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1 gene error linked to early-onset dementia

Fri, 2018-12-14 14:40

Scientists have discovered a lone mutation in a single gene that causes an inherited form of frontotemporal dementia makes it harder for neurons in the brain to communicate with one another, leading to neurodegeneration.

Unlike the more common Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. People with the illness typically begin to suffer memory loss by their early 60s, but it can affect some people as young as their 40s. There are no effective treatments for the condition, which accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia.

The new findings zero in on the MAPT gene, which makes a protein called tau, also associated with cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease. Identifying the downstream effects of the mutation could help identify new treatment targets for frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other tau-related illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease.

The photo shows neurons (red) with a mutation in the MAPT gene—a gene that makes the protein tau. People with this mutation develop frontotemporal dementia. (Credit: Sidhartha Mahali)

“We have demonstrated that we can capture changes in human cells cultured in a dish that also are appearing in the brains of individuals… with frontotemporal dementia,” says Celeste M. Karch, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis and a senior author of the paper, which appears in Translational Psychiatry.

“Importantly, the approach we are using allows us to zero in on genes and pathways that are altered in cells and in patient brains that may be influenced by compounds already approved by the FDA. We want to evaluate whether any of these compounds could prevent memory loss, or even restore memory, in people with frontotemporal dementia by improving the function of these pathways that have been disrupted,” Karch says.

Communication breakdown

For the study, researchers gathered skin samples from patients with frontotemporal dementia with a specific mutation in the MAPT gene.

The researchers then converted the patients’ skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which have the ability to grow and develop into any cell type in the body. The researchers treated these stem cells with compounds that coaxed them to grow and develop into neurons, which also had the MAPT mutation. Then, using gene-editing technology called CRISPR, the researchers eliminated the mutation in some neurons but not others and observed what happened.

“We found differences in genes and pathways related to cellular communication, suggesting the mutation alters neurons’ ability to communicate,” says co-senior author Carlos Cruchaga, associate professor of psychiatry.

“The initial mutation in MAPT is the key change that starts the disease, and it is a potential target for therapy, but there are other genes downstream from the MAPT gene that also are good targets that may be used to treat the disease.”

Damage prevention

In neurons with the mutation, the researchers found alterations in 61 genes, including genes that make GABA receptors on brain neurons. GABA receptors are the major inhibitory receptors in the brain, and they are key to several types of communication between brain cells.

The researchers identified similar disruptions in genes that make GABA receptors when they did experiments in animal models and analyzed brain tissue from patients who had died with frontotemporal dementia. They also looked at findings from a genomewide association study of more than 2,000 patients with frontotemporal dementia and more than 4,000 without the disorder. That analysis also pointed to GABA-related genes as potential targets.

“Using our stem cell-derived neurons, we have the opportunity, in human tissue, to target some of those GABA genes in advance of the neurodegeneration we see in the postmortem tissue we study,” Harari says. “So, at least in cell cultures, we can learn whether potential therapies prevent the damage caused by inherited forms of frontotemporal dementia.”

By studying rare, inherited forms of brain diseases, the researchers believe they will learn a great deal about how to treat the more common forms of those disorders.

“Genetic forms of frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are caused by rare mutations,” Cruchaga says. “But they have much in common with the more typical cases of those diseases. If we understand these cases caused by inherited mutations, we also should better understand the common forms of these diseases.”

The National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health and the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network funded the study. The Tau Consortium, the Alzheimer Association, the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Raul Carrea Institute for Neurological Research, the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, AMED, and the Korea Health Technology R&D project through the Korea Health Industry Development Institute provided additional funding.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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When kids anticipate touch, it takes focus

Fri, 2018-12-14 13:10

The ability to anticipate also indicates an ability to focus, according to a new study of young children.

The study examines what happens in children’s brains when they anticipate a touch to the hand, and relates this brain activity to the executive functions the child demonstrates on other mental tasks.

Anticipation is often viewed as an emotional experience, an eager wait for something to happen. Inside the brain, the act of anticipating is an exercise in focus, a neural preparation that conveys important visual, auditory, or tactile information about what’s to come.

The new research with 6- to 8-year-old children shows not only this expectation in real time, but also how anticipation relates to executive function skills.

This colored “scalp map” (viewed from the top of a child’s head with the nose forward), shows the average amount of brain activity EEG sensors measured one second prior to a tap delivered to the middle finger of the child’s left or right hand. The image shows that children’s brains register a change in activity in predicted regions (see the dark blue on the scalp map) after they are primed to which hand will receive a tap, in the second prior to receiving the touch. (Credit: Weiss, et al.) Living in the future

“Anticipation is what keeps us from being shocked and surprised by the world,” says Andrew Meltzoff, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and co-director of the university’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “When you pick up a pencil or fork, when someone rolls a ball to you, or when someone approaches you and extends their hand to shake it, you’re anticipating a tactile impact.

“In the real world, we don’t just live in the present; we live partly in the future.”

“We cannot just respond when something has happened; we need to anticipate what will happen. In the real world, we don’t just live in the present; we live partly in the future.”

While other research has examined how children and adults anticipate something they will see, no research has been done on children’s expectation of touch, or the role of touch in measuring children’s executive function skills, says corresponding author Staci Weiss, a doctoral student at Temple University. Other studies, too, have shown that children’s executive function skills at around age six correlate with their academic performance.

“Executive function” is a broad term that encompasses various skills necessary for organizing information and controlling one’s own behavior. Selective attention—the ability to focus on a specific thought or task at the expense of others—is an executive function skill related directly to anticipation, because it involves knowing what to expect of an event, however small, and how to respond to it.

“Anticipatory brain activity prepares for the future, making incoming information a little more predictable so it’s easier to focus attention on what is important. The neural anticipation of touch had not been captured in children,” Weiss says.

“What’s exciting is that children’s ability to anticipate an upcoming event—in this case, a touch to the hand—was related to how well they could control their attention. The amount of change in children’s brain response during anticipation of touch was associated with cognitive skills more broadly, not just in the tactile domain, but in broader ways that might be useful for children in the classroom,” she says.

The moment before the moment

The new study involved 80 children, each of whom wore a cap equipped with special sensors that measure brain activity by detecting minute electrical signals on the child’s scalp, a noninvasive technique called electroencephalography (EEG). The participants watched a screen, where an arrow appeared, pointing either left or right.

Seated with their hands under a desk, the children were told to anticipate a touch to the middle finger of the hand that matched the arrow’s direction. A small, inflatable balloon-like device tapped the designated finger about one and a half seconds after the image of the arrow appeared. This way of providing the touch has been used in a number of studies by the collaborative team, which includes Peter Marshall, a psychology professor at Temple.

“The touch feels like a light tap on the finger” Marshall notes, “and it doesn’t make any noise, which is important for making sure we are measuring anticipation of a touch, not anticipation of a sound.”

“Unlike with visual and auditory stimuli, they’re not turning their head or moving their eyes, they’re just changing their internal focus.”

This study focused on the second before the child was touched—but after the arrows indicated which hand was going to be tapped—the moment of anticipation. The EEG revealed significantly heightened activity where researchers thought it might: an imminent touch to the left hand produced activity on the right side of the brain, and vice versa.

More specifically, there was significant activity at electrodes overlying the somatosensory cortex, where the brain processes touch to the body. This particular region is, generally speaking, a strip of neural tissue that runs between the ears, over the top of the head. A touch to the right hand generates neural activity on the left side of the somatosensory cortex, and a touch to the left hand produces activity on the right side.

“The pattern of brain activity provides evidence that kids anticipated a touch by directing their internal focus to the hand that was going to be tapped. Unlike with visual and auditory stimuli, they’re not turning their head or moving their eyes, they’re just changing their internal focus,” Weiss explains.

Focusing in

Following the anticipation experiment, each child participated in four different activities, part of the Cognition Toolbox from the National Institutes of Health: a picture vocabulary test (examining language skills); an image-matching activity (measuring general processing speed); and two others that specifically test executive function. Those two were a selective attention task that involved ignoring distracting information in a visual scene, and a card-sorting task to examine working memory.

The results showed significant correlations between the brain activity that occurred during the anticipation of touch and children’s ability to respond quickly and accurately on the two executive function measures: the selective attention and card-sorting tasks. No association was found between the anticipatory brain activity and the two control tasks of picture vocabulary or general processing speed, indicating that neural anticipation is relevant to specific cognitive skills, particularly those involved in executive function ability.

The authors believe this is the first study to investigate children’s anticipatory touch using brain measures, and whether individual differences in children’s anticipatory brain responses predict children’s success on other cognitive tasks. And with future work in younger children or that aims to help children learn how to focus and anticipate touch, the researchers suggest the data could lead to interventions designed to develop executive function.

“One of the components of executive function is the ability to direct and control attention, which is important in the modern world, where we’re constantly bombarded by stimuli and have to multitask,” Meltzoff says.

Mindfulness training could be a natural fit, as it exercises the ability to focus.

“There are interventions using mindfulness training and teaching how to direct attention to the body that help children and adults to gain an awareness of themselves and enhance self-control,” Meltzoff says. “We made the leap of suggesting there might be a connection between what the children were doing in this study and some aspects of mindfulness.”

The study shows how early in life children are able to use information from the environment to filter and focus their attention on specific regions of their bodies, Weiss adds.

“It was exciting to learn that individual differences in attention to the body and to touch can be measured in the brain, and may impact young children’s ability to plan and focus. Future studies can help us understand if it is possible to train young children to willfully focus on what they feel,” she says.

The study appears in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. The National Science Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation funded the study.

Source: University of Washington

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Improv training may curb anxiety for teens

Fri, 2018-12-14 11:08

Improvisational theater training can reduce fearfulness and anxiety among teens struggling with social interactions, according to a new study.

School-based improv theater—performing without a script or preparation—may be effective for social phobias and anxiety disorders because it offers a low stigma, low cost, and more accessible context for help in reducing these symptoms, researchers say.

Participating in improv can enhance a student’s well-being and reduce their anxiety, says lead author Peter Felsman, a graduate student in social work and psychology at the University of Michigan.

“In addition, the mutual support that improvisation rewards builds trust, helping group members feel safer taking risks and more willing to make mistakes,” he says.

Felsman and colleagues say this is the first study to examine whether improvisational training can be linked to reduced social anxiety in a school setting.

For the study, nearly 270 Detroit high school and middle school students participated in a 10-week school improvisational theater program that the Detroit Creativity Project offered. The students completed questionnaires before and after the program, allowing them to assess statements such as, “I am comfortable performing for others” and “I am willing to make mistakes.”

“These findings show that reductions in social anxiety were related to increased confidence in social skills, ability to figure out how to achieve goals and take action to do so (hope), creative ability, and greater willingness to make mistakes,” says coauthor Colleen Seifert, a professor of psychology.

While the findings contribute to research on therapies for mental health, the study’s authors note that the study sample focuses on participants from poorer, lower-performing schools where barriers to accessing standard treatments for social anxiety are greater than in better-resourced contexts.

“For adolescents at wealthier, higher-performing schools with access to more traditional treatments, participating in improvisational theater training may predict different outcomes,” says coauthor Joseph Himle, professor of social work and psychiatry. “Future research can examine this further.”

The findings appear in the current issue of the Arts in Psychotherapy.

Source: University of Michigan

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Clothing patch is like a personal heating system

Fri, 2018-12-14 10:47

Instead of turning up the thermostat, high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes may one day keep you warm and significantly reduce your electric bill and carbon footprint at the same time.

Engineers have discovered a way to use intense pulses of light to fuse tiny silver wires with polyester to make thin, durable heating patches. Their heating performance is nearly 70 percent higher than similar patches, according to a new study, which appears in Scientific Reports.

They are inexpensive, can get power via coin batteries, and are able to generate heat where the human body needs it since they can be sewn onto clothing.

This image shows how researchers made the personal heating patch from polyester fabric fused with tiny silver wires, using pulses of intense light from a xenon lamp. (Credit: Hyun-Jun Hwang and Rajiv Malhotra/Rutgers) Wasted energy

“This is important in the built environment, where we waste lots of energy by heating buildings—instead of selectively heating the human body,” says senior author Rajiv Malhotra, an assistant professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

It is estimated that 47 percent of global energy is used for indoor heating, and 42 percent of that energy is wasted to heat empty space and objects instead of people. Solving the global energy crisis—a major contributor to global warming—would require a sharp reduction in energy for indoor heating.

Personal thermal management, which focuses on heating the human body as needed, is an emerging potential solution. Such patches may also someday help warm anyone who works or plays outdoors.

Smart fabrics

To create the patches, engineers used “intense pulsed-light sintering” to fuse silver nanowires to polyester fibers. The nanowires are thousands of times thinner than a human hair. The process only takes 300 millionths of a second.

When compared with the current state-of-the-art thermal patches, the new creation generates more heat per patch area and is more durable after bending, washing, and exposure to humidity and high temperature.

The next step is to see if the new method can be used to create other smart fabrics, including patch-based sensors and circuits. The engineers also want to find out how many patches are needed and the best placement to keep users comfortable while reducing indoor energy consumption.

Additional researchers are from Rutgers and Oregon State University. The National Science Foundation and Walmart US Manufacturing Innovation Fund supported the work.

Source: Rutgers University

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Once you lack folate, the damage can’t be fixed

Fri, 2018-12-14 10:04

Folate deficiency creates more problems in connection with cell division and DNA replication than previously thought, a study shows.

Once a person lacks folate, the resulting damage is irreversible. The researchers therefore encourage people to be more aware of the level of folate in the blood.

Folate is a type of vitamin B found in, for example, broccoli, spinach, peas, mushrooms, shellfish, and fruit such as bananas and melon. The Danish Health Authority recommends that pregnant women and women trying to get pregnant take a daily supplement of folic acid. But everyone, not just pregnant and soon-to-be pregnant women, should focus on this vitamin, says the last author of the study, associate professor Ying Liu from the Center for Chromosome Stability at the department of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of Copenhagen.

“The problem with folate deficiency is that it affects chromosome maintenance, and once a cell has lost a chromosome or part of it, it can never be fixed. That is, once cell division has gone wrong, you cannot fix it subsequently by consuming a lot of folic acid. Once the damage is done, it is irreversible,” says Liu.

“Therefore, we need a guide telling us what the level of folate in the blood in the population in general should be. Once we have that knowledge, we can determine whether a person needs folic acid supplements to make sure the level in the blood is high enough for the cells to reproduce the DNA successfully.”

A blood sample can determine the level of folate in the blood. Researchers have known for many years that folate deficiency is associated with mental illness, age-related dementia, and deformation of the brain and spinal cord of fetuses, also known as neural tube defects. But they have not been able to establish the causality—that is, whether folate deficiency directly causes the disorders or the disorders result from the secondary effect of folate deficiency.

To answer this question, the researchers studied lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell, from men. However, the results would also apply to women, Liu says.

The researchers analyzed the part of the genome called FRAXA, which contains an extensive so-called CGG sequence, a genetic code. Here they saw that folate deficiency caused abnormalities in connection with cell division, mitosis, especially in cells with an abnormally long CGG sequence. Among other things, it caused faulty segregation of chromosomes. The researchers also saw how the entire X chromosome became unstable in cases of long exposure to folate deficiency.

“In the study, we demonstrate that folate deficiency leads to both higher levels of and more harmful chromosome abnormalities than previously known. This causes the daughter cells to inherit the incorrect amount of DNA following cell division or, in some cases, to even lose an entire chromosome. This could explain why folate deficiency is associated with diseases like infertility, mental health disorders, and cancer,” Liu explains.

Other parts of the genome also contain extensive CGG sequences. The researchers assume that folate deficiency will also affect those regions. As a next step, they aim to map all the areas of the human genome that folate deficiency may affect.

The research appears in PNAS. Funding came from the Nordea Foundation, the US National Institute of Health, the Danish National Research Foundation, and the European Union Horizon 2020 program.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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When teens sleep in, grades go up

Fri, 2018-12-14 09:53

When school begins later, teens get more snooze time—and grades and attendance improve, a new study shows.

After public schools in Seattle reorganized school start times, teens got more sleep on school nights—a median increase of 34 minutes of sleep each night. This boosted the total amount of sleep on school nights from a median of six hours and 50 minutes, under the earlier start time, to seven hours and 24 minutes under the later start time, according to a new paper in Science Advances.

“This study shows a significant improvement in the sleep duration of students—all by delaying school start times so that they’re more in line with the natural wake-up times of adolescents,” says senior and corresponding author Horacio de la Iglesia, a professor of biology at the University of Washington.

The study collected light and activity data from subjects using wrist activity monitors—rather than relying solely on self-reported sleep patterns from subjects, as is often done in sleep studies—to show that a later school start time benefits adolescents by letting them sleep longer each night.

Further, after the change in school start time, students did not stay up significantly later: They simply slept in longer, a behavior that scientists say is consistent with the natural biological rhythms of adolescents.

Teens are different

“Research to date has shown that the circadian rhythms of adolescents are simply fundamentally different from those of adults and children,” says lead author Gideon Dunster, a biology doctoral student.

“To ask a teen to be up and alert at 7:30 am is like asking an adult to be active and alert at 5:30 am.”

In humans, the churnings of our circadian rhythms help our minds and bodies maintain an internal “clock” that tells us when it is time to eat, sleep, rest, and work on a world that spins once on its axis approximately every 24 hours.

Our genes and external cues from the environment, such as sunlight, combine to create and maintain this steady hum of activity. But the onset of puberty lengthens the circadian cycle in adolescents and also decreases the rhythm’s sensitivity to light in the morning. These changes cause teens to fall asleep later each night and wake up later each morning relative to most children and adults.

“To ask a teen to be up and alert at 7:30 am is like asking an adult to be active and alert at 5:30 am,” de la Iglesia says.

Disrupted rhythms

Scientists generally recommend that teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. But early-morning social obligations—such as school start times—force adolescents to either shift their entire sleep schedule earlier on school nights or truncate it.

Certain light-emitting devices—such as smartphones, computers, and even lamps with blue-light LED bulbs—can interfere with circadian rhythms in teens and adults alike, delaying the onset of sleep, de la Iglesia says.

According to a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of youth released in 2017, only one-quarter of high school age adolescents reported sleeping the minimum recommended eight hours each night.

“All of the studies of adolescent sleep patterns in the United States are showing that the time at which teens generally fall asleep is biologically determined—but the time at which they wake up is socially determined,” Dunster says.

“This has severe consequences for health and well-being, because disrupted circadian rhythms can adversely affect digestion, heart rate, body temperature, immune system function, attention span, and mental health.”

Additional researchers from the University of Washington and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies contributed to the study.

Source: University of Washington

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Hospitals may dole out hip, knee replacements unfairly

Fri, 2018-12-14 08:37

Members of minority and lower-income populations are less likely to be eligible for hip or knee replacement surgery because they don’t meet rigid, unfairly applied hospital criteria for the operations, researchers say.

The requirements—in areas such as weight, blood sugar, and tobacco use—are designed to reduce complications and lower costs. But, they may also unintentionally deny members of minority and lower-income groups access to treatments that would improve their lives, researchers say.

The study appears in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research.

“Many doctors don’t realize that they are discriminating against minority groups and those of lower socioeconomic status by performing selective surgeries based on inflexible cutoffs,” says senior author Casey Humbyrd, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Our study was designed to show physicians that there are sometimes unintended consequences to their daily practices that play a role in shaping health disparities.”

Inflexible cutoffs

According to data from Nationwide Inpatient Sample, a database operated by a public/private partnership, more than 1 million hip and knee replacement surgeries occur annually in the United States. These surgeries improve health and patient quality of life, because people with untreated knee and hip problems are in more pain, are less mobile, and less able to work.

To cut costs and improve quality, hospitals set up eligibility criteria to prevent surgeries that statistically have worse outcomes and are considered high-risk. The criteria tend to exclude those diagnosed with at least severe obesity (a body mass index over 35), people with high blood sugar levels, and smokers.

“We need to give the decision-making power back to these patients and create a system to help them get care.”

Those risk factors are usually more prevalent in disadvantaged populations, researchers say. The study aimed to measure how these inflexible cutoffs would worsen health disparities and to identify the disadvantaged groups affected.

Researchers collected data from 21,294 adults over age 50 who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Non-Hispanic whites made up 52 percent of the participants, and non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics each accounted for around 20 percent.

The researchers didn’t know if the subjects needed hip or knee replacements or ultimately got them; the survey wasn’t set up to monitor for this. They applied the eligibility criteria to the whole population in the NHANES data and then analyzed how eligibility was distributed across racial and ethnic groups, males and females, people with an annual household income below or above $45,000, and people with an education level below or beyond high school.

Rich and white

Patients who met cutoff factors tended to have higher incomes, have more education, and be white.

For example, allowing only those with a BMI under 35 to have surgery would result in African Americans being denied 38 percent more often than whites. Overall, women were 39 percent less likely to be eligible than men. People with household incomes less than $45,000 were 19 percent less likely to receive surgery than people with higher income, and people with a high school diploma or fewer years of education were 34 percent less likely to be eligible for the surgery than people with more education.

Excluding smokers from eligible patients gives African Americans a 16 percent less chance of being eligible than whites.

“Applying broad eligibility criteria to minimize risk doesn’t work for everyone, and it unfairly affects minorities,” Humbyrd says. “A lot of people, especially vulnerable, often discriminated-against populations, don’t have access to the care they need. We need to give the decision-making power back to these patients and create a system to help them get care.”

Instead of automatically excluding high-risk populations with inflexible criteria, there should be more conversations between doctors and patients on managing individualized surgical risks, Humbyrd suggests. For example, doctors and patients can work together to control blood sugar before the surgery, and patients can refrain from smoking around time of surgery.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Dean’s Summer Research Fund and the Department of Veterans Affairs funded the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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An exoplanet is vanishing—and really fast

Thu, 2018-12-13 15:42

An exoplanet almost 100 light years away from Earth is disappearing, and—by cosmic standards—disappearing fast, astronomers report.

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered GJ 3470b—a medium-sized exoplanet roughly the size of Neptune is evaporating at a rate 100 times faster than a previously discovered planet of similar size.

“This is the smoking gun that planets can lose a significant fraction of their entire mass,” says David Sing, professor of astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University and an author of the study.

This artist’s illustration shows a giant cloud of hydrogen streaming off a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 97 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet is tiny compared to its star, a red dwarf named GJ 3470. The star’s intense radiation is heating the hydrogen in the planet’s upper atmosphere to a point where it escapes into space. (Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Player/STScI)

“GJ 3470b is losing more of its mass than any other planet we have seen so far; in only a few billion years from now, half of the planet may be gone.”

The findings, which appear in Astronomy & Astrophysics, advance knowledge about how planets evolve.

Hard to watch

The study is part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury program, which Sing leads, which aims to measure the atmospheres of 20 exoplanets in ultraviolet, optical, and infrared light as they orbit their stars. PanCET is the largest exoplanet observation program run with NASA’s Hubble telescope.

One particular issue of interest to astronomers is how planets lose their mass through evaporation. Planets such as “super” Earths and “hot” Jupiters orbit closer to their stars and are therefore hotter, which causes evaporation to blow away the outermost layer of their atmospheres.

This graphic plots exoplanets based on their size and distance from their star. Each dot represents an exoplanet. Planets the size of Jupiter (located at the top of the graphic) and planets the size of Earth and so-called super-Earths (at the bottom) are found both close and far from their star. But planets the size of Neptune (in the middle of the plot) are scarce close to their star. This so-called desert of hot Neptunes shows that such alien worlds are rare, or, they were plentiful at one time, but have since disappeared. The discovery that GJ 3470b, a warm Neptune at the border of the desert, is fast losing its atmosphere suggests that hotter Neptunes may have eroded down to smaller, rocky super-Earths. (Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Field/STScI)

While these larger Jupiter-sized and smaller Earth-sized exoplanets are plentiful, medium Neptune-sized exoplanets (roughly four times larger than Earth) are rare. Researchers hypothesize that the atmospheres of these Neptunes get stripped off and they ultimately turn into smaller planets.

It’s difficult, however, to actively witness them doing so, because researchers can only study them in UV light, which limits researchers to examining nearby stars no more than 150 light-years away from Earth, not obscured by interstellar material.

Nothing but a rocky core

GJ 3470b is 96 light-years away and circles a red dwarf star in the general direction of the constellation Cancer.

Hubble found that exoplanet GJ 3470b had lost significantly more mass and had a noticeably smaller exosphere than the first Neptune-sized exoplanet studied, GJ 436b, due to its lower density and receipt of a stronger radiation blast from its host star.

GJ 3470b’s lower density makes it unable to gravitationally hang on to the heated atmosphere, and while the star hosting GJ 436b was between 4 billion and 8 billion years old, the star hosting GJ 3470b is only 2 billion years old. A younger star is more active and powerful, and, therefore, has more radiation to heat the planet’s atmosphere.

Sing’s team estimates that GJ 3470b may have already lost up to 35 percent of its total mass and, in a few billion years, all of its gas may be stripped off, leaving behind only a rocky core.

“We’re starting to better understand how planets are shaped and what properties influence their overall makeup,” Sing says. “Our goal with this study and the overarching PanCET program is to take a broad look at these planets’ atmospheres to determine how each planet is affected by its own environment. By comparing different planets, we can start piecing together the larger picture in how they evolve.”

Sing and the team hope to study more exoplanets by searching for helium in infrared light, which will allow a greater search range than searching for hydrogen in UV light.

Currently, the only way to study planets made largely of hydrogen and helium is through tracing hydrogen in UV light. Using Hubble, the upcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope (which will have a greater sensitivity to helium), and a new instrument called Carmenes that Sing recently found can precisely track the trajectory of helium atoms, astronomers will be able to broaden their pursuit of distant planets.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Moving around now may improve your mood later

Thu, 2018-12-13 15:35

Increases in physical activity tend to be followed by increases in mood and perceived energy level, research finds.

This beneficial effect was even more pronounced for study subjects who had bipolar disorder.

Participants, 242 adults, ages 15 to 84, with an average age of 48 years, used activity trackers and electronic diaries for two weeks. The sample included 54 people with bipolar disorder.

The wrist-worn devices automatically recorded levels of physical movement in real time and diary entries assessed mood and perceived energy levels four times a day. Participants used a seven-point scale ranging from “very happy” to “very sad” for mood and from “very tired” to “very energetic” for energy.

“Systems regulating sleep, motor activity, and mood have typically been studied independently,” says Vadim Zipunnikov, assistant professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. He led the data analysis. “This work demonstrates the importance of examining these systems jointly rather than in isolation.”

The findings show that, on average, a higher activity level at one time-point was associated with improved mood and increased perceived energy at the next time-point during the day. (The daily time-points were personalized according to the person’s daily schedule, with one each in the morning, at lunchtime, at dinnertime, and before bed.) Likewise, increased energy at one time-point was associated with increased activity at the next time-point. These associations were controlled for the current levels of mood, energy, and activity, respectively.

Activity was inversely associated with sleep duration—more activity tended to be followed by less sleep that night, and more sleep tended to be followed by less activity the next day.

Tracking sleep, activity, mood, and energy concurrently was particularly important in people with bipolar disorder because both sleep and physical activity strongly influenced the changes in internal psychological states. Many of the current interventions for mood, sleep, and physical activity focus on only one of these systems rather than considering the collective impact across multiple systems.

Bipolar disorder affects nearly 3 percent of the US adult population; depression is even more common, affecting about 8 percent of US adults in a given year. The research team is interested in applying this work to interventions that could offset depressive episodes in people with bipolar disorder.

“This study exemplifies the potential for combining the use of physical-activity trackers and electronic diaries to better understand the complex dynamic interrelationships among multiple systems in a real-time and real-life context,” Zipunnikov says.

The team is now exploring how physical activity and sleep interplay with pain, stress, and alcohol use through an international consortium, Motor Activity Research Consortium for Health.

The findings appear in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Funding for the study came from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Mission finds watery ‘hydroxyls’ on asteroid Bennu

Thu, 2018-12-13 14:30

The OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu has discovered evidence of water molecules there, researchers report.

From August through early December, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft aimed three of its instruments toward Bennu and began making the mission’s first observations of the asteroid. During this period, the spacecraft traveled the last 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km) of its outbound journey to arrive at a spot 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu on December 3.

The information obtained from these initial observations confirms many of the mission team’s ground-based observations of Bennu and reveals several new surprises.

Hydroxyls in space

In a key finding for the mission’s science investigation, data from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers—the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer, or OVIRS, and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer—reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.”

The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, the rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

“This finding may provide an important link between what we think happened in space with asteroids like Bennu and what we see in the meteorites that scientists study in the lab,” says Ellen Howell, senior research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, and a member of the mission’s spectral analysis group.

“It is very exciting to see these hydrated minerals distributed across Bennu’s surface, because it suggests they are an intrinsic part of Bennu’s composition, not just sprinkled on its surface by an impactor.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” says Amy Simon, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Bennu’s shape

Additionally, data from the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) corroborate ground-based radar observations of Bennu and confirm that the original model—which OSIRIS-REx science team chief Michael Nolan, now based at LPL, and collaborators developed in 2013—closely predicted the asteroid’s actual shape. Bennu’s diameter, rotation rate, inclination, and overall shape presented almost exactly as projected.

Soon after the asteroid later named Bennu was discovered in 1999, Nolan’s group used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to gather clues about its size, shape, and rotation by bouncing radar waves off of it during one of its close approaches to Earth, about five times the distance between Earth and the moon.

“Radar observations don’t give us any information about colors or brightness of the object, so it is really interesting to see the asteroid up close through the eyes of OSIRIS-REx,” Nolan says. “As we are getting more details, we are figuring out where the craters and boulders are, and we were very pleasantly surprised that virtually every little bump we saw in our radar image back then is actually really there.”

The mission team used this ground-based Bennu model when designing the OSIRIS-REx mission. The accuracy of the model means that the mission, spacecraft, and planned observations were appropriately designed for the tasks ahead at Bennu.

One outlier from the predicted shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole. The ground-based shape model calculated this boulder to be at least 33 feet (10 meters) in height. Preliminary calculations from OCAMS observations show that the boulder is closer to 164 feet (50 meters) in height, with a width of approximately 180 feet (55 meters).

‘The right asteroid’

As expected, the initial assessment of Bennu’s regolith indicates that the surface of Bennu is a mix of very rocky, boulder-filled regions and a few relatively smooth regions that lack boulders. However, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than was expected. The team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu for later return to Earth.

“Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far,” says Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at LPL. “The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin.”

“What used to be science fiction is now a reality,” says Robert C. Robbins, president of the University of Arizona. “Our work at Bennu brings us a step closer to the possibility of asteroids providing astronauts on future missions into the solar system with resources like fuel and water.”

The mission is currently performing a preliminary survey of the asteroid, flying the spacecraft in passes over Bennu’s north pole, equator, and south pole at ranges as close as 4.4 miles (7 km) to better determine the asteroid’s mass. This survey also provides the first opportunity for the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter, an instrument the Canadian Space Agency contributed, to make observations now that the spacecraft is in proximity to Bennu.

The spacecraft’s first orbital insertion is scheduled for December 31, and OSIRIS-REx will remain in orbit until mid-February 2019, when the mission transitions into the next survey phase. During this first orbital phase, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid at a range of 0.9 miles (1.4 km) to 1.24 miles (2 km) from the center of Bennu—setting two new records for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft and the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.

Team members of the mission presented the results at the Annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lauretta is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: University of Arizona

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Knowing just one gay person shifts attitudes

Thu, 2018-12-13 14:23

People who met and became acquainted with at least one gay person were more likely to later change their minds about marriage equality and become more accepting of gay and lesbian people in general, research shows.

Sociologists have long proposed that when people establish certain relationships, they may change their attitudes about issues, often referred to as the contact effect, explains Daniel DellaPosta, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State and an affiliate of the Institute for CyberScience.

For example, sociologists have debated whether knowing a person with a different sexual orientation can influence attitudes on larger issues, such as the acceptance of gay rights and marriage equality. However, prior to this study, the theory had yet to face rigorous testing.

“When you suddenly have to interact with someone from an outgroup as an individual, it forces you to reconsider your biases.”

“What I thought we needed in this area was a test of the contact hypothesis that was conservative—perhaps overly conservative—using the most stringent test we could possibly devise,” says DellaPosta.

DellaPosta examined data from the 2006, 2008, and 2010 editions of General Social Survey, or GSS, a sociological survey of opinions that Americans hold on a range of issues.

In 2006, about 45 percent of the people who had a gay or lesbian acquaintance expressed support for same-sex marriage. By 2010, that figure had increased to 61 percent. In 2006, only 22 percent people who did not have a gay or lesbian acquaintance said they approved of same-sex marriage. That number fell to 18 percent in 2010.

DellaPosta says that the survey data do not reveal exactly when these relationships began, which makes the test more rigorous.

“By taking people in that 2006 baseline who were acquainted with gay and lesbian people and comparing them with other people who were similar in all visible regards, including their measured attitude toward same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian people at that 2006 baseline, who were not acquainted with gay and lesbian people, you can get a really conservative test of the contact hypothesis,” says DellaPosta, who reports his findings in the journal Socius.

The findings could clarify how gay and lesbian people who come out affect the general acceptance of gay and lesbian people. In the 1973 GSS, just 11 percent of Americans felt “homosexuality is not wrong at all.” By 2016, that number had grown to 52 percent.

DellaPosta suggests that coming out may facilitate more contact with gay and lesbian people, which then accelerates an attitude change about issues that affect the gay community.

Further, DellaPosta suggests that the contact with a gay person does not even need to be especially deep for the contact effect to appear.

“If you have very superficial contact, like just seeing someone from an outgroup in the grocery store or on the subway, you may focus more on selective behaviors that reinforce your prejudices—like someone dressing, talking, or acting in a way that reinforces some negative stereotype of that group,” says DellaPosta. “But, if you take the next level to mere acquaintanceship—someone whose name you know, someone who, if you saw them on the street, you might stop and chat with them for a moment—the contact effect sets in because when you suddenly have to interact with someone from an outgroup as an individual, it forces you to reconsider your biases.”

According to DellaPosta, having a closer, deeper bond with a gay or lesbian acquaintance did not result in an even larger shift of attitude toward same-sex marriage. He adds that the contact effect is actually larger for people who have a low probability of having a gay or lesbian acquaintance.

The GSS, created in 1972, is a sociological survey that the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago conducts. About 2,000 people responded to the GSS 2006 survey, but only a smaller portion were asked about their acquaintances and re-surveyed in 2008 and 2010. Just over half—about 53 percent—of those surveyed said they had at least one gay acquaintance.

Computations for this research took place at Penn State’s Institute for CyberScience Advanced CyberInfrastructure (ICS-ACI).

Source: Penn State

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Your phone could work at extreme temps with new plastic

Thu, 2018-12-13 12:46

Researchers have created a new kind of plastic material that could help electronics function in extreme heat.

The new plastic material could reliably conduct electricity in up to 220 degrees Celsius (428 F), according to a paper in Science.

“Commercial electronics operate between minus 40 and 85 degrees Celsius. Beyond this range, they’re going to malfunction,” says Jianguo Mei, an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Purdue University. “We created a material that can operate at high temperatures by blending two polymers together.”

One of these is a semiconductor, which can conduct electricity, and the other is a conventional insulating polymer, which is what you might picture when you think of regular plastic. To make this technology work for electronics, the researchers couldn’t just meld the two together—they had to tinker with ratios.

A new organic plastic allows electronics to function in extreme temperatures without sacrificing performance. (Credit:John Underwood/Purdue)

“One of the plastics transports the charge, and the other can withstand high temperatures,” says Aristide Gumyusenge, a graduate researcher and lead author of the paper. “When you blend them together, you have to find the right ratio so that they merge nicely and one doesn’t dominate the other.”

The researchers discovered a few properties that are essential to make this work. The two materials need to be compatible to mix and each should be present in roughly the same ratio. This results in an organized, interpenetrating network that allows the electrical charge to flow evenly throughout while holding its shape in extreme temperatures.

The most impressive thing about this new material isn’t its ability to conduct electricity in extreme temperatures, but that its performance doesn’t seem to change. Usually, the performance of electronics depends on temperature—think about how fast your laptop would work in your climate-controlled office versus the Arizona desert. The performance of this new polymer blend remains stable across a wide temperature range.

“A lot of applications are limited by the fact that these plastics will break down at high temperatures…”

Extreme-temperature electronics might be useful for scientists in Antarctica or travelers wandering the Sahara, but they’re also critical to the functioning of cars and planes everywhere. In a moving vehicle, the exhaust is so hot that sensors can’t be too close and fuel consumption must be monitored remotely. If sensors could be directly attached to the exhaust, operators would get a more accurate reading. This is especially important for aircraft, which have hundreds of thousands of sensors.

“A lot of applications are limited by the fact that these plastics will break down at high temperatures, and this could be a way to change that,” says Brett Savoie, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. “Solar cells, transistors, and sensors all need to tolerate large temperature changes in many applications, so dealing with stability issues at high temperatures is really critical for polymer-based electronics.”

The researchers will conduct further experiments to figure out what the true temperature limits are (high and low) for their new material. Making organic electronics work in the freezing cold is even more difficult than making them work in extreme heat, Mei says.

Awards from the Purdue University Startup fund, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program, and the National Science Foundation CAREER program funded the work.

Source: Purdue University

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Exercise at night won’t mess up your sleep

Thu, 2018-12-13 12:37

Exercising at night doesn’t have a negative effect on sleep quality, according to a new study.

Researchers combed through the literature on the subject and analyzed all 23 studies that met their quality requirements. They conclude that exercising in the four hours before going to bed does not have a negative effect on sleep.

“If doing sport in the evening has any effect on sleep quality at all, it’s rather a positive effect, albeit only a mild one,” says Christina Spengler, head of the Exercise Physiology Lab at ETH Zurich.

Moderate intensity exercise shortly before bedtime does not negatively affect sleep. At most, vigorous exercise close to bedtime might have a negative effect. Each symbol in this overview represents one set of experimental data. (Credit: Jan Stutz/ETH Zurich)

By combining the data from the different studies, the researchers showed that in the night after study participants had done some sport in the evening, they spent 21.2 percent of their sleeping time in deep sleep. Following an evening without exercise, the average figure was 19.9 percent. While the difference is small, it is statistically significant. Deep sleep phases are especially important for physical recovery.

One exception

Vigorous training within an hour before bedtime is an exception to the rule. According to this analysis, it is the only type of evening exercise that may have a negative effect on sleep. “However, this preliminary observation is based on just one study,” Spengler says.

“As a rule of thumb, vigorous training is defined as training in which a person is unable to talk. Moderate training is physical activity of an intensity high enough that a person would no longer be able to sing, but they could speak,” Spengler says. One example of vigorous training is the kind of high-intensity interval training that competitive athletes often perform. In many cases, though, a longer endurance run or a longer ride on a racing bike would fall into the moderate training category.

As the analysis showed, it took study participants who completed an intensive training session shortly before bedtime longer to fall asleep. The study also provided insight into why this is the case: the test subjects were not able to recover sufficiently in the hour before they went to bed. Their hearts were still beating more than 20 beats per minute faster than their resting heart rate.

Don’t hesitate

According to the official recommendations of sport physicians, people should do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Many may ask themselves: should I exercise in the evening if I didn’t have time during the day, or will that have a negative effect on my sleep?

“People can do exercise in the evening without hesitation. The data shows that moderate exercise in the evening is no problem at all,” says Jan Stutz, a doctoral student in Spengler’s research group and lead author of the analysis. Moderate exercise did not cause sleep problems in any of the studies researchers examined, not even when the training session ended just 30 minutes before bedtime.

“However, vigorous training or competitions should be scheduled earlier in the day, if possible,” Stutz says.

Stutz and Spengler point out that they examined average values over the course of their analysis, which made only general statements possible.

“Not everyone reacts to exercise in the same way, and people should keep listening to their bodies. If they notice they are having problems falling asleep after doing sport, they should try to work out a little earlier,” Stutz says.

“It is well known that doing exercise during the day improves sleep quality,” Spengler says, adding: “Now we have shown that, at the very least, exercising in the evening doesn’t have a negative effect.”

The research appears in the journal Sports Medicine.

Source: ETH Zurich

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Bees wearing backpacks could replace some drones

Thu, 2018-12-13 11:33

Engineers have created a sensing system small enough to ride aboard a bumble bee. The system’s tiny rechargeable battery lasts for seven hours of flight and recharges while the bees are in their hive at night.

The system could one day replace drones to soar over huge farm fields and monitor temperature, humidity, or crop health. Drones need so much power to fly they can’t get very far without needing a charge.

“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” says senior author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”

Vikram Iyer investigates how a bumblebee (flying inside the container) performs with the sensor package attached to its back. (Credit: Mark Stone/U. Washington) 7 grains of rice

While using insects instead of drones solves the power problem, the technique has its own set of complications: First, insects can’t carry much weight. And second, GPS receivers, which work well for helping drones report their positions, consume too much power for this application. To develop a sensor package that could fit on an insect and sense its location, the team had to address both issues.

“We decided to use bumble bees because they’re large enough to carry a tiny battery that can power our system, and they return to a hive every night where we could wirelessly recharge the batteries,” says coauthor Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the electrical & computer engineering department. “For this research we followed the best methods for care and handling of these creatures.”

Previously other research groups have fitted bumble bees with simple “backpacks” by supergluing small trackers, like radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags, to them to follow their movement. For these types of experiments, researchers put a bee in the freezer for a few minutes to slow it down before they glue on the backpack. When they’re finished with the experiment, the team removes the backpack through a similar process.

These prior studies, however, only involved backpacks that simply tracked bees’ locations over short distances—around 10 inches—and didn’t carry anything to survey the environment around them. For this study, researchers designed a sensor backpack that rides on the bees’ backs and weighs 102 milligrams—about the weight of seven grains of uncooked rice.

“The rechargeable battery powering the backpack weighs about 70 milligrams, so we had a little over 30 milligrams left for everything else, like the sensors and the localization system to track the insect’s position,” says coauthor Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in the Allen School.

‘Hey bees…’

Because bees don’t advertise where they are flying and because GPS receivers are too power-hungry to ride on a tiny insect, the team came up with a method that uses no power to localize the bees. The researchers set up multiple antennas that broadcasted signals from a base station across a specific area. A receiver in a bee’s backpack uses the strength of the signal and the angle difference between the bee and the base station to triangulate the insect’s position.

“To test the localization system, we did an experiment on a soccer field,” says coauthor Anran Wang, a doctoral student in the Allen School. “We set up our base station with four antennas on one side of the field, and then we had a bee with a backpack flying around in a jar that we moved away from the antennas. We were able to detect the bee’s position as long as it was within 80 meters, about three-quarters the length of a football field, of the antennas.”

Next the team added a series of small sensors—monitoring temperature, humidity, and light intensity—to the backpack. That way, the bees could collect data and log that information along with their location, and eventually compile information about a whole farm.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” says coauthor Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.'”

Back at the hive

After the bees have finished their day of foraging, they return to their hive where the backpack can upload any data it collected via a method called backscatter, through which a device can share information by reflecting radio waves transmitted from a nearby antenna.

Right now the backpacks can only store about 30 kilobytes of data, so they are limited to carrying sensors that create small amounts of data. Also, the backpacks can upload data only when the bees return to the hive. The team would eventually like to develop backpacks with cameras that can livestream information about plant health back to farmers.

“Having insects carry these sensor systems could be beneficial for farms because bees can sense things that electronic objects, like drones, cannot,” Gollakota says.

“With a drone, you’re just flying around randomly, while a bee is going to be drawn to specific things, like the plants it prefers to pollinate. And on top of learning about the environment, you can also learn a lot about how the bees behave.”

The research team will present its findings online and at the ACM MobiCom 2019 conference.

Source: University of Washington

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How to make STEM more inclusive of black women

Thu, 2018-12-13 10:31

There are concrete ways to promote black women in their efforts to study and work in STEM fields, a new study argues.

The National Science Foundation reports that women of color constitute fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers. And the women of color who are in STEM aren’t necessarily seeing their identities reflected and incorporated in STEM fields.

“Imagine walking into a lab or a classroom and seeing pictures of people on the walls that are nothing like you,” says Terrell Morton, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri. “People have a very narrow view of what science looks like, and right now, it’s older white men wearing goggles and holding beakers. When a young woman of color sees those images in a learning environment, it can make her feel unwelcome because there is nothing in that image that represents her.”

Morton says educators can help support women of color pursuing STEM degrees by creating inclusive classroom environments and prioritizing activities that intentionally and meaningfully incorporate students’ personal identities and experiences.

For example:

  • Being mindful of the images on the walls of classrooms and labs and the identities they represent.
  • Being mindful of the readings used, problems investigated, solutions generated in courses, and whose voice(s) and communities are and are not represented.
  • Asking students to share their stories, backgrounds, and goals with the class. This encourages community support and helps all students succeed.
  • Provide diverse historical and contemporary role models (their background and their work) in STEM classes through case studies, stories, films, guest speakers, and class instruction.

Morton interviewed 10 black women in STEM programs at two southeastern universities to hear their experiences of pursuing a degree in a field that is overwhelmingly white and male. Morton found that despite many alienating and isolating classroom experiences in pursuit of their degrees, all of the black women in the study firmly wanted to continue in the field.

“The women understand their identity to be both socially regulated and self-determined,” Morton says. “This means that they recognize that society feels a certain way about black women and pictures them in certain roles. However, the women also saw themselves as successful and resilient because they are thriving in a field that society tells them they shouldn’t be in.”

Morton says many of the women felt their career goals met challenges outside of the classroom as well, often by members of their immediate community. For example, one of the women Morton spoke with said a person in her church pulled her aside and told her that she was being too ambitious by pursuing a doctoral degree in a STEM field. The woman encouraged the student to think seriously about a plan B, in case things “went south” for her.

Morton says these micro-aggressive behaviors are reflective of the implicit biases that people develop and can hinder society’s progress over time. However, educators can use the tips above to create an inclusive and supportive environment for black women.

“People buy into these notions that only certain people can access certain spaces and do certain things,” Morton says. “When somebody tells a black woman that her STEM studies are too ambitious, they are inferring that STEM careers are reserved for people who don’t look like her. However, the women I spoke to were very strong-willed despite these challenges and asserted that they would write their own stories and not buy into other people’s narratives.”

The study appears in in Science Education. Eileen C. Parsons, professor of science education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is coauthor.

Support for the work came 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 agencies.

Source: University of Missouri

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Yes, protests really can sway elections

Thu, 2018-12-13 10:29

Protests really do have an effect on election results, according to a new study based on 30 years of data.

The study finds that spikes in both liberal and conservative protest activity can increase or decrease a candidate’s vote by enough to change the final outcome.

“Many people are skeptical that protests matter to electoral outcomes, but our paper finds that they have a profound effect on voter behavior,” says study coauthor Sarah A. Soule, a professor of organizational behavior and of sociology at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

“Liberal protests lead Democrats to vote on the issues that resonate for them, and conservative protests lead Republicans to do the same. It happens on both sides of the ideological spectrum.”

How big is the effect?

On average, a wave of liberal protesting in a congressional district can increase a Democratic candidate’s vote share by 2 percent and reduce a GOP candidate’s share by 6 percent. A wave of conservative protests, like those by the Tea Party in 2010, will on average reduce the Democratic vote share by 2 percent and increase the Republican share by 6 percent.

On top of that, big protests by progressives have spurred increases in the quality of Democrats who decide to challenge incumbents. (Conservative protests haven’t had the same impact motivating Republican challengers, however.) That seems to be what has happened in 2018, when record numbers of women both marched in the streets and decided to run as Democrats for Congress, but the pattern isn’t unique to this year.

The study is based on a detailed analysis of both local protest activity and voting patterns in every congressional election from 1960 to 1990.

The data on protests came from news reports. The researchers focused only on local protests, which they scored by both their ideological leaning and their intensity or “salience.”

“Protests are a way of signaling discontent, and they inform politicians about the most salient issues.”

To rate the protests on an ideological spectrum, the researchers looked at each protest’s focal issues. Not surprisingly, given the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, 90 percent of the protests during those decades were on the left side of the political spectrum. But the share of conservative protests increased gradually to 14 percent in the ’80s and 21 percent by 1990.

To rate “salience,” the researchers looked at whether the protests attracted large numbers of people; had organizational backing; attracted police presence; or resulted in damage, injuries, or death.

For example, in the 1968 election of Abner Mikva, a liberal challenger in Illinois, the district saw 40 protests that year, which the researchers scored at a salience level of 54—fairly high, but nowhere near as high as the protests during some other races. Mikva defeated both the Democratic incumbent in the primary and his Republican opponent in the general election.

Interestingly, conservative protests of similar intensity appear to give Republicans a proportionately bigger boost in vote share. The researchers say that probably reflects the fact that conservative street protests were rare until the 1990s, which probably made them more electrifying to Republican voters.

Multiple messages

The researchers argue that local political protests provide important signals to voters as well as to candidates and potential challengers. For voters, they can focus attention. To incumbent lawmakers, they are signals about intensity of local content or discontent. For prospective challengers, they can signal the incumbent’s vulnerability.

Indeed, the paper finds that an increase in liberal protest activity correlates with an increase in the number of “quality” Democratic challengers, such as those who have held elected offices before. The odds of a solid challenger entering a congressional race climbed from 20 percent to 50 percent as the intensity of protest activity increased.

“It’s a form of information-gathering,” says coauthor Daniel Q. Gillion, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “When politicians run for office, they try to know every single issue in their backyard as well as the sentiments of their constituents. Protests are a way of signaling discontent, and they inform politicians about the most salient issues.”

Gillion adds that the volume and intensity of progressive protests have been higher in 2018 than at any time since the late 1960s.

Other studies have found that violent protests can lead people to think poorly of the protesters. However, Soule and Gillion say they found little evidence that protests produce a backlash in actual voting behavior.

Has it been enough to affect the 2018 midterm elections?

“Based on these findings, unequivocally, yes,” says Soule.

The research appears in Social Science Quarterly.

Source: Stanford University

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Microscopes offer peek at mosquito virus on the move

Thu, 2018-12-13 09:46

Researchers have developed a way to see how a virus moves within a mosquito’s body, which could lead to the prevention of mosquitoes transmitting diseases.

“Previously, the common understanding was that when a mosquito has picked up a virus, it first needs some time to build up inside the midgut, or stomach, before infecting other tissues in the mosquito,” says Alexander Franz, an assistant professor in the veterinary pathobiology department at the University of Missouri and corresponding author of the paper, which appears in Viruses.

“However, our observations show that this process occurs at a much faster pace; in fact, there is only a narrow window of 32 to 48 hours between the initial infection and the virus leaving the mosquito’s stomach. For this field of research, that revelation is eye opening.”

Inside look

Researchers observed a mosquito infected with the chikungunya virus, which originated in Africa and was first found in the Americas in 2013. There is no vaccine to prevent or treat the virus, and while most common symptoms include fever and joint pain, they can be severe and disabling.

The researchers used three separate electron microscopes to view the virus traveling through the mosquito, beginning with its midgut, or stomach.

The first two microscopes provided different two-dimensional views of a single layer of tissue in the mosquito’s stomach. The third, a focused ion beam electron microscope, allowed researchers to see multiple layers of tissue.

Bug off

“We’re now visualizing a real virus with a three-dimensional model, at scale,” says coauthor DeAna Grant, a researcher with the Electron Microscopy Core Facility. “We can take a three-dimensional image showing the inside of a mosquito’s stomach and say that this dot is a virus particle; there is no guessing to what that dot is.

“In addition, with this technology we were able to track, in three-dimension, the virus traveling through the mosquito at 24, 32, and 48 hour intervals, and within 48 hours or less, we could see the virus particles leaving the mosquito’s midgut.”

Researchers say they hope to one day inhibit the genes involved with the release of the virus from within the mosquito’s stomach to prevent future transmission of mosquito-borne diseases.

The National Institutes of Health-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the University of Missouri award for “Excellence in Electron Microscopy” funded the work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Source: University of Missouri

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Black teens deal with stop-and-frisk on way to school

Thu, 2018-12-13 08:35

Black Caribbean students in London and New York City say they’ve either witnessed or been subject to stop-and-frisk procedures on trips to and from school, according to a new small study.

Stop-and-frisk search and school safety are both subjects of frequent public debate, but the fact that students face these searchers on their way to school hasn’t gotten much attention, researchers say.

“Young people generally, and black young people in large city contexts particularly, all too often negotiate an intense set of anxieties around their safety in the company of law enforcement while traveling to and from school that goes unrecognized in public discourse” says Derron Wallace, an assistant professor of education and sociology at Brandeis University, who interviewed black Caribbean students in London and New York City high schools.

“This is a key dimension of young people’s educational experiences that researchers, policymakers, teachers, and youth advocates should take seriously,” he says.

Divided by an ocean, united by experience

From 2012 to 2014, Wallace conducted in-depth interviews with 60 black Caribbean high school students in New York City and London to better understand how they interact with police during their trips to and from school.

In all, 57 of the 60 participants reported having witnessed racial and ethnic minorities being frisked by police during their travels to and from school, and 25 of the 60 reported having been stopped and frisked themselves. Of those 25, 23 were males.

Wallace’s research, which is highlighted in Harvard Educational Review, includes interviews with 30 high school students from a large public high school in New York City, and 30 from a large public high school London. All of the students were black with at least one parent emigrating from a Caribbean nation. The study is part of a larger research project by Wallace examining the educational experiences of black Caribbean young people in both cities.

“A drop in reported incidents changes the public perception, but it doesn’t necessarily change the experiences of young people…”

The in-depth nature of the interviews allowed Wallace to pick up on common sentiments, to examine how public perceptions of Caribbean heritage differs in the two cities, and to understand how young people view police differently in the two cities.

Students at both public schools are required to wear uniforms, and they often remarked at how little those uniforms did to influence the way police treated them. They didn’t expect the uniforms to provide immunity, Wallace says, but they thought they would be treated like children because they were wearing them.

“They expected their uniforms to signal to law enforcement that they were children and that their engagement with police officers would at least be informed by the fact that they were young people,” Wallace says. “But according to participants, they were treated like adults.”

‘The police will come for you anyway’

Focusing on black Caribbean youth provided an opportunity for Wallace to examine processes of racialization and ideas of ethnic exceptionalism. In the United States, there are myths of ethnic exceptionalism for black immigrants and because of these myths, parents often encourage children to emphasize their Caribbean identities in interactions with authority, Wallace says.

In London, meanwhile, these myths of exceptionalism do not exist. Yet students from both cities told Wallace that their ethnicity didn’t seem to influence the way police treated them. For black Caribbean students, it was their race that mattered in the policing process.

“All the things my mother told me would help protect or cover me didn’t…”

“Participants revealed that their accents, deferential attitudes, and school attire did not save them from police scrutiny as they traveled through segregated and disadvantaged regions of global cities,” Wallace says. “Black Caribbean youth recounted being stopped, questioned, and searched in their local neighborhoods—at points for no clear or convincing reason.”

One student from New York told Wallace: “School clothes, Caribbean background… don’t really stop the police… The police will come for you anyway… All the things my mother told me would help protect or cover me didn’t… I showed respect, but that didn’t change nothin’.”

Statistics from the New York Police Department show a steep decline in stop-and-frisk searches after a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 limited their use, but police still stop black and Latinx people while walking on city streets at considerably higher rates than white people.

“A drop in reported incidents changes the public perception, but it doesn’t necessarily change the experiences of young people,” Wallace says.

Wallace says change will require more than traditional political action and court decisions; it will need grassroots movements where community stakeholders, parents, and schools are all involved.

“The results of this study show that we need to make sure we are thinking about the safety of young people beyond national crises,” he says. “Finding a safe route to school can matter just as much as the safety in London and New York City public schools.”

Wallace will continue his research and search for paths to improved experiences for students, as a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research this coming spring.

Source: Brandeis University

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Clear expectations cut school suspensions

Wed, 2018-12-12 15:08

When students receive clear, consistent expectations of behavior, school suspensions drop by as much as 10 percent, a new study shows.

To put that in context, more than 2.75 million K-12 students were suspended during the 2013 to 2014 school year. A 10 percent reduction means 275,000 more students were in class learning.

A 2012 study by the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University found that when a high school freshman receives a single suspension, their chances of dropping out of school can increase by a third. Further, only 49 percent of students with three or more suspensions graduate high school. That’s nearly a flip of a coin on whether a student receives a diploma or not.

“A positive climate is one where educators and administrators create clear expectations for students, practice consistent discipline, and display supportive behavior,” says Francis Huang, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri.

“This study suggests that a positive school climate can be helpful for all students, regardless of their background.”

“This creates a positive school environment for students because they know what is expected of them, they feel respected and supported, and they expect that they will be treated equally and fairly.”

In addition to presenting clear rules to students and enforcing them consistently throughout the school, a positive school climate features an environment marked by supportive student-teacher relationships, Huang says.

For the study, which appears in Children and Youth Services Review, Huang and coauthor Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, analyzed school climate survey responses from more than 75,000 students from 310 middle schools in Virginia to see the relationship between student behaviors, the likelihood of suspensions, and overall school climate.

Behaviors like fighting and bullying were the most powerful predictors of receiving a suspension. A positive school climate is associated with a reduction in a student’s likelihood of receiving a suspension, no matter their race, economic status, or behavior in school.

“Research shows that overwhelmingly, the students who are most at risk of receiving a suspension are either male, non-white, of low socioeconomic status, have a disability, or a combination of these characteristics,” Huang says. “This study suggests that a positive school climate can be helpful for all students, regardless of their background.”

The National Institute of Justice funded the work. The opinions, findings, and recommendations expressed in the study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the funding institution.

Source: University of Missouri

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CO2-driven acidity hits oceans hard

Wed, 2018-12-12 15:00

Streams of gas-filled volcanic bubbles rising up to the surface off the rocky cliffs of Ischia, Italy are making the seawater acidic and radically changing life around them in the process.

Researchers studying species living near these gassy vents are learning what it takes to survive in acidic waters—and getting a glimpse of what future oceans will look like if the acidification continues.

Their findings, which appear in Nature Communications, suggest ocean acidification driven by human-caused carbon dioxide emissions could have a larger impact than previously thought.

Volcanic carbon dioxide seeps from the ocean floor near Ischia, Italy. (Credit: Pasquale Vassallo, Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn)

“When an organism’s environment becomes more acidic, it can dramatically impact not only that species, but the overall ecosystem’s resilience, function, and stability,” says coauthor Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of biology at Stanford University. “These transformations ultimately impact people, especially our food chains.”

Real-life lab

Most ocean acidification studies take place in laboratories, which makes it impossible to assess how whole ecosystems that include multiple, interacting species are affected. The real-life laboratory provided researchers an opportunity to examine dozens of species, including sea urchins and marine snails, that live in areas of different acidity along Ischia’s volcanic carbon dioxide vents.

In addition to studying how species diversity changed with acidification, they analyzed species traits, such as diet and growth, that influence how well the ecosystem performs. For example, sea snails were smaller in more acidic water, as their shells take longer to grow and are thinner and more brittle.

These harmful effects on sea snails, a key food for animals higher up in the food chain, may affect fish populations.

Overall, researchers found that the active venting zones with the most acidic waters were home to not only the least number of species, but also the lowest amounts of “functional diversity”—the range of ecosystem-support services or roles that each species can provide.

“Studying the natural carbon dioxide vents in Ischia allowed us to unravel which traits from different species, like snail shell strength, were more vulnerable to ocean acidification. These results illuminate how oceans will function under different acidification scenarios in the future,” says lead author Nuria Teixidó, a marine biologist from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Italy, who was a visiting researcher at Stanford during the research.

Ocean instability

Acidification in the waters of Ischia displaced long-lived species, such as corals, that form habitat for other species—a process already often witnessed on reefs across the world. The researchers also found that high levels of carbon dioxide and more acidity favored species with short life spans and fast turnover as they are the only species that can resist these environmental conditions. This change could lead to further diversity loss and instability in the oceans, as biodiversity tends to increase an ecosystem’s stability.

Localized case studies such as Ischia can shed light on how future global environmental conditions may affect ocean life. Beyond losing biodiversity, ocean acidification will threaten food security for millions of people who depend on seafood, along with tourism and other ocean-related economies.

“The effects of ocean acidification on whole ecosystems and their functioning are still poorly understood,” Micheli says. “In Ischia, we have gained new insights into what future oceans will look like and what key services, like food production and coastal production, will be lost when there is more carbon dioxide in the water.”

The National Geographic Society, the Total Foundation, a Maire Curie Cofund, and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowship funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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