Here’s one way to predict your heart health: get down and give me 41. A new study finds that men who can perform at least 40 push-ups in one attempt are much less likely to suffer from heart disease within the next 10 years.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health say their report is the first to show how push-up capacity is linked to heart disease. They found that middle-aged men who can log more than 40 push-ups in a single try have a 96% reduced risk of developing the potentially deadly condition and other related ailments, such as heart failure, compared to those who can complete no more than 10 push-ups.

For their study, the authors reviewed health data from 1,104 active male firefighters taken annually from 2000 to 2010. At the start of the study, the average participant was about 40 years old with an average body mass index of 28.7. The firefighters were tasked with performing as many push-ups as they could, and their treadmill tolerance was also tested.

By the end of the study period, 37 participants suffered from a heart disease-related condition — and 36 of those men weren’t able to log more than 40 push-ups in the initial test. The results of the treadmill test were not as clearly linked to heart disease diagnoses.

“Our findings provide evidence that push-up capacity could be an easy, no-cost method to help assess cardiovascular disease risk in almost any setting,” says the study’s first author, Justin Yang, an occupational medicine resident at the school. Surprisingly, push-up capacity was more strongly associated with cardiovascular disease risk than the results of submaximal treadmill tests.”

The authors note that because the study was completed by middle-aged men with active occupations, the results shouldn’t be considered the same for women or men who are less active or of different ages.

This study was published in JAMA Network Open.


by Ruth Williams

The brains of people in vegetative, partially conscious, or fully conscious states have differing profiles of activity as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), according to a report today (February 6) in Science Advances. The results of the study indicate that, compared with patients lacking consciousness, the brains of healthy individuals exhibit highly dynamic and complex connectivity.

“This new study provides a substantial advance in characterizing the ‘fingerprints’ of consciousness in the brain” Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, UK, who was not involved in the project, writes in an email to The Scientist. “It opens new doors to determining conscious states—or their absence—in a range of different conditions.”

A person can lose consciousness temporarily, such as during sleep or anesthesia, or more permanently as is the case with certain brain injuries. But while unconsciousness manifests behaviorally as a failure to respond to stimuli, such behavior is not necessarily the result of unconsciousness.

Some seemingly unresponsive patients, for example, can display brain activities similar to those of fully conscious individuals when asked to imagine performing a physical task such as playing tennis. Such a mental response in the absence of physical feedback is a condition known as cognitive-motor dissociation.

Researchers are therefore attempting to build a better picture of what is happening in the human brain during consciousness and unconsciousness. In some studies, electroencephalography (EEG) recordings of the brain’s electrical activities during sleep, under anesthesia, or after brain injury have revealed patterns of brain waves associated with consciousness. But, says Jacobo Sitt of the Institute of Brain and Spinal Cord in Paris, such measurements do not provide good spatial information about brain activity. With fMRI, on the other hand, “we know where the activity is coming from.”

Sitt and colleagues performed fMRI brain scans on a total of 47 healthy individuals and 78 patients who either had unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS)—a vegetative state in which the patient’s eyes open, but they never exhibit voluntary movement—or were in a minimally conscious state (MCS)—having more complex behaviors, such as the ability to follow an object with their eyes, but remaining unable to communicate thoughts or feelings. The scans were performed by an international team of collaborators at three different facilities in Paris, New York, and Liège, Belgium.

Data from the fMRI scans, which generated roughly 400 images in approximately 20 minutes for each patient, was computationally analyzed for identifiable patterns of activity. Four patterns were reproducibly detected within the data from each facility. And, for two of these patterns, the likelihood of their occurrence in a given individual’s scan depended on diagnosis.

Healthy individuals, for example, were more likely than patients to display pattern 1—characterized by high spatial complexity and interregional connectivity indicating brain-wide coordination. Patients with UWS, on the other hand, rarely displayed pattern 1, most often displaying pattern 4—characterized by low complexity and reduced interregional connectivity. Generally speaking, MCS patients fell somewhere between. The occurrence of patterns 2 and 3 were equally likely across all groups.

The team went on to analyze a second set of 11 patients at a facility in Ontario, Canada. Again the four distinct patterns were detected within the fMRI images. Six of these patients had UWS and predominantly displayed pattern 4, while the remaining five, who had cognitive-motor dissociation, had higher rates of pattern 1, supporting previous evidence for consciousness in these patients.

With such a mix of patients, facilities, scanners, and researchers, the study “had every possibility of failing,” says neuroscientist Tristan Bekinschtein of the University of Cambridge, UK, who did not participate in the research. However, the results were “brutally consistent,” he says.

Having identifiable signatures of consciousness and unconsciousness might ultimately help doctors and families make difficult decisions about continuing life support for vegetative patients, says anesthesiology researcher Anthony Hudetz of the University of Michigan who was not involved with the work. It might also provide insight into whether particular rehabilitation methods or other treatments are working.

“All that hinges on a better understanding of what goes on in the brains of these patients versus healthy or aware [people],” Hudetz says. To that end, this paper “makes a major step forward.”

A. Demertzi et al., “Human consciousness is supported by dynamic complex patterns of brain signal coordination,” Sci Adv, 5: eaat7603, 2019.

by Noel Kirkpatrick

Europe is struggling with homelessness. According to the 2018 report from the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), the EU is facing a homelessness crisis.

“This past year has resolutely confirmed the existence of another Europe: a Europe not merely ignored but also misunderstood, not just despised but also forgotten — a Europe of the homeless. The homeless population has increased steadily in almost all EU countries.”

One of the exceptions is Finland. The country’s dedication to helping the homeless on a national scale has resulted in the homeless population dropping from a high of 18,000 in 30 years ago to 7,000 today, with 5,000 of those in some sort of temporary lodging situation with friends or relatives.

The Nordic country has managed to do this by putting housing first. In fact, that’s the name of Finland’s program on homelessness — a policy approach it borrowed from the United States.

Housing First in the U.S.

The Housing First approach “prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life,” according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness fact sheet. This approach inverts the staircase model in which a homeless person complete certain steps, like obtaining a job or going through a drug rehabilitation program, before they’re provided with housing or housing assistance.

The staircase model positions housing as the goal while Housing First treats it as the starting line. From there, the sponsoring organization or government in charge of the housing will then supply various health and social services along with case management to the residents.

Housing First has been used in the U.S. in some form since the 1980s, but it has never been implemented on a national scale — and there lies the difference.

There has been some criticism of the Housing First approach in the U.S., most notably that Housing First tends to be used in a cookie cutter fashion instead of being customized to each area’s homeless. Another criticism is that Housing First policies don’t do enough to provide the necessary support after people have entered a residence, that there isn’t enough follow-through for a Housing Second or Housing Third step.

And that’s where Finland is taking the policy name and making it its own.

Ending homelessness, not managing it

Finland has worked to reduce homelessness in earnest since 1987, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The Finnish national government, along various cities, directed resources to help the homeless. While those efforts resulted in a decline in homelessness overall, long-term homelessness was not affected. In 2008, the Finnish government launched PAAVO I, a three-year plan developed using Housing First as its organizing principle with the goal of eliminating homelessness by 2015. Along with the national government, nine cities and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to the program.

“Basically, we decided that we wanted to end homelessness, rather than manage it,” Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, an NGO that helps to provide 16,500 low-cost apartments for the homeless, told the Christian Science Monitor. (You can listen to Kaakinen talk about the group’s philosophy and the impact of that approach in the great TEDx video below. One tidbit that sums it up: The name “Y” comes from the Finnish word “yksinainen,” which means “lonely” or “single.”)

Constructing that housing was the first step in implementing the Finnish plans. PAAVO I involved the construction of 1,250 new dwellings. By the end of the PAAVO I period in 2011, 1,519 units were up and running. In addition to the housing, the units needed to supply 24/7 on-site care for residents who required it.

One example, reported by the Christian Science Monitor, is Rukkila, a housing unit just outside of Helsinki that’s home to 20 people. Each resident has a modern apartment, and there’s a communal cooking and recreational area. Apart from rules governing overnight guests — residents need permissions first — residents are allowed to do whatever they want. Substance abuse rehabilitation is encouraged but not mandatory.

One resident is Fernando. He’s lived at Rukkila for three years now.

“I am dealing with my problems here,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “In the meantime, it’s nice to know that whatever happens I have a roof over my head no matter what.”

This sort of mentality is what the Housing First approach in Finland encourages: wraparound services that aid the residents. Another housing unit, Väinölä, operated by the Salvation Army with support from the Y-Foundation, has over 10 people on staff to help residents with therapy or professional development. Residents are encouraged to help maintain the building through cleaning and gardening, and the building hosts open houses so members of the community can understand the goals of Väinölä and so the residents can be better integrated with the surrounding community.

“For a long time we dealt with homelessness in the traditional way,” Sanna Vesikansa, the deputy mayor of Helsinki told the Christian Science Monitor. “But it’s difficult for people to work on their problems if always in the morning they have to go out in the streets and then come back at night.”

The cost and the will

The 3,500 units constructed between 2008 and 2015 under PAAVO I and PAAVO II initiatives came in at just under $328 million, but supporters say the program has paid for itself.

Vesikansa cited a 2011 study that showed Finland saved $18,500 per homeless person who received a supported rental unit thanks to a reduction in the emergency and medical services no longer needed to assist them. She maintains the savings are probably higher now than they were in 2018.

“That doesn’t cover the contribution to the economy [from] residents who moved on from supported housing and got jobs,” she added.

For Kaakinen, whether or not the policies pay for themselves was of secondary concern.

“Of course the fact that the program pays for itself is important,” Kaakinen told the Christian Science Monitor, “but beyond that, from a moral point of view, as a society which cares for all of its citizens, we didn’t think we see an alternative. This, we felt, was the way to go forward. And we did.”

The Finnish government made a concentrated and dedicated effort to end homelessness in the country. As a FEANTSA study about Housing First policies reported, “In Finland, Housing First principles were implemented widely due to a strong political will to put an end to homelessness. All levels of government, regardless of political affiliation, have actively supported this process.”

Finland’s success is spurring on other countries, particularly the U.K., to adopt Housing First approaches modeled by the Nordic nation. The U.K. government will launch pilot projects in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Midlands beginning in 2019, reports the BBC. The plan is to provide 1,000 homes.

“If other countries are inspired by our example, that’s all for the better,” Kaakinen said. “There is no quick fix to all situations however, we found. A solid base can provide the foundation upon which to improve the lot of the homeless, and ultimately resolve this issue.

by Davide Castelvecchi

They nicknamed it ‘the replicator’ — in homage to the machines in the Star Trek saga that can materialize virtually any inanimate object.

Researchers in California have unveiled a 3D printer that creates an entire object at once, rather than building it layer by layer as typical additive-manufacturing devices do — bringing science-fiction a step closer to reality.

“This is an exciting advancement to rapidly prototype fairly small and transparent parts,” says Joseph DeSimone, a chemist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The device, described on 31 January in Science1, works like a computed tomography (CT) scan in reverse, explains Hayden Taylor, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who was part of the team that devised the replicator.

In CT machines, an X-ray tube rotates around the patient, taking multiple images of the body’s innards. Then, a computer uses the projections to reconstruct a 3D picture.

The team realized that the process could be reversed: given a computer model of a 3D object, the researchers calculated what it would look like from many different angles, and then fed the resulting 2D images into a ordinary slide projector. The projector cast the images into a cylindrical container filled with an acrylate, a type of synthetic resin.

As the projector cycled through the images, which covered all 360 degrees, the container rotated by a corresponding angle. “As the volume rotates, the amount of light received by any point can be independently controlled,” says Taylor. “Where the total amount exceeds a certain value, the liquid will become solid.”

This is because a chemical in the resin absorbs photons and, once it reaches a certain threshold, the acrylate undergoes polymerization — the resin molecules link together into chains to make a solid plastic.

The exposure process takes about two minutes for an object a few centimetres across; the team recreated a version of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker a few centimetres tall.

The remaining liquid is then removed, leaving behind the solid 3D object.

The process is more flexible than conventional 3D printing, Taylor says; for example, it can create objects that enclose existing ones. The resulting structures also have smoother surfaces than can be achieved with typical 3D printers, which could be helpful for manufacturing optical components.

The scientists suggest the method could be used for printing medical components.

By Carl Zimmer

In 2014 John Cryan, a professor at University College Cork in Ireland, attended a meeting in California about Alzheimer’s disease. He wasn’t an expert on dementia. Instead, he studied the microbiome, the trillions of microbes inside the healthy human body.

Dr. Cryan and other scientists were beginning to find hints that these microbes could influence the brain and behavior. Perhaps, he told the scientific gathering, the microbiome has a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

The idea was not well received. “I’ve never given a talk to so many people who didn’t believe what I was saying,” Dr. Cryan recalled.

A lot has changed since then: Research continues to turn up remarkable links between the microbiome and the brain. Scientists are finding evidence that microbiome may play a role not just in Alzheimer’s disease, but Parkinson’s disease, depression, schizophrenia, autism and other conditions.

For some neuroscientists, new studies have changed the way they think about the brain.

One of the skeptics at that Alzheimer’s meeting was Sangram Sisodia, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago. He wasn’t swayed by Dr. Cryan’s talk, but later he decided to put the idea to a simple test.

“It was just on a lark,” said Dr. Sisodia. “We had no idea how it would turn out.”

He and his colleagues gave antibiotics to mice prone to develop a version of Alzheimer’s disease, in order to kill off much of the gut bacteria in the mice. Later, when the scientists inspected the animals’ brains, they found far fewer of the protein clumps linked to dementia.

Just a little disruption of the microbiome was enough to produce this effect. Young mice given antibiotics for a week had fewer clumps in their brains when they grew old, too.

“I never imagined it would be such a striking result,” Dr. Sisodia said. “For someone with a background in molecular biology and neuroscience, this is like going into outer space.”

Following a string of similar experiments, he now suspects that just a few species in the gut — perhaps even one — influence the course of Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps by releasing chemical that alters how immune cells work in the brain.

He hasn’t found those microbes, let alone that chemical. But “there’s something’s in there,” he said. “And we have to figure out what it is.”

‘It was considered crazy’

Scientists have long known that microbes live inside us. In 1683, the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek put plaque from his teeth under a microscope and discovered tiny creatures swimming about.

But the microbiome has stubbornly resisted scientific discovery. For generations, microbiologists only studied the species that they could grow in the lab. Most of our interior occupants can’t survive in petri dishes.

In the early 2000s, however, the science of the microbiome took a sudden leap forward when researchers figured out how to sequence DNA from these microbes. Researchers initially used this new technology to examine how the microbiome influences parts of our bodies rife with bacteria, such as the gut and the skin.

Few of them gave much thought to the brain — there didn’t seem to be much point. The brain is shielded from microbial invasion by the so-called blood-brain barrier. Normally, only small molecules pass through.

“As recently as 2011, it was considered crazy to look for associations between the microbiome and behavior,” said Rob Knight, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Diego.

He and his colleagues discovered some of the earliest hints of these links. Investigators took stool from mice with a genetic mutation that caused them to eat a lot and put on weight. They transferred the stool to mice that had been raised germ-free — that is, entirely without gut microbiomes — since birth.

After receiving this so-called fecal transplant, the germ-free mice got hungry, too, and put on weight.

Altering appetite isn’t the only thing that the microbiome can do to the brain, it turns out. Dr. Cryan and his colleagues, for example, have found that mice without microbiomes become loners, preferring to stay away from fellow rodents.

The scientists eventually discovered changes in the brains of these antisocial mice. One region, called the amygdala, is important for processing social emotions. In germ-free mice, the neurons in the amygdala make unusual sets of proteins, changing the connections they make with other cells.

Studies of humans revealed some surprising patterns, too. Children with autism have unusual patterns of microbial species in their stool. Differences in the gut bacteria of people with a host of other brain-based conditions also have been reported.

But none of these associations proves cause and effect. Finding an unusual microbiome in people with Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean that the bacteria drive the disease. It could be the reverse: People with Alzheimer’s disease often change their eating habits, for example, and that switch might favor different species of gut microbes.

Fecal transplants can help pin down these links. In his research on Alzheimer’s, Dr. Sisodia and his colleagues transferred stool from ordinary mice into the mice they had treated with antibiotics. Once their microbiomes were restored, the antibiotic-treated mice started developing protein clumps again.

“We’re extremely confident that it’s the bacteria that’s driving this,” he said. Other researchers have taken these experiments a step further by using human fecal transplants.

If you hold a mouse by its tail, it normally wriggles in an effort to escape. If you give it a fecal transplant from humans with major depression, you get a completely different result: The mice give up sooner, simply hanging motionless.

As intriguing as this sort of research can be, it has a major limitation. Because researchers are transferring hundreds of bacterial species at once, the experiments can’t reveal which in particular are responsible for changing the brain.

Now researchers are pinpointing individual strains that seem to have an effect.

To study autism, Dr. Mauro Costa-Mattioli and his colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston investigated different kinds of mice, each of which display some symptoms of autism. A mutation in a gene called SHANK3 can cause mice to groom themselves repetitively and avoid contact with other mice, for example.

In another mouse strain, Dr. Costa-Mattioli found that feeding mothers a high-fat diet makes it more likely their pups will behave this way.

After scientists unlocked the secrets of the human genome in 2003, there was immediate concern about how that knowledge might be abused in the wrong hands. Now, an East Bay entrepreneur wants to put that power in everyone’s hands.

Dr. Josiah Zayner has a PhD in biochemistry and worked for NASA, engineering organisms to help astronauts survive on Mars. But that wasn’t innovative enough for the young, self-described “Bio Hacker.”

“Normal scientists want to study, like, how fruit flies have sex or something, something that nobody really cares about,” said Dr. Zayner. “And what I want to study is, how do we make dragons or super-humans or something like that?”

Zayner wants others to do it as well. Out of a West Oakland apartment, he operates a company called The Odin that sells “gene-editing” kits; they come with all that’s necessary to create your own Genetically Modified Organism.

The kit teaches novice scientists how to inject tree frogs with a type of human growth enzyme that causes the frogs to double in size in about a month.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Dr. Zayner said, “but we’ve been doing gene therapy on human beings since the late 90’s, right? The stuff works, we know how to do it, I want to teach people that. I want people to see how it works.”

But at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, biology professor Vidya Chandrasekaran says there are ethical concerns about an untrained person using a live animal for experimentation.

“Using it in this manner, I’m not sure is the right way to approach biology,” she said.

Dr. Zayner frequently uses himself as a guinea pig. He once injected himself with a growth accelerator while live-streaming a talk at a bio conference. Dr. Chandrasekaran said that’s the kind of thing that occurs when people use science without accountability.

“It really matters whether the people who are doing these things understand the implications and the outcome of it,” she said.

But according to Dr. Zayner, new and powerful technologies are always feared at their beginnings. He pointed out that computers were once giant machines used only by business, government and universities.

“And if you ask yourself now, ‘Was it the correct thing to do to allow people to have access to computers?’, there’s nobody in the world who would say no,” he said.

“When you make a technology available to everybody, innovation happens.”

Whether gene-altering technology for the masses is the next innovation or a case of science gone mad is a question that only time will answer.

East Bay Biochemist Sells ‘Gene-Editing Kit’ For The Masses

Thank to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

To determine whether someone is a psychopath, they have to score highly on tests like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, answering questions about superficial charm, impulsive behaviour, and pathological lies.

But there could be a simpler test: yawning.

It’s hard not to yawn when someone else does, because yawning is so contagious. Even dogs can catch them. But according to a study from 2015, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, psychopaths aren’t so susceptible.

The researchers from Baylor University recruited 135 students and measured their personalities for psychopathic traits. They then subjected them to a contagious yawning experiment.

Those who scored highly on the psychopathic scale were much less likely to catch a yawn.

In previous research, yawning has been linked to empathy. For example, in one study, children with autism were less likely to catch yawns, possibly because they find it harder to read other people. Babies don’t catch yawns either, and won’t until they are at least 4 years old, when they have more emotional awareness.

The researchers suggest empathy could be at play in their experiment, as psychopaths tend to lack it.

This isn’t to say if someone doesn’t yawn when you do they must be a psychopath. It’s just an intriguing symptom of the people who struggle to connect with other people’s emotions.

Also, people can catch yawns to different degrees. For some, it’s just reading the word “yawn” is enough to set them off. So if you yawned the whole way through reading this article, you might be able to conclude that your empathy is pretty high.