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Updated: 13 min 12 sec ago

Providers more likely to dismiss young women’s heart attack signs

37 min 51 sec ago

Young women who report heart attack symptoms are more likely to have their providers dismiss them as not heart-related, according to a new study.

The research examined the relationship between gender, self-reported symptoms, perception of symptoms, and self-reported care-seeking among patients 55 years and younger who were hospitalized for acute myocardial infarction (AMI). While the differences in AMI symptom presentation by gender have been studied in older populations, but less is known about young patients with AMI.

Analysis of data from 2,009 women and 976 men collected from more than 100 hospitals showed that the majority of both men and women reported chest pain, pressure, tightness, or discomfort as their main AMI symptom. Yet women were more likely than men to report other associated symptoms of heart attack, such as indigestion, shortness of breath, palpitations, or pain in the jaw, neck, or arms.

Women were also more likely to perceive their symptoms as stress or anxiety, and were more likely than men to report that their health care providers did not think that their symptoms were heart-related, the researchers say.

“Although chest pain was the most common symptom for young women and men, the presentation of chest pain within the context of multiple symptoms may influence the prompt recognition of heart disease for these young patients,” says lead author Judith H. Lichtman, associate professor and chair of the department of chronic disease epidemiology at Yale University’s School of Public Health.

Previous studies have reported that women are less likely to present with chest pain for AMI, more likely to report a wider variety of symptoms, and also more likely to die in hospital from AMI.

The study results, as well as the increased mortality associated with AMI in younger women, indicate the need to further investigate the variety of acute symptoms of heart disease in younger patients, and the need to explore how symptom recognition influences patients’ care-seeking behaviors and early interactions with health care providers, says the researchers.

These ER tests don’t actually spot heart attacks

“An important point is that these young women all had multiple cardiac risk factors prior to their AMI,” says Gail D’Onofrio, coauthor of the study and chair of the emergency medicine department at Yale School of Medicine.

“Thus, when young women with multiple risk factors visit their doctor with any chest discomfort or other symptoms that may be associated with ischemic heart disease, they should have the appropriate work up.”

The researchers report their findings in Circulation.

The study used data from Yale’s Variation in Recovery: Role of Gender on Outcomes of Young AMI Patients (VIRGO) study. Funding for the study came from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Yale University

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Money can buy happiness. Here’s how much

47 min 8 sec ago

Money can buy happiness, new research suggests, but there’s an optimal amount.

“That might be surprising as what we see on TV and what advertisers tell us we need would indicate that there is no ceiling when it comes to how much money is needed for happiness, but we now see there are some thresholds,” says Andrew T. Jebb, the lead author and doctoral student in the Purdue University department of psychological sciences.

“It’s been debated at what point does money no longer change your level of well-being. We found that the ideal income point is $95,000 for life evaluation and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being. Again, this amount is for individuals and would likely be higher for families.”

Emotional well-being refers to day-to-day emotions, such as feeling happy, excited, or sad and angry. Life evaluation, really life satisfaction, is an overall assessment of how one is doing and is likely more influenced by higher goals and comparisons to others.

“And, there was substantial variation across world regions, with satiation occurring later in wealthier regions for life satisfaction,” Jebb says. “This could be because evaluations tend to be more influenced by the standards by which individuals compare themselves to other people.”

Our pursuit of happiness makes us sad

Data for the research comes from the Gallup World Poll, a representative survey sample of more than 1.7 million individuals from 164 countries, and the estimates were averaged based on purchasing power and questions relating to life satisfaction and well-being. For reporting this study, the amounts are reported in US dollars, and the data is per individual, not family.

The study also finds that once the threshold was reached, further increases in income tended to be associated with reduced life satisfaction and a lower level of well-being. This may be because money is important for meeting basic needs, purchasing conveniences, and maybe even loan repayments, but to a point. After the optimal point of needs is met, people may be driven by desires such as pursuing more material gains and engaging in social comparisons, which could, ironically, lower well-being.

A good night’s sleep is like hitting the jackpot

“At this point they are asking themselves, ‘Overall, how am I doing?’ and ‘How do I compare to other people?'” Jebb says. “The small decline puts one’s level of well-being closer to individuals who make slightly lower incomes, perhaps due to the costs that come with the highest incomes. These findings speak to a broader issue of money and happiness across cultures. Money is only a part of what really makes us happy, and we’re learning more about the limits of money.”

Jebb, senior author of the study Louis Tay, an assistant professor of psychological sciences, and coauthors from the University of Virginia report their work in Nature Human Behaviour.

Source: Purdue University

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This artificial skin can sense ladybug footsteps

1 hour 12 min ago

New research sets the stage for an evolution in electronics by taking the concept of “artificial skin” to the next level. The work demonstrates not only a stretchable circuitry that can feel the touch of a ladybug, but also a manufacturing process to mass-produce this circuitry.

Restoring some semblance of touch to people who use prosthetic limbs has been a driving force behind Stanford University chemical engineer Zhenan Bao’s decades-long quest to create stretchable, electronically sensitive synthetic materials. Such a breakthrough could one day serve as skin-like coverings for prosthetics. But in the near term, this same technology could become the foundation for the evolution of new genre of flexible electronics very different from the rigid smartphones in our back pockets.

“Research into synthetic skin and flexible electronics has come a long way, but until now no one had demonstrated a process to reliably manufacture stretchable circuits,” says Bao, whose findings appear in Nature.

(Credit: L.A. Cicero/Stanford)

Bao’s hope is that manufacturers might one day be able to make sheets of polymer-based electronics embedded with a broad variety of sensors, and eventually connect these flexible, multipurpose circuits with a person’s nervous system. Such a product would be analogous to the vastly more complex biochemical sensory network and surface protection “material” that we call human skin, which can not only sense touch, but also temperature and other phenomena.

A 2-inch square of the material contains more than 6,000 individual signal-processing devices that act like synthetic nerve endings.

But long before artificial skin becomes possible, the processes reported in the Nature paper will enable the creation of foldable, stretchable touchscreens, electronic clothing, or skin-like patches for medical applications.

Bao says their production process involves several layers of new-age polymers, some that provide the material’s elasticity and others with intricately patterned electronic meshes. Still, others serve as insulators to isolate the electronically sensitive material. One step in the production process involves the use of an inkjet printer to, in essence, paint on certain layers.

“We’ve engineered all of these layers and their active elements to work together flawlessly,” says postdoctoral scholar Sihong Wang, co-lead author of the paper.

The team has successfully fashioned its material in squares about two inches on a side containing more than 6,000 individual signal-processing devices that act like synthetic nerve endings. All this is encapsulated in a waterproof protective layer.

The prototype can be stretched to double its original dimensions—and back again—all the while maintaining its ability to conduct electricity without cracks, delamination, or wrinkles. To test durability, the team stretched a sample more than one thousand times without significant damage or loss of sensitivity. The real test came when the researchers adhered their sample to a human hand.

“It works great, even on irregularly shaped surfaces,” says postdoctoral scholar Jie Xu, and the paper’s other co-lead author.

‘Skin’ sensor gives robots a better sense of touch

Perhaps most promising of all, the fabrication process described in this paper could become a platform for evaluating other stretchable electronic materials developed by other researchers that could one day begin to replace today’s rigid electronics.

Bao says much work lies ahead before these new materials and processes are as ubiquitous and capable as rigid silicon circuitry. First up, she says, her team must improve the electronic speed and performance of their prototype, but this is a promising step.

Samsung Electronics, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and NETEP and MOTIE of the Republic of Korea supported the work.

Source: Stanford University

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3D scans explore baby Tasmanian tigers too rare to dissect

1 hour 39 min ago

Using 3D scanning, researchers are peeking under the preserved skin of Tasmanian tiger specimens to reconstruct their growth and development.

Given that only a few specimens remain of the extinct species, dissecting them—even in the name of science—isn’t really an option.

The researchers instead used a technique called non-invasive X-ray micro-CT scanning, which has also been useful for examining Egyptian mummies.

Christy Hipsley, research associate at Museums Victoria and the University of Melbourne, says that before they were hunted to extinction in 1936, it was very popular for museums to collect samples of the Tasmanian tiger, also known as thylacine or Thylacinus cynocephalus.

Once ranging throughout Australia and New Guinea, the Tasmanian tiger disappeared from the mainland around 3,000 years ago, likely because of competition with humans and dingoes. The last known individual died at the Hobart Zoo in 1936.

A Thylacine with three cubs at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1909. (Credit: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

“Because it was a marsupial, thylacine young developed in the pouch, so adult specimens sometimes still had young in their pouch,” says Hipsley.

She says that a very limited number of pouch young specimens (joeys) were collected and preserved, and these now exist in various museum collections around the world, from Tasmania to Prague.

“Due to the technological limitations at the time the thylacine went extinct, there are only limited details on its growth and development,” Hipsley says.

The research team conducted CT scanning on all 13 known pouch young world-wide to create 3D digital models. The models have enabled the team to study their skeletons and internal organs, and reconstruct their growth and development. Their work appears in Royal Society Open Science.

From kangaroo to puppy

Axel Newton, PhD student at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the paper, notes that the collection of joey specimens represents five critical stages of postnatal, or pouch development.

The scans reveal that two specimens in a museum collection weren’t Tasmanian tigers at all.

“Our 3D models have revealed important new information about how this unique extinct marsupial evolved to look so similar to dogs, such as the dingo, despite being very distantly related,” says Newton.

“The digital scans show that when first born the Tasmanian tiger looked like other marsupials like the Tasmanian Devil or the kangaroo.”

These scans show in incredible detail how the Tasmanian tiger started its journey in life as a joey boasting the robust forearms of other marsupials so that it could climb into its mother’s pouch. But by the time it left the pouch around 12 weeks to start independent life, it looked more like a puppy, with longer hindlimbs than forelimbs.

The Tasmanian tiger’s resemblance to the dingo is known as one of the best examples of convergent evolution in mammals. Convergent evolution is when two species, despite not being closely related, evolve to look very similar. The Tasmanian tiger would have last shared a common ancestor with the canids (dogs and wolves) around 160 million years ago.

Hipsley says after sequencing the Tasmanian tiger genome in 2017, this research is one more piece in the puzzle of why they evolved to look so similar to dogs.

(Credit: U. Melbourne) Mistaken identity

Andrew Pask, associate professor at the University of Melbourne, explains the scanning was an incredibly effective technique to study the skeletal anatomy of the specimens without causing any damage to them.

“This research clearly demonstrates the power of CT technology. It has allowed us to scan all the known Thylacine joey specimens in the world, and study their internal structures in high resolution without having to dissect or cause damage to the specimen,” Pask says.

“By examining their bone development, we’ve been able to illustrate how the Tasmanian tiger matured, and identify when they took on the appearance of a dog.”

The study has also revealed that two specimens held in the collection of the Tasmanian Museums and Art Gallery (TMAG) weren’t Tasmanian tigers at all. Instead, they are most likely to be quolls or Tasmanian devils, based on the number of vertebrae and presence of large epipubic bones (the specialized bones that support the pouch in modern marsupials).

Scientists sequence Tasmanian tiger genome

Kathryn Medlock, senior curator of vertebrate zoology at TMAG, says the museum has received many requests to dissect its pouch young over the years but have always refused.

“One of the major advantages of this new technology is that it has enabled us to do research and answer many questions without destruction of the sample specimens,” Medlock says.

The 3D digital Tasmanian tiger models are publicly available here as a resource for current and future researchers.

Source: University of Melbourne

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Why we don’t get sick of listening to our favorite song

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:35

People enjoy replaying a favorite song many times even after the novelty and surprise are gone, according to new research.

Forty-three percent of those who listened to their favorite song daily replayed the song at least three times…

In a new study, participants reported listening to their favorite song hundreds of times.

The mean among the sample was more than 300 times and this number was even larger for listeners who had a deep connection to the song—something that was particularly likely if they had mixed emotions, such as “bittersweet,” while listening.

“Niche listening may enable listeners to develop the kind of personally meaningful relationships with particular songs that allows their affection for those songs to persist across very large amounts of exposure,” says lead author Frederick Conrad, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

The study’s 204 participants completed an online questionnaire in fall 2013 about their experience listening to their favorite song, including how it made them feel and the frequency with which they played the song. Although people’s favorites songs fell into 10 genre categories, they were mainly pop/rock songs.

About 86 percent of the participants reported listening to their favorite song daily or a few times weekly. Forty-three percent of those who listened to their favorite song daily replayed the song at least three times a day. Sixty percent listened to the song multiple times consecutively and about 6 percent indicated they urgently wanted to hear the song before they played it.

Is technology changing our relationship with music?

“Clearly, these listeners were very engaged with these songs,” says Conrad, who directs the Michigan Program in Survey Methodology at the Institute for Social Research.

Certain features of the song were particularly important reasons why respondents listened many times, says coauthor Jason Corey, associate professor of music. The most important features were the song’s “melody,” “beat/rhythm,” and “lyrics.”

For songs that made listeners happy, beat/rhythm was especially important for relistening.

Finally, the more times people listened to their favorite song, the more the listeners could hear it internally, the researchers say.

“Listeners… should be able to ‘hear’ large amounts of the song in their heads, potentially including all the instrumental and vocal sounds,” Conrad says.

Why Christmas music is wrapped in nostalgia

The study’s other authors are Samantha Goldstein from Eastern Michigan University), Joseph Ostrow from Massachusetts General Hospital, and Michael Sadowsky from Civis Analytics.

The findings appear in Psychology of Music.

Source: University of Michigan

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How ‘mental rehearsal’ preps us for action

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:30

Neuroscientists have discovered how the brain learns physical tasks, even in the absence of real-world movement.

It could hinge on getting the mind to the right starting place and to be ready to perfectly execute everything that follows with a process called “mental rehearsal.”

“He’s just sitting there thinking, and as he’s thinking he’s getting better and better…”

Psychologists and athletes alike know that it works: picturing ourselves going through routines, whether it’s figure skating or something more mundane, improves our chances of success.

“Mental rehearsal is tantalizing, but difficult to study,” says Saurabh Vyas, a graduate student in bioengineering at Stanford University and the lead author of a new paper that appears in Neuron. That’s because there’s no easy way to peer into a person’s brain as he imagines himself racing to a win or practicing a performance.

“This is where we thought brain-machine interfaces could be that lens, because they give you the ability to see what the brain is doing even when they’re not actually moving,” he says.

Although there are some important caveats, the results could point the way toward a deeper understanding of what mental rehearsal is. Further, researchers believe the findings could lead to a future where brain-machine interfaces, usually thought of as prosthetics for people with paralysis, are also tools for understanding the brain, says senior author Krishna Shenoy, a professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford and a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

From thought to action

The idea for the study came while thinking about how people learn to use brain-machine interfaces to perform a task, Vyas says. In a typical setup, a person—or, very often, a monkey—has to learn to move a cursor around a computer screen using only patterns of activity in the brain, not hand or other movements. That got Vyas wondering whether what people (or monkeys) learned using brain-machine interfaces might somehow transfer, in a way similar to mental rehearsal, to physical movements.

“He’s just sitting there thinking, and as he’s thinking he’s getting better and better” at moving the cursor, Vyas says, referring to one of the monkeys he studied. “The natural question becomes: What happens if you switch to another context, where now he actually has to generate muscle activity? Do you see the effects of that learning in that new context?”

The short answer is “yes,” mental learning does transfer to physical performance. Vyas initially taught two monkeys outfitted with brain-machine interfaces to move a cursor from one place to another on a computer screen using only their minds, then introduced a complication, called a visuomotor rotation: what mental signals they previously used to move a cursor up would now move it at an angle, say 45 degrees clockwise.

The monkeys easily adapted, and that adaptation carried over when they repeated the same task using their hands, rather than the brain-machine interface, to control the cursor directly. Now, if the monkeys wanted to move the cursor up, they moved their hands 45 degrees clockwise.

This suggested that the monkeys were doing something like mental rehearsal, Vyas says—what they had learned to do in their minds, they could then do with their hands.

Babies do stuff in bursts but actually learn over time

Some additional experiments and an analysis of recorded neural activity suggest the reason why: rehearsing the task with a brain-machine interface got patterns of activity in the monkeys’ brains into just the right spot, so they could carry out the same rotation task with their hands, even though they had never done so before.

‘A new tool’

“There are key differences between our paradigm and true mental rehearsal,” Vyas says, and there are reasons to be cautious about interpreting the results too broadly.

For one thing, you can’t just ask a monkey to imagine completing a physical activity, as you could with a person. For another, mentally rehearsing a task is not the same as using a brain-machine interface to do it. In the latter case, people get feedback on how they’re doing, something they can only imagine in mental rehearsal.

“We can’t prove the connection beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Shenoy says, but “this is a major step in understanding what mental rehearsal may well be in all of us.”

The next steps, he and Vyas say, are to figure out how mental rehearsal relates to practice with a brain-machine interface—and how mental preparation, the key ingredient in transferring that practice to physical movements, relates to movement.

Olympian brains adapt to lots of spins and flips

Meanwhile, Shenoy says, the results demonstrate the potential of an entirely new tool for studying the mind. “It’s like building a new tool and using it for something,” Shenoy says. “We used a brain-machine interface to probe and advance basic science, and that’s just super exciting.”

Funding for the study came from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, a Ric Weiland Stanford Graduate Fellowship, a Bio-X Bowes Fellowship, the ALS Association, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Simons Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Source: Stanford University

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2D crystals may enable future super-thin electronics

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:26

A new process for growing wafer-scale 2D crystals could enable future super-thin electronics.

Since the discovery of the remarkable properties of graphene, scientists have increasingly focused research on the many other two-dimensional materials possible, both those found in nature and those concocted in the lab.

Growing high-quality, crystalline 2D materials at scale, however, has proven a significant challenge.

Researchers led by Joan Redwing, director of the National Science Foundation-sponsored Two-Dimensional Crystal Consortium—Materials Innovation Platform, and professor of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering at Penn State, developed a multistep process to make single crystal, atomically thin films of tungsten diselenide across large-area sapphire substrates.

“Up until now, the majority of 2D devices have been fabricated using small flakes that are exfoliated off of bulk crystals,” Redwing says. “To develop a device-ready technology, you have to be able to make devices on large-area substrates and they have to have good crystal quality.”

The process uses sapphire as the substrate because of its crystalline structure. This structure orients the film growth in a crystal pattern in a process called epitaxy. As small islands of the material form on the substrate and the substrate is heated, the islands spread out across the substrate in a uniform pattern, forming a large-area film without gaps and with very few defects.

The key advance was the use of gas-source chemical vapor deposition to precisely control the island density and rate of spreading to achieve a single layer of the 2D material.

The researchers outline their work in Nano Letters.

In a related paper, which appears in ACS Nano, a team led by Joshua Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, provides the foundational understanding to enable device-ready synthetic 2D semiconductors based on these epitaxial large-area films in future industrial-scale electronics.

“The primary significance of this work is we were able to achieve an understanding of the extrinsic factors that go into having a high-quality 2D material,” Robinson says. “What we found was that even when you grow oriented crystals on a surface, there are other factors that impact the ability to get high electron mobility or fast transistors.”

Are crystals the way to create energy-saving cement?

In particular, they found that there is a strong interaction between the sapphire substrate and the monolayer film, with the substrate dominating the properties. To overcome these challenges, the researchers grew two or three layers, which improved the performance by factors of 20-100 times.

“This is the first real evidence of the effect of the substrate on the transport properties of 2D layers,” Robinson says.

The Dow Chemical Company, the Semiconductor Research Corporation through the Center for Low Energy Systems Technology (LEAST), and DARPA supported this work, in addition to the NSF.

Additional authors of the Nano Letters paper are from Penn State and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Robinson would like to acknowledge Susan K. Fullerton’s group from University of Pittsburgh for valuable contributions to the electrical section of the ACS Nano paper.

Source: Penn State

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Baby skull binding common among ancient Peru elite

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:25

The idea of binding and reshaping a baby’s head may make parents today cringe, but for families in the Andes between 1100-1450, cranial modification was all the rage, according to a new study.

Like Chinese foot binding, the practice may have been a marker of group identity. Its period of popularity in Peru, before the expansion of the Inca empire, was marked by political upheaval, ecological stress, and the emergence of new cultural practices.

In the study, which appears in Current Anthropology, Matthew Velasco, assistant professor of anthropology at Cornell University, explores how head-shaping practices may have enabled political solidarity while furthering social inequality in the region.

Above-ground tombs at the cemetery site of Yuraq Qaqa (Colca Valley, Peru). (Credit: David Rodri­guez Sotomayor/Cornell)

Velasco analyzed hundreds of human skeletal remains from multiple tombs in the Colca Valley of highland Peru and discovered that before 1300 most people did not have modified heads. The number of individuals with cranial modifications increased over time, from 39.2 percent to 73.7 percent during the later portion of the Late Intermediate Period.

Skeletal samples of two major ethnic groups showed that the Collaguas employed methods to make their heads assume a longer, narrower shape, while the Cavanas sought to make their heads wide and squat.

“Head shape would be an obvious signifier of affiliation and could have encouraged unity among elites and increased cooperation in politics.”

Eventually, the elongated head shape of the Collaguas became the predominant style of modification in the upper Colca Valley. According to Velasco, this shift toward embodying a shared identity may have strengthened ties between groups engaged in protracted conflict with outsiders, including the Incas.

“The increased homogeny of head shapes suggests that modification practices contributed to the creation of a new collective identity and may have exacerbated emerging social differences,” says Velasco.

“Head shape would be an obvious signifier of affiliation and could have encouraged unity among elites and increased cooperation in politics,” he explains.

Velasco found diversity at the local level: modified and unmodified heads buried in the same tomb, despite having apparently different life experiences.

“So it doesn’t seem that cranial modifications are strictly an ethnic distinction,” Velasco says.

Did ancient priests in Peru invent authority?

Whether head modification conferred distinct privileges and higher status is unclear, but Velasco found bio-archaeological evidence that modified females possessed greater access to diverse food options and were less likely to encounter violence. Cranial modification may have been a factor in societal inequality, Velasco says.

Examining bones for signs of disease gives researchers significant information about childhood health. For example, the marrow in cranial cavities expands with poor nutrition or anemia, leaving identifiable marks—porous lesions—on the adult skull.

“But there’s no clear indication that infants who had cranial modification were at higher risk of infant mortality,” Velasco says. He notes that the brain is malleable, so the volume of the brain doesn’t change with cranial modification, just the shape of the cavity.

One explanation for the cranial modifications is offered by a 16th-century Spanish colonial document Velasco examined, which described groups molding skulls into the shape of the volcano from their origin myth.

“If this is true, then cranial modification reflects a deeply religious worldview and was fundamental to a person’s being and existence, and not simply a fashion statement,” he says.

Did ancient blood feuds lead to violent burials?

Future work will explore whether cranial modification marked children with a privileged life experience, as Velasco suspects, such that individuals with modified heads were buffered from environmental and social stressors during childhood, such as malnutrition or exposure to pathogens.

Source: Cornell University

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Cooler, cheaper method preps nanomaterials for thin films

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:15

Engineers are developing a new method of processing nanomaterials that could lead to faster and cheaper manufacturing of flexible, thin film devices, such as touch screens and window coatings.

The “intense pulsed light sintering” method uses high-energy light over an area nearly 7,000 times larger than a laser to fuse nanomaterials in seconds.

The existing method of pulsed light fusion uses temperatures of around 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit) to fuse silver nanospheres into structures that conduct electricity. But the new study, published in RSC Advances and led by Rutgers School of Engineering doctoral student Michael Dexter, shows that fusion at 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit) works well while retaining the conductivity of the fused silver nanomaterials.

Spherical silver nanoparticles and nanowires after being fused by intense pulses of light. (Credit: Rajiv Malhotra/Rutgers University-New Brunswick)

The engineers’ achievement started with silver nanomaterials of different shapes: long, thin rods called nanowires in addition to nanospheres. The sharp reduction in temperature needed for fusion makes it possible to use low-cost, temperature-sensitive plastic substrates like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polycarbonate in flexible devices without damaging them.

“Pulsed light sintering of nanomaterials enables really fast manufacturing of flexible devices for economies of scale,” says Rajiv Malhotra, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “Our innovation extends this capability by allowing cheaper temperature-sensitive substrates to be used.”

Fused silver nanomaterials conduct electricity in devices such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, display devices, and solar cells. Flexible forms of these products rely on fusion of conductive nanomaterials on flexible substrates, or platforms, such as plastics and other polymers.

“The next step is to see whether other nanomaterial shapes, including flat flakes and triangles, will drive fusion temperatures even lower,” Malhotra says.

Cold sintering ceramics takes less time than a pizza

In another study, published in Scientific Reports, Rutgers and Oregon State University engineers demonstrated pulsed light sintering of copper sulfide nanoparticles, a semiconductor, to make films less than 100 nanometers thick.

“We were able to perform this fusion in two to seven seconds compared with the minutes to hours it normally takes now,” Malhotra says. “We also showed how to use the pulsed light fusion process to control the electrical and optical properties of the film.”

Their discovery could speed up the manufacturing of copper sulfide thin films used in window coatings that control solar infrared light, transistors, and switches, according to the study.

The National Science Foundation and the Walmart Manufacturing Innovation Foundation supported this work.

Source: Rutgers University

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Opossums don’t like snow but have invaded N. Dakota

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:10

New research documents ongoing northward range expansion of the common Virginia opossum—and one unlucky opossum in particular.

This individual opossum was first spotted in a suburban Grand Forks, North Dakota neighborhood in January 2017, eating sunflower seeds at the base of a birdfeeder. Someone later killed the animal with bow and arrow, as the Grand Forks Herald reported with the headline “Grand Forks opossum slain; body to go to University of Michigan for research.” Lisa Walsh, a graduate biology student at the University of Michigan, drove to North Dakota during spring break to recover its carcass.

“Very little is preventing their continued dispersal northward, provided they can survive winters.”

“It was so exciting because it was further confirmation that this range expansion is still happening and that these animals are probably going to keep moving even further northward as the climate warms and as humans continue to alter the landscape with more agriculture and urbanization,” Walsh says.

The Grand Forks specimen marked a 137-mile northward range extension for the Virginia opossum, the only marsupial found in North America north of Mexico. The opossum’s ancestors evolved in South America, and the creature invaded this continent about 800,000 years ago, following the formation of the Isthmus of Panama.

Opossums have been steadily marching northward since that time, becoming common in southern Michigan by the 1920s and now found as far north as southeastern Ontario. These animals are built for the tropics but keep pushing north with help from humans.

“Very little is preventing their continued dispersal northward, provided they can survive winters,” Walsh says. “This is a unique opportunity to study a documented, ongoing range expansion.

Frostbite and a full stomach

The skin, skull, and skeleton of the Grand Forks opossum are now in the collections of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology and catalogued as UMMZ 178776. A research paper by Walsh, describing her Grand Forks findings, appears in the journal The Prairie Naturalist.

Virginia opossums are generalist omnivores and will eat almost anything. When Walsh dissected the carcass of UMMZ 178776 back in Ann Arbor, she found a full stomach containing sunflower seeds and muscle tissue, hair, and unidentified bone fragments from small mammals. The lower intestine of this male opossum contained grass, leaf matter, and a sunflower seed.

Opossums, which are about the size of a house cat, have long, hairless tails, hairless ears, and a pointed snout. Their fore and hind feet have five toes, including a thumb-like opposable innermost toe on the hind feet.

With so much exposed skin, opossums are susceptible to frostbite, most commonly on their ears and tail. On UMMZ 178776, frostbite led to blackened and crusty hind feet and a nose inflamed with blisters. It weighed 5.3 pounds, which is less than other opossums trapped in January in other northern states.

Hiding from the cold

Opossums do not hibernate in the winter. Previous research showed that they remain in their den, rather than foraging, on winter days when temperatures do not reach above freezing. In Grand Forks, weather records show that between December 1, 2016, and January 22, 2017—the day UMMZ 178776 died—there were 41 days when the temperature did not get above freezing.

“The winter temperatures and the individual’s condition suggest that this opossum spent much of the winter in a den rather than foraging,” Walsh says. “This individual was likely persisting via opportunistic foraging around Grand Forks residents’ homes whenever temperatures reached above freezing.”

In this way, increased access to food in urban and suburban areas and near farms might be increasing winter foraging success and allowing the Virginia opossum to expand into northerly areas that would otherwise be intolerable.

‘Genetic rescue’ brings cute marsupials back from the brink

“Although many range expansions are currently being credited to climate change, climate change alone might not be the entire story for the opossum,” Walsh says. “More direct anthropogenic factors may also be important, including resources easily available in agricultural and suburban landscapes.”

The changing landscape

For her master’s thesis in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, Walsh tested the idea that both warming winter temperatures and increased urbanization are helping opossums expand northward in the Great Lakes region. That work, conducted with Professor Priscilla Tucker, Walsh’s adviser, was published last August in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.

“There are more than 100 American opossum species, but the Virginia opossum is the only one to make it into the United States.”

Walsh and Tucker looked at the genetic consequences of two opossum range expansions, analyzing genetic data from opossums in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Tissue samples from ears, lips, tails, and hair follicles were collected from roadkill, from animals that died at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, and from individuals caught by fur trappers and nuisance control operators.

They isolated and amplified DNA from 85 individuals in the three states, and identified two genetically distinct populations, one on the west side of Lake Michigan and one on the east side.

They used US Census Bureau data to examine human population density, housing density, and the density of farms across the study area. County by county climate data—including information on winter temperatures and snow depth—came from the National Climate Data Center for the period 1992 to 2013.

They then constructed computer models to look for correlations among opossum genetic diversity, census data, and climate records. Walsh and Tucker found that measurements of genetic diversity across 15 counties were best explained by days of snow on the ground. Farm density was also found to be an important factor.

“These models suggest opossum expansion may be facilitated by agricultural land development and at the same time may be limited by their inability to forage in snow,” Walsh writes. The presence of two distinct genetic clusters of this nomadic species—one on either side of Lake Michigan—suggests independent colonization of the two regions in the past.

For her doctoral dissertation, Walsh has expanded her study to examine the genetics of Virginia opossums across their entire range, from Central America and Mexico through the United States. Using tissue samples from museum collections, she has collected usable DNA from more than 100 individuals.

She also sought tissue samples from fur trappers and even enlisted her parents to sample roadkill opossums in Vermont. In addition to DNA, Walsh has collected hair samples for isotopic analyses that tell her what the animals ate.

“There are more than 100 American opossum species, but the Virginia opossum is the only one to make it into the United States,” she says. “I want to know more about how they were able to spread north into temperate America and whether their diet shifted as humans changed the landscape.”

Source: University of Michigan

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Tying target genes to autism could lead to better treatment

Tue, 2018-02-20 19:00

A new computational method has connected several target genes to autism, according to new research.

The findings, along with other recent discoveries, could lead to screening tools for young children—and help doctors choose the best intervention when making a diagnosis.

Autism is a spectrum of closely related symptoms involving behavioral, social, and cognitive deficits. Early detection is key to producing the best outcomes; however, searching for genetic causes is complicated because of the various symptoms found within the spectrum.

“In this study we started with more than 2,591 families who had only one child with autism and neither the parents nor the siblings had been diagnosed with autism,” says Chi-Ren Shyu, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Missouri and director of the Informatics Institute.

“This created a genetically diverse group composed of an estimated 10 million genetic variants. We narrowed it down to the 30,000 most promising variants, then used preset algorithms and the big data capabilities of our high-performance computing equipment at MU to ‘mine’ those genetic variables.”

The genetic samples were obtained from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. Researchers collected samples from children with diagnosed cases and their unaffected parents and siblings, leading to more than 11,500 individuals.

Using advanced computational techniques, Shyu and colleagues were able to identify 286 genes they then collected into 12 subgroups that exhibited commonly seen characteristics of children on the spectrum. Of these genes, 193 potentially new genes not found in previous autism studies were discovered.

2-minute questionnaire may detect autism

“Autism is heterogeneous, meaning that the genetic causes are varied and complex,” says Judith Miles, professor of child health-genetics in the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “This complexity makes it tough for geneticists to get at the root of what triggers the development of autism in more conventional ways.

“The methods developed by Dr. Shyu and the results our team identified are giving geneticists a wealth of targets we’d not considered before—by narrowing down the genetic markers, we may be able to develop clinical programs and methods that can help diagnose and treat the disease. These results are a quantum leap forward in the study of the genetic causes of autism.”

The informatics framework is now ready for a much larger scale of research, such as genetic samples to be collected through the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (SPARK), the nation’s largest autism study.

SPARK is partnering with scientists who hope to collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism—and their families—to advance understanding of causes and hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

New tests show promise for spotting autism sooner

Anyone interested in learning more about SPARK or in participating in the study can visit: www.SPARKforAutism.org/MUTC, or contact Amanda Shocklee at (573) 884-6092 or shockleea@missouri.edu.

Researchers report their findings in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics. The National Institutes of Health; the Shumaker Endowment for Biomedical Informatics; the National Science Foundation; and the Simons Foundation supported the work.

Source: University of Missouri

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Microbots could deliver drugs by flip-flopping through your body

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:16

A new type of all-terrain microbot that moves by tumbling could help usher in tiny machines for various applications, including super-focused drug delivery, researchers report.

The “microscale magnetic tumbling robot,” or μTUM (microTUM), is about 400 by 800 microns, or millionths of a meter, smaller than the head of a pin. A continuously rotating magnetic field propels the microbot in an end-over-end or sideways tumbling motion, which helps it travel over uneven surfaces such as bumps and trenches—a difficult feat for other forms of motion.

“The μTUM is capable of traversing complex terrains in both dry and wet environments,” says David Cappelleri, an associate professor in Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Multi-Scale Robotics and Automation Lab.

The microbot can be seen just to the right of the “U” in United States on this US penny. (Credit: Purdue U./Georges Adam)

The flat, roughly dumbbell-shaped microbot is made of a polymer and has two magnetic ends. A non-magnetic midsection might be used to carry cargo such as medications. Because the bot functions well in wet environments, it has potential biomedical applications.

Tackling tricky terrain

“Robotics at the micro- and nano-scale represent one of the new frontiers in intelligent automation systems,” Cappelleri says. “In particular, mobile microrobots have recently emerged as viable candidates for biomedical applications, taking advantage of their small size, manipulation, and autonomous motion capabilities. Targeted drug delivery is one of the key applications of these nano- and microrobots.”

“The ability to climb is important because surfaces in the human body are complex. It’s bumpy, it’s sticky.”

Drug-delivery microbots might be used in conjunction with ultrasound to guide them to their destination in the body.

The machine demonstrated an impressive climbing capability in both wet and dry environments, traversing inclines as steep as 60 degrees, researchers report in the journal Micromachines.

“The ability to climb is important because surfaces in the human body are complex,” says postdoctoral research associate Maria Guix. “It’s bumpy, it’s sticky.”

The ideal technology for many applications would be an untethered microrobot that is adaptable to various environments and is simple to operate. Microbots animated through magnetic fields have shown promise, Cappelleri says.

Wet and dry conditions

While concepts explored thus far have required complex designs and microfabrication methods, the μTUM is produced with standard photolithography techniques used in the semiconductor industry. The new paper focuses on the microrobot design, fabrication, and use of rotating magnetic fields to operate them in a strategy to negotiate complex terrains.

One critical factor in the development of such microbots is the effect of electrostatic and van der Waals forces between molecules that are prevalent on the scale of microns but not on the macroscale of everyday life. The forces cause “stiction” between tiny components that affect their operation. The researchers modeled the effects of such forces.

At left is a schematic of the new microTUM robot. The tiny robot tumbles in two modes, as shown at right. At bottom, a still photo of the microbot’s motion is captured from a video. (Credit: Purdue U./Chenghao Bi/Maria Guix)

“Under dry conditions, these forces make it very challenging to move a microbot to its intended location in the body,” Guix says. “They perform much better in fluid media.”

Because the tiny bots contain such a small quantity and surface area of magnetic material, it takes a relatively strong magnetic field to move them. At the same time, biological fluids or surfaces resist motion.

“This is problematic because for microscale robots to operate successfully in real working environments, mobility is critical,” Cappelleri says.

One way to overcome the problem is with a tumbling locomotion, which requires a lower magnetic-field strength than otherwise needed. Another key to the bot’s performance is the continuously rotating magnetic field.

“Unlike the microTUM, other microscale robots use a rocking motion under an alternating magnetic field, where contact between the robot and the surface is continually lost and regained,” says coauthor Chenghao Bi, a graduate student at Purdue says.

“Though the continuously rotating field used for the μTUM is harder to implement than an alternating field, the trade-off is that the tumbling robot always has a point in contact with the ground, provided that there are no sharp drop-offs or cliffs in its path. This sustained contact means that the μTUM design can take advantage of the constant adhesion and frictional forces between itself and the surface below it to climb steep inclined terrains.”

Watch robots avoid crashes—but not too carefully

The microbot was tested on a dry paper surface, and in both water and silicone oil to gauge and characterize its capabilities in fluid environments of varying viscosity. Findings showed highly viscous fluids such as silicone oil limit the robot’s maximum speed, while low-density media such as air limit how steep they can climb.

The microTUM might be upgraded with “advanced adhesion” capabilities to perform drug-delivery for biomedical applications.

Making a better microbot

Future work will focus on dynamic modeling of the μTUM to predict its motion trajectories over complex terrains, as well as addressing the unique challenges present at the interface of distinct environments.

Additional goals include developing a “vision-based” control system that uses cameras or sensors for precise navigation and for using such bots to finely manipulate objects for potential industrial applications. Alternate designs for the mid-section of the robot will be explored as well.

“For all the design configurations considered, the midsection of the robot was kept non-magnetized in order to explore the future possibility of embedding a payload in this area of the robot,” Cappelleri says.

Hydrogels for future drug delivery use Boolean logic

“Replacing this area with a compliant material or a dissolvable payload could lead to improved dynamic behavior, and in-vivo drug delivery, respectively, with far-reaching potential in micro-object manipulation and biomedical applications.”

Some of the research was performed in the Birck Nanotechnology Center in Purdue’s Discovery Park. The National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Purdue University

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Young women who value their desire have less unwanted sex

Tue, 2018-02-20 09:03

Young women who value their own desires as much as their partner’s are less likely to engage in unwanted sexual activity, new research finds.

“Young women who presume sex is primarily for the man’s benefit are less likely to see their indecisiveness around sex or lack of desire as a reason to refuse sexual activity,” says Heather Hensman Kettrey, associate at the Vanderbilt Peabody Research Institute.

“Dominant sexual mores still juxtapose young men and women against one another.”

In contrast, Kettrey finds young women who are more comfortable with their sexuality “may be at decreased risk of engaging in undesired sex with their male partners because they know what they want and don’t want.”

Kettrey believes this type of examination of undesired sex, especially in today’s social climate, is an important area of research to help protect young women and men.

“Engaging in undesired sexual activity has been associated with a range of negative outcomes for young women, including increased risk of sexual victimization, negative mental wellbeing, and lowered ability to discuss condom usage with their partner,” says Kettrey, whose findings appear in the journal Sexuality and Culture.

Kettrey used data from more than 7,000 heterosexual college women, collected over several years at 22 colleges in the Online College Social Life Survey.

Some of the results:

  • 61.97 percent: Partner initiated most of the sexual activity
  • 6.89 percent: Woman performed undesired sexual acts to please her partner
  • 31.78 percent: Woman prioritized her partner’s pleasure over her own pleasure
  • 34 percent less likely: Odds that a young woman who reported initiating most of the sexual activity during a recent hookup would also report that she performed undesired sexual acts to please her partner
  • 35 percent less likely: Odds that a young woman who reported placing equal value on her own pleasure as her partner’s pleasure would also report that she performed undesired sexual acts to please her partner

Kettrey argues that even though talking about physical intimacy is not completely taboo anymore, concerns around “over-sexualization” of girls and young women still paint a woman’s sexual desires as inappropriate, creating moral boundaries that stifle equality.

Teen girls feel ‘bombarded’ by requests for nude photos

“Dominant sexual mores still juxtapose young men and women against one another,” Kettrey says. “The assumption is that young men have strong desires that they try to fulfill through their less desiring female partners. This can set women up to engage in undesired sex.”

Societal norms also assume girls who openly express themselves as sexual beings invite sexual exploitation from their male partners. Kettrey’s analysis, however, implies that young women who acknowledge themselves as being sexual may be less likely to be exploited as those who do not think of themselves as sexual beings.

Why young men have sex they don’t actually want

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Scientists connect 15 genes with our facial features

Mon, 2018-02-19 19:23

Researchers have identified 15 genes that determine our facial features.

Our DNA determines what we look like, including our facial features. That appeals to the popular imagination, as the potential applications are obvious: Doctors could use DNA for skull and facial reconstructive surgery, forensic examiners could sketch a perpetrator’s face on the basis of DNA retrieved from a crime scene, and historians would be able to reconstruct facial features using DNA from days long gone.

But first, researchers need to figure out which genes in our DNA are responsible for specific facial characteristic.

“We’re basically looking for needles in a haystack,” says Seth Weinberg, associate professor of oral biology at the University of Pittsburgh. “In the past, scientists selected specific features, including the distance between the eyes or the width of the mouth. They would then look for a connection between this feature and many genes. This has already led to the identification of a number of genes but, of course, the results are limited because only a small set of features are selected and tested.”

In this new study, published in Nature Genetics, the researchers adopted a different approach.

Face modules

“Our search doesn’t focus on specific traits,” says lead author Peter Claes, postdoctoral researcher in electrical engineering at KU Leuven. “My colleagues from Pittsburgh and Penn State each provided a database with 3D images of faces and the corresponding DNA of these people.

“Each face was automatically subdivided into smaller modules. Next, we examined whether any locations in the DNA matched these modules. This modular division technique made it possible for the first time to check for an unprecedented number of facial features.”

The scientists were able to identify 15 locations in our DNA. A team at Stanford University found that genomic loci linked to these modular facial features are active when our face develops in the womb.

“Furthermore, we also discovered that different genetic variants identified in the study are associated with regions of the genome that influence when, where, and how much genes are expressed,” says Joanna Wysocka, professor of chemical and systems biology and of developmental biology at Stanford University.

Good news for noses

Seven of the 15 identified genes are linked to the nose, and that’s good news, Claes adds.

“A skull doesn’t contain any traces of the nose, which only consists of soft tissue and cartilage,” he says. “Therefore, when forensic scientists want to reconstruct a face on the basis of a skull, the nose is the main obstacle. If the skull also yields DNA, it would become much easier in the future to determine the shape of the nose.”

In any case, the four universities will continue their research using even bigger databases.

But we must not get ahead of ourselves, says Mark Shriver, professor of anthropology at Penn State.

“We won’t be able to predict a correct and complete face on the basis of DNA tomorrow,” he says. “We’re not even close to knowing all the genes that give shape to our face. Furthermore, our age, environment, and lifestyle have an impact on what our face looks like as well.”

These exercises took 3 years off aging faces

Claes, who specializes in computational image analysis, points out that there are other potential applications as well.

“With the same novel technology used in this study, we can also link other medical images—such as brain scans—to genes,” he says. “In the long term, this could provide genetic insight into the shape and functioning of our brain, as well as in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Source: Penn State

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Unlike CRISPR-Cas9, this protein can cut RNA

Mon, 2018-02-19 19:23

Researchers have discovered a single protein that can perform CRISPR-style, precise programmable cutting on both DNA and RNA.

This protein is among the first few Cas9 proteins to work on both types of genetic material without artificial helper components.

CRISPR-Cas9 acts as molecular scissors that can cut DNA at exactly the spot they’re asked to. The technique has transformed research in just five years, making it possible for hundreds of teams of scientists to snip out portions of a chromosome that are mutated, or to see what happens when a certain gene isn’t there. But CRISPR-Cas9 can’t cut the other kind of genetic material found in cells known as RNA.

Now, an initial biochemical study in laboratory test tubes, published in the journal Molecular Cell, shows the promise of the new CRISPR approach using the protein called NmeCas9. It’s derived from Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause some of the most severe and deadly cases of meningitis each year.

The team is working to test the tool in living bacteria cells to see if NmeCas9 achieves the same effect that they saw in test tubes. They hope to eventually progress to human cells. If it works, NmeCas9 could help expand the role of CRISPR in studying—and perhaps intervening—in many diseases.

“All that has been achieved with CRISPR-Cas9 to manipulate the chromosomes we might be able to do at the RNA level.”

“The fact that our protein has dual function—able to target both DNA and RNA—gives us the opportunity to develop platforms to do dual targeting,” says Yan Zhang, assistant professor of biological chemistry at the University of Michigan who led the research team. “It may make it possible to perform CRISPR cutting on both RNA and DNA at once, or alternatively just on single-stranded messenger RNA without affecting genomic regions at all.”

In cells, the DNA contained in chromosomes acts as the permanent encyclopedia of instructions for making everything the cell needs. But to actually make anything, cells need RNA transcribed from the chromosomes.

One of RNA’s most important functions in cells is the “photocopying” of stretches of DNA, so that machines within the cell can read the instructions and make proteins. Many diseases arise from problems with cellular RNAs.

The new technique aims to produce a pair of universal genetic scissors. And, because NmeCas9 is a much smaller protein than other Cas9 proteins used in CRISPR editing, they hope it will be more useful.

Zhang and co-first authors Beth A. Rousseau and Zhonggang Hou developed and tested the NmeCas9 protein in their lab at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Imagine zippers and scissors

To understand CRISPR in simpler terms, imagine a pair of scissors that have one side of a zipper attached to the tip of the blades. In order to cut a stretch of DNA at exactly the right spot, the zipper has to match up exactly with a stretch of DNA leading up to that spot—forming a tight bond that positions the scissors in just the right place.

In CRISPR, the “zipper” is made of specially designed RNA, and the “scissor” effect comes from harnessing the natural cutting action of a protein, or enzyme, called Cas9. The CRISPR revolution has made it possible to design unique RNA zippers that can attach to specific genes that play a role in a disease, and cut them out.

Still, the technology has yet to be widely used in people.

The first human clinical trials using CRISPR to cut a flawed section of DNA are reported to be underway in China, and preparing to begin in the United States.

Research is also ongoing to see if human embryos containing disease-related genetic mutations can be changed through CRISPR, although there is controversy about the ethical implications of this practice, known as “germline editing.”

A great accident

The discovery of NmeCas9 happened by accident when the team was studying the basic function of the NmeCas9 protein in cutting DNA. The team was using RNA as the comparison, or a control sample—but noticed that it was getting cut, too.

Digging deeper, they discovered the dual-cutting function of NmeCas9 and began testing it biochemically.

In addition to their discovery, they’re aware that two other groups are either preparing to report or have just reported Cas9 proteins from other bacteria that can carry out RNA targeting without any stimulatory co-factors, unlike previous RNA-editing CRISPR-Cas9 techniques.

Using CRISPR against cancer shows success in mice

“If NmeCas9 works in live cells as it has in vitro, we can develop it as a tool to edit the messenger RNA transcript, which means we might be able to block a gene product without manipulating the gene itself,” says Zhang. “We might also be able to harness it as a research tool to deliver fluorescent markers to specific RNA sequences, or to block events like RNA splicing.

“All that has been achieved with CRISPR-Cas9 to manipulate the chromosomes we might be able to do at the RNA level.”

Funding for the work came from the National Institutes of Health and by the University of Michigan Medical School’s Biological Sciences Scholars Program.

Source: University of Michigan

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Enormous blood pressure study yields surprises

Mon, 2018-02-19 19:17

An analysis of the genetics and smoking habits of more than half a million people sheds new light on the complexities of controlling blood pressure.

Researchers plumbed vast amounts of participant data to uncover how genes interact with lifestyle and influence measures of heart health.

The investigators studied blood pressure because it’s a strong indicator of cardiovascular health. While simple to measure, blood pressure is controlled by a complex interplay of genetics and lifestyle, and both must be considered when uncovering what drives high blood pressure.

For example, lifelong smokers who have high blood pressure—as might be expected—likely have different genetic backgrounds from lifelong smokers who nevertheless have normal blood pressure. These differences can highlight genes involved in controlling blood pressure that past research may have missed.

“Despite tremendous efforts, we continue to have a lot of difficulty controlling blood pressure in many patients.”

“We are trying to identify new reasons why people may have high blood pressure,” says co-senior author Dabeeru C. Rao, a professor and director of the division of biostatistics at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“Blood pressure is extremely complex. We need enormous sample sizes from diverse populations to be able to see what is important in controlling blood pressure.”

600,000 people

The study in the American Journal of Human Genetics included more than 600,000 participants from multiple studies that recorded data on smoking status, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and genetic markers across the genome. It included participants of European, African, Asian, Hispanic, and Brazilian ancestries. The analysis uncovered some surprising new results.

“It’s a sophisticated and elegant system, and we’re still working to understand it so we can better treat our patients.”

“Despite tremendous efforts, we continue to have a lot of difficulty controlling blood pressure in many patients,” says co-first author and cardiologist Lisa de las Fuentes, an associate professor of medicine and of biostatistics.

“Even when we try every tool in our arsenal, some patients still don’t respond to medications the way we would expect them to. There are probably biological reasons for this that we haven’t tapped into yet. Our study identified potential genes of interest that we should be investigating for potentially new ways to treat high blood pressure.”

Surprising genes

The findings verified many genes already associated with blood pressure and identified new ones in areas that might be expected, including blood vessel structure and kidney function.

But there were some surprising genes, as well. Some of the identified genes are involved with the structure and function of cilia, tiny hairlike extensions on cells that beat rhythmically to clear microbes from the lungs, nose, and ears, for example. Because abnormal cilia function also is associated with kidney disease, it may contribute to elevated blood pressure.

Another surprise was finding genes governing the length of telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres are considered a marker of age, as they shorten slightly with each cell division.

Scientists were able to pinpoint 35 locations in the genome associated with blood pressure that were unique in people of African ancestry. However, the sample size was too small to establish an external replication group to validate the findings.

In China, more than 1 in 3 adults has high blood pressure

“We are using data from studies that are already available, and historically, these tend to be concentrated on people of European ancestry,” says first author Yun J. Sung, an associate professor of biostatistics.

“This emphasizes the need for more studies that include diverse patient populations. There are efforts to change this, but for this study, that data does not yet exist in these non-European populations.”

Leaving segregated areas can lower blood pressure

The researchers found many genes associated with blood pressure that also have been implicated in metabolic problems, including diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease.

The study also linked blood pressure to genes associated with addiction, including alcohol and nicotine dependence. In short, the picture emerging in blood pressure control involves central and peripheral systems of the body that span the brain, kidneys, adrenal glands, and vasculature, according to the researchers.

“Blood pressure involves everything from how well your heart squeezes, to how well your blood vessels relax, to how well your brain signals your adrenal glands telling your kidneys to hold on to saltwater,” de las Fuentes says. “It’s a sophisticated and elegant system, and we’re still working to understand it so we can better treat our patients.”

The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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If play is good for kids, does Minecraft count?

Mon, 2018-02-19 18:53

Parents worry that their children are spending too much time playing games on screens, but maybe they’re just playing, writes researcher Jane Mavoa below.

Mavoa is a PhD candidate in the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces in the School of Computing and Information Systems of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Engineering.

If you worry that your child has too much screen time you aren’t alone. A 2015 poll found that Australian adults rated “excessive screen time” as their top child health concern, ahead of youth suicide, family violence, and bullying.

Screen time is seen by many as harmfully addictive, taking young children away from more desirable activities like reading, playing with physical toys, or playing outside and getting exercise. There is little hard evidence to back up these fears, but any parent reading the Australian Department of Health and Ageing’s updated official guidelines on screen time could be forgiven for being worried.

They recommend no screen time at all for children aged under two and no more than an hour a day for children under five. Even for children as old as 12, screen time should be limited to no more than two hours a day.

So what are children actually doing when they play on their screens, and is it bad?

Play is play

In fact, based on our own emerging research on children playing the popular Minecraft game, playing on screen may well be a lot like playing off screen. And no one says playing is bad for children.

Play is so strongly linked to positive social, developmental, cognitive, and physical outcomes that the UN has declared the opportunity to play as a fundamental human right for children globally.

Existing research work on children’s digital play has looked primarily at the use of games in education. But, there is another strand of work, including ours, that is more concerned with children’s self-directed, leisure time play. This play, in whatever setting, is strongly associated with positive outcomes like the development of abstract thinking, self-reflection, communication skills, resilience building, empathy, and feelings of accomplishment.

How much Minecraft is too much?

Minecraft is a timely and appropriate case study of contemporary play with upwards of 120 million copies sold. According to our survey of 753 parents, almost half of children aged 3-12 play the game, mostly on tablet devices.

Parents in our survey talked about time on Minecraft taking away from desirable activities like non-screen based play.

Working with co-researchers Dr Marcus Carter at the University of Sydney and associate professor Martin Gibbs at the University of Melbourne, we found that parents associated a wide range of positives with playing Minecraft.

The most commonly mentioned of these was creativity. Parents spoke about the game “fostering creativity” or “allowing the child to be creative,” either in a general sense, or in relation to specific game elements like design, construction, and problem solving.

Parents also noted the highly social nature of playing Minecraft. Even when children are not playing in the same “game world,” the verbal commentary and negotiation of in-game plans and actions provided opportunities for collaboration, negotiation, and teamwork—as well as conflict resolution.

But some parents were worried about what they thought were the excessive amounts of time children dedicated to the game. Parents in our survey talked about time on Minecraft taking away from desirable activities like non-screen based play.

Kinds of play

But what does play actually look like in Minecraft? How does it compare with different forms of traditional play, and what are the connections and consistencies between the two? These are the kinds of questions our research is seeking to address.

We know that parents value explicitly educational content in games, but what about play that is “just for fun”?

Take “symbolic” play for example. In a physical playground this might be something like a child using a stick as a horse or a sword as part of an imaginary story. In Minecraft, this might be a child assigning a role to an in-game object other than the role intended by the developer.

For example, in a recent Minecraft session with my three children, our avatars visited a swimming pool. I had my character jump straight into the water but was promptly informed by my five-year-old that it was of course quite silly to go swimming fully clothed. Upon further instruction I learned that the game’s diamond plated armor was to be worn as bathers, over the top of clothing mind you.

In “socio-dramatic” play children enact real-life scenarios like playing “shops” or “schools.” I’ve seen similar socio-dramatic play take place in Minecraft. My children once ran a restaurant in their Minecraft world that was supplied by a farm managed by my eldest child, who was also the town’s bus driver and the restaurant’s sole customer.

Other researchers have noted connections between digital and non-digital play. Seth Giddings in his book Gameworlds: Virtual Media and Children’s Everyday Play, gives numerous examples of children incorporating digital game features like objects, plots, and game mechanics, into play that happens outside of digital spaces.

I have heard of children “playing Minecraft” in school playgrounds where they substitute elements from Minecraft with readily available items like gum nuts instead of the in-game blocks of iron.

Children’s play worlds are informed by elements of both the physical, imaginary, and digital worlds. For children, the boundaries between these worlds are porous and less consequential than they are for adults.

‘Just for fun’

In the next phase of our research we will be documenting children’s Minecraft play in the same way that scholars have long documented traditional play. A crucial component of this process will be hearing from children themselves.

‘2 more minutes’ makes ending screen time worse

What would they like us adults to know about their Minecraft play? What sorts of play do they identify in Minecraft? What place do digital games have in their overall play worlds?

Ultimately we hope to identify possibilities for leveraging aspects of digital games to facilitate these consistencies and connections with the traditional types of play that are already highly valued. This isn’t about finding reasons to allow children unfettered access to devices. It is about looking at the reality of children playing Minecraft.

We know that parents value explicitly educational content in games, but what about play that is “just for fun”?

Screen-based play that at first may appear a waste of time, might have more in common with the highly revered free-play of children outside “screens” than we have previously given it credit for.

Mavoa and coauthors report their work in New Media & Society and the Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play.

Source: University of Melbourne

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How WWII and a wife shaped Picasso’s bronzes

Mon, 2018-02-19 11:29

Researchers have non-invasively analyzed a priceless group of 39 bronzes and 11 painted sheet metal sculptures by Pablo Picasso.

“We now can begin to write a new chapter in the history of this prolific giant of modern art,” says Francesca Casadio, the Grainger Executive Director of Conservation and Science at the Art Institute and co-director of the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS).

Emeline Pouyet, a materials scientist and NU-ACCESS postdoctoral fellow, created the diagram of bronze compositions over which Picasso’s production could be mapped. With their portable instruments, which use X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, the researchers could easily analyze the priceless objects in the Musée national Picasso-Paris galleries and storage, without the need to move them.

Using non-invasive analysis of elements at a work’s surface, NU-ACCESS has amassed the world’s largest art database of alloy “fingerprints” for early 20th-century fine arts bronzes. More than a decade in the making, the database includes data on 350 works of art by the leading artists that came to Paris from all over the world to achieve the finest casts of their bronzes. This data is key to NU-ACCESS’s “elemental fingerprinting” technique.

The researchers used this technique to analyze the alloys in the Picasso bronzes for clues about how, when, and where they were cast.

Scientific analysis of the metal alloys of the bronze sculptures, coupled with recently discovered archival information, revealed that five of Picasso’s 1941 and 1942 casts without a foundry mark were made by Robecchi’s foundry. One of these sculptures is Head of a Woman, in Profile (modeled 1931, cast 1941).

The study provides provenance for these works and helps define the activities of Picasso and the Robecchi foundry during war times. (For the bronzes cast in the 1940s by Robecchi, Picasso first modeled the works in the 1930s in plaster.)

“In the context of increased material studies of Picasso’s painting practices, our study extends the potential of scientific investigations to the artist’s three-dimensional productions,” Pouyet says. “Material evidence from the sculptures themselves can be unlocked by scientific analysis for a deeper understanding of Picasso’s bronze sculpture-making process and the history of artists, dealers, and foundrymen in the production of modern sculpture.”

The researchers also discovered that in this short two-year period during World War II, the composition of the alloy used by Robecchi varied significantly—possibly because of the scarcity of raw metals, German appropriation of non-ferrous metals for the war efforts, and re-use of scrap metal from brass objects of ordinary use.

This work took place in partnership with the Musée national Picasso-Paris staff and Clare Finn, a private conservator in London and an expert on the dynamics of fine arts castings during World War I and World War II.

Picasso made a relatively small number of sculptures (approximately 700, roughly one-sixth of his output in paintings) and issued few numbered editions of his bronzes, Casadio says. The circumstances of much of his early production as well as that of the sculptures cast during World War II have been unclear. Many of the bronzes that the NU-ACCESS team analyzed are unique casts.

‘Blue Period’ Picasso hides this other (sideways) painting

Casadio discussed the findings at a February 17 press at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

In its analysis of Picasso’s sheet metal sculptures, the research team is the first to discover the use of the precious metal silver to render the details of the hair, eyes, and other facial features on the cast-iron sheet, polychrome sculpture titled Head of a Woman (late 1962). The artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, inspired the piece.

Analysis also sheds light on the productive relationship of Picasso with craftsmen in a workshop in the south of France. For this project, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, a molecular spectroscopist in Paris who has developed a mobile lab for paint and pigment analysis, worked side by side with NU-ACCESS scientists and their elemental analysis tools. They figuratively peeled back layers of paint to uncover what paintwork was done by Picasso to the sheet metal sculptures and what was applied by the workshop.

This major project with the Musée national Picasso-Paris was possible through NU-ACCESS, which the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports.

Source: Northwestern University

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Stretchy ‘Band-aid’ tracks stroke recovery in real time

Mon, 2018-02-19 11:26

A stretchable wearable sensor designed to be worn on the throat can help monitor and treat stroke patients.

The sensor adds to the portfolio of stretchable electronics that are precise enough for use in advanced medical care and portable enough to be worn outside the hospital, even during extreme exercise, researchers say.

“Stretchable electronics allow us to see what is going on inside patients’ bodies at a level traditional wearables simply cannot achieve,” says John A. Rogers, engineering professor at Northwestern University. “The key is to make them as integrated as possible with the human body.”

The bandage-like throat sensor measures patients’ swallowing ability and patterns of speech and aid in the diagnosis and treatment of aphasia, a communication disorder associated with stroke.

The tools that speech-language pathologists have traditionally used to monitor patients’ speech function—such as microphones—can’t distinguish between patients’ voices and ambient noise.

“Our sensors solve that problem by measuring vibrations of the vocal cords,” Rogers says. “But they only work when worn directly on the throat, which is a very sensitive area of the skin. We developed novel materials for this sensor that bend and stretch with the body, minimizing discomfort to patients.”

Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a research hospital in Chicago, uses the throat sensor in conjunction with electronic biosensors—also developed in Rogers’ lab—on the legs, arms, and chest to monitor stroke patients’ recovery progress.

“Talking with friends and family at home is a completely different dimension from what we do in therapy.”

The intermodal system of sensors streams data wirelessly to clinicians’ phones and computers, providing a quantitative, full-body picture of patients’ advanced physical and physiological responses in real time.

“One of the biggest problems we face with stroke patients is that their gains tend to drop off when they leave the hospital,” says Arun Jayaraman, research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a wearable technology expert. “With the home monitoring enabled by these sensors, we can intervene at the right time, which could lead to better, faster recoveries for patients.”

Tiniest wearable sticks on your nail to monitor UV rays

Because the sensors are wireless, they eliminate barriers posed by traditional health monitoring devices in clinical settings. Patients can wear them even after they leave the hospital, allowing doctors to understand how their patients are functioning in the real world.

“Talking with friends and family at home is a completely different dimension from what we do in therapy,” says Leora Cherney, research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and an expert in aphasia treatment.

“Having a detailed understanding of patients’ communication habits outside of the clinic helps us develop better strategies with our patients to improve their speaking skills and speed up their recovery process.”

Robotic ‘exosuit’ fixes stride after stroke

The platform’s mobility is a “game changer” in rehabilitation outcomes measurement, Jayaraman says.

Data from the sensors will be presented in a dashboard that is easy for both clinicians and patients to understand. It will send alerts when patients are underperforming on a certain metric and allow them to set and track progress toward their goals.

The team presented their research last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

Source: Northwestern University

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New tests show promise for spotting autism sooner

Mon, 2018-02-19 10:05

Researchers report the development of new tests for indicating autism in children.

They believe that their new blood and urine tests, which search for damage to proteins, are the first of their kind.

The tests could lead to earlier detection of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and consequently children with autism could receive appropriate treatment much earlier in their lives. Since there is a wide range of ASD symptoms diagnosis can be difficult and uncertain, particularly at the early stages of development.

“Our discovery could lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention,” says team leader Naila Rabbani, reader of experimental systems biology at the University of Warwick. The paper appears in Molecular Autism.

“We hope the tests will also reveal new causative factors. With further testing we may reveal specific plasma and urinary profiles or “fingerprints” of compounds with damaging modifications. This may help us improve the diagnosis of ASD and point the way to new causes of ASD.”

The team, based at the University’s Warwick Medical School, found a link between ASD and damage to proteins in blood plasma by oxidation and glycation—processes in which reactive oxygen species and sugar molecules spontaneously modify proteins.

They found the most reliable of the tests they developed was examining protein in blood plasma where, when tested, children with ASD were found to have higher levels of the oxidation marker dityrosine and certain sugar-modified compounds called “advanced glycation endproducts.”

Genetic causes have been found in 30–35 percent of cases of ASD and the remaining 65–70 percent of cases are thought to be caused by a combination of environmental factors, multiple mutations, and rare genetic variants. However the research team also believes that the new tests could reveal yet-to-be identified causes of ASD.

The team’s research also confirmed the previously held belief that mutations of amino acid transporters are a genetic variant associated with ASD. The Warwick team worked with collaborators at the University of Bologna, Italy, who recruited 38 local children who were diagnosed with ASD (29 boys and 9 girls) and a control group of 31 children (23 boys and 8 girls) between the ages of 5 and 12. The researchers collected blood and urine samples from the children for analysis.

The Warwick team discovered that there were chemical differences between the two groups. Working with a collaborator at the University of Birmingham, the changes in multiple compounds combined using artificial intelligence algorithms techniques to develop a mathematical equation or algorithm to distinguish between ASD and controls. The outcome was a diagnostic test better than any method currently available.

2-minute questionnaire may detect autism

The next steps are to repeat the study with further groups of children to confirm the good diagnostic performance and to assess if the test can identify ASD at very early stages assess if treatments are working.

Funding came from the Warwick Impact Fund; Fondazione del Monte di Bologna e Ravenna, Italy; and Fondazione Nando Peretti, Rome, Italy

Source: University of Warwick

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