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Nanodiamond ‘dye’ offers better look at liver cancer

Fri, 2017-05-26 11:53

A new nanodiamond-based contrast agent—a chemical “dye” that enhances the visibility of internal body structures in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—could improve visualization of liver cancer tumors.

MRI is a medical imaging technique commonly used for cancer diagnosis and to track the progress of patients after treatment. Currently, there are two modes of MRI imaging, T1-weighted and T2-weighted imaging, and patients are often given contrast agents to improve imaging quality.

Each imaging mode, however, requires a specific class of contrast agent which cannot be used together. This poses a greater challenge in the diagnosis of liver cancer, where T2-weighted imaging is still not considered reliable, and tumor vascularity can confound both T1- and T2-weighted imaging.

A research team led by Edward Chow, from the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore at National University of Singapore and the department of pharmacology at NUS Yong Loo Lin of Medicine, has developed a dual-mode contrast agent that enables clearer and more accurate images of tumors from both T1- and T2-weighted MRI scans, and with lower dosages of contrast agent.

The dual-mode contrast agent, which the researchers developed with nanodiamonds in combination with a manganese base, provides greater imaging contrast than existing options. The team also found that liver tumors that can’t be visualized without contrast agents become readily visible even at low dosages of the new compound.

MRI scanner steers cancer-killing virus inside the body

Contrast agents work by altering the magnetic properties of nearby water molecules, which enhances the quality of MR images. Nanodiamonds, which are carbon-based particles of two to eight nanometers in diameter, have unique chemical properties that allow them to attract water molecules. This enables them to promote proton exchange between water molecules and paramagnetic ions (i.e. contrast agents) that accumulate in tissues.

“Our experiments suggest that our dual-mode contrast agent holds great promise in improving imaging for liver cancer,” says Chow.

“We are hopeful that this advancement in nanomedicine will lead to safer and more accurate diagnosis of liver cancer. Moving forward, we plan to conduct further preclinical safety studies for our contrast agents, with the end goal being clinical implementation. We are also looking into using our contrast agents to improve imaging for glioma and ovarian cancer,” Chow adds.

Shot of contrast makes brain tumors glow

The study was a collaboration with the NUS Comparative Medicine Imaging Facility and the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research’s Singapore Bioimaging Consortium. The findings of the study appear in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine.

Source: National University of Singapore

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Squished cancer cells break free from the crowd

Fri, 2017-05-26 11:17

Scientists now know the biochemical signal that tells crowded cancer cells to break away from tumors and start the deadly migration called metastasis.

They also discovered that two existing drugs used in combination can disrupt the process and appear to significantly slow cancer cells’ tendency to travel.

The findings are important, researchers say, because metastasis causes 90 percent of cancer deaths, and anything that derails this activity could improve patient outcomes.

“We found that it was not the overall size of a primary tumor that caused cancer cells to spread, but how tightly those cells are jammed together when they break away from the tumor,” says Hasini Jayatilaka, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center.

“At a fundamental level, we found that cell density is very important in triggering metastasis. It’s like waiting for a table in a severely overcrowded restaurant and then getting a message that says you need to take your appetite elsewhere,” says Jayatilaka, lead author of the study in the journal Nature Communications.

Bubble pushes 1 cancer cell from device at a time

The two key drivers of metastasis are cancer cells’ tendency to reproduce at a rapid rate and their ability to move through surrounding tissue until they reach the bloodstream, where they can then hitch a ride to spread the disease to other parts of the body.

Studying tumor cells in a 3D environment that resembles human tissue, the researchers were able to determine how the cancer migration begins. As two types of cancer cells reproduced and created more crowded conditions in the test site, they secreted proteins identified as Interleukin 6 and Interleukin 8.

“IL-6 and IL-8 seem to deliver a message to cancer cells, telling them to move away from the densely populated primary tumor,” says Jayatilaka, who recently earned her doctorate at Johns Hopkins in chemical and biomolecular engineering.

No commercial drugs are now being produced specifically to inhibit metastasis because drug companies believe the best way to stop cancer from spreading is to destroy the primary tumor from which it originates, says senior author Denis Wirtz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, materials science, pathology and oncology and director of the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center.

“The pharmaceutical companies view metastasis as a by-product of tumor growth. Our study looked more closely at the steps that actually initiate metastasis.”

How Stone Age travel could clarify metastatic cancer

Animal studies show that combining two existing drugs—Tocilizumab and Reparaxin—blocks the receptors where cancer cells get their chemical relocation orders. Tocilizumab is an approved medication for rheumatoid arthritis and is in trials for use in ovarian cancer. Reparaxin is being evaluated as a possible treatment for breast cancer.

“In our eight-week experiment, when we used these two drugs together, the growth of the primary tumor itself was not stopped, but the spread of the cancer cells was significantly decreased,” Jayatilaka says. “We discovered a new signaling pathway that, when blocked, could potentially curb cancer’s ability to metastasize.”

The researchers caution that the treatment was tested in animal models and appears promising, but has not yet been tried on human cancer patients.

Other members of the team were from Johns Hopkins, Yale University, and the National Cancer Institute. Funding came from the NCI.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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To boost mental health, let people pick neighborhood fixes

Fri, 2017-05-26 10:48

Regeneration of deprived neighborhoods may improve the mental health of people living in the community—if residents pick the regeneration projects.

The study—one of the first to measure changes in mental health during neighborhood regeneration—found a small but measurable improvement in the mental health of residents in areas of Caerphilly County Borough in Wales that underwent community-led regeneration compared to those that didn’t. This was equivalent to one in every three residents in regeneration areas reporting improved symptoms.

There was also a significant trend between length of residence and mental health, suggesting that the longer people resided in areas experiencing regeneration the more their mental health improved.

The neighborhood regeneration project in the study was Communities First—a Welsh government initiative to reduce poverty in the 100 most deprived of the 881 electoral wards in Wales. Using anonymously linked data from Caerphilly County Borough Council, general practices, and existing studies, 10,892 residents from areas that did and did not receive Communities First funding for regeneration were tracked over a seven-year period (2001 to 2008).

“The significance of this research should not be overstated,” says James White, senior lecturer in public health at the Centre for Trials Research and DECIPHer Centre as well as leader of the study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

“Billions of dollars are spent worldwide on regeneration projects, and very few have been evaluated. Our study shows that targeted regeneration, directed by the residents of deprived urban communities, can help to improve the mental health of residents. We found Communities First narrowed the gap in poor mental health between the more and less deprived neighborhoods.”

Do ‘disorganized’ neighborhoods make us drink?

During the period studied (2001 to 2008), 1,500 regeneration projects were delivered as part of the Communities First program in Caerphilly County Borough at a cost of £82,857,180 (more than $107 million).

The type of regeneration projects were diverse and included:

• Crime: installing street lighting
• Education: teaching assistants
• Health: provision of sport equipment
• Housing and physical environment: conducting housing maintenance and repairs and redevelopment of waste land
• Vocational training and business support: providing computer skills training to the unemployed
• Community: building community centers

The study also revealed that before regeneration, residents of Communities First areas were more likely to be: unemployed (3.2 percent vs. 2.5 percent), sick or disabled (17.1 percent vs 10.6 percent), live in rented accommodation (25.8 percent vs 14.7 percent), and live in poverty (58.8 percent vs 43.9 percent), than residents of control areas.

White adds: “The Communities First regeneration program we evaluated is unique in that community residents, rather than local councils or governments, identified areas to be regenerated. The policy implication of this finding is that targeted regeneration, directed by the residents of deprived urban communities, may help to reduce inequalities in mental health.”

In Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, residents suffer and get sick

The authors hope the research will inform policy to improve mental health and narrow health inequalities at the population-level.

Source: Cardiff University

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How female moths snag guys with big antennae

Fri, 2017-05-26 10:47

Male moths with larger antennae are better equipped to detect the low quantities of sex pheromone, a chemical signal, that female moths release to attract mates, research shows.

The finding, published in Science of Nature, lends support to one of Charles Darwin’s lesser known ideas.

“…males that are good listeners apparently make attractive mates.”

In 1871, Darwin suggested that a female’s choice of mate could drive the evolution of mating signals in males. The male is effectively advertising his qualities and if a female chooses to mate with him, the genes for his traits are passed on to their offspring in the next generation, which ensures the evolution of the male display and the female’s preference.

The theory of sexual selection has dominated research into animal behavior for decades, and thousands of studies support Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, says evolutionary biologist Mark Elgar, professor in the University of Melbourne’s School of Biosciences.

“But Darwin also proposed that sexual selection can favor males who are better at detecting and responding to signals from females, including chemical signals like pheromones. So males with sensory structures that can better detect female signals may have the edge in finding them in order to mate and pass on their genes.”

Uraba lugens. (Credit: Peter Marriott) Find a mate in 7 days

The team set up field experiments with the gum-leaf skeletoniser moth, Uraba lugens. The moths get their name from the damage they cause to eucalyptus trees.

The adults only live for around seven days and do not eat in this time, says PhD student Tamara Johnson. “Within this week, the moths must attract a mate, sometimes competing with many other moths in the same area,” she says.

Female U. lugens moths attract the attention of males by releasing sex-pheromones, with the chemical signal peaking at seven hours into the first phase of darkness in their adult life.

While adult females have a simple filiform or threadlike antennae, males have feathery, bipectinate antennae.

Following Darwin’s original suggestion, the team predicted that males with larger antennae, which have more chemical sensors, would better detect smaller amounts of sex pheromone.

Watch: Cuttlefish use eyes and arms to fight over mate

As part of her PhD project, Johnson placed traps at dusk with either one or two female moths. The number of males, and the size of their antennae, that were caught in the traps were recorded the next day.

The researchers found that male moths with larger antennae, independent of their body size, were more likely to detect the sex pheromone of a single female.

Subtle flirting?

“Our data are consistent with Darwin’s 1871 prediction that sexual selection favors exaggerated sensory receptor structures like antennae,” says Matthew Symonds of Deakin University.

“As evolutionary biologists, it’s very rewarding to be able to support a long-standing idea, originally floated by Darwin, that hasn’t attracted much attention,” he says.

The team also suggests that females adjust their signaling to maximize their encounters with particular kinds of males, rather than to simply maximize encounters with any males.

“Our data suggest that by releasing smaller amounts of pheromone, the female increases the likelihood of attracting males with longer antennae. These males may be better mates because producing and maintaining a large sensory structure is costly and possible for higher quality males only. Those male qualities may be passed onto her offspring,” says Elgar.

Some frogs mate on land to avoid a ‘breeding frenzy’

The team also found that if females are initially unsuccessful at attracting a male, then calling effort increases to attract more mates, but potentially poorer quality males with shorter antennae.

Males attracted to traps with two females, whose combined pheromone emission was presumably greater, had relatively smaller antennae.

Our results show that females may have a significant and largely unrecognized role in the sexual selection of elaborate antennae, Elgar says.

“For the gum-leaf skeletoniser moth, males that are good listeners apparently make attractive mates.”

Source: University of Melbourne

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Microchips use ‘sparse coding’ to recognize objects like we do

Fri, 2017-05-26 10:38

A new computer chip prototype called a “memristor” could process images and video much faster and using much less power than today’s most advanced chips using a processing system similar to the one used by the human brain.

Faster image processing could have big implications for autonomous systems such as self-driving cars, says Wei Lu, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan and lead author of a paper on the work in Nature Nanotechnology.

Lu’s next-generation computer components use pattern recognition to shortcut the energy-intensive process conventional systems use to dissect images. In this new work, he and colleagues demonstrate an algorithm that relies on a technique called “sparse coding” to coax their 32-by-32 array of memristors to efficiently analyze and recreate several photos.

Memristor chip. (Credit: U. Michigan)

Memristors are electrical resistors with memory—advanced electronic devices that regulate current based on the history of the voltages applied to them. They can store and process data simultaneously, which makes them a lot more efficient than traditional systems. In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit.

“The tasks we ask of today’s computers have grown in complexity,” Lu says. “In this ‘big data’ era, computers require costly, constant, and slow communications between their processor and memory to retrieve large amounts data. This makes them large, expensive, and power-hungry.”

But like neural networks in a biological brain, networks of memristors can perform many operations at the same time, without having to move data around. As a result, they could enable new platforms that process a vast number of signals in parallel and are capable of advanced machine learning.

Memristors are good candidates for deep neural networks, a branch of machine learning which trains computers to execute processes without being explicitly programmed to do so.

Why computers need to learn to ‘disambiguate’ people

“We need our next-generation electronics to be able to quickly process complex data in a dynamic environment. You can’t just write a program to do that. Sometimes you don’t even have a pre-defined task,” Lu says. “To make our systems smarter, we need to find ways for them to process a lot of data more efficiently. Our approach to accomplish that is inspired by neuroscience.”

Picture a chair in your mind

A mammal’s brain is able to generate sweeping, split-second impressions of what the eyes take in. One reason is because they can quickly recognize different arrangements of shapes. Humans do this using only a limited number of neurons that become active, Lu says. Both neuroscientists and computer scientists call the process “sparse coding.”

“When we take a look at a chair we will recognize it because its characteristics correspond to our stored mental picture of a chair,” Lu says. “Although not all chairs are the same and some may differ from a mental prototype that serves as a standard, each chair retains some of the key characteristics necessary for easy recognition. Basically, the object is correctly recognized the moment it is properly classified—when ‘stored’ in the appropriate category in our heads.”

Similarly, Lu’s electronic system is designed to detect the patterns very efficiently—and to use as few features as possible to describe the original input.

In our brains, different neurons recognize different patterns, Lu says.

“When we see an image, the neurons that recognize it will become more active,” he says. “The neurons will also compete with each other to naturally create an efficient representation. We’re implementing this approach in our electronic system.”

Training the network

The researchers trained their system to learn a “dictionary” of images. Trained on a set of grayscale image patterns, their memristor network was able to reconstruct images of famous paintings and photos and other test patterns.

If their system can be scaled up, they expect to be able to process and analyze video in real time in a compact system that can be directly integrated with sensors or cameras.

Other collaborators are from the University of Michigan, the Los Alamos National Lab, and Portland State University.

The work is part of an “Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation” project that aims to build a computer chip based on self-organizing, adaptive neural networks. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds the project.

Source: University of Michigan

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Airline mergers don’t make our flights run late

Fri, 2017-05-26 09:32

Airline mergers often take the blame for flight delays, late arrivals, and missed connections. A new analysis of 15 years of US Department of Transportation statistics, however, shows that airline consolidation has had little negative impact on on-time performance.

In fact, the study offers evidence that mergers lead to long-term improvements, likely due to improved efficiency.

The paper, which will appear in the Journal of Industrial Economics, is among the first to look at quality responses to airline mergers and is one of just a few papers that analyze quality responses to mergers of any kind. Prior research has mainly focused on the price effects of mergers.

“While we find some limited evidence of on-time performance worsening in the two years immediately following a merger, we find no evidence of on-time performance worsening in the long run,” write Jeffrey T. Prince, professor of business economics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and Daniel Simon, associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“In many cases, we find evidence that on-time performance improves in the long run, and suggestive evidence that it is most pronounced on routes where both merging airlines operated pre-merger.”

Five big mergers

For the study, the authors analyzed on-time performance for five major airline mergers since 2000, including American Airlines’ acquisition of Trans World Airlines in 2001; America West’s acquisition of US Airways in 2005; Delta Airlines’ merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008; United Airlines’ merger with Continental Airlines in 2010; and Southwest Airlines’ acquisition of Airtran Airways in 2011.

Baggage fees help airplanes leave on time

The researchers used three years of data prior to each merger and then up to five years of data afterward. To create a control group, they looked at on-time performance for the merging carriers’ rivals, which allowed them to better identify the impact of mergers on airline service quality. Due to the immense size of their dataset, they focused on activity on the 10th, 15th, and 20th of each month.

“While travel time is little changed in the first two years following a merger, it falls by about one to two minutes (1 percent) in the following three to five years,” they write. “None of the results provide any evidence for the conventional wisdom that mergers worsen on-time performance.

“Further analysis reveals that we find the biggest improvement in on-time performance in the long-run, post-merger period on some of the routes where we would expect merger effects to be most pronounced—routes that both carriers served prior to merging,” they write.

“These routes offer the greatest opportunities for efficiencies, including consolidation of operations on the ground and in the air, and the internalization of congestion externalities.”

No harm

The study found no evidence that rival air carriers’ on-time performance was negatively affected by the presence of an airline that had recently merged, while providing some tentative evidence that improvements in efficiency at merged airlines may also be largely matched by competitors on routes that the merging carriers previously served.

Why travelers turn on their favorite companies

While the primary focus of the research was mergers and on-time performance, the researchers also looked at other measures of quality, such as flight cancellations, baggage handling, and customer complaints. The findings include:

  • No evidence that merging carriers increase (or reduce) cancellations after the merger.
  • No evidence that merging airlines reduce (or increase) the number of flights.
  • In the short run, lost and mishandled baggage did increase after mergers but then returned to levels reported before the consolidation.
  • Customer complaints increased significantly in the short run but again dropped to pre-merger levels.

Critics and regulators have questioned whether consolidating operations affect service and whether the merged airline exploits its market power by reducing its investments in quality.

“In this case, however, the larger combined pool of resources may provide flexibility that enhances service quality,” Prince and Simon write. “More available ground crews and gate agents, more landing spots, and larger numbers of planes at an airport can provide increased flexibility to readjust resources in response to delays and equipment failures.

“Overall, our findings suggest that airline mergers do not harm, and may ultimately benefit, consumers via enhanced service quality in the form of on-time performance, particularly a few years after the merger,” they write.

“Of course, a full welfare assessment must consider price changes as well as changes in all other quality dimensions, but for at least those quality dimensions we examine in our analysis, there does not appear to be any evidence of any notable worsening.”

The researchers used DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics flight-level data on 26 US carriers’ on-time performance from 1998 to 2013. They limited their sample to 3,917 nonstop routes. Nine of the 10 carriers that merged made up the largest carriers in their sample.

Source: Indiana University

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Device could make ear tube surgery much quicker

Fri, 2017-05-26 09:19

A new handheld device called CLiKX could improve the current surgical treatment of otitis media with effusion, also called “glue ear,” in children.

OME is the leading cause of hearing loss and visits to the doctor among children worldwide.

OME is a condition in which fluid, instead of air, fills the middle ear. If left untreated, it can cause a series of life-altering complications such as hearing impairment, middle ear bone erosion or tumor, and brain infection. OME has also been shown to cause delays in the speech, language, and academic abilities of young children.

Specially designed to improve on the surgical treatment of OME, CLiKX comes from a team led by associate professor Tan Kok Kiong from the department of electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering.

“The first line therapy for OME is usually the prescription of antibiotics and treatment of blocked ear tubes. But sometimes, the antibiotics may not be effective against OME,” explains team member Lynne Lim, adjunct associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and senior ear nose and throat consultant at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.

“For patients with three or more episodes of OME within a year—especially if there is hearing loss and speech difficulties, some with craniofacial predispositions, or those who are concerned about building resistance to long term use of antibiotics, grommet tube placement surgery is currently the gold standard of care.

“A grommet is a very small tube that is inserted onto the patient’s ear drum during surgery to help drain away fluid in the middle ear. Each procedure usually takes about 30 minutes under general anesthesia to complete,” explains Lim.

“CLiKX can potentially shift the current standard surgical procedures for OME,” says Tan. “With this pistol-like applicator, the grommet tube can be easily inserted into a patient’s ear within a single click. In less than a second, the procedure is done.

“This simple procedure has the potential to be administered in a doctor’s consultation room under local anesthesia, or out of the operating theatre under intravenous conscious sedation without general anesthesia. Preoperative preparation and postoperative recovery time for patients are significantly reduced. At the same time, risks of general anesthesia are avoided.

“We expect costs, manpower, and resources to be lowered substantially, and this in turn, would be welcomed by patients, healthcare institutions, and insurers.”

Ear infections really do require 10 days of antibiotics

Grommet tube placement surgery involves making a cut on the eardrum, and placing a tiny ventilation tube, called a grommet, through the hole to drain the ear fluid. The surgery involves a large healthcare team, costly surgical equipment, and set-up in the operating theatre, which is an economic burden not only to patients, but also to hospitals and healthcare insurers.

The palm-sized CLiKX can deliver the grommet tube into a patient’s ear quickly and safely using a sensor-controlled automation process. This minimizes the overall contact time with the patient’s eardrum and prevents over-deformation and excessive pressure, thereby reducing discomfort and trauma for the patients.

In the long term, are ear tubes worth the risk?

To carry out the procedure, surgeons can potentially use a simple eye-loupe that does not require bulky and costly surgical microscopes. The 185-gram CLiKX also works well with a range of commercially available grommets and does not require any custom-made grommet tubes. In addition, the procedure using CLiKX would potentially require only light or moderate sedation or local anesthetic.

“In many underdeveloped areas where proper healthcare infrastructure and general anesthesia are not always available, many patients with OME do not have access to treatment in a timely manner,” says Lim. “Some of these patients have to live with the condition, its associated hearing loss and complications. CLiKX can make a significant impact by making grommet placement surgeries more accessible to these patients most in need, and it simplifies the procedure for doctors and patients.”

Building on the promising results from the earlier phases of the project, the NUS team aims to conduct the trial in humans in Singapore in 2018. The team is keen to work with partners to further develop and commercialize the device, and they aim to launch the device in the market by 2020.

Source: National University of Singapore

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Minimum wage hikes help some workers, not others

Fri, 2017-05-26 08:11

Raising the minimum wage helps workers who currently earn that amount but decreases the number of low-wage workers that businesses hire shortly thereafter, a new study finds.

While the federal minimum wage rate stands at $7.25 an hour, actual pay for low-wage workers varies across the country because some states and cities have adopted higher wages than the nationally-mandated minimum. Studies have taken place to determine the effect of these increases on employment, but consensus remains elusive because of small samples and specific industry-based studies.

“Asking if a higher minimum wage is good or bad is not productive,” says Radhakrishnan Gopalan, professor of finance at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not a right or wrong proposition, it’s a nuanced answer depending on the composition of both employees and employers.”

The states in dark red enacted large minimum wage increases. The medium-red states acted as control states in the data analysis, and the states with light shading were excluded from the data set. (Credit: Gopalan et al.)

In their working paper, Gopalan and coauthors—Barton Hamilton, professor of entrepreneurship, and doctoral students Ankit Kalda and David Sovich—used anonymous data from Equifax, a company that collects data on individuals’ credit and employment histories. The team processed wage data on more than 2 million hourly workers from across the country over a six-year period.

To create a framework from which to analyze the data, they focused on six states—California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, and West Virginia—that enacted large increases in minimum wage during late 2014 and early 2015. The researchers included data from hourly workers across different industries and studied their employment dynamics for up to one year following the wage increase.

Calculator adds cost of $15 wages to fast food prices

Once crunched, the data gave a new look at the effect of a large minimum-wage hike on businesses and employees.

“We found existing minimum-wage employees benefit from minimum-wage increases,” Gopalan says. “Their wages go up, and they are no more likely to lose their jobs as compared to their counterparts in adjacent states. But following state minimum-wage hikes, companies are reluctant to hire new low-wage employees. In the one year following the wage hike, they increase the proportion of higher-wage (read: higher-skilled) employees and reduce the proportion of low-wage employees.”

The effects, while slight, were most pronounced in establishments such as administrative and support services, finance, hotels and food, and manufacturing industries.

Low wages cost taxpayers $153 billion a year

“For example, our estimates indicate that when Massachusetts enacted a 10-percent increase in the minimum wage, there was a decrease in low-wage workers of 1.6 percent at the average establishment relative to establishments in the neighboring control states,” Gopalan says.

“In California, with the same 10-percent minimum-wage increase, we saw a 1.2 percent decline in low-wage workers.”

According to Gopalan, these new findings can be of benefit to states and cities making decisions regarding minimum-wage policy.

“States and cities really need to take a look at what the employee composition is,” Gopalan says. “Are they a growing area where a lot of low-wage employees are entering the labor force? Or do they have existing employees but not a whole rush of new employees coming in? Optimal policy will differ based on these factors.

“For an area experiencing fast growth, having a high minimum wage will be a bad deal for the new entrants as they might have a tougher time finding a job,” Gopalan says. “On the other hand, if you’re in an area whose population is not growing very fast, then raising the minimum wage will definitely benefit your existing low-wage employees, and the number of new employees who are hurt will be a minimum. Optimal policy will also depend on the industry composition of the establishments in the local economy.”

Gopalan says the next step is to further analyze other long-term benefit variables linked to higher minimum wage, including employees’ debt load and credit scores.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Cannabis compound shows promise for severe epilepsy

Fri, 2017-05-26 07:51

For the first time, a form of medicinal cannabis has been shown to reduce—and even stop—seizures in some children with a severe form of epilepsy.

The children suffer from Dravet syndrome, a severe epilepsy that begins in infancy with drug-resistant seizures and a high mortality rate.

The seizures of five percent of the children stopped after they were treated with cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive form of cannabis. Overall, 43 percent of children with the syndrome had a 50 percent reduction in seizure frequency.

“If you can render any child or adult seizure free, that’s huge.”

Known as CBD, cannabidiol is a natural compound found in cannabis seeds, stalks, and flowers that does not have the psychoactive properties of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

“It’s the first scientific evidence that cannabidiol works,” says Ingrid Scheffer, professor of pediatric neurology at the University of Melbourne. “There have been anecdotal reports in the past, and people with firm beliefs that it works in epilepsy, but this is the first time it’s been proven.”

Something (not emotion) links epilepsy and religion

For the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 120 children and young adults across the US and Europe received cannabidiol or a placebo, in addition to standard anti-epileptic treatment. The research took place as part of the Cannabidiol in Dravet Syndrome Study Group, and was a randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled trial.

Researchers measured seizure frequency over a 14-week treatment period. The findings show that the average frequency of convulsive seizures per month decreased from 12.4 to 5.9 among those children on cannabidiol, compared with a decrease from 14.9 to 14.1 among those on the placebo.

“I am delighted that we finally have high-level evidence that cannabidiol is effective for uncontrolled seizures in Dravet syndrome,” Scheffer says.

“If you can render any child or adult seizure free, that’s huge. It could contribute to stopping any further deterioration, or help development in a positive sense.”

Researchers asked caregivers to fill out the Global Impression of Change questionnaire—a seven-category system rating the scale of change in a patient. The results show that the patient’s overall condition improved by at least one category in 62 percent of the cannabidiol group, compared with only 34 percent of the placebo group.

Although the frequency of total seizures of all types was significantly reduced with cannabidiol, there was no significant reduction in non-convulsive seizures. But five percent of patients taking cannabidiol became seizure-free, compared with none of the placebo group.

“Sadly this is not a panacea, it’s not going to cure these children. But it does give cause to be optimistic…”

“Many people who take part in trials like this are desperate to try something new. They’ve exhausted other options,” Scheffer says. “Five percent seizure-free is not 100 percent or 75 percent, but it’s reassuring to see that improvement. For these 5 percent of kids in the trial, it’s huge.

“Sadly this is not a panacea; it’s not going to cure these children. But it does give cause to be optimistic about further research for its use. It also raises a lot of questions, not just in terms of the treatment of epilepsy, but where else it could be applied medicinally. Cannabidiol is likely to be an important addition to our group of anti-epileptic tools.

Gene network is a new target for epilepsy treatments

There is a downside to the findings: side effects were more frequent in the cannabidiol group,  including diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, decreased appetite, increased body temperature, drowsiness. and abnormal liver-function tests.

Worldwide, it’s estimated that around 1 percent of the population has epilepsy—about 65 million people globally. Dravet syndrome is a rare, catastrophic, lifelong form of epilepsy that begins in infancy. Previously known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI), it affects around 1 in almost 16,000 people.

Current treatment options are limited, and the associated seizures are particularly difficult because they are frequent, unpredictable, life-threatening, and not controlled by many anti-epileptic drugs.

“The next question is whether cannabidiol is effective in other forms of epilepsy,” Scheffer says. “It is great that there are trials already underway of cannabidiol in other groups of patients with epilepsy.”

Source: University of Melbourne

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For creating jobs, spending on schools beats military

Thu, 2017-05-25 14:06

Government spending on the military yields fewer jobs, dollar for dollar, than spending on domestic programs such as health care, energy, infrastructure, and education, according to new a new study.

The study documents how many jobs are created in a variety of domestic sectors for every million dollars of federal money spent. Economist Heidi Garrett-Peltier compared that to the number of jobs created for every $1 million spent on defense and found that domestic spending outpaces military spending in job creation by 21 percent (for wind energy development) to 178 percent (for elementary and secondary education).

“How our tax dollars are spent should reflect our priorities…”

“The US has a bloated military budget, and one of the reasons it has historically remained outsized is that defense spending creates jobs, both in the military and in the industries that supply goods and services to the armed forces,” says Garrett-Peltier, an assistant research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

(Credit: Brown University)

“But when we compare federal spending on defense to the alternatives, such as health care, education, clean energy, or infrastructure, we find that all of these areas create more jobs than an equivalent amount of military spending,” she adds.

Input-Output model

Strikingly, Garrett-Peltier found that investments in elementary and secondary education create nearly three times as many American jobs as defense spending, while health care creates about twice as many jobs. Whereas $1 million spent on defense creates 6.9 direct and indirect jobs, the same amount spent on elementary and secondary education creates 19.2 jobs. $1 million spent on healthcare creates 14.3 jobs.

She used an economic model called an Input-Output (I-O) model to analyze how many jobs are created for every $1 million in spending, drawing on information from the US Economic Census, Internal Revenue Service tax documents, the US Bureau of Labor statistics, US Bureau of Economic Analysis data, and other sources.

“I-O models estimate the various components of the supply chain or the inputs that go into producing any good or service,” Garrett-Peltier writes in the study. “They also show the outputs, where each industry sells its goods or services to various categories of customers.”

“By using an I-O model, we can estimate both the direct and indirect jobs associated with any type of spending,” Garrett-Peltier continues. “For example, with military spending, the direct jobs are those created in the Department of Defense whereas the indirect jobs are created in manufacturing, transportation, IT, and other industries that supply goods and services to the military. Similarly, in education, the direct jobs are those for teachers, principals and office staff; the indirect jobs are in industries such as textbook publication, furniture manufacturing, electric utilities, and so on.”

That snapshot helps explain why domestic spending creates more American jobs, she notes. First, some of the jobs created by defense spending “leak” overseas, whereas construction or nursing jobs created by investing in infrastructure or health care are created, and remain, in the United States.

Second, the labor intensity involved in domestic spending is greater than defense spending. Whereas the military is more dependent on equipment, and funds allocated might go to products, Garrett-Peltier says, education requires people, like teachers, aides, principals, and others.

‘Reflect our priorities’

The data show that the Trump administration’s proposal to increase military spending by $54 billion would create fewer jobs than equivalent spending on health care, education, clean energy, or infrastructure, Garrett-Peltier says, and would offer less economic benefit to the nation.

“This report is especially important in helping put fact and public interest rather than myth or self-interest at the center of discussions of the Trump administration’s plan for vastly increased military spending,” says Catherine Lutz, codirector of the Costs of War Project and professor of international studies at Brown University.

“How our tax dollars are spent should reflect our priorities,” Garrett-Peltier says. “We can have a healthier, more educated population living in a cleaner environment at the same time that we can create more jobs. Looking at the $230 billion per year that the US has been spending on strictly war-related purposes since 2001, we could have created up to 3 million more jobs if we had spent these funds on various domestic priorities rather than war.”

Source: Brown University

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‘Competence’ gets kids past traumas like hurricanes

Thu, 2017-05-25 13:24

How children respond after mass traumatic events relates to their perceptions of competence—or how they view their ability to control a situation, new research suggests.

Researchers evaluated perceptions of competence and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in children and teens exposed to hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They found that children with higher levels of competence were overall more resilient and had fewer PTSD symptoms.

However, researchers found that competence and well-being declined for older youth, specifically between the ages of 8 to 12, following the oil spill. The findings do not explain why this is the case, says Carl Weems, professor and chair of human development and family studies at Iowa State University.

Weems and colleagues suspect older youth had a greater awareness, compared to younger children, of the oil spill’s impact on their family and community, which affected their well-being.

The damage from Hurricane Katrina was extensive and felt by everyone, regardless of age, says Weems, who lived in New Orleans at the time. Researchers characterized Hurricane Katrina as a traumatic event because it posed a direct threat to people’s lives. While the oil spill was devastating, it was different. Not as many lives were at risk and entire neighborhoods were not leveled as a result.

“The oil spill stress involved more family economic hardship. The impact was more subtle than Katrina,” Weems says. “That’s why we think we only saw an impact from the oil spill on older children because they understood what was happening to their family.”

In the paper, published in Applied Development Science, researchers explain that limited awareness of long-term consequences may have made it easier for younger children to rebound from the effect of the oil spill.

Age was not the only factor to influence PTSD symptoms. In the study, girls were more likely to have higher rates of PTSD symptoms following disasters. Weems says this highlights the importance of interventions to promote competence and well-being among girls.

No pros needed for children’s talk therapy?

Researchers analyzed data from youth in five parishes or counties in the Gulf Region directly affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, and the oil spill. More than 3,300 youth—55 percent girls—between the ages of 8 and 18 were included in the study. Researchers had access to youth screenings and data collected prior to and after all three disasters.

Perceptions of competence and well-being were assessed through questions about the participants’ relationships with their parents and friends, their ability to solve problems or respond in emergencies and control actions, as well as how they feel about life. Researchers used surveys to measure symptoms of PTSD, and hurricane and oil spill exposure.

Whether it is a terrorist attack, hurricane, tornado, or wildfire, a natural disaster can profoundly affect a community with little warning. Weems says understanding how children respond to these situations can help researchers build appropriate interventions. Helping children face their fears and develop coping mechanisms to deal with those fears can improve resiliency.

Facing their fears

In previous studies, Weems and his colleagues surprisingly found kids who experienced Katrina had stable PTSD before Gustav, but a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms after hurricane Gustav, which occurred three years later. Part of the reason why may be related to the successful evacuations and the fact few lives were lost during Gustav as a result, Weems says. In a way, Gustav made them face their fear.

Weems explains that cognitive behavior therapy is based on this principle of facing your fears through “exposure” to similar events or situations, and is an effective intervention for youth experiencing difficulty after trauma. It teaches youth that they have the competence to cope.

“We think Gustav may have provided a large scale, relatively more positive exposure for many, because people evacuated and the negative effects were less compared to Katrina. This helped children to develop a sense of competence and self-efficacy,” Weems says.

Do children inherit grit when parents survive trauma?

“When intervening after a disaster—whether it’s a hurricane or a tornado—you want to help kids actively cope and not avoid dealing with the situation or their feelings about it. By helping them develop their own sense of competence and well-being in dealing with bad things, you’ll develop more resilient children and prevent long-lasting problems.”

Weems cautions against pushing children too far, but helping them face their fears in a safe way. He recommends cognitive behavior therapy for youth with more serious difficulties following a traumatic event or natural disaster.

Turn off the TV

Previous work by Weems and colleagues found that children watching Gustav-related TV coverage was associated with their PTSD symptoms post-Gustav. Subsequent analyses revealed the relationship between TV viewing and post-Gustav symptoms of PTSD was significant only for children who had high levels prior to the hurricane. Parents of children with anxiety disorders such as PTSD should recognize the potential effects of media, Weems says.

“Parents don’t necessarily need to keep their kids from watching the coverage, but it is best that they’re not glued to the TV,” he says. “Parents should limit viewing and process the information with their kids.”

Source: Iowa State University

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‘Calming’ meditation can feel super stressful

Thu, 2017-05-25 10:36

Meditation is marketed as a treatment for pain, depression, stress, and addiction, but it can leave some people more distressed than at peace.

“Many effects of meditation are well known, like increased awareness of thoughts and emotions, or improved calm and well-being,” says study lead author Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor at Brown University’s Cogut Center for the Humanities.

“But there is a much broader range of possible experiences. Exactly what those experiences are, how they affect individuals, and which ones show up as difficult is going to be based on a range of personal, interpersonal, and contextual factors.”

Researchers sought out “challenging” experiences because they are underrepresented in the scientific literature. With that goal, the study, published in PLOS ONE, was not designed to estimate how common those experiences are among all meditators.

Instead the purpose was to provide detailed descriptions of experiences and to start to understand the multiple ways they are interpreted, why they might happen, and what meditators and teachers do to deal with them.

Though rare in the scientific literature, the broader range of effects including meditation-related difficulties have been documented in Buddhist traditions. For example, Tibetans refer to a wide range of experiences—some blissful but some painful or disturbing—as “nyams.” Zen Buddhists use the term “makyō” to refer to certain perceptual disturbances.

“While the positive effects have made the transition from Buddhist texts and traditions to contemporary clinical applications, the use of meditation for health and well-being has obscured the wider range of experiences and purposes traditionally associated with Buddhist meditation,” Lindahl says.

To understand the range of experiences encountered among Western Buddhists practicing meditation, researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan. Each interview told a story, which the researchers meticulously coded and analyzed using qualitative research methodology.

The researchers also employed standardized causality assessment methods that agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration use to ensure that meditation likely played a causal role in the experiences they documented.

Seven domains

Based upon the interviews, the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organized into seven types, or “domains”: cognitive, perceptual, affective (i.e. emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (i.e. motivation or will), sense of self and social. They also identified another 26 categories of “influencing factors” or conditions that may impact the intensity, duration or associated distress or impairment.

All meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences from across the seven domains of experience. For example, a commonly reported challenging experience in the perceptual domain was hypersensitivity to light or sound, while somatic changes such as insomnia or involuntary body movements were also reported. Challenging emotional experiences could include fear, anxiety, panic, or a loss of emotions altogether.

Further, the duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, says Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior.

Sometimes experiences were ostensibly desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others, but some meditators reported them going too far, lasting too long or feeling violated, exposed, or disoriented. Others who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.

“This is a good example of how a contextual factor can affect associated distress and functioning,” Lindahl says. “An experience that is positive and desirable in one situation may become a burden in another.”

Exercise + meditation rein in negative thoughts

Moreover, in some cases, an experience that some meditators reported as challenging, others reported as positive. To understand why this was the case, the researchers also aimed to determine the “influencing factors” that affect the desirability, intensity, duration, and impact of a given experience.

“Each meditator had their own unique story.”

The researchers documented four main domains of influencing factors: practitioner-related (i.e. the meditator’s personal attributes), practice-related (such as how they meditated), relationships (interpersonal factors), and health behaviors (such as diet, sleep, or exercise). For example, a meditator’s relationship with the instructor was for some people a source of support and for others a source of distress.

While many teachers cited the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history or trauma history, and quality of supervision as important, these factors appeared to play a role only for some meditators. In many cases, challenging experiences could not be attributed to just those factors.

“The results also challenge other common causal attributions, such as the assumption that meditation-related difficulties only happen to individuals with a pre-existing condition (psychiatric or trauma history), who are on long or intensive retreats, who are poorly supervised, who are practicing incorrectly, or who have inadequate preparation.”

You’re not the only one

The influencing factors are testable hypotheses,” not conclusive causes, the researchers say. Future studies could investigate whether certain types of practice are associated with different kinds of challenging experiences, or whether the degree of perceived social support influences the duration of distress and impairment.

“It is likely that an interaction of multiple factors is at play,” Lindahl says. “Each meditator had their own unique story.”

Meditation calms, even if you’re not mindful

It’s important to acknowledge that this study represents an initial step in a much longer discussion and investigation, Britton says. “The take-home message is that meditation-related challenges are a topic worthy of further investigation, but there is still a lot more to understand.”

If future research can uncover why challenging experiences arise, then meditators and teachers might be in a better position to manage them, the authors write.

But even before that, they hope people will recognize that adverse experiences are not necessarily unique to them or their fault. When meditation is often discussed as producing only positive results, meditators can feel stigmatized and isolated if they experience a problem.

“During the interviews, some people learned for the first time that they are not completely alone in having had this experience,” Lindahl says. “The social awareness we think this project can raise could be a key way of addressing some of the problems.”

One of the remedies people cited for dealing with problems was simply having someone they could talk to who was familiar with challenging meditation experiences.

“Our long-term hope is that this research, and the research that follows, can be used by the meditation community to create support systems for the full range of meditation-related experiences,” Britton says. “Really, the first step is acknowledging the diversity of experiences that different people can have.”

Other researchers from Brown University and from University of California, Santa Barbara, are coauthors of the study. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, the Bial Foundation, the Mind and Life Institute, and the 1440 Foundation funded the work.

Source: Brown University

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Light drinking might not be so good for your health

Thu, 2017-05-25 10:25

The benefits of light drinking—and the risks of not drinking at all—might not be as great as once thought, report researchers.

The researchers analyzed information about more than 9,000 people across England, Scotland, and Wales born in 1958 who are participating in the longitudinal National Child Development Study. The study, based at the University College London Centre for Longitudinal Studies, tracked changes in people’s drinking and cigarette smoking habits from age 23 to 55, and linked these changes to mental and physical health.

About one third of men and women who reported drinking at the light-to-moderate level were very unlikely to smoke. While this group of light drinkers and non-smokers enjoyed the best health and quality of life in middle age, three other groups experienced more health problems. These groups were those who drank lightly to moderately but also smoked; those who both drank more heavily and smoked; and those who refrained from drinking alcohol or reduced their drinking over time.

Six drinks a week

Light-to-moderate drinkers were defined as adults who consumed no more than 14 units of alcohol, which is equivalent to roughly six pints of beer or six medium-sized glasses of wine per week. This is the current maximum recommended for men and women by the United Kingdom’s Department of Health, according to Jeremy Staff, professor of criminology and sociology at Penn State and the study’s lead author.

Pea-size brain structure may make beer cravings

While the supposed benefits of moderate drinking have been widely reported in the media, many reports have failed to take into account other risk factors. For example, light-to-moderate drinkers suffered poor health in midlife if they were former smokers or still had the occasional cigarette. This may be due to a direct effect of smoking or because of other lifestyle-related risks, such as lack of exercise or obesity. Many midlife abstainers also began their adult life in poorer physical or mental health than peers who had completely abstained from alcohol.

Abstainers and forgetters

“Alcohol abstainers are a diverse group. They include former heavy drinkers who quit due to problems with alcohol, as well as those who quit drinking due to poor health, and not just lifetime abstainers,” says Staff. “Medical professionals and public health officials should be wary of drawing conclusions about the so-called ‘dangers’ of never drinking without more robust evidence.”

About 1-in-5 members of 55-year-olds who said they had never drunk alcohol in their lives had previously reported drinking when they were younger. This suggests that those who drink very little may tend to misremember or under-report previous drinking habits. When studies include this group as lifetime abstainers, apparent “harms” of abstaining may be overestimated, say the researchers.

While modest drinking habits also have been linked with higher levels of education, those with few or no educational qualifications were also among those who did not drink or drank modestly. On the other hand, men and women with the highest educational qualifications at age 23 were more likely than their peers to drink at light-to-moderate rates throughout their adult lives, and were unlikely to smoke.

‘The real factors’

Jennifer Maggs, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and another of the study’s authors, adds, “Evidence continues to grow that alcohol has many health risks, including for cancer. Therefore, it is dangerous to report only benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Drinking habits are also shaped by our education, health earlier in life, and related lifestyle factors including smoking.

Only 13% of Brits link alcohol to cancer

“These other influences may be the real factors underlying the connection between drinking and midlife health.”

According to Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance in the UK, “This study provides yet more evidence that any benefits associated with drinking alcohol are smaller than previously thought. The most effective ways to reduce harms associated with alcohol consumption are to introduce pricing measures linked to alcohol sales, and enable more informed choices through public education efforts and mandatory labeling of alcohol products.”

This research appears in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Funding came from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to the Prevention Research Center at Penn State.

Source: Penn State

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Listen: What’s it like to be Muslim in America today?

Thu, 2017-05-25 10:13

Ahmed Ahmed is an American-Muslim comedian who was typecast as a terrorist. Khalid Latif is a Muslim chaplain for the New York Police Department who garnered salutes in uniform, but harassment as a civilian. Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins fought Islamophobia with doughnuts and conversation.

There are as many different stories about being Muslim in the United States as there are Muslims.

This episode of Duke University’s Ways and Means podcast focuses on stories from some American Muslims. The episode also explores how hyper-vigilance about the possible threat of Muslim-American violence might be making all Americans less safe.

Guests include Evelyn Alsultany of the Arab and Muslim American Studies program at the University of Michigan and Sanford School of Public Policy faculty member David Schanzer, author of two new studies, one on violent extremism and another on community policing.

Videos from the “Secret Life of Muslims” series are available here.

Source: Duke University

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Why city planners should make water a top priority

Thu, 2017-05-25 08:12

Many cities are now pushing reinvestments in the urban core, prompting people to live, eat, and play in walkable city centers.

Unlike in the past, cities today have challenges associated with adequately housing greater numbers of people while balancing scarce and threatened natural resources. In particular, cities must meet demands around public transit, water, infrastructure improvements, and even open, community spaces.

And in some ways, the most rapidly growing cities and regions—Phoenix, Denver, and Seattle, and cities such as Portland and Salt Lake City on the Forbes 2017 list of America’s fastest-growing cities—already are overextended, says Philip A. Stoker, assistant professor in the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture at the University of Arizona.

For example, the Denver Regional Council of Governments reports that, by 2040, the city will likely see rush-hour traffic extended by hours, adding risk for traffic backups and collisions. In San Diego, renting and buying have become increasingly difficult, contributing to the region’s growing homelessness problem. San Francisco historically has experienced limited space, high congestion, and housing costs at about three times the national average.

4 ways to include social equity in urban planning

In response, cities have begun to adopt more mixed-use development, where single buildings or blocks contain not only housing, but also restaurants, grocery stores, cultural centers and the like. Also, some are placing a greater emphasis on walkability, which carries financial, environmental, health-related, and social benefits.

Stoker works to best integrate land-use planning with the management of natural resources—with a specific focus on water.

“The importance of the environment on our economy, social well-being, and humanity cannot be overstated,” he says.

Stoker and researchers from the University of Utah created a typology of urban neighborhoods that share distinctive combinations of natural, built, and social structures expected to shape water system dynamics. Typology isn’t usually part of urban planning, but the data can help planners create water systems that encourage social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Stoker, coauthor of a new study in the journal Science of the Total Environment, discusses the future of cities in the face of changes in climate and environment.

Source: University of Arizona

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‘Enzyme mimic’ could clean dirty laundry or destroy sarin gas

Wed, 2017-05-24 20:24

Scientists have created a material that functions similarly to naturally occurring enzymes and could have a wide variety of potential applications from cleaning products to disposal of chemical weapons.

“Without exaggeration, enzymes are probably the most important class of molecules that underpin life,” says chemical engineer Mitchell Nothling of the University of Melbourne.

“They’re nature’s catalysts—they speed up the reactions that make life possible.”

These powerful proteins rule much of life’s processes—everything from the conversion of sunlight into energy in plants, to our immune systems.

As reported in the journal Chem, a team has manufactured enzymes mimics that can solve all sorts of problems—from the everyday ones, like boosting the efficiency of cold water laundry powders, to the complex and dangerous, such as neutralizing poison gas.

The power of enzymes

Enzymes are finely calibrated by nature to function within a narrow operating range, such as temperature, which makes it difficult to adapt them for industrial use.

“The issue with enzymes is their low stability,” says Nothling. “We wanted to develop new materials that perform like enzymes, speeding up industrially useful reactions, while being more robust, so they can be used in a wider range of environments.”

The research team modeled their enzyme mimic on the catalytic triad, a well-studied functional core of many digestive enzymes commonly used in detergents.

“We targeted the active site from the enzyme,” explains team leader Luke Connal, “as this is the actual component of the enzyme that controls the reactions we’re interested in. It’s the ‘mouth’ of the enzyme, the bit that chews up substances.”

They removed the “mouth” from the 3D structure of the enzyme and replicated it using a mix of readily available materials that can be used on an industrial scale.

“We use quite simple chemistry, mixing an amino acid and an epoxide at room temperature to replicate the active site in a straightforward way,” says Connal. “Then we used a spectrophotometer to measure how quickly it works.”

3D pictures show how enzymes create antibiotics

The team used a model structure in place of a stain to check the effectiveness of the enzyme mimic as a better performing cold water detergent.

“As the enzyme mimic goes to work, the model produces a characteristic yellow color, highlighting how well our new materials are working,” says Connal.

Just the beginning

Researchers were delighted with the efficiency of the enzyme mimic and have shared the results with Unilever, who helped fund the study, which means more efficient cold washes may now be just around the corner.

But these results are just the beginning for Connal and his team. The potential applications for enzyme mimics are vast.

The team are already working with the US Army on the early stages of a project to help safely neutralize and dispose of sarin gas—a nerve agent used in chemical warfare, most recently in the Syrian civil war.

“It’s very early days, but potentially enzyme mimics could be used to decontaminate large pieces of machinery, like tanks, after sarin exposure,” says Connal.

“They could also be used to help dispose of stockpiled chemical weapons safely—currently the only way to destroy them is by burning them.” Other potential applications include the development of antibacterial surfaces, and more efficient biodiesel.

How enzymes braved the cold a billion years ago

“Our job in the lab is to work on making the technology better, faster, and cheaper,” says Nothling.

“We’ll probably never be able to build an enzyme mimic that works as efficiently as those in nature,” he says. “But there’s lots of scope for what we can build—and what they can do.”

The research team included collaborators at the Australian National University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Source: University of Melbourne

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Despite ‘friends’ like Alexa and Siri, we’re still lonely

Wed, 2017-05-24 20:11

Despite the increasing popularity of humanized products like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and iRobot’s pet-like Roomba vacuum, people have never reported feeling more alone or isolated.

This raises an interesting question: are these anthropomorphic products capable of fulfilling social needs typically fulfilled by interacting with actual people—and if so—at what cost?

To tackle the question, researchers conducted four experiments and found evidence consistent with the phenomenon.

Consumers…should know that this kind of interaction may thwart their motivation to engage with real people.

“Socially excluded people responded to exclusion in the predicted ways such as exaggerating the number of Facebook friends they have unless given the opportunity to interact with an anthropomorphic product,” says Carolyn Yoon, professor of marketing at the University of Michigan.

Researchers created the feeling of exclusion during the studies in a variety of ways, including having participants write about an important time they were excluded (“My date stood me up for prom”) and an online game of catch in which the ball stops being tossed to the participants after a few initial tosses.

The participants then had the opportunity to interact with anthropomorphic products such as their cell phone and a Roomba, which has a design that makes it seem like it’s smiling.

“People often name their cars or treat their Roomba like it is a pet, even referring to the vacuum as a ‘him’ or ‘he,'” says James Mourey, assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University and a former doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “What we find is that these anthropomorphic products can fulfill social assurance needs in the way that genuine, interpersonal interaction often does. But there are limits.”

While anthropomorphic products can fulfill social assurance needs, simply reminding individuals that these products are not actually alive makes the effect go away.

The findings have important implications for product design and interactivity, particularly in a time of increasing anthropomorphization of consumer products, researchers say.

People over 80 who use technology feel healthier

Although consumers appreciate the ability to interact with their products as if the products were alive, they should know that this kind of interaction may thwart their motivation to engage with real people. This is particularly relevant in light of the increasing levels of reported loneliness.

Product designers may want to consider the potential benefits and harmful consequences of making consumer products, or avatars in service-oriented industries, that more closely emulate human interaction, researchers say.

“Right now, there is a limit to the extent to which anthropomorphic products can fulfill social needs, but it is possible that this limit will no longer apply the more realistic and engaging consumer products become,” says Jenny Olson, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Kansas and former student at the Ross School.

Do toys that ‘listen’ steal children’s privacy?

Knowing that anthropomorphic products and humans can both affect social needs, there may be possibilities to design products that increase the well-being of lonely individuals or that complement human interaction—say anthropomorphic health monitors and real nurses in the case of hospital care—to glean the benefits of such products without detrimental consequences on important, genuine interpersonal interaction.

The findings appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Source: University of Michigan

The post Despite ‘friends’ like Alexa and Siri, we’re still lonely appeared first on Futurity.

These factors may determine our go-to emojis

Wed, 2017-05-24 19:34

Many different factors influence our choice of emoji when sending messages online or via smartphone text, including their popularity, perceived semantic meaning, and location on the smartphone touch keyboard, a new study finds.

Emojis are those cute little symbols that help us express many thoughts or emotions graphically, with a simple keystroke. And while their use in everyday communication has become second nature to many across the world, most of us have very specific preferences for what we pick.

“Nonverbal symbols in online communication [have] shown their power ever since the first emoticon ‘:)'”

Researchers examined the emoji use of one million users through more than 1.2 billion messages. Doctoral student Wei Ai and colleagues analyzed the relationship of the symbols to words, to measure emoji semantics, and to figure out what makes some symbols more popular than others. More than 9 percent of the messages the team analyzed contained at least one emoji.

“The popularity of emojis is linked to their semantic meanings,” says Ai, a graduate student research assistant on a University of Michigan team that conducts research related to data mining, machine learning, and information retrieval.

“Emojis with meanings close to popular words are more likely to be used. Emojis with clear and less ambiguous meanings are more likely to be used, and they provide good substitutes to their word counterparts,” he adds.

The Kika Emoji keyboard that was used to collect the data in 2015 contained nearly 1,300 emojis, the majority of which saw little action. Users find several favorites—our go-to symbols—among the spectrum of emojis, many of which seem to say similar things.

“We found that the popularity of emojis are really affected by multiple factors related to the semantics. It is likely that although those emojis look similar, people don’t interpret them similarly. It may also be because some emojis are less ambiguous, or better substitutes for their word counterparts,” Ai says.

“There are likely other factors that are not related to the meaning, such as where they are located on the emoji keyboard or simply a rich-get-richer phenomenon.”

In other words, the popularity of a choice causes others to adopt that same choice.

People around the world use these emojis the most

The method the researchers used in their study allowed them to find semantic meaning by examining a symbol’s neighbors.

“A smart algorithm can analyze the big data of user messages that contain emojis and map the emojis and words into a space where those with similar semantic meanings are close,” Ai says. “In such a space, the meaning and sentiment of an emoji can be inferred from those of its closest neighbors.”

To illustrate this, the researchers created a 3D visualization of the semantic space. An example of how symbols cluster according to the meaning assigned by users rather than by the artwork is illustrated by

Clues say ancient people lingered along Peru’s coast

Wed, 2017-05-24 14:56

New excavations at two exceptionally well-preserved Ice Age sites on the northern coast of Peru provide a rich record of the lives of some of the earliest humans to populate the Western Hemisphere.

The findings, published today in Science Advances, suggest a more leisurely pace of migration down some stretches of the Pacific coast of South America than originally believed.

The finds include stone tools, remains of plants and marine animals including fish and sea lions, and bits of woven rushes. Put together, they indicate that late-Ice Age and early-Holocene humans, though typically very mobile at that time, were well established in the area for several thousand years.

“It may be that we’ve captured, archeologically, an instance where people just did not move quickly down the coastline but rather settled in for a good long while,” says lead author Tom Dillehay, professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University.

A well-preserved mat fragment made of rush stalks. (Credit: Tom Dillehay) Under the mounds

The excavated sites are sealed and covered by two ritual mounds called Huaca Prieta and Paredones and are located on the Sangamon Terrace, a raised flat, natural platform of land about 1.5 miles long and 15 kilometers west of the Andes.

The mounds are about 7,500 years old, but Dillehay’s team found that an earlier wave of humans had made the terrace their home long before the mound-builders did, arriving at least 15,000 years ago and occupying the area until about 9,000 years ago. This fits with the timeline of other sites being discovered along the Pacific coast of both North and South America, reinforcing the theory that one of the ways humans migrated into the Americas was to follow the coast.

Today the Sangamon Terrace sits right on the shoreline, but during the Ice Age, before the glaciers melted, the sea level was much lower and the shore further away—about 15 kilometers to the west.

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Second author Steven Goodbred, professor of earth and environmental sciences, used NOAA water depth data and historic sea level data to reconstruct the ancient shoreline. “We wanted to see how far Huaca Prieta was from the shore 10,000 to 15,000 years ago to see if it made sense for these people to be using marine resources,” he says. “And it did.”

Huaca Prieta was located just at the point where the ancient shoreline was closest to the mountains, which would have been connected by a verdant river valley that led to shallow wetlands and coastal lagoons where people could hunt and fish.

Huaca Prieta excavation.
(Credit: Tom Dillehay) Food and tools

Thanks to the region’s arid climate, organic remains were especially well preserved. Dillehay’s team discovered that they had a rich, varied diet of marine life from the shoreline and wetlands to the west and wild plants native to the foothills to the east. There were also a few remains of deer and birds from the mountain forests, also to the east, but these appear to have been eaten less frequently.

The marine life included fish, shellfish, sea birds, and sea lions. No evidence was found of fishhooks, harpoons, or bifacial stone tools, so they were unlikely to have been a seafaring people. Instead, they likely trapped or clubbed marine animals in the wetlands, where they would have washed in with the tide or a storm surge and become stranded.

Land bridge lacked resources for Ice Age people

The plants included avocados, chile peppers, and beans, as well as the rushes used to weave the mats found at the site. The presence of food from both environments suggests the people who lived there traveled back and forth in both directions to hunt and gather and bring the food back home to eat.

Once they had collected their ingredients, they would use simple, unifacial stone tools, usually made to order on the spot, to scrape away scales and cut meat and plants.

Simple unifacial (one-sided) stone tools. (Credit: Tom Dillehay)

It was the presence of the distant plants, as well as the presence of a few stone tools made from non-local materials, that tipped Dillehay off to the possibility that the campsites on the Sangamon Terrace endured longer than usual. Coastal migration is generally thought to have happened relatively quickly, Dillehay says, because the next beach is always easy to find and doesn’t require a lot of lifestyle adaptation. But exploring that far into the interior and becoming familiar with such a wide variety of local marine and terrestrial resources wouldn’t have made a lot of sense if you weren’t planning to stay for very long.

“Our data is indicating that these people pretty intimately knew the different environments of the area, and that takes time, experimentation and knowledge,” he says. The north coast of Peru is incredibly rich in marine life, Dillehay says, which may have made it an appealing place to linger.

Similar lifestyle today

“What’s remarkable is that the lifestyle we describe still exists today,” he says. “There are still fisherfolk who work the seashore and wetlands, still using very similar technologies like knocking off a stone flake from a cobble to scrape the scales off fish. So there’s a continuity of this very rustic coastal adaptation.”

Though far too much time has passed to consider them descendants of those early inhabitants or even describe them as sharing a culture, Dillehay says, the persistence of these survival strategies over so many millennia offers a unique window into humanity’s very distant past.

Local fishers use nets to catch fish and sharks stranded after a storm surge, similar to the way area residents might have 10-15,000 years ago.
(Credit: Tom Dillehay)

Support for the research came from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and Vanderbilt University.

Source: Vanderbilt University

The post Clues say ancient people lingered along Peru’s coast appeared first on Futurity.

Extreme old age linked to new gene variants

Wed, 2017-05-24 13:44

The relatively small number of people older than 100—just one per 5,000 population in developed nations—makes the search for the genetic determinants of extreme longevity challenging.

A new study identifies rare variants in chromosomes 4 and 7 that are associated with extreme survival and with reduced risks for cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases.

The results highlight the importance of studying “truly rare survival, to discover combinations of common and rare variants associated with extreme longevity and longer health span,” researchers write in the Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences.

The research group, led by Paola Sebastiani, professor of biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health, put together four studies—the New England Centenarian Study, the Long Life Family Study, the Southern Italian Centenarian Study, and the Longevity Genes Project—to build a large sample of 2,070 people who survived to the oldest one percentile of survival for the 1900 birth year cohort.

Researchers conducted various analyses to discover longevity-associated variants (LAVs), and to characterize those LAVs that differentiated survival to extreme age.

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Their analysis identified new “extreme longevity-promoting variants” on chromosomes 4 and 7, while also confirming variants (SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms) previously associated with longevity.

In addition, in two of the datasets where researchers had age-of-onset data for age-related diseases, they found that certain longevity alleles also were significantly associated with reduced risks for cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

“The data and survival analysis provide support for the hypothesis that the genetic makeup of extreme longevity is based on a combination of common and rare variants, with common variants that create the background to survive to relatively common old ages (e.g., into the 80s and 90s), and specific combinations of uncommon and rare variants that add an additional survival advantage to even older ages,” the authors write.

However, while the “yield of discovery” in the study was more substantial than in prior genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of extreme longevity, it remained disappointing, in that the two most significant genotypes discovered “are carried by a very small proportion of the cases included in the analysis,” meaning that much of the genetic variability around extreme lifespan remains unexplained.

“We expect that many more uncommon genetic variants remain to be discovered through sequencing of centenarian samples,” they write. “Larger sample sizes are needed to detect association of rare variants…and therefore promising associations that miss the threshold for genome-wide significance are important to discuss.”

The National Institute on Aging, the National Heart Lung Blood Institute, and the William Wood Foundation funded the work.

Source: Boston University

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