Pregnancy alters woman’s brain ‘for at least two years’

Pregnancy reduces grey matter in specific
parts of a woman’s brain, helping her bond
with her baby and prepare for the demands
of motherhood.

Scans of 25 first-time mums showed these
structural brain changes lasted for at least two years after giving birth.

European researchers said the scale of brain changes during pregnancy were akin to those seen during adolescence.

But they found no evidence of women’s memory deteriorating.

Many women have said they feel forgetful and emotional during pregnancy and put it down to “pregnancy” or “baby” brain – and, it seems, with good reason.

Pregnancy is characterised by extreme surges of sex hormones and involves drastic physiological and physical changes in the body, the researchers say.

During those nine months, women experience a flood of oestrogen which is greater than for the whole of the rest of their lives.

Yet research on the effects of pregnancy on the human brain is scarce.

This study, from researchers at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and Leiden University and published in Nature Neuroscience, looked at the brain scans of women before they became pregnant, soon after they gave birth, and two years later, to see how the brain changed.

And they compared these women’s brains with those of 19 first-time fathers, 17 men without children and 20 women who had never given birth.

The researchers found “substantial” reductions in the volume of grey matter in the brains of first-time mothers.

The grey matter changes occurred in areas of the brain involved in social interactions used for attributing thoughts and feelings to other people – known as “theory-of-mind” tasks.

The researchers thought this would give new mothers an advantage in various ways – help them recognise the needs of their child, be more aware of potential social threats and become more attached to their baby.

Just by analysing the brain images, computers were able to pick out the women who had been pregnant.

In one task, women were shown pictures of their own babies and other babies and their brain activity was monitored.

The parts of the brain which lit up when they saw pictures of their own babies closely matched the areas where grey matter had been reduced or “fine-tuned” during pregnancy.

The same areas did not light up when pictures of other babies were viewed.

Elseline Hoekzema, study author and postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said:

“We can speculate that the volume reductions observed in pregnancy represent a process of specialisation or further maturation of this Theory of Mind network that, in some way, serves an adaptive purpose for pending motherhood.”

The study found that pregnant women were all affected in similar ways, regardless of whether they conceived naturally or underwent IVF.

And there were no changes in first-time fathers’ grey matter in the study when their brains were monitored before and after their partners’ pregnancy.

The research team also found no major changes in white matter in the brain.


Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF confirms Mugabe as 2018 election candidate

Zimbabwe’s governing Zanu-PF party has
confirmed President Robert Mugabe as its
candidate for the 2018 elections.

Mr Mugabe, who is 92, has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980.
At the party’s conference, the Zanu-PF youth wing even proposed that Mr Mugabe should be declared president for life.

However, there have been unprecedented
protests this year against Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil and Mr Mugabe’s leadership.

The Zanu-PF has also suffered serious infighting as factions battle it out to succeed Mr Mugabe once he eventually leaves.

His supporters broke into thunderous applause and chanted “tongai, tongai baba” [rule, rule father] as the Zanu-PF annual conference in the south-eastern town of Masvingo nominated Mr Mugabe on Saturday.

In his acceptance speech, Mr Mugabe called for an end to party infighting.

“We agreed that conflicts should end. Infighting should end. The party ideology should be followed,” he said.

“Let us be one. We are one family, the family of Zanu-PF bound together by the fact of understanding between its members.”

Mr Mugabe has blamed the country’s economic problems on sabotage by Western critics of his policies.

Amid violent protests earlier this year he warned there would be no Zimbabwean uprising similar to the “Arab Spring”.

Muhammad Ali letter to Nelson Mandela sold for £7,200

A signed letter from Muhammad Ali to
Nelson Mandela offering his condolences on
the death of an anti-apartheid leader has
sold for £7,200.

The typed letter, signed by the boxing legend on “Muhammad Ali in South Africa” stationery, dates from 1993.

It was sold in an auction in Devizes.
Auctioneer Andrew Aldridge said: “It’s fair to say Mohammad Ali was the greatest sportsman of all time.

The letter was typed by the personal assistant to the general manager of the Elangeni Hotel in Durban, where former world heavyweight champion Ali was staying at the time.

Henry Aldridge and Son said the letter was sold to a collector in the US. It was expected to fetch between £6,000 and £8,000.

The letter also includes an explanation as to why Muhammad Ali’s name was typed incorrectly by the personal assistant, who has sold the letter.

“It is a truly iconic cross collectable and will
appeal to collectors of Ali memorabilia as well as those who collect Nelson Mandela material, items relating to apartheid, political history and collectors of iconic memorabilia,” Mr Aldridge added.

“Muhammad Ali was only in South Africa for a short period in April 1993, arriving shortly after the assassination of Chris Hani on 10 April.

“Hani was the chief of staff of Umkhonto WeSizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

“He was a fierce opponent of the apartheid
government and was murdered by a far right extremist outside of his home in Boksburg.

“Against that backdrop Ali arrived in South Africa at a time when the country stood on the edge of a precipice with civil war a possibility.

“He attended Hani’s farewell at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on 19 April 1993 and when he appeared to the crowd, they chanted ‘Ali! Ali!’.”

Mr Aldridge said Mandela kept a photograph of himself with Ali on his desk and his favourite book, in his later years, was an autographed copy of Ali’s biography.

Nigeria famine risk rising, those in danger may double in 2017 – IPC

Global food security monitors said on Friday that Nigeria’s Borno state was at increased risk of famine, with one study projecting the number of those affected will rise to 115,000 in 2017 from 55,000 this year.

The northeastern state is the area worst hit by the seven-year Boko Haram insurgency that has killed 15,000 people and uprooted more than 2 million during the Islamist militants’ attempt to create a “caliphate” in the area.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which is backed by U.N. and other aid agencies, issued a special alert calling for urgent humanitarian action.

“There is an elevated likelihood that famine is ongoing and will continue in the inaccessible areas of Borno State assuming conditions will remain similar or worse to those observed in Bama and Banki towns from April to August of 2016,” it said.

“The current response is insufficient to meet the very large emergency assistance needs.”

People displaced by conflict are worst affected, it said, adding that low crop production, disrupted livelihoods and financial crisis were also to blame.

Nigerian military forces backed by troops from neighbouring states have in recent months ousted Boko Haram from most of an area the size of Belgium that they controlled until early 2015, revealing thousands living in famine-like conditions.

The U.S.-based Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) has said at least 2,000 people may have died of famine in the region this year, and the United Nations has said 75,000 children could starve to death over the next few months if they do not receive humanitarian

The IPC cited a report by the U.N.-backed Cadre Harmonise, a regional food security partnership that found 115,000 people in Borno state and more than 5,000 in Yobe state would be at risk from famine in the second half of 2017.

The FEWS NET study had confirmed the alarming situation and revealed an ongoing elevated risk of famine that was likely to continue into 2017, the IPC statement said.

FBI kept tabs on Muhammad Ali in 1966 during Nation of Islam probe

The FBI kept tabs on the late boxer Muhammad Ali in 1966, including his divorce and his speech at a Miami mosque, in its investigation of the religious group Nation of Islam, according to documents released by the agency.

The release of the documents, recently posted on the website of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was first reported by the New York Times online on Thursday.

The former heavyweight boxing champion died in June at age 74, after a life in the ring and in activism that made him one of the world’s most famous celebrities. Former President Bill Clinton was among the dignitaries at his funeral.

The FBI has been criticized for monitoring public figures, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and rock singer John Lennon, in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.

The latest batch of about 140 pages of FBI
documents from 1966 on Ali, which includes
previously classified material, were released following a lawsuit to obtain the papers brought in August by conservative group Judicial Watch.

The papers, which used Ali’s birth name Cassius Clay, includes a request for agents to monitor his divorce that year from his first wife as a “lead.” “The Miami (FBI) office is requested to follow the divorce action between Cassius and Sonja Clay
with particular emphasis being placed on any NOI (Nation of Islam) implication being brought into this matter,” one memo stated.

A separate FBI memo on a speech Ali gave in 1966 at a mosque said he discussed efforts to strip him of his heavyweight title and blamed the “white man.”

The controversy centered on Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and his claim of conscientious objector status, which would lead to his being stripped of the boxing title in 1967.

After a successful legal battle, Ali regained the title in a 1974 bout. In the documents, FBI officials stressed Ali was not personally under investigation.

One memo said Ali’s connection to the African-American religious group the Nation of Islam, which was under FBI investigation at the time, made the bureau interested in his activities “from an intelligence standpoint”.

In a status report filed in federal court on Dec. 2, Judicial Watch and the FBI said the bureau provided documents on Ali to Judicial Watch in November and anticipated releasing more papers around Dec. 21 and Jan. 21.

Belgium urges citizens out of Congo on fears of violence

Belgium advised against all travel to the
Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday and urged citizens whose presence was not essential to leave its former colony due to fears of violence in planned anti-government protests.

Condemning the expulsion of two Belgian
television crews, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said in a statement: “Belgian citizens who remain in the country are requested to exercise utmost caution, in particular during movements.”

An updated travel advice on his ministry’s
website cited as reasons for avoiding the DRC:
“political tensions, recent measures taken by the authorities to suppress rights and freedoms, the expulsion of Belgian journalists, rumors of the closure of certain airports, the possible restriction of Internet communications and the risk of new

Babies created from three people approved in UK

Babies created from two women and one man have been approved by the UK’s fertility regulator.

The historic and controversial move is to prevent children being born with deadly genetic diseases.

Doctors in Newcastle – who developed the
advanced form of IVF – are expected to be the first to offer the procedure and have already appealed for donor eggs.

The first such child could be born, at the earliest, by the end of 2017.

Some families have lost multiple children to incurable mitochondrial diseases, which can leave people with insufficient energy to keep their heart beating.

The diseases are passed down from only the mother so a technique using a donor egg as well as the mother’s egg and father’s sperm has been developed.

The resulting child has a tiny amount of their DNA from the donor, but the procedure is legal, ethical and scientifically ready.

“It is a decision of historic importance,” said Sally Cheshire, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

“This is about cautious go ahead, not gung-ho go ahead, and there is a long way to go.
“I’m sure patients will be really pleased by what we’ve decided today.”

But some scientists have questioned the ethics of the technique, saying it could open the door to genetically-modified ‘designer’ babies.

The HFEA must approve every clinic and every patient before the procedure can take place.

Three-person babies have been allowed only in cases where the risk of a child developing mitochondrial disease is very high.

Clinics can now apply to the HFEA for a licence to conduct three-person IVF.

Donors needed The team at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University is expected to be the first to be granted a licence. It aims to help 25 couples every year.

Prof Mary Herbert, from the Newcastle Fertility Centre, said: “It is enormously gratifying that our many years of research in this area can finally be applied to help families affected by these devastating diseases.

“Now that that we are moving forward towards clinical treatments, we will also need donors to donate eggs for use in treatment to prevent affected women transmitting disease to their children.”

Prof Sir Doug Turnbull, the director of the
Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University, said: “We are delighted by today’s decision.
“We will also provide long-term follow up of any children born.”

NHS England has agreed to fund the treatment costs of the first trial of three-person IVF for those women who meet the HFEA criteria, as long as they agree to long-term follow up of their children after they are born.

Meanwhile mitochondrial disease is caused by defective mitochondria – the tiny structures in nearly every cell that convert food into useable energy.

One in 4,300 children are born with such severe symptoms they develop muscle weakness, blindness, deafness, seizures, learning disabilities, diabetes, heart and liver failure. It is often fatal.

The aim of the procedure is to get the healthy mitochondria from the donor.
But mitochondria have their own DNA, which is why resulting children have DNA from three people.

However, everything that defines physical and personality traits still comes from parents.

Robert Meadowcroft, from the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, said: “This historic decision will open the door to the first licensed treatments being offered.

“We know of many women who have faced
heartache and tragedy and the sorrow of
stillbirths, while trying to start their own family, and this decision gives them new hope and choice for the first time.”

Prof Frances Flinter, professor in clinical genetics at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, called the decision “wonderful news”.

She added: “It is infinitely preferable that the early clinical trials should be done in a tightly regulated system in the UK, with long term follow-up of any children born, rather than in countries where there is no regulation or oversight.”

Prof Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Science, said that the decision means “groundbreaking research can now be translated from theory into practice and transform lives in the clinic”.

However, the decision is not universally welcome. Dr David King, from the campaign group Human Genetics Alert, said: “This decision opens the door
to the world of genetically-modified designer babies.

“Already, bioethicists have started to argue that allowing mitochondrial replacement means that there is no logical basis for resisting GM babies, which is exactly how slippery slopes work.”

However, the UK will not be the first country in the world to have children born through the three-person technique.

A Jordanian couple and doctors in New York
performed the procedure in Mexico and the
resulting baby is understood to be healthy.