This Week in Research: A Down Syndrome Cure?; Rattlesnakes & Lyme Disease

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Okay, it’s not at all a cure for Down syndrome — but it might be a step on a path toward the cure:  Johns Hopkins researchers have identified a compound that, when given to mice with a Down-syndrome like condition, boosted their learning and memory capacities dramatically.

The molecule, which is apparently actually called the “sonic hedgehog pathway agonist,” was given as a single dose. After treatment, the rodents’ brains showed dramatic improvement:  their cerebellums grew to a normal size. (In Down syndrome, the cerebellum is usually about 60 percent of the normal size.)

“We treated the Down syndrome-like mice with a compound we thought might normalize the cerebellum’s growth, and it worked beautifully,” said Roger Reeves, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What we didn’t expect were the effects on learning and memory, which are generally controlled by the hippocampus, not the cerebellum.”

While these results are incredibly promising, the researchers warn that using the molecules on humans could result in unintended consequences; it might raise the risk of cancer, for example. But this new result is clearly an encouraging step forward.

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Rattlesnakes are often portrayed as one of nature’s villains, what with that whole “venomous” thing. But according to researchers at the University of Maryland, rattlers — the timber rattlesnake in particular — play a crucial role in keeping an environmental balance.

Here’s how it works:  rattlesnakes eat mice and small mammals… the very small mammals that Lyme disease-spreading black ticks love to feed on. If you remove the rattlesnakes from the equation, the mouse population grows, the ticks are happier, and more people get Lyme disease.

According to UMD grad student Edward Kabay, timber rattlers remove around 2,500 to 4,000 ticks each year. Because not every tick latches onto a human (and also because not every tick carries Lyme disease), it’s hard to estimate just how much the rattler population decline has contributed to the massive rise in Lyme disease — but it’s certainly a contributing factor. So if you ever happen to see a rattler in the woods, leave it be — despite their fearsome reputation, they’re not aggressive unless provoked. And they serve a crucial environmental role, too.



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