128 Evolution News Articles
for January 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
1-31-18 Depriving the brain of a sense may improve stroke recovery
Trimming the whiskers of mice suggests that blocking off some functions of the brain can help it rewire itself around stroke damage, speeding up recovery. Recovery from a stroke is unpredictable and can take months. But research in mice suggests that blocking off some functions of the brain can help it rewire itself to work around stroke damage. Jin-Moo Lee, of Washington University, St Louis, and his team have found that when they trim the whiskers of mice, these animals recover from strokes more quickly, and show more of an improvement. “It’s the first study to demonstrate that we can make certain parts of the brain more receptive to rewiring,” says Lee. “We have the ability to actually accelerate and improve recovery.” In their experiment, Lee’s team gave mice strokes in a part of their brains that is responsible for processing sensations felt in their right forepaws. The team then trimmed the whiskers of half of the mice, and kept them short for 8 weeks. They found that mice with trimmed whiskers recovered within 5 weeks – by this time, the animals were fully using their right forepaw again. The untrimmed mice took 7 weeks to reach their peak recovery level, and never regained full use of their forepaws. Brain imaging revealed that the mice with trimmed whiskers underwent what is known as “remapping” – regions of the brain that used to process whisker sensations were rewired to compute those of the mice’s forepaws, allowing them to step in for stroke-damaged regions. This didn’t happen in the other mice. This remapping is similar to what happens in blind animals and people, says Lee. When there isn’t any input from the eyes, visual areas of the brain can be rewired to process sounds, language or even maths.
1-31-18 The unpalatable truth about your favourite foods
Marion Nestle has been fighting food industry giants for decades. Now she wants to expose the way they skew scientific research for their own gain. I HAVE been in the US for less than 24 hours when, against my better judgement, I decide to indulge in a food trend I have heard about from the other side of the pond: ice cream so low in calories that the marketing message encourages you to eat the whole tub in one go. For an ice cream addict, the promise was irresistible. Still, I know bingeing on any junk food – however low in calories – is unwise, and when I arrive at New York University to meet with Marion Nestle a few days later, I am unsure whether to mention my transgression. After all, as the doyenne of nutritional science, she has spent much of her career taking on the food industry and its unhealthy messages. Trained in microbiology, Nestle was working at Brandeis University in Massachusetts when she was handed a nutrition class to teach. That was in the 1970s, and so little was known about nutrition that each textbook she consulted had a different list of nutritional requirements for the human body. She quickly fell in love with teaching such a poorly understood subject because, she says, the research was so weak that her students had to think critically. “I thought it would be a wonderful way to teach biology. And it was.” Nestle went on to become a policy adviser for the US department of health, where the connection between food and politics became increasingly apparent to her – if not to others. “Most people think of the food industry as an industry that brings us things we like to eat. And there were companies that are iconic and represent America, and I don’t think anybody really thought about it.”
1-31-18 Someone made advanced stone tools in India 172,000 years ago
A cache of stone tools found in south India reveals that the hominins living there over 170,000 years ago already had advanced tool-making skills. A mysterious cache of stone tools may end up revising our species’ prehistory. It seems people in Africa, Europe and Asia all invented the same kind of tools around 280,000 years ago. The find implies that, even this long ago, ideas could spread over thousands of miles. Shanti Pappu of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Chennai, India and her colleagues have spent years excavating a site called Attirampakkam in south India. They have discovered 7,261 stone tools buried in layers of sediment. Some are relatively primitive “Lower Palaeolithic” tools, which were used by various hominins that preceded our species until about 200,000 years ago. But some are more advanced Middle Palaeolithic tools, which are smaller and more finely crafted. Such tools have previously been attributed to our own species and close relatives like the Neanderthals. The surprising thing was the age of the Middle Palaeolithic tools. They were found in layers that were dated to between 385,000 and 172,000 years old. That is roughly when such tools first appear in the archaeological record in Africa and Europe, but far earlier than they have ever been seen in Asia. The fact that Middle Palaeolithic tools appear almost simultaneously in Africa, Europe and now Asia is striking. The question is, who made the Indian tools?
1-31-18 Sharp stones found in India signal surprisingly early toolmaking advances
Homo sapiens didn’t introduce the technology after all, excavated artifacts suggest. Stone-tool makers in what’s now India redesigned their products in a revolutionary way much earlier than previously thought. Excavated stone artifacts document a gradual shift from larger, handheld cutting implements to smaller pieces of sharpened stone, known as Middle Paleolithic tools, by around 385,000 years ago, researchers say. That shift mirrors a similar change seen in tools from a variety of hominid populations in Africa, Asia and Europe between about 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, including African Homo sapiens and European Neandertals. Unlike earlier populations, Middle Paleolithic toolmakers followed a set of steps to prepare chunks of rock, or cores, before pounding off sharp tools, or flakes. Until now, many researchers had assumed that the transition from tools such as hand axes, which emerged in Africa nearly 2 million years ago, to Middle Paleolithic implements happened in South Asia between 140,000 and 90,000 years ago. At that relatively late date, H. sapiens populations experienced at making Middle Paleolithic tools would have been leaving Africa, and perhaps introduced the skill to South Asia.
1-31-18 Primate archaeology: Digging up secrets of the monkey Stone Age
The discovery that chimps and some monkeys have a long history of making tools is forcing us to rethink our own cultural evolution A CASHEW is a tough nut to crack. You must carefully balance it on an anvil and bash it with a hammer, while avoiding contact with the caustic resin in its shell. This takes great skill. Yet bearded capuchin monkeys living in north-east Brazil take it in their stride. And their tool-wielding talents don’t end there. They also dig for tubers and insects with rocks. Females sometimes even hurl them at males in what appears to be an unusual flirting tactic. We used to think that using tools was the preserve of our hominin linage and one of the remarkable talents that made us human. So much for that idea… In fact, we have known for some years that our closest living relatives, chimps, employ a variety of tools, including some made of stone. Recently, primatologists have been intrigued to discover that this also applies to two more-distant cousins – the capuchins and macaques living in a coastal region of Thailand. The findings have attracted the attention of archaeologists keen to explore the so-called Stone Ages of non-human primates. Digging through layers of dirt, they have already unearthed the remains of tools made thousands of years ago. Their discoveries usher in the new discipline of primate archaeology, which has the potential to give novel insights not just about these species but also about our distant ancestors.
1-30-18 Can a brain implant treat Alzheimer’s? It might just be placebo
Alzheimer’s disease may have been slowed in two people given implants that stimulate the brain with electricity, but this may just have been the placebo effect. Two thin wires implanted in the brain may help treat Alzheimer’s disease by delivering electrical current. In the first test of this technique in people, two out of the three people who received the treatment showed less of a decline in their mental abilities than people at a similar stage of the disease who didn’t have the surgery. However, a larger randomised control trial is needed to know if the treatment really does work. The technique used is called deep brain stimulation, and is already used to treat the tremors and movement problems of some people with severe Parkinson’s disease. As well as having wires surgically inserted into the brain, recipients also get a power supply for the wires implanted under the skin near their collar bones. Depending on the current, the wires can either boost activity in nearby brain cells or reduce it. In Parkinson’s disease, they are used to turn down the excessive firing of discrete clusters of nerve cells that control movement. Alzheimer’s disease, however, is a less obvious target for such a treatment, because what causes this form of dementia is unknown. There has already been a small trial of brain stimulation using wires inserted into the brain’s memory centres, but this failed to help people with the condition. Douglas Scharre of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center wanted to target another aspect of Alzheimer’s - the loss of problem-solving and decision-making abilities. “In Alzheimer’s disease, everyone thinks about memory, but if patients can figure out how to do things like get their lunch ready, or know they put their socks on before their shoes, that could really help care-givers.”
1-30-18 A brain scan can reveal which people you’re friends with
Friends have more similar brain activity than people who don't know each other, particularly in regions involved in attention, emotion and language. HAVE you noticed how similar you are to your friends? It may be because your brains are in tune. We know that friends are more likely to be the same age, gender and ethnicity as each other. Now it seems their brains are alike, too. Carolyn Parkinson at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues scanned the brains of 42 classmates while they watched videos intended to elicit varying responses. Some people might find a romantic clip touching, for instance, while others would feel it was sappy. The activity of friends’ brains was more similar than that of people who didn’t know each other, particularly in regions involved in attention, emotion and language. This similarity was strong enough that it could be used to predict whether two people were already friends or not (Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02722-7). The relationship probably goes two ways: we are drawn to people who think like us, and then we influence their thoughts over time, which may push their brain activity into more closely resembling our own.
1-30-18 The Y chromosome is disappearing
What will happen to men? The Y chromosome may be a symbol of masculinity, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is anything but strong and enduring. Although it carries the "master switch" gene, SRY, that determines whether an embryo will develop as male (XY) or female (XX), it contains very few other genes and is the only chromosome not necessary for life. Women, after all, manage just fine without one. What's more, the Y chromosome has degenerated rapidly, leaving females with two perfectly normal X chromosomes, but males with an X and a shrivelled Y. If the same rate of degeneration continues, the Y chromosome has just 4.6 million years left before it disappears completely. This may sound like a long time, but it isn't when you consider that life has existed on Earth for 3.5 billion years. The Y chromosome hasn't always been like this. If we rewind the clock to 166 million years ago, to the very first mammals, the story was completely different. The early "proto-Y" chromosome was originally the same size as the X chromosome and contained all the same genes. However, Y chromosomes have a fundamental flaw. Unlike all other chromosomes, which we have two copies of in each of our cells, Y chromosomes are only ever present as a single copy, passed from fathers to their sons. This means that genes on the Y chromosome cannot undergo genetic recombination, the "shuffling" of genes that occurs in each generation which helps to eliminate damaging gene mutations. Deprived of the benefits of recombination, Y chromosomal genes degenerate over time and are eventually lost from the genome. Despite this, recent research has shown that the Y chromosome has developed some pretty convincing mechanisms to "put the brakes on," slowing the rate of gene loss to a possible standstill.
1-30-18 Brain 'pacemaker' for Alzheimer's
LaVonne Moore has Alzheimer's disease, but her doctors hope her dementia symptoms could possibly be kept in check by a new type of treatment. Electric wires implanted deep in her brain stimulate areas involved with decision-making and problem-solving. Unlike many long-term dementia patients, LaVonne, 85, can cook meals, dress herself and organise outings. But it remains unclear whether her deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy is responsible for her independence. DBS is already helping hundreds of thousands of patients with Parkinson's disease to overcome symptoms of tremor, but its use in Alzheimer's is still very experimental.Only a small number of DBS studies have been done for Alzheimer's and they have focused on stimulating brain regions governing memory, rather than judgement. But Dr Douglas Scharre and colleagues at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center believe their approach, which targets the decision-making frontal lobe of the brain, might help patients keep their independence for longer.
Deep brain stimulation
- Involves permanently implanting very fine wires, with electrodes, into the brain, under anaesthetic
- The wires are connected to a pulse generator (pacemaker) under the skin of the chest wall
- The device delivers electric stimulation to the brain to improve function or reduce symptoms
1-29-18 Vaping could cause cancer – but it’s still safer than smoking
When human lung and bladder cells are grown in the lab, they turn cancerous at a higher rate if exposed to nicotine compounds found in e-cigarettes Vaping could cause cancer – but it’s still safer than smoking. E-cigarettes, which vaporise nicotine without producing smoke, are soaring in popularity as people switch from regular cigarettes. Their rationale is that most of the harm from smoking comes, not from nicotine, but all the other compounds in tobacco smoke. But new evidence suggests nicotine itself and some of its by-products may also cause cancer. When human lung and bladder cells are grown in the lab, they turn cancerous at a higher rate if exposed to the nicotine compounds, according to work by Moon-shong Tang of New York University. And mice that breathed in the vapour had DNA damage, which can lead to cancer. Even so, a major US report out last week concluded that vaping is likely to be “far less harmful” than conventional cigarettes. This is a watershed, as US doctors have previously been cautious about promoting vaping as a way of quitting smoking, unlike in the UK. The review of over 800 studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that using e-cigarettes may help people quit smoking. On the down side, they could also act as gateway to traditional smoking for adolescents. Some studies find that teenagers who vape are more likely to go on to smoke – although it could just be that those teens who start vaping while under-age are more likely to be rebellious in other ways.
1-29-18 Here’s how cells rapidly stuff two meters of DNA into microscopic capsules
Two proteins form loops and a spiral helix that facilitate speedy packing. Frequent fliers, take note. Scientists have figured out how cells quickly pack long chromosomes into compact, organized bundles — a key step before cells divide. The new finding unifies two competing ideas about the process: whether it involves winding chromosomes into a spiral staircase or into a set of loops. It turns out cells use two different ring-shaped proteins called condensins to do both actions, imaging and computer simulations reveal. Normally, chromosomes sit unspooled in a cell’s nucleus. But when a cell prepares to undergo mitosis — a type of cell division — those strings of DNA must condense into easy-to-transfer cylinders. It’s a formidable task: A cell must cram about two meters of DNA into microscopic packages without tangling the genetic material like a string of holiday lights. Condensin II shapes a chromosome into large loops and then forms a helical scaffold for the loops to wind around. Condensin I subdivides large loops into smaller nested loops that allow for more space-efficient packing. Together, the two proteins deftly stuff the chromosome into a densely packed cylinder, scientists report online January 18 in Science. Most of that condensing process happens in about 15 minutes, says study coauthor Job Dekker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
1-29-18 Lost history of African dinosaurs revealed
A new species of dinosaur found in the Egyptian desert is shedding light on Africa's missing history of dinosaurs. Few fossils have been unearthed from the last days of the dinosaurs, between 100 and 66 million years ago, on the continent. Scientists say the dinosaur, which lived about 80 million years ago, is an "incredible discovery". The giant plant-eater was the length of a school bus and weighed about the same as an elephant. It had a long neck and bony plates embedded in its skin. The dinosaur's fossilised remains were unearthed during an expedition by palaeontologists from Mansoura University in Egypt. Named Mansourasaurus shahinae, the new species is regarded as a critical discovery for science. "It was thrilling for my students to uncover bone after bone, as each new element we recovered helped to reveal who this giant dinosaur was," said Dr Hesham Sallam of Mansoura University, who led the research. He said he expected the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come. The course of dinosaur evolution in Africa has remained much of a mystery for the last 30 million years or so of the reign of the dinosaurs. Study co-researcher Dr Matt Lamanna of Carnegie Museum of Natural History said that his jaw "hit the floor" when he first saw pictures of the fossils. "This was the Holy Grail," he said. "A well-preserved dinosaur from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs in Africa that we palaeontologists had been searching for for a long, long time." Dinosaur fossils in Africa are rare as much of the land is now covered in lush vegetation, rather than the exposed rock that has yielded dinosaur treasure troves elsewhere. There is a huge gap in the fossil record during the Late Cretaceous, when the continents were coming towards the end of huge geological changes.
1-29-18 Children get new ears grown from their own cells in world first
A team in China have 3D printed ear-shaped scaffolds which have been seeded with a child’s own cells to create a personalised ear for transplantation. “It’s a very exciting approach,” says Tessa Hadlock at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. “They’ve shown that it is possible to get close to restoring the ear structure.” The children were all born with an underdeveloped ear, a condition called microtia. This can cause hearing difficulties, says Hadlock. “Children with the condition often feel self-conscious and are picked on, and are unable to wear glasses.” Standard treatments involve implanting a synthetic ear or ear-shaped cartilage taken from the child’s ribs. Neither approach is ideal: synthetic ears are prone to difficult-to-treat infections and carving rib cartilage into an ear shape is something of an art form, relying on a highly skilled surgeon. So Guangdong Zhou at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China, and colleagues tried something different. Their idea was to create a degradable structure based on each child’s healthy ear and populate it with the child’s own cells. (Webmaster's comment: Again China leads the way. Almost every week they have another medical or science first.)
1-26-18 How salt hurts the brain
A high-salt diet can lead to significant mental decline, according to new research. Scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City fed mice eight to 16 times their normal salt intake and within eight weeks observed a dramatic drop in blood flow to the cortex and hippocampus, two regions of the brain associated with memory and learning. After three months, the mice were suffering from cognitive decline and struggled to navigate a maze and respond normally to stimulation. High-salt diets are known to increase blood pressure, impairing the flow of blood to the brain. But even mice with normal blood pressure experienced these changes in brain function, said the Los Angeles Times. Upon closer examination, the researchers found excessive salt intake triggered an immune response in the rodents’ small intestine, which increased levels of the pro-inflammatory protein interleukin-17. That in turn impaired the function of blood vessels in the mice’s brains. The researchers believe their findings likely apply to people as well. But the harmful effects of salt can be reversed: The brain function of the mice was restored when they resumed a normal diet.
1-26-18 Saunas’ heart benefits
A good sweat in the sauna may be as beneficial for your heart as moderate exercise. That’s the finding of a new study from Finland, which investigated the effects of a 30-minute sauna session on 102 middle-aged adults with at least one risk factor associated with heart disease, such as high blood pressure, obesity, or high cholesterol. When participants stepped out of a 160-degree dry-heat sauna, their blood pressure had dropped by an average of seven points and their arteries gained elasticity, reports Time.com. Their heart rates had also risen, from an average of 65 beats per minute before the sauna to 81 beats after. “At the moment, we can say that sauna use is recommended, and it seems that more is beneficial,” says study co-author Tanjaniina Laukkanen. The positive effects of saunas are likely linked to heat exposure, which can widen blood vessels and improve blood flow. Sweating also has a natural diuretic effect, lowering blood pressure and easing the workload of the heart.
1-26-18 Can’t sleep? Write a to-do list
If you’re kept awake at night by worries about an upcoming work project, unpaid bills, or unfinished errands, a new study has a simple tip to help you fall asleep: Write a to-do list. Scientists at Baylor University made that discovery after asking 57 students to spend a night in a sleep lab free of smartphones and other distractions. Five minutes before a strictly enforced 10:30 p.m. bedtime, half of the volunteers wrote a list of things they needed to do over the next few days and the other half listed tasks they’d already completed. Researchers monitored the participants’ brain activity overnight and found that those who wrote a to-do list dozed off nine minutes faster on average—an effect similar to that of some pharmaceutical sleeping aids. “Throughout the day, we have all these things cycling through our head,” lead author Michael Scullin tells PsychologyToday.com. “There’s something about the act of writing, physically writing something on paper, that helps us hit the Pause button.”
1-26-18 People, not rats, spread plague
Humanity owes rats an apology. Historians have long argued that fleas carried by rats were responsible for the Black Death, the devastating plague that killed a third of Europe’s population—some 25 million people—between 1347 and 1351. But a new study suggests that the disease was in fact spread by human-borne parasites, said NationalGeographic.com. Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and when an infected flea bites a human, the bacteria can congregate in lymph nodes and cause them to swell into the gruesome blackened “buboes” that give the bubonic plague its name. In every outbreak since the late 19th century, rats and other rodents have helped spread the disease. But scientists at the University of Oslo suspected that the 14th-century Black Death killed too many people too fast for rats to have been its main transmitters. Researchers used computers to model three different transmission methods: by fleas on rats, by fleas and lice on humans, and by airborne bacteria. The human-parasite model, they found, matched mortality records from the Black Death most closely. “The plague really transformed human history,” says study lead author Katharine Dean, “so it’s really important to understand how it was spreading and why it was spreading so fast.”
1-26-18 Young ‘dinosauromorphs’ may have begged for food like baby birds
Tens of millions of years before dinosaurs evolved into birds, a proto-dinosaur had surprising features that suggest its young needed parental care after hatching. 80 million years before the first birds, a dinosaur-like creature had a surprisingly bird-like skull. This hints that the animal begged for food from its parents, like baby birds today, and that even early dinosaurs cared for their young – but not everyone is convinced. Silesaurus opolensis was discovered in 230-million-year-old rocks from Poland. It was lightly built, about 2.3 metres long from nose to tail, and may have had a distinctive beaked jaw. Most researchers think it was a close relative of dinosaurs: a proto-dinosaur or “dinosauromorph”. To find out about their lifestyle, Grzegorz Niedz´wiedzki at Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues studied three S. opolensis braincases. One feature stood out: two bony projections near the back, the paroccipital processes. They were orientated in the same way as in birds. That’s odd, says Niedz´wiedzki. Existing evidence suggested this feature only evolved tens of millions of years later, in the theropods: the dinosaurs that gave rise to birds. In modern birds, this feature allows certain neck muscles to grow large and powerful. These neck muscles give a baby bird the power to break out of its egg, and help it arch back its head and stretch up to beg for food from a parent. Niedz´wiedzki suggests young S. opolensis did the same. “Juvenile Silesaurus might have displayed begging behaviour,” he says. This would imply the species cared for its young.
1-26-18 Life may have been possible in Earth’s earliest, most hellish eon
New analyses suggest heat caused by asteroid bombardment didn’t sterilize the planet. Maybe Earth’s early years weren’t so hellish after all. Asteroid strikes repeatedly bombarded the planet during its first eon, but the heat released by those hits wasn’t as sterilizing as once thought, new research suggests. Simulations indicate that after the first few hundred million years of bombardment, the heat from the impacts had dissipated enough that 10 to 75 percent of the top kilometer of the subsurface was habitable for mesophiles — microbes that live in temperatures of 20° to 50° Celsius. If so, the planet may have been habitable much earlier than previously believed. Earth’s earliest eon, the Hadean, spans the period from about 4.6 billion years ago, when the planet was born, to 4 billion years ago. The name, for the Greek god of the underworld, reflects the original conception of the age: dark and hellish and inhospitable to life. But little direct evidence of Hadean asteroid impacts still exists, limiting scientists’ understanding of how those collisions affected the planet’s habitability. “There has been an assumption that the Hadean was mostly an uninteresting slag heap until the sky stopped falling and life could take hold,” says Stephen Mojzsis, a geologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. That’s not to say that all of the Hadean was pleasant; the first 150 million years of Earth’s history, which included the giant whack that formed the moon, were pretty dramatic. But after that, things settled down considerably, says Mojzsis, who was not an author of the new study.
1-25-18 Calm down – China is not racing ahead with human CRISPR trials
Despite treating 86 people since 2015, China's approach to CRISPR genome-editing in humans is basic and risky. At least 86 people have been treated with the CRISPR genome-editing method in China since 2015. We know this thanks to some great reporting by three journalists working for The Wall Street Journal, who spoke with many of the people carrying out these first trials. The WSJ says this means China is racing ahead in gene editing, while the US is being left behind. But this is rather misleading. For starters, the first-ever use of gene editing to treat people was in the US, in 2009. Immune cells were removed from people with HIV, edited outside the body to disable the gene that the virus exploits to infect cells, then returned to the body. These trials continue. The first-ever use of gene editing to change cells inside the body was also in the US. In November 2017, Brian Madeux was given a treatment intended to give his liver the ability to make a key enzyme. The first-ever use of gene editing to cure cancer, meanwhile, was in 2015, in the UK. A 1-year-old girl called Layla, who was dying of leukaemia, was injected with immune cells modified in several ways, including using gene editing to disable one gene. She is still cancer free. So, far from lagging behind, the US and the UK can lay claim to most of the big firsts in gene editing. True, these trials involve older editing methods, known as ZFN and TALEN, rather than CRISPR. But the method doesn’t really matter as long as it is safe and effective.
1-25-18 Are human clones next? Your trickiest cloning questions answered
We answer your technical and ethical concerns raised after the arrival of the world’s first cloned monkeys using the Dolly technique. The arrival of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, the world’s first cloned monkeys, has raised a lot of tricky questions. We address some of your biggest concerns here.
- Is human cloning next? No, but let’s look at this a little more closely.
- Why have primates proved so difficult to clone?
- Could we clone even closer relatives, such as great apes?
- Might it be possible to create a human clone assembled from cloned cells without having to go through normal development?
- Could you create a human clone without a brain that could supply spare organs, or be used for experimentation with new drugs?
- Could you create cloned, pain-free, animals for scientists to experiment on?
- What about cloning highly endangered species before they go extinct?
1-25-18 Scientists find 10 new defense systems used by bacteria
In lab tests, the gene families appear to fight virus attacks. Since long before it gained fame as a precise gene-editing tool, CRISPR has had another job defending bacteria against viral invaders. And it’s far from alone. Ten sets of bacterial genes have similar, newly discovered defense roles, researchers report online January 25 in Science. The discovery “probably more than doubles the number of immune systems known in bacteria,” says Joseph Bondy-Denomy, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who wasn’t involved in the study. Bacteria are vulnerable to deadly viruses called phages, which can hijack bacteria’s genetic machinery and force them to produce viral DNA instead. Some bacteria protect themselves against phage attacks with a system called CRISPR, which stores pieces of past invaders’ DNA so bacteria can recognize and fend off those phages in the future (SN: 4/15/17, p. 22). But only about 40 percent of bacteria have CRISPR, says study coauthor Rotem Sorek, a microbial genomicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. That’s why he and his colleagues are hunting for other defense mechanisms.
1-25-18 Ancient jawbone suggests humans left Africa 50,000 years earlier
We thought that Homo sapiens were confined to Africa until 120,000 years ago, but a jawbone from an Israeli cave reveals an exodus over 170,000 years ago. The early history of our species needs to be rewritten – again. A human jawbone from a cave in Israel has proven to be at least 177,000 years old, indicating that Homo sapiens left its African birthplace at least 50,000 years earlier than thought. The find solves several mysteries of human evolution, but also creates new ones. Most scientists agree that our species evolved in Africa within the last few hundred thousand years. It was not until around 70,000 years ago that we trekked into Asia, and from there to every continent. However, there were earlier forays out of Africa. Until now, the oldest widely accepted evidence was from sites at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, dating to around 120,000 years ago. These outposts are generally thought to have been “dead ends”, meaning that the people who lived there have not left any living descendants. Such outposts probably either withered or got wiped out by later human migrations from Africa. Now Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel and his colleagues have pushed the date of our first extra-African excursion back by at least 50,000 years. In Misliya Cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel, around 7 kilometres from the other sites, they have found the upper jawbone and teeth of a human. Three independent laboratories have dated the remains, using three techniques, and all agree that they are between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. “The hominins from Skhul were considered the first outside Africa,” says Hershkovitz. “Now we know it is not the case.” He suspects the people living at Skhul and Qafzeh are descended from those at Misliya, and that the area was continuously settled for tens of thousands of years.
1-25-18 An ancient jaw pushes humans’ African departure back in time
Fossil found in Israeli cave is at least 177,000 years old. A fossil jaw unearthed in Israel is speaking up about when humans departed Africa. The jaw’s message, at least to its finders: That ancient exodus started much earlier than many researchers had assumed. Misliya Cave on Israel’s Mount Carmel has yielded what its discoverers regard as a partial Homo sapiens jaw with an estimated age of between around 177,000 and 194,000 years old. That indicates that humans could have left Africa and reached the Middle East around 60,000 years earlier than many scientists had assumed. A description and analysis of the fossil appears in the Jan. 26 Science. Until now, the oldest known H. sapiens fossils outside of Africa, discovered at Israel’s Skhul and Qafzeh Caves, dated to between approximately 90,000 and 120,000 years ago. The Misliya jawbone “provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed,” study coauthor Rolf Quam of Binghamton University in New York says.
1-25-18 Modern humans left Africa much earlier
Researchers have identified the remains of the earliest known modern humans to have left Africa. New dating of fossils from Israel indicates that our species (Homo sapiens) lived outside Africa around 185,000 years ago, some 80,000 years earlier than the previous evidence. Details appear in the journal Science. The co-lead researcher, Prof Israel Hershkovitz, told BBC News that the discovery would fundamentally alter ideas of recent human evolution. "We have to rewrite the whole story of human evolution, not just for our own species but all the other species that lived outside of Africa at the time," the researcher, from Tel Aviv University, explained. Prof Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, said: "The find breaks the long-established 130,000-year-old limit on modern humans outside of Africa. "The new dating hints that there could be even older Homo sapiens finds to come from the region of western Asia." The new scientific dating evidence raises the possibility that modern humans interacted with other, now extinct, species of humans for tens of thousands of years. It also fits in with recent discoveries of remains and genetic studies that also indicate an earlier departure from Africa. The researchers analysed a fragment of a jawbone with eight teeth, found in Misliya cave in 2002. The jawbone looked as if it was from a modern human rather than from one of the other species of human that existed at the time. It is only now that an international research team has conclusively shown that the archaeologists' initial gut feelings were spot on.
1-25-18 How to learn while you sleep
Certain cues, like sound and smell, might help you master a new skill while you snooze. My mother is one of five children, so she has plenty of stories about her and her siblings' misadventures. One of my favorites revolves around my "weird" Uncle Dorsey and his early scientific endeavors. When my mom was about eight years old, her older brother slipped a tape player under her bed every night to quietly play a reading of the poem The Raven (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe. Night after night, he would play the tape, trying to test whether she would spontaneously recite the poem from all her exposure. The way she tells it, she woke up every time the recording started to play. Sure, she can still recite the first few lines, but only because she was awakened by the poem night after night. My uncle never managed to get my mom to "sleep learn," but it turns out that some of his ideas might not have been so misguided. While sleep-learning, also referred to as hypnopaedia, has been debunked, neuroscientists in my lab and others are now discovering ways to use stimuli such as sound cues during sleep to strengthen memories. Early researchers made the same mistake as Uncle Dorsey, and thought that we could learn new material during sleep by osmosis, à la Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Just as in the dystopian novel, experiments attempting this sleep-learning were often based on the false premise that sleep is like a hypnotic state. In the 1920s, some researchers believed that they could teach participants totally new information by playing audio recordings as they slept, and inventors began selling devices based on the idea. It wasn't much different from the "Big Cheese" (1996) episode of Dexter's Laboratory, in which the cartoon boy-genius uses a massive gadget to try to teach himself French as he sleeps: It didn't work.
1-24-18 Living on the veg: Should we all go vegan?
Veganism is trending but is it just the latest food fad, or do claims that it's better for your health and that of the planet stack up? We dig into the evidence. I FLUNKED out of veganism the first time because I wasn’t getting the vitamins and micronutrients I needed. I was out of balance. I went to the doctor feeling lethargic and vaguely unwell and was told I had two options: give up being vegan or start taking large amounts of nutritional supplements. I chose meat and dairy. The quantities of pills I had to take irritated my stomach and I wasn’t willing to tough it out. That was two years ago and I’d been vegan for three. Then veganism exploded into the mainstream. Celebrities from Natalie Portman and Serena Williams to Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton have all declared themselves to be vegan. At first I figured I had done my trial and knew where I stood. But I’ve looked into the environmental and health impacts again, and am having second thoughts. Vegans made up just 1 per cent of the US population in 2014. Three years on, an additional 16 million Americans – 5 per cent of the nation – had joined the club. In the UK, their numbers are smaller but also growing. A 2016 poll suggests that just over 1 per cent of Britons never eat meat or animal products. According to the UK Vegan Society, that’s a more than threefold increase in 10 years. The trend is hippest among 15 to 34-year-olds. Stores and restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon with “plant-powered” menus, vegan supermarket shelves and vegan farmers’ markets. In short, veganism is the new foodie movement. But is it really healthier for humans and the planet? And did I make the right choice?
1-24-18 Living on the veg: 10 things you thought were vegan but aren’t
Going vegan or cooking for friends who are? From booze to pets and cucumbers, making choices that are truly vegan-friendly can be a minefield. Although there is no strict definition of what it means to be vegan, the basic principle is to avoid animal-derived products. Dietary vegans mostly stick to avoiding animal-derived foods. For ethical vegans, it’s a philosophy not just a diet, which rules out traditional tattoos and silk, to name just a few. In both cases, truly steering clear of anything that is animal-derived can be much trickier than it first appears to be. (Webmaster's comment: We evolved to eat meat. There is much in meat that you need that you can't get from plant life.)
1-24-18 Just one cigarette a day can cause serious heart problems
Among men, half of the risk associated with smoking a pack of 20 comes from just the first cigarette. Think that a quick smoke won’t do you any harm? Think again. Smoking just one cigarette a day is linked to major risk of heart disease. That’s according to researchers who analysed the results of 141 studies, and estimated the relative risk associated with smoking one, five or 20 cigarettes per day. They found that smoking one cigarette a day was associated with at least a 48 per cent increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) in men. Women saw at least a 57 per cent increased risk of CHD. Both men and women who smoke one cigarette a day have a 30 per cent increased risk of stroke. The team, who were led by researchers from the UCL Cancer Institute at University College London, said there is “no safe level” of smoking as they urged smokers to quit instead of “cutting down”. They found that among men, half of the risk associated with smoking a pack of 20 comes from just the first cigarette. In women, a single cigarette accounted for about a third of the risk associated with one pack. “Smoking only about one cigarette per day carries a risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke much greater than expected: around half that for people who smoke 20 per day,” the researchers said.
1-24-18 Smart contact lens monitors sweetness of diabetics’ tears
The contact lens measures glucose levels in tears and alerts the wearer to dangerous levels using a tiny light that looks like a speck of glitter. What’s that twinkle in your eye? A contact lens for people with diabetes contains a tiny light that lets them know if their sugar levels get too high. Diabetes affects the body’s ability to regulate a type of sugar called glucose. If blood sugar levels aren’t properly monitored, they can creep up and damage organs. People with diabetes can monitor their sugar levels by pricking their finger and testing their blood with a glucose meter, but many find this painful and inconvenient. Now, Jang-Ung Park at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea and his colleagues have developed a contact lens that continuously monitors sugar in tears. Previous studies have shown that the sugar content of tears corresponds closely with blood sugar. The clear, flexible lens contains a glucose sensor that sends electrical signals to an LED. The light is configured to stay on when sugar levels are normal and switch off if they exceed a particular figure. For the study, this threshold figure was set, but could easily be personalised to the individual wearer. The wearer can check the LED display when they look in the mirror to see if it is on or off. The team acknowledge that it is counter-intuitive to have the sensor switch off rather than on when a glucose threshold is met, and may look to change this in future experiments.
1-24-18 First monkeys, and then us? Human cloning must stay off limits
The ability to clone monkeys will rekindle speculation about doing the same with humans. There are many reasons to oppose it, says Marcy Darnovsky. Remember the human cloning controversies of the early 2000s? One reason they faded was that scientists were unable to clone non-human primates. Now that researchers have produced two cloned monkeys, we should brace ourselves for a rerun of arguments in favour of human clones. But human reproductive cloning would be every bit as misguided and dangerous now as it was then. As long ago as 1971, James Watson of double helix fame warned in The Atlantic about the prospect of “Moving Toward the Clonal Man”. He later changed his mind and began promoting human reproductive cloning, as well as suggesting that human germline modification could tackle stupidity and ensure all women are “pretty”. In 1997, headlines announced that scientists in the UK had created what had long been considered biologically impossible: a cloned mammal, a sheep dubbed “Dolly”. Debate about creating human clones immediately followed. Time, for example, put Dolly on its cover the following month and posed the question: “Will There Ever Be Another You?” A few mavericks claimed to be on the verge of producing human clones, including members of a “UFO religion” that (still) believes humans will attain immortality by learning to clone themselves. A number of scientists and fertility doctors argued that human reproductive cloning should proceed once the safety wrinkles were worked out. In 2007, Nature editorialised that it was inevitable. (Webmaster's comment: Pretty? Handsome? Sick! By whose standards?)
1-24-18 Memory remains elusive, but the search continues
In Theaetetus, Plato likened memory to a wax tablet, which would adopt the image of whatever was impressed upon it. Aristotle is said to have called memory “the scribe of the soul.” Others have viewed memory as a stomach, storehouse or switchboard, while acknowledging that it sometimes seems like a leaky bucket. St. Augustine and Robert Hooke also thought deeply about memory. But not until the late 1800s did a German psychologist by the name of Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneer the study of memory in an experimental way. To research memory in isolation, Ebbinghaus used himself as a subject. After coming up with a list of nonsense syllables, he memorized series of different lengths, uncovering patterns in the time it takes to learn, relearn and forget. Well over a century later, memory is far from understood. When former President Barack Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative five years ago (SN: 2/22/14, p. 16), the goal was to support technologies that would, in part, “open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information,” according to the White House. Today, memory seems to fascinate everyone, and the writers at Science News are no exception. Laura Sanders updates readers on the hunt for the “engram,” a term coined early in the 20th century to describe the physical trace a memory leaves in the brain. Neuroscientists have yet to find the engram, but they have new notions — and are revisiting old ones. One of those ideas comes from the work of James Vernon McConnell, who reported some six decades ago that memories could somehow be transferred from one flatworm to another.
1-24-18 Human brains rounded into shape over 200,000 years or more
But scientists are still debating what caused changes in noggin form. Big brains outpaced well-rounded brains in human evolution. Around the time of the origins of our species 300,000 years ago, the brains of Homo sapiens had about the same relatively large size as they do today, new research suggests. But rounder noggins rising well above the forehead — considered a hallmark of human anatomy — didn’t appear until between about 100,000 and 35,000 years ago, say physical anthropologist Simon Neubauer and his colleagues. Using CT scans of ancient and modern human skulls, the researchers created digital brain reconstructions, based on the shape of the inner surface of each skull’s braincase. Human brains gradually evolved from a relatively flatter and elongated shape — more like that of Neandertals’ — to a globe shape thanks to a series of genetic tweaks to brain development early in life, the researchers propose January 24 in Science Advances. A gradual transition to round brains may have stimulated considerable neural reorganization by around 50,000 years ago. That cognitive reworking could have enabled a blossoming of artwork and other forms of symbolic behavior among Stone Age humans, the team suspects. Other researchers have argued, however, that abstract and symbolic thinking flourished even before H. sapiens emerged (SN: 12/27/14, p. 6).
1-24-18 The fossil finder who can’t wait to return to war-torn Yemen
Secrets about our origins could be hiding in a cave in Yemen, says Ella Al-Shamahi – if only she could get there. ELLA AL-SHAMAHI digs in disputed or unstable territories by choice. That means her quest to explore the origins of humanity occasionally involves dodging landmines or considering how best to explain to airport security that carrying a laser scanner does not make her a terrorist. If the day job is stressful, could her alter ego as a stand-up comedian provide light relief? With Yemeni and Syrian ancestry, Al-Shamahi introduces herself on stage as a “one-woman axis of evil”. Though her work takes her to many troubled places, war-torn Yemen is her obsession.
- You deliberately work in politically unstable territories. Why?
- What draws you to Yemen specifically?
- How is the situation in Yemen for your family?
- For work, why not just stick to safe places?
- And you genuinely think Yemen is key for human evolution and migration?
- You think early hominins could have left Africa by crossing the Red Sea to Yemen?
- Why haven’t local scientists found fossils, assuming they are there to be found?
- What about Western palaeoanthropologists. Has anyone worked in Yemen?
- Sorry, did you say kidnappings were pleasant?
- But right now, no one’s going there?
- And before the war, had you found any promising sites?
- Is working in hostile or unstable locations good for comedy purposes?
1-24-18 Scientists have cloned monkeys and it could help treat cancer
Meet the first of a possible army of cloned monkeys that could treat many diseases, but is this a step to human cloning, and will anyone but China accept them? MEET Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, the world’s first monkeys cloned using the technique that gave us Dolly the sheep. The female long-tailed macaques represent a technical milestone. It should make it possible to create customisable and genetically uniform populations of monkeys, which could speed up treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer. But the breakthrough will inevitably raise fears that human cloning is closer than ever. The monkeys hold such huge potential because they all inherit exactly the same genetic material, says the Chinese team that cloned them. This would enable scientists to tweak genes the monkeys have that are linked to human disease, and then monitor how this alters the animals’ biology, comparing it against animals that are genetically identical except for the alterations. It could accelerate the hunt for genes and processes that go wrong in these diseases, and ways to correct them, the team says. Although 23 species of mammal have been cloned since Dolly – including pigs, cats, dogs, rats and cattle – monkeys have, until now, proved resistant to the technique (see “A brief history of mammal cloning”). In 2000, researchers cloned monkeys for the first time, but did so by splitting an embryo after it had been fertilised, essentially just producing a genetically identical twin. This method can only be used to create a maximum of four identical animals. (Webmaster's comment: For shame! These living, thinking creatures will live their short lives in terror. Find another way!)
1-24-18 First monkey clones created in Chinese laboratory
Two monkeys have been cloned using the technique that produced Dolly the Sheep. Identical long-tailed macaques Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were born several weeks ago at a laboratory in China. Scientists say populations of monkeys that are genetically identical will be useful for research into human diseases. But critics say the work raises ethical concerns by bringing the world closer to human cloning. Qiang Sun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience said the cloned monkeys will be useful as a model for studying diseases with a genetic basis, including some cancers, metabolic and immune disorders. "There are a lot of questions about primate biology that can be studied by having this additional model," he said. Zhong Zhong was born eight weeks ago and is named after the word for Chinese nation or people. Hua Hua was born six weeks ago. The researchers say the monkeys are being bottle fed and are currently growing normally. They expect more macaque clones to be born over the coming months. (Webmaster's comment: The Chinese have taken the lead in genetric research just like they have in communications technology and in solar panel technology. United States has become an also-ran!)
1-24-18 Somewhere in the brain is a storage device for memories
New technology and new ideas spur the hunt for the physical basis of memory, the engram. People tend to think of memories as deeply personal, ephemeral possessions — snippets of emotions, words, colors and smells stitched into our unique neural tapestries as life goes on. But a strange series of experiments conducted decades ago offered a different, more tangible perspective. The mind-bending results have gained unexpected support from recent studies. In 1959, James Vernon McConnell, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, painstakingly trained small flatworms called planarians to associate a shock with a light. The worms remembered this lesson, later contracting their bodies in response to the light. One weird and wonderful thing about planarians is that they can regenerate their bodies — including their brains. When the trained flatworms were cut in half, they regrew either a head or a tail, depending on which piece had been lost. Not surprisingly, worms that kept their heads and regrew tails retained the memory of the shock, McConnell found. Astonishingly, so did the worms that grew replacement heads and brains. Somehow, these fully operational, complex arrangements of brand-spanking-new nerve cells had acquired the memory of the painful shock, McConnell reported.
1-24-18 Face of 9,000 year-old teen girl recreated
This is what Dawn may have looked like when she was alive, 9,000 years ago. The face of a girl, thought to be aged between 15 and 18, has been recreated by scientists based on remains found in a cave in Greece in 1993. The silicone model was created using CT scans and 3D printing technology. She was named Avgi, Greek for Dawn, because she lived in the Mesolithic period in about 7,000 BC, considered by some to be the dawn of civilisation. According to researchers at the University of Athens, her remains suggest that:
- She had a protruding jaw, which could have been caused by chewing on animal skin to make it into soft leather
- Dawn suffered from anaemia, lack of vitamins and possibly scurvy
- She could have struggled to move because of hip and joint problems, which could have contributed to her death
Her bones indicated she was 15 when she died, but the teeth suggested she was 18. Other features like skin and eye colour were inferred based on general population traits in the area.
1-24-18 The origin of insect wings has been revealed by gene editing
Wings have helped insects to dominate the skies for 400 million years, and now CRISPR is revealing exactly how the first wings evolved. INSECTS first evolved wings around 400 million years ago, and winged insects have thrived ever since. But how did that crucial first step happen? Biologists have debated several rival ideas for over a century, but no fossil insects with “proto-wings” have been found, so there have been no conclusions. Now two groups have used the gene-editing method CRISPR to narrow down the possibilities. Heather Bruce and Nipam Patel at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at how insects evolved from crustaceans. Insects have six leg segments, but most crustaceans have seven, so insects lost at least one. Bruce used CRISPR to disable leg genes in a crustacean called Parhyale hawaiensis, to find which segments relate to parts of the insect body. They found this only made sense if modern crustaceans and insects had a common ancestor with eight leg segments. Modern crustaceans lost one segment, but for insects, two fused with the body, and the wings evolved from them (bioRxiv, doi.org/cjm7). Yoshinori Tomoyasu at Miami University in Ohio and his colleagues have also used CRISPR to disable the genes in P. hawaiensis that correspond to wing genes in modern insects. He used other genetic techniques to make the flour beetle Tribolium grow wings on its abdomen, tracing which tissues give rise to them. These studies show that two tissues that are quite separate in crustaceans merge to form the wings of insects (bioRxiv, doi.org/cjnb and PNAS, doi.org/cjnc).
1-23-18 Drug that fools the womb could help stop painful periods
A drug tested in mice tricks the womb into thinking there is low oxygen, which promotes healing and prevents excessive bleeding during menstruation. Heavy periods may soon be a thing of the past. A drug that tricks the womb lining into repairing itself during menstruation could help people who suffer from excessive bleeding. Each month, in the absence of pregnancy, the lining of the womb breaks down. This causes bleeding, which persists until the lining is repaired by a delicate balance of hormones and chemical processes. However, some women experience heavy periods, or menorrhagia, with prolonged bleeding that can be accompanied by painful cramps and anaemia. This can be treated with surgery and hormonal drugs, but often results in unwanted side effects. Now, an alternative solution might be on the horizon. Recently it was discovered that women with heavy bleeding have lower levels of a protein called HIF1. HIF1 activates specific genes when oxygen levels drop – something that happens in the womb during a period. This process appears to promote healing of the lining. Jackie Maybin at the University of Edinburgh, and her colleagues have shown in mice that a drug called DMOG tricks the womb lining into thinking that oxygen levels are low, which increases HIF1 activity. This promotes repair of the lining and reduces bleeding.
1-23-18 Changing these 4 beliefs will make you surprisingly happy
Take control of your own mood! affic upsets you. People upset you. Your job upsets you ... Wrong, wrong and wrong. Actually, none of those things upset you. Your beliefs about them do. That's what the ancient Stoic philosophers believed. "People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them." – Epictetus Let's say you expect something to cost $90. Turns out it costs $80. You're thrilled. But if you expect it to cost $30 and it costs $80, you want to murder someone. Price didn't change. Your belief did. And that determined your reaction. Oh, and science agrees with the Stoics here. Big time. Albert Ellis was a psychologist and he took the ideas of the Stoics and weaponized them into some of the most effective therapies that professionals use today. How big a deal was Albert? According to a survey of psychologists he was the 2nd most influential psychotherapist ever. Sigmund Freud came in third. And Albert says your beliefs are what cause the majority of unhappiness, anger, and anxiety you experience. Problem is, some of these beliefs are sneaky. You don't even realize they're there. If I told you that you believed them, you'd deny it. But they're often dictating your reactions — and making you miserable in the process. So what are some of the most common problematic beliefs Albert identified, and how do we fix them?
Here are the 4 irrational beliefs that cause you a lot of problems:
- "This shouldn't be happening!": Do you really expect to always get what you want? No. But if you really believed that you wouldn't be shouting.
- "I must be perfect.": Not possible. And it'll kill you. You can control effort, not outcome. "I will do my best" is rational. "I must be the best" is not.
- "I should worry about this.": Set a time to worry, to dispute, and to replace. This lets your brain know it doesn't need to be reminding you 24/7.
- "It's because of my past.": If that's really the case, then you should be in therapy. But your problems are rarely due to dire past traumas, they're usually due to some outdated, irrational belief you still hold. Get a friend to help you dispute and replace.
1-22-18 Finally, a migraine treatment that works?
The FDA may soon approve a drug to prevent these debilitating headaches. I suffer from migraines. At least once a month, I have excruciating head pain, sensory problems, and intermittent bouts of vomiting. The attacks can last for two weeks or more. Migraines have a huge impact on every aspect of my life, so it is with excited anticipation that I await the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision on a new drug that could prevent these attacks. The FDA's decision is expected in the first half of 2018. Although migraines affect about 15 percent of the world's population — more than diabetes, epilepsy, and asthma combined — advances in treatment have been sluggish, to say the least. The last occurred 30 years ago with the development of triptans. During a migraine, blood vessels in the brain expand and press on nerve endings, causing pain. Triptans were developed to constrict blood vessels and so relieve pain. However, this treatment had mixed results with complete relief in some patients and minimal effects in others. Personally, I have found triptans to help by slightly reducing symptoms during a migraine, but the attacks still happen. Triptans weren't developed to prevent migraines, only to reduce the symptoms. Some drugs that are used to reduce seizures in people with epilepsy, such as topiramate and valproate, have been used as preventative treatments for migraine, but they don't work for everyone and often have a number of side effects. Having tried some of these drugs myself, I can report that the side effects are quite debilitating. A new class of drugs — calcitonin gene-related peptide inhibitors — has recently been developed that may change this. Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) is a neurotransmitter produced by neurons in the brain. As well as controlling blood flow, studies have shown CGRP levels increase during migraine attacks and slightly lower after treatment with triptans, which gives some relief from symptoms.
1-22-18 ‘First Face of America’ explores how humans reached the New World
Daring underwater retrieval of ancient teen’s bones is featured in a new documentary. A teenage girl climbed into an underground cave around 13,000 years ago. Edging through the ink-dark chamber, she accidentally plunged to her death at the bottom of a deep pit. Rising seas eventually inundated the cave, located on Central America’s Yucatán Peninsula. But that didn’t stop scuba divers from finding and retrieving much of the girl’s skeleton in 2007. “First Face of America,” a new NOVA documentary airing February 7 on PBS, provides a closeup look at two dangerous underwater expeditions that resulted in the discovery and salvaging of bones from one of the earliest known New World residents, dubbed Naia.
1-21-18 The problem with perfectionism
Perfectionism is something of a curse. Holding high expectations of yourself and others is positive to a point, but taken to an extreme, a no-mistakes-allowed mindset can freeze creativity, and increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Well, the next generation may be in trouble. Recent research reports the pursuit of perfectionism has gradually increased among college students over the past quarter-century. "These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations," lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath said in announcing the findings. "Today's young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed, and they feel perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected, and of worth." In the journal Psychological Bulletin, Curran and his colleague Andrew Hill analyze the results of 164 surveys of American, Canadian, and British college students between 1989 and 2016. The participants — more than 41,000 in total — all completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. That survey was designed to measure three distinct varieties of perfectionism: self-oriented, which involves holding yourself to impossibly high standards; socially prescribed, in which you perceive that others have unreasonable expectations for you; and other-oriented, in which you place excessively high standards on others.
1-20-18 How genetics is unlocking the secrets of ancient human migration
Ancient DNA sheds light on the mysterious origins of the first Scandinavians. Tracking the migration of humans isn't easy, but genetics is helping us uncover new information at breathtaking speed. We know that our species originated in Africa and likely reached Europe from the southeast no later than 42,000 years ago. During the last ice age some 33,000 to 20,000 years ago, when a permanent ice sheet covered northern and parts of central Europe, modern humans in southwest Europe were isolated from groups farther to the east. When the ice sheet retreated, some of these hunter gatherers eventually colonized Scandinavia from the south about 11,700 years ago, making it one of the last areas of Europe to be inhabited. But exactly who these individuals were and how they got there has remained a puzzle for researchers. Now we have sequenced the genomes of seven hunter gatherers, dated to be 9,500 to 6,000 years old, to find out. One of the reasons the origins of the first Scandinavians is so enigmatic is a major shift in stone tool technology that appeared soon after they got there. This new technology seemed to have had an origin in eastern Europe and it has been an open question how it reached Scandinavia. Our interdisciplinary research team combined genetic and archaeological data with reconstructions of the ice sheets to investigate the earliest people of the Scandinavian peninsula. We extracted DNA for sequencing from bones and teeth of the seven individuals from the Norwegian Atlantic coast and the Baltic islands of Gotland and Stora Karlsö.
1-19-18 Cilia in the brain may be busier than previously thought
The long-overlooked nerve cell appendage may help prevent obesity or aid communication among cells. Nerve cells in the brain make elaborate connections and exchange lightning-quick messages that captivate scientists. But these cells also sport simpler, hairlike protrusions called cilia. Long overlooked, the little stubs may actually have big jobs in the brain. Researchers are turning up roles for nerve cell cilia in a variety of brain functions. In a region of the brain linked to appetite, for example, cilia appear to play a role in preventing obesity, researchers report January 8 in three studies in Nature Genetics. Cilia perched on nerve cells may also contribute to brain development, nerve cell communication and possibly even learning and memory, other research suggests. “Perhaps every neuron in the brain possesses cilia, and most neuroscientists don’t know they’re there,” says Kirk Mykytyn, a cell biologist at Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. “There’s a big disconnect there.”
1-19-18 Medieval gamblers turned their back on fate and made dice fair
Dice from archaeological digs in the Netherlands and the UK became fairer 600 years ago – 250 years before we began to really understand probability. The dice used by gamers and gamblers in northern Europe became much more fair about 600 years ago. What’s more, the pattern on the faces changed, and these trends together might reflect people’s growing awareness that bets were decided by chance, not by the gods – even though probability theory was centuries away. Dice often turn up in archaeological digs, but are rarely studied systematically. Now Jelmer Eerkens at the University of California Davis and Alex de Voogt at the American University of Natural History in New York have examined 110 dice from sites in the Netherlands. Modern gamers wouldn’t like the earliest, Roman-era dice, some of which are 2000 years old. About 90 per cent are asymmetrical and wouldn’t roll randomly. Only from about AD 1450 were most dice more or less symmetrical. Medieval Europeans may have been increasingly aware of the importance of chance. “People in Roman times could make symmetrical dice, and they often did,” says Eerkens. “But there are a much higher percentage of non-symmetrical dice in the Roman period. That may mean that players in Roman times thought that other forces were mostly at work in determining the outcome of a roll.” If the gods controlled the roll, why worry about unfair dice? However, by the 15th century, gamers evidently demanded symmetrical dice.
1-19-18 New CRISPR method could take gene editing to the next level
While CRISPR is great at turning off and disabling genes, it isn’t very good at fixing faulty ones. But a powerful new method could change that. The CRISPR genome-editing method may just have become even more powerful. Uri David Akavia’s team at McGill University in Canada has managed to repair mutations in 90 per cent of target cells using CRISPR – the best success rate yet. The CRISPR approach is very good at disabling genes, but using the technique to fix them is much harder, because it involves replacing a faulty sequence with another. This typically works in less than 10 per cent of target cells. To make the process more efficient, Akavia’s team physically linked the replacement DNA with the CRISPR protein that finds and cuts the faulty sequence. This ensures that the replacement DNA is there ready to be slotted in once the cut is made. “We’ve taped the [replacement] text to the scissors,” says Akavia. The team also used a polymer called polyethylenimine to target this protein-DNA complex directly to the nucleus of cells, so less goes to waste.
1-19-18 Hot yoga’s high temperature may not have any health benefits
Despite all the extra effort and sweat, a study suggests that the high temperature used in hot yoga classes may not have any useful effect. Could hot yoga really just be a waste of effort? A study suggests that the practice may offer little benefit over similarly-paced yoga at a more normal temperature. Most forms of yoga are thought to aid relaxation and muscle strengthening. But hot yoga, which typically involves going through a strenuous 26 poses over 90 minutes in a warm and humid room, also makes people sweat intensely – which some take as a sign that it’s better for you. To find out if this is true, 33 middle-aged adults who were previously sedentary did a three-month course of either hot yoga or similarly high-intensity yoga at a normal temperature. These people did classes three times a week, while a similar group of people did no yoga at all. Both yoga groups showed improvements in the health of their blood vessels compared with the control group. Their arteries became better at dilating in response to exertion – a trait that is linked to a lower susceptibility to heart disease. However, hot yoga was no better for this than doing it at room temperature.
1-19-18 Your boss not saying ‘thank you’ could be bad for your health
If you love your job and work hard but feel you get little recognition or reward, you could be on the road to chronic stress, burnout and other health issues. Do you give your all to your job but get little praise in return? A study of workplace stress suggests that throwing yourself into work that you love, but not receiving any rewards for it, is a toxic cocktail for biological stress. Leander van der Meij, now at Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands, and his colleagues discovered this by analysing people’s cortisol levels. This hormone is released in times of stress, helping prepare the body for “fight or flight” by increasing blood sugar levels and slowing down digestion, for example. Such stress responses can be helpful in the short-term, but chronic stress can lead to health problems, such as infections and diabetes. To find out if certain workplace conditions might cause this kind of damaging stress, the team analysed hair samples from 172 volunteers. It is possible to deduce cortisol levels from the chemical makeup of a hair, with each centimetre corresponding to about a month in time. There are two leading ideas about how workplace stress might affect people. One is that the amount of independence or autonomy a person has in their job, and the amount of support they receive from colleagues and bosses, determines how stressful a position is. The other hypothesis is that how much effort a person puts into it, versus how much reward they get back, is more important.
1-19-18 The pain-numbing power of human touch
Could touch therapy complement traditional pain treatments? Around 100 million adults in the United States are affected by chronic pain — pain that lasts for months or years on end. It is one of the country's most underestimated health problems. The annual cost of managing pain is greater than that of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and the cost to the economy through decreased productivity reaches hundreds of billions of dollars. Chronic pain's unremitting presence can lead to a variety of mental-health issues, depression above all, which often intensifies pain. And our most common weapon against pain — prescription painkillers — generates its own pain, as the ongoing opioid crisis attests. But must we rely on pharmacology to stave off pain? Perhaps there is a more natural nostrum — partial and insufficient, but helpful nonetheless — closer to hand. Most pain research concentrates on a single, isolated person in pain. This allows researchers to simplify their analyses of pain, which is useful to a point, though it does yield a somewhat distorted view. The problem is that, outside of the laboratory, people are often not isolated: They take part in a social world. Without involving social interactions into the study of pain, we risk ignoring the part that social communication might play. New techniques have recently made it possible to monitor the physiological activity of several people simultaneously. This allows us to measure the level of synchrony between people as they take part in extreme or prosaic social situations, with some surprising findings. Participants and spectators of a fire-walking ritual were found to have synchronous heartbeats. So do people watching emotional movies together, choir singers singing together, and romantic couples gazing at each other and engaged in imitation tasks in the lab. How can interpersonal synchrony be facilitated? And might there be a way for such physiological coupling to contribute to pain relief? The answer lies in the simplest of human interactions: Touch.
1-19-18 These are the supplements scientists swear by
Supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry. But, unlike pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of these products don't have to prove that their products are effective, only that they are safe — and that's for new supplements only. We wanted to know which supplements are worth our attention (and money) so we asked six scientists — experts in everything from public health to exercise physiology — to name a supplement they take each day and why they take it. Here is what they said.
- Turmeric: Turmeric is more familiar as an ingredient in South Asian cooking, adding an earthy warmth and fragrance to curried dishes, but, in recent years, it has also garnered attention for its potential health benefits.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a peculiar vitamin in that it is synthesized in our bodies with the aid of sunlight, so people who live in cold countries, or who spend a lot of time indoors, are at risk of a deficiency.
- Probiotic: Having diverse beneficial gut bacteria is important for your physical and mental health. However, the balance of bacterial species can be disrupted by poor diet, being physically inactive, and being under constant stress.
- Prebiotic: Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as a “fertilizer” to increase the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This is turn can have positive effects on inflammation and immune function, metabolic syndrome, increase mineral absorption, reduce traveler's diarrhoea, and improve gut health.
- Omega 3: I started taking omega 3 after attending a Nutrition Society winter conference in 2016. The scientific evidence that omega 3 could improve my brain function, prevent mood disorders, and help to prevent Alzheimer's disease was overwhelming.
- Nothing but real food: I used to take supplements, but six years ago I changed my mind. After researching my book I realized that the clinical studies, when properly carried out and independent of the manufacturers, clearly showed they didn't work, and in many cases could be harmful.
1-19-18 Aerobic exercise prevents heart aging
There is hope for middle-aged couch potatoes, reports Time.com. Years of inactivity can take a significant toll on the heart, but new research suggests that a spell of regular aerobic exercise can make up for decades of sitting. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center recruited 53 people between 45 and 64 who were healthy but led a sedentary lifestyle. Some of the volunteers were placed on an aerobic exercise regimen involving several 30-minute sessions each week—one high-intensity, two to three that were lighter, and one for strength training—as well as an hour of tennis, cycling, running, dancing, or brisk walking. The remaining volunteers were given a “casual” program consisting of balance training, yoga, or weight lifting three times a week. After two years, those who completed at least four aerobic workouts each week were not only markedly fitter, with an 18 percent improvement in their oxygen intake, but their heart muscle was also 25 percent less stiff, reducing their risk for heart failure. The second group benefited from neither effect. “Exercising only two or three times a week didn’t do much to protect the heart against aging,” says senior author Benjamin Levine. “But committed exercise four to five times a week was almost as effective at preventing sedentary heart aging as the more extreme exercise of elite athletes.”
1-18-18 Some people identify smells as easily as if they were colours
Most people are much better at identifying colours than smells, but one group of hunter-gatherers from the Malay Peninsula shows the opposite pattern. Name that smell! Most of us can’t name very many, but it seems hunter-gatherers are better at it than anyone else on the planet. It could be that, to survive in dark tropical forests, they have become adept at sniffing out fruit, prey, predators and each other – and have honed their vocabularies to suit. By contrast, while westerners can discriminate between over a trillion smells, they have developed few words to describe them consistently. Most English-speakers knows what “purple” looks like, but are fuzzy on what “acrid” smells like. Asifa Majid of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands and Nicole Kruspe of Lund University in Sweden studied two ethnic groups on the Malay Peninsula. The Semaq Beri rely on hunter-gathering, while the Semelai are predominantly horticulturists, mainly cultivating rice. Although they have different ways of life, the two groups share the same environment and speak closely related languages. Majid and Kruspe wanted to find out if the groups’ different lifestyles affected their sensitivity to smells. They asked members of each group to name 16 different smells and 80 colours. In all, 20 hunter-gatherers and 21 horticulturists took the tests. The smells ranged from leather to turpentine, garlic and fish.
1-18-18 Hunter-gatherer lifestyle could help explain superior ability to ID smells
Foraging communities in forests of the Malay Peninsula are better at identifying odors than their rice-farming neighbors. Smell has a reputation as a second-rate human sense. But that assumption stinks once hunter-gatherers enter the picture. Semaq Beri hunter-gatherers, who live in tropical forests on the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, name various odors as easily as they name colors, say psycholinguist Asifa Majid and linguist Nicole Kruspe. Yet Semelai rice farmers, who live in forest outposts near the Semaq Beri and speak a closely related language, find odors much more difficult to name than colors, the researchers report online January 18 in Current Biology. By including members of a farming community that inhabit a common forest environment and speak a similar language, the new study indicates for the first time that the cultural practices of hunter-gatherers help enhance their odor-naming ability — and possibly their smell-detection skills — relative to settled peoples.
1-18-18 The secret to icky, sticky bacterial biofilms lies in the microbes’ cellulose
A surprising molecular tweak reveals how the fibrous material differs from that found in plants. To build resilient colonies, bacteria make a surprising tweak to a common substance found in cells. A biochemical addition to the cellulose produced by E. coli and other species of bacteria lets them create colonies that are resistant to disruption, researchers report in the Jan. 19 Science. Called biofilms, these microbial colonies can form on medical devices or inside the body, leading to hard-to-treat infections that can resist antibiotics. Figuring out how to weaken these films by altering bacteria’s cellulose could lead to new treatments. Cellulose is the most abundant natural polymer on the planet. It makes celery stringy and plants’ cell walls rigid. The basic structure of the substance is simple: a bunch of copies of the sugar glucose — the exact number can vary — strung together like beads on a string.
1-18-18 A robotic arm made of DNA moves at dizzying speed
Electric fields control the bot’s movements, giving the nanomachine its zip. A new robotic arm made of DNA moves 100,000 times faster than previous DNA machinery. The DNA nanobot is shaped like a gearshift, with an extendible arm that ranges from 25 to more than 400 nanometers long that’s attached to a 55-by-55-nanometer platform. Researchers remotely control this DNA device, described in the Jan. 19 Science, with electric fields that tug on charged molecules in its arm. Those electric fields help the nanomachine’s arm move much more quickly than previous DNA robots, which relied on chemical interactions between DNA molecules to move (SN: 9/11/10, p. 18). Friedrich Simmel, a biophysicist at the Technical University of Munich, and his colleagues could swivel their DNA robotic arm 360 degrees in a matter of milliseconds. To lock the arm down in particular positions, the team built latches made of short, single-stranded DNA into the platform.
1-18-18 The higher your testosterone levels, the more you love soft rock
A study suggests that men with higher testosterone levels are more likely to prefer genres like heavy metal and soft rock to classical music or jazz. Miles Davis or Mariah Carey? Your choice of music genre might be influenced by the amount of testosterone coursing through your body. Levels of this sex hormone have been linked to music taste, providing the first evidence that musical preference has a biological basis. Most research into music tastes has focussed on the role of an individual’s personality, says Hirokazu Doi, of Nagasaki University, Japan. “Extroverted people tend to like pop music, for example,” he says. But could there be a biological explanation for such preferences? A range of hormones and brain chemicals could conceivably play a role, but Doi and his team decided to put testosterone to the test first, because this hormone has already been linked to personality traits and is known to affect brain regions involved in processing rewarding experiences. Working with colleagues in Japan and Italy, Doi recruited 37 male and 39 female volunteers – most of whom were students – and played them excerpts from 25 little-known pieces of music. Each person had to rate the excerpts on a 19-point scale based on how much they liked it, as well as providing a saliva sample, which the team used to measure their testosterone levels. On analysing their data, they found that male volunteers with higher testosterone were more likely to prefer kinds of music that the team had classed as “unsophisticated” – for example, soft rock or heavy metal. Male volunteers with lower testosterone levels were much more likely to prefer classical music and jazz – genres the team call more sophisticated.
1-17-18 How ‘stem cell’ clinics became a Wild West for dodgy treatments
Hundreds of clinics offering unregulated stem cell therapies have sprung up across the US and Australia thanks to lax oversight. SHEILA DRYSDALE’S husband saw stem cells as a last, desperate attempt to ease his wife’s symptoms of dementia. Sadly, the same day she received treatment in Sydney – 20 December 2013 – Drysdale died, aged 75. In July 2016, the coroner investigating the case ruled that Drysdale had bled to death as a result of a liposuction procedure involved in the therapy, saying it had some “troubling hallmarks of ‘quack’ medicine“. Alarmed by this case – the first known death from a stem cell treatment – and others in which unsuspecting people have been harmed (see “Cells behaving badly“) authorities in the US and Australia are introducing new measures to crack down on unregulated stem cell clinics, while supporting those developing legitimate treatments. Stem cells hold great promise because they have the potential to mature into and repair multiple tissues of the body. Last year, firms announced encouraging progress towards treatments for diabetes and lower back pain, for example. And for decades, doctors have indirectly used stem cells that are naturally active in blood and bone marrow to treat conditions such as blood cancers. But in the past few years, hundreds of clinics have sprung up offering stem cell treatments that haven’t been thoroughly tested in clinical trials or approved by regulators. “There’s a long list of clinics making claims that are scientifically impossible,” says Sean Morrison of the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Texas and a past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “They make claims to cure things like Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and autism.”
1-17-18 Breathing in a nanoparticle spray could prevent heart damage
An inhalable drug is designed to move straight from the lungs to the heart, where it is hoped it will prevent the organ from deteriorating after heart attacks. Some deep breaths could soon treat heart failure – the deterioration of the heart following a heart attack – thanks to an inhalable spray that has performed well in animal tests. The drug delivered by the spray is contained in nanoparticles that are small enough to be absorbed through the air sacs of the lungs and into the bloodstream. From here, blood travels straight to the heart, where the nanoparticles should release the drug. To test the drug, the researchers gave it to mice whose hearts were deliberately injured to mimic heart failure. Heart health was measured by examining the proportion of blood ejected by the left ventricle – a chamber of the heart – every heartbeat. Compared to healthy mice, this measure was 17 percentage points lower in the injured mice. When ten of these mice were given the nanoparticle spray, this measure rose by an average of 15 percentage points. “It recovered almost completely,” says Michele Miragoli of the University of Parma in Italy. Control treatments did not have the same effect. The nanoparticles are made from calcium phosphate, a natural mineral that is abundant in bone. The drug they contain is designed to repair calcium channels on the surface of heart cells, which normally help electricity maintain the normal beating of the heart.
1-17-18 Algorithms that change lives should be trialled like new drugs
An algorithm used by US courts to predict reoffenders turns out to be no more accurate than random people on the internet. Why wasn’t it properly tested before now?. Who should we listen to when deciding whether a criminal will reoffend: a sophisticated algorithm, or random people on the internet? Trick question – it turns out they both produce the same results, according to a new analysis that demonstrates the danger of handing over control of our lives to the machines. Such predictive algorithms are already well-entrenched, informing and making crucial decisions. But for many of them, evidence they are accurate and fair is lagging behind. This needs to change. “We have a tendency to immediately trust them because we consider them ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’,” says Sandra Wachter at the Oxford Internet Institute. But perhaps we should be more critical. As a case in point, a new paper published in Science Advances this week looked at a well-established tool called Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS), which is used by courts across the US to predict the likelihood of someone with a conviction reoffending. It uses 137 different features about the defendant’s case to put together its score, and is used by judges to inform sentencing decisions. Despite its ubiquity, until now COMPAS had not been tested against human decision-making. The results show it is no better at predicting reoffenders than untrained people on the internet.
1-17-18 Swollen eye is setback for blindness treatment using stem cells
A man in a flagship stem cell trial for age-related macular degeneration has swelling in his eye, but the cause is probably surgery – not stem cells. A man has developed serious swelling in his eye after receiving a pioneering stem cell treatment for blindness, but this was probably the result of the surgery itself rather than the stem cell implant. The treatment was developed by Masayo Takahashi of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and her team. Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells produced from a person’s own skin cells or a tissue-matched donor are turned into a patch of eye cells ready for transplant. The recipient is someone with a progressive form of blindness called age-related macular degeneration. In 2014, a woman in her 80s was the first to receive a patch made in this way. Last year, the team reported that the technique had improved her vision, raising hopes that it would work for others. But the team announced in a press conference on 16 January that the second person to be treated this way – a man in his 70s – had developed serious retinal swelling. The same day, he had surgery to remove an epiretinal membrane – scar-like tissue that had formed since he was treated in June 2017. In response, some reports in the media suggest that the stem cells may have triggered this swelling. But the swelling was probably the result of last year’s surgery, rather than the stem cells, says Mike Cheetham at University College London.
1-17-18 Chemistry 'Van Gogh' could help with cancer
"Incredible" images of DNA in action have been captured by scientists who will use them to design cancer drugs. Researcher Dr Alessandro Vannini said the pictures were "beautiful" and in artistic comparisons were "definitely a Van Gogh". They capture a fundamental part of all plant and animal life, called RNA polymerase III, reading the genetic instructions contained in DNA. It is a process that gets hijacked by cancer. Human DNA contains the genetic instructions for building and running the human body. It is RNA polymerase III's job to come along and read the genetic instruction manual. The team at the Institute of Cancer Research used a technique called cryo-electron microscopy, which won the 2017 Nobel Prize for chemistry for revolutionising biochemistry. They purified RNA polymerase III, immersed it in water and then rapidly froze it. This preserves the microscopic structure of objects and even captures them mid-movement. A beam of electrons is then used to take images from lots of angles, which are then built up into a detailed 3D image. Dr Alessandro Vannini, who published the findings in the journal Nature, told the BBC: "You don't get the structure all at once, you just see individual strokes and it takes a while to see the big picture.
1-17-18 The Amazonian arrow poison that made modern anaesthesia
Adventurer Richard Gill sought relief from symptoms of multiple sclerosis in an Ecuadorian tribal weapon – with wider results that live on in medicine today. IT IS 1932 and Richard Gill is crouching on the rainforest floor. He watches as a man lifts a steaming pot off the fire. It has been simmering for days, but now it is ready. The man takes a whip-thin dart and dips it into the tarry black concoction. The paste sticks easily to the tip. It was the first time Gill had witnessed this ritual but it was not to be the last. His former job as a rubber salesman had brought him to Ecuador, and when he found himself unemployed after the crash of 1929, he and his wife Ruth had used their savings to buy some land in the Ecuadorian Andes. He often visited his neighbours, the Canelo. At 2 metres tall, he towered over the native people, but he was humble and keen to learn. He worked hard to win their trust and respect. Gill was fascinated by how the Canelo lived, and particularly by their use of plants. He had studied medicine for a while and although he had decided against becoming a doctor, he retained an interest in the subject. Some drugs had already made it out of the Amazon into modern medicine, including quinine and the emetic ipecacuanha. There must be many others, Gill thought. He knew that several plants went into the pot to make the substance they used to coat the darts that they fired out of long blowpipes, and something in the mix certainly had a large biological effect. Skilled hunters could bring down an animal 30 metres away. They called it “the flying death”. To the outside world, it was curare.
1-17-18 Source of world’s biggest listeria outbreak still unknown
There have been almost 750 cases of listeriosis in South Africa so far, and the source of the food poisoning infection remains unknown. THERE have been 748 confirmed cases of listeriosis in South Africa in the past year, making it the largest ever outbreak. So far, 67 people have died. Listeriosis infections are caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, usually in contaminated food such as raw meat and poultry, unwashed vegetables, and dairy products. It can lead to meningitis or blood poisoning in newborn infants, older people, and people with compromised immune systems. Infection during pregnancy can cause miscarriage. Because symptoms can take between 6 hours and 10 weeks to appear, it can be difficult to identify the contaminated food responsible. “You wouldn’t know what you ate three weeks ago. This is the big challenge we face in this situation,” said Christian Lindmeier of the World Health Organization on 12 January. To help monitor the outbreak, South Africa has made listeriosis a notifiable disease, meaning every case must be reported to its Department of Health.
1-16-18 Bowel cancer test may be a much better way to screen for polyps
A new blood test seems to be more than twice as good at detecting bowel cancer than the method currently used to screen for polyps and early bowel cancer. A BLOOD test that can spot early-stage bowel cancer may be a more accurate way to screen for the disease than current methods. Bowel cancer starts with the growth of small clumps of cells called polyps. If found early, these can be removed before they turn cancerous. Many countries currently use the faecal occult blood (FOB) test to routinely screen those aged 50 or over for polyps. This simple test detects blood in stools, but doing this only picks up around 15 per cent of polyps. Colonoscopies are much better, but are expensive, invasive and require the use of general anaesthetic, so cannot be used for routine screens. Now a team at Chang Gung University, Taiwan, has developed a blood test that detects cells that have become detached from polyps or more advanced tumours. In a trial of 620 people, it detected 77 per cent of polyps and 87 per cent of cancer cases. The FOB test only detects around 30 per cent of bowel cancers. The results were presented at the Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium in San Francisco this week.
1-16-18 Johann Hari doesn’t know depression’s real causes – no one does
Taking a view on unsettled science is always likely to cause controversy, but the fiery debate Johann Hari's new book has sparked is worth having, says Samantha Murphy. Is it possible for a writer whose credibility has been questioned in the past to deliver a credible message now? This is the query at the heart of deep division over Johann Hari’s new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions. In it, Hari, who apologised over plagiarism claims in 2011, relies heavily on personal and anecdotal experience to relay stories from across the globe about things that can stand as alternatives to antidepressant medications, such as community engagement and personal empowerment. He takes aim at the theory that depression is a brain-chemical imbalance and assigns most ownership of it to the pharmaceutical industry as a self-serving premise on which our entire understanding of this illness is built. There has been praise from those who find hope in Hari’s take. But also strident criticism, from two distinct camps. First, there are those who disagree with him on the basis that his book cites inaccurate statistics and is built on flimsy amounts of science, pointing to the many people who have benefitted from antidepressants. Second, there are those who find the content disqualified by the lack of credibility and attention-seeking behaviour of its author. But what if I told you that they are all right? Mostly.
1-16-18 Blindness treatment will insert algae gene into people’s eyes
Optogenetic techniques that use light to control nerve cells are being tried in people at last – and could lead to treatments for several types of blindness. Smart goggles and gene therapy are about to be tested as a cure for blindness. This is one of the first ever uses in people of optogenetics, a technique that involves changing the DNA of nerve cells so that they can be controlled by light. This technique has been a powerful laboratory tool for understanding how brains work in animals, but has been seen as impractical for use in humans because of the need to put a wire into the brain through a hole in the head. But 12 people in the UK are now about to have an optogenetic treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, a rare inherited condition in which the eye’s light-sensitive cells slowly die, eventually causing blindness. Because light can reach nerve cells in the retina of the eye without any need to drill a hole in the skull, sight loss disorders could be prime targets for optogenetic therapies. The new treatment, developed by French firm GenSight Biologics, targets nerve cells in the retina that aren’t normally sensitive to light. The idea is that by genetically modifying these to detect light, they can compensate for the cells that die off as the disease progresses. To make these cells sensitive to light, they will be injected with a gene that normally helps single-celled algae to detect light. The same gene is often used in optogenetic lab studies. Each patient will receive one injection, in only one eye. Work in mice and monkeys suggests that, after about six weeks, this injection should make the cells able to detect red light.
1-16-18 DNA solves the mystery of how these mummies were related
The duo had the same mother, but different dads. A pair of ancient Egyptian mummies, known for more than a century as the Two Brothers, were actually half brothers, a new study of their DNA finds. These two, high-ranking men shared a mother, but had different fathers, say archaeogeneticist Konstantina Drosou of the University of Manchester in England and her colleagues. That muted family tie came to light thanks to the successful retrieval of two types of DNA from the mummies’ teeth, the scientists report in the February Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The finding highlights the importance ancient Egyptians placed on maternal lines of descent, Drosou’s group contends. Questions have swirled about the biological backgrounds of the mummified men ever since they were found together in a tomb near the village of Rifeh in 1907. The tomb dates to ancient Egypt’s 12th Dynasty, between 1985 B.C. and 1773 B.C. Coffin inscriptions mention a female, Khnum-Aa, as the mother of both men. And both mummies are described as sons of an unnamed local governor. It has always been unclear if those inscriptions refer to the same man, but discoverers decided the mummies were full brothers, because the two were buried next to each other and had the same mother. (Webmaster's comment: Pharaoh's daughter was sleeping around again.)
1-15-18 Black Death 'spread by humans not rats'
Rats were not to blame for the spread of plague during the Black Death, according to a study. The rodents and their fleas were thought to have spread a series of outbreaks in 14th-19th Century Europe. But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be "largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice". The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale. The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe's population, between 1347 and 1351. "We have good mortality data from outbreaks in nine cities in Europe," Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, told BBC News. "So we could construct models of the disease dynamics [there]." He and his colleagues then simulated disease outbreaks in each of these cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by: rats, airborne transmission, fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes. In seven out of the nine cities studied, the "human parasite model" was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak. It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected. "The conclusion was very clear," said Prof Stenseth. "The lice model fits best." "It would be unlikely to spread as fast as it did if it was transmitted by rats. "It would have to go through this extra loop of the rats, rather than being spread from person to person."
1-15-18 DNA of man who died in 1827 recreated from his living relatives
The DNA of Hans Jonaton, an ex-slave who fled to Iceland in 1802, has been reconstructed using only the genes of his descendants. It’s not exactly bringing back the dead but it’s close. A person’s genome has been partially pieced together from fragments of his DNA found in hundreds of his modern-day descendants. It is the first time a dead person’s genome has been reconstructed without DNA extracted from their remains. The person in question is Hans Jonatan, who is something of an icon in Iceland. His fame was bolstered by a biography, The Man Who Stole Himself. Jonatan was born in 1784 on the island of St Croix, then part of the Danish West Indies and now one of the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. His mother, Emilia Regina, was a black woman who was a house slave. His father was a Danish man called Hans Gram, a secretary on a plantation. Jonatan became a slave on the plantation. Following a downturn in business, the plantation’s Danish owner returned to Denmark in 1789, taking Regina and later Jonatan. After fighting for the Danish navy in the Napoleonic wars, Jonatan declared himself a free man, as slavery was illegal in Denmark. In a key court case in 1801, Jonatan’s lawyer argued he could no longer be kept as a slave. But in 1802 the judge ruled that he should be sent back to the Danish West Indies, where slavery was still legal. However, Jonatan escaped.
1-15-18 The scientific secret to creativity
Master these three types of imagination to unlock your creative potential. ether you get mesmerized by Vincent van Gogh's painting The Starry Night or Albert Einstein's theories about spacetime, you'll probably agree that both pieces of work are products of mindblowing creativity. Imagination is what propels us forward as a species — it expands our worlds and brings us new ideas, inventions, and discoveries. But why do we seem to differ so dramatically in our ability to imagine? And can you train yourself to become more imaginative? Science has come up with some answers, based on three different but interlinked types of imagination.
- Creative imagination: "Creative imagination" is what we normally consider to be creativity with a large C — composing an opera or discovering something groundbreaking. This is different from everyday creativity, such as coming up with imaginative solutions to household problems or making crafts.
- Fantastical imagination: For many people, the ability to become completely absorbed by an idea is key to finalizing a successful, creative project. For that you need something scientists call "fantastical imagination," probably best predicted by your fantasy proneness and imaginative immersion. These describe your tendency to have highly vivid and realistic fantasies and level of absorption in imaginary worlds.
- Episodic imagination: "Episodic imagination" is similar to fantastical imagination but predominantly makes use of real (episodic) memory details rather than imaginary (semantic) details when visualizing events in our mind's eye.
1-15-18 Tiny scales in ancient lagoon may be the first fossil evidence of the moth-butterfly line
Specialized drinking mouthparts might have evolved before the flowers moths now drink from. Newly described little scaly bits could push back the fossil record of the moth-and-butterfly branch on the tree of life by some 70 million years. That raises the question of whether the drinking-straw mouthparts evolved long before the flower nectar many drink today. The microscopic ridged scales date from roughly 200 million years ago, around the time of one of Earth’s less famous mass extinctions, says fossil-pollen specialist Bas van de Schootbrugge of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. During an unrelated study of ocean oxygen during this dire time, he and his colleagues pulled up cores of sediment in northern Germany near Braunschweig from what had once been a huge lagoon. In the sediment lay mere dots of insect scales. Comparing the ridges and inner structure of the scales with those from modern insects suggests the fossils came from the evolutionary branch of insects that today gives us moths and butterflies with nectar-sipping mouthparts. No recognizable mouthparts appeared in the sediment. Yet the early existence of distinctive scales might mean this moth-butterfly drinking organ, a proboscis, evolved before the explosion of the classic flowering plants that offer nectar for pollination, van de Schootbrugge and colleagues propose January 10 in Science Advances.
1-14-18 Surfers may be swallowing bacteria and spreading it to others
Surfers seem to swallow more antibiotic resistant bacteria from polluted water than swimmers. They may also be spreading it to vulnerable people they know. Surfers seem to be gulping down antibiotic resistant superbugs in seawater, and may unwittingly be spreading them to people they know. Resistant bacteria pose what the UK’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, last year described as an “apocalyptic threat” by making it impossible to cure simple infections with standard antibiotics. In 2013, the US Centers for Disease Control warned that each year, 23,000 Americans die from untreatable infections, and 2 million are infected with increasingly resistant superbugs. To see if contaminated seawater might be putting surfers at risk, Anne Leonard of the University of Exeter, UK, and her team examined the stools of 143 local surfers and 130 sea-swimmers. They found E. coli bacteria that was resistant to the antibiotic cefotaxime in samples from nearly a tenth of the surfers, but in only 3 per cent of the swimmers. Previous research had found that surfers swallow around ten times as much seawater a session as swimmers. “We think the bacteria reach the sea mainly in sewage, including runoff from farms containing manure, and human sewage following periods of high rainfall,” says Leonard.
1-14-18 How flowering plants conquered the world
Scientists think they have the answer to a puzzle that baffled even Charles Darwin: How flowers evolved and spread to become the dominant plants on Earth. Flowering plants, or angiosperms, make up about 90% of all living plant species, including most food crops. In the distant past, they outpaced plants such as conifers and ferns, which predate them, but how they did this has has been a mystery. New research suggests it is down to genome size - and small is better. "It really comes down to a question of cell size and how you can build a small cell and still retain all the attributes that are necessary for life," says Kevin Simonin from San Francisco State University in California, US. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Earth was dominated by ferns and conifers. Then, about 150 million years ago, the first flowering plants appeared on the scene. They quickly spread to all parts of the world, changing the landscape from muted green to a riot of vibrant colour. The reasons behind the incredible success and diversity of flowering plants have been debated for centuries. Charles Darwin himself called it an "abominable mystery", fearing this apparent sudden leap might challenge his theory of evolution. Simonin and co-researcher Adam Roddy, of Yale University, wondered if the size of the plant's genetic material - or genome - might be important. The biologists analysed data held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on the genome size of hundreds of plants, including flowering plants, gymnosperms (a group of plants, which include conifers and Ginkgo) and ferns.
1-13-18 How to get your procrastination under control
We all do it, but there might just be a way to break the habit. "I love deadlines," English author Douglas Adams once wrote. "I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." We've all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don't care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot — and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them. So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we're approaching work? These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate — and how to overcome this tendency.
- To do, or not to do
- The distant deadline
- No work is 'effortless'
- Your work, your identity
1-12-18 Autism rates stabilizing
After rising for the past two decades, rates of autism spectrum disorder in the U.S. finally appear to be stabilizing, new research suggests. Previous studies have shown that the number of young people diagnosed with autism or a related condition that affects their social and communication skills more than doubled between 2002 and 2010, reports Time.com. In 2014, the National Health Interview Survey started asking participants whether a child in the family had been diagnosed with such a condition. Over the next three years, that question was answered for 30,502 children ages 3 to 17. When researchers from the University of Iowa adjusted the data to make it nationally representative, they found that the number of households that had reported a child’s diagnosis had held steady over that period, at about 2.4 percent. Though encouraged by this apparent plateauing, scientists are still trying to understand why autism has become and remains so common. Likely factors include evolving diagnostic criteria, greater awareness of its conditions, and the older average age of parents and other risk factors.
1-12-18 Diabetes drug for Alzheimer’s
Scientists seeking a cure for diabetes may have stumbled across a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. A team at Lancaster University in England gave mice that had been genetically engineered to have the neurodegenerative condition a “triple receptor” diabetes drug that activates the growth factors GLP-1, GIP, and glucagon—hormones that help protect the brain from degeneration. Alzheimer’s is associated with impaired growth-factor signaling, which causes nerve cells to lose function. The researchers found that the mice demonstrated significantly improved memory and learning during a maze test, and also had reduced inflammation and plaque buildup in the brain. Successful rodent studies often fail to translate into human treatments, but the researchers nevertheless called their findings a “very positive” development, reports BusinessInsider.com. “With no new treatments in nearly 15 years, we need to find new ways of tackling Alzheimer’s,” says Doug Brown from the Alzheimer’s Society. “It’s imperative that we explore whether drugs developed to treat other conditions can benefit people with Alzheimer’s.”
1-11-18 Not all strep infections are alike and it may have nothing to do with you
Variation in bacteria strains’ genetic makeup, not your immune system, could be to blame. One person infected with strep bacteria might get a painful sore throat; another might face a life-threatening blood infection. Now, scientists are trying to pin down why. Variation between individuals’ immune systems may not be entirely to blame. Instead, extra genes picked up by some pathogens can cause different strains to have wildly different effects on the immune system, even in the same person, researchers report January 11 in PLOS Pathogens. The idea that different strains of bacteria can behave differently in the body isn’t new. Take E. coli: Some strains of the bacteria that can cause foodborne illness make people far sicker than other strains. But bacteria have exceptionally large amounts of genetic variation, even between members of the same species. Scientists are still trying to figure out how that genetic diversity affects the way microbes interact with the immune system.
1-11-18 Protein helps old blood age the brains of young mice
Scientists hone in on activity in the blood-brain barrier as the culprit. Old blood can prematurely age the brains of young mice, and scientists may now be closer to understanding how. A protein located in the cells that form a barrier between the brain and blood could be partly to blame, experiments on mice suggest. If something similar happens in humans, scientists say, methods for countering the protein may hold promise for treating age-related brain decline. The preliminary study, published online January 3 at bioRxiv.org, focused on a form of the protein known as VCAM1, which interacts with immune cells in response to inflammation. As mice and humans age, levels of that protein circulating in the blood rise, Alzheimer researcher Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford University and colleagues found.
1-11-18 For baby's brain to benefit, read the right books at the right time
It turns out, not all baby books are created equal. Parents often receive books at pediatric checkups via programs like Reach Out and Read and hear from a variety of health professionals and educators that reading to their kids is critical for supporting development. The pro-reading message is getting through to parents, who recognize that it's an important habit. A summary report by Child Trends, for instance, suggests 55 percent of three- to five-year-old children were read to every day in 2007. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 83 percent of three- to five-year-old children were read to three or more times per week by a family member in 2012. What this ever-present advice to read with infants doesn't necessarily make clear, though, is that what's on the pages may be just as important as the book-reading experience itself. Are all books created equal when it comes to early shared-book reading? Does it matter what you pick to read? And are the best books for babies different than the best books for toddlers? In order to guide parents on how to create a high-quality book-reading experience for their infants, my psychology research lab has conducted a series of baby learning studies. One of our goals is to better understand the extent to which shared book reading is important for brain and behavioral development.
1-11-18 Protein helps old blood age the brains of young mice
Scientists hone in on activity in the blood-brain barrier as the culprit. Old blood can prematurely age the brains of young mice, and scientists may now be closer to understanding how. A protein located in the cells that form a barrier between the brain and blood could be partly to blame, experiments on mice suggest. If something similar happens in humans, scientists say, methods for countering the protein may hold promise for treating age-related brain decline. The preliminary study, published online January 3 at bioRxiv.org, focused on a form of the protein known as VCAM1, which interacts with immune cells in response to inflammation. As mice and humans age, levels of that protein circulating in the blood rise, Alzheimer researcher Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford University and colleagues found.
1-11-18 Study proves that humblebragging really is the worst
It’s time for the #humblebrag to die. Experiments show that everybody hates thinly-veiled boasts, but nearly 45 per cent of people witness one a day. “Just won GQ style award in Germany. Obviously they made a mistake. I wonder how long till they come take it back.” If this tweet by actor Jared Leto sets your teeth on edge, you’re not alone. A study has revealed that feigning modesty while boasting – a practice known as “humblebragging” – annoys people even more than outright self-promotion. Humblebragging comes in two forms, says Ovul Sezer at the University of North Carolina. It can be expressed as a display of humility, like: “I’m so shocked my new book is a bestseller”, or a complaint, like: “I’ve got nothing to wear after losing so much weight”. Both types are disliked more than outright bragging and are less likely to elicit help or financial generosity from others, according to a series of experiments run by Sezer and her team.
1-11-18 This doctor writes prescriptions for getting outside
A breath of fresh air can be physically healing, and a group of physicians is now putting the idea into practice by prescribing time outdoors for some patients. Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician who founded and directs the nonprofit Park Rx America, prescribes going outdoors because, he says, seeing trees and hearing birds can help treat childhood maladies such as obesity, depression, and disruptive behavior. "The science tells us that being in a natural setting and being mindful, in particular, in a natural setting, has therapeutic effects on your mental health. It actually makes you feel better," Zarr says. "Depression can improve, anxiety can improve, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can improve, and there are some studies that have looked at high blood pressure, diabetes, and overall mortality. These are the things that are killing us. Chronic disease is the modern-day plague [and] is largely driven by our behavior." Zarr says pediatrics used to deal primarily with runny noses, ear infections, vaccinations, and monitoring growth and development. It really wasn't a field in which doctors had to treat chronic disease. It is now. Kids are now suffering from prediabetes, high blood pressure, and mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. All the things the parents are suffering from, kids are now suffering, too, Zarr says. "We have a generation of kids who don't necessarily even know what to do outdoors, how to be outdoors," Zarr says. "Frankly, we hardly even know how to sit down without pulling out our cellphone … [Being] mindful of what's around us and using our senses is a really important step to understanding what is actually ailing us."
1-10-18 No sweat: When, how and how much should I exercise?
Moderate or vigorous? Long or short? Every day, or binging at the weekend? There are a lot of ways to burn calories – but some make more sense than others. The benefits of exercise have been duly noted and your resolutions have been made. Yes, you want to be fit and live a long and healthy life. But what do you actually have to do to get those results? According to standard advice issued by the World Health Organization, adults should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week to extend their lives, get fit, have stronger muscles and be a healthy weight. If that didn’t already sound a lot, the WHO says to double that if you want to reap further benefits. The good news for the exercise-averse is that it’s possible to stick to these guidelines without entering a gym or breaking into a jog. The WHO’s definition of moderate exercise includes domestic chores and gardening, as well as more niche pursuits such as traditional hunting and gathering. This idea fits with evidence from a study last year of more than 130,000 people in 17 countries, which found that walking to work and household chores such as vacuuming or scrubbing the floor are activity enough to reduce the risk of early death by 28 per cent, as long as you do 150 minutes a week.
1-10-18 No sweat: Can I tailor my exercise to burn more fat?
Exercise slowly, or on an empty stomach: myths abound at how best to de-flab. Sadly if you’re looking for a quick win most of them are just that – myths. It seems logical. The way to kick-start your journey to a fitter, healthier and – let’s face it – more toned version of your post-holiday self is to work out until you are dripping in sweat. Finishing a workout drenched certainly feels like you’ve achieved something. And some people are even cashing in on this idea with gym kit that makes you sweat more during your workout and, supposedly, lose more weight too. But feelings can be deceptive. “Sweat is not a guide that can signal benefit as a result of exercise,” says Stuart Phillips at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “It’s an indication of your physiological need to dissipate heat load. When you sit in a sauna you sweat, but do people think that has the same benefit as exercising?” Regardless of temperature, some of us are simply prone to sweating more, says Declan O’Regan of Imperial College London, whose work has shown how exercise benefits your heart. Genetics plays a part, as does how fit you are to begin with. Perhaps surprisingly, research shows that people perspire more as they get fitter because their body adapts to dealing with the effort, and sweating more helps them keep cool. And men tend to sweat more than women when they exercise. When it comes to getting fit, moderate exercise that gets you moving but not necessarily sweating can do the job, says Kristian Gundersen at the University of Oslo in Norway (see “No sweat: When, how and how much should I exercise?”). “You need to get your pulse up, but that would be sufficient,” he says.
1-10-18 No sweat: Is exercising inside or outside better for you?
Running on the gym treadmill is tempting, especially in the cold, dark winter. But if you do, be prepared to go the extra mile. In the dark days of winter, opting to run on an indoor treadmill rather than braving the cold may seem tempting. But does it bring the same effects? One thing that could make the treadmill easier is the lack of air resistance – you don’t have to displace the air in front of you when you run on the spot. To make up for this and ensure an indoor workout isn’t too easy, some people religiously set the treadmill’s incline to 1 per cent. That figure originated from a 1996 study that found runners doing a 7-minute-per-mile pace used similar amounts of energy to run over ground as they did on a treadmill with a 1 per cent incline. However, at slower speeds, there were no differences in the energy costs of running over ground or on a flat treadmill. So at an easy pace, there is no need to touch the incline dial – the treadmill isn’t any easier than outside. Many people think the “dreadmill” feels harder, not easier. Runners on a treadmill asked to replicate a pace they had previously run on a track, for example, jogged more than 2 minutes per mile slower. Irene Davis at Harvard Medical School, who studies the biomechanics of running, has seenthe same thing – people find that comfortable paces suddenly seem less so on the mill. She blames the treadmill forcing you to maintain one speed, which is tiring and unnatural. When you run outdoors, “you’re constantly speeding up and slowing down and probably adjusting your speed to your fatigue level”, she says.
1-10-18 A new gel could help in the fight against deadly, drug-resistant superbugs
Ointment cleared wounds in mice and human skin samples of MRSA, other tough bacteria. A new antibacterial ointment could help take down drug-resistant bacteria. In human skin samples and mice, the medicine completely cleared wounds of MRSA, the strain of Staphylococcus aureus that is resistant to methicillin and other antibiotics, and antibiotic-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii. Both microbes are known to cause serious infections in hospital patients. Researchers in the Netherlands created the gel’s key ingredient, a chain of amino acids called SAAP-148, by improving on a bacteria-fighting peptide found in humans. The synthetic peptide prevents pathogens from forming biofilms — colonies of microbes enveloped in a protective slime that shields them from antibiotics, the researchers report online January 10 in Science Translational Medicine. Bacteria living in a biofilm can be 10 to 1,000 times as hard to kill as their free-floating counterparts. SAAP-148 also wiped out microbes that hunker down in a dormant, drug-tolerant state during an antibiotic assault, then lead the bacterial resurgence after treatment ends.
1-10-18 A single gene can either raise or lower Crohn’s disease risk
Comparing the DNA of 5700 Jewish people has identified a gene with two variants – one that lowers a person’s risk of Crohn’s disease, and one that raises it. Screening the DNA of nearly 5700 Jewish people has identified a gene that helps determine a person’s risk of developing Crohn’s disease. Different mutations in the same gene can make someone more likely to get the condition, or help protect them from ever developing it. Crohn’s disease is the most serious form of inflammatory bowel disease. Current treatments for the condition frequently fail to provide much relief, and people with the disorder often have to have particularly inflamed regions of their gut removed surgically. But understanding the genetics of the disease could lead to new treatments. Inga Peter, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and her team screened for genes involved in the disorder by studying DNA from Ashkenazi Jews – an ethnic group in which Crohn’s disease is up to three times more common. Comparing the DNA from 2066 people with the condition and 3633 people without the disorder, the team identified two genetic variants of the same gene with differing effects. Called LRRK2, one variant of this gene raises a person’s risk of Crohn’s by 70 per cent, while the other variant lowered it by around 25 per cent.
1-10-18 Robotic implant could help children with rare disorder eat again
The device lengthens the oesophagus so its two ends can be stitched back together, improving life for children with a birth defect called oesophageal atresia. Some children are born with their oesophagus in two segments, so the tube doesn’t connect to their stomach. A new robotic implant might help treat this serious condition, known as oesophageal atresia. The robot consists of two steel rings, some sensors and a motor, all sealed in a protective waterproof skin. The device is attached to the outside of one section of the oesophagus and gently elongates it by moving the rings apart. Once the organ is long enough, the two segments can be stitched together. The researchers behind the device have shown that it works in pigs, being able to lengthen the oesophagus by 77 per cent over eight to nine days. Equivalent growth in a human would be enough to fix the oesophageal atresia. “We’ve shown that it’s not just stretching, there is actually new cell growth as well,” says Pierre Dupont at Harvard Medical School.
1-10-18 Unearthed: Why we’ve got monuments like Stonehenge all wrong
From Stone Age circles to Easter Island’s statues, majestic prehistoric monuments may be far less to do with gods, kings or the heavens than we thought. AT POVERTY POINT, Louisiana, a remarkable monument overlooks a bend in the Mississippi river. Built around 3500 years ago, entirely from earth, it consists of six concentric, semicircular ridges radiating out from a central “plaza”, together with five mounds. Mound A, the largest, towers 22 metres – the equivalent of a seven-storey building – over the lush floodplain. North America wouldn’t see another monument on this scale for 2000 years. The Poverty Point earthworks are not just impressive, they are also intriguing. Ancient monuments have always been regarded as products of large, complex, hierarchical societies, built as tributes to gods and kings. In what might be called the Ozymandias theory of construction, they are seen as physical manifestations of a powerful chief’s authority as in an evocative line about a mighty ruined statue in a poem by Shelley, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But Poverty Point was constructed by hunter-gatherers, and they are famously egalitarian. They may have had local leaders, but these would not have exerted a commanding influence over their small groups. So who, or what, motivated building on such a grand scale here? A new and outlandish idea could answer that question. If correct, it will overturn our preconceptions about the purpose of ancient monuments, and could even hold lessons to help us improve modern societies.
1-10-18 When people sleep more they also eat less sugar and carbs
When people are given advice on how to get more sleep, not only do they get more slumber than they used to, they also start eating more healthily. Want to eat better? Sleep more. Increasing the amount of sleep a person gets has been linked to eating fewer sugary foods, and making better nutritional choices. Wendy Hall, at King’s College London, and her team enlisted 42 volunteers to help them investigate the link between sleep and diet. Half the participants were given advice on how to get more sleep – such as avoiding caffeine before bed, establishing a relaxing routine, and trying not to go to bed too full or hungry. This advice was intended to help them boost the amount of sleep they each got by 90 minutes a night. The remaining 21 volunteers received no such advice. The team found that, of those who were given the advice, 86 per cent spent more time in bed, and around half slept for longer than they used to. These extended sleep patterns were associated with an average reduction in the intake of free sugars of 10 grams a day. People who were getting more sleep also ate fewer carbohydrates. There were no significant changes in diet in the control group.
1-10-18 This artificial cartilage gets its strength from the stuff in bulletproof vests
High water content allows the new material to ferry nutrients, just like the real thing. A new kind of artificial cartilage, made with the same kind of fiber that fortifies bulletproof vests, is proving stronger than others. The fabricated material mimics the stiffness, toughness and water content of natural cartilage, researchers report in the Jan. 4 Advanced Materials. This synthetic tissue could replace the cartilage in a person’s body that naturally wears down and heals poorly (SN: 8/11/12, p. 22), alleviating joint pain and potentially sparing many people from having to undergo joint replacement surgery. Scientists have been trying to fashion artificial cartilage for decades, says Kara Spiller, a biomedical engineer at Drexel University in Philadelphia not involved in the work. But earlier materials were either weaker than the real thing or didn't pack enough water to transport nutrients to surrounding cells.
1-9-18 People with diabetes seem to be protected against migraine
Doctors' hunches that people with diabetes get fewer migraines have finally been backed up by good evidence and it could help us treat migraines. A huge study of the population of Norway has found that people who are being treated for diabetes are less likely to be treated for migraines. The finding suggests that something about diabetes – or the drugs used to treat it – might offer protection against migraines. “It could give us some insight into the mechanisms of migraine, and in future could improve the treatment of migraine,” says Ippazio Antonazzo at the University of Bergen in Norway. A link between diabetes and migraines was suggested back in 1970, when some doctors noticed that people with diabetes seemed less likely to complain about migraine symptoms. But it has been hard finding medical evidence of this hunch. Several studies have investigated whether people with one disorder are less likely to have the other, but the results so far have been mixed. “I have seen that not many people with diabetes also have migraine,” says Lars Edvinsson at Lund University in Sweden. “You can have a hunch as a doctor, but it can only be confirmed when good research is published.”
1-9-18 The real secret to quitting bad habits
Here's what neuroscience has to say about changing your own behavior. t any serious bad habits? The extra-strength ones with the FDA warning. The kind you really beat yourself up about — but still engage in all the time? Procrastination that screws up the quality of your work? Epic tidal waves of laziness? Or cardiac-threatening levels of overwork? Snapping at the ones you love? Or not speaking up even when you know you should? We're going to turn everything you know about bad habits on its head. For starters, here's the good news: You're not lazy, you're not a screw up, and you're not a bad person. In fact, you don't actually have "bad habits" at all. Those tempting or nagging voices in your head aren't evil. Actually, they're trying to help you. Yeah, I know: I have a lot of 'splaining to do. But before it all makes sense, we'll need to wade into a bit more crazy. Pixar films, neuroscience, multiple personalities, mindfulness, Fight Club, and boatloads of you talking to yourself like you're nuts… Yes, weird, but totally legit. In fact, there's a whole system of psychology based around this: Internal Family Systems (IFS.) It's been shown to help people with everything under the sun from depression, to anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, and even some of the most serious stuff like PTSD. This is a system that can help you overcome almost any bad behavior, deal with deep-seated issues, and even help you love yourself a bit more.
- There are no bad habits, just different selves with conflicting goals: You can read this post for more, or you can go watch Inside Out. (One of these is a far more effective option. The other was written by me.)
- Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters: The three big categories of voices in your head. Exiles have deep-seated fears, Managers make sure those don't get triggered, and when they do get triggered, Firefighters put out the fire (and destroy your house in the process.)
- Stay calm and talk to the Manager: Find out why they do what they do by asking… well, you.
- Talk to your inner child: I'm cringing that I typed that. But, corny as it sounds, it really does help. Discover your fears. That's what's driving your "bad behavior."
1-9-18 CRISPR gene editor could spark immune reaction in people
Having antibodies against Cas9 ‘molecular scissors’ is common, study suggests. Immune reactions against proteins commonly used as molecular scissors might make CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing ineffective in people, a new study suggests. About 79 percent of 34 blood donors tested had antibodies against the Cas9 protein from Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, Stanford University researchers report January 5 at bioRxiv.org. About 65 percent of donors had antibodies against the Cas9 protein from Streptococcus pyogenes. Nearly half of 13 blood donors also had T cells that seek and destroy cells that make S. aureus Cas9 protein. The researchers did not detect any T cells that attack S. pyogenes Cas9, but the methods used to detect the cells may not be sensitive enough to find them, says study coauthor Kenneth Weinberg.
1-9-18 AI listens in on emergency calls to diagnose cardiac arrest
Identifying cardiac arrest over the phone is a tricky task, so in Denmark eaves-dropping artificial intelligence is lending a helping hand. If you dial the emergency services in Denmark, soon you won’t just get a human operator, but an artificially intelligent assistant will be listening in too. Developed by start-up Corti, the system kicks into action when some dials 112 in Copenhagen, then it starts listening for signs of a possible cardiac arrest. To do this, it first uses speech recognition software to transcribe what’s being said before analysing the text. Once it is confident of a diagnosis, it flashes an alert on the screen for the operator to see. Identifying cardiac arrest over the phone is one of the trickiest tasks for an operator. The person calling is often distressed and lacking medical training, so reading between the lines is key. Recognising the symptoms early can be the difference between life or death, but because only 1 per cent of emergency calls are for cardiac arrest, it’s difficult to pick up on all of the signals all of the time. “If someone falls from a ladder because of a cardiac arrest, it would just look like they had a nasty fall,” says Lars Maaløe at Corti. “Recognising the right signs can be very hard and very stressful,” Underpinning the technology are algorithms called neural networks. These consist of many different computational layers, and are inspired by the way neurons connect in the brain. By exposing the network to a large amount of data, it eventually organises in such a way that it can reliably detect patterns in new data. In Corti’s case, it learns to diagnose certain conditions from years of emergency call logs.
1-9-18 Website invites you to probe a 3-D human brain
Interactive organ offers introduction to neuroscience. In movies, exploring the body up close often involves shrinking to microscopic sizes and taking harrowing rides through the blood. Thanks to a new virtual model, you can journey through a three-dimensional brain. No shrink ray required. The Society for Neuroscience and other organizations have long sponsored the website BrainFacts.org, which has basic information about how the human brain functions. Recently, the site launched an interactive 3-D brain. A translucent, light pink brain initially rotates in the middle of the screen. With a click of a mouse or a tap of a finger on a mobile device, you can highlight and isolate different parts of the organ. A brief text box then pops up to provide a structure’s name and details about the structure’s function. For instance, the globus pallidus — dual almond-shaped structures deep in the brain — puts a brake on muscle contractions to keep movements smooth.
1-8-18 New pill tracks gases through your gut
In first tests in humans, an ingestible electronic monitors gas molecules in the digestive system. Ingestible electronics are giving their first full tours of the gas in people’s guts. Newly constructed capsules, described online January 8 in Nature Electronics, sense various gases while traveling through a person’s digestive tract, revealing how the gut’s chemical composition reacts to factors like diet. What exactly each person’s gut gas could reveal about his or her health “is still to be determined,” says William Bentley, a bioengineer at the University of Maryland in College Park. But using capsules to gather gas fingerprints of many people with different diets or disorders could help researchers better characterize gut problems and improve disease diagnoses as well as boost monitoring of the effects of dietary or medication changes.
1-8-18 Freeze-dried valves used in animal heart surgery for first time
Pieces of heart tissue can be freeze-dried, stored in plastic bags at room temperature, and later rehydrated for successful heart surgery in sheep. Pieces of heart tissue can be freeze-dried and later rehydrated for transplantation, according to research in sheep. The technique could allow donated human tissue to be stored cheaply for years, and enable doctors to choose the perfect transplants “off the shelf”, rather than having to use whatever is available at the time. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, and around 250,000 heart valve surgeries are performed each year. These involve repairing or replacing one or more of the four valves that help pump blood through the heart. The demand for these operations is growing, and is estimated to reach 800,000 a year by 2050. Currently, the replacement heart valves are either mechanical, donated from cadavers or sourced from pigs or cows. In most cases, the new valves can last for 10 to 15 years. But around 10 per cent of heart valve replacements are done in children. As the children grow, the valves fail to grow with them. This means that children who need new heart valves can end up having multiple risky operations. Another problem with the existing biological options is their short shelf life. “Once they’ve been processed they need to be stored in liquid, and that only leaves you four months to find a recipient,” says Andres Hilfiker at Leibniz Research Labs for Biotechnology and Artificial Organs in Hannover, Germany. Some researchers are looking at freezing tissues and organs for donation, but the procedure seems to cause some damage. Hilfiker’s solution is to freeze dry the tissues. In their experiment, Hilfiker and his colleagues first got hold of heart valves from sheep and cows at a slaughterhouse. They removed all the cells from the valves using a detergent, so that only the empty structure remained. The team then soaked the valves in a sugary solution to protect them, before freeze-drying them to remove all the moisture. “At the end you get something that looks like beef jerky,” says Hilfiker.
1-7-18 Why do people lean to the right when they kiss?
Has society taught us how to kiss, or is it more instinctual? Your brain is an organ of two halves — the left side and the right side. And there are many brain functions, such as language skills or which hand you write with, which are organized mostly in one side of the brain or the other. Simple behavioral tests have now allowed us to see how this organization is revealed through biases in how we see and interact with the world — and each other — often without us being aware of it. Examining how people perceive a diagram of variously orientated lines and angles provided clues that people typically have a subconscious bias for seeing things set out in clockwise orientations. We then realized that this might also be related to a number of physical instincts that people have, such as which way they turn their heads. After looking at recent research in visual psychophysics and visual neuroscience, we saw various perceptual and behavioral phenomena in which humans can have a directional bias. Many of these turning behaviors are seen early in life. For example, infants have an initial bias for turning the head to the right (and consequently extending the left arm outward to compensate for that movement). Some previous research found that such an instinctive turn to the right extends to adulthood — when an adult kisses another on the lips, their heads tend to automatically lean to the right. But is this an extension of the bias that humans are born with, or do people simply learn to kiss that way? (Webmaster's comment: It's in the genes just like being right or left handed is in the genes.)
1-5-18 Cardiff University scientists' drugs test breakthrough
Scientists in Wales have helped develop a technique to streamline production of new drugs to detect if they could become ineffective or even harmful. Researchers can now spot if molecules could be unable to bind to proteins or enzymes in the body as intended. Compounds can become mirror images of themselves, known as racemisation, rendering them unable to work properly. Dr Niek Buurma, of Cardiff University, said it would make the development of safe new drugs more efficient. This is because molecules that are likely dead ends in development can be identified early. The work, published in chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, was done in conjunction with colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University. Researchers developed an algorithm to test whether chemical compounds in drugs at the development stage were likely to undergo racemisation and how quickly it could happen. Dr Buurma, the lead author of the study, said: "We believe that this risk-assessment will make it possible to manufacture safer medication by helping the pharmaceutical industry to quickly spot medication that will fail during development and focus their efforts on compounds that are more likely to work."
1-5-18 A key virus fighter is implicated in pregnancy woes
Fetal mice whose immune system revved up in response to their mom’s Zika infection died or grew poorly. An immune system mainstay in the fight against viruses may harm rather than help a pregnancy. In Zika-infected mice, this betrayal appears to contribute to fetal abnormalities linked to the virus, researchers report online January 5 in Science Immunology. And it could explain pregnancy complications that arise from infections with other pathogens and from autoimmune disorders. In pregnant mice infected with Zika virus, those fetuses with a docking station, or receptor, for immune system proteins called type I interferons either died or grew more poorly compared with fetuses lacking the receptor. “The type I interferon system is one of the key mechanisms for stopping viral infections,” says Helen Lazear, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who coauthored an editorial accompanying the study. “That same [immune] process is actually causing fetal damage, and that’s unexpected.” Cells infected by viruses begin the fight against the intruder by producing type I interferons. These proteins latch onto their receptor on the surfaces of neighboring cells and kick-start the production of hundreds of other antiviral proteins.
1-5-18 Why does using a period in a text message make you sound angry?
The strange science of text punctuation. When it comes to texting, the period, full stop, point — whatever you call it — has been getting a lot of attention. People have begun noticing slight changes to the way our smallest punctuation mark is deployed, from declarations that it's going out of style to claims that it's becoming angry. What they're actually noticing is written language becoming more flexible, with texting possessing its own set of stylistic norms (sometimes informally called "textspeak" or "textese"). The period is merely one example of this shift, a change that has opened up new possibilities for communicating with written language. Just as we have different styles of speaking in different situations, so do we have context-dependent styles of writing. Though periods can still signal the end of a sentence in a text message, many users will omit them (especially if the message is only one sentence long). This tendency now subtly influences how we interpret them. Because text messaging is a conversation that involves a lot of back-and-forth, people add fillers as a way to mimic spoken language. We see this with the increased use of ellipses, which can invite the recipient to continue the conversation. The period is the opposite of that — a definitive stop that signals, as linguistics professor Mark Liberman has explained, "This is final, this is the end of the discussion."(Webmaster's comment: .!)
1-5-18 Blowflies use drool to keep their cool
Dangle, slurp, repeat may help the insects protect their brains from overheatin. Blowflies don’t sweat, but they have raised cooling by drooling to a high art. In hot times, sturdy, big-eyed Chrysomya megacephala flies repeatedly release — and then retract — a droplet of saliva, Denis Andrade reported January 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. This process isn’t sweating. Blowfly droplets put the cooling power of evaporation to use in a different way, said Andrade, who studies ecology and evolution at the Universidade Estadual Paulista in Rio Claro, Brazil. As saliva hangs on a fly’s mouthparts, the droplet starts to lose some of its heat to the air around it. When the fly droplet has cooled a bit, the fly then slurps it back in, Andrade and colleagues found. Micro-CT scanning showed the retracted droplet in the fly’s throatlike passage near the animal’s brain. The process eased temperatures in the fly’s body by about four degrees Celsius below ambient temps. That may be preventing dangerous overheating, he proposed. The same droplet seemed to be released, cooled, drawn back in and then released again several times in a row.
1-5-18 Severe flu season
Cases of the flu are already on the rise across the U.S., and health officials warn the worst is yet to come, reports NBCNews.com. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that symptoms associated with the seasonal virus are currently widespread in 36 states across the country. Lab tests have shown that the dominant virus in circulation is the H3N2 influenza strain, which tends to cause more severe illness than other strains. And new research has shown that the main process for manufacturing the flu vaccine triggers mutations in H3N2 that render the antibody stimulant less effective. “The mutation just happened to be in a very bad spot on the virus to make it essentially be a mismatch for the vaccine,” explains Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This combination of factors doesn’t bode well for the flu season in the coming months; the vaccine may prevent only about 10 percent of infections. But health officials are still urging Americans to get a flu shot, arguing that some protection is better than none.
1-5-18 Leafy greens and dementia
Dark, leafy greens rich in lutein, folate, beta carotene, and other valuable nutrients could help slow age-related mental decline and ward off dementia, new research suggests. Scientists at Rush University and Tufts University analyzed the dietary habits and monitored the brain function of 960 older people, with an average age of 81, for about five years. They found that the participants who reported eating at least one daily serving of kale, spinach, or another leafy green vegetable had the brain function of someone 11 years younger, reports the Los Angeles Times. “It’s almost unbelievable,” says senior author Martha Morris. “Eating these leafy greens was independently associated with slower cognitive decline. That tells you this single food group contains so many nutrients, it could be brain-protective.” Scientists speculate that the nutrients in leafy greens could help protect against stress and inflammation, as well as chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which take a long-term toll on the brain.
1-5-18 The science of happiness
What makes people happy? It’s a question humans have been trying to answer for millennia. But over the past several decades, behavioral scientists have made huge strides in determining the basic building blocks of joy and contentment. Primary among them? The quality of your relationships. A famed, 80-year-long Harvard University study of adult development has found that close relationships, with both family and friends, help keep people happy throughout their lives. Health matters, too, as does creative work and freedom from mind-numbing routine. But the small, day-to-day stuff matters as well. The frequency of events that trigger happiness is a better predictor of satisfaction than the intensity of such events. In other words, the person who has several positive experiences throughout the day—a pleasant exchange with a friend or boss, a compliment from a spouse—is likely to be happier overall than an isolated person who wins a major award.
- What makes people happy?
- Does money help?
- Can we work on being happier?
- How can a challenge make you happy?
- Are some happiness factors out of our control?
1-5-18 Did life on Earth begin 3.5 billion years ago?
Scientists say they have found proof that life on Earth emerged under harsh conditions more than 3.5 billion years ago—a discovery that, if confirmed, significantly increases the chances that life is commonplace in the universe. UCLA scientist J. William Schopf first claimed back in 1993 that ancient rocks in Western Australia contained “microfossils” of primitive life. But other scientists disputed that finding, arguing that the tiny cylindrical and filamentous shapes he had identified were merely minerals. Now Schopf, working with a team at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says he has proof that the microfossils are the real deal—making them the oldest fossils ever found on Earth, reports SmithsonianMag?.com. In a painstaking 10-year process, the researchers found that the ratio of carbon isotopes in each suspected fossil were different from those of the surrounding rock—a clear sign the fossils truly were biological life. Schopf and his colleagues point out that this “primitive and diverse group of organisms” existed before Earth gained an oxygen-rich atmosphere, suggesting that some of them relied on the sun for energy while others thrived on methane. “By 3.465 billion years ago, life was already diverse on Earth—primitive photosynthesizers, methane producers, methane users,” says Schopf. “This tells us life had to have begun substantially earlier.” If primitive life forms could develop under the harsh, oxygen-free conditions of early Earth, Schopf concludes, “life in the universe should be widespread.”
1-5-18 Huge prehistoric penguins
Giant, human-size penguins once waddled the Earth’s surface, paleontologists have discovered. Fossils found on New Zealand’s South Island suggest the flightless bird weighed about 220 pounds and had a body length of almost 6 feet—2 feet taller than the emperor penguin, the largest species in existence today. Named Kumimanu biceae, the ancient species isn’t the oldest or tallest on record. But its discovery sheds new light on the evolution of these animals from flying birds to adept swimmers with flipper-like wings. The giant penguin differed from its modern relatives in several respects: It probably had brown feathers, not black and white; it was less rotund; and it had a longer beak that it used to spear fish. Giant penguins likely had few predators after the demise of dinosaurs and large sea reptiles in the previous era, but the rise of marine mammals such as whales and seals may have contributed to its extinction about 20 million years ago. Researchers now hope they can unearth even older fossils. “What would be cool,” lead author Gerald Mayr tells The New York Times, “would be to have a flying ancestor of penguins.”
1-4-18 Opioids that hit different brain target could be less addictive
Researchers have determined how morphine derivatives bind to the kappa opioid receptor, which should enable safer painkillers to be developed. New opioid drugs with less addictive potential could be on the way thanks to a study revealing how morphine derivatives bind to a receptor. Opioid painkillers act on several receptors in the brain. Most of their effects are brought about through the mu opioid receptor, but this pathway is associated with severe side effects, including physical dependence and suppression of breathing, which can be fatal. Over 50,000 deaths were attributed to opioids in the US in 2016. Another subtype, the kappa opioid receptor, can also reduce pain. Drugs that target it selectively don’t seem to be rewarding and addictive, but they have other severe side effects, like types of depression and hallucinations. Daniel Wacker at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and colleagues used X-ray crystallography to examine the structure of the kappa receptor bound to a morphine derivative, revealing which parts of the protein are important for its activation.
1-4-18 ‘Thrill-seeking’ genes could help birds escape climate change
Some birds may escape extinction if their genes favour exploring newer, more hospitable habitats. Study of yellow warblers across North America suggests birds may be better able to adapt to global warming if their genes favour exploring newer, more hospitable habitats. Should I stay or should I go? That’s the question facing all wildlife when climate change makes home territory unsuitable. A study has now found that having variants of two novelty-seeking genes might help some warblers survive by making lifesaving migration more attractive to them than to peers who risk local extinction by staying put. Both genes, called DRD4 and DEAF1, have already been linked with novelty-seeking in people, fish and other birds. After screening DNA from 229 yellow warblers in 21 diverse populations spread throughout North America, researchers led by Rachael Bay of the University of California at Los Angeles identified the pair of genes as having the strongest effect on survival. The variants, identified through a DNA-marker on chromosome 5, were least common in declining populations already threatened by climate change, such as the drought-ravaged Rocky Mountains in the western US. “If their finding stands up that there are two specific genes associated with migration and novelty-seeking behaviour, it will be a big step forward in understanding adaption to climate change,” comments Marcel Visser of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
1-3-18 Luck of the devil: How a Tasmanian icon is outwitting cancer
A freakish infectious cancer has brought Tasmanian devils to the brink of extinction, but the pugnacious marsupial is evolving rapidly as it fights for survival. TWO decades ago, at the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, a single cell near the whiskers of a Tasmanian devil mutated and turned cancerous. That animal was bitten in the face by another devil, which was then bitten by another, and the cancer has been spreading ever since. It has taken a once-common species to the brink of extinction. To date, the contagious cancer known as devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) has annihilated 85 per cent of the population. There may be fewer than 20,000 Tasmanian devils left in the wild. Worse still, the species has been hit by another deadly disease. Yet these animals are living up to their feisty reputation. With a combination of remarkably rapid evolution and some groundbreaking work by conservationists, they seem determined to survive. Tasmanian devils once roamed widely across Australia. But when dingoes were introduced to the mainland at least 4000 years ago, those living there were probably hunted to oblivion, along with their relatives, Tasmanian tigers. Consequently, Tasmania is now the sole residence of the world’s largest living meat-eating marsupial. The devils have attained a sort of celebrity status there, with their likeness gracing coins, sports jerseys and even beer labels.
1-3-18 NHS is switching to cheaper mimics of expensive cancer drugs
Biological drugs like some antibodies used to fight cancer are difficult to make. The NHS is now turning to cheaper alternatives, but some doctors fear they won’t work as well. BIOLOGICAL drugs are the new darlings of medicine. In recent years, they have doubled treatment rates for several cancers, arthritis and Crohn’s disease. But these medicines, which are large, complex molecules produced by living cells, carry hefty price tags, and now comprise eight of the world’s top 10 money-spinning drugs. A one-year course of the biological breast cancer drug trastuzumab (sold as Herceptin), for example, costs $50,000. In the UK, biologics have contributed to a 29 per cent rise in National Health Service spending on drugs since 2010. That’s why, starting this year, the NHS plans to substitute all brand-name biologics for cheaper generic versions, hoping to cut costs by up to 70 per cent. Some doctors are worried these cheaper copies won’t work as well or as safely, saying that competing firms won’t be able to perfectly replicate complex biologics. Are these fears justified or simply big pharma scaremongering? Because biologics are made by cells, they are tricky to copy. Trastuzumab, for instance, is a multichained protein secreted by Chinese hamster ovary cells. Different cell batches and even temperature and light can subtly alter the product. So unlike chemical drugs such as aspirin, generic biologics, termed biosimilars, aren’t exact copies. “Whereas aspirin is like a bicycle – it doesn’t have many parts and is easy to copy – a biological drug is more like a jetplane,” says Gregory Moore at Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne.
1-3-18 These disease-fighting bacteria produce echoes detectable by ultrasound
The technique could help scientists verify if bacterial treatments for some cancers, gut illnesses are working. Ultrasound can now track bacteria in the body like sonar detects submarines. For the first time, researchers have genetically modified microbes to form gas-filled pouches that scatter sound waves to produce ultrasound signals. When these bacteria are placed inside an animal, an ultrasound detector can pick up those signals and reveal the microbes’ location, much like sonar waves bouncing off ships at sea, explains study coauthor Mikhail Shapiro, a chemical engineer at Caltech. This technique, described in the Jan. 4 Nature, could help researchers more closely monitor microbes used to seek and destroy tumors or treat gut diseases (SN: 11/1/14, p. 18).
1-3-18 A daily blast of sound and electrical pulses may tame tinnitus
A new technique to tackle the phantom noises of tinnitus brought total relief for some patients and eased symptoms in half those who tried it. Peace at last. A new treatment has shown promise for taming tinnitus, a ringing or grating sound which affects one in 10 people. Existing treatments are limited to behavioural programmes that help patients better tolerate the condition or to drastic and risky surgery involving electrical implants, such as deep brain stimulation. The new treatment disrupts synchronised brain signals thought to be responsible for the unwanted ringing. It does this by feeding pulses of sound into a patient’s ear and alternating, a moment later, with mild electrical pulses to the neck and face. A portable device delivers the sound through earphones and the pulses to electrodes taped to the skin. In a trial, 20 patients with somatic tinnitus, a common form, used the device for 30 minutes a day for a month. All 20 also unknowingly trialled a control sham treatment where they only received sound signals. The sham treatment made no difference. With the real treatment, two patients reported that symptoms disappeared completely. Eleven others said the volume or pitch of the unwanted sounds waned and became less harsh. Loudness fell on average by 15 decibels from a baseline of 54 decibels. A limitation is that the only beneficiaries may be patients who are already able to ease symptoms through physical actions such as clenching their jaws or flexing their necks, movements that can then help determine the best position for the electrodes.
1-3-18 Baby skeleton from Alaska reveals origins of Native Americans
DNA from an infant girl who died 11,500 years ago reveals where America’s first human settlers came from and when they arrived. She probably died in her first year. But the skeleton of an infant girl who lived in Alaska 11,500 years ago has yielded tantalising new evidence for how and when people first colonised America. It reinforces a long-standing idea that the first settlers came from Siberia, across what was then a land bridge. The girl’s skeleton was recovered in 2013 from the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. It has now yielded enough intact DNA for what remained of her whole genome to be sequenced. Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues compared it with genomes from 167 modern populations, as well as other ancient genomes. The team built a family tree showing how the populations were related. This revealed that the girl was part of the first known lineage from which all Native Americans originated. “It’s the oldest Native American group we have evidence for so far,” says Willerslev. The family tree suggests that the girl’s lineage originated in Siberia around 34,000 years ago, at which point they gradually stopped mating with other native Siberians. Around 25,000 years ago, the group acquired new genetic input from proto-Europeans. The resulting people were the ancestors of all today’s Native Americans. Around the same time, some of these people arrived in Beringia: a large region spanning the north-east corner of what is now Russia and modern Alaska. At the time, sea levels were lower and North America was connected to Asia at this point.
1-3-18 Alaskan infant's DNA tells story of 'first Americans'
The 11,500-year-old remains of an infant girl from Alaska have shed new light on the peopling of the Americas. Genetic analysis of the child, allied to other data, indicates she belonged to a previously unknown, ancient group. Scientists say what they have learnt from her DNA strongly supports the idea that a single wave of migrants moved into the continent from Siberia just over 20,000 years ago. Lower sea-levels back then would have created dry land in the Bering Strait. It would have submerged again only as northern ice sheets melted and retreated. The pioneering settlers became the ancestors of all today's Native Americans, say Prof Eske Willerslev and colleagues. His team has published its genetics assessment in the journal Nature. The skeleton of the six-week-old infant was unearthed at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in 2013. "These are the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska, but what is particularly interesting here is that this individual belonged to a population of humans that we have never seen before," explained Prof Willerslev, who is affiliated to the universities of Copenhagen and Cambridge. "It's a population that is most closely related to modern Native Americans but is still distantly related to them. So, you can say she comes from the earliest, or most original, Native American group - the first Native American group that diversified. "And that means she can tell us about the ancestors of all Native Americans," he told BBC News. Scientists study the history of ancient populations by analysing the mutations, or small errors, that accumulate in DNA down through the generations. These patterns, when combined with demographic modelling, make it possible to draw connections between different groups of people over time.
1-3-18 Can listening to a low hum destroy Alzheimer’s brain plaques?
Flickering light, low sounds and vibrating pads are all being tried out in people with Alzheimer’s after promising research in mice. LISTENING to low-pitched noise seems to induce high-speed brainwaves that break down protein plaques in the brain linked with Alzheimer’s. The approach has had promising results in mice and is now being tested in people with the condition. Brainwaves are the result of large networks of brain cells firing rhythmically and in synchrony. Much about their function is unclear, but measuring these waves via electrodes on the scalp tells us that their frequency tends to reflect how awake and alert we feel. Brainwaves are slowest during deep sleep, and faster when we’re awake and relaxed. The fastest brainwaves are called gamma waves, and they cycle at around 40 times a second, or 40 hertz, when we are concentrating, making decisions and using our memory. People with Alzheimer’s disease often produce fewer gamma waves, prompting researchers to experiment with ways of inducing this type of brain activity. Last year, Li-Huei Tsai’s group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that exposing mice to a light flickering at a frequency of 40 hertz induces gamma waves in the part of the brain that processes information from the eyes, the visual cortex. When they tried the light treatment for 1 hour a day in mice genetically altered to develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, they found that this reduced deposits of amyloid and tau proteins – key features of Alzheimer’s disease.
1-2-18 Pandemics past: Seven times flu has become a mass killer
100 years ago, a global flu pandemic claimed the lives of up to 5 per cent of humanity. It’s not the only time the virus has taken on a new, far deadlier form. Winter flu breaks out every year because small mutations in the flu virus let it dodge antibodies we made to protect us from the last flu we got. It isn’t totally different from that last flu, so we are partly immune, and the infection may be mild. But every now and then an influenza A virus breaks out carrying surface proteins that are very different. This “pandemic” flu spreads like wildfire regardless of the season – and often more, and younger, people die. Survivors do gain some immunity for next time, so the killer settles down and becomes regular seasonal flu, drifting along until the next pandemic flu surfaces.
- 1510: The first record likely to have been of a flu pandemic: “gasping oppression” with cough, fever and difficulty breathing rapidly spread across Europe after reportedly arriving from Asia via Africa
- 1889-1890 Asiatic or Russian flu: The first pandemic to be spread faster by railways and steamships was recorded in St Petersburg in December 1889.
- 1918-1920 Spanish flu: The most deadly known pandemic flu, and the earliest to have its genome sequenced, it was called Spanish only because Spanish newspapers, free of wartime censorship, reported it first.
- 1957-1958 Asian flu: Flu carries its 11 genes in eight chunks of RNA. When a host is infected by two strains of flu, it can cough out hybrid viruses with chunks from both.
- 1968-1969 Hong Kong flu: This virus probably arose in then-secretive China, but was first reported to the world by UK newspaper The Times after it broke out in Hong Kong.
- 1977 Russian or red flu: A new virus affecting people under 25 appeared in Russia in November 1977. But, as reported by New Scientist, China announced it had isolated the virus the previous March.
- 2009 Swine flu: The 1918 pandemic virus persisted in pigs and in 1998 hybridised with other kinds of flu and spread like wildfire through US pigs, evolving rapidly.
1-2-18 The epidemic on the way: Why winter flu is so bad this year
Flu is an underestimated killer, taking more than a million lives around the globe annually. This time, the mutated virus seems to be hitting even harder. Flu is unique among human diseases. It circulates constantly in cool, dry areas of east Asia, conditions the virus prefers, but when temperatures drop during the northern and southern winters, it breaks out and begins a tour of the relevant hemisphere. Because it spreads from person to person efficiently in exhaled droplets, and can be picked up from contaminated surfaces, nearly everyone is exposed. And unlike, say, measles, having flu once doesn’t make you immune to catching it. The virus is uniquely talented at dodging our immune systems. The big haemagglutinin protein on its surface gets most of your immune system’s attention, and this protein constantly mutates at seven hotspots. Every few years it racks up such a number of mutations that many antibodies you made to your last infection don’t recognise the virus, and you get sick again. You still have some immunity to kinds of flu that are only a little different from viruses you have seen before, which is why much winter flu isn’t as severe as flu can be. The strains best able to evade this kind of prior immunity dominate the annual epidemic in each hemisphere, so we only need one vaccine per season – but a new one each year. A record number of flu strains are currently circulating, two in the influenza B group and two influenza A strains, H1N1 and H3N2. H3N2 is the real problem. Our strongest immunity is to the first kind of flu we caught. Between 1918 and 1968, no H3N2 viruses circulated as winter flu, so people born before 1968 have weaker immunity to it.
1-2-18 Stopping the spread: What you can do to prevent flu
We will all be exposed to flu this winter, but not all of us will get sick. The best way to minimise the risk is clear – although it’s a far from perfect solution. Flu’s familiarity belies its deadliness. This year marks the centenary of the deadliest pandemic of recent years, the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed up to 100 million, some 5 per cent of humanity at the time. The way flu kills directly is mostly by causing viral pneumonia, a deep infection that damages the lungs’ oxygen-absorbing membranes. Pneumonia can also happen indirectly if the flu virus wipes out immune cells that normally keep bacteria in your lungs at bay, triggering a bacterial infection. Compromised immune systems, for example in elderly people and pregnant women, allow the virus to replicate more freely and make flu more dangerous. Especially in elderly people flu can also cause excessive levels of inflammation, normally a broad immune defence against germs. Each year, right after flu season, there is a second, broadly equal wave of deaths from inflammation-triggered conditions such as heart attack and stroke. Chronic conditions that boost inflammation such as obesity can make flu more dangerous. Pneumonia linked to flu is the fourth biggest killer of women in the UK, and the sixth biggest killer of men (see diagram). According to the first worldwide direct estimate, published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2017, the yearly toll is up to 650,000 just from lung disease, and 1.3 million from all causes – twice what we thought. “If we had another vaccine-preventable virus killing that many people we’d be outraged,” says Bram Palache of FluPal Consultancy in Amsterdam.
1-2-18 Jab in the dark: Why we don’t have a universal flu vaccine
This year’s flu jab is working, but not working well – throwing a spotlight on the commercial and other factors that prevent us developing something better. Nearly all flu vaccines are made of viruses grown in hens’ eggs, a process dating from the 1940s that takes between six and eight months. One egg is inoculated with a flu virus that grows well in eggs and has been equipped with the H and N proteins from a virus strain thought likely to circulate next winter. The world has the capacity to make 1.5 billion doses of vaccine each protecting against three or four strains, and so each requiring three to four eggs. Vaccines this year contain both the circulating A strains, and one or both of the Bs. Actual production varies with predicted demand. This process means virologists must predict months in advance which viruses will circulate so companies can grow the right vaccines. Sometimes they get it wrong, although this year the vaccine virus was a good match, says Ian Barr of the University of Melbourne. There is still a problem, though. A review last year found that the main, injected vaccine, made of killed viruses, protected only 33 per cent of recipients against H3N2 – which is the dominant strain this year. This fell to 24 per cent in the over-65s. In the Australian winter just past, the vaccine protected only 10 per cent of recipients of any age from H3N2, and made no difference in elderly people, although it worked as well as usual against the other strains. The same vaccine is being used for the northern flu season.
1-2-18 Waiting for the big one: A new flu pandemic is a matter of time
At least two flu strains are only a few mutations away from developing deadly human-to-human transmission. So how do we minimise the impact? The Spanish flu of 1918 remains the worst flu pandemic on record, but there have been several milder ones since (see chart, below). A pandemic is a global epidemic and, in theory, flu does that every year in the northern and southern winters. But with flu, the term is reserved for when an influenza A virus emerges that isn’t just a slightly mutated version of last winter’s flu, but a complete novelty, with surface proteins most people have no immunity to. Novel viruses are constantly evolving in the birds, pigs and other animals that also carry influenza A, and they can shuffle their genes with human strains, or just adapt to mammals directly. Virologists consider flu pandemics inevitable. The World Bank says a bad one “could cost $3 trillion… and cause misery, economic decline, and societal disruptions on a global scale“. Like winter flu, the impact of pandemic flu depends on both the virus’s abilities and people’s immunity. The swine flu that went pandemic in 2009 was already adapted to causing only relatively mild illness in mammals. It still killed some 300,000 people. For once, older people were better protected: many people over 52 had immunity thanks to a related winter flu that circulated before 1957. In 1918, many people over 71 were also protected, since a related winter virus seems to have circulated before 1847. But the Spanish flu was a bird flu that learned to transmit between mammals, and was equipped with fast gene-replicating enzymes that were adapted well to birds, but deadly in mammals. Young adults especially died in droves.
1-2-18 AI early diagnosis could save heart and cancer patients
Researchers at an Oxford hospital have developed artificial intelligence (AI) that can diagnose scans for heart disease and lung cancer. The systems will save billions of pounds by enabling the diseases to be picked up much earlier. The heart disease technology will start to be available to NHS hospitals for free this summer. The government's healthcare tsar, Sir John Bell, has told BBC News that AI could "save the NHS". "There is about £2.2bn spent on pathology services in the NHS. You may be able to reduce that by 50%. AI may be the thing that saves the NHS," he said. Currently cardiologists can tell from the timing of the heartbeat in scans if there is a problem. But even the best doctors get it wrong in one in five cases. Patients are either sent home and have a heart attack or they undergo an unnecessary operation. An artificial intelligence system developed at the John Radcliffe Hospital diagnoses heart scans much more accurately. It can pick up details in the scans that doctors can't see. It then gives a recommendation - positive - which means that it believes that there is a risk of the patient having a heart attack. The system has been tested in clinical trials in six cardiology units. The results are due to be published this year in a peer-reviewed journal after they have been checked by experts, but Prof Paul Leeson, a cardiologist who developed the system, says that the data indicates that the system has greatly outperformed his fellow heart specialists.
1-2-18 Jazz improvisers score high on creativity
Musicians trained to improvise responded more quickly to unusual chords and showed stronger creativity than others. Improvisation may give jazz artists a creative boost not seen among musicians more likely to stick to the score. Jazz musicians’ brains quickly embrace improvisational surprises, new research on the neural roots of creativity shows. Neuroscientist Emily Przysinda and colleagues at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., measured the creative aptitudes of 12 jazz improvisers, 12 classical musicians and 12 nonmusicians. The researchers first posed creativity challenges to the volunteers, such as listing every possible use for a paper clip. Volunteers then listened to three different kinds of chord progressions — common ones, some that were a bit off and some that went in wild directions — as the team recorded the subjects’ brain waves with an electroencephalogram. Afterward, volunteers rated how much they liked each progression. Jazz musicians, more so than the other participants, preferred the unexpected riffs, brain waves confirmed. And the improvisers’ faster and stronger neural responses showed that they were more attuned to unusual music and quickly engaged with it. Classical musicians’ and nonmusicians’ brains hadn’t yet figured out the surprising music by the time the jazz musicians had moved on, the researchers report in the December Brain and Cognition.
1-2-18 Brain organoids might be the future of cancer treatment
Could this be a new frontier in personalized medicine? In 30 years as an oncologist, Dr. Howard Fine estimates he has treated some 20,000 patients with glioblastomas, the most deadly form of brain cancer, "and almost all of them are dead." Of the 100 new glioblastoma patients he saw last month, "five years from now, only three will be alive," he said. During a conversation recently in his office at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, Fine rattled off more dismal stats, like the many failed clinical trials of experimental drugs for glioblastoma; like the paltry increase in life expectancy for people with glioblastoma from 12 months in 1990 to 15 today; like the stupid (in hindsight) assumptions about how glioblastomas grow and how to study them in mice. Then Fine, 59, paused for several long seconds. "My stance as an old man in this field is, someone has to start doing something different," he said. He thinks the "something different" just might be human micro-brains. In the barely three years since biologists discovered how to create these "brain organoids," the lentil-sized structures have taken neuroscience by storm. Starting with a recipe developed by scientists in Austria, researchers from Japan and China to Europe and North America are seeding lab dishes with human stem cells, adding special molecules — many labs, like chili chefs, have their own secret blends — that make the stem cells morph into a variety of brain cells. They then put the dishes into special chambers called bioreactors that keep them warm and in gentle motion reminiscent of a womb, encouraging the cells to form blobs with working neurons and many other features of a full-size human brain.
1-1-18 How to make even your toughest new year’s resolutions stick
Our annual vows to ditch bad habits rarely manage to change behaviour, but why? Frank Swain examines how to make a new you this year. WE TRADITIONALLY greet the new year to the strains of Auld Lang Syne, and with rash promises of self-improvement, such as giving up alcohol for a month. I’m no different – over the last few years I’ve set myself new year’s resolutions with mixed results. Some, like my oath to visit the gym 100 times over the course of the year, were successful. Others, such as keeping on top of my taxes, were not. In fact, only 10 per cent of resolutions made in January will survive until December. Why do so many of us struggle to keep promises to ourselves? And can we do better? “As a species we tend to be biased to overconfidence and optimism,” says Keith O’ Brien at the Centre for Behaviour Change, University College London. “Come January, people tend to tick off all the things they want to do, and as a result try to do too much.” So what separates the successful from the rest of us? O’Brien says that setting goals without planning how you will achieve them is a recipe for failure. “If you have a goal for January 1st, you should prepare in advance with smaller changes,” he says, such as removing unhealthy snacks from the house if you want to give up eating junk food. That’s because willpower is like a muscle, and exercising it can give you a better chance of resisting the temptation to eat that second biscuit. Research also shows those who prepare for the worst are more successful in the long run. So always have a backup plan – if you know you can’t go to the gym in the morning, schedule an evening workout in advance.