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Hubble uncovers extreme galaxy called ‘Sparky’

1 hour 10 min ago

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe a monster galaxy that was hidden behind walls of dust.

The discovery offers important clues about an early phase of galaxy development, from a time just 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

The research appears in the journal Nature.

Galaxy formation theories have suggested that the universe’s heaviest galaxies develop from the inside out, forming their star-studded, central cores during early cosmic epochs. But scientists had never been able to observe this core construction until now.

“It’s a formation process that can’t happen anymore,” says Erica Nelson, a Yale University graduate student who was lead author of the paper. “The early universe could make these galaxies, but the modern universe can’t.

“It was this hotter, more turbulent place—these were boiling cauldrons, forging stars.”

What’s so special about ‘Sparky’

Researchers saw this formation process under way in a massive galaxy in the early universe. They found a candidate galaxy with an infrared camera on the Hubble Space Telescope that was installed in 2009.

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After finding this candidate, team members flew to Hawaii and observed it with the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) on the world’s largest telescope at the the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The galaxy boasted the most rapidly orbiting gas clouds ever measured, definitive evidence of a massive galaxy in the midst of core formation.

Informally, the scientists began calling the galaxy “Sparky.”

The T-Rex of galaxies

Using archival, far-infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the ESA/NASA Herschel Space Observatory, the team found that Sparky is producing 300 stars every year. By comparison, the Milky Way produces about 10 stars a year.

“Just like the hot oxygen-rich early Earth could produce dinosaurs, the hot, dense early universe could produce these galaxies,” says Pieter van Dokkum, chair of Yale’s astronomy department.

“As T-Rex was an extreme animal, these are extreme galaxies. They are tightly packed with stars and erupting with star formation.”

Hiding behind dust

Sparky’s rapid gas movement was the big tip-off to core formation. Yet the same gas required to fuel star formation, along with swirling traces of metals, comes with thick dust.

This dust enshrouds the galaxy, hiding it in visible light much the way the Sun can appear red and faint behind the smoke of a forest fire. Astronomers think this barely visible galaxy may be representative of a much larger population of similar objects that are even more obscured by dust.

It was only by using infrared analysis and the most powerful telescopes in existence that the Yale team could confirm Sparky’s exact nature. The galaxy formed 11 billion years ago.

“I think our discovery settles the question of whether this mode of building galaxies actually happened or not,” van Dokkum says. “The question now is, ‘How often did this occur?’ We suspect there are other galaxies like this that are even fainter in near-infrared wavelengths.”

In fact, Sparky may have a lot of company. “We suspect there are 100 times more and we’re just missing them,” Nelson adds.

Source: Yale University

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Closing orphanages could hurt, not help, kids

1 hour 36 min ago

More than 2 million children live in orphanages and group homes around the world, and a new study offers some encouraging data on how those children fare over time.

Children in institutions are as healthy and, in some ways, healthier than those in family-based care, according to the largest and most geographically and culturally diverse study of its kind.

The Positive Outcomes for Orphans (POFO) study based at the Global Health Institute at Duke University is following more than 1,300 orphaned and separated children living in institutions and another 1,400 children in family-based care. This study includes three years of data from caregivers and children between the ages of 6 to 15 across study sites in Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Researchers examined many aspects of child well-being, including physical health, emotional difficulties, growth, learning ability, and memory.

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The new research, published in PLOS ONE, challenges views held by children’s rights organizations that institution-based caregiving results in universal negative effects on the development and well-being of children.

“Our findings put less significance on the residential setting as a means to account for either positive or negative child well-being over time,” says Kathryn Whetten, professor of public policy and director of the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research. “This underscores the need to continue working to tease out the blend of caregiving characteristics that lead to the best child outcomes within each setting.

“We believe returning children from institutions to biological families may not result in the best outcomes, at least without significant intervention for the biological family, including supervision and follow-up.”

Ultimately, the evidence suggests a need to “focus on improving the quality of caregiving in family settings and group homes, the well-being of caregivers, and improving communities.”

The National Institute of Child Health and Development supported the study.

Source: Duke University

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Ebola outbreak likely started at a funeral

2 hours 28 min ago

The current Ebola outbreak sweeping through West Africa likely began at the funeral of a healer in Sierra Leone.

“The funeral was for an herbalist or traditional medicine practitioner in Koindu, a town in Sierra Leone,” says Robert Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University.

“The herbalist had treated several patients from neighboring Guinea, one or more of whom were apparently infected with Ebola virus.”

Scientists were able to sequence 99 Ebola virus genomes using blood samples from 78 patients, painting a record “real-time” snapshot of how the virus rapidly mutated as the outbreak spread.

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The analysis, published in the journal Science, shows that the West African Ebola strain was distantly related to a strain that has been circulating in central Africa for decades, but likely migrated to the region in 2004.

Scientists found 300 mutations that differentiate the viral genomes involved in this outbreak from previous outbreaks.

“This is first study to document deep viral genomics during a human outbreak of a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola,” Garry says. “We get a close look at not only how the virus is evolving as it passes from one person to the next, but also how the virus changes as it replicates within a person.”

The results can help researchers as they work to develop antibody-based treatments using the genetic profile of the virus. They also help improve the accuracy of diagnostic tests.

“The diagnostics used in the field are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based,” Garry says. “PCR depends on finding precise matches between a synthetic primer and the viral genome. If the virus genome mutates, the PCR assay may not work or not work as well.”

Coauthors of the study are from Harvard University, the Broad Institute of MIT, and researchers in Sierra Leone.

Source: Tulane University

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Sexual assault in college raises risk of future attacks

3 hours 1 min ago

Women who are victims of sexual assault while in college are three times more likely than their peers to be assaulted again within a year, a new study reports.

Researchers followed nearly 1,000 college women, most age 18 to 21, over a five-year period, studying their drinking habits and experiences of severe physical and sexual assault.

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Severe physical victimization includes assaults with or without a weapon. Severe sexual victimization includes rape and attempted rape, including incapacitated rape, where a victim is too intoxicated from drugs or alcohol to provide consent.

“Initially, we were attempting to see if victimization increased drinking, and if drinking then increased future risk,” says Kathleen Parks, senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo.

“Instead, we found that the biggest predictor of future victimization is not drinking, but past victimization.”

The study provided some good news, however, Parks says. “We found that severe sexual victimization decreased across the years in college.”

Drinking to cope

In light of the recent report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, the study suggests that campuses need to be aware of the increased risk of future victimization for women who have experienced sexual assault.

Women who were victims showed an increase in drinking in the year following their assaults, perhaps as a coping mechanism.

“Our findings show that women who have been victims may need to be followed for many months to a year to see if their drinking increases,” Parks says.

Parks’ previous research has shown that freshmen college women have a much higher likelihood of victimization if they engage in binge drinking.

The study was published online in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provided funding.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Survey reveals anxious, glum American workers

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 05:48

Seven out of ten Americans say the recent recession’s impact will be permanent—that’s up from five out of ten in 2009 when the slump officially ended.

Other the key findings of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development’s latest Work Trends report, include:

  • Despite sustained job growth and lower levels of employment, most Americans do not think the economy has improved in the last year or that it will in the next.
  • Just one in six Americans believes that job opportunities for the next generation will be better than for theirs; five years ago, four in ten held that view.
  • Roughly four in five Americans have little or no confidence that the federal government will make progress on the nation’s most important problems over the next year.

Much of the pessimism is rooted in direct experience, says Carl Van Horn, coauthor of the report and Heldrich Center professor and director.

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“Fully one-quarter of the public says there has been a major decline in their quality of life owing to the recession, and 42 percent say they have less in salary and savings than when the recession began,” Van Horn says.

“Despite five years of recovery, sustained job growth and reductions in the number of unemployed workers, Americans are not convinced the economy is improving.”

He adds that only one in three thinks the US economy has gotten better in the last year and one quarter thinks it will improve next year.

The survey took place between July 24 and August 3 with a nationally representative sample of 1,153 Americans.

The analysis summarizes the effects of the Great Recession by classifying Americans into one of five categories based on how much impact the recession had on their quality of life and whether the change was temporary or permanent. It reveals that:

  • 16 percent of the public, or 38 million people, were “devastated” because they experienced a “major, permanent” change in the quality of their life
  • 19 percent, or 46 million, were “downsized” due to “permanent but minor” changes in standards of living
  • 10 percent, or 24 million were “set back,” experiencing “major, but temporary” changes in their quality of life
  • 22 percent, or 53 million, were “troubled” by the recession and endured only a “minor and temporary” change
  • Only one in three of the nation’s 240 million adults reported that they were completely “unscathed” by the recession.

“Looking at the aftermath of the recession, it is clear that the American landscape has been significantly rearranged,” says Professor Cliff Zukin, co-director of the Work Trends surveys with Van Horn.

“With the passage of time, the public has become convinced that they are at a new normal of a lower, poorer quality of life. The human cost is truly staggering.”

Describe the American worker

The public paints an extremely negative picture of the American worker as unhappy, underpaid, highly stressed, and insecure about his or her job. Asked to describe the typical American worker, using a list of a dozen words or phrases, just 14 percent checked off happy at work and only 18 percent believe they are well paid.

Two-thirds say that American workers are “not secure in their jobs” and “highly stressed.” Just one in five says the average American worker is well educated or innovative; just one in three checked off ambitious or highly skilled.

And perhaps the most surprising, just one in three checked off that the average American worker is “better than workers in other countries.”

Financial stress

One of the reasons the public does not see the economy as having gotten better is that many remain under tremendous financial stress.

Six in 10 Americans describe their financial condition negatively as only fair (40 percent) or poor (19 percent). One-third report being in good shape; just seven percent describe themselves as being in excellent financial health.

Many report significant losses in the Great Recession. Just 30 percent say they have more in salary and savings than they did before the recession started, less than a third have the same, leaving 42 percent who report having less today than five years ago.

Americans view the recession as causing fundamental and lasting changes in a number of areas of economic and social life. Three in five believe the ability of young people to afford college will not return to prerecession levels, which is significant given the role that education has historically played as a key to upward mobility.

Other fundamental areas where a large segment of the public sees permanent changes are: job security (53 percent), the elderly having to find part-time work after retiring (51 percent), and workers having to take jobs below their skill level (44 percent).

Lots of pessimism

Americans are also pessimistic about the future. Only a quarter think economic conditions in the US will get better in the next year, and just 40 percent believe their family’s finances will get better over the next year. Consequently, most do not see themselves getting back to where they were any time soon.

“Despite nearly five years of job growth and declining unemployment levels, Americans remain skeptical that the economy has improved and doubt that it will improve any time soon,” says Van Horn.

“The slow, uneven, and painful recovery left Americans deeply pessimistic about the economy, their personal finances, and prospects for the next generation.”

The report found the public sharply critical of Washington policymakers. More disapprove than approve of the job President Obama is doing by a margin of 46 percent to 54 percent. Even fewer approve of the job Congress is doing—14 percent.

A plurality of 43 percent says they trust neither the president nor Congress to handle the economy. Finally, should Republicans win control of Congress in November, only 26 percent say this will help lower the unemployment rate.

Thirty percent say this would make unemployment worse while 44 percent say it would make no difference.

Source: Rutgers

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This is probably how fish evolved to walk on land

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 13:45

Researchers are using a living fish, called Polypterus, to help show what might have happened when fish first tried to walk out of the water.

Polypterus is an African fish that can breathe air, “walk” on land, and looks much like those ancient fishes that evolved into tetrapods.

About 400 million years ago, a group of fish began exploring land and evolved into tetrapods—today’s amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. But just how these ancient fish used their fishy bodies and fins in a terrestrial environment and what evolutionary processes were at play remain scientific mysteries.

The team of researchers raised juvenile Polypterus on land for nearly a year, with the aim of revealing how these “terrestrialized” fish looked and moved differently.

“Stressful environmental conditions can often reveal otherwise cryptic anatomical and behavioral variation, a form of developmental plasticity,” says Emily Standen, a former McGill University postdoctoral student who led the project, now at the University of Ottawa.

“We wanted to use this mechanism to see what new anatomies and behaviors we could trigger in these fish and see if they match what we know of the fossil record.”

On their fins

As reported in Nature, the fish showed significant anatomical and behavioral changes. The terrestrialized fish walked more effectively by placing their fins closer to their bodies, lifted their heads higher, and kept their fins from slipping as much as fish that were raised in water.

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“Anatomically, their pectoral skeleton changed to become more elongate with stronger attachments across their chest, possibly to increase support during walking, and a reduced contact with the skull to potentially allow greater head/neck motion,” says Trina Du, a McGill PhD student and study collaborator.

“Because many of the anatomical changes mirror the fossil record, we can hypothesize that the behavioral changes we see also reflect what may have occurred when fossil fish first walked with their fins on land,” says Hans Larsson, Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution at McGill.

The terrestrialized Polypterus experiment is unique and provides new ideas for how fossil fishes may have used their fins in a terrestrial environment and what evolutionary processes were at play.

Larsson adds, “This is the first example we know of that demonstrates developmental plasticity may have facilitated a large-scale evolutionary transition, by first accessing new anatomies and behaviors that could later be genetically fixed by natural selection”.

The Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and Tomlinson Postdoctoral fellowship supported the work.

Source: McGill University

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Toxic metals in E-cigarette smoke raise red flags

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 08:18

While smoke from electronic cigarettes may not have cancer-causing agents, it does have higher levels of some toxic metals compared to traditional cigarettes.

Electronic cigarette smoke contains the toxic element chromium, which is absent from traditional cigarettes, as well as nickel at levels four times higher than normal cigarettes.

Several other toxic metals such as lead and zinc were also found in second-hand e-cigarette smoke—though in concentrations lower than for normal cigarettes.

“Our results demonstrate that overall electronic cigarettes seem to be less harmful than regular cigarettes, but their elevated content of toxic metals such as nickel and chromium do raise concerns,” says Constantinos Sioutas, professor of engineering at University of Southern California.

Researchers began the study to quantify the level of exposure to harmful organics and metals in second-hand e-cigarette smoke, in hopes of providing insight for the regulatory authorities.

Smoke-filled rooms

“The metal particles likely come from the cartridge of the e-cigarette devices themselves—which opens up the possibility that better manufacturing standards for the devices could reduce the quantity of metals in the smoke,” says Arian Saffari, a PhD student and lead author of the paper that is published in the Journal of Environmental Science, Processes, and Imapcts.

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“Studies of this kind are necessary for implementing effective regulatory measures. E-cigarettes are so new, there just isn’t much research available on them yet.”

Researchers conducted all of the experiments in offices and rooms. While volunteer subjects were smoking regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes, the researchers collected particles in the indoor air and studied the chemical content and sources of the samples.

“Offices and rooms—not laboratories—are the environments where you’re likely to be exposed to second-hand e-cigarette smoke, so we did our testing there to better simulate real-life exposure conditions,” Saffari says.

The researchers compared the smoke from a common traditional cigarette brand with smoke from one brand of e-cigarette. an Elips Serie The results could vary based on which type of cigarettes and e-cigarettes are tested, the researchers note.

Researchers from Cornell University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and LARS Laboratorio and the Fondazione IRCCS Instituto Nazionale dei Tumori in Milan, Italy, collaborated on the study.

The Fondazione IRCCS Instituto Nazionale dei Tumori provided funding.

Source: USC

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Wine goes bad when microbes get ‘talking’

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 07:45

When wine fermentation gets “stuck,” the yeast turning grape sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide shut down too soon—and bacteria that eat the leftover sugar spoil the wine.

Researchers have discovered a biochemical communication system behind this chronic problem.

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Working through a prion—an abnormally shaped protein that can reproduce itself—the system enables bacteria in fermenting wine to switch yeast from sugar to other food sources without altering the yeast’s DNA.

“The discovery of this process really gives us a clue to how stuck fermentations can be avoided,” says yeast geneticist Linda Bisson, a professor in the department of viticulture and enology at University of California, Davis.

“Our goal now is to find yeast strains that essentially ignore the signal initiated by the bacteria and do not form the prion, but instead power on through the fermentation.”

She suggests that the discovery of this biochemical mechanism, reported in the journal Cell, may also have implications for better understanding metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, in humans.

Bacteria ‘jump-start’ yeast

Biologists have known for years that an ancient biological circuit, based in the membranes of yeast cells, blocks yeast from using other carbon sources when the sugar glucose is present.

This circuit, known as “glucose repression,” is especially strong in the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, enabling people to use that yeast for practical fermentation processes in winemaking, brewing, and bread-making, because it causes such efficient processing of sugar.

In this study, the researchers found that the glucose repression circuit sometimes gets interrupted when bacteria jump-start the replication of the prions in membranes of yeast cells. The interference of the prions causes the yeast to process carbon sources other than glucose and become less effective in metabolizing sugar, dramatically slowing down the fermentation until it, in effect, becomes “stuck.”

“This type of prion-based inheritance is useful to organisms when they need to adapt to environmental conditions but not necessarily permanently,” Bisson says.

“In this case, the heritable changes triggered by the prions enable the yeast to also change back to their initial mode of operation if environmental conditions should change again.”

In this study, the researchers demonstrate that the process leading to a stuck fermentation benefits both the bacteria and the yeast. As sugar metabolism slows down, conditions in the fermenting wine become more conducive to bacterial growth, and the yeast benefit by gaining the ability to metabolize not only glucose but also other carbon sources as well—maintaining and extending their lifespan.

Winemaker options

Now that this communication mechanism between the bacteria and yeast is more clearly understood, winemakers should be better able to avoid stuck fermentations.

“Winemakers may want to alter the levels of sulfur dioxide used when pressing or crushing the grapes, in order to knock out bacteria that can trigger the processes that we now know can lead to a stuck fermentation,” Bisson says.

“They also can be careful about blending grapes from vineyards known to have certain bacterial strains or they could add yeast strains that have the ability to overpower these vineyard bacteria.”

Additional researchers contributed to the study from Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts; UC Davis; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Harvard University.

The G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health provided funding for the work.

Source: UC Davis

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Did exploding comet leave trail of nanodiamonds?

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 06:51

Tiny diamonds invisible to the human eye—but confirmed by microscope—add weight to a theory first proposed in 2007 that a comet that exploded over North America sparked catastrophic climate change 12,800 years ago.

A new paper published the Journal of Geology reports the definitive presence of nanodiamonds at some 32 sites in 11 countries on three continents in layers of darkened soil at the Earth’s Younger Dryas boundary.

A map of the area in the Younger Dryas boundary field covered by the research. (Credit: U. Oregon)

The boundary layer is widespread. The nanodiamonds, which often form during large impact events, are abundant along with cosmic impact spherules, high-temperature melt-glass, fullerenes, grape-like clusters of soot, charcoal, carbon spherules, glasslike carbon, heium-3, iridium, osmium, platinum, nickel, and cobalt.

The combination of components is similar to that found in soils connected with the 1908 in-air explosion of a comet over Siberia and those found in the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary (KTB) layer that formed 65 million years ago when a comet or asteroid struck off Mexico and wiped out dinosaurs worldwide.

Comet airbursts

In the Oct. 9, 2007, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers  proposed that a cosmic impact event, possibly multiple airbursts of comets, set off a 1,300-year-long cold spell known as the Younger Dryas, fragmented the prehistoric Clovis culture, and led to widespread extinctions across North America.

Douglas Kennett, a coauthor of the new paper and now at Penn State, was a member of the original study.

In that paper and in a series of subsequent studies, reports of nanodiamond-rich soils were documented at numerous sites. However, numerous critics refuted the findings, holding to a long-running theory that over-hunting sparked the extinctions and that the suspected nanodiamonds had been formed by wildfires, volcanism, or occasional meteoritic debris, rather than a cosmic event.

The glassy and metallic materials in the YDB layers would have formed at temperatures in excess of 2,200 degrees Celsius and could not have resulted from the alternative scenarios, says coauthor James Kennett, professor emeritus at University of California, Santa Barbara, in a news release. He also was on the team that originally proposed a comet-based event.

Nanodiamond creation

In the new paper, researchers slightly revised the date of the theorized cosmic event and cited six examples of independent research that have found consistent peaks in the creation of the nanodiamonds that match their hypothesis.

“The evidence presented in this paper rejects the alternate hypotheses and settles the debate about the existence of the nanodiamonds,” says the paper’s corresponding author Allen West of GeoScience Consulting of Dewey, Arizona. “We provide the first comprehensive review of the state of the debate and about YDB nanodiamonds deposited across three continents.”

West worked in close consultation with researchers at the various labs that conducted the independent testing, including coauthor Joshua J. Razink, operator and instrument manager since 2011 of University of Oregon’s state-of-the-art high-resolution transmission electron microscope (HR-TEM) in the Center for Advanced Materials Characterization in Oregon (CAMCOR).

Microscope ‘sees’ nanodiamonds

Razink was provided with samples previously cited in many of the earlier studies, as well as untested soil samples delivered from multiple new sites. The samples were placed onto grids and analyzed thoroughly.

An HR-TEM image of a large nanodiamond found in Greenland. (Credit: U. Oregon)

“These diamonds are incredibly small, on the order of a few nanometers and are invisible to the human eye and even to an optical microscope,” Razink says.

“For reference, if you took a meter stick and cut it into one billion pieces, each of those pieces is one nanometer. The only way to really get definitive characterization that these are diamonds is to use tools like the transmission electron microscope. It helps us to rule out that the samples are not graphene or copper. Our findings say these samples are nanodiamonds.”

In addition to the HR-TEM done at the UO, researchers also used standard TEM, electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS), energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS), selected area diffraction (SAD), fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithms, and energy-filtered transmission electron microscopy (EFTEM).

“The chemical processing methods described in the paper,” Razink says, “lay out with great detail the methodology that one needs to go through in order to prepare their samples and identify these diamonds.”

Jon M. Erlandson, executive director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, is a coauthor of the new paper and the one that first proposed the cosmic event.

Other coauthors of the new paper are from DePaul University, University of California, Los Angeles, the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan, SRI International in Menlo Park, California, Northern Arizona University, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Mexico, the US Geological Survey, University of South Carolina, University of Cincinnati, Kimstar Research, Pennsylvania State University, University of Aarhus in Denmark, Exploration Geologist in The Netherlands; Rochester Institute of Technology, Berkeley National Laboratory, Universitat de Valencia in Spain; and J. F. Jorda Pardo of the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia in Spain.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the US Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation provided funding.

Source: University of Oregon

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Why trying to listen makes us freeze in place

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 05:15

To listen to someone carefully, we first stop talking and then stop moving entirely. This strategy helps us hear better because it cuts unwanted sounds generated by our movements.

This interplay between movement and hearing also has a counterpart deep in the brain. Indirect evidence has long suggested that the brain’s motor cortex, which controls movement, somehow influences the auditory cortex, which gives rise to our conscious perception of sound.

A new study, appearing online in Nature, reveals exactly how the motor cortex, seemingly in anticipation of movement, can tweak the volume control in the auditory cortex.

Neurons in the mouse motor cortex (green) project to the auditory cortex. As the mouse moves, these neurons suppress activity in the auditory cortex. (Credit: Anders Nelson/Duke)

The new lab methods allowed the group to “get beyond a century’s worth of very powerful but largely correlative observations, and develop a new, and really a harder, causality-driven view of how the brain works,” says the study’s senior author Richard Mooney, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine, and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

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The findings contribute to the basic knowledge of how communication between the brain’s motor and auditory cortexes might affect hearing during speech or musical performance. Disruptions to the same circuitry may give rise to auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia.

In 2013, researchers led by Mooney first characterized the connections between motor and auditory areas in mouse brain slices as well as in anesthetized mice. The new study answers the critical question of how those connections operate in an awake, moving mouse.

“This is a major step forward in that we’ve now interrogated the system in an animal that’s freely behaving,” says David Schneider, a postdoctoral associate in Mooney’s lab.

Mooney suspects that the motor cortex learns how to mute responses in the auditory cortex to sounds that are expected to arise from one’s own movements while heightening sensitivity to other, unexpected sounds. The group is testing this idea.

“Our first step will be to start making more realistic situations where the animal needs to ignore the sounds that its movements are making in order to detect things that are happening in the world,” Schneider says.

The brain’s ‘game of telephone’

In the latest study, the team recorded electrical activity of individual neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex. Whenever the mice moved—walking, grooming, or making high-pitched squeaks—neurons in their auditory cortex were dampened in response to tones played to the animals, compared to when they were at rest.

To find out whether movement was directly influencing the auditory cortex, researchers conducted a series of experiments in awake animals using optogenetics, a powerful method that uses light to control the activity of select populations of neurons that have been genetically sensitized to light.

Like the game of telephone, sounds that enter the ear pass through six or more relays in the brain before reaching the auditory cortex.

“Optogenetics can be used to activate a specific relay in the network, in this case the penultimate node that relays signals to the auditory cortex,” Mooney says.

About half of the suppression during movement was found to originate within the auditory cortex itself. “That says a lot of modulation is going on in the auditory cortex, and not just at earlier relays in the auditory system” Mooney says.

More specifically, the team found that movement stimulates inhibitory neurons that in turn suppress the response of the auditory cortex to tones.

The researchers then wondered what turns on the inhibitory neurons. The suspects were many. “The auditory cortex is like this giant switching station where all these different inputs come through and say, ‘Okay, I want to have access to these interneurons,’” Mooney says. “The question we wanted to answer is who gets access to them during movement?”

Exciting results

The team knew from previous experiments that neuronal projections from the secondary motor cortex (M2) modulate the auditory cortex. But to isolate M2′s relative contribution—something not possible with traditional electrophysiology—the researchers again used optogenetics, this time to switch on and off the M2′s inputs to the inhibitory neurons.

Turning on M2 inputs reproduced a sense of movement in the auditory cortex, even in mice that were resting, the group found. “We were sending a ‘Hey I’m moving’ signal to the auditory cortex,” Schneider says.

Then the effect of playing a tone on the auditory cortex was much the same as if the animal had actually been moving—a result that confirmed the importance of M2 in modulating the auditory cortex. On the other hand, turning off M2 simulated rest in the auditory cortex, even when the animals were still moving.

“I couldn’t contain my excitement when we first saw that result,” says Anders Nelson, a neurobiology graduate student in Mooney’s group.

The Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Holland-Trice Graduate Fellowship in Brain Sciences, and the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: Duke University

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Insertable gel for women could deliver HIV drug

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 13:24

Researchers have developed a vaginal suppository that, loaded with the antiviral drug Tenofovir, could help prevent the transmission of HIV and AIDS.

The semi-soft suppository is made from the seaweed-derived food ingredient carrageenan. Women could use this method to protect against the spread of sexually transmitted infections during unprotected heterosexual intercourse, the researchers say.

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With more than 34 million people worldwide living with HIV, microbicides—compounds that can be applied vaginally or rectally—offer a way to slow the spread of the virus, notes lead researcher Toral Zaveri, postdoctoral scholar in the food science department at Penn State.

Containing agents known to prevent transmission of HIV and other viruses, microbicides can be inserted into the vagina prior to intercourse as a gel, cream, foam, sponge, suppository, or film.

Zaveri pointed out that carrageenan was selected over gelatin (the traditional choice for semi-soft suppositories) because it offers a number of important advantages.

Because carrageenan is plant-based, it is acceptable to vegetarians, there is no risk of animal-acquired infections, and it avoids religious objections. Also, it is more stable than gelatin at higher ambient temperatures common in tropical regions of the world.

The suppositories hold particular promise for places such as regions of Africa where HIV is widespread and women often are not in control of sexual situations, according to Zaveri.

“Condoms have been successful in preventing transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. However, effectiveness depends on correct and consistent use by the male partner,” she says.

“Due to socioeconomic and gender inequities, women in some countries and cultures are not always in a position to negotiate regular condom use, so a drug-dispersing suppository can protect against transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections during heterosexual intercourse with a partner whose infection status may or may not be known to the woman.”

Testing the options

As part of the research, Zaveri, who earned her doctorate in biomedical engineering at the University of Florida, conducted extensive sensory-perception testing to assess acceptability of the suppositories among women.

Women participating in the study at the Sensory Evaluation Center in Penn State’s Department of Food Science were presented with suppositories—without the drug—in a variety of sizes, shapes, and textures.

They indicated their preferences and rated the suppositories for willingness to try and imagined ease of insertion.

The initial evaluations all were done only in the hand as part of this preclinical development effort. Many factors go into making choices, Zaveri explains, such as vaginal products women may have used previously, as well as their sexual and cultural practices.

Understanding women’s perception of the suppository and reasons behind their choices is a critical step in the development of the suppository as a vaginal drug-delivery system.

Zaveri also studied the release of Tenofovir from the suppositories in a simulated vaginal environment to ensure that the drug will be released once inserted in the body, even in the presence of semen.

“Many people work on drug delivery and use different methods to create drug-delivery products, but not many focus on the end-user aspect of this,” she says.

“Obviously, the product can be effective only if it is acceptable to women and they use it. We have gone a step farther with this study to validate the acceptability of our suppositories among women—and that’s critical.”

 Why a food additive?

Zaveri notes that some may be surprised that biomedical research is done in the food science department. But she says it seemed natural given her collaboration on the study with Gregory Ziegler, who has expertise in biopolymers such as carrageenan, and John Hayes, who is known for his proficiency in sensory-perception research.

“The biomedical use of a food additive—a material widely used in the food industry for its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties—as a medium for a drug-delivery system is a novel idea, but we were playing to all of our strengths on the team,” she says.

Previous microbicides were generally solids or liquids.

“We exploited the intermediate design space of viscoelastic materials known as gels,” says Ziegler, “thus avoiding some of the drawbacks of these other dosage forms.”

The real beauty of the concept, Zaveri suggests, is its potential for relatively quick commercialization because the material used to formulate the suppositories, carrageenan, is already approved, and safety studies have been done in previous microbicide clinical trials.

“Currently the suppositories are prepared in the lab by simple molding,” she says. “However, the research team is investigating methods for large-scale production and packaging—key factors to be considered for product commercialization. Considering the safety, efficacy, and user-acceptability tests that we are doing, it easily is possible for a company to take this product and run with it.”

A National Institutes of Health grant to Hayes and Ziegler through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases supported this work, which appears in PLOS ONE, Antiviral Research, and, most recently, the July and September issues of Pharmaceutics.

Source: Penn State

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Neurons reveal the brain’s learning limit

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 10:54

Scientists have discovered a fundamental constraint in the brain that may explain why it’s easier to learn a skill that’s related to an ability you already have.

For example, a trained pianist can learn a new melody easier than learning how to hit a tennis serve.

As reported in Nature, the researchers found for the first time that there are limitations on how adaptable the brain is during learning and that these restrictions are a key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn.

Understanding how the brain’s activity can be “flexed” during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.

Lead author Patrick T. Sadtler, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Pittsburgh department of bioengineering, compared the study’s findings to cooking.

“Suppose you have flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs, salt, and milk. You can combine them to make different items—bread, pancakes, and cookies—but it would be difficult to make hamburger patties with the existing ingredients,” Sadtler says.

“We found that the brain works in a similar way during learning. We found that subjects were able to more readily recombine familiar activity patterns in new ways relative to creating entirely novel patterns.”

Moving the cursor

For the study, the research team trained animals (Rhesus macaques) to use a brain-computer interface (BCI), similar to ones that have shown recent promise in clinical trials for assisting quadriplegics and amputees.

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“This evolving technology is a powerful tool for brain research,” says Daofen Chen, program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health. “It helps scientists study the dynamics of brain circuits that may explain the neural basis of learning.”

The researchers recorded neural activity in the subject’s motor cortex and directed the recordings into a computer, which translated the activity into movement of a cursor on the computer screen.

This technique allowed the team to specify the activity patterns that would move the cursor. The test subjects’ goal was to move the cursor to targets on the screen, which required them to generate the patterns of neural activity that the experimenters had requested. If the subjects could move the cursor well, that meant that they had learned to generate the neural activity pattern that the researchers had specified.

The results showed that the subjects learned to generate some neural activity patterns more easily than others, since they only sometimes achieved accurate cursor movements.

The harder-to-learn patterns were different from any of the pre-existing patterns, whereas the easier-to-learn patterns were combinations of pre-existing brain patterns. Because the existing brain patterns likely reflect how the neurons are interconnected, the results suggest that the connectivity among neurons shapes learning.

Only so flexible

“We wanted to study how the brain changes its activity when you learn, and also how its activity cannot change. Cognitive flexibility has a limit—and we wanted to find out what that limit looks like in terms of neurons,” says Aaron P. Batista, assistant professor of bioengineering at University of Pittsburgh.

Byron M. Yu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, believes this work demonstrates the utility of BCI for basic scientific studies that will eventually impact people’s lives.

“These findings could be the basis for novel rehabilitation procedures for the many neural disorders that are characterized by improper neural activity,” Yu says.

“Restoring function might require a person to generate a new pattern of neural activity. We could use techniques similar to what were used in this study to coach patients to generate proper neural activity.”

The researchers are part of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a joint program between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Additional researchers from University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford University and Palo Alto Medical Foundation contributed to the work.

The NIH, National Science Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund funded the research.

Source: Carnegie Mellon

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Monitor glaucoma with an eye implant and a phone

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 09:22

Lowering a patient’s internal eye pressure is currently the only way to treat glaucoma. A tiny eye implant paired with a smart phone could help doctors measure and lower eye pressure.

For the 2.2 million Americans battling glaucoma, the main course of action for staving off blindness involves weekly visits to eye specialists who monitor—and control—increasing pressure within the eye.

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Now, a tiny eye implant could enable patients to take more frequent readings from the comfort of home. Daily or hourly measurements of eye pressure could help doctors tailor more effective treatment plans.

Internal optic pressure (IOP) is the main risk factor associated with glaucoma, which is characterized by a continuous loss of specific retina cells and degradation of the optic nerve fiber. The mechanism linking IOP and the damage is not clear, but in most patients IOP levels correlate with the rate of damage.

A steady read

Reducing IOP to normal or below-normal levels is currently the only treatment available for glaucoma. This requires repeated measurements of the patient’s IOP until the levels stabilize. The trick with this, though, is that the readings do not always tell the truth.

Like blood pressure, IOP can vary day-to-day and hour-to-hour; other medications, body posture, or even a necktie that is knotted too tightly can affect it. If patients are tested on a low IOP day, the test can give a false impression of the severity of the disease and affect their treatment in a way that can ultimately lead to worse vision.

The new implant was developed as a collaboration between Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and of applied physics at Stanford University, and ophthalmologist Yossi Mandel of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. It consists of a small tube—one end is open to the fluids that fill the eye; the other end is capped with a small bulb filled with gas. As the IOP increases, intraocular fluid is pushed into the tube; the gas pushes back against this flow.

Phone app

As IOP fluctuates, the meniscus—the barrier between the fluid and the gas—moves back and forth in the tube. Patients could use a custom smartphone app or a wearable technology, such as Google Glass, to snap a photo of the instrument at any time, providing a critical wealth of data that could steer treatment.

For instance, in one previous study, researchers found that 24-hour IOP monitoring resulted in a change in treatment in up to 80 percent of patients.

The implant is currently designed to fit inside a standard intraocular lens prosthetic, which many glaucoma patients often get when they have cataract surgery, but the scientists are investigating ways to implant it on its own. The study appears in the current issue of Nature Medicine.

Preventing blindness

“For me, the charm of this is the simplicity of the device,” Quake says. “Glaucoma is a substantial issue in human health. It’s critical to catch things before they go off the rails, because once you go off, you can go blind. If patients could monitor themselves frequently, you might see an improvement in treatments.”

Remarkably, the implant won’t distort vision. When subjected to the vision test used by the US Air Force, the device caused nearly no optical distortion, the researchers says.

Before they can test the device in humans, however, the scientists say they need to re-engineer the device with materials that will increase the life of the device inside the human eye. Because of the implant’s simple design, they expect this will be relatively achievable.

“I believe that only a few years are needed before clinical trials can be conducted,” says Mandel, head of the Ophthalmic Science and Engineering Laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, who collaborated on developing the implant.

Source: Stanford University

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Possible ‘babysitter’ spotted in nest of 24 dinosaurs

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 09:00

A rock slab that contains the fossils of 24 very young dinosaurs and one older one suggests a caretaker was watching the group of hatchlings, scientists say.

Amateur paleontologists discovered the fossils, which are about 120 million years old, in the Lujiatun beds of the Yixian Formation in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province.

A rock slab containing fossils of 24 very young dinosaurs and one older individual suggests “post-hatchling cooperation,” a behavior exhibited by some species of modern-day birds. (Credit: U. Pennsylvania)

Though the entire specimen is only about two feet across, it contains fossils from 25 creatures, all of the species Psittacosaurus lujiatunensis.

Psittacosaurs were plant eaters and are among the most abundant dinosaurs yet discovered.

The specimen had previously been described only briefly, in a one-page paper in 2004. The people who found and extracted the fossils did not record their exact original location, which hampers the investigation to some degree.

But Peter Dodson, professor of paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandon Hedrick, a doctoral student in the department of earth and environmental science, felt there was much more to say about the specimen.

“I saw a photo of it and instantly knew I wanted to explore it in more depth,” Hedrick says.

Caught in a slurry of debris

To analyze the material in which the animals were preserved, the researchers examined thin slivers of rock under the microscope and samples of ground-up rock using a technique called X-ray diffraction, which relies on the fact that different kinds of minerals bend light in unique ways. Both analyses suggested the rock was composed of volcanic material, an indication that the animals were caught in flowing material from an eruption.

The fossils’ orientation supported this idea. The findings are reported in the journal Cretaceous Research.

“If they were captured in a flow, the long axis—their spines—would be oriented in the same direction,” Hedrick says. “That was what we found. They were likely trapped by a flow, though we can’t say exactly what kind of flow.”

Because there was no evidence of heat damage to the bones, the researchers believe the flow was likely a lahar—a slurry of water, mud, rock, and other debris associated with volcanic eruptions.

Was it a nest?

The 24 younger animals appeared to be quite similar in size. Though the team considered whether they might have been embryos, still in their eggs, various observations suggest they had already hatched.

First, there was no evidence of eggshell material. Also, other paleontologists have identified even smaller individual psittacosaurs. Also, “the ends of their bones were well developed, which indicates they were capable of moving around,” Hedrick says.

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The larger skull was firmly embedded in the same layer of rock as the 24 smaller animals. Two of the younger animals were in fact intertwined with the skull, signs that the animals were closely associated at the time of their death.

The skull’s size, about 4.5 inches long, indicated that the animal was estimated to be between 4 and 5 years old. Earlier findings suggested that P. lujiatunensis did not reproduce until 8 or 9 years old, so this creature was probably not the parent of the younger dinosaurs.

Given the close association of the young P. lujiatunensis with the older individual, however, the researchers believe this specimen may offer evidence of post-hatchling cooperation, a behavior exhibited by some species of modern-day birds. The older juvenile may well have been a big brother or sister helping care for its younger siblings.

The researchers emphasize that they can’t definitively call this assemblage of fossils a nest, as some earlier analyses have.

“It certainly seems like it might be a nest, but we weren’t able to satisfy the intense criteria to say definitively that it is,” Hedrick says. “It’s just as important to point out what we don’t know for sure as it is to say what we’re certain of.”

As a next step, Hedrick and Dodson are examining the microstructure of the bones of the smaller animals to establish whether they were all at the same stage of development, which would lend support to the idea of this being one clutch of animals.

Other researchers from Penn and from the Dalian Museum in China are coauthors of the paper. The National Science Foundation and University of Pennsylvania’s Paleobiology Stipend funded the study.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

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Photo app screens babies for jaundice

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 08:28

A new smartphone app can help parents and pediatricians recognize jaundice in newborn babies.

Skin that turns yellow can be a sure sign that a newborn isn’t adequately eliminating the chemical bilirubin. But that discoloration is sometimes hard to see, and severe jaundice, left untreated, can harm the baby.

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Engineers and physicians have developed a smartphone application that checks for jaundice in newborns and can deliver results to parents and pediatricians within minutes. It could serve as a screening tool to determine whether a baby needs a blood test—the gold standard for detecting high levels of bilirubin.

“Virtually every baby gets jaundiced, and we’re sending them home from the hospital even before bilirubin levels reach their peak,” says James Taylor, professor of pediatrics and medical director of the newborn nursery at University of Washington Medical Center.

“This smartphone test is really for babies in the first few days after they go home. A parent or health care provider can get an accurate picture of bilirubin to bridge the gap after leaving the hospital.”

The research team will present its results at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing in September in Seattle.

Peace of mind

The app, called BiliCam, uses a smartphone’s camera and flash and a color calibration card the size of a business card. A parent or health care professional would download the app, place the card on the baby’s belly, then take a picture with the card in view.

The card calibrates and accounts for different lighting conditions and skin tones. Data from the photo are sent to the cloud and are analyzed by machine-learning algorithms, and a report on the newborn’s bilirubin levels is sent almost instantly to the parent’s phone.

“This is a way to provide peace of mind for the parents of newborns,” says Shwetak Patel, associate professor of computer science and engineering and of electrical engineering. “The advantage of doing the analysis in the cloud is that our algorithms can be improved over time.”

A noninvasive jaundice screening tool is available in some hospitals and clinics, but the instrument costs several thousand dollars and isn’t feasible for home use.

Currently, both doctors and parents assess jaundice by looking for the yellow color in a newborn’s skin, but this visual assessment is only moderately accurate. The UW team developed BiliCam to be easy to use and affordable for both clinicians and parents, especially during the first several days after birth when it’s crucial to check for jaundice.

Cheap screening

Jaundice, or the yellowing of the skin, can happen when an excess amount of bilirubin collects in the blood. Bilirubin is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells, which the liver usually metabolizes. But newborns often metabolize bilirubin slower because their livers aren’t yet fully functioning.

If left untreated, severe jaundice can cause brain damage and a potentially fatal condition called kernicterus.

The team ran a clinical study with 100 newborns and their families at the University of Washington Medical Center. They used a blood test, the current screening tool used in hospitals, and BiliCam to test the babies when they were between two and five days old.

They found that BiliCam performed as well as or better than the current screening tool. Though it wouldn’t replace a blood test, BiliCam could let parents know if they should take that next step.

“BiliCam would be a significantly cheaper and more accessible option than the existing reliable screening methods,” says Lilian de Greef, lead author and a doctoral student in computer science and engineering.

“Lowering the access barrier to medical applications can have profound effects on patients, their caregivers, and their doctors, especially for something as prevalent as newborn jaundice.”

Potential for developing countries

The researchers plan to test BiliCam on up to 1,000 additional newborns, especially those with darker skin pigments. The algorithms will then be robust enough to account for all ethnicities and skin colors. This could make BiliCam a useful tool for parents and health care workers in developing countries where jaundice accounts for many newborn deaths.

“We’re really excited about the potential of this in resource-poor areas, something that can make a difference in places where there aren’t tools to measure bilirubin but there’s good infrastructure for mobile phones,” Taylor says.

Within a year, the researchers say BiliCam could be used by doctors as an alternative to the current screening procedures for bilirubin. They have filed patents on the technology, and within a couple of years hope to have Federal Drug Administration approval for the BiliCam app that parents can use at home on their smartphones.

Additional researchers contributed from University of Washington and Southern Methodist University. The Coulter Foundation and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship funded the research.

Source: University of Washington

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Drug combo heals wounds fast with less scarring

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 08:13

Doctors have stumbled onto a potential new use for two approved medications. When used in combination, they heal wounds more quickly with less scar tissue.

In mice and rats, injecting the two drugs in combination speeds the healing of surgical wounds  by about one-quarter and significantly decreases scar tissue.

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If the findings, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, hold up in future human studies, the treatment might also speed skin healing in people with skin ulcers, extensive burns, and battlefield injuries.

“The findings mean that wound healing is not only accelerated, but also that real skin regeneration is occurring,” says Zhaoli Sun, director of transplant biology research at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “These animals had more perfect skin repair in the wound area.”

The wound healing potential of the two drugs was discovered incidentally while the researchers were working to prevent rejection of liver transplants.

One of the drugs, AMD3100, is generally used to move stem cells from bone marrow to the bloodstream to be harvested and stored for patients recovering from cancer chemotherapy. The other, tacrolimus, tamps down immune response.

Researchers noticed that in addition to successfully preventing liver graft rejection in their study, the drugs, when used together, seemed to improve wound healing in animals.

Faster healing

Focusing on just the wound healing “side effect,” the scientists launched the rodent study to determine what the mechanism behind its therapeutic effects might be.

The researchers divided mice into four groups, each of which received four 5-millimeter circular cuts to remove skin and tissue from their backs. Some of the mice received injections of just AMD3100.

Others received injections of tacrolimus in doses just one-tenth of what is usually given to prevent organ and tissue rejection. Another group received injections of both AMD3100 and low-dose tacrolimus. A group of control animals received saline injections.

Animals that received only saline healed completely in 12 days, while those that received both drugs healed in nine days, a reduction of 25 percent. Those that received only one drug or the other recorded just a modest one-day improvement in healing time.

Less scar tissue

The researchers had similar findings in rats, though the drug combination worked slightly better, reducing healing time by 28 percent compared to saline. Additionally, they found that the wounds in animals that received the drug combination healed with less scar tissue and regrew skin’s hair follicles.

Further tests showed that the drugs work synergistically, with AMD3100 pushing stem cells from bone marrow into the bloodstream and tacrolimus stimulating cells in wound areas to give off molecules that attract the stem cells.

Though the study tested the drug combination only on surgical excisions, the researchers say the beneficial effects also apply to burn injuries and excisions in diabetic rats in studies that are now under way.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism participated in the study. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Transplant Biology Research Center and a gift from the family of Francesc Gines supported the research.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Tectonic plates in the Pacific are not so rigid

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 07:57

The tectonic plate that dominates the Pacific “Ring of Fire” may not be as rigid as many scientists have assumed.

New research suggests that cooling of the lithosphere—the outermost layer of Earth—makes some sections of the Pacific plate contract horizontally at faster rates than others, which causes the plate to deform.

The effect is most pronounced in the youngest parts of the lithosphere—about 2 million years old or less—that make up some of the Pacific Ocean’s floor.

Scientists predict the rate of contraction here to be 10 times faster than older parts of the plate that were created about 20 million years ago, and 80 times faster than very old parts of the plate that were created about 160 million years ago.

The tectonic plates that cover Earth’s surface, including both land and seafloor, are in constant motion; they imperceptibly surf the viscous mantle below. Over time, the plates scrape against and collide into each other, forming mountains, trenches, and other geological features.

On the local scale, the movements cover only inches per year and are hard to see. The same goes for deformations of the type described in the new paper that is published in Geology, but when summed over an area the size of the Pacific plate, they become statistically significant.

Plates aren’t rigid

The new calculations show the Pacific plate is pulling away from the North American plate a little more—approximately 2 millimeters a year—than the rigid-plate theory would account for. Overall, the plate is moving northwest about 50 millimeters a year.

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“The central assumption in plate tectonics is that the plates are rigid, but the studies that my colleagues and I have been doing for the past few decades show that this central assumption is merely an approximation, that is, the plates are not rigid,” says Richard Gordon, professor of geophysics at Rice University. “Our latest contribution is to specify or predict the nature and rate of deformation over the entire Pacific plate.”

The researchers already suspected cooling had a role from their observation that the 25 large and small plates that make up Earth’s shell do not fit together as well as the “rigid model” assumption would have it. They also knew that lithosphere as young as 2 million years was more malleable than hardened lithosphere as old as 170 million years.

“We first showed five years ago that the rate of horizontal contraction is inversely proportional to the age of the seafloor,” he says. “So it’s in the youngest lithosphere (toward the east side of the Pacific plate) where you get the biggest effects.”

Still a 2D-problem

The researchers saw hints of deformation in a metric called plate circuit closure, which describes the relative motions where at least three plates meet. If the plates were rigid, their angular velocities at the triple junction would have a sum of zero. But where the Pacific, Nazca, and Cocos plates meet west of the Galápagos Islands, the nonclosure velocity is 14 millimeters a year, enough to suggest that all three plates are deforming.

“When we did our first global model in 1990, we said to ourselves that maybe when we get new data, this issue will go away,” Gordon says. “But when we updated our model a few years ago, all the places that didn’t have plate circuit closure 20 years ago still didn’t have it.”

There had to be a reason, and it began to become clear when the researchers looked beneath the seafloor.

“It’s long been understood that the ocean floor increases in depth with age due to cooling and thermal contraction. But if something cools, it doesn’t just cool in one direction. It’s going to be at least approximately isotropic. It should shrink the same in all directions, not just vertically,” he says.

A previous study by Gordon and former Rice graduate student Ravi Kumar calculated the effect of thermal contraction on vertical columns of oceanic lithosphere and determined its impact on the horizontal plane, but viewing the plate as a whole demanded a different approach.

“We thought about the vertically integrated properties of the lithosphere, but once we did that, we realized Earth’s surface is still a two-dimensional problem,” Gordon says.

The big picture

For the new study, Gordon and coauthor Corné Kreemer, associate professor at University of Nevada, Reno, started by determining how much the contractions would, on average, strain the horizontal surface. They divided the Pacific plate into a grid and calculated the strain on each of the nearly 198,000 squares based on their age, as determined by the seafloor age model published by the National Geophysical Data Center.

“That we could calculate on a laptop,” Gordon says. “If we tried to do it in three dimensions, it would take a high-powered computer cluster.”

The surface calculations were enough to show likely strain fields across the Pacific plate that, when summed, accounted for the deformation. As further proof, the distribution of recent earthquakes in the Pacific plate, which also relieve the strain, showed a greater number occurring in the plate’s younger lithosphere.

“In the Earth, those strains are either accommodated by elastic deformation or by little earthquakes that adjust it,” he says.

“The central assumption of plate tectonics assumes the plates are rigid, and this is what we make predictions from,” Gordon says. “Up until now, it’s worked really well.

“The big picture is that we now have, subject to experimental and observational tests, the first realistic, quantitative estimate of how the biggest oceanic plate departs from that rigid-plate assumption.”

The National Science Foundation supported the research.

Source: Rice University

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‘Quantum jitter’ to reveal if we live in a hologram

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 10:29

In a new experiment called the “Holometer,” scientists are trying to answer some seemingly odd questions, including whether or not we live in a hologram.

Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3D world exists only on a 2D screen, we could be clueless that our 3D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions.

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Get close enough to your TV screen and you’ll see pixels, small points of data that make a seamless image if you stand back.

Scientists think that the universe’s information may be contained in the same way, and that the natural “pixel size” of space is roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom, a distance that physicists refer to as the Planck scale.

“We want to find out whether spacetime is a quantum system just like matter is,” says Craig Hogan, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Center for Particle Astrophysics and the developer of the holographic noise theory.

“If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.”

Quantum theory suggests that it is impossible to know both the exact location and the exact speed of subatomic particles. If space comes in 2D bits with limited information about the precise location of objects, then space itself would fall under the same theory of uncertainty.

The same way that matter continues to jiggle, as quantum waves, even when cooled to absolute zero, this digitized space should have built-in vibrations even in its lowest energy state.

Essentially, the experiment probes the limits of the universe’s ability to store information. If there are a set number of bits that tell you where something is, it eventually becomes impossible to find more specific information about the location—even in principle.

Measuring the ‘jitter’

The instrument testing these limits is Fermilab’s Holometer, or holographic interferometer, the most sensitive device ever created to measure the quantum jitter of space itself.

Now operating at full power, the Holometer uses a pair of interferometers placed close to one another. Each one sends a one-kilowatt laser beam, the equivalent of 200,000 laser pointers, at a beam splitter and down two perpendicular 40-meter arms.

The light is then reflected back to the beam splitter where the two beams recombine, creating fluctuations in brightness if there is motion. Researchers analyze these fluctuations in the returning light to see if the beam splitter is moving in a certain way—being carried along on a jitter of space itself.

“Holographic noise” is expected to be present at all frequencies, but the scientists’ challenge is not to be fooled by other sources of vibrations. The Holometer is testing a frequency so high—millions of cycles per second—that motions of normal matter are not likely to cause problems.

Rather, the dominant background noise is more often due to radio waves emitted by nearby electronics. The Holometer experiment is designed to identify and eliminate noise from such conventional sources.

“If we find a noise we can’t get rid of, we might be detecting something fundamental about nature—a noise that is intrinsic to spacetime,” says Fermilab physicist Aaron Chou, lead scientist and project manager for the Holometer.

“It’s an exciting moment for physics. A positive result will open a whole new avenue of questioning about how space works.”

The Holometer team comprises 21 scientists and students from Fermilab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and University of Michigan.

The Holometer experiment, funded by the US Department of Energy and other sources, is expected to gather data over the coming year.

Source: University of Chicago

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Is the U.S. Southwest headed for a ‘megadrought’?

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 08:51

The chance that the southwestern United States will experience a decade-long drought sometime in the next century is at least 50 percent, researchers say.

Further, there is a 20 to 50 percent chance of a “megadrought”—one that could last up to 35 years.

“For the southwestern US, I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” says Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.

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“As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this—we are weighting the dice for megadrought.”

As of August 12, 2014, most of California sits in a D4 “exceptional drought,” which is in the most severe category. Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas loiter in a substantially less severe D1 moderate drought.

Climatologists don’t know whether the severe western and southwestern drought will continue, but “with ongoing climate change, this is a glimpse of things to come. It’s a preview of our future,” Ault says.

Mass population migration

While the 1930s Dust Bowl in the Midwest lasted four to eight years, depending on location, a megadrought can last more than three decades, which could lead to mass population migration on a scale never before seen in this country.

The West and Southwest must look for mitigation strategies to cope with looming long-drought scenarios, Ault says.

“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region.

Computer models show that while the southern portions of the western United States (California, Arizona, New Mexico) will likely face drought, the chances for drought in northwestern states such as Washington, Montana, and Idaho may decrease.

Conservative estimates?

Prolonged droughts around the world have occurred throughout history, including the recent “Big Dry” in Australia and modern-era drought in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tree-ring studies suggest a megadrought occurred during the 1150s along the Colorado River. In natural history, they occur every 400 to 600 years. But by adding the influence of growing greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the drought models—and their underlying statistics—are now in a state of flux.

Beyond the United States, southern Africa, Australia, and the Amazon basin are also vulnerable to the possibility of a megadrought.

With increases in temperatures, drought severity likely will worsen, “implying that our results should be viewed as conservative,” reports the study that is published in the Journal of Climate.

Scientists at University of Arizona and the US Geological Survey contributed to the study. The National Science Foundation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the US Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided funding.

Source: Cornell University

The post Is the U.S. Southwest headed for a ‘megadrought’? appeared first on Futurity.

Parenting research often skips dads

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 07:47

Not enough parenting interventions target men or make a dedicated effort to include them, despite fathers’ substantial impact on child development, well-being, and family functioning, researchers report.

The team’s review of global publications found only 199 that offered evidence on father participation or impact.

Their findings and a related commentary appear online in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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“Despite robust evidence of fathers’ impact on children and mothers, engaging with fathers is one of the least well-explored and articulated aspects of parenting interventions,” says lead author Catherine Panter-Brick, professor of anthropology, health, and global affairs at Yale University.

“It is therefore critical to evaluate implicit and explicit biases against men in their role as fathers manifested in current approaches to research, intervention, and policy.”

The researchers’ results show that an overhaul of program design and delivery is necessary to get the necessary good-quality data on father and couple participation and impact.

The researchers suggest that in both research and community-based practice, a “game change” in this field would consist of unequivocal engagement with co-parents.

This would strategically improve upon the exclusive mother focus that marginalizes fathers and other co-parents in the bulk of parenting interventions implemented to-date. The team recommends a guide to develop best practices for building the evidence base of co-parenting interventions.

Additional researchers contributed from Yale and the Fatherhood Institute in London.

Source: Yale

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