6-19-21 Troubled US teens left traumatised by tough love camps
As one of the most famous faces of the 2000s, people think they know the story of Paris Hilton. So, when the 40-year-old released a YouTube documentary about her life last year, many were shocked to learn about her decades-long struggle with trauma. Hilton tearfully recounted how she was woken up by strangers in her bedroom in the middle of the night as a teenager and forcibly taken across the country. She said her unanswered cries for help repeatedly play out in nightmares which make it difficult to sleep. Her story, though shocking, is not unique. Hilton is one of thousands of American children sent every year by their parents into a private network of "tough love" residential programmes and schools marketed at reforming their behaviour. No-one knows how many for sure, because nobody is keeping track. "My parents got me kidnapped and dropped off in the middle of the mountains," 21-year-old Daniel says in a TikTok video watched more than a million times. As a teenager, Daniel suffered anxiety and depression. He was 15 and had recently come out as gay when he self-harmed so severely that he required hospital care. It was in hospital that he was shaken awake in the middle of the night by two men. They told him the process could be easy or hard - depending on how much he resisted. With little fight left in him, Daniel went with the pair. But when he asked a stranger if he could use a telephone to call his parents on a brief stop for food, he says the escorts threatened him with handcuffs. Daniel was sent to a wilderness programme in Utah where he spent 77 days living outdoors, hiking miles a day on rations. He vividly remembers feeling cold, hungry and dirty for weeks on end and witnessing others attempt to run away and try to take their own lives. Like many others sent to wilderness programmes, he was then enrolled directly into a long-term facility - this time in Montana - where he would spend another 15 months.
6-18-21 Little evidence linking depression and long working hours, says WHO
Working excessive hours has long been thought to increase the risk of depression – but after conducting the largest ever review of research into this area, researchers say there is a surprising lack of evidence in support of the link. An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) is now challenging previous research findings and general public opinion that working long hours can be a trigger for depression. The systematic review and meta-analysis drew from 22 studies with more than 100,000 participants (all predating the coronavirus pandemic), which had all found a link between working long hours and the onset of depression. The team concluded that these studies fell short of establishing overwork as a trigger. By contrast, another recent review by the WHO and ILO found strong evidence for a link between working 55-plus hours a week, and the risk of ischaemic heart disease or stroke. Frank Pega at the WHO says the same association couldn’t be found for the effect of long hours on depression, reflecting “major limitations” of the existing research. “Despite being relatively large in size, we found that this body of evidence still provides only inadequate evidence for harmfulness,” says Pega. “In other words, it is still not clear whether working long hours triggers depression or not.” Future studies could be improved with more robust, longer-term data collection and epidemiological analysis, including of at-risk populations, so as to better establish causation. Natural experiments looking at changes in working hours for occupations where long hours are standard, could also be promising, he says. The problems of work-related stress, depression and anxiety need addressing. For example, a recent UK labour force survey found that 18 million workdays were lost in 2019 as a result, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have exacerbated the issue.
6-18-21 Extinct Sicilian elephant lost 8000 kilograms as it evolved and shrank
An extinct species of dwarf elephant from Sicily halved in height and shrank by almost 85 per cent in body mass over a period of just 350,000 years after evolving from one of the largest land mammals that ever lived, researchers have found. Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis, which became extinct around 19,000 years ago, lost more than 8000 kilograms in weight and almost 2 metres in height after diverging from the much larger straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus, which was almost 4 metres tall and weighed 10,000 kilograms. An international team of researchers analysed molecular evidence from the remains of a dwarf elephant unearthed in Puntali cave in Sicily, Italy, to calculate the dwarfing rate of the species. The specimen is thought to be between 50,000 and 175,000 years old. The researchers examined a piece of petrous bone – part of the skull that holds the inner ear – which is known to preserve DNA better than other parts of the skeleton. They found that the dwarf elephant reduced in weight and height by up to 200 kilograms and 4 centimetres per generation, over a maximum period of about 352,000 years. To put this in context, the researchers say the size reduction of P. mnaidriensis is comparable to modern humans shrinking to approximately the size of a rhesus monkey. “The magnitude of dwarfing resulting from this rapid evolutionary process is truly striking, resulting in a loss of body mass of almost 85 per cent in one of the largest ever terrestrial mammals,” says team member Axel Barlow at Nottingham Trent University, UK. “As the descendants of giants, the extinct dwarf elephants are among the most intriguing examples of evolution on islands,” he says. P. antiquus lived on the European mainland between 40,000 and 800,000 years ago and is thought to have colonised Sicily some time between 70,000 and 200,000 years ago.
6-18-21 How one medical team is bringing COVID-19 vaccines to hard-to-reach Hispanic communities
Unidos Contra COVID totes shots, empathy and facts to Philadelphia’s Spanish-speaking residents. PHILADELPHIA — In a makeshift tent behind a soccer goal and close enough to a taco stand that the smell of grilling barbacoa and carnitas drifts over, Melissa Pluguez cheerfully asks a man, in Spanish, if he’s right- or left-handed. The man, wearing jeans and a red T-shirt with white letters that spell Abercrombie, answers right, and confesses he’s a bit afraid of needles. Even so, he’s been eager to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Pluguez translates, but hasn’t felt comfortable going to vaccination sites around Philadelphia. But when he heard about this vaccination event — staffed by local, Spanish-speaking medical professionals and held at his church congregation’s regular Sunday gathering — he felt ready. Pluguez is a nurse practitioner for critical care at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, N.J., and co-medical director of Unidos Contra COVID, the small group that organized this vaccine outreach event. She tells the man that the fear is worse than the needle, and he nods and looks away as she injects the Pfizer vaccine into his left arm. Afterward, he smiles, and the two bump elbows before the man leaves to pick up his vaccination card. There’s no free beer in sight, nor is anyone getting complimentary tickets to Phillies baseball games. Instead, roughly 300 people are clustered around soccer fields that border the church parking lot. The main event is a tournament, where professional-looking players in uniform square off as spectators cheer. On adjacent fields, children kick balls around or chase each other through the lines of people waiting to buy tacos or mango slices stuffed into plastic cups. Couples dance to upbeat music emanating from loudspeakers set up near Unidos Contra COVID’s tent. Inside, behind dark mesh netting partitions set up for privacy amid all that action, vaccines are being delivered into arm after arm.
6-18-21 Controlling nerve cells with light opened new ways to study the brain
A method called optogenetics offers insights into memory, perception and addiction. Some big scientific discoveries aren’t actually discovered. They are borrowed. That’s what happened when scientists enlisted proteins from an unlikely lender: green algae. Cells of the algal species Chlamydomonas reinhardtii are decorated with proteins that can sense light. That ability, first noticed in 2002, quickly caught the attention of brain scientists. A light-sensing protein promised the power to control neurons — the brain’s nerve cells — by providing a way to turn them on and off, in exactly the right place and time. Nerve cells genetically engineered to produce the algal proteins become light-controlled puppets. A flash of light could induce a quiet neuron to fire off signals or force an active neuron to fall silent. “This molecule is the light sensor that we needed,” says vision neuroscientist Zhuo-Hua Pan, who had been searching for a way to control vision cells in mice’s retinas. The method enabled by these loaner proteins is now called optogenetics, for its combination of light (opto) and genes. In less than two decades, optogenetics has led to big insights into how memories are stored, what creates perceptions and what goes wrong in the brain during depression and addiction. Using light to drive the activity of certain nerve cells, scientists have toyed with mouse hallucinations: Mice have seen lines that aren’t there and have remembered a room they had never been inside. Scientists have used optogenetics to make mice fight, mate and eat, and even given blind mice sight. In a big first, optogenetics recently restored aspects of a blind man’s vision. An early clue to the potential of optogenetics came around 1 a.m. on August 4, 2004. Neuroscientist Ed Boyden was in a lab at Stanford, checking on a dish of neurons that possessed a gene for one of the algal light sensors, called channelrhodopsin-2. Boyden was going to flash blue light on the cells and see if they fired signals. To his amazement, the very first cell he checked responded to the light with a burst of action, Boyden wrote in a 2011 account. The possibilities raised by that little spark of activity, described in a 2005 technical report by Boyden, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and colleagues, quickly became realities.
6-18-21 A 1000-year-old Indian temple had an early form of air conditioning
An Indian religious settlement built 1000 years ago had an early form of air conditioning created using natural resources and strategic design. The settlement contained Jain temples and dormitories, and was part of a small village called Artipura in what is now the southern state Karnataka in India, a region frequently affected by droughts both now and in the past. The predominant feature of the settlement was a large granite-skirted natural reservoir storing rainwater, around which temples and dormitories were strategically built. The entire settlement was situated on a hillock, where winds blew because of the elevation. Satyajit Ghosh at the Vellore Institute of Technology in India and his colleagues used satellite data to analyse wind patterns in the region and found that they blew from south-west to north-east, meaning they would have gusted over the reservoir before reaching the temple and dormitories. The team used satellite images of the settlement along with an AI based on a watershed algorithm to determine the boundaries and the depth of the ancient reservoir. They found that as the air moved over the reservoir, it would have increased evaporation, which can help reduce heat. These winds would also have cooled as they blew over the reservoir, creating an air conditioning effect. Temples at the site were made with granite and brick, and dormitories with limestone and brick; both types of walls had engineered air gaps. The researchers analysed the ancient bricks and found that although they were denser than modern ones, their use in this arrangement with air gaps reduced heat transmission. “The settlers planned their living according to what nature offered them,” says Ghosh. “A large body of water, staggered buildings oriented towards the water resource and use of indigenous building [materials] with ample ventilation decreased the heat load.”
6-18-21 Giant rhino fossils in China show new species was 'taller than giraffe'
A new species of the ancient giant rhino - among the largest mammals to walk on land - has been discovered in north-western China, researchers say. The Paraceratherium linxiaense, which lived some 26.5 million years ago, weighed 21 tonnes - the equivalent of four large African elephants. The hornless creature's head could also reach 23ft (7m) to graze treetops, making it taller than a giraffe. The new findings were concluded from fossils discovered in Gansu Province In a study published in Communications Biology journal on Thursday, scientists said that analysis of the fossils - found near the Wangjiachuan village in 2015 - pointed to an entirely new species that was different to other known giant rhinos. A completely preserved skull and jawbone, for example, indicated that the animal had featured a slender skull, as well as a prehensile nose trunk similar to that of the modern tapir, according to the study led by Dr Deng Tao of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. The team of scientists also found that the new species was closely related to giant rhinos that once lived in Pakistan, which suggested that it had travelled across Central Asia. If it had roamed freely between north-west China and the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent, it would suggest that the Tibetan Plateau would have likely had some low-lying areas at the time. "Tropical conditions allowed the giant rhino to return northward to Central Asia, implying that the Tibetan region was still not uplifted as a high-elevation plateau," said Prof Deng in a news release.
6-17-21 Giant rhino unearthed in China was one of largest mammals ever to live
A new species of ancient giant rhino has been discovered in north-western China. Giant rhinos, also known as indricotheres, may be the largest mammals ever to walk on land – and the new species, named Paraceratherium linxiaense, was one of the largest of its kind, only marginally smaller than Dzungariotherium orgosense, which is generally considered to be the largest of all indricotheres. Tao Deng at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues described P. linxiaense from a completely preserved skull and jawbone found in 26.5-million-year-old deposits in the Linxia Basin of Gansu Province, China, where they had been looking for mammal fossils since the 1980s. As with other indricotheres, P. linxiaense would have had a long neck to go with its slender skull and two cone-shaped upper first incisors. It is likely to have lived in areas of open woodland and eaten leaves high up in the trees like modern giraffes do. “The giant rhino has no horn and it looks like a horse more than a rhino,” says Deng. “Its head can reach a height of 7 metres to browse leaves of treetops.” The team estimates that P. linxiaense would have weighed about 21 tonnes, equivalent to the weight of four large African elephants. “These animals would have been bigger than any land mammal that’s alive today,” says Luke Holbrook at Rowan University in New Jersey. “The only thing that might be bigger than them are the biggest mammoths.” Since we can’t weigh these animals and have to rely on approximations from their fossils, we can’t know their actual body size. Indricotheres are thought to have lived mostly in Asia, from Mongolia to Pakistan, but a few remains have been found in eastern Europe.
6-17-21 Europeans used to open their relatives’ graves to recover heirlooms
In the Early Middle Ages, many European people reopened their relatives’ graves to recover family heirlooms. The practice had previously been interpreted as grave robbing, but closer examination has revealed patterns in the objects that were taken. Alison Klevnäs at Stockholm University in Sweden and her colleagues compiled data from dozens of cemeteries dotted across Europe, from Britain and France in the west to Transylvania in the east. All of the graves dated from between AD 500 and 800. Many of the graves had been reopened and objects removed, as evidenced by leftover traces such as metal flakes from a sword, but the most valuable items were not consistently taken. For example, at one site in Kent, brooches were removed from the corpse’s clothing, but silver gilt pendants and a necklace with glass beads were left behind. “They’re absolutely not trying to maximise profit from each reopening,” says Klevnäs. Instead, it seems the items removed were ones that had been passed down through generations, such as swords and brooches. Items that were personal to the individual, such as knives, were left in the graves – this is consistent with historical attitudes to such items. “They go back into those from living memory, so it’s something about connection to the relatively recent dead,” says Klevnäs. A small fraction of the graves show evidence of being disturbed for a more sinister reason. “There are a few graves spread over the whole area where it looks like people are doing things to the bodies that suggest they are afraid of the undead,” says Klevnäs. “For example they turned the skulls around and prop it into place with stones backwards, or they might cut off feet.” But these graves account for less than 1 per cent of the total, she says. The idea that corpses would be buried and then left entirely undisturbed is far from universal, says Klevnäs. Late Stone Age graves were designed to enable people to revisit the bodies. “We know there are these extended mortuary customs,” says Klevnäs. Today, many cultures have customs or festivals in which people interact with relatives’ remains.
6-17-21 Insight into early embryos could explain why some pregnancies fail
Scientists have identified key molecular events in the earliest stages of human embryo development that could help shed light on why many pregnancies fail. These events occur in the second week of gestation – between seven and 14 days after fertilisation – in one of the most critical processes of development. During this period, the embryo acquires a head end and a tail end, the first step in the formation of the overall body pattern in humans. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the University of Cambridge and her team have found that this process is initiated by a group of cells outside the embryo, in a tissue known as the hypoblast. They say that the findings could help us understand more about why early pregnancy loss occurs. “Our goal has always been to enable insights to very early human embryo development in a dish, to understand how our lives start,” says Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz. “By combining our new technology with advanced sequencing methods, we have delved deeper into the key changes that take place at this incredible stage of human development, when so many pregnancies unfortunately fail.” At present, very little is known about the development of the human embryo once it implants in the uterus, due to ethical restrictions on the use of human embryos in research. In 2016, Zernicka-Goetz and her team developed a technique to culture human embryos outside the body, allowing them to be studied up to day 14 of development, in line with UK ethical guidance. As part of the new study, the team collaborated with colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK to find out what happens at the molecular level during this early stage of human embryo development. They found that the hypoblast sends a message to the embryo that kick-starts the development of the head-to-tail body axis, where one end becomes committed to developing into the head end, and the other the tail.
6-17-21 Risk of covid-19 infection plummets 21 days after a vaccination
The chance of getting covid-19 after being vaccinated drops sharply 21 days following a first dose, new analysis suggests. People who become infected post-vaccination are also less likely to have symptoms than those who test positive for the virus and have not been jabbed. The findings, released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), are based on a sample of adults who had received a coronavirus vaccine up to 31 May. They suggest the risk of infection initially increases following a first dose, peaking at around 16 days. There is then a strong decrease in risk up to around one month after the first dose, and the risk then declines slowly but steadily. Rates of infection post-vaccination are likely to be very low, however. Out of a sample of 297,493 people vaccinated, 0.5 per cent were subsequently found to have a new infection of covid-19. Among those who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, 0.8 per cent later became infected, compared with 0.3 per cent of those who received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. From a sample of 210,918 adults who had received both doses of vaccine, just 0.1 per cent were subsequently found to have a new infection. Possible explanations for infection shortly after getting the vaccine include someone catching covid-19 before they had received a jab, or exposure to covid-19 at a vaccination centre, the ONS said. The analysis comes as separate figures suggest cases of covid-19 are rising exponentially across England, driven by younger and mostly unvaccinated age groups. Data from nearly 110,000 swab tests carried out across England between 20 May and 7 June suggest covid-19 infections are doubling every 11 days, with the highest prevalence in north-west England and one in 670 people infected.
6-16-21 We must all learn more about the algorithms that shape our daily lives
IT IS hard to go a single day without hearing about the two huge crises that humanity is grappling with right now, the covid-19 pandemic and the climate emergency. In both cases, science and technology have been crucial in identifying the problems and their possible solutions. Those two issues might seem like quite enough to be going on with, but we shouldn’t take our eyes off another troublesome area in which the role of science is vital: the rise of algorithms. We might hear less about them, but algorithms are just as hard to avoid as talk of the pandemic. Constantly operating in the background of our digital lives, they do a huge variety of jobs, suggesting what we should read, watch and buy online. They are also increasingly used to help us make tricky decisions offline. The trouble with this is that the workings of algorithms, especially those based on artificial intelligence, are often impossible to fully understand. We outsource all kinds of decisions to computers, yet can’t easily see how these were made. One instance came last year, when Ofqual, the regulator of exams in England, had tough decisions to make about assigning grades to pupils who had their exams cancelled due to the pandemic. It decided to ask teachers for their assessments of pupils’ performances and then moderate these using an algorithm. The hope was to avoid wild grade inflation. The result, however, was that many students ended up with drastically worse results than they had expected, with – initially, at least – little explanation. Maybe it is time to admit that we need a healthier relationship with algorithms, one where we understand the basics of how they work. A good first step would be to get to know a few of the algorithms that really matter in our daily lives, which is why we decided to do just that.
6-16-21 The essential guide to the algorithms that run your lifU
From shaping what we read and buy to diagnosing illness, algorithms play a key role in every aspect of our lives. Here’s what you need to know about the most important ones. IT IS almost impossible to go a day without interacting with an algorithm. They help direct the whole of our online experience, recommending what we should buy, read, watch and listen to. Some 74 per cent of adults in the US use Facebook at least once a day – and what they see is decided entirely by an algorithm. Offline, they are increasingly used to help us make tricky decisions, screening job applications, moderating exam results and even directing which crimes police investigators focus on. As they have become ubiquitous, algorithms have generated a mixture of hype and concern. On the one hand, we are regularly told that they can be opaque and biased. On the other, we hear that they can be incredibly handy, pulling off tasks that humans can struggle with, from optimising complex trade logistics to spotting the earliest signs of disease in medical scans. So what’s the truth about algorithms? It helps to understand that the word can mean quite different things (see “What is an algorithm?“). It also helps to get to know some of the algorithms that shape our lives – so that’s what we’ll do over the next few pages. Few algorithms wield as much power as those under the bonnet of Facebook. The social media giant’s algorithms control which updates its 2.8 billion monthly users see from which friends and what headlines they read on their news feed. When we speak of the “Facebook algorithm”, we’e actually referring to dozens of pieces of software that are based on a range of technologies and are constantly being tweaked. This software analyses what the firm calls the “inventory”: the collection of posts from those people, pages or groups that a user follows. It then uses neural networks, a form of artificial intelligence, to score those posts on various factors. As far back as 2014, Facebook employees reported that the news feed was taking 100,000 factors into account. Eventually, it combines these scores into a single ranking for each post. This is used to curate what a user sees.
6-16-21 You can catch covid-19 twice, but the second bout is likely to be mild
BACK in August 2020, a worrying report came in from Reno, Nevada. A 25-year-old man who had recovered from covid-19 in April had fallen ill with it again, and this time his symptoms were worse. He had tested negative for the virus in between bouts, so had been infected twice. Other reports of reinfection were also circulating at the time, raising fears that infections don’t lead to long-lasting immunity. Nine months on, however, those fears have receded. Not only is vaccination proving highly effective, a number of large studies in Europe and the US have now shown that while reinfection is possible, it is rare and usually produces mild disease at worst. One such study was carried out over four months in 100 care homes for older people in England. Between June and November 2020, Maria Krutikov at University College London and her colleagues took blood samples from 682 residents and 1429 staff and tested them for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Over the next four months, all the subjects were regularly screened for infection using PCR tests. Initial blood tests found that 634 of the total 2111 people were antibody positive, meaning they had already been infected. Only 14 of them subsequently had a positive PCR test – a reinfection rate of just over 2 per cent. In comparison, 204 of the 1477 (14 per cent) people whose blood test came back antibody negative subsequently caught the virus. Data from residents and staff who had been vaccinated more than 12 days before their samples were taken were excluded from the analysis (The Lancet Healthy Longevity, doi.org/gkc8dr). Eleven of the 12 reinfected people for whom symptoms were recorded had symptoms such as a cough or fever, but none required hospitalisation. The researchers warn that the numbers are quite small, so it is hard to draw firm conclusions, but it seems that previous infection reduces the risk of reinfection by about 70 per cent. This is in line with another study of healthcare workers in England, also carried out between June and November 2020.
6-16-21 We are witnessing an accelerated shift in how people view food
IN OUR information-saturated digital age, where we can pick and choose our own narrative about how the world works, I have often wondered if this has an impact on the rate of cultural change. As an ethnobotanist trained to study our cultural attitude towards plants and their uses, I have been witnessing with total fascination what seems to be a rapid shift in how plants are viewed in received nutritional wisdom. I wonder if this may be a sign of things to come. I first noticed the trend about 15 years ago with the emergence of the “paleo” diet movement. This largely repackaged ideas from the ultra-low carbohydrate diets that came before it, but underpinned them with a “return to nature” narrative. According to the paleo school of thought, in order to be truly healthy, we need to eat as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, ditching as many carbohydrates as possible. This meant a diet based predominantly on meat, with a few low-carbohydrate vegetables like leaves, stems and flowers. Pretty much all fruit, however, was off limits due to its sugar content. Many questionable justifications have been used to support this. For instance, in our deep Palaeolithic past, fruit was available, but highly seasonal. So, the argument went that, while consuming restricted amounts in a short window in the summer was fine, today’s hyperabundance and year-round availability was the root cause of chronic diseases. It might be easy to dismiss these ideas as only belonging to a particularly devoted set of niche dieters. However, such thinking quickly started popping up in different guises in the mainstream and even, albeit in a diluted form, as government health advice in some places. What is interesting about the paleo diet idea to a botanist is that it assumes all early humans lived in the world’s temperate zones where fruit is seasonal, as (perhaps unsurprisingly) do the creators of these diets. It is almost like humans aren’t a species that evolved in the tropics at all. This Western-centric focus is often extended to the idea that you should specifically avoid “tropical” fruits as they are higher in sugar.
6-16-21 Calories on food packets are wrong – it's time to change that
A CALORIE is a calorie, so they say. It shouldn’t matter whether it comes from steak, a carrot or a doughnut. Except that it does. And those calorie counts on food packets? Well, they aren’t much to be trusted either. A food calorie is defined as the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 litre of water by 1°C at sea level. Somewhat confusingly, this is 1000 times larger than a heat calorie, so is technically called a Calorie, with a big “c”, to make the distinction. In other words, a Calorie is a kilocalorie, or kcal for short. Much of what we know about food calories comes from work in the late 1880s by Wilbur Atwater at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who spent his career trying to figure out what proportion of different foods humans could digest. To measure the calories in food, Atwater set up an experiment using a “bomb calorimeter”– a highly pressurised sealed container that is filled with pure oxygen for burning food to a crisp. The heat given off during this is used to calculate the food’s calorie content, which is also known as its heat of combustion. Humans, however, aren’t bomb calorimeters. The acidic cauldron of the stomach aside, digestion is a time-consuming, but actually relatively benign, series of chemical reactions. Thus, we are only able to extract a proportion of the calories in any given food. In Atwater’s experiment, he fed various foods to human volunteers and measured the heat of combustion of the resulting faeces (reflect on this the next time you want to complain about your job). By calculating the difference in the heat of combustion between the food and the faeces, he approximated the calories that were absorbed by his volunteers. In 1900, after a whole lot of burnt poop, Atwater presented his calculations to the world: we absorb 9 kcal per gram of fat, 4 kcal per gram of carbohydrates and 4 kcal per gram of protein. More than 120 years on, these “Atwater factors” are still the basis for how calorie counts on all food packaging are derived.
6-16-21 Rising BMI and diabetes have stalled the decline of heart disease
Efforts to reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes are being stalled by weight gain and increasing diabetes prevalence, analysis of Scottish health data suggests. Between 1990 and 2014, the rate of heart attacks and strokes plummeted, driven by decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and smoking rates, the research found. But progress in further reducing cardiovascular disease has been hampered by increasing body mass index (BMI) and diabetes prevalence over the same period. Heart disease and strokes are the two leading causes of death globally. The number of heart attacks in Scotland fell from 1069 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 276 per 100,000 people in 2014. Ischaemic strokes, which are caused by a blood clot in the brain, fell from 608 per 100,000 people to 188 per 100,000 people over the same period. The study found that 74 per cent of this fall in heart attacks and 68 per cent of the reduction in strokes could be accounted for by changes in risk factor prevalence. However, average BMI increased from 27.2 to 28.1 and the prevalence of diabetes more than doubled, from 4 per cent to 9 per cent of the population. This was estimated to have led to a 20 per cent rise in heart attacks and a 15 per cent increase in ischaemic strokes attributable to these two risk factors. The increased diabetes prevalence contributed to nearly as many heart attacks as the number prevented by the decline in smoking, the researchers estimate. But while the team could be confident that changes in risk factors had an impact on the incidence of heart attacks and strokes, they viewed each risk factor in isolation in their analysis, which means that their estimated impact is likely to be exaggerated. Researchers say the picture is similar across the UK, with data suggesting that the number of people who are obese and the number of people with diabetes has increased over the past couple of decades.
6-16-21 3200-year-old shrine in Turkey may be an ancient view of the cosmos
A shrine built more than 3000 years ago in what is now Turkey may be a symbolic representation of the cosmos, according to a new interpretation. It has now been suggested that the elite of the Hittite society, an empire that dominated what is now Turkey between 1700 and 1100 BC until it was destroyed, created the Yazilikaya shrine to embody their ideas about how the universe was organised. Yazilikaya contains many images in rock relief, and the researchers behind the new interpretation argue that these have symbolic meanings relating to the underworld, earth and sky, as well as to cycles of nature like the seasons. “There are many connotations with the names of the deities and the arrangements and groups, and so in retrospect it’s pretty easy to figure it out,” says Eberhard Zangger, president of Luwian Studies, an international non-profit foundation. “But we worked on it for seven years.” “They may be onto something,” says Ian Rutherford at the University of Reading in the UK. “I’m not convinced of all the details, but very interested in the whole thing.” Yazilikaya is an open-air shrine and was one of the most important sites of the Hittite Empire. The remains of the Hittite capital ?attuša can be found near the modern village of Bogazkale in central Turkey. Yazilikaya is within walking distance of the ancient capital. At Yazilikaya, the Hittites carved and modified natural rock outcrops to create two roofless spaces, decorated with rock relief images of their deities. They used the site for centuries; its present form dates from about 1230 BC. It isn’t clear why the Hittites built Yazilikaya or what they used it for. Many ideas have been proposed – for instance, that one of the spaces was used in new year ceremonies, and that the other was a mausoleum for a Hittite king.
6-16-21 A California tech millionaire is weeks away from selling helmets that can read your mind
"Over the next few weeks, a company called Kernel will begin sending dozens of customers across the U.S. a $50,000 helmet that can, crudely speaking, read their mind," Ashlee Vance writes at Bloomberg Businessweek. The company's founder, Bryan Johnson, spent more than five years and $55 million of his own fortune — Johnson started the electronic payment system Braintree and bought Venmo before selling both to Ebay for $800 million — to develop his helmets. Johnson hopes they will be inexpensive enough by 2030 that regular people can buy them, like smartwatches and other wearable tech, but the first batch will go to research institutions like Harvard Medical School, the University of Texas, and Cybin Inc, a startup developing mental health treatments based on psychedelics. Christof Koch, the chief scientist at Seattle's Allen Institute for Brain Science calls Kernel's helmets "revolutionary," Vance writes, and Johnson plans to prove him right. Kernel has created two helmets, the Flux and the Flow, that use an array of sensors and lasers to study a brain's electromagnetic activity and blood oxygenation levels, respectively. The idea was to shrink the giant brain-scanning devices in hospitals down to wearable size, and researchers are excited to measure the brain's activity as subjects move about and perform tasks. They hope to study brain aging, Alzheimer's, concussions, strokes, "and the mechanics behind previously metaphysical experiences such as meditation and psychedelic trips," Vance writes. Johnson is thinking even bigger. "To make progress on all the fronts that we need to as a society, we have to bring the brain online," Johnson says. "We are the first generation in the history of Homo sapiens who could look out over our lifetimes and imagine evolving into an entirely novel form of conscious existence," he adds. "The things I am doing can create a bridge for humans to use where our technology will become part of our self." Read more about the Kernel helmets and their unusual progenitor at Bloomberg Businessweek.
6-16-21 The biggest flaw in human decision-making – and how to fix it
Behavioural scientists Daniel Kahneman and Olivier Sibony explain why “noise” in professional judgements harms everything from criminal justice to medical treatments. IF YOU have ever jumped to the wrong conclusion, made a terrible mistake thanks to your inbuilt biases or been subtly nudged back to your senses, then you are (a) human and (b) already on personal terms with the work of Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein. Thanks to their academic and popular writing, the world is now very familiar with what are collectively called “cognitive biases” – systematic errors in human thinking – and ways to correct them. Sunstein co-wrote the highly influential book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness with Richard Thaler, while Kahneman popularised the work that won him the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 with his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Sibony is the author of You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How biases distort decision-making and what you can do to fight them. You may think that, in no small part thanks to their efforts, the swamp of human fallibility has been well and truly drained by now. But that would be yet another mistake. Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein say there is an even more important source of warped decision-making. The three have banded together in a behavioural science supergroup to draw attention to what they call “noise” – persistent inconsistencies in professional judgements that lead to bad outcomes in all walks of life. Kahneman and Sibony spoke to New Scientist about the group’s new book Noise: A flaw in human judgment (Little, Brown Spark in the UK; William Collins in the US). Sunstein was due to join the conversation, but was called away at the last minute by his new boss, US president Joe Biden.
6-16-21 Many cosmetics contain hidden, potentially dangerous ‘forever chemicals’
Scientists found signs of long-lasting PFAS compounds in about half of tested makeup products. A new chemical analysis has revealed an ugly truth about beauty products: Many may contain highly persistent, potentially harmful “forever chemicals” called PFAS. PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, include thousands of chemicals that are so sturdy they can linger in the body for years and the environment for centuries. The health effects of only a few PFAS are well known, but those compounds have been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid diseases and other problems. “There is no known good PFAS,” says chemist and physicist Graham Peaslee of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In the first large screening of cosmetics for PFAS in the United States and Canada, Peaslee and colleagues found that 52 percent of over 200 tested products had high fluorine concentrations, suggesting the presence of PFAS, the researchers report online June 15 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The potential health risks of PFAS in makeup are not yet clear, Peaslee says. But besides people ingesting or absorbing PFAS when wearing makeup, cosmetics washed down the drain could get into drinking water (SN: 11/25/18). Peaslee’s team measured the amount of fluorine, a key component of PFAS, in 231 cosmetics. Sixty-three percent of foundations, 55 percent of lip products and 82 percent of waterproof mascara contained high levels of fluorine — at least 0.384 micrograms of fluorine per square centimeter of product spread on a piece of paper. Long-lasting or waterproof products were especially likely to contain lots of fluorine. That makes sense, since PFAS are water-resistant. Twenty-nine products further tested for specific PFAS all contained at least four of these chemicals, but only one product listed PFAS among its ingredients. In addition to posing their own potential health risks, these compounds can break down in the body into other PFAS, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, which has been linked to cancers and low birth weights (SN: 6/4/19).
6-16-21 Antiviral drug shown to save lives of covid-19 patients in hospital
People who get seriously ill from covid-19 could be offered a new lifeline with the first antiviral drug shown to save lives in patients admitted to hospital, researchers have said. The drug, a combination of two antibodies developed by Regeneron, reduced the risk of death when given to people with severe covid-19 who hadn’t mounted a natural antibody response of their own. The chances of these patients needing to be put on a ventilator were also reduced, as was the duration of their hospital stay. In the Recovery trial between 18 September 2020 and 22 May 2021, 9785 patients admitted to hospital with covid-19 in the UK were randomly allocated to receive the usual care plus the antibody combination treatment, or usual care alone. Of these, about one-third were seronegative, meaning they had no natural antibody response of their own, and half were seropositive, meaning they had already developed natural antibodies against the virus. For one-sixth of those involved in the study, their antibody status was unknown. Among patients who received usual care alone, mortality within 28 days of being admitted to the trial was 30 per cent in those without an antibody response, compared with 15 per cent in those who were seropositive at the start of the study. For patients who had no antibody response, the treatment reduced the chance of them dying within 28 days by a fifth, compared with usual care alone. For every 100 such patients treated with the antibody combination, there would be six fewer deaths, researchers say. “This is in some ways a first,” said Martin Landray at the University of Oxford, joint chief investigator of the study. “This is an antiviral treatment that is used later on – because these patients are severe, they’ve gone into hospital – and has a demonstrated clear impact on survival, and on those other outcomes.
6-16-21 Moral judgments about an activity’s COVID-19 risk can lead people astray
People see activities they condone as less risky for catching coronavirus, even if they’re not. What do you think was riskier during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic: having your lonely parents over for dinner or going to a beach filled with dozens of strangers? Or how about going to the doctor for a prescription refill versus playing baseball at a nearby park? When it comes to catching COVID-19, outdoor activities, in general, are safer than indoor activities (SN: 8/15/20). But if you chose the beach or baseball as riskier, you are not alone. Two new studies show that people consider activities that they think are immoral or unreasonable as riskier — even when they’re not. “Our moral judgments change our factual judgments about the world,” says philosopher of science Cailin O’Connor of the University of California, Irvine. Accounting for moral and other biases in public health messaging is vital to combatting the spread of infectious disease, she says. It’s well-established that people rely on emotions and beliefs to make decisions (SN: 5/14/20). These mental shortcuts, or heuristics, tend to take precedence during periods of uncertainty, as the right decision can be far from clear. O’Connor became interested in studying the link between bias and risk perception after pictures of Floridians flocking to the beach caused an outcry in spring of 2020. “Why was the beach such a target of public judgment?” O’Connor wondered. She and colleagues devised hypothetical scenarios in which people were exposed to the same risk of infection with the coronavirus but had various reasons for violating social distancing guidelines. For instance, a character named Joe gets trapped in an elevator with five neighbors for 25 minutes. In one scenario, Joe is a cocaine user going out to pay his dealer, while in another he is going to help an elderly neighbor fix her broken air conditioner on a hot day.
6-14-21 How the next generation of mRNA vaccines could help tackle cancer
Exciting developments in mRNA vaccines, treatments for long covid and the safe use of artificial intelligence are just some of the topics you can learn about at New Scientist’s one-day event exploring the future of healthcare. At the start of last year, few people had heard of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. Now, Pfizer is on track to produce 3 billion doses of its mRNA covid-19 vaccine in 2021, and plans to make enough to treat the world’s entire 7.7 billion population by the end of 2022. Scientists are already working on the next generation of vaccines which take advantage of this new technology. At New Scientist’s Future of Healthcare online event on Saturday 26 June, immunologist Anna Blakney will reveal how self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) vaccines will attack the new variants and slash the cost per dose, how influenza and yellow fever vaccines will get the mRNA makeover, and how promising RNA-personalised cancer vaccines could train your immune system to attack cancerous cells. Blakney’s talk is just one of 15 fascinating talks at the Future of Healthcare online event. As you’d expect, covid-19 features prominently, with public health specialist Nisreen Alwan of the University of Southampton explaining how long covid is “the pandemic after the pandemic”, and England’s chief scientific officer Sue Hill touching on how the UK has undertaken almost 50 per cent of the genomic sequencing of covid-19 worldwide. Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute will demonstrate what it takes to sequence tens of thousands of covid-19 samples, and Tara Donnelly, chief digital officer of the technology arm of the NHS, will reveal how the NHS’s response to the pandemic has been driven by new digital tools. Globally the number of people living with dementia will increase from 50 million in 2018 to 152 million in 2050, according to the World Health Organization. The syndrome has a devastating impact on the economy as well as on families. Alzheimer’s Research UK says delaying the onset of dementia by five years would save £21.2 billion each year by 2050. Early diagnosis is crucial. Consultant neurologist Dennis Chan of University College will explain how existing memory and pen-and-paper tests to diagnose dementia are hopelessly outdated. His research group is exploring whether virtual reality, machine learning and wearable technologies can diagnose the onset of the neurological diseases causing dementia, decades before problematic symptoms appear.
6-15-21 Science with Sam: What is awe?
Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from lowering stress to boosting creativity. But what exactly is awe, and how do we get more of it in our lives? Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people. But what exactly is awe, and how do we get more of it in our lives? Whether it’s looking at the night sky, listening to a breathtaking piece of music, or watching mind-blowing science videos on YouTube, it’s easier than you think to feel awe every day. Want to be more awesome? Like and subscribe to our channel for more mind-blowing science videos. Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from boosting creativity to lowering stress, to making us nicer people. But what exactly is awe? And how do we get more of it in our lives? You don’t have to go into space to feel the power of awe. Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a stunning view, or gobsmacked by the vastness of the world around us? Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as the feeling we get when we’re confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference and that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear, and it can dissolve our very sense of self. Throughout history, powerful leaders have exploited awe to exert control, using grand buildings, monuments and stories to make their subjects feel inconsequential. Think about the pyramids of Egypt, the Inca Temples of Peru, or even Trump Tower. And although awe has often been linked to spiritual or religious experiences, atheists can feel it too. If you stand in front of a dinosaur skeleton, a cathedral, or an amazing natural view or artwork, you’re quite likely to experience something like Jim Lovell did when he looked at Earth from above. By expanding our attention to see a big picture, awe can make us feel very small. Literally.
6-15-21 Dogs that detect seizures may be sniffing out the scent of human fear
Dogs that can predict when their owners are going to have an epileptic seizure may be recognising the “smell of fear”. A small study suggests that a compound in sweat recognised by seizure alert dogs may be the same as one released when people watch scary movies, in this case Stephen King’s It. Some animals communicate by releasing hormones that can be smelled, called pheromones, including ones that warn of danger, but it is unclear if human pheromones exist. Some small studies have hinted that we may change our behaviours based on the scent of others – for instance, dental students perform significantly worse when treating mannequins wearing T-shirts from people who were stressed compared with those from people who were calm. Edward Maa, a neurologist at Denver Health Medical Center in Colorado, came across the idea of fear pheromones because of his work with a charity that trains dogs for people with epilepsy, called Canine Assistants. The dogs are trained to press a speed-dial button on a phone if their owner has a seizure while at home. But many also learn to recognise if their owner is going to have a seizure up to an hour in advance. It is thought that dogs may be able to predict a seizure by smelling a change in the person’s sweat, triggered by brain changes that eventually develop into a seizure. In the new study, Maa and his colleagues used four assistance dogs that had been taught to touch the trainer’s left hand if they smell a scent indicating an imminent seizure, and their right hand if that scent is absent. The animals were given 90 pads to sniff containing a variety of sweat samples. These included sweat taken while people watched the film It, exercise sweat and samples taken from someone with epilepsy during a seizure and when seizures were absent.
6-15-21 An ancient creature thought to be a teeny dinosaur turns out to be a lizard
Weird, hummingbird-sized O. khaungraae has puzzled scientists since its discovery. A tiny creature caught in amber 99 million years ago isn’t the smallest dinosaur ever found. It is actually a lizard — albeit a really bizarre one, researchers report June 14 in Current Biology. Over the last year, scientists have puzzled over the nature of the strange, hummingbird-sized Oculudentavis khaungraae, a fossil found in amber deposits in northwestern Myanmar. The fossil consists of only a birdlike, rounded skull with a slender tapering snout and a large number of teeth in its mouth, along with a lizardlike eye socket, deep and conical. The birdlike features led one team of scientists to identify the fossil as a miniature dinosaur — the smallest ever found (SN: 3/11/20). But other scientists weren’t so sure. Another analysis of O. khaungraae’s strange assemblage of features suggested it looked rather more like a weird lizard. Now, a third team of scientists reports the discovery of a second amber fossil that so closely resembles O. khangraae as to belong to the same genus. And the new specimen, dubbed O. naga, includes parts of the lower body that clearly reveal the members of genus Oculudentavis to be lizards, say paleontologist Arnau Bolet of the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona and colleagues. The researchers used CT scans to examine both specimens. Oculudentavis’ lizardlike features include scales, teeth attached to its jawbone directly rather than in sockets (as dinosaur teeth were) and a particular skull bone unique to squamates, or scaled reptiles. Still, the creatures were markedly different from all other known lizards in their unusual combination of features, such as the rounded skulls and long tapering snouts, the researchers say — probably representing a previously unknown group of lizards.
6-14-21 Delta variant doubles risk of covid-19 hospitalisations, study shows
The lifting of the final covid-19 restrictions in England, scheduled for 21 June, has been delayed by four weeks to head off the risk of a new wave of covid-19 caused by the delta variant. The postponement will buy time to vaccinate more people. According to the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), computer models of lifting restrictions project a “large resurgence” in cases and hospital admissions, which could be “considerably” larger than previous waves. After falling for months, the number of new cases of covid-19 is rising again in all four nations of the UK. Scotland is worst affected, with England second. The rise is fuelled by the delta variant, which is believed to be about 60 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant alpha variant (formerly known as B.1.1.7) and is now the cause of almost 90 per cent of new cases in the UK. The good news, according to Jim McMenamin, Public Health Scotland’s national covid-19 incident director, is that vaccines are still very effective. Figures from Public Health England show that double vaccination is 80.8 per cent effective against symptomatic disease caused by the delta variant, but single vaccination is much less effective, only providing 33.2 per cent protection. Equivalent figures for the alpha variant are 88.4 per cent and 50.2 per cent. “We need to get these second doses out there,” says McMenamin. The data set doesn’t distinguish between the different vaccines. As of 12 June, only 45 per cent of the population of England was fully vaccinated and a further 17 per cent had had their first shot. That leaves 38 per cent totally unvaccinated. Other findings from Scotland suggest that for unvaccinated people, the delta variant approximately doubles the risk of hospitalisation compared with the alpha variant. However, it isn’t yet known what effect the delta variant is having on deaths. “We just don’t have enough information on that yet,” says Chris Robertson at the University of Strathclyde, UK, part of the Public Health Scotland team that analysed data from 99 per cent of the country’s population of 5.4 million. About 1.9 million of them are unvaccinated.
6-14-21 The Delta variant is producing different COVID-19 symptoms than usual, researchers say
The COVID-19 strain fueling infections across the U.K. is linked to a different set of symptoms, including headache, sore throat, and runny nose, BBC reported on Monday. The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now accounts for 90 percent of U.K. cases. Professor Tim Spector, leader of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study, said top symptoms since the start of May are "not the same as they were" previously. Instead of the traditional cough, fever, and loss of taste and smell, infected individuals are now complaining of headache, sore throat, and runny nose, with fever and cough coming in fourth and fifth, respectively. Loss of smell doesn't even make the top 10, The Guardian writes. Spector added that the Delta variant seems to be working "slightly differently," and that possible COVID-19 infection could feel "just like a bad cold or some funny 'off' feeling." As the new strain is reportedly more contagious and more likely to lead to hospitalizations, Spector urged the two-thirds of the U.K. still vulnerable to symptomatic infection — likely younger adults waiting for vaccines — to stay home and get tested should they feel sick, per the Guardian. The Delta variant now accounts for about 10 percent of cases in the U.S., The New York Times reports. The good news, however, is that data suggests "if you've been fully vaccinated, you remain protected, that the vaccines hold up." Read more at The New York Times and The Guardian.
6-14-21 Headache and runny nose linked to Delta variant
A headache, sore throat and runny nose are now the most commonly reported symptoms linked to Covid infection in the UK, researchers say. Prof Tim Spector, who runs the Zoe Covid Symptom study, says catching the Delta variant can feel "more like a bad cold" for younger people. But although they may not feel very ill, they could be contagious and put others at risk. Anyone who thinks they may have Covid should take a test. The classic Covid symptoms people should look out for, the NHS says, are: cough, fever, loss of smell or taste. But Prof Spector says these are now less common, based on the data the Zoe team has been receiving from thousands of people who have logged their symptoms on an app. "Since the start of May, we have been looking at the top symptoms in the app users - and they are not the same as they were," he says. The change appears linked to the rise in the Delta variant, first identified in India and now accounting for 90% of Covid cases in the UK. Fever remains quite common but loss of smell no longer appears in the top 10 symptoms, Prof Spector says. "This variant seems to be working slightly differently," he says. "People might think they've just got some sort of seasonal cold and they still go out to parties and they might spread around to six other people. "We think this is fuelling a lot of the problem. "The message here is that if you are young, you are going to get milder symptoms anyway. "It might just feel like a bad cold or some funny 'off' feeling - but do stay at home and do get a test." Similarly, the Imperial College London React study of more than a million people in England - when the Alpha or UK variant was dominant - found a wide range of additional symptoms linked to Covid. Chills, loss of appetite, headache and muscle aches were together most strongly linked with being infected, alongside classic symptoms.
6-11-21 Awake review: What would happen if nobody could sleep?
In the dystopian sci-fi movie Awake, everyone on Earth suddenly loses the ability to sleep, plunging the world into hysteria. As scientists race to find a cure, ex-soldier Jill Adams (Gina Rodriguez) discovers that her young daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) might just possess the means to save mankind. Awake’s compelling premise is enough to make the opening of the film enjoyable. Director Mark Raso slowly cranks up the tension – there are some unsettling set pieces, and the film doesn’t waste time trying to explain the phenomenon. Instead, the slow reveal of information does enough to keep you hooked. Unfortunately, though, Awake soon goes off the rails. Raso is constantly trying to create the same mindset of those who are unable to sleep in the viewers, but it just makes things increasingly confusing. It also doesn’t help that, by only following Jill’s relationship with Matilda and her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos), Awake is too contained. We learn very little about what’s going on across the world, so when symptoms suddenly escalate and humanity descends into anarchy, it has very little impact. But what would actually happen if you suddenly couldn’t sleep? Alastair McLean at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who specialises in sleep deprivation, says its biggest impact is on interpersonal interactions, as people quickly become quite irritable. “In terms of performance, one of the most obvious things that happens are microsleeps,” says McLean, in which people fall asleep for up to 30 seconds and can’t remember what happened. “They can occur after 24 hours.” There is also cognitive slowing, which sees people taking longer to make decisions, and cognitive rigidity, in which individuals can only think about things in one fixed way. Loss of motivation, paranoia, memory and balance issues, mood changes and visual problems can also occur, while some people experience hallucinations and even speech difficulties.
6-11-21 Here’s what you should know about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots
Researchers are working on questions of immunity and how to deal with viral variants. Roughly six months ago, on December 11, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in the United States. What followed was a push to get that shot, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, to those at high risk (SN: 12/1/20). Moderna’s jab wasn’t far behind, securing emergency use authorization just a week after Pfizer’s (SN: 12/17/20; SN: 12/11/20). And then in February 2021, there were three COVID-19 vaccines when the FDA authorized Johnson & Johnson’s shot (SN: 2/27/21). Now, around 40 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Just over half of residents have gotten at least one dose. Meanwhile, U.S. cases of COVID-19 and deaths have plunged to their lowest levels since March 2020. Amid the ongoing effort to vaccinate people, two big questions loom: Will immune protection against the coronavirus be long-lived? Or will people soon need booster shots? Right now, “no one knows” if boosters will be necessary, says Kirsten Lyke, a vaccinologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. But researchers are working on figuring that out. Here’s what we know so far about coronavirus immunity and potential booster shots. Whether people need COVID-19 booster shots or not largely hinges on how long the body’s immune response protects against getting severely ill. So far, this protection lasts at least six months and possibly much longer, researchers say. Much of what scientists know right now about long-term immunity comes from what they have gleaned from people infected with the coronavirus. And it appears that immune memory to the virus largely follows the rules, at least for most people, says Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
6-11-21 Many female animals are evolving to look more attractive to mates
Sexual selection, a mechanism of evolution that can drive the appearance of bright feathers and elaborate horns, is often assumed to operate largely among males. But a fresh analysis of the data suggests it is more widespread among females than many researchers expected. It was Charles Darwin who originally suggested that sexual selection is at work in animals. He emphasised that males often compete against other males for females to mate with – which he argued could help explain why, for instance, some male birds have developed brightly coloured plumage even though this makes them a more obvious target for predators. More recently, biologists have begun to realise that sexual selection operates widely among females too – although Tim Janicke at the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France and his colleagues say it is still assumed to be a rare peculiarity. Now, Janicke and his colleagues have collected evidence of female-orientated sexual selection in 72 species across the animal kingdom from scientific literature published between 2015 to 2020. They say the analysis suggests that competition for mates occurs frequently in females and should be considered the norm rather than a rarity. The researchers used statistical analysis to measure the strength of sexual selection in females across those 72 species. They found that females, just as is widely assumed for males, typically benefit from having more than one mating partner. “We believe that our view of how we see sex differences in general, and also sexual selection in particular, is still very biased towards males,” says Janicke. The analysis shows evidence of female sexual selection in a broad range of animals. “We have [sexual selection] in nearly all vertebrate groups, like fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles, but then also invertebrates, like snails and flatworms,” says Janicke.
6-10-21 Your ears give off alcohol and a test can reveal how much you've drunk
Forget blowing into a breathalyser – a new drink-driving test could involve putting on a pair of ear defenders. Koji Toma at Tokyo Medical and Dental University in Japan and his colleagues have created a device that captures alcohol given off by the skin of a person’s ears. It can measure the amount of alcohol in their blood and whether they are over a legal limit. Breathalyser tests for alcohol used by many police forces require blowing steadily into a device for several seconds, and some people can’t manage this, or claim they can’t. A skin-based test solved both issues. “They can’t cheat through their skin,” says Toma. Toma and his team had previously investigated measuring blood alcohol using the skin of the palm, but they wondered if the ears would be better, as they have a large surface area, the skin is thin and has few sweat glands, too many of which make the results too variable. “If the signal is not stable we can’t estimate the concentration properly,” says Toma. The researchers modified a pair of ear defenders so a stream of air could be blown into and out of them. Three men wore the device over their ears for 140 minutes while they had an alcoholic drink, and also took regular breathalyser tests. The air leaving the device was sent to an ethanol vapour sensor. The team found that the earmuff readings showed a similar rise and fall in alcohol levels as the breathalyser, but with a 13-minute delay. If someone wore the device for a one-off reading, such as if they were suspected of drink-driving, they would need to have the ear defenders on for 30 seconds, says Toma. Long hair would need to be pushed out of the way. The team is now developing the idea for other medical uses where a continuous read-out of blood levels of biochemicals would be helpful, such as measuring a compound called acetone, which indicates how much fat is burned during exercise.
6-10-21 Cells cram DNA into the nucleus in two distinct ways
Some chromosomes look like crumpled balls while others resemble flat sheets of paper, heat maps show. There are only so many ways to cram DNA into a cell’s nucleus, a study suggests. A cell’s complete genetic blueprint, or genome, is densely packed into chromosomes, condensing meters of DNA into a minuscule cellular vessel only micrometers wide (SN: 8/24/15). But how chromosomes fold to fit inside the nuclei of diverse species is unclear. There appear to be two methods to stuff all of that DNA in, researchers report in the May 28 Science. Cells can even flip-flop which arrangement they have by inactivating a molecule called condensin II, the team found. If chromosomes were pieces of paper, some, like those of humans, would look like a crumpled ball inside the nucleus, says Claire Hoencamp, a molecular biologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam (SN: 10/8/09). Others, like those of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), resemble flat sheets of stacked paper. In the new study, Hoencamp and colleagues created heat maps that analyzed how chromosomes in the nuclei of 24 animal, plant and fungal species interacted inside their respective cells. The maps show the average number of connections among chromosomes in a cell’s nucleus — revealing how the genetic molecules fold — “on the scale from white to red,” says Olga Dudchenko, a genomicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “The more red, the more interactions. The less red, the less interactions.” Throughout evolutionary history, organisms across the tree of life have switched among different packing methods, the researchers found. “We worked with a zoo of species, and [at first] it looked like a zoo of patterns of genome folding,” Dudchenko says. “Some maps would look like a checkerboard pattern. Other ones would look like a mattress with weird x’s.” Over time, it became clear that many of the same chromosome folding features were popping up again and again in different species.
6-10-21 'Miraculous' mosquito hack cuts dengue by 77%
Dengue fever cases have been cut by 77% in a "groundbreaking" trial that manipulates the mosquitoes that spread it, say scientists. They used mosquitoes infected with "miraculous" bacteria that reduce the insect's ability to spread dengue. The trial took place in Yogyakarta city, Indonesia, and is being expanded in the hope of eradicating the virus. The World Mosquito Programme team says it could be a solution to a virus that has gone around the world. Few people had heard of dengue 50 years ago, but it has been a relentless slow-burning pandemic and cases have increased dramatically. In 1970, only nine countries had faced severe dengue outbreaks, now there are up to 400 million infections a year. Dengue is commonly known as "break-bone fever" because it causes severe pain in muscles and bones and explosive outbreaks can overwhelm hospitals. The trial used mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria. One of the researchers, Dr Katie Anders, describes them as "naturally miraculous". Wolbachia doesn't harm the mosquito, but it camps out in the same parts of its body that the dengue virus needs to get into. The bacteria compete for resources and make it much harder for dengue virus to replicate, so the mosquito is less likely to cause an infection when it bites again. The trial used five million mosquito eggs infected with Wolbachia. Eggs were placed in buckets of water in the city every two weeks and the process of building up an infected population of mosquitoes took nine months. Yogyakarta was split into 24 zones and the mosquitoes were released only in half of them. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed a 77% reduction in cases and an 86% reduction in people needing hospital care when the insects were released. "It's very exciting, it's better than we could have hoped for to be honest," Dr Anders told the BBC.
6-10-21 New clues suggest people reached the Americas around 30,000 years ago
Ancient bones from a Mexican rock-shelter point to humans arriving earlier than often assumed. Humans may have inhabited what’s now southern Mexico surprisingly early, between 33,448 and 28,279 years ago, researchers say. If so, those people arrived more than 10,000 years before folks often tagged as the first Americans (SN: 7/11/18). Other preliminary evidence puts humans in central Mexico as early as around 33,000 years ago (SN: 7/22/20). The latest evidence comes from animal bones that biological anthropologist and archaeologist Andrew Somerville and two Mexican colleagues found stored in a Mexico City lab. The bones had been excavated in the 1960s at a rock-shelter called Coxcatlan Cave. Radiocarbon analyses of six rabbit bones from the site’s deepest sediment yielded unexpectedly old ages, the researchers report online May 19 in Latin American Antiquity. That sediment also contained chipped and sharp-edged stones regarded as tools by the site’s lead excavator. Higher sediment layers yielded clearer examples of stone tools and other remnants of human activity dating to nearly 9,900 years ago. Somerville, of Iowa State University in Ames, initially suspected that rabbit bones from the deepest sediment were perhaps around 12,000 years old. But analyses revealed they were much older, hinting humans were living in the cave roughly 30,000 years ago. Somerville will next determine whether other animal bones from the ancient sediment display butchery marks, breaks where marrow was removed or burned patches from cooking. He also wants to locate and study possible stone tools from that same sediment that may be stored in the same lab. Based on additional radiocarbon dates and comparisons with stone-tool finds from other Mexican sites, Somerville suspects that a separate occupation of Coxcatlan Cave occurred between 13,500 and 9,900 years ago. Regional food and water sources may have dwindled when the last Ice Age peaked between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago, causing the earliest settlers to leave and delaying further occupations until conditions improved, Somerville speculates.
6-10-21 Robotic chemist may be able to recreate Earth’s primordial soup
Recreating the mix of compounds and experimental conditions that interacted over billions of years to create life on Earth is impossible in the lab. But an autonomous robot can shorten the time it takes to test each possible mixture, which could help reveal the precise combination that let proteins, DNA and enzymes emerge from the prebiotic soup on early Earth. Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK, and his colleagues built a robotic chemist that can mix simple molecules together, watch them react, analyse the result and then decide what to add to the reaction. Over several weeks, this robot can start to recreate a prebiotic soup scenario with almost no input from human chemists, he says. “We wanted to remove the bias from the experiments and cover as much chemical space as possible to look for the spark of life,” says Cronin. The set-up includes a tangle of tubes connecting 18 flasks of different starting materials to a central reaction vessel containing a range of clean, dry minerals such as quartz, ulexite and pyrite. The starting materials are all small molecules with no biological or catalytic function, including simple acids, organics, reducing agents and some inorganic molecules like copper sulphate. The robot chooses two or three of these reagents to suck into the reaction vessel, where the mixture is stirred and heated for an hour, then allowed to settle. It analyses the sample, and a portion is taken away for storage and human analysis later. A small amount of the brew is left as a seed mixture, and the robot then adds a fresh batch of reagents, and the process repeats. The team ran the robot for up to 150 of these cycles over many days. The robot’s decisions on whether to let a reaction continue or to introduce a molecule into the brew are based on readings from a mass spectrometer, which reveals the size of the different molecules within the mixture.
6-9-21 Laughing gas has shown potential as a treatment for depression
Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, has shown promise as a treatment for depression. When people inhaled a low dose as part of a small study, their depression improved over the next two weeks. It has long been known that nitrous oxide can give a short boost to mood as well as relieving pain – hence its original name of laughing gas – but the effect is thought to wear off quickly. Nitrous oxide is one of the most common anaesthetics, used by hospitals, dental surgeries and paramedics, as well as being available illegally in small capsules for recreational use. The gas seems to chiefly affect the brain by blocking molecules on nerve cells called N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. This is the same thing targeted by the stronger anaesthetic ketamine, which also relieves depression; a similar chemical to ketamine has recently been approved as a new intranasal spray treatment. It isn’t known how NMDA receptors change mood. But as the antidepressant effects of ketamine started to emerge, Peter Nagele, then an anaesthetist at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, wondered if nitrous oxide had similar potential. In 2014, he and his colleagues found that one hour’s inhalation of nitrous oxide reduced symptoms for up to a day in people with depression who hadn’t improved after trying standard antidepressant medicines, but the study didn’t record whether the effect lasted any longer. Prolonged nitrous oxide use can can lead to nausea and headaches. So, in the latest study, Nagele’s team looked at 24 people with treatment-resistant depression and gave them half-dose nitrous oxide, a full dose or a placebo mixture of air and oxygen. They were given one treatment a month for three months. After two weeks, depression symptoms for those with the half-dose treatment had reduced by an average of five points on a commonly used depression rating scale, compared with those who had the placebo, which is a significant benefit. After the full-dose treatment, depression symptoms reduced a little more, although the difference was so small that it could have arisen by chance. The half-dose group also had a much lower incidence of side effects, such as nausea, headaches and light-headedness.
6-9-21 Removing junk food from our diets will be no easy task
ALMOST every month, a new piece of research emerges linking diets high in processed “junk” foods with obesity and poor health. It isn’t yet clear if the relationship is causal, and if so, what the mechanisms behind it may be. But insights are starting to emerge from trials that compare diets that are based on either ultra-processed foods or wholefoods, yet are carefully matched for nutrients in all other ways. The links need investigating as a matter of urgency. If these processed foods really do carry intrinsic health risks, it could mean that official advice about healthy eating has been aiming at the wrong target for decades. In almost all high-income countries, nutrition guidelines say the key to healthy eating is avoiding too much fat, salt and sugar. While many types of processed food contain significant amounts of these frowned-on ingredients, not all do, and there are wholefoods that are also high in some of them. Red meat and some dairy products come with their share of fat, for instance. It is still unclear if it is better to switch to “healthier” low-fat versions of processed foods, or to cook from scratch, whatever the ingredients. Equally murky is what actions governments should be taking. Some campaigners are now calling for higher taxes on factory-made foods. That would be controversial, however, because these foods constitute up to 60 per cent of people’s diets in countries such as the UK and US. Additionally, any price hikes are likely to hit lower-income households hardest, many of which consume more of such products because processed foods can be cheaper than making meals from their original ingredients, and the cost difference is even greater if you take into account the time taken to cook from scratch. Rather than taxation, a non-punitive approach may be for schools to give higher priority to teaching pupils how to make quick and simple home-cooked meals. This approach would take many years to bear fruit, but the encroachment of processed food into Western cuisine took place over decades. It isn’t going to be reversed overnight.
6-9-21 Solving mysteries of reproduction helped make parenthood possible for millions
A variety of assisted reproductive technologies have become almost routine. In the beginning, no one really understood how babies were made. Thinkers puzzled for millennia about how life arose from one generation to the next. But not until the 17th century did scientists start to seriously study the question. At that time, the theory of preformation held that minuscule humans already existed, fully formed, in either the mother’s menstrual blood or the father’s semen, depending on whether you were an “ovist” or a “spermist.” Little changed until two late-19th century scientists, Oskar Hertwig from Germany and Hermann Fol from France, independently conducted experiments on sea urchins, proving conclusively that creating new offspring takes one egg and one sperm. Despite the early confusion, the ancients were sure about one thing: Reproduction is far from a sure bet. Today, an estimated 15 percent of couples worldwide are unable to conceive a child naturally, leading to feelings of sorrow, loss and a profound sense of inadequacy for many. A century ago, science didn’t have much to offer these couples. The only fertility intervention widely available in 1921 was artificial insemination by donor sperm, which was morally and legally fraught. In the first half of the 20th century, the practice was often considered a form of adultery; as recently as 1963, an Illinois court ruled that a baby conceived this way, even with the husband’s consent, was illegitimate. In 1978, everything changed. The birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube baby,” proved that infertile couples had another option: in vitro fertilization. The technique involved removing a mature egg from the mother, mixing it in a lab dish with the father’s sperm, and letting the fertilized egg, called a zygote, grow for a couple of days. The zygote was then returned to the mother’s uterus, where it could implant and grow in an otherwise normal pregnancy.
6-9-21 Anu Ramaswami interview: How to shape the cities of the future
YOU have probably seen the annual rankings of the world’s cities by “liveability” or “quality of life”. It is intriguing to discover which come out top – and which bottom. After all, most of us have skin in this game: more than half of people around the world live in urban environments, and that number is growing. But you may also have wondered what “quality of life” really means. Which qualities? Whose life? These same questions occupy Anu Ramaswami. Trained initially as a chemical engineer, she is now a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the M. S. Chadha Center for Global India at Princeton University, New Jersey. Her research focuses on what we can do to improve the urban environment, and she works closely with US cities as well as with the United Nations and national governments. It is fiendishly difficult to compare cities, she says – or even, for that matter, to define them. Ramaswami wants to persuade people that cities aren’t concrete jungles that stop abruptly at their official limits, but complex, dynamic systems that extend much further and, like living organisms, have their own metabolism. Only by thinking of them in this way can we start to make them more liveable, she says. Anu Ramaswami: Many people point to cities as villains. I prefer a more nuanced narrative that says cities offer an opportunity for innovation. This typically generates more wealth and, to some extent, more well-being, but also inequality, which has its own implications for well-being. More than 90 per cent of the world’s GDP arises from urban activities, but its distribution is very uneven. Cities have other drawbacks too, such as higher crime and air pollution. So the question shouldn’t be: is urbanisation good? It should be: since urbanisation is inevitable, can we urbanise in a more resource-efficient way? And how do we measure both resource efficiency and urban well-being?
6-9-21 Some early land-dwelling amphibians evolved back into aquatic species
One of the greatest transitions in evolutionary history was the emergence of tetrapods, or four-legged vertebrates, onto land. By about 340 million years ago, fins had become fingers and limbs, shoulder and hip joints had changed to bear weight, and an array of amphibious creatures had begun to live along the water’s edge. But an analysis of some early tetrapods now suggests that not long after they made a home on land, some species became adapted to life in the water all over again. Aja Mia Carter at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues focused on a group of early amphibians called temnospondyls, roughly salamander-like tetrapods that spun off a great diversity of species between 295 and 330 million years ago. Rather than looking at the limbs of these animals, though, Carter and her team analysed the backbone anatomy of over a dozen temnospondyl species. They also used a previously published evolutionary tree to understand how these species were interrelated, and searched the scientific literature for information on the likely lifestyles of each – in particular whether it was either more aquatic or terrestrial. Temnospondyls, the researchers found, most likely evolved from a land-dwelling ancestor. Surprisingly, from there, some species changed course and became adapted to life in water all over again in an evolutionary reversal. The analysis also revealed that relatively stiff backbones weren’t an adaptation to life on land. Researchers have typically assumed that early land animals evolved a stiffer spine to help support their bodies, but it was actually the water-dwelling temnospondyls that had a more rigid spine.“I was stunned to see that between individual vertebrae, aquatic species were stiffer than terrestrial species,” says Carter. In other words, a stiffened spine wasn’t essential for these early amphibians to walk on land.
6-9-21 What really makes junk food bad for us? Here’s what the science says
CUT down on fatty food. No, sugar. Aim for a Mediterranean diet. And remember to eat more plants… The variability of healthy eating advice has become a cliché in itself. Yet despite all the contradictions, there is one thing that many agree on: we should avoid junk food. Until recently though, no one could give you a decent reason why. Gastronomic snobbery aside, science lacked an agreed definition of what junk food actually is, and that has made it difficult to know whether we should be avoiding it and, if so, why. It has long been assumed that processed junk foods are bad because they tend to contain too much fat, salt and sugar. Recent studies, though, suggest that other mechanisms could be at work to make these foods harmful to our health. Getting to grips with what these are could help us not only make healthier choices, but also persuade the food industry to come up with healthier ways of giving us what we like to eat. One thing’s for sure: we certainly do like it. Factory-made food makes up between 50 and 60 per cent of the average person’s calorie intake in the UK, and around 60 per cent in the US. But while junk food has a bad name among many food lovers, dietary health research and the public health advice that stems from it have so far concentrated either on individual food groups, like meat and dairy products, or the relative amounts of the three macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates – that we consume. In most countries, nutrition guidelines advise people to base their diet on starchy carbohydrates like bread and pasta, while eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, limiting meat and dairy to avoid too much fat and swerving salt and sugar where possible. Although factory-made foods tend to be high in the frowned-on ingredients of fat, salt and sugar, few national guidelines explicitly advise people to avoid processed foods and instead cook meals from scratch.
6-9-21 Should we start testing drugs and vaccines in people who are pregnant?
IT IS generally accepted that the best way to confirm that a new drug or therapeutic is both safe and actually works is to test it in clinical trials, administering it to a wide range of people in an attempt to discover any unexpected effects. But there is one group we don’t usually test: pregnant people, meaning pregnant women, pregnant trans men and anyone outside those categories who is pregnant. Until recently, there was near unanimous agreement that exposing a fetus to a drug under study is unethical, leading to holes in what we know about the safety and use of medications in pregnancy. Now, in a seismic shift spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, medical ethicists have said that the continued exclusion of people who are pregnant or lactating in biomedical research is wrong, given the heightened risks of severe infection and disease that many of them face. For example, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one-quarter of women aged 15 to 49 who were hospitalised with covid-19 between 1 March and 22 August 2020 were pregnant. Only 5 per cent of US women in this age group are pregnant at any one time, suggesting a much higher rate of hospitalisation due to covid-19. As the US vaccination roll-out began last year, the CDC created a smartphone app to monitor recipients for any health problems. Pregnant people who received a covid-19 vaccination within the 30 days before their last menstrual period or during pregnancy could report any post-vaccination side effects. Laura Riley at Cornell University, New York, says these well-intentioned efforts don’t make up for not collecting this data during the initial vaccine trials. “According to the [CDC], 100,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated against the coronavirus,” says Riley. “Those women made the decision that the risk of the vaccine was less than the risk of getting and doing very poorly from covid, which is a clear possibility.”
6-9-21 A deep look at a speck of human brain reveals never-before-seen quirks
Extra-strong connections, whorled tendrils and symmetrical cells hint at deep brain mysteries. A new view of the human brain shows its cellular residents in all their wild and weird glory. The map, drawn from a tiny piece of a woman’s brain, charts the varied shapes of 50,000 cells and 130 million connections between them. This intricate map, named H01 for “human sample 1,” represents a milestone in scientists’ quest to provide evermore detailed descriptions of a brain (SN: 2/7/14). “It’s absolutely beautiful,” says neuroscientist Clay Reid at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “In the best possible way, it’s the beginning of something very exciting.” Scientists at Harvard University, Google and elsewhere prepared and analyzed the brain tissue sample. Smaller than a sesame seed, the bit of brain was about a millionth of an entire brain’s volume. It came from the cortex — the brain’s outer layer responsible for complex thought — of a 45-year-old woman undergoing surgery for epilepsy. After it was removed, the brain sample was quickly preserved and stained with heavy metals that revealed cellular structures. The sample was then sliced into more than 5,000 wafer-thin pieces and imaged with powerful electron microscopes. Computational programs stitched the resulting images back together and artificial intelligence programs helped scientists analyze them. A short description of the resulting view was published as a preprint May 30 to bioRxiv.org. The full dataset is freely available online. For now, researchers are just beginning to see what’s there. “We have really just dipped our toe into this dataset,” says study coauthor Jeff Lichtman, a developmental neurobiologist at Harvard University. Lichtman compares the brain map to Google Earth: “There are gems in there to find, but no one can say they’ve looked at the whole thing.”
6-8-21 FDA approved a new Alzheimer’s drug despite controversy over whether it works
The drug, aducanumab, promises to slow progression of the disease. But some call it false hope. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a controversial Alzheimer’s treatment, the first that promises to slow the disease’s destruction in the brain, not just improve symptoms. The drug, aducanumab, is also the first new Alzheimer’s treatment approved since 2003. It doesn’t cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than 6 million people in the United States and is projected to affect nearly 13 million people by 2050. The drug’s path to approval hasn’t been smooth. In 2019, aducanumab was nearly scrapped after it appeared unlikely to succeed in two large clinical trials. But after reanalyzing more data that came in later, the drug’s developer, Biogen, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., saw signs that indicated the drug might work after all, and decided to pursue FDA approval (SN: 12/5/19). Still, today’s decision concerns some doctors and scientists who see the FDA’s move as premature because they aren’t convinced that the drug, also known as Aduhelm, actually works. Approving a drug that’s not effective would set Alzheimer’s research back and offer patients false hope, those experts argue. “This is a great day for Biogen and its shareholders, but a bleak day for the field of Alzheimer’s research,” says Michael Greicius, a neurologist at Stanford University. Pushing forward on the “illusion of progress,” he says, “will come at a cost to genuine progress in finding an effective treatment for this devastating disease.” Others disagree that the evidence is slim, and are elated about having a new tool to fight a disease that has eluded an effective treatment for so long. “We have been waiting decades for this,” says neuroscientist Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago. A drug that delays decline due to Alzheimer’s promises patients and their families time “to sustain independence, to hold onto memories longer, to be with families longer,” she says. “That’s important.”
6-8-21 US approves first new Alzheimer's drug in 20 years
The first new treatment for Alzheimer's disease for nearly 20 years has been approved by regulators in the United States, paving the way for its use in the UK. Aducanumab targets the underlying cause of Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, rather than its symptoms. Charities have welcomed the news of a new therapy for the condition. But scientists are divided over its potential impact because of uncertainty over the trial results. At least 100,000 people in the UK with a mild form of the disease could be suitable for the drug if it were to be approved by the UK regulator. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said there was "substantial evidence that aducanumab reduces amyloid beta plaques in the brain" and that this "is reasonably likely to predict important benefits to patients". In March 2019, late-stage international trials of aducanumab, involving about 3,000 patients, were halted when analysis showed the drug, given as a monthly infusion, was not better at slowing the deterioration of memory and thinking problems than a dummy drug. But later that year, the US manufacturer Biogen analysed more data and concluded the drug did work, as long as it was given in higher doses. The company also said it significantly slowed cognitive decline. Aducanumab targets amyloid, a protein that forms abnormal clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer's that can damage cells and trigger dementia, including: memory and thinking problems, communication issues, confusion. Aldo Ceresa, who took part in the trial, first noticed problems differentiating between left and right 10 years ago. After his diagnosis, the 68-year-old, who is originally from Glasgow and now lives in Oxfordshire, close to his family, had to give up his job as a surgeon. Mr Ceresa took aducanumab for two years before the trial was halted - and then had to wait almost as long for another trial, at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, in London, to begin.
6-8-21 The FDA just approved a first-of-its-kind Alzheimer's treatment. But is it effective?
Despite questions surrounding its efficacy, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved a groundbreaking new medication that attacks the underlying Alzheimer's disease process rather than treating just its symptoms, writes The New York Times. It is the first drug of its kind, and the first new Alzheimer's treatment in 18 years. Aducanumab, the drug developed by biotech company Biogen and Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai, reduces levels of amyloid, an Alzheimer's biomarker and protein that "clumps into plaques" in a patient's brain, the Times writes. However, experts and doctors remain divided over whether this will have a substantial-enough effect to warrant approval, particularly as amyloid protein reduction may help only patients early in their disease progression, Time reports. On top of that concern, clinical trials also saw instances of brain swelling or bleeding, leading others to wonder if the risks outweigh the benefits, writes the Times. Critics cite two conflicting aducanumab clinical trials in explaining their hesitation — one study showed positive cognitive effects, and the other reportedly showed none at all. Biogen later claimed its "initial read of the data was incomplete," Time writes, and the FDA will now require the manufacturer to conduct another, post-approval trial to verify its claims. The infusion-based treatment will still be available to patients in the meantime, per the Times. Even with outstanding questions about aducanumab's "modest" clinical effect, supporters view the drug's approval as a win in the fight against an incredibly debilitating disease, says Time. "What we are trying to do is to delay the disabling phases of the disease and preserve quality of life," said Dr. Stephen Salloway, one of the principal investigators for the aducanumab trials, "Although the data has issues, this drug offers some chance of doing that."
6-8-21 US consumers spend less on sweets and dessert when shopping online
Consumers in the US spend more money when grocery shopping online, but spend less on sweets and desserts than when they shop in store. In recent years, online grocery shopping has grown massively. Since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, the amount that consumers spend through online shopping has more than doubled in the US. Laura Zatz at Harvard University and her colleagues have investigated how people’s habits change when they are spending in store versus shopping online. They recruited 137 participants from two supermarkets of the same chain in the US state of Maine. Each participant was the key shopper for their household, and they also had experience shopping both online and in-store. The researchers studied each participant for a total of 44 non-consecutive weeks and tracked what items they purchased between 2015 to 2017. They collected data from a total of 5573 transactions, 1062 of which were made online and 4511 in store. “We found differences in both the quantity of foods that people purchased and the types of foods that people purchase when they’re shopping online versus in store,” says Zatz. People spent more money on sweets and desserts when shopping in store, spending on average $2.50 more per transaction. However, there was no difference in spending on sugary drinks or salty snacks, such as crisps. “They purchase more items [when shopping online], both in terms of overall number of items but also a greater variety of unique items,” says Zatz. On average, participants spend 44 per cent more per transaction when shopping online than in store. It seems that in-store shopping entices shoppers to unhealthier food choices. “When you are in store, you are exposed to all sorts of stimuli that could encourage you to buy unhealthy impulse-sensitive food groups when you might not have otherwise planned to,” says Zatz. Unhealthy food choices are often displayed in supermarkets at the end of aisles and at checkouts to encourage unplanned purchases.
6-8-21 Scientists say new dinosaur species is largest found in Australia
Scientists in Australia have classified a new species of dinosaur, discovered in 2007, as the largest ever found on the continent. The Australotitan cooperensis or "the southern titan", is among the 15 largest dinosaurs found worldwide. Experts said the titanosaur would have been up to 6.5m (21ft) tall and 30m long, or "as long as a basketball court". Its skeleton was first discovered on a farm in south-west Queensland. Palaeontologists had worked over the past decade to identify the dinosaur - distinguishing it from other known species by comparing scans of its bones to those of other sauropods. Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs known for their size. They had small heads, very long necks, long tails and thick, pillar-like legs. These dinosaurs roamed the continent during the Cretaceous Period, about 92-96 million years ago. The team of researchers had nicknamed the dinosaur Cooper while working on it, after the nearby Cooper Creek where it was found. The identifying process had been a lengthy one due to the remote location of the bones and their size and delicate condition. But many of the remains were found intact, said researchers from the Queensland Museum and the Eromanga Natural History Museum. The team found the Australotitan was closely related to three other sauropod species - the Wintonotitan, Diamantinasaurus and Savannasaurus. "It looks like Australia's largest dinosaurs were all part of one big happy family," said Dr Scott Hocknull, one of the lead researchers. The bones were first found in 2007 on a family farm near Eromanga , which was owned by two of the dinosaur researchers, Robyn and Stuart Mackenzie. "It's amazing to think from the first bones discovered by our son, the first digs with the Queensland Museum, through to the development of a not-for-profit museum that runs annual dinosaur digs, all have helped us to get to this point, it's a real privilege," Stuart Mackenzie said.
6-7-21 Goats were first domesticated in western Iran 10,000 years ago
Goats were domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago in the area around the Zagros mountains in what is now western Iran. The finding suggests goats were one of the first animals to be domesticated, with only dogs unambiguously preceding them. “By 10,000 years ago, we have this lining up of archaeological and genetic data that seems to suggest that we have the first population of managed goats,” says Kevin Daly at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Goats are known to have been domesticated in western Asia or eastern Europe. Archaeological evidence suggested this was underway by 8000 BC. At some sites, male goats were being selectively killed at a young age, suggesting they were being kept in pens rather than hunted in the wild. At Asikli Höyük in what is now Turkey, goat urine left chemical traces in the soil where the animals were kept. Daly and his colleagues examined goat fossils preserved from two sites in the Zagros mountains: Ganj Dareh and Tepe Abdul Hosein, which have been excavated on and off for decades. They were inhabited between about 8200 and 7600 BC. The researchers obtained DNA from preserved goat parts from both sites: 14 nuclear genomes, as well as 32 mitochondrial genomes that were only inherited from the animals’ mothers. Daly and his team found that the goats formed two distinct groups – one was closely related to modern domestic goats, the other to modern wild goats. This means domestication had proceeded beyond the goats simply being kept. “The process of genetic domestication had already begun,” says Daly. Meanwhile, the wild-type goats were probably hunted. “This is the earliest genetic evidence of goat domestication,” says Daly. “It’s looking more and more like domestication of goat was probably primarily in or near the Zagros region.”
6-7-21 People who travel abroad can unknowingly spread antibiotic resistance
People in the Netherlands who travel abroad are unknowingly contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance by picking up gut bacteria containing drug-resistance genes while overseas then returning home. The same is probably true of travellers elsewhere who visit countries with a high prevalence of resistant bacteria. John Penders at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues took faecal swabs of 190 Dutch travellers before and after trips to countries in South-East Asia, South Asia, North Africa and eastern Africa, and analysed the bacteria in the samples. The team found that these travellers came back with gut microbiomes containing bacteria with many more and varied genes for antibiotic resistance than when they left. “We know that antimicrobial resistance is a global problem, but we also know that certain countries have a much higher prevalence than other countries,” says Penders. Johan Bengtsson-Palme at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden conducted a similar, but smaller, study six years ago. “My impression then was that there are a few resistance genes that are very widely circulating,” he says. “This study shows that this problem is broader than that. There’s an entire arsenal of different resistance that you pick up during travel.” The presence of these resistance genes doesn’t pose a direct threat to travellers as long as they are healthy. It only becomes a problem if they get an infection that becomes difficult to treat, or if they come into contact with critically ill people and spread the resistant genes. “The longer the microbiome stays in that state, where they have acquired extra resistance genes, the more opportunity it has to spread,” says Bram van Bunnik at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
6-7-21 Food that boosts gut microbes could be a new way to help malnourished kids
Malnourished children fed the new food did better than those who got traditional supplements. In the densely populated slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, children survive on rice cooked with curry powder and cheap cookies and chips, packaged in appealing, colorful wrappers. These protein-poor foods provide scarce nutrients for growing bodies. Add in poor sanitation from multiple generations of a family often living in a single room and no access to health care, and these hardships are etched in these children’s malnourished bodies. “This is what life is like in these places,” says Tahmeed Ahmed, who heads the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh. Dhaka is far from unique. According to UNICEF, more than 1 in 5 children under age 5, or 149.2 million, are coping with undernutrition — a form of malnutrition most common in low- and middle-income countries (SN: 1/8/20). Undernutrition leaves children stunted, or short for their age, and wasted, underweight for their height. And it can be deadly: Globally, 5.2 million children under age 5 died in 2019; 45 percent of those deaths are linked to nutrition-related issues, according to the World Health Organization. The COVID-19 pandemic was expected to make things worse, disrupting nutrition programs and families’ ability to find and afford food, researchers reported in May 2020 in the Lancet Global Health. It’s still too early to know the toll the pandemic has had on child malnutrition. But “we are not yet out of the woods in many countries,” says Denish Moorthy, a senior technical advisor on global nutrition initiatives for John Snow Inc., a Boston-based public health management consulting and research organization. Yet in Dhaka, there is a glimmer of hope. Children fed a new kind of food supplement, aimed at not only nourishing them but restoring helpful bacteria in their guts, gained more weight on average than children fed traditional high-caloric supplements, Ahmed and his colleagues reported in a preliminary study April 7 in the New England Journal of Medicine. In six months, the researchers hope to have results that determine whether those gains persist.
6-7-21 Google has mapped a piece of human brain in the most detail ever
Google has helped create the most detailed map yet of the connections within the human brain. It reveals a staggering amount of detail, including patterns of connections between neurons, as well as what may be a new kind of neuron. The brain map, which is freely available online, includes 50,000 cells, all rendered in three dimensions. They are joined together by hundreds of millions of spidery tendrils, forming 130 million connections called synapses. The data set measures 1.4 petabytes, roughly 700 times the storage capacity of an average modern computer. The data set is so large that the researchers haven’t studied it in detail, says Viren Jain at Google Research in Mountain View, California. He compares it to the human genome, which is still being explored 20 years after the first drafts were published. It is the first time we have seen the real structure of such a large piece of the human brain, says Catherine Dulac at Harvard University, who wasn’t involved in the work. “There’s something just a little emotional about it.” This mammoth undertaking began when a team lead by Jeff Lichtman, also at Harvard University, obtained a tiny piece of brain from a 45-year-old woman with drug-resistant epilepsy. She underwent surgery to remove the left hippocampus, the source of her seizures, from her brain. To do this, the surgeons had to remove some healthy brain tissue that overlaid the hippocampus. Lichtman and his team immediately immersed the sample in preservatives, then stained it with heavy metals like osmium, so the outer membranes of every cell were visible under an electron microscope. Then they embedded it in resin to toughen it. Finally, they cut it into slices around 30 nanometres thick, or about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, and used an electron microscope to image every slice.
6-6-21 Study: Lynparza can reduce relapse, death in some breast cancer patients
In a study published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, British drugmaker AstraZeneca said that in a late-stage trial, its drug Lynparza reduced the risk of relapse and death in breast cancer patients with certain gene mutations. Lynparza was developed with Merck, and works to inhibit PARP, a protein that repairs DNA damage to cells — including those that are cancerous. It can be given as a maintenance therapy or an active treatment after chemotherapy. The study found that compared to a placebo, Lynparza reduced the combined risk of recurrence of breast cancer or death from any cause by 42 percent, Reuters reports. Globally, breast cancer is now the most common form of the disease, the World Health Organization said in February, accounting for almost 12 percent of new cases every year.
6-5-21 After 40 years of AIDS, here’s why we still don’t have an HIV vaccine
The complex biology of HIV makes the virus a tough target to tackle. Forty years ago, researchers described the mysterious cases of five gay men who had fallen ill with a pneumonia caused by the bacteria Pneumocystis carinii. Two of the five men had already died. That type of pneumonia usually affects only individuals who are severely immunocompromised, researchers wrote in the June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Scientists would soon discover that a disease that would come to be known as AIDS was devastating the men’s immune systems. Three years later, scientists pinned the blame for AIDS on a virus dubbed HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. Margaret Heckler, the then-U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said in an April 1984 news conference that a vaccine to build protection against the virus would be ready to test within two years, holding out promise that protection was on its way. We’re still waiting. Meanwhile, the HIV pandemic, which probably got its start in Congo in the 1920s, has led to devastating loss. More than 75 million people have been infected around the world as of the end of 2019. Approximately 32.7 million people have died. That toll would undoubtedly be much higher if it weren’t for advances in antiviral treatments that can prevent infected people from dying from HIV and from transmitting the virus to others (SN: 3/4/20; SN: 11/15/19). To date, only three people have beaten an HIV infection (SN: 8/26/20). For most, it lasts a lifetime. That long-lasting infection is just one reason why no vaccine against HIV exists yet. It’s also a tricky virus to pin down, with many variants and an uncanny ability to evade the immune system. And money is an issue too. The lack of an effective HIV vaccine stands in stark contrast to COVID-19 vaccines that took less than a year to develop (SN: 11/9/20). For COVID-19 vaccine development, “the money poured in, which was the right thing to do,” says Susan Zolla-Pazner, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Funding for HIV vaccine research comes in five-year installments, making it difficult to allocate the money in an efficient way to get a vaccine off the ground. Still, that funding stream has allowed for advances in HIV research, which partly enabled the rapid success of multiple COVID-19 vaccines.
6-4-21 How do you travel abroad safely during the covid-19 pandemic?
As vaccination numbers continue to climb, rich countries are beginning to journey back towards normality. That is also true of travel itself. On 1 June, seven EU countries set out on the long road back to freedom of movement, allowing unimpeded travel between them as long as arrivals can prove they are either immune to SARS-CoV-2 or uninfected. Many other countries are also inching back to business as usual. But the world of travel is still a long way from its destination. So how do we get back to where we started? And if you plan to travel abroad over the coming months, what do you need to know? The risks of returning to international travel as it was done before covid-19 are obvious: as people move about, so does the SARS-CoV-2 virus, hastening the spread of dangerous variants and potentially reigniting the pandemic in places where it was under control. For this reason, international travel has been severely restricted for more than a year. But governments around the world are now confronting the tough task of reopening their borders. “We can take measures to allow people to enter countries,” says Jeffrey Lazarus at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain. “But countries have varying degrees of seriousness about how they approach controlling their borders.” The trick, he says, is to be like Denmark, not like Spain. Lazarus travels frequently between the two because he lives and works in Spain but has strong ties to Denmark after a stint at the World Health Organization’s regional office in Copenhagen. To get into Denmark from Spain, he has to show two negative tests, one done no more than 48 hours before arrival and the other done in the airport before going through passport control. A positive test would mean an immediate return to Spain, but two negatives allow him to enter the country. He then has to self-quarantine for 10 days, though on day four can do a PCR test and get out of quarantine if negative. The test is available for free, paid for by the Danish government.
6-4-21 Long covid has lasted over a year for 376,000 people in the UK
An estimated 1 million people in private households in the UK say they had long covid in the four weeks to 2 May, according to the latest survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Of these people, an estimated 869,000 first had covid-19 – or suspected they had covid-19 – at least 12 weeks earlier, while 376,000 first had the virus or suspected they had it at least a year ago. Long covid was estimated to be adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 650,000 people, with 192,000 reporting that their ability to undertake such activities was limited a lot. Long covid, also known as post-covid syndrome, is used to describe ill effects that continue for weeks or months after a coronavirus infection. Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, insomnia, dizziness, joint pain, depression and anxiety, tinnitus and diarrhoea. The previous figures, covering the four weeks to 6 March 2021, suggested that 70,000 people in private households in the UK had experienced symptoms of long covid for at least 12 months. The new figure of 376,000 is markedly higher because it takes in people infected during the peak of the first wave. The prevalence of self-reported long covid was greatest in people aged 35 to 69, females, those living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care, and those with another activity limiting health condition or disability, the ONS found. Fatigue (weakness or tiredness) was the most common symptom, affecting 547,000 out of 1 million people, followed by shortness of breath (405,000), muscle ache (313,000) and difficulty concentrating (285,000). Scientists are still unsure why some people experience such long-lasting illness, but some studies suggest the virus may cause premature ageing of the immune system, and this may be a cause of long covid.
6-4-21 Global plan aims to make vaccines for future pandemics within 100 days
The UK government and life science industry leaders have pledged to work towards a plan that could see vaccines ready in just 100 days in the event of a new pandemic. Meeting the ambitious goal would involve new therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines against potential future diseases being part-developed before a fresh outbreak began, the UK’s Department of Health said. It would require continued collaboration between companies, academic and medical researchers, regulators and global health bodies, the department added. The UK government acknowledged that cutting the time to deliver vaccines from a little more than 300 days – the period in which this feat was achieved in 2020 – to just 100 days in any future pandemic situation would take such work to “the next level”. Chief executives and representatives of firms including AstraZeneca, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline gave their support to the so-called 100 Days Mission set out by the Pandemic Preparedness Partnership, after discussions at the G7 Health Ministers’ Meeting this week. Lord Bethell, minister of innovation at the UK Department of Health, and the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance held sessions between industry and experts to discuss how challenges around new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines could be overcome. “The first 100 days in a pandemic are crucial to changing the course of a disease,” said Vallance. “In those three months, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines are key weapons.” “Given the extent of the social, economic and health impacts caused by covid-19, the 100 Days Mission is rightly ambitious and sets a goal for us to which we can all aspire,” he said. “Safe and highly effective vaccines have been delivered in record time, which is an incredible achievement, with life-saving jabs produced at scale and now being delivered to countries globally,” said UK health secretary Matt Hancock. “We are going to build on that with the 100 Days Mission. We are only going to get out of this global pandemic if the whole world is able to get out.”
6-4-21 Many people with covid-19 have neurological or psychiatric symptoms
Neurological and psychiatric symptoms such as anosmia and depression are common among people with covid-19 and may be just as likely in people with mild cases, new research suggests. Evidence from 215 studies of people with covid-19 indicates a wide range of ways in which the condition can affect mental health and the brain. The studies, from 30 countries, involved a total of 105,638 people with acute symptoms of covid-19 – the initial illness, rather than the longer-term impacts seen in long covid – including data up to July 2020. “We had expected that neurological and psychiatric symptoms would be more common in severe covid-19 cases, but instead we found that some symptoms appeared to be more common in mild cases,” said Jonathan Rogers at University College London, the lead author of the study. “It appears that covid-19 affecting mental health and the brain is the norm, rather than the exception.” The most common neurological and psychiatric symptoms were anosmia – loss of smell – reported by 43 per cent of people with the illness, weakness (40 per cent), fatigue (38 per cent), loss of taste (37 per cent), muscle pain (25 per cent), depression (23 per cent), headache (21 per cent) and anxiety (16 per cent). Major neurological conditions occurred more rarely, such as ischaemic stroke seen in 1.9 per cent of cases in the data set, haemorrhagic stroke (0.4 per cent) and seizure (0.06 per cent). People with severe covid-19 were overrepresented in the data set, as most of the studies focused on those admitted to hospital, and even the studies of people outside hospitals included few with very mild or no symptoms. However, the study found that among people with symptomatic acute covid-19 who weren’t admitted to hospital, neurological symptoms were still common.
6-4-21 China's COVID-19 vaccines don't appear to be effective at preventing outbreaks in the real world
The World Health Organization recently granted emergency use approval to China's Sinopharm and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines, but the countries that have put the Chinese-made vaccines in the arms of their residents are reporting mixed results, at best. "In the Seychelles, Chile, and Uruguay, all of whom have used Sinopharm or ... Sinovac in their mass vaccination efforts, cases have surged even as doses were given out," The Washington Post reports. And in Bahrain, one of the first countries to embrace the Sinopharm shot, The Wall Street Journal adds, "daily COVID-19 deaths have leapt to 12 per million people in recent weeks — an outbreak nearly five times more lethal than India's — prompting the island nation's government to shut down shopping malls and restaurants in an effort to limit the spread." Dr. Waleed Khalifa al Manea, Bahrain's undersecretary of health, told the Journal that the recent upsurge in cases "came mainly from family gatherings — we had Ramadan, which is a very social event in Bahrain," but he also said the country is urging older people and those with chronic illness to get a six-month booster shot with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Bahrain and the neighboring United Arab Emirates started offering booster shots in late May "after studies showed that some of those vaccinated had not developed sufficient antibodies," the Post reports. "In Dubai, the most populous of the seven members of the UAE, the emirate's health authorities have also quietly begun revaccinating with Pfizer-BioNTech those residents who had been fully inoculated with Sinopharm," the Journal reports. "Despite the concern about Sinopharm's effectiveness, experts say the vaccine still works as intended in most cases and that it could play a significant role in shortages of vaccine doses around the world," the Post reports. The WHO says it has a low level of confidence in the vaccine's effectiveness in older people, due to a lack of data. A peer-reviewed study published May 26 found the Sinopharm vaccine was 78 percent effective against symptomatic illness, but the trial participants were mostly healthy young men, the Journal reports. "In a separate, unpublished, real-world study of Sinopharm in Serbia, 29 percent of 150 participants were found to have zero antibodies against the virus three months after they received the first of two shots of the vaccine. The average age of the people who participated in the Serbian study was higher than 65."
6-4-21 How science museums reinvented themselves to survive the pandemic
During lockdown, institutions untethered their programs from their buildings with some creative results. On January 30, 2020, Science Gallery Dublin assembled a small group of experts to discuss a strange new disease that had recently emerged in China. Four panelists talked about the origins of the new coronavirus, whether it might be airborne and the prospects for a vaccine. While they agreed that it was important to take the virus seriously, the speakers urged the audience not to panic. There had been no known cases in Ireland. The prospect of a local outbreak seemed remote. “And that was the last live event we held in the gallery,” says Aisling Murray, the gallery’s head of programming. That very day, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” Six weeks later, with cases on the rise all over the globe, Science Gallery Dublin shut its doors. It was a moment of reckoning. “What does Science Gallery mean when we don’t have a space?” Murray recalls wondering. “How do we continue to engage our audience?” As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spiral out of control in March 2020, science museums around the world were forced to abruptly close. In a matter of days, ticket revenue vanished. “It was an existential crisis,” says Christofer Nelson, president and CEO of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, or ASTC, in Washington, D.C. “The fundamental business, operational, staffing, community service model of these organizations just went away overnight. And the question was ‘What do we do next?’ ” The weeks and months that followed were excruciatingly difficult for science museums, which lost more than $600 million in revenue in just the first six months of the pandemic, the ASTC estimates. Many museums and science centers were forced to adopt deep cost-cutting measures; some laid off more than half of their employees.
6-4-21 Something mysteriously wiped out about 90 percent of sharks 19 million years ago
No obvious climate shift can explain the newly discovered die-off. About 19 million years ago, something terrible happened to sharks. Fossils gleaned from sediments in the Pacific Ocean reveal a previously unknown and dramatic shark extinction event, during which populations of the predators abruptly dropped by up to 90 percent, researchers report in the June 4 Science. And scientists don’t know what might have caused the die-off. “It’s a great mystery,” says Elizabeth Sibert, a paleobiologist and oceanographer at Yale University. “Sharks have been around for 400 million years. They’ve been through hell and back. And yet this event wiped out [up to] 90 percent of them.” Sharks suffered losses of 30 to 40 percent in the aftermath of the asteroid strike that killed off all nonbird dinosaurs 66 million years ago (SN: 8/2/18). But after that, sharks enjoyed about 45 million years of peaceful ocean dominance, sailing through even large climate disruptions such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum — an episode about 56 million years ago marked by a sudden spike in global carbon dioxide and soaring temperatures — without much trouble (SN: 5/7/15). Now, clues found in the fine red clay sediments beneath two vast regions of Pacific add a new, surprising chapter to sharks’ story. Sibert and Leah Rubin, then an undergraduate student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, sifted through fish teeth and shark scales buried in sediment cores collected during previous research expeditions to the North and South Pacific oceans. “The project came out of a desire to better understand the natural background variability of these fossils,” Sibert says. Sharks’ bodies are made of mostly cartilage, which doesn’t tend to fossilize. But their skin is covered in tiny scales, or dermal denticles, each about the width of a human hair follicle. These scales make for an excellent record of past shark abundance: Like shark teeth, the scales are made of the mineral bioapatite, which is readily preserved in sediments. “And we will find several hundred more denticles compared to a tooth,” Sibert says.
6-3-21 Sharks were almost wiped out in an extinction 19 million years ago
Sharks living in the open ocean seem to have experienced a previously unknown mass extinction about 19 million years ago. The event may have wiped out nearly 90 per cent of sharks at the time. Many sharks are currently threatened with extinction as a result of human activities, including overfishing, plastic pollution and illegal shark finning. What makes this situation more striking is that sharks have existed for at least 420 million years and have been considered resilient to large mass extinctions, several of which have happened during that time. Elizabeth Sibert at Yale University – who conducted the study while at Harvard University – and Leah Rubin at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry say they have now found the first evidence of a mass extinction of the “pelagic” sharks that live in the open oceans. They isolated microfossils of shark scales, called ichthyolith denticles, from samples of mud taken from the sea floor in both the North and South Pacific Ocean. The mud samples come from the upper 15 metres of the seafloor, and were deposited over the past 40 million years. Sibert and Rubin counted and characterised a total of 1263 fossilised denticles. They say the sediment samples reveal a sudden drop in the abundance and diversity of shark scales around 19 million years ago, during an epoch known as the Miocene. “There seems to have been a major extinction event in the early Miocene, which knocked out about 90 per cent of sharks in the open ocean,” says Sibert. This is more than twice the level of extinction that sharks experienced during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 66 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs. Sibert says the extinction occurred relatively abruptly, geologically speaking, over a span of 100,000 years.
6-3-21 University students with morning lectures tend to have lower grades
University students tend to get lower grades if their classes and lectures begin early in the morning. Attending classes and sleeping well are both associated with increased engagement and performance at university – but a course with lectures scheduled early in the morning might compromise students’ ability to do both. To investigate, Joshua Gooley at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and his colleagues analysed the grades of 27,281 undergraduates enrolled at the National University of Singapore. The students were attending classes between 2018 and 2020, but before the covid-19 pandemic. On average, those with more days of morning classes had a lower overall grade than those with more afternoon classes. “We made sure that the students we selected had the same course workload, in terms of course credits,” says Gooley. The students with no morning classes at all had a higher overall grade, on average, than all other groups. The researchers also found that attendance was much lower at early morning classes – for students with lectures starting at 8 am it was 15 per cent lower than at classes at 10 am or later. They investigated attendance using Wi-Fi connection data associated with 24,678 students – which included some of the initial 27,281 students. If a student was connected to a Wi-Fi router near to their lecture hall, the team assumed that person was in attendance. Students knew this information was being collected, and it was anonymised before inclusion in the study. “Based on each student’s course timetable, we already knew the location of their classes,” says Gooley. “We just determined which Wi-Fi routers correspond to which lecture halls.” To understand why students weren’t attending morning classes, the researchers gave 181 of them a sensor to wear for six weeks that can measure sleep cycles and activity. “In nearly a third of instances for 8 o’clock classes, students didn’t wake up in time to reach their class,” says Gooley. Conversely, they rarely slept past the start of classes that began at noon or later.
6-3-21 After vaccinating 95 percent of adults, a Brazilian city is returning to normal
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths dipped following mass vaccination of adults in Serrana. In Serrana, Brazil, schools are reopening and plans are under way for a large open-air concert. Health care workers suddenly have time for sit-down meals rather than rushing to grab street food during a spare free moment. These scenes approaching normalcy stand in stark contrast to what’s happening across the rest of the country, where hospitals are jam-packed, businesses are largely closed and 2,000 people are dying each day from COVID-19. Serrana, a city of 45,600 in the state of São Paulo, can begin to make these plans because an experiment called Projeto S, which vaccinated nearly all adults, appears to be drastically reducing COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths there. Symptomatic cases have dropped 80 percent, with hospital admissions down 86 percent, down from a peak of around 600 cases per 100,000 people in early March, Projeto S leaders announced at a news conference on May 31. By two weeks after the second shot, only two fully vaccinated people landed in the hospital with COVID-19. The incidence of COVID-19–related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants also dropped 95 percent in the city, the team leaders said, although the raw data behind the numbers has yet to be released. In April, the city recorded only six COVID-19 deaths, according to the Health Secretariat of Serrana. The project, in which over 95 percent of the city’s adults were given the Chinese-made CoronaVac vaccine, is a real-time experiment to measure the effectiveness the vaccine, including how well it protects against coronavirus variants (SN 5/5/21). In clinical trials, the CoronaVac vaccine had an efficacy of just over 50 percent, raising concerns of how well it would work in the real world.
6-3-21 50 years ago, scientists predicted steady U.S. population growth
Excerpt from the June 5, 1971 issue of Science News. 1971: The United States’ population is growing at a rate of one percent a year, and even with lower fertility rates this trend will probably continue. If the fertility rate dropped to 2.1 children per woman, the population of the country would level off in the year 2037 at 267 million. But, this would require an unlikely 50 percent decrease in the birth rate. Update: Those projections, based on 1970 census data, recently veered off course. As of April 2020, about 331.5 million people lived in the United States, according to census data. But from July 2019 to July 2020, the population grew by just 0.35 percent — the lowest annual growth rate in over a century. For most of the last 50 years, the population grew by about 1 percent per year, thanks in large part to immigration. While the fertility rate dropped below 2.1 children per woman after 1971 and the birth rate declined by 29 percent from 1970 to 2014, the foreign-born population quadrupled from just under 10 million people to over 40 million. Over the last several years, though, immigration has slowed and life expectancy has decreased (SN: 12/21/17). In 2020, the fertility rate dropped to a record low of 1.64 children per woman and the birth rate — at 56 births per 1,000 women — became the lowest on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6-2-21 People who are blind navigate better after echolocation training
People who are blind are able to better complete various practical and navigation tasks with the help of echolocation, new research suggests. Echolocation occurs when an animal emits a sound that bounces off objects in the environment, returning echoes that provide information about the surrounding space. While the technique is well known in whales and bats, some people who are blind use click-based echolocation to judge spaces and improve their navigation skills. Lore Thaler at Durham University in the UK and colleagues looked into the factors that determine how people learn this skill. Over the course of a 10-week training programme, the team investigated how level of vision and age affect the learning of click-based echolocation, and how learning this skill affects the daily life of people who are blind. Blind and sighted participants aged between 21 and 79 took part in 20 two-to-three-hour training sessions over the study period. Blind participants also took part in a three-month follow-up survey assessing the effects of the training on their daily life. The researchers found that people who are blind and those who are sighted improved considerably on all measures, and in some cases performed comparably with expert echolocators at the end of the training. In the follow-up survey, all participants who were blind reported improved mobility, and 83 per cent reported better independence and well-being. The results are published in the journal PLoS One. The results suggest the ability to learn click-based echolocation isn’t strongly limited by age or level of vision, the researchers say, and this has positive implications for the rehabilitation of people with vision loss or in the early stages of progressive vision loss. “I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback,” said Thaler.
6-2-21 Drunk review: Could alcohol-induced creativity be key to civilisation?
SOME years ago, when author Edward Slingerland gave a talk at a Google campus, his hosts ushered him into an impressive room. This is where coders pop in for liquid inspiration when they run into a creative wall, they told him. It wasn’t a place to get drunk alone. In his engrossing book, Drunk, Slingerland writes that such spaces, which allow for both face-to-face communication and easy access to alcohol, can act as incubators for collective creativity. The boost that alcohol provides to individual creativity, he emphasises, is enhanced when people get drunk in groups. For millennia, people have used alcohol and other mind-altering substances to get high. Some archaeologists even suggest that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread. If intoxicants were merely hijacking pleasure centres in the brain by triggering the release of “reward” chemicals, or if they were once adaptive but are vices now, then evolution would have put the kibosh on our taste for these chemicals, says the author. So, what is going on? Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a novel thesis, arguing that by causing humans “to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal… intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups”. In short, without them, civilisation might not have been possible. This may seem an audacious claim, but Slingerland draws on history, anthropology, cognitive science, social psychology, genetics and literature, including alcohol-fuelled classical poetry, for evidence. He is an entertaining writer, synthesising a wide array of studies to make a convincing case. Without a science-based understanding of intoxicants, we cannot decide what role they can and should play, he stresses. In small doses, alcohol can make us happy and sociable. But still, consuming any amount of intoxicant can seem stupid, he concedes, because the chemical targets the prefrontal cortex. This late-maturing brain region is the seat of abstract reasoning, which also governs our behaviour and ability to remain on task. Research suggests small children are very creative because their prefrontal cortex is barely developed.
6-2-21 China reports 1st human case of H10N3 bird flu strain
China confirmed on Tuesday its first human case of the H10N3 bird flu strain, after a 41-year-old man in the eastern province of Jiangsu was diagnosed with an infection. Health officials said the strain is not as severe as others and the risk of a large-scale outbreak is low, Reuters reports. The man went to the hospital after coming down with a fever and other symptoms, and on May 28 it was confirmed that he had the H10N3 virus. Health officials did not say how the man became infected, but did share that he is in stable condition and about to leave the hospital. People close to the man have been under medical observation, and none have come down with the virus. H10N3 is "not a very common virus," Filip Claes of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Diseases told Reuters. From 1978 to 2018, roughly 160 isolates of the virus were reported, primarily in waterfowl and wild birds in Asia and some areas of North America. There have been no detected cases in chickens.
6-2-21 Vaccinating people in developing countries costs far less than doing nothing
Shots for half those adults will cost $9.3 billion, the Rockefeller Foundation reports. As the United States and other nations celebrate what looks like the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic — with a quarter to half their populations vaccinated — many less well-off countries are lagging far behind. Some have vaccinated less than 1 percent of their populations, leaving them vulnerable to emerging coronavirus variants and at risk for future surges. Now a new analysis puts a price tag on what it would cost those countries to catch up. Getting shots to half the adult population of the world’s lowest-income countries in 2021 will cost $9.3 billion, the Rockefeller Foundation, a global charitable foundation based in New York City, reports June 1. That estimate includes 92 nations (representing about 3.8 billion people) that are eligible for vaccine access through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public–private global health partnership based in Geneva. With that money, the Alliance could purchase 1.8 billion vaccine doses. If COVID-19 vaccine doses had been distributed equitably to every nation, these doses “would have been enough to cover all health workers and older people” by now, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a May 24 assembly of the organization’s member states. The fallout of failing to vaccinate people in countries with fewer resources will come with a high cost not only for human life — there have been more than 3.5 million COVID-19 deaths so far — but also the global bottom line (SN: 2/26/21; SN: 5/9/21). The word’s economy stands to lose more than $9 trillion if lower-income countries aren’t able to access vaccines, the International Chamber of Commerce estimates.
6-2-21 The mindfulness revolution: A clear-headed look at the evidence
Mindfulness is hailed as a treatment for a vast array of problems and the apps are now hugely popular. But do the claims about its benefits stack up? New Scientist investigates. THERE is nothing wrong with thinking. It is what makes us human. Our ability to remember the past and imagine the future has made us the most successful species on the planet. But can we take it too far? Scientists and self-help gurus alike argue that spending too much time ruminating on our worries can make us stressed and miserable, while blinding us to the joys of what is happening right now. The cure, we are told, is to be more mindful. The practice of mindfulness – paying attention to our experience in a non-judgemental, accepting way – promises to help us escape the tyranny of our thoughts, boosting our mood, performance and health along the way. At this point, there can’t be many people on the planet who haven’t tried mindfulness at least once. Secular versions of the practice were first developed from Buddhist roots in the 1970s, paving the way for scientific studies into its effects on the mind. Since it burst into the mainstream in the 1990s, high-profile research papers and media reports have claimed dramatic changes in brain structure and function, and benefits ranging from sharper attention to boosted mood, memory and a younger-looking brain. Mindfulness is now prescribed by doctors, taught in schools, provided by employers and is readily available to download on our smartphones. It is no longer a fringe topic, but part of daily life. “Now, everyone’s got the app,” says a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California. In recent years, though, some researchers have begun to urge caution, warning that the benefits of the practice have been hyped and potential harms ignored. It is also unclear whether apps, the way most people now access this practice, work the same way as formal training. So, what is the truth about mindfulness? Does it really work, and if so, what can it do?
6-2-21 Why it's so important we believe people about their mental health
When Meghan Markle said she thought of ending her life during her time living with the royal family in the UK, people online said: No, actually, you didn’t feel like that. When British MP Nadia Whittome said she was taking time off because she had PTSD, again people said no, she’s just stressed, stress is normal. And when tennis player Naomi Osaka said recently she would stop giving press conferences because of the impact they have on her mental health, people decided for themselves what that phrase meant, and concluded she was being unfair, unreasonable and overdramatic. It is relevant that these three public figures are women of colour, and therefore especially likely to be scrutinised. But it is also indicative of a deeply problematic trend in the way mental health is being discussed in the public domain. Mental distress is largely invisible. You can’t see symptoms of most mental health conditions, things like depression and social anxiety (both of which Osaka has experienced). And when the person talking about their difficulties is famous or successful, it is easy to be sceptical. It is easy to think: well, they look fine. This disbelief happens when it comes to celebrities but also for regular joes too. For example, undergraduate students today commonly talk about their mental health problems, and I think the suspicion of some academics is obvious. Students can’t all be that unwell, the logic goes, so none of them are. Part of the problem, ironically, is exactly how much we are talking about this. Spearheaded by charity campaigns like Time To Change, there has been a huge drive to talk more openly about all and any mental health problems. This, paired with vagueness around the right terminology to use, means people are more confused than ever about what mental distress does and doesn’t “count”, and what we should do about it.
6-1-21 Here’s what we know about the risks of serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines
Risks of rare allergic reactions, blood clots and maybe heart problems don’t outweigh benefits. Many people have experienced sore arms and feeling wiped out for a couple of days after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Some get fevers, chills and headaches. Those familiar side effects have become widely accepted as the price of protection against the too-often-deadly coronavirus. But it’s the rare, more serious side effects that have grabbed the headlines — and given some people pause about whether to get vaccinated or get the shots for their children. Such side effects include rare allergic reactions to an ingredient in the mRNA vaccines (SN: 1/6/21) and rare blood clots in young women associated with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine (SN: 4/23/21). Now, a group that monitors vaccine safety for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating whether there is a link between Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine and a few mild cases of heart inflammation, called myocarditis, in adolescents and young adults. So far, cases of myocarditis have not risen above the number normally expected in young people, and no one actually knows whether the vaccine triggers the heart inflammation or not. “We are seeing these potential side effects because we are looking for them, and that’s a perfect example of how our safety system is supposed to work,” says Alexandra Yonts, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “We’re being very aggressive and proactive, and that’s good.” Here’s what is known, the experts say: The risk of serious side effects from vaccination remains far smaller than its benefits. The vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, even against variants (SN: 5/11/21). The vaccines may also help block infection and transmission of the coronavirus (SN: 3/30/21).
6-1-21 Coronavirus: WHO announces Greek alphabet naming scheme for variants
THE World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a naming system for variants of the coronavirus that uses letters of the Greek alphabet. Under the new naming scheme, the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK, commonly referred to as the Kent variant, is labelled “alpha”, the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa is “beta”, the P.1 variant which first originated in Brazil is “gamma” and the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India is “delta”. These Greek letter labels will only be given to “variants of concern” and “variants of interest” as defined by the WHO. Researchers had been calling for an alternative naming system for coronavirus variants for some time, arguing that the scientific names are challenging to pronounce, leading many people to refer to the variants by geographical names such as “the Indian variant”. This “unfairly places blame on the people in those locations”, says Mark Pallen at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, UK, who recently developed an automated system to generate Latin and Greek-based names for new bacterial species. Writing in New Scientist in March, Pallen suggested that an approach similar to that used for naming storms might be useful for generating neutral and more memorable names for coronavirus variants. The established systems for naming and tracking genetic lineages of the coronavirus will remain in use by scientists and in scientific research, as these “convey important scientific information”, the WHO said in a press release on 31 May. But the new Greek alphabet-based labels will “help with public discussion”, tweeted Maria Van Kerkhove, covid-19 technical lead for the WHO. Avoiding referring to coronavirus variants by geographical names could also encourage countries to detect and report variants rapidly, which is crucial for managing their spread. “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said Kerkhove. “Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants.”