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To party with friends, young adults pop painkillers

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 19:26

Peers, but not peer pressure, may be key to prescription drug misuse among young adults, a new study suggests.

“With the 18-29 age group we may be spending unnecessary effort working a peer pressure angle in prevention and intervention efforts. That does not appear to be an issue for this age group,” says Brian Kelly, a professor of sociology and anthropology.

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“Rather, we found more subtle components of the peer context as influential. These include peer drug associations, peers as points of drug access, and the motivation to misuse prescription drugs to have pleasant times with friends.”

Prescription drug misuse has risen considerably since 2000, and is the most commonly abused substance after alcohol and marijuana for people 14 and older, according to the American Sociological Association. Popular prescription drugs that are most frequently misused are sedatives, painkillers, and stimulants. The research was presented at the association’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

Social pressure

“People normally think about peer pressure in that peers directly and actively pressure an individual to do what they are doing,” says Kelly, who also is director of Purdue’s Center for Research on Young People’s Health.

“This study looks at that form of direct social pressure as well as more indirect forms of social pressure. We find that friends are not actively pressuring them, but it’s a desire to have a good time alongside friends that matters.

“Whether that be because friends are also misusing prescription drugs, or the individual thinks, ‘If I do this, it will allow me to have a better time with my friends,’ we don’t know.”

The findings, collected from 2011-13, are based on survey interviews with 404 adults ages 18 to 29 who misused prescription drugs in the past 90 days. Two hundred fourteen in-person interviews also were conducted. These individuals were recruited from popular nightlife locations such as bars, clubs, and lounges in New York City.

Average misuse of prescription drugs, such as painkillers, sedatives, and stimulants, was 38 times in the past 90 days.

This study evaluated the role of peer factors on three prescription drug misuse outcomes: the frequency of misuse; administering drugs in ways other than swallowing, such as sniffing, smoking, and injecting the drugs; and symptoms of dependency on prescription drugs.

‘Have a good time’

“We found that peer drug associations are positively associated with all three outcomes,” Kelly says. “If there are high perceived social benefits or low perceived social consequences within the peer network they are more likely to lead to a greater frequency of misuse, as well as a greater use of non-oral methods of administration and a greater likelihood of displaying symptoms of dependence.

“The motivation to misuse prescription drugs to have a good time with friends is also associated with all three outcomes. The number of sources of drugs in their peer group also matters, which is notable since sharing prescription drugs is common among these young adults.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse supported the research.

Source: Purdue University

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Face it: Not everyone can spot a fake passport

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 18:19

Accurate face matching is central to a passport officer’s job—and vital to border security. But pairing an actual face to a picture is not necessarily something than can be taught.

A new study of Australian passport office staff reveals a 15 percent error rate in matching a person to a passport photo. In real life, such a degree of inaccuracy would correspond to several thousand travelers using fake passports.

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The findings add to earlier research that suggests one passport photo is not sufficient for security systems to be accurate and recommends that security measures would be enhanced if passports carried several different facial images.

“Psychologists identified around a decade ago that in general people are not very good at matching a person to an image on a security document,” says Mike Burton, professor of psychology at the University of Aberdeen.

“Familiar faces trigger special processes in our brain—we would recognize a member of our family, a friend, or a famous face within a crowd, in a multitude of guises, venues, angles, or lighting conditions. But when it comes to identifying a stranger it’s another story.

“The question we asked was does this fundamental brain process that occurs have any real importance for situations such as controlling passport issuing—and we found that it does.”

Wrong answer

In one test, passport officers were asked if a photograph of a person on a computer screen matched the face of a person standing in front of them. In 15 percent of the trials, officers said  that the photo did match, when in fact, it was of a different person.

“This level of human error in Australian passport office staff really is quite striking, and it would be reasonable to expect a similar level of performance at UK passport control,” says Rob Jenkins of the psychology department at the University of York.

“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15 percent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travelers bearing fake passports.”

UK Passports are valid for 10 years and should take into account changes in a person’s appearance over time.

Recognize a face

In a second test, passport officers were asked to match current face photos to images taken two years ago or to genuine photo-ID documents including passports and driving licenses.

Error rates on this task were 20 percent—a level of performance that was no different to a group of untrained student volunteers who were also tested.

“While it might have been expected that years of training and experience would have improved passport officer performance, our study showed this was not the case,” says David White of the University of New South Wales Australia, and lead author of the paper that is published in PLOS ONE. “Passport officers were no more accurate than university students.”

“This study has importantly highlighted that the ability to be good at matching a face to an image is not necessarily something that can be trained,” Burton says. “It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that some people are simply more adept at it than others.

“Our conclusion would be that focusing on training security staff may be ploughing efforts in the wrong direction. Instead we should be looking at the selection process and potentially employing tests such as the ones we conducted in the study to help us recruit people who are innately better at this process. Because of this study, the Australian Passport Office now set face matching tests when recruiting staff and when selecting facial comparison experts.”

Better technology

The study of Australian passport office staff adds to research being conducted at the University of Aberdeen asking if security measures would be enhanced if passports carried more than one image of a person.

Researchers say they hope that the study—which involves collaboration with worldwide passport controls—could lead to changes in how security systems operate in the future.

“This separate study is examining if having a multitude of images taken under different conditions presented on a passport would increase precision in facial recognition,” Burton says.

“What has been missing in the development of security technology so far is the fact that one photograph does not give us a true representation.There is a great emphasis on a passport image to fit all purposes but people often comment on the fact that their passport photo looks nothing like them.  This observation turns out to be true when tested scientifically.

“Findings from our studies show that what really matters when you learn to recognize someone is the range of pictures you see—all the possible ways a person can look in photos.

“It seems strange that we expect a single passport shot to encompass a person and allow us to consistently recognize them. If we are stuck on the concept that a good representation of a person is achieved through one image, then we are setting ourselves up for errors.”

Source: University of York

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Teens eat better if parents are home for meals

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 17:23

Teens whose parents spend breakfast and dinner time at home generally eat healthier diets than most adolescents, say researchers. Those teenagers also have, in some cases, better exercise habits.

Parents’ work schedules may be even more important than the number of hours the parents spend at work, says Molly Martin, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State.

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For example, parents who spend time with their adolescent kids after school may increase the likelihood that those children will eat regular dinners, according to the researchers. Adolescents having mothers who stay home before school are more likely to eat breakfast.

Regular meals at home can help children and adolescents avoid weight problems, Martin says.

“Eating at home can help control portion sizes, for example, and if they don’t eat breakfast at home, they might be more likely to eat junk food later in the day,” she says.

Eating a regular breakfast is an important habit for parents to instill in their children, says Martin, who adds that it can have long-term health benefits.

“Most parents might not consider eating breakfast as a health-related behavior, but it is one of the most important meals that helps kids maintain metabolism throughout the day,” Martin says. She adds that children, particularly daughters, who watch their parents skip breakfasts may be more likely to do the same.

Dads and sports

A father’s availability at home may also play an important role in influencing healthy weight behaviors, according to the researchers, who reported the findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“Fathers’ availability significantly predicted whether or not children played sports or exercised,” says Martin.

When fathers were at home, their children were more likely to eat fruit, Martin adds.

Parents are actually spending more time with their children now than a few decades ago. They have shifted priorities from spending time on household chores to using that time to be with their children. Some of these scheduling adaptations may have improved their children’s eating behaviors.

“It’s probably not an entirely conscious decision parents make to spend time with their children to improve their children’s eating habits,” Martin says.

“Parents want to spend time with their children and are feeling more of a societal push to do so, so they often choose times around their work schedules and their children’s school hours.”

Economic and social changes, such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting, and greater social expectations that parents will spend more time with their kids, have increased parental availability to children.

The researchers studied data of 16,991 adolescents from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The data set is one of the few that allowed the researchers to examine parental availability and adolescents’ eating habits.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported this work.

Source: Penn State

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Deadly heart attacks and strokes plummet in US

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 17:19

The rates of hospitalizations and deaths from heart disease and strokes have dropped significantly in the US in the last decade, more so than for any other condition.

The drop was mainly due to a steady increase in the use of evidence-based treatments and medications, as well as a growing emphasis on heart-healthy lifestyles and behaviors, according to a new study.

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Harlan Krumholz, director of the Center of Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and colleagues examined data on nearly 34 million Medicare Fee-For-Service patients from 1999 to 2011 for trends in hospitalization, dying within a month of being admitted, being admitted again within a month, and dying during the following year.

The team also factored in age, sex, race, other illnesses, and geography.

By the end of 2011, hospitalization rates among all races and areas dropped 38 percent for heart attack; 83.8 percent for unstable angina, sudden chest pain often leading to heart attack; 30.5 percent for heart failure; and 33.6 percent for ischemic stroke.

The team found that risks of dying for people hospitalized within a year decreased about 21 percent for unstable angina, 23 percent for heart attacks, and 13 percent for heart failure and stroke. The study appears in the journal Circulation.

Better lifestyle and treatment

Improved lifestyle, quality of care, and prevention strategies contributed to the decrease,” says Krumholz. He and the team also noted improvements in identifying and treating high blood pressure, a rapid rise in the use of statins, marked declines in smoking, and more timely and appropriate treatment for heart attack patients as contributing to the declines in deaths and hospitalizations.

“It is clear that the efforts of the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and others are helping people avoid premature death and disability,” says Krumholz.

“I look forward to seeing how we can produce the same or greater progress in the next decade. We also need to help others around the world to see the path to progress in the places that are seeing great growth in heart disease and stroke.”

Source: Yale University

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Meds with therapy can lift severe depression

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 17:05

Combining cognitive therapy with medication improves the odds by as much as 30 percent that a person suffering from severe, nonchronic depression will recover.

The same benefits don’t hold true for people with chronic or less severe depression, research shows.

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In North America, about one in five women and one in 10 men suffer from major depression in her or his lifetime.

“Our results indicate that combining cognitive therapy with antidepressant medicine can make a much bigger difference than we had thought to about one-third of patients suffering from major depressive disorder,” says Steven Hollon, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

“On the other hand, it does not appear to provide any additional benefit for the other two-thirds.”

Previous studies have shown that about two-thirds of all patients with major depressive disorder will improve on antidepressant medications and about one-third of patients will achieve full remission, but half then relapse before fully recovering.

Cognitive therapy is about as effective as medication alone but its effects tend to be longer lasting. Combining the two has been estimated to improve recovery rates by 6 to 33 percent.

“Now, we have to reconsider our general rule of thumb that combining the two treatments keeps the benefits of both,” Hollon says.

Remission to recovery

Reported in JAMA Psychiatry, the study was a randomized clinical trial involving 452 adult outpatients with chronic or recurrent major depressive disorder. Unlike previous studies that followed subjects for a set period of time, this study treated them for as long as it took—first to remission (full normalization of symptoms)—and then to recovery (six months without relapse), which in some cases took as long as three years.

“This provided us with enough data so that we could drill down and see how the combined treatment was working for patients with different types and severity of depression: chronic, recurrent, severe, and moderate,” Hollon says.

The results could have a major impact on how major depressive disorder is treated. The most immediate effect is likely to be in the United Kingdom, which is 10 years ahead of the United States in treatment of depression, Hollon says.

The use of combined cognitive therapy and antidepressive medicine is standard for severe cases in the UK, and the English National Health Service is actively training its therapists in cognitive therapy and other empirically supported psychotherapies.

Researchers from University of Pennsylvania, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, University of Alabama, Birmingham, Rush University, and West Chester University contributed to the study. The National Institute of Mental Health provided funding.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Why some pregnant teens eat strange things

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 10:52

Pregnant teens who engaged in pica—craving and eating non-food items—had significantly lower iron levels across a number of iron biomarkers, say researchers.

In a study of 158 pregnant teenagers in Rochester, New York, nearly half engaged in pica, the craving and intentional consumption of ice, cornstarch, vacuum dust, baby powder, and soap, and other nonfood items, reports a new Cornell study.

Pregnant teens, regardless of pica, are at higher risk for low hemoglobin, which can lead to iron deficiency and anemia. Low iron in pregnant teens raises the risk of premature births and babies with low birth weights, which in turn, increases infant mortality rates.

“In this study, the strength of the association [between pica and anemia] is as big as any known causal factor of anemia [in pregnant teens]; this is a very strong association,” says Sera Young, a research scientist in nutritional sciences in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and a coauthor of a study published online in the Journal of Nutrition.

Ice, starch, powder, soap

In the study, pica behaviors and iron deficiency increased over the course of the pregnancies.

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“As anemia increased, so did these behaviors, but we don’t know what happens first,” says Kimberly O’Brien, professor of nutritional sciences and the study’s senior author.

The study included African-American, white, and Latina pregnant teens. Of the nearly 47 percent of adolescents who reported pica behaviors, most—82 percent—craved ice, followed by starches (flour, cornstarch), powders (dust, vacuum powder, baby powder), soap (bar, laundry, and powdered), paper (sheet paper, toilet paper, tissues), plastic/foam (pillow stuffing, sponges), baking soda, and a few other items.

Texture appears to be very important to those engaged in pica and is one commonality among the types of substances consumed, says Young.

When people crave ice, they consume “cups and cups and cups of it,” says Young. At the same time, “ice is not going to change someone’s iron status,” says O’Brien, leading to her hypothesis that iron deficiency may have an effect on brain chemistry that leads to these cravings, a theory that will require animal studies to prove.

Public health concern

“The public health importance of pica really needs to be acknowledged,” says Young. “My hope is that these studies put pica on the radar as a legitimate public health issue.”

In the future, the researchers plan to study the mechanism behind whether low iron status or pica comes first and how these cravings develop. And they would like to expand their investigations into other demographic groups.

The researchers are currently studying a group of older women bearing twins and triplets, who also engage in pica behaviors but are “on the opposite end of the reproductive spectrum” as the adolescents, says O’Brien.

Young has documented pica around the world, but “this is happening in our own backyard,” she says. “This is not rural Kenya, this is Rochester, New York,” she says, noting the high prevalence and severity of pica.

Rachel Lumish, who worked in O’Brien’s lab as an undergraduate, is the paper’s first author. Co-authors include researchers from the University of Rochester.

The US Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health supported the study.

Source: Cornell University

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Why you can’t treat breast cancer as one disease

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 09:34

Scientists have identified an overactive protein that may provide a target to treat basal-like breast cancer, a deadly carcinoma that is resistant to many types of chemotherapy.

Basal-like cancer is a category that includes a number of different breast cancers, including the highly aggressive form called triple negative cancer.

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However, when they looked at patterns of gene expression in basal-like cancer and another cancer subtype, they found that a small number of genes are activated by STAT3 protein signaling in basal-like breast cancers but not in luminal breast cancers.

“You can’t treat breast cancer as one disease,” says Curt M. Horvath, professor of molecular biosciences and of microbiology-immunology and medicine at Northwestern University.

“Cancer describes many molecular processes that have gone wrong. We have teased out from large amounts of data that STAT3 activity correlates with distinct patterns of gene expression in one type of breast cancer but not in another.”

Overactive protein

The findings published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest a clinical study should be conducted of a STAT3-inhibiting drug in patients with basal-like and luminal cancers, Horvath says. Currently there are no pills or injections targeting STAT3 for breast cancer patients.

Previous research has found the STAT3 protein to be overactive in many breast cancers, but its role has not been well understood. The new research is the first reported study to compare breast cancer subtypes and gene expression patterns associated with STAT3 in the tumors of human patients.

The analysis is based on breast cancer patient data taken from the Cancer Genome Atlas. Researchers emphasize that this is a statistical analysis and that the findings need to be verified with careful laboratory and clinical experiments.

“The Cancer Genome Atlas is a really rich and growing database of publicly available data created to help us understand cancer,” Horvath says. “It allows basic scientists to ask interesting questions about cancer and contribute to clinical care.”

Clear patterns

Horvath and Robert W. Tell, a postdoctoral fellow in Horvath’s lab, observed that there are many clearly visible patterns of common gene expression—where certain genes are turned on and certain genes are turned off—in the basal-like cancers. Those clear patterns were not seen in the luminal cancers.

“This opens up the possibility that cancer subtype-specific signaling is driven by STAT3, and that STAT3 inhibitors may be more effective in patients diagnosed with basal-like cancers than in those with luminal cancers,” Horvath says.

STAT3 stands for “signal transducer and activator of transcription 3,” a transcription factor (a protein) encoded by the STAT3 gene in humans. In addition to its known roles in cancerous cells, STAT3 also is an essential mediator of cytokine and growth factor signals in normal cells that are important for diverse processes including immunity and inflammation.

The researchers identified 84 genes that are expressed differently in basal-like cancer tumors as compared to luminal cancer tumors. These genes are highly representative of the immune response and inflammation processes, Horvath says, and are consistent with the role of STAT3.

The intensive analysis used data from 825 breast cancer patients from across the country, each with hundreds of data points. The data included protein expression, protein phosphorylation, which indicates which signaling pathways are activated, and messenger RNA and microRNA expression.

To sort through the vast amounts of data, the researchers used Quest, a high-performance computing system at Northwestern. The computer cluster they used offered the equivalent of the processors and random-access memory (RAM) of eight powerful desktop computers linked together.

The H Foundation and a Signal Transduction in Cancer Training Program of the National Cancer Institute supported the research.

Source: Northwestern University

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Are athletes playing too soon after a concussion?

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 07:29

High school athletes who return to the field less than a month after a concussion may have trouble walking and performing mental exercises at the same time, a new study shows.

Researchers tested 19 athletes and found that 12 showed signs of regression in balance and/or speed. Seven who didn’t return for more than 20 days performed similarly to uninjured control subjects.

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The findings, published online ahead of print in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, take a closer look at data from a 2013 study in the same journal.

That study showed that 25 concussed high school athletes had compromised abilities to focus and switch tasks for up to two months after their injuries. Six of the athletes did not return to action in the study period and were excluded in the new analysis.

In the course of the original research, athletes reported on when they had been cleared to resume practicing. At 28 days post injury, the data suggested a regression, says principal investigator Li-Shan Chou, professor of human physiology at University of Oregon.

“We had seen this same type of curve in an earlier study of college athletes,” he says. “We didn’t have any evidence linking it to a return to activity, but we did discuss that possibility, because we knew that they usually were permitted to return to practice two weeks after a concussion.”

A turn in recovery

For the new analysis, lead author David Howell, looked at when the athletes—13 from football, four from soccer, and one each from wrestling and volleyball—returned to activity.

He focused on individual data, comparing return-to-activity status with the results of three tests: simply walking, separately doing simple computerized mental exercises, and a combination in which they walked and performed mental exercises simultaneously.

“There had been a continuous improvement prior to the athletes’ return to activity,” Chou says. “But at the data point taken after their return to activity, we saw a turn in their recovery in the opposite direction.

“When the athletes did a simple walking test, there was no regression. Just using the computer task to probe their cognitive functioning, we didn’t see a regression. However, put together, we did.”

Slower reaction time

In the dual task exercise, the athletes, while walking, heard a spoken word and identified whether it was delivered in a low- or high-pitched tone. In other variations, the subjects’ were told, as they began walking, to recite months backward from October or subtract 7 repeatedly, beginning from 100.

The more complex a secondary task the greater the effect on a concussed individual than a non-injured control subject, Chou says.

The earlier published study found slowed reaction time of 30 to 40 milliseconds among concussed athletes two months after injury.

“For many of us, that is just a blink of the eyes, but for athletes to be sure their bodily position is ready to perform a very skillful avoidance maneuver or prepare to safely take a collision, 30 milliseconds is a critical length of time for assuming that posture,” he says.

Control subjects were healthy individuals of the same sex, body size, age, and sport of the injured athletes. The research focused on frontal regions of the brain responsible for working, or short-term, memory and executive function.

Source: University of Oregon

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Neglected boys are more likely to be violent teens

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 13:43

Parental neglect during childhood—not physical abuse—is the strongest predictor of violent behavior during a boy’s teen years, according to a study of incarcerated male adolescents.

“One of the problems with studying neglect is that it is an act of omission, rather than one of commission. In other words, it is characterized as the absence of an act, rather than an actual act of mistreatment,” says William McGuigan, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. “However, now we have better measures and larger databases to document neglect.”

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Examples of physical neglect include not taking a sick or injured child to the doctor or not providing proper clothing and food.

McGuigan and colleagues presented their research recently at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

Their findings show that while physical abuse is a significant contributor to violent behavior, physical neglect alone is a stronger predictor of male adolescent violence than physical abuse, or even physical abuse and neglect combined.

“It sounds somewhat contrarian, but the physical abuse might at least show that parents are paying some type of attention to the child,” McGuigan says.

Understanding how neglect can influence violent behavior in adolescent males may lead to better education for caregivers and better care for at-risk youths.

Prone to violence

“We have to look more into neglect and become more aware of how it may cause some of these violent behaviors,” McGuigan says. “From that, we can build early preventative care programs than can help avoid these negative outcomes.”

The research could also create assessments that, for example, might help protect people who care for adolescents by identifying youths who are more prone to violence.

For the study, researchers analyzed data taken from a survey of 85 subjects, who are residents of a Pennsylvania detention center for delinquent males. In the survey, 25 of the participants, or 29.4 percent of the group, said that they experienced at least one incidence of childhood neglect. Acts of violence included fighting with students or parents, hitting teachers or instructors, and using a weapon to scare, rob, or injure another person.

Sexual abuse was not included in the survey. Only two subjects responded that they were sexually abused in the survey, which was not enough to provide conclusive findings, McGuigan says.

Source: Penn State

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A bad boss can make the whole team mean

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 13:00

Bosses who are abusive to one employee can actually cause conflict among the whole team, which hurts productivity, according to new research.

The study is one of the first attempts to examine the effect of bad bosses in employee teams. Teams are increasingly popular in the business world.

Lead investigator Crystal Farh says supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another.

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“That’s the most disturbing finding,” Farh says, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.”

Farh, assistant professor of management in Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, says the findings could likely be explained by social learning theory, in which people learn and then model behavior based on observing others, in this case the boss.

Previous research has shown that workers emulate supervisors’ positive behaviors, she says, so it only makes sense they would follow negative behaviors as well.

For the study, Farh and Zhijun Chen from the University of Western Australia studied 51 teams of employees from 10 firms in China. Average team size was about six workers and the teams performed a variety of functions including customer service, technical support, and research and development.

The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails. Employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team.

At the same time, the entire team “descended into conflicts,” Farh says, which also reduced worker contributions.

“Teams characterized by relationship conflict,” Farh says, “are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely, and experience negative emotions toward them.”

The study was replicated in a controlled laboratory setting in the United States, with nearly 300 participants.

The findings have implications for companies faced with rehabilitating a team of employees following abusive supervision.

In the past, companies may have simply targeted abused employees with efforts to restore their self-esteem. While that’s still important, Farh says, efforts should also be made to fix the team’s interpersonal relationships by re-establishing trust and harmony.

The findings appear online in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Source: Michigan State

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Where you live may affect how you fare after heart failure

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 12:56

Living in a low-income neighborhood may raise the risk that heart patients will be readmitted to the hospital.

“The association between neighborhood SES (socioeconomic status) and outcomes of patients with heart disease has been under investigation for two decades,” says Behnood Bikdeli, a research scholar at Yale Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation.

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Neighborhood characteristics such as noise, air pollution, crime, and access to healthy foods and exercise facilities are tied to neighborhood socioeconomic status.

“The central question has been whether low neighborhood SES represents as a marker of higher risk, or is independently associated with higher risk of adverse outcomes.”

Bikdeli and colleagues studied more than 1,500 patients with heart failure and found that low neighborhood SES was linked to higher rates of hospital readmissions for all causes six months after initial hospital admission.

Bikdeli says this is not surprising because prior studies have shown similar findings, but this recent study focused on information about individual demographics, clinical characteristics, co-morbidities, medications, and individual SES.

Neighborhood-level factors

“We demonstrated that the impact of neighborhood of residence persisted even after stepwise adjustments for all individual-level factors,” says Bikdeli. “In a broader sense, our study highlights that a wide array of factors that may impact disease outcomes.

“Although there may be some interrelation between individual and neighborhood characteristics, we believe that individual factors and neighborhood-level factors can independently impact the outcomes of patients with chronic conditions such as heart failure.”

Bikdeli says a crucial next step in the research is to test whether changing the modifiable neighborhood characteristics would help improve patient outcomes.

“In order to prevent readmission, we may need to focus on neighborhood factors, as well as individual patient factors,” he says.

The study was published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

Source: Yale University

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Scan baby’s fingerprints to track immunizations

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 12:19

More than 2 million children die each year because they don’t receive their vaccinations on time. Researchers are developing a new system that scans a child’s fingerprints to track when vaccinations are due, which means parents will no longer need to keep paper documents.

In developing countries, keeping track of a baby’s vaccine schedule on paper is largely ineffective, says Anil Jain, professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University.

“Paper documents are easily lost or destroyed,” he says. “Our initial study has shown that fingerprints of infants and toddlers have great potential to accurately record immunizations. You can lose a paper document, but not your fingerprints.”

Mothers and babies wait for booster immunizations and vaccinations in a health facility in Benin, Africa. (Credit: Sunpreet Arora)

For a new study, Jain and colleagues traveled to rural health facilities in Benin, West Africa, to test the new system. They used an optical fingerprint reader to scan the thumbs and index fingers of babies and toddlers. From this scanned data, a schedule will be created and become a part of the vaccine registry system.

Once the electronic registry is in place, health care workers simply re-scan the child’s fingers to view the vaccination schedule. They know who has been vaccinated, for what diseases, and when additional booster shots are needed.

No lost information

The new electronic registry system will help overcome the lack and loss of information, which is the primary problem in the vaccine delivery system in developing countries, Jain says.

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Collecting fingerprints from fidgety infants isn’t easy. Another challenge is their small fingerprint patterns have low contrast between ridges and valleys.

“The process can still be improved but we have shown its feasibility,” Jain says. “We will continue to work on refining the fingerprint matching software and finding the best reader to capture fingerprints of young children, which will be of immense global value. We also plan to conduct a longitudinal study to ensure that fingerprints of babies can be successfully matched over time.”

There will be other benefits in addition to tracking vaccinations, says Mark Thomas, executive director of VaxTrac, a nonprofit organization supporting Jain’s research.

“Solving the puzzle of fingerprinting young children will have far-reaching implications beyond health care, including the development of civil registries, government benefits’ tracking, and education recordkeeping.”

Kai Cao postdoctoral researcher, and Sunpreet Arora, doctoral student are coauthors of the study. The findings will be presented at the International Joint Conference on Biometrics on Oct. 2.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the project.

Source: Michigan State University

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Bacterial nanowires aren’t ‘hair’ after all

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 08:51

Videos of morphing bacteria reveal that the strange hair-like features of so-called “electric bacteria” aren’t quite what they at first appeared to be.

The nanowires are actually extensions of the bacteria’s outer membrane equipped with proteins that transfer electrons called “cytochromes.”

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Scientists had long suspected that bacterial nanowires were pili—Latin for “hair”. The hair-like features are common on other bacteria, allowing them to adhere to surfaces and even connect to one another.

Given the similarity of shape, it was easy to believe that nanowires were pili. But Moh El-Naggar, assistant professor at the University of Southern California, says he was always careful to avoid saying that he knew for sure that’s what they were.

“The pili idea was the strongest hypothesis, but we were always cautious because the exact composition and structure were very elusive. Then we solved the experimental challenges and the hard data took us in a completely different direction. I have never been happier about being wrong.

“In many ways, it turned out to be an even cleverer way for bacteria to power themselves,” says El-Naggar, corresponding author of the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The first clue came from tracking the genes of the bacteria. During the formation of nanowires, scientists noted an increase in the expression of electron transport genes, but no corresponding increase in the expression of pilin genes.

Challenged by this evidence of what nanowires weren’t, the team next needed to figure out what they actually were. El-Naggar credits graduate student Sahand Pirbadian with devising an ingenious yet simple strategy to make the discovery.

Show your nanowires

By depriving the bacteria of oxygen, the researchers were able to force the bacteria to stretch out their nanowires on command, allowing the process to be observed in real time. And by staining the bacterial membrane, periplasm, cytoplasm, and specific proteins, researchers were able to take video of the nanowires reaching out—confirming that they were based on membrane and not pili at all.

The process isn’t as simple as it sounds. Generating videos of the nanowires stretching out required new methods to simultaneously label multiple features, keep a camera focused on the wriggling bacteria and combine the optical techniques with atomic force microscopy to gain higher resolution.

“It took us about a year just to develop the experimental set-up and figure out the right conditions for the bacteria to produce nanowires,” Pirbadian says. “We had to go back and re-examine some older experiments and rethink what we knew about the organism.

“Once we were able to induce nanowire growth, we started analyzing their composition and structure, which took another year of work. But it was well worth the effort because the outcome was very surprising—but in hindsight made a lot of sense.”

Understanding the way these electric bacteria work has applications well beyond the lab. Such creatures have the potential to address some of the big questions about the nature of life itself, including what types of lifeforms we might find in extreme environments, such as space.

In addition, this research has the potential to inform the creation of living, microbial circuits—forming the foundation of hybrid biological-synthetic electronic devices.

Scientists from USC collaborated on the research with colleagues from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The US Department of Energy and Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded the research at USC, which was made possible by facilities at the USC Centers of Excellence in NanoBioPhysics and Electron Microsopy and Microanalysis.

Source: USC

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This could explain why older adults can’t stay sleep

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 08:41

A loss of neurons in a part of the brain that serves as an on/off switch for sleep may explain why so many older adults suffer from insomnia.

“In many older people with insomnia and other patterns of sleep disruption, the underlying cause is unknown,” says Andrew Lim, assistant professor of neurology at University of Toronto. “We provide evidence that loss of neurons in a particular region of the brain that controls sleep may be an important contributor to insomnia in many older individuals.”

(Credit: Miguel Pires da Rosa/Flickr)

The new findings demonstrate for the first time that a group of inhibitory neurons are substantially diminished among the elderly and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

“On average, a person in his 70s has about one hour less sleep per night than a person in his 20s,” says Clifford B. Saper, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of the study published in the journal Brain.

“Sleep loss and sleep fragmentation is associated with a number of health issues, including cognitive dysfunction, increased blood pressure, and vascular disease, and a tendency to develop type 2 diabetes. It now appears that loss of these neurons may be contributing to these various disorders as people age.”

Profound insomnia

In 1996, the Saper lab first discovered that the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, a key cell group of inhibitory neurons, was functioning as a “sleep switch” in rats, turning off the brain’s arousal systems to enable animals to fall asleep.

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“Our experiments in animals showed that loss of these neurons produced profound insomnia, with animals sleeping only about 50 percent as much as normal and their remaining sleep being fragmented and disrupted,” he says.

A group of cells in the human brain, the intermediate nucleus, is located in a similar location and has the same inhibitory neurotransmitter, galanin, as the vetrolateral preoptic nucleus in rats.

Researchers hypothesized that if the intermediate nucleus was important for human sleep and was homologous to the animal’s ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, then it may also similarly regulate humans’ sleep-wake cycles.

Movement monitor

In order to test this hypothesis, the investigators analyzed data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a community-based study of aging and dementia which began in 1997 and has been following a group of almost 1,000 people who entered the study as healthy 65-year-olds and are followed until their deaths, at which point their brains are donated for research.

“Since 2005, most of the subjects in the Memory and Aging Project have been undergoing actigraphic recording every two years. This consists of their wearing a small wristwatch-type device on their non-dominant arm for seven to 10 days,” says Lim, a former member of the Saper lab.

The actigraphy device, which is waterproof, is worn 24 hours a day and monitors all movements, large and small, divided into 15-second intervals. “Our previous work had determined that actigraphic readings indicating absence of movement for five minutes or longer correlated with sleep intervals,” Lim says.

The authors examined the brains of 45 study subjects (median age at death, 89.2), identifying ventrolateral preoptic neurons by staining the brains for the neurotransmitter galanin.  They then correlated the actigraphic rest-activity behavior of the 45 individuals in the year prior to their deaths with the number of remaining ventrolateral preoptic neurons at autopsy.

Fragmented sleep

“We found that in the older patients who did not have Alzheimer’s disease, the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons correlated inversely with the amount of sleep fragmentation,” Saper says. “The fewer the neurons, the more fragmented the sleep became.”

The subjects with the largest amount of neurons (greater than 6,000) spent 50 percent or more of the sleep time in prolonged periods of non-movement while subjects with the fewest ventrolateral preoptic neurons (less than 3,000) spent less than 40 percent of their nights in extended periods of sleep.

The results further showed that among Alzheimer’s patients, most sleep impairment seemed to be related to the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons that had been lost.

“These findings may one day lead to novel treatments for insomnia and other patterns of sleep disruption in old age, thereby improving quality of life,” says Lim.

“And given recent evidence that sleep disruption may predispose to or potentiate the development of Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps even prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Source: University of Toronto

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Clear material on windows harvests solar energy

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 08:10

A new type of “transparent” solar concentrator can be used on windows or mobile devices to harvest solar energy without obscuring the view.

Past efforts to create similar materials have been disappointing, with inefficient energy production or highly colored materials.

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“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” says Richard Lunt, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.”

The solar harvesting system uses small organic molecules developed by Lunt and his team to absorb specific nonvisible wavelengths of sunlight.

“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared,” he says.

The “glowing” infrared light is guided to the edge of the plastic, where it is converted to electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells.

“Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye,” Lunt says.

Tall buildings with lots of windows

One of the benefits of this new development is its flexibility. While the technology is at an early stage, it has the potential to be scaled to commercial or industrial applications. The technology is featured in the journal Advanced Optical Materials.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a nonintrusive way,” Lunt says. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

Lunt says more work is needed in order to improve its energy-producing efficiency. Currently it is able to produce a solar conversion efficiency close to 1 percent, but noted they aim to reach efficiencies beyond 5 percent when fully optimized. The best colored LSC has an efficiency of around 7 percent.

Source: Michigan State University

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Less than half of black youth trust police

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 07:34

Black young people overwhelmingly believe that the American legal system does not treat all groups equally, according to a new report. Black youth are also far more likely than other young people to have negative experiences with the police.

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The report by the Black Youth Project considers youth survey data from 2014 and 2009 in light of recent cases of racial tension, including the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

“Since 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the media have focused on racial tension among residents there, but this situation is nothing new in black communities,” says Cathy J. Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who coauthored the report with Jon C. Rogowski, assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The Michael Brown tragedy and those like it are indicators of systemic injustices that have resulted in long-standing tensions between law enforcement and the black community,” Cohen says.

 Lack of trust

The data in the report came from the 2009 Mobilization and Change survey, which included 3,202 respondents, and the 2014 Black Youth Project study, which surveyed 1,527 people between the ages of 18 and 29. The main findings include:

  • Black youth report the highest rate of harassment by the police (54.5 percent), nearly twice the rates of other young people.
  • Less than half of black youth (44.2 percent) trust the police, compared with 71.5 percent of white youth, 59.6 percent of Latino youth, and 76.1 percent of Asian American youth.
  • Substantially fewer black youth believe the police in their neighborhood are there to protect them (66.1 percent) compared to young people from other racial and ethnic groups.

“This data also showed us that young people nationwide view the legal system quite differently across racial groups,” says Rogowksi.

“Although equal protection under the law is a key component of political equality and human rights, many young people of color do not believe that the legal system treats all groups fairly,” Rogowski says.

Only about a quarter of black youth (26.8 percent) said the American legal system treats all groups equally. While a majority of black youth (60.2 percent) report feeling like full and equal citizens, that figure is the lowest among the groups surveyed.

The Black Youth Project is a national collaboration based at UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.

Source: University of Chicago

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Can romance entice men to take anti-HIV drugs?

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 07:20

Men in steady same-sex relationships where both partners are HIV-negative will often forgo condoms because they want to preserve intimacy, even if they also have sex outside the relationship. But the risk of HIV still lurks.

In a new study of gay and bisexual men who reported at least one instance of condomless anal sex in the last 30 days, researchers found that the same desire for intimacy is also a strong predictor of whether men would be willing to take antiretroviral medications to prevent HIV, an emerging practice known as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP.

Earlier this year the US Public Health Service recommended that people at high risk of getting HIV use PrEP, including gay or bisexual men who have condomless anal sex.

But as the recommendation becomes clinical practice, many people are wondering whether men will make PrEP part of their daily lives and what will keep them motivated to adhere to it strictly, which is required if the medication is to have its protective effect.

‘Intimacy motivation’

The new study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, suggests that PrEP’s appeal to many men who have sex with men (MSM) in romantic relationships with HIV-negative partners is the perception that it can allow them to remain intimate with their partners while still having some protection from HIV.

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“In this sample of men who are in a relationship with a perceived HIV-negative man, we found that intimacy motivation was the strongest predictor [of adopting PrEP],” says Kristi Gamarel, a psychiatry and human behavior postdoctoral researcher in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

“Sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum—interpersonal and relationship context really matter. Many HIV infections are occurring between people who are in a primary relationship.”

The study is based on extensive interviews with 164 HIV-negative MSMs who were in steady same-sex relationships and who had condomless anal sex at least once in the prior 30 days.

The researchers found in a multivariate statistical analysis that those who rated intimacy highly as a reason why they sometimes engage in condomless sex also were 54 percent more likely to say they would adopt PrEP if it were available for free (likely a hypothetical condition for many, but not necessarily all, recipients).

In basic analyses reported in the paper, there were several other factors in the study that also predicted a greater likelihood of adopting PrEP: older age, higher perception of HIV risk, sex (either protected or not) with partners outside the main relationship, and having less than a bachelor’s degree level of education.

But upon controlling for possible overlap among factors, desire for intimacy, low education levels and, to a lesser extent, older age survived as the strongest predictors of using PrEP.

Talking about relationships

An important implication of the study’s findings are that as physicians and counselors discuss PrEP with MSM in steady relationships, Gamarel says, they should consider that a desire for intimacy in the relationship appears to be a prime motivation.

“For people who are disseminating PrEP or talking to patients about PrEP, I think it’s important to think about their relationships,” Gamarel says. “Something that’s being supported and endorsed right now by the World Health Organization is couples voluntary testing and counseling. That may be a way to disseminate PrEP and to allow couples to have a discussion about whether PrEP is good for their relationship and how they can support each other using PrEP.”

Gamarel cautions that the study results cannot be taken as evidence that PrEP will reduce condom use. The men in this study were already forgoing condoms at times without being on PrEP, Gamarel notes. The study simply sought to ascertain whether these men would adopt PrEP and to determine why.

Condoms remain uniquely important to gay men’s sexual health, she notes, both because they reduce the risk of HIV transmission and because they can block other sexually transmitted infections that PrEP does not.

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the study. Gamarel was at the City University of New York with senior author and principal investigator Sarit Golub when she performed the research.

Source: Brown University

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‘Sticky’ lubricant stays in place to ease arthritis pain

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 07:17

A lubricant that doesn’t wash away could ease arthritis pain in knees and shoulders, keep artificial joints working smoothly, and even make contact lenses more comfortable.

Biomedical engineers discovered a way to bind the lubricant to a sticky manmade molecule that then essentially locks it in place on the surface of cartilage and eye tissues.

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“What I like about this concept is that we’re mimicking natural functions that are lost, using synthetic materials,” says  Jennifer H. Elisseeff, professor of ophthalmology, biomedical engineering, and materials science at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists have long known that hyaluronic acid (HA) is abundant in the fluid that surrounds joints like knees, shoulders, and wrists.

HA is an important component for naturally lubricating tissues; one form of the biochemical also reduces inflammation and protects cells from metabolic damage.

Diseased, damaged, or aging joints in hips, knees, shoulders, and elbows often have far lower concentrations of HA, presumably because a protein that binds HA molecules to joint surfaces is no longer able to retain HA where it is needed.

HA injections, a method known as viscosupplementation, have become popular treatments for painful joints. Without a way to retain HA at the site, however, the body’s natural cleaning processes soon wash it away.

Reduces friction

For a new study, published online in the journal Nature Materials, Elisseeff  looked at molecules known as HA-binding peptides (HABpeps), which stick to HA.

In the laboratory, using HABpep as a chemical handle, she and her colleagues used a second, synthetic molecule, polyethylene glycol, to tie HA onto surfaces that included natural and artificial cartilage and eye tissue.

Tests on tissues and in animals show that the bound HA didn’t easily wash away. It also reduced friction as successfully as when the tissues were immersed in a bath of unbound HA.

When researchers injected a HABpep designed to attach to cartilage in rat knees, then injected HA, that HA stuck around 12 times as long as it did in rats that hadn’t been given HABpep, suggesting that these peptides could be a promising addition to viscosupplementation.

The HABpep-polymer system could also be useful as an eyedrop solution to improve contact lens comfort and keep damaged eye tissues lubricated.

The National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the Arthritis Research Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the Ort Philanthropic Fund, and Research to Prevent Blindness funded the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Did ‘pygmy genes’ help hunter-gatherers survive rainforests?

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 07:29

Batwa hunter-gatherers may have evolved their small statures as a way to live in the rainforest, but probably did so more recently than previously thought.

Scientists say the body size associated with the pygmy phenotype is probably a selective adaptation for rainforest hunter-gatherers, but new research indicates that all African pygmy phenotypes don’t have the same genetic underpinnings.

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“I’m interested in how rainforest hunter-gatherers have adapted to their very challenging environments,” says George H. Perry, assistant professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State.

“Tropical rainforests are difficult for humans to live in. It is extremely hot and humid with limited food, especially when fruit is not in season.”

A phenotype is the outward expression of genetic makeup and while two individuals with the same phenotype may look alike, their genes may differ substantially.

The pygmy phenotype exists in many parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and potentially in South America. It’s usually associated with rainforest hunter-gathers, groups of people who do not farm, but obtain resources by hunting large and small animals and gathering fruit, nuts, insects, and other available resources.

Perry and colleagues looked at the genetics of the Batwa rainforest hunter-gatherers of Uganda and compared them to their farming neighbors, the Bakiga, with whom they traditionally trade forest products for grain, and sometimes intermarry.

The researchers also looked at the Baka rainforest hunter-gatherers and their farming neighbors the Nzebi/Nzime in central Africa.

Good and bad mutations

The average height for Batwa men is five foot and for women it is four foot eight inches. Their short stature is not caused by a single genetic mutation as occurs in many forms of dwarfism, but is the result of a variety of genetic changes throughout the genome that influence height.

The researchers investigated 16 different genetic locations that were associated with short stature when they looked at individuals who were an admixture of Batwa and Bakiga. Several of these regions contained genes known to be involved with growth in humans. They then studied these regions to look for indications that the changes were ones that persisted because they were adaptive.

Genetic mutations occur in populations all the time. If they have a negative impact on the individual, they tend to disappear from the population quickly. If they have no noticeable impact for the good or bad, they might disappear as well, although more slowly.

Mutations which have positive influence on individuals, making them more fit for their environment, tend to spread through the population.

Short benefits

Short stature may be adaptive for rainforest individuals for a variety of reasons, Perry says. Small bodies require less food, which is adaptive for a food-limited location like the rainforest. Small bodies also generate less heat, which, in the heat and humidity of the rainforest, is adaptive.

It is also easier for small, agile individuals to move through dense undergrowth and to climb trees.

The results of the genetic comparison indicated that there was a statistical difference between the two groups indicative of multi gene adaptation.

However, when they looked at the Baka of West Africa, they did not find the same types of changes in the 16 genetic locations.

“What we think we see is that regions of the genome that are involved in the Batwa’s pygmy phenotype do not look the same in West Africa,” says Perry. “If the pygmy phenotype were really old, then we would have expected the locations to be similar.”

The fact that they are not suggests that both of these pygmy phenotypes arose independently, separated geographically, with different underlying genetics, but with individuals who look similar. This leaves the door open for a much later development of the pygmy phenotype adaptation.

Researchers from McGill University, University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, University of Montreal, Makerere University, Uganda, and University of Bern were among other researchers involved with the study.

The David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Human Frontiers Science Program, Institut Pasteur, CNRS and Simone & Cino del Duca Foundation supported this work.

Source: Penn State

“I’m interested in how rainforest hunter-gatherers have adapted to their very challenging environments,” says George H. Perry. “Tropical rainforests are difficult for humans to live in. It is extremely hot and humid with limited food, especially when fruit is not in season.” (Credit:

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Abstinence changes how men define ‘manly’

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 07:01

Bragging, dirty jokes, and sexual one-upmanship are ways young men, eager to assert their masculinity, often demonstrate their “manhood.”

But how does masculinity work for young men who’ve pledged sexual abstinence before marriage? How do they handle sexual temptation, and what sorts of challenges crop up once they’re married?

“Sexual purity and pledging abstinence are most commonly thought of as feminine, something girls and young women promise before marriage,” says Sarah Diefendorf, a sociology graduate student at the University of Washington. “But I wanted to look at this from the men’s point of view.”

Studying a group of 15 young evangelical Christian men, Diefendorf learned that support groups and open discussions about sex with trusted companions were key in helping the men during their pre-marital years.

But once married, they faced trouble. Instructed by the church to keep problems “in the dark” after marriage, the men reported feeling like they couldn’t discuss sex with their friends and didn’t know how to comfortably broach the subject with their wives. The newly wedded men also expressed surprise that sexual temptations continued to taunt them.

Diefendorf presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

Sacred or beastly?

At the start of her study, in 2008, the men were in their late teens and early 20s and part of a support group for young men who had pledged to remain virgins until marriage. The group was affiliated with a nondenominational evangelical megachurch in the southwest United States that had about 14,000 attendees at Sunday services.

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Over the course of a year, Diefendorf attended their meetings, and conducted one-on-one interviews and focus-group meetings with the men.

The men talked about sex as both “sacred”—a gift from God meant for the marriage bed—and “beastly” if it occurs outside of marriage.

“To maintain this gift from God, they believe that they must control sex before marriage,” Diefendorf says. The support group is one way for the young men to explore their sexual urges, she says.

Many of them opened up to struggles with pornography and masturbation, which some considered as “destructive” and a threat to their commitment to abstinence.

“People think that evangelical support groups are just about suppressing men’s natural urges, but really they are caring, supportive, and safe space that allow men to have a remarkably open and frank discussion about sexual desire,” Diefendorf says.

Besides the support group, the men sought out accountability partners to help control their behavior. One of them, for instance, had an accountability partner who would text-message him each night, “Are you behaving?” Some of them used software to track which websites they visited, and shared the results with the partner.

A taboo topic

A few years later, in 2011 and 2012, Diefendorf followed up with the men. Fourteen of them were married and she wanted to find out how the men’s views of sex and masculinity had changed since marriage.

During a focus-group meeting in one of their homes, it soon became clear that as taboo as sexual activity was before marriage, it was now taboo to talk about sex as it was seen as disrespecting their wives.

“After marriage, the church culture assumes that couples become each other’s support, regardless of the issue at hand,” Diefendorf says. “There’s little support in figuring out sexuality in married life, and these men don’t know how to talk to their wives about it.”

As one of the men put it: “For me to come home from work and say, ‘hey, did you like it last time?’ I mean that would be—that would be such a weird question for me to ask.”

The newlyweds also revealed they continue to think of sex in terms of control, and how the so-called beastly elements of sex—temptations by pornography and extramarital affairs—do not disappear with the transition to married life.

“Before you get married the biggest thing you struggle with, usually, is premarital sex,” one of the men told Diefendorf. “But once you are married, you can’t be tempted by that anymore, so you get attacked by completely different things…Essentially Satan has to find a new angle to attack on.”

Let’s talk about sex

They wished for more guidance from the church, and someone in the group said he’d cheer if his pastor decided to talk more about sex.

“While the whole point of these support groups is to honor sex in marriage, these men have gotten so used to thinking about sex as something negative that they bring those concerns with them to the marriage bed,” Deifendorf says.

“Once they’re married, these men struggle to manage those concerns in the absence of the supportive community they once benefited from.”

She hopes that her study leads to more positive discussions of sex and how it is healthy, especially within the context of abstinence-only sex education.

“There’s an obsession with virginity in this country,” Diefendorf says. “And we forget to have informative, successful conversations on sex.”

Source: University of Washington

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