UBC at AAAS

Media Release

Arrhythmia culprit caught in action

Using powerful X-rays, University of British Columbia researchers have reconstructed a crime scene too small for any microscope to observe – and caught the culprit of arrhythmia in action.

Characterized by the heart beating too fast, too slow or inconsistently, arrhythmias may cause a decrease of blood flow to the brain and body, resulting in heart palpitation, dizziness, fainting, or even death.

Presented today at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, the 3D animated model reveals for the first time how gene mutations affect the crucial pathway in heart muscle cells that controls its rhythm.


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“Our heart runs on calcium,” says UBC molecular biologist Filip Van Petegem. “Every heart beat is preceded by calcium ions rushing into heart muscle cells.”

“Then, a special protein opens the pathway for calcium to be released from compartments within these cells, and in turn initiates the contraction.”

Mutations to the gene that forms this protein have been linked to arrhythmia and sudden cardiac deaths in otherwise healthy people.

“Reconstructing the pathway and its dynamic motion enabled us to see the process in action,” says Van Petegem. “We found that the mutations destabilize the pathway’s structure, causing calcium to be released prematurely.

“Finding a way to stabilize the pathway could prevent these deadly conditions and save lives.”

NB: Prof. Van Petegem will be available for interviews from the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston after 2:30 p.m. EST Feb 17. He can be reached at 604.209.3048 or petegem@mail.ubc.ca, or contact Brian Lin at 604.818.5685 or brian.lin@ubc.ca to schedule an interview. 

For more UBC news from AAAS 2013, visit http://aaas.ubc.ca or follow @ubcnews.

Videos: The structure of the calcium pathway in heart muscle cells


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Bilingual babies know their grammar by seven months

Babies as young as seven months can distinguish between, and begin to learn, two languages with vastly different grammatical structures, according to new research from the University of British Columbia and Université Paris Descartes.

Published today in the journal Nature Communications and presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, the study shows that infants in bilingual environments use pitch and duration cues to discriminate between languages – such as English and Japanese – with opposite word orders.

In English, a function word comes before a content word (the dog, his hat, with friends, for example) and the duration of the content word is longer, while in Japanese or Hindi, the order is reversed, and the pitch of the content word higher.

“By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart,” says UBC psychologist Janet Werker, co-author of the study.

Previous research by Werker and Judit Gervain, a linguist at the Université Paris Descartes and co-author of the new study, showed that babies use frequency of words in speech to discern their significance.

“For example, in English the words ‘the’ and ‘with’ come up a lot more frequently than other words – they’re essentially learning by counting,” says Gervain. “But babies growing up bilingual need more than that, so they develop new strategies that monolingual babies don’t necessarily need to use.”

“If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” says Werker. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

NB: Prof. Werker is available for interviews from Boston, MA. at 604-313-2697 from noon EST onwards on Feb. 14.

For more UBC news from AAAS 2013, visit aaas.ubc.ca or follow @ubcnews. 

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