More Devastating Tornadoes Likely Linked With the Climate Crisis

Climate change (some have plausibly enough recommended it be called the climate emergency or climate crisis due to the devastation it could bring in the not too distant future) has quite likely caused an increase in the severity and even prevalence of tornadoes.

As the death toll in Oklahoma rose to six Monday amid an outbreak of nearly 200 tornadoes across the Midwest in recent days—as well as in areas far less accustomed to them—climate scientists said such patterns may carry warnings about the climate crisis and its many implications for extreme weather events.

In Oklahoma, tornadoes touched down in at least two cities, including El Reno and Sapulpa, over the weekend, injuring dozens and leveling a number of homes. The tornado that hit El Reno, a suburb of Oklahoma City, was given an EF3 rating, with wind speeds up to 165 miles per hour. Only about five percent of tornadoes are given an EF3 rating or higher.

The tornadoes hit after much of the state endured severe flooding last week, following powerful storms that overflowed the Arkansas River and damaged about 1,000 homes.

Outside the Midwest, at least one twister touched down near Washington, D.C., with reports of tornadoes in Texas and Colorado, and Chicago facing a tornado watch on Monday.

While tornadoes have long been a fixture in the Midwest, meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted last week that there is “reason to believe major outbreak days…are getting worse,” while climate scientists are examining links between the storms and the climate crisis.

The so-called “Tornado Alley,” which covers parts of Texas and Kansas as well as Oklahoma, appears to be growing, according to a study published in Nature last year—making tornadoes more frequent in states that rarely saw them previously including Arkansas, Mississippi, and eastern Missouri.

“What all the studies have shown is that this particular part of the U.S. has been having more tornado activity and more tornado outbreaks than it has had in decades before,” Mike Tippett, a mathematician who studies the climate at Columbia University told PBS Newshour earlier this year.

As the Kansas City Star reported on Sunday, scientists believe the warming of the globe—fueled by human activities like fossil fuel extraction—is contributing to higher amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere, causing heavier rainfalls which can spawn tornadoes.

The increase in destructive tornadoes across wider swaths of the country than in previous decades “may be suggestive of climate change effects,” Purdue University researcher Ernest Agee told the Star.

And the unusual occurrence of tornadoes in far more densely-populated areas than those that frequently see such weather events has led to concerns that tornadoes will become more deadly and destructive than they’ve been in the past.

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People Can Taste Flavor With Smell Receptors, Not Just Taste Ones

According to the latest research, the flavor of food is also a result of cell receptors associated with smelling things.

Scientists from the Monell Center report that functional olfactory receptors, the sensors that detect odors in the nose, are also present in human taste cells found on the tongue. The findings suggest that interactions between the senses of smell and taste, the primary components of food flavor, may begin on the tongue and not in the brain, as previously thought.

“Our research may help explain how odor molecules modulate taste perception,” said study senior author Mehmet Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD, MPH, a cell biologist at Monell. “This may lead to the development of odor-based taste modifiers that can help combat the excess salt, sugar, and fat intake associated with diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes.”

While many people equate flavor with taste, the distinctive flavor of most foods and drinks comes more from smell than it does from taste. Taste, which detects sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) molecules on the tongue, evolved as a gatekeeper to evaluate the nutrient value and potential toxicity of what we put in our mouths. Smell provides detailed information about the quality of food flavor, for example, is that banana, licorice, or cherry? The brain combines input from taste, smell, and other senses to create the multi-modal sensation of flavor.

Until now, taste and smell were considered to be independent sensory systems that did not interact until their respective information reached the brain. Ozdener was prompted to challenge this belief when his 12-year-old son asked him if snakes extend their tongues so they can smell.

In the study, published online ahead of print in Chemical Senses, Ozdener and colleagues used methods developed at Monell to maintain living human taste cells in culture. Using genetic and biochemical methods to probe the taste cell cultures, the researchers found that the human taste cells contain many key molecules known to be present in olfactory receptors.

They next used a method known as calcium imaging to show that the cultured taste cells respond to odor molecules in a manner similar to olfactory receptor cells.

Together, the findings provide the first demonstration of functional olfactory receptors in human taste cells, suggesting that olfactory receptors may play a role in the taste system by interacting with taste receptor cells on the tongue. Supporting this possibility, other experiments by the Monell scientists demonstrated that a single taste cell can contain both taste and olfactory receptors.

“The presence of olfactory receptors and taste receptors in the same cell will provide us with exciting opportunities to study interactions between odor and taste stimuli on the tongue,” said Ozdener.

In addition to providing insight into the nature and mechanisms of smell and taste interactions, the findings also may provide a tool to increase understanding of how the olfactory system detects odors. Scientists still do not know what molecules activate the vast majority of the 400 different types of functional human olfactory receptors.

Gratitude in the Workplace Improves Employee Health

It turns out that making people feel valued goes a long way.

If you knew that expressing gratitude to a colleague would improve their life and yours, would you do it more often?

A new study by Portland State University researchers — business professor David Cadiz, psychology professor Cynthia Mohr, and Alicia Starkey, a recent Ph.D. graduate in psychology — together with Clemson State University professor Robert Sinclair, exhibits a positive relationship between expressed workplace gratitude, physical health and mental health.

The study, “Gratitude reception and physical health: Examining the mediating role of satisfaction with patient care in a sample of acute care nurses,” shows that being thanked more often at work predicted better sleep, fewer headaches and healthier eating, because it improved nurses’ work satisfaction.

Improving Self-Care in a Stressful Work Environment

The study involved a group of Oregon nurses, a profession that has a particularly high rate of burnout. Cadiz discusses the findings and how applying the research can have a significant impact on quality of life and job retention by preventing stress-related illnesses and disease.

“Nurses tend to have a thankless job. It’s very physical, and they’re often being screamed at by patients who are at their lowest. When nurses receive gratitude, it boosts them,” Cadiz explains.

“This type of study helps us understand how to keep nurses in the workforce in a healthy way. Nurses strongly align their profession with their identity and often look out for patients more than themselves. The gratitude matches up with their identity, gives them satisfaction in a job well done and ultimately increases self-care.”

Many people inherently connect their identity to their job and feelings of appreciation within their roles. Employers who understand and react to this can create positive social and economic change.

Gratitude is Good Business

From an organizational, policy and leadership perspective, Cadiz says that employers should create formal or informal opportunities for people to express gratitude. Including gratitude in a business plan is an essential step that many business leaders miss, and that omission can have financial consequences.

“Employees that receive positive feedback are healthier, and that can impact the bottom line,” adds Cadiz. “Preventing headaches and other stress-related symptoms means fewer sick days, and, in this case, cuts down the cost of replacement nurses and overtime pay.”

These small changes can have a dramatic fiscal impact over time, which can result in more staff, better pay rates and increased benefits.

The big takeaway — express gratitude when you see someone doing a good job. A positive feedback loop impacts you and those around you, and can ultimately shape a healthier and happier community.

Some Drug Company Executives Criminally Charged in America’s Flawed Democracy

A major producer of opioids known as the Rochester Drug Cooperative has recently witnessed its executives criminally charged with illegally distributing controlled substances. With the prosecution of corporate criminals at a 20 year low in America, amidst a major wave of corporate crime — crime in the suites instead of crime in the streets — it is a notable development during the despair-ridden opioid crisis.

Much of this opioid crisis is attributable to the patent monopolies on prescription drugs, which enable American pharmaceutical companies to charge ridiculously high prices. A patent monopoly on a drug legally prevents competitors from producing or selling that drug, and the lack of governmental negotiation to rein in prices allows pharmaceutical companies to charge to a large extent whatever they want. Purdue Pharma would have had nowhere near as much incentive to market Oxycontin if it was sold at generic prices, but since they had a tremendous incentive, many communities have suffered as a result of the addictive drug.

The case of patent monopolies on prescription drugs such as Oxycontin is another example of the government using its power in a way that’s overall against the public interest. The government is not necessarily an evil or inefficient entity, as people sometimes believe or that propaganda might suggest. There is plenty of evidence that structured properly, the government can be a force for the common good — government-run programs such as Medicare and Social Security remain popular because they work well. The administrative overhead on Medicare is about 2 percent, while the administrative overhead on corporate health insurance is often 12 to 20 percent.

It is beneficial for much of the corporate sector if the public automatically despises the government and doesn’t pressure for public interest control of it. Unlike the corporate sector, where the boards of directors (those who run the corporations) are largely determined by top management, in a undemocratic process where one share of the corporation equates to one vote in the board of directors election, there is a built-in democratic process in the government. This built-in process of one person (rather than one share) and one vote may currently be quite dysfunctional, but it is a mechanism of democratic values nonetheless, and one of the things to be strengthened for an improved society.

About every year at least, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists meets to discuss the most significant threats to human societies, and if necessary they adjust their famous Doomsday Clock. The Doomsday Clock measures the probability of major catastrophe by the minute hand’s closeness to midnight, and it is now 2 minutes to midnight, the closest it has ever been since 1953, when America and Russia detonated thermonuclear weapons. In 2019, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists added a third major problem to climate change and the potential of nuclear war — the breakdown of and threats to democracy. This is significant because lively and functioning democracy offers perhaps the only way to solve many of the world’s most serious problems.

Activism that is deservedly popular (and therefore democracy-based, or majority supported) is very often how things change for the better, from worker’s rights to new government programs and movements producing a beneficial change in public consciousness. Instead of only examining problems, it’s necessary to remember that to achieve progress.

Just 20 Minutes in Nature Reduces Stress Levels

A good prescription for a stressed out society.

Taking at least twenty minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels. That’s the finding of a study that has established for the first time the most effective dose of an urban nature experience. Healthcare practitioners can use this discovery, published in Frontiers in Psychology, to prescribe ‘nature-pills’ in the knowledge that they have a real measurable effect.

“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

A free and natural stress-relieving remedy

Nature pills could be a low-cost solution to reduce the negative health impacts stemming from growing urbanization and indoor lifestyles dominated by screen viewing. To assist healthcare practitioners looking for evidence-based guidelines on what exactly to dispense, Hunter and her colleagues designed an experiment that would give a realistic estimate of an effective dose.

Over an 8-week period, participants were asked to take a nature pill with a duration of 10 minutes or more, at least 3 times a week. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were measured from saliva samples taken before and after a nature pill, once every two weeks.

“Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature. There were a few constraints to minimize factors known to influence stress: take the nature pill in daylight, no aerobic exercise, and avoid the use of social media, internet, phone calls, conversations and reading,” Hunter explains.

She continues, “Building personal flexibility into the experiment, allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken, and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling.”

To make allowances for busy lifestyles, while also providing meaningful results, the experimental design was novel in other aspects too.

“We accommodated day to day differences in a participant’s stress status by collecting four snapshots of cortisol change due to a nature pill,” says Hunter. “It also allowed us to identify and account for the impact of the ongoing, natural drop in cortisol level as the day goes on, making the estimate of effective duration more reliable.”

Nature will nurture

The data revealed that just a twenty-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. But if you spent a little more time immersed in a nature experience, 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at their greatest rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up but at a slower rate.

“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription,” says Hunter. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”

Hunter hopes this study will form the basis of further research in this area.

“Our experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability and culture influences the effectiveness of nature experiences on well-being. This will allow customized nature pill prescriptions, as well as a deeper insight on how to design cities and wellbeing programs for the public.”

Using Chronoprinting to Cheaply Detect Food and Drug Impurities

The world has long needed this valuable sort of development to safeguard people’s health.

If we could tell authentic from counterfeit or adulterated drugs and foods just by looking at them, we could save money and lives every year, especially in the developing world, where the problem is worst. Unfortunately, the technologies that can detect what a sample is made of are expensive, energy-intensive, and largely unavailable in regions where they are needed most.

This may change with a simple new technique developed by engineers from the University of California, Riverside that can detect fake drugs from a video taken as the sample undergoes a disturbance.

If you’ve ever used online photo tools, you’ve probably seen how these tools use image analysis algorithms to categorize your photos. By distinguishing the different people in your photos, these algorithms make it easy to find all the photos of your daughter or your dad. Now, in the journal ACS Central Science, researchers report they have used these algorithms to solve a very different problem: identifying fake medicines and other potentially dangerous products.

Called “chronoprinting,” the technology requires only a few relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment and free software to accurately distinguish pure from inferior food and medicines.

The World Health Organization says that about 10 percent of all medicines in low- and middle-income countries are counterfeit, and food fraud is a global problem that costs consumers and industry billions of dollars per year. Fraudulent food and drugs waste money and jeopardize the health and lives of their consumers. But detecting fakes and frauds requires expensive equipment and highly trained experts.

William Grover, an assistant professor of bioengineering in UC Riverside’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering, and Brittney McKenzie, a doctoral student in Grover’s lab, wondered if it would be possible to distinguish authentic from adulterated drugs and food by observing how they behave when disturbed by temperature changes or other causes. Two substances with identical compositions should respond the same way to a disturbance, and if two substances appear identical but respond differently, their composition must be different, they reasoned.

McKenzie designed a set of experiments to test this idea. She loaded samples of pure olive oil, one of the world’s most commonly adulterated foods, and cough syrup, which is often diluted or counterfeited in the developing world, into tiny channels on a microfluidic chip, and chilled it quickly in liquid nitrogen. A USB microscope camera filmed the samples reacting to the temperature change.

McKenzie and Grover wrote software that converts the video to a bitmap image. Because the image showed how the sample changed over time, the researchers called it a “chronoprint.”

The team then used image analysis algorithms to compare different chronoprints from the same substance. They found that each pure substance had a reliable chronoprint over multiple tests.

Next, they repeated the experiment with samples of olive oil that had been diluted with other oils and cough syrup diluted with water. The adulterated samples produced chronoprints that were different from the pure samples. The difference was so big, so obvious, and so consistent the researchers concluded that chronoprints and image analysis algorithms can reliably detect some types of food and drug fraud.

“The significant visual differences between the samples were both unexpected and exciting, and with them being consistent we knew this could be a useful way to identify a wide range of samples,” McKenzie said.

Grover said their technique creates a powerful new connection between chemistry and computer science.

“By basically converting a chemical sample to an image, we can take advantage of all the different image analysis algorithms that computer scientists have developed,” he said. “And as those algorithms get better, our ability to chemically identify a sample should get better, too.”

The researchers used liquids in their experiments but note the method could also be used on solid materials dissolved in water, and other types of disturbance, such as heat or a centrifuge, could be used for substances that don’t react well to freezing. The technique is easy to learn, making highly trained experts unnecessary. Chronoprinting requires hobbyist-grade equipment and software downloadable for free from Grover’s lab website, putting it well within reach of government agencies and labs with limited resources.

Video on how this chronoprinting works: https://youtu.be/qbyE68qD2Zo

Mental Health Disorders Have Increased Significantly Among Teens and Young Adults

Mental health issues are one of the defining problems of this era.

The percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has risen significantly over the past decade, with no corresponding increase in older adults, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” said lead author Jean Twenge, PhD, author of the book “iGen” and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

The research was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Twenge and her co-authors analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey that has tracked drug and alcohol use, mental health and other health-related issues in individuals age 12 and over in the United States since 1971. They looked at survey responses from more than 200,000 adolescents age 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2017, and almost 400,000 adults age 18 and over from 2008 to 2017.

The rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52 percent in adolescents from 2005 to 2017 (from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent) and 63 percent in young adults age 18 to 25 from 2009 to 2017 (from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent). There was also a 71 percent increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days from 2008 to 2017 (from 7.7 percent to 13.1 percent). The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47 percent from 2008 to 2017 (from 7.0 percent to 10.3 percent).

There was no significant increase in the percentage of older adults experiencing depression or psychological distress during corresponding time periods. The researchers even saw a slight decline in psychological distress in individuals over 65.

“Cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations,” said Twenge, who believes this trend may be partially due to increased use of electronic communication and digital media, which may have changed modes of social interaction enough to affect mood disorders. She also noted research shows that young people are not sleeping as much as they did in previous generations.

The increase in digital media use may have had a bigger impact on teens and young adults because older adults’ social lives are more stable and might have changed less than teens’ social lives have in the last ten years, said Twenge. Older adults might also be less likely to use digital media in a way that interferes with sleep — for example, they might be better at not staying up late on their phones or using them in the middle of the night.

“These results suggest a need for more research to understand how digital communication versus face-to-face social interaction influences mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes and to develop specialized interventions for younger age groups,” she said.

Given that the increase in mental health issues was sharpest after 2011, Twenge believes it’s unlikely to be due to genetics or economic woes and more likely to be due to sudden cultural changes, such as shifts in how teens and young adults spend their time outside of work and school. If so, that may be good news, she said.

“Young people can’t change their genetics or the economic situation of the country, but they can choose how they spend their leisure time. First and most important is to get enough sleep. Make sure your device use doesn’t interfere with sleep — don’t keep phones or tablets in the bedroom at night, and put devices down within an hour of bedtime,” she said. “Overall, make sure digital media use doesn’t interfere with activities more beneficial to mental health such as face-to-face social interaction, exercise and sleep.”