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Videogame teaches young teens about sexual health

3 hours 7 min ago

Researchers have created a videogame to promote sexual health and reduce risky behavior. They show in a new study that it improves sexual health knowledge and attitudes among minority young people.

The findings validate the value of the videogame as a tool to engage and educate teens at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the researchers say.

PlayForward is a serious role-playing videogame that engages youth with challenges and choices in fictional yet realistic situations in order to educate them about sexual health. (Credit: Yale)

“We saw significant and sustained positive changes in terms of attitudes about sexual health and sexual health knowledge,” says Lynn Fiellin, associate professor of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and in the Child Study Center.

Adolescents are significantly affected by HIV and other STIs, yet many lack access to sexual health education that could minimize their risks, the researchers say. They also note that videogames offer an accessible, portable tool for promoting health and reducing risky behavior among teenagers, particularly minority youth who are disproportionately impacted.

Led by Fiellin, the research team recruited more than 300 students, ages 11 to 14, from afterschool and summer programs in the New Haven area for the study.

For six weeks, the youth either played the intervention game PlayForward: Elm City Stories, or one of several unrelated videogames on iPad tablets for up to 75 minutes twice per week. Designed with teen and expert input, PlayForward is a serious role-playing videogame that engages youth with a variety of challenges and choices in fictional yet realistic life situations.

During the one-year study period, the students were assessed for a range of outcomes, including sexual health attitudes, knowledge, intention to initiate sex, and sexual activity.

A screenshot of PlayForward. (Credit: Yale)

Compared to youth who played the non-intervention games, the PlayForward teens demonstrated improvements in both sexual health attitudes and knowledge at the end of 12 months. For example, the PlayForward group was more likely to accurately respond that it was true that a girl can get pregnant the first time she has sex.

While the groups of teens did not differ in their intention to initiate sex or be sexually active, the findings are significant and important, says Fiellin.

“It was proof of concept,” she says. “To our knowledge, never before has a videogame intervention been developed with such extensive input from its target audience, and tested through rigorous scientific methods over a long stretch of time, demonstrating that kids will engage in a game with serious content and learn things that impact the way they think and potentially what they do.”

To treat depression with games, remind users to play

Fiellin and her colleagues plan to refine and further disseminate the game content with the goal of influencing youth behavior. They have received additional funding to modify the PlayForward game to focus on other health outcomes in adolescents, including smoking and electronic cigarette use prevention and the promotion of HIV/STI testing.

The findings appear in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

A grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supported the work.

Source: Yale University

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When male ducks compete, their penises get bigger

3 hours 20 min ago

Penises of some species of ducks grow extremely long in spring, only to shrink to 10 percent of their maximum size in the fall and winter, report researchers.

And it appears that longer penis size has little to do with female preference, but is the result of competition between paired males and unpaired males that attempt to fertilize females by force.

“Animals can be very strategic about how they invest energy in genital growth.”

“This study illustrates how social forces can actually shape individual anatomy, but it also suggests how sexual conflict and sexual autonomy shapes social behavior,” says Richard Prum, professor of ornithology and of ecology and evolutionary biology and coauthor of the paper in The Auk.

Prum says he bet coauthor and former postdoctoral fellow Patricia Brennan, now at Mt. Holyoke College, that social environment would not have any influence on the penis size of the ducks.

“If you are with a lot of other males, your leg doesn’t grow longer,” Prum says.

He lost the bet.

In lesser scaup species, for instance, duck penises grow longer when males are together in competitive social groups. The purpose is not to attract females, who pick their mates in early spring before penises regrow. The increased length represents a sort of evolutionary … er … arms race to ensure more effective penetration of females.

In another species, the ruddy duck, subordinate males briefly grow longer penises during mating season, apparently to take advantage of opportunities when dominant males are less vigilant.

“Our findings show that genitalia can become variable not just as a result of evolutionary change over many generations,” Brennan says. “Animals can be very strategic about how they invest energy in genital growth.”

Brennan and Prum had previously shown that male ducks that tend to force themselves on females possess lengthy and spiraled-shaped penises while females developed vaginas with oppositely corkscrew contours, the better to be able to reject the violent advances of males.

Their federally funded research attracted mockery in 2013 from some members of Congress, who viewed it as an example of wasteful government spending. However, the new studies illustrate several surprising new twists about how evolution works, note the researchers.

“Female birds may have preferred mates without penises…”

“This research has helped us understand the importance of sexual autonomy, that freedom of choice matters in nature,” Prum says.

Prum, author of the book The Evolution of Beauty, points out that almost all other birds lost their penises through evolution after splitting off from other reptile and mammalian groups. Ducks are a vestige of the evolutionary past—when male genitalia made forced copulation possible.

Why do most birds lack a penis?

“Female birds may have preferred mates without penises, which would eliminate the capacity to force fertilization,” Prum says. “I argue this is why birds are so beautiful: Having gained sexual autonomy, females have used their freedom to chose beauty.”

How female moths snag guys with big antennae

Source: Yale University

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Tension with mom and siblings linked to midlife depression

3 hours 25 min ago

New research links tension with our mothers or siblings to symptoms of depression in midlife.

…tension between mothers and adult children was a stronger predictor of depression for daughters than it was for sons.

Relationships with our mothers and siblings change as we become adults and start our own families, but the quality of those relationships still has an effect on our well-being.

The research, published in the journal Social Sciences, found the relationships a person has with siblings, mothers, and spouses have a similar effect on well-being and one is not stronger than another.

“Family scholars have focused a lot on the relationship we have with our spouse,” says Megan Gilligan, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University. “There is this assumption that as you go through your life course, you leave these other relationships with your parents and siblings behind, but you don’t. You carry those with you.”

The relationship between mothers and daughters is even more significant. The research shows tension between mothers and adult children was a stronger predictor of depression for daughters than it was for sons. However, gender did not make a difference in relationships with spouses and siblings. Gilligan says this makes sense based on her previous research.

“We know that mothers and daughters in adulthood have the closest relationships and also the most conflictual. These are really intense relationships,” she says. “Later in life, adult children start providing more care to their parents, and daughters in particular are often caregivers for their mothers.”

Midlife is often characterized as stable and uneventful, but in reality, it is a time of change and transition for many people, Gilligan says. For example, adult children may be leaving the house and aging parents start requiring more care. Additionally, researchers know that midlife adults often react more strongly to family conflict than older adults do.

While there is a great deal of research on young families and family dynamics later in life, there is a gap at midlife, Gilligan says. Given the potential for greater conflict with mothers or siblings related to these midlife changes, it is important to understand the consequences of negative relationships on our psychological well-being.

“Midlife is a time when siblings are often coming back together as they prepare and navigate care for parents,” she says. “For that reason, it’s a pivotal time when these family relationships might be experiencing more tension, more strain, more discord.”

Caregiver stress can shorten dementia patients’ lives

The research team used data collected through the Within-Family Differences Study. Their analysis included 495 adult children within 254 families. For a majority of families, multiple siblings participated in the study.

Researchers measured depressive symptoms and tension among family members through survey questions. They controlled for race, gender, and education.

In the paper, Gilligan and her colleagues explained that they expected all three relationships would predict depressive symptoms, but the effect would vary depending on the salience of the relationship.

The fact that they found no significant difference between spouses, mothers, and siblings is important to note, especially for practitioners. Gilligan says instead of focusing solely on a romantic partner or spouse, marriage and family therapists should ask about other sources of family stress.

“These findings show that we are navigating other family relationships at the same time and we’re not experiencing them in isolation; we’re experiencing them simultaneously,” Gilligan says.

You can catch your friend’s mood, but not depression

“The stress people are experiencing may be the result of a romantic partner or spouse. However, it could also be that they’re fighting with their siblings or they’re experiencing a lot of tension with their mother even though they are 50 years old,” she says.

Additional researchers contributing to the work are from Iowa State and Purdue University.

Source: Iowa State University

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Lego and Play-Doh inspire particles that self-assemble

5 hours 29 min ago

Researchers have created self-assembling “patchy particles” that are 1/200th the width of a human hair and can form endless structures from a handful of basic pieces.

“Imagine that you want to build a castle, but instead of handpicking the bricks and patiently connecting them one by one, you simply shake the box of pieces so that they magically connect to one another in forming a full-featured castle,” says Stefano Sacanna, an assistant professor in the chemistry department at New York University and one of the creators.

“These smart particles represent an important step forward for the realization of self-assembling new materials and micro-machinery,” he explains.

This process—self-assembly of pre-determined micro-architectures—is similar to the way atomic crystals self-assemble from a specific mixture of atomic building blocks.

“In nature, extremely precise architectures, such as crystals, seamlessly grow from random soups of atoms,” explains Sacanna. “By using similar principles, we can fabricate extremely precise micro-architecture without human intervention.

“Colloidal self-assembly has the potential to revolutionize 3D printing,” he adds. “This could be achieved by not merely by further reducing the size of the printed architectures, but also by allowing us to ‘print’ functional architectures. Say you want to print a model car—using colloidal self-assembly, you could print a car that is a fraction of a millimeter and that could someday actually run!”

For scientists, however, miniaturization currently presents a formidable challenge.

The direct manipulation of “construction bricks” that are 10 or even 100 times smaller than a human cell is difficult. A more efficient approach is to replicate what Sacanna calls nature’s “manufacturing technology”: self-assembly. This, however, requires the ability to design and manufacture building blocks that knows what to do and where to go.

The technology developed in Sacanna’s lab enables the creation of such microscopic building blocks and impart them with an on-board instruction manual that tells them how to connect with neighboring particles.

“These particles will help us to understand—and allow to mimic—the self-assembling mechanisms that nature uses to generate complexity and functionalities from simple building blocks,” he says.

Sacanna and his colleague Gi-Ra Yi, a professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, South Korea, together with graduate students Zhe Gong and Theodore Hueckel, created these patchy particles via a new synthetic methodology called “colloidal fusion,” which is not unlike how different pieces of playdough are pieced together.

Pre-fab parts offer path to self-assembling photonic crystals

While playdough involves squeezing together different colors of clay, colloidal fusion merges different chemical functionalities to create multi-functional—as opposed to multi-colored—particles that also contain instructions for self-assembly. This process is achieved by deploying software—called “Surface Evolver”—that is a simulation package similar to the software engineers use to design buildings.

“The software allows us to predict how an initial cluster will evolve when ‘squeezed’ and how the resulting multifunctional patchy particle will look like,” notes Sacanna.

The research appears in the journal Nature.

A CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation supported the research.

Source: Cornell University

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Some PhD students say ‘no thanks’ to becoming professors

5 hours 45 min ago

Many PhD students aiming to work in academia lose interest in that track before graduating, a new study suggests.

“They’re not being forced out of academia and into less desirable jobs…. many lose interest in the faculty career itself…”

There are growing concerns that the challenges of landing a faculty job are discouraging young science and engineering PhDs from pursuing careers in academia. The assumption is the majority aspire to a faculty career but drop out of the academic pipeline because there just aren’t enough tenure-track jobs to go around.

But the study suggests that assumption may not be true for many PhDs.

“They’re not being forced out of academia and into less desirable jobs. Instead, many lose interest in the faculty career itself,” says coauthor Michael Roach, and assistant professor of entrepreneurship in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

Roach’s coauthor, Henry Sauermann of ESMT Berlin, adds, “Our key contribution is to dig deeper to understand why students lose interest in the faculty career, and we consider a broad range of factors such as job market expectations, self-perceived ability, or preferences for research and autonomy.”

Roach and Sauermann followed a cohort of 854 doctoral students studying science and engineering at 39 US research universities over the course of their graduate training. The doctoral candidates took a survey at the beginning of their graduate studies and again three years later, which asked about their career preferences and explored potential drivers of changes in their preferences.

The study finds that although 80 percent of students started the PhD with an interest in an academic career, by the time they neared graduation one-third of these students had lost interest in an academic career entirely.

At the same time, there was no difference across PhDs in their low expectations of getting a faculty job or the difficulty of obtaining grants, suggesting that these factors do not explain why some lose interest while others remain highly interested in an academic career despite these challenges.

Roach and Sauermann were prompted to look into changes in academic career preferences because of concerns over the perceived labor market imbalance between the growing number of doctorates and the limited number of new faculty positions. One implication of this research is this gap overstates the share of PhDs who intend to pursue an academic career.

Years as a postdoc can cost PhDs money later

When students start their doctoral programs, the majority have done research as an undergraduate and see academia as the default career path, Roach says. “But as they learn more about what that career path is like and the kind of work they want to do, that’s where we start to see a divergence, where people start to lose interest in a faculty career.”

This suggests the need for programs that provide students with more information on potential career paths and that prepare them for careers outside of academia.

The study also has implications for companies’ efforts to recruit recent doctorates. Rather than trying to lure PhDs by emulating the academic environment, firms should recognize that many PhDs who lose interest in academia are less interested in performing basic research and coming up with their own research projects, and more interested in commercializing new technologies, the researchers says.

“This is important as technology firms increasingly look to PhDs to help them innovate,” Roach says.

The research appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: Cornell University

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How plants let go of their leaves

6 hours 26 min ago

When parts of a plant, such as dead leaves, flowers, or ripe fruit detach, the process is called abscission. A new study sheds light on the process that governs how and when plants shed their parts.

Knowing how the process works will help increase understanding of both plant development and responses to environmental signals—such as drought and pest infection—while allowing scientists to control the process for flower, fruit, and vegetable industries.

The earliest steps of abscission involve changes in a special layer of cells, called the abscission zone, located at the base of the flower. As a flower matures, cells in this layer begin to separate from one another along the entire zone, creating a clean rift between the base of the flower and the petals. As the rift enlarges, the petals fall off and are sent tumbling to the ground.

The expression of HAESA in the abscission zone of Arabidopsis thaliana, shown here using a fluorescent protein. (Credit: Rahul Patharkar) Dropping petals

“Scientists have long wondered how a plant regulates this cell separation process, in particular the molecular mechanism that both triggers and powers the process,” says lead author O. Rahul Patharkar, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri.

“We know that when a plant is close to dropping its petals, many genes are activated. A lot of this gene activity, or transcription, is exponentially increased in a relatively short time, ultimately leading to abscission.”

One gene that gets a boost in its activity is called HAESA, a gene required for floral abscission to occur. Previous studies have shown that activity of this gene increases by a magnitude of 27-fold from the time the flower bud opens to when it drops its petals, a period of about 2 days.

‘Positive feedback loop’

Patharkar’s new research identified two important connections in the mechanisms that explain this rapid increase in HAESA gene expression.

The research team found that plants that overexpress a certain regulator protein do not activate HAESA and do not drop their flower petals. The findings suggest that the protein found is a negative regulator of HAESA, meaning it prevents expression of the gene.

Additionally, the protein also acts as a molecular “switch” responsible for turning the process on and off and it is this “positive feedback loop” that is important in the abscission process.

“A good analogy for the positive feedback loop is that it’s the turbocharger for the process of abscission,” Patharkar says. “Basically, it amplifies the power of abscission causing the plant to drop its leaves or flowers.”

Computer learns to ID leaves faster than a botanist

“The study puts together a number of different genes and proteins into a new model that helps explain how plants precisely control floral organ abscission,” says John C. Walker, professor of biological sciences and corresponding author of the publication.

“Eventually, the findings will provide researchers with new methods of controlling the process that could help the fruit and flower industries that want their products to stay in place until ready for harvest.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with support from the National Science Foundation. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agency.

Source: University of Missouri (Originally published March 11, 2015)

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Asking teens about ‘Spice’ reveals dangerous trend

7 hours 48 min ago

Three percent of high school seniors in a recent study reported current use of synthetic cannabinoids, and nearly half of those users said they used the drugs more than three times in the past month.

Synthetic cannabinoids (SCs), commonly marketed as “Spice” and “K2,” are potent new psychoactive compounds with a high risk of adverse health outcomes.

Some compounds found in SCs resemble those in marijuana and are often marketed as being similar. In reality, SCs have been found to have a potency ranging from 2 to 100 times stronger than marijuana, making adverse health outcomes of SC use exponentially greater than marijuana use.

Daily drug use

To counter the shortage of research in this area of high school drug use, Joseph Palamar of New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research and his team conducted the first nationally representative study, published in the journal Pediatrics, to examine current (past 30-day) use of SCs.

“This finding is important because it implies that half of current users are using SCs more than once or twice, which may suggest more than just mere experimentation,” says Palamar, also an assistant professor of population health at NYU Langone Medical Center. “In fact, 20 percent of current users reported use on 20 to 30 days in the past month, suggesting daily or almost-daily use.”

“The fact that one-fifth of current adolescent SC users report using these drugs in a daily or almost daily basis is of concern,” notes Silvia Martins, senior author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. “This is particularly notable due to all possible adverse effects associated with SC use.”

The article draws data from Monitoring the Future, a nationwide ongoing annual study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students. The survey takes place in approximately 130 public and private schools throughout 48 states in the US. Roughly 15,000 high school seniors participate annually.

“Males, African Americans, and users of various other drugs were found to be at particular risk for frequent SC use,” says coauthor Monica J. Barratt of the Drug Policy Modelling Program, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia.

It’s legal (for now)

SC use is closely tied to marijuana use, as 8 out of 10 current SC users also reported current marijuana use. Therefore, the authors compared current SC users who were also current marijuana users to the “marijuana-only” users who did not report current SC use.

“Evolving generations of SC compounds are increasingly harmful and poisonous to overall health…”

Findings from the study revealed that compared to marijuana-only users, fewer SC users perceived that SC experimentation and occasional use placed themselves at great risk of harm. SC users were more likely than marijuana-only users to report high perception of risk of using marijuana occasionally. Implications of this finding show a potential for lack of knowledge about health risks of SC among its youngest users.

“If there are students using synthetic cannabinoids because they genuinely believe they are less risky than marijuana, this misconception must be addressed through better education stressing the greater danger posed by synthetic cannabinoids,” says Palamar.

In addition, pointing to the fact that many SCs are not (yet) illegal, Palamar notes “some students may deem real marijuana as a riskier substance because it is illegal to possess. While arrest should in fact be a concern for marijuana users, these new synthetic compounds are becoming too dangerous and are in no way a safe alternative to marijuana.”

Current SC users also tend to be current users of other drugs.

“Concurrent use of other drugs such as alcohol can make adverse outcomes more likely,” stresses Palamar. “Our findings help allow clinicians and public health experts to determine who is at risk for SC use and possibly poisoning from SC use, so appropriate directed intervention education measures can be deployed.”

Breeding cannabis for the ‘high’ cuts this protective compound

“Evolving generations of SC compounds are increasingly harmful and poisonous to overall health, making effective prevention efforts more important than ever,” explains Barratt.

Although previous studies have revealed that marijuana users are at high risk for SC use, this study further revealed risk factors among current marijuana users that increase risk of current use and higher-frequency use of SCs.

“Our research calls for future prevention focused primarily on marijuana users, especially male and/or African-American marijuana users who appear to be at greatest risk for frequent use,” says Palamar. “Marijuana users who use other drugs are at highest risk for currently using SCs, so particular focus must be paid to these individuals to prevent increasingly dangerous and severe health outcomes among young users.”

Source: New York University

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Just 2 genes give butterfly wings their stripes and color

8 hours 10 min ago

A pair of master genes control the complex traits in butterfly wings—one for colors and iridescence and the other for stripe patterns, two new papers suggest.

“It seems like a small number of genes disproportionately drive evolution over and over again.”

In the first paper, scientists describe using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to “break” the gene, after which the butterflies wings became black and white.

Similarly, the researchers’ second paper shows that when the WntA gene is cut out with CRISPR-Cas9, stripe patterns disappear.

Both papers appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings are striking because they describe how single genes can have such massive effects. The discovery runs counter to the idea that control of something as complex as butterfly color patterns would require dozens to hundreds of genes.

The papers come on the heels of another by the same group published in Nature Communications that proved that a gene called spalt controlled wing eyespot patterns.

“It looks like, between these two papers and the one we published last year, we basically have the fundamental toolkit of genes that controls most color patterns in butterfly wings,” says Robert Reed, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and a coauthor of all three papers.

The findings have larger implications for genes involved in evolution. It appears that a few master genes—single genes with large effects such as optix and WntA—play an unusually central role in repeatedly driving evolution in different species, Reed says.

Since there are a finite number of genes, they are often recycled throughout evolutionary time, with the same gene having different functions over time and across species. For example, the optix gene also exists in fruit flies, but there it is involved in eye development, not wing color.

“If you mutate optix in a fruit fly, then you’d essentially have no eye,” Reed says.

Other studies show that a single gene controls coat color in different species of mammals and that gene is repeatedly implicated in evolution of that trait even though other genes might have a similar effect.

Similarly, while there are many other genes that separately influence color in butterfly wings, when evolution and natural selection occur, they are typically driven by mutations in optix, Reed says.

“It seems like a small number of genes disproportionately drive evolution over and over again.”

Scientists turned these brown butterflies violet

While optix controls color pigments, the researchers were surprised to find it also controls iridescence, a completely different mechanism where light is reflected in a particular manner off of microscopic features of the butterfly wing scale cells.

Linlin Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher, is the first author of the optix paper, and graduate student Anyi Mazo-Vargas is first author of the WntA paper. Both are members of Reed’s lab.

The National Science Foundation funded the optix paper. The NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the Leverhulme Trust, the Pew Charitable Trust, and the Smithsonian Institution funded the WntA paper.

Source: Cornell University

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You can catch your friend’s mood, but not depression

8 hours 41 min ago

New research suggests we can “pick up” good and bad moods from friends, but not depression.

The findings, published the journal Royal Society Open Science, imply that mood does spread over friendship networks, as do various different symptoms of depression such as helplessness and loss of interest. However the effect from lower or worse mood friends was not strong enough to push the other friends into depression.

The researchers examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which incorporates the moods and friendship networks of US adolescents in schools.

Using mathematical modeling, they found that having more friends who suffer worse moods is associated with a higher probability of an individual experiencing low moods and a decreased probability of improving. They found the opposite applied to adolescents who had a more positive social circle.

“We investigated whether there is evidence for the individual components of mood (such as appetite, tiredness, and sleep) spreading through US adolescent friendship networks while adjusting for confounding by modeling the transition probabilities of changing mood state over time,” says public health statistics researcher Rob Eyre of the University of Warwick, who led the study.

“Evidence suggests mood may spread from person to person via a process known as social contagion.

“Previous studies have found social support and befriending to be beneficial to mood disorders in adolescents while recent experiments suggest that an individual’s emotional state can be affected by exposure to the emotional expressions of social contacts.

“Clearly, a greater understanding of how changes in the mood of adolescents are affected by the mood of their friends would be beneficial in informing interventions tackling adolescent depression.”

These oxytocin genes may influence number of friends

The World Health Organization has estimated that depression affects 350 million people across the world. This study’s findings emphasize the need to also consider those who exhibit levels of depressive symptoms just below those needed for a diagnosis of actual depression when designing public health interventions.

The study also helps confirm that there is more to depression than simply low mood. At the individual level, these findings imply that following the evidence-based advice for improving mood, e.g. exercise, sleeping well, and managing stress, can help a teenager’s friends as well as themselves. Whereas for depression, friends do not put an individual at risk of illness, so a recommended course of action would be to show them support.

“The results found here can inform public health policy and the design of interventions against depression in adolescents,” says coauthor Frances Griffiths of Warwick Medical School. “Sub-threshold levels of depressive symptoms in adolescents is an issue of great current concern as they have been found to be very common, to cause a reduced quality of life, and to lead to greater risk of depression later on in life than having no symptoms at all.

Good times with friends really can fight depression

“Understanding that these components of mood can spread socially suggests that while the primary target of social interventions should be to increase friendships because of its benefits in reducing of the risk of depression, a secondary aim could be to reduce spreading of negative mood.”

Source: University of Warwick

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Cats and cockroaches may ward off asthma in kids

10 hours 11 min ago

For some children who live in inner-city areas, exposure to certain pet and pest allergens in infancy may lower the risk of developing asthma by age 7.

A new study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, that included children living in inner-city St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, and New York City, also linked a mother’s mental health to her child’s risk of developing asthma.

“This study suggests we may not be focusing on the right targets for preventing asthma in the inner city,” says Leonard B. Bacharier, a professor of pediatrics and an asthma specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. “We may not need to worry about making sure the household environment is maximally clean—in fact, it’s possible that could be counterproductive.

“But helping women manage the challenges of mental health may make a difference.”

Of the 442 children with complete data, 130 (29 percent) had an asthma diagnosis by age 7. Higher amounts of cockroach, mouse, and cat allergens measured in house dust during a child’s first three years of life were associated with a lower risk of developing asthma.

“How can exposure to cockroaches be good for you?”

Children at high risk of asthma included those whose mothers reported having the condition and those with higher levels of a chemical called cotinine measured in umbilical cord blood at birth.

A product of the breakdown of nicotine, cotinine measured in umbilical cord blood is a marker of tobacco use during pregnancy. While smoking before pregnancy or after birth—by the mother or other household members—was not associated with an increased risk of asthma in this study, a mother’s stress and depression, measured via questionnaires, had a significant association.

Of particular interest, is the analysis of the bacteria associated with the allergens, especially the counterintuitive finding that more cockroach exposure is beneficial. In fact, high levels of cockroach allergen offered the most protection against the development of asthma, followed by mouse and then cat allergens.

“These allergens don’t exist by themselves—bacteria live with them,” Bacharier says. “It’s possible that the allergen itself is not the problem. This could help explain data that seem counterintuitive. How can exposure to cockroaches be good for you?

“If the cockroach allergens happen to come with bacteria that are helpful, then you end up being protected. This suggests whole new avenues of studies looking at the household dust microbiome as well as the human microbiome and their interactions in the development of asthma.”

In households where children developed asthma, the bacteria associated with house dust tended to be microbes that cause disease, or their close relatives. In contrast, households where children did not develop asthma tended to have bacteria that have shown evidence of protecting against respiratory problems.

Because the study was observational, researchers can’t say whether certain bacteria or allergens cause or prevent asthma. But the data do point to new areas of research to pursue in determining what leads to the development of asthma in early life and what can be done to prevent it.

House dust reveals how Amish kids avoid asthma

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funded the work through its inner-city asthma consortium. Coauthors are from Boston University School of Medicine; Columbia University; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; the University of California, San Francisco; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Altering gut bacteria can shield liver from medicine

Tue, 2017-09-19 15:38

Modulating gut bacteria could enhance the therapeutic value of a drug, research with the Alzheimer’s medication tacrine suggests.

Enzymes in the liver break down pharmaceutical drugs into their metabolites, which the body then excretes in feces and urine. Drugs can also undergo chemical reactions mediated by bacteria within the gut.

“To date, the influence of microbes on the fate of drugs is only established for a small fraction of marketed medicines.”

In a new study, a team of pharmaceutical scientists from National University of Singapore found that gut bacteria may selectively modify the breaking down of tacrine. This causes certain patients to suffer from drug-induced liver injury (DILI), in which there are unexpected side effects from consuming a drug, causing liver damage.

The discovery and understanding of this process could potentially lead to the development of new ways to improve drug treatment outcomes and reduce drug-associated side effects.

“To date, the influence of microbes on the fate of drugs is only established for a small fraction of marketed medicines. The contribution of gut microbiota towards variation in the response of individuals to a given drug remains poorly understood. This difference in the response to drug therapy is clinically important and poses a major challenge to both drug development and patient management,” says study leader Eric Chan from the department of pharmacy.

The research team found that rats suffering from DILI experienced a process termed “enhanced enterohepatic recycling,” where the excreted metabolite of the drug in bile is reconverted back to the parent drug by gut bacteria and reabsorbed into the body from within the gut.

As reported in the journal Hepatology, the researchers found that these DILI rats had a greater amount of a specific bacteria that can enable this drug reconversion process. Deactivating these bacteria resulted in less injury to the liver.

Could compound in aged cheese spare our livers?

“Our study establishes the gut microbial influences which cause unintended liver damage when using the drug tacrine, providing crucial insights for the development of personalized medicine initiatives,” explains first author Yip Lian Yee.

“Our study confirms for the first time that the liver-gut microbial community has an influence on unintended liver damage caused by tacrine in rodent models,” adds Chan.

“While this study is focused on tacrine, our findings hold pertinent implications for other therapeutic drugs with side effects, particularly those that undergo extensive enterohepatic recycling, demonstrate large variations between individuals and exhibit narrow therapeutic indices.”

The research took place in collaboration with scientists from GlaxoSmithKline, the NUS departments of microbiology and surgery, and the Genome Institute of Singapore (A*STAR).

Source: National University of Singapore

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Teen aggression often linked to family neglect

Tue, 2017-09-19 15:21

Nearly half of all teenagers investigated for neglect by child welfare agencies and exhibiting signs of aggression experience a separation from their family, research in Ontario, Canada finds.

This is because the parents are not willing or able to remain their caregivers.

The research also shows that, in addition to suffering from various kinds of maltreatment, the vast majority of children and youth who are aggressive have non-behavioral problems ranging from educational difficulties to anxiety and ADHD to deal with (the figures that range from between 86-96 percent, depending on the age group).

“Very little has been written about adolescents whose parents are no longer willing or able to care for them, but it resonated with my previous experience working in group homes during my undergraduate studies,” says Melissa Van Wert, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University and the first author of the study.

“Many families with aggressive kids would often find themselves overwhelmed, especially when the child had other complex issues. Due to a lack of available alternative services, the families would sometimes resort to approaching child welfare agencies to place their children in group homes.”

The findings, from one of the first large-scale studies of Canadian data on maltreatment and aggressive behavior in children and youth, have implications for North America as a whole.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, is based on almost 2,000 substantiated investigations of maltreatment in Ontario that were conducted during three months in 2013.

The research team estimates that for the whole year of 2013 the number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect of children aged zero to 15 years, from all agencies in Ontario, would amount to just over 43,000 children.

But not all of these abused children become aggressive. The researchers wanted to unpack the details of child and youth mistreatment to get a better picture of what factors can play into children developing aggressive behavior, so they looked at different forms of abuse, along with its frequency and severity, as well as at a number of other problems that the children and youth might have including school difficulties and emotional and developmental problems.

After child abuse, impulses are harder to control

What they found, in terms of pure numbers, was that 13 percent of maltreated youth and children served by the Ontario child welfare system exhibited aggression. These rates of aggression are significantly higher than in the general population of Canadian children, which have been previously been estimated to be somewhere between approximately 1-4 percent.

But it was when they looked at the details of the types of abuse and the children’s ages, that the picture became more complex and, in some ways, more surprising.

The research showed that it was not simply the type of abuse, but the frequency, persistence, as well as co-occurring forms of abuse that had the highest correlations with aggressive behavior. But most striking, was the fact that the vast majority of aggressive children also had non-behavioral challenges to deal with.

“We often think of aggressive kids as having single needs, but what we can see clearly from this research is that they usually have a whole host of other issues to deal with, often related to mental health and educational difficulties,” says coauthor Nico Trocmé, from the Center for Research on Children and Families at McGill.

$1 minimum wage increase could cut child neglect cases

Van Wert adds, “The issues these families encounter are clearly multifaceted. This research speaks to the need for a collaborative approach between the various systems that exist to help children and their families, rather than a single child welfare response.”

Scholars from the University of Toronto also contributed to the work. The Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship supported this research.

Source: McGill University

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Belief in success predicts how kids do in math and reading

Tue, 2017-09-19 14:51

When kids believe they can achieve success in math and reading, they are more likely to achieve high test scores in those subjects, new research suggests.

“…there is more to understanding how children achieve than just examining prior performance…”

Researchers used two US data sets—with one being a nationally represented study—and one UK data set to measure self-concept and standardized assessments of early and later academic achievement. Self-concept is how students perceive their capabilities to succeed on academic tasks.

The data involved youth ages 5 to 18—the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (13,901 British children), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (1,354 American children), and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics-Child Development Supplement (237 American children).

The study considered children’s earlier achievement and their characteristics and backgrounds, including birth weight, race/ethnicity, gender, age, and their mother’s education.

The researchers found that children’s self-concept of their ability in math predicted later math achievement, while their self-concept of their ability in reading predicted later reading achievement.

The finding suggests that the links between self-concept of ability and later achievement are specific to domains; that is, there is a link from students’ self-concept about reading to reading achievement, and from students’ self-concept about math to math achievement.

A kid’s math ‘self-concept’ predicts test scores

“It is not unusual to see standardized measures of achievement or cognition predict to achievement later in schooling, but finding a relation between more of a motivational measure like self-concept of ability shows that there is more to understanding how children achieve than just examining prior performance,” says study coauthor Pamela Davis-Kean, a professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

The research also showed that success was not limited to students who perform at the top levels.

“It extends to students with different levels of achievement in math and reading,” says Maria Ines Susperreguy, an assistant professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, who led the study. “Even the lowest-performing students who had a more positive view of their math and reading abilities had higher levels of achievement in math and reading.”

Researchers say they don’t know what parents or students did to create these beliefs, but it’s an issue they will investigate further.

Doubts about upward mobility can derail schoolwork

Coauthors of the study were part of the Consortium of the Analyses of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood, which the National Science Foundation funded.

The findings appear in the journal Child Development.

Source: University of Michigan

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We need a mosquito emoji for public health

Tue, 2017-09-19 13:21

The world really needs a mosquito emoji, and not just so hikers and backyard barbequers can complain in text messages and Facebook posts.

Two public health workers say an emoji representing the blood-sucking insect would help health professionals around the world communicate with those threatened by the often-fatal diseases it carries.

(Credit: Aphelandra Messer/Johns Hopkins)

“A mosquito emoji would be an important addition to the current set of insect emoji,” Marla Shaivitz says. “It would give health professionals a quick way to communicate with the public about the presence of mosquitoes, and allow researchers to promote their work around mosquito-borne diseases more easily via social media.

“It’s surprising to me there isn’t one already,” says Shaivitz, a digital communications manager at the Center for Communication Programs at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Found on six of the seven continents, mosquitoes during their peak breeding season outnumber every other animal on Earth. They are by far the most dangerous animal on Earth, killing more humans than sharks, snakes, and all others by a wide margin. Because they spread diseases like malaria, Zika, dengue, and yellow fever, mosquitoes contribute to several million deaths and hundreds of millions of illnesses every year.

And, yet, there’s no emoji for them.

Emoji are increasingly important in people’s daily communication. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries named the Face with Tears of Joy emoji Word of the Year. There are emoji for animals of all kinds—you can text your friends using emoji for ants, spiders, ladybugs, honeybees, turtles, and snails.

Want to warn about that crazy poodle down the street? There’s an emoji for that. Need to text about a pig? Choose one of three swine emoji.

Shaivitz and Jeff Chertak, a senior program officer for malaria advocacy and communications at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, submitted a formal proposal to add the mosquito to the list.

Mosquitoes only mate once and 4 other facts

A mosquito emoji could be used by millions of people affected by mosquitoes every year, as well as by members of the scientific and health community to explain their work, they say. Of course, it also would give texters a new shorthand to express annoyance or frustration, “potentially paired with the face with rolling eyes or the smirking face,” the written proposal helpfully suggests.

How are new emoji chosen? People like Shaivitz and Chertak submit proposals and a group called the Unicode Consortium chooses finalists. Very few emoji join the selection each year.

In October, the consortium will decide which of 67 finalist emoji to add—this year’s contenders also include a llama, a sliced bagel, a tooth, and a lab coat—and the chosen ones will be released to our phones next summer.

“Over half the world’s population lives at risk of the diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, and climate change is facilitating their spread, increasing the threat of diseases they transmit to new populations,” the proposal explains. “Meanwhile, the mosquito brings new threats, like Zika, which has devastated communities with fear of long-term, life-altering consequences.”

People around the world use these emojis the most

Shaivitz used social media analysis to make the case. She found that on Twitter, potential use and reach of a mosquito emoji is seven times greater than that of the existing beetle emoji. On average, there are nearly 15,000 more mosquito-related tweets shared per day than beetle-related tweets, potentially reaching 170 million more Twitter users.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Scorching hot Mercury has more ice than we thought

Tue, 2017-09-19 12:38

There could be much more ice on Mercury’s surface than previously thought, a new study suggests.

The scorching hot surface of Mercury seems like an unlikely place to find ice, but research over the past three decades has suggested that water is frozen on the first rock from the sun, hidden away on crater floors that are permanently shadowed from the sun’s blistering rays.

The new study adds three new members to the list of craters near Mercury’s north pole that appear to harbor large surface ice deposits.

Researchers have found new evidence of ice sheets in permanently shadowed craters near the north pole of Mercury. (Credit: Head lab/Brown)

In addition to those large deposits, the research also shows evidence that smaller-scale deposits scattered around Mercury’s north pole, both inside craters and in shadowed terrain between craters. Those deposits may be small, but they could add up to a lot more previously unaccounted-for ice.

“The assumption has been that surface ice on Mercury exists predominantly in large craters, but we show evidence for these smaller-scale deposits as well,” says Ariel Deutsch, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at Brown University. “Adding these small-scale deposits to the large deposits within craters adds significantly to the surface ice inventory on Mercury.”

The idea that Mercury might have frozen water emerged in the 1990s, when Earth-based radar telescopes detected highly reflective regions inside several craters near Mercury’s poles.

“This study opens our eyes to new places to look for evidence of water…”

The planet’s axis doesn’t have much tilt, so its poles get little direct sunlight, and the floors of some craters get no direct sunlight at all. Without an atmosphere to hold in any heat from surrounding surfaces, temperatures in those eternal shadows have been calculated to be low enough for water ice to be stable. That raised the possibility these “radar-bright” regions could be ice.

That idea got a boost after NASA’s MESSENGER probe entered Mercury’s orbit in 2011. The spacecraft detected neutron signals from the planet’s north pole that were consistent with water ice.

For this new study, Deutsch worked with Gregory Neumann from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to take a deep dive into the data returned from MESSENGER. They looked specifically at readings from the spacecraft’s laser altimeter. The device is mostly used to map elevation, but it can also be used to track surface reflectance.

Neumann, an instrument specialist for the MESSENGER mission, helped to calibrate the altimeter’s reflectance signal, which can vary depending upon whether the measurement is taken from directly overhead or at an oblique angle (known as “off-nadir”). That calibration enabled the researchers to detect high reflectance deposits consistent with surface ice in three large craters for which only off-nadir detections were available.

The addition of those craters to Mercury’s ice inventory is significant. Deutsch estimates the total area of the three sheets to be about 3,400 square kilometers—slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Messenger’s 100,000 images map Mercury’s highs and lows

Another major aspect of the work is that the researchers looked at reflectance data for the terrain surrounding those three large craters. That terrain isn’t as bright as the ice sheets inside the craters, but it’s significantly brighter than the average Mercury surface.

“We suggest that this enhanced reflectance signature is driven by small-scale patches of ice that are spread throughout this terrain,” Deutsch says. “Most of these patches are too small to resolve individually with the altimeter instrument, but collectively they contribute to the overall enhanced reflectance.”

“We think there are probably many, many more of these…”

To seek further evidence that such smaller-scale deposits exist, the researchers looked though the altimeter data in search of patches that were smaller than the big crater-based deposits, but still large enough to resolve with the altimeter. They found four, each with diameters of less than about 5 kilometers.

“These four were just the ones we could resolve with the MESSENGER instruments,” Deutsch says. “We think there are probably many, many more of these, ranging in sizes from a kilometer down to a few centimeters.”

Knowing that these small-scale deposits exist, and that they’re likely the source of the slightly brighter surface outside craters, could dramatically increase the ice inventory on Mercury.

Similar small-scale ice deposits are thought to exist on the poles of the Moon. Research models have suggested that accounting for these small-scale deposits roughly doubles the amount of lunar real estate that could harbor ice. The same could be true on Mercury, the researchers say.

How this polar ice may have found its way to Mercury in the first place remains an open question, Deutsch says. The leading hypothesis is that it was delivered by water-rich comet or asteroid impacts. Another idea is that hydrogen may have been implanted in the surface by solar wind, later combining with an oxygen source to form water.

Jim Head, Deutsch’s doctoral advisor and coauthor of the research, says the work adds a new perspective on a critical question in planetary science.

“One of the major things we want to understand is how water and other volatiles are distributed through the inner solar system—including Earth, the Moon, and our planetary neighbors,” Head says. “This study opens our eyes to new places to look for evidence of water, and suggests there’s a whole lot more of it on Mercury than we thought.”

Will NASA mission find a salty ocean on Europa?

The research findings appear in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

NASA, through the Harriet G. Jenkins Graduate Fellowship and the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, supported the research.

Source: Brown University

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Why some 19th century immigrants went back to Europe

Tue, 2017-09-19 11:21

Moving back to Europe after emigrating to the United States was one strategy Norwegian immigrants used to lessen their poverty, research suggests.

Today’s conversation about immigration and the role of immigrants in America is not so different from the conversations that took place more than 100 years ago, when European immigrants settled in cities and on farms in the United States.

Ran Abramitzky, an economist at Stanford University, has spent the past decade analyzing data on immigrants in the United States between 1850 and 1913—the time of the country’s largest wave of migration.

“Moving permanently to the New World was one strategy that poor European immigrants used to achieve economic success.”

Norwegian immigrants who returned home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more likely to have held lower-skilled occupations, compared with both Norwegians who never moved and those who stayed in the United States. But upon returning to Norway, the return migrants were better off than those who had never moved and usually held higher-paying jobs.

The findings are contrary to the popular belief that return migration mostly resulted from bad shocks, such as an illness or unemployment, says Abramitzky, an associate professor of economics and coauthor of the article in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review. Instead, it appears that return migrants already hailed from poorer backgrounds before their move.

“Moving permanently to the New World was one strategy that poor European immigrants used to achieve economic success. This research suggests that temporary movement to the United States in order to accumulate savings and invest in the home country was another option available to the poor.”

The Age of Mass Migration

The new study on return migrants is the latest piece in a larger research project, which Abramitzky and colleagues began about 10 years ago, on immigration in the US between 1850 and 1913.

About 30 million Europeans immigrated during the period—the Age of Mass Migration—as America maintained open, largely unrestricted borders for European migrants until about 1914. By 1910, 22 percent of the country’s labor force was foreign-born, compared to 17 percent of today’s working population.

But, the same period also saw a high rate of return migration—one in three immigrants returned to their home country.

To learn which immigrants moved back and how they fared economically, researchers needed comprehensive data on immigrants from a single country.

“It is challenging to study these types of questions because systematic data on return migrants are not typically collected,” Abramitzky says.

Back to Norway

But Norway, which experienced a high rate of out-migration during this period, was a unique case. The country’s 1910 census asked respondents whether they spent some time in the United States, and, if so, the dates of their arrival and departure, last state of residence, and last occupation held.

Because Norway recently released digital versions of those census datasets, Abramitzky chose to focus on the Scandinavian country, conducting an unprecedented analysis of individual data on return migrants to Europe during that period.

Researchers linked the American and Norwegian census data sets to compare Norwegian migrants still living in the US in 1910 with Norwegian immigrants who returned after a couple of years—as well as to Norwegians who stayed in Norway throughout this period.

“If we want to know how today’s newcomers will fare, we can find important clues by examining what happened to those who arrived on our shores during the greatest surge of immigration in US history.”

Immigrants who held low-paid occupations or who came from rural parts of Norway were more likely to come back after moving to America. Once back home, the return migrants held higher-paid occupations than the Norwegians who never moved, despite being from poorer backgrounds.

That return migrants climbed to a higher rung on the occupational ladder may have been the result of savings accrued in the US. Many return migrants worked as farmers, often in their town of birth. When these men—who had started out as poor farm laborers—returned to Norway, they were more likely than the non-movers to purchase and work on their own farms, a more lucrative profession made possible by the increased land they were able to buy with their savings.

These temporary moves might have been necessary, because it was difficult to borrow money in Norway, which was not as advanced financially as the US.

How does identity work for immigrants in Europe?

During the Age of Mass Migration, politicians and the public raised questions about immigrants that are similar to those discussed today. Can immigrants successfully integrate into America’s society and economy? Or do they remain isolated long after they settle?

Abramitzky’s past work on immigrants from 16 sending European countries provides some clues.

A 2014 study showed that European immigrants arrived in the US with occupations comparable to native-born Americans, and his 2016 research on cultural assimilation documented that immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century chose less foreign names for their sons and daughters as they spent more time in the United States.

“If we want to know how today’s newcomers will fare, we can find important clues by examining what happened to those who arrived on our shores during the greatest surge of immigration in US history,” Abramitzky says.

“Comparing our findings with contemporary studies can illuminate the effect of modern immigration policy on migrant selection and migrant assimilation.”

Leah Boustan of Princeton University and Katherine Eriksson of the University of California, Davis, are coauthors of the study.

Source: Stanford University

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For hospitals, full cybersecurity may be impossible

Tue, 2017-09-19 11:07

In a new essay, medical and legal experts outline steps that hospitals can take to secure themselves against dangerous and damaging hacking attacks. They also say, however, that many strategies will be difficult to implement and that, ultimately, full security may be impossible to achieve.

“To some extent, these attacks are inevitable.”

Especially cruel hackers know that lives are on the line when they hold a hospital’s computer systems hostage, as they did in the May 12 attack dubbed WannaCry, which locked down many overseas hospitals with the demand for a ransom.

“Patients can suffer severe negative health effects if their treatment is delayed, discontinued, or performed incorrectly because hospital records are unavailable,” the authors write in the essay.

“There are things we can do to reduce the risk but it is very hard to perfect IT security, especially given the needs of modern hospital systems to have things moving between places and increasing demand for patient-facing access,” says I. Glenn Cohen, a professor of law at Harvard University and coauthor of the article. “To some extent, these attacks are inevitable.”

The authors cite research that counted nearly 2,000 hospital data breaches of varying kinds between 2009 and 2016. In that last year, a ransomware attack hit a hospital system in the Baltimore area, forcing workers to rely on paper records.

In their new paper, the authors list several steps—some simple and others more complex—that hospitals can take to prevent or at least mitigate attacks and to ensure that they are in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which requires holders of health records to keep them secure.

Some of the more straightforward tactical recommendations include workforce training, retaining cybersecurity expertise, patching operating systems, and reporting attacks promptly to authorities. They also recommend more strategic, nationwide steps, even though those may be harder to accomplish.

Fake attack shows how hackers could hijack our water

Coauthor Eli Adashi, a professor of medical science and former dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown University, notes that the US government’s response in the wake of WannaCry was fragmented among many agencies, although just the day before President Donald Trump had issued a sweeping executive order instructing federal agencies to embark on a number of actions to ensure greater cybersecurity. Building on that to develop a cohesive government response pertaining to health care infrastructure, he says, could provide all hospitals with common, well-informed guidelines.

“We need a coordinated national effort,” he says. “This will take time.”

Cohen says another key step could be for the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, to make cybersecurity requirements a high priority in renewing accreditation.

And hospitals should consider committing to a principle of “non-payment” of ransoms to hackers, the authors propose, akin to the US government policy of not paying ransoms to terrorists. Adashi says all of these steps, but especially that one, should be implemented only after considerable public discussion.

After all, with lives on the line, Cohen acknowledges, pressure could quickly build to abandon an abstract policy, especially if it didn’t have buy-in from patients.

DNA sequencing is vulnerable to this sneaky attack

“If I were a hospital CEO, it’s one thing to make this pledge ex ante, but it’s another thing when you have a population of patients who need health care to stick by it,” he says.

The new article appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Source: Brown University

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It’s now tougher (and more expensive) to find big ideas

Tue, 2017-09-19 11:07

Big ideas are getting harder and harder to find, and innovations have become increasingly massive and costly endeavors, according to new research.

As a result, tremendous continual increases in research and development will be needed to sustain even today’s low rate of economic growth.

This means modern-day inventors—even those in the league of Steve Jobs—will have a tough time measuring up to the productivity of the Thomas Edisons of the past.

“The only way we’ve been able to roughly maintain growth is to throw more and more scientists at it.”

Nicholas Bloom, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and coauthor of a paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, contends that so many game-changing inventions have appeared since World War II that it’s become increasingly difficult to come up with the next big idea.

“The thought now of somebody inventing something as revolutionary as the locomotive on their own is inconceivable,” Bloom says.

“It’s certainly true if you go back one or two hundred years, like when Edison invented the light bulb,” he says. “It’s a massive piece of technology and one guy basically invented it. But while we think of Steve Jobs and the iPhone, it was a team of dozens of people who created the iPhone.”

To better understand the nation’s sluggish economic growth, Bloom and his three coauthors—SIEPR senior fellow Chad Jones, Stanford doctoral candidate Michael Webb, and MIT professor John Van Reenen—examined research productivity at an aggregate national level as well as within three swaths of industry: technology, medical research, and agriculture. For another measure, they also analyzed research efforts at publicly traded firms.

Their paper follows a common economic concept that economic growth comes from people creating ideas. In other words, when you have more researchers producing more ideas, you get more economic growth.

But Bloom and his team find a not-so-rosy imbalance. While research efforts are rising substantially, research productivity—or the ideas being produced per researcher—is declining sharply.

“The economy has to double its research efforts every 13 years just to maintain the same overall rate of economic growth.”

So the reason the US economy has even grown at all is because steep increases in research and development have more than offset the decline in research productivity, the study finds.

Specifically, the number of Americans engaged in R&D has jumped by more than twentyfold since 1930 while their collective productivity has dropped by a factor of 41.

“It’s getting harder and harder to make new ideas, and the economy is more or less compensating for that,” Bloom says. “The only way we’ve been able to roughly maintain growth is to throw more and more scientists at it.”

The paper spelled it out bluntly in numbers: “The economy has to double its research efforts every 13 years just to maintain the same overall rate of economic growth.”

Less optimism

Bloom initiated this research a year ago, inspired to dig deeper after speaking on a panel at the SIEPR economic summit that discussed “Is the Productivity Slowdown for Real?” He admits the paper—and its somewhat pessimistic analysis—has dampened his previous, more optimistic stance.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Bloom says. “Pretty much all mainstream economists have become rather depressed about productivity growth.”

At the 2016 SIEPR Summit, Bloom was more positive about the nation’s productivity, saying its declining rate was only a temporary effect of the financial crisis of 2008. He even caricatured ways of looking at US productivity levels and contended the up-and-down swings between 1950 and 2010 did not necessarily signal a long-running trend of slow productivity growth.

A year ago, Bloom recalls, “I thought we were recovering from a huge global recession and we’re about to turn around.”

Now, his perspective takes into account new insights that research productivity—one of the underlying components of economic growth—has been clearly dropping for decades.

“This paper says productivity growth is slowing down because ideas are getting harder to find,” Bloom says.

These innovative countries outperform their peers

While the study builds on the earlier work of Jones and others on R&D, the new paper also weaves a tight connection between empirical data on what’s happening in the real world and growth models.

The robust finding of declining idea productivity has implications for future economic research, the paper concludes. The standard assumption in growth models has historically been a constant rate of productivity, and “we believe the empirical work we’ve presented speaks clearly against this assumption,” it states.

Moore’s Law

Everywhere they looked, the researchers say they found clear evidence of how exponential investments in R&D have masked the decline in productivity. The tech industry’s signature guidepost, Moore’s Law, which marked its 52nd year in April, is a prime example.

Introduced in 1965 by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of computer chip giant Intel, the theorem postulates that the density of transistors on an integrated circuit would double roughly every two years, doubling computing power.

Moore’s Law has certainly played out—the computing power on a chip today is remarkable compared to even a decade ago—but the study found that the research effort behind the chip innovations rose by a factor of 78 since 1971.

To spur innovation, teach A.I. to find analogies

Put another way, the number of researchers required today to maintain that innovative pace is more than 75 times larger than the number that was required in the early 1970s.

“The constant exponential growth implied by Moore’s Law has been achieved only by a staggering increase in the amount of resources devoted to pushing the frontier forward,” the paper states.

Other industries also exhibited falloffs in idea productivity.

For instance, to measure productivity in agriculture, the study’s coauthors used crop yields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton and compared them against research expenditures directed at improving yields, including cross-breeding, bioengineering, crop protection, and maintenance.

The average yields across all four crops roughly doubled between 1960 and 2015. But to achieve those gains, the amount of research expended during that period rose “tremendously”—anywhere from a threefold to a more-than-25-fold increase, depending on the crop and specific research measure.

On average, research productivity in agriculture fell by about 4 to 6 percent per year, the study finds.

A similar pattern of greater input but less output followed in medical research. The study’s authors analyzed R&D spending on new, federally approved drugs against life expectancy rates as a gauge of productivity. They also examined decreases in mortality rates of cancer patients against medical research publications and clinical trials.

The empirical findings on breast and heart cancer suggest that at least in some areas, “it may get easier to find new ideas at first before getting harder,” the paper states.

Turning its focus to publicly traded companies, the study found a fraction of firms where research productivity—as measured by growth in sales, market capitalization, employment, and revenue-per-worker productivity—grew decade-over-decade since 1980. But overall, more than 85 percent of the firms showed steady, rapid declines in productivity while their spending in R&D rose.

The analysis found research productivity for firms fell, on average, about 10 percent per year. It would take 15 times more researchers today than it did 30 years ago to produce the same rate of economic growth.

Source: May Wong for Stanford University

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Lasers could make beer and bread even better

Tue, 2017-09-19 11:02

Researchers have used a supercontinuum laser to analyze whole grains with long near-infrared wavelengths.

The research has significance for our knowledge of food ingredients and may, for example, eventually lead to better quality of bread and beer.

Technologically, the supercontinuum laser has undergone extensive development since the turn of the century due to the development of the photonic crystal fibers on which the laser is based.

Supercontinuum laser. (Credit: Lene Hundborg Koss/U. Copenhagen)

“The supercontinuum laser has made it possible to measure very small objects rapidly and with high energy. A supercontinuum instrument can therefore potentially be used to measure whole grains and thus find grains with, for example, fungal or insect attacks, or to sort grains by baking, health, or quality parameters,” says Tine Ringsted, a postdoc at the food science department at the University of Copenhagen.

By measuring each grain you can more accurately observe the variation that naturally exists among grains from the same field and even from the same straw. The non-destructive and rapid measurement of individual grains can therefore be used in plant breeding to find desirable properties or in industrial grain sorting to increase quality.

A possible industrial application could be to measure the content of the dietary fiber beta-glucan. Beta-glucan in barley and especially oats has health-promoting properties such as lowering of serum cholesterol, increased satiety, and stabilization of blood sugar and insulin levels after meals.

Conversely, in the brewing industry, they are not interested in high concentrations of beta-glucan, as it can clog filters and create a cloudy precipitate in the finished beer called “grandmother’s cough.”

Measurements on barley flour and barley discs have previously shown some information rich wavelengths, but it has not been possible to measure through the barley grains at these long near-infrared wavelengths due to not having enough energy from the traditional spectrometer lamp.

“The supercontinuum laser’s collimated light beam with high energy meant that we could measure through the entire barley grain at the information-rich wavelengths. By using multivariate data analysis (chemometrics) we could generate a mathematical regression model that could predict beta-glucan content from 3.0-16.8 percent in barley grains with a margin of error of 1.3 percent beta-glucan,” explains Ringsted.

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“A seed sorting will mean that you can obtain some grains that have health-promoting properties for use in bread, for example, and some grains that are extra good for beer. This will give both products a higher value without doing anything, but sorting the grains,” says Ringsted.

Ringsted believes that food analysis with supercontinuum lasers will become a new breakthrough in the food industry, but that it will take some years because the development is based to a high degree on interdisciplinary research, where needs and technology have to fit together.

“It is one thing, for example, to have an instrument that can measure very rapidly and provide accurate answers, but in order for it to be practical, you must also have a sample holder that allows you to measure a large number of grains in a short time,” explains Ringsted. He adds that there is already a Swedish company (BoMill), which has developed a sample holder that can handle three tons of grains per hour, but they measure the grains at shorter and less informative wavelengths.

Measurement of beta-glucan in barley grains is just one example of how a supercontinuum laser can be used. In addition to single grain measurements, the Light & Food project has also examined the supercontinuum laser used in a new robust spectrometer that can potentially measure many places in a food production system. For example, this could be used in the dairy or brewing industry to follow a product from start to finish.

In addition, there is a theoretical potential for using the supercontinuum laser for the rapid measurements of gases—for example, aroma compounds or ethylene which act as a gaseous plant hormone from ripening fruits.

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Overall, near-infrared spectroscopy allows for measuring more often and non-destructively compared to traditional wet chemical analyses.

“A supercontinuum laser provides even more options for food measurements, so it offers great potential for improving the quality of our food in the future,” says Ringsted.

The research findings appear in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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Health gains after 65 mostly go to certain groups

Tue, 2017-09-19 09:32

Older Americans report feeling dramatically healthier than they did 14 years ago but that good health isn’t evenly distributed, with much of the gain going to those who are the wealthiest, most highly educated, and white.

The findings suggest a growing gap in health disparities between high-income, educated white people age 65 and older and those who don’t have the same advantages.

And lack of access to health care can’t explain the disparities, because presumably all seniors—regardless of income—have access to medical treatment through Medicare.

Overall, the number of older adults who reported good health increased 14 percent over the 2000-2014 study period. That bit of good news isn’t really a surprise, says lead author Matthew Davis, assistant professor in the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

But, Davis says he was “amazed” at the clear health disparities according to race, education, and income after adjusting for changes in age and sex. Further, the disparities clearly increased from 2000 to 2014.

“The widening health disparities is particularly striking because older Americans have access to health care,” Davis says. “Policies have to extend beyond just getting people access to health care to get at what’s driving disparities. The lack of improvement in health among all groups could imply that public health initiatives are leaving some people behind.”

Historically, researchers have focused on sick people (say, the proportion of disabled older adults) to measure changes in health over time. The new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, took a different approach, looking instead at healthy people.

The approach isn’t necessarily more comprehensive, Davis, says, just a different measuring stick that and provides a new perspective.

“Prior to our work, little was known about healthy older adults, those people at the opposite end of the spectrum,” he says. “Our argument is that using poor health as a measure of population health is analogous to making conclusions about the economy based only on the poverty rate.”

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Researchers used data from 55,000 older adults in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and who reported their health twice during the year. When health trends were broken down by education, race, and income, the widest disparities occurred when comparing educational attainment.

Older adults with graduate degrees saw the greatest health gains, with 56 more healthy people per thousand by the end of the study, whereas the diploma group remained flat over time.

Whites were more likely than blacks or Hispanics to report being healthy, and that rate increased over time from 442 per 1,000 to 533 per 1,000. The rate of good health for blacks and Hispanics remained flat, but there was an uptick in the rate of good health for other race/ethnicities.

The high-income group reported the most health, and increased steadily from 490 per 1,000 to 603 per 1,000 Overall, 52 percent of healthy older adults were from high-income families, compared to 31 percent among the not-healthy group.

Researchers and policymakers are very interested in tracking the health of older Americans, Davis says. Americans are aging, baby boomers are retiring, and older adults are expensive to care for–by 2050 the population of older adults is expected to nearly double, from 45 million to 84 million, and account for nearly a quarter of the US population.

The study has some limitations: Answers were self-reported, and the study only included people in the community, meaning it didn’t account for people in nursing homes or otherwise institutionalized. Also, there could be changing trends over time in how people perceive health, so “excellent health” as defined by someone in 2000 could mean something different in 2014.

Source: University of Michigan

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