A class of drugs designed to lower blood pressure also slightly brakes the progression of dementia among the elderly and may even boost brain power marginally, a study published on Friday said.
Doctors in Cork, Ireland, looked at data from a long-term study involving 361 patients aged in their late seventies on average who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or a form of dementia.
The group, enrolled at memory clinics in two university hospitals in Ontario, Canada, was monitored between 1999 and 2010, using two standard tests to track their cognitive skills.
Eighty-five of them were already taking blood pressure medication called centrally active angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors — better known as CACE-I drugs — when they were enrolled in the study.
Patients in this group had a small but measurable slowing in mental decline compared with counterparts who did not take the medication, according to the Irish analysis.
The researchers also carried out a smaller-scale probe, assessing the brain power of 30 patients who were newly prescribed the drugs, during their first six months on the medication.
They found a slender improvement in cognitive abilities in this group compared to others that did not take CACE-I drugs — the first time that any such improvement has ever been seen.
“Although the differences were small and of uncertain clinical significance, if sustained over the years, the compounding effects may well have significant clinical effects,” says the paper.
The researchers say that the cause for the apparent upturn is unknown, and caution against unrestricted use of CACE-1 drugs, given their potential side-effects.
The work, appearing in BMJ Open, comes on the heels of research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2009, which found a larger, long-term braking effect on mental decline from CACE-Is.
In a comparison of more than 1,000 patients, the probe found that CACE-I drugs were linked to a 65-percent reduction in cognitive decline per year of exposure.
One theory is that CACE-I drugs work because they are small molecules that are able to slip through the thick protective membrane known as the blood-brain barrier.
If they are effective, it is not primarily due to their effect on blood pressure but on the part of the brain that is involved in memory and cognition, according to this thinking.
Watch a video on the report, posted by NewsyScience on Friday, below.
[Image: "Senior Woman Eating Meal" via Shutterstock]
A company called “And Vinyly” — rhymes with “And Finally” — will now process your cremated remains into a 12-inch vinyl record that includes 24 minutes of the music of your choice. According to BusinessWeek.com, for a fee of about $4,600, decedents can will for their ashes to be included in the pressing of 30 vinyl records to be distributed to friends and loved ones.
The company was founded by U.K. music producer Jason Leach, 41, in 2009, but recently has seen a sudden increase in interest. So far, he has provided the service for four individuals, one of whom was a club DJ whose family wanted him “to be played at his favorite clubs a few more times” after his passing. However, Leach has received hundreds of inquiries in recent months.
The process, he said, is actually quite simple. A person’s ashes are delivered to a pressing plant in London and added to raw vinyl. Then the vinyl is pressed into a 24-minute record, 12 minutes per side. Leach said that most people struggle not with the price — which is actually less than a traditional burial — but with what music or sounds they want to choose.
“People over-think it,” Leach said to Business Week. “This tends to become a very long process with people changing their minds constantly.”
The possibilities, he said, are virtually endless. Leach has recorded people telling jokes or stories about their families. He himself is torn about what he would put on his own record. He said that he thinks about ambient sound, sometimes, or his own laughter on a loop. Other times, he said, he thinks it should just be blank, featuring the sounds of his ashes interacting in pops and scratches with the record player needle.
“I quite like that idea,” he told Business Week, but then a moment later added, “Don’t hold me to any of this. I’m sure I’ll change my mind tomorrow.”
[image of woman listening to vinyl records via Shutterstock.com]
[hat-tip to TheStrut.com]
An odd underwater ballet has been unfolding in the Mediterranean port of Toulon these past few days.
Under the scrutiny of their masters, whose eyes are glued to computer screens, the world’s first fleet of “marine drones” is being put through its paces.
Five European countries — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal — have sent prototypes here under a four-year, four-million-euro ($5.32-million) programme to build a squad of unmanned underwater rovers.
Deployed from a surface vessel, but communicating among themselves and using artificial intelligence, the wireless scouts would spread out in a surveillance network.
Using video cameras and echosounders, the explorers would help to create 3D maps of underwater terrain, benefitting oceanographers, archaeologists, offshore oil and gas drillers, pollution monitors, marine biologists and other civilian users.
But there is an obvious naval use too, for a flexible network of small, hard-to-detect drones would multiply the surveillance capacity against mines and other threats.
“Underwater robots are not new — we’ve been involved in them for years,” said Vincent Rigaud, director of underwater systems at the French Institute for Research for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer), one of the world’s top names in oceanography.
“What is new, though, is creating a fleet of them, with autonomous capacity.”
Achieving this means overcoming two major hurdles, Rigaud explained.
One is software: creating artificial intelligence programmes that give the options for cooperating in a group and coping with the uncertainties of the marine environment, with its tides and currents.
The other is communications. Airborne drones can talk to each other, and to their controller, by the instant means of radio.
But radio waves do not penetrate underwater, which leaves sound the only option for communication among the marine drones.
Rather like a school of dolphins chirping to each other, the robots use acoustic signals to swap information and instructions — and as experiments have shown, this is not an easy thing.
The communication is frustratingly long because the data flow is so slow, and the tenuous sound link is easily disrupted by other sources of noise, such as a passing vessel.
“It’s like going back to modems in the dawn of the computer age,” said Pere Ridao of the University of Girona in Spain.
“The maximum flow rate is about 100,000 times slower than a typical ADSL connection. It takes several minutes to send a picture.”
On a mission, the robots would share a rough map of the underwater terrain, showing major obstacles to avoid, but would then work by themselves within designated parameters.
What they see and monitor would be stored in onboard memories which would then be downloaded after they are recovered. Powerful computers would crunch the raw data into useable applications.
“The vehicles are not physically connected but virtually connected,” explained Antonio Pascoal, a professor at Portugal’s Superior Technical Institute (IST).
“The idea is for them to dialogue and adapt to marine geometry without human intervention.”
The programme, called MORPH (Marine Robotic System of Self-Organising, Logically Linked Physical Nodes), was launched in February 2012 with the help of the European Commission. Thirty-two scientists are taking part.
Things are still at an early stage, with up to five machines learning how to move in formation in shallow water.
The models generally favour either a torpedo or a “sledge” design, reflecting at this conceptual stage the different notions for dealing with mission requirements.
Italy, for instance, has a 31-kilo (66-pound) torpedo-shaped tiddler, designed by the NATO Undersea Research Centre (NURC) in La Spezia, which can operate for eight hours in depths of up to 80 metres (260 feet).
Spain’s 200-kilo (440-pound) Girona 500 comprises three rounded tubes driven by twin propellers, able to operate at depths of up to 500 metres (1,625 feet), also for eight hours, according to the MORPH website
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) concluded that drinking several cups of coffee a day could cut the risk of suicide by 50 percent in men and women. According to a report in the Harvard Gazette, researchers found that adults who drink two to four cups of caffeinated coffee per day were half as likely to commit suicide as those who didn’t.
Caffeine, in addition to the jolt it provides to the central nervous system, also acts as a mild antidepressant by boosting levels of several key neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. These chemicals are associated with a sense of well-being, and the study theorized that this would explain the lower incidences of severe depression among coffee drinkers found in previous studies.
“Unlike previous investigations, we were able to assess association of consumption of caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages, and we identify caffeine as the most likely candidate of any putative protective effect of coffee,” said lead researcher Michel Lucas, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.
According to the Gazette, researchers followed three groups of volunteers for ten years from 1998 to 2008, including 43,599 male health care professionals and 164,825 women health workers. The subjects’ intake of coffee, caffeinated beverages and decaffeinated coffee was checked every four years via questionnaire.
The study included all caffeine intake, including sodas, chocolate and tea, but for at least 70 percent of respondents in each tested group, coffee was the main caffeine source. Among the 208,424 volunteers, 277 committed suicide.
Study authors were careful to warn that depressed people should not abruptly increase their coffee drinking as a substitute for seeking help from a mental health professional. Most people, said the study, find their optimal daily dosage of caffeine on their own and stick to it.
Two to four cups a day appears to be the optimal range for the anti-depressive effects of coffee. A study done in Finland actually found that people who drink six or more cups of coffee per day had a slightly elevated suicide risk. Only a very few participants in the HSPH study, however, drank that much coffee each day.
[image of woman enjoying a cup of coffee via Shutterstock.com]
The airborne particles put off by low-cost 3-D printers may be harmful to human health, U.S. researchers warned in a study published in the November issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment.
Consumer-level 3-D printers are growing in popularity, increasingly sold without any kind of filtration device or even so much as a warning that the printers spit out a large quantity of ultra-fine particles (UFPs) smaller than 100 nanometers in size.
That’s due to the process used to melt-down and deposit thermoplastic in a programmed order, creating virtually any shape of object one can imagine. It’s called thermoplastic extrusion and deposition, and researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology wanted to know whether those particles it generates might be affecting people in unexpected ways.
“Other studies have shown that exposure to fumes from thermal decomposition of other thermoplastics, such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is also acutely toxic to mammals, including humans,” they wrote. “Moreover, ultrafine particles (UFPs: particles less than 100 nm) may be of particular importance for toxicity of fumes emitted from melting of some thermoplastics.
To measure the UFPs, researchers locked several identical 3-D printers in a non-ventilated room and ran them for 20-25 minutes at various temperatures and with different types of thermoplastic stock. Then they took samples from the air during and after the printing jobs were run and discovered that the printers were ejecting up 200 billion UFPs per minute with high-heat thermoplastic stock, and up to 20 billion with lower-heat stock.
“These results suggests caution should be used when operating some commercially available 3D printers in unvented or inadequately filtered indoor environments,” they concluded. “Additionally, more controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate aerosol emissions from a wider range of desktop 3D printers and feedstocks.”
A new study has linked people’s ability to gauge their heart rate to how well they keep their weight under control
Can you count your heartbeats – without taking your pulse? Whether you realise it or not, you almost certainly can. We all have an “interoceptive sense”, an awareness of the visceral signals that originate from inside our bodies. Nerves travel from our internal organs to the insula cortex of our brain, where a dynamic representation of our inner physiology is created – an inner dashboard, if you will.
Interoceptive awareness (IA) is the ability to perceive and process the signals from this physiological dashboard. Our personal level of interoceptive awareness, as measured by the ability to accurately count our own heartbeat. Good cardiac sensitivity has been linked with sensitivity to other visceral organs, too.
Does it matter? It might. In recent years, several researchers have reported links between IA and our sense of “self”, and with the ability to recognise and process emotions. Now, Dr Beate Herbert and colleagues have found evidence that IA is linked to body mass index, with poorer IA scores predicting a higher BMI.
Their research, published in Appetite, suggests that good interoceptive awareness is what allows “intuitive” eaters – those who eat in response to physical rather than emotional cues and as a result eat only when hungry – to keep their weight down.
Could it be that the oft-repeated advice to dieters – to forget the rules, and simply “listen to your body” – has a basis in neuroscience? Like anything involving the human brain, it’s not that simple. Some of us, found Dr Herbert, can perceive our visceral signals perfectly well, but may choose to ignore them because they find them unnerving.
This discomfort with interoception could, Dr Herbert tells me, further complicate our eating patterns: “It’s not enough to perceive interoceptive signals adequately. Appraising these signals as positive or negative is a separate cognitive process, which also determines eating behaviour. One needs to allow oneself to act according to these perceived signals.”
Earlier this year, a team of psychologists led by Professor Manos Tsakiris at the University of London measured the interoceptive awareness of visitors to London’s Science Museum. I asked him whether he thought IA influences our eating habits. “Studies have shown that interoception plays an important role in eating disorders,” he told me. “It’s linked to a deeper awareness of emotions in general, and anorexics – for emotional reasons – choose not to eat. But to date, we don’t know whether a deficit in interoceptive awareness is a cause or an effect of anorexia.”
This question of cause and effect is significant, and Prof Tsakiris’s own research into interoception and body image offers a good example. It is thought that women with low IA show a stronger tendency to “self-objectify”: to regard their bodies primarily as “objects”, valuing appearance over function. It had been suggested that this self-objectification suppresses IA. But Tsakiris’s findings suggest the opposite: that low IA is actually the cause, not the consequence, of self-objectification.
Could we be looking at a vicious circle: low interoceptive awareness not only predicts a risk of disordered eating, but also an unhealthy tendency to objectify ourselves? And if so, is there any hope for those of us who may not be particularly attuned to our inner workings?
Meditation, perhaps surprisingly since it involves focusing attention on internal states, does not appear to make a difference.
Dr Herbert offers another possibility. “Experiences of cardiac arousal [the effects of exertion, emotion etc] throughout our lifetimes could activate brain structures known to be important for processing interoceptive cardiac signals,” she says. Could exposing ourselves to arousing experiences improve our overall interoceptive sensitivity – including the ability to perceive gastric signals? “At the moment, we don’t have data on the development of interoceptive cardiac sensitivity, or the sensitivity for other bodily signals, during adult life.”
Interestingly, though, her previous research uncovered a positive correlation between short-term fasting and interoceptive awareness. But she cautions that fasting can in itself be a trigger for disordered eating.
If we can’t change our degree of interoceptive awareness, is there any value to knowing about the phenomenon? Could discovering that we have poor IA, for example, motivate us to be more conscious of our eating habits?
Dr Rebecca Park is a clinical senior lecturer specialising in eating disorders. I asked her if understanding more about interoceptive awareness could help people with these conditions. Dr Park pointed out that Dr Herbert’s data was collected from a healthy population, and so the results may not apply to patients with clinically diagnosed eating disorders. Still, she believes there is potential for incorporating individual IA scores into future treatment regimens: “This mechanism could, if validated, be important in informing future interventions for eating disorders – and obesity, too. The concept of ‘mindful eating’, to help those with binge eating, builds on this premise.”
Counting heartbeats is easy to study, using ECG, but it is only one aspect of interoception. Our physiological dashboard is a busy place. However, Dr Herbert has previously found that awareness of cardiac signals correlates well with sensitivity to gastric signals. Does this give credence to the old advice to drop the diet and simply listen to our what our bodies are trying to tell us? Well, there’s a lot more research to do. But for those of us able to hear what our body is saying, it just might.
[down syndrome man relaxing via Shutterstock.com]