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Science Discoveries 2013: What Canadians Uncovered About Health This Year

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In our day-to-day lives, we don't often take time to appreciate just how lucky we are to be surrounded by so much knowledge and technology that improves our lives, from mundane machines like telephones to lifesaving medical devices like MRIs. But all of these things we now take for granted started somewhere, and at the end of 2013, we want to celebrate the top science discoveries made this year that could be making our lives even better in the future.

From a pill made from poop that could stop disease to a 3D atlas for the brain to access every region, Canadian researchers has been making waves in big ways this year. The Huffington Post Canada took a look at hospitals and universities across the country to discover the most amazing and fascinating things Canadians uncovered about health this year.

Health Breakthroughs 2013

Sharp-Shooting Cancer Drugs

It was massive news in June when researchers at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital announced that they, in conjunction with researchers at UCLA, had developed a drug over the past decade that specifically targeted cancer cells in chemotherapy. This ran in contrast to previous forms of treatment, which targeted all fast-dividing cells, cancerous or otherwise. The drug is awaiting approval, but showed a lot of promise in mice trials, potentially paving the way for new breast and ovarian cancer treatments soon.

Moms Make The Pain Go Away

Infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can go through as many as 500 to 1000 procedures, and the pain experienced can not only potentially create stress later in life, but also change the way their brains form. Researchers at Dalhousie University determined that having a mother hold her baby during a procedure can reduce the pain by up to 30 per cent, making a massive impact. Considering parents are often kept away from the NICU and these procedures, this could change how at-risk babies are treated — and how they develop.

An Atlas For The Brain

The Montreal and German researchers who worked on the 3D digital brain atlas compare it to a "Google maps" for the brain, allowing researchers around the world to download incredibly high resolution portions of the organ in order to further their studies. The data set is 125,000 times bigger than a typical MRI.

Health Isn't Always About Weight

For obese patients with conditions like high glucose and blood pressure, staring down the long road to health can be intimidating and scary. Researchers at York University made it a bit less daunting with their discovery that this population can improve their health even without weight loss by following a diet program that worked with their lifestyle. Too often "healthy" is equated with losing pounds, and this gives hope for health to those who constantly go up and down.

Poop Pill

Using other people's feces to cure someone's gut problems may sound counterintuitive, and yes, gross, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. Dr. Thomas Louie at the University of Calgary made massive news this year with his "poop pills," a more (ahem) digestible version of fecal transplants that help cure C. Difficile, thanks to a balancing of gut bacteria. There's hope these pills can help a variety of digestive conditions in the future.

One Part Of Our Brain Is Keeping iTunes In Business

McGill researchers watched people listen to new music they'd never heard before, and uncovered the surprising finding that the more activity in the nucleus accumbens, which deals with expectations and rewards, combined with activity in the auditory cortex, which stores information about what we've heard, the more likely they are to buy that music. Basically, people have expectations of what music should sound like, and vote with their dollars if they are or aren't met.

Physical Help For Anorexia

Why is it such a big deal that University of Toronto has potentially found a treatment for anorexia? “Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness,” says Professor Blake Woodside, a teacher in U of T’s Department of Psychiatry and medical director of Canada’s largest eating disorders program at Toronto General Hospital. The university used electrodes on the parts of patients' brains that dealt with emotion and depression and watched for changes. In the six months afterwards, half the patients gained more weight than they ever had in the past.

Hunting Down Alzheimer's

Researchers at York University, working with colleagues at Cornell University, published a study showing how structural changes in the brain throughout one's life could be related to the development of Alzheimer's disease, creating the possibility of an earlier diagnosis. From this, they hope to develop ways to stimulate cognitive functioning in those parts and prevent the onset of the disease.

Where Obesity Comes From

Discrimination against fat people could be the last remaining prejudice, but McGill and University of Toronto researchers may have found an answer to stop that. Though many people assume obesity comes from poor food choices, a study determined it actually stems from three things: genetic predispositions, environmental stress and emotional well-being. Specifically, a lack of the gene that regulates dopamine can affect children's food choices, prompting them to opt for unhealthier comfort foods, and knowing this, doctors and parents can work to prevent it.

Where REM Sleep Happens

Sleep is still a mystery, for the most part, though scientists are fairly certain REM sleep (the deep kind, when dreaming happens) is imperative for our mental well-being. So the discovery by researchers at McGill University of neurons that are directly related to REM sleep could mean big things for understanding more about what happens when our eyes are shut and why sleep matters so much.

Music Eases The Pain

Many of us have used music as a distraction technique to block out annoying co-workers or fellow commuters, but University of Alberta researchers have found an even better purpose for it: to block out pain. Studies with children found that those who listened to music while getting an IV reported less pain immediately after the procedure. So turn up the sound for those blood tests!

Turn Water Into Gold!

Nathan Magarvey, assistant professor, biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster, discovered a species of bacteria (Delftia acidovorans) that can turn water-soluble gold into the precious metal's solid form. The amounts are tiny, but researchers think this could be used to find bodies of water where gold can be found.

A Better IQ Test

There have long been problems associated with the narrowness of traditional IQ tests, but York University may have uncovered a better way to determine intelligence. By testing rational thinking at a young age, the school demonstrated a correlation between rational thinking in children and executive functions and intelligence. This could go a long way to broadening how we define the term.

Concussions Can Last Decades

This is scary news, especially considering how common concussions are among Canadians, but a Quebec neuropsychologist found the brain waves of a concussed head can be abnormal for years, as well as having deteriorated motor pathways, leading to attention problems. It's no surprise so many athletes are suing their leagues.

Unborn Babies Love Exercise

It takes as little as 20 minutes a day, three times a week, and your baby can reap the benefits of exercising — that was the message delivered to soon-to-be moms by University of Montreal researchers this year. Apparently even that minimum amount of activity helped kids showcase more mature brain activity right off the bat than those of mothers who did not exercise. That walk sure seems worth it now.

Screens Are Worse Than Sitting

Forget getting worried about your kid sitting around all day — get worried that your kid is sitting around in front of a computer all day. An inter-university team of researchers from University of Ottawa, University of Montreal, Concordia University, Laval University Laval and McGill University found that when kids sat in front of screens, they consumed more calories and had lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — known as "good" cholesterol. It won't be the first time you've heard it: reading trumps video games.

Robot Surgeons

In 2013, the Jewish General Hospital became the first hospital in Canada to perform robot-assisted cardiac surgery, using the da Vinci surgical robot to repair a mitral valve. The surgery only needed pencil-sized holes between the ribs, making the robot the perfect candidate to enact this.

Alternatives To Salt

With the discovery this year that Canadian fast food was incredibly high in salt by University of Toronto researchers, the University of Saskatchewan is looking into alternatives, particularly for processed meats, in order to maintain their safety and taste.

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