Intensity of hurricanes: New study helps improve predictions of storm intensity

They are something we take very seriously in Florida — hurricanes. The names roll off the tongue like a list of villains — Andrew, Charlie, Frances and Wilma.In the past 25 years or so, experts have gradually been improving prediction of the course a storm may take. This is thanks to tremendous advancements in computer and satellite technology. While we still have the “cone of uncertainty” we’ve become familiar with watching television weather reports, today’s models are more accurate than they used to be.The one area, however, where there is still much more to be researched and learned is in predicting just how intense a storm may be. While hurricane hunter aircraft can help determine wind speed, velocity, water temperature and other data, the fact is we often don’t know why or how a storm gets stronger or weaker. There has been virtually no progress in hurricane intensity forecasting during the last quarter century.But, thanks to new research being conducted, all that’s about to change.”The air-water interface — whether it had significant waves or significant spray — is a big factor in storm intensity,” said Alex Soloviev, Ph.D., a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center. “Hurricanes gain heat energy through the interface and they lose mechanical energy at the interface.”Soloviev is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (UM RSMAS) and a Fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS.) He and his fellow researchers used a computational fluid dynamics model to simulate microstructure of the air-sea interface under hurricane force winds. In order to verify these computer-generated results, the group conducted experiments at the UM’s Rosenstiel School Air-Sea Interaction Salt Water Tank (ASIST) where they simulated wind speed and ocean surface conditions found during hurricanes.The study “The Air-Sea Interface and Surface Stress Under Tropical Cyclones” was published in the June 16, 2014 issue of the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Soloviev was the lead author of this study, which was conducted by a multi-institutional team including Roger Lukas (University of Hawaii), Mark Donelan and Brian Haus (UM RSMAS), and Isaac Ginis (University of Rhode Island.)The researchers were surprised at what they found. Under hurricane force wind, the air-water interface was producing projectiles fragmenting into sub millimeter scale water droplets. …

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Prematurity linked to altered lung function during exercise, high blood pressure in adults

Advances in medicine have greatly contributed to the survival of extremely preterm infants in the US. However, the picture of long-term health effects related to prematurity is still unclear. Researchers at the University of Oregon compared lung function among adults who were born extremely preterm (at less than 28 weeks), very preterm (at less than 32 weeks), and full term (~39-40 weeks). Steven Laurie, PhD, will present the research team’s findings in a poster session on Tuesday, April 29, at the Experimental Biology meeting.Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six sponsoring societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping current and future clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from throughout across the United States and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. www.experimentalbiology.orgLaurie et al. studied three groups at rest and during exercise: young adults who were born extremely to very preterm and developed a lung condition called bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), preterm adults who didn’t develop BPD (PRE), and full-term adult control subjects (CONT). They found that the PRE subjects had a harder time handling the increased blood flow from the heart during exercise than the BPD and CONT subjects. The vascular function of the lungs during exercise suggested that the PRE adults may also be at increased risk of developing high lung blood pressure.”Healthy young humans have lungs designed to easily handle the increased blood flow from the heart during exercise. However, adults born extremely to very preterm have abnormally developed lungs, which may result in lungs that are unable to handle the demands of exercise. …

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Computer maps 21 distinct emotional expressions — even ‘happily disgusted’

Researchers at The Ohio State University have found a way for computers to recognize 21 distinct facial expressions — even expressions for complex or seemingly contradictory emotions such as “happily disgusted” or “sadly angry.”In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that they were able to more than triple the number of documented facial expressions that researchers can now use for cognitive analysis.”We’ve gone beyond facial expressions for simple emotions like ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ We found a strong consistency in how people move their facial muscles to express 21 categories of emotions,” said Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State. “That is simply stunning. That tells us that these 21 emotions are expressed in the same way by nearly everyone, at least in our culture.”The resulting computational model will help map emotion in the brain with greater precision than ever before, and perhaps even aid the diagnosis and treatment of mental conditions such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Since at least the time of Aristotle, scholars have tried to understand how and why our faces betray our feelings — from happy to sad, and the whole range of emotions beyond. Today, the question has been taken up by cognitive scientists who want to link facial expressions to emotions in order to track the genes, chemicals, and neural pathways that govern emotion in the brain.Until now, cognitive scientists have confined their studies to six basic emotions — happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised and disgusted — mostly because the facial expressions for them were thought to be self-evident, Martinez explained.But deciphering a person’s brain functioning with only six categories is like painting a portrait with only primary colors, Martinez said: it can provide an abstracted image of the person, but not a true-to-life one.What Martinez and his team have done is more than triple the color palette — with a suite of emotional categories that can be measured by the proposed computational model and applied in rigorous scientific study.”In cognitive science, we have this basic assumption that the brain is a computer. So we want to find the algorithm implemented in our brain that allows us to recognize emotion in facial expressions,” he said. “In the past, when we were trying to decode that algorithm using only those six basic emotion categories, we were having tremendous difficulty. Hopefully with the addition of more categories, we’ll now have a better way of decoding and analyzing the algorithm in the brain.”They photographed 230 volunteers — 130 female, 100 male, and mostly college students — making faces in response to verbal cues such as “you just got some great unexpected news” (“happily surprised”), or “you smell a bad odor” (“disgusted”). In the resulting 5,000 images, they painstakingly tagged prominent landmarks for facial muscles, such as the corners of the mouth or the outer edge of the eyebrow. They used the same method used by psychologist Paul Ekman, the scientific consultant for the television show “Lie to Me.” Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, is a standard tool in body language analysis.They searched the FACS data for similarities and differences in the expressions, and found 21 emotions — the six basic emotions, as well as emotions that exist as combinations of those emotions, such as “happily surprised” or “sadly angry.”The researchers referred to these combinations as “compound emotions.” While “happily surprised” can be thought of as an expression for receiving unexpected good news, “sadly angry” could be the face we make when someone we care about makes us angry.The model was able to determine the degree to which the basic emotions and compound emotions were characterized by a particular expression.For example, the expression for happy is nearly universal: 99 percent of the time, study participants expressed happiness by drawing up the cheeks and stretching the mouth in a smile. Surprise was also easily detected: 92 percent of the time, surprised participants opened their eyes wide and dropped their mouth open.”Happily surprised” turned out to be a compound of the expressions for “happy” and “surprised.” About 93 percent of the time, the participants expressed it the same way: with the wide-open eyes of surprise and the raised cheeks of happiness — and a mouth that was a hybrid of the two — both open and stretched into a smile.The computer model also gives researchers a tool to understand seemingly contradictory emotions. …

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US, European cholesterol guidelines differ in statin use recommendations

Application of U.S. and European cholesterol guidelines to a European population found that proportions of individuals eligible for statins differed substantially, with one U.S. guideline recommending statins for nearly all men and two-thirds of women, proportions exceeding those of the other guidelines, according to a JAMA study released online to coincide with the 2014 American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions.The common approach in cardiovascular disease (CVD) primary prevention is to identify individuals at high enough risk to justify more intensive lifestyle interventions, treatment with medications, or both. The CVD prevention guidelines developed by the National Cholesterol Education Program expert panel, the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) task force, and the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) are the major guidelines influencing clinical practice. “Varying approaches to CVD risk estimation and application of different criteria for therapeutic recommendations would translate into substantial differences in proportions of individuals qualifying for treatment at a population level,” the authors write.Maryam Kavousi, M.D., Ph.D., of Erasmus MC-University Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues conducted a study to determine population-wide implications of the ACC/AHA, the Adult Treatment Panel III (ATP-III), and the ESC guidelines, using 4,854 Dutch participants from the Rotterdam Study (a population-based study of patients 55 years of age or older). The researchers calculated 10-year risks for “hard” (major) atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) events (including fatal and nonfatal coronary heart disease [CHD] and stroke) (ACC/AHA); hard CHD events (fatal and nonfatal heart attack, CHD mortality) (ATP-III); and atherosclerotic CVD mortality (ESC). The proportions of individuals for whom statins would be recommended were calculated per guideline.The average age of the participants was 65.5 years; 54.5 percent were women. The researchers found that application of the ACC/AHA guideline recommended treatment for 96.4 percent of men and 65.8 percent of women; for the ATP-III guideline, the portion was 52 percent of men and 35.5 percent of women; and for the ESC guideline, 66.1 percent of men and 39.1 percent of women were included in the category where treatment was recommended.With the ACC/AHA approach, average predicted risk vs observed major ASCVD events was 21.5 percent vs 12.7 percent for men and 11.6 percent vs 7.9 percent for women. Similar overestimation occurred with the ATP-III and ESC model.”Improving risk predictions and setting appropriate population-wide thresholds are necessary to facilitate better clinical decision making,” the authors conclude.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by The JAMA Network Journals. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Rainbow-catching waveguide could revolutionize energy technologies

By slowing and absorbing certain wavelengths of light, engineers open new possibilities in solar power, thermal energy recycling and stealth technologyMore efficient photovoltaic cells. Improved radar and stealth technology. A new way to recycle waste heat generated by machines into energy.All may be possible due to breakthrough photonics research at the University at Buffalo.The work, published March 28 in the journal Scientific Reports, explores the use of a nanoscale microchip component called a “multilayered waveguide taper array” that improves the chip’s ability to trap and absorb light.Unlike current chips, the waveguide tapers (the thimble-shaped structures pictured above) slow and ultimately absorb each frequency of light at different places vertically to catch a “rainbow” of wavelengths, or broadband light.”We previously predicted the multilayered waveguide tapers would more efficiently absorb light, and now we’ve proved it with these experiments,” says lead researcher Qiaoqiang Gan, PhD, UB assistant professor of electrical engineering. “This advancement could prove invaluable for thin-film solar technology, as well as recycling waste thermal energy that is a byproduct of industry and everyday electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops.”Each multilayered waveguide taper is made of ultrathin layers of metal, semiconductors and/or insulators. The tapers absorb light in metal dielectric layer pairs, the so-called hyperbolic metamaterial. By adjusting the thickness of the layers and other geometric parameters, the tapers can be tuned to different frequencies including visible, near-infrared, mid-infrared, terahertz and microwaves.The structure could lead to advancements in an array of fields.For example, there is a relatively new field of advanced computing research called on-chip optical communication. In this field, there is a phenomenon known as crosstalk, in which an optical signal transmitted on one waveguide channel creates an undesired scattering or coupling effect on another waveguide channel. The multilayered waveguide taper structure array could potentially prevent this.It could also improve thin-film photovoltaic cells, which are a promising because they are less expensive and more flexible that traditional solar cells. The drawback, however, is that they don’t absorb as much light as traditional cells. Because the multilayered waveguide taper structure array can efficiently absorb the visible spectrum, as well as the infrared spectrum, it could potentially boost the amount of energy that thin-film solar cells generate.The multilayered waveguide taper array could help recycle waste heat generated by power plants and other industrial processes, as well as electronic devices such as televisions, smartphones and laptop computers.”It could be useful as an ultra compact thermal-absorption, collection and liberation device in the mid-infrared spectrum,” says Dengxin Ji, a PhD student in Gan’s lab and first author of the paper.It could even be used as a stealth, or cloaking, material for airplanes, ships and other vehicles to avoid radar, sonar, infrared and other forms of detection. …

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Y-90 provides new, safe treatment for metastatic breast cancer

A minimally invasive treatment that delivers cancer-killing radiation directly to tumors shows promise in treating breast cancer that has spread to the liver when no other treatment options remain, according to research being presented at the Society of Interventional Radiology’s 39th Annual Scientific Meeting. In the largest study of its kind to date, researchers reviewed treatment outcomes of 75 women (ages 26-82) with chemotherapy-resistant breast cancer liver metastases, which were too large or too numerous to treat with other therapies. The outpatient treatment, called yttrium-90 (Y-90) radioembolization, was safe and provided disease stabilization in 98.5 percent of the women’s treated liver tumors.”Although this is not a cure, Y-90 radioembolization can shrink liver tumors, relieve painful symptoms, improve the quality of life and potentially extend survival,” said Robert J. Lewandowski, M.D., FSIR, associate professor of radiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “While patient selection is important, the therapy is not limited by tumor size, shape, location or number, and it can ease the severity of disease in patients who cannot be treated effectively with other approaches,” he said.Approximately 235,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed each year. Of these, approximately half of patients who develop metastatic disease will have cancer spread (metastasize) to the liver, explained Lewandowski. While chemotherapy is the standard treatment for these women, many will either have progressive liver disease despite multiple different treatment regimens while others will not tolerate the side effects from toxic agents. Currently, patients are considered for Y-90 radioembolization when they have no other treatment options, he said.”The value of Y-90 radioembolization in treating patients with non-operative primary liver cancer and metastatic colon cancer has been demonstrated,” said Lewandowski. Given the low toxicity and high disease control rates, this therapy is expanding to other secondary hepatic malignancies, he said. “We’re looking to gain maximal tumor control while minimizing toxicity and preserving quality of life,” he added.Y-90 radioembolization is a minimally invasive, image-guided therapy where an interventional radiologist inserts a small tube, or catheter, through a tiny cut in the groin and guides it through the blood vessels and into the artery that supplies the liver. …

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Neuroscience ‘used and abused’ in child rearing policy

A study led by Kent sociologists found that claims that children’s brains are irreversibly ‘sculpted’ by parental care are based on questionable evidence — yet have heavily influenced ‘early-years’ government policy-makers.The study identified that although there is a lack of scientific foundation to many of the claims of ‘brain-based’ parenting, the idea that years 0-3 are neurologically critical is now repeated in policy documents and has been integrated into professional training for early-years workers.Dr Jan Macvarish, a Research Fellow at Kent’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, analyzed the policy literature for the study.She said: ‘What we found was that although the claims purporting to be based on neuroscience are very questionable, they are continually repeated in policy documents and are now integrated into the professional training of health visitors and other early years workers. “Brain claims” entered a policy environment which was already convinced that parents are to blame for numerous social problems, from poverty to mental illness.’The idea that these entrenched problems will be solved by parents being more attentive to their children’s brains is risible. Although aimed at strengthening the parent-child relationships, these kinds of policies risk undermining parents’ self-confidence by suggesting that “science” rather than the parent knows best.’The study highlights that mothers, in particular, are told that if they are stressed while pregnant or suffer postnatal depression, they will harm their baby’s brain.’This dubious information is highly unlikely to alleviate stress or depression but rather more likely to increase parental anxiety,’ said Dr Macvarish. ‘Parents are also told they must cuddle, talk and sing to their babies to build better brains. But these are all things parents do, and have always done, because they love their babies.’Telling parents these acts of love are important because they are ‘brain-building’ inevitably raises the question of how much cuddling, talking and singing is enough? Such claims also put power in the hands of ‘parenting experts’ and ultimately risk making parenting a biologically important but emotionally joyless experience.’Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Kent. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Ruling with an iron fist could make your child pack on pounds

If you’re rigid with rules and skimpy on affection and dialogue with your kids, they have a greater chance of being obese, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology & Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity & Metabolism Scientific Sessions 2014.Researchers followed a nationally representative group of 37,577 Canadian children aged 0 to 11. They compared kids whose parents are generally affectionate, have reasonable discussions about behavior with their child and set healthy boundaries (authoritative) with those whose parents were strict about limits without much dialogue or affection (authoritarian).The latter group had a 30 percent higher chance of being obese among kids 2 to 5 years old and a 37 percent higher chance among kids 6 to 11 years.”Parents should at least be aware of their parenting style,” said Lisa Kakinami, Ph.D., a post-doctoral epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal. “If you’re treating your child with a balance of affection and limits — these are the kids who are least likely to be obese.”Researchers compared parents’ answers to a cross-sectional survey. They then categorized parenting styles and analyzed them with respect to children’s body mass index (BMI) percentile.Researchers also found that poverty was associated with childhood obesity. But parenting style affected obesity regardless of income level.More than one-third of American children are overweight or obese according to the American Heart Association. Exploring factors at home that may be fueling this public health concern could lead to better prevention and interventions, Kakinami said.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by American Heart Association. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Program taught in American Sign Language helps deaf achieve healthier weight

A group of deaf adults using American Sign Language in a healthy lifestyle program successfully lost weight, according to a study presented Wednesday.In the first randomized trial of lifestyle modification or weight reduction with deaf people using American Sign Language, participants had moderate improvements in their weight and level of physical activity after a 16-week program.”Existing mainstream programs focused on weight and weight-related behaviors are often inaccessible to the deaf community,” said Steven Barnett, M.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of family medicine and public health sciences at the University of Rochester in New York. “Collaboration with deaf ASL users is essential to develop accessible and culturally appropriate programs.”In partnership with the deaf community in Rochester, the researchers adapted a healthy lifestyle program shown to be effective in hearing people.A previous study, using accessible public health surveillance in Rochester, found that obesity (body mass index or BMI > 30) is more prevalent in the local deaf community than in the general population — slightly more than 34 percent of the deaf people were obese, compared to nearly 27 percent in the general population.In the Deaf Weight Wise trial, 104 overweight or obese participants were either enrolled in the healthy lifestyle program, with weekly 2-hour group sessions, or assigned to a delayed group who would receive the intervention later.For the group sessions, counselors used motivational interviewing techniques to encourage lifestyle change and help participants develop strategies to maintain healthy eating, such as in social situations and during stress. They were encouraged to exercise at least 150 minutes per week.After six months, participants in the intervention group had lost 7.4 pounds more and reduced their BMI 1.35 points more than the delayed group. Most of the intervention group’s participants (58.3 percent) lost at least 5 percent of their baseline weight, compared with 14.3 percent of the delayed group.Researchers will continue to follow participants for 24 months.”During program development and during the trial, deaf community members emphasized the importance of having deaf counselors,” said Barnett, who directs the Rochester Prevention Research Center: National Center for Deaf Health Research. “I realize this is not possible to implement everywhere at present. We are working on program adaptations to address access to counselors who are deaf ASL users.”Lori DeWindt, M.A., a member of the Deaf Weight Wise Study Group and a Deaf Weight Wise counselor, said, “Participants were comfortable in the culturally affirming environment in which everyone signs. This setting, along with accessible information and peer support, contributed to the positive experience of participants.”Co-authors are Erika Sutter, M.P.H., Thomas Pearson, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., and members of the Deaf Weight Wise Study Group. Disclosures are listed on the abstract.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Research Centers Program funded the study. It was presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology & Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity & Metabolism Scientific Sessions 2014.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by American Heart Association. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Cell therapy shows remarkable ability to eradicate cancer in clinical study

Investigators from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have reported more encouraging news about one of the most exciting methods of cancer treatment today. The largest clinical study ever conducted to date of patients with advanced leukemia found that 88 percent achieved complete remissions after being treated with genetically modified versions of their own immune cells. The results were published today in Science Translational Medicine.”These extraordinary results demonstrate that cell therapy is a powerful treatment for patients who have exhausted all conventional therapies,” said Michel Sadelain, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Cell Engineering at Memorial Sloan Kettering and one of the study’s senior authors. “Our initial findings have held up in a larger cohort of patients, and we are already looking at new clinical studies to advance this novel therapeutic approach in fighting cancer.”Adult B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL), a type of blood cancer that develops in B cells, is difficult to treat because the majority of patients relapse. Patients with relapsed B-ALL have few treatment options; only 30 percent respond to salvage chemotherapy. Without a successful bone marrow transplant, few have any hope of long-term survival.In the current study, 16 patients with relapsed B-ALL were given an infusion of their own genetically modified immune cells, called T cells. The cells were “reeducated” to recognize and destroy cancer cells that contain the protein CD19. While the overall complete response rate for all patients was 88 percent, even those with detectable disease prior to treatment had a complete response rate of 78 percent, far exceeding the complete response rate of salvage chemotherapy alone.Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, was one of the first patients to receive this treatment more than two years ago. He was able to successfully undergo a bone marrow transplant and has been cancer-free and back at work teaching theology since 2011. …

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Gene that influences receptive joint attention in chimpanzees gives insight into autism

Following another’s gaze or looking in the direction someone is pointing, two examples of receptive joint attention, is significantly heritable according to new study results from researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University. Determining such communicative cues are significantly heritable means variation in this ability has a genetic basis, which led the researchers to the vasopressin receptor gene, known for its role in social bonding.The study results, which are published in Scientific Reports, give researchers insight into the biology of disorders in which receptive joint attention is compromised, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and may ultimately lead to new diagnosis and treatment strategies.According to Yerkes researchers Larry Young, PhD, and Bill Hopkins, PhD, co-authors of the study, receptive joint attention is important for developing complex cognitive processes, including language and theory of mind, and poor joint attention abilities may be a core feature in children with or at risk of developing ASD.Young is division chief of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at Yerkes, director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory and William P. Timmie Professor in the Emory University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Yerkes researcher Hopkins is also a core faculty member in the Neuroscience Institute of Georgia State University and newly named science director of the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary.Young and Hopkins led a collaborative team of researchers from Yerkes, the CTSN, the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. They studied chimpanzees to determine the extent to which the animals follow gaze or pointing by a human.”We used chimpanzees in this behavioral study because their receptive joint attention abilities are well documented and their closeness to humans makes the study results the most likely to be generalizable to humans,” says Hopkins.Young’s previous research in which he showed the vasopressin receptor gene was necessary for remembering individuals (or social memories) and for social bonding in male rodents was key to designing the current study. According to Young, variation in the length of a stretch of repetitive DNA, known as junk DNA, in the control region of the vasopressin receptor gene predicted if a male prairie vole was likely to form monogamous bonds with a mate. Human-based studies suggest that a similar repetitive element, referred to as RS3, in the control region of the human vasopressin receptor gene predicts romantic relationship quality and generosity.The current research team discovered about two-thirds of chimpanzees are completely missing the RS3 element that seems to influence social relationships in humans, while the remaining one third has the human-like sequence.”Male chimpanzees with the human-like RS3 sequence displayed higher levels of joint attention and, therefore, needed fewer social cues to elicit an orienting response in the same direction as the experimenter than those missing the sequence,” says Hopkins. “There was no effect of this gene in female chimpanzees, consistent with the vole and human studies in which the vasopressin gene specifically affects male social behaviors,” Young adds.A previous study by Hopkins and his M.D. Anderson-based colleagues found male chimpanzees with the human-like RS3 sequence were more dominant than males lacking the RS3. …

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Are invasive plants a problem in Europe? Controversial views among invasion biologists

Some introduced (i.e. non-native) plants become abundant, threaten species richness and the well-functioning of ecosystems, the economy, or health (plant invasion). Environmental policies that attempt to restrict the expansion of non-native species are based on a consensus among scientific experts that invasions are a serious environmental problem. An example of a problematic non-native species in many parts of the world is Fallopia japonica, the Japanese knotweed that negatively affects river ecosystems.A consensus among experts on the severity of plant invasions seems evident in many scientific and outreach publications. However, instead of consensus, a new study by an interdisciplinary research team at ETH Zurich (Switzerland) of psychologists and plant biologists found a wide range of different opinions among scientific experts about how to describe invasive plant species, and how severe their effects on the environment are. The study is published in the latest issue of the open access journal NeoBiota.The researchers conducted 26 face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of German-speaking scientists working on plant invasions, or more generally on environmental change, in Europe. The interviews revealed that individual understandings of scientific concepts, uncertainties, and value-based attitudes towards invasive plants and their management diverged widely among these experts.”Particularly, ambiguous definitions of the terms non-native and invasive (two key notions in invasion science) are a strong source of misunderstandings among scientists,” said lead author Franziska Humair, a doctoral student at ETH Zurich. Some of the study participants used a biological definition to discriminate native from non-native species (“species from a different biogeographic region”), while others referred to culture (“species not familiar to local people”). “Based on each definition, a different set of species is considered non-native in a particular country,” Ms Humair said. Equally, different experts considered different impacts by invasive species on ecosystems and their functioning for humans (ecosystem services) to be relevant. …

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Success in targeted therapy for common form of lung cancer, study shows

The most common genetic subtype of lung cancer, which has long defied treatment with targeted therapies, has had its growth halted by a combination of two already-in-use drugs in laboratory and animal studies, setting the stage for clinical trials of the drugs in patients, researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and other scientists report in a new study.The study, published in the journal Cancer Discovery, describes a new tack in the treatment of lung adenocarcinomas — which account for about 40 percent of all lung cancers — that carry mutations in the gene KRAS. While most efforts to target KRAS directly with drugs have not proven successful, the authors of the current study took a more circuitous approach — targeting KRAS’s accomplices, the genes that carry out its instructions, rather than KRAS itself.”About 30 percent of lung adenocarcinomas have mutations in KRAS, which amounts to nearly 30,000 of all patients diagnosed with lung cancer each year in the United States,” says the study’s senior author, David Barbie, MD, of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. “That represents the single biggest subset of lung cancer patients, if grouped by the mutations within their tumor cells. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a reliable way at striking at the genetic mechanism that causes these cells to proliferate.”Mutations in KRAS cause cancer cells to grow and divide in a wildly disordered way. The lack of drugs able to block KRAS safely has led investigators to look for ways of stifling its effects “downstream” — by interfering with the signals it sends to other genes.Barbie was studying one of these signaling pathways, which involves TBK1, a protein active in the immune system. He conducted a search of scientific literature to see if there are any compounds capable of blocking this protein. One study stated, deep in the footnotes, that a drug known as CYT387 — already being tested as a treatment for the bone marrow disorder myelofibrosis — is also active against the TBK1 protein.Barbie and his colleagues tested CYT387 in laboratory samples of lung adenocarcinoma cells and found it to be a potent inhibitor of TBK1 and, as a bonus, an effective suppressor of cytokines, proteins that congregate in the tissue around tumors and help cancer cells survive and spread to other parts of the body. Animal studies produced similarly encouraging results.Barbie and study co-senior investigator Kwok-Kin Wong, MD, PhD, of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber next ran tests in more aggressive lung adenocarcinomas, which, in addition to having mutations in KRAS, also had mutations in the key gene p53. The investigators tested two drugs in tandem against these tumor samples: CYT387 and AZD6244, which inhibits MEK, another downstream protein of KRAS. Neither drug had much of an effect by itself; together, they formed a potent combination against the tumors, both in laboratory cell samples and in animals with the disease.”Cytokines play a key role in tumor survival and spread in cells with KRAS mutations,” Barbie states, “so blocking cytokine signaling can deprive cancer cells of a critical survival strategy. …

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Concerned about the health risk of soda?

Last week, Consumer Reports released a study on the levels of a caramel coloring agent known as 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) in many popular, carbonated beverages. The report used phrases such as “health risk” and “potential carcinogen,” leaving many wondering whether their favorite sodas should be discarded because of a cancer risk. This is a question that toxicologists can help answer.”Our work as toxicologists is to help conduct and interpret the findings of a variety of studies that evaluate the potential hazard of natural products, environmental chemicals, and drugs to provide people with the information necessary to make informed, personal decisions,” says Lois D. Lehman-McKeeman, PhD, ATS, 2013-2014 President of the Society of Toxicology.There have been many toxicological studies of 4-MEI over the years, but focusing on the study conducted by the National Toxicology Program cited in the Consumer Reports article, there are some significant details of how the study was conducted that are important toxicologically and for understanding the results.4-MEI was administered to both mice and rats over their two-year lives through their food, so the exposure to the chemical was oral or the same as exposure would be in humans by drinking carbonated beverages. Different levels, or doses, of 4-MEI were tested. A basic tenant of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. The level at which exposure occurs is crucial to understanding if a chemical poses a risk to health. Likewise, the greater the dose, the greater or more likely the adverse affect. The rats in the study exposed to only the highest doses of 4-MEI (not the minimal or moderate doses) experienced a higher incidence of leukemia than the control group. The mice, though, showed no such result. …

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Evolution is not a one-way road towards complexity

Oct. 18, 2013 — There are still a lot of unanswered questions about mollusks, e.g. snails, slugs and mussels. The research group of Andreas Wanninger, Head of the Department of Integrative Zoology of the University of Vienna, took a detailed look at the development of cryptic worms. The larvae of the “wirenia argentea” hold a much more complex muscular architecture than their adults — they remodel during their metamorphosis. That’s a clue that the ancestors had a highly complex muscular bodyplan. Their findings are published in the current issue of the scientific journal Current Biology.With over 200,000 species described, the Mollusca — soft-bodies animals that, among others, include snails, slugs, mussels, and cephalopods — constitutes one of the most species-rich animal phyla. What makes them particularly interesting for evolutionary studies, however, is not the sheer number of their representatives, but rather their vast variety of body morphologies they exhibit. Ever since they have been unambiguously assigned to the phylum, a group of worm-like, shell-less mollusks whose body is entirely covered by spicules — the Aplacophora (“non-shell-bearers,” usually small animals in the mm-range that inhabit the seafloors from a few meters to abyssal depths) has been hotly debated as being the group of today’s living mollusks that most closely resembles the last common ancestor to all mollusks.However, new studies on the development of a typical aplacophoran (Wirenia argentea, a species that was collected in 200 m depth off the coast of Bergen, Norway) tell a different story. Although their adult, worm-like body appears rather simple (hence the traditional assumption that they may constitute a basal molluscan group), their small, 0.1 to 0.3mm long larvae undergo a stage in which they show an extremely complex muscular architecture which is largely lost and remodeled during metamorphosis to become the simple muscular arrangement of the adult animal. …

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Brain scans show unusual activity in retired American football players

Oct. 17, 2013 — A new study has discovered profound abnormalities in brain activity in a group of retired American football players.Although the former players in the study were not diagnosed with any neurological condition, brain imaging tests revealed unusual activity that correlated with how many times they had left the field with a head injury during their careers.Previous research has found that former American football players experience higher rates of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The new findings, published in Scientific Reports, suggest that players also face a risk of subtle neurological deficits that don’t show up on normal clinical tests.The study involved 13 former National Football League (NFL) professionals who believed they were suffering from neurological problems affecting their everyday lives as a consequence of their careers.The former players and 60 healthy volunteers were given a test that involved rearranging coloured balls in a series of tubes in as few steps as possible. Their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they did the test.The NFL group performed worse on the test than the healthy volunteers, but the difference was modest. More strikingly, the scans showed unusual patterns of brain activity in the frontal lobe. The difference between the two groups was so marked that a computer programme learned to distinguish NFL alumni and controls at close to 90 per cent accuracy based just on their frontal lobe activation patterns.”The NFL alumni showed some of the most pronounced abnormalities in brain activity that I have ever seen, and I have processed a lot of patient data sets in the past,” said Dr Adam Hampshire, lead author of the study, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London.The frontal lobe is responsible for executive functions: higher-order brain activity that regulates other cognitive processes. The researchers think the differences seen in this study reflect deficits in executive function that might affect the person’s ability to plan and organise their everyday lives.”The critical fact is that the level of brain abnormality correlates strongly with the measure of head impacts of great enough severity to warrant being taken out of play. This means that it is highly likely that damage caused by blows to the head accumulate towards an executive impairment in later life.”Dr Hampshire and his colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, Canada suggest that fMRI could be used to reveal potential neurological problems in American football players that aren’t picked up by standard clinical tests. Brain imaging results could be useful to retired players who are negotiating compensation for neurological problems that may be related to their careers. Players could also be scanned each season to detect problems early.The findings also highlight the inadequacy of standard cognitive tests for detecting certain types of behavioural deficit.”Researchers have put a lot of time into developing tests to pick up on executive dysfunction, but none of them work at all well. …

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Dr. David Nutt on Alcohol

Rebutting industry myths.A couple of years ago, the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, known as EuroCare, put together a brochure addressing the common messages the liquor industry attempts to drive home through its heavy spending on advertising. The messages are not just designed to sell product, but also to influence alcohol policy at the political level. According to EuroCare, the “industry”—the alcohol and tobacco companies—“has traditionally worked closely together, sharing information and concerns about regulation. They have used similar arguments to defend their products in order to prevent or delay restrictions being placed on them.”I wrote a blog post on EuroCare’s list of alcohol untruths called “7 Myths the Alcohol Industry Wants You to Believe.” Here they are:Message 1: Consuming alcohol is normal, common, healthy, …

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Is the Outlawing of Psychoactive Drugs Tantamount to Scientific ‘Censorship’?

Is the Outlawing of Psychoactive Drugs Tantamount to Scientific ‘Censorship’?October 4th 2013 | By: Staff | Posted In: Drugs and Alcohol, Policy and RegulationThree researchers are protesting the current laws on psychoactive drugs such as marijuana and “magic” mushrooms. These three researchers – David Nutt and Leslie King from Imperial College, London, and David Nichols from the University of North Carolina – believe that the current laws are akin to scientific censorship and say that the unfortunate consequence of laws restricting psychoactive drugs is that research studies that could be conducted to find a valid use in treating anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress are now impossible.Propagators of this view on the current psychoactive law say that the legal prescription drugs often used to treat these …

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Carbon’s new champion: Carbyne, a simple chain of carbon atoms, strongest material of all?

Oct. 9, 2013 — Carbyne will be the strongest of a new class of microscopic materials if and when anyone can make it in bulk.If they do, they’ll find carbyne nanorods or nanoropes have a host of remarkable and useful properties, as described in a new paper by Rice University theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson and his group. The paper appears this week in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.Carbyne is a chain of carbon atoms held together by either double or alternating single and triple atomic bonds. That makes it a true one-dimensional material, unlike atom-thin sheets of graphene that have a top and a bottom or hollow nanotubes that have an inside and outside.According to the portrait drawn from calculations by Yakobson and his group:* Carbyne’s tensile strength — the ability to withstand stretching — surpasses “that of any other known material” and is double that of graphene. (Scientists had already calculated it would take an elephant on a pencil to break through a sheet of graphene.)* It has twice the tensile stiffness of graphene and carbon nanotubes and nearly three times that of diamond.* Stretching carbyne as little as 10 percent alters its electronic band gap significantly.* If outfitted with molecular handles at the ends, it can also be twisted to alter its band gap. With a 90-degree end-to-end rotation, it becomes a magnetic semiconductor.* Carbyne chains can take on side molecules that may make the chains suitable for energy storage.* The material is stable at room temperature, largely resisting crosslinks with nearby chains.That’s a remarkable set of qualities for a simple string of carbon atoms, Yakobson said.”You could look at it as an ultimately thin graphene ribbon, reduced to just one atom, or an ultimately thin nanotube,” he said. It could be useful for nanomechanical systems, in spintronic devices, as sensors, as strong and light materials for mechanical applications or for energy storage.”Regardless of the applications,” he said, “academically, it’s very exciting to know the strongest possible assembly of atoms.”Based on the calculations, he said carbyne might be the highest energy state for stable carbon. “People usually look for what is called the ‘ground state,’ the lowest possible energy configuration for atoms,” Yakobson said. “For carbon, that would be graphite, followed by diamond, then nanotubes, then fullerenes. But nobody asks about the highest energy configuration. …

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Simple steps may identify patients that hold onto excess sodium

Sep. 12, 2013 — Getting a second urine sample and blood pressure measure as patients head out of the doctor’s office appears an efficient way to identify those whose health may be in jeopardy because their bodies hold onto too much sodium, researchers report.”We want to prove that you can easily and efficiently identify these patients,” said Evan A. Mulloy, a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University. “We want this to become a part of our routine standard of care.”Using the simple method, researchers looked at 19, 10-19 year-olds seeing a pediatric nephrologist. They found eight were sodium retainers and seven of these were already hypertensive. “Eight kids were holding onto sodium and the amounts ranged anywhere from a few milligrams to hundreds of milligrams over the course of a doctor’s visit,” Mulloy said.The findings are featured as a poster presentation at the American Heart Association’s High Blood Pressure Research 2013 Scientific Sessions Sept. 11-14 in New Orleans.About 1 in 3 blacks and 1 in 5 whites retain too much sodium following stress, driving fluid retention and blood pressure levels up, said Dr. Gregory A. Harshfield, a hypertension researcher who directs the Georgia Prevention Center at GRU’s Institute of Public and Preventive Health.Years ago, Harshfield identified this impaired ability in some blacks and wanted to take the next logical step: finding an easy, inexpensive way to identify these individuals. His studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, have already shown sodium retainers respond well to angiotensin receptor blockers. …

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