Experiences at every stage of life contribute to cognitive abilities in old age

Early life experiences, such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy, may have greater influence on the risk of cognitive impairment late in life than such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity, a large study by researchers with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the University of Victoria, Canada, has found.”Declining cognitive function in older adults is a major personal and public health concern,” said Bruce Reed professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.”But not all people lose cognitive function, and understanding the remarkable variability in cognitive trajectories as people age is of critical importance for prevention, treatment and planning to promote successful cognitive aging and minimize problems associated with cognitive decline.”The study, “Life Experiences and Demographic Influences on Cognitive Function in Older Adults,” is published online in Neuropsychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. It is one of the first comprehensive examinations of the multiple influences of varied demographic factors early in life and their relationship to cognitive aging.The research was conducted in a group of over 300 diverse men and women who spoke either English or Spanish. They were recruited from senior citizen social, recreational and residential centers, as well as churches and health-care settings. At the time of recruitment, all study participants were 60 or older, and had no major psychiatric illnesses or life threatening medical illnesses. Participants were Caucasian, African-American or Hispanic.The extensive testing included multidisciplinary diagnostic evaluations through the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center in either English or Spanish, which permitted comparisons across a diverse cohort of participants.Consistent with previous research, the study found that non-Latino Caucasians scored 20 to 25 percent higher on tests of semantic memory (general knowledge) and 13 to 15 percent higher on tests of executive functioning compared to the other ethnic groups. However, ethnic differences in executive functioning disappeared and differences in semantic memory were reduced by 20 to 30 percent when group differences in childhood socioeconomic status, adult literacy and extent of physical activity during adulthood were considered.”This study is unusual in that it examines how many different life experiences affect cognitive decline in late life,” said Dan Mungas, professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.”It shows that variables like ethnicity and years of education that influence cognitive test scores in a single evaluation are not associated with rate of cognitive decline, but that specific life experiences like level of reading attainment and intellectually stimulating activities are predictive of the rate of late-life cognitive decline. This suggests that intellectual stimulation throughout the life span can reduce cognitive decline in old age.”Regardless of ethnicity, advanced age and apolipoprotein-E (APOE genotype) were associated with increased cognitive decline over an average of four years that participants were followed. APOE is the largest known genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s. Less decline was experienced by persons who reported more engagement in recreational activities in late life and who maintained their levels of activity engagement from middle age to old age. Single-word reading — the ability to decode a word on sight, which often is considered an indication of quality of educational experience — was also associated with less cognitive decline, a finding that was true for both English and Spanish readers, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. …

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Two breath compounds could be associated with larynx cancer

Participants exhaled into tedlar bags after fasting for more than eight hours.Credit: SINC[Click to enlarge image]Researchers at the Rey Juan Carlos University and the Alcorcn Hospital (Madrid) have compared the volatile substances exhaled by eleven people with cancer of larynx, with those of another twenty healthy people. The results show that the concentrations of certain molecules, mainly ethanol and 2-butanone, are higher in individuals with carcinoma, therefore they act as potential markers of the disease.Human breath contains thousands of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and some of them can be used as non-invasive biomarkers for various types of head and neck cancers as well as cancer of the larynx.This was shown in the experiment carried out by scientists from the Rey Juan Carlos University (URJC) with 31 volunteers: 20 healthy subjects (half of which are smokers) and 11 with cancer of the larynx in various phases of the disease and who are being treated in the Alcorcn Hospital in Madrid.The results, published in the journal Chromatographia, reveal that the air exhaled by the more seriously ill patients – in a stage called T3 – contains different concentrations of seven compounds compared with the levels of healthy people or even those with a less developed tumour (T1).Specifically, in the graphics of individuals with advanced cancer, the peaks that represent ethanol (C2H6O) and 2-butanone (C4H8O) are particularly significant. These two compounds therefore become potential markers of laryngeal carcinoma.”At the moment it is still a preliminary study and a wider sample has to be obtained,” Rafael Garca, professor of Chemical Engineering at the URJC and co-author of the study told SINC, “but it is a step in the right direction, an alternative with regard to identifying biomarkers, not only for this type of cancer but for other more prevalent and serious ones such as lung cancer, where early detection is key”.As part of the experiment, the researchers asked the participants to breathe into tedlar bags after fasting for at least eight hours so there was no leftover food or drink on their breath.The samples were then analysed with solid phase micro-extraction, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry techniques, which enable very small amounts of a substance to be separated and identified. The concentrations are around or slightly above the equipment’s detection limits (40 nanograms/mL), which is equivalent to 40 ppb or parts per billion.The ultimate aim of the research is to “create an electronic nose that can be used in hospitals and health centres for the early detection of these types of diseases,” concluded Rafael Garca. This team, together with other Spanish and foreign research groups, is working hard to develop sensors capable of detecting diseases through breath analysis.Head and neck cancers represent between 5% and 10% of all malignant tumours currently diagnosed in Spain. Every year nearly half a million new cases are detected worldwide, mainly attributed to tobacco and alcohol use and approximately 90% are laryngeal cancer. The study also identified four markers in the exhaled breath that are typical of smokers, such as benzene and furfural.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Plataforma SINC. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.Journal Reference:Rafael A. Garca, Victoria Morales, Sergio Martn, Estela Vilches, Adolfo Toledano. Volatile Organic Compounds Analysis in Breath Air in Healthy Volunteers and Patients Suffering Epidermoid Laryngeal Carcinomas. …

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Increasing longevity of seeds with genetic engineering

A study developed by researchers of the Institute for Plant Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMCP), a joint center of the Universitat Politcnica de Valncia and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), in collaboration with the Unit for Plant Genomics Research of Evry, France (URGV, in French) has discovered a new way of improving the longevity of plant seeds using genetic engineering. Plant Physiology magazine has published the research results.The key is the overexpression of the ATHB25 gene. This gene encodes a protein that regulates gene expression, producing a new mutant that gives the seed new properties. Researchers have proven that this mutant has more gibberellin -the hormone that promotes plant growth-, which means the seed coat is reinforced as well. “The seed coat is responsible for preventing oxygen from entering the seed; the increase in gibberellin strengthens it and this leads to a more durable and longer lasting seed,” explains Eduardo Bueso, researcher at the IBMCP (UPV-CSIC).This mechanism is new, as tolerance to stresses such as aging has always been associated with another hormone, abscisic acid, which regulates defenses based on proteins and small protective molecules, instead of producing the growth of structures like gibberellin does.The study has been made on the experimental model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a species that presents great advantages for molecular biology research. Researchers of the IBMCP traced half a million seeds, related to one hundred thousand lines of Arabidopsis mutated by T-DNA insertion, using the natural system of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. “Finally, we analyzed four mutants in the study and we proved the impact on the seed longevity when the overexpression of the ATHB25 gene is introduced,” states Ramn Serrano, researcher at the IBMCP.Researchers compared the longevity of genetically modified Arabidopsis seeds and seeds which were not modified. In order to do this, they preserved them for thirty months under specific conditions of room temperature and humidity. After thirty months, only 20% of the control plants germinated again, whereas almost the all of the modified plants (90%) began the germination process again.Researchers of the IBMCP are now trying to improve the longevity of different species that are of agronomical interest, such as tomatoes or wheat.Biodiversity and benefits for farmersThis discovery is particularly significant for the conservation of biodiversity, preserving seed species and, especially, for farmers.”In the past, a lot of different plant species were cultivated, but many of them are dissapearing because high performance crops have now become a priority. Seed banks were created in order to guarantee the conservation of species, but they require a periodical regeneration of the seeds. …

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Fish biomass in the ocean may be 10 times higher than estimated: Stock of mesopelagic fish changes from 1,000 to 10,000 million tons

With a stock estimated at 1,000 million tons so far, mesopelagic fish dominate the total biomass of fish in the ocean. However, a team of researchers with the participation of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has found that their abundance could be at least 10 times higher. The results, published in Nature Communications journal, are based on the acoustic observations conducted during the circumnavigation of the Malaspina Expedition.Mesopelagic fishes, such as lantern fishes (Myctophidae) and cyclothonids (Gonostomatidae), live in the twilight zone of the ocean, between 200 and 1,000 meters deep. They are the most numerous vertebrates of the biosphere, but also the great unknowns of the open ocean, since there are gaps in the knowledge of their biology, ecology, adaptation and global biomass.During the 32,000 nautical miles traveled during the circumnavigation, the researchers of the Malaspina Expedition (a project led by CSIC researcher Carlos Duarte) took measurements between 40N and 40S, from 200 to 1,000 meters deep, during the day.Duarte states: “Malaspina has provided us the unique opportunity to assess the stock of mesopelagic fish in the ocean. Until now we only had the data provided by trawling. It has recently been discovered that these fishes are able to detect the nets and run, which turns trawling into a biased tool when it comes to count its biomass.”Transport of organic carbonXabier Irigoyen, researcher from AZTI-Tecnalia and KAUST (Saudi Arabia) and head of this research, states: “The fact that the biomass of mesopelagic fish (and therefore also the total biomass of fishes) is at least 10 times higher than previously thought, has significant implications in the understanding of carbon fluxes in the ocean and the operation of which, so far, we considered ocean deserts.”Mesopelagic fish come up at night to the upper layers of the ocean to feed, whereas they go back down during the day in order to avoid being detected by their predators. This behaviour speeds up the transport of organic matter into the ocean, the engine of the biological pump that removes CO2 from the atmosphere, because instead of slowly sinking from the surface, it is rapidly transported to 500 and 700 meters deep and released in the form of feces.Irigoyen adds: “Mesopelagic fish accelerate the flux for actively transporting organic matter from the upper layers of the water column, where most of the organic carbon coming from the flow of sedimentary particles is lost. Their role in the biogeochemical cycles of ocean ecosystems and global ocean has to be reconsidered, as it is likely that they are breathing between 1% and 10% of the primary production in deep waters.”According to researchers, the excretion of material from the surface could partly explain the unexpected microbial respiration registered in these deep layers of the ocean. Mesopelagic fishes would act therefore as a link between plankton and top predators, and they would have a key role in reducing the oxygen from the depths of the open ocean.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Genetically modified tobacco plants are viable for producing biofuels

Oct. 14, 2013 — In her PhD thesis Ruth Sanz-Barrio, an agricultural engineer of the NUP/UPNA-Public University of Navarre and researcher at the Institute of Biotechnology (mixed centre of the CSIC-Spanish National Research Council, Public University of Navarre and the Government of Navarre), has demonstrated, for the first time, the viability of using specific tobacco proteins (known as thioredoxins) as biotechnological tools in plants. Specifically, she has managed to increase the amount of starch produced in the tobacco leaves by 700% and fermentable sugars by 500%. “We believe that these genetically modified plants,” she explained, “could be a good alternative to food crops for producing biofuels, and could provide an outlet for the tobacco-producing areas in our country that see their future in jeopardy owing to the discontinuing of European grants for this crop.”Thioredoxins (Trxs) are small proteins present in most living organisms. In the course of her research Ruth Sanz demonstrated the capacity of the thioredoxins f and m in tobacco as biotechnological tools not only to increase the starch content in the plant but also to increase the production of proteins like human albumin. “For some time Trxs have been known to have a regulating function in living organisms, but in the thesis we have shown that they can also act by helping other proteins to fold and structure themselves so that they become functional.”Human albumin is the most widely used intravenous protein in the world for therapeutic purposes. It is used to stabilize blood volume and prevent the risk of infarction, and its application in operating theatres is almost a daily occurrence. It is also used in burns, surgical operations, haemorrhages, or when the patient is undernourished or dehydrated, and in the case of chronic infections and renal or hepatic diseases.Although commercial albumin is extracted from blood, the lack of a sufficient volume in reserve has prompted many researchers to seek new formulas for obtaining this protein on a large scale economically and safely. “We have come up with an easier, cheaper procedure for producing it in the tobacco plant and extracting it. By fusing the genes encoding the Trxs f or m, we increased the amount of recombinant protein (the albumin, in this case). …

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Changes in language and word use reflect our shifting values

Aug. 7, 2013 — A new UCLA analysis of words used in more than 1.5 million American and British books published between 1800 and 2000 shows how our cultural values have changed.The increase or decrease in the use of certain words over the past two centuries — a period marked by growing urbanization, greater reliance on technology and the widespread availability of formal education — reveals how human psychology has evolved in response to major historical shifts, said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and the author of the study.For instance, the words “choose” and “get” rose significantly in frequency between 1800 and 2000, while “obliged” and “give” decreased significantly over these two centuries. “Choose” and “get” indicate “the individualism and materialistic values that are adaptive in wealthier urban settings,” while “obliged” and “give” “reflect the social responsibilities that are adaptive in rural settings,” Greenfield said.Usage of “get” declined between 1940 and the 1960s before rising again in the 1970s, perhaps reflecting a decline in self-interest during World War II and the civil rights movement, she noted.Greenfield also observed a gradual rise in the use of “feel” and a decline in the use of “act,” suggesting a turn toward inner mental life and away from outward behavior. She found a growing focus on the self, with the use of “child,” “unique,” “individual” and “self” all increasing from 1800 to 2000.Over the two centuries, the importance of obedience to authority, social relationships and religion in everyday life seems to have waned, as reflected in the decline of “obedience,” “authority,” “belong” and “pray.””This research shows that there has been a two-century-long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment,” Greenfield said. “The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society.”For her research, which appears Aug. 8 in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science (with print publication to follow), Greenfield used Google’s Ngram Viewer, a publicly available tool that can count word frequencies in a million books in less than a second. She studied a wide variety of books, including novels, non-fiction publications and textbooks.To assess culture-wide psychological change, Greenfield examined the frequencies of specific words in approximately 1,160,000 books published in the United States.Drawing on her theory of social change and human development, she hypothesized that the usage of specific words would wax and wane as a reflection of psychological adaptation to sociocultural change. The data supported her hypothesis.The same patterns in word usage also emerged in approximately 350,000 books published in the United Kingdom over the last 200 years. She was able to replicate all findings using synonyms for each target word in the both the U.S. and U.K. …

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Not all reading disabilities are dyslexia: Lesser-known reading disorder can be easily missed

June 19, 2013 — A common reading disorder goes undiagnosed until it becomes problematic, according to the results of five years of study by researchers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development in collaboration with the Kennedy Krieger Institute/Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Results of the study were recently published online in the journal Brain Connectivity.Dyslexia, a reading disorder in which a child confuses letters and struggles with sounding out words, has been the focus of much reading research. But that’s not the case with the lesser known disorder Specific Reading Comprehension Deficits or S-RCD, in which a child reads successfully but does not sufficiently comprehend the meaning of the words, according to lead investigator Laurie Cutting, Patricia and Rodes Hart Chair at Peabody.”S-RCD is like this: I can read Spanish, because I know what sounds the letters make and how the words are pronounced, but I couldn’t tell you what the words actually mean,” Cutting said. “When a child is a good reader, it’s assumed their comprehension is on track. But 3 to 10 percent of those children don’t understand most of what they’re reading. By the time the problem is recognized, often closer to third or fourth grade, the disorder is disrupting their learning process.”Researchers have been able to pinpoint brain activity and understand its role in dyslexia, but no functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI studies, until now, have examined the neurobiological profile of those who exhibit poor reading comprehension despite intact word-level abilities.Neuroimaging of children showed that the brain function of those with S-RCD while reading is quite different and distinct from those with dyslexia. Those with dyslexia exhibited abnormalities in a specific region in the occipital-temporal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with successfully recognizing words on a page. But those with S-RCD did not show abnormalities in this region, instead showing specific abnormalities in regions typically associated with memory.”It may be that these individuals have a whole different neurobiological signature associated with how they read that is not efficient for supporting comprehension,” Cutting said. “We want to understand the different systems that support reading and see which ones help different types of difficulties, and how we can target the cognitive systems that support those skills.”The study, an ongoing 10-year effort supported by National Institutes of Health grant No. M01-RR000052, has enrolled more than 300 children to date.

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New resistance mechanism to chemotherapy in breast and ovarian cancer

June 18, 2013 — It is estimated that between 5% and 10% of breast and ovarian cancers are familial in origin, which is to say that these tumours are attributable to inherited mutations from the parents in genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. In patients with these mutations, PARP inhibitors, which are currently in clinical trials, have shown encouraging results that make them a new option for personalised cancer treatment, an alternative to standard chemotherapy. Nevertheless, the latest studies indicate that a fraction of these patients generate resistance to the drug and, therefore, stop responding to the new treatment.The team led by Spanish National Cancer Research Centre researcher Óscar Fernández-Capetillo, head of the Genomic Instability Group, together with researchers from the National Cancer Institute in the US, have participated in a study that describes the causes that explain why tumours with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations stop responding to PARP inhibitor drugs.”PARP inhibitors are only toxic in tumours that have an impaired DNA repair mechanism, such as those that contain BRCA1/2 mutations” says María Nieto-Soler, a researcher from Fernández-Capetillo’s team.According to the researchers, the problem arises when these tumours, in addition to having BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 mutations, also contain secondary mutations in other proteins such as 53BP1 or PTIP, whose function is to restrain DNA repair. In these cases, the mutations mutually compensate for each other, the tumour cells recover the ability to repair their DNA and the drug stops working.Fernández-Capetillo says: “This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that secondary mutations can make tumours resistant when faced with specific treatments like, in this case, PARP inhibitors.”When the researchers compared different treatments, they observed that for those tumours with BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 mutations that also presented mutations in 53BP1 or PTIP, standard treatment with cisplatin was more efficient than personalised therapy.”These data indicate that only patients containing mutations in BRCA1 and/or BRCA2, but not in the secondary genes we have described, would be candidates for an effective personalised therapy with PARP inhibitors,” explains Fernández-Capetillo, concluding that: “Our results suggest that 53BP1 and PTIP genes would need to be evaluated in patients with familial breast and ovarian cancer when deficiencies in the BRCA genes were present before deciding on their treatment.”In this context, researchers intend to warn healthcare providers in personalised medicine that the challenge, in addition to the search for markers of drug sensitivity for new pharmacological compounds, also encompasses the search for secondary resistance markers. The aim would be to bring about significant improvements in treatment outcomes.

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Austerity cuts to Spanish healthcare system are ‘putting lives at risk’, experts say

June 13, 2013 — A series of austerity reforms made by the Spanish government could lead to the effective dismantling of large parts of the country’s healthcare system, with potentially detrimental effects on the health of the Spanish people, according to new research published in BMJ.National budget cuts of 13.65% (€365m) and regional budget cuts of up to 10% to health and social care services in 2012 have coincided with increased demands on the health system, particularly affecting the elderly, disabled and those with poor mental health. The authors, led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, also highlight the increase in depression, alcohol related disorders and suicides in Spain since the financial crisis hit and unemployment increased.Spain already has one of the lowest public expenditures on healthcare for its GDP in the European Union. Further cuts of €1108m will be made to the dependency fund for elderly and disabled people in 2013, putting these vulnerable people even more at risk.Key changes made by the Spanish government include excluding undocumented immigrants from accessing free healthcare services and increasing co-payments that patients must make for extra treatments such as drugs, prosthetics, and some ambulance trips. Authorities with devolved powers in 17 regions across Spain have also been required to make further cuts. In Madrid and Catalonia this has led to a move towards privatisation of hospitals, increases in waiting times, cutbacks in emergency services and fewer surgical procedures.Lead author Dr Helena Legido-Quigley, Lecturer in Global Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Our analysis is the first to look at the overall impact of austerity measures in Spain on the healthcare system and the findings are of great concern. Many of the measures taken to save money do not have a strong evidence-base. We are seeing detrimental effects on the health of the Spanish people and, if no corrective measures are implemented, this could worsen with the risk of increases in HIV and tuberculosis — as we have seen in Greece where healthcare services have had severe cuts­ — as well as the risk of a rise in drug resistance and spread of disease.”As part of the analysis, researchers conducted interviews with 34 doctors and nurses across Catalonia. Many reported feeling ‘shocked’, ‘numbed’ and ‘disillusioned’ about the cuts and expressed fears that ‘the cuts are going to kill people’. Some also raised concerns around the ‘clear intention to privatise and… make money on health and social services’ and made allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest.Co-author Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “For five years, policies to address the financial crisis have focussed almost entirely on economic indicators. …

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By trying it all, predatory sea slug learns what not to eat

June 6, 2013 — Researchers have found that a type of predatory sea slug that usually isn’t picky when it comes to what it eats has more complex cognitive abilities than previously thought, allowing it to learn the warning cues of dangerous prey and thereby avoid them in the future.The research appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology.Pleurobranchaea californica is a deep-water species of sea slug found off the west coast of the United States. It has a relatively simple neural circuitry and set of behaviors. It is a generalist feeder, meaning, as University of Illinois professor of molecular and integrative physiology and leader of the study Rhanor Gillette put it, that members of this species “seem to try anything once.”Another sea slug species, Flabellina iodinea, commonly known as the Spanish shawl because of the orange outgrowths called cerata that cover its purple back, also lives off the west coast. Unlike Pleurobranchaea, however, the Spanish shawl eats only one type of food, an animal called Eudendrium ramosum. According to Gillette, the Spanish shawl digests the Eudendrium’s entire body except for its embryonic, developing stinging cells. The Spanish shawl instead transports these stinging cells to its own cerata where they mature, thereby co-opting its victim’s body parts for its own defense.The story of Gillette’s Pleurobranchaea-Flabellina research began with a happy accident that involved showing a lab visitor Pleurobranchaea’s penchant for predation.”I had a Pleurobranchaea in a small aquarium that we were about to do a physiological experiment with, and my supplier from Monterey had just sent me these beautiful Spanish shawls,” Gillette said. “So I said to the visitor, ‘Would you like to see Pleurobranchaea eat another animal?'”Gillette placed the Spanish shawl into the aquarium. The Pleurobranchaea approached, smelled, and bit the purple and orange newcomer. However, the Flabellina’s cerata stung the Pleurobranchaea, the Spanish shawl was rejected and left to do its typical “flamenco dance of escape,” and Pleurobranchaea also managed to escape with an avoidance turn.Some minutes later, his curiosity piqued, Gillette placed the Spanish shawl back into the aquarium with the Pleurobranchaea. Rather than try to eat the Spanish shawl a second time, the Pleurobranchaea immediately started its avoidance turn.”I had never seen that before! …

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