November 8, 2013
You never hear much talk of a war on Alzheimer’s disease because, frankly, we haven’t been putting up much of a fight.
It’s been more than 100 years since German physician Alois Alzheimer first described what he called “a peculiar disease,” and while scientists are pretty certain about what causes it—a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain—they still don’t have an answer for how to prevent or cure the unrelentingly grim condition.
Last year, the pharmaceutical company Baxter International said it was discontinuing the testing of a drug called Gammagard after it proved ineffective in slowing the mental decline of Alzheimer’s patients. That followed the failure in clinical trials of an Alzheimer’s treatment developed by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, and another by Eli Lilly and Company.
This is the kind of news Baby Boomers on the cusp of old age hate to hear. Already, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to jump another 40 percent by 2025 and triple by 2050.
But there may be a glimmer of light. A team of Swiss and Polish researchers say they might have come up with a way to attack the clumps of amyloid proteins that disengage the brain. Their technique involves using multi-photon lasers that are able to distinguish the destructive proteins in the brain from the healthy ones.
The researchers found that while healthy proteins are optically invisible—meaning the laser light passes right through them—the amyloids absorb some of the light.
Eventually, they believe, doctors will be able to use lasers to not only detect the bad protein cells, but to actually remove them and cure the patient. “Nobody has talked about using only light to treat these diseases until now,” said Piotr Hanczyc at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. “We have found a totally new way of discovering these structures using just laser light.”
Currently, doctors use chemicals or surgery to remove amyloid proteins—but that can damage healthy tissue. The laser treatment, which Hanczyc feels could also help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, could greatly limit that risk.
It sounds promising, but Alzheimer’s is one tenacious foe.
When genes break bad
Still, there’s a bit more positive news on the Alzheimer’s front. Based on the largest ever genetic analysis of the disease, scientists from the U.S. and Europe have identified 11 more genes linked to Alzheimer’s, doubling the number now known to be connected to the disorder. As recently as 2009, only one Alzheimer’s gene had been identified. That study, published in the journal Nature Genetics late last month, was based on a DNA scan of more than 74,000 elderly people in 15 countries.
The more genes associated with a disease, the more potential targets for a drug to attack. As Gerard Schellenberg, a professor of pathology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s researchers, recently told the Washington Post, “Not all are good drug targets, but the longer the list of genes that you know are implicated in a disease, the more likely you are to find one that might be a good candidate for a drug.”
This too sounds promising. But Schellenberg also pointed out that it could take another 10 to 15 years to develop an effective Alzheimer’s drug therapy from what they’ve learned.
With luck, it will be worth the wait.
Here are more recent developments in laser research:
- Imagine a deer in these headlights: Engineers at BMW have developed headlights that are able to convert intense blue laser beams into tightly concentrated—but non-laser—cones of white light. The car company says those lights will make it easier for drivers to pick out objects in the dark and should reduce eye fatigue.
- That’s right, drones with lasers: DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, is funding research to find a way to arm drones with lasers. The immediate goal is to give drones a way to protect themselves against surface-to-air missiles, but some experts believe this is the first step toward using drones as an anti-missile system.
- Get real: UK scientists have developed a technique using laser printing to help detect fake merchandise. Each printed laser can be designed to give out its own unique optical signature. Because lasers can be printed on all sorts of surfaces—such as plastic, paper, metal and glass—the technique could be used to authenticate many kinds of products.
- Taking the long view: University of Michigan engineers have invented a laser that can identify the chemical composition of an object from as far as a mile away. This could help military aircraft locate different types of targets, but also could be adapted for more benign uses, such as allowing full-body screening systems at airports to better identify hidden objects.
- Well, it’s about time: Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford were able to user lasers to surgically make holes thinner than a human hair in the heads of live fruit flies, allowing researchers to see how the flies’ brains work. The researchers also successfully tested this technique on worms, ants and mice.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of a U.S. Navy ship using lasers to shoot a drone out of the sky.
Video bonus bonus: Before they fade from pop culture history, here’s one last look at the laser cats that had their fleeting moment of fame on “Saturday Night Live.”
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October 11, 2013
It’s hard to imagine that technology could be a friend to Obamacare, given the dismal performance of its official website last week. But it turns out that the high-speed crunching of a huge amount of information—aka Big Data—could ensure that one of the principle tenets of health care reform, known as “accountable care,” can become more than a catchy phrase in a policy paper.
U.S. hospitals have begun shifting their way of doing business. It’s long been the case that the payments hospitals received from Medicare largely were based on the tests their doctors ordered and the procedures they performed. So, strangely enough, the sicker a hospital’s patients were, the more money it tended to receive. But the Affordable Care Act is designed to change that, instead providing incentives that reward positive results. And, that seems to be prompting hospitals to move from focusing solely on treating sick people to helping patients take better care of themselves in the outside world. They want their ex-patients to stay ex-patients.
It’s crunch time
Case in point is Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Not long ago it hired a 30-year-old named Jeff Hammerbacher to try to work wonders with the hospital’s new supercomputer. His previous job was as Facebook’s first data scientist, so you know he knows how much wisdom can be gleaned from mountains of information—if you have computers powerful and fast enough to make sense of it.
So far, the hospital has developed a computer model that crunches all the data it has on past patients—from why they were admitted to how many times they’ve been there to everything that happened during their stays—and from that, it’s able to predict which ones are most likely to return. But instead of just waiting for those patients to come back, Mount Sinai, like more and more hospitals, is turning proactive, reaching out to those frequent patients with follow-up calls to make sure they get to their doctor appointments or avoid the bad habits that end up sending them to the hospital. In one pilot program, Mount Sinai was able to cut re-admissions in half. If you don’t think that hospitals can put a serious dent in health care costs by slashing the number of repeat patients, keep in mind that nationwide, 1 percent of patients accounted for nearly 22 percent of health spending in 2009.
Methodist Health System in Dallas is going down a parallel track. It’s been analyzing patient data from 14,000 patients and 6,000 employees to identify people who are most likely to need expensive health care in the future, and it’s reaching out to help them take preventative measures before they develop costly ailments.
Here are a few other recent findings that have come from hospitals crunching Big Data:
- A health care provider in Southern California using data on the behavior of staff doctors found that one physician was using a certain antibiotic much more often than the rest of the staff—potentially increasing the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.
- At Memorial Care Health System in California, hospital management has begun tracking how doctors there perform on such things as immunizations, mammograms and blood glucose control in diabetic patients. That and other doctor data helped reduce the average patient stay from 4.2 days in 2011 to four days in 2012.
- Use of full-time nurses, rather than contract or temporary ones, coincided with higher patient satisfaction scores, according to Baylor Health Care System.
- Researchers in Ontario are working with IBM on a system to detect subtle changes in the condition of premature babies that could tip off the onset of infection 24 hours before symptoms appear.
- In another case, data analysis was able to determine which doctors were costing the most money by ordering procedures and other treatments. Hospital administrators reviewed the results with the costly doctors and suggested ways they could cut back on duplicate tests and unnecessary procedures.
Ultimately, hospitals hope to get to the point where, based on analysis of all the data of every patient who’s ever walked through their doors, they’ll have a very good idea of the risk facing each new patient who arrives.
To your health
Here’s a smattering of other recent research on hospital treatment:
- With luck, you’ll forget about the ICU: Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of people who spend time in a hospital’s intensive care unit suffer some level of cognitive decline. In some cases, according to the study, they can experience Alzheimer’s-like symptoms for a year or longer after leaving the hospital.
- Still need a reason to stay out of hospitals?: According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, treatment of infections people develop in a hospital adds $9.8 billion to America’s health care costs every year. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that one out of every 20 patients gets an infection while in the hospital. About a third of the cost comes from infections following surgery—they add an average of $20,785 to a patient’s medical bills.
- Here’s another: A study published in the recent issue of the Journal of Patient Safety estimates that as many as 210,000 to 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital suffer some type of preventable harm that ultimately contributes to their death. If that’s the case, it would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer.
- Must be the food: After crunching results from 4,655 hospitals, a health care economist from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the best hospitals, in terms of medical results, generally don’t receive the highest satisfaction rankings from patients. Instead, the top hospitals, which often are bigger and busier, tend to get only lukewarm ratings from people who spend time in them.
- But they found no link between moon cycles and back hair: Believe it or not, researchers at Rhode Island Hospital contend that their analysis showed that cardiac surgery, specifically aortic dissection, is less likely to result in death if performed in the waning of a full moon. They also said that patients who had the surgery during a full moon tended to stay in the hospital for shorter lengths of time.
Video bonus: Here’s another way Big Data is being used to predict human behavior, in this case, what we’re likely to do when we enter a store.
Video bonus bonus: And, in advance of Halloween, a little macabre hospital humor.
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September 25, 2013
When I got back from vacation the other day, I returned to a clean desk. Well, not actually clean, but every stack of paper was aligned. Not a sheet was askew.
This lasted about 20 minutes.
But rather than stare forlornly at the paper swirl building before me, this time I gave myself a big “attaboy,” because clearly I was getting my creative on.
When things get messy
That’s right, a messy desk is a sign of an innovative mind at work, not a chaotic one. At least that’s the sage suggestion from a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s how they reached this conclusion. First, they arranged a room to look either particularly tidy or especially messy and haphazard. Then they invited people in for what they were told was a “consumer choice study.” The study participants were shown a menu for fruit smoothies. Actually, there were two versions of the menu. On one, smoothies with a “health boost” of added ingredients, were labeled “classic.” On the the other menu, those same smoothies were promoted as “new.”
And here’s how it played out: When people were in the tidy room, they picked smoothies with a health boost twice as often if it was labeled classic. Conversely, when they made their smoothie choices while in a messy room, they opted for those described as “new”—again twice as often. In short, they preferred convention while in a clean environment and novelty when immersed in messiness.
Interesting, but it doesn’t feel like this is quite enough to declare that messiness fosters creativity. So the Minnesota researchers, led by Kathleen Vohs, ratcheted up the research. They used the same tidy and messy rooms, only this time, they asked subjects to propose as many different uses for ping pong balls as possible. Then they had a team of independent judges rate the ideas based on the level of creativity.
Suggesting that the balls be used for beer pong wouldn’t have impressed the judges. Recommending that they could be converted into ice cube trays would.
Once again, the messy room worked its magic. As Vohs explained recently in the New York Times, the people who spent their time there offered up five times as many ideas deemed “highly creative.”
Maybe it’s time to aim a fan at the papers on my desk and start thinking deep thoughts.
It’s all about connections
If only it were that simple. Turns out that even the way our brains produce creative thoughts appears to be a lot more complicated than long believed. The conventional wisdom that the right half of our brain handles creative thinking? Way too simple—at least according to a study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of Dartmouth scientists found that human imagination is much more of a whole brain experience.
That’s what they observed after they hooked 15 participants up to an fMRI scanner and asked them to visualize specific abstract shapes, then told them to imagine combining those shapes into more complex figures. Large networks within the subjects’ brains became active as they conjured up the images. This included areas that deal with visual processing, along with others related to attention and executive processes. All of them worked together to make the imaginary images take shape.
While their findings didn’t provide a clear answer as to why some people are more creative than others, it did allow the scientists to speculate that it may come down to a matter of connections, that in truly creative people, the different brain regions needed to shape imagination are particularly well-connected.
Here’s other recent research on what may help make us creative:
- Still, they should not be encouraged to take apart the air conditioner: Researchers at Vanderbilt University say that a teenager’s ability to figure out how things work may be a better predictor of innovative thinking than more conventional math or verbal skills. The study found that students who did well on the Differential Aptitude Test, which measures the ability to manipulate two-and three-dimensional objects, often proved to be high achievers in math, science and engineering.
- I did it my way…and so should you: A study published by Northwestern University scientists challenges the notion that creative people can be a bit flighty. Instead, their research suggests just the opposite, that people who achieve creative success tend to cling to ideas, sometimes to the point where it keeps them from shifting focus.
- And you scoffed: A British psychologist commissioned by the music streaming service Spotify to determine what type of music benefits which topics of study came to the conclusion that listening to the music of Miley Cyrus can actually boost a person’s creativity.
Video bonus: Singer Annie Lennox offers her take on catching creative ideas and why it’s important to keep our internal critic out of the room at those moments.
Video bonus bonus: You gotta admit that there’s something creative about putting birds on hang gliders.
Also on Smithsonian.com
Working In a Creative Field? Despite What You Think, Coffee Is Not Your Best Friend
August 20, 2013
It’s the time of year when learning seems remarkably possible. Students are excited, teachers are motivated–let the learnfest begin.
But by next month, it will become clear once again that the teaching/learning routine is a tricky dance, that all kinds of things, both in our heads and in our lives, can knock it off balance.
Fortunately, scientists have kept busy analyzing how and why people learn. Here are 10 examples of recent research into what works and what doesn’t.
1) Flippin’ it old school: The latest thinking has it that the most effective way to get students to learn these days is to flip the old model and instead have students first watch videos or read books, then do projects in the classroom. Au contraire, say researchers at Stanford University. They contend that you need to flip the flip after finding that students are much more likely to understand those videos and books if they first do hands-on exercises in class that tap into their prior knowledge of a subject, say to solve a problem. Only then, the researchers said, are students able to fully grasp more abstract concepts.
2) Such as “three idiot drivers”: Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Missouri found that preschoolers who have a hard time estimating the number of objects in a group were more than twice as likely to struggle with math later in life. Those researchers concluded that it has to do with a child’s inability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities. They suggest that parents should take advantage of opportunities to show how things in the world can be expressed in numbers.
3) Give that machine a timeout: Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario say that laptops in classrooms distract not only the students using them, but also those sitting nearby. They gave laptops to some students and asked them to perform certain tasks during class. They also asked classmates using only #2 pencils to complete the same tasks. Guess who performed worst: the kids with laptops, plus the people sitting next to them.
4) Like clockwork: Young girls need to stick to a regular bedtime if they want to help their brains develop. So says a study from University College, London, which found that girls under seven years old who had erratic bedtimes scored lower on IQ tests than girls who went to sleep around the same time every night. Inconsistent bedtimes also affected young boys, but the effect seemed to be temporary. The researchers also determined that when girls went to bed didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as whether they did so at the same time every night.
5) Let’s give them a big mazel tov shout out: One of the keys to learning a second language is the ability to pick up patterns, according to a recent study at Hebrew University. The scientists determined that American students who were better at learning Hebrew also scored particularly high on tests in which they needed to distinguish regularities in the sequence in which they were shown a series of shapes. Being able to spot patterns proved to be a very good predictor of who would have the best grasp of Hebrew after a year of study.
6) Not to mention, they can now sing in Hungarian at parties: It apparently also helps to sing the words of another language. In a study published last month in the journal Memory & Cognition, scientists said that people who sang back phrases they heard in a foreign language were considerably better at learning it than people who simply repeated the phrases in spoken words. In fact, research participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as those who learned by speaking the phrases. The study required English speakers to learn Hungarian, which is a particularly difficult language to master.
7) Brains are just so smart: Another recent study, this one by German scientists, determined that even under stress, humans are able to learn because certain receptors in the brain help us move from conscious and to unconscious learning. People in a study who were given drugs to block those receptors had more trouble learning in a stressful situation because their brains couldn’t make the switch.
8) Reading minds: Thanks to researchers at M.I.T., it may soon be possible to diagnose dyslexia in young children before they start trying to read. Using a type of MRI brain scan, the scientists discovered a correlation between the size and organization of a certain region of the brain and a child’s ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language. By having a biomarker for dyslexia before they try to read, kids may be able to avoid some of the psychological stress they suffer when they struggle to understand written words.
9) Kids who can hand jive are off the charts: Turns out that it may a good thing for small children to talk with their hands. A study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, concluded that preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control. The gestures seemed to help the kids think things through, according to the researchers, who said the hand movements had a stronger correlation to successful performance than age.
10) Strangely, however, they are unable to hear parents: If you have kids in middle school or older, they’ve no doubt told you countless times how good they are at multitasking, that they can watch a video, text their friends and study for a test without breaking a sweat. But, according to a study published in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior, they’re probably not learning much. Not only were researchers surprised at how often kids in the study multitasked–even when they knew someone was watching– but they also found that their learning was spottier and shallower than those who gave studying their full attention.
Video bonus: Math was always a lot more fun when Abbott and Costello did it.
Video bonus bonus: Forgive me if you’ve seen or heard Kenneth Robinson’s lecture on changes in education, but his insights, along with the clever animation illustrating them, make it worth an encore.
More from Smithsonian.com
To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes
August 12, 2013
Not many people want to live to be 120.
That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.
Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.
Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?
Live long and prosper
Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?
For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”
As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.
A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.
And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.
None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.
Out with the old
Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:
- Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
- Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
- In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
- Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
- This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.
Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.
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