In the second part of 2018, health news stories became more weird. Here are more examples of the wonderful world of health studies:
July 2018 - Scientists ask for ticks to be mailed in to help research
Scientists got more than they bargained for, when they asked citizen scientists to mail in ticks that they had found, when either the people or their pets had been bitten. The study ran from January 2016 to August 2017, when the scientists set up a website, asking people in North America to send in ticks. They expected around 2,400 as they had not invested in much advertising, but word of mouth got around and they eventually received over 16.000. The ticks were identified by sex and tested for any diseases that they carried. The scientists asked participants to tell them the location where the tick was found, the type of habitat, who had been bitten, the date they found the tick and what they were doing when they found the tick. They were asked to send their email addresses, so a response could be received, but did not collect personal information or ask where the person had been travelling. The information was used to understand distribution and geographical locations of where types of ticks were prevalent and the diseases that they carry.
Nieto, N.C., et al., Using citizen science to describe the prevalence and distribution of tick bite and exposure to tick-borne diseases in the United States, July 2018, PLOSOne, open access
August 2018 - World’s oldest solid cheese found in Egypt
The world’s oldest cheese has been found in an ancient tomb, which was first found in 1885. The tomb of Ptahmes, mayor of Memphis, Egypt was buried during the 13th century, BC. Drifting sands buried the tomb after it was first found and it was rediscovered in 2010. Scientists tested the contents of a jar which had a solid white mass and a canvas fabric, and found that it was a dairy product made by cows milk and sheep or goats milk. The canvas fabric was most likely designed to contain a solid rather than a liquid, so the scientists concluded that they had some of the world’s oldest solid cheese. They also found evidence of brucellosis, a potentially deadly bacterium found in unpasteurised dairy products. This is also the earliest found evidence of the disease.
Greco, E., Proteomic Analyses on an Ancient Egyptian Cheese and Biomolecular Evidence of Brucellosis, Anal.Chem., 2018, 90(16), pp 9673-9676
Men & women respond differently to rapid weight loss on a calorie-controlled diet
Also in August, men and women have different health effects when following a low-calorie diet, claimed a study based in Denmark. More than 2000 overweight participants, who had been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, followed the health diet for 8 weeks. The researchers found that the men lost significantly more weight than the women and that their metabolic syndrome score, which is a diabetes indicator, reduced more. Women reduced their HDL cholesterol more, their hip circumference, pulse pressure and their lean body mass. Improvements in insulin resistance were similar in the two genders. The scientists hope to conduct further studies, perhaps involving one gender.
Christensen, P, PHD., et al., Men and women respond differently to rapid weight loss: metabolic outcomes of a multi-centre intervention study after a low-energy diet in 2500 overweight, individuals with pre-diabetes, August 2018, Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, open access
September 2018 - Only 3-4% of fossils stored in museums have been studied, leaving them vulnerable
A fire destroying irreplaceable specimens at Brazil’s National Museum coincided with the publication of this paper, but the two events served to warn scientists of the dangers of uncatalogued artefacts. The team of scientists estimated that only 3-4% of recorded fossil locations have been accounted for in published scientific literature. This means that artefacts in storage which are not documented digitally may be lost without their significance being recorded. Scientists from the US, highlighted the need for funds to enable museums around the world to be able to digitally preserve their collections. These specimens could enable scientists to understand the nature of the planet, to understand how ecosystems responded to climate change previously and enable them to hypothesise what could happen in the future.
Marshall, C. R., et L., Quantifying the dark data in museum fossil collections as palaeontology undergoes a second digital revolution. Biology Letters, 2018; 14 (9): 2018043
Also in September, a team of scientists have found that the flavonoids in oranges can help reduce the risk of developing AMD (age-related macular degeneration). A 15 year study involving over 2,000 adults suggested that those who ate oranges every day received the most benefit from the fruit, lowering their risk of developing AMD. More studies are needed to help scientists understand the link
Gopinath, B., et al., Dietary flavonoids and the prevalence and 15-y incidence of age-related macular degeneration, July 2018, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 108, issue 2, pp381-387
October 2018 - self-driving car conundrum - driver or pedestrians?
A global survey asked people who should be saved in the event of an accident involving a self-driving car and got some interesting results. Most people could agree on saving a group of people rather than 1 person and a pregnant woman or toddler, but then the agreement ceased. An example of one such problem is that, in 2016, people had said in surveys that they would prefer that a self-driving car kill the passengers in the car than the pedestrian, but that they would not buy such cars themselves. People accessed the Moral Machine online to register their preferences, but the scientists found that the results varied by country, suggesting that manufacturers of self-driving cars may have to program differently for each country. The people who answered the survey could be divided into roughly 3 groups: some European countries and North America which have Christianity as a basis (1), countries including Indonesia, Pakistan and Japan, which have Islam or Confucius as a basis (2) and France and former French colonies and Central and South America (3).
Group 1 preferred to sacrifice older lives to save younger ones, a preference for inaction sparing the fit. Group 2 preferred to spare humans over animals, spare the people who were following the highway code rather than those who were not, and sparing pedestrians, rather than passengers. Group 3 preferred to spare females, the fit, people of higher status and the young. Self- driving car tests have been taking place in cities throughout 2018 and have already claimed a couple of victims. Although these events are currently rare, they could get more common with more self-driving cars entering the roads.
Awad, E., et al., The Moral Machine experiment. Nature, 2018
Also in October, Australian scientists found that prescribing exercises on a Wii U Fit for people with chronic back pain could be as effective as traditional physical therapy (PT). Compliance improved on the study and the video games enabled people to exercise their back more fully, offering more chance to regain their health. The participants were divided into two: those who were given PT exercises to carry out at home, and those who were asked to complete the exercises using a Wii U Fit. Those who were carrying out their PT exercises on their own at home, would do the exercises to the point where pain was relieved, but those using the games console enjoyed doing the exercises and carried them out more fully. They were also more likely to be doing strengthening exercises, using the Wii U Fit six months later, which would also help improve their health.
Zadro, J.R., et al., Video Game-Based Exercises for Older People with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized controlled Trial (GAMEBACK), Physical Therapy, 2018
November 2018 - People with paralysis enabled to use tablet computer
A small study enabled US researchers to test a brain-computer interface (BCI) with unmodified computer tablets, enabling people who had limited movement to use tablet applications, talk to family and friends and shop online. The study was published in PLOS ONE as an open access article. Three participants took part in the study, two who had limited movement due to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) which affects the nerves in the brain and spine and the third person had a spinal cord injury. The BCI is a tiny implant which detects the movements the person intends to make through brain signals in the motor cortex. The implant can then decode the signal and reroute it to an external device. This device has previously enable people to move robotic arms or their own limbs, even if they have lost motor abilities from an injury or illness. The participants found using the tablet computers intuitive, and were able to explore their own hobbies and interests quite quickly using the technology.
Nuyujukian, P., et al., Cortical control of a tablet computer by people with paralysis. PLOS ONE, 2018; 13 (11): e0204566
December 2018 - Bees can count with very few nerve cells in their brain, finds study
A team of scientists have been discovering how bees are able to perform counting tasks with far fewer nerve cells than humans. Many different kinds of animals have been shown to be able to use counting, mostly through scanning techniques. The scientists used a simple computer brain, which had 4 nerve cells, although bees have more. This brain was able to count small quantities of items when inspecting each item carefully one by one, which is similar to the method that bees use. Humans look at all the items and count them all at once. Bees have been shown to be able to count up to 4 in previous studies by using certain flight movements which help them inspect items. This simplifies their task by shaping the visual input which then needs less brainpower. As long as bees’ nerve cells are correctly wired together, then they can complete the task. The simple computer brain was given the same visual information that a bee uses when approaching a target. The scientists suggested that this model could be used when creating artificial intelligence, enabling the robots to use simpler computational algorithms. The study also suggests that there is not necessarily a need for a big computer brain to carry out certain numerical tasks tasks. The study was published under a Creative Commons licence and is free to read online.
Vera Vasas, Lars Chittka. Insect-inspired sequential inspection strategy enables an artificial network of four neurons to estimate numerosity. iScience, 2018