7-31-19 Neuroscientist Ed Boyden is decoding the brain with the power of light
Understanding the workings of our minds is one of science's greatest challenges. With the help of flashing lights and materials used in diapers, we could find out what thoughts are made of THE brain is a complex network of some 86 billion neurons. To find out how they operate, we need to be able to record the activity of these cells. That is why the methods developed by neuroscientist Ed Boyden are so crucial. His breakthrough came in 2004 when, as a graduate student, he flashed a blue light at a nerve cell to see how it would react. Instantly, it fired. This was the birth of optogenetics, a technology that has revolutionised the study of brains and behaviour. We caught up with him to find out more. I have a deep desire to understand what it means to be human – the meaning of our thoughts and feelings. That is really what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning. This is something I have been obsessing about for many years, ever since I was a kid. Optogenetics involves putting new genes into brain cells to let us turn them on and off with light. Light has the unique advantage that you can really focus it down, even to individual cells. In 2017, along with Valentina Emiliani’s group at the Vision Institute in Paris, we activated individual cells with 1-millisecond precision in an intact circuit in a slice of living brain tissue. A technology that is the opposite of optogenetics in a way. Instead of sending light into the brain to trigger neurons to activate, or fire, we make neurons glow when they fire. This is called voltage imaging. It lets us watch the brain as it computes, with the precision of looking at individual brain cells.
7-31-19 A new study challenges the idea that the placenta has a microbiome
Scientists traced what microbes they did detect in tissue samples to lab tools and birth canals. Contrary to earlier reports, the human placenta is largely free of microbes, a study finds. The new result follows years of debate over whether the organ that nourishes and protects a growing fetus also holds bacteria. Dueling evidence has been accumulating both for and against the presence of microbes in placentas. Amid the back-and-forth, molecular biologist Stephen Charnock-Jones of the University of Cambridge and colleagues were busy collecting thousands of placenta samples as part of a different study on maternal and fetal health. But the team became interested in the question of a possible collection of bacteria and other microbes, called a microbiome, in the placenta. “We thought, ‘This is an objective thing we can test,’” Charnock-Jones says. So Charnock-Jones’ team examined more than 500 of the placenta samples, which were collected after delivery. These samples were from healthy pregnancies and pregnancies that involved complications and both vaginal and cesarean deliveries. The tissue was washed in solutions of salt and frozen. Then, the researchers used two different methods to search for bacterial DNA. Overall, there were very few signs of bacteria in placentas, the researchers conclude July 31 in Nature. Instead, many of the bacterial DNA signals that were detected came from laboratory tools, the birth canal and, sometimes, the salt solution in which samples were washed, the team says. Some researchers suspect that microbes in the placenta may have a role in mothers’ or babies’ health. But the findings of the new study question that premise.
7-31-19 Humans are good at smelling cheese thanks to special smell receptors
Smell that? If it’s cheesy, sweaty or sweet, you might be more likely to sense an odour. Humans have evolved many more smell receptors for these scents than anything else, probably to help us choose which foods to eat. Luis Saraiva at Sidra Medicine in Doha, Qatar and his colleagues looked at smell receptors in mice and people. They started by analysing the small patch of neurons that contain smell receptors. This area is around 2.5 square centimetres in humans, and sits in between the eyes at the top of the nasal cavity. To find out which smell receptors mice and people have the team extracted mRNA from each of the samples. This molecule plays a key role in allowing genes to make proteins, so the team used mRNA levels to tell them which genes in each sample were “switched on”, as well as their relative abundance.Both species have more receptors for odours that smell like rancid milk or cheese, sulphur or sweat, or are particularly sweet or spicy-smelling, like vanilla or clove than for other smells. This may mean that we are more sensitive to these scents, although the researchers can’t yet say for sure. In humans, these smells are important for helping us make decisions about which foods to eat, and distinguishing between what’s ripe and what’s rotten, says Saraiva. But in mice, the chemicals act as pheromones – chemicals that can change their behaviour, such as those that attract mates. Some of the chemicals that humans have lots of smell receptors for are also found in bodily fluids like breastmilk and vaginal fluid. These act as pheromones in other primates, but there is no evidence that they do in humans, Saraiva says.
7-31-19 Undiscovered dinosaurs: We are entering the golden era of fossil finds
From tiny tyrannosaurs to species that soar on bat wings, new dinosaurs are unearthed every month. And the strangest discoveries may yet be lying in wait. THE name “tyrannosaur” conjures up images of towering predators with enormous heads and ridiculously small arms. But Moros intrepidus wasn’t like that. This 96-million-year-old tyrannosaur was the size of a deer, a lanky pipsqueak of a predator. It is far from the only dinosaur to strut onto the stage this year – 31 new species have been named so far. There’s Bajadasaurus pronuspinax, discovered in Patagonia, which hit the headlines for the forward-facing spines jutting from its neck, and little Ambopteryx longibrachium, unearthed in China, which confirmed that some feathery dinosaurs flapped around using bat-like wings. These add to a tally of more than a thousand species of dinosaur known to have roamed Earth in the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods – everything from tiny omnivores no bigger than a pigeon to long-necked dinosaurs that stretched over 30 metres long. “The pace of dinosaur discovery is so fast these days, one could label it frantic,” says palaeontologist Lindsay Zanno of North Carolina State University. And it shows no sign of letting up just yet. It seems we are entering the golden era of dinosaur discovery. The very first dinosaurs evolved about 245 million years ago, during the early part of the Triassic period. Most stayed small until a mass extinction of their reptilian rivals cleared the way for dinosaur domination during the Jurassic period. This is when dinosaur evolution kicked into high gear, and the trend continued through the Cretaceous until another mass extinction wiped out most dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Birds are the only dinosaurs that survived, which is why researchers often distinguish between avian and non-avian dinosaurs.
7-31-19 Is reality real? How evolution blinds us to the truth about the world
We assume our senses see reality as it is - but that could be just an evolved illusion obscuring the true workings of quantum theory and consciousness. LIFE insurance is a bet on objective reality – a bet that something exists, even if I cease to. This bet seems quite safe to most of us. Life insurance is, accordingly, a lucrative business. While we are alive and paying premiums, our conscious experiences constitute a different kind of reality, a subjective reality. My experience of a pounding migraine is certainly real to me, but it wouldn’t exist if I didn’t. My visual experience of a red cherry fades to an experience of grey when I shut my eyes. Objective reality, I presume, doesn’t likewise fade to grey. What is the relationship between the world out there and my internal experience of it – between objective and subjective reality? If I’m sober, and don’t suspect a prank, I’m inclined to believe that when I see a cherry, there is a real cherry whose shape and colour match my experience, and which continues to exist when I look away. This assumption is central to how we think about ourselves and the world. But is it valid? Experiments my collaborators and I have performed to test the form of sensory perception that evolution has given us suggest a startling conclusion: it isn’t. It leads to a crazy-sounding conclusion, that we may all be gripped by a collective delusion about the nature of the material world. If that is correct, it could have ramifications across the breadth of science – from how consciousness arises to the nature of quantum weirdness to the shape of a future “theory of everything”. Reality may never seem the same again. The idea that what we perceive might differ from objective reality dates back millennia. Ancient Greek philosopher Plato proposed that we are like prisoners shackled in a fire-lit cave. The action of reality is happening out of sight behind us, and we see only a flickering shadow of it projected onto the cave wall.
7-31-19 Birds can thank attractive dinosaurs for their flight feathers
How did birds get their feathers? Complex feathers might have originally evolved because birds’ dinosaur ancestors found them sexually attractive. Many dinosaurs had simple feathers on at least some parts of their body. Palaeontologists think they know why they first evolved. “Early dinosaur feathers really are very hair-like,” says Scott Persons at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History in South Carolina, US. Simple feathers were almost certainly for insulation, like mammal fur, he says. But that makes it difficult to understand why some dinosaurs then developed feathers that were more structurally complex, and that eventually became specialised for flight in birds. These complex feathers are stiffer and they don’t provide much insulation, says Persons. So why did they evolve? Persons and his colleague, Philip Currie at the University of Alberta, think it was not natural selection but sexual selection that drove feather evolution. Complex feathers might have been poor insulators, but if they helped dinosaurs secure more mating opportunities then there would have been a good reason to evolve and retain them. Biologists already know that sexual selection can shape feathers in dramatic ways, says Persons. Perhaps most famously, many biologists think male peacocks evolved elaborate tail feathers largely to impress peahens. But Persons and Currie say we’ve never considered the possibility that sexual selection could act as a bridge that helps link two episodes of natural selection. Under their scenario, dinosaurs like tyrannosaurs evolved simple feathers for insulation. Then, sexual selection encouraged some dinosaurs, like oviraptors, to evolve more complex feathers purely for display. And finally, those feathers reached a level of complexity sufficient for them to help some small dinosaurs to glide. At this point, natural selection kicked in again and shaped feathers for flight in birds.
7-30-19 There have been more than 1000 cases of measles in the US this year
The number of measles cases reported in the US continues to rise. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now reports that there have been 1164 cases of measles in 30 states as of 25 July. This is the highest number of cases seen in one year since 1992. In 2014, the last year a large outbreak occurred in the US, there were a total of 667 cases of measles through the whole year. The number of measles cases so far in 2019 is nearly double that, a concerning trend that has led to severe policies from public health authorities trying to stem outbreaks in New York City and other hard-hit areas. Current outbreaks, which include 3 or more cases of measles in one region, are ongoing in the states of California, Washington, New York and Texas – including outbreaks in Los Angeles and New York City. The CDC says these are linked to people who travelled internationally and contracted measles in countries such as Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines, where measles outbreaks are occurring. The public health department in New York City reports 642 cases of measles as of 29 July. In April, the city adopted a policy to fine any unvaccinated people $1000 who are living in the Brooklyn and Queens neighbourhoods where the disease is spreading rapidly.
7-30-19 Exclusive: Can a supplement slow the natural processes of ageing?
Could this be the start of a new way to fight ageing? A supplement designed to slow the ageing process aims to increase the number of healthy years we enjoy towards the end of our lives. Launched for online sale in the US in July, the pill hasn’t been through clinical trials. Instead, it is being marketed direct to the public as a dietary supplement. Its makers claim it is the only scientifically validated anti-ageing supplement on the market. The launch comes at a time of great excitement in longevity medicine. As previously revealed by New Scientist, numerous experimental drugs are in trials, and investors expect the field to become a huge industry. By choosing to sell its product as a supplement – named Rejuvant – rather than a drug, Florida-based firm Ponce De Leon Health (PDLH) has beaten many companies out of the gate, but only full clinical trials will be able to confirm whether the pill actually benefits people. Rejuvant contains alpha-ketoglutarate (AKG), which some studies suggest can extend the lifespan of worms and mice. It has been developed in two formulations: one for men that contains vitamin A, and one for women that includes vitamin D3. According to PDLH, these combinations are potent extenders of healthspan – the years spent free of serious disease – in mice, while also lengthening lifespan. The reported improvements are, in theory, the equivalent of about five human years of healthy life. The supplement was developed by feeding mice combinations of compounds identified as longevity extenders in previous animal studies. Researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California assessed the mice for hallmarks of ageing such as frailty, hair loss, tremors and difficulty walking. They found that combining AKG with vitamins had the strongest effect on healthspan, and was linked with a boost in lifespan of two to three months.
7-30-19 Lyme disease may be more common in the UK than we thought
An analysis of Lyme disease cases in the UK suggests that the infection may be three times more common than the current annual estimate. Researchers looked at a database of 8.4 million anonymised patient records, covering about 8 per cent of the population of the UK. Among these, 4083 cases of Lyme disease were detected between 2001 and 2012. They saw a steep rise in cases during this time, from 60 in 2001 up to 595 in 2012. Extrapolating this to the wider population would suggest that there were more than 7700 cases of Lyme disease across the country in 2012, which is far higher than the usual estimate of 2000 to 3000 cases a year. “This is really just showing there are many more cases than previously, officially estimated,” says Victoria Cairns, a retired medical statistician who worked on the study. “The issue is for the public to know about [Lyme disease] so that they go to the GP to get diagnosed.” However, Sally Cutler at the University of East London said in a statement that the study’s methodology and its inclusion of patients who were only “suspected” and “possible” Lyme disease cases means that the numbers in the study “are likely to be an overestimation”. Lyme disease has become the most common tick-borne infection in many parts of Europe and the US. The bacterial infection is spread to people via bites from infected ticks and symptoms can include a circular red rash resembling a dartboard’s bullseye.
7-30-19 Genetic analysis reveals Vikings had a wide and diverse family tree
The Vikings weren’t all Nordic natives. They comprised multiple distinct groups of different peoples, according to a major study of ancient DNA. “Viking genetics and Viking ancestry is used quite a lot in extremist right-wing circles,” says Cat Jarman at the University of Bristol in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the study. Many white supremacists identify with a “very pure Viking race of just people from Scandinavia, who had no influence from anywhere else”. In fact, the DNA evidence suggests the Vikings were the product of a diverse melting pot. We know that the Vikings were a seafaring people from Scandinavia who were a major force in northern Europe from about AD 750 to 1050: the Viking Age. They are famous for their violent raids on the British Isles and elsewhere, and their epic sagas. To better understand their origins, Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues studied DNA from Vikings and their contemporaries. The researchers analysed DNA from the remains of 442 people from Europe and Greenland who lived between 2400 BC and AD 1600. This allowed them to reconstruct Viking populations as well as their movements. “We have an embarrassment of riches in the archaeogenetics world at the moment,” says Martin Richards at the University of Huddersfield, UK. “This is another very rich work, and the first one to focus on the Vikings. There’s a huge amount of new data.” The team found that, in the centuries preceding the Viking Age, Scandinavian peoples acquired many new gene variants from elsewhere in Europe. This suggests a major migration from the region around what is now Germany into Denmark, Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia. “Although the basic genetic pattern of Europe was established by the Bronze Age, around 4000 years ago, there were myriad migrations taking place across Europe in the subsequent millennia,” says Richards. “The first millennium AD was a time of massive upheaval,” partly because of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse. It is a bit early to speculate on who the people who moved into Scandinavia were, says Richards, but we do know that invading nomadic Huns caused a lot of population displacement in Europe around this time.
7-30-19 This newfound predator may have terrorized the Cambrian seafloor
With rakelike claws and a toothy mouth, it could snag prey even under the sand. A fierce predator, with spiny claws and a round, rasping mouth, terrorized the Cambrian seafloor 508 million years ago as it raked through the sand in search of food. Dubbed Cambroraster falcatus, the predator was about 30 centimeters long — which, to the tiny prey of the time, likely seemed monstrous enough. But C. falcatus also had a pair of jointed limbs that ended in rakelike claws, a round mouth lined with sharp, serrated plates and a broad, shield-shaped carapace that covered its head and most of its back, giving it a distinct resemblance to a horseshoe crab, or perhaps a spaceship. Researchers, who describe C. falcatus for the first time July 31 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, have now found hundreds of fossils of the ancient arthropod — including one showing the critter’s entire body, both front and back — in Canada’s Burgess Shale (SN: 4/27/19, p. 32). The creature’s round, tooth-filled mouth “is a type of mouth that doesn’t exist anymore,” and is characteristic of an extinct group of arthropods called radiodonts, says Jean-Bernard Caron, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Radiodonts, in general, are rare in the fossil record, Caron says. So it was all the more remarkable to find so many specimens of C. falcatus in one location, where the animals may have gathered thanks to abundant food. A mass molting event may also have occurred at the site, the researchers speculate, which would help explain the clusters of appendages and carapaces. The team spotted what turned out to be the first specimen of C. falcatus in 2012. “But we didn’t know what we were looking at” because the specimens were mostly just bits and pieces, Caron says. Then, in 2016, Caron and paleontologist Joseph Moysiuk of the University of Toronto found the key to the puzzle: a nearly complete fossil of the creature.
7-30-19 Genetic testing: What secrets could it reveal about you?
As genome sequencing costs continue to fall and artificial intelligence gets to work on analysing all this new data, the era of personalised medicine draws closer. More than half of Icelanders have now had their precise genetic make-up sequenced and analysed. Tens of thousands of their genomes have been fully sequenced by specialist firm Decode Genetics at a cost of around $600 (£487) a head. "Compared with the cost of an MRI scan, it isn't that huge," says founder and chief executive Kári Stefánsson. The aim of such projects is not only to learn more about disease in the general population, but also to create personalised medicine based on individuals' particular genetic quirks. Some people, for example, metabolise medicines more quickly than others, with implications for treatment regimes. Others may have lifestyles that increase their chances of developing a condition from which they are particularly at risk. "We have started to apply artificial intelligence to mine these enormous datasets," says Mr Stefánsson. "And all of this is generating insights into the diversity of man, into the nature of disease and the response to treatment." The first human genome sequence took 13 years to complete and cost around $2.7bn, but thanks to new techniques, the cost of DNA analysis has plummeted and more and more large-scale "biobanks" of genetic profiles are being created around the world. For example, a similar project is underway in Estonia, where citizens are being invited to volunteer their DNA. This is then analysed using a test known as an SNP array - "a poor man's sequence of the genome", according to Prof Andres Metspalu, head of the Estonian Biobank at the Institute of Genomics, University of Tartu. This test costs just €50 (£45) a head. The data is being analysed for 700,000 gene mutations linked to medical conditions. And the results are now being made available to participants for the first time.
7-30-19 Meet a 500-million-year old minibeast from the Cambrian explosion
More than half a billion years ago, this stalk-eyed minibeast (Isoxys auritus) cruised the seas in what is now Yunnan, China. This remarkable fossil is one of 55 from the Chengjiang deposit on loan to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, most of which have never been seen outside China before. The fossils date back more than 500 million years to the Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary big bang that gave birth to modern ecosystems and all the basic types of animal we see today. The Chengjiang deposit has become famous for its exquisite specimens, many of which are changing our understanding of how animals evolved. I. auritus was related to insects and crustaceans, and was probably a predator. This fossil is on display as part of the museum’s First Animals exhibition.
7-29-19 Drug-resistant superbug spreading in Europe's hospitals
Superbugs resistant to emergency antibiotics are spreading in hospitals, a Europe-wide study shows. Drugs called carbapenems are used when an infection cannot be treated with anything else. The spread of resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae was "extremely concerning", researchers from the Sanger Institute said. And they warned other bugs could become resistant too - because of the unique way bacteria have sex. It can live completely naturally in the intestines without causing problems for healthy people. However, when the body is unwell, it can infect the lungs to cause pneumonia, and the blood, cuts in the skin and the lining of the brain to cause meningitis. Some strains are developing resistance to antibiotics. "The alarming thing is these bacteria are resistant to one of the key last-line antibiotics," Dr Sophia David, from the Sanger Institute, told BBC News. "The infections are associated with a high mortality rate. "It's already worrying that we're seeing 2,000 deaths in 2015 - but the concern is that if action isn't taken, then this will continue to rise." Deaths from carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae have gone up from 341 in Europe in 2007 to 2,094 by 2015. This is the largest study of carbapenem resistance in K. pneumoniae, with 244 hospitals involved from Ireland to Israel. Researchers analysed the bacterium's DNA - its genetic code - from samples from infected patients. "Our findings imply hospitals are the key facilitator of transmission [and suggest that] the bacteria are spreading from person-to-person primarily within hospitals," said Dr David. "The fact that we see the same high-risk clones in many different hospitals around Europe also shows there's something special about those strains." (Webmaster's comment: And the superbug has 7.7 billion potential hosts.)
7-29-19 Just one dose of the HPV vaccine may be enough to lower cancer rates
A single dose of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine seems to be almost as good as two or three injections at preventing cervical cancer. The finding may make reaching the World Health Organization’s goal of eliminating cervical cancer easier than initially thought. Many people catch HPV through sexual activity, but the body’s immune system can usually wipe the virus out within a year or two. However, when HPV infections persist they can eventually cause cancer. The virus is responsible for more than 99 per cent of cervical cancers, as well as causing vaginal, vulval, anal and penile cancers, and genital warts. In 2007, Australia rolled out the world’s first national HPV programme, providing girls in schools with three free shots of the vaccine each. The injection is now offered to boys too, and the vaccine – which has been improved to protect against nine strains of HPV – is now usually given in two doses. To understand how different doses of the vaccine affect the risk of developing cervical cancer, Julia Brotherton at the VCS Foundation in Australia and her colleagues analysed cervical screening data from a quarter of a million Australian women who were eligible for the vaccination. During the study, sexually active women were encouraged to have a Pap smear test every two years to screen for cellular changes on the cervix that might be a sign of cancer. Analysing registers of HPV vaccinations and cervical cancer cases, the team found that women who had received three doses of the vaccine were 41 per cent less likely to have these cellular changes – known as precancerous lesions – than unvaccinated women. Women who had been given one or two doses of the vaccine were, respectively, 35 and 39 per cent less likely than unvaccinated women to have these lesions.
7-29-19 Positive attitudes about aging may pay off in better health
A bias against growing older has physical effects. The first time someone offered me a seat on the subway, I reflexively declined, and then stewed about it all the way home. Sheesh, I thought, do I really look like an old lady in need of assistance? When I got off the train, I swear my knees felt a bit creaky as I clomped up the subway steps. When we’re busy doing things we love — which for me these days means playing with my two young granddaughters — we don’t think about how old we are or the state of our knees. But then something pulls us up short, like a polite young man offering his seat, or catching a view of a selfie from an unflattering angle, and suddenly we’re walking more slowly, feeling just a little worse about life in general. The way these internalized attitudes about aging affect us physically is a focus within a growing field in social psychology known as mind-body studies. In the next few months, the World Health Organization is expected to publish the results of a global investigation of ageism — discrimination toward the aged, akin to racism and sexism — that will address how to fight the prejudice. The report will also outline the myriad ways that ageist attitudes can affect the health and well-being of older people. Psychologist Becca Levy is a contributor to the forthcoming WHO report and has spent her career linking negative aging attitudes to such measures as walking speed in older people, a greater likelihood of developing the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease and even a reduction in life span. But it’s not all grim; Levy, at the Yale School of Public Health, has also shown that something as simple as subliminal exposure to age-positive words can lead to physical improvements in older people of the sort that typically come about only after a program of regular exercise. If Levy and other scientists are correct, putting a more positive spin on our general view of aging might make a profound difference in the health of people over 65, the fastest-growing age group in America today.
7-29-19 Parents, your nose is the original smart diaper. Use it.
The humble schnoz may not come with an app, but your olfactory system is smarter than a sensor from Big Diaper Diaper manufacturers are worried. American millennials aren't reproducing nearly as early or abundantly as their parents did, so the birth rate in the U.S. is falling. As are diaper sales. Cashing in on small humans' incontinence is harder than it's ever been. To counter the effect of reproductive dwindling, diaper industry leaders have turned to price inflation, layoffs, and outright gimmickry. Pampers bumped the cost of their signature diaper by 4 percent last year, while Huggies' parent company Kimberly-Clark axed 13 percent of its workforce in January 2018. "You can't encourage moms to use more diapers in a developed market where the babies aren't being born in those markets," Kimberly-Clark CEO Thomas Falk told investors. Now, both companies are attempting to get parents to spend more money on this staple baby product by tweaking it into something overly complicated and, frankly, really weird: the smart diaper. Recently, Pampers introduced its line, Lumi, which will launch in the fall, while Huggies, in partnership with South Korean tech company Monit, unveiled its own smart diaper system, Monit x Huggies, in Korea last October. The company plans to bring it to America soon. As Vox explains, these companies are part of a "sprawling diaper-tech war." Even Google parent Alphabet is getting in on the action. So how does a smart diaper work? From what I can fathom, it's not so much the diapers that are smart but the add-ons that come with them: little sensors that sit on the front on the diaper and monitor the environment inside, then send information to an app on your phone.
7-27-19 What animals' memories can tell us about Alzheimer's
Rats' impressive performance on memory tests means that they might have a lot to teach us about our own minds. For almost as long as modern science has been around, the idea that animals can remember past experiences seemed so preposterous that few researchers bothered to study it. Surely only humans, with our big, sophisticated brains, could be capable of "episodic" memories — recalling a trip to the grocery store last Saturday, for example. Animals, in their constant striving for survival, as the popular thinking went, must live in the now, and only in the now. Using our own cognitive superpowers, we now know that we were spectacularly mistaken — and a memory champ from the animal world might even help us improve how we treat Alzheimer's disease. The view of animals as primitive beings void of memories and living only in the present had its roots in a 400-year-old idea still often taught and debated in introductory Philosophy classes. "They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing," wrote Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), a French priest and philosopher. Malebranche was poetically summarizing the ideas of René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern Western philosophy and perhaps the most famous person to devalue animals, seeing them as lacking souls and therefore nothing more than mechanical "automata." As science has learned more about the capabilities of animals, that assumption has become impossible to justify. Beginning in the 1980s, studies confirmed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that animals are capable of what's called procedural memory — a type of long-term memory that aids in performing motor skills such as running or climbing. But what about episodic memory, the ability to perform mental time-travel, returning to a past event and replaying it in the mind? The psychologist Endel Tulving in Canada, who defined episodic memory in 1972, popularized the view that such mental feats were beyond creatures other than us. Where was the evidence, he said, that the hippocampus of other species — the part of the brain where episodic memories are kept and retrieved — could capture memories like our own?
7-27-19 Complaints about AncestryDNA and 23andme sent to UK data watchdog
Three of the biggest home DNA testing companies in the UK have all been the subject of complaints to the data watchdog, figures released under freedom of information rules show. Since January last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office received a total of 16 complaints about AncestryDNA, 23andme and MyHeritage. The cases appear to have been relatively low level, but several required action by the companies involved, as well as the ICO having to raise concerns with them and give advice on compliance with data protection rules. Direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies are growing in popularity with 4.7 million people estimated to have used one in the UK. Members of the UK parliament are investigating what safeguards should be put in place to protect people who take such tests, some of which can tell people their risk of developing conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. Influential scientific groups have already told MPs that steps need to be taken to avoid negative outcomes, such as causing anxiety when people receive their results. The groups also said that new laws may be needed to make sure genetic data is not sold on to third parties such as insurance firms. Of the complaints made to the ICO, 10 were made about the US company AncestryDNA, 2 about the US firm 23andme, and 4 about Israeli-based MyHeritage. The issues covered everything from security, use and disclosure of data, and the right to prevent the processing of data. The details of the cases were not disclosed in the freedom of information release to New Scientist. But they are likely to involve isolated incidents of human error rather than failures of procedures. That might be an email being sent to the wrong person, or small volumes of personal data being lost or accidentally destroyed.
7-27-19 Mapping how the ‘immortal’ hydra regrows cells may demystify regeneration
The tiny invertebrates can regrow their bodies from just a bit of tissue. Hydra seem to have found the fountain of youth, perpetually renewing their cells and regrowing damaged body parts. The tiny tubelike creatures, with a tentacle-ringed mouth and a sticky foot, can regrow their entire bodies from just a scrap of tissue. These freshwater invertebrates’ regenerative superpowers hinge on three groups of stem cells that develop into specific cells of the hydra’s nerves, glands and other tissues. Scientists now have the best map yet of which genes turn on as stem cells journey toward their fates, researchers report July 26 in Science. “Most animals have about the same genes,” says Celina Juliano, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis. But hydra somehow use that shared genetic toolkit “to do these crazy things,” she says. Juliano and colleagues analyzed nearly 25,000 individual cells from adult hydra polyps to find which genes were active inside each cell. “Every 20 days, it’s basically a completely new animal,” Juliano says. This constant turnover let researchers track gene activity and catch the steps that stem cells go through as they develop. The researchers could also watch how specific genes’ activity plays out across an animal’s body, by creating fluorescent probes that find and latch onto RNA in cells. For instance, nerve cells that cluster at the foot and near the tentacles lit up magenta in one hydra. For the hydra’s nervous system, researchers were also able to use the technique to map the development of 12 different types of nerve cells. Scientists working towards regenerating tissue in humans may have something to learn from these creatures. “If you work with these regenerative organisms, like hydra, you can come up with fundamental principles of how regeneration works,” Juliano says.
7-27-19 Some jellyfish sperm have stingers that fire inside females
Jellyfish and their relatives are famous for their painful and dangerous stings, which are delivered by special cells called cnidocytes. So readers may wince at the fact that two species of box jellyfish package cnidocytes with their sperm. However, the cnidocytes are not there to cause harm. Instead, they use sharp barbs to anchor the sperm inside the female’s gonads. Box jellyfish belong to a group called cnidarians, which also includes corals, all of which have cnidocytes. Most cnidarians just release sperm and eggs into the water and trust that they will meet. But two box jellyfish, Copula sivickisi and Tripedalia cystophora, copulate – so the eggs are fertilised inside the female. In a 2015 study, Anders Garm of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues showed that the sperm-containing packets released by C. sivickisi have cnidocytes. What’s more, there are cnidocytes in the female’s sex organs. The sperm cnidocytes anchor the sperm inside the female. After fertilisation, the female lays the eggs in a long, sticky “embryo strand”, which she packs with cnidocytes to protect it from predators. The sperm cnidocytes should not hurt the female, says Garm. “The cnidocytes are of a type without the penetrating arrow and without poison.” With Sandra Helmark, Garm has now studied the sex cells of T. cystophora. Again, they found cnidocytes in the sperm-containing packets that the males produce. In this species, however, the female sex organs don’t carry stinging cells. Garm says this reflects their different reproductive strategies. Female T. cystophora keep the fertilised eggs inside their bodies until they have developed. That means the developing young do not need protective cnidocytes.
7-26-19 76 billion opioid pills
The American pharmaceutical industry pumped out 76 billion opioid pills from 2006 to 2012, flooding many small towns and rural areas with the addictive drugs, according to an analysis of Drug Enforcement Administration data. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. have died of overdoses and other opioid-related causes over the past decade. (Webmaster's comment: And the industry made Billions!)
7-26-19 Fruit juice and cancer
Drinking lots of sugar-sweetened drinks and fruit juice may increase your risk for cancer, according to a new French study. Researchers examined nine years’ worth of data from a long-running study in which some 101,000 healthy adults, average age 42, completed numerous surveys about what food and drink they had consumed the previous day. After controlling for risk factors such as family health history and physical activity levels, they found that drinking just 3.4 fluid ounces of sugary beverages a day—about a third of a typical can of soda—was linked with an 18 percent increase in overall cancer risk and a 22 percent higher risk for breast cancer. The increase was the same for fruit juice and sodas; there was no link for artificially sweetened drinks. Study leader Mathilde Touvier cautions that the findings show correlation, not causation. But she says one explanation for the connection may be sugar’s link to obesity. “High sugary drinks consumption is a risk factor for obesity and weight gain,” she tells CNN.com, and “obesity is in itself a risk factor for cancer.”
7-26-19 Small calorie cuts, big benefits
Consuming just 300 fewer calories a day—the amount in a large bagel or a few chocolate chip cookies—can have big health benefits, reports The New York Times. In a new study, scientists observed 143 healthy men and women, ages 21 to 50, who tried to cut their daily calorie intake by 25 percent for two years. Many of them fell short, managing only a 12 percent reduction on average—about 300 calories. Yet the health gains from that small cut were significant. Participants lost weight and body fat; their blood pressure dropped; their cholesterol levels and blood sugar control improved; and they had less inflammation. While some of the benefits clearly resulted from the participants’ weight loss, the extent of the metabolic improvement suggested that the calorie reduction itself had some effect, too. “We weren’t surprised that there were changes,” says study leader William Kraus, from Duke University. “But the magnitude was rather astounding. In a disease population, there aren’t five drugs in combination that would cause this aggregate of an improvement.”
7-26-19 Healthy living can counteract dementia risk
Leading a healthy lifestyle may reduce risk for dementia, even among people genetically predisposed to the condition, new research suggests. British scientists examined nearly 200,000 people, all age 60 or older and with no signs or symptoms of dementia at the start of the study. Participants were each given a “polygenic risk score” that estimated their genetic risk for dementia, and a “healthy lifestyle score” factoring in things like alcohol consumption and exercise. Study subjects were tracked for about eight years, during which those with the worst lifestyle score and the highest genetic risk were three times more likely to develop dementia than the healthiest participants with the lowest genetic risk. But among those with high-risk genes, participants who led a healthy lifestyle—eating well and exercising regularly, for example—were 32 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with bad habits. Researchers say the study should give hope to people who are told they are genetically predisposed to dementia. It “undermines a fatalistic view of dementia,” senior author David Llewellyn, from the University of Exeter in England, tells ScienceDaily.com. “Some people believe it’s inevitable they’ll develop [the condition] because of their genetics. However, it appears that you may be able to substantially reduce your dementia risk by living a healthy lifestyle.”
7-26-19 Humans’ early exit from Africa
Anew analysis of two skull fragments found in a cave in southern Greece suggests that early humans may have first left Africa far earlier than previously thought. Until now, the oldest Homo sapiens fossil discovered outside Africa was a 180,000-year-old jawbone unearthed in Israel. Scientists think it came from one of many early human groups that tried—and ultimately failed—to settle away from Africa; it wasn’t until 50,000 years ago that our ancestors successfully relocated. The skull fragments in Greece were first discovered in the 1970s and were initially thought to belong to Neanderthals, who arrived in Europe some 400,000 years ago. But by analyzing tiny amounts of uranium in the fossils and using computers to create a 3D image of what the complete skulls would have looked like, scientists concluded that while one of the fossils was from a 170,000-year-old Neanderthal, the other was a 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens. If confirmed, that would make it the oldest modern human fossil found anywhere outside Africa. Lead author Katerina Harvati, from the University of Tübingen in Germany, tells TheGuardian.com that the discovery confirms that humans didn’t leave Africa in “one major exodus.”
7-26-19 Climate change could raise the risk of deadly fungal infections in humans
Outbreaks of Candida auris have recently erupted around the world. While fungal diseases have devastated many animal and plant species, humans and other mammals have mostly been spared. That’s probably because mammals have body temperatures too warm for most fungi to replicate as well as powerful immune systems. But climate change may be challenging those defenses, bringing new fungal threats to human health, a microbiologist warns. From 2012 to 2015, pathogenic versions of the fungus Candida auris arose independently in Africa, Asia and South America. The versions are from the same species, yet they are genetically distinct, so the spread across continents couldn’t have been caused by infected travelers, says Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Instead, each continents’ C. auris may have become tolerant of the average normal body temperature of humans — about 37° Celsius — because the fungi acclimated to warming in the environment caused by climate change, Casadevall and colleagues argue. If this hypothesis turns out to be true, C. auris “may be the first example of a new fungal disease emerging from climate change” that poses a risk to humans, the researchers report online July 23 in mBio. Since mid-2016, when reporting of C. auris infections began in the United States, there have been nearly 700 cases confirmed in 12 states, with deadly outbreaks occurring among patients in hospitals and other health care facilities. More than 30 countries around the world have also reported cases. The fungus causes dangerous infections of the blood, brain, heart and other parts of the body. Studies show that an invasive infection can be fatal 30 to 60 percent of the time. And some infections are resistant to all available antifungal medications.
7-26-19 Giving cats food with an antibody may help people with cat allergies
Pet-food maker Purina is studying how adding an antibody to the chow curbs reactions. Cat lovers who sneeze and sniffle around their feline friends might one day find at least partial relief in a can of cat food. New research suggests that feeding cats an antibody to the major allergy-causing protein in cats renders some of the protein, called Fel d1, unrecognizable to the human immune system, reducing an allergic response. After 105 cats were fed the antibody for 10 weeks, the amount of active Fel d1 protein on the cats’ hair dropped by 47 percent on average, researchers from pet food–maker Nestlé Purina report in the June Immunity, Inflammation and Disease. And in a small pilot study, 11 people allergic to cats experienced substantially reduced nasal symptoms and less itchy, scratchy eyes when exposed in a test chamber to hair from cats fed the antibody diet, compared with cats fed a control diet. The preliminary findings were presented in Lisbon, Portugal at the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Congress in June. The Fel d1 protein is produced in cats’ salivary and sebaceous glands. Cats transfer the protein to their hair when they groom by licking themselves and excrete it in their urine. Humans are then exposed to it on cat hair and dander — dead skin — or in the litter box. Cat allergies plague up to 20 percent of people, and Fel d1 is responsible for 95 percent of allergic reactions to cats. Doctors can’t give humans antibodies orally because the molecules are broken down in the gut and never reach their targets, says Michael Blaiss, executive medical director of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and an allergist and immunologist at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. So Purina’s approach to the cat allergy problem is interesting and unusual, he says.
7-26-19 Dinosaur bone: Scientists uncover giant femur in France
Scientists in south-western France have uncovered a giant dinosaur thigh bone at an excavation site that has been yielding fossils for nearly a decade. Two metres (6.6ft) long, the femur found at Angeac is thought to have belonged to a sauropod, a plant-eating dinosaur with a long neck and tail. Sauropods, common in the late Jurassic era, were among the largest land animals that ever existed. Palaeontologists say they are amazed at the state of preservation of the bone. "We can see the insertions of muscles and tendons, and scars," Ronan Allain of the National History Museum of Paris told Le Parisien newspaper. "This is rare for big pieces which tend to collapse in on themselves and fragment." Such dinosaurs, which lived more than 140m years ago, would have weighed 40 to 50 tonnes, Allain told Reuters news agency. A sauropod thigh bone found at the same site in 2010 was 2.2m long and weighed 500 kilos, according to local paper La Charente Libre. The femur found this week is expected to weigh about the same when it is finally removed, a job which will probably take a good week and involve a crane. Some 70 scientists are working this summer at the site buried deep in the vineyards of the Charente area, near the town of Cognac. More than 7,500 fossils from at least 40 species have been recovered since 2010, making the former marsh one of the most important such sites in Europe. Bones of stegosauruses and a herd of ostrich dinosaurs have been found, Le Parisien reports.
7-25-19 Immune system defects seem to contribute to obesity in mice
Similar changes that alter the microbiome and change fat uptake may be at work in people too. Subtle defects in the immune system may lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes, a study of mice suggests. Mice gained weight and developed health problems when they carried a genetic defect that dampens some immune functions, researchers report in the July 26 Science. The immune problems were linked to shifts in the gut microbiome — the collection of friendly bacteria and other microbes living in the intestines. Altering the gut microbe mix, particularly in the small intestine, may lead to increased absorption of fat from the diet, the researchers found. These findings, if they hold up in human studies, could lead to strategies for boosting immune system function in order to help prevent obesity and associated health problems. People with obesity and those with type 2 diabetes also have gut microbe compositions and subtle immune system deficiencies similar to those seen in the mice, says June Round, a microbiome researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. “It’s possible that things that are happening in our mice are also happening in individual [humans],” she says. Round and colleagues noticed that mice with a defect in the Myd88 gene started gaining weight at about 5 months old. By about a year old, those mice, which lack Myd88 protein in immune cells called T cells, weighed up to 60 grams — about twice as much as a normal mouse. The mutant mice also had developed metabolic problems associated with obesity, such as insulin resistance, a hallmark of type 2 diabetes in people. Those mice lacking Myd88 had reduced activity of a subset of specialized T cells called T follicular helper cells. These helper cells tell other immune cells called B cells to make antibodies against certain microbes. The mice also made fewer IgA antibodies aimed at controlling certain microbes.
7-25-19 50 years ago, a drug that crippled a generation found new life as a leprosy treatment
Excerpt from the July 19, 1969 issue of Science News. The drug that was banned because of its crippling effect on babies when taken as a tranquilizer and sleeping pill by pregnant women is being studied for its use in Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Thalidomide has been tried on 22 leprosy patients?…?on an experimental basis with the permission of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.… The primary action is to halt or prevent acute reactions such as fever and skin lesions. — Science News, July 19, 1969.
The FDA approved thalidomide for leprous skin lesions in limited cases in 1975. Related drugs were approved after 2005 also to help control the immune system and calm inflammation. These drugs also treat psoriasis, arthritis and the blood cancer multiple myeloma. Birth defects remain a risk, so use of thalidomide and its analogs is controlled in the United States. But lax oversight elsewhere means thalidomide is still misused. In Brazil, nearly 200 children born from 2005 to 2010 may have been disabled by the drug, a 2015 study found. The World Health Organization discourages thalidomide use for leprosy.
7-25-19 Smartwatch app that soothes the nerves helps improve exam results
Exams can cause a racing heart or sweaty palms for the best of us, but a simple smartwatch app could help alleviate some of the stress. The app produces a slow, soothing tapping that seems to help people perform better in situations filled with anxiety. Jean Costa and his colleagues at Cornell University in New York created an app that reacts to people’s heart rates by producing a light tapping on the inner wrist of a smartwatch wearer. They tested the app, called BoostMeUp, on 72 college students who were given two maths exams under pressure, and found that slow taps reduced anxiety and improved test performance. Previous studies suggest that techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can reduce stress. “But in many situations we need something in the moment,” says Costa. During a practice maths test, the team first used smartwatches without tapping to measure the students’ baseline heart rates. In subsequent tests, half the participants were given a wrist tapping that was 30 per cent faster than their baseline heart rate, while the other half experienced tapping that was 30 per cent slower than this baseline. To raise the stakes, participants were told the exams were IQ tests and that they would be rewarded financially for better performance. After all the tests, participants filled out questionnaires to assess their levels of anxiety. Those who were given artificially fast heart rate feedback reported higher levels of anxiety compared with the slow feedback group. The fast tapping group also did worse on the test of 36 questions, answering 0.58 more questions incorrectly on average compared with when they had no feedback. The slow feedback group answered 1.75 more questions correctly when the tapping was on.
7-25-19 Bionic eye helps people who are blind read letters again
A bionic eye has helped people who are legally blind to see and read letters again. The device consists of glasses with an embedded camera, and a microchip implanted behind the retina. Images beamed through the pupil from the camera are converted by the chip into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain. Biotech firm Pixium Vision, which created the device, has trialled the bionic eye in five people in France who have age-related macular degeneration. All those in the trial had no central vision before the microchips were implanted. After 12 months, most have regained the ability to read individual letters and some can read sequences of letters. This represents a significant improvement, although it is still far from restoring perfect vision. Macular degeneration affects the macula, the central 5 millimetres of the retina that is responsible for the middle part of vision. In severe cases, central vision is blurred or completely dark, making it impossible to read or recognise faces. The bionic eye effectively replaces this missing central portion, although not in high definition. There are millions of photoreceptors in the retina, each of which is like a pixel in our field of vision. Trying to replicate that electronically is a challenge, but implants are improving, says Rachael Pearson at University College London, who wasn’t involved in the research. The image created by the Pixium implant is only 378 pixels in total. Individuals with eye conditions can lose a huge number of photoreceptors before they notice symptoms. “Being able to replace and do the job of a relatively small number may still give useful vision back,” says Pearson. All the trial participants have dry macular degeneration, a form of the condition that accounts for 90 per cent of all cases, and currently cannot be treated or reversed.
7-25-19 Tree stumps that should be dead can be kept alive by nearby trees
A tree stump that should have died is being kept alive by neighbouring trees that are funnelling water and nutrients to it through an interconnected root system. The finding adds to a growing understanding that trees and other organisms can work together for the benefit of a forest. Sebastian Leuzinger at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, and a colleague were hiking through a forest track west of Auckland when they noticed a single tree stump with living tissue growing from it. Curious about how it was surviving without green foliage, they decided to put several continuous water monitors in the kauri (Agathis australis) stump and in two nearby adult trees of the same species. Over the following weeks, they found a relationship between the water flow in the trees and the stump. This meant that when the neighbouring trees would evaporate water through their leaves during the day, the water movement in the stump remained low. But when the trees were dormant during the evening, the water would begin circulating through the stump. Similarly, when it became overcast or rainy and the water flow dropped in the trees, it picked up in the stump. In healthy trees, water flow is largely driven by evaporation, but without leaves the stump’s water flow was bound by the movements of its neighbours. Along with a growing awareness of the way fungi help trees exchange carbon and other nutrients, this relationship undermines the notion of trees as individuals or distinct entities. “And that dramatically changes our view of forest ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’,” says Leuzinger. The networking of water among trees may make them more resistant to water scarcity, says Leuzinger, but it may also increase the risk of diseases spreading. This is a particular worry for kauri trees, which are being affected by a deadly disease called kauri dieback.
7-24-19 Why video games struggle to navigate mental health’s tricky waters
Video games are starting to tackle themes of mental health but to succeed they will need novel-like characterisation, says Jacob Aron in his monthly column. VIDEO games, as a medium, normally see you saving the world rather than saving yourself. The technical challenges and large teams involved in creating lavish 3D worlds and complex scenarios means that there is rarely room to also tell the kind of personal stories that lie at the heart of novels or films. But this is starting to change with titles tackling issues around mental health. Sea of Solitude, released earlier this month, places you in the shoes of Kay, a young woman cast adrift in a small boat on a dark, stormy sea. Immediately, you can tell something isn’t quite right, as Kay appears to be a furry humanoid with glowing red eyes, but for the first few minutes, at least, it is quite fun. Quickly, the inky black gives way to gorgeous sunshine in a flooded city and you meet a strange flying girl. Then the darkness returns. A gigantic, crab-like monster blocks Kay’s path, berating her: “You worthless piece of shit, you have no idea what you are doing!” The game involves navigating around a series of these large creatures, all of which represent some aspect of Kay or her family. It is clear she is lonely, unhappy and struggling to relate to others: as the game goes on, audio clips from her “real” life play out, detailing how she failed to notice her younger brother was being bullied at school, or how her parents met and eventually divorced. Kay absorbs their darkness, restoring them and the landscape, but at a cost to herself. I admire what Sea of Solitude is attempting, and found myself feeling for Kay and her family, but the metaphors are fairly basic. It felt unsophisticated compared to something like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a recent novel by Gail Honeyman that memorably tackled similar issues. The biggest effect Sea of Solitude had on me was to trigger a form of climate anxiety, as flying over abandoned rooftops made me worry about the floods to come.
7-24-19 Safety of many sunscreen ingredients is in doubt – should we worry?
The US body that regulates sunscreen has declared that 12 of the 16 popular active ingredients might not actually be safe. Here's what you need to know. SUMMER has returned to the northern hemisphere, and many will be reminded to slather on the sunscreen to keep sunburn at bay. But after recent developments, some may hesitate, wondering if sunscreen is totally safe. In the past five months, the US body that regulates sunscreen has declared that 12 active ingredients used in sunscreens might not actually be safe. And in a study published in May, the organisation found that four of these ingredients enter the bloodstream through the skin. The revelations have come from the US at least partly because sunscreens there are, unusually, regulated as over-the-counter drugs. But similar products are sold around the world. And sunscreens may be only the tip of the iceberg, with general cosmetics starting to come under scrutiny too. There is no need to drastically change your behaviour just yet as none of the commonly used ingredients have been decidedly declared unsafe, but questions remain. Why are these concerns only coming now? And how worried should we be about the stuff we put on our skin? In most countries, sunscreens are classified as cosmetic products. In the European Union, they are subject to rules on which ingredients can be used, and must pass tests for skin and eye irritation, for example. In the US, however, sunscreens, including cosmetics marketed with a sun protection factor, are regulated like drugs because they make specific health claims: to reduce the chances of sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancers. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues rules for industry to follow and new drugs must undergo rigorous clinical trials in people, but because sunscreens were already marketed before these rules took effect, their safety has been reviewed after the fact.
7-24-19 Tiny drug-filled capsules motor around the body to target cancer cells
Tiny self-propelled capsules shed their outer shells and deliver drugs directly to tumour cells. These microrobots, demonstrated in mouse intestines, could one day be targeted treatments for cancers in hard-to-reach places in the body. “When the capsule reaches the tumour, we can activate it, break the capsule, release the micromotors and they will move around the tumour area. That motion is very important for drug delivery,” says Wei Gao at the California Institute of Technology. He and his team created the micromotors in a series of layers. First, there are magnesium particles about 20 micrometres in diameter. A layer of gold encases the magnesium and then a hydrogel layer containing tumour-fighting drugs wraps around that. Finally, several of these micromotors are contained within a gelatin capsule. The team fed the capsules to mice that had melanoma cells in their intestines to mimic colon cancer. Melanoma was used because these cells absorb near-infrared light well, so the team could better track the effects of the capsules with photoacoustic computed tomography imaging, which sends near-infrared light into tissues where it is converted into sound and returns an ultrasound image. Gao and his colleagues tracked the capsules as they entered the mouse intestines and neared the cancerous cells. Once there, the team shone a strong beam of infrared light on the capsules, which heated the gold and released the drugs. The heat also freed the magnesium, which created hydrogen bubbles through a chemical reaction with the intestinal fluid. That gas escapes via a 2-nanometre hole that was left in the shell, powering the capsules around the intestine like tiny balloons letting out air as they fly around. Drug delivery in the gastrointestinal tract is tricky, because everything is in motion, so the drugs can get swept away before they can deliver treatment. “We need long-term release. The micromotors move around the tumour, so they can penetrate the tissue of the tumour and slowly release the drug over a long time,” says Gao.
7-24-19 The brain's drain: How our brains flush out their waste and toxins
How does the brain clean itself? We now know a major route for clearing toxins out from the brain, and the finding could help us understand what goes wrong in age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Whereabouts cerebrospinal fluid enters and exits the brain has been a long-standing enigma, says Gou Young Koh at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. In 2014, a network of vessels called the meningeal lymphatic vessels in the outer brain membrane were found to play a part in regulating the brain’s fluids, flushing out excess proteins that can build up in the brain. However, because of the brain’s complex structure, it remained unclear where the majority of this drainage occurs. To find out which routes the fluid takes, Koh and his colleagues injected dye and tracer quantum dots into the cerebrospinal fluid of mice and then traced where it flowed out of the brain using brain scans. They found that the basal meningeal lymphatic vessels allow cerebrospinal fluid to move in and out of the brain at the base of the skull, but not at the top. The team found a significant decline in cerebrospinal fluid drainage in the brains of older mice. Animals who were 2 or more years old had about half the level of drainage through their basal meningeal lymphatic vessels than those aged 3 months. “It’s amazing that this is such a basic anatomical question and we don’t know how something as important as fluid around the brain is cleared out,” says Steven Proulx at the University of Bern in Switzerland. “This is not the end of the discussion, though. Our own findings are that drainage pathways in the nasal region and even the optic region are as important or even more important than this one.”
7-24-19 This is the first fungus known to host complex algae inside its cells
It’s unclear if the newly discovered alliance exists in the wild. A soil fungus and a marine alga have formed a beautiful friendship. In a lab dish, scientists grew the fungus Mortierella elongata with a photosynthetic alga called Nannochloropsis oceanica. This odd couple formed a mutually beneficial team that kept each other going when nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen were scarce, researchers report July 16 in eLife. Surprisingly, after about a month together, the partners got even cozier. Algal cells began growing inside the fungi’s super long cells called hyphae — the first time that scientists have identified a fungus that can harbor eukaryotic algae inside itself. (In eukaryotic cells, DNA is stored in the nucleus.) In lichens, a symbiotic pairing of fungi and algae, the algae remain outside of the fungal cells. In the new study, biochemist Zhi-Yan Du of Michigan State University in East Lansing and his colleagues used heavy forms of carbon and nitrogen to trace the organisms’ nutrient exchange. The fungi passed more than twice as much nitrogen to their algal partners as the algae sent to the fungi, the team found. And while both partners lent each other carbon, the algal cells had to touch the fungi’s hyphae cells to make their carbon deliveries. It’s unclear if the newly discovered alliance exists in the wild. But both N. oceanica and M. elongata are found around the world, and could interact in places such as tidal zones. Learning more about how the duo teams up may shed light on how symbiotic partnerships evolve.
7-24-19 How to trick your mind to break bad habits and reach your goals
Our brains evolved to help us survive in an age where food and rest were hard to come by. To help you stay fit and healthy in the modern world, here's how to game your brain. “JUST do it,” they say. If only it were that easy. It doesn’t seem to matter how much you want to get fit, eat better, spend money more wisely or work towards a promotion, something always comes along to knock you off course. The good news is that it doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human. The human mind didn’t evolve to love exercising and eating veg. The reality of the hunter-gatherer life that shaped us was that exercise was non-negotiable and if you found something sweet, fatty and edible, resistance was an option – just not a very sensible one. As for sitting still and concentrating for hours on end, forget it. Our minds were shaped to scan the horizon for danger and opportunity. Unfortunately, this means that most of our long-term goals work against what our bodies and minds have evolved to do. So, what’s a modern human to do? The only thing for it is to game your brain. So here are the most scientific ways to do just that and reach your goals, in spite of yourself. We like to think we are creatures of reason and purpose. In reality, we mostly sleepwalk our way through life, responding to whatever is under our noses. “Environments cue our behaviour – often without our awareness,” says Theresa Marteau, director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge. Worse, the environment often has a stronger influence on our behaviour than the beliefs we hold in our heads.
7-24-19 Light pollution's effects on birds may help to spread West Nile virus
Exposure to artificial light at night has been shown to affect the immune responses of some birds, and now a study has found that light pollution can extend the infectious period of West Nile virus in house sparrows. “These birds are a main reservoir of West Nile virus in nature. Mosquitoes will preferentially feed on some of these birds, and they live in urban, light-polluted habitats,” says Meredith Kernbach at the University of South Florida. “They’re likely one of the species that plays a key role in West Nile Virus transmission in light-polluted areas.” She and her colleagues captured 45 wild house sparrows at two sites near Tampa Bay, Florida. They housed 22 of them in natural light conditions and 23 of them in artificial light conditions, using warm light similar to that used in homes and street lamps. They exposed all the birds to West Nile virus and then, over the next 10 days, measured their blood samples for infection and their body mass. The sparrows housed with artificial light at night remained infectious longer than the birds housed under natural lighting conditions. According to the researchers’ calculations, this makes an outbreak of disease among sparrows 41 per cent more likely if the birds are exposed to artificial light. This, in turn, might make it more likely that the virus could jump to humans via mosquitoes that bite both sparrows and humans. “There’s an avian hormone synonymous to cortisol in humans, which is responsible for mediating responses to stressors in birds. We thought that may be dysregulated, but we found that this hormone was not affected by light at night, so we’ve begun investigating melatonin as the possible hormone behind this,” says Kernbach.
7-24-19 Dark feathers give birds hot wings that may save energy during flight
Dark feathers may help birds fly more efficiently. They heat up the animals’ wings and the surrounding air, which might help increase airflow over the wing. Svana Rogalla and her colleagues at the University of Ghent studied several bird species to see how the colour of feathers affects wing temperature during flight. They thermally imaged an osprey and found that dark feathers on the bird become warmer than light ones. To see how wing temperatures changed during flight, the team then used stuffed bird wings of different species in a wind tunnel, and heated them with infrared light bulbs similar in intensity to being outdoors on sunny and cloudy days. They exposed osprey, gannet and back-blacked gull wings to wind speeds of 6, 12 and 18 metres per second, similar to the birds’ natural flight speeds. “We wanted to simulate flight under realistic conditions,” says Rogalla. The species chosen were large soaring birds, which can increase their altitude without flapping their wings by riding on rising air currents. The team heated each wing for two minutes before placing it in the wind for two minutes. Darker feathers heated up much more than light feathers. “We found temperature differences of about nine degrees between black and white,” says Rogalla. “We would even find these temperature differences in the same wing.” The research suggests that a common wing pattern – white feathers at the root of the wing where it attaches to the body and black feathers at the wing tips – could increase lift while flying. The temperature difference between the light and dark feathers creates convective currents in the air above the wing that move from the cooler base of the wing to the darker tips. This boosts the airflow over the wing, which may make flight more efficient.
7-24-19 A frog study may point to where parenting begins in the brain
Core regions include one active in mammals, hinting at an ancient basis for parental behaviors. Most frogs lay oodles of eggs and quickly hop away. But some poison dart frogs baby their offspring, cleaning and hydrating eggs laid on land and piggybacking hatched tadpoles to water. A peek inside the brains of these nurturing amphibians reveals that in males and females, two regions linked with caring for young are the same — a finding that may provide clues to the neural underpinnings of parental behavior, researchers report online July 17 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. From humans to crocodiles, many creatures tend to their young. “But we actually understand very little about how the brain makes parental behaviors,” says Eva Fischer, a neuroethologist at Stanford University. To study how such care is wired into the amphibian brain, Fischer and her colleagues looked at neural activity in three poison dart frog species with different parenting strategies: Dendrobates tinctorius, among whom the males take care of the young; Oophaga sylvatica, whose females do the parenting; and Ranitomeya imitator, whose offspring are cared for by a monogamous male and female pair. The researchers collected and quickly killed 25 frogs while the amphibians were toting their tadpoles to water, in order to study the brain while it was still influenced by the parental task. Another 59 brains from non-caregiving frog species or caregivers’ partners were also included in the study. The researchers froze the frog brains and sliced them like loaves of bread. They stained the layers of tissue to pinpoint which nerve cells, or neurons, were turned on.
7-23-19 ‘Fruit from the Sands’ explores the Silk Road origins of apples, tea and more
A new book explains how many popular foods went global. Many popular foods can be traced back to trade caravans and herding groups that turned Central Asia into a hub of globalization several thousand years ago. In Fruit from the Sands, archaeobotanist Robert Spengler, who studies how people used plants in the past, surveys evidence suggesting that the ancient Silk Road was the conduit for dispersing much of what is now munched and sipped. Edibles with a Silk Road pedigree include almonds, apples, grapes, peaches, rice and wheat. To understand how this food distribution process worked, readers must first discard romantic notions about the Silk Road, Spengler explains. The name is misleading: The Silk Road wasn’t a road and didn’t primarily transport silk. Instead, archaeological evidence indicates that the Silk Road encompassed a network of trade routes radiating out from Central Asia that connected China to the Mediterranean. Silk Road exchanges of commodities and cultural practices, such as metalworking and horseback riding, began about 5,000 years ago. Grains were among the most important products to travel those ancient routes. Excavations led by Spengler of two herders’ camps in Kazakhstan indicate that grain movements began more than 4,000 years ago. Graves at those sites contain seeds of both wheat and broomcorn millet (SN: 5/3/14, p. 15). Grain crops carried back and forth on the Silk Road transformed societies, Spengler argues. Wheat from the Fertile Crescent in Southwest Asia spread into China along the foothills of Central Asian mountains, plant remains from an increasing number of sites suggest. The grain put a new spin on rice-based East Asian cuisine, adding noodles, dumplings and steamed buns made from wheat flour to the menu. Wheat became the winter crop of Chinese dynasties starting about 2,000 years ago.
7-23-19 'Important' Iron Age settlement found at Warboys dig
Iron Age roundhouses, Roman burials and Saxon pottery have been discovered in a "hugely important and hitherto unknown settlement". The seven month-long dig in Warboys in Cambridgeshire also uncovered "a rare example" of "early Saxon occupation mingled with the latest Roman remains". Archaeologist Stephen Macaulay said: "We almost never find actual physical evidence of this." The settlement reverted to agricultural use after the 7th Century. "What makes this site really significant is we have evidence of early Saxon occupation mingled with the latest Roman remains," said Mr Macaulay, deputy regional manager for Oxford Archaeology East. Saxon pottery, beads, worked antler and metalworking residues were uncovered. He added: "This a rare example of the Roman to Saxon transition in the east of England." The earliest finds include eight roundhouses, some of which date back to about 100BC, three crouched human burials and 2,500-year-old pottery remains. The 10-acre (four-hectare) site provided evidence of Roman rural industry, including a 15ft (4.6m) corn dryer and kilns. Archaeologists uncovered human cremations and six burials. They also "seem to have stumbled upon a shrine" and discovered cattle skulls and a largely intact horse skeleton, which they believe could be votive offerings. The site was excavated ahead of a housing development by Bellway Homes. Initial evaluation in May last year revealed extensive Roman remains, but the Iron Age settlement was not revealed until the main excavation began later that year. Mr Macauley said the dig has uncovered "a hugely important and a hitherto unknown settlement".
7-22-19 Our ancestors may have begun barbecuing 1.5 million years ago
Did cooking make us human? New evidence from Kenya suggests early hominins were roasting meat over fires 1.5 million years ago. The discovery pushes back evidence of fire use by hundreds of thousands of years, and lends weight to the idea that cooked food helped trigger the evolution of big-brained humans. “It’s very exciting,” says Sarah Hlubik at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “This is the oldest site to date with evidence of human ancestors using fire.” Hlubik and her colleagues found the evidence at a site in Kenya’s Koobi Fora region, which has a rich archaeological record. Parts of the site were first excavated in the 1970s and at the time researchers noticed unusual patches of reddened dirt. They were argued to indicate where ancient controlled fires had thermally altered the ground beneath. Excavations resumed in 2010, and since then Hlubik’s team has found evidence to bolster the idea that ancient hominins controlled and used fires on the site. The researchers collected thousands of fragments of stone tool and pieces of animal bone – some of which are burned – from across the site. Some patches of reddened dirt are surrounded by relatively dense clusters of stone artefacts and burned bone, as might be expected if hominins were sitting around a fire to eat cooked meat and prepare stone tools. Perhaps most significant is that a handful of the stone tool fragments have a distinct curved appearance, making them look a little like enlarged toenail clippings. In a second paper, the researchers found that this unusual curving occurs only when a stone tool is being made near a fire. Hlubik says that chipping away at a pebble to turn it into a tool seems to introduce physical stress lines in the fragments that ping off. If those fragments happen to fall into a hot fire, they then crack and curl along the stress lines.
7-22-19 Early life on Earth may have existed as miniature droplets of jelly
Blobs of simple carbon-based compounds could have been the precursors to the first living cells. A new study suggests that such droplets could have formed quickly and easily on the young Earth. “We were able to find these interesting microdroplet structures that could be synthesised from prebiotically available resources,” says Tony Jia of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. “Maybe they weren’t the direct precursors to modern cells, but perhaps they could have had some effect or had a role in the emergence of initial life.” All modern cells are surrounded by an outer wall called a membrane, which is made of long chain-like molecules called lipids. Given the ubiquity of these membranes, many researchers studying how life began have made simple membrane-lined spheres, which they say could mimic the first simple cells. The droplets Jia and his colleagues made are different. “They don’t have an outer layer,” says Jia. “In that sense they’re membrane-less.” The team made them from simple chemicals called alpha-hydroxy acids. These are made by the same processes that create amino acids, suggesting they were present on the early Earth, says team member Kuhan Chandru of the National University of Malaysia. “You can find them in meteorites as well.” He showed in 2018 that alpha-hydroxy acids link up to form complex molecules at a wide range of temperatures. In the new study, the team simply dissolved the acids in water, then left them to dry out at 80 °C for a week – mimicking the conditions near a hot volcanic pond. The acids turned into a thick jelly, because they had again formed complex molecules. When the researchers added water, the jelly formed hundreds of droplets a few micrometres across. Further experiments showed that crucial biological molecules, including protein and RNA, could enter the droplets and still perform their functions.
7-22-19 Droplets of these simple molecules may have helped kick-start life on Earth
Small blobs that break apart and reform can host protein and RNA. For the origin of life on Earth, ancient puddles or coastlines may have had a major ripple effect. A new study shows that a simple class of molecules called alpha hydroxy acids forms microdroplets when dried and rewetted, as could have taken place at the edges of water sources. These cell-sized compartments can trap RNA, and can merge and break apart — behavior that could have encouraged inanimate molecules in the primordial soup to give rise to life, researchers report July 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Besides giving clues to how life may have gotten started on the planet, the work might have additional applications in both medicine and the search for extraterrestrial life. Present-day biology relies on cells to concentrate nutrients and protect genetic information, so many scientists think that compartments could have been important for life to begin. But no one knows whether the first microenclosures on Earth were related to modern cells. “The early Earth was certainly a messy place chemically,” with nonbiological molecules such as alpha hydroxy acids potentially having roles in the emergence of life alongside biomolecules like RNA and their precursors, says biochemist Tony Jia of Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Earth-Life Science Institute. Jia’s team focused on mixtures of alpha hydroxy acids, some of which are common in skin-care cosmetics. Though not as prominent as their chemical relatives amino acids, alpha hydroxy acids are plausible players in origin-of-life happenings because they frequently show up in meteorites as well as in experiments mimicking early Earth chemistry.
7-22-19 Mental health days: How teens changed the law in Oregon
Students in Oregon will be able to take mental health days in the same way they would take sick days under a new law. It's after four teenagers successfully campaigned for the American state to introduce the legislation. Pupils will be able to have up to five days off every three months for "issues with mental or behavioural health". The group behind it say they aimed "to change the stigma around mental health". Hailey Hardcastle, an 18-year-old from Portland who helped champion the mental health bill, says she and the other members of the group put the proposal together in an effort to "encourage kids to admit when they're struggling". According to data from Oregon's Health Authority, nearly 17% of eighth-graders (13 and 14-year-olds) had reported seriously contemplating taking their lives in the past 12 months. Until now, schools there were only obliged to excuse absences related to physical illnesses. Although lots of business in the UK are becoming more open about discussing mental health, there is no law which forces schools or employers to recognise mental health issues as an excuse for having a day off. Hailey and the other teen campaigners, Sam Adamson, Lori Riddle and Derek Evans, have had criticism from parents in the state who suggest the law will encourage students to find more excuses to miss school. Some say students could already take "mental health days" by lying or just pretending to be ill. But Hailey says those views miss the point of the new law - and that students are more likely to open up about how they're feeling if they know mental health issues are being formally recognised by their school. "Why should we encourage lying to our parents and teachers? "Being open to adults about our mental health promotes positive dialogue that could help kids get the help they need."
7-22-19 Boosting a gut bacterium helps mice fight an ALS-like disease
People with Lou Gherig's disease appear to have a dearth of the microbes. A friendly gut bacterium can help lessen ALS symptoms, a study of mice suggests. Mice that develop a degenerative nerve disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, fared better when bacteria making vitamin B3 were living in their intestines, researchers report July 22 in Nature. Those results suggest that gut microbes may make molecules that can slow progression of the deadly disease. The researchers uncovered clues that the mouse results may also be important for people with ALS. But the results are too preliminary to inform any changes in treating the disease, which at any given time affects about two out of every 100,000 people, or about 16,000 people in the United States, says Eran Elinav, a microbiome researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “With respect to ALS, the jury is still out,” says Elinav, also of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. “We have to prove that what we found in mice is reproducibly found in humans.” Elinav and his colleagues examined the gut microbiomes — bacteria, archaea and other microbes that live in the colon, or large intestine — of mice that produce large amounts of a mutated form of the SOD1 protein. In the mice, as in human ALS patients, faulty SOD1 proteins clump together and lead to the death of nerve cells. Microbiomes of ALS mice contained almost no Akkermansia muciniphila bacteria. Restoring A. muciniphila in the ALS mice slowed progression of the disease, and the mice lived longer than untreated rodents. By contrast, greater numbers of two other normal gut bacteria, Ruminococcus torques and Parabacteroides distasonis, were associated with more severe symptoms.
7-20-19 Strange illusion makes people forget where their teeth are
Your mouth may not be where you think it is. An illusion that tricks people into thinking their teeth are closer to their neck than in reality shows that our bodily perceptions are easily influenced. Davide Bono and Patrick Haggard at University College London developed the experiment inspired by the rubber hand illusion, a famous illusion in psychology where the participant believes a rubber hand is their own. In Bono and Haggard’s experiment, the participant wears a blindfold and places their head on a chin-rest. They are then told that Bono will take their right hand and use it to stroke their own teeth. Instead, he uses the person’s hand to stroke a model set of human teeth made of plaster placed 8 centimetres below their real teeth. Simultaneously, Bono uses his own hand to stroke the person’s teeth in exactly the same way. The participants are then asked to point to their own teeth. Eight people took part in the experiment and on average they pointed 1.5 centimetres below their own teeth in the direction of the model teeth. The participants also believed that they were touching their own teeth. The experiment suggests that our perception of our mouth is flexible – an effect called proprioceptive drift. This effect also happens with the rubber hand illusion. Bono and Haggard found that even if the strokes on the model teeth and the participant’s real teeth were in opposite directions, as long as they started and finished at the same time the illusion still persisted. They also found that the illusion worked when the model teeth were covered in Velcro. With a different set of model teeth where there were gaps between the teeth, proprioceptive drift didn’t occur, but the participants still believed the model teeth were theirs.
7-19-19 Warning over polio-like condition
Health officials have urged doctors to look out for early signs of a mysterious condition that can leave young children paralyzed, and to collect lab samples as soon as possible. First diagnosed in the U.S. in 2014, acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) causes muscle weakness, problems with swallowing, and slurred speech. Polio-like paralysis can follow. There have been 570 recorded cases since 2014, which have typically surfaced between August and October. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they’re unsure what causes the condition—though they suspect it’s viral—and why some children are affected but not others. They want doctors across the country on high alert for possible symptoms, reports NBCNews.com. Patients, who have an average age of 5, typically suffer respiratory problems and fever less than a week before developing limb weakness. “When specimens are collected as soon as possible after symptom onset,” says CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat, “we have a better chance of understanding the causes of AFM and developing a diagnostic test.”
7-19-19 Supplements and heart health
Millions of people who take dietary supplements to protect their heart are likely getting no health benefit—and in some cases might be harming themselves. That’s the conclusion of a new meta-analysis of 277 studies, which together included nearly 1 million people, to determine supplements’ effect on cardiovascular health. The researchers found that only a few of the 16 supplements and eight diets tested appeared to do any good. Omega 3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish oil, appeared to lower the risk of heart attacks and coronary heart disease. Folic acid was linked with a reduced risk of stroke. But the evidence for those benefits wasn’t particularly strong. Vitamin A, B, C, D, and E supplements didn’t appear to help heart health at all; nor did calcium, iron, or multivitamins. Furthermore, researchers found, taking calcium with vitamin D increases the risk of stroke, possibly because it increases blood clotting and hardens arteries. “People who are taking these supplements for the sake of improving their cardiovascular health are wasting their money,” lead author Safi Khan, from West Virginia University, tells The New York Times.
7-19-19 Baby born from donor womb
IIn a first for the U.S., doctors in Cleveland have delivered a healthy baby from a uterus transplanted into the mother from a deceased donor. Pioneered in Sweden, uterine transplants can allow women with uterine factor infertility (UFI) to give birth. Women with this condition are born without a uterus—like the unnamed new mom in Cleveland—or have suffered uterine damage from an infection or medical procedure or have had a hysterectomy. The baby girl in Cleveland, delivered via caesarean section in June, is only the second child born from a uterus transplanted from a dead donor. More than a dozen women have given birth following uterine transplants; all but one received the womb from a living donor, such as a friend or family member. Transplant recipients have to take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent their body from rejecting the uterus; if all goes well, they then try to conceive using in vitro fertilization. “This is still research,” Uma Perni from the Cleveland Clinic tells USA Today. “But it’s exciting to see what the options may be for women in the future.”
7-19-19 The land wedded to quack medicine
Are the French finally going to start listening to science? asked Klaus Taschwer. Their government is prodding them in that direction. French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn, who is a doctor, has decreed that government health insurance will no longer pay part of the cost of homeopathic remedies. Homeopathy uses tiny amounts of a plant or mineral with the aim of stimulating a patient’s natural immune responses. Buzyn has rightly concluded that this so-called alternative medicine is not worth subsidizing, because study after study has shown that homeopathic pills are no better than a placebo. “Which is to say, no good at all.” Yet the French consume these hocus-pocus potions in vast quantities—their government reimbursed them $143 million for homeopathic treatments last year. During the 18th century, France was “the center of European enlightenment and reason.” Today, its people “embrace ignorance,” at least in health matters. One in three French people believes vaccines are dangerous, the highest rate of such skepticism in the world. Perhaps the country needs to undergo “a kind of Enlightenment 2.0 in the matter of scientific evidence.” In the meantime, those patients who are furious that they will soon have to pay more out of pocket for their homeopathic pills can take comfort in one scientific teaching: “Placebos have been shown to work better the more they cost.”
7-19-19 AI passes theory of mind test by imagining itself in another's shoes
Artificial intelligence has passed a classic theory of mind test used with chimpanzees. The test probes the ability to perceive the world from the view of another individual and so AIs with this skill could be better at cooperating and communicating with humans and each other. AIs with theory of mind are key to building machines that can understand the world around them. In recent years, the skill has emerged in a robot whose memories are modelled on human brains and in DeepMind’s ToM-net, which understands that others can have false beliefs. Raul Vicente at the University of Tartu in Estonia and colleagues drew inspiration from an animal study that looked at the feeding habits of dominant and subordinate chimpanzees. “Chimpanzees have these hierarchical structures in their society and in principle the dominant one almost always gets the food,” says Vicente. The chimp study showed that the subordinate animal would only go for food that it knew the dominant animal couldn’t see it, suggesting an ability to place itself in another’s position. To replicate this set-up, Vicente and colleagues created a virtual 11 by 11 grid in which they placed two AIs – one dominant and one subordinate – and a single piece of food in different orientations and locations. The subordinate AI was able to move within the grid, and was rewarded points if it ate food that the dominant agent couldn’t see, but lost points if it ate food in the dominant agent’s sight. It learned via trial and error – in a process called reinforcement learning – whether or not to move towards the food. A key difference between apes and AIs is that the AI required several thousand trials before it learned the task, while chimpanzees understood it intuitively.
7-19-19 Botox may relieve persistent pelvic pain caused by endometriosis
A small study shows the toxin can lessen women’s pelvic spasms for months. For some women with endometriosis, the pain doesn’t stop after surgical and hormonal treatments. It can persist, triggered by muscle spasms that ripple through the pelvic floor. Now, a small study suggests that Botox, best known for smoothing wrinkles, could quell those spasms and relieve that pain. Thirteen women diagnosed with the disorder, in which tissue similar to what lines the uterus grows elsewhere in the body, had the botulinum toxin injected into their pelvic floor, which supports the pelvic organs. The shots targeted areas of muscle spasm that were sites of pain. The women, ages 21 to 51, had been in pain for at least two years. All reported a reduction in pain four to eight weeks after treatment. Eleven of the 13 rated their post-Botox pain as mild or completely gone, researchers reported online July 8 in Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine. Relief lasted from five to 11 months in seven of the 11 women followed for up to a year post injection. Women in the study “had benefit beyond relief of pain. Some were able to resume having sex without pain. Some were able to function better,” says Barbara Karp, a neurologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Md. Eight of the 13 women had experienced moderate to very severe disability, according to a questionnaire designed to measure how the pain interferes with day-to-day activities such as walking, standing, sleeping, personal care and sex life. Six of these women’s scores indicated their disability had lessened after the injection. Endometriosis affects an estimated 5 to 10 percent of reproductive-age women, or 176 million worldwide. Compounding the pain and infertility that accompanies the disorder is the lack of awareness of the condition; past studies have found that women face treatment delays and skepticism that they have a medical issue at all.
7-19-19 Longer gaps between births can halve infant deaths in developing nations.
But increasing that interval makes little difference in developed countries. In some of the world’s least-developed countries, spacing births two years apart, instead of one, can nearly halve infant mortality rates, a study finds. But in more developed nations, increasing the interval between successive childbirths makes little difference to infant deaths, researchers report July 3 in Demography. “At low levels of development, birth spacing is really important for infant survival,” says demographer Joe Molitoris of Lund University in Sweden. “But as development progresses, the relative importance of spacing gets weaker and weaker until it basically becomes zero.” Women’s access to better nutrition and medical care likely compensate for short birth intervals, Molitoris and his colleagues say. Short birth intervals have been linked to poor health outcomes for moms and infants for decades, though the exact causes aren’t clear. Research has shown that the mothers’ bodies can struggle to recover and provide nutrients to children. In addition, siblings that are close in age may compete for the same resources, crucially breast milk, and are exposed to similar diseases. But the new study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the current World Health Organization guidelines that women in all countries space babies three to five years apart are both more conservative than needed and not one-size-fits-all. For instance, some studies out of wealthier countries, such as Sweden, Canada and Australia, show no link between infant health and birth spacing, while research out of poor countries shows the reverse. Molitoris and his team combed through intermittent surveys given to 1.15 million mothers in 77 low- and middle- income countries from 1985 to 2016 to create a more complete picture. For moms ages 15 to 49, the researchers zeroed in on their children’s birth dates and survival among all younger siblings born within 10 years of an older sibling. All told, the women birthed 4.56 million children, about 370,000 of which died before age 1. Eighty-three percent of those deaths occurred among babies born within three years of an older sibling, the team found.
7-19-19 Does the drop in US drug deaths mean the opioid crisis is ending?
For the first time since 1990, the number of annual drug overdose deaths in the US has declined. The 5 per cent fall reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is almost entirely due to a drop in deaths from prescription opioid painkillers. Does this mean the opioid crisis has peaked? The early data predicts that there were 68,500 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2018, down from 72,000 the previous year. “The preliminary CDC data showing a drop in overdose deaths is certainly encouraging, but it is too early to determine whether this represents a true shift in overdose trends,” says Tisamarie Sherry, at the policy think tank Rand Corporation in California. But it is unknown whether overdose deaths will continue to fall, says Sherry. “The CDC data shows that overdose deaths from fentanyl, synthetic opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines are still increasing, which is an ominous sign.” Drug overdose deaths in the US related to prescription opioids rose from just over 3,400 in 1999 to about 17,000 in 2017. This dramatic upwards trend reflects a nation-wide epidemic of opioid use and abuse. Recent data from the US Drug Enforcement Agency revealed that between 2006 and 2012, 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills – two common prescription opioids – were distributed in the US. That’s about 460 pills per person. The epidemic has hit US states differently, and these new numbers bear that out. Deaths continued to rise in some eastern states where the use of illicit fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, is spreading. But deaths are dropping in some midwestern states where local governments have expanded treatments for addiction and monitoring of prescriptions. Even with this recent reduction in overdoses, the death toll from drugs in the US is still high, with tens of thousands of people overdosing on opioids each year. The recent decrease may be due to increased availability of naloxone – which blocks the effects of opioids and is used by emergency medical practitioners to reverse an overdose – and better training to use it.
7-18-19 Manipulating nerve cells makes mice ‘see’ something that’s not there
For the first time, researchers have used optogenetics to create a specific visual perception. Aiming laser lights into mice’s brains can make them “see” lines that aren’t actually there. The results, described online July 18 in Science, represent the first time scientists have created a specific visual perception with laboratory trickery. The work is “technically amazing,” says neuroscientist and psychiatrist Conor Liston at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “I think every neuroscientist in this area will look at this with great interest.” The ability to monitor and control precise collections of nerve cells, or neurons, could help unravel big questions, including how certain groups of neurons create experiences. The experiment used optogenetics, a technique in which laser light activates neurons in the brain (SN: 1/30/10, p. 18). The neurons are genetically tweaked to carry a protein that prompts them to send a signal in response to the light. When optogenetics first debuted about 15 years ago, everyone was hoping to achieve this level of precise control over perception, and the behaviors that follow, says Karl Deisseroth, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who pioneered the technique. “It’s exciting to get to this point,” says Deisseroth, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Stanford University. Deisseroth and his colleagues first monitored neurons in the brains of mice that were viewing either horizontal or vertical lines. Each mouse had been trained to lick water from a spout in front of it when it saw the orientation of lines it had been trained on. The researchers then set out to artificially evoke the same vision of the lines. Initially, the mice were shown very faint real lines. When the lines became so faint that the mice floundered, optogenetic stimulation improved their performance. Then the researchers tested the mice in total darkness, with no visual input whatsoever, and found that a perception of the lines could be created solely with lasers. Stimulating about 20 of the neurons that responded to the real sight caused mice to correctly “see” the right vision, and lick as a result.
7-18-19 TIA flexible bone that helps mammals chew dates back to the Jurassic Period
The structure may have helped give rise to the Age of Mammals, a new fossil suggests. Chew on this: Millions of years before the emergence of true mammals, an early ancestor had a tiny, saddle-shaped bone connected to the jaw that was thought to belong to mammals alone. That bone, scientists say, helps all mammals chew and swallow, and ultimately was one secret to our success, enabling the spread into various ecological niches. Microdocodon gracilis, a shrew-sized mammal ancestor, lived about 165 million years ago in what’s now China. Scientists led by vertebrate paleontologist Chang-Fu Zhou of the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning in Shenyang, China, examined the fossil and discovered that it included a beautifully preserved hyoid bone. That bone bears a remarkable resemblance to the shape of hyoids in modern mammals, the researchers report in the July 19 Science. When it comes to food, mammals have staked their claims across many types of environments. And different modern species have teeth specially adapted for their widely differing diets. Large carnivores like lions and tigers have sharp, cutting blades; some small mammals have high cusps on their teeth to help crunch insects; and others have ridge-packed teeth to help grind down plants. But one thing that all mammals have in common is that we do chew, breaking food down into tiny pieces before swallowing it. That’s unlike, say, reptiles, which have a penchant for swallowing food whole, says vertebrate paleontologist Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago. Furthermore, mammals’ mouths, throats and tongues are also designed to be flexible and strong enough to suckle milk, a defining characteristic for the group.
7-18-19 London gender clinic reports rising number of non-binary attendees
The rise in young people seeking help with gender identity issues in the UK may have peaked. The country’s only gender identity clinic for people under 18 saw a very small increase in the number of referrals in the past year, compared with the year before. There was a steep rise in the three preceding years of between about 500 to 700 referrals a year. Between mid-2018 and mid-2019, the clinic received around 2500 referrals, according to data shared by Polly Carmichael, director of the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) in London, at a press conference on 17 July. The clinic, which is part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, says it is now seeing a growing number of people who identify as non-binary, who aren’t necessarily seeking to transition from one gender to another. Non-binary or genderqueer individuals, who identify as neither exclusively male nor female, now make up 11 per cent of referrals to the clinic. The reasons for this are unknown, said Carmichael. “Some young people are challenging the stereotypes of having to fit into a male or female box. Some people are saying sometimes I feel more male, and sometimes more genderqueer.” Many Western countries are seeing growing numbers of people identifying as transgender, especially among teenagers. Some groups have previously criticised the GIDS clinic both for encouraging young people to transition too quickly and for the opposite problem – of excessively slowing down the process. But on Wednesday Carmichael said the clinic treated everyone on a case-by-case basis. “It’s about having a process to give the individual time and space to explore.” About 45 per cent of all people referred to the clinic eventually undergo physical interventions, such as hormone therapy, said Carmichael. This falls to 25 per cent of those who were under the age of 12 when referred. “I can still not predict with absolute certainty what pathway a young person is going to take,” said Carmichael. “It’s a process of exploration.”
7-18-19 Israel mosque find: Archaeologists unearth 1,200-year-old ruins in desert
One of the world's earliest known mosques, built around 1,200 years ago, has been discovered by archaeologists in Israel's Negev Desert. The remains, dating from the 7th or 8th century, were found in the Bedouin town of Rahat. Israel's Antiquities Authority (IAA) says the mosque was unearthed during building work in the area. It is the first known mosque from this period in the area, rivalling the age of those found in Mecca and Jerusalem, the IAA said. Excavation directors Jon Seligman and Shahar Zur said the mosque would be "a rare discovery anywhere in the world". Researchers believe the mosque's congregation were likely to have been local farmers. The building was open-air, rectangular-shaped and had a "Mihrab" - or a prayer niche - facing south toward Mecca, Islam's holiest city. "These features are evidence for the purpose for which this building was used, many hundred years ago," said Mr Seligman. It is one of the first mosques constructed after the arrival of Islam in Israel, when the Arabs conquered in 636, according to Gideon Avni, an expert on early Islamic history. The discovery of the village and the mosque in its vicinity are a significant contribution to the study of the history of the country during this turbulent period," he said.
7-18-19 Oldest Denisovan art discovered on 100,000-year-old bone fragments
They might not look much compared to the work of Michelangelo or Vincent van Gogh. But a couple of abstract etchings discovered in China could be a sign that the Denisovans, our mysterious extinct cousins, were artists. The 100,000-year-old marks on two pieces of bone also bolster the idea that Denisovans, like Neanderthals, were capable of symbolic thought – once regarded as something only modern humans could do. The bones were unearthed at Lingjing in Henan Province, China, a site where a population of archaic humans, thought to be Denisovans – though this needs to be confirmed – lived between 125,000 and 105,000 years ago. The Denisovans and the Neanderthals belong on a branch of the human family tree that split away from our “modern human” branch within the last million years. Denisovans lived in east Asia, while Neanderthals lived in Europe and west Asia. Detailed analysis of the Lingjing engravings showed that they had been carefully drawn with a sharp point, and weren’t cutmarks from processing meat. “The microscopic analysis of the lines shows that they cannot be interpreted as marks of butchery, the alternative interpretation,” says Francesco d’Errico, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, and a member of the team that studied the bones. To enhance their visibility, the lines on one of the bones had been rubbed with reddish ochre – a pigment often found on prehistoric ornaments from Europe and Africa. “We need to explain why equidistant lines were deliberately engraved on a semi-fossil bone and covered with red ochre to highlight them,” says d’Errico. “The explanation that would be given by archaeologists if this behaviour was observed at a more recent site would be that this is a sign to which some sort of meaning was attributed.”
7-18-19 WHO declares international emergency over DRC Ebola outbreak
The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been declared a global emergency, with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for international support to stop its spread. This is only the fifth event to be labelled a “public health emergency of international concern” by the organisation. The move follows the death of a pastor in Goma, a city of almost 2 million people that borders Rwanda and is a hub of international travel. Experts convened by the WHO were concerned that this, alongside the virus spreading to new locations and flare-ups in areas where the outbreak was previously under control, could herald a growing epidemic. Despite efforts to contain the outbreak over the past year, the crisis has grown and is now responsible for the deaths of around 1700 people, and another 2500 possible infections. This is the second biggest Ebola outbreak on record, behind the outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Critics have been calling on the WHO to declare it an international emergency since the beginning of the year, and Adam Kamradt-Scott at the University of Sydney, Australia, says the announcement is “long overdue”. While it is unclear why the WHO opted not to declare the outbreak an international emergency until now, one reason may have been to avoid overreactions by international governments. The 2014 outbreak in West Africa led to travel bans, trade restrictions and the closure of border crossings, which hurt local economies and made it more challenging for healthcare workers to operate. In a statement, Robert Steffen, chair of the emergency committee convened by the WHO, stressed that governments shouldn’t react in the same way, saying it “would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region”.
7-17-19 Using smart watches to monitor your heart could do more harm than good
Fitness trackers like the Apple Watch now allow you to detect heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. That's not always a good thing, SELF-EMPOWERED, self-motivated, self-aware: we have got used to the idea that more knowledge about our health is good for us. This ethos has fuelled an explosion in wearable technologies – fitness trackers, step counters and other gizmos – that give us real-time feedback on key physiological stats such as heart rate. Recently, the makers of the bestselling fitness tracker, the Apple Watch, began to roll out a new feature: the ability to monitor heart rhythm, and specifically to detect atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a relatively common heart condition in which the two atria of the heart – the upper chambers – don’t contract regularly. It can be constant, or intermittent, and becomes more common with age. It increases the risk of blood clots forming and causing a stroke. Those with the condition may need medication to thin their blood and allow their hearts to work efficiently. So why wouldn’t you want to know if you had it? Certainly, some doctors I have spoken to welcome the diagnostic possibilities that wearables bring; many are enthusiastic users themselves. The problem is that this is mass screening via the back door, with all the associated positives and negatives. At its best, screening finds diseases at an early stage so that adverse consequences can be avoided. At its worst, it causes far more damage than the disease itself through false positives and unnecessary worry and treatment. In the UK, the National Health Service follows evidence-based recommendations made by the National Screening Committee. Its current advice is clear: don’t screen for atrial fibrillation. That is because we have evidence that treatment works for people with symptoms, or those found to have the condition while being assessed for another condition. There is no evidence that treatment benefits outweigh the risks for a wider, asymptomatic population.
7-17-19 Artificial skin can sense 1000 times faster than human nerves
An artificial skin that senses temperature and pressure can send signals 1000 times faster than the human nervous system. The skin could one day cover prosthetic limbs to help people use them better or be used on robots to help them sense their surroundings. Benjamin Tee at the National University of Singapore and his colleagues created the artificial skin, consisting of physical sensors, which can detect pressure, bending and temperature. The skin is made from rubber and plastic composite material and includes 1 millimetre square sensors. When the skin presses against something, the sensors on the skin transmit electrical pulses back to one receiver. Each sensor has a unique pulse to make it identifiable, meaning multiple signals can be combined through the one receiver, speeding up delivery. All of the sensors are connected together using a single wire, meaning that measurements from across the skin arrive at the same time. “In contrast, most electronic systems are synchronous, meaning they need to scan each sensor one by one in time,” says Tee. “Scanning each sensor one by one takes time. If you have 1000 sensors, and each one takes 1 millisecond to scan, then the entire scanning operation will take 1 full second.” Human skin sensors send signals at a maximum frequency of less than 1kHz, or 1000 times per second. In contrast, Tee’s sensors send back signals at 9Mhz, or 9 million times per second. “When we touch a cup of coffee for example, our skin instantly sends electrical signals to our muscles and brains for processing,” he says. “The information is sent via nerves, and we have a lot of them, in fact, more than 150,000 kilometres of nerves in every human being.”
7-17-19 WHO declares a public health emergency over Congo’s Ebola outbreak
The risk of the disease spreading to neighboring countries is considered high. The World Health Organization has declared Congo’s yearlong Ebola virus outbreak a public health emergency, due to a high risk of the disease spreading to neighboring countries. The organization said, however, that it does not consider the outbreak a global threat. “Our risk assessment remains that the risk of Ebola spread in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region remains very high, and the risk of spread outside the region remains low,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a July 17 news conference. Since the Ebola outbreak began in Congo on August 1, 2018, the disease has killed 1,676 people out of 2,512 cases reported through July 15. WHO designated the outbreak a public health emergency after a case was confirmed this month in Goma, the capital of Congo’s North Kivu Province, through which thousands of people pass daily on the way to and from neighboring Rwanda. The patient in Goma was a man who had traveled from the Congolese city of Beni, the epicenter of the outbreak. He has since died. Three cases also appeared in Uganda in June, and another in July, but the patients had all traveled from Congo. WHO said there are no confirmed cases of Ebola originating in Uganda. In a statement, WHO said that the emergency declaration reflects the need for more international coordination in response to the outbreak. The organization is not recommending any restrictions on borders or trade in the area. Rather than stopping Ebola, such restrictions “can actually hamper the fight,” said Tedros, because they “force people to use informal and unmonitored border crossings, increasing potential for the spread of the disease.”
7-17-19 Half of all harm caused by medical care is preventable
About half of all harm that comes to patients as a result of medical care is preventable, according to a review of 70 studies involving more than 330,000 patients in hospitals, specialty clinics and primary care facilities around the world. Maria Panagioti at the University of Manchester, UK, and her colleagues found that about 12 per cent of people experience either physical, emotional or social harm while seeking medical care, and about 6 per cent overall experienced harm that was preventable. Most studies classified patient harm as preventable if it had an identifiable cause that could be changed or avoided in the future. In the studies included in this analysis, preventable harm included effects from drug or therapy management, diagnosis, invasive medical or surgical procedures, and infections acquired during treatment. The highest prevalence of patient harm was reported in intensive care and surgery, and the lowest in obstetrics. About half the harm was classified as mild, about a third was moderate and 12 per cent was considered severe. Surgical procedures accounted for 23 per cent of the cases of preventable medical harm, infections caused 16 per cent, and drug or therapy regimens accounted for about half of the cases. Variations in the time frames of the studies included in this analysis may not have captured all types of medical harm, and may have influenced their prevalence rates. But the authors of the analysis say they found that about 50 per cent of harm was consistently preventable over the past 19 years. They note that the excess hospital stays attributable to medical harm in the US have been estimated to total 2.4 million days a year, costing about £7.3 billion.
7-17-19 A type of antibiotics can cause hearing loss - and now we know why
Some life-saving antibiotics can cause hearing loss, and we may now know why. A study in mice suggests it is all down to the effects of inflammation, which is the body’s response to infection. This causes ion channels in the sensory hair cells of the inner ear to become more permeable to the antibiotics – known as aminoglycosides – which then increases the cells’ sensitivity to the drugs’ toxic effects. Aminoglycoside antibiotics, such as gentamicin, are popular because they work on a broad range of bacteria, unlike most modern narrow-spectrum antibiotics. They are also sometimes used to treat microbes that are resistant to multiple other antibiotics. “This makes aminoglycosides useful for treating infections where the microbe identity remains unknown,” says Peter Steyger at Creighton University in Nebraska. As such, the drugs are particularly useful for treating infections in newborns, because these infections can prove fatal within one or two days – too soon for tests to reveal the microbe responsible for the illness. However, researchers know that aminoglycosides like gentamicin are associated with hearing loss. As a consequence, infants in neonatal intensive care units, where aminoglycosides are used, have rates of hearing loss at least six times higher than among otherwise healthy full-term babies. To better understand why this class of drugs is linked with hearing loss, Steyger and his colleagues tested the effects of gentamicin on hearing in mice. They found that infection and inflammation caused the ion channels in sensory hair cells to become more permeable to the drug, leading to more of it being taken up by the sensitive cells in the cochlea of the inner ear. This amplified the toxic effects of the drug on the cells.
7-17-19 Sibling rivalry: How birth order affects your personality and health
MY oldest sister is a typical firstborn: responsible, conscientious, the teacher when we played school, the director for our Christmas plays. My middle sister hung out with the cool crowd, always had a lot of friends, was a bit of a wild child. I defy all stereotypes of the attention-seeking, spoiled youngest child and epitomise a sweet, funny, good-natured human. Obviously. For centuries, psychologists, philosophers and pretty much anyone with a family has argued that birth order shapes personality. It goes something like this: firstborns are reliable and hard-working. Middle children are rebellious but friendly. Last-borns are more outgoing and doted on. Only-children are wiser than their years, perfectionists and spoiled. I can almost hear the cries of indignation. If this doesn’t square with what you know about yourself, or in fact most people, you aren’t alone. Despite their popularity, there has been almost no solid evidence to support these stereotypes. That isn’t for lack of trying. Psychologists have long sought insights into the way birth order shapes us, but recent research has shown the studies to be so flawed that they are almost meaningless. Now, though, the largest birth order analysis yet aims to set the record straight. Meanwhile, there is an urgent reason to turn our attention to birth order: we are starting to appreciate how it may influence physical and mental health – not least because some cells in our bodies harbour our older siblings’ DNA rather than our own. Regardless of the stereotypes, birth order has profound effects. So how much of our personality, success and health can we blame on being an oldest, youngest, middle or only child?
7-17-19 Life’s winners think success was earned even if it was down to luck
Do wealthier people owe their financial success to skill or luck? Your views on this question may be set by your own financial status, at least according to a study of people playing a card game. In a simplified two-player version of the game known as “President” (or less politely, “Asshole”) winners were more likely than losers to credit their success to skill rather than luck – even though the game clearly involved little skill and when the odds were blatantly rigged in the winner’s favour. “It was absolutely obvious one of the players was playing with a huge advantage,” says Mauricio Bucca of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. People have long debated whether success in life is mainly due to talent or luck. Surveys show those who are wealthier are more likely to say they earned their success. This may be because they are being big-headed – alternatively they may genuinely have worked harder, and be more aware of how that has contributed to their financial success. Bucca’s team explored the subject by creating a version of President that involved almost no skill, and in which the influence of the starting conditions could be dialled up or down. They recruited about 1000 people through a website, Amazon Mechanical Turk, giving people $2.50 for taking part and a $5.00 bonus if they won. Whoever was randomly picked to play the first card in round one of the game always had an advantage that meant they were most likely to win that round. In some versions, this starting advantage was further boosted: after the cards had been dealt for round two, the winner of round one was able to swap one or two of their weakest cards with the strongest ones of their opponent. In other versions, the opposite happened: the starting advantage was weakened by the previous loser getting good cards from the winner.
7-17-19 Parasite brings down mosquito numbers in parts of Guangzhou
The number of biting female Asian tiger mosquitoes, which spread diseases such as dengue and chikungunya, has been reduced by more than 80 per cent at two small sites in Guangzhou, China, by a new “sterile male” method developed by Zhiyong Xi of Michigan State University. Sterile male methods involve releasing large numbers of infertile male insects to cause a population crash. The Guangzhou trial is the latest of many to show that several variants of such methods can be highly effective for controlling insects. One variant uses a common parasitic bacterium called Wolbachia. When males infected with Wolbachia mate with females that aren’t infected with the same strain, the parasite somehow prevents them from producing offspring. This means releasing male mosquitoes infected with a Wolbachia strain not found in local mosquitoes has the same effect as releasing sterile males. This approach has proven successful in several trials around the world, most recently in Miami. The China trial involved mosquitoes infected with three strains of Wolbachia, because the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, is already infected with two strains. The problem with using Wolbachia is that, if any female mosquitoes infected with the added Wolbachia strain are accidentally released, these can breed with the released males and the method will stop working. It is possible to remove around 99 per cent of females mechanically, because they are larger at the pupal stage. But all the remaining pupae usually have to be screened by eye to remove the final few females, which is expensive. However, Xi’s team have now shown that a low dose of radiation can sterilise any remaining females without weakening the males. This can replace manual screening, making it easier and cheaper to scale up production. “Our approach is much more cost-effective,” Xi says.
7-17-19 A deadly fungus gives ‘zombie’ ants a case of lockjaw
Closeups of infected ants’ jaw muscles may reveal clues to how the fungi take over. Fungus-infected “zombie” ants are known to scale a plant, sink their jaws into a leaf or twig and wait to die while the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungi feast on the insects’ bodies. Eventually, a fungal stalk shoots out of the ant’s head and releases spores that rain down and infect more ants below. The carpenter ants’ part in this nightmare may seem dictated by mind control, but the fungi don’t colonize the ants’ brains. Instead, the fungi take over ants’ jaws, forcing the muscles to contract into a death grip, researchers report July 17 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. To unravel what exactly the fungus is doing to ants, scientists peered at infected ants’ stripy, striated jaw muscle fibers using scanning electron microscopy. “In infected muscles at the time of the death grip, … [the] lines appear really swollen,” says Colleen Mangold, a molecular biologist at Penn State University. The fungi wreck the muscle fibers but don’t seem to disturb the communication system that controls the muscles. It’s still a mystery how the fungus initiates the death grip. But researchers may have found a clue: Tiny particles resembling clusters of grapes show up on infected muscle fibers. Mangold and her colleagues think these particles may be extracellular vesicles, or packages of molecules, that are produced by either the invader or the host. If the orbs are vesicles, they may contain messages used by the fungi to take over ant bodies or play a role in the ants’ response, says Mangold.
7-17-19 Gum disease treatment for Alzheimer’s lowers signs of inflammation
Encouraging results have been announced from a small trial of a new kind of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, which targets gum disease bacteria. Trial participants showed improvements in certain molecules in their blood and spinal fluid, says Cortexyme, the US firm developing the therapy. However, the company has not shown yet that the treatment can reduce the severity of dementia. “It isn’t enough to get excited about, but it’s enough to say this hypothesis is interesting,” says Carol Routledge of the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK. The new approach is at odds with decades of thinking about Alzheimer’s. It was believed that the condition is caused by a build-up of toxic plaques in the brain made of a protein called amyloid. But numerous therapies that blocked amyloid failed to halt progression of the disease in trials, and many researchers now think the protein may be a side effect of Alzheimer’s, not the root cause. Cortexyme thinks that Alzheimer’s may be due to bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – better known for causing gum disease – somehow getting into the brain and sparking inflammation. The microbe and its toxins have been found at somewhat higher levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, and can trigger amyloid build-up if put into the brains of mice. Cortexyme has developed an oral medicine called COR388 that can block the activity of toxins released by the bacteria. Last year, the firm carried out short trials in healthy volunteers and nine people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, six of whom got twice-daily capsules, while the rest got a placebo version. After four weeks, there were small improvements in two kinds of tests for dementia severity for those who got the medicine, but these were too small to be classed as statistically significant. Cortexyme says that is because the trial was designed as a safety test and was too small to show efficacy.
7-17-19 This gene may help worms live longer, but not healthier
A surprising trade-off could have implications for anti-aging therapies. Long life and good health don’t always go hand in hand. makes the worms more susceptible to infection and stress, researchers report July 17 in Nature Communications. That’s unusual; longevity-promoting genes generally help organisms deal with stress, says Arjumand Ghazi, a geneticist who studies aging at the University of Pittsburgh. Ghazi and colleagues had previously found that a gene called TCER-1 increases life span and is needed for Caenorhabditis elegans worms to produce eggs and healthy offspring. She and colleagues expected that deleting the gene would make the worms prone to infections. Instead, worms missing TCER-1 fought off a bacterial infection for nearly twice as long as worms with an intact gene, says Francis Amrit, a molecular biologist in Ghazi’s lab. “When I first saw that, I thought I’d made a mistake,” Amrit says. The team also found that worms that made more of the TCER-1 protein than usual were able to overcome declines in fertility caused by exposure to a pathogen, but succumbed to infection faster. Those results indicate that when functioning normally, the gene helps suppress immune responses so more resources can be used for reproduction. “In a lot of ways, reproduction and longevity are opposite one another, and this is underscored by these findings,” says Coleen Murphy, a biologist at Princeton University not involved in the work. Worms missing TCER-1 were also resistant to other types of environmental stress, such as heat and radiation. It took about 95 hours for worms missing the gene to suffer paralysis caused by clumping of an Alzheimer’s disease protein, while paralysis started at about 33 hours in worms with the gene. Those advantages continued only as long as worms were of egg-laying age. Older C. elegans were equally susceptible to infection or stress regardless if they had the gene. All together, the results indicate that TCER-1 helps regulate survival — balancing stress responses, reproduction and life span, Amrit says.
7-17-19 Elon Musk's plans for mind-controlled gadgets: what we know so far
Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink has finally broken its silence. Since the company was formed in 2016, it has kept its plans secret, but in a presentation on Tuesday night it showed off its vision and explained what the firm has done so far. At the event, the company unveiled a brain-computer interface – a technology that allows machines to read brain activity. Neuralink says its device will have about 3000 surgically implanted electrodes, each of which will be able monitor some 1000 neurons at a time. The electrodes will be embedded in around 100 extremely thin threads, between 4 and 6 micrometres wide, which is much less than the width of a hair. The threads collect the measurements from the electrodes and will then be gathered through a small incision behind the ear, where a chip will sit to analyse the results. The information will then be sent via bluetooth to a smartphone app. Neuralink says the interface could be used for everything from helping people with paralysis to control prostheses to allowing people to directly interact with artificial intelligence: “This is going to sound pretty weird, but achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” said Musk at the event. At the moment, we rely on an interface with technology such as our laptops that is slowed by our fingers or our eyes. Inserting a chip into our brains to speed things up will be key to overcoming that, said Musk. There is still a long way to go. Many research groups are working on brain-computer interfaces and there has been some progress made in recent years.
7-17-19 Elon Musk reveals brain-hacking plans
NeuraLink, a company set up by Elon Musk to explore ways to connect the human brain to a computer interface, has applied to US regulators to start trialling its device on humans. DThe system has been tested on a monkey that was able to control a computer with its brain, according to Mr Musk. The firm said it wanted to focus on patients with severe neurological conditions. But ultimately Mr Musk envisions a future of "superhuman cognition". The device the firm has developed consists of a tiny probe containing more than 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads - thinner than a human hair - which can then monitor the activity of 1,000 neurons. The advantage of this system, according to the firm, is that it would be able to target very specific areas of the brain, which would make it surgically safer. It would also be able to analyse recordings using machine learning, which would then work out what type of stimulation to give a patient. NeuraLink did not explain how the system translated brain activity or how the device was able to stimulate brain cells. "It's not like suddenly we will have this incredible neural lace and will take over people's brains," Mr Musk said during his presentation. "It will take a long time." But he said, for those who choose it, the system would ultimately allow for "symbiosis with artificial intelligence".
7-16-19 People who think they’re overweight are more at risk for depression
The stigma around being overweight or obese may contribute to the link between weight and depression, and this extends even to people who have a healthy weight but perceive themselves as being overweight. “This fear of social devaluation resulting from perceiving oneself as being part of a stigmatised group may threaten core psychological needs of belonging and acceptance, and in turn damage mental health,” writes a team of researchers in a study led by Ashleigh Haynes at the University of Liverpool in the UK. She and her colleagues reviewed results from 32 studies conducted since 1991 on the link between perceptions of being overweight or obese and symptoms of depression. These studies were conducted in the US, the Netherlands, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Japan, and included sample sizes ranging from 106 to more than 109,000. In these studies, participants rated their own perception of their weight in categories such as very or slightly underweight, about right or normal, slightly overweight, and very overweight or obese. Their objective weight was calculated using body mass index. These studies measured depressive symptoms by self-report on questionnaires, through clinical interviews or by diagnosis. Overall, when compared with those who thought their weight was about right or normal, participants who perceived themselves as overweight had higher odds of having depressive symptoms and were at higher risk of having suicidal thoughts – as were those whose BMI categorised them as overweight.
7-16-19 High levels of anxiety can slow down your reaction times
High levels of anxiety can strain a person’s ability to control their attention, and this effect has been shown to increase with age, according to an analysis of dozens of studies. Ran Shi and his colleagues at the University of Sydney in Australia combined the results of 58 studies that measured the attention and anxiety level of a combined 8292 children and adults, who either self-reported their anxiety or demonstrated it through behavioural tests. These studies examined various components of attention control. These included inhibition, which involves preventing attention from being pulled towards irrelevant stimuli; switching, which involves keeping attention focused on a relevant task; and updating, which involves evaluating how relevant new information is and overwriting old information. Across all studies, Shi and his team found that overall attention control was significantly worse in people who are more anxious. Highly anxious groups, whether or not they had been clinically diagnosed, had similar deficits in attention control. There were significant decreases in performance on inhibition and switching tasks, but no such effect seen for updating. These attentional deficits lowered anxious participants’ response times but did not significantly affect their accuracy in tests. They also found that the older someone was, the more likely they were to experience these attention control deficits. “The current finding that age was able to predict the effect of anxiety on attention control, especially when young children were included in the analysis, provides preliminary evidence that anxiety impairs the development of attention control processes,” the team writes in their study.
7-16-19 Personalised cancer treatments are becoming more common in the UK
Cancer treatment is becoming more precise through personalised therapies. A survey of more than 1000 people with cancer found that over a third had received genetically targeted drug treatments or immunotherapy. “Going back 20 years, the vast majority of cancer patients who had treatment for their disease were on traditional, one-size-fits-all chemotherapy – with targeted drugs practically unknown, and immunotherapy the stuff of science fiction,” said Rajesh Chopra at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, in a statement. The survey of 1064 people, all of whom received cancer treatments from the ICR between 4 March and 15 April 2019, suggests that trend is changing. Overall, 32 per cent of the respondents said they had received either a targeted drug therapy, immunotherapy or both – with nearly a quarter having had targeted drug therapy and 11 per cent receiving immunotherapy. The use of these more precise therapies was particularly high for people who were treated for melanoma or leukaemia. Among those treated for melanoma, 66 per cent said they had received immunotherapy while just 5 per cent had undergone chemotherapy. For those with leukaemia, 53 per cent received targeted drugs while 43 per cent had chemotherapy. This may be due to good progress in developing targeted treatments for these two cancers. Pancreatic, liver, oesophageal and brain cancer haven’t had as many new drugs or therapies developed in recent years.
7-16-19 Ancient flood shows some dinosaurs nested in colonies like birds
An 80-million-year-old nesting site found in the Gobi desert in Mongolia confirms that some dinosaurs nested in colonies like birds. It consists of at least 15 clutches of eggs laid during the same season and buried by a flood. Several other dinosaur nesting sites with multiple clutches have been discovered, so it has long been suspected that some species nested together, as many birds do today. However, at these sites it is not clear that all the clutches were laid during the same season – they could instead be a result of dinosaurs returning to the same site year after year. The Mongolian site, discovered in 2011, is unique in that there is clear evidence that all the eggs were laid during the same season, say Kohei Tanaka at the University of Tsukuba and his colleagues. Each clutch at the site contains between 3 and 30 eggs that are 13 centimetres wide on average. They appear to have been buried in soil or organic material to keep them warm – as megapode birds and some crocodiles do today – rather than being brooded by the parents. No embryos have been found inside the eggs, but based on similar finds the team thinks they were laid by therizinosaurs – feathered dinosaurs with massive claws on their forearms, which they may have used to pull down branches to feed on the leaves. Many of the eggs are partly eroded, but ten that are complete have a large opening in the upper half – thought to be the hatching window through which the young therizinosaurs clambered out. The team think at least 60 per cent of the eggs hatched successfully. “We do not know the fate of the rest,” says Tanaka. The lack of any sign of predation suggests the adults guarded the nests – if the eggs were abandoned, the presence of so many eggs would be expected to attract many predators.
7-15-19 Sexual images are just as arousing for women as they are for men
Women’s brains react to pornography just as much as men’s, challenging the widespread belief that men get more turned on by visual stimuli. The finding comes from a review of 61 brain scanning studies that showed men and women pornographic pictures or films as they lay in a brain scanner. Although there is wide variation in behaviour among both sexes, men are usually seen as being more interested in sex. In questionnaire-based research, the responses suggest that men find erotic images more appealing than women do. This is often interpreted as women requiring more of an emotional connection before they become aroused. This difference was seemingly confirmed with the advent of brain-scanning studies, with some finding that men’s brains are more responsive to pornography. But the field of brain scanning has been criticised in recent years for being prone to using methods that can lead to spurious results, such as drawing conclusions from small differences that could have arisen by chance. So Hamid Noori at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, and colleagues analysed the results from all the brain-scanning studies that have tried to answer this question, looking at the whole brain and covering nearly 2000 people. Overall it found no difference between men and women. “There are differences in behaviour – the number of men going to porn sites is roughly 80 per cent of the consumers,” says Noori. “But men and women respond the same way at the brain level to visual sexual stimuli. What we do with it afterwards is what brings the difference.” Women may watch less pornography because it is more stigmatised, says David Ley, a writer and sex therapist at outpatient centre New Mexico Solutions. He says the study shows “women can be just as visual as men, if they are allowed to be”.
7-15-19 You're less empathetic when you've been drinking heavily
Drinking more alcohol may make you less empathetic, according to a study that measured empathetic responses and moral judgment among people at different levels of intoxication. Kathryn Francis at the University of Plymouth in the UK and her colleagues recruited 48 people aged 18 to 42, and split them into three groups which drank either one of two strengths of vodka mixed with lemonade or a placebo of lemonade with alcohol sprayed around the edge of the glass. They measured the blood alcohol level of each group. Those who drank the high-strength drink – which contained twice as much alcohol as the low strength – reached a median of 0.03 per cent. Those in the low-alcohol group had a median of 0.01 per cent. For comparison, the drink-drive limit in England and Wales is 0.08 per cent. After 20 minutes, each person did a series of tests. In the first, they were shown pictures of people with sad, neutral or happy expressions and were asked to say how they felt about each. People in the high-alcohol group reported feeling more positively towards sad faces and more negatively towards happy faces. These inappropriate responses support the theory that alcohol impairs components of empathy, the team says. The participants were then presented with images of painful situations – for example, a person cutting vegetables with a knife and also slicing their hand – and asked to rate the intensity of pain they thought the person was experiencing. Alcohol dosage didn’t affect ability to appropriately rate pain. The final test was similar to the famous Trolley problem. The participants wore virtual reality headsets and were placed in the so-called footbridge dilemma, where they had a choice of sacrificing one person to derail a train headed for a footbridge with five people on it. Lowered empathy would suggest that someone would make the more utilitarian choice – doing the most good for the most people and sending one person to their doom to save five. But alcohol consumption didn’t appear to affect moral judgment, with people in all three groups choosing to save the most people possible. “This may suggest that it is not only the un-empathic facets of traits such as psychopathy that drive utilitarian moral decision-making but perhaps other facets,” the team writes.
7-15-19 Anorexia is a metabolic disorder as well as a psychiatric one
Anorexia nervosa isn’t just a psychiatric condition – it is a metabolic one, too, according to a genetic study of around 72,500 people. The findings help to explain some of the symptoms of anorexia, and could help to shape future treatments. Anorexia affects between 0.9 and 4 per cent of women and 0.3 per cent of men, but is still poorly understood. “Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder,” says Cynthia Bulik at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re not very good at treating anorexia. There’s no medication, and that’s probably because we don’t understand the underlying causes.” Previous research has found that genetic factors, as well as environmental ones, can increase a person’s risk of anorexia. To investigate, Bulik and her colleagues compared the genomes of just under 17,000 people with anorexia with those of 55,500 people who didn’t have the condition. The team used a technique that applies thousands of markers to the genome, and compares these markers across all the volunteers. “It points you to where in the genome the differences lie,” says Bulik. The search pinpointed eight locations across the genome that seem to play a role in anorexia. But this is likely to represent only a tiny fraction of all the genetic factors involved in the condition, says Bulik. “It’s a complex trait, so we expect lots of genes to each have a small to moderate effect,” she says. The researchers compared their results with similar genetic studies of other traits, ranging from other psychiatric conditions to weight, education and personality. They found that anorexia seems to be correlated with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, suggesting that these all share genetic factors. This makes sense, says Bulik – people with these conditions often show similar symptoms.
7-15-19 Targeting mitochondria in neurons may help relieve severe forms of MS
People with the more severe forms of multiple sclerosis are known to have dysfunctional mitochondria in their neurons. Altering the make-up of spinal fluid could be a new way to address this, and may one day help treat the disorder. Because the brain is bathed in cerebrospinal fluid, it makes sense to see whether MS can be treated by altering this fluid, said Patrizia Casaccia at The City University of New York in a statement. To test this approach, she and her colleagues took spinal fluid from people who experience intermittent attacks of MS symptoms – known as relapsing or remitting MS – and 29 people with more severe, progressive forms of the condition. The team then put rat neurons in these spinal fluid samples and used a fluorescent tracer to see how the mitochondria in those neutrons behaved. Mitochondria produce energy, and are known as the powerhouses of cells. When the team videoed the rat mitochondria, they saw they elongated when exposed to fluid from people with progressive MS. They didn’t see the same thing when in fluid from people with relapsing MS. These elongated mitochondria produced less energy than normal ones, eventually killing the cell. Previous research has indicated that mitochondria elongate in an effort to produce more energy when there is more demand or less glucose available. The team found that the spinal fluid from people with progressive MS had raised levels of ceramides, a type of fatty acid. Exposing neurons to ceramides turned out to be enough to make their mitochondria elongate in the same way as when exposed to spinal fluid from people with progressive MS.
7-15-19 Regulating e-cigarette flavours may prompt some people to smoke more
A survey of younger people suggests that placing certain restrictions on e-cigarettes could prompt some to use tobacco products more. E-cigarette use has been on the rise among US teenagers, and it isn’t clear whether that may lead to more young people taking up traditional cigarettes. In the past few years, the European Union has enacted legislation to limit the concentration of nicotine in e-cigarettes, while the US Food and Drug Administration extended its authority over tobacco products to include e-cigarettes. To understand what effect possible restrictions would have on e-cigarette users in the US, Lauren Pacek at Duke University in North Carolina and her colleagues conducted a survey of 240 people aged 18 to 29. All the participants reported that they had used both e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco cigarettes for more than three months. They asked the group to respond to three hypothetical scenarios: one in which e-cigarettes in the US are only nicotine-free, one where they are only available in tobacco or menthol flavours and one in which users can’t modify or customise vaping devices to alter the nicotine dose. About 47 per cent of respondents said that if regulations eliminated the nicotine in e-cigarettes, they wouldn’t use them as much and would increase their use of tobacco cigarettes. About 22 per cent said they would make the same changes if regulations limited their ability to customise their devices. And 17 per cent said that if flavours were limited to tobacco or menthol, they would decrease their use of e-cigarettes and smoke more tobacco.
7-14-19 Healthy living lowers chances of dementia even if genetic risk is high
Pursuing a healthier lifestyle reduces your chance of developing dementia whatever your genetic risk of being affected by the condition, according to new research. “In a sense we [already] knew what is good for the heart seems to be good for the head,” says David Llewellyn at the University of Exeter. “But that seems to be the case regardless of genetics.” The new research should encourage people not to be fatalistic if they have, say, a family history of dementia. “One of the concerns is if you tell people to live healthily to reduce your risk of dementia, some people think they will probably develop dementia anyway because of their genetics,” says Llewellyn. Around 196,000 people aged 60 and over with genetic data in the UK Biobank were followed for eight years, during which time 1769 developed dementia. The researchers grouped people into three levels of genetic risk for dementia – low, intermediate and high – using previous work on associations between genetic variants and Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia. The people’s lifestyles were classed as favourable, intermediate and unfavourable. Someone was considered to live favourably if they did not smoke, exercised more than 150 minutes a week, had no more than one drink a day for women and two for men, and ate at least four of seven food groups including fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Llewellyn and his colleagues discovered that people with a high genetic risk of dementia had a 32 per cent lower chance of developing the condition if they maintained a ‘favourable’ lifestyle compared to an ‘unfavourable’ one.
7-12-19 Four ways to sharpen memories
- Take a quick walk. Need to retain information from a book or a meeting? Get moving—because activity gets blood flowing and helps the brain create lasting memories.
- Think in pictures. Humans excel at remembering images, so invent visuals—the odder the better—when you need to remember a name, a password, or an item on a shopping list. Need to pick up milk? Imagine your car with milk spilling out the windows. Fear leaving your purse? Jump on one foot as you set it down; that’ll imprint the memory.
- Create a ‘memory palace.’ To remember a series of items or chores, picture walking through your home and finding each item in a different room. When you need the memories, just imagine retracing your steps.
- Review. The best way to commit something to memory—a favorite recipe, say—is to revisit it for a few minutes each day over a span of five or six days.
7-12-19 A parasite in communal pools
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that cryptosporidium, a fecal parasite that can infest swimming pools and water playgrounds, is on the rise. The parasite—more commonly known as crypto—causes cryptosporidiosis, which can give healthy adults watery diarrhea for up to three weeks. Children, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems can suffer even worse effects. The CDC says the number of crypto cases increased by an average of 12.8 percent a year from 2009 to 2017, with 7,465 people in that period falling ill. More than a third of cases were from “recreational water” facilities such as swimming pools and water parks; the parasite can survive for more than a week in well-chlorinated water. To halt crypto’s spread, the CDC recommends that children shouldn’t go into the water within two weeks of having diarrhea. “We want to keep crypto out of the pool in the first place,” study co-author Michele Hlavsa tells USA Today. “The way we do that is not to swim or let our kid swim when we’re sick with diarrhea.”
7-12-19 The end of cervical cancer?
The HPV vaccine has been much more effective than predicted, scientists have found—so much so that it could eliminate cervical cancer altogether. Human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Researchers examined 40 studies of HPV infections and associated symptoms, covering 60 million people in 14 high-income countries that adopted the vaccine—typically administered to girls around age 12—after its introduction in 2006. They found that the strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer decreased by 83 percent over that period among girls ages 13 to 19, and by 66 percent among those ages 20 to 24. Cases of precancerous cervical lesions fell by 51 percent among girls ages 15 to 19, and by 31 percent among women ages 20 to 24. Genital warts, another potential consequence of HPV, also fell sharply. The vaccine hasn’t been available long enough for there to be meaningful data on its effect on cancer rates, but the researchers expect similarly sharp declines. Lead author Mélanie Drolet, from Laval University in Canada, tells NBCNews.com that the findings are “a first sign that vaccination could eventually lead to the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem.”
7-12-19 Our ancestors’ big bird meal
Early modern humans may have shared their world with a giant ostrich-like bird that stood nearly 12 feet tall and weighed almost as much as a polar bear. Scientists have long known that similarly sized birds once roamed ancient Madagascar, New Zealand, and Australia. But a fossilized 15-inch femur bone found in a cave in Crimea shows that giant birds also lived in Europe. The bone is thought to be 1.5 million to 1.8 million years old, suggesting that these colossal avians—Pachystruthio dmanisensis—may have been around when Homo erectus first reached the continent 1.2 million years ago. If so, they would have been a valuable source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshells for our distant ancestors. The bird was flightless, but likely quick on its feet: The modern ostrich can run at 43 miles per hour. “The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer,” study author Nikita Zelenkov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, tells ScienceDaily.com. “There may be much more to the site that will teach us about Europe’s distant past.”
7-12-19 Combining two cancer drugs could help slow growth of tumours
Sometimes two cancer drugs are better than one. The length of time that a breast cancer treatment continues to work could be extended by delivering it alongside a lung cancer medicine that stops tumour cells from developing resistance. So far the strategy has been shown to work in mice and on cancer cells in the lab – but the researchers say it should move relatively quickly into tests on women with breast cancer, because both medicines are already in use. The breast cancer medicine, called palbociclib, is one of the newer “targeted” cancer drugs that work by interfering with a specific tumour molecule rather than just killing all rapidly dividing cells like chemotherapy does. In this case it blocks the function of two proteins that promote cell division. But breast cancers usually develop mutations that mean they become resistant to this treatment within a few months and start growing again, says Paul Workman of The Institute of Cancer Research in London. His team found that cancer cells do this by turning on an alternative molecular pathway to cell division. This can be blocked by the lung cancer medicine, called crizotinib. Tumours implanted in mice treated with the combination grew at about two-thirds the rate of those in mice given either of the treatments separately. Although palbociclib is so far only used against breast cancer, the researchers found that the two-drug combo was also effective against other kinds of tumours, including those from the lungs and bowel, suggesting the strategy could be applied more widely. “Because we already know they’re safe and effective we can proceed more quickly to a combination study,” says Workman. “We would be hoping to start trials in patients in the next 18 months.”
7-12-19 People in China consume twice the recommended daily limit of salt
People in China consume 10 grams of salt a day on average, twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organization, and over the past four decades adults in China have had among the highest salt consumption in the world. This trend was seen in a review of dozens of studies published since 1981. The review also found that consumption of potassium, which can counteract sodium’s effect on blood pressure, is less than half the recommended amount in both adults and children in China. “High blood pressure in childhood tracks into adulthood, leading to cardiovascular disease,” said Monique Tan at Queen Mary University of London in a statement. “If you eat more salt whilst you are young, you are more likely to eat more salt as an adult, and to have higher blood pressure. These incredibly high salt, and low potassium, figures are deeply concerning for the future health of the Chinese population.” Tan and her colleagues reviewed 70 studies published between 1981 and 2016 which included sodium and potassium levels from urine tests of more than 26,000 adults, and 900 children. These samples were collected over a 24-hour period to more accurately track sodium and potassium levels than data collected by self-reported diet surveys or estimates from a single urine sample. The review revealed that salt intake in China has been consistently high since the 1980s, with regional differences across the country. In Northern China, salt intake is among the highest in the world, with adults consuming 11.2 grams a day, though intake has been decreasing over the last 40 years. That may be due to less reliance on pickled foods as fresh vegetables have become more available, and government programs to increase awareness of the recommended amount of sodium, Tan and her colleagues say.
7-11-19 World’s top personality test doesn’t really work – should we ditch it?
Personality tests are used by researchers, employers and even to shape policy, but a new study has found that the most widely-used test of personality doesn’t seem work for people in low- and middle-income countries. Meanwhile, another study has found that even in Western countries, it may only work for specific age groups. So why are we still using it? The “Big Five” personality traits are openness to experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The theory goes that all human personality traits fall into one of these categories. They tend to be measured using questionnaires that ask people how much certain statements describe them, such as “I have lots of ideas”. Since it was developed in the 1980s, this model has become the standard way of measuring personality. It has been used in multiple studies to link personality to income, job outcomes, education level, wellbeing, and even mortality, and companies use it in recruitment. “Policy makers seem to care a lot about this, and more and more so,” says Karen Macours at the Paris School of Economics in France. “So we want to make sure that it actually works.” But when Macours and her colleagues looked at survey results across 23 low- and middle-income countries, they found that it didn’t. A set of questions developed to test for a specific trait, such as conscientiousness, would be expected to give similar scores in any individual. But that didn’t happen across the 23 countries studied. There are plenty of reasons why this might be the case. A person’s culture could influence the way they describe themselves, and differences in language could play a role. The first Big Five tests were developed from an English dictionary search of adjectives that could be used to describe personality. Perhaps not everything translates.
7-11-19 French healthcare will stop paying for homeopathic treatment in 2021
France’s national healthcare system will stop reimbursing patients for homeopathic treatments beginning in 2021, health minister Agnès Buzyn told Le Parisien newspaper on 9 July.This comes after a national study by French medical and drug experts concluded in March that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies work apart from a potential placebo effect. The French National Authority for Health also found in June that homeopathic remedies had “not scientifically demonstrated sufficient effectiveness to justify a reimbursement”. Buzyn said refunds for these treatments will reduced from 30 per cent to 15 per cent by January 2020, and ultimately phased out the next year. According to a joint statement by the French national academies of doctors and pharmacists, an estimated 72 per cent of French people believe in the benefits of homeopathy and 52 per cent use homeopathic treatments. In 2018, French social security refunded €126.8 million for homeopathic medicines out of a total of €20 billion in patient reimbursements, according to official figures. In Britain, the National Health Service took a similar tack in 2017, ending prescriptions of homeopathic treatments. At the time, NHS England’s chief executive Simons Stevens said homeopathy is “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
7-11-19 Hear what music would have sounded like at Stonehenge 4000 years ago
. Stonehenge was the ultimate venue for ceremonies and rituals when it was built more than 4000 years ago. But what did they sound like? Now a 1:12 scale model of the site, with the stones in their original positions, reveals the surprising acoustic qualities of the monument. Trevor Cox at the University of Salford, UK, has long been interested in acoustic archaeology – what ancient places would have sounded like. Many of Stonehenges stones have now fallen over or been removed, so Cox and his colleagues decided to find out how sound would have carried across the original 157 stones of the site in 2200 BC. To do this, they used a technique used to predict the acoustics of new concert halls, which involves building a mini model of the site. Using precise laser scans of stones of the ancient monument, the team 3D-printed and moulded a scaled-down version of Stonehenge. In the mini-model, the tallest of the actual stones is a mere 60 centimetres. To test the reverberation, sounds had to be blasted at 12 times their frequency, into the ultrasound range. So what did Stonehenge sound like? Even though there are large gaps between the stones and no roof “there’s a sense of being in a room,” says Cox. “You’d think that the sound would just disappear to the heavens, but there are enough stones horizontally that the sound keeps bouncing back and forth so you get this reverberance. You think it would all disappear but it doesn’t.” The tests showed that reverberation lasted 0.6 seconds. “This makes the voice sound more powerful,” says Cox. To modern-day humans, used to being in concrete or brick buildings, these reverberations might not seem that unusual, he says. “But to our prehistoric ancestors it would have been very remarkable.” Despite this, it’s unlikely that the buildings would have been designed for their acoustics. “But would the people have exploited the acoustics? Or course they would have done. But we will never know for sure,” says Cox.
7-11-19 An ancient bird found encased in amber had a bizarrely long toe
Extended digits might have helped the critter snag food in hard-to-reach places. There once was a little bird, smaller than a sparrow, that lived about 99 million years ago. And it had a freakishly long toe. Researchers found the ancient bird’s right leg and foot preserved in a chunk of amber. Its third digit is 9.8 millimeters long, about 41 percent longer than its second-longest digit — and 20 percent longer than its entire lower leg. This foot morphology is unique among any known bird species, whether modern or Mesozoic, the team reports online July 11 in Current Biology. Although it’s not clear what purpose the extra-long toe served, the digit may have helped the bird find food in hard-to-reach places, such as through a hole in a tree. The team, led by paleontologist and frequent amber-fossil finder Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, compared the toe size ratios of the fossilized bird with those of 20 other birds that lived during Mesozoic, the era that spans between 252 million and 66 million years ago, as well as with toe size ratios of 62 living species. Although some modern tree-dwelling birds do have elongated third digits, none of the other birds living or extinct have quite such a dramatic difference in toe sizes, the team found. Determining the bird to be a new species, the team named it Elektorornis chenguangi — using the prefix elektor, meaning amber in Greek, and suffix ornis, meaning bird; and with a nod to Chen Guang, the curator at the Hupoge Amber Museum in Tengchong City, China. E. chenguangi was a member of a group of toothed, clawed birds called enantiornithines that died out along with nonavian dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. Like most enantiornithines, the tiny E. chenguangi was probably a tree-dweller, and that lengthy digit may have helped the bird to grasp on to tree branches and limbs — in addition to possibly giving it a leg up in feeling around for food.
7-11-19 Unknown species of lizard found inside a gliding dinosaur's stomach
A near complete fossil of a lizard has been found inside the stomach of a microraptor, a kind of feathered dinosaur that lived around 100 million years ago. The lizard must have been swallowed whole shortly before the microraptor died and was fossilised. It was swallowed head first, in the same way that many living birds and reptiles swallow prey. The lizard turns out to be a new species and has been named Indrasaurus wangi by Jingmai O’Connor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and her colleagues. The name refers to a Vedic legend in which the god Indra was swallowed by a dragon during a great battle. Microraptors, first discovered two decades ago, looked very bird-like apart from their teeth but had feathers on their legs as well as their arms, and were capable of gliding and maybe even powered flight, says O’Connor. “This is an independent origin of flight separate from birds,” she says. “It flew with four wings.” Many researchers think they were tree climbers, but O’Connor disagrees. “I think microraptor was not a tree climber but rather lived on the ground but that’s controversial,” she says. “The Jehol where they lived was a forested lake environment.” This is the fourth microraptor fossil found with identifiable stomach contents, so we know they fed on mammals, birds, fish as well as lizards. Other studies have shown that at least some of these animals had black feathers. The microraptor and lizard are the latest of a treasure trove of fossils to emerge from northeastern China. Here a series of volcanic eruptions between 130 and 120 million killed many animals. Some were entombed in ash at the bottom of lakes and exquisitely preserved.
7-10-19 Babies point at objects because they really want to touch them
Why do babies point? The reason the behaviour kicks in across all human cultures when children are between 9 and 14 months old hasn’t been entirely clear before, but researchers now believe they have the answer: touch. The finding could aid understanding of child development and the evolution of language. Some experts have suggested that pointing begins with reaching to grasp something. But there is good evidence that this is unlikely, says Cathal O’Madagain at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. “When reaching, [infants] hav Instead, O’Madagain and a European team suggest the unique phenomenon originates from attempts to touch things in an exploratory manner with a fingertip. They undertook three experiments with groups aged 18 months to adulthood, and they argue the results back up the hypothesis. The first test revealed that we don’t necessarily angle a pointing finger in a way that will direct another observer’s attention towards the object we are pointing at. Rather, a virtual line runs from our eye through our fingertip and towards the object, as if we were reaching to touch the object. The second test looked at the way we rotate our wrists when pointing at objects – for instance, how we point at a magnet attached to the right-facing side of a box that is placed directly in front of us. Even infants, if using their right hand to point at the magnet, will often rotate their wrist almost 180 degrees so that the pad of their pointing finger is directed towards the magnet, as if reaching to touch it. The third tested how people interpret a pointing gesture being performed by someone else. It showed that 18-month-olds and 3-year-olds – but not 9-year-olds and adults – understand a pointing gesture to be an attempt by someone to touch an object, not an attempt to use their finger as an arrow to direct attention in a certain direction.
7-10-19 Drinking sugary drinks linked to an increased risk for all cancers
Drinking an average of just under 200 ml of a sugar-sweetened drink or fruit juice each day has been linked to an 18 per cent increase in cancer risk. Researchers from the French Public Health Agency and the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN) in Bobigny, France, analysed data from over 101,250 people, 79 per cent of whom were women. The average age at the start of the study was 42. At the start of the study, participants filled-out questionnaires that assessed their intake of more than 3000 different food and drink items. They filled out further questionnaires every six months, with many of the participants taking part in the study for up to five years. The team found that the average person consumed nearly 93 ml of sugary drinks or 100 per cent fruit juice – which contains naturally-occurring sugar – a day. Every extra 100 ml on top of this was associated with an 18 per cent increased risk for all cancers, and a 22 per cent increased risk for breast cancer among women. The association between sugary drinks and cancer risk held even when the team took each person’s weight into account. Obesity is known to raise the risk of 13 different types of cancer, but the team found that sugary drinks were linked to cancer risk even in slim people.However, the team say that their findings only show there is an association between sugary drinks and cancer – they have not definitely proved that one causes the other.
7-10-19 Why most new medicines are no better than existing treatments
When it comes to healthcare, new isn’t necessarily better. An analysis of 216 medicines launched in Germany since 2011, most of which would have been made available throughout Europe, has found that only a quarter brought significant benefits over existing treatments, according to the available evidence. The rest had only minor or no benefits, or the impact of the medicine was unknown. Medical regulators expect firms to show that their products are both safe and do what they are supposed to. The standard way to do this is through a randomised controlled trial, but pharmaceutical companies are not required to put their new drugs up against the best possible treatment on the market – instead they may test them against placebo pills. Even when a new therapy is actually tested against an existing one, the old medicine may be given at too low a dose for a fair comparison. “That’s a problem, not only for pricing decisions but if a patient has to decide for one or the other,” says Beate Wieseler of the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care in Germany, one of the authors of the study. In cases where a new drug is truly better than existing ones, the benefit may be so small as to make little practical difference. This is particularly true for cancer treatments – a study of 72 cancer drugs launched in the US over 12 years, found that, on average, they only extended life by two months. Richard Torbett of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry disputes Wieseler’s findings. “Often we find that studies making similar claims invariably take a very narrow view of what constitutes ‘value’ that ignores issues that are important to patients,” he says.
7-10-19 Our species got to Europe 165,000 years earlier than we thought
The first modern humans were not supposed to have reached Europe until 45,000 years ago, but a skull from a Greek cave turns out to be 210,000 years old. HOMO SAPIENS lived in Greece 210,000 years ago. The finding rewrites human prehistory, suggesting our ancestors migrated out of Africa – and reached Europe – earlier than we thought. The evidence comes from Apidima cave in southern Greece. Two hominin skulls, both missing their lower jaws, were discovered in the cave in the 1970s. They were thought to be from Neanderthals, who lived in Europe long before modern humans arrived. Katerina Harvati at the University of Tubingen in Germany and her colleagues have now taken a closer look. They CT-scanned the skulls and compared their shapes to other hominin specimens. As expected, one of the skulls was from a Neanderthal. But to their surprise, the other didn’t fit the Neanderthal mould, and was instead from a modern human. The next step was to find out how old the skulls were. This was difficult, because they were found encased in a block of hardened mud and rocks stuck to the cave ceiling. “This means that they did not come from the same context as any material excavated from the cave floor,” says Harvati. So Harvati’s team turned to uranium-thorium dating, which estimates the age of an object by tracking the decay of radioactive elements. This found the Neanderthal skull to be 170,000 years old. But the human skull was significantly older: 210,000 years old. “This age makes it older than any other accepted Homo sapiens specimen outside of Africa,” says Harvati. In the early 2000s, most anthropologists agreed that Homo sapiens arose in Africa 200,000 years ago and that everyone of recent non-African descent came from a group that left Africa about 60,000 years ago, with Europe reached 45,000 years ago.
7-10-19 A Greek skull may belong to the oldest human found outside of Africa
Homo sapiens may have reached southeastern Europe as early as 210,000 years ago. A skull found in a cliffside cave on Greece’s southern coast in 1978 represents the oldest Homo sapiens fossil outside Africa, scientists say. That skull, from an individual who lived at least 210,000 years ago, was encased in rock that also held a Neandertal skull dating to at least 170,000 years ago, contends a team led by paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen in Germany. If these findings, reported online July 10 in Nature, hold up, the ancient Greek H. sapiens skull is more than 160,000 years older than the next oldest European H. sapiens fossils (SN Online: 11/2/11). It’s also older than a proposed H. sapiens jaw found at Israel’s Misliya Cave that dates to between around 177,000 and 194,000 years ago (SN: 2/17/18, p. 6). “Multiple Homo sapiens populations dispersed out of Africa starting much earlier, and reaching much farther into Europe, than previously thought,” Harvati said at a July 8 news conference. African H. sapiens originated roughly 300,000 years ago (SN: 7/8/17, p. 6). A small group of humans may have reached what’s now Greece more than 200,000 years ago, she suggested. Neandertals who settled in southeastern Europe not long after that may have replaced those first H. sapiens. Then humans arriving in Mediterranean Europe tens of thousands of years later would eventually have replaced resident Neandertals, who died out around 40,000 years ago (SN Online: 6/26/19). But Harvati’s group can’t exclude the possibility that H. sapiens and Neandertals simultaneously inhabited southeastern Europe more than 200,000 years ago and sometimes interbred. A 2017 analysis of ancient and modern DNA concluded that humans likely mated with European Neandertals at that time.
7-10-19 Earliest modern human found outside Africa
Researchers have found the earliest example of our species (modern humans) outside Africa. A skull unearthed in Greece has been dated to 210,000 years ago, at a time when Europe was occupied by the Neanderthals. The sensational discovery adds to evidence of an earlier migration of people from Africa that left no trace in the DNA of people alive today. The findings are published in the journal Nature. Researchers uncovered two significant fossils in Apidima Cave in Greece in the 1970s. One was very distorted and the other incomplete, however, and it took computed tomography scanning and uranium-series dating to unravel their secrets. The more complete skull appears to be a Neanderthal. But the other shows clear characteristics, such as a rounded back to the skull, diagnostic of modern humans. What's more, the Neanderthal skull was younger. "Now our scenario was that there was an early modern group in Greece by 210,000 years ago, perhaps related to comparable populations in the Levant, but it was subsequently replaced by a Neanderthal population (represented by Apidima 2) by about 170,000 years ago," said co-author Prof Chris Stringer, from London's Natural History Museum. People living outside Africa today trace their ancestry to a migration that left the continent 60,000 years ago. As these modern humans expanded across Eurasia, they largely replaced other species they encountered, such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans. But this wasn't the first migration of modern humans (Homo sapiens) from Africa. Homo sapiens fossils from Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel were dated in the 1990s to between 90,000 and 125,000 years ago. These were viewed as anomalies - a brief foray outside our African homeland that came to very little. However, in recent years, we've come to understand that our species ranged outside Africa even earlier and further than we'd previously believed.
7-10-19 Both fish and humans have REM-like sleep
Sleep may have originated underwater 450 million years ago. No one should have to sleep with the fishes, but new research on zebrafish suggests that we sleep like them. Sleeping zebrafish have brain activity similar to both deep slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep that’s found in mammals, researchers report July 10 in Nature. And the team may have tracked down the cells that kick off REM sleep. The findings suggest that the basics of sleep evolved at least 450 million years ago in zebrafish ancestors, before the evolution of animals that give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. That’s 150 million years earlier than scientists thought when they discovered that lizards sleep like mammals and birds (SN: 5/28/16, p. 9). What’s more, sleep may have evolved underwater, says Louis C. Leung, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine. “These signatures [of sleep] really have important functions — even though we may not know what they are — that have survived hundreds of millions of years of evolution.” In mammals, birds and lizards, sleep has several stages characterized by specific electrical signals. During slow-wave sleep, the brain is mostly quiet except for synchronized waves of electrical activity. The heart rate decreases and muscles relax. During REM or paradoxical sleep, the brain lights up with activity almost like it’s awake. But the muscles are paralyzed (except for rapid twitching of the eyes) and the heart beats erratically. For many years, scientists have known that fruit flies, nematodes, fish, octopuses and other creatures have rest periods reminiscent of sleep. But until now, no one could measure the electrical activity of those animals’ brains to see if that rest is the same as mammals’ snoozing.
7-10-19 The scientific nutrition facts you really need to inform your diet
Are carbs good for you? Or eggs? Every week seems to bring contradictory new diet advice. New Scientist unpicks the surprising flaws in nutritional science. ONE morning a few months ago, I saw a headline that made my heart sink. It claimed that eggs can give you heart attacks. It wasn’t that I was about to eat eggs for breakfast. It was because, as a medical journalist, I knew friends and family would soon ask me what to make of this claim. And I would have a tough time answering. Advice about what to eat seems to change every week. Eggs are a classic example. They were once seen as wholesome packages of protein and vitamins, a perfect start to the day. But in the 1960s we woke up to the dangers of cholesterol. Eggs, which are rich in this fatty substance, became frowned upon. But wait! Around 20 years ago, our ideas about cholesterol were revised: the amount in our food no longer mattered, because it didn’t really affect the levels in our blood and hence our heart health. In the years that followed, it became OK to eat eggs once more. Then in March, the latest study showed the opposite again – that cholesterol in eggs was bad for us. Sometimes I wonder if we should believe anything we read about food. That might sound like an overreaction, but perhaps it is a rational stance. A growing number of scientists are now saying nutrition science is so flawed that we can’t even trust pillars of advice like eating plenty of vegetables and avoiding saturated fat. Within certain common sense boundaries, they say, it doesn’t matter what we eat. But could that really be true? When I started researching this article, I wondered if the doubters were being unfair. Sure, occasional studies with unusual results get seized on by the media, but maybe they are unrepresentative of the wider field. I discovered that this is the first response of nutrition scientists when a journalist tries to ask them, tactfully, if their field is broken. “You have to be careful about not taking one study and saying that’s the be-all and end-all,” says Louis Levy, head of nutrition at Public Health England. “You have to look at the broader evidence.”
7-10-19 Cooking skills aren't enough to make you eat a healthy diet
A lack of cooking skills has been tied to poor diet choices, but a study of cooking students in Spain has found that better kitchen skills don’t always translate to healthier eating. Pablo Caballero at the University of Alicante in Spain and his colleagues surveyed 108 Spanish students aged 17 to 24 who were studying cooking and gastronomy in Santa Pola, Spain. They asked the students to answer questions about their eating habits and rated them on a scale to determine their adherence to the Mediterranean diet. This diet features fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, nuts, olive oil and red wine, but very little red meat or sugar, and has been linked to lower rates of heart attack and longer lifespans. Most of the students had a medium level of adherence to the Mediterranean diet, 26 per cent had a high adherence, and 14 per cent had a poor score. Though dietary recommendations advise five to 10 servings of fruit each day, only half the students ate a piece of fruit or drank fruit juice every day. More than 60 per cent of the students did not eat vegetables twice a day, and more than a third of them said they usually go to a fast-food restaurant at least once a week. Previous research to combat obesity among children and young adults has found that cooking classes increase fruit and vegetable intake. “On the contrary, in our study, the catering students that have daily cooking classes showed an insufficient fruit and vegetable consumption,” write the team. They suggest that nutritional education may be necessary to change dietary choices. They found that among the degrees these students were pursuing, there were no classes dedicated to human nutrition, and less than 0.8 per cent of their lessons included general information about diet and nutrition.
7-10-19 AI can teach doctors to spot signs of cancer-causing viruses
Signs of viruses that can lead to cancer, like the human papillomavirus (HPV) or Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), can be found in tissue samples with costly tests that aren’t always accurate. But a new study shows that artificial intelligence can hunt down these signs reliably – and can help teach human doctors to spot them too. Some cancers can have viral or non-viral pathways, such as gastric cancer or head and neck cancer. In these cases, it’s crucial to determine whether a virus is involved in order to decide on the best treatment. Jakob Nikolas Kather at University Hospital RWTH Aachen in Germany and his colleagues trained a neural network using images of tumour tissue samples from The Cancer Genome Atlas. The training images came from 412 people with head and neck cancer, with 12 per cent testing positive for HPV, and 317 people with gastric cancer, with 8 per cent testing positive for EBV. The neural network accurately identified the presence of a virus in samples with HPV 89 per cent of the time, and 80 per cent of the time for samples with EBV. The team then reverse-engineered fake tissue sample images from the neural network, using a computer vision algorithm called Deep Dream that let them see what key characteristics in the patterns the AI was “seeing” when it found signs of the viruses. They showed the results to a panel of expert pathologists who described the features. They saw in the HPV-negative images “a sheet of small nodules composed of bright, predominantly warm colours,” and in the HPV-positive images “large nests with rounded borders composed of dark, predominantly cool colours punctuated by red dots.” The EBV-negative images had “ill-defined dark green whorls punctuated by blue dots and wisps of yellow” and the EBV-positive images showed “overlapping sheets with reticulated patterns in pastel colours.” The team behind the study suggest these patterns could help human doctors better identify the signs of cancer-related viruses.
7-10-19 Toddlers tend to opt for the last thing in a set, so craft your questions carefully
When 2-year-olds were asked a series of “this or that” questions, the toddlers showed strong preferences — but not for the reasons you’d think. My youngest child, now just over a year old, has started to talk. Even though I’ve experienced this process with my older two, it’s absolutely thrilling. He is putting words to the thoughts that swirl around in his sweet little head, making his mind a little less mysterious to the rest of us. But these early words may not mean what we think they mean, a new study hints. Unsurprisingly, when 2-year-olds were asked a series of “this or that” questions, the toddlers showed strong preferences — but not for the reasons you’d think. Overwhelmingly, the toddlers answered the questions with the last choice given. That bias, described in PLOS ONE on June 12, suggests that young children’s answers to these sorts of questions don’t actually reflect their desires. Instead, kids may simply be echoing the last thing they heard. This verbal quirk can be used by parents to great effect, as the researchers point out in the title of their paper: “Cake or broccoli?” More fundamentally, the results raise questions about what sort of information a verbal answer actually pulls out of a young child’s mind. This murkiness is especially troublesome when it comes to questions whose answers call for adult action, such as: “Did you hit your sister on purpose or on accident?” In the first series of experiments, researchers led by Emily Sumner at the University of California, Irvine, asked 24 1- and 2-year-olds a bunch of two-choice questions, some of which involved a polar bear named Rori or a grizzly bear named Quinn. One question, for example, was, “Does Rori live in an igloo or a tepee?” Later, the researchers switched the bear and the order of the options, asking, for example, “Does Quinn live in a tepee or an igloo?” The toddlers could answer either verbally or, for reluctant speakers, by pointing at one of two stickers that showed the choices. When the children answered the questions by pointing, they chose the second option about half the time, right around chance. But when the toddlers spoke their answers, they chose the second option 85 percent of the time, regardless of the bear.
7-10-19 See how visualizations of the moon have changed over time
From Plato to Galileo to Chang’e, views of our lunar neighbor keep evolving. Look up at the moon and you’ll see roughly the same patterns of light and shadow that Plato saw about 2,500 years ago. But humankind’s understanding of Earth’s nearest neighbor has changed considerably since then, and so have the ways that scientists and others have visualized the moon. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, here are a collection of images that give a sense of how the moon has been depicted over time — from hand-drawn illustrations and maps, to early photographs, to highly detailed satellite images made possible by spacecraft such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images, compiled with help from Marcy Bidney, curator of the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, show how developments in technology such as the telescope and camera drove ever more detailed views of Earth’s closest celestial companion.
7-9-19 Do you run with bent arms? Turns out it doesn't make much difference
Have you ever tried running with your arms straight? Most people find it quite a challenge, so it comes as a surprise to learn that it doesn’t require more energy than running with bent arms. Running with bent arms and walking with straight arms are almost universal habits, but until now, there has been no research that explains why. Andrew Yegian and colleagues at Harvard University recruited eight students to walk and run on a treadmill with their arms straight and bent. Six of the subjects also had their oxygen consumption measured. As you might expect, walking with bent arms proved to be more energetically demanding than with straight arms, increasing oxygen consumption by 11 per cent. But unexpectedly, running with straight arms does not appear to be more efficient than running with straight arms. “Pretty much every subject in the study said that straight-arm running was the most challenging condition,” says Yegian. “That’s why it was very surprising when we couldn’t find any difference in the energetics.” The way we hold our arms is influenced by a trade-off between energy spent at the shoulder and the elbow, Yegian explains. Bending the arms uses more energy at the elbow to resist gravity, but should save energy at the shoulder since it effectively makes the arm shorter, reducing the force needed to swing the arms. The results for walking suggest that with bent arms, we spend more energy at the elbow than we save at the shoulder. As there was no difference in oxygen consumption while running, this suggests that the trade-off between shoulder and elbow energy is balanced. But it leaves the reason why we bend our arms when we run unexplained. The study only tested running at a relatively low speed, so perhaps the benefit of bending our arms is only apparent at a higher speed. Maybe bending the arms spreads some energy demand from the shoulder to the elbow, stopping the shoulder muscles from tiring out. “These are speculative hypotheses to test in the future,” says Yegian.
7-9-19 Chlamydia may spread through the gut to infect new parts of the body
Chlamydia may cause rectal infections in some people by spreading through the gastrointestinal tract after oral sex, according to a study of heterosexual men. Past research has found that some women contract rectal chlamydia without ever engaging in anal sex, and it has been thought that the infection may have passed from the vagina to the rectum. To distinguish the pathways this sexually transmitted infection can take, David Nelson at Indiana University in Bloomington and his colleagues studied chlamydia in men at risk for the infection. “One of the main reasons we looked in heterosexual men was to reduce the possibility of auto-inoculation which seems more likely in women,” says Nelson. The team analysed rectal swabs from 197 men with a median age of 28, and each man completed a questionnaire on their sexual history and health. There were 135 men who identified as heterosexual in the study. Of these, 84 said they had performed cunnilingus in their lifetime and but had not engaged in other sexual acts that could expose the rectum to the infection, such as anal sex. Out of these 84 men, two tested positive for rectal chlamydia. This suggests that the infection may have entered their body through the mouth, given that their only exposure was the urethra and the oral cavity, Nelson says. Previous work has shown that chlamydia can survive the low pH levels common in the gastrointestinal tract, and chlamydia DNA has been detected in the appendix and colon, which supports the idea that the infection may be passed through oral sex.
7-8-19 Immunotherapy may help treat some resistant bowel cancers
It may be possible to use immunotherapy to treat bowel cancers that have stopped responding to treatment. So hints a small study of 35 people with advanced bowel cancer. The study found that cancer-killing immune cells were on average six times more active in tumours that had become resistant to cetuximab than those that had not responded to the drug at all. Cetuximab is one of the main drugs used to treat bowel cancer, but it only works in about half of patients. Even among cancers that initially respond to the drug, most tumours eventually become resistant to it. Once this happens, there are few treatment options left. But the discovery that immune cells are particularly active in cetuximab-resistant tumours suggests that it might be possible to boost this immune response. To see immune activity in bowel cancers is rare, says Marco Gerlinger at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, who was involved in the study. The team thinks that cetuximab kills cancer cells in a way that sends signals that attract immune cells to the tumour. “It’s enormously exciting to see that cetuximab attracts immune cells into these tumours,” says Gerlinger. A trial is now testing whether immunotherapy can harness this immune response. The trial is using two immunotherapy drugs – nivolumab and relatlimab – to see if such treatment could help people whose tumours have become resistant to cetuximab and chemotherapy.
7-9-19 HPV vaccine to be offered to UK boys as well as girls from September
Boys in the UK are to be given the HPV vaccine from September in a bid to prevent cervical and other cancers. Currently, only girls receive the vaccine, which also protects against penile, anal and genital cancers, as well as some cancers of the head and neck. But from the beginning of the next school year, boys aged 12 and 13 will be given the vaccine with parental consent. The vaccine gives protection against the human papilloma virus, which causes 99 per cent of cervical cancers. “Offering the vaccine to boys will not only protect them but will also prevent more cases of HPV-related cancers in girls and reduce the overall burden of these cancers in both men and women in the future,” says Mary Ramsay, of Public Health England. Girls have been offered the vaccine in school since 2008. PHE say the programme has led to an 86 per cent fall in infections of some strains of HPV among people aged 16 to 21. A study in Scotland has suggested that the vaccine has reduced pre-cancerous cervical disease in women by up to 71 per cent. “This decision is a triumph for gender equality and cancer prevention,” says Beate Kampmann, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It’s pleasing to see the UK follow the example of other countries like Australia, where the vaccine has been implemented for girls since 2007 and for boys since 2013.”
7-9-19 Gene-silencing drug for rare hereditary disorder approved for NHS use
A gene-silencing therapy for a rare hereditary condition has been approved for NHS use in England. Patisiran – marketed under the brand name Onpattro – targets a faulty gene in the liver that causes hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis. This condition can be inherited from either parent and causes sticky amyloid protein to build up in organs and around nerves. This can lead to problems with limb movements, vision and heart function, and can also trigger chronic burning neuropathic pain. The condition is thought to affect about 100 people in the UK. Patisiran works by using genetic material called RNA to block the action of the faulty gene. It was approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration last year. “Patisiran has shown in its main clinical study that it can halt or even improve potentially debilitating symptoms of this disease in the majority of patients,” says Philip Hawkins, head of the National Amyloidosis Centre at London’s Royal Free Hospital. “This means we now have a real possibility of preserving quality of life for eligible patients for longer than has so far been possible.” The drug is administered once every three weeks by intravenous infusion and can cost as much as £300,000 a year per patient. According to NICE, the company has a “commercial arrangement” which “makes patisiran available to the NHS with a discount” – the size of which is confidential.
7-9-19 'Amazing' gene-silencing drugs reach NHS
A new form of medicine called "gene-silencing" has been approved for use by the NHS in England. The drugs will be used to reverse a disease called amyloidosis, which causes nerve and organ damage. It can be fatal. Vince Nicholas, whose twin brother and mother both died from the disease, says the therapies are giving him hope. Doctors say gene-silencing is making the "previously untreatable, treatable" and has huge potential in medicine. "It's decimated our family," said Vince from Salisbury. "My mum had five siblings and they all died of it. There are five of us, three of us have it and one has died." The disease is passed down through families - one out of every two of the children of affected people will develop it. The first signs of Vincent's disease were pins and needles in his hands and feet. Vincent's brother Neil, a talented musician, said: "It affects the autonomic nervous system so it's things like eating, sweating, sexual function. "You lose that very gradually and then suddenly it all goes. "My legs are numb from my knee down and it was going to my hands as well." Eventually patients end up needing a wheel chair. It can affect eyesight, dangerously weaken the heart and cause chronic pain. There are different forms of amyloidosis and the Nicholas family have hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis. They have a "rogue gene" that leads to the build-up of sticky, toxic proteins in the body. The protein, called transthyretin, is made by the liver and damages organs and nerves. It can be fatal within three to 15 years of symptoms first developing. It affects about 150 people in the UK. The treatment uses an approach called gene silencing. A gene is part of our DNA that contains the blueprint for making proteins, such as hormones, enzymes or raw building materials. But our DNA is locked away inside a cell's nucleus and kept apart from a cell's protein-making factories. So our bodies use a short strand of genetic code, called messenger RNA, to bridge the gap and carry the instructions. This drug, called patisiran, kills the messenger in a process known as RNA interference. This effectively silences the rogue transthyretin gene and lowers levels of the toxic protein in the body. Patisiran is the first treatment of its type to be approved. A couple of weeks ago, inotersen was also approved for this disease and it uses a different approach to disable the messenger RNA.
7-9-19 Ebola in DR Congo: Fear and mistrust stalk battle to halt outbreak
There can be few greater challenges than tackling a lethal epidemic. But imagine trying to do so in a conflict zone ravaged by extreme poverty, insecurity and poor communications amid a population where health workers are feared and distrusted. Yet that is the reality of Ebola in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 1,500 people have lost their lives from the virus in the past year. In the city of Butembo, in North Kivu province, I see how local and international medical staff and charities are trying to combat the disease. Essentially, it is a gruesome game of whack-a-mole that appears all but impossible to win. It works like this: The morning I was there, news came through that a woman had died of Ebola. Staff from the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN-funded agency, rushed to the scene and set up a pop-up vaccination centre. What this means in practice is a few trestle tables under a number of tents. Then, members of the dead woman's family, her friends, her neighbours are identified and are asked to be vaccinated. Afterwards, their wider contact group are vaccinated too in the hope this double ring of protection will stop the virus in its tracks. These vaccination centres are funded in part by the British government. The UK's International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, was there to see for himself what his department is getting for its aid budget. And they are clearly making an impact. But only up to point, for there are challenges that this model struggles to overcome. Many Ebola deaths are never reported. Decades of conflict have led to widespread mistrust of the authorities and this has an impact on the disease spreading, according to authors of a recent report. Some deny the disease exists, believing it to be a poison invented by the international community to traffic body parts. (Webmaster's comment: Just what we want, diseased body parts!) Others do not trust trained medical staff to look after the sick. Then there are those who simply do not want their loved ones snatched from them, sealed up in a plastic body bag and buried anonymously by someone else.
7-9-19 Ancient humans used the moon as a calendar in the sky
Cave art and stone carvings reveal early humans’ time-tracking sophistication. The sun’s rhythm may have set the pace of each day, but when early humans needed a way to keep time beyond a single day and night, they looked to a second light in the sky. The moon was one of humankind’s first timepieces long before the first written language, before the earliest organized cities and well before structured religions. The moon’s face changes nightly and with the regularity of the seasons, making it a reliable marker of time. “It’s an obvious timepiece,” Anthony Aveni says of the moon. Aveni is a professor emeritus of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and a founder of the field of archaeoastronomy. “There is good evidence that [lunar timekeeping] was around as early as 25,000, 30,000, 35,000 years before the present.” When people began depicting what they saw in the natural world, two common motifs were animals and the night sky. One of the earliest known cave paintings, dated to at least 40,000 years ago in a cave on the island of Borneo, includes a wild bull with horns. European cave art dating to about 37,000 years ago depicts wild cattle too, as well as geometric shapes that some researchers interpret as star patterns and the moon. For decades, prehistorians and other archaeologists believed that ancient humans were portraying what they saw in the natural world because of an innate creative streak. The modern idea that Paleolithic people were depicting nature for more than artistic reasons gained traction at the end of the 19th century and was further developed in the early 20th century by Abbé Henri Breuil, a French Catholic priest and archaeologist. He interpreted the stylistic bison and lions in the cave paintings and carvings of southern France as ritual art designed to bring luck to the hunt. In the 1960s, a journalist–turned–amateur anthropologist proposed even more practical purposes for these drawings and other artifacts: They were created for telling time.
7-8-19 Half of babies affected by Zika virus are developing normally by age 2
Among a group of about 200 babies born to mothers who had contracted Zika virus, about one third had developmental delays, but not all of them were lasting. About half of the babies with abnormal assessments early in their lives later tested normally on developmental tests around age 2 or 3. Karin Nielsen-Saines at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues tracked the development of babies born to women who contracted Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the 2015-2016 epidemic. The 216 infants were all born by December 2016, and were assessed using standard tests to monitor infant and toddler cognition, language and motor skills. The team also tested the children’s vision and hearing. About 30 per cent of the children had below average development, or eye or hearing deficits. Language development was the most affected, followed by motor skills and cognitive development. Eye exams were abnormal in 7 per cent of the children and hearing deficits were seen in 12 per cent of the children. Eight of the children had microcephaly, the abnormally small head shape associated with Zika virus, though it resolved over time in two of these cases. In one case, the child’s head naturally caught up to normal size, and in the other, the child had corrective surgery. The team also found that 49 per cent of children with abnormal development in early infancy – including abnormal brain scans, seizures and low muscle tone – had normal results on their tests at age 2 or 3. On the other hand, the team points out that normal assessments just after birth don’t guarantee future normal development. They found that about 25 per cent of the children in this category went on to have below average neurological development, or delays in hearing or vision development. That includes three children who developed autism by age 2.
7-8-19 A 100-hour MRI scan captured the most detailed look yet at a whole human brain
A device recently approved by the U.S. FDA made extremely precise images of a postmortem sample. Over 100 hours of scanning has yielded a 3-D picture of the whole human brain that’s more detailed than ever before. The new view, enabled by a powerful MRI, has the resolution potentially to spot objects that are smaller than 0.1 millimeters wide. “We haven’t seen an entire brain like this,” says electrical engineer Priti Balchandani of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who was not involved in the study. “It’s definitely unprecedented.” The scan shows brain structures such as the amygdala in vivid detail, a picture that might lead to a deeper understanding of how subtle changes in anatomy could relate to disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder. To get this new look, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and elsewhere studied a brain from a 58-year-old woman who died of viral pneumonia. Her donated brain, presumed to be healthy, was preserved and stored for nearly three years. Before the scan began, researchers built a custom spheroid case of urethane that held the brain still and allowed interfering air bubbles to escape. Sturdily encased, the brain then went into a powerful MRI machine called a 7 Tesla, or 7T, and stayed there for almost five days of scanning. The strength of the 7T, the length of the scanning time and the fact that the brain was perfectly still led to the high-resolution images, which are described May 31 at bioRxiv.org. Associated videos of the brain, as well as the underlying dataset, are publicly available. Researchers can’t get the same kind of resolution on brains of living people. For starters, people couldn’t tolerate a 100-hour scan. And even tiny movements, such as those that come from breathing and blood flow, would blur the images.
7-8-19 Extracting sperm directly from testicles could help infertility issues
Taking sperm directly from the testicles rather than using semen may be a new way to help couples conceive through IVF. The approach has been used for some time in men who are infertile for reasons such as a blockage in the tubes that take sperm to the penis. But some clinics are now starting to use the approach more widely, for couples who are having trouble conceiving through IVF for unexplained reasons, doctors heard at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Vienna last month. Surgical sperm retrieval can be done in several ways, ranging from a relatively minor procedure where sperm is drawn out with a needle, to a longer operation to remove tissue from the testicles. One reason for its growing use is the idea that in some couples with unexplained infertility, the reason could be that the man’s sperm are unhealthy or dying, even though they appear normal. Many clinics now offer sperm DNA testing – more fragmented DNA indicates fewer healthy sperm – but it’s still unclear where the cut-off should be. The damage to the sperm is thought to happen mainly after they have formed, while they are maturing in storage tubes next to the testes. It’s reactive chemicals called free radicals that cause the damage. They are generated by high temperatures, smoking, obesity and other factors. Several studies have shown that in infertile men, sperm taken from the testicles has less fragmented DNA than that in semen – presumably because it has skipped the potentially damaging maturation stage. “Free radicals are very detrimental to sperm DNA,” says Sandro Esteves of Androfert in Campinas, Brazil. Sceptics say it is safer to use sperm from semen, in case taking sperm from the testicles selects one that has chromosome abnormalities and couldn’t have fertilised the egg naturally.
7-8-19 Moonlight shapes how some animals move, grow and even sing
Behavior can be tied to the lunar phases. Crowds of people gather to watch an evening spectacle on beaches in Southern California: Twice a month, typically from March through August, the sand becomes carpeted with hundreds or thousands of California grunion. Writhing, flopping, silvery sardine look-alikes lunge as far onto shore as possible. As the female fish dig their tails into the sand and release eggs, males wrap around females and release sperm to fertilize those eggs. About 10 days later, the eggs hatch and the little grunion get washed out to sea. This mating ritual is set to the tides, with hatching timed to the arrival of the peak high tide every two weeks. But the ultimate force choreographing this dance is the moon. Many people know that the moon’s gravitational tug on the Earth drives the tides, and with them, the life cycles of coastal creatures. Yet the moon also influences life with its light. For people living in cities ablaze with artificial lights, it can be hard to imagine how dramatically moonlight can change the nocturnal landscape. Out in the wild, far from any artificial light, the difference between a full moon and a new moon (when the moon appears invisible to us) can be the difference between being able to walk outside without a flashlight and not being able to see the hand in front of your face. And animals respond. The presence or absence of moonlight, along with the predictable changes in brightness across the lunar cycle, can shape reproduction, foraging, communication and other aspects of an animal’s world. “Light is possibly, maybe just after the availability of resources in terms of food, the most important environmental driver of changes in behavior and physiology,” says ecologist Davide Dominoni of the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
7-8-19 Ground beetle genitals have the genetic ability to get strange. They don’t
A new look at the genetics of sex organs finds his vs. hers conflicts over length and width. A new peek at the genetics of beetle genitals reveals the underpinnings of a battle of the sexes. When mating, males of Japan’s flightless Carabus beetles insert a chitin-covered appendage that, once inside a female, pops out a plump sperm-delivery tube as well as a side projection called a copulatory piece. That piece doesn’t deliver any sperm, but steadies the alignment by fitting just so into a special pocket inside the female reproductive tract. Researchers in Japan have now identified several regions of DNA that include genes controlling the length and width of the piece and pocket. Instead of being controlled mostly by the same genes, the beetles seem to have a fair amount of genetic freedom in changing one sex’s doodad dimensions without also resizing the other sex’s counterpart, evolutionary ecologist Teiji Sota of Kyoto University and colleagues say June 26 in Science Advances. Within a given species of these beetles, males and females have evolved compatible sizes, but the capacity for mismatching shows up in hybrids. Out-of-sync sizes can cause ruptures, snap-offs and generally low numbers of offspring. This misfortune matters not just to a few unlucky beetles, but to the whole process of forming species, or speciation. “I personally think that one of the greatest remaining mysteries in evolutionary biology is the role of genital evolution in speciation,” says Justa Heinen-Kay of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. She was not part of the beetle work, but has studied fish genital evolution. Across the animal kingdom, shapes of genitals are among the most rapidly evolving traits, she points out. There are species that otherwise look almost exactly alike that specialists distinguish by differences in genitals.
7-7-19 The myth of the magical childhood
The case for letting your kids be bored this summer. We parents are on a quest of Tolkien magnitude: curating the perfect childhood for our kids. It's a never-ending and, quite frankly, thankless job that reaches peak hysteria in summer when school's out. From now until September, for the children of parents who have the means, life is a bombardment of camps, play spaces, theme parks, and vacations. The reasons we're so obsessed with cramming our kids' calendars with imposed fun are myriad, and rooted in the socially-engineered mutant that is modern parenting. First, there's that intensely guilty feeling that if our kids aren't getting to suck every last bit of fun out of every day, they're suffering and it's all our fault. This is especially pronounced if both parents work and feel the need to compensate for being family-time-poor. Then, there's our crushing fear of the words, "I'm bored." Other than being intensely irritating, this phrase signifies parental catastrophe. Our mission to provide All The Joy All The Time has failed. And, of course, we're driven to stuff in as much manufactured fun as we can manage in the hope that it'll mask our parental failings. But filling our kids' lives with nonstop entertainment is as unhealthy as it is unfeasible. We already know that over-scheduling kids with extracurricular activities saps not only our bank accounts but also kids' ability to bed down in boredom and use their imaginations. Bucket loads of juvenile ennui and time spent staring at the same cracked spot on our bedroom wall and imagining what was underneath never did us grown-ups any harm, but somehow we assume it's the kiss of death for our own kids. The kicker is, engineering endless joy doesn't get you the kiddie kudos it should. Manufacturing pleasure for our offspring is like shoveling glitter, magic beans, and opalescent sugar crystals into the void. That's because children don't bank experiences like adults; they enjoy things in the moment — maybe — and then they move on. And they're not equipped to lie to your face and pretend they're happy when they're not, or see their magical little lives in the context of global suffering — even when you point it out to them. That's why the perennial parental appeal of "Eat all your food because some kids are starving" doesn't work. They don't care. Thankfully, most kids won't stall at the cute dimply psychopath stage, but until they reach the age of empathy, this is mostly how it is.
7-6-19 How singing helps us grow closer
Those who sing together stay together. In Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the movie about the British band Queen, the scene that sticks in my mind depicts the Live Aid concert in London in 1985. Freddie Mercury belts out their best-loved songs and the crowd is singing along, swaying, clapping, and stamping its feet. I could empathize a potent sense of togetherness in the audience, a feeling of cohesion between thousands of fans, coming not only from a shared enjoyment of watching the band but, more importantly, from being part of the music-making. It's no wonder that the film shows the Live Aid donations start to climb during this set: We know that social bonding is associated with more pro-social behavior. As a researcher, I am interested in how and why this sense of solidity from singing comes about. Singing is universal. It is found in all cultures and, despite protestations of tone deafness, the vast majority of people can sing. Singing also often occurs in collective contexts: Think about sports stadiums, religious services, and birthday celebrations. Given these two characteristics, my colleagues and I wondered whether singing is a behavior that evolved to bond groups together. Being part of a group is essential to human survival. In our hunter-gatherer past, having supportive social relationships would have enabled people to get the resources they needed to defend them against outsiders, to benefit from collective child-rearing, and to share and develop cultural knowledge about their environment and about useful technological inventions. We now also know that feeling sufficiently socially connected guards against physical and mental illness, and increases longevity. The trouble is that human social groups are much larger than those of our primate relatives. Whereas monkeys and apes create social bonds through one-to-one grooming sessions, human groups are too large to be able to do that and still have enough time to eat and sleep. We needed a more efficient mechanism of creating social cohesion, a way to bond larger numbers of individuals together simultaneously.
7-5-19 What does language have to do with masculinity?
New research shows that men view learning foreign languages as unmanly. Okay, it isn't strictly necessary that the president of the United States speak seven or eight languages. If Pete Buttigieg ultimately assumes the office, his remarkable linguistic abilities will be seen as a useful bonus. Given that we live in an increasingly interconnected world, in which our next employer or new neighbor could be from another country or culture, multilingualism is an obvious plus. So why are so many men reluctant to study another language? New research offers an offbeat answer: It is perceived by many as unmanly. A study from Canada reveals undergraduates consider language learning to be a feminine pursuit, and that men with traditional beliefs about the proper roles of men and women report less interest in such study if their masculinity has been threatened. "Holding traditional gender role beliefs may cause men to handicap themselves by limiting the scope of educational choices they consider," writes a research team led by University of Alberta psychologist Kathryn Everhart Chaffee. The researchers describe two studies in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. The first featured 1,673 introductory psychology students at a Canadian university who were asked where most of their peers would place various majors on a scale of masculine to feminine. "Both male and female participants stereotype mathematical domains as masculine and languages as feminine," they report. The second study featured 182 male introductory psychology students. They first took a "pre-test" that would ostensibly provide initial psychological profiles for each. In response, they were given fabricated feedback. Specifically, they were told their "masculinity score" was a below-average 33 or an above-average 73 on a zero-to-100 point scale. Between one week and three months later, they took a second test, in which they noted whether they would like to learn a foreign language, and whether they planned to study one of six languages as part of their college curriculum. They also completed a questionnaire designed to determine their views on traditional concepts of masculinity. Specifically, they indicated their level of agreement with statements such as, "In some kinds of situations, a man should be ready to use his fists, even if his wife or girlfriend would object." The key result: Men who tended to endorse such macho attitudes, and had their masculinity threatened (by receiving the fake low score), expressed less interest in learning a language, and lower intention of taking a class to do so. (Webmaster's comment: We've rightfully learned to expect less of many men.)
7-5-19 Nerve surgery helps people with paralysis control their hands and arms
Nerve surgery can restore some control to the arm and hand following spinal cord injury. Surgeons have reanimated the hands and arms of people who are paralysed by connecting up working nerves to the injured ones, giving people the ability to use their phones, apply make-up and feed themselves again. The surgery is life-changing, says surgeon Natasha van Zyl at Austin Health, Australia. One of her patients is currently travelling in Europe, and another can now take his grandchild to the movies by himself – both are leading drastically more independent lives than either had before. Her team in Melbourne and several other small groups globally have been developing this technique over the last several years and seen promising results, but so far the medical literature has only focused on individual case studies or small retrospective studies. So van Zyl and her colleagues recruited 16 patients with spinal injuries that led to arm and leg paralysis, otherwise known as quadriplegia or tetraplegia. Most had been injured in car accidents, playing sports or through falls. If the injury is relatively high up on the spinal cord, it can lead to arm paralysis because many of the nerves through which we control our arms branch off below the injury site. But any arm nerves that branch away from the spinal cord above the injury site will still work, for example. van Zyl and her team spliced these working nerves to the non-functioning ones that help control vital movements in the hands and elbows. Two years after the surgery, and after intensive physical therapy, the study participants were able to open their hands, grasp, pinch and extend their elbows again. Jeremy Simcock at the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand, says this is a “landmark paper” that establishes the safety and efficacy of this surgery for people with quadriplegia.
7-4-19 Exclusive: Five couples lined up for CRISPR babies to avoid deafness
Five Russian couples who are deaf want to try the CRISPR gene-editing technique so they can have a biological child who can hear, biologist Denis Rebrikov has told New Scientist. He plans to apply to the relevant Russian authorities for permission in “a couple of weeks”. The case for using CRISPR for this purpose is stronger than for trying to make children HIV-resistant, as attempted previously, but the risks still outweigh the benefits, say other researchers. “Rebrikov is definitely determined to do some germline gene editing, and I think we should take him very seriously,” says CRISPR expert Gaetan Burgio at the Australian National University. “But it’s too early, it’s too risky.” Both would-be parents in each couple have a recessive form of deafness, meaning that all their children would normally inherit the same condition. While the vast majority of genetic diseases can be prevented by screening IVF embryos before implantation, with no need for gene-editing, this is not an option for these couples. Several reports have suggested that – if it can be done safely – editing the genes of babies might be justified in this kind of situation. That is exactly why Rebrikov, at Russia’s largest fertility clinic, the Kulakov National Medical Research Center for Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, has sought out these very unusual couples. “It is clear and understandable to ordinary people,” he says. “Each new baby for this pair would be deaf without gene mutation editing.” In November, a biophysicist in China announced that he had secretly created the first-ever gene edited babies using CRISPR. He Jiankui tried – but probably failed – to induce mutations that protect against HIV by gene-editing IVF embryos from couples in which the man is HIV-positive. (Webmaster's comment: First the Chinese and now the Russians. The world is passing by the religiously backward United States.)
7-4-19 Astronauts don't seem to be dying from exposure to space radiation
Space exploration is a risky business. As well as the physical dangers, radiation from the sun and cosmic rays is thought to put astronauts at a higher risk of cancer and heart disease in later life. But a new study that looked at whether astronauts are dying early from these conditions found no sign. “We haven’t ruled it out, but we looked for a signal and we didn’t see it,” says Robert Reynolds of Mortality Research & Consulting, City of Industry in California. So far, not enough of the space-goers have died from these conditions to just compare their age of death with that of others. Instead, Reynolds’ team used a statistical technique on survival figures for 301 US astronauts and 117 Soviet and Russian cosmonauts. Of the total group, 89 have died to date. Three-quarters of cosmonaut deaths were due to cancer or heart disease, while only half of the astronaut deaths were, probably because there have been more fatal accidents in the US space programme, such as the Challenger shuttle disaster. Down here on Earth, getting heart disease doesn’t make you more or less likely to also get cancer – the two conditions develop relatively independently of each other. But if radiation exposure were causing a surge in both conditions amongst people who have been to space, then the higher rate of death from one illness would be dampened by the higher rate of the other – because anyone who dies from heart disease cannot also die from cancer. Reynold’s team plotted the space-goers’ deaths over time as survival curves – which show the rate at which a particular group is dying – for each disease, and found no sign of this dampening effect. However, that doesn’t rule out that radiation could be giving the astronauts a higher rate of one condition but not the other – for instance, if it caused cancer but not heart disease.
7-4-19 Sudan tomb diver reveals pharaoh's secrets
An underwater archaeologist has told the BBC of the extraordinary lengths he went to to access a pharaoh's tomb underneath a pyramid. Pearce Paul Creasman and his team were the first people to go into the tomb for 100 years and, in that time, it has become harder to access because of the rising water level. Mr Creasman told BBC Newsday that this was the first time underwater archaeology had been carried out in Sudan, the location of the ancient royal burial site of Nuri. He found pottery figurines and gold leaf. "The gold offerings were still sitting there - these small glass-type statues had been leafed in gold. And while the water destroyed the glass underneath, the little gold flake was still there," he told Newsday. He believes these offerings were for Nastasen, a minor pharaoh who ruled the Kush kingdom from 335 BC to 315 BC. This gold leaf would have been taken by thieves if it weren't for the rising water level making the tomb inaccessible to most, underwater archaeologist Kristin Romey writes in the National Geographic. Mr Creasman told the BBC that the team "dug as far as we could" down a 65-step stairway which led to the tomb entry but "we got about 40 stairs down until we hit the water table and knew we wouldn't be able to go any further without putting our heads under". Normal scuba tanks "would have been too cumbersome", he said, so instead they used a hose that pumped oxygen from the surface on the dive in January. He described what he found as "remarkable": "There are three chambers, with these beautiful arched ceilings, about the size of a small bus, you go in one chamber into the next, it's pitch black, you know you're in a tomb if your flash lights aren't on. And it starts revealing the secrets that are held within." The tomb is part of the ancient site of Nuri which is spread across more than 170 acres in northern Sudan. These pyramids mark the burials of Kushite royals who are sometimes referred to as "black pharaohs". The Kush kingdom lasted for many hundreds of years and, in the 8th Century BC, it conquered Egypt which it ruled for almost a century. One difference between the pyramids in Sudan and the much more famous pyramids in Egypt is that the kings were buried below them, instead of inside.
7-3-19 Why cat people and dog people's personalities match those of their pet
People's personalities often have more in common with their dog or cat than their friends, and now we know why owners and their animals are such a purr-fect match. PSYCHOLOGIST Richard Wiseman’s taste for quirky science is well known, so his pet personality project should come as no surprise. In an online survey, he asked people to rate their pets for things like friendliness and neuroticism. Over half of fish owners said their watery friends had a good sense of humour. Fish apparently appreciate a joke more than cats, horses and birds – but not as much as dogs. Reptiles entirely fail to see the funny side of things, according to their owners. The survey also asked people to evaluate themselves. “Fish owners were the happiest,” Wiseman reported on his Quirkology website, “dog owners the most fun to be with, cat owners the most dependable and emotionally sensitive, and reptile owners the most independent.” There were big differences in personality, he noted. And here is the clincher: most people attributed the traits they possessed to their animals too. In other words, we see our pets as reflections of ourselves. Just a bit of fun? You might think so. But in recent years a new breed of researcher has been investigating the complex relationship between people and their pets. They are trying to answer questions including: are pets like substitute children; do we manipulate them, or them us; and can the world really be divided into “dog people” and “cat people”? Some people are said to look like their pets, but this new take on human-pet interactions is even weirder: it turns out that we may think like them too. Most of this research focuses on cats and dogs. Worldwide, they are by far the most popular pets – fish are kept in greater numbers but by fewer people. More than half of people in the US have a dog or cat in their home, for example. And in the UK, where around 45 per cent of homes have a pet, a quarter of households own dogs and some 18 per cent are owned by cats.
7-3-19 Known unknowns: How to communicate certainly in an uncertain world
From the speed of global warming to the likelihood of developing cancer, we must grasp uncertainty to understand the world. Here’s how to know your unknowns. TAKE a look at the headlines, and it seems we are pretty certain about the state of the world. “UK unemployment falls to 1.44 million”, “India’s tiger population bounces to 2,226”, “Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”. Yet all these statements come with uncertainty attached. People often shy away from admitting this, be they politicians, experts or journalists expounding in the media, or doctors talking to patients. Perhaps they assume it will undermine people’s trust or make decisions harder. Yet making informed decisions also depends on knowing the unknowns. In a paper in Royal Society Open Science, my colleagues and I have reviewed the evidence about how best to communicate uncertainty without putting off or wrong-footing an audience (doi.org/gf2g9j). We suggest a checklist of questions communicators should ask to guide their approach. First, are you dealing with an uncertain fact (summer Arctic ice cover has declined over the past decade), number (2226 tigers in India) or underlying hypothesis (eating bacon causes cancer)? Second, where does the uncertainty come from: natural variation, measurement difficulty, limited knowledge or expert disagreement? (We set aside the future effects of randomness and chance.) The practical problems of counting India’s tigers, for example, may cast the precision of that number in a different light. Third, is the uncertainty direct (specifically about the fact or number), indirect (about the quality of the underlying evidence) or a mixture of both? Conflating the two can sow confusion. Take the decision of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015 to classify processed meat alongside cigarettes as “known carcinogens”. This expresses low indirect uncertainty: the evidence says that both processed meat and cigarettes increase cancer risk.
7-3-19 Is organic food better for you? Here's the truth about the benefits
Claims about the health benefits of organic foods are often linked to their higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants. Is organic food really better for you? IT STARTED with a leaflet on my doormat. In big, bold letters, a vegetable box delivery scheme proclaimed: “Did you know? Switching to organic is the same as adding 2 portions to your 5-A-Day.” Later, at my local health food store, a panel above an organic vegetable display announced that scientific studies had shown this produce was measurably more nutritious than conventional varieties. This assertion has been echoed by dozens of newspaper headlines, radio news pieces and, of course, campaign group websites. If you are an avid follower of the foodie media, it can seem like exciting new studies come along every few months to add to the organic evidence pile. So, amid the fanfare, let’s take a closer look at what the science says, so far. If you know where to look in academic journals, it turns out there is indeed lots of good evidence to suggest that some organically grown crops can be higher in certain vitamins and minerals. The tricky thing is, there are also lots of studies that suggest the exact opposite is the case. The more you delve into the literature, the more confused and conflicted the answer to what seems like a simple question appears to be. There is very good reason for this. Imagine you are a scientist trying to solve this conundrum. You might, for example, buy a range of fruit and vegetables, grown both organically and conventionally, then test these crops for nutrient content and compare the results. After all, this kind of like-for-like comparison most realistically reflects the choices available to consumers, right? But here is the problem: this isn’t a like-for-like comparison at all. The crop varieties grown by organic farmers are often not the same as those grown by conventional ones. As genetics tends to be the principal factor that determines the chemical make-up of a crop, the unique DNA of one variety can result in a very different nutrient profile to another, even if they are grown under the exact same conditions. One head of lettuce might look and taste nearly identical to another variety grown next to it, but their levels of nutrients like vitamin A can vary 20-fold.
7-3-19 Rogue immune cells can infiltrate old brains
Killer T cells may dampen new nerve cell production in aged mice. Immune cells can storm into the brains of older mice, where these normally helpful cells seem to be up to no good. The result, described July 3 in Nature, raises the possibility that immune cells may have a role in aging. Anne Brunet of Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues studied gene activity to identify all sorts of cells in a particular spot in mice brains — the subventricular zone, where new nerve cells are born. Compared with young mice, old mice had many more killer T cells in that area. These immune system fighters take out damaged or infected cells in the rest of the body, but aren’t usually expected to show up in the brain. Experiments on postmortem human brain tissue suggest that a similar thing happens in old people. T cells were more abundant in tissue from people ages 79 to 93 than in tissue from people ages 20 to 44, the researchers found. In the brains of mice, killer T cells churn out a compound called interferon-gamma. This molecule might be responsible for the falling birthrate of new nerve cells that comes with old age, experiments on mice’s stem cells in dishes suggest. The results come amid a debate over whether human brains continue to make new nerve cells as adults (SN Online: 3/8/2018). If so, then therapies that shut T cells out of the brain might help keep nerve cell production rates high, even into old age — a renewal that might stave off some of the mental decline that comes with aging.
7-3-19 Data can now be stored inside the molecules that power our metabolism
DNA isn’t the only molecule we could use for digital storage. It turns out that liquid solutions containing sugars, amino acids and other small molecules could replace hard drives too. Jacob Rosenstein and his colleagues at Brown University, Rhode Island, stored and retrieved pictures of an Egyptian cat, an ibex and an anchor on an array of these small molecules. They say the approach could make storage that is less vulnerable to hacking, and that could function in more extreme environmental conditions. Inspired by recent research showing that it is possible to store data on DNA, Rosenstein’s team wanted to see if smaller and simpler molecules could also encode abstract information. To test this out they created mixtures of common metabolites – solutions containing sugars, amino acids and other small molecules that humans and other living organisms use to digest food and to carry out other important chemical functions. Their idea was to use the presence or absence of particular metabolites in the mixtures as the binary 1s and 0s that can encode digital information. For instance, to generate the picture of the ibex, the team used mixtures of six different metabolites dotted onto a plate by liquid-handling robots. They produced 1024 dots in total, and within each dot the six metabolites were either absent or present, providing enough binary information to encode the 6142-pixel image. Rosenstein and his colleagues were then able to retrieve the data with around 99 per cent accuracy. They did this by using a mass spectrometer to analyse the chemical mix within each dot. They also made an even higher resolution image of a cat from an Egyptian tomb using mixtures of 12 metabolites.
7-3-19 Every single neuron in an animal mapped out for the first time
A complete map of all the neurons and their connections in both sexes of an animal – a tiny worm – has been described for the first time. A COMPLETE map of all the neurons and their connections in both sexes of an animal has been described for the first time. This “connectome” will not only help us understand how neurons work, but could also improve our understanding of human mental-health problems. The tiny soil-dwelling nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans has long been used for research because it has so few neurons. The hermaphrodite version of it, for example, has 302 neurons in its entire nervous system, compared with 86 billion in the human brain alone. A basic map of these 302 neurons was published in the 1980s, when Nobel-prizewinning biologist Sydney Brenner and his colleagues used an electron microscope to examine minute slices of the hermaphrodite worm, which is essentially female but can produce a limited amount of sperm. “It was a very important piece of work, but it was in pieces, it was incomplete, and it didn’t include the male,” says Scott Emmons at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Since then, Emmons and his colleagues, and other groups, have used similar approaches to note the connections in parts of the male worm. Now Emmons’s team has captured images of the entire male and analysed new and old images from the hermaphrodite. “Electron micrographs are too complex for a computer to analyse. All of the images were examined by a person,” says Emmons, who has been planning the project since 1999. His team has now been able to describe all of the neurons and their connections in both the male and hermaphrodite worms for the first time. The group has used the data to create a digitised map that shows the neurons’ location and connections, and the strength of those connections (Nature, DOI:10.1038/s41586-019-1352-7).
7-3-19 Why some insect eggs are spherical while others look like hot dogs
A new database is helping scientists test ideas of how the diverse forms have evolved. Look at the nail of your pinky finger. That’s about the width of the biggest known insect egg, which belongs to the earth-borer beetle Bolboleaus hiaticollis. The smallest egg, from the wasp Platygaster vernalis, is only half the width of the thinnest recorded human hair. Insect eggs range across eight orders of magnitude in size, and come in a stunning variety of shapes, a new database of almost 10,500 descriptions of eggs from about 6,700 insect species shows. The Harvard University team behind the database thinks it’s figured out one reason why. In a separate analysis, the researchers determined that where insects lay their eggs — for example, in water or in the bodies of other critters — helps to explain some of the diversity that’s evolved over time. The database and study were both published July 3 in Scientific Data and Nature, respectively. “Eggs provide a wonderful window into the evolutionary and ecological forces involved in animal reproduction,” says Mary Stoddard, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University not involved in the new work. Stoddard and her colleagues analyzed over 47,000 photos of eggs of 1,400 bird species in a 2017 study, which found a link between a bird’s egg shape and the animal's ability to fly. “Compared with bird eggs, insect eggs are truly wild,” she says. “Some insect eggs are spherical or elliptical, but others resemble arrowheads or hot dogs.” To compile the database of insect eggs, researchers developed computer programs that extracted egg measurements from text and photos in 1,756 digitized publications, and then used the measurements to estimate egg sizes and shapes. Representatives of over 500 families from all insect orders were included.
7-3-19 Ancient DNA reveals that Jews' biblical rivals were from Greece
To call someone a philistine today is to brand them uncultured, but to the Hebrews in the Christian Bible, it meant something worse: the Philistines were a separate group of people who were often their adversaries. Now DNA sequencing of ten Philistine skeletons suggests they really were a genetically distinct community. Around 1200 BC, in at least one key Philistine city there was an influx of south European genes, suggesting a surge of Greek immigrants to the region, says Michal Feldman of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. The Bible’s Old Testament makes numerous references to the Philistines; for instance Goliath, the “giant” who fought David, was a Philistine, as probably was Delilah, said to have betrayed Samson by cutting his hair. Multiple excavations from sites of ancient Philistine cities, such as Ashkelon, on the coast of what is now Israel, have yielded pottery remains that are Greek in style. But some argue that people could simply have adopted Aegean cultural practices via sea trading routes. Feldman’s team tried to extract DNA from 108 skeletal remains excavated from various burial places in Ashkelon that had been dated to either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. Ten produced useful genetic information from their bones or teeth, and this was compared with DNA from other populations all over the world, both ancient and modern. The Ashkelons’ remains could be divided into three time periods. The earliest three individuals found in a necropolis came from about 1600BC, four were infants that had been buried under houses around 1200BC, and three more individuals were from a cemetery by the city wall and came from about 1100BC. The people from the middle period had significant ancestry from southern Europe, with 20 to 60 per cent similarity to DNA from ancient skeletons from Crete and Iberia and that from modern people living in Sardinia, an island off Italy.
7-3-19 Ancient DNA reveals the origins of the Philistines
These mysterious people may have fled collapsing societies in southern Europe for Israel. Hard-won genetic clues from the bones of Philistines, a people known from the Old Testament for their battles with Israelites, have taken some of the mystery out of their hazy origins. DNA extracted from the remains of 10 individuals buried at Ashkelon, an ancient Philistine port city in Israel, displays molecular links to ancient and modern populations in the eastern Mediterranean, archaeogeneticist Michal Feldman and her colleagues report. Ashkelon residents carried that southern European genetic signature between around 3,400 and 3,150 years ago, but it disappeared rapidly as mating increased with locals, the researchers conclude in a paper published online July 3 in Science Advances. Genetic evidence from Ashkelon fits a scenario in which seafaring populations from southern Europe fled collapsing Bronze Age societies more than 3,000 years ago and settled along the eastern Mediterranean coast, where they were dubbed Philistines. Larger ancient DNA studies may help to identify the Philistines’ precise origins, say Feldman, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and her colleagues. DNA preserves poorly in hot, dry regions such as the Middle East. The researchers managed to retrieve nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents, from 10 skeletons: three Late Bronze Age individuals buried at Ashkelon around 3,600 years ago; four early Iron Age infants interred beneath Ashkelon houses between around 3,400 and 3,150 years ago; and three later Iron Age individuals buried in a large cemetery next to Ashkelon’s city wall roughly 3,100 years ago. Southern European DNA first appeared in the early Iron Age youngsters around the time archaeological finds indicate that Philistines inhabited Ashkelon, but had largely disappeared by the later Iron Age (SN: 12/24/16, p. 8).
7-3-19 Modern forensics solves Stone Age murder mystery after 33,000 years
Researchers have used forensic science to crack one of the oldest cold cases in history – the murder of an early modern human who lived in Europe more than 30,000 years ago. The skull of Cioclovina man has long been mysterious. It was discovered during the second world war, in 1941, by miners searching for phosphate in a cave in Transylvania, Romania. Dated at 33,0000 years old, Cioclovina is one of the oldest, relatively complete skulls so far found of an early modern human living in Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic period. Curiously, the scientists who first described the skull made no mention of two extensive fractures on its right side, and despite publishing good quality photographs of the rest of the cranium, they included only blurry photos of the side with the fractures. Researchers have debated the cause of the fractures in the decades since: were they from the explosions used to mine the cave? From mishandling the specimen? Did the cave collapse on Cioclovina man and kill him? Or was he murdered? Forensic scientist Elena Kranioti at the University of Crete and her colleagues decided to apply modern forensic techniques to untangle the mystery. Using CT scans, they discovered that there were no signs of healing around the fractures, ruling out the possibility that Cioclovina man had been injured and then recovered. Then they looked for signs of when the bones were broken. Kranioti knew that if the skull was damaged long after Cioclovina man had died, the fractures would be in random patterns and be square-shaped with sharp edges, because old and dry bone breaks differently from ‘living’ bone. Instead, the team found classic signs that the damage happened around the time of death. The fracture lines migrated towards the structurally weaker areas of the skull, and bone flakes flecked inward – indicating the injury occurred while there was still soft brain tissue in the skull.
7-3-19 The time paradox: How your brain creates the fourth dimension
We all feel the passing of time, but nothing in physics suggests it is a fundamental property of the universe. So where does our sense of time’s flow come from? SOME time ago, students at the University of Tennessee were handed an unusual assignment. Imagine yourself as a Lilliputian, they were told, as they stared at a miniature model of their communal lounge, complete with furniture and figurines. The students were asked to put themselves in the little people’s shoes, relaxing on the tiny chairs with minuscule cups of coffee. Then they had to say when they felt 30 minutes had passed. For the notionally shrunken students, time flew. Their estimates fell well short of clock time. Even more curiously, the acceleration in their felt time was proportional to the scale of the model lounges in which they were immersed. This bizarre result, reported in Science in 1981, is occasionally invoked by neuroscientists to suggest that space and time are folded together in the brain as they are in the universe. It is also one of many intriguing demonstrations of how malleable our perception of time is – and how mysterious. Time’s passage is perhaps the most fundamental feature of our experience, and yet modern physics can’t decide if it is a fundamental property of the universe. So what is time, and why it does it flow? How come it seems to slow and surge? And what, if anything, does the time we experience have to do with the time defined by the laws of nature? The search for answers takes us into the strange borderlands between neuroscience and physics – a foggy, treacherous place that exposes the limits of our ability to see reality as it really is, forcing us to confront the idea that time is all in the mind. It all made sense for Isaac Newton, whose classical laws of motion played out against the metronomic tick-tock of some “master clock” outside the universe. “All motions may be accelerated and retarded, but the flowing of absolute time is not liable to any change,” he declared. Time is the same, everywhere. Alas, absolute time fell apart in the wake of Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. They revealed that space and time are unified as four-dimensional space-time, a medium that is warped by both gravity and motion so that no two observers can ever agree on what happened when. Past, present and future are a matter of perspective, not something universal. Hence Einstein insisted that the flow of time is a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, and many physicists today maintain that there is no such thing as an objective “now”.
7-3-19 East Asians may have been reshaping their skulls 12,000 years ago
Fossils expand the known distribution of the ancient practice beyond Europe and Central Asia. Ancient tombs in China have produced what may be some of the oldest known human skulls to be intentionally reshaped. At a site called Houtaomuga, scientists unearthed 25 skeletons dating to between around 12,000 years ago and 5,000 years ago. Of those, 11 featured skulls with artificially elongated braincases and flattened bones at the front and back of the head, says a team led by bioarchaeologist Quanchao Zhang and paleoanthropologist Qian Wang. Skull modification occurred over a longer stretch of time at the site than at any other archaeological dig, the researchers report online June 25 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Permanent reshaping of a skull early in life, when cranial bones are soft, can be achieved by compressing an infant’s head with one’s hands. Binding the head with hard, flat surfaces such as boards or tightly wrapping the head in cloth similarly remodels immature cranial bones. Specific head modifications may have been used as signs of social status. Oddly shaped, intentionally modified skulls have been found in many parts of the world. Claims from the 1980s that two roughly 45,000-year-old Neandertal skulls had been reshaped early in life have been dismissed by many researchers. The earliest skulls with generally accepted signs of cranial modification date to between around 13,000 and 10,000 years ago in western Asia, southeastern Australia and now, East Asia. In the Americas, this practice began more than 8,000 years ago (SN Online: 2/13/18). “It is too early to tell whether intentional cranial modification first emerged in East Asia and spread elsewhere or originated independently in different places,” says Wang, of Texas A&M University in Dallas.
7-2-19 Your Boss Could Be Bad -- or Good -- for Your Heart
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) currently kills more Americans each year and costs more than any other disease, including Alzheimer's and diabetes. Over the next decade, the situation will only get worse: By 2030, the prevalence of CVD among those aged 20 and older is projected to top 40%, and direct medical costs are expected to triple to more than $800 billion. A recent study published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health -- based on data drawn from Gallup surveys of more than 412,000 full-time workers in the U.S. between 2010 and 2012 -- suggests that workplace supervisors could be part of the solution to this deadly and costly problem. A number of previous studies have established links between workplace stress and CVD risk factors. But because trust is such an important part of social capital, particularly in the workplace, the authors of this study chose to examine the associations between trust at work and seven CVD risk factors: smoking, obesity, low physical activity, poor diet, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The authors adjusted the regression models for demographic characteristics with each of the seven risk factors as dependent variables. As their independent trust variable, the researchers used a work environment question that asked: "Does your supervisor always create an environment that is trusting and open, or not?" Twenty-one percent of all U.S. workers surveyed answered "no." For both women and men, the highest prevalence of mistrust was among workers aged 45 to 64 (women, 24.4%; men, 23.0%), followed by those in the 30 to 44 age group (women, 22.3%; men, 20.5%). Overall, the authors found that trust was associated with increased adjusted odds of having many of the seven CVD factors. Among those workers whose supervisor created a mistrustful environment (those who answered "no" to the question), the odds ratios were the greatest (more than 20%) for having four or more of the seven risk factors. After the authors adjusted for demographic factors and whether respondents had health insurance, they found that trust was associated with seven CVD risk factors among both women and men in the sample.
7-2-19 Have mice really been cured of HIV using CRISPR gene editing?
What have researchers achieved? The claim is they have eliminated HIV from living animals for the first time, by cutting it out of its hiding places in the body – in other words, that they have cured the animals. 1. How did they do it? They used a gene-editing system called CRISPR, which is seen as a highly promising – yet still experimental – medical strategy. Unlike early forms of gene therapy, CRISPR allows precise targeting of specific genes. In this case, mice infected with HIV were injected with a different harmless virus that made a version of the CRISPR enzyme programmed to destroy HIV genes hiding in the mouse cells’ DNA. 2. Why would HIV be in the mouse cells’ DNA? That’s where the virus hides out. While we have very effective medicines, called antiretroviral therapy (ART) which can get rid of most HIV from the body, it cannot affect cells where HIV has inserted itself into the DNA and gone dormant. If people stop taking their ART medicines, some of this dormant viral DNA wakes up, and blood virus levels surge back up again. So any hope of a permanent cure requires getting rid of this reservoir of virus-infected cells, found all over the body, including in the bone marrow, brain, and lymph nodes. 3. Can CRISPR do that? Not by itself, no. “The viruses are replicating so fast that CRISPR can’t catch up,” says Kamel Khalili of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. So his team used a two-pronged strategy of hitting the virus with both CRISPR and a highly potent form of the normal ART meds. The drug molecules were chemically tweaked to make them fat-soluble yet encased in a water-soluble molecular cage. This means just one injection into a mouse’s blood sends the drugs into immune cells where the active molecule is slowly released over time.
7-2-19 California’s new vaccine rules kept more kindergartners up-to-date
The rate of those children behind on required vaccinations dropped to 4.9 percent in 2017. More kindergartners in California were up-to-date on their vaccinations in 2017, following three statewide policies, scientists say. Two stricter laws on vaccine exemptions and a school admission policy, enacted from 2014 to 2016, were associated with a decrease in the rate of kindergartners who were behind on required vaccinations for nine diseases including measles, mumps, pertussis and chicken pox. The rate, which had increased from 7.8 percent in 2000 to 9.8 percent in 2013, dropped to 4.9 percent in 2017, researchers report online July 2 in JAMA. “The study illustrates that stricter immunization laws improve vaccination rates,” says Jana Shaw, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse not involved in the research. Other states can learn from California’s experience, she says, “and adopt laws that would protect children at schools from vaccine-preventable diseases.” States can allow children to forgo vaccines for medical reasons or religious or personal beliefs, although which exemptions are permitted depends on the state. A law making it harder to obtain a vaccine exemption based on personal beliefs took effect in California in 2014. Two years later, another law got rid of personal-belief exemptions altogether. And in 2015, the state’s department of health tightened requirements for allowing children who are behind on their immunizations to begin school. To examine the effect of the three initiatives, researchers analyzed school-entry data for more than 9 million California children from 2000 to 2017. Along with the drop in the rate of kindergartners not caught up on required vaccinations, the chance of two kindergartners behind on vaccinations coming into contact with each other at school fell from 26 percent in 2014 to 4.6 percent in 2017.
7-2-19 A tiny jellyfish robot could swim inside the bladder to deliver drugs
A tiny jellyfish-like robot could one day swim through the body to deliver drugs to the right location. Metin Sitti and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany designed a robotic jellyfish that can swim, burrow and transport objects. It is 3 millimetres in diameter, roughly the size of a baby jellyfish. It consists of a central body and eight bendable flaps that can beat upwards and downwards in unison. They beat roughly 150 times per minute, also similar to that of baby jellyfish, and are extended by flippers that help the robot propel through water. For buoyancy, the robot’s body contains a small air bubble. Each of its flaps is made of silicone rubber that has been embedded with magnetic microparticles of neodymium-iron-boron. By applying magnetic fields in different directions and at different speeds, the team can steer the robot and changes its behaviour. For example, the robot can burrow into a pile of beads, or use its flaps to pull small beads of different sizes underneath its body and transport them with it as it swims. One potential application is to use these tiny swimmers to carry drugs to certain parts of the body, says Setti. The bots could be delivered via a catheter to a tumour in the bladder, for example. The robots could be made of materials that degrade naturally in the body after several months and can be excreted, says Setti. However, there may be cheaper and easier alternatives to the technology.
7-2-19 This brain region may be why some robots send chills down your spine
The ‘uncanny valley’ effect is an unsettled sensation caused by bots that are too humanlike. A new analysis of brain scans may explain why hyperrealistic androids and animated characters can be creepy. By measuring people’s neural activity as they viewed pictures of humans and robots, researchers identified a region of the brain that seems to underlie the “uncanny valley” effect — the unsettling sensation sometimes caused by robots or animations that look almost, but not quite, human (SN Online: 11/22/13). Better understanding the neural circuitry that causes this feeling may help designers create less unnerving androids. In research described online July 1 in the Journal of Neuroscience, neuroscientist Fabian Grabenhorst and colleagues took functional MRI scans of 21 volunteers during two activities. In each activity, participants viewed pictures of humans, humanoid robots of varying realism and — to simulate the appearance of hyperrealistic robots — “artificial humans,” pictures of people whose features were slightly distorted through plastic surgery and photo editing. In the first activity, participants rated each picture on likability and how humanlike the figures appeared. Next, participants chose between pairs of these pictures, based on which subject they would rather receive a gift from. In line with the uncanny valley effect, participants generally rated more humanlike candidates as more likable, but this trend broke down for artificial humans — the most humanlike of the nonhuman options. A similar uncanny valley trend emerged in participants’ judgments about which figures were more trustworthy gift-givers. Brain scans revealed that activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPFC — a region involved in making value judgments — mirrored participants’ uncanny valley reactions. VMPFC activity was typically higher in response to more humanlike pictures, but dipped in response to artificial humans. That drop was most pronounced in people with the strongest dislike for artificial humans. Those findings suggest that this region of the brain underpins the uncanny valley sensation, the researchers say.
7-1-19 Vision cells can pull double duty in the brain, detecting both color and shape
A study in monkeys finds many neurons fire in response to more than one aspect of an object Some nerve cells in the brain are multitaskers, responding to both color and shape, a survey of over 4,000 neurons in the visual systems of macaque monkeys finds. The finding, described in the June 28 Science, counters earlier ideas that vision cells nestled in the back of the brain each handle information about only one aspect of sight: an object’s color or its orientation, an element of shape. Some scientists had thought that those aspects were then put together by other brain cells in later stages of visual processing to form a more complete picture of the world. In the new experiment, four macaques looked at a series of sights made of moving lines on a screen. Each time, the lines were one of 12 possible colors and moved at particular angles, creating an effect similar to a spinning candy cane in two dimensions. Using genetic tricks that made nerve cells glow when active, the researchers watched for action among the monkeys’ cells in an area of the brain that handles vision. Called V1, this stretch at the back of the brain is one of the first areas to interpret sight signals. Most of the cells that had a favorite color, indicated by their activity, also had a favorite orientation of lines, the researchers found. “Thus, textbook models of primate V1 must be updated,” the team writes.
7-1-19 ‘Slime’ shows how algae have shaped our climate, evolution and daily lives
A new book will have you looking at pond scum in a whole new light. A slew of popular-science books have set out to convince readers that some overlooked, obscure or generally disdained category of thing is actually wildly important, whether it’s salt, garbage or beavers (SN: 8/4/18, p. 28). Slime, all about algae, is one of those books. If you’re skeptical that algae can sustain such an argument, you’ll be surprised. Science writer Ruth Kassinger, an author of two books about plants, has found in algae an undervalued topic truly worthy of closer attention. These slimy organisms have shaped Earth for billions of years and continue to float into and out of our lives in myriad ways. Kassinger visits farmers, foodies, factories and fuel producers that are all dependent on algae. She weaves their stories into a picture of how algae serve not only as a base in the ocean’s food chain, but also as a rich source of useful molecules that people have only begun to harvest. As for what precisely algae are, though, that’s a bit more difficult to say. While the word may conjure up a uniform film of bright green pond scum, the term has encompassed organisms ranging from cyanobacteria (once known as blue-green algae but now considered bacteria) and microalgae (in a rainbow of colors and more than 50,000 species) to seaweed that can tower as tall as a giant sequoia. Once classified as plants, algae are now known to be a grab bag of species defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. They’re not a true taxonomic group, like cats or fungi; they have no one common ancestor. Algae can’t even be defined as photosynthetic, since some have lost that ability. It’s this diversity that makes algae so important. Kassinger begins her book with the story of cyanobacteria, bacteria that around 3.7 billion years ago were the first to harness the sun’s energy using a new form of photosynthesis. This radical invention added oxygen to Earth’s atmosphere and allowed life to proliferate. From there, Kassinger traces the evolution of multicellular life and the spread of algae onto land, where they partnered with fungi to form lichens. She shows how algae’s diversification in the sea led to today’s phytoplankton, corals and seaweed.