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Why you shouldn’t help your coworkers unless they ask

Mon, 2018-10-22 14:54

When it comes to offering your expertise, it’s better to keep it to yourself or wait until you’re asked, according to new research.

Building upon previous findings that showed how helping colleagues slows one’s success, management professor Russell Johnson looked more closely at the different kinds of help in which people engage at work—and how that help was received.

“…it’s not necessarily the best thing when you go out looking for problems and spending time trying to fix them.”

“Right now, there’s a lot of stress on productivity in the workplace, and to be a real go-getter and help everyone around you,” Johnson says. “But, it’s not necessarily the best thing when you go out looking for problems and spending time trying to fix them.”

In looking at the ways people help one another in the workplace, Johnson explains that there are two basic kinds of help one can offer—proactive and reactive help—which are differentiated by whether or not a coworker requests assistance.

If you’re the go-getter and actively offering to help others, you’re proactively helping. If a coworker approaches you and asks for assistance that you then give, you’re reactively helping, Johnson explains.

“What we found was that on the helper side, when people engage in proactive help, they often don’t have a clear understanding of recipients’ problems and issues, thus they receive less gratitude for it,” Johnson says. “On the recipient side, if people are constantly coming up to me at work and asking if I want their help, it could have an impact on my esteem and become frustrating. I’m not going to feel inclined to thank the person who tried to help me because I didn’t ask for it.”

Johnson surveyed 54 employees between the ages of 21 and 60 who worked full-time jobs across a variety of industries, including manufacturing, government, health care, and education. He collected data over 10 days for a collective 232 daily observations to assess daily helping, receipt of gratitude, perceived positive social impact, and work engagement.

“Being proactive can have toxic effects, especially on the helper.”

With less gratitude for the helper and lower esteem for the person receiving help, Johnson explains that the respondents’ answers proved that proactive help has negative bearings on both sides—but for different reasons.

“Being proactive can have toxic effects, especially on the helper. They walk away receiving less gratitude from the person that they’re helping, causing them to feel less motivated at work the next day. More often than not, help recipients won’t express gratitude immediately, which makes it meaningless as it relates to the helper’s actual act,” Johnson says.

“As for the person receiving the unrequested help, they begin to question their own competency and feel a threat to their workplace autonomy,” he says.

In some ways, Johnson says that his research suggests workers mind their own business and not go looking for problems to solve. Ultimately, he says, help is good—but just wait for coworkers to ask for it.

“As someone who wants to help, just sit back and do your own work. That’s when you’ll get the most bang for your buck,” he says. “As the person receiving help, you should at a minimum express gratitude—and the sooner the better. If you wait a few days, it won’t have a positive impact on the helper.”

Johnson’s next research will examine the ramifications of receiving help from recipients’ point of view, and how their reactions and feelings can shape the social climate at work.

The research appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Source: Michigan State University

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Model maps ‘domino effect’ of Alzheimer’s protein misfolding

Mon, 2018-10-22 14:54

A new computer simulation shows how clumps of defective proteins in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease can stealthily spread through the brain over as long as 30 years.

“We hope the ability to model neurodegenerative disorders will inspire better diagnostic tests and, ultimately, treatments to slow down their effects,” says Ellen Kuhl, a mechanical engineer at Stanford University.

The simulations focus on Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s diseaase, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), but the researchers believe their technique is general enough to work for other brain disorders that involve misshapen proteins, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The findings appear in Physical Review Letters.

Connect the dots

The group knew that these three diseases produced hallmark clumps of defective, misfolded proteins that build up in the brain. To see how those toxic clumps spread over time, researchers looked at brain slices taken from people who died after developing one of the diseases. Prior researchers had stained those brain slices to reveal the presence of the various proteins of interest.

When the resulting data was put into a computer, researchers also did the mathematical modeling to simulate how the pattern of defective proteins spreads from the relatively sparse clumps in people who were early in the disease to much more widespread clumping in people with advanced disease—a process that can take up to 30 years.

“The real challenge is that cell death from toxic proteins occurs years, if not decades, before the first symptoms begin to show.”

“Imagine a domino effect,” says Kuhl, who is part of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and Stanford Bio-X. “What our model does is connect the dots between the static data points, mathematically, to show disease progression in unprecedented detail.”

In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the scientists modeled the progression of two misfolding proteins—known as tau and amyloid beta—both of which change shape and form toxic clumps in the brains of people with the disease. Prior researchers had stained brain slices for both proteins and, with the new model, Kuhl’s team was able to create two simulations showing the different way that each of these variants of that disease spread.

135 million people with dementia

Neuroscientists don’t know precisely how one clump of defective proteins affects its neighbors to spread the misfolding, although Kuhl says there are three prevailing theories. The virtue of the model, she says, is that it predicts the path of the disease regardless of which theory is correct.

Kuhl now plans to work with neuroscientists to better understand the mechanisms of how the proteins misfold. These insights would improve their model and perhaps lead to better ways of diagnosing the disease while it is still in stealth mode.

“The real challenge is that cell death from toxic proteins occurs years, if not decades, before the first symptoms begin to show,” Kuhl says.

Kuhl also plans to make the modeling software freely available to other scientists, repeating what she did a decade ago with similar models to study the heart—work now known as the Living Heart Project. The brain software will be known as the Living Brain Project.

“Given the aging of the population, by mid-century 135 million people worldwide will have some form of dementia,” Kuhl says. “We have to find new ways to spur research toward diagnostics and interventions, and computer modeling can play a key role in identifying new therapeutic targets.”

Additional coauthors are from Oxford University and Stevens Institute of Technology. Stanford Bio-X, the National Science Foundation, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of Great Britain funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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Facebook posts with these words can predict depression

Mon, 2018-10-22 12:54

Researchers have created an algorithm that analyzes social media posts to find linguistic markers for depression.

In any given year, depression affects more than six percent of the adult population in the United States—some 16 million people—but fewer than half receive the treatment they need.

Analyzing social media data that consenting users shared across the months leading up to a depression diagnosis, researchers found their algorithm could accurately predict future depression. Indicators of the condition included mentions of hostility and loneliness, words like “tears” and “feelings,” and use of more first-person pronouns like “I” and “me.”

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Your social media ‘genome’

“What people write in social media and online captures an aspect of life that’s very hard in medicine and research to access otherwise. It’s a dimension that’s relatively untapped compared to biophysical markers of disease,” says H. Andrew Schwartz, assistant professor of computer science at Stony Brook University and senior paper author. “Conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, for example, you find more signals in the way people express themselves digitally.”

For six years, researchers in the World Well-Being Project (WWBP), based in the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and Stony Brook’s Human Language Analysis Lab, have been studying how the words people use reflect their inner feelings and contentedness. In 2014, Johannes Eichstaedt, WWBP founding research scientist and a postdoctoral fellow at Penn, started to wonder whether it was possible for social media to predict mental health outcomes, particularly for depression.

“Social media data contain markers akin to the genome. With surprisingly similar methods to those used in genomics, we can comb social media data to find these markers,” Eichstaedt explains. “Depression appears to be something quite detectable in this way; it really changes people’s use of social media in a way that something like skin disease or diabetes doesn’t.”

The writing’s on the Facebook wall

Rather than do what previous studies had done—recruit participants who self-reported they had depression—the researchers identified data from people consenting to share Facebook statuses and electronic medical record information, then analyzed the statuses using machine-learning techniques to distinguish those with a formal depression diagnosis.

“This is early work from our Social Mediome Registry from the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health, which joins social media with data from health records,” says study coauthor Raina Merchant. “For this project, all individuals are consented, no data is collected from their network, the data is anonymized, and the strictest levels of privacy and security are adhered to.”

Nearly 1,200 people then consented to provide both digital archives. Of these, just 114 people had a diagnosis of depression in their medical records. The researchers then matched every person with a diagnosis of depression with five who did not, to act as a control, for a total sample of 683 people (excluding one for insufficient words within status updates). The idea was to create as realistic a scenario as possible to train and test the researchers’ algorithm.

“There’s a perception that using social media is not good for one’s mental health, but it may turn out to be an important tool for diagnosing, monitoring, and eventually treating it.”

“This is a really hard problem,” Eichstaedt says. “If 683 people present to the hospital and 15 percent of them are depressed, would our algorithm be able to predict which ones? If the algorithm says no one was depressed, it would be 85 percent accurate.”

To build the algorithm, the researchers looked back at 524,292 Facebook updates from the years leading up to diagnosis for each individual with depression and for the same time span for the control. They determined the most frequently used words and phrases, then modeled 200 topics to suss out what they called “depression-associated language markers.” Finally, they compared in what manner and how frequently depressed versus control participants used such phrasing.

‘Yellow flags’ for depression diagnosis

They learned that these markers comprised emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal processes such as hostility and loneliness, sadness and rumination, and could predict future depression as early as three months before first documentation of the illness in a medical record.

“There’s a perception that using social media is not good for one’s mental health, but it may turn out to be an important tool for diagnosing, monitoring, and eventually treating it,” Schwartz says. “Here, we’ve shown that it can be used with clinical records, a step toward improving mental health with social media.”

Eichstaedt sees long-term potential in using these data as a form of unobtrusive screening for a depression diagnosis. “The hope is that one day, these screening systems can be integrated into systems of care,” he says. “This tool raises yellow flags; eventually the hope is that you could directly funnel people it identifies into scalable treatment modalities.”

Despite some limitations to the study, including a distinctive urban sample, and limitations in the field itself—not every depression diagnosis in a medical record meets the gold standard that structured clinical interviews provide, for example—the findings offer a potential new way to uncover and get help for those suffering from depression.

Source: Stony Brook University

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Satellites in orbit can save sharks in the ocean

Mon, 2018-10-22 12:25

Satellite technology could make shark sanctuaries—an ambitious attempt to protect huge areas of ocean space to curtail the overfishing of sharks—even more effective, according to a new study.

When researchers first set out to follow grey reef sharks around the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), they intended to survey their movement in the protected waters there. What they found was a disturbing development for the Pacific island nation.

“It’s not the study we expected,” says Darcy Bradley, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, we uncovered a high level of illegal shark fishing from within the Marshall Islands shark sanctuary.”

Indeed, of the 15 adult grey reef sharks they satellite tagged to follow around the Marshall Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone—roughly two million square kilometers of which has been declared a safe haven for sharks—researchers suspected eight had been illegally fished from the RMI “shark sanctuary.”

For an area to be a “true” shark sanctuary, active monitoring and enforcement need to be part of the system.

“There was nothing ‘sharky’ about the movement patterns we were tracking,” Bradley says. Instead of staying relatively close to shore, the tags had moved thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean at speeds much faster than a reef shark is able to sustain, she explains. Some tags even ended up in local ports in both Guam and the Philippines.

It was a worrisome situation, according to the researchers, especially since RMI in 2011 adopted sweeping protections for its sharks—becoming among the first in the world to do so. Based on this recent incident, if the observed rate at which the sharks were captured (and presumably killed) were to occur over a large spatial area, the researchers estimated that even a healthy population would collapse to less than 10 percent of its unfished state in fewer than five years.

Shark sanctuary in name only

Despite the good intentions and expansive protections for sharks in the RMI sanctuary area, as well as the high risk involved in illegal shark fishing, the high value of these sharks—both commercial and black market—may have proved too tempting for those who engaged in the suspected illegal shark fishing event. The incident also verified a notion many marine conservationists have held for a while: For an area to be a “true” shark sanctuary, active monitoring and enforcement need to be part of the system.

“A ‘shark sanctuary’ is not a no-take marine protected area,” Bradley points out. “It is an area that bans the commercial fishing of sharks specifically.” Industrial fisheries almost always operate within the borders of shark sanctuaries, and multiple countries fishing in these areas are expected to comply with the no-shark rule.

However, Bradley continues, monitoring and enforcement are currently the sole responsibility of the host nation. For countries such as RMI with vast and remote ocean territories and limited resources to develop and support monitoring and enforcement protocols, that means it is lucrative and relatively easy for fishers to fly under the radar and target sharks for commercial and black market sales.

“Nearly all parts of the animal can be sold: meat, cartilage, liver, leather, and of course fins, which can sell for hundreds of US dollars per kilogram,” Bradley says.

Satellites to the rescue?

Enter satellite technology.

Thanks to existing and emerging satellite-based technologies, such as vessel tracking systems and automatic identification systems—already in use for purposes of collision avoidance, navigation, and maritime security—the researchers contend that it is possible to track fishing vessels over a large swath of ocean at a relatively low cost compared to traditional on-the-water, from-the-air, or land-based methods. And the benefits would extend beyond protections for sharks.

“The ability to ‘see’ all boats in all places in near real-time using satellite tracking technology would provide a means to monitor for compliance with multiple fisheries management goals—be they combatting illegal fishing, monitoring transshipments, identifying fishing activity in high bycatch areas, and more,” Bradley says.

The data sharing capabilities these systems enable could also improve the agreements between sanctuary nations and entities that fish in their waters—an important element in the successful enforcement of fishing regulations for sharks and other protected species. Satellite identification and monitoring of vessels known to have engaged in illegal fishing could curtail such activity, as the technology could track vessels through a unique identifying number that persists despite any attempts to change the vessel name, flag, or ownership.

Partnerships and policies

The researchers also recommend partnerships between international groups, stakeholder nations, nonprofit and private sector entities, and local-level participants to find consensus, adopt strategies, and advance policies that would result in more effective shark sanctuaries.

Nearly a quarter of all shark populations are under the threat of extinction, and fishing is largely to blame, Bradley says. Shark sanctuaries serve to provide blanket protection for all sharks as a potentially less complex way to combat shark overfishing.

“But for the shark sanctuary model to work, we need to think creatively about ways to closely monitor all fishing activities within sanctuary borders,” Bradley says. “Currently, we have the technology to make this happen, we just lack the buy-in.”

The study appears in the journal Conservation Letters.

Source: University of California, Santa Barbara

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‘Waste removal system’ could deliver drugs to brain

Mon, 2018-10-22 12:11

A new approach to delivering therapeutics more effectively to the brain could have implications for the treatment of a wide range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, ALS, and brain cancer.

Many promising therapies for diseases of the central nervous system have failed in clinical trials because of the difficulty in getting enough of the drugs into the brain to be effective.

This is because the brain maintains its own closed environment that is protected by a complex system of molecular gateways—called the blood-brain barrier—that tightly control what can enter and exit the brain.

“Improving the delivery of drugs to the central nervous system is a considerable clinical challenge,” says Maiken Nedergaard co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and lead author of the paper, which appears in JCI Insight. “The findings of this study demonstrate that the brain’s waste removal system could be harnessed to transport drugs quickly and efficiently into the brain.”

Plumbing system

A prominent example of this challenge is efforts to use antibodies to treat the buildup of amyloid beta plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Because antibodies are typically administered intravenously, the entry of these large proteins into the brain is thwarted by the blood-brain barrier and, as a result, it is estimated that only two percent actually make it through.

The new research taps into the power of the glymphatic system, the brain’s unique process of removing waste that Nedergaard first discovered in 2012. The system consists of a plumbing system that piggybacks on the brain’s blood vessels and pumps cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through the brain’s tissue, flushing away waste.

Nedergaard’s lab has also shown that the glymphatic system works primarily while we sleep, could be a key player in diseases like Alzheimer’s, and is disrupted after traumatic brain injury.

Drugs and viruses, too

In the study, the researchers took advantage of the mechanics of the glymphatic system to deliver drugs deep into the brain. In the experiments, which researchers conducted on mice, researchers administered antibodies directly into CSF. They then injected the animals with hypertonic saline, a treatment frequently used to reduce intracranial pressure on patients with traumatic brain injury.

The saline triggers an ion imbalance which pulls CSF out of the brain. When this occurs, new CSF the glymphatic system delivers flows in to take its place, carrying the antibodies with it into brain tissue. The researchers developed a new imaging system by customizing a macroscope to non-invasively observe the proliferation of the antibodies into the brains of the animals.

The method could be used to deliver large proteins such as antibodies into the brain, but also small molecule drugs and viruses used for gene therapies.

Additional coauthors are from the University of Rochester. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Department of Defense funded the work.

Source: University of Rochester

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How a ‘mysterious’ creature moves with no muscles or neurons

Mon, 2018-10-22 11:58

New research examines how a simple marine creature moves using ultra-fast cellular contractions that are so quick they should break its cells apart.

Almost eight years ago, bioengineer Manu Prakash was looking for a way to watch every cell in an adult living, behaving animal in elaborate detail. He searched the catalog of life and happened upon the simple marine animal Trichoplax adhaerens—or Tplax, as Prakash has come to call it.

This ultra-flat animal lacks both muscles and neurons, but still moves and navigates through its watery world. The Prakash lab found Tplax manages this feat through surprisingly fast contractions in its two skin-like layers—contractions strong enough that they would ordinarily rip apart such seemingly delicate tissues.

In the first paper based on their years-long study of the organism, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe the contractions and propose a hypothesis for how this creature withstands internal and external forces in a marine environment.

Tplax has no muscles or neurons and no defined shape but still manages coordinated movement. (Credit: Manu Prakash)

The findings could help inform not only how complex animals evolved, but also the creation of an advanced material, called an active solid, that could dramatically and quickly modulate its own physical properties.

“Much of the rules of biology that we read in textbooks have been, so far, dictated by a few sets of ‘model’ organisms,” says senior author Prakash, who is an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University. “If we intend to be the generation that will unravel laws of biology, it’s extremely important to understand and appreciate the diversity of what has evolved on our planet and think much more holistically about what is actually possible in biological systems.”

No muscles required

In the early days of studying Tplax, the creatures would move repeatedly out of view under the microscope. But over time, the researchers learned to track and quantify the animals’ every cellular squeeze and squirm. Prakash remembers when their efforts first began to pay off.

“There was literally a day where, for the first time, I had some of the stains that label Tplax cells working, and under the microscope we saw an explosion of cellular contractions,” he says. “It looked like fireworks under a microscope and that was the moment that told us there is something very special about this animal and we needed to understand it.”

Those fireworks were Tplax’s quick contractions, which occur in its flat layer of what are known as epithelial cells—essentially the equivalent of skin. Although these kinds of cells have long been known to contract, in embryos for example, Tplax’s contractions were 10 times faster than any epithelial cell contraction ever reported. This would tear apart the network of cells in any other biological tissue as thin as this animal, which is only about 25 microns thick, or one-quarter the thickness of a sheet of paper.

The researchers think the tissue’s strength lies in the fact that while some cells contract strongly, others soften—a hypothesis they call “active cohesion.” In many tissues, contracting in reaction to a force would cause a tear and relaxing would cause the animal to be at the mercy of that force. By doing both simultaneously and in a coordinated manner, the cells involved in Tplax’s active cohesion distribute the stress, letting the animal remain whole and in control.

The discovery of an ultra-fast contractile epithelial cell poses new questions for the role of epithelial contractions in coordinating cellular activity across the tissue.

“We look at this simple creature and we see it make decisions and move and hunt,” says lead author Shahaf Armon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Prakash lab. “It’s a huge evolutionary question, how single cells merged to become multicellular organisms and how such a minimal tissue made of identical cells is able to then perform complex behaviors.”

Strange creatures

Now, the researchers are exploring what other organisms might use active cohesion and are creating artificial material that replicates this mechanism to build an active solid. Key to the speed of these contractions is the unusual geometry of Tplax’s epithelial structure: T-shaped cells with a very thin top sheet and a hanging nucleus at the bottom that line up side-by-side like a single layer of bricks. That geometry, which they share with sponges, could inform the development of new materials.

Working with laboratory lineages and animals they caught themselves in Monterey, California, the group grew Tplax in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, creating animals that are hundreds to millions of cells. This variation in size provides a powerful window into understanding how cellular coordination varies as the number of cells increase or decrease.

“Tplax are really mysterious beasts,” says coauthor Matthew Bull, a graduate student in the Prakash lab, “but we use that to our advantage to find where our understanding of what it means to be part of the animal kingdom bends and then breaks.”

The Gruss Lipper Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Israeli Council for High Education, an HHMI-Gates Faculty Scholar award, a Pew Fellowship, a National Institutes of Health Directors Award, and the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub Investigators Program funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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Extinct starfish gets ‘virtually dissected’ in 3D

Mon, 2018-10-22 11:17

Researchers have used advanced digital imaging to ‘virtually dissect’ the extinct Derwent River Seastar, confirming it as a new but extinct species without harming remaining precious specimens.

It was prickly, slimy, and had no backbone or eyes. It used its five spiny arms to cling to the sides of a muddy river bank, where it hunted by pushing its stomach out of its mouth, engulfing its prey, and dragging the liquefied remains back inside.

This was not a fairy tale troll or sea monster from Greek mythology. It was the now extinct Derwent River Seastar.

Reseachers used X-ray computed tomography (similar to a CAT scan) to formally identify the starfish as a unique species.

Starfish belong to a huge group of marine invertebrates called echinoderms that also includes sea urchins and sand dollars. These animals have pentaradial symmetry, meaning that their bodies branch out into five distinct compartments, or arms, surrounding a central disc.

There are few specimens of the now extinct Derwent River Seastar. Alan Dartnall discovered this specimen near Powder Jetty in Hobart in 1969. (Credit: Blair Patullo/Museums Victoria) Special specimen

Over 1,000 species of echinoderm live in Australian waters, including on the rocky shorelines and deep on the ocean floor. These creatures play important roles in their environments by providing food for humans and other animals, as well as serving as a model system for research in developmental biology.

Some echinoderms can also cause major ecological damage in large numbers, like the outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish currently gobbling up swaths of the Great Barrier Reef.

Alan Dartnall, a former curator of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, first collected the Derwent River Seastar, Marginaster littoralis, on the shore near the Tasman Bridge in Hobart in 1969, but its status as a species has since remained in question.

Even Dartnall thought it might be related to a different group of seastars called asterinids, particularly one introduced from New Zealand in the early 1900s—the New Zealand Common Cushion Star, Patiriella regularis.

Aside from its discovery under the now-demolished Powder Jetty, the Derwent River Seastar was only ever seen at four other sites. As development in Hobart and pollution from industry and humans degraded the river’s banks, the numbers of Marginaster littoralis declined dramatically. Meanwhile, the introduced New Zealand seastar became more abundant.

Targeted surveys over the next few decades failed to find the Derwent River species, and by 2009 it was listed as critically endangered.

Fast-forward to today, and the Derwent River Seastar is gone. No new specimens are likely to be found and, until recently, researchers weren’t even sure about the identity of the ones that we have.

Going virtual

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery collection holds the holotype specimen, meaning the one that the species description is based on.

It looks noticeably similar in color and shape to the New Zealand Cushion Star, and was even found living side-by-side with them at the same locality where the holotype specimen was found.

Researchers had yet to examine this specimen internally by removing the outer skin, which is necessary to determine if it is a separate species.

Furthermore, many of the collected specimens had external features that appeared intermediate to the two seastar types, indicating that they may in fact have been hybrids, or crossbreeds of the two species.

Like thousands of other rare objects in museum collections, the holotype specimen of the Derwent River Seastar is too precious to physically cut apart.

Later attempts to extract DNA from individuals preserved in formalin failed, leaving the status of this enigmatic creature in doubt. Until now.

Like thousands of other rare objects in museum collections, the holotype specimen of the Derwent River Seastar is too precious to physically cut apart.

So how can we look inside this individual to see if it is indeed a unique species?

A few months ago, Senior Curator of Marine Invertebrates at Museums Victoria, Tim O’Hara, approached Christy Hipsley, research associate at the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne, with a question: could they use X-ray computed tomography, or CT, to solve the decades-long mystery of the Derwent River Seastar?

CT is an advanced imaging technique that combines hundreds of X-rays of an object taken over 360 degrees rotation to create a virtual three-dimensional model. The outer layers of the specimen can then be digitally “removed”, or peeled back, to reveal the inner structures. In human medicine, where it’s called a CAT scan, 3D images are typically used to detect tumors or other abnormalities that are difficult to see in a single plane.

Scan instead of slice

The GE Phoenix Nanotom microCT, one of the most advanced CT machines in the world has the ability to see through the densest materials, like metal ore-bearing rocks, or specimens as thin as a tiny aquatic worm.

The resulting 3D models can reveal structures with a resolution of less than one micron per voxel—that’s less than the width of a human hair.

In biology, and in particular paleontology and zoology, CT is increasingly used to describe, compare, and identify new species, with resulting “cybertypes” standing in as virtual avatars of the physical specimens.

Hipsley previously used CT to visualize the skeletons of preserved Tasmanian Tiger (or thylacine) joeys, and researchers are using this technique worldwide to allow non-invasive, “virtual dissection” of precious museum specimens.

So Hipsley and O’Hara decided to CT scan the holotype specimen to see what secrets lay inside.

Their results revealed the presence of internal struts that strengthen the body, making this animal an asterinid just as Dartnall originally suspected, but could not prove at the time.

They also CT scanned a similar sized specimen of the New Zealand Common Cushion Star for comparison. In contrast to their similar external appearance, analysis of the internal structures allowed us to clearly distinguish between the Derwent River local and its invasive cousin.

The verdict?

The Derwent River Seastar has a new name, Patiriella littoralis, and it’s Australia’s first recorded extinct marine animal. Of course, this isn’t a happy ending but it does showcase the power of CT technology for interacting with rare and precious specimens. And that’s a good thing, because museums are full of them.

Source: University at Melbourne

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PTSD symptoms improve most when patients choose their treatment

Mon, 2018-10-22 09:11

People with post-traumatic stress disorder who are able to choose their form of treatment—whether drugs or therapy—improve more than those who simply receive a prescription for one or the other, according to a new study that compared medication and mental health counseling in the treatment of PTSD.

Researchers found that both a medication—Sertraline, marketed as Zoloft—and a specific form of therapy known as prolonged exposure were effective in reducing PTSD symptoms during the course of treatment, with improvements maintained at least two years later.

Patients who received their choice between the two possible treatments, however, showed greater reduction in symptoms, were more apt to stick to their treatment program, and even lost their PTSD diagnosis over time.

Researchers conducted the study, which appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry, with hundreds of PTSD patients, including veterans and survivors of sexual assault, to measure whether patient preference in the course of treatment impacts the effectiveness of a type of cognitive behavioral therapy and use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant doctors often prescribe for PTSD.

Long-term outcomes

“In any form of health care, when receiving a recommendation from a provider, patients may or may not be given a choice of approaches to address their problems,” says lead author, Lori Zoellner, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Anxiety & Traumatic Stress.

“This research suggests that prolonged exposure and Sertraline are both good, evidence-based options for PTSD treatment—and that providing information to make an informed choice enhances long-term outcomes,” Zoellner says.

The 200 subjects in the study, all adults, had received a diagnosis of chronic PTSD. All participants expressed a treatment preference between two options—medication or 10 weeks of therapy—at the outset of the trial.

The researchers doubly randomized the study, meaning that participants were randomly assigned to a group in which they received their preferred treatment, or to a group in which they were also randomly assigned to one treatment program or the other. Clinicians evaluated all participants for PTSD symptoms, along with the patients’ own reports of feelings and behaviors, before, immediately after, and at three, six, 12, and 24 months later.

Of the participants, 61 percent expressed a preference for prolonged exposure therapy. This form of counseling is often used to treat PTSD because it encourages patients to talk about what happened to them, learn coping strategies, and explore their thoughts and feelings through repeatedly approaching the trauma memory and reminders of the trauma.

Of those participants who received prolonged exposure therapy, nearly 70 percent were determined to be free of their PTSD diagnosis two years after the therapy ended, compared with 55 percent of those who had taken and stayed on Sertraline through the follow-up.

“…we are now able to move toward better personalized treatment for those suffering after trauma.”

Comparing medication to psychotherapy is rare in a clinical trial because it is time- and labor-intensive, Zoellner says. In this case, both treatments had positive effects, though therapy demonstrated a slight edge.

“When both interventions reduce symptoms, it is often difficult to detect a difference because of patients’ varying responses—some get a lot better, some do not. This study showed both prolonged exposure and Sertraline provide generally large and clinically meaningful effects to reduce PTSD and related symptoms,” she says. “Prolonged exposure psychotherapy for PTSD is as good as Sertraline, if not better, for the treatment of PTSD.”

When treatment preference is taken into account, results are more dramatic. Of those who wanted and received therapy, 74 percent had lost their PTSD diagnosis two years later; of those who preferred therapy but received medication instead, only 37 percent were PTSD-free after two years.

Whether patients received their choice of treatment appeared to directly affect their commitment: Nearly 75 percent of those who were “matched” with their preferred method completed their full treatment program, while more than half of those who were “mismatched” with a treatment method did not complete that course of treatment.

Suffer in silence

Though PTSD is commonly associated with combat veterans, more than half the participants in the study were diagnosed with chronic PTSD due to a sexual assault, in either childhood or adulthood. Three-quarters of participants were women.

Not all survivors of sexual assault have PTSD or depression, Zoellner points out, but those who do may not know that short-term therapy or a medication can yield significant long-term benefits.

“Sexual assault often has a long-term impact on the trauma survivor, but for many it need not be in the form of chronic psychiatric problems,” she says. “Survivors should know good, short options exist and need not suffer in silence.”

Cost-effectiveness information from the trial, released in 2014, showed that patient choice in treatment also saved money, in the form of fewer emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and other care, as well as indirect savings such as fewer lost work hours.

Overall, the trial indicates the importance of tailoring PTSD treatment to the patient, says coauthor Norah Feeny, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University.

“Dr. Zoellner and our team showed that we’ve got two effective, very different interventions for chronic PTSD and associated difficulties,” Feeny says. “Given this, and the fact that getting a treatment you prefer confers significant benefit, we are now able to move toward better personalized treatment for those suffering after trauma. These findings have significant public health impact and should inform practice.”

Additional coauthors are from the University of Washington and Case Western University. The National Institute of Mental Health funded the work Pfizer supplied the medication for the study.

Source: University of Washington

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Young adults open to using fentanyl test strips to avoid overdose

Mon, 2018-10-22 08:30

When researchers gave rapid-acting fentanyl test strips to young adults at risk of overdose, most used the strips and many who detected fentanyl reported changing their behavior to reduce overdose risk, according to a new study.

Among more than 72,000 deaths in the US last year, fentanyl—a highly potent prescription opioid often used to lace other heroin or cocaine, but hard for drug users to detect—factored into many of cases.

“We found that fentanyl test strips are an effective harm-reduction tool to prevent overdose,” says Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

“Harm reduction is important because everyone deserves to be able to take care of themselves and make informed decisions about their health, whether they use drugs or not. These tests strips could be a life-saving intervention for many young adults who use drugs,” Marshall says.

Layer of protection

The fentanyl test strips work like an over-the-counter pregnancy test, says Max Krieger, a research assistant in Marshall’s lab and the lead author of the study, which appears in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Each single-use strip is dipped into water containing a bit of drug residue, and after a minute, either one or two red lines appear—one line means the liquid contains fentanyl, and two lines means the test didn’t detect the drug.

In the pilot study, researchers provided test strips to 93 young adults who reported injecting opioids or using heroin, cocaine, or prescription pills bought off the streets in the past month, and taught them how to use them.

Each participant received 10 strips, which cost about $1 each but aren’t commercially available. The study found that 77 percent of the participants used at least one test strip. Of the participants who used the strips, 12 percent used all 10 strips, and about half gave strips to friends.

“The harm reduction concept… is similar to other health precautions such as using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.”

All participants also received overdose prevention education and a naloxone kit—commonly known by the brand name Narcan—to take home.

Half of the participants who used the strips detected fentanyl in their drug supply. Of those, 45 percent reported using smaller amounts, 42 percent proceeded more slowly when using, and 39 percent used with someone else present, who could call 911 or administer naloxone in the case of overdose. Some participants used multiple overdose-reducing strategies, and a few reported discarding fentanyl-laced drugs, Marshall says.

“Our study shows that the fentanyl test strips are effective at preventing overdoses,” Krieger says. “A majority of our participants who received a positive result changed their drug-using behavior. The harm reduction concept behind these test strips, adding a cheap but effective layer of protection against known overdose risks, is similar to other health precautions such as using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.”

Almost all of the participants (98 percent)—even those who didn’t use a single strip—said they were confident in their ability to use the strips, and 95 percent wanted to continue using them.

Community outreach

Further, the study found that participants would feel most comfortable obtaining rapid-acting fentanyl test strips at health clinics and other community-based organizations. The authors suggest that “community-based organizations that conduct overdose prevention education and outreach efforts may be ideal venues for rapid fentanyl test strip training and distribution, as these organizations also distribute other harm reduction supplies.”

The findings might not apply to older drug users, Marshall cautions. The average age of the participants was 27.

The researchers are analyzing the results from in-depth interviews with participants to learn more about their overdose risks and how they used the fentanyl test strips to avoid overdose, Marshall says. He hopes to build from this pilot study and conduct a larger efficacy trial to assess the effectiveness of the test strips in reducing overdoses in a larger population.

Additional coauthors are from Brown, Boston University School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the University of British Columbia. Brown’s Office of the Vice President of Research supported the pilot study.

Source: Brown University

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Superior navigators are good at picking out smells, too

Sun, 2018-10-21 18:00

People who have better spatial memory are also better at identifying odors, according to a new study.

The findings build on a previous theory that the main reason we evolved a sense of smell was to help us with navigation, since most animals rely primarily on smell to find food and avoid predators.

Researchers hypothesized that if this were indeed the case, there would be a strong link between navigation and olfaction.

Here, there, and everywhere

The new research shows that similar regions of the brain (the hippocampus and the medial orbitofrontal cortex) are both involved in these seemingly very different activities. They also discovered that the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), which is known to be involved in olfaction, is also critical to spatial memory.

To test this correlation between spatial memory and the sense of smell, researchers asked 57 participants (all young men and women) to do a couple of different tasks relating to spatial memory. In one, they gave participants about 20 minutes to explore a virtual city, traveling down every street and passing key landmarks (schools, a pool, and shops). Then researchers asked participants to find direct routes between some of the landmarks.

“The fact that both functions seem to rely on similar brain regions supports the idea that they were systems in the brain that were evolving at the same time…”

After that, researchers asked participants to identify 40 different smells, such as basil, strawberry, and cinnamon.

Researchers used structural MRIs to look at various regions of the brain known to be related to olfaction and spatial memory and found that participants who were good at both spatial navigation and identifying smells tended to have a bigger right hippocampus (an area of the brain known to be involved in long-term memory) and a thicker left mOFC.

Since previous research had not yet found an association between the mOFC, known to be critical for olfaction, and spatial navigation, the researchers confirmed their results through another experiment involving nine people with damage in this area of the brain.

They found that patients with mOFC damage exhibited both olfactory and spatial memory deficits, while patients with damage elsewhere in the brain did not exhibit these deficits.


“We weren’t sure, going in, that we would find that people who were better at identifying smells would also be good at navigating,” says Louisa Dahmani, who did the research during her doctoral work at McGill University and is currently doing a postdoc at Harvard University. “So the results came as a real surprise.”

“The fact that both functions seem to rely on similar brain regions supports the idea that they were systems in the brain that were evolving at the same time—though this is theory, rather than anything we set out to show in this paper,” says lead author Véronique Bohbot from McGill’s psychiatry department and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. All we can say for sure is that we now know a bit more about the brain systems involved in both navigation and olfaction.”

The research appears in Nature Communications. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded the work.

Source: McGill University

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Bird brains light up near the right ‘voice coach’

Sun, 2018-10-21 17:45

New research digs into how young male zebra finches learn to sing by finding the right teacher.

The zebra finches must learn to copy the song of an adult tutor in order to ultimately attract a mate. Researchers already knew that juveniles don’t copy songs played through a loudspeaker or sung by other species of birds. Now, scientists have shown how the juvenile birds identify the right teacher.

“Songbirds can age out of the capacity to learn a tutor song just like a person can age out of the capacity to learn to speak French fluently.”

The study, which appears in the journal Nature, reveals that being near a singing tutor activates connections between a social area of the young bird’s brain and the part of the brain responsible for the juvenile’s ability to sing. If those connections aren’t activated, a young finch fails to copy the tutor’s song.

“In humans it’s clear that being able to learn species-specific behaviors like speech is really important,” says study coauthor Richard Mooney, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University. “Birdsong is one of the very few examples in the animal world where a behavior is transmitted from one generation to the next by imitation as opposed to genetic inheritance.”

Bird brains, masterminds

The fact that birds learn “speech” as we do gives researchers the opportunity to use the animals to study how a young learner memorizes someone else’s actions and then eventually learns to imitate those actions.

The researchers focused their work on two areas of the finch’s brain. The first is the part of the cortex essential for singing and is a bit like Broca’s area in the human brain, which is essential to speech. The second is a pinhead-sized region known as the periaqueductal grey or PAG, which contains a group of nerve cells that release dopamine and, in mice, respond to other mice. In the zebra finch, these dopamine-secreting PAG neurons send long fibers that end in the song cortex.

In young birds who hadn’t met a tutor before, the researchers found that PAG neurons lit up with activity in the presence of a singing adult male, but were silent when the juvenile encountered quiet males or adult females, which do not sing, or heard zebra finch songs played over a speaker.

The activity in the juvenile’s PAG continued for a short while even after the tutor stopped singing, meaning that the neurons likely respond to something other than sound—possibly social cues from the older bird. In fact, turning off the PAG in juveniles caused them to ignore their tutors, suggesting that this brain area affects the young finch’s ability to recognize and attend to an appropriate tutor.

The ‘unschooled’ are at a disadvantage

Scientists have known for decades that zebra finches have a sensitive period for song learning. If juveniles don’t meet a suitable tutor before they are 60 days old, they grow up to sing songs that are much simpler than those they might learn from a tutor. Notably, these simple songs are much less attractive to females, putting the unschooled bird at a serious disadvantage for mating.

“If the bird gets beyond a certain age, then it becomes very hard for it to learn from other birds,” says Mooney. “That’s directly analogous to sensitive periods for human speech learning. Songbirds can age out of the capacity to learn a tutor song just like a person can age out of the capacity to learn to speak French fluently.”

When the researchers prevented the PAG brain region from communicating with the song cortex during the sensitive period, the juvenile bird grew up to sing very simple songs, as if it had never heard any tutor at all. But blocking this pathway just after a pupil’s daily session with a tutor did not affect its ability to copy the older finch’s song.

When the research team activated the dopamine-releasing PAG region while playing adult male zebra finch songs through a speaker, juvenile birds copied the song, even though there wasn’t a real bird there.

Dopamine is important for learning that is reinforced by external rewards, such as money or candy, Mooney says. Because this pathway in the bird involves the same molecule, it’s possible that, for the pupil, meeting the right teacher serves as its own reward.

Powerful pathways

Going forward, Mooney and his team will investigate how this group of cells in the PAG region influences other behaviors, particularly courtship behaviors.

“One idea is that this dopamine pathway helps the young songbird recognize and internalize an appropriate example of adult male courtship behavior,” Mooney says. “Then, when the pupil reaches adulthood, that same pathway is recruited to ‘recall’ that behavior, allowing him to effectively woo a nearby female.”

The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship for Research Abroad, the National Basic Research Program of China, the American BRAIN Initiative, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation supported this research.

Source: Duke University

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Social media may help seniors in pain ward off depression

Fri, 2018-10-19 13:44

Using social media can reduce the negative health effects of curtailed social contact that comes as a consequence of pain, according to a new study.

The findings are significant among an aging society where social isolation and loneliness are key determinants of well-being, says lead author Shannon Ang, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s sociology department and Institute for Social Research.

“Our results may be possibly extended to other forms of conditions (e.g., chronic illnesses, functional limitations) that, like pain, also restrict physical activity outside of the home,” Ang says.

“…pain can often lead to a downward spiral of social isolation and depression, resulting in adverse outcomes for the health of older adults.”

Ang, along with Tuo-Yu Chen of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, used data from a nationally representative survey involving more than 3,400 Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 and older in 2011. The respondents were asked about depression, pain, and their social participation.

The data, however, does not distinguish between the types of social media that older adults use—although 17 percent of them had used a social networking site in the last month. To capture if purported benefits were from social media and not just from general internet use, the researchers adjusted their analysis for various online uses such as paying bills or shopping for groceries, Ang says.

The findings showed that older adults who experienced pain were less likely to participate in social activities that require face-to-face interactions, which offers mental benefits.

Still, social media may preserve cognitive function and psychological well-being in this population, the researchers say.

“This is critical because the onset of pain can often lead to a downward spiral of social isolation and depression, resulting in adverse outcomes for the health of older adults,” Ang says.

The findings appear in Journals of Gerontology, Series B.

Source: University of Michigan

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To get people to pay their debts, appeal to their morality

Fri, 2018-10-19 13:35

Islamic credit-card users pay their debts when they receive reminders to do what’s right, a new study finds.

“The Prophet (Peace and blessings be unto Him) says: ‘When Allah wishes good for someone, He bestows upon him the understanding of the Book’ (Imam al-Bukhari). Please pay your credit card balance at your earliest convenience. Call …”

This isn’t research rooted in religion, but rather an economic behavioral study of how a consumer’s moral compass points him or her to repay debts.

A group of researchers borrowed from Muslim teachings to show that an Indonesian bank issuing an Islamic credit card could significantly increase debt repayment by reminding consumers about their moral obligation to pay what they owe. Repayments also rise when the consequences of delinquency inhibiting the future ability to obtain credit are highlighted to customers, they discovered.

A morality play stimulated the increase in payments and not religious beliefs.

“We were not expecting the results to be so big, for sure,” says paper coauthor Daniel Gottlieb, assistant professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis. The findings will appear in the Journal of Political Economy.

“What’s interesting is, the payoff from appeals to morality are comparable to the effect you get from the threat of a substantial financial penalty—which, in Indonesia, can be a 24-month shutdown of a consumer’s credit. These were pretty surprising findings,” he says.

The evidence confirmed that a morality play stimulated the increase in payments and not religious beliefs.

“We did the randomized experiment with everyone,” Gottlieb says. “Even people who were not from particularly religious regions seemed to respond to that.”

It’s payback time

Islamic banking is a sizable and growing industry in Indonesia and elsewhere. There are 300-plus banks in more than 75 countries offering Sharia-compliant products, but overall they emphasize ethics more than religion, hence the non-Muslim clientele.

Partnering with a large Indonesian bank they cannot divulge, the researchers sent varying degrees of text messages to late-paying customers of this popular Islamic credit card, with more than 200,000 users. The bank sent text messages—frequently containing religious and moral content—to customers starting the day after a minimum payment was overdue.

From an overall pool of 14,429 customers who were one week past due at least once between the study period of February 2015 through April 2016, researchers sent text messages:

  • 4,120 participants in a control group receiving straightforward texts that translated as “Your (credit card) has reached the due date. Please make a payment at your earliest convenience. If you have already paid, ignore this text.”
  • 2,244 participants in a moral-incentive group that received the Sunni Islam religious quotations citing Allah noted earlier.
  • Another 1,186 researchers assigned to a similar sub-group received messages without (parenthetical) references to the prophet as in the message above.
  • Under the same moral-incentive umbrella, 1,180 received texts that were non-religious, removing any Prophet reference and replacing the Arabic-origin term for “injustice” (kezaliman) with the Indonesian word “ketidakadilan”: “Non-payments of debts by someone who is able to repay is an injustice. Please repay your credit card balance at your earliest convenience.”
  • The remaining participants received some different types of messages, such as one reminding them of the financial consequences of delinquency: “Late payments are reported monthly to Bank Indonesia Sistem Informasi Debitur (SID), which all banks consult. This will diminish your ability to get credit in the future. Please repay your card balance at your earliest convenience.”

All of the above were benchmarked by messages containing a cash-rebate incentive up to 50 percent of their current outstanding minimum payment due.

The researchers’ dataset included a range of demographic details, such as age, gender, religion, province, monthly income, and credit limit. For example, the average customer in the study was male, 41, with an income of $375 in US dollars, an outstanding debt on this credit card of $580 US, and a credit limit of $750 US.

Moral (text) messages

The researchers found a decrease in late payments between 3.8 and 5.2 percentage points across all groups when they received the moral message on delinquency. Gender, age, religion, or if they were a late-payer previously didn’t matter: there was an effect across those demographics. The effect proved stronger for customers with lower debt-to-income ratio, the researchers say.

“Some researchers have been looking at morality more generally,” Gottlieb says. “A lot of governments have been trying to tell people it’s immoral not to pay their taxes properly. There is a cable TV company somewhere trying to get people to pay for their cable using morality. Even businesses who portray themselves as socially responsible are pulling on those same strings. I think there might be a lot of new lessons coming from this.”

It may not happen as much in Western culture, but Gottlieb foresees the possibility that the banking business could try to meet its consumers’ moral compass in the middle: “To some extent, if the consumers hear about the morality aspect, the banks may act in a way that’s more aligned with the consumers’ reality,” he says.

Researchers from the University of Chicago; University of California, San Diego; and the World Bank contributed to the study.

The UCLA Anderson Center for Global Management, UCLA Anderson Price Center, and World Bank funded this research.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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A little bit of skin cream is OK before radiation

Fri, 2018-10-19 12:38

Advances in radiation therapy have made warnings about skin cream increasing the radiation delivered at the skin surface obsolete, according to new research.

Radiation therapy for different kinds of cancer can damage the skin, so patients undergoing such treatment often use creams or ointments to help relieve any resulting pain and inflammation. Radiation oncologists, however, have long told patients to avoid using these products in the hours before undergoing a radiation treatment for fear they would increase radiation delivered at the skin surface.

The new study shows that only an extremely thick layer of cream or ointment—thicker than any patient surveyed reported applying—increases the radiation dose enough to cause concern.

Applications of creams or ointments 3 millimeters or greater in thickness should be avoided, researchers say. But applications in the 1 mm to 2 mm range, which are more common, are safe. When shown a 3-mm layer of cream, patients said they had never applied that much, the researchers note.

“We want patients to know that it is fine to apply thin or moderate amounts of the topical agent of their choice to treat dermatitis stemming from radiation treatments,” says first author Brian C. Baumann, assistant professor of radiation oncology at a Washington University in St. Louis. “Patients can use these products regardless of the timing of their radiation therapy.”

Different kinds of cancer

Researchers surveyed patients and radiation oncologists to determine whether warnings to avoid topical skin therapies before they undergo radiation therapy are still common. According to surveys of 133 patients and 108 doctors, more than 83 percent of patients received this message, and 91 percent of doctors reported giving that advice.

The study included patients with several cancer types. Most patients surveyed had diagnoses of breast cancer (87 percent), but other patients had diagnoses of different tumors, including head and neck, lung, and anal cancers.

The researchers measured the radiation dose at the surface of a material similar to human tissue that was covered with topical agents of differing applied thicknesses. Only with the thickest applications did the radiation dose significantly increase.

They also measured doses in mice and found no additional DNA damage or cell death in the skin of mice that were irradiated in the presence or absence of creams of varying thicknesses.

Like a sunburn

The researchers studied an over-the-counter petroleum-based ointment named Aquaphor that often is recommended to radiation therapy patients, as well as a prescription-only product called silver sulfadiazine cream.

“Most patients undergoing radiation therapy are treated daily for many weeks,” says Baumann, who treats patients at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the Washington University School of Medicine.

“Most will develop at least a mild skin reaction caused by the radiation, with some patients experiencing significant redness and irritation, not unlike a sunburn. Patients frequently use topical agents to ameliorate this condition,” Baumann says.

“Contrary to popular belief, the results of this research suggest that topical creams and ointments can be safely applied before radiotherapy. However, patients should avoid applying a very thick layer just before radiotherapy,” he says.

The paper appears in JAMA Oncology. The radiation oncology department at the University of Pennsylvania funded the work.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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‘Master switches’ could make plant cell walls extra useful

Fri, 2018-10-19 12:21

New research shows how scientists could manipulate plant walls in the future to change the way we produce biofuels, bioplastics, and other biomaterials

Plants produce walls on a daily basis and these walls support many essential aspects of life.

In the search for sustainable materials, these day-to-day structures of plants could help replace polluting materials and plastics with ones that are less detrimental to our environment.

Different walls

Each and every plant cell surrounds itself with wall structures, also known as cell walls. These are the building blocks for food, fuel, and materials. Scientists invest a lot of time and effort in understanding them, with the aim of being able to manipulate their content and structures.

In particular, understanding how to control the production of flexible primary walls, which support cell growth, has been an important goal for biologists.

The sugar-based polymers in these walls could be used for a range of applications—like converting them into biofuel, providing new types of green nanomaterials, or developing bioplastics.

However, much plant material comprises secondary walls, which are associated with wood. These structures have different characteristics than primary walls and are much more difficult to tease apart.

Left panel: Typical thale cress plant that contains both a thin and flexible primary wall and a thick and sturdy secondary wall in its woody stem tissue. Mid panel: Thale cress plant that has been changed to not produce secondary walls in its woody fibre cells—it has reduced stem strength. Right panel: Thale cress plant from mid panel that now has a master switch for thick primary wall production in its woody fibre cells. This plant now produces a thick primary wall in the pace of its secondary wall. (Credit: AIST and Nobutaka Mitsuda)

If scientists could substitute one wall for another, or perhaps even blend characteristics of the two wall types, it would be much easier to extract the sugars.

This is, however, easier said than done as an arsenal of protein activities contribute to the two-wall structures. A potential way around this problem is to find a way of “turning on” the genes that control the full program of one or the other wall type.

‘Master switches’

In the new study, researchers identified “master switches” that can turn on primary wall production. These switches can make cells producing thick primary walls that can replace secondary walls.

The capacity to combine the ease of breaking primary wall sugar polymers apart, with the secondary walls’ ability to grow thickly, means scientists can potentially completely change the content of the biomass of plants, from something that is strong but difficult to break apart to something that is more plastic and easy to dissolve.

Researchers identified these master switches by expressing a large selection of something called transcription factors, proteins that can turn on the activity of other genes, in woody fiber cells of plants.

The crux here was for researchers to use plants that cannot produce woody secondary walls as the starting material. To do this, they used plants from the Mitsuda lab at the National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan that had been modified so they could no longer make these sturdy secondary walls (the genes for these walls had been “knocked out”).

By driving the activity of the transcription factors only in the woody fiber cells, researchers could then screen for those plants that restored a thick wall structure around the cells. They chemically assessed those plants and found some that produced thick walls but with primary wall-like features.

Indeed, these walls were more similar to thick primary walls. While they aren’t as strong as the typical secondary wall encased fiber cells, the amount of sugars they released substantially increased.

By combining the activity of these genetic master switches with different secondary wall transcription factors, researchers may be able to tailor-make and engineer the biomass of plants in the future—leading to plants that can easily release their sugars for green fuel production or for new types of materials.

These materials could, for example, be useful in the electronic and medical sectors, and perhaps for computer components like green nanomaterials. They may even have the potential to become an alternative to plastics, in some settings.

The research appears in the journal Nature Plants.

Source: University of Melbourne

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‘Fingerprints’ could trace 3D-printed guns to their source

Fri, 2018-10-19 11:28

Scientists have figured out how to accurately trace a 3D-printed object to the machine it came from.

The advancement, which the researchers call PrinTracker, could ultimately help law enforcement and intelligence agencies track the origin of 3D-printed guns, counterfeit products, and other goods.

“3D printing has many wonderful uses, but it’s also a counterfeiter’s dream. Even more concerning, it has the potential to make firearms more readily available to people who are not allowed to possess them,” says lead author Wenyao Xu, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Unique patterns

To understand the method, it’s helpful to know how 3D printers work. Like a common inkjet printer, 3D printers move back-and-forth while “printing” an object. Instead of ink, a nozzle discharges a filament, such as plastic, in layers until a three-dimensional object forms.

Each layer of a 3D-printed object contains tiny wrinkle—usually measured in submillimeters—called in-fill patterns. These patterns are supposed to be uniform.

However, the printer’s model type, filament, nozzle size, and other factors cause slight imperfections in the patterns. The result is an object that does not match its design plan.

For example, the printer is ordered to create an object with half-millimeter in-fill patterns. But the actual object has patterns that vary 5 to 10 percent from the design plan. Like our fingerprints, these patterns are unique and repeatable. As a result, scientists can trace them back to the 3D printer.

99.8 percent accuracy

“3D printers are built to be the same. But there are slight variations in their hardware created during the manufacturing process that lead to unique, inevitable and unchangeable patterns in every object they print,” Xu says.

To test the system, researchers created five door keys each from 14 common 3D printers—10 fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers and four stereolithography (SLA) printers.

With a common scanner, they created digital images of each key. From there, they enhanced and filtered each image, identifying elements of the in-fill pattern. They then developed an algorithm to align and calculate the variations of each key to verify the authenticity of the fingerprint.

Having created a fingerprint database of the 14 3D printers, the researchers were able to match the key to its printer 99.8 percent of the time.

When they ran a separate series of tests 10 months later to determine if additional use of the printers would affect PrinTracker’s ability to match objects to their machine of origin, the results were the same.

Any object

The team also ran experiments involving keys damaged in various ways to obscure their identity. PrinTracker was 92 percent accurate in these tests.

The technology is similar to the ability to identify the source of paper documents, a practice law enforcement agencies, printer companies, and other organizations have used for decades. While the experiments did not involve counterfeit goods or firearms, PrinTracker can trace any 3D-printed object to its printer, Xu says.

“We’ve demonstrated that PrinTracker is an effective, robust, and reliable way that law enforcement agencies, as well as businesses concerned about intellectual property, can trace the origin of 3D-printed goods,” he says.

The researchers presented their paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Computer and Communications Security. Additional coauthors are from Rutgers University and Northeastern University.

Source: University at Buffalo

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This part of the brain may shape our food choices

Fri, 2018-10-19 11:03

Researchers have discovered a brain region strongly connected to food preference decisions that help us  select what to heap on our plates at potluck dinners or holiday buffets.

Working with rats, the researchers found robust neural activity related to food choice in a previously overlooked part of the brain. The finding suggests this brain area could be key to developing therapies and treatments to encourage healthy eating.

“We found a region in the brain that reflects our perception of food in a strikingly dominant way,” says lead author David Ottenheimer, a graduate student in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. “The level of brain activity we saw exceeded our expectations by far.”


Excitement and disappointment

The research team wanted to know how the brain determines what and how much to eat when someone has several good food options. It’s a situation people face daily, if not at buffets or potlucks, then when looking over restaurant menus or at what’s in the refrigerator.

This might seem automatic as you move down a buffet line, but when someone is considering either mac and cheese or mashed potatoes, the brain must quickly determine which of those quite similar choices—both tasty, both treats, both carbs—would be most rewarding. Even if we can have both, Ottenheimer says, we’ll likely eat the dish that’s the favorite faster and with bigger bites.

To study this question, researchers gave rats two similar sugary drinks. The rats preferred the one made with sucrose to the one with maltodextrin; when they received sucrose, they’d lick it faster.

Over several days, researchers gave the rats either one drink or the other. Meanwhile, the team mapped the rats’ brain activity precisely at the moment the animals realized which drink they’d gotten, pinpointing the neurons that registered the excitement for sucrose, and the disappointment for maltodextrin.

The ventral pallidum

The activated neurons were in an area called the ventral pallidum, a spot in the basal ganglia of the brain. It has long been associated with reward and pleasure perception, but has been thought to be in more of a secondary role.

Next, the team presented rats with a different set of options—either the maltodextrin drink or plain water. In this scenario, when rats got maltodextrin, ventral pallidum neurons fired like they had for sucrose. This suggests the brain area is making context-dependent decisions, zeroing in on the best food option available at any given time.

“Because the signaling by ventral pallidum neurons changes immediately when the rat changes his ranking of which flavor is his favorite, we see this response as providing a real-time readout of what you like best from currently available options,” says senior author Patricia Janak, a professor of psychological and brain sciences and of neuroscience.

The next step is to figure what the signaling in this part of the brain means. Is it used to reinforce prior food-seeking actions and make them more likely to occur again? Or is it used to inform future decisions and bias them towards one food reward over the other next time someone is presented with a food choice?

“Our data suggest that further investigation of ventral pallidum will be critical for understanding how we make decisions about eating,” Ottenheimer says. “If we want to figure out why a food can be exciting in one scenario and disappointing in another, ventral pallidum could be the key.”

The research appears in the journal Nature Communications.

The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Brain & Behavior Research Foundation funded the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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For abused teen girls, suicidal thoughts linked to bond with mom

Fri, 2018-10-19 08:53

A new study links high degrees of mother-daughter conflict to suicide risk in abused teenage girls.

Among adolescents who suffered maltreatment as children, not all entertain suicidal thoughts. So what can we learn about those who do? Researchers have found an answer by looking at the relationships between teenage girls and their mothers.

The study, which appears in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, shows a stark correlation between both poor mother-daughter relationships and high degrees of conflict with the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

“Our findings suggest that disruptions to a positive mother-teen relationship are one reason why children who experienced abuse or neglect are at risk for suicide as teens,” says lead author Elizabeth Handley, a research assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center. The findings highlight the importance of relationship-based interventions for vulnerable youths.

The team tested three distinct variables that linked earlier maltreatment in childhood to suicidal thoughts for adolescent girls:

  1. Mother-daughter relationship quality
  2. Mother-daughter conflict
  3. Adolescent depressive symptoms

“We know from decades of research that a warm, nurturing, and consistent relationship between mothers and their children is critical for many aspects of healthy development. This continues to be true even in adolescence, when teens spend more time with their friends and less time at home with family,” says Handley.

The study included 164 socio-economically disadvantaged, depressed, adolescent girls (average age 14) and their mothers. Of the adolescents, 66.3 percent were African American, 21.3 percent white, and 14 percent Latina.

According to the researchers, relationship-based interventions are a promising approach to depression treatment for maltreated youth, such as interpersonal psychotherapy for adolescents, which focuses on the interpersonal context of depression. Attachment-based family therapy has also proven useful in reducing suicidal thoughts among teenagers by strengthening the functioning of the family and the parent-adolescent attachment relationship.

Maltreatment includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and emotional and physical neglect. Among the study participants, 51.8 percent of adolescents indicated a history of at least one form of maltreatment.

As expected, the researchers found that rates of suicidal thoughts and recurrent thoughts of death were higher among teenage girls with a history of maltreatment than those without: 11.7 percent of non-maltreated, depressed adolescents indicated suicidal ideation, compared to 26.8 percent of maltreated, depressed adolescents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10 to 24 in the United States (accidental death is the leading cause). Adolescent girls in general are more likely than their male counterparts to have suicidal thoughts.

Given the scientific evidence that the more severe and pervasive the suicidal thoughts, the greater the likelihood of suicide attempt, understanding the cause of suicidal thoughts is critical for effective youth suicide prevention and intervention design.

Additional researchers from Mt. Hope Family Center and the University of Minnesota contributed to the study. The National Institute on Mental Health funded the research.

If you need help for yourself or someone else, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Source: University of Rochester

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Parents with more education spend more on health care

Fri, 2018-10-19 07:43

Parents who have educations beyond the high school level spend more on family health care, reducing the likelihood of adverse medical conditions despite differences in family income and health insurance, a new study shows.

Researchers examined the association between parental education and family health care spending in single-mother and two-parent families based on data from the 2004 to 2012 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS).

The findings, which appear in the Southern Economic Journal, show that parental education beyond 12 years is associated with increases in family health care spending and decreases in specific health conditions and poor health status, including hypertension, diabetes, and asthma.

According to the researchers, higher parental education was associated with increased total health care spending on both children and parents, and was also associated with sizable increases on ambulatory care spending for both family types.

For instance, compared to single-mother families in which a mother lacks a high school diploma, single-mother families in which a mother is college educated spend an additional $1,000 annually toward family ambulatory health care.

The study also found that families headed by single mothers who had higher levels of education spent more for prescription drugs and dental care while two-parent families with more education spent more for dental care and mental health services.

“Our study confirms the important association between the educational attainment of parents and the family’s access to and use of health care services,” says Alan Monheit, at the Rutgers University School of Public Health.

The study’s findings support the “Grossman model of health demand,” in which health is a “good” that is inherited and increased by investments beyond the price of medical care, and depreciates over time as someone’s health naturally deteriorates over time.

Source: Rutgers University

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Politicians can’t buy an election with extra TV ads

Thu, 2018-10-18 15:15

Political candidates who spent more money on television ads during the 2016 Iowa caucuses generally received more support on election day, a new study shows. However, this doesn’t mean a candidate can buy an election.

While the $46.3 million spent on TV ads in Iowa influenced which candidates caucus-goers considered, there is no evidence to suggest overspending was rewarded, says study author Jay Newell, an associate professor of advertising at Iowa State University.

“We think political advertising is all-powerful, but it’s not,” Newell says. “Candidates who buy the most ads tend to get the most votes, but that could be drawing conclusions from coincidence. Those leading in the polls get more resources. So the additional advertising being purchased is essentially insurance and not as much to move the meter.”

“The candidates continued spending money until there were literally no more ads to buy.”

That is why Newell says it is unlikely the research will change how much campaigns spend on ads for the midterms or future elections. Given the high stakes, Newell says there is minimal risk of burnout as voters are still going to go to the polls. Commercial advertisers know reaching every viewer in a media market is not practical or cost-effective, but political campaigns have nothing to lose.

“For the political campaigns, it’s essentially a winner-take-all situation. They only have one night to make it work. Advertising in Iowa is not that expensive as compared to coastal markets, so the candidates continued spending money until there were literally no more ads to buy,” Newell says.

The study appears in the Journal of Political Marketing.

Adding it up

The Iowa caucuses provided a natural experiment to see the effects of different advertising levels on political engagement, candidate preference, and final outcomes, Newell says.

With help from a team of journalism students, Newell collected thousands of TV advertising contracts uploaded to a Federal Communications Commission database for the nine months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. He also used responses from two waves of surveys among Iowa voters and Associated Press election results to analyze spending and outcomes.

Spending was considerably higher in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids than in TV markets near the Iowa border. Of the $46.3 million spent on TV ads statewide, $20 million was spent in the Des Moines market alone. Newell, who studies advertising saturation, says political advertising was so dominant in these larger markets that other advertisers could not buy time.

The study found additional advertising made no difference in engagement or interest among voters. However, there was a shift in candidate preference in markets with extensive advertising.

“Advertising helps shift allegiances or helps people who were already going to buy a product to consider a competing brand, but as we saw with the caucuses, advertising typically cannot get people to try a product they don’t want,” Newell says.

Can’t buy my vote

Spending on political advertising by both parties illustrates why Newell says candidates should buy ads with the understanding they cannot buy the election.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush’s campaign spent $9,156,679—just behind top-spender Marco Rubio at $9,250,149—and garnered less than 3 percent of the vote. Rubio fared better with a third-place finish, but he spent considerably more than Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, the top two vote-getters, combined.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton spent $2.3 million more than Bernie Sanders, but only narrowly defeated Sanders, 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent.

“Advertising effects, even when candidates are shoveling in as much advertising as possible, are still fairly mild,” Newell says. “Commercial advertisers have known this for decades. There’s just not enough advertising in the world to buy market share.”

Source: Iowa State University

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