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Anxiety Can Be Good for YouSometimes


Short-term stress can boost the immune system
Firdaus Dhabhar likes to film babies crying when they get their shots, but not for any sadistic reason. He believes that the wailing is a good sign. A Stanford University researcher who studies how stress changes the body, Dhabhar, along with his colleagues, has discovered that stressed-out laboratory mice exhibit more robust immune responses to vaccines than control groups of mice left in peace. Something similar happens to people. In a study of knee surgery patients, for example, Dhabhar found that the anxiety of their impending operations boosted the number of immune cells circulating in their blood. Such studies have convinced Dhabhar that stress does not entirely deserve its bad reputation and that in some situations it can actually improve health. Dhabhar and his collaborators contrast the benefits of shortterm stress with the consequences of chronic stress, which has long been known to suppress the immune system. Then again, chronic stress can also exacerbate allergies, asthma and auto immune disorders in which the immune system is already over

active. So does stress excite or repress the immune system? Here is where things get frustratingly fuzzy, as they so often do in biology. It turns out that the answer hinges on the situation and the individual. A transient burst of stress tends to activate some parts of the immune system but not others; conversely, chronic stress generally stifles the entire immune system and can make it more likely to attack benign tissues. In the knee surgery study, patients immune systems did not all respond equally to anticipation of the operation. Some people showed an agile, adaptive response: the number of immune cells in their bloodstream peaked in the days before the operation, then decreased as those cells migrated to other tissues through out the body. Other patients had a more sluggish maladaptive response: their levels of immune cells hardly wavered from baseline. As you might expect, those with adaptive immune responses recovered from surgery faster. Most likely it will take decades of new research to gain a much deeper understanding of the biological mechanisms behind such individual differences. For now, though, we can at least be sure that it is okay to feel stressed when you get a shotin fact, its a good thing.  Ferris Jabr Adapted from Brainwaves at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/ brainwaves

PA L EO N TO LO GY

Fact-Checking a Frozen Mammoth


How could the ancient carcass contain liquid blood?
Russian researchers recently
announced a mind-blowing discovery: a 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth carcass containing blood that resists freezing even at 17 degrees Celsius. The Siberian Times quoted team leader Semyon Grigoriev of NorthEastern Federal University in Yakutsk as speculating that the blood contains a kind of natural anti-freeze. An Agence FrancePresse report, meanwhile, quotes Grigoriev as saying this find gives us a really good chance of finding live cells, which would be a windfall for his institutions international project to clone a mammoth. I wondered if it might be too good to be true. But according to the outside experts I contacted, this mammoth really is an incredible find. Some of the reported claims about it are questionable, however. They have not found any living cellat most they could hope to find what the cloning enthusiasts might call a cell with viable DNA, meaning that it would be intact enough to use in the context of a cloning effort, explains Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan. But he cautions that in general, ancient DNA is highly fragmented and by no means ready to go into the next mammoth embryo. Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba doubts that circulating mammoth blood

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could resist freezing at 17 degrees C. Maybe, Campbell offers, the Russian teams liquid sample contains an antifreeze that was concentrated during the preservation. Or, he says, maybe antifreeze-secreting bacteria contaminated the sample. As for cloning, Fisher thinks other research deserves priority. For all I want to learn about the

lives of mammoths, I have more confidence in our ability to generate new knowledge from the fossil record than in our ability to learn from cloned mammoths, he says.  Kate Wong Adapted from Observations at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/ observations

August 2013, ScientificAmerican.com 19

2013 Scientific American