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The way roaches run could teach robots a thing or two

Fri, 2019-08-23 14:58

A cleverly simple method to assess and improve locomotion in robots gets its inspiration from the superb scurrying skills of cockroaches.

Normally, understanding how insects’ or robots’ moving parts coordinate smoothly to take them places requires tedious modeling of mechanics, electronics, and information science. But in a new study, biomechanics researchers boiled down the sprints of cockroaches to handy principles and equations they then used to make a test robot amble about better.

The method told the researchers about how each leg operates on its own, how they all come together as a whole, and the harmony or lack thereof in how they do it. Despite bugs’ and bots’ utterly divergent motion dynamics, the new method worked for both and should work for other robots and animals, too.

The robot researchers used in the experiment was a Minitaur brand machine with legs. (Credit: Izaak Neveln/Georgia Tech)

The biological robot, the roach, was the far superior runner with neurological signals guiding six impeccably evolved legs. The mechanical robot, a consumer model, had four stubby legs and no nervous system but relied instead for locomotion control on coarse physical forces traveling through its chassis as crude signals to roughly coordinate its clunky gait.

“The robot was much bulkier and could hardly sense its environment. The cockroach had many senses and can adapt better to rough terrain. Bumps as high as its hips wouldn’t slow it down at all,” says first author Izaak Neveln, who was a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Simon Sponberg, an assistant professor in the School of Physics and in the School of Biological Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, during the study.

A universal method

The method, or “measure,” as the study calls it, transcended these huge differences, which pervade animal-inspired robotics.

“The measure is general (universal) in the sense that it can be used regardless of whether the signals are neural spiking patterns, kinematics, voltages, or forces and does not depend on the particular relationship between the signals,” the study’s authors write.

No matter how a bug or a bot functions, the measure’s mathematical inputs and outputs are always in the same units. The measure will not always eliminate the need for modeling, but it stands to shorten and guide modeling and avert anguishing missteps.

Why stick bugs move so strangely

Often a bot or an animal sends many walking signals through a central system to harmonize locomotion, but not all signals are centralized. Even in humans, though locomotion strongly depends on signals from the central nervous system, some neural signals are confined to regions of the body; they are localized signals.

Some insects appear to move with little centralization—such as stick bugs, also known as walking sticks, whose legs prod about nearly independently. Stick bugs are wonky runners.

“The idea has been that the stick bugs have the more localized control of motion, whereas a cockroach goes very fast and needs to maintain stability, and its motion control is probably more centralized, more clocklike,” Neveln says.

Strong centralization of signals generally coordinates locomotion better. Centralized signals could be code traveling through an elaborate robot’s wiring, a cockroach’s central neurons synching its legs, or the clunky robot’s chassis tilting away from a leg thumping the ground and putting weight onto an opposing leg.

Roboticists need to see through the differences and figure out the interplay of a locomotor’s local and central signals.

Metronomes and cockroaches

The new “measure” does this by focusing on an overarching phenomenon in the walking legs, which can be seen as pendula moving back and forth. For great locomotion, they need to synch up in what is called phase-coupling oscillations.

A fun, easy experiment illustrates this physics principle. If a few, say six, metronomes—ticking rhythm pendula that piano teachers use—are swinging out of sync, and you place them all on a platform that freely sways along with the metronomes’ swings, the swings will sync up in unison.

The phases, or directions, of their oscillations are coupling with each other by centralizing their composite mechanical impulses through the platform. This particular example of phase-coupling is mechanical, but it can also be computational or neurological—like in the roach.

Its legs would be analogous to the swinging metronomes, and central neuromuscular activity analogous to the free-swaying platform. In the roach, not all six legs swing in the same direction.

“Their synchronization is not uniform. Three legs are synchronized in phase with each other—the front and back legs of one side with the middle leg of the other side—and those three are synchronized out of phase with the other three,” Neveln says. “It’s an alternating tripod gait. One tripod of three legs alternates with the other tripod of three legs.”

Better robot movement

And just like pendula, each leg’s swings can be graphed as a wave. All the legs’ waves can be averaged into an overall roach scurry wave and then developed into more useful math that relates centralization with decentralization and factors like entropy that can throw locomotion control off.

The resulting principles and math benefited the clunky robot, which has strong decentralized signals in its leg motors that react to leg contact with the ground, and centralized control weaker than that of the stick bug. The researchers graphed out the robot’s movements, too, but they didn’t result in the neatly synced group of waves that the cockroach’s produced.

The researchers turned with the principles and math to the clunky robot, which initially was out of sorts—bucking or hopping uselessly like a pogo stick. Then the scientists strengthened centralized control by reweighting its chassis to make it move more coherently.

“The metronomes on the platform are mechanical coupling, and our robot coordinates control that way,” Neveln says. “You can change the mechanical coupling of the robot by repositioning its weights. We were able to predict the changes this would make by using the measure we developed from the cockroach.”

The researchers also wired up specific roach muscles and neurons to observe their syncopations with the scurry waves. Seventeen cockroaches took 2,982 strides to inform the principles and math, and the bugs also sprung surprises on the researchers.

One stuck out: The scientists had thought signaling centralized more when the roach sped up, but instead, both central and local signaling strengthened, perhaps doubling down on the message to run.

The study appears in the journal Nature Communications. The National Science Foundation funded the research. Any findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and not necessarily of the NSF.

Source: Georgia Tech

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Zero-power radiative cooling system sends heat into space

Fri, 2019-08-23 13:43

A new system can help cool buildings in crowded metropolitan areas without consuming electricity, researchers report.

The system consists of a special material—an inexpensive polymer/aluminum film—that’s installed inside a box at the bottom of a specially designed solar “shelter.” The film helps to keep its surroundings cool by absorbing heat from the air inside the box and transmitting that energy through the Earth’s atmosphere into outer space.

The shelter serves a dual purpose, helping to block incoming sunlight, while also beaming thermal radiation emitted from the film into the sky.

Lyu Zhou tests the radiative cooling system. To cool a building, numerous units of such a system would need to cover the roof. (Credit: Douglas Levere/U. Buffalo) Radiative cooling to the rescue

“The polymer stays cool as it dissipates heat through thermal radiation, and can then cool down the environment,” says co-first author Lyu Zhou, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering in the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“This is called radiative or passive cooling, and it’s very interesting because it does not consume electricity—it won’t need a battery or other electricity source to realize cooling.”

“One of the innovations of our system is the ability to purposefully direct thermal emissions toward the sky,” says lead researcher Qiaoqiang Gan, associate professor of electrical engineering.

“Normally, thermal emissions travel in all directions. We have found a way to beam the emissions in a narrow direction. This enables the system to be more effective in urban environments, where there are tall buildings on all sides. We use low-cost, commercially available materials, and find that they perform very well.”

Taken together, the shelter-and-box system the engineers designed measures about 18 inches tall (45.72 centimeters), 10 inches wide, and 10 inches long (25.4 centimeters). To cool a building, numerous units of the system would need to be installed to cover a roof.

Zhou holds an important component of the radiative cooling system: a specially designed solar shelter that helps beam thermal radiation into the sky. (Credit: Douglas Levere/U. Buffalo) Day and night

The new passive cooling system addresses an important problem in the field: How radiative cooling can work during the day and in crowded urban areas.

“During the night, radiative cooling is easy because we don’t have solar input, so thermal emissions just go out and we realize radiative cooling easily,” Song says. “But daytime cooling is a challenge because the sun is shining. In this situation, you need to find strategies to prevent rooftops from heating up. You also need to find emissive materials that don’t absorb solar energy. Our system address these challenges.”

When placed outside during the day, the heat-emanating film and solar shelter helped reduce the temperature of a small, enclosed space by a maximum of about 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit). At night, that figure rose to about 11 degrees Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit).

The new radiative cooling system incorporates a number of optically interesting design features.

One of the central components is the polymer/metal film, which is made from a sheet of aluminum coated with a clear polymer called polydimethylsiloxane. The aluminum reflects sunlight, while the polymer absorbs and dissipates heat from the surrounding air.

Engineers placed the material at the bottom of a foam box and erected a solar “shelter” atop the box, using a solar energy-absorbing material to construct four outward-slanting walls, along with an inverted square cone within those walls.

This architecture serves a dual purpose: First, it helps to sponge up sunlight. Second, the shape of the walls and cone direct heat the film emits toward the sky.

“If you look at the headlight of your car, it has a certain structure that allows it to direct the light in a certain direction,” Gan says. “We follow this kind of a design. The structure of our beam-shaping system increases our access to the sky. The ability to direct the emissions improves the performance of the system in crowded areas.”

The research appears in Nature Sustainability. Additional researchers from the University at Buffalo, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison contributed to the work. Funding for the study came, in part, from the National Science Foundation.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Can color-changing road signs make night driving safer?

Fri, 2019-08-23 13:32

A thin film that reflects light in intriguing ways could lead to road signs that shine brightly and change color at night.

The technology could help call attention to important traffic information when it’s dark, with potential benefits for both drivers and pedestrians, the researchers say.

The film consists of polymer microspheres laid down on the sticky side of a transparent tape. The material’s physical structure leads to an interesting phenomenon: When white light shines on the film at night, some observers will see a single, stable color reflected back, while others will see changing colors. It all depends on the angle of observation and whether the light source is moving.

An image series shows how a new retroreflective material can be used to make a color-changing speed limit sign. Boxes A-F show how the sign changes color, from the perspective of drivers on the road, as they pass by. (Credit: Fan et al./Science Advances)

“You can use this material to make smart traffic signs,” says co-first author Qiaoqiang Gan, an associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University at Buffalo. “If a person is listening to loud music or isn’t paying attention while they’re walking or driving, a color-changing sign can help to better alert them to the traffic situation.”

In one set of experiments, researchers created a speed limit sign with letters and numbers made from the new film. The scientists placed a white light nearby to illuminate the sign, and when a fast-moving car drove past, the color of the characters on the sign appeared to flicker from the perspective of the driver as the driver’s viewing angle changed.

In other tests, the team applied the new material to a series of markers lining the side of a road, denoting the boundary of the driving lane. As a car approached, the markers lit up in bright colors, reflecting light from the vehicle’s headlights.

From the driver’s perspective, the markers’ color remained stable. But to a pedestrian standing at the side of the road, the color of the markers appeared to flicker as the car and its headlights sped past.

“If the car goes faster, the pedestrian will see the color change more quickly, so the sign tells you a lot about what is going on,” says coauthor Haomin Song, an assistant professor of research in electrical engineering.

The research appears in Science Advances. Additional researchers from Fudan University in China and the University at Buffalo contributed to the work. Funding for the study came from the National Key Research and Development Program of China and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Young teen phone use doesn’t damage mental health

Fri, 2019-08-23 13:17

The time adolescents spend on their phones isn’t that bad for their mental health, according to a new study.

The study tracked young adolescents on their smartphones to test whether more time using digital technology was linked to worse mental health outcomes. The researchers found little evidence of longitudinal or daily linkages between digital technology use and adolescent mental health.

“It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health…”

“It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health and start figuring out ways to best support them in both their offline and online lives,” says Candice Odgers, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.

“Contrary to the common belief that smartphones and social media are damaging adolescents’ mental health, we don’t see much support for the idea that time spent on phones and online is associated with increased risk for mental health problems,” says Michaeline Jensen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The study surveyed more than 2,000 youth and then intensively tracked a subsample of nearly 400 teens on their smartphones multiple times a day for two weeks. Adolescents in the study were between 10 and 15 years old and represented the economically and racially diverse population of youth attending North Carolina public schools.

The researchers collected reports of mental health symptoms from the adolescents three times a day and they also reported on their daily technology usage each night. They asked whether youth who engaged more with digital technologies were more likely to experience later mental health symptoms and whether days that adolescents spent more time using digital technology for a wide range of purposes were also days when mental health problems were more common. In both cases, increased digital technology use was not related to worse mental health.

When researchers did observe associations, they were small and in the opposite direction that would be expected given all of the recent concerns about digital technology damaging adolescents’ mental health. For instance, teens who reported sending more text messages over the study period actually reported feeling better (less depressed) than teens who were less frequent texters.

Additional researchers from Purdue University and Penn State contributed to the work. The research appears in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Source: UC Irvine

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How one UTI makes another more likely

Fri, 2019-08-23 13:13

New research may explain how an initial urinary tract infection can lead to subsequent infections.

More than 60% of women will experience urinary tract infections (UTI) at some point in their lives, and about a quarter will get a second such infection within six months, for reasons that have been unclear to health experts.

In mouse studies, the researchers found that a transient infection triggers a short-lived inflammatory response that rapidly eliminates the bacteria. But if the initial infection lingers for weeks, the inflammation also persists, leading to long-lasting changes to the bladder that prime the immune system to overreact the next time bacteria find their way into the urinary tract, worsening the infection.

The findings in eLife, suggest that reversing such changes to the bladder may help prevent or mitigate future UTIs.

White blood cells (small circles) attack infected bladder cells (large circles) in this scanning electron micrograph of a mouse bladder with a bacterial infection. (Credit: Valerie O’Brien)

“Millions of women suffer from recurrent bladder infections, and it can really take a toll on their quality of life,” says co-senior author Thomas J. Hannan, an instructor in pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“In the process of fighting these infections, the immune system sometimes does more harm to the bladder than to the bacteria. If we could fine-tune the immune response to keep the body focused on eliminating infecting bacteria, we might be able to reduce the severity of these infections.”

Urinary tract infections and the immune system

To understand why some people are more prone to severe, recurrent infections than others, the researchers infected a strain of genetically identical mice with E. coli, the most common cause of UTIs in people. The strain can have widely divergent responses to bacterial bladder infections. Some eliminate the bacteria within a few days; others develop chronic infections that last for weeks.

The researchers infected these mice with E. coli, monitored them for signs of infection in their urine for four weeks, and then gave them antibiotics. After giving the mice a month to heal, the researchers infected them again. For comparison, they also infected a separate group of mice for the first time.

All the previously infected mice mounted immune responses more rapidly than the mice infected for the first time. The ones that had cleared the infection on their own the first time around did so again, eliminating the bacteria even faster than before.

The mice that failed to clear the infection the first time did much worse, however, despite the speed of their immune responses. A day after infection, 11 out of 14 had more bacteria in their bladders than they had started with, and many went on to again develop chronic infections that lasted at least four weeks.

One molecule makes the difference

The difference lay in an immune molecule called TNF-alpha that coordinates a powerful inflammatory response to infection, the researchers discovered. Both sets of mice turned on TNF-alpha within six hours of infection. But the mice that controlled the infection turned off TNF-alpha again within 24 hours, allowing the inflammation to resolve. In the mice with prolonged initial infections, TNF-alpha stayed on, driving persistent inflammation and triggering a change to the patterns of gene activity in immune cells and the cells of the bladder wall.

“After a chronic infection, even though the bacteria have been eliminated with antibiotics and the bladder lining has healed, the behavior of cells lining the bladder do not revert back to normal even after the inflammation is finally resolved,” Hannan says.

“The bladder becomes trained to respond to infecting bacteria too harshly, causing tissue damage that predisposes to recurrent infection. So then the question becomes, ‘Can we retrain these bladders to be more predisposed to resolving inflammation quickly?'”

To find out, the researchers took mice that had recovered from initial prolonged UTIs and depleted their TNF-alpha before re-infecting them with bacteria. Without TNF-alpha driving excessive inflammation, the mice fared better, significantly reducing the number of bacteria in their bladders within a day of infection.

The findings suggest that targeting TNF-alpha or another aspect of the inflammatory response that causes bladder tissue damage during acute infection may help prevent or alleviate recurrent UTIs, the researchers say.

“Improving our understanding of this underlying biological process will be essential for developing new therapies that target inflammation as an alternative strategy against rapidly increasing antimicrobial resistance,” Hultgren says.

Support for the work came from the National Institutes of Health; the Office of Research on Women’s Health Specialized Center of Research; the National Institutes of Health Mucosal Immunology Studies Team Consortium; and the National Science Foundation.

Support for the scanning electron microscopy sample preparation and imaging conducted at the Washington University Center for Cellular Imaging came from Washington University School of Medicine, the Children’s Discovery Institute of Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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To improve weather forecasts, AI finds the tricky spots

Fri, 2019-08-23 11:14

Artificial intelligence that pinpoints swift-changing weather areas could result in more accurate weather forecasts.

The weather changes much faster and more violently in some geographic areas than others, which can mean that current weather prediction models may be slow and inefficient.

In a new study, the researchers used an AI model based on natural selection to find areas of the continental United States where temperature changes are harder to predict and variable, so that computational resources can focus there.

The resulting temperature prediction algorithm was equal to or better than the current model, but used less computational power.

Better short-term weather forecasts

The work could lead to a solution to developing more accurate short-term forecasts, one of meteorology’s trickiest problems, says Guido Cervone, a professor of geography, meteorology, and atmospheric science at Penn State associate director of the Institute for CyberScience.

“Our methodology helps focus the available computational resources toward areas that are harder to predict, which in turn should help generate better short-term forecasts,” says Cervone. “Numerical weather prediction is one of the most computationally demanding problems, and its use for society is far-reaching.”

Weiming Hu, a doctoral student in geography, says that the current weather maps are divided up into a simple mesh of about 200,000 grid points in the United States. When weather forecasters use computers to analyze weather patterns in those areas, the computational power is spread equally among those grid points, which each represent about 11 kilometers [7 miles] in diameter. While that might sound like common sense, Hu says the map does not reflect the computational reality of weather prediction. Topography, elevation, the proximity of water, and myriad other factors can disrupt weather patterns, making certain areas much more difficult to predict.

“If you think about Iowa, let’s say, it rarely experiences huge changes in the weather regimes across dozens of kilometers, compared to some other places, because the topography is relatively simple and you can use some very easy interpolation—or estimates—to give you some good ideas about, in this case, what the temperature will be in the future,” says Hu.

“But, in the Rocky Mountains, you can go from the plains to the peak of a mountain in just a few kilometers and that changes things dramatically when you’re trying to predict weather regimes. What we want to address is how can we figure out what are the more important or more interesting areas where we need either to have a higher resolution or a more accurate weather prediction for that specific region.”

Using genetic algorithms

The researchers used genetic algorithms to help create a more flexible mesh to focus computational analysis on grids with complex, rapidly changing weather patterns. They can expand mesh in other areas of the country, where the weather is steadier.

Hu says genetic algorithm programs are a machine learning model that is loosely based on biological evolution. In biological evolution, only a few individuals will survive in a certain environment out of the thousands that attempted to live there. Similarly, in genetic programming, hundreds or thousands of potential solutions will be tested to superior ones, such as, in this case, locations in need of a finer mesh grid.

Hu adds that genetic algorithms are designed to offer good solutions, rather than perfect ones.

“Genetic algorithms do not guarantee the best solution, but they do guarantee finding better solutions faster,” says Hu. “In a case like predicting temperature changes you might not care about finding the ultimate solution because it might be the difference between 29.56 degrees and 29.55 degrees. That’s probably not going to matter for the regular person.”

While the researchers’ study looked specifically at temperature change, Hu says that in the future researchers could test the model on other weather conditions, such as precipitation and cloud cover.

The findings appear in the Journal of Computers and Geosciences. The National Science Foundation supported this work.

Source: Penn State

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Parents: Ask your college-bound teen these 8 health questions

Fri, 2019-08-23 11:05

Here are eight key health questions that parents should ask their college-bound teen.

Although preparing for unforeseeable health circumstances may feel like a daunting task, it’s crucial, explains Preeti Malani, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Malani, chief health officer of the university, oversees the health and well-being of students, faculty, and staff.

Before move-in day arrives, review this list of questions with your teen to help them better understand their medical history and more:

1. Do you know your own medical history and those of your parents?

“Providers will ask about a student’s medical history and their parents’ medical histories, so it’s important to know,” says Malani, who is also a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. “It also allows you and your child to discuss what they’re at risk for.”

If your child has allergies, a chronic disease, a history of surgeries, or serious illnesses, they should keep a documented list with them, along with their vaccination records and a family medical history.

A family medical history list should include major diseases or causes of death of their parents and grandparents. For those who were adopted, they should be provided with any information that’s known about their birth family’s history.

Keep in mind, though, that some conditions that weren’t present during their adolescent years may suddenly appear during college, provoked by their new environment.

“Substance abuse and other mental health concerns, like depression or anxiety, are especially important to be aware of during this time in your child’s life since college can be stressful,” says Malani.

Malani also explains that this question can create an opportunity for you to discuss sexual health concerns with your child, as well as general decision making.

2. Who is your primary care doctor?

Depending how far your child’s college is from home, and their medical history, it may be wise for them to continue seeing their current physician instead of finding a provider on or near campus.

Alternatively, you may decide it’s best to identify a provider for them nearby.

“You can ask your teen if they’d prefer only seeing their pediatrician or if they’d like to also find someone on-site that can communicate with them and their physician at home,” says Malani.

3. Do you know how to make a doctor’s appointment and how often you should see your provider?

“Whether it’s your child listening to you make an appointment for them or they’re doing it themselves, it’s helpful to have them be part of the step-by-step process years before they go to college,” says Malani.

But, if you haven’t started, now is a better time than any.

Some teens need to see a health care provider more frequently, while others only receive routine, yearly appointments. In either case, help and encourage your child to schedule their next few appointments months in advance during their holiday breaks.

4. What are the names of your medications and why do you take them?

“Some teens have a complex medical history, while others only ever see their doctor once a year and don’t take any medications,” says Malani.

If your kid does take medications, it’s vital for them to know the dosage of each and how to take them.

Which leads to the next question…

5. What’s the dosage of your medications and how often do you need to take them?

“Encourage your teen to develop a system around taking their medications, such as setting up an alarm on their phone,” says Malani.

Malani recommends, when possible, that students create their class schedules around what best accommodates and tends to their mental and physical health needs. For example, morning classes may not work well for everyone.

Your child can also introduce themselves to their professors via email to ask how they can best help accommodate their individual health concerns.

Malani says this simple step can help to alleviate some stress for your teen, and that they won’t know what accommodations exist unless they ask.

“If students can anticipate their needs and proactively establish care, it not only gives their parents peace of mind, but it also helps them better adjust to becoming a new college student,” says Malani.

6. Where’s your nearest pharmacy to campus and do you know how to transfer or refill a prescription?

Scheduling a visit to your child’s college before move-in day not only gets them familiar with the area, but it’ll also allow you both to scope out the nearest pharmacy.

It’s important to be mindful about how often a prescription needs to be refilled in order to avoid inopportune moments, like running out of medication on the second day of school.

Being aware of move-in dates, as well as when every semester begins and ends, can be key in avoiding these types of mishaps.

Besides calling or going to the pharmacy to request a refill, many places offer online portals through phone apps, which can make the process less intimidating.

“Encourage and show your teen how to set up this online access,” says Malani. “These systems also allow for them to easily send notes to their providers and access their medical records.”

7. Do you know what insurance you have and what the important details are about your plan?

If you have medical insurance, it may cover your child until they’re 26 years old. Providing them a copy of your card can be helpful in expediting their billing process after a visit.

Having them understand what your plan covers is important, but it’s also important for students who pay for their own medical coverage to know. For example, out-of-pocket costs and co-pays may vary depending on the appointment.

“For graduate students who may longer be on their family’s plan, I recommend exploring if there are any graduate insurance packages offered to them by their university,” Malani says.

8. What resources does your campus offer for managing your physical and mental health?

Have your child do their research, or better yet, do it with them. College campuses generally have student-focused resources that cater to the most common challenges they could face.

It’s likely that various well-being classes and activities are available on your child’s campus, too, so encourage them to attend ones that interest them most.

Also, as a parent, you may be eligible to receive emergency alerts about any major incidents or health hazards that arise on campus.

In all, Malani emphasizes that this is an important population to have addressing their own physical and mental health, and a process that you can also join in on and support.

Source: University of Michigan

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Weak handgrip may warn of cognitive impairment

Fri, 2019-08-23 10:26

Poor handgrip may be a sign of impaired cognition and memory among older adults, research suggests.

Researchers followed nearly 14,000 participants from the 2006 Health and Retirement Study, age 50 and older, for eight years.

They found that every 5-kilogram (11-pound) reduction in handgrip strength was associated with 10% greater odds for any cognitive impairment and 18% greater odds for severe cognitive impairment.

They assessed handgrip with a hand-held dynamometer, and cognitive function with a modified Mini-Mental State Examination, a widely used test among the elderly that includes tests of orientation, attention, memory, language, and visual-spatial skills.

Study coauthor Sheria Robinson-Lane, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, say the findings are important for providers and individuals seeking ways to retain physical and mental function.

The findings, which appear in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, contribute to mounting evidence that providers should include grip strength in routine health assessments for older adults, says first author Ryan McGrath, assistant professor at North Dakota State University.

More importantly, the researchers interpret the findings to mean that a reduction in grip strength is associated with neural degeneration, which underscores the importance of muscle-building exercise.

“These findings suggest that this is another instance where you’re seeing that staying physically active affects your overall health and your cognitive health,” Robinson-Lane says.

Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of New Hampshire, Ohio University, and Sanford Research. Funding for the work came from the College of Human Development and Education at North Dakota State University, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute on Aging.

Source: University of Michigan

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Algorithm would warn warehouse workers about risky motions

Fri, 2019-08-23 09:18

A new system uses machine learning to monitor factory and warehouse workers and tell them how risky their behaviors are in real time, researchers report.

In 2017 there were nearly 350,000 incidents of workers taking sick leave due to injuries affecting muscles, nerves, ligaments, or tendons—like carpal tunnel syndrome—according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among the workers with the highest number of incidents were people who work in factories and warehouses.

Musculoskeletal disorders happen at work when people use awkward postures or perform repeated tasks. These behaviors generate strain on the body over time. So it’s important to point out and minimize risky behaviors to keep workers healthy on the job.

The new algorithm divides up a series of activities—such as lifting a box off a high shelf, carrying it to a table, and setting it down—into individual actions and then calculates a risk score associated with each action.

The researchers had a robot (white arm) monitor participants performing activities in a warehouse-like setting. At the end of each activity, the robot showed a score on its display (right). (Credit: Parsa et al./IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters) Automated assessment for warehouse workers

“Right now workers can do a self-assessment where they fill out their daily tasks on a table to estimate how risky their activities are,” says senior author Ashis Banerjee, an assistant professor in both the industrial & systems engineering and mechanical engineering departments at the University of Washington.

“But that’s time consuming, and it’s hard for people to see how it’s directly benefiting them. Now we have made this whole process fully automated. Our plan is to put it in a smartphone app so that workers can even monitor themselves and get immediate feedback.”

For these self-assessments, people currently use a snapshot of a task being performed. The position of each joint gets a score, and the sum of all the scores determines how risky that pose is. But workers usually perform a series of motions for a specific task, and the researchers wanted their algorithm to be able to compute an overall score for the entire action.

Moving to video is more accurate, but it requires a new way to add up the scores. To train and test the algorithm, the team created a dataset containing 20 three-minute videos of people doing 17 activities that are common in warehouses or factories.

“One of the tasks we had people do was pick up a box from a rack and place it on a table,” says first author Behnoosh Parsa, a mechanical engineering doctoral student. “We wanted to capture different scenarios, so sometimes they would have to stretch their arms, twist their bodies, or bend to pick something up.”

The researchers captured the dataset using a Microsoft Kinect camera, which recorded 3D videos that allowed them to map out what was happening to the participants’ joints during each task.

Using the Kinect data, the algorithm first learned to compute risk scores for each video frame. Then it progressed to identifying when a task started and ended so that it could calculate a risk score for an entire action.

The algorithm labeled three actions in the dataset as risky behaviors: picking up a box from a high shelf, and placing either a box or a rod onto a high shelf.

Robot helpers

Now the team is developing an app that factory workers and supervisors can use to monitor in real time the risks of their daily actions. The app will provide warnings for moderately risky actions and alerts for high-risk actions.

Eventually the researchers want robots in warehouses or factories to be able to use the algorithm to help keep workers healthy. To see how well the algorithm could work in a hypothetical warehouse, the researchers had a robot monitor two participants performing the same activities. Within three seconds of the end of each activity, the robot showed a score on its display.

“Factories and warehouses have used automation for several decades. Now that people are starting to work in settings where robots are used, we have a unique opportunity to split up the work so that the robots are doing the risky jobs,” Banerjee says.

“Robots and humans could have an active collaboration, where a robot can say, ‘I see that you are picking up these heavy objects from the top shelf and I think you may be doing that a lot of times. Let me help you.'”

The research appears in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. Funding and support for this project came from the State of Washington and Amazon Robotics.

Source: University of Washington

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Wildfire health hazards extend hundreds of miles

Fri, 2019-08-23 09:10

Fire emissions from wildfires can contribute to cardiovascular disease hundreds of miles from the flames, according to new research.

The researchers say the risks are greater and more widespread than most predictive models show.

Spyros Pandis, a professor of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, warns that people downwind of a fire are not fully anticipating its possible effects on their health.

Wildfires and emissions

“The evidence suggests that these emissions are just as bad for our health as that of other combustion sources, such as vehicle and industrial emissions,” Pandis says. “The emissions from wildfires contain thousands of complex organic compounds, some of them carcinogenic.”

The emissions in question are biomass burning organic aerosols, which originate from burning plants, trees, and other organic matter. Researchers created a 3D model of biomass burning organic aerosols to track two types: primary organic aerosols and secondary organic aerosols.

Fires emit primary organic aerosols directly into the atmosphere in the particle phase and are mostly concentrated within a fire’s vicinity. Secondary organic aerosols consist of organic vapor emissions that condense in the particle phase after burning and spread out further.

Most computer models that track particle movement in the air after a fire track primary emissions and ignore secondary emissions.

‘600 miles away’

For the new model, the team entered data from across the US from three months of 2008, creating a set of predictions that they then checked against historic data from aerosol tracking networks and predictions from a model focused only on primary organic aerosols.

The researchers studied April, when controlled agriculture fires boosted emissions; July; and September, when wildfires were most common.

Taking secondary organic aerosols into account, the researchers’ model predicted significantly higher average concentration values of biomass burning organic aerosols than less-sophisticated models—66% higher in April and a little more than 100% higher in July and September. The researchers’ model was more accurate when they compared their work to actual measurements. They also showed that the secondary organic aerosols previously were underestimated.

“Atmospheric chemistry acts as a booster,” Pandis says, “producing additional particulate matter as the plume moves away from the fire one or two days later. The effects, of course, get smaller as one gets away from the fire, but it can remain significant up to 600 miles away—even if it’s no longer visible as thick smoke. This enhancement is stronger during warm sunny days.”

Wildfires decimated 8.8 million acres in the United States in 2018, on a sharp curve up from a little more than 2 million in 1985, according to the National Interagency Fire Service.

The authors say they hope that this research will help expand the public’s understanding of the severity of these wildfires and the importance of limiting them in the future.

The study appears in Atmospheric Environment.

Source: Nick Keppler for Carnegie Mellon University

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Nano-thermometer can take a single cell’s temperature

Fri, 2019-08-23 08:24

It’s now possible to take the temperature inside a cell with a fluorescent nano-thermometer, researchers report.

Researchers used the light-emitting properties of particular molecules to create the nano-thermometer, modifying a biocompatible molecular rotor known as boron dipyrromethene (BODIPY, for short) to reveal temperatures inside single cells.

Light-up molecule

The molecule is ideally suited to the task. Its fluorescence lasts only a little while inside the cell, and the duration depends heavily on changes in both temperature and the viscosity of its environment. But at high viscosity, the environment in typical cells, its fluorescence lifetime depends on temperature alone.

It means that at a specific temperature, the light turns off at a particular rate, and researchers can see that that with a fluorescence-lifetime imaging microscope.

Angel Martí, an associate professor of chemistry and bioengineering at Rice University, says colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine challenged him to develop the technology.

“Everybody knows old thermometers based on the expansion of mercury, and newer ones based on digital technology,” he says. “But using those would be like trying to measure the temperature of a person with a thermometer the size of the Empire State Building.”

Wobbling rotor

The technique depends on the rotor. Martí and lead author Meredith Ogle, a graduate student, constrained the rotor to go back and forth, like the flywheel in a watch, rather than letting it rotate fully.

“It pretty much wobbles,” Martí says.

“What we measure is how long the molecule stays in the excited state, which depends on how fast it wobbles,” he says. “If you increase the temperature, it wobbles faster, and that shortens the time it stays excited.”

The effect, Martí says, is conveniently independent of the concentration of BODIPY molecules in the cell and of photobleaching, the point at which the molecule’s fluorescent capabilities are destroyed.

“If the environment is a bit more viscous, the molecule will rotate slower,” Martí says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s colder or hotter, just that the viscosity of the environment is different.

“We found out that if we constrain the rotation of this motor, then at high viscosities, the internal clock—the lifetime of this molecule—becomes completely independent of viscosity,” he says. “This is not particularly common for these kind of probes.”

Can the nano-thermometer spot cancer cells?

Martí says the technique might be useful for quantifying the effects of tumor ablation therapy, where heat is used to destroy cancer cells, or in simply measuring for the presence of cancers.

“They have a higher metabolism than other cells, which means they’re likely to generate more heat,” he says. “We’d like to know if we can identify cancer cells by the heat they produce and differentiate them from normal cells.”

The research appears in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B. Additional coauthors are from Rice, Celgene Co., Christus Mother Frances Hospital, and Baylor College of Medicine. The Dunn Collaborative Research Grant Program and the Optical Imaging and Vital Microscopy Core at Baylor College of Medicine, which the National Institutes of Health funds, supported the research.

Source: Rice University

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System finds 130 compounds that could save citrus

Thu, 2019-08-22 13:58

Scientists have developed a new way of finding potential treatments for citrus greening, and a short list of 130 compounds to explore further.

Biologist Sharon Long has published over 150 papers on the symbiotic bacteria that help alfalfa grow. But when she realized her lab’s highly focused research could contribute to a solution for citrus greening—a disease that devastates citrus crops—she was inspired to go in a new direction.

“I’m only two generations off a farm, and I read about citrus farmers losing their livelihood and land, and thus also losing generations of family tradition,” says Long, professor in biological sciences at Stanford University. “We decided to redirect our efforts to work on this problem because we wanted to make a difference.”

The details appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What we’ve completed is just a small part of what needs to be done,” says Melanie Barnett, a senior researcher in the Long lab and lead author of the paper. “It’s beyond our expertise to pursue these findings to the level needed for real-world application, but it’s a foot in the door for researchers who can take those next steps.”

Why citrus greening is tough to study

Citrus greening has devastated the citrus industry in Florida and appears in many of the country’s citrus growing regions. Even with high surveillance, the disease is spreading, and by the time symptoms of the lethal bacterial infection appear, it’s too late—the plants, bearing mottled leaves and ugly fruit with unpalatably bitter juice, must be uprooted and destroyed.

An increasingly common treatment for the infection is spraying whole orchards with antibiotics, which is a risky procedure that could allow drug-resistant bacteria to emerge and spread.

Despite its devastation, citrus greening has been difficult for researchers to study. The bacteria that cause the disease—Liberibacter asiaticus—won’t grow in a lab, and studying infected plants is possible only in a few highly protected and sealed locations in the US.

Some researchers have turned to a close, but less harmful, bacterial relative to find answers. But the Long lab realized they could tackle the problem by focusing on a more distant relative—Sinorhizobium meliloti, which partners with certain plants, allowing them to grow without added nitrogen fertilizer.

“We’ve been working on this bacterium for 40 years and have developed tools that allow finely detailed genetic studies to be done,” Long says. “That provides an experimental platform not possible by working directly on this pathogen or even its close relatives.”

Engineered bacteria

The researchers started by introducing genes from the citrus greening bacterium into their familiar S. meliloti cell. Those genes each code for a protein that the scientists think regulates aspects of infection.

Then, they engineered the bacteria so that when those infection-critical proteins were active, the bacteria glowed green in certain light. With this setup, if they exposed the bacteria to a chemical that inhibits the proteins—and perhaps also decreases the bacteria’s ability to infect citrus—the cell would become visibly less green.

This visual signal made it possible to screen over 120,000 different compounds with help from the Stanford High-Throughput Bioscience Center. That screen identified 130 compounds that dimmed the cells’ green glow without affecting its growth.

“Our system allowed us to find very specific inhibitors that do not harm beneficial bacteria,” explains Long. “Such inhibitors would be a big improvement compared to environmental spraying of general antibiotics.”

Beyond studying the 130 compounds, the group says other researchers could now test additional chemicals with the system they devised, or examine different genes.

“With this system, any gene from this pathogen or closely related pathogens can be tested in a very controlled way, very efficiently,” says Barnett. “The years of research that have gone into studying and working with Sinorhizobium can now save years of time that others would have spent developing such a system from scratch.”

Funding for the work came from the Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc. and the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Stanford University

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100-year-old ship logs offer history of Arctic sea ice

Thu, 2019-08-22 13:30

Modern-day computer simulations and historic observations from 100-year old ship logbooks have extended estimates of Arctic sea ice volume all the way back to 1901, researchers report.

The Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean and Modeling System, or PIOMAS, is a leading tool for gauging the thickness of sea ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean. Until now, that system has gone back only as far as 1979, when satellites began imaging the sea ice from above.

“This extends the record of sea ice thickness variability from 40 years to 110 years, which allows us to put more recent variability and ice loss in perspective,” says first author Axel Schweiger, a sea ice scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington.

“The volume of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean today and the current rate of loss are unprecedented in the 110-year record,” he adds.

Results from the newly created 110-year record of Arctic sea ice volume show an unexplained slight decline (black line) in the early 20th century. The current drop (red line), caused by warming temperatures due to climate change, is more than six times as steep. (Credit: Axel Schweiger/U. Washington)

PIOMAS provides a daily reconstruction of what’s happening to the total volume of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean. It combines weather records and satellite images of ice coverage to compute ice volume. It then verifies its results against any existing thickness observations. For years after 1950, that might be fixed instruments, direct measurements, or submarines that cruise below the ice.

During the early 20th century, US Revenue cutters, the precursor to the Coast Guard, and Navy ships that have cruised through the Arctic each year since 1879, made rare direct observations of sea ice. In the Old Weather project, researchers have been working with citizen scientists to transcribe the weather entries in digitized historic US ships’ logbooks to recover unique climate records for science. The new study is the first to use the logbooks’ observations of sea ice, some written by hand in the early 1900s.

A digitized 1915 logbook from the US Coast Guard ship Bear, just after the maritime service was given that name. This entry from July 18, 1915, was when the ship was in the Beaufort Sea, on the edge of the area of the model for Arctic sea ice volume. (Credit: National Archives) View larger

“In the logbooks, officers always describe the operating conditions that they were in, providing hourly observations of the sea ice at that time and place,” says coauthor Kevin Wood, a researcher at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

If the ship was in open water, the logbook might read “steaming full ahead” or “underway.” When the ship encountered ice, officers might write “steering various courses and speeds” meaning the ship was sailing through a field of ice floes. When they found themselves trapped in the ice pack, the log might read “beset.”

These logbooks until recently could only be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, DC, but through digital imaging and transcription by Old Weather citizen-scientists these rare observations of weather and sea ice conditions in the Arctic in the late 1800s and early 1900s have been made available to scientists and the public.

This logbook page from the US Coast Guard ship Cutter was written July 9, 1955, in the Chukchi Sea. (Credit: National Archives) View larger

“These are unique historic observations that can help us to understand the rapid changes that are taking place in the Arctic today,” Wood says.

Wood leads the US portion of the Old Weather project, which originated in 2010 in the UK. Researchers have already added the weather observations from historic logbooks transcribed by Old Weather citizen scientists to international databases of climate data and used them in the model of the atmosphere that produced the new results.

Officers recorded the ship’s position at noon each day using a sextant. They would also note when they passed recognizable features, allowing researchers today to fully reconstruct the ship’s route to locate it in space and time.

While the historic sea ice observations have not yet been incorporated directly into the ice model, spot checks between the model and the early observations confirm the validity of the tool.

“This is independent verification that the model is doing the right thing,” Schweiger says.

The new, longer record provides more context for big storms or other unusual events and a new way to study the Arctic Ocean sea ice system.

“The observations that we have for sea ice thickness and variability are so limited,” Schweiger says. “I think people will start analyzing this record. There’s a host of questions that people can ask to help understand Arctic sea ice and predict is future.”

Scientists use the PIOMAS tool to monitor the current state of Arctic sea ice. The area of Arctic sea ice over the month of June 2019, and the PIOMAS-calculated volume, were the second-lowest for that time of year since the satellite record began.

The lowest-ever recorded Arctic sea ice area and volume occurred in September 2012. And while Schweiger believes the long-term trend will be downward, he’s not placing bets on this year setting a new record.

“The state of the sea ice right now is set up for new lows, but whether it will happen or not depends on the weather over the next two months,” Schweiger says.

The research appears in the Journal of Climate. Additional researchers from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Archives contributed to the work. Funding came from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the North Pacific Research Board.

Source: University of Washington

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These drugs land EDM partiers in the hospital

Thu, 2019-08-22 12:35

People who frequent electronic dance music parties often use multiple drugs simultaneously and experience adverse effects with some ending up in the emergency department, researchers report.

Their study in the International Journal of Drug Policy is the first to survey adverse effects associated with the use of dozens of different drugs and could improve treatment for drug-related emergencies, say researchers.

The researchers surveyed 1,029 people ages 18 to 40 as they entered electronic dance music (EDM) parties in New York City in 2018. Researchers asked participants about their use of drugs—including opioids, alcohol, marijuana, and other common illegal drugs—over the past year, whether they had experienced adverse effects after using the drugs, and if they sought medical care. The researchers defined adverse effects as harmful or very unpleasant effects in which users were concerned about their immediate safety.

The study estimates that one-third of people at these events, commonly held at nightclubs and large outdoor dance festivals, have experienced a drug-related adverse effect over the past year. Of these, 40% experienced an adverse effect on more than one occasion and 5% experienced adverse effects on four or more occasions. Also, the more frequently people attended these parties, the more likely they were to experience an adverse drug reaction.

“Our findings suggest that drug use is not only prevalent among people who attend electronic dance music parties, but that there’s also a substantial amount of drug-related harm…”

The study also found that two-thirds of adverse effects involved alcohol, more than one-third involved marijuana, and 15% involved Ecstasy, commonly called “Molly” when in powder or crystal form.

“Alcohol use was associated with the greatest number of adverse outcomes, perhaps due to its ubiquitous nature and its impact on judgment,” says study coauthor Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at the New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University.

“Our findings suggest that drug use is not only prevalent among people who attend electronic dance music parties, but that there’s also a substantial amount of drug-related harm,” says lead author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor at the School of Medicine at the New York University.

About 37% of adverse effects occurred after marijuana use and more than one-third of these people ate edible marijuana.

“This may be the result of consuming too many edibles to accelerate the high or to experience a more intense or prolonged high. The increasing, and unpredictable, potency of cannabis also contributes to the difficulty in controlling the dose consumed,” Nelson says.

One-fifth of those using Ecstasy or Molly reported an adverse effect. Of these, 14% felt the need to visit an emergency department, and one-half of those people did seek such help. Participants used prescription opioids less than other drugs; however, 41% of nonmedical users had experienced an adverse reaction, with 14% making a trip to an emergency department.

“Opioids are a high-risk group of drugs, particularly when used in combination with alcohol or other drugs,” says Nelson.

Although infrequently used, synthetic cathinones—also known as “bath salts”—were most likely to result in a hospital visit.

“Our finding about ‘bath salt’ use leading to emergency department visits is particularly alarming because we’ve been finding that a lot of people who think they’re using Molly are often using ‘bath salts’ without realizing it,” Palamar adds.

“While we couldn’t deduce to what extent adverse effects occurred at these parties, these are high-risk venues due to a combination of drug use and environmental factors,” he says. “Dancing for hours, hot temperatures, and dehydration appear to exacerbate the risk for adverse effects among those who use drugs.”

Source: Rutgers University

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How investors can avoid the ‘infatuation effect’

Thu, 2019-08-22 12:23

New research explains why we put money into a specific investment just because it’s the most familiar or stands out. It also points to a solution for making better investing choices.

“Everyday investors can often become overly attached to a particular stock or mutual fund, sometimes to their financial detriment,” says Steven Posavac, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University.

“We wanted to understand how internal factors such as top-of-mind awareness or external cues such as media attention can cause investors to become prematurely infatuated with a particular investment.”

3 experiments

The researchers conducted three experiments in which they primed participants to focus more on one investment choice than three others.

In the first, researchers gave participants summaries of four comparable mutual funds, randomly assigned them to rate one of them, and then asked them to choose one of the funds to invest in. Participants were much more likely to invest in the fund researchers assigned them to rate than any of the other three—indicating that investors could be subtly led to favor a particular option simply because it was more salient than others.

“Surprisingly, the effect was even a little bit stronger for those who indicated that they understood how investments worked.”

A subsequent experiment showed that this bias is particularly likely to occur when investors focus on the most salient option, and fail to consider other, potentially better, alternatives. The last experiment showed that this phenomenon could often lead people to choose objectively worse investments.

“We found that the infatuation effect persisted clearly across all three experiments, even when the salient option was worse than the others,” says Nicolas Bollen, a professor of finance. “Surprisingly, the effect was even a little bit stronger for those who indicated that they understood how investments worked.”

Getting past the infatuation effect

The researchers say that the key to overcoming this problem is to take a more comparative approach when choosing investments—for example by doing a side-by-side comparison of multiple investment options. Likewise, they say, this tendency can also be exploited to protect investors.

Benefits managers can, for example, highlight lower-cost, more reliable investments, like index funds, so employees are less likely to default to riskier or more costly options.

“Becoming mentally fixated on a particular investment is a very common trap, even among experienced investors,” says Posavac.

“Taking a step back and thinking about multiple options before deciding can go a long way toward making better choices.”

The research appears in the Journal of Economic Psychology. Additional coauthors are from Tulane University and the University of Utah.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Gun retailers could help prevent suicide

Thu, 2019-08-22 12:18

Firearm retailers may be willing to learn about suicide prevention and to train their employees in how to spot and act on suicide warning signs, a new study in Washington state finds.

With firearms the commonly used and most lethal means of suicide nationwide, the findings from the survey of nearly 200 independent firearm retailers across Washington state demonstrate the potential for key community members to be proactive in helping to prevent people from taking their own lives, says lead author Thomas Walton, a doctoral candidate of social work at Forefront Suicide Prevention at the University of Washington.

The study, which the researchers believe to be first to look at what influences firearm retailers in suicide prevention efforts, also finds that a lack of awareness of the role of firearms in suicide, as well as a reluctance to talk to customers about personal issues, likely inhibit greater progress in suicide prevention.

The need for better suicide prevention efforts

“Suicide prevention hasn’t been an area of focus in the firearm community, and it shows,” Walton says. “But there’s a definite willingness to pass on firearm safety information, and they want to be able to see how to integrate suicide prevention into talking about firearm safety.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all suicides in the United States from 1999 to 2017 (the most recent statistics available) involved a firearm. The percentage is even higher in veteran suicides.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255.

In Washington, the data is similar: From 2013 to 2017, almost half of all suicides, and 67% of veteran suicides, involved a firearm, according to the state Department of Health. Beginning in 2017, the state Legislature helped fund Forefront’s Safer Homes, Suicide Aware campaign, which offers training, outreach, and locking devices for firearms and medications in communities with high rates of firearms ownership.

As part of its mission, the Safer Homes program has identified gun retailers as a key potential stakeholder in distributing information about suicide prevention. Other states, such as New Hampshire and Colorado have been working to engage firearm retailers in the issue; the new study is the first aimed at understanding what influences such engagement.

Surveying gun retailers

The first step for researchers was surveying firearm retailers about their knowledge of suicide prevention and willingness to participate. Using records from the state Department of Licensing and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Walton and Forefront director Jennifer Stuber were able to find email or mailing addresses for nearly 800 independent retailers around the state. The team created a 42-question survey that was available in print or online.

Big-box stores that sell guns were not included because of corporate policies governing store-level training and outreach.

The researchers also partnered with the Second Amendment Foundation and the owner of a Spokane gun shop, who together sent an introductory letter to the retailers explaining the survey.

“…if you get the right messengers to get people to the table, there is clearly a willingness among retailers to be involved in the solutions.”

In the end, retailers completed 178 surveys. Sixteen retailers contacted the researchers to refuse the survey, while 62 were minimally completed, and 33 were returned as undeliverable. The remaining 500 weren’t returned.

“There are barriers to working with this population because of distrust and incomplete contact information,” says Stuber, an associate professor in the School of Social Work. “But if you get the right messengers to get people to the table, there is clearly a willingness among retailers to be involved in the solutions.”

‘Out-of-the-box solutions’

The results can be grouped generally into three distinct types of questions: knowledge of suicide and how to prevent it; support for learning more; and a willingness to intervene directly with customers.

About half of the retailers who responded said they were familiar with warning signs of suicide, while nearly two-thirds of respondents says they wanted to know more about how firearm retailers can help prevent suicide. About 72% says they would provide free training to employees.

At the other end of the spectrum were beliefs about suicide and the retailer’s role in talking with customers in crisis. Nearly three-quarters says asking customers about their mental health might offend them. About 45% says asking about personal issues is not their responsibility, and 66% agreed with the statement: “If a person wants to die by suicide, there is nothing I can do to stop them.”

“It is critical to work on changing this common misperception that suicide is inevitable,” Walton says. “For the vast majority of individuals, the desire to die by suicide is fleeting, so anything any of us can do to prevent or postpone a suicidal act is helping to save a life.”

Survey results also indicate that the more a retailer knows about suicide, and the longer they have been in business, the more comfortable they are with ideas about training employees and talking with customers. For instance, retailers for whom a majority of sales come from firearms and ammunition were more likely to support education and outreach around suicide prevention. Those with longer tenure in the industry, the authors write, were also more supportive of suicide prevention efforts and thus could be tapped as leaders in any future effort among retailers.

“Notably, most firearm retailers lack awareness that suicide is the most common type of firearm fatality. Education about this fact is an important first step to increasing engagement in prevention efforts,” Stuber says.

“We are going to need out-of-the-box solutions to reach communities with high rates of firearm ownership to create compelling public health messages about suicide prevention.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255.

The research appears in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. The Washington state Legislature funded the research.

Source: University of Washington

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Being an omnivore is actually quite odd

Thu, 2019-08-22 10:38

The first animal likely was a carnivore, new research finds. Humans, along with other omnivores, belong to a rare breed.

What an animal eats is a fundamental aspect of its biology, but surprisingly, the evolution of diet had not been studied across the animal kingdom until now.

The study is a deep dive into the evolutionary history of more than one million animal species going back 800 million years.

The study reveals several surprising key insights:

  • Many species living today that are carnivorous—those that eat other animals—can trace this diet back to a common ancestor more than 800 million years ago.
  • A plant-based, or herbivorous, diet is not the evolutionary driver for new species that scientists believed it to be.
  • Closely related animals tend to share the same dietary category—plant-eating, meat-eating, or both. This finding implies that switching between dietary lifestyles is not something that happens easily and often over the course of evolution.

The researchers scoured the literature for data on the dietary habits of more than a million animal species, from sponges to insects and spiders to house cats. They classified a species as carnivorous if it feeds on other animals, fungi, or protists (single-celled eukaryotic organisms, many of which live on bacteria). The researchers classified species as herbivorous if they depend on land plants, algae, or cyanobacteria for food, and omnivorous if they eat a mixture of carnivorous and herbivorous diets.

The scientists then mapped the vast dataset of animal species and their dietary preferences onto an evolutionary tree built from DNA-sequence data to untangle the evolutionary relationships between them.

Insects are a group in which feeding on plants increases rates of species proliferation, including among the butterflies and moths, which are almost all herbivorous. (Credit: Daniel Stolte/U. Arizona) The whole animal kingdom’s menu

“Ours is the largest study conducted so far that examines the evolution of diet across the whole animal tree of life,” says lead author Cristian Román-Palacios, a doctoral student in the ecology and evolutionary biology department of at the University of Arizona. “We addressed three highly-debated and fundamental questions in evolutionary biology by analyzing a large-scale dataset using state-of-the-art methods.”

All species can be classified according to their evolutionary relationships, a concept that is known as phylogeny. Organisms are grouped into taxa, which define their interrelationships across several levels. For example, cats and dogs are different species but belong to the same order (carnivores). Similarly, horses and camels belong to a different order (ungulates.) Both orders, however, are part of the same class (mammals).

On the highest level, animals are classified in phyla. Examples of animal phyla are arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, scorpions, and the like), mollusks (snails, clams, and squid fall into this phylum), and chordates, which include all animals with a backbone, including humans.

The survey suggests that across animals, carnivory is most common, including 63% of species. Another 32% are herbivorous, while humans belong to a small minority, just 3%, of omnivorous animals.

Unlike many of their land-dwelling kin, many so-called sea slugs such as this Spanish Shawl are carnivorous snails that prey on polyps, sponges or even each other. (Credit: Daniel Stolte/U. Arizona) Tracing the evolution of eating meat

The researchers were surprised to find that many of today’s carnivorous species trace this diet back all the way to the base of the animal evolutionary tree, more than 800 million years, predating the oldest known fossils that paleontologists have been able to assign to animal origins with certainty.

“We don’t see that with herbivory,” says corresponding author John Wiens, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Herbivory seems to be much more recent, so in our evolutionary tree, it appears more frequently closer to the tips of the tree.”

So if the first animal was a carnivore, what did it prey on?

The authors suggest the answer might lie with protists, including choanoflagellates: tiny, single-celled organisms considered to be the closest living relatives of the animals. Living as plankton in marine and freshwater, choanoflagellates are vaguely reminiscent of miniature versions of the shuttlecock batted back and forth during a game of badminton.

A funnel-shaped collar of “hairs” surrounds a whip-like appendage called a flagellum whose rhythmic beating sucks a steady stream of water through the collar, filtering out bacteria and detritus that is then absorbed and digested. It is possible that the common ancestor of today’s animals was a creature very similar to a choanoflagellate.

“The ancient creature that is most closely related to all animals living today might have eaten bacteria and other protists rather than plants,” Wiens says.

Black vultures and Andean condors are carnivorous birds that specialize on consuming carrion. (Credit: Cristian Román-Palacios/University of Arizona) Omnivores are super rare

Turning to a plant-based diet, on the other hand, happened much more frequently over the course of animal evolution.

Herbivory has traditionally been seen as a powerful catalyst for the origin of new species—an often-cited example is the insects, with an estimated 1.5 million described species the most diverse group among the arthropods. Many new species of flowering plants appeared during the Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago, and the unprecedented diversity of flowers is widely thought to have coincided with an increase in insect species taking advantage of the newly available floral bounty.

“This tells us that what we see in insects doesn’t necessarily apply to other groups within the animal kingdom,” Wiens says. “Herbivory may go hand in hand with new species appearing in certain taxa, but it clearly is not a universal driver of new species.”

The study also revealed that omnivorous (“eating everything”) diets popped up rarely over the course of 800 million years of animal evolution, hinting at the possible explanation that evolution prefers specialists over generalists.

“You can be better at doing what you do if that is all you do,” Wiens says. “In terrestrial vertebrates, for example, eating a diet of leaves often requires highly modified teeth and a highly modified gut. The same goes for carnivory. Nature generally seems to avoid the dilemma of being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, at least for diets.”

This need for specialization might explain why omnivores, such as humans, are rare, according to the authors. It might also explain why diets have often gone unchanged for so long.

“There is a big difference between eating leaves all the time and eating fruits every now and then,” Wiens says. “The specializations required to be an efficient herbivore or carnivore might explain why the two diets have been so conserved over hundreds of millions of years.”

The study appears in the journal Evolution Letters.

Source: University of Arizona

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39% of straight couples now meet online

Thu, 2019-08-22 10:29

More heterosexual couples today meet online, research finds. In fact, matchmaking is now the primary job of online algorithms.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sociologist Michael Rosenfeld reports that heterosexual couples are more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal contacts and connections. Since 1940, traditional ways of meeting partners—through family, in church, and in the neighborhood—have all been in decline, Rosenfeld says.

Rosenfeld, a lead author of the study and a professor of sociology at Stanford University, drew on a nationally representative 2017 survey of American adults and found that about 39% of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online, compared to 22% in 2009.

Rosenfeld has studied mating and dating as well as the internet’s effect on society for two decades. Here, he explains the new findings:

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Brown fat may clear obesity-linked amino acids from blood

Thu, 2019-08-22 08:46

New research clarifies how brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue, may help protect against obesity and diabetes.

The study in the journal Nature adds to our knowledge about brown fat’s role in human health and could lead to new medications for treating obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Scientists consider brown fat a heat organ. People have a few grams of it in areas including the neck, collarbone, kidneys, and spinal cord. When cool temperatures activate it, the fat uses sugar and fat from the blood to generate heat in the body.

Left: Brown fat is not activated. Right: The orange color on both shoulders and the neck show cold conditions activating brown fat. (Credit: Labros Sidossis/Rutgers)

The study shows that brown fat could also help the body filter and remove branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) from the blood. BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are in foods like eggs, meat, fish, chicken, and milk, but also in supplements used by people who want to build muscle mass.

In normal concentrations in the blood, these amino acids are essential for good health. In excessive amounts, they’re linked to diabetes and obesity. The researchers found that people with little or no brown fat have reduced ability to clear BCAAs from their blood, and that may lead to the development of obesity and diabetes.

The study also solved a 20-plus year mystery: how BCAAs enter the mitochondria that generate energy and heat in cells. The scientists discovered that a novel protein (called SLC25A44) controls the rate at which brown fat clears the amino acids from the blood and uses them to produce energy and heat.

“Our study explains the paradox that BCAA supplements can potentially benefit those with active brown fat, such as healthy people, but can be detrimental to others, including the elderly, obese, and people with diabetes,” says coauthor Labros S. Sidossis, a professor who chairs the kinesiology and health department at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and a professor in the medicine department at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Next, researchers need to determine whether brown fat’s uptake of BCAAs can be controlled by things like exposure to mildly cold temperatures (65 degrees Fahrenheit) or consumption of spicy foods—or by drugs. This could improve blood sugar levels that are linked to diabetes and obesity, Sidossis says.

Source: Rutgers University

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College educated women drink more booze

Wed, 2019-08-21 20:51

More women are drinking alcohol and researchers are investigating why.

While the gap is shrinking between men and women who drink, the new research finds variations in the amount and frequency women drink based on age, race, education, marital status, and other factors.

The research compares the experiences of women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s to see how life changes and events influence drinking, says Susan Stewart, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University.

“Some of our findings really break down stereotypes, such as alcohol use is highest among poor women and underrepresented women…”

Overall, 52% of women reported drinking around seven days in the last month and averaged just over two drinks a day. The researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. The survey follows thousands of people starting as teens and into adulthood.

While women still drink less than men, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there is little evidence to explain their increase in consumption. Stress, social acceptance of alcohol, and life changes are often cited as potential factors, but Stewart says this is largely anecdotal. By comparing alcohol consumption across social categories, the researchers want to provide a greater understanding of why women drink as well as dispel some myths.

“Some of our findings really break down stereotypes, such as alcohol use is highest among poor women and underrepresented women,” Stewart says. “We found that not to be true. White women and women with more education and financial means have much higher rates of alcohol consumption.”

Breaking down alcohol consumption

The researchers’ preliminary findings, which they presented at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting, found significant differences in drinking by race and ethnicity.

This table provides a comparison among white, black, and Hispanic women. (Credit: Iowa State)

The researchers also note differences based on social and demographic characteristics:

  • Married black women drank less than single or cohabiting women, but this was not true for white and Hispanic women.
  • College educated women across all groups were more likely to drink, and drank more days per month.
  • White and black women living in urban areas drank more than those in rural areas, but this did not influence drinking among Hispanic women.

To expand on these initial findings, Gloria Jones Johnson, a professor of sociology, is looking specifically at empty nesters. Preliminary results show significant shifts in alcohol use before and after the last child leaves home. For example, 26% of women who were moderate drinkers while their children were home became heavy drinkers after they left.

“This could be due to ’empty nest syndrome’—loss of mothering role, depression, isolation—or it could be a newfound freedom from family and childrearing responsibilities,” says Jones Johnson. “To draw definitive conclusions we will compare these women’s alcohol consumption to the alcohol consumption of women not experiencing the empty nest.”

Why does it matter?

Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the US, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Approximately 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes, which is more than opioid overdoses (60,000) and motor vehicle crashes (34,000). The researchers point to the physical, mental, and emotional health issues associated with alcohol use as important reasons for this work.

“After decades of steady increases, women’s life expectancy has leveled off in the last five years partly as a result of increased alcohol consumption,” says Cassandra Dorius, an assistant professor of human development and family studies. “As the main caretakers of children, aging parents, and extended family members, women’s alcohol use can have lasting effects on the family.”

Source: Iowa State University

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