125 Evolution News Articles
for May 2018
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5-31-18 People with big brains have a different brain structure too
If you have a large brain, certain regions are much bigger than expected and others are smaller – but we don’t know how this affects brain function yet. What’s the benefit of a bigger brain? It turns out that in larger human brains, regions involved in bringing together information are hyperexpanded – but we don’t know what affect this might have on brain function yet. Armin Raznahan at the US National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland and his colleagues discovered this by comparing brain images from around 3,000 people. They compared the area of 80,000 points across the cortex – the large part of our brains that is involved in higher functions like thinking. Analysing these, they found that some particular areas expanded more than others in people who had an overall larger brain size. These regions seem to be involved in integrating information from across the brain, he says. These expanded areas are the same regions that have grown relatively larger throughout our evolution, and they continue to grow in our early lives, becoming relatively larger in adult brains than they are in child brains. It isn’t clear if this confers any benefits though. Past research has found that people with larger brains do tend to have a higher IQ, but the relationship is subtle – brain size only accounts for around 5 per cent of the variation in IQ, says Raznahan.
5-31-18 Experts advise: Start colorectal screening at 45, not 50
The guidelines are a response to a decades-long rise in diagnoses among younger Americans. Colorectal cancer screening should begin at age 45 rather than 50, according to new guidelines released May 30 by the American Cancer Society. The recommendation is a response to the steady rise over decades in the colorectal cancer rate in younger Americans (SN: 4/1/17, p. 5). For people at average risk for colorectal cancer — those without a personal or family history of the disease and who haven’t had inflammatory bowel disease — the ACS suggests regular screening begin at 45 with either stool-based tests or visual exams, such as a colonoscopy. The new ACS guidelines, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, equally endorse six possible screening methods. Colorectal cancer is the second-most common cause of cancer death in the United States. Lifestyle choices such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, not exercising, eating processed and red meats and forgoing fruits and vegetables can increase a person’s risk for the disease. The ACS says that screening can catch precancerous polyps and early-stage cancers, when they may be more easily treated. Journalist Katie Couric, whose husband died of colorectal cancer, and comedian Jimmy Kimmel have televised their colonoscopies to encourage viewers to get screened.
5-31-18 Guidelines call for limits to whole genome testing for fetuses
While still growing in the womb, a fetus’s full genome can be tested, but the approach should be limited to special cases, three medical groups say. Decades ago, pregnant women had to wait about 40 weeks before knowing much about their baby. But swiftly moving technology offers increasingly detailed peeks into the womb. Beyond generating adorable 3-D ultrasounds of scrunched-up faces, researchers can now analyze a fetus’s full genome from a simple blood draw from mom. But these genome-wide prenatal tests are not ready for prime time, three medical organizations argued in a position paper in the January Prenatal Diagnosis. The method is undoubtedly powerful. Scanning the entire genome can reveal DNA abnormalities that more limited genetic tests might miss. But scientists don’t know enough about the performance of these tests, or their pitfalls, to recommend routine use, wrote representatives from the International Society for Prenatal Diagnosis, the Perinatal Quality Foundation and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. How to interpret the information these tests provide is not always obvious. Many genetic quirks have little or no influence on human health, and sifting through a mountain of genetic data to identify the important signals isn’t easy. So far, large studies that could reveal the utility of these tests simply haven’t been done.
5-31-18 US ‘right to try’ drugs law could hurt terminally ill people
A new law in the US allows terminally ill people access to unproven medicine, but it’s not clear who will pay if treatments go horribly wrong. To people with incurable illnesses, Donald Trump must seem like their saviour. On Wednesday, he signed into federal law the Right to Try Act, which will give terminally ill people greater access to experimental medical treatments. That might sound good – but experimental means they haven’t been fully tested to make sure they are safe, or even that they work. People in the US with serious illnesses who want to try experimental medicines were already able do so, but only with the permission of their doctor, the US Food and Drug Administration and the company testing the treatment. Around 1000 apply each year to the FDA, and it approves 99 per cent of the requests. Now, people can apply for untested fixes without the FDA’s say-so. “Federal law now protects the right of dying patients to obtain and use cutting-edge medicines without asking first for government permission,” said Victor Riches, president of the Goldwater Institute, in a statement. The institute has led a nationwide campaign to get the law passed. Beguiling as that may sound, we know untested treatments can cause harm. Take thalidomide, which was given to pregnant women during the 1950s without proper testing, leading to severe birth defects.
5-31-18 There’s no such thing as a ‘detox’ – so let’s ban the word
Using the word detox to promote drinks such as tea as well as food and other products is essentially meaningless. Time to give it a rest, says Anthony Warner. For those who rail against overinflated health claims on the things we consume or use, the term detox has long been a bugbear. The implication that foods, drinks, diet plans, spa treatments or even hair straighteners can somehow fast-track poisons out of your body has no basis in science, yet has been made real in the public’s mind by constant repetition. Thankfully, anyone with a functioning liver, kidneys and digestive system doesn’t need any help removing toxins – most are broken down or excreted within hours. There is no firm evidence that juices, smoothies or electrical appliances make the slightest difference to this. So, three cheers for a decision that will see “detox” used a little less. On 16 May, the Unilever-owned Pukka Herbs was told by the UK Advertising Standards Authority not to use the term to advertise one of its teas. Given that there is no scientific evidence that it can remove toxins, this is entirely sensible. Highlighting this case may seem trivial, seeing as Pukka’s tea is no doubt as refreshing as any herbal brew and is just one of many that use the word. But the ruling illustrates more complex problems. The ASA considers “detox” to be a general health claim, along the lines of “better for you” or “healthier choice”. The tea fell foul of the rules due to a lack of any relevant proven general health benefits rather than specific proof of an ability to remove toxins.
5-30-18 The cancer-fighting multi-organ: 9 ways the placenta is amazing
Here’s the lowdown on our least-known organ, ending with the crucial question: should you eat your placenta? The placenta forms in the first few weeks of pregnancy from both fetal and maternal cells, implanting on the wall of the uterus and enabling the fetus to get everything it needs to develop. Though it looks like an amorphous blob of tissue, it carries two separate but intimately connected blood vessel systems that enable the placenta to carry out the job of many organs, acting as a lung, liver, gut, kidney and hormone-producing endocrine system. It filters out waste products from the blood of the fetus, and provides it with antibodies for immune defence. Yet the placenta becomes redundant at the moment of birth, and is rapidly expelled from the mother’s body in what is known as the third stage of labour. We might be missing a trick, say XPrize founder Peter Diamandis and surgeon Bob Hariri. They think we should freeze placenta cells and use them later in life to stay young and healthy, and they have now set up a company to harness the cells’ potential. Half the placenta develops from fetal cells, and so contains a mix of maternal and paternal DNA, whereas the other half originates solely from the mother. This results in a battle of the sexes. According to the “parental conflict hypothesis”, the father’s genes enhance his child’s growth, improving the chance of his DNA being passed on. In contrast, it is in the mother’s interest to limit fetal growth, decreasing the risks to her and increasing her chance of being able to reproduce again. In the womb, one focal point of this conflict is IGF2, the gene for a growth factor that results in bigger babies. This gene is imprinted, which means that only the father’s version is switched on; the maternal version is off. However, the growth-inhibiting gene IGFR2 is only switched on if it comes from the mother. The size of the baby is governed by these two competing factors, and the dominance of one over the other results in overly large or small offspring.
5-30-18 Drugs that help our cells tidy up might extend lifespan
Ramping up the body’s ability to remove damaged cells has been found to stave off organ damage and cancer in mice – could a drug get the same effect in humans? Boosting the body’s “disposal system” can stave off age-related organ damage and increase lifespan by 10 percent in mice. As we age, our body’s tissues start to accumulate damage. When we’re young, our in-built disposal systems seem to take care of this, breaking down DNA and whole cells that no longer serve their purpose. But as we age, this system – known as autophagy – appears to slow down. To find out if boosting the disposal system could slow ageing, Beth Levine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Texas and her colleagues turned to mice with a genetic mutation that increases autophagy in the heart, liver, muscle and brain. They found that mice with this mutation live three months longer. “It might not sound like a lot, but in the mice it’s a 10 per cent increase,” says Levine. When the team analysed the animals’ organs, they found fewer signs of ageing. The hearts and livers of the mutant mice showed less scarring, and these mice developed fewer cases of age-related cancers. Previous research has found that mice with the same mutation also seem to be protected against Alzheimer’s-like disease, and have better memory. Levine thinks a similar process might be happening when animals undergo starvation or exercise – both of which seem to increase lifespan, at least in some animal studies.
5-30-18 The first Americans could have taken a coastal route into the New World
Glacial retreat had cleared a path along Alaska’s shores by 17,000 years ago. Ancient colonizers of the Americas could have traveled down Alaska’s Pacific coast in canoes or other sea vessels around 17,000 years ago, a new study finds. At that time, toward the end of the last ice age, glaciers had just receded from a cluster of southern Alaskan islands, say geologist Alia Lesnek of the University at Buffalo in New York and colleagues. Life-supporting habitats appeared soon after the ice melted, the scientists report May 30 in Science Advances. The study is the latest to weigh in on the debate over how humans spread into the New World after arriving from Asia and reaching as far as Florida and South America by 14,500 years ago (SN: 6/11/16, p. 8; SN: 12/26/15, p. 10). Previous work has hinted that an inland, ice-free corridor from Alaska through what’s now British Columbia and into the United States may not have contained enough vegetation and wildlife to enable human travel before around 12,600 years ago (SN Online: 8/10/16). New geologic evidence supports the idea of a coastal route, though Lesnek’s team found no human bones or artifacts on the islands. Measures of chemicals that accumulate in rock due to cosmic radiation once glaciers retreat provided age estimates for when four Alaskan islands lost their ice coat. An open pathway for coastal travelers probably existed along the entire southeastern Alaskan coast roughly 17,000 years ago, the scientists say. Radiocarbon dates for a ringed seal’s remains found on a southern Alaskan island indicate that the seal lived about 17,000 years ago, suggesting the area became habitable soon after glaciers left.
5-30-18 Have humans been sailors for a million years?
A growing collection of bones and tools suggest early humans built boats too, which would transform our view on how smart they were. IT WASN’T supposed to end this way. The 23-metre-long Nale Tasih 1, made with Stone Age tools and materials, was meant to recreate one of the truly epic prehistoric journeys: the first human crossing from Indonesia to Australia some 65,000 years ago. The voyage, in 1998, should have taken more than a week, but water sloshing around the crew’s feet on the first day was a clear sign. The team had to tow the doomed raft back to shore. The very first humans to travel the oceans would have faced a daunting task, both physical and mental. By attempting to recreate their voyages, experimental archaeologists are helping to define the scale of that challenge. The Nale Tasih 1 expedition, however, was meant to help prove a grander theory. Its leaders say humans have been building and using watercraft to reach new lands for the best part of a million years. In other words, early humans – potentially including Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo erectus – weren’t diehard landlubbers. They were mariners. It is still a minority view, but one with profound implications. The ancient mariners theory could completely change our perspective on how early humans behaved and communicated with each other. The broad consensus is that our species, Homo sapiens, largely took over the world on foot. Our ancestors walked out of Africa, through or around Arabia to South Asia, over to East Asia, and via various routes to Europe. They even walked to the Americas over a land bridge that once stretched from present-day Siberia to Alaska. The only major land mass that had to be reached by sea was Australia. We know that journey took place at least 65,000 years ago from stone tools, an ancient hearth and the leftovers of a meal, all discovered inside a rock shelter near the country’s northern coast.
5-30-18 Oldest known lizard fossil pushes group’s origins back 75 million years
CT scan reveals identity of ancient remains found years ago in the Italian Alps. A little animal that washed out to sea 240 million years ago off the coast of what’s now Italy turns out to be the oldest known fossil of a lizard. The identification pushes back the fossil record of snakes and lizards by about 75 million years, says Tiago Simões of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He and colleagues used observations of the fossil, called Megachirella wachtleri, and of related living and extinct species plus genetic data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of squamates, the reptile group that today includes snakes and lizards, the researchers report in the May 31 Nature. “Understanding lizard and snake evolution has been a constant problem in paleontology,” says vertebrate paleontologist Stephanie Pierce of Harvard University who worked on the issue years ago but wasn’t involved in the new study. The trouble comes largely from a lack of relevant fossils, she says. That dearth isn’t just because little animals don’t fossilize as readily as big ones do. “Things like giant dinosaurs — they’re pretty easy to spot,” she says. “But if you’re looking for something that can fit in the palm of your hand, that makes it very challenging.” A collector found M. wachtleri almost 20 years ago in a part of the Italian Alps that had once been underwater. But researchers didn’t categorize it as a full member of the squamate branch of reptiles, until now. The sole specimen is partly embedded in rock, which obscured some of the creature’s telltale features. Now a CT scan has revealed previously unknown squamate details of its palate, braincase, limbs and shoulder, Simões says.
5-30-18 The first land-walking vertebrates may have emerged from salty estuaries
An analysis casts doubt on views that the ancient creatures arose in freshwater. Earth’s earliest land-walking vertebrates didn’t paddle about in freshwater lakes or rivers. Instead, these four-footed creatures, which appeared about 375 million years ago, lived in the brackish waters of an estuary or delta, researchers report online May 30 in Nature. Early tetrapods, such as Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, lived an amphibious existence between land and sea: They had feet, but also gills and tails made for swimming. A new study by paleontologist Jean Goedert of Université Lyon in France and colleagues suggests that the animals also could have tolerated rapid changes in salinity, such as is found in an estuary. The researchers analyzed sulfur and oxygen isotopes — forms of these elements with the same number of protons, but different masses — in 51 fossilized tetrapod bones from locations in what’s now Greenland and China. Compared with freshwater, seawater has a higher ratio of the sulfur-34 isotope relative to sulfur-32. The tetrapod bones tended to show elevated sulfur-34, the researchers report, suggesting that the creatures spent at least some time in seawater. But oxygen isotope analyses of the bones show that freshwater was also present, arguing against a purely salty environment such as an ocean. The results challenge a long-held view that the earliest tetrapods emerged from freshwaters, such as rivers or lakes. In 1929, the first Ichthyostega fossils were found in a series of red sandstone layers in eastern Greenland that geologists once thought had been deposited in a freshwater environment. But later discoveries of tetrapod fossils found associated with known marine species suggested that the early walkers may have lived in saltier waters than once thought.
5-30-18 Mystery ghost ape species found hidden in bonobo’s genome
A comparison of chimpanzee genomes has found signs that a previously unknown species of chimpanzee once lived in the forests of central Africa. THE great ape family is about to welcome a new member. A comparison of genomes has found signs that a previously unknown species of chimpanzee once lived in the forests of central Africa. As far as we know, there are no physical remains of the ancient ape. We only know about it because it mated and had offspring with bonobos – a chimp species – roughly 400,000 years ago, and its genes persist in living apes today. It is what is known as a ghost species. Traditionally, it was thought that species were groups of organisms that would not produce “viable” offspring – ones capable of having babies – with any other group. But we now know that is not the case. Grizzly bears and polar bears, for instance, have begun mating as climate change squeezes their ranges together. Many other species have mated over the years. Genetic studies are revealing that “impossible” relations once happened with previously unknown extinct animals. When researchers compared the genomes of common chimps and bonobos, they found evidence that the two species had once interbred (see “Friends with benefits”), much like humans and Neanderthals once did. Martin Kuhlwilm at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain, went one step further by comparing the genomes of 59 wild chimpanzees and 10 wild bonobos. In each species, he looked for unusual DNA: fragments that could neither be explained by ancient matings with the other species, nor by random mutations. That DNA, he reasoned, had to have another origin altogether, a ghost source. This statistical method has previously been used to identify extinct human species.
5-30-18 GM golden rice gets approval from food regulators in the US
The genetically modified rice, designed to prevent blindness in undernourished children, was judged safe to eat last week by the US Food and Drug Administration. GOLDEN rice, which has been genetically modified to prevent blindness in undernourished children, was judged safe to eat last week by the US Food and Drug Administration. The rice contains extra genes that make a precursor to vitamin A, which is vital for preventing childhood blindness. A single helping can supply half the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, according to its developers at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. The genes also give it its distinctive golden hue. The nod by the FDA makes the US the fourth country to approve the rice this year, behind Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Having the rice cleared in these countries means there would be no regulatory issues if they imported food containing small quantities of the rice. But its developer says the most important approvals are still awaited in the Philippines and Bangladesh, where the rice could have the greatest impact. Applications were lodged there last year.
5-30-18 Wish you had perfect pitch? You may be able to learn it
Mozart had it, Mariah Carey has it – now you can have it too. A study suggests that some adults may be able to learn perfect pitch in just a few weeks. Mozart and Beethoven are both said to have had it. The same is said of Mariah Carey. Now a study suggests that some adults may be able to learn perfect pitch in just a few weeks of training. Many musicians can identify notes in relation to a reference note. For instance, if they are played the note C and told it is C, they will be able to identify G. But only a few musicians have absolute pitch – also known as perfect pitch – which is the ability to identify any note without any reference note. It’s a skill that many are envious of. “It is a tremendous advantage,” says musician Rick Beato. People with absolute pitch can play or write down any tune they hear, or just sit down and compose music without needing an instrument. It’s thought that only around 1 in 10,000 people have this ability, and that if a person doesn’t learn perfect pitch before the age of around eight, they never will. However, when Stephen Van Hedger of the University of Chicago and his colleagues attempted to train six people in absolute pitch, two of them improved considerably. The training involved listening to notes, trying to identify them, and finding out if they were right. At the start of the training – which took place for four hours a week, for eight weeks – these two people scored under 40 per cent on tests of absolute pitch. By the end of the training, they were scoring 98 per cent or higher. One of them scored 100 per cent. “He passed the strongest test we could throw at him,” says Van Hedger.
5-29-18 Brains grow brand new neurons after experimental drug injection
We make very few new brain cells as adults, but a chemical cocktail that creates new neurons in mice could change that, and help treat Alzheimer’s and stroke. For the first time, a cocktail of drugs has been used to make new neurons in the brain. If the research, in mice, translates to humans, it could give us ways to repair the brain in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, or after a stroke or brain injury. The brain is notoriously bad at regenerating lost tissue. Although many other tissues and organs renew themselves throughout our lives, adult brains simply do not grow new neurons – or so we used to think. We now know that some brain regions do seem to keep forming a very small number of neurons later in life, but that’s about it. This means that any damaged or destroyed brain tissue is lost for good, leaving us with few options for repair. Hongkui Deng at Peking University Health Science Center in China and his colleagues may finally have changed that. They have developed a mix of drugs that, when injected into the brain, seems to turn support cells into new, active neurons capable of connecting with other cells. Their cocktail targets astrocytes, star-shaped cells that support neurons and brain function. These are a useful source of potential neurons, says Deng, because they are both resilient and plentiful. “There are 10 times more astrocytes than neurons, and while neurons die in stroke, the astrocytes around them survive,” he says.
5-29-18 Keeping people within U.S. blood pressure guidelines saves lives
The benefits of taking medication for hypertension outweigh the risks of the drug’s side effects. The first estimate of how many deaths and heart problems could be avoided under new blood pressure guidelines shows it’s well worth it for the U.S. population to get its blood pressure under control, researchers say. The new guidelines, announced in 2017 by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, redefined hypertension as a blood pressure reading of 130/80 or higher (SN: 12/9/17, p.13). The previous threshold was 140/90. As a result, 105 million U.S. adults age 20 and older are now considered to have hypertension, 31 million more than before. An estimated 334,000 deaths could be prevented annually if those aged 40 and older keep their blood pressure below the new threshold, researchers report online May 23 in JAMA Cardiology. And 610,000 heart attacks, strokes and other consequences of cardiovascular disease could also be avoided each year. The shift to the lower blood pressure target prevents an additional 156,000 deaths and 340,000 cardiovascular-related illnesses compared with the previous target. But adhering to the guidelines means doctors may recommend that 83 million adults, 11 million more than before, take blood pressure medications. Those drugs carry a risk of side effects, including kidney damage or abnormally low blood pressure. Of those taking the drugs, 62,000 people’s blood pressure could dip too low and 79,000 might suffer kidney injury or failure, epidemiologist Jiang He of Tulane University in New Orleans and his colleagues estimate.
5-29-18 Faulty placenta may explain why some people get schizophrenia
A poorly-working placenta may affect brain development in the womb, and this could explain the link between pregnancy complications and schizophrenia. A new origin for schizophrenia may have come to light: the placenta. A poorly-working placenta while in the womb may affect brain development, making the condition more likely – particularly if a mother experiences complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Schizophrenia involves hallucinations and delusions, and usually begins when people are teenagers or in their twenties. The cause is unknown, and environmental factors – such as issues during pregnancy and childhood trauma – seem to play a role. However, genetics also seems influence schizophrenia, and several hundred genes have been implicated in the condition. In 2014 a landmark study identified 108 regions in our DNA that can slightly raise a person’s likelihood of developing the condition. As you’d expect, many of these regions contain genes that are active in the brain, but others do not. Daniel Weinberger of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Maryland and his team wondered if genetics might explain why only some people whose mothers have complications during pregnancy go on to develop schizophrenia. To investigate, they focussed on a group of complications that have been linked to the condition, including infections during pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, fetal growth restriction, and several specific problems during childbirth. Together, these factors affect up to a fifth of pregnancies, but only 1 per cent of people get schizophrenia.
5-29-18 The history of heredity makes for a fascinating, and chilling, read
The Elephant Man, novelist Pearl S. Buck and Phoebus, god of the sun, all find their way into science writer Carl Zimmer’s latest book. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Zimmer uses famous moments in history — and Greek mythology — to explain genetics and how researchers have come to understand heredity and try to manipulate it. Zimmer walks through centuries of exploration, settling into stories of scientists who tried to use simplistic notions of heredity to improve the human race. While investigating inheritance, Francis Galton, who coined the term “eugenics,” noticed that notable men had notable sons. He suggested in 1865 that England’s well-being depended on a national breeding program to produce more talented people. His hereditary utopia would make a terrifying episode of TV’s Black Mirror. Galton’s work launched later efforts in the United States to erase undesirable characteristics through sterilization laws and mental capacity checks of immigrants. Eugenics also fed the Nazis’ notion of a superior race. Zimmer doesn’t shy away from the harmful impact of such research and describes the science that showed the flaws in such discriminatory thinking. With more than 550 pages, the book covers a lot of ground, from discoveries of inherited diseases like phenylketonuria to mosaics, individuals whose cells are not all genetically identical. In places, Zimmer uses the private lives of public figures to introduce advances in genetics. With so many examples, it’s hard to grasp why he included certain stories. Some parts drag a bit, others zing.
5-28-18 How to be happy, according to science
Research reveals the key to being happier in today's increasingly sad society. Sometimes it feels like the world is actively conspiring against your happiness. Now before you start folding your tinfoil hat, let me say that you might not be paranoid. Right now there are a record number of people on antidepressants. So many that even if you're not taking antidepressants, well ... you still kinda are. Enough people in Western nations consume — and then excrete — the medications that they're at detectable levels in the water supply. For the past few decades we've lived under the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your noggin. And while that is true for some people, more and more research is showing that our dissatisfaction may be due less to a broken brain and more to a broken life. You don't see so rapid a surge in cases of depression because our genetics or grey matter changed overnight. The world has shifted in ways that are detrimental to the psychological needs of the human animal. That persistent feeling of vague dissatisfaction may be a normal response to abnormal circumstances. The canary in the coal mine. So journalist Johann Hari spent three years on a journey of over 40,000 miles conducting more than 200 interviews with social scientists and psychologists to discover what was wrong with the way we live today that was causing such an explosion of unhappiness. His excellent book is Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. What he found was that while our world has become very technologically connected, all the sources of unhappiness stem from a growing disconnection in other areas of our lives. Let's find out how to reconnect, and how to live happier lives.
- Connect with people: Just being around others isn't enough. Join groups that you share something with. You need to be "in it together" to hit back when loneliness punches you in the face.
- Connect with your intrinsic values: More "flow" and fewer selfies. More doing what you love because you love it. Chasing status doesn't lead to lasting happiness; It puts happiness outside your control.
- Connect with nature: Go outside for a reason other than to pick up that box from Amazon.
5-27-18 Skeletons come in many shapes and sizes
A new book explores the evolution and diversity of life’s scaffolding. For much of life’s reign on Earth, organisms got by without skeletons. But since that innovation evolved about 550 million years ago, there’s been an evolutionary arms race of epic proportions. One of the first competitors was Cloudina, a small seafloor creature whose exterior skeleton almost certainly evolved in response to predation: In well-preserved groups of fossils, up to a fifth of these critters’ exoskeletons show holes or other evidence of being attacked. In the eras since, in response to predation and a wide range of other challenges, life has evolved a wild diversity of such structures, as described in the aptly named Skeletons. The book is another collaboration between paleobiologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, who previously wrote about oceans on Earth and other worlds (SN: 3/7/15, p. 29). As the authors point out, skeletons now take many forms and sizes, including the tiny carbonate and silicate shells secreted by marine microplankton and the giant frames of blue whales. The authors even make the case that wood — a rigid, biologically built material — is a sort of skeleton. Zalasiewicz and Williams survey the various functions of skeletons. Exoskeletons, like those of Cloudina, often serve purposes besides body armor, acting as anchors for a creature’s muscles and other tissues. For the first animals that left the seas (and for many creatures living in arid environments today), an exoskeleton helped prevent desiccation.
5-25-18 Dinosaur dandruff reveals first evidence of skin shedding
An analysis of fossilised dandruff fragments has given scientists their first evidence of how dinosaurs and early birds shed their skin. Found among the plumage of these ancient creatures, the 125-million-year-old flakes are almost identical to those found in modern birds. It shows that these dinosaurs shed their skins in small pieces, and not all at once like many modern reptiles. It's more evidence that early birds had limited flying skills, the authors say. The researchers travelled to China in 2012 to study fossils of feathered dinosaurs from the Cretaceous era. This was the first time that these specimens were subject to electron microscopy and chemical analysis. The results surprised the science team. "We were originally interested in studying the feathers, and when we were looking at the feathers we kept finding these little white blobs, the stuff was everywhere, it was in between all the feathers," lead author Dr Maria McNamara from University College Cork told BBC News. "We started wondering if it was a biological feature like fragments of shells, or reptile skin, but it's not consistent with any of those things, the only option left was that it was fragments of the skin that were preserved, and it's identical in structure to the outer part of the skin in modern birds, what we would call dandruff." The researchers were seeing tough cells called corneocytes, which were filled with twisting spirals of keratin fibres - almost identical to those found in modern birds, and also in human dandruff. The research team looked at the preserved plumage of a Microraptor, a Beipiaosaurus, and a Sinornithosaurus dinosaur as well as an early bird in the shape of Confuciusornis. The study suggests that this dandruff evolved sometime in the Middle Jurassic period, when, according to the scientists, there was a burst of evolution in feathered dinosaurs.
5-25-18 Dentists can smell your fear – and it may put your teeth at risk
A study of sweaty T-shirts suggests dentists can smell when someone is anxious, and it makes them more likely to make mistakes and damage neighbouring teeth. Keep calm! A study of dental students suggests that dentists can smell when a patient is anxious, and it makes them more likely to make mistakes and perform badly. The finding is the first real-world evidence that chemical signals hidden in our body odour can betray our emotions and influence the behaviours of those around us, says Valentina Parma at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. Plenty of lab-based experiments have found that body odours of people experiencing emotions – particularly negative ones like disgust, fear and anxiety – can influence our perception of other people, even though we are rarely able to put a finger on why, or even describe the smell at all. To investigate whether body odour can signal someone’s anxiety in a more realistic setting, Parma’s team turned to dental students, as dentists meet many anxious people as part of their daily work. They asked 24 student volunteers to each donate two T-shirts – one of which was worn during a stressful exam, the other during a calm lecture. The team then doused the T-shirts with a chemical that masks body odour, so that it wasn’t possible to consciously smell any body odour on them. When the T-shirts were presented to a different group of 24 dental students, they said they couldn’t detect any difference between those taken from the stressful or the relaxed situations.
5-25-18 Here’s what we know about the deadly Nipah virus
In the latest outbreak, the incurable virus has killed at least 11 people in India. The rare and deadly Nipah virus has emerged in southern India, killing at least 11 people and causing more than 25 others to be hospitalized. Although global health officials consider that, so far, to be a relatively small outbreak, they’re worried. Nipah is on the World Health Organization’s priority list of emerging diseases that could cause a global pandemic, alongside Zika and Ebola. “This is the first time we’ve seen the virus in south India,” says R.L. Sarita, the director of health services in the Indian state of Kerala. “And we want to make sure that it stays contained here.” Those infected suffer a quick onset of symptoms, including fever, vomiting, disorientation, mental confusion, encephalitis and — in up to 70 percent of cases, depending on the strain — ultimately death. Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about this incurable disease: Several species of fruit bat that live throughout Asia carry Nipah. During outbreaks in Bangladesh from 2001 to 2007, most people contracted the virus by drinking raw date palm sap that virus-carrying fruit bats had also sipped and contaminated (SN: 12/19/09, p. 15). Bats can also transmit Nipah to pigs and other livestock, which can then pass the infection onto humans. And humans can spread the virus through saliva and possibly other bodily fluids. One victim in the latest outbreak was a 31-year-old nurse who had been treating Nipah patients.
5-24-18 A cure for the common cold
Help may be on the way. Scientists are closing in on a cure for one of the most widespread infectious diseases in the world: the common cold. Most adults catch a few colds each year, suffering from congestion, sore throat, and achiness; children are even more susceptible. While decongestants and other remedies can help ease symptoms, a cure for the infection has proved elusive, in large part because the common cold is caused by hundreds of different strains of the virus, which mutate rapidly and become resistant to drugs. But scientists at Imperial College London have developed a drug that appears to overcome that problem. Rather than attacking the virus itself, the drug prevents the infective agent from binding to a protein in human cells—a protein that cold viruses need in order to replicate and spread. Early lab tests show that the treatment effectively neutralizes several strains of cold virus within minutes, without harming the human cells. “A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection,” lead researcher Ed Tate tells New Scientist. “Even if the cold has taken hold, it still might help lessen the symptoms.” Tate and his team are now working on a form of the drug that could be inhaled, to quicken its passage to the lungs. But they caution that more studies are needed to confirm that the treatment isn’t harmful to the body.
5-24-18 Ebola outbreak
Health workers in Congo battling an outbreak of Ebola began an immunization campaign this week, using an experimental vaccine that proved effective when the deadly virus raged in West Africa from 2014 to ’16. At least 45 cases of Ebola have been reported in Congo, including at least four in Mbandaka, a city of 1 million people; at least 26 people have died in the current outbreak. The virus causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding and spreads through contact with bodily fluids; its fatality rate is about 50 percent. This is Congo’s ninth outbreak since 1976, and particularly worrisome because cases have occurred many miles apart in multiple towns. “The risk of spreading within the country and to neighboring nations remains real,” said Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
5-24-18 How birds may have escaped the dino-killing asteroid impact
New study explores what let some flying dinos survive what was almost the end of their world. Nothing against trees. But maybe it’s better not to get too dependent on them if you want to survive a big flaming space object crashing into Earth. The asteroid impact that caused a mass extinction 66 million years probably also triggered the collapse of forests worldwide, a new investigation of the plant fossil record concludes. Needing trees and extensive plant cover for nesting or food could have been a fatal drawback for winged dinosaurs, including some ancient birds. Reconstructing the ecology of ancient birds suggests that modern fowl descended from species that survived because they could live on the ground, an international research team proposes in the June 4 Current Biology. “You probably would have died anyway regardless of habitat,” says study coauthor Daniel Field, an evolutionary paleobiologist at the University of Bath in England. “But if you could get along on the ground, you at least had a shot at surviving across this devastated landscape.” The shock wave from the strike probably flattened trees within a radius of 1,500 kilometers, Field says. Wildfires ignited around the planet and then came the acid rain. Clouds of ash and dust may have darkened the sky for several years, and researchers suspect that photosynthesis waned. Yet some lucky birds, but no other dinosaurs, survived the hellscape.
5-24-18 How ancestors of living birds survived asteroid strike
The ancestors of modern birds may have survived the asteroid strike that wiped out the rest of their kin by living on the forest floor. The new theory, based on studying fossilised plants and ornithological data, helps explain how birds came to dominate the planet. The asteroid impact 66 million years ago laid waste to the world's forests. Ground-dwelling bird ancestors managed to survive, eventually taking to the trees when the flora recovered. "It seems clear that being a relatively small-bodied bird capable of surviving in a tree-less world would have conferred a major survival advantage in the aftermath of the asteroid strike," said Dr Daniel Field of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath. We already know that the early ancestors of modern birds were probably capable of flight, and relatively small in size. Scientists have now pieced together their ecology to better understand how these partridge-like bird ancestors managed to avoid destruction in a particularly bleak moment in the Earth's history. "Teasing these stories from the rock record is a challenge when the action took place over 66 million years ago, over a relatively short period of time," said Dr Field, who led a team of UK, US and Swedish researchers. The plant fossil record shows that the asteroid caused global deforestation and extinction of most flowering plants, destroying the habitats of tree-dwelling animals. Birds didn't move back into the trees again until the forests recovered thousands of years later. "The recovery of canopy-forming trees such as palms and pines happened much later, which coincides with the evolution and explosion of diversity of tree-dwelling birds," said Dr Antoine Bercovici from Smithsonian Institution.
5-24-18 How a change in tactics could help autism research
For some, symptoms of autism can hamper their daily lives, but drugs to mitigate these have floundered during trials. Shafali Jeste has an idea of why. As a child neurologist, I am often faced with a question raised by my patients and their families: why are there no medications to treat core symptoms of autism? To be clear, the goal is for medications that could mitigate those symptoms that hamper the daily lives of some individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as cognitive and language delays, social anxiety and isolation, and self-injury. There have been plenty of candidate drugs, but they have fallen by the wayside. So the question might be better put this way: why do clinical trials of medications for autism repeatedly fail? Possible explanations are rooted in the design of trials, namely the way patients are chosen, the way outcomes are measured and how the placebo effect impacts them. Autism can differ considerably from person to person, and those with the condition have a wide range of abilities and challenges, and there is no one cause. Yet clinical trials often, include all individuals, regardless of their particular pattern of symptoms. Because drugs are likely to be effective for certain subsets of people, we must find ways to select subgroups appropriately. When it comes to measuring outcomes, most trials rely on reports from parents and guardians or standardised assessments. These often cannot detect short-term change, which means that a child may actually make meaningful gains in certain areas, but that these gains may not be reflected in the standardised scores. What we need are measures that are sensitive to subtle changes that may even precede or predict changes in behaviour.
5-23-18 Brain implant for OCD surprisingly helps alleviate diabetes too
A person who has a brain implant for OCD has had an unexpected side-effect: better blood sugar control. The finding reveals the brain has a role in diabetes. A surprising finding from a person with severe obsessive compulsive disorder has revealed an unexpected role for the brain’s reward system in diabetes. The finding may lead to a new understanding of the disease and novel treatments. Mireille Serlie of the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and her team made the finding while analysing people who have had electrodes surgically implanted deep in their brains to alleviate their OCD. These implants are offered to people who have failed to benefit from drugs, and whose OCD severely impacts their lives – for example, washing hands for more than 8 hours a day, or being unable to leave home without spending hours checking electricity points are safe. Such implants work by electrically stimulating a person’s nucleus accumbens, a region in the brain that is involved in feelings of reward. Boosting these feelings in people with severe OCD helps reduce compulsions to repeatedly perform particular tasks. But in one person, the implant seemed to have an extra, beneficial side-effect. This person had type-2 diabetes, but ever since he had his implant inserted five years ago, he has needed to take less insulin to control his blood sugar levels. Detailed tests revealed that electrical brain stimulation somehow improved the ability of his body to remove excess sugar from his blood by between 7 to 10 per cent. When they looked at 14 others with OCD implants but who didn’t have diabetes, the team found that electrical stimulation also improved their blood sugar control.
5-23-18 Men more likely to get diabetes if they have overweight wives
In heterosexual relationships, only men are more likely to get diabetes when their partner has a high BMI – perhaps because of gender roles in the home. Having an overweight partner could increase your risk of developing diabetes – especially if you’re a man. Men are six per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes with every single unit increase in their female partner’s body mass index (BMI). That’s what Jannie Nielsen at Emory University in Atlanta and her colleagues found when they analysed health data from just over 7,000 people in England. Back when the data started being collected – around the turn of the millennium – the volunteers had an average age of between 59 and 60, and none had diabetes. In the years that followed, those that had overweight partners were more likely to develop diabetes. It is well-known that being overweight can increase a person’s risk of diabetes, but this is the first evidence that having an overweight partner can, too. We tend to form relationships with people of a similar size and shape to us, but we also adopt each other’s habits over time, says Nielson. “We tend to marry people like ourselves.” This means that people who have overweight partners are also likely to be overweight themselves, helping to explain the link between overweight partners and diabetes risk. However, when the team took each person’s own weight into account, there was still a statistical association in heterosexual couples between a wife’s BMI and a husband’s diabetes risk. A man whose partner has BMI of 30 is 21 per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than a man whose partner has a BMI of 25, for example.
5-23-18 Seafood-lovers have more sex and take less time to get pregnant
Couples who eat seafood more than twice a week have more sex and get pregnant quicker, a study of 1000 people has found, although the reason why remains unclear. Couples who eat seafood more than twice a week have more sex and get pregnant quicker, a study of 1000 people has found. The study tracked the dietary habits of 500 couples who were trying to get pregnant over the course of a year. By the end of the year, 92 per cent of those who ate more than two portions of seafood a week had achieved a pregnancy. Of those consuming less seafood, 79 per cent of couples were successful. The couples who ate a lot of seafood reported having sex more frequently, but this did not fully explain the shorter time to pregnancy, suggesting that seafood may boost fertility in some other way. “Our results stress the importance of not only female, but also male diet on time to pregnancy, and suggests that both partners should be incorporating more seafood into their diets for the maximum fertility benefit,” says Audrey Gaskins, of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
5-23-18 There’s a new kind of superfood – and it’s not what you think
GM foods like good-gluten bread are going on sale, with a range of health benefits to tempt consumers. Will doubters be won over at last? PAUSE a moment the next time you are munching on French fries in a restaurant. How would you feel if someone told you those fries are healthier than normal thanks to the oil they were cooked in? Now, what if the reason they are better for you is because this oil comes from genetically modified plants? GM foods have been around for decades, but there has been no reason for consumers to be keen on them. Virtually every GM crop on the market is designed to help the farmer who grows it rather than the person who eats it. Now that’s starting to change. The next generation of GM foods comes with added health or flavour benefits. Some are already in the shops and on our plates, and others will be soon. On the menu are a coeliac-friendly wheat that contains only “good” gluten, potatoes that don’t produce harmful acrylamides when fried, rapeseed oil rich in beneficial omega-3, higher fibre white bread and more. It is healthier cooking oils that are already being produced in the biggest quantities, though. Millions will soon be eating them, including people in Europe, where GM foods are widely shunned. But what is really extraordinary is that despite their benefits, no one plans to tell you about them. The first ever GM food to go on sale, the Flavr Savr tomato – launched in 1994 – was designed to stay fresh for longer. This meant it could be picked after ripening and thus tasted better than normal supermarket tomatoes, which are picked green and ripened artificially at the expense of flavour. But it was discontinued after three years because it wasn’t profitable.
5-23-18 Pink pineapples and healthy fries: The new GM foods made for you
From health benefits to increased flavour and longer shelf-life, discover the new generation of GM foods designed with the consumer in mind.
- Non-browning apples
- Potatoes that don’t bruise
- Wheat with “good” gluten
- Pink pineapples
- Omega-3 rapeseed (canola)
- High-fibre white bread
- Bloodier oranges
- Bananas with a boost
- Lower-saturated fat rapeseed oil
- Golden rice
5-23-18 We may have got the evolution of our big brains entirely wrong
Many scientists think that our big brains evolved to help us cope with the complexities of social living, but a model suggests it was more to do with finding food and lighting fires. Why are our brains six times as large as those of other mammals with bodies of a similar size? The leading hypothesis has been that our brain expansion was driven by social pressures, by the need to cooperate or compete with others. But instead the key factor may have been “ecological” challenges like finding food and lighting fires. “We were expecting social challenges to be a strong promoter of brain size,” says Mauricio González-Forero of the University of St Andrews in the UK. He has developed a mathematical model of human brain evolution with his colleague Andy Gardner. The pair relied on the basic maths governing how things evolve, which was worked out nearly a century ago. The tricky bit is applying it to something as complex as the evolution of brain size. Until now, the proposed explanations for our large brains have not been placed on a mathematical footing. Models allow you work out the precise consequences of various hypotheses, which can then be compared with the evidence, says González-Forero. “If you don’t have a model, you don’t know what you are testing.” The model starts with the fact that brains require a lot of energy: the body is 4 per cent of our body size but uses 20 per cent of our energy. The model also assumes that bigger brains help animals get more energy.
5-23-18 Nine curious colours that shaped the history of art
“COLOUR has always been there,” says Narayan Khandekar. “It’s fundamental to how we are as people.” Reds, browns and oranges from earthy ochre minerals and black from charcoal appeared on rocks, shells and cave walls as dawn broke on humanity’s artistic temperament. Later came pigments and dyes derived from plants and animals, and a love affair with owning and mastering colour – in art, clothing and other possessions – that continues to this day. That long-term relationship is documented by the Forbes Pigment Collection. Curated by Khandekar, it contains some 3000 pigments, housed mainly at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum. Together with its associated database, it is a unique reference work spanning 5000 years of human history. The collection was established partly as an attempt to detect cheap imitations of Old Masters, but today it is mainly used by art historians studying the creation of those paintings. Experts can compare the composition of pigments and binding media with reference spectra in the library to understand how a painting was made, and how the depredations of time might have changed the original intention. “It’s as close as talking to an artist from 500 years ago as you’ll get,” says Khandekar. But even before being used to colour a work of art or other artefact, many pigments have come a long way. Each tells a story of light and shade.
5-23-18 Genetic sleuthing again IDs a murder suspect in a cold case
Crime-scene DNA let investigators find distant cousins and fill in the family tree. For the second time in less than a month, DNA probes of family trees in a public database have helped police catch a murder suspect. On May 17, detectives in Washington arrested 55-year-old William Earl Talbott II of Seatac for the 1987 double murder of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. A new DNA sleuthing technique called genetic genealogy led to Talbott’s capture. His arrest came just weeks after police in California used the new trick to identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case (SN Online: 4/29/18). Arrests in these two cold cases are probably just the beginning of the technique’s use. Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA-forensics company based in Reston, Va., announced May 8 that it has already used 100 genetic profiles generated from crime-scene DNA to search the public genealogy database GEDmatch. So far, the company has identified about 20 cases in which genetic genealogy alone could pick out a likely suspect. One of those profiles led investigators to Talbott.
5-23-18 Minimally conscious people woken with brain zap by their family
Some people, who have been minimally conscious for years, could respond to questions from their loved ones for the first time after treatment with electricity. PEOPLE in a minimally conscious state have been “woken” at home for the first time, using brain stimulation therapy delivered by their family. Some of those in the trial could respond to questions from their loved ones, having been unresponsive for years. “They were more present… laughing when someone was telling a joke or crying when they heard sad news,” said one family member. “It was nice to see them laugh at funny scenes on the TV.” People with severe brain trauma often fall into a coma. This can improve to a state of minimal consciousness, where they might show fluctuating signs of awareness but remain unable to communicate. In 2014, Steven Laureys at Liège University Hospital in Belgium and his colleagues discovered that people in a minimally conscious state could be temporarily roused using mild electrical stimulation. The people in his trial were able to respond to commands and answer questions for a few hours before drifting back into an uncommunicative state. Last year, Laureys and his team showed they could extend the period of awakening to a week by applying the stimulation over five consecutive days. Now, they have taken the therapy out of the lab and into the patient’s own home by teaching their family members or carers to use the stimulation device.
5-23-18 Changes in your sperm reveal if you’ve had a difficult life
Men carry chemical clues to childhood traumas in their sperm, and these might be passed down to their sons – but we don’t know what effects these have yet. Childhood trauma leaves a lasting mark – in your sperm. A study of 28 men has found that those who had difficult childhoods carry chemical clues to their past in their sperm, and these may be passed down to their sons. Previous studies have found that stress can affect the health and behaviour of mice, and that these changes seemed to be passed down to their offspring, possibly through their sperm. Such transgenerational changes have been controversial. While we know that fathers who smoke tend to have heavier sons, and people whose grandparents experienced famine may live longer, it’s still unclear how such environmental factors could have lasting effects down the generations. One way that this might happen is via microRNAs – short molecules that can affect how genes work – that are passed to the next generation in sperm. To investigate this, Larry Feig of Tufts University, Massachusetts, asked male donors at a fertility clinic to complete a standard survey that assesses childhood traumas, including physical abuse and parental divorce. People who turn out to have experienced four or more of the stressors on the survey list are known to have a higher risk of health problems, including depression and heart disease. When Feig’s team analysed the men’s sperm, they found that those who scored 4 or above on the survey had less of two different types of microRNAs in their sperm. The function of these two microRNAs is not yet known, although in general, microRNAs are thought to play an important role in development while in the womb.
5-23-18 World’s most-spoken languages may have arisen in ancient Iran
About 3 billion people speak Indo-European languages like English and Hindustani, and it seems the first such tongue was spoken south of the Caucasus mountains. Hundreds of languages, from English to Hindustani, are all derived from a single ancestral tongue. Now DNA from ancient bones suggests that the people who spoke this ancient language lived somewhere south of the Caucasus mountains in western Asia. Languages evolve and diversify, much like biological species. Today, about 3 billion people today speak an Indo-European language, such as English, Spanish, Hindustani and Nepali. All these languages are descended from a single common ancestor. This hypothetical ancient language, Proto-Indo-European (PIE), was spoken somewhere in Eurasia some time between about 5500 and 9000 years ago. But linguists are unsure where. There are two leading ideas. The PIE homeland was either on the western Eurasian steppe somewhere north of the Caucasus mountains, or somewhere to the south of those mountains, perhaps in the Fertile Crescent in western Asia. Indo-European languages were ultimately spoken in both regions. This suggests that the ancient inhabitants of the Caucasus mountains, which lie directly between the two proposed homelands, might hold crucial clues. To investigate, Wolfgang Haak at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and his colleagues examined DNA from 45 ancient humans, who lived in the Caucasus region between about 3200 and 6500 years ago.
5-22-18 Special report: Genetic testing goes mainstream
Consumers are jumping on the genetic testing bandwagon. Many don't know what's in store. In a months-long investigation of consumer genetic testing, molecular biology senior writer Tina Hesman Saey sent a cheek swab or spit sample to eight companies. Once her results were in, she talked to genetics researchers and people who received life-changing news based on their DNA. In this multipart package, Saey explores what you can expect to learn from consumer genetic testing and she reviews her experiences with companies that offer health-focused and ancestry-based readouts. Tina’s takeaways? Answers aren’t simple, boring is not bad and she just might have a little bit of Italian in her. Other Science News staff members round out this package, taking a close look at genetic privacy policies, the usefulness of prenatal genome testing and the risks of direct-to-consumer telomere testing, which is promoted as a way to learn how fast you’re aging. Finally, a video explainer on DNA recombination shows how heredity works.
5-22-18 Consumer DNA testing promises more than it delivers
Here’s what to expect from consumer DNA tests. In Nevada, 40,000 people are stepping up to the cutting edge of precision medicine. They are getting their DNA deciphered by the testing company Helix. The idea of the Healthy Nevada project is to link genetic and medical data with information about the environment to get a clearer picture of all the factors that influence health. The free tests are going like hot cakes. When the Healthy Nevada project launched a similar partnership with 23andMe in 2016, 5,000 residents were offered a free testing kit in exchange for participation in the program. “Within 24 hours, 5,000 people had broken our website and signed up really enthusiastically,” says project head Joseph Grzymski, a computational biologist at the Desert Research Institute’s Reno campus. Another 5,000 kits were offered up. “Within 24 hours that sold out,” Grzymski says, “and we had 4,000 people on a waiting list.” Even without an invitation or a free deal, consumers are flocking to these tests. Last year, more than 7 million people, mostly in the United States, sent their DNA to testing companies, according to industry estimates. “DNA testing is no longer a niche interest, it’s a mass consumer market, with millions of people wanting to experience the emotionally powerful, life-affirming discoveries that can come from simply spitting in a tube,” Howard Hochhauser, interim chief executive of the online geneaology testing company Ancestry, said in a public statement about the company’s 2017 holiday sales.
5-22-18 What genetic tests from 23andMe, Veritas and Genos really told me about my health
What you need to know before signing up for at-home DNA testing. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing first came on the market about a decade ago, but I resisted the temptation to see what health information is hidden in my DNA — until now. As a molecular biology writer, I’ve been skeptical that the field of genetics is mature enough to accurately predict health (see related article). What finally motivated me to send away my DNA in the mail was the fact that companies are now offering much more genetic information. Is more better? Would an expensive test that deciphered my entire genetic instruction manual, or genome, reveal more about me than more limited tests? That’s what I wanted to find out. For health testing, I sent spit samples to 23andMe, Genos and Veritas Genetics, three companies that represent the various levels of DNA testing available to consumers. (I did ancestry testing, too; you can read about my experiences with that in June.) These companies all analyze natural spelling variations in the string of letters that make up DNA. Where most people have, say, a “G,” some might have an “A.” Most of these genetic variants are harmless, but some raise the risk for certain diseases. Where these companies differ is in how much of the genome they assess and whether they look for only a limited set of known variants or can uncover new ones specific to an individual.
5-22-18 Malaria genetics: study shows how disease became deadly
The secrets of how malaria became a human-killer have been revealed by a genetic study. The work, led by researchers from Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, compared seven types of malaria - tracing the parasite's family tree. This revealed that, about 50,000 years ago, the parasites diverged, with one "branch" evolving into the most deadly human-infecting species. The findings are published in the journal Nature Microbiology. One element of this diversion was a genetic switch that enabled malaria to infect human red blood cells - a "chunk of deadly DNA" that previous studies suggest could yet provide a target for a malaria-blocking vaccine. "Our study has pieced together the sequential series of steps that set up the critical storm. allowing the parasites to not only enter humans but to stay, divide and be transferred by mosquitoes," explained one of the lead researchers, Dr Matt Berriman. According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million people are infected with malaria every year; the disease caused the deaths of almost half a million people globally in 2016, and the majority of those deaths were children under the age of five. By far the deadliest species of the parasite which causes this global health scourge is Plasmodium falciparum. While this species infects and often kills people when injected through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito, there are many other related species which infect some of our great ape cousins - chimpanzees and gorillas. To study those, the researchers collaborated with a team caring for injured and orphaned apes in a sanctuary in Gabon. As part of the animals' health checks, veterinary staff take blood samples from them.
5-22-18 How your name shapes what other people think of your personality
Is Hannah nicer than Howard, but worse at her job? People link names with personalities – find out how yours compares and why everybody should be called David. What’s in a name? A lot, apparently. New research suggests that your first name shapes the way other people perceive your age, personality, and how good you are at your job – and the findings could mean some classic psychology experiments were wrong. Leonard Newman at Syracuse University in New York and his colleagues asked 500 college students to rate 400 popular male and female names from the last seven decades. Questions were framed in the form: “Imagine that you are about to meet Samantha. How competent/warm/old do you think she is when you see her name?” When it came to warmth and competence, there was a clear gender effect. Names associated with low competence and high warmth tended to be female, like Hannah, Melody and Mia. Conversely, names associated with high competence and low warmth tended to be male, like Howard, Lawrence and Reginald. “The results reflected gender stereotypes,” says Newman. From across the seven decades, some names were particularly associated with age – for example, Betty and Bruce were consistently perceived as older than Brittney and Brad. “If you give your child a fashionable name for the time, it might date them,” says Newman. “The only way around it is to choose a name that never seems to go out of style, like David or Michael.” Warm and competent names: Ann, Anna, Caroline, Daniel, David, Elizabeth, Emily, Emma, Evelyn, Felicia, Grace, James, Jennifer, John, Jonathan, Julie, Kathleen, Madeline, Mark, Mary, Matthew, Michael, Michelle, Natalie, Nicholas, Noah, Olivia, Paul, Rachel, Samantha, Sarah, Sophia, Stephen, Susan, Thomas, William.
5-22-18 A caterpillar outwits corn defenses by gorging on fattening ‘junk’ food
The crop plants recruit zombie-maker wasps, but one pest has a desperate work-around. Here’s the story of a caterpillar that foils gruesome violence orchestrated by corn. No, that’s not backward. Plants often look helpless to a human, but they fight with smells and other invisible chemistry. A growing body of evidence, for example, shows that plants under attack can waft out scents that attract help, such as tiny wasps that deal a lingering death to leaf-chewing caterpillars. A dream for future farming is to boost such crop powers. Yet a tale, published May 16 in Science Advances, of how Spodoptera littoralis caterpillars can escape a trap set for them by maize plants shows how complex a task that could be. These attackers are “greenish, brownish, ugly caterpillars,” says Ted Turlings of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, who makes no secret of where his allegiance lies. The caterpillars damage maize, cotton and a variety of other crops in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. But maize fights back, of course. As the caterpillars crunch into a leaf, substances in their spit trigger a burst of furious plant chemistry, which causes the release of certain scents. The first wave of odors from damaged plants, the cut-grass smell, comes just from ripped tissues spilling their innards. Then within hours, maize sends out new scents that can advertise the kind of pests attacking it. “You can actually smell it yourself,” Turlings says. Or at least his trained nose can. (Webmaster's comment: Evolution constantly works for the pests we try to defeat.)
5-21-18 Half of life on Earth has vanished since we arrived on the scene
The biomass of living organisms on the planet has halved since human civilisation began, and humans now outweigh all wild mammals tenfold. The amount of living matter on Earth has fallen by half since the beginning of human civilisation. This is one of the staggering facts from the most comprehensive global census of the mass of living organisms yet done. “Many things did surprise us,” says Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, whose team carried out the analysis. The team define biomass as the mass of carbon in living organisms. This reflects the mass of the molecules of life, such as proteins and DNA, and excludes water – which varies. No one has attempted to do such a comprehensive census of all biomass before. “It’s what you could call a meta-meta-analysis,” says Milo. “It’s based on hundreds and hundreds of papers. We also consulted with many, many experts.” The team concludes that the total biomass on Earth is 550 gigatonnes of carbon (Gt C). For comparison, the water in a relatively small lake like Lake Erie has about the same mass. That overall figure hides many surprises. For starters, biologists tend to think that most of the biomass on the planet is bacteria. “We find it is by far plants,” says Milo. Land plants alone account for 80 per cent of the total. This has a disturbing implication. A 2017 study led by Karl-Heinz Erb of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Austria found that the total biomass of land plants has halved since human civilisation began. So it follows that total biomass has also roughly halved.
5-21-18 Babies should mix with other children to lower leukaemia risk
Cancer researcher Mel Greaves has suggested that a lack of exposure to microbes in a baby’s first year can make children more likely to get a form of leukaemia. Not encountering the right germs during the first year of life may be one of the main causes of the most common form of childhood leukaemia. Mel Greaves, at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, has suggested that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia could be prevented by priming infants’ immune systems by exposing them to harmless microbes. In a review of more than 30 years of research, Greaves has concluded that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is most likely triggered by a variety of infections in children who are predisposed to the disease because their immune systems have not been properly primed. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is rare, affecting around one in 2000 children in the UK a year. It is more common in affluent societies, and a wide range of possible triggers have been proposed, from radiation exposure to chemical pollutants. But Greaves thinks the condition is caused by a two-step process of genetic changes that lead children to have abnormally formed immune systems. The first step is a genetic predisposition to acute lymphoblastic leukaemia which, it has been suggested, may be caused by an infant not having the chance to develop their immune system properly. The trigger for the second step might be a common infection, such as seasonal flu. Historical records show spikes in childhood leukaemia can follow six months after flu epidemic peaks.
5-21-18 Think you’re fully alert? You can’t always tell if you’re tired
How safe is it to drive when you haven’t had much sleep? Just like drinking alcohol, it turns out we’re not always a good judge of how mentally impaired we are. How safe is it to drive when you haven’t had much sleep? Just like drinking alcohol, it turns out we’re not always a good judge of how mentally affected we are. In an experiment where people were only allowed to sleep for just five hours a night, for a month, people did not realise that they had become less vigilant. “You’re asking the sleepy brain to tell us how well it is doing,” says Elizabeth Klerman of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “And the brain can’t always self-assess.” The finding emerged as part of a wider study to shed light on the question of what makes us less alert when we have gone without our normal amount of sleep: is it the lack of shut-eye itself or is it being awake for longer than normal? Klerman’s team got seventeen volunteers to follow an artificial schedule based on a 20-hour day, by getting them to live in a windowless, sound-proofed room without phone, TV or internet. Nine of the group had days that were about 15 hours long and nights of 5 hours; this meant their sleep was restricted without them having to be awake longer than normal. The rest acted as controls – to be a fair comparison they also had a 20-hour cycle, but with days of about 13 hours and nights of 7 hours, a similar ratio of wake-to-sleep that most of us get in a 24-hour day. The sleep-deprived group did much worse than the rest on a test of alertness that involves watching a screen and pressing a button whenever a light randomly turns on. “This is the equivalent of slamming on the brakes because there’s a kid in the road,” says Klerman.
5-21-18 Ebola vaccinations begin in Congo
On May 21, nurses began vaccinating people in Mbandaka, the city that became the site of the first urban cases in Congo’s Ebola outbreak last week, as well as in Bikoro, the rural epicenter of the outbreak. Emergency teams responding to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo began on May 21 inoculating those most at risk of contracting the virus: health workers and people who have come into contact with Ebola victims. It’s the first real-world test for an experimental vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV. In field trials in Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2015, this vaccine effectively protected people from Zaire ebolavirus — the same type of Ebola now circulating in Congo. In the latest outbreak, 51 people have developed cases of hemorrhagic fever consistent with Ebola, and 27 have died. The outbreak is centered in the rural Bikoro region but nearly a handful of cases have been reported in the city of Mbandaka. Using a “ring vaccination” strategy, health care workers are offering shots not just to the people who’ve had contact with Ebola victims, but also to a second ring of people who’ve had contact with the first group. In that way, the World Health Organization and its partners hope to disrupt the chain of transmission. Merck, the company that makes the vaccine, has donated 8,640 doses to the emergency response effort. That’s more than enough for 50 rings of 150 people. Another 8,000 doses are expected to become available soon, according to the WHO.
5-21-18 Ebola outbreak: Experimental vaccinations begin in DR Congo
Health workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have begun an immunisation campaign in an attempt to halt the spread of an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. The experimental vaccine proved effective when used in limited trials during the epidemic which struck West Africa in 2014-16. At least 26 people are believed to have died in the current outbreak. Health workers were among the first to receive the vaccine on Monday. It is an infectious illness that causes internal bleeding and often proves fatal. It can spread rapidly through contact with small amounts of bodily fluid, and its early flu-like symptoms are not always obvious. More than 11,300 people died in the earlier outbreak in 2014-16. At least 45 cases of Ebola have been reported, including three health workers, since the outbreak began earlier this month. The virus has already spread from rural areas to the north-western city of Mbandaka, a major transport hub on the River Congo, where at least four cases have been confirmed. This has sparked fears that the outbreak could reach the capital, Kinshasa, as well as neighbouring countries. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said it has "strong reason to believe that the outbreak can be brought under control". At an emergency meeting, on Friday WHO experts said that "the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have not currently been met". The vaccine, made by pharmaceutical firm Merck, is not yet licensed, but was effective in limited trials during the West Africa outbreak. Dr Michel Yao, from the WHO, told the BBC that the vaccine had been tested in Guinea and that "almost all of the people who were vaccinated could not get the disease".
5-21-18 Blood from umbilical cord may help fix your brain after a stroke
Ten people have received infusions of umbilical cord blood days after having a stroke, and they seem to have recovered better than would normally be expected. A healing balm for the brain? Infusions of umbilical cord blood seem to help people recover better after a stroke. Strokes occur when blood can’t reach brain cells because of a blocked or burst blood vessel, causing them to rapidly starve and die. Joanne Kurtzberg at Duke University, North Carolina, and her colleagues wondered if young blood might help heal brains that have been damaged in this way. Blood from babies and teenagers has previously been shown to reverse brain ageing in older mice, and there are hints that young blood can also help people with Alzheimer’s disease. To test young blood as a stroke treatment, the team recruited 10 patients between the ages of 45 and 79, and gave them a one-off infusion of blood collected from new-born babies’ umbilical cords. The infusions were given between 3 and 10 days after each person had experienced a stroke. Three months later, all 10 volunteers showed improvements in their speech, vision, and movement, and were more independent in their daily lives. The results should be interpreted with caution because there was no placebo group, says Kurtzberg. However, the participants’ disability test scores improved more than would normally be expected for stroke patients, hinting at a positive effect, she says. This fits with earlier studies in rats, which also found that infusions of human cord blood helped to fix stroke-damaged brains. “The animals recovered quicker, had better survival, and the areas of brain damage were smaller,” says Kurtzberg.
5-20-18 The godfather of sexist pseudoscience
How gender essentialism infiltrated science in the 19th century. In the summer of 1881, Frenchman Gustave Le Bon entered the forbidding Tatras Mountains of southern Poland. A bearded man of 40, Le Bon was a Parisian polymath with an appetite for science, anthropology, and psychology. His mission in Poland was to locate and study the society of Podhaleans living in the Tatras. Using the portable cephalometer he invented years prior, Le Bon hoped to record the skull measurements of these curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed mountain people. Convinced of the relationship between race and intellect, Le Bon suspected that only a superior breed could thrive in the inhospitable Tatras — a race that must have evolved beyond their Polish peasant neighbors. How else could they have built a society on terrain so dangerous that even Russian generals avoided sending troops through the peaks? With his contraption of steel rulers and pressurized screws, Le Bon measured the cranial dimensions of 50 Podhalean men. According to his calculations, their heads were larger than both Polish peasants and Jews. The only population Le Bon determined had more brain mass than the Podhaleans were "elite Parisians," among which Le Bon happened to count himself. Today craniometry is considered pseudoscience. In 19th-century France, however, the measurement of skulls was seen as "so meticulous and apparently irrefutable," that it "won high esteem as the jewel of 19th century science," explains Stephen Jay Gould in his 1980 essay "Women's Brains." As a result, Le Bon earned a reputation as the "father of modern social science." Gould describes Le Bon as a disciple of Paul Broca, the "unquestioned leader" of craniometry, and writes that Le Bon differentiated himself as the "chief misogynist" of Broca's school. While many craniometrists strived to prove the inferiority of non-white races, Le Bon took pride in using his work to denigrate women and dismiss the burgeoning movement for gender-equal education in France.
5-18-18 How to have lucid dreams
Take charge! Tibetan Buddhism, the group of tantric techniques known as milam aim to reveal the illusory nature of waking life by having practitioners perform yoga in their dreams. It's a ritualized version of one of the most mysterious faculties of the human mind: to know that we're dreaming even while asleep, a state known as lucid dreaming. Lucidity (awareness of the dream) is different to control (having power over the parameters of the experience, which can include summoning up objects and people, attaining superpowers and traveling to fantastic worlds). But the two are closely linked, and many ancient spiritual traditions teach that dreams can yield to us with time and practice. How? As a researcher in psychology, I've approached this question scientifically. Despite the long history of lucid dreaming in human societies, it wasn't until 1975 that researchers came up with an ingenious way to verify the phenomenon empirically. The first step was the insight that the muscles of the eyes are not paralyzed during sleep, unlike the rest of the body. Inspired by the work of Celia Green, the British hypnotherapist Keith Hearne reasoned that this should allow lucid dreamers to communicate with the outside world. He had an experienced dreamer spend several nights in a sleep lab, and instructed him to flick his eyes left to right with pre-arranged signs when he finally entered a lucid dream. The volunteer succeeded, and Hearne was able to record the movements — which corresponded with the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. Many later studies have since replicated these findings. In the study I published with colleagues at the University of Adelaide, the best technique turned out to be something called Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD), originally developed in the 1970s by the American psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge. It involves the following steps:
- Set an alarm for five hours after you go to bed.
- When the alarm sounds, try to remember a dream from just before you woke up. If you can't, just recall any dream you had recently.
- Lie in a comfortable position with the lights off and repeat the phrase: "Next time I'm dreaming, I will remember I'm dreaming." Do this silently in your mind. You need to put real meaning into the words and focus on your intention to remember.
- Every time you repeat the phrase at step three, imagine yourself back in the dream you recalled at step two, and visualize yourself remembering that you are dreaming.
- Repeat steps three and four until you either fall asleep or are sure that your intention to remember is set. This should be the last thing in your mind before falling asleep. If you find yourself repeatedly coming back to your intention to remember that you're dreaming, that's a good sign it's firm in your mind.
5-18-18 An AI can now tell how malnourished a child is just from a photo
A company in Kenya has devised a system that uses artificial intelligence to detect a child’s level of malnutrition from a photo, without bulky equipment or examinations. Five children die of malnutrition every minute. Such deaths are preventable, but one of the hurdles to stopping them is accurately identifying those in need. Normally, making the necessary measurements requires bulky equipment and trained specialists. Soon that could all be replaced by a mobile phone. The idea comes from Kenya-based non-profit Kimetrica. They’ve been working on a system that uses artificial intelligence to detect a child’s level of malnutrition from a single photo. The system is called MERON – Method for Extremely Rapid Observation of Nutritional status – which they presented on 15 and 16 May at the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva. To prove the concept, Kimetrica first developed a prototype for adults. Using a dataset from the University of North Carolina Wilmington consisting of 60,000 photos of faces along with the person’s height and weight, they trained an AI to assess someone’s body mass index and weight category – underweight, normal, overweight, or obese – from their picture alone. Overall, the prototype had an accuracy of 78 per cent, which was enough to convince UNICEF that the project had legs. UNICEF then helped fund a project at Kimetrica to focus on detecting malnutrition in children under the age of 5 in Kenya. But no dataset of Kenyan children along with their weight and height exists. So, at the beginning of this year the team piggybacked on other ongoing health surveys in the country to gather 4,000 new images to train their system.
5-18-18 What we know about the Ebola outbreak, and the vaccine that might help
The first reported case in a big city has health officials worried. Ebola has reemerged. The virus has killed at least 25 people since early April in an ongoing outbreak in Congo. And on May 18, the World Health Organization declared a “high” public health risk in Congo, as well as a “high risk” of the disease spreading to neighboring countries, but stopped short of declaring a global public health emergency. Most of the 43 confirmed and suspected cases reported as of May 18 have been in a rural area called Bikoro, within the same northwest Congolese province struck by the virus in 2014. (A separate, unrelated outbreak in West Africa at the same time made headlines as the deadliest in history). And in May 2017, eight cases were reported in the nearby province of Bas Uélé. But this year is different — for a couple of reasons. As of May 18, four cases have been confirmed in Mbandaka, a riverside city of at least 1.2 million people, raising the risk of the disease spreading. Health officials are also trying out an experimental vaccine this year in hopes of containing the outbreak. “We’ve seen what Ebola can do, but we know what needs to be done,” says WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic. Here’s what we know so far: Details are spotty. A report by the International Red Cross identifies the first suspected case as a policeman in a Bikoro village called Ikoko Impenge. Another 11 family members later fell ill after the policeman’s funeral, and seven of those relatives have also since died. (Because the bodies of Ebola victims remain contagious after death, funerary rituals can be a source of transmission.)
5-18-18 Can a repeat of disastrous Ebola epidemic be averted this time?
The latest outbreak of the deadly virus has spread to a city of a million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But hopes are high disaster can be avoided. EBOLA is the stuff of nightmares. The disease spreads easily and causes bleeding from every orifice; it kills half of those it touches. Four years ago Ebola began a rampage that claimed over 11,000 lives in West Africa and alarmed the world. Health officials were slow to take the threat seriously. Now it’s back. This week Ebola ominously reached a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Second time around, have we learned the lessons to avert a repeat crisis? Bats are the Ebola virus’s natural host, but it regularly crosses over into chimpanzees and monkeys. That way it can jump to humans who hunt these animals, usually for bushmeat. The virus is very infectious and can be passed on by just a trace of bodily fluids getting into someone’s eyes or mouth. In many parts of Africa, washing of the dead and preparation for burial take place at home, allowing exponential spread. There have been several previous outbreaks, generally affecting remote villages, but the disastrous one that began in 2014 took hold in large urban areas, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Afterwards there was a consensus that the authorities missed chances to stamp it out early. Part of the problem lay in governments playing things down for fear of deterring tourism and foreign investment. Guinea, where the outbreak started, was worried about an exodus of expats working in its mining industry.
5-18-18 Growing resistance to antifungal drugs 'a global issue'
Scientists are warning that levels of resistance to treatments for fungal infections are growing, which could lead to more outbreaks of disease. Intensive-care and transplant patients and those with cancer are most at risk because their immune systems cannot fight off the infections. Writing in Science, researchers said new treatments were urgently needed. Fungal infections had some of the highest mortality rates of infectious diseases, an expert said. An international team, led by researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Exeter, found a huge increase in resistance to antifungal drugs worldwide over the past 30-40 years.Prof Matthew Fisher, professor of epidemiology at Imperial College London, said this was probably down to farmers spraying their affected crops with the same drugs used to treat fungal infections in patients. The "unintentional by-product of this 'dual use' of drugs in the field and the clinic" was that drugs were no longer working in patients who were unwell, he said. "There are fungi in the air all the time, in every lung-full of air we breathe," Prof Fisher said. "Bodies with a fully functioning immune system do an amazing job of curing the infection - but it can become an invasive fungal infection in others and [this] needs a drug." He said the number of people at risk from fungal infections was rising rapidly as a result of increased numbers: people with HIV, the elderly, patients in hospital. The review said improvements were needed in how existing drugs were used, as well as an increased focus on the discovery of new treatments, in order to avoid a "global collapse" in the fight against fungal infections.
5-18-18 To regulate fecal transplants, FDA has to first answer a serious question: What is poop?
When severe, chronic diarrhea strikes, sometimes the only cure is … more feces. It might seem bizarre, but a transplant of healthy human stool and its bacterial ecosystem can mean freedom from a painful, life-threatening illness. The transplants — called fecal microbiota transplants, or FMTs — are becoming more and more popular. So popular that the stool bank OpenBiome has supplied more than 30,000 stool samples to clinicians and scientists since 2012. Right now, though, the government isn’t quite sure how to regulate fecal transplants. That uncertainty comes from what seems like a simple question: What is poop? Is it a drug? Is it a bodily tissue? Is it a little of both? Then, is the transplant itself a procedure? That’s a whole other regulatory category. Out of concern that regulations would cut out desperate patients or send companies running to more profitable enterprises, FMTs aren’t actually regulated at all. That leads to the potential for unscreened and potentially dangerous fecal samples to flood the market. A group of doctors and scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have tried to cut through the confusion with a three-track policy plan that would help keep poop transplants clean (as clean as fecal matter gets, anyway), while still allowing patients to get transplants when they need them. The scientists also hope to encourage companies to develop potentially lucrative products for future FMTs — including options that are almost feces-free.
5-18-18 The CDC advises: Don’t swallow the water in a hotel swimming pool
Parasites and bacteria cause most of the swimming-related disease outbreaks. It’s vacation season — time for swimming pools, hot tubs and waterparks. But you might want to think twice before getting wet, says a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2000 to 2014, public health officials from 46 states and Puerto Rico reported 493 outbreaks associated with treated recreational water, resulting in more than 27,000 illnesses and eight deaths, according to a report in the May 18 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Hotel pools and hot tubs were the setting for about a third (32 percent) of the outbreaks, followed by public parks (23 percent), club/recreational facilities (14 percent) and water parks (11 percent). Most of the infections were from three organisms that can survive chlorine and other commonly used disinfectants: Cryptosporidium, a parasite that can cause gastrointestinal problems, Pseudomonas, a bacteria that causes swimmer’s ear, and Legionella, a bacteria that causes a pneumonia-like illness. So, what to do? The CDC recommends a few steps before diving in: Don’t swallow pool water. Don’t let children with diarrhea in the water. And use test strips to measure levels of pH, bromine and chlorine in the water. The cleaner the water, the safer to swim.
5-17-18 Your blood type might make you more likely to get traveler’s diarrhea
A diarrhea-causing strain of E. coli gloms onto molecules found on type A blood cells. E. coli has a type and it isn’t pretty. The bacterium is more likely to cause severe diarrhea in people with type A blood. An illness-causing strain of E. coli secretes a protein that gloms onto the sugar molecules that decorate type A blood cells, but not type B or O cells. These sugar molecules also decorate cells lining the intestines of people with type A blood and appear to provide a handle for the bacterium to latch onto before injecting its diarrhea-causing toxins, researchers report May 17 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. There were hints that blood type was linked to the severity of E. coli infection. But a clear connection was lacking until now, says a team led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Collaborators at Johns Hopkins University gave 106 healthy volunteers water laced with a strain of E. coli isolated from a person in Bangladesh with severe diarrhea. Within five days, 81 percent of the type A or AB volunteers developed moderate to severe diarrhea compared with roughly half the people with blood types O or B. (Everyone received antibiotics to clear the bacterium).
5-17-18 Settling the egg debate
You can safely eat a dozen eggs a week—or possibly more—without increasing your risk of heart disease, according to new research. Like butter and red meat, eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, and for decades many physicians advised patients to cut back on such foods to keep their heart healthy. To test the health effect of eggs, researchers at the University of Sydney put 128 people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes—a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease—on two different diets for a year. One group ate 12 eggs a week and the other ate two eggs or fewer a week. At the end of the study, the researchers found no adverse changes in cardiovascular risk factors in either group, including in blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, MedicalDaily.com reports. “Our research indicates people do not need to hold back from eating eggs,” study author Nick Fuller says, “if this is part of a healthy diet.”
5-17-18 Ancient Chinese farmers sowed literal seeds of change in Southeast Asia
DNA analysis of 4,000-year-old skeletons suggests migrants helped spread farming and languages. People who moved out of southern China cultivated big changes across ancient Southeast Asia, a new analysis of ancient human DNA finds. Chinese rice and millet farmers spread south into a region stretching from Vietnam to Myanmar. There, they mated with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, first around 4,000 years ago, and again two millennia later, says a team led by Harvard Medical School geneticist Mark Lipson. Those population movements brought agriculture to the region and triggered the spread of Austroasiatic languages that are still spoken in parts of South and Southeast Asia, the scientists conclude online May 17 in Science. Over the past 20 years, accumulating archaeological evidence has pointed to the emergence of rice farming in Southeast Asia between 4,500 and 4,000 years ago, accompanied by tools and pottery showing links to southern China. Austroasiatic languages now found from Vietnam to India contain words for rice and agriculture, suggesting that ancient arrivals from southern China spoke an Austroasiatic tongue. Questions have remained, though, about where Austroasiatic languages originated and whether knowledge about farming practices, rather than farmers themselves, spread from China into Southeast Asia.
5-17-18 Aha! What happens in your brain when you have a lightbulb moment
We now know what happens in your brain when inspiration strikes. The insight may lead to new brain stimulation techniques that put you in problem-solving mode. Eureka! We’ve had the closest look yet at what happens in the brain when you experience a burst of genius. The insight may lead to ways to artificially push the brain into problem-solving mode. To better understand strikes of inspiration, Christian Windischberger at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and his colleagues used a type of fMRI to scan 29 people’s brains as they solved problems that were designed to elicit a eureka moment. These included puzzles that involved discovering that one particular word links three others, for example. When a participant felt an “aha” moment occur – such as figuring out the right word – they pressed a button to let the team know. The scanner was sensitive enough to detect small changes in activity when this happened, including in deep structures in the midbrain that are involved in releasing the mood-boosting hormone dopamine. “We found that neural activity in [these areas] is highest during aha moments, lower when our participants found a solution without having this special aha experience, and lowest when they were informed that they were not able to solve our riddle in time,” says co-author Martin Tik. Dopamine makes us feel good and is involved in the brain’s reward systems, which helps explain why eureka moments feel so pleasing.
5-16-18 How tech bugs could be killing thousands in our hospitals
From falsely calculated drug doses to data-entry error, the true toll of medical IT glitches is only just becoming apparent – but there are obvious fixes. IT ALL started with a sticky note. Harold Thimbleby was visiting one of his students in hospital when, amid the flowers, grapes and cards, he noticed an infusion pump in the corner, a device used to feed fluids and drugs into a patient’s blood vessels. On the pump was a note that read “don’t press these buttons” – an awkward warning suggesting hospital staff might be having trouble using it as intended. Technology is everywhere in healthcare, and it is a potential source of bugs as deadly as any virus that might stalk a hospital corridor. That much was driven home in the UK earlier this month, when health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced to Parliament that a computer glitch meant an estimated 450,000 women who should have been invited to breast cancer screening appointments since 2009 had not been. “Tragically, there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if the failure had not happened,” Hunt said. Until now, Thimbleby, a computer scientist at Swansea University, UK, has been something of a lone voice with his warnings about the dangers of misused technology in healthcare. But if his analysis is right, it is a problem that goes far beyond just cancer screening, and it could be putting thousands of lives at risk every year in UK hospitals alone. That’s the bad news. The good news is that by taking a thorough look at hospital technology and drawing lessons from other industries where safety is critical, we have a chance to squash these bugs for good.
5-16-18 Lizards keep evolving toxic green blood and we don’t know why
All the green-blooded lizards in the world live in New Guinea, but it turns out the trait has evolved there independently at least four times. A few lizards have a strange secret: they have lime-green blood pumping through their arteries. This green blood makes their muscles, bones, tongues and the insides of their mouths green. And it seems this bright green blood is so advantageous, it has evolved at least four times. Quite what the advantage might be is unclear, because the green colour is due to high levels of a toxin called biliverdin. “The lizards should be dead,” says Christopher Austin at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who has studied them for decades. Since green blood is so unusual and found only in a few species of lizards living on the island of New Guinea, it was assumed it evolved just once. All the living green-blooded lizards were thought to derive from just one ancestral species. But no. Austin’s team has now analysed the DNA of two new species they have just discovered, as well as the five species already known. To their surprise, the results show that green blood evolved independently on at least four separate occasions. What’s more, this analysis missed out a further two species, which the team has found but not yet described. Although all the green-blooded species have been assigned to a single genus, Prasinohaema, there were signs that they are not that closely related. Some species lay eggs while others give birth to live young, Austin says, and they are found everywhere from lowland forest to 3000-metre mountains.
5-16-18 Green blood in lizards probably evolved four times
Studying the bizarre color might someday offer insights into human jaundice. Green blood is weird enough. But now the first genealogical tree tracing green blood in New Guinea’s Prasinohaema lizards is suggesting something even odder. These skinks have been lumped into one genus just because of blood color, says biologist Christopher Austin of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Yet they don’t all turn out to be close relatives. Green blood looks as if it arose four separate times in the island’s lizards, he and colleagues propose May 16 in Science Advances. These lizards do have crimson red blood cells, but that color is overwhelmed by extreme buildups of a green pigment called biliverdin at levels that could kill other animals. Biliverdin forms as the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules break down in dead red blood cells. In humans, biliverdin is converted into the bile that, in excess, causes yellow jaundice. An excess of the biliverdin itself can cause green jaundice. In one case study, levels reaching nearly 50 micromoles of biliverdin per liter of blood were deadly in humans. Yet Austin has found lizards thriving with 714 to 1,020 micromoles per liter (SN: 8/20/16, p. 4).
5-16-18 Push to rid poorer nations of harmful trans fat is long overdue
The World Health Organization has rightly agreed to demand all countries remove artery-clogging trans fat from food, says Geoffrey Webb. The World Health Organization has made a very welcome announcement: it aims to end the consumption of industrially produced trans fat globally by 2023. It estimates that up to 500,000 deaths are caused annually by eating this artificial fat, often as a result of heart disease. Trans fat is a type of unsaturated fat mainly produced by the hydrogenation of vegetable oil. The resulting solid fat has been used to make foods such as margarine and vegetable shortening. Small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in meat from ruminants like cattle and sheep, as well as in dairy products like butter, cheese and cream, but it is the artificially generated kind that the WHO is targeting. Unsaturated fat is normally the healthy option but trans fat is worse than saturated fat at raising the level of “bad cholesterol” (LDL) in blood. It also lowers the “good cholesterol” (HDL) and may have other adverse effects, such as triggering inflammation. The intake of trans fat increased from the 1950s as consumers were persuaded to replace saturated spreading and cooking fats like butter and lard partly with “healthier” hydrogenated margarine and vegetable shortening as part of efforts to lower blood cholesterol levels.
5-16-18 The woman who laughs uncontrollably when others get tickled
A woman has a type of synaesthesia that makes her experience huge seizures of uncontrollable laughter whenever she sees someone else getting tickled. A woman with a type of synaesthesia experiences huge bouts of laughter when she sees other people being tickled. Researchers studying the phenomenon say her condition hints at how we all feel empathy. Known as “TC”, this woman has mirror-touch synaesthesia, a condition that makes people feel sensations on their own body when they watch other people touching things. This is caused by mirror neurons in the brain, which act in the same way whether we watch someone else being touched, or are touched ourselves. Normally, when we watch other people being touched, veto signals from elsewhere in the body help us to distinguish between the self and other. But these veto signals are weaker in people with mirror-touch synaesthesia, giving the brain a blurred sense of self. To investigate how this relates to tickling, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Claudia Sellers at the University of California, San Diego, set up several tasks for TC, such as spontaneously tickling her, getting her to watch others being tickled, and seeing how much she laughed at funny situations. They found that TC didn’t generally laugh any more than a non-synaesthete. However, when watching someone else being tickled under an armpit, TC burst out laughing and tried to make it stop by placing her hand under her own armpit – which seemed to help. When TC watched a video of herself being tickled, it “lead to an apocalyptic seizure of uncontrollable laughter,” says Sellers – as though she was getting a double dose of tickling.
5-16-18 Dinosaur parenting: How the 'chickens from hell' nested
How do you sit on your nest of eggs when you weigh over 1,500kg? Carefully - according to a new study from an international team of researchers in Asia and North America. Dinosaur parenting has been difficult to study, due to the relatively small number of fossils, but the incubating behaviour of oviraptorosaurs has now been outlined for the first time. Scientists believe the largest of these dinosaurs arranged their eggs around a central gap in the nest. This bore the parent's weight, while allowing them to potentially provide body heat or protection to their developing young, without crushing the delicate eggs. The feathered ancient relatives of modern birds, oviraptorosaurs lived in the Late Cretaceous period, at least 67 million years ago. Their bony crests and long, lizard-like tails led one species, Anzu wyliei, to be dubbed the "chicken from hell." "It's a really interesting group of dinosaurs," study co-author Darla Zelenitsky from the University of Calgary told BBC News. "Most of them were of small size so probably 100kg or less. They're very bird-like; they have a very parrot-like skull. While they are relatively rare, there are a number of interesting specimens." The group looked at the shape and size of over 40 different nests, mostly originating in China and Mongolia, in order to determine incubating behaviour. They found that clutch diameter ranged from 35cm in smaller species to 330cm in the largest, Macroelongatoolithus. The central gap in the nest appeared to increase with increasing species size. This adaptation is not seen in birds.
5-15-18 Here’s how hefty dinosaurs sat on their eggs without crushing them
Sitting in the center of a ring of eggs kept dinos’ weight off — and warmth near — the eggs. Brooding birds from chickadees to ostriches sit squarely on their eggs. But scientists thought some of the heftier dinosaur ancestors of birds might not be able to do that without crushing the clutches. Now, a new study finds that certain dinos with a little extra junk in the trunk also had a clever brooding strategy: They sat within an open space at the center of a ring of eggs, rather than right smack on top of them. The researchers studied about three dozen fossilized egg clutches belonging to different species of oviraptorosaurs, a group of feathered meat-eating dinosaurs. Clutches laid by larger oviraptorosaur species also had the largest openings at the center, a team led by paleontologist Kohei Tanaka of Nagoya University Museum in Japan reports May 16 in Biology Letters. Although it’s not possible to determine the exact species of oviraptorosaur from the eggs alone, the researchers divided the eggs into three classifications based on size. The smallest eggs, at less than 170 millimeters long, were assigned to the group Elongatoolithus, which likely included species with body masses ranging from a few tens of kilograms up to 100 or 200 kilograms — similar to today’s ostriches and emus. Medium-sized eggs were assigned to the group Macroolithus and the largest eggs, more than 240 millimeters long, to the group Macroelongatoolithus. The dinos that laid the biggest eggs may have had body masses as high as about 2,000 kilograms.
5-15-18 A new synthetic molecule may solve a paradox about life’s origin
Many scientists suspect life began with a molecule called RNA, but there has long been a big problem with this idea. Now there is a solution. Life probably began with a molecule, or set of molecules, that could make copies of themselves. Now we have taken a big step towards creating such molecules ourselves. Over the last four decades, biologists have made lots of progress towards creating self-replicating molecules in the lab. However, their efforts have been thwarted by an apparent paradox. Now Philipp Holliger and his colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK say they have found the answer. There are many reasons to think that the first self-replicating molecule was made of RNA, which still plays a big part in living cells today. RNA can store information in its sequence, just like DNA. It can also fold into complex shapes and act as an enzyme, driving important chemical reactions. Inspired by this idea, many groups have been creating RNA enzymes that can make copies of other RNA molecules. The problem is that these RNA enzymes can only copy RNA molecules that have not folded into complex shapes, says Holliger. “The moment the RNA molecule folds, the enzyme gets stuck.” Therein lies the paradox. RNA can only act as an enzyme if it folds itself, but RNA enzymes cannot replicate a folded RNA – so it seems no RNA enzyme can replicate itself. Holliger’s solution is to change the building blocks the RNA enzyme uses when building a new RNA.
5-15-18 Cause of polycystic ovary syndrome discovered at last
Polycystic ovary syndrome, which affects one in five women, seems to be caused by a hormonal imbalance. An IVF drug may fix this, and will be trialled soon. The most common cause of female infertility – polycystic ovary syndrome – may be caused by a hormonal imbalance before birth. The finding has led to a cure in mice, and a drug trial is set to begin in women later this year. Polycystic ovary syndrome affects up to one in five women worldwide, three-quarters of whom struggle to fall pregnant. The condition is typically characterised by high levels of testosterone, ovarian cysts, irregular menstrual cycles, and problems regulating sugar, but the causes have long been a mystery. “It’s by far the most common hormonal condition affecting women of reproductive age but it hasn’t received a lot of attention,” says Robert Norman at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Treatments are available for helping affected women get pregnant, but their success rates are typically less than 30 per cent across five menstrual cycles. Now, Paolo Giacobini at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and his colleagues have found that the syndrome may be triggered before birth by excess exposure in the womb to a hormone called anti-Müllerian hormone.
5-15-18 We may finally be able to beat the common cold with a new drug
An experimental drug stops common cold viruses from building their protective outer armour, preventing them from replicating and spreading. At last, an experimental drug has shown promise in beating common cold viruses, raising hopes of an effective treatment against rhinoviruses and other pathogens. When tested on human cells in a dish, the drug was found to block several strains of cold virus from replicating, without having any effect on the cells. The drug works by suppressing a human enzyme that cold viruses use to construct their capsids – the armoured outer shell of a virus. Without this protein shield, a virus’s genetic material is exposed and vulnerable. There are hundreds of variants of the rhinovirus, so attempts to develop vaccines against the common cold have so far failed. Most current cold treatments do no more than alleviate symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, and fever. But all strains of rhinovirus use the same enzyme to make copies of themselves, suggesting that this drug may be able to treat them all. However, many more tests of the drug are required first, not only to establish that it works in the human body, but also that it isn’t toxic. “A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection, and we are working on making a version that could be inhaled, so that it gets to the lungs quickly,” says Ed Tate, at Imperial College London.
5-15-18 Kids are selective imitators, not extreme copycats
New research challenges the idea that young children blindly copy everything adults do to complete a task, including irrelevant actions. It all depends on whether kids see one or, more realistically, several adults perform the same task. Psychologists generally regard preschoolers as supreme copycats. Those little bundles of energy will imitate whatever an adult does to remove a prize from a box, including irrelevant and just plain silly stuff. If an experimenter pats a container twice before lifting a latch to open it, so will most kids who watched the demonstration. There’s an official scientific name for mega-mimicry of this sort: overimitation. Maybe copying everything helps youngsters learn rituals and other cultural quirks. Maybe kids imitate to excess so that an adult who appears to possess special knowledge will like them. Or maybe overimitation is overrated. In realistic learning situations — where children can gauge whether a majority of adults are patting a box or otherwise going off course before getting down to business — copycat fever cools off dramatically. That’s the conclusion of a team led by psychologist Cara Evans of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “The term ‘overimitation’ misleadingly suggests that children mindlessly and inefficiently copy irrelevant actions,” Evans says. “Instead, children imitate adults in highly flexible, selective and adaptive ways.”
5-14-18 With a little convincing, rats can detect tuberculosis
Rodents that excel at detecting landmines could make a difference in a widespread disease. What do land mines and tuberculosis have in common? Both kill people in developing countries — and both can be sniffed out by rodents that grow up to 3 feet, head to tail. Since 2000, the international nonprofit APOPO has partnered with Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture to train African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) to pick up the scent of TNT in land mines. By 2016, the animals had located almost 20,000 land mines in Africa and Southeast Asia. To help more people, Georgies Mgode, a zoonotic disease scientist at Sokoine, and colleagues began training the rats to recognize tuberculosis, an infectious disease that killed about 1.6 million people in 2016. The most common diagnostic tool — inspection of patients’ sputum under a microscope — can miss infections more than half the time. More accurate technologies are costly or still in testing (SN Online: 2/28/18). “Every disease, anything organic, has a smell,” says Mgode. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB, emits 13 volatile chemicals that set it apart from other microbes, he and colleagues reported in 2012. Training a rat to be a TB sniffer, recognizing those smells in phlegm, takes about nine months.
5-14-18 RNA injected from one sea slug into another may transfer memories
The controversial finding suggests that RNA molecules help set up future recollections. Sluggish memories might be captured via RNA. The molecule, when taken from one sea slug and injected into another, appeared to transfer a rudimentary memory between the two, a new study suggests. Most neuroscientists believe long-term memories are stored by strengthening connections between nerve cells in the brain (SN: 2/3/18, p. 22). But these results, reported May 14 in eNeuro, buoy a competing argument: that some types of RNA molecules, and not linkages between nerve cells, are key to long-term memory storage. “It’s a very controversial idea,” admits study coauthor David Glanzman, a neuroscientist at UCLA. When poked or prodded, some sea slugs (Aplysia californica) will reflexively pull their siphon, a water-filtering appendage, into their bodies. Using electric shocks, Glanzman and his colleagues sensitized sea slugs to have a longer-lasting siphon-withdrawal response — a very basic form of memory. The team extracted RNA from those slugs and injected it into slugs that hadn’t been sensitized. These critters then showed the same long-lasting response to touch as their shocked companions.
5-14-18 'Memory transplant' achieved in snails
Memory transfer has been at the heart of science fiction for decades, but it's becoming more like science fact. A team successfully transplanted memories by transferring a form of genetic information called RNA from one snail into another. The snails were trained to develop a defensive reaction. When the RNA was inserted into snails that had not undergone this process, they behaved just as if they had been sensitised. The research, published in the journal eNeuro, could provide new clues in the search for the physical basis of memory. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid; it's a large molecule involved in various essential roles within biological organisms - including the assembly of proteins and the way that genes are expressed more generally. The scientists gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia californica. snails contract in order to protect themselves from harm - became more pronounced. When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction lasting about 50 seconds, while those that had not received the shocks contracted for only about one second. The shocked snails had been "sensitised" to the stimulus. Scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of the snails that received the shocks and injected it into a small number of marine snails that had not been sensitised in this way. The non-sensitised snails injected with the RNA from the shocked animals behaved as if they had themselves received the tail shocks, displaying a defensive contraction of about 40 seconds. They saw a similar effect when they did the same thing to sensory nerve cells being studied in petri dishes. Prof David Glanzman, one of the authors, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said the result was "as though we transferred the memory".
5-11-18 The window for learning a language may stay open surprisingly long
Study suggests people are skilled at picking up grammar in a new tongue up to age 17 or 18. Language learning isn’t kid stuff anymore. In fact, it never was, a provocative new study concludes. A crucial period for learning the rules and structure of a language lasts up to around age 17 or 18, say psychologist Joshua Hartshorne of MIT and colleagues. Previous research had suggested that grammar-learning ability flourished in early childhood before hitting a dead end around age 5. If that were true, people who move to another country and try to learn a second language after the first few years of life should have a hard time achieving the fluency of native speakers. But that’s not so, Hartshorne’s team reports online May 2 in Cognition. In an online sample of unprecedented size, people who started learning English as a second language in an English-speaking country by age 10 to 12 ultimately mastered the new tongue as well as folks who had learned English and another language simultaneously from birth, the researchers say. Both groups, however, fell somewhat short of the grammatical fluency displayed by English-only speakers. After ages 10 to 12, new-to-English learners reached lower levels of fluency than those who started learning English at younger ages because time ran out when their grammar-absorbing ability plummeted starting around age 17. In another surprise, modest amounts of English learning among native and second-language speakers continued until around age 30, the investigators found, although most learning happened in the first 10 to 20 years of life.
5-11-18 Measles cases in England are up 65 per cent on last year
There have been 440 confirmed cases of measles in England so far this year. These cases are linked to ongoing outbreaks in Europe, according to Public Health England. There have been 440 confirmed cases of measles in England so far this year. These cases are linked to “ongoing large outbreaks in Europe”, according to government agency Public Health England. These cases were all confirmed by laboratory tests, occurring between 1 January and 9 May. This is a 65 per cent increase on the same period in 2017, which saw 267 confirmed cases in England. Of this year’s cases, 164 have been in London, 78 in the West Midlands, and 37 in West Yorkshire. There are currently large measles outbreaks underway in Italy and Romania. “We’d encourage people to ensure they are up to date with their MMR vaccine before travelling to countries with ongoing measles outbreaks,” says Mary Ramsay, of Public Health England.
5-11-18 Trolley problem tested in real life for first time with mice
Would you kill someone to save five others? The first lab enactment of this classic thought experiment raises issues for how we programme self-driving cars. Would you kill someone if it would save the lives of five others? This classic thought experiment is known as the trolley problem, and is taking on growing importance as we train self-driving cars to take to the road. But the first real-life enactment of the problem in a lab – using mice – suggests we may have been approaching it wrong. The trolley problem involves imagining that a runaway rail car is going to hit and kill five people – unless you pull a lever, diverting the car onto a different track, where it would only wipe out one. Rerouting the car would logically cause the least harm, but some people struggle with the hypothetical guilt of hurting someone through their direct actions and say they wouldn’t be able to pull the lever. Dries Bostyn of Ghent University in Belgium and his colleagues wanted to know if people would show this reluctance in a real-life version of the test. To do this, they used mice as the victims instead of people, and recruited about 200 volunteers. Each person entered a room and was told that a very painful but non-lethal electric shock was about to be applied to a cage of five mice in front of them. But if the person pressed a button, the shock would be diverted to a second cage, containing just one mouse.Happily, no mice were harmed during the study. A 20-second timer counted down while participants had to make up their minds – but at the end, there was no shock.
5-11-18 Stem cells may reveal how Neanderthal DNA works in modern humans
Many of us carry DNA inherited from Neanderthals, but we can’t be sure how it affects us. Stem cells with Neanderthal DNA could tell us. We could soon find out how the Neanderthal DNA many of us carry actually affects us. It turns out that stem cells, which have been hyped as a way to treat incurable diseases, can also be used to examine what Neanderthal genes do. Since 2010 evidence has been growing that many living people carry tiny amounts of Neanderthal DNA in their cells. It’s been suggested that this Neanderthal DNA has all sorts of effects, from our immune systems to skin colour. But it’s hard to be sure what it’s really doing. Now Gray Camp and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany say they have found a way to study how Neanderthal DNA works in living humans in unprecedented detail. The key tool will be stem cells, which unlike most cells are able to change their shape and function. Developing embryos use stem cells to create their tissues and organs, from neurons to muscle cells. Biologists have long dreamed of using stem cells to heal damaged or destroyed organs. Camp focused on a particular type of stem cell, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These are made by reprogramming adult cells, and can then be transformed into any kind of cell and even simple tissues. iPS cells have already been used to treat disease. The team found that sections of Neanderthal DNA are common in the iPS cells now being generated in labs across the world. That means we could discover why some chunks of Neanderthal DNA seem to be beneficial to living humans.
5-10-18 Diet linked to arthritis
Having a bad diet may increase your chances of developing osteoarthritis. Scientists have long thought the condition was tied to obesity and excessive stress placed on the joints, reports MedicalDaily.com. But in a new study, a team from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that a high-fat Western diet caused mice not only to gain weight but also to develop systemic inflammation and an imbalance in their gut microbiome: Their colons had high levels of harmful bacteria and hardly any beneficial “probiotic” bacteria. When the researchers tore cartilage in the rodents’ knees to trigger osteoarthritis, the disease progressed more rapidly in the obese mice. When they then treated these mice with a probiotic to restore their gut microbiome, the rodents had less inflammation and their joint health improved. Study author Eric Schott says his team’s findings “set the stage to develop therapies that target the microbiome and actually treat the disease.”
5-10-18 Concussion tied to Parkinson’s
Just one mild concussion could increase the risk for Parkinson’s disease by 56 percent, a new study suggests. Researchers examined the health records of 325,870 veterans, ages 31 to 65. None had Parkinson’s at the start of the study; after 12 years, only 1,462 had been diagnosed with the incurable neurological disorder. But of those, 65 percent had previously suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). After accounting for age and other factors, the researchers concluded that veterans who’d had a TBI had a 71 percent increased risk of Parkinson’s, and that those who suffered moderate to severe injuries had an 83 percent higher risk. Those with a history of brain trauma were also diagnosed with Parkinson’s on average two years earlier than those who never had a head injury. “This is the highest level of evidence so far to establish that this association is a real one and something to be taken seriously,” researcher Raquel Gardner tells ABCNews.com. The researchers speculate that injured brain cells may trigger the buildup of a protein called alpha-synuclein, a hallmark of Parkinson’s.
5-10-18 When hominins straightened up
At what point did early humans switch from ape-like shuffling to walking upright? Scientists have long puzzled over that question—and new research suggests it was much earlier than previously thought. Evolutionary anthropologists at the University of Arizona examined footprints discovered in Laetoli, Tanzania, that were made by human ancestors about 3.6 million years ago. Analysis showed that the heel and toe impressions of the ancient footprints closely matched those made by modern humans walking upright, rather than bent over. That suggests early human ancestors lost their ape-like shuffle and adopted a straight-legged gait long before big-brained members of the Homo genus emerged about 2.5 million years ago. “While there may have been some nuanced differences,” study author David Raichlen tells ScienceDaily.com, “these hominins probably looked like us when they walked.” Moving in a crouched position requires more energy than walking with a vertical torso and long stride. Scientists believe our early ancestors adjusted their gait because the changing climate forced them to cover greater distances to find food.
5-10-18 Napoleon Complex: Are smaller men really more aggressive?
A study investigating short-man syndrome suggests that smaller men may behave more aggressively than others, providing there are no likely repercussions. Do smaller men act more aggressively to make up for their lack of height? The idea, known as the Napoleon Complex or short-man syndrome, is widely believed but has little supporting evidence. Now a new study has lent the premise some weight, finding that smaller men did sometimes respond more aggressively when playing a money-sharing game. When shorter men act out, it is sometimes blamed on them trying to compensate for their height. They may have good reason to be defensive – taller men are more likely to win elections, and have better-paying careers. But the belief could be down to one of our many cognitive biases. Perhaps we are more likely to notice when smaller people start arguments, and forget when taller people do so. Or shorter men may get into more fights because they are picked on more. While working at Vrije University in the Netherlands, Jill Knapen and her team put the idea to the test by getting 42 men to take part in a simple money-sharing task called the Dictator Game, often used in psychology research. Participants were introduced to their opponent and had about ten seconds to size each other up. Then they went into separate cubicles, where they were given a small sum of money – eighteen chips representing ten cent coins. Each person had to decide how much to keep and how much to leave for their partner, in a one-off task. The team found that shorter men kept more of the spoils for themselves – which could be seen as a relatively aggressive act.
5-10-18 Eating all your meals before 3pm could be good for your health
Eating all of your daily meals by mid-afternoon has been found to lower appetite and cut blood pressure, and may make you less likely to develop diabetes. Not eating carbs after 6pm is a common diet tip, but here’s a new idea. A small study of overweight men suggests that not eating anything at all after 3pm reduces appetite, cuts blood pressure, and may prevent diabetes. Time-restricted eating has been found to stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce diabetes risk in mice, but rigorous studies in people have been lacking. To address this, Courtney Peterson at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and her colleagues tested a diet in 8 overweight men who were all on the threshold of developing type 2 diabetes. For five weeks, the volunteers ate identical breakfasts, lunches and dinners under supervision. Half were assigned to eat all three meals within a 6-hour period ending no later than 3pm, while the other four ate theirs within a more normal 12-hour timeframe. After five weeks, the groups swapped for a further five weeks. The team found that limiting food to a 6-hour window led to a big increase in sensitivity to the hormone insulin – a sign of improved sugar control. The time-restricted diet also reduced overall appetite and cut blood pressure by an average of 10 mmHg – about the same amount usually achieved by taking blood pressure medication. These effects were not due to weight loss, since all participants were fed enough calories to maintain their weight. Instead, eating earlier in the day may have aligned better with their natural circadian rhythms. “We’ve evolved to be active during the day, so it makes sense for our metabolism to rev up at the beginning of the day and rev down at night to be as efficient as possible,” says Peterson.
5-10-18 Eye scanner can tell if you’ve mastered a foreign language
By monitoring unconscious eye movements while reading, an algorithm can predict the proficiency of someone learning English as a second language. Your eyes might give away how well those French lessons are really going. By monitoring the unconscious eye movements of someone as they read, an algorithm is able to work out how proficient they are. The technology could one day help create more personalised online learning tools. Current language tests have several drawbacks. Students may receive training to pass a specific exam, for example, which may not reflect their overall knowledge of the language. Instead, Yevgeni Berzak from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues were keen to see if tiny eye movements could be an alternate way of evaluating language ability. Using an eye tracker mounted on a desktop, the team tried to determine the competency of 145 English language students by recording their eye movements while reading a series of standalone sentences. The length of time each person would fix their gaze on different words and transition to the next word were measured, for example. Their results were compared to 37 native speakers who performed the same exercise. The gaze of the learners and native speakers were compared and an algorithm then estimated the learners’ language proficiency score based on their eye data alone. The estimate was checked against their previous results on two standardised language tests. The team found that there was a pretty good correlation between eye movements and reading proficiency.
5-10-18 Hun migrations 'linked to deadly Justinian Plague'
Scientists say one of the deadliest plagues in history may be linked to the migration westward of the Hun peoples. The Justinian Plague, which struck in 541 AD, may have killed as many as 25 million. Now, scientists say the outbreak probably originated in Asia, not Egypt as contemporary and more recent chroniclers had thought. The finding comes from analysis of DNA found in 137 human skeletons unearthed on the Eurasian steppe. The steppe region covers a vast area, spanning some 8,000km from Hungary to north-eastern China. The large sample of individuals covers a date range of 2,500 BC - 1,500 AD. Writing in the journal Nature, Eske Willerslev, Peter de Barros Damgaard and others describe how they sequenced genomes from these individuals and, in two of them, recovered DNA from a strain of plague related to the one responsible for the Justinian Plague. A separate paper in the same edition of the journal describes the discovery of hepatitis B strains in ancient people from the Steppe. The plague pandemic is named after Justinian I, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) at the time of the initial outbreak. Indeed, it is said that Justinian himself caught the disease, but recovered. The outbreak in Constantinople (which is now Istanbul in Turkey) was thought to have been carried to the city by rats on grain ships arriving from Egypt. While the plague was present in north-east Africa, the new research makes an origin in Central and Eastern Asia more likely. The researchers say the plague probably moved westward with the migration of tribes who would become known to Roman chroniclers as the Huns.
5-9-18 Doing Dry January lowers cancer-promoting proteins in your blood
Stopping drinking for just one month is enough to dramatically lower the levels of hormone-like chemicals in your blood that help cancer to develop and spread. Giving up alcohol for a month really does have a dramatic effect on health, lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk. The first ever extensive study of the health benefits of abstemious periods like “Dry January” also discovered that alcohol is linked to cancer-related proteins in the blood, and taking time off from drinking can drastically reduce their levels. The finding could help explain why alcohol is linked to at least seven types of cancer. The study involved 141 moderate-to-heavy drinkers, who on average drank more than double the UK recommended limit, consuming around 30 units a week – about 3 bottles of wine, or more than 14 pints of beer. Of these people, 94 completely gave up drinking for a month, while the remainder continued to drink as usual. A team at the Royal Free Hospital in London then analysed blood samples taken at the start and end of the month from each of the participants. While the people who continued drinking showed no particular changes over the course of the month, big improvements were seen in the abstainers, confirming those reported in an earlier, smaller study of 14 New Scientist staff in 2013. Most striking was the non-drinkers’ drop in insulin resistance. When insulin becomes less effective at making the body remove sugar from the bloodstream, a person risks developing type 2 diabetes. But after a month of abstaining from alcohol, participants saw their insulin resistance decrease by an average of 26 per cent.
5-9-18 The flexible therapy that helps beat workplace stress
We need to change the way we think about work and how it influences our lives, says chartered psychologist Rob Archer. WHEN colleagues take time off for illness, most of us assume they have a cold, flu or a stomach bug, perhaps. Few realise that 49 per cent of all working days lost in the UK in 2016-17 were caused by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Stress is an insidious problem. Short-term stress, such as working to an imminent deadline, can be beneficial. But if the pressure never goes away, it risks leading to chronic stress, which can bring on significant mental health issues. This, in turn, creates further stress on the employee and their colleagues and families. There are also consequences for physical health: studies have shown that long-term stress leads to a compromised immune system, contributing to debilitating headaches, digestive disorders and cardiovascular disease. Very few firms know how to improve this dire situation; in fact, many are unwittingly making things worse. The good news is, we are starting to get a handle on how to beat stress and – even better – prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place. One of the most important protective factors is a resource known as psychological flexibility. Studies have shown that it has profound effects on mental health and workplace performance, helping people do their jobs more effectively while improving health and well-being. “Psychological flexibility allows people to become more resilient in their responses to high work demands,” says Rob Archer, a chartered psychologist who works with a number of companies and sports professionalsto promote health and well-being while improving individual and team performance.
5-9-18 Deluded drivers: The startling discovery that changed psychology
A 1960s survey of drivers hospitalised after accidents found that they still rated their skills as exceptional – and we all have similar blind spots. IN 1965, a pair of psychologists from the University of Washington handed a questionnaire to 50 carefully selected motorists in the Seattle area. It focused on driving skills, but Caroline Preston and Stanley Harris weren’t trying to find out how good the drivers were. They already had a pretty clear handle on that. They wanted to know how good the drivers thought they were. The questionnaire was straightforward. It asked the drivers to rate their abilities from 0 to 9, with 0 being “very poor” and 9 being “expert”. Preston and Harris probably expected the drivers to rank themselves nearer to zero than to 9. To their surprise, they found the exact opposite. Given who these drivers were, that was very, very odd. Back in the 1960s, traffic fatalities were a growing problem in the US. Around 36,000 people died in 1960, 39,000 in 1962 and 46,000 in 1964. Road crashes were the leading cause of death in children and young adults – and were costing a fortune. A good deal of research into their causes was being done, mainly on vehicle design and traffic engineering. But a few researchers were becoming interested in the psychology and behaviour of drivers. That is what attracted Preston to the problem. She may have been seeking to discover some psychological trait that could be used to reduce the accident rate, but instead she inadvertently began a revolution in our understanding of the human mind that continues to unfold more than half a century later.
5-9-18 Self-repairing organs could save your life in a heartbeat
Our cells are more malleable than we thought – and by transforming them inside the body, we can mend broken hearts or even degenerating brains from within. WHAT becomes of the broken-hearted? In cardiac medicine, the answer is usually brutally straightforward: they die. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and there is often precious little we can do about it. Pacemakers bring some relief and transplants work, but there are nowhere near enough donated hearts to go around. And unlike skin and liver cells, heart muscle cells can’t remake themselves. Once they get damaged or die, they are gone forever. Lab-grown stem cells, once the great hope for mending hearts, have disappointed. But over the past few years, cell biologists have been quietly exploring an alternative approach. Rather than growing cells in a dish and transplanting them, they want to switch their identities inside the body, so that we can heal ourselves from within. That might sound rather fanciful. But cells are proving more malleable than we ever imagined, and now plans are being drawn up for the first human clinical trials to see if we can repair damaged hearts this way. If we can perfect the tricks needed to safely switch cell identity in situ – and it is a big if – we should be able to repair tissues ravaged by all sorts of conditions, from diabetes to dementia. For a long time after biologists worked out how a featureless cluster of identical cells can become the rich diversity of parts that comprise a body, they generally assumed that adult cells were stuck with their fates. Once embryonic stem cells, capable of becoming any tissue type, had differentiated into skin cells, heart muscle cells, neurons or whatever, there seemed to be no turning back.
5-9-18 AI is now better than humans at spotting signs of cardiac arrest
A system designed by Copenhagen-based artificial intelligence company Corti is more accurate and faster at detecting signs of a cardiac arrest over the phone than dispatchers. Time to start hoping a robot takes that emergency call. When it comes to spotting signs of cardiac arrest, artificial intelligence is beating humans. New Scientist first covered Copenhagen-based artificial intelligence company Corti earlier this year. Its AI was being trialled in Denmark to listen in on emergency calls in real-time. It searches for patterns of communication, including features like tone of voice and breathing sounds. Now we know how well the system works. According to a study of 161,650 emergency calls using Corti’s system, it is more accurate and faster at detecting signs of a cardiac arrest over the phone than dispatchers. The AI correctly detected 93 per cent of cardiac arrests compared to the dispatchers’ detection rate of 73 per cent. It took only 48 seconds on average to detect the condition, compared to dispatchers who took 80 seconds. “Every second counts when recognising cardiac arrest and we know that reducing downtime increases chance of spontaneous circulation, morbidity post arrest and survival, so studies into improving out-of-hospital cardiac arrest outcomes can only be a positive thing,” says Natalie Cookson, an emergency medical trainee doctor, working in London. However, she adds the study focusses on improving time to recognition of cardiac arrest and delivery of resuscitation, which may only improve factors such as hypoxia and cardiac output. Other complications associated with cardiac arrest are not addressed in the study, she says, so “further studies will be needed to evaluate actual patient outcomes”.
5-9-18 AI can predict your personality just by how your eyes move
YOU may think you are pretty hard to read, but artificial intelligence can predict your personality just from subtle, unconscious eye movements. Psychologists have suspected that personality influences how we visually take in the world. Curious people tend to look around more and open-minded people gaze longer at abstract images, for example. Now, Tobias Loetscher at the University of South Australia and his colleagues have used machine learning to study the relationship between eye movements and personality more closely. They asked 42 students to wear eye-tracking smart glasses while they walked around campus and visited a shop. The students also filled out a questionnaire that rated them on the “big five” personality traits: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness. The team’s machine-learning algorithm found that certain patterns of eye movement were more common in people with particular personalities. For example, neurotic people tended to blink faster, while open-minded people had bigger side-to-side eye movements and conscientious people had greater fluctuations in their pupil size (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, doi.org/gdb8rj). Future research may tie these patterns to brain chemistry, says Olivia Carter at the University of Melbourne. Brain chemicals such as dopamine and noradrenaline are known to affect personality as well as blink frequency and pupil dilation, she says. At this stage, the algorithm only has modest predictive power, being just 7 to 15 per cent better than random chance at predicting neuroticism, extroversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness, and no better at predicting openness.
5-9-18 This AI uses the same kind of brain wiring as mammals to navigate
The system’s reliance on virtual grid cells could teach us about our own sense of direction. An artificial intelligence that navigates its environment much like mammals do could help solve a mystery about our own internal GPS. Equipped with virtual versions of specialized brain nerve cells called grid cells, the AI could easily solve and plan new routes through virtual mazes. That performance, described online May 9 in Nature, suggests the grid cells in animal brains play a critical role in path planning. “This is a big step forward” in understanding our own navigational neural circuitry, says Ingmar Kanitscheider, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin not involved in the work. The discovery that rats track their location with the help of grid cells, which project an imaginary hexagonal lattice onto an animal’s surroundings, earned a Norwegian research team the 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine (SN Online: 10/6/14). Neuroscientists suspected these cells, which have also been found in humans, might help not only give mammals an internal coordinate system, but also plan direct paths between points (SN Online: 8/5/13).
5-9-18 DeepMind AI developed navigation neurons to solve a maze like us
Humans have neurons called “grid cells” that help us find our way as we navigate our surroundings. DeepMind's AI has developed something similar as it learned to navigate a maze. Artificial intelligence is winning the rat race. Google-owned DeepMind has built an artificial intelligence that is better at navigating a maze than humans. After it was trained with data on how rodents search for food, it mimicked the processes that allow mammals to get between destinations in the most efficient way. Humans and other mammals have neurons called “grid cells” that help us find our way as we navigate our surroundings. They’re a sort of map, like a tiled floor where a certain tile lights up each time you step on it. The neurons are arranged in a tile pattern in the brain, and they fire as you move to calculate where you are and how to get from one location to another. A team of researchers at DeepMind and University College London have created an AI that has learned to do the same thing. It was trained to navigate a virtual square environment by seeing the trajectories of foraging rodents. When the researchers inspected how the AI was navigating the environment, they found a grid-like pattern that would function in a similar way to how grid-cells work. “The grid cells we found were startlingly like the ones you see in a mammalian brain,” says Caswell Barry at University College London. “It’s just as similar to a human grid cell as one you might record from a rat.” When the researchers placed obstacles in the environment or opened and closed doors, the AI could determine the fastest route to its destination, even if it had never travelled that route before. It was even better at finding shortcuts than a professional gamer moving around a digital representation of the square room.
5-9-18 Hope for herpes vaccine after it wipes out virus in monkeys
Animal trials have proved successful in preventing and treating genital herpes in guinea pigs and monkeys, giving hope that the vaccine will move into human trials within the year. We may be a step closer to getting rid of genital herpes. Two vaccines are about to progress to clinical trials after proving to be safe and effective in guinea pigs and monkeys. Genital herpes is a sexually-transmitted infection that affects more than one in six people aged 14 to 49 in the US. It is usually caused by a strain of the herpes simplex virus, called HSV-2, which burrows into the skin and produces painful sores. The virus then permanently lodges in nerve cells and causes periodic flare-ups. Previous efforts to develop a herpes vaccine have failed. One of the most promising contenders – a vaccine called GEN-003 – was abandoned in September after underperforming in clinical trials. Part of the problem is that preclinical research is usually done in mice, which are not good models for human herpes, says Konstantin Kousoulas at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That is why his team has tested a new vaccine using guinea pig and monkey models. The vaccine is an engineered version of herpes simplex virus that helps train the immune system to fight the real thing. The part that normally allows the virus to enter nerve cells has been removed so that it cannot permanently lodge in the body. A recent guinea pig study found that the vaccine provided complete protection against genital herpes. None of the nine vaccinated animals developed symptoms of the disease after they were exposed to a highly-infectious strain of herpes simplex virus.
5-9-18 Waterwheel: Ten times faster than a Venus flytrap
Scientists have characterised the movement of the Venus flytrap's aquatic cousin in detail for the first time. The carnivorous Aldrovanda vesiculosa, also known as the waterwheel plant, snaps its "trap" shut ten times faster than the flytrap. As it is quite rare in the wild, the plant's mechanism has not previously been studied in great detail. It is thought that the waterwheel and the flytrap may share a common ancestor. However there is no fossil evidence for what this ancestor might have looked like. "This is one of the main questions in the carnivorous plant community," says Dr Simon Poppinga, an author on the study. "Snap traps evolved only once in plants. There are two different mechanisms. Which one was first?" The study, led by Anna Westermeier and Renate Sachse at the University of Freiburg, found that the waterwheel doesn't use quite the same method as the flytrap. Using a camera recording at 1000fps, researchers triggered the traps using an electrical stimulus. "It's very, very small and it's very, very fast, and this puts you basically to the limits of optical resolution," Westermeier told BBC News. They realised that the plant's traps are in a constant state of "pre-stress" - tensed to snap shut much like a bear trap - and when triggered by prey they quickly release and close. The team noted that the action of the traps is due to a combination of hydraulics and the release of this pre-stress. At just 2-4mm, the traps are about a tenth the size of a Venus flytrap's, but they close in a remarkable 0.02 to 0.1 seconds.
5-9-18 There is no secret burial chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb
It was hoped apparent chambers in Tutankhamun’s tomb might be the burial place of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of his father. But radar shows there’s probably nothing there. A SECOND burial chamber isn’t hiding in the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun after all. Three years ago, Egyptologists noticed faint lines on the north and west walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, pictured below, that suggested there might be a room concealed behind it. Other studies found temperature anomalies in the walls, which seemed to mark hidden doorways. Some archaeologists hoped this apparent chamber might be the burial place of Queen Nefertiti, a wife of Tutankhamun’s father. Now, three teams have used different frequencies of ground-penetrating radar to search the pharaoh’s burial chamber and found no secret rooms, passages or doorways. They presented their research on 6 May at the fourth International Tutankhamun Conference in Cairo, Egypt. When the teams combined their data, they concluded that there were no empty spaces beyond the pharaoh’s tomb for at least 4 metres.
5-7-18 The secret to a good night's sleep
I'll bet you're not getting enough sleep. Honestly, I'm kind of cheating — it's a pretty safe bet. Two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer's disease. Inadequate sleep — even moderate reductions for just one week — disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Fitting Charlotte Brontë's prophetic wisdom that "a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow," sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. When participants were asked about their subjective sense of how impaired they were, they consistently underestimated their degree of performance disability. After being awake for 19 hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk. After 16 hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After 10 days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for 24 hours. When we compared the effectiveness of learning between the two groups, the result was clear: There was a 40 percent deficit in the ability of the sleep-deprived group to cram new facts into the brain (i.e., to make new memories), relative to the group that obtained a full night of sleep.
5-6-18 Creative people are 90 per cent more likely to get schizophrenia
A study of the entire population of Sweden has found that people who do artistic subjects at university are more likely to have schizophrenia and depression. Artistic talent may really be linked to a higher likelihood of experiencing mental health conditions, according to a study of people students in Sweden. The Greek philosopher Plato noted that creative types often seemed to possess “divine madness” – a stereotype later applied to Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dalí and Edvard Munch. However, good studies on the subject have been lacking. Now James MacCabe at Kings College London and his colleagues have pored over the health and education records of the entire population of Sweden, focusing on the mental health of people who had done subjects like art, music or drama at university. They found that those who had studied an artistic subject were 90 per cent more likely to be hospitalised for schizophrenia, compared with the general population. Such people were also 62 per cent more likely to be admitted for bipolar disorder, and 39 per cent more likely to be admitted for depression. These hospitalisations usually occurred after university, most commonly in people’s mid-30s. Those with law degrees did not have the same elevated risks, suggesting psychiatric conditions are not simply linked to university education, says MacCabe.
5-5-18 Ketamine ingredient improves severe depression in large trial
A trial of a nasal spray containing an ingredient of the drug ketamine has had positive but modest results in people with severe depression. The drug ketamine may have moved a step closer to routine use as an antidepressant. Positive – if modest – results from a large trial of an intranasal spray based on ketamine were announced by pharmaceutical giant Janssen today. The firm is developing the treatment for people with severe depression who aren’t helped by existing medication or who are suicidal. If everything goes to plan, the medicine could be available next year in the US and Europe. Ketamine has long been used as an anaesthetic in people and animals. Some people also take it as a recreational drug, with similar effects to LSD and magic mushrooms. It makes people hallucinate and light-headed, although too much can send them into a “k-hole” – where they can’t talk or move. When depressed people are given a low-dose infusion of ketamine, after the euphoria wears off, some report immediate changes in their mood, and lifting of suicidal thoughts. In contrast, existing antidepressants usually take several weeks to kick in. Animal studies suggest ketamine triggers the release of a chemical called BDNF, which tells brain cells to sprout new connections. Other studies have suggested this may be how physical exercise helps ward off depression.
5-4-18 An enzyme involved in cancer and aging gets a close-up
Understanding what telomerase looks like could guide therapies for cancer, other illnesses. Like a genetic handyman, an elusive enzyme deep inside certain cells repairs the tips of chromosomes, which fray as cells divide. It’s prized by rapidly dividing cells – like stem cells and tumor cells – and by scientists on the hunt for cancer and other disease therapies. Now researchers have the best picture yet of this enzyme, called telomerase. Using cryo-electron microscopy, structural biologist Kelly Nguyen and her colleagues describe the structure of telomerase at a resolution of 0.7 to 0.8 nanometers, three times better than the last attempt. This close-up reveals how the enzyme’s proteins and RNA are put together, potentially offering insight into ways to fight cancer and understand genetic diseases caused by faulty versions of the enzyme, the researchers report online April 25 in Nature. The discovery of telomerase in 1984 earned a team of biologists the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine (SN: 10/24/09, p.14). Since then, scientists have pieced together connections between the enzyme’s activity and cancer, aging and inherited disorders. But the development of therapies has suffered from the lack of a detailed snapshot of the enzyme.
5-4-18 50 years ago, starving tumors of oxygen proposed as weapon in cancer fight
Excerpt from the May 4, 1968 issue of Science News. Starve the tumor, not the cell. Animal experiments demonstrate for the first time that transplanted tumors release a chemical into the host’s bloodstream that causes the host to produce blood vessels to supply the tumor.… If such a factor can be identified in human cancers … it might be possible to prevent the vascularization of tumors. Since tumors above a certain small size require a blood supply to live, they might by this method be starved to death. — Science News, May 4, 1968. By the 1990s, starving tumors had become a focus of cancer research. Several drugs available today limit a tumor’s blood supply. But the approach can actually drive some cancer cells to proliferate, researchers have found. For those cancers, scientists have proposed treatments that open up tumors’ gnarled blood vessels, letting more oxygen through. Boosting oxygen may thwart some cancer cell defenses and promote blood flow — allowing chemotherapy drugs and immune cells deeper access to tumors (SN: 3/4/17, p. 24).
5-3-18 Night owls may live shorter lives
People who habitually stay up late are more likely to die early, a new study has found, perhaps because their internal body clock is out of sync with a society that favors early risers. Researchers tracked about 430,000 adults between 38 and 73 years old for 6.5 years. They found that night owls had a 10 percent greater risk of early death than those who prefer to wake up early, Vox.com reports. Those who burned the midnight oil were more likely to have chronic health issues, such as diabetes, neurological disorders, and respiratory disease. One possible reason, says study author Kristen Knutson, is that the pressure to conform to other people’s work and social schedules leaves late risers anxious, sleep deprived, and feeling as if they live in a perpetual state of jet lag. “There’s a problem for the night owl who’s trying to live in the morning-lark world,” Knutson says.
5-3-18 Moderate drinking isn’t healthy after all
Conventional wisdom says that moderate drinking is good for you. But a major new study found that having even just one drink each day could shorten people’s lives. A team of 120 scientists analyzed data from multiple studies, involving nearly 600,000 people from 19 different countries, and found that the more people drink, the shorter their life span, CNN.com reports. People who have an average of seven to 14 alcoholic drinks each week can expect to die about six months sooner, while those who have two to three drinks per day could be shaving up to two years off their lives. Drinking alcohol, researchers say, is associated with a slew of cardiovascular problems, including stroke, aortic aneurysm, severe high blood pressure, heart failure, and an increased risk for breast cancer and cancers of the digestive system. These findings contradict federal guidelines, which assert that men can safely drink up to two alcoholic drinks per day and women can have up to one drink daily. The benefits from drinking, which previous research has indicated may help boost “good” HDL cholesterol levels, are outweighed by the damage it does, says study leader Dr. Angela Wood of Cambridge University. “If you already drink alcohol,” she says, “drinking less may help you live longer.”
5-3-18 Your bones contain crystals shap
A blurry brown picture is the most detailed 3D image of bone ever produced. The model gives unique insight into the crystals inside our bones. A blurry brown picture is the most detailed 3D image of bone ever produced. It may look fuzzy, but the model developed from electron microscope images gives unique insight into the remarkable properties of bone. Bone is mostly made of mineral crystals and the protein collagen. While the structure of collagen is well understood, how the minerals in bone – made of hydroxyapatite – are organised is less clear. Roland Kröger of the University of York and colleagues at Imperial College London used electron microscopes to obtain cross-section images at many different angles, and layered the images to construct detailed 3D pictures of human thighbones. The 3D images revealed that, at the nanoscale level, the crystals are a slightly curved finger-shape. These cluster together to form a hand-like pattern, and these themselves are pressed on top of each other in stacks. Viewed at a higher level, these stacks are twisted. In fact, each level of the mineral architecture features twisting, helical shapes. It was already known that collagen – itself a helical protein – forms twisted fibres in bone. Just as the twisted fibres in a rope give it strength, these helical structures must contribute to the mechanical properties of bone, says Kröger.
5-3-18 People adapted to the cold and got more migraines as a result
A gene variant that helps humans cope with colder climates also seems to have put people living in northerly regions at a higher risk of migraine. Some people have adapted to live in cold polar climates, but at a price. The same gene variant that helps us cope with cold also seems to increase our risk of migraine. Aida Andrés at University College London, UK, Felix Key at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and their colleagues studied the gene for a protein called TRPM8, which is known to activate in cold temperatures. The gene for the protein comes in two flavours. An older variant, which we share with chimpanzees, is common in people living in Africa. But a newer variant is more common in people living in northern countries, particularly in Europe. The team screened databases of genetic data taken from people across the world, to see how common each gene variant was in Europe, Africa and South East Asia. “We found a correlation between frequency [of the gene] and latitude,” says Key. For example, the new variant of the gene is found in around 88 per cent of Finnish people, but only 5 per cent of Nigerians. Computer simulations suggest that the newer variant evolved in Africa, before people began to migrate to other continents. “It’s really cool,” says Mark Shriver at Penn State University in University Park. “This is probably the first time [the adaptation of] a sensory gene has been tied to environment.” The TRPM8 gene has also been linked to migraine. The older variant is thought to protect against the disorder, while the newer variant increases the risk. This may help explain why migraine is more commonly reported in northern countries. “We know the prevalence of migraine is lower in African Americans,” says Key.
5-3-18 Adapting to life in the north may have been a real headache
A genetic analysis by latitude reveals variation in a cold-sensing protein linked to migraines. In Finland, 88 percent of people have a genetic variation that increases their risk for migraines. But in people of Nigerian descent, that number drops to 5 percent. Coincidence? Maybe. But a new study suggests that, thousands of years ago, that particular genetic mutation increased in frequency in northern populations because it somehow made people better suited to handle cold temperatures. That change may have had the unfortunate consequence of raising the prevalence of these severe headaches in certain populations, researchers report May 3 in PLOS Genetics. The mutation is in a stretch of DNA that controls the behavior of TRPM8, a protein that responds to cold sensation. People with the older version of this DNA snippet seems less susceptible to migraines than people with the mutated version, previous studies have shown. Using a global database of human genetic information, evolutionary geneticist Aida Andres and her colleagues showed a correlation between the frequency of the mutation in a given population and that population’s latitude. It’s rare in Africa, for example, but fairly common across Europe.
5-3-18 First US death due to romaine lettuce as E. coli outbreak widens
The contaminated romaine lettuce that has spread illness across 25 states is now responsible for one death, and the source of the E. coli outbreak is still unknown. After weeks of illnesses being reported across 25 US states, a person in California has died due to an outbreak of Escherichia coli bacteria linked to romaine lettuce. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now reported 121 cases of infection in people age 1 to 88. This strain of bacteria causes diarrhea, vomiting and severe stomach cramps, and can lead to kidney failure, which has been reported in 14 of the 52 people who have been hospitalised during the outbreak. Health officials have tied the food poisoning to lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region, which supplies the US with most of its romaine in the winter months. A farm there was the source of whole heads of lettuce sold to an Alaskan prison where eight inmates became ill after eating it. But that doesn’t account for the rest of the outbreak. Peter Cassell at the US Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety division says the agency is investigating the source of the illnesses in the other states. “We are working to identify multiple distribution channels that can explain the entirety of the nation-wide outbreak, and are tracing back from multiple groupings of ill people located in diverse geographic areas,” he says. Cassell says the Arizona Department of Agriculture confirmed that romaine lettuce is no longer being produced and distributed from the Yuma growing region. “However, due to the 21-day shelf life, we cannot be certain that romaine lettuce from this region is no longer in the supply chain,” he says.
5-3-18 Mistletoe’s cells are broken at a fundamental level
All complex organisms rely on tiny nodules called mitochondria to supply their cells with energy – but mistletoe’s mitochondria don’t work and yet it survives. A nondescript plant has overturned one of the bedrock assumptions of biology. Unlike every other animal and plant ever studied, its cells do not have the equipment to make energy. It is not clear how it survives. All animals, plants and fungi are “eukaryotes”: they are made up of cells that are much more complex than those of bacteria. All eukaryotic cells contain tiny sausage-shaped objects called mitochondria, which are their energy source. Mitochondria are almost entirely essential for eukaryotes. Some single-celled eukaryotes, such as certain yeasts, have few or no mitochondria. But multicellular eukaryotes – all plants and animals, including us – rely on their mitochondria absolutely. So researchers were shocked to discover that the mitochondria of mistletoe (Viscum album) are virtually disabled. Two teams independently found the same thing. The key thing mitochondria do is make large quantities of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This carries lots of energy, which other parts of the cell can use to keep working. Mitochondria make ATP using a chain of five large enzymes. But mistletoe has completely lost the first one – called Complex I – as well as the genes that make it. “It’s not been believed that any multicellular organism can live without Complex I,” says Hans-Peter Braun of Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany. The other four enzymes were still there. But they were in short supply compared with a control plant called thale cress.
5-3-18 Ancestral remains 'people not objects'
Anthropology needs to take a more humanising approach to its examination of ancestral remains. This is the recommendation of a North American collective of scientists. Currently, some palaeogenomic (ancient DNA) research is conducted using human remains that are held in museum collections. In certain cases, these are the disinterred ancestors of Indigenous peoples, removed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. "The reason," explains lead author Dr Jessica Bardill, "that we're able... to seek out genetic information from a range of remains from ancestors, whether they be cultural objects or skeletal remains... is because of collection practices that happened over a century ago." "There are thousands [of these remains] held in collections around the world. More likely tens of thousands," added the Concordia University researcher. The relationship between scientists and Indigenous peoples has, the authors say, previously been damaged by disputes such as the 20-year legal battle over the remains of the Ancient One (Kennewick Man), which were uncovered on the banks of the Columbia river. "To minimise harms in the future, we recommend that ancestral remains be regarded not as 'artefacts' but as human relatives who deserve respect in research," the group writes.
5-2-18 The first smallpox treatment is one step closer to FDA approval
The drug prevents the variola virus from infecting other cells. As bioterrorism fears grow, the first treatment for smallpox is nearing approval. Called tecovirimat, the drug stops the variola virus, which causes smallpox, from sending out copies of itself and infecting other cells. “If the virus gets ahead of your immune system, you get sick,” says Dennis Hruby, the chief scientific officer of pharmaceutical company SIGA Technologies, which took part in developing the drug. “If you can slow the virus down, your immune system will get ahead.” An advisory committee to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration unanimously recommended approval of tecovirimat, or TPOXX, on May 1. The FDA is expected to make its decision this summer. Unchecked, smallpox kills about 30 percent of people infected and leaves survivors with disfiguring pox scars. Between 300 million and 500 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century before health officials declared the disease eradicated in 1980 after a worldwide vaccination campaign. For research purposes, samples of the virus remain in two locations — one in the United States, the other in Russia. (Webmaster's comment: Nonsense! The United States and Russia are keeping the virus because they might want to use it as biological blackmail or in an attack against some country they don't agree with!)
5-2-18 Brexit and Trump votes screwed with our heart rates for months
A study of nearly 12,000 people wearing health monitoring devices shows how people’s biological rhythms fall out of sync after big political events. Endured sleepless nights in the aftermath of the Brexit vote? You weren’t the only one. A study of 11,600 wearers of Nokia Health monitoring devices shows the changes in our biorhythms during and after monumental political moments, including the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. Stress can cause sleepless nights and increase heart rates, but little was known about how this links to big societal changes. “We wanted to add in the quantitative data,” says Daniele Quercia of Nokia Bell Labs. Quercia and his colleagues analysed data from users who wear health monitoring devices, such as smart watches, in San Francisco and London between April 2016 and April 2017. They found that an entire populations’ sleeping habits, heart rates and distance walked can swing out of sync after big societal events. The proportion of people whose data moved out of sync with the general population’s norm increased by 30 per cent after the election of Donald Trump, while heart rates rose from 66 beats per minute in San Francisco before his election to 70 beats per minute on election day. Four months later, heart rates had still not returned back to their pre-voting baseline. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, around one in eight users saw their sleep, movement and heart rate shunted away from the average, with overall sleep time dropping 10 per cent. The changes were different in form, and were more significant, than those observed around events such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
5-2-18 Ancient humans in Philippines may have given rise to ‘hobbits’
A butchered rhino found on the island of Luzon shows early humans were living in the Philippines 709,000 years ago, which may explain the origins of the diminutive Homo floresiensis. About 709,000 years ago, a group of ancient humans used stone tools to butcher a dead rhino on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The find means our hominin cousins reached the Philippines much earlier than we previously knew. The discovery may also throw new light on the origins of the mysterious “hobbits”: tiny hominins that once inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores. Researchers have long wondered whether Luzon was colonised by an ancient species of human deep in antiquity. In 2010, researchers working on the island announced they had found a 67,000-year-old foot bone. The bone may have belonged to a member of our species, but its unusual shape hinted that it belonged to an earlier form of human. Now Thomas Ingicco at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris and his colleagues may have settled the debate. During excavations on Luzon, they found a near-complete skeleton of an extinct Philippine rhinoceros. Some of the bones are covered in cut marks. What’s more, the team found more than 50 stone artefacts that could have been used to dismember the carcass. The rhino cannot have been butchered by modern humans. Most researchers believe our species, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa within the last 500,000 years – long after the 709,000-year-old rhino was killed.
5-2-18 Butchered rhino bones place hominids in the Philippines 700,000 years ago
The earliest known evidence had been a 66,700-year-old human toe bone. Stone tools strewn among rhinoceros bones indicate that hominids had reached the Philippines by around 709,000 years ago, scientists report online May 2 in Nature. Stone Age Homo species who crossed the ocean from mainland Asia to the Philippines — possibly aboard uprooted trees or some kind of watercraft — may also have moved to islands farther south, the team proposes. Evidence of ancient hominids has been found on some Indonesian islands, including individuals’ fossil remains on Flores (SN: 7/9/16, p. 6) and ancient stone tools on Sulawesi (SN: 2/6/16, p. 7). But researchers hadn’t found old enough evidence of hominids in the Philippines to suggest such a journey — until now. At an excavation site in the landlocked northern region of Kalinga in the Philippines, more than 400 animal bones have been discovered, including much of a rhino skeleton, and 57 stone artifacts. Cuts and pounding marks on 13 of the rhino bones resulted from meat and marrow removal, say bioarchaeologist Thomas Ingicco of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and colleagues. Other fossils came from brown deer, monitor lizards, freshwater turtles and extinct, elephant-like creatures called stegodons. Measures of the decay and accumulation of radioactive elements in Kalinga sediment and an excavated rhino tooth suggest the fossils are roughly 709,000 years old, give or take about 68,000 years.
5-2-18 This ancient fowl bit like a dinosaur and pecked like a bird
New fossil leads to the most detailed 3-D reconstruction of Ichthyornis dispar’s skull. A bird that lived alongside dinosaurs may have preened its feathers like modern birds — despite a full mouth of teeth that also let it chomp like a dino. A new 3-D reconstruction of the skull of Ichthyornis dispar, which lived during the Late Cretaceous epoch between 87 million and 82 million years ago, reveals that the ancient fowl had a small, primitive beak and a mobile upper jaw. That mobility allowed the bird to use its beak with precision to groom itself and grab objects, similar to how modern birds employ their beaks, researchers report in the May 3 Nature. But I. dispar also retained some features from its nonavian dinosaur ancestors, including strong jaw muscles in addition to the teeth. “I. dispar holds a special place because it was for the longest time one of the only known toothed birds,” says Lawrence Witmer, a vertebrate paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens, who was not involved in the new study. By providing the first in-depth look at the bird’s skull, the study provides important new details on the transition from the skin-covered, toothy jaws of dinosaurs into the keratin-covered, toothless beaks of modern birds, Witmer says. Indeed, I. dispar is a paleontology textbook staple. About 150 years ago, paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh described a ternlike water bird that had a wingspan of about 60 centimeters. The fossil revealed that the extinct bird shared some traits with nonavian dinosaurs, such as a full mouth of teeth. However, its wings and breastbone strongly resembled those of modern birds, suggesting the bird could fly.
5-2-18 How birds got their beaks - new fossil evidence
Scientists have pieced together the skull of a strange ancient bird, revealing a primitive beak lined with teeth. The "transitional" bird sheds light on a pivotal point in the pathway from dinosaurs to modern birds. Ichthyornis dispar lived in North America about 86 million years ago. The seagull-sized bird had a beak and a brain much like modern birds, but the sharp teeth and powerful jaws of dinosaurs like Velociraptor. "It shows us what the first bird beak looked like," said Bhart-Anjan Bhullar of Yale University, a study researcher. "It's a real mosaic of features, a transitional form." It has long been known that birds evolved from dinosaurs in what was a slow gradual process, involving feathers, wings and beaks. Evidence for feathers has shown up in the fossil record, but it has proved very difficult to study the anatomy of the tiny delicate skulls of ancient birds. The researchers combined fossil evidence from the complete skull and two previously overlooked cranial fossils with the latest CT scanning techniques to build an advanced 3D model of the skull of the primitive bird. As study researcher Daniel Field, from the University of Bath, put it, most skull fossils are "squashed flat during the fossilisation process". He said the "extraordinary new specimen", which was discovered only recently, reveals similar brain proportions to that of a modern bird, while other parts of the skull more closely resemble those of predatory dinosaurs.
5-2-18 Identity crisis: When is a dinosaur not a dinosaur?
As though extinction weren't enough, dinosaurs have also had to deal with doubts over their very existence, and the legitimacy of some of our favourite species. HARRY SEELEY looked like your typical Victorian gentleman: neatly trimmed beard, sharp side parting, smart suit. But he was a killer. In 1887, he destroyed the dinosaurs. The London intelligentsia were abuzz with excitement over the weird and wonderful ancient giants, but Seeley was having none of it. He looked at the fossil bones and reached a radical conclusion: technically, he said, there was no such thing as a dinosaur. Seeley was eventually – mostly – overruled. But a study published last year is casting a fresh shadow over the awe-inspiring beasts of prehistoric Earth. It suggests we have completely misunderstood why they ruled the continents for tens of millions of years – and even what creatures qualify to be part of the dino-club in the first place. The tale began in the early 1840s, a couple of kilometres east of London’s British Museum, when a leading scientific celebrity walked into a private collection on Aldersgate Street. Unlike many gentlemen scholars of the time, Richard Owen rose to the pinnacle of British science from the humblest of roots. His circle of friends included the royal family and Charles Dickens. Yet, for the most part, history remembers him in a different light. “It is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred Owen is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries,” wrote biologist Thomas Huxley, whose intellectual fights with Owen gripped a nation. Owen is said to have been arrogant, spiteful and ruthlessly vengeful. He gained a reputation for stealing ideas and even specimens from his peers and, according to Julian Hume, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, was quite prepared to resort to blackmail to get his way.
5-2-18 Mediterranean diet delays Alzheimer’s for three extra years
Filling your diet with plants, fish and oil and limiting your intake of processed food may slow the build-up of amyloid plaque, delaying the onslaught of Alzheimer's. Following a Mediterranean diet can help delay Alzheimer’s disease – and perhaps even prevent it altogether, brain imaging suggests. Population studies have found that people who eat a Mediterranean diet – mostly plants, fish and olive oil and limited red meat, sugar and processed food – tend to be less prone to Alzheimer’s disease. To understand why, Lisa Mosconi at Weill Cornell Medical College and her colleagues scanned the brains of 70 healthy adults aged 30 to 60, half of whom had been following a Mediterranean diet for at least five years. The Mediterranean diet group had 15 per cent less beta-amyloid – the sticky protein that gradually turns into the plaques found in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Their brain cells also metabolised glucose faster – a sign of healthier activity. When the researchers scanned the volunteers’ brains again three years later, they found that those on a Mediterranean diet had slower build-up of beta-amyloid and slower decline in brain metabolism. From these rates of change, they calculated that the diet should provide at least 3.5 years of extra protection against Alzheimer’s disease. However, this is probably an underestimate, says Ralph Martins at Edith Cowen University, in Joondalup, Australia. The study followed relatively young people for only three years, meaning it may not have been able to capture the full benefits. His research group is about to publish the results of a bigger, longer brain imaging study in older people that found even more positive effects.
5-1-18 Synthetic opioids involved in more deaths than prescription opioids
Deadly, illicit drugs are hard to track. As opioid-related deaths rise in the United States, so has the role of synthetic opioids — primarily illicit fentanyl, mixed into heroin or made into counterfeit pills (SN Online: 3/29/18). In 2016, synthetics surged past prescription opioids and were involved in 19,413 deaths, compared with 17,087 deaths involving prescription opioids, researchers report May 1 in JAMA. The study is based on data from the National Vital Statistic System’s record of all U.S. deaths. “Synthetic opioids are much deadlier than prescription opioids,” says emergency physician Leana Wen, Health Commissioner of Baltimore, who was not involved in the study. Fentanyl, for example, is about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The illicit origins of many synthetic opioids make the public health response more difficult, she says. “We can track prescriptions; it’s much harder to track illegally trafficked drugs.” Synthetic opioids were involved in 14 percent of all opioid-related deaths in 2010, but then shot up to be part of 46 percent of those deaths in 2016.
5-1-18 Smart people literally have bigger brain cells than the rest
For the first time, IQ has been linked to neuron size and performance. The breakthrough could lead to new ways to enhance human intelligence. What makes some people smarter than others? It could come down to your individual brain cells – the bigger and faster your neurons, the higher your IQ. If confirmed, the finding could lead to new ways to enhance human intelligence. Most intelligence research to date has identified brain regions involved in certain skills, or pinpointed hundreds of genes that each play a tiny role in determining IQ. To go a step further, Natalia Goriounova at the Free University Amsterdam in the Netherlands and her colleagues studied 35 people who needed surgery for brain tumours or severe epilepsy. Each took an IQ test just before the operation. Then, while they were under the knife, small samples of healthy brain tissue were removed and kept alive for testing. The samples all came from the temporal lobe. This brain area helps us make sense of what we see, recognise language and form memories, all of which factor into intelligence. Examining this tissue revealed that brain cells are significantly bigger in people with high IQ scores than those with lower scores. The bigger cells also have more dendrites – the projections that connect to other neurons – and the dendrites are longer, suggesting that these neurons may be capable of receiving and processing more information.
5-1-18 Critical window for learning a language
There is a critical cut-off age for learning a language fluently, according to research. If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar, for example, you should ideally start before age 10, say the researchers. People remain highly skilled learners until 17 or 18, when ability tails off. The findings, in the journal Cognition, come from an online grammar test taken by nearly 670,000 people of different ages and nationalities. The grammar quiz was posted on Facebook to get enough people to take part. Questions tested if participants could determine whether a sentence written in English, such as: "Yesterday John wanted to won the race," was grammatically correct. Users were asked their age and how long they had been learning English, and in what setting - had they moved to an English-speaking country, for example? About 246,000 of the people who took the test had grown up speaking only English, while the rest were bi- or multilingual. The most common native languages (excluding English) were Finnish, Turkish, German, Russian and Hungarian. Most of the people who completed the quiz were in their 20s and 30s. The youngest age was about 10 and the oldest late 70s. When the researchers analysed the data using a computer model, the best explanation for the findings was that grammar-learning was strongest in childhood, persists into teenage years and then drops at adulthood. Learning a language is often said to be easy for children and to get more difficult as we age. But late learners can still become proficient, if not seamlessly fluent, say the researchers.
5-1-18 How a backyard pendulum saw sliced into a Bronze Age mystery
Researcher’s swinging blade offers glimpse into how ancient Mycenaeans built palaces. Nicholas Blackwell and his father went to a hardware store about three years ago seeking parts for a mystery device from the past. They carefully selected wood and other materials to assemble a stonecutting pendulum that, if Blackwell is right, resembles contraptions once used to build majestic Bronze Age palaces. With no ancient drawings or blueprints of the tool for guidance, the two men relied on their combined knowledge of archaeology and construction. Blackwell, an archaeologist at Indiana University Bloomington, had the necessary Bronze Age background. His father, George, brought construction cred to the project. Blackwell grew up watching George, a plumber who owned his own business, fix and build stuff around the house. By high school, the younger Blackwell worked summers helping his dad install heating systems and plumbing at construction sites. The menial tasks Nicholas took on, such as measuring and cutting pipes, were not his idea of fun. But that earlier work paid off as the two put together their version of a Bronze Age pendulum saw — a stonecutting tool from around 3,300 years ago that has long intrigued researchers. Power drills, ratchets and other tools that George regularly used around the house made the project, built in George’s Virginia backyard, possible.
5-1-18 Genetic secrets of the rose revealed
Take time to smell the roses, the saying goes, and, according to scientists, the fragrant flowers could smell even sweeter in the future. For the first time researchers have deciphered the full genetic "book" of this most prized of plants. The secret history of the rose reveals surprises - it is more closely related to the strawberry than we thought. And in the long term the work could lead to roses with new scents and colours, says an international team. The new genome map, which took eight years to complete, reveals genes involved in scent production, colour and the longevity of flowers, said Mohammed Bendahmane of ENS de Lyon, in Lyon, France, who led the research. "You have here a book of the history of the rose," he told BBC News. "A book that helps us understand the rose, its history and its journey through evolution and domestication." The study, by a team of more than 40 scientists from France, Germany, China and the UK, gives a better understanding of why roses have such a wide range of colours and scents. The genetic information will help breeders develop new varieties that last longer in the vase or are more resistant to plant pests. It also sheds light on the Rosaceae family, which contains fruits such as apples, pears and strawberries, as well as ornamentals such as the rose. "The rose and the strawberry are very close species," said Dr Bendahmane.