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Germ-zapper in soap causes liver tumors in mice

Wed, 11/19/2014 - 07:23

Long-term exposure to triclosan, an antimicrobial agent commonly found in a broad array of soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, and other consumer products, may have potentially serious health consequences, report researchers.

Data from a new study shows that triclosan causes liver fibrosis and cancer in laboratory mice through molecular mechanisms that are also relevant for humans.

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Triclosan’s increasing detection in environmental samples and its increasingly broad use in consumer products may overcome its moderate benefit and present a very real risk of liver toxicity for people, as it does in mice, particularly when combined with other compounds with similar action,” says Robert H. Tukey, a professor in University of California, San Diego’s departments of chemistry and biochemistry and pharmacology.

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The researchers found that triclosan disrupted liver integrity and compromised liver function in mice.

The mice exposed to triclosan for six months (roughly equivalent to 18 human years) were more susceptible to chemical-induced liver tumors. Their tumors were also larger and more frequent than those in mice not exposed to triclosan.

The study suggests triclosan may do its damage by interfering with a protein called the constitutive androstane receptor, which is responsible for clearing foreign chemicals from the body.

To compensate for this stress, liver cells proliferate and turn fibrotic over time. Repeated triclosan exposure and continued liver fibrosis eventually promote tumor formation.

Triclosan in breast milk and urine

Triclosan is perhaps the most widely used consumer antibacterial. Studies have found traces of it in 97 percent of breast milk samples from lactating women and in the urine of nearly 75 percent of people tested. Triclosan also is common in the environment: It is one of the seven most frequently detected compounds in streams across the United States.

“We could reduce most human and environmental exposures by eliminating uses of triclosan that are high volume, but of low benefit, such as inclusion in liquid hand soaps,” says study co-leader Bruce D. Hammock of the department of entomology and nematology, and the Comprehensive Cancer Center at University of California, Davis.

“Yet we could also, for now, retain uses shown to have health value—as in toothpaste, where the amount used is small.”

Triclosan is already under scrutiny by the FDA, due to its widespread use and recent reports that it can disrupt hormones and impair muscle contraction.

Additional coauthors contributed from UC San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Tukey and Hammock are directors of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Programs at their respective campuses.

This research received partial funding from US Public Health Service grants.

Source: UC Davis

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5 trends driving global rates of ADHD

Wed, 11/19/2014 - 05:39

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder isn’t contagious, but diagnosis and treatment of the condition is spreading—surging as much as tenfold in some countries.

Call it an economic and cultural plague, but not necessarily a medical one, says Peter Conrad, professor of social sciences at Brandeis University.

“I think we may look back on this time in 50 years and ask, what did we do to these kids?”

In a recent paper in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Conrad and coauthor Meredith Bergey examine the growth of ADHD in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Brazil.

Until recently, North America tallied by far the most ADHD diagnoses, and the United States consumed 90 percent of all Ritalin, one of the most common ADHD drugs. ADHD diagnoses continue to grow in the US, but Americans account for only 75 percent of Ritalin users today.

5 trends to watch

Conrad and Bergey attribute ADHD’s growth to five trends:

  1. Drug companies are effective lobbyists, and have spurred some countries to relax marketing restrictions on stimulants.
  2. Psychoanalytic treatment with talk therapy is giving way to biological psychiatry—treating psychological problems with drugs.
  3. More European and South American psychologists and psychiatrists are adopting the American-based Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) standards, which are broader and have a lower threshold for diagnosing ADHD.
  4. Vocal ADHD advocacy groups work closely with drug companies to promote pharmaceutical treatment.
  5. The easy availability of ADHD information and self-diagnosis online empowers consumers to ask for prescription treatment.

For example, many websites promoting ADHD drugs offer checklists with questions like these: Do you fidget a lot? Is it hard for you to concentrate? Are you disorganized at work and home? Do you start projects and then abandon them?

“These checklists turn all kinds of different behaviors into medical problems,” Conrad says. “The checklists don’t distinguish what is part of the human condition and what is a disease.”

No ‘magic bullet’

According to the study, in the UK, diagnosis of the disorder in school-age children grew from less than one percent in the 1990s to about five percent today. In Germany, prescription ADHD drugs rose from 10 million daily doses in 1998 to 53 million in 2008.

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Growth in Italy and France has been slower, in part due to those countries’ more restrictive pharmaceutical drug laws. However, even those nations are becoming more lax, says Conrad.

In Brazil, a rising number of ADHD advocacy groups, many with close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, are raising awareness of the disorder.

“There is no pharmacological magic bullet,” says Conrad. No drug can account for nonmedical factors that may contribute to behavior. A fidgety student may be responding to the one-size-fits-all compulsory education system, Conrad says, not a flaw in his or her brain chemistry.

ADHD continues a long history of medicalizing behaviors, especially in the US, Conrad says. A century ago, masturbation was considered a disease. Men and women diagnosed with masturbatory insanity were institutionalized or subjected to surgical treatment.

“I think we may look back on this time in 50 years and ask, what did we do to these kids?” Conrad says.

Source: Brandeis University

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Can hybrid cathodes make bendy solar cells cheap?

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 08:14

A new kind of cathode could make cheap, flexible, dye-sensitized solar cells practical.

The Rice University lab of materials scientist Jun Lou created the new cathode, one of the two electrodes in batteries, from nanotubes that are seamlessly bonded to graphene. This construction would replace the expensive and brittle platinum-based materials often used in earlier versions.

Dye-sensitized solar cells have been in development since 1988 and have been the subject of countless high school chemistry class experiments.

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They use cheap organic dyes, drawn from materials such as raspberries, which cover conductive titanium dioxide particles. The dyes absorb photons and produce electrons that flow out of the cell for use—a return line completes the circuit to the cathode that combines with an iodine-based electrolyte to refresh the dye.

While they are not nearly as efficient as silicon-based solar cells in collecting sunlight and transforming it into electricity, dye-sensitized solar cells have advantages for many applications, according to co-lead author Pei Dong, a postdoctoral researcher in Lou’s lab.

“The first is that they’re low-cost, because they can be fabricated in a normal area,” Dong says. “There’s no need for a clean room. They’re semi-transparent, so they can be applied to glass, and they can be used in dim light; they will even work on a cloudy day.

“Or indoors,” Lou adds. “One company commercializing dye-sensitized cells is embedding them in computer keyboards and mice so you never have to install batteries. Normal room light is sufficient to keep them alive.”

‘James’ bond’

The breakthrough extends a stream of nanotechnology research at Rice that began with chemist Robert Hauge’s 2009 invention of a “flying carpet” technique to grow very long bundles of aligned carbon nanotubes. In his process, the nanotubes remained attached to the surface substrate but pushed the catalyst up as they grew.

The graphene/nanotube hybrid came along two years ago. Dubbed “James’ bond” in honor of its inventor, Rice chemist James Tour, the hybrid features a seamless transition from graphene to nanotube.

The graphene base is grown via chemical vapor deposition and a catalyst is arranged in a pattern on top. When heated again, carbon atoms in an aerosol feedstock attach themselves to the graphene at the catalyst, which lifts off and allows the new nanotubes to grow. When the nanotubes stop growing, the remaining catalyst (the “carpet”) acts as a cap and keeps the nanotubes from tangling.

Two problems solved

The hybrid material solves two issues that have held back commercial application of dye-sensitized solar cells, Lou says.

First, the graphene and nanotubes are grown directly onto the nickel substrate that serves as an electrode, eliminating adhesion issues that plagued the transfer of platinum catalysts to common electrodes like transparent conducting oxide.

Second, the hybrid also has less contact resistance with the electrolyte, allowing electrons to flow more freely. The new cathode’s charge-transfer resistance, which determines how well electrons cross from the electrode to the electrolyte, was found to be 20 times smaller than for platinum-based cathodes, Lou says.

The key appears to be the hybrid’s huge surface area, estimated at more than 2,000 square meters per gram. With no interruption in the atomic bonds between nanotubes and graphene, the material’s entire area, inside and out, becomes one large surface. This gives the electrolyte plenty of opportunity to make contact and provides a highly conductive path for electrons.

Testing the nanotube ‘forest’

Lou’s lab built and tested solar cells with nanotube forests of varying lengths. The shortest, which measured between 20-25 microns, were grown in 4 minutes. Other nanotube samples were grown for an hour and measured about 100-150 microns.

When combined with an iodide salt-based electrolyte and an anode of flexible indium tin oxide, titanium dioxide, and light-capturing organic dye particles, the largest cells were only 350 microns thick—the equivalent of about two sheets of paper—and could be flexed easily and repeatedly.

Tests found that solar cells made from the longest nanotubes produced the best results and topped out at nearly 18 milliamps of current per square centimeter, compared with nearly 14 milliamps for platinum-based control cells. The new dye-sensitized solar cells were as much as 20 percent better at converting sunlight into power, with an efficiency of up to 8.2 percent, compared with 6.8 for the platinum-based cells.

Based on recent work on flexible, graphene-based anode materials by the Lou and Tour labs and synthesized high-performance dyes by other researchers, Lou expects dye-sensitized cells to find many uses. “We’re demonstrating all these carbon nanostructures can be used in real applications,” he says.

The discovery appears online in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

Yu Zhu, a Rice alumnus and now an assistant professor at the University of Akron, Ohio, is co-lead author of the paper. Coauthors include researchers at Rice and Tsinghua University in China.

The Welch Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), the Department of Energy, the Lockheed Martin LANCER IV program, Sandia National Laboratory, and the Office of Naval Research MURI supported the work.

Source: Rice University

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Unhappy customers can pay off for other companies

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 08:05

It only takes a simple gesture of goodwill to win over a customer who’s still reeling from a bad experience with another company.

Consider a dissatisfied airline passenger. A hotel can score loyalty points by providing the traveler a room upgrade or perhaps even a simple apology for the airline’s failure, says Clay Voorhees, associate professor of marketing at Michigan State University.

In a study published online in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Voorhees and fellow researchers refute past findings that a bad service or retail experience taints a consumer for the entire day.

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“We found that if you offer these goodwill gestures, you not only negate the negative feelings in the customer, you actually get a lift in attitude toward your firm,” says Voorhees.

To test the theory, the researchers conducted three experiments dealing with the airline, hotel, and restaurant industries. More than 500 people participated in all.

When the firm responsible for the bad service made a goodwill gesture, it actually had no effect on the customer’s negative attitude, the study finds. When a firm affiliated with the offending company made the attempt, the customer’s attitude improved only slightly.

But when a completely unaffiliated company made the goodwill gesture after the negative experience, the customer’s attitude toward that unaffiliated company improved significantly.

Voorhees says the findings underscore the importance of training frontline workers to react to customer complaints regarding other firms. Most companies don’t provide this type of training to their frontline workers, who are often their lowest paid.

The study also suggests firms should investigate their entire service chain to identify possible weak spots. Insurance providers, for example, could potentially leverage breakdowns in the automobile-buying process.

Firms should also be careful about who they choose as affiliates. Partnering with companies prone to failure might not be worth the additional business volume, Voorhees says.

Voorhees’ co-researchers are Alexis Allen from the University of Kentucky, Michael Brady from Florida State University, and Stacey Robinson from East Carolina University.

Source: Michigan State University

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Credit scores can reveal if you’re healthy or not

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 07:57

A new study confirms what insurance companies already know: Credit scores can reveal how healthy you are.

Researchers have uncovered a strong relationship between low credit scores and poor heart health. The findings are based on results from a long-term study of more than 1,000 New Zealanders who have been monitored continuously from birth to age 38.

(Credit: mista stagga lee/Flickr)

This doesn’t mean that poor financial management hurts your health, postdoctoral researcher Salomon Israel of Duke University is quick to point out. It’s that the sort of personal attributes that can lead to a poor credit score can also contribute to poor health.

“What it comes down to is that people who don’t take care of their money don’t take care of their health,” says study leader Terrie Moffitt, who a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

She says this study confirms what the insurance and financial industries may already understand.

Bad behaviors start early

Backtracking into the data on these study participants, who have been monitored since birth to age 38, the researchers found that about 20 percent of the relationship between credit scores and heart health was accounted for by the attitudes, behaviors, and competencies displayed by the study members when they were younger than age 10.

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“We’re showing that these things take root early in life,” Israel says.

Harvard economist David Laibson, who was not involved in the research, says the study “fundamentally transforms our understanding of the psychological factors that connect our health and wealth.”

Lamar Pierce, an associate professor of organization and strategy at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees. “This study is important because it identifies common cognitive foundations long before financial and physical health problems emerge,” says Pierce, who was not involved in this study.

“It provides hope that early life intervention can impede the development of life-long patterns of illness and financial struggle.”

How old is your heart?

Using a standard measure called the Framingham cardiovascular risk score, the Duke researchers estimated the “heart age” of their participants, based on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and smoking habits.

At age 38, the participants’ Framingham “heart ages” ranged from 22 to 85 years. Participants with higher credit scores had younger “heart ages.” The components of the Dunedin study’s human capital measure—educational attainment, cognitive ability, and self-control—each predicted higher credit scores and younger heart age.

Why credit scores?

The idea of checking credit scores against the detailed personal data in the Dunedin study came from a conversation Moffitt had with her seatmate on a plane about a decade ago. When she told her travelling companion from the life insurance industry that she studied self-control and life outcomes, he said, “We do that, too, but we use credit scores.”

“The thing that’s so compelling about credit scores is that they’re both predictive and retrospective,” says coauthor Avshalom Caspi, the a professor of psychology and neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke. “They offer a window on the future, but also a window on the past.”

In recent years, credit scores have been used for pre-employment screening and many other functions beyond their original intent, Israel says. This study seems to bear out their usefulness as a proxy for a person’s reliability and steadfastness, and in turn how healthy they may be.

“Our findings suggest that life insurance companies that acquire an applicant’s credit score are also indirectly acquiring information about that applicant’s educational attainment, intelligence, and personality, right back to childhood,” the authors write in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The link might work the other way as well. In less developed countries where credit scores aren’t available, a Harvard team has been experimenting with using a 40-minute personality quiz to assess candidates’ credit-worthiness for microloans.

The New Zealand Health Research Council, US National Institute on Aging, the UK Medical Research Council, the Jacobs Foundation, and the Yad Hanadiv Rothschild Foundation supported the research.

Source: Duke University

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Why we cry from happiness and pinch cute babies

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 06:42

New research helps explain why our emotions and reactions don’t always line up, such as crying “tears of joy” or laughing nervously during a negative experience.

“People may be restoring emotional equilibrium with these expressions,” says Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragon, lead author of work to be published in the journal Psychological Science.

“They seem to take place when people are overwhelmed with strong positive emotions, and people who do this seem to recover better from those strong emotions.”

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There are many examples of responding to a positive experience with a negative emotion. A crying spouse is reunited with a soldier returning from war. Teen girls scream at a Justin Bieber concert and so do soccer players as they score a winning goal. The baseball player who hits a winning home run is pounded at home plate by teammates. And when introduced to babies “too cute for words,” some can’t resist pinching their cheeks.

“I was surprised no one ever asked why that is,” she says.

Aragon and colleagues ran subjects through some of these scenarios and measured their responses to cute babies or happy reunions.

They found that individuals who express negative reactions to positive news were able to moderate intense emotions more quickly. They also found people who are most likely to cry at their child’s graduation are most likely to want to pinch a cute baby’s cheeks.

There is also some evidence that strong negative feelings may provoke positive expressions; for example, nervous laughter appears when people are confronted with a difficult or frightening situations, and smiles have been found by other psychologists to occur during extreme sadness.

These new discoveries begin to explain common things that many people do but don’t even understand themselves, Aragon says.

“These insights advance our understanding of how people express and control their emotions, which is importantly related to mental and physical health, the quality of relationships with others, and even how well people work together,” she says.

Source: Yale University

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Did volcanoes melt ice on early Mars?

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 03:18

If Mars is so cold, how could ancient rivers, streams, and lakes once have flowed there?

New research suggests that volcanoes and greenhouse gas may have done enough to warm the planet—but only for tens or hundreds of years at a time.

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Scientists say that warmth and water flow on ancient Mars was probably episodic and related to brief periods of volcanic activity that spewed tons of greenhouse-inducing sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere.

With all that’s been learned about Mars in recent years, the mystery of the planet’s ancient water has deepened in some respects. The latest generation of climate models for early Mars suggests an atmosphere too thin to heat the planet enough for water to flow.

The sun was also much dimmer billions of years ago than it is today, further complicating the picture of a warmer early Mars.

Periodic volcanism

“These new climate models that predict a cold and ice-covered world have been difficult to reconcile with the abundant evidence that water flowed across the surface to form streams and lakes,” says James W. Head, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University and coauthor of the new paper.

“This new analysis provides a mechanism for episodic periods of heating and melting of snow and ice that could have each lasted decades to centuries.”

Head and Itay Halevy, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, explored the idea that heating may have been linked to periodic volcanism.

Many of the geological features that suggest water flow date to around 3.7 billion years ago, a time when massive volcanoes are thought to have been active and huge lava outpourings occurred.

Just enough for warming

On Earth, however, widespread volcanism often leads to cooling rather than warming. Sulfuric acid particles and thick ash reflect the sun’s rays, and that can lower temperatures. But researchers thought the effects of sulfur in Mars’ dusty atmosphere might have been different.

To find out, they created a model of how sulfuric acid might react with the widespread dust in the Martian atmosphere. The work suggests that those sulfuric acid particles would have glommed onto dust particles, which would reduce their ability to reflect the sun’s rays.

Meanwhile sulfur dioxide gas would produce a modest greenhouse effect—just enough to warm the Martian equatorial region so that water could flow.

Similar to Antarctica?

Head has been doing fieldwork for years in Antarctica and thinks the climate on early Mars may have been very similar to that of the cold, desert-like McMurdo Dry Valleys.

“The average yearly temperature in the Antarctic Dry Valleys is way below freezing, but peak summer daytime temperatures can exceed the melting point of water, forming transient streams, which then refreeze,” Head says.

“In a similar manner, we find that volcanism can bring the temperature on early Mars above the melting point for decades to centuries, causing episodic periods of stream and lake formation.”

But as that early active volcanism on Mars ceased, so did the possibility of warmer temperatures and flowing water.

The new findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, may offer new clues about where the fossilized remnants of life might be found on Mars, if it ever existed.

“Life in Antarctica, in the form of algal mats, is very resistant to extremely cold and dry conditions and simply waits for the episodic infusion of water to ‘bloom’ and develop,” he says. “Thus, the ancient and currently dry and barren river and lake floors on Mars may harbor the remnants of similar primitive life, if it ever occurred on Mars.”

Source: Brown University

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This virus is killing millions of sea stars

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 02:53

Scientists have identified a deadly culprit responsible for a mysterious wasting disease that has killed millions of sea stars along the Pacific coast of North America from Baja California to southern Alaska.

The disease causes sea stars’ limbs to pull away from their bodies and their organs to exude through their skin. Researchers say the disease could trigger an unprecedented ecological upheaval.

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A new paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, identifies it as the Sea Star Associated Densovirus (SSaDV), a type of parvovirus commonly found in invertebrates, and presents a genomic analysis of the newly discovered virus prevalent in symptomatic sea stars.

“There are 10 million viruses in a drop of seawater, so discovering the virus associated with a marine disease can be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Ian Hewson.

“Not only is this an important discovery of a virus involved in a mass mortality of marine invertebrates, but this is also the first virus described in a sea star.”

The virus has probably been smoldering at a low level for many years, Hawson says. It was present in museum samples of sea stars collected in 1942, 1980, 1987, and 1991, and may have risen to epidemic levels in the last few years due to sea star overpopulation, environmental changes, or mutation of the virus. Sea water, plankton, sediments, and water filters from public aquaria, sea urchins, and brittle stars also harbored the virus.

‘Experiment of the century’

The discovery lays the groundwork for understanding how the virus kills sea stars and what triggers outbreaks.

The stakes are high, says Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a coauthor of the paper. As voracious predators on the ocean floor, sea stars are “keystone” species that have a large role in maintaining diversity in their ecosystem.

“It’s the experiment of the century for marine ecologists,” he says. “It is happening at such a large scale to the most important predators of the tidal and sub-tidal zones. Their disappearance is an experiment in ecological upheaval the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

“The recent outbreak of sea star wasting disease on the US West Coast has been a concern for coastal residents and marine ecologists,” says David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “This study, supported as a rapid response award, has made a significant contribution to understanding the disease.”

Geographically diverse samples of diseased stars were provided by citizen scientists, research aquariums, and academic institutions on the West Coast.

The National Science Foundation and the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell provided rapid response funds.

Source: Cornell University

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How to turn an office park into raptor habitat

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 09:36

Businesses can play a role in raptor conservation—and possibly boost employee morale—by adding more native grasslands and woodlots, as opposed to lawns.

Raptors, or birds of prey, some of which are endangered species, typically live in environments that provide natural land cover, such as forests and grasslands.

Protecting endangered birds of prey helps maintain food chain balance and prevents overpopulation of common raptor prey, such as snakes and rodents.

As more businesses are built on the edges of urban areas, land where raptors once lived becomes industrialized, which raises concerns about the consequences of habitat destruction on raptor populations.

“Greater amounts of cleared and developed space, such as lawn and pavement, around these businesses have negative effects on raptor presence,” says Charles Nilon, professor of fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

“In areas with more natural land cover of tall grass, woodlands, and tree cover, we saw a higher number of raptors. Simply adding certain trees and leaving tall grass can attract this wildlife.”

5% more lawn means 12% fewer raptors

To determine raptor presence, graduate student Jonathan Hogg visually counted birds at several business parks—or clusters of businesses—in St. Louis and surrounding counties. He also broadcasted raptor calls and recorded responses from resident birds. Hogg and Nilon found that even minor landscape changes can make areas more welcoming to raptors.

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“Raptors avoid business parks with large areas of pavement and lawns because they can’t find food, protection, and nesting areas in these open spaces,” Nilon says.

“We found that for each five percent increase in lawn cover, the number of raptors decreased by 12 percent. Urban businesses can contribute to raptor conservation efforts by planning and preserving grassland and woodlots, and by leaving lawn areas undeveloped.”

Hogg and Nilon found that a surprising number of raptors have adapted to some business parks. During the course of the study, he detected 224 birds and eleven different raptor species. In addition, at least two sites showed evidence of nesting.

“Smaller areas of non-lawn habitat throughout the property, or on the edges of a business park, are adequate to increase the presence of these birds,” Nilon says.

“Retaining natural habitat on the edges of the development, on slopes, or along streams contributes to biodiversity in the urban landscape with virtually no impact on the usefulness of the property.”

Nilon says that many national and international corporations have initiated habitat improvement programs on their properties, and that research shows employees also often prefer these more natural landscapes.

The Wildlife Habitat Council and the British Trust for Ornithology, for example, report that a diverse wildlife population improves employee morale and encourages better relations with local communities.

Hogg and Nilon’s study appears in Urban Ecosystems.

Source: University of Missouri

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Just one sickle cell gene may raise kidney disease risk

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 09:33

Inheriting the sickle cell gene from just one parent won’t trigger the painful illness, but it may elevate the risk of chronic kidney disease.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, may help explain why African-Americans—who account for the vast majority of Americans with either one or two sickle cell genes—suffer from chronic kidney disease more than white people, researchers say.

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“Finding that (having one sickle cell gene) can influence kidney disease is another piece of the puzzle to explaining the higher risk of chronic kidney disease in African-Americans,” says Rakhi P. Naik, assistant professor of adult hematology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the study’s leaders.

Full-blown sickle cell disease causes red blood cells to “sickle” or bend, creating anemia and often extremely painful sickling “crises,” when the misshapen blood cells become lodged in small blood vessels.

Having sickle cell trait, or SCT, means that a person inherited the sickle cell gene from one parent, but does not have the two copies—one each from the mother and father—needed to cause sickle cell disease.

About 8 to 10 percent of African-Americans have SCT. Other racial and ethnic groups also carry the gene mutation, but to far lesser extents.

Malaria link

The mutated gene is thought to have developed in parts of the world where malaria is endemic, as it offers some protection against that disease. Researchers have begun to recognize a host of problems that may accompany SCT, ranging from increased risk of blood clots to sudden death.

Because blood in the urine and kidney vessel damage had previously been linked to SCT, researchers investigated whether SCT might also play a role in chronic kidney disease.

They used data from five large studies that followed populations of adults over time. Although the purpose of these studies was to better understand risk factors for cardiovascular disease, they also collected other useful health data, including patients’ kidney function and genetic information.

The researchers carved out information on 15,975 self-identified African-American participants, 1,248 with SCT and the rest non-carriers of the sickle cell gene. They looked specifically at how many in each group had developed chronic kidney disease or other markers of impaired kidney function, including poor ability to filter blood through the kidneys and the presence of protein in urine.

The incidence of chronic kidney disease was about 20.7 percent in those with SCT but only 13.7 percent of those without it. SCT carriers—who can pass the gene on to offspring—were also more likely to have impaired ability to filter blood through the kidneys and to have protein in their urine.

Localized sickling

The researchers hypothesize that although blood cells are less likely to sickle—or warp into a sickle shape—as severely or frequently in individuals with just one sickle cell gene, they still experience infrequent and localized sickling.

That might affect certain organs more than others, clogging blood vessels and restricting oxygen to these areas. The mild sickling may be enough to eventually damage kidneys, leading to chronic kidney disease and other kidney problems.

Though a separate genetic problem has recently been linked to increased chronic kidney disease risk, Naik says, it only explains part of the risk in African-Americans, and it cannot solely account for the high disparity of chronic kidney disease between African-Americans and whites.

“These findings may have implications for more closely monitoring kidney function in SCT carriers,” says Alexander P. Reiner, an epidemiologist at University of Washington and coauthor of the study.

Other study coauthors are from University of North Carolina, University of Mississippi Medical Center, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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How fruit flies pick a mate in just 15 minutes

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 08:29

Female fruit flies only need 15 minutes to process the sights, smell, sounds, and touch that determine “Mr. Right.”

Researchers have discovered the neural circuitry that allows females to make this decision. They report in PLOS Biology the first-ever map of the brain circuits involved.

This mapping let the scientists identify the single gene responsible for the network and the neurotransmitter that mediates the “yes” or “no” response—and confirm a 50-year-old hypothesis on decision-making.

A female’s choice of mate is a key factor in the survival or evolution of a species. She is deciding which traits will be passed on to the next generation.

“It’s a complex decision,” says senior author Rui Sousa-Neves, a research professor in the genetics and genomic sciences department at Case Western Reserve University, who led the research.

During courtship, “the female fruit fly is listening to love songs from the male and taking in the color of his eyes, how he dances and smells, and she’s getting cues from the way he touches her abdomen,” he says.

Selection from “dati is expressed in neurons that have small and large volumes.” (Credit: Schinaman, et al. PLOS Biology. 12(10): e1001964)

Scientists have been working with fruit flies for more than 100 years. The University of Tennessee’s Benjamin Hochman isolated mutations on the fly’s fourth chromosome, a tiny chromosome compared to its three others, more than 40 years ago.

But the resource sat on a shelf because no one could link mutations to genes, Sousa-Neves says.

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To link the mutation to a gene, Sousa-Neves previously developed a series of tools to molecularly map it and more recently developed a method to generate mutant neurons using a fluorescent color code.

They showed that the gene datilografo (dati), a transcription factor, is essential to organizing and maintaining the neural circuitry in the central brain that lets a female accept a mate.

The gene is required in an excitatory circuit involving just a few neurons in the olfactory lobe, the first entry point for odor processing in the brain. The neurons express acetylcholine as their neurotransmitter.

In addition, dati is required in two other brain centers: a region where olfaction and other senses are integrated, as well as a novel region.

Monitoring females that were being courted “provides the first evidence for a hypothesis made 50 years ago,” Sousa-Neves says. “To make decisions we don’t balance all options like a computer does. . . . Here females made decisions based on a sum of stimuli that came from outside.”

Further testing showed that if they removed the dati gene, female flies made no decisions and never accepted to mate with males.

Do we decide quickly, too?

“Genes similar to dati are not only found in flies,” says Sousa-Neves. “It’s a conserved gene present in marine arthropods to humans.”

Does the gene play the same role in humans? Do humans actually make such a decision in 15 minutes?

“Nobody knows,” Sousa-Neves says. Finding the answers will take time.

But, now that they’ve discovered the players involved, “it opens up investigating decision-making at a brand new level,” he says.

The researchers are looking further into how dati establishes the circuits for decision-making in flies and what decision-making involves.

Source: Case Western Reserve University

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Walnuts slow prostate cancer in mice

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 08:29

Both whole walnuts and walnut oil appear to slow down prostate cancer and to reduce levels of a hormone linked to both prostate and breast cancer in studies with mice.

“For years, the United States government has been on a crusade against fat, and I think it’s been to our detriment,” says lead scientist and research nutritionist Paul Davis. “Walnuts are a perfect example. While they are high in fat, their fat does not drive prostate cancer growth. In fact, walnuts do just the opposite when fed to mice.”

Davis and colleagues have been investigating the impact of walnuts on health for some time. A previous study showed that walnuts reduced prostate tumor size in mice; however, there were questions about which parts of the nuts generated these benefits. Was it the meat, the oil, or the omega-3 fatty acids?

If it was the omega-3 fats, the benefit might not be unique to walnuts. Since the fatty acid profile for the soybean oil used as a control was similar, but not identical, to walnuts, more work had to be done.

Not omega-3s alone

In the current study, researchers used a mixture of fats with virtually the same fatty acid content as walnuts as their control diet. The mice were fed whole walnuts, walnut oil, or the walnut-like fat for 18 weeks.

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The results replicated those from the previous study. While the walnuts and walnut oil reduced cholesterol and slowed prostate cancer growth, in contrast, the walnut-like fat did not have these effects, confirming that other nut components caused the improvements—not the omega-3s.

“We showed that it’s not the omega-3s by themselves, though, it could be a combination of the omega-3s with whatever else is in the walnut oil,” Davis says. “It’s becoming increasingly clear in nutrition that it’s never going to be just one thing; it’s always a combination.”

While the study does not pinpoint which combination of compounds in walnuts slows cancer growth, it did rule out fiber, zinc, magnesium, and selenium.

In addition, the research demonstrated that walnuts modulate several mechanisms associated with cancer growth, including the hormone IGF-1.

“The energy effects from decreasing IGF-1 seem to muck up the works so the cancer can’t grow as fast as it normally would,” Davis says. “Also, reducing cholesterol means cancer cells may not get enough of it to allow these cells to grow quickly.”

In addition, the research showed increases in both adiponectin and the tumor suppressor PSP94, as well as reduced levels of COX-2, all markers for reduced prostate cancer risk.

Eat more walnuts?

Although results in mice don’t always translate to humans, Davis says his results suggest the benefits of incorporating walnuts into a healthy diet. Other research, such as the PREDIMED human study, which assessed the Mediterranean diet, also found that eating walnuts reduced cancer mortality.

Still, Davis recommends caution in diet modification.

“In our study the mice were eating the equivalent of 2.6 ounces of walnuts,” he says. “You need to realize that 2.6 ounces of walnuts is about 482 calories. That’s not insignificant, but it’s better than eating a serving of supersized fries, which has 610 calories.

“In addition to the cancer benefit, we think you also get cardiovascular benefits that other walnut research has demonstrated.

The study was published online in the Journal of Medicinal Food.

Other researchers included Hyunsook Kim of Konkuk University and Wallace Yokoyama of the Western Regional Research Center.

The American Institute for Cancer Research, the California Walnut Board, and Konkuk University funded the study.

Source: UC Davis

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So-called ‘smart’ drug impairs creative people

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 07:39

A drug that claims to boost the ability to study and ace exams appears to have the opposite effect on people who are smart and creative.

In a randomized double blind study, researchers gave 32 participants the drug Modafinil and 32 people a placebo. All the participants then took the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, which requires participants to respond quickly and accurately. The drug slowed down reaction times, impaired ability to respond in a timely manner, and failed to improve performance.

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“We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner,” says Ahmed Dahir Mohamed, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at University of Nottingham. “Our findings were completely opposite to the results we expected.

“It has been argued that Modafinil might improve your performance by delaying your ability to respond. It has been suggested this ‘delay dependent improvement’ might improve cognitive performance by making people less impulsive. We found no evidence to support those claims. Our research showed that when a task required instant reactions the drug just increased reaction times with no improvement to cognitive performance.”

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the findings support the results of a previous study carried out by Mohamed and published in September 2014 in the Journal of Creative Behavior that showed that the so called ‘smart’ drug impaired participants’ ability to respond in a creative way particularly when asked to respond laterally—outside the box.

Any benefits?

The creativity of people who aren’t particularly creative to begin with showed some improvement, Mohamed says, but people who are creative at the start are less so after taking Modafinil.

“Our study backs up previous research that suggests psychostimulants improve people at the lower end of the spectrum in cognition whereas they impair people who are at the optimum level of cognitive function—healthy people for example.

“It looks like Modafinil is not helpful for healthy individuals and it might even impair their ability to respond and might stifle their lateral thinking, while people who have some sort of deficiency in creativity are helped by the drug.”

Mohamed will next look at the effects of non-pharmacological interventions, such as meditation, exercise, and diet on the healthy brain. He is also using electroencephalography (EEG) to study how mindfulness can affect the healthy adolescent brain.

“What I have found in my doctoral studies is that if you are already a healthy person and functioning at an optimum level, it is really difficult to improve your cognition. But the brain of the adolescent is still in development and you might be able to improve cognition at this stage of our development through positive interaction, healthy diet, or mindfulness.”

Source: University of Nottingham

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Cameras work together to track a single person

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 07:02

Cameras are all around us—on store ceilings, public transportation, and even car dashboards.

The recordings can be a powerful surveillance tool on the roads and in buildings, but it’s surprisingly hard to sift through vast amounts of visual data to find relevant information. Specifically, it’s been difficult to quickly identify and understand a person’s actions and behaviors as recorded sequentially by cameras in a variety of locations.

Now, electrical engineers have developed a way to automatically track people across moving and still cameras by using an algorithm that trains the networked cameras to learn one another’s differences. The cameras first identify a person in a video frame, then follow that same person across multiple camera views.

The cameras communicate

“Tracking humans automatically across cameras in a three-dimensional space is new,” says lead researcher Jenq-Neng Hwang, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. “As the cameras talk to each other, we are able to describe the real world in a more dynamic sense.”

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Imagine a typical GPS display that maps the streets, buildings, and signs in a neighborhood as your car moves forward, then add humans to the picture. With the new technology, a car with a mounted camera could take video of the scene, then identify and track humans and overlay them into the virtual 3D map on your GPS screen.

The researchers are developing this to work in real time, which could help pick out people crossing in busy intersections, or track a specific person who is dodging the police.

“Our idea is to enable the dynamic visualization of the realistic situation of humans walking on the road and sidewalks, so eventually people can see the animated version of the real-time dynamics of city streets on a platform like Google Earth,” Hwang says.

Hwang’s research team in the past decade has developed a way for video cameras—from the most basic models to high-end devices—to talk to each other as they record different places in a common location.

Color, texture, angle

The problem with tracking a human across cameras of non-overlapping fields of view is that a person’s appearance can vary dramatically in each video because of different perspectives, angles, and color hues produced by different cameras.

The researchers overcame this by building a link between the cameras. Cameras first record for a couple of minutes to gather training data, systematically calculating the differences in color, texture, and angle between a pair of cameras for a number of people who walk into the frames in a fully unsupervised manner without human intervention.

After this calibration period, an algorithm automatically applies those differences between cameras and can pick out the same people across multiple frames, effectively tracking them without needing to see their faces.

The research team has tested the ability of static and moving cameras to detect and track pedestrians on the University of Washington campus in multiple scenarios. In one experiment, graduate students mounted cameras in their cars to gather data, then applied the algorithms to successfully pick out humans and follow them in a 3D space.

They also installed the tracking system on cameras placed inside a robot and a flying drone, allowing the robot and drone to follow a person, even when the instruments came across obstacles that blocked the person from view.

The linking technology can be used anywhere, as long as the cameras can talk over a wireless network and upload data to the cloud.

This detailed visual record could be useful for security and surveillance, monitoring for unusual behavior or tracking a moving suspect. But it also tells store owners and business proprietors useful information and statistics about consumers’ moving patterns.

Tracking shoppers

For example, a store owner could use a tracking system to watch a shopper’s movements in the store, taking note of his or her interests. Then, a coupon or deal for a particular product could be displayed on a nearby screen or pushed to the shopper’s phone—in an instant.

Leveraging the visual data produced by our physical actions and movements might, in fact, become the next way in which we receive marketing, advertisements, and even helpful tools for our everyday lives.

Inevitably, people will have privacy concerns, Hwang says, and the information extracted from cameras could be encrypted before it’s sent to the cloud.

“Cameras and recording won’t go away. We might as well take advantage of that fact and extract more useful information for the benefit of the community,” he adds.

Hwang and his research team presented their results last month in Qingdao, China, at the Intelligent Transportation Systems Conference sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

Coauthors are Kuan-Hui Lee, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, and Greg Okopal and James Pitton, engineers at the Applied Physics Laboratory.

The Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute of Korea and the Applied Physics Laboratory funded the work.

Source: University of Washington

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Star’s magnetic field imaged for first time

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 03:11

Magnetic fields are thought to play a critical role in how stars form and accumulate mass. Now scientists have detected a magnetic field around a young star and are learning surprising details about the field’s form and structure.

All stars are formed in cold, dense cores of molecular clouds. During the collapse of a core into a new young star (called a protostar), a circumstellar disk is created.

Researchers detected the magnetic field of the T Tauri star HL Tau—a protostar located 450 light-years away that started its formation process approximately 1 million years ago. (Credit: Zhi-Yun Li/University of Virginia)

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This disk will eventually form planets and become a system like our solar system. At the early stages of star formation, this circumstellar disk is responsible for allowing mass to accrete onto the protostar. This accretion is thought to be regulated by magnetic fields, but different theoretical models suggest different magnetic field morphologies.

The magnetic fields in the disk may be toroidal (i.e., circular fields within the disk) or poloidal (i.e., fields emanating from the poles of the protostar). Unfortunately, numerous observations in search of the magnetic field morphology have found no detection.

Ian Stephens, a postdoctoral associate for Boston University’s Institute for Astrophysical Research, along with a collaboration of people at the University of Illinois and throughout the world, used Caltech’s Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) telescope in California to search the disk of the T Tauri star HL Tau—a protostar located 450 light-years away that started its formation process approximately 1 million years ago.

From Earth, HL Tau has the brightest T Tauri star disk at millimeter wavelengths. These CARMA observations found the first detection of the magnetic field morphology in a T Tauri star disk.

According to the study, “the unexpected morphology suggests that the magnetic field’s role during the accretion of a T Tauri star is more complex than the current theoretical understanding,” and that magnetic fields are important in forming a planetary system like our own.

While the magnetic field morphology appears significantly more toroidal than poloidal, neither morphology is a good fit. This is at odds with current theoretical expectations and suggests that the role of magnetic fields is more complicated than our current understanding.

Future observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile are forthcoming for HL Tau and other disks. These observations can study the magnetic field morphology in greater detail, which will provide better insight of the role of magnetic fields in circumstellar disks.

For more information on Stephens’ findings, read the full study in Nature.

Source: Boston University

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Tiny needles could target drugs to front of eye

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 11:02

Microneedles almost too small to be seen with the naked eye may offer the best way to treat glaucoma and corneal neovascularization, two of the world’s leading eye diseases.

The microneedles range in length from 400 to 700 microns and could provide a new way to deliver drugs to specific areas within the eye relevant to these diseases. By targeting the drugs only to specific parts of the eye instead of the entire eye, researchers hope to increase effectiveness, limit side effects, and reduce the amount of drug needed.

A microneedle used to inject glaucoma medications into the eye is shown next to a liquid drop from a conventional eye dropper. (Credit: Gary Meek/Georgia Tech)

Glaucoma affects about 2.2 million people in the United States and is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide. The goal is to develop time-release drugs that could replace daily administration of eye drops. A painless microneedle injection made once every three to six months—potentially during regular office visits—could improve treatment outcomes by providing consistent dosages which could overcome patient compliance issues.

In the second disease, corneal neovascularization, corneal injury results in the growth of unwanted blood vessels that impair vision. To treat it, researchers developed solid microneedles for delivering a dry drug compound that stops vessel growth.

“The power of microneedles for treating eye conditions is the ability to target delivery of the drug within the eye,” says Mark Prausnitz, professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We are developing different microneedle-based systems that can put the drug precisely into the part of the eye where it’s needed. In many cases, we hope to couple that delivery with a controlled-release formulation that would allow one application to treat a condition for weeks or months.”

Narrow target

Research for two studies, both published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, was done using animal models—and could become the first treatment technique to use microneedles for delivering drugs to treat diseases in the front of the eye.

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Glaucoma results from elevated pressure inside the eye that can be treated by reducing production of the aqueous humor fluid in the eye, increasing flow of the fluid from the eye, or both. Glaucoma is now controlled by the use of eye drops, which must be applied daily. Studies show that as few as 56 percent of glaucoma patients follow the therapy protocol.

The first study shows that the microneedle therapy would inject drugs into space between two layers of the eye near the ciliary body, which produces the aqueous humor. The drug is retained near the injection side because it is formulated for increased viscosity. In the animal model, researchers were able to reduce intraocular pressure through the injections, showing that their drug got to the proper location in the eye.

Because the injection narrowly targets delivery of the drug, researchers were able to bring about a pressure reduction by using just one percent of the amount of drug required to produce a similar decline with eye drops. The researchers hope to produce a time-release version of the drug that could be injected to provide therapy that lasts for months.

“The ultimate goal for us would be for glaucoma patients visiting the doctor to get an injection that would last for the next six months, until the next time the patient needed to see the doctor,” Prausnitz says. “If we can do away with the need for patients to use eye drops, we could potentially have better control of intraocular pressure and better treatment of glaucoma.”

Better than eye drops

For the second study, researchers took a different approach to treat corneal neovascularization. They coated solid microneedles with an antibody-based drug that prevents the growth of blood vessels and then inserted the coated needles near the point of an injury, keeping them in place for approximately one minute until the drug dissolved into the cornea.

In an animal model, placement of the drug halted the growth of unwanted blood vessels for about two weeks after a single application. While the research reported in the journal did not include time-release versions of the drugs, a parallel project is evaluating potential formulations that would provide that feature.

Eye injections with hypodermic needles much larger than the microneedles are routinely used to administer compounds into the center of eye. These injections are well tolerated, and Prausnitz expects the use of microneedles would also not cause significant side effects.

“Increasingly, eye drops are not able to deliver drugs where they need to go, so injections into the eye are becoming more common,” says Henry F. Edelhauser, emeritus professor of ophthalmology. “But hypodermic needles were not designed for the eye and are not optimal for targeting drugs within the eye.”

In contrast to the larger hypodermic needles, the microneedles are tailored to penetrate the eye only as far as needed to deliver the drugs to internal spaces within the layers of the eye. For the glaucoma drug, for instance, the needle is only about half a millimeter long, which is long enough to penetrate through the sclera, the outer layer of the eye, to the supraciliary space.

Both potential treatments would require additional animal testing before human trials could begin.

The National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health supported the research. Hans Grossniklaus, professor of ophthalmology at Emory University contributed to the study.

Yoo C. Kim, Henry F. Edelhauser, and Mark R. Prausnitz hold microneedle patents, and Mark Prausnitz and Henry Edelhauser have significant financial interest in Clearside Biomedical, a company developing microneedle-based products for ocular delivery. This potential conflict of interest has been disclosed and is overseen by Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.

Source: Georgia Tech

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One gene’s mutation halves heart attack risk

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 09:24

Rare mutations in a single gene are linked to lower cholesterol levels and a 50 percent reduction in the risk of heart attack, a new study shows.

The gene, called NPC1L1, is of interest because it is the target of the drug ezetimibe, often prescribed to lower cholesterol.

Everyone inherits two copies of most genes—one copy from each parent. In the study, the researchers found that people with one inactive copy of NPC1L1 appeared to be protected against high LDL cholesterol—the so-called “bad” cholesterol—and coronary heart disease, a narrowing of the heart’s arteries that can lead to heart attacks.

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“This analysis demonstrates that human genetics can guide us in terms of thinking about appropriate genes to target for clinical therapy,” says first author Nathan O. Stitziel, a cardiologist at Washington University School of Medicine.

“When people have one copy of a gene not working, it’s a little like taking a drug their entire lives that is inhibiting this gene.”

The investigators mined genetic data from large clinical trials to find individuals with naturally occurring mutations in the NPC1L1 gene that completely shut it down. They analyzed multiple existing studies, pooling data from about 113,000 people.

Of these trial participants, only 82 were found to have a mutation that shut off one copy of the NPC1L1 gene. No one had two inactive copies of NPC1L1. Based on a subset of data in the analysis, the researchers estimate roughly 1 in 650 people carry one inactive version of the gene.

A gene mutation that protects

As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, investigators found that people with only one working copy of the gene had LDL cholesterol levels an average of 12 milligrams per deciliter lower than the wider population of people with two working copies of the gene.

This approximately 10 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol is comparable to that seen in patients taking ezetimibe. But beyond simply lowering cholesterol, the 82 people with inactive copies also had about half the risk of coronary heart disease as people with two functional copies of the gene.

The individuals with the rare gene mutations did not appear to differ from the larger population in any other ways, including in measures of blood pressure, body mass index, and rates of diabetes.

“Protective mutations like the one we’ve just identified for heart disease are a treasure trove for understanding human biology,” says senior author Sekar Kathiresan of the Broad Institute at MIT, and director of preventive cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “They can teach us about the underlying causes of disease and point to important drug targets.”

Is ezetimibe the best option?

Among medications that lower cholesterol, ezetimibe is not in the widely prescribed class of drugs called statins, which stop the body from manufacturing its own cholesterol. Instead, ezetimibe blocks dietary cholesterol absorption in the gut by inhibiting the NPC1L1 protein, perhaps approximating the effect of having only one working copy of the NPC1L1 gene.

While ezetimibe is known for its cholesterol-lowering effect, there is debate over whether it also reduces risk of heart disease.

“It’s not possible to draw a direct conclusion about ezetimibe from this study,” Stitziel says. “But we can say this genetic analysis gives us some confidence that targeting this gene should reduce the risk of heart attack. Whether ezetimibe specifically is the best way to target NPC1L1 remains an open question.”

Stitziel and his colleagues point out that this question will be addressed later this month with the reporting of results from a large clinical trial called IMProved Reduction of Outcomes: Vytorin Efficacy International Trial (IMPROVE-IT).

The trial was designed to compare outcomes—such as cardiovascular-related death and heart attack—in patients taking a statin plus ezetimibe versus patients taking a statin plus placebo. Together, ezetimibe plus statins have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol more than statins alone.

IMPROVE-IT is expected to determine whether the combination therapy also lowers the risk of coronary heart disease beyond the benefit provided by statins alone.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health supported the work, as did the Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Donovan Family Foundation, Merck, and Fondation Leducq.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Rising temps to spark more lightning strikes

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 08:20

Rising temperatures in the United States could lead to a 50 percent increase in lightning strikes by the end of the century.

A new study, published in Science, looks at predictions of precipitation and cloud buoyancy in 11 different climate models and concludes their combined effect will generate more frequent electrical discharges to the ground.

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“With warming, thunderstorms become more explosive,” says David Romps, an assistant professor of earth and planetary science and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley.

“This has to do with water vapor, which is the fuel for explosive deep convection in the atmosphere. Warming causes there to be more water vapor in the atmosphere, and if you have more fuel lying around, when you get ignition, it can go big time.”

More lightning strikes mean more human injuries; estimates of people struck each year range from the hundreds to nearly a thousand, with scores of deaths.

But another significant impact of increased lightning strikes would be more wildfires, since half of all fires—and often the hardest to fight—are ignited by lightning. More lightning also would likely generate more nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, which exert a strong control on atmospheric chemistry.

Explosive atmosphere

While some studies have shown changes in lightning associated with seasonal or year-to-year variations in temperature, there have been no reliable analyses to indicate what the future may hold.

Romps and graduate student Jacob Seeley hypothesized that two atmospheric properties—precipitation and cloud buoyancy—together might be a predictor of lightning, and looked at observations during 2011 to see if there was a correlation.

“Lightning is caused by charge separation within clouds, and to maximize charge separation, you have to loft more water vapor and heavy ice particles into the atmosphere,” Romps says. “We already know that the faster the updrafts, the more lightning, and the more precipitation, the more lightning.”

Precipitation—the total amount of water hitting the ground in the form of rain, snow, hail or other forms—is basically a measure of how convective the atmosphere is, and convection generates lightning. The ascent speeds of those convective clouds are determined by a factor called CAPE—convective available potential energy—which is measured by balloon-borne instruments, called radiosondes, released around the United States twice a day.

“CAPE is a measure of how potentially explosive the atmosphere is, that is, how buoyant a parcel of air would be if you got it convecting, if you got it to punch through overlying air into the free troposphere,” Romps says. “We hypothesized that the product of precipitation and CAPE would predict lightning.”

‘Blown away’

Using US Weather Service data on precipitation, radiosonde measurements of CAPE, and lightning-strike counts from the National Lightning Detection Network at the University of Albany, State University of New York, they conclude that 77 percent of the variations in lightning strikes could be predicted from knowing just these two parameters.

“We were blown away by how incredibly well that worked to predict lightning strikes,” Romps says.

Researchers then looked at 11 different climate models that predict precipitation and CAPE through this century and are archived in the most recent Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). CMIP was established as a resource for climate scientists, providing a repository of output from global climate models that can be used for comparison and validation.

“With CMIP5, we now have for the first time the CAPE and precipitation data to calculate these time series,” Romps says.

On average, the models predict an 11 percent increase in CAPE in the US per degree Celsius rise in global average temperature by the end of the 21st century.

Cloud-to-ground lightning strikes

Because the models predict little average precipitation increase nationwide over this period, the product of CAPE and precipitation gives about a 12 percent rise in cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per degree in the contiguous US, or a roughly 50 percent increase by 2100 if Earth sees the expected 4-degree Celsius increase (7 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature. This assumes carbon dioxide emissions keep rising consistent with business as usual.

Exactly why CAPE increases as the climate warms is still an area of active research, though it is clear that it has to do with the fundamental physics of water. Warm air typically contains more water vapor than cold air; in fact, the amount of water vapor that air can “hold” increases exponentially with temperature. Since water vapor is the fuel for thunderstorms, lightning rates can depend very sensitively on temperature.

In the future, Romps plans to look at the distribution of lightning-strike increases around the US and also explore what lightning data can tell climatologists about atmospheric convection.

Romps’ coauthors are Jacob Seeley, also of the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley, and David Vollaro and John Molinari of the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at University of Albany.

The US Department of Energy’s Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research and Office of Biological and Environmental Research, and the National Science Foundation funded the research.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Mosquitoes prefer to bite male birds

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 08:03

Mosquitoes have a sweet tooth for male birds. When it’s time for a meal, they’ll bite males 64 percent of the time and females 36 percent of the time.

Scientists say the findings may help understand how to stem some viruses from spreading to humans.

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The new research is the first step in trying to figure out why mosquitoes bite men more often than women in some parts of the world and vice versa in other areas, says Nathan Burkett-Cadena, assistant professor of entomology at University of Florida.

“Understanding why mosquitoes bite males more often than females may lead to novel strategies for interrupting disease transmission.”

Research like this points scientists in the right direction toward mosquito-borne virus prevention, says Woodbridge Foster, a retired entomology professor at Ohio State University, who was not part of the study.

“In the case of humans, sex- and age-connected risk can be reduced in a number of ways, including immunization, repellents, altering work and non-work habits, and modifying the environment of the most vulnerable.”

More infected male birds

Vector-borne diseases account for an estimated 17 percent of infectious diseases globally, according to the World Health Organization. Malaria, the most deadly vector-borne disease, caused an estimated 627,000 deaths in 2012.

“Until now, it’s only been suspected that mosquitoes bite males—whether they’re humans, birds, or other animals—more often than females,” Foster says. “Male birds are infected more often than females with the diseases that mosquitoes carry, so it makes sense that mosquitoes bite males more often. However, until this study, no one had shown it.”

For the new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, Burkett-Cadena and colleagues went to a swamp near Tampa to collect hundreds of females of three mosquito species known to transmit viruses from birds to humans. Many of the mosquitoes still had blood in their digestive system that came from the animals they bit.

The mosquitoes were crushed to collect the animal blood from their guts which was then screened to determine what type of animal they had bitten. Another test determined the animal’s sex. Through the tests, researchers identified the sex of birds from which mosquitoes fed.

More human men, too?

Now that scientists know mosquitoes suck blood from male birds more than females, they can turn their research attention globally. For example, the human malaria parasite can be found five times more often in men than women in China, according to a 2009 study.

Using the new method, researchers could investigate whether mosquitoes bite men more often than women and if that is the reason Chinese men are more often infected with malaria.

“What if some behavior men are engaging in is exposing them more to mosquitoes?” Burkett-Cadena says. “It’s not that mosquitoes prefer to feed on men, but it’s probably something men are doing.

“If men and women are engaging in different activities that cause them to be bitten by mosquitoes more or less often, then perhaps people can alter their behaviors to reduce their chances of contracting a deadly disease.”

Source: University of Florida

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Should more nurses have bachelor’s degrees?

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 07:16

When hospital nurses have bachelor of science degrees, patients have shorter stays, fewer readmissions, and lower odds of dying, report researchers.

The new study—which only looked at patients at one hospital—shows care by BSN-educated nurses reduces the odds of patient mortality by roughly 11 percent. Hospital stays shorten by about 2 percent and the odds of readmission drop by nearly 19 percent.

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“The real contribution of this study is that when we looked at patients in the same hospital, who were hospitalized on the same unit with the same diagnosis, patients who received more than 80 percent of nursing care from BSN-educated nurses tended to do better—despite often being sicker at the time of admission,” says Olga Yakusheva, associate professor of nursing at University of Michigan.

For the study, published in the journal Medical Care, researchers conducted an economic evaluation of a 2010 Institute of Medicine recommendation that called for increasing the proportion of BSN-educated nurses to 80 percent by 2020.

The current national average is 55 percent, and the average of BSN-educated nurses at the hospital in the study was roughly 57 percent.

Long-term savings

The study estimates that fewer readmissions and shorter stays could save roughly $5.6 million annually—depending on how many readmissions are reimbursed—more than enough money to recoup the upfront hiring or training costs of adding BSNs, Yakusheva says.

“This makes you think, how can we give all of our patients an equal opportunity to receive the high-quality care they deserve? The answer is, or at least seems to be, investing in nurse education. Our study shows that these investments can also have real cost-saving effects in the long term.”

The study included more than 8,500 adult medical-surgical patients matched with nearly 1,500 direct-care nurses in an academic medical center over seven months.

The improved patient outcomes depend on a combined approach of increasing the hospital-level BSN proportion to 80 percent and adjusting staffing to ensure that all patients receive a higher proportion of BSN care.

Yakusheva conducted the research while at Marquette University. She worked with coauthors Richard Lindrooth of the University of Colorado and Marquette’s Marianne Weiss.

Source: University of Michigan

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