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41 Evolution News Articles
for May 2022
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5-14-22 A special brew may have calmed Inca children headed for sacrifice
Mummified hair and fingernail remains contained traces of a substance that may reduce anxiety. Two Inca children slated for ritual sacrifice more than 500 years ago quaffed a special soothing concoction that has gone undetected until now. Those young victims, most likely a girl and a boy roughly 4 to 8 years old, drank a liquid that may have lightened their moods and calmed their nerves in the days or weeks before they were ceremonially killed and buried on Peru’s Ampato mountain, a new study suggests. The youngsters’ bodies contained chemical remnants from one of the primary ingredients of ayahuasca, a liquid concoction known for its hallucinogenic effects, say bioarchaeologist Dagmara Socha of the University of Warsaw, Poland, and her colleagues (SN: 5/6/19). Analyses focused on hair from the girl’s naturally mummified body and fingernails from the boy’s partially mummified remains. While no molecular signs of ayahuasca’s strong hallucinogens appeared in those remains, the team did find traces of harmine and harmaline, chemical products of Banisteriopsis caapi vines, Socha’s group reports in the June Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. In ayahuasca, B. caapi amplifies the strength of other more hallucinogenic ingredients. Recent investigations with rodents suggest that solutions containing harmine affect the brain much like some antidepressant drugs do. “This is the first [evidence] that B. caapi could have been used in the past for its antidepressant properties,” Socha says. While research on whether harmine can lessen depression or anxiety in people is in its infancy, archaeologist Christine VanPool of the University of Missouri, Columbia, thinks it’s possible that the ingredient was used on purpose. Spanish documents written after the fall of the Inca empire say that alcohol was used to calm those about to be sacrificed, so other brews may have been used too, speculates VanPool, who was not part of Socha’s team.

5-13-22 Protein gel could help treat type 1 diabetes
The gel, which was implanted alongside a pancreatic cell transplant in monkeys with type 1 diabetes, releases a protein that kills overactive immune cells, preventing the pancreatic cells from being rejected. Transplanting pancreatic cells alongside a protein-releasing microgel improved diabetes control in monkeys, without the transplanted cells being rejected. People with type 1 diabetes have to inject insulin to regulate their blood sugar, as their immune system mistakenly attacks islet beta cells in the pancreas that normally produce the blood-sugar-lowering hormone insulin. Transplanting islet beta cells from deceased donors can enable people with type 1 diabetes to produce their own insulin, but recipients require lifelong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent the cells being rejected. This dampens their immune system, putting them at greater risk of infections and cancer. Looking for an alternative treatment, Ji Lei at Harvard Medical School and his colleagues injected a natural agent called streptozotocin, which kills islet beta cells, into seven monkeys, inducing type 1 diabetes. Twelve days later, the scientists took islets from healthy monkeys, mixing them with the microgels. The cells and microgels were then transplanted onto a tissue layer in the monkeys’ abdomens. Four of the monkeys received microgels filled with Fas ligand (FasL), a natural protein that kills overactive immune cells, as well as a protein called streptavidin (SA), which “glues” FasL to the microgel. Mixing the gel with the islet cells beforehand enables the gel to slowly release FasL onto the transplanted cells once in the body, preventing them from being rejected. The remaining three monkeys received islet transplants alongside an “empty” microgel, with no FasL or SA. All seven monkeys received supplemental insulin for the first 28 days, as well as a three-month course of the anti-rejection drug rapamycin.

5-13-22 Genetically engineered bacteria have learned to play tic-tac-toe
E. coli bacteria modified to act like electronic components called memristors can be set up to act as a simple neural network and trained to play noughts and crosses. For the first time, humans have played tic-tac-toe – also known as noughts and crosses – with bacteria. These were no ordinary bacteria, but E. coli extensively genetically modified and set up to act as a simple neural network, a form of artificial intelligence. This approach could have all kinds of applications, from creating living materials capable of learning to making “smart” microbiomes, says Alfonso Jaramillo at the Spanish National Research Council. He and his team started with an E. coli strain genetically modified to sense 12 different chemicals and respond by altering the activity of any genes the researchers chose. This strain, called Marionette, was created in 2019 by another group. Jaramillo and his colleagues further modified the Marionette strain so that it had numerous copies of two bits of circular DNA, called plasmids, each coding for a different fluorescent protein: one red and one green. The ratio of the number of these two plasmids – and hence the colour of the bacteria’s fluorescence – isn’t predetermined and can be altered by the 12 chemicals and by certain antibiotics. In the absence of any further input, this ratio remains constant and is thus a form of memory. What’s more, when the bacteria do get another input, the output – the colour resulting from the ratio of fluorescent proteins – depends on the previous ratio. This means that the bacteria behave in the same way as an electronic component called a memristor that is being used to create computer chips that mimic how the synapses in a brain work. Jaramillo calls these creations “memregulons”. The team decided to teach these memregulons to play tic-tac-toe, as this is a benchmark often used to demonstrate new approaches in computing. The bacteria were grown in eight wells corresponding with the outer squares of a tic-tac-toe grid.

5-13-22 Why some words become funnier when paired together
A study looking at more than 55,000 pairs of words has found why word pairings like "funk fungus" and "gnome bone" seem to be more amusing than their constituent parts. On their own there is nothing particularly funny about the words “gnome” and “bone”, but put them together and it is a different story. Pairings like “gnome bone” seem to make people chuckle, at least according to a study that looked at the funniness of thousands of pairs of words. Cynthia S. Q. Siew at the National University of Singapore and her colleagues generated random word pairings using a list of around 5000 words previously studied for their humour or lack thereof. Then, they asked online study participants to rate each pair as either “humorous” or humourless”. Across the survey, around 600 respondents rated about 55,000 different word pairings. According to the ratings scale, some of the funniest pairs were “playboy parrot”, “weasel penis”, and “spam scrotum”. By contrast, pairs like “large small”, “schedule year”, and “sell bargain” rated low on the humour scale. Siew and the team found that words that gave people concrete images were funnier than those related to abstract ideas. For example, “turnip tramp” was rated as funnier than “life friend”. Word pairs with similar sounding words like “funk fungus” tended to be considered funnier than pairs with varied sounds like “conserve health”. People also found pairs containing words related to sex and bodily functions more amusing. One dominant theory of humour contends that incongruent things and situations are funny. However, Siew says her team’s research suggests humour is more than just unexpected contrasts. The funniest word pairs contain words that, while different, are connected in a surprising way, she says.

5-13-22 Prehistoric people may have used light from fires to create dynamic art
When brought near flickering flames, stone engravings of animals seem to move. Prehistoric people may have used firelight to create the illusion of movement in their art. An analysis of 50 engraved stones excavated in France suggests that when the stones were placed near a fire, the flickering light made the engraved animals seem to move, researchers report April 20 in PLOS ONE. These stones, or “plaquettes,” were found in the 1860s in a rock-shelter called Montastruc, and are engraved with animals such as horses, ibex and deer. The site was used by Magdalenian people, hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The researchers analyzed heat damage on the stones, which was indicative of them being directly exposed to high temperatures for a prolonged period, and created 3-D models of the plaquettes. Those models were imported to a virtual reality software where they were placed next to a virtual hearth so that the areas of heat damage were closest to the flames, mimicking how the stones may have been placed in real life. The researchers then observed the visual effects of the virtual reality light. It was surprising to see how dynamic the art was and “how changed your experience of the art was by a simple thing, just putting it close to a fire,” says Andy Needham, an archaeologist at the University of York in England. The work suggests that the artists purposely engraved along the contours of the rock to influence viewers to see meaningful movement through the random pattern of firelight, he says. The finding adds to archaeologists’ understandings of the relationship between early people’s artwork and fire. Another recent study found that Stone Age humans created “hidden” art in dark caves which could be illuminated and made visible only with the help of the right lighting (SN: 7/6/21).

5-12-22 Coral reefs have conveyor belts of mucus running across their surface
Tiny cilia on coral reef polyps coordinate to generate currents that run across the reef surface, perhaps to carry food to all colony members. Reef-building coral may feed more efficiently by using tiny hair-like structures to generate food-carrying conveyer belts in the water running across their surface. Corals that form reefs consist of thousands of tiny animals called polyps, each with a mouth surrounded by soft tentacles. The surface of each polyp is covered in tiny hairs called cilia. Previous studies have found that the polyps can use their cilia to generate vertical currents that lift water – and anything that is suspended in it – up and away from the reef surface. This is thought to help remove potentially harmful microbes and debris from the coral surface, and possibly also draw food down towards the coral. Now, researchers have taken a look at another form of current the cilia generate: horizontal currents that carry seawater and coral mucus across the reef surface. They found that these currents connect the mouths of individual polyps to each other. “This study really came out of the blue. We were originally adding fluorescent beads to coral surfaces for another experiment and noticed they started to move in an interesting way,” says Igor Adameyko at the Medical University of Vienna. “So we followed this up and found that, in every coral we tested, there were these horizontal currents that connect the individual polyps into one organism, which would allow polyps to share food [such as plankton].”Adameyko and his colleagues conducted their research on corals in the Caribbean and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. They added fluorescent beads or black charcoal particles to the surfaces of several coral species and took videos of the particle movements for around 10 minutes. By creating a model of how the beads and particles moved, they found that each coral species formed a unique arrangement of mucus-carrying currents at its surface.

5-12-22 Flu vaccine cuts risk of heart attack in following year by 34 per cent
A meta-analysis of studies involving 9000 people suggests those who receive a flu vaccine also gain some protection against heart attacks. Getting vaccinated for the flu may also cut your risk of developing cardiovascular issues. That is the finding of Bahar Behrouzi at the University of Toronto and her colleagues after a meta-analysis of the results of six clinical trials involving flu vaccines conducted between 2000 and 2021. These involved a total of over 9000 people. The researchers wanted to find out whether having a flu vaccine reduced the chance of developing cardiovascular conditions, such as angina, stroke and heart attack, in the year following inoculation. Previous studies had found a link, but no analysis of this has involved so many participants. As part of all six trials, participants were followed for 12 months. Their average age was 65.5 and just over a third of them had had heart issues in the 12 months leading up to their enrolment in one of the trials. Only 4510 of these people had a flu vaccine, whereas the others were given either a placebo or didn’t receive any treatment at all. The researchers found that the flu vaccine led to a 34 per cent lower risk, on average, of a major cardiovascular issue in the 12 months following inoculation. When specifically comparing patients who had a recent history of heart problems, those who had been vaccinated against influenza had a 45 per cent lower risk of a heart condition in the following year than those who hadn’t. Deepak Bhatt at Harvard University, who worked on the study, says this link is probably because flu can lead to heart attacks. “It could be the stress that an infection places on the heart, such as that caused by fever, an elevated heart [rate]and dehydration,” he says.

5-12-22 The lab coat and lone genius – science's most infuriating stereotypes
Television often portrays researchers as lab coat-wearing weirdos who hate social interactions, but the name of the game is collaboration plus hoodies. We need to get better at showing the public what we do, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. I AM a person who likes things to be specific and accurate. In some ways, this is antithetical to being a communicator of science to general audiences. This requires helping non-experts understand complex ideas – like the idea of quantum fields – while deploying only a small fraction of the language we professionals use to talk among ourselves. It means glossing over details that can feel fundamentally important. Which is to say that I regularly have to grapple with what it means to talk to people about something when I know I’m not going to give them the full story. I find it easier to be successful in writing. Here, I can choose my words carefully, and the “optics” of the work I am trying to get across are what I manage to evoke in the reader’s mind. By contrast, one of my biggest frustrations is with how science is portrayed on television. There, it seems like a production mandate to have flashy graphics and representations of “what scientists do” that align with public expectations. The result? We get a lot of representation of people (often white men) in white lab coats, even though many (perhaps most?) scientists don’t wear a lab coat of any kind, ever. For theoretical physicists, the expectation is that we will have a chalkboard filled with equations. For some people that is accurate, but I dislike the feel of chalk on my fingers. I much prefer writing with a fountain or gel pen in a high-quality, bound notebook. Part of what ends up being so off in popularisations of science is that we continue to get various versions of the lone genius: someone sitting at their desk or working at a chalkboard alone, thinking important thoughts.

5-11-22 Some medicines prescribed to treat back pain may prolong the problem
Two drugs called dexamethasone and diclofenac relieve back pain in the short term, but may block healing of the injury and so cause worse pain long termM. Two anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used for back pain may be inadvertently making the condition worse. The medicines, called dexamethasone and diclofenac, may interfere with the body’s normal processes for healing the injured tissue, early-stage research suggests. But the idea hasn’t yet been tested in a randomised trial, the best kind of medical evidence. Lower back pain is one of the most common conditions worldwide, with about four in five people experiencing it at some point, but the causes are often unclear. Some of those affected are shown in scans to have an outward bulge in one of the discs in the spine that cushion the vertebrae – known as a slipped disc – but many people without back pain have such a bulge too. As opioid painkillers can be addictive, doctors may prescribe anti-inflammatory medicines instead. This is because pain can be worsened by inflammation, which is a low-grade activation of immune cells. Luda Diatchenko at McGill University in Montreal and her colleagues investigated 98 people who had recently developed lower back pain. The researchers took regular blood samples and analysed them to see which genes were active in the immune cells circulating in the blood. In those whose pain subsided over the next three months, one type of inflammatory immune cell – the neutrophils – showed higher levels of activity than in people whose pain persisted. This suggests that some inflammatory cells can help people overcome their pain – a process that might be disrupted by anti-inflammatory drugs. Diatchenko’s team also found that in mice given a back injury, treatment with anti-inflammatories such as dexamethasone and diclofenac relieved their pain in the short term, but led to more pain longer term. Without any anti-inflammatory drug treatment, the animals also experienced longer-term pain if their neutrophils were killed by injections of an antibody.

5-11-22 Fascia: The long-overlooked tissue that shapes your health
The connective tissue that surrounds your muscles and organs, known as fascia, has always been ignored – but new insights suggest it holds the key to tackling chronic pain and immune dysfunction. SCIENTIFIC revelations come from the unlikeliest of places. Like a rat, in a lab, doing a “downward dog” stretch. According to the people who found a way to get rats to do yoga, these creatures benefit from a good stretch as much as we do. In the process, they are revealing the true significance of a body tissue that has been overlooked by science for centuries. The 19th-century anatomist Erasmus Wilson called this tissue – now known as fascia – a natural bandage. In dissection, that is exactly what it looks like: sheets of white, fibrous connective tissue that are strong yet flexible and perfect for keeping muscles and organs in place. They are also sticky, gloopy and get in the way of looking at the muscles, bones and organs they cover. Which explains why, for years, anatomists cut this tissue off, chucked it away and thought little more about it. Recently, though, researchers have begun to take a fresh look at fascia and are finding that it is anything but an inert wrapping. Instead, it is the site of biological activity that explains some of the links between lifestyle and health. It may even be a new type of sensory organ. “There appears to be more going on in the fascia than is commonly appreciated,” says Karl Lewis at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. We are now realising that a better understanding of this ubiquitous tissue is sorely needed. If we manage to figure it out, it has the potential to provide new ways to tackle many common yet hard-to-treat conditions, from immune dysfunction to chronic pain. One difficulty with studying fascia is that there is disagreement about what it actually is. It comes under the umbrella of connective tissue, which, at its broadest definition includes not only tendons and ligaments, but also bone, skin and fat.

5-11-22 Rat testicle cells make sperm after being frozen for 23 years
Pre-pubescent children who become infertile because of cancer treatment may be able to make sperm after reimplanting frozen testicular tissue, if animal research translates to humans. Rat testicle cells that were frozen for 23 years have produced sperm after being implanted into mice. The findings suggest that children who have testicle tissue frozen before cancer treatment may be able to have the tissue reimplanted so they can one day have their own biological children through in vitro fertilisation (IVF), says Eoin Whelan at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Chemotherapy to treat cancer can kill stem cells in the testicles that make sperm. Adults can have sperm samples frozen before this treatment, but that isn’t an option for children who are yet to go through puberty. In such cases, some clinics have been removing and freezing small samples of children’s immature testicle tissue in the hope that, if reimplanted when they are adults, it will mature and start making sperm. At least one clinic, located in Belgium, has been approved to start such reimplantation surgery. Whelan and his colleagues’ study gives some cause for optimism. They took advantage of stem cells from rats that had been isolated and frozen 23 years earlier, thawing and implanting them into the testes of mice. The mice had been treated with a drug that killed their own sperm-making cells – which is too toxic to use on rats – and had defective immune systems so they couldn’t reject the transplant. For comparison, the same procedure was also done in other mice using rat cells that had been removed and immediately implanted, as well as with rat cells that had been frozen a few months ago. When the mice’s testes were examined, the 23-year-old stem cells had survived and developed into groups of sperm-producing cells, although they made about 20-fold fewer groups of cells than the fresh tissue or recently frozen tissue. The groups of cells from the 23-year-old implants were making mature sperm, but each one made about a third as many as the ones derived from implants of fresh or recently frozen cells. Nevertheless, if the same results happen in people, participants could produce some sperm even if numbers are low, says Whelan. “You really only need one viable sperm to succeed.”

5-10-22 Deadly 1918 flu pandemic may be source of modern milder seasonal virus
Viruses sequenced from century-old lung samples in German and Austrian museums have shed light on how flu can change over time Today’s seasonal influenza infections may be caused by direct descendants of the virus behind the 1918 flu pandemic. That pandemic was the deadliest disease outbreak of the last century, infecting a third of the world’s population and causing up to 100 million deaths. For comparison, the current covid-19 pandemic is thought to have resulted in 15 million deaths by the end of last year. Much about the 1918 pathogen is still mysterious: scientists only demonstrated that flu was caused by a virus in the 1930s, and few samples of the pandemic virus remain. Some of those we do have come from bodies buried in the Alaskan permafrost that remained frozen until they were dug up in the 1990s. Now, more light has been shed by Thorsten Wolff at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany, and his colleagues. The team genetically sequenced viruses from 13 lung samples stored in museums in Berlin and Vienna, Austria, that came from people who died from lung infections between 1901 and 1931. Three of the samples were from people who died in 1918, and two of these samples were collected before the pandemic peak in the final months of 1918. By comparing the viruses from the 1918 samples with modern-day seasonal flu viruses, Wolff’s team found that modern viruses could have descended from the 1918 virus. The researchers also compared the two samples of virus taken over the first few months of the 1918 pandemic with two previously sequenced pandemic viruses that had infected people later in 1918 as the pandemic peaked. They found there had been changes in a gene that encodes the nucleoprotein, a protein that surrounds the virus’s genetic material.

5-10-22 US faces baby formula 'crisis' as shortage worsens
Major US pharmacies have restricted sales of baby formula in response to a worsening shortage of the special milk. CVS and Walgreens are among the big chains to have imposed limits in recent weeks on how many cans customers can buy at a time. The shortages intensified after Abbott - which makes top brand Similac - shut a key factory and issued a recall in February after finding contamination. Pressure is building on the Biden administration to respond to the issue. Republicans, such as Senator Tom Cotton, have called it a "national crisis" that the White House must address. Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro also said she was concerned the Food and Drug Administration - which regulates formula makers - had responded "far too slowly" to the issue, and to the reports of problems at the Abbott factory in Michigan, which remains closed. Abbott - the main supplier of baby formula to many of the state government programmes for low income women and children - said it was working with regulators to get the plant re-opened. It has been sending extra shipments from a plant in Ireland to try to address the problem, expecting shipments from the country to double this year, it added. "We know that our recent recall caused additional stress and anxiety in an already challenging situation of a global supply shortage," the company said in a recent statement. "We are working hard to help moms, dads and caregivers get the high-quality nutrition they need for their babies." Abbott issued the recall of certain batches of powdered formula in February after reports that four babies who had been fed from cans from the factory became sick, including two who died. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection said they were investigating a possible link, but that testing so far had found the strain of bacteria detected at the factory did not match that found in the sickened babies. Separately, the FDA criticised Abbott for unsanitary conditions.

5-9-22 Baby formula shortage worsens with manufacturer recall
Supply chain issues and product recalls are leaving stores unable to stock enough baby formula, and manufacturers are struggling to meet the demand. The "out-of-stock" rate for baby formula has jumped from 2-8 percent in early 2021 to 30-40 percent in recent weeks. "In six states — Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Texas and Tennessee — more than half of baby formula was completely sold out during the week starting April 24," CNN Business reports. The issue worsened when the Food and Drug Administration shut down the Abbott Nutrition Facility in Michigan, a major producer of baby formula, after reports of two infant deaths and four bacterial infections purportedly connected to the formula. Abbott told CNN it is taking "corrective actions ... as we work toward addressing items related to the recent recall. In the meantime, we are working to increase the supply of infant formula by prioritizing infant formula production at our facilities." With consumers facing scarce baby formula, several large retailers, including CVS and Walgreens, have put limits on how much formula parents are allowed to buy at a time. Parents desperate to get their hands on a single can have reportedly had to drive across state lines or take to social media to seek help. "Every day, we hear from parents who are hurt, angry, anxious and scared," senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, Brian Dittmeier, told The New York Times, "The lives of their infants are on the line."

5-9-22 How quickly can you catch covid-19 again if you have already had it?
Since omicron became the dominant coronavirus variant, reinfections are on the rise – but it is unclear how long people can expect to be protected between bouts of covid-19. As the omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to spread, many people who have already contracted the virus once are picking it up again. But a key question remains unresolved: for how long after a covid-19 infection are people likely to be protected from reinfection? A lot hinges on the answer, as new omicron subvariants called BA.4 and BA.5 are on the rise in South Africa. It is still unclear if this will translate into a large wave in that country or elsewhere, but many people want to know how long they will remain covid-free because of the protection offered by a prior infection. With some infections, such as measles, if someone has had the disease once, they rarely catch it a second time. Coronaviruses don’t seem to provoke such “sterilising immunity”, although a first infection does reduce people’s risk of a second one. In unvaccinated people, for instance, a first infection reduces people’s risk of a second by about 85 per cent, according to a large US study. This is similar to the level of protection provided by two of the mRNA covid-19 vaccines and was stable over the nine months of the study. “I was surprised that we found such a high level of protection,” says Jessica Ridgway at the University of Chicago. Ridgway’s study was done while the delta variant was the dominant virus strain circulating globally, though. Omicron causes more reinfections than past variants, because of mutations in its spike protein that help it to evade immunity. During the UK’s recent omicron wave, reinfections were 16 times more likely than during the previous delta wave, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This still doesn’t tell us how long most people can expect to wait between covid-19 infections, however. Indeed, it isn’t yet possible to calculate this figure with any accuracy, although we can get a hint from existing data. For instance, the ONS has looked at reinfections in the UK, covering the whole of the pandemic up to mid-December 2021, when omicron had been dominant for several weeks. The study found the interval between reinfections ranged from 90 to 650 days, with the average being 343 days, or nearly one year.

5-6-22 Why is it hard to count the number of deaths caused by the pandemic?
A new estimate by the World Health Organization suggests that deaths from the pandemic are much higher than official figures – but that is because these figures are unreliable in many places. The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a new estimated global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, saying that there were close to 15 million pandemic-related deaths between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021. This figure is more than double the reported 6.2 million deaths from covid-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and the WHO’s own figures. Behind this stark difference is the fact that recording deaths of any kind is an inexact science in many parts of the world – something that experts say must be solved. The WHO’s new estimate is based on the number of fatalities that would have been expected if the pandemic hadn’t occurred. The researchers behind it combined national death data for each country with statistics from scientific studies carried out in the same country. They also used a statistical model to account for deaths that may otherwise have been overlooked. This method of counting includes deaths directly caused by covid-19, as well as those that were indirectly caused by the pandemic, such as people who died prematurely because healthcare systems were overwhelmed. The team found that several countries had massively undercounted the number of people who had died in the pandemic. This is particularly apparent in India, which accounts for about half of the extra deaths estimated by the WHO. By the WHO’s estimates, India has the largest death toll from covid-19 in the world. The team reported that the country experienced 4.7 million excess deaths in this time period, compared with the officially reported covid-19 death toll of 520,000 to date.

5-6-22 Privileged people misjudge effects of pro-equality policies on them
People from societally advantaged groups think equality-promoting policies will affect them negatively, even if they would actually benefit.y People from privileged groups may misperceive equality-boosting policies as harmful to them, even if they would actually benefit. Previous studies have found that advantaged people often don’t support interventions that redistribute their resources to others who are disadvantaged, in zero-sum scenarios where there are limited resources. Now, researchers have explored the degree to which people from advantaged groups think equality-promoting policies would harm their access to resources, in scenarios where the strategies would benefit or have no effect on their group, while bolstering the resources of a disadvantaged group. Derek Brown at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of studies involving a total of more than 4000 volunteers. In one study, they presented white people who weren’t Hispanic with policies that didn’t affect their own advantaged group and benefited a disadvantaged group that they did not belong to – people with disabilities, those who had committed a crime in the past, members of a racial minority group or women. Importantly, the team told participants that resources – in the form of jobs or money – were unlimited. For example, one policy would direct more money to mortgage loans for Latino homebuyers without limiting how many mortgage loans were available for white people. Participants were then asked to rank how they thought the policy would affect the advantaged group’s access to resources on a scale from greatly harmful to greatly beneficial. The team found that, on average, advantaged people perceived equality-boosting policies as harmful to their resource access, even though they were told that resources were boundless. “We find that advantaged members misperceived these policies as a sacrifice to their group, even when that’s not the case,” says Brown.

5-6-22 Irritable bowel syndrome may be caused by overreacting gut cells
Epithelial cells in the gut continue to be active in mice even after an irritant or infection clears, which may be the source of chronic gut pain associated with irritable bowel syndrome. The chronic gut pain people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experience may be due to long-lasting activation of rare gut cells. In mice, these cells continue to react to irritants even after the substances have left the gut. IBS affects up to 15 per cent of the US population and is two to six times more common in women than men. The condition is characterised by symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain and hypersensitivity to certain foods and irritants, despite there being no intestinal damage. David Julius at the University of California, San Francisco and his colleagues examined the role of enterochromaffin (EC) cells, which line the gut and activate when exposed to irritants. EC cells can remain active even after irritants have left the gut, potentially explaining why chronic gastrointestinal disorders, such as IBS, commonly develop after food poisoning or infections. Julius and his colleagues coated mice’s intestines with a fatty acid called isovalerate, one of many chemicals known to activate EC cells. They then inserted a balloon-like device into the animals’ colons to simulate intestinal gas and bloating. Like us, mice curl up when experiencing discomfort like painful abdominal contractions, and that gave the researchers a way to gauge the animals’ pain. They found that male mice given isovalerate were much more sensitive to the expanding balloon than males who weren’t given the fatty acid: they spent more time curled up in response to the abdominal contractions. Female mice, on the other hand, remained hypersensitive to the balloon regardless of whether they had been exposed to isovalerate. Julius says this is likely because EC cells in female mice have higher levels of baseline activity.

5-6-22 A very specific kind of brain cell dies off in people with Parkinson’s
Dopamine-making nerve cells may not be equally culpable in the disease after all. Deep in the human brain, a very specific kind of cell dies during Parkinson’s disease. For the first time, researchers have sorted large numbers of human brain cells in the substantia nigra into 10 distinct types. Just one is especially vulnerable in Parkinson’s disease, the team reports May 5 in Nature Neuroscience. The result could lead to a clearer view of how Parkinson’s takes hold, and perhaps even ways to stop it. The new research “goes right to the core of the matter,” says neuroscientist Raj Awatramani of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Pinpointing the brain cells that seem to be especially susceptible to the devastating disease is “the strength of this paper,” says Awatramani, who was not involved in the study. Parkinson’s disease steals people’s ability to move smoothly, leaving balance problems, tremors and rigidity. In the United States, nearly 1 million people are estimated to have Parkinson’s. Scientists have known for decades that these symptoms come with the death of nerve cells in the substantia nigra. Neurons there churn out dopamine, a chemical signal involved in movement, among other jobs (SN: 9/7/17). But those dopamine-making neurons are not all equally vulnerable in Parkinson’s, it turns out. “This seemed like an opportunity to … really clarify which kinds of cells are actually dying in Parkinson’s disease,” says Evan Macosko, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The tricky part was that dopamine-making neurons in the substantia nigra are rare. In samples of postmortem brains, “we couldn’t survey enough of [the cells] to really get an answer,” Macosko says. But Abdulraouf Abdulraouf, a researcher in Macosko’s laboratory, led experiments that sorted these cells, figuring out a way to selectively pull the cells’ nuclei out from the rest of the cells present in the substantia nigra. That enrichment ultimately led to an abundance of nuclei to analyze.

5-6-22 Oat and soy milks are planet friendly, but not as nutritious as cow milk
Plant-based milks still need work to boost calcium and vitamin D. If you’ve got milk, you’ve got options. You can lighten your coffee or soak a cookie, ferment a cheese or bestow yourself a mustache. You can float some cereal or mix a shake. Replacing such a versatile substance is a tall order. And yet there is ample reason to pursue alternatives. Producing a single liter of cow’s milk requires about 9 square meters of land and about 630 liters of water. That’s the area of two king-size beds and the volume of 10.5 beer kegs. The process of making a liter of dairy milk also generates about 3.2 kilograms of greenhouse gases. With milk’s global popularity, those costs are enormous. In 2015, the dairy sector generated 1.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, roughly 3 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Making plant-based milks — including oat, almond, rice and soy — generates about one-third of the greenhouse gases and uses far less land and water than producing dairy milk, according to a 2018 report in Science. Fueled by a growing base of environmentally conscious consumers, a slew of plant-based milks has entered the market. According to SPINS, a company that collects data on natural and organic products, $2.6 billion of plant-based milks were sold in the United States in 2021. That’s a 33 percent growth in dollar sales since 2019. “Food industries have realized that consumers… want change,” says food scientist David McClements of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Although plant milks by and large are better for the environment and the climate, they don’t provide the same nutrition. As the iconic dairy campaign of the 1980s said, “Milk, it does a body good.” The creamy beverage contains 13 essential nutrients, including muscle-building protein, immune-boosting vitamin A and zinc, and bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D. Plant-based milks tend to contain smaller amounts of these nutrients, and even when plant milks are fortified, researchers aren’t yet sure how well the body absorbs those nutrients.

5-6-22 Children's lack of time in nature is 'appalling', says Jane Goodall
The award-winning primatologist tells New Scientist that education programmes must address the disconnect between young people and nature. The disconnect between young people and nature is “appalling” and a major issue that society needs to address, says the award-winning conservationist Jane Goodall. Goodall, famous for her groundbreaking field work on chimpanzees, says she welcomes the UK government’s new qualification for 14-16 year olds on natural history, but more education is needed to help children engage with nature. “It’s one of the big, big problems, dissociation from nature,” says Goodall. “Scientifically, we need nature, and young children in particular [need it] to develop properly psychologically; they need to spend time out in the green.” Giving children more time in natural environments would negate the tendency for parents to reach for smartphones or dummies to distract them, she adds. “It’s appalling,” she says of the disconnect. A slew of research has highlighted the health benefits of time spent in green spaces. However, the covid-19 pandemic curbed the time many children in the UK were able to spend outside in such environments, much more than it did for adults. Goodall also says the war in Ukraine is preoccupying her and she is losing sleep over the conflict. “It’s horrific. It’s the fact it’s happening again – I lived through world war two and I remember every single thing that happened.” The conservationist is concerned by the repeated delay of a United Nations summit for a new global deal on stopping biodiversity loss. But she is also sceptical of how much such meetings can achieve. “You know, lots of promises are made, lots of targets are set,” she says, questioning how seriously countries have followed through with action after signing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Nonetheless, she says it’s vital to arrest the decline in nature. “It’s a huge worry because as we lose biodiversity, we’re losing healthy ecosystems and [seeing] the collapse of species,” she says.

5-6-22 Latin America defies cultural theories based on East-West comparisons
A cultural framework that divides the world into two is overly simplistic. When Igor de Almeida moved to Japan from Brazil nine years ago, the transition should have been relatively easy. Both Japan and Brazil are collectivist nations, where people tend to value the group’s needs over their own. And research shows that immigrants adapt more easily when the home and new country’s cultures match. But to de Almeida, a cultural psychologist now at Kyoto University, the countries’ cultural differences were striking. Japanese people prioritize formal relationships, such as with coworkers or members of the same “bukatsu,” or extracurricular club, for instance, while Brazilian people prioritize friends in their informal social network. “Sometimes I try to find [cultural] similarities but it’s really hard,” de Almeida says. Now, new research helps explain that disconnect. For decades, psychologists have studied how culture shapes the mind, or people’s thoughts and behaviors, by comparing Eastern and Western nations. But two research groups working independently in Latin America are finding that a cultural framework that splits the world in two is overly simplistic, obscuring nuances elsewhere in the world. Due to differences in methodology and interpretation, the teams’ findings about how people living in the collectivist nations of Latin America think are also contradictory. And that raises a larger question: Will overarching cultural theories based on East-West divisions hold up over time, or are new theories needed? However this debate unfolds, cultural psychologists argue that the field must expand. “If you make most of the cultures of the world … invisible,” says Vivian Vignoles, a cultural psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, “you will get all sorts of things wrong.”

5-6-22 Does US really have world's highest Covid death toll?
The US is approaching one million Covid deaths - the highest total officially recorded anywhere in the world. But a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows several other countries recorded more deaths above their normal levels than the US over the last two years. So does the US really have the highest Covid death toll, and by what measure? There's no international standard for measuring deaths or their causes, and countries record deaths in different ways, which makes comparison difficult. But experts say one of the most accurate measures is how many extra deaths are recorded in a country above the number that would have been expected to die in an average year. Many countries publish excess death data, but some poorer nations don't or do it far less frequently. The WHO has published a report calculating every country's excess death count for 2020 and 2021. This measure takes into account deaths not directly due to Covid, but as a consequence of the pandemic, such as people being unable to access hospitals for the care they needed. It also accounts for poor record-keeping in some regions. The report concludes that, although the US was not the worst hit country in the world by this measure, it remained in the top five in terms of overall numbers of deaths. According to the WHO, in 2020 and 2021 the US recorded more than 930,000 excess deaths, behind India (4.7m), Russia (1.1m) and Indonesia (1m). The WHO's numbers are largely consistent with statistics from the Economist which run into 2022, as well as other excess death studies. When adjusted for population size, the US slips down the rankings with 140 excess deaths per 100,000 people. But it remains a long way above the global average of 96 per 100,000 - and it's also one of the worst performing among the most developed nations. Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist who worked on the WHO report, says: "The US has about a 15% undercount using excess deaths compared to official Covid deaths - that's mostly a result of some of the early problems that occurred with nursing home deaths being missed." "On the whole the US isn't missing many deaths compared with, say, India," he adds.

5-5-22 Pandemic's true global death toll closer to 15 million, WHO says
The World Health Organization believes the COVID-19 pandemic led to almost 15 million excess deaths worldwide, The Washington Post reports, per new WHO estimates. The tally includes both people who died of COVID-19 and those who died from COVID-19-related causes — like healthcare shortages at overwhelmed hospitals or behavioral conditions like depression that worsened in the pandemic — from Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021, the Post notes. The WHO defines excess deaths as "the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic based on data from earlier years." The near-15 million estimate is almost three times the WHO's official death count during the same time frame, per France24. "These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. Among other high-income countries, the United States "experienced disproportionately high excess death rates because of the way we handled the pandemic," Steven H. Woolf, senior adviser to the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told the Post. Woolf did not participate in the WHO's study. Meanwhile, the U.S. is nearing — or, by some estimates, has hit — a once-unthinkable threshold: One million direct COVID deaths.

5-5-22 FDA restricts Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine due to blood clot risk
The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday limited who can receive the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, citing concerns over a rare and serious blood clotting condition. The vaccine is under an emergency use authorization, for adults 18 and older, and the FDA said in a statement that it should now only be given to people who can't or won't get any other vaccine. The agency said it came to this determination after conducting "an updated analysis, evaluation, and investigation" of cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) reported after receiving the vaccine. TTS can cause dangerous blood clots. The FDA said the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still outweigh the risks for those who have had a severe allergic reaction to mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, those with limited access to mRNA vaccines, and those who are concerned about mRNA vaccines and will only get a Johnson & Johnson vaccine. More than 18.7 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. TTS cases usually begin one or two weeks after vaccination, CNN reports, with symptoms including shortness of breath, leg swelling, and chest pain. About three cases have been reported for every 1 million vaccine doses administered, with women between 30 and 49 years of age having the highest rate of cases. Read more at CNN.

5-5-22 Anti-vaccine views may soften after people hear extreme implications
Taking anti-vaccine arguments to the extreme makes unvaccinated people in the US - but not the UK - more likely to say they will get covid-19 shots. Taking anti-vaccine arguments to extreme conclusions may persuade some unvaccinated people in the US to reconsider their opposition to covid-19 vaccines. Watching short, animated videos about how mRNA vaccines work can also improve perceptions of the vaccines’ effectiveness and safety. Vaccine hesitancy remains a significant problem. Of people aged 12 and older, about 25 per cent in the US and 13 per cent in the UK aren’t fully vaccinated. Researchers at the University of Arkansas and University of Nottingham in the UK assessed two interventions intended to improve attitudes toward covid-19 vaccination on 7000 unvaccinated individuals in the US and 1000 unvaccinated individuals in the UK. Data collection occurred online in January and February 2022 and the study isn’t yet peer reviewed. The first intervention was a 2-minute-long animated video explaining mRNA technology. After watching the video, participants could watch additional videos of the same style and length on vaccine side effects, development and testing. “We wanted [the videos] to be detailed and technical so that we could respect the intelligence of the viewer, but there is nowhere in the video that says you should get a vaccine,” says Andrew Brownback at the University of Arkansas. After watching, participants rated their perceptions of vaccine efficacy, intentions to get vaccinated and concerns about vaccine side effects. Compared with those who watched unrelated videos, people who watched the mRNA explainers had a 13 per cent more favourable perception of vaccine efficacy in both the US and the UK groups. For people in the US, intentions to get vaccinated were 4.7 per cent higher and concerns about vaccine safety 10 per cent lower among those who watched the explainer videos.

5-5-22 Brain cells that are linked to Parkinson’s disease finally identified
The subtype of brain cells that die in Parkinson’s disease has been discovered using a new technique that can identify which genes are active in individual cells. We have known for decades that Parkinson’s disease, a progressive condition that results in the development of tremors and difficulties in moving, is linked with the gradual death of cells in part of the brain called the substantia nigra. The cells concerned make a signalling chemical called dopamine, involved in controlling movement – but their exact identity was unclear. Medicines for Parkinson’s disease boost dopamine in various ways, yet their effects tend to wane over time, so better treatments are needed, says Evan Macosko at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Macosko’s team looked at cells from the substantia nigra of eight people who didn’t have Parkinson’s and had agreed to donate their brains for research after death. The researchers used a relatively new technique called single cell RNA sequencing, which allows cells within a tissue to be analysed individually to see which of their genes are active and producing proteins. They found there were 10 different subtypes of dopamine-producing cells within the substantia nigra. Next, the researchers used the same technique on the brains of 10 people who had died with either Parkinson’s or a similar condition called Lewy body dementia. They found that only one of the subtypes of brain cells was reduced in number, suggesting many cells of this subtype had died while the people were alive. There are about 100,000 of these cells in a healthy adult brain. “It’s a very small subset,” says Macosko. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.” The findings should lead to a better understanding of the causes of Parkinson’s and a way to assess potential treatments, he says. If the cells are grown in a dish, new medicines could be tested on them, for instance. Some groups are also trying to develop dopamine-making cells that could be transplanted into the brains of people with Parkinson’s.

5-5-22 Simple webcam test could show whether you lack a mind's eye
It may soon be possible to diagnose people with aphantasia, the inability to picture images in their head, using a simple test. As many as 3.9 per cent of people have aphantasia, the inability to picture images in one’s head. But formally diagnosing the condition is difficult. A simple physiological test involving a webcam could one day offer a solution. Rebecca Keogh at Macquarie University in Australia and her colleagues studied the effectiveness of their test on 56 people without aphantasia and 18 people who said they have the condition. The test is based on changes to pupil size. Looking at a bright object causes a person’s pupils to constrict in order to reduce the amount of light hitting the retina. Dim objects, on the other hand, cause the pupils to dilate to boost the amount of light reaching the retina. The researchers speculated that a similar effect could be observed if someone was told to imagine a bright or dark object. “My favourite theory is that when you imagine a mental image, you recruit brain areas involved in perception… and these areas are connected to parts of the brain that are controlling the size of the pupil,” says Thomas Andrillon at the Paris Brain Institute, who worked on the study. In their tests, the researchers tracked each participant’s pupil size using an infrared camera and showed them a bright image of an object on a screen for 5 seconds, which they were told to memorise. After the image disappeared and the participant’s pupils returned to their original size, they were asked to imagine the object in their heads. This task was repeated with 16 bright images and 16 dark images. The pupils of all participants changed in response to seeing bright and dark images on the screen. About 90 per cent of those without aphantasia also showed pupil size changes when told to imagine those images. However, the same was true of just 39 per cent – 7 out of 18 – of people who said they had aphantasia.

5-4-22 Child hepatitis outbreak shows the pandemic can still surprise us
A MYSTERIOUS outbreak of liver disease, or hepatitis, in young children in the UK and several other nations is puzzling experts. The lead hypothesis is that the cases are connected to a normally mild adenovirus called 41F, plus another unknown factor that is making children react abnormally to catching it. The most likely suspect is that babies and infants went unexposed to the usual childhood infections over the past two years of social distancing. Or it could be that the affected children have had a recent brush with covid-19. Either way, the pandemic is in the spotlight. The hepatitis outbreak is out of the blue, but it is unlikely to be the only pandemic-related health surprise awaiting us in the coming years. Many immunologists had already been predicting that covid-19 would have some longer-term effects aside from long covid. Young children normally catch every illness going around, but rates of common infections such as flu and stomach bugs plummeted in places that locked down. Many babies born in the past two years have had an abnormally long delay before they first encounter these illnesses. There are other indirect health effects of covid-19. Some research indicates that mental health has worsened during the pandemic, especially in young people. Many of us experienced a drop in physical activity during stricter lockdowns, too. This is concerning, as exercise is a great way to lower the risk of a range of conditions, from cancer and heart attacks to depression. An Age UK survey in August and September 2020 found that some older people had become less steady on their feet or less confident about walking to the shops. This doesn’t mean lockdowns were wrong. They stopped health services from being so swamped they couldn’t see everyone who needed help, for covid-19 or other conditions, saving countless lives. In places where they did sometimes get overwhelmed, like India and Hong Kong, some people died avoidably for this reason.

5-4-22 A new weight loss drug could be used to prevent obesity. Will it work?
A drug called semaglutide has seen incredible results in trials to help people lose weight and might herald a new approach to treating chronic obesity - if it can overcome the challenges. For as long as Kimrey Rhinehardt can remember, she has been trying to lose weight. The keto and paleo diets seemed to work… for a while. But when the weight came off, her emotional eating and sugar cravings ruined her efforts. Rhinehardt’s battle to control her weight has been frustrating, but for the management consultant from Pittsboro, North Carolina, it is also dangerous. She has high cholesterol, asthma and a family history of breast cancer. Her weight raises the likelihood she will die from one of these risk factors. Then, six months ago, a doctor prescribed her weekly injections of a new kind of medication, and everything changed. She lost more than 27 kilograms and her body mass index (BMI) dropped from 41 – considered severely obese – to 32, just over the threshold for obesity. The drug even changed her perspective on food. Rhinehardt isn’t interested in many of the unhealthy snacks she used to love. “Cravings for sugar and bread don’t exist any more,” she says. This new drug, semaglutide, marketed as Wegovy in the US, was approved last year by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For Rhinehardt, it has been the boost she needed to finally lose the weight she has struggled with for decades. But for some in the medical profession, the hope is that the drug might revolutionise our fight against one of the most prevalent and lethal health problems in much of the world. Not only could it help treat obesity in people finding it hard to lose weight, but it might even be used to prevent the condition in the first place. conditions, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnoea. It is also the most common health condition in both the UK and US: 28 and 42 per cent of their adult populations, respectively, are obese. In 2016, when the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) were made available, 13 per cent of adults globally were obese, a figure that had nearly tripled since 1975. Most of the world’s population now live in countries where being obese or overweight kills more people than being underweight.

5-4-22 Vaccine may protect against the virus behind multiple sclerosis
The jab could ward off Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever and is increasingly being linked to multiple sclerosis, lymphoma and stomach cancer. A vaccine that wards off the common Epstein-Barr virus to potentially prevent glandular fever, multiple sclerosis (MS) and even some cancers has shown promise in mice, ferrets and monkeys. A human trial is expected to start in 2023. Gary Nabel at ModeX Therapeutics in Natick, Massachusetts, and his colleagues developed a vaccine that exposes the body to two proteins that Epstein-Barr virus uses to invade cells, training the immune system to recognise the pathogen if exposed. Initial experiments have shown that mice, ferrets and rhesus macaques developed antibodies against Epstein-Barr virus post-vaccination. To better understand the jab’s potential in people, the researchers engineered mice with human-like immune systems. When exposed to Epstein-Barr virus, only 17 per cent of the mice became infected after receiving antibodies from other vaccinated rodents. In contrast, 100 per cent of the mice without antibodies became infected. “It was a very promising result because we were able to basically block the virus infection almost entirely and stop it from causing even low-level infection,” says Nabel. None of the mice that received the vaccine-induced antibodies developed lymphomas, cancers of the lymphatic system that are increasingly being linked to Epstein-Barr virus, compared with half of the unprotected rodents. The researchers didn’t look into any other Epstein-Barr-related conditions, such as stomach cancer. More than 95 per cent of adults worldwide are infected with Epstein-Barr virus, a type of herpes that most commonly spreads via saliva. It is known to cause glandular fever, also called “mono”, and is associated with MS.

5-5-22 Simple webcam test could show whether you lack a mind's eye
It may soon be possible to diagnose people with aphantasia, the inability to picture images in their head, using a simple test. As many as 3.9 per cent of people have aphantasia, the inability to picture images in one’s head. But formally diagnosing the condition is difficult. A simple physiological test involving a webcam could one day offer a solution. Rebecca Keogh at Macquarie University in Australia and her colleagues studied the effectiveness of their test on 56 people without aphantasia and 18 people who said they have the condition. The test is based on changes to pupil size. Looking at a bright object causes a person’s pupils to constrict in order to reduce the amount of light hitting the retina. Dim objects, on the other hand, cause the pupils to dilate to boost the amount of light reaching the retina. The researchers speculated that a similar effect could be observed if someone was told to imagine a bright or dark object. “My favourite theory is that when you imagine a mental image, you recruit brain areas involved in perception… and these areas are connected to parts of the brain that are controlling the size of the pupil,” says Thomas Andrillon at the Paris Brain Institute, who worked on the study. In their tests, the researchers tracked each participant’s pupil size using an infrared camera and showed them a bright image of an object on a screen for 5 seconds, which they were told to memorise. After the image disappeared and the participant’s pupils returned to their original size, they were asked to imagine the object in their heads. This task was repeated with 16 bright images and 16 dark images. The pupils of all participants changed in response to seeing bright and dark images on the screen. About 90 per cent of those without aphantasia also showed pupil size changes when told to imagine those images. However, the same was true of just 39 per cent – 7 out of 18 – of people who said they had aphantasia.

5-4-22 Child hepatitis outbreak shows the pandemic can still surprise us
A MYSTERIOUS outbreak of liver disease, or hepatitis, in young children in the UK and several other nations is puzzling experts. The lead hypothesis is that the cases are connected to a normally mild adenovirus called 41F, plus another unknown factor that is making children react abnormally to catching it. The most likely suspect is that babies and infants went unexposed to the usual childhood infections over the past two years of social distancing. Or it could be that the affected children have had a recent brush with covid-19. Either way, the pandemic is in the spotlight. The hepatitis outbreak is out of the blue, but it is unlikely to be the only pandemic-related health surprise awaiting us in the coming years. Many immunologists had already been predicting that covid-19 would have some longer-term effects aside from long covid. Young children normally catch every illness going around, but rates of common infections such as flu and stomach bugs plummeted in places that locked down. Many babies born in the past two years have had an abnormally long delay before they first encounter these illnesses. There are other indirect health effects of covid-19. Some research indicates that mental health has worsened during the pandemic, especially in young people. Many of us experienced a drop in physical activity during stricter lockdowns, too. This is concerning, as exercise is a great way to lower the risk of a range of conditions, from cancer and heart attacks to depression. An Age UK survey in August and September 2020 found that some older people had become less steady on their feet or less confident about walking to the shops. This doesn’t mean lockdowns were wrong. They stopped health services from being so swamped they couldn’t see everyone who needed help, for covid-19 or other conditions, saving countless lives. In places where they did sometimes get overwhelmed, like India and Hong Kong, some people died avoidably for this reason.

5-4-22 A new weight loss drug could be used to prevent obesity. Will it work?
A drug called semaglutide has seen incredible results in trials to help people lose weight and might herald a new approach to treating chronic obesity - if it can overcome the challenges. For as long as Kimrey Rhinehardt can remember, she has been trying to lose weight. The keto and paleo diets seemed to work… for a while. But when the weight came off, her emotional eating and sugar cravings ruined her efforts. Rhinehardt’s battle to control her weight has been frustrating, but for the management consultant from Pittsboro, North Carolina, it is also dangerous. She has high cholesterol, asthma and a family history of breast cancer. Her weight raises the likelihood she will die from one of these risk factors. Then, six months ago, a doctor prescribed her weekly injections of a new kind of medication, and everything changed. She lost more than 27 kilograms and her body mass index (BMI) dropped from 41 – considered severely obese – to 32, just over the threshold for obesity. The drug even changed her perspective on food. Rhinehardt isn’t interested in many of the unhealthy snacks she used to love. “Cravings for sugar and bread don’t exist any more,” she says. This new drug, semaglutide, marketed as Wegovy in the US, was approved last year by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For Rhinehardt, it has been the boost she needed to finally lose the weight she has struggled with for decades. But for some in the medical profession, the hope is that the drug might revolutionise our fight against one of the most prevalent and lethal health problems in much of the world. Not only could it help treat obesity in people finding it hard to lose weight, but it might even be used to prevent the condition in the first place. conditions, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnoea. It is also the most common health condition in both the UK and US: 28 and 42 per cent of their adult populations, respectively, are obese. In 2016, when the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) were made available, 13 per cent of adults globally were obese, a figure that had nearly tripled since 1975. Most of the world’s population now live in countries where being obese or overweight kills more people than being underweight.

5-4-22 Vaccine may protect against the virus behind multiple sclerosis
The jab could ward off Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever and is increasingly being linked to multiple sclerosis, lymphoma and stomach cancer. A vaccine that wards off the common Epstein-Barr virus to potentially prevent glandular fever, multiple sclerosis (MS) and even some cancers has shown promise in mice, ferrets and monkeys. A human trial is expected to start in 2023. Gary Nabel at ModeX Therapeutics in Natick, Massachusetts, and his colleagues developed a vaccine that exposes the body to two proteins that Epstein-Barr virus uses to invade cells, training the immune system to recognise the pathogen if exposed. Initial experiments have shown that mice, ferrets and rhesus macaques developed antibodies against Epstein-Barr virus post-vaccination. To better understand the jab’s potential in people, the researchers engineered mice with human-like immune systems. When exposed to Epstein-Barr virus, only 17 per cent of the mice became infected after receiving antibodies from other vaccinated rodents. In contrast, 100 per cent of the mice without antibodies became infected. “It was a very promising result because we were able to basically block the virus infection almost entirely and stop it from causing even low-level infection,” says Nabel. None of the mice that received the vaccine-induced antibodies developed lymphomas, cancers of the lymphatic system that are increasingly being linked to Epstein-Barr virus, compared with half of the unprotected rodents. The researchers didn’t look into any other Epstein-Barr-related conditions, such as stomach cancer. More than 95 per cent of adults worldwide are infected with Epstein-Barr virus, a type of herpes that most commonly spreads via saliva. It is known to cause glandular fever, also called “mono”, and is associated with MS.

5-3-22 A single genetic mutation made humans more susceptible to cancer
Since we split from chimpanzees, a single letter change in our DNA appears to have made us more likely to get cancer, possibly as a trade-off for extra fertility. A tiny change in our DNA that occurred after we evolved away from other primates has made us more prone to getting cancer, new research suggests. Cancer is relatively rare in other primates. For example, autopsies of 971 non-human primates that died at Philadelphia Zoo in Pennsylvania between 1901 and 1932 found that only eight had tumours. To learn why we are more susceptible to cancer, Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and her colleagues compared hundreds of genes between humans and 12 non-human primate species. They discovered that we have evolved a slightly different version of a gene called BRCA2 since we split from chimpanzees. BRCA2 is known as a tumour suppressor gene because it is involved in DNA repair. However, the researchers found that a single DNA letter change in the human BRCA2 gene has made it 20 per cent worse at repairing DNA compared with other primate versions of the gene, which could explain our higher cancer rates. The finding adds to existing knowledge about the role of BRCA2 in human cancer. For example, we know that people with certain variants of the BRCA2 gene that suppress its repair activities further have even greater risk of developing cancer, particularly breast and ovarian cancers. At this stage, we don’t know why BRCA2 has evolved to become less active in humans than in other primates, says Iacobuzio-Donahue. One possibility is that reduced BRCA2 activity has been selected for in humans to enhance fertility, since research shows that women with BRCA2 variants linked to cancer seem to become pregnant more easily, she says. If so, this fertility boost may have come at the cost of higher cancer rates, she adds. The discovery that a single mutation in the BRCA2 gene could be a major cause of human cancer might lead to new treatments, says Iacobuzio-Donahue.

5-4-22 Obesity drug achieves average weight loss of 24 kg in clinical trial
People who had weekly injections of a drug that mimics natural appetite-suppressing hormones lost 22.5 per cent of their body weight on average. People with obesity lost 24 kilograms on average when they were treated with the highest dose of a new hunger-blocking drug in a large clinical trial. “It’s really exciting. The weight loss they’re showing is dramatic – it’s as much as you get with successful bariatric surgery,” says Michael Cowley at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the research. The drug used, called tirzepatide, combines synthetic mimics of two hormones known as GLP-1 and GIP that our guts naturally release after we eat to make us feel full. In a late-stage clinical trial, more than 2500 people in nine countries, who weighed 105 kilograms on average at baseline, were asked to give themselves weekly injections of tirzepatide at low, medium or high doses or a placebo for 72 weeks, without knowing which one they were taking. The highest dose of tirzepatide was most effective, resulting in 24 kilograms of weight loss on average, equivalent to a 22.5 per cent reduction in body weight. In comparison, participants taking the placebo lost just 2 kilograms on average. The results were announced on 28 April by US pharmaceutical giant Lilly, which is developing the drug. In June 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration approved another obesity drug called semaglutide, which contains a GLP-1 mimic on its own, without the addition of GIP. Semaglutide also promotes weight loss, but by about 15 per cent on average, suggesting that the added GIP component in tirzepatide gives an extra boost, says Cowley. Like semaglutide, tirzepatide can trigger side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and constipation that seem worse at higher doses. However, doctors’ experience with semaglutide has revealed that starting patients on low doses and gradually increasing them can avoid these side effects, and the same may be true for tirzepatide, says Joseph Proietto at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

5-4-22 Ancient ‘smellscapes’ are wafting out of artifacts and old texts
ID’ing odor molecules and brewing Cleopatra’s perfume are part of new research on past scents. Ramses VI faced a smelly challenge when he became Egypt’s king in 1145 B.C. The new pharaoh’s first job was to rid the land of the stench of fish and birds, denizens of the Nile Delta’s fetid swamps. That, at any rate, was the instruction in a hymn written to Ramses VI upon his ascension to the throne. Some smells, it seems, were considered far worse than others in the land of the pharaohs. Surviving written accounts indicate that, perhaps unsurprisingly, residents of ancient Egyptian cities encountered a wide array of nice and nasty odors. Depending on the neighborhood, citizens inhaled smells of sweat, disease, cooking meat, incense, trees and flowers. Egypt’s hot weather heightened demand for perfumed oils and ointments that cloaked bodies in pleasant smells. “The written sources demonstrate that ancient Egyptians lived in a rich olfactory world,” says Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith of Freie Universität Berlin. A full grasp of ancient Egyptian culture requires a comprehensive examination of how pharaohs and their subjects made sense of their lives through smell, she contends. No such study has been conducted. Archaeologists have traditionally studied visible objects. Investigations have reconstructed what ancient buildings looked like based on excavated remains and determined how people lived by analyzing their tools, personal ornaments and other tangible finds. Rare projects have re-created what people may have heard thousands of years ago at sites such as Stonehenge (SN: 8/31/20). Piecing together, much less re-creating, the olfactory landscapes, or smellscapes, of long-ago places has attracted even less scholarly curiosity. Ancient cities in Egypt and elsewhere have been presented as “colorful and monumental, but odorless and sterile,” Goldsmith says.

5-3-22 Huge flightless swan roamed the ancient seas with a cradle on its back
A fossilised leg bone found in Japan belonged to a prehistoric swan species with adaptations similar to several other water birds, including a duck-like bill and the feet of a loon. A newly described bird from prehistoric Japan was an odd duck, so to speak. The enormous swan lived in the sea, sporting stubby wings that it possibly used to create a cradle on its back for offspring. Hiroshige Matsuoka at Kyoto University and Yoshikazu Hasegawa at the Gunma Museum of Natural History in Japan analysed a fossilised skeleton that was excavated in 2000 in the Usui river in central Japan. The riverbed’s marine deposits date back to the Miocene epoch more than 11 million years ago. Comparing the skeleton to modern swans, the team identified it as a new genus and species, dubbed Annakacygna hajimei. A second, larger new species from the same genus was identified from a fossilised leg bone found along the nearby Kabura river in 1995 and named Annakacygna yoshiiensis. The Annakacygna genus differs considerably from modern swans, with the two extinct species being flightless sea-dwellers with a suite of bizarre adaptations seemingly cobbled together from other water birds. A. hajimei was the size of a modern black swan (Cygnus atratus), says Matsuoka. A. yoshiiensis, however, was about 30 per cent larger, on par with Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator), the largest of North America’s swan species. But Annakacygna had a substantially heavier build than modern swans, with dense bones. The researchers think this more massive frame probably provided stability as the birds navigated choppy seas. Annakacygna were also “head heavy”, with big, broad bills for filter-feeding surface plankton, says Matsuoka. The swan’s short wings were unusual. The forearm bones were just over half the length of the upper arm bones. In modern swans, these bones are about the same length. The flightless bird’s fossilised bones possessed physical traces of highly developed muscles that, in today’s swans, are only engaged when folding the wings.

5-3-22 The body’s response to allergic asthma also helps protect against COVID-19
It all comes down to an immune system protein known as interleukin-13. Scientists are discovering a surprising bright side for some people with asthma: They are less susceptible to COVID-19. The very same immune system proteins that trigger excess mucus production and closing of airways in people with allergic asthma may erect a shield around vulnerable airway cells, researchers report in the April 19 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding helps explain why people with allergic asthma seem to be less susceptible to COVID-19 than those with related lung ailments, and could eventually lead to new treatments for the coronavirus. Asthma is a breathing disorder characterized by airway inflammation. The result is coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. About 8 percent of people in the United States have asthma, with about 60 percent of them having allergic asthma. Allergic asthma symptoms are triggered by allergens such as pollen or pet dander. Other types of asthma can be set off by exercise, weather or breathing in irritants such as strong perfumes, cleaning fumes or air pollution. Usually, asthma is bad news when it comes to colds and flu. At the start of the pandemic, most experts predicted that coronavirus infections and asthma would be a dangerous mix, says Luke Bonser, a cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco who was not involved in the study. And that is true for people whose asthma is not triggered by allergies and those with related lung disorders like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Those conditions put people at high risk for severe COVID-19. But as the pandemic progressed, researchers noticed that people with allergic asthma weren’t developing severe COVID-19 as often as expected. Here’s a look at why that may be.

5-2-22 Vegetarian children are slightly more likely to be underweight
A study of nearly 9000 children and their diets found that about 6 per cent of vegetarians were classed as underweight, compared with around 3 per cent of the meat eaters. Children raised on a vegetarian diet are nearly twice as likely to be underweight as those who eat meat, a study suggests. Most vegetarian children are a healthy weight, however, with no nutritional deficiencies. Jonathon Maguire at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto and his colleagues looked at nearly 9000 Canadian children aged between 6 months and 8 years old, with an average age of 2. The researchers measured the children’s height and weight, and analysed blood samples for levels of various nutrients, as part of a larger, ongoing study. About 6 per cent of the vegetarian children were classed as underweight, compared with around 3 per cent of the meat eaters. This was defined as having a body mass index – a measure of weight relative to height – that was more than two standard deviations below the group’s average for their age. The meat-eating children were slightly more likely to be classed as overweight. However, this wasn’t statistically significant and therefore the difference may have arisen by chance. The vegetarian children were also no more likely to be deficient in iron or vitamin D, nutrients found in meat and dairy products, respectively, than their meat-eating counterparts. As a relatively small proportion of the children were underweight, and the study found no other health issues linked with being vegetarian, the findings should reassure parents that this is generally a safe diet, says Maguire. For a few children, however, not eating meat may make it harder to take in sufficient calories. “Children are picky,” says Maguire. “If you’re already struggling with gaining weight and we put something on top that makes it a little bit more difficult to get calories, it may tip the balance in a way that’s not favourable.”


41 Evolution News Articles
for May 2022

Evolution News Articles for April 2022