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Mutant worms gorge on sugar and stay lean

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 06:51

Worms with a specific genetic mutation can consume incredible amounts of sugar without gaining any weight, while regular worms balloon on the same diet.

So far, the research has focused solely on the worm Caenorhabditis elegans and human cells in a petri dish—but the same genetic pathway is found in almost all animals from yeast to humans.

Sean Curran of the University of Southern California, who led the research, plans to test his findings in mice.

“The high-sugar diet that the bacteria ate was the equivalent of a human eating the Western diet,” Curran says, referring to the diet favored by the Western world, characterized by high-fat and high-sugar foods.

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The mutant worms have a hyperactive SKN-1 gene, which also exists in humans, where it is called Nrf2. Curran says this suggests the findings might translate.

The Nrf2 protein, a “transcription factor” that binds to a specific sequence of DNA to control the ability of cells to detox or repair damage when exposed to chemically reactive oxygen (a common threat to cells’ well being), has been well studied in mammals.

Pharmaceutical companies have already worked to develop small-molecule drugs that target Nrf2, in hopes that it will produce more antioxidants and slow aging.

Cancer risk

Though the promise of a pill to help control your body’s response to food is enticing, it is not without risk, Curran notes. Increased Nrf2 function has been linked to aggressive cancers.

“Perhaps it is a matter of timing and location,” Curran adds. “If we can acutely activate Nrf2 in specific tissues when needed then maybe we can take advantage of its potential benefits.”

The National Institutes of Healtj, the Ellison Medical Foundation, and the American Federation of Aging Research funded the work, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: USC

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Going solo raises more money for charity

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 06:48

Researchers have developed a fundraising formula for generating the most online donations for charity events. Two key components are going it alone and setting targets.

Economist Kimberley Scharf, a professor at the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick, led a team who analyzed data from the online fundraising site JustGiving to discover what determines fundraising success.

The working paper finds that people fundraising on their own for individual events rather than mass charity-organized events attracted more donations and raised more money overall. She also found setting a fundraising target made a difference to the total raised.

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“We found on average lone fundraisers receive 25 donations and raise £853 ($1,361),” says Scharf.

“People taking part in a mass event receive 22 donations and raise £588 ($938). However, those who are taking part in mass charity-organized events fare the worst, on average they receive 16 donations and raise £439 ($700).

“One reason for this could be that people perceive a lone fundraiser as being more committed to the cause so are more likely to donate. Interestingly, lone fundraisers are also the least likely to take part in further fundraising activity, which could reflect the amount of effort that goes into this kind of activity.”

Scharf also discovered that setting a fundraising target encouraged donors to give more.

She said: “Most fundraising pages have a target, around 80 percent and the typical target is around £350 ($559). The data shows that pages with a target raise significantly more than pages without, on average around £122 ($195) more.

“It is not clear whether this difference is because people who want to raise more money set targets, and devote more effort to fundraising, or because targets have a positive effect on how much people give.”

Scharf suggests that although donors will donate more to reach the target, they will also give an average of $8 less once the target has been reached.

“This suggests one possible strategy is for donors to set, and raise, successive targets to maintain levels of donations,” she adds.

“We get bombarded by friends and work colleagues who have set up JustGiving pages for all kinds of fundraising activities. It is fascinating to look at the data behind these pages and get a clear idea of what motivates us to give to charity and how we choose to donate.”

Source: University of Warwick

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Hybrid ‘dots’ offer cheaper way to run fuel cells

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 06:13

Last year chemist James Tour made graphene quantum dots from coal. Now his team has combined the dots with tiny sheets of graphene.

The result is a hybrid material that could make it much cheaper to generate energy with fuel cells.

The lab discovered boiling down a solution of graphene quantum dots (GQDs) and graphene oxide sheets (exfoliated from common graphite) yielded self-assembling nanoscale platelets that could then be treated with nitrogen and boron.

A typical nanoplatelet as seen under an electron microscope. (Credit: Tour Group/Rice University)

This image shows the rough surface of a graphene quantum dot/graphene nanoplatelet before modification with nitrogen and boron. (Credit: Tour Group/Rice University)

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The hybrid material combined the advantages of each component: an abundance of edges where chemical reactions take place and excellent conductivity between GQDs provided by the graphene base. The boron and nitrogen collectively add more catalytically active sites to the material than either element would add alone.

“The GQDs add to the system an enormous amount of edge, which permits the chemistry of oxygen reduction, one of the two needed reactions for operation in a fuel cell,” Tour says. “The graphene provides the conductive matrix required. So it’s a superb hybridization.”

The material outperformed commercial platinum/carbon hybrids commonly found in fuel cells. The material showed an oxygen reduction reaction of about 15 millivolts more in positive onset potential–the start of the reaction–and 70 percent larger current density than platinum-based catalysts.

The materials required to make the flake-like hybrids are much cheaper, too, Tour says.

“The efficiency is better than platinum in terms of oxygen reduction, permitting one to sidestep the most prohibitive hurdle in fuel-cell generation—the cost of the precious metal,” he adds.

The research is the subject of a new paper in the journal ACS Nano.

The Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research supported the work.

Source: Rice University

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Kids tend to buy a Ford if their parents drive one

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 05:35

Automakers may want to pay closer attention to the influence parents have on their children’s car-buying habits.

New research suggests children are 39 percent more likely to buy a particular brand of automobile if their parents bought that brand.

This surprisingly strong correlation could have implications for automakers’ marketing efforts. In absence of this inherited brand loyalty, a sensible strategy might be to “invest in young consumers and harvest old consumers”–that is, lower prices on entry-level vehicles to attract young people and then raise prices on higher-end vehicles once they’re hooked on the brand.

But if young buyers are coming to auto showrooms already loyal to a brand, thanks to their parents, manufacturers might consider upping prices on entry-level vehicles. Conversely, more incentives could be offered on sport utility vehicles and other high-end vehicles to snag more older customers–and, eventually, their children.

“In theory, these findings could change the way automakers price and market their cars,” says Michigan State University economist Soren Anderson.

It’s all about the brand

The researchers studied the national survey responses related to auto ownership of more than 4,300 adult children matched to nearly 2,600 parents. Survey data from the families were collected every two years from 1999 to 2011.

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Preferences were broken down into auto brands that include General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda.

Parents and children tend to share characteristics–such as making similar amounts of money and living in the same area–and this can influence what they buy. Anderson says the study took this into account by controlling for where people live, along with income, age, education, gender, and family size.

“Is this really about the cars or could it be other factors, like parents and children tending to be more similar to each other than other people?” Anderson says. “We’re pretty sure it has something to do with the cars themselves.”

The study will appear in the Journal of Industrial Economics.

Anderson’s co-authors are Ryan Kellogg from the University of Michigan, Ashley Langer from the University of Arizona, and James Sallee from the University of Chicago.

Source: Michigan State University

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Will some coral ‘win’ in a warmer ocean?

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 05:33

While warmer ocean temperatures pose a threat to many coral species, scientists say it’s not all bad news for the world’s coral reefs.

A group of researchers took a closer look at future changes in coral reefs as ocean temperatures continue to rise. According to their analysis, there will be winners and losers.

A subset of the present coral fauna will likely populate the world’s oceans as water temperatures continue to rise, they say.

To simulate future outcomes, the researchers analyzed contemporary and fossil coral reef ecosystem data sets from two Caribbean locations in the US Virgin Islands and Belize, and from five Indo-Pacific locations in Moorea, Taiwan, Hawaii, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Kenya.

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“Although many corals are becoming less abundant, there remain a number of species that are holding their own or increasing in abundance and these corals will populate tropical reefs over the next few centuries,” says principal investigator and lead author Peter Edmunds, a biology professor at California State University, Northridge.

The study uses current case studies to describe the events taking place on extant reefs; it also uses fossil records to explain the temporal novelty of the changes affecting the community ecology on these reefs.

The analysis shows that the winning subset coral species is fast-growing, phenotypically smaller and wider, and more stress-resistant. It also readily produces offspring. While this subset of species still supports diversity, a lot is still unknown about its functionality.

“This work is important as it reveals a range of nuanced outcomes for tropical reef corals other than near-complete loss of live coral cover in the face of the current onslaught of environmental assaults,” Edmunds says.

“While it is unlikely future tropical reefs will provide the same ecological goods and services as the coral reefs of the past, our study provides optimism that some reef corals will persist in a warmer and more acidic future.”

The study, published in PLOS ONE, was based at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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Why some teens try drugs but don’t get hooked

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 05:30

Working memory may explain why some young teens are able to experiment with drugs and alcohol without developing substance abuse problems later in life.

Most important in the picture is executive attention, a component of working memory that involves a person’s ability to focus on a task and ignore distractions while processing relevant goal-oriented information, says Atika Khurana, a professor at the University of Oregon.

“Not all forms of early drug use are problematic,” Khurana says. “There could be some individuals who start early, experiment, and then stop. And there are some who could start early and go on into a progressive trajectory of continued drug use. We wanted to know what separates the two?”

The findings, drawn from a long-term study of 382 adolescents in a mostly at-risk urban population, provide a rare, early view of adolescents’ entry into the use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.

Khurana collaborated with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They focused on 11- to 13-year-old children as they began to explore risky and sensation-seeking experiences that often mark the road to independence and adulthood.

Previous studies generally have relied on adult recall of when individuals began experimenting, with early drug use thought to be a marker of later substance abuse problems.

Less impulsive

During four assessments, participants provided self-reports of drug use in the previous 30 days. Four working memory tests also were conducted: Corsi block tapping, in which subjects viewed identical blocks that lit up randomly on a screen and tapped each box in reverse order of the lighting sequence; a digit-span test where numbers shown are to be repeated in reverse order; a letter two-back test, in which subjects identify specific letters in time-sensitive sequences; and a spatial working-memory task where hidden tokens must be found quickly within sets of four to eight randomly positioned boxes on a computer screen.

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The pattern that emerged was that early drug experimentation more likely to lead into progressive drug use among young people whose impulsive tendencies aren’t kept in check by strong working memory ability.

Later assessments of the participants, who have now reached late adolescence, are being analyzed, but it appears that the compulsive progression, not just the experimentation, of drug use is likely to lead to disorder, Khurana says.

“Prefrontal regions of the brain can apply the brakes or exert top-down control over impulsive or reward-seeking urges,” Khurana says. “By its nature, greater executive attention enables one to be less impulsive in one’s decisions and actions because you are focused and able to control impulses generated by events around you.

“What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors.”

How to improve working memory

The findings suggest new approaches for early intervention since weaknesses in executive functioning often underlie self-control issues in children as young as three years old, she says. A family environment strong in structured routines and cognitive-stimulation could strengthen working memory skills, she adds.

For older children, interventions could be built around activities that encourage social competence and problem solving skills in combination with cognition-building efforts to increase self-control and working memory. The latter allows people to temporarily store, organize, and manipulate mental information and is vital for evaluating consequences of decisions.

“We need to compensate for the weakness that exists, before drug experimentation starts to help prevent the negative spiral of drug abuse,” Khurana says.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health, supported the research, which appears in the Journal Development and Psychopathology.

Source: University of Oregon

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Stop cancer from spreading without chemo

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 05:28

Researchers are testing a protein therapy that stops breast and ovarian cancer from metastasizing in mice.

“The majority of patients who succumb to cancer fall prey to metastatic forms of the disease,” says Jennifer Cochran, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.

Today doctors try to use chemotherapy to slow or stop cancer from spreading from the original tumor site to other parts of the body, but these treatments are unfortunately not very effective and have severe side effects.

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The new therapy doesn’t have side effects. It works by preventing two proteins–Axl and Gas6–from interacting to initiate the spread of cancer.

Axl proteins stand like bristles on the surface of cancer cells, poised to receive biochemical signals from Gas6 proteins.

When two Gas6 proteins link with two Axls, the signals that are generated enable cancer cells to leave the original tumor site, migrate to other parts of the body, and form new cancer nodules.

To stop this process Cochran used protein engineering to create a harmless version of Axl that acts like a decoy. This decoy Axl latches on to Gas6 proteins in the bloodstream and prevents them from linking with and activating the Axls present on cancer cells.

Dramatic reductions

In collaboration with Amato Giaccia, professor of radiation oncology, the researchers gave intravenous treatments of this bioengineered decoy protein to mice with aggressive breast and ovarian cancers.

Mice in the breast cancer treatment group had 78 percent fewer metastatic nodules than untreated mice. Mice with ovarian cancer had a 90 percent reduction in metastatic nodules when treated with the engineered decoy protein.

A paper published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology details the results.

“This is a very promising therapy that appears to be effective and nontoxic in preclinical experiments,” Giaccia says. “It could open up a new approach to cancer treatment.”

Giaccia and Cochran are scientific advisors to Ruga Corp., a biotech startup in Palo Alto that has licensed this technology from Stanford. Further preclinical and animal tests must be done before determining whether this therapy is safe and effective in humans.

Source: Stanford University

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Why a deadly drug didn’t hurt lab rat livers

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 13:03

Scientists believe they’ve solved the mystery of why a diabetes drug introduced in 1997 caused fatal liver failure in 63 patients.

Their discovery makes it likely that similar drug-related deaths can be prevented in the future.

In 1997, troglitazone was approved for use in the United States as one of the first drugs designed to treat type 2 diabetes. It was withdrawn from the market in 2000 after 63 people died from liver failure after taking it.

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No one at the time really understood what happened. In preclinical studies using rats, there was no sign of danger to the liver. During human trials, adverse effects from the drug were characterized as rare and relatively mild. There were some hints at the potential for liver damage, but they weren’t enough to prevent approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Rats didn’t have a problem handling the drug, and the human trials weren’t large enough for the true risk of liver injury to become apparent,” says Paul Watkins, coauthor of the study and professor of medicine and pharmacy at University of North Carolina. He is the director of the Hamner-UNC Institute for Drug Safety Sciences.

“Once the drug was given to a larger population that contained patients unable to properly process the drug, people started to turn yellow and die of liver failure.”

Were bile acids to blame?

The research team at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy used DILIsym, a computer program designed to predict how drugs will affect the liver. The team combined information about troglitazone with data specific to the human liver generated in the lab of senior author Kim Brouwer, a professor at the pharmacy school.

In a simulated population, the model successfully predicted that rare patients would develop life-threatening liver injury while also suggesting what factors make these patients susceptible. The team’s findings are published online in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

“The simulation we used was able to predict the effects that were seen in patients who actually took troglitazone when it was on the market,” says Kyunghee Yang, lead author of the study. “In addition to this, the model was also able to describe the mechanisms that may have caused the liver damage.”

The researchers cite the accumulation of bile acids, substances produced by the liver that promote digestion and aid in the absorption of fats, as the most likely suspect in the deaths.

“Bile acids are like detergents,” Yang says. “If they accumulate in the liver, they can cause cell death. Increased bile acid concentrations in the liver may lead to liver damage. This is one of the possible mechanisms we proposed.”

Beyond animal testing

The study shows that a computer model could accurately forecast the occurrence of troglitazone-induced liver injury. The model also predicted that rats respond differently to the drug than humans, a critical insight as animal testing precedes human trials.

“Before DILIsym, no one had been able to completely explain troglitazone liver injury or suggest improved approaches so drug companies could avoid similar problems in the future,” Brouwer says.

“It turns out that animals do a poor job predicting human drug-induced liver injury. There are lots of explanations, but one important reason is that bile acids are different in each species. Recent data suggest that the use of humanized systems has greater predictive power for adverse events like DILI.”

Drug-induced liver injury is the most common reason drug-development programs are terminated. It is also the leading cause of regulatory actions that lead to failed or stalled drug approvals, market withdrawals, usage restrictions, and warnings to physicians, Watkins says.

“Rare liver toxicity is now the major safety concern with new drugs and can often be detected only after many thousands of patients have received treatment,” Watkins says. “We believe that the application of DILIsym will greatly improve drug safety while minimizing animal testing and reducing the costs of new medicines.”

The DILIsym software is the result of the DILI-sim Initiative, a partnership between the Hamner-UNC Institute for Drug Safety Sciences and fourteen major drug companies that shared data to develop a tool that can predict a drug’s risk of injuring the liver.

Kyunghee Yang is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Hamner Institutes. Paul Watkins is chairman of the DILI-sim Scientific Advisory Board. Kim Brouwer is chair of the Division of Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Funding for the study came from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill

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Osteoporosis drug may shield bones from breast cancer

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 09:05

A common treatment for osteoporosis appears to improve survival rates for women with breast cancer by slowing bone metastasis.

“Skeletal metastases develop in up to 70 percent of women who die from breast cancer,” says Richard Kremer, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and co-lead author of the study. “This causes considerable suffering and is life-threatening. Preventing this could translate into saving a significant number of lives.”

Kremer and co-lead author Nancy Mayo worked with colleagues to evaluate data from more than 21,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer.

The relationship between use of oral bisphosphonates, a common osteoporosis medication, and development of bone metastases after diagnosis with breast cancer was evaluated in two groups of women: those with early stage, localized, cancer and those whose cancer had spread to lymph nodes.

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Women with early stage breast cancer who had taken oral bisphosphonates, either before or after diagnosis of their cancer, had a reduced risk of bone metastasis, their findings show. In addition, women with later stage cancer, who took oral bisphosphonates post-diagnosis, also had a significantly reduced risk of bone metastasis.

The researchers also established a dose-response relationship with oral bisphophonate use in women with local disease: longer time spent on bisphophonate medication resulted in a greater reduction of bone metastases.

Their findings are reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

“Our study is novel in that it mainly involved women who were post-menopausal and in whom bone-turnover is high due to osteoporosis,” says Kremer. “We believe that this process results in an environment that is favorable for tumor cell growth and consequent metastasis.

“We know that bisphosphonates work by slowing down this bone-turnover. This will, in turn, make it harder for tumor cells to establish in the bone and may explain why we saw such a decline in metastasis.”

Mayo says the association between the medication and improved survival merits further investigation. “Ours was an epidemiological study, involving a large number of women strengthening the importance of the findings.

“However, clinical interventional studies are needed before the results can be translated into standard clinical practice and guidelines.”

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Initiative, the Quebec Network for Research on Drug Use, the Fonds de recherche du Québec–Santé, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation supported the work.

Source: McGill University

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Are houses by the highway a public health risk?

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 09:02

The closer a post-menopausal woman lives to a major roadway, the greater her risk of high blood pressure, according to new research.

The finding, which accounts for a wide variety of possible confounding factors, adds to concerns that traffic exposure may present public health risks.

Working in the the San Diego metropolitan area, researchers discovered that women who lived within 100 meters (328 feet) of a highway or major arterial road had a 22 percent greater risk of hypertension than women who lived at least 1,000 meters away (just over half a mile).

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In a range of intermediate distances, hypertension risk rose with proximity to the roadways.

Put in epidemiological terms, a 58-year-old woman in the study who lived close to a major road had the blood pressure risk of a 60-year-old woman who lived far from one.

Hypertension is an underlying factor for some cardiovascular diseases. For that reason, the increased likelihood of hypertension reported in the new study may help explain prior findings of associations between proximity to major roadways and cardiovascular diseases such as stroke.

A few studies, mostly in Europe, have also tested the association between roadway proximity and hypertension, but results have been mixed.

“I think in the United States this study does tip the scale in favor of being concerned about the urban environment and how we develop our cities and our transportation systems,” says corresponding author Gregory Wellenius, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health.

“There are a lot of new developments going up right near highways. One has to start thinking about what are the associated health effects with that.”

Food deserts and other factors

The study data comes from the Women’s Health Initiative, a study funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute that enrolled tens of thousands of participants in the mid 1990s including more than 5,600 in San Diego County.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, gathered data on a wide variety of personal health and demographic measures, including where participating women lived, their blood pressure, and other key attributes.

Wellenius, lead author and graduate student Kipruto Kirwa, and their coauthors took this dataset and used mapping software to measure the distance from each woman’s home to a major roadway.

They also consulted a database to determine each neighborhood’s abundance of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants to determine who lived in a so-called “food desert” where unhealthy food options were relatively many and healthier ones relatively few.

Pollution, noise, or something else?

They then looked at the association between the prevalence of high blood pressure and distance from the highway (in ranges of less than or exactly 100 meters, between 100 and 200 meters, 200 to 1,000 meters, and more than 1,000 meters).

In three levels of analysis, the researchers controlled for more and more possible confounding factors. In all, they controlled for age, ethnicity, smoking status, education, household income, cholesterol, body-mass index, diabetes history, physical activity level, and local food quality.

After all that, they found the odds of hypertension were 1.22 to 1 for those living closest, 1.13 to 1 for those between 100 and 200 meters, and 1.05 to 1 for those between 200 and 1000 meters from a major roadway. These odds are indexed such that 1 represents the prevalence risk of those living more than 1,000 meters from a major roadway.

Wellenius acknowledges that because the study only measured who had hypertension and where they lived at one moment in time, it does not necessarily show a causal link. The study also does not shed light on what specifically about proximity to the road could cause hypertension.

It could be airborne pollutants or noise or both—or something else. But prior studies have shown specific physiological effects from pollution and noise that could have direct causal relevance to cardiovascular disease.

Wellenius cautions that hypertension, even when treated, still carries an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. The best policy, he says, is therefore prevention.

“The public health message is that we need to take into consideration the health of the population when planning neighborhoods, when planning transportation systems, and when deciding where new highways are going to go, and how we might be able to mitigate traffic or its effects,” Wellenius says.

Additional coauthors contributed from Brown, Arizona State University, and the University of California, San Diego.

Grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, from the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institutes of Health, and Brown University funded the study.

Source: Brown University

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Google Glass software adds captions to conversation

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 08:20

New speech-to-text software for Google Glass can help hard-of-hearing people with everyday conversations.

A hard-of-hearing person wears Glass while a second person speaks directly into a smartphone. The speech is converted to text, sent to Glass, and displayed on its heads-up display.

A group in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing created the Glassware when one of its own said he was having trouble hearing and thought Glass could help him.

“This system allows wearers like me to focus on the speaker’s lips and facial gestures,” says Jim Foley, computing professor in the Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing.

“If hard-of-hearing people understand the speech, the conversation can continue immediately without waiting for the caption. However, if I miss a word, I can glance at the transcription, get the word or two I need, and get back into the conversation.”

Captioning on Glass lets one person talk into a phone. The text is then visible to the other person on Glass. (Credit: Georgia Tech)

Fewer ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’

Foley’s colleague, Professor Thad Starner, leads the Contextual Computing Group working on the project. He says using a smartphone with Glass has several benefits as compared to using Glass by itself.

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“Glass has its own microphone, but it’s designed for the wearer,” says Starner, who is also a technical lead for Glass. “The mobile phone puts a microphone directly next to the speaker’s mouth, reducing background noise and helping to eliminate errors.”

Starner says the phone-to-Glass system is helpful because speakers are more likely to construct their sentences more clearly, avoiding “uhs” and “ums.” However, if captioning errors are sent to Glass, the smartphone software also allows the speaker to edit the mistakes, which sends the changes to the person wearing the device.

“The smartphone uses the Android transcription API to convert the audio to text,” says Jay Zuerndorfer, the Georgia Tech computer science graduate student who developed the software. “The text is then streamed to Glass in real time.”

Captioning on Glass is currently available to install from MyGlass. More information and support can be found at the project website here.

Foley and the students are working with the Association of Late Deafened Adults in Atlanta to improve the program.

Designed for friends

The same group is also working on a second project, Translation on Glass, that uses the same smartphone-Glass Bluetooth connection process to capture sentences spoken into the smartphone, translate them to another language, and send them to Glass.

The only difference is that the person wearing Glass, after reading the translation, can reply. The response is translated back to the original language on the smartphone. Two-way translations are currently available for English, Spanish, French, Russian, Korean, and Japanese.

“For both uses, the person wearing Glass has to hand their smartphone to someone else to begin a conversation,” says Starner.

“It’s not ideal for strangers, but we designed the program to be used among friends, trusted acquaintances, or while making purchases.”

The group is working to get Translation on Glass ready for the public.

Source: Georgia Tech

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Giant clams use ‘gems’ to harvest sunlight

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 08:12

Scientists say they’ve uncovered the utility of the amazing iridescent structures on giant clams.

The structures, known as iridocytes, filter sunlight. That sunlight feeds the symbiotic algae that grow inside clams.

“Many mollusks, like squid, octopuses, snails, and cuttlefish have iridescent structures, but almost all use them for camouflage or for signaling to mates. We knew giant clams weren’t doing either of those things, so we wanted to know what they were using them for,” says Alison Sweeney, an assistant professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Pennsylvania.

These algae convert the abundant sunlight of the clams’ equatorial home into a source of nutrition but are not particularly efficient in the intense sunlight found on tropical reefs; sunlight at the latitude where these clams live is so intense that it can disrupt the algae’s photosynthesis, paradoxically reducing their ability to generate energy.

Scatter sunlight

The team members began their study hypothesizing that the clams’ iridocytes were being used to maximize the usefulness of the light that reaches the algae within their bodies. They were first confounded by the relationship between these iridescent structures and the single-celled plants, until they realized that they had an incomplete picture of their geometry.

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When they made more precise cross sections of the clams, they found that the algae were organized into pillars, with a layer of iridocytes at the top.

“When we saw the complete picture, we understood that the pillars are oriented exactly the wrong way if you want to catch sunlight,” Sweeney says. “That’s where the iridocytes come into play.”

The team relied on Penn’s Amanda Holt, a postdoctoral researcher formerly at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as Sanaz Vahidinia, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, to model exactly what was happening to the light once it passed through the iridocytes; the degree of disorder within these cells bore a resemblance to structures Vahidinia studies at NASA: the dust of Saturn’s rings.

Their analysis suggested that the iridocytes would scatter many wavelengths of light in a cone-like distribution pointing deeper into the clam.

Red and blue wavelengths, the most useful to the algae, spread the widest, impacting the sides of the pillars in which the single-celled plants were stacked.

Fiber optic probes

To test this model, the team constructed fiber optic probes with spherical tips the size of an individual alga. Threaded through a section of clam flesh alongside the native algae, this spherical probe was able to detect the angled light scattered by the iridocytes, whereas a flat-tipped probe, only able to sense light shining straight down, detected nothing.

“We see that, at any vertical position within the clam tissue, the light comes in at just about the highest rate at which these algae can make use of photons most efficiently,” Sweeney says. “The entire system is scaled so the algae absorb light exactly at the rate where they are happiest.”

“This provides a gentle, uniform illumination to the vertical pillars consisting of the millions of symbiotic algae that provide nutrients to their animal host by photosynthesis,” adds Morse. “The combined effect of the deeper penetration of sunlight—reaching more algae that grow densely in the 3-dimensional volume of tissue—and the “step-down” reduction in light intensity—preventing the inhibition of photosynthesis from excessive irradiation—enables the host to support a much larger population of active algae producing food than possible without the reflective cells.”

Better solar cells

Mimicking the micron-scale structures within the clam’s iridocytes and algal pillars could lead to new approaches for boosting the efficiency of photovoltaic cells without having to precisely engineer structures on the nanoscale.

Other alternative energy strategies might adopt lessons from the clams in a more direct way: current bioreactors are inefficient because they must constantly stir the algae to keep them exposed to light as they grow and take up more and more space.

Adopting the geometry of the iridocytes and algal pillars within the clams would be a way of circumventing that issue.

“The clam has to make every square inch count when it comes to efficiency,” Sweeney says. “Likewise, all of our alternatives are very expensive when it comes to surface area, so it makes sense to try to solve that problem the way evolution has.”

The Army Research Office and the Office of Naval Research supported the research. Yakir Luc Gagnon of Duke University collaborated on the study, which was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Sources: Penn and UC Santa Barbara

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Bug ‘transformers’ lead to more new species

Fri, 10/03/2014 - 06:45

Insects that go through metamorphosis—such as caterpillars that turn into butterflies—diversify faster than others do, report researchers. The metamorphosing group is therefore the biggest contributor to the evolution of insect diversity.

David Nicholson, a former PhD student at the University of York, put together a database of 1,500 fossil families, a third of which are entirely new to the record since 1993. This fossil catalogue shows timescales of origination and extinction of different families of insects. His findings appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Using this updated fossil record, the researchers found that families of insects that undergo metamorphosis, a pupal stage separating two different juvenile and adult stages, are less prone to extinction than other insects.

Insects that have metamorphosis include moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), wasps, bees, ants (Hymenoptera), and true flies (Diptera).

The ‘richest’ orders

In addition, PhD student James Rainford created the biggest and most detailed family tree of insects displaying all living groups. It shows the distribution of numbers of species across time in minute detail and supports the overall finding. His work was published yesterday in PLOS ONE.

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The work demonstrates which insect groups have achieved diversity, which again shows that insects that undergo metamorphosis display a greater turnover of species and therefore have a higher rate of diversification.

“An important task is to pin down in which groups of insects the rates of diversification or extinction have changed, and which are therefore responsible for most of their richness,” says Peter Mayhew, a senior lecturer in the biology department who supervised both PhD projects.

“Intuitively, people have long suspected that insects with metamorphosis have experienced different rates of diversification, because the richest insect orders mostly have metamorphosis. However there has been little hard evidence to back this up,” he says.

What’s the perk of metamorphosis?

“Early family trees were not very finely resolved, and could not easily pin down the groups where diversification rates changed,” says Rainford.

“In putting together a dated family tree for the entire group we can, for the first time, view patterns of diversification in a truly global context and test long-standing ideas regarding the processes involved.

“These two analyses, one based only on the living groups and the other on the fossil record, agree about the importance of metamorphosis in the diversification of insect groups. This provides a strong basis for further explorations into the origin of this key part of modern ecosystems.”

These two new datasets will now pave the way for future research into why metamorphosis is important for insect evolution.

“Metamorphosis might reduce extinction, and promote speciation, in a number of different ways,” adds Mayhew. “It might reduce competition between larvae and adults, it might promote dietary specialization, it might reduce development times, it might improve survival in times of hardship, or something else. Future work needs to address this question.”

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded both datasets. Nicholson worked with the Natural History Museum and National Museums Scotland on his portion of the project.

Source: University of York

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Can images prompt us to be impulsive?

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 13:38

Scientists say they can use brain waves to predict snap judgments people make about an image—even when people are not conscious of making such judgments.

Researchers could predict from participants’ brain activity how exciting they found a particular image to be and whether a particular image made them think more about the future or the present. This was true even though the brain activity was recorded before participants knew they were going to be asked to make these judgments.

Lead authors Stefan Bode and Carsten Murawski from the University of Melbourne say these findings illustrate there is more information encoded in brain activity than previously assumed.

They say the results also offer new insights into impulsive behaviors, especially where those behaviors were caused by “prompts” in the world around us.

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The researchers used electroencephalography technology (EEG) to measure the electrical activity of people’s brains while they looked at different pictures. The pictures displayed images of food, social scenes, or status symbols like cars and money.

After the EEG, researchers showed participants the same pictures again and asked questions about each image, such as how exciting they thought the image was or how strongly the image made them think of either the present or the future.

They used a statistical “decoding” technique to predict the judgments participants made about each of the pictures from the EEG brain activity recorded.

Coauthor Daniel Bennett says just as certain prompts might cause impulsive behavior, images also could be used to prompt people to be more patient by regulating impulse control.

“Our results suggest that prompting people with images related to the future might cause processing outside awareness that could make it easier to think about the future. In theory, this could make people less impulsive and more likely to make healthy long-term decisions. These are hypotheses we will try to test in the future,” he adds.

The research was done in collaboration with the University of Cologne, Germany.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Melbourne

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Darwin was right about invasive species

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 11:48

Charles Darwin proposed the “evolutionary imbalance hypothesis” (EIH) to help predict species invasiveness in ecosystems. Now, scientists have tested it using quantifiable evidence and report that it pans out.

The EIH idea is this: Species from regions with deep and diverse evolutionary histories are more likely to become successful invaders in regions with less deep, less diverse evolutionary histories.

To predict the probability of invasiveness, ecologists can quantify the imbalance between the evolutionary histories of “donor” and “recipient” regions as Dov Sax of Brown University and Jason Fridley of Syracuse University have demonstrated in several examples. The findings appear in Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Darwin’s idea

Darwin’s original insight was that the more challenges a region’s species have faced in their evolution, the more robust they’ll be in new environments.

“As natural selection acts by competition, it adapts the inhabitants of each country only in relation to the degree of perfection of their associates,” Darwin wrote in 1859.

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Better-tested species, such as those from larger regions, he reasoned, have “consequently been advanced through natural selection and competition to a higher stage of perfection or dominating power.”

To Sax and Fridley the explanatory power of EIH suggests that when analyzing invasiveness, ecologists should add historical evolutionary imbalance to the other factors they consider.

“Invasion biology is well-studied now, but this is never listed there even though Darwin basically spelled it out,” says Sax, associate of ecology and evolutionary biology. “It certainly hasn’t been tested before. We think this is a really important part of the story.”

Advancing Darwin’s insight from idea to hypothesis required determining a way to test it against measurable evidence. The ideal data would encapsulate a region’s population size and diversity, relative environmental stability and habitat age, and the intensity of competition.

Sax and Fridley found a suitable proxy: “phylogenetic diversity” (PD), an index of how many unique lineages have developed in a region over the time of their evolution.

“All else equal, our expectation is that biotas represented by lineages of greater number or longer evolutionary history should be more likely to have produced a more optimal solution to a given environmental problem, and it is this regional disparity, approximated by PD, that allows predictions of global invasion patterns,” they write.

Putting it to the test

Using detailed databases on plant species in 35 regions of the world, they looked at the relative success of those species’ invasiveness in three well-documented destinations: Eastern North America, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

They found that in all three regions, the higher the PD of a species’ native region, the more likely it was to become invasive in its new home. The size of the effect varied among the three regions, which have different evolutionary histories, but it was statistically clear that plants forged in rough neighborhoods were better able to bully their way into a new region than those from evolutionarily more “naive” areas.

Sax and Fridley conducted another test of the EIH in animals by looking at cases where marine animals were suddenly able to mix after they became united by canals.

The EIH predicts that an imbalance of evolutionary robustness between the sides would allow a species-rich region to dominate a less diverse one on the other side of the canal by even more than a mere random mixing would suggest.

The idea has a paleontological precedent. When the Bering land bridge became the Bering Strait, it offered marine mollusks a new polar path between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Previous research has shown that more kinds of mollusks successfully migrated from the diverse Pacific to the less diverse Atlantic than vice-versa, and by more so than by their relative abundance.

In the new paper, Sax and Fridley examined what has happened since the openings of the Suez Canal in Egypt, the Erie Canal in New York, and the Panama Canal. The vastly greater evolutionary diversity in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean compared to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic led to an overwhelming flow of species north through the Suez.

But evolutionary imbalances across the Erie and Panama Canals were fairly small (the Panama canal connects freshwater drainages of the Atlantic and Pacific that were much more ecologically similar than the oceans) so as EIH again predicts, there was a more even balance of cross-canal species invasions.

Not all invasions are bad

Sax and Fridley acknowledge in the paper that the EIH does not singlehandedly predict the success of individual species in specific invasions. Instead it allows for ecosystem managers to assess a relative invasiveness risk based on the evolutionary history of their ecosystem and that of other regions. Take, for instance, a wildlife official in a historically isolated ecosystem such as an island.

“They already know to be worried, but this would suggest they should be more worried about imports from some parts of the world than others,” Sax says.

Not all invasions are bad, Sax notes. Newcomers can provide some ecosystem services—such as erosion control—more capably if they can become established.

The EIH can help in assessments of whether a new wave of potential invasion is likely to change the way an ecosystem will provide its services, for better or worse.

“It might help to explain why non-natives in some cases might improve ecosystem functioning,” Sax says.

Source: Brown University

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You’ll walk faster if you focus on a target

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 09:46

If you walk for exercise, researchers say you’ll walk faster if you focus on a specific target in the distance. Doing so makes the distance to it appear shorter.

“People are less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which can happen when distances to be walked appear quite long,” explains New York University’s Emily Balcetis, an assistant professor in the psychology department and one of the study’s coauthors.

“These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster, and also makes exercising seem easier.”

The study, which appears in the journal Motivation and Emotion, focused on “attentional narrowing,” which affects perceptions of space. The researchers hypothesized that narrowing attention on a finish line would lead it to appear closer, increase walking speed, and reduce feelings of physical exertion.

How fit people see distance

Related research previously conducted in Balcetis’ lab and published last year found that people who are overweight see distances as farther than those who are average weight, especially when they are not very motivated to exercise.

“People are gaining weight at alarming rates,” Balcetis says. “More than 1.4 billion adults and 40 million kids under the age of five are overweight or obese worldwide. And in America, obesity rates have almost tripled in the last 30 years. Attentional narrowing might help people exercise more effectively because it makes physical activity look easier.”

The new research found that attentional narrowing acts as an intervention, changing perceptions of distance, so that all people can see the distances in ways that fit people see it.

Focus on the cooler

In the Motivation and Emotion paper, the researchers conducted two experiments.

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In the first, the study’s subjects—66 adults visiting a New York City park in the summer—stood 12 feet away from an open cooler, which contained cold beverages and ice. The experimenter explained to participants that they would estimate the distance to the cooler.

One set of subjects was randomly assigned to a narrowed-attention condition in which they imagined that a spotlight was shining only on the cooler. They learned that to be effective at estimating distance, they should direct and focus their attention on the cooler and avoid looking around the environment.

The second set of subjects was assigned to the natural attention condition and was instructed to allow their attention to move naturally and in whatever way they found to be most helpful for estimating distance.

Subjects who focused their attention only on the cooler perceived the cooler as closer than did those in the natural attention group.

Add ankle weights

In a second experiment, the researchers used this intervention to change perceptions of distance and improve the quality of exercise. Here, 73 participants walked 20 feet in a gymnasium while wearing ankle weights that added 15 percent to their body weight, thus making the task more challenging than unfettered walking.

As in the first experiment, one set of participants received the narrowed attention instructions (they were asked to focus on a traffic cone marking a finish line) and the other set received the natural attention condition (they were told to glance at the cone as well as look at their surroundings). Each group then completed the walking test while being timed by the experimenters.

The results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that attentional narrowing changed perceptions of distance, speed of walking, and perceived effort.

Those in the narrowed attention group perceived the cones to be 28 percent closer than did those in the natural condition group. In addition, those in the narrowed attention group walked 23 percent faster than did those in the natural attention group.

Finally, those in the narrowed attention group reported that the walk required less physical exertion than did those in the natural condition group—a finding that may serve as an incentive to exercise.

The research team included Shana Cole, an NYU doctoral student at the time of the study and now an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, and Matthew Riccio, an undergraduate at NYU’s College of Arts and Science.

Source: NYU

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Double ‘twist’ radio waves send data faster

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 09:14

In the past, scientists have twisted light to send data super fast, but new research shows that a similar technique with radio waves can also reach high speeds.

The new approach also avoids some of the hassles that can go with optical systems.

The researchers reached data transmission rates of 32 gigabits per second across 2.5 meters of free space in a basement lab at the University of Southern California.

For reference, 32 gigabits per second is fast enough to transmit more than 10 hour-and-a-half-long HD movies in one second and is 30 times faster than LTE wireless.

“Not only is this a way to transmit multiple spatially collocated radio data streams through a single aperture, it is also one of the fastest data transmission via radio waves that has been demonstrated,” says study leader Alan Willner, electrical engineering professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Faster data transmission rates have been achieved—Willner himself led a team two years ago that twisted light beams to transmit data at a blistering 2.56 terabits per second—but methods to do so rely on light to carry the data.

“The advantage of radio is that it uses wider, more robust beams. Wider beams are better able to cope with obstacles between the transmitter and the receiver, and radio is not as affected by atmospheric turbulence as optics,” Willner says.

To achieve the high transmission rates, the team took a page from Willner’s previous work and twisted radio beams together.

They passed each beam—which carried its own independent stream of data—through a “spiral phase plate” that twisted each radio beam into a unique and orthogonal DNA-like helical shape. A receiver at the other end of the room then untwisted and recovered the different data streams.

“This technology could have very important applications in ultra-high-speed links for the wireless ‘backhaul’ that connects base stations of next-generation cellular systems,” says Andy Molisch, who co-designed and co-supervised the study with Willner.

Future research will focus on attempting to extend the transmission’s range and capabilities.

Willner is the corresponding author of an article about the research in Nature Communications. Additional coauthors come from USC, the University of Glasgow, and Tel Aviv University.

The Intel Labs University Research Office and the DARPA InPho (Information in a Photon) Program supported the work.

Source: USC

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How to train a baby to learn language faster

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 08:12

Brain scans show that training babies to distinguish language sounds from other sounds can speed up development in parts of the brain that are central to language skills.

Researchers taught 4-month-old babies to pay attention to increasingly complex non-language audio patterns by rewarding them for correctly shifting their eyes to a video reward when the sound changed slightly.

Their brain scans at 7 months old showed they were faster and more accurate at detecting other sounds important to language than babies who had not been exposed to the sound patterns.

The findings are detailed in a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“Young babies are constantly scanning the environment to identify sounds that might be language,” says April Benasich, who directs the Infancy Studies Laboratory at Rutgers.

“This is one of their key jobs—as between 4 and 7 months of age they are setting up their pre-linguistic acoustic maps. We gently guided the babies’ brains to focus on the sensory inputs which are most meaningful to the formation of these maps.”

Just like driving a car

Acoustic maps are pools of interconnected brain cells that an infant brain constructs to allow it to decode language both quickly and automatically—and well-formed maps allow faster and more accurate processing of language, a function that is critical to optimal cognitive functioning.

Benasich says babies of this particular age may be ideal for this kind of training.

“If you shape something while the baby is actually building it,” she says, “it allows each infant to build the best possible auditory network for his or her particular brain. This provides a stronger foundation for any language (or languages) the infant will be learning.

“Compare the baby’s reactions to language cues to an adult driving a car. You don’t think about specifics like stepping on the gas or using the turn signal. You just perform them. We want the babies’ recognition of any language-specific sounds they hear to be just that automatic.”

Pay attention

Benasich says she was able to accelerate and optimize the construction of babies’ acoustic maps, as compared to those of infants who either passively listened or received no training, by rewarding the babies with a brief colorful video when they responded to changes in the rapidly varying sound patterns.

The sound changes could take just tens of milliseconds, and became more complex as the training progressed.

“While playing this fun game we can convey to the baby, ‘Pay attention to this. This is important. Now pay attention to this. This is important,'” says Benasich, “This process helps the baby to focus tightly on sounds in the environment that ‘may’ have critical information about the language they are learning.

“Previous research has shown that accurate processing of these tens-of-milliseconds differences in infancy is highly predictive of the child’s language skills at 3, 4, and 5 years.”

Baby geniuses?

The EEG (electroencephalogram) scans showed the babies’ brains processed sound patterns with increasing efficiency at 7 months of age after six weekly training sessions. The research team will follow these infants through 18 months of age to see whether they retain and build upon these abilities with no further training.

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That outcome would suggest to Benasich that once the child’s earliest acoustic maps are formed in the most optimal way, the benefits will endure.

Benasich says this training has the potential to advance the development of typically developing babies as well as children at higher risk for developmental language difficulties. For parents who think this might turn their babies into geniuses, the answer is—not necessarily.

Benasich compares the process of enhancing acoustic maps to some people’s wishes to be taller.

“There’s a genetic range to how tall you become—perhaps you have the capacity to be 5’6″ to 5’9″,” she explains. “If you get the right amounts and types of food, the right environment, the right exercise, you might get to 5’9″ but you wouldn’t be 6 feet. The same principle applies here.”

Benasich says it’s very likely that one day parents at home will be able to use an interactive toy-like device—now under development—to mirror what she accomplished in the baby lab and maximize their babies’ potential.

For the 8 to 15 percent of infants at highest risk for poor acoustic processing and subsequent delayed language, this baby-friendly behavioral intervention could have far-reaching implications and may offer the promise of improving or perhaps preventing language difficulties.

Source: Rutgers

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Acupuncture fails test for chronic knee pain

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 07:17

Acupuncture doesn’t offer any benefit for moderate or severe chronic knee pain in people over 50, according to a recent clinical trial.

Researchers randomly assigned 282 patients with chronic knee pain to needle acupuncture, laser acupuncture, no acupuncture, or sham (inactive) laser treatment administered by general practitioners.

Treatments lasted for 12 weeks and neither the participants nor the acupuncturists knew whether laser or sham laser acupuncture was taking place.

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There were no significant differences in measures of knee pain and physical function-between active and sham acupuncture at 12 weeks or at one year, says researcher professor Kim Bennell from the Centre for Health, Exercise and Sports Medicine at the University of Melbourne.

“Both needle and laser acupuncture resulted in modest improvements in pain compared with the control group who had no treatment at 12 weeks. However, these results were not maintained at one year,” says Bennell.

“Needle acupuncture improved physical function at 12 weeks compared with the control but was not different from sham acupuncture and was not maintained at one year,” she says.

Other secondary outcomes, such as quality of life or general change, showed no difference in feeling. Needle acupuncture improved pain during walking at 12 weeks but this improvement did not last one year.

Chronic knee pain affects many people older than 50 years and is the most common pain concern among older people who consult general practitioners.

Drug-free approaches such as physical activity and exercise are important in managing chronic knee pain and many patients also use complementary and alternative medicine.

Acupuncture is the most popular of alternative medical systems. Although traditionally administered with needles, laser acupuncture (low-intensity laser therapy to acupuncture points) is a non-invasive alternative with evidence of benefit in some pain conditions.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Source: University of Melbourne

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Autism diagnosis ‘catches up’ for kids in Tanzania

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 07:08

To diagnose autism in Tanzania, researchers adapted several techniques used in the United States so they were culturally relevant and familiar to children and their parents.

There is no autism diagnostic measure validated for use in Swahili, a major language of the region.

“Historically in Tanzania, parents that have sought autism diagnoses had to go to other countries to receive those diagnoses,” says Ashley Johnson Harrison, a former postdoctoral fellow at Brown University who is now an assistant professor at University of Georgia.

Researchers used the new approach to conduct diagnostic evaluations with 41 Tanzanian children who came to clinical facilities in the cities of Moshi and Dar Es Salaam. Using the diagnostic panel, researchers were able to make diagnoses that consistently distinguished kids with autism spectrum disorder from those with other similar disorders.

Developing accurate diagnostic techniques is important because distinguishing between autism spectrum disorders and other conditions can ensure that children receive proper education and treatment, Johnson Harrison says.

Over three decades clinicians have refined diagnostic tools in the United States. Efforts are needed to help Tanzania catch up.

“Initially we only identified the most severe cases of autism,” says Johnson Harrison, who works under the mentorship of Eric Morrow in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown.

“Now we can capture individuals who are all across this spectrum. We are able to accurately diagnose individuals who might have previously fallen through the cracks. Where Tanzania is right now is where we were years ago.”

The research is published online in the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and was presented at a meeting of the International Meeting for Autism Research.

Culturally relevant

The new diagnostic protocol is a blend of established instruments for interviews with parents, observations of behavior and play, and assessments of adaptive functioning and cognition.

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Johnson Harrison chose instruments that would be culturally relevant or adaptable and piloted the approach with the help of Tanzanian clinicians, including Karim Manji of Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Dar Es Salaam and Brenda Shuma and Anthony Ephraim at the Gabriella Centre in Moshi.

For example, the team designed a play interaction that included activities familiar to the children and omitted others that would be culturally irrelevant.

They used the Childhood Autism Rating Scale-Second Edition (CARS-2) to help rate child behavior because of the instrument’s flexible usage guidelines. Another advantage of the CARS-2, as well as subtests of the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children selected for cognitive assessment, is that the behavioral observations and nonverbal cognitive testing don’t depend strongly on language.

Meanwhile, as a measure of adaptive functioning, Johnson Harrison and the team chose the Malawi Development Assessment Tool. Although Malawi and Tanzania have important differences, they also have significant similarities. They border and share similar governmental and educational infrastructures.

Johnson Harrison made assessments and then gave parents or guardians information about autism and guidance on using behavioral strategies to improve child skills.

Of the children she tested, 30 were diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorders and 11 as having other “global delay” conditions, such as suspected intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, or other disorders.

Back in the USA

After returning to the United States, Johnson Harrison tallied precise quantifications of the CARS-2 score and DSM-5 checklist symptoms to see if her diagnostic assessment had produced reliable, statistically significant differences between the autism and non-autism groups.

It did. The average CARS-2 score for the autism group was 28 percent higher (at 37.75), than the average for the global delays group (at 27.15), a statistically significant difference.

In addition, Tanzanian children diagnosed with autism scored in similar ranges on the CARS-2 as compared to children with autism in the United States. The autism group also had significantly more DSM-V autism symptoms than the global delays group, suggesting that the assessment measures were helpful in reliably eliciting the information needed to assess autism spectrum disorders.

Johnson Harrison says she hopes that the assessment protocol, if supported by further testing, could become a standard approach for clinicians in the country, at least while more rigorous tests used in the West, such as the ADOS-2, can be tailored for Tanzania.

The National Institutes of Health and Brown University funded the study.

Source: Brown University

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