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This ancient ‘remedy’ actually kills MRSA

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 13:47

Researchers recreated a 10th century potion for eye infections from Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English volume in the British Library, to see if it really works as an antibacterial remedy.

Their findings show that Bald’s eye salve kills up to 90 percent of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). bacteria in in vivo wound biopsies from mouse models.

Christina Lee, associate professor in Viking studies and member of University of Nottingham’s Institute for Medieval Research, had the idea to test the ancient remedy. Lee translated the recipe from a transcript of the original Old English manuscript.

Following the recipe

The recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine, and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach). It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution, including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, straining to purify it, and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.

“We thought that Bald’s eye salve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab—copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues,” says microbiologist Freya Harrison.

“But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We tested it in difficult conditions, too. We let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called biofilms, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them.

“But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defenses.”

Artificial and real wounds

Researchers tested the remedy on cultures of the commonly found and hard to treat bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, in both synthetic wounds and in infected wounds in mice.

The team made artificial wound infections by growing bacteria in plugs of collagen and then exposed them to each of the individual ingredients, or the full recipe.

None of the individual ingredients alone had any measurable effect, but when combined according to the recipe the Staphylococcus populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.

‘Genuinely amazed’

The team then went on to see what happened if they diluted the eye salve—as it is hard to know just how much of the medicine bacteria would be exposed to when applied to a real infection.

They found that when the medicine is too dilute to kill Staphylococcus aureus, it interfered with bacterial cell-cell communication (quorum sensing). This is a key finding, because bacteria have to talk to each other to switch on the genes that allow them to damage infected tissues.

Many microbiologists think that blocking this behavior could be an alternative way of treating infection.

“When we built this recipe in the lab I didn’t really expect it to actually do anything. When we found that it could actually disrupt and kill cells in S. aureus biofilms, I was genuinely amazed,” says collaborator Steve Diggle.

Kendra Rumbaugh carried out in vivo testing of the Bald’s remedy on MRSA infected skin wounds in mice at Texas Tech University.

“We know that MRSA infected wounds are exceptionally difficult to treat in people and in mouse models. We have not tested a single antibiotic or experimental therapeutic that is completely effective; however, this ‘ancient remedy’ performed as good if not better than the conventional antibiotics we used,” says Rumbaugh.

“The rise of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria and the lack of new antimicrobials in the developmental pipeline are key challenges for human health,” adds Harrison. “There is a pressing need to develop new strategies against pathogens because the cost of developing new antibiotics is high and eventual resistance is likely.”

Harrison will present the findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology this week in Birmingham.

The AncientBiotics team at Nottingham is seeking more funding to extend the project.

The University of Nottingham is committed to the principles of the 3Rs of reduction, refinement and replacement. For each project it ensures, as far as is reasonably practicable, that no alternative to the use of animals is possible, that the number of animals used is minimized, and that procedures, care routines, and husbandry are refined to maximize welfare. The University is a signatory member of the UK Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.

Source: University of Nottingham

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How do you scare away a hungry elephant?

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 11:15

Until now electric fences and trenches have been the best way to protect farms and villages from nighttime raids by hungry elephants. Now, there may be a better way: the recorded sound of angry predators.

For a new study, researchers set up infrared sensor playback systems where elephants triggered the sound of growling tigers, leopards, and angry shouts of villagers as they approached farmers’ fields.

In 41 attempted raids, tiger sounds stopped the elephants 90 percent of the time, the sound of leopards deterred them 73 percent of the time, and human shouts prevented 57 percent of the attempts.

Hungry, hungry elephants

“This technique was tested using static devices. Although the elephants shied away from the specific area they would eventually find another way into the field,” says Vivek Thuppil, assistant professor of psychology at University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

“So static recordings like this would work in locations where there is a narrow path of entry to farmland.

“Now I am interested in investigating how an elephant would respond to threatening sounds if they were not emanating from a stationary source. To accomplish this, there would be a network of speakers and an intruding elephant’s location would be tracked continuously with only the speaker nearest the elephant being activated. This would simulate persistent tracking of an elephant by a predator.”

Fool me once—but not twice

Elephants live off roots, grasses, fruit, and bark and the Earth’s largest land mammal needs to consume over 275 pounds of food in a single day to satisfy its huge appetite. As the Asian elephant’s natural habitat is squeezed to make way for agriculture, new roads, and development, conflict between elephants and humans is an increasing problem.

For the study, published in Oryx—the International Journal of Conservation, researchers tested two infrared systems, one that was more complex and realistic, and one that was simple enough for farmers to set up around their fields.

Both were effective in deterring elephants. But it seems an elephant never does forget, and those that encountered the noises more than once were less likely to be fooled.

Thuppil will next collaborate with the Management and Ecology of the Malaysian Elephant, a research project at UNMC led by Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz that is fitting wild elephants with specially designed collars packed with satellite and cell phone technology. The aim is to learn more about the Asian elephant and how to mitigate the growing problem of human-elephant conflict.

Richard G. Coss from the University of California, Davis, is a coauthor of the study.

Source: University of Nottingham

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What comfort food reveals about our past

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 11:01

No matter what meal strikes you as comfort food, you likely love the dish based on a good relationship with the person you remember first preparing it.

The findings have implications for better understanding how social factors influence our food preferences and eating behavior.

“Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long we have positive association with the person who made that food then there’s a good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation,” says psychologist Shira Gabriel of the University at Buffalo.

“It can be understood as straight-up classical conditioning.”

Previous research has shown that comfort food can reduce feelings of rejection and isolation. This new study, published in the journal Appetite, suggests why certain foods are attractive when we are feeling down.

“Because comfort food has a social function,” she says, “it is especially appealing to us when we are feeling lonely or rejected. The current study helps us understand why we might be eating comfort foods even when we’re dieting or not particularly hungry,” she says.

For some of the study participants, comfort food was a healthy food choice, for others, it was starchy and fatty.

“For a lot of people it is the food they grew up eating,” says Gabriel.

“In a previous study, we gave all of the participants chicken noodle soup,” says Gabriel. “But only those who had a social connection to that soup identified it as a comfort food and felt socially accepted after eating it.”

This research gives insight into a unique method by which people can feel socially connected and safe—through eating comfort foods. Because a threatened sense of belonging is related to mental and physical health risks, the researchers say it’s important to learn how that vulnerability can be managed.

However, this method of filling social needs is not without risks. As Gabriel says, “Although comfort food will never break your heart, it might destroy your diet.”

Source: University at Buffalo

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Online map lets the mail tell ‘Wild West’ story

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 09:18

By the 1870s, a combination of gold rushes, railroad expansion, and opportunities in farming, fishing, and logging were drawing a steady influx of white settlers to the American West.

In response to the quickly expanding population, the US Postal Service opened more than 14,000 new post offices between 1840 and 1900.

Stanford University historian Cameron Blevins says the appearance (and disappearance) of these locations reveals how quickly the American West was integrated into the rest of the country.

A doctoral candidate who studies US history and digital humanities, Blevins has developed Geography of the Post, an interactive digital platform that visualizes where and when post offices opened and closed. The locations act as proxies for communities, Blevins explains, and indicate which settlements were temporary and which evolved into long-lasting towns.

Blevins already knew that chronologically there was an increase in the number of post offices in the West. But he wanted to add a geographical, or spatial, narrative to this knowledge, so that someone could visualize where, not just when, post offices appeared.

Boom and bust

Blevins worked with Jason Heppler, the history department’s academic technology specialist working at the Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research. Heppler began in 2013 and set out to turn Blevins’ data into an interactive website.

Two years later, the resulting Geography of the Post website uses a combination of bar charts representing years and dots indicating whether an office was functioning or closed.

By dragging the cursor along the timeline, users select different time periods and can alternate between views that display how many total post offices were in a certain area, and how long they remained active. The result is that the Geography of the Post presents the history of the West as being “as much about decline and collapse of communities as it is about growth,” says Blevins.

Blevins says that “the West was a region of boom and bust economy.”

“A lot of communities were extremely ephemeral, impermanent,” he points out. “There’s not really a standardized way of tracking where they were, when they existed,” Blevins says.

166,000 post offices

To form as full a picture as possible, Geography of the Post draws from an enormous data set of 166,000 post offices, acquired from a postal historian and stamp collector who spent decades culling the information. Without this invaluable resource, Blevins would have spent inordinate amounts of time sifting through and transcribing thousands of microfilmed handwritten ledgers from the time.

The digital tool aggregates the data and transforms it into visual representations on an interactive map. Suddenly, a giant amount of historical data becomes legible to historians who no longer have to sift through thousands of old documents. (The site will tell you, for example, that Ukiah, California, got its first post office in 1858.)

The site also lets users select which type of data they want to see.

By enabling such a flexible functionality, Geography of the Post is helpful to a wide breadth of users, from the Civil War aficionado to the late-19th-century historian. Users can easily manipulate the data depending on what questions they want answered.

Geography of the Post was built entirely on open source technology. “If someone wants to take this framework and try to apply it to a different data set, it is available,” Blevins says.

Blevins is currently a fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West and an affiliate of the Stanford Literary Lab. Blevins and Heppler developed the site as part of the Spatial History Project at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), a collection of labs supporting campus-wide academic research that incorporates digital technologies.

Source: Veronica Marian for Stanford University

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Feeling stereotyped may make people act out

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 08:05

When people feel that others don’t value them because of their group affiliations—like race or gender—they may be more inclined toward anti-social behavior, new research finds.

The study examines the psychological roots of anti-social attitudes and behavior, which can lead to crime, unemployment, and lack of opportunity.

“This work helps us to better understand the psychological causes of social deviancy,” says Peter Belmi, a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Stanford University and one of the study’s coauthors.

“When people feel that they are being viewed negatively by others simply because they belong to a particular gender, race, or other group membership, they come away with the impression that others do not treat them respectfully, which in turn makes them more likely to engage in social deviance,” says Belmi.

For example, Belmi says, black American students may worry that they could be judged in light of negative stereotypes about their abilities. And women may worry that others think they are not capable of succeeding in areas and roles traditionally held by men.

Prior research has shown that social identity threats can undermine performance, cognitive flexibility, and willpower, he notes.

Trouble at school

To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers recruited 1,280 participants from across the United States to answer online surveys about scenarios involving race, gender, perceptions, and feelings.

In one study, the researchers asked students whether they feel they are being negatively stereotyped in school. For example, they were asked to rate their agreement with the statement, “At school, I worry that people will draw conclusions about me, based on what they think about my racial group.”

Then, the researchers asked students whether they felt respected in school, and how much they have engaged in delinquent behaviors over the past year, such as cheating, skipping classes, or doing something that could have gotten them in trouble with the police.

The study found connections between when people felt negatively stereotyped or disrespected at school and their propensity for delinquent behaviors.

Racist or sexist bosses

In another study, the researchers asked black Americans to imagine that their manager made a racist remark about the intelligence of black Americans.

Black participants who imagined having a racist boss indicated that they would be far more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors—such as wasting their employer’s supplies or badmouthing the company to others.

In another study, the researchers asked female participants to imagine that they faced the possibility of being denied a promotion either because their boss didn’t think a woman was suitable for a leadership position or because their personality wasn’t suitable for the job.

The results show that women who faced the prospect of being denied a promotion on the basis of their gender were more likely to say they would engage in counterproductive activities—such as working incorrectly on purpose, starting rumors, or ignoring coworkers who need help.

Feeling devalued

Interestingly, the researchers also found that this effect may occur even for members of historically non-stigmatized groups, such as white Americans.

For example, white participants who recalled an episode in their life when they were devalued because of their race, gender, or religious membership were more likely to perceive and expect disrespectful treatment—and cheat—than did white participants who recalled a time when they simply did not get want they wanted.

“For many, if not most people, the experience of being devalued simply because of membership to a particular group can elicit feelings of disrespect and trigger social deviancy,” the researchers write.

Threats to social identity can harm people’s prospects for achieving success in work, school, and society, the researchers say.

For instance, students may be more likely to engage in delinquent behavior in school if they believe that their teachers and school authorities view them simply through the lens of a negative stereotype.

“Or, people may feel compelled to retaliate if they believe that they have been unfairly passed over for a promotion simply because of their gender or race,” says Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, graduate student in psychology.

“Crime, delinquency, substance abuse, and distrust toward institutions and authorities are some examples of social deviancy that present significant problems and challenges for society,” he adds.

“This means being aware of our biases and making sure that all people have equal opportunity in everyday life.”

Additional coauthors from Stanford contributed to the study, which appears in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Source: Stanford University

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Early sips of booze linked to drinking later

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 07:50

New research seems to contradict the hypothesis that introducing children to alcohol when they are young will reduce its tempting taboo and help them better manage alcohol as they get older.

For a new study of 560 children in Rhode Island, about 3 in 10 students reported having a sip of alcohol before sixth grade. By ninth grade those children were five times more likely than those who didn’t get an early sip to report consuming a full drink of alcohol.

They were also 4 times more likely to have been drunk and 3.7 times more likely to have tried binge drinking. The calculations take into account some possible confounding conditions, including a measure of the parents’ drinking habits.

Alcohol’s tempting taboo

But, the study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, reveals only an association, not proof of a cause, researchers say.

The researchers caution that although the study provides evidence that sipping is related to later alcohol problems, it does not establish that an early sip causes them. Even among those children who sipped, more than 9 in 10 did not report getting drunk by ninth grade.

“We’re not saying your child is doomed,” says Kristina Jackson, associate professor (research) of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University and at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.

“The vast majority of children, even if they had sipped alcohol when they were younger, did not report evidence of problem drinking.”

But the study findings should encourage parents to be clear and consistent with children that alcohol is not for them, she says, including keeping it out of their reach around and beyond the home.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funded the work.

Source: Brown University

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Snoozing in ‘torpor’ delays aging for lemurs

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 07:35

How long lemurs live and how fast they age correlates with the amount of time they spend in a state of suspended animation known as torpor, new research shows.

Hibernating lemurs live up to ten years longer than their non-hibernating cousins.

When Jonas the fat-tailed dwarf lemur died in January, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, he was the oldest of his kind. A resident of the Duke Lemur Center, Jonas belonged to a long-lived clan of primates. Dwarf lemurs live two to three times longer than similar-sized animals.

For a new study, Duke University researchers combed through more than 50 years of medical records on hundreds of dwarf lemurs and three other lemur species for clues to their exceptional longevity.

The conventional wisdom in longevity research is that smaller species live shorter lives than larger ones. For example, humans and whales can live to be over 100, but the average lab mouse doesn’t live beyond its third birthday.

‘Standby mode’

The researchers found an exception to this pattern in a group of hamster-sized lemurs with a physiological quirk—they are able to put their bodies in standby mode.

Dwarf lemurs like Jonas were the most extreme examples in their study, spending up to half the year in deep hibernation in the wild. Dwarf lemurs go into a semi-hibernation state for three months or less in captivity, “but even that seems to confer added longevity,” says study coauthor Sarah Zehr, a researcher at the Duke Lemur Center.

Hibernating dwarf lemurs can reduce their heart rate from 200 to eight beats per minute. Breathing slows, and the animals’ internal thermostat shuts down. Instead of maintaining a steady body temperature, they warm up and cool down with the outside air.

“Everything gets slower,” Zehr says.

For most primates such vital statistics would be life-threatening, but for lemurs, they’re a way to conserve energy during times of year when food and water are in short supply.

More babies, better eyes

Hibernating lemurs not only live longer, they also stay healthier. While non-hibernators are able to reproduce for roughly six years after they reach maturity, hibernators continue to have kids for up to 14 years after maturity, the researchers find.

Although all species they examined suffered from cataracts and other age-related eye diseases as they got older, the hibernators managed to stave off symptoms until much later in life.

Some researchers have suggested that hibernators live longer and stay healthier simply because they avoid predators who may be looking for a snack. A lemur is much less likely to be eaten when it is curled up underground or snoozing in a tree.

“But the fact that we see the same pattern in captivity, where they’re protected from predators, suggests that other factors are at work,” Zehr says.

It may also be that torpor increases longevity by protecting cells against the buildup of oxidative damage that is a normal by-product of breathing and metabolism, says study coauthor Marina Blanco.

“If your body is not ‘working full time’ metabolically speaking, you will age more slowly and live longer,” Blanco says.

Because lemurs are more closely related to humans than mice are, the research may eventually help scientists identify “anti-aging” genes in humans.

The study is available online in the Journal of Zoology.

The Rufford Foundation, MMBF/Conservation International Primate Action Fund, Primate Conservation, Inc., and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation funded the work. Additional supported came from the German Research Foundation and the US National Science Foundation.

Source: Duke University

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Texting bans cut crash-related hospital stays

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 06:34

Crash-related hospitalizations of both drivers and passengers go down by as much as 9 percent in states that have enacted bans on texting while driving.

For a new study, researchers examined crash-related hospitalizations before and after the enactment of state texting bans. Nineteen states were included in the study, which was based on hospital discharge data from 2003 to 2010.

Some states had passed bans on texting while driving, while other states have no such bans. The findings show that, on average, there was a 7 percent reduction in crash-related hospitalizations in states that have enacted texting-while-driving bans. Hospitalizations were reduced the most—9 percent—among 22-64 year olds and those aged 65 and older.

Not just young drivers

“Our research indicates that adults in states with a primary texting ban stand to benefit the most in terms of potentially avoiding crash-related hospitalizations,” says Alva O. Ferdinand, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University.

“Given that the texting driver may cause a crash, but may not be the one most seriously injured, restricting texting bans to young drivers only is perhaps not the best approach to preventing crash-related hospitalizations.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2.5 million adult drivers and passengers in the United States sought medical attention following involvement in a motor vehicle crash in 2012. The costs of productivity losses and medical care due to injuries sustained in motor vehicle crashes in a one-year period are more than $80 billion.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that more than 400,000 individuals have been injured in crashes involving a distracted driver. In efforts to combat distracted driving, many states have enacted texting-while-driving bans, but very little is known about their effectiveness in improving roadway outcomes.

Previous research has shown that improvements in state unemployment rates and per capita incomes, as well as lower gasoline prices, are associated with increased crash risk.

“Because we are seeing improvements in the economy and gasoline prices are about one dollar cheaper than they were this time last year, states should be considering steps to implement policies such as texting bans that will help to offset these trends,” says coauthor Michael Morrisey, interim head of the health policy and management department.

The study is published online ahead of print in the American Journal of Public Health. Other researchers from Texas A&M and from University of Alabama Birmingham are coauthors of the study.

Source: Texas A&M University

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Tampon test finds pollution in rivers and streams

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 06:28

Engineers have started using tampons to identify where wastewater from baths, washing machines, sinks, and showers is polluting rivers and streams.

The natural, untreated cotton in tampons readily absorbs chemicals commonly used in toilet paper, laundry detergents, and shampoos. These chemicals—known as optical brighteners—are used to enhance whites and brighten colors, and show up under ultraviolet (UV) light, a phenomenon often seen in glowing t-shirts under certain lighting in bars and clubs.

Using a mixture of laboratory tests and field trials, a team from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering show that when tampons are suspended in water contaminated by even very small amounts of detergents or sewage, they will pick up optical brighteners and glow under UV light. The findings appear today in the Water and Environment Journal.

Cotton without chemicals

“More than a million homes have their waste water incorrectly connected into the surface water network, which means their sewage is being discharged into a river, rather than going to a treatment plant,” explains Professor David Lerner, who led the study.

“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to detect where this is happening, as the discharge is intermittent, can’t always be seen with the naked eye, and existing tests are complex and expensive.

“The main difficulty with detecting sewage pollution by searching for optical brighteners is finding cotton that does not already contain these chemicals. That’s why tampons, being explicitly untreated, provide such a neat solution. Our new method may be unconventional—but it’s cheap and it works.”

The tampon test

The study used laboratory trials to determine how much detergent would need to be in the water to be picked up by the tampon test. When a tampon was dipped for just five seconds into a solution containing 0.01 ml of detergent per liter of water—over 300 times more dilute than would be expected in a surface water pipe—the optical brighteners could be identified immediately and continued to be visible for the next 30 days.

The team then tested the technique in the field by suspending tampons for three days in sixteen surface water outlets running into streams and rivers in Sheffield and then testing the tampons under UV light. Nine of the tampons glowed, confirming the presence of optical brighteners—and therefore sewage pollution.

With the help of Yorkshire Water, the team followed the pipe network back from four of the nine polluted outlets they’d identified, dipping a tampon in at each manhole to see where the sewage was entering the system.

They were able to successfully isolate the sections of each network where the sewage originated, narrowing down the households that would need more detailed inspection. A visual inspection in one area immediately revealed a house where both a sink and soil stack were connected to the wrong sewer.

Household wastewater

“Often the only way to be sure a house is misconnected is through a dye test—putting dye down a sink or toilet and seeing where the colored water appears in the sewer,” says Lerner.

“It’s clearly impractical for water companies to do this for all the households they supply, but by working back from where pollution is identified and narrowing it down to a particular section of the network, the final step of identifying the source then becomes feasible.”

Pollutants found in domestic wastewater change the bacterial and invertebrate life in rivers, encouraging pollutant-tolerant species and leading to the build-up of “sewage fungus,” which is visible as a grey lining to the river bed. Wastewater discharges can also carry pathogens such as norovirus.

Most misconnected households are unaware they are discharging their wastewater into the wrong system and—once it’s identified—immediately fix the problem. Local authorities do have the power to complete the work and charge it back to the householder, but in practice, this power is rarely used.

Now that Lerner has proved his method works in practice in the field, he hopes to test it on a larger scale to identify all the sources of sewage pollution on the Bradford Beck, the river which runs through the city of Bradford.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded the study.

Source: University of Sheffield

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Can wearable tech make public speaking less scary?

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 05:41

Public speaking gives some people the jitters. A new intelligent user interface for Google Glass gives real-time feedback on volume modulation and speaking rate, all while remaining minimally distracting.

The new interface can record a speaker and transmit the audio to a server to automatically analyze the volume and speaking rate, and then present data to the speaker in real-time. The feedback lets the speaker adjust his or her volume and speaking rate or continue as before.

Researchers will present a paper on the system—which they call Rhema after the Greek word for “utterance”—today at the Association for Computer Machinery’s Intelligent User Interfaces (IUI) conference in Atlanta.

Feedback without distraction

“My wife always tells me that I end up speaking too softly,” says Ehsan Hoque, assistant professor of computer science at University of Rochester, who has used the system while giving lectures.

“Rhema reminded me to keep my volume up. It was a good experience.” He says the practice has helped him become more aware of his volume, even when he is not wearing the smart glasses.

Providing feedback in real-time during a speech presents some challenges, the researchers say. “One challenge is to keep the speakers informed about their speaking performance without distracting them from their speech,” they write.

“A significant enough distraction can introduce unnatural behaviors, such as stuttering or awkward pausing. Secondly, the head mounted display is positioned near the eye, which might cause inadvertent attention shifts.”

Louder, slower

Overcoming these challenges was the focus of the research, says M. Iftekhar Tanveer, the paper’s lead author. To do this, they tested the system with a group of 30 native English speakers using Google Glass.

They evaluated different options of delivering the feedback and then experimented with using different colors (like a traffic light system), words, and graphs, and no feedback at all as a control.

They also tried having a continuous slowly changing display and a sparse feedback system, by which the speaker sees nothing on the glasses for most of the time and then just sees feedback for a few seconds.

After user-testing, delivering feedback in every 20 seconds in the form of words (“louder,” “slower,” nothing if speaker is doing a good job, etc.) was deemed the most successful by most of the test users.

Overall, users said the technology helped improve their delivery compared to the users who received continuous feedback and no feedback at all.

Free to download

“We wanted to check if the speaker looking at the feedback appearing on the glasses would be distracting to the audience,” Hoque says.

“We also wanted the audience to rate if the person appeared spontaneous, paused too much, used too many filler words and maintained good eye contact under the three conditions: word feedback, continuous feedback, and no feedback.”

However, there was no statistically significant difference among the three groups on eye contact, use of filler words, being distracted, and appearing stiff, as judged by Mechanical Turk workers. As part of their future work, the researchers want to test their system with members of Toastmasters International as a more knowledgeable audience.

The researchers also believe that live feedback displayed in a private and non-intrusive manner could also be useful for people with social difficulties (e.g., Asperger syndrome), and even for people working in customer service.

Rhema is free to download from the team’s website.

Source: University of Rochester

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Comet dust coats Mercury with ‘invisible paint’

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 13:08

Scientists have long puzzled over the planet Mercury’s dark, barely reflective surface. Now they believe they have the answer.

New research suggests that a steady dusting of carbon from passing comets has slowly painted the planet black over billions of years.

On average, Mercury is much darker than its closest airless neighbor, our moon. Airless bodies are known to be darkened by micrometeorite impacts and bombardment of solar wind, processes that create a thin coating of dark iron nanoparticles on the surface. But spectral data from Mercury suggests its surface contains very little nanophase iron, certainly not enough to account for its dim appearance.

16,000 MPH

“It’s long been hypothesized that there’s a mystery darkening agent that’s contributing to Mercury’s low reflectance,” says Megan Bruck Syal, a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who performed this research while a graduate student at Brown University.

“One thing that hadn’t been considered was that Mercury gets dumped on by a lot of material derived from comets.”

As comets approach Mercury’s neighborhood near the sun, they often start to break apart. Cometary dust is composed of as much as 25 percent carbon by weight, so Mercury would be exposed to a steady bombardment of carbon from these crumbling comets.

Using a model of impact delivery and a known estimate of micrometeorite flux at Mercury, Bruck Syal was able to estimate how often cometary material would impact Mercury, how much carbon would stick to Mercury’s surface, and how much would be thrown back into space. Her calculations suggest that after billions of years of bombardment, Mercury’s surface should be anywhere from 3 to 6 percent carbon.

The next part of the work was to find out how much darkening could be expected from all that impacting carbon. For that, the researchers turned to the NASA Ames Vertical Gun Range. The 14-foot canon simulates celestial impacts by firing projectiles at up to 16,000 miles per hour.

Stealth darkening agent

For the new study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the team launched projectiles in the presence of sugar, a complex organic compound that mimics the organics in comet material. The heat of an impact burns the sugar up, releasing carbon. Projectiles were fired into a material that mimics lunar basalt, the rock that makes up the dark patches on the nearside of the moon.

“We used the lunar basalt model because we wanted to start with something dark already and see if we could darken it further,” says Peter Schultz, professor emeritus of geological sciences and a coauthor of the study.

The experiments showed that tiny carbon particles become deeply embedded in the impact melted material. The process reduced the amount of light reflected by the target material to less than 5 percent—about the same as the darkest parts of Mercury.

Importantly, spectroscopic analysis of the impact samples revealed no distinctive spectral fingerprints, again similar to flat spectral signatures from Mercury.

“We show that carbon acts like a stealth darkening agent,” Schultz says. “From the standpoint of spectral analysis, it’s like an invisible paint.”

And that paint has been building up on Mercury’s surface for billions of years.

“We think this is a scenario that needs to be considered,” Schultz says. “It appears that Mercury may well be a painted planet.”

NASA’s Planetary Geology and Geophysics program and the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship program funded the work. Miriam Riner from the Planetary Sciences Institute was a coauthor on the paper.

Source: Brown University

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Ants tumble but keep marching in microgravity

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 12:59

Last year, eight groups of ants flew to the International Space Station. Results from their trip show that the collective search behavior of ants in microgravity had some interesting twists.

The ISS experiment, reported online in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, used the pavement ant. The results show that this species searches by spreading quickly to the boundary of the area they are exploring. This search algorithm may be why pavement ants often end up in conflict with neighboring colonies along sidewalks.

“In the extreme condition of microgravity in space, the pavement ants did the same thing they did on Earth, but not as well,” says Stanford University biologist Deborah M. Gordon, who studies collective behavior.

However, microgravity gave the ants another, unexpected opportunity to shine: They showed a remarkable ability to walk on the surface of their enclosure, and a capacity to regain contact with the surface after they lost hold, tumbling around or skidding rapidly in a Michael Jackson-type move, Gordon says.

But not all ants search the way pavement ants do. “An earlier experiment showed that another species, Argentine ants, do not move toward boundaries,” says Gordon.

“Instead, they search thoroughly all over the new area. Comparing the search behavior of different species can show us how evolution has shaped collective behavior to fit extreme conditions.”

Smelling the perimeter

An ant’s world harbors food, water, and shelter, as well as enemies. An ant colony needs to monitor its surroundings to find out what is going on. To monitor the colony’s world, ants have to move around, because an ant has to get close to something to smell it—most ants have poor vision.

Over millions of years of evolution, different ant species have evolved in different environments, and they have probably evolved interesting and diverse ways of keeping track of what is going on, says Gordon.

For instance, when Argentine ants are more crowded, they search more thoroughly, using a path that winds around in a small area. But ants that are less crowded cover more ground by walking farther in straight lines. They find out whether there are many other ants nearby through smelling each other when they touch antennae.

Species that are successful invaders outside their native habitats, such as the Argentine ants and pavement ants, may be especially good at searching. Perhaps that is why they are so quick to find the crumbs on our kitchen counters, says Gordon.

Ants now, robots later?

Now Gordon is inviting high school students to collaborate in further research on collective search by ants on Earth, through a new “citizen science” lesson plan. Younger students could try it too.

The lesson plan guides students as they investigate new collective search algorithms in species of ants that haven’t been studied—and there are more than 14,000 species to learn about.

Ants may not encounter microgravity on Earth, but they search in every other kind of environment. The results might offer suggestions on how to program robots for rescue and exploration. Collective search algorithms are used to program rescue robots to search efficiently. When robots search dangerous territory for humans, it may be most effective, and cheapest, to mimic ants and not require the robots to report back to a central controller.

Teacher-tested by Tammy Moriarty, a professional development associate at Stanford’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, the lesson plan integrates science, technology, engineering, and math, known collectively as the STEM subjects.

Students will investigate, on Earth, the same underlying question Gordon asked in the Ants-in-Space project: What techniques can be used to thoroughly explore a novel area, without any central control or plan for how to coordinate the search?

Data and results will be posted on a public website. “We will compare the results from different species and may learn about some new algorithms for collective search that no one has thought of yet,” says Gordon.

“Deborah Gordon is a scientist who wants to reach out to classroom teachers who are preparing our future scientists and citizens,” Moriarty says. The lesson plan engages students with a scientific inquiry that does not have a predictable answer. As a result, the students are actually doing science, including collecting and observing wild ants, and looking for patterns in their behavior.

Moriarty tried out the lesson plan with 20 recipients of Stanford’s Hollyhock Fellowship for High School Teachers during the summer of 2014. The program supports early-career teachers who work in schools that serve low-income students.

The lesson plan situates the ant investigation within standards for teaching science and engineering practices. The US National Research Council developed these Next Generation Science Standards.

Source: Leslie Willoughby for Stanford University

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Loner giant pandas like to hang out, too

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 11:42

The idea that pandas are reclusive loners may not be as on target as once believed.

For a new study, researchers captured, collared, and tracked five pandas from 2010 to 2012 in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwest China.

The Chinese government is protective of its endangered pandas and for more than a decade banned putting GPS collars on them. While a handful of studies have tracked some, this is one of the first times technology has been used that provided more detail on the pandas’ movements and how they interact with one another.

Not so solitary

“Pandas are such an elusive species and it’s very hard to observe them in wild, so we haven’t had a good picture of where they are from one day to the next,” says Vanessa Hull, a research associate at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University.

One of the biggest surprises: Renowned for being loners, pandas seem to want to be with other pandas, too. Three were found to be in the same part of the forest at the same time—for several weeks in the fall and outside the usual spring mating season.

“We can see it clearly wasn’t just a fluke. We could see they were in the same locations, which we never would have expected for that length of time and at that time of year,” Hull says.

The discovery, reported in the Journal of Mammology, suggests pandas are not as solitary as once widely believed, says coauthor and postdoctoral researchers Jindong Zhang.

Stinky glands

The GPS tracking showed a male panda moseyed across a bigger range than any of the females, perhaps spending time checking out the surrounding females and advertising his presence with scent marking—rubbing stinky glands against trees.

The surveillance also shows that while many animals in the wild have a home range, and within that a core area they frequently return to and defend, pandas have as many as 20 or 30 core areas, which might be a reflection of their feeding strategy.

“They pretty much sit down and eat their way out of an area, but then need to move on to the next place,” Hull says.

The deeper understanding of how pandas use their space comes at an especially crucial time. The Chinese government recently issued a panda conservation report that shows the wild panda population has increased nearly 17 percent to 1,864 pandas and panda habitat also has improved.

But Jianguo “Jack” Liu, chair in sustainability and the paper’s coauthor, notes that habitat fragmentation, human impacts, and climate change still cast a shadow over the panda’s future.

The National Science Foundation and NASA funded the study.

Source: Michigan State University

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Virtual nose keeps gamers from feeling sick

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 08:38

Simulator sickness—which often induces vertigo and even nausea—often afflicts players of virtual reality games, but inserting a “virtual nose” into the picture may be a way to lessen the queasiness.

Various physiological systems govern the onset of simulator sickness: an overall sense of touch and position, or the somatosensory system; liquid-filled tubes in the ear called the vestibular system; and the oculumotor system, or muscles that control eye movements.

“Simulator sickness is very common,” says David Whittinghill, assistant professor in the computer graphics technology department at Purdue University. “The problem is your perceptual system does not like it when the motion of your body and your visual system are out of synch.

“So if you see motion in your field of view you expect to be moving, and if you have motion in your eyes without motion in your vestibular system you get sick.”

Point of reference

Anecdotal evidence has suggested simulator sickness is less intense when games contain fixed visual reference objects—such as a racecar’s dashboard or an airplane’s cockpit—located in the users field of vision.

“But you can’t have a cockpit in every VR simulation,” Whittinghill says.

His team was studying the problem when undergraduate student Bradley Ziegler suggested inserting the image of a virtual human nose in the center of the video display.

“It was a stroke of genius,” says Whittinghill, who teaches video game design. “You are constantly seeing your own nose. You tune it out, but it’s still there, perhaps giving you a frame of reference to help ground you.”

‘Nasum virtualis’

The virtual nose, or “nasum virtualis,” reduced simulator sickness when inserted into popular games.

For the study, 41 test subjects operated a number of virtual reality applications of varying motion intensity while wearing a virtual reality headset. In one of the applications, the user navigates the interior of a Tuscany villa. In another, it’s the white-knuckle thrill ride of a roller coaster. Some participants played games containing the virtual nose, while others played standard versions. They were not told that the nose was there.

“Surprisingly, subjects did not notice the ‘nasum virtualis’ while they were playing the games, and they were incredulous when its presence was revealed to them later in debriefings,” Whittinghill says.

The virtual nose allowed people using the Tuscany villa simulation to play an average of 94.2 seconds longer without feeling sick, while those playing the roller coaster game played an average of 2.2 seconds longer.

“The roller coaster demo is short, but it’s very intense at times, spinning upside down, jumping across chasms, plunging fully vertical, so people can’t do it very long under the best of circumstances,” Whittinghill says.

“We had a reliable increase of 2 seconds, and it was a very clear trend. For the Tuscany demo it takes more time, but eventually you start getting queasy, and 94 seconds is a huge improvement.”

The researchers used electro dermal activity (EDA) sensors to record electrical conduction across the skin, which is affected by sweating due to excitement, a proxy indication of simulator sickness. The measurements indicated EDA differences between subjects playing games with the nose and without.

It isn’t clear why the virtual nose evidently reduces simulator sickness. “Our suspicion is that you have this stable object that your body is accustomed to tuning out, but it’s still there and your sensory system knows it,” Whittinghill says.

The researchers presented their findings earlier this month during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The research is ongoing.

“Our long-term goal is to create a fully predictive model of simulator sickness that will allow us to predict, given a specific set of perceptual and individual inputs, what level of simulator sickness one can expect,” Whittinghill says.

Source: Purdue University

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To amp up chemo, cut cell ‘quality control’

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 08:21

A new way to make chemotherapy more effective stops a cellular quality-control mechanism, according to a new study.

The mechanism is known as NMD (nonsense-mediated mRNA decay), and scientists found that exposing breast cancer cells to a molecule that inhibits NMD prior to treatment with doxorubicin, a drug used to treat leukemia, breast, bone, lung, and other cancers, hastens cell death.

The research team, led by Lynne E. Maquat, director of the Center for RNA Biology at the University of Rochester, acknowledges that the work is in the early stages and a long way from being applied in humans. But, they believe their data provide insights that could lead to new treatment strategies for cancer patients in the future.

“The work from Lynne Maquat’s lab is critical because it demonstrates the role for NMD in cancer cell survival and shows us how the NDM pathway might be connected to chemotherapy response,” says Hartmut “Hucky” Land, director of research at the Wilmot Cancer Institute.

Cell ‘assembly lines’

Maximilian Popp, study author and a postdoctoral fellow in Maquat’s laboratory, describes NMD as the body’s way of proofreading messenger RNA or mRNA, which takes genetic instructions from DNA and uses it to create proteins that carry out our body’s functions.

NMD flags and derails the production of unwanted proteins that can disrupt normal processes and initiate disease, like an inspector flags and removes faulty products from an assembly line.

In the last several years, Maquat’s team and others have discovered that NMD is a more dynamic pathway than they thought—it also helps our cells adjust to changes in their environment and more rapidly respond to certain stimuli.

In the new study, Popp exposed breast cancer cells to doxorubicin alone and measured their viability following treatment. Next, he simultaneously treated cells with doxorubicin and a compound that inhibits NMD. Finally, he treated cells with the compound that inhibits NMD, removed the compound after several hours, and then treated cells with doxorubicin.

The third treatment regimen—NMD-inhibiting compound followed by doxorubicin—was the most effective: cells were two-and-a-half times more likely to die compared to doxorubicin alone.

Drug combo

Why this strategy works is not entirely clear, but Maquat and Popp speculate that blocking NMD primes cells for apoptosis (cell death) by boosting the activity of genes that respond to the cellular stress caused by chemotherapy. They note that blocking NMD alone isn’t enough to kill breast cancer cells; they need the second stimulus—the doxorubicin—to tip the scale towards apoptosis.

“The idea of combining a drug that inhibits NMD with chemotherapy that is already used to treat a wide range of cancers has the potential to impact patient care,” says Popp, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellow.

“We don’t completely understand the detailed mechanisms by which NMD operates, so there is still a lot of work to do, but this study gives us a path forward.”

“This research highlights the importance of basic research and its relevance to human disease and therapies,” says Maquat, professor in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

The findings appear in Nature Communications.

The National Institute for General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health and an Edelman-Gardner seed grant from UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute supported the work. The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation supports Popp.

Source: University of Rochester

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Air pollution is no barrier to exercise

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 07:27

If you use your area’s air pollution as a reason not to exercise, you might need to find a better excuse.

Even in heavily polluted areas, the benefits of exercise outweigh the harmful effects of air pollution in relation to the risk of premature mortality, a new study reports.

“Even for those living in the most polluted areas of Copenhagen, it is healthier to go for a run, a walk, or to cycle to work than it is to stay inactive,” says Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, associate professor with the Centre for Epidemiology and Screening at the University of Copenhagen.

It is well known that people who engage in physical activity are less likely to die prematurely—and also that air pollution increases the risk of premature death. Physical activity amplifies respiratory intake and accumulation of air pollutants in our lungs, which may increase the harmful effects of air pollution during exercise.

“Air pollution is often perceived as a barrier to exercise in urban areas. In the face of an increasing health burden due to rising physical inactivity and obesity in modern societies, our findings provide support for efforts in promoting exercise, even in urban areas with high pollution,” Jovanovic Andersen says.

“However, we would still advise people to exercise and cycle in green areas, parks, woods, with low air pollution, and away from busy roads, when possible,” she adds.

Fewer deaths

This is the first large population-based, prospective cohort study that has examined the joint effects of both physical activity and air pollution on mortality. It is based on high quality data on both physical activity and air pollution exposure.

The new study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, includes 52,061 subjects, aged 50-65 years, from Aarhus and Copenhagen who participated in the cohort study Diet, Cancer and Health.

From 1993-97, they reported on their physical leisure activities, including sports, cycling to/from work, and in their leisure time, gardening and walking. The researchers then estimated air pollution levels from traffic at their residential addresses.

Of the participants, 5,500 died before 2010. The study shows about 20 percent fewer deaths among those who exercised than among those who didn’t exercise, even for those who lived in the most polluted areas, in central Copenhagen and Aarhus, or close to busy roads and highways.

“It is also important to note that these results pertain to Denmark and sites with similar air pollution levels, and may not necessary be true in cities with several fold higher air pollution levels, as seen in other parts of the world,” Andersen says.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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MRI could use sugary ‘slime’ to find cancer

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 06:52

An MRI that detects cellular slime could someday replace invasive biopsies to confirm that patients have cancer.

The experimental technique uses magnetic resonance imaging to spot telltale sugar molecules shed by the outer membranes of cancerous cells.

“We think this is the first time scientists have found a use in imaging cellular slime,” says senior author Jeff Bulte, professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“As cells become cancerous,” he says, “some proteins on their outer membranes shed sugar molecules and become less slimy, perhaps because they’re crowded closer together. If we tune the MRI to detect sugars attached to a particular protein, we can see the difference between normal and cancerous cells.”

So far tested only in test tubes and mice, the technique is described in a report published online in Nature Communications.

Without dyes

Other researchers have used MRI but needed injectable dyes to image proteins on the outside of cells that lost their sugar. Bulte’s research team compared MRI readings from proteins known as mucins, with and without sugars attached, to see how the signal changed. They then looked for those signals in four types of lab-grown cancer cells; they detected markedly lower levels of mucin-attached sugars in cancer than in normal cells.

Xiaolei Song, lead author of the study and a researcher in Bulte’s laboratory, explains that this is the first time a property integral to cancer cells, rather than an injected dye, has been used to detect those cells.

“The advantage of detecting a molecule already inside the body is that we can potentially image the entire tumor,” she says. “This often isn’t possible with injected dyes because they only reach part of the tumor. Plus, the dyes are expensive.”

Much more testing is needed to show that the technique has value in human cancer diagnosis, Bulte says. The next step will be to see if it can distinguish more types of cancerous tumors from benign masses in live mice.

If continued testing is successful, Bulte and Song suggest the technique could be used to detect cancer early, monitor response to chemotherapy, and guide biopsies to ensure sampling of the most malignant part of a tumor.

It could, they say, eventually make unnecessary at least some biopsies, in which doctors delve into the body to remove parts of suspected tumors for examination.

The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Cancer Institute, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Foundation, and the Pearl and Yueh-Heng Yang Foundation funded the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Can this garlic nutrient keep brains healthy?

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 06:35

A nutrient in garlic may offer the brain cells protection against aging and disease, according to new research.

“Garlic is one of the most widely consumed dietary supplements,” says Zezong Gu, associate professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

“Most people think of it as a ‘superfood,’ because garlic’s sulfur-containing compounds are known as an excellent source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection.

“Scientists are still discovering different ways garlic benefits the human body,” he says. “Our research focused on a carbohydrate derivative of garlic known as FruArg and the role this nutrient plays in protective responses.”

Environmental stress

Gu’s team looked at the nutrient’s ability to inhibit—and even possibly reverse—brain cell damage caused by environmental stress. Environmental stress could include the aging process, smoking, pollution, traumatic brain injury, or excessive alcohol consumption.

“Microglia are immune cells in the brain and spinal cord that are the first and main line of defense in the central nervous system,” Gu says.

“Unlike other mature brain cells that seldom regenerate themselves, microglial cells respond to inflammation and environmental stresses by multiplying. By massing themselves and migrating toward an injury site, they are able to respond to inflammation and protect other brain cells from destruction.”

However, increasing the number of microglial cells won’t provide age-defying protection for the brain, Gu says. In fact, it can do more harm than good.

“Although important to brain cell health, microglial cells also produce nitric oxide in reaction to their function as protectors,” Gu says.

“If we simply increased the number of microglial cells, we also would increase the amount of nitric oxide in the brain. Excessive production of nitric oxide leads to brain cell damage and promotes neurodegenerative diseases such as cerebral ischemia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

More antioxidants

However, the nutrient FruArg may provide an answer to this reactive dilemma. By creating a cell model of neurological stress and monitoring microglial cell function, Gu’s team was able to study FruArg’s contribution to brain health.

“When stress was applied to the model, there was an expected increase in microglial cells and their byproduct, nitric oxide,” Gu says. “However, once we applied FruArg, the microglial cells adapted to the stress by reducing the amount of nitric oxide they produced.

“Additionally, FruArg promoted the production of antioxidants, which offered protective and healing benefits to other brain cells. This helps us understand how garlic benefits the brain by making it more resilient to the stress and inflammation associated with neurological diseases and aging.”

In the future, Gu and his colleagues hope to study the effects of FruArg on other cells in the body associated with conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

The study appears in PLOS ONE. Funding for the research came from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the department of pathology and anatomical sciences, and the university’s South African Education Program.

Source: University of Missouri

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Why ‘keyhole’ surgery should be more common

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 05:09

Minimally invasive surgeries are not performed often enough, resulting in unnecessary complications from traditional open incision procedures and costing US hospitals upwards of $280 million a year.

The findings are based on a new analysis that compares outcomes from routine open and minimally invasive appendix, colon, and lung operations.

“Minimally invasive surgery, done in the right patients, represents an under-recognized opportunity not only for cost savings, but also for making surgery safer, reducing the very real suffering associated with surgical complications,” says lead investigator Marty Makary, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University.

Tiny ‘keyholes’

Minimally invasive surgery, also known as laparoscopic surgery, involves making tiny incisions, or “keyholes,” to access organs and operate on them, in contrast with cutting into and through much larger areas of tissue.

“The decision to perform an open versus minimally invasive procedure should be made according to each patient’s specific case and overall health, among other factors,” Makary says.

“But our results make a very strong case that minimally invasive surgery is grossly underutilized and, at a minimum, ought to be offered to patients more often.”

For the study, published in JAMA Surgery, researchers analyzed more than 80,000 cases from the National Inpatient Sample database, tracking seven common post-surgical complications and associated billing charges.

Less cost, fewer complications

They focused on appendix, colon, and lung cases because both the open and minimally invasive approaches are considered standard for those surgeries.

While not all patients are candidates for minimally invasive treatment, the study reveals great variation in its use among similar patients who would qualify and who were treated at similar hospitals.

To calculate the cost difference between open and minimally invasive surgery, the investigators compared the actual cost for each patient who underwent traditional surgery against the estimated cost for the same patient undergoing minimally invasive treatment.

In addition, the investigators calculated potential cost savings under two hypothetical scenarios: when all hospitals increased their use of minimally invasive surgery by 50 percent and when the hospitals performing the fewest such procedures, the so-called low utilizers, upped them to the level of hospitals performing in the upper one-third.

The tally shows that if all US hospitals increased the number of minimally invasive procedures by 50 percent, they would avert 3,578 complications, reduce hospital stay by 144,863 days, and save $288 million a year.

If hospitals performing the fewest minimally invasive operations boosted their levels to those of their higher-performing counterparts, the collective savings would be $337 million a year, 4,306 fewer complications, and 169,819 fewer hospital days.

Hospital leaders should increase capacity for minimally invasive treatment and streamline division of labor so that surgeons with expertise in minimally invasive treatment can operate on patients who qualify, the researchers say.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Single drop test detects disease in 90 minutes

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 12:37

A single-drop DNA test, which works like a pH test for swimming pools, detects disease and gives a result in 90 minutes.

A new study suggests the test—which has successfully detected viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites in humans, crops, and cattle—could be used by health workers or farmers in the field to save lives, time, and money.

“We’ve been able to take what would usually be done with complicated equipment in a centralized laboratory and miniaturize it into a single drop of fluid that farmers, for example, can use to get an almost immediate result in the field,” says Matt Trau, a professor at the Australian Institute for Bioengineeing and Nanotechnology at University of Queensland.

Changing color

The test uses a single drop of liquid that changes color if the test is positive. In its current form, it can be made sensitive enough to detect even the smallest trace amounts of DNA or RNA, and can also scan for multiple pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms that cause disease) or cancer markers.

“We can now detect as little as just a few molecules of DNA in almost any sample such as blood, saliva, or even soil,” Trau says. “This part is particularly exciting for many future applications.”

The test has already proved accurate in detecting human diseases such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and the H1N1 influenza virus. It also has detected E. coli in water, bovine herpes virus in cattle, and fusarium fungus in crops.

There are virtually no limits for potential uses for the technology, says Jimmy Botella, professor in the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences.

“This new test is especially suited for developing countries, but it will also be very useful for the Australian agricultural and livestock industries as it provides a fast method to detect diseases without the need to send samples to the laboratory.

“We expect that the technology would also be beneficial to the Australian Customs and Quarantine services and the Australian export industry as they could test produce in the packinghouse before shipping.”

Source: University of Queensland

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