Major Progress Made Towards Developing Quantum Computers

Quantum computers will have a significant effect on society when researchers complete developmental advances on them. They will have the ability to improve the design of pharmaceutical drugs, increase the power of artificial intelligence, increase the accuracy of predicting weather patterns, and do other things such as improve the analysis of data.

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A team of physicists from the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms and other universities has developed a special type of quantum computer known as a programmable quantum simulator capable of operating with 256 quantum bits, or “qubits.”

The system marks a major step toward building large-scale quantum machines that could be used to shed light on a host of complex quantum processes and eventually help bring about real-world breakthroughs in material science, communication technologies, finance, and many other fields, overcoming research hurdles that are beyond the capabilities of even the fastest supercomputers today. Qubits are the fundamental building blocks on which quantum computers run and the source of their massive processing power.

“This moves the field into a new domain where no one has ever been to thus far,” said Mikhail Lukin, the George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Physics, co-director of the Harvard Quantum Initiative, and one of the senior authors of the study published today in the journal Nature. “We are entering a completely new part of the quantum world.”

According to Sepehr Ebadi, a physics student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the study’s lead author, it is the combination of system’s unprecedented size and programmability that puts it at the cutting edge of the race for a quantum computer, which harnesses the mysterious properties of matter at extremely small scales to greatly advance processing power. Under the right circumstances, the increase in qubits means the system can store and process exponentially more information than the classical bits on which standard computers run.

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“Our work is part of a really intense, high-visibility global race to build bigger and better quantum computers,” said Tout Wang, a research associate in physics at Harvard and one of the paper’s authors. “The overall effort [beyond our own] has top academic research institutions involved and major private-sector investment from Google, IBM, Amazon, and many others.”

The researchers are currently working to improve the system by improving laser control over qubits and making the system more programmable. They are also actively exploring how the system can be used for new applications, ranging from probing exotic forms of quantum matter to solving challenging real-world problems that can be naturally encoded on the qubits.

Eating Fruits and Vegetables Linked to Less Stress

Too much stress has a detrimental effect on one’s health.

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Eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is associated with less stress, according to new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU).

The study examined the link between fruit and vegetable intake and stress levels of more than 8,600 Australians aged between 25 and 91 participating in the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle (AusDiab) Study from Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

The findings revealed people who ate at least 470 grams of fruit and vegetables daily had 10 per cent lower stress levels than those who consumed less than 230 grams. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least 400 grams of fruit and vegetables per day.

Lead researcher, PhD candidate Simone Radavelli-Bagatini from ECU’s Institute for Nutrition Research, said the study strengthens the link between diets rich in fruit and vegetables and mental wellbeing.

“We found that people who have higher fruit and veggie intakes are less stressed than those with lower intakes, which suggests diet plays a key role in mental wellbeing,” said Ms Radavelli-Bagatini.

A growing issue

Mental health conditions are an increasing problem in Australia and around the world. Around one in two Australians will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. Globally, approximately 1 in 10 people live with a mental health disorder.

According to Ms Radavelli-Bagatini, some stress is considered normal, but long-term exposure can significantly impact mental health.

“Long-term and unmanaged stress can lead to a range of health problems including heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety so we need to find ways to prevent and possibly alleviate mental health problems in the future,” said Ms Radavelli-Bagatini.

The benefits of a healthy diet are well known, but only 1 in 2 Australians eat the recommended two serves of fruit per day and fewer than 1 in 10 eat the recommended five serves of vegetables each day.

“Previous studies have shown the link between fruit and vegetable consumption and stress in younger adults, but this is the first time we’re seeing similar results across adults of all ages,” said Ms Radavelli-Bagatini.

“The study’s findings emphasise that it’s important for people to have a diet rich in fruit and vegetables to potentially minimise stress.”

Food and mood

While the mechanisms behind how fruit and vegetable consumption influences stress are still unclear, Ms Radavelli-Bagatini said key nutrients could be a factor.

“Vegetables and fruits contain important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and carotenoids that can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, and therefore improve mental wellbeing,” she said.

“Inflammation and oxidative stress in the body are recognised factors that can lead to increased stress, anxiety and lower mood.”

“These findings encourage more research into diet and specifically what fruits and vegetables provide the most benefits for mental health.”

The research is part of ECU’s recently launched Institute for Nutrition Research, which aims to investigate how nutrition can help prevent and treat chronic health conditions.

‘Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespan’ was published in Clinical Nutrition.

Experimental Drug Has Potential Against Alzheimer’s Disease

The drug reversed Alzheimer’s in mice through removing garbage from their brain cells. The research seems like a notable milestone against Alzheimer’s disease.

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Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have designed an experimental drug that reversed key symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in mice. The drug works by reinvigorating a cellular cleaning mechanism that gets rid of unwanted proteins by digesting and recycling them. The study was published online today in the journal Cell.

“Discoveries in mice don’t always translate to humans, especially in Alzheimer’s disease,” said co-study leader Ana Maria Cuervo, M.D., Ph.D., the Robert and Renée Belfer Chair for the Study of Neurodegenerative Diseases, professor of developmental and molecular biology, and co-director of the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein. “But we were encouraged to find in our study that the drop-off in cellular cleaning that contributes to Alzheimer’s in mice also occurs in people with the disease, suggesting that our drug may also work in humans.” In the 1990s, Dr. Cuervo discovered the existence of this cell-cleaning process, known as chaperone-mediated autophagy (CMA) and has published 200 papers on its role in health and disease.

CMA becomes less efficient as people age, increasing the risk that unwanted proteins will accumulate into insoluble clumps that damage cells. In fact, Alzheimer’s and all other neurodegenerative diseases are characterized by the presence of toxic protein aggregates in patients’ brains. The Cell paper reveals a dynamic interplay between CMA and Alzheimer’s disease, with loss of CMA in neurons contributing to Alzheimer’s and vice versa. The findings suggest that drugs for revving up CMA may offer hope for treating neurodegenerative diseases.

Establishing CMA’s Link to Alzheimer’s

Dr. Cuervo’s team first looked at whether impaired CMA contributes to Alzheimer’s. To do so, they genetically engineered a mouse to have excitatory brain neurons that lacked CMA. The absence of CMA in one type of brain cell was enough to cause short-term memory loss, impaired walking, and other problems often found in rodent models of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the absence of CMA profoundly disrupted proteostasis — the cells’ ability to regulate the proteins they contain. Normally soluble proteins had shifted to being insoluble and at risk for clumping into toxic aggregates.

Dr. Cuervo suspected the converse was also true: that early Alzheimer’s impairs CMA. So she and her colleagues studied a mouse model of early Alzheimer’s in which brain neurons were made to produce defective copies of the protein tau. Evidence indicates that abnormal copies of tau clump together to form neurofibrillary tangles that contribute to Alzheimer’s. The research team focused on CMA activity within neurons of the hippocampus — the brain region crucial for memory and learning. They found that CMA activity in those neurons was significantly reduced compared to control animals.

What about early Alzheimer’s in people — does it block CMA too? To find out, the researchers looked at single-cell RNA-sequencing data from neurons obtained postmortem from the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and from a comparison group of healthy individuals. The sequencing data revealed CMA’s activity level in patients’ brain tissue. Sure enough, CMA activity was somewhat inhibited in people who had been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, followed by much greater CMA inhibition in the brains of people with advanced Alzheimer’s.

“By the time people reach the age of 70 or 80, CMA activity has usually decreased by about 30% compared to when they were younger,” said Dr. Cuervo. “Most peoples’ brains can compensate for this decline. But if you add neurodegenerative disease to the mix, the effect on the normal protein makeup of brain neurons can be devastating. Our study shows that CMA deficiency interacts synergistically with Alzheimer’s pathology to greatly accelerate disease progression.”

A New Drug Cleans Neurons and Reverses Symptoms

In an encouraging finding, Dr. Cuervo and her team developed a novel drug that shows potential for treating Alzheimer’s. “We know that CMA is capable of digesting defective tau and other proteins,” said Dr. Cuervo. “But the sheer amount of defective protein in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases overwhelms CMA and essentially cripples it. Our drug revitalizes CMA efficiency by boosting levels of a key CMA component.”

In CMA, proteins called chaperones bind to damaged or defective proteins in cells of the body. The chaperones ferry their cargo to the cells’ lysosomes — membrane-bound organelles filled with enzymes, which digest and recycle waste material. To successfully get their cargo into lysosomes, however, chaperones must first “dock” the material onto a protein receptor called LAMP2A that sprouts from the membranes of lysosomes. The more LAMP2A receptors on lysosomes, the greater the level of CMA activity possible. The new drug, called CA, works by increasing the number of those LAMP2A receptors.

“You produce the same amount of LAMP2A receptors throughout life,” said Dr. Cuervo. “But those receptors deteriorate more quickly as you age, so older people tend to have less of them available for delivering unwanted proteins into lysosomes. CA restores LAMP2A to youthful levels, enabling CMA to get rid of tau and other defective proteins so they can’t form those toxic protein clumps.” (Also this month, Dr. Cuervo’s team reported in Nature Communications that, for the first time, they had isolated lysosomes from the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients and observed that reduction in the number of LAMP2 receptors causes loss of CMA in humans, just as it does in animal models of Alzheimer’s.)

The researchers tested CA in two different mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease. In both disease mouse models, oral doses of CA administered over 4 to 6 months led to improvements in memory, depression, and anxiety that made the treated animals resemble or closely resemble healthy, control mice. Walking ability significantly improved in the animal model in which it was a problem. And in brain neurons of both animal models, the drug significantly reduced levels of tau protein and protein clumps compared with untreated animals.

“Importantly, animals in both models were already showing symptoms of disease, and their neurons were clogged with toxic proteins before the drugs were administered,” said Dr. Cuervo. “This means that the drug may help preserve neuron function even in the later stages of disease. We were also very excited that the drug significantly reduced gliosis — the inflammation and scarring of cells surrounding brain neurons. Gliosis is associated with toxic proteins and is known to play a major role in perpetuating and worsening neurodegenerative diseases.”

Treatment with CA did not appear to harm other organs even when given daily for extended periods of time. The drug was designed by Evripidis Gavathiotis, Ph.D.,, professor of biochemistry and of medicine and a co-leader of the study.

Drs. Cuervo and Gavathiotis have teamed up with Life Biosciences of Boston, Mass., to found Selphagy Therapeutics, which is currently developing CA and related compounds for treating Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

The study is titled, “Chaperone-mediated autophagy prevents collapse of the neuronal metastable proteome.” The study’s other co-leader and first author is Mathieu Bourdenx, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cuervo’s lab and also a junior researcher at the Institute of Neurodegenerative Diseases, University of Bordeaux, France. Additional Einstein authors include: Adrián Martín-Segura, Aurora Scrivo, Susmita Kaushik, Ph.D., Inmaculada Tasset, Ph.D., Antonio Diaz and Yves R. Juste.

Study Shows Electrolytes Effective at Preventing Muscle Cramping

The study found that electrolyte-infused water is more effective than plain water.

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If you reach for water when a muscle cramp strikes, you might want to think again. New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has revealed drinking electrolytes instead of pure water can help prevent muscle cramps.

The study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that people who drank electrolyte enhanced water during and after exercise were less susceptible to muscle cramps than those who drank pure water.

Muscle cramps are a common painful condition affecting many people, including around 39 per cent of marathon runners, 52 per cent of rugby players and 60 per cent of cyclists.

Dilution solution

Lead researcher Professor Ken Nosaka, from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences, said the study builds on the evidence that a lack of electrolytes contributes to muscle cramps, not dehydration.

“Many people think dehydration causes muscle cramps and will drink pure water while exercising to prevent cramping,” he said.

“We found that people who solely drink plain water before and after exercise could in fact be making them more prone to cramps.

“This is likely because pure water dilutes the electrolyte concentration in our bodies and doesn’t replace what is lost during sweating.”

When cramp strikes

Professor Nosaka began researching the causes of muscle cramps after regularly suffering from them while playing tennis.

The study involved 10 men who ran on a downhill treadmill in a hot (35ºC) room for 40 to 60 minutes to lose 1.5 to 2 per cent of their body weight through sweat in two conditions.

They drank plain water during and after exercise for one condition and took a water solution containing electrolytes in the other condition.

The participants were given an electrical stimulation on their calves to induce muscle cramp. The lower the frequency of the electrical stimulation required, the more the participant is prone to muscle cramp.

“We found that the electrical frequency required to induce cramp increased when people drank the electrolyte water, but decreased when they consumed plain water,” said Professor Nosaka.

“This indicates that muscles become more prone to cramp by drinking plain water, but more immune to muscle cramp by drinking the electrolyte water.”

Not all water is equal

Electrolytes are minerals including sodium, potassium, magnesium and chloride. They are essential for muscle health and help the body to absorb water.

Oral rehydration solutions contain electrolytes in specific proportions and can be made with water, salt and sugar. They are commonly found in supermarkets and pharmacies.

Professor Nosaka said electrolytes have many benefits for both athletes and the general population.

“Electrolytes are vital to good health — they help the body to absorb water more effectively than plain water and replace essential minerals lost through sweat or illness,” he said.

“People should consider drinking oral rehydration fluids instead of plain water during moderate to intense exercise, when it’s very hot or when you are sick from diarrhoea or vomiting.”

Professor Nosaka is planning further research to find out the optimal amount of electrolytes to prevent muscle cramps as well as how they could help the elderly and pregnant women.

Study of 670,450 American Women Shows Almost Half of Them Are Receiving the Wrong UTI Treatment

Many American healthcare professionals are still prescribing incorrect antibiotics treatments for too long of a duration.

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Across the United States, in both rural and urban settings, most women with private health insurance are receiving inappropriate treatment for their urinary tract infections (UTIs), according to a new study. 

Of the 670,450 women included in this research, all of whom had been diagnosed with uncomplicated UTIs between the ages of 18 and 44, nearly half received the wrong antibiotics and over three quarters were prescribed the medicine for too long. (A UTI is declared ‘uncomplicated’ when the patient has no abnormality or disease that could predispose them to more frequent infections.)

The results are largely consistent from location to location, although patients in more rural settings were more likely to be prescribed antibiotics for longer. 

Over the course of the study, from 2011 to 2015, there was only a slight improvement in proper antibiotic prescriptions based on current clinical guidelines.

“Inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions for uncomplicated urinary tract infections are prevalent and come with serious patient- and society-level consequences,” says epidemiologist Anne Mobley Butler from the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis.

“Our study findings underscore the need for antimicrobial stewardship interventions to improve outpatient antibiotic prescribing, particularly in rural settings.” 

The research was funded in part by several pharmaceutical companies, including Sanofi Pasteur, Pfizer, and Merck. The results were peer-reviewed and fall largely in line with the findings of previous studies, which suggest up to 60 percent of antibiotics prescribed in intensive care units are “unnecessary, inappropriate, or suboptimal”.

Nor is this just a problem in the US. Around the world, UTIs are one of the most common infections leading to emergency room visits. In the United Kingdom, it’s the second most common reason for prescribing antibiotics. 

Not only does taking the wrong antibiotic have worse outcomes for the individual patient, longer prescriptions are not necessarily better and can cause bacteria to grow resistant, making recurrence more likely and future infections harder to treat. 

Today, it’s estimated one in three uncomplicated UTIs in women are resistant to the popular combined antibiotic drug Bactrim (sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim), and one in five are resistant to five other common antibiotics. 

An estimate of the number of deaths related to antibiotic-resistant UTIs is hard to establish due to a lack of research and monitoring, but some studies suggest that in US hospitals alone it could be around 13,000 lives lost per year. And some people suffer recurrent, resistant infections for years on end with little to no relief.

In light of these emerging concerns, in 2010 the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and the European Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases updated their clinical practice guidelines. Based on results from various studies, they now recommend several first-line antibiotic agents and durations to best treat UTIs while minimizing the risk of antibiotic resistance.

That advice, however, is clearly not getting through to physicians and healthcare professionals. Many are still prescribing non-recommended antibiotics for improper durations.

Figuring out where the most inappropriate prescriptions are happening could help us target areas where we need to improve adherence to antibiotic guidelines. In the US, rural areas experience numerous health disparities compared to more urban areas, and yet this is the first large-scale study to evaluate how that impacts UTI treatment.

The authors are not sure why longer antibiotic treatments for UTIs are especially prevalent in rural areas, but suggest it could have to do with access to care and physician awareness. In rural areas, women may be given longer prescriptions to avoid future travel if that treatment fails.

Studies also show late-career physicians are more prevalent in rural locations and are more likely to prescribe antibiotics for longer, possibly because they have not heard of updated guidelines. 

“Accumulating evidence suggests that patients have better outcomes when we change prescribing from broad-acting to narrow-spectrum antibiotics and from longer to shorter durations,” explains Butler.

“Promoting optimal antimicrobial use benefits the patient and society by preventing avoidable adverse events, microbiome disruption, and antibiotic-resistant infections.”

When up to 60 percent of women can suffer from a UTI at some point in their life, it’s clearly vital that guidelines for treatment are better enforced, especially as antibiotic resistance increases.

This particular study was only based on commercially insured individuals, which means those who are uninsured or who receive public insurance were not considered. Rural areas were also loosely defined, including small towns as well as ‘exurbs’ on the edges of urban areas, and men, who also suffer from UTIs (albeit at a lower rate), were not included. 

Future research should focus on filling these gaps, but in the meantime, the trend reinforces the idea that clinicians need to periodically review clinical practice guidelines, even for common conditions that they have been treating for years.

“In recent years, little effective progress has been achieved to reduce inappropriate antibiotic prescribing for uncomplicated UTI,” the new paper concludes

“Given the large quantity of inappropriate prescriptions annually in the United States, as well as the negative patient- and society-level consequences of unnecessary exposure to antibiotics, antimicrobial stewardship interventions are needed to improve outpatient UTI antibiotic prescribing, particularly in rural settings.”

The study was published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

The Good “5 a Day” Mix — 3 Vegetable and 2 Fruit Servings

The study is notable for claiming that only one in ten adults eat enough fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are generally low in calories for the amount of volume one can eat of them and they’re packed with nutrients that can enhance life quality.

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Studies representing nearly 2 million adults worldwide show that eating about five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, in which 2 are fruits and 3 are vegetables, is likely the optimal amount for a longer life, according to new research published today in the American Heart Association’s flagship journal Circulation.

Diets rich in fruits and vegetables help reduce risk for numerous chronic health conditions that are leading causes of death, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Yet, only about one in 10 adults eat enough fruits or vegetables, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“While groups like the American Heart Association recommend four to five servings each of fruits and vegetables daily, consumers likely get inconsistent messages about what defines optimal daily intake of fruits and vegetables such as the recommended amount, and which foods to include and avoid,” said lead study author Dong D. Wang, M.D., Sc.D., an epidemiologist, nutritionist and a member of the medical faculty at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Wang and colleagues analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, two studies including more than 100,000 adults who were followed for up to 30 years. Both datasets included detailed dietary information repeatedly collected every two to four years. For this analysis, researchers also pooled data on fruit and vegetable intake and death from 26 studies that included about 1.9 million participants from 29 countries and territories in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Analysis of all studies, with a composite of more than 2 million participants, revealed:

  • Intake of about five servings of fruits and vegetables daily was associated with the lowest risk of death. Eating more than five servings was not associated with additional benefit.
  • Eating about two servings daily of fruits and three servings daily of vegetables was associated with the greatest longevity.
  • Compared to those who consumed two servings of fruit and vegetables per day, participants who consumed five servings a day of fruits and vegetable had a 13% lower risk of death from all causes; a 12% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke; a 10% lower risk of death from cancer; and a 35% lower risk of death from respiratory disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Not all foods that one might consider to be fruits and vegetables offered the same benefits. For example: Starchy vegetables, such as peas and corn, fruit juices and potatoes were not associated with reduced risk of death from all causes or specific chronic diseases.
  • On the other hand, green leafy vegetables, including spinach, lettuce and kale, and fruit and vegetables rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, berries and carrots, showed benefits.

“Our analysis in the two cohorts of U.S. men and women yielded results similar to those from 26 cohorts around the world, which supports the biological plausibility of our findings and suggests these findings can be applied to broader populations,” Wang said.

Wang said this study identifies an optimal intake level of fruits and vegetables and supports the evidence-based, succinct public health message of ‘5-a-day,’ meaning people should ideally consume five servings of fruit and vegetable each day. “This amount likely offers the most benefit in terms of prevention of major chronic disease and is a relatively achievable intake for the general public,” he said. “We also found that not all fruits and vegetables offer the same degree of benefit, even though current dietary recommendations generally treat all types of fruits and vegetables, including starchy vegetables, fruit juices and potatoes, the same.”

A limitation of the research is that it is observational, showing an association between fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of death; it does not confer a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

“The American Heart Association recommends filling at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal,” said Anne Thorndike, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “This research provides strong evidence for the lifelong benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and suggests a goal amount to consume daily for ideal health. Fruits and vegetables are naturally packaged sources of nutrients that can be included in most meals and snacks, and they are essential for keeping our hearts and bodies healthy.”

Giraffes That Are More Social Live Longer

This study on giraffes might might mean something for human populations too.

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A research team led by Monica Bond, research associate at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies of the University of Zurich (UZH), studied giraffes in Tanzania for five years. The biologists examined the relative effects of sociability, the natural environment, and human factors on survival of the mega-herbivore. They have now shown that adult female giraffes living in larger groups have higher survival chances than more socially isolated individuals.

Gregariousness leads to better survival

Giraffe group formations are dynamic and change throughout the day, but adult females maintain many specific friendships over the long term. “Grouping with more females, called gregariousness, is correlated with better survival of female giraffes, even as group membership is frequently changing,” says Bond. “This aspect of giraffe sociability is even more important than attributes of their non-social environment such as vegetation and nearness to human settlements.”

The benefits of many friends

Aside from poaching, the main causes of adult female giraffe mortality are likely to be disease, stress or malnutrition, all of which are interconnected stressors. “Social relationships can improve foraging efficiency, and help manage intraspecific competition, predation, disease risk and psychosocial stress,” says UZH professor Barbara König, senior author of the study. Female giraffes may seek out and join together with an optimal number of other females in order to share and obtain information about the highest-quality food sources. Other benefits to living in larger groups might be lowering stress levels by reducing harassment from males, cooperating in caring for young, or simply experiencing physiological benefits by being around familiar females. The study also finds that females living closer to towns had lower survival rates, possibly due to poaching.

Social habits similar to humans and primates

The team documented the social behaviors of the wild free-ranging giraffes using network analysis algorithms similar to those used by big-data social media platforms. According to the results, the giraffes are surprisingly similar in their social habits to humans and other primates, for whom greater social connectedness offers more opportunities. Chimpanzees and gorillas, for example, live in communities where ties between many individuals facilitate the flexibility of feeding strategies. “It seems to be beneficial for female giraffes to connect with a greater number of others and develop a sense of larger community, but without a strong sense of exclusive subgroup affiliation,” adds Monica Bond.

Study of a giraffe population in Tanzania

For the past decade the research team has been conducting the largest study to date of a giraffe population. The vast scale of their study area in the Tarangire region of Tanzania spans more than a thousand square kilometers and includes multiple social communities, each with about 60 to 90 adult female members. Thus, the study was able to disentangle individual from community-level influences on survival. The study is also unique in combining social network analysis and modeling of vital rates such as survival in a sample of hundreds of individuals.

Don’t Take Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen Before Receiving a COVID-19 Vaccine

Regardless of what one thinks about the COVID-19 vaccines and the current amount of data on them, everyone reading this will probably know someone that will receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The current evidence suggests that taking drugs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen is one of the worst things people can do before receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines. The human body needs a proper immune response to develop immunity to the virus and the drugs will plausibly interfere with that immune response, very possibly leading to a reduced level of immunity. That reduced level of immunity may lead to a susceptibility to COVID-19 later on.

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Taking OTC pain medications ahead of your shot to try and decrease symptoms is not recommended by the CDC, because it’s not clear how that could affect the vaccine’s effectiveness.

The concern is that pre-treating with pain medications that reduce fevers and inflammation (like acetaminophen and ibuprofen) could dampen your immune system’s response to the vaccine.

That’s because your immune system responds to vaccines through a process called “controlled inflammation,” Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, told USA Today in January.

Covid messenger RNA vaccines work by giving cells genetic material that tells them how to make a non-infectious piece of the virus. The immune system then creates antibodies against it — which is controlled inflammation — and can remember how to trigger an immune response if exposed to the virus in the future.

But OTC pain-relieving medications “reduce the production of inflammatory mediators,” Kelley said. That’s why it’s important to wait until after you’ve gotten the vaccine (and have started creating an inflammatory response already) to take pain medication.

Research on children has shown that those who take acetaminophen before getting vaccines have a lower immune response than those who didn’t. And a recent study out of Yale found that giving mice nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aka “NSAIDS”) before being exposed to SARS-CoV-2 led to fewer protective antibodies from the virus.

The exception is for people who normally take these types of OTC pain medications as part of their routine to manage another medical condition. Those individuals should […] check with their doctor for additional guidance.

People Wrong in Elite Jobs Often Don’t Face Consequences

The issue is a general lack of accountability for financial and political elites that itself often has consequences in society due to the power that elites wield. None of the highest level banking executives were prosecuted after the housing bubble recession and financial crisis of 2008, despite those people being a significant factor in them occurring, and this clearly acted as an incentive for many of the same activities that caused the recession to continue today.

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I just read Nicholas Kristof’s column about his childhood friend Mike Stepp. The piece is actually very moving.

Mr. Stepp grew up next door to Kristof. As he explains in the column, he grew up with an abusive father. Their family didn’t value education, so neither Mike or his brother ever finished high school. While previous generations of workers (white male workers) could work in a factory job without a high school degree, and still enjoy a middle class standard of living, this was no longer a possibility for Mike. As a result, he struggled with periods of unemployment, low-paying jobs, drug addiction, mental health problems, and homelessness. He ended up dying last year at age 55.

Kristof tells us that Mike was a decent intelligent person who was let down by society. As he explains, we took away the opportunities that had existed for a large segment of the workforce, and did nothing to fill in the gaps:

“Witnessing the torment of people I grew up with, like Mike, has led me to conclude that I was wrong in many of my own views. Like many liberals with a university education and a reliable paycheck, I was too scornful of labor unions, too unreservedly enthusiastic about international trade, too glib about “creative destruction,” too heartless about its toll.”

I would strongly agree with the basic thrust of Kristof’s argument, but I want to ask about what happens to all the people like Kristof who now admits, “I was wrong in many of my own views.”

Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a jihad against Kristof who is both honest enough to admit his error and appears to have genuine compassion for the people who have been victimized by our policies of the last four decades. But Kristof is just one of a very long list of public intellectuals who made this same mistake. They openly, and often belligerently, pushed policies that had very serious negative effects for large segments of the population. While others have also come to recognize their mistake, many still don’t, and continue to blame the victims of their policies for the difficulties they face in life.

I am not going to rehash the arguments about the policies here (see my book Rigged [it’s free], if you want my account), rather I want to make a different point about accountability. Failing to recognize that the devastating impact of the economic policies promoted in the last four decades was a very serious mistake. But is anyone anywhere losing their job for it?

There is no shortage of economists, policy types, and columnists (e.g. Kristof’s colleague at the NYT, Thomas Friedman) who have made this mistake. However, the idea that any of them would face serious career consequences for this sort of massive failure is viewed as absurd. Even to suggest it is seen as mean-spirited vindictiveness.

So, we live in a society where the dishwasher can get fired in a minute for breaking the dishes. The same is the case for the custodian that doesn’t clean the toilet. But the highly paid workers at the top of their profession face no career risk from making huge mistakes with massive consequences for society.

Can I hear the story about meritocracy again?

New “Obesity Fighting” Drug That Claims to Cut Body Weight by Up to 20 Percent

People have been looking for weight loss in a pill for ages. The issue is whether this drug will have any major side effects on certain people, and if it does, whether those side effects are worth the benefits of weight loss. The natural way to lose weight is to simply burn more calories than you consume, thus entering what’s known as a caloric deficit. The importance of “calories in, calories out,” is not emphasized enough in our systems of education, and it is a massive detriment to the population that that’s the case. In the trial, one of the people began gaining weight after the administration of the drug stopped, and that shows how losing weight remains an issue to address outside of medically-supervised drug usage. Additionally, I have to question how much of the weight loss was from the drug when the participants of the trial were also supposedly eating less and doing more exercise.

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The drug – semaglutide – hijacks the body’s appetite regulating system in the brain, leading to reduced hunger and calorie intake.

Rachel Batterham, professor of obesity, diabetes and endocrinology who leads the Centre for Obesity Research at UCL and the UCLH Centre for Weight Management, said: “The findings of this study represent a major breakthrough for improving the health of people with obesity.

“Three quarters (75%) of people who received semaglutide 2.4mg lost more than 10% of their body weight and more than one-third lost more than 20%.

The professor, who is one of the principal authors on the paper, added: “No other drug has come close to producing this level of weight loss – this really is a game-changer.

“For the first time, people can achieve through drugs what was only possible through weight-loss surgery.”

The drug will soon be submitted for regulatory approval as a treatment for obesity to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As well as the drug, participants received individual face-to-face or phone counselling sessions from registered dietitians every four weeks to help them adhere to the reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity.

They also received incentives such as kettle bells or food scales to mark progress and milestones.

A placebo group observed an average weight loss of 2.6kg (0.4 stone) with a reduction in BMI of minus 0.92.

Semaglutide is clinically approved to be used for patients with type 2 diabetes, but they are prescribed a lower dose.

The American Minimum Wage Would Be $24 an Hour Today If It Had Kept Pace With Productivity

A world where full-time minimum wage workers are earning $60,000 a year (at a $30 an hour wage) would be far different. A full-time minimum wage worker earns only $14,500 a year at a $7.25 an hour wage.

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President Biden has proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. This has led to the predictable cries of economic disaster from business organizations and right-wingers more generally.

The standard argument against raising the minimum wage is not supported by the evidence.

We now have considerable experience with state and local governments having substantial increases in their minimum wages. Several cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, already have a $15 an hour minimum wage. California’s statewide minimum wage is now at $14 an hour and is scheduled to hit $15 an hour for mid-size and large employers next year and all employers in 2023.

Dozens of economists have carefully analyzed these minimum wage hikes. To the surprise of many, including me, there is no evidence that these minimum wage increases have led to job loss. Instead, they have resulted in substantial improvements in living standards for millions of low-wage workers.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that no businesses have reduced employment or possibly even gone out of business due to higher minimum wages. Small businesses are always struggling, and many close every day of the week. Any additional expense can be a burden, whether it is higher rent, the electric bill, or the minimum wage, but that is how the economy works.

We want to run the economy in a manner that ensures that workers can earn a decent living. We don’t have a responsibility to ensure that businesses can survive by paying their workers very low wages.

And again, the research indicates that when one business is cutting back employment or shutting its doors because of a minimum wage hike, another is opening or expanding employment. Economists have looked hard for evidence of job loss from these minimum wage hikes and have generally been unable to find it.

The federal minimum wage currently stands at $7.25 an hour.  It hasn’t been raised for 12 years, the longest period without a hike since the national minimum wage was first established in 1938. That translates into an annual income of $14,500 for a full-time worker. That’s not far above the poverty line for a single person and well below the poverty line of $21,720 for a family of three.

Economists often point out that If the minimum wage had simply kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be over $12 an hour today and around $13.50 by 2025. The unemployment rate that year averaged 3.6 percent when the minimum wage was at its inflation adjusted peak value, so it did not seem to be causing unemployment then.

But this is an incredibly low bar. Setting the 1968 level as a benchmark would mean that minimum wage workers would be seeing no increase in their standard of living over a nearly 60-year period.

In the 30-year period — from when the minimum wage was established in 1938 to 1968 — the minimum wage rose in step with productivity. This meant that low-wage workers shared in the gains as the economy grew more productive and people were able to enjoy higher standards of living.

If the minimum wage had continued to rise in step with productivity growth, it would have been $24 an hour last year. By 2025 it would be close to $30 an hour, roughly twice the level that President Biden targets in his proposal. In that scenario, a full-time minimum wage worker would be earning $60,000 a year.

To be clear, raising the minimum wage to $30 an hour in 2025 would almost certainly lead to serious job loss. We have made many changes to the economy that have been designed to redistribute income upward, such as rules on patents and trade policy. Unless we reversed these policies, the economy would be unable to support a minimum wage anywhere near $30 an hour.

Nonetheless, the $30 an hour minimum wage can be a useful benchmark. It is what workers at the bottom would be earning in 2025 if we had kept the policies that we had in place over the three decades from 1938-1968.

In this context, a $15 minimum wage in 2025 can be recognized as a very modest target that will nonetheless provide enormous benefits for tens of millions of workers and their families. We really need to do it.  

Teaching Young Students Empathy Improves Their Creativity, University of Cambridge Finds

Having students become more skilled at looking at things from different perspectives may be what drove the increase in their creativity. The power of enhanced creativity can obviously be leveraged in many fields to boost levels of success.

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Teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathise with others measurably improves their creativity, and could potentially lead to several other beneficial learning outcomes, new research suggests.

The findings are from a year-long University of Cambridge study with Design and Technology (D&T) year 9 pupils (ages 13 to 14) at two inner London schools. Pupils at one school spent the year following curriculum-prescribed lessons, while the other group’s D&T lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools which aim to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.

Both sets of pupils were assessed for creativity at both the start and end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking: a well-established psychometric test.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the thinking tools were used. At the start of the year, the creativity scores of pupils in the control school, which followed the standard curriculum, were 11% higher than those at the intervention school. By the end, however, the situation had completely changed: creativity scores among the intervention group were 78% higher than the control group.

The researchers also examined specific categories within the Torrance Test that are indicative of emotional or cognitive empathy: such as ’emotional expressiveness’ and ‘open-mindedness’. Pupils from the intervention school again scored much higher in these categories, indicating that a marked improvement in empathy was driving the overall creativity scores.

The study’s authors suggest that encouraging empathy not only improves creativity, but can deepen pupils’ general engagement with learning. Notably, they found evidence that boys and girls in the intervention school responded to the D&T course in ways that defied traditional gender stereotypes. Boys showed a marked improvement in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher in that category at the end of the year than at the start, while girls improved more in terms of cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking.

The research is part of a long-term collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge called ‘Designing Our Tomorrow’ (DOT), led by Bill Nicholl and Ian Hosking. It challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

The particular challenge used in the study asked pupils at the intervention school to design an asthma-treatment ‘pack’ for children aged six and under. Pupils were given various creative and empathetic ‘tools’ in order to do so: for example, they were shown data about the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK, and a video which depicts a young child having an attack. They also explored the problem and tested their design ideas by role-playing various stakeholders, for example, patients, family-members, and medical staff.

Nicholl, Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education, who trains teachers studying on the University’s D&T PGCE course, said: “Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.”

Dr Helen Demetriou, an affiliated lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education with a particular interest in empathy, and the other researcher involved in the study, said: “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so we support the development of children’s creativity, and their wider learning.”

The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the barriers to learning that assumed gender roles often create. For example, boys often feel discouraged from expressing emotion at school, yet this was one of the main areas where they made significant creative gains according to the tests.

In addition to the Torrance Tests, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with pupils at both the intervention school and a third (girls-only) school who also undertook the asthma challenge. This feedback again suggested that pupils had empathised deeply with the challenges faced by young asthma-sufferers, and that this had influenced their creative decisions in the classroom.

Many, for example, used phrases such as ‘stepping into their shoes’ or ‘seeing things from another point of view’ when discussing patients and their families. One boy told the researchers: “I think by the end of the project I could feel for the people with asthma… if I was a child taking inhalers, I would be scared too.”

Another responded: “Let’s say you had a sister or brother in that position. I would like to do something like this so we can help them.”

Overall, the authors suggest that these findings point to a need to nurture ’emotionally intelligent learners’ not only in D&T classes, but across subjects, particularly in the context of emerging, wider scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines as we get older.

“This is something that we must think about as curricula in general become increasingly exam-based,” Demetriou said. “Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative and empathic individuals matter too.”

Nicholl added: “When I taught Design and Technology, I didn’t see children as potential engineers who would one day contribute to the economy; they were people who needed to be ready to go into the world at 18. Teaching children to empathise is about building a society where we appreciate each other’s perspectives. Surely that is something we want education to do.”

The study is published in the journal, Improving Schools.