The Moor After the Fire

Last week’s news has been dominated by reports of the fire near Saddleworth Moor that is now spreading over 7 sq. miles. While the locals have been evacuated from places at high risk, the wildlife is left to its own devices. Experts from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) worry about the impact that the ongoing fire might have on the local wildlife, especially for ground-nesting and wading birds, such as curlews, meadow pipits and skylarks. Most of the birds inhabiting the affected areas are in the midst of their breeding season, meaning that either their eggs or young chicks are at risk of the fire.

bird

Likewise, a small population of mountain hares resident in the moor may have been able to flee, but might, much like the surviving birds, be affected by the changed ecosystem they will return to once the fire has been extinguished. Peat fires can smoulder for a prolonged amount of time and the depth of the fire means that most of the seeds and insects living below the earth are likely to be gone by the time the other animals return. It will also take a significant amount of time for the vegetation to be re-established and even longer for the ecosystem at large to recover, as the root of the biodiversity of Saddleworth Moor and the surrounding areas are likely to be destroyed in this huge fire.

Mushrooms for Mental Health

UK researchers from Imperial College London are about to partake in a major clinical trial comparing the effectiveness of psilocybin – the active compound in magic mushrooms – to one of the leading anti-depressant drugs escitalopram for the treatment of depression. Escitalopram, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, is commonly used in the treatment of depression, but many patients with mental health disorders are yet to find a treatment that works for them.

mushroomsSeveral smaller studies investigating the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, including mescaline, DMT, and LSD, have shown promising effects for the treatment of different mental health disorders, including an 80% reduction in depression in patients with life-threatening cancer, addiction, and PTSD. These results are particularly encouraging as they show the hallucinogenic compounds to be effective even in patients that failed to respond to more conventional treatments. It is not entirely clear how psilocybin affects the brain, but evidence suggests that the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional processing, is involved. While the results indicate a potential use for psilocybin and similar hallucinogenic compounds in treating mental health in the future, it is important to highlight that there is a big difference between the recreational use of hallucinogenic drugs compared to safely manufactured compounds used in a clinical setting with the addition of psychological support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Robot GPs

Babylon, the company behind the NHS’s GP at Hand app, has introduced a follow-up development of its artificial intelligence chatbot at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, claiming that the chatbot did as well as general practitioners (GPs) in the Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners Exam. The data encompasses the average test results of aspiring GPs from 2012 to 2017 (72%) to how the AI chatbot performed (81%) using a representative set of test questions.

robot GPSThe Royal College of General Practitioners, however, disputes that any of these questions are available to the public and questions the validity of the results. They also point out that there is more to a GP than the correct diagnosis, as doctors have to take into account a patient’s individual circumstances, as well as the psychological impact the diagnosis might have. Babylon, on the other hand, state that the intent is not to replace GPs, but to provide a useful tool that can calculate which diagnosis is likely based on symptoms, as well as the chance of each of the suggested diagnoses to be accurate. The programme is actually used as part of Rwanda’s healthcare system, with 2 million Rwandans registered with the service and nurses using the step-by-step diagnostic help provided to improve health care in the region, as well as to collect data to further improve the AI chatbot.

Written by Charlott Repschlager

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