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Experts: Here’s what to expect from 2019 fire season

5 hours 29 min ago

Abnormal is the new normal for Western wildfires, with increasingly bigger and more destructive blazes, experts say. But understanding the risks can help avert disaster.

Throughout Western North America, millions of people live in high-risk wildfire zones thanks to increasingly dry, hot summers and abundant organic fuel in nearby wildlands. Researchers say that’s a recipe for disaster.

This year, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts a heavy wildfire season for areas along the West Coast from California into Canada due to a heavy crop of grasses and other plants that developed in the wake of a wet winter.

In California, the largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has already begun fire hazard-prevention power cut-offs that will likely affect hundreds of thousands of customers in the months ahead. Meanwhile, insurance claims for wildfires that devastated parts of California this past November recently topped $12 billion—a total that represents the state’s largest-ever economic loss from fire.

Here, experts Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; Rebecca Miller, a PhD student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources; and Michael Goss, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, discuss what to expect from the wildfire season this year and into the future:

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Rotavirus vaccine comes with lower risk of type 1 diabetes

6 hours 59 min ago

Babies who are fully vaccinated against rotavirus in the first months of life have a 33 percent lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes than their unvaccinated peers, a new study reports.

Rotavirus, which hits infants and toddlers hardest, can cause diarrhea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration or loss of fluids. Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease with no known prevention strategies or cure.

The study in Scientific Reports offers strong evidence that the rotavirus vaccine works, researchers say. Children vaccinated against rotavirus had a 94 percent lower rate of hospitalization for rotavirus infection, and a 31 percent lower rate of hospitalization for any reason, in the first two months after vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that infants receive the multidose vaccine starting no later than 15 weeks and finish receiving it before they are 8 months old. Infants receive the vaccine in oral drops.

The study shows that more than a quarter of American children don’t get fully vaccinated against rotavirus and that rates vary nationwide. Less than half of children in New England and Pacific states receive a full round, compared to two-thirds of children in the central part of the country who are fully vaccinated.

A trend to watch

The study does not show a cause-and-effect relationship between rotavirus vaccination and type 1 diabetes risk, cautions Mary A.M. Rogers, associate professor in the internal medicine department at the University of Michigan.

“This is an uncommon condition, so it takes large amounts of data to see any trends across a population. It will take more time and analyses to confirm these findings. But we do see a decline in type 1 diabetes in young children after the rotavirus vaccine was introduced.”

The death of insulin-producing cells, called beta cells, means people with type 1 diabetes depend on injections of insulin and multiple daily checks of their blood sugar for life. If the condition is not managed well, people with type 1 diabetes may develop problems with their kidneys, heart, eyes, blood vessels, and nerves.

8 fewer cases per 100,000 kids

Researchers used anonymous insurance data from 1.5 million American children born before and after the modern rotavirus vaccine came out in 2006. In nearly all cases, the vaccine was free, with no copayment from the family of the infant. The lifetime cost of caring for a person with type 1 diabetes has been estimated in the millions of dollars.

The risk was especially lower among children who received all three doses of the pentavalent form of the vaccine than those who received two doses of the monovalent form. The pentavalent rotavirus vaccine protects against five types of the rotavirus, while the monovalent vaccine protects against one type.

Children who started the vaccine series but never finished it did not have a lower risk of type 1 diabetes.

More than 540,000 children in the study who were born after 2006 received the complete series of the rotavirus vaccine and nearly 141,000 received at least one dose. The comparison group, born in the five years before the vaccine was available, included nearly 547,000 children.

In absolute terms, the researchers report that 8 fewer cases of type 1 diabetes occurred for every 100,000 children each year with full vaccination.

Fewer new cases to come?

Type 1 diabetes, once called juvenile diabetes, affects only a few children out of every 100,000, so having such a large pool of data can help spot trends, Rogers says.

“Five years from now, we will know much more,” Rogers says. “The first groups of children to receive the rotavirus vaccine in the United States are now in grade school, when type 1 diabetes is most often detected.

“Hopefully in years to come, we’ll have fewer new cases—but based on our study findings, that depends upon parents bringing in their children to get vaccinated.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: University of Michigan

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‘Borrowed’ virus genes put wings on some pea aphids

7 hours 52 min ago

Scientists have pinpointed genes that influence whether pea aphids produce offspring with or without wings in response to their environment.

For many organisms, cues from the environment influence traits. These features, known as phenotypically plastic traits, are important in allowing an organism to cope with unpredictable environments, researchers say.

In a paper in Current Biology, scientists shed light on how phenotypically plastic traits evolve and address critical questions about the evolution of environmentally sensitive traits.

Pea aphids are insects that reproduce rapidly and typically give birth to offspring that don’t have wings. As many gardeners know, aphids can quickly overwhelm and kill host plants on which they live and feed.

“Aphids have been doing this trick for millions of years.”

When other aphids crowd an environment, females begin producing offspring with wings that can then fly to and colonize new, less crowded plants.

“Aphids have been doing this trick for millions of years,” says Jennifer Brisson, an associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester. “But some aphids are more sensitive to crowding than others. Figuring out why is key to understanding how this textbook example of phenotypic plasticity works.”

The researchers used techniques from evolutionary genetics and molecular biology to identify genes that determine the degree to which aphids respond to crowding.

Surprisingly, the genes they uncovered are from a virus that then became incorporated into the aphid genome and causes its host to produce offspring with wings. Researchers say they believe the virus does this in order to facilitate its own dispersal.

As Brisson and former postdoctoral student Benjamin Parker found, the gene from the virus retained the same function of producing winged offspring even after it transferred and incorporated into the aphid genome.

“This is a novel role for viral genes that are co-opted by the genome for other purposes, like modulating plastic phenotypes,” says Parker, now an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee. “Microbial genes can become incorporated into animal genomes, and this process is important to evolution.”

Most laterally transferred DNA—DNA inherited from other organisms, like viruses—is not expressed by its hosts because it is quickly inactivated or eliminated. However, there are examples in most organisms—even humans—where genomes co-opt genes laterally. In humans, for instance, a retrovirus co-opted the gene that creates a membrane between the placenta and the fetus.

Brisson and Parker found a clear case in which the organism’s genome co-opted the genes from outside an organism to modify the strength of a plastic response to environmental cues. Microbial genes like those from viruses can, therefore, play an important role in insect and animal evolution, Brisson says.

“Even in ancient traits like the one studied here, new genes can start to play a role in shaping plastic traits and can help organisms cope with an unpredictable world.”

Source: University of Rochester

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Machine learning says ‘sound words’ predict psychosis

Mon, 2019-06-17 18:37

Frequent use of words associated with sound is one clue to the later emergence of psychosis, a machine-learning method indicates.

The researchers also developed a new machine-learning method to more precisely quantify the semantic richness of people’s conversational language, a known indicator for psychosis.

Their results show that automated analysis of the two language variables—more frequent use of words associated with sound and speaking with low semantic density, or vagueness—can predict whether an at-risk person will later develop psychosis with 93 percent accuracy.

Even trained clinicians had not noticed how people at risk for psychosis use more words associated with sound than the average, although abnormal auditory perception is a pre-clinical symptom.

“Trying to hear these subtleties in conversations with people is like trying to see microscopic germs with your eyes,” says Neguine Rezaii, first author of the paper in npj Schizophrenia. “The automated technique we’ve developed is a really sensitive tool to detect these hidden patterns. It’s like a microscope for warning signs of psychosis.”

Rezaii began work on the paper while she was a resident at Emory School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. She is now a fellow in Harvard Medical School’s neurology department.

“It was previously known that subtle features of future psychosis are present in people’s language, but we’ve used machine learning to actually uncover hidden details about those features,” says senior author Phillip Wolff, a professor of psychology at Emory. Wolff’s lab focuses on language semantics and machine learning to predict decision-making and mental health.

“Our finding is novel and adds to the evidence showing the potential for using machine learning to identify linguistic abnormalities associated with mental illness,” says coauthor Elaine Walker, an Emory professor of psychology and neuroscience who researches how schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders develop.

Predicting psychosis

The onset of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders typically occurs in the early 20s, with warning signs—known as prodromal syndrome—beginning around age 17. About 25 to 30 percent of youth who meet criteria for a prodromal syndrome will develop schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder.

Using structured interviews and cognitive tests, trained clinicians can predict psychosis with about 80 percent accuracy in those with a prodromal syndrome. Machine-learning research is among the many ongoing efforts to streamline diagnostic methods, identify new variables, and improve the accuracy of predictions.

Currently, there is no cure for psychosis.

“If we can identify individuals who are at risk earlier and use preventive interventions, we might be able to reverse the deficits,” Walker says. “There are good data showing that treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy can delay onset, and perhaps even reduce the occurrence of psychosis.”

Learning language ‘norms’

For the current paper, the researchers first used machine learning to establish “norms” for conversational language. They fed a computer software program the online conversations of 30,000 users of the social media platform Reddit. The software program, known as Word2Vec, uses an algorithm to change individual words to vectors, assigning each one a location in a semantic space based on its meaning. Those with similar meanings are positioned closer together than those with far different meanings.

The Wolff lab also developed a computer program to perform what the researchers dubbed “vector unpacking,” or analysis of the semantic density of word usage. Previous work has measured semantic coherence between sentences. Vector unpacking allowed the researchers to quantify how much information was packed into each sentence.

After generating a baseline of “normal” data, the researchers applied the same techniques to diagnostic interviews of 40 participants that trained clinicians had conducted as part of the multi-site North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study (NAPLS), funded by the National Institutes of Health. NAPLS is focused on young people at clinical high risk for psychosis. Walker is the principal investigator for NAPLS at Emory, one of nine universities involved in the 14-year project.

The automated analyses of the participant samples were then compared to the normal baseline sample and the longitudinal data on whether the participants converted to psychosis.

The results showed that higher than normal usage of words related to sound, combined with a higher rate of using words with similar meaning, meant that psychosis was likely on the horizon.

Greater precision

Strengths of the study include the simplicity of using just two variables—both of which have a strong theoretical foundation—the replication of the results in a holdout dataset, and the high accuracy of its predictions, at above 90 percent.

“In the clinical realm, we often lack precision,” Rezaii says. “We need more quantified, objective ways to measure subtle variables, such as those hidden within language usage.”

Rezaii and Wolff are now gathering larger data sets and testing the application of their methods on a variety of neuropsychiatric diseases, including dementia.

“This research is interesting not just for its potential to reveal more about mental illness, but for understanding how the mind works—how it puts ideas together,” Wolff says. “Machine learning technology is advancing so rapidly that it’s giving us tools to data mine the human mind.”

The National Institutes of Health and a Google Research Award supported the work.

Source: Emory University

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Feisty mantis shrimp have amazing tail ‘shields’

Mon, 2019-06-17 18:35

The tough tails of mantis shrimp could solve a big manufacturing problem: creating lighter materials that absorbs lots of energy from a shape impact in limited space.

What if there were a material that could prevent car ceilings from caving in on passengers during an accident, or fragile objects from breaking when transported over long distances?

The ornery mantis shrimp’s secret is its tail appendage, called a telson. Engineers have now discovered what allows the telson to absorb the blows of its feisty self, with the goal of applying these lessons to protective gear.

Smashers and spearers

A telson can be shaped either as a territorial shield for “smasher” species or as a burrowing shovel for “spearer” species that also stabs prey. The researchers found out how the telson of the smasher, compared to that of the spearer, is better at protecting the mantis.

The smasher mantis strikes a telson with the speed of a .22 caliber bullet.

Their findings reveal that the smasher telson has curved ridges called carinae on the outside and a helicoidal structure shaped like a spiral staircase on the inside. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside ran tests on both the mantis shrimp itself and 3D-printed replicas of the telson, showing that the carinae both stiffen a smasher’s shield and allow it to flex inward.

Together with the helicoidal structure, which prevents cracks from growing upon impact, the shield absorbs significant amounts of energy during a strike without falling apart.

Purdue University researchers validated the role of carinae through computational models, simulating the attacks of one mantis against the telson of another. They even “invented” species with features between the smasher and spearer to evaluate which telson offered the best protection for the animal.

“We started with the telson of the spearer and gradually added features that start looking like the smasher,” says Pablo Zavattieri, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue.

“The smasher shield is clearly more ideal for preventing impact from reaching the rest of the body, which makes sense because the mantis has organs all the way to its tail,” he says.

Researchers have shown that compared to other mantis shrimp species, the shield-like tail segment (telson) of the “smasher” species offers the best protection for the animal’s body. (Credit: Pablo Zavattieri) The perfect shield

Zavattieri and David Kisailus, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering and the chair of energy innovation at UC Riverside, had previously observed the same helicoidal structure in the dactyl club appendage of the smasher mantis, which strikes a telson with the speed of a .22 caliber bullet.

“We realized that if these organisms were striking each other with such incredible forces, the telson must be architected in such a way to act like the perfect shield,” Kisailus says. “Not only did the telson of the smasher contain the helicoid microstructure, but there were significantly more energy-absorbing helicoidal layers in the smashing type than the spearing type.”

Zavattieri’s group has already begun incorporating the crack propagation mechanisms of arthropod exoskeletons into 3D-printed cement paste, a key ingredient of the concrete and mortar used to build various elements of infrastructure. His lab plans to also try out advantageous structures from the mantis shrimp.

But there are still more clues to uncover about all that carinae and helicoidal structures have to offer, the researchers say, as well as how to manufacture them into new materials.

“The dactyl club is bulky, while the telson is very lightweight. How do we make protective layers, thin films and coatings for example, that are both stronger and lighter?” Zavattieri says.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research supported the work, which appears in
Advanced Functional Materials.

Source: Purdue University

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This combo could make an RSV vaccine possible

Mon, 2019-06-17 18:23

A unique adjuvant can prevent vaccine-enhanced respiratory disease, a sickness that has posed a major hurdle in vaccine development for RSV, according to a study with mice.

An adjuvant is a substance that enhances the body’s immune response to toxins and foreign matter.

The study suggests that combining this adjuvant, which researchers at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University created, with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccination might prime the body for protective immune responses and prevent inflammatory RSV disease after infection.

The findings, published in the journal Virology, could lead to advances in RSV vaccine development.

RSV, a common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms, is the leading cause of serious respiratory diseases such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under 1 in the United States. Each year in the US, an estimated 57,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized with an RSV infection. RSV is also a significant cause of respiratory illness in older adults, resulting in 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no vaccine to prevent RSV.

Progress on a vaccine for RSV almost ceased in the 1960s after a formalin-inactivated RSV vaccine being tested in the US not only failed to protect children, but also resulted in many infants experiencing worse symptoms than usual, requiring hospitalization after natural infection with the virus. Two toddlers died from enhanced disease symptoms. Other RSV vaccines have been known to cause enhanced disease after RSV infection.

The new study investigated the effects of a unique adjuvant on vaccine-enhanced respiratory disease after infant and adult mice were vaccinated against RSV and exposed to the virus. The adjuvant was created by combining pathogen-recognizing receptor agonist adjuvants monophosphoryl lipid A (MPL) and oligodeoxynucleotide CpG (CpG), which are known to activate innate immune responses.

Researchers injected infant and adult mice with either RSV fusion proteins only, RSV fusion proteins plus adjuvant, or a control phosphate buffered saline solution. Blood samples were taken after three weeks. Four weeks after vaccination, mice were intranasally infected with RSV and samples were taken to determine the efficacy of protection.

The adjuvant was found to be effective in promoting the induction of protective antibodies, clearing the lungs of the virus after exposure to RSV, and avoiding disease in lung tissue.

“RSV subunit vaccination adjuvanted with a unique combination pathogen-recognizing receptor agonist might provide protection against RSV, preventing inflammatory RSV disease after infection. However, its efficacy in larger animal models and in humans remains unknown,” says Sang-Moo Kang, lead author and a professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State.

Coauthors of the study are from the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases funded the work.

In another recent study, published in the journal Antiviral Research, Kang found that an inactivated split RSV vaccine with a unique combination adjuvant was more effective in increasing immune responses and antibodies, lung viral clearance, and preventing pulmonary tissue disease than an earlier form of the vaccine. Mice received the vaccine with and without the adjuvant and then infected with RSV. The study found the split RSV vaccine could be a viable vaccine candidate when combined with the immune modulating vaccine adjuvant.

Source: Georgia State University

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Watch: Algorithm lets people walk right out of images

Mon, 2019-06-17 18:17

People moving in and out of photographs used to be reserved for the world of Harry Potter, but computer scientists have now brought that magic to real life.

Their algorithm, Photo Wake-Up, can take a person from a 2D photo or a work of art and make them run, walk, or jump out of the frame.

Pablo Picasso’s “Untitled” (1939) steps out of the frame. (Credit: U. Washington)

The system also lets users view the animation in three dimensions using augmented reality tools. The researchers will present their results June 19 at the Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in Long Beach, California. This research first attracted media attention when it appeared in preprint form in December on ArXiv.

“This is a very hard fundamental problem in computer vision,” says coauthor Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “The big challenge here is that the input is only from a single camera position, so part of the person is invisible. Our work combines technical advancement on an open problem in the field with artistic creative visualization.”

Matisse’s Icarus (1944). (Credit: U. Washington)

Previously, researchers thought it would be impossible to animate a person running out of a single photo.

“There is some previous work that tries to create a 3D character using multiple viewpoints,” says coauthor Brian Curless, a professor in the Allen School. “But you still couldn’t bring someone to life and have them run out of a scene, and you couldn’t bring AR into it. It was really surprising that we could get some compelling results with using just one photo.”

The researchers envision Photo Wake-Up could lead to a new way for gamers to create avatars that actually look like them, a method for visitors to interact with paintings in an art museum—say sitting down to have tea with Mona Lisa—or something that lets children bring their drawings to life.

Examples in the research paper include animating the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry to run off the court, Paul McCartney to leap off the cover of the “Help!” album, and Matisse’s “Icarus” (1944) to leave his frame.

Stephen Curry runs off the court. (Credit: U. Washington)

To make the magic a reality, Photo Wake-Up starts by identifying a person in an image and making a mask of the body’s outline. From there, it matches a 3D template to the subject’s body position. Then the algorithm does something surprising: In order to warp the template so that it actually looks like the person in the photo, it projects the 3D person back into 2D.

“It’s very hard to manipulate in 3D precisely,” says coauthor Chung-Yi Weng, a doctoral student in the Allen School. “Maybe you can do it roughly, but any error will be obvious when you animate the character. So we have to find a way to handle things perfectly, and it’s easier to do this in 2D.”

Photo Wake-Up stores 3D information for each pixel: its distance from the camera or artist and how a person’s joints are connected together. Once the template has been warped to match the person’s shape, the algorithm pastes on the texture—the colors from the image. It also generates the back of the person by using information from the image and the 3D template. Then the tool stitches the two sides together to make a 3D person who will be able to turn around.

Once the 3D character is ready to run, the algorithm needs to set up the background so that the character doesn’t leave a blank space behind. Photo Wake-Up fills in the hole behind the person by borrowing information from other parts of the image.

Right now Photo Wake-Up works best with images of people facing forward, and can animate both artistic creations and photographs of real people. The algorithm can also handle some photos where people’s arms are blocking part of their bodies, but it is not yet capable of animating people who have their legs crossed or who are blocking large parts of themselves.

“Photo Wake-Up is a new way to interact with photos,” Weng says. “It can’t do everything yet, but this is just the beginning.”

Funding came from the National Science Foundation, UW Animation Research, UW Reality Lab, Facebook, Huawei, and Google.

Source: University of Washington

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Map: Heat-related deaths climate action could prevent

Mon, 2019-06-17 18:11

Speeding up efforts to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius could prevent thousands of extreme heat-related deaths in US cities, experts say.

The planet will warm by about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century if the US and other nations meet only their current commitments under the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases, according to new research.

View larger. (Credit: U. Washington)

The first-of-its-kind study in Science Advances examines the impact on mortality rates of projected high temperatures associated with extreme heat expected to occur once every 30 years on average in 15 US cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington, DC.

“Climate change is not only affecting faraway places but also the United States,” says Eunice Lo of the University of Bristol. “As temperatures rise, exposure of major US cities to extreme heat will increase and more heat-related deaths will occur.

“The United States has emitted the largest amount of carbon dioxide in the world since the 18th century. Immediate and drastic emissions cuts are key to preventing large increases in heat-related deaths in the country.”

Saving lives

Climate change is already increasing the severity of extreme heat. If global temperature increases reach 3 degrees Celsius, these cities would experience more severe heat waves than if temperature rise is limited to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. The study used the different high temperatures experts project under three warming scenarios for 1-in-30-year events in each city.

At 3 degrees Celsius, there would be between about 330 and 5,800 heat-related deaths per city for each 1-in-30-year event, with cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia facing the highest number of fatalities.

“All heat-related deaths are potentially preventable.”

Limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius avoids between about 70 and 1,980 extreme heat-related deaths per city. Achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold could avoid even more heat related deaths—between about 110 and 2,720, researchers say.

“This study shows that taking urgent action to reduce carbon pollution will save lives in cities across the United States,” says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Urban design and urban heat islands

“The government also has an obligation to help communities prepare for life in a world that’s heating up. This could include making air conditioning more available especially to those with low or fixed incomes, strengthening our health care system, and increasing awareness of heat-related health risks.”

“All heat-related deaths are potentially preventable,” says Kristie L. Ebi, professor and researcher at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “We need urgent investment in heat wave early warning and response systems and other options to protect the most vulnerable as temperatures continue to rise.

“Older adults, children, and outdoor workers are among those populations particularly susceptible to higher temperatures. In the long term, urban planning must prioritize design changes that decrease urban heat islands and ensure our infrastructure is prepared for unprecedented temperatures.”

The numbers of avoided heat-related deaths in the analysis may be a conservative estimate, as they rely on current population data. Therefore, they cannot account for an aging population, increases in urbanization, exacerbation of the urban heat island effect, or other demographic factors that could change and contribute to added heat vulnerability, the researchers say.

Source: University of Washington

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Adversity in early childhood sets off snowball effect

Mon, 2019-06-17 10:58

New research clarifies how adversity early in life affects the ways children develop, including their executive function skills.

Experiences such as poverty, residential instability, or parental divorce or substance abuse can lead to changes in a child’s brain chemistry, muting the effects of stress hormones—those that rise to help us face challenges, stress, or to simply “get up and go.”

Together, these effects on executive function and stress hormones create a snowball effect, adding to social and emotional challenges that can continue through childhood.

“This study shows how adversity is affecting multiple systems inside a child,” says lead author Liliana Lengua, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being.

“The disruption of multiple systems of self-control, both intentional planning efforts and automatic stress-hormone responses, sets off a cascade of neurobiological effects that starts early and continues through childhood.”

Cortisol and stress

For the study in Development and Psychopathology, researchers evaluated 306 children at intervals over more than two years, starting when participants were around 3 years old, up to age 5 and a half. Children were from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, with 57 percent considered lower income or near poverty.

“When someone is faced with high levels of stress all the time, the cortisol response becomes immune…”

Income was a key marker for adversity. In addition, researchers surveyed the children’s mothers about other risk factors linked to poor health and behavior outcomes in children, including family transitions, residential instability, and negative life events such as abuse or the incarceration of a parent.

Against these data, the researchers tested children’s executive function skills with a series of activities, and, through saliva samples, a stress-response hormone called diurnal cortisol.

Cortisol “helps us rise to a challenge,” Lengua says, and tends to follow a daily, or diurnal, pattern: It increases early in the morning, helping us to wake up. It is highest in the morning—think of it as the energy to face the day—and then starts to fall throughout the day. But the pattern is different among children and adults who face constant stress, she says.

“What we see in individuals experiencing chronic adversity is that their morning levels are quite low and flat through the day, every day. When someone is faced with high levels of stress all the time, the cortisol response becomes immune, and the system stops responding. That means they’re not having the cortisol levels they need to be alert and awake and emotionally ready to meet the challenges of the day.”

Snowball effect

To assess executive function, researchers chose preschool-friendly activities that measured each child’s ability to follow directions, pay attention, and take actions contrary to impulse.

For instance, in a game called “Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders,” the rules say children should do the opposite of what a researcher tells them to do—if the researcher says, “touch your head,” the child is supposed to touch their toes. In another activity, children interact with two puppets—a monkey and a dragon—but are supposed to follow only the instructions given by the monkey.

When children are better at following instructions in these and similar activities, they tend to have better social skills and are better able to manage their emotions when stressed. Children who did well on these tasks also tended to have more typical patterns of diurnal cortisol.

But children who were in families that had lower income and higher adversity tended to have both lower executive function and an atypical diurnal cortisol pattern. Each of those contributed to more behavior problems and lower social-emotional competence in children when they were about to start kindergarten.

The study shows that not only do low income and adversity affect children’s adjustment, but they also affect these self-regulation systems that then add to children’s adjustment problems. “Taken all together, it’s like a snowball effect, with adverse effects adding together,” Lengua says.

While past research has pointed to the effects of adversity on executive function, and to the specific relationship between cortisol and executive function, the new study shows the additive effects over time, Lengua says.

“Executive function is an indicator that shows the functioning of cognitive regulation. Cortisol is the neuroendocrine response, an automatic response, and the two consistently emerge as being related to each other and impacting behavior in children.”

Experts could use the research to inform parenting programs, early childhood, and school-based interventions, Lengua says. Safe, stable environments and communities, and positive, nurturing parenting practices support child development, while a focus on relationships and healthy behaviors in preschool settings can support children of all backgrounds—those with high as well as low adversity.

Additional coauthors are from the University of Washington; the University of Oregon; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the of the Boston Child Study Center.

Source: University of Washington

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Silicon and your phone could lead to home diagnostics

Mon, 2019-06-17 09:56

Combining an iPhone with nanoscale porous silicon can offer cheap, simple home diagnostics, say researchers.

The simplest home medical tests might look like a deck of various silicon chips coated in special film, one that could detect drugs in the blood, another for proteins in the urine indicating infection, another for bacteria in water and the like. Add the bodily fluid you want to test, take a picture with your smartphone, and a special app lets you know if there’s a problem or not.

That’s what electrical engineer Sharon Weiss, professor of engineering at Vanderbilt University, and students developed in her lab, combining their research on low-cost, nanostructured thin films with a device most American adults already own. “The novelty lies in the simplicity of the basic idea, and the only costly component is the smartphone,” Weiss says.

“Most people are familiar with silicon as being the material inside your computer, but it has endless uses,” she says. “With our nanoscale porous silicon, we’ve created these nanoscale holes that are a thousand times smaller than your hair. Those selectively capture molecules when pre-treated with the appropriate surface coating, darkening the silicon, which the app detects.”

Similar technology being developed relies on expensive hardware that compliments the smartphone. The new system uses the phone’s flash as a light source, and the team plans to develop an app that could handle all data processing necessary to confirm that the film simply darkened with the adding of fluid.

What’s more, in the future, such a phone could replace a mass spectrometry system that costs thousands of dollars. The Transportation Security Administration owns hundreds of those at airports across the country, where they use them to detect gunpowder on hand swabs.

Other home tests rely on a color change, which is a separate chemical reaction that introduces more room for error, Weiss says.

Weiss, doctoral student Tengfei Cao, and their team used a biotin-streptavidin protein assay and an iPhone SE, model A1662, to test their silicon films and found the accuracy to be similar to that of benchtop measurement systems. They also used a 3D printed box to stabilize the phone and get standardized measurements for the paper, but Weiss says that wouldn’t be necessary if further research and development led to a commercialized version.

Their results appear in the journal Analyst. The Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Facebook gets more diversity into gene studies

Mon, 2019-06-17 09:33

Researchers believe they have found a way to harness the power of Facebook to recruit a large, diverse participant pool they hope will help provide quick, reliable data for genetic studies.

“The ability to study very large groups of individuals is a key challenge in human genetics, which is using very rare genetic changes—each present in very few individuals—to understand human biology and health and provide leads for design of new medicines,” says senior author Gonçalo Abecasis, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Katharine Brieger, a doctoral student in public health and first author of the report, says that for studies to be relevant to a broader population, they need to include samples of a wide range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Historically, genetic studies were largely made up of people who lived near university medical centers, inadvertently excluding people who lived in more remote areas or who didn’t have the time and money to travel,” she says. “Allowing remote participation with Genes for Good allows many of these people to participate in research for the first time.”

How it works

Researchers invited people to participate in the Genes for Good study through Facebook starting in January 2015. Requirements included that participants live in the United States, have a Facebook account, and be at least 18. Most of the recruitment was done organically, with people finding the Genes for Good application through family and friends.

As of March 2019, about 117,000 people tried the app, 80,000 people had engaged with the study, 32,000 kits had been sent, and 27,000 DNA samples collected. Genotypes for the first 20,232 participants were analyzed.

Once an individual consented to the study, they were invited to complete online health history assessments, daily tracking surveys, and a separate module to report additional health conditions. Once participants completed a minimum of questionnaires, they received a spit kit to collect DNA for analysis.

Participants who provided a DNA sample received a free breakdown of their genetic ancestry and were able to download their raw DNA data in a digital format to analyze on their own or share with third-party interpretation services. While taking the surveys, they were able to compare their survey responses to those of other Genes for Good participants.

More diversity

Researchers say that while study participants tended to be younger and more female than the US population, they more closely resembled it in terms of diversity and household income than other genetic ancestry programs.

For example, while 53 percent of Genes for Good participants earned $35,000 to $100,000 a year, 54 percent of customers of 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetic testing service, have a household income of $100,000 or above.

In this study, 76 percent were non-Hispanic whites, 8.8 percent multi-racial/other, 8.3 percent Hispanic, 3.8 percent Asian, and 2.7 percent non-Hispanic blacks.

“Most genetic studies end up being 90-95 percent white. The 76 percent we have is closer to the US population,” Abecasis says.

When looking at health conditions such as important risks of cardiovascular disease, researchers observed similar rates of high cholesterol, hypertension, and smoking to those reported in nationally representative epidemiologic studies.

“We found that Genes for Good participants had similar rates of chronic disease indicators when compared to the general US population, which was very encouraging,” Brieger says. “We wanted to be sure that not only was the sample large, but also that the findings would be generalizable to our population of interest—in this case, US residents.”

Privacy protection

Abecasis says researchers worked hard to protect participants’ privacy. In addition to following the university’s data protection standards for genetic studies, they required a two-factor authentication for users accessing genetic data, encrypted all data transmissions, and made sure Facebook did not have access to the genetic data. Personally identifiable information and research information was collected by and saved in separate servers.

“It was really important to us that participants should be in control of what data they share with us,” Abecasis says. “All our surveys are optional, and users can choose which surveys to contribute to. We have also worked hard to keep research use of the data completely separate from private information, like user names and addresses.”

Brieger says researchers are actively working on developing new tools to provide participants with meaningful data summaries. As the sample size grows, the study’s ability to contribute more meaningful data to researchers will increase, she says.

Researchers plan on continuing to analyze the samples they have and are seeking additional funding opportunities to continue collecting and analyzing samples.

The study appears in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Source: University of Michigan

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Clues from stevia promise sweetness without aftertaste

Mon, 2019-06-17 09:17

Knowing the molecular machinery that gives stevia its intense sweetness could help engineer artificial sweeteners without a nasty aftertaste, researchers say.

Although scientists know a lot about the genes and proteins in the biochemical pathway responsible for stevia synthesis, researchers say this is the first time anyone has published the 3D structure of the proteins that make rebaudioside A—or RebA, the major ingredient in the product Stevia.

“For me, the sweetness of Stevia comes with an aftertaste of licked aluminum foil.”

“If someone is diabetic or obese and needs to remove sugar from their diet, they can turn to artificial sweeteners made from chemical synthesis (aspartame, saccharin, etc), but all of these have ‘off-tastes’ not associated with sugar, and some have their own health issues,” says Joseph Jez, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of the paper in PNAS.

“Stevias and their related molecules occur naturally in plants and are more than 200 times sweeter than sugar,” he says. “They’ve been consumed for centuries in Central and South America, and are safe for consumers. Many major food and beverage companies are looking ahead and aiming to reduce sugar/calories in various projects over the next few years in response to consumer demands worldwide.”

Researchers used x-ray crystallography to determine the RebA protein’s structure. The new analysis shows how a key plant enzyme synthesizes RebA and how the chemical structure needed for that high-intensity sweetness builds biochemically.

To make something 200 times sweeter than a single glucose molecule, the plant enzyme decorates a core terpene scaffold with three special sugars. That extra-sweet taste from the stevia plant comes with an unwanted flavor downside, however.

“For me, the sweetness of Stevia comes with an aftertaste of licked aluminum foil,” Jez says. Many consumers experience this slightly metallic aftertaste.

“The taste is particular to the predominant molecules in the plant leaf: the stevioside and RebA,” Jez says. “It is their chemical structure that hits the taste receptors on the tongue that trigger ‘sweet,’ but they also hit other taste receptors that trigger the other tastes.

“RebA is abundant in the stevia plant and was the first product made from the plant because it was easy to purify in bulk. Call this ‘Stevia 1.0’. But in the leaf are other related compounds with different structures that hit the ‘sweet’ without the aftertaste. Those are ‘Stevia 2.0,’ and they will be big.”

There are many ways that scientists could use the newly published protein structure information to help improve sweeteners, Jez says.

“One could use the snapshot of the protein that makes RebA to guide protein engineering efforts to tailor the types and/or pattern of sugars in the stevias. This could be used to explore the chemical space between ‘sweet’ and ‘yuck.’

“There are also molecules in other plants that are not ‘stevias’ but can deliver intense sweetness,” he adds. “We could use the information of how the stevia plant does it as a way of finding those details.”

Scientists carried out portions of this research at the Argonne National Laboratory Structural Biology Center of the Advanced Photon Source, a national user facility operated by the University of Chicago.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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Saying this may help young men prevent sexual violence

Mon, 2019-06-17 07:17

Appealing to a shared sense of morality can help young men successfully intervene to prevent sexual violence against women, a new study shows.

“There’s a new focus, especially on college campuses, on studying bystander intervention in preventing sexual violence,” says psychology professor Dominic Parrott, director of Georgia State University’s Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence. “This was a chance to see what people do to intervene and what actually works. Our experiment allowed us to see what happens and why.”

In the study in Sexual Abuse, pairs of young men who were friends discussed whether to show sexually explicit images to a young woman who did not wish to see the images. Some of the men consumed alcohol and others did not. Researchers then observed how some of the men successfully persuaded their peer to refrain from showing the offensive images.

The findings indicate that men who had confidence in their ability to intervene tended to make statements that recognized the young woman’s wishes and appealed to a shared sense of morality. These statements were critical to the young men’s ability to convince their friend to refrain from showing the offensive images, the researchers say.

“The most effective arguments were based in a pro-social morality—statements like ‘That’s just not the right thing to do.’ Statements of objective consideration—like, ‘We should do as she asks’—were also effective,” Parrott says.

“There was a lot of talk among the peers in the experiment and not all of it was pro-social statements. But we saw that nothing except these pro-social arguments was effective in stopping this simulated sexual violence in the lab.”

When men in the study used statements based on gender stereotypes, they were less effective in persuading their peers, Parrott says. These less effective statements included: “She seems like a nice girl, so I picked the non-sexually-explicit video.”

Parrott says he hopes the study will advance the discussion of how bystanders can help prevent sexual violence against women by illustrating what has shown to work.

“The implication,” he says, “is if you are in a situation and you see something happening, whether it is misogynistic joke or talking about a woman who is not there in a disrespectful way…to something very overt, an effective way to defuse the situation is to make salient that morally this isn’t right…to say, ‘Hey, she doesn’t want this.'”

Additional coauthors are from Georgia State, Yale University, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Source: Georgia State University

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Enzyme in blood of young mice slows aging in older ones

Sun, 2019-06-16 19:16

Scientists have discovered a potential way to stave off the detrimental effects of aging, according to their research in mice.

The study suggests that a protein that is abundant in the blood of young mice plays a vital role in keeping them healthy. With age, levels of this protein decline in mice and people, while health problems such as insulin resistance, weight gain, cognitive decline, and vision loss increase.

Supplementing older mice with the protein obtained from younger mice appears to slow this decline in health and extend the life spans of older mice by about 16 percent.

“We have found a totally new pathway toward healthy aging.”

As reported in Cell Metabolism, the circulating protein, an enzyme called eNAMPT, is known to orchestrate a key step in the process cells use to make energy. With age, the body’s cells become less and less efficient at producing this fuel—called NAD—necessary to keep the body healthy.

Researchers showed that supplementing eNAMPT in older mice with that of younger mice appears to be one route to boosting NAD fuel production and keeping aging at bay.

More activity, better sleep

“We have found a totally new pathway toward healthy aging,” says senior author Shin-ichiro Imai, a professor of developmental biology at Washington University in St. Louis. “That we can take eNAMPT from the blood of young mice and give it to older mice and see that the older mice show marked improvements in health—including increased physical activity and better sleep—is remarkable.”

Imai has long studied aging, using mice as stand-ins for people. Unlike other studies focused on transfusing whole blood from young mice to old mice, Imai’s group increased levels of a single blood component, eNAMPT, and showed its far-reaching effects, including improved insulin production, sleep quality, function of photoreceptors in the eye, and cognitive function in performance on memory tests, as well as increased running on a wheel.

The researchers also showed other ways to boost NAD levels in tissues throughout the body. Most notably, the researchers have studied the effects of giving oral doses of a molecule called NMN, the chemical eNAMPT produces. Researchers are testing NMN in human clinical trials.

“We think the body has so many redundant systems to maintain proper NAD levels because it is so important,” Imai says. “Our work and others’ suggest it governs how long we live and how healthy we remain as we age. Since we know that NAD inevitably declines with age, whether in worms, fruit flies, mice, or people, many researchers are interested in finding anti-aging interventions that might maintain NAD levels as we get older.”

eNAMPT in action

Imai’s research shows that the hypothalamus is a major control center for aging throughout the body, directed in large part by eNAMPT, which releases into the blood from fat tissue. The hypothalamus governs vital processes such as body temperature, thirst, sleep, circadian rhythms, and hormone levels.

The researchers showed that the hypothalamus manufactures NAD using eNAMPT that makes its way to the brain through the bloodstream after its released from fat tissue. They also showed that small particles called extracellular vesicles carry eNAMPT. As levels of eNAMPT in the blood decline, the hypothalamus loses its ability to function properly, decreasing life span.

In an intriguing finding, Imai and first author Mitsukuni Yoshida, a doctoral student in Imai’s lab, showed that levels of eNAMPT in the blood highly correlate with the number of days the mice lived. More eNAMPT meant a longer life span, and less meant a shorter one.

The researchers also showed increased life span with delivering eNAMPT to normal old mice. All mice that received saline solution as a control had died before day 881, about 2.4 years. Of the mice that received eNAMPT, one is still alive as of this writing, surpassing 1,029 days, or about 2.8 years.

“We could predict, with surprising accuracy, how long mice would live based on their levels of circulating eNAMPT,” Imai says. “We don’t know yet if this association is present in people, but it does suggest that eNAMPT levels should be studied further to see if it could be used as a potential biomarker of aging.”

The study also found sex differences in levels of eNAMPT, with female mice consistently showing higher levels of the enzyme.

“We were surprised by the dramatic differences between the old mice that received the eNAMPT of young mice and old mice that received saline as a control,” Imai says. “These are old mice with no special genetic modifications, and when supplemented with eNAMPT, their wheel-running behaviors, sleep patterns and physical appearance—thicker, shinier fur, for example—resemble that of young mice.”

Imai and his colleagues note that extracellular vesicles in humans carry NAMPT and say future studies should investigate whether low levels associate with disease in aging people and whether supplementing eNAMPT in extracellular vesicles could serve as an anti-aging intervention in older people.

The National Institute on Aging, the American Federation for Aging Research, and the Tanaka Fund primarily supported the work.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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How tropical thunderstorms threaten West Antarctica

Sun, 2019-06-16 19:01

Warming waters in the western tropical Pacific Ocean have significantly increased thunderstorms and rainfall, which could de-stabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a new study reports.

West Antarctica—a massive ice sheet that sits on land—has been melting and contributing to global sea-level rise since the mid-1990s. That melting has accelerated this century.

Wind and weather patterns play a crucial role in governing the melting: Winds push warm ocean water toward the ice sheet and melt it from below, at the same time as winds bring warm air over the ice sheet surface and melt it from above.

The South Pacific Convergence Zone, a region of the western tropical Pacific, is a major driver of weather variability across West Antarctica, according to the study in Geophysical Research Letters.

“With so much at stake—in coastal communities around the globe, including in New Jersey—it is very important to understand the drivers of weather variability in West Antarctica,” says Kyle Clem, a former postdoctoral student who led the research at Rutgers–New Brunswick and is now at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

“Knowing how all regions of the tropics influence West Antarctica, both independently and collectively, will help us understand past climate variability there and perhaps help us predict the future state of the ice sheet and its potential contribution to global sea-level rise.”

Researchers studied how warming ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific influence weather patterns around West Antarctica. This century, the Antarctic Peninsula and interior West Antarctica have cooled while the Ross Ice Shelf has warmed—a reversal of what happened in the second half of the 20th century.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Antarctic Peninsula and interior West Antarctica were the most rapidly warming regions on the planet, and the Ross Ice Shelf was cooling.

The temperature trends flipped at the start of this century. Coinciding with the flip in West Antarctic temperature trends, ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific began warming rapidly.

Using a climate model, the researchers found that warming ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific resulted in a significant increase in thunderstorm activity, rainfall, and convection in the South Pacific Convergence Zone. Convection in the atmosphere is when heat and moisture move up or down.

A rainfall increase in the zone results in cold southerly winds over the Antarctic Peninsula and warm northerly winds over the Ross Ice Shelf, consistent with the recent cooling and warming in those respective regions.

So the tropics profoundly influence the West Antarctic climate, even though it’s isolated from much of the planet. Scientists say the findings may help interpret the past West Antarctic climate as recorded in ice cores.

Additional researchers from Rutgers are coauthors of the paper.

Source: Rutgers University

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Discovery could lead to better maternal vaccines

Fri, 2019-06-14 09:52

A newly identified cellular process could lead to safer and more effective vaccines that protect pregnant women and newborns from dangerous infections, researchers say.

A new study in Cell describes a previously unidentified route for antibodies to transfer from the mother to the fetus, illuminating a potential way to capitalize on the process to control when and how certain antibodies are shared.

“It’s always been assumed that the types of maternal antibodies that cross over the placenta to the fetus, all antibodies had the same chance of transferring to fetus,” says senior author Sallie Permar, a professor of pediatrics and member of the Duke University Human Vaccine Institute.

“This meant there was no way we could direct certain antibodies across the placenta and to the baby,” Permar says. “Our study found that there seems to be a code on the antibody that determines which antibodies will more effectively transfer across the placenta.”

Permar and colleagues studied two populations of pregnant women in the United States and Malawi infected with HIV, known to inhibit the transfer of antibodies to the fetus—and not just HIV antibodies. The researchers say this feature provided a unique circumstance to explore a little-understood process with implications for numerous common pathogens, including tetanus, pertussis, influenza, and others.

The researchers identified a sugar molecule that interacts with placental receptors, an interaction that had previously not been known to be involved in the antibody transfer process. The finding was corroborated in healthy women by another research team publishing in the same issue of Cell.

“We have shown that the efficiency of antibody transfer across the placenta is differentially regulated,” Permar says. “This insight could improve the design of vaccines for a variety of infectious diseases to improve the transplacental antibody transfer to the fetus.”

“Our findings provide a roadmap of how antibodies cross the placenta to the baby,” says lead author David Martinez, a PhD student. “We hope our results will be useful for developing antibody therapeutics that protect infants against infectious diseases in early life.”

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases partially funded the work.

Source: Duke University

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How Siberian hamsters lose half their weight each year

Fri, 2019-06-14 09:38

Siberian hamsters lose half their weight every winter. Scientists have now sequenced their DNA to figure out how.

The Siberian hamster is a model organism for studying seasonal biological rhythms, researchers say. They breed during the spring and early summer, but as fall approaches, their bodies change dramatically.

They mostly lose the weight through fat and limit food intake by 30 percent to 40 percent. Their fur thickens and changes color to stark white, and they become infertile until they begin reversing course to prepare for the next breeding season.

A report in PNAS on how these small, seasonal breeders adapt their bodies to survive the winter reveals a cascade of signals, triggered by decreasing day length. The new study shows that shifting day length alone was enough to trigger these changes, regardless of temperature or how much food is available.

“We hope this will be a tool for discovery and more research on a really interesting biological puzzle, which is how organisms navigate the energetic landscape of nature over the course of a year,” says coauthor Brian Prendergast, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Summer brain, winter brain

The research is a collaborative project with senior author Tyler Stevenson, a former postdoctoral fellow in Prendergast’s lab now on the faculty at the University of Glasgow. Stevenson worked with Riyue Bao from the University of Chicago Center for Research Informatics bioinformatics, to assemble and analyze the hamster genome and transcriptome (the RNA molecules expressed by its genes) to understand the activity of these genes in the brain under both summer and winter conditions.

The researchers focused on activity in the hypothalamus, part of the brain that initiates a number of important metabolic processes like releasing hormones, providing signals to the thyroid, and controlling body temperature, hunger, and sleep. Modern science has a pretty good understanding of how these processes maintain weight in the short-term through appetite, food intake, and energy expenditure.

For the new study, the researchers wanted to see how animals like the Siberian hamster maintain weight long-term in an annual cycle.

Stevenson and Bao worked together to interpret the data about how genes expressed, looking for differences between samples taken from hamsters during the summer and winter periods. Once Bao spotted those differences and identified which biological processes they affected, she turned to Stevenson for validation.

“Our collaboration is quite dynamic, like a two-way street,” Bao says. “I would pass the data to him and ask if a certain pathway made sense. Then he might recognize a certain RNA molecule or candidate gene and ask for more information.”

Fertility and weight gain

They narrowed in on a gene called pomc. For years, scientists have speculated that it is involved in long-term regulation of weight and energy balance in many animals, but, “It was the steps that control pomc expression that had been the mystery,” Stevenson says. “The studies we designed served to fill the gaps and it was simply a matter of connecting the dots.”

That chain of events begins with thyroid hormone, which is called T4. The T4 hormone is readily available in the bloodstream, and when the amount of daylight begins to increase in the spring, the hamster produces enzymes called deiodinases. These enzymes remove an iodine molecule from T4 and turn it into a more potent hormone called T3 that controls the activity of pomc.

During the summer, increased T3 production allows the hamsters to become fertile, and also ramps up pomc activity, causing them to gain weight. As the days shorten in the fall, T3 production decreases, shutting down reproduction for the upcoming winter. Lowered T3 also or switches off pomc, resulting in dramatic weight loss.

Voles, but not us

Stevenson also compared the genome of the Siberian hamster to other small mammals like mice and voles. He noticed a lot of differences between animals in the sequence patterns, or motifs, in the promoter region of the pomc gene.

This section of DNA at the beginning of the gene sequence plays an important role in how it’s transcribed into RNA, and ultimately how the gene functions. The Siberian hamster shares the same motif with other seasonal breeders, suggesting that it’s key to how pomc is expressed to manage the summer-winter adaptations.

“All animals show a level of seasonal biology, humans included. What our findings show, in hamsters, is that thyroid hormones acting in the brain where pomc is expressed provides the long-term regulation of energy balance,” Stevenson says.

“What is completely fascinating is that this process evolved in some animals, like hamsters and voles, and not in others, like sheep or humans. This tells us that a large degree of genome variability exists across animals and indicates a strong species-specific control of long-term energy balance.”

Clues to obesity

In a separate set of experiments, the researchers also restricted the amount of food for the hamsters. While this caused some changes in brain chemistry, it didn’t have an effect on pomc expression. Only long-term changes to day length had an effect on pomc.

Patterns like this make the Siberian hamster interesting not just in how it manages seasonal adaptations but in managing body weight in general, Prendergast says.

“Researchers who study obesity should pay attention to this model because this is an animal that becomes reversibly obese. Then it can lose almost half its body weight on cue when the day length says it’s time to lose weight,” he says. “They’re a wonderful puzzle for understanding all of these processes.”

Additional authors are from the University of Chicago; the University of Glasgow; the University of Nottingham; the University of Cambridge; and the University of Aberdeen.

Source: University of Chicago

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5 things to know about the science of dad

Fri, 2019-06-14 09:33

For Father’s Day, here are five surprising research findings about dads and their kids.

Researchers recently asked fathers what they find most rewarding—and most challenging—about being a dad.

James Rilling, a professor and chair of the Emory University anthropology department, recently completed in-depth interviews with 120 new fathers. Rilling and his colleague Craig Hadley, also an anthropologist at Emory, are still analyzing data from the interviews for a comprehensive study.

One result, however, is already clear. A positive-and-negative-affect scale administered to the subjects before and after the interviews shows how talking about fatherhood influenced their moods.

“Most of them experienced an increase in how enthusiastic, proud, and inspired they felt after talking about their experience as a father,” Rilling says.

“They seemed to find it therapeutic to talk about their feelings, particularly if they were struggling with some things. The challenges of being a mother are often much greater. So fathers may think that nobody really wants to hear about the things they are dealing with as a new parent.”

Rilling’s lab is exploring the neural basis of human social cognition and behavior, with a particular emphasis on fatherhood. “We’re interested in trying to understand the hormonal and neurobiological changes that men experience when they become fathers, and how those changes may relate to whether men are more or less involved with their children,” he says. “The goal is to find ways to support fathers and to help improve the quality of care-giving that they deliver.”

While mothers will often have more of an effect on child development, fathers are also important and their role warrants more research, Rilling says.

Following are five insights into fatherhood from research by Rilling and others:

1. Fathers can get postpartum depression

Postpartum depression is well known as a potential complication for new mothers after childbirth, but fathers are also susceptible. “The rate of depression for new fathers is about twice that of the general population of men,” Rilling notes.

“It may have to do with sleep deprivation and hormonal changes following the birth of a baby, but it also may be due to changes in their relationship with their partner. Many new fathers report that a lot of their partner’s affection and attention is displaced from them to the new infant.”

New fathers also often feel a new weight of financial responsibility. And, just like many moms, dads often experience a work-parental conflict, he adds.

2. Dads feel the oxytocin, too

Mothers experience a massive release of the hormone oxytocin, nicknamed the “love hormone,” during childbirth. In addition to facilitating the birth and lactation, oxytocin helps in bonding with the baby. “People have traditionally thought of oxytocin as a female hormone,” Rilling says, “but there’s now a lot of evidence that new fathers also undergo hormonal changes and that oxytocin is involved in father-infant bonding.

An interesting question is, what is it that’s driving up oxytocin levels in new fathers? It might be some cue from the infant, like their scent or their appearance.”

3. Lower testosterone is linked with hands-on care

Men with lower testosterone levels than others are more likely to be involved in hands-on care of their toddlers, according to a study by the Rilling lab. The finding suggests that the biology of human males reflects a trade-off between investments in the mating and parenting effort. A key remaining question is the direction of casualty.

“We’re assuming that testosterone levels drive how involved the fathers are,” Rilling says, “but it could also be that when men become more involved as caregivers, their testosterone decreases. Environmental influences can change biology. We know, for instance, that testosterone levels go down when men become involved fathers.”

The study focused only on direct, hands-on paternal care, and not on indirect forms of care, such as protecting children and earning a living to provide for them.

4. Gender bias shows up in language

A toddler’s gender influences the brain responses, as well as the behavior of fathers, according to past Rilling lab research, led by Jennifer Mascaro, who is now on the faculty of Emory’s School of Medicine. In addition to being more attentive, the study found that fathers of daughters sang more often to their child and were more likely to use words associated with sad emotions and with the body. Fathers of sons, meanwhile, engaged in more rough-and-tumble play with their child and used more language related to power and achievement.

While fathers may want to be aware of how notions of gender can affect treatment of children, Rilling notes that the study results do not imply ill intentions on their part. “These biases may be unconscious, or may actually reflect deliberate and altruistically motivated efforts to shape children’s behavior in line with social expectations of adult gender roles that fathers feel may benefit their children,” he says.

5. Roughhousing with dad matters

The rough-and-tumble play that fathers tend to specialize in is good for children, Rilling says. “It helps them learn to regulate their emotions and also to develop empathy—you need to read the social signals of the person you’re roughhousing with to make sure you don’t go too far,” he says.

One theory about parenting is that mothers tend to provide comfort and security within the home while fathers tend to specialize in preparing children for life outside the family.

“The idea is that fathers are more engaged in unpredictable behavior that destabilizes a child and the child has to learn how to respond to that,” Rilling says. “It may help to develop resilience, an important trait, since not everybody is going to treat you as well as your mother does.”

Source: Emory University

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‘Virtual biopsy’ device detects skin tumors in 15 minutes

Thu, 2019-06-13 19:51

A new “virtual biopsy” device uses sound vibrations and pulses of near-infrared light instead of a scalpel to quickly determine a skin lesion’s depth and potential malignancy, a new study reports.

The ability to analyze a skin tumor non-invasively could make biopsies much less risky and distressing to patients, researchers say.

Currently, physicians who perform surgical biopsies often don’t know the extent of a lesion–or the necessity of referring the patient to a specialist for extensive tissue removal or plastic surgery–until surgery has already begun.

The first-of-its-kind experimental procedure, called vibrational optical coherence tomography (VOCT), creates a 3D map of the lesion’s width and depth under the skin with a tiny laser diode.

It also uses soundwaves to test the lesion’s density and stiffness since cancer cells are stiffer than healthy cells. An inch-long speaker applies audible soundwaves against the skin to measure the skin’s vibrations and determine whether the lesion is malignant.

“This procedure can be completed in 15 minutes with no discomfort to the patient, who feels no sensation from the light or the nearly inaudible sound. It’s a significant improvement over surgical biopsies, which are invasive, expensive, and time-consuming,” says Frederick Silver, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and lead researcher of the paper in Skin Research & Technology.

A prototype VOCT device accurately distinguished between healthy skin and different types of skin lesions and carcinomas, the study shows. The researchers tested the device over six months on four skin excisions and on eight volunteers without skin lesions.

Further studies are needed to fine-tune the device’s ability to identify a lesion’s borders and areas of greatest density and stiffness, which would allow physicians to remove tumors with minimally invasive surgery.

The researchers are currently waiting for FDA approval for large-scale testing. Additional researchers are from Rutgers, the Neigel Center for Cosmetic and Laser Surgery, and the Center for Advanced Eye Care.

Source: Rutgers University

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9 questions and answers about the vasectomy

Thu, 2019-06-13 18:25

A vasectomy, or male sterilization, is a very effective, relatively simple option for permanent birth control.

It requires only a minor surgical procedure and has one of the lowest failure rates across all birth control.

Robert Pope, primary care physician with the Texas A&M Family Medicine Residency Program and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, performs vasectomies in his primary care practice. Here, he explains what you need to know before you get one:

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