8-31-19 People who are naturally slim have smaller and more active fat cells
They’re the lucky few: people who can eat as much as they like without gaining weight. A new study suggests they can do this because their fat cells burn energy differently – a finding that could lead to new obesity treatments. Nele Gheldof at the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences in Switzerland and her colleagues studied 30 men and women who remain very slim – with BMIs of 18.5 or under – despite eating and exercising the same amount as the average person. By analysing small fat samples sliced from their tummies, the researchers found that the people’s fat cells had abnormally high expressions of genes involved in both breaking down and making fat. Their fat cells were also 40 per cent smaller than those of normal-weight people and contained greater numbers of more active mitochondria – the energy powerhouses of cells. The results suggest that naturally slim people are resistant to putting on weight because their fat cells burn lots of energy through what is known as a “futile lipid cycle”, says Gheldof. This means their fat cells are stuck in a constant loop of breaking down and re-building fat molecules – a process that is powered by mitochondria. The reason why fat cells are smaller in these people may be that the futile lipid cycle only builds up a small amount of fat before breaking it down again, says Gheldof, although further studies are needed to confirm this. In contrast, obese people often have faulty mitochondria in their fat cells, meaning they can’t burn energy via the futile lipid cycle, says Sihem Boudina at the University of Utah, who wasn’t involved in the study. Several groups are currently investigating ways to restore mitochondrial activity and kickstart the futile lipid cycle in obese people in the hope of driving weight loss, says Boudina. The recent findings in naturally slim people suggest they are on the right track, she says.
8-30-19 Opioids: J & J hit with $572 million verdict
An Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million this week in the first trial of a drug manufacturer for its role in the opioid epidemic, said Jan Hoffman in The New York Times. That falls shy of the $17 billion the state had sought, but marks a major loss for a company whose “share of opioid sales was scarcely 1 percent of the market” in Oklahoma. There are now more than 2,000 pending opium-related lawsuits against drug companies nationwide. Purdue Pharma, “the company blamed for much of the epidemic,” has offered as much as $12 billion to settle litigation, including $3 billion from its owners, the Sackler family. It could have been worse, said Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times, and Johnson & Johnson could have been on the hook for $17 billion. But the “size of the judgment in a small state, levied on a company with a tiny 1 percent market share in opioid painkillers, has gotten the attention of legal experts.” For J&J, this “is the equivalent of about two weeks of profit.” But for the pharmaceuticals industry, Judge Thad Balkman’s verdict points to liability of as much as $150 billion. He ruled that the company intentionally taught its sales reps to avoid talking about addiction. This suit is a template for much bigger ones to come.
8-30-19 Rising concern over vaping’s safety
Concerns are mounting over the safety of vaping, following the release of new research linking e-cigarettes to blood vessel damage and a spate of users experiencing serious breathing problems. In the past two months more than 150 people across 16 states—mostly otherwise healthy teenagers and young adults—have sought medical treatment for shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, and coughing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating, says the only link between the cases is the use of vaping products, either with nicotine or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that vaping just once—even without nicotine or THC—may limit the ability of blood vessels to transport blood around the body. Their study involved 31 healthy people aged 19 to 33, none of whom had ever smoked. Using MRI scans, the researchers found that the participants’ blood flow was noticeably worse after they took several puffs on an e-cigarette without a flavor or nicotine; overall, vaping temporarily constricted arteries in the legs, heart, and brain by more than 30 percent. The researchers believe glycerol and propylene glycol, the core ingredients of vape fluid besides water, can irritate the lining of blood vessels and affect how they expand and contract. “We did expect an effect, but we never thought the effect was as big as what we found,” study author Felix Wehrli tells Wired.com. “The results of our study defeat the notion that e-cigarette vaping is harmless.”
8-30-19 Blood pressure and brain health
People whose blood pressure rises significantly between their 30s and 50s are much more likely to suffer brain shrinkage in older age, a new study suggests. Brain shrinkage typically precedes cognitive impairment and is a factor in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Researchers in the U.K. tracked 500 people, all born in 1946, over four decades, reports BBC.com. They found that the participants who had greater increases in blood pressure between ages 36 and 43 typically had smaller brain volume by their early 70s. From ages 43 to 53, high blood pressure was linked to damaged blood vessels and a higher risk of “ministrokes,” which damage the brain. The study adds to a growing body of research that suggests that looking after your heart can help preserve your brain, says study leader Jonathan Schott from University College London. “Blood pressure, even in our 30s, could have a knock-on effect on brain health four decades later,” he said.
8-30-19 Why football players are quitting
When Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck walked off the field for the final time as a player this week, “it was to the sound of boos from fans,” said Jemele Hill. At the age of 29, Luck had decided to retire and give up millions in future earnings, because his body had been “ravaged by injuries” during six seasons in the NFL, including a lacerated kidney, a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and at least one concussion. Some fans knocked Luck for quitting, because they still see football stars as “warriors and gladiators” who should willingly sacrifice everything to play an incredibly violent game. But “the mentality of the players has changed.” Luck is one of a growing number to walk away at a relatively young age, including New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who quit this year at age 30. This generation of players has seen that concussions and other injuries have left previous ones with dementia or crippling pain or both. They’re also keenly aware that the NFL and its fans see them as “physical objects” to be used up. And that’s a price some are no longer willing to pay.
8-30-19 Kids make you happier—later in life
Does having children make you happier? Only when they’ve grown and moved out. That’s the conclusion of a new German study of 55,000 people ages 50 and over from 16 European countries, reports NewScientist.com. Earlier in life, previous research has shown, people with children at home are less happy and more prone to depression than childless peers, because they have less free time, get less sleep, and experience more stress and money problems. But later in life, the new study found, those with children were more likely to have greater life satisfaction—as long as their offspring had moved out. Researchers said that grown children can provide older parents with more social and emotional connection, as well as care and other forms of tangible support. “There is no simple answer on whether children bring happiness,” said Christoph Becker of the University of Heidelberg, who led the research. “It depends on which stage of life your children are at.”
8-30-19 Gel that makes teeth repair themselves could spell the end of fillings
Tooth enamel can now be made to repair itself by applying a special gel. The product could save people from developing cavities that require dental fillings. Enamel is the hard, protective layer on the outside of teeth. It can be worn down by mouth acid and repeated chewing, leading to cavities that have to be plugged with fillings to prevent further decay. Because fillings are made from foreign materials like metal, porcelain and resin, they don’t bind seamlessly to the tooth surface and often become loose. To overcome this problem, Ruikang Tang at Zhejiang University in China and his colleagues made a gel containing calcium and phosphate – the building blocks of real enamel – to try to encourage teeth to self-repair. They tested the gel by applying it to human teeth that had been removed from patients and damaged with acid. They then left the teeth in containers of fluid designed to mimic the mouth environment for 48 hours. During this time, the gel stimulated the growth of new enamel, with microscopy revealing that it had the same highly ordered arrangement of calcium and phosphate crystals as regular enamel. This is probably because in normal tooth development, the emerging enamel is coated in a disordered layer of calcium and phosphate particles – like in the gel – that encourages its growth, says Tang. The new enamel coating was only 3 micrometres thick, which is about 400 times thinner than undamaged enamel. But Tang says the gel could be repeatedly applied to build up this repair layer.
8-30-19 More aggressive spiders
Parts of the U.S. where hurricanes occur most frequently may have another problem to worry about: the evolution of more-aggressive spiders. During last year’s hurricane season, researchers examined more than 200 colonies of Anelosimus studiosus spiders before and after three big storms in the Southeast. Anelosimus studiosus colonies are either relatively docile, with mothers working together to rear offspring, or much more combative, with a higher ratio of aggressive females. The researchers found that about 75 percent of the colonies survived the storm—and that the more-aggressive ones were much more likely to do so, probably because they outcompeted other spiders for the food and resources made scarce by the storm. The obvious evolutionary implication is that over time spiders will adapt to harsher weather events by becoming more aggressive—and that other species may also evolve in the same way. “As sea levels rise, the incidence of tropical storms will only increase,” lead author Jonathan Pruitt, from McMaster University in Canada, tells CNN.com. “We need to contend with what the ecological and evolutionary impacts of these storms will be for nonhuman animals.”
8-30-19 There's no such thing as a 'gay gene' finds largest study of sexuality
It’s time to throw out the idea of a “gay gene”. According to the largest ever genetic study of sexual behaviour, there are probably a large number of genes that collectively influence sexuality, each with tiny effects. Previous studies have identified individual genes that may influence how sexual orientation develops in boys and men. But studies like this have always been relatively small. Most human traits seem to be influenced by hundreds or thousands of genes, each with a small effect. So genetic studies need to include genomes from at least hundreds of thousands of people to capture them. “Research in the past has not had anywhere close to the amount of data necessary,” says geneticist Robbee Wedow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Wedow and his colleagues collected data from two huge sources: the UK Biobank, which holds the genomes of 500,000 people aged between 40 and 70, and 23&Me, a company that has sold consumer genetic tests to over 5 million people. Both organisations ask the genomes’ owners to complete questionnaires, including on their sexual behaviour. This gave the team genetic data and information on the corresponding sexual behaviour for around 477,000 people. “This is an enormous leap in terms of sample size,” says John Perry at the University of Cambridge, who co-authored the study. First, the team looked at the similarity of the genomes of people who said they had sex with a person of the same sex. This helped them estimate how much of sexuality is linked to genetics – if a trait is largely determined by genetics, you would expect people with that trait to have similar genomes. The team found that around a third of the variation in this behaviour can be explained by a person’s genes.
8-30-19 There’s no evidence that a ‘gay gene’ exists
Instead, a combo of small genetic factors and environmental influences affects partner choice. Publication of the largest-ever study of the roles of genes in homosexual behavior is fanning the debate over whether being gay is due to genes or environment. First reported at a genetics conference in 2018, the study found five genetic variants associated with having a same-sex sexual partner (SN: 10/20/18). But those variants, called SNPs, don’t predict people’s sexual behavior, researchers report in the Aug. 30 Science. “There is no ‘gay gene’ that determines whether someone has same-sex partners,” says Andrea Ganna, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the University of Helsinki. Family studies have suggested that genetics account for about 32 percent of heritability of homosexual behavior. But each SNP, or single nucleotide polymorphism, has a very small effect on whether someone has ever had a same-sex sexual partner, the new research found. Taking into account all the SNPs measured in the study, including those that weren’t statistically significantly associated with same-sex behavior, explained only 8 to 25 percent of heritability of same-sex behavior. When considering just those five statistically significant SNPs, that number drops to much less than 1 percent. But those variants could point to biological processes that are involved in choosing sex partners, the researchers say. For instance, one variant identified in the study has been linked to male-pattern baldness, and another to the ability to smell certain chemicals, which may affect sexual attraction. “The study is a big step forward because of its huge size,” says J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who has worked on sexual orientation genetics but was not involved in the work. It included more than 470,000 people, dwarfing previous research.
8-30-19 Stone tools may place some of the first Americans in Idaho 16,500 years ago
Artifacts add to evidence that North America’s early settlers predated an inland, ice-free path. America’s first settlers may have coasted in. Northeast Asians traveled down North America’s Pacific coast and then eastward into the continent more than 1,500 years before an inland, ice-free corridor opened up, researchers say. That conclusion, reported in the Aug. 30 Science, rests on discoveries at a site in western Idaho called Cooper’s Ferry. Stone tools excavated there point to repeated human visits between around 16,560 and 15,280 years ago, says a team led by archaeologist Loren Davis of Oregon State University in Corvallis. Those tools look much like stone artifacts that were made around that time in what’s now Japan, Davis’ group says. Asian toolmakers could have reached Idaho only by first heading down the Pacific coast, the researchers contend, possibly by combining canoe travel with walking. How North America’s first settlers arrived, and when, is a hotly debated topic. And the Idaho finds show no signs of cooling that conflict. One long-standing idea is that melting of massive ice sheets cleared a path from what’s now Alaska into the heart of North America by around 14,800 years ago. That possibly enabled people to reach Florida and South America a few hundred years later (SN: 8/8/18). But some scientists have argued that colonizers from Asia arrived earlier, primarily traveling by canoe down the coast before moving inland. Evidence from Texas places people there roughly 15,000 years ago (SN: 10/24/18). And previous research has found evidence that an ice-free path along Alaska’s coast formed by around 17,000 years ago (SN: 5/30/18).
8-30-19 Clumps of cells in the lab spontaneously formed brain waves
Lentil-sized organoids fire coordinated signals. It’s baby’s first brain wave, sort of. As lentil-sized clusters of nerve cells grow in a lab dish, they begin to fire off rhythmic electrical signals. These oscillations share some features with those found in the brains of developing human babies, researchers report October 3 in Cell Stem Cell. Three-dimensional spheres of human brain cells, called cerebral organoids, are extremely simplistic models of the human brain. Still, these easy-to-obtain organoids may offer a better way to study how a brain is made, and how that process can go wrong (SN: 2/20/18). “The field is white-hot,” with fast progress in both making and understanding brain organoids, says John Huguenard, a neuroscientist at Stanford University not involved in the study. Finding this sort of coordinated electrical activity in organoids’ nerve cells, or neurons, is a first, he says. “The neurons are growing up and becoming mature enough where they can not only start to behave like neurons and fire individually, but now they can be coordinated.” For the study, researchers coaxed stem cells into forming some of the neurons that make up the outer layer of the brain. These cortical organoids grew in lab dishes that held arrays of electrodes printed along the bottom, allowing the scientists to monitor electrical activity as the organoids developed. After two months, the electrodes started picking up neural waves, or collective behavior that comes from many neurons firing signals in tandem. By four to six months, the electrical activity in the lab-grown cells had reached levels “never seen before,” says coauthor Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist of the University of California, San Diego. Those signals suggest that neurons in the organoids had made billions of connections, he says.
8-30-19 Fly fossils might challenge the idea of ancient trilobites’ crystal eyes
Fossil lenses from the 54-million-year-old insects raise questions about other species’ sight. Fossil crane flies found in Denmark have crystals in their eyes — individual, see-through mineral pieces where the living eyes’ lenses once were. Those little crystals of calcium carbonate are renewing a fuss about more mysterious ancient animals, the trilobites. Fossils of those extinct, shield-shaped invertebrates also have crystalized mineral lenses in their eyes. There are no living trilobites, but since at least the 1970s, scientists have been imagining how crystal lenses might have worked for the creatures when they were alive (SN: 2/2/74). Now the crane fly researchers argue that crystal lenses, in crane flies as well as in trilobites, are just quirks of fossilization. Living crane flies don’t have crystal lenses, the researchers note online August 15 in Nature. Neither do other known living insects or any of the bigger group of jointed-legs animals, the arthropods, says coauthor Johan Lindgren, a molecular paleontologist at Lund University of Sweden. These animals sometimes grow tinier calcite crystals in their eyes or in their rigid exoskeletons for strength, but not “one big crystal basically in each individual lens,” he says.In the new eye study, Lindgren and colleagues focus on beautifully preserved crane fly specimens of several ancient kinds. The fossils were found in 54-million-year-old sediments in what was once a waterway in today’s Danish peninsula of Jutland. Like modern crane flies, the fossil ones look a bit like mosquitoes, but with longer legs.
8-29-19 Measles: Four European nations lose eradication status
Measles has returned to four European nations previously seen as free of the illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The disease is no longer considered eradicated in Albania, the Czech Republic, Greece and the UK. "We are backsliding, we are on the wrong track," said Kate O'Brien of the WHO's Immunization Department. Measles is a highly contagious and potentially fatal illness that causes coughing, rashes and fever. The disease can be prevented through two doses of the MMR vaccine, which is available for free for all young children in the UK. Countries are declared measles-free when there is no endemic transmission for 12 months in a specific geographic area. Ms O'Brien said all four European nations that have lost their eradication status have "extremely high" vaccination coverage. "This is the alarm bell that is ringing around the world: being able to achieve high national coverage is not enough, it has to be achieved in every community, and every family for every child," she said. Health experts warn that lies about the measles vaccine have allowed the illness to spread in certain areas or communities. All regions of the world showed an increase in measles bar the Americas, which saw a minor decline - although the US registered its highest number of cases in 25 years. Close to 365,000 cases have been reported worldwide this year, the WHO said, almost three times as many as in the first half of 2018. Dr O'Brien blamed misinformation about vaccines and called on social media companies and community leaders to provide "accurate, valid, scientifically credible information". The Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine are suffering the largest outbreaks of measles. (Webmaster's comment: Measles is back thanks to the anti-vaxxers!)
8-29-19 Mini-brains grown in a lab show neural activity like preterm babies
Miniature brains grown in a lab exhibit remarkably similar activity to preterm babies’ brains. This dispels the idea that human brains need to develop in a womb or be connected to other organs to function. Scientists have long been trying to grow realistic models of human brains to better understand how our brains work and make it easier to test new treatments for neurological disorders. However, until now, it was assumed that these models wouldn’t be able to recreate the sophisticated connections found in real brains. “We previously assumed that the human brain needs some input from other organs and from the mother’s uterus to thrive,” says Alysson Muotri at the University of California, San Diego. Muotri and his colleagues developed a new way of making brain models from pluripotent stem cells. They added special growth factors and other chemicals to make the stem cells grow into various brain cell types that then spontaneously assembled into brain-like structures. Each artificial brain grew to about half a centimetre in diameter over a period of 10 months. Using tiny electrodes to measure electrical activity, the researchers found that they began producing simple brain waves at about two months. Over time, these brain waves became more complex, suggesting the individual brain cells were starting to communicate with each other and form networks. The researchers found that the way these brain waves evolved resembled the early development of real human brains. The brain wave patterns developed in a similar way over time to those of 39 preterm babies born before 28 weeks of gestation who were monitored with electroencephalogram (EEG) brain recordings.
8-29-19 50 years ago, scientists thought they knew why geckos had sticky feet
Each of a tokay gecko’s (Gekko gecko) four feet has nearly 500,000 tiny hairs that help the nocturnal reptiles stick to glass and other slick surfaces. The secret of what enables the agile gecko lizard to stroll upside-down across glass and perform other remarkable sticky-footed feats has been revealed…. Microscopic suction cups provide Gekko gecko his phenomenal grip. Using a scanning electron microscope, … [Joseph F.] Gennaro observed that the chevron-shaped pads on the lizard’s toe were composed of an array of brushlike structures called setae … capped by minute suction cups which help the lizard cling to the surface. — Science News, September 6, 1969. Update Gennaro was partly correct. Gecko feet don’t have suction cups, but the feet have enough tiny setae — hundreds of thousands — to increase adhesion via van der Waals forces, which are very weak forces between molecules. Collectively, the hairs create enough adhesive force for the reptiles to stick even to slick surfaces, scientists discovered in 2000. Gecko feet have inspired new materials and technology, such as a robotic gripper for grabbing space junk (SN: 6/28/17) and hand pads to help people climb glass panes (SN: 11/18/14).
8-29-19 A 3.8 million-year-old skull reveals the face of Lucy’s possible ancestors
The fossilized hominid skull illuminates the earliest-known Australopithecus species. In a remarkable evolutionary windfall, fossil hunters have discovered neatly fitting halves of a nearly complete, 3.8-million-year-old hominid skull. This unexpected specimen shines some light on poorly understood, early members of the human evolutionary family. The East African skull, which turned up at Ethiopia’s Woranso-Mille site, has been classified as Australopithecus anamensis. It is the oldest known species in a hominid genus that includes Australopithecus afarensis, known best for Lucy’s 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton (SN: 10/28/14). The research team, led by paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, describes its analysis of the skull in two papers published online August 28 in Nature. “This specimen provides the first glimpse of the face of Australopithecus anamensis,” Haile-Selassie said during an Aug. 27 news conference. The skull, which is slightly larger than a modern adult human’s fist, also includes the first good example of an A. anamensis braincase. For early-hominid investigators, “this is the specimen we have been waiting for,” says paleoanthropologist Carol Ward of the University of Missouri in Columbia. Ward was not part of the Woranso-Mille team. Until now, A. anamensis fossils consisted only of partial upper and lower jaws, isolated teeth, a braincase fragment and some lower-body bones (SN: 2/18/15). Those specimens, previously unearthed in Kenya and Ethiopia, date to between 4.2 million and 3.9 million years ago.
8-28-19 We've finally found a skull from one of our most important ancestors
For the first time, a partial skull belonging to one of our most important ancestral species has been found in Africa. The skull sheds light on a crucial stage of our evolution. The skull was discovered in 2016. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio and his colleagues were excavating in the Woranso-Mille area of Ethiopia. One day a local man named Ali Bereino approached Haile-Selassie with a hominin upper jawbone that he had found. “He was not even one of my local workers at that time,” says Haile-Selassie – something he has since remedied. Haile-Selassie accompanied Bereino back to the site. “Three metres away from the upper jaw was the rest of the head,” he says. The team sieved through the surrounding sediment, much of which was buried under a half-metre-deep pile of three-month-old goat faeces. This unpleasant task yielded several “critical pieces”, including some of the left cheekbone. The skull seems to have belonged to a male. Given how badly his teeth were worn, he was probably old when he died. Based on the ages of the surrounding rocks, he lived 3.8 million years ago. “It’s a great find,” says Fred Spoor of the Natural History Museum in London, UK. The team has now identified it as an Australopithecus anamensis. Australopithecus were the main hominins living in Africa between 4 and 2 million years ago – several million years after our ancestors split from those of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. They walked upright as we do, but their brains were smaller than ours. Several species of Australopithecus are known, including A. afarensis: the species to which the famous “Lucy” fossil belonged.
8-28-19 'All bets now off' on which ape was humanity's ancestor
Researchers have discovered a nearly complete 3.8-million-year-old skull of an early ape-like human ancestor in Ethiopia. An analysis of the new specimen challenges ideas about how the first humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. The current view that an ape named Lucy was among a species that gave rise to the first early humans may have to be reconsidered. The discovery is reported in the journal Nature. The skull was found by Prof Yohannes Haile-Selassie at a place called Miro Dora, which is in the Mille District of Ethiopia's Afar Regional State. The scientist, who's affiliated to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio, US, said he immediately recognised the significance of the fossil. "I thought to myself, 'oh my goodness - am I seeing what I think I am seeing?'. And all of a sudden I was jumping up and down and that was when I realised that this was what I had dreamt," he told BBC News. Prof Haile-Selassie says the specimen is the best example yet of the ape-like human ancestor called Australopithecus anamensis - the oldest known australopithecine whose kind may have existed as far back as 4.2 million years ago. It had been thought that A. anamensis was the direct ancestor of a later, more advanced species called Australopithecus afarensis, which in turn has been considered a direct ancestor of the first early humans in the grouping, or genus, known as Homo, and which includes all humans alive today. The discovery of the first afarensis skeleton in 1974 caused a sensation. She was nicknamed Lucy by researchers after the Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, which was playing at the excavation site. Hailed as "the first ape to have walked", Lucy captured the public's attention. But writing a commentary in Nature, Prof Fred Spoor, of London's Natural History Museum, said that anamensis "looks set to become another celebrated icon of human evolution".
8-28-19 Are there any aliens out there? We are close to knowing for sure
Next-generation telescopes and new ways of detecting life on other planets are transforming the search for extraterrestrials. We may finally be about to find out if aliens exist. IT IS the biggest question in the universe: are we alone? Philosophers have debated the question for millennia. When 16th-century Italian astronomer and Dominican friar Giordano Bruno declared that the cosmos contained “an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own”, he was directly contravening religious dogma. He was later burned at the stake during the Inquisition, in part for daring to question Earth’s unique status. The debate continues, in more restrained fashion, to this day. For some, the sheer size of the universe makes it unlikely that life formed only once. For others, the remarkable complexity of life on Earth is testament to its uniqueness. Until recently, vague philosophical answers of this kind were the best science could do. The signs of life were far too ambiguous to pin down for certain, and our nearest potentially habitable worlds were too small and distant to test. But for the first time in human history we are reaching the technological sophistication needed to provide a genuine answer. Powerful telescopes are letting us study planets in other solar systems, giving us a glimpse into their atmospheres and a flavour of what type of life might be living on their surfaces. At the same time, improved analysis of our own planet is allowing us to redefine what life might look like from afar, and is helping us to distinguish the signs of a flourishing alien civilisation from the mere geological rumblings of a lifeless world. With these tools at our disposal, answers are finally within our grasp. To understand my optimism, it is worth revisiting the work of astronomer Frank Drake. In 1961, Drake devised a formula to estimate how many advanced civilisations were capable of signalling their presence in the Milky Way. His eponymous equation depends on breaking down that big unknowable quantity into a number of more tractable ones that can be multiplied together, such as the number of stars in the galaxy and the fraction of those likely to have planets (see Quiet neighbourhood). (Webmaster's comment: Of course they have existed and some still do exist, but most self destruct after 10-20,000 years of destroying the planet they live on. Their selfish individual drive to survive and breed ensures destruction.)
8-28-19 How the science of happiness became an industry worth billions
Fuelled by government and corporate dollars, being happy has become near mandatory. A controversial new book, Manufacturing Happy Citizens, explains the rise of positive psychology THEY say money can’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t stop people from selling it. Day passes to Goop’s wellness summit in London in June cost £1000, with weekend tickets (two nights in a hotel, a VIP Sunday workout and Goop-favourite meals) going for an eye-watering £4500. From mindfulness to detox to the nine crystals you should keep on your desk, actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s multi-million dollar business has it covered. There are so many ways you can pay to feel better about yourself. I closed Goop’s website soon after learning about shock-wave therapy for my penis. Happiness has become a commodity that needs to be topped up as often as possible. What do we want? To be happy. When do we want it? Now. At some point, our happiness became other people’s business. “Most of what we do on behalf of our happiness… is first and foremost favourable and beneficial to those who claim to hold its truths,” write Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz in the excellent Manufacturing Happy Citizens. not only a commodity, but also one that society has decided it is our civic duty to pursue. Happy people are better citizens. The book is a clear-sighted critique of capitalism’s current obsession with happiness and of the shaky science allowing a well-meaning ideal to be so easily subverted by governments and companies. It is surprising that happiness (at least, as we know it today) has an origin story. In this tale, the prime mover is Martin Seligman, a behaviourist and cognitive scientist. In 1998, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association, the largest professional body for psychologists in the US. He had come to believe that psychology was too negative, focusing on pathologies, not betterment. Seligman wanted to make happiness the focus: what was it and how could we achieve it?
8-28-19 DNA mutation lets some people live healthily on only 4 hours' sleep
Do you need a full eight hours of sleep a night or, like Margaret Thatcher famously did, can you get by on four? Researchers have found a gene that dictates how much sleep a person needs by studying a family that gets by on much less than average. Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California, San Francisco and her colleagues analysed the genes of 12 members of a family that sleeps as little as 4.5 hours per night without feeling tired. They found they had a mutation in a gene called ADRB1. When the team bred rats with the same mutation, these slept about 55 minutes less per day. This correlated with altered activity in a brain region called the dorsal pons that is known to regulate sleep. In the dorsal pons of normal rats, ADRB1-expressing brain cells were found to be inactive during most sleep stages, but active when they were awake. In the mutant rats, these cells were even more active during waking hours. The researchers also found they could wake up sleeping rats by artificially activating these ADRB1-expressing brain cells. Taken together, the results suggest that ADRB1-expressing brain cells promote wakefulness, and that variations in the ADRB1 gene influence how long we can stay awake for each day, says Fu. Her team has previously found that mutations in other genes like DEC2 also make people need to sleep less. These mutations don’t seem to be associated with any negative health consequences. “Most natural short sleepers are very happy about their sleep pattern – they usually fully take advantage of their extra time,” says Fu.
8-28-19 If I have a disease-causing gene, should my doctor tell my family?
Genetic testing is undermining medical norms as people sue their doctors for either telling them or not telling them a relative’s diagnosis, says Laura Spinney ONCE upon a time, a doctor’s consulting room was as safe as a confessional. You could say what you liked confident that, barring very exceptional circumstances, it would go no further. No more. Two legal cases, one in Germany and one still ongoing in the UK, show how the limits of patient confidentiality are being tested, and how this challenges long-established medical norms. At issue is how to define a patient in an era of genetic testing. If a test shows that I carry a disease-causing gene, that may be relevant to other members of my family. If I refuse to tell them, should my doctor? That is the nub of a trial coming up at the High Court in London in November, in which a woman is suing the hospital that diagnosed her father with Huntington’s disease for not informing her. Huntington’s is a fatal, incurable neurodegenerative disorder caused by a mutation in a single gene. Every child of an affected parent has a 50 per cent chance of inheriting the mutation. The woman argues that, had she known her father’s diagnosis, she wouldn’t have given birth to her daughter, who is now herself at risk of Huntington’s. Currently, in the UK as in many other countries, doctors are legally obliged to respect the confidentiality of patients unless they consent to their information being shared. Guidelines issued by professional organisations such as the Royal College of Physicians do acknowledge that situations can arise where a doctor has a duty of disclosure to third parties even in the absence of consent – notably when not sharing information could result in death or serious harm. The High Court trial will test whether that duty of disclosure should also be recognised in law.
8-28-19 Don’t go bananas: Should we be cutting down on the fruit we eat?
News that some zoos have stopped feeding monkeys fruit has led people to suggest humans avoid it too. But that ignores a few crucial details, says James Wong. IF YOU have ever delved into the world of online diet advice, you might have heard the claim that modern fruit is so filled with sugar that it is unsafe for zoo animals. It might have come with links to media reports with headlines like “Zoo bans monkeys from eating bananas”. The claim that fruit is no longer a healthy part of the diet – for humans as well as animals – has gathered thousands of likes and shares from low-carb devotees around the world. But how good is the evidence behind these claims? As a botanist who knows rather a lot about fruit, but very little about monkeys, I decided to go straight to the source, and talk to the zoologist whose work first spurred these stories. Amy Plowman is director of living collections at Paignton Zoo in Devon, UK, and has done pioneering research on the diets of non-human primates in captivity. She observed that the food given to zoo monkeys was often a poor reflection of what they ate in the wild. In some zoos, it more closely resembled the food preferences of their human keepers. “We have, whether consciously or unconsciously, assumed that human food is suitable for non-human primates,” she says. In some leading zoos, primate species whose diet in the wild is made up overwhelmingly of leaves are routinely fed chicken, eggs, cheese, yogurt, bread and noodles. This understanding of primate nutrition is, Plowman says, “far removed from reality”. To create a diet as similar to the monkeys’ natural diet as possible, she eliminated energy-dense items such as meat, dairy and grains, and reduced the amount of fruit and some of the more calorific vegetables. The monkeys’ new regime consisted essentially of specialist primate feed pellets, leafy veg and fresh tree leaves.
8-28-19 Worm robot could wiggle its way through arteries in the brain
A tiny robotic worm can wiggle its way through a model brain. It could eventually be used to make brain surgeries less invasive. Yoonho Kim and his colleague Xuanhe Zhao at Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the robot out of a polymer with small magnetic particles embedded throughout, meaning it can be directed using a magnet. It is coated in a self-lubricating material and is less 0.6 millimetres in diameter. The pair tested the robot on a silicone model of a human brain, which contained a substance that mimics blood. When controlled with a magnet held outside the brain, the robot could worm its way through hard-to-reach blood vessels. “The reason why robotics couldn’t go into this domain before is the existing robots that can navigate through a blood vessel were too large in diameter,” says Kim. Instead robots are used in the heart, where arteries are wider. The magnetic microparticles also show up on continuous x-ray systems, so could be used to help surgeons navigate the tricky web of arteries and veins in the brain.“I think it’s really interesting – and the clinical implications are there, if at a very early stage,” says Eloise Matheson at Imperial College London. “The system, how they tested it and what it shows, is really promising.” The next step, says Kim, is to test the device on animals, which the duo is in talks with neurosurgeons at Harvard Medical School about doing.
8-28-19 A historic opioid trial highlights what we know about the deadly drugs
Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million to Oklahoma for the company’s role in the epidemic. There are no real winners in the opioid epidemic. But on August 26, a judge in Oklahoma handed a small victory to the state, which had sued opioid-maker Johnson & Johnson for its role in the morass. In the first such ruling to hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for the opioid crisis, the judge found that the company had falsely and dangerously marketed the powerful drugs, a deception that led to addiction and death for too many people, the New York Times and other news outlets reported. To help offset the cost of the epidemic to the state, the company has to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma. The rise of opioids undoubtedly has helped people ease severe pain. But for many people, the drugs fueled a dangerous addiction. Public health officials have been scrambling to tally the destruction, particularly as the death toll has risen in recent years. Scientists have been scrambling, too, trying to mitigate the harm and search for drug alternatives that can ease pain without opioids’ ill effects. Here’s what we know about the extent of the opioid epidemic, and where we stand on efforts to slow it. In the United States, more than 130 people die every day after an opioid overdose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. In 2015, an estimated 91.8 million U.S. adults — or 1 in 3 people — used prescription opioids (SN: 8/1/17). Nearly 5 percent of all the adults in the country misused prescription opioids that year. Opioid use is also on the rise among pregnant women (SN: 8/9/18), raising complex concerns for the health of both mothers and babies (SN: 12/12/18). Young adults and teens are bearing an extra-large burden. Among Americans aged 25 to 34, opioids were implicated in 1 in 5 deaths in 2016 (SN: 6/1/18). In 15- to 24-year-olds, 12 percent of deaths came from opioid overdoses that year.
8-28-19 Purdue Pharma 'offers up to $12bn' to settle opioid cases
Purdue Pharma, the opioid drug-maker owned by the billionaire Sackler family, is reported to be offering between $10bn and $12bn to settle thousands of lawsuits against it. The firm is facing over 2,000 lawsuits linked to its painkiller OxyContin. Purdue told the BBC it was "actively working" towards a "global resolution" but would not comment on the amount. NBC, which first reported the news, said the settlement would involve the Sacklers giving up ownership of Purdue. The firm said in a statement: "While Purdue Pharma is prepared to defend itself vigorously in the opioid litigation, the company has made clear that it sees little good coming from years of wasteful litigation and appeals. "Purdue believes a constructive global resolution is the best path forward, and the company is actively working with the state attorneys general and other plaintiffs to achieve this outcome." According to Reuters, there is currently no agreement and the settlement discussions could collapse. Opioids are a group of drugs that range from codeine, to illegal drugs like heroin. Prescription opioids are primarily used for pain relief. They can be highly addictive. On average, 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids were involved in almost 400,000 overdose deaths in the US from 1999 to 2017, according to its research. Purdue is one of 22 opioid makers, distributors and pharmacies named in over 2,000 cases which are due to go to trial in October. (Webmaster's comment: Selling death is extremely profitable. But fines are not enough, a lot of executives need to go to prison!)
8-28-19 The back pain epidemic: Why popular treatments are making it worse
Chronic back pain is on the rise – in part because the way we treat it often does more harm than good. It's time to think differently about our aches “ARGHH.” The first time it happens it takes you by surprise. Was that me? Then it happens again, and again. You give a tiny groan every time you get off the sofa. You hold the bottom of your spine and stretch, wondering if you should see a doctor. Surely you are too young to have a bad back? That tends to be the start for a lot of us. Backache is an extraordinarily common burden, with one in four adults experiencing it right now, and 90 per cent of people having back pain at least once in their life. Last year, a series of papers in The Lancet revealed the extent of the problem: back pain is a leading cause of disability around the world. In the US alone it costs an eye-watering $635 billion a year in medical bills and loss of productivity. Much of the blame has fallen on our increasingly desk-bound lifestyles and growing lifespans, which mean more years of wear and tear on our spines. But these factors only partly explain how we got here and what makes some people more vulnerable or resilient. The World Health Organization expects back pain problems to steadily rise in the years ahead and to affect more people around the globe. That makes it especially worrying that the people who are trying to help are making the problem worse. The good news is we already have the knowledge to improve things – if we finally apply it. At the same time, new understanding of how and why our brains create the experience of pain is changing the way we think about those crippling aches and pointing to some surprising solutions.
8-28-19 Red wine drinkers have more diverse gut bacteria than other drinkers
Drinking red wine may be better for your microbiome than drinking other types of alcohol, according to a study of 3000 people. Caroline Le Roy and colleagues at King’s College London found that red wine drinkers had a greater diversity of bacteria living in their guts, compared to people who drank beer, cider, white wine or spirits. The team found that this held true even when the age, wealth, diet and socioeconomic status of the participants were taken into account. Having a diverse mix of gut microbes, rather than just a few dominant strains, is thought to be good for your health. The team think red wine drinkers may have more of a mix of microbes than other drinkers because of polyphenols, defence chemicals in red wine that act as antioxidants. The findings may partly explain why red wine is linked to heart health, says Le Roy. Drinking red wine rarely, such as once every two weeks, seemed to be enough to observe an effect on gut microbiota, she says. But this doesn’t put red wine in the clear. “No doctor would recommend drinking on medical grounds, as any potential benefits of red wine polyphenols should be considered alongside alcohol’s links to over 200 health conditions, including heard disease and cancers,” says Sadie Boniface, at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a UK charity. “Polyphenols are also available from a range of other foods besides red wine,” says Boniface.
8-28-19 Your DNA could transfer to a weapon you have never touched
Forensic scientist Niamh Nic Daeid explains how your DNA could end up on a murder weapon and why smoke alarms don't wake children. I lead a team of people from different scientific, statistical and science communication backgrounds and we try to address some of the fundamental challenges in how science is used in the justice system. We work with police, researchers, lawyers, judges and the public. I also do forensic casework – my area of expertise is in investigating how and where fires start. We are working on the development of a global citizen science project that will help forensic scientists understand how materials transfer between surfaces and then persist on the surface they have transferred to. We have designed and tested universal experiments to build databases that will address these questions and will launch these globally in 2020. These are profoundly important issues that help us explain the relevance and weight of forensic evidence to our courts. Proving that conventional smoke alarms don’t wake children and then finding a sound that does. It sounds like a truck reversing, that intermittent beeping noise, followed by a female voice saying “get up, the house is on fire”. Each sound is played for 10 seconds, repetitively. Most children wake with either the first beeping tone or when they hear the voice for the first time. We have been at the centre of a paradigm shift in forensic science. The situation before was that the only time judges and forensic scientists spoke to each other was in the courtroom. Now, the judiciary and forensic scientists work together. We speak about science in informal ways, exploring each other’s questions and perspectives, to gather a collective understanding of what science can answer and what it can not.
8-28-19 Textile archaeologists use ancient tools to weave a tapestry of the past
From clay artifacts, scientists learn how fabrics were made long ago. Norse sails loomed off the shores of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, along the northeastern coast of Great Britain, on June 8, 793. The seafaring invaders sacked the island’s undefended monastery. The Viking Age had begun. For more than 270 years, the sight of red-and-white-striped Viking sails heralded an incoming raid. Those mighty sails that drove the explorers’ ships were made by craftspeople, mostly women, toiling with spindles and looms. “There would have been no Viking Age without textiles,” says archaeologist Eva Andersson Strand, director of the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, in old Viking territory. Yet textiles have not received much attention from archaeologists until recently. Andersson Strand is part of a new wave of researchers — mostly women themselves — who think that the fabrics in which people wrapped their bodies, their babies and their dead were just as important as the clay pots in which people preserved food, or the arrowheads with which hunters took down prey. These researchers want to know how ancient spinners and weavers, from Viking territory and elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East, fashioned sheep’s coats into sails — as well as diapers, shrouds, tapestries and innumerable other textiles. Since the Industrial Revolution, when fabric crafts migrated from hearth to factory, most people have forgotten how much work it once required to create a tablecloth or wedding veil, or 120 square meters of sailcloth to propel a longboat across the water. Textile making is “one of the major industries, and always has been,” says Lise Bender Jørgensen, an archaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. Today, the annual global market for yarns and fabrics is worth nearly $1 trillion.
8-26-19 How a newly identified bacterium saps corals of their energy
The microbe can sense when their hosts ramp up production of nutrients. A mysterious bacterium had been detected living in Caribbean corals, sapping them of energy and organic building blocks needed to grow. The microbe thrives in corals growing in nutrient-rich water. And now scientists know how. The microbe can sense increased nutrient levels in corals themselves, and may be anticipating when corals and the beneficial algae that live with them will increase their production of amino acids, scientists report August 5 in the ISME Journal. That heads-up may give the microbe more time to siphon off more energy and amino acids from the corals, allowing this typically low-level parasite to reproduce rapidly. This bacterium is “weakening the corals enough to make them susceptible” to other harmful pathogens (SN: 8/3/19, p. 14), says microbiologist Grace Klinges at Oregon State University in Corvallis. That’s cause for alarm, she says, as nutrient levels, and thus levels of the bacteria, can rise quickly with sewage and agricultural runoff in some coastal waters. In 2013, researchers studying the effects of such nutrient enrichment on staghorn corals off Florida discovered relatively unknown bacteria proliferating far faster than others. The microbes’ population went from accounting for about 11 percent of the corals’ overall microbial community to as much as 88 percent as nutrient levels rose. “It’s really unusual to see one bacterium become so dominant,” Klinges says. Her and her colleagues’ analysis of the bacteria’s DNA revealed the microbes to be part of a new genus, Candidatus Aquarickettsia. The coral-dwelling species, which the researchers named Candidatus A. rohweri, was also found to be related to an ancient, energy-producing bacterium that evolved into cellular power sources called mitochondria.
8-25-19 How strep throat may spark OCD and anxiety in some kids
In rare cases, the body’s response to the bacterial infection appears to attack the brain. One night in December 2013, Hans Korbmacher awoke in a fury. The book-loving, introverted 10-year-old was feverish, agitated and gnawing on his tongue. He headed downstairs, leaped onto an ottoman and threw his hands over his head, startling his parents. He was “clearly not present,” says his mother, Heather Korbmacher. When the same thing happened two weeks later, she thought fevers may have induced Hans’ bizarre behavior. A nurse said it could be the flu. Meanwhile, Hans’ condition worsened. He was anxious and volatile. His handwriting, once a model of penmanship, morphed into angry scribbles. And he became a peculiarly picky eater. Korbmacher, a behavioral specialist for schools in Bellingham, Wash., tried to manage Hans’ symptoms on her own. “It was working OK during those first five months, until it was absolutely not,” she says. Extreme rages came weekly and then daily, keeping Hans out of school. He punched holes in walls and ripped down curtains. The worst part: Hans was acutely aware that something was very wrong. He pleaded with his parents to make it stop. “He would beg us to kill him,” Korbmacher says. Several doctors’ appointments later, a psychiatrist suggested that Hans’ symptoms stemmed from obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. The diagnosis seemed off base to Korbmacher until she read online about a rare form of OCD with a mouthful of a name: pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections, or PANDAS for short. Hans had all but one of the listed symptoms. Korbmacher immediately had Hans tested for a strep infection. A throat swab came back negative, but blood tests revealed that he had four times the typical levels of immune molecules that the body produces in response to a strep infection.
8-25-19 Tests at 3 years old could predict how well your brain will age
Your brain isn’t necessarily the same age as the rest of you. Now, it may be possible to predict how quickly a person’s brain will age throughout life based on tests taken when they are 3 years old. A person’s biological age may be a better indicator of their health than their chronological age. Brain age can be measured using brain scans and machine learning to determine if a person’s brain looks older or younger than the average healthy brain for people of the same age. To find out if brain age might reveal anything about a person’s health in midlife, Max Elliott at Duke University in North Carolina and his colleagues assessed the brains of 869 adults in New Zealand who have undergone regular medical and cognitive testing since they were 3 years old. When the volunteers, all aged between 43 and 46, underwent MRI brain scans, the team found that their brain ages ranged from 23 to 71. Those with older brain ages performed worse on tests of cognition, memory and IQ. The researchers also measured things like cholesterol and blood sugar levels to estimate the biological age of the volunteers’ bodies. They found that this was loosely linked to brain age, but not totally. “There are some people who have a very advanced brain age whose bodies seem to be ageing slowly, and vice versa,” says Elliott. However, the team found that those who had the highest scores on cognitive tests when they were 3 years old went on to have the youngest-looking brains (bioRxiv, doi.org/c9ng). This suggests we might be able to tell who is at risk of accelerated brain ageing early in life, says Elliott. He hopes that predicting brain ageing earlier in life could allow treatments for conditions like dementia to be started sooner. This means they might have a better chance of working.
8-25-19 How tumors hide from chemotherapy
As researchers understand more about how our bodies protect cancer, they hope to develop improved chemotherapies that are more effective and less toxic. or cancer patients and their doctors, the scenario is all too agonizingly familiar: A course of chemotherapy appears to eradicate the tumor completely, but then it reemerges months later. Somewhere, somehow, a few cancer cells survive the therapy, dashing hopes of a cure. Those survivors aren't evading chemo on their own — they have accomplices. Cancer researchers have long noticed that doses of chemo drugs that reliably kill cancer cells in laboratory cultures tend to be strikingly less effective in actual patients. They surmised that something about the environment in which a tumor sits — the tumor microenvironment — must be helping to shield it from the drugs' full lethal effect. Today they know that noncancerous tissues surrounding a tumor play a crucial role in this betrayal, and they are beginning to understand how it is accomplished. They've learned that noncancerous cells within and around the tumor can physically block delivery of chemo drugs to the cancer, or send chemical signals that encourage tumor cells to survive, or prevent the immune system from launching an effective attack. As they gain a better understanding of the tumor environment and its complex ecology, they hope to develop improved chemotherapies that are both more effective and less toxic. "It's really the forefront of cancer therapy," says Michael Hemann, a cancer researcher at MIT. Part of the protective effect of the tumor microenvironment is a matter of plumbing. For decades, cancer researchers have wondered whether they could starve tumors into submission by choking off their blood supply and thus preventing their fast-growing cells from getting enough food and oxygen. In the early 2000s, they developed a drug, Avastin (bevacizumab), that blocks a molecular signal triggering blood vessel growth, or angiogenesis. But, mysteriously, Avastin failed to improve survival unless patients received chemotherapy drugs at the same time — implying that Avastin was somehow helping the chemo to be more effective.
8-24-19 Marijuana and meth are getting more popular in America, but cocaine has declined
Spending on the drugs reveals shifts in use and abuse. Illicit drug use lurks in the shadows — one reason it’s difficult to study. But public health researchers pull together numbers from surveys, overdose records and other sources to look for trends in how much people spend on drugs, numbers of users and frequency of use that can help policy makers fight substance abuse. Now, an analysis released August 20 by the Rand Corporation estimates that people in the United States spent between $121 billion and $146 billion dollars annually on cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine from 2006 and 2016. The analysis puts the drugs’ combined total on the same order as Americans’ annual alcohol tab, based on market research on the alcohol industry. Among the four drugs, users in 2006 spent the most money on cocaine, around $58 billion (in 2018 dollars). But that spending on cocaine then dropped to $24 billion in 2016. Marijuana spending, meanwhile, roughly doubled to garner the greatest spending in 2016, at $52 billion. Also, from 2010 to 2016, the number of people who had used marijuana in the last month increased from an estimated 25 million to 32 million, a roughly 30 percent increase. The uptick in cannabis consumption wasn’t a surprise, says report coauthor Greg Midgette, a criminologist at the University of Maryland and the RAND Corporation. In the United States, at least 1 in 4 people now lives in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal for adults over the age of 21. Other trends also reinforce what drug policy experts knew about substance abuse in America. For instance, increasing heroin use from 2010 to 2016 likely reflects the opioid crisis (SN: 4/13/19, p. 32). But other findings were more surprising, Midgette says, such as increases in methamphetamine spending, users and consumption. From 2010 to 2016, the average purity of methamphetamine increased, and cost fell. “When the drug is available, pure and cheap, that’s troubling for public health,” he says.
8-24-19 An Illinois patient’s death may be the first in the U.S. tied to vaping
The individual was among 193 people who have reported lung injuries linked to e-cigarettes. The death of an Illinois resident may be the first in the United States linked to vaping, state health officials announced August 23. The adult was among 193 patients who have been hospitalized nationwide with severe lung injuries. Although investigators don’t know the cause of the illnesses, which have been reported in the last two months, all of the patients had vaped. Both the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are working with state health departments to investigate the cases, officials said at a news briefing also on August 23. An additional 40 cases have come to light in the last two days, bringing the total to 193, and the number of states affected has grown from 16 to 22. All of the patients had reported using e-cigarettes before developing symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain (SN Online: 8/22/19). Most of the cases have been among adolescents and young adults. Many of the patients also said that they had used products containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in the lead-up to their illnesses. In reporting the death in Illinois, officials did not provide details of the case, nor say when the death occurred. Officials emphasized that the investigations into possible links between lung injury and vaping are still in the early stages. The FDA has received product samples from a number of states. “We’re starting to analyze those samples … to see whether they contain nicotine, to see whether they contain substances such as THC or other cannabinoids or other chemicals,” said Mitch Zeller, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products in Silver Spring, Md. The agency is also looking at the different brands and technologies used in vaping products, he said.
8-24-19 First death linked to vaping reported in Illinois
A patient has died after developing a severe respiratory disease due to vaping in the first such death in the US, say health officials. It comes as experts investigate a mystery lung disease across the US that is linked to use of e-cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said there were 193 "potential cases" in 22 US states. Many of the cases involve vaping THC, the main active compound in cannabis, CDC experts said. The cases were reported over the course of two months between 28 June and 20 August. The person who died was "hospitalized with unexplained illness after reported vaping or e-cigarette use", Dr Jennifer Layden, the chief medical officer and state epidemiologist in Illinois, said. CDC director Robert Redfield said: "We are saddened to hear of the first death related to the outbreak of severe lung disease in those who use e-cigarette or 'vaping' devices." He added: "This tragic death in Illinois reinforces the serious risks associated with e-cigarette products." The cause of the mystery illness has not been identified, but all involve vaping in some form. "In many cases, patients have acknowledged recent use of THC-containing product," the CDC's head of non-infectious diseases, Dr Ileana Arias, said. Those affected had symptoms including coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue as well as some cases of vomiting and diarrhoea. There is no evidence of an infectious disease - such as a virus or bacteria - being responsible. But there is much that remains a mystery. "It isn't clear if these cases have a common cause or if they are different diseases with similar presentations," Dr Arias said. There have been 22 cases in the state of Illinois, with patients ranging from 17 to 38 years old. The 22 states affected are largely in the centre and north-east of the country, from Minnesota to North Carolina, though cases have also been reported in California, Texas, and New Mexico.
8-23-19 Air pollution as bad as smoking
Long-term exposure to elevated levels of air pollution can cause the same damage to lungs as a heavy smoking habit. That’s the conclusion of a new study that looked at the effects of breathing in a range of pollutants, including ground-level ozone—the main component of smog—which forms when pollutants from tailpipes and smokestacks react with sunlight. The researchers examined some 7,000 adults across six U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. By giving the participants regular CT scans and measuring the levels of pollutants in their neighborhoods, the scientists were able to draw a link between higher concentrations of ground-level ozone and faster progress in emphysema, a lung disease that causes shortness of breath and is typically associated with smokers. “An increase of about 3 parts per billion [of ground-level ozone] outside your home was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years,” study co-author Joel Kaufman, from the University of Washington, told NPR.org. Study participants were typically exposed to average annual concentrations of 10 to 25 parts per billion. Smog spikes on hot days, so the problem will get worse, says co-author R. Graham Barr, from Columbia University. “As temperatures rise with climate change,” he explains, “ground-level ozone will continue to increase, unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant.”
8-23-19 Teenage girls and social media
The link between social media use and depression in teenage girls may be more complex than previously thought, reports Time.com. A new British study involving more than 10,000 youngsters ages 13 to 16 found a clear connection between increased social media use and symptoms of psychological distress in girls. (The link wasn’t as clear in boys.) But the researchers concluded that sites such as Facebook and Instagram didn’t directly cause mental health issues. Instead, nearly 60 percent of the impact on psychological distress in girls was attributable to social media disrupting their sleep and exposing them to cyberbullying. “The key messages to young people are: Get enough sleep; don’t lose contact with your friends in real life; and physical activity is important for mental health and well-being,” said co-author Dasha Nicholls, from Imperial College London. The researchers recommend that parents keep phones out of kids’ bedrooms at night and ask their children whether they’re being bullied online.
8-23-19 Wild polio has been eradicated in Nigeria but infections will continue
Nigeria has officially wiped out wild polio. It is three years since it had a case caused by the natural polio virus, a heartening milestone for a country that nearly derailed the global drive to eradicate the disease after some regions banned vaccination in 2003. But Faisal Shuaib, head of the country’s public health agency, called only for “cautious euphoria”. Nigeria has not wiped out polio. As first revealed by New Scientist in 2000, the live, weakened virus used in the oral polio vaccine responsible for this week’s victory is circulating and mutating back to its paralysing form. It has caused 15 cases in Nigeria so far this year. There are ways to stop this from happening, but they haven’t been rolled out fast enough, says Michel Zaffran, head of polio at the World Health Organization. Meanwhile there have been three times more cases of wild polio virus this year in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are now the only countries where it still circulates, than at this time last year, due to a lull in vaccination after a change of government in Pakistan, and a ban on it by the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan is now back on track, says Zaffran. But “we are in a very critical and dangerous situation,” he adds. Polio could roar back worse than ever if these resurgences are not contained. The drive to eradicate polio was based on a cheap, effective oral vaccine containing three strains of live, weakened polio virus. The Type 2 strain replicated faster than the others, provoking the most immunity, and as a result, wild Type 2 polio has been eradicated since 1999. But the Type 2 vaccine virus also tended to survive and circulate, sometimes reverting to the disease-causing form. So in 2016, the whole world shifted to a live vaccine containing only Types 1 and 3. Immunity to those improved, and cases fell.
8-23-19 Breakthrough in the battle against Ebola
Ebola could soon be classified as a curable disease, now that two experimental treatments have been shown to massively cut the death rate for patients with the hemorrhagic virus. Scientists have been testing four different drugs in Congo, where a yearlong Ebola epidemic has killed at least 1,800 people. The death rate for Ebola, which causes catastrophic internal bleeding, has been about 70 percent in the current outbreak. But the mortality rate went down to 29 percent for patients who received a drug from U.S. firm Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and to 34 percent for those who took a drug from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, which is also American. Among patients who began treatment soon after developing symptoms, when the disease is easier to treat, rates fell to 6 percent and 11 percent, respectively. The drugs use monoclonal antibodies: Y-shaped proteins that recognize the shape of the Ebola virus and call on immune cells to attack it. This breakthrough could transform the fight against Ebola. Many infected people in Congo have been reluctant to seek medical care, because they have seen family members go into treatment centers and come out dead. “Now that 90 percent of patients can go into the treatment center and come out completely cured, they will start developing trust,” Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, from Congo’s federal medical research institute, tells CNN.com. “These advances will help save thousands of lives.”
8-22-19 Vaping may have sent 153 people to hospitals with severe lung injuries
The CDC says it is looking into the cases, most of which involve adolescents and young adults. Just days after announcing an investigation into links between vaping and severe lung disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there are now 153 suspected cases across the country — most involving adolescents and young adults. The recent rise of vaping among adolescents has sparked alarm among health professionals, who have raised concerns about health and addiction risks and called out e-cigarette companies for promoting the products to youth. On August 21, the CDC confirmed that it was helping state health officials look into the cases, reported since June 28 across 16 U.S. states. The cases have not yet been tied to a specific type of product or vaping liquid. Studies have shown numerous health harms from vaping. But because vaping technology was introduced only about a decade ago in the United States, the long-term health effects are still unclear. Here is some of what we about how vaping impacts the lungs and how e-cigarettes have become more popular among U.S. teens. All of the 153 patients under investigation had used e-cigarettes before experiencing symptoms including shortness of breath and chest pain. Their lung illnesses became so severe that the patients eventually had to be hospitalized. This development is not entirely surprising, given evidence from studies showing that e-cig use can lead to chronic respiratory symptoms and more severe asthma in teenagers (SN Online: 8/2/19). When an e-cigarette heats chemicals including nicotine, flavor compounds and solvents (SN: 8/20/16, p. 12), it creates a toxic stew that can impair lung function, researchers say. Flavor compounds, though approved for consumption, have not been tested for safety when inhaled.
8-22-19 High blood pressure throughout middle age may increase the risk of dementia
Screening for hypertension earlier in life may be especially beneficial. Controlling high blood pressure during middle age may help stave off dementia later in life. In a long-term study, researchers monitored the blood pressure of thousands of participants five times over nearly three decades and then performed neurological tests. Having hypertension throughout one’s mid-40s to mid-60s was associated with an increased risk of dementia later in life, compared with those with normal blood pressure, researchers report August 13 in JAMA. Among study participants who had hypertension throughout midlife, there were 3.28 cases of dementia per 100 people per year, says Keenan Walker, a neuropsychologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Among those with normal blood pressure during middle age, there were 1.84 cases per 100 people per year. “Hypertension is extremely common in the population and dementia is also growing in prevalence as the population ages,” says vascular neurologist Shyam Prabhakaran of the University of Chicago, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study. The study results suggest “another major reason for aggressive public health campaigns to screen [for] and treat hypertension earlier in life,” he says. The study also indicated that either high or low blood pressure in late life increased the risk of dementia if a person first had hypertension during middle age. “How late-life blood pressure influences the brain seems to be dependent on midlife blood pressure,” Walker says. Among people with normal blood pressure from midlife on, 1.31 per 100 people developed dementia each year, the team found. The number of new dementia cases was higher for those with hypertension from midlife on, with 2.83 per 100 people per year.
8-22-19 Gene editing turns cells into minicomputers that can record data
Gene editing can turn living cells into minicomputers that can read, write and perform complex calculations. The technology could track what happens inside the body over time. DNA computers have been around since the 1990s, when researchers created DNA molecules able to perform basic mathematical functions. Instead of storing information as 0s and 1s like digital computers do, these computers store information in the molecules A, C, G and T that make up DNA.One problem is this information doesn’t change during the cells’ lifespan, making DNA computers very slow. Now Fahim Farzadfard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, and his colleagues have created a technique that speeds up the process. They call the system DOMINO, for DNA-based Ordered Memory and Iteration Network Operator. It is designed to respond to different biological cues, such as small molecules or light, and builds on CRISPR gene-editing techniques. Current technologies used to edit the genes of living cells or organisms are limited to just ‘read’ or ‘write’ operations, which means their capacity to store data stops after one or two molecular events. In contrast, this tool can be programmed to edit DNA after complicated chains of events occur – encoding more information quickly. One application for the system could then be used to monitor sugars, for example, by programming it to respond to lactose and inserting it in a bacteria. When the bacteria encounters those sugars, DOMINO would make the changes to the bacteria’s DNA. The history of events are stamped onto the DNA in the form of unique mutational signatures that do not fade over time even after the cues fade away, says Farzadfard.
8-22-19 Bacteria fly into the Atacama Desert every afternoon on the wind
Every afternoon, microorganisms fly into the Atacama Desert on grains of dust carried by the wind. The wind-driven dust could be how microbes first colonised the desert. If there are microbes alive on Mars, they could be carried around the planet by the regular world-spanning dust storms, just like the Atacama microbes, says Armando Azua-Bustos of the Centre of Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain. The Atacama Desert in South America is one of the driest places on Earth, with soils so dry they resemble those on Mars. Despite the extreme conditions, some microorganisms survive even in the very driest regions. “We always wondered how those species got there in the first place,” says Azua-Bustos. He and his colleagues suspected the microbes were carried on dust particles by afternoon winds that blow in from the Pacific Ocean to the west. To find out, they set out Petri dishes filled with nutrients in long lines stretching from the coast to the desert interior. Any microbes flying in would land in them and grow. The team also set out empty dishes for collecting DNA from microbes that did not grow. “I didn’t expect much,” says Azua-Bustos. But they found 28 species of microorganism growing on the plates, and extracted DNA from several more. The microbes came from near the coast. Azua-Bustos says such microbes may have been the first to colonise the Atacama. He highlights Oceanobacillus oncorhynchi, which lives in tidal pools. Because the pools dry out in the heat of the day, it can survive being dried out for hours – giving it a chance of surviving the Atacama. Mars is prone to dust storms, so if there is any microbial life there it could be dispersed on the dust grains, Azua-Bustos says. Even if there is no life there now, there may have been when the planet was younger and wetter.
8-21-19 Can we halt multiple sclerosis? Catherine Lubetzki is finding out how
People affected by multiple sclerosis hold the key to understanding the condition, says Catherine Lubetzki, and she hopes her work could one day stop MS in its tracks. I’m very excited about a trial that my team is developing on optic neuritis – inflammation of the optic nerve. We will test how the stimulation of electrical activity in the nerve can repair myelin. It could lead to extremely important discoveries about ways of remyelinating nerves and possibly halting the progression of MS. If you could have a long conversation with any scientist, living or dead, who would it be? Jean-Baptiste Charcot – the son of Jean-Martin Charcot, who made the first diagnosis of MS in 1868. Jean-Baptiste studied neurology, but after his father’s death he travelled the world in a boat called Pourquoi-Pas? (“why not?”) and explored the Antarctic. I would love to hear his adventures. Twenty years ago, I was part of a global meeting where, for three days, we focused on myelination in MS. At the end, a number of MS experts concluded that there was no future for myelin repair in MS. I was unbelievably disappointed. But today, there are several trials looking into exactly this, and research is very much dedicated to finding answers to the repair process in MS. So many of the secrets to understanding MS lie in the patients themselves. The way that people with MS and other conditions know their disease is fundamental to us in our research. I find the courage, energy and determination of many of my patients to be mind-blowing – lessons in life for us all.
8-21-19 Why are people still dying of malaria when we have a treatment?
Ugandan inventor Brian Gitta created a way to test for malaria without a blood sample. He hopes it will help people get vital treatment faster, and enable us to track and ultimately beat the disease. A 9-YEAR-OLD child is locked between his mother’s legs, refusing to have the blood test that could save his life. That is a regular sight at Brian Gitta’s nearest clinic in Kampala, Uganda, where people wait for hours in long queues to learn if they have malaria, one of the leading causes of death in the country. Worldwide, 219 million people get malaria each year and 435,000 people die of the disease. More than 90 per cent of those deaths are in Africa, according to the World Health Organization. We can treat malaria, but accurate diagnosis is essential: the drugs targeting the mosquito-borne parasite that causes the disease can harm people who don’t have it. Diagnostic tests take time and, worse still, they are invasive. The most widely used method involves analysing a blood sample under a microscope, a process that can take up to an hour. Rapid diagnostic tests are becoming more widespread, but they still require people to give a blood sample. Gitta thought there must be an easier way and when he started studying at Makerere University in Uganda 2012, he set out to find it. Now he and his team are running a clinical trial for a portable, non-invasive device that uses light to identify malaria in the bloodstream in just 2 minutes. He hopes it won’t only save precious time for people with the disease, but also help us to track malaria around the world. Why did you take on such a huge problem? Growing up in Uganda, I went to a traditional primary school and got involved in a computer club. I was 9 years old and I was meant to be learning Microsoft Word, but also ended up playing games. I liked it so much, I kept wanting to come back and complete the next level. I eventually became head of the computing club at high school and then went on to study computer science at university. I was in my first year when I thought, “how can I use all of these software developments and skills that I’ve learned to solve the problem of malaria?”
8-21-19 How to defeat the disease that killed half the people who ever lived
Malaria is humanity's greatest scourge. But genetic technologies that threaten to send mosquitoes extinct are problematic, and no substitute for practical action now. IN ROME 1500 years ago, a mysterious plague swept through the city. Of the hundreds of children killed, one was buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. In 2001, her body was exhumed and autopsied using modern genetic techniques. The tests showed she had died of malaria – the earliest confirmed case of a disease that has been with us since time immemorial. Malaria may have killed perhaps half of all the people who have ever lived. For most readers of this magazine, however, it is a distant scourge, perhaps recalled only when ordering medication for an exotic holiday. Such forgetfulness is neither justified nor wise. In 2018, malaria infected 219 million people, and killed around 435,000. Most of those who die are children under 5, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. But almost half of the world’s population is at risk. Climate change is likely to increase that number, as conditions change to allow malarial mosquitoes to thrive in new areas. Over the years we have made many attempts to eradicate malaria, targeting either mosquitoes or Plasmodium, the parasitic microorganisms the insects carry that are ultimately responsible for the disease. Each time, either parasite or insect – or both – have clung on, evolved resistance and bounced back. One of the most promising methods to defeat malaria looks to be one of the newest. Lab tests of gene-drive technology, which manipulates the DNA of mosquitoes to make them infertile, has seen populations driven to extinction. The technique also seems immune to the evolution of resistance. But the deployment of such a powerful weapon in the wild brings with it worries of unintended consequences and the potential for misuse that shouldn’t be ignored. Less problematic are practical interventions that quickly get existing medication to the people who need it. If we are able to rapidly target areas where malaria is rife, we will have a greater chance of wiping it out. Let’s give it all we’ve got.
8-21-19 Sitting for nine and a half hours a day linked to early death
Sitting less and moving more often is associated with a lower risk of early death in middle aged and older people, according to a review of data from over 36,000 people. Ulf Ekelund at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo and his colleagues analysed eight studies involving 36,383 adults in the US and western Europe aged 40 years or older. These studies all used accelerometers, wearable devices that track activity during waking hours. The participants were tracked for an average of 5.8 years, and 2149 participants died throughout the course of these studies. The researchers found that any level of physical activity, regardless of intensity, was associated with a substantially lower risk of death. In contrast, spending nine and a half hours or more each day sedentary was associated with a statistically significant increased risk of death.
8-21-19 Mind meld: Artificial intelligence is improving the way humans think
When AIs and humans work together they discover superior solutions to the world’s problems that would elude either working alone. Together, they will change the very process of thinking. LIKE other human champions facing a machine opponent, Grzegorz “MaNa” Komincz rated his chances. “A realistic goal would be 4-1 in,” he my favour told an interviewer before the match. One of the world’s best players of video game StarCraft II, Komincz was at the height of a successful esports career. Artificial intelligence company DeepMind invited him to face its latest AI, a StarCraft II-playing bot called AlphaStar, on 19 December 2018. Komincz was expected to be a tough opponent. He wasn’t. After being thrashed 5-0, he was less cocky. “I wasn’t expecting the AI to be that good,” he said. “I felt like I was learning something.” It was just the latest in a series of unexpected victories for machines that stretch back to chess champion Garry Kasparov’s 1997 defeat by IBM’s Deep Blue. In 2017, another of DeepMind’s AIs, AlphaGo Master, beat the world number one Go player a decade before most researchers predicted it would be possible. The company’s AIs then mastered chess and StarCraft – a game played with dozens of different pieces with hundreds of moves a minute. But this isn’t just a case of humans being humbled by superhuman AI. The real story is that each win gives us a glimpse of how AIs will make us superhuman too. That’s because thinking is set to become a double act. Working together, humans and AIs will bounce ideas back and forth, each guiding the other to better solutions than would be possible alone. The potential goes far beyond games. The hope is that this teamwork will help us make vital breakthroughs in energy use, healthcare and more.
8-21-19 What human and mouse brains do and don’t have in common
A sweeping comparison of cells from both species highlights key differences. The brains of mice and people are mostly similar, except when they’re not. That finding, from a detailed comparison of thousands of individual brain cells from both species, reveals new ways in which human brains are distinct from those of mice (SN: 8/17/19, p. 22). The results, published August 21 in Nature, emphasize that the brains of laboratory mice are not always good proxies for human brains. Human brains and mice brains do have roughly the same number of cell types in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain that handles many sophisticated jobs like planning, decision making and even consciousness, neuroscientist Rebecca Hodge at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle and colleagues found. That number — 75 — comes from comparing the behavior of genes in single mouse cells with the behavior of genes in single nuclei from human cells. But amid that overall similarity lie big differences, some of which may be behind people’s high-powered mental skills and susceptibility to human diseases, the researchers suspect. Some of the most striking differences were in the behavior of genes that hold instructions for how cells sense the chemical messenger serotonin. The type of cell that senses serotonin in mice is different from the type of cell that senses serotonin in people, the results imply. That distinction may mean laboratory mice aren’t good models for disorders that may involve serotonin, such as depression. And microglia, the brain’s resident immune cells, differed in their gene behavior between humans and mice. Microglia are under scrutiny for their role in human diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.
8-21-19 China’s two-child policy linked to 5 million extra babies in 18 months
A Chinese government policy allowing all couples to have two children led to an additional 5.4 million births in the first 18 months after it took effect. China’s universal two-child policy, announced in October 2015, was designed to boost the country’s stagnating population growth. It targeted 90 million women of reproductive age who already had at least one child – 60 per cent of these women were older than 35. Susan Hellerstein at Harvard University and her colleagues looked at data from two national databases between January 2014 and December 2017, totalling 67.8 million births. The databases covered 28 of China’s 31 mainland provinces. They measured birth rates from July 2016 to December 2017, the first 18 months after the policy came into effect. The team compared these to baseline birth rates up to the end of June 2016, nine months after the October 2015 announcement. In the 18-month period, there were 5.4 million additional births to women who already had one or more children. For the first time since the one-child policy, the number of births to women who had previously given birth exceeded that of first-time mothers, accounting for 55.5 per cent of deliveries.The researchers also reported a 59 per cent increase in births to mothers aged 35 or older. “Preterm delivery rates are generally higher with older women,” says Hellerstein, but the team found no increase in premature births. Despite the national increase in births, the total births probably fell short of the annual government target of 20 million. “Did the policy relaxation alone result in the number of births that would help reverse demographic trends? It doesn’t look like it from this initial data,” says Hellerstein. China’s one-child policy was introduced in 1979, with fines imposed for additional children. The policy led to a reduction in birth rates, but exceptions were made for farmers in rural locations as well as for ethnic minorities.
8-21-19 A tiny skull fossil suggests primate brain areas evolved separately
Digital reconstruction hints that the organ’s development over time was complicated. A 20-million-year-old monkey skull that fits in the palm of an adult’s hand may contain remnants of piecemeal brain evolution in ancient primates. Neural landmarks preserved on the skull fit a scenario in which specific primate brain regions expanded or, at times, contracted while other regions remained unchanged, a new study finds. In an early clue to that evolutionary process, researchers say, a small part of the monkey’s brain devoted to odor perception was not counterbalanced by an enlarged visual system, as is typical of primates today. Primate visual systems expanded in size and complexity over millions of years without requiring substantial changes elsewhere in the brain, contend paleontologist Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues. And comparisons of the skull with fossils of African primates from 30 million years ago or more indicate that major brain structures evolved at different rates in different primate lineages, as did increases in brain size relative to body size, the team reports August 21 in Science Advances. The study adds evidence to the idea that the brains of primates, a group that includes humans, evolved in a piecemeal way, instead of progressively getting bigger overall as time passed. The skull, from an extinct monkey called Chilecebus carrascoensis, was reported discovered in Chile’s Andes Mountains in 1995 by a team led by paleontologist John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the new study, Flynn and colleagues used high-resolution scanning and a digital, 3-D cast of the inner surface of the skull’s tiny braincase to reveal impressions made by a set of neural folds.
8-21-19 Survey says scientists mistrust a large amount of published research
A survey that asked researchers to rate the trustworthiness of the studies and other “research outputs” they had come across in the past week has found that 37 per cent considered half or fewer of these to be trustworthy. Out of those surveyed, 25 per cent said exaggerated findings, a lack of detail, and poor conclusions make research outputs untrustworthy. “There’s always someone trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Within your own field this can be easier to detect, but it’s less easy to determine when scouting subjects that you are less familiar with,” a materials scientist in the UK told the survey. Other factors cited as diminishing the trustworthiness of research included a lack of rigorous peer review, methodological issues such as study design flaws and a lack of reproducibility or generalisability, and bias stemming from the peer review process, sources of funding, and the pressure to publish. The survey was conducted by Elsevier, a large publishing company that runs many scientific journals, in collaboration with the UK campaign group Sense About Science. It polled 3,133 researchers from around the world in May, and found that, on average, scientists spend just over four hours hunting for research articles a week, and more than five hours reading them. The average researcher reads five or six articles a week and considers half of them to be useful.When asked about public confidence in research evidence, 49 per cent of respondents said the misinterpretation of research outcomes in media, policy or public discussion was a large problem. 41 per cent said an increasing availability of low-quality research was a big issue, while 33 per cent said deliberate misrepresentation of research findings by researchers or their institutions was a major problem.
8-21-19 Volcano behind huge eruption that kick-started mini ice age identified
In the middle of the 6th century, a mini ice age that lasted 125 years and an outbreak of plague plunged the world into chaos. One of the key events that helped to kick it all off was the massive eruption of a volcano somewhere in the southern hemisphere. Now we may know when and where it happened. Huge volcanic eruptions fling so much ash and debris into the atmosphere that sunlight is partially blocked out, which can cool Earth and encourage more ice to form at the poles. That reflects more sunlight, further cooling the planet. It’s long been thought that the coincidental eruption of multiple volcanoes between AD 536 and 547 kick-started what’s known as the Late Antique Mini Ice Age. Antarctic ice core data suggest two very big eruptions at the time: one around AD 536 and one around AD 540. Robert Dull at California Lutheran University and colleagues have now used tree trunks to show that the latter eruption appears to have occurred at the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador. The team found the remains of three trees that “witnessed” the eruption. Two of them were killed by the event. Radiocarbon dating on multiple tree rings inside the trunks revealed their age – the trees died between AD 503 and AD 545. Evidence from ash deposits in nearby soil also helped to confirm that a gigantic eruption happened around this time, most likely in late AD 539 or AD 540. Researchers still haven’t identified which volcano was behind the 536 eruption, but it too is thought to have been in the northern hemisphere. The cooling effects of the Ilopango eruption could easily have lasted a decade and perhaps longer, says Dull.
8-20-19 High blood pressure in your 40s linked to smaller brain size at 70
People who have high blood pressure in their 40s seem to have smaller brains by the time they get to age 70. The findings provide more evidence that looking after your health can help prevent dementia, says Jonathan Schott at University College London, who led the study. Around 30 per cent of dementia cases are thought to be preventable, says Schott. To find out how important blood pressure might be, his team turned to a group of individuals who have been part of a research project since they were born in 1946. The volunteers had their blood pressure measured in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. In their latest study, Schott’s team took brain scans and assessed the cognition of 502 members of the group, who were by that time aged between 69 and 71. The team found that people who had a higher diastolic blood pressure aged 43 were more likely to have smaller brains by the time they were around 70. A brain region vital for memory, called the hippocampus, seemed especially affected – individuals with a greater increase in systolic blood pressure between the ages of 36 and 43 had smaller hippocampi. “It looks like one’s blood pressure is influencing one’s brain health 40 years later,” says Schott. Because the results only show a correlation, the team can’t say for sure that high blood pressure was responsible for brain shrinkage. But we do know that high blood pressure is bad for the brain, and can lead to blood vessel damage. Without a healthy blood supply, brain tissue can die. High blood pressure has been linked to dementia before. One study has found that people taking medication to lower their blood pressure are less likely to develop dementia. And vascular dementia, which is caused by a reduced blood flow to the brain, is the second most common cause of dementia.
8-20-19 Is air pollution causing mental health conditions like depression?
A study published today adds to evidence that air pollution may be linked to mental health conditions. But it’s not clear yet how – and if – pollution may be affecting our brains. What has this new study discovered? Analysing data from 151 million people in the US and 1.4 million people in Denmark, researchers have found that there is a strong correlation between poor air quality and higher rates of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders and major depression. This suggests there is a link, but not necessarily that pollution is causing these conditions. How strong is the link between pollution and these conditions? When the team looked at health insurance claims in the US, they found that the strongest predictor of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder – after ethnicity – was air quality. Previous studies have unearthed a correlation in the UK between polluted areas and teenagers reporting psychotic experiences and local air pollution and psychiatric disorders in Swedish children. How good is the evidence for these? “We don’t really know very much overall. We’ve only got a handful of studies and most have methodological problems,” says Helen Fisher of King’s College London, who worked on the UK teenager study. One problem is a lack of data on what an individual’s true exposure to air pollution has been, with some research looking at city-wide air quality measurements rather than specific addresses. That’s a big weakness given we know air pollution exposure can vary significantly from one street to an adjacent one. In the new study, exposure in the US was mapped at a county level, some of which are thousands of square miles in area.
8-20-19 An inside look at the NHS's plans to revolutionise healthcare with AI
The UK is “on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience”, said health minister Matt Hancock when he announced £250 million to fund a new AI Lab for the National Health Service earlier this month. The lab has been set up to bring together academics and technology companies to work on some of the biggest challenges in health and care. But the AI sector has a reputation for overpromising on what it can deliver – as do politicians. I met with Indra Joshi, head of digital health and AI at the newly established NHSX – an organisation tasked with digitally transforming the NHS and running the AI Lab – to ask her how it is going to achieve these aims. A former medic, Joshi says she still knows what it is like at medicine’s coalface. She recounts a time her ward ran out of pillowcases, so staff had to wrap up pillows in sheets instead. “As much as in my day job we feel that we are going to solve the world, we can’t lose sight that these are some of the issues that staff face,” she says. How is AI going to make a difference? Joshi tells me about efforts to develop software to look at scans, such as mammograms for breast cancer screening, and measure the size of any lump and flag it for a radiologist’s attention if necessary. “The more mundane tasks are taken away, leaving time to do more complicated ones,” she says. Also in the works is a computer-based check-in system for emergency departments. At the moment, people initially speak to a receptionist and then a triage nurse, before seeing a doctor. Instead of those first two steps, it is hoped people could record their symptoms through a touchscreen device that could also take some of their vital signs such as heart rate. One advantage would be that every person’s data is digitised, so patterns can be spotted more quickly. “That allows a hospital to understand what’s happening on the ground,” says Joshi.
8-20-19 Imaging scans show where symbols turn to letters in the brain
A functional MRI study maps the path symbols take as they gain meaning and sound. In learning to read, squiggles and lines transform into letters or characters that carry meaning and conjure sounds. A trio of cognitive neuroscientists has now mapped where that journey plays out inside the brain. As readers associate symbols with pronunciation and part of a word, a pecking order of brain areas processes the information, the researchers report August 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding unveils some of the mystery behind how the brain learns to tie visual cues with language (SN Online: 4/27/16). “We didn’t evolve to read,” says Jo Taylor, who is now at University College London but worked on the study while at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “So we don’t [start with] a bit of the brain that does reading.” Taylor — along with Kathy Rastle at Royal Holloway University of London in Egham and Matthew Davis at the University of Cambridge — zoomed in on a region at the back and bottom of the brain, called the ventral occipitotemporal cortex, that is associated with reading. Over two weeks, the scientists taught made-up words written in two unfamiliar, archaic scripts to 24 native English–speaking adults. The words were assigned the meanings of common nouns, such as lemon or truck. Then the researchers used functional MRI scans to track which tiny chunks of brain in that region became active when participants were shown the words learned in training. The way letters look — curves or staunch lines — takes hold in the back of the ventral occipitotemporal cortex, the team found. But when sounds and meanings come into play, an area further forward in that brain region that better handles abstract concepts seemed to kick into gear.
8-20-19 India’s Skeleton Lake contains the bones of mysterious European migrants
Not all of the hundreds of skeletons at the Himalayan site are from the same place or period. High in the Himalayas, the bones of several hundred mysterious people lie scattered around a small lake, earning it the nickname Skeleton Lake. Some of those people originated in the vicinity of Greece and Crete around 220 years ago, a new analysis of DNA and radiocarbon-dated bones finds. But why the genetically unrelated men and women traveled to Skeleton Lake, or how they died, is still a mystery, scientists report August 20 in Nature Communications. “We were extremely surprised to find Mediterranean ancestry at such a harsh geographical location,” says paleogeneticist Niraj Rai of Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India. Also known as Roopkund Lake, the pool sits more than 5,000 meters above sea level in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. A trip from Greece to the sky-scraping lake covers about 5,000 kilometers. Other people whose bones rest at the site came from South Asia around 1,000 years before the enigmatic Europeans arrived, the team found. DNA extracted from 38 Roopkund Lake skeletons pegs 23 as having South Asian genetic roots, as opposed to 14 with eastern Mediterranean ancestry. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the South Asians, and a lakeside individual with Southeast Asian ancestry, lived around 1,200 years ago. Present-day Hindu pilgrims travel past Roopkund Lake on their way to a northern Indian sanctuary where they worship the goddess Nanda Devi. Perhaps a catastrophe of some kind killed pilgrims there 1,200 years ago, the researchers speculate. But Mediterranean people in the Himalayas 200 years ago were likely neither Hindus nor pilgrims, they say.
8-19-19 Extinction Rebellion founder calls for mass psychedelic disobedience
A co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion environmental movement has called for a mass ingestion of psychedelic substances in protest against the criminalisation of drugs. “I would support a mass civil disobedience where we take medicine to tell the state that they have absolutely no right to control our consciousness and to define our spiritual practice,” Gail Bradbrook said in a press briefing as part of Breaking Convention, a conference on psychedelics in London on 16 August. Since launching in 2018, Extinction Rebellion has moved climate change up the political and media agenda through a campaign of mass civil disobedience. In April 2019, they blocked streets and bridges in London, demanding the UK government adopt a more ambitious target for reaching net zero carbon emissions. Bradbrook, a former biophysicist, said it was not Extinction Rebellion’s policy to promote the use of drugs, but they had played a role in her personal journey towards founding the movement. “The causes of the crisis are political, economic, legal and cultural systemic issues but underneath that are issues of human trauma, powerlessness, scarcity and separation. The system resides within us and the psychedelic medicines are opportunities to help us shift our consciousness,” she told the conference. Psychedelics such as psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms, and the plant brew ayahuasca are being investigated as therapies for depression, addiction and other mental health problems. Studies have also suggested that experiences with psychedelic drugs might change people’s political views and their attitudes towards nature. Participants in a small clinical trial of psilocybin for depression scored more highly on questionnaires measuring “nature relatedness” and lower for authoritarian views after treatment, with effects persisting for up to a year. Surveys of the general population have also found that psychedelic use correlates with these.
8-19-19 How online extremists are shaping the minds of white teens
A mother expressed her concern about extremist content poisoning the minds of boys as they use the internet, in a post that went viral. She thinks there are warning signs parents should heed. In an age where anyone can access just about anything on the internet, white boys in the US seem particularly at risk from dangerous radicalisation online. Many mass shooting suspects in the US have three things in common: They are young, white and male. The suspect behind the El Paso shooting that killed 22 people in Texas is believed to have posted a racist manifesto online. Police investigating a deadly attack in Dayton the following day said the gunman was influenced by a "violent ideology", although no motive has been disclosed. The dangers of the internet are not a novel talking point for parents and teachers, but these most recent tragedies have sparked renewed debate over what families can - and should - do when it comes to raising white boys in America. "The red flags started going up for us when, a year or so ago, [our kids] started asking questions that felt like they came directly from alt-right talking points," says Joanna Schroeder, a Los Angeles-based writer, media critic and mother of three. She tells the BBC one of her two sons began to argue "'jokey'-toned alt right positions", asking questions like why black people could "copy white culture but white people can't copy black culture". She began learning about how other boys their age were sharing sexist and racist memes - likely spreading from online forums. Last week, Ms Schroeder's Twitter thread about parenting white boys in a world rife with easy access to extremist viewpoints by monitoring their social media and teaching empathy became a widespread talking point, amassing nearly 180,000 likes, 8,500 comments and shares across social platforms.
8-19-19 Electrodes show a glimpse of memories emerging in a brain
Certain nerve cells sync their firing just before a recollection resurfaces. Seconds before a memory pops up, certain nerve cells jolt into collective action. The discovery of this signal, described in the Aug. 16 Science, sheds light on the mysterious brain processes that store and recall information. Electrodes implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients picked up neural signals in the hippocampus, a key memory center, while the patients were shown images of familiar people and places, including former President Barack Obama and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As the participants took in this new information, electrodes detected a kind of brain activity called sharp-wave ripples, created by the coordinated activity of many nerve cells in the hippocampus. Later blindfolded, the patients were asked to remember the pictures. One to two seconds before the participants began describing each picture, researchers noticed an uptick in sharp-wave ripples, echoing the ripples detected when the subjects had first seen the images. That echo suggests that these ripples are important for learning new information and for recalling it later, Yitzhak Norman of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and colleagues write in the study. Earlier studies suggested that these ripples in the hippocampus were important for forming memories. But it wasn’t clear if the ripples also had a role in bringing memories to mind. In another recent study, scientists also linked synchronized ripples in two parts of the brain to better memories of word pairs (SN Online: 3/5/19).
8-19-19 The UK has lost its World Health Organization ‘measles-free’ status
Three years after the measles virus was eliminated from the UK, the country has lost its “measles-free” status with the World Health Organization, following 231 confirmed cases of the infection in the first quarter of 2019. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for health leaders to renew their efforts to ensure 95 per cent of the population have had two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Current data suggests only 87.2 per cent of children receive the second dose of the vaccine, down from a high of 88.6 per cent during the 2014 to 2015 period. “Measles is one of the most infectious diseases known to man – only one person travelling back to an area with lower vaccination rates can lead to an outbreak,” says Mary Ramsay, of the government agency Public Health England. “Anyone who has not received two doses of MMR vaccine is always at risk.” To improve vaccination rates, NHS England will write to all GPs urging them to promote “catch-up” vaccination programmes. The body will also look at strengthening the role of local immunisation co-ordinators, in a bid to improve uptake of the vaccine. There are also plans to update advice on the NHS website to specifically address misleading information about vaccines. Social media companies are expected to be called to a summit to discuss how they can promote accurate information about vaccination. Later this year, the NHS is expected to be asked to find technological solutions to identify who may have missed a vaccination, and to make booking appointments easier, as part of a new strategy developed by the Department for Health and Social Care. “From reassuring parents about the safety of vaccines, to making sure people are attending follow-up appointments, we can and must do more to halt the spread of infectious, treatable diseases in modern-day Britain,” said Johnson.
8-18-19 Murray Gell-Mann’s ‘totalitarian principle’ is the modern version of Plato’s plenitude
Idea that whatever can exist does exist can guide scientific pursuits. Science, like baseball, has a lot of unwritten rules. Every baseball player knows that you don’t flip your bat after hitting a home run, you never steal a base when you have a big lead, and you cover your mouth with your glove when having a conference on the mound. None of those regulations are codified in the official rules — it’s just how pros play the game. In science, the official rulebook consists of the laws of nature — equations or otherwise precisely stated descriptions of nature’s behavior that enable scientists to make accurate predictions about how things happen in the world. Science’s unwritten rules aren’t so strict. They are merely guidelines, suggestions for how best to play the game but without the totalitarian force of true natural law. One such less-than-totalitarian principle is known as the … totalitarian principle. It is commonly expressed as “whatever is not forbidden is compulsory.” In other words, whatever the laws of nature allow must, in fact, exist or happen. That sounds a little bit like the opposite of totalitarianism, which would seem to require doing only what is compulsory, with everything else forbidden. And that’s just one of the confusions posed by the totalitarian principle discussed in a new paper by the historian Helge Kragh. Kragh notes that the origin of the totalitarian principle in physics is usually attributed to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate who died in May at the age of 89. But many sources, Kragh notes, claim that Gell-Mann borrowed the phrasing from T.H. White, author of the King Arthur story The Sword in the Stone.
8-18-19 Danger on the football field: Many states are still failing high school athletes
My son's high school football team ended its season with a 2-8 record, finishing second-to-last in its Southern California league. I'm sure he would have liked his football career to end differently. But I was simply glad to see it come to a close. As any parent of an athlete knows, playing sports carries certain risks. In the case of football, some of those risks have gotten prominent coverage over the last few years, and rightly so. Tackle football dominates at the high school level, with more than 1 million boys playing the sport and more than 14,000 schools around the country fielding teams. Yet despite many high-profile cases of injury, too many schools still lack critical safety policies to help keep high school athletes from being seriously injured. Even though football may be "as safe as it ever has been," that doesn't mean it's actually safe. My son had never played tackle prior to high school. As he worked his way up from the bottom of the depth charts his freshman year to become a starting outside linebacker as a senior, I noted with growing unease the continued reports on the long-term risks of tackle football — not just from concussions, but from subconcussive hits as well. The more I learned, the more I worried. The lowest point came last fall, when one of my son's teammates nearly died on the sidelines after his heart stopped. At the time, California didn't require on-site automated external defibrillators (AEDs) at schools; instead, the entire stadium watched an EMT do chest compressions before the ambulance sped away, sirens blaring. The boy was lucky: He made a complete recovery and even returned to the field later that season. But situations like his often have far-worse outcomes. One recent study found that more than 50 high school athletes died from sudden cardiac arrest during the two-year period studied, with football and basketball being the two most deadly sports. In fact, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of all sport-related deaths. But right now, the majority of states still don't require schools to have on-site AEDs at athletic events, even though they literally can mean the difference between life and death. (Webmaster's comment: American football is a stupid, violent sport with many participants being permanently brain damaged!)
8-18-19 Having kids makes you happier, but only when they move out
When it comes to who is happier, people with kids or those without, most research points to the latter. But a new study suggests that parents are happier than non-parents later in life, when their children move out and become sources of social enjoyment rather than stress. Most surveys of parental happiness have focused on those whose children still live at home. These tend to show that people with kids are less happy than their child-free peers because they have less free time, sleep and money. Christoph Becker at Heidelberg University in Germany and his colleagues wondered if the story might be different for parents whose kids have left home. To find out, they analysed data from a European survey that asked 55,000 people aged 50 and older about their emotional well-being. They found that, in this older age group, people with children had greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression than people without children, but only if their kids had left home. This may be because when children grow up and move out, they provide social enrichment to their parents minus the day-to-day stress of looking after them, says Becker. They may also give something back by providing care and financial support to their parents, he says. “Hence, children’s role as caregivers, financial support or simply as social contact might outweigh negative aspects of parenthood,” he says. The picture is similar in the US, says Nicholas Wolfinger at the University of Utah. He recently analysed 40 years of data from the US General Social Survey and found that empty-nest parents aged 50 to 70 were 5 to 6 per cent more likely to report being very happy than those with kids still at home. If parents balk at the idea of waiting for their kids to move out to maximise their potential happiness, they could move to a country with better childcare support, says Wolfinger. A 2016 study of 22 countries found that parents with children at home were actually slightly happier than their child-free peers if they lived in places like Norway, Portugal and Sweden that have paid parental leave, generous childcare subsidies and holiday and sick leave.
8-17-19 Genetic studies suggest alcohol isn’t linked to breast cancer afterall
Could the health risks from booze be overblown? A new study has found that low levels of alcohol do not cause cancer, and even heavy drinking doesn’t cause breast cancer – contrary to official UK warnings. The question of how much alcohol it is safe to drink has long been debated. Heavy drinkers are definitely more prone to mouth and throat cancers, and cirrhosis, where the liver starts failing, but it was long thought that light drinking was safe or possibly even good for you. A growing number of studies, though, have suggested that even low levels of alcohol are linked with a higher risk of cancer, including that of the breast, oesophagus and colon. In 2016, the UK tightened up its alcohol guidelines, cutting the maximum that men should drink from 21 units a week to 14, with the limit for women staying at 14 – equivalent to six pints of beer or just under one and a half bottles of wine. At the time, the UK’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, warned there was “no safe level of drinking” and said whenever women had a glass of wine they should weigh up whether it was worth the raised risk of breast cancer. But the studies that showed these risks from light drinking have a weakness in that they simply look at correlations between drinking levels and cancer rates, and so cannot tell us if alcohol is the cause. Something else could be responsible, as people who drink more also tend to smoke more, have lower incomes, and have unhealthy lifestyles in various other ways. In the latest work, which has not yet been published, Fotios Drenos and colleagues of Brunel University London in the UK got around this problem by analysing genes, which are determined at conception and can’t be affected by lifestyle influences, like whether someone smokes.
8-16-19 Socializing to stave off dementia
If you want to reduce your risk of developing dementia in later life, stay socially active during your 50s and 60s. That’s the conclusion of a new study by researchers at University College London, who examined data from more than 10,000 people tracked from 1985 to 2013. The participants underwent regular cognitive testing and answered questionnaires about their social activity. Researchers found that people who at age 60 saw friends almost daily were 12 percent less likely to develop dementia later on in life than those who saw friends only every few months. Seeing relatives regularly did not appear to have the same beneficial effect. Using the brain for memory and language during social interactions could help build new connections between brain cells, creating so-called cognitive reserve. “While it may not stop their brains from changing, cognitive reserve could help people cope better with the effects of age and delay any symptoms of dementia,” senior author Gill Livingston tells ScienceDaily.com.
8-16-19 Postponing menopause
British scientists say they have developed a surgical procedure that can delay menopause for up to 20 years, a potentially life-changing breakthrough for millions of women. Menopause can trigger symptoms including anxiety, hot flashes, a reduced sex drive, and in extreme cases, heart disease and bone-weakening osteoporosis. The procedure—offered only to women under 40—starts with a 30-minute operation in which tissue is removed from the patient’s ovaries. The sample is then frozen at minus 238 degrees Fahrenheit. When the patient begins menopause, the tissue is thawed and grafted back into the body—triggering the release of hormones that put menopause on hold. Ten women in the U.K. have undergone the initial procedure; one had the regraft immediately because she was having a hysterectomy and wanted to avoid premature menopause. “Being able to delay menopause has been life-changing,” Dixie-Louise Dexter, 33, tells The Times (U.K.). How long the procedure holds off menopause depends on a patient’s age when the tissue is extracted: Tissue from a 25-year-old could postpone menopause by 20 years, while a sample from a 40-year-old might delay its onset by five years. A similar procedure has been used to preserve fertility in girls and women who are receiving treatment for cancer.
8-16-19 Osteoarthritis and NSAIDs
People who take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve the pain of osteoarthritis may be increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease. Researchers have long known of the association between osteoarthritis and heart problems. To examine this link, scientists compared the health records of 7,743 osteoarthritis patients with 23,229 people who rarely or never took ibuprofen, naproxen, and other NSAIDs. Compared with the control group, the osteoarthritis patients had a 42 percent higher risk for congestive heart failure, a 17 percent elevated risk for coronary heart disease, and a 14 percent increased risk for stroke. Once they had controlled for other factors—including socioeconomic status and body mass index—the researchers calculated that 41 percent of the patients’ elevated risk for heart problems was due to NSAID use. That could be because NSAIDs can raise blood pressure by causing the body to retain more sodium and water. Lead author Aslam Anis, from the University of British Columbia, tells The New York Times that osteoarthritis patients should discuss NSAID use with their physician. “Sometimes,” he says, “the treatment is worse than the disease.”
8-16-19 A new FDA-approved drug takes aim at a deadly form of tuberculosis
The antibiotic, paired with two others, works against highly drug-resistant TB. An especially dangerous type of tuberculosis may have met its match. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced August 14 that it has approved the antibiotic pretomanid to help tackle what’s called extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis. This form of the disease is resistant to at least four of the main TB drugs, and treatment often fails: Only around 34 percent of infected patients typically survive, the World Health Organization says. Becoming ill with this type of TB “can be a death sentence — until now,” says William Bishai, a tuberculosis researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the drug’s development. The current treatment requires patients to take as many as eight antibiotics orally, and sometimes by injection, for 18 months or more. By contrast, the new antibiotic is paired with two other previously approved drugs, bedaquiline and linezolid, in a six-month course of pills. Ninety-five of 107 patients who had the highly resistant disease and took this drug regimen recovered, according to the TB Alliance, the nonprofit organization that developed pretomanid. The drug is only the third since the 1960s to be approved for tuberculosis, which is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis sickened an estimated 10 million people in 2017 (SN: 10/27/18, p. 15). Around 558,000 cases were multidrug-resistant, unresponsive to the two most powerful TB drugs (SN Online: 4/30/14). Of those cases, about 8.5 percent, or roughly 47,000, were extensively drug-resistant, according to WHO.
8-16-19 Alzheimer’s targets brain cells that help people stay awake
The new finding could fundamentally refocus dementia research. Alzheimer’s disease destroys command centers in the brain that keep people awake. That finding could explain why the disease often brings daytime drowsiness. Sleep problems can precede dementias, including Alzheimer’s, sometimes by decades. But the new result, described online August 12 in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, suggests that disordered sleeping isn’t just an early harbinger of Alzheimer’s. Instead, sleep trouble is “part of the disease,” says Lea Grinberg, a neuropathologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Grinberg and colleagues focused on the brain stem and a structure perched above it called the hypothalamus. Together, these parts of the nervous system oversee crucial jobs such as keeping people awake and paying attention. Though important, the brain stem and its neighbors have been largely overlooked in studies of dementia, Grinberg says. In particular, the researchers searched for evidence of tau, a protein that can form tangles inside nerve cells, in postmortem brains of people who died with Alzheimer’s disease. Three small regions of the hypothalamus and brain stem, all of which usually contain nerve cells that keep people awake during the day, were packed with tau, the team found. And two of the three areas had lost over 70 percent of their nerve cells, or neurons. These areas “are hit hard, and they are hit by tau,” Grinberg says. That destruction could be part of the reason people with Alzheimer’s disease often feel tired during the day, even if they slept the night before. Those results add credence to an idea that’s been circulating among Alzheimer’s researchers but hasn’t yet gained a lot of traction, says neuroscientist Bryce Mander of the University of California, Irvine: “You see tau in the brain stem, and you see it really early.”
8-16-19 15 studies retracted due to fears they used Chinese prisoners' organs
Fifteen studies about transplanted organs by researchers in China have been retracted this month due to concerns the work may have used organs from executed prisoners. Three other papers have been the subject of expressions of concern for the same reason, according to the website Retraction Watch which monitors questions raised over published research. China’s government said in 2015 that the nation had stopped using organs from executed prisoners, which is illegal according to international conventions. But it is suspected that the practice continues in the country, particularly involving prisoners of conscience. It has been claimed that targeted groups include Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority in China, and practitioners of Falun Gong, a belief system similar to Buddhism that has been outlawed. Various scientific journals that publish research into organ transplantation have previously stated that, for ethical reasons, they will not publish any work that used prisoners’ organs. But earlier this year, campaigners highlighted 400 published papers that they suspect may have involved organs taken from prisoners. Many came from work done before 2010 when China didn’t have the systems in place to get donor organs from people who are brain dead, as happens in other countries. Some of the journals involved now seem to be taking action. The journal Transplantation has retracted seven papers, saying in an editorial that “it is clear with the benefit of hindsight” that “most deceased donors were executed people before 2010”.
8-16-19 Early fish tapeworms found at 'Britain's Pompeii' Must Farm
The earliest evidence of fish tapeworm in Britain has been discovered preserved in human faeces, according to experts at Cambridge University. The finds were unearthed at a site dubbed "Britain's Pompeii", a burnt-out 3,000-year-old village at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire. Fish tapeworm can grow up to 10m (32ft) long and live coiled in the intestines. The university said the research offered the first clear understanding of prehistoric Fen people's diseases. Cambridge University's Dr Marissa Ledger said it also appeared they shared food with their dogs, because both were infected by similar parasitic worms from eating the raw fish, amphibians and molluscs. Experts from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at the university said they believed the "exceptionally well-preserved" village was just a few months old when it burnt down. Circular wooden houses built on stilts, pots with food still inside, jewellery and evidence of fine fabric-making were just some of the finds unearthed during the 10-month long dig in 2016. In addition waterlogged "coprolites" - pieces of human faeces - were discovered preserved in the surrounding mud, according to a study published in the journal Parasitology. Teams from Cambridge and Bristol universities used microscopy techniques to detect ancient parasite eggs within the faeces and determined whether it was from a human or dog. Evidence for Echinostoma and giant kidney worms was also discovered, during months of analysis since the dig was completed. The researchers said little was known about the intestinal diseases of Bronze Age Britain. A previous study of a farming village in Somerset found evidence of parasites spread through the contamination of food by human faeces. This was less evident at Must Farm, possibly because waste was disposed of into the water around the marshy settlement.
8-16-19 Extinction: Humans played big role in demise of the cave bear
The arrival of human ancestors in Europe some 40,000 years ago coincided with the downfall of the cave bear, scientists have revealed. The fate of the species was sealed by other pressures, such as the onset of the last Ice Age, and shrinking food resources. The bear eventually died out 24,000 years ago. "We see this dramatic drop in the population of the cave bear starting from 40,000 years ago, which coincides with the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe," said Prof Verena Schuenemann of the University of Zurich, who led the study. "It is the clearest evidence we have so far that humans might have played a big role in the extinction of the cave bear." Cave bears were a type of bear that lived in Asia and Europe. They share a common ancestor with the modern brown bear. The cave bear fed largely on vegetation instead of meat. Fossils of the species are usually found in caves, suggesting the animals spent a lot of time there, rather than using caves purely for hibernation. The researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA extracted from cave bear bones collected across Switzerland, Poland, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Serbia. They were able to map where cave bears lived and their diversity at a time when many large mammals roamed the Earth. It appears that populations were more diverse then previously thought and remained relatively stable until around 40,000 years ago, surviving two cold periods and several cooling events. The findings support the idea that human influences played a major role in pushing the cave bear to the brink. The extinction of the cave bear is a matter of much debate, with explanations including human interference, environmental changes or a combination of both.
8-15-19 The first chlamydia vaccine has passed a major test
The result offers hope for stemming the tens of millions of new infections each year. The first vaccine against chlamydia has passed its first test in humans. About three dozen healthy women were randomly assigned one of two versions of a chlamydia vaccine or a placebo treatment in a clinical trial. Both vaccine versions were shown to be safe, and both produced an immune response not seen in the placebo group, researchers report online August 12 in the Lancet Infectious Diseases. “These promising results provide encouragement,” says pediatric infectious disease specialist Toni Darville of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, who coauthored a commentary accompanying the study. Chlamydia can lead to disabling, long-term complications for women, so a vaccine against the disease could have a big effect on public health, she says. Chlamydia, caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, with around 131 million women and men newly infected worldwide each year. In the United States, it’s the most frequently reported sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria, with at least 1.7 million cases in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those numbers could be low, researchers say, as infections can go unreported: The disease can produce general symptoms that may not be recognized as chlamydia, such as genital discharge or pain or no symptoms at all. Antibiotics can clear a chlamydia infection from the body. But left untreated, the disease can wreak reproductive havoc on women. An infection targets the cervix, and, for about 1 in 6 women, spreads to the uterus and fallopian tubes where it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
8-15-19 Sticky nets of DNA from immune cells may be to blame for gallstones
It has long been known that gallstones grow from crystals in the gallbladder, but it has been unclear how these stick together. Now it seems immune cells are to blame – a finding that could lead to new treatments. Martin Herrmann at the Friedrich–Alexander University Erlangen–Nürnberg in Germany and his colleagues made this discovery while studying small stones in the bile of people undergoing operations to treat their gallstones. On the surface of the small stones were telltale signs of neutrophil extracellular traps – sticky webs of DNA released by immune cells to catch invading microbes. The presence of large clumps of DNA and an enzyme used by neutrophil immune cells suggested that these cells had been targeting bile crystals for attack. To test this, the team mixed cholesterol crystals with human neutrophils in the lab. The neutrophils responded by shooting their DNA out at the crystals. When they shook and spun gallstones around in the presence of neutrophils, the gallstone surfaces quickly collected neutrophil DNA. These sticky webs pulled cholesterol and calcium crystals together to form even larger stones. “When they find suspicious matter, for example the crystals that form gallstones, they tend to eject their DNA and hog-tie the material,” says Herrmann. The stones formed in this way may go unnoticed until one passes from the gallbladder into the small intestine or lodges in a bile duct, causing sudden and severe pain. The findings may lead to preventative treatments for gallstones. Herrmann and his colleagues found that altering genes or using drugs to impair the formation of these traps led to fewer and smaller gallstones in mice.
8-15-19 Lyme disease in England and Wales is most common in older, white women
People diagnosed with Lyme disease in England and Wales tend to be older, white women living in rural, relatively affluent areas. An analysis of hospital records found that the disease is most commonly diagnosed in women aged between 61 and 65, with a second peak in incidence in girls aged between 6 and 10. Researchers at the University of Liverpool and Public Health England looked at the records of 2259 people diagnosed with Lyme disease at National Health Service hospitals in England, and 102 people in Wales, between 1998 and 2015. They found that 96 per cent of patients self-identified as white. Significantly more cases were recorded in hospitals in rural locations than in urban areas, and there were more cases in richer areas than in areas of higher deprivation. The highest incidence of Lyme disease was in south-west England, where there were 3.13 cases a year for every 100,000 people. Overall, the team found there was a significant increase in the disease’s incidence in England and Wales during the course of the study, from 0.08 cases per 100,000 people in 1998 to 0.53 cases per 100,000 in 2015. John Tulloch at the University of Liverpool says he is confident the results reflect the groups that are most likely to be at risk of infection, but there needs to be more research to understand why more girls and women in certain age groups are diagnosed. “It may be due to a result of sex differences in health-seeking behaviour and this result needs to be further explored,” he says. Girls and women of these age groups and geographical areas may spend more time outside for leisure activities.
8-15-19 Europe’s extinct cave bears went into decline just as humans arrived
The huge cave bears that once roamed Europe started to disappear just after modern humans arrived. The finding from a new genetic analysis suggests that our ancestors played a big role in driving the bears to extinction. Cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) are the clearest example of ancient humans wiping out a large-bodied species, at least in Europe, says Verena Schünemann at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The bears roamed Europe for over 100,000 years. They were as large as modern grizzly bears and ate mostly plants. Many fossils have been found in caves, suggesting they spent a lot of time there – perhaps hibernating. They died out around 26,000 years ago. This was the Last Glacial Maximum, when the most recent ice age reached its peak and ice sheets extended far south. Some researchers interpreted this to mean that the cooling climate killed them off. To find out what really happened, Schünemann and her colleagues sequenced DNA from 59 cave bears. They focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is only inherited from the mother. In addition, they examined 64 mitochondrial DNA sequences that had already been published. The new genetic data provides “a much better view of the diversity,” says Schünemann. Her team found that there were five major lineages of cave bears dotted around Europe. But 40,000 years ago, their genetic diversity fell dramatically, suggesting the number of cave bears was declining. “There are still a few around, but there is this massive loss of diversity,” says Schünemann. The cave bear decline happened just as modern humans began spreading through Europe in a big way, replacing the Neanderthals that had lived alongside the bears for millennia. That suggests humans were at least partly responsible.
8-14-19 Our obsession with perfection is damaging individuals and society
Increasingly we strive for unreachable ideals in personal and public spheres – with damaging consequences from mental health problems to Brexit deadlock. PERFECTIONISM is often admired and celebrated. The drive and athleticism of Serena Williams or Roger Federer on the tennis court; the poise and attention to detail of Judi Dench or Helen Mirren on stage and screen. There’s no harm in celebrating great achievement. But not everyone can always be at the top of their game – and perfectionism as a pathological trait, the demanding of impossible standards from ourselves and others, is on the rise (see “The perfectionism trap: How to avoid burn out, anxiety and stress”). Psychologists point to a swirl of contributing and amplifying factors: the rise of social media and its stylised, cropped versions of other people’s lives, tumultuous job markets, an unpredictable economy, standardised school testing at an early age. Impossible is a key word here. As a society, we are coy about perfectionism, identifying the trait in ourselves as a faux-modest way of signalling our conscientiousness or attention to detail. Yet we aren’t talking about striving for perfect in the hope of attaining good. For people with true perfectionism, for whom nothing short of impeccable is acceptable, success becomes ever harder to achieve, and failure so devastating that it is hardly worth trying at all. That reality is what makes this upward trend so worrisome. Perfectionism can lead to mental health problems, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety and even suicide. We all bear some responsibility to turn off the heat by recognising that no one is perfect and we have no right to expect anyone to be. That starts at the top, with our salacious delight when role models fall from grace – at the outbursts of Williams, for example. But it extends to all those around us as well, to family, friends and colleagues.
8-14-19 Fossils of the earliest animals seen outside China for the first time
How did animal life begin? A must-see exhibition in Oxford brings together the world's best fossils from the Cambrian explosion to tell the story. IT CAME to be known as Darwin’s dilemma: why did animal life appear abruptly in the fossil record 542 million years ago, having left no trace in earlier rocks? In his book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin admitted: “I can give no satisfactory answer.” The origin of animals was duly elevated to one of the great mysteries of evolution. In the past few decades, the mystery has been solved. Animals didn’t appear in the blink of an eye during the “Cambrian explosion”, but evolved gradually in the Precambrian, the so-called “long fuse” of the Cambrian explosion. Even so, the origin of animal life remains one of palaeontology’s most interesting and contentious questions, and the fossils telling the story are among the world’s most famous and fascinating. Many of the best are on display in a small, rather beautiful exhibition called First Animals at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. It is a rare, possibly unique, chance to see specimens from the world’s three most important Cambrian explosion fossil sites side-by-side. For anyone fascinated by that time and its amazing cast, it is a must-see. The stars of the show are 55 fossils from the Chengjiang deposit in China, a site that since its discovery in 1984 has surpassed the better-known Burgess Shale in Canada in scientific importance. The fossils are exceptionally well preserved, like those found in the Burgess Shale, but at 518 million years old they are 10 million years older, putting them right in the thick of the evolutionary action. The Burgess Shale, in contrast, represents the calm after the storm, once the full range of modern animal groups had evolved. Many of the Chengjiang fossils have never been seen outside China before. “It was like Christmas,” says museum palaeontologist Duncan Murdoch, recalling opening the box when it arrived on loan from Yunnan University in China.
8-14-19 How walking helped humans take over the planet
We are all fitter for a good walk – and we become smarter just by standing up. In fact, says a new book, the act of walking helped humans colonise a whole planet WHEN a sea squirt settles on a home, it never gives another thought to going out. In youth, squirts are constantly on the prowl, swimming in rock pools and hunting for prey. But once an adult finds suitable real estate, it permanently attaches to the stone, consumes its own spinal cord and brain, and spends its remaining days capturing whatever nutrients float by. According to neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, this life cycle is perfectly sensible. “Brains have evolved for movement,” he writes in In Praise of Walking. “If you’re going to be stuck… with your food all around you, then why do you need a costly brain?” O’Mara uses the sea squirt and similar creatures to evoke the essential connection between walking and cognitive activity in humans. From his perspective, mobility is one of the defining qualities of animals including Homo sapiens, and the sessile lifestyle of the modern couch potato is dangerously unnatural. The benefits of taking to our feet could easily fill a book, and O’Mara does devote whole chapters to them. The physical benefits are well known: cardiac health, muscle development and improved digestion. The cognitive gains are less well known but at least as dramatic. Take the Stroop test, a standard measure of cognitive control in which the word for a colour is written in a different hue (“red” written in green ink, say) and the subject must name the ink colour as fast as possible. Mismatched stimuli tend to slow people down, especially when asked to perform other tasks simultaneously.
8-14-19 How killer bees evolved into chiller bees in just one decade
While killer bees terrorised the US, in Puerto Rico, an extraordinary accident of evolution has transformed them into a beacon of hope against the threat of insectogeddon. STEPPING out of his house to survey the destruction, Hermes Conde felt like he had been transported to another world. “It was as if an atomic bomb had hit. Nothing was standing,” he says. “I couldn’t recognise the landscape around my own home.” It was 21 September 2017 and Hurricane Maria had just torn Puerto Rico to shreds. An estimated 2975 people died in the worst natural disaster the Caribbean island has ever witnessed. From the early hours of 20 September through to mid-afternoon the next day, Maria bisected Puerto Rico like a 100-kilometre-wide buzz saw. It plucked up trees and hurled roofs from homes like Frisbees. The pounding rain sent flash floods, metres deep, rushing into populated areas. Downed trees and power lines blocked the roads. Electricity and water supplies were cut off for months after the storm. Conde’s first priority was to get petrol for his generator. It would take him 23 hours on foot, but fuel wasn’t the only thing he was looking for. Conde is a beekeeper and along the way he tapped into a network of fellow apiarists trying to discover the fate of their insects. The situation looked bleak. Hurricane Maria had almost annihilated Puerto Rico’s bees, but Conde was determined to rescue the survivors. It may sound like a strange mission in the middle of such chaos, but these are no ordinary bees. They are among the most incredible insects in modern evolutionary history. In just a decade, they have mysteriously transformed from killers to docile honey makers. They may even hold secrets that will help us breed disease-resistant bees in the future.
8-14-19 Ketogenic diet may stop migraines by changing the brain’s fuel
Cutting carbs has been shown to prevent migraines, perhaps by changing the type of fuel that enters the brain. The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet that makes the body burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. Aside from aiding weight loss, it also seems to ease neurological conditions like epilepsy and schizophrenia in some people. Cherubino Di Lorenzo at the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation in Italy and his colleagues wondered if the diet might also help to prevent migraines. Previous studies have hinted that it does, but haven’t been able to figure out whether this is due to general weight loss or something specific about reducing carbs. To find out, the team compared the effects of two very low-calorie diets – one ketogenic and one non-ketogenic – in 35 overweight and obese men and women who experience migraines. Each volunteer was randomly assigned a diet that they followed for four weeks, before swapping to the other for the same duration. The two diets comprised prepared meals, such as smoothies and soups, that looked identical. The meals had the same amounts of calories and fat but different ratios of carbohydrates and protein. Weight loss was similar for the two regimes, but the ketogenic diet appeared to be far better at preventing migraines. About 74 per cent of participants had at least half as many migraine-affected days as normal while on the low-carb ketogenic diet, compared to 9 per cent on the high-carb non-ketogenic diet. In comparison, the best migraine prevention drugs available, known as CGRP monoclonal antibodies, cut migraine-affected days in half or more for about 30 to 48 percent of users.
8-14-19 Neanderthals spent a surprising amount of time underwater
Bony growths found in Neanderthals’ ears suggest that aquatic foraging was a big part of their lifestyle. This adds to evidence that Neanderthals adapted to life in several landscapes, including those near water. Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and his colleagues investigated the well-preserved ear remains of 77 ancient humans that lived in western Eurasia in the mid-to-late Pleistocene period. They looked for dense, bony growths in the ear canals known as external auditory exostoses. These are often found in modern surfers and others who spend time in cold, Trinkaus and his colleagues were surprised to find that around half of the 23 Neanderthals they studied had signs of these growths, which is at least twice as prevalent as in any of the other groups of ancient humans the team studied. This suggests that Neanderthals foraged in water for food and other “It all reinforces what is becoming increasingly clear from diverse forms of evidence: that the Neanderthals were capable and flexible, and not the benighted deficients that some persist in calling them,” says Trinkaus. He and his team also studied the remains of early modern humans from the middle Palaeolithic period, around 130,000 to 80,000 years ago. Only one in four of them had these growths. In humans from the early-to-mid upper Palaeolithic period, around 60,000 to 25,000 years ago, the growths showed up in five out of 24 remains. Neanderthals lived in an overlapping period, between roughly 180,000 and 40,000 years ago. It is possible they had a greater risk of developing the growths due to genetics, but the different landscapes they lived in and proximity to water may also explain why they had more than other groups, says Trinkaus
8-14-19 Biologists have a problem with homosexuality – they should get over it
Studies that reduce human sexuality to two neat categories – gay and straight – are bad science and stoke societal prejudice, says neuroethologist Andrew Barron TWO things are clear about human sexual orientation. First, it is biological; second, it is complex. Sexual behaviour, identity, attractions and fantasies don’t line up neatly. Consistently, biologists fail to recognise this. In their 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey and his collaborators showed how male sexuality varies smoothly, from a majority identifying as completely heterosexual to a minority who identify as gay. Men “do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual”, wrote Kinsey. “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.” He concluded the same for women five years later. Biologists often look for factors related to sexual orientation, be they genetic, hormonal or in the brain. It is easier to search for differences between two starkly different groups, so the smooth variation in sexuality Kinsey described collapses to an artificial binary: heterosexual or homosexual, or sometimes heterosexual or non-heterosexual. How the boundaries of these categories are drawn varies wildly. In some studies, “homosexual” means anyone who identifies as mostly or entirely gay or lesbian; in others, anyone who has had any type of same-sex experience. Bisexual people are either lumped in with gay and lesbian people in a non-heterosexual category or excluded for being “inconsistent”. Women can also be excluded, as female sexuality is often considered too variable. Why does this all matter? As Rebecca Jordan-Young discussed in her book Brain Storm a decade ago, by distorting sexual orientation to fit what we assume it is, we risk editing out the most informative data points – and drawing false conclusions.
8-14-19 CRISPR enters its first human clinical trials
The gene editor targets cancer, blood disorders and blindness. Since its debut in 2012, CRISPR gene editing has held the promise of curing most of the over 6,000 known genetic diseases. Now it’s being put to the test. In the first spate of clinical trials, scientists are using CRISPR/Cas9 to combat cancer and blood disorders in people. In these tests, researchers remove some of a person’s cells, edit the DNA and then inject the cells back in, now hopefully armed to fight disease. Researchers are also set to see how CRISPR/Cas9 works inside the human body. In an upcoming trial, people with an inherited blindness will have the molecular scissors injected into their eyes. Those tests, if successful, could spur future trials for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and a wide variety of other genetic diseases, affecting millions of people worldwide. “CRISPR is so intriguing,” says Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “and so elegant.” But big questions remain about whether CRISPR/Cas9 can live up to the hype. Other previously promising technologies have fallen short. For instance, stem cell injections helped paralyzed rats walk again. But they didn’t work so well for people, Zoloth says. Conventional gene therapies, which insert healthy copies of genes to replace or counteract disease-causing versions, also suffered severe setbacks, says Ronald Conlon, a geneticist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Some kids who had therapy for immune defects developed cancers (SN: 1/1/11, p. 24); a blindness therapy worked temporarily, but couldn’t halt disease progression (SN Online: 5/3/15); and, most devastatingly, participants died — including 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 — while taking part in gene therapy trials.
8-14-19 The perfectionism trap: How to avoid burn out, anxiety and stress
We investigate the growing epidemic of perfectionism, a misunderstood personality trait with serious implications for mental and physical health. THE desire to be perfect is something most of us have felt at some point in our lives. Studying for the perfect test result, searching for the perfect partner, working through the night to smash that perfect presentation. Often, having high standards can drive success, but for some people, diligence and motivation can shift into perfectionism, a sorely misunderstood personality trait that can have dangerous consequences. Perfectionism has increased significantly over the past three decades, a recent analysis shows. Young people in particular place higher demands on themselves and on others. Our dog-eat-dog world, full of impeccable images of what our bodies, careers and aspirations should look like, is creating a rising tide of millennials who may be putting themselves at risk of mental and physical illness in their search for the perfect life. An epidemic of perfectionism poses a serious, even deadly problem, according to those researching the trend. That sounds alarming, but there are solutions. So how can we learn when good is good enough, reach our goals without burning out and teach our children how to avoid the oncoming storm? “Perfection is hard to define,” says Thomas Curran at the University of Bath, UK, who has been studying its rise. There is no fixed way of diagnosing it. However, many studies measure it using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which was developed three decades ago. It consists of 45 statements – such as “I strive to be the best at everything I do”, “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly” and “People expect nothing less than perfection from me” – and people rate how much they agree with each of these on a scale of 1 to 7. If you very much identify with these kinds of statements, it is likely that you have perfectionist tendencies.
8-14-19 Cannabis-based health products are going mainstream – do they work?
A component in cannabis called CBD is claimed to help everything from Alzheimer's to anxiety. Despite a boom in sales, there's little evidence supporting the claims. “IT WILL cure, eliminate or definitely help any disease,” an assistant in a shop just around the corner from New Scientist’s office in London tells me. Although these extraordinary claims aren’t made on the product’s packaging, the substance it contains is quickly gaining a reputation among consumers as a cure-all. Pain, anxiety, depression, cancer, psoriasis, Alzheimer’s, irritable bowel syndrome – you name it, someone somewhere is saying this substance will help. This apparently miraculous compound is cannabidiol, better known as CBD, a component of cannabis. Growing health claims coupled with a relaxing of laws around the sale of CBD-containing products has seeded a surge in interest. Despite the willingness of some to tout CBD’s curative powers, there is limited evidence to back up these bold health promises. “The range of claims is actually quite startling, and I don’t know whether to be worried or amused,” says Harry Sumnall at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. Cannabis has long been suspected of improving health by those who use it. Since November 2018, UK doctors have been allowed to prescribe it in special cases (see “Medicinal cannabis”, right). The change in legalisation came after high-profile campaigning, including from parents whose children have a severe form of epilepsy that seems to respond to cannabis products. A growing number of US states have legalised the plant for medicinal and recreational use too.
8-14-19 Engraved bones reveal that symbolism had ancient roots in East Asia
Denisovans might have created line patterns more than 100,000 years ago in what’s now northern China. Lines engraved between 125,000 and 105,000 years ago on two animal bones found in northern China held some sort of meaning for their makers, researchers say. These ancient markings provide the oldest evidence of symbolic activity by humans or our close evolutionary relatives in East Asia, says a team led by archaeologists Zhanyang Li and Luc Doyon, both of Shandong University in Jinan, China. A mysterious Stone Age population called Denisovans, which had close genetic ties to Neandertals, may have carved sets of parallel lines into the pair of bone fragments, the scientists suggest in the August Antiquity. Denisovans inhabited East Asia at the same time that someone carved lines into bones at northern China’s Lingjing site (SN: 3/2/19, p. 11). But either Homo sapiens or Neandertals, who also left behind Stone Age creations with apparent symbolic meanings (SN: 3/17/18, p. 6), might instead have modified the Lingjing bones. “Nonetheless, the two objects from Lingjing suggest that symbolic capacities were within the realm of cognitive abilities of [Homo] species that lived before and during the evolution of Homo sapiens in Africa,” Doyon says. Abstract markings on the Lingjing bones resemble engraved lines on roughly 100,000-year-old pigment chunks from South Africa (SN Online: 6/12/09), says archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. “As Homo sapiens was responsible for that early symbolism in Africa, and Neandertals were responsible for such in Europe, it is a fascinating possibility that these [Chinese] examples were created by another Homo species,” Pettitt says.
8-14-19 T'Human-sized penguin' lived in New Zealand
The remains of a giant penguin the size of a human have been discovered in New Zealand. The fossilised bones are of an animal thought to have been about 1.6m (5ft 3in) tall, weighing up to 80kg (176lb). It lived in the Paleocene Epoch, between 66 and 56 million years ago. The animal, dubbed "monster penguin" by Canterbury Museum, adds to the list of now-extinct gigantic New Zealand fauna. Parrots, eagles, burrowing bats and the moa, a 3.6m-tall bird, also feature."This is one of the largest penguin species ever found," Paul Scofield, the museum's senior curator, told the BBC. It was specific to the waters of the Southern Hemisphere, he added. Penguins are thought to have become this big because large marine reptiles disappeared from the oceans, around the same time that dinosaurs disappeared. "Then, for 30 million years, it was the time of the giant penguins," Mr Scofield said. Today's largest species, the Emperor Penguin, grows to about 1.2m tall. "We think that at the time, animals were evolving very rapidly," Mr Scofield explained. "Water temperatures around New Zealand were ideal back then, around 25C (77F) compared to the 8C we have now." During the time of the giant penguin, New Zealand was still joined with Australia, which in turn is thought to have been connected to Antarctica. The new species, crossvallia waiparensis, resembles another prehistoric giant penguin, crossvallia unienwillia, which was found at a site in Antarctica. According to the researchers, the crossvallia penguin's feet probably played a bigger role in swimming than those of modern penguins. It likely shared the waters around New Zealand with "giant turtles, corals and strange-looking sharks," Mr Scofield says.
8-13-19 Lack of sleep is more of a problem for teen girls than social media
Social media isn’t necessarily bad for teens’ mental health – it only causes problems for girls when it interferes with sleep and exercise or enables cyberbullying. Boys don’t seem to be affected in the same way. “The message is simple: don’t worry so much about how much your kids are on social media during the day,” says Russell Viner at the University College of London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health in the UK. “Worry about what they’re watching, the content, and make sure they get enough sleep and physical activity.” Viner and his colleagues have looked at data already collected as part of another large study on young people in England. As part of that study, 12,866 people aged between 13 and 14 were interviewed in 2013. Just under 11,000 of them were interviewed again in 2014, and almost 10,000 again in 2015. The participants filled in questionnaires about their mental health and wellbeing – including their levels of sleep and physical activity – as well as their experiences of cyberbullying. Each person was asked how frequently they used social media networks, messaging or photo-sharing services, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Blackberry Messenger, Snapchat, Tumblr, or anything else. The team found that girls who used social media more frequently tended to be less happy and less satisfied with life, and were more anxious than those who said they didn’t use social media as much. But social media itself isn’t necessarily to blame, says Viner. When his team accounted for sleep, physical activity and cyberbullying, the effect of frequent social media use on the girls’ wellbeing became insignificant. This suggests that social media only becomes problematic for girls when it starts to impact their sleep, exercise or exposure to bullying.
8-13-19 Is the bystander effect a myth?
A study published in the American Psychologist suggests there are more Good Samaritans out there than we might think. After studying hundreds of incidents captured on CCTV around the world, the researchers conclude the so-called bystander effect - that people will not usually help a stranger in distress - may not tell the whole story.
8-13-19 Ebola breakthrough: two drugs could treat up to 90 per cent of cases
Up to 90 per cent of Ebola cases may now be treatable thanks to two experimental drugs. These drugs were so effective in a clinical trial in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that scientists stopped the trial early. Public health officials hope that these therapies will help control the country’s ongoing Ebola crisis that has so far led to the infection of around 2800 people, and the death of 1900. The results come from a trial of almost 700 people in Ebola treatment centres that began last November. The trial found that, in recently infected people, only 6 per cent of those treated with a drug called REGN-EB3 died. The mortality rate of those given a drug called mAb114 was 11 per cent. Without treatment or vaccination, around two to three out of every four Ebola cases results in death. Both drugs are monoclonal antibodies, a class of immune system drugs that bind to and interfere with viruses and bacteria. The drug trial was also testing two other drugs, which were found to have higher mortality rates. Now all new patients entering the trial will be given REGN-EB3 or mAb114, and those currently taking the other drugs will be able to choose to switch onto these too. It is hoped that these drugs will turn the tide of the current Ebola crisis, which was declared a public health emergency last month. They may also help tackle the distrust many feel towards healthcare workers. Ebola treatment centres have been seen as places where sick people are brought in but very few leave alive. As word of effective new drugs spread, infected people may feel encouraged to seek treatment earlier, which could further improve survival rates and lower rates of transmission.
8-12-19 Two of four Ebola treatments prove highly effective in a clinical trial
The field experiment will now focus on only the top-performing therapies. Two Ebola treatments have proven to be effective in preventing death during a clinical trial conducted amid the ongoing outbreak in Congo, preliminary data suggest. The trial began in November, with participants randomly given one of four experimental treatments (SN: 3/16/19, p. 9). Data from 499 patients reviewed August 9 suggest that those people taking one of two antibody treatments — mAb114 or REGN-EB3 — had a greater chance of survival than those on the antiviral drug remdesivir or the antibody treatment ZMapp. Researchers reported the trial results in a news release August 12, but these findings have yet to be finalized. “One thing that won’t change is that those two therapies are better than the other two — that’s for sure,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The trial now enters a phase with only the two most effective treatments in order to gather more data on their safety and the immune response to each drug. Researchers won’t study enough patients, however, to determine which drug works best. The percentage of patients who died while taking one of the treatments was 29 percent for REGN-EB3 and 34 percent for mAb114. That’s a big improvement over the current 67 percent mortality rate reported for Congo’s outbreak, which began August 1, 2018. (Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., which makes the REGN-EB3 therapy, is a major financial supporter of the Society for Science & the Public, the nonprofit that also publishes Science News.) Results were even better for patients with a low viral load, or less of the virus in their blood — which may be an indication that their infections were caught early. Among those patients, 6 percent taking REGN-EB3 died and 11 percent on mAb114 died.
8-12-19 Chlamydia vaccine shown to be safe in first ever human trial
The first human trial of a new chlamydia vaccine has shown that it is safe and that it triggers an immune response against the bacteria that cause chlamydia. The team behind the work are planning a larger trial to find out if it can protect against the infection. Sonya Abraham at Imperial College London and her colleagues used a vaccine that has already been tested in animals including mice, guinea pigs and primates. The drug, known as CTH522, is essentially a human-made version of a protein found on chlamydia bacteria, and prompts the immune system to mount a response to the bacteria. The team combined this with one of two adjuvants – chemicals that boost the response of the immune system. Thirty-five women aged 19 to 45 were given either the vaccine with an adjuvant or a placebo. Over the course of five months, each person was given three injections in their arm, as well as two nasal sprays in both nostrils. Every woman who received the vaccine demonstrated an immune response, say the researchers behind the work. And while the volunteers did report some side effects, these were nothing more serious than those associated with existing vaccines, such as soreness at the site of injection, a fever or headache. It is too soon to tell whether or not the drug will protect against chlamydia. The team are currently preparing for a larger phase 2 trial, which will help determine which doses might be effective. They plan to develop a dosing schedule that matches that of the current HPV vaccine, so the two can be given at the same time. “Although clinical vaccine testing for chlamydia is in its infancy, this trial suggests optimism for the future,” Taylor Poston and Toni Darville of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill write in a comment piece on this trial. “A vaccine for prevention of [chlamydia] infection would have enormous public health and economic impact.” If proven to work, the vaccine could help prevent some of the 131 million annual chlamydia infections seen worldwide. Those are just the cases we know about – three quarters of infections are symptomless, so there are thought to be many more.
8-12-19 Even without concussions, just one football season may damage players’ brains
Collisions in practices and games may be causing changes in white matter in the brain stem. A season of head hits left its mark on college football players’ brains, even when those hits didn’t cause concussions. Routine head bumps over the course of a season were linked to abnormal brain tissue in part of players’ brain stems, researchers report August 7 in Science Advances. It’s unclear if these brain stem changes affect mental performance, or whether the changes are permanent. But the study suggests that in addition to the big hits that cause concussions, these smaller knocks could cause trouble. During the 2011, 2012 and 2013 football seasons, a team led by researchers at the University of Rochester in New York recruited players from the university to participate in a study looking at head impacts and brain health. Each player wore an accelerometer in his helmet to capture the forces at play during all practices and games during a single season. The players also underwent pre- and post-season brain scans. A measure called fractional anisotropy let researchers estimate how well stretches of white matter brain tissue can carry neural signals, a key job of healthy brain tissue. The 38 players included in the study collectively took 19,128 hits. And by the end of their season, the players on average had lower measures of fractional anisotropy in their right midbrains — a part of the brain stem. These declines were more tightly linked to the number of hits that twisted heads, as opposed to direct head-on hits. Those rotational forces might be particularly damaging to brain tissue, a finding that fits with results from earlier studies, the researchers write.
8-11-19 Ibuprofen and other common drugs may help antibiotic resistance spread
For decades we’ve known that bacteria can evolve resistance to antibiotics but now it looks like other types of common drugs, including ibuprofen, may also help drive antimicrobial resistance. Bacteria are able to swap genetic material with completely different strains, a process that has enabled drug resistance genes to rapidly spread to many types of microbe. Now a team in Australia has found that five commonly-used non-antibiotic drugs appear to encourage gene swapping between bacteria. The study looked at six drugs: ibuprofen and two other anti-inflammatories – naproxen and diclofenac – as well as the lipid-lowering drug gemfibrozil, the beta-blocker propranolol, and iopromide, which is used to produce better X-ray images. Each of the drugs was mixed in a vial containing two types of bacteria, one of which was resistant to three types of antibiotic, while the other was resistant to a different, fourth type of antibiotic. After eight hours of incubation, the mixtures were tested to see if they contained any bacteria that could now resist all four of the antibiotic drugs. Control mixtures, which weren’t exposed to any drug, didn’t produce any bacteria capable of resisting all four antibiotics. Neither did the bacteria exposed to iopromide.But quadruple-resistant bacteria did arise after exposure to ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, gemfibrozil or propranolol. This occurred even when ibuprofen, naproxen and gemfibrozil were at extremely low concentrations – as little as 0.005 milligrams per litre. DNA analysis confirmed that resistance genes had indeed swapped between the different strains of bacteria. The team found that exposure to these five drugs was linked to cellular changes that may have made it easier for the bacteria to release and absorb each other’s DNA.
8-10-19 How leeches became the latest health trend
Ancient cultures believed leeches had healing powers. Now, the practice is making a modern-day resurgence. lood covered the hotel room where Tsetsi Stoyanova had checked in for the night. It stained the sheets and the towels and trailed over the bed. The mess dribbled out from a wound on Stoyanova's back. It smelled. Not like sweat or iron but something else — something strong. "The bleeding wouldn't stop. It just kept on going and going and going," Stoyanova says. "I made everything red and bloody." But Stoyanova, then in her 30s, wasn't nervous about losing blood. She was excited. It was why she'd journeyed across her home country of Bulgaria. Earlier that day, she and her boyfriend had clambered up a remote hilltop outside the city of Kardzhali, searching for a special lake renowned among certain locals. When they came across a stand of trees covered in ribbons, they knew they'd found it. It was the peak of summer and the sun had turned the usually wide lake into a dried-up swamp. Stoyanova wiggled her toes in the muddy shore to entice what she had been pursuing for months: a thirsty leech. Growing up, Stoyanova had been surrounded by folk remedies and alternative medicine. If someone in her family had a cold or the flu, they would treat it with fire cupping. Her mother and grandparents would take turns lighting a flame over the sick person's back and extinguishing the fire under a glass cup, making the enclosed skin redden and rise. Later, she got really into enemas. She used them on a daily basis for years. So when she heard about a lake somewhere in southern Bulgaria, full of an "extremely healing variety of leech" she was drawn to the place. Supposedly, people had been going there for years to seek out the creatures. They would tie a ribbon to a tree if they found a leech to drink their blood. And Stoyanova was determined to join them. The healing power of leeches has been immortalized for thousands of years, in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, verses of ancient Greek poetry, and early medical writings in Arabic, Chinese, and Sanskrit.
8-9-19 Insulin: Its high price is killing people
“Jesimya David Scherer-Radcliff might still be alive if he could have afforded his insulin,” said Sarah Jones in NYMag.com. Instead, the Minnesota man, 21, died in June after trying to ration his supply—and his “death is not an isolated event.” Insulin costs have skyrocketed as a trio of pharmaceutical companies has essentially cornered the market with no generic alternative. A vial that sold for $35 in 2001 is now retailing for almost $300. This has led to devastating choices for many of the 7.5 million diabetic Americans who rely on insulin to survive. Nearly 30 percent are now rationing due to cost, while others have resorted to injecting dog insulin, or smuggling vials from Canada, where it still costs $30. At Scherer-Radcliff’s funeral, his mother said he was “murdered” by Big Pharma—and that the cause of death was “corporate greed.” The insulin crisis “is part of a deeper malaise in American health care,” said Alan MacLeod in The Guardian. Hospital bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy, and one-third of all GoFundMe donations are for medical expenses. Even people who do have insurance face ruinous deductibles that force them to shell out $4,000 or more before coverage kicks in. Polls show that “Americans are more scared of getting sick than of a terrorist attack.” These things don’t happen elsewhere in the developed world. Drug prices are regulated, health insurance is universally provided, and no one “must pay thousands of dollars a year simply to not die.”
8-9-19 Fighting sickle cell with gene editing
Doctors in the U.S. are using CRISPR, the pioneering gene-editing technique, in a landmark effort to treat a debilitating and often fatal genetic disorder. The experimental treatment—a first in the U.S.—is for sickle-cell disease, a disorder that affects 100,000 Americans and causes problems with a protein called hemoglobin. The defective hemoglobin makes red blood cells hard and sticky, preventing them from carrying enough oxygen around the body. Sickle-cell sufferers—most of whom are black—can experience intense pain, organ damage, and blindness; many don’t live beyond their 40s. For the CRISPR treatment, scientists extract young cells from the patient’s bone marrow and modify them to produce fetal hemoglobin, typically made only by fetuses in the womb. Patients undergo chemotherapy to kill off cells carrying the genetic defect and then have the CRISPR-edited cells reintroduced into their body. Doctors at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville have already completed treatment on the first patient, 34-year-old Victoria Gray. They hope to enlist 44 others, in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The experiment is at a very early stage: It’ll take several months before doctors can tell whether the new cells are producing the hemoglobin and longer still to determine if the patient’s health has improved. But that’s not a problem for Gray. “This gives me hope,” she tells NPR.org, “[even] if it gives me nothing else.”
8-9-19 Heartburn drugs and allergies
Taking commonly prescribed medication to relieve heartburn and ulcers may increase your risk of developing allergies. Scientists at the Medical University of Vienna looked at health data for more than 8 million people in Austria—almost the entire population—over four years. They found that those who had been prescribed stomach-acid inhibitors, such as proton-pump inhibitors and H2 blockers, were twice as likely to subsequently receive prescriptions for anti-allergy drugs. The risk appeared particularly high in women and people ages 60 and over. “There have been mouse studies, cellular studies, and clinical observations” of the same link, study author Erika Jensen-Jarolim tells The Guardian (U.K.). “This is the last brick in the whole picture.” The findings suggest that disruptions to the stomach’s balance of acids and enzymes can trigger allergies that the person didn’t previously suffer. It’s unclear why this imbalance might have such an effect; one theory is that reduced stomach acid allows undigested food to escape into the intestine, where it is then treated as a threat by the immune system.
8-9-19 A warm bath for better sleep
Having a warm bath before bed could improve your night’s rest, a new study suggests. Human body temperatures vary throughout the day in line with our internal body clocks. About an hour and a half before we usually nod off, our bodies cool down by around 0.5 to 1 degree Fahrenheit. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin suspected that exposure to warm water could stimulate the body’s natural thermoregulatory system—enhancing that crucial cooling process. To explore this idea, they examined 17 previous studies that looked at the effects of water-based passive heating—baths, foot baths, and showers—on sleep. That meta-analysis showed that having a bath or shower of between 104 and 109 degrees Fahrenheit one to two hours before bedtime was linked with noticeable improvements in sleep quality and overall sleep time. Those bathers also took an average of 10 minutes less to drop off. Study author Shahab Haghayegh emphasized that there is a Goldilocks-style sweet spot, reports CNN.com. A cold bath or shower encourages the body to warm up, making it harder to sleep; having a warm bath too close to bedtime, meanwhile, has no soporific effect.
8-9-19 Deep-sea microbe could answer one of evolution's biggest mysteries
A single-celled organism found off the coast of Japan could offer us a glimpse of one of our most distant ancestors. The microbe may explain one of the great mysteries of evolutionary history: the origin of the complex cells that make up organisms like plants and humans. “This is a very influential and monumental paper,” says Thijs Ettema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. For much of Earth’s history, the only living things were single-celled organisms like bacteria. However, today the planet is also home to much larger organisms like trees and elephants. These more complex “eukaryotes” differ from their simpler ancestors at the cellular level. While bacterial cells have little internal structure, eukaryotic cells are more intricate. In particular, they contain sausage-shaped structures called mitochondria that supply them with energy. Most biologists are now convinced that eukaryotes emerged when one cell swallowed another. The mitochondria packed into your cells are all descended from a bacterium that was engulfed by another cell and then set up home there. The question is: who did the swallowing? Clues to a possible answer started to emerge in 2010, when researchers drilled a core of sediment from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, near a set of hydrothermal vents called Loki’s Castle, named after the Norse god of mischief. Five years later, Ettema’s team found DNA from an unknown microorganism lurking in the mud. It was an archaean, a simple cell from an ancient group of organisms that split from bacteria early in the history of life. But it had genes that were supposedly unique to the more advanced eukaryotes – including some that are used to deform the outer membranes of cells, hinting at an ability to swallow smaller objects. The team called the organism Lokiarchaeota. Several related archaea have since been identified from their DNA. In keeping with the theme of Norse mythology, the group is now called the Asgard archaea, after the realm of the Norse gods. Researchers like Ettema believe the Asgard archaea hint at the origin of eukaryotes. An Asgard-like archaean that lived billions of years ago could have swallowed a bacterium to become the first eukaryote – setting evolution on the path towards humanity. However, nobody has ever seen a living Asgard archaean. All the studies were based on DNA collected from the environment and then sequenced and analysed in the laboratory – until now.
8-7-19 Personalised breast cancer test could tell when to stop treatment
A personalised blood test can tell whether treatments for breast cancer are working, and possibly save people from unnecessary surgery, according to early results. If the test can be validated, it could be used to identify who is at risk of relapse, say the researchers behind the work. The test has been developed for people in the early stages of breast cancer. After receiving a diagnosis, people are typically prescribed drugs to shrink their tumours before surgeons attempt to remove them. Sometimes, this drug treatment is enough. By the time they have their surgery, around 30 per cent of people will have undetectable levels of tumour DNA, says Muhammed Murtaza at Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. “You treat patients quite aggressively, but a lot of patients might get treatment they didn’t need,” he says. Another 10-15 per cent of people will relapse, suggesting they might have needed more treatment. Ideally, a blood test given after drug treatment but before surgery would predict what types of treatment how much treatment any individual needs. Similar tests exist for cancers that have spread throughout the body, but it has been difficult to create one that is sensitive enough to pick up on the tiny amount of tumour DNA left in the blood of someone with early-stage cancer who has had their tumour shrunk. Murtaza and his colleagues have developed a new, more sensitive test. In their approach, the team started by analysing biopsies taken from tumours of people with breast cancer. They used these to identify a set of around 30 mutations specific to each individual. They then created personalised tests that can catch any one of the 30-odd mutations an individual’s tumour might have, instead of using single tests to search for each specific mutation. This technique, along with others that improve its efficiency, has enabled the team to develop a test that is 100 times more sensitive that existing ones, says Murtaza.
8-7-19 Why people with celiac disease suffer so soon after eating gluten
T cells in those with the autoimmune disorder rapidly dump immune chemicals into the blood. Researchers finally know why people with celiac disease get nauseous within hours of eating gluten. Some immune cells dump stomach-churning levels of immune chemicals called cytokines into the blood soon after the cells encounter gluten, triggering symptoms, scientists report August 7 in Science Advances. “When patients ate gluten, symptoms and cytokines went up at the same time,” says Robert Anderson, chief scientist of ImmusanT Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. The company develops vaccines to protect against autoimmune diseases. Scientists already knew that some of these immune cells, called CD4+ T cells, in people with the disease react to gluten proteins in wheat, barley and rye. That reaction leads to damage of the small intestine. Normally, T cells don’t rev up until a day or two after exposure to a protein that triggers activity. But those with the autoimmune disorder, which affects about 1 percent of people, often start having nausea, pain and vomiting within an hour or two of eating gluten. Anderson and colleagues injected gluten peptides under the skin of volunteers who have celiac disease, or gave the volunteers a drink mixed with wheat flour. Starting about two hours after exposure, levels of a cytokine called interleukin-2, or IL-2, and of other immune chemicals released by these T cells began to climb, the researchers found. Volunteers felt nauseous, and some vomited, as the cytokine levels increased. Knowing that certain T cells, and cytokines in particular, cause celiac symptoms may lead to therapies that could block the gluten-reacting T cells, Anderson says. And doctors may be able to diagnose celiac disease by measuring IL-2 levels in the blood, sparing patients the need for tests in which they’re repeatedly given gluten.
8-7-19 Why the news on dementia deaths is not as bad as it sounds
Dementia has cemented its position as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. But part of the rise in dementia deaths can be explained by changes in how deaths are recorded. In fact, more people currently die from cancers than they do from dementia. The number of deaths due to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have been increasing for several years, accounting for nearly 13 per cent of all deaths registered in 2018. But part of the explanation for this apparent increase is two coding changes by the ONS in 2011 and 2014, to follow guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). Dementia tends to be a contributory factor to deaths, rather than the immediate cause. For instance, those affected may die from falling over and breaking a bone, or they may develop pneumonia because they have a reduced ability to swallow, which lets bacteria enter their lungs. Due to the WHO guidelines, any such cases where dementia is mentioned on the death certificate are now being attributed to dementia. In addition, family doctors have for some years now been encouraged to put a formal diagnosis of dementia in people’s health records at earlier stages. “It’s not so much that more people are getting dementia, we are recognising it more,” says Emma Vardy of the British Geriatrics Society. There are multiple forms of dementia – including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia – but the ONS groups deaths from these conditions together. Cancer, however, is split into different categories. If these had been grouped together, cancer would have topped the list of causes of death – according to Cancer Research UK, 28 per cent of deaths in 2016 were due to cancer. However, aside from how deaths are categorised in the ONS data, we do also know that dementia is rising in incidence. This is because we are, on average, living longer, thanks in part to better medical care. Put crudely, many people who might previously have died from heart attacks in their seventies are now dying from dementia in their eighties.
8-7-19 Have we found the true cause of diabetes, stroke and Alzheimer's?
The diseases most people die of have been attributed to unhealthy lifestyles. But evidence now suggests bacteria are to blame, heralding a revolution in medicine. FOR decades, health experts have been lecturing us about our bad habits, blaming them for the surge in “lifestyle diseases”. These often come on as we age and include heart disease, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Worldwide, 70 per cent of all deaths are now attributed to these conditions. In the UK, it is a whopping 90 per cent. Too much red meat, too little fruit and veg, smoking, drinking, obesity and not enough exercise appear to make all these diseases more likely – and having any of them makes getting the others more likely. But no one really knows why, and we still haven’t worked out what causes any of them. Alzheimer’s is now one of the UK’s biggest killers, yet the main hypothesis for how it originates imploded this year after drugs based on it repeatedly failed. High blood cholesterol is blamed for heart attacks, except most people who have heart attacks don’t have it. What we do know is that these conditions usually start causing symptoms later in life, and their prevalence is skyrocketing as we live longer. They all turn inflammation, the method our immune system uses to kill invaders, against us. And, by definition, these diseases aren’t communicable. They are down to bad habits and unlucky genes, not germs. Right? Not necessarily. In disease after disease, we are finding that bacteria are covertly involved, invading organs, co-opting our immune systems to boost their own survival and slowly making bits of us break down. The implication is that we may eventually be able to defeat heart attacks or Alzheimer’s just by stopping these microbes. Until now, bacteria’s involvement completely eluded us. That’s because they tend to work very slowly, stay dormant for long periods or hide inside cells. That makes them difficult to grow in culture, once the gold standard for linking bacteria to disease. But now DNA sequencing has revealed bacteria in places they were never supposed to be, manipulating inflammation in just the ways observed in these diseases.
8-7-19 How pieces of live human brain are helping scientists map nerve cells
An audacious project aims to figure out how humans are different from other creatures. The golf ball–sized chunk of brain is not cooperating. It’s thicker than usual, and bloodier. One side has a swath of tissue that looks, to my untrained eye, like gristle. Nick Dee, the neuroscientist charged with quickly cutting the chunk into neat pieces, confers with his colleagues. “We can trim off that ugliness on the side,” he says. The “ugliness” is the brain’s connective tissue called white matter. To produce useful slices for experiments, the brain tissue must be trimmed, superglued to a lipstick-sized base and then fed into a lab version of a deli slicer. But this difficult chunk isn’t cutting nicely. Dee and colleagues pull it off the base, trim it again and reglue. Half an hour earlier, this piece of neural tissue was tucked inside a 41-year-old woman’s head, on her left side, just above the ear. Surgeons removed the tissue to reach a deeper part of her brain thought to be causing severe seizures. Privacy rules prevent me from knowing much about her; I don’t know her name, much less her first memory, favorite meal or sense of humor. But within this piece of tissue, which the patient generously donated, are clues to how her brain — all of our brains, really — create the mind. Dee’s team is working fast because this piece of brain is alive. Some of the cells can still behave as if they are a part of a person’s brain, which means they hold enormous potential for scientists who want to understand how we remember, plan, behave and feel. After Dee and his team do their part, pieces of the woman’s brain will be whisked into the hands of eager scientists, where the cells will be photographed, zapped with electricity, relieved of their genetic material and even infected with viruses that make them glow green and red.
8-7-19 Tardigrades: 'Water bears' stuck on the moon after crash
The moon might now be home to thousands of planet Earth's most indestructible animals. Tardigrades - often called water bears - are creatures under a millimetre long that can survive being heated to 150C and frozen to almost absolute zero. They were travelling on an Israeli spacecraft that crash-landed on the moon in April. And the co-founder of the organisation that put them there thinks they're almost definitely still alive. The water bears had been dehydrated to place them in suspended animation and then encased in artificial amber. "We believe the chances of survival for the tardigrades... are extremely high," Arch Mission Foundation boss Nova Spivack said. The Arch Mission Foundation keeps a "backup" of planet Earth - with human knowledge and the planet's biology stored and sent out to various solar locations in case of a life-ending event. The "lunar library" - something resembling a DVD that contains a 30-million-page archive of human history viewable under microscopes, as well as human DNA - was being carried on the Beresheet robot lander. And alongside them were dehyrdrated tardigrades - some in amber and some stuck on tape. For most creatures there would be no coming back from being dehydrated - life without water is almost impossible. But water bears - which have another very cute nickname, moss piglets - are not most animals. They can be brought back to life decades after being dehydrated. Scientists have found that tardigrades have what seems almost like a super power. When dried out they retract their heads and their eight legs, shrivel into a tiny ball, and enter a deep state of suspended animation that closely resembles death. They shed almost all of the water in their body and their metabolism slows to 0.01% of the normal rate. And if reintroduced to water decades later, they're able to reanimate. All of that, plus the fact they became the first animal to survive in space back in 2007, made them a perfect candidate for Arch Mission's lunar library. "Tardigrades are ideal to include because they are microscopic, multicellular, and one of the most durable forms of life on planet Earth," Nova said. Even though the little moss piglets are likely to have survived the moon crash, it might not be great that they're there. "What it means is the so-called 'pristine environment' of the moon has been broken," says Open University professor of planetary and space sciences Monica Grady. (Webmaster's comment: Deliberate contamination of the Moon. STUPID!)
8-7-19 The ancient Egyptian yeasts being used to bake modern bread
The yeast microbes had been asleep for more than 5,000 years, buried deep in the pores of Egyptian ceramics, by the time Seamus Blackley came along and used them to bake a loaf of bread. An amateur Egyptologist and one of the inventors of the Xbox game console, he's also a keen hobby baker who routinely posts pictures of his breadmaking projects on social media. He has, he admits, made his fair share of "horrible, rock-like loaves". But this experiment was in a different league altogether. The first step was to extract the yeast without destroying the vessels where it was held. With the help of archaeologist Dr Serena Love, Mr Blackley gained access to the collections of Egyptian beer- and bread-making vessels held in two museums in the US city of Boston. And he enlisted the help of microbiologist Richard Bowman, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, to extract and identify the strains of yeast. Mr Bowman injected nutrients into the ceramics, feeding the dormant yeasts and extracting the resulting liquid. Most of the samples were sent off for laboratory analysis, but Mr Blackley kept one back. Using water, ancient grains and sterilised containers, he cultivated the starter for a week. In order to get as close as possible to what the Egyptians would have recognised as bread, Mr Blackley fed the yeasts with grain he'd milled himself from barley and einkorn, an early form of wheat domesticated about 10,000 years ago. "While this culture was sleeping, modern wheat was invented," Mr Blackley explains. The oldest of the pyramids at Giza was built about 4,500 years ago - by that time, these yeast strains were already about 700 years old. "It smelled very different from modern starters," he says. "The bubbles were smaller: less pungent, but more active."
8-7-19 World’s largest parrot was a metre tall and lived 19 million years ago
Palaeontologists working in New Zealand have discovered the first evidence of giant parrots, which they believe lived 19 million years ago. An analysis of two “drumstick” bones, or tibiotarsi, found at a site on the South Island indicate the bird, named Heracles inexpectatus, grew to around one metre tall and weighed seven kilograms. “It’s a new example of the propensity of islands to generate weird and wacky animals,” says Trevor Worthy of Flinders University, Australia. The bird is likely to have been flightless, like several other giant flightless birds known to have evolved on islands. These include the extinct dodo, a giant pigeon that lived on Mauritius. New Zealand was also once home to nine species of moa, a now-extinct group of large birds resembling ostriches and emus, and it is thought that H. inexpectatus would have lived alongside these. While moa typically eat leaves, the giant parrot likely ate fruits and nuts. The structure of the bird’s bones suggests it was closely related to the kakapo, a large, flightless parrot that still lives in New Zealand today. H. inexpectatus may have moved in a similar way to its smaller relative. “Given the tibiotarsus is very-thick walled we think this indicates that the bird spent a lot of time of the ground and likely had no powered flight. But it may have been able to glide downhill as a kakapo can do after climbing a tree,” says Worthy. New Zealand has been a hotspot for bird evolution – including many flightless species – due to a lack of predatory mammals. But Worthy says that a three-metre-long, land-dwelling ancestor of the crocodile would probably have hunted the giant parrot. A giant eagle, around the same size as the adult parrot, may have preyed on younger birds.
8-7-19 Ancient parrot in New Zealand was 1m tall, study says
A giant parrot that roamed New Zealand about 19 million years ago had a height of 1m (3ft 2in) - roughly half the average height of a human, a new study has found. The remains of the parrot were found near St Bathans in New Zealand's southern Otago region. Given its size, the parrot is believed to have been flightless and carnivorous, unlike most birds today. A study of the bird was published on Tuesday in the journal Biology Letters. Weighing just over one stone (7kg), the bird would have been two times heavier than the kakapo, previously the largest known parrot. "There are no other giant parrots in the world," Professor Trevor Worthy, a palaeontologist at Flinders University in Australia and lead author of the study, told the BBC. "Finding one is very significant." Palaeontologists have dubbed the new species Heracles inexpectatus in recognition of its unusual size and strength. The bones - initially believed to belong to an eagle or duck - were kept in storage for 11 years until earlier this year, when a team of palaeontologists reanalysed them. Prof Worthy said one of his students came across the parrot's bones by chance in his laboratory during a research project. The parrot's beak would have been so big, Mike Archer of the University of NSW Palaeontology said, it "could crack wide open anything it fancied". The professor told AFP news agency the parrot "may well have dined on more than conventional parrot foods, perhaps even other parrots". However, because the parrot had no predators, it is unlikely that it was aggressive, Prof Worthy told the BBC. "It probably sat on the ground, walked around and ate seeds and nuts, mostly," he said. Paul Scofield, the senior curator of natural history at Canterbury Museum, told AFP that researchers were "putting our money on it being flightless".
8-6-19 Racist words and acts, like the El Paso shooting, harm children’s health
U.S. pediatricians are tackling racism as a public health issue that can take a lifelong toll. Just days before 22 people were killed in El Paso, Texas, allegedly by an anti-immigrant gunman, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that racism was harming children’s overall health. Among the people fleeing the shooting at a Walmart on August 3 were young families with children shopping for back-to-school supplies. “Two young parents who sacrificed themselves to shield their 2-month-old infant … were within the age group of young people I serve,” says pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist Maria Trent of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who sees patients up to age 25. The shooting, she says, highlighted two key risks to children’s health and well-being in the United States: gun violence and racism. “Older children and adolescents around the country hear the news, listen to adults talking and see this on their social media feeds,” says Trent, who coauthored the Academy’s new policy statement. “They need grown-ups to be able to assure them that they are safe — and to know that it’s actually the truth.” The stress of being targeted by, or even just witnessing, racist words and actions can take a lifelong toll on children and adolescents, the Academy warned on July 29 in a statement that marked the end of a decade-long deliberation on the issue. “The evidence to support the continued negative impact of racism on health and well-being ... is clear,” Trent and her colleagues write. This is the first time the Academy has explicitly focused on racism. Trent spoke with Science News about the statement, and how pediatricians can respond. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity. (Webmaster's comment: But our nation is not a safe place any longer, and people of all ages need to know that!)
8-5-19 Ancient Maya warfare flared up surprisingly early
Extreme conflicts broke out well before the civilization’s decline, researchers say. In 697, flames engulfed the Maya city of Witzna. Attackers from a nearby kingdom in what’s now Guatemala set fires that scorched stone buildings and destroyed wooden structures. Many residents fled the scene and never returned. This surprisingly early instance of highly destructive Maya warfare has come to light thanks to a combination of sediment core data, site excavations and hieroglyphic writing translations, say research geologist David Wahl of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and his colleagues. Organized attacks aimed at destroying cities began during ancient Maya civilization’s heyday, when Witzna and other cities thrived in lowland regions of Central America, the scientists report August 5 in Nature Human Behavior. Maya civilization’s Classic period ran from around 250 to 950 (SN: 10/27/18, p. 11). Many investigators have assumed that intense military conflicts occurred between 800 and 950, contributing to the Classic Maya demise. Researchers have often assumed that, before 800, Maya conflicts consisted of relatively small-scale raids aimed at taking high-status captives for ransom or sacrifice. Wahl’s group first noted that hieroglyphic inscriptions on a stone slab at the Classic Maya city of Naranjo state that Witzna was attacked and burned by Naranjo forces for a second time on May 21, 697. Naranjo was located about 32 kilometers south of Witzna. Those inscriptions provide no details about a first Naranjo attack. Writing on the slab uses the term puluuy to refer to Naranjo’s burning of five cities including Witzna, over a five-year span. Some scholars suspect that puluuy attacks targeted only select temples or sacred caves, rather than entire settlements.
8-4-19 Ebola vaccine: Why is a new jab so controversial?
A debate is raging over proposals that a second vaccine be introduced to fight Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo, currently in the grip of its worst outbreak. The DR Congo Health Minister, Dr Oly Ilunga, who resigned after being stripped of management of the country's Ebola response, said the current vaccine is the only one that has been proven to be effective, and an opposition MP said the new vaccine is untested, and fears people in the country will be used as guinea pigs. Leading health experts say the second vaccine is safe and could be an important tool in holding back the spread of the virus. So what are the concerns, and are they justified? It has been tested on 6,000 people and "has shown outstanding safety," says Professor Peter Piot, a leading expert on Ebola and director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which has been involved with pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson in the development of the vaccine. Studies have shown that although the drug is still in the experimental phase and hasn't been tested on patients with Ebola, it has proved highly effective in tests on primates (animals genetically close to humans). The only way to test it on humans is for it to be used in an outbreak scenario, as it wouldn't be safe to trial the medicine on volunteers infected with the virus in a clinical trial. This is how the first vaccine - by the Merck & Co drug company - was successfully deployed in Guinea in 2015. It was rolled out for "compassionate use" which allows for the use of an unlicensed drug (licenses can take years or decades to get) when no other options are available, but only with authorisation from the government of the affected country. World Health Organization (WHO) data shows the Merck vaccine has a 97.5% efficacy rate for those who are immunised, compared to those who are not.
8-4-19 Satellites are transforming how archaeologists study the past
‘Archaeology from Space’ describes how remote sensing helps locate and monitor ancient sites. The term “space archaeology” may conjure up images of astronauts hunting for artifacts from little green men, but the field is much more down to Earth. Space archaeologists use satellite imagery and other remote-sensing techniques to look for ancient sites on our planet. As archaeologist Sarah Parcak explains in her new book, Archaeology from Space, these tools have transformed studies of antiquity. “We’ve gone from mapping a few dozen ancient sites in one summer-long archaeological season to mapping hundreds, if not thousands, of sites in weeks,” she writes. With the witty Parcak as a guide, the book offers a lively, inspiring trip around the world, back in time and even into the future. Parcak begins with the basics of space archaeology, explaining how, for example, satellite images can reveal the locations of walls or the foundation of a former building. Even long-buried ruins can leave a mark on the surface, affecting the growth of vegetation and so resulting in “crop marks.” These outlines become apparent from high above and with instruments attuned to certain wavelengths of light. In example after example, Parcak demonstrates the capabilities of different technologies. (Of course, old-fashioned digging is still integral to confirming what’s in the ground.) Many of the book’s anecdotes and tales of fieldwork focus on what Parcak and colleagues have learned about ancient Egypt. While studies of monuments and tombs have revealed aspects of everyday Egyptian life — “Like us, they wrote on walls and obsessed over cats” — satellite data have filled in some bigger-picture details. In the first survey of large-scale settlement patterns in the ancient Nile Delta, Parcak’s team discovered that people largely abandoned the region near the end of Egypt’s Old Kingdom some 4,000 years ago. Reading about how environmental changes, and droughts in this case, contributed to the Old Kingdom’s demise feels remarkably timely in this era of climate change. Parcak notes that part of archaeology’s value lies in learning lessons in resiliency from past societies.
8-3-19 Half of Ebola cases in DR Congo 'unidentified'
Only about 50% of cases of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being identified, the government's response co-ordinator has said. Jean-Jacques Muyembe warned that the current deadly outbreak could last up to three years. He said a man who died this week in the city of Goma, on the Rwandan border, had 10 children and had infected a number of people. The Ebola outbreak has killed more than 1,800 people in the past year. At least 2,700 people have been infected in the worst Ebola outbreak in the DR Congo's history. Tackling the disease has also been complicated by conflict in the region. Earlier this week, Rwanda briefly closed its border with the DR Congo amid fears the disease would spread to the country. Speaking in Goma on Friday, Mr Muyembe said more needed to be done to tackle the outbreak, as an estimated half of Ebola cases were going unidentified. "If we continue on that basis, this epidemic could last two or three years," Mr Muyembe warned. Speaking about the latest victim in Goma, a gold miner, he said that the man "will have contaminated several people". "But for the moment it is only his wife and one of his 10 children who are sick," Mr Muyembe said. He added that the miner's sister had travelled to South Kivu province, but was quickly located and brought back to Goma. Cases in the city earlier prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the outbreak as an emergency of international concern.
8-2-19 Deadly fungus fueled by global warming
Climate change could be to blame for the spread of a multidrug-resistant fungus that has been deemed a “serious global health threat” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Candida auris can cause severe illness in people with weakened immune systems; about one-third of infected patients die. The superbug was first discovered a decade ago in a Japanese patient with an ear infection, and cases of C. auris have been diagnosed since around the world. But unlike a virus, which typically radiates out from one source, the fungus emerged simultaneously in multiple countries, including the U.S., India, and South Africa. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wondered if climate change might be responsible. Humans typically develop fungal infections on the coolest parts of their body, such as their feet and fingers; internal infections are rare because fungi can’t survive the warmer temperatures. But a gradual rise in temperatures due to climate change may have enabled C. auris—which scientists think may have originated in wetlands—to adapt to warmer environs. Tests proved that the fungus can indeed grow at higher temperatures than many of its relatives, a finding that has worrying implications for disease prevention. “If more of these organisms become temperature resistant,” co-author Arturo Casadevall tells NBCNews.com, “then we’re going to have more problems in the future.”
8-2-19 A game-changing HIV implant?
In what may prove to be a breakthrough in the fight against HIV, a tiny implant containing an anti-retroviral drug has been successfully tried in humans. Developed by drugmaker Merck, the matchstick-size device is inserted in the upper arm and releases tiny doses of an infection-blocking drug, called islatravir, that is 10 times more potent than any previous HIV drug. In the trial, implants were placed in a dozen volunteers for 12 weeks. The participants suffered no significant side effects, and modeling of the drug-concentration data suggests that the implant could successfully block the virus for a year or more. That could revolutionize the battle against HIV, which infects about 1.7 million people a year. While daily anti-retroviral pills can successfully suppress the virus, many people forget to take the tablets daily. Prejudice against HIV sufferers also stops some women in African countries from keeping the pills in their homes, where they could be discovered by family members, reports The New York Times. “If—and I’m emphasizing if—it pans out in a larger trial that [this implant] delivers a level of drug that’s protective for a year, that would be a game changer,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease.
8-2-19 Gut bacteria linked to ALS
Changes in gut bacteria may play a role in the development of motor neuron disease, a new study has found. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel genetically programmed mice to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the most common form of the disease. After the animals were given a dose of antibiotics to kill their gut biome, their symptoms became markedly worse. The team identified 11 gut bacteria that the diseased mice had in unusually high or low levels and found that one, Akkermansia muciniphila, appeared to slow the pace of ALS. When the mice were injected with nicotinamide, a chemical produced by A. muciniphila, their condition improved. Subsequent tests on 37 people with ALS found that the patients had lower levels of the chemical in their microbiome, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid than healthy family members. Co-author Eran Elinav cautioned that these are preliminary findings that won’t result in a cure, reports BBC.com. But, he says, “doing something to slow down ALS is a very important step in a disease we have almost nothing we can do about.”
8-2-19 Hospitalizations highlight potential dangers of e-cigs to teens’ lungs
Eight Wisconsin teens developed severe injuries to the organs after using the devices. The eight Wisconsin teens had become so short of breath that they needed to be hospitalized. Although the cause of their lung injuries remains to be determined, the teens had one thing in common: All reported vaping in the weeks and months before their hospital stays in July. “Some of these kids were quite ill and needed a lot of support,” including the use of ventilators to help them breathe, says Jonathan Meiman, a chief medical officer with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services in Madison. The health department’s investigation into these cases has just begun. But vaping as a culprit isn’t a stretch. With more adolescents using JUUL and other types of electronic cigarettes, sometimes frequently, “it is not surprising” that we are starting to see some children developing lung injuries, says pediatric pulmonologist Sharon McGrath-Morrow of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “Studies already have reported more chronic respiratory symptoms and more severe asthma symptoms in adolescents who vape,” she says. For example, a 2017 study of more than 2,000 Southern California 11th- and 12th-graders found that teens who had used e-cigarettes had about twice the risk of having symptoms such as ongoing cough, congestion or wheezing or developing bronchitis, compared with teens who hadn’t used the products. The Wisconsin teens reported symptoms similar to those seen with a serious respiratory illness such as the flu, including fever, difficulty breathing and nausea. The shortness of breath got worse over days or weeks, Meiman says, finally requiring hospitalization. The teens came from three different counties in southeastern Wisconsin and were all patients at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, which alerted the state.
8-2-19 Bid to better protect Scotland's 'Dinosaur Isle'
Dinosaur and other animal fossil sites in Skye have been given new legal protection in a bid to deter unscrupulous collectors. The isle is internationally recognised for its fossils of creatures that lived more than 165 million years ago. But some of the prehistoric locations have been badly damaged by collectors removing valuable specimens. The Scottish government has issued a Nature Conservation Order (NCO) for Skye's sites. It is an offence to breach an NCO. Fossils can only be removed for scientific purposes or to preserve them, with consent of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Dubbed Scotland's "Dinosaur Isle", Skye is rich in fossils from the Middle Jurassic. Finds include the earliest turtles known to have lived in water. The reptile fossils were found on a beach on the Strathaird peninsula. Studies of dinosaur footprints at Valtos have been used by palaeontologists to explain Australia's "Dino stampede", a large number of prints believed to have been made by small dinosaurs possibly fleeing from a predator. Evidence of a small Jurassic mammal has also been found in the island. The jaw of the shrew-like Borealestes serendipitus was discovered more than 40 years ago, the first time such a find had been made of the animal. Recent discoveries include what could be the remains of flying reptiles, or pterosaurs. A number of important fossils are held in the care of the island's Staffin Museum, but many have already been lost or damaged. In 2011, tonnes of rock were dug away from cliffs near Bearreraig Bay, north of Portree, in an apparent organised search for valuable specimens. Dinosaur footprints were also removed from Valtos. In 2016, an attempt to take a plaster cast of a dinosaur footprint at An Corran risked significant damage to the fossil.
8-2-19 Folic acid seems to be essential for fathers-to-be as well as mothers
Prenatal vitamins like folic acid are par for the course for many women thinking about getting pregnant. But growing evidence suggests that folate may be essential for healthy sperm, too. Is it time to offer supplements to men? Folic acid is a synthetic version of the vitamin folate, which is known to play an important role in the healthy division of cells. Women who don’t get enough folate in the early stages of pregnancy are more likely to have babies with birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Because of this, women who are planning to get pregnant, or are in the early stages of pregnancy, are routinely advised to take folic acid supplements in places like the UK. In the US and Canada, folic acid has been added to foods like bread and cereal on a mandatory basis since the 1990s. But growing evidence suggests folate might be important for fathers-to-be, too. Research in mice and rats has shown that the amount of folate a male ingests before conception influences the pregnancy outcomes of the female mouse and the health of the offspring. To look for effects in people, Nerea Martín-Calvo at University of Navarra in Spain and her colleagues looked at the pregnancy outcomes of 108 heterosexual couples undergoing fertility treatment at a hospital clinic in Boston in the US. All of the study participants were asked to fill out a detailed food questionnaire, so that the team could estimate how much dietary folate each person was getting. The team assessed the outcomes of the 113 resulting pregnancies and births. After accounting for factors such as age, BMI and the mother’s folate intake, the group found that men who had more folate in their diets had babies with a longer gestational period, which is generally thought to be beneficial to health up to a point. An increase in folate intake in men of 400 micrograms per day – the amount recommended to mothers-to-be by the World Health Organization – was associated with a 2.6 day longer gestation period.
8-2-19 Cell injections could train the body to accept a transplanted organ
People having organ transplants in future may no longer have to take anti-rejection medicines, thanks to a technique that could make their immune system see the donor’s tissue as their own. The method involves giving the recipient an infusion of the donor’s cells a week before the operation, so it wouldn’t work for those getting an organ from someone who has died. However, it would be suitable for those with a living donor, such as in some kidney, liver and pancreas cell transplants. When the technique was tested on five macaque monkeys, the transplanted pancreas cells stayed healthy without being rejected for up to two years. “It’s still very early days, but if it works it’s a complete game changer,” says Chris Callaghan at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, who wasn’t involved in the study. Transplants of organs such as kidneys, livers and hearts can be life saving, but recipients currently have to take medicines for the rest of their lives to damp down their immune system and avoid the new organ being rejected. These drugs have serious side effects, for instance leaving people more prone to infections and cancer. So a way to force someone’s immune system to accept a new organ has been sought for decades. Bernhard Hering at the University of Minnesota and his colleagues exploited the way our immune systems learn not to attack our own cells. Throughout our lives, cells naturally die through a process called apoptosis and are shed into the bloodstream. Immune cells in the spleen take them in and “remember” that their molecules signify the body’s own cells – not invading microbes – and so should be tolerated. It is possible to mimic this process by treating cells with a chemical called ECDI that triggers apoptosis.
8-2-19 Public trust that scientists work for the good of society is growing
But public confidence falters on questions of scientific transparency and integrity. But for the U.S. public at large, scientists are generally seen as a trustworthy bunch. In fact, 86 percent of Americans hold at least “a fair amount” of confidence that scientists work for the public good, according to a survey released August 2 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. That’s far better than how respondents felt about what motivates politicians (only 35 percent said they were fairly confident that elected officials acted in the public interest), journalists (47 percent) or even religious leaders (57 percent). And that general trust in the goodwill of scientists has grown steadily over the last four years, from 76 percent in 2016. “The issue of trust in scientists is part of a broader conversation that society is having on the role and value of experts,” says Cary Funk, the director of Pew’s science and society research. “What we wanted to do was get a look at the potential sources of mistrust.” Conducted from January 7 to January 21, the survey questioned 4,464 randomly selected adults who are demographically representative of the U.S. population, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points. It focused on three scientific fields: medicine, nutrition and environment. But it did not look at specific topics that have become highly politicized, for example, childhood vaccination campaigns (SN: 6/8/19, p. 16) or climate change (SN Online: 7/28/17).
8-1-19 London’s public spaces are rife with multidrug-resistant bacteria
Multidrug-resistant bacteria are dotted throughout London. From swabs taken across the city, nearly half of the samples with a common type of bacteria had a drug resistant strain. Hermine Mkrtchyan at the University of East London and her colleagues swabbed commonly touched surfaces around the city, including door handles, stair handrails and taps in shopping centres and train stations. They also took swabs in public areas of hospitals, such as reception areas and lifts. They tested the swabs for the presence of staphylococci, a group of bacteria that can cause antibiotic-resistant infections such as MRSA in hospitals. Out of 182 swabs from public spaces containing staphylococci, the team found 40.7 per cent were resistant to more than one antibiotic. And out of 418 swabs from hospitals containing the bacteria, 49.5 per cent were multidrug-resistant. “Finding such high levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the general public settings is a worrisome finding,” says Mkrtchyan. Most of the bacteria identified aren’t usually pathogenic, but some are opportunistic, meaning they may cause infections in some cases, such as in people with weakened immune systems. Genetic tests found a large diversity of genes in the bacteria that confer resistance to different antibiotics. Bacteria can exchange genes with one another, so it is possible for these genes to spread to human pathogens and create new strains that cause hard-to-treat infections.Antibiotic-resistant bacteria existed long before humans developed antibiotics, but the overuse of these drugs has created the evolutionary conditions for them to become much more prevalent. They are now considered a global epidemic, present in such unlikely places as penguins’ guts in Antarctica.
8-1-19 Turtle embryos may control their sex by moving inside their eggs
Turtle embryos may be able to move around within their eggs to seek out hot or cool spots, and doing so might influence their eventual sex. We know that in some turtles, cooler eggs produce males and warmer ones produce females. That’s a concern, because climate change could result in one-sided sex ratios as temperatures increase. But new work suggests that turtles may have some ability to adapt to combat this. “Embryos can detect temperature differentials within the egg and move to the optimum position. That behaviour is of course a hallmark of reptiles in their post-hatching life – we’ve simply shown that the ability begins much earlier in life than people expected,” says Rick Shine at Macquarie University in Australia. He and his colleagues measured the temperature gradients within the eggs of a freshwater turtle, Mauremys reevesii, in natural nests beside an outdoor pond. Previous research suggested that eggs in a natural nest wouldn’t have much of a temperature gradient, but Shine and his colleagues found that the temperature was consistently higher at one end of an egg than at the other, with a maximum difference of 4.7°C. “The temperature difference needed to shift from ‘develop as a male’ to ‘develop as a female’ is really tiny – only about one degree Celsius. And there is enough temperature difference between two ends within the same egg for an embryo to change its temperature by that amount,” says Shine. The team incubated turtle eggs in the laboratory and treated half with capsazepine, a chemical that blocks the embryo’s ability to sense temperature. Then they heated one side of the eggs, creating a gradient. The embryos with blocked temperature sensors stayed in the middle of the egg and produced either all males or females, depending on their incubation temperature. But those with their temperature sensors working as normal moved up to 6 millimetres within the egg, and about half hatched as male and half as female.