What you should know about rising measles cases

Cases of measles, a highly contagious and deadly disease, are surging in parts of the US, worrying doctors and public health experts.

This year, so far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has recorded 64 cases, already more than the 58 counted in 2023. The cases have popped up in 17 states, including at a Chicago migrant shelter, a Florida elementary school, and at a restaurant in Arizona.

Most cases are linked to unvaccinated travelers, possibly driven by an uptick in measles cases abroad—in the European Union, for example, officials counted more than 42,000 cases in 2023, up from just 942 in 2022. About one in five unvaccinated people who become infected with measles are hospitalized due to complications.

While there’s currently no widespread measles outbreak in the US, a resurgence is increasingly likely as a result of lower vaccination rates after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeffrey Griffiths, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Helen Boucher, dean of Tufts School of Medicine, recently offered their advice to those concerned about measles affecting them or their family.

Measles can be severe and even life threatening

Measles is a viral illness with initial symptoms similar to a common cold, such as a fever, dry cough, runny nose, and sore throat. But unlike a common cold, measles typically also causes a red and blotchy skin rash, which appears first on the face and can spread to the rest of the body. Another distinct sign of measles is conjunctivitis, or red, inflamed eyes.

“If your kid gets a rash and red eyes, that’s when you know they need to be checked out by a doctor,” Griffiths says.

The most severe cases of measles for both adults and children can cause swelling of the brain, or encephalitis, which can lead to lifelong impairments such as deafness and intellectual disabilities. Encephalitis occurs in about one in every 1,000 infected people. About one in every 20 infected children also develop measles pneumonia. Out of every 1,000 children who are infected, 1–3 of them will die from respiratory and neurologic complications, according to the CDC.

Cases of measles are much worse for people whose immune systems are already weak, Griffiths says. Children who are immunocompromised or take immunocompromising drugs are particularly at risk of developing severe symptoms.

There’s no treatment for the disease, only symptom management

Once someone has been infected with measles, there’s no specific therapy they can take to get rid of the infection. Since it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t help, either—the virus simply has to run its course.

There are many ways to alleviate symptoms, though. You can relieve fevers by taking anti-inflammatory, over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Griffiths also recommends getting lots of rest, staying hydrated, and eating tried-and-true comfort foods, like the proverbial chicken soup. Signs or symptoms of dehydration, shortness of breath, unclear thinking, or persistent fever indicate that a person may need to go to the hospital. At the hospital, doctors can alleviate dehydration with more intensive treatments such as intravenous fluids. Most people are sick for about 10–14 days.

It’s highly contagious and spreads through the air

Part of the reason public health experts are concerned about an uptick in measles cases is that the disease spreads very easily. The measles virus is airborne and contracted by inhaling air produced by an infected person. That means hand washing or sanitizing aren’t effective to prevent the spread of measles—once you’re infected, the only way to stop the spread is to stay away from other people.

“This is something that is very easy to get, because it’s in the air,” Griffiths says. “It’s really hard not to breathe the air of someone who’s been in a room beforehand.” The virus lingers in the air of a room up to two hours after an infected person leaves. People can also spread measles up to four days before they show symptoms, making the disease even harder to contain, he says.

“This is a particularly dangerous disease, and we need to be serious about containing this virus,” says Boucher, who recently wrote a column about the uptick in measles cases. One infected person can spread the disease to up to 90% of the people around them, she says, while one infected person on average infects 15 unvaccinated people. That makes measles much more contagious than the seasonal flu and even COVID-19, for which one infected person spread the disease to just two or three others.

Prevention protects your family and community

Fortunately, a highly effective measles vaccine exists. In fact, measles was nearly eradicated in the United States by 2000 as a result of high vaccination rates.

Griffiths suffered from the disease as a child in the 1950s, before the vaccine was released in 1963.

“There’s a reason why measles was targeted for the vaccine,” he says. “People were pretty sick.” But younger generations who weren’t alive at the height of the measles epidemic don’t know just how harmful the disease can be, he says.

“You want to prevent any of your loved ones or the people in your community from getting this,” Griffiths says. “And prevention of measles is really all about the vaccine.”

The CDC recommends that children get two doses of the measles vaccine: a first dose between 12-15 months of age, followed by a second dose between 4-6 years of age. Those two doses will protect your child for life. If your child has missed the recommended vaccines, it’s not too late, as teens and adults can receive the vaccine, too.

Vaccination greatly reduces the chances of severe symptoms, says Boucher. Because measles is so contagious, even a slight drop in vaccination rates can set the stage for an outbreak of the disease, Griffiths says. That’s why a growing culture of vaccine hesitancy is so concerning, he adds. “Vaccine disinformation campaigns have done a terrible disservice to people.”

“The measles vaccine is one of the most well-studied and safest tools we have to prevent disease,” Boucher says. “The side effects—mild fevers, rashes, and soreness—are well-worth the individual and public health benefits.”

Source: Grace van Deelen for Tufts University


Red cabbage juice may ease inflammatory bowel disease

New research is uncovering how the juice from red cabbage can alleviate inflammation-associated digestive health conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease in mice.

The findings offer hope to the estimated 3 million Americans who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

IBD is characterized by chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. Primary symptoms include acute abdominal pain, weight loss, anemia, and diarrhea. In extreme cases, IBD can increase the risk of death if left untreated.

Satyanarayana Rachagani, an associate professor in the veterinary medicine and surgery department at the University of Missouri, leads a team breaking new ground in the field of nutraceuticals—the pharmaceutical effects from natural foods—to modulate gut microbiota and alleviate inflammation-associated conditions such as IBD.

Rachagani’s team found that red cabbage juice boasts a diverse array of bioactive compounds that improved gut health and alleviated the symptoms of IBD in mice.

“Red cabbage juice alters the composition of gut microbiota by increasing the abundance of good bacteria, resulting in increased production of short chain fatty acids and other bacteria derived metabolites ameliorating inflammation,” Rachagani says.

“These changes in the gut microbiota are associated with improved gut barrier function, enhanced colon repair, and anti-oxidative effects, ultimately mitigating intestinal damage and colonic inflammation.”

Mice are widely used to study IBD because colitis in mice closely resembles human ulcerative colitis. As a result, the findings provide potentially valuable insights into the benefits of red cabbage juice in humans with colonic inflammation and other symptoms of IBD.

Nagabhishek Sirpu Natesh, a postdoctoral fellow working on the project, says red cabbage juice treatment increased good gut bacteria, which in turn triggered an anti-inflammatory receptor in the colons of mice. Moreover, red cabbage juice boosted regulatory T cells, promoting an anti-inflammatory immune balance, further lowering colonic inflammation.

The current primary pharmacological approach for treating IBD is monoclonal antibodies that address inflammation. However, most patients find that this treatment loses effectiveness over time. As a result, researchers are increasingly searching for solutions that address the molecular mechanism in the gut that causes IBD in the first place.

“These findings offer new insights into the mechanisms underlying red cabbage juice’s therapeutic efficacy in ameliorating IBD,” Rachagani says. “Its ability to modulate gut microbiota, activate anti-inflammatory pathways, and enhance immune regulation underscores its potential as a valuable therapeutic agent for IBD and related inflammatory disorders.”

Not only do bioactive compounds promote the growth of good gut bacteria, but red cabbage juice is also an excellent source of dietary fiber, further enhancing its potential for gut health.

The study is published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Nebraska Research Initiative supported the work.

Source: University of Missouri


Tweaked science textbook diagrams boost student understanding

Life cycle diagrams are ubiquitous in science textbooks, and they may be due for some updates, according to a new study.

The findings show that simple design changes in science textbook diagrams can have a dramatic impact on the ability of undergraduate students to understand key biology concepts.

“We were shocked by the study results,” says Jennifer Landin, an associate teaching professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of the study published in the journal Education Sciences.

“Making two small adjustments had a profound impact on the ability of college students to accurately answer questions related to ecology and evolution.”

For the study, researchers enlisted 684 undergraduates and gave each study participant one of three different life cycle diagrams and asked to answer six questions related to an organism’s evolution and the survival of its offspring.

One diagram was the “traditional” format, showing the life cycle as a circle with the organism producing a single offspring. A second diagram showed the life cycle as a circle, but gave the organism multiple offspring. The third diagram gave the organism multiple offspring, but presented the life cycle in a linear format, moving from left to right.

The three diagrams show an organism's life cycle. Two show it in a circle and one in linear form.
The three life cycle diagrams used in the study. (Credit: Jennifer Landin)

On questions about offspring survival, the researchers found that students who were given a diagram showing multiple offspring scored 28% to 30% higher than students who had the diagram showing only a single offspring. And students who received the linear diagram scored 19% to 30% higher than the other students on questions about evolution.

Overall, students who received the linear diagram with multiple offspring earned the highest average score—answering 54.5% of the questions correctly. Students who received the traditional diagram—a cyclical layout with a single offspring—had the lowest average score. They were only able to answer 26.1% of the questions correctly.

“There are a couple of examples that underscore how powerful the effect of design can be,” Landin says. “For example, a common misconception among undergraduates is that all offspring survive to adulthood. We found that 30% of study participants who received the traditional diagram with a single offspring answered with this misconception. But only 3% to 5% of participants who received diagrams showing multiple offspring thought all of the offspring survived. That’s a meaningful difference.

“Another example is the common misconception that offspring are identical to their parents, when we know that children actually have different traits from their parents,” Landin says.

When researchers gave study participants diagrams with a cyclical format, 68% to 78% of those study participants thought offspring would have identical traits to their parents. But of the study participants who received the linear diagram, only 38% thought offspring would have identical traits to their parents.

“This is an important concept for biology students, and the format of these diagrams appears to make a big difference in helping students grasp that concept,” Landin says.

“This study suggests textbook publishers can improve student understanding of key concepts by revisiting the design of these life cycle diagrams. Furthermore, our findings suggest there may be value in studying the design elements in other life science diagrams to see if we can make them more effective teaching tools.”

The Provost’s Professional Experience Program at NC State supported the work.

Source: NC State


Satellite veteran Mark Rigolle appointed CEO amid ABS upheaval 

TAMPA, Fla. — Satellite industry veteran Mark Rigolle is taking the helm of ABS after Amit Somani’s sudden departure early this year in the latest shake-up for the Dubai-based regional satellite operator, the company announced April 16.

Rigolle, most recently chief operating officer for the proposed Rivada Space Networks low Earth orbit constellation (LEO), will join ABS as CEO April 29.

Incoming ABS CEO Mark Rigolle. Credit: ABS

Somani left in January after less than two years with ABS for personal reasons, the company said, which recently changed its name from Asia Broadcast Satellite to Agility Beyond Space after moving headquarters from Hong Kong.

Somani had joined from Yahsat, a regional satellite operator also based in the United Arab Emirates.

ABS announced its rebranding in October 2023, saying it reflected a push toward building strategic, long-term relationships in the industry after recently coming under new ownership.

The geostationary satellite operator has not announced its new ownership structure and did not respond to requests for comment. 

British private equity firm Permira, which bought a majority stake in ABS in 2010 and first tried to sell the company about six years later, lists the operator as sold on its website but did not provide details about the deal.

In its latest earnings results Jan. 10, when ABS announced Somani’s departure, the company said it recorded increasing revenue from sales to other operators with satellites reaching the end of their design life. 

The company did not detail these arrangements. Total sales came in flat at $69 million for the year to Sept. 30.

ABS chair Parm Sandhu said in the earnings release that the company is in active partnership talks regarding its spectrum rights covering Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific “to unlock the hidden value in our holdings,” including two orbital slots with permission to beam military Ka-band radio waves.

ABS provides connectivity and broadband services over these regions with five satellites: ABS-2, ABS-2A, ABS-3A, ABS-4/Mobisat-1 and ABS-6.

Founded in 2006, the operator also moved company accounts from Bermuda to the UAE as part of its strategy refresh. 

Going through changes

Somani joined ABS as CEO in October 2022 to replace James Frownfelter, who took over from Jim Simpson in 2018 when he left after just a year in the role.

Rigolle’s career has also seen its fair share of changes. Before Rivada, he served as the chief financial officer for SES and was CEO of its medium Earth constellation O3b Networks. 

He also co-founded regional geostationary satellite operator Kacific and was CEO of LEO startup LeoSat until its collapse following a lack of investment.

“The exceptional breadth of his experience in our industry will enable him to hit the ground running,” Sandhu said in a statement.

“We look forward to benefiting from his leadership and from his insights into multi-orbit constellations during this time of rapid market evolution.” 

Rigolle noted he was joining ABS “at this pivotal time for the company and indeed the whole [fixed satellite services] industry,” as geostationary players face mounting competition from SpaceX’s sprawling LEO network.


Childhood trauma may stymie muscle function later

Traumatic experiences during childhood may get “under the skin” later in life, impairing the muscle function of people as they age, a new study shows.

The study examined the function of skeletal muscle of older adults paired with surveys of adverse events they had experienced in childhood. It found that people who experienced greater childhood adversity, reporting one or more adverse events, had poorer muscle metabolism later in life.

Kate Duchowny, a scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, is the lead author of the study, published in the journal Science Advances.

Duchowny and her coauthors used muscle tissue samples from people participating in the Study of Muscle, Mobility and Aging, or SOMMA. The study includes 879 participants over age 70 who donated muscle and fat samples as well as other biospecimens. The researchers also gave the participants a variety of questionnaires and physical and cognitive assessments, among other tests.

The researchers examined muscle biopsies to determine two key features of muscular function: the production of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, and another measure called oxidative phosphorylation, a process that helps produce ATP. Produced by organelles within cells called mitochondria, ATP provides the chemical energy to fuel cellular function.

The researchers also used data from questionnaires that included a set of questions such as: Did a close family member use drugs or alcohol in a way that caused you to worry? Did an adult or parent in your household insult you or put you down? Were you physically abused by a parent or adult in your household? Did you feel loved, important, or special in your family? Were either of your parents absent for a portion of your life?

Duchowny found that about 45% of the sample reported experiencing one or more adverse childhood events, and that both men and women who reported adverse childhood events had poorer ATP max production—that is, they weren’t producing as much ATP as people who experienced fewer or no adverse events in childhood.

“What these results suggest is that these early formative childhood experiences have the ability to get under the skin and influence skeletal muscle mitochondria, which is important because mitochondrial function is related to a host of aging-related outcomes,” Duchowny says.

“If you have compromised mitochondrial function, that doesn’t bode well for a range of health outcomes, including everything from chronic conditions to physical function and disability limitations.”

Study coauthor Anthony Molina, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, provided expertise in muscle bioenergetics. He and the team looked at images of participants’ muscles taken during exercise and during rest inside an MRI machine.

Using a technique called 31 PMR spectroscopy, SOMMA researchers were able to determine the rate of ATP synthesis by looking at how fast the muscle was able to synthesize ATP after it was depleted by exercise.

In addition, SOMMA researchers looked at the muscle biopsies of participants. The researchers teased apart the fiber bundles that compose muscle, and examined them using high-resolution mitochondrial respirometry. This technique allowed the researchers to look at the oxygen consumption rate in the muscle fiber bundle and generate a precise readout of muscle mitochondrial function.

“You can think about oxygen consumption rate as a way to measure the flow of electrons that’s going through the electron transport train, and it’s these electrons that generate the membrane potential that drives the synthesis of ATP,” Molina says. “It’s a really precise way of assessing mitochondrial bioenergetic capacity.”

Previous studies have shown that these measures are closely related to the physical abilities of older adults, Molina says.

The researchers say the effects of childhood adverse events remained significant even after they controlled for other factors that could potentially impact muscle function such as age, gender, educational attainment, parental education, body mass index, number of depressive symptoms, smoking status, and physical activity.

“All of my previous studies have been focused on contemporaneous measures: mitochondria and physical function, mitochondria and cognitive function,” Molina says. “These studies have shown that these measures are strongly related to our strength, fitness, and numerous conditions that impact physical ability.

“I’ve also shown that these measures are related to cognitive ability and dementia. But here’s the first time we’re looking backwards, at what kinds of things that could lead to those differences in mitochondrial function that we know can drive differences in healthy aging outcomes among older adults.”

Source: University of Michigan


Immigration benefits local economies, including wages

With immigration dominating politics and voter concerns, new research shows immigration boosts local wages and that having neighbors of foreign descent can reduce prejudice.

When Americans mark their presidential election ballots later this year, immigration will be top of mind—it’s the nation’s number one issue, according to pollster Gallup. And one of the toughest talkers on the topic is former president and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.

He’s built his political career on calls to secure the border and defend America against what he says are immigration’s dangers, warning of shrinking wages and stretched benefits programs. “When you have millions of people coming in,” he recently told a crowd in Michigan, “they’re going to take your jobs.”

Immigrants stealing work from existing residents is a well-worn contention—with a history stretching back at least 100 years right up to present-day accusations that Tyson Foods could replace American workers with immigrant labor. But it’s also a false one, according to Boston University economist Tarek Hassan, whose recent studies have shown immigrants actually help fuel local economies by sparking innovation and driving up wages.

The effects of a migrant influx can last for decades, too, enhancing a region’s attractiveness to foreign investors and opening long-term export opportunities, even 100 years later. Oftentimes, when immigrants move into an area, so do native workers, drawn by the promise of an invigorated economy.

In one recent paper, Hassan, a professor of economics, also showed that living near people from other countries can shift native views on people of foreign descent, decreasing hostility and prejudice, while boosting empathy and knowledge. Residents who live alongside those people may also be less likely to vote for political candidates who demonize them.

But there are important details that complicate the picture—at least from an economics perspective.

Hassan’s research has shown that not everyone benefits the same way from a rush of migration, and that may strike a chord with some of the millions of voters who want to stem the tide. Despite the overall positive effects to a community, the flow of new residents does nothing to boost the wages of existing workers who don’t have a high school diploma. And the education and skill level of migrants matters, too: more education equals a more positive economic effect.

“The headline finding is that immigrants are good for local economic growth and, in particular, educated migrants are doing a lot of that,” says Hassan.

“At the same time, the data point to why some people might have problems with this. It’s a lopsided story where the immigration we’ve experienced in the last 40 years has been disproportionately benefiting the more educated local population. We’re trying to add some facts to the debate.”

Immigration and the economy

Hassan’s family story is one of migration—of crossing borders and navigating shifting national boundaries.

“I come from a family with a rather complex migration history,” says Hassan. His father was an immigrant to Germany from Egypt, his mother a refugee from East to West Germany. Hassan was raised in Germany, but moved to the United States for graduate school and has now lived here for nearly 20 years.

“You have to go back many generations to find somebody who was actually born in the same country they died in,” he says of his family. “But I think that’s true for a large chunk of the population.”

He admits he finds the national debate on immigration frustrating. “There’s very little interest in nuanced information—on both sides of the debate. There’s this view among some people that all immigration is good and should be encouraged, and there’s this other view that all immigration is terrible. There’s not much interest in listening to each other.”

With his research, he hopes to foster a more informed conversation.

In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Hassan and his colleagues examined decades of US migration data to look at the impact of new arrivals on economic growth, wage levels, and innovation, which they measured through the number of new patents filed in a particular area.

More new ideas, he says, generally means more new businesses and products: “We find that when you have 10,000 extra immigrants arriving in a given US county, the number of patents filed per capita in that county dramatically increases, by something like 25%.”

It was an effect that rippled out as far as 150 miles. The research team also estimated that, since 1965, migration of foreign nationals to the US may have contributed to an additional 5% growth in wages. They’re currently preparing the findings for journal publication.

“More immigrants creates more economic growth,” says Hassan. “And because it creates more economic growth locally, it raises the wages of the people who are already there.”

In an earlier paper, Hassan had looked at migration’s impact over an even longer term: 100 years or more. With an international research team, he studied how the pull of one area for migrants from the same country could help attract foreign investment to that region for years afterward.

“You can still see today that places where Germans settled within the Midwest 100 years ago are much better at attracting foreign investment from Germany than places that didn’t see that migration,” says Hassan. The same is true for communities that had a concentration of Chinese or Polish migration, for example.

“Ethnic diversity in that sense is really good for the ability of local firms to conduct business abroad, to both receive and make foreign investments.”

Immigrant neighbors can cut prejudice

But what about those whose wages aren’t getting an upgrade or who—to quote Trump—fear a wave of immigrants may threaten their way of life, bringing in “languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of” or “poisoning the blood of our country”?

“On average, the people who are most scared of immigration are typically the people who don’t actually live in very ethnically diverse places,” says Hassan.

In a study published in the American Economic Review in February, Hassan and his fellow researchers investigated how having neighbors of foreign descent, specifically Arab Muslims, shaped prejudices and attitudes.

The researchers surveyed more than 5,000 Americans about their contact with Arab Muslims and knowledge of Islam, and sifted through data on migration, charitable donations, implicit prejudice, and support for Trump and the so-called “Muslim ban.”

Hassan and his colleagues found that living among a large Arab Muslim population decreased prejudice, reduced support for policies targeting Arab Muslims, and increased knowledge of Islam and Arab Muslims—it even resulted in people making more donations to charities supporting their neighbors’ ancestral countries.

“Long-term exposure to people with a given ethnic background makes you more informed about them, maybe makes you like them more,” says Hassan.

“It also increases political support for concerns these minorities might have. It traces a lot of xenophobia to people who don’t interact with people with foreign ancestry.”

But he says his findings on which immigrants spark the biggest economic impact, and which domestic workers benefit from that boost, should perhaps prompt a discussion about where to focus immigration policies. President Joe Biden has suggested expanding access to family-based immigration, for example, but that might not be the best economic choice, according to Hassan.

“One thing to think about, particularly given our findings about the effects of high- versus low-skilled migration,” he says, “is whether it’s worth having a debate about how much of migration should be family-based versus skill-based.”

Additional coauthors of the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper are from Stockholm University, University of Southern California, University of Michigan, and Western University.

Additional coauthors of the American Economic Review are from University of Chicago and Harvard University.

Source: Boston University


Fitness trackers and phones can help monitor multiple sclerosis

Monitoring and treating multiple sclerosis requires reliable and long-term data on how the disease is progressing. A new study finds fitness trackers and smartphones can supply the needed data.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an insidious disease. Patients suffer because their immune system is attacking their own nerve fibers, which inhibits the transmission of nerve signals.

People with MS experience mild to severe impairment of their motor function and sensory perception in a variety of ways. These impairments disrupt their daily activities and reduce their overall quality of life. As individual as the symptoms and progression of the disease are, so too is the way it is managed.

Using memory to track MS

To monitor the disease progression and be able to recommend effective treatments, physicians ask their patients on a regular basis to describe their symptoms, such as fatigue.

Patients are thus faced with the tricky task of having to provide information about their state of health and what they have been capable of over the past few weeks and even months from memory.

The data gathered in this way can be inaccurate and incomplete because patients might misremember details or tailor their responses to social expectations. And since these responses have a significant impact on how the progression of the disease is recorded, it could be mismanaged.

“Physicians would benefit from having access to reliable, frequent, and long-term measurements of patients’ health parameters that give an accurate and comprehensive view of their state of health,” says lead author Shkurta Gashi, a postdoc in the groups led by Christian Holz and Gunnar Rätsch, professors in the computer science department at ETH Zurich.

Gashi and colleagues have now shown that fitness trackers and smartphones can provide this kind of reliable long-term data with a high temporal resolution. The study is published in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine.

Reliable data from wearable devices

For the study, the researchers recruited a group of volunteer—55 with MS and a further 24 serving as control subjects—and provided each person with a fitness tracking armband. Over the course of two weeks, the researchers collected data from these wearable devices as well as from participants’ smartphones. They then performed statistical tests and a machine learning analysis of the data to identify reliable and clinically useful information.

What proved particularly meaningful was the data on physical activity and heart rate, which was collected from participants’ wearable devices. The higher the participants’ disease severity and fatigue levels, the lower their physical activity and heart rate variability proved to be. Compared to the controls, MS patients took fewer steps per day, engaged in an overall lower level of physical activity, and registered more consistent intervals between heartbeats.

How often people used their smartphone also delivered important information about their disease severity and fatigue levels: the less often a study participant used their phone, the greater their level of disability and the more severe their level of fatigue.

The researchers gained insights into motor function through a game-like smartphone test. Developed at ETH a few years ago, this test requires the user to tap the screen as quickly as possible to make a virtual person move as fast as possible. Monitoring how fast a person taps and how their tapping frequency changes over time allows the researchers to draw conclusions about their motor skills and physical fatigue.

“Altogether, the combination of data from the fitness tracker and smartphone lets us distinguish between healthy participants and those with MS with a high degree of accuracy,” Gashi says. “Combining information related to several aspects of the disease, including physiological, behavioral, motor performance, and sleep information, is crucial for more effective and accurate monitoring of the disease.”

This new approach gives MS sufferers a straightforward way of collecting reliable and clinically useful long-term data as they go about their day-to-day lives. The researchers expect that this type of data can lead to better treatments and more effective disease management techniques: more comprehensive, precise, and reliable data helps experts make better decisions and possibly even propose effective treatments sooner than before. What’s more, evaluating this patient data lets the experts verify the effectiveness of different treatments.

The researchers have now made their data set available to other scientists. They also point out the need for a larger study and more data to develop reliable and generalizable models for automatic evaluation. In the future, such models could enable MS patients to experience a significant improvement in their lives thanks to data from fitness trackers and smartphones.

Additional researchers are from ETH Zurich, the University Hospital Zurich, and the University of Zurich.

Source: ETH Zurich


Collision may explain the mystery of Pluto’s ‘heart’

Scientists have used numerical simulations to investigate the origins of a large heart-shaped structure on the surface of the dwarf planet Pluto.

The “heart” has puzzled scientists ever since the cameras of NASA’s New Horizons mission discovered it in 2015 because of its unique shape, geological composition, and elevation.

The scientists focused on Sputnik Planitia, the western teardrop-shaped part of Pluto’s heart surface feature.

According to their research, Pluto’s early history was marked by a cataclysmic event that formed Sputnik Planitia: a collision with a planetary body a little over 400 miles in diameter, roughly the size of Arizona from north to south.

The team’s findings, published in Nature Astronomy, also suggest that the inner structure of Pluto is different from what was previously assumed, indicating that there is no subsurface ocean.

“The formation of Sputnik Planitia provides a critical window into the earliest periods of Pluto’s history,” says Adeene Denton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and a coauthor of the paper. “By expanding our investigation to include more unusual formation scenarios, we’ve learned some totally new possibilities for Pluto’s evolution, which could apply to other Kuiper Belt objects as well.”

Pluto’s heart is a mixed blend

The heart, also known as the Tombaugh Regio, captured the public’s attention immediately upon its discovery. But it also immediately caught the interest of scientists because it is covered in a high-albedo material that reflects more light than its surroundings, creating its whiter color.

However, the heart is not composed of a single element. Sputnik Planitia covers an area of approximately 750 by 1,250 miles, equivalent to a quarter of Europe or the United States. What is striking, however, is that this region is roughly 2.5 miles lower in elevation than most of Pluto’s surface.

“While the vast majority of Pluto’s surface consists of methane ice and its derivatives covering a water-ice crust, the Planitia is predominantly filled with nitrogen ice, which most likely accumulated quickly after the impact due to the lower altitude,” says lead author Harry Ballantyne, a research associate at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

The eastern part of the heart is also covered by a similar but much thinner layer of nitrogen ice, the origin of which is still unclear to scientists, but is probably related to Sputnik Planitia.

Planetary ‘splat’

The elongated shape of Sputnik Planitia and its location at the equator strongly suggest that the impact was not a direct head-on collision but rather an oblique one, according to Martin Jutzi of the University of Bern, who initiated the study.

Like several others around the world, the team used Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics simulation software to digitally recreate such impacts, varying both the composition of Pluto and its impactor, as well as the velocity and angle of the impactor. These simulations confirmed the scientists’ suspicions about the oblique angle of impact and determined the composition of the impactor.

“Pluto’s core is so cold that the rocks remained very hard and did not melt despite the heat of the impact, and thanks to the angle of impact and the low velocity, the core of the impactor did not sink into Pluto’s core, but remained intact as a splat on it,” Ballantyne says.

This core strength and relatively low velocity were key to the success of these simulations: Lower strength would result in a very symmetrical leftover surface feature that does not look like the teardrop shape observed by NASA’s New Horizons probe during its fly-by of Pluto in 2015.

“We are used to thinking of planetary collisions as incredibly intense events where you can ignore the details except for things like energy, momentum, and density,” says coauthor Erik Asphaug, a professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, whose team has collaborated with its Swiss colleagues since 2011, exploring the idea of planetary “splats” to explain, for instance, features on the far side of Earth’s moon.

“In the distant solar system, velocities are so much slower than closer to the sun, and solid ice is strong, so you have to be much more precise in your calculations. That’s where the fun starts.”

No subsurface ocean on Pluto

The current study sheds new light on Pluto’s internal structure as well. In fact, a giant impact like the one simulated is much more likely to have occurred very early in Pluto’s history than during more recent times.

However, this poses a problem: A giant depression like Sputnik Planitia is expected to slowly drift toward the pole of the dwarf planet over time due to the laws of physics, since it is less massive than its surroundings. Yet it has remained near the equator.

The previous theorized explanation invoked a subsurface liquid water ocean, similar to several other planetary bodies in the outer solar system. According to this hypothesis, Pluto’s icy crust would be thinner in the Sputnik Planitia region, causing the ocean to bulge upward, and since liquid water is denser than ice, causing a mass surplus that induces migration toward the equator.

The new study offers an alternative perspective, according to the authors, pointing to simulations in which all of Pluto’s primordial mantle is excavated by the impact, and as the impactor’s core material splats onto Pluto’s core, it creates a local mass excess that can explain the migration toward the equator without a subsurface ocean, or at most a very thin one.

Denton, who already has embarked on a research project to estimate the speed of this migration, says this novel and creative origin hypothesis for Pluto’s heart-shaped feature may lead to a better understanding of the dwarf planet’s origin.

Source: University of Arizona


‘Parentese’ chatter improves baby’s language later

Parents speaking to their baby in a high-pitched voice—known as “parentese”—and responding to the baby’s babbles with eye contact and smiles is important for infant language growth, researchers report.

In a study published in Current Biology, the researchers used a safe and noninvasive brain-imaging technique called magnetoencephalography, or MEG, to monitor infant brain activity during social and nonsocial interactions with the same adult.

They found that when the adult talked and played socially with a 5-month-old baby, the baby’s brain activity particularly increased in regions responsible for attention—and the level of this type of activity predicted enhanced language development at later ages.

The researchers compared this “social” scenario with a “nonsocial” scenario in which the adult turned away from the baby to talk to another person. This interaction showed lower activity levels in the same brain areas.

“This is the first study to directly compare infant brain responses to adult-infant social interaction versus nonsocial interaction, and then follow up with the children until they reached the age of 2.5 to see how the early brain activation relates to the child’s future language abilities,” says lead author Alexis Bosseler, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

The MEG brain-imaging technology allowed the baby to move and interact naturally with the adult, which enabled researchers to track the firing of neurons from multiple areas in the baby’s brain as the adult talked to, played with, and smiled at the baby. They then monitored the infant’s brain activity a second time as the adult turned away and paid attention to someone else.

These actions naturally occur every day between adults and babies, and the study showed they have different measurable effects on a baby’s brain. Researchers found that increased neural activity in response to the social interaction at 5 months predicted enhanced language development at five later ages: 18, 21, 24, 27, and 30 months.

The researchers tracked infants’ language development using a well-documented and validated survey that asks parents about words and sentences their infants say at home.

“The connection between early brain reactions and later language is consistent with scientists’ fascination with the early age period and opens up many new questions that we, and others, will be exploring,” says coauthor Andrew Meltzoff, I-LABS codirector and a professor of psychology.

Researchers chose 5-month-old babies for the study because that age is just before the “sensitive period” for speech-language learning, which begins at about 6 months. Once this period begins, it’s especially important for infants to observe adults because attention enhances learning.

Using parentese with infants represents an intuitive desire to connect, says senior author Patricia Kuhl, a codirector of I-LABS.

“There’s an implicit understanding that language is about connection,” Kuhl says. “It’s about a communicative pathway between you and the other. This starts in infancy with the desire to make that communicative connection.”

The study’s results are particularly important for parents and early educators to understand, Kuhl says.

“We knew from previous work that social interaction is essential at 9-months of age for foreign-language learning, but the current study shows that social interaction plays a role much earlier,” Kuhl says.

“The study shows that parents’ natural use of parentese, coupled with smiles, touch, and their warm back-and-forth responses to the baby’s actions, have a real-world, measurable impact on the baby’s brain. We theorize that this parent behavior, which we call ‘the social ensemble,’ captures and holds infants’ attention and motivates them to learn at a critical time in development.”

The Bezos Family Foundation, the Overdeck Foundation, and grants from the National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: Lauren Kirschman for University of Washington


Blinking is more than meets the eye

Researchers have discovered that eye blinks aren’t just a mechanism to keep our eyes moist: blinks also play an important role in allowing our brains to process visual information.

The ordinary act of blinking takes up a surprising amount of our waking time. Humans, on average, spend a remarkable 3 to 8% of their time awake with their eyelids closed.

“…contrary to common assumption, blinks improve—rather than disrupt—visual processing…”

Given that blinks prevent an image of the external scene from forming on the retina, it’s a peculiar quirk of evolution that we spend so much time in this seemingly vulnerable state—especially considering that eye blinks occur more frequently than necessary just to keep our eyes well lubricated.

So why is blinking important?

“By modulating the visual input to the retina, blinks effectively reformat visual information, yielding luminance signals that differ drastically from those normally experienced when we look at a point in the scene,” says Michele Rucci, a professor in the brain and cognitive sciences department at the University of Rochester.

Rucci and his colleagues tracked eye movements in human observers and combined this data with computer models and spectral analysis—analyzing the various frequencies in visual stimuli—to study how blinking affects what the eyes see compared to when the eyelids are closed.

The researchers measured how sensitive humans are at perceiving different types of stimuli, such as patterns at different levels of details. They found that when people blink, they become better at noticing big, gradually changing patterns. That is, blinking provides information to the brain about the overall big picture of a visual scene.

The results show that when we blink, the rapid motion of the eyelid alters the light patterns that are effective in stimulating the retina. This creates a different kind of visual signal for our brain compared to when our eyes are open and focused on a specific point.

“We show that human observers benefit from blink transients as predicted from the information conveyed by these transients,” says Bin Yang, a graduate student in Rucci’s lab and the first author of the paper. “Thus, contrary to common assumption, blinks improve—rather than disrupt—visual processing, amply compensating for the loss in stimulus exposure.”

The findings further reinforce the growing body of research in visual perception from Rucci’s laboratory, highlighting that how humans see is a combination of sensory input and motor activity. When we smell or touch, for instance, our body movements help our brain understand space.

Researchers previously believed seeing was different, but Rucci’s research lends support to the idea that vision is more like the other senses.

“Since spatial information is explicit in the image on the retina, visual perception was believed to differ,” Rucci says.

“Our results suggest that this view is incomplete and that vision resembles other sensory modalities more than commonly assumed.”

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Rochester