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The biggest medical breakthroughs of 2016

Decoding Zika virus, welcoming the world’s first three-parent baby and figuring out novel ways to identify and treat dementia. While the world grappled with a Zika virus epidemic, steadily climbing rates of dementia and an opioid crisis, the globe’s scientists worked hard at unravelling these pressing health-care problems.

Here’s a look at five medical breakthroughs to celebrate in 2016.

Decoding Zika virus, its transmission and effects on developing babies

The health story that captured global attention this year is Zika virus and its stronghold over South America.

Like dengue, West Nile and Yellow fever, Zika virus is a mosquito-borne tropical disease, meaning the insects transmit the disease to humans. It’s touched every part of the Americas, except for Canada and Chile.

READ MORE: Zika virus: What doctors know about how it potentially spreads

In the past calendar year, scientists made major strides at understanding the disease: they’ve mapped out its path of destruction on unborn babies, what symptoms look like in pregnant women, and its ties to other diseases, like Guillian-Barre Syndrome and glaucoma.

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As global health officials unfolded the layers, the warnings ramped up: now, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are advising couples to stay away from unprotected sex for at least six months after travel to affected areas. This was a step up from the initial eight-week warning. Doctors even learned that Zika could spread through tears and sweat, and lingers longer in semen.

The world welcomes its first three-parent baby

In September, American scientists said they successfully delivered the first baby born from a controversial new technique that combines DNA from three people.

The baby boy, born in Mexico in April, was delivered with the help of U.S. fertility specialists with whom his parents consulted. The hope was to prevent the child from inheriting a fatal genetic disease from his mother – she had four pregnancy losses and two babies who passed away at eight months old and six years old from a brain disorder.

Expert weighs in on controversial “three parent baby” fertility procedure
Expert weighs in on controversial “three parent baby” fertility procedure

READ MORE: Baby born with DNA from 3 people, a first from new technique

Keep in mind, the technique has only been approved in the U.K., but the U.S. doctors said it was the “ethical thing to do.”

In this case, the three-parent baby was put together by removing some of the mother’s DNA from an egg, leaving the disease-causing DNA behind. The healthy DNA is then slipped into a donor’s egg.

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Shedding light on how to identify and treat dementia

Global health officials are worried about a growing dementia crisis as our population ages – there is no cure or treatment that slows or stops its progression.

READ MORE: 3 brilliant health innovations from Edmonton in 2016

In July, Canadian scientists out of Calgary introduced a new syndrome called “mild behavioural impairment” – or MBI – which they say may be the precursor to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

While memory loss is typically seen as the hallmark warning sign, they told loved ones to pay attention to other changes in personality and behaviour. That includes a loss of interest in friends, family or hobbies, anxiety over routine activities, and showing agitation, aggression or irritability.

READ MORE: Watch for these behavioural changes as early warning signs of dementia

It was a difficult year for scientists building dementia therapies – seemingly promising Alzheimer’s drugs failed in clinical trials, but a new therapy that focuses solely on light therapy offered hope.

In December, Boston scientists said that flickering LED lights at a specific frequency helped to “substantially” reduce brain plaque and buildup – at least in mice. It’s a big “if” but the expectation is that results will be similar in humans in this non-invasive treatment.

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Canadian docs pioneer test to predict concussion recovery time

Canadian scientists unveiled handfuls of concussion research this year, starting with the world’s first points system that could predict how kids will recover after a concussion.

In March, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario doctors built a clinical prediction score that’ll be rolled out in hospitals and doctors’ offices across the country. Before, doctors relied on guesswork to determine how kids would fare post-concussion.

READ MORE: Canadian docs pioneer new test to predict concussion recovery time in kids

By June, the same CHEO doctors spearheaded a North American project to develop new guidelines and tools to streamline diagnosis and treatment of concussion in youth. They say it’s the first comprehensive pediatric guidelines out there and reflect the best available evidence.

Before then, most guidelines that existed were catered toward athletes and adults and didn’t apply to children.

Turning to illicit drugs to treat mental health concerns

They’re often depicted as dangerous, but scientists suggest that LSD and other psychedelic drugs could be promising options to treat depression, PTSD and addiction issues.

2016 was yet another year in which their controversial findings yielded fascinating results on how illegal drugs could help people suffering from mental health ailments.

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This time around, U.S. researchers suggested that magic mushrooms could offer “considerable relief” to people who have cancer-related depression, Global News’ Rebecca Joseph reported in December.

READ MORE: Anxiety, depression lessened after a dose of magic mushroom hallucinogen

The effects after consuming the hallucinogen lingered for six months post-treatment. Cancer patients in the study saw “significant decreases” in depressed mood and anxiety.

Could LSD, magic mushrooms curb domestic violence? Research finds ‘calming’ effect
Could LSD, magic mushrooms curb domestic violence? Research finds ‘calming’ effect

In February, Canadian scientists out of the University of British Columbia said that LSD even helped with increasing optimism, openness, compassion and kindness in people battling domestic abuse issues.

READ MORE: Can LSD treat depression? British scientists fundraising to study potential

“One explanation is that they can transform people’s lives by providing profoundly meaningful spiritual experiences that highlight what matters most,” Dr. Peter Hendricks, co-author of the study, said.

“Often people are struck by the realization that behaving with compassion and kindness towards others is high on the list of what matters,” he explained.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca