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Lighting the brain after birth

Claudia Hammond visits the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

Every year a minority of births goes wrong and the baby is deprived of oxygen, which can lead to long-term brain damage and conditions such as cerebral palsy. Early treatment can reduce the likelihood of permanent disability or even death, so a team at University College London have now developed a new portable device which uses harmless infra-red to detect signs of brain injury in newborn babies, minutes after birth. It is called Cyril and consultant neurologist Subhabrata Mitra and Dr Ilias Tachtsidis, Reader in Biomedical Engineering, demonstrate it to Claudia.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a well-known problem, with one insidious thriving place being medical implants, where they form impenetrable biofilms. But there could be a solution from scientists at Nottingham University. Kim Hardie, a molecular microbiologist, is part of a team that has developed special slippery coatings for biomedical devices, such as catheters, that stop bacteria attaching and sticking in the first place. It is hoped these super biomaterials will help in the fight against super bugs, which has huge implications for infection rates in hospitals globally.

It is estimated that one in nine people experience some form of breathlessness, which is most common in conditions such as heart failure, lung disease, panic disorder and Parkinson’s. But there are also significant numbers of people who suffer from breathlessness which cannot be explained. A team at Oxford University hypothesise this might be driven by networks in the brain. So using brain scans and computational modelling, Breathe Oxford has examined breathlessness in athletes, healthy people and those with chronic lung disease, seeking clues as to why some individuals become disabled by their breathlessness, while others with the same lung function live normal healthy lives.
Claudia discusses this relationship between breathlessness and brain perception with lead researcher and anaesthetist Professor Kyle Pattinson and research scientist Sarah Finnegan. They also, using a ‘Steppatron’, demonstrate what it is like to live with a chronic lung condition.

Mirror-touch synaesthesia is a rare type of synaesthesia where people can actually feel something that they can see being done to someone else. For example they might seem to feel a brush on their hand whilst watching someone else having their hand stroked. Dr Natalie Bowling from the University of Sussex researches this condition. It is estimated that 30% of the population could experience some form of synaesthesia and Claudia also meets Kaitlyn ...

A new unique discovery about Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition where the brain gradually becomes more damaged over a number of years, leading to serious movement and cognitive problems. It is difficult to study the earliest stages because people are not aware they have the disease, but there is one very special group of people who might hold the key. They live in villages of the northern Peloponnese in Greece and near Naples in Italy, and they have a very rare genetic mutation which means that they will almost certainly develop the disease.
For years Professor of Neurology Marios Politis, who is also director of the Neurodegeneration Imaging Group at King’s College London, had wanted to study this tiny group or people. Many of them had never been abroad before, so persuading them and organising a trip to London was not an easy task, but in the end 14 of them made the journey, and thanks to their generosity, Professor Politis’ team made an extraordinary discovery.
For decades dopamine has been considered to be the main brain chemical affected when someone has Parkinson’s disease. The team’s new research challenges this view of Parkinson’s and backed up what they had suspected for a while; that the brain chemical serotonin is heavily implicated in the early stages of the disease. The work has just been published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

The Chinese authorities say the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners without their consent came to an end four years ago. But a former war crimes prosecutor has concluded that prisoners of conscience in China are still having organs removed for transplants; despite official denials from China. The allegations have been examined in detail by a tribunal set up by the charity End Transplant Abuse in China, or ETAC. Over the past two years Matthew Hill, the Health Correspondent for BBC in the South West of England, has been examining these allegations and has this exclusive report for Health Check.

Very long hours at work can put you at risk of burnout, but unemployment is not good for your mental health either. But how much do you really need to work to start seeing the benefits of having a job? The answer is rather less than you might think. Daiga Kamerade-Hanta, senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at the University of Salford, studied data from more than 70,000 people in the UK, and ...

How successful are Chinese vaccination programmes?

Chinese vaccination rates are claimed to be a great success, but is that the whole picture? Every country has its own challenges to deal and China’s include the vast size of the country, mass migration into cities and the birth of 15 million children a year. Their goal is 90% vaccination coverage. Have they achieved it? Reporter Madeleine Finlay has just been to a symposium in London on vaccination programmes in China, and she reports back for Health Check.

Thanks to a vigorous vaccination campaign that started in the 1960s, Taiwan has, like all but three countries in the world, succeeded in eradicating polio. There has been no polio infection there since 1983, but there are still survivors of polio who contracted the virus before that time. Some of them belong to the Chinese Taipei City Wheelchair Dance Sport Association and often get together to take part in wheelchair ballroom dancing. BBC’s Cindy Sui went to visit wheelchair dancers Vincent Kuo and Ivy Huang, who told her how dancing even helped them find love.

What advice would you give your younger self? Psychologists at Clemson University in the US surveyed nearly 200 over 30 year olds asking this very question. Their answers fell into three main categories; things they wish they had done differently about the way they thought of themselves, choices concerning education and choices about relationships. Professor of Psychology Robin Kowalski was lead author of the study, which has just been published in the Journal of Social Psychology.

(Photo caption: A child receiving a vaccination shot at a hospital in China - credit: Getty Images)

Health Check was presented by Claudia Hammond with comments from BBC Health and Science correspondent, James Gallagher.

Producer: Helena Selby

A new treatment for arachnophobia

Claudia visits the University of Sussex to undergo a novel treatment for her spider phobia. She meets Professor Sarah Garfinkel, from Sussex University in the UK, who has trialled a new technique which involves tuning in to the beat of a heart and finding a quicker way to dampen down and reduce arachnophobia. Does this new technique cure Claudia of her long term hatred of spiders? And does it allow her to get closer to Terry the tarantula?

Have you ever worked in a big open plan office where there are daily thermostat wars? It is often a problem in air conditioned offices, with some people preferring a cold ambient temperature and others feeling so cold they have to bring in extra items of clothing to wear. Women generally prefer higher indoor temperatures than men, which is well supported by survey evidence, but could it have an impact on cognitive performance? New research from the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, looking at the differences in gender for the first time, suggests this is the case. Dr Agne Kajackaite is lead author of the study, which has recently been published in the journal PLOS One.

When women are pregnant they release more of a hormone called Relaxin. This hormone peaks in the first and third trimester; helping an embryo successfully implant in the uterus, and also helping to relax the ligaments in the pelvis to aid childbirth. An orthopaedic surgeon in the US noticed that when his patients had stiff, frozen elbow, they eased during and after pregnancy and he wondered whether this was due to their increased levels of Relaxin.
A team then conducted a study in rats to see whether injections of Relaxin could help with frozen shoulder, where connective tissues around the joint become thickened and stiff. It can cause a lot of pain and make it very hard to move. Mark Grinstaff, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Medicine at Boston University in the US, tells Claudia that the injections seemed to work in rats, and that the use of Relaxin could be a very promising treatment for other musculoskeletal diseases. The results have just been published in the journal PNAS.

(Photo caption: Young child surprised by a wasp spider – credit: Getty Images)

Health Check was presented by Claudia Hammond with comments from BBC Health and Science correspondent, James Gallagher.

Producer: Helena Selby

4 episodes