Medical Breakthrough – Gizmocrazed – Future Technology News Artificial Intelligence, Medical Breakthroughs, Virtual Reality Thu, 21 Jun 2018 05:34:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Blood At A Crime Scene Can Reveal Age of Suspect or Victim Thu, 21 Jun 2018 03:41:00 +0000 Blood At A Crime Scene Can Reveal Age of Suspect or Victim

Investigators working a crime scene have a potential new tool: a field technique that could quickly determine the age of the person who left behind a bloodstain, whether victim or suspect. (Credit: FBI)

There’s a significant gap between the information that real-world forensics teams can glean from a crime scene and what turns up in glamorized tv shows such as “CSI.” Today, however, that gap gets a little smaller: Researchers reveal it’s possible to determine the age of the person based on their blood.

Let’s face it, as impressive as forensic DNA analysis is, it takes weeks or even months to process and even then can’t tell investigators everything about an individual. Other methods of analyzing evidence are available, but are also often time-consuming, destructive and limited in what they can reveal.

What if, however, field teams studying a bloodstain at a crime scene could obtain, within hours, the approximate age of the individual involved? Such knowledge could prove invaluable in narrowing searches for suspects and victims alike, as well as ruling out persons no longer of interest.

Today, a preliminary but promising proof-of-concept study suggests, yeah, they can do that.

Blood Of Ages

Our red blood cells, in particular the structure of the hemoglobin within them, change subtly as we age. Researchers analyzed blood samples from 45 donors using Raman spectroscopy, a non-destructive technique that creates profiles of a substance’s molecular structure and chemical composition.

Distinct patterns emerged for the three groups studied: infants under one year, adolescents ages 11-13 and adults ages 43-68. The method picked the infants’ samples correctly 100 percent of the time, and was able to distinguish between adolescents and adults with 99 percent accuracy.

The study was intended as proof-of-concept only, and came with limitations beyond its relatively small sample size. All the donors, for example, were described by researchers as Caucasian, and, in the adolescent category, all donors were male. The donors were also in good health; in a real world application, factors such as chronic disease, poor fitness and substance abuse can skew results.

Subtle but distinct differences emerge in the structure of red blood cells based on the approximate age of the individual. (Credit: ACS)

Subtle but distinct differences emerge in the structure and composition of red blood cells based on the approximate age of the individual. (Credit:

One More Tool In The Kit

Raman spectroscopy has been used to analyze blood for decades, and this isn’t the first time it’s been applied to crime scene evidence. In 2016, for example, researchers reported on how the method could provide a more accurate timestamp, even within hours, for the age of bloodstains themselves.

Members of today’s team have also reported previously on successful efforts to use the same technique to distinguish an individual’s sex and race from bodily fluids. What’s different about today’s research is that it doesn’t overlap with other tests. Sex and race, for example, can also be determined through DNA analysis, but age cannot.

On its own, today’s finding isn’t as massive as, say, the advent of forensic DNA analysis. But it does point to a potential fast and portable way of narrowing a pool of suspects or victims, making it one more tool available in the 21st century world of crime scene analysis.

The study appears today in ACS Central Science.

Organs Grown to Order Wed, 20 Jun 2018 03:40:55 +0000 Organs Grown to Order

Chimera: A genetically modified mouse embryo successfully grew a beating heart from rat stem cells. (Credit: Salk Institute)

More than 100,000 people in the United States need an organ transplant, but demand always outpaces supply. An average of 20 people in the nation died every day in 2016 because organs were unavailable, and that was despite record annual donations of more than 33,000.

Physicians have proposed many solutions to encourage organ donations, including payment. But scientists are looking elsewhere to ensure a better supply. Thanks to advances in genetic engineering, a new twist on using animals for transplants offers promise. Since the 1960s, a handful of patients have received an animal organ — xenotransplants of everything from a baboon liver to a whole chimpanzee heart. But many patients died because their immune system rejected the transplant.

Attempting to outwit evolution, Hiromitsu Nakauchi, a physician and geneticist at Stanford University, proposed a solution to this immunity problem: Instead of transplanting an animal’s organ, scientists could grow a customized human organ in an animal. By adding a patient’s own stem cells to an engineered animal embryo, Nakauchi and others hoped to grow a new, healthy organ ready for transplant.

Nakauchi was the first to demonstrate that the idea of growing one species’ organ in another species’ body was even possible, first between mice and rats in 2010. Another research group grew human cells in a pig in 2017, offering further proof of principle. Nakauchi recently reviewed his process in the Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology. We talked with him about this promising frontier as well as its many scientific, health and ethical challenges.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In your article, you talk about “mammalian chimeras.” What are those, and how do they relate to your research?

A chimera is an organism with cells from two genetically different individuals. The easiest chimera to understand is somebody with a heart transplant or bone marrow transplant: That patient has somebody else’s cells in their body. So they’re a chimera. My ultimate goal is to make human organs, and for that, we’re first trying to make animal chimeras.

Tell me a bit about that. How exactly does your idea work?

We’re basically mixing human stem cells with an animal embryo and some genetic engineering in between. The idea is that if we know how to control what genes code for, we should be able to generate organs from someone’s genetic blueprints.

About 25 years ago, I started working with hematopoietic stem cells, which are cells that can make all your blood cell types. At the time, they were the only stem cells we knew much about because they were used in bone marrow transplants. I still use them today. I thought if we studied and understood the mechanism of how those cells work, it may be possible to generate organs from a single cell using a patient’s own genetic blueprint.

In bone marrow transplants, the recipient must first have irradiation to remove his or her own hematopoietic stem cells. It’s called myeloablation, and without it, you really cannot ingraft stem cells. It’s like a hotel room: Unless the previous guests leave, and the room is empty, you can’t take any more guests.

So it cleans the slate to make room in the bone marrow for the new blood-forming cells?

Exactly. We still don’t know how it works, honestly, but without irradiation and emptying that so-called niche to create an open space, you really can’t ingraft donor stem cells. It’s quite amazing, and it’s a critical detail for my experiments.

If we just put stem cells into a normal animal embryo, our idea wouldn’t work because there’s no open niche in the embryo — it still has all the genes to make its own organ rather than the other individual’s. So the entire chimera would be a mix of cells from both individuals. But if we genetically modify the embryo so that it can’t make its own kidneys, for example, that will leave a space for the other individual’s genetic information to make the kidneys. That was the idea: Prepare a space for a certain organ in the animal embryo, combine the embryo with human stem cells to form a chimera, let it grow and you get an organ made of cells from the source you want — the patient.

Hiromitsu Nakauchi (Credit: Stanford University)

Hiromitsu Nakauchi (Credit: Stanford University)

In 2010, you implanted rat stem cells into a genetically engineered mouse embryo, and the mouse developed a rat’s pancreas. What did you learn from that experiment?

That was the initial experiment. The pancreas was functional, and those chimeric mice were happy, but the pancreas was mouse-sized; it was too small to transplant back to the rat. It showed organs can be generated in other species but couldn’t yet show they could be transplanted.

So we reversed the process in a later experiment. We injected mouse stem cells into rat embryos. This time we got a rat with a rat-sized mouse pancreas — a huge mouse pancreas. We couldn’t transplant the whole thing. But we could transplant islets, small clusters of cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. We do human-human islet transplants now to treat diabetes patients. We get those islets from people who’ve passed away, but again, the number of islets to transplant is very limited.

So that raises another question: Why can’t we just use organs from people who have died?

We don’t usually transplant from cadavers because the organ tends to be contaminated by bacteria immediately after death. You may know that if a patient is brain dead, heart transplant surgeons will take out the heart while it’s still beating. They don’t wait because the heart will start to deteriorate.

That’s a little shocking. So how do experiments with mice and rats lead to transplants for people?

Those early experiments provided evidence that a developing embryo can grow organs of other species. The organ was generated, useful and a perfect match. There’s no need for immunosuppression or fear of organ rejection because it’s the patient’s own organ. If this applies to humans and sheep or humans and pigs, we should be able to use a sheep embryo environment to grow human organs. Then cut it out and put it into the patient.

Isn’t that a long time to wait for an organ?

Pigs and sheep both grow very fast, so from our estimates, it would take about 10 months or less. It depends on the organ, though. For pancreas islets, it might require something like newborn piglets, whereas for something like a heart, you may have to wait longer.

What are the chances of a bacterial or viral infection?

Inside the animal body, it’s clean. Just like inside our abdomen, or in a uterus, or even in our bloodstream, it should be clean. Otherwise we’d get infected, right?

We do have specific pathogen-free pigs reared in a clean room that are regularly monitored for infections. So, that part is taken care of. Often brought up is the worry about pigs having an endogenous retrovirus, which some people say could activate and infect human cells. But that possibility has been almost denied. I’m not saying there’s no potential danger. There’s always a risk, and we’ll need a risk-benefit balance. But I consider a chance of getting some weird infection very small.

Editor’s note: Pig retroviruses called porcine endogenous retroviruses or PERVs are viruses that previously — maybe millions of years ago — infected pigs and left a bit of their viral DNA in all pigs. Studies have shown some of these viruses can reactivate in petri dish experiments using human cells, raising health concerns for xenotransplants. However, numerous studies looking at the threat of retroviruses infecting people have found no evidence of viral transmission.

What barriers or technical challenges still need to be solved?

A major barrier is doing these experiments in large animals — they’re not like mice and rats. They’re expensive, they can’t breed year-round, we can only use a limited number of them for experiments, and they’re evolutionarily distant from humans. But we now need to show we can generate organs in large animals. That’s the goal and the challenge, and we’ve still not succeeded. That’s my focus now. Once we’ve succeeded, then I’ll turn to the safety issues.

On a more technical side, gene editing technology has developed significantly over the past 10 years, which is great because otherwise using large animals would be impossible. We still need to optimize the culture conditions for human stem cells, though. When we use something like in vitro fertilization to make a sheep or pig embryo, we’d culture it for three or four days before embedding human stem cells. We still don’t know the best culture environment, however, and that’s causing reproducibility issues. We still need to develop that. Otherwise, this is pretty low-tech science.

Schematic shows how scientists might use animals to grow human organs.

If this sort of xenotransplant became practice, would we have animal farms meant specifically for transplants?

Probably not a farm, but we’d need a facility just like a farm. From the outside, it’s just a pig farm, but inside those pigs are human organs — your heart, your liver.

Aren’t there a lot of ethical issues with having farms meant just for harvesting organs? There’s something unsettling about that.

Yes, which is probably why the National Institutes of Health is not funding these studies, and Japanese companies follow government guidelines against making these chimeras. It’s an unpleasant feeling — an icky feeling. But we sacrifice maybe billions of pigs and sheep every year to eat, unless you’re vegetarian or vegan, which I’m sensitive to. If it’s OK to sacrifice animals for food, why not use a small part of those animals to save somebody’s life? I know many patients with a very low quality of life because of organ failures, diabetes, or complications from immunosuppressants after a transplant. Knowing these people as a medical doctor, I think this research is rational.

People have also talked about trying this in non-human primates. Is that really under consideration?

The idea is there, and I’m almost 100 percent certain we could make human organs in, say, a chimpanzee because we’re closely related. But it’s not easy because they’re not like mice and rats. They have very particular reproductive seasons and mate choices, it’s difficult to prepare a surrogate mother, and then it takes years for them to grow to a certain size.

And of course, there are the ethical questions. That’s an animal that looks somewhat human. That’s scary. I don’t like it. Unless it’s a kidney, which we could take one of, we’d have to sacrifice those chimps. But what are you going to do with a chimp with one kidney? We’d need to keep it, and that’s very expensive. So overall, it doesn’t really make sense. It’s not very practical.

How long until we might see this option for patients?

Five years ago, I thought we might be able to generate organs in pigs rather soon. But after doing some preliminary experiments, the genetic distance between these species and humans is too large. It’s not as simple as mice and rats, which diverged roughly 21 million years ago. But sheep and humans or pigs and humans separated about 94 million years ago. That makes it more challenging, and we don’t really know the factors hindering it; it could be a cell receptor, a ligand, cell adhesion molecules or something in the cell cycle. We don’t know.

How do people generally react to your work?

People initially have an icky feeling. But once I explain what we’re trying to do and the results we’re getting, they usually understand and become supportive, except for hardcore animal activists. I think people need to understand the benefits and potential risks of what we’re trying to do. Then people will understand better, and we’ll get more support, I hope.

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 25 to correct two points. The 2010 experiment by Hiromitsu Nakauchi involved induced pluripotent stem cells generated from rat skin cells, not pancreas cells, as the original story stated. Guidelines against developing chimeras in Japan were put in place by the government, not by companies.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

How Can a Baby Have 3 Parents? Sat, 16 Jun 2018 03:40:58 +0000 How Can a Baby Have 3 Parents?

(Credit: Shutterstock)

It seems impossible, right? We have been taught from the time we were young that babies are made when a sperm and an egg come together, and the DNA from these two cells combine to make a unique individual with half the DNA from the mother and half from the father. So how can there be a third person involved in this process?

To understand the idea of three-parent babies, we have to talk about DNA. Most people are familiar with the double helix-style DNA which make up the 23 pairs of chromosomes that are found in the nucleus of every cell in our body. It provides the instructions for building an entire organism and the proteins that drive our existence from conception until death. However, the DNA in the nucleus is not the only kind of DNA required for us to exist. There is also DNA tucked away in little compartments called mitochondria, which are found inside all of the cells in your body.

This is a cross section of an animal cell showing the location of the mitochondria, the brown bean-shaped structures. The 23 chromosomes are housed in the innermost compartment of the cell – the nucleus. (Credit: Shutterstock)

This is a cross section of an animal cell showing the location of the mitochondria, the brown bean-shaped structures. The 23 chromosomes are housed in the innermost compartment of the cell – the nucleus. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Remember the mitochondria? Dig deep back to middle or high school biology class. It was that bean-shaped organelle often drawn with a squiggly line on it and called the powerhouse of the cell. Each cell in the body, including eggs and sperm, requires energy to carry out all of its functions. Cells without functional mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) are like cars without gas.

This is a cross section of a mitochondrion. These are referred to as the powerhouses of the cell. They contain their own DNA and produce energy for the cell. (Credit: Shutterstock)

This is a cross section of a mitochondrion. These are referred to as the powerhouses of the cell. They contain their own DNA and produce energy for the cell. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Unlike nuclear DNA, mtDNA is not created by the combination of male and female DNA. Instead, mitochondria are only inherited from your mother, meaning that ones that are in the fertilized egg are the ones that will be replicated in every cell of your body during your development and for the rest of your life.

Just like nuclear DNA, mtDNA can have mutations that can lead to very serious, debilitating diseases, and in some cases, infertility for a woman carrying the defective mitochondria. Enter the third parent.

The Third Parent

In 2016, a baby was born to a couple who had struggled with the consequences of mtDNA mutations that cause Leigh syndrome, a progressive neurometabolic disorder. When defective mitochondria of the woman’s egg were replaced with mitochondria from a donor who did not carry the mutation, the resulting child carried DNA from three people: the female nuclear DNA donor, the male nuclear DNA or sperm donor, and the female mitochondria donor. This was the first baby born using this technique.

(Credit: Jennifer Barfield, CC BY-ND)

(Credit: Jennifer Barfield, CC BY-ND)

How to Make a Three-Parent Baby

1) The egg from the mother contains the DNA (yellow circle) and faulty mitochondria (red ovals).

2) The DNA is removed from the mother’s egg using a very small pipette.

3) The DNA is removed from the mitochondrial donor egg leaving behind the healthy mitochondria (green ovals).

4) The DNA from the mother is transferred to the donor egg with the healthy mitochondria.

5) The result is an egg that has the nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from the egg/mitochondria donor, which can then be fertilized with the father’s sperm.

6) As the cells replicate during embryo development, each cell will have the combined mother and father’s DNA in the nucleus of the cells and the egg donor’s mitochondria and associated mtDNA.

Note: Fertilization can occur before or after transfer of DNA to the donor egg. If it happens before then both the mother and the father’s DNA will be transferred to the donor egg after the donor DNA has been removed. If it occurs after, then the egg will be fertilized after the mother’s DNA is transferred into the donor egg, as described here.

This technique, termed mitochondrial replacement, can be thought of like an organ transplant, or rather organelle transplant. However, there are some significant differences that have created concern among legislators, resulting in a ban on mitochondrial replacement in the U.S..

Unlike an organ transplant, the effects of mitochondrial replacement will persist in future generations of offspring if the resulting baby is a female and she chooses to have children – males do not pass on their mitochondria. Also, the replacement will affect every tissue in the body, rather than just one body system, such as the cardiovascular system after a heart transplant.

Even so, these donated mitochondria are naturally occurring and already persisting in our population. They are not genetically engineered or altered in any way. Thus, as long as they are functioning properly, there is no demonstrated risk to the offspring from a health standpoint beyond the naturally occurring risks of spontaneous mutations, though this is a point of debate.

Since 2016, it’s difficult to say how many of these three-parent procedures have been done and how many resulted in successful pregnancies. But with the recent birth of a baby in the Ukraine that involved three parents, many countries are now exploring if and how to use this technology. The ban in the U.S. has halted the use here but other countries have made different decisions; the U.K. has approved it.

Is the Mitochondrial Donor a Parent?

So how much a parent is a woman who donates her mitochondria?

The short answer is not much. More than 99 percent of the proteins in your body are encoded by the DNA in the nucleus of your cells. Traits such as hair color, eye color and height, for example, are all encoded by nuclear DNA, while genes written on mtDNA are primarily related to energy production and metabolism.

Thus three-parent babies will still resemble the men and women whose sperm and egg combined to produce the 23 chromosomes in the nucleus of that first cell. It’s important for people to understand these distinctions as headlines announcing births of three-parent babies will likely continue to surface. Speculation of what it means could run rampant without understanding the underlying science.

The ConversationOne thing is certain: For women who struggle with infertility caused by mutations in their mitochondrial DNA, or have the potential to pass on significant mitochondrial genetic defects, this new technique provides hope that they may one day be able to have a healthy child that is a genetic representation of them and their partner – with a little help from a third party.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dirt Could Help Fight Superbugs Thu, 14 Jun 2018 03:41:32 +0000 Dirt Could Help Fight Superbugs

(Credit: Shutterstock)

About 23,000 Americans die each year due to a bacterial infection resistant to antibiotics. Since 2010, the number of children who have become resistant has increased sevenfold.

In recent years, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics led to the superbug phenomenon, in which bacteria that cause illness and disease become resistant to medicines. That makes it harder to treat conditions like pneumonia and food-related illnesses.

Now, a group of researchers are looking for the next antibiotic — in dirt. A paper published in Nature Wednesday discusses using microorganisms in soil to combat superbugs. Soil bacteria have rarely been explored for use in antibiotic research.

In 2014, soil samples were collected from a meadow at the Angelo Coast Range Reserve in Northern California. Jillian Banfield, a microbiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues examined dirt-dwelling microbes, which produce metabolites, used to develop antibiotic medicines.

The team concluded that microorganisms in dirt have potential in the fight against superbugs. The organisms’ diverse genes can effect secondary metabolite biosynthesis, from which antibiotics are created.

“These organisms may represent a source of natural products that can address needs for new antibiotics and other pharmaceutical compounds,” the authors write.

Besides antibiotics, microbial products also include pigments, alkaloids, and toxins.

When Does Hungry Become Hangry? Wed, 13 Jun 2018 03:41:17 +0000 When Does Hungry Become Hangry?

You’re ready to blow your top – but how much is due to your internal hunger and how much to external annoyances? (Credit: Shutterstock)

Have you ever been grumpy, only to realize that you’re hungry?

Many people feel more irritable, annoyed, or negative when hungry – an experience colloquially called being “hangry.” The idea that hunger affects our feelings and behaviors is widespread – from advertisements to memes and merchandise. But surprisingly little research investigates how feeling hungry transforms into feeling hangry.

Psychologists have traditionally thought of hunger and emotions as separate, with hunger and other physical states as basic drives with different physiological and neural underpinnings from emotions. But growing scientific evidence suggests that your physical states can shape your emotions and cognition in surprising ways.

Prior studies show that hunger itself can influence mood, likely because it activates many of the same bodily systems, like the autonomic nervous system and hormones, that are involved in emotion. For example, when you’re hungry, your body releases a host of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, often associated with stress. The result is that hunger, especially at greater intensity, can make you feel more tense, unpleasant and primed for action – due to how these hormones make you feel.

But is feeling hangry just these hunger-induced feelings or is there more to it? This question inspired the studies that psychologist Kristen Lindquist and I conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill. We wanted to know whether hunger-induced feelings can transform how people experience their emotions and the world around them.

Negative situations set the scene for hanger

An idea in psychology known as affect-as-information theory holds that your mood can temporarily shape how you see the world. In this way, when you’re hungry, you may view things in a more negative light than when you’re not hungry. But here’s the twist.

People are most likely to be guided by their feelings when they’re not paying attention to them. This suggests that people may become hangry when they aren’t actively focused on their internal feelings, but instead wrapped up in the world around them, such as that terrible driver or that customer’s rude comment.

To test whether hungry people are more likely to become hangry in negative situations when they aren’t focused on their feelings, we designed three different studies. In the first two, run online with U.S. adults, we asked people – some hungry, some full – to look at negative, positive and neutral emotional images. Then they saw an ambiguous figure: a Chinese character or pictograph they’d never seen before. We asked participants whether they thought the pictograph meant something pleasant or unpleasant.

Each trial consisted of either a randomly selected negative, positive or neutral emotional image, meant to serve as emotional context, followed by a randomly selected Chinese pictograph, meant to be ambiguous to English speakers. Participants then used their gut feelings to judge whether the ambiguous pictograph meant something unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral. (Credit: Jennifer MacCormack, CC BY-ND)

Each trial consisted of either a randomly selected negative, positive or neutral emotional image, meant to serve as emotional context, followed by a randomly selected Chinese pictograph, meant to be ambiguous to English speakers. Participants then used their gut feelings to judge whether the ambiguous pictograph meant something unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral.
(Credit: Jennifer MacCormack, CC BY-ND)

Hungry people who saw negative images thought the pictographs meant something more unpleasant. However, hungry people’s ratings after positive or neutral emotional pictures were no different than the not-hungry people.

This suggests that the hangry bias doesn’t occur when people experience positive or even neutral situations. Instead, hunger only becomes relevant when people confront negative stimuli or situations. But why would hunger only matter in negative situations?

Affect-as-information theory also suggests that people are more likely to use their feelings as information about the world around them when those feelings match the situation they’re in. Hunger likely only becomes relevant in negative situations because hunger itself produces unpleasant feelings – making it easier to mistake the cause of those feelings to be the negative things around you, rather than your hunger.

Tuning in to your feelings

In the final study, we recreated in the laboratory a frustrating situation to test how hunger and awareness – or lack thereof – might cause hanger.

We assigned two random groups of undergraduate students to fast for at least five hours or eat a full meal before coming to our lab. There we assigned them to write a story that was meant either to direct their attention to emotional information, or to not focus on emotions at all. Then everyone did a long, tedious computer task. At the end of the task, we secretly programmed the computer to “crash.” The researcher blamed the participant for the computer malfunction and told them they’d have to redo the task once it was fixed.

It turned out that hungry people who hadn’t focused on feelings beforehand exhibited more signs of being hangry. They reported feeling more stressed, hateful and other negative emotions and rated the researcher as being more “judgmental,” compared to full individuals and the hungry people who did write about emotions earlier.

These findings suggest that feeling hangry occurs when your hunger-induced negativity gets blamed on the external world around you. You think that person who cut you off on the road is the one who made you angry – not the fact that you’re ravenous. This seems to be a fairly unconscious process: People don’t even realize they’re making these attributions.

Our data suggest that paying attention to feelings may short circuit the hangry bias – and even help reduce hanger once you notice it.

Although these studies provide a valuable glimpse into the ways that physical states, like hunger, can temporarily shape our feelings and behaviors, they are only a first step. For example, our studies only address hunger effects in healthy populations where individuals eat regularly. It would be interesting to look at how feeling hangry could change with long-term dieting or conditions like diabetes or eating disorders.

These studies alongside other emerging science suggest that our bodies can deeply shape how we think, feel and act – whether we realize it or not. We’re generally aware that emotions like feeling stressed can influence our health, but the reverse direction is also true. Our bodies and physical health have the power to shape our mental lives, coloring who we are and the way we experience the world around us.

Warding off hanger

Here are three pro tips to help keep your hunger from going full-blown hangry.

First, it may seem obvious, but pay more attention to your hunger. People vary a lot in how sensitive they are to hunger and other bodily cues. Maybe you don’t notice you’re hungry until you’re already ravenous. Plan ahead – carry healthy snacks, eat a protein-filled breakfast or lunch to give you lasting energy – and set yourself reminders to eat regularly. These basic precautions help prevent you from becoming overly hungry in the first place.

But what if you’re already super hungry and can’t eat right away? Our findings suggest people are more likely to be biased by hunger in negative situations. Maybe you’re stuck in bad traffic or you have a stressful deadline. In these cases, try to make your environment more pleasant. Listen to an amusing podcast while you drive. Put on pleasant music while you work. Do something to inject positivity into your experience.

The ConversationMost importantly, your awareness can make all the difference. Yes, maybe you’re hungry and starting to feel road rage, overwhelmed with your task deadline, or wounded by your partner’s words. But amid the heat of those feelings, if you can, step back for a moment and notice your growling stomach. This could help you recognize that hunger is part of why you feel particularly upset. This awareness then gives you the power to still be you, even when you’re hungry.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Science Explains Why East Coast NFL Teams Often Get Crushed In Night Games Tue, 12 Jun 2018 03:40:58 +0000 Science Explains Why East Coast NFL Teams Often Get Crushed In Night Games

(Credit: flickr/Ed Yourdon)

The first ever Monday Night Football game kicked off in September 21, 1970, launching the NFL into prime time American TV. But it’s also a night that Hall of Fame New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath would probably rather forget. The legendary passer threw three interceptions that night in Cleveland against the Browns in a game that was plagued by “blunders, a record number of penalties, (and) shocking lapses” from the defense.

Namath can now take solace knowing that science has now shown biology was working against him through disruptions to his circadian rhythm. Every living thing on Earth evolved with a 24-hour day-night cycle, and it governs mental, physical and behavioral changes throughout the day. When that cycle gets disrupted, our body struggles to cope. That’s why the American Medical Association has warned about things like working the night shift, or exposure to too much light at night.

Longstanding Mystery

Going back as far as the ’70s, people have noticed that western NFL teams win more night games. A study in 2013 looked back decades at hundreds of games and showed that West Coast teams went 70-36 in night games, whereas they recorded a much more average 143-150 win record in daytime games.

Now researchers have taken these findings a step further, examining the 32 games from the 2013 season in search of clues to why these circadian advantages exist. The study was published earlier this month in the journal Sleep.

The authors found that winning teams had fewer turnovers during games starting at either 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. Eastern Time. The scientists said that’s because of an increase in alertness. And then they compared these with afternoon games that started at either 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. Eastern Time, where they said players experienced a decrease in “circadian rhythm-regulated alertness.” The teams that won night games had fewer turnovers than teams who won afternoon games.

Errors And Injuries

Allison Brager is lead author on the paper and an Army scientist stationed at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where she studies the links between sleep and performance for the military. Based on past research into circadian rhythms and how they change performance, Brager says she expected these circadian cycles could help explain why some NFL teams win more games at night.

But she was surprised at the reasons why. Mental errors and injuries had a much larger influence on night games than afternoon games.

“We grossly underestimated the impact that circadian rhythms have on risk for injury in athletes,” she said in a media release.

She calls the influence “significant” and even thinks athlete’s stats should incorporate countermeasures to better reflect circadian influences on game play.

Have You Accepted Your Research Mission Yet? Mon, 11 Jun 2018 03:41:06 +0000 Have You Accepted Your Research Mission Yet?

In Russia's Space Graveyard, Locals Scavenge Fallen Spacecraft for Profit Sat, 09 Jun 2018 03:40:52 +0000 In Russia's Space Graveyard, Locals Scavenge Fallen Spacecraft for Profit

Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed spacecraft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel. (Credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum)

The Altai mountain region of Central Asia is a rugged and remote place. Right in the center of the continental landmass, it forms a crossroads between the Kazakh steppes, the snow forests of Siberia and the arid plains of Mongolia. It’s a landscape of granite, forced up by the inch-a-year collision of the Indian tectonic plate with Asia, then carved out over millions of years by streams of snowmelt. Siberian Ibex wander here along with musk deer feeding on the lichenous rocks and brown bears that follow the retreating snow fields in spring.

This might be one of the most remote places on earth, little accessible by road, but its peace is routinely broken in the most dramatic way. That’s because the Altai region sits right beneath the main flight path of the oldest, largest and busiest spaceport in the world: the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Debris from each rocket launch rains down on these remote hills, and the people of the region are forced to make a living among the falling scraps.

What Goes Up…

Built in 1955 in the grasslands of southern Kazakhstan, the Baikonur Cosmodrome has been the launch site for many historic missions. Earth’s first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 launched here, and Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight as the first human into space also took off from Baikonur. Today it’s home to space missions from around the world, including monthly commercial, scientific and military launches. Since the retirement of the US shuttle program, Russian Soyuz capsules launched from Baikonur have also become the only remaining lifeline to resupply and re-man the International Space Station (ISS). Between 2006 and 2018, NASA paid the Russian space agency Roscosmos approximately $3.4 billion USD to ferry astronauts to the station.

Debris from a recently crashed Soyuz space rocket lies on the steppe.

Debris from a recently crashed Soyuz space rocket lies on the steppe. (Credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum)

All this traffic creates a huge amount of debris along the corridor of rocket flightpaths. To lift a 6.3 ton satellite into geostationary orbit requires a 4-stage Russian Proton rocket weighing nearly 700 tons. As the rocket streaks off in its northeasterly flight path, booster rockets peel away from the craft in 3 stages and fall back down to Earth. While rockets launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are able to drop their boosters relatively harmlessly into the Atlantic ocean, Baikonur is about as as far from the ocean as it is possible to get. That means the discarded stages of Russian rockets tumble back down on dry land. The first stage usually falls within 90 kilometers of the launchpad, but the second stage flies for a full 14 minutes more, and lands with potentially devastating impact 1,000 km away in the Altai.

Russian media estimates that over 2,500 tons of space debris have rained down on the region since launches began in the 1950s, some segments as large as 10 meters in length. During the Soviet era, the USSR took great pains to recover Baikonur booster rockets, partially due to concerns about leaking secrets related to the space program. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, these pieces of space debris have increasingly been left to rust in the grasslands of Kazakhstan and the Altai mountains.

A band of scrap metal dealers scan the sky while waiting for a rocket to crash.

A band of scrap metal dealers scan the sky while waiting for a rocket to crash. (Credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum)

The launches have become a familiar sight for those who live beneath the flight paths. Pieces of falling debris look “like an angry red eye in the night”, one resident says. Then there is a great thundering sound, and “a small earthquake” shakes the ground. Roscosmos designates a narrow strip of land across the region in which the rocket stages are supposed to fall. Residents within this zone are given 24 hours’ notice of a launch to get themselves to safety, and it’s only outside this zone that people can claim compensation for damages. However, incidents outside the zone are far from uncommon. In 2008, a piece of debris measuring 4.5m in length even landed in a village, narrowly missing a house. Debris rains down even when launches go to plan; failures can have much more serious consequences. In 2011 an unmanned Progress 44 capsule atop a Soyuz-U rocket was headed to the ISS when it failed in the first 5 minutes of its  launch. The rocket tumbled back down to Earth with its later stages still full of fuel, and hit the mountains of the Altai. The resulting explosion shattered windows up to 100 km away, though no one was hurt.

Real-life Jakku

Local farmers, in dire economic straits, often use second-hand rocket metals to make farming tools.

Local farmers, in dire economic straits, often use second-hand rocket metals to make farming tools. (Credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum)

While many residents fear the monthly rocket launches that pepper the region with debris, others see in it a unique opportunity. Resourceful scrap dealers wait for the announcement of rocket launches and then watch the sky with binoculars. They track the paths of debris and ride out on jeeps and even on horses to the crash sites. With little protective gear other than welding masks, they use blowtorches to strip the wrecks of their valuable light metals, alloys of titanium and aluminium, as well as other useful components like copper wire. Visitors to the region have reported seeing the roofs of chicken coops and sheds built with rocket parts still showing the original Proton insignia. Even farm tools and sledges for children have been built out of the fragments of rocket hulls.

It’s dangerous work for the scrap dealers. Rocket parts are frequently still burning when they arrive, leaching noxious vapours and setting off wildfires in the dry steppes. Nevertheless, the precarious economic reality of the region means that the extra source of income is indispensable. Here, a whole industry has sprung up around the waste of the world’s richest nations as it rains periodically from the sky.

Residents’ tendency to bring parts of the rockets back to their villages poses serious dangers, though. Rocket fuel, especially of the kind used by Russian and Chinese rockets, contains highly toxic components, and discarded rocket sections can have as much as 10% of their fuel remaining when they tumble back down to Earth. Of these, the most feared is heptyl, which is extremely toxic, and has been linked to cancers and birth defects. In 2008, a farmer in the Altai region filed for compensation when four of his horses died after toxic substances from rocket debris allegedly leached into the soil of their grazing lands.

Cutting the wreck for sale as high-grade titanium alloy.

Cutting the wreck for sale as high-grade titanium alloy. (Credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum)

The people of the Altai depend heavily on the land, growing crops, raising livestock and foraging for pine nuts in the virgin snow forests of Siberian cedar. Doctors in the region blame increasing health problems on the proliferation of space junk falling down to earth and the toxic compounds that make their way into the food and water. In 2005, a Nature study showed children in affected areas were twice as likely to develop endocrine and blood disorders, with rates of all other diseases markedly higher too. In some villages, virtually every child is reportedly born with jaundice. One farmer has even recounted seeing Siberian deer wandering the snow forests, blinded by toxic chemicals. The Russian government denies any evidence of a connection between the rocket debris and ongoing health problems, but they have elected to keep their research out of the public eye.

Despite its long history, Baikonur’s heyday might soon come to an end. Currently under construction is the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a new facility in the far east of Russia intended to reduce dependency on the landlocked Baikonur. At a cost of $7.5 billion USD, it might help to reduce the environmental impact of rocket launches on the people of the Altai. However, reports of corruption and the exploitation of workers has dogged the expensive project, and it will not begin to launch heavier rockets until 2021.

A farmer taking an evening stroll past the wreck of a Soyuz spacecraft. In this agricultural village, rockets routinely fall into people's back yards.

A farmer taking an evening stroll past the wreck of a Soyuz spacecraft. In this agricultural village, rockets routinely fall into people’s back yards. (Credit: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum)

Today, the pockmarked and poisoned grasslands of the Altai seem like a striking metaphor for the world’s inequality and the costs of technological progress. While the richest nations send their citizens and machines to explore the further reaches of the solar system, their debris rains down on some of the world’s poorest. The region asks us to contemplate what moral price our progress comes at, and who in the end gets to decide this cost.

Chewing Gum While Walking Burns More Calories, Researchers Say Sun, 03 Jun 2018 03:40:57 +0000 Chewing Gum While Walking Burns More Calories, Researchers Say

(Credit: Lizardflms/Shutterstock)

Walking and chewing gum, at various points in this nation’s history, has served as a benchmark to gauge one’s competence as a leader.

Democratic vice presidential-nominee John Edwards in 2004 assured Americans that a president must possess the ability to walk and chew gum. During that same campaign, Sen. Jim Bunning boasted to Kentuckians that he could indeed walk and chew gum. Last year, Rep. Paul Ryan promised citizens that Republicans in the House, for the good of America, would collectively walk and chew gum. Decades ago, Lyndon Johnson turned this quip around and famously claimed Gerald Ford couldn’t walk and chew gum (well, he actually said “fart” and chew gum, but he was edited by the press for decency).

It would appear that this country’s political fortunes hinge on finding leaders who can walk and chew gum. So it’s a wonder that this linchpin of multitasking prowess largely evaded scientific scrutiny — that is, until now. Researchers at Tokyo’s Waseda University examined the physiological effects of walking and chewing gum. If you happen to be a middle-aged man or older, according to their results, you might want to do more walking and chewing — for your own good.

Walking in Jaw-Step Formation

If there’s one company that would have a vested interest in finding more ways to incorporate chewing gum into a healthy lifestyle, it would be a candy manufacturer. As it turns out, two of the authors of the study are scientists at the Lotte Company research lab. Lotte, which also sponsored the study, is a Korean-Japanese business conglomerate that happens to be one of the largest confectioneries in Asia. Those Lotte scientists, however, told The New Yorker they played no role collecting or analyzing the data.

With that in mind, here’s what they found.

The study enrolled 46 healthy men and women between the ages of 21 and 69. The participants were then told to walk at a natural pace for 15 minutes on a track in the university’s sports hall. One group accomplished the task while chewing two gum “pellets”, while a control group ingested a powder that contained the same ingredients as gum, sans the gum base.

Heart rates during walking significantly increased during the gum trial as opposed to the control.

Walking speeds, distance, number of steps and overall expenditure were all higher as compared to the control trial. All signs point to the power of walking and chewing gum. Researchers monitored each person’s heart rate, the number of steps, their walking speed and other physiological indicators to see if chewing gum had any affect.

The heart rates of men and women who were chewing gum and walking were higher than the control group. People who chewed gum also walked farther and faster than their non-gum-chewing counterparts. Interestingly, the gum-chewing effect was most noticeable among middle-aged and older men in the trial. Therefore, researchers concluded that chewing gum while walking “measurably affects physical and physiological functions.” They published their results recently in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

What’s the Link?

Researchers can’t say for certain what’s behind the gum-chewing boost, but that didn’t stop them from floating a hypothesis. Chewing gum, they posit, might sync your heartbeat and stride, an known as cardiac-locomotor synchronization (CLS). When your jaw and feet are coordinating, you may walk at a faster pace. It’s a nice, neat hypothesis because researchers say CLS is more likely to occur in elderly people than in young people.

Still, walking and chewing gum begs further research. One key variable that wasn’t measured: number of chews. Future studies will certainly need to monitor how many chews occur in a 15-minute walk to see if there’s a link between heart beats, steps or other measures.

While confectionary conglomerates around the world would applaud incorporating sticks of gum into your workout, walking and chewing gum isn’t exactly a fast-track to a beach bod. Simply getting up and walking more is probably the most effective place to start.

A Bleary Unicorn: The Elusive Hangover Cure Sat, 02 Jun 2018 03:40:46 +0000 A Bleary Unicorn: The Elusive Hangover Cure

(Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

From freezing showers to ingesting prickly pear to smoking joints, everyone has a home remedy for alcohol’s notorious afterglow: the hangover. Mongolian men swear by pickled sheep eyes, ancient Egyptians wore necklaces of Alexandrian laurel, and one 17th century English physician even sold a hangover “cure” made with human skulls and dried vipers.

Hangovers are a problem that even predates writing. But today with the aid of modern medicine we can treat diarrhea or headaches with over-the-counter drugs — so why not hangovers too?

“Each year, many people die because they drink too much,” Yunfeng Lu, a chemical engineering professor at UCLA, said in a phone call. “And currently, we have no antidote.”

But that could change. New research from Lu and his colleagues published in the journal Advanced Materials demonstrates a “hangover pill” that can mitigate some of the damaging effects of alcohol. The antidote mimics the work of hepatocytes, or liver cells, and helps speed up the body’s alcohol metabolism. It’s basically supercharging your liver’s ability to clear alcohol from the bloodstream, resulting in far lower levels of intoxication.

To test their treatment, scientists got mice drunk by inserting tubes into their mouths and pumping ethanol directly to the stomach. Within a few minutes, the rodents became intoxicated and fell asleep. Then, the researchers injected nanocapsules of blood cells loaded with enzymes that help break down alcohol into less harmful byproducts. Afterwards, the mice were sacrificed and their livers were examined with fluorescent imaging to measure toxicity.

The blood alcohol content of the mice dropped by 45 percent within four hours and caused less organ damage than it would have normally. But this treatment probably isn’t coming to your local CVS anytime soon. Human trials are still a few years off, and so far, these nanocapsules are only being developed for emergency room settings, which saw a 61 percent jump in alcohol-related visits between 2006 and 2014.

And it’s not just problem drinkers that could use some relief. One survey of 2,000 people found that if you have only one hangover a month, it adds up to two years of total sick time over the course of a lifetime.

That’s why Lu and others are racing to find alternatives to help make alcohol’s aftermath suck less. But before we get to that, we need to understand what makes a hangover such a grating experience.

Getting Over The Hangover

Though nature may never have intended us to drink as much as we do today, the ability to digest ethanol, a tasteless liquid produced by fermented sugars, might have been crucial to our survival as a species 10 million years ago. Back then, the climate was rapidly changing, and fruit on the ground was more likely to ferment. The capacity to digest liquor would have been advantageous for our primate ancestors, who relied heavily on fruit for sustenance.

We largely owe our drinking abilities to ADH4, or alcohol dehydrogenase 4, an enzyme that lets us harvest the caloric traits of alcohol. But during the oxidation process that breaks alcohol down, ADH4 creates acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen that damages DNA. ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase), a liver enzyme that also protects the heart against heart attacks, breaks the acetaldehyde down into less toxic acetate, which later becomes carbon dioxide and water.

But the more you drink, the more acetaldehyde builds up, faster than the body can metabolize, creating noxious, even cancerous conditions. Long-term exposure can lead to health problems including high blood pressure, depression, and a leaky gut. In addition, the effects appear to be worse for women.

Yet, after all this time, the exact mechanisms of what causes a hangover still elude scientists. Acetaldehyde is a common culprit, but the most unpleasant hangover symptoms occur when acetaldehyde levels are low. Others blame dehydration, low blood sugar, or inflammatory proteins called cytokines, but the jury is still out.

So while Lu’s hangover antidote may be promising, it may not address all of the multiple pathways that can lead to alcohol toxicity. Other experimental chemicals have been found to have potential hangover-leavening effects, such as ampelopsin, also known as dihydromyricetin, a compound found in the Japanese raisin tree. It dampens the effects of alcohol withdrawal and can even reportedly sober you up faster by interacting with structures in the brain, called GABAAreceptors, that alcohol normally interferes with.

Other drugs for mitigating alcohol withdrawal or excessive drinking are thought to act on these same GABAA receptors. They include naltrexone, acamprosate, benzodiazepines like Valium, and clomethiazole, which The Who’s drummer Keith Moon famously overdosed on. Yet, all of these drugs have limited success. Maybe it’s smarter to circumvent ethanol altogether by creating a drug that gives a buzz without the fuss.

Drinking Without the Drinks

The U.S. is currently in the grip of a drug overdose crisis, which killed 64,000 people in 2016, 42,000 from opioids alone. But alcohol-related deaths exceed 88,000 per year and have every year since at least 2006 — far outpacing the mortality of the opioid crisis.

Moderate drinking is probably fine. It even has some health benefits, if you ask the alcohol industry. Yet, if we have a drug epidemic, booze plays no small part. That’s why researchers believe using biochemistry to develop a safer alternative to alcohol is crucial. One idea: make a drug with no hepatotoxicity or comedown.

That’s the goal of Alcarelle, a U.K.-based startup that aims to develop a new drug to replace alcohol — one without side effects, including hangovers. Alcarelle was founded by neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, who was fired from his post as Britain’s chief drug czar, for saying alcohol is more dangerous than LSD. (He seems to be right, though, as some studies have demonstrated.)

“We are not aiming to replicate the action of alcohol, as this is very unpredictable and extremely harmful,” Emily Palmer, a researcher at Alcarelle, explained in an email. “Instead, we are aiming to create an alternative substance to alcohol, which would produce a tipsy-like feeling, replicating the enjoyment many people experiencing after drinking a few alcoholic beverages.”

(Credit: itakdalee/Shutterstock)

(Credit: itakdalee/Shutterstock)

But neuroscientist Lindsay Halladay isn’t so sure this can be done. “There is not going to be some magical chemical compound that is rewarding and has zero negative side effects,” she said in a call.

Halladay is an assistant psychology professor at Santa Clara University. The bulk of her research has focused on the underlying neural circuits involved in stress and addictive behavior — for example, what parts of the brain encourage us to keep drinking when we know we shouldn’t.

“There are a lot of compensatory mechanisms that the brain has,” she said. “If you take some drug that increases your dopamine levels, your brain is able to recognize, ‘Hey, this is too much dopamine, let me tweak some things,’ and lowers the endogenous level of dopamine. So there’s always this homeostasis.”

Halladay argued that a “safer” alcohol might encourage riskier drinking. Nutt has said in interviews his product won’t be able to get you drunk, even if you tried. But while the company says they’ve developed over 100 drug candidates, narrowing their choices down to a few contenders, the efficacy of their products has yet to be seen, but the company is confident their creation will deliver.

“I have an understanding of the science involved and an appreciation of the years of work and innovation which has got us to where we are now,” Palmer said. “I am confident that this quality and quantity of research will result an effective product.”

If Alcarelle can achieve its goal, it could save literally thousands of lives a year. But replacing alcohol in the hearts and minds of drinkers won’t be easy. The global liquor industry is expected to top $1.5 trillion globally by 2022, which means there’s a lot of competition, to say nothing of the regulatory hurdles Alcarelle faces from federal agencies.

Nonetheless, Alcarelle are optimistic we could see “alcosynths,” as they call them, on store shelves in about four years or so, if they can raise the estimated $20 million they need. And such products might find a warmer welcome than you might think. David Orren, managing director of Alcarelle, said in an email that their product has actually stirred some interest from alcohol companies eager to diversify.

“Drinks companies are already experiencing flat demand and senior executives are generally intrigued by the possibility of widening their product portfolios with an attractive ‘free from’ product that is appealing to health-conscious consumers,” Orren said.

Antabuse Before Liquor, Never Sicker

There may not yet be a drug that can reverse a hangover or subdue it altogether, but there is a medication that can cause one — a really painful, vomit-inducing one. It’s called disulfiram, or Antabuse, and it inhibits the alcohol-metabolizing enzymes that our bodies rely on to clear alcohol from our systems. Drinking even a small amount of hooch leads to a mass buildup of acetaldehyde, causing nausea, mental confusion, and even fainting. It’s enough to convince almost anyone to give up the sauce.

Disulfiram arose in 1881, used as a rubber manufacturing aid. In 1948, two Danish physicians decided to eat it, because that’s what you did back then, and discovered when drinking beers later that it didn’t make them feel so well. Now disulfiram is prescribed to treat chronic alcohol use, but its efficacy is debated.

“I’m always surprised that people take Antabuse because it is so horrible,” Halladay said. “You take it voluntarily, but it’s for individuals who have no other option. They’ve tried to quit drinking on their own. Addiction is obviously not a choice. People have tried everything else and eventually decide, ‘Let me take this drug that will make me incredibly sick if I give in.’”

But for most people, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink now and again. Drugs like Antabuse are for extreme cases, and it’s likely that the majority of us will continue waking up with fuzzy heads and queasy stomachs after a night on the town for some time.

Even if you’re not quite down with the idea of an alcosynth, scientists are continuing to explore options for hangover relief. Some researchers are looking at extracts of the invasive vine kudzu to combat binge drinking and others are getting worms hungover to target new molecular pathways to alleviate alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

As for Lu, he’ll continue to test the safety of his enzyme-mimicking hangover antidote on animals — if it seems safe, human clinical trials could begin within a year. In the meantime, there is currently no panacea to avoid the pitfalls of hitting the bottle. So if you’re really tired of waking up with a headache, wishing you hadn’t chugged so many brewskis the night before, it might be best to quit drinking altogether.