News Delivered With Humor Makes It More Memorable

A recent study has been done on how to make news content more memorable. The study’s findings may apply to some other types of content too.

In the early decades of televised news, Americans turned to the stern faces of newsmen like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather as trusted sources for news of the important events in America and around the world, delivered with gravitas and measured voices. The rise of comedy-news programs, helmed by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee, raised concerns over the blending of entertainment and news. But could the merging of humor and news actually help inform the public?

In fact, new research suggests that humor may help keep people informed about politics. A study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the School of Communication at Ohio State University found that, when compared to non-humorous news clips, viewers are not only more likely to share humorously presented news but are also more likely to remember the content from these segments.

“For democracy to work, it is really important for people to engage with news and politics and to be informed about public affairs,” says senior author Emily Falk, Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at Annenberg. “We wanted to test whether humor might make news more socially relevant, and therefore motivate people to remember it and share it.”

The researchers recruited young adults (18-34 years old) to watch a variety of news clips, which they designed to vary, so that some ended with jokes and others did not. In addition to collecting data on participants’ brain activity using fMRI technology, the researchers administered a memory test to determine how much information participants retained from watching the clips. The researchers also asked participants to answer questions about how likely they would be to share the news clips with others.

Participants were more likely to remember information about politics and government policy when it was conveyed in a humorous rather than non-humorous manner and were more willing to share the information online. The findings also show that humorous news clips elicited greater activity in brain regions associated with thinking about what other people think and feel, which highlights the social nature of comedy.

“Our findings show that humor stimulates activity in brain regions associated with social engagement, improves memory for political facts, and increases the tendency to share political information with others,” says lead author Jason Coronel, Assistant Professor of Communication at OSU. “This is significant because entertainment-based media has become an important source of political news, especially for young adults. Our results suggest that humor can increase knowledge about politics.”

A New Tool In Improving Mental Health — Building Design

Buildings can be designed in ways that allow for more of the interior to be exposed to sunlight and nature. In the time of the pandemic, more sunlight in rooms can act as a natural disinfectant, and one study found that people had better mental health after taking walks through nature.

For decades, psychiatric hospitals were grim settings where patients were crowded into common rooms by day and dorms at night. But new research into the health effects of our surroundings is spurring the development of facilities that feel more residential, with welcoming entrances, smaller living units within larger buildings and a variety of gathering spaces. Nature plays a big role: Windows provide views of greenery, landscapes decorate walls, and outdoor areas give patients and staff access to fresh air and sunlight.

The new approach, promoted as healing and therapeutic, has produced environments that are more calming and supportive. And it feels particularly timely, given the surge in mental health issues created by the pandemic.

“We’ve been talking about this for a really long time,” said Mardelle McCuskey Shepley, chair of the department of design and environmental analysis in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology in New York. “It’s only now that it’s gaining momentum.”

Even before the pandemic, the number of Americans affected by mental illness was at a new high. One in five adults was experiencing depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress or some other malady, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The rates were significantly higher for adolescents (about 50%) and young adults (about 30%).

Nearly a year into the pandemic, more people are suffering. Young adults and Black and Latino people of all ages are reporting increased levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans felt their mental health was “worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.”

Demand for treatment has soared, and the construction of mental health facilities has been outpacing that of other specialty hospitals. Last year, 40% of the specialty hospitals under construction were psychiatric hospitals and behavioural health centres, according to the American Society for Health Care Engineering.

Architecture and interior design firms with expertise in health care buildings have reported an increase in activity. At design firm Architecture+ in Troy, New York, one or two major mental health facilities are typically in the pipeline, with total construction costs for those projects at about $250 million a year, said Francis Murdock Pitts, a principal and founding partner. Last year, the firm was working on 16 large mental health projects totalling about $1.9 billion.

His firm and others like it have medical planners on staff who help translate research into “evidence-based” designs. “This isn’t just about being warm and fuzzy,” Pitts said.

For instance, exposure to nature has been shown to lower cortisol levels, a measure of stress. Adding healing gardens and other greenery can help soothe agitated patients and give staff a place to decompress.

Research specific to mental health care settings is also coming into play. Studies have shown that reducing crowding by providing private rooms and multiple communal spaces may lessen patient and employee stress and aggression. Lowering noise — eliminating unnecessary beeping of medical equipment, for example — can also help. If patients are less stressed, they may make faster and more lasting progress during treatment, experts say.

But because mental health issues vary widely, there is no one-size-fits-all design solution. And safety — for both patients and staff — remains paramount.

Codes and guidelines fine-tuned over many years have sought to eliminate room features that patients have used to harm themselves and others. Window glazing is made of polycarbonate compounds to reduce breaking. Doors are hung on quick-release hinges to allow staff to enter a room if a patient is barricaded in. Plumbing and other fixtures have been designed to prevent the possibility of hanging or strangulation.

Such safety measures are crucial, but “you don’t want it to get to the point where it looks prisonlike,” said Shary Adams, a principal at HGA, a national design firm. At the same time that the built environment must be engineered to ensure safety, there is also a move to give patients some control over their surroundings. Manual thermostats allow patients to adjust the temperature in their rooms, for example, and dimmer switches let them modulate the lights.

The location of mental health facilities is changing, too. Psychiatric institutions used to be tucked away, but today they are likely to be part of hospital campuses or otherwise conveniently situated. They often combine inpatient rooms for those who need round-the-clock monitoring and areas for outpatient services, allowing patients to shift to less intensive care in the same building.

Lifelong Exercise Shown to Slow Aging

The benefits of exercise are underrated much too often.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London have found that staying active keeps the body young and healthy.

The researchers set out to assess the health of older adults who had exercised most of their adult lives to see if this could slow down ageing.

The study recruited 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79, 84 of which were male and 41 were female. The men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours, while the women had to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure or other health conditions were excluded from the study.

The participants underwent a series of tests in the laboratory and were compared to a group of adults who do not partake in regular physical activity. This group consisted of 75 healthy people aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy young adults aged 20 to 36.

The study showed that loss of muscle mass and strength did not occur in those who exercise regularly. The cyclists also did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels also remained high, suggesting that they may have avoided most of the male menopause.

More surprisingly, the study also revealed that the benefits of exercise extend beyond muscle as the cyclists also had an immune system that did not seem to have aged either.

An organ called the thymus, which makes immune cells called T cells, starts to shrink from the age of 20 and makes less T cells. In this study, however, the cyclists’ thymuses were making as many T cells as those of a young person.

The findings come as figures show that less than half of over 65s do enough exercise to stay healthy and more than half of those aged over 65 suffer from at least two diseases.* Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, said: “Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society.

“However, importantly, our findings debunk the assumption that ageing automatically makes us more frail.

“Our research means we now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier.”

Dr Niharika Arora Duggal, also of the University of Birmingham, said: “We hope these findings prevent the danger that, as a society, we accept that old age and disease are normal bedfellows and that the third age of man is something to be endured and not enjoyed.”

Professor Stephen Harridge, Director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, said: “The findings emphasise the fact that the cyclists do not exercise because they are healthy, but that they are healthy because they have been exercising for such a large proportion of their lives.

“Their bodies have been allowed to age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity. Remove the activity and their health would likely deteriorate.”

Norman Lazarus, Emeritus Professor at King’s College London and also a master cyclist and Dr Ross Pollock, who undertook the muscle study, both agreed that: “Most of us who exercise have nowhere near the physiological capacities of elite athletes.

“We exercise mainly to enjoy ourselves. Nearly everybody can partake in an exercise that is in keeping with their own physiological capabilities.

“Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”

Important COVID-19 Antibody Drugs Aren’t Being Used Enough

“Antibody drugs from Regeneron and Eli Lilly could reduce hospitalizations from Covid-19 by 50-70%,” as the article says.

When President Donald Trump got sick with Covid-19 in October, he credited an antibody drug from Regeneron with making him feel better “immediately.”

“I felt as good three days ago as I do now,” he said in a video shot in front of the White House after he left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, promising medicines from Regeneron and Eli Lilly would soon be available to the American public to help stop the terrible effects of Covid-19.

The concern, as these drugs were cleared through the FDA and made it to market last month, was that there wouldn’t be enough supply. They’re complicated to manufacture, and Regeneron said there were only enough doses for 80,000 Americans by the end of November. Lilly has 250,000 doses available.

An average of more than 200,000 Americans are currently getting diagnosed with Covid-19 every day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Policymakers expected to need to ration the antibody drugs.

But a month into their distribution, the opposite problem has emerged: the drugs are not getting used.

“We have a surplus of these monoclonal antibodies right now,” Health Secretary Alex Azar told CNBC’s Shepard Smith Tuesday night. “What’s happening is people are waiting too long to seek out the treatments.”

Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed, told CNBC Tuesday that the federal government is distributing about 65,000 doses of the antibody drugs every week to states.

But, he said, only 5% to 20% of the doses are getting administered to patients.

“It should be used much more,” Slaoui said in a telephone interview, noting the drugs — which are indicated for patients at high risk for severe Covid-19 — could cut down on hospitalizations by 50% to 70%.

The drugs are not simple to administer. For one thing, they’re given by intravenous infusion, so patients must go to health centers where this can be done. But since they’re likely contagious, existing IV facilities, like where patients receive chemotherapy, can’t be used.

Another issue is that the drugs need to be given early in the course of the disease. The FDA’s guidance for health-care providers says they should be administered as soon as possible after diagnosis, and within 10 days of symptom onset. It recommends against use of the drugs once patients are so sick they’re hospitalized.

But many patients don’t feel sick right away, so the idea of an IV-infused drug doesn’t occur to them immediately after diagnosis, Slaoui and Azar suggested.

“If you are over 65 or at risk of serious complications or hospitalization due to co-morbidities, what have you, and you test positive, you need to seek out and get the Lilly or Regeneron monoclonal antibody,” Azar said on the “News With Shepard Smith.” “It can dramatically reduce the risk for us of hospitalizations at a time when hospitals are getting very crowded with people with Covid.”

But it’s a challenge for some health systems to set up the infrastructure to deliver these drugs. Some states are using 100% of their allocation, Slaoui said. Others, like in Georgia and Illinois, may not be using any, according to former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

Georgia’s public health department didn’t immediately respond to questions about their antibody usage. A spokeswoman for Illinois’ Department of Public Health said providers aren’t yet required to report use of monoclonal antibodies, but that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require hospitals to report the information starting Jan. 8.

[…]

He noted the data behind the medicines suggest “the number needed to treat in terms of keeping one patient out of the hospital … is 10.” Lilly has said it will have 950,000 doses available by the end of January, Gottlieb cited the effects if 900,000 doses were used: “That means if all of the drugs got distributed, we could avoid 90,000 hospitalizations or emergency room visits. That would be substantial.”

Lilly noted the IV administration of the antibody drugs “presents unique challenges to the healthcare system,” and said it’s working to address the challenges to ensure patients who need the drug can get it. The company is running a number of pilot programs through Operation Warp Speed, including one with CVS for in-home infusions, a company spokeswoman said.

Experimental Drug Quickly Reduces Age-Related Mental Decline

The compound, known as ISRIB, holds potential for reversing numerous cognitive problems in humans. Mice are used in scientific studies due to having genes that are approximately 85 percent similar to the genes of humans.

Just a few doses of an experimental drug can reverse age-related declines in memory and mental flexibility in mice, according to a new study by UC San Francisco scientists. The drug, called ISRIB, has already been shown in laboratory studies to restore memory function months after traumatic brain injury (TBI), reverse cognitive impairments in Down Syndrome, prevent noise-related hearing loss, fight certain types of prostate cancer, and even enhance cognition in healthy animals.

In the new study, published December 1, 2020 in the open-access journal eLife, researchers showed rapid restoration of youthful cognitive abilities in aged mice, accompanied by a rejuvenation of brain and immune cells that could help explain improvements in brain function.

“ISRIB’s extremely rapid effects show for the first time that a significant component of age-related cognitive losses may be caused by a kind of reversible physiological ‘blockage’ rather than more permanent degradation,” said Susanna Rosi, PhD, Lewis and Ruth Cozen Chair II and professor in the departments of Neurological Surgery and of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science.

“The data suggest that the aged brain has not permanently lost essential cognitive capacities, as was commonly assumed, but rather that these cognitive resources are still there but have been somehow blocked, trapped by a vicious cycle of cellular stress,” added Peter Walter, PhD, a professor in the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Our work with ISRIB demonstrates a way to break that cycle and restore cognitive abilities that had become walled off over time.”

Could Rebooting Cellular Protein Production Hold the Key to Aging and Other Diseases?

Walter has won numerous scientific awards, including the Breakthrough, Lasker and Shaw prizes, for his decades-long studies of cellular stress responses. ISRIB, discovered in 2013 in Walter’s lab, works by rebooting cells’ protein production machinery after it gets throttled by one of these stress responses — a cellular quality control mechanism called the integrated stress response (ISR; ISRIB stands for ISR InhiBitor).

The ISR normally detects problems with protein production in a cell — a potential sign of viral infection or cancer-promoting gene mutations — and responds by putting the brakes on cell’s protein-synthesis machinery. This safety mechanism is critical for weeding out misbehaving cells, but if stuck in the on position in a tissue like the brain, it can lead to serious problems, as cells lose the ability to perform their normal activities, Walter and colleagues have found.

In particular, recent animal studies by Walter and Rosi, made possible by early philanthropic support from The Rogers Family Foundation, have implicated chronic ISR activation in the persistent cognitive and behavioral deficits seen in patients after TBI, by showing that, in mice, brief ISRIB treatment can reboot the ISR and restore normal brain function almost overnight.

The cognitive deficits in TBI patients are often likened to premature aging, which led Rosi and Walter to wonder if the ISR could also underlie purely age-related cognitive decline. Aging is well known to compromise cellular protein production across the body, as life’s many insults pile up and stressors like chronic inflammation wear away at cells, potentially leading to widespread activation of the ISR.

“We’ve seen how ISRIB restores cognition in animals with traumatic brain injury, which in many ways is like a sped-up version of age-related cognitive decline,” said Rosi, who is director of neurocognitive research in the UCSF Brain and Spinal Injury Center and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “It may seem like a crazy idea, but asking whether the drug could reverse symptoms of aging itself was just a logical next step.”

ISRIB Improves Cognition, Boosts Neuron and Immune Cell Function

In the new study, researchers led by Rosi lab postdoc Karen Krukowski, PhD, trained aged animals to escape from a watery maze by finding a hidden platform, a task that is typically hard for older animals to learn. But animals who received small daily doses of ISRIB during the three-day training process were able to accomplish the task as well as youthful mice, much better than animals of the same age who didn’t receive the drug.

The researchers then tested how long this cognitive rejuvenation lasted and whether it could generalize to other cognitive skills. Several weeks after the initial ISRIB treatment, they trained the same mice to find their way out of a maze whose exit changed daily — a test of mental flexibility for aged mice who, like humans, tend to get increasingly stuck in their ways. The mice who had received brief ISRIB treatment three weeks before still performed at youthful levels, while untreated mice continued to struggle.

To understand how ISRIB might be improving brain function, the researchers studied the activity and anatomy of cells in the hippocampus, a brain region with a key role in learning and memory, just one day after giving animals a single dose of ISRIB. They found that common signatures of neuronal aging disappeared literally overnight: neurons’ electrical activity became more sprightly and responsive to stimulation, and cells showed more robust connectivity with cells around them while also showing an ability to form stable connections with one another usually only seen in younger mice.

The researchers are continuing to study exactly how the ISR disrupts cognition in aging and other conditions and to understand how long ISRIB’s cognitive benefits may last. Among other puzzles raised by the new findings is the discovery that ISRIB also alters the function of the immune system’s T cells, which also are prone to age-related dysfunction. The findings suggest another path by which the drug could be improving cognition in aged animals, and could have implications for diseases from Alzheimer’s to diabetes that have been linked to heightened inflammation caused by an aging immune system.

“This was very exciting to me because we know that aging has a profound and persistent effect on T cells and that these changes can affect brain function in the hippocampus,” said Rosi. “At the moment, this is just an interesting observation, but it gives us a very exciting set of biological puzzles to solve.

ISRIB May Have Wide-Ranging Implications for Neurological Disease

It turns out that chronic ISR activation and resulting blockage of cellular protein production may play a role in a surprisingly wide array of neurological conditions. Below is a partial list of these conditions, based on a recent review by Walter and colleague Mauro Costa-Mattioli of Baylor College of Medicine, which could potentially be treated with an ISR-resetting agent like ISRIB:

  • Frontotemporal Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
  • Age-related Cognitive Decline
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Down Syndrome
  • Vanishing White Matter Disorder
  • Prion Disease

ISRIB has been licensed by Calico, a South San Francisco, Calif. company exploring the biology of aging, and the idea of targeting the ISR to treat disease has been picked up by other pharmaceutical companies, Walter says.

One might think that interfering with the ISR, a critical cellular safety mechanism, would be sure to have serious side effects, but so far in all their studies, the researchers have observed none. This is likely due to two factors, Walter says. First, it takes just a few doses of ISRIB to reset unhealthy, chronic ISR activation back to a healthier state, after which it can still respond normally to problems in individual cells. Second, ISRIB has virtually no effect when applied to cells actively employing the ISR in its most powerful form — against an aggressive viral infection, for example.

Naturally, both of these factors make the molecule much less likely to have negative side effects — and more attractive as a potential therapeutic. According to Walter: “It almost seems too good to be true, but with ISRIB we seem to have hit a sweet spot for manipulating the ISR with an ideal therapeutic window.

Exercising Regularly Strengthens the Immune System

A good thing to keep in mind during a pandemic.

Being in isolation without access to gyms and sports clubs should not mean people stop exercising, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bath. Keeping up regular, daily exercise at a time when much of the world is going into isolation will play an important role in helping to maintain a healthy immune system.

The analysis, published in the international journal Exercise Immunology Review, involving leading physiologists Dr James Turner and Dr John Campbell from the University of Bath’s Department for Health, considers the effect of exercise on our immune function.

Over the last four decades, many studies have investigated how exercise affects the immune system. It is widely agreed that regular moderate intensity exercise is beneficial for immunity, but a view held by some is that more arduous exercise can suppress immune function, leading to an ‘open-window’ of heightened infection risk in the hours and days following exercise.

In a benchmark study in 2018, this ‘open window’ hypothesis was challenged by Dr Campbell and Dr Turner. They reported in a review article that the theory was not well supported by scientific evidence, summarising that there is limited reliable evidence that exercise suppresses immunity, concluding instead that exercise is beneficial for immune function.

They say that, in the short term, exercise can help the immune system find and deal with pathogens, and in the long term, regular exercise slows down changes that happen to the immune system with ageing, therefore reducing the risk of infections.

“The top 1% saw their wages soar by 160% since 1979, six times the increase of the bottom 90% of workers”

The economy has been rigged to redistribute income from most workers to the top percentile of people making the most money.

The rich aren’t just getting richer. They’re getting there faster than the rest of America’s workers.

During the last economic expansion, from 2009 to 2019, average yearly wages for the bottom 90% of workers rose 8.7% after adjusting for inflation, according to an analysis of Social Security Administration data by the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Meanwhile, pay for most of the top 10% rose 13.2% – while earnings for the top 1% jumped 20.4%.

“It’s a clear story of disempowerment of workers,” said Lawrence Mishel, co-author of the study and a distinguished fellow at EPI.

Executives at hedge funds and other top finance companies have benefited from outsized leaps in compensation, often tied to stock prices, while the vast majority of workers, including both blue- and white-collar workers, have seen their pay stagnate or climb slowly, Mishel said. He cited myriad reasons, including outdated overtime pay rules and the misclassification of many full-time employees as contractors.

[…]

Over a longer time period, the gap between the highest-paid workers and other Americans is even starker. From 1979 to 2019, average pay increased 26% for the bottom 90%, 64.1% for most of the top 10%, 160.3% for the top 1%, and 345.2% for the top 0.1%, according to EPI.

As a result, the bottom 90% earned 69.8% of all wages in 1979, but that share fell to 60.9% last year. Meanwhile, the top 5% saw their share of total wages rise from 19.4% to 27.8%, while the top 1% nearly doubled their share, from 7.3% to 13.2%.

Researchers Claim Oral Drug Blocks COVID-19 Transmission Within 24 Hours

This drug (MK-4482) is notable because it has the distinction of “MK,” as in, it was developed in part by the Merck pharmaceutical company. I’m one to often disparage the pharmaceutical companies but Merck has done notable things in its past drug research. The Merck development of MK-677 — an experimental growth hormone secretagogue that has been shown to increase hunger, increase bone density in the frail, and improve healing in humans — has shown significant potential in medicine. A former Head of the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority has said that drugs similar to MK-4482 cause birth defects, but the study authors claim that toxicity studies on MK-4482 have already been done, with the results already approved by regulators as a sign to continue with research into the drug in people.


Treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infection with a new antiviral drug, MK-4482/EIDD-2801 or Molnupiravir, completely suppresses virus transmission within 24 hours, researchers in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University have discovered.

The group led by Dr. Richard Plemper, Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State, originally discovered that the drug is potent against influenza viruses.

“This is the first demonstration of an orally available drug to rapidly block SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” said Plemper. “MK-4482/EIDD-2801 could be game-changing.”

Interrupting widespread community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 until mass vaccination is available is paramount to managing COVID-19 and mitigating the catastrophic consequences of the pandemic.

Because the drug can be taken by mouth, treatment can be started early for a potentially three-fold benefit: inhibit patients’ progress to severe disease, shorten the infectious phase to ease the emotional and socioeconomic toll of prolonged patient isolation and rapidly silence local outbreaks.

“We noted early on that MK-4482/EIDD-2801 has broad-spectrum activity against respiratory RNA viruses and that treating infected animals by mouth with the drug lowers the amount of shed viral particles by several orders of magnitude, dramatically reducing transmission,” said Plemper. “These properties made MK-4482/EIDD/2801 a powerful candidate for pharmacologic control of COVID-19.”

In the study published in Nature Microbiology, Plemper’s team repurposed MK-4482/EIDD-2801 against SARS-CoV-2 and used a ferret model to test the effect of the drug on halting virus spread.

“We believe ferrets are a relevant transmission model because they readily spread SARS-CoV-2, but mostly do not develop severe disease, which closely resembles SARS-CoV-2 spread in young adults,” said Dr. Robert Cox, a postdoctoral fellow in the Plemper group and a co-lead author of the study.

The researchers infected ferrets with SARS-CoV-2 and initiated treatment with MK-4482/EIDD-2801 when the animals started to shed virus from the nose.

“When we co-housed those infected and then treated source animals with untreated contact ferrets in the same cage, none of the contacts became infected,” said Josef Wolf, a doctoral student in the Plemper lab and co-lead author of the study. By comparison, all contacts of source ferrets that had received placebo became infected.

If these ferret-based data translate to humans, COVID-19 patients treated with the drug could become non-infectious within 24 hours after the beginning of treatment.

MK-4482/EIDD-2801 is in advanced phase II/III clinical trials against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Flavanols Found in Cocoa, Fruits and Vegetables Shown to Boost Cognition and Brain Oxygenation

This study shows the benefits of good nutrition.

The brains of healthy adults recovered faster from a mild vascular challenge and performed better on complex tests if the participants consumed cocoa flavanols beforehand, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports. In the study, 14 of 18 participants saw these improvements after ingesting the flavanols.

Previous studies have shown that eating foods rich in flavanols can benefit vascular function, but this is the first to find a positive effect on brain vascular function and cognitive performance in young healthy adults, said Catarina Rendeiro, a researcher and lecturer in nutritional sciences at the University of Birmingham who led the research with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychology professors Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton.

“Flavanols are small molecules found in many fruits and vegetables, and cocoa, too,” Rendeiro said. “They give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, and they are known to benefit vascular function. We wanted to know whether flavanols also benefit the brain vasculature, and whether that could have a positive impact on cognitive function.”

The team recruited adult nonsmokers with no known brain, heart, vascular or respiratory disease, reasoning that any effects seen in this population would provide robust evidence that dietary flavanols can improve brain function in healthy people.

The team tested the 18 participants before their intake of cocoa flavanols and in two separate trials, one in which the subjects received flavanol-rich cocoa and another during which they consumed processed cocoa with very low levels of flavanols. Neither the participants nor researchers knew which type of cocoa was consumed in each of the trials. This double-blind study design prevents researchers’ or participants’ expectations from affecting the results.

About two hours after consuming the cocoa, participants breathed air with 5% carbon dioxide — about 100 times the normal concentration in air. This is a standard method for challenging brain vasculature to determine how well it responds, Gratton said.

The body typically reacts by increasing blood flow to the brain, he said.

“This brings in more oxygen and also allows the brain to eliminate more carbon dioxide,” he said.

With functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a technique that uses light to capture changes in blood flow to the brain, the team measured oxygenation in the frontal cortex, a brain region that plays a key role in planning, regulating behavior and decision-making.

“This allows you to measure how well the brain defends itself from the excess carbon dioxide,” Fabiani said.

Researchers also challenged participants with complex tasks that required them to manage sometimes contradictory or competing demands.

Most of the participants had a stronger and faster brain oxygenation response after exposure to cocoa flavanols than they did at baseline or after consuming cocoa lacking flavanols, the researchers found.

“The levels of maximal oxygenation were more than three times higher in the high-flavanol cocoa versus the low-flavanol cocoa, and the oxygenation response was about one minute faster,” Rendeiro said.

After ingesting the cocoa flavanols, participants also performed better on the most challenging cognitive tests, correctly solving problems 11% faster than they did at baseline or when they consumed cocoa with reduced flavanols. There was no measurable difference in performance on the easier tasks, however.

“This suggests that flavanols might only be beneficial during cognitive tasks that are more challenging,” Rendeiro said.

Participants varied in their responses to cocoa flavanols, the researchers found.

“Although most people benefited from flavanol intake, there was a small group that did not,” Rendeiro said. Four of the 18 study subjects had no meaningful differences in brain oxygenation response after consuming flavanols, nor did their performance on the tests improve.

“Because these four participants already had the highest oxygenation responses at baseline, this may indicate that those who are already quite fit have little room for improvement,” Rendeiro said. “Overall, the findings suggest that the improvements in vascular activity after exposure to flavanols are connected to the improvement in cognitive function.”

Neuroscientists Find Isolation Can Provoke Similar Brain Activity Seen in Hunger

As I heard one commentator say, a pandemic or economic depression by themselves would be problematic, but both together is a much worse problem.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring, many people have only seen their close friends and loved ones during video calls, if at all. A new study from MIT finds that the longings we feel during this kind of social isolation share a neural basis with the food cravings we feel when hungry.

The researchers found that after one day of total isolation, the sight of people having fun together activates the same brain region that lights up when someone who hasn’t eaten all day sees a picture of a plate of cheesy pasta.

“People who are forced to be isolated crave social interactions similarly to the way a hungry person craves food. Our finding fits the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a basic human need, and acute loneliness is an aversive state that motivates people to repair what is lacking, similar to hunger,” says Rebecca Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

The research team collected the data for this study in 2018 and 2019, long before the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns. Their new findings, described today in Nature Neuroscience, are part of a larger research program focusing on how social stress affects people’s behavior and motivation.

Former MIT postdoc Livia Tomova, who is now a research associate at Cambridge University, is the lead author of the paper. Other authors include Kimberly Wang, a McGovern Institute research associate; Todd Thompson, a McGovern Institute scientist; Atsushi Takahashi, assistant director of the Martinos Imaging Center; Gillian Matthews, a research scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Kay Tye, a professor at the Salk Institute.

Social craving

The new study was partly inspired by a recent paper from Tye, a former member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. In that 2016 study, she and Matthews, then an MIT postdoc, identified a cluster of neurons in the brains of mice that represent feelings of loneliness and generate a drive for social interaction following isolation. Studies in humans have shown that being deprived of social contact can lead to emotional distress, but the neurological basis of these feelings is not well-known.

“We wanted to see if we could experimentally induce a certain kind of social stress, where we would have control over what the social stress was,” Saxe says. “It’s a stronger intervention of social isolation than anyone had tried before.”

To create that isolation environment, the researchers enlisted healthy volunteers, who were mainly college students, and confined them to a windowless room on MIT’s campus for 10 hours. They were not allowed to use their phones, but the room did have a computer that they could use to contact the researchers if necessary.

“There were a whole bunch of interventions we used to make sure that it would really feel strange and different and isolated,” Saxe says. “They had to let us know when they were going to the bathroom so we could make sure it was empty. We delivered food to the door and then texted them when it was there so they could go get it. They really were not allowed to see people.”

After the 10-hour isolation ended, each participant was scanned in an MRI machine. This posed additional challenges, as the researchers wanted to avoid any social contact during the scanning. Before the isolation period began, each subject was trained on how to get into the machine, so that they could do it by themselves, without any help from the researcher.

“Normally, getting somebody into an MRI machine is actually a really social process. We engage in all kinds of social interactions to make sure people understand what we’re asking them, that they feel safe, that they know we’re there,” Saxe says. “In this case, the subjects had to do it all by themselves, while the researcher, who was gowned and masked, just stood silently by and watched.”

Each of the 40 participants also underwent 10 hours of fasting, on a different day. After the 10-hour period of isolation or fasting, the participants were scanned while looking at images of food, images of people interacting, and neutral images such as flowers. The researchers focused on a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, a tiny structure located in the midbrain, which has previously been linked with hunger cravings and drug cravings. The substantia nigra is also believed to share evolutionary origins with a brain region in mice called the dorsal raphe nucleus, which is the area that Tye’s lab showed was active following social isolation in their 2016 study.

The researchers hypothesized that when socially isolated subjects saw photos of people enjoying social interactions, the “craving signal” in their substantia nigra would be similar to the signal produced when they saw pictures of food after fasting. This was indeed the case. Furthermore, the amount of activation in the substantia nigra was correlated with how strongly the patients rated their feelings of craving either food or social interaction.

Degrees of loneliness

The researchers also found that people’s responses to isolation varied depending on their normal levels of loneliness. People who reported feeling chronically isolated months before the study was done showed weaker cravings for social interaction after the 10-hour isolation period than people who reported a richer social life.

“For people who reported that their lives were really full of satisfying social interactions, this intervention had a bigger effect on their brains and on their self-reports,” Saxe says.

The researchers also looked at activation patterns in other parts of the brain, including the striatum and the cortex, and found that hunger and isolation each activated distinct areas of those regions. That suggests that those areas are more specialized to respond to different types of longings, while the substantia nigra produces a more general signal representing a variety of cravings.

Now that the researchers have established that they can observe the effects of social isolation on brain activity, Saxe says they can now try to answer many additional questions. Those questions include how social isolation affect people’s behavior, whether virtual social contacts such as video calls help to alleviate cravings for social interaction, and how isolation affects different age groups.

The researchers also hope to study whether the brain responses that they saw in this study could be used to predict how the same participants responded to being isolated during the lockdowns imposed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The research was funded by a SFARI Explorer Grant from the Simons Foundation, a MINT grant from the McGovern Institute, the National Institutes of Health, including an NIH Pioneer Award, a Max Kade Foundation Fellowship, and an Erwin Schroedinger Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund.

President-Elect Joe Biden Could Give Everyone Medicare by Himself (Without Congress)

The powers of the American presidency have become incredibly vast. A good president could significantly improve the healthcare system by themselves, without congressional interference, improving millions of lives in the process.

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The people of Libby, Montana, population 2,628, share something in common with the rest of the developed world, but not their compatriots in the United States. They all have access to a single-payer, Medicare-for-All system.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, the residents of Libby, who were exposed to hazardous airborne asbestos from a vermiculite mine owned by the W.R. Grace Company, were made eligible for Medicare, for free, at the discretion of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It was codified in Section 1881A of the Social Security Act. The language of the statute refers to any individuals subject to an “environmental exposure,” though it was well understood at the time that this was about Libby.

The fact that the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, hailed from Montana played no small part in creating Medicare for All Libbyians. But the principle was solid. Through no fault of their own, these residents were subject to a dangerous environmental hazard that would trigger long-term medical complications. The government considered it only right to pick up the exorbitant health care costs for these individuals.

There’s an environmental health hazard spreading through the entire country right now. It’s infecting people unsuspectingly and killing hundreds of thousands. And using Section 1881A, the incoming Biden administration can give all 11 million people infected with COVID—and if they want to be really aggressive—all Americans who have tested positive for coronavirus the option of free Medicare coverage, immediately.

I do not expect Joe Biden to use this power on Inauguration Day to instantly turn the United States into a single-payer country. But there’s nothing in the law that would appear to prevent him from doing it. This is the larger point. The United States Code doesn’t make for scintillating leisure reading, but buried in it are countless options for a president to help people. And once you start orienting yourself in that fashion, thinking about what you can do under the law rather than what you cannot, the possibilities really open up.

The primary pilot program in Section 1881A is the Libby, Montana program. But the executive branch is also given the authority to establish “optional pilot programs” to any area subject to a public health emergency declaration. The entire United States has been under a public health emergency since January 31, 2020, due to the coronavirus. (It’s possible that the Environmental Protection Agency would have to declare a separate public health emergency under the Superfund law to comply with the statute, but Biden’s EPA administrator could easily do so.) Individuals eligible for Medicare would have to have spent six months in the geographic area subject to the emergency; since the area is “the entire United States,” this should not be a problem, either.

At that point, the individual with exposure to the environmental hazard files an application for Medicare benefits, and receives them if they meet the proper criteria. The statute cites that those eligible for benefits must have a diagnosis of ailments like mesothelioma and other consequences from asbestos exposure. But an addendum at the bottom makes the statute applicable to any individual exposed “to a public health hazard to which an emergency declaration applies, based on such medical conditions, diagnostic standards, and other criteria as the Secretary specifies.” Cutting through the legislation-ese, this means that HHS could create a specific pilot program around COVID-19.

We know that there are going to be specific long-term costs from COVID-19. While we’re still learning about “long-haul” COVID patients, it is possible that they could experience a lifetime of health problems from their infection, whether through severe lung damage, heart failure, or gastrointestinal complications. The cost of managing these difficulties will be high, and probably out of reach for most people. It’s cost-effective to put them on Medicare and ensure that they don’t have to go bankrupt because they were unlucky enough to contract the virus. America did something similar with kidney disease under Richard Nixon and for first responders with respiratory problems after spending time at 9/11 cleanup sites. But unlike those two programs, which required Congressional action, a president invoking Section 1881A could do this through executive action, rather than having to get a new law through Congress.

If you really wanted to push it, you could do what they did in Libby: give Medicare to everyone, whether they showed symptoms or not, based on the potential for an environmental exposure. As long as the runoff from the W.R. Grace mine was still in the air, residents of Libby needed the peace of mind that they would be covered from the health consequences. The entire U.S. public needs that same kind of reassurance in the face of coronavirus.

Yes, Joe Biden ran against a single-payer system in the election. (He did run on free coronavirus treatment for all of those infected, and triggering Section 1881A would do just that. This declaration could also guarantee a free vaccine.) He’s not likely to make the incredibly aggressive move to use COVID as a pretext to give everyone the option for government-run healthcare. That’s just reality.

But it’s also reality that Biden has this option to protect people suffering from coronavirus, and even those afraid to get tested because they know they cannot afford treatment. Furthermore, Section 1881A is the kind of creative policy thinking that’s going to be required of a Biden Administration on day one if it wants to make progress for the American people, especially if Mitch McConnell and the Republicans hold onto the Senate.

Maybe Biden doesn’t want to instantly create Medicare for All. But through a range of laws that vest power in the president, he could seize drug patents to dramatically lower the cost of prescription drugs. He could change bad Obamacare rules that cost low-income families using the exchanges roughly $2 billion every year. He could do all kinds of things laid out in the Day One Agenda that would have tangible and enduring benefits for people. 

Since 1789, the legislative branch has been placing a set of powerful authorities in the president’s lap. It does not violate any notion of our system of government for the president to look for creative ways to use those authorities; in fact, it’s the very job description of the chief executive. If President-elect Biden wants to respond to the tragedy of coronavirus by giving millions of people public health care, he could.

U.S. Hospitals Charging Patients Up to 1800% More for Services Than They Cost

The American system has produced some incredible medical advances, but it is reasons like these absurdly high costs that make it largely such a catastrophe.

Hospitals in the United States charge patients as much as 1,800% more than their costs amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study.

The 100 most expensive hospitals in the United States charge between $1,129 and $1,808 for every $100 of their costs, according to a study by National Nurses United, the largest nurses union in the country.

Overall, hospitals across the US charge an average of $417 for every $100 of their costs. The average markup has more than doubled over the past two decades, according to the report.

The markups have resulted in hospital profits skyrocketing by 411% from 1999 to 2017, hitting a record $88 billion.

“The rise in charges coincides with growing hospital mergers and acquisitions by large systems,” the union said in a news release. “The result is increased market consolidation, which leads to higher profits and increased charges, not savings for patients as hospital systems often claim.”

Medical workers worry that high costs will increase the number of people avoiding medical care.

“There is no excuse for these scandalous prices. These are not markups for luxury condo views, they are for the most basic necessity of your life: your health,” nurse Jean Ross, the president of the union, said in a statement. “Unpayable charges are a calamity for our patients, too many of whom avoid— at great risk to their health — the medical care they need due to the high cost, or they become burdened by devastating debt, hounded by bill collectors or driven into bankruptcy.”

The union warned that “high hospital charges also drive up Covid-19 treatment costs.”

A study by the health care data nonprofit FAIR Health in the spring found that uninsured coronavirus patients or those that receive care considered out-of-network by their insurer face costs ranging from $42,486 to $74,310 if they require inpatient hospital treatment.

A survey by the health care research group the Commonwealth Fund also found that more than two-thirds of Americans say that “potential out-of-pocket costs would be very or somewhat important in their decision to seek care if they had symptoms of the coronavirus.”

While insurers often negotiate prices with hospitals, uninsured patients have little recourse. And as with other health care and coronavirus-related disparities, people of color are disproportionately impacted. Latinos are nearly three times as likely and Black people are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured than white Americans, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The National Nurses United report argued that the findings further make the case for a Medicare for All system because Medicare is the “most effective” system to limit price gouging.

“The most viable solution to slowing the growth in hospital charges and the continued inflation of hospital prices, is to bring all health care purchasers together, under a public, nationwide single-payer plan,” the report said.

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, found that hospitals charged private insurers an average of 2.4 times more than Medicare rates.

“Nurses know that the best way to rein in these outrageous charges that create such grievous harm for our patients is with Medicare for All, as other countries have proven,” said Ross, the union president. “Medicare for All will not only guarantee health care coverage for every person in the United States, it will end medical bankruptcies, medical debt lawsuits, and the health insecurity faced by millions who make painful choices every day about whether to seek the care they desperately need.”

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A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this year found that 34% of health care expenditures go toward administrative costs alone. The US spent about $2,497 per person on administrative costs in 2017, compared to $551 per person in Canada, which has a single-payer system. Switching to a single-payer system would drive down health care costs by $600 billion on administrative costs alone, according to the analysis.

“Americans spend twice as much per person as Canadians on health care. But instead of buying better care, that extra spending buys us sky-high profits and useless paperwork,” lead author Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, said in a statement.

Another study published in The Lancet earlier this year found that Medicare for All would save the country about $450 billion per year while preventing more than 68,000 unnecessary deaths annually.

Lead researcher Dr. Alison Galvani, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis at Yale University, argued that Biden’s proposal to essentially expand Obamacare could actually increase costs compared to the Medicare for All plan that the president-elect decried during the primaries as too costly.

“Without the savings to overhead, pharmaceutical costs, hospital/clinical fees, and fraud detection, ‘Medicare for all who want it’ could annually cost $175 billion dollars more than status quo,” she told Newsweek. “That’s over $600 billion more than Medicare for all.”

An analysis published in PLOS Medicine of 22 single-payer studies showed that 19 of them “predicted net savings … in the first year of program operation and 20 … predicted savings over several years; anticipated growth rates would result in long-term net savings for all plans.”

Critics have argued that reducing costs by switching to a single-payer system would result in doctor shortages and the rationing of health care. But data shows that fewer than 1% of doctors have opted out of the existing Medicare and Medicaid programs, with nearly half of those being psychiatrists. Single-payer proponents also dismiss rationing claims, arguing that Americans are already effectively self-rationing due to sky-high costs, even for those with private insurance.

A Federal Reserve survey published last year found that about 25% of American “adults skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.” Another survey found that 26% of Americans with diabetes have rationed their insulin, primarily due to the cost.

“It would be a missed opportunity for America to ignore lessons about universal coverage from other countries out of a fear that they ration health care more than we do,” researchers at the Commonwealth Fund warned in a report last year. “In reality, more people in the U.S. forgo needed health care because access to care is rationed through lack of access to adequate insurance or unaffordable services and treatments.”