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Can Frayed Nerves Be Fortified?

Unlike many body tissues, nerve cells and fibers in the central nervous system cannot regenerate. That's why glaucoma causes blindness and severe spinal cord injuries result in paralysis. But can this biological limitation be lifted? Perhaps.

In what they call "a dream becoming reality," researchers at the Harvard-affiliated Schepens Eye Research Institute have successfully used genetic manipulation to regenerate damaged optic nerves -- running from the eyes to the brain -- in laboratory mice.

The Schepens team removed proteins that help prevent regeneration in mammals. These protein blockers may be evolution's way to make sure that memory and behavior are not continuously erased. (Frogs, by contrast, can regenerate nerves -- meaning their memories are probably not too sharp.)

The next step is to determine whether the new nerves actually restore vision in the mice. Eventually, researchers hope to help humans with nerve damage to see and walk again.

Athletes who are tempted to cheat, be warned: Scientists at the University of Nottingham are devising an ultraprecise test for performance-enhancing drugs that could pinpoint even the most inconspicuous banned steroids lurking in the body.

By adapting a technique called hydropyrolysis, widely used in oil exploration, Professor Colin Snape and his team believe they can nail the identity of any carbon-based molecules. The results were published in the Feb. 15 issue of Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

It's possible to spot drugs in the body because they have a different carbon isotope ratio than naturally produced substances. But testing can be tricky, as a lot of these molecules are "sticky," or hard to strip down. Some current methods work by adding carbon to the target molecule, which can skew results. "Hydropyrolysis leaves the carbon skeleton intact, opening up the body to intense scrutiny," says Snape, who hopes his work can eventually be used for a wide range of sports. Perhaps the new method will be ready in time for the 2012 Olympics.

A device as small as a paperback book may be able to sniff out both dirty bombs and bioterrorism attacks. Funded by $10 million from the Defense Dept., CombiMatrix (CBMX) hopes to begin rolling out such a system later this year. The product contains a computer chip that can sense up to 20 different threats, from biological agents like anthrax to deadly chemicals and radiation. The chip houses 12,000 tiny wells, each of which is designed to root out different harmful agents, using electrical signals that can be read from remote locations.

CombiMatrix hopes to deliver test units to the military, for soldiers to use on the battlefield, by the end of the year. Ultimately the Defense Dept. hopes that similar devices can be installed in airports, malls, sports arenas, and other public spaces.

-- Producing waste rich in nitrogen, earthworms have long been considered friends to the green-thumb set. Now TerraCycle, a Trenton (N.J.) startup, has developed a way to mass-produce what its founder, a Princeton University dropout, bills as "worm poop" plant food. How? Coffee grounds, beer hops, and other organic remains are mixed, then fed to millions of worms on TerraCycle's payroll. The voracious invertebrates produce waste that is packaged in recycled soda bottles. TerraCycle's product is now on the shelves of 254 Canadian Wal-Marts, considered training ground for its 3,500 U.S. stores.

-- Laughter might indeed be the best medicine. After showing subjects scenes from funny movies and disturbing ones, such as Kingpin and Saving Private Ryan, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that laughing caused the lining of blood vessels to dilate or expand, increasing blood flow an average of 22%. Distressing scenes led to constriction, reducing the flow by 35%. This bolsters theories about a link between stress and poor cardiovascular health -- and suggests regular rib-tickling helps counter the effects.

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