Survey Reveals American’s Attitudes About Science and Technology

Posted February 14th, 2014 at 9:27 pm (UTC+0)

A scientist works in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.  (Australia Dept of Foreign Affairs & Trade/Creative Commons)

A scientist works in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. (Australia Dept of Foreign Affairs & Trade/Creative Commons)

Americans like scientists.  They’re really interested in learning all about the latest scientific breakthroughs too.  But, unfortunately, it appears that a number of them can also use some tutoring to learn and better understand science.

This bit of insight into the American public’s perception and understanding of science was determined by a survey of more than 2,200 people and is included in the latest biennial report from the National Science Board (NSB).

“It’s important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists,” said John Besley, from Michigan State University. “It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists.”

Besley reviewed the survey data and was the lead author of the section of the NSB’s paper that examined the public perceptions of science and technology.

Every two years, the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, prepares and releases its report, “Science and Engineering Indicators,” which is also presented to the President and Congress.

The 2014 edition of the report finds that more than 90 percent of Americans think scientists are “helping to solve challenging problems” and are “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.”

But when it comes to being able to answer some fundamental science questions, Americans apparently have a bit of difficulty.  Out of a total of nine questions about physical and biological sciences, they were able to correctly answer an average of 6.5 of them.

Scientists work on a project for NASA's Goddard Flight Center (NASA/Albert Shih)

Scientists work on a project for NASA’s Goddard Flight Center (NASA/Albert Shih)

About 74 percent of those surveyed, for example, knew that the Earth revolved around the sun (thank you Mr. Copernicus). And when it came to the theory of evolution, only 48 percent knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.

Other highlights in the NSB survey include:

  • More than 90 percent, representing a majority of Americans, said that they were “very interested” or “moderately interested” in learning about new medical discoveries.
  • About 60 percent of Americans said that they had visited a zoo, aquarium, natural history museum or a science and technology museum.
  • Just about 90 percent of those who were surveyed said that they think the benefits of science outweigh any potential dangers.
  • Close to 33 percent of those who responded to the survey said that they think science and technology should get more funding.

And so members of the scientific community, it appears that the American public in general, needs to brush up on science, is quite supportive of you and your work, but they’re perhaps a bit unsure of just how to pay for it.

Researchers Trace Face’s Evolutionary Transformation

Posted February 12th, 2014 at 6:40 pm (UTC+0)

(National Cancer Institute)

(National Cancer Institute)

When you examine your face in the mirror, do you ever wonder how the most unique and identifying part of your body originated and developed?

Writing in a new study published in Nature, a team of French and Swedish researchers offers new fossil evidence that just might explain why we have protruding noses with two nostrils, rather than one big hole between our eyes.

Using special high-powered X-ray imaging equipment, researchers studied a series of fish fossils that ranged in age from ancient to a bit more recent. In the middle of that series of fossils was the skull of a 410-million-year-old, long-extinct species called Romundina a member of the Placoderm (armored fish) class of fish from the Devonian period – 419.2 to 358.9 million years ago.

Scientists know vertebrates evolved from jawless species into those with jaws. Researchers describe this structural transformation as dramatic, causing the face to effectively turn inside out.

Most of today’s vertebrates have jaws; the only species that don’t are lamprey (eels) and hagfishes.

By placing the Romundina in the middle of their fossil sequence, between more primitive and advanced species, researchers were able to map out the main steps of the transition between jawless and jawed vertebrates.

They noted that as the embryos of jawless vertebrates developed, blocks of tissue grew forward on each side of the brain, where they met in the mid-front of the face and formed a big upper lip that surrounded one centrally located nostril just in front of the eyes.

3D reconstruction of the skull the fish Romundina showing a mixture of facial structures found in both jawless and jawed vertebrates. (Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University/Nature)

3D reconstruction of the skull the fish Romundina showing a mixture of facial structures found in both jawless and jawed vertebrates. (Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University/Nature)

For jawed vertebrates, they found that this same tissue grew forward just under the brain but then pushed its way between the fish’s left and right nasal sacs, which opened to the outside independently of each other.

The researchers say that this particular evolutionary change is why our faces have two nostrils instead of one big hole in the middle like the jawless vertebrates. And, the reason why our nose is located at the front of our face is because the brain of jawed vertebrates also happens to be much longer than the jawless; otherwise our nose would be positioned much further back between our eyes.

Up until they released their findings, the French and Swedish research team said that very little was known about the intermediate steps of the transformation between jawless and jawed vertebrates.

Planetary Scientists Get Into Balloon Game

Posted February 10th, 2014 at 7:45 pm (UTC+0)
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The high-altitude balloon that carried the HySICS instruments with WASP is inflated with helium at sunrise on the morning of Sept. 29, 2013. (HySICS Team/LASP)

The high-altitude balloon that carried the HySICS instruments with WASP is inflated with helium at sunrise on Sept. 29, 2013. (HySICS Team/LASP)

A new device developed by NASA will help planetary scientists take advantage of high altitude research balloons, a relatively inexpensive observational platform that has long been used by other scientists.

The balloons, which can climb to the edge of space, have been utilized by researchers  across multiple scientific disciplines, helping them to make groundbreaking findings.

However, until now, there hasn’t been anything that provides scientists who study planets, moons and other planetary systems, the precision they need to utilize high altitude balloons.

“Planetary scientists really haven’t been involved in balloon payloads,” said NASA’s Terry Hurford. “Planetary targets move with respect to the stars in the background. And because you need to track them to gather measurements, you need a system that can accurately point and then follow a target. These challenges are why planetary scientists haven’t gotten into the balloon game.”

Wallops Arc Second Pointer and the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science after a high altitude balloon mission in September. (NASA)

Wallops Arc Second Pointer and the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science after a high altitude balloon mission in September. (NASA)

The new device that will change that is called the Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP).  When hoisted aloft by a balloon, WASP can aim astronomical instruments at their planetary objectives with sub arc-second accuracy and stability.

“Arc-second pointing is unbelievably precise,” said David Stuchlik,  WASP project manager. “Some compare it to the ability to find and track an object that is the diameter of a dime from two miles away.”

With their observational tools lifted up high above 95 percent of atmosphere, planetary scientists can do their work free from many of the problems that come with using traditional ground-based observatories, such as atmospheric distortion, which makes stars look like they’re twinkling.

With the help of WASP, planetary scientists will also be able to make their observations in the ultraviolet- and infrared-wavelength bands, something they really can’t do from the surface of the Earth. The WASP has been designed to be quite flexible so that it can be used to help carry out a variety of diverse scientific research projects.

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch on-board a scientific balloon. (NASA)

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch on-board a scientific balloon. (NASA)

The WASP has been successfully tested three times, most recently in September 2013, when a 30-story balloon lifted it to an altitude of nearly 37,186 meters above Fort Sumner, New Mexico, with an engineering test unit of the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS). From atop most of the Earth’s atmosphere, the WASP was able to precisely point the HySICS unit so that it could measure the Earth, sun and moon.

WASP will get two workouts this coming September. HySICS researchers will conduct another balloon test flight and then WASP will get the chance to show how it performs for a planetary observational experiment, known as the Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere (OPIS), that will study Jupiter and planets beyond the solar system.

Earth’s Magnetic Fields Guide Salmon Home to Spawn

Posted February 7th, 2014 at 8:03 pm (UTC+0)

Oncorhynchus nerka otherwise known as the sockeye salmon (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Oncorhynchus nerka otherwise known as the sockeye salmon (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Earth’s magnetic fields play a significant role in helping salmon find their way home to spawn, according to two new studies from  Oregon State University.

After poring over 56 years of data, the researchers found that a magnetic map is responsible for providing sockeye salmon with their keen sense of direction which guides them home, even when they’ve been away at sea for years.

“To find their way back home across thousands of kilometers of ocean, salmon imprint on the magnetic field that exists where they first enter the sea as juveniles,” said Nathan Putman of Oregon State University who headed both studies, which were published in Current Biology. “Upon reaching maturity, they seek the coastal location with the same magnetic field.”

Imprinting is an animal’s special form of learning. While specific definitions of imprinting differ, in general this kind of learning takes place during a specific and critical period of the animal’s life, usually early in life. The effects of this learning process are long-lasting and cannot be easily altered.

A second study by the Oregon researchers found that even young chinook salmon produced at a hatchery can zero in on the direction of their ancestors’ feeding grounds with the help of Earth’s magnetic field. The researchers think salmon pass along—from generation to generation—some kind of built-in GPS system programmed to always send them home.

Chinook salmon at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center. (Emily M. Putman)

Chinook salmon at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center (Emily M. Putman)

“In essence, the fish act as though they have a map based on the magnetic field,” said Putnam. “When the fish experience a magnetic field that is north or south of their typical ocean range, they change their swimming direction to go back.”

In previous research projects, Putman and his colleagues showed that migrating sea turtles depend on the magnetic fields to sense both their north-south and east-west positions. Up until those findings were made, scientists had doubted magnetic fields could explain how migratory animals guide themselves in the east-west direction.

For the research behind the sockeye salmon study, the Oregon group focused on the salmon that were from the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. Like other species of Pacific Salmon, the sockeyes leave the river and head out to the sea, but in this case there’s a bit of a glitch.

“When they attempt to return, they are confronted with a giant obstacle: Vancouver Island is blocking direct access to their river,” said Putnam. “So the fish must make a choice: do they use the northern inlet or the southern inlet in their detour?”

The Earth’s magnetic field doesn’t remain constant because something known as geomagnetic field drift causes the fields to slowly move about. Scientists say this happens due to the movement of our planet’s liquid outer core.

So with geomagnetic field drift in mind, the researchers reasoned that if the sockeyes really do follow the magnetic fields, their choice between traveling through the northern or southern inlet should gradually change back and forth over the years as the fields shifted.

Sockeye salmon return to home waters to spawn after years at sea (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Sockeye salmon return to home waters to spawn after years at sea. (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Their choice in what direction to take would be due to whichever inlet provides the best match of the magnetic value of the Fraser River when they left years earlier.  A comparison of records kept by fisheries since the 1950s, with the researcher’s model that predicted the shifting magnetic fields, showed the fish traveled in the expected direction.

The research behind the second, or Chinook salmon, study also revealed that the fish don’t rely on just one aspect of the magnetic field, but on a combination of two— magnetic intensity and its inclination angle.

The salmon are able to determine their position, and can be guided to their destinations, by simply picking up on the subtle differences in both the intensity and inclination characteristics. The researchers found the fish didn’t need any prior experience to gain those unique navigational skills.

Can Power of the Mind Control Chronic Pain?

Posted February 5th, 2014 at 7:27 pm (UTC+0)

Millions of people around the world live each day in pain (Shanghai killer whale via Wikimedia Commons)

Millions around the world live with pain every day. (Shanghai killer whale via Wikimedia Commons)

Utah researchers say they’ve developed a technique that allows patients to use the power of their minds to help treat chronic pain.

One in five people worldwide suffers from daily chronic pain, according to a 2004 report. A 2011 paper from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) showed that one in three U.S. adults is affected by this condition.

The University of Utah’s Eric Garland said his team’s technique not only helps relieve pain, but can also decrease prescription opioid misuse among chronic pain patients.

A variety of therapies are used to treat chronic pain including over-the-counter pain relievers,   exercise and diet, alternative medical therapies such as acupuncture, and prescription opiate-based pain medications, which can have serious side effects and lead to dependency.

Garland calls his new intervention technique Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) and said it is designed to train people to react differently to pain, stress and opioid-related cues.

“Mental interventions can address physical problems, like pain, on both psychological and biological levels because the mind and body are interconnected,” Garland said. “Anything that happens in the brain happens in the body—so by changing brain functioning, you alter the functioning of the body.”

Eric Garland, from the University of Utah, developed a new mindfulness-focused treatment for people with chronic pain (Nick Steffens)

Eric Garland, from the University of Utah, developed a new mindfulness-focused treatment for people with chronic pain (Nick Steffens)

In a study published online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Garland said the new treatment method led to a 63- percent reduction in the misuse of opioids, as compared to a 32-percent decrease among those who took part in a conventional support group.

Patients who were a part of the new treatment group also reported a 22 percent drop in pain-related impairment, something that the researchers said continued for three months after the end of their treatment period.

According to Garland, the MORE technique zeroes in on the basic processes involved in both chronic pain and the abuse of opioids, by combining three therapeutic components; mindfulness training, reappraisal and savoring.

The mindfulness training component consists of training the patient’s mind to increase its awareness, gain control over their attention, and learn to control automatic habits.

The reappraisal module is the process of taking the meaning of a stressful or negative experience and turning it around in such a way that it is seen as something positive and promotes growth.

Savoring is a method of learning that teaches patients to center their attention on positive events in their lives, heightening their sensitivity to naturally occurring positive experiences, such as enjoying a beautiful sunset or the special feeling of closeness with a loved one.

Painkillers containing opioids are sometimes prescribed by medical professionals for chronic pain, but they can have serious side effects and could promote dependency (e-Magine  via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Painkillers containing opioids are sometimes prescribed for chronic pain, but can have serious side effects and could promote dependency. (e-Magine via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Right now, Garland’s MORE technique is being tested in a preliminary brain imaging trial as a way to help smokers quit the habit.

Plans for further testing include working with those who have mental health problems or are addicted to alcohol. If these trials are successful, the research team plans to work with active-duty soldiers suffering with chronic pain while also conducting a larger trial among the general population.

Garland and his team envision the MORE technique as something that could be prescribed by doctors as an addition to traditional pain management methods.

Monarch Butterfly Mexico Migration Hits All-time Low

Posted February 3rd, 2014 at 7:54 pm (UTC+0)

One of nature’s most beautiful sights is when a monarch butterfly comes fluttering into view.

Monarchs are the only known North American butterfly to migrate south for the winter, hibernating and returning in the spring as birds do. However, a new report finds the number of these butterflies hibernating in Mexico reached an all-time low in 2013, possibly due to loss of habitat, climate change and the use of insecticides.

“The combination of these threats has led to a dramatic decline in the number of monarch butterflies arriving to Mexico to hibernate over the past decade,” said Omar Vidal, World Wildlife Fund-Mexico director general. “Twenty years after the signing of NAFTA, the monarch butterfly migration – a symbol of cooperation between our three countries – is in grave danger.”

Depending on just how far north they make their summer homes, the butterflies’ journey south can be a long as nearly 5,000 kilometers.

Monarch butterflies that summer in eastern North America spend the winter in Mexico, while those living in the west winter in California.

The report, released last week by the World Wildlife Fund, Telcel Alliance and Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP), surveyed Mexican forest areas known to be used by hibernating monarchs. Researchers found that only 6,677 square meters of forest area were populated by monarchs during December 2013. This finding shows a 44-percent drop from the same time in 2012, and represents the smallest area occupied by the monarchs since 1993, when these annual surveys began.

(c) WWF

(c) WWF

The annual survey is used by researchers as a way to indirectly tally the number of butterflies that make the trip from the United States and Canada during the yearly migration.

Using spatial analysis software, researchers toured 11 butterfly sanctuaries, that have historically been known to have a presence of monarch colonies, once every other week in order to determine the specific location of the butterflies and how much of the forest land they inhabited during their winter hiatus.

Scientists have cited numerous factors that may have caused the dramatic drop in the number of monarchs in recent years.

According to the report, some of the reasons for the population drop include:

•  A loss of the monarch’s reproductive habitat, which may have been caused by changes in land use

•  A decrease in the monarch larvae’s primary food source – milkweed – due to the use of herbicide

•  Extreme climate conditions in Canada, the United States and Mexico

•  A loss of forest area (deforestation) as well as and forest degradation throughout the areas of Mexico known for hosting monarchs in the winter

Monarch butterflies, gather in forrested areas of Mexico each winter (Raina Kumra via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Monarch butterflies gather in forested areas of Mexico each winter. (Raina Kumra via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Officials from Canada, Mexico and the United States will meet Feb. 19 in Toluca, Mexico, for the North American Leaders’ Summit.  The WWF is calling on participants to agree on a plan that calls for immediate action to conserve the monarch migration.

“Considering the challenges faced by the monarch butterfly and the clear evidence that their populations are declining, it is vital to mobilize as many people as possible, and that our efforts are carefully planned to help this butterfly recover, so their wonderful migration can be appreciated for many more generations”, said Karen Oberhauser a professor at the University of Minnesota who has been studying Monarchs since 1984.

New Canadian Study Analyzes Nightmares and Bad Dreams

Posted January 31st, 2014 at 8:43 pm (UTC+0)

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare. (Alysa L. Miller via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare. (Alysa L. Miller via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Waking up in the morning after having a bad dream at night might not be the best way to start the day, but, a terrifying nightmare can rock you awake from a sound sleep, leaving you scared and confused.

A new study released by psychology researchers Geneviève Robert and Antonio Zadra at the University of Montreal has revealed that nightmares indeed pack a much bigger emotional punch than simply having a bad dream.

Yes there is a difference between nightmares and bad dreams.  Zadra sums up the difference between the two in terms of intensity.

Nightmares, according to Zadra are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare.  Having a bad dream can also be disturbing, but you continue to sleep and wake up as you normally would.  You may also remember the content of the bad dream as soon as you wake up or perhaps later in the day but, “there’s no temporal relationship between the content of the (bad) dream and us waking up from it,” said Zadra.

Zadra adds that nightmares end up giving rise to much more emotional distress than bad dreams do.  The researchers asked their volunteer test subjects to rate the intensity of the emotions they experience within their dreams.  After analyzing what the volunteers had written the researchers found that nightmares came out to be much more emotionally intense than bad dreams overall.

Fear is a common emotion expressed in a nightmare or bad dream (Kris Krug via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Fear is a common emotion that drives a nightmare or bad dream (Kris Krug via Flickr/Creative Commons)

And, while most people tend to link fear to nightmares and bad dreams, believe it or not it isn’t always the driving factor.  While fear does drive a majority of nightmares and bad dreams, Zadra says that about 35% of the nightmares and 50% of the bad dreams of the 10,000 they studied contained other primary emotions such as sadness, confusion, guilt, anger, disgust, and others.  As a result, nightmares can intensify a wide range of negative emotions.

So did the researchers find a common theme with nightmares and bad dreams?  Zadra said that the most frequently reported themes involved physical aggression or interpersonal conflicts, such as one where the dreamer is having an intense argument or is being humiliated by either a co-worker or family member.  Other themes related to helplessness, failure or health related concerns such as being told that you’re about to die since you have cancer or learning of someone else’s death.

Zadra said that being chased, the theme commonly used for nightmares in a number of books and movies, is actually quite rare, occurring in only about 10% of the nightmares and 5% of the bad dreams that were studied.

There are theme differences in the nightmares of men and of women.  Robert and Zadra report that nightmares in men were more likely to contain themes of disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world, while women were twice more likely than men to have nightmares that contained themes involving interpersonal conflicts with a spouse, co-workers or family member.

Women tend to have nightmares that contain themes involving interpersonal conflicts such as an arguement with a loved one (Stuart Anthony via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Women tend to have nightmares that contain themes involving interpersonal conflicts such as having an arguement with a loved one (Stuart Anthony via Flickr/Creative Commons)

While most dreams are visual or a kind of a “cinema of the mind” Zadra says other senses can manifest themselves in nightmares and bad dreams.  Dreams can be auditory in nature, Zadra said that for example we can hear people scream or talk to us, hear sirens wailing or a dog barking. On rare occasions Zadra said that we can also feel pain, feel the cold or warmth around us, and sometimes we can also taste or smell things in our dreams.

While an old saying says that eating a heavy meal before bedtime will bring on a bad dream or nightmare, “I think we can probably put to rest the idea that having the pepperoni pizza before going to bed induces nightmares,” said Zadra.  While eating a heavy meal at before bedtime can give us indigestion or wake us up during the night, by and large nightmares tend to occur in periods when people are under stress or self-doubt.

Having recurring nightmares may also be linked to a traumatic event. Soldiers returning from war sometimes, dream of the traumatizing events that occurred to them. The researchers also pointed out that the consumption or withdrawal of alcohol or psychotropic drugs could also explain the frequency or intensity of nightmares.

Men are more likely to have nightmares about disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world (Frankincensebarbados Plasticfoods via Flicker/Creative Commons)

Men are more likely to have nightmares about disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world (Frankincensebarbados Plasticfoods via Flicker/Creative Commons)

“Nightmares are not a disease in themselves but can be a problem for the individual who anticipates them or who is greatly distressed by their nightmares. People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep – and being plunged into their worst dreams. Some nightmares are repeated every night. People who are awakened by their nightmares cannot get back to sleep, which creates artificial insomnia,” said Zadra.

While they are incredibly disturbing, having frequent nightmares can be treated, according to the researchers.  Zadra said that one way to treat recurring nightmares is by using visualization techniques, such when the dreamer learns to change the scenario of his dream and visualize it in his mind by using a mental imagery technique.

A study based on the research conducted by Robert and Zadra was recently published in the journal “Sleep”.

Dr. Zadra joins us on this week’s radio edition of “Science World” to talk about the research he and his colleague Geneviève Robert conducted on bad dreams and nightmares. Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview in the player below.


New Body Clock Info Could Help Treat Diabetes, Obesity

Posted January 29th, 2014 at 10:54 pm (UTC+0)
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This diagram depicts the circadian patterns typical of someone who rises early in morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 p.m.). (Yassine Mrabet via Wikimedia Commons)

This diagram depicts the circadian patterns typical of someone who rises early in morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 p.m.). (Yassine Mrabet via Wikimedia Commons)

California researchers have gained fresh new insight into the factors that influence our internal clocks and say their findings could lead to new treatments for metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes.

“Our group has been fascinated with circadian rhythms for over 10 years now, as they represent a marvelous example of robust control at the molecular scale in nature,” said Frank Doyle, chair of University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the principal investigator for the UCSB team. “We are constantly amazed by the mechanisms that nature uses to control these clocks, and we seek to unravel their principles for engineering applications as well as shed light on the underlying cellular mechanisms for medical purposes.”

All living creatures have their own built-in biological clock which produces oscillations in a roughly 24-hour cycle that regulate various physiological and behavioral tasks. In humans, this complex body clock helps time and control many of our bodily functions such as eating, sleeping, body temperature, blood pressure and the production of certain hormones that regulate various internal organs.

Our blood pressure for example, doesn’t remain constant; it rises and falls depending on the time of day or night.  Our senses, such as sight, smell and taste, are also controlled by our circadian rhythm. Our physical lives in essence are run by the beat of our internal clock.

“These oscillations are caused by genetic circuits. So you’ll have a gene that’s produced, and when it’s in its finished form, it will turn itself off,” said Peter St. John, lead author of the study and a researcher in UCSB’s Department of Chemical Engineering. He added that the proteins and genes that produce the daily oscillations clear out when they’ve done their jobs, allowing the body to restart the process of producing these materials once again. All of this takes place within a cycle that takes roughly 24 hours to complete.

Circadian rhythms are affected by things like travel over time zones, diet and light exposure. (Peter Allen illustration)

Circadian rhythms are affected by things like travel over time zones, diet and light exposure.
(Peter Allen illustration)

A person’s genetics do play a part in these rhythms, according to the researchers. For example, if your parents were night people, there’s a good chance that you will be too. But other factors, such as environment, daily habits and lifestyle, also affect our internal clock.

“It’s not just this free-running oscillator,” said St. John. “It gets these inputs from light. For instance, if you get light early in the morning, it’ll speed up something so your phase is adjusted to the time of day.”

St. John also pointed out other influences that can adjust a person’s circadian rhythm are those such as the time they eat, the kind of drugs they take, whether they have a work schedule that involves varied shift times, or if they take trips that often take them across time zones.

The researchers found that our bodies can get into trouble whenever our internal clock is thrown off-kilter due to these factors. This is also known as having a low-amplitude rhythm.

This low-amplitude rhythm can have an impact on necessary cellular activity that is supposed to take place at certain times of the day or night.

The researchers said these disruptions to our internal clock could lead to ailments like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  Looking at some very basic research, it has also been found that these low-amplitude rhythms have also been linked with diseases such as Alzheimer’s as well as certain liver conditions.

The research team looked at proteins called Period (PER) and Cryptochrome (CRY) that help regulate and control our circadian clocks and developed models that demonstrated how two small-molecule drugs, Longdaysin and KL0001, impacted these proteins.

They felt the insight into the mechanisms behind the metabolic aspects of circadian rhythms that they gained could lead to therapies to decrease the risk of diseases that are associated with disrupted rhythms.

The researchers, who outlined their findings in in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, plan to continue their research in this area.

Hand Washing, Zinc Are Best Defense Against Colds

Posted January 27th, 2014 at 5:27 pm (UTC+0)
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(Image: Alison Young via Flickr)

(Image: Alison Young via Flickr)

Finding a cure for the common cold has long been seen by many as something akin to the search for the Holy Grail, but Canadian researchers say they have a good idea about what best prevents and treats the malady.

Writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), the researchers suggest that simply washing your hands and taking zinc are the best things you can do to prevent a cold, and that taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, perhaps in combination with decongestants, are the best way to treat colds.

A cold, which is usually accompanied by symptoms such as a cough, stuffy or runny nose, and sore throat, is usually at its worse for the first three days. While a cold lasts anywhere from a week to 10 days, it can sometimes last as long as three weeks, according to the researchers.

Colds are usually caused by a virus and not a bacterial infection.  According to the researchers, only about 5 percent of those who were clinically diagnosed got a cold because of a bacterial infection, yet some doctors improperly prescribe antibiotics to treat viral infections.

One of the best ways to prevent colds, according to researchers, is by washing your hands with soap and water (Arlington County via Flickr/Creative Commons)

One of the best ways to prevent a cold, according to researchers, is by washing your hands with soap and water. (Arlington County via Flickr/Creative Commons)

According to the Canadian team, adults tend to catch a cold about two to three times a year while children 2 and under catch a cold about six times a year.

The researchers also point out just how expensive getting a cold can be. They estimate, using 7-year-old data, that Americans seeking medical treatment for their colds—including trips to the doctor, prescriptions and other medication, not to mention complications such as secondary infections—pay out around $17 billion a year. Other costs, such as missed work due to a cold or taking care of a loved one with a cold, tack on another $25 billion a year. Colds also cause declines in function and productivity at work and may affect other activities such as driving, according to Dr. Michael Allan of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Dr. Bruce Arroll at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

So what works in preventing and treating the common cold?

It looks like good old hand washing, along with alcohol based disinfectants/sanitizers and gloves are the most effective, according to the team, which reviewed data from a number of randomized control trials.

Canadian researchers also say that taking zinc could help prevent the common cold (Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian researchers say  taking zinc might help prevent the common cold. (Wikimedia Commons)

They also found, in two randomized control trials, that Zinc may help prevent colds for children and perhaps adults, too.  Their studies indicate that children who took 10 or 15 mg doses of zinc sulfate each day got fewer colds and didn’t miss as much school due to the malady. The researchers think adults could also benefit from taking zinc, although no specific data on this was reviewed.

The researchers also found some evidence that another cold-fighting ingredient might be found in our guts and that taking probiotics might be beneficial. Since the organisms and formulation (pills or liquid) used in the probiotic treatments were varied in their studies, the researchers had difficulty making specific comparisons.

As far as treating the cold, the team found that antihistamines combined with decongestants and/or pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be somewhat effective in treating colds in older children and adults, but not so for children less than 5 years of age

For the pain and fever associated with the cold, the researchers said both ibuprofen and acetaminophen are helpful, while Ibuprofen seems to be best for treating fever in children.

A lot of people use nasal sprays to help with runny nose or congestion.  But researchers studying ipratropium, a drug used to treat allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, found that it might be helpful in relieving a runny nose (when taken in a nasal spray) but doesn’t help with congestion.

The researchers also looked at other popular cold remedies such as ginseng, gargling, vapor rubs and homeopathic therapies and found the benefits of their use to treat a cold were unclear.

Researchers found that ibuprofen seemed to be best for treating fever in children (Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers find ibuprofen seems to be most effective for treating fever in children. (Wikimedia Commons)

The team found that cough medicine provided only a slight benefit to adults and was of no help to children. Instead of cough medicine, researchers suggest parents give their children honey since they found it can slightly relieve coughs in children over age 1. They also called the use of vitamin C as a preventative and treatment into question as well.

“Much more evidence now exists in this area, but many uncertainties remain regarding interventions to prevent and treat the common cold,” the authors wrote. “We focused on RCTs and systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs for therapy, but few of the studies had a low risk of bias. However, many of the results were inconsistent and had small effects (e.g., vitamin C), which arouses suspicion that any noted benefit may represent bias rather than a true effect.”

Evidence of Water Vapor Found on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Posted January 24th, 2014 at 8:28 pm (UTC+0)

Artists rendition of the water vapor spewing asteroid Ceres shown in its orbit around the sun (IMCCE-Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/Y.Gominet)

Artist’s rendition of the water vapor spewing from dwarf planet Ceres, which is shown in its orbit around the sun. (IMCCE-Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/Y.Gominet)

Scientists have found signs of water vapor on the dwarf planet known as Ceres.

“This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” said Michael Küppers of the European Space Agency.

The scientists, writing in the journal Nature, believe the water vapor is produced on Ceres when its orbit brings it close enough to the sun to melt parts of its icy surface.

The water vapor, heated by the warmth of the sun, then blasts above the Dwarf planet in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms per second, according to the research team. The water vapor disappears whenever Ceres’ orbit takes it away from the sun.

Ceres is the largest and roundest object to inhabit the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Dwarf planet Ceres as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 (NASA/ESA)

Dwarf planet Ceres as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2004. (NASA)

Ceres is about 950 kilometers in diameter, has a rocky interior and is coated with a thick layer of ice. Scientists believe the dwarf planet has so much ice that if it were all melted, it would produce more fresh water than is available on Earth.

Up until 2006, Ceres was classified as a large asteroid, but then the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified it as a dwarf planet because of its large size.

Along with Ceres, the IAU currently lists four other dwarf planets in our solar system. They are Pluto (formerly a full-fledged planet), Eris, Makemake and Haumea, all of which orbit the sun beyond Neptune.  Of the five, Ceres is the only dwarf planet known to exist in the asteroid belt.

While it’s been previously thought that ice existed on Ceres, it wasn’t until scientists using tools such as the Herschel space telescope‘s Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared (HIFI) were able to spot a clear spectral signature of water vapor.

Artist concept of the Dawn spacecraft shown with asteroids Ceres (right) and Vesta (left). (William K. Hartmann/UCLA)

Artist concept of the Dawn spacecraft shown with asteroids Ceres (right) and Vesta (left). (William K. Hartmann/UCLA)

Comets, the icy relatives of asteroids, have been known to blast jets and plumes of gas and vapor, but the scientists were surprised to observe similar behavior on an object that resides in the asteroid belt.

Scientists will get a closer look at Ceres when NASA’s Dawn mission arrives for a scheduled visit during the spring of 2015. Dawn is on its way to Ceres after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” said Carol Raymond, NASA’s deputy principal investigator for Dawn. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high-resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

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