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Phthalates in pregnancy may harm baby boys

Sun, 03/08/2015 - 02:56

Exposure to hormone-altering chemicals called phthalates in early pregnancy is associated with a disruption in an essential pregnancy hormone, report researchers.

In addition, their study suggests this exposure adversely affects the masculinization of male babies’ genitals.

Phthalates are found in many plastics, food, and personal care products.

The findings, presented today at the Endocrine Society’s 97th annual meeting in San Diego, focus on the role of the placenta in responding to these chemicals and altering levels of a key pregnancy hormone.

The results suggest that there may be reason to push routine clinical testing earlier in pregnancy to check for the effects of chemicals and help guide potential interventions to protect the health of the baby.

“Phthalates are pervasive,” says Jennifer Adibi, assistant professor of epidemiology at University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “Reducing exposure to phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals is something that needs to be addressed at a societal level through consumer advocacy and regulation, and education of health care providers.”

Information from the placenta

The research builds on a study led by Shanna S. Swan of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai that was published in February in the journal Human Reproduction.

Swan is senior investigator of this presentation, which provides new information about how phthalates target a key pregnancy hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is made by the placenta and can be measured in the mother’s blood and urine.

“The placenta, which is an extension of the fetus and a target of the chemicals in our bodies, broadcasts information early in pregnancy, through hCG, about what might be occurring to the fetus from chemical exposure,” says Adibi.

“With a simple blood or urine test, doctors and pregnant women may be able to act on this information to reduce exposure and improve the long-term health of the future child.”

Adibi and her colleagues analyzed data collected from approximately 350 women and their babies who participated in a multicenter investigation called The Infant Development and the Environment Study (TIDES). Between 2010 and 2012, the women gave blood and urine samples in their first trimester of pregnancy and allowed researchers to take measurements of the babies at birth.

Higher levels of two molecules that are produced when phthalates are digested—mono-n-butyl and monobenzyl phthalate—in the mothers’ urine early in pregnancy were significantly associated with lower levels of hCG in women carrying male babies and with higher hCG in those carrying female babies.

Effects on male babies

The new research also looks at hCG in relation to a biological marker called anogenital distance, which is the distance between the anus and genitals. In men, a short anogenital distance is associated with decreased sperm count and infertility.

Higher levels of hCG in the mother’s blood were associated with a shorter anogenital distance in male babies. The researchers estimate that about 20 to 30 percent of the phthalate effect on the babies’ genitals could be attributed to the influence of phthalates on hCG, specifically mono-n-butyl and mono-ethylhexyl phthalate.

“Our study is the first to look at hCG as a target of phthalate exposure in pregnancy,” says Adibi. “There is growing societal concern over pediatric disorders that have a basis in the fetal period and which may be more common in one sex or another, such as autism, attention deficit disorder, obesity, asthma, and infertility.

“It is important to find out if chemicals in our food or environment might influence these conditions.”

The participants in this study enrolled at prenatal clinics in California, Washington, Minnesota, and New York. Adibi is looking ahead to future studies in which she will enroll women in the earliest stages of pregnancy at clinics in Pittsburgh to assess exposures to endocrine disruptors and measure effects on the placenta and the baby.

Additional researchers contributed from University of Pittsburgh; McGill University; University of Rochester; University of Minnesota; University of Washington; and University of California, San Francisco.

The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences funded the study and TIDES.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Did experimental vaccine shield doctor from Ebola?

Sun, 03/08/2015 - 02:54

A vaccine given to a physician who experienced an accidental needle stick in an Ebola treatment unit in Sierra Leone produced a strong early immune response, according to a new case report.

The exposed individual was vaccinated 43 hours after the needle stick and was transported by jet to the National Institutes of Health Special Clinical Studies Unit in Maryland.

“Until there is an effective preventive vaccine against Ebola virus, having a treatment or vaccine to offer an exposed health care worker is an important goal,” says Mark Mulligan, executive director of the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center and corresponding author of the paper that is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Clinical trial

“We can’t know the safety or the protection provided by post-exposure vaccination based on this single patient report, but at a time when all available information about Ebola vaccines must be garnered, the clinical and immunological data presented are informative. The vaccine produced a strong early immune response.”

A clinical trial testing the ability of the experimental vaccine to prevent Ebola disease recently began in West Africa. The vaccine, developed by Public Health Agency Canada and NewLink Genetics, Inc. has been licensed to Merck. It is a replicating attenuated vesicular stomatitis virus, called VSVΔG-ZEBOV, with its surface glycoprotein gene replaced by the Zaire Ebola virus glycoprotein gene.

The 44-year old physician from the United States was caring for patients in an Ebola treatment unit in Sierra Leone when he experienced an accidental needle stick on September 26, 2014.

Given the concern about a significant risk of potentially lethal Ebola infection, the physician consented to post-exposure vaccination. Forty-three hours after exposure, he boarded a jet for medical evacuation to the United States and received the vaccine.

‘This one patient’

Starting 12 hours after vaccination, the physician experienced fever and other moderate to severe symptoms such as nausea, chills, and muscle aches. These symptoms diminished over the next three to four days.

“We don’t know if that level of symptoms represents a typical experience with this vaccine,” Mulligan says. “We can only describe what happened in this one patient.”

Blood PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests detected the vescular stomatitis virus nucleoprotein gene and the Ebola virus glycoprotein gene, both included in the vaccine, but not the Ebola virus nucleoprotein gene, not in the vaccine. Antibodies and T cells were detected against the Ebola virus glycoprotein but not other Ebola proteins.

This suggests the physician’s immune system was responding to the components of the vaccine, not to live Ebola virus, Mulligan says.

There was no evidence of infection with the Ebola virus, and the most likely explanation was that the doctor did not become infected with Ebola as a result of his needle stick exposure, Mulligan says.

The Georgia Research Alliance, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases supported the work.

Lilin Lai from Emory’s Department of Medicine and Richard Davey from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Studies Unit are coauthors of the study.

Source: Emory University

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A new Aceh emerges 10 years after tsunami

Sun, 03/08/2015 - 02:46

The Indonesian province of Aceh has made a remarkable recovery a decade after a devastating tsunami.

The transformation owes much to an unprecedented international response that raised billions of dollars for relief and reconstruction, researchers say.

Nearly a quarter of a million people died and many more suffered during the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. Aceh sustained the heaviest damage and had the most casualties: more than 220,000 people died, another 500,000 were left homeless, and more than 116,000 houses were destroyed.

Money and peace

“Traveling through the areas that 10 years ago were scenes of total devastation, it is now increasingly hard to find signs that the tsunami ever occurred—except that most of the facilities and services are better than they were before,” says Craig Thorburn, a geographer at Monash University.

The substantial financial investment was not the only factor at work, Thorburn says. In August 2005, a peace treaty ended the long-running armed conflict between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian military.

“The highly visible and largely successful rehabilitation and reconstruction of the province’s physical infrastructure and facilities has been accompanied by social and political changes hardly imaginable a decade ago.”

Some exceptions

There have been some exceptions to the success story. In particular, some people in villages that had to relocate are still struggling to resume productive lives, with many households lacking a reliable income source.

But most people in the study, even those who had lost assets or livelihoods, say conditions are better than they had been before the tsunami.

“There were the obvious material improvements such as roads and electricity, and the relief of peacetime after years of conflict,” Thorburn says.

“But people also felt more empowered because they had gained skills from their involvement in the recovery programs, and because they had increased confidence that their leaders were able to tackle problems as they arose.”

The Aftermath of Aid project is continuing, and will inform policy recommendations for both Australia and Indonesia, as well as international disaster relief organizations, according to the new report that was commissioned by the Disaster Response Unit of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta (DFAT).

Source: Monash University

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How plants recognize the bugs that eat them

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 09:34

Plants can tell exactly what type of insect is making a meal out of their leaves—and can change up their defenses to ward off an attack.

Identifying the genes behind this defensive response could allow plant breeders to target specific insect species when developing pest-resistant crops.

“It was no surprise that plants responded differently to having their leaves chewed by a caterpillar or sucked by an aphid,” says Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in plant sciences division and an investigator in the Bond Life Sciences Center at University of Missouri.

“What surprised us was how different plant responses were to each of the caterpillars and aphids. The plants could clearly tell insects apart—they really seem to ‘know’ who’s attacking.”

Caterpillars and aphids

The study published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science shows that Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, recognizes and responds differently to four insect species.

Two caterpillar species were placed on the plants and encouraged to chew on their leaves. Two species of aphids, or small insects that pierce plants with needle-like mouthparts, were also to attack the plants. The plants were then examined on the genetic level to gauge their responses.

The researchers saw that the plants responded differently to both species of caterpillars and both types of aphids and had different genetic responses in all four cases.

Additionally, insects caused changes on the signaling level that triggered genes to switch on and off helping defend plants against further attacks.

2,778 defense genes

“There are 28,000 genes in the plant, and we detected 2,778 genes responding to attacks depending on the type of insect,” says Jack Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center and a coauthor of the study.

“If you only look at a few of these genes, you get a very limited picture and possibly one that doesn’t represent what’s going on at all. Turning on defense genes only when needed is less costly to the plant because all of its defenses don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

A sister study, led by Erin Rehrig, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri at the time of publication, showed that attacks by both caterpillars and beet armyworms increased plant hormones that trigger defense responses.

However, plants responded quicker and more strongly when fed on by the beet armyworm compared to the cabbage butterfly caterpillar indicating again that plants can tell the two insects apart.

“Among the genes changed when insects bite are ones that regulate processes like root growth, water use and other ecologically significant processes that plants carefully monitor and control,” Schultz says.

“Questions about the cost to the plant if the insect continues to eat would be an interesting follow-up study to explore these deeper genetic interactions.”

Researchers from Penn State and the University of British Columbia contributed to the study. The National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: University of Missouri

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Head injury: Early signs predict how soldiers recover

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 09:15

During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one-fifth of US service members experienced a head injury, according to recent estimates from the US Department of Defense, and more than 80 percent of those were considered mild.

But even seemingly mild injuries can lead to severe long-term struggles, including difficulty returning to previous work, family, and social activities, new research shows.

“Symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression have always been thought to develop months to years later,” says David L. Brody, associate professor of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We don’t know what causes these symptoms, whether they result from the brain injury itself, from the stress of war, or some combination of factors. But regardless of their origin, the severity of these psychological symptoms soon after injury was the strongest predictor of later disability.”

Published in the journal Brain, the findings raise questions about how best to treat US troops who suffer head injuries.

“I was surprised by how severe the level of disability was 6 to 12 months after these seemingly mild injuries, especially given that virtually all of these patients returned to duty soon after their concussions,” says Brody, the study’s senior author.

First week after injury

The study is the first to evaluate active-duty service members with blast-related mild concussions very early, in the first week after injury, and to combine that with follow-up evaluations of the same patients months later. Most studies of traumatic brain injury in military personnel have focused on those injured severely enough to be evacuated from war zones.

In partnership with the US military, investigators at Washington University in St. Louis and the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia evaluated traumatic brain injury from blast exposure in active-duty military personnel stationed in Afghanistan in 2012.

The study included 38 patients diagnosed with mild blast-related brain injury and 34 service members without brain injury who volunteered to serve as controls. Those in the study ranged in age from 19-44, with a median age of 26 in the study group and 28 in the control group.

Early assessments of service members were made in Afghanistan within the first week after injury. To evaluate mental health, investigators used a standard military questionnaire for assessing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as experiencing repeated, disturbing memories or dreams, feelings of emotional numbness, difficulty concentrating and feelings of anger or hyper-alertness.

‘Trivial’ injuries

Follow-up mental health assessments were conducted with standard interviews 6-12 months later. At later evaluations, 63 percent of patients in the brain injury group were classified as moderately disabled, compared with 20 percent of the control group.

Patients were classified as moderately disabled if they were unable to work as they did before injury; unable to continue previous social and leisure activities; or had mental health problems that disrupted relationships with family and friends.

The remaining 37 percent of the brain injury group were considered to have a good recovery.

“When we were able to connect the dots, we saw that injuries that might have been considered trivial seemed to have a big impact on how these patients did later on,” says first author Christine L. MacDonald, who conducted the study while at Washington University and is now at the University of Washington.

Earlier evaluations

The results were unexpected because the vast majority of past research on traumatic brain injury in military personnel and civilians has focused on cognitive function and physical symptoms such as headaches.

“Most previous studies have hypothesized that things such as duration of loss of consciousness, duration of post-traumatic amnesia, and how well patients could perform tasks of thinking, memory, attention, balance, and coordination would be the predictors of later disability,” Brody says.

“We looked at these factors. And they were not strongly correlated with how well patients did long term.”

The findings suggest that care for brain injuries among military personnel should be broadened to include psychological evaluations earlier in the process, MacDonald says.

Similar to the decision criteria for civilians returning to sports, school, or work after concussions, the criteria used to determine whether a service member should return to active duty now are focused on cognitive function and clinical symptoms and do not include assessments of mental health.

“We hope to contribute to the discussion about what should be done for these patients when they come in with seemingly mild concussions,” MacDonald says. “We need to investigate whether there are new approaches to early care that will improve their quality of life over the long term.”

Brody and MacDonald credit a partnership with the study’s principal investigator in Afghanistan, Lt. Cmdr. Octavian Adam of the US Navy, for making the study possible. Adam is a neurologist at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and was deployed to provide care for US troops.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do the study if Lt. Cmdr. Adam hadn’t reached out to us to collaborate,” MacDonald says. “The logistical complexities of conducting a study in an active war zone were extraordinary.”

As such, Brody and colleagues are planning a similar study of civilian concussions, looking at mental health measures immediately following mild head injuries in patients who come to the emergency room. Those patients will be followed to determine long-term outcomes.

“The lessons that we learn from military trauma apply quite readily to civilian trauma,” Brody says. “Still, there may be unique aspects of military brain injury that are not true in the civilian world.

“It could also be that this is a general phenomenon that has not been carefully addressed in civilian or military populations.”

The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program funded the work.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Kids’ lungs grow faster in California’s cleaner air

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 08:45

Children who live in southern California today are breathing easier than youngsters in the 1990s, according to a 20-year study of more than 2,000 kids.

For the USC Children’s Health Study, researchers measured lung development of children between the ages of 11 and 15 and found large gains for those studied from 2007 to 2011, compared to children of the same age in the same communities from 1994-98 and 1997-2001.

The gains in lung function paralleled improving air quality in the communities studied and across the Los Angeles basin, as policies to fight pollution took hold.

“It’s an environmental success story.”

Many studies have measured the health effects of pollution by comparing locations with different air quality. The challenge lies in ruling out other factors that may account for health differences among communities.

By following more than 2,000 children in the same locations over two decades and adjusting for age, gender, ethnicity, height, respiratory illness, and other variations, the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, provides stronger evidence that improved air quality by itself brings health benefits—the kind that last a lifetime for children breathing cleaner air during their critical growing years.

“We saw pretty substantial improvements in lung function development in our most recent cohort of children,” says lead author W. James Gauderman, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, noting this was the first good news from the long-running study. “It’s strange to be reporting positive numbers instead of negative numbers after 20 years.”

Lung function

Previous findings from the study showed an increase in stunted lung development for children in areas with heavy air pollution, as well as a higher risk of asthma for children living near busy roadways.

Combined exposure to two harmful pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter of diameter under 2.5 microns (PM2.5) fell approximately 40 percent for the third cohort of 2007-11 compared to the first cohort of 1994-98. The study followed children from Long Beach, Mira Loma, Riverside, San Dimas, and Upland.

Children’s lungs grew faster as air quality improved. Lung growth from age 11 to 15 was more than 10 percent greater for children breathing the lower levels of NO2 from 2007 to 2011 compared to those breathing higher levels from 1994-98.

The percentage of children in the study with abnormally low lung function at age 15 dropped from nearly 8 percent for the 1994-98 cohort to 6.3 percent in 1997-2001 and to just 3.6 percent for children followed between 2007 and 2011.

That compares to 2.5 percent by age 18 for children from the first two cohorts who lived in cities with cleaner air, such as Lompoc and Santa Maria. Cuts in federal funding forced the researchers to exclude those cities in the last cohort and focus only on areas with heavier air pollution.

Improvements across the board

“Reduced lung function in adulthood has been strongly associated with increased risks of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and premature death,” Gauderman says. “Improved air quality over the past 20 years has helped reduce the gap in lung health for kids inside, versus outside, the LA basin.”

The growing years are critical for lung development. The researchers are monitoring lung function in a group of adults who participated in the study as adolescents. So far they have not found evidence of a rebound after the teenage years.

“Their lungs may have lost the opportunity to grow anymore,” Gauderman suggests.

Lung development measured by the study improved across the board, regardless of education, ethnicity, tobacco exposure, pet ownership, and other factors.

Across all five communities, lung development for children with asthma improved roughly twice as much as for other children. But even children without asthma showed significant improvements in their lung capacity, suggesting that all youngsters benefit from improved air quality.

Relevant for any urban area

“We expect that our results are relevant for areas outside Southern California, since the pollutants we found most strongly linked to improved health—nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter—are elevated in any urban environment,” Gauderman says.

The incidence of asthma did not change significantly over the three cohorts. Previous research by the Children’s Health Study showed that the risk of asthma increases with proximity to busy roadways.

Lung function testing took place in school at least three times for each cohort, when the children were approximately 11, 13, and 15 years old. Students were asked to blow into a spirometer, an instrument that measures lung size and strength. The spirometer reads total lung volume as well as the amount of air that a person is able to blow out in one second.

Air quality monitoring stations in the five communities took continuous readings of key pollutants over the study period, which the researchers averaged to examine the exposures for each cohort.

Environmental success story

Local, state and federal regulations have achieved large reductions in pollutants in the Los Angeles basin.

In 2011, the concentration of NO2 was below the federal standard throughout the basin. PM2.5 was below the federal standard over most of the basin and near the standard in a small area straddling Riverside and San Bernardino counties. However, the federal standard was lowered in 2012, leaving the five communities in the study at or slightly above the new standard.

Ozone was below the federal eight-hour standard for most of Los Angeles and the coastal basin and exceeded the standard fewer than 20 days a year in the valleys, although parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties continued to exceed the federal standard 40 to 80 or more days per year.

Visibility also has improved, according to the study, with Southern California locations surpassing their 2018 state goals by 2012.

“It’s an environmental success story. The air has gotten much cleaner than it was in the past. I grew up here in the ’70s. Even from Pasadena you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains on a typical summer day,” Gauderman says.

Gains not guaranteed

“We can’t get complacent because not surprisingly the number of vehicles on our roads is continually increasing,” he says. “Also, the activities at the ports of LA and Long Beach, which are our biggest polluting sources, are projected to increase. That means more trucks on the road, more trains carrying cargo.”

“These gains really aren’t fixed,” says senior author Frank Gilliland, professor of preventive medicine. “We have to maintain the same sort of level of effort to keep the levels of air pollution down. Just because we’ve succeeded now doesn’t mean that without continued effort we’re going to succeed in the future.”

The state’s historic drought is expected to raise particulate pollution.

The study’s third cohort of 2007-11 also came of age at a fortunate time for respiratory, if not financial health. The economy shrank and emissions fell during the Great Recession. But the study also shows that air pollution and growth can coexist over the long term. The economy and population in the basin have grown since the cohort of 1994-98.

“Our results suggest that better air quality in the future will lead to even better lung health,” Gauderman says.

The Health Effects Institute, a partnership of the auto industry and the federal government, the California Air Resources Board, the Hastings Foundation, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences funded the work.

Source: USC

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Why whales (and women) live long after menopause

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 08:10

Menopause is one of nature’s greatest mysteries. Most animals die around the same time they stop reproducing.

But killer whales are one of just three species—alongside humans and another type of whale—where females continue to live for many years after giving birth to their last baby.

New research suggests that female killer whales survive after menopause because they help family members find food during hard times. The findings may explain why women continue to live long after they can no longer have children.

Shared wisdom

Female killer whales generally breed between the ages of 12 to 40 years, but can survive into their 90s.

Previous studies have shown that menopausal females greatly increase their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ chances of survival, but how old females help their relatives to survive has remained a mystery.

One leading idea is that wisdom accumulates with age and that old females store vital information about the environment they share with their relatives to help them during environmental hardships.

Repositories of knowledge

Researchers tested this idea by studying leadership in the southern resident killer whale (Orcinus orca) in the North Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the United States and Canada.

The findings, published in the journal Current Biology,  show that post-reproductive female killer whales act as “repositories of ecological knowledge,” leading groups when they are moving together in salmon foraging grounds.

Critically, researchers discovered that leadership by menopausal females is especially prominent in difficult years when there are fewer salmon.

Shortage of salmon is a major contributing factor to mortality in this population and so the benefits of older females knowing when and where to find salmon could be considerable.

Sons and daughters

“Killer whale mothers direct more help toward sons than daughters because sons offer greater potential benefits for her to pass on her genes,” says Daniel Franks, reader in the biology department at the University of York.

“Sons have higher reproductive potential and they mate outside the group, thus their offspring are born into another group and do not compete for resources within the mother’s matriline.

“Consistent with this, we find that males follow their mothers more closely than daughters.”

“Our results show, for the first time, that one way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge,” says Lauren Brent, associate research professor in the psychology department at the University of Exeter.

Menopausal women

“The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.

“As humans did not develop writing for almost the entirety of our evolution, information was necessarily stored in the minds of individuals. The oldest and most experienced people were those most likely to know where and when to find food, particularly during dangerous conditions such as drought.

“The theory that menopausal women store ecological knowledge is difficult to test in modern human populations, but as non-literate and highly social animals, killer whales can provide insights into how menopause evolved in humans.”

“In humans, it has been suggested that menopause is simply an artifact of modern medicine and improved living conditions.,” says Darren Croft, associate professor of animal behavior at the the University of Exeter.

“However, mounting evidence suggests that menopause in humans is adaptive. In hunter-gatherers, one way that menopausal women help their relatives, and thus increase the transmission of their own genes, is by sharing food. Menopausal women may have also shared another key commodity—information.”

For the study, researchers used information collected over the last 35 years and made observations on a total of 102 individual killer whales. The unique dataset includes birth and death dates as well as more complex data, such as the genetic and social relationships between the different animals.

Researchers from the Center for Whale Research in the United States contributed to the study, which was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Source: University of York

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How our brains create ‘mental time travel’

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 07:33

Sometimes, we recall memories that are rich in details about the time and place of an original experience—neuroscientists call this “mental time travel.”

A study in the Journal of Neuroscience sheds new light on how the brain processes these elaborate memories by analyzing the brain activity of individuals performing a simple memory recollection task.

Richly detailed memories are at one end of the spectrum.

The researchers find that they can use the activity patterns in a specific region of the brain to substantially improve their ability to predict the order in which the participants recall information that they have recently studied.

“It’s extremely important that we understand what different brain regions are doing as we search through our memories,” says study leader Sean Polyn, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

“Diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy are devastating to memory, and this information can help us develop treatments to preserve patients’ memories and identify adverse effects that new psychotropic drugs may have on people’s memory.”

Memory intensity

Scientists have known for some time that a portion of the brain called the medial temporal lobe plays a central role in memory because injuries to the MTL cause amnesia and other memory-related problems. However, they have not been able to answer the question: how does the brain control the fidelity of an individual memory?

Of course, not all memories are recalled equally. Richly detailed memories are at one end of the spectrum. At the other are bits of information that a person remembers clearly, but in complete isolation, without any accompanying details.

Polyn, working with doctoral students James Kragel and Neal Morton (now at the University of Texas, Austin), has developed a model that accounts for how the structures in the MTL support memory retrieval.

They find that the anterior region of the MTL signals that a memory is being retrieved, but doesn’t indicate how detailed it is. However, when the posterior region of the MTL becomes active, it indicates that the person is experiencing a “time travel” memory accompanied by considerable detail.

Recall in ‘high fidelity’

The researchers tested their model in an experiment with 20 participants (seven male and 13 female) between 18 and 35 years of age. They were put in an fMRI brain scanner and given a list of 24 names of common objects like horse, boat, and window. Depending on the object, they were asked to decide if it was big or small, animate or inanimate. (The purpose of the question was to make them concentrate on the words.) After a brief pause, they were asked to recall the words they had just studied in the order they occurred naturally.

The researchers found that when a participant’s brain scan indicated that they recalled an object with high fidelity, then their next response was likely to be the next item on the list. However, when the brain scan indicated that the object was an isolated recollection, then the next object the person recalled could come from anywhere on the list.

For example, the participants might be asked to study the words “horse, window, robot, and boat,” in that order. An individual who experienced a time-travel experience when he or she recalled the word “horse,” would be very likely to recall “window” immediately afterward. If, on the other hand, the person’s memory of “horse” was low fidelity, his or her next response might instead be the more distant word, “boat.”

Polyn’s group had previously developed a model of memory search that could be used to predict the order in which people would retrieve these items from memory. For example, the model predicts that people will tend to first recall the items from the end of the list, and if an item from the middle of the list is recalled, the next recollection is likely to come from a nearby list position.

Time stamps

This demonstrates that the brain stamps memories with a temporal code. “This model was much better than chance at predicting what a person would recall next, but when we told the model what a person’s brain activity was at the moment they recalled a particular item, the model became much better at predicting which item would be recalled next,” Polyn says.

“This demonstrates that the brain stamps memories with a temporal code. These time-travel recollections allow the brain to retrieve that temporal code, which makes memories for nearby things more accessible, in this case the next item in the list.”

The temporal code acts something like the time stamp that computers put on files. When you search for files stamped with a specific date and time, you retrieve all the files saved at the time you specify. Time-travel memory acts in much the same way, through a process psychologists call “reinstatement”.

This process is even more flexible than a computer, in that the temporal code can help you retrieve not just memories from the exact same time, but memories nearby in time, as well.

When a strong memory is formed, it may include information about the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and other information that was present at the time of the experience. All of this information becomes temporally linked, and time-travel memory allows a person to bring it back to mind.

Polyn’s memory model is an example of a new generation of brain simulations that are attempting to link brain activity with specific cognitive functions.

The National Science Foundation contributed funding to the project.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Friction at the microscopic level is shockingly strong

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 07:13

Here’s the rub with friction: scientists don’t really know how it works. Sure, humans have been harnessing the power of friction since rubbing two sticks together to build a fire, but the physics of friction remains largely in the dark.

In a new paper in Nature Materials, Brandeis University professor Zvonomir Dogic and his lab explored friction at the microscopic level. They discovered that the force generating friction is much stronger than previously thought.

Dogic and his team focused on the frictional forces of actin filaments, essential cellular building blocks responsible for many biological functions including muscle contraction, cell movement, and cell division.

All of these processes require filaments to move and slide against one another, generating friction. Scientists assumed that the frictional forces of these movements were minimal, acting more like weaker hydrodynamic friction—like pulling an object through water—than the larger solid friction—pushing an object across a desk.

But they observed the opposite.

The team developed a new technique to measure friction, and when they dragged two actin filaments against each other, they observed frictional forces nearly 1,000 times greater than expected—closer to solid friction than hydrodynamic friction.

This is due, in part, to interfilament interaction. Imagine filaments as two beaded strings, one on top of the other, pulled in opposite directions.

As the strings move, the beads must go up and over their counterparts on the opposite string, generating even more friction. By observing this interfilament interaction, Dogic and his team were able to measure the frictional forces and tune them, altering the forces to include more or less friction.

“Before this research, we didn’t have a good way of controlling or understanding friction,” Dogic says. “We still have a lot more to understand but now, one of our oldest sciences is becoming less opaque.”

Scientists from Brandeis, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Leiden, and Harvard University coauthored the paper.

The National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Brandeis University

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Hominin jaw from Ethiopia dates back 2.8 million years

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 07:11

With the discovery of a lower jaw with teeth, the earliest known record of the human genus, Homo, now dates to between 2.8 and 2.75 million years ago.

A team of geoscientists and anthropologists also dated other fossils to between 2.84 and 2.58 million years ago, which helped reconstruct the environment in which the individual lived.

“The record of hominin evolution between 3 and 2.5 million years ago is poorly documented in surface outcrops, particularly in Afar, Ethiopia,” says Erin N. DiMaggio, a research associate in the department of geosciences at Penn State.

Hominins are the group of primates that include Homo sapiens—humans—and their ancestors. The term is used for the branch of the human evolutionary line that exists after the split from chimpanzees.

Directly dating fossils this old is impossible, so geologists use a variety of methods to date the layers of rock in which the fossils are found. The researchers dated the recently discovered Ledi-Geraru fossil mandible, known by its catalog number LD 350-1, by dating various layers of volcanic ash or tuff using argon40 argon39 dating, a method that measures the different isotopes of argon and determines the age of the eruption that created the sample.

They present their results online in Science Express.

“We are confident in the age of LD 350-1,” says DiMaggio, lead author on the paper. “We used multiple dating methods including radiometric analysis of volcanic ash layers, and all show that the hominin fossil is 2.8 to 2.75 million years old.”

Afar, Ethiopia

The area of Ethiopia where LD 350-1 was found is part of the East African Rift System, an area that undergoes tectonic extension, which enabled the 2.8 million-year-old rocks to be deposited and then exposed through erosion, according to DiMaggio.

In most areas in Afar, Ethiopia, rocks dating to 3 to 2.5 million years ago are incomplete or have eroded away, so dating those layers and the fossils they held is impossible. In the Ledi-Geraru area, these layers of rocks are exposed because the area is broken by faults that occurred after the sedimentary rocks were deposited.

By dating volcanic ash layers below the fossils and then above the fossils, geologists can determine the youngest and oldest dates when the animal that became the fossil could have lived.

Other fossils found in this area include those of prehistoric antelope, water-dependent grazers, prehistoric elephants, a type of hippopotamus, and crocodiles and fish. These fossils fall within the 2.84 to 2.54 million years ago time range.

Climate change and Homo origins

Kaye E. Reed, professor at the Institute of Human Origins of Arizona State University, analyzed the fossil assemblage to try to learn about the ecological community in which the LD 350-1 early Homo lived.

The fossils suggest that the area was a more open habitat of mixed grasslands and shrub lands with a gallery forest—trees lining rivers or wetlands. The landscape was probably similar to African locations like the Serengeti Plains or the Kalahari.

Some researchers suggest that global climate change intensifying roughly 2.8 million years ago resulted in African climate variability and aridity and this spurred evolutionary changes in many mammal lines.

“We can see the 2.8 million-year-old aridity signal in the Ledi-Geraru faunal community,” says Reed. “But it’s still too soon to say that this means climate change is responsible for the origin of Homo. We need a larger sample of hominin fossils and that’s why we continue to come to the Ledi-Geraru area to search.”

The National Science Foundation, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Society for Sedimentary Geology, Geological Society of America, Philanthropic Education Organization, Marie Curie CIG, A.v. Humboldt, and Fyssen supported this work.

Source: Penn State

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Are fit spouses a ‘side effect’ of working out?

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 06:59

Your spouse is significantly more likely to get enough exercise if you’re already working out regularly, a new study shows.

“When it comes to physical fitness, the best peer pressure to get moving could be coming from the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table,” says coauthor Laura Cobb, a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“There’s an epidemic of people in this country who don’t get enough exercise, and we should harness the power of the couple to ensure people are getting a healthy amount of physical activity.”

Cobb and her colleagues examined records from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, which in 1987 began following middle-aged adults from Maryland, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Mississippi.

The team analyzed data from two visits for each of 3,261 couples. The visits were roughly six years apart, with the first between 1987 and 1989. At each visit, the researchers asked the spouse pairs about their physical activity.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults exercise at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week or vigorously for at least 75 minutes a week. Forty-five percent of husbands and 33 percent of wives in the study group met these recommendations at the first visit.

The researchers find that when a wife met recommended levels of exercise at the first appointment, her husband was 70 percent more likely to meet those levels six years later than those whose wives were less physically active. When a husband met recommended exercise levels, his wife was 40 percent more likely to meet the levels when the follow-up visit occurred.

“We all know how important exercise is to staying healthy,” Cobb says. “This study tells us that one spouse could have a really positive impact on the other when it comes to staying fit and healthy for the long haul.”

The study was presented at the American Heart Association’s EPI/Lifestyle 2015 Scientific Sessions in Baltimore.

The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study receives support from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Online ‘class’ supports women with alcoholic partners

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 05:24

An online, interactive support program could help women who face barriers to seeking help coping with an alcoholic partner.

Approximately 7.7 million US adults are currently married to or living with a partner with an alcohol use disorder. The burden of living with an alcoholic partner can cause considerable psychological distress, says study author Robert G. Rychtarik, but many spouses do not or cannot seek help.

“Specialized professional help for spouses of alcoholics is not widely available and insurance coverage can be limited,” says Rychtarik, senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA).

“Fear of retribution, family turmoil, stigmatization, and financial, time, and geographical constraints also can be barriers.”

Coping skills

RIA researchers developed a self-paced, internet-administered coping skills training program to determine if it could be an effective way to help reduce distress in this frequently underserved population.

Nearly 100 women living with an alcoholic partner tested the program, which included narrated instruction, animated presentations, and video dramatizations of the most effective ways to deal with problems arising from a partner’s drinking. Certified counselors (“coaches”) were available to chat by computer or telephone.

“The program’s goals are to help women focus on their own needs, reduce stress, and talk to their partners in a more effective way,” Rychtarik says. “The majority of the participants showed significantly higher levels of coping skills and experienced decreased depression and anger compared to those who didn’t take part in the program.”

The program is not yet available to the public. RIA researchers are seeking additional funding to evaluate it on a larger scale, and are determining the best delivery method—through social service agencies, treatment programs, or health care providers, or as a standalone for women to access themselves.

People in need of immediate assistance in coping with an alcoholic partner can find help by contacting Al-Anon, SAMHSA, or, in New York State, the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services or NYS HOPEline, 1-877-846-7369.

The National Institute on Alcohol and Abuse and Alcoholism funded the work, which appears in the current online edition of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Some breast cancers are like ‘stem cells gone bad’

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 10:28

Testing breast cancer cells for how closely they resemble stem cells could identify the most aggressive cases of the disease, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that breast cancers with a similar pattern of gene activity to that of adult stem cells had a high chance of spreading to other parts of the body.

Assessing a breast cancer’s pattern of activity in these stem cell genes has the potential to identify women who might need intensive treatment to prevent their disease recurring or spreading, the researchers say.

Adult stem cells are healthy cells within the body that have not specialized into any particular type, and so retain the ability to keep on dividing and replacing worn out cells in parts of the body such as the gut, skin, or breast.

A new genetic test?

The research team identified a set of 323 genes whose activity was turned up to high levels in normal breast stem cells in mice.

The scientists cross-referenced their panel of normal stem cell genes against the genetic profiles of tumors from 579 women with triple-negative breast cancer—a form of the disease that is particularly difficult to treat.

“Triple negative breast cancer accounts for around 15 percent of breast cancers, but is more difficult to treat than other cancer types as it is not suitable for treatments such as anti-hormonal therapy,” says study leader Matthew Smalley, deputy director of the University of Cardiff’s European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute.

“It’s particularly important to understand the genetic factors that help it to spread around the body—and we were excited to find that a key factor seems to be the degree to which gene activity resembles that of stem cells.

“Although our work is not yet ready for clinical use, our next step will be to explore which of these 323 genes are the most important drivers of the disease and to use these to develop a new genetic test.”

‘Stem cells gone bad’

The researchers split the tumor samples into two categories based on their “score” for the activity of the stem cell genes.

Women with triple-negative tumors in the highest-scoring category were much less likely to stay free of breast cancer than those with the lowest-scoring tumors.

Women with tumors from the higher-scoring group had around a 10 percent chance of avoiding relapse after 10 years, while women from the low-scoring group had a chance of around 60 percent of avoiding relapse.

The results show that the cells of aggressive triple-negative breast cancers are particularly “stem-cell-like,” taking on properties of stem cells such as self-renewal to help them grow and spread. The findings also suggest that some of the 323 genes could be promising targets for potential cancer drugs.

“Cancer cells can behave very much like stem cells—but stem cells gone bad,” says coauthor Clare Isacke, professor of molecular cell biology at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

“They find a way to activate genes which are usually only turned up in normal stem cells, giving them characteristics—such as self-renewal and immortality—that make them more difficult to treat.

“Our study could ultimately help lead to a genetic test assessing breast cancer cells for how closely they resemble stem cells. Picking out women with this type of aggressive disease could give us new ways of personalizing treatment.”

The study appears in the journal Breast Cancer Research, and was funded by several organizations including the Medical Research Council, The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and Cancer Research UK.

Source: Cardiff University

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Galactic ‘rain’ can slow down birth of stars

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 09:32

Some galaxies, like the Milky Way, are veritable star nurseries, giving birth to at least one baby star every year. Others are barren. Until now, astronomers haven’t been sure why.

A new study shows that a galaxy’s fertility may depend on galactic “rain.”

“We know that precipitation can slow us down on our way to work,” says Mark Voit, professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University. “Now we know it can also slow down star formation in galaxies with huge black holes.”

Like a blowtorch

Obviously it’s not in the form of rain or snow, but rather cool gas that helps make the creation of stars possible. When conditions are right, these cooling gas clouds help make stars.

But, some of the clouds fall into the massive black holes that reside at the center of the galaxy clusters. That triggers the production of jets that reheat the gas like a blowtorch, preventing more stars from forming.

For the study, published in the journal Nature, researchers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to analyze X-rays from more than 200 galaxy clusters and pinpoint how precipitation affects the environment around some of the universe’s largest black holes.

All dried up

The galaxies within these clusters are surrounded by enormous atmospheres of hot gas that normally would cool and form many stars. However, this is not what astronomers see. Usually there are only feeble amounts of stars forming.

“Something is limiting the rate at which galaxies can turn that gas into stars and planets,” Voit says. “I think we’re finally getting a handle on how this all works.”

While precipitation plays a key role in some galaxies, there are others in which the precipitation has shut off. In these galaxies, the movement of heat around the central galaxy, perhaps due to a collision with another galaxy cluster, likely “dried up” the precipitation around the black hole.

A galaxy cluster can contain anywhere from 50 to 1,000 galaxies. The Milky Way is part of a cluster known as the Local Group, which contains about 50.

Other researchers from Michigan State, and from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and from Columbia University contributed to the study.

Source: Michigan State University

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Newton’s laws predict how chimps cluster and move

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 09:14

To model how chimpanzees gather and travel through the shrinking terrain they share with other members of their species, scientists turned to Newton’s Laws of Motion.

They created a computer model based on equations normally used to describe the movement of atoms and molecules in a confined space.

“We thought it would be interesting to see if we could use the kind of modeling we use for physics to model the behavior of animals,” says University at Buffalo physics professor Surajit Sen. “We were pleasantly surprised that it works.

“Our model shows how competition for an important resource—food—affects how chimpanzees spread out in a given area.”

The simulation successfully replicated certain chimpanzee behaviors that researchers have witnessed in the wild. Sen says the model could be expanded to predict how a shrinking habitat might affect chimp populations.

He conducted the research with Matthew Westley, a physics PhD candidate, and Anindya Sinha, a primate behavior expert who serves as a professor and dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore and as a senior scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, both in India.

Chimps as particles

As Westley explains, the modeling technique the team used was fairly simple.

“We modeled each chimp as a particle that feels attraction or repulsion to other objects in the vicinity,” he says. “We decided that all chimps would be attracted to food and repulsed by other chimps, who compete for food.”

The key equation the simulation employed was Newton’s Second Law of Motion, which states that Acceleration = Force/Mass.

Chimps were the masses in the equation, while the forces consisted of attraction to food and repulsion from other chimps. By assigning values to each force and determining the distance at which the forces would begin to affect the chimps, the team was able to simulate the direction and speed at which animals would move in relationship to food and to each other.

The research was published in Nature’s Longest Threads: New Frontiers in the Mathematics and Physics of Information in Biology (World Scientific, 2014).

As seen in nature

“The model effectively reproduced some chimpanzee behaviors seen in nature,” Sinha says.

“Once the simulation had run for some time and reached a state of equilibrium, we saw chimps clustering into separate groups within the territory, just as they do in nature,” he adds. “We also saw some members of each group migrating to join other groups, which is a common behavior displayed by females in this male-bonded society.”

The researchers also had success in expanding their basic model to mimic the observed characteristics of a group of chimpanzees in Guinea, western Africa, who had limited access to food.

To do so, the team made changes that included reducing the number of food sources available and making male and female chimps attracted to one another.

In equilibrium, this expanded simulation showed many male chimps leaving their home group to join another group or wander alone. Such behavior is somewhat unusual for males, who tend to stay in their native groups, but it’s exactly what one primate researcher saw while studying the chimps in Guinea for more than 20 years.

“It’s a mental block for us to think living creatures can be treated as particles, but in reality, many decisions that animals make are based on basic attractions and repulsions: attraction to food and other resources, and repulsion from danger,” Sen says.

“I wouldn’t want to philosophize about it beyond that; it’s pure coincidence that the model works.”

Source: University at Buffalo

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Men of all ages tend to be more narcissistic

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 09:12

On average, men are more narcissistic than women, report researchers, who say the findings apply across multiple generations and regardless of age.

Forthcoming in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the study compiles 31 years of narcissism research, including over 475,000 participants.

“Narcissism is associated with various interpersonal dysfunctions, including an inability to maintain healthy long-term relationships, unethical behavior, and aggression,” says lead author Emily Grijalva, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management.

“At the same time, narcissism is shown to boost self-esteem, emotional stability, and the tendency to emerge as a leader,” she says. “By examining gender differences in narcissism, we may be able to explain gender disparities in these important outcomes.”

The researchers examined more than 355 journal articles, dissertations, manuscripts, and technical manuals, and studied gender differences in the three aspects of narcissism: leadership/authority, grandiose/exhibitionism, and entitlement.

They found the widest gap in entitlement, suggesting that men are more likely than women to exploit others and feel entitled to certain privileges.

The second largest difference was in leadership/authority. “Compared with women, men exhibit more assertiveness and desire for power,” Grijalva says. “But there was no difference in the exhibitionism aspect, meaning both genders are equally likely to display vanity or self-absorption.”

Narcissism and stereotypes

In addition, the study looked at data from college students between 1990 and 2013, and found no evidence that either gender has become more narcissistic over time.

Research has shown that personality differences, like narcissism, can arise from gender stereotypes and expectations that have been ingrained over time. The authors speculate that the persistent lack of women in senior leadership roles may partially stem from the disparity between stereotypes of femininity and leadership.

“Individuals tend to observe and learn gender roles from a young age, and may face backlash for deviating from society’s expectations,” Grijalva says.

“In particular, women often receive harsh criticism for being aggressive or authoritative, which creates pressure for women, more so than for men, to suppress displays of narcissistic behavior.”

Future research could further investigate the social, cultural, or biological factors that contribute to these gender differences.

Coauthors of the study contributed from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Purdue University; Texas A&M University; University of Nebraska-Lincoln; University of California, Davis; and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Source: University at Buffalo

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Divorce more likely when wives get sick

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 08:26

Researchers found a 6 percent higher probability of divorce for couples in which wives got sick compared to marriages in which wives remained healthy. The same isn’t true when husbands get sick.

Amelia Karraker, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, says the data does not explain why this is the case, but there are a few reasons why illness can add stress to a marriage. For example, the healthy spouse is often the primary caregiver and may have to take sole responsibility of managing the household.

“There is a difference between feeling too sick to make dinner and needing someone to actually feed you. That’s something that can really change the dynamics within a marriage,” Karraker says. “If your spouse is too sick to work, we know that financial strain is a major predictor of divorce in and of itself.”

Husbands as caregivers

Wives are generally less satisfied with the care from their husbands, Karraker says. That’s because men, especially older men, have not been socialized to be caregivers in the same way women have, and are less comfortable in that role.

Karraker and colleague, Kenzie Latham, an assistant professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, used data from the Health and Retirement Study, which does not indicate whether the husband or wife initiated the divorce. But it is possible some women are ending the marriage because of their care.

“Life or death experiences may cause people to re-evaluate what’s important in their lives,” Karraker notes. “It could be that women are saying, ‘You’re doing a bad job of caring for me. I’m not happy with this, or I wasn’t happy with the relationship to begin with, and I’d rather be alone than be in a bad marriage.'”

Till death do us part?

More couples are getting divorced later in life, which may be a result of people living longer. In the past, some marriages would have ended because of widowhood instead of divorce, Karraker says.

For comparison, she and Latham also looked at whether the marriages in their sample ended because the sick spouse died.

Of the 2,701 marriages included in their study, 32 percent ended in divorce, compared to 24 percent due to widowhood. The marriage data covered a nearly 20-year timeframe and one spouse had to be at least 51 years old at the beginning of that period.

Divorce was more common when respondents in the study were younger, whereas death was more likely as respondents got older. Researchers found the probability of widowhood increased by 5 percent when husbands got sick and 4 percent when wives got sick.

Other studies have found married couples have better physical and mental health. Ironically, Karraker’s research shows that illness puts women at risk of losing those health benefits from marriage.

“I think the research shows the potential vulnerabilities for people in society who are sick. There is an elevated risk for depression with illness and now you’re also at risk for divorce,” Karraker says. “People in poor health may have less access to beneficial social relationships, which in turn can compromise their health further.”

Researchers focused the study on four illnesses—cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and stroke—to determine if the type or severity made a difference in divorce rates. While there was some variation, the results for each individual illness were not statistically significant.

The study appears in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Source: Iowa State University

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5 ways to ease dementia without drugs

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 07:13

Doctors write millions of prescriptions a year for drugs to calm people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. But research suggests that non-drug approaches actually work better, and carry far fewer risks.

A new study is the result of two decades’ worth of research on drugs like antipsychotics and antidepressants, and non-drug approaches that help caregivers address behavioral issues in dementia patients.

The findings recommend that non-drug approaches that focus on training spouses, adult children, or staff in nursing homes and assisted living facilities should be the first choice for treating symptoms such as irritability, agitation, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, aggression, apathy, and delusions.

Tailored approach

To address this, researchers created DICE (Describe, Investigate, Evaluate, and Create), a framework that doctors and caregivers can use to make the most of what’s already known. The framework is tailored to each person with dementia and can be adapted as symptoms change.

“The evidence for non-pharmaceutical approaches to the behavior problems often seen in dementia is better than the evidence for antipsychotics, and far better than for other classes of medication,” says first author Helen C. Kales, head of the Program for Positive Aging at the University of Michigan Health System and an investigator at the VA Center for Clinical Management Research.

“The issue and the challenge is that our health care system has not incentivized training in alternatives to drug use, and there is little to no reimbursement for caregiver-based methods.”

GAO report

Coincidentally, a new report from the US Government Accountability Office, addresses the issue of overuse of antipsychotic medication for the behavior problems often seen in dementia.

It finds that one-third of older adults with dementia who had long-term nursing home stays in 2012 were prescribed an antipsychotic medication—and that about 14 percent of those outside nursing homes were prescribed an antipsychotic that same year.

The GAO calls on the federal government to work to reduce use of these drugs further than it’s already doing, by addressing use in dementia patients outside nursing homes.

But penalizing doctors for prescribing antipsychotic drugs to these patients could backfire, if caregiver-based non-drug approaches aren’t encouraged, Kayles warns.

In the new paper, published in the British Medical Journal, Kayles and coauthors Laura N. Gitlin and Constantine Lyketsos, both of Johns Hopkins University, write “there needs to be a shift of resources from paying for psychoactive drugs and emergency room and hospital stays to adopting a more proactive approach.”

5 approaches

“Drugs still have their place, especially for the management of acute situations where the safety of the person with dementia or family caregiver may be at risk,” they write.

For instance, antidepressants make sense for dementia patients with severe depression, and antipsychotic drugs should be used when patients have psychosis or aggression that could lead them to harm themselves or others. But these uses should be closely monitored and ended as soon as possible,

The authors lay out five non-pharmacologic categories to start with based on their review of the medical evidence that have been shown to help reduce behavior issues:

  • Provide education for the caregiver.
  • Enhance effective communication between the caregiver and the person with dementia.
  • Create meaningful activities for the person with dementia.
  • Simplify tasks and establishing structured routines.
  • Ensure safety and simplify and enhance the environment around the patient, whether in the home or the nursing/assisted living setting.

Many “hidden” medical issues in dementia patients—including urinary tract infection and other infections, constipation, dehydration, and pain—can lead to behavioral issues, as can drug interactions, the researchers note. So physicians should look to assess and address these wherever possible.

Rolling the DICE

The researchers will launch a National Institute of Nursing Research-sponsored clinical trial this spring that will test the DICE approach through a computer based tool for caregivers called the WeCareAdvisor.

The tool will help families identify tips and resources in a single computer interface to address behavioral symptoms.  The tips are designed to prevent or mitigate possible triggers for common behavioral symptoms such as pacing, repetitive questioning, restlessness, or shadowing.

For instance, de-cluttering the environment, using music or simple activities that help to engage a person with dementia , or using a calm voice instead of being confrontational, could help greatly to reduce behavioral symptoms, Kales says.

Further, making sure that caregivers get breaks from their responsibilities and take care of themselves, especially in the home, can help them avoid burnout and taking their frustration out on patients.

“Behavior-based strategies may take longer than prescriptions,” Kales acknowledges. “But if you teach people the principles behind DICE, the approach becomes more natural and part of one’s routine. It can be very empowering for caregivers or nursing home staff.”

The National Institutes of Health and the Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center funded the work.

Source: University of Michigan

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Will Nicaragua’s canal be an eco disaster?

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 06:51

A controversial canal that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans across Nicaragua has environmental scientists concerned about the impact the project will have on the region’s fragile ecosystem.

The Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal will cut through Lake Cocibolca (aka Lake Nicaragua), Central America’s main freshwater reservoir and the largest tropical freshwater lake of the Americas.

The canal, which will force the relocation of indigenous populations, will be longer, wider, and deeper than the 51-mile Panama Canal to the south.

172 miles and $50 billion

“The biggest environmental challenge is to build and operate the canal without catastrophic impacts to this sensitive ecosystem,” says Pedro Alvarez, professor and chair of environmental engineering at Rice University.

“Significant impacts to the lake could result from incidental or accidental spills from 5,100 ships passing through every year; invasive species brought by transoceanic ships, which could threaten the extinction of aquatic plants and fish, such as the cichlids that have been evolving since the lake’s formation,” Alvarez says.

“And frequent dredging, impacting aquatic life through alterations in turbidity and hypoxia, triggered by resuspension of nutrients and organic matter that exert a relatively high biochemical oxygen demand.”

The 172-mile, $50 billion canal is being built by a private company, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Group, in collaboration with the Nicaraguan government, which granted the concession last June.

Preparation for the project has begun with the construction of roads to move heavy equipment and supplies into place, with the first ships scheduled to pass through the canal in late 2019.

Dredging required to open a channel in the lake deep and wide enough for ships will disperse enough sediment to lower its oxygen content and kill marine life, Alvarez and colleagues write in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

They anticipate the project will impact Nicaragua’s lucrative ecotourism and the supply of fresh water for drinking, irrigation, and power generation.

Protect the water

In a January editorial in Science, researchers write “It is incumbent upon scientists, human rights advocates, nongovernmental organizations, and wildlife protection organizations to share knowledge, voice concerns, provide guidance, and demand a greater role for science in the design and construction of this massive project.”

They call for the international scientific community to help “analyze design plans of the canal and its subprojects for safety, social responsibility and sustainability; make recommendations to protect the region’s water resources and biodiversity; and draft statements urging the Nicaraguan government to halt construction until studies can be performed and evaluated by experts.

“In this matter of great urgency and importance, this is an opportunity to exercise scientific leadership, raise awareness and contribute to averting a potential environmental disaster,” they write.

Nicaragua is among countries considered most vulnerable to climate change, the researchers write in the new paper. Changes to the watershed could lead to a shortage of water in the event of drought and catastrophic weather events.

The researchers say their concerns fall into three broad categories: water and sediments, biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, and socio-economic impact.

“Each category involves a number of complex considerations, rendering proper analysis a weighty challenge that is compounded by a lack of publicly available information” from the government and the project’s developers and consultants.

They acknowledge that Nicaragua’s hope that the canal, one of the largest engineering projects ever attempted, will create jobs and lift the nation out of extreme poverty, but are concerned the benefits will not match expectations, particularly since the Nicaraguan government “has not published a detailed business plan for the canal.

“Nicaragua should prepare and publicly vet a detailed economic assessment that includes not only a cost-benefit analysis but also considers externalities associated with national economic development, environmental impacts, social equity, human rights, and legal and national security issues,” they write.

Source: Rice University

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‘Crisis points’ offer clues to heart disease

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 13:43

Scientists have figured out how to use channel-blocking drugs to set off a “wave” of poor communication among healthy heart cells.

The work combines principles of the butterfly effect and computer simulation to explore new ways of predicting and controlling the beginnings of heart disease. The findings suggest that a similar approach could one day be used to restore order to disrupted heart cells.

Christopher George, a molecular cardiologist from the Cardiff University School of Medicine, describes healthy hearts as being totally dependent on the synchronization of huge networks of cells working together for a common purpose. He says disease, on the other hand, can be defined as a loss of synchronicity whereby communication between individual cells is either very poor or lost altogether.

The ‘butterfly effect’

“Much like a murmuration of starlings in flight, the synchronization and behavior of thousands of birds gives rise to complex patterns that also have an amazing simplicity to them,” explains George.

“If a few birds don’t conform to these patterns, it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference—the overall collective behavior would remain.

“As in the butterfly effect, small changes can lead to drastic changes: if, over time, more birds become uncoupled from the dominant flight pattern, either a new pattern of communication would emerge, or the entire network would collapse into disarray.

“Our research shows that this is what happens to human cells in heart disease: the well-ordered behavior of coupled cells unravels and the synchronization is lost. Along this route though, there are points at which it is possible to halt, or reverse, this de-synchronization. We call these the ‘crisis points.'”

Dimitris Parthimos, a mathematician based in the university’s Wales Heart Research Institute, developed the mathematical models that were used to perform the computer simulations.

“In knowing how to decode the patterns of cell communication, we can now begin using this information to design new ways of modulating cell behavior, to delay the onset of heart disease, and ultimately develop methods to reverse the process if disease is already established,” says Parthimos.

“Since all organs within the human body depend on communication networks built by cell-to-cell coupling, this work has implications for other diseases from cancer and neurodegeneration to diabetes.”

Finding the ‘crisis points’

According to the paper, the behavior of cell networks, called “arrays,” conforms to a branch of mathematics known as non-linear dynamics—also known as “the butterfly effect.”

It has two key features:

  • If a sufficiently detailed picture of cell signaling can be constructed then the outcome of cell behavior, in response to a “crisis point,” can be predicted.
  • If scientists understand the nature of these crisis points, which trigger the progression of disease, it should be possible to reverse it.

“Everything we are and everything that we do results from well-orchestrated biological signals or—’switches’—that use very few components,” explains George.

“What we’re trying to do now is to identify the ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches that turn health into disease, so as to understand the very early events that cause disease. This will help make it possible to intervene early, even before symptoms appear. We can then look to design ‘switches’ that turn disease back into health.”

The research team envisions that developments in imaging technologies will soon help to construct detailed 3D maps of entire human hearts, giving them an even more accurate picture of how heart cells communicate with each other, and the telltale signs of when things go wrong.

The findings are published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF), the Wellcome Trust, Heart Research UK, the Cardiac Research Development Fund, and Ser Cymru’s Engineering National Research Network (NRN) supported the work.

Source: Cardiff University

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