128 Evolution News Articles
for March 2018
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3-30-18 The science behind cancer warnings on coffee is murky at best
Experts say there is ‘no firm evidence’ that drinking coffee comes with a carcinogenic risk. Californians will soon be taking their coffee with cream and a cancer warning, after a court ruled that the state’s retailers must label coffee as containing a carcinogen. The decision followed an eight-year legal battle, which boiled down to a question that has plagued coffee drinkers and scientists alike: Is drinking coffee healthy, or not? The judge’s ruling, issued Wednesday, says that Starbucks and other coffee sellers failed to show that the health benefits of the brew, which include lowering heart disease, outweigh its cancer risk. But do the new warnings mean you should put your mug down? Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about coffee’s health effects, both good and bad. When coffee beans are roasted, the compound acrylamide is produced as a by-product. “Acrylamide is ubiquitous in our food chain. It’s a product of high heat and prolonged cooking, particularly with carbohydrates,” says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. It’s found in fried potatoes, for example, as well as in cigarette smoke and some products such as adhesives. “It’s a chemical to which we have frequent exposure.” Some studies have found an increased cancer risk in mice and rats who were fed acrylamide, but those studies used doses between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than levels that people would be exposed to in food. There have not been strong studies in humans to demonstrate the carcinogenicity of acrylamide.
3-30-18 Coffee sold in California must carry cancer warning, judge rules
Coffee sold in California must carry a cancer warning, a court has ruled. The judge in Los Angeles said Starbucks and about 90 other coffee sellers had failed to warn customers about a potentially toxic compound that is produced during the roasting process. The firms were sued by a California-based non profit-group over the chemical acrylamide. The group argued that as acrylamide is regarded as carcinogenic under state law, it should be sold with a warning. Ruling in favour of the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said the companies should not be exempt from the law, as they had failed to prove that the "consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health". The companies have until 10 April to appeal the decision. Acrylamide is created when starchy foods are roasted, grilled or fried for long periods at high temperatures. Studies in animals found that the chemical causes tumours. This suggests that it also has the potential to cause cancer in humans. Scientists believe that there should be a margin of exposure of 10,000 or higher between an average adult's intake of acrylamide and the lowest dose which could cause adverse effects. But at the moment the numbers are 425 for the average adult and 50 for the highest consuming toddlers, making it a slight public health concern, UK and European food safety experts say.
3-30-18 GM worms make a super-silk completely unknown in nature
Thanks to a spot of genetic hacking, silkworms can make a new form of silk not found in nature that includes a synthetic amino acid. It could be used in medicine. Silkworms have had their genetic code hacked, allowing them to create a new kind of silk not found in nature. The hacking goes beyond the usual forms of genetic modification, by fundamentally altering the nature of the silk protein the animal makes. And unlike previous attempts at this, it will work on an industrial scale. “The silkworm is the first ever industrially useful animal engineered to incorporate synthetic amino acids,” says Hidetoshi Teramoto of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Japan, whose team carried out the work. A few other animals have been modified in similar ways, but only for research purposes. Many groups are developing medical implants made of silk, such as scaffolds on which replacement organs could grow. The advantage of silk is that it doesn’t cause immune reactions when implanted in the body, and is already approved for medical use. What’s more, silk proteins can be turned into transparent films, sponges and even solid shapes. For instance, a company called Orthox is testing a knee cartilage replacement made from silk protein. But while the inertness of silk proteins is an advantage for replacing cartilage, it can be a problem for others, says Neil Thomas of the University of Nottingham in the UK. For instance, it is hard for cells to attach themselves to silk.
3-30-18 How big data changed the way we look at the past
The field of paleontology has been drastically changed by the modern world. In 1981, when I was 9 years old, my father took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although I had to squint my eyes during some of the scary scenes, I loved it — in particular because I was fairly sure that Harrison Ford's character was based on my dad. My father was a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and I'd gone on several field trips with him to the Rocky Mountains, where he seemed to transform into a rock-hammer-wielding superhero. That illusion was shattered some years later when I figured out what he actually did: Far from spending his time climbing dangerous cliffs and digging up dinosaurs, Jack Sepkoski spent most of his career in front of a computer, building what would become the first comprehensive database on the fossil record of life. The analysis that he and his colleagues performed revealed new understandings of phenomena such as diversification and extinction, and changed the way that paleontologists work. But he was about as different from Indiana Jones as you can get. The intertwining tales of my father and his discipline contain lessons for the current era of algorithmic analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), and points to the value-laden way in which we "see" data. My dad was part of a group of innovators in paleontology who identified as "paleobiologists" — meaning that they approached their science not as a branch of geology, but rather as the study of the biology and evolution of past life. Since Charles Darwin's time, paleontology — especially the study of the marine invertebrates that make up most of the record — involved descriptive tasks such as classifying or correlating fossils with layers of the Earth (known as stratigraphy). Some invertebrate paleontologists studied evolution, too, but often these studies were regarded by evolutionary biologists and geneticists as little more than "stamp collecting."
3-29-18 Exercise slows aging
Exercise dramatically slows the aging process, helping people look and feel decades younger, new research suggests. British scientists compared a group of 125 avid cyclists between 55 and 79 years old with a group of inactive older people and younger adults in their 20s and 30s. They found those who routinely biked long distances had more muscle mass, less body fat, and healthier cholesterol levels than their sedentary peers. The cyclists also had the memory, balance, and immune system function of the adults roughly half their age. As people grow older, their bodies make fewer and fewer T cells, which help protect against infection. Researchers found, however, that the active older adults were still making as many T cells as the people in their 20s, potentially reducing their risk for infections, cancer, and auto-immune diseases, NBCNews.com reports. With people living longer, study author Janet Lord says, exercise can help keep you healthy and active into your 80s. “We hope that this will really encourage adults to stay as physically active as they can,” she said.
3-29-18 Drowsiness linked to dementia
Persistent daytime drowsiness may be a warning sign for Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests. During sleep, the brain clears away clumps of a sticky protein linked to dementia, called amyloid. It’s well known that people with Alzheimer’s often have trouble sleeping. To examine the link between amyloid deposits and sleep, Mayo Clinic researchers surveyed 283 older people without dementia about their sleep habits and monitored their brains for amyloid buildup over a period of seven years. They found those who reported trouble sleeping, with frequent daytime sleepiness, were more likely to show rapid amyloid plaque accumulation than those who didn’t. Study author Prashanthi Vemuri tells Time?.com that the results highlight the importance of proper sleep. “It can prevent amyloid, which is one of the primary proteins underlying Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
3-29-18 Recession’s health toll
Many Americans lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings during the Great Recession, and new research indicates such economic stress can make people physically sick. Between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate doubled from 5 percent to 10 percent and home prices plummeted about 30 percent, on average. Researchers analyzed a long-running heart study to determine how the country’s economic woes affected American health. After examining data collected on 4,600 middle-aged and older adults between 2000 and 2012, they found the recession triggered dramatic increases in blood pressure and blood sugar levels, reports The Washington Post. The study also shows that many people stopped taking their medication during the recession—likely because they could no longer afford it or had lost their insurance. Study author Teresa Seeman warns that economic stress, political volatility, and international conflict all may contribute to a range of chronic health issues. “It will be interesting to see what the effect will be of all the upheaval we’re going through now,” Seeman says.
3-29-18 Toxins from the world’s longest animal can kill cockroaches
The stuff in this sea worm’s slime also took out invasive green crabs. Bootlace worms with spooky-stretchy bodies secrete a family of toxins new to scientists. These compounds might inspire novel ways attack pests such as cockroaches. Tests first identified the toxins in mucus coating a bootlace species that holds the record as the world’s longest animal, says pharmacognosist Ulf Göransson of Uppsala University in Sweden. This champion marine worm (Lineus longissimus) can stretch up to 55 meters, longer than an Olympic-sized pool, and coats itself in mucus smelling a bit like iron or sewage. That goo holds small toxic proteins, now dubbed nemertides, that are also found in 16 other bootlace worm species, Göransson and colleagues write March 22 in Scientific Reports. The newly described nemertides attack tiny channels in cell walls that control the amount of sodium flowing in and out of the cell. Much vital cell business, such as communications between nerves, depends on the right flux through these voltage-gated sodium channels, as they’re called. Injections of small amounts of one of these nemertides permanently paralyzed or killed invasive green crabs (Carcinus maenas) and young cockroaches (Blattella germanica).
3-29-18 DNA sequencing of babies is here: Should it be available to all?
A new bioethics report suggests restricting genomic screening of newborn children. Should it be tightly controlled, wonders Alex Pearlman. Should the advent of cheap and fast DNA sequencing mean parents get the right to unearth the genetic secrets of their children? The Nuffield Council on Bioethics this week is offering guidance on this question. It released a report on the ethics of genome screening for newborn babies. The council, whose reports often influence biomedical policy around the world, recognised that genome sequencing for babies can be provided on the UK’s National Health Service, and may work in tandem with the country’s 100,000 genomes project to give insights on links between DNA and disease. These are excellent steps forward for diagnosis and early treatment for ill babies and children. However, the council emphasised that use should be for serious childhood illnesses, laying out a more conservative view for going further. It said that genomic tests should not be used to screen babies for diseases of later life or for seemingly healthy children, even on the private market. Screening should only be done for conditions that are “serious and treatable”, and only in those cases where there is evidence that genome screening will “reduce ill-health or death”. This report is necessary because whole-genome sequencing has become fast and inexpensive, costing only about $1000, a fraction of what it used to. The process uses a blood or saliva sample, through which we can interpret a person’s genetic code to identify markers for disease.
3-29-18 Here’s how an overdose shuts down your body.
U.S. deaths from opioid overdoses are mounting with breathtaking speed. These powerful drugs — including heroin, morphine and fentanyl — can relieve pain and evoke intense feelings of pleasure. But the same drugs, whether prescribed by a doctor or bought on the street, can quickly turn deadly by simultaneously messing with crucial systems in the body. Among the many rapid effects that opioids have on the body, one is particularly lethal: Breathing is restricted. “Opioids kill people by slowing the rate of breathing and the depth of breathing,” says medical toxicologist and emergency physician Andrew Stolbach of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Breathing delivers fresh oxygen to the body’s cells and eliminates carbon dioxide. Opioids can interfere with that life-sustaining process in multiple, dangerous ways. In the brain stem, regions called the medulla and the pons control the depth and rate of breathing. Both are loaded with opioid receptors — proteins that sit on the surface of cells and grab onto opioids. Upon activating, the receptors change the behavior of cells in ways that can slow or even stop breathing. Opioid receptors have also been found in areas of the brain that regulate voluntary breathing — when you feel the need to take in a deep swallow of air, you do it. So, opioids might depress breathing by working directly on areas of the brain outside the brain stem.
3-29-18 Dog brain scans show if they are looking at a happy or sad face
Dogs can recognise different human facial expressions, like happy or sad, and now a simple brain scan can reveal which expression a dog is looking at. It’s not exactly reading a dog’s mind, but it’s at least having a sneak peek. Researchers can now work out what a dog is looking at, just by examining a scan of its brain. Over the last few years researchers have shown what dog owners long suspected: our furry friends can recognise human facial expressions. For instance, a 2015 study showed that dogs know the difference between a happy face and an angry face (Current Biology, doi.org/f64zrj). Now Laura Verónica Cuaya and her colleagues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City have investigated how they do it. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of four border collies, who had been trained to sit still in the scanner. The dogs were shown four facial expressions – happy, sad, angry or fearful – made by humans unknown to them, and the fMRI recorded their brain patterns. By looking at distributed patterns of activity across the whole brain, the researchers could tell what facial expression each dog had seen. A computer algorithm was able to spot small sites of activity – representing clusters of firing neurons – that appeared in certain locations, depending on what human emotion the dogs had seen. It was therefore possible to predict what emotion the dogs had seen just by looking at this brain activity. The find mirrors a recent study of the human brain. Earlier this year, Japanese researchers revealed an AI that could figure out what image a person was looking at, just by examining a scan of their brain.
3-29-18 Why cracking your knuckles can be so noisy
The sound comes from the partial collapse of bubbles in joint fluid, study suggests. Scientists disagree over why cracking your knuckles makes noise. Now, a new mathematical explanation suggests the sound results from the partial collapse of tiny gas bubbles in the joints’ fluid. Most explanations of knuckle noise involve bubbles, which form under the low pressures induced by finger manipulations that separate the joint. While some studies pinpoint a bubble’s implosion as the sound’s source, a paper in 2015 showed that the bubbles don’t fully implode. Instead, they persist in the joints up to 20 minutes after cracking, suggesting it’s not the bubble’s collapse that creates noise, but its formation (SN: 5/16/15, p. 16). But it wasn’t clear how a bubble’s debut could make sounds that are audible across a room. So two engineers from Stanford University and École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, took another crack at solving the mystery. The sound may come from bubbles that collapse only partway, the two researchers report March 29 in Scientific Reports. A mathematical simulation of a partial bubble collapse explained both the dominant frequency of the sound and its volume. That finding would also explain why bubbles have been observed sticking around in the fluid.
3-29-18 Scientists explain the sound of knuckle cracking
Scientists have turned their attention to investigating that most annoying of human habits - the sound made when you crack your knuckles. The characteristic pop can be explained by three mathematical equations, say researchers in the US and France. Their model confirms the idea that the cracking sound is due to tiny bubbles collapsing in the fluid of the joint as the pressure changes. Surprisingly, perhaps, the phenomenon has been debated for around a century. Science student Vineeth Chandran Suja was cracking his knuckles in class in France when he decided to investigate. He developed a series of equations with his lecturer, Dr Abdul Barakat of École polytechnique, to explain the typical sound that accompanies the release of the joint between the fingers and the hand bones. "The first equation describes the pressure variations inside our joint when we crack our knuckles," he told BBC News. "The second equation is a well-known equation which describes the size variations of bubbles in response to pressure variations. "And the third equation that we wrote down was coupling the size variation of the bubbles to ones that produce sounds." The equations make up a complete mathematical model that describes the sound of knuckle cracking, said Chandran Suja, who is now a postgraduate student at Stanford University in California. "When we crack our knuckles we're actually pulling apart our joints," he explained. "And when we do that the pressure goes down. Bubbles appear in the fluid, which is lubricating the joint - the synovial fluid. "During the process of knuckle cracking there are pressure variations in the joint which causes the size of the bubbles to fluctuate extremely fast, and this leads to sound, which we associate with knuckle cracking."
3-29-18 Yorkshire’s Jurassic World: David Attenborough opens new show
There’s more to the Jurassic than lumbering dinosaurs – try a whole world of giant sea reptiles and specimens from a time Yorkshire was positively tropical. “They say that the Jurassic Coast is in the south – we like to say it is in Yorkshire,” says Andy Woods, senior curator of the Yorkshire Museum and a naturalised Yorkshireman. “We’ve got some of the best Jurassic geology in the country.” You’d expect a bit of regional one-upmanship here, and you get it in spades (which are called spades), but it isn’t an empty boast as a new exhibition called Yorkshire’s Jurassic World opens in York. The county’s contribution to the geology and palaeontology of the Jurassic era is at least as important as that of the more storied deposits around Dorset. The geology is essentially the same – Jurassic rocks are found in a diagonal band across the country from Lyme Regis to Redcar – and the fossils are just as good. During the Jurassic period, 201 to 145 million years ago, what is now Britain was much farther south, around the latitude of today’s north Africa. The global climate was several degrees warmer and Yorkshire was tropical. Early on in the period it was at the bottom of a deep sea; 25 million years later it was thrust upwards by plate tectonics to become a lush, riverine landscape roamed by dinosaurs. At the end of the period it was a shallow coral reef. All three ecosystems left abundant sedimentary rocks stuffed with fossils, the best of which are on display at an excellent new exhibition – important enough for David Attenborough to make a day trip from London to open it.
3-29-18 Syncing our brain activity may help us interact with each other
When monkeys interact, neurons in their brains show the same activity patterns. We may be able to harness this synchronisation to learn to work together better. It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Monkeys synchronise their brain activity during social interactions, possibly helping them to learn from each other. Understanding how this might work in humans could help groups of people work together more efficiently. To study brain activity in social situations, Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University Medical Centre, in Durham, North Carolina and his colleagues developed a wireless system that can record the neuronal activity from two monkey brains simultaneously. During the experiment, one monkey was propelled in an electric wheelchair towards a fruity treat, while a second monkey sat across the room and watched. This monkey was incentivised to pay attention – the more closely he observed the moving monkey, the more treats he was given. When the passenger monkey reached the fruit dispenser, the observer received a large juice reward. The team recorded brain activity from the motor cortex – the region responsible for movement – in both monkeys. They repeated the experiment with various pair combinations of three monkeys. They found that, as the first monkey travelled across the room under the gaze of the second monkey, specific groups of neurons in the motor cortex showed the same pattern of activity at the same time in both monkey’s brains.
3-28-18 Brain waves of concertgoers sync up at shows
Music mind meld really happens. Getting your groove on solo with headphones on might be your jam, but it can’t compare with a live concert. Just ask your brain. When people watch live music together, their brains waves synchronize, and this brain bonding is linked with having a better time. The new findings, reported March 27 at a Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting, are a reminder that humans are social creatures. In western cultures, performing music is generally reserved for the tunefully talented, but this hasn’t been true through much of human history. “Music is typically linked with ritual and in most cultures is associated with dance,” said neuroscientist Jessica Grahn of Western University in London, Canada. “It’s a way to have social participation.” Study participants were split into groups of 20 and experienced music in one of three ways. Some watched a live concert with a large audience, some watched a recording of the concert with a large audience, and some watched the recording with only a few other people. Each person wore EEG caps, headwear covered with electrodes that measure the collective behavior of the brain’s nerve cells. The musicians played an original song they wrote for the study. The delta brain waves of audience members who watched the music live were more synchronized than those of people in the other two groups.
3-28-18 The future of HIV
People all over the world are receiving effective HIV treatments and more treatment options are in the pipeline. Now, global health organisations want to end the AIDS epidemic. IN 2015, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) launched an ambitious target: to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. The aim is that no child will be born with HIV and anybody already infected will be treated with medicines that give the best opportunity for healthy living. This goal is in stark contrast to the early days of the epidemic, when the virus wreaked havoc. In the 1980s and 90s, an HIV infection was almost always fatal. But treatment has come a long way since then. Today, nearly 21 million people around the world receive life-saving antiretroviral therapies, which can reduce the amount of the virus in the blood to undetectable levels. And scientists have even greater ambitions: some are developing vaccines, others are formulating long-acting treatments and still more are working on a cure. “HIV has changed from a deadly disease to a manageable disease,” says Jens Lundgren at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who has been working on HIV care and research for the past 30 years. Until recently, HIV’s spread was rapid because it is easily transmitted via contact with infected blood and other body fluids. The most common routes of infection are through sex and shared needles. But the risk of transmission can now be substantially reduced with antiretroviral medicines. Bruce Richman, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2003, says the treatments have changed his life. “For much of the time I had HIV, I isolated myself and had a sense of fear and shame,” he says. “Because I had a fear of transmitting HIV, I feared getting close to romantic partners.”
3-28-18 Autoimmune disorder lupus may be triggered by body’s bacteria
Some of the bacteria that live in our bodies seem to kick-start the autoimmune disorder lupus. In the future, targeted antibiotics might help treat the condition. The bacteria living in and on our bodies don’t always work in our favour – some seem to provoke the autoimmune disease lupus. The finding suggests that targeted antibiotics might one day help treat the disorder. Disturbances in the body’s microbiome have already been linked to plenty of disorders, including autoimmune diseases, which occur when a person’s immune system starts to attack their own body. In people with lupus, this kind of attack often causes skin rashes, but can also damage other organs, such as the lungs, heart, brain and kidneys. “We don’t really know what causes lupus, but it is thought to be a combination of genetics, environment and hormones,” says Martin Kriegel at the Yale School of Medicine. Kriegel and his colleagues suspected the microbiome might play a role. Past research has found that, in the earliest stages of lupus, the immune system starts targeting a protein in the body called Ro60, which normally protects body tissues. Some strains of soil bacteria are known to make proteins very similar to Ro60. When Kriegel’s team looked at bacteria from the skin, nose and guts of people with and without lupus, they found that the body’s own microbiome also makes proteins similar to Ro60. In people with lupus, these proteins seemed to be triggering an immune response – but there was no such reaction in healthy people.
3-28-18 Live heart cells make this material shift color like a chameleon
The hydrogel-based strips change hues when contracting and expanding. To craft a new color-switching material, scientists have again taken inspiration from one of nature’s masters of disguise: the chameleon. Thin films made of heart cells and hydrogel change hues when the films shrink or stretch, much like chameleon skin. This material, described online March 28 in Science Robotics, could be used to test new medications or possibly to build camouflaging robots. The material is made of a paper-thin hydrogel sheet engraved with nanocrystal patterns, topped with a layer of living heart muscle cells from rats. These cells contract and expand — just as they would inside an actual rat heart to make it beat — causing the underlying hydrogel to shrink and stretch too. That movement changes the way light bounces off the etched crystal, making the material reflect more blue light when it contracts and more red light when it’s relaxed. This design is modeled after nanocrystals embedded in chameleon skin, which also reflect different colors of light when stretched (SN Online: 3/13/15).
3-28-18 Footprints put people on Canada’s west coast 13,000 years ago
29 fossil prints provide rare evidence of early New World settlers’ coastal travels. People who reached what’s now Canada’s Pacific coast around 13,000 years ago made some lasting impressions — with their feet. Beach excavations on Calvert Island, off British Columbia’s coast, revealed 29 human footprints preserved in clay-based sediment, says a team led by archaeologist Duncan McLaren. About 60 centimeters below the sandy surface, the deposits contained the footprints of at least three individuals, the Canada-based researchers report March 28 in PLOS ONE. Smudged remains of many more footprints surrounded these discoveries. Ancient people walking on the shoreline apparently trampled those footprints and distorted their shapes, the scientists say. Radiocarbon dating of bits of wood from shore pine trees found in the clay sediment narrowed the age of the footprints from 13,317 to 12,633 years old.
3-28-18 Earth had water even before the collision that made the moon
Comparing moon rocks to volcanic ones from the ocean floor shows that Earth’s water may have stuck around even through the giant impact that formed the moon. Earth may have had water for far longer than we thought. The planet may have had lakes and oceans even before the giant impact that created the moon, and it could have survived that colossal collision. Previously it was thought that most, or even all, of Earth’s ocean water was carried to the planet on comets and asteroids after the moon was formed. But Richard Greenwood at the Open University in Milton Keynes and his colleagues found that it might have already been here. Greenwood and his colleagues compared the oxygen composition of moon rocks brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts with that of volcanic rocks from the ocean floor. The presence of liquid water alters the amounts of different oxygen isotopes in the rock. So, if most of the water on Earth had arrived after the giant impact, the rocks should have distinctly different oxygen compositions. The moon rocks should show little sign of being altered by water. But Greenwood and his team detected only a small difference between the lunar and terrestrial rocks. This suggests that liquid water must have existed on Earth before its moon-forming collision with a body the size of Mars, which is thought to have occurred about 100 million years after the solar system formed. The researchers found that most of the water we have now may have already been here, and then between 5 and 30 per cent of it was brought later by asteroids and comets.
3-28-18 Australia's indigenous languages have one source, study says
Researchers in Australia say they have traced the country's indigenous languages back to a single, common tongue. The languages are all derived from a mother tongue, known as Proto-Australian, that was spoken about 10,000 years ago, according to a new study. Linguists have long debated the subject in Australia. More than 200 languages were spoken at the time of British settlement in 1788. The research, published in the Diachronica linguistics journal, is the first to prove that all of those languages came from the same family, said linguists at the University of Newcastle, Australia and Western Sydney University. "Until now, it was speculated that Australia was significantly more linguistically diverse than somewhere like Europe, because it had not been proven that all Australian languages actually stemmed from the same lineage," said Associate Prof Mark Harvey from the University of Newcastle, Australia. Although an estimated 120 indigenous languages still exist, only about 20 are actively spoken today, he said.
3-27-18 Maverick or monster? The controversial pioneer of brain zapping
In the 1950s, psychiatrist Robert Heath planted electrodes in people's brains to treat mental illness, creating a legacy that divides opinion to this day. IT’S like a scene from a classic horror movie. A man sits with his back to the camera, wires flowing from his scalp to an array of electrical equipment. The only noise is a rumbling, industrial sound. “Listen to this,” says another man in a white lab coat, who bears a passing resemblance to movie star Gregory Peck. “It sounds like a plane with its engines misfiring. This is the sound of a sick brain.” It is 1958 and TV network CBS has descended on Tulane University in New Orleans to broadcast about an experimental treatment for mental illness. Robert Heath, the man in the white coat, is the university’s chief of neurology and psychiatry, and he is explaining how he treats schizophrenia by implanting electrodes deep in people’s brains. He uses these to stimulate regions that display abnormal electrical activity – at the same time, inducing therapeutic pleasure. This is Heath at the top of his game. He has no idea that 15 years later he will become a scientific pariah accused of conducting exploitative “Nazi experiments”; nor that, today, when deep-brain stimulation (DBS) for treating mental conditions is a hot research area, his contribution will have been swept under the rug. Unfairly, in my view. After combing through archive documents and footage, and interviewing former colleagues and a patient of Heath’s, I realised that this pioneer of DBS deserves to be remembered as both ahead of his time and a flawed product of it.
3-27-18 Parents’ presence promotes a child’s pluck
Kids who are near a caregiver when exposed to an off-putting noise aren’t afraid of it later. The bond between parent and child is powerful enough to override fear. New research shows that if a parent sits with a young child during a potentially scary situation, the child isn’t as afraid of it later. The study is in line with research suggesting that during particular stages of development, a strong connection with a caregiver tamps down activity in the amygdala, the brain structure that helps process fear and spurs the fight-or-flight response. “Fight or flight is pointless if you are tiny,” said developmental neuroscientist Nim Tottenham of Columbia University, who presented the work March 26 at a Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting. For young kids, the bond with a caregiver not only helps ensure survival but also makes kids feel safe, enabling them to approach the world with confidence, Tottenham said. “Attachment is a strategy that has worked very well; it trumps everything.”
3-27-18 ‘Nanobot’ viruses tag and round up bacteria in food and water
Tweaking DNA and adding magnetic nanoparticles creates a new tool to test for contaminants. Viruses engineered into “nanobots” can find and separate bacteria from food or water. These viruses, called bacteriophages or just phages, naturally latch onto bacteria to infect them (SN: 7/12/03, p. 26). By tweaking the phages’ DNA and decking them out with magnetic nanoparticles, researchers created a tool that could both corral bacteria and force them to reveal themselves. These modifications can boost the sensitivity and speed of rooting out bacteria in tainted food or water, the researchers reported March 20 at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. “You’re taking the power of what evolution has done … to bind bacteria, and then we’re just helping that out a little bit,” said Sam Nugen, a food and biosystems engineer who leads the team designing these phages at Cornell University. Competing technologies for detecting bacteria use antibodies, the product of an immune response. But these are expensive to produce and work best in a narrow temperature and pH range. In contrast, phages “exist everywhere,” making them potentially more broadly useful as bacteria hunters, Nugen said. “They've had to evolve to bind well in much broader conditions than antibodies.”
3-27-18 Kid-friendly e-cigarette ads appear to work
Cartoon characters hawking candy flavors can encourage nonsmoking teens to vape or smoke. In the United States, cartoon characters are a no-no in cigarette ads, and candy- or fruit-flavored cigarettes can’t be sold. But that’s not the case for e-cigarettes, and these youth-appealing tactics are luring teens who have never used tobacco products to give e-cigs and even cigarettes a try, a new study suggests. Researchers analyzed surveys of nearly 7,000 kids ages 12 to 17 who had never used a tobacco product as of 2013 to 2014. Teens who recalled seeing or liking e-cigarette ads were 1.6 times as likely to be open to trying e-cigs or to actually try them the next year as kids who didn’t remember the ads, researchers report online March 26 in JAMA Pediatrics. E-cig ads often feature celebrities, cartoons (one product shows a unicorn vomiting a rainbow) or references to sweet flavors, such as Skittles. Past research has shown a link between traditional cigarette advertisements and receptive nonsmoking adolescents going on to light up. Nearly nine out of 10 smokers tried their first cigarette by age 18. Gearing traditional cigarette ads toward teens has been restricted since 1998. In 2016, more than 2.1 million U.S. middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes. That same year, an estimated 20.5 million — or four in five — were exposed to e-cigarette ads.
3-27-18 Lost villages from centuries ago found in the Amazon rainforest
Even some of the more remote parts of the Amazon rainforest, far from major rivers, were once densely populated – centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The remains of dozens of fortified villages, built before the arrival of Europeans, have been found in a relatively remote region of the Amazon. It seems the southern periphery of the Amazon was home to a million people before 1500 AD – far more than assumed. “Most of the Amazon is still unexplored archaeologically,” says Jonas De Souza of the University of Exeter, UK. “The more we survey, the more we realise that different parts of the basin were more settled than we thought.” The first Europeans to travel to the Amazon reported seeing widespread settlements, including cities and roads. But their reports were later dismissed as fantasies. For centuries, the prevailing view of the Amazon was that it was largely a pristine wilderness before Columbus and other Europeans arrived. Supposedly, only around a million people lived in the entire Amazon basin. In recent decades, deforestation has helped reveal evidence of extensive ancient settlements, such as large earthworks. It now appears the whole river basin was home to perhaps ten million people before Europeans arrived. Disease and genocide later wiped most of them out, and the rainforest hid the evidence. “We have changed our idea about the Amazon,” says De Souza. However, so far almost all the evidence of past habitation has been found on the fertile floodplains besides major rivers. Only scattered sites have been found higher up in the basin in the areas that do not flood regularly, known as terra firme.
3-27-18 Newly-discovered human organ may help explain how cancer spreads
A newly discovered network of fluid-filled channels in the human body may be a previously-unknown organ, and it seems to help move cancer cells around the body. A newly discovered network of fluid-filled channels in the human body may be a previously-unknown organ, and it seems to help transport cancer cells around the body. This discovery was made by chance, from routine endoscopies – a procedure that involves inserting a thin camera into a person’s gastrointestinal tract. Newer approaches enable doctors to use this procedure to get a microscopic look at the tissue inside a person’s gut at the same time, with some surprising results. One team had expected to find that the bile duct is surrounded by a hard, dense wall of tissue. But instead, they saw weird, unexplained patterns. They took their findings to Neil Theise, a pathologist at New York University School of Medicine. When Theise used the same endomicroscopy device to look under the skin of his own nose, he saw a similar result. Further investigation of other organs suggested that these patterns are made by a type of fluid moving through channels that are everywhere in the body. Theise reckons that every tissue in the body may be surrounded by a network of these channels, which essentially form an organ. The team estimate that the organ contains around a fifth of the total fluid volume of the human body. “We think they act as shock absorbers,” says Theise.
3-27-18 Our cancer strategies aren’t working
Plans to improve cancer survival in England and reduce rich-poor inequities are having little impact. This must be addressed, says Aimilia Exarchakou. Publication of the Black Report in 1980 brought the first authoritative look at inequalities in ill health and death rates between social classes in the UK. It concluded that these weren’t the result of differing income, education or lifestyle, but the lack of measures to ensure equal access to health services. The government of the day attempted to bury the bad news, releasing a few hundred copies on the August bank holiday. Forty years on, and a string of National Health Service reforms later, socio-economic inequalities in health are still striking. Cancer provides a sobering example. In 2000, the NHS Cancer Plan led to unprecedented investment in people and equipment, and a wide range of initiatives to enhance services. It was a comprehensive and innovative strategy, designed to boost cancer outcomes in England. Subsequent plans – the Cancer Reform Strategy in 2007 and Improving Outcomes: A strategy for cancer in 2011 – reinforced the commitment of successive governments to reduce the cancer burden and improve outcomes for all those with cancer, regardless of socio-economic background. Along with my colleagues, I have tried to evaluate the impact of all these plans by asking two questions: have trends in cancer survival improved, and have the differences in survival between the most affluent and the most deprived patients got any smaller? We analysed data for more than 3.5 million people diagnosed with one of the 24 most common cancers in England between 1996 and 2013 (The BMJ, DOI: 10.1136/bmj.k764).
3-26-18 Three critically ill children helped by speedy genome sequencing
Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital have used rapid genome sequencing to diagnose disorders in children in intensive care, and give them better treatments. Superfast DNA sequencing is saving children’s lives. The technique has helped doctors in London quickly diagnose rare disorders in 10 critically ill children, enabling clinicians to give better treatment and protect some from life-threatening complications. It took over a decade and around $2.7 billion to fully sequence the first human genome, but recent advances in technology have sped up the process and led to a fall in price. A team at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children has now used rapid whole-genome sequencing to diagnose children with unknown illnesses in intensive care, as these children often have rare genetic conditions. “These kids are so incredibly ill,” says Hywel Williams at University College London, who worked with the doctors. “They may have trouble breathing, their heart may not be working well.” In such cases, it is hard to know what the cause is, he says. “But if you can find a genetic diagnosis, it really helps the clinicians.” The team cut the time it takes to give a genetic diagnosis from weeks to as little as four days by changing the settings on DNA-sequencing machines, using faster analysis software and getting hospital staff to prioritise urgent DNA samples. Of the 24 children whose genomes were sequenced, 10 received a diagnosis. This led to an immediate change of treatment for three children. For one child who had failing kidneys, genomic sequencing revealed that the cause was a rare mutation, which also leads to recurrent kidney tumours. As a result, doctors realised they needed to remove both kidneys, before tumours could develop.
3-26-18 When tickling the brain to stimulate memory, location matters
Zapping white, not gray, matter improves memory test results, new research suggests. Conflicting results on whether brain stimulation helps or hinders memory may be explained by the electrodes’ precise location: whether they’re tickling white matter or gray matter. New research on epilepsy patients suggests that stimulating a particular stretch of the brain’s white matter — tissue that transfers nerve signals around the brain — improves performance on memory tests. But stimulating the same region’s gray matter, which contains the brain’s nerve cells, seems to impair memory, Nanthia Suthana, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCLA, reported March 25 at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. A groundbreaking study by Suthana and colleagues, published in 2012 the New England Journal of Medicine, found that people performed better on a memory task if their entorhinal cortex — a brain hub for memory and navigation — was given a low jolt of electricity during the task. But subsequent studies stimulating that area have had conflicting results. Follow-up work by Suthana suggests that activating the entorhinal cortex isn’t enough: Targeting a particular path of nerve fibers matters. “It’s a critical few millimeters that can make all the difference,” said Suthana.
3-26-18 Modern chimp brains share similarities with ancient hominids
Scans suggest certain folding patterns don’t mark humanlike neural advances after all. Groove patterns on the surface of modern chimpanzee brains throw a monkey wrench into proposals that some ancient southern African hominids evolved humanlike brain characteristics, a new study suggests. MRIs of eight living chimps reveal substantial variability in the shape and location of certain features on the brain surface. Some of these brains showed surface creases similar to ones that were thought to have signaled a turn toward humanlike brain organization in ancient hominids hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years ago. Paleoanthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee and colleagues report their findings online March 13 in Brain, Behavior and Evolution. The study casts doubt on a 2014 paper by Falk that was based on casts of the inside of fossil braincases, called endocasts, which preserve impressions of these surface features. At the time, Falk argued that four endocasts from southern African hominids — three Australopithecus africanus and one Australopithecus sediba — showed folding patterns that suggested that brain reorganization was underway as early as 3 million years ago in a frontal area involved in human speech production. But MRIs of three of the chimp brains reveal comparable creases, the researchers found. Two other chimps display other frontal tissue furrows that Falk had also previously described as distinctly humanlike.
3-26-18 Neanderthals ambushed cave bears as they awoke from hibernation
Our extinct cousins the Neanderthals seem to have targeted cave bears, which were normally intimidating foes, while they were sleepy and weak from hibernating through the winter. ANCIENT Neanderthals may have ambushed huge bears just as they were waking from hibernation – then stolen their caves. “These cave bears were hunted and butchered by Neanderthals,” says lead author Marco Peresani at the University of Ferrara, Italy. Peresani and his colleagues have excavated the Rio Secco and Fomane caves in northern Italy. They have analysed more than 1,700 bones, most of which belong to about 50 cave bears that lived 50,000 to 43,000 years ago. Cave bears dominated Europe during the last ice age but are now extinct. Comparable to grizzly bears, they could weigh over 600 kilograms. “I think they were the most dangerous mammals in the Ice Age period,” says Peresani. Neanderthals and cave bears would have met often, he says, as they competed for the same caves. And it seems the Neanderthals were able to take the bears down. There were cut marks on the bones and hundreds of stone tools in the caves. Certain bones had bite marks matching Neanderthal teeth, and some may have been cooked. Some long bones seem to have been banged about, perhaps to extract the tasty marrow inside.
3-24-18 How do you know when you're financially prepared to have children?
It's a big decision. Consider it carefully. "How do you know that you are financially ready to handle the responsibility of starting a family?" asked Denise Hill at Wise Bread. Having children is a "life-altering decision," and the first step is understanding that it's a lifetime commitment, emotionally and financially. Although there's no single "magic income or savings number" that will determine whether you're prepared, it's smart to commit to several targets. Begin by tackling any credit card and student loan debt and trying to cut extraneous costs and unnecessary luxuries. "Having a family is a sacrificial endeavor," so the sooner you understand "you can't have it all and do it all," the better. A top priority should be to establish an emergency fund with at least six months of living expenses. That will provide you with a foundation of security, since "things rarely go exactly as planned" when a child comes along. Another tip for soon-to-be parents: Review your life insurance policy, and if you don't have one yet, get one, said Matthew Helfrich at Kiplinger. Update your beneficiaries and ensure that your policy sufficiently covers potential "education spending, debt elimination, and salary replacement" needs in the event of your early death. Make sure your child is promptly added to your health insurance, and begin constructing a budget that factors in potential child-care costs, kids' activities, and recurring items such as diapers. The average cost of raising a child in the U.S. to age 17 is $233,610 — a figure that doesn't include college, so your long-term savings strategy should incorporate a college fund. "The first nine months are just the tip of the iceberg — they represent the beginning of a lifetime's worth of financial decisions."
3-23-18 Most complex biocomputer ever is made from human cells
Scientists have engineered 9 human cells to work as a simple, programmable computer. It could lead to implants that automatically detect and treat disease. Scientists have created the world’s most complex biological computer – a group of engineered cells that could one day be implanted into the body to detect diseases and deliver treatments. In 2012, Martin Fussenegger at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, and his colleagues engineered two kidney cells to become a biological circuit capable of simple mathematics. One of the cells was able to do a form of addition: the presence or absence of each of two chemicals would switch on a reaction inside the cell that would make it glow different colours. The other cell worked in the same way but could subtract. This kind of biological circuit is reminiscent of a simple logic circuit in a computer, and could in theory be used to make a skin patch to glow in the presence of an infectious agent, for example. Most biological reactions in the body aren’t that simple, though, says Fussenegger. They rarely rely on “one input and one output” – instead, multiple inputs lead to different outputs. For instance, a high level of calcium in the body in the presence of a specific hormone might suggest one disease, whereas a high level of calcium in the presence of another hormone might be a completely different condition. To be more practical, biological computers would need to be able to perform more complex mathematics. That’s difficult, though, because it is hard to pack multiple computations into a single cell. To get around this, Fussenegger and his team have engineered a multicellular system, in which different cells each perform a separate computation, and pass the results to one another.
3-23-18 This is why it’s so hard to bring yourself to delete Facebook
Facebook is made to keep you coming back for another fix, which spells trouble for the #DeleteFacebook movement, says Lara Williams. Facebook is under fire in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that the analytics organisation used data from millions of Facebook profiles to predict and try to influence decisions in the 2016 US election. In response to allegations of a data breach, the Delete Facebook movement was born – and has since been gathering momentum, both online and off. Countless articles have been published offering instruction on how to do it. The Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller took to the streets of London, handing out thousands of posters urging users to delete away. The movement even secured the support of Whatsapp co-founder Brian Acton, who took to Twitter, announcing “It is time. #deletefacebook”, using the hashtag currently returning waves of supportive tweets. A Facebook exodus seems to be afoot. And yet, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has told The New York Times he has not seen a “meaningful number of people” deleting their accounts in the wake of the scandal. Despite what we have discovered about the social networking conglomerate: that it failed to alert users to the data breach; that it allowed data to be gathered via something so seemingly benign as an online personality test – we still seem unwilling to finally click delete. Why? Facebook currently has 2.13 billion active users. In 2016, the company reported that on average, its users spend 50 minutes a day on Facebook and its Instagram and Messenger apps. That is nearly one-third of the global population, spending around a 16th of their waking hours engaging with Facebook and its apps. What’s more, the company is doing everything in its power to capture more of our time and attention, to make Facebook as addictive as possible. Therein lies Delete Facebook’s biggest problem.
3-23-18 Skin spray heals US woman’s flesh-eating bacteria wounds
A US woman has been treated with an experimental skin spray after losing a third of her skin to flesh-eating bacteria. An experimental skin spray has given a US woman back her skin after drug-resistant bacteria devoured most of the flesh on her left side. In January, Christin Lipinski, 37, developed flu-like symptoms and pain under her armpit. Doctors at Maricopa Integrated Health System – a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona – found she was infected with a vicious, flesh-eating strain of Streptococcus bacteria. “When we took her to the operating room we realised it was worse than we thought,” says her treating doctor Kevin Foster. The bacteria had spread from her armpit down most of her left torso and arm. To prevent further spread, Foster’s team cut away the infected tissue. “It was so deep we basically went down to muscle,” he says. Normally, large skin wounds are patched up using skin grafts from another part of the body. But because Lipinski had already lost a third of her skin, she couldn’t afford to lose any more. Running out of options, Foster decided to appeal to the FDA for compassionate use of an experimental skin spray called ReCell. The spray is currently being trialled as a treatment for severe burn wounds. To make the spray, doctors take a small patch of skin from another part of the patient’s body. A special enzyme is used to break the tissue into individual skin cells, which are then sprayed in a fine mist over the wound. Once they settle, the individual skin cells divide and spread until they join up to cover the wound. “Normally, a wound heals from the edges, which takes time, but this allows it to heal everywhere at once,” says Michael Perry at Avita Medical, the biotech company developing the treatment.
3-23-18 America's happiness deficit
For much of the year, Finland has but a few hours of light and temperatures well below 0 degrees F. Yet the Finns are the happiest people in the world, according to the U.N.'s annual World Happiness Report. Norway is second, followed by Denmark and Iceland (also cold and dark). The U.S. dropped four places to 18th. Now, happiness is no doubt hard to quantify, and this ranking should be taken as more suggestive than definitive. But why does our powerful and wealthy nation — whose founding promise is the individual pursuit of happiness — consistently fall into a second tier ... and keep sinking? Human beings, anthropologists and social psychologists tell us, are social creatures. Much of our happiness flows from our connections to other people, our sense of community and joint purpose. On these measures, America — despite its economic dynamism and vibrant culture — is in distinct decline. Trust in government, the media, and other institutions has plunged. Most people feel the system is "rigged" in favor of corporations, coastal elites, or some tribe other than their own. Work, and the ceaseless hunt for money, security, and consumer goods, dominate most people's lives; time for family and friends, and the activities that build community and meaning, is often scarce. Loneliness is epidemic. So are consoling addictions to painkillers, unhealthy food, and technology. The most alienated among us load up on weapons and express their soul-sickness in blood. Finland, Norway, and Denmark are not without problems, but researchers say what sets the happier nations apart is the premium their cultures place on time spent in nature, and in harmonious, intimate contact with friends and family. The Danes even have a word, "hygge," that describes these cozy, high-quality social interactions. If there is a suggestion we can collectively and personally take from the happiness ranking, it's this: Richness comes from human connection. GDP matters less than hygge.
3-23-18 Does your kids’ DNA matter more than which school they go to?
How well your kids do at school depends in part on the DNA you bequeathed them. What’s not clear is what we should do about this. What school are you going to send your children to? It’s a question most parents spend endless hours agonising about. Many force their kids to have extra tuition to get the grades needed to get into schools that select pupils based on ability, then spend a small fortune on school fees. That might all be a waste of time, according to a study of 5000 teenagers in England and Wales. “For educational achievement, there appears to be little added benefit from attending selective schools,” says Emily Smith-Woolley of King’s College London, who carried out the study. On average, the teenagers attending selective schools – including both fee-paying private schools and state-funded grammar schools – did do better than the rest. They scored about a grade higher in the exams done at age 16 in the UK, called GCSEs. These raw results suggest that about 7 per cent of the differences in exam results are due to the type of school. But when the team adjusted for the fact that selective schools pick more able pupils, and also that these pupils tend to come from families with higher socio-economic status – that can afford to pay school fees, for instance – the differences vanished. In other words, the results imply that the pupils at selective schools would have done equally well at non-selective ones. “We’re saying there’s no value added,” says team member Robert Plomin, also at King’s. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” But what does make a difference is genetics. A 2016 study of 300,000 people identified common genetic variants strongly linked to educational achievement. Each has a tiny effect alone but together they seem to have a significant impact on exam success.
3-23-18 How DNA can be used to store computer data
British scientists think DNA could be used to solve a global problem - where to store all our data. They have developed a technique to store computer files on DNA code.
3-22-18 Calorie restriction may extend lifespan by changing your sleep
Cutting the calories you eat by 15 per cent may make you live longer – and it could be because it makes your body shut down more deeply during sleep. Severely cutting the calories you eat may expand your lifespan, and now we have an idea of why. A study in which people ate 15 per cent fewer calories than usual has found that eating a lot less has big effects on what happens to the body during sleep. Many studies have found that calorie restriction extends the lifespan of animals such as worms, flies, mice and even monkeys. The findings have prompted a few thousand people to choose to eat around 15 to 18 per cent fewer calories than the daily recommended limit, in the hope that they’ll live longer and healthier lives, and there is some evidence that such people have better blood cholesterol and glucose levels. To investigate this further, Leanne Redman of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana and her colleagues randomly assigned normal or calorie restricted diets to 53 adults. For two years, 34 of these people ate 15 per cent fewer calories, while the others ate as much as they wanted. The calorie-restricted regime seemed to cause some interesting effects. In the second year of the study, those eating fewer calories showed a dramatic drop in their night-time metabolic rates, and a small but significant drop in their night-time body temperature. “Metabolism measured during sleep was reduced by 10 per cent,” says Redman. Analysing blood samples revealed that these people also experienced a 20 per cent drop in cellular oxidative stress – damage to cells caused by the byproducts of metabolism. DNA and cell damage caused by oxidative stress are thought to be key hallmarks of ageing.
3-22-18 Male balding may be cured by injecting epilepsy drug into scalp
Thinning on top? An epilepsy drug that might be painlessly injected into the scalp could treat premature hair loss in men. Existing treatments for male pattern baldness come with downsides. Minoxidil, which increases blood flow to the scalp, only works for one-third of men. Finasteride, which blocks the hormone responsible for hair loss, can reduce sex drive and fertility. Now, several groups are looking at whether valproic acid – a medication used to prevent epileptic seizures – could do better. This follows anecdotal reports of some balding patients getting their hair back while taking the drug. In 2014, a study in men with moderate hair loss found that spraying valproic acid on the scalp twice a day improved hair density by 23 extra hairs per square centimetre after 6 months. A handful experienced mild itchiness and dandruff, but this went away on its own. This inspired Hyungil Jung at Yonsei University in South Korea and his colleagues to see if they could stimulate more regrowth by injecting valproic acid into the scalp.
3-22-18 Atacama mummy’s deformities were unduly sensationalized
By analyzing the genome of a tiny fetal mummy known as Ata, researchers have learned more about what led to its strange-looking deformities — and that Ata was not an it, but a she. The 6-inch human mummy, found in 2003 in Chile’s Atacama Desert, contains genetic mutations associated with skeletal abnormalities and joint problems, researchers report online March 22 in Genome Research. Those mutations help explain how Ata developed her elongated skull, large eye sockets and missing ribs — features that previously sparked suppositions the she was an extraterrestrial. But Ata’s origins are not out of this world. She is probably of Chilean descent, says geneticist Garry Nolan of Stanford University, who has been the driving force behind examining Ata scientifically. “I wanted to understand what could make something look like that,” he says. Nolan never claimed Ata was an alien, but he admits to playing a role in the hype surrounding Ata by participating in a documentary that advanced claims about her supposed otherworldly origins. He now says she should be buried as human remains. Paolo Viscardi, a zoologist at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin who was not involved with the research, says the new study helps debunk Ata’s origin myths. “Ata highlighted the fact that people are quick to dehumanize and sensationalize anything unusual,” he says.
3-22-18 Origin of 'six-inch mummy' confirmed
Tests on a six-inch-long mummified skeleton from Chile confirm that it represents the remains of a newborn with multiple mutations in key genes. Despite being the size of a foetus, initial tests had suggested the bones were of a child aged six to eight. These highly unusual features prompted wild speculation about its origin. Now, DNA testing indicates that the estimated age of the bones and other anomalies may have been a result of the genetic mutations. Details of the work have been published in the journal Genome Research. In addition to its exceptionally small height, the skeleton had several unusual physical features, such as fewer than expected ribs and a cone-shaped head. The remains were initially discovered in a pouch in the abandoned nitrate mining town of La Noria. From there, they found their way into a private collection in Spain. Some wondered whether the remains, dubbed Ata after the Atacama region where they were discovered, could in fact be the remains of a non-human primate. A documentary, called Sirius, even suggested it could be evidence of alien visitations. The new research puts those ideas to rest. A scientific team analysed the individual's genome - the genetic blueprint for a human, contained in the nucleus of cells. They had already used this to confirm that the individual was human. Now, the team has presented evidence that Ata was a female newborn with multiple mutations in genes associated with dwarfism, scoliosis and abnormalities in the muscles and skeleton.
3-21-18 Dad power: The surprising new science of fatherhood
When Anna Machin realised science was skewed towards mums, she set out to change that - and discovered fatherhood comes with a raft of changes to the mind and body. THE birth of Anna Machin’s first child didn’t go to plan. “Unfortunately, I suffered a haemorrhage, and it was a bit touch and go for a time,” she recalls. Her newborn daughter was shuttled off for specialist care, while Machin herself, who had passed out, received emergency attention. “I didn’t really see anything, whereas my poor husband, who was in the room, saw everything – blood flowing everywhere, about 30 members of staff rushing around, alarms going off… it was very, very dramatic.” Afterwards, Machin was offered support and counselling. But no such offer was extended to her shaken husband. “And, actually, he was the one who needed it,” she says. This was evident when, even a year later, he was unable to talk about the birth, or even think about it, without crying. Overlooking fathers in this way is harmful to these men and their families, says Machin, who is an anthropologist at the University of Oxford. “It struck me as unfair,” she says. Close relationships, between parents and children, lovers or friends, are Machin’s specialist subject. So back at work after her daughter’s birth, her thoughts turned to new fathers. Like any academic, she began by digging through the research. Yet while there was plenty to be found on mothers, Machin was amazed to find barely any research on fatherhood. The little there was seemed to focus on the negative impact of teenage or absent fathers. “There was nothing, absolutely nothing, about your average, standard dad who is around – divorced or not – who still sees his children and invests in them.”
3-21-18 Upgraded Pap test detects two extra cancers before they spread
With a small adaption, a simple smear test for cervical cancer can also detect ovarian and endometrial cancers at the same time. A simple smear test for cervical cancer can now pick up ovarian and endometrial cancers before they turn deadly. Ovarian and endometrial cancers are the fifth and sixth leading causes of cancer deaths in women. They are difficult to treat because they often spread to other parts of the body before symptoms arise. A smear test, also known as a Pap test, uses a brush to collect cells from the cervix. These are studied under the microscope to look for cancerous changes or tested for the presence of human papillomavirus, which can sometimes lead to cervical cancer. Lucy Gilbert at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada, and her colleagues wondered if the Pap test could be adapted to other cancers of the female reproductive tract. Gilbert’s team found that the Pap brush also picks up cancer cells that have shed from the ovaries and endometrium and pooled at the cervix. They identified these cells by looking for cancer-related mutations in 18 key genes. This genetic approach was able to detect 33 per cent of ovarian cancers and 81 per cent of endometrial cancers in Pap test specimens collected from 627 women already diagnosed with these diseases. To improve the accuracy of the test, the researchers used a Tao brush that reaches beyond the cervix to collect cells closer to the ovaries and endometrium. They also looked for cancer DNA markers in the women’s blood. The detection rate for endometrial cancer improved to 93 per cent using the Tao brush. It rose to 63 per cent for ovarian cancer using the combined blood test. In both approaches, over half the cases detected were early cancers.
3-21-18 Immune-boosting gel prevents cancer relapse after surgery
A gel tested in mice prevented lingering cancer cells from growing or spreading around the body after surgeons remove tumours. A gel that boosts the immune system can stop cancers from re-growing and spreading in the body. Forty per cent of people with cancer relapse within five years of having tumours removed from their body, but results from a study that tested the gel in mice suggest this might be preventable. The gel re-boots the immune system to purge any cancer cells left after surgery, so they cannot regrow. The strengthened immune system also eliminates cancer cells that have metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. Surgery can be performed to remove cancerous tumours, but it also removes immune cells and other substances that help to fight future attacks. After surgery, the immune system also focuses on healing wounds at the tumour site, relaxing its vigilance of any lingering cancerous cells. Michael Goldberg of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and his colleagues wondered whether they could boost the immune system immediately after surgery to help purge the cancer once and for all. To do so, they created a gel that is placed in the cavity left by a surgically-removed tumour. The gel slowly releases one of two substances called STING-RR or R848 for several months following application. This aids the immune system by activating white blood cells and interferon proteins, both of which help the body defend itself against cancer. In more than 100 mice implanted with human breast cancer, treatment with the gel effectively cured 65 per cent of the mice by eradicating any metastases that occured after surgery.
3-21-18 How a lack of dreams could be messing with your mind
Modern life is squeezing dreams out of our sleep and it could be having serious effects on our brain power and mental well-being. YOU know that feeling when someone wakes you up in the middle of a really good dream? There is a real sense of loss, like ending a TV episode on a cliffhanger. You want to jump back in, but no such luck. That is me every morning. I have a baby sleeping in the same room and am wrenched awake early each day, often mid-dream. That might sound like a trivial complaint. We tend to think of dream sleep as unimportant, the poor relative of vital and restorative deep sleep. But now it seems that dreams are much more than mystical night-time adventures. Recent research suggests that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – when we have the most powerful dreams – is vital to learning and creativity, and promotes a healthy mind in a variety of ways. It isn’t romantic whimsy to say that if we stifle our dreams, we aren’t going to reach our potential. Chronic dream deprivation isn’t just a problem for people with small children. Going to bed drunk or stoned, taking various medications or even just using an alarm to wake up in the morning can all leave your dreams smothered. So, currently sleep deprived, I wanted to find out if missing out on dream sleep is as bad as it seems, and if so, what we can do to get our dreams back. The idea that sleep is vital for good health is now so prevalent you would have to be sleepwalking through life to miss it. Not only does scrimping on sleep leave you emotionally fraught and struggling to make decisions, it can also mess with your immune system, has been linked to metabolic diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes, and is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and many mental health problems including depression.
3-21-18 5 ways to boost your dreams and improve your health
Having more dreams each night could be key to mental well-being. Here’s what to do – and what to avoid – if you want to increase your dose.
- Hit snooze: The simplest way to get more REM is to sleep more and wake up naturally.
- Drugs and supplements: Alcohol and some recreational drugs are known to suppress REM sleep.
- Brain stimulation: Some sleep scientists have directly manipulated the brainwaves of volunteers as they slumber using a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
- Food: Much mythology surrounds food and dreams.
- Good sleep hygiene: This is the best and most reliable way to get good sleep in general and good REM in particular.
3-21-18 Weird Antarctic ice may explain how life endured on frozen Earth
A strange discovery, made by polar explorer Robert Scott a century ago, might explain how complex life survived when the planet froze over into “Snowball Earth”. How did complex life survive when the Earth turned into a giant snowball hundreds of million years ago? A bizarre region of “dirty” Antarctic ice, discovered a century ago by British explorer Captain Scott’s team, might hold clues. There is evidence that Earth experienced at least two astonishingly severe ice ages between 717 and 636 million years ago. Some researchers say conditions were so extreme that ice reached the equator – so our planet effectively became a giant snowball. If it happened, Snowball Earth creates a puzzle. We know that complex life and perhaps even early animals appeared before the glaciations began. So how and where did these organisms survive when Earth became a frozen snowball? Roger Summons at MIT, Ian Hawes at University of Waikato in Tauranga, New Zealand and their colleagues have found a possible solution. It lies in a strange corner of Antarctica explored by Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition between 1901 and 1904. Infamously, Scott later died in Antarctica in 1912 after being beaten to the South Pole. Scott’s team found a region of the McMurdo Sound ice shelf that was littered with large deposits of salt and lots of marine animal remains, from sponges to shellfish. It was, according to the team’s geologist Hartley Ferrar, a “freak of nature which is difficult to explain”.
3-21-18 Meet the giants among viruses
The list of these mega-sized entities continues to grow For decades, the name “virus” meant small and simple. Not anymore. Meet the giants. Today, scientists are finding ever bigger viruses that pack impressive amounts of genetic material. The era of the giant virus began in 2003 with the discovery of the first Mimivirus (SN: 5/23/09, p. 9). The viral titan is about 750 nanometers across with a genetic pantry boasting around 1.2 million base pairs of DNA, the information-toting bits often represented with A, T, C and G. Influenza A, for example, is roughly 100 nanometers across with only about 13,500 base pairs of genetic material. In 2009, another giant virus called Marseillevirus was identified. It is different enough from mimiviruses to earn its own family. Since 2013, mega-sized viruses falling into another eight potential virus families have been found, showcasing a long-unexplored viral diversity, researchers reported last year in Annual Review of Virology and in January in Frontiers in Microbiology. Giant viruses mostly come in two shapes: polyhedral capsules and egglike ovals. But one, Mollivirus, skews more spherical. Pacmanvirus was named for the broken appearance of its outer shell. Both represent potential families. Two newly discovered members of the mimivirus family, both called tupanviruses and both with tails, have the most complete set of genes related to assembling proteins yet seen in viruses (SN Online: 2/27/18). Once unheard of, giant viruses may be common in water and soils worldwide. Only time — and more discoveries — will tell.
3-21-18 Triceratops may have had horns to attract mates
Dinosaurs like the Triceratops may have had horns and frills to attract a mate, a new study suggests. Ceratopsian, or horned dinosaurs, were previously thought to have developed this ornamentation to distinguish between different species. This has now been ruled out in a study published in a Royal Society journal. Instead, the aggressive-looking armour may actually have evolved to signal an animal's suitability as a partner, known as socio-sexual selection. "Individuals are advertising their quality or genetic make-up," explained Andrew Knapp, lead author of the research reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. "We see that in peacocks too, with their tail feathers." Features that can differentiate between species are usually less elaborate than those distinguishing males and females. To prevent mating with other species, only subtle indications are needed. When the goal is to repel, not attract, it is not worth putting in the extra evolutionary effort. The study's original design was to determine whether the distinctive horns and frills of ceratopsian dinosaurs were for this inter-species purpose. Previous research had ruled out their use for predator defence and regulating body temperature. "Some of these ornaments were also likely used at times for defence against predators or, to some extent, for recognition of members of different species, but these were apparently not the primary driver in their evolution," added Dr Zelenitsky, who teaches palaeobiology.
3-20-18 How obesity makes it harder to taste
Inflammation linked to the disease caused the loss of taste buds in mice. As mice plumped up on a high-fat diet, some of their taste buds vanished. This disappearing act could explain why some people with obesity seem to have a weakened sense of taste, which may compel them to eat more. Compared with siblings that were fed normal mouse chow, mice given high-fat meals lost about 25 percent of their taste buds over eight weeks. Buds went missing because mature taste bud cells died off more quickly, and fewer new cells developed to take their place. Chronic, low-level inflammation associated with obesity appears to be behind the loss, researchers report March 20 in PLOS Biology. Taste buds, each a collection of 50 to 100 cells, sense whether a food is sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami (savory). These cells help identify safe and nourishing food, and stimulate reward centers in the brain. The tongue’s taste bud population is renewed regularly; each bud lasts about 10 days. Special cells called progenitor cells give rise to new taste bud cells that replace old ones. Some studies have suggested that taste becomes duller in people with obesity, although why that is has remained unclear. But if taste becomes less intense, “then maybe you don’t get the positive feeling that you should,” which could give way to more overeating, says study coauthor Robin Dando, who studies the biology of taste at Cornell University. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults have obesity, determined by a person’s body mass index, a ratio of weight to height. The condition is linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
3-20-18 Craft beer may get cheaper thanks to GM yeast with hoppy flavour
A genetically engineered yeast makes beer that tastes of hops, without using any hops – and it could make beer cheaper and more environmentally friendly. A GENETICALLY engineered yeast makes beer taste of hops – without any actual hops. The yeast could help make brewing beer cheaper and more sustainable. Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus. They give floral and bitter flavours to beer, but their high cost contributes to the price tag of craft beers. What’s more, growing hops uses lots of water and energy, and the amount of flavour they impart varies. So Charles Denby, Rachel Li and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to create a yeast that produces some of the chemicals responsible for the flavour of hops. They focused on two, linalool and geraniol, that are known to be crucial to the flavour. Mint and basil plants have enzymes that make these chemicals, so the team found and then inserted the genes responsible into yeast. The resulting strains of yeast made beer with more consistent levels of linalool and geraniol than beer made with hops. A tasting panel said the beer was hoppier than two beers flavoured with real hops, and reported pleasant flavours like orange blossom. “We were hoping to be on the same range as the dry-hopped beers,” says Denby. “Being rated as hoppier was very encouraging.”
3-20-18 Green tea extract may prevent Down’s syndrome face traits
A compound in green tea seems to change the facial features of Down’s syndrome, but researchers warn people not to try it until a safe dosage has been found. People with Down’s syndrome who take green tea supplements from infancy are less likely to develop the characteristic facial features of the condition. But researchers have warned that parents shouldn’t give these supplements to their children yet because mouse studies suggest that high doses can cause abnormalities. Down’s syndrome arises from having all or part of an extra chromosome, which affects the growth of the brain and skeleton. This can lead to a range of characteristics including intellectual disability, short stature and facial differences. There is evidence that this altered growth is partly due to having too much of an enzyme called DYRK1A. Mara Dierssen at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Spain and her colleagues wondered if blocking this enzyme would reduce some of the characteristics of Down’s syndrome. They turned their attention to a compound in green tea called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which is known to inhibit DYRK1A. Even though EGCG hasn’t been approved as a treatment, some parents have already started giving the over-the-counter dietary supplement to children with Down’s syndrome, prompted by studies that suggest it may have some cognitive benefits.
3-19-18 Macular degeneration: 'I've been given my sight back'
Doctors have taken a major step towards curing the most common form of blindness in the UK - age-related macular degeneration. Douglas Waters, 86, could not see out of his right eye, but "I can now read the newspaper" with it, he says. He was one of two patients given pioneering stem cell therapy at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Cells from a human embryo were grown into a patch that was delicately inserted into the back of the eye. Douglas, who is from London, developed severe age-related macular degeneration in his right eye three years ago. The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see straight ahead - whether to recognise faces, watch TV or read a book. He says: "In the months before the operation my sight was really poor and I couldn't see anything out of my right eye. "It's brilliant what the team have done and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back." The macula is made up of rods and cones that sense light and behind those are a layer of nourishing cells called the retinal pigment epithelium. When this support layer fails, it causes macular degeneration and blindness. Doctors have devised a way of building a new retinal pigment epithelium and surgically implanting it into the eye. (Webmaster's comment: This cure would probalby not be allowed in the United States by the religious crazies because it uses embryonic stem cells and it is not Gods's will.)
3-19-18 Stem cell therapy reverses sight loss and lets people read again
Human embryonic stem cells have been used to replenish damaged eye tissue resulting from age-related macular degeneration. Two people with severe sight loss can now see well enough to read after receiving tissue grown from human embryonic stem cells. A man in his 80s and a woman in her 60s received the treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition which leads to a rapid loss of central vision. The two people went from not being able to read at all, to reading 60 to 80 words per minute with normal reading glasses. They were monitored for 12 months after the procedure and reported no severe side effects. The results are a positive step in creating a treatment for AMD, which affects more than 600,000 people in the UK. “The results suggest that this new therapeutic approach is safe and provides good visual outcomes,” says Lyndon da Cruz, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. “The patients who received the treatment had very severe AMD, and their improved vision will go some way to enhance their quality of life.”
3-19-18 A fifth of people hear sounds when watching silent GIFs. Do you?
Ever felt like you’ve heard a video even though the sound was turned off? As many as 20 per cent of us may “hear” silent GIFs and other moving objects. Elliot Freeman was a student when he first noticed something strange. Looking out into the dark one evening he spotted a distant lighthouse flashing a Morse code signal. “Every time I saw the flash I heard a distinct buzzing sound,” he says. None of his friends could hear anything. “I thought ‘yeah, that’s kind of odd’. I should look into that some time.” It turns out Freeman is not alone. He is one of a group of people who experience a strange phenomenon called visually-evoked auditory response (vEAR): they hear noises when they see certain silent moving images. Now he has carried out the biggest study of the condition so far and found that as many as one fifth of us might experience this too. This could explain the popularity of a Reddit page dedicated to GIFs that give some people the sensation of sound. The noisyGIFs subreddit has almost 100,000 subscribers, and last year an animated GIF of three electricity pylons playing jump rope became a viral hit on Twitter. Many people said they could hear a sound when the jumping pylon landed. “It raised everyone’s awareness above a threshold where it was taken more seriously,” says Freeman. “People were suddenly aware of it.” Freeman, who is now a psychologist at City University of London, worked with his colleague Christopher Fassnidge to recruit people to an online survey that tests for vEAR (you can take the test here). The test involved questions about synaesthesia, and watching 24 silent videos and rating them for vEAR sounds.
3-19-18 Why ancient deer returned to the sea and became whales
Over the last 250 million years land animals have repeatedly begun exploiting the seas, giving rise to creatures like whales and walruses. The question is why. Animals first evolved to live exclusively on land about 370 million years ago – but on dozens of occasions since then land animals have gone back to exploiting the seas. That might be because the shallow seas around continents are so full of food that they proved an irresistible lure. Some of the most spectacular species now living in the sea have land-living ancestors. Whales are descended from animals similar to deer, while walruses and seals evolved from animals a bit like modern otters. What’s more, many land-dwelling species go to sea for food: seabirds are one example, and Galapagos iguanas are another. Even our species exploits the oceans on a massive scale. We began doing so 125,000 years ago or perhaps even earlier, and there is evidence that we have been fishing for deep-sea tuna for 42,000 years. “We are very definitely marine organisms,” says Geerat Vermeij at the University of California-Davis. “We’re also terrestrial too, obviously, but ecologically speaking we’re enormously important to the seas.” What encourages land animals to go marine? Vermeij and his colleague Ryosuke Motani decided to test two competing ideas. One is that land animals turn marine right after mass extinctions, taking advantage of the ensuing chaos in ocean ecosystems. They use this opportunity to adapt to marine life, enabling them to compete with marine natives when the oceans recover. It’s an idea that found support in a 2014 study, which uncovered a pulse in land-to-sea transitions after the end-Cretaceous extinction 66 million years ago.
3-18-18 First anatomical evidence of several types of schizophrenia
Is there more than one type of schizophrenia? Brain scans suggest there are at least two different kinds - a finding that may lead to better treatments. Is there more than one type of schizophrenia? Brain scans now suggest there are at least two different kinds of the psychiatric disorder, a finding that backs up what many have long suspected and may one day lead to more specialised treatments for specific sets of symptoms. About 1 per cent of people have schizophrenia, and those with it can have a range of symptoms, from hallucinations and delusions to problems with social interactions and cognitive performance. Not only do symptoms vary for each person, but so do their responses to drug treatments. Antipsychotic drugs clear only some people’s hallucinations, for example. And there are no good treatments for relieving the social and cognitive effects of the disorder. This diverse range of symptoms and responses has led many people to wonder whether there are distinct types of schizophrenia. But so far this hasn’t worked very well – subcategories based on symptoms were recently abandoned after they were found to be unreliable. “There was no stability in symptoms over time,” says Nikolaos Koutsouleris of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. Koutsouleris and his colleagues are on the hunt for ways to define subtypes of schizophrenia using biology, not symptoms. The idea is that biological factors should provide a more objective insight into a person’s condition, and be more informative about how to treat it.
3-17-18 Why we make bad life choices
As it turns out, humans aren't always the best at decision-making. there I was, looking at an enormous wall of television screens. Each one flashed the exact same scene — a beautiful flower slowly blooming to reveal each petal, pistil, and stamen in exquisite super high definition detail. It was downright sexy. But now it was time to make my choice. Would I buy the $400 television within my budget or would I splurge on the $500 deluxe model that somehow helped me understand plant biology in a new, more intimate way? Though every cone and rod in my eyeballs begged me to buy the better one, my more sensible instinct kicked in. "Your budget is $400, remember?" Sighing, I bought the crappy model and braced for a life of media mediocrity. But then, a strange thing happened. When I fired up the new set at home, it looked fine. Better than fine, in fact. It looked great! I couldn't figure out why I even wanted the pricier model in the first place.
- Why the change of heart? Among a host of brain biases, I fell victim to distinction bias — a tendency to over-value the effect of small quantitative differences when comparing options.
- Choose for chocolate: In studies, about two-thirds of people opt for more chocolate.
- Your brain isn't that smart: Psychologists believe we are in two different modes when we compare options versus when we experience them.
- How to outsmart your brain:
- Don't compare options side by side
- Know your "must-haves" before you look
- Optimize for things you can't get used to
3-17-18 Essential oils in hygiene products may make boys grow breasts
Some substances in lavender and tea tree essential oils seem to mimic the hormone oestrogen, which could explain why they have been linked to breast growth. Essential oils from plants are touted as having many beneficial properties. But just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they’re harmless – two commonly used plant oils seem to mimic female hormones in the body, occasionally causing boys to grow breasts. Chemicals from lavender are often used in toiletries for their scent, and are said to aid relaxation. Tea tree oil is a mild antiseptic and a common ingredient of children’s hair products as it is claimed to prevent head lice, although there is little evidence to show it works. But both of these may have side effects. In 2007, doctors reported three cases of prepubescent boys who had started developing small breasts, despite having the expected hormone levels for their sex and age. Breast growth in all three boys began when they started using products such as soap or shampoo that contained lavender or tea tree oils. A similar effect has been reported with a lavender cologne popular with Hispanic communities in the US, however tests on rats have suggested lavender oil has no such effect. To investigate this, Kenneth Korach of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Durham, North Carolina and his team have been investigating eight chemicals that must be present in a product for it to be marketed as containing either of these plant oils.
3-16-18 The FDA wants to cut the nicotine in cigarettes by a third
Tobacco companies could be forced to slash the amount of nicotine in US cigarettes, under radical plans from the Food and Drug Administration. Tobacco firms could be forced to slash the amount of nicotine in US cigarettes, under radical plans from the Food and Drug Administration. Proposals announced yesterday would see the amount of nicotine in most existing cigarettes cut by a third, from about 1.5 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette down to between 0.3 to 0.5 milligrams. It’s the nicotine in cigarettes that make them addictive, and according to one analysis, this change would cause 5 million people to quit smoking in the first year and deter 33 million people from taking it up by 2100. The FDA is now seeking feedback on this plan, but critics are warning this could lead to a lucrative black market for higher-nicotine cigarettes. “It carries a serious risk of unintended consequences,” says Deborah Arnott of UK campaign group Action on Smoking and Health. The idea of forcing tobacco firms to lower the amount of nicotine in their cigarettes as a way of making them less addictive has been mooted for years. But studies have shown that when given tobacco with only a little less nicotine, smokers instinctively get more from each cigarette by inhaling more deeply or covering air holes with their fingers. “People smoke in such a way that lets them reach the blood level of nicotine they want,” says Martin Jarvis of University College London.
3-16-18 Bacteria-killing nanofibres could make clothes that stop disease
Antimicrobial fabric could slow the spread of diseases like Ebola. These nanofibres kill viruses and bacteria, and their active ingredient recharges in daylight. In outbreaks of lethal pathogens like the Ebola virus or food-borne bacteria, health care workers and lab staff alike need the most effective antimicrobial clothing they can get. But there is a problem with today’s bug-busting suits, face masks and gloves: the active ingredient, or biocide, impregnated into their fabrics is consumed in the process of destroying the virus or bacterium – so they get less and less effective over time. Not for much longer, perhaps. Polymer chemists led by Yang Si and Gang Sun at the University of California in Davis have engineered a biocidal material where the active ingredient is constantly recharged by a widely available, free resource: broad daylight. The team say this fibrous membrane can be inserted into the fabric of protective clothing. It was formed in a process called electrospinning, in which polymers are melted and then drawn into threads that can be criss-crossed to make a mat-like membrane that has pores that trap viruses and bacteria. Sun and Si used electrospinning to create a membrane from two substances: a plant extract called chlorogenic acid which is then grafted onto benzophenone, an additive from sunscreen, soap and perfume. Both substances have the useful property that, in daylight and in the presence of oxygen, they produce pathogen-killing hydroxl radicals and superoxides – collectively known as reactive oxygen species, or ROS. The oxygen comes from air, while the hydrogen is produced by the nanomaterial.
3-16-18 Inked mice hint at how tattoos persist in people
Immune cells pass pigment from one generation to the next. Tattoos may have staying power because of a hand off between generations of immune cells known as macrophages, say a group of French researchers. If true, this would overturn notions that tattoo ink persists in connective tissue or in long-lasting macrophages. Immunologist Sandrine Henri of the Immunology Center of Marseille-Luminy, in France, and colleagues tattooed mice tails with green ink to see how waste-disposing macrophages in the skin would respond. “Macrophages will scavenge everything. That’s their job,” Henri says. “If they could do their job properly, tattoo ink would be removed rapidly.” In the experiment, described March 6 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, macrophages gobbled up the ink as expected, but did not digest and remove it. Instead, the cells held onto the ink until the researchers killed the cells. About 90 days later, new macrophages moved in and reabsorbed the ink. This capture-release-recapture cycle was key to preserving the tattoos, the researchers say.
3-16-18 Electrodes fitted behind your ear can make you walk faster
A type of electrical skull stimulation makes us step out faster with longer strides – a finding that could help people with balance disorders to walk more easily. Mild electrical stimulation just behind the ear seems to boost our balance and makes us walk more quickly with longer strides. The finding could lead to a device that helps people with balance disorders get around more easily. When we move, hairs in our inner ears detect changes in speed and feed this information back to the brain, helping to stabilise vision and posture, improving our balance. Shinichi Iwasaki, at the University of Tokyo, Japan, and his colleagues have found that electrical stimulation seems to enhance this, prompting people to walk faster. To target the hair cells of volunteers, his team placed electrodes over their mastoids – a part of the skull just behind the ear. They used these to deliver electrical current that fluctuated in frequency, making it a “noisy” signal – but not in the audible sense. In previous experiments, the team had found that this kind of stimulation improved people’s posture while standing still. This time, the team asked participants to wear a portable stimulator and walk at a speed they felt comfortable with for 15 metres. In this experiment, 19 people were exposed to this kind of stimulation at a range of currents up to 1000 microamps, and with no current at all.
3-15-18 The power of touch
The simple act of holding hands with a loving partner can significantly reduce physical pain, a new study suggests. Researchers asked 22 heterosexual couples who had been together for at least a year to undergo brain scans as they participated in different scenarios. The women either sat holding hands with their partners, sat nearby but did not touch them, or were in a different room. The scenarios were then repeated, but this time the women were subjected to mild pain. Overall, the women found that holding hands reduced the intensity of their pain by an average of 34 percent. The brain scans showed that when the couples held hands, their brain waves became synchronized—and that this “coupling” effect was even greater when the women were in pain. The researchers speculate that supportive touch could help people feel understood, which may trigger pain-reducing reward systems in the brain. “We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world, and we have fewer physical interactions,” lead author Pavel Goldstein, from the University of Colorado Boulder, tells ScienceDaily.com. “This [research] illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
3-15-18 Band-aid made of youthful protein stops wounds from scarring
Wounds heal faster and without visible scarring when given patches containing a skin protein that we make more of when we’re very young. A band-aid made of a protein that’s more common in fetal skin can heal wounds quickly, with no visible scarring. We know from in utero surgery that fetus skin doesn’t scar. One reason for this is that it contains scaffolds of a protein called fibronectin that help re-order skin cells after injury. But skin loses most of this fibronectin by birth. From then on, it re-forms in a haphazard way when it’s damaged, leaving thick, lumpy scars. Christophe Chantre at Harvard University and his colleagues wondered if they could restore the seamless healing of fetal skin by coating wounds with fibronectin fibres. They synthesised long, fibrous webs of fibronectin protein in the lab, and cut these into circular patches that were 1 centimetre in diameter. They then tested them on eight adult mice that each had two deep wounds on their back. For each mouse, one wound was covered with a fibronectin patch and a protective plastic film, and the other just with plastic film. The fibronectin-treated wounds healed faster and closed by day 11, three days faster than the untreated ones. By day 16, they had no visible scarring and were covered with new fur.
3-15-18 The ocean can make you sick
People who swim in the sea have a significantly higher risk of developing nasty infections, reports MedicalDaily.com. Scientists at the University of Exeter in England analyzed 19 studies involving more than 120,000 people living in wealthy, developed countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Norway. They found that those who swim in the ocean are 77 percent more likely to develop an earache, 44 percent more likely to have diarrhea, and at 29 percent greater risk for a gastrointestinal infection. The researchers say fecal bacteria from pollution is to blame, noting that thousands of tons of agricultural runoff, sewage, and other wastes are dumped into the ocean each day. “We’ve come a long way in terms of cleaning up our waters,” says research supervisor Will Gaze. “But our evidence shows there is still work to be done.”
3-15-18 Our ancestors mated with the mystery ‘Denisovan’ people – twice
The genes of extinct hominins called Denisovans live on in people from China and Papua New Guinea, suggesting two instances of cross-species breeding. Our ancestors mated with another species of ancient hominins, the Denisovans, on at least two occasions. The discovery suggests that Denisovans were widely across Asia, and apparently co-existed happily with modern humans, to the point of having children with them in two different parts of the ancient world. The Denisovans were unknown until 2010, when researchers described a fragment of a girl’s finger bone found in Denisova cave in Siberia. Soon afterwards, researchers sequenced its genome from the surviving DNA. The DNA did not belong to any known hominins, such as Neanderthals, so it had to be something new. What’s more, around 5 per cent of the DNA of some Australasians – particularly people from Papua New Guinea – is Denisovan. Humans evidently mated with Denisovans 50,000 or more years ago. But this posed a puzzle: why were the present-day descendants of Denisovans so far from the Denisovans’ Siberian home? The simplest explanation was that Denisovans lived throughout much of Asia, including South East Asia, not just Siberia. Sharon Browning of the University of Washington in Seattle and her colleagues have now found evidence of a second instance of human-Denisovan interbreeding – on the Asian mainland.
3-15-18 Ancient climate shifts may have sparked human ingenuity and networking
Stone tools suggest rise of humanlike behaviors by 320,000 years ago. Dramatic shifts in the East African climate may have driven toolmaking advances and the development of trading networks among Homo sapiens or their close relatives by the Middle Stone Age, roughly 320,000 years ago. That’s the implication of discoveries reported in three papers published online March 15 in Science. Newly excavated Middle Stone Age tools and red pigment chunks from southern Kenya’s Olorgesailie Basin appear to have been part of a long trend of climate-driven behavior changes in members of the Homo genus that amped up in H. sapiens. Locations of food sources can vary unpredictably on changing landscapes. H. sapiens and their precursors responded by foraging over larger areas with increasingly smaller tools, the researchers propose. Obsidian used for the Middle Stone Age tools came from far away, raising the likelihood of long-distance contacts and trading among hominid populations near humankind’s root. At roughly 320,000 years old, the excavated Middle Stone Age tools are the oldest of their kind, paleoanthropologist Rick Potts and colleagues report in one of the new papers. Researchers had previously estimated that such tools — spearpoints and other small implements struck from prepared chunks of stone — date to no earlier than 280,000 to possibly 300,000 years ago. Other more primitive, handheld cutting stones made of local rock date from around 1.2 million to 499,000 years ago at Olorgesailie. Gradual downsizing of those tools, including oval hand axes, occurred from 615,000 to 499,000 years ago, a stretch characterized by frequent shifts between wet and dry conditions, the scientists say.
3-15-18 Changing environment influenced human evolution
Humans may have developed advanced social behaviours and trade 100,000 years earlier than previously thought. This is according to a series of papers published today in Science. The results come from an archaeological site in Kenya's rift valley. "Over one million years of time" is represented at the site, according to Rick Potts from the Smithsonian Institution, who was involved in the studies. There are also signs of developments in toolmaking technologies. Environmental change may have been a key influence in this evolution of early Homo sapiens in the region of the Olorgesailie dig site. Early humans were in the area for about 700,000 years, making large hand axes from nearby stone, explained Dr Potts. "[Technologically], things changed very slowly, if at all, over hundreds of thousands of years," he said. Then, roughly 500,000 years ago, something did change. A period of tectonic upheaval and erratic climate conditions swept across the region, and there is a 180,000 year interruption in the geological record due to erosion. It was not only the landscape that altered, but also the plant and animal life in the region - transforming the resources available to our early ancestors. When the record resumes, the way of life of these early humans has completely changed. "The speed of the transition is really remarkable," Dr Potts said. "Sometime in that [gap] there was a switch, a very rapid period of evolution."
3-15-18 Liverwort reproductive organ inspires pipette design
The tool relies on water’s surface tension to hold a droplet. The sex organs of primitive plants are inspiring precise pipettes. Liverworts are a group of ground-hugging plants with male and female reproductive structures shaped like tiny palm trees. The female structures nab sperm-packed water droplets by surrounding them with their fronds, like an immobilized claw in an arcade machine. Scientists have coopted that design to create a plastic pipette that can pick up and transfer precise amounts of water, researchers report March 14 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Normally, the female reproductive structures of the umbrella liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha) clutch the spermy droplets beneath their fronds around the stems. But researchers flipped the umbrella-like cap upside down and stuck it onto a needle so it instead resembled a broom. That rejiggered liverwort could capture a droplet when dipped into water. Tilted at just the right angle, the drop slid back out.
3-14-18 Hospital admissions show the opioid crisis affects kids, too
More kids are suffering the consequences of opioid poisoning, an analysis of pediatric intensive care units shows. The rise in the abuse of opioids — powerfully addictive painkillers — is driven by adults. But kids are also swept up in the current, a new study makes clear. The number of children admitted to pediatric intensive care units at hospitals for opioid-related trouble nearly doubled between 2004 and 2015, researchers report in the March Pediatrics. Researchers combed through medical records from 46 hospitals around the United States, looking for opioid-related reasons for admission to the hospital. When the researchers looked at children who landed in pediatric intensive care units for opioid-related crises, the numbers were grim, nearly doubling. In the period including 2004 to 2007, 367 children landed in the PICU for opioid-related trouble. In the period including 2012 to 2015, that number was 643. (From 2008 to 2011, 554 kids were admitted to the PICU for opioid-related illnesses.) Most opioid-related hospital admissions were for children ages 12 to 17, the researchers found. The available stats couldn’t say how many of those events were accidental ingestions versus intentional drug use. (Though for older kids, there’s a sliver of good news from elsewhere: Prescription opioid use among teenagers is actually down, a recent survey suggests.) But about a third of the hospitalizations were for children younger than 6. And among these young kids, about 20 percent of the poisonings involved methadone, a drug that’s used to treat opioid addiction. That means that these young kids are getting into adults’ drugs (illicit or prescribed) and accidentally ingesting them.
3-14-18 New shades: The controversial quest to ‘fix’ colour blindness
Worldwide, 300 million people lack full colour vision. We try out a pair of specs that aim to "fix" colour blindness, and ask if that's something we want to do. Around the world, 300 million people lack full colour vision. For most, from the moment they first opened their eyes as newborns, they saw the world with a different palette to others. And I am one of them. So when I discovered the hype around the glasses, I had to try them. But this obsession over a way to correct colour blindness also got me thinking. How big a problem is colour deficiency really? And do we actually want to treat it? Humans see in colour thanks to cone cells in the retina. There are three types of these cells, each tuned to different wavelengths of visible light that roughly correspond to what we see as three colours: blue (short wavelengths), green (medium) and red (long). In most people, the brain uses the output of the cells to process a full spectrum of colours. These individuals are called trichromats. But 1 in 12 men and 1 in 150 women are affected by colour blindness, of which there are several kinds. It affects more men than women because the faulty gene responsible is passed on via the X-chromosome – so women need two copies to have the condition, otherwise their unaffected X-chromosome can compensate.
3-14-18 The shocking truth of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments
Milgram dismayed the world when he revealed how little it took to turn everyday people into torturers – but we were misled. WEARING a neat suit and tie, Adolf Eichmann brought the horror of Nazi concentration camps into American living rooms, making a new generation aware of the second world war’s atrocities. Eichmann was a high-ranking officer of the Third Reich, and his trial for war crimes was televised nightly across the US from April to August 1961. Stanley Milgram was riveted. He was a 26-year-old assistant professor at Yale University with childhood memories of the war, such as gathering around the radio with his family in their Brooklyn apartment for news of Jewish relatives in Eastern Europe. As the trial unfolded, Eichmann insisted he was merely following orders. This gave Milgram an idea for a research project that would become one of the most controversial experiments in the history of psychology. Milgram’s exploration into the limits of obedience to authority captured the public imagination, not least because of his chilling conclusion: that the majority of us could become torturers with just a few words of encouragement from a single authority figure. I arrived at Yale in 2007, excited to take a close look at this classic experiment and its recently released archive material. But what I found revealed a disturbing, twisted tale. This landmark research is as misunderstood as it is famous. In the early 1960s, social psychology was still an emerging discipline, one that quickly gained a reputation for experiments that concealed their true nature so as to trick people into behaving naturally. Pioneers like Milgram were expected to develop storytelling, acting and stagecraft skills as part of their research toolkit.
3-14-18 A quarter of people have bad reactions to fragranced products
Growing numbers of people say they get asthma, migraines or skin problems when they’re exposed to chemicals in products like deodorants and air fresheners. Increasing numbers of people in the US say that exposure to fragranced products is making them ill. According to a survey of more than 1100 people, one in four are now sensitive to everyday chemicals found in products like deodorants and air fresheners. “We’re exposed to these chemicals continuously, but people may not realise they’re being harmed until it’s too late, and then they have chemical sensitivity,” says Anne Steinemann of the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, who conducted the survey. Back in 2002, less than 3 per cent of respondents to a similar survey said they had been medically diagnosed with sensitivity to such chemicals. But in the latest survey, this has risen to 13 per cent, with 26 per cent diagnosing themselves as experiencing physical reactions to chemicals. Asthmatic problems were most prominent, reported by 71 per cent of those with medically diagnosed sensitivity and 59 per cent of the self-reporters. Migraines, skin problems and shortness of breath were also commonly reported symptoms. Of the 145 respondents with medically-diagnosed sensitivity, almost 60 per cent said they could no longer bear to visit public restrooms that use air fresheners, deodorisers or scented products. More than half—55 per cent—couldn’t wash their hands if soaps contained fragrances. Of those who had been medically diagnosed, 58 per cent were men, and 42 per cent were women. The most sensitive age group in men was ages 25 to 34.
3-14-18 Ten connected miniature organs are best human-on-a-chip yet
Ten miniature organs have been connected together to create the closest we’ve come yet to a human-on-a-chip – a system that may one day replace animal testing. Ten miniature models of various human organs have been connected together to create the closest we’ve come yet to a human-on-a-chip. The system survived for four weeks, and allowed scientists to test the effects of a common painkiller on multiple organs. Such systems could eventually do away with animal testing, says Linda Griffith at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led the work. Scientists around the world have been developing organs-on-chips. These typically comprise a 3D structure that contains multiple types of cells from a particular organ, and they are kept alive with a continuous flow of a nutrient-rich fluid. This makes them more representative of human organs in the body than cells in a tube or animal models, says Griffith. In 2011, Griffith and her colleagues were awarded a $37 million grant by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to connect 10 such organs together to better mimic the human body. “I thought it was super-ambitious, but we ultimately did it,” says Griffith. The team began by connecting their models of the lung, gut, and endometrium to a liver chip. Once they had got this working, they added other organs-on-chips – brain, heart, pancreas, kidney, skin and muscle. All of the tissue in the organs on chips survived for the four weeks they were tested, says Griffith. The organs-on-chips also showed signs of acting like true human organs, producing similar proteins. When the team applied a common painkiller called diclofenac to the gut chip, they found that other chips seemed to respond similarly to human organs.
3-13-18 Brain waves may focus attention and keep information flowing
Studies suggest the oscillations created by nerve cell activity have roles of their own. We can’t see it, but brains hum with electrical activity. Brain waves created by the coordinated firing of huge collections of nerve cells pinball around the brain. The waves can ricochet from the front of the brain to the back, or from deep structures all the way to the scalp and then back again. Called neuronal oscillations, these signals are known to accompany certain mental states. Quiet alpha waves ripple soothingly across the brains of meditating monks. Beta waves rise and fall during intense conversational turns. Fast gamma waves accompany sharp insights. Sluggish delta rhythms lull deep sleepers, while dreamers shift into slightly quicker theta rhythms. Researchers have long argued over whether these waves have purpose, and what those purposes might be. Some scientists see waves as inevitable but useless by-products of the signals that really matter — messages sent by individual nerve cells. Waves are simply a consequence of collective neural behavior, and nothing more, that view holds. But a growing body of evidence suggests just the opposite: Instead of by-products of important signals, brain waves are key to how the brain operates, routing information among far-flung brain regions that need to work together. MIT’s Earl Miller is among the neuroscientists amassing evidence that waves are an essential part of how the brain operates. Brain oscillations deftly route information in a way that allows the brain to choose which signals in the world to pay attention to and which to ignore, his recent studies suggest.
3-13-18 Dinobird Archaeopteryx only flew in short bursts like a pheasant
The bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx could flap its wings to fly, but only for short bursts – like a modern pheasant flapping to escape danger. A winged dinosaur widely regarded as the first bird seems to have flown like a pheasant. The Jurassic dinobird Archaeopteryx flapped its wings but was not capable of long distance active flight. Nor could it glide and soar, like modern-day birds of prey. Instead, Archaeopteryx probably made short bursts of limited low-level flight to escape danger, scientists believe. Present day pheasants adopt the same strategy when they take to the air to avoid predators, or gun-waving humans. The new study involved using a powerful X-ray beam to probe fossil bones. It also confirmed that 150 million years ago Archaeopteryx was an “active” flyer. It flapped its wings and properly flew, rather than gliding from tree to tree. Scientists conducted the research at ESRF, the European Synchrotron facility in Grenoble, France. Here, electrons accelerated around a circular tunnel generate X-rays 100 billion times more powerful than those in hospitals. The X-rays can be employed to analyse the internal structure of numerous different materials, including fossils. For the new study, the ESRF X-ray beam was used to peer inside the bones of three Archaeopteryx specimens without damaging the valuable fossils.
3-13-18 Dino-bird had wings made for flapping, not just gliding
Fossil analysis suggests Archaeopteryx was capable of bursts of flight, like today’s pheasants. Archaeopteryx was a flapper, not just a glider. The shape of the ancient bird’s wing bones suggests it was capable of short bursts of active, flapping flight, similar to how modern birds like pheasants and quails fly to escape predators, a new study finds. One of the earliest birds, Archaeopteryx lived about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, spanning the evolutionary gap between modern birds and feathered dinosaurs. Fossils of the primitive fowl have been instrumental in the recognition that birds are dinosaurs (SN Online: 7/31/14). But researchers have long wrangled over how well these ancient dino-birds could fly. Archaeopteryx doesn’t have several features considered essential to flight in modern birds, such as a keeled breastbone to which several important flight muscles attach; a ball-and-socket arrangement that allows the wing to flap fully up over the back and down again; and a muscle pulley system that links chest and shoulder muscles, allowing the birds to swiftly alternate between powerful downstrokes and upstrokes. Previous researchers also have suggested that Archaeopteryx’s plumage was too delicate and might have snapped with vigorous flapping (SN: 6/5/10, p. 12). Based on these observations, the primitive bird was thought to merely glide from branch to branch, rather than flapping its wings to fly.
3-13-18 Archaeopteryx flew like a pheasant, say scientists
The famous winged dinosaur Archaeopteryx was capable of flying, according to a new study. An international research team used powerful X-ray beams to peer inside its bones, showing they were almost hollow, as in modern birds. The creature flew like a pheasant, using short bursts of active flight, say scientists. Archaeopteryx has been a source of fascination since the first fossils were found in the 1860s. Treading the line between birds and dinosaurs, the animal was a similar size to a magpie, with feathered wings, sharp teeth and a long bony tail. After scanning Archaeopteryx fossils in a particle accelerator known as a synchrotron, researchers found its wing bones matched modern birds that flap their wings to fly short distances or in bursts. "Archaeopteryx seems optimised for incidental active flight," said lead researcher Dennis Voeten of the ESRF, the European Synchrotron facility in Grenoble, France. "We imagine something like pheasants and quails," he told BBC News. "If they have to fly to evade a predator they will make a very quick ascent, typically followed by a very short horizontal flight and then they make a running escape afterwards." The question of whether Archaeopteryx was a ground dweller, a glider or able to fly has been the subject of debate since the days of Darwin. Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh, UK, who is not connected with the study, said this was the best evidence yet that the animal was capable of powered flight. "I think it's case closed now," he said. "Archaeopteryx was capable of at least short bursts of powered flight. It's amazing that sticking a fossil into a synchrotron can reveal so much about how it behaved as a real animal back when it was alive."
3-13-18 Humans 'thrived' after historic Mount Toba eruption
Early humans may have flourished after the largest volcanic eruption in history, according to new research. Mount Toba erupted in Indonesia about 74,000 years ago. The event was long thought to have caused a volcanic winter, drastically reducing the global human population at the time. Recent excavations in South Africa suggest that settlements there not only endured the cataclysm, but may have "thrived" in its wake. The findings complement previous work in Lake Malawi, which searched lake bed cores for evidence of a global climate catastrophe at the time of the eruption, but could find none. An international team excavated two sites on the south coast of South Africa, finding evidence of human activity both before and after the eruption. "We're the first ones to really address the question of the Toba hypothesis in Africa. It's in Africa that it really counts, because that's the source location of modern humans," Dr Marean, an author of the paper published yesterday in Nature, told BBC News. The scientists found tiny shards of volcanic glass in the sediment at both sites. These form part of the debris ejected from a volcano during an eruption, known as tephra. When chemically analysed, the shards were found to be a match for Mount Toba, around 9,000 km away. These are thought to be the first volcanic deposits of their kind recorded so far from their source; further testament to the strength of the Toba eruption. It is believed to have been the largest on Earth in the last 2.5 million years.
3-13-18 Tracing sickle cell back to one child, 7,300 years ago
New research suggests that the history of sickle-cell disease goes back to a mutation in just one person, a development researchers hope will make treatment less complicated for the many people who suffer from this painful illness. So how have they traced it and why does it matter? The story of sickle-cell disease is, first and foremost, a study in how a good thing can come with bad consequences. Once upon a time in what is now the Sahara desert, a child was born with heightened immunity to malaria - important because at the time, this part of Africa was wet and rainy and covered with forest. It was a great habitat for mosquitoes, which carry malaria, a disease that these days kills one child every two minutes. With a better chance against an illness that was a major killer, then as now, this child with the genetic mutation lived and had children, and those children spread out, all bolstered with extra defences against malaria and living for longer, and their descendants around the world still have those extra defences today, more than 250 generations later. But here's where the bad consequences come in. If both your parents have that gene mutation, you can end up with sickle cell disease, which brings severe pain and other complications to its patients. These include shortness of breath, strokes and vision problems. And people who inherit the gene from both parents do not have its protection against malaria. The researchers say they traced the mutation back for 7,300 years, and found it started with just one child.
3-12-18 Found: more than 500 genes that are linked to intelligence
Intelligence is thought to be up to 80 per cent genetic, but it’s been hard to pin down the genes involved. Now the largest study of its kind has found hundreds. More than 500 genes associated with intelligence have been identified in the largest study of its kind. Researchers used data from the UK Biobank, comparing DNA variants from more than 240,000 people. Their analysis identified 538 genes linked to intellectual ability, and 187 regions of the human genome that are associated with thinking skills. Some of these genes are also linked to other biological processes, including living longer. However, even with all these genes, it’s still difficult to predict a person’s intelligence from their genomes. When they analysed the DNA of a group of different people, the team were only able to predict 7 per cent of the intelligence differences between those people. It is thought that around 50 to 80 per cent of variation in general intelligence between people is down to genetics. But environment plays a role too. Well-nourished children brought up in safe, unpolluted and stimulating environments score better in IQ tests than deprived children, for instance.
3-12-18 Psychopaths pay less attention to what other people are thinking
Psychopaths in films and TV are often masters of manipulation, but in real life they’re not so good at subconsciously registering other people’s perspectives. Psychopaths in films and TV are often masters of manipulation, but in real life they’re not so good at taking other people’s perspectives into account. The ability to understand that other people can have different beliefs and opinions to our own develops in the first few years of our lives. Known as theory of mind, this plays a fundamental role in our social interactions. Recent evidence suggests that theory of mind has two components – an explicit kind, where we consciously reason about what someone else is thinking, and a more automatic version that influences our decision-making subconsciously. Psychopaths are known to be have normal abilities when it comes to explicitly working out what other people are thinking. But Arielle Baskin-Sommers of Yale University and her colleagues have now found out that psychopaths are worse than the average person at subconsciously registering someone else’s perspective. The team recruited 106 prisoners from a maximum-security prison in Connecticut. Using a standard mental health questionnaire, the team found that 22 of them were psychopathic, 28 were definitely not psychopathic, and the others scored somewhere in the middle.
3-12-18 Being in a relationship really does seem to make you fatter
A massive study has found that couples tend to have healthier lifestyles than single people, but that doesn’t stop them from piling on the pounds. You really do put on weight in a relationship. A massive study has found that couples tend to have healthier lifestyles than single people, but that doesn’t stop them from piling on the pounds. To investigate the links between relationship status and health, Stephanie Schoeppe, at Central Queensland University in Australia, and her colleagues analysed a decade of survey data from over 15,000 volunteers. Each person had answered questions about their lifestyle choices, such as how active they were, how much fast food they ate, and how much time they spent watching television. In their analysis, the team accounted for variables that might affect a person’s responses, including their age, sex, employment status and level of education. They found that couples and singles seem to do the same amount of physical activity, and watch similar amounts of television. But generally, people in relationships seemed to make other healthier lifestyle choices, says Schoeppe. Couples ate more fruit and vegetables and less fast food, they drank less alcohol, and they smoked less too. Other studies have shown that if couples are happy with their relationship, they’re more likely to want to live healthier lifestyles because they want their relationship to last longer too, says Jerica Berge, at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
3-12-18 Genes have a role in empathy, study says
It helps us to make close connections with people, and influences how we behave in a range of situations, from the workplace to a party. Now scientists say empathy is not just something we develop through our upbringing and life experiences - it is also partly inherited. A study of 46,000 people found evidence for the first time that genes have a role in how empathetic we are. And it also found that women are generally more empathetic than men. Empathy has an important role in our relationships. It helps us recognise other people's emotions and it guides us to respond appropriately, such as by knowing when someone is upset and wants to be comforted. It is largely considered to be something we develop through childhood and our life experiences. But in this new paper, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, scientists looked to see if how empathetic we are can be traced to our genes. Participants in the study had their "empathy quotient" (EQ) measured with a questionnaire, and gave saliva samples for DNA testing. Scientists then looked for differences in their genes that could explain why some of us are more empathetic than others. They found that at least 10% of the differences in how empathetic people are is down to genetics.(Webmaster's comment: The fact that women are more empathic than men should have been a strong clue that empathy has a strong genetic component.)
3-12-18 Muscle loss in old age linked to fewer nerve signals
Researchers say they may have worked out why there is a natural loss of muscle in the legs as people age - and that it is due to a loss of nerves. In tests on 168 men, they found that nerves controlling the legs decreased by around 30% by the age of 75. This made muscles waste away, but in older fitter athletes there was a better chance of them being 'rescued' by nerves re-connecting. The scientists published their research in the Journal of Physiology. As people get older, their leg muscles become smaller and weaker, leading to problems with everyday movements such as walking up stairs or getting out of a chair. It is something that affects everyone eventually, but why it happens is not fully understood. Prof Jamie McPhee, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said young adults usually had 60-70,000 nerves controlling movement in the legs from the lumbar spine. But his research showed this changed significantly in old age. "There was a dramatic loss of nerves controlling the muscles - a 30-60% loss - which means they waste away," he said. "The muscles need to receive a proper signal from the nervous system to tell them to contract, so we can move around." Although it is not known why connections between muscles and nerves break down with age, finding out more about muscle loss could help scientists find ways of reversing the condition in the future.
3-12-18 How biology breaks the ‘cerebral mystique’
The Biological Mind explores how the brain, body and environment make us who we are. At a small eatery in Seville, Spain, Alan Jasanoff had his first experience with brains — wrapped in eggs and served with potatoes. At the time, he was more interested in finding a good, affordable meal than contemplating the sheer awesomeness of the organ he was eating. Years later, Jasanoff began studying the brain as part of his training as a neuroscientist, and he went on, like so many others, to revere it. It is said, after all, to be the root of our soul and consciousness. But today, Jasanoff has yet another view: He has come to see our awe of the organ as a seriously flawed way of thinking, and even a danger to society. In The Biological Mind, Jasanoff, now a neuroscientist at MIT, refers to the romanticized view of the brain — its separateness and superiority to the body and its depiction as almost supernatural — as the “cerebral mystique.” Such an attitude has been fueled, in part, by images that depict the brain without any connection to the body or by analogies that compare the brain to a computer. Admittedly, the brain does have tremendous computing power. But Jasanoff’s goal is to show that the brain doesn’t work as a distinct, mystical entity, but as a ball of flesh awash with fluids and innately in tune with the rest of the body and the environment. “Self” doesn’t just come from the brain, he explains, but also from the interactions of chemicals from our bodies with everything else around us.
3-11-18 Depression among new mothers is finally getting some attention
Why is a happy time of life a dark time for some women? On the hormonal roller coaster of life, the ups and downs of childbirth are the Tower of Power. For nine long months, a woman’s body and brain absorb a slow upwelling of hormones, notably progesterone and estrogen. The ovaries and placenta produce these two chemicals in a gradual but relentless rise to support the developing fetus. With the birth of a baby, and the immediate expulsion of the placenta, hormone levels plummet. No other physiological change comes close to this kind of free fall in both speed and intensity. For most women, the brain and body make a smooth landing, but more than 1 in 10 women in the United States may have trouble coping with the sudden crash. Those new mothers are left feeling depressed, isolated or anxious at a time society expects them to be deliriously happy. This has always been so. Mental struggles following childbirth have been recognized for as long as doctors have documented the experience of pregnancy. Hippocrates described a woman’s restlessness and insomnia after giving birth. In the 19th century, some doctors declared that mothers were suffering from “insanity of pregnancy” or “insanity of lactation.” Women were sent to mental hospitals. Modern medicine recognizes psychiatric suffering in new mothers as an illness like any other, but the condition, known as postpartum depression, still bears stigma. Both depression and anxiety are thought to be woefully underdiagnosed in new mothers, given that many women are afraid to admit that a new baby is anything less than a bundle of joy. It’s not the feeling they expected when they were expecting.
3-10-18 How a physical injury can cause mental pain
Among African-American men, injuries affect more than the body. Surviving an injury — particularly one that resulted from a violent action — can cause significant emotional and mental-health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For marginalized communities, the risk factors for violence and injury are disproportionately higher: According to the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, more than 60 percent of African-American youth in the United States are victims of crime, and almost 40 percent witness violence during their childhood. New research shows that exposure to violence and injury can affect more than just the individual's psyche; it causes them to become distant from important support networks, and can change the way they interact with and confide in those close to them. The study, published in Injury, shows a significant number of African-American men in the United States who experience acute intentional injury withdrew from their families and peers, loosening support networks necessary to withstand the emotional effects that accompany physical injury. The study surveyed 74 African-American men, all of whom were over the age of 18 and lived in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. The researchers interviewed the men in their own homes for three months after their discharge from the hospital. Men were excluded from the study if they had a diagnosis of PTSD, depression, or an active psychotic disorder at the time of the injury. Understanding the disparities in emotional response can help in the formation of medical response, emotional treatment, and lasting support, especially for those in under-resourced communities, explains the study's co-author, Therese Richmond, the associate dean for research and innovation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.
3-9-18 Young babies disapprove when they see adults acting immorally
Even four-month-old infants expect adults to go comfort another baby that is crying – a finding that suggests we may be born with a foundation of morality. Even four-month-old infants expect adults to comfort crying babies. The finding suggests that we may be born with a foundation of morality that becomes the basis for more advanced moral and social behaviour in later life. Psychologists have long debated whether moral behaviour is innate or learned. In 2007, Kiley Hamlin and colleagues at Yale University found that 6-month-old and 10-month-old babies prefer people who help others, and show an aversion to those who don’t. But to understand how we develop our moral beliefs, we need to know not just whether babies prefer those who help others, but also whether they expect such behaviour. To find out, Renée Baillargeon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleagues played videos to babies aged 4 months and 12 months. The videos showed an unfamiliar woman folding laundry, with a stroller at the back of the room. In some of the videos, the stroller began to shake, and there was the sound of a baby crying, suggesting that the stroller contained an infant in distress. In one video, the woman went to rock the stroller and stop the baby crying. In another, she just continued to fold laundry, ignoring the baby. It’s well known that when infants are surprised by something that does not follow their expectations, they spend longer looking at it. The team found that the infants looked significantly longer at the video in which the adult ignored the baby, suggesting they expected her to comfort it.
3-9-18 Museum mummies sport world’s oldest tattoo drawings
Infrared photography reveals animals and symbolic designs from 5,000 years ago. Two human mummies housed at the British Museum in London for more than a century boast the world’s oldest known — and longest hidden — tattoos of figures and designs, a new investigation finds. These people lived in Egypt at or shortly before the rise of the first pharaoh around 5,100 years ago. Radiocarbon analyses of hairs from the mummies date the bodies to between 3351 B.C. and 3017 B.C., says a team led by Egyptologist Renée Friedman of the University of Oxford and bioarchaeologist Daniel Antoine of the British Museum in London. Infrared photography revealed that smudges on a male mummy’s upper right arm depict a wild bull and a Barbary sheep, while a female mummy bears four S-shaped patterns on her right shoulder and a line with bent ends on her right arm. These animals and figures appear in Egyptian art from the same period, the researchers report online March 1 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Both sets of tattoos — which consist of a carbon-based pigment, possibly soot — may have symbolized power, social status or knowledge of cult activities, but their precise meanings are unclear. The two were the only mummies found with tattoos, out of seven mummies originally buried at a southern Egyptian site and now held at the British Museum. All of the bodies had been preserved by the desert’s dry heat.
3-9-18 Brain zap can make people re-experience old dreams while awake
While déjà-vu is a false feeling of familiarity, déjà-rêvé is a rare experience of suddenly recalling a dream – and it can be sparked by zapping the brain. People with epilepsy sometimes recall old dreams during seizures. Now a study has found that stimulating a particular part of their brains with electricity can also make this happen. “I saw something, a dream – a nightmare I had a couple of years ago. An object on a table,” said one person analysed in the study. This phenomenon is called déjà-rêvé, which means “already dreamed”. While déjà-vu is a feeling of familiarity for a new situation, déjà-rêvé seems to be much rarer, and usually involves recalling a thought experience that happened while sleeping. To understand it better, Jonathan Curot, of Toulouse University Hospital, France, and his colleagues collected examples of déjà-rêvé from 23 people from published studies, and seven people whose experiences had been recorded in epilepsy treatment databases. All of them reported déjà-rêvé-like occurrences when undergoing electrical brain stimulation to assess which regions of their brains seemed to be involved in their epileptic seizures. “I had the reminiscence of a dream I had a few days ago,” said another. “I was in a closed room, I felt the atmosphere, [and] I saw an orange colour,” said one person who received brain stimulation at the epilepsy treatment centre where Curot works.
3-9-18 Ancient birds couldn’t sit on their eggs without smashing them
The first birds to evolve had hip bones that forced them to lay small, weak eggs that could not support the adult bird’s weight. Early birds like Archaeopteryx were far too heavy to sit on their eggs without cracking them. The conclusion holds true for non-bird dinosaurs too, leading to fresh doubts about how to interpret spectacular fossils that appear to show dinosaurs brooding their eggs. Most birds today lay eggs with strong, hard shells. This strength is necessary because many birds practice contact incubation – meaning the adult rests its body weight directly on the eggs. But just because modern bird eggs can support the weight of a brooding adult it doesn’t necessarily follow that ancient bird eggs could, says Charles Deeming at the University of Lincoln, UK. To investigate, Deeming and his colleague – Gerald Mayr at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt, Germany – looked at fossils of 21 species of bird that lived alongside the dinosaurs during the Jurassic and Cretaceous. For each species, they studied the bones of pelvis and estimated the size of egg that the bird could have comfortably laid. A recent study suggests there is a predictable relationship between egg size and strength, which means Deeming and Mayr could predict what sort of load the eggs of their ancient birds could have withstood before cracking.
3-8-18 Newer drugs make hepatitis C-positive kidneys safe for transplant
Improved antivirals could help expand the number of organs available for donation. People who received kidneys from donors infected with hepatitis C did not become ill with the virus, thanks to treatment with newer drugs that can cure the disease, a small study reports. Ten patients not previously infected with hepatitis C took doses of powerful antiviral medications before and after receiving the transplants. None of the patients developed chronic infections, researchers report online March 6 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The finding could help make more kidneys available for transplants. “If this increases access to transplantation, then this is a great benefit,” says Jay Fishman, a transplant infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. As of January 2016, more than 100,000 people in the United States were awaiting transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. In many areas, patients can linger on waiting lists for more than five years. In 2014, there were about 17,000 kidney transplants in the country, and nearly 4,800 people died while waiting.
3-8-18 A high fibre diet helps treat diabetes by changing gut bacteria
A diet rich in wholegrains, seeds and vegetables can help treat type 2 diabetes – and it seems to do this by changing the bacteria that live in a person’s gut . A diet rich in fruit and vegetables can help treat type 2 diabetes – and it seems to do this by changing the bacteria that live in a person’s gut. Liping Zhao at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and his colleagues compared the effects of two different diets in people with type 2 diabetes. Over 12 weeks, 16 people followed a standard low-fat, low-carb diet, while 27 people ate a lot of high-fibre foods, such as wholegrains, seeds and vegetables. Both groups also took a drug called acarbose, which makes people digest starch more slowly than usual. This allows starch to reach the large intestine, where microbes feed upon it. By the end of the trial, 89 per cent of those on the high-fibre diets showed signs that their bodies were regulating their blood sugar levels more effectively – compared to 50 per cent of the control group. Volunteers who ate more fibre also lost more weight, and had better blood lipid profiles. “Increasing dietary fibres can improve diabetes,” says Zhao. To see how this diet affects people’s microbiomes, the team focussed on strains of bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids in our guts. These chemicals are thought to be important for gut health
3-8-18 Peanut allergy breakthrough
A promising new treatment could help ease the lifelong burden of peanut allergy. In people who suffer from this sometimes life-threatening affliction, peanut protein triggers an allergic reaction. The new treatment, developed by Aimmune Therapeutics, is a peanut protein powder that helps children build up a tolerance to the allergen. The California-based firm carried out a clinical trial involving 496 kids, ages 4 to 17, with severe peanut allergies. Under strict supervision, 372 of the children mixed increasing doses of the powder into their food over a period of six months; they then had the maximum dose for an additional six months. The other participants had a placebo. By the end of the study, 67 percent of the kids given the treatment could tolerate the equivalent of two peanuts, compared with only 4 percent of the placebo group. While the powder doesn’t cure peanut allergy, it could help prevent life-threatening reactions. “It’s not going to be for everybody,” allergist Jonathan Tam, from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, tells CBSNews.com. “But for certain families that are very anxious about having accidental exposures, this is a great therapy.” Aimmune plans to seek approval for the treatment from the Food and Drug Administration by the end of the year.
3-8-18 Alcohol-related dementia
Heavy drinking takes an irreversible, long-term toll on the brain, increasing the risk for all forms of dementia, a new study suggests. Researchers analyzed the medical records of more than 1 million adults diagnosed with dementia from 2008 to 2013. They found that the strongest predictor for the condition was hospitalization for an alcohol-related health issue, particularly among those younger than 65, and that nearly 60 percent of early-onset dementia cases were associated with alcohol-related brain damage. Alcohol is toxic to brain cells and contributes to chronic conditions that reduce blood flow to the brain. The World Health Organization defines heavy drinking as four or more drinks a day for men, three or more for women. “Some people look at their drinking habits and say, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ or, ‘A lot of people drink this much,’” lead author Jürgen Rehm, from the University of Toronto, tells Time.com. “And yes, a lot of people do—but that’s why a lot of people are dying prematurely, and maybe why a lot of people are developing dementia.”
3-8-18 The debate over how long our brains keep making new nerve cells heats up
A new study finds no signs of newborn neurons in adults’ memory-making region. Adult mice and other rodents sprout new nerve cells in memory-related parts of their brains. People, not so much. That’s the surprising conclusion of a series of experiments on human brains of various ages first described at a meeting in November (SN: 12/9/17, p. 10). A more complete description of the finding, published online March 7 in Nature, gives heft to the controversial result, as well as ammo to researchers looking for reasons to be skeptical of the findings. In contrast to earlier prominent studies, Shawn Sorrells of the University of California, San Francisco and his colleagues failed to find newborn nerve cells in the memory-related hippocampi of adult brains. The team looked for these cells in nonliving brain samples in two ways: molecular markers that tag dividing cells and young nerve cells, and telltale shapes of newborn cells. Using these metrics, the researchers saw signs of newborn nerve cells in fetal brains and brains from the first year of life, but they became rarer in older children. And the brains of adults had none.
3-8-18 Could a bedtime pill protect you from morning heart attacks?
Most people are protected from early morning heart attacks by compounds in their blood. Could giving these substances to people with heart disease save lives?. The start of your day is the most dangerous part of it – heart attacks are both more likely and more lethal in the morning. But a type of chemical made by your body from fish oils can protect you from this, and may lead to new drugs to help people with heart disease. Resolvins are a type of substance made by our immune cells from DPA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Jesmond Dalli of Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues have discovered that the level of resolvins in our blood peaks at around 7 am. However, when they examined the blood of 16 people with heart disease, they found that they had only around a third as much resolvin in their blood in the morning as people without heart disease. The team then tested these chemicals in the lab, finding that they suppress inflammation of monocytes and neutrophils, two types of immune cell. “This reduces their ability to form tiny clots,” says Dalli. Such clots are a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, he says, and they contribute to atherosclerosis – the building up of plaques in arteries. When the team gave resolvins to mice that had been fed a high-fat diet, they produced half as many tiny clots – known as aggregates – and lowered fatty damage to the aorta by 20 per cent.
3-8-18 Deep sea discovery suggests world’s oldest fossils misunderstood
Stromatolites represent some of the oldest fossils on Earth but the assumption that they formed in sun-drenched seas has now been challenged. We might need to rethink what we know about the oldest fossils ever found. Some of the best evidence for early life is provided by structures called stromatolites. Many geologists assume these stromatolites were made by microbes living in shallow, sun-drenched water. This means that life, if it emerged on the deep seafloor as some scientists believe, spread to shallow regions rapidly. A new discovery questions that conclusion. It is a stromatolite that formed recently in the deep, dark water at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. “I think this is unique,” says Russell Shapiro at California State University–Chico. Stromatolites are rock-like structures made up of many thin layers. They were formed by microorganisms, some of which lived in “mats” to which sediments became attached. Similar structures still form in a few places today – including Australia’s Shark Bay. These modern stromatolites form in shallow seas and lakes that are flooded by sunlight. As a result, researchers long assumed that stromatolites are always created by photosynthetic microbes that harness energy from sunlight to make food. However, since the 1990s a few researchers have suggested that microbes living on the dark ocean floor – which do not use sunlight – might also be able to generate stromatolites. We now know they can. In 2007 an expedition visited the Arabian Sea, just off the coast of Pakistan. Researchers collected what looked like a 40-centimetre-tall stromatolite from 731 metres down, in dark water containing very little oxygen. The scientists put it into a CT scanner and confirmed that it had the finely-layered internal structure of a stromatolite.
3-7-18 23andMe’s breast cancer test may create false sense of security
Genomics firm 23andMe is the first to receive approval for direct-to-consumer cancer gene tests in the US, but will recipients misunderstand the results?. Women can now buy a test telling them if they carry variants of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that raise their risk of breast cancer. That sounds like a welcome advance in medical technology. But the particular variants identified are mostly confined to Ashkenazi Jewish women and are very rare in the general population. If women buying the new test don’t understand that, there is a risk they could be lulled into a false sense of security if they test negative. The test is being sold by 23andMe, a Californian company that has pioneered personal DNA analysis. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the test’s sale yesterday, and if you have recently submitted your DNA to 23andMe, the results should be available online soon to customers who specifically request them. But should you look at them? There are more than 1000 known mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but the new test only detects three. They are carried by 1 in 40 people of Ashkenazi ancestry, compared with 1 in 400 in the general population, and are thought to pose a high risk for carriers, giving them a 45 to 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 39 to 46 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer. In the general population, however, doctors regularly test women for other well-established common variants of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Around 70 per cent of carriers will go on to develop breast cancer by the age of 80. The 23andMe test will tell you nothing about these variants.
3-7-18 Very creative people have a special kind of brain activity
IF YOU need to produce your best creative work, try boosting your alpha brainwaves. Joel Lopata at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues have found that people with more synchronised alpha waves are more creative and produce work of higher quality. The team asked 22 pianists to listen to, play back or improvise jazz melodies. As they did so, the researchers monitored electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that orchestrates our thoughts. When groups of neurons send signals at the same time, the result is a wave of electrical activity that EEG caps can pick up. Certain brainwave types have been linked with mental states – delta waves are detectable during deep sleep, for instance, whereas beta waves signify that someone is analysing something critically. Alpha brainwaves, with a frequency of 7 to 14 hertz or so, have been linked with coming up with creative ideas, such as answering questions like “name as many original uses for a mop as you can”. When the researchers analysed the pianists’ brainwaves, they found the alpha waves became more in sync – more neurons were firing at the same time – the more creative someone was at the time. However, they only saw this in people who had formal training in improvisation. Among these pianists, alpha waves became more synchronised when they played back music they had previously heard, and even more so when they were improvising their own melodies. When expert musicians listened to and rated them, the improvisations that were associated with the highest alpha-wave synchronisation got the best scores (Neuropsychologia, doi.org/f97w8t).
3-7-18 People with Tourette’s may find it easier to pick up new skills
People with Tourette’s syndrome are better at learning tasks unconsciously – an ability that may make it easier for them to learn a second language or to drive. People with Tourette’s syndrome seem to have enhanced memory that could make them better at learning tasks unconsciously, such as speaking a second language or driving a car. Procedural memory helps us do things without conscious thought. An experiment in which children played a computer game suggests that children with Tourette’s may be much better at learning in this way. “This highlights the facts that conditions like this can be associated not only with disadvantages, but also potential advantages,” says Dezso Nemeth at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. People with Tourette’s syndrome make involuntary sounds and movements called tics. A cluster of neurons deep in the centre of the brain, called the basal ganglia, seems to be involved in the condition, and is also known to be important for procedural memory. To see if the two may be linked, Nemeth and his colleagues asked 42 children, aged between 8 and 15, to play a computer game that tested their procedural memory. Half the children had Tourette’s. The team found that the children with Tourette’s improved at the task 30 to 40 per cent quicker than those without the condition. “It’s the first time that this kind of memory has been found to be enhanced in any neurological condition,” says Nemeth.
3-7-18 I exposed how online profiling leaves us open to mass persuasion
David Stillwell revealed how social media lets companies nail your personality as well as a spouse could, leaving you ripe for exploitation – but he sees the upside. DAVID STILLWELL fidgets with his empty takeaway cup as we talk. Sitting in this quiet cafeteria at the University of Cambridge, the ongoing firestorm of US politics feels a million miles away. But with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 US presidential election, the fire found its way to him, thrusting the young researcher into the spotlight. “It’s uncomfortable,” he says, uncomfortably. “Plenty of investigative journalists have wanted to have off-the-record conversations about what companies are doing and whether we’ve helped them.” The conversations he is referring to concern what some consider a form of pervasive mind control. Stillwell played a key role in exposing ways that firms and governments can exploit our online data, mining it to create individual psychological profiles they can use to fine-tune adverts and political messages for maximum impact, ushering in an era of unprecedented digital persuasion of the masses. It started in summer 2007. On a whim – having just finished a psychology degree at the University of Nottingham, UK – Stillwell made a Facebook app called myPersonality. It let people take a test that describes personality types according to the “Big Five” traits, which include degrees of agreeableness, conscientiousness and extroversion.
3-7-18 The real reason people talk over you, and what to do about it
Getting interrupted is the worst, but knowing why people butt in may leave you more forgiving of the big mouth who did, and ready to stop it happening again. IT HAS happened to all of us. You’re in the middle of an important point, or reaching the climax of a humorous anecdote, and someone butts right in. You may jump back in to finish the story, indignantly stammer a few more words or quietly fume while the interrupter takes the floor, but the moment has passed: your eloquent point is lost, your story garbled. Media reports tell us that men often interrupt and “mansplain” things to women – last month, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau got unflattering attention for doing so – and stereotypes would have us believe that people from some countries are more likely to jump in than those from others. But take a closer look at how interruptions play out and things aren’t always what they seem. Figure out why and how people interrupt and you might find yourself more forgiving of the big mouth who stole your moment or better placed to avoid it happening again. Let’s start with the oft-cited finding that men are much quicker to interrupt and talk over women than the other way round. Media reports aside, the original research backing up this idea comes from the 1970s. It showed that, in covertly recorded conversations between men and women in the US, the men cut in 46 out of 48 times. And a 2014 study found that men and women both interrupted women more than they did men. But psychologist Ann Weatherall at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand says the early studies counted all overlapping speech, skewing the results. “Sometimes people overlap and it’s not interruptive at all,” she says. It is also hard to know whether men interrupt because of their gender or their status, she says, with men more often holding positions of power.
3-7-18 The global treatment plan helping to control the HIV epidemic
At the turn of the century, the best HIV therapies were available only in developed countries. Now, the increasingly global availability of powerful new treatments is helping to bring the HIV epidemic to heel. The impact of HIV in Africa in the 1990s and 2000s was profound. “It was a horrendous time,” says Kenly Sikwese, who has lived in Zambia for most of his life. One report found that, in 1999 alone, 5.4 million people were infected and 2.8 million died. “I lost two of my own brothers to HIV, and I was one of the lucky ones – there were families of 10 that only had two members left,” says Sikwese, who coordinates an HIV treatment advocate network called AfroCAB, which campaigns for the speedy development and approval of life-saving treatments. “It was a time of no hope; if you had HIV, all you could do was wait to die.” The rapid spread of the virus, combined with a lack of access to treatments, was especially felt by African nations. “Zambia became a country of funerals,” says Sikwese. Since then, things have changed thanks to a huge surge of financial support from foreign governments and smart licensing deals by pharmaceutical companies. Much of the early funding was made available via the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – an initiative launched by George W. Bush, US president at the time. This programme released $15 million to fund HIV prevention, care and treatment in developing countries between 2004 and 2008. Together with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, these organisations are still the mainstay for global HIV funding. “Global AIDS-related deaths peaked at 1.9 million in 2005 but had halved by 2016”
3-7-18 Dark DNA: The missing matter at the heart of nature
The discovery that some animals thrive despite hugely mutated DNA hidden in their genome is forcing us to rethink some basics of evolution. THE fat sand rat is a strange creature. It lives in burrows, eats around 80 per cent of its body mass in leaves each day and doesn’t drink water. But the really odd thing about this gerbil is that some of its DNA appears to be missing. No doubt you have heard of dark matter, which is thought to make up over a quarter of the universe. We know it’s there; we just haven’t been able to detect it. Well, something similar is afoot in the genome. My colleagues and I have dubbed this elusive genetic matter “dark DNA”. And our investigations into the sand rat are starting to reveal its nature. The discovery of dark DNA is so recent that we are still trying to work out how widespread it is and whether it benefits those species that possess it. However, its very existence raises some fundamental questions about genetics and evolution. We may need to look again at how adaptation occurs at the molecular level. Controversially, dark DNA might even be a driving force of evolution. The sand rat (Psammomys obesus) is a desert species native to North Africa and the Middle East, but put it in a lab and something strange happens. When fed a “normal” diet – the standard fare for laboratory rodents – sand rats tend to become obese and develop type 2 diabetes. This was discovered in the 1960s, and has made sand rats the focus of study for biologists interested in understanding nutrition-induced diabetes in humans. Yet, in all that time, the mystery of why these gerbils are so susceptible to the disease has remained unsolved.
3-7-18 This baby bird fossil gives a rare look at ancient avian development
The lack of complete breastbone suggests diversity in how some early birds developed. This baby bird had barely hatched before it died 127 million years ago — and its lack of fully developed bony breastbone, or sternum, suggests it couldn’t yet fly. The tiny fossil, just a few centimeters long, is giving paleontologists a rare window into the early development of a group of extinct birds called Enantiornithes, researchers report March 5 in Nature Communications. Previous studies of juvenile Enantiornithes have shown that the sternums of these birds ossified in a pattern different from modern and other ancient birds. The sternum’s ossification — a process in which the cartilage is replaced by bone — is a prerequisite to withstand the stresses of flight. But which parts of the sternum fuse first varies widely among modern birds. Those patterns are reflected in modern birds’ life histories, such as how soon birds can fly and how long they rely on their parents after hatching.
3-7-18 Cancer algorithm uses game theory to double survival time
Using algorithms to monitor cancer evolution and apply game theory to their treatment has doubled the survival time of men with advanced prostate cancer. APPROACHING cancer treatment as a game has doubled the survival time of men with advanced prostate cancer. This achievement could mark the start of using game theory to target a range of cancers more cleverly. “This approach is elegant and exciting, and shows real promise to delay treatment failure,” says Charles Swanton at the Francis Crick Institute in London. People with cancer aren’t usually killed by their initial tumour, but by the rapidly evolving secondary tumours that occur once the disease has spread. To work out how each case of cancer is evolving, Robert Gatenby and his colleagues at the Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Florida created an algorithm. Built using clinical data, it also suggests the best treatment regime to maximise a person’s survival. This enables the team to use game theory to keep the upper hand over cancer. In this “game”, the oncologists are predators, and the cancer cells are prey. The oncologists’ objective is to kill the prey, or to at least keep it in check. But conventional cancer treatment shifts this balance. By giving a patient repeated strong doses of a cancer drug, the cells are pushed to evolve resistance. When this occurs, the oncologists stop leading the game and instead have to keep up with an evolving, stronger cancer. By using the algorithm to deploy drugs more subtly, and closely monitoring what the cancer does in response, Gatenby says oncologists can stay ahead.
3-7-18 Humans don’t get enough sleep. Just ask other primates.
People devote more time to learning, at the expense of shut-eye, researchers propose People have evolved to sleep much less than chimps, baboons or any other primate studied so far. A large comparison of primate sleep patterns finds that most species get somewhere between nine and 15 hours of shut-eye daily, while humans average just seven. An analysis of several lifestyle and biological factors, however, predicts people should get 9.55 hours, researchers report online February 14 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Most other primates in the study typically sleep as much as the scientists’ statistical models predict they should. Two long-standing features of human life have contributed to unusually short sleep times, argue evolutionary anthropologists Charles Nunn of Duke University and David Samson of the University of Toronto Mississauga. First, when humans’ ancestors descended from the trees to sleep on the ground, individuals probably had to spend more time awake to guard against predator attacks. Second, humans have faced intense pressure to learn and teach new skills and to make social connections at the expense of sleep. As sleep declined, rapid-eye movement, or REM — sleep linked to learning and memory (SN: 6/11/16, p. 15) — came to play an outsize role in human slumber, the researchers propose. Non-REM sleep accounts for an unexpectedly small share of human sleep, although it may also aid memory (SN: 7/12/14, p. 8), the scientists contend.
3-6-18 Alzheimer's researchers win brain prize
Four dementia scientists have shared this year's 1m Euro brain prize for pivotal work that has changed our understanding of Alzheimer's disease. Profs John Hardy, Bart De Strooper, Michel Goedert, based in the UK, and Prof Christian Haass, from Germany, unpicked key protein changes that lead to this most common type of dementia. On getting the award, Prof Hardy said he hoped new treatments could be found. He is donating some of his prize money to care for Alzheimer's patients. Much of the drug discovery research that's done today builds on their pioneering work, looking for ways to stop the build-up of damaging proteins, such as amyloid and tau. Alzheimer's and other dementias affect 50 million people around the world, and none of the treatments currently available can stop the disease. Prof Hardy's work includes finding rare, faulty genes linked to Alzheimer's disease. These genetic errors implicated a build-up of amyloid as the event that kick-starts damage to nerve cells in Alzheimer's. This idea, known as the amyloid cascade hypothesis, has been central to Alzheimer's research for nearly 30 years. Together with Prof Haass, who is from the University of Munich, Prof Hardy, who's now at University College London, then discovered how amyloid production changes in people with rare inherited forms of Alzheimer's dementia. (Webmaster's comment: Don't expect America to follow suit. American Healthcare can make billions milking Alzheimer patients of their money.)
3-6-18 These petunias launch seeds that spin 1,660 times a second
High-speed cameras capture how fastest-known rotation helps plants fling seeds far. Nature may have a few things to teach tennis players about backspin. The hairyflower wild petunia (Ruellia ciliatiflora) shoots seeds that spin up to 1,660 times per second, which helps them fly farther, researchers report March 7 in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. These seeds have the fastest known rotations of any plant or animal, the authors say. Plants that disperse seeds a greater distance are likely to be more successful in reproducing and spreading. Glue that holds the flower’s podlike fruit together breaks down on contact with water, allowing the fruit to split explosively, launching millimeter-sized seeds. Little hooks inside the pod help fling these flattened discs at speeds of around 10 meters per second. Using high-speed cameras that record 20,000 frames per second, the researchers analyzed the seeds’ flight. “Our first thought was: ‘Why doesn’t this throw like a Frisbee?’” says Dwight Whitaker, an applied physicist at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif. Instead of spinning horizontally, most seeds spin counterclockwise vertically, like a bicycle wheel in reverse.
3-6-18 Nice prize for Alzheimer’s work, shame about the lack of a cure
The prestigious annual Brain prize has gone to work on Alzheimer's disease. That's fine, but the failure to find new treatments is worrying. Alzheimer’s disease is back in the headlines with the announcement that the annual €1 million Brain prize has gone to four neuroscientists researching the genetic and molecular basis of the illness. This is recognition of great basic science. John Hardy at University College London (UCL) was the first to propose that Alzheimer’s disease was initiated by the build-up of beta amyloid, a protein that can coagulate into plaques that kill brain cells. Michel Goedert at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, was instrumental in the discovery of the importance of tau protein, which also forms damaging plaques. Their work, along with that of Christian Haass at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, and Bart de Strooper at UCL, has added to our knowledge about the underlying mechanisms of dementia. The prize, awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation in Copenhagen, Denmark, will undoubtedly raise hopes that a cure for Alzheimer’s disease is within our grasp. However, translating such research, much of it in animals, into drugs that work in humans remains as frustratingly out of reach as ever. There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK alone, set to rise to over a million by 2025 and over 2 million by 2051. Worldwide, someone develops dementia every 3 seconds. For these people and their families desperate for a breakthrough, it has been a long roller coaster of raised hopes and crushing disappointments.
3-5-18 Virtual reality lets doctors guide you through your own guts
People at Boston Children’s Hospital are taking tours of their own digestive tracts. Their doctor can point out anomalies and what they’ll do to fix them. A trip of a lifetime. Boston Children’s Hospital are testing virtual reality that can give people a 3D tour of their own digestive tract. If you have bowel or colon disease, understanding exactly what’s wrong and how it will be fixed can be hard. But doctors using the new system, called HealthVoyager GI, will be able to show you directly. After performing procedures that inspect part of the digestive tract, such as a colonoscopy, the recordings are used to recreate a true-to-life version of the person’s insides. Using a VR headset, people can then walk around their internal tubes guided by their doctor. Doctors can point out where things have gone awry and potential treatments. “We hypothesise that the more children and their families can visualize and understand their disease, the more likely they may be to communicate when they have a particular symptom and adhere to their therapies,” says Michael Docktor, MD, at Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator. The system is currently being trialed as part of a clinical study to establish whether it is helpful to people and their families. “We are beginning to see VR and AR increasingly used in healthcare from optimising surgery during planning to preparing patients, both paediatric and adult, for the hospital environment,” says Manish Chand, Senior Lecturer in Surgery and Consultant Colorectal Surgeon, University College London.
3-5-18 Lassa fever: The killer disease with no vaccine
Since the beginning of the year, Nigeria has been gripped by an outbreak of a deadly disease. Lassa fever is one of a number of illnesses which can cause dangerous epidemics, but for which no vaccine currently exists. Lassa fever is not a new disease, but the current outbreak is unprecedented, spreading faster and further than ever before. Health workers are overstretched, and a number have themselves become infected and died. The potentially fatal disease is a so-called "viral haemorrhagic fever", which can affect many organs, and damage the body's blood vessels. But it is difficult to treat. Most people who catch Lassa will have only mild symptoms such as fever, headache and general weakness. They may have none at all. However, in severe cases, it can mimic another deadly haemorrhagic fever, Ebola, causing bleeding through the nose, mouth and other parts of the body. Lassa fever normally has a fatality rate of about one per cent. But in the Nigerian outbreak it is thought to be more than 20% among confirmed and probable cases, according to the country's Centre for Disease Control. About 90 people are thought to have died so far, but the true number may be much higher, because Lassa is so hard to diagnose. Women who contract the disease late in pregnancy face an 80% chance of losing their child, or dying themselves. In the early stages it's almost impossible to distinguish from other common diseases like malaria and dengue.
3-5-18 Baby bird fossil is 'rarest of the rare'
Scientists have unveiled one of the smallest bird fossils ever discovered. The chick lived 127 million years ago and belonged to a group of primitive birds that shared the planet with the dinosaurs. Fossils of birds from this time period are rare, with baby fossils seen as "the rarest of the rare". Scientists say the discovery gives a peek into the lives of the ancient, long-extinct birds that lived between 250 and 66 million years ago. The bird belonged to the enantiornithine family, most of which had teeth and clawed fingers on each wing, but otherwise looked much like modern birds. "It's amazing to realise that many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago," said Luis Chiappe, from the LA Museum of Natural History. From nose to tail the hatchling was a bit shorter than the little finger of a human hand, and it weighed just 10 grams. The bird died not long after leaving the egg, giving a window into a critical stage of development.
3-5-18 Fossil shows a mother caring for her young 520 million years ago
Rare remains show a primitive shrimp-like creature apparently caring for four juveniles – the oldest example of parental care in the fossil record. A 520-million-year-old fossil shows an ancient shrimp-like creature caring for its four offspring. It is the oldest ever example of a parent actively looking after its young after they hatch. The tiny critter, Fuxianhuia protensa, is an arthropod, making it a possible ancestor of modern insects, spiders and woodlice. There is little evidence of extended parental care in the fossil record. One of the few examples is a 160-million-year-old reptile that died alongside its six children. We have more evidence of brood care – animals protecting their eggs. This behaviour has been reported in dinosaurs and in a 508-million-year-old crustacean-like creature that carried eggs between her body and shell. There are also fossils dating from 320 million years ago of fish carrying embryos inside their body. But brood care requires less commitment than parenting. Javier Ortega-Hernández at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues analysed specimens from the Chengjiang fossil site in Yunnan province, China – a trove of marine fossils from the early Cambrian period. (Webmaster's comment: It seems caring for one's young has been built into us by 500 million years of evolution.)
3-2-18 We’ve evolved to sleep less and that may be causing Alzheimer’s
Humans sleep less than any other primate and spend less time in deep, non-REM sleep – which may cause a high risk of Alzheimer’s. The 7 hours of sleep we typically get every night often doesn’t feel like enough. Compared with our fellow primates, which spend around 12 hours of each day slumbering, humans barely get any shut-eye. It seems we have evolved to limit how long we sleep, and that may simply be because we have more important things to do with our time, says Charles Nunn at Duke University in North Carolina. However, the trade-off might have left us more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. Nunn and his colleague David Samson collected data on how long 29 other primate species sleep, including how much time they spend in the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep associated with vivid dreams and in deep, non-REM sleep. The pair also included various factors that might influence an animal’s sleep, such as diet, brain size and whether it lives in groups. They used all this to build a model that predicts how much sleep a given primate species should get, based on the others. Their model predicted that humans should get around 9.5 hours of sleep every night. Of this, 8.4 hours would be in non-REM sleep and 1.3 hours in REM sleep – if we were like other primates.
3-2-18 DNA sheds light on settlement of Pacific
A study of ancient DNA has shed light on the epic journeys that led to the settlement of the Pacific by humans. The region was one of the last on Earth to be permanently settled by humans who used canoes to traverse hundreds of miles of open ocean. Two different studies tracked changes over time in the genetic make-up of people inhabiting Vanuatu - regarded as a gateway to the rest of the Pacific. The work appears in Nature Ecology & Evolution and Current Biology. Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School, said the region had a "tremendous" range of human diversity, adding that Vanuatu itself had an "extraordinary diversity of languages" in a relatively small area. The number of languages spoken in the tiny island state is thought to number more than 130, though several are endangered with just a small number of speakers. Prof Reich, who is lead author of the study in Current Biology, added that Vanuatu was a "gateway to the remote Pacific islands... through that region of Vanuatu and neighbouring islands, people spread all over the Pacific". The first people to arrive in the islands belonged to the Lapita culture, who expanded out of Taiwan between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, reaching Vanuatu about 3,000 years ago. "They were really talented seafaring people," said Dr Cosimo Posth, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Dr Posth was co-author of the study in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
3-2-18 Diabetes is actually five separate diseases, research suggests
Scientists say diabetes is five separate diseases, and treatment could be tailored to each form. Diabetes - or uncontrolled blood sugar levels - is normally split into type 1 and type 2. But researchers in Sweden and Finland think the more complicated picture they have uncovered will usher in an era of personalised medicine for diabetes. Experts said the study was a herald of the future of diabetes care but changes to treatment would not be immediate. Diabetes affects about one in 11 adults worldwide and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and limb amputation. Type 1 diabetes is a disease of the immune system, which affects around 10% of people with the condition in the UK. It errantly attacks the body's insulin factories (beta-cells) so there is not enough of the hormone to control blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes is largely seen as a disease of poor lifestyle as body fat can affect the way the insulin works. The study, by Lund University Diabetes Centre in Sweden and the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland, looked at 14,775 patients including a detailed analysis of their blood. The results, published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, showed the patients could be separated into five distinct clusters.
3-1-18 There may be five kinds of diabetes, not just types 1 and 2
Researchers propose splitting diabetes into five subtypes instead of the current type 1 and type 2 diagnoses. It may help, but we need to know much more. Most people who know about diabetes think there are two kinds: type 1, which you are born with, and type 2, which you get later in life from eating too much. This isn’t quite right, since the two types can occur at different life stages and for a number of reasons, but the broad distinction is well established in the public’s mind. Now some doctors want to change all that and break the disease down into five subtypes, each with its own set of risk factors, outcomes and treatments. This could be great news for people with diabetes, leading to more-tailored care. But the story is far from straightforward and it could be decades before we all start reaping the benefits of improved diagnosis. The new claim was made by researchers based in Sweden and Finland, who assessed almost 15,000 people with diabetes in those countries. They found that these people fell into one of five categories based on their blood sugar, their insulin production and sensitivity, and their body mass index and age. The subgroups also vary genetically. The researchers say that two of the subtypes are mild, and can be largely treated with lifestyle changes and low doses of a drug called metformin. People with the three more severe forms are more likely to develop eye and kidney disease – and it is these individuals that doctors should prioritise.
3-1-18 Teens skipping HPV vaccine
Most American teenagers aren’t getting the HPV vaccine, even though it can protect them from several forms of cancer, reports NPR.org. Human papillomavirus is a group of more than 150 related viruses, some of which can persist in the body and cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, or throat. In order to protect against these diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children receive at least two doses of the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 13. But a seven-year Blue Cross Blue Shield Association analysis of medical claims from more than 1.3 million teens found that only 34 percent of adolescents had received their first dose of the vaccine by their 13th birthday. Further research found that most parents avoid the vaccine because of concerns about side effects, while some believe their preteens are too young to worry about a sexually transmitted virus. The CDC urged parents to have their children inoculated with the vaccine, emphasizing that it triggers a more effective immune response when received at an early age.
3-1-18 A blood test for concussions
The first blood test to help detect concussions in adults has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, reports The New York Times. The Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator measures levels of two proteins that leak into the bloodstream after a blow to the head. The $150 test can be taken any time within 12 hours of the injury; results take only a few hours to come through. The FDA’s approval was based on a Pentagon-funded clinical trial involving nearly 2,000 people, in which the blood test correctly predicted the presence of intracranial lesions 97.5 percent of the time and accurately ruled them out 99.6 percent of the time. Until now, doctors have evaluated suspected brain injuries with a CT scan, an expensive imaging test that reveals brain tissue damage. Those scans, 90 percent of which come back negative, expose patients to a powerful dose of radiation. The FDA believes the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator could eliminate the need for CT scans in at least one-third of patients with suspected brain injuries. Tara Rabin, a spokeswoman for the agency, says the development will “change the testing paradigm for suspected cases of concussion.”
3-1-18 Processed foods and cancer
Eating “ultra-processed” foods—including packaged breads, snacks, baked goods, instant soups, chicken nuggets, and frozen meatballs—could increase your risk for developing cancer, new research suggests. A team of scientists at France’s Université Sorbonne Paris Cité analyzed the dietary records of nearly 105,000 adults. After tracking cancer diagnoses among the group over the course of five years, they found that every 10 percent increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 12 percent increase in cancer risk. Ultra-processed foods are loaded with sugar and fat, and have fewer vitamins and less fiber than fresh foods. They also contain additives, including nitrates and artificial flavors, colors, emulsifiers, and sweeteners. Certain types of plastic packaging could also contaminate processed foods with potentially harmful chemicals. The study’s authors caution that larger-scale studies are needed, reports BBC.com, but say their findings “suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”
3-1-18 Biggest ever family tree shows when cousins stopped having sex
A family tree of 13 million people has been built using data from an ancestry website, and it reveals when and why people started avoiding marrying close relations. Think you’ve got a big family? Check out the world’s biggest family tree, containing 13 million people. The giant family tree is the largest of several built using crowd-sourced data, each of which tells a tale about the history of Western civilisation. Joanna Kaplanis at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, and her colleagues, collected 86 million publicly-available profiles from Geni.com. Users on this crowd-sourcing website create family trees, which are then merged with others when matches occur. After cleaning up the data, the team was able to dispel a long-standing myth. It was thought that people in the west stopped marrying their close relatives in the 19th century, because improved transport meant that people were born further away from their families. But the family tree proved otherwise. “Even though people started to be born further away from their families during the early 19th century, they were still marrying cousins for 50 years,” says Kaplanis. It seems the eventual decrease in inbreeding was more to do with cultural influences. “It just became less socially acceptable.” The new family tree is also shedding light on longevity.
3-1-18 Understanding ‘superagers’
Scientists believe they are finally starting to unravel the secrets of so-called -superagers—senior citizens who live beyond 80 but have the mental sharpness of people decades younger. In one study, at Northwestern University, researchers who examined the brains of 10 superagers found heightened levels of Von Economo neurons, brain cells linked to social processing and awareness. Their brains had up to five times more of these cells than a typical octogenarian’s—more, even, than an average young adult’s, reports TheGuardian.com. The team also found that superagers, who they estimate account for about 5 percent of people 80 or older, are more likely to be extroverts, less likely to be neurotic, and tend to have relatively active and engaged lifestyles. A separate study, at the University of California, Irvine, examined the significance of amyloid, a protein that can lead to plaques linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that some superagers had these deformed proteins in their brains, yet retained their unusually impressive memory skills. “It’s not so long ago that we thought the only trajectory [was] to get old and senile,” says Emily Rogalski, who led the Northwestern study. “We need to push the envelope and see what is possible in older age.”
3-1-18 7,000-year-old Native American burial site found off Florida
Archaeologists have uncovered a Native American burial site dating back 7,000 years off the coast of Florida. The site was found by an amateur diver in 2016 who was looking for shark teeth but stumbled on an ancient jawbone. In a picture sent from the diver, archaeologist Ryan Duggins noticed a worn down molar tooth attached to the jawbone. This suggested it belonged to a prehistoric person. Florida state officials called the find an "unprecedented discovery". Mr Duggins and his team began investigating the site from the "Archaic Period" located 900ft (275m) from shore. The burial grounds are expected to cover about 32,000 sq feet (3,000 sq metres) off the coast of Manasota Key. Underwater, the team found densely packed organic remains, human bones, and sharpened wooden stakes and textile fragments, according to National Geographic. "Seeing a 7,000-year-old site that is so well preserved in the Gulf of Mexico is awe inspiring," Mr Duggins said in a press release from the Florida Department of State. The site is believed to have been preserved in a freshwater pond thousands of years ago when water levels were 30ft (9m) lower, according the a press release. The pond had a bottom covered in peat, which reportedly slowed the process of organic decay and allowed for the preservation of human remains.
3-1-18 Early land plants led to the rise of mud
Mud rocks increased in riverbeds as rootless plants spread around 458 million years ago. Early plants made Earth muddier. Ancient riverbed deposits of mud rock — rocks containing bits of clay and silt smaller than grains of sand — began increasing around 458 million years ago, around the time that rootless plants became common across Earth, researchers say. Anecdotally, geologists have long noted that early sediment deposits became muddier at some point, and suggested a connection with plants (SN: 6/22/74, p. 398). But no one had ever pinpointed when that muddening happened. So geologists William McMahon and Neil Davies, both of the University of Cambridge, decided to look for when amounts of mud rock began increasing in 704 ancient river deposits from 3.5 billion to 300 million years ago. The researchers searched through nearly 1,200 published papers for data on mud rock in river deposits, and collected new field data at 125 ancient river outcrops. At those outcrops, the researchers calculated the percent of mud rock in the overall deposit by measuring the thickness of the muddy layers compared with the thickness of layers containing larger grains such as sand. The resulting fractions showed the median mud content was about 1 percent before around 458 million years ago. At that point, the mud content steadily increased over about the next 100 million years or so to reach a median of about 26 percent in outcrops dated 359 million to 299 million years old, McMahon and Davies report in the March 2 Science.
3-1-18 Very creative people have a special kind of brain activity
A type of brainwave is associated with creativity, and a study of improvising musicians has found that the stronger your alpha waves, the better you play. Need to get creative? A type of brainwave has been linked to creativity, and the more synchronised these are, the higher the quality of your creative output. Joel Lopata at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues found this out by asking 22 pianists to listen to, play back, or improvise jazz melodies. During these tasks, the team monitored the electrical activity in each person’s pre-frontal cortex – a region of the brain that orchestrates our thoughts and goals. When groups of neurons send signals at the same time, this creates a wave of electrical activity that can be picked up using EEG caps. Different types of waves have been associated with different mental states – delta waves are detectable during deep sleep, for instance, whereas beta waves are a sign that someone is analysing something critically. Alpha brainwaves, which have a frequency of around 7 to 14 Hertz, have previously been linked to coming up with creative ideas, such as answering questions like “name as many original uses for a mop”. When the team analysed the brainwaves of the pianists, they found that these waves become more synchronised – more neurons fire at the same time – when a person is being more creative. But they only saw this in those who have had formal improvisation training. Among the formally-trained improvisers, alpha waves became more synchronised when they played back music they had previously heard, and even more synchronised when they were actively being creative and improvising their own melodies.
3-1-18 'Oldest tattoo' found on 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies
Researchers have discovered the oldest figurative tattoos in the world on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt. The illustrations are of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep on the upper-arm of a male mummy, and S-shaped motifs on the upper-arm and shoulder of a female. The discovery pushes back evidence for the practice in Africa by 1,000 years. Details of the tattoos have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum's Curator of Physical Anthropology, said that the discovery had "transformed" our understanding of how people lived in this era. "Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium," he told BBC News. The male mummy was found about 100 years ago. Previous CT scans showed that he was between 18 and 21 years old when he died from a stab wound to the back. Dark smudges on his arm were thought to be unimportant until infrared scans revealed that they were tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. One is interpreted to be a wild bull with a long tail and elaborate horns; the other appears to be a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder.
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