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Knowing how you feel could have health perks

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 09:47

People who pay more attention to their feelings and experiences tend to have better cardiovascular health, a new study suggests.

As reported in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found a significant association between self-reported “dispositional mindfulness” and better scores on four of seven cardiovascular health indicators, as well as a composite overall health score.

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Dispositional mindfulness is defined as someone’s awareness and attention to what they are thinking and feeling in the moment.

The study is the first to quantify such an association between mindfulness and better cardiovascular health, says study lead author Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health. It’s an encouraging link for health promotion, because mindfulness can be enhanced with training.

“Mindfulness is changeable, and standardized mindfulness interventions are available,” Loucks says. “Mostly they’ve been looked at for mental health and pain management, but increasingly they are being looked at for cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, smoking, and blood pressure.”

The connection may come about because people who are attuned to their present feelings may be better at minding and managing the various cravings—for salty or sugary foods, cigarettes, or even some time on the couch—that undermine health, Loucks says. Mindfulness interventions, for example, have already shown efficacy in helping people to quit smoking.

Comparing measurements

In the study, Loucks and his colleagues asked 382 participants in the broader New England Family Study to answer the 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).

MAAS questions, rated on a six-point scale from “almost always” to “almost never” include “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present” and “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention.”

The participants also underwent tests to determine ratings on seven indicators of cardiovascular health, as suggested by the American Heart Association: smoking avoidance, physical activity, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose.

The researchers also noted the participants’ age, race, sex, education, and scores on standardized scales of depression, and sense of control in their lives.

In their analysis of the data, Loucks and his team examined the association between the degree of self-reported mindfulness and the scores on each of the seven cardiovascular health indicators, accounting for age, sex, and race. They also calculated a composite score of the health indicators.

In-the-moment benefits

Participants with high MAAS scores had an 83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health (as measured by the composite score) compared to those with relatively low MAAS scores. High vs. low MAAS scores were associated with significantly higher cardiovascular health on four of the seven individual indicators: BMI, physical activity, fasting glucose, and avoiding smoking.

That higher mindfulness did not also associate with higher scores for blood pressure or cholesterol may be because neither of those health indicators directly affect how someone feels in a typical moment, whereas smoking, obesity (and closely related fasting glucose), and physical activity are all much more explicitly evident experiences for the self.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable consumption, an indicator of diet quality, showed a positive association with higher MAAS scores, but with too wide a range of uncertainty to be considered statistically significant.

Loucks says the next step in his research is to begin testing whether improving mindfulness can increase cardiovascular health indicators. He says he hopes to launch randomized controlled trials with long-term follow-up (because behavioral interventions often look good in the short term but then don’t last).

The National Institutes of Health provided support for the study.

Source: Brown University

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There’s zero chance you’ll see a megalodon

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 09:16

Scientists are officially debunking the myth that megalodon sharks still exist. The whale-eating monsters became extinct about 2.6 million years ago.

“I was drawn to the study of Carcharocles megalodon’s extinction because it is fundamental to know when species became extinct to then begin to understand the causes and consequences of such an event,” says Catalina Pimiento, a doctoral candidate at the Florida Museum of Natural History at University of Florida.

Catalina Pimiento measures a megalodon shark tooth at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. (Credit: Jeff Gage)

“I also think people who are interested in this animal deserve to know what the scientific evidence shows, especially following Discovery Channel specials that implied megalodon may still be alive.”

Published in PLOS ONE, the study represents the first phase of Pimiento’s ongoing reconstruction of megalodon’s extinction. As modern top predators, especially large sharks, are significantly declining worldwide due to the current biodiversity crisis, the study serves as the basis to better understand the consequences of these changes.

“When you remove large sharks, then small sharks are very abundant and they consume more of the invertebrates that we humans eat,” Pimiento says. “Recent estimations show that large-bodied, shallow-water species of sharks are at greatest risk among marine animals, and the overall risk of shark extinction is substantially higher than for most other vertebrates.”

Megalodon mania

Pimiento plans to further investigate possible correlations between changes in megalodon’s distribution and the evolutionary trends of marine mammals, such as whales and other sharks.

“When we calculated the time of megalodon’s extinction, we noticed that the modern function and gigantic sizes of filter feeder whales became established around that time,” she says. “Future research will investigate if megalodon’s extinction played a part in the evolution of these new classes of whales.”

The slowly unraveling details of megalodon’s extinction and various aspects of its natural history have consumed Pimiento’s research for the past six years, including ongoing analysis of megalodon’s body size and a 2010 PLOS ONE study that suggested that Panama served as a nursery habitat for the species.

For the new study, researchers used databases and scientific literature of the most recent megalodon records and calculated the extinction using a novel mathematical model proven reliable in recent experimental testing by study coauthor Christopher F. Clements with the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich.

The study will not only serve as a key reference for debunking the myth that megalodon still exists, but its new methods will influence the future of scientific research of extinct animals and plants, says Jorge Velez-Juarbe, a vertebrate paleontologist with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“The methodology that the authors used had only been previously employed to determine extinction dates in historical times, such as to estimate the extinction date of the dodo bird,” he says.

“In this work, scientists applied that same methodology to determine the extinction of an organism millions of years ago, instead of hundreds. It’s a new tool that paleo-biologists didn’t have, or rather had not thought of using before.”

Source: University of Florida

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Approved therapy tested on autoimmune diseases

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 08:44

Laboratory tests of an approved therapeutic suggest it may treat symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as type-1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

These diseases occur when a group of immune cells called pro-inflammatory T-effector cells become sensitized to specific cells in the body, identifying them as foreign and attacking them as if they were invading bacteria.

“IGF-1 is already an approved therapeutic and has been tested in many different settings. That means it will be much easier to start clinical trials.”

This “friendly fire” goes unchecked due to the failing of another type of immune cell: called the T-reg, which controls T-effector cells, shutting them down when they are not needed.

In laboratory work researchers created conditions that mimic type-1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. They found that administering a molecule called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) induced the production of T-reg cells, which in turn suppressed symptoms.

The research confirms that IGF-1 acts directly on T-reg cells—rather than indirectly by affecting some other factor that induces T-reg cells to multiply.

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Lead author Nadia Rosenthal, a professor at Monash University and scientific head of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), says the findings, published this week in EMBO Molecular Medicine, have clinical significance.

“IGF-1 is already an approved therapeutic and has been tested in many different settings. That means it will be much easier to start clinical trials for IGF-1 in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases than it would if we were proposing a new, untested drug,” Rosenthal says.

In a separate study published earlier this year, Rosenthal and Daniel Bilbao at EMBL in found that IGF-1 also suppresses allergic contact dermatitis, an inflammatory skin disease.

Rosenthal plans to explore the role of IGF-1 in inflammation and regeneration, and its potential for treating conditions such as muscular atrophy, fibrosis, and heart disease.

Source: Monash University

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Can subliminal messages improve old age?

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 08:22

Subliminal messages containing positive stereotypes about aging can improve older adults’ physical functioning for several weeks, according to a new study.

Researchers used a new intervention method to examine for the first time whether exposure to positive age stereotypes could weaken negative age stereotypes and their effects over time, and lead to healthier outcomes.

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The study, published online in Psychological Science, consisted of 100 older individuals (average age 81 years) who live in the greater New Haven, Connecticut area.

Some of the participants were subjected to positive age stereotypes on a computer screen that flashed words such as “spry” and “creative” at speeds that were too fast to allow for conscious awareness.

Individuals exposed to the positive messaging exhibited a range of psychological and physical improvements that were not found in control subjects. They benefited from improved physical function, such as physical balance, which continued for three weeks after the intervention ended.

Also, during the same period, positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging got stronger, and negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging weakened.

Fighting bad stereotypes

“The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” says lead researcher Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division of the Yale School of Public Health.

“The study’s successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function.”

While it has been previously shown by Levy that negative age stereotypes can weaken an older individual’s physical functioning, this is the first time that subliminal activation of positive age stereotypes was found to improve outcomes over time.

The study found that the intervention influenced physical function through a cascade of positive effects: It first strengthened the subjects’ positive age stereotypes, which then strengthened their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.

The study’s effect on physical function surpassed a previous study by others that involved a six-month-exercise intervention’s effect with participants of similar ages.

The National Institute on Aging; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation supported the study. The research team also included Corey Pliver of the Yale School of Public Health, Martin Slade of the Yale School of Medicine, and Pil Chung of the University of California, Berkeley.

Source: Yale

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The perfect gap turns nanoparticles into sensors

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 07:16

Scientists have figured out the optimal gap needed between two gold nanoparticles to turn them into optical antennae.

When the gap is optimal, the particles can concentrate light shining on them into the tiny regions between the gap. Researchers can use the light to sense molecules inside the space.

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“Up until now there were two competing theories surrounding what gap was required between particles to best concentrate the light but we now have the technology to test it,” says lead investigator Ken Crozier, a professor of physics and electronic engineering at the University of Melbourne.

Crozier says he and colleagues used a top-down approach to measure the gap width.

“We coated the nanoparticles with molecules, and performed spectroscopy on them with a laser-based microscope we built. We measured the signal given off by the molecules as a function of the gap width.

“We found that as the gap width decreased, the signal increased until the gap width reached the atomic scale, after which the signal began to decrease—giving us the gap width that optimizes the signal from the molecules.”

This work, published in Nature Communications, gives scientists a deeper understanding of the physics of nanotechnology.

The National Science Foundation and the Harvard Quantum Optics Center supported the project. Lead author Wenqi Zhu performed the work under Crozier’s supervision as a PhD student at Harvard University and is now with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Source: University of Melbourne

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Maintenance beats detox for opioid addicts

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 07:13

Buprenorphine maintenance therapy works better than detox for treating patients with prescription opioid dependence in primary care, new research shows.

Prescription opioid dependence has been increasing for the last 15 years and now surpasses heroin dependence. Doctors are also writing more prescriptions for pain management, which has led to higher experimentation and addiction rates, according to lead author David Fiellin, professor of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine.

“Primary care physicians lack evidence-based guidelines to decide between detoxification or providing patients with ongoing maintenance therapy,” says Fiellin.

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Fiellin and his colleagues conducted a 14-week randomized clinical study of 113 patients with prescription opioid dependence. Patients randomly received either buprenorphine detoxification or ongoing buprenorphine maintenance therapy.

Buprenorphine is a medication used to treat addiction. Study participants in the detoxification group received six weeks of stable doses of buprenorphine followed by three weeks of tapering doses. All patients received physician and nurse support and drug counseling for all 14 weeks.

The team found that patients in the detoxification group tested positive for illicit opioid use more often than those in the maintenance group. Patients who received ongoing buprenorphine were less likely to use illicit opiates. Few of the patients in the detoxification group stayed in treatment or were able to abstain after the medication was discontinued.

“For prescription opioid dependence, buprenorphine detoxification is less effective than ongoing maintenance treatment, and increases the risk of overdose and other adverse events,” says Fiellin.

“We found that a number of providers were offering patients buprenorphine detoxification. This is not consistent with how the disease process works.

“It is very common for patients seeking treatment to request detoxification,” says Fiellin. “They want to be off of everything as soon as possible as opposed to considering long-term treatment, but unfortunately there’s no quick fix for the disease. The majority of patients will do better if they receive ongoing maintenance treatment.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the study, which appears in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Source: Yale

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What the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ tells us about Ebola

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 02:59

The 1918 influenza virus killed 50 million people worldwide, and now scientists are hoping to apply the lessons learned to fight diseases like Ebola.

The pandemic, also known as the “Spanish flu,” claimed 675,000 lives in nine months in the United States alone. Of the total killed, as many as 20 million were in India.

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“If we get another flu pandemic and it infects tens of millions in the US, killing half a million people, that’s going to be worse than anything that’s happened to us in at least the last 50 to 100 years,” says Siddharth Chandra, director of the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University.

Chandra and Eva Kassens-Noor, assistant professor of urban and transport planning, studied weekly death rates in 213 districts from nine provinces in India, information contained in reports from the sanitary commissioner’s office.

They found that the virus entered India in Bombay, which experienced a three-week flu wave and a peak death rate of 54.9 people per 1,000. As it spread east, the flu epidemic lengthened to eight weeks and fewer people died.

Simply put: when the flu hit, it hit hard and fast.

Will Ebola get worse?

“This has all sorts of implications for pandemics that are happening now or might be threatening to happen,” Chandra says. “In scenarios resembling the 1918 pandemic as it unfolded in India, locations close to an entry point will have extremely short windows of time to deal with a virulent pathogen, placing emphasis on the emergency management of a short and severe wave of illness.”

Possibly a severe wave like the Ebola virus in West Africa, he says.

According to the World Health Organization, there have been 9,216 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola in seven countries and 4,555 deaths. While Ebola is far less contagious than the flu and it’s not moving as quickly, if there had been 9,000 cases of the 1918 flu, there would’ve been fewer than 900 deaths, Chandra says.

“One of the things this research could shed light on: are viruses like the Ebola virus going to get less virulent or more virulent as they move on?”

Find the full study in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases.

Source: Michigan State University

 

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Touch a receipt and you’ll absorb BPA

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 02:20

You may want to think twice about handling a cash register receipt, especially if you’ve just slathered on some hand sanitizer or lotion.

Most receipts contain high levels of the chemical BPA (Bisphenol A), which acts like a hormone and can cause birth defects and cancer.

“Store and fast food receipts, airline tickets, ATM receipts, and other thermal papers all use massive amounts of BPA on the surface of the paper as a print developer.”

Researchers found a rapid increase of BPA in the blood of people who used a skin care product and then touched a store receipt with BPA.

“BPA first was developed by a biochemist and tested as an artificial estrogen supplement,” says Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences at University of Missouri.

“As an endocrine-disrupting chemical, BPA has been demonstrated to alter signaling mechanisms involving estrogen and other hormones. Store and fast food receipts, airline tickets, ATM receipts, and other thermal papers all use massive amounts of BPA on the surface of the paper as a print developer.

“The problem is, we as consumers have hand sanitizers, hand creams, soaps, and sunscreens on our hands that drastically alter the absorption rate of the BPA found on these receipts.”

Receipts and French fries

People in the study cleaned their hands with hand sanitizer, held thermal paper receipts, and then ate French fries with their hands. BPA was absorbed very rapidly, vom Saal says.

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“Our research found that large amounts of BPA can be transferred to your hands and then to the food you hold and eat as well as be absorbed through your skin.

“BPA exhibits hormone-like properties and has been proven to cause reproductive defects in fetuses, infants, children, and adults as well as cancer and metabolic and immune problems in rodents.

“BPA from thermal papers will be absorbed into your blood rapidly. At those levels, many diseases such as diabetes and disorders such as obesity increase as well. Use of BPA or other similar chemicals that are being used to replace BPA in thermal paper pose a threat to human health.”

Read the full study in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Missouri

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Not all scientists are great at sharing

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:12

Astronomers and geneticists are good at sharing, report researchers, who say ecologists may need a brush-up on the concept.

A study in the current issue of Bioscience explores the paradox that although ecologists share findings via scientific journals, they do not share the data on which the studies are built, says Patricia Soranno, a fisheries and wildlife professor at Michigan State University and coauthor of the paper.

“One reason for not sharing data is the fear of being scooped by another scientist; but if all data are available, then everyone is on the same playing field, there are more people to collaborate with, and you will have a bigger impact on science,” says Soranno.

“Think of the advances being made in genomics, for example, due to the human genome project and the free-flowing findings and data. Genomics is advancing at an unprecedented rate, and it’s having an impact on many other fields as well.”

View larger.

Good intentions

While many environmental scientists support the notion of sharing, the vast majority of them do not carry out their good intentions, according to a recent survey.

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Even with calls from funding organizations, scientific journals, and even the White House, it’s still yet to instill sharing as a matter of practice, says historian Georgina Montgomery.

“If you advocate for inclusion in science, if you believe scientists should be engaged with the public and decision makers in policy, then you should walk the walk and share your data,” she says. “Collaboration, rather than competition, is the best way to continue to advance science.”

To improve the current culture, the team argues that increased data sharing will allow more diverse people to actively participate in research, such as early-career scientists and those from underrepresented groups; scientists from smaller or historically less-influential institutions; citizen-scientists; and scientists from the Global South, scientists from Africa, South and Central America, and much of Asia who are often excluded from leading research.

Ethics, not force

The culture is beginning to change, but now it’s time to find ways to implement it, adds Kendra Cheruvelil of fisheries and wildlife.

“We’ll still need to work through the best way to make this the norm,” she says. “We’re not saying to share data as soon as it’s gathered, and we understand that there’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. Our hope is that scientists will change their practice because they are compelled by the argument that they are ethically obliged to, not because they are forced to share data.”

Future research will focus on scientist-driven approaches to making data more shareable and increasing incentives at an institutional level. Universities offer few, if any, motivations to share data. It would help to offer credit for sharing rather than for solely emphasizing published papers, Cheruvelil adds.

Outside of universities, sharing data is key because there are many efforts to include community-based monitoring groups to help inform decisions and policies about the environment.

“If environmental scientists truly espouse the ethical value of inclusivity, including diverse groups of people at the tables of research, decision making, policy, and public debate, it is not only necessary to share scientific data, it is ethically obligatory,” says Kevin Elliott, a philosopher in fisheries and wildlife.

Source: Michigan State University

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When hospitals merge, patients often pay the price

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:05

While more and more US hospitals are consolidating medical groups and physician practices to be more efficient, a new study finds the practice often backfires and increases the cost of patient care.

“This consolidation is meant to better coordinate care and to have a stronger bargaining position with insurance plans,” says lead author James Robinson, professor and head of health policy and management at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

“The movement also aligns with the goals of the Affordable Care Act, since physicians and hospitals working together in ‘accountable care organizations’ can provide care better than the traditional fee-for-service and solo practice models.

“The intent of consolidation is to reduce costs and improve quality, but the problem with all this is that hospitals are very expensive and complex organizations, and they are not known for their efficiency and low prices.”

Per patient costs

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Robinson and study coauthor Kelly Miller, a program analyst at Integrated Healthcare Association, analyzed four years of data (2009 to 2012) on 158 major medical groups and 4.5 million patients in California.

Groups were put into three categories: owned by physicians, owned by a local hospital or hospital system, or owned by a large hospital system that spans multiple geographic markets in the state.

The measure of costs included physician visits, inpatient hospital admissions, outpatient surgery, and diagnostic procedures, drugs, and all other forms of medical care except for mental health services. Researchers did not have data on mental health services since they are paid for separately.

After controlling for such factors as the mix of severely ill patients and geographic differences in cost, the researchers found that per patient expenditures were 19.8 percent higher for physician groups in multi-hospital systems compared with physician-owned organizations. Groups owned by local hospitals were better, but per patient costs still ran 10.3 percent higher compared with physician-owned groups.

High-priced hospitals

Why would consolidation lead to increased costs? It could be that once a medical group has been acquired, physicians in those groups are expected to admit their patients to the high-priced hospital, Robinson says.

“Hospital-owned medical groups usually are expected to conduct ambulatory surgery and diagnostic procedures in the outpatient departments of their parent hospital, but hospital outpatient departments are much more costly and charge much higher prices than freestanding, non-hospital ambulatory centers.”

Public policy should not encourage mergers and acquisitions as a means of promoting collaboration. Instead, policymakers should consider supporting the use of bundled payments for hospitals and physicians to improve coordination of care, Robinson says.

“Hospitals are an essential part of the health care system, but they should not be the center of the delivery system. Rather, physician-led organizations based in ambulatory and community settings are likely to be more efficient and provide cheaper care.”

The findings are limited to California, the authors say, and further studies should be done using data from other states.

“Nevertheless, these findings are important since California is the nation’s leader in terms of having physicians participate in large medical groups that already perform the functions ascribed to ‘accountable care organizations’ by the Obama administration,” Robinson says.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided support for this research.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Does toxic air raise a child’s risk for autism?

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:22

Children exposed to certain types of air pollution during pregnancy and early in life are more likely to develop autism, according to a study of families living in Pennsylvania.

“Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically,” says Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology at University of Pittsburgh Public Health.

“Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxics as one of the risk factors for ASD.”

Researchers performed a population-based study of families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. Results show links between increased levels of chromium and styrene and childhood autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects one in 68 children.

Talbot presented the preliminary findings at the American Association for Aerosol Research annual meeting.

30 pollutants

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a range of conditions characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties that typically become apparent early in childhood. Reported cases of ASD have risen nearly eight-fold in the last two decades.

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While previous studies have shown the increase to be partially due to changes in diagnostic practices and greater public awareness of autism, this doesn’t fully explain the increased prevalence. Both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be partially responsible.

Researchers interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared these findings with information from two separate sets of comparison families of children without ASD born during the same time period within the six-county area. The families lived in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland counties, and the children were born between 2005 and 2009.

One of the strengths of the study was that it had “two types of controls, which provided a comparison of representative air toxics in neighborhoods of those children with and without ASD,” Talbott says.

For each family, the team used the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) to estimate the exposure to 30 pollutants known to cause endocrine disruption or neurodevelopmental issues. NATA is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the US, most recently conducted in 2005.

Styrene and chromium

Based on the child’s exposure to concentrations of air toxics during the mother’s pregnancy and the first two years of life, the researchers note that children who fell into higher exposure groups to styrene and chromium were at a 1.4- to two-fold greater risk of ASD, after accounting for the age of the mother, maternal cigarette smoking, race, and education.

Other NATA compounds associated with increased risk included cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol, and arsenic. As these compounds often are found in combination with each other, further study is needed.

Styrene is used in the production of plastics and paints, but also is one of the products of combustion when burning gasoline in vehicles. Chromium is a heavy metal, and air pollution containing it typically is the result of industrial processes and the hardening of steel, but it also can come from power plants. Cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol, and arsenic are all used in a number of industries or can be found in vehicle exhaust.

“Our results add to the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures, such as air pollution, to ASD,” Talbott says. “The next step will be confirming our findings with studies that measure the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates.”

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Scientists are skeptical of ‘brain games’ for older adults

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 10:56

Nearly 70 scientists have issued a statement saying they’re skeptical about claims that computer-based “brain games” actually help older adults sharpen their mental powers.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford University psychology professor and the director of the Center for Longevity, says that as baby boomers enter their golden years, commercial companies are all too often promising quick fixes for cognition problems through products that are unlikely to produce broad improvements in everyday functioning.

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products,” she says. “But in the case of brain games, companies also assert that the products are based on solid scientific evidence developed by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists.

“So we felt compelled to issue a statement directly to the public.”

One problem is that while brain games may target very specific cognitive abilities, there is very little evidence that improvements transfer to more complex skills that really matter, like thinking, problem solving and planning, according to the scholars.

No magic bullet

While it is true that the human mind is malleable throughout a lifetime, improvement on a single task—like playing computer-based brain games—does not imply a general, all-around and deeper improvement in cognition beyond performing better on just a particular game.

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“Often, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell,” says Carstensen.

Agreeing with this view were the experts who signed the Stanford-Planck consensus statement, which reads in part:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. . . . The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”

Lifestyle matters more

As the researchers point out, the time spent on computer games takes away from other activities like reading, socializing, gardening, and exercising that may benefit cognitive functions.

“When researchers follow people across their lives, they find that those who live cognitively active, socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline,” as the statement describes it.

“In psychology,” the scientists note, “it is good scientific practice to combine information provided by many tasks to generate an overall index representing a given ability.”

The same standards should be applied to the brain game industry, the experts maintain. But this has not been the case, they add.

“To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” the participants state.

One reason is the so-called “file drawer effect,” which refers to the practice of researchers filing away studies with negative outcomes. For example, brain game studies proclaiming even modest positive results are more likely to be published, cited, and publicized than ones that do not produce those affirming results.

Source: Stanford University

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Feathers have ‘custom’ shafts for flight

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 10:44

The shafts of feathers are made of a multi-layered fibrous composite material—a lot like carbon fiber—that lets the feather bend and twist in flight.

Since their appearance more than 150 million years ago, feather shafts (rachises) have evolved to be some of the lightest, strongest, and most fatigue-resistant natural structures.

However, relatively little work has been done on their morphology, especially from a mechanical perspective, and never at the nanoscale.

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The study, which appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, is the first to use nano-indentation, a materials-testing technique, on feathers. It reveals the number, proportion, and relative orientation of rachis layers is not fixed, as previously thought, and varies according to flight style.

“We started looking at the shape of the rachis and how it changes along the length of it to accommodate different stresses. Then we realized that we had no idea how elastic it was, so we indented some sample feathers,” says lead author Christian Laurent of Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton.

“Previously, the only mechanical work on feathers was done in the 1970s but under the assumption that the material properties of feathers are the same when tested in different directions, known as isotropic—our work has now invalidated this.”

The researchers tested the material properties of feathers from three birds of different species with markedly different flight styles: the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and the partridge (Perdix perdix).

“Our results indicate that the number, and the relative thickness, of layers around the circumference of the rachis and along the feather’s length are not fixed, and may vary either in order to cope with the stresses of flight particular to the bird or to the lineage that the individual belongs to,” adds Laurent, who led the study as part of his research degree in vertebrate paleontology.

The researchers hope to fully model feather functions and link morphological aspects to particular flight styles and lineages. Those findings would have implications for paleontology and engineering.

“We hope to be able to scan fossil feathers and finally answer a number of questions—What flew first? Did flight start from the trees down, or from the ground up? Could Archaeopteryx fly? Was Archaeopteryx the first flying bird?” asks Laurent.

“In terms of engineering, we hope to apply our future findings in materials science to yacht masts and propeller blades, and to apply the aeronautical findings to build better micro-air vehicles in a collaboration [with] engineers at the university.”

Source: University of Southampton

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Teens who eat a hearty breakfast skip the snacks

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 09:17

Teenagers who eat breakfast, particularly one high in protein, are less likely to crave junk food later, and scientists say a boost in the brain chemical dopamine may help explain why.

In contrast, teens who skip breakfast are more inclined to overeat later and have a greater risk of becoming overweight.

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“Our research showed that people experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast,” says Heather Leidy, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri.

“However, breakfasts that are high in protein also reduced cravings for savory—or high-fat—foods. On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day.”

For a new study, published in the Nutrition Journal, researchers studied the effects of different breakfasts on participants’ levels of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in moderating impulses and reward, including food cravings.

Breakfast skippers

Dopamine levels were determined by measuring homovanillic acid (HVA), the main dopamine metabolite. Eating initiates a release of dopamine, which stimulates feelings of food reward. The reward response is an important part of eating because it helps to regulate food intake.

“Dopamine levels are blunted in individuals who are overweight or obese, which means that it takes much more stimulation—or food—to elicit feelings of reward; we saw similar responses within breakfast-skippers,” Leidy says.

“To counteract the tendencies to overeat and to prevent weight gain that occurs as a result of overeating, we tried to identify dietary behaviors that provide these feelings of reward while reducing cravings for high-fat foods. Eating breakfast, particularly a breakfast high in protein, seems to do that.”

Participants in the study were young women with an average age of 19, but Leidy says the findings may be generalized to a larger population of adults.

“In the US, people are skipping breakfast more frequently, which is associated with food cravings, overeating, and obesity,” Leidy says. “It used to be that nearly 100 percent of American adults, kids, and teens were eating breakfast, but over the last 50 years, we have seen a decrease in eating frequency and an increase in obesity.”

The Beef Checkoff Program, the Egg Nutrition Center, and the Margaret Flynn Award from the University of Missouri funded the study.

Source: University of Missouri

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Overweight women less likely to work with public

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 06:53

Overweight women are more likely to work in lower-paying and more physically demanding jobs, according to a new study.

They are also less likely to get higher-wage positions that include interaction with the public, and make less money in either case compared to average-size women and all men.

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“Starting when a woman becomes overweight, she is increasingly less likely to work in a personal interaction or personal communication occupation. And the heaviest women in the labor market are the least likely individuals to work in personal interaction occupations,” says Jennifer Shinall, assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School and author of a new study under review for publication.

But the reverse is true for overweight and obese women when it comes to physically strenuous jobs.

“As a woman becomes heavier she is actually more likely to work in a physical activity occupation. So morbidly obese women are the most likely to work in a physically demanding occupation,” says Shinall.

Shinall labels personal interaction jobs as those where the employee works closely with the customer, such as a salesperson, customer service representative, or receptionist.

Physically demanding positions are healthcare support (nurse’s aides or home health aides), healthcare practitioners (such as registered nurses), food preparation, and childcare.

What about obese men?

Shinall found that obese women are penalized in the labor market because of lower demand in the marketplace, but heavier men do not encounter the same penalty.

“No matter what the type of occupation, obese men seem to do just as well as average-size men. They make just as much as non-obese men and make just as much money in both personal interaction occupations and physical occupations. But we see the opposite pattern for women,” says Shinall.

For the heavier women who get a job interacting with customers, there is still a price to pay.

“A morbidly obese woman working in an occupation with an emphasis on personal interaction will earn almost five percent less than a normal-weight woman working in an occupation with exactly the same emphasis,” Shinall says.

Even after taking differences in education and socioeconomic status into account, there seems to be no scenario where being overweight becomes an advantage for a woman.

Legal impact

From a legal perspective, there has been a lot of discussion on whether an obese individual is considered disabled in regards to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Shinall suggests that when it comes to discrimination lawsuits, the ADA may not be the correct avenue since obese women are actually filling strenuous physical labor jobs.

“What seems to be going on in the labor market may be more of a sex discrimination issue that could be tied to Title VII.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

Shinall used matched data from the Current Population Survey, American Time Use Survey’s Eating and Health Module (ATUS EHM) and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) for her research.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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The plague hitches a ride to travel the body

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 06:44

An ancient scourge is giving scientists new insights on how the body responds to infections.

In the journal Immunity, researchers show how the Yersinia pestis bacteria that cause bubonic plague hitchhike on immune cells in the lymph nodes and eventually ride into the lungs and the blood stream, where the infection is easily transmitted to others.

The insight provides a new avenue to develop therapies that block this host immune function rather than target the pathogens themselves—a tactic that often leads to antibiotic resistance.

“The recent Ebola outbreak has shown how highly virulent pathogens can spread substantially and unexpectedly under the right conditions,” says lead author Ashley L. St. John, assistant professor in the Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Singapore.

“This emphasizes that we need to understand the mechanisms that pathogens use to spread so that we can be prepared with new strategies to treat infection.”

While bubonic plague would seem a blight of the past, there have been recent outbreaks in India, Madagascar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And it’s mode of infection now appears similar to that used by other well-adapted human pathogens, such as the HIV virus.

Lymph node to lymph node

In their study, the researchers set out to determine whether the large swellings that are the signature feature of bubonic plague—the swollen lymph nodes, or buboes at the neck, underarms, and groins of infected patients—result from the pathogen or as an immune response.

It turns out to be both.

“The bacteria actually turn the immune cells against the body,” says senior author Soman Abraham, a professor of pathology at Duke University and professor of emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS.

“The bacteria enter the draining lymph node and actually hide undetected in immune cells, notably the dendritic cells and monocytes, where they multiply. Meanwhile, the immune cells send signals to bring in even more recruits, causing the lymph nodes to grow massively and providing a safe haven for microbial multiplication.”

The bacteria are then able to travel from lymph node to lymph node within the dendritic cells and monocytes, eventually infiltrating the blood and lungs. From there, the infection can spread through body fluids directly to other people, or via biting insects such as fleas.

Beyond the plague

Abraham, St. John, and colleagues note that there are several potential drug candidates that target the trafficking pathways that the bubonic plague bacteria use.

In animal models, the researchers successfully used some of these therapies to prevent the bacteria from reaching systemic infection, which markedly improved survival and recovery.

“This work demonstrates that it may be possible to target the trafficking of host immune cells and not the pathogens themselves to effectively treat infection and reduce mortality,” St. John says. “In view of the growing emergency of multi-resistant bacteria, this strategy could become very attractive.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

Source: National University of Singapore

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How black holes stop galaxies from making stars

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 13:09

New evidence could help explain how some massive black holes shut down a galaxy’s ability to make new stars.

Astronomers say jets of “radio-frequency feedback” streaming from mature galaxies’ central black holes are the “off switch,” preventing hot free gas from cooling and collapsing into baby stars.

“Basically, these active black holes give a reason for why stars stop forming in the universe.”

“When you look into the past history of the universe, you see these galaxies building stars,” says Tobias Marriage, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University.

“At some point, they stop forming stars and the question is: why? Basically, these active black holes give a reason for why stars stop forming in the universe.”

Published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the findings were made possible by adapting a well-known research technique to solve a new problem.

The Sunyaev–Zel’dovich effect signature—typically used to study large galaxy clusters—can also be used to learn a great deal about smaller formations, says postdoctoral fellow Megan Gralla.

The SZ effect occurs when high-energy electrons in hot gas interact with faint light in the cosmic microwave background, light left over from earliest times when the universe was a thousand times hotter and a billion times denser than today.

Cool and condense

“The SZ is usually used to study clusters of hundreds of galaxies but the galaxies we’re looking for are much smaller and have just a companion or two,” Gralla says.

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“What we’re doing is asking a different question than what has been previously asked. We’re using a technique that’s been around for some time and that researchers have been very successful with, and we’re using it to answer a totally different question in a totally different subfield of astronomy,” Gralla says.

“I was stunned when I saw this paper, because I’ve never thought that detecting the SZ effect from active galactic nuclei was possible,” says Eiichiro Komatsu, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany who was not involved in the research. “I was wrong. . . . It makes those of us who work on the SZ effect from galaxy clusters feel old; research on the SZ effect has entered a new era.”

In space, hot gas drawn into a galaxy can cool and condense, forming stars. Some gas also funnels down into the galaxy’s black hole, which grows together with the stellar population. This cycle can repeat continuously; more gas is pulled in to cool and condense, more stars begin to shine and the central black hole grows more massive.

No new stars

But in nearly all mature galaxies—the big galaxies called “elliptical” because of their shape—that gas doesn’t cool any more.

“If gas is kept hot, it can’t collapse,” Marriage says. When that happens: no new stars.

Researchers found that the elliptical galaxies with radio-frequency feedback—relativistic radio-frequency-emitting particles shooting from the massive central black holes at their center at close to the speed of light—all contain hot gas and a dearth of infant stars. That provides crucial new evidence for their hypothesis that radio-frequency feedback cuts off star-making in mature galaxies.

It is still not known, however, just why black holes in mature elliptical galaxies begin to emit radio-frequency feedback.  “The exact mechanism behind this is not fully understood and there are still debates,” Marriage says.

The new study, combined with others detecting SZ signals from more ordinary galaxies, “pose new challenges to the theory of galaxy formation, as there were hardly any data which told us how much hot gas there is around galaxies,” Komatsu says.

The researchers used data from the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, a 6-meter telescope in northern Chile; the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array in New Mexico and its Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; the Parkes Observatory in Australia; and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory. The National Science Foundation funded the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Rest your mind the right way to boost learning

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 12:38

Scientists have previously found that resting the mind, such as daydreaming, helps strengthen memories of events and retention of information.

Now, research shows that the right kind of mental rest, which strengthens and consolidates memories from recent learning, may boost later learning.

At the University of Texas at Austin, graduate student research Margaret Schlichting and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience Alison Preston gave participants in the study two learning tasks in which participants were asked to memorize different series of associated photo pairs.

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Between the tasks, participants rested and could think about anything they chose, but brain scans found that the ones who used that time to reflect on what they had learned earlier in the day fared better on tests pertaining to what they learned later, especially where small threads of information between the two tasks overlapped.

Participants seemed to be making connections that helped them absorb information later on, even if it was only loosely related to something they learned before.

“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” says Preston. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.

Until now, many scientists assumed that prior memories are more likely to interfere with new learning. This new study shows that at least in some situations, the opposite is true.

“Nothing happens in isolation,” says Preston. “When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”

Get students to recall

Preston described how this new understanding might help teachers design more effective ways of teaching.

Imagine a college professor is teaching students about how neurons communicate in the human brain, a process that shares some common features with an electric power grid. The professor might first cue the students to remember things they learned in a high school physics class about how electricity is conducted by wires.

“A professor might first get them thinking about the properties of electricity,” says Preston. “Not necessarily in lecture form, but by asking questions to get students to recall what they already know. Then, the professor might begin the lecture on neuronal communication. By prompting them beforehand, the professor might help them reactivate relevant knowledge and make the new material more digestible for them.”

This research was conducted with adult participants. The researchers will next study whether a similar dynamic is at work with children.

The National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the NSF CAREER Award, and the Department of Defense through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program supported the work.

The results appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: UT Austin

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Milk fat detector uses fluorescent dye

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 10:07

Scientists are building a fluorescent sensor that can rapidly identify the presence of fat in milk. The device, called “Milk Orange,” could one day be useful to milk producers in developing countries.

The system under development will detect fat in milk by using the sensor to work like a digital thermometer, according to the team led by Professor Chang Young-Tae of the National University of Singapore.

Fat content in milk is associated with the levels of protein and vitamins, thus has direct correlation with the nutritional and marketing value of milk.

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The study on Milk Orange, conducted by graduate students Bai Jiaojiao and Xu Wang and supervised by Chang, recently appeared in the journal Chemical Communications.

The device will take less than a minute to predict a milk sample’s fat content. The purplish sensor changes to an orange color, which becomes more intense the more fat it comes into contact with. Experiments have shown that the compound responds only to fat and not other substances in milk.

When designing this product, the scientists first identified Milk Orange’s applicability by testing it on 16 types of milk from seven brands available locally. The team did so by screening more than 10,000 fluorescent dyes that are part of the Diversity Oriented Fluorescence Library.

Current methods of measuring milk’s fat content include the lactometer, infrared analysis, and the Gerber method. All these have shortcomings—they are either expensive, complicated, require skilled users, inaccurate, or are not portable.

The Milk Orange device, in contrast, is low-cost, portable, easy to use, and efficient. It could let small-scale milk producers segregate and price their milk competitively, as well as enhance the quality-control process.

A preliminary survey suggests that potential users in India would buy the proposed device for $200, according to Divya Jain, enterprise senior executive at the university.

She is leading business development for the researchers’ spin-off company being set up to commercialize the innovation. Divya says the team, which will conduct pilot testing in India and aims to have a beta product within two years, is targeting 200,000 users in India in its first phase.

Source: National University of Singapore

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Super high-res MRI detects single atom

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 08:30

For the first time, researchers have detected a single hydrogen atom using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Conventional MRI technology, widely used in hospitals, can typically resolve details of up to one tenth of a millimeter, for example in cross-sectional images of the human body.

Researchers are working on significantly increasing the resolution of the technique, with the goal of eventually imaging at the level of single molecules—a more than one million times finer resolution.

Detecting the signal from a single hydrogen atom is an important milestone toward that goal.

The dream of the researchers is to one day apply the technology to shed light on the spatial structure of biomolecules, such as proteins. (Credit: ETH Zurich)

In standard hospital instruments, the magnetization of the atomic nuclei in the human body is inductively measured using an electromagnetic coil.

Researchers led by Christian Degen, professor at the Laboratory for Solid State Physics at ETH Zurich, developed a different and vastly more sensitive measurement technique for MRI signals.

“MRI is nowadays a mature technology and its spatial resolution has remained largely the same over the last ten years. Physical constraints preclude increasing the resolution much further,” Degen says.

Diamond sensor chip

In their experiments, reported in the journal Science, researchers measured the MRI signal with a novel diamond sensor chip using an optical readout in a fluorescence microscope.

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The sensor consisted of an impurity in diamond known as the nitrogen-vacancy center. In this case, two carbon atoms are missing in the otherwise regular diamond lattice, while one of them is replaced by a nitrogen atom. The nitrogen-vacancy center is both fluorescent and magnetic, making it suitable for extremely precise magnetic field measurements.

For their experiment, the researchers prepared an approximately 2×2 millimeter piece of diamond such that nitrogen-vacancy centers formed only a few nanometers below the surface.

By an optical measurement of the magnetization, they were in several cases able to confirm the presence of other magnetic atomic nuclei in the immediate vicinity.

“Quantum mechanics then provides an elegant proof of whether one has detected an individual nucleus, or rather a cluster of several hydrogen atoms,” says Degen.

Mapping entire molecules

The researchers also used the measured data to localize the hydrogen nuclei with respect to the nitrogen-vacancy center with an accuracy of better than one angstrom (one ten-millionth of a millimeter).

“This is an important intermediate step toward the mapping of entire molecules,” Degen says.

In a next step, the researchers envision imaging a small molecule with their nano-MRI device. Even if it would become possible to map a large number of atoms, however, it is neither the aim nor practical to investigate an entire human body at atomic level with this technology.

The dream of the researchers is to one day apply the technology to shed light on the spatial structure of biomolecules, such as proteins.

At present, researchers usually rely on X-ray crystallography to investigate protein structures. This requires growing crystals consisting of billions of identical molecules.

Crystallizing proteins is challenging and sometimes impossible, researchers say. If the ETH physicists achieve their goal, a single molecule would in principle suffice for determining the structure.

Another advantage of nano-MRI is that the molecules can be labeled by isotopes, providing a means for site-specific image contrast. This would help biologists tackle issues relating to protein functions more effectively.

Source: ETH Zurich

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