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Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Study Could Explain Why Some People Get Zits And Others Don't

Two strains of acne bacteria linked to pimples, another to healthy skin

The bacteria that cause acne live on everyone's skin, yet one in five people is lucky enough to develop only an occasional pimple over a lifetime.

In a boon for teenagers everywhere, a UCLA study conducted with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute has discovered that acne bacteria contain "bad" strains associated with pimples and "good" strains that may protect the skin.

Acne of a 14-year-old male during puberty
Credit: Wikipedia

The findings, published in the Feb. 28 edition of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, could lead to a myriad of new therapies to prevent and treat the disfiguring skin disorder.

"We learned that not all acne bacteria trigger pimples — one strain may help keep skin healthy," said principal investigator Huiying Li, an assistant professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "We hope to apply our findings to develop new strategies that stop blemishes before they start, and enable dermatologists to customize treatment to each patient's unique cocktail of skin bacteria."

The scientists looked at a tiny microbe with a big name:Propionibacterium acnes, bacteria that thrive in the oily depths of our pores. When the bacteria aggravate the immune system, they cause the swollen, red bumps associated with acne.

Using over-the-counter pore-cleansing strips, LA BioMed and UCLA researchers lifted P. acnes bacteria from the noses of 49 pimply and 52 clear-skinned volunteers. After extracting the microbial DNA from the strips, Li's laboratory tracked a genetic marker to identify the bacterial strains in each volunteer's pores and recorded whether the person suffered from acne.

Next, Li's lab cultured the bacteria from the strips to isolate more than 1,000 strains. Washington University scientists sequenced the genomes of 66 of the P. acnes strains, enabling UCLA co-first author Shuta Tomida to zero in on genes unique to each strain.

"We were interested to learn that the bacterial strains looked very different when taken from diseased skin, compared to healthy skin," said co-author Dr. Noah Craft, a dermatologist and director of the Center for Immunotherapeutics Research at LA BioMed at Harbor–UCLA Medical Center. "Two unique strains of P. acnes appeared in one out of five volunteers with acne but rarely occurred in clear-skinned people."

The biggest discovery was still to come.

"We were extremely excited to uncover a third strain of P. acnes that's common in healthy skin yet rarely found when acne is present," said Li, who is also a member of UCLA's Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging. "We suspect that this strain contains a natural defense mechanism that enables it to recognize attackers and destroy them before they infect the bacterial cell."

Offering new hope to acne sufferers, the researchers believe that increasing the body's friendly strain of P. acnes through the use of a simple cream or lotion may help calm spotty complexions.

"This P. acnes strain may protect the skin, much like yogurt's live bacteria help defend the gut from harmful bugs," Li said. "Our next step will be to investigate whether a probiotic cream can block bad bacteria from invading the skin and prevent pimples before they start."

Additional studies will focus on exploring new drugs that kill bad strains of P. acnes while preserving the good ones; the use of viruses to kill acne-related bacteria; and a simple skin test to predict whether a person will develop aggressive acne in the future.

"Our research underscores the importance of strain-level analysis of the world of human microbes to define the role of bacteria in health and disease," said co-author George Weinstock, associate director of the Genome Institute and professor of genetics at Washington University in St. Louis. "This type of analysis has a much higher resolution than prior studies that relied on bacterial cultures or only made distinctions between bacterial species."

Acne affects 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, yet scientists know little about what causes the disorder and have made limited progress in developing new strategies for treating it. Dermatologists' arsenal of anti-acne tools — benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics and Accutane (isotretinoin) — hasn't expanded in decades. Most severe cases of acne don't respond to antibiotics, and Accutane can produce serious side effects.

The research was supported by a grant (UH2AR057503) from the National Institutes of Health's Human Microbiome Project through the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Co-authors include co-first author Sorel Fitz-Gibbon, Bor-Han Chiu, Lin Nguyen, Christine Du, Dr. Minghsun Liu, David Elashoff, Dr. Jenny Kim, Anya Loncaric, Dr. Robert Modlin and Jeff F. Miller of UCLA; Erica Sodergren of Washington University; and Dr. Marie Erfe of LA BioMed.

Contacts and sources:
Elaine Schmidt
University of California - Los Angeles

Small Crocodiles Fed On Baby Dinosaurs In Montana, New Dinosaur Species Found

First fossil evidence shows small crocs fed on baby dinosaurs

A South Dakota School of Mines & Technology assistant professor and his team have discovered a new species of herbivorous dinosaur and today published the first fossil evidence of prehistoric crocodyliforms feeding on small dinosaurs.

Research by Clint Boyd, Ph.D., provides the first definitive evidence that plant-eating baby ornithopod dinosaurs were a food of choice for the crocodyliform, a now extinct relative of the crocodile family. While conducting their research, the team also discovered that this dinosaur prey was a previously unrecognized species of a small ornithopod dinosaur, which has yet to be named.

Video interview with Boyd:

The evidence found in what is now known as the Grand Staircase Escalante-National Monument in southern Utah dates back to the late Cretaceous period, toward the end of the age of dinosaurs, and was published today in the academic journal PLOS ONE (Public Library of Science ONE). The complete research findings of Boyd and Stephanie K. Drumheller, of the University of Iowa and the University of Tennessee, and Terry A. Gates, of North Carolina State University and the Natural History Museum of Utah, can be accessed at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057605.

A large number of mostly tiny bits of dinosaur bones were recovered in groups at four locations within the Utah park – which paleontologists and geologists know as the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Kaiparowits Formation – leading paleontologists to believe that crocodyliforms had fed on baby dinosaurs 1-2 meters in total length.

Clint Boyd, Ph.D., of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, points to a crocodyliform tooth embedded in the femur of a young dinosaur.
Photo credit: South Dakota School of Mines & Technology

Evidence shows bite marks on bone joints, as well as breakthrough proof of a crocodyliform tooth still embedded in a dinosaur femur.

The findings are significant because historically dinosaurs have been depicted as the dominant species. “The traditional ideas you see in popular literature are that when little baby dinosaurs are either coming out of a nesting grounds or out somewhere on their own, they are normally having to worry about the theropod dinosaurs, the things like raptors or, on bigger scales, the T. rex. So this kind of adds a new dimension,” Boyd said. “You had your dominant riverine carnivores, the crocodyliforms, attacking these herbivores as well, so they kind of had it coming from all sides."

Based on teeth marks left on bones and the large amounts of fragments left behind, it is believed the crocodyliforms were also diminutive in size, perhaps no more than 2 meters long. A larger species of crocodyliform would have been more likely to gulp down its prey without leaving behind traces of “busted up” bone fragments.

Until now, paleontologists had direct evidence only of “very large crocodyliforms” interacting with “very large dinosaurs.”

“It’s not often that you get events from the fossil record that are action-related,” Boyd explained. “While you generally assume there was probably a lot more interaction going on, we didn’t have any of that preserved in the fossil record yet. This is the first time that we have definitive evidence that you had this kind of partitioning, of your smaller crocodyliforms attacking the smaller herbivorous dinosaurs,” he said, adding that this is only the second published instance of a crocodyliform tooth embedded in any prey animal in the fossil record.

“A lot of times you find material in close association or you can find some feeding marks or traces on the outside of the bone and you can hypothesize that maybe it was a certain animal doing this, but this was only the second time we have really good definitive evidence of a crocodyliform feeding on a prey animal and in this case an ornithischian dinosaur,” Boyd said.

The high concentrations of tiny dinosaur bones led researchers to conclude a type of selection occurred, that crocodyliforms were preferentially feeding on these miniature dinosaurs. “Maybe it was closer to a nesting ground where baby dinosaurs would have been more abundant, and so the smaller crocodyliforms were hanging out there getting a lunch,” Boyd added.

“When we started looking at all the other bones, we starting finding marks that are known to be diagnostic for crocodyliform feeding traces, so all that evidence coming together suddenly started to make sense as to why we were not finding good complete specimens of these little ornithischian dinosaurs,” Boyd explained. “Most of the bites marks are concentrated around the joints, which is where the crocodyliform would tend to bite, and then, when they do their pulling or the death roll that they tend to do, the ends of the bones tend to snap off more often than not in those actions. That’s why we were finding these fragmentary bones.”

In the process of their research, the team discovered through diagnostic cranial material that these baby prey are a new, as yet-to-be-named dinosaur species. Details on this new species will soon be published in another paper.

Prometheus: World's Oldest Tree Older Than The Pyramids Of Giza

On a craggy, windswept peak in a lonely Nevada wilderness stands a grove of old-growth trees. Gnarled and twisted, shaped by the weather and whirling winds into erratic growth forms, their roots have clung to the pebble-strewn mountainside for literally millennia.

On the far side of the Earth, the great pyramids were erected in Egypt and Homer wrote his epic tales, the ancient Roman Empire rose and fell, and humans built the North American cities, roads and railways of today – all in the lifespan of these trees.

Prometheus, a bristlecone pine like this one, lived for 5,000 years on a Nevada mountaintop. Today, Prometheus -- the oldest indivdiual ever known to have lived -- resides in the UA Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research.
Credit: University of Arizona

This is not just any old-growth grove. These are members of the species Pinus longaeva, or Bristlecone pine, the world’s longest-living individual trees.

“There is an argument that unless there’s an extremely stressful period of time or they’re struck by lightning or killed by fire, there’s not a physiological reason for these trees to die,” said Rex Adams, senior research specialist at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

The lab houses pieces of the oldest Bristlecone pine ever known to have lived, a tree called Prometheus after the Titan of Greek mythology. But how the pieces came there is a tragic tale.

In the summers of 1963 and 1964, Donald Currey, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, climbed Wheeler Peak in Nevada’s Snake Range to where the Bristlecone pines stand in the cold mountain wind.

Currey, a student in geography, wanted to find a minimum date for the formation of the local glacial features. He decided to determine the age of the trees, reasoning that the earliest they could have become established on the mountainside would have coincided with the recession of the glaciers.

As a tree ages, it grows outward, forming a new ring around its trunk each year. Its age can be determined by counting the annual growth rings from the living layer just below the bark all the way to the pith, the center of the tree from which the rings emanate.

Dendrochronologists, who study tree rings, can sample most trees with skill and patience and a tool called a Swedish increment borer that harmlessly removes a slender core from the trunk, which shows the rings of the tree but does no lasting damage.

Since the living part of the tree is the outer layer just below the bark, and all the wood inside is dead, the injury done by an increment borer to a living tree is very small, about equivalent to the skin prick of a human flu shot.

Currey extracted cores from the Bristlecone trees, but found counting the sometimes paper-thin rings of the twisted and gnarly wood an impossible task. He decided only a complete cross-section would give him an accurate ring count. With permission from the U.S. Forest Service, Currey selected an especially old tree, dubbed WPN 114 for his study, and he cut it down.

Only later in his hotel room, counting the rings on the cross-sections of wood that his chainsaw had rendered, did Currey realize that the tree he had felled was more than 4,800 years old – older than any known living tree.

“The tragedy of Prometheus is that it would have been possible with one or two cores to establish the age of the tree with great accuracy – much greater than was possible for Currey by having it cut down and trying to count its rings,” said Chris Baisan, a dendrochronologist at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Amidst public outcry in the wake of the event, Wes Ferguson, then a graduate student at the tree-ring laboratory, was tasked with returning to Wheeler Peak to see if he could find a living tree older than the one chopped down by Currey. He didn’t.

And the purloined tree was left to lie on the mountainside for the scientists who followed, seeking the knowledge of centuries past contained in its rings. Ferguson collected some of the wood, and brought it back to the UA.
The Age of the Ancient One

Wander down the concrete stairs to the basement on the northwest corner of the Math East building on the UA campus to a shut door bearing the somewhat ominous sign: “Please keep this door closed. The Fire Marshall requires that we do this!”

Past the door you will find the cause of the fire marshall’s concern: Boxes full of wood, circular cross sections of tree trunks, whole logs and branches, boards and remnants of dead wood fill up rows of shelves – and oftentimes the aisles – from the sawdust-strewn floor to the dusty ceiling.

On one wall, a 7-foot slab of wood is mounted with care: A cross section of the radius of the tree known as Prometheus.

A second collection of wood from Prometheus came to the UA only a few years ago, after Currey’s passing. Among this collection was a piece containing the pith, the center of the tree. For the first time, a tree-ring scientist was able to date the wood to establish Prometheus’ age.

By overlapping the rings on the pith piece with a chronology of measured ring-widths from trees in the region provided to him by fellow UA dendrochronologist Matt Salzer and UA Regents' Professor Malcolm Hughes, Baisan established the age of the tree with great accuracy.

“I had never seen a piece with the pith and was curious to see where it dated,” Baisan said. “The match was really unequivocal from the first test. A reasonable age estimate is right at 5,000 years – an estimate because of the time to grow to about 7 feet, the height from which the piece with the pith came, is subject only to a reasonable guess."

Prometheus is not alone in its great age. Many of the other trees in the grove on Wheeler Peak also are estimated at near 5,000 years old, although none have been found that are as old as Prometheus.

“The odds of by chance selecting the oldest individual of a species of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of individuals spread across the rugged and remote Great Basin terrain are simply not credible,” Baisan said.

“I cannot believe that Prometheus was ever ‘the oldest’ Bristlecone pine. As for finding an older individual,” he added, “this would be a difficult and thankless task for which there is no real research incentive.”

Now the oldest publicly known individual, named Methuselah after the oldest person mentioned in the Bible, and known to be more than 4,700 years old, abides upon a slope of the White Mountains of eastern California. Its exact location is not advertised in an effort to protect the tree from a plight of tourists and plunderers.

And Currey? “His career was OK,” Adams said. “To most people, he was just professor Currey. Nothing bad happened to him, except he died relatively young, and that’s the mysterious part.”
The Curse of the Old Trees

“There’s this urban myth that goes with the Bristlecone,” Adams explained. “That handling the wood, you’re going to be cursed by the old trees.”

From Edmund Schulman, the dendrochronologist who first established the great age of the Bristlecone pines and died himself at 49, to Currey, Ferguson and other Bristlecone pine researchers, many have died at an alarmingly young age. In one incident, a 32-year-old Forest Service employee who returned with Currey and others to remove the chopped-up pieces of Prometheus from the mountainside suffered a fatal heart attack on the way down.

As improbable as the myth may seem, its portents are dark enough to prevent some from ever touching the wood of the Bristlecones, especially that of Prometheus.

But the myth hasn’t kept all contemporary dendrochronologists away from the old trees. “There are some folks now who are fiddling with the wood,” Adams said. “Some researchers here are working on climatic effects on Bristlecone.”

And then there’s Adams himself. “I’ve handled a lot of old wood, and I’m sitting here now holding a piece that really is supposed to be the cursed piece.” He cradled the pith piece of Prometheus in one arm. “But then I am showing my age these days,” he added and laughed. “So maybe I shouldn’t be touching this.”

He leaned over and gently lay down on the table the remnant of a tree that once weathered the storms of millennia atop lonely Wheeler Peak.

Contacts and sources:
University of Arizona

Spices To Replace Drugs And Improve Health

Prior to the invention of modern medicines, herbs and spices were used to treat various conditions, and have been used to treat illnesses for thousands of years. While the spices may not have cured everything, these people were onto something. Spices help the body function better and improve your overall health. Some spices are multi-taskers, so don’t be surprised if you see some spices in multiple categories. 

Rosa Wilson of BecomeANanny.com says, "take a look at these 30 blog entries to get an idea of which spices might be able to help you." .

Heart Health

Heart attacks are one of the leading causes of death in men and women, so if you can eat your way to better heart health, wouldn’t that be worth a try? These five blog posts will explain the different spices and how they work in your body to improve your heart health.
3 Spice Bottles That Protect Your Heart and Reduce Inflammation
New Research: Which Herbs and Spices Improve Your Health
Spice Up Your Health
Eating for the Healthy Heart
Spices May Really Be the Spice of Life

Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation in your joints and body as a whole can cause you a lot of pain. However, taking typical over the counter pain relievers can have adverse effects on your kidneys. Adding spices to your daily food intake could reduce or eliminate the need to take over the counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Herbs and Spices That Improve Your Oral Health
Spice it Up
How to Improve Your Health? Try Using Spices!
Spice it Up
5 Healing Benefits of Ginger

Kill Bacteria

Several spices have anti-bacterial properties that can help improve your immune system. By eating these spices your body can more easily ward off the germs that can cause colds and the flu. You may be able to stay healthier simply by adding some extra spice to your diet
How Curry Spice Helps The Immune System Kill Bacteria
The Top 10 Super-Spices that Protect Your Body
The Health Benefits of Cinnamon
How Curry Spice Helps the Immune System Kill Bacteria
E. Coli Bacteria Easily Killed with Spices Like Garlic, Clove, Cinnamon, Oregano, and Sage

Improve Immune System

Spices eaten to boost the immune system aren’t weird or unusual spices that you have never heard of, they are common spices, such as ginger, curry, cloves and nutmeg. Many of these spices show up in winter dishes naturally and can help you fight off unwanted germs.
Herbs and Spices to Boost Your Immune System
Need to Boost Your Immune System? These Foods Will Help!
How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally
7 Spices to Boost Your Immune System for the Winter
The Top 10 Super Spices that Protect Your Body

Mood Elevator

Cinnamon is one of the most common mood elevating spices, and one that almost everyone has in their kitchen right now. If you get up in a bad mood, why not add some cinnamon to your oatmeal or toast? Cinnamon isn’t the only mood elevating spice; saffron has actually been shown to reduce symptoms of PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome).
7 Foods to Change Your Mood
Spices for Depression They Seriously Can Spice Up Your Mood
Spice Up Your Mood Baby!
Spice Up Your Health with These 5 Common and Healthy Spices
Spice for the Health of It

Improve Libido

You’ve probably the heard the saying “add a little spice to your life.” Now you can add a little spice to your sex life. If you find that you aren’t in the mood as much as you’d like, you might want to try adding some heat to your food. Spicy food will increase your libido, so you can heat things up in the bedroom as well as in your food. Try some of these spices for yourself and see if you get any results.
Spices to Spice You Sex Life
Spices, Male Enhancement and Increased Sex Drive?
How to Increase Libido and Lose Weight
10 Spices to Raise Your Sex Drive
Four Spices That Increase Sex Drive

New Radiation Belt Around Earth Discovered

NASA's Van Allen Probes mission has discovered a previously unknown third radiation belt around Earth, revealing the existence of unexpected structures and processes within these hazardous regions of space.

Two giant swaths of radiation, known as the Van Allen Belts, surrounding Earth were discovered in 1958. In 2012, observations from the Van Allen Probes showed that a third belt can sometimes appear.
Credit: NASA

Previous observations of Earth's Van Allen belts have long documented two distinct regions of trapped radiation surrounding our planet. Particle detection instruments aboard the twin Van Allen Probes, launched Aug. 30, quickly revealed to scientists the existence of this new, transient, third radiation belt.

The belts, named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, are critical regions for modern society, which is dependent on many space-based technologies. The Van Allen belts are affected by solar storms and space weather and can swell dramatically. When this occurs, they can pose dangers to communications and GPS satellites, as well as humans in space.

"The fantastic new capabilities and advances in technology in the Van Allen Probes have allowed scientists to see in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles and will provide insight on what causes them to change, and how these processes affect the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington.

This discovery shows the dynamic and variable nature of the radiation belts and improves our understanding of how they respond to solar activity. The findings, published Thursday in the journal Science, are the result of data gathered by the first dual-spacecraft mission to fly through our planet's radiation belts.

Credit: NASA

The new high-resolution observations by the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) instrument, part of the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma Suite (ECT) aboard the Van Allen Probes, revealed there can be three distinct, long-lasting belt structures with the emergence of a second empty slot region, or space, in between.

"This is the first time we have had such high-resolution instruments look at time, space and energy together in the outer belt," said Daniel Baker, lead author of the study and REPT instrument lead at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "Previous observations of the outer radiation belt only resolved it as a single blurry element. When we turned REPT on just two days after launch, a powerful electron acceleration event was already in progress, and we clearly saw the new belt and new slot between it and the outer belt."

Scientists observed the third belt for four weeks before a powerful interplanetary shock wave from the sun annihilated it. Observations were made by scientists from institutions including LASP; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.; and the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Each Van Allen Probe carries an identical set of five instrument suites that allow scientists to gather data on the belts in unprecedented detail. The data are important for the study of the effect of space weather on Earth, as well as fundamental physical processes observed around other objects, such as planets in our solar system and distant nebulae.

"Even 55 years after their discovery, the Earth's radiation belts still are capable of surprising us and still have mysteries to discover and explain," said Nicky Fox, Van Allen Probes deputy project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "We thought we knew the radiation belts, but we don't. The advances in technology and detection made by NASA in this mission already have had an almost immediate impact on basic science."

The Van Allen Probes are the second mission in NASA's Living With a Star Program to explore aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. Goddard manages the program. The Applied Physics Laboratory built the spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA.

For more information on the Van Allen Probes, visit:

Forests Declining In Eastern U.S. Says NASA

Trends in forest canopy green cover over the eastern United States from 2000 to 2010 derived from NASA MODIS satellite sensor data. Green shades indicate a positive trend of increasing growing season green cover, whereas brown shades indicate a negative trend of decreasing growing season green cover. Four forest sub-regions of interest are outlined in red, north to south as: Great Lakes, Southern Appalachian, Mid-Atlantic, and southeastern Coastal Plain.

Image credit: NASA

NASA scientists report that warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation locally and regionally have altered the growth of large forest areas in the eastern United States over the past 10 years. Using NASA’s Terra satellite, scientists examined the relationship between natural plant growth trends, as monitored by NASA satellite images, and variations in climate over the eastern United States from 2000 to 2010.

Monthly satellite images from the MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) showed declining density of the green forest cover during summer in four sub-regions, the Upper Great Lakes, southern Appalachian, mid-Atlantic, and southeastern Coastal Plain. More than 20 percent of the non-agricultural area in the four sub-regions that showed decline during the growing season, were covered by forests. Nearly 40 percent of the forested area within the mid-Atlantic sub-region alone showed a significant decline in forest canopy cover.

Forest of western North Carolina
.Image credit: U.S. Forest Service

“We looked next at the relationships between warmer temperatures, rainfall patterns, and reduced forest greenness across these regions,” said Christopher Potter, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “This comprehensive data set gave us the evidence to conclude that a series of relatively dry years since 2000 has been unfavorable for vigorous growth of forest cover over much of the eastern U. S. this past decade.” Potter is the first author of the paper titled “Declining Vegetation Growth Rates in the Eastern United States from 2000 to 2010,” published by Natural Resources, Dec. 2012, (3), 184-190.

In the past, scientists were uncertain about what was causing the changes in the forests in the eastern U. S. Based on small-scale field site measurements since 1970, forest growth was thought to be increasing in regions where soil nutrients and water were in good supply. At the same time, there were fewer wildfires throughout the eastern U.S., which scientists believe contributed to the transformation of more open lands into closed-canopy forests with more shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive plants.

More recent studies indicate that climate change could be having many adverse and interrelated impacts on the region. The warming climate this century has caused new stresses on trees, such as insect pest outbreaks and the introduction of new pathogens. Scientists consider both climate change and disease to be dominant driving forces in the health of forests in this region.

NASA’s technology is revealing an entirely new picture of these complex impacts. The MODIS satellite captures very broad regional patterns of change in forests, wetlands, and grasslands by continuous monitoring of the natural plant cover over extended time periods. Now, with over a decade of “baseline” data to show how trees typically go through a yearly cycle of leaves blooming, summer growth, and leaves falling, scientists are detecting subtle deviations from the average cycle to provide early warning signs of change at the resolution of a few miles for the entire country.

"The next studies at NASA Ames will research areas that appear most affected by drought and warming to map out changes in forest growth at a resolution of several acres," said Potter.

This research was conducted under the National Climate Assessment as part of the United States Global Change Research Act of 1990.

Contacts and sources:
Ruth Dasso Marlaire
Ames Research Center

BPA May Affect The Developing Brain By Disrupting Gene Regulation

Environmental exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a widespread chemical found in plastics and resins, may suppress a gene vital to nerve cell function and to the development of the central nervous system, according to a study led by researchers at Duke Medicine.

The researchers published their findings - which were observed in cortical neurons of mice, rats and humans - in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 25, 2013.

Exposure to BPA may disrupt development of the central nervous system by slowing down the removal of chloride from neurons. As an organism matures and the brain develops, chloride levels inside nerve cells drop. However, when exposed to BPA, the chloride is removed more slowly from neurons. Researchers also found female neurons to be more susceptible to the effects of BPA.
Credit:  Duke University

"Our study found that BPA may impair the development of the central nervous system, and raises the question as to whether exposure could predispose animals and humans to neurodevelopmental disorders," said lead author Wolfgang Liedtke, M.D., PhD, associate professor of medicine/neurology and neurobiology at Duke.

BPA, a molecule that mimics estrogen and interferes with the body's endocrine system, can be found in a wide variety of manufactured products, including thermal printer paper, some plastic water bottles and the lining of metal cans. The chemical can be ingested if it seeps into the contents of food and beverage containers.

Research in animals has raised concerns that exposure to BPA may cause health problems such as behavioral issues, endocrine and reproductive disorders, obesity, cancer and immune system disorders. Some studies suggest that infants and young children may be the most vulnerable to the effects of BPA, which led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of the chemical in baby bottles and cups in July 2012.

While BPA has been shown to affect the developing nervous system, little is understood as to how this occurs. The research team developed a series of experiments in rodent and human nerve cells to learn how BPA induces changes that disrupt gene regulation.

During early development of neurons, high levels of chloride are present in the cells. These levels drop as neurons mature, thanks to a chloride transporter protein called KCC2, which churns chloride ions out of the cells. If the level of chloride within neurons remains elevated, it can damage neural circuits and compromise a developing nerve cell's ability to migrate to its proper position in the brain.

Exposing neurons to minute amounts of BPA alters the chloride levels inside the cells by somehow shutting down the Kcc2 gene, which makes the KCC2 protein, thereby delaying the removal of chloride from neurons.

MECP2, another protein important for normal brain function, was found to be a possible culprit behind this change. When exposed to BPA, MECP2 is more abundant and binds to the Kcc2 gene at a higher rate, which might help to shut it down. This could contribute to problems in the developing brain due to a delay in chloride being removed.

These findings raise the question of whether BPA could contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders such as Rett syndrome, a severe autism spectrum disorder that is only found in girls and is characterized by mutations in the gene that produces MECP2.

While both male and female neurons were affected by BPA in the studies, female neurons were more susceptible to the chemical's toxicity. Further research will dig deeper into the sex-specific effects of BPA exposure and whether certain sex hormone receptors are involved in BPA's effect on KCC2.

"Our findings improve our understanding of how environmental exposure to BPA can affect the regulation of the Kcc2 gene. However, we expect future studies to focus on what targets aside from Kcc2 are affected by BPA," Liedtke said. "This is a chapter in an ongoing story."

In addition to Liedtke, study authors include Michele Yeo and Ken Berglund of the Liedtke Lab in the Division of Neurology at Duke Medicine; Michael Hanna, Maria D. Torres and Jorge Busciglio of the University of California, Irvine; Junjie U. Guo and Yuan Gao of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.; and Jaya Kittur, Joel Abramowitz and Lutz Birnbaumer of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The research received funding from Duke University, the Klingenstein Fund, the National Institutes of Health (R21NS066307, HD38466 and AG16573), and intramural funds from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Contacts and sources:
Duke University

Bionic Vision Possible With Holography And Optogenetics

Researchers led by biomedical engineering Professor Shy Shoham of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are testing the power of holography to artificially stimulate cells in the eye, with hopes of developing a new strategy for bionic vision restoration.

Computer-generated holography, they say, could be used in conjunction with a technique called optogenetics, which uses gene therapy to deliver light-sensitive proteins to damaged retinal nerve cells. In conditions such as Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) - a condition affecting about one in 4000 people in the United States - these light-sensing cells degenerate and lead to blindness.

Concept illustration of a schematic design for a glasses-mounted holographic retinal prosthesis
SLM concept close smaller.jpg
Credit: Roman Kanevsky, Inna Gefen & Shy Shoham

“The basic idea of optogenetics is to take a light-sensitive protein from another organism, typically from algae or bacteria, and insert it into a target cell, and that photosensitizes the cell,” Shoham explained.

Intense pulses of light can activate nerve cells newly sensitized by this gene therapy approach. But Shoham said researchers around the world are still searching for the best way to deliver the light patterns so that the retina “sees” or responds in a nearly normal way.

The plan is to someday develop a prosthetic headset or eyepiece that a person could wear to translate visual scenes into patterns of light that stimulate the genetically altered cells.

In their paper in the February 26 issue of Nature Communications, the Technion researchers show how light from computer-generated holography could be used to stimulate these repaired cells in mouse retinas. The key, they say, is to use a light stimulus that is intense, precise, and can trigger activity across a variety of cells all at once.

“Holography, what we're using, has the advantage of being relatively precise and intense,” Shoham said. “And you need those two things to see.”

The researchers turned to holography after exploring other options, including laser deflectors and digital displays used in many portable projectors to stimulate these cells. Both methods had their drawbacks, Shoham said.

Digital light displays can stimulate many nerve cells at once, “but they have low light intensity and very low light efficiency,” Shoham said. The genetically repaired cells are less sensitive to light than normal healthy retinal cells, so they preferably need a bright light source like a laser to be activated.

“Lasers give intensity, but they can't give the parallel projection” that would simultaneously stimulate all of the cells needed to see a complete picture, Shoham noted. “Holography is a way of getting the best of both worlds.”

The researchers have tested the potential of holographic stimulation in retinal cells in the lab, and have done some preliminary work with the technology in living mice with damaged retinal cells. The experiments show that holography can provide reliable and simultaneous stimulation of multiple cells at millisecond speeds.

But implementing a holographic prosthesis in humans is far in the future, Shoham cautioned.

His team is exploring other ways, aside from optogenetics, to activate damaged nerve cells. For instance, they are also experimenting with ultrasound for activating retinal and brain tissue.

And Shoham said holography itself “also provides a very interesting path toward three-dimensional stimulation, which we don't use so much in the retina, but is very interesting in other projects where it allow us to stimulate 3-D brain tissue.”

In mid-February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first artificial retina and retinal prosthesis, which works in a different fashion than the Technion project. The FDA-approved device, the Argus II, uses an artificial “retina” consisting of electrodes, and a glasses-like prosthesis to transmit light signals to the electrodes.

“I think Shy's lab is very smart to pursue many methods of restoring vision,” said Eyal Margalit, a retinal disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He said researchers around the world are also looking for ways to use stem cells to replace damaged retinal cells, to transplant entire layers of healthy retinal cells, and in some cases “bypass the eye entirely, and stimulate the cortex of the brain directly” to restore lost vision.

Shoham's co-authors on the paper included Dr. Inna Reutsky-Gefen, Lior Golan, Dr. Nairouz Farah, Adi Schejter, Limor Tsur, and Dr. Inbar Brosh.

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.

American Technion Society (ATS) donors provide critical support for the Technion - more than $1.78 billion since its inception in 1940. Based in New York City, the ATS and its network of chapters across the U.S. provide funds for scholarships, fellowships, faculty recruitment and chairs, research, buildings, laboratories, classrooms and dormitories, and more.

Contacts and sources:

Birth Of A Giant Planet: Candidate Protoplanet Spotted Inside Its Stellar Womb

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have obtained what is likely the first direct observation of a forming planet still embedded in a thick disc of gas and dust. If confirmed, this discovery will greatly improve our understanding of how planets form and allow astronomers to test the current theories against an observable target.

This artist’s impression shows the formation of a gas giant planet in the ring of dust around the young star HD 100546. This system is also suspected to contain another large planet orbiting closer to the star. The newly-discovered object lies about 70 times further from its star than the Earth does from the Sun. This protoplanet is surrounded by a thick cloud of material so that, seen from this position, its star almost invisible and red in colour because of the scattering of light from the dust.

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

An international team led by Sascha Quanz (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) has studied the disc of gas and dust that surrounds the young star HD 100546, a relatively nearby neighbour located 335 light-years from Earth. They were surprised to find what seems to be a planet in the process of being formed, still embedded in the disc of material around the young star. The candidate planet would be a gas giant similar to Jupiter.

“So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations,” says Sascha Quanz. “If our discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage.”
This composite image shows a view from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (left) and from the NACO system on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (right) of the gas and dust around the young star HD 100546. The Hubble visible-light image shows the outer disc of gas and dust around the star. The new infrared VLT picture of a small part of the disc shows a candidate protoplanet. Both pictures were taken with a special coronagraph that suppresses the light from the brilliant star. The position of the star is marked with a red cross in both panels.
Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/Ardila et al.

HD 100546 is a well-studied object, and it has already been suggested that a giant planet orbits about six times further from the star than the Earth is from the Sun. The newly found planet candidate is located in the outer regions of the system, about ten times further out [1].

The planet candidate around HD 100546 was detected as a faint blob located in the circumstellar disc revealed thanks to the NACO adaptive optics instrument on ESO’s VLT, combined with pioneering data analysis techniques. The observations were made using a special coronagraph in NACO, which operates at near-infrared wavelengths and suppresses the brilliant light coming from the star at the location of the protoplanet candidate [2].

This image from the NACO system on ESO’s Very Large Telescope shows a candidate protoplanet in the disc of gas and dust around the young star HD100546. This picture was taken with a special coronagraph that suppresses the light from the brilliant star and allows the region of the protoplanet to be seen in great detail. The brightest part of this picture is the candidate protoplanet and the dark disc at the bottom is hiding the very bright star itself.
VLT image of the protoplanet around the young star HD 100546
Credit: ESO

According to current theory, giant planets grow by capturing some of the gas and dust that remains after the formation of a star [3]. The astronomers have spotted several features in the new image of the disc around HD100546 that support this protoplanet hypothesis. Structures in the dusty circumstellar disc, which could be caused by interactions between the planet and the disc, were revealed close to the detected protoplanet. Also, there are indications that the surroundings of the protoplanet are potentially heated up by the formation process. 

This chart shows the position of the young star HD 100546 in the southern constellation of Musca (The Fly). Most of the stars that are visible to the unaided eye from a clear and dark site are shown. The star HD 100546 is surrounded by a ring of dust where a planet appears to be in the process of formation. This star is a little too faint to see with the unaided eye, but can be picked up easily in binoculars. The planets and the dust ring cannot be seen in small telescopes.
The young star HD 100546 in the southern constellation of Musca
Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

Adam Amara, another member of the team, is enthusiastic about the finding. “Exoplanet research is one of the most exciting new frontiers in astronomy, and direct imaging of planets is still a new field, greatly benefiting from recent improvements in instruments and data analysis methods. In this research we used data analysis techniques developed for cosmological research, showing that cross-fertilisation of ideas between fields can lead to extraordinary progress.”

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a visible light view of the outer dust around the young star HD100546. The position of the newly discovered protoplanet is marked with an orange spot. The inner part of this picture is dominated by artifacts from the brilliant central star, which has been digitally subtracted, and the black blobs are not real.
NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope view of the dust disc around the young star HD 100546
Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/Ardila et al.

Although the protoplanet is the most likely explanation for the observations, the results of this study require follow-up observations to confirm the existence of the planet and discard other plausible scenarios. Among other explanations, it is possible, although unlikely, that the detected signal could have come from a background source. It is also possible that the newly detected object might not be a protoplanet, but a fully formed planet which was ejected from its original orbit closer to the star. When the new object around HD 100546 is confirmed to be a forming planet embedded in its parent disc of gas and dust, it will become an unique laboratory in which to study the formation process of a new planetary system.
This picture shows the sky around the young star HD 100546 in the southern constellation of Musca (The Fly). It was created from images from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The cross-like features that are centred on brighter stars, as well as the coloured circles around them, are artifacts of the telescope and photographic process and are not real.
  Wide-field view of the sky around the young star HD 100546
Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin


[1] The protoplanet candidate orbits about 70 times further from its star than the Earth does from the Sun. This distance is comparable to the size of the orbits of outer Solar System dwarf planets such as Eris and Makemake. This location is controversial, as it does not fit well with current theories of planet formation. It is unclear at present whether the newfound planet candidate has been in its current position for the whole time since it formed or whether it could have migrated from the inner regions.

[2] The team made use of a special feature called an apodised phase plate that increases the contrast of the image close to the star.

[3] To study planet formation, astronomers cannot look at the Solar System, as all the planets in our neighborhood were formed more than four billion years ago. But for many years, theories about planet formation were strongly influenced by what astronomers could see in our local surroundings, as no other planets were known. Since 1995, when the first exoplanet around a sunlike star was discovered, several hundred planetary systems have been found, opening up new opportunities for scientists studying planetary formation. Up to now however, none have been “caught in the act” in the process of being formed, whilst still embedded in the disc of material around their young parent star.
More information

This research was presented in a paper “A Young Protoplanet Candidate Embedded in the Circumstellar disc of HD 100546”, by S. P. Quanz et al., to appear online in the 28 February 2013 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The team is composed of Sascha P. Quanz (ETH Zurich, Switzerland), Adam Amara (ETH), Michael R. Meyer (ETH), Matthew A. Kenworthy (Sterrewacht Leiden, Netherlands), Markus Kasper (ESO, Garching, Germany) and Julien H. Girard (ESO, Santiago, Chile).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. 

At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Contacts and sources:
Sascha P. Quanz
ETH Zurich
Zurich, Switzerland

Julien H. Girard
Santiago, Chile

Richard Hook

Doomsday Rejected: Global Tipping Point Not Backed By Science

A group of international ecological scientists led by the University of Adelaide have rejected a doomsday-like scenario of sudden, irreversible change to the Earth's ecology.

In a paper published today in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the scientists from Australia, US and UK argue that global-scale ecological tipping points are unlikely and that ecological change over large areas seem to follow a more gradual, smooth pattern.

Credit; NASA

This opposes recent efforts to define 'planetary tipping points' - critical levels of biodiversity loss or land-use change that would have global effect - with important implications for science and policy-makers.

"This is good news because it says that we might avoid the doom-and-gloom scenario of abrupt, irreversible change," says Professor Barry Brook, lead author of the paper and Director of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide. 

"A focus on planetary tipping points may both distract from the vast ecological transformations that have already occurred, and lead to unjustified fatalism about the catastrophic effects of tipping points.“An emphasis on a point of no return is not particularly helpful for bringing about the conservation action we need. We must continue to seek to reduce our impacts on the global ecology without undue attention on trying to avoid arbitrary thresholds.”

A tipping point occurs when an ecosystem attribute such as species abundance or carbon sequestration responds rapidly and possibly irreversibly to a human pressure like land-use change or climate change.

Many local and regional-level ecosystems, such as lakes and grasslands, are known to behave this way. A planetary tipping point, the authors suggest, could theoretically occur if ecosystems across Earth respond in similar ways to the same human pressures, or if there are strong connections between continents that allow for rapid diffusion of impacts across the planet.

“These criteria, however, are very unlikely to be met in the real world,” says Professor Brook. “First, ecosystems on different continents are not strongly connected. Second, the responses of ecosystems to human pressures like climate change or land-use change depend on local circumstances and will therefore differ between localities.”

The scientists examined four principal drivers of terrestrial ecosystem change ‒ climate change, land-use change, habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss ‒ and found they were unlikely to induce global tipping points.

Co-author Associate Professor Erle Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says: “As much as four fifths of the biosphere is today characterised by ecosystems that locally, over centuries and millennia, have undergone human-driven regime shifts of one or more kinds. Recognising this reality and seeking appropriate conservation efforts at local and regional levels might be a more fruitful way forward for ecology and global change science.”

Contacts and sources:
University of Adelaide

Artificial Telepathy Achieved At Duke, Brains Linked Electronically Thousands Of Miles Apart

Researchers have electronically linked the brains of pairs of rats for the first time, enabling them to communicate directly to solve simple behavioral puzzles. A further test of this work successfully linked the brains of two animals thousands of miles apart—one in Durham, N.C., and one in Natal, Brazil.

The results of these projects suggest the future potential for linking multiple brains to form what the research team is calling an "organic computer," which could allow sharing of motor and sensory information among groups of animals. The study was published Feb. 28, 2013, in the journal Scientific Reports.

Researchers have electronically linked the brains of pairs of rats for the first time, enabling them to communicate directly to solve simple behavioral puzzles.
Credit: Duke University

"Our previous studies with brain-machine interfaces had convinced us that the rat brain was much more plastic than we had previously thought," said Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., PhD, lead author of the publication and professor of neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine. "In those experiments, the rat brain was able to adapt easily to accept input from devices outside the body and even learn how to process invisible infrared light generated by an artificial sensor. So, the question we asked was, 'if the brain could assimilate signals from artificial sensors, could it also assimilate information input from sensors from a different body?'"

To test this hypothesis, the researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem: to press the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on, which rewarded the rats with a sip of water. They next connected the two animals' brains via arrays of microelectrodes inserted into the area of the cortex that processes motor information.

One of the two rodents was designated as the "encoder" animal. This animal received a visual cue that showed it which lever to press in exchange for a water reward. Once this "encoder" rat pressed the right lever, a sample of its brain activity that coded its behavioral decision was translated into a pattern of electrical stimulation that was delivered directly into the brain of the second rat, known as the "decoder" animal.

The decoder rat had the same types of levers in its chamber, but it did not receive any visual cue indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward. Therefore, to press the correct lever and receive the reward it craved, the decoder rat would have to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain interface.

The researchers then conducted trials to determine how well the decoder animal could decipher the brain input from the encoder rat to choose the correct lever. The decoder rat ultimately achieved a maximum success rate of about 70 percent, only slightly below the possible maximum success rate of 78 percent that the researchers had theorized was achievable based on success rates of sending signals directly to the decoder rat's brain.

Importantly, the communication provided by this brain-to-brain interface was two-way. For instance, the encoder rat did not receive a full reward if the decoder rat made a wrong choice. The result of this peculiar contingency, said Nicolelis, led to the establishment of a "behavioral collaboration" between the pair of rats.

"We saw that when the decoder rat committed an error, the encoder basically changed both its brain function and behavior to make it easier for its partner to get it right," Nicolelis said. "The encoder improved the signal-to-noise ratio of its brain activity that represented the decision, so the signal became cleaner and easier to detect. And it made a quicker, cleaner decision to choose the correct lever to press. Invariably, when the encoder made those adaptations, the decoder got the right decision more often, so they both got a better reward."

In a second set of experiments, the researchers trained pairs of rats to distinguish between a narrow or wide opening using their whiskers. If the opening was narrow, they were taught to nose-poke a water port on the left side of the chamber to receive a reward; for a wide opening, they had to poke a port on the right side.

The researchers then divided the rats into encoders and decoders. The decoders were trained to associate stimulation pulses with the left reward poke as the correct choice, and an absence of pulses with the right reward poke as correct. During trials in which the encoder detected the opening width and transmitted the choice to the decoder, the decoder had a success rate of about 65 percent, significantly above chance.

To test the transmission limits of the brain-to-brain communication, the researchers placed an encoder rat in Brazil, at the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN), and transmitted its brain signals over the Internet to a decoder rat in Durham, N.C. They found that the two rats could still work together on the tactile discrimination task.

"So, even though the animals were on different continents, with the resulting noisy transmission and signal delays, they could still communicate," said Miguel Pais-Vieira, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study. "This tells us that it could be possible to create a workable, network of animal brains distributed in many different locations."

Nicolelis added, "These experiments demonstrated the ability to establish a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between rat brains, and that the decoder brain is working as a pattern-recognition device. So basically, we are creating an organic computer that solves a puzzle."

"But in this case, we are not inputting instructions, but rather only a signal that represents a decision made by the encoder, which is transmitted to the decoder's brain which has to figure out how to solve the puzzle. So, we are creating a single central nervous system made up of two rat brains," said Nicolelis. He pointed out that, in theory, such a system is not limited to a pair of brains, but instead could include a network of brains, or "brain-net." Researchers at Duke and at the ELS-IINN are now working on experiments to link multiple animals cooperatively to solve more complex behavioral tasks.

"We cannot predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves," continued Nicolelis. Such a connection might even mean that one animal would incorporate another's sense of "self," he said.

"In fact, our studies of the sensory cortex of the decoder rats in these experiments showed that the decoder's brain began to represent in its tactile cortex not only its own whiskers, but the encoder rat's whiskers, too. We detected cortical neurons that responded to both sets of whiskers, which means that the rat created a second representation of a second body on top of its own." Basic studies of such adaptations could lead to a new field that Nicolelis calls the "neurophysiology of social interaction."

Such complex experiments will be enabled by the laboratory's ability to record brain signals from almost 2,000 brain cells at once. The researchers hope to record the electrical activity produced simultaneously by 10-30,000 cortical neurons in the next five years.

Such massive brain recordings will enable more precise control of motor neuroprostheses—such as those being developed by the Walk Again Project—to restore motor control to paralyzed people, Nicolelis said.

The Walk Again Project recently received a $20 million grant from FINEP, a Brazilian research funding agency, to allow the development of the first brain-controlled whole-body exoskeleton aimed at restoring mobility in severely paralyzed patients. A first demonstration of this technology is scheduled for the opening game of the 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil.

In addition to Nicolelis and Pais-Vieira, other co-authors of the Scientific Reports study were Mikhail Lebedev and Jing Wang of Duke, and Carolina Kunicki of the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute for Neuroscience of Natal, in Natal, Brazil.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01DE011451), including NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (DP1MH099903); the Bial Foundation; the Brazilian Program for National Institutes of Science and Technology; the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development; and the Brazilian research funding agencies FINEP and FAPERN.

Contacts and sources:
Duke University Medical Center

15 High Risk Foods To Avoid Feeding Young Kids

The World Health Organization recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first year of life, which means that they shouldn’t eat or drink anything except breast milk for a full year, says Maureen Denard of FindaNanny.net. While these guidelines are recommended to parents around the globe, they’re not always adhered to.

Pediatricians may recommend an amended diet in some cases, as breastfeeding may not be an ideal fit with the lifestyle of a growing family, and there can be extenuating circumstances that exclude some families from this recommendation. It’s never a good idea to feed a baby solid food if she’s too young to support the weight of her head without assistance, but these are 15 of the foods that won’t be suitable even for toddlers. according to  FindaNanny.net,

Raw Sprouts – The manner in which sprouts are grown can leave them susceptible to contamination in a variety of ways, making them a risky choice for young children.

Hot Dogs – Hot dogs may be one of the quintessential kids’ foods, but they’re also one of the most dangerous. The very structure of a hot dog makes it a choking hazard, especially for young children whose chewing and swallowing reflexes are still developing. Before serving hot dogs, they should be sliced lengthwise and then chopped.

Honey – Reaching for an all-natural sweetener is admirable, but honey can cause botulism in children younger than one year of age. It’s best to avoid giving a child honey until he’s well into his second year in the interest of playing it safe.

Peanuts – Choking hazards aside, peanut allergies are among the most common and the most deadly food sensitivities. Introducing such a high-risk food to young children, especially those with a family history of peanut allergies, could trigger a dangerous allergic reaction that leads to anaphylactic shock.

Tree Nuts – Tree nuts are another common allergen that double as a choking hazard. Until kids’ sensitivity to foods has been established in a controlled environment and he’s old enough to manage round, crunchy foods, tree nuts shouldn’t be on the menu.

Whole Grapes – It’s perfectly acceptable to feed young children grapes. In fact, these naturally sweet snacks are far preferable to candies and processed sweets. The round shape and smooth skin do make them dangerous choking hazards, though, which is why you should always cut them into smaller, more manageable pieces before feeding them to little ones.

Shellfish – On the list of common allergens, shellfish ranks fairly high. It’s also one that has the potential to be deadly in cases of exposure when there’s an allergy.

Certain Types of Fish – Fish is rich in a variety of nutrients and compounds that are beneficial to human health, but some varieties are known to harbor high levels of mercury. The contaminant can build up in the bodies of frequent pescetarians, which can be particularly problematic for kids. Be sure that you research the safety of a particular variety of fish in terms of mercury risk before feeding it to your growing toddler.

Cow’s Milk – It’s natural to assume that cow’s milk is a reasonable substitute for formula or breast milk in a pinch, but that’s just not the case. The stomachs of babies under one year of age simply aren’t ready to process cow’s milk.

Soy Milk – Soy milk can cause gastrointestinal problems for small children, and doesn’t contain enough calories or nutrients to sustain a growing baby. Soy is also one of the more common allergies, so it’s wise to skip the soy milk altogether until your child is a bit older.

Eggs – Limiting kids’ exposure to common allergens when they’re small can prevent scary or even dangerous reactions, and eggs are among the food items that commonly cause sensitivity issues.

Chewing Gum – Chewing gum is sweet and fun for little ones, but the motion of chewing and swallowing saliva can confuse growing digestive systems that equate the chewing action with eating. Gum can also pose a choking hazard for little ones.

Marshmallows – The soft, sticky consistency of a marshmallow makes it a very risky food for small children because it can so easily become a choking hazard. This is especially true of the larger varieties, which can completely block a child’s airway.

Gummy Candies – Processed sugars and artificial additives aside, gummy candies become a chewy, gelatinous mess in kids’ mouths, which can become a potential choking hazard.

Nut Butters – Even if you eliminate the potential allergen risk of peanut and other nut butters, the consistency is still difficult for developing jaws and throats to manage. Nut butters are a leading cause of choking among small children, so it’s wise to hold off on this kid classic until your little one is a bit older, or to spread it thinly on crackers or bread if serving to older toddlers.

Cleaning Oil Spills With Paper Mill Sludge

Millions of tons of paper industry waste could soon be reused into a green solution to mop up oil or chemical spills.

Eco-innovation is at its best when the waste of one industry becomes the raw material of another. This is precisely what the EU funded research project CAPS, is attempting to do with waste sludge from the paper industry. Its objective is to convert it into a highly absorbent material capable of cleaning up oil and chemical spills.

There are about 18 million tons of paper mill sludges produced in the EU, each year. Most of it is disposed of by burning it. This could soon change. Franc Černec, project leader at the Technological, Environmental and Logistic Centre in Koper, Slovenia came up with an innovative idea almost 17 years ago to reuse this by-product of the paper industry. “I knew about the high absorption rate of paper mill sludge for years,” he tells youris.com. “So I thought, why not use these characteristics and turn the waste into a useful product.”
Absorbent boom made of paper mill sludge absorbs 99% of spilled oil  it touches
Credit: youris.com

Petrol stations, car parks, laboratories and harbours could all soon use the new absorbent. Indeed, it is capable of absorbing any oil or fluid spilled on hard or water surfaces. As by-product from the paper industry, its main benefit is to be much cheaper to produce than any synthetic absorbent currently in use.

Know the first marine outdoor test has been successfully held in the harbour of Koper. In less than 3 minutes the absorbent surrounded by hydrophobic (water repellent) gauze absorbed about 1 litre of bio-diesel floating on the water surface. Another test was successfully conducted at a petrol station near Ljubljana, where accidentally spilled fuel was absorbed of the ground equally good than with the conventional absorbent.

As a result, Finland and several South American countries have already expressed interest in starting their own production of the paper mill sludge absorbent.

Credit: Hannah Schmidt,  youris.com

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Age-Proof Diet For Longevity

 By studying the molecular mechanism of food nutrients from a Mediterranean diet in an elderly population, scientist hope to help countering their physical and mental decline

We are what we eat. However, little is known on how a specific dietary regime can impact the life of the elderly. Now, researchers from an EU funded project called NU-AGE are investigating the effects of the Mediterranean diet on older people. Their aim is to get clues on how to counteract physical and cognitive decline through diet changes.

Credit Sheila 

Starting in July 2013, the project will study how the Mediterranean diet regime affects people over 65 years old by focusing on 1,250 volunteers; the largest study of its kind to date. Half of them will constitute a control group. The other half will receive the classic Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables. At different stages during this year-long study on diet change, researchers will collect blood samples to investigate its effects at the cellular and molecular level.

“The Mediterranean diet is well known for being balanced”, says Aurelia Santoro, immunologist at the University of Bologna, Italy, and NU-AGE scientific manager, “but we do not exactly know how micro-nutrients, such as vitamins and phenols, affect molecular mechanisms”. Until now, scientists knew that nutrients such as polyphenols or carotenoids, contained in vegetables, have antioxidant properties, but did not know exactly how these bringing health benefits at the molecular level.

Some experts welcome this much needed project in the context of an ageing European population, prone to neuronal degeneration and its devastating cognitive consequences. “More work is needed on nutrition in the elderly, in term of needs assessment, potentially identifying nutrient imbalances that are involved in neuro-degeneration”, says Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at World Health Organization in Geneva. This means this project may be one of many more future studies that may be required before effective solutions to tackle the needs of the elderly become available.

Once further work molecular level mechanisms bring answers, the project will also attempt to design new functional food focused on the specific needs of the elderly. This will be done in collaboration with the food industry. Such functional food could help to counteract the lack of specific micro-nutrients.

But functional food supplements they are not the only option. Indeed, some experts do not believe that providing food supplements are the way to go. Instead, home cooking sometimes provides all the nutrients that are needed. Gianna Ferretti from the Nutrition Science School of Università Politecnica delle Marche, in Ancona, Italy, tells youris.com: “[previous] research has showed that traditional food, especially from Mediterranean diet, have positive effects on psychological and physical health and can help in protecting from several diseases.”

Contacts and sources:

2,000 Pound Turtle Could Be Extinct Within 20 Years

An international team led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has documented a 78 percent decline in the number of nests of the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) at the turtle’s last stronghold in the Pacific Ocean.

The study, published online today in the Ecological Society of America’s scientific online journal Ecosphere, reveals leatherback nests at Jamursba Medi Beach in Papua Barat, Indonesia – which accounts for 75 percent of the total leatherback nesting in the western Pacific – have fallen from a peak of 14,455 in 1984 to a low of 1,532 in 2011. Less than 500 leatherbacks now nest at this site annually.

Credit: Ecosphere (February 2013)

Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., a professor of reproductive biology at UAB and member of a research team that includes scientists from State University of Papua (UNIPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Marine Fisheries Service and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia, says the largest marine turtle in the world could soon vanish.

“If the decline continues, within 20 years it will be difficult if not impossible for the leatherback to avoid extinction,” said Wibbels, who has studied marine turtles since 1980. “That means the number of turtles would be so low that the species could not make a comeback.

“The leatherback is one of the most intriguing animals in nature, and we are watching it head towards extinction in front of our eyes,” added Wibbels.

Leatherback turtles can grow to six feet long and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. They are able to dive to depths of nearly 4,000 feet and can make trans-Pacific migrations from Indonesia to the U.S. Pacific coast and back again.

While it is hard to imagine that a turtle so large and so durable can be on the verge of extinction, Ricardo Tapilatu, the research team’s lead scientist who is a Ph.D. student and Fulbright Scholar in the UAB Department of Biology, points to the leatherback’s trans-Pacific migration, where they face the prevalent danger of being caught and killed in fisheries.

“They can migrate more than 7,000 miles and travel through the territory of at least 20 countries, so this is a complex international problem,” Tapilatu said. “It is extremely difficult to comprehensively enforce fishing regulations throughout the Pacific.”

The team, along with paper co-author Peter Dutton, Ph.D., discovered thousands of nests laid during the boreal winter just a few kilometers away from the known nesting sites, but their excitement was short-lived.

“We were optimistic for this population when year round nesting was discovered in Wermon Beach, but we now have found out that nesting on that beach appears to be declining at a similar rate as Jamursba Medi,” said Dutton, head of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Turtle Genetics Program.

UAB research says 2,000 pound turtle could be extinct within 20 years
Credit: UAB

The study has used year-round surveys of leatherback turtle nesting areas since 2005, and it is the most extensive research on the species to date. The team identified four major problems facing leatherback turtles: nesting beach predators, such as pigs and dogs that were introduced to the island and eat the turtle eggs; rising sand temperatures that can kill the eggs or prevent the production of male hatchlings; the danger of being caught by fisheries during migrations; and harvesting of adults and eggs for food by islanders.

Tapilatu, a native of western Papua, Indonesia, has studied leatherback turtles and worked on their conservation since 2004. His efforts have been recognized by NOAA, and he will head the leatherback conservation program in Indonesia once he earns his doctorate from UAB and returns to Papua.

He has worked to educate locals and limit the harvesting of adults and eggs. His primary focus today is protecting the nesting females, eggs and hatchlings. A leatherback lays up to 10 nests each season, more than any other turtle species. Tapilatu is designing ways to optimize egg survival and hatchling production by limiting their exposure to predators and heat through an extensive beach management program.

“If we relocate the nests from the warmest portion of the beach to our egg hatcheries, and build shades for nests in other warm areas, then we will increase hatching success to 80 percent or more,” said Tapilatu.

“The international effort has attempted to develop a science-based nesting beach management plan by evaluating and addressing the factors that affect hatching success such as high sand temperatures, erosion, feral pig predation and relocating nests to maximize hatchling output,” said Manjula Tiwari, a researcher at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif.

Wibbels, who is also the Ph.D. advisor for Tapilatu, says that optimizing hatchling production is a key component to leatherback survival, especially considering the limited number of hatchlings who survive to adulthood.

“Only one hatchling out of 1,000 makes it to adulthood, so taking out an adult makes a significant difference on the population,” Wibbels said. “It is essentially the same as killing 1,000 hatchlings.”

The research team believes that beach management will help to decrease the annual decline in the number of leatherback nests, but protection of the leatherbacks in waters throughout the Pacific is a prerequisite for their survival and recovery. Despite their prediction for leatherback extinction, the scientists are hopeful this species could begin rebounding over the next 20 years if effective management strategies are implemented.

Contacts and sources:

Fermi's Motion Produces a Study in Spirograph

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope orbits our planet every 95 minutes, building up increasingly deeper views of the universe with every circuit. Its wide-eyed Large Area Telescope (LAT) sweeps across the entire sky every three hours, capturing the highest-energy form of light -- gamma rays -- from sources across the universe. These range from supermassive black holes billions of light-years away to intriguing objects in our own galaxy, such as X-ray binaries, supernova remnants and pulsars.

Now a Fermi scientist has transformed LAT data of a famous pulsar into a mesmerizing movie that visually encapsulates the spacecraft's complex motion.

The Vela pulsar outlines a fascinating pattern in this movie showing 51 months of position and exposure data from Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). The pattern reflects numerous motions of the spacecraft, including its orbit around Earth, the precession of its orbital plane, the manner in which the LAT nods north and south on alternate orbits, and more. The movie renders Vela's position in a fisheye perspective, where the middle of the pattern corresponds to the central and most sensitive portion of the LAT's field of view. The edge of the pattern is 90 degrees away from the center and well beyond what scientists regard as the effective limit of the LAT's vision. Better knowledge of how the LAT's sensitivity changes across its field of view helps Fermi scientists better understand both the instrument and the data it returns.

Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Pulsars are neutron stars, the crushed cores of massive suns that destroyed themselves when they ran out of fuel, collapsed and exploded. The blast simultaneously shattered the star and compressed its core into a body as small as a city yet more massive than the sun. The result is an object of incredible density, where a spoonful of matter weighs as much as a mountain on Earth. Equally incredible is a pulsar's rapid spin, with typical rotation periods ranging from once every few seconds up to hundreds of times a second. Fermi sees gamma rays from more than a hundred pulsars scattered across the sky.

One pulsar shines especially bright for Fermi. Called Vela, it spins 11 times a second and is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays the LAT sees. Although gamma-ray bursts and flares from distant black holes occasionally outshine the pulsar, they don't have Vela's staying power. Because pulsars emit beams of energy, scientists often compare them to lighthouses, a connection that in a broader sense works especially well for Vela, which is both a brilliant beacon and a familiar landmark in the gamma-ray sky.

Fermi's Large Area Telescope is the spacecraft's main scientific instrument. This animation shows how a gamma ray (purple) entering the LAT is converted into an electron (red) and a positron (blue). High-precision detectors track the motion of the particles, whose paths point back to the gamma ray's source.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
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Most telescopes focus on a very small region of the sky, but the LAT is a wide-field instrument that can detect gamma rays across a large portion of the sky at once. The LAT is, however, much more sensitive to gamma rays near the center of its field of view than at the edges. Scientists can use observations of a bright source like Vela to track how this sensitivity varies across the instrument's field of view.

With this in mind, LAT team member Eric Charles, a physicist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in California, used the famous pulsar to produce a novel movie. He tracked both Vela's position relative to the center of the LAT’s field of view and the instrument's exposure of the pulsar during the first 51 months of Fermi’s mission, from Aug. 4, 2008, to Nov. 15, 2012.

The movie renders Vela’s position in a fisheye perspective, where the middle of the pattern corresponds to the central and most sensitive portion of the LAT’s field of view. The edge of the pattern is 90 degrees away from the center and well beyond what scientists regard as the effective limit of the LAT's vision.

This image compresses the Vela movie sequence into a single snapshot by merging pie-slice sections from eight individual frames.

Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration 

The pulsar traces out a loopy, hypnotic pattern reminiscent of art produced by the colored pens and spinning gears of a Spirograph, a children's toy that produces geometric patterns.

The pattern created in the Vela movie reflects numerous motions of the spacecraft. The first is Fermi's 95-minute orbit around Earth, but there's another, subtler motion related to it. The orbit itself also rotates, a phenomenon called precession. Similar to the wobble of an unsteady top, Fermi's orbital plane makes a slow circuit around Earth every 54 days.

In order to capture the entire sky every two orbits, scientists deliberately nod the LAT in a repeating pattern from one orbit to the next. It first looks north on one orbit, south on the next, and then north again. Every few weeks, the LAT deviates from this pattern to concentrate on particularly interesting targets, such as eruptions on the sun, brief but brilliant gamma-ray bursts associated with the birth of stellar-mass black holes, and outbursts from supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.

The Vela movie captures one other Fermi motion. The spacecraft rolls to keep the sun from shining on and warming up the LAT's radiators, which regulate its temperature by bleeding excess heat into space.

The braided loops and convoluted curves drawn by Vela hint at the complexity of removing these effects from the torrent of data Fermi returns, but that’s a challenge LAT scientists long ago proved they could meet. Still going strong after more than four years on the job, Fermi continues its mission to map the high-energy sky, which is now something everyone can envision as a celestial Spriograph traced by a pulsar pen.

Contacts and sources:
Lynn Chandler
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center