Food quality will suffer with rising carbon dioxide, field study shows

For the first time, a field test has demonstrated that elevated levels of carbon dioxide inhibit plants’ assimilation of nitrate into proteins, indicating that the nutritional quality of food crops is at risk as climate change intensifies.Findings from this wheat field-test study, led by a UC Davis plant scientist, will be reported online April 6 in the journal Nature Climate Change.”Food quality is declining under the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we are experiencing,” said lead author Arnold Bloom, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.”Several explanations for this decline have been put forward, but this is the first study to demonstrate that elevated carbon dioxide inhibits the conversion of nitrate into protein in a field-grown crop,” he said.The assimilation, or processing, of nitrogen plays a key role in the plant’s growth and productivity. In food crops, it is especially important because plants use nitrogen to produce the proteins that are vital for human nutrition. Wheat, in particular, provides nearly one-fourth of all protein in the global human diet.Many previous laboratory studies had demonstrated that elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide inhibited nitrate assimilation in the leaves of grain and non-legume plants; however there had been no verification of this relationship in field-grown plants.Wheat field studyTo observe the response of wheat to different levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the researchers examined samples of wheat that had been grown in 1996 and 1997 in the Maricopa Agricultural Center near Phoenix, Ariz.At that time, carbon dioxide-enriched air was released in the fields, creating an elevated level of atmospheric carbon at the test plots, similar to what is now expected to be present in the next few decades. Control plantings of wheat were also grown in the ambient, untreated level of carbon dioxide.Leaf material harvested from the various wheat tests plots was immediately placed on ice, and then was oven dried and stored in vacuum-sealed containers to minimize changes over time in various nitrogen compounds.A fast-forward through more than a decade found Bloom and the current research team able to conduct chemical analyses that were not available at the time the experimental wheat plants were harvested.In the recent study, the researchers documented that three different measures of nitrate assimilation affirmed that the elevated level of atmospheric carbon dioxide had inhibited nitrate assimilation into protein in the field-grown wheat.”These field results are consistent with findings from previous laboratory studies, which showed that there are several physiological mechanisms responsible for carbon dioxide’s inhibition of nitrate assimilation in leaves,” Bloom said.3 percent protein decline expectedBloom noted that other studies also have shown that protein concentrations in the grain of wheat, rice and barley — as well as in potato tubers — decline, on average, by approximately 8 percent under elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”When this decline is factored into the respective portion of dietary protein that humans derive from these various crops, it becomes clear that the overall amount of protein available for human consumption may drop by about 3 percent as atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the levels anticipated to occur during the next few decades,” Bloom said.While heavy nitrogen fertilization could partially compensate for this decline in food quality, it would also have negative consequences including higher costs, more nitrate leaching into groundwater and increased emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, he said.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of California – Davis. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Biological testing tool, ScanDrop, tests in fraction of time and cost of industry standard

Northeastern University professor of pharmaceutical sciences, Tania Konry, has developed a single instrument that can conduct a wide range of biological scans in a fraction of the time and cost of industry standard equipment. That’s because it uses considerably less material and ultra-sensitive detection methods to do the same thing.Currently, researchers face enormous time constraints and financial hurdles from having to run these analyses on a regular basis. Hundreds of dollars and 24 hours are what’s required to scan biological materials for important biomarkers that signal diseases such as diabetes or cancer. And suppose you wanted to monitor live cancer cells. For that you’d have to use an entirely different method. It takes just as long but requires a whole other set of expensive top-end instrumentation. Want to look at bacteria instead? Be prepared to wait a few days for it to grow before you can get a meaningful result.Konry’s creation, ScanDrop, is a portable instrument no bigger than a shoebox that has the capacity to detect a variety of biological specimen. For that reason it will benefit a wide range of users beyond the medical community, including environmental monitoring and basic scientific research.The instrument acts as a miniature science lab, of sorts. It contains a tiny chip, made of polymer or glass, that is connected to equally tiny tubes. …

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Eyes are windows to the soul — and evolution

Why do we become saucer-eyed from fear and squint from disgust? These near-opposite facial expressions are rooted in emotional responses that exploit how our eyes gather and focus light to detect an unknown threat, according to a study by a Cornell University neuroscientist.Our eyes widen in fear, boosting sensitivity and expanding our field of vision to locate surrounding danger. When repulsed, our eyes narrow, blocking light to sharpen focus and pinpoint the source of our disgust.The findings by Adam Anderson, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, suggest that human facial expressions arose from universal, adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals, lending support to Charles Darwin’s 19th century theories on the evolution of emotion.”These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face,” said Anderson. “And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how perhaps all expressions differ, including surprise, anger and even happiness.”Anderson and his co-authors described these ideas in the paper, “Optical Origins of Opposing Facial Expression Actions,” published in the March 2014 issue of Psychological Science.Looks of disgust result in the greatest visual acuity — less light and better focus; fearful expressions induce maximum sensitivity — more light and a broader visual field. “These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched,” said Anderson, the paper’s senior author. “The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations.”What’s more, emotions filter our reality, shaping what we see before light ever reaches the inner eye.”We tend to think of perception as something that happens after an image is received by the brain, but in fact emotions influence vision at the very earliest moments of visual encoding.”Anderson’s Affect and Cognition Laboratory is now studying how these contrasting eye movements may account for how facial expressions have developed to support nonverbal communication across cultures.”We are seeking to understand how these expressions have come to communicate emotions to others,” he said. “We know that the eyes can be a powerful basis for reading what people are thinking and feeling, and we might have a partial answer to why that is.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Cornell University. The original article was written by Melissa Osgood. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Addicts and Disease

Commentary.Former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Alan Leshner has been vilified by many for referring to addiction as a chronic, relapsing “brain disease.” What often goes unmentioned is Leshner’s far more interesting characterization of addiction as the “quintessential biobehavioral disorder.”Multifactorial illnesses present special challenges to our way of thinking about disease. Addiction and other biopsychosocial disorders often show symptoms at odds with disease, as people generally understand it. For patients and medical professionals alike, questions about the disease aspect of addiction tie into larger fears about the medicalization of human behavior.These confusions are mostly understandable. Everybody knows what cancer is—a disease of the cells. Schizophrenia? Some kind of brain illness. But addiction? Addiction strikes many people as too much a part …

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Making biodiverse agriculture part of a food-secure future

Is biodiverse agriculture an anachronism? Or is it a vital part of a food-secure future?Given the need to feed an estimated 2.4 billion more people by the year 2050, the drive toward large-scale, single-crop farming around the world may seem inexorable.But there’s an important downside to this trend, argues Timothy Johns, Professor of Human Nutrition at McGill University in Montreal, in a paper to be presented Feb. 15, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.Diets for most people around the world are becoming increasingly limited in biological and nutritional diversity. “Large-scale agriculture is characteristically simplified and less diverse than small-holder agriculture,” Prof. Johns cautions. “This is true in genetic, ecological and nutritional terms.”Small farmers, by contrast, in many places continue to grow a range of species and multiple varieties that form the basis of their diet and nutrition. Use of a range of wild species of fruit, vegetables, condiments and medicines, as well as wild animal-sourced foods, increase the likelihood that subsistence farmers with access to natural ecosystems meet their nutrition and health needs.The problem is that smallholder farmers in developing countries often have low productivity and little likelihood of generating the profits needed to rise above poverty level, says Prof. Johns, who directs the McGill Canadian Field Studies in Africa program. In particular, the smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa, which account for more than 90 percent of agricultural production and the primary livelihood of 65 percent of the population, need to be more productive.When they have access to improved technology, however, smallholder farmers can be both more productive and more sustainable than large-scale, intensive agriculture. Using family members in farming reduces labor and supervision costs, while a more intimate knowledge of the local soil, plants and animals enables smallholders to maximize output. …

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Worry on the brain: Researchers find new area linked to anxiety

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 18 percent of American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, characterized as excessive worry or tension that often leads to other physical symptoms. Previous studies of anxiety in the brain have focused on the amygdala, an area known to play a role in fear. But a team of researchers led by biologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had a hunch that understanding a different brain area, the lateral septum (LS), could provide more clues into how the brain processes anxiety. Their instincts paid off — using mouse models, the team has found a neural circuit that connects the LS with other brain structures in a manner that directly influences anxiety.”Our study has identified a new neural circuit that plays a causal role in promoting anxiety states,” says David Anderson, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology at Caltech, and corresponding author of the study. “Part of the reason we lack more effective and specific drugs for anxiety is that we don’t know enough about how the brain processes anxiety. This study opens up a new line of investigation into the brain circuitry that controls anxiety.”The team’s findings are described in the January 30 version of the journal Cell.Led by Todd Anthony, a senior research fellow at Caltech, the researchers decided to investigate the so-called septohippocampal axis because previous studies had implicated this circuit in anxiety, and had also shown that neurons in a structure located within this axis — the LS — lit up, or were activated, when anxious behavior was induced by stress in mouse models. But does the fact that the LS is active in response to stressors mean that this structure promotes anxiety, or does it mean that this structure acts to limit anxiety responses following stress? The prevailing view in the field was that the nerve pathways that connect the LS with different brain regions function as a brake on anxiety, to dampen a response to stressors. But the team’s experiments showed that the exact opposite was true in their system.In the new study, the team used optogenetics — a technique that uses light to control neural activity — to artificially activate a set of specific, genetically identified neurons in the LS of mice. During this activation, the mice became more anxious. …

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Mesothelioma Blood Test-Mesomark Test

The reason for high death rates among mesothelioma patients is the aggressive nature of the disease and the inability to diagnose it until it is well advanced. Because mesothelioma symptoms do not show up until about 40-50 years after exposure to asbestos, most cases at the time of diagnosis have already reached Stage III or IV. As a result, mesothelioma treatment options are often more palliative than curative.However, the ability to diagnose the disease at an earlier time would certainly result in a better prognosis for mesothelioma patients. That ability is now present in the form of a mesothelioma blood test known as Mesomark. Developed by Fujirebio Diagnostics Inc. of Malvern, Pennsylvania, a leader in the field of oncology testing, the test measures the amount of a …

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New soil testing kit for third world countries

Oct. 16, 2013 — Researchers at the University of Maryland and Columbia University have developed a new soil testing kit designed to help farmers in third world countries. On-the-spot soil testing could have major impact in improving crop yields due to poor soils. The kit contains battery-operated instruments and safe materials for agricultural extension agents to handle in the field. They can test for the availability of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and potassium, as well as active organic matter, and certain soil physical limitations. The raw results of the tests are sent by cell phone to a central website. Then, calculations are made and recommendations are delivered back to the extension agent.The kit, called SoilDoc, is the culmination of several years of work in Africa by Ray Weil, PhD. Weil, a soil scientist, spent his 2009 sabbatical working with the Millennium Villages Project in the some of the poorest areas of Africa. He started carrying common soil testing items in his backpack, but found he needed more. Back in the US, he discovered items used for testing home aquariums that would also work for soil tests. …

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Maximizing broccoli’s cancer-fighting potential

Oct. 16, 2013 — Spraying a plant hormone on broccoli — already one of the planet’s most nutritious foods — boosts its cancer-fighting potential, and researchers say they have new insights on how that works. They published their findings, which could help scientists build an even better, more healthful broccoli, in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry.Share This:John Juvik and colleagues explain that diet is one of the most important factors influencing a person’s chances of developing cancer. One of the most helpful food families includes cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and cabbage. In fact, eating broccoli regularly has been linked to lower rates of prostate, colon, breast, lung and skin cancers. In that super food, glucosinolates (GSs) and the substances that are left when GSs are broken down can boost the levels of a broccoli enzyme that helps rid the body of carcinogens. One way to increase GSs is to spray a plant hormone called methyl jasmonate on broccoli. This natural hormone protects the plants against pests. Juvik’s team wanted to determine which GSs and their products actually boost the enzyme levels when broccoli is treated.They tested five commercial types of broccoli by spraying them in the field with the hormone and found that, of the GS break-down products, sulforaphane is the major contributor toward enhanced cancer-fighting enzyme levels, although other substances also likely contribute, say the researchers. Environmental conditions played a role, too. …

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Is Addiction Inherited?

Robert Downey Jr. has been in the news recently, not because of Iron Man or his past drug problems, but because of his son – 20-year-old Indigo – who is reportedly in rehab.Robert Downey Jr. had a very public battle with addiction when he was in and out of jails and institutions while trying to salvage his career. People watched as the extremely talented actor struggled with addiction to heroin, alcohol and cocaine and now praise him as a hero – not only because he is Iron Man, but for having overcome his powerful addiction to drugs and alcohol – he has been sober since 2003.His son apparently went to treatment for trouble with prescription pills. His mother – Downey’s ex wife Deborah Falconer reportedly …

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Modifying rice crops to resist herbicide prompts weedy neighbors’ growth spurt

Sep. 23, 2013 — Rice containing an overactive gene that makes it resistant to a common herbicide can pass that genetic trait to weedy rice, prompting powerful growth even without a weed-killer to trigger the modification benefit, new research shows.Previously, scientists have found that when a genetically modified trait passes from a crop plant to a closely related weed, the weed gains the crop’s engineered benefit – resistance to pests, for example – only in the presence of the offending insects.This new study is a surprising example of gene flow from crops to weeds that makes weeds more vigorous even without an environmental trigger, researchers say.The suspected reason: This modification method enhances a plant’s own growth control mechanism, essentially making it grow faster – an attractive trait in crops but a recipe for potential problems with weedy relatives that could out-compete the crop.“Our next question is whether this method of enhancing plant growth could be developed for any crop. We want to know whether growers could get higher yields in the crop and then, if it happened to cross with a related weed, whether it might make the weed more prolific as well,” said Allison Snow, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at The Ohio State University and a lead author of the paper.“It’s unusual for any transgene to have such a positive effect on a wild relative and even more so for herbicide resistance,” she said. “But we think we know why: It’s probably because the pathway regulated by this gene is so important to the plant.”The work is the result of Snow’s longtime collaboration with senior author Bao-Rong Lu, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. Their publication appears online in the journal New Phytologist.The weed-killer glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup, kills plants by inhibiting a growth-related pathway activated by the epsps gene. Biotech companies have inserted mutated forms of a similar gene from microbes into crop plants, producing “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans that remain undamaged by widespread herbicide application.But in this study, the researchers used a different method, boosting activation of the native epsps gene in rice plants – a process called overexpressing – to give the plants enough strength to survive an application of herbicide. Because companies that genetically modify commercial crops don’t fully disclose their methods, Snow and her colleagues aren’t sure how prevalent this method might be, now or in the future.“This is a relatively new way to get a trait into a crop: taking the plant’s own gene and ramping it up,” Snow said. “We don’t know yet if our findings are going to be generalizable, but if they are, it’s definitely going to be important.”To overexpress the native gene in rice, the scientists attached a promoter to it, giving the plant an extra copy of its own gene and ensuring that the gene is activated at all times.The researchers conducted tests in rice and four strains of a relative of the same species, weedy rice, a noxious plant that infests rice fields around the world. By crossing genetically altered herbicide-resistant rice with weedy rice to mimic what happens naturally in the field, the researchers created crop-weed hybrids that grew larger and produced more offspring than unaltered counterparts – even without any herbicide present.In regulated field experiments, the hybrids containing the overexpressed gene produced 48 percent to 125 percent more seeds per plant than did hybrid plants with no modified genes. They also had higher concentrations of a key amino acid, greater photosynthetic rates and better fledgling seed growth than controls – all presumed signs of better fitness in evolutionary terms.“Fitness is a hard thing to measure, but you can conclude that if a gene gives you a lot more seeds per plant compared to controls, it’s likely to increase the plants’ fitness because those genes would be represented at a higher percentage in future generations,” Snow said.When Snow and Lu set out to study this new genetic engineering method, they didn’t know what to expect.“Our colleagues developed this novel transgenic trait in rice and we didn’t know if it would have a fitness benefit, or a cost, or be neutral,” Snow said. …

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Antibiotic resistance in agricultural environments: A call to action

Sep. 26, 2013 — Antibiotic resistant pathogens are an emerging, critical human health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared antibiotic resistance as a top health issue worldwide. Two million Americans are infected each year with diseases resistant to known antibiotics; between ten and fifteen thousand die.Jean McLain, PhD, will present “Antibiotic Resistance in Agricultural Environments: A Call to Action,” on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at 4:30 PM. The presentation is part of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America Annual Meetings, Nov. 3-7 in Tampa, Florida. The theme of this year’s conference is “Water, Food, Energy, & Innovation for a Sustainable World.”Most people equate antibiotic resistance to the medical field. However, antibiotic resistance is also in our soils. And, the field of agriculture has been blamed for making this worse by using concentrated feed operations that leak antibiotics into surrounding waterways. …

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Genes outside nucleus have disproportionate effect

Oct. 12, 2013 — New research from the University of California, Davis, shows that the tiny proportion of a cell’s DNA that is located outside the cell nucleus has a disproportionately large effect on a cell’s metabolism. The work, with the model plant Arabidopsis, may have implications for future treatments for inherited diseases in humans.Plant and animal cells carry most of their genes on chromosomes in the nucleus, separated from the rest of the cell. However, they also contain a small number of genes in organelles that lie outside the nucleus. These are the mitochondria, which generate energy for animal and plant cells, and chloroplasts, which carry out photosynthesis in plant cells.The influence of genes outside the nucleus was known to an earlier generation of field ecologists and crop breeders, said Dan Kliebenstein, professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences and Genome Center and senior author on the paper published Oct. 8 in the online journal eLife. This is the first time that the effect has been quantified with a genomic approach, he said.Bindu Joseph, a postdoctoral researcher in Kliebenstein’s lab, and Kliebenstein studied how variation in 25,000 nuclear genes and 200 organellar genes affected the levels of thousands of individual chemicals, or metabolites, in leaf tissue from 316 individual Arabidopsis plants.They found that 80 percent of the metabolites measured were directly affected by variation in the organellar genes — about the same proportion that were affected by variation among the much larger number of nuclear genes. There were also indirect effects, where organellar genes regulated the activity of nuclear genes that in turn affected metabolism.”At first it’s surprising, but at another level you almost expect it,” Kliebenstein said. “These organelles produce energy and sugar for cells, so they are very important.”Similar effects could also occur in mammalian cells, Kliebenstein said. That has implications for in vitro fertilization therapies aimed at preventing diseases caused by faulty mitochondria being passed from mother to child. …

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Antibacterial products fuel resistant bacteria in streams and rivers

Sep. 19, 2013 — Triclosan — a synthetic antibacterial widely used in personal care products — is fueling the development of resistant bacteria in streams and rivers. So reports a new paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, which is the first to document triclosan resistance in a natural environment.Invented for surgeons in the 1960s, triclosan slows or stops the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew. Currently, around half of liquid soaps contain the chemical, as well as toothpastes, deodorants, cosmetics, liquid cleansers, and detergents. Triclosan enters streams and rivers through domestic wastewater, leaky sewer infrastructure, and sewer overflows, with residues now common throughout the United States.Emma Rosi-Marshall, one of the paper’s authors and an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York explains: “The bacterial resistance caused by triclosan has real environmental consequences. Not only does it disrupt aquatic life by changing native bacterial communities, but it’s linked to the rise of resistant bacteria that could diminish the usefulness of important antibiotics.”With colleagues from Loyola University and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, Rosi-Marshall explored how bacteria living in stream and river sediments responded to triclosan in both natural and controlled settings. Field studies were conducted at three sites in the Chicago metropolitan region: urban North Shore Channel, suburban West Branch Dupage River, and rural Nippersink Creek.Urbanization was correlated with a rise in both triclosan concentrations in sediments and the proportion of bottom-dwelling bacteria resistant to triclosan. A woodland creek had the lowest levels of triclosan-resistant bacteria, while a site on the North Shore Channel downstream of 25 combined sewer overflows had the highest levels.Combined sewers deliver domestic sewage, industrial wastewater, and storm water to a regional treatment plant using a single pipe. Overflows occur when a pipe’s capacity is exceeded, typically due to excessive runoff from high rainfall or snowmelt events. The result: untreated sewage flows directly into rivers and streams.The research team found that combined sewer overflows that release untreated sewage are a major source of triclosan pollution in Chicago’s North Shore Channel. …

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Screening for minor memory changes will wrongly label many with dementia, warn experts

Sep. 10, 2013 — A political drive, led by the UK and US, to screen older people for minor memory changes (often called mild cognitive impairment or pre-dementia) is leading to unnecessary investigation and potentially harmful treatment for what is arguably an inevitable consequence of ageing, warn experts.Their views come as the Preventing Overdiagnosis conference opens in New Hampshire, USA today (10 September), partnered by BMJ’s Too Much Medicine campaign, where experts from around the world will gather to discuss how to tackle the threat to health and the waste of money caused by unnecessary care.A team of specialists in Australia and the UK say that expanding diagnosis of dementia will result in up to 65% of people aged over 80 having Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed — and up to 23% of non-demented older people being labelled with dementia.They argue this policy is not backed by evidence and ignores the risks, harms and costs to individuals, families and societies. It may also divert resources that are badly needed for the care of people with advanced dementia.Dementia is age related and with an ageing population is predicted to become an overwhelming and costly problem. But the evidence suggests that while 5 — 15% of people with mild cognitive impairment will progress to dementia each year, as many as 40 -70% will not progress and indeed their cognitive function may improve. Studies also show that the clinical tools used by doctors to diagnose dementia are not robust, and that many people who develop dementia do not meet definitions of mild cognitive impairment before diagnosis. But this has not deterred countries from developing policies to screen for pre -dementia.For example, in the US, the Medicare insurance programme will cover an annual wellness visit to a physician that includes a cognitive impairment test. In England, the government has announced that it will reward general practitioners for assessing brain function in older patients — and has committed to have “a memory clinic in every town and every city” despite no sound evidence of benefit.This had led to the development of imaging techniques and tests that are increasingly used in diagnosis, despite uncertainty over their accuracy, say the authors. The researchers say however, that until such approaches are shown to be beneficial to individuals and societies they should remain within the clinical research domain.Furthermore, there are no drugs that prevent the progression of dementia or are effective in patients with mild cognitive impairment, raising concerns that once patients are labelled with disease or pre-disease, they may try untested therapies and run the risk of adverse effects.They also question whether ageing of the population is becoming a “commercial opportunity” for developing screening, early diagnosis tests and medicines marketed to maintain cognition in old age.The desire of politicians, dementia organisations, and academics and clinicians in the field to raise the profile of dementia is understandable, write the authors, “but we risk being conscripted into an unwanted war against dementia.”They suggest that the political rhetoric expended on preventing the burden of dementia would be much better served by efforts to reduce smoking and obesity, given current knowledge linking mid-life obesity and cigarettes with the risk of dementia.”Current policy is rolling out untested and uncontrolled experiments in the frailest people in society without a rigorous evaluation of its benefits and harms to individuals, families, service settings, and professionals,” they conclude.

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Combating sports-related concussions: New device accurately and objectively diagnoses concussions from the sidelines

Aug. 28, 2013 — In the United States there are millions of sports-related concussions each year, but many go undiagnosed because for some athletes, the fear of being benched trumps the fear of permanent brain damage, and there is no objective test available to accurately diagnose concussions on the sidelines.Researchers at San Diego State University have set out to change that.A team led by Daniel Goble, an exercise and nutritional sciences professor at SDSU, have developed software and an inexpensive balance board that can measure balance with 99 percent accuracy on the field and in the clinic. They are testing the device on SDSU’s rugby team, with the hope of soon making it available worldwide to athletes of all ages and levels.Balance tests are a primary method used to detect concussion. The current means of scoring these tests relies on the skill of athletic trainers to visually determine whether or not a concussion has occurred.Trainers count “errors” while watching athletes stand in different foot configurations — such as on one foot or with feet heel to toe — when a concussion is suspected. Errors include stepping out of place or removing one’s hand from one’s hip and the total number is compared to a baseline test preformed preseason.This testing method can be both subjective and inaccurate, and can easily be skewed to return a concussed athlete to the field, said Goble.A better testWith help from the SDSU College of Engineering and the Zahn Innovation Center, Goble recently validated the balance tracking system, or B-TrackS, to assess balance before and after potential concussions.Currently force plates, which are small, square platforms used to quantify balance, gait and other biomechanics, are the primary tools to test balance. But they can cost $10,000 per plate, which the average high school or university can’t afford.Enter the B-TrackS.Using a low-cost balance board and custom software, Goble’s B-TrackS gives information on how much a person is swaying, which is an indicator of balance. The sway information is just as accurate as an expensive force plate and fully objective.In fact, Goble will soon publish a study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine that shows the validity of the BTrackS system. In this study, the current method of scoring balance for concussions and the BTrackS were compared and the BTrackS was clearly more accurate than even the most experienced trainer.Objective data”There are athletes out there who are playing with concussions and not knowing it,” Goble said. “We’re taking the uncertainty out of the equation and giving hard data to quantify whether or not a concussion actually occurred.”The improved board works similarly to the current test — athletes stand on the board and conduct a series of movements based on balance control. Instead of an athletic trainer determining how many “errors” occur, the board will measure how much athletes sway, and give objective data determining their condition.”Anybody who runs the test will get the same number, and we can use these numbers and try and figure out what quantifies as a concussion,” Goble said.Put to the testGoble and his team have recently invited SDSU’s rugby team into the lab where researchers will administer tests on the players to get a baseline reading of their balance using the B-TrackS. …

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Tornadoes tend toward higher elevations and cause greater damage moving uphill

Aug. 27, 2013 — The first field investigations of the effect of terrain elevation changes on tornado path, vortex, strength and damage have yielded valuable information that could help prevent the loss of human life and damage to property in future tornadoes.Engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas analyzed Google Earth images of the massive 2011 Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., tornadoes and found similarities between the two in behavior and interaction with the terrain. The findings likely apply to all tornadoes.”We wanted to understand the impact of terrain on damage magnitude and tornado path,” said Panneer Selvam, professor of civil engineering. “Information about this interaction is critical. It influences decisions about where and how to build, what kind of structure should work at a given site.”The researchers’ analysis led to three major observations about the nature and behavior of tornadoes as they interact with terrain: • Tornadoes cause greater damage when they travel uphill and less damage as they move downhill. • Whenever possible, tornadoes tend to climb toward higher elevations rather than going downhill. • When a region is surrounded by hills, tornadoes skip or hop over valleys beneath and between these hills, and damage is noticed only on the top of the hills.For years Selvam has studied the effect of high winds on structures and developed detailed computer models of tornadoes. He and civil engineering graduate student Nawfal Ahmed used tornado path coordinates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and imposed this data on overlaid Google Earth images. They studied the tornadoes’ damage in depth by comparing historical images to aerial photographs taken after the events. Google Earth photographed Tuscaloosa one day after the tornado there. …

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Study relies on twins and their parents to understand height-IQ connection

Aug. 27, 2013 — The fact that taller people also tend to be slightly smarter is due in roughly equal parts to two phenomena — the same genes affect both traits and taller people are more likely than average to mate with smarter people and vice versa — according to a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.The study did not find that environmental factors contributed to the connection between being taller and being smarter, both traits that people tend to find attractive.The modest correlation between height and IQ has been documented in multiple studies stretching back to the 1970s. But the reasons for the relationship between the two traits has not been well understood.The technique developed by the researchers at CU-Boulder to tease out those reasons may open the door for scientists to better understand why other sexually selected traits — characteristics that individuals find desirable in mates — tend to be linked. People who are attractive because of one trait tend to have other attractive traits as well.”Not just in humans but also in animals, you see that traits that are sexually attractive tend to be correlated,” said Matthew Keller, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU-Boulder and lead author of the study appearing in the journal PLOS Genetics. “So if you have animals that are high on one sexually selected trait they are often high on other ones, too. And the question has always been, ‘What’s the cause of that?’ And it has always been very difficult to tease apart the two potential genetic reasons that those could be related.”The key to the technique developed by Keller, also a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute for Behavioral Genetics, and his colleagues is using data collected about fraternal twins, identical twins and, importantly, their parents.It has been common in the past to use information about identical twins and fraternal twins to determine whether a particular trait is inherited, caused by environmental factors or affected by some combination of both. This kind of twin study assumes that each twin grows up with the same environmental factors as his or her sibling.If a trait that’s present in one twin is just as often present in the other — regardless of whether the twins are fraternal or identical — then the trait is likely caused by environmental conditions. On the other hand, if a trait is generally found in both identical twins but only in one of a set of fraternal twins, it’s likely that the trait is inherited, since identical twins have the same genetic material but fraternal twins do not.Similar studies also can be done for linked traits, such as height and IQ. But while scientists could determine that a pair of traits is passed down genetically, they could not further resolve whether inherited traits were linked due to the same genes influencing both traits, called “pleiotropy,” or because people who have those traits are more likely to mate with each other, known as “assortative mating.”The new CU-Boulder study solves this problem by including the parents of twins in its analysis. While this has occasionally been done in the past for single traits, information on parents has not previously been used to shed light on why two traits are genetically correlated. …

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Space slinky: Jet of superheated gas — 5,000 light-years long — ejected from supermassive black hole

Aug. 22, 2013 — More than thirteen years of observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have allowed astronomers to assemble time-lapse movies of a 5,000-light-year-long jet of superheated gas being ejected from a supermassive black hole in the center of the giant elliptical galaxy M87.The movies promise to give astronomers a better understanding of how active black holes shape galaxy evolution. While matter drawn completely into a black hole cannot escape its enormous gravitational pull, most infalling material drawn toward it first joins an orbiting region known as an accretion disk encircling the black hole. Magnetic fields surrounding the black hole are thought to entrain some of this ionized gas, ejecting it as very high-velocity jets.”Central supermassive black holes are a key component in all big galaxies,” said Eileen T. Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., the Hubble study’s lead author. “Most of these black holes are believed to have gone through an active phase, and black-hole-powered jets from this active phase play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. By studying the details of this process in the nearest galaxy with an optical jet, we can hope to learn more about galaxy formation and black hole physics in general.”The Hubble movies reveal for the first time that the jet’s river of plasma travels in a spiral motion. This motion is considered strong evidence that the plasma may be traveling along a magnetic field, which the team thinks is coiled like a helix. The magnetic field is believed to arise from a spinning accretion disk of material around a black hole. Although the magnetic field cannot be seen, its presence is inferred by the confinement of the jet along a narrow cone emanating from the black hole.”We analyzed several years’ worth of Hubble data of a relatively nearby jet, which allowed us to see lots of details,” Meyer said. …

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Starbirth surprisingly energetic: New insights into protostars

Aug. 20, 2013 — Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have obtained a vivid close-up view of material streaming away from a newborn star. By looking at the glow coming from carbon monoxide molecules in an object called Herbig-Haro 46/47 they have discovered that its jets are even more energetic than previously thought. The very detailed new images have also revealed a previously unknown jet pointing in a totally different direction.Young stars are violent objects that eject material at speeds as high as one million kilometres per hour. When this material crashes into the surrounding gas it glows, creating a Herbig-Haro object [1]. A spectacular example is named Herbig-Haro 46/47 and is situated about 1400 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails). This object was the target of a study using ALMA during the Early Science phase, whilst the telescope was still under construction and well before the array was completed.The new images reveal fine detail in two jets, one coming towards Earth and one moving away. The receding jet was almost invisible in earlier pictures made in visible light, due to obscuration by the dust clouds surrounding the new-born star. ALMA has not only provided much sharper images than earlier facilities but also allowed astronomers to measure how fast the glowing material is moving through space.These new observations of Herbig-Haro 46/47 revealed that some of the ejected material had velocities much higher than had been measured before. This means the outflowing gas carries much more energy and momentum than previously thought.The team leader and first author of the new study, Héctor Arce (Yale University, USA) explains that “ALMA’s exquisite sensitivity allows the detection of previously unseen features in this source, like this very fast outflow. …

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