136 Evolution News Articles
for July 2018
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
7-31-18 When you ride the subway you share bacteria with everyone in your city
Unique bacterial communities exist on most Hong Kong subway train lines in the morning, but these merge during the day, also spreading antibiotic resistance. A study of the Hong Kong subway system has found that each line has its own microbial community, but that commuters mix bacteria across the whole network every day. Gianni Panagiotou at the University of Hong Kong and his team asked volunteers to enter the Hong Kong subway with clean hands, ride around for 30 minutes while holding the handrails, and then swabbed their palms. Analysing these swabs, they found that the majority of microbes they picked up were common skin bacteria, and the most abundant non-bacterial organisms were yeasts. In the morning rush hour, 140 species were detected, but by evening, many of those were no longer detectable and the populations of just 48 species had expanded to cover the entire system. The particular microbial community seen in each route at the start of the day seems to be determined by where each train line begins. The highest abundance of soil species and antibiotic resistant bacteria were found on the uptown Ma On Shan line, and the East Rail line ñ the only route linked to mainland China. The resistance genes carried by these bacteria were mostly against medical antibiotic drugs, but the team did also detect resistance to tetracycline, which is commonly added to pig feed. These genes were mostly detectable on the northern train lines at the start of the day, but had dispersed throughout the city by evening.
7-31-18 Boyís brain works just fine after a large piece was removed
A boy had a third of his right brain hemisphere removed to treat his epilepsy. His brain has now rearranged itself, preventing any cognitive impairment. A boy who had a large portion of his brain removed to relieve his severe epilepsy is still able to function normally, showing how adaptable our brains can be. The boy started having seizures at the age of four. No treatments could stop his epilepsy, so as a last resort surgeons removed a third of his brainís right hemisphere just before his seventh birthday. This ìlobectomyî surgery removed his entire occipital lobe, which carries out visual processing, and most of his temporal lobe, which processes visual and auditory information. Researchers wanted to find out how the boyís brain would recover after losing one of its visual centres ñ we usually have two, one in each of the brainís hemispheres. A key question was what would happen to the boyís ìhigher orderî visual capabilities, such as being able to recognise faces and objects ñ mainly the job of the right hemisphere. By studying the boyís brain and behaviour for three years following his surgery, the team could see which parts of his brain were able to recover. Remarkably, they found that his intellect, visual perception, and face and object recognition skills were all normal for his age. The only thing the boy canít do is see the whole visual field. ìHe is essentially blind to information on the left side of the world. Anything to the left of his nose is not transmitted to his brain, because the occipital lobe in his right hemisphere is missing and cannot receive this information,î says Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania. It seems that humans need two hemispheres to have full 180 degree vision, she says.
7-30-18 Soccer headers may hurt women's brains more than men's
MRI scans show signs of white matter damage for both sexes. Heading soccer balls may have high stakes for womenís brains, a study of amateur soccer players suggests. Among amateur players who headed a similar number of balls, women had more signs of microscopic damage in their brainsí white matter than men, scientists report July 31 in Radiology. Female athletes are known to have worse symptoms after brain injuries than male athletes, but a clear head-to-head comparison of post-heading brains hadnít been done until now. From 2013 to 2016, study coauthor Michael Lipton of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y., and colleagues recruited 98 soccer players from amateur teams, including from colleges. The researchers then compared male and female players who headed the ball a similar number of times over the past year. For men, that median estimate was 487 headers. Women had an estimated median of 469 headers. Despite those similar numbers of head knocks, womenís brains had more spots that showed signs of microscopic damage. A type of magnetic resonance imaging scan called diffusion tensor imaging identified brain regions with changes in white matter, bundles of message-sending fibers. In some cases, those altered spots indicated possible damage to nerve cell axons and myelin, a protective coating that speeds neural signals along. In men, only three brain regions showed potential damage associated with heading frequency. In women, eight regions showed signs of damage with frequent heading.
7-30-18 These futuristic X-rays could revolutionize disease diagnosis
They're in color ó and 3-D. Adapting tools used by physicists to detect subatomic particles at the Large Hadron Collider, researchers at New Zealand's Otago University have captured 3-D color X-rays of the human body, said Emily Baumgaertner at The New York Times. The scanner they developed may eventually diagnose illnesses without invasive surgery. Functioning much like a digital camera that turns subatomic particles into a pixel image, the tool is designed to "find the explanation for somebody's symptoms, like a tumor, and then find the best way to reach it with the least amount of detours and misadventures." The scans show high-resolution images of bodily tissue, "including minute disease markers." Researchers "have generated images of ankles and wrists, but eventually plan to scan full human bodies." A clinical trial with orthopedic and rheumatology patients is planned in coming months.
7-30-18 A medical mystery reveals a new host for the rat lungworm parasite
This disease can be spread by eating centipedes, frogs, snails and other creatures. When a 78-year-old woman went to a hospital in Guangzhou, China, in November 2012 complaining of a headache, drowsiness and a stiff neck, doctors initially were puzzled. The patient had meningitis, but no signs of bacteria or viruses that can cause the illness. Then a cerebrospinal fluid test revealed she had a high number of white blood cells called eosinophils, a clue that she was fighting a parasitic infection. That helped the doctors zero in on a culprit: a thin, swirly-patterned worm called Angiostrongylus cantonensis. The woman was suffering from rat lungworm disease. So was her adult son. But how were the pair infected? Rat lungworm disease, which gets its name from the fact that the worm eggs hatch in the lungs of rats, is commonly associated with ingesting snails or slugs (SN Online: 7/21/16). Infected rats poop out the worm larvae, which the mollusks can then pick up and pass on to humans if eaten. Yet the patients had eaten no slugs or snails. An investigation of the pair’s diet revealed they had eaten Chinese red-headed centipedes bought at the market. “Centipede is a common traditional Chinese medicine,” usually consumed in a dried powder, says Lingli Lu, a neurologist at Zhujiang Hospital in Guangzhou. The two patients, however, had eaten them raw.
7-30-18 This tick may play a part in gumming up your arteries
The bite of a lone star tick is also blamed for triggering red meat allergies. It sounds bonkers that a tick bite might make meat eaters allergic to their steaks and ribs, but it’s true. Now new research has added a potential twist: The source of this tick-related sensitivity to red meat may also be linked to coronary artery disease. A bite from the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum, can trigger antibodies to a sugar called alpha-gal, found in many mammals but not humans. For some of the tick-bitten, that produces an allergic reaction to alpha-gal in red meats like beef and pork. A new study also finds that heart patients with the antibodies had more plaque buildup in their artery walls. Of 118 people with coronary artery disease, 31 who tested positive for the antibodies had about 25 percent more plaque in their artery walls than those who were negative, researchers report in the July Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. Study participants were aged 30 to 80; the connection between extra gummed-up arteries and the presence of antibodies was strongest in those 65 and younger. For the antibody-positive participants in that group, the plaques penetrating the walls of the arteries were of the sort more likely to rupture and cause a heart attack (SN Online: 5/5/09).
7-30-18 Mass graves found on Scottish islands may be ancient tsunami victims
A rare tsunami may have struck the islands of Shetland and Orkney off the UK’s north coast 5500 years ago, killing dozens of people who had to be hastily buried. Stone Age mass graves on UK islands might be filled with the victims of a prehistoric tsunami, according to a controversial new study. Shetland and Orkney are archipelagos that lie off the north coast of Great Britain. Both have been inhabited for thousands of years. Orkney is home to prehistoric villages including Skara Brae, while Shetland boasts Jarlshof among others. There are many stone cairns on Orkney, containing multiple graves: one may hold over 300 bodies. Cairns are also found on Shetland but they are less well preserved. Most archaeologists think the cairns are a sign of religious practices, or that they had a social function such as asserting ownership over land. But Genevieve Cain of the University of Oxford, UK and her colleagues have an alternative suggestion: that some of them, at least, are the mass graves of tsunami victims. “It is entirely plausible that there are coastal mass burial sites around the world that we can attribute to catastrophic tsunamis throughout history and into prehistory,” says Cain. Tsunamis can be devastating: the 2004 Asian tsunami left over 200,000 people dead. They are most common in tectonically active places, like the Pacific, because submarine earthquakes can set them off, and there is evidence of prehistoric tsunamis causing havoc in these places. But tsunamis do also occur in the seas around the UK, albeit rarely. The largest known is the Storegga Slide from about 8150 years ago. A submarine landslide off the coast of Norway triggered a tsunami that swamped coastlines around the North Sea. However, the archaeological record on Orkney and Shetland doesn’t go back quite that far.
7-29-18 Prostatitis: 'How I meditated away chronic pelvic pain'
For almost two years, I experienced pains I did not tell friends about. Burning and stinging in your genital area don't make for good dinner-party conversation. But I'm now writing about it precisely because, as I found out, many men like me needlessly suffer in silence. At the onset in mid-2016, urologists tested me for prostate cancer, an obvious concern for a male in his 50s. When this was ruled out, they sent me away. Although no longer a matter of medical concern, my symptoms were very much still there. An aching penis, a sore rectum and an inflamed perineum were taking turns as affliction of the day. It was overshadowing my life. Sitting was difficult. I could walk only slowly. Running, my exercise of choice, was out of the question. And sex loses its appeal when your nether regions are a source of suffering rather than fun. Looking online for clues, I realised that I was not alone. "Chronic nonbacterial prostatitis" is by far the most common type of prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate). Also known as "chronic pelvic pain syndrome" (CPPS), it is estimated to affect about 8% of men at any one time. Treatment is equally elusive: antibiotics and inflammation drugs don't work. I tried various tricks. I found hot baths soothing. Soft cushions made sitting bearable: I brought one to work, telling colleagues it was more comfortable. But the prospect of spending the rest of my life managing pain was dispiriting. I got my first hopeful insight that autumn by reading a book by Tim Parks, a British writer living in Italy. Teach Us To Sit Still describes how Parks overcame an acute version of the syndrome through Vipassana meditation, or "mindfulness".
7-29-18 Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money
Thousands of years ago, money was a means of debt payment, archaeologists and anthropologists say. Wherever you go, money talks. And it has for a long time. Sadly, though, money has been mum about its origins. For such a central element of our lives, money’s ancient roots and the reasons for its invention are unclear. As cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin multiply into a flock of digital apparitions, researchers are still battling over how and where money came to be. And some draw fascinating parallels between the latest, buzzworthy cryptocurrencies, which require only a virtual wallet, and a type of money developed by one Micronesian island community that wouldn't fit in anyone's wallet, pocket or purse. When it comes to money’s origins, though, conflict reigns. Economists have held one view of money’s origins for hundreds of years. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists, holding a revisionist view, say that economists’ standard story is bankrupt. Economists and revisionists alike agree that an object defined as money works in four ways: First, it serves as a means for exchanging goods and services. Currency enables payment of debts. It represents a general measure of value, making it possible to calculate prices of all sorts of items. And, finally, money can be stored as a wealth reserve.
7-29-18 How an ancient stone money system works like cryptocurrency
Archaeologists see similarities between giant coins carved from stone and cryptocurrencies. Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, and the blockchain technologies used to record digital transactions on a public ledger may not be so revolutionary. At least several hundred years ago, islanders on Yap in western Micronesia used principles at the heart of cryptocurrencies to conduct business, says archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick of the University of Oregon in Eugene. “Stone money transactions on Yap were the precursor to Bitcoin and blockchain technologies,” Fitzpatrick says. At April’s annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., he explained the connection between the carved stone disks, some weighing more than a Honda Accord and standing taller than a man, and today's cyber-tokens floating in digital space. Based on studies of rock sources and dating of sites on Yap and nearby islands, Fitzpatrick thinks that, before European contact in 1783, inhabitants of Yap sailed about 400 kilometers to other islands in Micronesia to quarry limestone from caves and rock-shelters. Sea voyagers negotiated with local leaders for access to limestone deposits.
7-28-18 A new Ebola species has been found in bats in Sierra Leone
There’s no evidence yet the newly dubbed Bombali Ebola can infect humans. A new species of Ebola virus has been discovered in bats in Sierra Leone, the country’s government announced July 26. Researchers looking to identify new viruses before the pathogens spill over into human populations found the new Ebola strain while sampling bats in the northern Bombali district. This is the sixth known species of the virus. RNA analysis of the virus revealed that it is “definitely related to other Ebola viruses,” says Tracey Goldstein, a pathologist at University of California, Davis, who is with the virus-hunting PREDICT project. “But [it] was quite different.” Goldstein and her colleagues confirmed that the Bombali virus can infect human cells, but they still don’t know whether or not it can cause disease in people. “It has the machinery” to enter a human cell, she says, but that doesn’t mean that it can make people sick. Some species of Ebola, such as the Reston virus, can cause disease in nonhuman primates but do not sicken humans. Other species of the virus however, like the Zaire virus, have been responsible for widespread epidemics, including a recent outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed 33 people (SN Online: 5/18/18) and an earlier one responsible for more than 11,000 deaths across West Africa (SN: 1/24/15, p.12).
7-27-18 Petrichor: why does rain smell so good?
It turns out it's not just gratitude that makes rain smell so appealing after a long period of dry weather. There's actually some chemistry involved too. Bacteria, plants and even lightning can all play a role in the pleasant smell we experience after a thunderstorm; that of clean air and wet earth. Known as petrichor, the scent has long been chased by scientists and even perfumers for its enduring appeal. First named by two Australian researchers in the 1960s, the warm, earthy fragrance we experience when rain hits dry ground is produced by bacteria. "These critters are abundant in soil," explained Prof Mark Buttner, head of molecular microbiology at the John Innes Centre. "So when you're saying you smell damp soil, actually what you're smelling is a molecule being made by a certain type of bacteria," he told the BBC. That molecule, geosmin, is produced by Streptomyces. Present in most healthy soils, these bacteria are also used to create commercial antibiotics. Drops of water hitting the ground cause geosmin to be released into the air, making it much more abundant after a rain shower. "Lots of animals are sensitive but human beings are extremely sensitive to it," added Prof Buttner. Now, geosmin is becoming more common as a perfume ingredient. "It's a really potent material and it smells just like the concrete when the rain hits it," said perfumer Marina Barcenilla. "There's something very primitive and very primal about the smell." "Even when you dilute it down to the parts per billion range, [humans] can still detect it," she added.
7-27-18 How a slime mold near death packs bacteria to feed the next generation
Some social amoebas use proteins to preserve a food crop for their offspring. In the final frenzy of reproduction and death, social amoebas secrete proteins that help preserve a starter kit of food for its offspring. Dictyostelium discoideum, a type of slime mold in soil, eats bacteria. Some wild forms of this species essentially farm the microbes, passing them along in spore cases that give the next generation of amoebas the beginnings of a fine local patch of prey. Tests find that the trick to keeping the parental immune system from killing this starter crop of bacteria is a surge of proteins called lectins, researchers say in the July 27 Science. Lectins create a different way for the amoebas to treat bacteria: as actual symbionts inside cells, instead of as prey or infections, says study coauthor Adam Kuspa, a molecular cell biologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In a lab test of this ability, coating other bacteria with lectin derived from a plant allowed bacteria to slip inside cells from mice and survive as symbiotic residents. The findings mark another chapter in a story that has been upending decades of what people thought they knew about social amoebas eating bacteria. The basic, almost alien, scenario is still true: D. discoideum amoebas, nicknamed Dicty, start life as single cells. When food dwindles, cells come together into a much bigger, multicellular slug-shaped creature with eight to 10 types of cells and the power to crawl. It then develops into something more like a fungus with a stalk holding up a case of spores, which start the next generation of amoebas.
7-27-18 A surge in liver disease deaths
Deaths from cirrhosis and liver cancer are skyrocketing in the U.S., and the Great Recession could be to blame. A new study has found that from 1999 to 2016, annual deaths from cirrhosis—the irreversible scarring of the liver—increased by 65 percent to 34,174. Some groups saw the rate of increase surge after 2008. Among people ages 25 to 34, there was a 10.5 percent annual increase on average in cirrhosis-related deaths from 2009 to 2016. Cirrhosis has many causes, including alcoholism, obesity, and hepatitis, and can lead to potentially fatal liver cancer and liver failure. Annual deaths from liver cancer also doubled from 1999 to 2016 to 11,073, but the rate of increase noticeably accelerated after 2008. Study lead author Elliot Tapper tells The New York Times that it could be significant that death rates began to escalate soon after the beginning of the Great Recession. “Young people are more likely to die of alcoholic cirrhosis, and we know that there is a model of despair in young unemployed men who are likely to abuse alcohol,” he says. “Almost every one of these deaths, particularly in the young, is completely preventable.”
7-27-18 Hypertension tied to Alzheimer’s
High blood pressure can hurt the brain as well as the heart. That’s the finding of a team of U.S. scientists who monitored the blood pressure of nearly 1,300 volunteers, all over age 65, and conducted brain autopsies when participants died, on average eight years after they enrolled in the study. Volunteers with high blood pressure were found to have more infarcts, or small areas of dead brain tissue that increase the risk for stroke and vascular dementia—mental decline caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. “The higher the average blood pressure, the more likely a person was to have brain lesions,” study lead author Zoe Arvanitakis tells CNN.com. High blood pressure was also associated with more tangles of the protein tau in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, but not more amyloid plaques, another key feature of the disease. Still, the findings add to mounting evidence that managing high blood pressure could have a protective effect on the aging brain.
7-27-18 Useless vaccines
Chinese parents were outraged this week at the discovery that hundreds of thousands of doses of rabies and diphtheria and tetanus vaccines administered to their children were ineffective. An editorial in the state-run Global Times said the crisis was “flooding the internet with public anger and panic,” and it called on the government to step up regulation of the pharmaceutical industry. Vaccine maker Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology has been fined $500,000, and its management has apologized, saying it feels “very ashamed.” There have been no reports of harm from the faulty vaccines, but the revelation is likely to undermine authorities’ attempts to rebuild public trust in Chinese food and medicine after a series of scandals, including the tainted infant formula that sickened 300,000 babies in 2008.
7-27-18 Most Americans think it’s OK to tweak a baby’s genes to prevent disease
A new survey of Americans’ views shows a growing acceptance for some uses of gene editing. Only a day after the first test-tube baby turned 40, a poll about American’s attitudes toward tweaking unborn babies’ genes reveals the hopes and hesitations of being on the brink of the latest reproductive era. Americans generally favor gene editing, but only for heading off diseases. Boosting intelligence would be “taking medical technology too far,” survey respondents said. (Not that scientists know how to genetically boost intelligence now anyway.) And few people were on board with doing the research necessary to cure disease or up IQ scores — research most likely to involve editing embryos, sperm or eggs because you have to make the changes as early in development as possible for maximum effect. Even so, the poll — released July 26 by the Pew Research Center — suggests that acceptance for the idea of gene editing is growing as fast as advances in the technology itself. In 2014, people were only just beginning to hear about such molecular scissors as CRISPR/Cas9 or other enzymes being used to cut or alter genes to fix disease-causing variants. A Pew poll that December, while not entirely comparable, found that only 46 percent of Americans contacted said it was appropriate to alter a baby’s genetic makeup to head off disease. Now we’re living in an age of “three-parent babies” (created by swapping the DNA from a fertilized egg with unhealthy mitochondria into an empty egg with healthy mitochondria) and millions of babies born by in vitro fertilization each year. And last year, scientists successfully edited viable human embryos to repair a version of a gene that leads to heart failure.
7-27-18 Drug to treat endometriosis pain first to be approved in over a decade
A new drug relieves pelvic pain in women with endometriosis, but is expensive and can cause side-effects like hot flushes, headaches and nausea. A pill for treating endometriosis-related pain will soon become available after being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Endometriosis occurs when tissue from the uterus spreads to other parts of the body, usually within the pelvis. It can cause severe pelvic pain during menstruation, sex, or all the time, and affects up to one in ten young women. At the moment, endometriosis-related pain is normally managed with common painkillers, contraceptives that shorten or suppress menstruation, or injectable hormone treatments. For many women with endometriosis, these treatments either don’t work, trigger side-effects like weight gain or moodiness, or can only be taken for short periods due to their effect on bone density. The newly-approved drug – elagolix – can be taken for longer, but it does have several side-effects. In a placebo-controlled clinical trial involving almost 900 women with moderate to severe endometriosis pain, elagolix reduced menstrual pain in over 40 per cent of patients and non-menstrual pelvic pain in over 50 per cent when taken as a once-daily pill. It also reduced average pain ratings during sex. The drug works by reducing oestrogen – the hormone that drives endometriosis. Because it only lowers oestrogen slightly, it can be taken for up to two years. In contrast, injectable hormone treatments can only be taken for 6 months because they lower oestrogen more powerfully and cause bone loss.
7-27-18 A new shape called the scutoid has been discovered in skin cells
We’ve discovered a new shape called the scutoid, which lets skin cells pack so closely together – and could lead to better methods for making artificial organs. Say hello to the scutoid, a brand new shape that was discovered in skin cells. This addition to geometry finally explains how nature packs cells efficiently into three-dimensional structures. All animals are formed from tissues that bend into complex shapes. The building blocks of these structures are epithelial cells, which pack tightly together to form skin and the lining of blood vessels and organs. It had been assumed that these cells adopted prism- or pyramid-like shapes to form these structures, but no one was sure as only thin cross-sections had been examined. “It is difficult to image these tiny structures in 3D,” says Luis Escudero of Seville University, Spain. Now, Escudero and a team of researchers have taken a detailed look at this cell-packing puzzle. They modelled curved tissues where the cells have to ‘pave’ surfaces that have very different areas at their top and bottom. In particular, the team wanted to explain a strange finding from previous research showing that epithelial cells can have different types of neighbours at their top and bottom surfaces. They found that the only way to achieve this pattern was for the cells to adopt a particular prism-like shape with five edges at the top, six at the bottom, and with one of the side edges divided into a Y shape.
7-25-18 Why cuts in your mouth heal 10 times faster than skin wounds
Wounds in the mouth really do heal much faster than cuts to the skin, and it may be because mouth cells are genetically primed for healing. It’s true – wounds in the mouth really do heal much faster than cuts to the skin. A study has discovered that the lining of the mouth is permanently primed for healing. The finding could lead to new ways to improve wound-healing elsewhere in the body. Silvio Gutkind of the University of California at San Diego and his team made small wounds in the mouths and on the upper arms of 30 volunteers, and tracked how well and quickly they healed. The mouth wounds rapidly closed and healed scarlessly, some taking only a week to fully repair themselves. But the width of the skin wounds had scarcely changed after two weeks. “The oral wounds healed approximately 5 to 10 times faster than skin wounds,” says Gutkind. Biopsies revealed that networks of healing genes are permanently active or on standby in the cells of the mouth lining, but not in skin cells. When the team genetically engineered mice to activate these networks in their skin, their skin was capable of healing wounds slightly faster. “Our results provide clues about the biology of wound healing, and offer a biological blueprint for developing novel therapeutics for faster wound healing,” says Maria Morasso of the US National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease in Bethesda, Maryland.
7-25-18 Here’s why wounds heal faster in the mouth than in other skin
Study IDs proteins that regulate gene activity to lessen inflammation and speed wound closure. Mouth wounds heal faster than injuries to other parts of the skin, and now scientists are learning how the mouth performs its speedy repairs. Some master regulators of gene activity work overtime in the mouth to heal wounds without scarring, researchers report July 25 in Science Translational Medicine. Those regulators — proteins known as SOX2, PITX1, PITX2 and PAX9 — are active in skin cells called keratinocytes in the mouth, but not in skin cells from the arm. The regulators hold down inflammation that can lead to scarring and turn on molecular programs involved in cell movement and wound closure, say the researchers, from the University of California, San Diego and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Knowing how the mouth performs its speed healing may eventually lead to therapies that fix skin sores without forming scars. Because the regulators are involved in many biological processes, including guiding an organism’s development, scientists need to discover which of these processes is important for wound healing, says Luis Garza, a skin researcher and dermatologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The study may provide some clues.
7-25-18 Lowering blood pressure may help the brain
In preliminary SPRINT results, fewer people aiming for 120 developed early memory loss. Keeping a tight lid on blood pressure isn’t just good for the heart. It may also help the brain. People given intensive drug treatment for high blood pressure were less likely to develop an early form of memory loss, according to preliminary results from a major clinical trial. This approach reduced the rate of early memory loss, called mild cognitive impairment, by around 19 percent, compared with people who received less aggressive treatment. And the intensely treated group developed fewer white matter lesions over time, researchers reported July 25 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago. White matter lesions, which are associated with dementia, are thought to be caused by blood vessel injuries in white matter, the part of the brain that contains nerve fibers. The brain research is part of SPRINT, the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial involving more than 9,300 participants. Some received intensive treatment aimed at lowering their systolic blood pressure — the pressure on artery walls when the heart beats — below 120 millimeters of mercury; others got standard treatment to bring it below 140. The trial had already reported that participants who received the intensive treatment dropped their risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems by 25 percent, compared with the standard group (SN Online: 11/9/2015). The results were the basis for revamped blood pressure guidelines, released last year (SN: 12/9/17, p. 13).
7-25-18 Intensive blood pressure treatment may lower dementia risk
People who receive stronger-than-normal blood pressure treatments have been found to be 19 per cent less likely to later develop signs of cognitive impairment. People who receive stronger-than-normal blood pressure treatments have been found to be 19 per cent less likely to later develop signs of cognitive impairment, a common prelude to dementia. The results provide new hope that targeting blood pressure could be an effective measure for preventing dementia. The findings come from a study of more than 9000 people in the US, around the age of 68. Beginning in 2010, the trial involved giving participants different levels of treatment for high blood pressure. Half received standard treatments to reduce their blood pressure to stable, but above normal, levels. The other half were given a stronger regime, bringing their blood pressure into the normal, healthy range. The trial was set up to see if stronger treatment benefited heart health, and was ended prematurely, in 2015, because the results were so positive. But researchers carried on monitoring more than 8600 of the participants to see if there were also any benefits for brain health. Analysing the data up to June this year, they found that the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment was 19 per cent lower in the aggressively treated patients than those receiving standard treatment. “This is something doctors and the majority of their patients with elevated blood pressure should be doing now to keep their hearts, and brains, healthier,” said Jeff Williamson of Wake Forest School of Medicine, who presented his team’s results in Chicago at the US Alzheimer’s Association International Conference today.
7-25-18 Business students more likely to have a brain parasite spread by cats
A study of students found that those who have a brain parasite linked to outbursts of explosive rage are more likely to be majoring in business studies. An analysis of students in the US has found that those who have a certain type of brain parasite are more likely to be majoring in business studies. Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite carried by cats. It can infect people through contact with cat faeces, poorly cooked meat, or contaminated water, and as many as one-third of the world’s population may be infected. The parasite doesn’t make us feel sick, but it forms cysts in the brain where it can remain for the rest of a person’s life. Some studies have linked infection with the parasite to slower reaction times, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicidal behaviour, and explosive anger. Now an assessment of almost 1300 US students has found that those who had been exposed to the parasite were 1.7 times more likely to be majoring in business. In particular, they were more likely to be focusing on management and entrepreneurship than other business-related areas. The study also found that professionals attending business events were almost twice as likely to have started their own business if they were T. gondii positive, and that countries with a higher prevalence of T. gondii infection show more entrepreneurial activity. The team behind the study say their data suggests that the parasite may be involved in reducing a person’s fear of failure and high-risk, high-reward ventures. Rodents infected with T. gondii are known to become less fearful of encountering cats.
7-25-18 An ‘obesity virus’ could be to blame for many people being overweight
Is obesity infectious? Evidence is growing in support of a controversial theory that a virus causes weight gain and obesity, but not everyone is convinced. WEIGHT gain may be infectious. Evidence is growing that many people who are overweight may have a virus to blame. Some have long thought that a virus is involved in some cases of obesity, but the idea is still highly controversial. Now a study shows for the first time that this virus, called adenovirus-36, is more often found in people who are obese than in those of a healthier weight. We don’t know yet how people catch the virus, but it may spread from person to person. Being overweight is usually attributed to overeating or getting too little exercise, with both genetics and environmental factors thought to contribute. In the 1980s, Nikhil Dhurandhar, now working at Texas Tech University, heard of a virus affecting chicken flocks in India that made the birds grow fat. He found that a relative of this virus, adenovirus-36, made mice and monkeys put on weight. And when fat cells are grown in a dish, infecting them with the virus makes them store more fat. In humans, adenoviruses usually cause colds, diarrhoea or eye infections. For ethical reasons, we can’t just inject adenovirus-36 into people and see if they put on weight. Instead, Dhurandhar and other groups looked to see whether people who are overweight are more likely to have antibodies to this virus – a sign that their immune systems have encountered it. They found that they did: one US study, for instance, reported that 30 per cent of obese people had these antibodies, compared with 5 per cent of those who were a healthy weight.
7-25-18 How to hack your unconscious… to find your inner creativity
Aha! moments of inspiration seem to come from nowhere – but the counterintuitive key to a creative brain is to defocus your thoughts. Everyone is familiar with “aha” moments, when the solution to a problem suddenly pops into conscious awareness as if from nowhere. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those moments of creative insight came a little more easily, a little more often? It turns out there are ways you can help your unconscious do its work. Last year, research by Michael Shadlen at Columbia University, New York revealed that aha moments occur when enough relevant information has accumulated in the unconscious to trigger conscious awareness of a decision. The point at which this critical threshold is reached will vary depending on the task. However, some people seem better at achieving it than others. What’s their secret? There are a couple of contenders. Studies suggest variously that creative insight is driven by one of two very different states of mind: concentrated focus and daydreaming. Intrigued by the contradiction here, Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, decided to test them head to head. He found that focused thinking actually undermines inspiration unless you are using an overtly analytical approach to solve a problem. By contrast, letting your mind wander, after taking in information, cultivates creative insight. If you want more aha moments, you must first scour some relevant material to give your unconscious something to work on. Then, Schooler recommends finding time for unfocused thinking. This is best done while you are engaging in an activity that’s not too mentally taxing, such as walking, gardening or household chores.
7-25-18 How to hack your unconscious… to conquer your fears
Fear helps us survive, but phobias ruin lives. Some simple tricks send signals to your brain to allow you to feel the right amount of fear. Fear is good – it plays an important role in our survival. But too much fear is a problem. Freud used psychoanalysis to unearth deep-seated fears so that patients could address them head-on. These days, the treatment for a phobia – such as an irrational fear of spiders or dogs – is more likely to involve gradually increasing an individual’s exposure to the feared object, while they learn techniques to reduce their anxiety. But in the future, psychologists may directly tap into the unconscious mind to treat phobias without traumatising people. That at least is the hope of a team of researchers in Japan and the US. They identified a distinctive pattern of brain activity associated with a fear they had induced in volunteers, and found that it could be reduced simply by rewarding them when their brains displayed it – and all the while the subjects were not conscious of this brain activity. What about modulating our own irrational fears and anxieties? Whether it is triggered by a tiger or a spider, fear, like any emotion, is underpinned by physical signals in the body. These include a stronger and more rapid heartbeat as well as changes in patterns of blood flow. Such bodily signals are critical to the experience of fear, even though they are usually registered unconsciously. Lowering their intensity will reduce the intensity of the emotion. When you are stressed, you can do this by slowing your breathing rate. This sends a powerful signal that you are not feeling anxious to part of your brain involved in processing emotion, which then helps regulate your heart rate.
7-25-18 How to hack your unconscious… to take control of pain
You can determine the amount of pain you perceive – pleasant smells, loving touches and foul language can all be powerful pain-busters. You might think that the amount of pain you feel is beyond your conscious control. Not so. Although you can’t influence your physiological pain responses to things like an injury or illness, there are ways to reduce the amount of pain you perceive. When Pavel Goldstein’s wife was giving birth to their first child, she opted not to take any painkilling drugs. “We had a really long delivery – around 32 hours,” he says, “and she asked me to hold her hand.” Goldstein, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, noticed that this seemed to help his wife cope with the pain. This led him to conduct a series of studies in his lab. After he inflicted pain by heating volunteers’ forearms, they reported that being touched by a stranger did nothing to reduce their discomfort, whereas being touched by their romantic partner did. And the more empathic the partner, the bigger the effect. “We already know that touch can communicate different emotions, for example, sadness and happiness. Perhaps we can also transfer our empathy through touch, resulting in analgesia,” says Goldstein. Pain is particularly susceptible to influence because it’s not always helpful to feel it, says sensory neuroscientist Giandomenico Iannetti at University College London. As a result, we have ways to modulate pain, such as by the release of the body’s own painkillers. “Generally, you feel what it is useful to feel,” he says. But it is also possible to trick the brain into feeling less.
7-25-18 How to hack your unconscious… to boost your memory and learn better
It seems like hard conscious work, but much of the learning process goes on deep in the mind. Here are the top tips to improve how you recall facts. We tend to think of learning as hard work, requiring a lot of conscious effort. However, much of the process goes on behind the scenes. If you could improve the unconscious processing and retrieval of memories, you could game the system. And it turns out that you can – often with very little effort. If you are learning facts such as foreign phrases or historical dates, giving your study a boost could be as simple as taking a break. Lila Davachi at New York University has found that breaks help to consolidate new memories, improving recall later. However, for a time out to work, different brain cells need to be activated to those you used during the learning period. So, try not to think about what you have just been working on. Better yet, sleep on it. It is well established that the brain processes memories during sleep, but it will do this more effectively if you leave the optimum time between learning and sleeping. Christoph Nissen at the University of Bern, Switzerland, found that a group of 16 and 17-year-olds performed best on tests of factual memory if they studied the material mid-afternoon, but they acquired skills involving movements faster if they practised in the evening. He suspects that the “critical window” between learning and sleep is shorter for movement-related learning than for other types of memory. Whether adults can benefit as much as teenagers from these windows isn’t clear. “There is evidence that adolescents have a higher capacity to learn – and they sleep better,” says Nissen. It is also worth noting that after about age 60, adults generally learn better in the morning.
7-25-18 Lifting the lid on the unconscious
Some 95 per cent of thought happens below the radar – by understanding how that works, you can game the system to beat your bad habits and unconscious biases. Almost all the brain’s activity happens below the level of consciousness. Your unconscious has many vital functions – from controlling breathing to processing incoming information – but there are also a few glitches. Tweak these and you can make the system work better for you. Most unconscious thinking happens deep within the brain, while conscious thoughts tend to occur at the surface. As much as 40 per cent of our daily behaviour is habitual. This can be very useful. For example, while your unconscious is busy driving to work, your conscious mind is free to focus on something else. Automated behaviours are grouped into distinct routines, or “chunks” – having a cigarette when drinking coffee, perhaps – making bad habits hard to break. To reprogram your unconscious, you must first derail the existing problematic habit. If you always reach for a snack when you walk into the kitchen, for example, move the snacks so that they are out of easy reach. Use prominent cues to trigger a more desirable habit. So, to replace snacking with fruit eating, buy a different fruit bowl and put it in a new, easily accessible position in your kitchen. Repetition is the key. It can take anywhere between 15 and 254 days to form a new habit. As well as cues, contexts trigger habitual behaviours, so try breaking a bad habit while away from your normal environment. Quit smoking while on holiday, for instance – but be careful not to let your good habits slip too. A host of unconscious cognitive biases influence much of your thinking and decision-making. They evolved to help our ancestors act fast and effectively, but these days they often trip us up. Knowing how cognitive biases shape your thinking is the first step to consciously controlling them. In addition, we all have our own implicit biases: prejudices about things like race and gender that affect our judgements of others. Discover yours at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit.
7-25-18 Face recognition screens egg donors so your child will look like you
A clinic in Barcelona is using face recognition technology to match people with anonymous egg donors who look just like them. An egg bank in Spain is using face recognition technology to match people with donors who look like them. The idea is that this way prospective mothers will get a child who resembles them even though they are not genetically related. Egg donation is relatively common in Spain compared to other European nations. It has strict laws protecting the anonymity of the donor, which makes it a popular destination for women across Europe seeking eggs for IVF. Basic physical details such as ethnicity, hair colour, and eye colour are recorded at the time of donation, but this still leaves a lot to the imagination. So Spanish company Ovobank are using face recognition algorithms to match prospective mothers with donor eggs. Their face-matching service provides a score of how much the donor looks like the mother, says Ana Yus Castan at Ovobank, who created the service with her husband following her own experience of IVF. “Patients stress about the resemblance of the child,” says Yus. “So for us it is a very beautiful service”. The face-matching service was announced at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting in Barcelona, earlier this month. They have launched the service in two fertility clinics in Barcelona and Marbella.
7-25-18 40 years after the first IVF baby, a look back at the birth of a new era
At 11:47 p.m. on July 25, 1978, a baby girl was born by cesarean section at the Royal Oldham Hospital in England. This part of her arrival was much like many other babies’ births: 10 fingers and 10 toes, 5 pounds, 12 ounces of screaming, perfect newborn. Her parents named her Louise. But this isn’t the most interesting part about Louise’s origins. For that, you have to go back to November 12, 1977, also near midnight. That’s when Louise Joy Brown was conceived in a petri dish. Louise was the first baby born as a result of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a procedure that unites sperm and egg outside of the body. Her birth was heralded around the world, with headlines declaring that the first test-tube baby had been born. The announcement was met with excitement from some, fear and hostility from others. But one thing was certain: This was truly the beginning of a new era in how babies are created. To celebrate Louise’s 40th birthday, I took at look at IVF’s origins, its present form and its future. IVF’s story starts around 1890, when scientist Walter Heape transferred a fertilized egg from an Angora rabbit into a different breed, and saw that Angora bunnies resulted. There was a steep learning curve that led to many failures: More than 300 women had oocytes, or egg cells, removed without success before Louise was conceived.
7-25-18 It’s official: gene-edited products will be classed as GMOs in the EU
The European Court of Justice has just ruled that organisms created by any new methods for tweaking the DNA are subject to the same laws that govern GM ones. Organisms created by methods that alter the DNA, including CRISPR gene editing, should be subject to the same EU laws as genetically modified organisms, the European Court of Justice ruled today. The ruling is being hailed as a victory for environmentalists. However, the effect might make it so expensive to launch gene-edited crops that few organisations besides big multinationals will be able to do it. The decision will have global reverberations because the EU is such a huge market. All new varieties of crops and animals are genetically different to their ancestors in some way. Plant breeders used to wait for beneficial mutations to occur by chance. Then, in the 1950s, they started deliberately inducing random mutations with radiation or toxic chemicals. Much of the food we eat today, including some strains of wheat, comes from crops created by such mutagenesis. In the 1990s, biologists started genetically modifying organisms by adding extra pieces of DNA, often from entirely different organisms, but they were unable to control where this DNA ended up. In 2003, the EU introduced a directive requiring that organisms created by this form of genetic modification undergo extra safety testing and be labelled, but this directive specifically excluded those created by mutagenesis.
7-25-18 Gene editing is GM, says European Court
The European Court of Justice has ruled that altering living things using the relatively new technique of genome editing counts as genetic engineering. Until now, gene editing, involving the precise replacement of one DNA sequence with another, has been a grey area. Traditional genetic engineering involves the less precise insertion of foreign DNA into an organism. It would mean any novel food developed with the help of gene editing would need to be labelled as GM. But the ruling would also apply to a range of burgeoning areas, such as the treatment of genetic disease in humans and to genetically altered animals. Denis Murphy, professor of biotechnology at the University of South Wales, said the decision "would appear to cause all new genome edited organisms to be regulated as if they were derived from classical 'GM' or transgenic methods as developed in the 1980s." In a statement, the Court of Justice (ECJ) said it "takes the view, first of all, that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs [genetically modified organisms] within the meaning of the GMO Directive". In the opinion of ECJ Advocate General Michal Bobek, "mutagenesis" covers any alteration to a genome - effectively the instruction booklet for life. The ECJ statement added: "It follows that those organisms come, in principle, within the scope of the GMO Directive and are subject to the obligations laid down by that directive." The ruling contains an exemption for older techniques with a "long safety record". This is believed to refer to methods used since the 1950s (pre-dating regulations on GMOs) in which plants are exposed to radiation or particular chemicals that induce random mutations (changes) in the organism's DNA. These mutant plants can then be used to breed new varieties.
7-25-18 ‘Amazing dragon’ find in China rewrites evolution of massive dinosaurs
Fossils discovered in China may change the story of the evolution of sauropods like Diplodocus and how they spread around the world. We need to re-think the origins of one of the most iconic dinosaurs. Diplodocoids are a group of sauropod dinosaurs that includes famous species like Diplodocus and Apatosaurus. They were previously thought to have evolved after the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea, but fossils of a previously unknown dinosaur found in China are forcing a re-think. The early diplodocoid has been named Lingwulong shenqi, literally “amazing dragon of Lingwu”, after the town near where it was found. Xing Xu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and his team found the fossils in Ningxia Autonomous Region in northwest China, and date them from about 174 million years ago. This makes it 15 million years older than the earliest members of this family known until now – and changes the story of how sauropod dinosaurs everywhere evolved. “Previously we thought that advanced sauropods arrived in the late Jurassic and quickly became dominant on this planet, but this suggests that these dinosaurs evolved earlier and spread slower,” says Xu. Until now, there had been a consensus that different dinosaur groups lived in different parts of the world by this time. But the presence of diplodocoids in China at this time adds to an argument that dinosaurs were more similar throughout the globe. The apparent geographic diversity might be just down to an incomplete fossil record.
7-24-18 China fossil tells new supercontinent story
A newly discovered dinosaur may be re-writing China's geological history, according to recent findings. The latest addition to the family of giant, long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods, Lingwulong shenqi lived in the north of the country about 174 million years ago. At this time, East Asia was thought to have split from the supercontinent Pangaea. But Lingwulong may be evidence that that was not the case. "Not only is it the oldest member [of this group], but it's the first ever from Asia. For a long time it was thought that neosauropods didn't get into Asia during the Jurassic," he told BBC News. At the time, Pangaea was beginning to fragment. It has been proposed that a sea, much like the Red Sea but larger, separated what is now China from the rest of the supercontinent, preventing animals from crossing. "This suggests that firstly [neosauropods] got in before any kind of barrier came up, but increasingly the geological evidence suggests maybe this barrier was quite ephemeral," says Dr Mannion. Despite neosauropods being plentiful throughout other areas of Pangaea - now North America, Europe and eastern Africa - none older than 160 million years old had previously been found. Lingwulong now takes its place as the oldest known member of this family. But it may also show that these dinosaurs were at a much more advanced stage of evolution than previously thought - taking their diversification back from the middle to at least the early Jurassic. Contrary to the idea that the dinosaurs "failed" because they died out in the wake of the Chicxulub impact, they were actually very successful at evolving and adapting, enduring for many millions of years. They survived several mass extinctions on Earth caused by extensive volcanic activity, and went on to thrive.
7-24-18 New Scientist Live: should we zap our brains to boost our abilities?
At our festival of science this September, Nick Davis will be exploring how we can make our brains work better – and whether we know what we’re getting ourselves into. Zapping the brain with electricity or magnetism can reawaken old dreams, improve depression, and make you better at maths. In recent years, we’ve seen a flurry of intriguing results from studies that have used a variety of ways to alter or enhance brain activity. But do we know what we’re getting ourselves into? That’s the question that Nick Davis, of Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, will be asking at New Scientist Live. It’s an urgent question. Many amateur enthusiasts have embraced do-it-yourself brain stimulation to help with everything from improving their concentration to supercharging their yoga classes. But the evidence is far from clear on how brain stimulation techniques actually work, and in what cases they might have beneficial effects. While transcranial direct current stimulation does seem to improve depression, some psychiatrists have warned that the technique can send some patients into fits of rage. That hasn’t stopped researchers from working on implants, wearables and other devices that might boost our brain function and our ability to learn and form new memories. You can hear from Davis all about how brain stimulation works and what we might be able to use it for at New Scientist Live in London on 20 September.
7-24-18 What leech gut bacteria can tell us about drug resistance
These microbes were exposed to surprisingly tiny amounts of antibiotics. A bacterium found in leeches’ guts needs exposure to only 0.01 micrograms per milliliter of ciprofloxacin to become resistant to that drug, scientists report July 24 in mBio. That’s about 400 times less than the amount of antibiotics thought to trigger drug resistance in this species of bacteria, says study coauthor Joerg Graf, a biologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Certain leeches are approved for medical use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help patients heal from reconstructive surgery (SN: 10/23/04, p. 266). The slimy creatures suck up blood and secrete anticoagulants, aiding tissue growth. In the early 2000s, researchers noticed an uptick in antibiotic-resistant infections in these patients that were caused by the Aeromonas bacteria found in Hirudo verbana, one of several medicinal leech species. Scientists analyzed the contents of leeches’ stomachs using mass spectrometry, and found drug-resistant bacteria as well as low levels of both ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin, a veterinary antibiotic used on poultry farms. The researchers say the leeches may have been exposed to these antibiotics through poultry blood used for food on leech farms. Graf suggests that leech farmers eliminate ciprofloxacin and other antibiotics from their operations. But Aeromonas is also found in freshwater environments. “It is concerning because similarly low amounts [of antibiotics] have been detected in the environment,” he says.
7-24-18 HPV vaccine to be offered to all children in England, not just girls
Following similar decisions in Scotland and Wales, boys in England will now be offered the HPV vaccine, which protects against several types of cancer. Boys in England are to be offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, 10 years after it was introduced for girls. The decision follows a recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) last week, which stated that a gender-neutral programme to protect against the sexually transmitted virus would be cost-effective. The recommendation has already prompted the Scottish and Welsh governments to decide to extend vaccinations to boys. “Any vaccination programme must be firmly grounded in evidence to ensure that we can get the best outcomes for patients, but as a father to a son, I understand the relief that this will bring to parents,” says public health minister Steve Brine. The HPV vaccination is currently offered to girls aged 12 to 13 at secondary school, and is also available free on the NHS up until their 18th birthday. But the virus doesn’t only cause cervical and vaginal tumours – it can also cause penis, anus, mouth and throat cancer, as well as genital warts. Extending the vaccination to boys will help prevent such diseases, and may mean that more gay men get protection from the virus at a younger age. Wider use of the vaccine should also further reduce cervical cancer cases in women, through herd immunity. The girls’ programme has already reduced the prevalence of the two main cancer-causing types of HPV virus by 80 per cent, according to data from Public Health England. “Almost all women under 25 have had the HPV vaccine and we’re confident that we will see a similarly high uptake in boys,” says Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England.
7-24-18 Paleontologists have ID’d the world’s biggest known dinosaur foot
A newly described fossil, measuring nearly a meter wide, may have belonged to a brachiosaur. A nearly meter-wide fossilized dinosaur foot, unearthed 20 years ago from mudstone in northeastern Wyoming, is the largest yet found, an international team of researchers reports July 24 in PeerJ. The rest of the dino’s skeleton has yet to be identified, but the size and shape of the foot bones indicate that it once belonged to a brachiosaur. These long-necked herbivores lived about 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic Period. “These things were just huge,” says study coauthor David Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum in Lawrence. He estimates that the new dino — nicknamed Bigfoot — may have been about 30 meters long, or roughly the length of a blue whale. During the late Jurassic, brachiosaurs in North America inhabited parts of what’s now Colorado, Utah and southern Wyoming. Bigfoot’s northeastern Wyoming digs indicate that brachiosaurs roamed farther than previously thought, Burnham says.
7-23-18 Pediatricians warn against chemical additives in food for kids
Because children have a lower body weight, they are particularly susceptible to possible toxins. The American Academy of Pediatrics is cautioning parents and pediatricians to avoid exposing children to eight chemicals found in food and in plastic packaging. The chemicals may be especially harmful to kids due to their small size, says the report published July 23 in Pediatrics. Pregnant women should also avoid the chemicals. And lower-income families who eat a lot of prepackaged foods could be at greater risk for exposure. The chemicals include nitrates and nitrites, often added to processed meats as a preservative, as well as bisphenol A, or BPA, which is used to make durable plastics and has been linked to cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease (SN: 10/3/15, p. 12). Also listed are phthalates, which help make plastic flexible, and perfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFCs, which are resistant to stains, grease and water. These and other compounds have also been associated with endocrine disruption, obesity and insulin resistance, when cells don’t respond properly to insulin leading to an overproduction of the hormone (SN Online: 2/9/12). Some of these chemicals may also have neurocognitive effects, such as increased hyperactivity in children, says study coauthor Sheela Sathyanarayana, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Scientists are unable to test the effects of these chemicals directly in humans, so evidence shows only that there is correlation, not causation, between exposure and disease.
7-23-18 A new kind of spray is loaded with microscopic electronic sensors
The microchip-loaded aerosol could be used to track environmental and health hazards. Using tiny 2-D materials, researchers have built microscopic chemical sensors that can be sprayed in an aerosol mist. Spritzes of such minuscule electronic chips, described online July 23 in Nature Nanotechnology, could one day help monitor environmental pollution or diagnose diseases. Each sensor comprises a polymer chip about 1 micrometer thick and 100 micrometers across (about as wide as a human hair) overlaid with a circuit made with atomically thin semiconducting materials (SN Online: 2/13/18). This superflat circuit includes a photodiode, which converts ambient light into electric current, and a chemical detector. This chemical detector is composed of a 2-D material that conducts electric current more easily if the material binds with a specific chemical in its environment. Researchers can choose from a vast menu of 2-D materials to fashion detectors that are sensitive to different chemicals, says study coauthor Volodymyr Koman, a chemical engineer at MIT (SN Online: 1/17/18). In lab experiments, Koman and colleagues created a sensor spray that detected toxic ammonia vapor inside a sealed section of piping, as well as a spray that ID’d soot particles sprinkled across a flat surface.
7-23-18 Ebola: How a killer disease was stopped in its tracks
One of the world's deadliest viruses, Ebola kills up to half of those it infects. But despite appearing to have all the hallmarks of a potential epidemic, the latest outbreak developed in a very different way. It was the ninth Ebola outbreak to hit the Democratic Republic of Congo in a decade, killing 29 people and leaving at least 60 children orphaned. While one death is too many, the West Africa epidemic of 2014-16 claimed more than 11,000 lives and it is hoped that later this week the most recent outbreak will be declared officially over by the World Health Organization. The relatively small number of deaths follows the use of an experimental vaccine, which may have saved hundreds, or even thousands of lives. Although the outbreak began in a remote area, there was a real danger that large numbers could be infected. It appeared close to neighbouring Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo - a vast area with a great ebb and flow of people and a fragile health system. It is also an area linked by river and road to the capital Kinshasa - home to 10 million people. The vaccine used, known as rVSV-ZEBOV was already in development during the 2014-16 epidemic. But by the time its effectiveness had been proven, the outbreak was already waning. When the virus returned in 2018, it could be quickly deployed, once the DRC government had approved its experimental use. This vaccine is designed for use against the Zaire strain of Ebola, which caused both this outbreak and the previous one. Scientists and health workers set to work tracking all potential transmissions since the first case had been reported. Front-line health workers, people in contact with confirmed Ebola cases, and their contacts all needed to be given the vaccine.
7-23-18 New drug for recurring malaria
A new drug to treat malaria has been given the green light by authorities in the United States. The medicine is specifically for the recurring form of malaria - caused by the parasite plasmodium vivax - which makes 8.5 million people ill each year. This type of malaria is a particular challenge to get rid of as it can remain dormant in the liver for years before reawakening many times. Scientists have described tafenoquine as a "phenomenal achievement." Regulators around the world will now look at the drug to see if they can recommend it for their populations. Recurring malaria is the most common type of malaria outside Sub-Saharan Africa. Children can be particularly at risk, getting several bouts of malaria from a single bite, missing lots of school and getting weaker each time they get the disease. And infected people can act as unwitting reservoirs of the disease because when the parasite reawakens in their bodies a mosquito can carry that parasite on to someone else. This can make it hard to eliminate around the world. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has given the seal of approval to tafenoquine, a drug that can flush the parasite out of its hiding place in the liver and stop people getting it again. It can be taken alongside another medicine to treat the immediate infection.
7-23-18 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang calls for crackdown on vaccine industry
Authorities in China have ordered an investigation into a vaccination scandal as panic grows over product safety. Last week vaccine maker Changsheng Biotechnology Co was found to have falsified production data for its rabies vaccine. The firm has been ordered to halt production and recall rabies vaccines. There has been no evidence of harm from the vaccine, but the scandal has sparked a huge outcry in China. Changsheng, which suspended trading in its shares for part of Monday, saw their value drop by 10% on the day. The shares have slumped 47% since mid-July, when news of the scandal first broke. On Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged severe punishment for the people involved, saying the incident had "crossed a moral line". "We will resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that endanger the safety of peoples' lives, resolutely punish lawbreakers according to the law, and resolutely and severely criticise dereliction of duty in supervision," he said in a statement posted on a government website. Changsheng has apologised, saying that it was "guilty and embarrassed" and would co-operate with drug regulators to carry out a comprehensive internal investigation. On 15 July, China's State Drug Administration (SDA) announced that Changchun Changsheng had falsified production data during the production of its freeze-dried human rabies vaccine. According to a report by Xinhua, an official said the company had "fabricated production records and product inspection records", as well as "arbitrarily changed process parameters and equipment" during production. The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) said the rabies vaccine had been recalled and that the company would be put under investigation.
7-20-18 Baby poo reveals that even light drinking during pregnancy affects IQ
Occasional drinking during pregnancy may affect IQ, according to a study that tested newborn babies’ faeces to see if their mothers had consumed alcohol. Light drinking during pregnancy may affect babies’ brain development, according to a study that looked for signs of alcohol exposure in newborns’ faeces. Although it’s well-established that heavy drinking during pregnancy is linked to intellectual disabilities and altered facial features in children, less is known about the effects of light drinking. Studying this has been difficult, since mothers are often reluctant to admit any level of drinking during pregnancy due to the associated stigma, says Anna Eichler at the University Hospital Erlangen in Germany. To get around this, Eichler and her colleagues looked for signs of alcohol exposure in the faeces of more than 500 newborn babies. They then assessed their IQ and attention skills when they reached aged 6 or older. The researchers measured the amount of a chemical called ethyl glucuronide in the newborns’ first poo. Ethyl glucuronide is formed by the liver when it breaks down alcohol, and can be absorbed from a pregnant woman’s bloodstream into the fetus’ gut, where it accumulates in its excrement. Because small amounts of ethyl glucuronide can come from alcohol in mouthwash and medicines, the researchers used a cut-off that was previously shown to reflect the consumption of at least two alcoholic drinks per month during pregnancy. Above this cut-off, they found that children whose mothers drank during pregnancy scored 4 points lower on average in an IQ test than those whose mothers had abstained. The analysis took age, sex and socioeconomic status into account.
7-20-18 50 years ago, scientists took baby steps toward selecting sex
Excerpt from the August 3, 1968 issue of Science News. Robert Edwards and Richard Gardner of Cambridge University … say they have been able to remove rabbit embryos … then reimplant only the blastocysts destined to develop into the chosen sex. The implications are obvious and enormous. If this procedure could be extended easily to man there might, for instance, be imbalances, even fads, in the selection by parents of one sex of child over another. — Science News, August 3, 1968. Edwards helped pioneer in vitro fertilization, resulting in the first IVF baby in 1978 and a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2010. He also foresaw technology’s potential for sex selection. With no sex selection, about 105 males are born for every 100 females worldwide. But in places where sex selection has been encouraged, through IVF and other methods, changes have resulted. In 1995, China’s ratio was 115 boys per 100 girls, according to U.N. estimates. By 2015, men outnumbered women in China by more than 42 million. In 2017, China ended its one-child policy.
7-20-18 Promising new HIV vaccine
An effective HIV vaccine has eluded scientists for decades for two reasons: There are dozens of strains of the virus, and it also rapidly mutates to elude a successful attack by the immune system. But a team of researchers has developed a new “mosaic” vaccine that includes pieces of many different AIDS strains and has gotten promising results in trials on humans and monkeys. Several dosages and formulations of the experimental drug were given to 393 healthy volunteers from South Africa, eastern Africa, Thailand, and the United States who were at low risk for infection. They showed a significant anti-HIV immune response. In the test of 72 rhesus monkeys, the formulation that appeared most promising among humans protected 67 percent of the monkeys from the simian form of HIV. “These results represent an important milestone,” the study’s lead author, Dan Barouch, tells BBC.com. Based on these new results, a larger human trial designed to determine if the vaccine will prevent people from contracting HIV is already underway in sub-Saharan Africa.
7-20-18 Are multivitamins worthless?
People who take multivitamins to protect their heart health are wasting their money, new research has found. A review of 18 studies involving 2 million people followed for an average of roughly 12 years found no scientific evidence that these products help prevent heart attacks, strokes, or death from heart disease regardless of people’s age, gender, and level of physical activity. These findings echo guidelines from the American Heart Association, which discourages the use of multivitamins for the prevention of heart disease. Nevertheless, dietary supplement sales are on the rise, and nearly 30 percent of Americans take multivitamins on a daily basis, assuming they’ll be healthier for it. Some people even hope vitamins can make up for a poor diet or lack of exercise. “I hope our study findings help decrease the hype around multivitamin and mineral supplements,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Joonseok Kim, tells NBCNews.com. The researchers say you can promote heart health by eating a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and not smoking.
7-20-18 The health benefits of ‘forest bathing’
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—using the senses to soak up the sights, smells, and sounds of the natural world—really does provide health benefits, new research suggests. Scientists at the University of East Anglia analyzed the findings of more than 140 studies involving nearly 300 million people from 20 different countries, including the U.S., Spain, Australia, and Japan. They found that spending more time outside in nature or living near green spaces, including urban parks, is associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, early death, and high blood pressure, as well as with better sleep and stronger feelings of well-being, ScienceDaily.com reports. “Forest bathing is already really popular as a therapy in Japan,” says the study’s author, Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett. “Our study shows that perhaps they have the right idea.” That might be partly because time spent in green spaces promotes physical activity, exposure to sunlight, and reduced pollution. Breathing in phytoncides, which are organized compounds emitted by trees, may stimulate our immune systems and reduce inflammation. Twohig-Bennett says the study found concrete evidence that green space “significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol—a physiological marker of stress.”
7-20-18 Ties constrict blood flow
Men who think the best part about wearing a tie is yanking it off at the end of the day may now have a scientific justification for adopting more casual dress codes. Researchers in Germany asked 15 healthy young men to put on a tie and make a Windsor knot. These men underwent three MRI scans. During the first scan they wore the tie loosely with an open collar. Next, the men tightened their ties to the point of slight discomfort. During the third scan, they loosened their tie and collar again. After comparing these images to MRI scans of men who were not wearing ties, the researchers found that wearing tightly secured neckties reduced blood flow to the men’s brains by an average of 7.5 percent. This may not be enough to cause obvious symptoms or serious damage, but blood flow carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain, so any reduction is reason for concern. Researchers tell MedicalDaily.com that the “socially desirable strangulation” of tie-wearing may have at least a temporary effect on men’s brain function, particularly if they have chronic health issues, such as diabetes or heart disease.
7-20-18 How to boost men’s fertility
The sperm quality and overall reproductive health of men in Western countries has declined steadily over the past few decades, for unknown reasons. But new research suggests that eating nuts—loaded with protein, antioxidants, and heart-healthy fats—could help wannabe dads improve their fertility. Researchers in Spain recruited 119 men between 18 and 35 who followed a typical Western-style diet, which includes red meat as well as processed and refined foods. The men were asked to either supplement their diet with a daily regimen of 60 grams of mixed nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, or stick to their usual diet. After 14 weeks, the sperm count of the men who ate a couple of handfuls of nuts every day was, on average, 16 percent higher than those who didn’t. The quality, motility, and shape of their sperm also improved significantly, reports TheGuardian.com. “The results of our study could potentially help couples’ chances of conceiving,” says the study’s leader, Albert Salas-Huetos. Men’s reproductive health can be influenced by many factors, including a poor diet, smoking, pollution, and underlying health issues.
7-20-18 Fewer baby boys were born after three major earthquakes in Japan
A lower proportion of boys were born nine months after Japan’s three worst earthquakes in recent history, suggesting stress makes it harder to conceive males. Fewer boys were born nine months after the three worst earthquakes in Japan’s recent history, a study has revealed. The finding hints that stress makes it harder to conceive sons. Misao Fukuda at M&K Health Institute in Japan and his colleagues studied the birth records of Japanese prefectures struck by the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the Tohoku earthquake responsible for the tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant in 2011, and the Kumamoto earthquake of 2016. They found that the proportion of male babies born in affected prefectures dropped by 6 to 14 per cent nine months after each earthquake. For example, nine months after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed more than 8000 people in Miyagi prefecture, the usual birth ratio of 108 boys per 100 girls dropped to 95 boys per 100 girls. This anomaly was not observed in other, more distant prefectures. The finding suggests that fewer males were conceived directly after the earthquakes, since a nine-month gap separates conception and delivery, says Fukuda. One possible explanation is that men’s sperm carrying the male Y chromosome were damaged more easily by the stress of the event, making them less likely to form embryos, says Fukuda. Another is that male embryos themselves were less resilient to stress, he says. In line with this hypothesis, Fukuda previously found that fewer male babies were born nine months after extreme heatwaves and cold snaps in Japan. (Webmaster's comment: This is the evolutionary response to the events that provides for more females to breed and regrow the population.)
7-20-18 Inside the meditating mind
Scientists are learning what exactly meditation does to the brain. late 1971, Navy veteran Stephen Islas returned from Vietnam, but the war continued to rage in his head. "I came very close to committing suicide when I came home, I was that emotionally and mentally damaged," Islas remembers. At his college campus in Los Angeles, a friend suggested he check out a meditation class. He was skeptical, but he found that before long "there were moments that started shifting, where I was happy. I would experience these glimpses of calmness." Forty-six years later, Islas says that he has never completely freed himself from his post-traumatic stress disorder, which was formally diagnosed in 2000 at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. But he's convinced that meditation has saved his life. Various forms of meditation are now routinely offered to veterans with PTSD. It's also touted as a therapeutic tool to help anyone suffering from conditions and disorders including stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain. More broadly, meditation has come into vogue as a way to enhance human performance, finding its way into classrooms, businesses, sports locker rooms, and people's smartphones through internet apps like Headspace and Calm. "Mindfulness" meditation, a type of meditation that focuses the mind on the present moment, is wildly popular. It has become a billion-dollar business, according to the market research firm IBISWorld. For all its popularity, however, it's still unclear exactly what mindfulness meditation does to the human brain, how it influences health, and to what extent it helps people suffering from physical and mental challenges. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, but psychologists and neuroscientists have studied it for only a few decades.
7-19-18 This colorful web is the most complete look yet at a fruit fly’s brain cells
Scientists compiled 21 million images of the noggin of Drosophila melanogaster. If the secret to getting the perfect photo is taking a lot of shots, then one lucky fruit fly is the subject of a masterpiece. Using high-speed electron microscopy, scientists took 21 million nanoscale-resolution images of the brain of Drosophila melanogaster to capture every one of the 100,000 nerve cells that it contains. It’s the first time the entire fruit fly brain has been imaged in this much detail, researchers report online July 19 in Cell. Experimental neurobiologists can now use the rich dataset as a road map to figure out which neurons talk to each other in the fly’s brain, says study coauthor Davi Bock, a neurobiologist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Va. A high-resolution look at the fruit fly brain allows scientists to trace the paths of individual nerve cells. One new find: The discovery of a new type of neuron that talks to other neurons called Kenyon cells, which live in a part of the fly brain associated with learning and memory.
7-19-18 A new ankylosaur found in Utah had a surprisingly bumpy head
This species of armored dino looked more like its Asian ancestors. A newly identified dinosaur’s evolutionary origins are written all over its face. Bony knobs studding the head and snout of Akainacephalus johnsoni, a type of armored dinosaur called an ankylosaurid, are similar to those of Asian ankylosaurids. That was a surprise, says Jelle Wiersma, a paleontologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. He and Randall Irmis, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City, had expected the 76-million-year-old skeleton, unearthed in 2008 in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to have a smoother dome typical of North American ankylosaurids. These armored dinos first appeared in Asia around 125 million years ago and had reached western North America by about 77 million years ago. One other known North American ankylosaurid, a different species found in New Mexico that’s 3 million years younger than the newfound dino, also has a rugged noggin comparable to A. johnsoni’s. The new find adds to evidence that at least two types of ankylosaurids migrated from Asia to North America during the late Cretaceous, possibly via a land bridge between the continents, the researchers report July 19 in PeerJ. Along with a complete skull, paleontologists uncovered an intact tail club, as well as many vertebrae, limb bones and bony plates. A. johnsoni is the most complete ankylosaurid fossil yet found in the southwestern United States, the researchers say.
7-19-18 Smart bandage sees when wound is infected and treats it automatically
A high-tech bandage can keep an eye on chronic wounds by detecting infections and releasing medication. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Chronic wounds that don’t heal on their own require constant and intensive monitoring and treatment, and a new smart bandage may be able to help. Some types of injuries, like burns or diabetic wounds, heal slowly and are thus extremely prone to infection. Ali Tamayol at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his colleagues developed a high-tech new bandage that can detect infection and inflammation, and treat it without requiring constant check-ins with medical professionals. The bandage contains two kinds of sensors. The first is a pH sensor that can detect when bacteria infect a wound, as this turn its pH from acidic to alkaline. And the second is a temperature sensor, which can tell when the area is getting hot and inflamed. The sensors are embedded in a sheet of hydrogel, a super-absorbent jelly material, which soaks up any blood seeping from the wound. The hydrogel can also hold tiny capsules full of antibiotics or other medicine. That way, when the sensors find signs of infection, a tiny heater can be triggered to warm up the bandage and release the antibiotics. The whole thing is attached to transparent medical tape, and it’s less than 3 millimetres thick. “For people who live far away from medical facilities or do not have immediate access, the bandage can transmit data to those medical settings so if there’s need for intervention they can call the patient in, but it can also automatically respond if needed,” says Tamayol. The researchers performed a battery of tests on the bandage, including testing it on human cells contaminated with bacteria. It killed more than 90 per cent of the bacteria, bringing the pH of the cells back up to its normal value.
7-19-18 Neanderthal hand axes were also used as lighters for starting fires
There is no doubt that our ancient cousins used fire but we’ve only just found clues that reveal how they lit these fires. Our ancestors started using fire at least a million years ago and cooking may have played a key role in our evolution. But could early humans light fires, and if so how did they do it? In the case of the Neanderthals at least, we may finally have an answer. Dozens of 50,000-year-old hand axes from around Europe have tiny scratches on their flat sides, Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University in the Netherlands and colleagues have shown. And the mostly likely explanation, they argue, is that the axes were used to strike sparks. “The hand axe was like a Swiss Army knife for Neanderthals,” says Sorensen. In addition to being used for cutting, he thinks the axe was held in one hand and a piece of iron pyrites struck against the flat side with the other hand to create sparks. The flat side of a hand axe are rough and ideal for striking sparks. Sorensen can light a fire in as little as 10 seconds this way. “It’s quite an effective method,” he says. What’s more, it creates the same patterns of scratches as those seen on ancient axes. “These traces match what we are able to produce during fire-making experiments,” Sorensen says. “And using the flat side, as I’m sure the Neanderthals knew, helps to keep the edges of the tool sharp for other tasks.” Iron pyrites corrodes once exposed to air, so the small pieces used to strike sparks would be preserved only in exceptional circumstances – and none has yet been found. So the evidence is not completely conclusive, Sorensen says, but it is “pretty solid”.
7-19-18 Baby snake 'frozen in time' gives insight into lost world
The fossil of a baby snake has been discovered entombed inside amber. The creature has been frozen in time for 99 million years. The snake lived in what is now Myanmar, during the age of the dinosaurs. Scientists say the snake fossil is "unbelievably rare". "This is the very first baby snake fossil that we have ever found," Prof Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta in Canada told BBC News. The baby snake lived in the forests of Myanmar during the Cretaceous period. It has been given the name, Xiaophis Myanmarensis, or dawn snake of Myanmar. A second amber fossil was discovered, which appears to contain part of the shed skin of another much larger snake. It is unclear whether this is a member of the same species. The animal became stuck in tree sap, a sticky substance that can preserve skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures. "It's the super-glue of the fossil record," said Prof Caldwell. "Amber is totally unique - whatever it touches is frozen in time inside of the plastic-like resin."
- Snakes: The oldest known snake fossils date from between 140 million and 167 million years ago.
- Lizard: Megachirella wachtleri lived in the Triassic Period, about 240 million years ago.
- Dinosaur: The earliest known dinosaur fossil dates to around the same time as the earliest lizard. Dinosaurs went on to dominate the Earth for 165 million years.
- Horse: It lived around 52 million years ago and was only about the size of a fox. However, true horses only appear around 20 million years ago.
- Human: The oldest example is a jawbone fragment from the Afar Region of Ethiopia and dating to between 2.80 and 2.75 million years ago.
7-18-18 This amber nugget from Myanmar holds the first known baby snake fossil
The delicate skeleton dates to about 99 million years ago. The first known fossil remains of a baby snake have turned up in a hunk of amber found in Myanmar. The critter, a new species named Xiaophis myanmarensis, met its untimely demise about 99 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, an international team of researchers reports July 18 in Science Advances. How do we know it’s a baby? First, it’s tiny. The skeleton, which is missing its skull, is about 5 centimeters long. In total, the snake was probably less than 8 centimeters. Plus, its incomplete bone formation matches what’s seen today in neonatal snakes. Really? Nobody has found a fossilized baby snake before? The fossil record for snakes has been notoriously sparse until about the last 20 years, says coauthor Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Snakes don’t preserve well in general. And this baby is especially delicate, with 97 wafer-thin vertebrae packed into just 47 millimeters of skeleton. What can it teach us? This fossil, plus skin from a larger snake of a different species, offers the first evidence that some Cretaceous-era snakes lived in forests. That’s not necessarily a surprise, Caldwell says. By then, snakes were distributed broadly around the world. But other snake fossils don’t always have enough clues to ID the animal’s habitat. Because amber oozes from a tree, anything preserved inside it must have lived nearby.
7-18-18 First snake found in amber is a baby from the age of the dinosaurs
Around 100 million years ago, this baby snake hatched on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean and then got stuck in resin oozing from a tree. Around 100 million years ago, a baby snake hatched on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. The tiny snake, just 10 centimetres long, got stuck in resin oozing from a tree. That chunk of resin remained buried as the island drifted north and became part of what is now Myanmar. When it was finally dug up a few years ago, the skeletal remains were misidentified as a centipede and the amber sold to a private collector. But it has now been studied by an international team, who have scanned the amber to build up a 3D image of the skeleton. “The baby is unquestionably a snake,” says team member Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta, Canada, a palaeontologist who specialises in studying ancient snakes and lizards. This would make it the first ever snake found in amber. Unfortunately, only around 4 cm of the back half of the snake survived, so the skull is missing. The team also studied a second piece of amber that contains what they think is a piece of skin shed by a larger snake – possibly of the same species as the baby. However, in this case the team cannot be completely certain that the skin is from a snake rather than a lizard. Snake fossils of any kind are very rare. Worldwide only around 15 fossils have been found from this period. And no snakes have ever been found in amber. “This is absolutely the first,” say Caldwell. But he is hopeful more will soon be found. In fact, other amber snake fossils might be sitting in collections already, but have yet to be identified, he says. Most amber fossils are of insects and their ilk, but bits of dinosaurs and birds have also found. Last year another team unveiled the best preserved ancient bird ever found.
7-18-18 No, mobile phones still won’t give you brain cancer
We are so glued to our phones that people can't seem to stop worrying that they give you cancer – but if they did, we would have seen a massive increase in tumours. The supposed health risk from mobile phones is the story that will never die. The latest claim, branded an “inconvenient truth” by the Observer newspaper, is that new research shows they cause cancer in rats. But like all previous incarnations of this tale, the real truth is that the evidence has been overblown and there is nothing to worry about. Cell phones have been accused of everything from causing brain cancer to “frying” men’s testicles over the years. Phones emit radiation to communicate with mobile phone masts, and radiation has always had a bad rap, thanks to the well-known effects of X-rays and nuclear fall-out. But phones use a form known as non-ionising radiation, meaning it doesn’t carry enough energy to tear electrons away from their atoms and turn them into ions. It’s this electron-stripping that means X-rays, for instance, can cause cancerous mutations in our DNA. The latest work, done by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), exposed rats and mice to non-ionising radio-frequency radiation like that emitted by phones. As the NIH already reported in interim findings two years ago, some of the exposed animal groups did have a higher incidence of damage to the heart, and cancers in nerves to the heart. But the animals were given much higher doses of radiation than people experience in real life – even those of us who are glued to our phones. They were kept in special chambers that exposed them to high levels of radiation over their whole body, for nine hours a day for the duration of their two-year lives. So the findings cannot be assumed to also apply to humans, NIH researcher John Bucher said in a statement. More importantly, there has been no good evidence that cancers of these types are increasing in people. Our use of mobile phones and other wireless devices in our homes has been increasing at unprecedented rate. Cancer incidence is tracked carefully in countries such as the UK and the US – if tumours of the heart or brain were on the rise, we would know about it by now.
7-18-18 Deaths from liver disease have been rising since the financial crisis
Cirrhosis deaths were falling in the US until the financial crisis hit in 2008, but have sharply risen since then, especially among young people. Deaths from liver disease have risen in the US since the financial crisis, with a particularly sharp rise in alcohol-related cirrhosis among young people. Analysing a database of US death certificates from 2009 to 2016, Elliot Tapper at the University of Michigan and Neehar D Parikh of the Ann Arbor Healthcare System found a 65 per cent increase in deaths caused directly by cirrhosis, as well as a doubling of deaths from liver cancer, which is often linked to cirrhosis. This is a reverse in recent trends – between 1999 and 2008, deaths from cirrhosis fell by an average of 0.5 per cent each year. Cirrhosis has a variety of causes, including obesity and alcohol abuse. Deaths due to cirrhosis caused by alcohol consumption in particular grew in all age groups. However, the change was especially sharp among people under 35, rising by 98 per cent —a surprising finding, as drinking in this age group is thought to have decreased overall. “What you’re probably seeing is that while the average amount of alcohol use may be declining, there is a very important group of people for whom alcohol is having an outsized impact on their lives,” says Tapper. Because of the timing of the upswing in deaths, the researchers suspect that this could be connected to unemployment and other economic issues resulting from the 2008 financial crisis. Deaths from suicide and opioid abuse have also risen during the same period.
7-18-18 How a variation on Botox could be used to treat pain
Drugs made with botulinum toxin may offer an alternative to opioids, a study in mice finds. Painkillers crafted with a part of the wrinkle-smoothing drug Botox provide long-term pain relief in mice. Researchers added the modified Botox to molecules that target pain-messaging nerve cells. Mice given a single spinal injection of the new drugs showed signs of pain relief for the full duration of the experiments, around three weeks, researchers report online July 18 in Science Translational Medicine. Such painkillers could potentially one day be developed for humans as alternatives to more addictive drugs, such as opioids. Created by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, botulinum toxin causes the food poisoning disease botulism. Botox, which is made from the toxin, is often injected into people to iron out worry lines and has been used to treat conditions that involve overactive muscles, such as repetitive neck spasms or overactive bladder (SN: 4/5/08, p. 213). The toxin has also been used to reduce the frequency of migraines. Biochemist Bazbek Davletov of the University of Sheffield in England and colleagues focused on botulinum toxin because it can stop certain nerve cells from communicating with one another for up to five months with each injection. And “you locally inject less than a millionth of a gram, which is helpful to avoid any immune response,” he says.
7-18-18 The real cabbage soup diet: What Britons ate down the ages
Ancient Britons were eating dairy, peas, cabbage and oats, according to gunk trapped in their teeth. Scientists analysed dental plaque found on the teeth of skeletons from the Iron Age to post-Medieval times. They found evidence of milk proteins, cereals and plants, as well as an enzyme that aids digestion. In modern samples, they found proteins that reflect a more cosmopolitan diet, including potatoes, soya and peanuts. The research gives a picture of what people have been eating through the ages, including food that leaves no trace in the archaeological record. Lead researcher, Dr Camilla Speller, from the department of archaeology at the University of York, said the technique can distinguish between different crops and show whether people were consuming dairy products, like milk or cheese. "In the teeth we look at from individuals who lived around the Victorian era, we identified proteins related to plant foods, including oats, peas and vegetables in the cabbage family," she said. "Occasionally, we find evidence of milk and oats in the same mouth - I like to think it's from eating porridge!" In the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, researchers analysed 100 archaeological samples from across England, as well as 14 samples from living dental patients and individuals who have recently died. Dietary proteins were found in about one third of the analysed samples. Proteins found in ancient dental plaque have already revealed that humans were drinking milk as far back as 6,500 BC.
7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: What is it really?
Far from being an indefinable concept, a single measure of intelligence underpins our problem-solving, musicality and even creativity and emotional skills. When researchers talk about intelligence, they are referring to a specific set of skills that includes the abilities to reason, learn, plan and solve problems. The interesting thing is that people who are good at one of them tend to be good at all of them. These skills seem to reflect a broad mental capability, which has been dubbed general intelligence or g. That’s not to say people don’t specialise in different areas. Some will be particularly good at solving mathematical problems, others will have particularly strong verbal or spatial abilities, and so on. When it comes to intelligence tests, although these specific skills account for about half of the variation between people’s performance, the other half is down to g. “If you took a sample of 1000 people and gave them all IQ tests, the people who do better on the vocabulary test will also do better, on average, on the reaction speed test, and so on,” says Stuart Ritchie, an intelligence researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK. This seems to fly in the face of old ideas. In the early 1980s, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner argued for the existence of multiple intelligences, including “bodily-kinaesthetic”, “logical-mathematical” and “musical”. However, most researchers now believe these categories reflect different blends of abilities, skills and personality traits, not all of which are related to cognitive ability. Likewise, recent research indicates that so-called emotional intelligence – the ability to regulate one’s emotions and relate to other people – is simply a mixture of general intelligence and personality.
7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: Can I become cleverer?
Brain-training is thriving despite doubts it can actually boost your smarts. But there is a way to increase your IQ score and keep your brain sharp for longer. During the early 1990s, a paper was published in Nature revealing that students performed better on an intelligence test if they listened to Mozart while taking it. So was born the billion-dollar brain-training industry. Sadly, other researchers have been unable to replicate the “Mozart effect”. Studies of computer games that claim to improve mental performance have produced mixed results too. “Brain training, Baby Einstein, and so on have been fairly disappointing in terms of being able to boost IQ,” says Stuart Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh, UK. However, one intervention has repeatedly been shown to work: education. True, intelligent children often remain in school for longer, but that can’t be the whole story. During the 1960s, the Norwegian government added two extra years of compulsory education to its curriculum and rolled out the change gradually, allowing comparisons between different regions. When researchers investigated IQ scores from tests taken by all Norwegian men as part of their compulsory military service, they concluded that the additional schooling added 3.7 IQ points per year.
7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: Do IQ tests really work?
Russell Warne has spent many hours scrutinising undergraduate psychology textbooks. As a professor of psychology at Utah Valley University, he wasn’t looking for insight, but for mistakes – and he found plenty. Some of the worst concerned IQ tests. “The most common inaccuracy I found, by far, was the claim that intelligence tests are biased against certain groups,” he says. Yet intelligence researchers are at pains to ensure that IQ tests are fair and not culturally biased. “Another, very common one was the idea that intelligence is difficult to measure.” No wonder IQ tests are often considered controversial and flaky. But that simply isn’t the case. “Despite the critiques, the intelligence test is one of the most reliable and solid behavioural tests ever invented,” says Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico. That said, you shouldn’t trust the kind of 10-minute test that might pop up in your Facebook feed. A comprehensive IQ test takes well over an hour and is ideally administered by a professional examiner. It is designed to assess precisely those cognitive skills that constitute intelligence, so consists of a series of subtests that cover reasoning, vocabulary, mental processing speed, spatial ability and more. Shorter IQ tests, assessing fewer of these skills, can still provide a general indication of someone’s mental abilities, however, because the nature of intelligence means that someone who scores highly on one type of cognitive test will also do comparatively well on others.
7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: What makes someone smarter than others?
Our search for genes associated with brainpower is starting to bear fruit, but isn’t the whole story. Your IQ is influenced by many subtle factors. One reason people may find discussing intelligence uncomfortable is the belief that it is something you are born with and so you can do nothing to influence it. This undercuts social equality, and feeds into the link between intelligence testing and eugenics, which still looms large for many. However, there is no escaping the fact that intelligence is inherited to some degree. Researchers found that the IQ of children adopted at birth bore little correlation with that of their adoptive parents, but strongly correlated with that of their biological parents. What’s more, this association became stronger as the children grew older. “That’s counter-intuitive for most people,” says Robert Plomin at King’s College London, who led the study. “They think as you go through life, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune build up and environmental differences become cumulatively more important, because they think that genes only influence what happens at the moment of conception.” That’s not true, of course. In fact, hundreds of studies all point in the same direction. “About 50 per cent of the difference in intelligence between people is due to genetics,” he says.
7-18-18 Specky geeks and airheads? The truth behind intelligence stereotypes
Cliches about cleverness and stupidity abound. It turns out that most of them are horribly wrong, but perhaps that should come as no surprise given that our thinking about intelligence is so riddled with myths and misconceptions. Is there any solid foundation to calling people evil geniuses, airheads, absent-minded professors, specky geeks and more?
- Evil genius: Psychopaths may think of themselves as intellectually superior but, in general, they have below average IQ scores and do poorly at school.
- Specky geek: Highly intelligent people are twice as likely to be short-sighted as people who have low IQ scores.
- Rational intellectual: When asked to analyse a controversial issue, intelligent people often come up with more arguments both to support and critique it compared with less cognitively gifted individuals.
- Absent-minded professor : Some people are great at recalling facts, but struggle to remember personal encounters and experiences.
- Beautiful airhead: As if fortune hadn’t smiled on them enough, beautiful people may also be more intelligent.
- Mumnesiac: A woman’s brain shrinks by up to 7 per cent during pregnancy and she may experience a short-term decline in her memory for words.
7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: How useful is a high IQ?
A smart brain might help you do well in tests, but there are many other ways it can affect your life, both positively and negatively. Exams are not the only route to success, as billionaire businessmen Richard Branson and Alan Sugar – who left school aged 15 and 16 – will attest. Nevertheless, good grades can open doors, and intelligence certainly helps when it comes to educational attainment. IQ test performance accounts for roughly two-thirds of the variance in people’s school exam scores – other factors including motivation and mental and physical health also influence how well children do. But intelligence isn’t just useful in school. IQ predicts how people will respond to workplace training and how well they will do their job, even in non-academic professions such as being a car mechanic or carpenter. It also predicts social mobility. This is, perhaps, because general intelligence reflects people’s ability to handle complexity in everyday affairs, according to Stuart Richie at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Many tasks, from supermarket shopping to juggling our diaries, require us to deal with unexpected situations, to reason and make judgements and to identify and solve problems. This is true of our social interactions too. People who score better in IQ tests are also healthier and live longer. One explanation could be that they are better educated, so more likely to be in professional jobs that command higher salaries, helping them afford things like gym memberships and healthier foods. Another is that learning, reasoning and problem-solving skills are useful in avoiding accidents, preventing chronic disease and sticking to complex treatment regimes if you do fall ill. In addition, a lower IQ might be caused by events during fetal development or childhood – such as a blow to the head – that influence health and longevity.
7-18-18 Welcome to the Meghalayan Age - a new phase in history
The official history of Earth has a new chapter - and we are in it. Geologists have classified the last 4,200 years as being a distinct age in the story of our planet. They are calling it the Meghalayan Age, the onset of which was marked by a mega-drought that crushed a number of civilisations worldwide. The International Chronostratigraphic Chart, the famous diagram depicting the timeline for Earth's history (seen on many classroom walls) will be updated. It should be said, however, there is disquiet in the scientific community at the way the change has been introduced. Some researchers feel there has been insufficient discussion on the matter since the Meghalayan was first raised as an idea in a scholarly paper six years ago. Geologists divide up the 4.6-billion-year existence of Earth into slices of time. Each slice corresponds to significant happenings - such as the break-up of continents, dramatic shifts in climate, and even the emergence of particular types of animals and plant life. We currently live in what is called the Holocene Epoch, which reflects everything that has happened over the past 11,700 years - since a dramatic warming kicked us out of the last ice age. But the Holocene itself can be subdivided, according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). It is the official keeper of geologic time and it proposed three stages be introduced to denote the epoch's upper, middle and lower phases. These all record major climate events. The Meghalayan, the youngest stage, runs from 4,200 years ago to the present. It began with a destructive drought, whose effects lasted two centuries, and severely disrupted civilisations in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley.
7-18-18 Ecuador's colonial past 'written in soil'
The arrival of European settlers in Ecuador had a profound effect on the country's population and environment. This is according to new findings from The Open University. Researchers studying soil cores from the Quijos valley found that they revealed a detailed story of the area's history after Spanish settlers arrived in the 1500s. The subsequent decimation of the region's indigenous population is told by surprising historians - plants. When two European tourists arrived in Ecuador's Quijos valley in the 1850s and 1860s, they described its landscape as dense, impenetrable and "unpeopled by the human race". The region's cloud forest, a belt of growth which falls between the high altitude grasslands and tropical rainforest, runs along the flanks of the Andes mountains. Yet records from Spanish settlers showed a population of over 30,000 Quijos peoples living in the area just 300 years previously. Although its 19th century visitors regarded it as pristine, it had actually undergone profound changes in the wake of European colonisation. Dr Nicolas Loughlin started his PhD at The Open University looking for evidence of changes to Ecuador's cloud forests at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Taking soil cores from Lake Huila in the Quijos valley, he began to look for prehistoric pollen. What he ended up finding was something much more recent. He told BBC News: "I started looking at the pollen and the fungal spores and the charcoal [in the cores]. We started seeing these really interesting changes... and when we had them dated, we could link these very specific changes where you go from almost all forest-type pollen, to grass-type pollen, at a very specific point."
7-18-18 We’ve started to uncover the true purpose of dreams
For the first time, researchers have got evidence that dreams help soothe the impact of emotional events in our lives, acting like overnight therapy. DREAMING really does help us process our memories and come to terms with our daily lives. That might sound uncontroversial but we have never had clear evidence that this is the case – until now. The finding raises the prospect of hacking our dreams to boost learning, memory and emotional well-being. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in the UK and his colleagues have found that the emotional strength of the experiences we have when we are awake is linked to the content of our dreams, and the intensity of our dreaming brainwaves. The team asked 20 student volunteers to keep a detailed diary of their daily lives for 10 days, logging the main things they had done, any personally significant events that had taken place, and any major concerns or worries they had had. Where appropriate, the students noted any accompanying emotion, and scored it for intensity. On the evening of the tenth day, the volunteers slept in the team’s dream lab while wearing an EEG cap that measured their brainwaves. Each person was woken during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and if they had been dreaming, a report of the dream was recorded. The team then compared the content of such dreams with the daily logs, looking for links. For example, you might have a scary near miss while cycling, and later dream about riding a bike. During REM sleep, electrical activity in the brain oscillates at a frequency between 4 and 7 hertz, generating a type of brainwave known as theta waves. Blagrove’s team found that the intensity of a person’s theta waves was positively correlated with the number of diary items that appeared in their dreams.
7-18-18 ‘Toxic’ levels of borax in toy slime are unlikely to hurt children
A report by consumer group Which? has warned that many toy slime products break European Union limits on borax, but a few precautions should keep people safe. If you don’t have children, you may well be unaware that slime is a thing. A huge thing, and many kids love to spend hours making slime using a plethora of internet recipes. But concerns have been raised that it can contain potentially toxic levels of chemicals. Should parents be worried about their children playing with it? A report by consumer group Which? has found that some slimes bought online in the UK contain up to four times the permitted concentration of an element called boron, in the form of sodium borate, or borax. What the report does not say is that home-made slime could well contain even higher levels. The report sparked alarming headlines, but actually the risks are very low. Polymers such as PVA glue are the main ingredient in slimes. They are molecules made of long chains of repeating units. Mix them with water and you get a liquid. To turn that liquid into slime, you add an “activator” that makes the chains stick together despite being in water – and borax is commonly used. So is toy slime safe? The Which? report states that “Exposure to excessive levels of boron could cause irritation, diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the short term”. While this is true, what the report does not say it is that children are exceedingly unlikely to have excessive levels of boron even after playing with the slime found to have 1400 milligrams of boron per kilogram, way above the European Union safety limit of 300 mg/kg limit for toys of this kind.
7-17-18 Blood test detects melanoma skin cancer while it’s easily treatable
A blood test that detects melanoma in its early stages may allow people to get treatment before the cancer spreads and becomes difficult to cure. A new blood test that picks up melanoma in its early stages could help to catch the skin cancer before it turns deadly. At the moment, melanoma is normally detected by visually scanning the skin. Suspicious-looking moles are cut out and sent for lab testing, but only 30 per cent turn out to be cancerous, while many true cancers are missed. Now, Mel Ziman at Edith Cowan University in Australia and her colleagues have developed a blood test that they hope will allow more accurate detection of melanoma. The test works by detecting antibodies that the immune system produces soon after melanoma starts to grow. In a study of 105 patients with early-stage melanoma and 104 healthy people, the test accurately identified the cancer in 82 per cent of cases. Picking up melanoma at this early stage is important so that patients can get treated before it spreads, says Ziman. The cure rate is up to 99 per cent when it’s detected early, compared to 15 to 20 per cent when it has spread, she says.
7-17-18 An ancient swimming revolution in the oceans may have never happened
Fossil analysis suggests the rise of creatures that could swim was gradual, not sudden. About 540 million years ago, the oceans were an alien landscape, devoid of swimming, or nektonic, creatures. Some scientists have hypothesized, based on fossil evidence, that swimmers suddenly dominated in the oceans during the Devonian Period, between 419 million and 359 million years ago. But an in-depth study of marine fossils now suggests that this so-called Devonian Nekton Revolution never actually took place. Christopher Whalen and Derek Briggs, both paleontologists at Yale University, examined nearly 2,000 different genera of marine fossils dating to the Paleozoic Era, a vast span of geologic time between 540 million and 252 million years ago. Based on the creatures’ shapes, or morphologies, the researchers assessed whether the animals swam, and if they stayed close to the seafloor or ventured higher up in the water column. The analysis showed no sudden burst of swimmers during the Devonian, the researchers contend July 18 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Instead, over time, “the water column was slowly filling with larger, more actively swimming animals,” Whalen says. “By the end of the Paleozoic, the oceans looked more like the oceans we know today.” The Paleozoic got started with a bang with a burst of biodiversity famously known as the Cambrian explosion that brought into the world most of its modern major phyla, from arthropods to tardigrades. Some 40 million years later, the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event added new branches to the tree of life, with cephalopods such as jellyfish and gastropods such as snails.
7-17-18 Prehistoric bake-off: Scientists discover oldest evidence of bread
Scientists have discovered the earliest known evidence of bread-making, from a 14,000-year-old dig site. The bake would have looked like a flatbread and tasted a bit like today's multi-grain varieties, they say. Our ancestors may have used the bread as a wrap for roasted meat. Thus, as well as being the oldest bread, it may also have been the oldest sandwich. The find, from the Black Desert in Jordan, pushes back the first evidence for bread by more than 5,000 years. The stone age bread-makers took flour made from wild wheat and barley, mix it with the pulverised roots of plants, added water, and then baked it. The product would have looked like a flatbread and tasted a bit like today's multi-grain bread, they say. "This is the earliest evidence we have for what we could really call a cuisine, in that it's a mixed food product," Prof Dorian Fuller of University College London told BBC News. "They've got flatbreads, and they've got roasted gazelle and so forth, and that's something they are then using to make a meal." Bread has long been part of our staple diet. But little is known about the origins of bread-making. Until now, the oldest evidence of bread came from Turkey; those finds are 9,000 years old. Scientists uncovered two buildings, each containing a large circular stone fireplace within which charred bread crumbs were found. Analysed under the microscope, the bread samples showed tell-tale signs of grinding, sieving and kneading.
7-16-18 Stone Age bakers made first bread thousands of years before farming
Evidence of the first early bread suggests humans were baking with wheat and oats thousands of years before they began farming the cereals. A trail of ancient bread crumbs has helped archaeologists put the origins of bread making in the Stone Age. The find provides the first direct evidence that humans were baking with wheat and oats thousands of years before they began farming the cereals. Bread has been an important staple food for millennia. Stale loaves of bread dating back 3500 years have turned up in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and there are domed ovens that might have been used for baking at a 9000-year-old early farming settlement called Catalhoyuk in Turkey. Go back earlier in time, though, and the evidence for bread dries up. This is why the discoveries at Shubayqa 1 are potentially so important, says Amaia Arranz-Otaegui at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The site lies in northeastern Jordan and it dates back 14,400 years – a time when Stone Age hunter-gatherers in the Near East were beginning to settle down in near-permanent settlements but a few millennia before farming took off in the region. At two ancient fireplaces within the site, Arranz-Otaegui and her colleagues found hundreds of pieces of charred food. Among them were 24 fragments, each about 6 millimetres across, with a bread-like porous structure. A closer look showed they contain the remains of cereals – wild barley, einkorn wheat and oats – and non-cereals including tubers.
7-16-18 CRISPR gene editing is not quite as precise and as safe as thought
A study has found that CRISPR can delete large chunks of DNA, suggesting it could cause cancer if used to treat diseases by editing many cells in the body. A study of CRIPSR suggests we shouldn’t rush into trying out CRISPR genome editing inside people’s bodies just yet. The technique can cause big deletions or rearrangements of DNA, says Allan Bradley of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, meaning some therapies based on CRISPR may not be quite as safe as we thought. The CRISPR genome editing technique is revolutionising biology, enabling us to create new varieties of plants and animals and develop treatments for a wide range of diseases. The CRISPR Cas9 protein works by cutting the DNA of a cell in a specific place. When the cell repairs the damage, a few DNA letters get changed at this spot – an effect that can be exploited to disable genes. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. But in studies of mice and human cells, Bradley’s team has found that in around a fifth of cells, CRISPR causes deletions or rearrangements more than 100 DNA letters long. These surprising changes are sometimes thousands of letters long. This finding is not a problem for the purposes for which CRISPR is currently being used. But some groups are developing treatments that would involve using CRISPR to edit billions of cells inside the human body. If Bradley is right, there’s a chance that a few of these cells might turn cancerous. “There’s a risk of causing cancer sometime in a patient’s lifetime,” says Bradley. “We need to understand more before rushing into human clinical trials.”
7-16-18 Wireless implant lights up inside the body to kill cancer
Researchers have developed a sticky sheet that could allow a wirelessly-powered LED chip to be stuck inside the body to deliver "photodynamic therapy". A new light-emitting device that can be implanted in the body could be used to treat cancer. Photodynamic therapy, which is already used to treat some cancers, involves the patient taking a drug that makes cells vulnerable to light. Doctors then shine a light on the tumour for around 10 to 45 minutes, using a flexible tube called an endoscope if the tumour is inside the body, One difficulty is that if the tumour is located in an organ that moves, such as the oesophagus or the lung, the illumination is irregular, which makes it hard to control the dose. If the dose is too small, the treatment won’t work, and if it’s too high, it can damage healthy tissue by overheating it. To overcome this problem, some researchers have tried to develop ways to deliver light at a lower intensity for a longer period of time by implanting optical fibres inside the body. But keeping the light source in the right place is challenging: surgical sutures can’t be used on fragile organs such as the brain and liver, or organs that move like the skin and intestines. Now Toshinori Fujie at Waseda University, Japan, and colleagues have developed a device that is sandwiched between two thin, sticky sheets that attach it to the body. These sheets are covered in a sticky polymer based on proteins found in mussels’ feet. The device consists of an LED chip powered wirelessly by NFC – the technology used in contactless payment terminals – so there is no need for batteries to be implanted in the body.
7-16-18 Publicity over a memory test Trump took could skew its results
Familiarity with the exam may help people score better, masking early dementia symptoms. When President Donald Trump took a mental test as part of his physical in January, the results called attention to far more than his fitness for office. (He passed with a perfect score, according to his physician.) It put a test commonly used to catch early signs of dementia in the spotlight. That publicity could lead to missed diagnoses, researchers warn July 16 in JAMA Neurology. Google searches of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a 10-minute screening test consisting of 30 questions, spiked in the week after news coverage of Trump’s physical. Of 190 news articles about his performance identified by the researchers, 53.7 percent included some or all of the test’s questions and answers. And 17 percent encouraged readers to see how their mental abilities stacked up against the president’s. That might make it more difficult for clinicians to screen patients for early signs of dementia. Taking the test once increases your score the next time you take it, a phenomenon called a learning effect. The study didn’t track how many readers took the memory test. But for those who did, researchers say, the learning effect could artificially inflate some patients’ scores and make it harder for doctors to pick up on the memory symptoms linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Most of the news articles quoted questions from one specific version of the test, so the researchers suggest that doctors should administer alternate versions to prevent skewed results.
7-15-18 The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep
If sleep deprivation puts garbage removal on the fritz, the memory-robbing disease may develop. Neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin studies the brain as Alzheimer’s disease develops. When she goes home, she tries to leave her work in the lab. But one recent research project has crossed into her personal life: She now takes sleep much more seriously. Bendlin works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, home to the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up. Members of the registry did not have symptoms of dementia when they volunteered, but more than 70 percent had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. Since 2001, participants have been tested regularly for memory loss and other signs of the disease, such as the presence of amyloid-beta, a protein fragment that can clump into sticky plaques in the brain. Those plaques are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Each person also fills out lengthy questionnaires about their lives in the hopes that one day the information will offer clues to the disease. Among the inquiries: How tired are you? Some answers to the sleep questions have been eye-opening. Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging, the researchers reported in 2015 in Neurobiology of Aging.
7-13-18 Pregnancy depression is on the rise, a survey suggests
Expectant women may be more anxious or depressed than their mothers were. Today’s young women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety during pregnancy than their mothers were, a generation-spanning survey finds. From 1990 to 1992, about 17 percent of young pregnant women in southwest England who participated in the study had signs of depressed mood. But the generation that followed, including these women’s daughters and sons’ partners, fared worse. Twenty-five percent of these young women, pregnant in 2012 to 2016, showed signs of depression, researchers report July 13 in JAMA Network Open. “We are talking about a lot of women,” says study coauthor Rebecca Pearson, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Bristol University in England. Earlier studies also had suggested that depression during and after pregnancy is relatively common (SN: 3/17/18, p. 16). But those studies are dated, Pearson says. “We know very little about the levels of depression and anxiety in new mums today,” she says. To measure symptoms of depression and anxiety, researchers used the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale — 10 questions, each with a score of 0 to 3, written to reveal risk of depression during and after pregnancy. A combined score of 13 and above signals high levels of symptoms. From 1990 to 1992, 2,390 women between the ages of 19 and 24 took the survey while pregnant. Of these women, 408 — or 17 percent — scored 13 or higher, indicating worrisome levels of depression or anxiety. When researchers surveyed the second-generation women, including both daughters of the original participants and sons’ partners ages 19 to 24, the numbers were higher. Of 180 women pregnant in 2012 to 2016, 45 of them — or 25 percent — scored 13 or more. It’s not clear whether the findings would be similar for pregnant women who are older than 24 or younger than 19.
7-13-18 Artificial skin grown from spider silk could help heal wounds
Wounds and burns could one day be treated by the material spiders use to make their webs. Bandages made from spider silk could potentially heal wounds, or even replace damanged skin all together. Around 6.5 million people suffer from chronic wounds due to diabetic ulcers and pressure sores in the US alone, with annual treatment costs of $25 billion. So the hunt is on for new, low cost ways to treat these conditions, as well as new materials for skin grafts to replace tissue lost to burns or lacerations. The challenge is to create dressings that act as a scaffold to promote skin renewal, but without provoking an immune response or bacterial infections. And surprising as it might seem, spider silk is a good option. “Spider silk has an elasticity which matches that of skin,” says My Hedhammar of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. “Silk is made from protein, which is also the main component around the cells in skin. The silk kind of replaces the collagen found in skin.” Hedhammar’s team used spider silk protein produced by genetically engineered E. Coli bacteria. A key advantage of this production method is that chemicals found in the body which promote cell growth, such as binding agents and growth factors, can be genetically engineered onto to the silk protein, as well as antimicrobial proteins that are naturally found in skin. However, this modified spider silk is relatively costly, so the researchers put a thin layer on another type of silk, derived from the cocoons of silkworms. They used this combined material to make a mat for dressing wounds, and also made it into a porous sponge for use as artificial skin.
7-13-18 Scared of heights? This new VR therapy could help
Participants became less fearful after an avatar coached them through edge-of-ledge moments. Future therapy patients may spend a lot more time exploring virtual environments than sitting on sofas. In a clinical trial of a new virtual reality treatment for fear of heights, participants reported being much less afraid after using the program for just two weeks. Unlike other VR therapies, which required that a real-life therapist guide patients through treatment, the new system uses an animated avatar to coach patients through ascending a virtual high-rise. This kind of fully automated counseling system, described online July 11 in the Lancet Psychiatry, may make psychological treatments for phobias and other disorders far more accessible. This is “a huge step forward” for therapeutic VR, says Jennifer Hames, a clinical psychologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who wasn’t involved in the work. By bringing expert therapy out of the counselor’s office and into primary care clinics — or even people’s homes — the new system could help those who aren’t comfortable or don’t have the means to speak with a therapist face-to-face, she says. Users immerse themselves in this virtual reality program using a VR headset, handheld controllers and headphones. An animated counselor guides the user through a virtual 10-story office complex, where upper floors overlook a ground-level atrium. On every floor, the user performs tasks designed to test their fear responses and help them learn that they’re safer than they might think. The tasks start out relatively easy — like standing close to a drop-off where a safety barrier gradually lowers — and progress to more difficult challenges — like riding a moving platform out into the open space over the atrium.
7-13-18 Americans shirking exercise
A new government study has found that about 80 percent of Americans aren’t getting nearly enough exercise, potentially setting themselves up for health worries later in life, reports USA Today. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people ages 18 to 64 get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week—walking at a brisk pace, for example—or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running or swimming. Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities, such as weightlifting or push-ups, at least twice a week. But only 23 percent of adults are meeting those guidelines. Researchers found that a person’s sex, home state, and finances affected how much exercise they got. Nationally, some 19 percent of women and 27 percent of men hit the target. Residents of Mississippi were the least likely to work out, with about 14 percent meeting the guidelines, and Coloradans the most, at 33 percent. People in professional and management occupations were also more likely than factory workers to meet exercise recommendations. Where Americans live and work, the study notes, “can have very real consequences for their morbidity, disability, and mortality.”
7-13-18 No limit to longevity?
If there is an upper limit to the human life span, we might not have reached it yet. The average life expectancy around the world has more than doubled since 1900, thanks to improvements in sanitation, health care, and food supply. Still, past studies have suggested that because of biological limits, only a handful of genetic outliers will live beyond 115 years old, such as the oldest verified person ever, Jeanne Calment, who died at age 122, in 1997. But a new study of nearly 4,000 Italian centenarians indicates that human longevity may be slowly increasing. According to established demographic data, after age 65, the probability of death doubles each year. The mortality rate begins to decelerate at age 80 and, the researchers found, seems to plateau at age 105. At that point, the chances of dying in a given year are roughly 50-50. Study authors say this plateauing might be because of biological factors: For instance, cell division slows after age 100, making centenarians less likely to develop cancer. That means that as more people make it to 105, more will likely make it to 115 and beyond. If mortality “stays constant,” co-author Jim Vaupel tells TheGuardian.com, the old-age “record will be broken.”
7-13-18 US salmonella outbreak: 'Do not eat Honey Smacks,' shoppers told
US health officials have issued a blunt warning for people to avoid Honey Smacks, a popular breakfast cereal linked to a salmonella outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged consumers: "Do not eat this cereal." More than a million packets of the product were recalled by the manufacturer Kellogg's in June after 100 people were infected in 33 states. The cereal is the likely source of the salmonella outbreak, the CDC said. Salmonella infections can cause illness, or death in rare cases. No deaths have been reported in the latest outbreak. The warning not to eat Honey Smacks came in a post on social media by the CDC: "Even if some of the cereal has been eaten and no one got sick, throw the rest of it away or return it for a refund," the CDC said in a statement on its website. "Do not eat any Kellogg's Honey Smacks cereal, regardless of package size or best-by date," it said. The statement said salmonella strains had been found in both unopened and leftover samples of Honey Smacks at several locations.
7-13-18 Dopamine levels in our brains affect the risks we’re happy to take
The first brain-scanning study to track activity in the brain's decision-making centres during gambling shows fluctuations in dopamine levels affect risk-taking. Do you like a flutter? The levels of dopamine in your brain might be affecting how likely you are to gamble or take risks. Dopamine is a signalling molecule released by nerve cells known to be involved in predicting reward. While its role is often misunderstood – it has been blamed for everything from drug addiction to Facebook’s popularity – the compound plays an important role in the brain. Last year’s €1 million Brain Prize was given to three scientists who helped discover what it does. Now, for the first time, scientists have now been able to see how risk-taking is affected by the activity of dopamine-using nerve cells in the part of the brain that is involved in decision-making. People who had lower background levels of activity were slightly more likely to take a risky decision in a gambling task in the lab. Because the effect was small, this could only sometimes influence our decisions in real life, says Benjamin Chew of University College London, who did the work. He estimates that when facing the same choice we would make the same decision roughly eight times out of ten – but the other times it would be affected by dopamine fluctuations. To find out more, Chew’s team got 43 people to lie in a brain scanner while playing a gambling task, shown on a screen inside. In one version, for instance, they had to choose between definitely getting £2.70 or taking a 50-50 chance of a £6 pay-out, which over several rounds should result in less money.
7-13-18 Iceman's last meal was high-fat, high-calorie feast
Goat's fat and wild venison, plus sides of ancient wheat and bracken. It's not a menu likely to appear on Masterchef, but for some of our ancestors it was a nutritious feast. Scientists have revealed that the last supper of Oetzi the Iceman was well-balanced but also alarmingly high in fat. The man lived 5,300 years ago and met his death on a frozen glacier. His body was preserved in the ice for millennia until it was discovered in 1991. Scientists have been able to find out about many aspects of his life, including what he ate before he died. They say he filled his stomach with fat from wild goat, meat from red deer, an ancient grain known as einkorn and toxic fern. The fat content was 50%, which is much higher than the 10% in the average modern diet. "If you consider the altitude where the Iceman was hunting, you need this kind of energy supply," said Dr Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy. "And the best way to do this is by eating fat; this gives you the necessary energy to survive in this harsh environment."
7-12-18 Otzi loaded up on fatty food before he died
New analysis fills in details of the famous Iceman mummy’s last meal. Around 5,300 years ago, the Iceman dined on wild meat and grains before meeting his end in the Italian Alps. His last meal was high in fat and optimal for a high-altitude trek, researchers report July 12 in Current Biology. Since his mummified remains were discovered in 1991, Ötzi’s life has undergone more scrutiny than many reality TV stars. His cause of death, his fashion, his tattoos, his ax, his cholesterol and his genetic instruction book, or genome, have all made headlines (SN 3/24/12, p.5). And in 2002, DNA analysis of samples from the Iceman’s lower intestine suggested that Ötzi ate red deer, goat and grains before he died. In 2011, radiological scans revealed that the mummy’s stomach contents were still intact (SN 9/24/11, p. 8). Now researchers are back with a more in-depth look inside the mummy’s gastrointestinal tract. Based on ancient DNA, proteins and other molecular data, the new analysis confirms the Iceman’s final menu: mountain goat (Capra ibex), red deer (Cervus elaphus), einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) and other domesticated grains. Traces of a toxic fern (Pteridium aquilinum) also turned up — possibly a home remedy for an upset stomach, but more likely either as part of the meal or as a wrapping for the food.
7-12-18 The right mix of gut microbes relieves autism symptoms in the long run
Impact on behavior lasts two years after getting fecal transplants. Giving children with autism a healthier mix of gut bacteria as a way to improve behavioral symptoms continued to work even two years after treatment ended. The finding may solidify the connection between tummy troubles and autism, and provide more evidence that the gut microbiome — the collection of bacteria and other microbes that live in the intestines — can influence behavior. “It’s a long way from saying there’s a cure for autism,” says Michael Hylin, a neuroscientist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale who was not involved in the work. “But I think it’s a promising approach. It’s one that’s worthwhile.” Children with autism spectrum disorders often have gastrointestinal problems. In previous studies, environmental engineer Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown of Arizona State University in Tempe and colleagues discovered that children with autism had fewer types of bacteria living in their guts than typically developing children did. And many of the kids were missing Prevotella bacteria, which may help regulate immune system actions. The researchers wondered whether altering the children’s cocktail of gut microbes to get a more diverse and healthier mix might help fix both the digestive issues and the behavioral symptoms associated with autism.
7-12-18 How worried should you be about a new ‘superbug’ STI?
You’ve probably never heard of Mycoplasma genitalium, even though it’s one of the most prevalent. Here’s what you need to know . An emerging sexually transmitted infection that you’ve probably never heard of “could become the next superbug”, according to recent headlines. What exactly is Mycoplasma genitalium, and how worried should we be? M. genitalium is small bacteria that was first identified in 1981, and at that time it was unclear if it was a STI. Its true nature was only definitively confirmed in 2015 by a large UK survey of people aged 16-45 which found the infection was more common in those who had had more partners or unprotected sex. One reason it took so long to get the full picture of this infection is that it is very hard to detect. Commercial tests are only beginning to come on the market, so doctors haven’t been able to routinely screen for it. We now know that around 1 per cent of adults in the general population are infected with it, but the prevalence among people attending STI clinics can as high as to 38 per cent. It is actually one of the most common sexually transmitted bacterial infections in the UK and US, surpassed only by chlamydia. The majority of cases are symptomless and don’t seem to cause any harm, so the infection easily sails under the radar. But for some, the symptoms are similar to the STI chlamydia. Men might experience irritation in their penis or discharge, and painful urination. For women, the symptoms can include abdominal pain, pre-term birth and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
7-11-18 High blood pressure in older people linked to Alzheimer’s disease
For the first time, high blood pressure later in life has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, a finding that might help us better understand the condition. A study of more than 1200 people around the age of 80 has suggested that high blood pressure in later life is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers tracked volunteers’ blood pressure for an average of eight years before their death, before performing autopsies to look for signs of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain. These included plaques of sticky amyloid protein between brain cells, and tangles of tau proteins inside them. The scientists observed that participants with a higher average systolic blood pressure – the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats – during these years had a larger number of tangles, but not plaques, in the brain. There is a longstanding debate about the relationship between blood pressure and Alzheimer’s disease – high blood pressure in middle age is thought to be one of many possible risk factors for the condition, but the evidence is not clear-cut. The team behind the new study say that theirs is the first to show a link between Alzheimer’s and blood pressure in older people. But researchers do not know yet how one might affect the other. One theory is that blood pressure changes could lead to impaired delivery of nutrients and clearance of toxic waste products from the brain, says Daniel Nation at the University of Southern California. “Another possibility is that these changes in arterial pulsation and perfusion may cause a mechanical injury to the blood–brain barrier, causing toxic blood products to enter the brain and exacerbate neurodegeneration,” says Nation.
7-11-18 How our bodies are rapidly colonised by bacteria when we’re born
We’ve had the best look yet at the microbes that make themselves at home in our bodies in the months following birth, including many mystery species. We’ve had the best look yet at the microbes that make themselves at home in our bodies in the months following birth. Many of these organisms are mystery species, and the study suggests that being born by C-section may have less of a long-lasting effect on the microbiome than previously thought. Our microbiome – the microbes that live in our gut and elsewhere on our body – plays a crucial role in our health. However, we don’t really know how the body’s microbial community becomes established once we’re born. To find out, Nicola Segata of the University of Trento, Italy, and colleagues recruited 25 mothers and their babies. They sampled bacteria from each mother’s gut, via faecal samples, as well as from their mouth, vagina, breast milk and skin. Genetic analysis enabled them to compare these bacteria with those present in the babies’ mouth and faeces during their first four months of life. The researchers found a very high diversity of microbes in the infant gut within 24 hours of birth. This diversity plummeted over the following week, then gradually recovered over the next four months. This suggests many different microbes initially move into the body, but only a few of these become established. At first, babies contain bacteria from many different sites from across their mother’s body, but microbes from their mother’s skin and vagina disappear soon after. “This doesn’t mean they’re not important. The organisms that are there in the first place are probably help shape the baby’s immune systems,” says Segata.
7-11-18 Cancer cells engineered with CRISPR slay their own kin
The technique reduced the size of tumors, a study in mice finds. Using gene editing, scientists have hoodwinked tumor cells into turning against their own kind. Cancer cells circulating in the bloodstream have something of a homing instinct, able to find and return to the tumor where they originated. To capitalize on that ability, researchers engineered these roving tumor cells to secrete a protein that triggers a death switch in resident tumor cells they encounter. The cancer-fighting cancer cells also have a built-in suicide switch — so the weaponized cells self-destruct before they can start tumors of their own, the team reports in the July 11 Science Translational Medicine. The new study isn’t the first attempt to fight cancer with cancer. Previous research has used circulating tumor cells to deliver cancer-killing viruses to noncirculating tumor cells, for example. But the new approach uses a gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to manipulate the offensive-line cancer cells and give them more sophisticated properties, such as the ability to self-destruct once no longer needed. “The new twist here is the use of CRISPR-based technology to add resistance or sensitivity features to the parental cells,” says Renata Pasqualini, a cancer biologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in Newark.
7-11-18 Autism can bring extra abilities and now we’re finding out why
Many strengths and difficulties associated with autism stem from the same thing, says Anna Remington, who researches questions autistic people are asking. WE HAVE been looking at autism all wrong, says Anna Remington. Our understanding of the condition has been skewed by an overly medical focus that classes any differences as impairments, she says, when in fact they could just represent diversity. Remington is head of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London, which tries to involve autistic people at every level in directing research and interpreting the results. “We ask autistic people ‘what should we be researching?'” she says. “Maybe surprisingly, it’s not the genetic research, it’s more about practical solutions like how do we improve employment rates?” Her own work focuses on autistic strengths, and her team is starting to uncover what underpins some of these abilities with a view to increasing employment opportunities for autistic people.
- What is autism?
- What kinds of abilities do autistic people have?
- Do we know what’s behind any of these abilities?
- What determines whether this extra capacity is a help or a hindrance?
- So we can’t choose how much of our capacity to use?
- Is there growing recognition of autistic advantages?
- Could the focus on advantages jeopardise support for autistic people who are not so able?
- We often think of autism as a spectrum, so sometimes people say, oh, so-and-so is a little bit autistic. Is there any truth in that?
7-11-18 Yoga and meditation work better if you have a brain zap too
Brain stimulation seems to offer a shortcut to unlocking the benefits of yoga and mindfulness sessions, but turbocharging meditation could have a dark side. FIRST came yoga, then hot yoga, beer yoga, even goat yoga. Now we have e-yoga, the combination of brain stimulation with meditation, mindfulness and downward dog. Paradoxical though it may seem to add modern technology to a spiritual practice, there are hints that passing a small electrical current through your brain enhances the hard-won effects of yoga and meditation, leading to greater feelings of well-being, more quickly. The first results of trials of the technology will be available next month, but that isn’t quick enough for some. Behind closed doors, the world’s first e-meditation classes have already started. The US defence agency is even investigating the concept as a way to enhance soldiers’ abilities. But don’t unroll your mat just yet: fast-tracking your zen could have a dark side. The yoga and meditation industry is booming, with more than 30 million people practising in the US alone and the global market worth £74 billion. It is no wonder: while practitioners have spoken about the transformative potential of meditation for centuries, science has only recently caught up. Mindfulness meditation – paying more attention to the present moment, to your thoughts, feelings and the world around you – can protect against depression, accelerate learning and alleviate pain and anxiety. It may even slow the ageing process. Yoga has also been found to offer numerous health benefits, such as helping with depression, anxiety and emotional eating. Both can switch off genes implicated in inflammation, which is linked to a number of diseases.
7-11-18 Ear implant lets deaf gerbils sense sound from light signals
A pioneering treatment has allowed deaf gerbils to perceive light as sound, raising hope for sophisticated optogenetic implants to relieve hearing loss. A special cochlear implant has used to light to enable deaf gerbils to sense sound. The results suggest that optical stimulation could one day be used to treat hearing loss in people. The method uses a technique called optogenetics, which involves manipulating nerve cells so they can be activated by light. The team used a virus to insert a gene for a protein that detects light into the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ in the inner ear that converts sound into electrical signals. They then implanted an optical fibre into the cochlea to deliver light signals. To test whether the animals could perceive these light signals as sound, the researchers trained gerbils with intact hearing before the treatment using a behavioural test called the shuttle box. The gerbils were placed in a box with two halves separated by a hurdle. When a sound was played, the animal had six seconds to jump over the hurdle to the opposite side. If they stayed on the same side, they got a gentle electric shock through the floor. Gerbils quickly learned to avoid this by jumping over the hurdle when they heard the sound. After having the treatment, the trained gerbils responded to light signals in the cochlea in the same way, suggesting they perceived the signal as a sound. “This tells you there is at least some resemblance of the percept that’s generated,” says team member Marcus Jeschke of University Medical Center Göttingen, Germany.
7-11-18 Texas toolmakers add to the debate over who the first Americans were
Unearthed spearpoints and other stone tools go back at least 16,000 years. People inhabited what’s now central Texas several thousand years before hunters from North America’s ancient Clovis culture showed up, researchers say. Excavations at the Gault site, about 64 kilometers north of Austin, produced a range of stone artifacts that date to between around 16,700 and 21,700 years ago, reports a team led by archaeologist Thomas Williams of Texas State University in San Marcos. An analysis of 184 of those finds identified 11 spearpoints unlike any others that have been found at ancient American sites, the scientists conclude July 11 in Science Advances. Researchers have long argued about whether people reached North America before the rise of Clovis culture 13,000 years ago. Evidence from the Gault site joins other recent reports of humans venturing deep into North America far earlier (SN: 6/11/16, p. 8), which would take Clovis people out of the running for the title of first New World settlers. Williams’ group estimated the age of the Gault pre-Clovis discoveries with a method that calculates the time since artifact-containing sediment has been exposed to sunlight.
7-11-18 Stone tools put early hominids in China 2.1 million years ago
The discovery suggests hominids left Africa 250,000 years earlier than thought. Members of the human genus, Homo, left Africa far earlier than thought, reaching what’s now central China by around 2.12 million years ago, a new study finds. Some stone tools unearthed at China’s Shangchen site date to roughly 250,000 years before what was previously the oldest Eurasian evidence of Homo, say geologist Zhaoyu Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou and his colleagues. Toolmakers visited the Chinese spot on and off until as late as 1.26 million years ago, the scientists report online July 12 in Nature. No hominid fossils have been found at Shangchen. Until now, the Dmanisi site, in the western Asia nation of Georgia, had yielded the oldest hominid remains outside Africa. Homo erectus fossils unearthed at Dmanisi date to between 1.85 million and 1.77 million years ago (SN: 11/16/13, p. 6). “An early form of Homo probably made the Shangchen artifacts, but it’s too early to say if that was H. erectus,” says coauthor Robin Dennell, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in England.
7-11-18 Earliest evidence of humans outside Africa
Scientists say they've found the earliest known evidence of a human presence outside Africa. Stone tools discovered in China suggest primitive humans - or a close relative - were in the region as early as 2.12 million years ago. They are about 270,000 years older than the previous earliest evidence, which consists of bones and tools from Dmanisi in Georgia. The research, by a Chinese-British team, appears in the journal Nature. The stone artefacts were discovered at Shangchen on a plateau in northern China. They comprise different types of stone tools constructed for a variety of purposes. All show signs of having been used. Most were made of quartzite and quartz rock that probably came from the foothills of the Qinling Mountains, five to 10 km to the south of the dig site. But we don't know for sure which species of human relative made them. Humans left Africa at many times during their history. Living people outside Africa, for example, trace their origins to an exodus that occurred 60,000 years ago. But there had been no evidence of occupation by human relatives in Eurasia until the Dmanisi evidence at 1.8 million years ago. Writing in Nature, palaeoanthropologist John Kappelman, who was not involved with the new study, commented: "The roughly 14,000-kilometre trek from eastern Africa to eastern Asia represents a range expansion of dramatic proportions." Africa has traditionally been seen as the engine of human evolution - where key species arose before spreading out through the rest of the world. However, some scientists have proposed a more important role in this story for Asia. With these new finds, some researchers will wonder how much further back the human story goes in Asia.
7-11-18 Emerging sex disease MG 'could become next superbug'
A little known sexually transmitted infection could become the next superbug unless people become more vigilant, experts are warning. Mycoplasma genitalium (MG) often has no symptoms but can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave some women infertile. MG can be missed - and if it is not treated correctly, it can develop resistance to antibiotics. The British Association of Sexual Health and HIV is launching new advice. Its draft guidelines detail how best to spot and treat MG. Mycoplasma genitalium is a bacterium that can cause inflammation of the urethra in men, causing discharge from the penis and making it painful to urinate. In women, it can cause inflammation of the reproductive organs (womb and fallopian tubes) too, causing pain and possibly a fever and some bleeding. You can get it by having unprotected sex with someone who has it. Condoms can prevent this spread. It was first identified in the UK in the 1980s and is thought to affect 1-2% of the general population. MG does not always cause symptoms and will not always need treatment, but it can be missed or mistaken for a different sexually transmitted infection, such as Chlamydia. The BASHH says this is concerning. Tests for MG have recently been developed but are not available in all clinics yet although doctors can send samples to Public Health England's laboratory to get a diagnostic result. It can be treated with antibiotics - but the infection is developing resistance to some of these drugs.
7-10-18 Long-necked dinosaurs grew to be giants in more ways than one
Fossils suggest some early sauropod relatives grew massive using a previously unknown method. For sauropods — the largest animals known to have walked on Earth — there may have been more than one way to get gigantic. Most early relatives of the herbivorous dinosaurs have a suite of features once thought to be the essential blueprint for gigantism, such as sturdy pillarlike legs, elongated necks and forelimbs, and bones that grew continuously rather than in seasonal spurts. But an analysis of fossils of sauropodomorphs — a group that includes sauropods and some ancestors and similarly shaped relatives — suggests that some of the dinos may have had a different strategy for becoming behemoths, researchers report online July 9 in Nature Ecology and Evolution. Paleontologist Cecilia Apaldetti of the Universidad Nacional de San Juan in Argentina and colleagues examined four sauropodomorphs, including one newly identified species that the team dubbed Ingentia prima and three already known specimens of a sauropodomorph called Lessemsaurus sauropoides. Dating to the Late Triassic, between 237 million and 201 million years ago, these “Lessemsauridae” were far from puny: The animals weighed in at an estimated 7 to 10 metric tons, larger than an African elephant. All four specimens showed a combination of features that was distinct from sauropods as well as from other sauropodomorphs. Instead of upright, pillarlike legs, the dinos had crouched hind limbs and flexed front limbs, with elbows splayed slightly outward. Patterns of bone growth in the fossils also suggest that the animals grew in cyclical spurts rather than continuously. However, their bone growth was extremely rapid, a feature unique to this group, Apaldetti says. “They grew in a cyclical but extremely accelerated growth, at a speed even higher than that of the giants that grew continuously.”
7-10-18 Fossil of 'first giant' dinosaur discovered in Argentina
They are the biggest animals to have walked the Earth, with some weighing as much as a space shuttle. However, it is unclear how dinosaurs grew to such massive proportions. A new dinosaur discovery from Argentina gives fresh evidence on the rise of the giants. The animal used a novel strategy to become super-sized, involving very fast growth spurts and efficient bird-like lungs, say palaeontologists. The fossil was found in the northwest of Argentina during a field trip. The scientists found four skeletons in all, one of a new species and three of related dinosaurs. "We could see that it was a new species that we named Ingentia prima," said Dr Cecilia Apaldetti of Universidad Nacional de San Juan in Argentina. "That in Latin means the 'first giant'." The dinosaur dates back to the Triassic, about 30 million years before the iconic long-necked plant-eaters Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus appeared on the scene. It wasn't as large, weighing about 10 tonnes. But its discovery is a surprise, coming so early in dinosaur evolution. The new dinosaur species Ingentia prima and similar species are grouped together as "lessemsaurids". Dinosaur fans need to learn a new name, the lessemsaurids, because these were the first dinosaurs to grow to giant sizes of around 10 tonnes, back in the Triassic Period some 215 million years ago. The remarkable discovery of four lessemsaurid skeletons forces us to rethink when, and how, dinosaurs got so huge. We used to think that the first giant dinosaurs arose in the early part of the Jurassic Period, after supervolcanoes caused a global extinction at the end of the Triassic. But the lessemsaurids tell us that at least some dinosaurs were able to attain giant sizes during the latest part of the Triassic, before the extinction. What is really unexpected is that the lessemsaurids achieved their huge bodies independently of the gigantic sauropods like Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, which did indeed evolve later during the Jurassic. The development of huge size wasn't just a one-off event for the sauropods, but rather different types of dinosaurs were able to become colossal, which speaks to just how incredible these animals were.
7-9-18 Quantum dots in brain could treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases
Tiny particles seem to stop misfolded proteins from forming toxic clumps in the brains of mice, improving their performance on physical tests. Tiny particles called quantum dots reduce symptoms in mice primed to develop a type of Parkinson’s disease, and also block formation of the toxic protein clumps in Alzheimer’s. They could one day be a novel treatment for these brain disorders, although tests in people are some years away. Quantum dots are just a few nanometres in size – so small they become subject to some of the strange effects of quantum physics. They have useful electronic and fluorescent properties and are found in some TV screens and LED lights. Unlike most medicines, their tiny size means they can pass from bloodstream into the brain. Byung Hee Hong of Seoul National University in the South Korea and his colleagues wondered if they would affect the molecules involved in Parkinson’s or other brain disorders. Parkinson’s disease involves gradually worsening tremors and movement problems. It is thought to be caused by a protein called synuclein found in nerve cells folding into the wrong shape, which triggers a chain reaction of misfolding in nearby synuclein molecules. This leads to a build-up of long strands or “fibrils” of the protein, killing neurons. Hong’s team found that in a dish, quantum dots made from graphene – a form of carbon – bind to synuclein, and not only stop it from clumping into fibres, but also cause existing fibres to break up into individual molecules. “We didn’t expect the quantum dots to induce disaggregation of fibrils,” says Hong.
7-9-18 Apple peel drug makes mice live longer by targeting a cause of ageing
We’re beginning to understand the causes of ageing and how to reverse it – thanks to an extract from apple peel that helps improves strength in elderly mice. We’re beginning to understand the causes of ageing and how to reverse it – thanks to an extract from apple peel. A team has found that a combination of dasatinib – a leukaemia drug – and quercetin – an extract from apple peel – can make elderly mice live 36 per cent longer. These drugs were chosen for their ability to selectively kill so-called senescent cells. These abnormal cells are in the process of breaking down, but they resist dying. They usually start appearing in the human body in our 60s, although they can arise much earlier in people who are obese or experience a chronic disease. Some have suggested that these cells themselves catalyse the ageing process, kicking it into action. Now James Kirkland of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and his colleagues have shown that this does seem to be the case. When they injected small numbers of senescent cells into young, 6-month-old mice, the animals’ speed, endurance and strength fell by 20 to 50 per cent within a few weeks, sinking to the level of a typical elderly, 2-year-old mouse. “We wouldn’t believe it for a long time, so we did it again and again and again,” says Kirkland. “It was weird to get this result with so few cells.” To block the effect of senescent cells, the team looked for drugs that might destroy them – known as “senolytic” drugs. They selected a combination of dasatinib and quercetin because both interfere with the way that senescent cells avoid death.
7-9-18 Vaginal microbes in mice transfer stress to their pups
Transmitted signals alter the way offspring develop. Mouse mothers can transmit stress signals to offspring, changing the way the pups’ bodies and brains develop. Some of these stress messages get delivered during birth, scientists suggest July 9 in Nature Neuroscience. Researchers suspected that vaginal microbes from stressed-out moms could affect male pups in ways that leave them vulnerable to stress later in life (SN: 12/14/2013, p. 13). But earlier studies hadn’t demonstrated whether those microbes, picked up during birth, actually caused some of the changes seen in offspring, or if other aspects of life in utero were to blame. Tracy Bale of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and colleagues subjected pregnant mice to stressful trials that included smelling the scent of a fox for an hour, listening to unusual sounds overnight and being restrained in a tube for 15 minutes. Other pregnant mice didn’t experience these stressors. Then, researchers delivered pups by cesarean section, so that the pups weren’t exposed to their mothers’ community of vaginal microorganisms, or microbiome. After delivery, researchers dosed the pups with vaginal fluid taken from stressed or unstressed mothers. For male pups not exposed to stress in the womb, vaginal microbes from a stressed mother changed the amount of certain kinds of gut bacteria. (Just as in earlier studies, female pups didn’t show effects of their mothers’ stress.) When those male pups were older, being restrained led them to release more of the stress hormone corticosteroid than mice dosed with microbiota from unstressed moms. And in the brains of adult mice that had experienced chronic stress, genes involved in metabolism and the development of nerve cells behaved differently depending on whether early microbes came from stressed or unstressed mothers.
7-9-18 New dinosaur fossil explains how Diplodocus evolved to be so massive
A new fossil uncovered in Argentina shows a dinosaur adapting to life as a giant, rewriting our understanding of how giant sauropods like Diplodocus evolved. Diplodocus is the largest creature to have walked, but not much is known about how it evolved such proportions. A new fossil challenges current ideas about the path to giant dinosaurs. Cecilia Apaldetti and her colleagues at the National University of San Juan, Argentina, discovered a previously unknown dinosaur in north-west Argentina within a formation that dates to the late Triassic, around 220 million years ago. The researchers have christened it Ingentia prima, and placed it in a group of early sauropodomorphs called the lessemsaurids. The lessemsaurids are distant relatives of giant sauropods like Diplodocus, and developed into giants around 50 million years before Dipolodocus. Although nowhere near as big as the 50-tonne Dipolodocus, Ingentia, short-necked and walking on two legs, still weighed up to 10 tonnes. “Until now we thought that to acquire gigantic size, it was necessary to acquire adaptations in the structure of the skeleton to support this weight,” says Apaldetti’s colleague Ricardo Martínez. However, Ingentia lacks many of these – for example, it doesn’t have the stout, columnar legs of Diplodocus and modern-day giants like elephants. Also, while giant sauropods grew continuously, tree-ring like patterns in the bone show lessensaurids had growth spurts. Ingentia also developed bird-like air sacs that allowed it to breathe continuously – an important feature giant dinosaurs needed to get rid of their immense body heat.
7-6-18 Wearing a tie may be restricting blood flow to your brain
Tightly-worn ties have been found to impair the brain’s blood supply, prompting one scientist to suggest that it’s time to abandon them altogether. Time to say bye to your tie? The businesswear staple reduces blood flow to the brain by squashing veins in the neck, research suggests. Robin Lüddecke at University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein in Germany and his colleagues scanned the brains of 15 healthy young men before and after they put on a tie. Each participant was instructed to make a Windsor knot and tighten it to the point of slight discomfort. Just after the men tightened the ties, the blood flow in their brains dropped by an average of 7.5 per cent. In contrast, no changes in blood flow were observed when the experiment was repeated with 15 men who did not put on a tie. Wearing a tie compresses veins in the neck, pushing blood into the skull and creating pressure build-up, says Lüddecke. This extra pressure most likely crushes the brain’s blood vessels and reduces blood flow, he says. In healthy people, a 7.5 per cent drop in blood flow in the brain is unlikely to lead to noticeable symptoms, says Steve Kassem at Neuroscience Research Australia in Sydney. However, it could potentially create problems for smokers, older people or those with high blood pressure, who may already have sluggish blood flow due to blocked or damaged vessels in their brains, he says. In this high-risk group, an extra drop in blood flow due to tie-wearing might cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, Kassem suggests. Studies have found that long-term blood restriction to the brain is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, although it’s unlikely that tie-wearing would have this severe an effect, he says.
7-6-18 No matter their size, newborn stomachs need frequent filling
Stomach size is just one of several factors that drive a newborn to feed. I’m making my way through my third round of breastfeeding a newborn and taking stock of how things are going. Some aspects are definitely easier: My milk came in really quickly (a perk of being a repeat lactator), the fancy breastfeeding baby holds are no longer mysterious to me and I already own all of the weird pillows I need to prop up my tiny baby. But one thing isn’t easier this time around: the bone-crushing, mind-numbing exhaustion. Just like my other two, this sweet baby seems to eat all the time. All day. All night. Sometimes multiple times an hour, especially in the witching hours of the evening. This frequency got me curious about the biology of newborns’ stomachs. Just how small are they? Are they so microscopic that one can hold only enough sustenance to keep my newborn satisfied for a thousandth of a second? Birth educators and medical professionals often use a marble to illustrate the size of a newborn’s stomach, a tiny orb that holds about 5 to 7 milliliters of liquid. But that small estimate has come into question. A 2008 review published in the Journal of Human Lactation points out that there aren’t many solid studies on the size of the infant stomach, and some of the ones that do exist come to different conclusions. Another review of existing studies concluded that the average newborn stomach is slightly smaller than a Ping-Pong ball and can hold about 20 milliliters, or about two-thirds of an ounce.
7-5-18 Tiny mitochondria may be controlling genes in heart of our cells
The nucleus is the mighty genetic control room of a human cell – but new research suggests that mitochondria can pull the levers of power there too. The nucleus has long been seen as the ruler of the cell, packed full of genes that run the show. But the idea it has complete control is questioned by a new study suggesting mitochondria may be able to influence the nucleus. Mitochondria are energy-generating structures found in the cells of complex organisms which possess their own much smaller genome. Changhan David Lee at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues have found that in human cells this encodes an RNA that makes a peptide, a protein-like molecule, called MOTS-c. This peptide can move to the nucleus and influence genes there in response to cellular stress. The origins of this ability may lay in the idea that mitochondria are descended from bacteria that were ingested by our cells at some point in our evolutionary history, forming a symbiotic relationship that required communication. “We think these mitochondrial-derived peptides, such as MOTS-c, are part of an ancient communication system that is still in play today,” says Lee. The current mitochondrial genome is a relic of its bacterial origins because over time a lot of its genes transferred to the nucleus. This raises the intriguing question as to whether the mitochondrion is regulating its former genes – and Lee and his colleagues are now looking into this. They also hope that understanding the complex communication between mitochondria and the nucleus could shed light on the roles of both in aging and age-related diseases.
7-5-18 Young kids are surprisingly bad at using memory to plan ahead
We used to think children as young as four could plan for the future. But now it seems kids develop the type of memory needed to do this later than we thought. We used to think that planning for the future was a skill most children have by the age of four, but now it seems that we don’t develop the kind of memory needed to do this until we’re older. Episodic memory lets us reflect on our past, and imagine ourselves in the future. To find out when children develop this, Amanda Seed at the University of St Andrews in the UK and her colleagues devised a test for 212 children between the ages of three and seven. Each child was taught how to use a box that released a desirable sticker when the correct token was placed in it. An examiner showed them two boxes of different colours and told them that one would remain on a table while they left the room, and the other would be put away. The children were later offered three tokens to choose from, in a different room. Two matched the colours of the boxes they had previously seen, but the third was a new colour to distract them. Unknown to the children, only matching tokens would work – but thinking about the boxes they had used, and their colours, should enable them to predict that it might be best to pick a token that is the same colour as one of the boxes. The 3- and 4-year-old children didn’t choose the right token more often than they would by chance, suggesting they weren’t able to make this inference, but children aged 5 and older did.
7-5-18 Nerve cells that help control hunger have been ID’d in mice
Targeting similar cells in people could mark a new way to regulate appetites. Newly identified nerve cells deep in the brains of mice compel them to eat. Similar cells exist in people, too, and may ultimately represent a new way to target eating disorders and obesity. These neurons, described in the July 6 Science, are not the first discovered to control appetite. But because of the mysterious brain region where they are found and the potential relevance to people, the mouse results “are worth pursuing,” says neurobiologist and physiologist Sabrina Diano of Yale University School of Medicine. Certain nerve cells in the human brain region called the nucleus tuberalis lateralis, or NTL, are known to malfunction in neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. But “almost nothing is known about [the region],” says study coauthor Yu Fu of the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium, Agency for Science, Technology and Research. In people, the NTL is a small bump along the bottom edge of the hypothalamus, a brain structure known to regulate eating behavior. But in mice, a similar structure wasn’t thought to exist at all, until Fu and colleagues discovered it by chance. The researchers were studying cells that produce a hormone called somatostatin — a molecular signpost of some NTL cells in people. In mice, that cluster of cells in the hypothalamus seemed to correspond to the human NTL.
7-5-18 Eight cups of coffee a day make you live longer? Don’t bet on it
Drinking coffee has once more been linked to a lower risk of early death but there are good reasons this could turn out to be froth, says Naveed Sattar. In medicine, a lot of what we know about how to cut the risk of an early death is rooted in high quality evidence from clinical trials or health policies. This is particularly true when it comes to the influence of smoking, obesity, diabetes, very high cholesterol and blood pressure. However, what is less certain is the impact of specific foods or drinks. Coffee is a prime example. On the one hand, multiple studies have suggested that those who drink it tend to develop heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions less often, and live longer than those who do not. It also appears that the more cups of coffee you drink, the lower the risks. On the other hand, there is concern that too much coffee may cause some harms due to caffeine content. Caffeine stimulates the brain and generally causes alertness, but too much can lead to mild dependence and withdrawal symptoms, such as poor sleep, irritability and headaches. So, is coffee good or bad for us? The hunt for the answer goes on. The latest contribution is a study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, which looked at around half a million people in the UK. It reported that coffee drinking was linked to lower risk of early death, including in those drinking eight or more cups per day. It also showed that this finding was consistent irrespective of whether individuals were genetically fast or slow at metabolising caffeine, or whether the coffee was caffeinated or decaffeinated.
7-4-18 The brain’s secret powerhouse that makes us who we are
Once regarded as having only a bit-part role in mental operations, the cerebellum could actually be the crowning achievement of our brain's evolution. TUCKED away beneath the rest of the brain and only a tenth of its size, the cerebellum is typically seen as a trusty neural sidekick. Like Watson trailing behind Sherlock Holmes, it was useful enough, but not nearly as interesting. The cortex was where the good stuff happened, the stuff that makes us human. Recently, though, it has become clear that the cerebellum is far from a bit player in the story of humankind. Neuroscientists are starting to suspect that this little cauliflower-shaped orb at the back of our head, which is packed with more neurons than all the other brain regions put together and home to a superfast wiring system, is doing the kinds of complex calculations that allow for our most Sherlock-worthy feats. In fact, it could be the crowning achievement of our brain’s evolution. This upgrade in status has been a long time coming. In the 19th century, phrenologists, who looked at the shape of the skull to determine a person’s character, declared the cerebellum, with its wrinkly lobes that hang from the bottom of the brain, the root of sexual desire. The larger the cerebellum, the greater the likelihood of sexual deviance. The evidence soon began to suggest otherwise, however. During the first world war, the British neurologist Gordon Holmes noticed that the main problems for men whose cerebellums had been damaged by gunshot wounds had nothing to do with their sex lives and everything to do with the fine control of their movements, ranging from a lack of balance to difficulties with walking, speech and eye movements. From then on, the cerebellum became known as the mastermind of our smooth and effortless motions, with no role in thinking.
7-4-18 How to stop artificial intelligence being so racist and sexist
AI his frequently be biased, but a new technique may be able put fairness right at the heart of training algorithms. Something is rotten at the heart of artificial intelligence. Machine learning algorithms that spot patterns in huge datasets, hold promise for everything from recommending if someone should be released on bail to estimating the likelihood of a driver having a car crash, and thus the cost of their insurance. But these algorithms also risk being discriminatory by basing their recommendations on categories like someone’s sex, sexuality, or race. So far, all attempts to de-bias our algorithms have failed. But a new approach by Niki Kilbertus at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany and colleagues claims to offer a way to bake fairness right into the process of training algorithms. Machine learning systems improve with examples. The rough idea is that if you want to predict the likelihood of someone reoffending, you load up an AI with previous cases of people going through the criminal justice system. After viewing enough examples, the algorithm can then predict what will happen when presented with a fresh case. But there are certain things that, as a society, we don’t want an algorithm like this to take into consideration, such as someone’s race – bail shouldn’t be determined based on the colour of someone’s skin. “Loan decisions, risk assessments in criminal justice, insurance premiums, and more are being made in a way that disproportionately affects sex and race,” says Kilbertus. But unfortunately, the obvious quick fix of just removing sensitive categories from the data the algorithms are trained on doesn’t work.
7-4-18 The second great battle for the future of our food is underway
First it was GM food. Now battle lines are being drawn over whether crops and animals modified with CRISPR gene-editing can make it on to supermarket shelves. YOU have probably heard of CRISPR, the gene-editing technique set to cure diseases and modify our DNA. The real revolution, however, may be in its ability to transform our food. “The biggest impact is going to be in agriculture,” Jennifer Doudna, who helped develop the method, told New Scientist earlier this year. This is because older, cruder techniques make it expensive to develop genetically modified (GM) foods, so they are mostly the domain of big multinationals. In contrast, CRISPR has made genetic tinkering cheap and easy. “It takes a firm on average 13 years and costs $130 million to launch a GM crop” “Rather than just four or five large multinationals dominating the market, you’re going to have an explosion of companies all over the world innovating and coming up with improved crop varieties,” says Tony Moran of US biotech company Cibus. But just how far this revolution goes depends on how countries regulate CRISPR foods. The US and some others have decided that simple gene tweaks don’t require special regulation. But the world’s biggest market – the European Union – has yet to decide. A court decision due later this month could determine the technique’s fate in the EU, which is historically anti-GM, and perhaps the world. So why are people keen to CRISPR our food? For starters, genome-edited plants and animals could make what we eat safer by removing allergens and cancer-causing substances such as acrylamides. CRISPR could also make crops resistant to diseases and more nutritious.
7-4-18 It’s ok that the public rejected GM food – after all, we did ask
Many people see the public's rejection of genetically-modified food as a failure, but I would argue it was successful public engagement, says Lesley Paterson. The refusal of many people to accept genetically modified foods is often perceived as a failure to convince the public of the benefits of science. I would argue that, in terms of public engagement, the GM debate of 20 years ago was in some ways a success. The GM campaign should have gone further to facilitate a more thoughtful discourse, but at the end of the day, the response was “no thanks”. Genuine public engagement is, by its definition, a two-way process of asking questions and listening to the answers. Science has many consequences, so society must have a say. The focus was on convincing people that the technology was safe, but that wasn’t all the public wanted to talk about. When we ask people from all walks of life to discuss the implications of science innovations, four core questions typically arise: Who are the winners? Who are the losers? What are the benefits? What are the risks? More in-depth discussions around GM revealed that people did not just see themselves as consumers, but had wide-ranging concerns, including that big business could be the only real winner (see “The second great battle for the future of our food is underway”). It does not matter how many times we say “there is no evidence that GM foods are unsafe”, if the question is “who will benefit from the application of this technology?”.
7-4-18 Prehistoric two-year-old could grip tree branches with her feet
A young hominin who lived 3.3 million years ago had flexible feet that she could use to climb trees like a chimp, suggesting our ancestors kept this trait for a long time. A human-ape toddler who lived 3.3 million years ago had slightly ape-like feet that she could use to grasp the branches of trees. The finding suggests that young hominins spent more time climbing than adults did. It also indicates that, long after hominins started walking upright on two legs, they retained some ability to grasp with their feet. “They don’t have the grasping ability of chimpanzees,” says team member Jeremy DeSilva of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “But it appears to us, based on the anatomy of the foot, that they’ve got more grasping ability than a modern human does.” DeSilva and his colleagues have described the almost complete foot of an Australopithecus afarensis, which lived 3.3 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia. That is at least 4 million years after our ancestors split from those of chimpanzees, but 3 million years before our own species appeared. The study is the latest development in a story that began in 2000, when Zeresenay Alemseged discovered a virtually complete A. afarensis skeleton in Dikika, Ethiopia. The skeleton belonged to a little girl, who was about two and a half years old when she died.
7-4-18 Foot fossil pegs hominid kids as upright walkers 3.3 million years ago
But a juvenile Australopithecus afarensis’ foot still had some apelike features. Walking was afoot long ago among toddler-aged members of a hominid species best known for Lucy’s partial skeleton. A largely complete, 3.3-million-year-old child’s foot from Australopithecus afarensis shows that the appendage would have aligned the ankle and knee under the body’s center of mass, a crucial design feature for upright walking, scientists report July 4 in Science Advances. “The overall anatomy of this child’s foot is strikingly humanlike,” says study director Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College in Hanover. But the foot retains some hints of apelike traits. Compared with children today, for example, the A. afarensis child — only about 3 years old at the time of death — had toes more capable of holding onto objects or anyone who was carrying her, the team found. Those toes included a somewhat apelike, grasping big toe. “Young children having some ability to grasp mom could have made a big energetic difference for Australopithecus afarensis adults as they traveled,” DeSilva says.
7-4-18 Asia’s mysterious role in the early origins of humanity
Bizarre fossils from China are revealing our species' Asian origins and rewriting the story of human evolution. DECEMBER 1941. Japan has just entered the second world war. China, already fighting its neighbour, is in the firing line. At the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, Hu Chengzhi carefully packs two wooden crates with the world’s most precious anthropological artefacts. Peking Man – in reality some 200 fossilised teeth and bones, including six skulls – is to be shipped to the US for safekeeping. This is the last anyone ever sees of him. At the time, the Peking Man remains were the oldest known fossils belonging to human ancestors. Their discovery in the 1920s and 30s caused a sensation, triggering declarations that the cradle of humanity had been found. But just a few decades later, all eyes had turned to Africa. A slew of discoveries there left little doubt that it was our true ancestral home. As far as human evolution was concerned, Asia was out of the picture. Not any more. The last decade has seen the discovery of new Asian fossils, among others by Chinese palaeoanthropologists with a renewed interest in their heritage. As key moments in our past are rewritten, the spotlight is once more turning east. The first Peking Man remains were found in 1923, nearly 50 kilometres outside Beijing. Alongside the broad-nosed individuals with thick brows were burnt animal bones, suggesting an early human ancestor capable of controlling fire. Only four other ancestral human species had been discovered at that time, including Neanderthals in Germany and Australopithecus africanus, identified from the ape-like Taung Child remains in South Africa. Team leader Davidson Black believed the Chinese fossils represented a new species, which he called Sinanthropus pekinensis.
7-4-18 Cash and competition make doctors prescribe fewer antibiotics
Doctors in Australia and the UK are now prescribing fewer antibiotics thanks to financial incentives and a bit of competition among peers. Some family doctors in Australia and the UK are now prescribing fewer antibiotics following successful trials of measures intended to curb over-prescribing habits. Overuse of antibiotics is contributing to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, which now kill at least 700,000 people globally each year. Research has found that many doctors still prescribe antibiotics for viral infections even though these drugs only work for bacterial infections. Australian GPs, for example, write around 5 million too many antibiotic scripts annually for viral respiratory infections like colds and flus. To address this problem, the Australian government last year sent letters to GPs whose antibiotic prescribing rates were in the top 30 per cent for their region. These letters were written in four different formats to see what worked best. The most effective letter declared in bold text: “You prescribe more antibiotics than x per cent of prescribers in your region” and displayed a large graph to illustrate this information visually. A government report released last week found that GPs who received this letter reduced their antibiotic prescribing by 12 per cent on average over the following year. The UK government has tried another approach: financial reward. In 2015, it began offering local health areas an extra £5 in health funding per capita if they improved a range of measures, including cutting antibiotic prescribing by GPs by 1 per cent or more.
7-4-18 Thai cave: How life in darkness could affect trapped boys
The 12 boys and their coach trapped in a cave in Thailand may be stuck there for a lengthy period – how will a lack of daylight affect them? Linda Geddes explores what scientists know. Aside from the psychological trauma of being trapped hundreds of metres underground, the absence of daylight may do strange things to the boys’ internal sense of time and their perception of it. These changes could put them at risk of depression, insomnia, and potentially create discord within the group. What do scientists know about how their bodies and minds will react to darkness – and are there measures that could help them? This isn’t the first time that people have been isolated in a cave system for months on end. In 1962, a French geologist called Michel Siffre holed himself up inside an underground glacier that he’d discovered near Nice for two months. With no access to clocks, calendars, or sunlight, and no visits from the world above, Siffre let his body dictate his behaviour. He kept a written record of his activities and telephoned his team on the outside each time he woke up, ate and just before he slept – although they didn’t reveal to him what time it was. When his colleagues eventually called to say the two months was up, Siffre didn’t believe them: he was convinced that only one month had passed. His psychological perception of time had become distorted by the constant darkness.
7-4-18 First commercial DNA data storage service set to launch in 2019
A start-up called Catalog claims it will be able to store a terabyte of data in a gram-sized DNA pellet, but questions remain over whether the technology is ready. BIG data could be about to get much smaller. Catalog, a start-up based at the Harvard Life Lab, has announced plans for the first commercial DNA data storage service. The company says it has developed a way to cheaply store a terabyte of data – the equivalent of 40 Blu-rays – in a DNA pellet. Using DNA as a data storage medium has long held appeal thanks to its durability and density. If kept cool and dry, DNA can reliably last for hundreds of years, so a vast data centre could be replaced by an ordinary refrigerator. But current technology makes this prohibitively expensive. For example, Twist Biosciences of San Francisco can create DNA strands that hold a mere 12 megabytes, enough for a handful of mp3s, at a cost of $100,000. Catalog’s chief science officer, Devin Leake, says the firm can do much better. From 2019, the firm says it will offer a terabyte worth of DNA-encoded data in a gram-sized pellet. “More significantly, compared to other DNA synthesis approaches, our cost is five orders of magnitude lower,” says Leake. But the company will need to bring costs down much further to compete with the price of cloud-storage on tape, which Amazon currently sells for less than a penny per gigabyte each month. Co-founder Hyunjun Park says that Catalog’s price hinges on a new approach. Rather than encoding a string of data onto a single DNA molecule, it produces a small core “alphabet” of DNA sequences that correspond to snippets of binary data and can be pooled together into much larger files.
7-3-18 Evidence grows that an HPV screen beats a Pap test at preventing cancer.
Switching to a human papillomavirus test may help reduce cases of the disease. Evidence continues to grow that screening for human papillomavirus infection bests a Pap test when it comes to catching early signs of cervical cancer. In a large clinical trial of Canadian women, pap tests more often missed warning signs of abnormal cell growth in the cervix than did HPV tests, researchers report July 3 in JAMA. As a result, at the end of a four-year period, researchers found 5.5 new cases of severely abnormal, precancerous cervical cells per 1,000 women who got Pap tests, compared with 2.3 cases per 1,000 women who got HPV tests. Pap tests are the standard way to screen for cervical cancer. “We should be moving away from screening with Pap tests toward screening with HPV tests,” says L. Stewart Massad, a gynecologic oncologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study. Previous research has found HPV testing leads to increased detection of abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous compared with a Pap test. For instance, a 2009 study reported fewer cases of advanced cervical cancers and fewer deaths among women in India tested for HPV (SN: 4/25/09, p. 11). The study supported HPV testing in poorer countries, where cervical cancer screenings aren’t widespread. Worldwide, cervical cancer ranks fourth deadliest for women.
7-3-18 DNA reveals Romans helped spread TB across three continents
The Romans gave us roads, public toilets and the modern calendar, but we may also have them to thank for spreading a deadly disease: tuberculosis. The Romans gave us roads, public toilets and the modern calendar, but we may also have them to thank for spreading a deadly disease: tuberculosis. A genetic analysis suggests that while TB first arose about 5000 years ago in Africa, the Roman Empire was behind its more recent, rapid spread around Europe and beyond. TB is a lung infection that, if left untreated, can cause a chronic cough, weight loss and a lingering death. By some estimates the bacteria that causes it, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, has killed more people than any other infectious disease in history. The strain of TB that affects humans can’t be carried by other animals, says Caitlin Pepperell at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “So the evolution of the bacterium is inextricably tied to humans.” To find out its origins, Pepperell’s team looked at the genetic sequences of 552 samples of TB bacteria obtained from people across most of the world. They left out North and South America as people in these continents are mainly affected by TB bacteria that arrived with the first Europeans. Taking into account where the samples came from, and the known rate at which genetic mutations accrue in its DNA, they drew up the bacteria’s family tree. It was already known that TB bacteria can be divided into seven different families. Pepperell’s team found that the last common ancestor of all these lineages first arose in Africa, probably in West Africa, between around 4000 and 6000 years ago – roughly 3000 BC.
7-3-18 This ‘junk’ gene may be important in embryo development
Mice — and maybe humans — can’t get past the two-cell stage without it. A once-maligned genetic parasite may actually be essential for survival. Mouse embryos need that genetic freeloader — a type of jumping gene, or transposon, called LINE-1 — to continue developing past the two-cell stage, researchers report in the July 7 Cell. Many scientists “charge that these are nasty, selfish genetic elements” that jump around the genome, making mutations and wreaking havoc, says study coauthor Miguel Ramalho-Santos, a developmental and stem cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But the new research suggests that the jumping gene is more helpful to development than previously thought. Transposons certainly can hop into and break genes, and cells deploy numerous tools to prevent the jumping genes from making RNA and protein copies of themselves. But, in early development, LINE-1 is turned on nearly full blast, packing RNA into embryonic cells as well as “germline” cells, which later give rise to eggs and sperm. Having active transposons potentially hopping around such vital cells could be dangerous. “The phrase ‘playing with fire’ comes to mind,” Ramalho-Santos says. If anything, embryos and germline cells should be among the cells most heavily guarded against transposons.
7-3-18 First attempt to get CRISPR gene editing working in sperm
Researchers say they have managed to get the CRISPR machinery into mature human sperm, but we don’t know yet whether it can successfully edit sperm genes. For the first time, biologists are trying to get the CRISPR gene-editing machinery directly into mature human sperm, rather than into fertilised embryos. The work is still at an early stage but could lead to a new way to prevent inherited diseases. Around half a dozen teams have used the CRISPR genome-editing method to alter the DNA of human embryos but it is still far from clear whether this approach is safe. One issue is that the embryo can start dividing before its DNA is corrected, meaning the faulty gene is fixed in some cells in the resulting embryo but not all cells – a phenomenon called mosaicism. So Diane Choi and her colleagues at the Center for Reproductive Medicine in New York are experimenting with delivering DNA coding for the CRISPR machinery to mature sperm cells rather than to embryos. At the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona today, they will announce that they may have found a way to do this that allows the sperm to remain relatively healthy, and potentially capable of fertilising eggs. “In theory all single-gene disorders transmittable by the male can be treated if we are able to successfully use CRISPR-Cas9 on sperm,” says Choi. Gene-editing could in theory be used to prevent fathers from passing on a wide range of genetic disorders. For example, it could enable two people who both have a disorder like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell aneamia to have a child together who doesn’t have their condition.
7-2-18 Injecting new heart cells improves recovery from heart attacks
Injecting brand new muscle cells directly into the heart helps it recover after a heart attack, a study in monkeys has found. Injecting brand new muscle cells directly into the heart helps it recover after a heart attack, a study in monkeys has found. Heart attacks cut off blood supply to the heart, causing some of the heart muscle cells to die. Survivors often develop chronic heart failure, in which their hearts struggle to pump blood to the rest of the body, leaving them feeling weak and tired. Charles Murry at the University of Washington and his colleagues wondered if injecting new heart muscle cells into the damaged heart could help. They injected new heart muscle cells into the hearts of six southern pig-tailed macaques – large monkeys with similar hearts to humans – two weeks after they had heart attacks. The heart muscle cells were grown from stem cells from human embryos. After three months, the monkeys given the new heart muscle cells had 23 per cent higher ejection fractions – a measure of heart pumping capacity – than those treated with a sham. “In humans, that would mean the difference from being unable to walk more than a few blocks or carry your own groceries to living a normal life,” says Murry.
7-2-18 Mongolians practiced horse dentistry as early as 3,200 years ago
Equine tooth extractions evolved to make way for a riding bit, making mounted warfare possible. Mongolian pastoralists were trying to remove troublesome teeth from horses’ mouths almost 3,200 years ago, making those mobile herders the earliest known practitioners of horse dentistry, a new study finds. Those initial, incomplete tooth removals led to procedures for extracting forward-positioned cheek teeth known as first premolars from young horses, say archaeologist William Taylor and his colleagues. That dental practice, which dates to as early as about 2,800 years ago, coincided with the appearance in Mongolia of metal bits that made it easier for riders to control horses, the researchers report the week of July 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Long-distance travel and mounted warfare with sedentary civilizations across Asia soon followed (SN: 11/25/17, p. 16). “Veterinary dentistry was instrumental in the rise of horse warfare on the Eurasian steppes, allowing herders to use metal bits while avoiding behavior and health complications for horses that may have accompanied bit use,” says Taylor, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. In particular, first premolars could interfere with a bit’s movement and cause pain or damage to the tooth. Taylor’s group identified microscopic signs of cutting and sawing on frontal teeth from two of 10 Bronze Age Mongolian horses. These two teeth, which date to between around 3,200 and 2,900 years ago, apparently grew at odd angles that may have interfered with chewing. Horseback riding became widespread in Mongolia at that time (SN: 5/27/17, p. 10).
7-2-18 Simple steps that could help you live to 100
Naples in Florida is trying to help more of its residents live to 100 by adopting ways of life from parts of the world where people live the longest.
7-2-18 Artificial ovary could help women conceive after chemotherapy
Scientists have taken further steps in creating an artificial ovary that could one day be used to help women who have lost their fertility because of cancer treatment. Scientists have taken further steps in creating an artificial ovary that could one day used to help women who have been left infertile after cancer treatment. Researchers from the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, took ovarian tissue from cancer patients and stripped it of cells. They then transplanted this structure into mice and found that it could support the survival and growth of the follicles. Twenty follicles were transplanted in and a quarter of them survived for at least three weeks. It is hoped that this artificial ovary could be implanted back into women and restore their fertility after cancer treatment. “This is the first time that isolated human follicles have survived in a decellularised human scaffold,” said Susanne Por, who presented the work at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESGRE) annual meeting in Barcelona today. Cancer treatments can often damage the ovaries, blocking the production of eggs and making pregnancy impossible. Women diagnosed with cancer can have their eggs frozen. Sometimes, doctors may offer to remove or freeze all or part of an ovary for re-transplantation after treatment. However, this runs the risk of reintroducing cancer cells, as some cancers can spread to the ovaries. An “artificial ovary” could reduce this risk.
7-2-18 Finally, there’s a way to keep syphilis growing in the lab
Inspiration for the breakthrough came from the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. For more than a century, scientists have tried to grow Treponema pallidum, the corkscrew-shaped bacterium that causes syphilis. But the stubborn spirochete has refused to thrive any place outside of a human or rabbit for more than 18 days. That doesn’t give researchers much time to study it. “I’ve basically spent my entire career watching these organisms die,” says microbiologist Steven Norris, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Until now. Norris and colleagues have cooked up a new recipe that keeps the bacteria alive for months, they report June 26 in mBio. “We know very little about the organism,” Norris says. Being able to study it long-term in a dish could lead to better treatments for the millions infected worldwide and pave the way for the development of a vaccine to prevent the sexually transmitted disease (SN: 11/26/16, p.5). The first ingredient, rabbit epithelial cells, was adapted from a 1981 method that managed to grow the bacteria for about two weeks. But it needed a secret sauce, a medium that would encourage the bacteria to grow within the rabbit cells.
7-1-18 The study of human heredity got its start in insane asylums
‘Genetics in the Madhouse’ chronicles the early days of the science. England’s King George III descended into mental chaos, or what at the time was called madness, in 1789. Physicians could not say whether he would recover or if a replacement should assume the throne. That political crisis jump-started the study of human heredity. Using archival records, science historian Theodore M. Porter describes how the king’s deteriorating condition invigorated research at England’s insane asylums into the inheritance of madness. Well before DNA’s discovery, heredity started out as a science of record keeping and statistical calculations. In the 1800s, largely forgotten doctors in both Europe and North America meticulously collected family histories of madness, intellectual disability and crime among the growing numbers of people consigned to asylums, schools for “feebleminded” children and prisons. Some physicians who specialized in madness, known as alienists, saw severe mental deficits as a disease caused by modern life’s pressures. But most alienists regarded heredity, the transmission of a presumed biological factor among family members, as the true culprit. Asylum directors launched efforts to track down all sick relatives of patients. The increasing number of people institutionalized for mental deficits fueled the view that individuals from susceptible families should be discouraged from reproducing. Porter documents a mid-1800s push for standardized asylum statistics. Asylum directors turned to the correlation table, which drew statistical links between pairs of variables, such as disease type and percentage of people cured. In 1859, Norwegian researcher Ludvig Dahl published family pedigrees of mental illness, using detailed census records.