Leading the Blind

Andy Thompson

“There is something so totally purging about blindness, that one is either destroyed or renewed. Your consciousness is evacuated. Your past memories, your interests, your perception of time. Place itself. The world itself. One must recreate one’s life.”

These are the remarks of theologian John Hull who, after being visually impaired since childhood, lost his sight completely in 1983 at the age of 48. Over the next three years he documented his experience of adjusting to blindness through a series of audio diaries, which last year inspired the Bafta-nominated film Notes on Blindness, a biopic that charts Hull’s adjustment to life without sight.

39 million people worldwide share Hull’s experience of complete blindness, whilst a further 246 million are visually impaired in some way. But for these people the “purging” effects of blindness that Hull described are increasingly becoming curtailed.

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Image Credit: Flickr

Rapid developments in technology have resulted in a proliferation of equipment designed to improve the way that the visually impaired experience and interact with the world. These technologies are hugely varied, ranging from voice-controlled home devices to advanced braille printers. This expansion of resources is only increasing, and 2017 looks set to see the release of some of the most ground-breaking products yet.

April this year will signal the launch of the first braille smartwatch; the ‘Dot’. The watch has 24 magnetically controlled touch sensors on its face, which can be made to rise and fall individually to spell out any word in Braille. The Dot works by connecting to a smartphone via Bluetooth, and then conveying information from the phone to its wearer through these Braille messages. This information could be almost anything, from text messages, to the name of someone who is calling the phone, to information from Google Maps.

The South Korean firm behind the Dot say the device has the potential to totally revolutionise how the visually impaired use smartphones, and claim to have over 140,000 pre-orders including one from Stevie Wonder. If the device proves to be a success the firm has plans to expand its range, and is already scheduled to release a tablet version of the Dot in collaboration with Google in 2018.

2017 may also see the release of the long-awaited ‘Smart Specs’, a pair of smart glasses being developed by the OxSight team at the University of Oxford. Smart Specs contain a complex camera system and a tiny computer, which together can improve a person’s ability to recognise faces, better avoid collisions, and even give them the ability to see in the dark. Whilst the glasses are still in development, a successful nationwide trial was carried out in 2016, and OxSight’s founder Dr Stephen Hicks is optimistic that Smart Specs will be finalised before the end of the year.

Another piece of approaching wearable technology is a device called ‘HandSight’, which aims to help improve how visually impaired people can read. HandSight is a ring with a tiny camera built in which, when the finger wearing it moves along a line of text, records footage of the text and transits it to a nearby computer, which then reads it aloud. Whilst other technology to help visually impaired people read already exists, the creators of the HandSight hope their device will allow blind people to read larger amounts of text at a greater speed. As with the Smart Specs the device is still in development but has been proved highly successful in trials.

All these and numerous other developments have huge potential to transform the lives of the visually impaired, but will sadly come too late for John Hull, who died in 2015. When Hull lost his sight in 1983 he adapted to his new life without much advanced technology, navigating with a traditional white cane, and employing numerous family and friends to record his numerous theology books onto cassettes. He described blindness as having the power to either destroy or renew, and whilst he eventually came to embrace life without sight, the work of these companies and more could soon mean that no one will be destroyed by it.

Questions of Consciousness

Harpreet Thandi

Consciousness is very deep and a very important aspect of life. It is very mystical and opens us a whole new area in understanding the complexity of the human mind. This fascinating new area in neuroscience is answering questions as it terms out to be connected to biology and not just a vague concept. These are as follows:

What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?

There are approximately 90 billion neurons that make up the human brain, with thousands more connections between them. This is not the complete picture as a high number of neurons does not correspond to consciousness.

Current thinking is that consciousness is primarily linked to the specific network of regions in the cortex (all the folded parts) and secondly the thalamus (a walnut-shaped structure deep inside). This can determine types of consciousness; being awake, dreamless sleep or the involvement in each experience.

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This also leads to new areas of research such as the brain’s densely connected frontal lobes, and questions about how valuable the information that travels between different regions of the brain really is.

What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?

There are many methods to induce general anaesthesia, including substances such as propofol – which can cause severe reactions in some people. The current evidence is that anaesthesia alters how different parts of the brain interact with each other (as mentioned in question 1). This creates an effect where the brains parts get interfered with – starting what is described as a “cognitive unbinding” process.

The goal is to understand how general anaesthesia is compared to unconsciousness-like dreamless sleep in the brain.

What is self?

This is a very fundamental concept – what it means to be us. The ‘I’ behind the eye. Our thoughts, words, actions, perspective, psychology, past, present, and future to name a few subjective aspects. These are all changed by the processes inside the brain. Which is a very scary idea that chemicals change and can modify our inner workings.

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An out of body spiritual experience can be replicated by various experimental factors. The aim is to understand this ‘I’ idea to be able to combat psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Which is a very exciting prospect for the future breaking down the meaning of self.

What determines experiences of volition and ‘will’?

Another interesting concept that verges into philosophy is this idea of “free will” or freedoms and their existence. This idea has been the topic of discussion since the 1980s. After looking for neural signatures of volition (the intention of action) and agency (experience of causing action).

The new school of thought is that volition does not exist and very clear actions involve the entire brain. This acts as a complete complex map of networks that conducts open decisions between different parts of the brain-an undivided system.

What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?

A large variety of cognitive functions, environmental perception, decision making and even voluntary actions can be carried out without consciousness.

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The key distinction is that consciousness can integrate information. This means from our life experiences a large amount of possibilities are removed. This changes the levels of functions that can be carried out with consciousness.

How rich is consciousness?

A big issue is that consciousness is almost subjective. Especially because, as previously mentioned, once you experience something then there is also a “self” bias. The current research reflects this limitation. The evidence leads to separating the effects on the brain of consciousness and our self-involvement. Emphasis is made to explore the interplay between these factors to deepen our understanding.

Are other animals conscious?

This is a very deep question that is very profound. Mammals have a lot of similar brain functions to a human, they carry out functions, and this helps us ask this very logical question.

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An animal’s consciousness is very different to a human as they don’t have the same concept of self as humans. However, there are distinctions in this level such as in birds and cephalopods, like an octopus, which are very smart with a high capacity of learning.  

Are vegetative patients conscious?

In the US alone 15,000 patients are in a ‘vegetative state’, from a huge brain injury. In this state the patient’s behaviour shows that these patients are awake but not aware.  From brain imaging, at least some of these patients are conscious, and even engaged in communication with their families and doctors. The next step is to diagnose and treat these patients.

These are just a few questions in current research in the neuroscience of consciousness. This field will start to shed some new light on areas within the vast areas of still unknown fundamental questions.

 

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Pseudoscience – Why Are We So Easily Fooled?

Jamie Hakham

From Astrology to Homeopathy, people believe a wide variety of things that have no basis in any concrete science. With the world currently in a furore over ‘fake news’, we thought we’d take an analytical eye over why people believe in bad facts and faulty logic.

Pseudoscience takes many forms, and affects practically every group of people, from the poorly educated all the way up to Nobel Laureates. Take Francis Crick’s belief in directed panspermia (remember the beginning of Prometheus, where the Engineer ‘seeds’ Earth? That.), or Luc Montagnier’s ‘experiments’ in homeopathy with DNA. Clearly, one’s scientific literacy might not have much to do with a belief in pseudoscience.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We’re going to look at one strand of pseudoscience, and tease out the different ways its proponents make it look appealing, and the different ways they use to convince themselves of it. Let’s take a look at Homeopathy, one of the more enduring pieces of unsubstantiated drivel to have emerged as pseudoscience, in a very long time.

Quickly though, let’s do the one thing that pseudoscience aficionados rarely do well; research: first preached in 1796 by one Samuel Hahnemann, with the premise that ‘like cures like’. His ideas were based on Paracelsus’s work in the 16th century, and before that possibly even Hippocrates around 400BCE. Basically, what Samuel postulated was the law of similars; where a thing that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure those same symptoms in sick people. So, if you have a cold, you can cure it by taking something that would also give you a runny nose, watering eyes and a sore throat – like a chili pepper.

The other core tenet of Homeopathy is ‘dynamisation’, or serial dilution. Practitioners hold that the more diluted a substance is, the more powerful it becomes. Usually these dilutions are presented at ‘30C’, or 1060 times dilution. For reference, the theoretically maximum possible dilution of anything is one molecule of substance against the entire universe; or 40C. Moreover, in 1L of water, the lowest amount of detectable substance is about 12C. Homeopathic treatments can go up to 200C.

“But wait! You just said -”

We know.

It’s worth pointing out that there isn’t a single well-substantiated piece of evidence even suggesting that homeopathy is anything more than a sham. So, why do people believe in it? We’re going to break down these reasons into three main camps, but they aren’t exclusive groups; people who believe in one camp may very well believe in the others.

The first, and a major one, relies on an appeal to nature. This is the belief that because a substance is naturally derived, like many homeopathic substances, it is better for the human body than something artificial or man-made –  like practically all conventional forms of medicine. Following this faulty logic then, while anti-venoms are almost always particularly artificial and therefore bad, cobras are entirely natural, and should be hugged at all times! This is a depressingly common tactic, ranging outside of ‘traditional’ pseudoscience – ever seen a food packet proudly proclaiming that it’s ‘all-natural’, instead of telling you it’s good, or otherwise why it’s better than its competitors?

Secondly, word of mouth & the placebo effect plays a big role in all of this. For example; “I took this homeopathic remedy, and it cured my flu! Amazing!”. As humans, we instinctively rank personal stories highly when it comes to making our own decisions. It’s a useful trait; it stops us making mistakes other people do. But, as in this example, we can’t make a properly reasoned, informed judgement from a personal story. That’s the reason why eye-witness testimony isn’t considered ultra-reliable evidence any more. That’s why it’s so important that we remember that just because A happened, and then B happened, it doesn’t mean that A caused B to happen. This is almost certainly happening here. Doctors’ recommendations for mild flu are usually just fluid and rest. In most of us it clears up on its own. Taking your homeopathic remedy might appear to work, because your body is already on the way to clearing the infection naturally. Correlation, not causation.

The third, and perhaps the most interesting, are the conspiracists; those who believe that ‘Big Pharma’ are out to silence or otherwise denigrate homeopathy on the grounds of relentless capitalism. In this, they are no different from the other ‘Big Pharma’ that works on GMOs, or the ‘Big Oil’ that quashes solar development, or ‘Big Energy’ which ignores cold fusion. Here, they set themselves up as the underdog, another position we as individuals overwhelmingly take the side of. They set themselves as David against Goliath, fighting the good and righteous fight. For those already sceptical of big business, this is an attractive proposition. It’s related to a distrust of authority, whether that’s distrusting the ‘established science’ or the veracity of official statements. It’s not limited to pseudoscience of course. It’s a core tenet of all conspiracy, and makes about as much sense there as it does in our examples. That is to say, none.

Add in an unhealthy amount of fearmongering (Vaccines cause autism, fluoride makes you stupid, GMO’s will destroy everything), the ability to selectively hear the facts you want to hear, and you have the basis of practically all pseudoscience, from biological (Antivaxxers, Neopanspermia, AIDS denialism, etc.) to physical (false moon landings, climate change denialism, flat earthiers), and beyond into the social sciences.

Now that we’ve given you all the facts, we’ll bet you’re wondering how to fix it; how to change these hearts and minds – how to show them the light. We’d like to say that we can do it through improving education, by engaging in honest debate and discussion and by opening access to science for the layperson. But, until more people make make science more accessible, all we can do is be vigilant. Try to make sure we’re not spreading pseudoscience to people who haven’t heard it yet – to catch those fence-sitters before they make the leap to the wrong side.

Virtual Reality Food

Rachel Jones

Virtual reality food is where the user can see, taste, feel, smell and hear themselves eating a food, but they are not actually eating. This is being developed by a number of independent laboratories and companies, but it is being led by Project Nourished.

Project Nourished is developing a range of products to be used together to give a virtual reality eating experience. The headset allows the user to see the 3D-printed food as the food that is being imitated and the environment in which the food is being enjoyed. A aromatic diffuser gives an appropriate scent to the food. A bone conduction transducer is similar to headphones, but the sound waves are transmitted through the skull in a way that allows the sound to be heard as if it was coming from the jaw.

It also includes a gyroscopic utensil, loosely resembling a spoon, that is necessary for the movements of the user to be translated to virtual reality. The virtual glass seems to have a similar function to the utensil; telling the headset to display the process of drinking, but may also inform the headset that the user is an alcoholic drink and cause a visual simulation of intoxication for those who cannot consume alcohol. A hydrocolloid-based 3D printed food is used to confer taste, texture and consistency, as it is emulsifiable and low caloric.

There are many theoretical applications for the Project Nourished experience, ranging between leisure to  therapeutic use. A lot of sales will be made by those who are looking for something to help with weight loss. Users will benefit from the system by allowing themselves to give into unhealthy cravings without consequence through the device. Project Nourished intends to simulate food that is being eaten but does not actually exist, in fictional places. Long distance relationships could be supported by the technology, as couples will be able to experience dining together from locations continents apart.

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Image Credit: Simple Wikipedia

Many people cannot eat certain foods they love; people with allergies, diabetes, problems with chewing, swallowing and digestion, or even astronauts who miss foods that cannot be taken into space. Project Nourished aims to supplement their lifestyle with the experience of eating what they want to eat. In contrast to this, the devices may be used to acclimatise fussy eaters to acquired tastes, particularly in children who will not eat healthy foods. This approach could also be carefully taken in eating therapy for patients with eating disorders, weaning them onto the idea of eating and developing healthy eating habits without the stress of calorific consequences. Prader-Willi syndrome is a condition in which, among other symptoms, the patient does not receive a ‘full’ signal and will constantly eat as they feel as though they are starving. Project Nourished claims that their technology could be used by these people to combine eating with negative stimuli, associating eating with unpleasant memories.

What does science say about the effectiveness of these applications? Studies into mimicking food consumption without the calorific intake modelled with chewing gum generally conclude that chewing gum reduces appetite and results in decreased food consumption. One may question whether these findings would apply to virtual eating. Excessively controlled dieting is known to be less easily maintained and so diets fail more when they are too strict; maybe treating yourself with unhealthy foods, without metabolic consequence, will make dieting more successful.

There are apparently no dedicated Project Nourished team members advising on the psychological consequences of virtual eating. One would hope that the company bases suggestions of therapeutic applications on fact, and that suggestions of effective treatment of Prader-Willi syndrome, eating disorders and weight loss by this technology are backed up by reliable studies. A concern about the use of this technology is that users will replace too much of their diet with a replacement to food, aiding eating disorder development by enabling the users to live without food more easily.  

The use of the products to stimulate alcoholic intoxication is not expanded upon on the project’s website. If it is for use in treating alcoholics, its efficacy would be questionable, as it would not satisfy the chemical addiction involved in alcoholism unless alcohol is provided. If it is for use by people who wish to experience drunkenness without the damaging effects of alcohol consumption, whether they have a medical condition affected by alcohol or not, the simulation cannot mimic many aspects of drinking, such as the specific mood and behavioural changes, which are the main draw to drinking many people feel.

Many of the most interesting psychological and medical applications of virtual eating technology have yet to be seen as this is state-of-the-art technology, and will likely be studied extensively upon product release.  

Women in STEM: in Sheffield and Beyond

Emily Vincent

Most of us have seen the statistics and stereotypes surrounding women studying or working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) fields; it can sometimes seem an inescapable reality that these areas are male-dominated. The obvious male bias in science raises lots of important questions.

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Image Credit: MaxPixel

What are the issues?

In the UK around 20% of A Level physics students are girls, and women make up only 25% of those choosing STEM subjects as a degree. Just 12.8% of the STEM workforce are women, and the number falls to 9% when considering those specifically involved in engineering. These figures only scratch the surface, as a quick internet search will show.

Less quantifiably, we live in a culture which promotes the stereotyping and belittling of women in STEM fields. We’re used to seeing memes joking about “that one girl in your mechanical engineering lecture” alongside those suggesting that women in such classes are less desirable than others, and we cannot forget Tim Hunt’s controversial claims that when women are present in the lab, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”.

Do we need to even it out?

Is it a problem that things aren’t 50:50 when it comes to gender in the world of STEM? We need to question whether anything would be better if more women were engaged with STEM.

Women in STEM have changed the world we live in and have been doing so for a long time. Lovelace and Curie are names synonymous with the computer programming and the fight against cancer respectively. As for the present day, lists like this, this and this illustrate how women in STEM are contributing to work on HIV treatments, testing DNA for mutations, distributing technology worldwide, and understanding the human brain.

The film Hidden Figures has brought attention to black women’s major contributions to space exploration; reminding us that there are yet more inequalities where gender and race intersect. Women have contributed an incredible amount to our world through STEM and therefore we need them to keep doing so.

Employers are struggling to fill STEM roles: 32% of companies struggle to recruit experienced STEM staff; and 64% of engineering firms say a shortage of engineers threatens their business. Annually there is a shortfall of tens of thousands with STEM skills. We need to increase the STEM capability of the UK workforce, and discovering the potential of our women and girls would greatly assist this.

Not forgetting, STEM careers are great for women! 84% of women in engineering were happy or extremely happy with their career choice, and STEM careers offer benefits such as great salaries, work in interesting and innovative fields, travel opportunities, and a wide variety of roles.

What is being done to fix it?

Sadly, there is no simple solution, but there are a huge number initiatives to encourage more women and girls into STEM, on every scale.

The University of Sheffield supports women in STEM initiatives in a number of inspiring ways – the Wall of Women showcases the work of our female engineers and allows them to act as role models for younger generations, and the Women in Engineering Society has seen students write a children’s book to act as inspiration to young girls.

Staff in the Faculty of Engineering, such as Dr Rachael Rothman, speak out about the issue using prominent public platforms, and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon’s advocacy encompasses the additional issues affecting LGBTQ engineers. A variety of open days, workshops and events are held at the university to encourage girls into STEM, along with outreach work where students and staff visit local schools.

Many bodies in the UK provide inspiration and resources to encourage girls into STEM, and the UK government is supportive of these. Lots of companies now have comprehensive diversity policies and foster inclusive workplaces, proudly supporting and showcasing their female STEM staff. However, alongside inspiration and encouragement, changes to stereotypes are also being pursued.

Toys are a major player in this game. Lego’s female NASA mini-figures have recently been announced, but Barbie’s STEM attempts have attracted criticism. They include a kit focussed on repairing washing machines, and an “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” story where Barbie relies on men for computer programming.

There is still a long way to go before we reach gender equity in STEM, but the almost unanimous enthusiasm to get more girls into the fields is surely a positive sign. When combined with attempts to change stereotypes alongside direct methods such as events in schools and the provision of prominent female role models, things will hopefully move in the right direction.

Here is something that everyone can make a difference in – we all have the responsibility to challenge those who suggest that STEM is for men, and to provide positive role models, we need to be positive role models!

Have You Ever Told a Lie?

Jess Jarvis

Although many people don’t like to admit they lie, it is something that we all do – some of us more than others. Psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman, says that we are all born with a natural ability to lie, suggesting it is a relatively inescapable certainty within our lives.

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Image Source: http://www.practicingparents.com/why-do-kids-lie/

Why might we tell a lie?

Social Psychologist Bella DePaulo believes that bending the truth is becoming a part of everyday conversation.  On average, people are thought to lie 10 times a week, or in a third of social interactions.

However, lying is not always done with bad intentions – so-called ‘white lies’ have good intentions. Quite frequently, people will tell a porkie-pie without even realizing it, to allow the smoothness of a conversation to continue.

DePaulo suggests there are two kinds of lies that can be told, ‘self-serving lies’ and ‘kind-hearted lies’. ‘Self-serving lies’ are the kind of tall tales that people tell to impress others or save their own self-esteem, such as “claiming to have performed better than you really did or denying that you did something bad or embarrassing.”

Meanwhile ‘kind-hearted lies’ are those told to improve another’s self-esteem and to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. This could be telling someone they look nice when you might not believe it, or making excuses to reject a party invitation so you don’t have to tell the person that you just don’t want to go.

Are some people better at lying that others?

It is thought that some people are more skilled at telling lies and do so more willingly than others – but the question is, why?

Is it a trait of their personality, demographics or relationships? Or are they plagued by a compulsive and pathological need to lie, in order to impress others or improve their own self-esteem?

The stereotype of a liar for many, is a person who is manipulative and scheming. This is not far wrong. Many people who lie are classed as more ‘manipulative’ in personality than those who do not lie. Extroverts who have more opportunity for social interaction are also found to be more prone to lying, whilst responsible personalities and introverts are significantly less likely to bend the truth.

Compulsive liars are often incredibly hard to detect. In some cases, people will tell extreme pathological lies, that spiral out of control or can manipulate a situation or another person. These can be hurtful and detrimental to relationships when discovered to be untrue.

However, people who suffer with this compulsive need to lie often do so to improve their self-esteem. They can find it terribly uncomfortable to face the truth, especially as they fear losing the life they have built for themselves on deceit.

How can you tell if someone is lying?

FBI Agent Bouton, suggests you can tell if a person might be lying to you through simply observing their facial expressions. These actions are easier to spot in people who you know well as you can see the difference in their behaviour compared to normal, and is particularly effective when asking a question that you believe they will answer with a lie.

Dr. Paul Seager, a senior psychology lecturer also suggests features of body language can indicate lying, such as a shaking of the leg or a movement in the fingers. For example, right-handed people tend to look directly to the right when lying about what they heard, and up to the right when lying about what they saw.

Facial expressions of a liar:

Many of these behaviours could explain why you often hear people asking others to ‘look me in the eye’ when trying to work out if someone is telling the truth. It seems that those who lie can work themselves up into quite the fluster when confronted about their dishonest behaviour!

It is thought that the use of imaging techniques in science such as fMRI and EEG could tell us a lot about why we lie and how the brain works to achieve this. By looking at the changes which occur in the brain when we lie, we can discover a lot about its process and also how to detect whether someone is telling the truth or not based on their brain activity and functioning.

The Polygraph used to be the method commonly adopted to detect lying. However psychologist Geoffrey Bunn suggests that, “the problem with the polygraph, is that it detects fear, not lying; the physiological responses that it measures—most often heart rate, skin conductivity, and rate of respiration—don’t necessarily accompany dishonesty”.

Although FMRI and EEG follow similar premises, they are a bit more complex in their detection of brain functioning than the polygraph lie detection methods seen on the likes of Jeremy Kyle!

So, next time you think about being Pinocchio and telling a tall story, decide whether it’s really necessary. Although your nose may not grow, it may be more obvious that you are lying than you think!

 

Taking Chronic Fatigue Seriously: Myth to ME

Helen Alford

Myalgic encephalomyelitis (usually shortened to ME) is a syndrome that causes constant mental and physical fatigue that no amount of sleep or rest can help. Around 250,000 people have the condition in the UK. It tends to affect women more than men and onset is most common between the ages of 20-50, though anybody can be affected.

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Image Credit: Pexels

Symptoms of ME include fatigue, sleeping problems, pain in the muscle and joints, increased sensitivity to light and sound and poor short-term memory and concentration. Not all sufferers will have the same symptoms, however. Depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms, their quality of life can decrease quite significantly. A mild case of ME might require a person take days of work to recuperate. In severe cases, sufferers are often unable to carry out simple tasks like getting out of bed. Many patients – though not all – improve over time.

There’s no cure for ME, but there are different treatment options. However, what works for one person isn’t guaranteed to work on another – there is no universal treatment. For example, medication is often prescribed to treat symptoms of ME such as muscle pain. While this may help one individual, it could also cause side-effects in another.  Graded exercise therapy (GET) is sometimes advised to increase an ME sufferer’s physical endurance. However, a person with severe ME would undoubtedly struggle with this kind of treatment.  

ME has attracted huge amounts of controversy over the years. Until fairly recently, this was over whether it was a ‘real’ illness. Recorded cases of ME have been around since the 1930s, but it’s taken many organisations decades to identify it as a real thing. In fact, it was known as ‘yuppie flu’ for a long time. Sufferers were stigmatised as being lazy or work-shy. In the UK, it was only recognised as a chronic and treatable condition in 2002.

That’s not to say that there’s no longer any controversy surrounding ME. Today, there is disagreement over how to define the condition. Some doctors consider it a psychological problem while others believe the cause is physical. Scientists from Columbia University recently found physical evidence indicating that ME is biological rather than psychological. The research showed definitive changes to sufferer’s immune systems. Perhaps this will turn the tide for supporters of the psychological school of thought?  

What causes ME is also a topic of intense debate. New research has proposed a cautious link between improper functioning of the autonomic nervous system and ME, along with other conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and fibromyalgia. There’s just not enough evidence yet to determine whether this link is causal or not, though.

In contrast, other research suggests that ME is caused by a change in the way the body makes energy. This model suggests that the cells of ME sufferers make energy from amino acids and fats, instead of sugar as the cells of a healthy person would. The body essentially switches from a high-yield source of energy to a low-yield source. Researchers in Norway have done some experiments exploring this. They grew myoblasts (embryonic cells that become muscle cells) in serums taken from severe-case ME patients. They found that these myoblasts had ‘increased mitochondrial respiration and excessive lactate secretion’. In other words, the cells were working harder to produce energy and creating lots of lactate. Excessive lactate build up in the muscles is linked to muscle pain, which is a common symptom of ME. This line of investigation is obviously of interest, and more research needs to be carried out to detect any potential links.

Really, every aspect of ME requires more research. Jose Montoya – a Stanford University professor and an expert on the condition – has said that with serious research and dedication, we could begin to understand what causes ME within a decade. He also hopes to find out what makes some people develop the illness while others, who experience the same potential causes, remain healthy.

While answers within a decade might be optimistic considering the continued controversy and disagreements surrounding the condition, Montoya’s words definitely offer some hope to sufferers.