109 Evolution News Articles
for June 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
6-29-18 Vitamin D vs. colorectal cancer
Scientists have long known that vitamin D can strengthen teeth and bones by helping the body absorb calcium. Now researchers believe that high concentrations of this key micronutrient could also help prevent colorectal cancer—the third most common cancer in the U.S., killing more than 50,000 people a year. Dietary guidelines currently recommend that most adults get at least 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day for bone health, which can be done by eating fatty fish like salmon or trout and taking supplements or getting a judicious amount of sun exposure. But after analyzing data on more than 12,000 people in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, scientists at the American Cancer Society and other groups found that people with higher-than-recommended blood levels of vitamin D had a 22 percent lower risk of developing colorectal cancer. Those with lower-than-recommended levels, meanwhile, had a 30 percent higher risk for the disease. Study co-author Marji McCullough tells NPR.com that people over age 70 should increase their vitamin D uptake to 800 IUs daily, noting that “what’s optimal for bone health may not be optimal for colorectal risk reduction.”
6-29-18 Helicopter parenting takes a toll
Overbearing “helicopter parents” who micromanage kids’ play can end up stunting their little ones’ emotional well-being, according to a new international study. Researchers in the U.S. and Switzerland observed more than 400 2-year-olds as they played and tidied up with their mothers, and then tracked those kids over the next eight years. Toddlers who were told what toy to play with or how to play with it by their moms were less able to regulate their emotions and impulses at 5 years old. By age 10, these kids were more likely than children without helicopter parents to be struggling academically and showing a poorer attitude at school. When a parent over-interferes and doesn’t let his or her child “experience a range of emotions and practice managing them, the child loses out on an important learning opportunity,” lead researcher Nicole Perry tells The Times (U.K.). Researchers suggest that hovering parents give their toddlers space to play independently and only intervene when a task becomes unmanageable.
6-29-18 Kids today are waiting longer than ever in the classic marshmallow test
Researchers aren’t sure what’s driving this willingness to delay gratification. Some kids today wait much longer to get an extra treat in the famed marshmallow test than they did in the 1960s or even the ‘80s, researchers say. So, so much for the view that internet-savvy, smartphone-toting tykes want what they want at warp speed. This willingness to delay gratification has recently bloomed among U.S. preschoolers from predominantly white, middle-class families, say psychologist Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and her colleagues. Youngsters aged 3 to 5 in the 2000s waited an average of two minutes longer during the marshmallow test than children in the 1960s did, and an average of one minute longer than 1980s kids did, the scientists report June 25 in Developmental Psychology. Reasons for kids’ rising patience when confronted with an available treat are unclear. Carlson’s team offers several possible explanations, including increases in the ability to think abstractly, pay attention, plan and prioritize that have been linked to preschool attendance and early use of digital technologies. From the start, the marshmallow test has examined kids’ willingness to resist an available goody while waiting 10 to 15 minutes to receive double the edible pleasure. In this case, extra treats were doled out if a child waited a full 10 minutes for an experimenter who had left to return. Researchers have assumed the test taps into an enduring ability to control oneself, although responses can vary greatly across cultures (SN: 8/5/17, p. 13).
6-29-18 Smoking hits new low
Fewer Americans are lighting up than ever before. About 14 percent of U.S. adults said they were smokers last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s still a sizable number—about 30 million people—but it’s down from 16 percent in 2016 and roughly 20 percent in 2006. “More people are quitting, and those who continue to smoke are smoking less,” says Corinne Graffunder, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health—a decline the agency attributes to growing awareness of the health dangers of tobacco products. Smoking is also dropping among children and teenagers, reports Time.com. Just 8 percent of high school students and some 2 percent of middle school students said they used cigarettes in 2017, down from roughly 16 percent and 4 percent, respectively, in 2011. But as cigarettes fall out of favor, the popularity of e-cigarettes is rising, especially among young people. Some 11 percent of high schoolers vaped in 2016, compared with about 3 percent of adults. Health officials warn that these battery-powered devices still expose users to nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals and may prompt kids to try other tobacco products. (Webmaster's comment: The desire to get high drives much of our behavior! We become slaves to it!)
6-29-18 People who keep seeing the same doctor have lower death rates
An analysis of 22 different studies has found that seeing the same family doctor, GP, or specialist over time is associated with better health outcomes. Seeing the same doctor doesn’t just give you the comfort of a familiar face – it might save your life. Denis Pereira Gray of St Leonard’s Medical Practice and colleagues at the University of Exeter, UK analysed the results of 22 studies from nine countries with different health systems. Eighteen of the studies found that people who saw the same doctor over time had significantly lower death rates. Because the studies use different ways to measure continuity, it wasn’t possible to get an overall estimate for how big the reduction in mortality is. One recent study looked at 396,838 patients with diabetes in Taiwan. In those with a high level of continuity, the death rate was half as high as those with low continuity. The benefits of continuity were not limited to family doctors or GPs, but applied to specialist physicians, psychiatrists and surgeons too. The relationship could be because people with poor health need to see more different doctors, but the studies tried to account for this. Studies have shown that patients who see the same doctor consistently have higher satisfaction, are more likely to follow medical advice, take up preventative care such as immunisations more often and have significantly fewer unnecessary hospital admissions.
6-28-18 How old could humans get? We probably haven’t hit the limit yet
The idea that we have reached the maximum possible human lifespan is highly divisive. New evidence adds fuel to a fiery debate, says Tom Kirkwood. If you want to break the world record for human longevity, the person you need to beat is Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 aged 122 years and 5 months. As her record has stood for 21 years, does it represent a limit for human lifespan, or will it be eclipsed? Dislodging Calment is not an easy prospect. When you get really old – above 105 – your odds of making it from one birthday to the next are a little less than evens. How often have you tossed a coin and come up heads 17 times in a row? And, apparently, the odds could be even worse than this. For the average person past puberty, the risk of dying doubles with every eight additional candles on the birthday cake. The good news – which comes from an analysis just published in Science that was based on demographic records from Italy – is that the inexorable rise in death rate with age appears to reach a plateau around 105 and remain level thereafter. The existence of a plateau could suggest that lifespan has no strict limit, and the authors conclude that if a limit does exist, we have not yet seen it. All this is controversial. The existence of extreme-age mortality plateaus has been claimed before, and the new study, conducted by a highly respected team, supports this case. Yet what such plateaus signify remains an enigma. Ageing appears overwhelmingly likely to be driven by the build-up of damage in the body’s cells and organs, so it would be surprising if there really is a stage when things stop getting worse.
6-28-18 You can tell how tall or strong a person is by hearing them roar
Both men and women can tell how much taller or stronger another person is by listening to them roar, though men were more sensitive to differences in height . They played the recordings and asked listeners to say how much taller or shorter, and how much stronger or weaker, the person in the recording was compared to themselves. In 88 per cent of the trials, male listeners accurately identified those who were substantially stronger than them based on roars. Women did so in 77 per cent of the trials. “We don’t know by what acoustic mechanism strength is encoded in verbal cues,” Raine says. “But by roaring you are making yourself sound more formidable.” It’s similar to roars and croaks seen across the animal kingdom. “Before humans came into existence, before we shared a common ancestor with chimps, there’s every reason to believe this mechanism for assessing formidability was already present,” says Aaron Lukaszewski at California State University, Fullerton. “That it was maintained and possibly elaborated in humans is not surprising, but it’s interesting.” Men tended to underestimate the relative strength of women based on their roars and aggressive speech, while women tended to overestimate the relative strength of men, and to a greater degree. Height wasn’t correlated with strength, though both were accurately communicated through roars. Lukaszewski says that’s consistent with evidence that height may contain other types of information than physical formidability, such as age or maturity.
6-28-18 Leprosy lurks in armadillos in Brazil’s Amazon
The South American country has the world’s second-highest number of cases of the disease. Brazilians who hunt or eat armadillos are at a higher risk of catching leprosy than people who don’t interact with the animals, a new study finds. More than 60 percent of armadillos tested in Brazil’s Amazonian state of Pará carry the leprosy bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. And about 63 percent of people tested in two villages in the region have antibodies against the bacterium, suggesting that they had been infected. People who ate armadillos more often had more of these antibodies in their blood, researchers report June 28 in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. The findings may settle a debate about whether armadillos are implicated in the spread of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, in Brazil. Knowing whether armadillos are involved in leprosy’s spread could potentially help public health officials limit the spread of the debilitating disease, which can cause nerve damage and disfigurement. Brazil has the second highest number of leprosy cases in the world. In 2016, 25,218 new cases of leprosy were diagnosed. Only India had more, with 135,485 new cases, according to the World Health Organization.
6-28-18 Bacteria have even evolved to live in the venom glands of snakes
The venom glands of snakes, scorpions and spiders are home to thriving communities of microorganisms that have adapted to the toxic surroundings. Some bacteria have evolved to live in one of the most hostile environments imaginable: inside the venom glands of snakes, spiders and scorpions. As well as highlighting how adaptable microorganisms are, the finding also suggests that antibiotics should be used more to help treat snakebites. People who have been bitten by snakes often suffer infections, but this was thought to be an incidental consequence of having an open wound that has been inside the snake’s mouth. The venom itself is highly toxic so was assumed to be sterile. However, Steven Trim of Venomtech Limited in Sandwich, UK and Sterghios Moschos of Northumbria University, UK suspected that there might be microbes living in the venom. For one thing, the duct of the venom gland is always open, says Trim. What’s more, the venom only flows occasionally, so there are long periods of inactivity during which bacteria could “climb” up into the venom gland. The pair and their colleagues sampled the venoms of five snake species, two spiders and two scorpions. “We found viable bacteria and whole genomes from many organisms across all species we investigated,” says Trim. It’s a striking feat of adaptation. The venom gland is “probably the most hostile biological environment”, says Trim. He says stomach acid is probably the only part of an animal’s body that is more dangerous for bacteria.
6-27-18 Heroin users’ brains hint at a new treatment for narcolepsy
Heroin users make too much of a “wakefulness” chemical in their brains. The finding hints that milder opiates may offer a new way to treat narcolepsy. Heroin users have been found to make abnormally high amounts of a brain chemical that promotes “wakefulness”. The finding might lead to new treatments for narcolepsy, a condition in which people fall asleep uncontrollably. Previous research has shown that people normally have around 70,000 cells in their brain that produce a chemical called hypocretin. But in narcoleptics 90 per cent of these cells stop making this substance. Now, a team has discovered by chance that people who are addicted to heroin are capable of making very large amounts of it. Post-mortem analysis of the brains of five heroin users revealed that each person had, on average, 54 per cent more hypocretin-producing cells than brains normally do. The finding suggests hypocretin could be motivating an addict’s use of heroin, says Jerome Siegel of the University of California at Los Angeles, whose team made the discovery. Siegel says hypocretin might hold the key to treating both conditions. Heroin users make too much and narcoleptics too little, so both might benefit from treatments that restore levels to normal.
6-27-18 A brain chemical tied to narcolepsy may play a role in opioid addiction
Heroin and other opioids increase the amount of hypocretin-producing nerve cells. Using opioids gives some brain cells a call to action. Opioid addicts’ brains, examined after death, contain about 50 percent more nerve cells that release a molecule called hypocretin, compared with people who didn’t use the drugs, a new study finds. Giving the opiate morphine to mice also induced similar changes in their brains. But the increase didn’t come from new nerve cells, or neurons, being born. Instead, once-dormant neurons appear to rev up their hypocretin machinery in response to the addictive drugs, researchers report June 27 in Science Translational Medicine. The findings fit with a growing body of research that suggests that hypocretin, a brain chemical that regulates wakefulness and arousal, may also be involved in addiction. “I think there is extensive evidence now that shows that the hypocretin neurons are supporting motivated behavior in general,” and addiction falls under that umbrella, says Rodrigo España, a neurobiologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia who wasn’t involved in the new study. For example, his lab recently showed that rats with a less sensitive hypocretin receptor (and therefore a weaker response to the brain chemical) showed less motivation to seek out cocaine rewards. The new study comes from the opposite angle, showing changes in hypocretin neurons in response to drug use, rather than the other way around. “It does suggest the possibility that part of the reason it’s so hard to get off drugs is there’s this massive change in the brain,” says study coauthor and neuroscientist Jerome Siegel of UCLA.
6-27-18 The fading American dream may be behind rise in US suicides
Shrinking life chances plus lack of a social safety net may have left middle-aged Americans more vulnerable to suicide than peers in other rich nations. SOBERING statistics published earlier this month show that the annual rate of suicide in the US has risen by almost 28 per cent between 1999 and 2016. A number of explanations have been put forward, including the 2008 economic crash, the upsurge in addiction to opioid painkillers and the migration of manufacturing jobs to other countries. But none alone explains why the suicide rate is rising so fast in the US as it falls in other rich countries. Is something uniquely American at work? Figures from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show the country’s rate of suicide was 15.6 per 100,000 population in 2016, up from 12.2 in 1999. Of all the states, Montana fares worst, with a rate of 29.2 per 100,000. The global average rate in 2016 was 10.6, according to the World Health Organization. For comparison, the rate for the UK in 2016 was 8.9 per 100,000, down from 9.1 in 2000, according to the latest WHO data. And although rates are much higher in Russia, at 31 per 100,000 in 2016, this is a dramatic fall from 52.6 in 2000. Clearly, the US is something of an outlier. Globalisation and automation, which are driving job losses in the US, may partly be to blame, but the same pressures have affected all Western economies without a similar increase in the suicide rate. One of the key drivers could be the American dream itself – the idea that you can work hard and climb out of poverty. A growing mismatch between the life expectations this brings and the increasingly bleak reality for many US citizens could lead to hardship.
6-27-18 How to think about… Genes
How does a mere 20,000 genes make a unique human? Even with a total rethink of how genes work we are struggling to grasp the intricacies of DNA. WHETHER they are humans or pea plants, the way living organisms look and behave is intimately connected with their genes. But ideas of genes and their workings have evolved hugely in the century since the word was coined. In essence it is simple. “A gene is the stretch of DNA letters that encodes individual functional units or proteins,” says Stacey Gabriel of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within our cells, double-stranded DNA is continually unzipped and transcribed into single-stranded RNA, which performs cell functions itself or can be used as a template to assemble the proteins that make us what we are. As such, genes are basic, universal units of heredity. You generally have two copies of each, one from your mother and one from your father. Each gene has different versions that vary slightly at the molecular level, generating different outward effects – brown or blue eyes, for example. We long thought there must be one gene for each outward characteristic, but that belief hasn’t stood the test of time. The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, revealed that genes account for just 1 per cent of our DNA; the rest is “junk”. We have only 20,000 genes in total – far too few for the one gene, one function idea. It turns out that genes do different things depending on factors like when and where they are expressed. “Genes can be alternatively spliced, which means that different chunks of them can be encoded into a protein,” says geneticist Tim Frayling at the University of Exeter, UK. In other words, rather than a gene coding for only one protein, different bits of the genetic code can get chopped out to create different proteins. All this is regulated by non-gene DNA, RNA molecules and other proteins, further diluting a gene’s autonomy in determining a protein. This means it can be very hard to pin down which genes are responsible for any given thing. “It’s very rare that there’s a gene for something,” says Gabriel – even a trait as seemingly simple as eye colour.
6-27-18 How to think about… Life
What distinguishes a human from a virus from an inert rock? There are many definitions for what it means to be alive – and soon humanity might fail some. MOST people agree that for something to be alive, it must be able to make copies of itself. But by that rationale, a crystal growing in a solution is alive. So biologists studying how life began 4 billion years ago look for characteristics shared by all living things and absent in minerals. This approach yields three distinct features: all organisms on Earth have a code that, like a builder’s blueprint, allows copies to be made (see “How to think about… Genes”); they can generate energy to power the copying process; and they have the machinery to build the copies. Crystals have none of these, so are firmly dispatched to the realm of minerals. This list kicks up other sticking points, however – notably certain parasites. Viruses, the ultimate example, have a code in the shape of DNA or RNA, but rely entirely on the cells they have invaded for energy and copying machinery. The debate over whether they are alive is decades old. Synthetic biology raises even more basic questions. Floyd Romesberg at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego has spent 20 years trying to hack life’s code. His team has created two “unnatural” genetic letters similar in molecular structure to the five used in all living organisms on Earth: four in DNA and an additional one in RNA. Last year, they used this unnatural code to coax a cell to produce proteins not found in nature. For Romesberg, this calls into question whether the chemistry of life is any different from inert chemistry. “All you have is parts. All you have is carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen,” he says. Yet some of these parts end up being living and some don’t. “In a really weird way, maybe there’s just not that much difference between living and non-living things.”
6-27-18 How to think about… Consciousness
Can a mind ever know itself? Maybe we don’t want to know: solving the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness could threaten our sense of self and free will. IT IS a concept so intrinsic to the fabric of our reality that starting to pick away at it leaves us feeling quite unravelled. “We can come closer to defining what it is to be an elephant than what it is to be conscious,” says Nicholas Shea, who researches philosophy of the mind at the University of Oxford. Consciousness is the essence of what it is to be “you”. It is all your subjective experiences – from the feeling of the sun’s warmth on your skin to the desolation of grief – conjured up somehow by your brain. “It still seems to many people, sometimes to me, very hard to see how things happening in the physical world could give rise to any sort of conscious experience at all,” says neuroscientist Anil Seth at the University of Sussex, UK. Explaining this phenomenon has been dubbed the “hard problem”, and the worry is that we may be too close to it to ever figure it out. Thinking about consciousness means you have to be conscious – but can the human brain ever understand itself? Shea thinks so. “It looks deep and complex and intractable, but people are applying the scientific method,” he says. One school of thought is that if you can work out the physical brain activity that leads to, say, the visual experience of something being red, then you can generalise to other conscious experiences. Another approach is what Seth calls a “divide and conquer” strategy. The aim here is to break consciousness down into different types of experience, he says: “what happens when you fall asleep and wake up; the relationship between visual perception and what’s really out there; and you can also think about self and emotion.” Tackling these problems one by one makes consciousness seem easier to grasp. “If you do that then, after a while, there’ll be no remaining mystery,” says Seth.
6-27-18 Enceladus is spewing out organic molecules necessary for life
Saturn’s moon Enceladus spews plumes of water into space, and it’s also spitting out complex organic molecules that could be the building blocks of life. Saturn’s moon Enceladus has a subsurface ocean – and it may be coated with complex organic molecules that could be stepping stones to life. Plumes of liquid water from the ocean spurt out of Enceladus’ southern regions and can fly high enough to escape the small moon’s gravity. Some of this material actually ends up around Saturn, forming its diffuse E ring. During the course of its mission, the Cassini spacecraft flew through both the plumes and the E ring, collecting samples of ice grains and frozen organic molecules. Frank Postberg at Heidelberg University in Germany and his colleagues have analysed the data from Cassini to learn more about these molecules. The instruments on the spacecraft weren’t built for this – they were designed decades before we knew that Enceladus had plumes – so Postberg and his team had limited information to work with. They could determine the masses of the molecules and infer what elements they were made of, but not much else. The researchers found organics made of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen that were far larger than anything we’ve seen on Enceladus before. We had only seen molecules with masses up to 50 atomic mass units, but Postberg and his team found some that were more than four times larger.
6-27-18 Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life
Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites. They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon's subsurface ocean. Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms. The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft. "These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms," explains study author Dr Frank Postberg. "This is the first ever detection of such complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world." On Earth, these molecules are usually biologically created, but this does not have to be the case. "They are a necessary precursor to life," says Dr Postberg, "[but] we currently cannot tell if these organics are biologically irrelevant or signs of prebiotic chemistry or even life."
6-27-18 Mars could have been habitable 100 million years before Earth
The magma ocean that covered early Mars crystallised into a crust faster than we thought, which would have given life on the Red Planet a head start. The solid surface of Mars formed 100 million years before Earth’s – meaning life would have had a head start to evolve on the Red Planet. Early Mars, like the other rocky planets, was covered in a global magma ocean. The top of that sea of molten rock eventually hardened to a crust, but we weren’t sure exactly when – researchers thought it could have happened between 30 million and 100 million years after the start of the solar system. Now, we have evidence that it was much faster. Laura Bouvier at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and her colleagues figured this out by studying ancient crystals in a Martian meteorite found in Morocco in 2011, dating them to about 4.4 billion years old. Based on the compositions of the crystals, the researchers suggest that Mars first formed a crust about 4.5 billion years ago. This initial surface survived for about 100 million years before parts of it were melted again, possibly by impacts, to create the magma that the zircons came from. That means Mars was formed and its magma ocean was solidified within 20 million years after the birth of the solar system. “This shows that Mars was actually clement and therefore habitable maybe 100 million years before Earth was,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University, who was not involved in the research. “Mars totally got the head start on creating life, if indeed it ever did.”
6-27-18 How to make CAR-T cell therapies for cancer safer and more effective
Researchers are installing safety switches and adding other features to the immune therapy. This wasn’t 15-year-old Connor McMahon’s first time in the hospital. But the 107° fever he’d been running for three days had his dad frightened. The teen was hallucinating, talking gibberish and spouting curses. “I thought he was going to die,” says Connor’s father, Don McMahon, who stayed close as his son received and recovered from an experimental treatment for leukemia. “It was really hard to watch.” But the fever finally broke, and Connor returned home. Just a month later, in November 2016, he was cancer-free and back on the ice in his hockey skates and pads. That episode was Connor’s third bout with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The experimental treatment was a last hope for the boy, who was first diagnosed at age 3. He has spent a total of six years of his life receiving chemotherapy. When the cancer came back in 2016, the doctors said the prognosis wasn’t good. At that point, “it was about quality of life, not quantity,” McMahon says. But when he and his wife, Michelle, learned about the experimental treatment, called CAR-T cell therapy, the family decided it wasn’t time to give up yet.
6-26-18 Poliovirus treatment helped patients with deadly brain tumors live longer
A modified form of the virus increased survival in some people with glioblastoma. Few treatment options are available to people facing a second battle with a particularly fatal type of brain tumor called glioblastoma. But dosing the tumor with a genetically modified poliovirus — one that doesn’t cause the eponymous, devastating disease — may give these patients more time, a small clinical study suggests. Of 61 people with recurring glioblastoma who were treated with the modified virus, 21 percent were alive after three years. In a “historical” comparison group of 104 patients, who would have been eligible for the treatment but died before it was available, 4 percent lived as long, researchers report online June 26 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Two patients who received the altered virus are still alive today, six years after treatment. “They’ve been able to lead largely normal lives, and we almost never see that with these brain tumors,” says neuro-oncologist and study coauthor Darell Bigner of Duke University Medical Center. The standard treatment for glioblastoma is surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but the cancer often recurs, Bigner says. Usually patients do not survive longer than 20 months after being diagnosed; those with a recurrence typically live less than a year.
6-26-18 First cannabis-based drug approved in the US to treat epilepsy
Epidiolex has become the first drug derived from marijuana to win FDA approval in the US, and will be used to treat two forms of childhood epilepsy. It tastes of strawberry, but Epidiolex is the first drug approved in the US containing an ingredient from marijuana. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug on 25 June for the treatment of two rare but severe forms of childhood epilepsy: Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. The active ingredient in the drug is cannabidiol, and it contains only a trace of the psychoactive component of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In clinical trials, Epidiolex proved effective at helping people with these conditions control their seizures. “This approval serves as a reminder that advancing sound development programs that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies,” said Scott Gottlieb, FDA commissioner. But he warned that the organisation would continue to punish illegal marketing of cannabidiol-containing products with unproven medical claims. The UK government last week announced a review into the possible use of marijuana-based medical products, in the wake of much public debate over the use of cannabis oil to treat epilepsy. GW Pharmaceuticals, which developed Epidiolex, expects a decision on European approval early next year. In 2010, it won UK approval to sell Nabiximols for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, the first marijuana-based drug approved in the world. The company is also developing cannabis-based treatments for epilepsy, schizophrenia and glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer for which there are no reliable treatments.
6-26-18 Zika gets the most extreme close-up of any flavivirus
By zooming in, researchers hope to find structural weaknesses. Researchers have gotten the closest look ever at Zika virus and may have discovered some chinks in its armor. Using cryo-electron microscopy, structural biologist Madhumati Sevvana and colleagues mapped Zika’s structure at 3.1-angstrom (or 0.31-nanometer) resolution. That closeup view, reported online June 26 in Structure, is about equivalent to the size two atoms. It’s the most zoomed-in image that scientists have gotten of any flavivirus, the family of viruses that includes Zika, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis viruses, among others. Comparing Zika’s structure with that of some of the other flaviviruses revealed a few differences that might account for different symptoms produced by the various viruses, says Sevvana of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. But more work is needed to know for sure, she says. The researchers did identify some pockets where drugs may be able to dock and disrupt the Zika virus, Sevvana says.
6-26-18 Why won’t this debate about an ancient cold snap die?
Despite mainstream opposition, a controversial comet impact hypothesis persists. Around 13,000 years ago, Earth was emerging from its last great ice age. The vast frozen sheets that had covered much of North America, Europe and Asia for thousands of years were retreating. Giant mammals — steppe bison, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats — grazed or hunted across tundra and grasslands. A Paleo-Indian group of hunter-gatherers who eventually gave rise to the Clovis people had crossed a land bridge from Asia hundreds of years earlier and were now spread across North America, hunting mammoth with distinctive spears. Then, at about 12,800 years ago, something strange happened. Earth was abruptly plunged back into a deep chill. Temperatures in parts of the Northern Hemisphere plunged to as much as 8 degrees Celsius colder than today. The cold snap lasted only about 1,200 years — a mere blip, in geologic time. Then, just as abruptly, Earth began to warm again. But many of the giant mammals were dying out. And the Clovis people had apparently vanished. Geologists call this blip of frigid conditions the Younger Dryas, and its cause is a mystery. Most researchers suspect that a large pulse of freshwater from a melting ice sheet and glacial lakes flooded into the ocean, briefly interfering with Earth’s heat-transporting ocean currents. However, geologists have not yet found firm evidence of how and where this happened, such as traces of the path that this ancient flood traveled to reach the sea (SN: 12/29/12, p. 11).
6-26-18 These nano eye drops could make glasses and contacts obsolete
Researchers have created eye drops that could give you 20/20 vision. Imagine throwing away your glasses or contact lenses and still having perfect vision — without getting eye surgery. Right now, that probably sounds too good to be true. But innovative new eye drops could soon do the trick, restoring your eyesight to 20/20 without any invasive procedures. Researchers have created eye drops, called Nano-Drops, that correct eyesight problems using something called nanotechnology. The field of nanotechnology involves creating and manipulating materials that are miniscule in size — usually between one and 100 nanometers (nm) in width. For comparison, a human hair is usually 60,000 to 80,000 nm in width. Nano-Drops, which were created by a team at Bar-Ilan University's Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), address three of the most common eyesight problems: hyperopia (farsightedness), myopia (nearsightedness), and presbyopia (age-related blurriness). Each of these disorders causes refractive errors, which means the light entering the eye doesn't bend the right way, and the image is disrupted. Usually, this is rooted in physical problems with the eyeball or lens; the eyeball may be too short or too long, the cornea too curved, the lens too thick. Nano-Drops are filled with synthetic nanoparticles, which are designed to fix the refractive errors that cause hyperopia, myopia, or presbyopia.
6-26-18 Watch the brain jiggle with each heartbeat
The imaging method could help scientists spot abnormal motion. With every heartbeat, fluid squishes through the brain and jiggles it like a bowl full of jelly. A new twist on magnetic resonance imaging illuminates these pulsing brain ripples, movements so subtle that they had escaped detection by current imaging technology. Abnormal brain motion could signal trouble, such as aneurysms or damage from a concussion. In the new work, scientists honed an existing method called amplified MRI, a technique that stitches together multiple images taken at precise times of the heartbeat. Using an algorithm that exaggerates tiny movements, researchers at Stanford University, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and the University of Auckland in New Zealand created a movie of the brain’s rhythmic writhing as blood and cerebrospinal fluid pump in and drain out. The researchers used the technique to watch how a normal brain moves. But the method also revealed altered movements of a brain belonging to a person with Chiari malformation type I, a disorder marked by abnormal skull shape, the team reports May 30 in Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. A way to see how the brain moves may ultimately help scientists spot disorders that distort normal brain motion, such as hydrocephalus, the buildup of too much cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. And by showing which parts of the brain wiggle the most, the method may even point out ways to make helmets that better protect against concussions.
6-26-18 Papua New Guinea polio outbreak declared
An outbreak of polio has been confirmed in Papua New Guinea, 18 years after the country was declared free of the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the virus was detected in a six-year-old boy in April. The same strain of the virus has now been detected in other healthy children in the same community, making it officially an outbreak. Polio has no cure and can lead to irreversible paralysis. It mainly affects children under the age of five, and can only be prevented by giving a child multiple vaccine doses. "We are deeply concerned about this polio case in Papua New Guinea, and the fact that the virus is circulating," said Pascoe Kase, Papua New Guinea's heath secretary. "Our immediate priority is to respond and prevent more children from being infected." The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at the end of last week that the same virus that was found in the six-year-old boy was also found in samples taken from two healthy children in the same community, the WHO said. This means the virus is circulating in the community, representing an outbreak, it added. Immediate steps to stop the spread of the highly contagious disease include large-scale immunisation campaigns and strengthening surveillance systems that help detect it early. Papua New Guinea has not had a case of wild poliovirus since 1996, and the country was certified as polio-free in 2000 along with the rest of the WHO Western Pacific Region.
6-25-18 There are two types of worrier – which you are depends on genes
The genomes of half a million people reveal that there are two kinds of worrier, providing new clues about how genes help form our personalities. Nearly 600 genes associated with neuroticism have been identified in the biggest study of its kind so far. The research shows that neuroticism has two different subtypes which are coded by different sets of genes, and is a big step in our understanding of the underlying biology of personality. The research, led by Danielle Posthuma of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, looked at the genomes and personality questionnaires of nearly half a million people in the UK. Neuroticism is one of the “big five” personality traits. We already knew that people who score highly for neuroticism – an important risk factor for schizophrenia and depression — are more likely to worry and be moody, anxious and guilty. The team found around 600 genes that were involved in neuroticism, and that the personality trait seemed to be made up from two different clusters of genes. Each cluster appears to contribute to a separate subtype of neurotic behaviour. These were dubbed ‘depressed affect’ – the tendency to experience frequent mood changes and feel lonely, and ‘worry’ – a tendency to be anxious and fret about what other people think of you. Full-blown neuroticism seemed to arise from a mix of the genetic signals from both clusters.
6-25-18 ‘Aroused’ recounts the fascinating history of hormones
A new book explores the story of the chemicals that put the zing into life. The first scientific experiment on hormones took an approach that sounds unscientific: lopping off roosters’ testicles. It was 1848, and Dr. Arnold Berthold castrated two of his backyard roosters. The cocks’ red combs faded and shrank, and the birds stopped chasing hens. Then things got really weird. The doctor castrated two more roosters and implanted a testicle from each into the other’s abdomen. As Randi Hutter Epstein writes in a new book, each rooster “had nothing between his drumsticks but a lone testicle in his gut — yet he turned back into a full-fledged hen-chaser, red comb and all.” It was the first glimpse that certain body parts must produce internal secretions, as hormones were first known, and that these substances — and not just nerves — were important to the body’s control systems. Today, we know that hormones are chemical messengers shaping everything from sex and development to sleep, stress, mood, metabolism and behavior. Yet few of us know much about these powerful substances coursing through our bodies. That ignorance makes Aroused — titled for the Greek meaning of the word hormone — an invaluable guide. Epstein, a medical writer and M.D., tells the history of hormone research from that first rooster experiment, but cleverly moves back and forth through time, avoiding any hint of dry recitation. She explores the scientists who discovered and deciphered the effects of important hormones, as well as the personal stories of how people’s lives have been profoundly changed by these chemicals.
6-22-18 Meds tied to depression
As the U.S. suicide rate ticks up, a new study has found that more than a third of Americans are taking at least one prescription drug that could raise their risk of depression. Researchers analyzed medications taken by 26,000 adults from 2005 to 2014 and identified more than 200 widely used drugs that list depression or suicidal thoughts as possible side effects, including hormonal birth control pills, antacids like Prilosec and Zantac, beta-blockers, and the anti-anxiety pill Xanax. About 37 percent of people took at least one of the drugs, and researchers discovered that the more of these drugs participants used at the same time, the greater their likelihood of depression. Some 15 percent of people who used three or more of the drugs—but didn’t take an antidepressant—had depression, while only 7 percent of those taking one and 5 percent who weren’t taking any had the condition. Columbia University psychiatrist Philip Muskin tells The New York Times that he can’t say whether the widespread use of these drugs is contributing to the rising suicide rate, but adds, “Could it play a role? The honest answer is yes.”
6-22-18 New studies add evidence to a possible link between Alzheimer’s and herpesvirus
A-beta plaque buildup could be the brain’s way of protecting itself from the virus. Joel Dudley and his colleagues were searching through datasets for Alzheimer’s disease vulnerabilities to exploit in creating a treatment when they stumbled across a surprising correlation: Many of the brains they looked at had signs of herpesvirus infection. But those from people with Alzheimer’s disease had much higher levels of viral DNA than those from healthy people. In particular, the researchers found high levels of HHV-6 and HHV-7, two strains of herpesvirus associated with a common childhood illness called roseola, the team reports online June 21 in Neuron. “We had no intention of looking at viruses,” says Dudley, a biomedical informatics researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who gives a talk jokingly titled, “I went looking for drugs and all I found were these stupid viruses.” It is unclear whether the herpesviruses contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, or if Alzheimer’s patients are just more susceptible to these viruses, which can remain latent in the body long after exposure. Genetic factors also influence a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The researchers did find that the viruses interacted with genes linked with Alzheimer’s disease, though the implications are still murky.
6-22-18 First evidence that gut bacteria help wire young brains
Experiments in mice have shown for the first time that bacteria found in the gut of babies and children seem to play a role in brain development. A lack of “good bacteria” in childhood could be permanently changing the way the brain is wired up – at least if they affect people the same way they do mice. Changes in our gut bacteria have been implicated in several mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression, but it’s unclear whether these differences actually cause the problems or are knock-on effects. Now a lack of certain bacteria has been found to cause faulty patterns of connections between brain cells in rodents. The microbes are a group called Bifidobacteria, which are among the most common bacteria in the guts of babies and children. Human breast milk contains compounds called oligosaccharides that encourage these microbes to grow, crowding out harmful bugs. Previous research has suggested Bifidobacteria are becoming less common in Western infants, perhaps because of antibiotic use and less breastfeeding. To find out what the effects might be, James Versalovic of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas bred “germ-free” mice, which were born and raised in sterile cages so they had no gut bacteria. He then put four species of Bifidobacteria into the stomachs of one group of young mice. Once they reached adulthood, these mice, along with normal animals for comparison, were put through a range of behavioural tests, before samples were taken from a part of the brain called the cerebellum, involved in movements and learning.
6-22-18 Cyan colour hidden ingredient in sleep
The colour cyan - between green and blue - is a hidden factor in encouraging or preventing sleep, according to biologists. University of Manchester researchers say higher levels of cyan keep people awake, while reducing cyan is associated with helping sleep. The impact was felt even if colour changes were not visible to the eye. The researchers want to produce devices for computer screens and phones that could increase or decrease cyan levels. Sleep researchers have already established links between colours and sleep - with blue light having been identified as more likely to delay sleep. There have been "night mode" settings for phones and laptops which have reduced blue light in an attempt to lessen the damage to sleep. But the research by biologists at the University of Manchester and in Basel in Switzerland, published in the journal Sleep, has shown the particular impact of the colour cyan. When people were exposed to more or less cyan, researchers were able to measure different levels of the sleep hormone melatonin in people's saliva. Prof Rob Lucas said that it was not necessary for someone to be able to see the difference in colours, as the body reacted to the change even if it was not visible to the naked eye. He said this could also affect other colours which were made using cyan. For instance, there are shades of green that can include cyan - which also can be achieved using other colour combinations.
6-22-18 What is it about hogweed — and lemons and limes — that can cause burns?
When exposed to sunlight, chemicals in the juice and sap damage DNA. Another warning to add to the summertime list: check for ticks, go inside during lightning … and hands off the giant hogweed. Getting the plant’s sap on the skin, along with exposure to sun, can lead to severe burns. All good advice, but the invasive plant, which looks like Queen Anne’s lace on steroids, and was recently spotted in Virginia, isn’t the only vegetation that contains the burn-causing chemical compounds. Furocoumarins can be found in the fruit and vegetable bins of most refrigerators. Limes, lemons, parsnip, fennel, dill and members of the mulberry family are some of the plants that have furocoumarins. The chemicals make the skin more prone to sunburn. It takes from 30 to 120 minutes for the skin to absorb furocoumarins from the plant’s juice or sap. With sun exposure, ultraviolet A radiation activates the chemical compounds, which then bind to and damage DNA. Those cells with the damaged DNA die, leaving behind a burn. The condition is called phytophotodermatitis. (The popular summertime combo of Mexican beers with lime has led to another moniker: Mexican beer dermatitis).
6-22-18 US Army has made a plastic bandage that swells to patch wounds
Most soldiers who die from potentially survival wounds suffer from uncontrolled bleeding. The US Army developed a bandage material that can seal wounds faster and more effectively. It’s hard to patch up a bleeding wound. If it’s not on a limb, a tourniquet won’t help, gauze doesn’t absorb enough blood, and many blood clotting agents can leave residue behind, resulting in potentially dangerous side effects. A new material that’s bendable, easy to apply and remove, and incredibly absorbent may help fix that. A US Army study found that 80 to 90 per cent of “potentially survivable deaths” of US soldiers who died on the battlefield before they could get to a hospital were due to uncontrolled bleeding. Army researcher Erich Bain and his colleagues set out to make a new type of bandage that would control bleeding better so injured people can make it to hospital for treatment. Their material starts with a plastic made of polystyrene and rubber, to which acrylic acid is added. The plastic is strong and flexible, so the bandage can be applied to a wound without ripping and removed without leaving any bits behind, and the acrylic acid is extremely absorbent, sucking water out of the blood to help it clot more easily. Finally, the material is attached to a gauze bandage containing a clotting agent. In tests, the bandage absorbed 2 to 4 times as much water as the clotting gauze alone – up to 800 per cent of the material’s weight in water. It swelled to its maximum absorption in under a minute. “A soldier can bleed out in a 2 minute time frame with a bad wound, so once you start to apply this, you really need it to swell extremely rapidly to be effective,” says team member Joseph Lenhart.
6-22-18 These eerie rock towers may have been built by microorganisms
Rock “chimneys” twice as tall as a person that tower above a lake in California may have been built, in part, by microorganisms. Rock “chimneys” twice as tall as a person that tower above a lake in California may have been built, in part, by microorganisms. If that is confirmed, similar towers could give away the presence of life on other planets. Mono Lake is extremely salty and highly alkaline. Despite these inhospitable conditions, it is home to a thriving ecosystem, including scuba-diving flies. In 2010 it came to worldwide attention after scientists claimed that bacteria from Mono Lake could incorporate arsenic into their DNA, in place of phosphorus. This remarkable claim was later debunked. In places, towers of limestone rear above the surface of Mono Lake. One set of towers, which lies north of the lake itself, is known as “Mono City”. There the towers are 3-4 metres tall and 1.5-3 metres across. For many years, scientists studying Mono Lake’s towers have debated whether they formed by a purely chemical process or whether single-celled microorganisms played a role. Alexander Brasier of the University of Aberdeen, UK and his colleagues visited the lake in 2014 to examine the towers more closely. They found that each tower was built of numerous cones or pipes made of calcite. Each pipe was 30–60 centimetres in height and around 3 cm across, with a hollow centre about 1cm across.
6-21-18 Here’s how drinking coffee could protect your heart
In mice, caffeine boosts cells’ energy and that helps repair damage. Coffee revs up cell’s energy factories and helps hearts recover from heart attacks, a study of mice suggests. In the study, researchers gave mice the equivalent of four cups of coffee a day for 10 days before inducing heart attacks in the rodents. Cells in mice that got caffeine repaired the heart attack damage better than cells in mice that didn’t get caffeine, researchers report June 21 in PLOS Biology. Caffeine helps move a protein called p27 into mitochondria, the organelles that produce energy for cells. Increasing p27 in mitochondria upped the organelle’s energy production, and that helped heart cells recover from damage, a team led by researchers from Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany found. People and other animals also have p27, raising the possibility that caffeine could help heal people’s hearts, too. Normally, p27 is found in the nucleus of cells, where it helps control when cells divide. Its energy-boosting role in the mitochondria wasn’t known before. Coffee seems to protect against heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, except cancer (SN: 10/3/15, p. 16). The new discovery may help explain why, says biochemist Judith Haendeler of the university’s medical faculty.
6-21-18 Many psychiatric conditions have the same genes in common
Several conditions including anxiety, depression and anorexia all share a common set of genes, which could lead to better diagnoses. A common set of genes is involved in numerous mental health conditions, according to a study of almost 900,000 genomes. The findings hint that conditions such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia may all share a physiological basis, and open the door to better diagnosis and treatments. Verneri Anttila of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues analysed the genomes of around 865,000 people, including those with one of 25 conditions and healthy controls, to see if there were any patterns. Finding these patterns is an important step toward understanding how and why these conditions develop. The 25 conditions included neurological illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis, and psychiatric conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The researchers pooled data from hundreds of different genetic studies, which search for genetic variants that are shared among particular groups of people – those with depression, for example. They could then compare each group with the others to find genetic variants that are shared across different conditions. They found a strong genetic overlap for mental health conditions, in particular anorexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia. There was much less of an overlap for neurological conditions, suggesting each has a separate cause.
6-21-18 It may take a village (of proteins) to turn on genes
Three new studies suggest it’s time to rethink the idea that these proteins work solo. Turning on genes may work like forming a flash mob. Inside a cell’s nucleus, fast-moving groups of floppy proteins crowd together around gene control switches and coalesce into droplets to turn on genes, Ibrahim Cissé of MIT and colleagues report June 21 in two papers in Science. Researchers have previously demonstrated that proteins form such droplets in the cytoplasm, the cell’s jellylike guts. Some, including Cissé’s MIT colleagues Richard Young and Phillip Sharp, have proposed that this process — called phase separation — could also happen in the nucleus when cellular machinery turns genes on, which involves copying DNA instructions into RNA messages. If confirmed, the discovery challenges earlier ideas that gene activity is controlled by single molecules of stable protein complexes that remain stuck to DNA for long periods. Cissé and colleagues used super-resolution microscopy to view single molecules of protein in live mouse embryonic stem cells. In particular, they were interested in RNA polymerase II, an enzyme that copies DNA into RNA, and parts of the Mediator complex, a group of proteins that help kick-start that copying process, called transcription. The researchers tagged the proteins with a fluorescent protein and watched what happened.
6-21-18 How Medicare for all could save the American health-care system
The American health-care Jenga tower is getting more wobbly by the minute. To fix the problem, leftists and even many liberals have been pushing Medicare for all as a reform that would finally cover everyone in the country. In response, people like President Trump, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and CNN's John Berman and Poppy Harlow have argued that Medicare for all is simply too expensive. "[S]ingle-payer will bankrupt our country," Trump has said. Meanwhile, just this week, House Republicans floated a plan to balance the budget by making massive cuts to social programs, Medicare included. This is the opposite of what we should be doing. To prevent the cancerous American health-care system from devouring the entire economy, Medicare for all — or something comparably simple and aggressive — is needed, pronto. But there is zero evidence that the United States is actually getting much of anything for all its gigantic spending. On the contrary, its health outcomes are middling to poor on most indicators, life expectancy is actually declining on average, and medical error is the third-most common cause of death — while at the same time, people are still being routinely bankrupted by medical bills due to lack of insurance, or out-of-network procedures, or even occasionally dying from lack of coverage. A number of diabetics have recently perished due to inability to afford insulin, the price of which has been driven through the roof by predatory manufacturers. In short, America is in the ludicrous position of flinging the equivalent of the entire economic output of Indonesia (population: 260 million) at its health-care system and still people are dying for the lack of $50 worth of 100-year-old commodity medications.
6-21-18 Herpes viruses in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease
A detailed molecular analysis of hundreds of post-mortem brains supports the controversial theory that viruses contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. The most in-depth analysis of human brain tissue ever done in Alzheimer’s disease has found evidence for the controversial theory that viruses play a role in the condition. If true, it could mean that some instances of Alzheimer’s might be treated with anti-viral drugs. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, affecting some 47 million people worldwide. Treatments can temporarily slow its progression, but there is no cure and we still lack a full understanding of what causes it. Past studies have suggested that viruses, particularly herpes simplex virus 1, are a risk factor, but many Alzheimer’s researchers are unconvinced. In the latest study, Joel Dudley at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York and colleagues analysed a large collection of molecular data from human brain banks, including DNA, RNA, and proteins, as well as clinical data from 622 brain donors with Alzheimer’s disease and 322 donors without the condition. Their aim was to build a computer model pulling together all of the data to understand how molecular activity changes in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease. “We weren’t actually looking for viruses. We were trying to find new drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dudley. The team were surprised to find that many of the genes that seemed to be affected in Alzheimer’s were genes involved in the body’s defence against viruses. So they went back to the raw genetic data to look for viral genes, and found that two in particular, human herpes virus 6 and 7 (HHV6 and HHV7) were significantly more abundant in brains with Alzheimer’s.
6-21-18 Colonists could use genetically modified bacteria to settle Mars
Mars colonists could build their habitats and clothes from “living” self-healing materials and make them air-tight with rubber grown by E. coli. Packing E.coli on a trip to Mars could be the best way for humans to survive on the Red Planet. Initial feasibility studies suggest Mars colonists could use “living” self-healing materials to build habitats, make them air-tight with rubber grown by cells and power them with batteries made of bacteria. Lynn Rothschild at the NASA Ames Research Center thinks synthetic biology is the key to exploring and colonising other planets like Mars. It could allow key materials and even machinery to be grown locally rather than brought all the way from Earth at stupendous expense. Her group at NASA has been exploring the feasibility of this approach with the Stanford-Brown iGEM team, a team of undergraduates who design projects for the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Rubber is one key material Mars colonists will need to keep their habitats and spacesuit airtight. On Earth, rubber is either extracted from rubber trees or made from fossil fuels. On Mars, it could instead be produced by genetically modified E. coli. Several iGEM teams have managed to get E. coli to make rubber by adding genes from the rubber tree. The problem is that the rubber can only be extracted by breaking open the cells, which requires chemicals that Mars colonists will not have. Rothschild’s group has now engineered E. coli that have the rubber-making machinery on the outside of their cells, so there’s no need to break them open. They also created a form of rubber that can be broken down and recycled by the bacteria. The group has also created self-healing plastics by encapsulating a glue-making bacterium called Bacillus subtilus within them. These bacteria can form spores that can survive long periods with no food. NASA experiments have shown they can survive for at least six years in space.
6-20-18 How to help your toddler be helpful (with caveats)
Scientists disagree over why toddlers like to help, but the behavior is linked to success later in life. Getting help from a toddler is a bit like not getting help: They mean well, but you may end up with more of a mess than when you started. But given the choice, many kids prefer “real” activities to imaginary games, Bruce Bower recently reported in depth for Science News. And the benefits of recruiting your child for help with chores may go beyond conquering that pile of laundry: Research suggests that that kids who develop good “prosocial skills” — behaviors like helping and sharing — fare better in life when they’re older. You may have noticed that your youngster is already interested in offering you assistance — handing you bread as you unpack groceries or carrying silverware to the table. There’s some debate in the research community about why this urge to lend a hand emerges. One camp argues that humans have an innate tendency to come to the aid of others. Several years ago, a landmark study in Science found that kids as young as 18 months old will help — unprompted — an adult experimenter whose hands are full with tasks like picking up a dropped pen or opening a cabinet door. The researchers performed similar experiments with three young chimpanzees and found they also chipped in (though less reliably), suggesting that humans are inherently altruistic. To oversimplify: Infants like social interactions and they like mastering new skills; helping lets them do both. (The desire to engage with others also manifests in behaviors like grabbing, biting or hitting, leading you to correctly believe that toddlers are both angels and sociopaths.)
6-20-18 Eating less red meat protects against endometriosis
Minimising red meat consumption seems to protect against endometriosis, according to a study of more than 80,000 women who were followed for two decades. Women who eat less red meat have a lower risk of developing endometriosis, a 22-year-long study has found. Endometriosis occurs when tissue from the womb spreads to other places like the bowel or ovaries. It affects one in ten women of reproductive age and can cause severe pain and infertility. No one knows exactly what causes the condition, but it is thought to relate to excess levels of the hormone oestrogen. Holly Harris at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Washington and her colleagues wondered if eating red meat, which is thought to influence oestrogen levels, may play a role. To find out, the team followed a group of more than 80,000 premenopausal women across the US from 1991 to 2013. Participants completed a questionnaire about their diet every 4 years, and the researchers noted any cases of surgically-confirmed endometriosis. They found that women who ate more than two servings of red meat per day had a 56 per cent higher risk of developing endometriosis than those who ate no more than one serving per week. Unprocessed forms of red meat like steak and pork chops had a greater effect than processed sources like bacon and sausages. In contrast, consumption of chicken, fish, shellfish and eggs was unrelated to endometriosis.
6-20-18 Consciousness: How we’re solving a mystery bigger than our minds
What is being in love, feeling pain or seeing colour made of? How our brains make conscious experience has long been a riddle – but we’re uncovering clues. TWENTY years ago this week, two young men sat in a smoky bar in Bremen, northern Germany. Neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers had spent the day lecturing at a conference about consciousness, and they still had more to say. After a few drinks, Koch suggested a wager. He bet a case of fine wine that within the next 25 years someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain. Chalmers said it wouldn’t happen, and bet against. It was a bit of fun, but also an audacious gamble. Consciousness is truly mysterious. It is the essence of you – the redness of red, the feeling of being in love, the sensation of pain and all the rest of your subjective experiences, conjured up somehow by your brain. Back then, its elusive nature meant that many believed it wasn’t even a valid subject for scientific investigation. Today, consciousness is a hot research area, and Koch and Chalmers are two of its most influential figures. Koch is head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Chalmers is a professor at New York University and famous for coining the phrase the “hard problem” to distinguish the difficulty of understanding consciousness from that of grasping other mental phenomena. Much progress has been made, but how close are we to solving the mystery? To find out, I decided to ask Chalmers and Koch how their bet was going. But there was a problem – they had mislaid the terms of the wager. Luckily, I too was in Bremen as a journalist 20 years ago and was able to come to their rescue.
6-20-18 Gene-edited farm animals are on their way
Scientists have created pigs that are immune to one of the world's costliest livestock diseases. The team edited the animals' DNA to make them resist the deadly respiratory disease known as PRRS - a move that could prevent billions of pounds in losses each year. However, consumers have traditionally been reluctant to eat genetically altered animals and crops. This poses a significant barrier to farmers owning gene-edited pigs. And because genome, or gene, editing (GE) is relatively new, the absence of regulation currently prevents their sale anyway. GE is different to the more widely used technology of genetic modification. The former involves the precise alteration of an organism's DNA, while the latter is characterised by the introduction of foreign genetic sequences into another living thing. The pig research also raises animal welfare issues. Critics say that creating disease-resistant animals will discourage farmers from improving the welfare of their livestock. Some think that the way the animals are kept can make them less prone to contracting the virus that causes PRRS. PRRS, which stands for Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, can cause breathing problems and death in young pigs. In the past, there have been fears (unsupported by scientific evidence) that GM foods might cause harm to human health. Among those concerns are that the products of modified crops or animals might trigger allergies or that genes inserted into the food would get into human DNA. But GM foods have been available for decades and no adverse effects on humans have ever been reported. In its guidance, the World Health Organization (WHO) says: "No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved."
6-20-18 Ötzi the Iceman ran out of rock to make his tools before he died
Ötzi the Iceman, a prehistoric man found mummified in a mountain glacier, was short of crucial supplies in the days and weeks before his violent death. A prehistoric man who became mummified in a mountain glacier was in dire straits towards the end of his life, having been cut off from supplies of essential tools. Ötzi, known as the Iceman, was discovered in 1991 in a glacier in the Alps, near the border of Austria and Italy. He lived about 5300 years ago, during the Copper Age. Since his discovery a wealth of information has been unveiled about his life – notably that he died after being shot with an arrow, the head of which was found embedded in his shoulder. Now Ursula Wierer of the Soprintendenza Archaeologia in Florence, Italy and her colleagues have taken a close look at the stone tools Ötzi was carrying. He was found with six tools, made of chert – a rock often used to make prehistoric tools. Ötzi had taken good care of them. “The Iceman had performed a careful and repeated resharpening and repair of his working tools and weapons, with the antler retoucher he carried with him,” says Wierer. But they were almost worn out. “Most tools, though still functioning, had arrived to their last phase of utilization,” says Wierer. They were “very small, with hardly any further possibility of resharpening”. This implies that Ötzi was in a “critical situation… during his last days,” says Wierer. “He apparently did not have the possibility to get new chert for integrating his reduced toolkit and to make new arrowheads for the unfinished shafts.”
6-20-18 With this new system, robots can ‘read’ your mind
Directing bots with brain waves and muscle twitches could make for a speedier response time. Getting robots to do what we want would be a lot easier if they could read our minds. That sci-fi dream might not be so far off. With a new robot control system, a human can stop a bot from making a mistake and get the machine back on track using brain waves and simple hand gestures. People who oversee robots in factories, homes or hospitals could use this setup, to be presented at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference on June 28, to ensure bots operate safely and efficiently. Electrodes worn on the head and forearm allow a person to control the robot. The head-worn electrodes detect electrical signals called error-related potentials — which people’s brains unconsciously generate when they see someone goof up — and send an alert to the robot. When the robot receives an error signal, it stops what it is doing. The person can then make hand gestures — detected by arm-worn electrodes that monitor electrical muscle signals — to show the bot what it should do instead.
6-20-18 Black men are left out of cancer trials because of their biology
Prostate cancer is more common in African Americans, but they are less likely to be included in drug trials. Unintended biological biases are partly to blame. Prostate cancer is 60 per cent more common in African Americans than in Caucasians, and black Americans are twice as likely to die from the disease when they get it. Yet black men are less likely to be included in clinical trials of drugs for the disease – and accidental biases against their biology seem to be partly to blame. Speaking at a meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology in Chicago this month, Susan Halabi, of Duke University, says her team found that only 12 per cent of the participants in phase 3 clinical trials – the type of late stage trial that is most crucial for drug approval – are black men. This is despite black men making up around 15 per cent of the male population in the US. Social and cultural factors have long been blamed for lower participation in clinical trials by black men, but researchers are beginning to understand that the way prostate cancer trials are conducted may also be biologically biased against black men. When researchers establish clinical trials, they will decide upon exclusion criteria. These are usually health issues that could skew a trial’s findings on any ill effects a novel drug may have. The idea is that, by testing a new treatment in the fittest possible individuals who have a particular condition, the trial has the best chance of detecting any positive effects. Results can then be generalised to the rest of the population.
6-19-18 A huge number of mystery microbes are living on your skin
We thought we knew about most of the species in our bodies’ microbiomes, but a study has revealed a large number of previously-unidentified organisms. We have been missing a large number of the microbes that live in our body, and we have no idea how they affect our health. In recent years, we have come to understand that our microbiomes – the microbes that live in our guts and elsewhere – may affect everything from armpit smell to obesity. This realisation has prompted groups around the world to begin developing therapies that target our microbiomes in an effort to treat a range of conditions. But it appears that microbiome studies have been missing many species. “We might be overlooking a huge number of microbes that we cannot see with standard methods,” says Christine Moissl-Eichinger at the Medical University of Graz in Austria. Moissl-Eichinger has been investigating species we know very little about because they aren’t easy to detect or grow in the lab. Her interest began when she was involved in checking if microbes were present on spacecraft destined for other planets. She found cells belonging to the group known as archaea. These look just like bacteria, but are a different branch of life. Moissl-Eichinger has also found archaea in hospitals, prompting her to realise that they must come from people – even though few archaea have been discovered in or on the human body.
6-19-18 Special cells could let you control your diabetes with coffee
A cup of coffee after a meal might be enough to keep diabetes under control, thanks to caffeine-triggered cells that have been engineered to release insulin. A cup of coffee after a meal might be enough to keep diabetes under control, thanks to cells that have been engineered to release insulin when they detect caffeine. Diabetes develops when the body loses its ability to regulate glucose levels in the blood. Some people manage this by taking frequent pin prick samples to measure their blood sugar levels, and using this information to adjust the supply of insulin from a pump worn against the skin. Meal times are an especially taxing event, as the amount of sugar consumed must be estimated, and an appropriate dose of insulin scheduled. To get around this, Martin Fussenegger, a biotechnologist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and his colleagues have developed an alternative that’s powered by coffee. The team took human kidney cells and engineered them to produce insulin. They also added a receptor that would trigger the release of this insulin when caffeine was present. They then implanted these cells into 10 diabetic mice, and gave them coffee with their meals. Tests revealed this was enough to enable the mice to control their blood sugar levels as well as non-diabetic mice.
6-18-18 HIV prevention drugs could delay diagnosis if you get infected
HIV tests may be giving incorrect results for people taking PrEP to avoid getting the virus, meaning they may be HIV positive for months without knowing. HIV tests may be giving incorrect negative results for several months in people taking pills that cut the risk of catching the virus – which could let people pass the infection on to others because they believe they are HIV-free. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a combination of two drugs that reduce the risk of getting HIV from unprotected sex to almost zero, if taken consistently. This approach has contributed to tumbling rates of new HIV infections in gay men in several western cities such as London and San Francisco. But there are still risks – some people may miss doses, making PrEP less effective. And there have also been a few cases of people saying they caught HIV even though they took every dose. For these reasons, PrEP users are advised to take HIV tests every three months, to check they haven’t contracted it. However, Ivana Parker of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and her team have found that some HIV tests may not detect an infection until around five months later, if a person is using PrEP.
6-18-18 A robot has performed eye surgery on humans for the first time
For the first time, six people have had eye surgery performed by a robot that was able to filter out the tremors from a surgeon's hand. For the first time, a robot has performed eye surgery on humans. It’s success hints that in the near future robots will be performing operations that are too delicate for a human to do manually. Each of the six participants in the study needed a membrane removed from their retina to improve vision. This procedure involves cutting out a collection of cells that have clumped together, distorting what the person can see. Twelve people in total had the surgery, with half of them conducted using a robot. The device is made by Eindhoven-based firm Preceye, and has a moveable arm directed using a joystick-style controller. It can be fitted with various different surgical instruments and filters out the imperceptible tremors from the surgeon’s hand. In all twelve cases, both robotic and manual, the operations were successful. The trials started in 2016, but this is the first time the results have been published. The robotic approach took nearly three times as long as performing the surgery manually. “The robot took a bit longer, but that was to be expected,” says Robert MacLaren at the University of Oxford. That is because they were new to using the robot, so were especially cautious.
6-18-18 Phone apps are helping scientists track suicidal thoughts in real time
Studies aim to find out if such close monitoring could help prevent suicides. Suicide research is undergoing a timing shift, and not a moment too soon. A new breed of studies that track daily — and even hourly — changes in suicidal thinking is providing intriguing, although still preliminary, insights into how to identify those on the verge of trying to kill themselves. Monitoring ways in which suicidal thoughts wax and wane over brief time periods, it turns out, can potentially strengthen suicide prevention strategies. Digital technology has made these investigations possible. Smartphone applications alert people to report on suicidal thoughts as they arise in real-world settings. Scientists have traditionally been limited to tracking suicidal thinking over intervals of weeks, months and years, often in research labs and hospitals. But risk factors that do a decent job of predicting the emergence of suicidal thoughts and acts over the long haul, such as persistent feelings of hopelessness, provide little help in tagging those who will become suicidal in the coming hours and days. Depression, often cited as a main driver of suicide, displays a strong link to suicidal thoughts but not to attempting or completing suicide in the near future. Despite increasing efforts to combat suicide, U.S. suicide rates steadily rose from 1999 to 2016 (SN Online: 6/7/18). After declining during the 1990s, U.S. suicide rates now roughly equal those of 100 years ago. In recent weeks, the surprising high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef and television star Anthony Bourdain have attracted more attention to this problem.
6-18-18 How hats were placed atop the Easter Island statues
The famous statues of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, are best known for their deep-set eyes and long ears. They also sport impressive multi-tonne hats made from a different rock type. Quite how these pukao, as they are known, were transported and placed atop the statues has long been a puzzle. But now American archaeologists believe they have a clearer understanding. The giant hats were moved with minimal effort and resources using a ramp and rope technique, they say. "The fact that they successfully assembled these monuments is a clear signal of the engineering prowess of the prehistoric Rapanui people," said Sean Hixon, lead author and graduate student in anthropology, at Penn State. The researchers' investigations indicate the pukao were rolled across miles of rugged terrain and earthen ramps to reach the top of the ancestor heads, called Moai. The largest of these colossal red hats has a diameter of over 2m and weighs nearly 11 tonnes. The researchers motion-mapped overlapping digital photographs to capture surface details of each pukao. By applying filters to their models, they began to identify clues that are shared among pukao which show the marks of wear and tear in how they were moved. The team's findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, argue that similar notches, grooves and indentations suggest the Rapanui people built ramps in front of forward-leaning Moai. They then rolled the hats till they reached the top, before finally tipping the Moai upright. Islanders are likely to have wrapped the pukao with ropes to roll and tip them. This "parbuckling" method, often used today to right capsized ships, would have made moving the stones physically feasible and required smaller groups of individuals to be involved.
6-18-18 The first Americans had pet dogs 1000 years earlier than thought
There were domestic dogs in North America 10,200 years ago, according to a re-examination of an ancient dog skeleton that looks like a small English setter. Dogs were living as companions to the early settlers of North America over 10,000 years ago. Angela Perri of Durham University, UK and her American colleagues have re-examined the remains of three ancient dog skeletons, which had previously been excavated. Two of them, from the Koster site in a tributary of the Illinois River, were thought to be America’s oldest domesticated dogs, at around 9500 years old. The team performed fresh radiocarbon dating and found that these two dogs were even older: 10,110 and 10,130 years old. A third dog from another Illinois site called Stilwell II was older still, at 10,190 years old. That makes it the oldest known domesticated dog in the Americas. It was discovered and excavated in 1962 and, like the Koster dogs, kept in the Illinois State Museum. The researchers declined to comment on the study, as it will soon appear in a peer-reviewed journal. The team concluded all three dogs were domesticated because their skeletons were found intact and unskinned, rather than butchered. They had also been carefully buried, further evidence they were valued by their human owners. The Stilwell II dog, which likely resembled a small English setter, was found beneath what seemed to be the floor of a living area. It’s unclear why it took so long for tame dogs to arrive in the ancient Americas, given that they had been domesticated at least 4000 years earlier in Eurasia.
6-18-18 The most ancient African baobabs are dying and no one knows why
After standing for a millennium or two, 9 of the 13 oldest trees have lost big chunks or died. The last 13 years have been terrible for ancient African baobab trees. Nine of the 13 oldest either lost trunks or died altogether after having lived for longer than a millennium, researchers report June 11 in Nature Plants. But just what the demise means for the iconic species is up for debate. “Whilst we are saddened about the death and collapse [of the old trees], current evidence does not indicate that this is affecting the whole population,” says plant scientist Sarah Venter, who was not part of the new study. Venter, with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, does not see an immediate threat to the species as a whole. These trees of extreme age “were probably more vulnerable to dry conditions,” she says. “Tree mortality is complex and can be attributed to many causes, including climate change and droughts.” The Adansonia digitata species of the baobab group is the longest-living kind of flowering tree. With its mass of skinny branches dividing like rootlets over a fat trunk, the species sometimes gets teased as an upside-down tree. Long-stemmed brown fruits also encourage the nickname “dead-rat tree.” Yet people have long cherished the giant baobabs for food, medicine and spiritual value.
6-16-18 The secret to loving your life
Even the hardest parts. Sometimes life sucks. Bad. Really bad. And you feel like you want a refund. But, of course, we need to accept that Life Avenue is going to have its share of potholes. Albert Ellis, one of the most influential psychologists ever, knew that "acceptance" is key to coping with the curve balls life throws at us. It makes sense. Walking around constantly expecting life to give us everything we want is not only comically entitled and ridiculous, but would make existence a hell of perpetual frustration. But here's the thing: Some of the wisest people who ever lived take it further than acceptance. A lot further. Many of the greats embraced the concept of "amor fati": to not only accept everything that life brings you, good or bad, but to love it. To embrace it. To revel in it. Every single bit of your life. Yes, even the truly horrible, awful, regrettable, don't-ever-want-to-think-about-it-again moments. To which I initially responded with a big honking: Huh? Seriously? So we should wake up and think "amor fati"? We should wake up and think a lot of life is going to be awful — and then love that? And this is the key to a joyous life filled with great achievement? I repeat: Huh? Seriously? We're gonna need a little help to fully unpack this one. So I gave somebody a call who knows this stuff. Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of The Daily Stoic and The Obstacle is the Way. His latest book is Conspiracy. He's going to help us get to the bottom of how loving everything in your life — including the truly awful stuff — is one of the most powerful ideas around. And a great way to start your day. Let's get to it. Here's how amor fati can make you happy:
- Amor fati: Merely "accepting" life is not enough. You need the Platinum Pro package. Love every bit of life, good, bad, and ugly. (Yes, that includes traffic.)
- Denial and complaining are the enemy: Whatever it is, you will accept it eventually. So sooner is better. And whining is wasted energy. The universe doesn't check its Complaint Box.
- Flash forward to the future: Will this still bother you in a month? A year? Then don't let it bother you now.
- Treat life as a game: It's no fun if it's easy. If your personal story has no conflict, please do me a favor: Don't tell me your story. It's boring. Do you want a boring life?
- Feel gratitude — for the good and the bad: You don't know what, in the end, will be good or bad. So be grateful for it all. And then work to make the short term bad turn into long term good.
6-15-18 World's oldest trees die
Eight of Africa’s 13 oldest baobab trees have abruptly died over the past 12 years, and researchers believe climate change may be to blame. Baobabs can live for up to 3,000 years and are known as the “tree of life” because they produce nutritious fruit even during the dry season. With massive trunks and spindly branches, the trees look like they’ve been uprooted and placed upside down. But a new study has found that baobabs are dying off across Southern Africa in unprecedented numbers. Among those that perished is Panke, a baobab in Zimbabwe that was estimated to be about 2,450 years old, with an 84-foot-wide trunk. “It is definitely shocking and dramatic to experience during our lifetime the demise of so many trees with millennial ages,” said study co-author Adrian Patrut of Romania’s Babes-Bolyai University.
6-15-18 Knowing your DNA can help you stick to a healthier lifestyle
When people are advised to live more healthily, they usually give up quickly. Now a study suggests that genetic data can persuade people to make lasting changes. You can teach an old dog new tricks – with help from genomics. A pioneering study has found that knowing your genetic risk for various diseases makes people switch to healthier lifestyles, and stick to them. Consumer DNA analysis companies such as California-based 23andMe already offer advice on beneficial lifestyle changes after screening customers’ DNA for gene variants linked with disease. Estonia’s government has offered a similar service free of charge to 100,000 of its citizens. But no one has so far shown that such advice is enough to convince people to make real and lasting changes to how they live. Elisabeth Widen of the University of Helsinki and her colleagues have analysed data from more than 7300 people aged 45 to 65 in Finland. “We wanted to study middle-aged people, as that’s the age when heart disease risks get elevated, but where lifestyle interventions such as quitting smoking are valuable,” says Widen. Each of these participants had their DNA analysed for 49,000 different genetic variants, some of which are associated with heart disease. Widen’s team compared this data with each person’s lifestyle and medical history, and then told each person their personal predicted risk for heart disease via online portals.
6-15-18 Bacteria may survive temperatures hot enough to melt lead
Few living things can cope with temperatures above 100°C, but a controversial study suggests some bacterial spores can withstand 420°C heat for over 30 minutes. Life can survive inside a furnace heated to more than 400°C. At least, that’s the extraordinary claim being made by one group of researchers. However, others say such an unexpected conclusion will need to be supported by stronger evidence. Conventional wisdom is that life struggles to survive when the temperature rises. The thermal limit for animal life is placed at about 50°C. Some forms of bacteria can survive life at temperatures above 100°C, with one strain confirmed to survive at 122°C. Lynda Beladjal at Ghent University in Belgium and her colleagues knew that one limiting factor is the water within living cells. They wondered whether bacterial spores, which contain little water, could withstand higher temperatures. The researchers placed spores of the bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens in glass test tubes. After three days of incubation in a desiccator with 0 per cent relative humidity, the test tubes were transferred to a furnace and heated, over 30 to 60 minutes, to peak temperatures between 200°C and 500°C. Then the researchers cooled the spores and assessed whether any could still grow and form cultures. They found that spores heated to temperatures up to and including 420°C could germinate and grow. However, spores heated to 430°C or higher could not. “As far as we know, spores of B. amyloliquefaciens are the most high-temperature resistant spores studied so far,” says Beladjal.
6-15-18 Mediterranean diet is still good for you but only if you’re rich
A landmark study that touted the benefits of the Mediterranean diet has been retracted, but eating more fresh fish and veg is still good for you, if you can afford it. It’s supposed to be good for you. The effects of the Mediterranean diet were tracked over five years in a study published in 2013, but its results have now been called into question. The original research found that the diet – featuring fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, nuts, olive oil and red wine, but very little red meat or sugar – reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, contributed to slight reductions in rates of heart attack and death, and more significantly lowered the risk of stroke. Since then, study after study has found that eating a Mediterranean diet can stave off ageing in the brain, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or even improve the chances of successful IVF treatments. But the 2013 study, known as PREDIMED, was recently retracted from the New England Journal of Medicine, and a new analysis of the data was republished. That’s because not all of the study’s 7447 participants were properly randomised. For instance, participants were assigned to follow either the low-fat control diet or one of two versions of the Mediterranean diet – with an emphasis on fats derived from either olive oil or walnuts. But some couples were both assigned to the same diet because of their marital status, so it wasn’t truly random. The authors reanalysed their data, removing about 21 per cent of the participants. They found that the protective effects of the Mediterranean diet held up under this new scrutiny, but their scope was more limited: the health benefits were only seen for people with a high risk of heart disease.
6-15-18 AI can detect early signs of Parkinson’s from brain scans alone
An AI could identify signs of Parkinson’s from brain scans alone. One day it could be used to spot the disease before physical symptoms show. Artificial intelligence can detect the early stages of Parkinson’s disease from brain scans. The hope is that this will lead to earlier diagnosis and treatments to slow the progression of the disease. Parkinson’s disease is usually first noticed when people start to show visible tremors and lose some control of their motor movements. The disease is then confirmed with further tests involving injecting radioactive tracers into the body. To see if artificial intelligence could do a better job, researchers at two Italian universities trained a machine learning algorithm to distinguish between brain scans of people with and without Parkinson’s. The AI saw hundreds of different structural MRI scans. Such scans pick up the brain’s anatomy and any changes from disease in great detail. Around two thirds of the subjects were of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s, many with early signs of the disease, such as mild cognitive impairment and REM sleep disorders, and the remainder were from healthy controls. During tests on previously unseen images, including brain scans of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the AI could identify the disease with 94 per cent accuracy.
6-14-18 Gene therapy reverses rat's paralysis
Scientists say they have taken a significant step towards the goal of giving paralysed people control of their hands again. The team at King's College London used gene therapy to repair damage in the spinal cord of rats. The animals could then pick up and eat sugar cubes with their front paws. It is early stage research, but experts said it was some of the most compelling evidence that people's hand function could one day be restored. The spinal cord is a dense tube of nerves carrying instructions from the brain to the rest of the body. The body repairs a wounded spinal cord with scar tissue. However, the scar acts like a barrier to new connections forming between nerves. The researchers were trying to dissolve components of the scar tissue in the rats' spinal cord. They needed to give cells in the cord a new set of genetic instructions - a gene - for breaking down the scar. The instructions they gave were for an enzyme called chondroitinase. And they used a virus to deliver them. Finally, a drug was used to activate the instructions. The animals regained use of their front paws after the gene therapy had been switched on for two months. Dr Emily Burnside, one of the researchers, said: "The rats were able to accurately reach and grasp sugar pellets. "We also found a dramatic increase in activity in the spinal cord of the rats, suggesting that new connections had been made in the networks of nerve cells." The researchers hope their approach will work for people injured in car crashes or falls.
6-14-18 Your brain absolutely cannot resist doughnuts – here’s why
Foods that are high in both carbohydrates and fats super-charge the activity in our brain’s reward centre, explaining why we find them so appealing. Doughnuts are particularly difficult to resist – and now we know why. A study of how our brains respond to food has found that treats that are high in both carbs and fats trigger a super-charged amount of activity in our brain’s reward centre. Dana Small at Yale University and colleagues scanned the brain activity of hungry volunteers as they were shown images of foods that were either high in carbohydrate, such as candy, high in fat, such as cheese, or high in both, such as doughnuts. After the scans, the volunteers were asked to bid money in a competitive auction for the food they wanted to have for a snack. Compared to food containing just carbs or fat, the team found that foods high in both of these together provoked far more activity in the brain’s striatum – a region involved in reward that releases the feel-good chemical dopamine. The volunteers were also willing to pay more for the snacks that were high in both carbs and fat, despite all the food items having the same calorific value. Small thinks we may have separate systems in the brain to evaluate fatty or carb-heavy foods. If both get activated at the same time, this tricks the brain to produce a larger amount of dopamine – and a bigger feeling of reward – than there should be based on the food’s energy content. This could be because when the human brain evolved, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a diet consisting mainly of plants and meat, and never encountered food that is high in both carbs and fat. “The brain is used to seeing one signal at a time. Modern food is tricking the system,” says Small.
6-14-18 These newfound frogs have been trapped in amber for 99 million years
Bits of bugs and plants in the ancient goo provide a glimpse of the amphibians’ lives. About 99 million years ago, tiny frogs hopped through a wet, tropical forest — and an unlucky few ran afoul of some tree sap. Four newly described frog fossils, preserved in amber, offer the earliest direct evidence of ancient frogs living in a humid tropical clime — just as many modern amphibians do. None of the frog fossils is complete, making it difficult to place the frogs within their family tree: One has a partial skull and another a froggy outline, although CT scanning revealed no remaining skeletal material inside the impression. So researchers dubbed all four fossils Electrorana limoae (electrum for “amber” and rana for “frog”) in a study published June 14 in Scientific Reports. Anatomy-wise, the ancient frogs most resemble a modern group that includes fire-bellied toads. The fossil record contains relatively few frogs, despite the amphibians’ more than 200-million-year history. The frog fossils that do exist suggest that frogs have looked distinctly — well, froggy — for hundreds of millions of years, says study coauthor David Blackburn, an amphibian biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. “The aspects that make them diverse are not their skeletons, it’s their ecologies, natural histories, reproductive modes. Things that are really hard to find in the fossil record.” That’s what makes the amber specimens so interesting: The chunks also contain preserved spiders, velvet worms and bamboo — all pointing to a tropical environment. Such paleoecological evidence offers scientists a rare glimpse into the life and times of tropical frogs of old.
6-14-18 Prehistoric frogs surface after 99 million years
Frogs trapped in amber for 99 million years are giving a glimpse of a lost world. The tiny creatures have been preserved in sticky tree resin since the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs. The four fossils give a window into a world when frogs and toads were evolving in the rainforests. Amber from Myanmar, containing skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures, is regarded as a treasure trove by palaeontologists. Dr Lida Xing of China University of Geosciences in Beijing said it was a "miracle" find. "In China, frogs, lizards and scorpions are called three treasures of amber," he told BBC News. "These amber fossils provide direct evidence that frogs inhabited wet tropical forests before the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous." The fossil record of the earliest amphibians is sparse, which makes the discovery particularly valuable for science. Dr David Blackburn of the University of Florida, who worked on the fossils alongside Dr Xing, said being small and living in a tropical forest makes the likelihood of ending up in the fossil record "pretty low". "Frogs have been around on earth for approximately 200 million years," he said. "How long have they been associated with these wet forests? Is it a recent phenomenon or an ancient one? These amber frog fossils indicate that this association extends back to at least 100 million years ago."
6-13-18 The truth about spices: Is it time to ditch the turmeric latte?
Spices are causing a stir as cheap and easy cure-alls for everything from diabetes to dementia, but not all the claims live up to the hype. TURMERIC and bread makes for an unusual breakfast. But when Mark Wahlqvist served it to a group of older people in Taiwan, he had high hopes. They had been diagnosed as heading for diabetes, which can affect mental abilities. Having heard that the spice could have cognitive benefits, he wanted to put it to the test. “The idea that turmeric might be brain-protective is novel,” says Wahlqvist, currently at the National Health Research Institutes in Taipei, Taiwan. To those following the latest food trends, however, the spice’s brain-boosting potential is unlikely to raise an eyebrow. It is just one in a long list of turmeric’s supposed benefits that have seen it proclaimed as a cheap and effective super food. As a result, what once may have been gathering dust in your spice rack is now the star attraction at trendy coffee shops selling “golden lattes”. Other spices are vying for popularity, too. From cinnamon to saffron, the internet is rife with claims about the healing powers of spices, suggesting that they can help with just about any condition from depression to cardiovascular disease and cancer. Even Hillary Clinton has reportedly jumped on the bandwagon. After reading that hot peppers can boost the immune system, she was eating one a day during the 2016 US presidential election campaign in an attempt to improve her stamina. The question is whether we are swallowing anything more than a load of hype.
6-13-18 The brain has a special clock that tracks sleepiness
A chemical clock has been found in the brains of mice that keeps track of how long it’s been since an animal last slept, and how sleepy it should feel. You are feeling sleepy – but why? Researchers have discovered a chemical clock in the brain that builds up the desire to sleep. Qinghua Liu of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and colleagues have been studying mutant mice that are constantly sleepy. Comparing these to normal mice, they identified a set of proteins involved in tracking how long an animal has been awake. In healthy mice, these proteins gradually accumulate chemical tags – called phosphate groups – during waking hours. These phosphate groups are added onto the proteins at relatively regular intervals, helping to keep track of how long it has been since a mouse last slept. The more phosphate groups these proteins carried, the deeper and longer mice slept when they drifted off. During sleep, the phosphate groups are removed and the protein clock is reset. Studying the brains of mice, the team found that these sleep index proteins are mainly found in the brain’s synapses, the gaps between neurons through which messages are passed. “When we are awake our synapses are actively firing, so synaptic proteins are in the best position to monitor the duration and richness of our waking experience,” says Liu. The team’s discovery may lead to new medicines for sleep disorders – for example, a drug that boosts the addition of phosphate groups onto sleep index proteins might relieve insomnia.
6-13-18 DNA testing can bring families together, but gives mixed answers on ethnicity
Ethnicity estimates vary widely depending on which company is doing the testing. Michael Douglas, a new resident of southern Maryland, credits genetic testing for helping him find his heritage — and a family he knew very little about. Douglas, 43, is adopted. He knew his birth mother’s name and had seen a birth certificate stating his birth name: Thomas Michael McCarthy. Over the years, Douglas had tried off and on to find his birth family, mostly by looking for his mother’s name, Deborah Ann McCarthy, in phone books and calling the numbers. “I think I must have broken up a lot of marriages,” he laughs. His search gained urgency in the last five years as he battled a life-threatening illness. “We planned my funeral three times,” he says. Douglas has a genetic disease called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, caused by a variant in a gene that helps build the body’s connective tissue. His stretchy skin and hyperflexible joints are characteristic of the disease. “As a kid, I was always dislocating something,” he says. His blood vessels don’t constrict properly to maintain his blood pressure, so Douglas sometimes faints when he stands up. For five years, he has had a constant migraine. Headaches are typical of about a third of people with Ehlers-Danlos. On top of that, he has B cell lymphoma. “I feel like I have the flu every day,” he says. It was time, he decided, to track down his birth family and learn more about his medical history.
6-13-18 What I actually learned about my family after trying 5 DNA ancestry tests
Results can vary widely depending on which company you use. Commercials abound for DNA testing services that will help you learn where your ancestors came from or connect you with relatives. I’ve been interested in my family history for a long time. I knew basically where our roots were: the British Isles, Germany and Hungary. But the ads tempted me to dive deeper. Previous experience taught me that different genetic testing companies can yield different results (SN: 5/26/18, p. 28). And I knew that a company can match people only to relatives in its customer base, so if I wanted to find as many relatives as possible, I would need to use multiple companies. I sent my DNA to Living DNA, Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA. I also bought the National Geographic Geno 2.0 app through the company Helix. Helix read, or sequenced, my DNA, then sent the data to National Geographic to analyze. These companies analyze hundreds of thousands of natural DNA spelling variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. To estimate ethnic makeup, a company compares your overall SNP pattern with those of people from around the world. SNP matches also help companies see who in their database you’re related to. Some of the companies also analyze a person’s Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA. Y chromosome DNA traces a man’s paternal line. In contrast, mitochondrial DNA traces maternal heritage, since people inherit mitochondria, which generate energy for cells, only from their mothers. Neither type of DNA changes that much over time, so those tests usually can’t tell you much about recent ancestors
6-13-18 The epic hunt for the place on Earth where life started
Darwin's warm little pond, the deep ocean and icy shores – all have been suggested as the birthplace of life. Now one location could have it all. NEARLY 4 billion years ago, the first life appeared on our planet. It would have looked unlike any life as we know it today, more basic even than bacterial cells – barely more than a few genetic molecules packaged up in some kind of a sac. Working out how this popped into existence is one of our greatest intellectual endeavours. And at the root of the problem is an epic hunt for the perfect location. Researchers studying the origins of life each have their favourite spot. Some sites offer the right molecular ingredients, others provide ready-made little containers to hold these early reactions. But is it possible that one special place had the perfect combination of all the conditions essential for the chemistry of life? And does a similar place still exist today, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe? Charles Darwin kicked off the quest. In a letter he wrote to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1871, he described a hypothetical warm little pond, rich in chemicals and salts, with sources of light, heat and electricity. He imagined that in such an environment, proteins might spontaneously form, ready to turn into something more complex. In the 1950s, chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey managed to create Darwin’s pond in the lab. They mixed water with gases they thought would have been present on early Earth, and zapped them with simulated lightning. This produced amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins. Their experiment is one of the most famous of the last century, but we now know that what they created, protein components in water, is not enough to constitute life.
6-12-18 Psychedelics may help your brain cells form new connections.
LSD and other members of the psychedelic family make neurons grow more branches, potentially explaining how they might treat depression. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD seem to make brain cells grow branches and form new connections. The finding in rats and fruit flies could explain why psychedelics seem to evoke long-lasting changes after a single dose, and why they may be able to help treat mental health disorders. The psychedelics include psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, and DMT, found in the South American plant brew ayahuasca. In recent years, numerous studies have investigated these drugs as a possible treatment for depression, and small trials have had promising results. Studies have also reported that some users undergo changes to their personality after a single psychedelic experience. The drugs activate serotonin receptors in the brain, but how they bring about long-lasting changes is unknown. Some researchers have speculated that they might increase the brain’s ability to rewire itself, known as plasticity. David Olson at the University of California, Davis and colleagues tested three psychedelic drugs: LSD, DMT and DOI, on rats and fruit flies. All three increased the growth of new branches on neurons and new connections between neurons, both in isolated cells and in live animals. The fact that the same effects were seen in vertebrates and invertebrates suggest that the biological mechanisms involved have remained the same over aeons of evolution, and are probably the same in humans, believes Olson.
6-11-18 Gene editing embryonic stem cells might increase risk of cancer
Genome editing with CRISPR may select for cells with mutations in a key anti-cancer gene, but now we know of this risk it should be possible to ensure treatments are still safe. Embryonic stem cells could help treat all kinds of disorders, and editing the genomes of these stem cells could make the treatments far more potent. But there might be a catch. A team at Novartis has found that genome editing kills most human embryonic stem cells – and that the ones that do survive are likely to have mutations in a key anti-cancer gene. Cells with such mutations are in theory far more likely to turn cancerous if implanted in the body. “It’s an important practical finding,” says Florian Merkle of the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute in the UK, who was not involved in the work. “This is something we need to be aware of and test for.” Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from embryos or created by reprogramming adult cells. They can turn into any cell type in the body, so they have enormous potential for treating a huge range of diseases, from macular degeneration to Parkinson’s to diabetes. Earlier this year, for instance, it was reported that the vision of two people with severe sight loss had greatly improved after retinal cells grown from ESCs were implanted in their eyes. Genome editing can make such therapies even more powerful. For instance, if a person has a disease caused by a specific mutation, ESCs could be derived from cells taken from their body, the mutation corrected and healthy tissues re-implanted in the body.
6-11-18 Parkinson’s disease may be caused by virus that kills gut bugs
People with Parkinson's seem to have some differences in their gut microbiome - but is this cause or consequence? Parkinson’s disease could be triggered by a virus that kills a “good” form of bacteria in the gut. This may lead to a chain reaction of damaged nerves leading from the digestive system up to the brain. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of tremors, stiffness and difficulties in moving; it is known to involve the death of nerve cells in the brain, linked with misfolding of a protein found in nerve fibres called synuclein. Although it has long been seen as a brain disorder, a recent theory is that the misfolding of synuclein starts in nerves of the gut, triggering a chain reaction of protein misfolding up the nerve fibres to the brain . But it’s unclear what starts the changes to synuclein in in the first place. George Tetz of the Human Microbiology Institute in New York thinks gut microbes might be responsible. After analysing existing data on the gut microbes of 31 people with Parkinson’s disease and 28 healthy people, his team found that the biggest differences were in the dairy bacteria such as Lactococcus species, and the viruses that prey on them. The viruses, called bacteriophages, invade the bacteria, reproduce inside them and then burst out, killing them. So it’s unsurprising that higher levels of the virus would lead to lower Lactococcus levels, says Tetz.
6-10-18 How stress affects the way you make decisions
me of the most important decisions you will make in your lifetime will occur while you feel stressed and anxious. From medical decisions to financial and professional ones, we are often required to weigh up information under stressful conditions. Take, for example, expectant parents who need to make a series of important choices during pregnancy and labor — when many feel stressed. Do we become better or worse at processing and using information under such circumstances? My colleague Neil Garrett, now at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute in New Jersey, and I ventured from the safety of our lab to fire stations in the state of Colorado to investigate how the mind operates under high stress. Firefighters' workdays vary quite a bit. Some days are pretty relaxed; they'll spend part of their time washing the truck, cleaning equipment, cooking meals, and reading. Other days can be hectic, with numerous life-threatening incidents to attend to; they'll enter burning homes to rescue trapped residents, and assist with medical emergencies. These ups and downs presented the perfect setting for an experiment on how people's ability to use information changes when they feel under pressure. We found that perceived threat triggered a stress reaction that made the firefighters better at processing information — but only as long as it conveyed bad news. This is how we arrived at these results. We asked the firefighters to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life, such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of card fraud. We then gave them either good news (we told them that their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower than they'd thought) or bad news (that it was higher) and asked them to provide new estimates.
6-8-18 Leg movement key for brain health
Using your legs in weight-bearing exercise is critical for brain health, new research shows. Researchers found that moving the large muscles in the legs, through activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and running, triggers the production of stem cells in the brain—helping that critical organ to renew itself. “We are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit, and use our leg muscles to lift things,” study author Raffaella Adami tells MedicalNewsToday.com. For the study, researchers immobilized the hind legs of a group of mice for 28 days, then examined a specific area of their brains known as the subventricular zone. They found the neural stem cell activity of the mice had plummeted by 70 percent. Declines in oxygen levels associated with reduced physical activity also altered the rodents’ metabolism. These findings may explain why the health of people who are bedridden often deteriorates rapidly.
6-8-18 Fewer Americans dying of cancer
Thanks to healthier habits and advances in treatments and detection, fewer men, women, and children in the U.S. are dying from cancer each year. A new government progress report on the “war” against the disease found that between 1999 and 2015, overall cancer death rates fell by 1.8 percent annually among men and by 1.4 percent each year among women, the Los Angeles Times reports. Fewer Americans died from many common forms of the disease, including lung, breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Overall, the number of new cancer cases dropped 1 percent per year between 2008 and 2014. Scientists attribute these positive trends to earlier diagnoses, new and improved treatment options, smoking cessation, and healthier lifestyle habits. “This year’s report is an encouraging indicator of progress we’re making in cancer research,” says National Cancer Institute director Dr. Ned Sharpless. But despite overall declines in cancer deaths, mortality rates for certain forms of the disease, including cancers of the liver, pancreas, uterus, and brain, are actually on the rise for complex reasons, such as hepatitis C infections (which affect the liver) and obesity, which raises risk for various forms of cancer. Cancer remains the No. 2 cause of death in the U.S.
6-8-18 If you thought the most recent flu season was bad, you were right
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classed it in the ‘high severity’ category. What felt like a miserable flu season this past year was, in fact, a miserable flu season. The 2017–2018 influenza season was classified in the “high severity” category overall, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was only the third use of this designation since 2003. To assess how the influenza virus has been affecting U.S. communities, the CDC applied a new method of evaluating severity to every annual outbreak back to the 2003–2004 season. The evaluation considers the percentage of flu-related visits to outpatient clinics, rates of hospitalizations and the percentage of deaths linked to flu or pneumonia. The most recent flu season was among the worst for hospitalizations, the report finds, with the highest hospitalization rate for all ages combined since 2005–2006. It was also a bad year for flu-related deaths among children, with 171 fatalities counted as of June 1, making it one of the deadliest in recent years. Only 22 percent of child victims who were eligible for the flu vaccine for the 2017–2018 season actually got vaccinated before becoming ill, researchers write in the June 8 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
6-8-18 Kids with food allergies are twice as likely to have autism
But having the immune abnormalities doesn’t mean a child will develop the disorder. American kids with food allergies are more than twice as likely to have autism spectrum disorder as kids without, a study of national health data finds. The population-based finding adds to experimental evidence that there may be a connection between false steps or overreactions by the immune system and the neurodevelopmental disorder. Researchers looked only for an association between allergies and autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, among a total of 199,520 children ages 3 to 17 surveyed from 1997 to 2016 as part of the U.S. National Health Interview Survey. The study was not designed to discover what may be behind the link. The team found that, out of 1,868 children with autism, 216 had a food allergy — or about 11 percent. By comparison, only about 4 percent of children without autism had a food allergy, the researchers report online June 8 in JAMA Network Open. Kids with autism were also more likely to have respiratory or skin allergies like eczema than kids without autism. The number of children with autism has more than doubled since 2000, to a prevalence of 16.8 per 1,000 kids. Meanwhile, the number of kids with food allergies rose from 3.4 percent in 1997–1999 to 5.1 percent in 2009–2011.
6-8-18 We can tweak immune cells to be much better at wiping out HIV
Studying the immune cells of people who can keep HIV under control in their bodies has yielded new insights that might enable all people with HIV to do the same. Studying the immune cells of people who can keep HIV under control in their bodies has yielded new insights that might enable all people with HIV to do the same, acting as a functional cure. Most people with HIV keep the virus under control with anti-retroviral drugs because we don’t yet have a reliable treatment for eliminating the virus from the body. If a person stops taking these drugs, dormant virus can re-emerge and re-infect other parts of the body. But around 0.5 per cent of people with HIV have immune systems that are naturally able to keep the virus in check without any help from anti-retroviral drugs. Previous studies suggest that genetics plays a role in this, and that such people have immune cells called T cells that are more effective at killing infected cells in the blood, and keeping the virus under control in body tissues. Now Stephanie Gras, of Monash University in Australia, and her colleagues have found that these people – known as “elite controllers” – have a particular structure on the surface of their T cells that seems to be involved in this. Studying 15 elite controllers, the team found that they have a particular protein on the outside of some of their T cells that can recognise and bind to a specific fragment of the HIV virus. This protein receptor is far more sensitive at binding infected cells than any others ever studied.
6-8-18 This theory suggests few workers were needed to cap Easter Island statues
People might have pulled cylinders up a ramp with ropes, then tipped the ‘hats’ onto statues. The story of how some of the massive stone statues on Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, ended up wearing stone hats involves ramps, ropes and remarkably few workers, a contested new analysis suggests. No more than 15 people were needed to manipulate ropes that rolled stone cylinders, or pukao, up ramps to the top of forward-leaning statues, say archaeologist Sean Hixon of Penn State and his colleagues. The hatlike cylinders were then tipped over to rest atop statues, the researchers propose online May 31 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. After clearing the ramp away, workers then carved statues’ bases flat so that the figures assumed their iconic, upright positions. Several possible ways in which Rapa Nui inhabitants put pukao on statues have previously been proposed, including sliding pukao up wooden ramps. “Our group is the first to consider which pukao transport and placement scenario is most consistent with the archaeological record of these multi-ton objects,” Hixon says. The researchers accounted for possible ways in which stone cylinders with the physical features of pukao could have been leveraged onto statues’ heads. Covering just 164 square kilometers, Rapa Nui sits in the Pacific Ocean about 3,700 kilometers west of Chile. Polynesian travelers first reached the island by the 1200s (SN Online: 1/5/15).
6-8-18 Hunting for Nessie’s DNA
The emerging field of environmental DNA, also known as eDNA, will soon determine once and for all if there is any truth to the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. In the past, scientists have used sonar, satellite tracking, and underwater photography to search for any evidence of the long-necked reptilian beast purportedly dwelling in the murky waters of Scotland’s Loch Ness. Nothing has been found to substantiate the hazy photos and anecdotal reports that helped create the Nessie myth. In coming weeks, an international team of researchers will scour the lake for tiny bits of DNA left behind in the skin, scales, feathers, urine, saliva, feces, and other bodily secretions of any creatures that have ever touched the water. If the fabled “Nessie” exists now or ever did occupy the waters of Loch Ness, its telltale genetic signature is still there. This DNA can be sequenced and compared with large databases that contain the genetic code of hundreds of thousands of different organisms. “I’m going into this thinking it’s unlikely there is a monster,” lead researcher Neil Gemmell tells The Guardian, “but I want to test that hypothesis.” As a bonus, scientists will learn more about new invasive species in the lake and get a detailed snapshot of its entire ecosystem.
6-7-18 At-home telomere testing is not a reliable marker of aging, researcher says
Companies pledge to tell you your cellular age from a drop of blood. Don’t be so sure. Stay younger, longer. Great idea. But direct-to-consumer test kits that promise to gauge a person’s biological age by analyzing a drop of blood are not worth the $100 or so investment, says oncologist Mary Armanios. The tests measure the length of telomeres, the bits of DNA that cap and protect the ends of chromosomes. But the consumer tests are unreliable and can be misinterpreted, Armanios says. “These kinds of tests can do harm, suggesting there is something wrong when there isn’t,” says the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researcher, who uses a clinical test of telomere length to diagnose and treat people with certain rare disorders. Armanios gets calls from people who panic when they get their results from consumer tests. One man in his 40s was told his telomeres were those of an 80-year-old. He sold his house and quit work to make the most of the short time he was convinced he had left. Worse, she says, because he was under the misguided impression that surgeries shorten telomeres, he had decided to delay removal of a precancerous skin spot. Armanios trained in the lab of Carol Greider, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering telomerase, the enzyme that controls telomere lengthening (SN: 10/24/09, p. 14). Today Armanios is clinical director of the telomere center at Johns Hopkins.
6-7-18 Nipah: the unknown virus that could be the next pandemic threat
A virus most people have never heard of has killed 17 people in India, and disease experts are getting concerned. Nipah virus has killed 17 people in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It’s a relatively small toll, from a virus few have heard of – and after starting in May, the outbreak now seems under control. But there has been a collective, worldwide shudder among disease experts. Many consider Nipah the scariest of the “emerging” viruses causing increased concern since the disastrous Ebola epidemic of 2014. It is one of the World Health Organization’s eight priority viruses for developing a vaccine. The Kerala outbreak shows why. Nipah had never been seen there, and it is 2600 kilometres away from any known human outbreaks. The death rate may now be higher than the 75 per cent average of outbreaks in Bangladesh – already pretty high. Worse still, the virus may be learning to fly. Nipah virus was discovered in a town of that name in Malaysia in 1999, when 105 people died of a mysterious brain inflammation. Research revealed that fruit bats carry the virus without getting sick, and infected pigs by dropping half-eaten fruit into pigpens. People got it from pigs. Then Nipah struck western Bangladesh when people drank palm sap infected by fruit bats. There has been an outbreak there nearly every year since and two in nearby India.
6-7-18 Oldest 'footprints' found in China
The oldest known "footprints" left by an animal have been uncovered in southern China. The identity of the creature that made the 546-million-year-old tracks is still unknown, but they come from the period when the earliest animals are thought to have evolved. The fossil consists of two rows of imprints that represent the earliest known record of an animal with legs. The research by a Chinese team appears in Science Advances journal. Team-members are unclear whether the creature had two legs or several. But they say the tracks probably belong to a bilaterian. This is a group of animals characterised by having paired appendages - in this case, perhaps, paired legs. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today. These legs raised the animal's body above the sediment it was moving across. The trackways were found in the Yangtze Gorges area of South China. The rocks they come from are dated to between 551 million and 541 million years old. "Previously identified footprints are between 540 and 530 million years old. The new fossils are probably up to 10 million years older," the study's co-author Zhe Chen, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told AFP. He added: "At least three living groups of animals have paired appendages (represented by arthropods, such as bumblebees; annelids, such as bristle worms; and tetrapods, such as humans). "Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities." The animal appears to have paused from time to time, since the trackways seem to be connected to burrows that may have been dug into the sediment, perhaps to obtain food.
6-7-18 Mars has complex organic material that may be from ancient life
The Curiosity rover has found methane in Mars’s atmosphere and complex organic molecules preserved for 3.5 billion years. Both could have come from life. Mars is full of the organic molecules that life needs to thrive. Two studies from the Curiosity rover found methane that seeps up from the ground in summer, and more complex organic molecules that have been preserved in the clay for 3.5 billion years. Most molecules that contain carbon are classed as organic. We’ve found some organic molecules on Mars before, but none as complex as the ones that Curiosity found in a dried lake bed. “These are complex organic molecules that we think were floating around in a lake on Mars over 3 billion years ago and that we can pick up and examine today,” says Kirsten Siebach at Rice University in Texas. “Mars has shown the ability to preserve organics, and we have shown the ability to find them.” These molecules could have arrived on meteorites or arisen from volcanic processes – and there’s a chance they came from living organisms. Even if they didn’t come from life, they could have acted as food for microbes on ancient Mars. And the fact that they were preserved for such a long time means that any such microbes, if they ever existed, could potentially be similarly conserved for us to find. “Because there is a possible connection between organic molecules and life, understanding where there are organic molecules and how they are conserved is very, very important as we go into figuring out how to search for life,” says Jennifer Eigenbrode at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who led the team that found these organics.
6-7-18 Kidney cancer spreads by pretending to be white blood cells
Many people with cancer die from secondary tumours, and now we know how some cancer cells are able to spread around the body and move into other organs. Many people with cancer die not from their original tumour, but from secondary tumours that grow elsewhere around the body. Now we’re a step closer to understanding how cancers are able to spread. Sakari Vanharanta of the Medical Research Council Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have been studying kidney cancer cells. They found that to spread, these cells tap into the same genetic “travel” machinery normally used by healthy white blood cells to roam around the body. They discovered this by comparing how active different genes were in the cells of four types of human kidney cancer – two of which were capable of spreading. They found that those that could spread had increased activity in two regions of the genome that act as accelerator pedals, amplifying the activity of nearby genes. These “enhancers” lead to increased activity of a gene called CXCR4, which is known to help white blood cells move around the body and into other organs to fight infections or disease. The gene was 10 to 20 times more active in the kidney cancer cells that could spread than in those that couldn’t. When the team studied databases of human and mouse gene activity, they found that the same two enhancers are normally only active in healthy white blood cells. The team found that silencing these enhancers in kidney cancer cells stopped them from being able to spread when they were injected into mice. When they reactivated the silencers, they began to move around the body again.
6-7-18 Sour tastes may make you more adventurous and take bigger risks
A gambling experiment has found that the taste of umami seems to make us more conservative in our choices, while sour flavours may promote risk-taking. Most of us are reluctant to take chances when it comes to out-of-date food. Yet rather than put us off, a mouthful of sour milk might increase our appetite for risk-taking in future. Marianna Obrist at the University of Sussex and colleagues have investigated how the five principal flavours affect risk-taking. 70 participants in the UK were given a drink to sip which contained plain water, or water flavoured to be salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami – the savoury flavour offered by MSG. Immediately afterwards, the volunteers played a video game, the aim of which was to inflate a balloon by clicking on it. Each click delivered a monetary reward, but the pot was wiped out if the balloon burst. Sweet and umami flavours were associated with more conservative strategies, with fewer balloons bursting overall. Those given a sour drink were the riskiest gamblers, clicking 40 per cent more than the sweet drinkers. The experiment was repeated with 71 participants in Vietnam, where the umami flavour is more popular, but still got the same result, suggesting this might be a universal effect. Obrist says she doesn’t know why sour flavours might do this, but we know that our sense of taste has been linked to a range of cognitive effects – not only guiding food choice, but also predicting personality traits, influencing social behaviour, working memory, and even our relationship with alcohol.
6-6-18 There are benefits to prenatal yoga, but lingering questions remain
Studies have found prenatal yoga can offer intriguing benefits. But the body of evidence needs more rigorous research added to it, scientists say. Pregnant women are on the receiving end of a long to-do list when it comes to maintaining their own health and that of their fetus. Don’t lift too much, eat this, drink that, lie or sit this way for too long. Exercise is on that list of orders, too. Pregnant women without certain complications are encouraged to exercise, but anyone watching their midsection slowly obscure their toes will tell you that the types of exercise you can and want to do winnow as pregnancy progresses. During my first pregnancy, I got tired of just walking. Without a gym membership, I wasn’t keen on water aerobics. Lifting weights was never my thing. So midway through I found myself attending a prenatal yoga class. Immediately I felt I was on to something good: My brain and body felt better after the breathing exercises, meditation and stretches that are tailored for pregnant women. I had some reservations about a few of the poses: Was it OK to lie on my back or do a downward-facing dog? There’s still some debate over whether it’s safe for pregnant women to do these things, and, at the time — in 2015 — studies on prenatal yoga were just starting to emerge in some number. A little digging into the research shows that most pregnant women would be wise to consider prenatal yoga. The studies find numerous and varied benefits. But researchers caution that more studies that meet more rigorous standards need to be conducted.
6-6-18 4-year-olds care more about plants and animals than sick people
When we’re young, we care less about people – so much so that 4-year-olds care less about teachers and police than they do about dogs, monkeys and rosebushes. Do you care more about beetles or sick people? Your answer likely depends on your age, since your moral compass gradually shifts from early childhood to adulthood. As we get older, we increasingly value other human beings over plants, animals and inanimate objects, according to research led by Karri Neldner at the University of Queensland. Her team showed 24 pictures to 151 children aged between 4 and 10 and asked them to place the ones they cared about most in an inner circle, those they cared about a little in a middle circle, and those they didn’t care about at all in an outer circle. All age groups placed pictures of their mum and best friend in the inner circle, but there were differences in how younger and older children rated other humans. For example, 4-year-olds tended to care less about teachers and policemen than they did about dogs, monkeys, and rosebushes. They showed even less interest in sick and wheelchair-bound people, rating them lower than beetles and plates. In contrast, 10-year-olds tended to care more about a range of humans, particularly sick and disabled ones. This is more in line with the moral values of adults, which have been tested in previous studies. “There are a lot of mechanisms at play here, but it is probably because we instinctively value ourselves and others like us,” says Neldner. As we get older, we become more aware of the distinctions between humans and other animals, she says.
6-6-18 Anti-acne cream clears up skin without any nasty side effects
A new anti-acne cream that blocks inflammation is more effective and has fewer side effects than existing lotions, a clinical trial has found. A novel anti-acne cream is better at clearing pimples and gentler on the skin than existing lotions, a clinical trial has found. Acne begins when oil glands in the skin become clogged. Bacteria called Cutibacterium acnes feed on the excess oil and release inflammatory molecules that cause angry, red pustules. Mild to moderate acne is normally treated with benzoyl peroxide cream or antibiotics, which both kill C. acnes bacteria. However, benzoyl peroxide often causes skin bleaching, dryness and stinging, while antibiotics are becoming less effective due to bacterial resistance. Jeffry Stock at Princeton University and his colleagues wondered if blocking the inflammatory response caused by C. acnes could be another way to stop pimples. They decided to test a new class of anti-inflammatory chemicals on cells in the lab, and then picked the one that looked most promising to trial in people with acne. The compound – named SIG1459 – was used in a trial of 65 adult volunteers with mild to moderate acne. Each participant was given one of three identical creams – SIG1459, benzoyl peroxide, or an inactive placebo – to apply to their face twice a day, for eight weeks. By the end of the study, the participants using SIG1459 cream saw a 77 per cent reduction in their acne severity, compared to 56 per cent for those using benzoyl peroxide. The inactive cream had no effect.
6-5-18 Why do we love to dance with each other?
As well as being fun, dancing might have helped us to survive as a species. Evolutionary anthropologist Bronwyn Tarr from the University of Oxford explains that when we dance with others, we are rewarded with feel-good endorphins that change how we feel about ourselves and those around us.
6-5-18 What we know — and don’t know — about a new migraine drug
Aimovig was recently approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Migraines have plagued humans since time immemorial. Now a new migraine prevention treatment, recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, promises long-awaited relief from the debilitating condition. But whether the drug will turn out to be a real solution for the 1 in 7 Americans who suffer from migraines, severe headaches that often come with nausea and visual auras, isn’t yet clear. Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about the new therapy. The new drug, Aimovig, generically called erenumab, is a type of monoclonal antibody treatment, a class of medications that resemble the antibodies that the body naturally produces to bind to infectious pathogens. These treatments work by using specially designed antibodies to target specific proteins and their receptors that contribute to disease. Aimovig, released by pharmaceutical companies Amgen Inc. and Novartis, targets the receptor for a protein called calcitonin gene-related peptide, or CGRP, that is increased in people suffering a migraine attack. The protein is released from nerve endings throughout the body, including in the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain. When it attaches to the receptor, CGRP widens blood vessels and can contribute to inflammation and pain transmission. Aimovig, delivered once a month with an EpiPen-like injector, works by blocking the receptor for CGRP, reducing pain. Blocking the protein’s receptor is kind of like putting gum in a lock, says Elizabeth Loder, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and at Harvard Medical School. The CGRP protein “key” is still floating around, but it can’t become activated.
6-5-18 Dogs carry a surprising variety of flu viruses
There’s no evidence yet that the canine pathogens infect people. Some dogs in China carry a mixed bag of influenza viruses. The discovery raises the possibility that dogs may be able to pass the flu to people, perhaps setting off a pandemic. About 15 percent of pet dogs that went to the vet because of respiratory infections carried flu viruses often found in pigs, researchers report June 5 in mBio. Of the virus strains detected, three have recombined in dogs to form new varieties. That mixing generates genetic diversity in the viruses that makes them potentially a pandemic threat, says study coauthor Adolfo García-Sastre, a virologist who directs the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Evolution of the flu viruses in dogs has been very rapid, occurring in just a few years, García-Sastre says. There’s no sign yet that the dog flu viruses can infect people, but that could change. “The more diversity of viruses there is in an animal reservoir, the higher the chances that it will lead to a version of the virus that is able to jump” to humans, he says. Pigs and birds remain the prime suspects for mixing up the next human pandemic influenza virus, says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins University and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Even if a dog flu virus infected a person, the pathogen may not be able to transmit easily from person-to-person — an important characteristic a virus must have before it can circulate around the world.
6-5-18 Bizarre state of matter to treat wounds instead of antibiotics
Plasma is a state of matter, like liquid or gas, that is fatal to bacteria, so a new wearable plasma patch is being tested to dress wounds. A plasma patch could soon be used to dress wounds. Plasma is a state of matter, like a solid or gas, and can kill bacteria including those that are resistant to antibiotics. Normally plasmas form at high temperatures, but a new patch can create cold plasmas that may be ideal for use on the body. The patch is developed by German company Coldplasmatech and produces a plasma by sending high energy electrons through the air between the patch and skin. This rips some of the electrons off molecules in the air, creating a gas of free-floating electrons and positively charged atoms called ions. The resulting mix is an ionised gas or plasma. The patch is unlikely to be used for small cuts and scrapes, but for more serious wounds where healing can be a lengthy process prone to infection. Each patch can be as large as 200 square centimetres. “We don’t care how deep the wound is; everything is just filled up with cold plasma,” says Carsten Mahrenholz at Coldplasmatech. The company recently presented the patch at the Athens Science Festival in Greece. Plasma damages surface structures of bacteria. This process is also harmful to cells, but overall, they are more resilient. This means that during a short interaction with plasma, cells can survive but bacteria cannot. Plasma can also help kickstart the recovery process in cells. Coldplasmatech’s patch is automated and portable. It consists of two parts: the active wound dressing, made of silicone that applies the plasma to the wound, and a small power supply. When powered up the plasma dressing is applied to the damaged skin, killing bacteria or fungi within two minutes.
6-5-18 Privacy and consumer genetic testing don’t always mix
Protections are spotty at best and vary by testing company. For a few hundred dollars and a spit sample, you too could take a journey of genetic self-discovery. You may learn some things, but what are you giving away? Today, hundreds of companies offer to analyze your DNA, or parts of it, to let you in on everything from your health risks and ancestry to more dubious traits like intelligence or athletic ability (SN: 5/26/18, p. 20). The direct-to-consumer market is “a bit of a wild ecosystem right now,” says Robert Green, a medical geneticist at Harvard Medical School who consults for the testing companies Helix and Veritas Genetics. The results can be enlightening, or at least entertaining. But consumer genetic testing also comes with inherent risks, privacy loss being one of them. “It’s often the price you pay,” Green says. Before you spit, it helps to know what you’re getting into. 23andMe “does a good job of disclosing all of the information” in the policies posted on its website, says Kayte Spector-Bagdady, a bioethicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The same goes for a few other prominent companies. But that’s an exception, not a rule.
6-4-18 Mystery of why Stone Age villagers spent so much time underwater
Half of the adults at a Stone Age village in Turkey had a strange ear condition most common today in keen surfers – but why did they spend so much time in water? It’s a Stone Age mystery: why did one-third of the people living in an ancient village far from the sea develop a condition typically seen today in avid surfers? There is no obvious answer – but the weird prevalence of “surfer’s ear” in the ancient community might shed new light on the way humans lived just before the farming revolution. Körtik Tepe, a site in eastern Turkey, was first occupied between 12,400 and 11,250 years ago. This was a time of massive social change, when roaming hunter-gatherers first began living in permanent villages. We know very little about the lives of those early villagers, other than that they continued to hunt and gather food rather than farming the land. To find out more, a team led by Yilmaz Erdal at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey, examined 128 skeletons buried at the site. Some 39 adults – 48 per cent of the adult population – had abnormal bony growths in at least one ear, and the condition was also seen in six of 16 children estimated to have died between their 6th and 12th birthdays. Today, most researchers argue that the bony growths are a sign of regular exposure to cold water: they are seen in as many as three-quarters of keen surfers, which probably explains why the bony growths have been dubbed “surfer’s ear”.
6-4-18 A day used to be less than 19 hours
The moon is making days on Earth last longer and longer, and we can track the changes through climate effects seen in the geological record. It’s not just you – the days really are getting longer. More than a billion years ago, the moon used to be about 40,000 kilometres closer, which made Earth spin faster. Back then, the days were less than 19 hours long. Over the course of many thousands of years, Earth’s way of moving through the solar system goes through cyclical changes. The planet’s elliptical orbit shifts around the sun like a hula hoop, and the shape of the orbit itself wobbles between elliptical and nearly circular. Earth’s axis of rotation also tilts back and forth, and gradually moves in a circle like the handle on a spinning top. Recorded in the chemical makeup of sedimentary rocks is evidence of the corresponding changes in the environment caused by these shifts. “All of those astronomical cycles influence how sunlight is distributed on the planet’s surface, and sunlight is what drives our climate systems,” says Stephen Meyers at the University of Wisconsin. He and Alberto Malinverno at Columbia University in New York used a statistical approach to work backwards from two ancient rocks – one about 55 million years old found in the Atlantic Ocean, and one 1.4 billion years old found in China – to determine the Earth’s position in the early solar system. “When we look up in the sky at other stars, we’re looking back millions or billions of years into the past. We can’t do that with our solar system,” says Meyers. “If we want to look at the ancient solar system, we have to look at the rock record.”
6-4-18 A whole new type of cancer therapy helps treat liver cancer
By making a gene in the liver work harder, a completely new type of drug has shown promise for treating cases of advanced liver cancer in a small trial. By making a gene in the liver work harder, a completely new type of drug has shown promise for treating advanced liver cancer. The drug works by ramping up the activity of a gene we all have in our DNA that stops cancers growing and helps the liver function normally. The treatment uses a carefully designed piece of genetic material – called a small activating RNA – to artificially boost this gene. Several RNA treatments for cancer are under development, but this is the first to show some benefit for patients in trials. People with advanced liver cancer rarely survive for more than two years, and no reliable treatments are currently available. “The best response is with a patient who’s had almost a 75 per cent reduction in the size of her cancer, maintained now for a year and a half,” says Debashis Sarker of King’s College London. In another four patients, tumours have stopped growing. In two of these cases, this stall in growth has so far lasted for nearly a full 12 months, says Sarker, who presented preliminary results from the trial at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago today. The 28 people enrolled in the trial are the first anywhere in the world to receive a small activating RNA. The gene it targets is active mainly in the liver, and works by switching on whole networks of other genes that together combat cancer by restricting the growth and multiplication of liver cells. The gene also triggers immune cells to become more active, which may also help control the growth of cancer.
6-4-18 ‘Outbreak’ puts the life cycle of an epidemic on display
A new Smithsonian exhibit highlights how infectious diseases shape our world. In 1918, a pandemic of Spanish flu killed as much as 5 percent of the world’s population. A hundred years later, scientists know much more about how to prevent and treat such diseases. But in some ways, the threat of a global outbreak is greater than ever. All it takes is one plane ride for a few localized cases of a disease to become an epidemic. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., traces the way infectious diseases still shape our world. The exhibit, called “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,” is centered around the concept of One Health — the idea that the health of humans, other animals and the environment are all intertwined, so protecting one requires protecting all (SN: 3/31/18, p. 20). News coverage of disease outbreaks often focuses on the deaths they cause, notes Jonathan Epstein of EcoHealth Alliance, the exhibit’s chief science adviser. One goal of the exhibit, he says, is “to give the public a look at how these things get started.” With that in mind, “Outbreak” highlights a handful of epidemics that have occurred in the last century, using each as a jumping off point to explore different aspects of preventing, tracing, treating and containing infectious diseases. In addition to zeroing in on epidemics that have made international headlines, including Ebola and SARS, the exhibit features lesser-known diseases. Nipah virus, for instance, has infected people in Bangladesh who have drunk sweet date palm sap contaminated by infected bats. Simple preventive measures like encouraging people not to drink the raw sap or to filter it, so far, have prevented the virus from sparking an epidemic.
6-4-18 Does Jurassic Park make scientific sense?
In 1993, Steven Spielberg's film Jurassic Park defined dinosaurs for an entire generation. It has been credited with inspiring a new era of palaeontology research. But how much science was built into Jurassic Park, and do we now know more about its dinosaurs? As its 25th anniversary approaches, visual effects specialist Phil Tippett and palaeontologist Steve Brusatte look back at the making of the film, and what we've learned since. So, first of all, what did Jurassic Park get wrong? It started off by inheriting some complications from Michael Crichton's novel, on which the film was based. "I guess Cretaceous Park never had that same ring to it," laughs Brusatte. "Most of the dinosaurs are Cretaceous in age, that's true." The Cretaceous period, which followed on from the Jurassic, was home to many of the dinosaurs which feature heavily in the film, including Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor and Triceratops. The idea of recreating dinosaurs from preserved DNA also proves problematic. "In order to clone a dinosaur you would need the whole genome, and nobody's ever even found a little bit of dinosaur DNA," says Brusatte. "So we're talking about something that's pretty difficult, if not impossible." Quibbling about such details may seem inconsequential. But for a film that proudly treats its prehistoric cast of creatures as characters rather than monsters, Jurassic Park treads a fine line between scientific accuracy and cinematic fantasy.
6-3-18 The benefits of eating fish
Concerns about mercury contamination should not dissuade Americans from eating seafood, the American Heart Association has announced. Recent research has found that large fish such as ahi tuna and swordfish contain high levels of the metal, which is toxic to the brain and nervous system. (Mercury enters the atmosphere through coal burning and other industrial activity, eventually making its way into lakes and oceans.) But studies have also found that seafood helps prevent heart disease, reports MedicalDaily.com. After reviewing all the available data, the AHA concluded that the significant cardiovascular benefits of eating fish outweigh the neurological risks. In an updated scientific advisory, the organization advises adults to consume two 3.5-ounce servings of nonfried fish every week, and specifically recommends salmon, trout, sardines, and other oily fish that are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. “The benefits of fish,” says Harvard epidemiologist Eric Rimm, who chairs the group that wrote the advisory, “are likely at least 50-fold more than any concerns over other compounds that may be in the fish.”
6-3-18 Catching up on lost sleep
Poor sleep has long been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and a range of other chronic health issues. But a new Swedish study suggests that people who burn the candle at both ends during the week can make up for it by sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday. The researchers examined the lifestyle, sleep habits, and health of about 40,000 adults, ages 65 and under, for 13 years. They found that those under 65 who slept no more than five hours every day had a 65 percent higher risk of death during the study period than the people who routinely managed six to seven hours. But those who slept in on weekends after running ragged during the week had no increased risk. The findings run contrary to previous research, which has suggested that the damage of chronic sleep deprivation can’t be undone with a good night’s sleep, reports The Washington Post. Study author Torbjörn Åkerstedt, from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, cautions that his findings merit further investigation. But he says the study suggests that “it is possible to compensate for lost sleep.”
6-3-18 What consumer DNA data can and can’t tell you about your risk for certain diseases
Consumers face lots of choices and unanswered questions. Results from Family Tree DNA, a genetic testing company, helped Lara Diamond find a branch of her family she thought had been lost in the Holocaust. Those 2012 results brought dozens of new people into her life. Eager to find more relatives, Diamond, now 42, a professional genealogist in Baltimore, decided to try out all the companies that offer geneaological DNA testing to see what else she could learn. Results from one of them, 23andMe, hit her with an entirely different kind of life-changing knowledge: a high risk for breast cancer. Browsing through the health and trait reports the company provides, Diamond reached the locked reports, which contain information about genetic variants that increase risk for developing breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s. Customers have to choose to “unlock” that information since it can bring upsetting news. Diamond considered her family history. “Because we have Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in my family, I said, ‘OK, I’ll think about those. But we don’t have breast cancer, so I’ll open this BRCA thing,’ ” she says, referring to the family of genes linked to breast cancer. To her shock, Diamond learned she has a variant in her DNA that alters one amino acid in the BRCA2 protein, putting her at high risk for the disease. “One little stupid mutation. One amino acid. And it changes your whole life.”
6-1-18 We’re beginning to understand how some people can control HIV
A few people are able to keep the HIV virus in check for decades without getting ill. At last we’re beginning to understand what’s special about their bodies. Some people with HIV are able to keep the virus under control without any need for drugs, and researchers are now a step closer to understanding how their bodies do it. The finding could open up new approaches for possible vaccines and treatments. When HIV gets into the body, it infects and kills a certain type of immune cell called T cells. These circulate through the blood where they fight infection, but they actually spend most of their time in patches of immune and connective tissue – called lymphoid tissue – in places like the gut and lymph nodes. However, almost all HIV research into T cells has been based on those found in blood, because they’re much easier to study. This has led to a skewed picture of how our immune systems respond to the virus. Marcus Buggert, while at the University of Pennsylvania, began investigating the T cells in lymphoid tissue. He and his colleagues were particularly interested in how T cells might behave differently in the lymphoid tissue of people who are HIV “elite controllers”. These people make up only a fraction of one per cent of those infected with HIV, and can naturally control the virus for decades without any drugs. Previous work has found that genetics seems to play a role in being an elite controller. These people also have immune cells that are more effective at killing HIV-infected cells in the blood. These cells are called CD8 T cells, and seem to work better in the blood of people elite controllers than in other people.
6-1-18 So-called ‘holy grail’ cancer test would miss thousands of cases
Newspaper reports have hailed a blood test for detecting several types of cancer as the “holy grail of cancer research”, but it is far from accurate enough. A blood test that can detect several types of cancer before a person falls ill has been hailed as a “holy grail” by many newspapers, but to be useful it will need to be refined to become much more accurate, otherwise it could fail to detect large numbers of cancer cases. In a study of 749 people without cancer, and 878 people who had been newly diagnosed with cancer, the test detected 90 per cent of cases of ovarian cancer, and 80 per cent of cases of pancreatic, liver and gallbladder cancers. It fared worse at other cancers, detecting 77 per cent of lymphoma cases, 73 per cent of myeloma cases and 66 per cent of bowel cancer cases. “Most cancers are detected at a late stage, but this ‘liquid biopsy’ gives us the opportunity to find them months or years before someone would develop symptoms and be diagnosed,” Eric Klein, from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told the Daily Telegraph. “This is potentially the holy grail of cancer research, to find cancers that are currently hard to cure at an earlier stage when they are easier to cure, and we hope this test could save many lives.” The findings will be presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago this weekend. But such a test would need to be much more accurate to be useful for cancer screening. For example, a 90 per cent accuracy rate – as seen for ovarian cancer – would still mean a large number of incorrect diagnoses.
6-1-18 Can an app tell if you have dementia years before your doctor?
Many games and apps claim to identify the earliest signs of dementia – if they work, we might be able to catch the condition early enough to treat it. A nautical adventure or an animal safari could test the brain in more ways than one. Using these themes and more, a spate of new games and apps are hoping to identify signs of dementia years or decades before a person might typically receive a diagnosis. Just this month, one platform won an award for innovation in the early diagnosis of dementia, and another dementia-predicting tool was announced in Canada. But do any of them actually work? And if they do, is it worth knowing you have an incurable, terminal disease years before it begins to impact your life? While cognitive tests that purport to measure your knowledge, memory or “brain age” have been around for a while, the last few years have seen an uptick in tests that specifically look for early signs of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Sea Hero Quest, a game that requires players to travel the oceans searching for lost memories, tests a person’s ability to navigate, for example. One of the earliest clear signs of Alzheimer’s disease is disruption to spatial orientation, says Hugo Spiers of University College London, who collaborated on the game’s design. The current version of Sea Hero Quest functions only as a game, but Spiers and his colleagues are working on a version that could use a person’s score to tell their doctor whether they might be showing early signs of Alzheimer’s.
6-1-18 The dreams you forget are the most important for learning
Dreams help us store memories, enabling us to learn. Now a study has revealed that it’s the boring dreams we have during deep sleep that are the most important. Dreaming when we sleep helps us learn new information, and now a study has found that it’s the boring dreams we have during the deepest stages of sleep that are the most important for this. When we go to sleep, our brain-waves slow down and we enter progressively deeper stages of sleep, before returning to lighter sleep and entering a rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage. This cycle is repeated several times a night. Until recently, we thought dreams only occurred during REM sleep. We now know that’s not the case, although REM dreams are the story-like, vivid ones we tend to remember. Those we have during deeper, non-REM sleep appear to be simpler and vaguer. When you remember being chased down the street by a dinosaur, that’s from a REM dream, says Björn Rasch of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. To investigate the role of sleep in replaying memories and helping people learn, Rasch and his colleagues recruited 22 volunteers. They were all asked to learn a list of one hundred words that were each linked to a picture, for example, the word tree with a picture of a child sitting on a chair. That night, the team used electrode caps to track what stage of sleep each person was in. Throughout the night, the team regularly woke participants up and asked them what they had been dreaming about.
6-1-18 The gene that led to the human intelligence boom has been found
A gene that evolved in humans over 3 millions years ago accelerated brain growth - but it came with a serious catch. How did humans get so smart? A random reshuffle in our ancestor’s genome more than 3 million years ago let our brains grow three times as large. David Haussler at the University of California, Santa Cruz and his colleagues were comparing brain development in humans and monkeys when they found one key difference. Human brain growth appeared to be driven by a gene called NOTCH2NL that was not found in monkeys. Further studies revealed that NOTCH2NL controls the number of brain cells we develop. It delays the transformation of stem cells to brain cells, so that more stem cells can divide and grow and ultimately turn into more brain cells. By comparing the genomes of humans and other primates, the researchers determined that NOTCH2NL first appeared between 3 and 4 million years ago. It came about due to an extremely rare gene conversion event, in which part of the genome is reshuffled. The arrival of NOTCH2NL would have allowed us to grow three times more brain cells, says Haussler. This matches with the fossil record, which shows human skulls starting to expand soon after the gene appeared. “If it hadn’t have happened, we wouldn’t be here talking about it,” says Haussler.