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Poor diet may take a toll on central vision later

3 hours 58 min ago

People who eat a diet high in red and processed meat, fried food, and high-fat dairy may be three times more likely to develop an eye condition that damages the retina and affects central vision, according to a new study.

The irreversible condition, called late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD), affects a person’s central vision, taking away their ability to perform common daily activities, like driving.

“Treatment for late, neovascular AMD is invasive and expensive, and there is no treatment for geographic atrophy, the other form of late AMD that also causes vision loss,” says Shruti Dighe, who conducted the research as part of her master’s in epidemiology at the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. “It is in our best interest to catch this condition early and prevent development of late AMD.”

That’s why the finding that diet plays a role in AMD is so intriguing, she says.

While a Western dietary pattern may be a risk factor for developing late AMD, the same is not true for development of early AMD, according to the study in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Long-lasting consequences

The authors studied the occurrence of early and late AMD over approximately 18 years of follow-up among participants of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study.

They used data on 66 different foods that participants self-reported consuming between 1987 and 1995 and identified two diet patterns in this cohort—Western and what researchers commonly refer to as “prudent” (healthy)—that best explained the greatest variation between diets.

“What we observed in this study was that people who had no AMD or early AMD at the start of our study and reported frequently consuming unhealthy foods were more likely to develop vison-threatening, late stage disease approximately 18 years later,” says senior author Amy Millen, associate professor and associate chair of epidemiology and environmental health.

This US-based study is one of the first examining diet patterns and development of AMD over time. The other studies were conducted in European cohorts.

Early AMD is asymptomatic, meaning that people often don’t know that they have it. To catch it, a physician would have to review a photo of the person’s retina, looking for pigmentary changes and development of drusen, or yellow deposits made up of lipids.

For central vision, diet matters

With early AMD, there could be either atrophy or a buildup of new blood vessels in the part of the eye known as the macula.

“When people start developing these changes they will begin to notice visual symptoms. Their vision will start diminishing,” Dighe says. “This is advanced or late stage AMD.”

Not everyone who has early AMD progresses to the more debilitating late stage.

To date, researchers have most focused on specific nutrients—such as high-dose antioxidants—that seem to have a protective effect. But, people consume a variety of foods and nutrients, not just one or two, and that’s why looking at diet patterns helps tell more of the story, Dighe says.

“Our work provides additional evidence that that diet matters,” Millen says. “From a public health standpoint, we can tell people that if you have early AMD, it is likely in your best interest to limit your intake of processed meat, fried food, refined grains, and high-fat dairy to preserve your vision over time.”

Source: University at Buffalo

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How to make ammonia with cobalt and crystals

4 hours 26 min ago

A new inorganic method to synthesize ammonia is both environmentally friendly and can produce the valuable chemical on demand under ambient conditions, researchers report.

Researchers manipulated a two-dimensional crystal—molybdenum disulfide—and turned it into a catalyst by removing atoms of sulfur from the lattice-like structure and replacing the exposed molybdenum with cobalt.

This allowed the material to mimic the natural organic process bacteria use to turn atmospheric dinitrogen into ammonia in organisms, including in humans, who use ammonia to help liver function.

The inorganic process will allow ammonia to be produced anywhere it’s needed as a small-scale adjunct to industry, which produces millions of tons of the chemical each year through the inorganic Haber-Bosch process.

The research, from the Rice University Brown School of Engineering lab of materials scientist Jun Lou, appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“The Haber-Bosch process produces a lot of carbon dioxide and consumes a lot of energy,” says co-lead author and graduate student Xiaoyin Tian. “But our process uses electricity to trigger the catalyst. We can get that from solar or wind.”

The researchers already knew that molybdenum disulfide had an affinity to bond with dinitrogen, a naturally occurring molecule of two strongly bonded nitrogen atoms that forms about 78% of Earth’s atmosphere.

Computational simulations by Mingjie Liu, a research associate at Brookhaven National Laboratory, showed replacing some exposed molybdenum atoms with cobalt would enhance the compound’s ability to facilitate dinitrogen’s reduction to ammonia.

Lab tests at Rice showed this was so. The researchers assembled samples of the nanoscale material by growing defective molybdenum disulfide crystals on carbon cloth and adding cobalt. (The crystals are technically 2D but appear as a plane of molybdenum atoms with layers of sulfur above and below.) With current applied, the compound yielded more than 10 grams of ammonia per hour using 1 kilogram of catalyst.

“The scale is not comparable to well-developed industrials processes, but it can be an alternative in specific cases,” says co-lead author Jing Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher at Rice. “It will allow the production of ammonia where there is no industrial plant, and even in space applications.” He says lab experiments used dedicated feeds of dinitrogen, but the platform can as easily pull it from the air.

Lou says other dopants may allow the material to catalyze other chemicals, a topic for future research. “We thought there was an opportunity here to take something we’re very familiar with and try to do what nature has been doing for billions of years,” he says. “If we design a reactor the right way, the platform can carry out its function without interruption.”

Coauthors of the paper are from Rice, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The Welch Foundation and the US Department of Energy Office of Science supported the research.

Source: Rice University

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Scale outlines signs of ‘financial infidelity’

4 hours 32 min ago

New research digs into when hiding purchases, debt, and savings constitute “financial infidelity,” and provides a means for predicting its occurrence within relationships.

The study is the first systematic investigation of financial infidelity in committed romantic relationships.

Researchers define financial infidelity as “engaging in any financial behavior that is expected to be disapproved of by one’s romantic partner and intentionally failing to disclose this behavior to them.” It involves both the financial “act” and the subsequent concealment.

It differs from secret consumption and merely hiding spending because it involves a broader set of financial behaviors, including seemingly “positive” actions such as saving extra income in a personal bank account.

“Financial infidelity has the potential to be as harmful for relationship health and longevity as sexual infidelity, as conflicts over money are also a primary reason for divorce,” says coauthor Jenny Olson, assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “Given the role that finances play in the health of relationships, consumers benefit from being aware of financial infidelity and its consequences.”

Growing in popularity is financial therapy, which combines finance with emotional support to help individuals and couples think, feel, and behave with money to improve their overall well-being, make logical spending decisions, and face financial challenges.

“An understanding of financial infidelity can benefit financial services companies and advisors, clinical therapists, and relationship counselors, all of whom play a role in promoting consumer well-being,” Olson says. “If couples seek professional financial advice, they must be willing to openly discuss their spending and savings habits, debts, and financial goals. It is clear that financial infidelity is a barrier to effective planning, as well as to a healthy relationship.”

The researchers developed a “financial infidelity scale (FI-Scale)” using a dozen lab and field tests. Key elements include:

  • Whether the financial act is expected to elicit any level of disapproval was more important than the degree of disapproval.
  • Consumers more prone to financial infidelity exhibited a stronger preference for secretive purchase options, such as using a personal credit card versus a jointly held card, and cash over credit.
  • A preference for ambiguous packaging and shopping at inconspicuous stores.
  • A greater likelihood of concealing financial information from their partner in a mobile banking app.

Each choice is relevant to marketers. The prevalence of financial infidelity among consumers and variations along the FI-Scale affect purchasing decisions. It is important that companies be aware of certain consumer segments that may be prone to financial infidelity and thus affect their bottom lines.

For example, the trend of businesses going “cash-free” may affect retailers such as beauty salons and gift shops because of the use of cash to disguise purchases. Consumers strategically using cash may be less willing to make purchases only for their pleasure or personal wants.

The research appears in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Additional coauthors are from the University of Notre Dame, University College London, and Boston College.

Source: Indiana University

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Sand fly mating habits offer way to tackle tropical disease

5 hours 17 min ago

A new method to curb the tropical disease Leishmaniasis uses male pheromones to attract female sand flies towards insecticide-treated areas, researchers say.

Globally over 350 million people are at risk of infection from Leishmaniasis, with an estimated 300,000 cases annually, and approximately 4,500 deaths each year in Brazil alone. The disease disproportionately affects children under the age of 15.

Visceral Leishmaniasis, affects the internal organs and is fatal if untreated as there is no human vaccine for the disease. In Latin America, Europe, and parts of central and East Asia, the Leishmaniasis parasite is transmitted from infected dogs by sand flies when they bite people. Females carry the parasite that causes the disease.

In Brazil, infected dogs are euthanized, but this has not affected transmission control. Insecticide-impregnated dog collars are an alternative to protect the dogs but these are too expensive for many people and protective coverage is patchy.

The beneficial effects of the “lure-and-kill” method resulted in a 49% reduction in female sand flies compared with 43% for the insecticide-collar only.

The method works as the male sand fly vector produces a pheromone that attracts blood-seeking females to mating aggregations. The researchers developed a synthetic copy of the pheromone which they put into slow-release dispensers and co-located with pyrethroid insecticide outside resident houses, which kill the parasite transmitting vectors.

The researchers showed in previous work that the insecticide-collars reduced human visceral Leishmaniasis by 50%.

“The beneficial effects of the lure-and-kill method were most noticeable by reducing confirmed infection incidence and clinical parasite loads in dogs by about 50%, and in reducing sand fly abundance,” says Orin Courtenay, professor in the School of Life Sciences and Zeeman Institute at the University of Warwick. “Our approach will be a lot less expensive and gives just as good a result as the insecticide collar.”

“We wanted to develop a less costly method to trap large amounts of sand flies to reduce the number of infected dogs which in turn act as a source of infection for people,” says Gordon Hamilton of Lancaster University.

The researchers introduced a sachet of the male sand fly pheromone to attract female flies to chicken sheds already sprayed with insecticide. “This killed a large number of the sand flies,” says Hamilton.

The next stage is to work with industry to synthesize the pheromone in bulk ready for use in affected areas.

The Wellcome Trust funded the paper in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Source: University of Warwick

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What’s at stake in the 2020 census?

6 hours 18 min ago

The 2020 census will be different than those in the past, both for controversies and fear surrounding the census and for its move onto the internet.

Every 10 years, people residing in the United States receive an envelope in the mail or a knock on the door from the Census Bureau. Those two methods have primarily served as the means to conduct the decennial count, which determines the current population throughout all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the five US territories.

Although canvasing of neighborhoods will continue, much of the census will move online. According to the Bureau, for the first time in history, “People will be able to respond anytime, anywhere,” thereby potentially upping the rate of response.

Yet several critical and controversial factors may impede the Bureau from gaining an accurate accounting of the nation’s populace, such as fear around deportation and the absence of options to identify as a member of the LGBTQ or Latinx communities.

Why the census matters

Tallying the population is an important act, and has been since 1790, when most of those residing in the new country were first counted (Native Americans who weren’t taxed weren’t surveyed, and enslaved people infamously counted as three-fifths of a person each). Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution mandated a count every 10 years in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives.

With the House fixed at 435 seats since 1929, states stand to gain or lose representatives based on the findings of the 2020 Census. And as the political climate over the past decade has shown, even the smallest changes have a big impact.

Beyond national representation, there’s also the matter of funding for essential programs. The census determines who lives where, who needs what, and therefore plays a critical role in directing the allocation of federal funding accordingly.

“A substantial undercount of the number of people living in your neighborhood or city means that fewer financial resources would be available to schools, public health agencies, and safety net healthcare providers,” explains José Pagán, professor and chair of the public health policy and management department at the College of Global Public Health at New York University. “Many people are less aware of the public health implications of the census.” In fact, only 45% of the population understand that census data is used to help guide funding.

An accurate count is crucial for everyone, but especially those who may be vulnerable. “Low expected participation of immigrants and people of color in the census—due in large part to misinformation and the current climate of fear—is a major threat to our ability to address disparities in health and access to care,” says Ann Morning, associate professor of sociology.

Controversy in the count

Given that people will now be able to submit their responses online, 2020 has the potential to deliver the most comprehensive count in US history. But pervasive concerns abound about the data collected and how it’s used.

The Trump administration proposed adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, but the Supreme Court struck it down in June, explaining that the government hadn’t provided a substantive reason. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross initially claimed that a citizenship question would be used to help protect minority rights by better enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court responded, “Several points, taken together, reveal a significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided.”

Although the 2020 Census won’t include a citizenship question, the damage has already been done. “Even now, just the prospect that these data might be used in some way as an immigration policy or orders for deportation has become a hyper-sensitized kind of census,” says Morning.

And even those who do wish to fill out the census may be dismayed to find that the limited number of categories may not accurately reflect their identity or experience. “The biggest and most obvious limitation is that we currently have a race question that doesn’t include any box for Latinx people,” says Morning. “They make up the biggest minority group in the whole nation, but there’s no box [for them to check].”

She sees the 2020 Census as a missed opportunity to fix that. “The Census Bureau did a lot of research after the last census to propose inserting a box—Hispanic or Latino would have been the designation—but the Trump administration decided not to go forward with that,” says Morning.

Who counts?

Many in the LGBTQ community have felt similarly frustrated by their invisibility in the eyes of the census. “There are currently no major national surveys conducted by the government that ask about both an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity,” according to The National LGBTQ Task Force, one organization leading the charge to “Queer the Census.”

A question about sexual identity was proposed for the 2020 Census, but was later removed, NBC reported.

“It’s not just that nobody thought to include the question,” says A. Jordon Wright, clinical assistant professor of counseling psychology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “This was put out there as a possibility, but then very visibly denied. The larger powers that be have said, ‘This is not important.'”

Without an accurate count, those in the LGBTQ community may lose important funding for critical services and programs. “There’s an overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in the homeless population, for example,” says Wright. “If a preponderance of those families are not participating in the census, we would lose those data and potentially lose resources for those individuals.”

In other areas, data accuracy risks being undermined by misconceptions about who “counts.” For example, families have often failed to include very young children in their responses. “Apparently a pretty widespread idea is that you don’t count children under one years old, which we need for accurate projections of the population,” Morning says.

With all of these concerns circling the 2020 Census, it’s imperative to correct misinformation about its purpose in order to encourage people to participate. “To their credit, the Census Bureau has been thinking about this for the past decade,” says Morning. For the first time in its history, the Census Bureau will actively combat misinformation with a new nationwide campaign featuring the tagline, “Shape your future. START HERE.”

Pagán, too, remains optimistic. “There is still time to get the word out in our communities that every single person should be counted,” he says. “If we do not do so, then we compromise the ability of everyone in our community to lead a better, healthier life.”

Source: NYU

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Surprising holiday stuff can threaten pet safety

7 hours 52 min ago

The holiday season can pose threats to the health and safety of our pets. Here are some tips to avoid an emergency trip to the vet.

Your house may hold all sorts of unexpected hazards to your dogs, cats, or exotic pets, from your table to your tree. Temperature changes could mess with your turtle, and you don’t want your dog getting drunk off dough (really).

Brenda Stevens, an associate clinical professor in North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine offers practical advice for avoiding those dangers in this podcast episode, as well as tips for travel with dogs and cats.

“The goal always is for everybody to have a great holiday, and that includes our pets,” says Stevens.

What kinds of holiday food safety tips does Stevens offer to pet owners? “Chocolate should be off-limits for dogs and cats, as well as alcohol. Some animals will go towards that holiday eggnog or beer that’s sitting around, so we need to be careful with those.

“And then finally, one thing that we don’t think about too much are grapes and raisins. Many people are not aware of the fact that grapes and raisins can be toxic to dogs, and it does not matter the amount.”

And it’s not just your spread that might catch a pet’s eye. “I would highly encourage you not to put any additives in that tree water, in case your pet dog or cat does wind up licking it,” Stevens warns.

For more tips on how to keep your pets safe at the holidays, listen below or download the transcript here:


Source: NC State

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Citizen science and cookies help solve ant enigma

8 hours 28 min ago

Citizen scientists armed with pecan cookies aided researchers in solving a century-old ant enigma with genetic analytic tools.

Many of the ants we see on a daily basis originated from one European population and belong to a single, mysterious species.

At issue are Tetramorium pavement ants, which are both incredibly common and notoriously difficult genus to identify at the species-level based on physical characteristics alone.

In fact, the physical similarities across species have made them a thorn in the side of taxonomists since the 19th century. The leading tools of that era relied on measuring and cataloging microscopic physical characteristics, together known as a “morphology.” But with no distinguishable features (at least in the eyes of humans), pavement ants represented a taxonomic dead-end, leading taxonomists to catalogue all pavement ants as part of the “Tetramorium caespitum complex.”

Over the past century, advances in species-level genetic analysis gave researchers new tools to disentangle the T. caespitum complex. Prior to genetic analysis, it was thought that the complex consisted of at least five different species. In 2017, a European research team led by Herbert C. Wagner confirmed those five species, and identified an additional three, bringing the total number of species in the T. caespitum complex to eight (currently). And one of those newly identified species is the star here, Tetramorium immigrans.

(Wagner and his colleagues made all of their ant morphology data freely accessible here.)

Myrmecologists in the 1950s hypothesized that species from the T. caespitum complex hitched a ride from Europe to North America sometime during the early 19th century. Merchant ships that traveled from Europe to North America used soil as ballast. Once the ships arrived in North American ports, the soil was removed and replaced with goods, most likely transporting ant stowaways in the process.

But we didn’t know whether the pavement ants we see across North America were the newly described T. immigrans, if they were actually some other morphologically identical cousins, or some combination of the two (this is, after all, the genus that plagued taxonomists for decades). Given these questions, T. immigrans provided an opportunity to test whether genetic analysis could trace the invasion history of a species to its point of origin.

The answers would require collecting as many pavements ants as possible from across the United States. T. immigrans prefer buildings, sidewalks, backyards, and other paved surfaces (hence the name), which means they’re often found in areas where people live. So, rather than sending ant geneticists door-to-door to take a look at the ants in your backyard, a team that Andrea Lucky and Rob Dunn led asked citizen scientists to collect ants on its behalf. Lucky is an NC State alum and professor in the University of Florida’s department of entomology and nematology. Dunn is a professor in NC State’s department of applied ecology.

From 2011–2013, citizen scientists from the School of Ants project used Pecan Sandies to lure ants around the country into plastic freezer bags. These volunteers mailed hundreds of ants to the researchers from across 26 states, and the most commonly collected species was genetically identified as T. immigrans.

The researchers found that there are almost no individual genetic differences across T. immigrans populations within North America, meaning all of the ants across all 26 states came from one population—from either one single point of entry in the US, or via multiple points of entry from one original population in Europe.

“The work on this ant has only just begun,” says Dunn. “Despite all the work that everyone did on this project, this ant is still sufficiently mysterious that if you got down on your hands and knees with a hand lens and a notebook to study it, you would, with patience and persistence, see behaviors and phenomena no one has seen before.”

“Thanks to kids across the US, we now know a lot more about how this ant arrived in the US and how it spread,” Dunn says. “We couldn’t have done this work without the kids and families that helped us.”

The paper appears in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Additional collaborators on the paper are from the University of Florida, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and NC State.

Source: NC State

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Pesky birds, bitter crops, and taste show evolution ‘triangle’

8 hours 41 min ago

The genetics behind the bitter taste of some sorghum plants and one of Africa’s most reviled bird species illustrates how human genetics, crops, and the environment influence one another in the process of plant domestication, according to new research.

The study untangles these factors to create a more complete look at crop domestication than is possible in other major crops, says Xianran Li, an adjunct associate professor in the agronomy department at Iowa State University and corresponding author of the paper in Nature Plants.

The study looks at how human genetics, and the presence of bird species with a taste for sorghum seeds might have influenced the traits farmers in Africa selected in their crops over thousands of years.

The unique geographic distribution in Africa of sorghum plants that contain condensed tannins, or biomolecules that often induce a bitter taste, provided one side of a “domestication triangle” that helped the researchers piece together the domestication puzzle, Li says.

“It’s a systematic view that gives us a full picture of domestication,” he says. “Looking at just one component only tells us part of the story.”

Domestication triangle: Humans, crops, animals

Sorghum is a cereal crop first domesticated in Africa that remains a staple food throughout the continent. The researchers note that sorghum varieties with high levels of tannins commonly grow in eastern and southern Africa, while western African farmers tend to prefer varieties with low tannin content. In contrast, domestication processes in other continents removed condensed tannins from most other cereal crops, such as wheat, rice, and corn, due to the bitter taste they produce.

But farmers in south and east Africa grow many cultivars that retained tannin, which would seem to be a puzzling decision considering the taste and unfavorable nutritional values. Li says the condensed tannins were likely retained as a defense mechanism from the red-billed quelea, a bird species sometimes referred to as a “feathered locust” that can cause up to $50 million in economic losses in Africa every year from eating crops. Li and his coauthors found the distribution of sorghum cultivars with tannin correspond to areas with red-billed quelea populations.

They also consulted publicly accessible genotype information on human populations in Africa and found an associated distribution of the taste receptor TAS2R among Africans in regions that commonly grow sorghum with tannin. Taste receptors are molecules that facilitate the sensation of certain tastes, and the patterns in the distribution of TAS2R could make people living in those regions of Africa less susceptible to the bitter taste tannin causes.

Li calls this interaction among sorghum tannin, human taste receptors, and herbivorous birds a unique triangle that offers insight into crop domestication. And, because condensed tannins were bred out of other cereal crops, this kind of research is possible only with sorghum, he says.

“Our investigation uncovered coevolution among humans, plants, and environments linked by condensed tannins, the first example of domestication triangle,” Li says. “The concept of a domestication triangle has been proposed previously and generally accepted. Discovering a concrete case, particularly with some molecular evidence, is very exciting. We think this study could help uncover future cases.”

Tangled evolution

To arrive at their conclusions, the research team grew sorghum varieties with and without tannin and analyzed publicly available datasets on human genetics and wild bird populations in Africa to untangle how these factors interact with one another to influence the domestication of sorghum in Africa.

The experiments involving sorghum grown in Iowa found sparrows would feed on the seeds of plants without tannin but left alone the cultivars that contained tannin, reinforcing the concept that herbivore threats to sorghum crops prefer non-tannin varieties.

“The whole discovery was driven by curiosity, after we observed the unexpected sparrow damage in our sorghum field,” says Jianming Yu, professor of agronomy and chair in maize breeding. “We really had no clue that our gene cloning project to find the pair of interacting genes underlying sorghum tannins would lead to this discovery.”

Funding for the research came from USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Iowa State’s Raymond F. Baker Center for Plant Breeding, and the university’s Plant Sciences Institute.

Source: Iowa State University

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Map shows opioid crisis isn’t a single epidemic

8 hours 43 min ago

The United States is suffering from several different simultaneous opioid epidemics, not just a single crisis, a study of drug overdose deaths shows.

Researchers conducted a county-level analysis of death certificates from across the country that noted opioid overdoses as the cause of death. The findings show regional differences in the kind of opioids that cause the most overdose deaths—differences that policymakers considering varying strategies to address the epidemics should take into account, says David Peters, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University and coauthor of the paper in Rural Sociology.

“Our results show that it’s more helpful to think of the problem as several epidemics occurring at the same time rather than just one,” Peters says. “And they occur in different regions of the country, so there’s no single policy response that’s going to address all of these epidemics. There needs to be multiple sets of policies to address these distinct challenges.”

The map shows US counties experiencing opioid drug epidemics or syndemics, according to the analysis of drug overdose deaths. (Credit: David Peters) View larger

The study describes three different opioid epidemics in the US, as well as a syndemic, or a single population experiencing more than one epidemic:

  • A prescription drug epidemic persists in rural southern states where access to opioids centers on local pharmacies. Overdose deaths linked to pharmaceuticals peaked nationwide in 2013 and have fallen in the years since. However, some rural counties continue to struggle with prescription drugs.
  • A heroin epidemic has taken root in states out west and in the Midwest, especially in urban areas near major interstates that experience heavy drug trafficking. Overdose deaths related to heroin clustered along two major corridors, one linking El Paso to Denver and another linking Texas and Chicago. Peters says those findings correspond with known routes used by cartels smuggling heroin into the United States from Mexico.
  • An epidemic of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, has grown as a major concern in urban centers in the northeastern United States. Often these synthetic drugs are mixed with heroin or cocaine and made to resemble prescription medications. These counterfeit street mixes are highly potent and deadly.
  • A syndemic involving multiple simultaneous opioid epidemics exists in counties where the opioid crisis first erupted, particularly in mid-size cities in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia that have experienced steep job losses in manufacturing and mining.

Roughly a quarter of all counties in the United States fall into one of the epidemic categories noted in the study.

Researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded the work.

Source: Iowa State University

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Fewer tears and equal safety with water births

9 hours 59 min ago

Water births are no more risky than land births, and women in the water group sustain fewer first and second-degree tears, research shows.

Researchers analyzed 397 births in water and 2,025 births on “land” from two midwifery practices. There were no differences in outcomes between water birth and land birth for neonatal intensive care admissions, and postpartum hemorrhage rates were similar for both groups.

“The long and short of it is that if you use proper techniques… the outcomes are very good,” says Lisa Kane Low, professor of nursing at the University of Michigan and senior author of the paper. “They mirror what we see in international studies of water birth.”

More facilities should offer water birth and have guidelines for implementing it, says coauthor Ruth Zielinski, clinical associate professor of nursing.

In a water birth, the woman gives birth in a water-filled tub rather than a bed. Few US hospitals or birth centers offer tub births because of perceived risk to the newborn, mainly suggested by case studies of neonatal infections or cord tearing.

Professional organizations tend to agree that women in labor should have access to water for comfort, but not all support birth in the water. This means hospitals must make women leave the tub before the birth.

When born in water, babies take their first breath when removed from the tub. Until then, their lungs are filled with water, which is displaced when they hit the air and breathe. The connected umbilical cord provides oxygen.

It’s important not to re-submerge babies. At the University of Michigan, they are birthed in the water, brought out almost immediately, and we’re careful to not re-submerge them, Zielinski says. Mom and baby exit the tub with help and warm blankets, typically prior to delivering the placenta so that blood loss can be more accurately calculated.

Zielinski says more studies are needed to understand the satisfaction level of women who give birth in water.

The study appears in the journal Birth.

Source: University of Michigan

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Imaging technique spots colorectal tumors with 100% accuracy

10 hours 9 min ago

A new imaging technique in development provides accurate, real-time, computer-aided diagnosis of colorectal cancer, researchers say.

Using deep learning, a type of machine learning, researchers used the technique on more than 26,000 individual frames of imaging data from colorectal tissue samples to determine the method’s accuracy. Compared with pathology reports, the method identified tumors with 100% accuracy.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common type of cancer worldwide, with about 90% of cases occurring in people 50 or older. Arising from the inner surface, or muscosal layer, of the colon, cancerous cells can penetrate through the deeper layers of the colon and spread to other organs. Left untreated, the disease is fatal.

The PR-OCT imaging detected images of colon cancer (top photo) and of normal colon tissue. The green boxes indicate the scores of probability of the predicted “teeth” patterns in the tissue. (Credit: Zhu Lab)

Currently doctors use flexible colonoscopy to perform colon cancer screening. The procedure involves visual inspection of the mucosal lining of the colon and rectum with a camera mounted on an endoscope. Doctors then biopsy abnormal appearing areas for analysis.

Although this is the current standard of care, it does have its shortcomings. First, the technique relies on visual detection, but small lesions are hard to detect with the naked eye, and often miss early malignancies. Second, visual endoscopy can only detect changes in the surface of the bowel wall, not in its deeper layers.

Imaging colorectal cancer

This is the first report using this type of imaging combined with machine learning to distinguish healthy colorectal tissue from precancerous polyps and cancerous tissue.

Researchers based the investigational technique on optical coherence tomography (OCT), an optical imaging technology used for two decades in ophthalmology to take images of the retina.

However, engineers have advanced the technology for other uses since it provides high spatial and depth resolution for up to 1- to 2-millimeter imaging depth. OCT detects the differences in the way health and diseased tissue refract light and is highly sensitive to precancerous and early cancer morphological changes.

When further developed, doctors could use the technique as a real-time, noninvasive imaging tool alongside traditional colonoscopy to assist with screening deeply seated precancerous polyps and early-stage colon cancers.

“We think this technology, combined with the colonoscopy endoscope, will be very helpful to surgeons in diagnosing colorectal cancer,” says senior author Quing Zhu, professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering and professor of radiology at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

“More research is necessary, but the idea is that when the surgeons use colonoscopy to examine the colon surface, this technology could be zoomed in locally to help make a more accurate diagnosis of deeper precancerous polyps and early-stage cancers versus normal tissue.”

From retinas to colons

Two years ago, lead author Yifeng Zeng, a biomedical engineering doctoral student, began using OCT as a research tool to image samples of colorectal tissue removed from patients at the School of Medicine. He observed that the healthy colorectal tissue had a pattern that looked similar to teeth. However, the precancerous and cancerous tissues rarely showed this pattern. Light attenuation of the healthy mucosa microstructures of the colorectal tissue caused the teeth pattern.

Zeng began working with another graduate student, Shiqi Xu, who earned a master’s in electrical engineering from McKelvey Engineering in 2019 and is co-first author of the paper, to train RetinaNet, a neural network model of the brain where neurons connect in complex patterns to process data, to recognize and learn the patterns in the tissue samples.

They trained and tested the network using about 26,000 OCT images acquired from 20 tumor areas, 16 benign areas, and six other abnormal areas in patient tissue samples. The diagnoses the system predicted compared with evaluation of the tissue specimens using standard histology.

Pathology residents Zahra Alipour and Heba Abdelal assisted with the comparison. The team found a sensitivity of 100% and a specificity of 99.7%.

“The unique part of our system is that we could detect a structural pattern within the image,” Zeng says. “Using OCT, we are imaging something that we can find a pattern across all normal tissues. Then we can use this pattern to classify abnormal and cancerous tissue for accurate diagnosis.”

The team is now developing a catheter that could be used simultaneously with the colonoscopy endoscope to analyze the teeth-like pattern on the surface of the colon tissue and to provide a score of probability of cancer from RetinaNet to the surgeons.

“Right now, we can obtain the feedback in 4 seconds,” Zeng says. “With further development of computation speed and the catheter, we can provide the feedback to surgeons in real-time,” Zeng says.

The research will appear in Theranostics.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute funded the work.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Super tiny scope can peek inside active neurons

10 hours 27 min ago

A new lens-free ultra-miniaturized endoscope, the size of a few human hairs in width, is less bulky than current options and can produce higher quality images.

“Usually, you have sacrifice either size or image quality. We’ve been able to achieve both with our microendoscope,” says corresponding author Mark Foster, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Intended for examining neurons firing off in the brains of animals such as mice and rats, an ideal microendoscope should be small to minimize brain tissue damage yet powerful enough to produce a clear image.

Currently, standard microendoscopes are about half a millimeter to a few millimeters in diameter, and require larger, more invasive lenses for better imaging. While lensless microendoscopes exist, the optical fiber within that scans an area pixel by pixel frequently bends and loses imaging ability when moved.

In their new study, researchers created a lens-free ultra-miniaturized microendoscope that, compared to a conventional lens-based microendoscope, increases the amount researchers can see and improves image quality.

The image above shows the imaging results from the study. A to C shows beads on a slide, viewed through a bulk microscope. D to F are the beads viewed through a conventional lens-based microendoscope. G to I are images from the new lensless microendoscope, which are purposefully terrible because they provide a lot of information about light that can be used in computational reconstructing to create clearer images, as shown in J to L. (Credit: Johns Hopkins)

The researchers achieved this by using a coded aperture, or a flat grid that randomly blocks light creating a projection in a known pattern akin to randomly poking a piece of aluminum foil and letting light through all of the small holes. This creates a messy image, but one that provides a bounty of information about where the light originates, and that information can be computationally reconstructed into a clearer image. In their experiments, Foster’s team looked at beads in different patterns on a slide.

“For thousands of years, the goal has been to make an image as clear as possible. Now, thanks to computational reconstruction, we can purposefully capture something that looks awful and counterintuitively end up with a clearer final image,” says Foster.

Additionally, the researchers’ microendoscope doesn’t require movement to focus on objects at different depths; they use computational refocusing to determine where the light originated from in three dimensions. This allows the endoscope to be much smaller than a traditional one that requires moving the endoscope around to focus.

Looking forward, the research team will test their microendoscope with fluorescent labeling procedures in which active brain neurons would be tagged and illuminated, to determine how accurately the endoscope can image neural activity.

The findings appear in Science Advances. The National Eye Institute provided funding for the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Teen brains don’t react to all movie violence the same way

Tue, 2019-12-10 21:17

Scenes of unjustified and justified violence in movies activate different parts of the adolescent brain, researchers report.

The gun violence seen in popular PG-13 movies aimed at children and teenagers has more than doubled since the rating was introduced in 1984. The increasing on-screen gun violence has raised concerns that it will encourage imitation, especially when it is portrayed as “justified.”

This research is the first to show that when movie characters engage in violence that is seen as justified, there is a synchronized response among viewers in a part of the brain involved in moral evaluation, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), suggesting that viewers see the violent behavior as acceptable for self- or family protection.

“…when the violence seems justified, adolescents’ brains appear to find it much more acceptable than when it is not.”

Performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of more than two dozen late adolescents who watched scenes of movie violence, the researchers also found that scenes of unjustified violence evoked a synchronized response in a different part of the brain. Activating that area of the brain, the lateral orbital frontal cortex (lOFC), is consistent with a disapproving response to the violence.

“What this response suggests is that not all movie violence produces the same response,” says senior author Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania. “Adolescents disapprove of movie violence that is seen as unjustified, which is consistent with what parents have reported in past studies. But when the violence seems justified, adolescents’ brains appear to find it much more acceptable than when it is not.”

Romer says the growth of movie violence and particularly the depiction of justified gun violence in movies raises concerns. “By popularizing the use of guns in a justified manner, Hollywood may be cultivating approval of this kind of entertainment,” he says.

Teen brains and movie violence

For the study, researchers recruited a group of 26 college students ages 18 to 22, divided between men and women. All regularly watched violent movies and 70% played active shooter video games.

The researchers performed fMRI scans on the participants as they viewed movie clips. Each participant was shown eight pairs of 90-second movie clips from PG-13 or R-rated films. The clips featured a scene of characters talking followed by scenes of the characters engaged in violence. Half of the clips showed scenes of justified violence, the other unjustified violence. The order of scenes varied.

The scenes of justified violence showed major characters engaging in the defense of friends, family, or themselves, while the unjustified violence showed characters harming others out of cruelty or ill will. Prior evaluation of the scenes by parents and young adults confirmed that the scenes differed in justification for violence.

“Our findings clearly show that violent movies have similar effects on viewers.”

The researchers edited the scenes from the R-rated films to remove the graphic effects of the violence such as blood and suffering so that the scenes were more directly comparable to the violence portrayed in PG-13 movies.

The scenes of justified violence came from the PG-13 movies Live Free or Die Hard (2007), White House Down (2013), Terminator Salvation (2009), and Taken (2008). The clips of unjustified violence came from the PG-13 movies Skyfall (2012) and Jack Reacher (2012) and the R-rated films Sicario (2015) and Training Day (2001).

Justification is key

The researchers found that watching the movie clips produced a synchronous response in brain activity among the study participants at the same points during the movie clips. But the brain activity differed when the participants were watching scenes of justified or unjustified violence.

“It was exciting to observe a synchronized reaction to these movie clips,” says the study’s lead author, Azeez Adebimpe, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry and former postdoctoral fellow at the APPC. “Our findings clearly show that violent movies have similar effects on viewers.”

The researchers found that scenes of unjustified violence evoked greater synchrony in a region of the brain that responds to aversive events (lOFC). They also observed synchrony in a region that responds to the experience of pain in either oneself or others, the insular cortex. That finding was consistent with an empathetic response to the pain experienced by the victims of this kind of violence, again suggesting that the violence was seen as unacceptable.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is activated when an individual is presented with a moral dilemma such as the trolley problem. This problem poses an ethical dilemma in which a runaway train is headed toward five people who are on the tracks. You can pull a switch and divert the train, which will kill one person on the alternate track—or you can take no action as the train races ahead toward five people. Most people see it as appropriate to save the five people and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex tends to respond as well.

In a different version of the problem, you can only stop the train from killing others by pushing an innocent bystander onto the tracks, which most people are unwilling to do. Research has shown that people who lack a functioning ventromedial prefrontal cortex are more willing to push an innocent person to death to save lives. The present study’s results are consistent with this research in showing that the same brain region responds when the violence appears justified.

The findings are also consistent with a form of ethics based on evaluating an actor’s character and motives, known as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics proposes that people judge behavior as acceptable—even when it might otherwise be seen as prohibited, as in harming others—when an actor has virtuous motives for the behavior. In the movie scenes with justified violence, the young viewers in the study rated the use of guns by the main character as more acceptable and their brains displayed a similar response.

The current research is consistent with previous research that showed parents were more willing to let their children see the same movies clips when the violence appeared to be justified than when it had no socially redeeming purpose. This research also found that parents became more accepting of justified movie violence as they watched successive movie scenes that showed such violence.

“The finding that brain synchrony discriminated between justified and unjustified violence suggests that even youth who are attracted to such content are sensitive to its moral implications,” the researchers conclude in their paper.

“It remains for future research to determine whether the brain responses to justified film violence we have observed foster tendencies to imitate or consider the use of weapons for self-defense or other justified purposes. Laboratory research finds that justified film violence can encourage aggressive responses in response to provocation… What is less clear is whether the use of guns in movie portrayals of justified violence encourages their acquisition and use for purposes of self-defense.”

The research appears in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience

Source: Penn

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Rats replay memories forward and backwards to make decisions

Tue, 2019-12-10 20:49

While making decisions, rats’ brains replay their memories, a process called memory consolidation, researchers report.

The researchers found that specific patterns of brain cell firings in rats correspond to individual memories. As a result, the researchers could tell what the rodents were remembering during an experiment. They also found a way to predict what the animals would do next.

During sleep, the brain replays each memory from the day in a unique pattern of brain cell firings. The activation of a pattern essentially creates a recording of the memory so it can be stored for the long term. This process, called memory consolidation, occurs while we’re awake, too.

In the long term, the researchers hope that a greater understanding of how the brain processes memories will lead to treatments for diseases where memory is impaired, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other kinds of dementia.

Memory consolidation for decision time

Shantanu Jadhav, assistant professor of psychology at Brandeis University, and his collaborators designed a W-shaped maze. Each prong of the W held small wells with a tasty rat treat. A rat entering the maze on the right would find the nearest treat in the center. After that, the nearest treat would be on the left.

It worked in the opposite direction as well; after noshing on the left, the rodent went to the center, and then back to the right. Over the course of 6 to 8 hours, the rats formed separate memories of each of the four parts of a roundtrip journey—right to center, center to left, left to center, and center to right. Each part corresponded to a unique and identifiable pattern of brain cell firings.

When the rats arrived in the center of the maze, they paused for several seconds. During this time, they pondered their next move. They could go back to where they came from (no treat) or they could continue to the opposite side of the W (treat!).

The scientists monitored the rats’ decision-making process in real time. First, the rats replayed the sequence of brain cell firings from a memory of one of the four legs of their journey. But what surprised the scientists was that the rats’ brains played the sequence in reverse order, rewinding the recording of the memory. This process is called reverse replay and enables the rats to recall the past in order to decide what to do next.

The rats also pondered their future. Here, the rats played their memories’ brain cell firings in the original order in which they occurred in a process called forward replay.

Reverse and forward replay occur in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure located close to the brain’s center. (It actually means “seahorse” in Greek.) The hippocampus handles spatial memory, which in both rats and humans makes it possible to determine location and navigation from place to place.

The brain firings involved in reverse and forward replay are called sharp-wave ripples. In both rats and humans, they happen in bursts that last a few hundred milliseconds—a good thing. It may take an hour to go to work, but if recalling the memory of your route took that long you’d never return home.

Predicting the decision

Jadhav and his fellow researchers wanted to see if they could predict the rats’ route by analyzing their brain cell firings. They observed that the rats’ final decision on what route to take next didn’t happen in the hippocampus, which only sifted through the options. It was in the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, where the animal determined its future path.

The researchers matched activity in the prefrontal cortex to the four brain firing patterns that occurred during the rats’ journey. Whichever patterns the prefrontal cortex activated indicated the route the animal would travel. Just before the animal moved on from the center, Jadhav and his team observed the pattern fire, enabling them to predict the rats’ next move.

The paper appears in Neuron.

Funding for the research came from the National Institutes of Health, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Whitehall Foundation.

Source: Brandeis University

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Our planet is partly made of stardust from red giants

Tue, 2019-12-10 20:46

The Earth is partly made from stardust from red giant stars, researchers report.

They can also explain why the Earth contains more of this stardust than the asteroids or the planet Mars, which are farther from the sun.

Around 4.5 billion years ago, an interstellar molecular cloud collapsed. At its center, the sun formed; around that, a disc of gas and dust appeared, out of which the Earth and the other planets would form.

This thoroughly mixed interstellar material included exotic grains of dust. “Stardust that had formed around other suns,” explains Maria Schönbächler, a professor at the Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology at ETH Zurich. These dust grains only made up a small percentage of the entire dust mass and were distributed unevenly throughout the disc.

“The stardust was like salt and pepper,” Schönbächler says. As the planets formed, each one ended up with its own mix.

Thanks to extremely precise measurement techniques, researchers can detect the stardust that was present at the birth of our solar system. They examine specific chemical elements and measure the abundance of different isotopes—the different atomic flavors of a given element, which all share the same number of protons in their nuclei but vary in the number of neutrons.

Stardust’s fingerprint

“The variable proportions of these isotopes act like a fingerprint,” Schönbächler says. “Stardust has really extreme, unique fingerprints—and because it was spread unevenly through the protoplanetary disc—each planet and each asteroid got its own fingerprint when it was formed.”

Over the past 10 years, researchers studying rocks from the Earth and meteorites have been able to demonstrate these so-called isotopic anomalies for more and more elements. Schönbächler and her group have been looking at meteorites that were originally part of asteroid cores that were destroyed a long time ago, with a focus on the element palladium.

Other teams had already investigated neighboring elements in the periodic table, such as molybdenum and ruthenium, so Schönbächler’s team could predict what their palladium results would show. But their laboratory measurements did not confirm the predictions.

“The meteorites contained far smaller palladium anomalies than expected,” says Mattias Ek, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol who made the isotope measurements during his doctoral research at ETH.

Red giants and the Earth

Now the researchers have come up with a new model to explain these results. They argue that stardust consisted mainly of material produced in red giant stars. These are aging stars that expand because they have exhausted the fuel in their core. Our sun, too, will become a red giant four or five billion years from now.

In these stars, what’s known at the slow neutron capture process produced heavy elements such as molybdenum and palladium. “Palladium is slightly more volatile than the other elements measured. As a result, less of it condensed into dust around these stars, and therefore there is less palladium from stardust in the meteorites we studied” Ek says.

The researchers also have a plausible explanation for another stardust puzzle: the higher abundance of material from red giants on Earth compared to Mars or Vesta or other asteroids further out in the solar system. This outer region saw an accumulation of material from supernova explosions.

“When the planets formed, temperatures closer to the Sun were very high,” Schönbächler explains. This caused unstable grains of dust, for instance those with an icy crust, to evaporate.

The interstellar material contained more of the kind of dust that was destroyed close to the sun, whereas stardust from red giants was less prone to destruction and so it is more concentrated closer to the Sun. It is conceivable that dust originating in supernova explosions also evaporates more easily, since it’s somewhat smaller.

“This allows us to explain why the Earth has the largest enrichment of stardust from red giant stars compared to other bodies in the solar system” Schönbächler says.

The research appears in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Source: ETH Zurich

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5 things a Nobel Prize winner wants you to know about science

Tue, 2019-12-10 13:16

Here are five things you ought to understand about science, according to professor of genetic medicine Gregg Semenza.

This week, Semenza—along with William Kaelin Jr. and Peter Ratcliffe—will accept the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden, for discovering the gene that controls how cells respond to low oxygen levels.

In the two months since the award was announced, Semenza, director of the vascular program at the Institute for Cell Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, has spoken with audiences around the world about the implications of this work in understanding and eventually treating blood disorders, blinding eye diseases, cancer, diabetes, and other conditions. But he’s also spoken about the value of basic science.

Here are five things Semenza says he wishes more people knew about science:

1) Many of the best discoveries are made by young scientists

The Nobel Prizes usually go to older scientists for discoveries they made when younger, and because of this, Semenza says people may think that good science is solely the domain of older people.

“We often make these findings early in our careers, but it is only much later that the significance of those discoveries becomes apparent,” he says.

2) Discoveries require perseverance and collaboration

A lot of science is about taking small steps forward. Big leaps are often the result of collaboration, Semenza says.

For example, when he and his lab identified the HIF-1 gene, which controls cells under low oxygen conditions, they initially ran into problems trying to clone the gene’s DNA—part of the process of learning more about a gene’s function and other characteristics. He got help from fellow Johns Hopkins scientist Thomas Kelly, who had expertise in a workaround approach: purifying the protein made by HIF-1, which is another way to learn more about the gene and its function in the cell.

3) The best research environments have mentorship and collegiality

“There are places with very smart people, and there are places where everybody is friendly,” Semenza says. “But there are few places with smart people who are almost always willing to help you.

“When we wrote the manuscript reporting the discovery of HIF-1, we submitted it to top-tier journals, and they did not find it to be of sufficient interest to warrant publication.”

But that didn’t stop him: Semenza got help from scientist Victor McKusick, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the paper. It has been cited in more than 6,000 scientific publications.

4) To advance science, invest in early science education

“In high school, I had a biology teacher who inspired me and others to pursue careers in scientific research by teaching us about the scientists and the scientific process that led to discoveries,” Semenza says.

“She would often preface her description of a scientific discovery by saying, ‘When you win your Nobel Prize, I don’t want you to forget that you learned that here.’ We need to give more emphasis to teachers and reward them for the work that they do, which makes such a difference in the lives of so many.”

5) Basic science research is good for the economy

“The inventions and discoveries that come out of basic research are critical for the economy, public health, and treating disease earlier,” Semenza says.

“It is better, both for patients and for the economy, to treat diseases early rather than later, and we need more research to learn how to more effectively treat many cancers.”

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Baby book app guides parents to prevent SIDS

Tue, 2019-12-10 12:47

A new mobile app, Baby be Well, offers new parents guidance on safe sleep practices to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

The free app is available now for android devices, with the iOS version to follow shortly.

“We focused on making the app an appealing and interactive experience to promote return visits and repeated exposure to the safe infant sleep guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics,” explains Barbara Ostfeld, professor of pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University and one of the scientists involved with the app’s development.

“We found that those reminders help maintain awareness and adherence not only when a child is born, but throughout the first year.”

“To encourage return visits, the app is designed as a traditional baby book where parents can upload photographs and milestones and even track day-to-day activities such as feedings,” says Thomas Hegyi, also a professor of pediatrics and involved in the app’s creation.

“Parents can share their personal account with grandparents and other caregivers,” he continues, “therefore, along with the keepsakes and schedules, recipients also receive safe sleep tips and reminders.”

To make the safe sleep advice enjoyable to explore, researchers designed the app to be interactive. In addition to depicting and describing a safe sleep environment that parents can view with each visit to the app, there are ever-changing tips of the day and a question and answer game where users test their knowledge and learn even more about keeping infants safe.

“Encouraging grandparents to become frequent visitors to this app also is important because advice on safe sleep has changed so much since we raised our own children,” notes Ostfeld. “For example, parents are now advised to place infants to sleep on their backs in cribs without bumpers.”

Hegyi and Ostfeld also serve as members of the Research Partnership of the Aaron Matthew Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) Research Guild, an international initiative based at Seattle Children’s Hospital Integrative Brain Research Institute.

The program was started by John Kahan, chief data and analytics officer at Microsoft, in memory of his son whose death was attributed to SIDS. Working with volunteers from Microsoft, led by Sushama Murthy, principal data scientist, the team presented the challenge of how to inspire return visits to an educational app, resulting from experience with an app they published previously.

They created the baby book model to ensure continued promotion of safe sleep practices over time that could be shared with friends and family.

Additional contributors to the app’s development came from Rutgers, Microsoft Corp., and Tata Consultancy Services.

Source: Rutgers University

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To cope with anxiety, use ‘safety signals’

Tue, 2019-12-10 11:16

There could be a new way to combat anxiety: When life triggers excessive fear, use a safety signal, researchers say.

For as many as one in three people, life events or situations that pose no real danger can spark a disabling fear, a hallmark of anxiety and stress-related disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants help about half the people suffering from anxiety, but millions of others do not find sufficient relief from existing therapies.

In humans and in mice, a symbol or a sound that is never associated with adverse events can relieve anxiety through an entirely different brain network than that activated by existing behavioral therapy, the researchers write in their study.

“A safety signal could be a musical piece, a person, or even an item like a stuffed animal that represents the absence of threat,” says co-first author Paola Odriozola, a PhD candidate in psychology at Yale University.

The approach differs from behavioral therapy, which slowly exposes patients to the source of their fear, such as spiders, until a patient learns that spiders do not represent a significant threat and anxiety is decreased. And for many people, exposure-based therapy does not truly help.

The new study may explain why.

In the new research, researchers conditioned subjects to associate one shape with a threatening outcome and a different shape with a non-threatening outcome. (In mice, researchers used tones in the conditioning instead of shapes.) The shape associated with threat alone was presented to subjects, and later subjects viewed both threatening and non-threatening shape together. Adding the second, non-threatening shape—the safety signal—suppressed the subjects’ fear compared to the response to the threat-related shape alone.

Brain imaging studies of both human and mice subjects presented with the signals showed this approach activated a different neural network than exposure therapy, suggesting safety signaling might be an effective way to augment current therapies.

“Exposure-based therapy relies on fear extinction, and although a safety memory is formed during therapy, it is always competing with the previous threat memory,” explains co-senior author Dylan Gee, assistant professor of psychology. “This competition makes current therapies subject to the relapse of fear—but there is never a threat memory associated with safety signals.”

Gee stressed that the need for alternatives for those suffering from anxiety-related disorders is great.

“Both cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants can be highly effective, but a substantial part of the population does not benefit sufficiently, or the benefits they experience don’t hold up in the longer term,” she says.

The study will appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additional coauthors are from Weill Cornell Medicine.

Funding for the work came from the National Institutes of Health, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the Jacobs Foundation, the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium, the New York-Presbyterian Youth Anxiety Center, the Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler family, the DeWitt-Wallace Fund of the New York Community Trust, and the National Science Foundation.

Source: Yale University

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Wrapping gifts really nicely can actually backfire

Tue, 2019-12-10 11:12

How nicely do you need to wrap your gifts this holiday season? You can probably relax when giving gifts to family, research suggests, but not acquaintances.

Researchers used three experiments to explore how the neatness of the wrapping affects a recipient’s expectations about their gift.

“Neat wrapping leads the recipient to set high expectations that are hard for the gift to meet.”

In the first experiment, participants, all of whom had previously stated that they were fans of a particular sports team and not fans of a rival team, received a real wrapped gift to keep. Half got gifts in neat wrapping while half received gifts in sloppy wrapping. Half of each wrapping group received a mug with their preferred team’s logo on it, and to test whether the effect persisted even when the gift was undesirable, half received a mug with the rival’s logo on it. In both cases, the gifts were wrapped in the same blue paper and gold ribbon.

Whether the recipient got a mug they liked or not, the researchers found they were significantly more likely to appreciate their gift if it was sloppily wrapped, but less appreciative if the gift was neatly wrapped. This effect is what social scientists call expectation disconfirmation.

“Neat wrapping leads the recipient to set high expectations that are hard for the gift to meet,” explains Erick Mas, a postdoctoral scholar at the Vanderbilt University Owens Graduate School of Management. “On the other hand, sloppy wrapping leads to low expectations that are easily met or exceeded, giving the gift recipient a pleasant surprise.”

In the second experiment, the researchers sought to dig deeper into the disconfirmation theory by testing the impact of a neutral, generic gift. In this test, participants received a pair of bland midrange earbuds. Again, they found the effect persisted: Sloppily wrapped earbuds were better received than neatly wrapped ones.

In the third experiment, the researchers tested whether the relationship between the giver and the recipient mattered by replicating the earbud experiment while asking participants to imagine the giver was either a close friend or an acquaintance. Interestingly, the disconfirmation effect persisted in the friend condition, but the researchers observed the opposite when the giver was described as an acquaintance.

“In the case of an acquaintance, we’re seeing a kind of spillover effect where the recipient assimilates the giftwrap into their evaluation of the gift itself,” says Mas. “When we don’t know very much about the other person, we may rely more on the giftwrapping quality as a cue about how they value the relationship.”

The takeaway, Mas says, is that this holiday season, you might want to take extra care wrapping those trinkets for acquaintances like neighbors and coworkers, and not worry so much about those gifts for your close friends and family.

The study appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Coauthors are from the University of Nevada.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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New stores in ‘food deserts’ don’t change what people eat

Tue, 2019-12-10 10:14

Opening supermarkets in “food deserts” doesn’t change the types of groceries people buy, research suggests.

Research has shown that income is increasingly linked to health: Not only are today’s richer Americans healthier than poorer ones, but the gap is wider than it was in the early 1990s. Studies have attributed this to food consumption, with better dietary quality associated with higher socioeconomic status—in other words, the more money you have, the easier it is to afford nutritious foods.

Some have concluded that a key part of the problem is “food deserts”—neighborhoods without supermarkets, mostly in low-income areas. A widely held theory maintains that those who live in food deserts are forced to shop at local convenience stores, where it’s hard to find healthy groceries. A proposed solution is to advocate for the opening of supermarkets in these neighborhoods, which are thought to encourage better eating.

This idea has gathered a lot of steam. Over the past decade, federal and local governments in the United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars encouraging grocery stores to open in food deserts. The federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative has leveraged over $1 billion in financing for grocers in under-served areas. The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, which is currently under consideration in Congress, would extend these efforts with large tax credits. Meanwhile, cities such as Houston and Denver have sought to institute related measures at the local level.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama articulated this proposed remedy quite clearly: “It’s not that people don’t know or don’t want to do the right thing; they just have to have access to the foods that they know will make their families healthier.”

However, recent research in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which Hunt Allcott, an associate professor in the economics department at New York University, co-wrote, raises questions about the efficacy of this approach. Additional researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Northwestern University, the Stanford School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service also contributed to the work.

Here, Allcott explains food deserts and how they may—or may not—affect nutrition:

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