospital in London described their adaptation of ddPCR to determine the presence of oncogenic amplification through noninvasive analysis of circulating free plasma DNA and exemplify this approach by developing a plasma DNA digital PCR assay for HER2 copy number.

    Because HER2 copy number in digital PCR is assessed relative to a reference gene, the investigators used EFTUD2, a gene within the ERBB2 locus found not to co-amplify with HER2 and not subject to normal copy-number variations.

    Using the Bio-RAD QX100 ddPCR system, the researchers found that 64% of patients with HER2-amplified cancers were classified as digital PCR HER2-positive and 94% of patients with HER2-nonamplified cancers were classified as HER2-negative by the assay, giving a positive and negative predictive value of 70% and 92%, respectively.

    The authors concluded that “digital PCR of plasma DNA has high accuracy in the determination of HER2 status,” and that the approach of analyzing of plasma DNA with digital PCR has the potential to screen for the acquisition of HER2 amplification in metastatic breast cancer. “This approach could potentially be adapted to the analysis of any locus amplified in cancer,” they concluded.

    And last September, scientists working at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, demonstrated that ddPCR technology could be used to precisely and reproducibly quantify microRNA (miRNA) in plasma and serum over the course of different days, potentially allowing further development of miRNA and other nucleic acids as circulating biomarkers.

    Under active study as blood-based biomarkers for cancer and other diseases, miRNA measurements in blood samples have been plagued by unacceptably high interday variability, obviating their use as reliable blood-based biomarkers.

    “In the field of circulating microRNA diagnostics, droplet digital PCR enables us to finally perform biomarker studies in which the measurements are directly comparable across days within a laboratory and even among different laboratories,” said Muneesh Tewari, M.D., Ph.D., associate member in the Human Biology Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and lead author of the study.

    And Dr. Karlin-Neumann says that ddPCR is “en route to being introduced into clinical practice in a number of areas.” Though, he notes, the “only CLIA lab I know of that currently offers a ddPCR-based test is the University of Washington’s Clinical Laboratory, which offers a ddPCR-based test for detection of chromosomally integrated HHV-6 virus in transplant patients.”

    Other labs, he says, that are in the process of developing clinical tests for detection of residual disease in leukemia patients with BCR-ABL translocations include that of Alec Morley, M.D., a pioneer of digital PCR. Dr. Karlin-Neumann also cites the work of Hanlee Ji, M.D., who is measuring copy-number variations by ddPCR in FFPE and cell-free plasma DNA to assess whether gastric and other cancer patients have amplifications in oncogenes that would make them amenable to one of a growing number of targeted therapies.

    Importantly, Dr. Karlin-Neumann pointed out that it’s still too early, regardless of the platform used, to be attempting to detect cancer in naïve patients not already known to have cancer since “we do not have the clinical experience to know what changes to look for and what thresholds are meaningful.”

    And he notes, until recently, there have not been technologies that allowed us to detect and quantitate below ~1% mutant abundance in either mixed tissue biopsies or in cfDNA in plasma or serum. ddPCR is demonstrating that it is capable of lowering this limit to as low a ~0.01% in a single ddPCR reaction well, and where more material is available, this can be lowered further by use of multiple wells. Similarly, fractional changes in oncogenic amplifications and deletions can be tested with ddPCR in both solid tumors and in cfDNA.

    And a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley says it has developed a bead-based, microfluidic digital PCR technology and demonstrated its ability to quantitatively measure cancer-related translocation mutations at extremely low levels and subsequently sequence single mutated clones.

    The scientists believe that their technology has advantages over commercial emulsion-based droplet digital PCR platforms, such as those offered by Bio-Rad and RainDance Technologies, because it enables downstream sequencing analysis following the digital PCR analysis step.

    But is this capability in demand? A RainDance spokesperson told PCR Insider that the company’s RainDrop digital PCR system currently does allow for emulsions to be broken following thermal cycling so the amplicons can be rescued and subsequently sequenced. However, RainDance said, it is “just starting to see requests for this kind of thing but it is not a commercial solution on offer at this point.”

    But technology will get continue to get piled higher and deeper, as modifications to PCR continue to accrue and scientists figure out how best to use them.


Men and women ‘wired differently’

Men and women’s brains are connected in different ways which may explain why the sexes excel at certain tasks, say researchers.

A US team at the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 men, women, boys and girls and found striking differences.

brain networksThe “connectome maps” reveal the differences between the male brain (seen in blue) and the female brain (orange)

Male brains appeared to be wired front to back, with few connections bridging the two hemispheres.

In females, the pathways criss-crossed between left and right.

These differences might explain why men, in general, tend to be better at learning and performing a single task, like cycling or navigating, whereas women are more equipped for multitasking, say the researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The same volunteers were asked to perform a series of cognitive tests, and the results appeared to support this notion.

But experts have questioned whether it can be that simple, arguing it is a huge leap to extrapolate from anatomical differences to try to explain behavioural variation between the sexes. Also, brain connections are not set and can change throughout life.

In the study, women scored well on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition, while men performed better on spatial processing and sensori-motor speed.

To look at brain connectivity, the researchers used a type of scan called DTI – a water-based imaging technique that can trace and highlight the fibre pathways connecting the different regions of the brain.

Study author Dr Ruben Gur said: “It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are.

“Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex related.”

Complex organ

Prof Heidi Johansen-Berg, a UK expert in neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said the brain was too complex an organ to be able to make broad generalisations.

“We know that there is no such thing as ‘hard wiring’ when it comes to brain connections. Connections can change throughout life, in response to experience and learning.

“Often, sophisticated mathematical approaches are used to analyse and describe these brain networks. These methods can be useful to identify differences between groups, but it is often challenging to interpret those differences in biological terms.”

Dr Michael Bloomfield, Clinical Research Fellow at the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre in London, said: “It has been known for some time that there are differences between the sexes when it comes to how our bodies work and the brain is no exception.

However, he said care must be taken in drawing conclusions from the study, as the precise relationships between how our brains are wired and our performance on particular tasks needed further investigation.

“We cannot say yet that one is causing the other.

“Furthermore, the measure used in the study, called “connectivity”, is only one aspect of how our brains our wired.

“We think that there can also be differences in certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, for example, and so we need more research to fully understand how all these different aspects of brain structure and function work together to answer fundamental questions like “how do we think?”.

“One thing that remains unknown is what is driving these differences between the sexes. An obvious possibility is that that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogren have different affects on the brain.

“A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired.”


Why it’s time for brain science to ditch the ‘Venus and Mars’ cliche.

Reports trumpeting basic differences between male and female brains are biological determinism at its most trivial, says the science writer of the year
brains illustration male female

There is little evidence to suggest differences between male and female brains are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Photograph: Alamy

As hardy perennials go, there is little to beat that science hacks’ favourite: the hard-wiring of male and female brains. For more than 30 years, I have seen a stream of tales about gender differences in brain structure under headlines that assure me that from birth men are innately more rational and better at map-reading than women, who are emotional, empathetic multi-taskers, useless at telling jokes. I am from Mars, apparently, while the ladies in my life are from Venus.

And there are no signs that this flow is drying up, with last week witnessing publication of a particularly lurid example of the genre. Writing in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia revealed they had used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to show that the neurons in men’s brains are connected to each other in a very different way from neurons in women’s brains.

This point was even illustrated by the team, led by Professor Ragini Verma, with a helpful diagram. A male brain was depicted with its main connections – coloured blue, needless to say – running from the front to the back. Connections within cranial hemispheres were strong, but connections between the two hemispheres were weak. By contrast, the female brain had thick connections running from side to side with strong links between the two hemispheres.

Men and women brains U.Penn studyA photo issued by University of Pennsylvania researchers showing intra-hemispheric connections (blue) and inter- hemispheric connections (orange) in men’s and women’s brains. Male top row, female bottom row. Photograph: National Academy Of Sciences/PA”These maps show us a stark difference in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others,” said Verma.

The response of the press was predictable. Once again scientists had “proved” that from birth men have brains which are hardwired to give us better spatial skills, to leave us bereft of empathy for others, and to make us run, like mascara, at the first hint of emotion. Equally, the team had provided an explanation for the “fact” that women cannot use corkscrews or park cars but can remember names and faces better than males. It is all written in our neurons at birth.

As I have said, I have read this sort of thing before. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. It is biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst. Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Males develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing. Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative, and so their verbal skills are emphasised by teachers and parents. As the years pass, these different lifestyles produce variations in brain wiring – which is a lot more plastic than most biological determinists realise. This possibility was simply not addressed by Verma and her team.

Equally, when gender differences are uncovered by researchers they are frequently found to be trivial, a point made by Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioural genetics at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, whose studies have found that a mere 3% of the variation in young children’s verbal development is due to their gender. “If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls, you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them. Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild.”

I should make it clear that Plomin made that remark three years ago when I last wrote about the issue of gender and brain wiring. It was not my first incursion, I should stress. Indeed, I have returned to the subject – which is an intriguing, important one – on a number of occasions over the years as neurological studies have been hyped in the media, often by the scientists who carried them out. It has taken a great deal of effort by other researchers to put the issue in proper perspective.

A major problem is the lack of consistent work in the field, a point stressed to me in 2005 – during an earlier outbreak of brain-gender difference stories – by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, and author of Y: The Descent of Men. “Researching my book, I discovered there was no consensus at all about the science [of gender and brain structure],” he told me. “There were studies that said completely contradictory things about male and female brains. That means you can pick whatever study you like and build a thesis around it. The whole field is like that. It is very subjective. That doesn’t mean there are no differences between the brains of the sexes, but we should take care not to exaggerate them.”

Needless to say that is not what has happened over the years. Indeed, this has become a topic whose coverage has been typified mainly by flaky claims, wild hyperbole and sexism. It is all very depressing. The question is: why has this happened? Why is there such divergence in explanations for the differences in mental abilities that we observe in men and women? And why do so many people want to exaggerate them so badly?

The first issue is the easier to answer. The field suffers because it is bedevilled by its extraordinary complexity. The human brain is a vast, convoluted edifice and scientists are only now beginning to develop adequate tools to explore it. The use of diffusion tensor imaging by Verma’s team was an important breakthrough, it should be noted. The trouble is, once more, those involved were rash in their interpretations of their own work.

“This study contains some important data but it has been badly overhyped and the authors must take some of the blame,” says Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University. “They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain.”

Even more critical is Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “The study’s main conclusions about possible cognitive differences between males and females are not supported by the findings of the study. A link between anatomical differences and cognitive functions should be demonstrated and the authors have not done so. They simply have no idea of how these differences in anatomy translate into cognitive attitudes. So the main conclusion of the study is purely speculative.”

The study is also unclear how differences in brain architecture between the sexes arose in the first place, a point raised by Michael Bloomfield of the MRC’s Clinical Science Centre. “An obvious possibility is that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogen have different effects on the brain. A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired.”

In fact, Verma’s results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain’s wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.

Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue. In the end, I suspect it depends on whether you believe our fates are sealed at birth or if you think that it is a key part of human nature to be able to display a plasticity in behaviour and in ways of thinking in the face of altered circumstance. My money is very much on the latter.


In their study, Verma and her colleagues, investigated the gender differences in brain connectivity in 949 individuals – 521 females and 428 males – aged between eight and 22 years. The technique they used is known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a water-based imaging technology that can trace and highlight the fibre pathways that connect the different regions of the brain, laying the foundation for a structural connectome or network of the whole brain. These studies revealed a typical pattern, claim Verma and her team: men had stronger links between neurons within their cranial hemispheres while women had stronger links between the two hemispheres, a difference that the scientists claimed was crucial in explaining difference in the behaviour of men and women.

But the technique has been criticised. “DTI provides only indirect measures of structural connectivity and is, therefore, different from the well validated microscopic techniques that show the real anatomy of axonal connections,” says Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “Images of the brain derived from diffusion tensor MRI should not be equated to real connections and results should always be interpreted with extreme caution.”This point is backed by Prof Heidi Johansen-Berg, of Oxford University, who attacked the idea that brain connections should be considered as hard-wired. “Connections can change throughout life, in response to experience and learning. As far as I can tell, the authors have not directly related these differences in brain connections to differences in behaviour. It is a huge leap to extrapolate from anatomical differences to try to explain behavioural variation between the sexes. The brain regions that have been highlighted are involved in many different functions.”


Ring and bracelet system designed to help the hearing-impaired.

Take rings, add a bracelet, and you have a helping mechanism for the hearing-impaired in a novel design. For people who have hearing handicaps and do not know sign language, the ring and bracelet system can help them out, both in communicating what they need to say and in getting messages they can read. First, a Sign Language Ring behaves as a translating device that picks up motion and gestures and translates them into words, delivered through voice by the bracelet. The bracelet can translate spoken words into its readable display panel for the wearer to read. After use, the rings can be set into the bracelet for storage.

The design was inspired by Buddhist prayer beads. The name of the entire system is the Sign Language Ring, which is actually a set of rings and a bracelet. In all, six gesture-detecting finger rings can be snapped and stored on the bracelet. The user can program certain gestures to a specific word if desired. The speaker box and readable display are wrapped around the bracelet. After use, the rings can be set into the for storage.

Sign Language Ring is a 2013 winner of the red dot award for design concept. The red dot award for design concept is an annual design competition for design concept and prototypes. Winning concepts are exhibited at the red dot museum in Singapore for at least one year.

This attempt comes at a time when wearable technologies market watchers are recognizing a subset that carries ample opportunities for growth, and that is wearables as disability technologies for the deaf, blind, paralyzed, and elderly. In turn, there is interest in “hear ware,” which would include embedding jewelry with technologies that can help those who have hearing difficulties.

In a GigaOm Pro article titled “The wearable computing market: a global analysis by Jody Ranck, the author made note of the 2006 event in London, where the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted an exhibition on hear ware. These were technologies developed in response to a call from the UK Design Council to rethink the hearing aid. The result, said the author, was a fascinating array of wearable technologies outfitted with sensors and hearing devices.