Pretrial publicity for high profile cases like Harvey Weinstein

If you see something in the news, can you unsee it or forget it?

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When it comes to pretrial publicity, conventional wisdom says “no.” That is why defense attorneys for high-profile clients like Harvey Weinstein or Lori Loughlin, in order to ensure a fair trial, argue for moving a trial’s location or reject potential jurors who have been exposed to news reports about their clients.

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Jon Bruschke, chair and professor of human communications at Cal State Fullerton, however, believes that this so-called “strong publicity effect” is massively overstated. He argues that the genesis of this line of thought — a 1997 literature review by Studebaker and Penrod — is flawed, and his own research suggests a more limited effect, mostly on the length of sentencing. 

Challenging the ‘Strong Publicity Effect’
Bruschke disputes Studebaker and Penrod’s case on human biology, communications theory and the study’s methodology.  

“People can’t remember things,” he says. “In a 2002 study by Neil Vidmar at Duke University School of Law, respondents were given three front-page stories about a notorious drug dealer and murderer who was named 17 times in the articles. Two weeks later, only one person could recall the name.”

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Furthermore, the elaboration likelihood model suggests that the intense spotlight on trial evidence would override any publicity seen previously. “The O.J. Simpson trial might be one of the best examples of this,” says Bruschke.

He also questions the choice of studies included in the 1997 literature review; if the publicity effect is as prevalent as claimed; and whether such an effect is augmented by bias in the study design. For example, there are often long delays (six months to two years) in real-life cases between the arraignment and trial. Delays in research studies are much shorter (weeks), so people are less likely to forget pretrial publicity.

“None of these methodological issues are a problem in isolation,” Bruschke notes. “But they all put upward pressure on the size of the effect.”

Weinstein should have no problem with publicity … it is largely negative, but this should not compromise his trial being fair.

Support for the ‘Weak Publicity Effect’
Bruschke and his colleagues are the leading proponents of a weak pretrial publicity effect. His 1999 study of all federal murder trials in a three-year period showed that high publicity and no publicity cases had equal conviction rates, and low levels of publicity resulted in the highest conviction rates. For those convicted, more publicity resulted in a longer sentence.

He found similar results in a 2004 study of all federal murder or bank robbery cases in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Detroit between 1993-95.

In his 2016 study, Bruschke found an effect for positive publicity but not for negative publicity. Jurors exposed to negative publicity were more prone to convict than those exposed to positive publicity.

Jon Bruschke, chair and professor of human communication studies at Cal State Fullerton, says the ‘strong publicity effect’ is massively overstated.

“So the evidence is still a little equivocal, and you can’t say it always matters, and you can’t say it never matters,” says Bruschke. “The next big step is to find out when it does matter, and I don’t think social science is quite there yet.

“To me, the bigger question is: What does bias even mean? If you get charged with a felony, you have a 99% chance of being found guilty. The judicial system is replete with bias on the lines of class, race, sex and intersections between them. Paradoxically, the bias introduced by publicity might help defendants gain more resources for their case, which matters more.” 

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Publicity for Weinstein and Loughlin
So what does this all mean for the 2020 trials of Weinstein and Loughlin?

“Weinstein should have no problem with publicity,” says Bruschke. “All research on pretrial publicity specific to sexual misconduct suggests that, if anything, even negative publicity favors defendants with male jurors. There is publicity, and it is largely negative, but this should not compromise his trial being fair.

“For Loughlin, I know of no research that is specific to celebrities in civil cases, but celebrities do tend to fare better than typical defendants, probably because they have access to better lawyers by and large.”

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Music May Be an Effective Guide For Understanding Human Brain Activity

NSF grant supports research to develop new models to better understand the brain

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TROY, N.Y. — When Sergio Pequito thinks about the brain, he visualizes a piano. The keys represent different parts of the brain, and the pressure applied by the pianist’s fingers represents the outside stimuli that promote brain functions. 

Just as notes and harmonies can be mapped onto sheet music, Pequito, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is looking to transcribe the brain’s complex dynamics into new data models that can help researchers better understand how the brain and human cognition work. This composition effort, of sorts, is being supported by a new grant from the National Science Foundation

“We have showed that, by thinking like this, there was a lot of activity in the brain that we were able to mimic and capture,” Pequito said. “We believe that we can use the math and models we have developed to capture intrinsic features that justify how the brain behaves over space and time.” 

Pequito’s team, which includes a collaborator from the University of Southern California, will use publicly available brain signal data from the National Institutes of Health to improve the models they have built. The data has been collected using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which tracks blood and oxygen flow as they increase in active parts of the brain. 

Pequito and his team are trying to provide insight into how a healthy brain functions, as well as how one with a neurological disease may behave. Continuing this analogy, Pequito explained that just as a pianist who hits the wrong key may create a dissonant noise, the models developed by his research team will show when something is a bit off in the brain’s activity. 

Industrial and systems engineers develop tools to analyze how complex systems interact. Pequito believes that this type of approach to humanity’s long-standing questions about the brain can provide new understanding about the relationships between functions like attention, learning, memory, decision-making, and language. These insights may prove useful in improving current technology by reverse-engineering the brain, which is one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering

“We have all sorts of tools that we, as industrial engineers, can use,” Pequito said. “Now, we are working to improve them so we can provide new insights for the neuroscience and medical community.”

Saving Mother and Child

Oncologist Dr. Rita Mehta, whose research over the past 15 years has led to many advances in treating some of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer – with lifesaving results, stands in front of an inspirational quilt that hangs on display at the UCI Breast Health Center in Orange.
Credit: Photo: Steve Zylius / UCI

Multidisciplinary teams of UCI oncologists and maternal-fetal specialists utilize scientific advances to treat patients with high-risk pregnancies

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Five-year-old Emlee jumps high, runs fast and likes to pirouette around the living room in her white ballet slippers.

Her mom, Karalayne Maglinte, calls her a miracle. Indeed, Emlee is the embodiment of the word: She’s one of the reasons Maglinte is alive today. Another reason: High-risk pregnancy physicians and cancer specialists at UCI Health were able to help the Fontana woman when no one else could.

Cancer during pregnancy is a rare event, occurring approximately once per 1,000 pregnancies annually, according to the National Institutes of Health’s World Journal of Oncology. Fortunately, “we have plenty of experience treating patients who need a multidisciplinary approach,” says Dr. Rita Mehta, a UCI Health oncologist.

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Mehta has cared for several pregnant women with cancer, including Michelle Clark-Salib, who was just 28 when diagnosed with breast cancer. Her son Caleb is now 7, and Clark-Salib is cancer-free.

But the situation was touch-and-go for a long time, just as it was for Karalayne and Emlee Maglinte. Their poignant story began to unfold in 2013 when Maglinte was 15 weeks pregnant. She was 36 years old and had two boys at home: Ian, 6, and Isaac, 18 months.

“Because I was pregnant, I was much more aware of my body’s cues that something wasn’t right, and I was quicker to react than I might have been otherwise,” Maglinte says.

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“My hands and feet were itchy,” she says, “so itchy I wanted to tear them off.” She consulted “Dr. Google” and read that it might be a liver issue.

“At first I thought perhaps it was because I was pregnant with a girl, and the other two were boys,” Maglinte recalls. “But it got so intense that I began to worry. I didn’t want to endanger her.” The itchiness began on a Friday. By Monday, she was convinced she needed to call her doctor.

A Challenging Diagnosis

An arduous round of tests, physician appointments and hospitalizations ensued as several Inland Empire doctors tried unsuccessfully to diagnose and treat Maglinte. In addition to the itchiness, she developed jaundice. After four days at a community hospital, she was taken by ambulance in the middle of the night to UCI Douglas Hospital, in Orange.

A team quickly assembled, including high-risk maternal-fetal expert Dr. Julianne Toohey, gastrointestinal endoscopy specialist Dr. John Lee, and pancreatic cancer surgeons Dr. Aram Demirjian and Dr. David Imagawa.

Lee – an authority in diseases of the liver, pancreas, bile ducts and gallbladder – examined Maglinte using endoscopic ultrasound. His findings led to a biopsy of her pancreas. He also implanted a bile duct stent to alleviate her jaundice. Although complex, each procedure was minimally invasive and safe for the baby.

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But the diagnosis was daunting: Maglinte had an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. “It’s strange that she would have had cancer at that age,” Lee notes. Statistically, almost all pancreatic cancer patients are older than 45, with the average age at the time of diagnosis being 70. Maglinte was only about half that.

She was devastated. “I kept walking around the halls of the maternity ward saying: ‘How the heck did I get here? This is crazy.’”

There weren’t many options. Early delivery “meant the baby would not have survived, as I was only 19 weeks pregnant,” Maglinte explains.

But she also had two children at home to consider. She and her husband, Dennis, discussed it. “He said it was my choice,” Maglinte relates. “I wanted to fight for her, but I also needed to fight for myself.”

The physicians worked together to save both mother and child. “Taking care of a high-risk patient with cancer involves careful communication with the whole team and, of course, the patient,” Toohey says. “Karalayne was very involved in decision-making.”

A week after the diagnosis, Demirjian operated, performing a seven-hour Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy, to remove the tumor. But Maglinte didn’t have chemotherapy, which would have jeopardized Emlee’s survival.

“We watched the baby’s growth and ended up with a planned delivery at 39 weeks,” Toohey recalls. “This is rather unusual with cancer patients – we usually deliver several weeks earlier in order for chemo or other treatment to begin as soon as possible.”

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Happily, 7-pound, 1-ounce Emlee was born without complications. Her mom says she’s a “little lifesaver” because only 20 percent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed early, mainly because symptoms – abdominal or mid-back pain, jaundice, weight loss and indigestion – can overlap with those of other conditions. “Without Emlee, I probably wouldn’t have reacted to my symptoms the way I did,” Maglinte says.

She and Emlee received the kind of advanced care that’s usually only available at an academic medical center like UCI.

Applying the Research

Oncologist Mehta, who joined the faculty in 2001 as a clinical professor of medicine, lauds the university, saying, “One of the great things is that not only can you do research here, but you can apply what you learn from that research to treat high-risk pregnancies with cutting-edge techniques. That’s not possible in a community hospital setting.”

That distinction was as important to Michelle Clark-Salib as it was to Maglinte. In 2012, at age 28, she was diagnosed with an aggressive 8-centimeter breast tumor. After undergoing nearly three months of chemotherapy with a community oncologist in Riverside, Clark-Salib found out that she was 23 weeks pregnant with her son Caleb.

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The North Fontana woman consulted with an obstetrician, who discovered that her amniotic sac contained almost no fluid, a side effect of one of her chemo drugs that posed a serious threat to the developing fetus. The doctor sent Clark-Salib to the high-risk maternalfetal physicians at UCI Health, where he had trained as a resident.

Mehta, an international expert in metastatic breast cancer, eventually took over the case. “Michelle is an amazing young woman,” Mehta says. “She was at a very critical stage when she came to us but wanted to save her baby’s life and her own life. Abortion wasn’t an option for her.”

The drug that was causing the amniotic fluid problem was discontinued, and Mehta devised a modified cancer treatment plan that avoided the more toxic drug Herceptin until the infant arrived.

“As soon as the baby was delivered, we put her back on a chemotherapy regimen, and her cancer went into complete remission,” Mehta recalls. Caleb was born healthy at 37 weeks’ gestation.


“Survival rates are so much improved since I began working in oncology. Sometimes the steps are small; sometimes they’re bigger. But overall, each step adds to the next, and rates keep improving.”


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Promising Scientific Advances

Mehta finds this an exciting time in her field: “Survival rates are so much improved since I began working in oncology. Sometimes the steps are small; sometimes they’re bigger. But overall, each step adds to the next, and rates keep improving.”

Over the last 15 years, her research has led to many advances in treating the most aggressive breast cancers. In a groundbreaking study published in 2012, Mehta showed that a combination of the drugs anastrozole and fulvestrant was superior in controlling cancer and improving patient survival to anastrozole alone or anastrozole followed by fulvestrant in treating hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer in postmenopausal women. A long-term update of the study, published in March 2019 in The New England Journal of Medicine, confirmed the increase in five-year survival rates for advanced breast cancer patients.

“I don’t know what I would have done without UCI,” says Karalayne Maglinte, sporting hair in solidarity with PurpleStride (which raises pancreatic cancer awareness), with her husband, Dennis, and their children (from left) Ian, 12, Emlee, 5, and Isaac, 7.

Mehta was also one of the first to use chemotherapy combined with Herceptin on women with breast cancer before surgery – rather than only after – to help shrink tumors.

Now, more than seven years after Caleb’s birth, Clark-Salib remains cancer-free. And Maglinte has been cancer-free for more than six years.

“I don’t know what I would have done without UCI,” Maglinte says. “We were at the right place at the right time with the right teams. Everything just fell into line. Everyone we needed to be there was there.”

Brain inflammation in veterans with Gulf War illness

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a new discovery, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have detected widespread inflammation in the brains of veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Illness (GWI). These findings, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity on February 3, could serve as a guidepost for identifying and developing new therapies for people with GWI, as well as many other chronic conditions that have recently been linked to inflamed brain tissue, or neuroinflammation.

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About 30 percent of soldiers who fought in the 1991 Gulf War suffer from GWI. Veterans with GWI display a range of symptoms, including fatigue, chronic pain and cognitive problems such as memory loss. The cause of GWI is unknown, but several potential culprits are suspected. They include exposure to nerve gas, as well as medicine given to protect against this neurotoxin; exposure to pesticides; and the stress of extreme temperature changes, sleep deprivation and physical exertion during deployment

Many of the symptoms of GWI overlap with those of another condition, fibromyalgia, notes the senior author of the study, Marco Loggia, PhD, whose laboratory at MGH’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging focuses on understanding the brain mechanisms of pain and neuroinflammation in humans. Last year, Loggia and his colleagues showed in another study that fibromyalgia patients have extensive neuroinflammation. “So, we asked, Do veterans who have Gulf War Illness demonstrate evidence of neuroinflammation, too?”

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To find out, Loggia and his team collaborated with the Gulf War Illness Consortium at Boston University, which helped them to recruit Gulf War veterans. The study included 23 veterans, of whom 15 had GWI, as well as 25 healthy civilian subjects. All study participants’ brains were scanned using positron-emission tomography (PET) imaging, which measured levels of a molecule called translocator protein that rises in the presence of neuroinflammation. The scans detected little evidence of neuroinflammation in the healthy controls and veterans who were free of GWI. By contrast, the study found extensive inflammation in the brains of veterans with GWI, “particularly in the cortical regions, which are involved in ‘higher-order’ functions, such as memory, concentration and reasoning,” says Zeynab Alshelh, PhD, one of two research fellows in Loggia’s lab who co-led the study. “The neuroinflammation looked very similar to the widespread cortical inflammation we detected in fibromyalgia patients,” says Alshelh.

What might cause neuroinflammation? The central nervous system has legions of immune cells that protect the brain by detecting bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful agents, then producing inflammatory molecules to destroy the invaders, explains Loggia. However, while this response can be beneficial in the short term, it may become exaggerated, says Loggia, “and when that happens, inflammation becomes pathological–it becomes the problem.”

Research by Loggia’s lab and other investigators has also implicated neuroinflammation in a number of additional conditions, including chronic pain, depression, anxiety, autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), Huntington’s disease and migraine. The findings of the GWI study, says Loggia, “could help motivate a more aggressive evaluation of neuroinflammation as a potential therapeutic target.”

Teens spend too much time gaming?

Nearly 9 in 10 parents say teens spend too much time gaming but many mistaken about child’s video game behavior

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Credit: C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health
Parents polled use different strategies to limit the amount of time their teen spends gaming.

Eighty-six percent of parents agree that teens spend too much time gaming, but many may be mistaken about the extent of their own child’s video game habits, a new national poll suggests.

Parents also report very different gaming patterns for teen boys than girls, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. Twice as many parents say their teen boy plays video games every day compared to parents of teen girls. Teen boys are also more likely to spend three or more hours gaming.

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Overall, parents surveyed say gaming often gets in the way of other aspects of their teen’s life, such as family activities and interactions (46%), sleep (44%), homework (34%), friendship with non-gaming peers (33%) and extracurricular activities (31%).

“Although many parents believe video games can be good for teens, they also report a number of negative impacts of prolonged gaming,” says Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Gary Freed, MD, MPH.

“Parents should take a close look at their teen’s gaming behavior and set reasonable limits to reduce harmful impacts on sleep, family and peer relationships and school performance.”

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But parents may not always have the most accurate perception of their teen’s gaming tendencies. Among parents of daily gamers, 54% report their teen plays three or more hours a day (compared to only 13% of teens that do not play every day.) Just 13 percent of these parents believe their teen spends more time gaming than others, while 78% believe their teen’s gaming is less than or about the same as their peers.

“Many parents of frequent gamers have a misconception that the amount of time their teenager spends playing video games is in line with their peers,” Freed says.

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While 71% of parents believe video games may have a positive impact on their teen, some (44%) try to restrict video game content. Parents of teens ages 13-15 (compared to those with older teens) are more likely to use rating systems to try to make sure games are appropriate (43% versus 18%), encourage their teen to play with friends in person rather than online and to ban gaming in their teen’s bedroom.

Parents polled also use different strategies to limit the amount of time their teen spends gaming, including encouraging other activities (75%), setting time limits (54%), providing incentives to limit gaming (23%) and hiding gaming equipment (14%).

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Freed notes that while gaming may be a fun activity in moderation, some teens – such as those with attention issues – are especially susceptible to the constant positive feedback and the stimulus of video games. This may lead to prolonged play that is disruptive to other elements of a teen’s life.

He recommends parents show interest by playing video games with their kids while also communicating healthy limits and ensuring that they have strong privacy settings. In some situations, he notes, games can help parents connect with older kids and may occasionally help open the door to other conversations and interactions.

But parents should also help teens understand that limits and rules around gaming are tied to safety, health, school and relationships.

“Parents can play an important role by setting clear rules about appropriate content and how much time is too much time spent on video games,” Freed says.

“While many parents see benefits in gaming, the activity should not be at the expense of face-to-face time with family, friends, and teachers who play a pivotal role in promoting a teen’s learning and healthy development.”

The Mott Poll report is based on responses from 963 parents who had at least one child age 13-18 years.

Exercise Improve Video Game Performance?

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Photo by Lucie Liz on Pexels.com
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Time spent playing video games is often seen as time stolen from physical activities. Research has shown that exercise has many physical and cognitive benefits. But what if exercise could benefit video game performance as well? A new study led by neuroscientist Dr. Marc Roig and his research team from the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy at McGill University, found, for the first time, that it can. The results of this study challenge the preponderant view that video gaming and physical activity are antagonistic activities. The findings were published online in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

“The idea for the study actually came from two of my students in The Memory Lab , Bernat de Las Heras and Orville Li,” explains Dr. Roig, the study’s senior author. “They devoted so much time and effort investigating the impact of exercise on brain plasticity and cognition in people who have various conditions such as stroke or Parkinson’s Disease, that they were curious to also explore the relationship between exercise and video game performance, a leisure activity that some of them are very familiar with. The question was whether a single bout of exercise could improve video game performance?”

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Several studies have shown that increased screen time, including video gaming is associated with low levels of physical activity and that video gamers who exceed screen-time limits are at greater risk of experiencing health issues associated to physical inactivity. The evidence also reveals that a lack of physical activity combined with increased sedentary activity puts people at a greater risk of experiencing health issues including cardiometabolic clinical conditions such as hyperlipidemia, coronary heart disease and diabetes as well as psychosocial issues. Participating in an exercise program can improve overall health, reduce the risk of developing these sedentary-related cardiometabolic health problems and is also shown to have positive effects on cognition.

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Discovering the benefits of exercise to gaming

Conducting their work at The Memory Lab, the researchers showed that as little as 15 minutes of intense cardiovascular exercise, performed immediately before playing a video game, improved the performance of the popular online video game, League of Legends (LoL). To complete the study, a group of young individuals were asked to either perform intense cardiovascular exercise, or rest, immediately before playing the same customized mission in LoL. Their performance in the video game was observed and documented and found to improve after exercise in comparison with rest. The research group was excited to find these results not only because exercise can have a positive effect on video gaming performance but also because this is the first time this has been demonstrated.

This positive relationship of exercise and video gaming could have an important impact on the growing number of people who play video games worldwide. The latest statistics show that there are 2.3 billion video game players in the world and this number is expected to increase to 2.7 billion by 2021. Online video game platforms such as League of Legends or Fortnite have 67 and 78.3 million players monthly respectively. At the same time as video game use is increasing, as a society we are failing to promote physical activity in younger individuals. The findings in this study could produce a dramatic shift in the video game discussion as the results provide a strong argument to convince the rapidly growing number of video gamers in the world to become more active physically.

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“It was surprising that most participants benefited from the effects of exercise regardless of their fitness level and their emotional response to exercise,” notes Dr. Roig. “It was striking to see that those participants who were not in exceptionally good shape or were not particularly crazy about exercise also improved their video game skill level after the single bout of exercise. This suggests that this intervention could be suitable for many individuals in our society. Video gamers could potentially integrate exercise into their training routines not only to enhance their video game performance but also to benefit from the well-known effects of exercise on physical and cognitive health.”

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Plans to expand on this research in the future

Looking ahead, the group would be interested to see whether these findings can be extrapolated to other video games and whether other exercise modalities would show similar effects. It would also be interesting to look into potential underlying mechanisms and whether multiple exercise sessions would have summative effects on video gaming skills. Finally, but not the least important, one could ask whether the results of this study will be enough to change the habits of sedentary video gamers and their views on physical activity.

Dr. Roig says that one of the main challenges of the study was to create a video game task that was close enough to real video gaming but that also allowed the researchers to measure the performance of players reliably. That is why the research group is thinking about partnering with a company to create a video game platform for research purposes. The idea would be to create a video game that could be used to study the effects of different interventions (e.g. exercise) on different cognitive and motor skills. They would also like to explore the combined effects of exercise and video gaming as a multimodal intervention to improve cognition in non-disabled individuals but also those suffering from clinical conditions.

The “Firewalkers” of Karoo: Dinosaurs and Other Animals Left Tracks in a “Land of Fire”

Several groups of reptiles persisted in Jurassic Africa even as volcanism ruined their habitat

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Credit: Bordy et al, 2020
Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of the Highlands ichnosite at the Pliensbachian–Toarcian boundary.

In southern Africa, dinosaurs and synapsids, a group of animals that includes mammals and their closest fossil relatives, survived in a “land of fire” at the start of an Early Jurassic mass extinction, according to a study published January 29, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Emese M. Bordy of the University of Cape Town and colleagues.

Southern Africa

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The Karoo Basin of southern Africa is well-known for its massive deposits of igneous rocks left behind by extensive basaltic lava flows during the Early Jurassic. At this time, intense volcanic activity is thought to have had dramatic impacts on the local environment and global atmosphere, coincident with a worldwide mass extinction recorded in the fossil record. The fossils of the Karoo Basin thus have a lot to tell about how ecosystems responded to these environmental stresses.

Study

In this study, Bordy and colleagues describe and identify footprints preserved in a sandstone layer deposited between lava flows, dated to 183 million years ago. In total, they report five trackways containing a total of 25 footprints, representing three types of animals: 1)  potentially small synapsids, a group of animals that includes mammals and their forerunners; 2) large, bipedal, likely carnivorous dinosaurs; and 3) small, quadrupedal, likely herbivorous dinosaurs represented by a new ichnospecies (trace fossils like footprints receive their own taxonomic designations, known as ichnospecies). 

Fossils

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These fossils represent some of the very last animals known to have inhabited the main Karoo Basin before it was overwhelmed by lava. Since the sandstone preserving these footprints was deposited between lava flows, this indicates that a variety of animals survived in the area even after volcanic activity had begun and the region was transformed into a “land of fire.” The authors suggest that further research to uncover more fossils and refine the dating of local rock layers has the potential to provide invaluable data on how local ecosystems responded to intense environmental stress at the onset of a global mass extinction. 

Bordy adds: “The fossil footprints were discovered within a thick pile of ancient basaltic lava flows that are ~183 million years old. The fossil tracks tell a story from our deep past on how continental ecosystems could co-exist with truly giant volcanic events that can only be studied from the geological record, because they do not have modern equivalents, although they can occur in the future of the Earth.”

Sleep Problems in Children

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Teens with Autism Are Focus of New AAN Guideline

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It is not uncommon for children and teens with autism spectrum disorder to struggle with sleep. Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep or refusing to go to bed are just some of the sleep problems they can experience. To help families, neurologists and other healthcare providers make decisions on the best treatments, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) has issued a new guideline for sleep problems in children and teens with autism, published in the February 12, 2020, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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The guideline is endorsed by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Autism Speaks, the Child Neurology Society and the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The American Epilepsy Society has affirmed the value of the guideline to epileptologists.

“While up to 40 percent of children and teens in the general population will have sleep problems at some point during their childhood, such problems usually lessen with age,” said lead guideline author Ashura Williams Buckley, MD, of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “For children and teens with autism, sleep problems are more common and more likely to persist, resulting in poor health and poor quality of life. Some sleep problems may be directly related to autism, but others are not. Regardless, autism symptoms may make sleep problems worse.”

For the guideline, experts from the American Academy of Neurology carefully reviewed available scientific studies on autism and sleep problems in children and teens.

The guideline addressed four types of sleep problems: refusing to go to bed, stalling, or needing a parent or caregiver present until the child falls asleep; trouble falling asleep and staying asleep; sleeping for only short periods of time or not getting enough total sleep each night; and daytime behavior problems associated with insufficient sleep at night.

The guideline recommends that healthcare providers first identify if the sleep problems are caused by medications or other medical conditions, and if so, that those causes be addressed.

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If sleep problems appear to be more behavioral in nature, the guideline recommends a number of behavior treatments that have been shown to be effective in children with autism. These include setting up a consistent sleep routine with regular bedtimes and wake times, choosing a bedtime close to when the child usually gets sleepy, and not allowing use of electronic devices like computers or televisions close to bedtime.

“Behavior-modification strategies are a good place to start because they do not cost anything, there are no side effects and they have been shown to work for some people,” said Williams Buckley.

If behavioral strategies alone do not work, the guideline recommends that healthcare providers also consider adding melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone that tells the brain when to fall asleep and how long to sleep. Studies suggest that the artificial form of melatonin is safe and effective for children and teens with autism in the short term, for a period of up to three months. More research is needed to determine how safe melatonin is over longer periods of time. Possible side effects include headache, dizziness, diarrhea and rash. The guideline also cautions that over the counter melatonin products may not be reliable in terms of how much melatonin they actually contain. The guideline recommends using products that are labeled “pharmaceutical grade” melatonin.  

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The guideline also found that melatonin use alone may be just as helpful in some patients as when melatonin is combined with behavioral strategies.

The guideline did not find that behavior treatments combined with melatonin changed daytime behavior problems or symptoms of autism.

The guideline also found no evidence that routine use of weighted blankets or specialized mattress technologies improve sleep.

“Sleep problems can make behavioral issues in children and teens with autism even worse,” said Williams Buckley. “That’s why it is important for parents and caregivers to work with healthcare providers to find a way to improve a child’s sleep because we know that good quality sleep can improve overall health and quality of life in all children.”

Learn more about autism at BrainandLife.org, home of the American Academy of Neurology’s free patient and caregiver magazine focused on the intersection of neurologic disease and brain health. Follow Brain & Life® on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The American Academy of Neurology is the world’s largest association of neurologists and neuroscience professionals, with over 36,000 members. The AAN is dedicated to promoting the highest quality patient-centered neurologic care. A neurologist is a doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, migraine, multiple sclerosis, concussion, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

For more information about the American Academy of Neurology, visit AAN.com or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

Mutations in Sperm May Reveal Risk for Autism

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Credit: Martin Breuss, UC San Diego Health
In this illustration of sperm mosaicism, mutated sperm are depicted in red.

Researchers Use SDSC’s ‘Comet’ Supercomputer to Analyze Genome Sequences

While the causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are not fully understood, researchers believe both genetics and environment play a role. In some cases, the disorder is linked to de novo mutations that appear only in the child and are not inherited from either parent’s DNA.

In a recent study published in Nature Medicine, an international team of scientists led by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine describe a method to measure disease-causing mutations found only in the sperm of the father, providing a more accurate assessment of ASD risk in future children.

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“Autism afflicts one in 59 children and we know that a significant portion is caused by these de novo DNA mutations, yet we are still blind to when and where these mutations will occur,” said co-senior author Jonathan Sebat, professor and chief of the Beyster Center for Molecular Genomics of Neuropsychiatric Diseases at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “With our new study, we can trace some of these mutations back to the father, and we can directly assess the risk of these same mutations occurring again in future children.”

The research team used the Comet supercomputer based at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, an Organized Research Unit of UC San Diego, to align the whole genome sequences. “We called variants on the sequences and also detected de novo variants using Comet for these samples,” explained Danny Antaki, a UC San Diego Neurosciences postdoctoral scholar. “In short, Comet provided the foundation for the larger experiment as we were able to find the de novos that we wanted to analyze in sperm with the data generated on the supercomputer.”

Recent studies suggest gene-damaging de novo mutations are involved in at least 10 to 30 percent of ASD cases, with the number of mutations rising with the father’s age at time of conception. De novo mutations occur spontaneously in parents’ sperm or eggs or during fertilization. The mutation is then present in each cell as the fertilized egg divides.

Studies now point to male sperm as a particularly important source of these mutations, with the chance of the mutation recurring within the same family generally estimated at 1 to 3 percent.

“However, such estimates are not based on actual knowledge of the risk in an individual family, but instead are based on frequencies in the general population,” said co-senior study author Joseph Gleeson, Rady Professor of Neuroscience at UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of neuroscience research at the Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine. “When a disease-causing mutation occurs for the first time in a family, the probability that it could happen again in future offspring is not known. Thus, families must make a decision with a great deal of uncertainty.”

For their study, Gleeson, Sebat, and colleagues analyzed the sperm of eight fathers who were already parents of children with ASD. The goal was to look for the presence of multiple, genetically different material in cells in the same person, a phenomenon called mosaicism. Using deep whole genome sequencing, they found variants in offspring that were matched only in the fathers’ sperm.

“While medical textbooks teach us that every cell in the body has an identical copy of DNA, this is fundamentally not correct,” said first author Martin Breuss, an assistant project scientist in Gleeson’s lab. “Mutations occur every time a cell divides, so no two cells in the body are genetically identical. Mosaicism can cause cancer or can be silent in the body. If a mutation occurs early in development, then it will be shared by many cells within the body. But if a mutation happens just in sperm, then it can show up in a future child but not cause any disease in the father.”

The researchers determined that disease-causing mutations were present in up to 15 percent of the fathers’ sperm cells, information that could not be determined through other means, such as blood samples.

“My laboratory has a long-standing interest in understanding the origins of pediatric brain disease, and how mutations contribute to disease in a child,” said Gleeson. “We previously showed that mosaicism in a child can lead to diseases like epilepsy. Here, we show that mosaicism in one of parents is at least as important when thinking about genetic counseling.”

If developed into a clinical test, the researchers said fathers could have their sperm studied to determine their precise risk of recurrence in future children. The methods might also be applied to men that haven’t had children yet, but who want to know the risk of having a child with a disease.

About UC San Diego Health

UC San Diego Health, comprising a comprehensive health system throughout San Diego County, UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, is one of five academic medical systems within the University of California system. We are committed to improving patient care while also researching new treatments and training tomorrow’s doctors and pharmacists. For more than 50 years, our renowned clinicians and scientists have made advances in numerous fields, including minimally invasive surgeries, personalized cancer therapy, cardiovascular treatment and surgery, transplantation and the early detection of autism.

About SDSC

As an Organized Unit of UC San Diego, SDSC is considered a leader in data-intensive computing and cyberinfrastructure, providing resources, services, and expertise to the national research community, including industry and academia. SDSC supports hundreds of multidisciplinary programs spanning a wide variety of domains, from earth sciences and biology to astrophysics, bioinformatics, and health IT. SDSC’s petascale Comet supercomputer is a key resource within the National Science Foundation’s XSEDE (eXtreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment) program.

Predicting Autism Risk

Credit: U.S. Government
At birth, blood samples are taken from newborns and used to screen for genetic diseases. A new research study will help determine whether these drops can also help predict autism risk.

New research study will analyze dried blood spots recorded from California newborns for 1,000 different molecules and chemicals; their tell-tale presence might predict autism risk years before symptoms appear, prompting early treatment and perhaps prevention

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Within days of birth, a few drops of blood are collected from every newborn in California—and across the United States — which are then stored on filter paper and screened for dozens of genetic and congenital disorders, such as phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited metabolic disorder that can result in intellectual disability, seizures, heart and behavioral problems.

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have launched a Phase II research study to look for signs of another similarly devastating disorder, one that typically does not appear in seemingly healthy children until years later: autism spectrum disorder or ASD.

The UC San Diego Newborn Screening-Autism Risk Study is designed to determine whether the dried and stored blood drops of children later diagnosed with ASD contain within them the tell-tale presence and combinations of biological molecules and environmental chemicals that might predict the risk of a future ASD diagnosis.

“We know from the history of certain genetic diseases, such as PKU, that if children can be identified before the first symptoms have appeared, then the disease can be prevented, even though the children have the DNA mutations,” said Principal Investigator Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, pediatrics and pathology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “I believe that over half of autism cases may be preventable if only we had a way to identify the children at risk before the first symptoms appear.”

Naviaux said the new study is important for two reasons: the dramatic rise in diagnosed cases of ASD and increasing evidence that early intervention in children at risk of ASD can significantly improve outcomes.

The prevalence of ASD has risen from 20 in 100,000 births in the 1970s to 1,700 in 100,000 in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — an 84-times increase. Approximately one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies indicate autism diagnoses are increasing at the rate of 10 to 17 percent per year.

Changes in diagnostic criteria and reporting practices account for 60 percent of the rise, at most, according to previously published research. “This means that even by the most conservative estimates, the prevalence of ASD has increased at least 34 times,” said Naviaux. The overarching question for Naviaux and others is why? Is it genetics? The environment?

“Our genes have not changed significantly in the past 50 years,” said Naviaux. Single gene mutations play a causal role in approximately 10 percent of ASD cases. The vast majority of ASD cases are idiopathic or of unknown cause, most likely the result of a combination of genes, environmental factors or something yet to be identified.

“More than 1,000 genes can contribute to the risk and resistance a child has to ASD, but more than 95 percent of these genes are common variations also present in asymptomatic parents and children who don’t have ASD,” Naviaux said. “A clue to how the genetics of ASD is misinterpreted is the fact that many of the genes that contribute to ASD are the same genes that contribute to other disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar depression. In most cases, DNA only sets what is possible, not what is destined.”

The new Phase II study will focus on exposure and possible roles of chemicals and compounds (detected in blood) and how they might interact with genes.

Researchers will use a blood test developed in Naviaux’s lab to analyze the presence of more than 600 metabolites —typically small molecules produced by metabolism, the life-sustaining chemical reactions in all organisms. Metabolites from amino acids and antioxidants to vitamins and lipids serve diverse, crucial functions, including as fuel, signal carriers, structure providers, defenders and regulators among them.

Earlier research by Naviaux and others has found that persons with ASD appear to have a shared “metabolic signature.” That is, their biological chemistry is comparable, though their genetics are unique.

Testing will also look at more than 400 environmental chemicals in each dried blood drop. Exposure to these chemicals, such as commonly used pesticides, flame retardants, air pollutants, lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, has been linked to several neurodevelopmental disorders, including ASD.

Naviaux and colleagues believe that the majority of ASD symptoms are the result of a treatable metabolic syndrome triggered by persistence activation of the cell danger response (CDR), a natural and universal cellular reaction to injury or stress.

Chronic CDR, they suggest, results in disrupted and incomplete healing at the metabolic and cellular levels. In ASD, the consequence may be dysfunctional neural circuits and internal systems, producing autism’s well-documented symptoms and behaviors.  

“Metabolism is the real-time result of our genes interacting with the environment,” said Naviaux. “Environmental chemical or biotoxin exposures —the ‘exposome’ — at critical developmental windows can produce delayed effects that become apparent only after months or years. By measuring metabolism and the exposome, it may be possible to identify children at risk for developing autism before the first behavioral symptoms appear.”

The study seeks 400 participants between the ages of three and 10 years old, meeting these requirements:

Born in California
Have a confirmed diagnosis of ASD from a licensed clinician or be a healthy child not taking any prescription medications (200 participants from each group)
Born after a normal term pregnancy of 37 to 42 weeks
Have not had a medical issue that required readmission to the hospital in the first month of life

The study requires parents of participating children to answer questionnaires covering pregnancy, labor and delivery, the child’s health history and that of the family.

Consented analyses will be conducted of dried blood drops recorded as part of California’s Newborn Screening program, which began in 1966 and now screens for 80 different genetic and congenital disorders. Blood spots have been saved and stored by the California Department of Public Health since 1982. No new blood tests or behavioral testing will be required for the Phase II study.  

Naviaux said he hopes to screen and enroll the full complement of participants by June 2020. Analyses of the identified and retrieved blood spots is expected to be complete by June 2021.

“We then hope to expand the testing program to states like New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington by enlisting collaborators in each of those states who will be able to apply the new methods we have developed.  

“Each new state has slightly different policies and regulations regarding the collection and storage of dried blood spots from universal newborn screening programs, so this medium-scale expansion study will teach us what will be needed to launch a national study.”

‘How I Fell for My Field’

Credit: San Diego State University
Alicia Kinoshita, Ph.D., San Diego State, Associate Professor, Water Resources Engineering

For Valentine’s Day, we asked faculty and staff at nine CSU campuses to tell us how their lifelong love affair with their discipline began.

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As the adage goes, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The CSU is lucky to be replete with faculty and staff across its 23 campuses who’ve found their true calling. And for those who work with them—whether students or colleagues—that dedication to education is infectious.

Read on to hear how faculty and staff at nine CSU campuses fell head over heels for their discipline.

ALICIA KINOSHITA | Ph.D., San Diego State, Associate Professor, Water Resources Engineering

When did your love of post-fire recovery take hold? “I started working in this field as an undergraduate research assistant taking samples and measurements of water and soil. The research also took me to amazing locations such as the Sierra Nevada and Colorado. I loved being outside rather than in an office, and when I realized I could do this for a living, I was sold.”

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Why did you fall in love with it? “I really loved hiking and being outside. Glimpses of wildlife still fill me with awe and remind me that sometimes systems need to be reset. I also find great satisfaction in investigating the landscape after it has been disturbed and watching the changes over time. For example, after wildfire, it is amazing to watch a charred landscape evolve, from ash to green sprouts to dense vegetation.”

BRIAN SELF | Ph.D., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Professor, Mechanical Engineering, 2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of engineering take hold? “During my first year I took a survey course in biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech and really enjoyed it. As a result, I majored in a little-known department called engineering science and mechanics because it gave me the most flexibility to pursue biomedical types of courses. From there, I was able to get a job as a research engineer with the Air Force, where I investigated things like pilots pulling g’s [g-forces], ejections from aircraft and spatial disorientation.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “The human body is probably the most complex engineering system there is. As a civilian researcher, I got to use a human centrifuge to investigate human tolerances to sustained acceleration and to look at how high-altitude flight affects pilot performance. When I moved to Cal Poly, friends and I mentored senior design students as they developed devices to help people with disabilities participate in sports. I most love the amazing variety of interesting projects that I get to do, the wonderful colleagues I work with and the amazing students I get to mentor and teach.”

TED STANKOWICH | Ph.D., Cal State Long Beach, Director, The Mammal Lab

When did your love of animals take hold? “I began studying ecology and evolution early in college and then spent a summer vacation assisting with research on sharks. My junior year, I took a course in animal behavior and loved it. I then had the opportunity to work in one of the professor’s labs studying behavior in naked mole rats for my honors thesis.”

What is it about skunks? “They have this powerful noxious weapon everyone knows about, but…nobody studies their behavior. They are abundant and everyone seems to have a great skunk story to share. They are a misunderstood creature: They don’t stink themselves, aren’t aggressive, don’t ‘want’ to spray you and none of the large mammalian predators want anything to do with them!”

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JOANNA PEREZ | Ph.D., CSU Dominguez Hills, Assistant Professor, Sociology

When did your love of sociology take hold? “As an undergraduate, learning about the sociological imagination—which is the connection between self and society—ignited my interest in the field. For the first time, I was able to critically analyze and contextualize my lived experiences as a first-generation student and daughter of immigrants. Today, I get to advocate for social justice through research, teaching and service.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “Sociology has allowed me to engage in efforts that alter the social conditions of marginalized communities. This includes conducting research on Latino undocumented immigrant activists, facilitating a student-centered learning environment and addressing the needs of underserved communities.”

COLIN DEWEY | Ph.D., Cal Maritime, Associate Professor, English

When did your love of English take hold? “After high school, I had no interest in higher education. Instead, I went on a road trip and visited the lighthouse at Point Arena in Northern California. The idea of becoming a lighthouse keeper led to a hitch in the U.S. Coast Guard; after my enlistment, I began sailing on commercial ships. I found an old volume of John Ruskin’s Victorian social commentary ‘Queen of the Air’ on board a freighter. In a later job, I had the opportunity to be a peer-tutor. When I went from solitary reading at sea to engaging others through tutoring, and then teaching, I recognized that sharing knowledge and helping others to reach the kinds of ‘Eureka!’ moments that I’d experienced with that Ruskin book was what I wanted to do.”

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Why did you fall in love with it? “When I belatedly accepted the challenge and opportunity higher education held, I’d already spent close to 20 years working at sea. Education unlocked vast stores of knowledge unimaginable to my previous autodidact self. The recognition that I could help guide others along a path similar to the one I’d taken—regardless of their social or economic background—has become a vocation.”

BRIAN LEVIN | J.D., Cal State San Bernardino, Professor, Criminal Justice, Director, Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, ​2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of the study of civic cohesion and extremism take hold? “When Judge A. Leon Higginbotham taught me that a key component of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was its partial reliance on social science data. From then on, I felt there was a place for informed research with respect to policymaking.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “When I first started in 1986, no one was collecting national data about hate crimes and there were no new anti-hate crime laws at the federal levels. Even the constitutionality of state laws was still in doubt. This created opportunities to influence public policy through participation in landmark cases, police training and legislative fact-finding. Through this, I represented civil rights groups before Congress and in various Supreme Court amici briefs. Getting involved so early gave me an up-close chance to learn from key mentors, to whom I am still indebted, while also advancing the discourse that illuminates public policy reform.”

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ERIC BARTELINK | Ph.D., Chico State, Professor, Physical Anthropology​​

When did your love of anthropology take hold? “I realized this was my calling in 1995 when I was an undergraduate student in anthropology. I decided to shift my focus specifically to bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology after listening to some guest speakers.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “The idea that you can reconstruct several aspects of a person’s life from their skeleton always fascinated me, whether it was someone who died recently or hundreds or even thousands of years ago.”

LAURA LUPEI | Sonoma State, Senior Director, University Budget and Planning, 2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of budgeting take hold? “As soon as I started working at Somoma State 19 years ago, I knew it was a great fit. I spent every day solving problems and looking at both the details and the big picture of the university, something I hadn’t yet realized that came so naturally to me.” 

Why did you fall in love with it? “I really fell in love with budgeting when we started our strategic budgeting initiative. Budgeting is a lot more fun when an organization uses it as a tool for planning and moving forward a set of priorities rather than reacting. It has been extremely satisfying to watch our campus culture shift, and I never thought so many people would be interested in listening to my budget presentations!”

RAJEE AMARASINGHE | Ph.D., Fresno State, Professor & Chair of Mathematics, 2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of math take hold? “After being injured as an officer in the Sri Lankan Navy, I was forced to rethink my future. Having this time to contemplate my next move, I remembered the love I had for mathematics as a child. This realization led me to pursue graduate studies in mathematics, where I would eventually begin conducting research in mathematics education. When I realized I could transform the lives of others through mathematics, I truly began to appreciate the work I was doing as a mathematics educator.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “Oftentimes, there are students and teachers who’ve never had that opportunity to see, feel and enjoy the beauty of mathematics. It’s such a joy when someone gets that ‘A-ha’ moment where they realize mathematics is beautiful and that they had fun engaging in it. I truly fell in love with the work I am doing when I realized that I could bring this joy to people every day.”

Will "Parasite" Open the Door for More Asian American Representation in Hollywood?

Credit: ROB LATOUR/SHUTTERSTOCK
Bong Joon-ho and Jin Won Han have won the best original screenplay Oscar for “Parasite” — becoming not only the first South Korean film to win an Oscar, but a relatively rare win for a foreign language screenplay.

It was a historic night at the Oscars for “Parasite.” Yet while “Parasite” walked away with four awards including  Best Picture, none of the actors were recognized in bringing the film to life. 

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Christina Chin, assistant professor of sociology is co-author of the study “Tokens on the Small Screen” about how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remain underrepresented in Hollywood.

Credit: California State University, Fullerton
Christina Chin, assistant professor of sociology

According to Chin, “it was exciting to see the movie walk away with four awards including Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.  May this be a hopeful sign that the Hollywood industry will greenlight more projects that give Asian and Asian American artists additional opportunities to share their creative vision, perspective, and experiences.”

Rutgers scholar Jae Won Chung, an expert in Korean cinema, is available to discuss Parasite’s historic win at the Academy Awards, and the continued need for diversity in Hollywood.

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“This historic moment is a win-win for the American and South Korean film industries. It reinforces Hollywood’s self-congratulatory myth that it embraces diversity and inclusivity. Meanwhile, South Korea gets the flash of international recognition it craves. Alert filmmakers, critics and fans across the world no doubt appreciate the irony that Bong Joon-ho’s filmography has had a strong anti-establishment orientation since his 2000 directorial debut. His films offer a satirical barb often directed against the U.S. empire. And in a year with only one black nominee and zero recognition for women directors, Parasite’s win ensured that the media would focus on the Academy’s evolution,” Chung said.

Chung, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Rutgers–New Brunswick, is an expert in Korean cinema and visual culture, and modern and contemporary Korean literature.

He can be reached at jchung@alc.rutgers.edu.

Happy wife, Happy life

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A happy partner leads to a healthier future

Photo by Adrienne Andersen on Pexels.com

Science now supports the saying, “happy wife, happy life.” Michigan State University research found that those who are optimistic contribute to the health of their partners, staving off the risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline as they grow old together. 

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“We spend a lot of time with our partners,” said William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “They might encourage us to exercise, eat healthier or remind us to take our medicine. When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life. You actually do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses. 

An optimistic partner may encourage eating a salad or work out together to develop healthier lifestyles. For example, if you quit smoking or start exercising, your partner is close to following suit within a few weeks and months. 

“We found that when you look at the risk factors for what predicts things like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a lot of them are things like living a healthy lifestyle,” Chopik said. “Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors. There are some physiological markers as well. It looks like people who are married to optimists tend to score better on all of those metrics.” 

The study

Published in the Journal of Personality and co-authored by MSU graduate student Jeewon Oh and Eric Kim, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, followed nearly 4,500 heterosexual couples from the Health and Retirement Study for up to eight years. The researchers found a potential link between being married to an optimistic person and preventing the onset of cognitive decline, thanks to a healthier environment at home. 

“There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead,” Chopik said. “While there’s some research on people being jealous of their partner’s good qualities or on having bad reactions to someone trying to control you, it is balanced with other research that shows being optimistic is associated with perceiving your relationship in a positive light.” 

The research also indicated that when couples recall shared experiences together, richer details from the memories emerge. A recent example, Chopik explained, was Google’s tearjerker Super Bowl ad, “Loretta,” in which an elderly man uses his Google Assistant to help him remember details about his late wife. 

“The things he was recollecting were positive things about his partner,” Chopik said. “There is science behind the Google ad. Part of the types of memories being recalled were positive aspects of their relationship and personalities.” 

With all of its benefits, is optimism something that can be prescribed? While there is a heritable component to optimism, Chopik says there is some evidence to suggest that it’s a trainable quality. 

“There are studies that show people have the power to change their personalities, as long as they engage in things that make them change,” Chopik said. “Part of it is wanting to change. There are also intervention programs that suggest you can build up optimism.” 

Across the board, everyone benefits from a healthy dose of optimism from their partner. For the glass-is-half-empty people, a partner can still quench their thirst. For the glass-is-half-full people? Their cup runneth over. 

Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for 160 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

Synchronization of Memory Cells Critical For Learning and Forming Memories

Credit: UNH

On the left is an enlarged image showing many hippocampal neurons, most of which are silent and only a few are active. On the right are close ups of three highly active neurons, or memory cells, which become synchronized after memory formation

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The phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” has long evoked images of bells, food and salivating dogs. Even though this tried-and-true model of repetitive patterns mimics a variety of learning processes, what happens on a cellular level in the brain isn’t clear. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire took a closer look at the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical for long-term memory formation, and found that the neurons involved in so-called Pavlovian learning shift their behavior during the process and become more synchronized when a memory is being formed – a finding that helps better understand memory mechanisms and provides clues for the development of future therapies for memory-related diseases like dementia, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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“There are tens of millions of neurons in the hippocampus but only a small fraction of them are involved in this learning process” said Xuanmao (Mao) Chen, assistant professor of neurobiology. “Before engaging in Pavlovian conditioning, these neurons are highly active, almost chaotic, without much coordination with each other, but during memory formation they change their pattern from random to synchronized, likely forging new connecting circuits in the brain to bridge two unrelated events.

In the study, recently published in The FASEB Journal, researchers looked at Pavlovian learning patterns, or respondent conditioning, in mice. In the beginning, before any repetitive learning exercises, the mice did not know what to expect and using special imaging with an endomicroscope the researchers saw that the neural activity was disorderly. But after repeating different tasks associated with a conditional stimulus, like a tone or bell, the mice began to recognize the pattern and the highly active neurons became more synchronized. The researchers hypothesize that without forming synchronization, animals cannot form or retrieve this type of memory.

In the 1890’s, Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning through repetitive patterns of bell ringing which signaled to his dogs that food was on its way and stimulated salivation. This same learned behavior is important for episodic knowledge which is the basis for such things as learning vocabulary, textbook knowledge, and memorizing account passwords. Abnormal learning processing and memory formation are associated with a number of diseases like dementia, autism, and PTSD. People who struggle with these cognitive dysfunction-related disorders may have trouble retaining memories or can even form too strong a memory, as with PTSD patients. The UNH researchers believe that understanding the fundamentals of how classical conditioning shape neural connections in the brain could speed up the development of treatments for these disorders in the future.

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Contributing to these findings are Yuxin Zhou, doctoral candidate; Liyan Qiu, research scientist; both at UNH, and Haiying Wang, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Cole Neuroscience and Behavioral Faculty Research Awards.

The University of New Hampshire inspires innovation and transforms lives in our state, nation and world. More than 16,000 students from all 50 states and 71 countries engage with an award-winning faculty in top-ranked programs in business, engineering, law, health and human services, liberal arts and the sciences across more than 200 programs of study. As one of the nation’s highest-performing research universities, UNH partners with NASA, NOAA, NSF and NIH, and receives more than $110 million in competitive external funding every year to further explore and define the frontiers of land, sea and space. 

Hollywood's dirtiest secret?😗

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With the Academy Awards around the corner, moviegoers and critics are busy scrutinizing the costumes, sets and performances of this year’s cinematic stand-outs.
  
When film scholar Hunter Vaughan watches a movie, he considers something else: How big of a toll did it take on the environment?

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“I want to provide a counter-narrative to the typical story of Hollywood that looks at it not in terms of grandiose romanticization of the silver-screen, but through the hidden environmental tolls—the natural resource use, the waste production, the greenhouse gas emissions—that are seldom talked about,” says Vaughan, an environmental media scholar-in-residence in the College of Media Communication and Information (CMCI).

Vaughan’s new book, Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies, does just that, shedding light on a wide range of surprising ecological villains, from the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind—which ignited Hollywood’s polluting love affair with explosions—to the 2009 sci-fi Avatar, an ostensibly eco-friendly digital pioneer that generated mountains of real-world waste. 

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Vaughan found inspiration for the book when he was a doctoral student at Oxford in England. Walking home at night he noticed a blinding glow emanating from a window. When he peeked inside, he found a building full of humming generators, snaking electrical cords and glaring lights—all set up for a practice run-through of a scene in the 2007 fantasy The Golden Compass.

“I was shocked and disturbed by the amount of resources being used just for a run-through,” he recalls.

In the coming years, he scoured through film archives and directors’ reports, toured studio lots and interviewed execs and local film crews.

He discovered an industry culture in which extravagance and waste have been not only allowed but celebrated, even as other industries have been pressured to conserve. 

Titanic waste

During the filming of Gone With the Wind amid lingering economic depression and scarcity, the filmmakers lit mounds of sets from previous films (including King Kong) ablaze for the epic “burning of Atlanta” scene, sending a plume of potentially hazardous smoke into the Los Angeles sky.

For Gene Kelly’s classic dance scene in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, producers ran countless gallons of water for a week on a backlot at MGM. When they realized they were starting to lose water pressure around 5 p.m., as residents of nearby Culver City got home from work, they altered their schedule to run the water sooner. 

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“They knew that water was a resource of the commons and that it was finite, but rather than conserve it, they just ran it earlier,” he notes.

Such waste did not abate with the coming of the environmental movement.

In 1997, during the filming of the box-office smash Titanic, wastewater from the lavish set on the shore of a Mexican village polluted the nearby ocean, decimating the local sea urchin population, reducing fish levels by a third and taking a heavy toll on the local fishing industry. Three years later, during the filming of the drama The Beach, also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, film crews uprooted local flora on Phi Phi Leh island in Thailand, destroying dunes that served as a natural barrier against monsoons and tsunami. The subsequent boom in tourism related to the film took such a toll on the coral reefs that the government suspended tourism there.

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The truth about digital

Then there was Avatar.

Avatar is problematic on so many levels,” says Vaughan.

A cautionary tale of the dangers of unbridled resource use, the 2009 production billed itself as entirely digital—a filmmaking method described as less resource-intensive than shooting live action. But Vaughan’s research revealed that the filmmakers produced entire real-life sets and wardrobes anyway, to get a better sense of how bodies and fabrics might move in the digital world of Pandora.

Our increased reliance on digital technology for entertainment comes at its own ecological cost, Vaughan stresses, with fiber-optic cables strung along the ocean floor, satellites and cell towers built to transmit signals and the benign-sounding “cloud” made up of server farms gobbling up energy around-the-clock. While Netflix deserves kudos for its socially progressive content, he notes, it uses inordinate amounts of server space (and associated energy and coolant), and a built-in interface which automatically starts the next show once the previous show is finished exacerbates its waste.

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Award ceremonies like the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, with their lavish, wear-only-once gowns, $10,000 gift bags and private jets, also have an impact.

“They take a massive toll, both materially and symbolically,” he says.

In all, research has shown, the film industry is on par with the aerospace, apparel, hotel and semiconductor industries when it comes to energy use and emissions.

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Greening future films

But the news is not all bad, stresses Vaughan.

Some studios have vowed to go carbon neutral, and actors like Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Shailene Woodley and Jane Fonda are taking genuine and public steps to fight for cleaner air, water, land and environmental justice.

Vaughan is also doing his part.

With a grant from the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), he’s working to build a Global Green Media Production Network to facilitate eco-friendly production from East Asia to Latin America. 

What can moviegoers do?

Start by asking yourself some tough questions, he writes: Would you accept the extinction of a species in exchange for your favorite movie? How many downed trees’ or highways’ worth of carbon output is it worth?

“Filmgoers can choose not to endorse movies that rely on a spectacle of explosion, materialism and waste, and they can use social media to draw attention to their choices,” he says. “If we as an audience show Hollywood we want a certain type of film, they will start making them.”

Pregnant Women with Very High Blood Pressure Face Greater Heart Disease Risk😔

Photo by Suhyeon Choi
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Women with preeclampsia are four times more likely to suffer a heart attack or cardiovascular death, Rutgers study finds

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Women with high blood pressure in their first pregnancy have a greater risk of heart attack or cardiovascular death, according to a Rutgers study. 

The study is published in the Journal of Women’s Health

Approximately 2 to 8 percent of pregnant women worldwide are diagnosed with preeclampsia, a complication characterized by high blood pressure that usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had been normal. Doctors haven’t identified a single cause, but it is thought to be related to insufficiently formed placental blood vessels. Preeclampsia is also the cause of 15 percent of premature births in the U.S.

The researchers analyzed cardiovascular disease in 6,360 women, age 18 to 54, who were pregnant for the first time and diagnosed with preeclampsia in New Jersey hospitals from 1999 to 2013 and compared them to pregnant women without preeclampsia. They found that those with the condition were four times more likely to suffer a heart attack or cardiovascular death and more than two times more likely to die from other causes during the 15-year study period. 

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“Women who were diagnosed with preeclampsia tended also to have a history of chronic high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and kidney disease and other medical conditions,” said lead author Mary  Downes Gastrich, an associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a member of the Cardiovascular Institute of New Jersey.

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Gastrich said the study suggests that all women be screened for preeclampsia throughout their pregnancy and that treatment be given to those with preeclampsia within five years after birth. “Medication such as low-dose aspirin also may be effective, according to one study, in bringing down blood pressure as early as the second trimester​​,” she said. 

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 Other Rutgers authors include Stavros Zinonos, Gloria Bachmann, Nora M. Cosgrove, Javier Cabrera, Jerry Q. Cheng and John B. Kostis.

The Hidden History of Valentine's Day🥰

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Photo by Nick Fewings

UNLV history professor Elizabeth Nelson separates facts about the effects of marketing, consumerism, and social media on the holiday’s evolution from fiction about love’s golden age.

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Pets, spouses, co-workers, friends, classmates: They’re all in line to be on the receiving end of another record year for Valentine’s Day spending, says a new survey by the National Retail Federation.

But as Americans strive to return to the good old days of romance, one UNLV history professor says they never actually existed.

“People love the idea that there were these wonderful eras before our own time when people celebrated Valentine’s Day in the most authentic way,” says Elizabeth Nelson, a 19th-century pop culture expert, who began researching Valentine’s Day three decades ago and literally wrote the book on marketing the holiday. “But there was always this long and complicated history about Valentine’s Day and people actually thought that it was too commercial and insincere from the very beginning.”

We sat down with Nelson to get a handle on the history behind the holiday and the ways advertising, consumerism, and social media have changed the way we celebrate.

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Who is St. Valentine and why does he have a holiday?

Popular lore says that in 5th century A.D., there was a St. Valentine who was imprisoned for some transgression. The myth says the jailer’s daughter took pity, brought him food, and tried to save him. The incarcerated man sent her a note of thanks, signing it: “From your Valentine.” 

The story falls apart on multiple historical levels — it seems unlikely that the jailer’s daughter would have been literate or that Valentine could’ve gotten paper and pen in a jail cell. But historians argue that — like Christmas, Easter, and many other modern holidays — Christians in the past tended to link saint holidays with pagan celebrations to help solidify conversion because people didn’t want to give up the ways in which they lived their lives. Blending these holidays allowed revelers to keep observing rituals from centuries ago. Over time, the original intent was forgotten.

In this case, there was also a Roman festival called Lupercalia, celebrating fertility, that might have influenced the celebration of Valentine’s Day. While we now celebrate Valentine’s Day in February, in the Middle Ages, Chaucer, in “The Canterbury Tales,” describes the holiday as occurring in May with imagery of springtime, birds, and budding flowers — which makes sense if linked to a Roman holiday centered on fertility. 

What’s more, there are several saints throughout history named Valentine. But none of them are patron saints of love.

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Who celebrates Valentine’s Day and why?

Valentine’s Day is mostly only celebrated in the United States and Britain. Before the 18th century, it was about exchanging gifts — gloves and spoons were traditional — and being someone’s valentine for a whole year. It sometimes served as a precursor to betrothal. 

There are some interesting stories circulating about why it’s not as popular overseas.

Legend has it that in France, women who were rejected by their desired valentine would burn those men in effigy in a bonfire, causing a riotous ruckus — so allegedly, the government outlawed Valentine’s Day in the early 19th century. 

In England, there was a practice called “valentining,” where kids would go door to door asking for treats, similar to Halloween. However, over time, these public celebrations got out of hand and sometimes devolved into violence and mob action. So the proper, genteel middle class opted instead to change the focus from human interaction to the less dangerous exchange of cards.

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When did the commercialization of Valentine’s Day begin?

In the 1840s, Valentine’s Day took off in the U.S. as increased paper production and printing presses lowered costs and increased the number of pre-printed cards that people could exchange that featured fancy lace, pictures, and other decorations. And sometimes celebrants copied pre-written poems out of books called “valentine writers” that featured bawdy sexual innuendo. My favorite metaphor: grating someone’s nutmeg.

One of earliest American valentine businesses was run by Esther Howland in Worcester, Mass. She was the daughter of an insurance agent who ran a stationary store. She asked her father to import fancy paper, lace, and other decor from England to make valentines to sell. She employed female friends of the family, and asked her brothers to share sample valentines during their work trips as traveling salesmen. Esther received many orders and created a successful business during the 1850s and 1860s. Her story is quite amazing because we don’t think of women as running businesses in the 19th century. 

Hallmark was founded in 1911, and technology made it possible to produce valentines in color and with various textures even more inexpensively than before. So, it’s really in the beginning of the 20th century that Valentine’s Day becomes part of a general movement to turn holidays into opportunities for selling things from candy to flowers to magazine advertisements. Valentine’s Day began to center more on children than before. People began exchanging valentines in school. Hallmark played a big role in marketing it to elementary students, shifting the focus to the competitive collecting of the most valentines rather than a single sincere one.

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Has romance always been at the center of Valentine’s Day?

Initially, it was about having one valentine throughout the year and possibly becoming betrothed. But it evolved in the 19th century, sparking questions about the sincerity of exchanging pre-printed cards and the sanity of spending exorbitant amounts of money on them. 

Valentine’s Day and the exchange of valentines were a way that people in the emerging middle class in the 19th century negotiated that complicated relationship between romantic love and the economic reality of marriage. You could marry someone for love, but you still had to marry someone for love who could support you because most middle-class women didn’t work. So, it was dangerous just to fall in love with people without knowing anything about them. The celebration of Valentine’s Day became a way for people to test the uncomfortable juxtapositions of what love and marriage should be and the reality of what was actually possible. So, not so different from today.

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How has social media shifted the celebration of Valentine’s Day?

One of the things that’s nice about Valentine’s Day today is that there are a variety of ways to celebrate. There are Galentine’s and Single Awareness Day celebrations, you can give your pet a gift, or you can even celebrate alone. You don’t have to wait for the candy or the flowers to come. People still do those things, but there’s less pressure to conform to a public declaration or celebration of it. And that’s the thing about Valentine’s Day: It’s about what other people see you doing or getting. How do you perform the idea of love rather than actually express or engage in the act of love. It’s the representation of the commercial items — getting flowers delivered to your office or going to a fancy restaurant or getting a piece of expensive piece of jewelry. It’s what other people think of your couplehood rather than what you think about it.

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It is likely that Facebook and other social media have made Valentine’s Day more viral and more toxic, but the framework was already there. It’s not so much that social media really changed the scrutiny that was already at the core of Valentine’s Day; it just created a whole new possibility for performing the act of Valentine’s Day. Because social media sites are all about performing your imagined best self, the level of scrutiny on how you celebrate Valentine’s Day or what you got for Valentine’s day is ratcheted up exponentially on Facebook . It is not just about the people in your office or in your neighborhood, everybody in your world sees whether your sweetie did right by you or not, or vice versa.

Half-Quantum Step Toward Quantum Advantage🤔

Credit: Yufan Li, Johns Hopkins University

A famous metaphor for a qubit is Schrodinger’s hypothetical cat that can be both dead and alive. A flux qubit, a ring made of superconducting material, can have electric current flowing clockwise and counterclockwise simultaneously with an external field.

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The Science

Superconductors are materials that have no electrical resistance below a critical temperature. They typically push away magnetic fields, as if they are surrounded by an anti-field shield. But to use superconductors as qubits (the unit of a quantum computer), scientists had to surround them with magnetic fields. Researchers recently measured a surprising effect for a new type of superconductor: bismuth palladium (β-Bi2Pd). Even when there was no magnetic field around this superconductor, they found it existed between two states. That’s a necessary requirement for creating a qubit. This superconductor may host a Majorana fermion, an exotic quasiparticle. Scientists have proposed the idea of Majorana fermions, but have not observed them in experiments. 

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The Impact

Classical computers process information using binary states (0 and 1), called bits. Quantum computers use quantum bits (qubits). However, a qubit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. Qubits enable quantum computers to perform certain calculations at speeds many times faster than a classical computers. However, large-scale quantum computers need qubits that are much more stable than those currently available. Scientists are researching many different possible approaches to qubits, including photons, trapped ions, loops of superconducting material, and Majorana fermions. Majorana fermions are a promising candidate for stable qubits.  

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Summary

Scientists are currently looking for material systems that can support long-lived, coherent quantum phenomena that can be used for the development of qubits for future quantum computers.  One actively investigated system is based on Majorana fermions. In condensed matter physics, Majorana fermions are quasiparticles that are their own antiparticles, a fascinating quantum property. Because they always come in pairs, entangled Majorana quasiparticles could store quantum information at two discrete locations. For example, it could store data at opposite ends of one-dimensional wires. Scientists have suggested that Majorana fermions might exist in a spin-triplet superconductor (a superconductor in which pairs of electrons align their spins in parallel, resulting in a net total spin). In this research, scientists observed a half-quantum flux or half-quantum step when measuring the influence of a magnetic field on patterned rings of thin films of β-Bi2Pd. This observation proves unconventional Cooper pairing of electrons. The half-quantum flux was first observed in high-temperature copper-oxide superconductors. Other experiments reported in the literature are also consistent with spin-triplet pairing in this material. Spin-triplet superconductors have the necessary but not sufficient potential to host topologically-protected Majorana fermions. These quasiparticles could serve as a platform for the development of stable qubits for quantum computers with long coherence times and robustness toward atomic perturbations. What makes the half-quantum flux superconducting ring especially attractive is that such a field-free qubit device may enable practical applications of flux qubits for quantum computing.

Funding

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This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Basic Energy Sciences, including the SHINES Energy Frontier Research Center. E-beam lithography was conducted at the University of Delaware Nanofabrication Facility (UDNF) and the NanoFab laboratory of NIST (CNST).

Astronomers discover unusual monster galaxy in the very early universe

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

An international team of astronomers led by scientists at the University of California, Riverside, has found an unusual monster galaxy that existed about 12 billion years ago, when the universe was only 1.8 billion years old.

Dubbed XMM-2599, the galaxy formed stars at a high rate and then died. Why it suddenly stopped forming stars is unclear.

“Even before the universe was 2 billion years old, XMM-2599 had already formed a mass of more than 300 billion suns, making it an ultramassive galaxy,” said Benjamin Forrest, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Riverside Department of Physics and Astronomy and the study’s lead author. “More remarkably, we show that XMM-2599 formed most of its stars in a huge frenzy when the universe was less than 1 billion years old, and then became inactive by the time the universe was only 1.8 billion years old.”

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The team used spectroscopic observations from the W. M. Keck Observatory‘s powerful Multi-Object Spectrograph for Infrared Exploration, or MOSFIRE, to make detailed measurements of XMM-2599 and precisely quantify its distance.

Study results appear in the Astrophysical Journal.

“In this epoch, very few galaxies have stopped forming stars, and none are as massive as XMM-2599,” said Gillian Wilson, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCR in whose lab Forrest works.  “The mere existence of ultramassive galaxies like XMM-2599 proves quite a challenge to numerical models. Even though such massive galaxies are incredibly rare at this epoch, the models do predict them. The predicted galaxies, however, are expected to be actively forming stars. What makes XMM-2599 so interesting, unusual, and surprising is that it is no longer forming stars, perhaps because it stopped getting fuel or its black hole began to turn on. Our results call for changes in how models turn off star formation in early galaxies.”

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The research team found XMM-2599 formed more than 1,000 solar masses a year in stars at its peak of activity — an extremely high rate of star formation. In contrast, the Milky Way forms about one new star a year.

“XMM-2599 may be a descendant of a population of highly star-forming dusty galaxies in the very early universe that new infrared telescopes have recently discovered,” said Danilo Marchesini, an associate professor of astronomy at Tufts University and a co-author on the study.

The evolutionary pathway of XMM-2599 is unclear.

“We have caught XMM-2599 in its inactive phase,” Wilson said. “We do not know what it will turn into by the present day. We know it cannot lose mass. An interesting question is what happens around it. As time goes by, could it gravitationally attract nearby star-forming galaxies and become a bright city of galaxies?”

Co-author Michael Cooper, a professor of astronomy at UC Irvine, said this outcome is a strong possibility.

“Perhaps during the following 11.7 billion years of cosmic history, XMM-2599 will become the central member of one of the brightest and most massive clusters of galaxies in the local universe,” he said. “Alternatively, it could continue to exist in isolation. Or we could have a scenario that lies between these two outcomes.”

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The team has been awarded more time at the Keck Observatory to follow up on unanswered questions prompted by XMM-2599.

“We identified XMM-2599 as an interesting candidate with imaging alone,” said co-author Marianna Annunziatella, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University. “We used Keck to better characterize and confirm its nature and help us understand how monster galaxies form and die. MOSFIRE is one of the most efficient and effective instruments in the world for conducting this type of research.”

Schizophrenia Is A Disease, Not An Extreme of Normal Variation

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“Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and many other types of mental illness, are diseases of the brain and should be treated and studied as such,” say Johns Hopkins researchers.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST

Does this statement seem a bit obvious and not exactly rocket science? Although it may, this isn’t how the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) — the psychiatry wing of the National Institutes of Health — currently views severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder and dementia. The NIMH is the largest federal agency that provides research funding on mental disorders.

For the past decade, the NIMH has used a system called Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) to describe all mental illnesses as dimensions of psychological norms that fall along extremes of too much or too little of common personality traits. For example, everyone has minor fears of things such as spiders, heights or snakes. But, having very strong or unmanageable fears might constitute an anxiety disorder.

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While this way of thinking may make sense for anxiety, Johns Hopkins physicians argue that for the most severe of mental disorders — such as autism, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — the approach will lead clinicians and scientists in the wrong direction. These conditions aren’t the result of too much or too little of a normal human trait. Rather they represent a clear-cut shift outside the typical dimensions of human experience.

In every other field of medicine, researchers use animal models of diseases based on genes and their interactions that contribute to disease risk. However, the current NIMH approach directs psychiatric researchers to focus on normal variation. Research on animal models with genetic variations that increase the risk of diseases often doesn’t get funded, they say.

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The researchers lay out their thoughts in two commentaries, both published in Molecular Neuropsychiatry, one published in 2018 and the other in the October 2019 issue.

In their first commentary, the researchers argue that the NIMH approach of thinking of mental illness in dimensional terms is like regressing back to Galen’s Humors of the second century, when all illnesses were attributed to the imbalance of one of the four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. Then, they argue that a biomedical approach using the tools of genetics, neuroscience and imaging can lead to rational targets for therapies. The second commentary is a point-by-point critique of the NIMH system and its flaws. They say that the RDoC system moves away from the proven power of biomedical research, which explores the causes of diseases and their effects on human biology. They add that the RDoC system doesn’t appropriately address the natural history or progression of a disease.

“Using the RDoC system hasn’t advanced the field of psychiatry, diverts attention from achieving an understanding of underlying mechanisms and ultimately delays discovering rational treatments for these diseases,” says author Christopher A. Ross, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology, neuroscience and pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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This change in how the NIMH approaches mental illnesses occurred about a decade ago. Leadership at the NIMH initiated the RDoC system with the best motives in mind, in order to encourage neuroscience research to study how cells communicate with one another in the brain. However, this change to the RDoC system happened before modern genetic and other techniques pointed toward specific causes of major mental illnesses.

“No other NIH institute has adopted a scheme so discordant from modern biomedical research practice,” says Ross.

“The NIMH strategy makes psychiatry — and especially psychiatric research — seem like a strange and esoteric endeavor, not part of mainstream biomedicine, with the consequence of stigmatizing the entire discipline, including its patients,” says co-author Russell Margolis, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Johns Hopkins.

Now that investigators have identified some genetic and environmental causes, and are beginning to reveal molecular mechanisms behind these disorders, the researchers say that it’s time for the NIMH to readjust their system. These changes should allow for conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to be researched and treated as diseases — and not as fringe versions of normal variation. Moving toward a system that values the biomedical approach, comparable with the other NIH institutes, they say, would guide the NIMH to support studies on mechanisms of disease, so researchers can design more targeted therapies for those with different forms of these illnesses. As psychiatric genetics is complex, so are the genetics of many common medical diseases, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Nevertheless, in other fields, scientists successfully use modern biomedical technique to address complex diseases. The authors contend that the field of psychiatry and patients with severe mental diseases deserve no less.

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Ross received research support from JNJ/Janssen, Teva, Raptor/Horizon, Vaccinex, uniQure and Roche/Genentech unrelated to these publications, and has consulted for Teva, Sage, uniQure, Roche/Ionis, Azevan, Annexon and the Healthcare Services Group. Margolis received grant support from Teva unrelated to the publications discussed here.

Too Much of a Good Thing? 😜

Photo by Adrienn on Pexels.com

That Italian restaurant with the excellent linguini that you’ve indulged in so often you can no longer face a meal there.

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The conference with brilliant but endless keynotes: You start the day full of enthusiasm, but by the fourth breakout you’re flagging. The action movie that has you on the edge of your seat for so long and with so little down time that your brain goes numb long before your legs do.

It’s called satiation. And once you pass the satiation point, consuming more — even of something you love — means enjoying it less. Your senses become clogged by so much of one stimulus; they become tired and don’t process your enjoyment.

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Of course, feeling satiated is a temporary state. Taking a break from the restaurant or skipping a few of the keynotes will leave you ready for more in due course.

So how do you know where the satiation point will kick in? And how long does it take to rebuild your appetite for more?

Shedding rigorous scientific light on all of this is new research by Darden Professor Manel Baucells.

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EVERYTHING IN MODERATION?

Together with Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Baucells has created a mathematical model that charts the satiation state and the time that it takes for satiation to “decay” — in other words, the optimal amount of rest from an experience or activity that is needed in order for enjoyment to resume.  

“We know from research — and common sense — that the old axiom is true: Everything is better in moderation,” says Baucells. “You tire of something if you’re overexposed to it. If you go to a concert, you’re likely to enjoy the first songs more than those that come in the middle, unless the playlist has been carefully calibrated to avoid satiation. We wanted to calculate where satiation kicks in and how it impacts enjoyment. We also wanted to understand how much time needs to elapse until satiation subsides and we start to enjoy something again.”

Understanding these dynamics, says Baucells, can help optimize the design of experiences and activities.

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THE SATIATION MODEL

Baucells and Zhao’s satiation model plots three core dimensions: the consumption rate of an experience or activity or product, the satiation level, and the moment-by-moment enjoyment produced by that experience or activity or product. This third dimension is called “instant utility.”

The model is novel in that it is the first to introduce a “de-satiation motive,” charting the time it takes for satiation to decay — and enjoyment rise again.

The satiation model captures three key ideas:

  • The more frequently we consume something, the faster our satiation rate increases.
  • Enjoyment levels go down as satiation levels go up.
  • Resting between experiences decreases satiation and increases the enjoyment of the experiences that come after the break.

The paper also offers a “proof of concept” on how to measure, based on reports from individuals, specific parameters of the model such as how fast the satiation level decays during rest. Such measurements would allow us to improve the design of experiences, make better predictions on how much individuals would like a particular design, or monitor preferences from beginning to end of a time period.

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THE SCIENCE IN LEAVING THE BEST FOR LAST

“Right now, a combination of intuition and experience determine how experiential services are design in many spheres of business,” says Baucells. “Intuitively we know when we go to a show or a concert that the best is generally left for last. But if you ask organizers or producers why that is, you’ll likely get a host of different reasons.”

The satiation model brings greater coherence to our understanding of the dynamics at play — a logical approach that can serve to either support or debunk gut feeling.

The model shows that satiation peaks and falls over a period of time. A high-low-high pattern works best for maximum satisfaction: Ideally, we’d still start an experience with a bang, then take things down a notch, then end with a grand finale. Having satiation peak right at the end of an experience or activity won’t penalize that activity because, simply put, nothing comes after the end. There is no further chance for satiation to increase, as the final peak is followed by an indefinite period of decay or rest. Moreover, ending on the highest note leaves one with a positive memory of the experience — an important source of consumer satisfaction.

Baucells’ model also points to how to optimize rests or breaks between activities (e.g., between songs in a concert), or to use variety to minimize satiation and optimize enjoyment.

“It’s the scientific explanation behind why we need to hear acoustic songs in a rock concert, or have our high-energy action interspersed with quieter scenes in a movie.”

So no matter how much you like kayaking or golfing, booking a six-day vacation centered around the activity will not be as fun as booking two separate three-day vacations. And mixing things up with, say, a horseback ride, will do wonders for how much more you appreciate the next golf course.

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IMPLICATIONS

Decision-makers would do well to factor this understanding into business models, loyalty programs and marketing efforts, say the researchers.

Managing satiation more scientifically has benefits that span any number of sectors.

Restaurant mangers might want to think about reducing portion size in order to boost the sale of desserts. Customer loyalty efforts might be well served both by prioritising innovation and variety of offers, and by allowing greater periods of time to elapse between promotions.

There are key insights here that can even inform the debate on income inequality, Baucells says.

“The satiation model shows us that people tire of something if they do it too frequently. This can be just as easily applied to high-wealth individuals and spending habits,” says Baucells. “The model tells us that people cannot efficiently spend money on consumption indefinitely, and that has implications for inequality or philanthropy. Individuals with large wealth will eventually reach their satiation points in consumption, and their capacity to make any significant increase in enjoyment by spending more will eventually plateau. Past this point, philanthropy may make more sense.”

What Is An Endangered Species?

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Gray wolves, like this pair on Isle Royale, are listed as endangered in the United States.

Credit: Michigan Tech

By John Vucetich, professor, College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science

Lions and leopards are endangered species. Robins and raccoons clearly are not. The distinction seems simple until one ponders a question such as: How many lions would there have to be and how many of their former haunts would they have to inhabit before we’d agree they are no longer endangered?

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To put a fine point on it, what is an endangered species? The quick answer: An endangered species is at risk of extinction. Fine, except questions about risk always come in shades and degrees, more risk and less risk.

Extinction risk increases as a species is driven to extinction from portions of its natural range. Most mammal species have been driven to extinction from half or more of their historic range because of human activities. 

The query “What is an endangered species?” is quickly transformed into a far tougher question: How much loss should a species endure before we agree that the species deserves special protections and concerted effort for its betterment? My colleagues and I put a very similar question to nearly 1,000 (representatively sampled) Americans after giving them the information in the previous paragraph. The results, “What is an endangered species?: judgments about acceptable risk,” are published today in Environmental Research Letters.

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Three-quarters of those surveyed said a species deserves special protections if it had been driven to extinction from any more than 30% of its historic range. Not everyone was in perfect agreement. Some were more accepting of losses. The survey results indicate that people more accepting of loss were less knowledgeable about the environment and self-identify as advocates for the rights of gun and land owners. Still, three-quarters of people from the group of people who were more accepting of loss thought special protections were warranted if a species had been lost from more than 41% of their former range.

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These attitudes of the American public are aligned with the language of the U.S. Endangered Species Act — the law for preventing species endangerment in the U.S. That law defines an endangered species as one that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

But there might be a problem

Government decision-makers have tended to agree with the scientists they consult in judging what counts as acceptable risk and loss. These scientists express the trigger point for endangerment in very different terms. They tend to say a species is endangered if its risk of total and complete extinction exceeds 5% over 100 years.

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Before human activities began elevating extinction risk, a typical vertebrate species would have experienced an extinction risk of 1% over a 10,000-year period. The extinction risk that decision-makers and their consultant experts have tended to consider acceptable (5% over 100 years) corresponds to an extinction risk many times greater that the extinction risk we currently impose on biodiversity! Experts and decision-makers — using a law designed to mitigate the biodiversity crisis — tend to allow for stunningly high levels of risk. But the law and the general public seem accepting of only lower risk that would greatly mitigate the biodiversity crisis. What’s going on?

One possibility is that experts and decision-makers are more accepting of the risks and losses because they believe greater protection would be impossibly expensive. If so, the American public may be getting it right, not the experts and decision-makers. Why? Because the law allows for two separate judgements. The first judgement is, is the species endangered and therefore deserving of protection? The second judgment is, can the American people afford that protection? Keeping those judgements separate is vital because making a case that more funding and effort is required to solve the biodiversity crisis is not helped by experts and decision-makers when they grossly understate the problem — as they do when they judge endangerment to entail such extraordinarily high levels of risk and loss.

Facts and Values

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Another possible explanation for the judgments of experts and decision-makers was uncovered in an earlier paper led by Jeremy Bruskotter of Ohio State University (also a collaborator on this paper). They showed that experts tended to offer judgments about grizzly bear endangerment — based not so much their own independent expert judgement — but on basis of what they think (rightly or wrongly) their peers’ judgement would be.

Regardless of the explanation, a good answer to the question, “What an endangered species?” is an inescapable synthesis of facts and values. Experts on endangered species have a better handle on the facts than the general public. However, there is cause for concern when decision-makers do not reflect the broadly held values of their constituents. An important possible explanation for this discrepancy in values is the influence of special interests on decision-makers and experts charged with caring for biodiversity.  

Getting the answer right is of grave importance. If we do not know well enough what an endangered species is, then we cannot know well enough what it means to conserve nature, because conserving nature is largely — either directly or indirectly — about giving special care to endangered species until they no longer deserve that label.

Research collaborators include Jeremy T. Bruskotter of Ohio State University, Adam Feltz of University of Oklahoma, and Tom Offer-Westort also of University of Oklahoma.

Coronavirus

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

Two New Rapid Tests Could Play Key Role in Efforts to Contain Growing Epidemic

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WASHINGTON – Breaking research in AACC’s Clinical Chemistry journal shows that two new tests accurately diagnose coronavirus infection in about 1 hour. These tests could play a critical role in halting this deadly outbreak by enabling healthcare workers to isolate and treat patients much faster than is currently possible. 

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Since the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China last month, this pneumonia-like illness has spread at an alarming rate. Just yesterday, the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak a public health emergency, and as of today, the virus has infected nearly 10,000 people in China, with the death toll soaring to more than 200. More cases continue to appear around the globe, with six coronavirus cases already confirmed in the U.S. In order to contain this pandemic, healthcare workers need to quickly and accurately identify new coronavirus cases so that patients get crucial medical care and transmission can be halted. However, the Chinese labs that can test for coronavirus are currently overwhelmed. There are reports of hospitals in Wuhan having to deny testing for severely ill patients, who are then also denied full-time admission because beds need to be saved for those with confirmed diagnoses. Partly as a result of these testing difficulties, researchers estimate that only 5.1% of coronavirus cases in Wuhan have actually been caught. 

A team of researchers led by Leo L.M. Poon, DPhil, of the University of Hong Kong has developed two rapid tests for the coronavirus that could break this diagnostic bottleneck. Using a technology known as real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), the tests detect two gene regions that are only found in the Wuhan coronavirus (officially known as 2019-novel-coronavirus) and in other closely related coronaviruses such as SARS. The two gene regions detected by the tests are known as ORF1b and N. Significantly, both tests also take only about 1 hour and 15 minutes to run. This fast turnaround time could enable Chinese labs to greatly increase patient access to coronavirus testing. 

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To evaluate the performance of these tests, Poon’s team first confirmed that the tests accurately identify genetic material extracted from cells infected with the SARS coronavirus. The researchers also showed that the tests return negative results for samples containing genetic material from other respiratory viruses, demonstrating that the tests accurately differentiate coronavirus infection from other causes of pneumonia. Lastly, Poon’s team used the tests to analyze sputum and throat swab samples from two patients infected with the 2019-novel-coronavirus. The tests correctly gave positive results for both patients. 

“Signs of [coronavirus] infection are highly non-specific and these include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, [shortness of breath], and viral pneumonia,” said Poon. “Thus, diagnostic tests specific for this infection are urgently needed for confirming suspected cases, screening patients, and conducting virus surveillance. The established assays [in this study] can achieve a rapid detection of 2019-novel-coronavirus in human samples, thereby allowing early identification of patients.”

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About AACC

Dedicated to achieving better health through laboratory medicine, AACC brings together more than 50,000 clinical laboratory professionals, physicians, research scientists, and business leaders from around the world focused on clinical chemistry, molecular diagnostics, mass spectrometry, translational medicine, lab management, and other areas of progressing laboratory science. Since 1948, AACC has worked to advance the common interests of the field, providing programs that advance scientific collaboration, knowledge, expertise, and innovation. For more information, visit www.aacc.org

Clinical Chemistry (clinchem.org) is the leading international journal of laboratory medicine, featuring nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies every year that help patients get accurate diagnoses and essential care. This vital research is advancing areas of healthcare ranging from genetic testing and drug monitoring to pediatrics and appropriate test utilization. 

Social Interaction Difficulties in Autism

Study Challenges Assumptions About Social Interaction Difficulties in Autism

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Autism is characterized in part by an individual’s challenges communicating and interacting socially with others. These difficulties have typically been studied in isolation by focusing on cognitive and behavioral differences in those with autism spectrum disorder, but little work has been done on how exchanges for autistic people unfold in the real world.

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Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas recently turned the spotlight on social interaction in autism by examining it as a two-way street. Their results, published in December in the journal Autism, suggest that successful interactions for autistic adults revolve around partner compatibility and not just the skill set of either person.

“Most studies attempting to understand social disability in autism focus exclusively on individual characteristics,” said Dr. Noah Sasson, an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) and corresponding author of the study. “This presumes that any difficulties in social interaction are driven solely by the autistic person. But how each person influences and is influenced by the other is key to understanding affiliation and social quality.”

The study focused on the so-called “double-empathy problem,” which predicts that two people who are neurologically different and have distinct modes of communication and understanding may have trouble connecting with each other, as commonly occurs in interactions between autistic and non-autistic adults.

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“It’s not just that autistic adults can struggle to infer the thoughts and motivations of typically developing adults, which has been well documented; the reverse is true as well. Non-autistic people struggle to infer what autistic people are thinking,” Sasson said. “Anecdotally, many autistic people often report better quality of social interaction when engaging with other autistic people. We set out to test this empirically.”

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Kerrianne Morrison MS’16, PhD’19, the paper’s lead author, explained that the concept of a social-interaction difficulty being a two-sided, relational problem — and not simply a shortcoming of the autistic person — is only beginning to take hold.

“Autism is such a young field of study. Examining differences depending on the context of social situations rather than dysfunction across all contexts is starting to gain traction in academia,” she said. “We believe this represents a better understanding of how people with autism can thrive in the right contexts.”

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In the study, 125 adults held a five-minute, unstructured “getting-to-know-you” conversation with an unfamiliar person. Sixty-seven of the participants had been diagnosed with autism. Each participant then independently evaluated the quality of the interaction and their first impressions of their partner.

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Autistic adults were not rated as less intelligent, trustworthy or likable by either the autistic or typically developing cohort, and importantly, autistic participants’ interactions with other autistic adults were viewed by them as more favorable than those with typically developing partners.

“While typically developing participants preferred future interaction with other typically developing partners over autistic partners,” Sasson said, “autistic adults actually trended toward the opposite, preferring future interaction with other autistic adults. They also disclosed more about themselves to autistic partners and felt closer to their partners than did typically developing participants.”

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Autistic adults were rated as more awkward and less socially warm than typically developing adults by both autistic and typically developing partners. Some judgments were more favorable than those from Sasson’s previous studies in which people evaluated autistic adults in videos.

“Direct interaction seems to lessen some negative evaluations of autism,” Sasson said. “This aligns with previous work suggesting that direct experience and knowledge of autism can reduce stigma and promote inclusion.”

Typically developing participants also rated the conversational content with autistic and typically developing partners to be of similar quality. This shows that negative evaluations of autistic adults by non-autistic adults may be based more on social presentation differences and not their actual conversations.

“These findings suggest that social interaction difficulties in autism are not an absolute characteristic of the individual,” Sasson said. “Rather, social quality is a relational characteristic that depends upon the fit between the person and the social environment. If autistic people were inherently poor at social interaction, you’d expect an interaction between two autistic people to be even more of a struggle than between an autistic and non-autistic person. But that’s not what we found.”

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Sasson said that he hopes this work shows that studying actual social interaction elicits a deeper understanding than studying individual abilities alone.

“Social disability in autism is context-dependent and emerges more in interactions with typically developing partners,” he said. “This likely reflects a mismatch in cognitive and communication styles that may improve with increased familiarity and acceptance.”

Morrison believes that this research is illuminating a crucial portion of the story for the autistic community.

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“We’re moving beyond the existing research, which has fixated on social abilities in isolated, standardized contexts, and addressing this blind spot of real-world outcomes,” she said. “Particularly in adults, this is the information we need.”

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Other authors affiliated with the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences include Dr. Robert Ackerman, associate professor of psychology; cognition and neuroscience doctoral student Kilee DeBrabander; and psychological sciences doctoral student Desi Jones. Daniel Faso PhD’16 is also an author.

The work was funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Autism Grant Program and internal funding.

Autism Diagnosis Test Needs Improvement

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Study finds inconsistencies in a broadly used autism test

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Rutgers researchers have found that a test widely used to diagnose whether children have autism is less reliable than previously assumed.

The study is published in the journal Neural Computation.

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The standardized test, known as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), assesses communication skills, social interaction and play for children who may have autism or other developmental disorders.

The researchers digitized the test by attaching wearable technology, like an Apple Watch, to two clinicians and 52 children who came in four times and took two different versions of the test. 

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When researchers looked at the scores of the entire cohort, they found they did not distribute normally – which could mean a chance of false positives inflating the prevalence of autism, among other implications.

The results showed that switching clinicians may change a child’s scores and consequently influences the diagnosis. The researchers found similar results when they analyzed open-access data of 1,324 people ages 5 to 65, said Elizabeth Torres, associate professor of psychology in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, and director of The New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence.

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“The ADOS test informs and steers much of the science of autism, and it has done great work thus far,” said Torres, whose expertise has brought emerging computer science technology to autism. “However, social interactions are much too complex and fast to be captured by the naked eye, particularly when the grader is biased to look for specific signs and to expect specific behaviors.”

The researchers suggest combining clinical observations with data from wearable biosensors, such as smartwatches, smartphones and other off-the-shelf technology.

By doing so, they argue, researchers may make data collection less invasive, lower the rate of false positives by using empirically derived statistics rather than assumed models, shorten the time to diagnosis, and make diagnoses more reliable, and more objective for all clinicians.

Torres said autism researchers should aim for tests that capture the accelerated rate of change of neurodevelopment to help develop treatments that slow down the aging of the nervous system.

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“Autism affects one out of 34 children in New Jersey,” she said. “Reliance on observational tests that do not tackle the neurological conditions of the child from an early age could be dangerous. Clinical tests score a child based on expected aspects of behaviors. These data are useful, but subtle, spontaneous aspects of natural behaviors, which are more variable and less predictable, remain hidden. These hidden aspects of behavior may hold important keys for personalized treatments, like protecting nerve cells against damage, or impairment, which could delay or altogether stop progression.”

The study was co-authored by Richa Rai, a graduate student in psychology at Rutgers University, Sejal Mistry, a former Rutgers Biomathematics student now at the University of Utah Medical School, and Brenda Gupta from Montclair State University.

Sleep-Deprived Due to the Super Bowl? 40% of U.S. Adults Usually Are

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Fun on Super Bowl Sunday can lead to a tired Monday for many. In a new survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), nearly 40% of U.S. adults said they are more tired than usual the Monday after the Super Bowl. With pre-game entertainment, high-profile commercials, a star-studded halftime show and high-stakes football, the event can run well into the night.

“It’s easy to stay up too late after enjoying a night of football, food and friends,” said AASM President Dr. Kelly A. Carden. “To get the sleep you need after the Super Bowl, it is recommended that you plan ahead and prioritize your bedtime on Sunday night to avoid a tired day at work on Monday.”

The AASM provides the following tips for a post-Super Bowl sleep game plan:

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  • Avoid food and drinks after halftime. Eating heavy meals or foods that upset your stomach, and drinking caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime, can negatively affect your sleep. If you’re hungry late at night, eat a light, healthy snack.
  • Shut off the TV and other electronic devices after the game. Avoid the temptation to engage in post-game commentary on social media. Instead, give yourself some time to unwind before going to bed.
  • Prioritize your bedtime. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep to feel their best during the day. Make sure you get to bed at a reasonable hour to avoid feeling tired on Monday.

Devastating genetic disorder

Helping the world understand, detect and treat a devastating genetic disorder

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Fragile X syndrome may be a debilitating genetic neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people worldwide, but many doctors don’t know anything about it, including have the resources to properly diagnose or treat it.

The UC Davis MIND Institute is home to many of the world’s leading experts in fragile X syndrome and works globally to teach clinicians and families on the way to identify, test and supply look after those born with the disorder, often related to autism.

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This multimedia story documents one such outreach effort in Serbia and therefore the lives of the Cvijetic family and their look for help for his or her 6-year-old son, Demetrije. Diagnosed with fragile X syndrome through the efforts of a MIND Institute-trained physician, the affectionate boy has never attended school, cannot speak or feed himself with a spoon or fork. His parents desperately hope he can someday have a productive life.

MIND Institute experts in fragile X syndrome are available for media interviews about their international work and ongoing research. They include:

Randi Hagerman, a pediatrician and professor at UC Davis, and one among the world’s leading experts on fragile X syndrome and related conditions and their treatment.

Leonard Abbeduto, a psychologist and director of the UC Davis MIND Institute who is internationally renowned for his work on the event and use of language in individuals with intellectual disabilities, including those with fragile X syndrome.

David Hessl, a toddler psychotherapist and professor at UC Davis whose expertise include the cognitive, emotional and behavioral evaluation of youngsters with fragile X syndrome.

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The MIND Institute will next bring their expertise to Cartagena, Colombia for the Pan-American Conference of Neurodevelopment: Autism and Fragile X Syndrome, April 16-17 then to Quito, Ecuador for an additional conference April 20-21.

Signs of Autism

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Three Key Factors to assist Children Avoid Social Rejection Identified

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Neurobehavioral researchers at Rush University center have found three key factors during a child’s behavior which will cause social rejection. The studies are an important step in developing scientifically sound screening tests and treatment planning for social-emotional learning difficulties. The results from the studies are published within the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

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Findings from the pair of studies indicate that the power to select abreast of non-verbal cues and social cues in social interaction also as recognize the meaning and respond appropriately to them are key to helping children develop skills to take care of friendships and avoid a number of problems in later life.

A child who experiences social rejection is more likely to suffer from academic failure, drop out of faculty, experience depression or anxiety, and experiment with drugs.

“Children’s ability to develop positive peer relationships is critical to their well-being,” said Dr. Clark McKown, study PI and associate executive and director of research at the push Neurobehavioral Center. “Compared to children who are accepted by their peers, socially rejected children are at substantially elevated risk for later adjustment troubles.”

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Researchers observed two groups of youngsters. One was a random sample of 158 children within the Chicago establishment. the opposite group was a random sample of 126 clinic-referred children.

The studies indicate that some children have difficulty learning on non-verbal or social cues.

According to McKown, “They simply don’t notice the way someone’s shoulders slump with disappointment, or hear the change in someone’s voice once they are excited, or absorb whether a person’s face shows anger or sadness.”

A second major factor is that some children may devour on non-verbal or social cues, but lack the power to connect aiming to them. The third factor is that the ability to reason about social problems.

“Some children may notice social cues and understand what’s happening, but are unable to try to to the social problem solving to behave appropriately,” said McKown.

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A child who can absorb social cues, recognize their meaning and respond appropriately, and who is capable of “self- regulating,” or controlling behavior, is more likely to possess successful relationships.

“The number of youngsters who cannot negotiate of these steps, and who are in danger of social rejection, is startling,” said McKown.

Nearly 13 percent of the varsity age population, or roughly four million children nationwide, have social-emotional learning difficulties.

For some time, behavioral scientists have known the social costs related to this problem. Illinois is one among a couple of states which require school districts to assess and monitor the social-emotional learning needs of its students.

“Because it’s not known exactly which behaviors set a toddler up for failure, or the way to measure these skills, it had been difficult to supply support,” said McKown. “Now, it’ll be possible to pinpoint which abilities a toddler must develop and offer help.”

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According to researchers at Rush, the results of the studies could potentially help develop tests to assess for social-emotional learning that are easy to administer and scientifically sound.

The study was funded by the Dean and Rosemarie Buntrock Foundation and therefore the William T. Grant Foundation.

About Rush University center Rush University Medical Center is a tutorial center that encompasses the quite 600 staffed-bed hospital (including Rush Children’s Hospital), the Johnston R. Bowman clinic and Rush University. Rush University, with quite 1,730 students, is home to at least one of the primary medical schools within the Midwest, and one among the nation’s top-ranked nursing colleges. Rush University also offers graduate programs in allied health and therefore the basic sciences. Rush is noted for bringing together clinical care and research to deal with major health problems, including arthritis and orthopedic disorders, cancer, heart condition, mental disease, neurological disorders and diseases related to aging.

About Rush Neuro Behavioral Center Rush Neuro Behavioral Center (RNBC) serves the medical, psychological and academic needs of youngsters with neuro behavioral issues with a special emphasis on social-emotional learning disorders. .These children have difficulty focusing, forming relationships, regulating behavior, or functioning effectively due to differences within the way their brains receive, process, and manage verbal and nonverbal information. Through research, clinical practice, and education, RNBC seeks to reinforce the understanding of the requirements of these with neuro behavioral disorders, repose on their strengths, and help them achieve their full potential.

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Since 1997, RNBC has treated quite 10,000 children with such problems as Tourette’s Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and language-based and non-verbal learning disabilities

Visit http://www.RNBC.org or call 847.933.9339 with any questions or additional information on RNBC services and research initiatives.

System Detects & Translates Sarcasm on Social Media

Technion student develops system that interprets sarcasm on Twitter, and translates it into sarcasm-free language

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Researchers in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management have developed a system for interpreting sarcastic statements in social media. The system, developed by graduate student Lotam Peled, under the guidance of Assistant Professor Roi Reichart, is called Sarcasm SIGN (sarcasm Sentimental Interpretation GeNerator).

“There are a lot of systems designed to identify sarcasm, but this is the first that is able to interpret sarcasm in written text,” said Peled. “We hope in the future, it will help people with autism and Asperger’s, who have difficulty interpreting sarcasm, irony and humor.”

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Based on machine translation, the new system turns sarcastic sentences into honest (non-sarcastic) ones. It will, for example, turn a sarcastic sentence such as, “The new ‘Fast and Furious’ movie is awesome. #sarcasm” into the honest sentence, “The new Fast and Furious movie is terrible.”

Despite the vast development in this field, and the successes of sentiment analysis applications on “social media intelligence,” existing applications do not know how to interpret sarcasm, where the writer writes the opposite of what (s)he actually means.

In order to teach the system to produce accurate interpretations, the researchers compiled a database of 3,000 sarcastic tweets that were tagged with #sarcasm, where each tweet was interpreted into a non-sarcastic expression by five human experts. In addition, the system was trained to identify words with strong sarcastic sentiments – for example, the word “best” in the tweet, “best day ever” – and to replace them with strong words that reveal the true meaning of the text. The system was examined by a number of (human) judges, who gave its interpretations high scores of fluency and adequacy, agreeing that in most cases it produced a semantically and linguistically correct sentence.

Automatic identification and analysis of sentiment in text is a very complex challenge being explored by many researchers around the world because of its commercial potential and scientific importance. Sentiment identification could be used in social, commercial, and other applications to improve communication between people and computers, and between social media users.

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The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is a major source of the innovation and brainpower that drives the Israeli economy, and a key to Israel’s renown as the world’s “Start-Up Nation.” Its three Nobel Prize winners exemplify academic excellence. Technion people, ideas and inventions make immeasurable contributions to the world including life-saving medicine, sustainable energy, computer science, water conservation and nanotechnology. The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute is a vital component of Cornell Tech, and a model for graduate applied science education that is expected to transform New York City’s economy.

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American Technion Society (ATS) donors provide critical support for the Technion—more than $2 billion since its inception in 1940. Based in New York City, the ATS and its network of supporters across the U.S. provide funds for scholarships, fellowships, faculty recruitment and chairs, research, buildings, laboratories, classrooms and dormitories, and more.

New Policy Reduces Anti-Psychotic Medications in Foster Children

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Texas strategy reduces prescriptions without compromising care, Rutgers study finds

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Rutgers researchers have found that a Texas strategy to reduce anti-psychotic medication for children can serve as a model for other state Medicaid programs.

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The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“Youth in the United States foster care system are about five times more likely to take antipsychotic medications, a class of medications to manage their mental and behavioral health, than children in the general public,” said Thomas Mackie, assistant professor at Rutgers School of Public Health. In response, over 31 state Medicaid programs nationally are experimenting with different oversight strategies to ensure safe and judicious use of antipsychotic medications. These Medicaid programs are challenged to address these concerns while also ensuring access to antipsychotic medications in cases where these medications are clinically optimal, especially for those youth with psychosis, autism and other U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved clinical indications.

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An antipsychotic medication oversight strategy implemented in Texas included four elements: a mental health screening administered within 72 hours of the child being removed from the original caregiver; a health passport drawing on claims-based data; a psychiatric consultation line for child welfare staff, caregivers and judges; and a retrospective review of whether prescribed psychotropic medications met state best practice parameters after the antipsychotic medication was prescribed and dispensed.

The study, sought to examine whether the Texas program was effective in reducing the number of youth in foster care prescribed antipsychotic medications off-label to manage symptoms of conditions such as conduct disorders or attention hyperactivity disorders, while not decreasing use for disorders with FDA indications, such as bipolar disorder or autism spectrum disorders.

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After the strategy started, the Rutgers researchers found the program resulted in roughly a 5 percent to 8 percent reduction in antipsychotic use for youth treated off-label for conditions like conduct or attention hyperactivity disorders, whereas no significant changes were found for youth treated for FDA-indicated conditions.

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These findings show that the Texas program effectively reduced use of antipsychotic medications for off-label conditions where clinical concerns are greatest while not reducing antipsychotic medications for FDA-indicated conditions where stronger evidence exists for antipsychotic use among youth.

“Although the Texas model enrolled only youths in foster care, similar innovations are increasingly being extended to the general population of Medicaid-insured youth,” Mackie said.  “This study provides important new evidence suggesting that states continue to incorporate or renew the inclusion of these additional behavioral health services into Medicaid-managed care arrangements.”

Young girls with autism

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UC Davis research suggests a predictive role to support earlier intervention

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Preschool-age girls with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face greater challenges with emotional and behavioral problems than similar age boys with ASD. These challenges are associated with a larger amygdala, a UC Davis Health study has found. The amygdala is a key part of the brain that helps regulate emotions and detects threats.

The findings, by Christine Wu Nordahl, associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and colleagues at the UC Davis MIND Institute, suggest that amygdala development may help predict these psychological and behavioral problems that can occur at high rates in girls with ASD. The study was published online Jan. 19 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Credit: UC Davis Health

“A significant number of individuals with autism have co-occurring psychiatric problems like ADHD, anxiety and depression,” said Nordahl, a scientist who specializes in neuroimaging. “There are treatments for these conditions that can reduce the challenges in their lives. But less is known about whether these problems are present in very young kids.

“I was interested in looking for early signs of these symptoms in 3-year-olds with autism and whether girls and boys are affected at the same rates. I also wanted to investigate the underlying brain basis for these symptoms. The amygdala is a likely target because of its role in emotion regulation. Amygdala enlargement has been reported both in autism as well as psychiatric problems like anxiety.”

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Psychopathology symptoms in very young children can include frequent crying, poor eating habits, trouble sleeping, overeating, little interest in daily activities, inability to sleep alone, nervousness, frequent panic, inability to sit still or concentrate and being highly demanding.

Study focused on 3-year-olds diagnosed with autism

This study included 420 children (91 girls and 209 boys with ASD, and 57 girls and 63 boys developing typically who served as the control group). The scientists conducted MRI scans on 346 children as they slept to evaluate amygdala volume. Study participants also were evaluated on their psychopathology symptoms, as reported by a parent, as well as their adaptive functioning, cognitive development (IQ) and autism severity.

Researchers identified three subgroups of children with ASD:

  • Over one quarter of the 3-year-olds with ASD (27%) had very high symptoms of psychopathology with moderate impairments on other measures such as IQ, daily living skills, and autism severity
  • 40% had low levels of psychopathology and low levels of impairment on the other measures
  • 32% had low levels of psychopathology but high levels of impairment on the other measures
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Notably, a surprisingly high proportion of girls with autism (40%) were in the subgroup with very high levels of psychopathology. The remaining 60% of girls with ASD were more evenly split across the two other groups. In contrast, only about 20% of boys with autism were in the subgroup with high levels of psychopathology, and most boys (45%) were in the subgroups with the lowest levels of impairment on all measures. 

When examining associations between amygdala volume and the subgroups of children with ASD, they found amygdala enlargement only in the children who also had high levels of psychopathology. They also found that the size of the amygdala was correlated with the severity of the problems in girls, but not boys.

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“We think the larger amygdala volume is playing a role in these other co-occurring problems,” Nordahl said. “And the amygdala is playing more of a role in these problem behaviors in girls than in boys.”

Study sheds light on biological differences in girls with autism

The research is significant because it begins to explain some of the biological differences in girls with ASD, who are diagnosed with autism much less frequently than boys at a ratio of about 1 girl for every 4 boys, Nordahl said.

“Girls are really underrepresented in autism research, particularly in neuroimaging studies,” she said. “Because there are so many more boys than girls diagnosed with autism, girls are harder to recruit, and most studies do not include enough girls to meaningfully evaluate potential sex differences. The result is that we know very little about how girls with autism may be similar or different from boys, particularly from a neurobiological perspective.”

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The findings are among the first to come out of the Girls with Autism Imaging of Neurodevelopment (GAIN) study at the MIND Institute, which seeks to better understand their brain structure and connectivity patterns. With nearly 100 girls with autism enrolled, it is the largest neuroimaging study ever conducted in very young girls at the time of diagnosis.

“Over the past decade, our research team has spent countless nights at the UC Davis Imaging Research Center working with families to help children feel comfortable enough to fall asleep for an MRI scan. Across several projects, our team has collected over 1,000 MRI scans in more than 450 children.”

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Researchers to continue to follow participants into adolescence

Researchers hope to follow the study participants into middle childhood and adolescence. Those are the years when psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression are typically diagnosed.

“We want to continue to see how the amygdala develops and determine whether it will have a predictive role in the outcomes for these kids,” said Nordahl.

Until then, she said, the current findings may be helpful for parents with young children diagnosed with autism.

“It’s important for parents to be on the lookout for problem behaviors co-occurring with autism, particularly in girls,” said Nordahl. “If we can detect symptoms of psychopathology earlier, we may be able to intervene earlier to help children and their families before psychiatric problems become too debilitating.”

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Other authors on the study include Ana-Maria Iosif, Gregory S. Young, Alexa Hechtman, Brianna Heath, Joshua K. Lee, Breanna Winder-Patel, David G. Amaral, Sally Rogers, Marjorie Solomon and Sally Ozonoff, all of UC Davis Health, and Lauren Libero and Vanessa P. Reinhardt, former post-doctoral researchers at the MIND Institute.

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The research was funded with grants from the National Institutes of Health (RO1MH104438, R01MH103284, R01MH103371) and UC Davis MIND Institute. The project also was supported by the MIND Institute Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (U54HD079125), MIND Institute Autism Center of Excellence (P50 HD093079), the MIND Institute Autism Research Training Program (T32MH073124) and University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Human Brain Protein Associated with Autism

The human dopamine transporter protein is missing a single amino acid.

Credit: UAB
Aurelio Galli
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A mutant gene that encodes a brain protein in a child with autism has been placed into the brains of fruit flies. Fruit flies hosting that gene produce the variant human brain protein and show abnormal behaviors of fear, repetitive activity and altered social interaction, reminiscent of autism impairments.

The genetic variant was found in the Simon Simplex Collection, which has collected genetic samples from 2,600 simplex families with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. The brain protein is the dopamine transporter, or DAT, whose job is to pump the neurotransmitter dopamine back into nerve cells once the neurotransmitter has been released. The mutant protein is missing a single amino acid.

A study of this variant DAT — from its impaired molecular mechanism to its effect on fruit fly behavior — has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by co-corresponding authors Aurelio Galli, Ph.D., and Eric Gouaux, Ph.D.

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Galli is professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Gouaux is professor in the Vollum Institute at the Oregon Health & Science University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Researchers found that fruit flies with the human variant DAT, or vDAT, are hyperactive. They had increased locomotor activity in both day and night, as compared with normal fruit flies. They also showed repetitive behavior — the vDAT fruit flies groomed themselves 23 percent of the time, versus 6 percent of the time for normal fruit flies. Repetitive behavior like self-grooming has been observed in animal models of neuropsychiatric disorders.

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The vDAT fruit flies were also more fearful than normal fruit flies. In response to the sound of a predatory wasp, normal flies froze for about 150 milliseconds, and then they fled, as shown by a distinctive and rapid increase in average velocity that was captured by a 1,000-frame per second camera. In contrast, the vDAT fruit flies froze at the sound of the predator and showed little signs of fleeing during 600 milliseconds.

The vDAT fruit flies had impaired social interaction, as measured by changes in grouping. Many animal populations form temporary or permanent groups, such as flocks, schools or herds, that aid survival in the face of predators. Fleeing, in response to a threat, is an escape behavior where the flock size may compress or expand. The researchers found that normal fruit flies expanded their flock size in response to a threat — the sound of the predator wasp. The vDAT fruit flies, in contrast, compressed their flock size.

Besides the fruit fly behavior, the PNAS study is a comprehensive multidisciplinary approach that gets at some root causes of autism to a degree of detail that could make potential therapeutic treatments more realizable in the future.

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Besides vDAT, the labs of Galli and Heinrich Matthies, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Surgery, have identified several other mutations in the human DAT gene that affect DAT function in individuals with ASD. For these people, disruption of dopamine transport appears to be a risk factor that promotes complications associated with ASD.

“The experimental paradigms we describe here,” Galli said, “provide a framework for molecular and behavioral analysis of novel DAT variants that are discovered by genetic analyses of individuals with ASD or related neuropsychiatric illness, as well as other disease-linked mutants that are emerging from precision medicine initiatives.”

Galli and Gouaux’s PNAS research went from human genetics to a basic animal model with simplified behavior, as detected by a new high-powered analysis. It investigated the underlying molecular mechanisms and basic biological functions with ever greater resolution, through studies at the cell level and all the way down to a bacterial system. Each added system was more fundamental with regard to biological complexity and phylogenetic level.

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Details of vDAT structure and function
Besides altered fly behavior caused by the mutant protein, the PNAS study probed the molecular structure and function of vDAT using mutation of a related transporter protein from a thermophilic bacterium as a model. Experiments included X-ray crystallography, spin resonance spectroscopy, molecular modeling, cell culture studies and electrophysiology studies of fruit fly brains expressing the mutant.

The researchers showed that vDAT cells have impaired dopamine transport and impaired DAT-mediated electrical currents. Also, expression of the human vDAT reduced dopamine uptake in the whole brain of fruit flies. These findings support the idea that human DAT dysfunction in ASD stems from specific and yet distinct mechanisms.

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To probe the mechanism of impaired transporter function, researchers used the related bacterial transporter as a model. They removed the single amino acid from the related bacterial transporter that correlates with the single amino acid missing in vDAT. Like DAT, the bacterial transporter protein embeds across the cell membrane and has domains called the extracellular gate and the intracellular gate to receive and release the molecule being transported from outside the cell to inside.

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Deletion of the single amino acid altered conformation of the bacterial protein and appeared to lock its extracellular gate, apparently through disrupted hydrogen bonds between amino acids of the protein that abnormally left the intracellular gate in a conformation called “half-open and inward facing.” Molecular dynamics simulation of vDAT showed similar conformational changes and altered hydrogen bonding.

Co-authors with Galli, Gouaux and Matthies for the paper, “Structural, functional, and behavioral insights of dopamine dysfunction revealed by a deletion in SLC6A3,” are Nicholas G. Campbell, Aparna Shekar, Dungeng Peng, Amanda M. Duran, Brian O’Grady, Ramnarayan Ramachandran, James S. Sutcliffe, Jens Meiler, Leon M. Bellan and Hassane S. Mchaourab, Vanderbilt University; Jenny I. Aguilar and Kevin Erreger, Department of Surgery, UAB School of Medicine; Vikas Navratna and Dongxue Yang, Vollum Institute, Oregon Health and Science University; Alexander N. Morley, Harald H. Sitte and Thomas Stockner, Medical University of Vienna, Austria; and Greta Galli, University School of Nashville, Tennessee.

Mchaourab is co-senior author with Galli, and Greta Galli is daughter of Aurelio Galli.

Support for this work came from National Institutes of Health grants MH070039, GM080403, HL122010, DA35263, DA38058 and NS007491-14.

A Calming Space

Children’s of Alabama Expands Sensory Pathway For Patients With Sensory Sensitivities

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When Sladen Fisher got a bad cut on his earlobe at school, his mother, Jennifer Fisher, worried the sights and sounds of Children’s of Alabama’s Emergency Department would be too stressful for her son. That’s because Sladen has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sensory processing disorder.

At the time of the Sladen’s visit, Children’s of Alabama had just launched its Sensory Pathway, designed for patients with conditions such as ADHD, autism and Down syndrome. In 2016, the pathway began as a pilot project in the Emergency Department; however, it has since expanded to One Day Surgery and several inpatient units at Children’s of Alabama, including the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Pulmonary Care Unit and Special Care Unit. Future plans include expansion to ancillary and outpatient services.

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The pathway made a lasting impact on Sladen. Back at school a few weeks later, he presented a report about someone he considers a hero. He chose Children’s of Alabama Child Life Specialist Shelby Smith, who stayed by his side during his visit, explained his treatment in terms he understood and provided him with an iPad and fidget toys for distraction and comfort.

“In his mind, she was a hero, someone who went above and beyond to help him,” Jennifer said. She made what could have been an incredibly difficult situation so amazing. She really was our hero.”The pathway has been equally impactful on Children’s of Alabama, said Michele Kong, M.D. associate professor in pediatric critical care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Pediatrics.

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“The pathway has been so empowering for our providers,” said Kong, who serves on the Sensory Pathway Task Force, also comprised of nurses, informatics specialists and child life specialists. Unit by unit, the task force provides education and training and is developing an online training module. The task force is also working with information technology specialists to flag patients with sensory sensitivities from the point of admission.

“We tailor education and training to suit each unit’s needs because each unit’s workflow and culture is different,” Kong said. “The success of the pathway is a direct reflection of our providers’ passion to learn. There’s buy-in from our providers because they know it’s good for their patients.”

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As a parent, Kong, too, knows how jarring a hospital visit can be for a child with sensory sensitivities. Her oldest son, Abram, was diagnosed with autism at age 4. The diagnosis inspired Kong and her husband, Julian Maha, M.D., to found KultureCity®, a nonprofit that works to “create acceptance and inclusion for all individuals with unique abilities,” according to its mission statement. In 2019, KultureCity was ranked fourth on Fast Company magazine’s list of the most innovative companies in the world. KultureCity not only partners with local organizations in Birmingham, but also with national organizations such as the NBA and NFL.

“We never imagined it would reach this scale,” Kong said. “It impressed on us that there’s a lot of power when a collective group of people have the same belief and passion for change.”

'Financial infidelity'

What defines it, who is at risk, and what are the consequences?

Romantic partners aren’t always honest about money in their relationships, but when does hiding purchases, debt and savings constitute “financial infidelity”? Research by professors at four universities, including Indiana University, defines the concept and provides a means for predicting its occurrence within relationships.

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Love, Lies and Money: Financial Infidelity in Romantic Relationships,” in the Journal of Consumer Research, is the first systematic investigation of financial infidelity in committed romantic relationships.

The professors define financial infidelity as “engaging in any financial behavior that is expected to be disapproved of by one’s romantic partner and intentionally failing to disclose this behavior to them.” It involves both the financial “act” and the subsequent concealment.

It differs from secret consumption and merely hiding spending because it involves a broader set of financial behaviors, including seemingly “positive” actions such as saving extra income in a personal bank account.

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“Financial infidelity has the potential to be as harmful for relationship health and longevity as sexual infidelity, as conflicts over money are also a primary reason for divorce,” said co-author Jenny Olson, assistant professor of marketing at the IU Kelley School of Business. “Given the role that finances play in the health of relationships, consumers benefit from being aware of financial infidelity and its consequences.”

Growing in popularity is financial therapy, which combines finance with emotional support to help individuals and couples think, feel and behave with money to improve their overall well-being, make logical spending decisions and face financial challenges.

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“An understanding of financial infidelity can benefit financial services companies and advisors, clinical therapists and relationship counselors, all of whom play a role in promoting consumer well-being,” Olson said. “If couples seek professional financial advice, they must be willing to openly discuss their spending and savings habits, debts and financial goals. It is clear that financial infidelity is a barrier to effective planning, as well as to a healthy relationship.”

The researchers developed a “financial infidelity scale (FI-Scale)” using a dozen lab and field tests. Key findings included:

  • Whether the financial act is expected to elicit any level of disapproval was more important than the degree of disapproval.
  • Consumers more prone to financial infidelity exhibited a stronger preference for secretive purchase options, such as using a personal credit card versus a jointly held card, and cash over credit.
  • A preference for ambiguous packaging and shopping at inconspicuous stores.
  • A greater likelihood of concealing financial information from their partner in a mobile banking app.

Each choice is relevant to marketers. The prevalence of financial infidelity among consumers and variations along the FI-Scale affect purchasing decisions. It is important that companies be aware of certain consumer segments that may be prone to financial infidelity and thus affect their bottom lines.

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For example, the trend of businesses going “cash-free” may affect retailers such as beauty salons and gift shops because of the use of cash to disguise purchases. Consumers strategically using cash may be less willing to make purchases only for their pleasure or personal wants.

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Other authors on the study are Emily Garbinsky, assistant professor of marketing at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame; Joe J. Gladstone, assistant professor of consumer behavior at the School of Management at University College London; and Hristina Nikolova, the Diane Harkins Coughlin and Christopher J. Coughlin Sesquicentennial assistant professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.

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IU Research

Indiana University’s world-class researchers have driven innovation and creative initiatives that matter for nearly 200 years. From curing testicular cancer to collaborating with NASA to search for life on Mars, IU has earned its reputation as a world-class research institution. Supported by $680 million last year from our partners, IU researchers are building collaborations and uncovering new solutions that improve lives in Indiana and around the globe.

Early Intervention in Autism Improves Language, IQ and Social Skills

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Credit: UC Davis Health
Sally Rogers, PhD works with a child.

Breakthrough research demonstrating that children with autism as young as 18 months can vastly improve their language, cognition and social skills with an early intervention developed by UC Davis Professor Sally Rogers has been replicated in a major new study.

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Rogers, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the MIND Institute, began work on a novel developmental approach to autism in Denver in 1981, and in partnership with her colleague and co-author Geraldine Dawson developed an approach to improving long-term outcomes for very young children. The Early Start Denver Model has since become a method used throughout the U.S. and around the world.

But until now ESDM had not been tested in the most rigorous fashion − a multi-site randomized trial, comparing the approach with community-based autism interventions. The study, which appears today in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, began in 2007 at three university sites around the country. The new research replicates an ESDM study published in 2010. Rogers emphasized that replication studies are rare and costly but critical to validate novel scientific findings.

The new study found that children receiving intensive ESDM in their homes for an average of 15 hours per week made significantly greater language gains than did children in the community interventions, and this was true for both children with more severe delays and those with less.

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In addition to validating the efficacy of ESDM for language development, the study also found that children receiving services in the community settings made large gains in several areas.

“The idea that little children with autism who are getting good treatment can make this much IQ and language gain means we should expect this from quality early-intervention experiences,” Rogers said. “These findings should raise families’ hopes a whole lot.”

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Pioneering autism treatment was a new idea

What distinguishes ESDM from the more traditional, behavioral interventions used with children with autism is that it combines developmental and behavioral approaches and is carried out within in everyday routines. ESDM is built on moment-to-moment interactions that young children typically have with other people, especially their parents, and uses children’s interests and favorite activities to assure that social interaction is interesting and fun.

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“Unlike other approaches popular at the time that the Denver Model began, we used a typical preschool physical environment and focused on the learning opportunities that existed in social interactions between children and adults to accelerate children’s development,” Rogers said. “This was a new idea at the time.”

In 2012, TIME magazine named ESDM one of the top 10 medical breakthroughs because their work demonstrated that brain function among young children with autism can normalize with effective early intervention in profound, enduring ways.

For the current study 118 children with autism, ages 14 months to two years, were enrolled and randomly assigned to either ESDM or community interventions for 27 months. Children assigned to ESDM intervention received three months of weekly parent coaching followed by 24 months of one-on-one treatment about 15 hours per week in homes or daycare settings from supervised therapy assistants. Parents received coaching four hours monthly from a certified ESDM therapist. In the community setting, hours of treatment varied by site.

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What researchers found was that at two of the three sites, children receiving ESDM had significantly more language improvement than the children in the community interventions, and there was no significant difference in language gain at the third site between the two modalities. When results from all three sites were pooled, there was a significant advantage for the children in the ESDM group overall.

“Language is the bridge to learning,” Rogers said. “Language is the door that opens up social communication and education and interactions with people in your community. It’s how you share with people. It’s a main vehicle for social interaction once you pass infancy.”

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Autism treatment in the community greatly improved over time

 The study also found that in terms of cognition and social skills, both the ESDM and community treatment groups made significant gains. Fortunately, Rogers said, laws requiring insurance coverage for early autism intervention and new knowledge about effective treatment have greatly improved community options for families seeking help for young children diagnosed with autism.

Rogers said families with a child diagnosed with autism should take some comfort knowing that the early treatments now widely available do make a difference.

“It says the autism scores at the time of diagnosis are just a starting point,” she said. “It says that the developmental paths and learning capacity of young children with autism are more plastic than we knew, and there are many ways to get learning opportunities to them.”

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In addition to Rogers, UC Davis authors on the study were Marie Rocha, Laurie Vismara and Meagan Talbott. Other co-authors on the study included: Annette Estes and Jessica Greenson of the University of Washington; Catherine Lord and Jamie Winter of Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell University; Costanza Colombi of University of Michigan; Geraldine Dawson of Duke University, and Gerhard Hellemann of UCLA.

This study was supported by individual Autism Speaks grants to Annette Estes and to Sally Rogers and by NIMH/NICHD award number R01 081757 as part of the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) Treatment Network, clinicaltrials.gov identifier NCT 00698997.

Supporting Individuals With Autism in the Workplace

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In recent days there has been significant coverage surrounding the Boca Raton native becoming the first openly autistic person to be admitted to the Florida bar. This accomplishment being widely accepted is a huge stride for those diagnosed with autism and autism professionals working hard to create inclusive workplaces.

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To help others understand why inclusivity and supporting those with disorders is so important, I’d like to offer Arianna Esposito, Associate Director of Adult & Transition Programs at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University. She is able to offer tips to help employers create an inclusive workplace. These tips are not only helpful for individuals with autism, but can benefit all employees. Please see a sampling of her advice below:

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  • Sensory-Friendly Environment
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Fluorescent lights can be extremely bothersome for someone with sensory challenges. Offering dimmer lighting options or access to natural light are good alternatives. Odorless office supplies, cleaning supplies and other products are recommended to have in a supply closet or open areas. Designated, private quiet rooms for employees to take a call in or do work are a great option.

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  • Open communication

Providing clear and specific feedback is important for an inclusive structure. Try putting a positive spin on code of conduct by turning “do not” rules into “can do” rules.

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  • Flexibility

Being flexible with needs such as accepting requests to wear specific clothing items and seating locations (not near crowded areas) will help individuals navigate the social world.

HPV Vaccine: 7 Myths and Facts You Need to Know

Nuvance Health physician dispels common misconceptions about the HPV vaccine and discusses its role in protecting against HPV-related diseases

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January is Cervical Health Awareness Month

By Dr. Linus Chuang, Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Nuvance Health

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Summary:

  • A vaccine is available to protect against human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and can cause diseases such as genital warts and cancer.
  • The HPV vaccine now protects against nine strains of HPV. Research shows that the HPV vaccine is safe and effective.
  • The HPV vaccine is approved for men and women between the ages of 9 to 45. The HPV vaccine can protect adults from HPV-related diseases, however it provides the most protection when it is given in childhood before someone becomes sexually active.
  • Parents should talk with their child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine. Adult men should ask their primary care provider about the HPV vaccine, and adult women should speak with their gynecologist.
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In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil, a vaccine to prevent diseases such as cancer and genital warts that are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Within the last five years, improvements have been made to the HPV vaccine and the recommended age range for administration has been expanded, resulting in more robust HPV protection being available to more people.

Although the HPV vaccine has proven to be highly effective at preventing HPV-related diseases and cancers, misconceptions still exist about how it works, who should receive it, and whether it is safe. Here are seven myths about HPV and the HPV vaccine and also the facts you need to know.

Myth #1: I/my child won’t contract HPV.
Fact: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection.

Most sexually active people will contract HPV. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 80 million people — or 1 in 4 Americans — are infected with HPV. The CDC further estimates that about 14 million people, including teens, will contract a new HPV infection each year.

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Myth #2: Having HPV doesn’t mean I/my child will get cancer.
Fact: Having HPV increases cancer risk — and HPV-related cancers are on the rise.

According to the CDC, more than 43,000 people developed HPV-associated cancer in 2015, up from 30,000 people in 1999. The HPV vaccine can prevent most types of HPV-related cancers, including anal, cervical, penile, throat, and vaginal cancers.

Myth #3: The HPV vaccine is only for women.
Fact: Men and women should get the HPV vaccine.

HPV affects both men and women. HPV can cause genital warts and anal and oral cancers in both men and women. It can also cause cervical or vaginal cancers in women and penile cancers in men. Because HPV often does not cause symptoms right away and many people are unaware that they have it, it can easily and unknowingly be transmitted to a sex partner.

Myth #4: The HPV vaccine isn’t effective.
Fact: The newest vaccine is effective against nine strains of HPV.

When Gardasil, the original HPV vaccine, was first approved by the FDA in 2006, it only protected against four types of HPV. In 2014, the FDA approved a new vaccine called Gardasil 9 that protects against the same four types of HPV, plus an additional five types.

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Research also shows that the HPV vaccine provided nearly 100 percent protection against persistent cervical infections with HPV types 16 and 18, plus the pre-cancers caused by those persistent infections.

Myth #5: The HPV vaccine is only for children and young adults.
Fact: Children and adults ages 9 to 45 can now get the HPV vaccine.

Gardasil and Gardasil 9 were originally approved for boys and girls ages 9 to 26. In 2018, the FDA expanded the age range for Gardasil 9 to include men and women ages 27 to 45. This expanded approval provides more opportunity to prevent HPV-related diseases and cancers in a broader age range.

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Although the HPV vaccine is most effective when it is given before someone becomes sexually active — ideally in childhood — there is now data that suggests that the vaccine also can benefit adults. Statistics show that many sexually active adults have been exposed to some types of HPV, but most have not been exposed to all nine types covered by the newest vaccine. Even if an adult already has HPV, the vaccine may still help to reduce the risk of developing HPV-related diseases.

Myth #6: The HPV vaccine isn’t safe.
Fact: Extensive testing and research show that the HPV vaccine is safe.

The FDA closely monitors the safety and effectiveness of all vaccines before and after approval, and research shows that the HPV vaccine is safe. However, like any other vaccine or medication, some people may experience mild reactions or side effects to the HPV vaccine, such as fever, dizziness, fatigue, or pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site.

Myth #7: The HPV vaccine encourages sexual promiscuity.
Fact: Research has shown no link between being vaccinated for HPV and an increase in sexual activity.

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Recent research that included 500,000 individuals found that there was no increase in sexual activity after HPV vaccination. Additionally, the research showed that participants who received the HPV vaccine actually engaged in safer sexual practices than unvaccinated participants.

The bottom line: The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to reduce your risk (or your child’s risk) of developing an HPV-related health problem. Parents should ask their child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine — ideally before the child becomes sexually active. Adult men should speak with their primary care provider about the HPV vaccine, and adult women should talk with their gynecologist.

About Dr. Linus Chuang

Dr. Linus Chuang is the chair of OB/GYN at Nuvance Health’s Danbury Hospital and Norwalk Hospital. He is a global gynecologic oncology expert and the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) International Affairs Committee Chair. Dr. Chuang has been recognized as an American Cancer Society (ACS) HPV Champion. He is passionate about educating people about the benefits of HPV vaccination and its role in preventing cancer and other HPV-related diseases.

How Healthy is Chicken Noodle Soup?

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You may remember a loved one making you a bowl of chicken noodle soup whenever you were feeling under the weather as a child. Just how healthy is this culinary cure-all?

Photo by HM Grand Central Hotel on Pexels.com
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“Studies have shown that a hearty bowl of chicken noodle soup may help clear nasal congestion and ease cold symptoms,” says BIDMC clinical dietitian Sandy Allonen, RD. “It’s all about the ingredients.”

So let’s break it down – what’s in your soup?

Broth

If you’re fighting a cold, your doctor will tell you it’s important to stay hydrated. “A clear broth is warm and soothing, making it a great source of hydration while you’re sick, especially if you have a sore throat,” Allonen says.

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Whether it’s vegetable or chicken broth – Allonen says the benefits are similar. “You may think added salt and other seasonings aren’t great for you, but in moderation, these spices can help combat the feeling of dull taste buds,” she says. “A loss of taste is common in a cold, but as with any flavor enhancer, salt is great for getting you to eat more.”

Allonen notes, however, that if your doctor has recommended you limit your sodium intake (whether this be for hypertension, kidney disease, congestive heart failure or another medical condition), then you will want to look for a broth that is low sodium or has no added salt.

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Chicken

Chicken is full of protein that helps support the immune system. It’s also a good source of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, which boost immunity and help regulate digestion.

“Chicken is also high in tryptophan, which helps your body produce serotonin that can enhance your mood and give you the feeling of ‘comfort’ that helps make chicken noodle soup a true comfort food,” Allonen says.

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Noodles

The noodles in chicken noodle soup aren’t just for show. They’re packed with carbohydrates that help you feel full and satisfied.

“Carbs are the preferred source of energy for your body, so getting in a good dose through soup can help you feel less sluggish,” Allonen says.

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Vegetables

All those bits of carrot, celery, and onion commonly found in chicken noodle soup are a great source of vitamins C and K, as well as other antioxidants and minerals. “Not only does this help build a healthy immune system to fight off viruses, it also helps your body recover from illness more quickly,” Allonen says.

Vegetables like carrots are also high in beta-carotene, and can help reduce symptoms due to their anti-inflammatory properties.

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Steam

While steam isn’t an ingredient you’ve mixed in, it’s important to serve your soup warm. Hot steam that comes from your cup of soup can be helpful in reducing nasal congestion.

“Steam can open up airways, making it easier to breathe. It also has a mild anti-inflammatory effect that can help relax your muscles and soothe the discomforts of cold symptoms,” Allonen says.

While soup won’t cure your cold completely, it’s a delicious way to load up on nutrients and increase hydration. Make an appointment with your primary care physician if you’re feeling under the weather this winter.

Black Children Tend to be Diagnosed with Autism Later than White Children

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Photo by Zach Vessels
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The rate of diagnosis for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is the same among all racial groups — one in 110, according to current estimates. However, a study by a Florida State University researcher has found that African-American children tend to be diagnosed later than white children, which results in a longer and more intensive intervention. The reasons for later diagnoses include a lack of access to quality, affordable, culturally competent health care, according to Martell Teasley, an associate professor in Florida State’s College of Social Work who has conducted a comprehensive review of researchliterature on autism and African-American children. In addition, the stigmaattached to mental health conditions within the black community contribute to misdiagnoses of autism, and underuse of available treatment services.

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“There are no subjective criteria for diagnosing autism. Only brain scans can truly provide appropriate diagnoses, because we are dealing with biological and chemical imbalances in the brain,” Teasley said. “Not every child is going to have access to this kind of medical evaluation, particularly those who are indigent and don’t have health care funding.”

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Teasley examined ASD diagnosis and treatment strategies, and their effect on African-American families, in “Autism and the African-American Community,” a paper published in a special issue of the journal Social Work in Public Health (Vol. 26, Issue 4, 2011) that dealt with health-care policy issues in the black community related to the human genome.

Credit: FSU Photography
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Associate Professor in Florida State’s College of Social Work

Teasley co-wrote the paper with Ruby Gourdine, a professor of social work at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Tiffany Baffour, an associate professor of social work at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Because of the social stigma, Teasley says that some African-American families might be resistant to accept a diagnosis and treatment. “Less discussion about autism among African-Americans or between African-Americans and health care providers leads to misdiagnoses, a lack of treatment and a lack of services,” Teasley said.

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“This will lead to greater challenges for families — more stress and anxiety, and poorer developmental outcomes.” African-Americans also might resist a diagnosis and treatment because of a mistrust of mainstream health care providers over past discrimination. “African-Americans are well versed in going to a doctor who might have biases or discriminatory practices, so they may not readily accept what a doctor says,” Teasley said. In addition, a cultural divide between African-Americans and mainstream health care providers can hinder a timely and correct diagnosis.

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“There are not enough health care professionals who understand the cultural norms and attributes of the African-American community,” Teasley said. African-Americans live in all types of settings, but the majority live in urban areas, which have seen a decline in the number of mental-health care agencies since the 1980s. “This lack of accessibility causes a problem for some African-Americans,” Teasley said. Once a child is diagnosed with ASD, Teasley says both the child and the members of his or her family needs to receive appropriate training and counseling. “The children need behavioral counseling so they can develop the skills to live as independently as possible,” he said. “The families need to learn how to work with children who are autistic. “Intervention for any autistic child needs to start around age 3, so we can get the child to begin to learn how to eat right and develop normal, healthy routines, which will result in a better developmental outcome,” Teasley said. “Later intervention will result in a poorer developmental outcome that can have a lasting impact on the child’s and family’s quality of life.”

Martell Teasley, College of Social Work(850) 644-9595; mteasley@fsu.edu

“Could My Child Have Autism?”

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com
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Ten Signs of Possible Autism-Related Delays in 6- to 12-Month-Old Children

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Though autism is often not diagnosed until the age of three, some children begin to show signs of developmental delay before they turn a year old. While not all infants and toddlers with delays will develop autism spectrum disorders (ASD), experts point to early detection of these signs as key to capitalizing on early diagnosis and intervention, which is believed to improve developmental outcomes.

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According to Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md., parents need to be empowered to identify the warning signs of ASD and other communication delays. “We want to encourage parents to become good observers of their children’s development so that they can see the earliest indicators of delays in a baby’s communication, social and motor skills,” says Dr. Landa, who also cautions that some children who develop ASD don’t show signs until after the second birthday or regress after appearing to develop typically.

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For the past decade, Dr. Landa has followed infant siblings of children with autism to identify red flags of the disorder in their earliest form. Her research has shown that diagnosis is possible in some children as young as 14 months and sparked the development of early intervention models that have been shown to improve outcomes for toddlers showing signs of ASD as young as one and two years old. Dr. Landa recommends that as parents play with their infant (6 – 12 months), they look for the following signs that have been linked to later diagnosis of ASD or other communication disorders: 1. Rarely smiles when approached by caregivers2. Rarely tries to imitate sounds and movements others make, such as smiling and laughing, during simple social exchanges3. Delayed or infrequent babbling4. Does not respond to his or her name with increasing consistency from 6 – 12 months 5. Does not gesture to communicate by 10 months6. Poor eye contact7. Seeks your attention infrequently8. Repeatedly stiffens arms, hands, legs or displays unusual body movements such as rotating the hands on the wrists, uncommon postures or other repetitive behaviors9. Does not reach up toward you when you reach to pick him or her up10. Delays in motor development, including delayed rolling over, pushing up and crawling

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“If parents suspect something is wrong with their child’s development, or that their child is losing skills, they should talk to their pediatrician or another developmental expert,” says Dr. Landa. “Don’t adopt a ‘wait and see’ perspective. We want to identify delays early in development so that intervention can begin when children’s brains are more malleable and still developing their circuitry.”

About the Kennedy Krieger Institute Internationally recognized for improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders and injuries of the brain and spinal cord, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD serves more than 16,000 individuals each year through inpatient and outpatient clinics, home and community services and school-based programs. Kennedy Krieger provides a wide range of services for children with developmental concerns mild to severe, and is home to a team of investigators who are contributing to the understanding of how disorders develop while pioneering new interventions and earlier diagnosis. For more information on Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit: www.kennedykrieger.org.

Sugar changes the chemistry of your brain

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Anyone who has desperately searched their kitchen cabinets for a piece of forgotten chocolate knows that the desire for palatable food can be hard to control. But is it really addiction?

Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

The idea of food addiction is a very controversial topic among scientists. Researchers from Aarhus University have delved into this topic and examined what happens in the brains of pigs when they drink sugar water. The conclusion is clear: sugar influences brain reward circuitry in ways similar to those observed when addictive drugs are consumed. The results have just been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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“There is no doubt that sugar has several physiological effects, and there are many reasons why it is not healthy. But I have been in doubt of the effects sugar has on our brain and behaviour, I had hoped to be able to kill a myth. ” says Michael Winterdahl, Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University and one of the main authors of the work.

The publication is based on experiments done using seven pigs receiving two liters of sugar water daily over a 12-day period. To map the consequences of the sugar intake, the researchers imaged the brains of the pigs at the beginning of the experiment, after the first day, and after the 12th day of sugar.

“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake,” says Winterdahl.

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When we experience something meaningful, the brain rewards us with a sense of enjoyment, happiness and well-being. It can happen as a result of natural stimuli, such as sex or socializing, or from learning something new. Both “natural” and “artificial” stimuli, like drugs, activate the brain’s reward system, where neurotransmitters like dopamine and opioids are released, Winterdahl explains.

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We chase the rush

“If sugar can change the brain’s reward system after only twelve days, as we saw in the case of the pigs, you can imagine that natural stimuli such as learning or social interaction are pushed into the background and replaced by sugar and/or other ‘artificial’ stimuli. We’re all looking for the rush from dopamine, and if something gives us a better or bigger kick, then that’s what we choose” explains the researcher.

When examining whether a substance like sugar is addictive, one typically studies the effects on the rodent brain. ¨It would, of course, be ideal if the studies could be done in humans themselves, but humans are hard to control and dopamine levels can be modulated by a number of different factors. They are influenced by what we eat, whether we play games on our phones or if we enter a new romantic relationship in the middle of the trial, with potential for great variation in the data. The pig is a good alternative because its brain is more complex than a rodent and gyrated like human and large enough for imaging deep brain structures using human brain scanners. The current study in minipigs introduced a well-controlled set-up with the only variable being the absence or presence of sugar in the diet.

Background for the results:

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  • The study involved imaging the pig brain before and after sugar intake.
  • Partners involved in the study: Michael Winterdahl, Ove Noer, Dariusz Orlowski, Anna C. Schacht, Steen Jakobsen, Aage K. O. Alstrup, Albert Gjedde and Anne M. Landau.
  • The study was financed by a grant from AUFF to Anne Landau.
  • The scientific article has been published in Scientific Reports and is freely available online: doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-53430-9

The 69 genes that increase the risk for autism

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UCLA-led team compares DNA of children with the disorder to that of their siblings and parents

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A UCLA-led research team has identified dozens of genes, including 16 new genes, that increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder. The findings, published in the journal Cell, were based on a study of families with at least two children with autism.

Researchers from UCLA, Stanford University and three other institutions used a technique called whole genome sequencing to map the DNA of 2,300 people from nearly 500 families. They found 69 genes that increase the risk for autism spectrum disorder; 16 of those genes were not previously suspected to be associated with a risk for autism.

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Researchers also identified several hundred genes they suspect may increase the risk of autism based on their proximity to genes previously identified to carry an increased risk.  The study analyses further revealed several new biological pathways not previously identified in studies of autism.

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The findings shed light on how genetic variants or mutations — the differences that make each person’s genome unique — are passed from parents to children affected with autism, said the study’s co-lead author Elizabeth Ruzzo, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar. Former UCLA postdoctoral scholar Laura Pérez-Cano is the study’s other co-lead author.

“When we look at parents of autistic children and compare them to individuals without autism, we find that those parents carry significantly more, rare and highly damaging gene variants,” Ruzzo said. “Interestingly, these variants are frequently passed from the parents to all of the affected children but none of the unaffected children, which tells us that they are significantly increasing the risk of autism.”

Of the children in the study, 960 have autism and 217 children do not. That enabled researchers to analyze the genetic differences between children with and without autism across different families.

“Studying families with multiple children affected with autism increased our ability to detect inherited mutations in autism spectrum disorder,” said Dr. Daniel Geschwind, senior, corresponding author of the study and the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics, Neurology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine of UCLA.

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“We show a substantial difference between the types of mutations that occur in different types of families, such as those that have more than one affected child versus those having only one child with ASD,” said Geschwind, who also was the study’s co-principal investigator and director of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment and director of the Institute of Precision Health at UCLA.

The research also found that the 16 genes newly determined to be associated with an increased risk for autism form a network with previously identified ASD risk genes. The way they interact with one another further heightens the risk, said the study’s co-senior author and co-principal investigator Dennis Wall, a Stanford University School of Medicine associate professor of pediatrics and of biomedical data science.

“They associate with each other more tightly than we’d expect by chance,” he said. “These genes are talking to each other, and those interactions appear to be an important link to autism spectrum disorder.”

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The nearly 600 genes researchers suspect as carrying an increased risk of autism were identified through “guilt by association,” or through their interactions with other genes that already have been shown to carry an increased autism risk, Ruzzo said.

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“And although not all of those genes will be found to increase the risk for autism, our analysis indicates that future studies will provide support for many of these genes,” she said.

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The families studied are part of the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), which was originally developed nearly two decades ago by researchers and the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with Cure Autism Now, which is now a program of Autism Speaks.

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Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorders characterized by difficulties with communication and social interaction. Geschwind has been working to identify the genetic causes and biological mechanisms of the disorder for more than a decade, and led the original development of the AGRE resource that was used in this study in the late 1990s. In 2018, he and colleagues at UCLA received their second, five-year grant from the NIH to expand autism research by studying genetic causes of autism in African American families.

Higher rates of post-natal depression among autistic mothers

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Autistic mothers are more likely to report post-natal depression compared to non-autistic mothers, according to a new study of mothers of autistic children carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge

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A better understanding of the experiences of autistic mothers during pregnancy and the post-natal period is critical to improving wellbeing. The results are published in Molecular Autism.

The team recruited an advisory panel of autistic mothers with whom they co-developed an anonymous, online survey. After matching, this was completed by 355 autistic and 132 non-autistic mothers, each of whom had at least one autistic child.

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Sixty percent of autistic mothers in the study reported they had experienced post-natal depression. By comparison, only 12% of women in the general population experience post-natal depression. In addition, autistic mothers had more difficulties in multi-tasking, coping with domestic responsibilities, and creating social opportunities for their child.

The study also found that when autistic mothers disclosed their autism diagnosis to a professional, they were not believed the majority of the time. Autistic women felt misunderstood by professionals more frequently during pre- and post-natal appointments and found motherhood an isolating experience. Despite these challenges, autistic mothers reported they were able to act in the best interest of their child, putting their child’s needs first and seeking opportunities to boost their child’s self-confidence.

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Dr Alexa Pohl, who led the study, said: “Autistic mothers face unique challenges during the perinatal period and parenthood. Despite these challenges, an overwhelming majority of autistic mothers reported that parenting overall was a rewarding experience. This research highlights the need for increased awareness of the experiences of motherhood for autistic women and the need for more tailored support.”

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Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, and part of the team, said: “This worryingly high number of autistic mothers who experience post-natal depression means we are failing them and their infants at a critical point in their lives. We now need more research into why the rates are so much higher, whether they are seeking help and not getting it, or if they are not seeking help and for what reasons. A new research priority is to develop autism-relevant screening tools and interventions for post-natal depression in these mothers.”

Monique Blakemore, an autistic advocate and member of the team, said: “This vital study was initiated by the autistic community, who collaborated as equal partners with researchers in the design, dissemination and interpretation of the survey. This is an excellent example of what can be achieved through such partnership.”

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The study was supported by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC), East of England, at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, the Autism Research Trust, the MRC, the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, and Autistica.

Reference

A comparative study of autistic and nonautistic women’s experience of motherhood by Alexa Pohl, Sarah Crockford, Monique Blakemore, Carrie Allison and Simon Baron-Cohen. Molecular Autism. DOI: 10.1186/s13229-019-0304-2

When should a young girl visit a gynecologist?

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According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist, girls should have their first gynecologic visit between the ages of 13 and 15 years old.

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Parents of young teenage girls are probably thinking about how to help them navigate social media, classwork, and their social lives. However, as young teenagers begin to go through puberty, it is also important to help them understand how to manage their changing bodies. Scheduling an appointment with a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist is one way to do this.

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According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist, girls should have their first gynecologic visit between the ages of 13 and 15 years old. Pediatric and adolescent gynecology is a subspecialty of gynecology that provides comprehensive care for girls from birth to early adulthood. Pediatric and adolescent gynecologists take special care of the emotional needs of their patients and families while providing the unique care that’s necessary to foster the child’s transition from pediatrics to adult gynecology.

We spoke with pediatric gynecologist Amber Truehart, MD, about other reasons a girl should visit a gynecologist before she becomes an adult.

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Education and Examinations

Patient education is one highlight of building a relationship with a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist. During the first visit, the doctor will help reinforce an understanding of healthy body weight and good habits for healthy bones. This is also an opportunity for young patients to learn about basic female hygiene, normal versus abnormal vaginal discharge, and puberty. Additionally, depending on the patient’s individual needs, their physical and emotional development, and medical history, the doctor may perform a basic physical exam, possibly including a breast exam.

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Menstrual Cycle

Most girls get their first period when they are between 10 and 15 years old. So, it’s likely that a young girl is beginning to think about her period around this time. A visit with a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist will help her learn about the menstrual cycle and what is considered normal or abnormal. She can also learn how to manage her cycle, pain relief, and how to deal with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

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Vaccinations

Young girls are able to get the HPV vaccine at their gynecologist’s office. The HPV vaccine helps protect children from developing the human papillomavirus, which can lead to six types of cancers later in life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two doses of the HPV vaccine, the first at age 11 and then six months later. If the child waits until age 15, they’ll need three doses of the vaccine.

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Sex Talks

Let’s face it — it may be difficult for a young girl to talk to a parent about sex. Yet, it’s important that she have an avenue for these conversations. Getting her in front of an expert she trusts will help her get accurate information and learn about sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and pregnancy prevention. She can also talk with her gynecologist about safe and healthy intimate relationships, LGBTQ topics and having sex for the first time.

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Special Assessments

For girls and young women who need complex gynecologic care, forming a doctor-patient relationship connects them with an expert who is poised to provide a full range of specialized services. Pediatric and adolescent gynecologists are trained to care for the intricate needs of children and teens who have physical or mental disabilities, congenital gynecologic abnormalities (present since birth), and underlying chronic health problems.

Dinosaur Embryos

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Eggs Took 3 to 6 Months to Hatch

Research on the teeth of fossilized dinosaur embryos indicates that the eggs of non-avian dinosaurs took a long time to hatch–between about three and six months. The study, led by scientists at Florida State University, the American Museum of Natural History, and the University of Calgary, was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and finds that contrary to previous assumptions, dinosaur incubation is more similar to that of typical reptiles than of birds. The work suggests that prolonged incubation may have affected dinosaurs’ ability to compete with more rapidly generating populations of birds, reptiles, and mammals following the mass extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago.

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Credit: © AMNH/M. Ellison
This is a photo of a hatchling Protoceratops andrewsi fossil from the Gobi Desert Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia.
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“We know very little about dinosaur embryology, yet it relates to so many aspects of development, life history, and evolution,” said study co-author Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “But with the help of advanced tools like CT scanners and high-resolution microscopy, we’re making discoveries that we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. This work is a great example of how new technology and new ideas can be brought to old problems.”

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Because birds are living dinosaurs, scientists have long assumed that the duration of dinosaur incubation was similar to birds, whose eggs hatch within 11 to 85 days. The research team tested this theory by looking at the fossilized teeth of two extremely well-preserved ornithischian dinosaur embryos on each end of the size spectrum: Protoceratops–a pig-sized dinosaur found by Norell and colleagues in the Mongolian Gobi Desert, whose eggs were quite small at 194 grams, or a little less than half of a pound–and Hypacrosaurus, a very large duck-billed dinosaur found in Alberta, Canada, with eggs weighing more than 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds. First, the researchers scanned the embryonic jaws of the two dinosaurs with computed tomography (CT) at the Museum’s Microscopy and Imaging Facility to visualize the forming dentitions. Then they used an advanced microscope to look for and analyze the pattern of “von Ebner” lines–growth lines that are present in the teeth of all animals, humans included. This study marks the first time that these growth lines have been identified in dinosaur embryos.

“These are the lines that are laid down when any animal’s teeth develops,” said lead author and Florida State University professor Gregory Erickson. “They’re kind of like tree rings, but they’re put down daily. And so we could literally count them to see how long each dinosaur had been developing.”

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Using this method, the scientists determined that the Protoceratops embryos were about three months old when they died and the Hypacrosaurus embryos were about six months old. This places non-avian dinosaur incubation more in line with that of their reptilian cousins, whose eggs typically take twice as long as bird eggs to hatch–weeks to many months. The work implies that birds likely evolved more rapid incubation rates after they branched off from the rest of the dinosaurs. The authors note that the results might be quite different if they were able to analyze a more “bird-like” dinosaur, like Velociraptor. But unfortunately, very few fossilized dinosaur embryos have been discovered.

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“A lot is known about growth in dinosaurs in their juvenile to adult years,” said co-author Darla Zelenitsky, from the University of Calgary. “Time within the egg is a crucial part of development with major biological ramifications, but is poorly understood because dinosaur embryos are rare.”

The study also has implications for dinosaur extinction. Prolonged incubation exposed non-avian dinosaur eggs and attending parents to predators, starvation, and environmental disruptions such as flooding. In addition, slower embryonic development might have put them at a disadvantage compared to other animals that survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

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Florida State University graduate student David Kay also is an author on this paper.

This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation, grant # EAR 0959029, the Macaulay Family, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, grant # 327513-09.

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (AMNH.ORG)

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The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, is one of the world’s preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York State’s official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation’s 26th president, and a tribute to Roosevelt’s enduring legacy of conservation. The Museum’s five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 33 million specimens and artifacts, as well as specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data, and one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree and the Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Annual attendance has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows can be seen in venues on five continents. The Museum’s website and collection of apps for mobile devices extend its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to millions more beyond its walls. Visit amnh.org for more information.

Fire-Ravaged Kangaroo Island?

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“The bushfire crisis on Kangaroo Island is heart-breaking,” Professor Higgins-Desbiolles says, “and for a holiday destination that relies on tourism, the summer-holiday fires could not have come at a worse time.

Credit: Gary Jenkins
Fire on Kangaroo Island
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Kangaroo Island is one of South Australia’s most iconic tourism destinations, but as fires continue to rage across the once pristine environment, many holidaymakers are questioning whether to keep or cancel their travel plans.

While tourism authorities are calling for people to continue to visit Kangaroo Island, sustainable tourism expert, UniSA’s Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles says the situation is far more complex than boosting tourist numbers.

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“The bushfire crisis on Kangaroo Island is heart-breaking,” Professor Higgins-Desbiolles says, “and for a holiday destination that relies on tourism, the summer-holiday fires could not have come at a worse time.

“Kangaroo Island is a tourism dependent economy, and while tourism operators and authorities are calling for people to keep visiting Kangaroo Island, the fires are not yet out, CFS volunteers and defence personal are still being deployed, and infrastructure like the water treatment facilities are damaged.

“Additionally, critical services like the Kangaroo Island ferry are needed to transport emergency service personnel and equipment. I just think it’s too soon at this moment.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says while it’s strategically important to plan the recovery of Kangaroo Island’s tourism businesses and primary producers, immediate tourist visits may not be the answer.

“While it is still be possible to visit Kangaroo Island at this time, it may not be the most viable or ethical decision under the current circumstances,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says.

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“For those of us who love Kangaroo Island and want to see its economy recover and thrive, the advice for the short term is provide donations if you can, buy Kangaroo Island produce and products, and when the time is right, book your holidays there and plan to consciously direct your spending to support the local economy.

“This is an incredibly emotional and confronting time for the 4500-plus residents of Kangaroo Island who are still reeling from the devastation and loss form the fires. They’re only just beginning a long road to recovery.

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“For those with later bookings on KI, please don’t cancel those just yet. If the local authorities give the greenlight, your holiday bookings may be just what helps Islanders get back on their feet.

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 “The grassroots campaign – #gowithemptyeskies – perhaps says it best: ‘When these fires have stopped, and the towns impacted are safe and trying to regain some sense of ‘normal’….plan a road trip. Go with empty eskies, empty cars and low fuel…(and) buy from their shops…empty eskies make, more of a difference that you could ever imagine.”

“It’s a small step, but one to which we can all safely contribute beyond the devastation of the fires.”

The Columbus' cannibal claims

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Study puts the ‘Carib’ in ‘Caribbean,’ boosting credibility of Columbus’ cannibal claims

image from history.com

Christopher Columbus’ accounts of the Caribbean include harrowing descriptions of fierce raiders who abducted women and cannibalized men – stories long dismissed as myths.

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But a new study suggests Columbus may have been telling the truth.

Using the equivalent of facial recognition technology, researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, uncovering relationships between people groups and upending longstanding hypotheses about how the islands were first colonized.

One surprising finding was that the Caribs, marauders from South America and rumored cannibals, invaded Jamaica, Hispaniola and the Bahamas, overturning half a century of assumptions that they never made it farther north than Guadeloupe.

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“I’ve spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right: There were Caribs in the northern Caribbean when he arrived,” said William Keegan, Florida Museum of Natural History curator of Caribbean archaeology. “We’re going to have to reinterpret everything we thought we knew.”

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Columbus had recounted how peaceful Arawaks in modern-day Bahamas were terrorized by pillagers he mistakenly described as “Caniba,” the Asiatic subjects of the Grand Khan. His Spanish successors corrected the name to “Caribe” a few decades later, but the similar-sounding names led most archaeologists to chalk up the references to a mix-up: How could Caribs have been in the Bahamas when their closest outpost was nearly 1,000 miles to the south?

Credit: Ann Ross/North Carolina State University
Researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial “landmarks” as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people groups were related to one another.

But skulls reveal the Carib presence in the Caribbean was far more prominent than previously thought, giving credence to Columbus’ claims.

Face to face with the Caribbean’s earliest inhabitants

Previous studies relied on artifacts such as tools and pottery to trace the geographical origin and movement of people through the Caribbean over time. Adding a biological component brings the region’s history into sharper focus, said Ann Ross, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and the study’s lead author.

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Ross used 3D facial “landmarks,” such as the size of an eye socket or length of a nose, to analyze more than 100 skulls dating from about A.D. 800 to 1542. These landmarks can act as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people are related to one another.

The analysis not only revealed three distinct Caribbean people groups, but also their migration routes, which was “really stunning,” Ross said.

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Looking at ancient faces shows the Caribbean’s earliest settlers came from the Yucatan, moving into Cuba and the Northern Antilles, which supports a previous hypothesis based on similarities in stone tools. Arawak speakers from coastal Colombia and Venezuela migrated to Puerto Rico between 800 and 200 B.C., a journey also documented in pottery.

The earliest inhabitants of the Bahamas and Hispaniola, however, were not from Cuba as commonly thought, but the Northwest Amazon – the Caribs. Around A.D. 800, they pushed north into Hispaniola and Jamaica and then the Bahamas where they were well established by the time Columbus arrived.

“I had been stumped for years because I didn’t have this Bahamian component,” Ross said. “Those remains were so key. This will change the perspective on the people and peopling of the Caribbean.”

For Keegan, the discovery lays to rest a puzzle that pestered him for years: why a type of pottery known as Meillacoid appears in Hispaniola by A.D. 800, Jamaica around 900 and the Bahamas around 1000.

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“Why was this pottery so different from everything else we see? That had bothered me,” he said. “It makes sense that Meillacoid pottery is associated with the Carib expansion.”

The sudden appearance of Meillacoid pottery also corresponds with a general reshuffling of people in the Caribbean after a 1,000-year period of tranquility, further evidence that “Carib invaders were on the move,” Keegan said.

Raiders of the lost Arawaks

So, was there any substance to the tales of cannibalism?

Possibly, Keegan said.

Arawaks and Caribs were enemies, but they often lived side by side with occasional intermarriage before blood feuds erupted, he said.

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“It’s almost a ‘Hatfields and McCoys’ kind of situation,” Keegan said. “Maybe there was some cannibalism involved. If you need to frighten your enemies, that’s a really good way to do it.”

Whether or not it was accurate, the European perception that Caribs were cannibals had a tremendous impact on the region’s history, he said. The Spanish monarchy initially insisted that indigenous people be paid for work and treated with respect, but reversed its position after receiving reports that they refused to convert to Christianity and ate human flesh.

“The crown said, ‘Well, if they’re going to behave that way, they can be enslaved,'” Keegan said. “All of a sudden, every native person in the entire Caribbean became a Carib as far as the colonists were concerned.”

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Michael Pateman of the Turks and Caicos National Museum and Colleen Young of the University of Missouri also co-authored the study.

Exercise and Anxiety Reduction in Children with Autism

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An Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health grant supports the research

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The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders will begin a research study using physical exercise to reduce anxiety in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among underserved populations.

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This initiative is made possible through a grant from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). Jean Gehricke, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at UC Irvine and a licensed clinical psychologist with The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, is the principal investigator of the study. The four-year study is receiving $103,125 for its initial year, with the potential overall total of $790,625. Gehricke expects to enroll participants by early fall.

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“We are excited to be chosen as the only site nationwide to receive this AIR-P grant to study the impact of exercise on anxiety, which is very common and can lead to poor outcomes in children with autism,” Gehricke said. “The grant will allow us to collect valuable data that could significantly improve long-term physical and mental health, particularly in underserved communities.”

A growing international body of research is confirming the wide-ranging benefits of exercise in reducing stress and improving the long-term health of children and adults alike. This study will determine the potential benefits of exercise in underserved children with ASD.

“We often tell our families to encourage their children with autism to get out and exercise,” said Kelly McKinnon, M.A., BCBA, co-investigator on the project. “It’s exciting to be able to study its impact and share the results with our families.”

The physical exercise research program is being designed to incorporate comprehensive new guidelines for physical exercise in children developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers will measure impact based on several key factors, including compliance, anxiety and salivary cortisol levels measured before and after completion of the exercise and control group interventions. Cortisol is a frequently used biomarker for stress, Gehricke explained.

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Collecting this data will aid in the development of an evidence-based physical exercise intervention toolkit for the treatment of anxiety as well as other behaviors and improvement of physical health in children with ASD from underserved populations.

“Research is one of the core pillars of our mission,” said Catherine Brock, M.A., executive director of The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “With this grant and Jean Gehricke’s pioneering research efforts, we will be better able to help parents and families overcome obstacles they face and assist children in reaching their optimal potential.”

For more information, please visit http://www.thecenter4autism.org.

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About The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental DisordersFounded in 2001 (originally as For OC Kids), The Center is home to a team of experts in the field of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. Since its opening, The Center has been a leader in clinical services, research, education, and outreach, serving clients from birth through 22 years old.

In late 2012, a catalytic investment by the Thompson Family Foundation and the Children and Families Commission of Orange County provided $14.8 million to expand The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

The Center was established to provide help and hope to children, adolescents, young adults and their families challenged by autism spectrum and other neurodevelopmental disorders through excellent clinical care, innovative research, quality education, and community engagement. For more information, please visit http://www.thecenter4autism.org.