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System finds 130 compounds that could save citrus

Thu, 2019-08-22 12:58

Scientists have developed a new way of finding potential treatments for citrus greening, and a short list of 130 compounds to explore further.

Biologist Sharon Long has published over 150 papers on the symbiotic bacteria that help alfalfa grow. But when she realized her lab’s highly focused research could contribute to a solution for citrus greening—a disease that devastates citrus crops—she was inspired to go in a new direction.

“I’m only two generations off a farm, and I read about citrus farmers losing their livelihood and land, and thus also losing generations of family tradition,” says Long, professor in biological sciences at Stanford University. “We decided to redirect our efforts to work on this problem because we wanted to make a difference.”

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

“What we’ve completed is just a small part of what needs to be done,” says Melanie Barnett, a senior researcher in the Long lab and lead author of the paper. “It’s beyond our expertise to pursue these findings to the level needed for real-world application, but it’s a foot in the door for researchers who can take those next steps.”

Why citrus greening is tough to study

Citrus greening has devastated the citrus industry in Florida and appears in many of the country’s citrus growing regions. Even with high surveillance, the disease is spreading, and by the time symptoms of the lethal bacterial infection appear, it’s too late—the plants, bearing mottled leaves and ugly fruit with unpalatably bitter juice, must be uprooted and destroyed.

An increasingly common treatment for the infection is spraying whole orchards with antibiotics, which is a risky procedure that could allow drug-resistant bacteria to emerge and spread.

Despite its devastation, citrus greening has been difficult for researchers to study. The bacteria that cause the disease—Liberibacter asiaticus—won’t grow in a lab, and studying infected plants is possible only in a few highly protected and sealed locations in the US.

Some researchers have turned to a close, but less harmful, bacterial relative to find answers. But the Long lab realized they could tackle the problem by focusing on a more distant relative—Sinorhizobium meliloti, which partners with certain plants, allowing them to grow without added nitrogen fertilizer.

“We’ve been working on this bacterium for 40 years and have developed tools that allow finely detailed genetic studies to be done,” Long says. “That provides an experimental platform not possible by working directly on this pathogen or even its close relatives.”

Engineered bacteria

The researchers started by introducing genes from the citrus greening bacterium into their familiar S. meliloti cell. Those genes each code for a protein that the scientists think regulates aspects of infection.

Then, they engineered the bacteria so that when those infection-critical proteins were active, the bacteria glowed green in certain light. With this setup, if they exposed the bacteria to a chemical that inhibits the proteins—and perhaps also decreases the bacteria’s ability to infect citrus—the cell would become visibly less green.

This visual signal made it possible to screen over 120,000 different compounds with help from the Stanford High-Throughput Bioscience Center. That screen identified 130 compounds that dimmed the cells’ green glow without affecting its growth.

“Our system allowed us to find very specific inhibitors that do not harm beneficial bacteria,” explains Long. “Such inhibitors would be a big improvement compared to environmental spraying of general antibiotics.”

Beyond studying the 130 compounds, the group says other researchers could now test additional chemicals with the system they devised, or examine different genes.

“With this system, any gene from this pathogen or closely related pathogens can be tested in a very controlled way, very efficiently,” says Barnett. “The years of research that have gone into studying and working with Sinorhizobium can now save years of time that others would have spent developing such a system from scratch.”

Funding for the work came from the Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc. and the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Stanford University

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100-year-old ship logs offer history of Arctic sea ice

Thu, 2019-08-22 12:30

Modern-day computer simulations and historic observations from 100-year old ship logbooks have extended estimates of Arctic sea ice volume all the way back to 1901, researchers report.

The Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean and Modeling System, or PIOMAS, is a leading tool for gauging the thickness of sea ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean. Until now, that system has gone back only as far as 1979, when satellites began imaging the sea ice from above.

“This extends the record of sea ice thickness variability from 40 years to 110 years, which allows us to put more recent variability and ice loss in perspective,” says first author Axel Schweiger, a sea ice scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington.

“The volume of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean today and the current rate of loss are unprecedented in the 110-year record,” he adds.

Results from the newly created 110-year record of Arctic sea ice volume show an unexplained slight decline (black line) in the early 20th century. The current drop (red line), caused by warming temperatures due to climate change, is more than six times as steep. (Credit: Axel Schweiger/U. Washington)

PIOMAS provides a daily reconstruction of what’s happening to the total volume of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean. It combines weather records and satellite images of ice coverage to compute ice volume. It then verifies its results against any existing thickness observations. For years after 1950, that might be fixed instruments, direct measurements, or submarines that cruise below the ice.

During the early 20th century, US Revenue cutters, the precursor to the Coast Guard, and Navy ships that have cruised through the Arctic each year since 1879, made rare direct observations of sea ice. In the Old Weather project, researchers have been working with citizen scientists to transcribe the weather entries in digitized historic US ships’ logbooks to recover unique climate records for science. The new study is the first to use the logbooks’ observations of sea ice, some written by hand in the early 1900s.

A digitized 1915 logbook from the US Coast Guard ship Bear, just after the maritime service was given that name. This entry from July 18, 1915, was when the ship was in the Beaufort Sea, on the edge of the area of the model for Arctic sea ice volume. (Credit: National Archives) View larger

“In the logbooks, officers always describe the operating conditions that they were in, providing hourly observations of the sea ice at that time and place,” says coauthor Kevin Wood, a researcher at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

If the ship was in open water, the logbook might read “steaming full ahead” or “underway.” When the ship encountered ice, officers might write “steering various courses and speeds” meaning the ship was sailing through a field of ice floes. When they found themselves trapped in the ice pack, the log might read “beset.”

These logbooks until recently could only be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, DC, but through digital imaging and transcription by Old Weather citizen-scientists these rare observations of weather and sea ice conditions in the Arctic in the late 1800s and early 1900s have been made available to scientists and the public.

This logbook page from the US Coast Guard ship Cutter was written July 9, 1955, in the Chukchi Sea. (Credit: National Archives) View larger

“These are unique historic observations that can help us to understand the rapid changes that are taking place in the Arctic today,” Wood says.

Wood leads the US portion of the Old Weather project, which originated in 2010 in the UK. Researchers have already added the weather observations from historic logbooks transcribed by Old Weather citizen scientists to international databases of climate data and used them in the model of the atmosphere that produced the new results.

Officers recorded the ship’s position at noon each day using a sextant. They would also note when they passed recognizable features, allowing researchers today to fully reconstruct the ship’s route to locate it in space and time.

While the historic sea ice observations have not yet been incorporated directly into the ice model, spot checks between the model and the early observations confirm the validity of the tool.

“This is independent verification that the model is doing the right thing,” Schweiger says.

The new, longer record provides more context for big storms or other unusual events and a new way to study the Arctic Ocean sea ice system.

“The observations that we have for sea ice thickness and variability are so limited,” Schweiger says. “I think people will start analyzing this record. There’s a host of questions that people can ask to help understand Arctic sea ice and predict is future.”

Scientists use the PIOMAS tool to monitor the current state of Arctic sea ice. The area of Arctic sea ice over the month of June 2019, and the PIOMAS-calculated volume, were the second-lowest for that time of year since the satellite record began.

The lowest-ever recorded Arctic sea ice area and volume occurred in September 2012. And while Schweiger believes the long-term trend will be downward, he’s not placing bets on this year setting a new record.

“The state of the sea ice right now is set up for new lows, but whether it will happen or not depends on the weather over the next two months,” Schweiger says.

The research appears in the Journal of Climate. Additional researchers from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Archives contributed to the work. Funding came from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the North Pacific Research Board.

Source: University of Washington

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These drugs land EDM partiers in the hospital

Thu, 2019-08-22 11:35

People who frequent electronic dance music parties often use multiple drugs simultaneously and experience adverse effects with some ending up in the emergency department, researchers report.

Their study in the International Journal of Drug Policy is the first to survey adverse effects associated with the use of dozens of different drugs and could improve treatment for drug-related emergencies, say researchers.

The researchers surveyed 1,029 people ages 18 to 40 as they entered electronic dance music (EDM) parties in New York City in 2018. Researchers asked participants about their use of drugs—including opioids, alcohol, marijuana, and other common illegal drugs—over the past year, whether they had experienced adverse effects after using the drugs, and if they sought medical care. The researchers defined adverse effects as harmful or very unpleasant effects in which users were concerned about their immediate safety.

The study estimates that one-third of people at these events, commonly held at nightclubs and large outdoor dance festivals, have experienced a drug-related adverse effect over the past year. Of these, 40% experienced an adverse effect on more than one occasion and 5% experienced adverse effects on four or more occasions. Also, the more frequently people attended these parties, the more likely they were to experience an adverse drug reaction.

“Our findings suggest that drug use is not only prevalent among people who attend electronic dance music parties, but that there’s also a substantial amount of drug-related harm…”

The study also found that two-thirds of adverse effects involved alcohol, more than one-third involved marijuana, and 15% involved Ecstasy, commonly called “Molly” when in powder or crystal form.

“Alcohol use was associated with the greatest number of adverse outcomes, perhaps due to its ubiquitous nature and its impact on judgment,” says study coauthor Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at the New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University.

“Our findings suggest that drug use is not only prevalent among people who attend electronic dance music parties, but that there’s also a substantial amount of drug-related harm,” says lead author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor at the School of Medicine at the New York University.

About 37% of adverse effects occurred after marijuana use and more than one-third of these people ate edible marijuana.

“This may be the result of consuming too many edibles to accelerate the high or to experience a more intense or prolonged high. The increasing, and unpredictable, potency of cannabis also contributes to the difficulty in controlling the dose consumed,” Nelson says.

One-fifth of those using Ecstasy or Molly reported an adverse effect. Of these, 14% felt the need to visit an emergency department, and one-half of those people did seek such help. Participants used prescription opioids less than other drugs; however, 41% of nonmedical users had experienced an adverse reaction, with 14% making a trip to an emergency department.

“Opioids are a high-risk group of drugs, particularly when used in combination with alcohol or other drugs,” says Nelson.

Although infrequently used, synthetic cathinones—also known as “bath salts”—were most likely to result in a hospital visit.

“Our finding about ‘bath salt’ use leading to emergency department visits is particularly alarming because we’ve been finding that a lot of people who think they’re using Molly are often using ‘bath salts’ without realizing it,” Palamar adds.

“While we couldn’t deduce to what extent adverse effects occurred at these parties, these are high-risk venues due to a combination of drug use and environmental factors,” he says. “Dancing for hours, hot temperatures, and dehydration appear to exacerbate the risk for adverse effects among those who use drugs.”

Source: Rutgers University

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How investors can avoid the ‘infatuation effect’

Thu, 2019-08-22 11:23

New research explains why we put money into a specific investment just because it’s the most familiar or stands out. It also points to a solution for making better investing choices.

“Everyday investors can often become overly attached to a particular stock or mutual fund, sometimes to their financial detriment,” says Steven Posavac, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University.

“We wanted to understand how internal factors such as top-of-mind awareness or external cues such as media attention can cause investors to become prematurely infatuated with a particular investment.”

3 experiments

The researchers conducted three experiments in which they primed participants to focus more on one investment choice than three others.

In the first, researchers gave participants summaries of four comparable mutual funds, randomly assigned them to rate one of them, and then asked them to choose one of the funds to invest in. Participants were much more likely to invest in the fund researchers assigned them to rate than any of the other three—indicating that investors could be subtly led to favor a particular option simply because it was more salient than others.

“Surprisingly, the effect was even a little bit stronger for those who indicated that they understood how investments worked.”

A subsequent experiment showed that this bias is particularly likely to occur when investors focus on the most salient option, and fail to consider other, potentially better, alternatives. The last experiment showed that this phenomenon could often lead people to choose objectively worse investments.

“We found that the infatuation effect persisted clearly across all three experiments, even when the salient option was worse than the others,” says Nicolas Bollen, a professor of finance. “Surprisingly, the effect was even a little bit stronger for those who indicated that they understood how investments worked.”

Getting past the infatuation effect

The researchers say that the key to overcoming this problem is to take a more comparative approach when choosing investments—for example by doing a side-by-side comparison of multiple investment options. Likewise, they say, this tendency can also be exploited to protect investors.

Benefits managers can, for example, highlight lower-cost, more reliable investments, like index funds, so employees are less likely to default to riskier or more costly options.

“Becoming mentally fixated on a particular investment is a very common trap, even among experienced investors,” says Posavac.

“Taking a step back and thinking about multiple options before deciding can go a long way toward making better choices.”

The research appears in the Journal of Economic Psychology. Additional coauthors are from Tulane University and the University of Utah.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Gun retailers could help prevent suicide

Thu, 2019-08-22 11:18

Firearm retailers may be willing to learn about suicide prevention and to train their employees in how to spot and act on suicide warning signs, a new study in Washington state finds.

With firearms the commonly used and most lethal means of suicide nationwide, the findings from the survey of nearly 200 independent firearm retailers across Washington state demonstrate the potential for key community members to be proactive in helping to prevent people from taking their own lives, says lead author Thomas Walton, a doctoral candidate of social work at Forefront Suicide Prevention at the University of Washington.

The study, which the researchers believe to be first to look at what influences firearm retailers in suicide prevention efforts, also finds that a lack of awareness of the role of firearms in suicide, as well as a reluctance to talk to customers about personal issues, likely inhibit greater progress in suicide prevention.

The need for better suicide prevention efforts

“Suicide prevention hasn’t been an area of focus in the firearm community, and it shows,” Walton says. “But there’s a definite willingness to pass on firearm safety information, and they want to be able to see how to integrate suicide prevention into talking about firearm safety.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all suicides in the United States from 1999 to 2017 (the most recent statistics available) involved a firearm. The percentage is even higher in veteran suicides.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255.

In Washington, the data is similar: From 2013 to 2017, almost half of all suicides, and 67% of veteran suicides, involved a firearm, according to the state Department of Health. Beginning in 2017, the state Legislature helped fund Forefront’s Safer Homes, Suicide Aware campaign, which offers training, outreach, and locking devices for firearms and medications in communities with high rates of firearms ownership.

As part of its mission, the Safer Homes program has identified gun retailers as a key potential stakeholder in distributing information about suicide prevention. Other states, such as New Hampshire and Colorado have been working to engage firearm retailers in the issue; the new study is the first aimed at understanding what influences such engagement.

Surveying gun retailers

The first step for researchers was surveying firearm retailers about their knowledge of suicide prevention and willingness to participate. Using records from the state Department of Licensing and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Walton and Forefront director Jennifer Stuber were able to find email or mailing addresses for nearly 800 independent retailers around the state. The team created a 42-question survey that was available in print or online.

Big-box stores that sell guns were not included because of corporate policies governing store-level training and outreach.

The researchers also partnered with the Second Amendment Foundation and the owner of a Spokane gun shop, who together sent an introductory letter to the retailers explaining the survey.

“…if you get the right messengers to get people to the table, there is clearly a willingness among retailers to be involved in the solutions.”

In the end, retailers completed 178 surveys. Sixteen retailers contacted the researchers to refuse the survey, while 62 were minimally completed, and 33 were returned as undeliverable. The remaining 500 weren’t returned.

“There are barriers to working with this population because of distrust and incomplete contact information,” says Stuber, an associate professor in the School of Social Work. “But if you get the right messengers to get people to the table, there is clearly a willingness among retailers to be involved in the solutions.”

‘Out-of-the-box solutions’

The results can be grouped generally into three distinct types of questions: knowledge of suicide and how to prevent it; support for learning more; and a willingness to intervene directly with customers.

About half of the retailers who responded said they were familiar with warning signs of suicide, while nearly two-thirds of respondents says they wanted to know more about how firearm retailers can help prevent suicide. About 72% says they would provide free training to employees.

At the other end of the spectrum were beliefs about suicide and the retailer’s role in talking with customers in crisis. Nearly three-quarters says asking customers about their mental health might offend them. About 45% says asking about personal issues is not their responsibility, and 66% agreed with the statement: “If a person wants to die by suicide, there is nothing I can do to stop them.”

“It is critical to work on changing this common misperception that suicide is inevitable,” Walton says. “For the vast majority of individuals, the desire to die by suicide is fleeting, so anything any of us can do to prevent or postpone a suicidal act is helping to save a life.”

Survey results also indicate that the more a retailer knows about suicide, and the longer they have been in business, the more comfortable they are with ideas about training employees and talking with customers. For instance, retailers for whom a majority of sales come from firearms and ammunition were more likely to support education and outreach around suicide prevention. Those with longer tenure in the industry, the authors write, were also more supportive of suicide prevention efforts and thus could be tapped as leaders in any future effort among retailers.

“Notably, most firearm retailers lack awareness that suicide is the most common type of firearm fatality. Education about this fact is an important first step to increasing engagement in prevention efforts,” Stuber says.

“We are going to need out-of-the-box solutions to reach communities with high rates of firearm ownership to create compelling public health messages about suicide prevention.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255.

The research appears in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. The Washington state Legislature funded the research.

Source: University of Washington

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Being an omnivore is actually quite odd

Thu, 2019-08-22 09:38

The first animal likely was a carnivore, new research finds. Humans, along with other omnivores, belong to a rare breed.

What an animal eats is a fundamental aspect of its biology, but surprisingly, the evolution of diet had not been studied across the animal kingdom until now.

The study is a deep dive into the evolutionary history of more than one million animal species going back 800 million years.

The study reveals several surprising key insights:

  • Many species living today that are carnivorous—those that eat other animals—can trace this diet back to a common ancestor more than 800 million years ago.
  • A plant-based, or herbivorous, diet is not the evolutionary driver for new species that scientists believed it to be.
  • Closely related animals tend to share the same dietary category—plant-eating, meat-eating, or both. This finding implies that switching between dietary lifestyles is not something that happens easily and often over the course of evolution.

The researchers scoured the literature for data on the dietary habits of more than a million animal species, from sponges to insects and spiders to house cats. They classified a species as carnivorous if it feeds on other animals, fungi, or protists (single-celled eukaryotic organisms, many of which live on bacteria). The researchers classified species as herbivorous if they depend on land plants, algae, or cyanobacteria for food, and omnivorous if they eat a mixture of carnivorous and herbivorous diets.

The scientists then mapped the vast dataset of animal species and their dietary preferences onto an evolutionary tree built from DNA-sequence data to untangle the evolutionary relationships between them.

Insects are a group in which feeding on plants increases rates of species proliferation, including among the butterflies and moths, which are almost all herbivorous. (Credit: Daniel Stolte/U. Arizona) The whole animal kingdom’s menu

“Ours is the largest study conducted so far that examines the evolution of diet across the whole animal tree of life,” says lead author Cristian Román-Palacios, a doctoral student in the ecology and evolutionary biology department of at the University of Arizona. “We addressed three highly-debated and fundamental questions in evolutionary biology by analyzing a large-scale dataset using state-of-the-art methods.”

All species can be classified according to their evolutionary relationships, a concept that is known as phylogeny. Organisms are grouped into taxa, which define their interrelationships across several levels. For example, cats and dogs are different species but belong to the same order (carnivores). Similarly, horses and camels belong to a different order (ungulates.) Both orders, however, are part of the same class (mammals).

On the highest level, animals are classified in phyla. Examples of animal phyla are arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, scorpions, and the like), mollusks (snails, clams, and squid fall into this phylum), and chordates, which include all animals with a backbone, including humans.

The survey suggests that across animals, carnivory is most common, including 63% of species. Another 32% are herbivorous, while humans belong to a small minority, just 3%, of omnivorous animals.

Unlike many of their land-dwelling kin, many so-called sea slugs such as this Spanish Shawl are carnivorous snails that prey on polyps, sponges or even each other. (Credit: Daniel Stolte/U. Arizona) Tracing the evolution of eating meat

The researchers were surprised to find that many of today’s carnivorous species trace this diet back all the way to the base of the animal evolutionary tree, more than 800 million years, predating the oldest known fossils that paleontologists have been able to assign to animal origins with certainty.

“We don’t see that with herbivory,” says corresponding author John Wiens, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Herbivory seems to be much more recent, so in our evolutionary tree, it appears more frequently closer to the tips of the tree.”

So if the first animal was a carnivore, what did it prey on?

The authors suggest the answer might lie with protists, including choanoflagellates: tiny, single-celled organisms considered to be the closest living relatives of the animals. Living as plankton in marine and freshwater, choanoflagellates are vaguely reminiscent of miniature versions of the shuttlecock batted back and forth during a game of badminton.

A funnel-shaped collar of “hairs” surrounds a whip-like appendage called a flagellum whose rhythmic beating sucks a steady stream of water through the collar, filtering out bacteria and detritus that is then absorbed and digested. It is possible that the common ancestor of today’s animals was a creature very similar to a choanoflagellate.

“The ancient creature that is most closely related to all animals living today might have eaten bacteria and other protists rather than plants,” Wiens says.

Black vultures and Andean condors are carnivorous birds that specialize on consuming carrion. (Credit: Cristian Román-Palacios/University of Arizona) Omnivores are super rare

Turning to a plant-based diet, on the other hand, happened much more frequently over the course of animal evolution.

Herbivory has traditionally been seen as a powerful catalyst for the origin of new species—an often-cited example is the insects, with an estimated 1.5 million described species the most diverse group among the arthropods. Many new species of flowering plants appeared during the Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago, and the unprecedented diversity of flowers is widely thought to have coincided with an increase in insect species taking advantage of the newly available floral bounty.

“This tells us that what we see in insects doesn’t necessarily apply to other groups within the animal kingdom,” Wiens says. “Herbivory may go hand in hand with new species appearing in certain taxa, but it clearly is not a universal driver of new species.”

The study also revealed that omnivorous (“eating everything”) diets popped up rarely over the course of 800 million years of animal evolution, hinting at the possible explanation that evolution prefers specialists over generalists.

“You can be better at doing what you do if that is all you do,” Wiens says. “In terrestrial vertebrates, for example, eating a diet of leaves often requires highly modified teeth and a highly modified gut. The same goes for carnivory. Nature generally seems to avoid the dilemma of being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, at least for diets.”

This need for specialization might explain why omnivores, such as humans, are rare, according to the authors. It might also explain why diets have often gone unchanged for so long.

“There is a big difference between eating leaves all the time and eating fruits every now and then,” Wiens says. “The specializations required to be an efficient herbivore or carnivore might explain why the two diets have been so conserved over hundreds of millions of years.”

The study appears in the journal Evolution Letters.

Source: University of Arizona

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39% of straight couples now meet online

Thu, 2019-08-22 09:29

More heterosexual couples today meet online, research finds. In fact, matchmaking is now the primary job of online algorithms.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sociologist Michael Rosenfeld reports that heterosexual couples are more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal contacts and connections. Since 1940, traditional ways of meeting partners—through family, in church, and in the neighborhood—have all been in decline, Rosenfeld says.

Rosenfeld, a lead author of the study and a professor of sociology at Stanford University, drew on a nationally representative 2017 survey of American adults and found that about 39% of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online, compared to 22% in 2009.

Rosenfeld has studied mating and dating as well as the internet’s effect on society for two decades. Here, he explains the new findings:

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Brown fat may clear obesity-linked amino acids from blood

Thu, 2019-08-22 07:46

New research clarifies how brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue, may help protect against obesity and diabetes.

The study in the journal Nature adds to our knowledge about brown fat’s role in human health and could lead to new medications for treating obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Scientists consider brown fat a heat organ. People have a few grams of it in areas including the neck, collarbone, kidneys, and spinal cord. When cool temperatures activate it, the fat uses sugar and fat from the blood to generate heat in the body.

Left: Brown fat is not activated. Right: The orange color on both shoulders and the neck show cold conditions activating brown fat. (Credit: Labros Sidossis/Rutgers)

The study shows that brown fat could also help the body filter and remove branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) from the blood. BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are in foods like eggs, meat, fish, chicken, and milk, but also in supplements used by people who want to build muscle mass.

In normal concentrations in the blood, these amino acids are essential for good health. In excessive amounts, they’re linked to diabetes and obesity. The researchers found that people with little or no brown fat have reduced ability to clear BCAAs from their blood, and that may lead to the development of obesity and diabetes.

The study also solved a 20-plus year mystery: how BCAAs enter the mitochondria that generate energy and heat in cells. The scientists discovered that a novel protein (called SLC25A44) controls the rate at which brown fat clears the amino acids from the blood and uses them to produce energy and heat.

“Our study explains the paradox that BCAA supplements can potentially benefit those with active brown fat, such as healthy people, but can be detrimental to others, including the elderly, obese, and people with diabetes,” says coauthor Labros S. Sidossis, a professor who chairs the kinesiology and health department at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and a professor in the medicine department at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Next, researchers need to determine whether brown fat’s uptake of BCAAs can be controlled by things like exposure to mildly cold temperatures (65 degrees Fahrenheit) or consumption of spicy foods—or by drugs. This could improve blood sugar levels that are linked to diabetes and obesity, Sidossis says.

Source: Rutgers University

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College educated women drink more booze

Wed, 2019-08-21 19:51

More women are drinking alcohol and researchers are investigating why.

While the gap is shrinking between men and women who drink, the new research finds variations in the amount and frequency women drink based on age, race, education, marital status, and other factors.

The research compares the experiences of women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s to see how life changes and events influence drinking, says Susan Stewart, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University.

“Some of our findings really break down stereotypes, such as alcohol use is highest among poor women and underrepresented women…”

Overall, 52% of women reported drinking around seven days in the last month and averaged just over two drinks a day. The researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. The survey follows thousands of people starting as teens and into adulthood.

While women still drink less than men, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there is little evidence to explain their increase in consumption. Stress, social acceptance of alcohol, and life changes are often cited as potential factors, but Stewart says this is largely anecdotal. By comparing alcohol consumption across social categories, the researchers want to provide a greater understanding of why women drink as well as dispel some myths.

“Some of our findings really break down stereotypes, such as alcohol use is highest among poor women and underrepresented women,” Stewart says. “We found that not to be true. White women and women with more education and financial means have much higher rates of alcohol consumption.”

Breaking down alcohol consumption

The researchers’ preliminary findings, which they presented at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting, found significant differences in drinking by race and ethnicity.

This table provides a comparison among white, black, and Hispanic women. (Credit: Iowa State)

The researchers also note differences based on social and demographic characteristics:

  • Married black women drank less than single or cohabiting women, but this was not true for white and Hispanic women.
  • College educated women across all groups were more likely to drink, and drank more days per month.
  • White and black women living in urban areas drank more than those in rural areas, but this did not influence drinking among Hispanic women.

To expand on these initial findings, Gloria Jones Johnson, a professor of sociology, is looking specifically at empty nesters. Preliminary results show significant shifts in alcohol use before and after the last child leaves home. For example, 26% of women who were moderate drinkers while their children were home became heavy drinkers after they left.

“This could be due to ’empty nest syndrome’—loss of mothering role, depression, isolation—or it could be a newfound freedom from family and childrearing responsibilities,” says Jones Johnson. “To draw definitive conclusions we will compare these women’s alcohol consumption to the alcohol consumption of women not experiencing the empty nest.”

Why does it matter?

Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the US, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Approximately 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes, which is more than opioid overdoses (60,000) and motor vehicle crashes (34,000). The researchers point to the physical, mental, and emotional health issues associated with alcohol use as important reasons for this work.

“After decades of steady increases, women’s life expectancy has leveled off in the last five years partly as a result of increased alcohol consumption,” says Cassandra Dorius, an assistant professor of human development and family studies. “As the main caretakers of children, aging parents, and extended family members, women’s alcohol use can have lasting effects on the family.”

Source: Iowa State University

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Could treatments for tinnitus target brain inflammation?

Wed, 2019-08-21 19:49

Brain inflammation may offer a new target for treating tinnitus, researchers report.

More than 50 million Americans struggle with tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears that ranges from mildly annoying to severely debilitating, and no cure exists. Existing treatments help some people, but none seems to work for everyone. Hearing loss affects about 500 million people, and is a major risk factor for the condition.

In their new study, researchers found inflammation in a sound-processing region of the brain triggers evidence of tinnitus in mice that have noise-induced hearing loss. The discovery could lead to new treatments to silence the ringing for millions of sufferers.

Tinnitus on the brain

Listening to loud noise over time can permanently damage hearing. Recent studies indicate that noise-induced hearing loss causes inflammation—the immune system’s response to injury or infection—in the brain auditory pathway. How it contributes to hearing loss-related conditions, such as tinnitus, however, is not well understood. Researchers examined neuroinflammation—inflammation in the nervous system—in the auditory cortex of the brain following noise-induced hearing loss and its role in tinnitus.

Their research shows mice with noise-induced hearing loss (under anesthesia) had elevated levels of molecules called proinflammatory cytokines and the activation of non-neuronal cells called microglia, two defining features of neuroinflammatory responses, in the primary auditory cortex in the brain.

The research also shows that the cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), a cell signaling protein (cytokine) involved in systemic inflammation, is necessary for noise-induced neuroinflammation, tinnitus, and synaptic imbalance (an altered pattern of signaling between neurons). When the researchers used a pharmacological drug to block the TNF-α, the mice no longer showed signs of tinnitus.

Work left to do

“People have found clues for the cause of tinnitus, but because many parallel components are involved, we would block one component, then we would have to block another, then another still,” says Shaowen Bao, an associate professor of physiology at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine-Tucson. Bao started examining the role of TNF-α in tinnitus in 2011 while at the University of California, Berkley. “Neuroinflammation seems to be involved in many of these components. We hope blocking neuroinflammation will give us better chance to block them all, thereby stopping the tinnitus.”

The findings suggest that neuroinflammation may be a therapeutic target for treating tinnitus and other hearing loss-related disorders.

“We have more work to do to confirm the mechanism that is causally linked to tinnitus and determine if the results translate to humans,” Bao cautions. “While promising, we still have a long way to go from research to patient care.”

The research appears in the journal PLOS Biology. Support for the work came from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Food and Health Bureau of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.

Source: University of Arizona

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How will self-driving cars deal with motion sickness?

Wed, 2019-08-21 13:54

A new project aims to identify and quantify motion sickness in passenger vehicles to help more people eventually enjoy self-driving cars.

Up to one-third of Americans experience motion sickness, according to the National Institutes of Health. In a car, the condition tends to flare when you’re a passenger rather than a driver, and when you’re engaged in something other than looking out the window—reading or using a handheld device, for example. This sizable segment of society stands to miss out on some of the key benefits of self-driving cars.

“One of the great promises of autonomous vehicles—to give us back time by freeing us from driving—is at risk if we can’t solve the motion sickness problem,” says Monica Jones, an assistant research scientist in the Biosciences Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “If it’s not mitigated in some way, motion sickness may affect people’s willingness to adopt driverless cars.”

Understanding motion sickness

The research team has developed a repeatable and reliable testing protocol for evaluating specific real-world driving maneuvers and passenger activities that make people carsick. No such methodology existed before. The study is the first to conduct a large-scale comparison of reading task performance and urban acceleration levels on motion sickness response in a passenger vehicle.

The factors that cause motion sickness in cars are not well understood today.

“Very few studies have been conducted in cars; instead, a lot of the work has been done for sea and air transportation modes, performed in driving simulators or on motion platforms,” Jones says. “These results are not translating very well to road vehicles.”

Beyond that, previous research hasn’t asked the right questions.

“A lot of scales that exist in the literature are based on nausea,” Jones says. “If we design to a vomiting response, we have really missed the mark on autonomous vehicles. We need to target comfort levels. Can a passenger engage with a handheld device while riding? Can a passenger be productive with their time?”

Getting sick for science

The team’s protocol defines how to measure the range of sensations passengers experience and identifies the type of conditions that prompt feelings of motion sickness in cars. Researchers put 52 participants through a series of normal driving maneuvers at the Mcity Test Facility on the University of Michigan’s North Campus to develop the scripted route, instrumentation, and measurement protocol.

The testbed consists of:

  • A 20-minute test drive researchers developed based on data from a separate real-world driving study. On average, it includes 25 braking events, 45 left turns, and 30 right turns, and is conducted at both 10-15 mph and 20-25 mph.
  • Tasks done on a handheld mini-iPad. At each speed, passengers complete the test drive once with no task, and again while performing a task. Using restaurant reviews, news articles, and local maps, participants answer a range of questions that involve reading comprehension, visual search, text entry, and pattern recognition.
  • Sensors that record vehicle acceleration and geospatial location and participant’s physiological response, including sweat, skin temperature, and heart rate. Cameras and sensors also record passenger head movement and posture.
  • A new motion sickness rating using a 0-10 scale, with “0” indicating no motion sickness and “10” indicating “Need to stop the vehicle.”
  • An open-ended conversation during the test drive. Once every two minutes or whenever they feel a change, participants describe sensations in their own words, in order to more specifically capture the effects of motion sickness. For each sensation, participants rate the intensity as mild, moderate, or severe.
Making self-driving cars more pleasant

With the protocol, the researchers hope to develop a nuanced mathematical model of motion sickness—one that automakers can use to build products that operate below the threshold. Data from this testbed could inform decisions like how driverless cars brake and accelerate during turns, for example, or how the seating area and windows are arranged. Car manufacturers can test and measure different control algorithms and car concepts, apples-to-apples.

“We have found that passenger responses are complicated and have many dimensions,” Jones says. “Applications of this testbed will result in the data we need to identify preventative measures and alleviate motion sickness in autonomous vehicles.”

The researchers have released a white paper about the protocol. Mcity and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute provided funding and other support for Jones’ research.

Source: University of Michigan

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‘Skeletons’ are key to quick object recognition

Wed, 2019-08-21 12:32

While the outer shape of an object is key to rapid recognition, the object’s inner “skeleton” may play an even more important role, according to a new study.

In the blink of an eye, the human visual system can process an object, determining whether it’s a cup or a sock within milliseconds, and with seemingly little effort. It’s well-established that an object’s shape is a critical visual cue to help the eyes and brain perform this trick. The new research shows that the medial axis of an object, or its skeletal geometry, is a key visual tool for object recognition.

“When we think of an object’s shape, we typically imagine the outer contours,” explains first author Vladislav Ayzenberg, a PhD candidate in psychology at Emory University. “But there is also a deeper, more abstract property of shape that’s described by skeletal geometry. Our research suggests that this inner, invisible mechanism may be crucial to recognizing an object so quickly.”

“You can think of it like a child’s stick drawing of a person,” adds senior author Stella Lourenco, an associate professor of psychology. “Using a stick figure to represent a person gives you the basic visual information you need to immediately perceive the figure’s meaning.”

From perception to object recognition

The Lourenco lab researches human visual perception, cognition, and development. Visual perception of an object begins when light hits our eyes and the object is projected as a two-dimensional image onto the photoreceptor cells of the retina.

“A lot of internal machinery is whirring between the eyes and brain to facilitate perception and recognition within 70 milliseconds,” Ayzenberg says. “I’m fascinated by the neural computations that go into that process.”

Although most people take it for granted, object recognition is a remarkable feat. “You can teach a two-year-old what a dog is by pointing out a real dog or showing the child a picture in a book,” Lourenco says. “After seeing such examples a child can rapidly and with ease recognize other dogs as dogs, despite variations in their individual appearances.”

The human ability to recognize objects is robust despite changes in a class of objects such as outer contours, sizes, textures, and colors. For the current paper, the researchers developed a series of experiments to test the role of skeletal geometry in the process.

Starting with the skeleton

In one experiment, researchers presented participants with paired images of 150 abstract 3D objects on a computer. The objects had 30 different skeletal structures. Each object was rendered with five different surface forms, to change the visible shape of the object, without altering the underlying skeleton. Researchers asked the participants to judge whether each pair of images showed the same or different objects. The results found that skeletal similarity was a significant predictor for a correct response.

A second experiment, based on adaptations of three of the objects, tested the effects of proportional changes to the shape skeleton. Participants were able to accurately predict object similarity at a rate significantly above chance at every level of skeletal change.

A third experiment tested whether an object’s skeleton was a better predictor of object similarity than its surface form. Participants successfully matched objects by their skeletal structure or surface forms when each cue was presented in isolation. They showed a preference, however, to match objects by their skeletons, as opposed to their surface forms, when these cues conflicted with one another.

The results suggest that the visual system is not only highly sensitive to the skeletal structure of objects, but that this sensitivity may play an even bigger role in shape perception than object contours.

“Skeletal geometry appears to be more important than previously realized, but it is certainly not the only tool used in object recognition,” Lourenco says. “It may be that the visual system starts with the skeletal structure, instead of the outline of an object, and then maps other properties, such as textures and colors, onto it.”

In addition to adding to fundamental knowledge of the human vision system, the study may give insights into improving capabilities for artificial intelligence (AI). Rapid and accurate object recognition, for example, is vital for AI systems on self-driving cars.

“The best model for a machine-learning system is likely a human-learning system,” Ayzenberg says. “The human vision system has solved the problem of object recognition through evolution and adapted quite well.”

The research appears in Scientific Reports.

Source: Emory University

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Nanoparticle relieves IBD symptoms in mice

Wed, 2019-08-21 11:58

A newly developed nanoparticle can alter the gut microbiome and alleviate symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease in mice more effectively than common FDA-approved medications, say researchers.

The gut microbiome–the body’s environment of healthy and unhealthy bacteria–is the next frontier for drug development, and an imbalanced gut microbiome has been implicated in many human diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), says James Moon, an associate professor of pharmacy with an appointment in biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Bacteria imbalance

IBD is an umbrella term for chronic debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, which are characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract and can include diarrhea, cramps, an inability to digest food, fatigue, and weight loss.

“The imbalance between good and bad microbes in our gut is implicated in IBD, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other conditions,” Moon says. “Being able to modulate the gut microbiome so that we have a higher frequency of good bacteria would open many doors to new drug development.

“We were really excited because this is one of the first examples of using safe drug-like substances to increase the good microbiome. Some people are doing fecal transplants, which isn’t a great option for drug development. These nanoparticles are safe and simple to produce.”

The nanoparticles consist of two naturally occurring anti-inflammatory compounds: hyaluronic acid, a natural lubricant found in joints and also used in face creams and dermal fillers, tethered to bilirubin, which is produced in the liver. The HA-bilirubin particle binds much more effectively to inflamed colon tissues, increasing the good microbes in the colon tissues and allowing the damaged cell lining in the colon to heal.

Fighting back inflammatory bowel disease

Researchers tested the nanoparticle in mice by giving them water containing a chemical that causes acute colitis, and then administering a seven-day oral treatment of the nanomedicine.

“After treatments with the nanoparticle, the mice maintained their body weight, but the ones treated with traditional FDA-approved drugs for treating colitis lost 15% of their body weight,” says lead author Yonghyun Lee, a research scientist at the College of Pharmacy. “We saw the particles were binding to the damaged colon layers and protecting them against dying, and the mucous layer that protects tissues from bad microbes was improved.”

“In IBD, an impaired gut barrier allows bacteria to penetrate the intestine wall and cause inflammation in immune cells, with limited treatments available to prevent this cascade,” says coauthor Nobuhiko Kamada, assistant professor of internal medicine.

“This nanomedicine can act on all of these inflammatory steps, so it’s possible it could be effective for each stage of inflammatory bowel disease.”

Researchers aren’t sure how the nanoparticle boosts the good microbes, but they have shown in the lab that it scavenges naturally occurring chemicals called reactive oxygen species, which can damage and kill cells.

The research appears in Nature Materials.

Source: University of Michigan

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Huge mental health gap for gender minority college students

Wed, 2019-08-21 09:20

College students who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary face enormous mental health disparities relative to their peers, research finds.

Findings from the largest and most comprehensive mental health survey of college students in the United States appear in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The researchers report that gender minority students, whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, are between two and four times more likely to experience mental health problems than the rest of their peers.

“There has never been a more important time for colleges and universities to take action to protect and support trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary students on campus,” says lead author Sarah Ketchen Lipson, assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Screening survey results

The research team looked at rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, and suicidality in a sample of over 1,200 gender minority students from 71 colleges and universities.

“First and foremost, allies on campus need to listen to and make space for the voices of trans people.”

About 78% of the gender minority students included in the study met the criteria for one or more mental health problems, with nearly 60% of gender minority students screening positive for clinically significant depression, compared to 28% of cisgender students, whose sex assigned at birth aligns with their current gender identity.

Those findings stem from analysis of two waves of data collected between fall 2015 and spring 2017 through the Healthy Minds Study, a national, annual survey about campus mental health that Lipson co-leads with University of Michigan colleague Daniel Eisenberg.

The Healthy Minds Study, which more than 300,000 US college students have voluntarily taken since its launch in 2007, uses clinically validated methods of screening for symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns. The survey includes space for participants to fill in their assigned gender at birth as well as their current gender identity, which allowed the researchers to filter their analysis and focus on the collective mental health of gender minority students. The Healthy Minds Study is part of the Healthy Minds Network, a larger effort dedicated to improving the mental well-being of young adults, based out of the University of Michigan and Boston University.

What would help gender minority students?

“Reports that more than 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes suggested, to me, that there is a large and disproportionate burden of disease among [people in the gender minority] that public health research can contribute to addressing,” says coauthor Julia Raifman, assistant professor of health law, policy & management at the Boston University School of Public Health.

The Healthy Minds Study results reinforce the disparities facing gender minority students revealed by other research, which has shown that college dropout rates are higher among transgender students, and that they experience near-constant discrimination and harassment.

Bathrooms and housing are some of the most stressful areas on college campuses for transgender students, with research showing that transgender college students are at significantly higher risk for suicide and attempted suicide when denied access to gender-appropriate bathrooms and housing on college campuses.

Along with a significantly higher prevalence of self-reported mental health issues among the gender minority community, the researchers also found that transgender men and genderqueer students are particularly vulnerable groups, a statistic that warrants further research, Lipson says.

“Mental health outcomes, as well as negative educational outcomes like dropping out, are preventable,” says Lipson. “The most effective way to prevent them would be, from my perspective, through policy changes. Inclusive policies are necessary to advance equity. And that’s what I really want these data to speak to.”

Slowly, gender-neutral bathrooms and housing options are becoming the norm. The researchers hope that leaders in higher education will use these results as a springboard for much more urgent action, such as addressing gender minority needs in housing policies, creating or revising policies that allow students to change their name in campus records, improving mental health resources on campuses, and raising awareness of gender minority issues.

“As a cisgender woman working on this topic, I think a lot about allyship and how I can conduct and disseminate research to advance advocacy efforts. First and foremost, allies on campus need to listen to and make space for the voices of trans people,” Lipson says. Peers, friends, and colleagues on college campuses should be “upstanders,” speaking up to call out hateful rhetoric, discrimination, microaggressions, and transphobic policies, she adds.

Equal rights and outcomes

The researchers plan to continue using data from the Healthy Minds Study with the eventual goal of recording longitudinal data that follows gender minority students throughout their college experience, examining mental health alongside individual, institutional, and societal factors. They say additional research is also needed to explore the intersectionality of gender identities with other identities, such as race or religious beliefs.

“We are in a time when transgender people are being denied equal rights—to jobs, to housing, to healthcare, and to participation in the military. These data suggest that new policies eliminating equal rights for transgender people are affecting a population that already experiences a disproportionate burden of disease,” says Raifman, referring to recent actions initiated by the Trump administration, such as banning transgender individuals from serving in the military and rolling back Obama-era rules intended to protect transgender individuals from discrimination.

“As next steps, it will be important to evaluate whether equal rights or the elimination of equal rights for transgender people affects mental health disparities,” she says.

Additional coauthors of the study are from Harvard Medical School and The Fenway Institute, and the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Source: Boston University

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‘Wizard of Oz’ experiment shows promise for smart sinks

Wed, 2019-08-21 09:02

An experiment with a fake autonomous sink shows that a real smart sink could help conserve water, researchers report.

Barely hidden from his study participants, William Jou, a former graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, pulled off a ruse straight out of The Wizard of Oz.

Except, instead of impersonating a great and powerful wizard, Jou pretended to be an autonomous sink. He did this to test whether a sink that adapts to personal washing styles could reduce water use.

A faucet with anything close to the brains of a mechanical engineering student doesn’t yet exist. So, Jou and his colleagues in the lab of senior author Erin MacDonald, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, made the next best thing: a faucet that seemed to automatically adjust to a user’s preferences, but that Jou actually controlled.

The results of their sly experiment support the idea that thoughtfully designed smart sinks could help conserve water by regulating water use and nudging users to develop more water-conscious habits.

“We looked at the faucet because that’s where a lot of water usage in the home occurs, but when you compare your sink to other products in the house—a thermostat or refrigerator—you see that there haven’t been updates to how the sink works in a very long time,” says MacDonald. “There have been small updates but nothing that really harnesses the power of technology.”

Participants in this experiment had to wash dishes three times, with Jou secretly controlling the temperature and flow of the sink during the second washing only. With Jou involved, participants used about 26% less water compared to their first washing. In the third round, they still used 10% less water compared to the first round, even though the sink was back to being brainless. This shift in water use happened without participants knowing the experiment was about water conservation.

“Water conservation is particularly relevant given our location in California,” says Samantha Beaulieu, a graduate student and coauthor of the paper. “We also wanted to see if people’s habits were adjustable; if interacting with this faucet could then change how people interact with a manual faucet. The results we found seem to indicate that’s possible.”

Behind the curtain

In order to create a situation where people would trust—and hopefully enjoy—a sink that makes water decisions for them, Jou closely monitored the participants’ washing styles during their first round of cleaning so he could emulate them in the second round.

“As the algorithm, I’m trying to use that information to leverage their cognitive style or user behavior style to see if I can help them use less water while still keeping them happy,” says Jou, who is lead author of the paper. “Whereas a lot of products today are made for general use, this is a product that’s learning about you and adapting to what your style is.”

In surveys after the experiment, 96% of participants who interacted with the smart sink (there was a control group that washed dishes three times without Jou) says they thought there was potential for smart faucets to save water. Many of them even expressed interest in buying such a product.

“Most people were pretty amazed by the sink,” says Beaulieu. “A lot of people left the experiment asking what the algorithm was or asking how it worked or how to see more. We basically told them we’d have to wait until the end of the experiment to answer those questions.”

While the results from and reaction to washing with Jou’s assistance were impressive, the researchers were particularly heartened by how such a brief interaction with the “autonomous” function changed participants’ water use.

“We didn’t even plan on having that third step until very late in the research, when we were pilot testing,” says MacDonald. “I never would have thought that having just one experience with ‘William the Algorithm’ people would retain the training and wash their dishes differently.”

The future of doing dishes

The researchers imagine a future where hospital sinks encourage employees to wash their hands properly and our personal sink and shower preferences can be transferred to hotels and friends’ houses. Schools and neighborhoods could organize competitions to save water and raise water conservation awareness. Through additional features, the sink could even detect leaks.

That being said, creating this one sink required years of work and didn’t even include an algorithm. In addition to implanting artificial intelligence, making a version for mass production that’s actually autonomous would require sensors that could differentiate between users and between scenarios—such as washing a pot versus a fork versus hands. Still, the researchers are optimistic that studies like these could lay the groundwork to support those developments.

“We’re all human beings—we have good days and bad days. A product like this could have a large impact because it’s growing and learning with you as you change,” says Jou. “This faucet is working toward saving water but it’s also keeping its user happy. In the long term, products like this might be our future.”

The researchers presented their work at the International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference. Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation.

Source: Stanford University

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Lack of vitamin D as a kid may lead to acting out as a teen

Wed, 2019-08-21 08:30

Vitamin D deficiency in middle childhood could result in aggressive behavior as well as anxious and depressive moods during adolescence, according to a new study of school children in Bogotá, Colombia.

Children with blood vitamin D levels suggestive of deficiency were almost twice as likely to develop externalizing behavior problems—aggressive and rule breaking behaviors—as reported by their parents, compared with children who had higher levels of the vitamin.

Also, low levels of the protein that transports vitamin D in blood were related to more self-reported aggressive behavior and anxious/depressed symptoms. The associations were independent of child, parental, and household characteristics.

“Children who have vitamin D deficiency during their elementary school years appear to have higher scores on tests that measure behavior problems when they reach adolescence,” says senior author Eduardo Villamor, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.

Villamor says vitamin D deficiency has been associated with other mental health problems in adulthood, including depression and schizophrenia, and some studies have focused on the effect of vitamin D status during pregnancy and childhood. However, few studies have extended into adolescence, the stage when behavior problems may first appear and become serious conditions.

In 2006, Villamor’s team recruited 3,202 children aged 5-12 years into a cohort study in Bogotá, Colombia through a random selection from primary public schools. The investigators obtained information on the children’s daily habits, maternal education level, weight, and height, as well as the household’s food insecurity and socioeconomic status. Researchers also took blood samples.

After about six years, when the children were 11-18 years old, the investigators conducted in-person follow-up interviews in a random group of one-third of the participants, assessing the children’s behavior through questionnaires that they administered to the children themselves and their parents. The vitamin D analyses included 273 of those participants.

While the authors acknowledge the study’s limitations, including a lack of baseline behavior measures, their results indicate the need for additional studies involving neurobehavioral outcomes in other populations where vitamin D deficiency may be a public health problem.

The study appears in the Journal of Nutrition. Coauthors are from the University of Michigan; the University of La Sabana, Colombia; the Foundation for Research in Nutrition and Health in Colombia.

Source: University of Michigan

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Wearable sensor detects what your sweat is saying

Tue, 2019-08-20 18:59

Wearable skin sensors that detect what’s in your sweat could one day replace invasive procedures like blood draws and provide real-time updates on dehydration, fatigue, and other health problems.

Researchers used the sensors to monitor the sweat rate, and the electrolytes and metabolites in sweat, from volunteers who were exercising, and others who were experiencing chemically induced perspiration.

“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us—I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition,” says senior author Ali Javey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” says Javey, who is also a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A roll-to-roll processing technique prints the sensors onto a sheet of plastic. (Credit: Antti Veijola/VTT) High volume, low cost

As reported in Science Advances, scientists have developed a “roll-to-roll” processing technique that can quickly print the sensors onto a sheet of plastic like words on a newspaper.

The new sensors contain a spiraling microscopic tube, or microfluidic, that wicks sweat from the skin. By tracking how fast the sweat moves through the microfluidic, the sensors can report how much a person is sweating, or their sweat rate.

The microfluidics are also outfitted with chemical sensors that can detect concentrations of electrolytes like potassium and sodium, and metabolites like glucose.

Javey and his team worked with researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland to develop a way to quickly manufacture the sensor patches in a roll-to-roll processing technique similar to screen printing.

“Roll-to-roll processing enables high-volume production of disposable patches at low cost,” says Jussi Hiltunen of VTT. “Academic groups gain significant benefit from roll-to-roll technology when the number of test devices is not limiting the research. Additionally, up-scaled fabrication demonstrates the potential to apply the sweat-sensing concept in practical applications.”

Real-time health

To better understand what sweat can say about the real-time health of the human body, the researchers first placed the sweat sensors on different spots on volunteers’ bodies—including the forehead, forearm, underarm, and upper back—and measured sweat rates and the sodium and potassium levels in their sweat while they rode on an exercise bike.

They found that local sweat rate could indicate the body’s overall liquid loss during exercise, meaning that tracking sweat rate might be a way to give athletes a heads up when they may be pushing themselves too hard.

“Traditionally what people have done is they would collect sweat from the body for a certain amount of time and then analyze it,” says Hnin Yin Yin Nyein, a graduate student in materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley and one of the paper’s lead authors.

“So you couldn’t really see the dynamic changes very well with good resolution. Using these wearable devices we can now continuously collect data from different parts of the body, for example to understand how the local sweat loss can estimate whole-body fluid loss.”

Researchers also used the sensors to compare sweat glucose levels and blood glucose levels in healthy and diabetic patients, finding that a single sweat glucose measurement cannot necessarily indicate a person’s blood glucose level.

“There’s been a lot of hope that non-invasive sweat tests could replace blood-based measurements for diagnosing and monitoring diabetes, but we’ve shown that there isn’t a simple, universal correlation between sweat and blood glucose levels,” says Mallika Bariya, a graduate student in materials science and engineering and the paper’s other lead author.

“This is important for the community to know, so that going forward we focus on investigating individualized or multi-parameter correlations.”

Additional coauthors are from the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland and UC Berkeley. NSF Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies; the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center; and the Bakar fellowship funded the work.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Private prayer may boost memory for adults over 50

Tue, 2019-08-20 18:21

People over 50 who attend religious services and pray privately may notice better memory performance, researchers report.

According to the study’s findings, frequent religious service attendance and private prayer were linked to stronger cognitive health among blacks, Hispanics, and whites.

Previous research has shown religious involvement benefits physical and mental health of older minority adults.

Zarina Kraal, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author, tested whether the findings could extend to cognitive health.

The researchers used six years of data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, which includes responses from more than 16,000 people over age 50. They asked about religious attendance and prayer, and then tested people’s memory skills.

Participants—who disclosed their ethnicity, physical health, and depressive symptoms—heard 10 words and had to recall them immediately, and then again five minutes later.

Older black and Hispanic adults reported more religious involvement than their white counterparts. The effects of prayer and religious attendance on memory were equivalent between black and white older adults, as well as Hispanic and white older adults, Kraal says.

She also notes that the social aspects of religious service attendance may underlie its positive association with memory in older adults.

Attending religious services may promote social engagement with religious peers, and social engagement has been positively associated with cognitive outcomes

“Attending religious services may promote social engagement with religious peers, and social engagement has been positively associated with cognitive outcomes,” Kraal says.

Separate from social benefits, religious attendance may be linked to better cognitive health through stimulating cognitive activities unique to religious services, such as discussing sermons or applying scriptural study.

Additionally, the potential cognitive demands of prayer may explain its positive association with memory, Kraal says. For instance, memory may be required to recall who to pray for and reasons for prayer. Prayer may be beneficial for memory via its relaxation and stress reduction effects.

The findings appear in the journal Research on Aging.

Source: University of Michigan

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Team hunts for ‘optical counterparts’ of gravitational waves

Tue, 2019-08-20 15:05

A new campaign is using the Catalina Sky Survey’s near-Earth object telescope to find the optical counterparts to gravitational waves, researchers report.

Since the construction of technology that can detect gravitational waves, ripples in space and time that collisions from massive objects in the universe trigger, astronomers around the world have been searching for the bursts of light that could accompany such collisions, which they believe to be sources of rare heavy elements.

The University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory has partnered with the Catalina Sky Survey, which searches for near-Earth asteroids from atop Mount Lemmon, in an effort dubbed Searches after Gravitational Waves Using ARizona Observatories, or SAGUARO, to find optical counterparts to massive mergers.

An artist’s conception of two merging neutron stars creating ripples in space time known as gravitational waves. (Credit: NASA) Searching the stars

“Catalina Sky Survey has all of this infrastructure for their asteroid survey. So we have deployed additional software to take gravitational wave alerts from LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the Virgo interferometer then notify the survey to search an area of sky most likely to contain the optical counterpart,” says Michael Lundquist, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Essentially, instead of searching the next section of sky that we would normally, we go off and observe some other area that has a higher probability of containing an optical counterpart of a gravitational wave event,” says Eric Christensen, director of the Catalina Sky Survey and senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “The main idea is we can run this system while still maintaining the asteroid search.”

The ongoing campaign began in April, and in that month alone, the team learned of three massive collisions. Because it is difficult to tell the precise location from which the gravitational wave originated, locating optical counterparts can be difficult.

The SAGUARO logo. (Credit: Michael Lundquist)

According to Lundquist, two strategies are being employed. In the first, teams with small telescopes target galaxies that are at the right approximate distance, according to the gravitational wave signal. Catalina Sky Survey, on the other hand, utilizes a 60-inch telescope with a wide field of view to scan large swaths of sky in 30 minutes.

Three alerts, on April 9, 25, and 26, triggered the team’s software to search nearly 20,000 objects. Machine learning software then trimmed down the total number of potential optical counterparts to five.

The first gravitational wave event was a merger of two black holes, Lundquist says.

“There are some people who think you can get an optical counterpart to those, but it’s definitely inconclusive,” he says.

The second event was a merger of two neutron stars, the incredibly dense core of a collapsed giant star. The researchers believe the third is a merger between a neutron star and a black hole, Lundquist says.

Multitasking telescope

While no teams confirmed optical counterparts, the researchers did find several supernovae. They also used the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory to spectroscopically classify one promising target from another group. It was determined to be a supernova and not associated with the gravitational wave event.

“We also found a near-Earth object in the search field on April 25,” Christensen says. “That proves right there we can do both things at the same time.”

They were able to do this because the Catalina Sky Survey has observations of the same swaths of sky going back many years. Many other groups don’t have easy access to past photos for comparison, offering the researchers a leg up.

“We have really nice references,” Lundquist says. “We subtract the new image from the old image and use that difference to look for anything new in the sky.”

“The process Michael described,” Christensen says, “starting with a large number of candidate detections and filtering down to whatever the true detections are, is very familiar. We do that with near-Earth objects, as well.”

The team is planning on deploying a second telescope in the hunt for optical counterparts: Catalina Sky Survey’s 0.7-meter Schmidt telescope. While the telescope is smaller than the 60-inch telescope, it has an even wider field of view, which allows astronomers to quickly search an even larger chunk of sky. They’ve also improved their machine learning software to filter out stars that regularly change in brightness.

“Catalina Sky Survey takes hundreds of thousands of images of the sky every year, from multiple telescopes. Our survey telescopes image the entire visible nighttime sky several times per month, then we are looking for one kind of narrow slice of the pie,” Christensen says. “So, we’ve been willing to share the data with whoever wants to use it.”

Source: University of Arizona

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Prescription omega 3s keep triglycerides in check

Tue, 2019-08-20 14:02

Prescription omega-3 fatty acid medications are a safe and effective option for reducing high triglycerides, which increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a new study.

Every 38 seconds, a person dies from cardiovascular disease. To put that in perspective, that’s 2,303 people every day.

“High triglycerides are becoming increasingly common because they often occur in people with insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar. Omega-3 fatty acids are effective and safe for reducing high triglycerides, but clinicians often use other medications,” says Ann Skulas-Ray, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and first author of the paper in Circulation.

When most people think of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure and cholesterol immediately come to mind, but triglycerides are another important part of the picture.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat, or lipid, found in the blood. In fact, triglycerides are the most common type of fat in our bodies. One source of triglycerides is our food, but our liver also produces them. If our bodies produce or we consume too many triglycerides, they are stockpiled within our fat cells.

Research has demonstrated that higher levels of triglycerides, above 200 ml/dL, can lead to damaging deposits in the arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Very high triglyceride levels, above 500 ml/dL, can lead to additional issues, such as pancreatitis, or acute inflammation of the pancreas.

By compiling and analyzing the results of 17 randomized, controlled clinical trials on high triglycerides levels, researchers found that prescription omega-3 fatty acid medication reduced triglyceride levels by 20-30% among those receiving prescription treatment.

“We concluded that treatment with 4 grams daily of any of the available prescription choices is effective and can be used safely in conjunction with statin medicines that lower cholesterol,” Skulas-Ray says.

Fish oil supplements

Prescription omega-3 fatty acid medications come in two formulations, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) with and without DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). As there have been no clinical comparisons between the two different formulations, the scientific advisory panel does not make a specific recommendation of one over the other.

As part of the national panel, Skulas-Ray and postdoctoral research associate Chesney Richter specifically sought to assess the efficacy of prescription omega-3 fatty acids. The advisory stresses that people with high triglyceride levels should not try to treat the condition themselves with over-the-counter fish oil supplements.

“Dietary supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are not regulated by the FDA. They should not be used in place of prescription medication for the long-term management of high triglycerides,” Skulas-Ray says.

As many as 18.8 million adults in the US take fish oil supplements in hopes of decreasing their risk of developing heart disease. While there is a lack of scientific consensus regarding the use of fish oil supplements to prevent heart disease, recently completed clinical trials have been more promising, and a large body of research supports fish oil in maintaining general health.

Eating oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and albacore tuna, at least two times per week is a good source of beneficial omega fatty acids. However, most Americans consume very little dietary omega-3 fatty acids and, for those people who never eat oily fish, supplements could be very beneficial, Skulas-Ray says.

“Supplements can be a practical and inexpensive option for people interested in maintaining their health. Omega-3 fatty acids are important to many aspects of human physiology.”

Skulas-Ray’s lab is now beginning to study how certain omega-3 metabolites in the blood might be used to predict how older adults will recover from the physical stress of surgery.

“This builds on our ongoing research focus on omega-3 fatty acids and inflammation,” Skulas-Ray says. “We get excited about opportunities to better understand the potential of omega-3 fatty acids to improve human health.”

Source: University of Arizona

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