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.”

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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

Fracking Usage Linked to Increased Hospitalizations in Relevant Areas

There are numerous clean ways to generate electricity — continuing to rely on fossil fuels is again shown to have harmful effects.

New research has tied high rates of hospitalizations for genital, skin, and urinary conditions to fracking in Pennsylvania, underscoring mounting concerns about the public health implications of the controversial process of extracting natural gas.

Alina Denham, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester, led a research team that analyzed county-level hospital data for the state from 2003 to 2014. Their findings indicated that “long-term exposure to unconventional drilling may be harmful to population health.”

The conclusion bolstered previous findings about the dangers of fracking—a process also called hydraulic fracturing that involves injecting a mix of water and chemicals into the ground to access gas.

[…]

Although the team observed spikes in hospital stays for skin, genital, and urinary conditions as regional fracking rose, they did not examine what specifically led to those ailments. While calling for further research, they offered some potential explanations, which included documented dermatological effects of the chemicals used in fracking as well as studies that have linked drilling activity to risky sexual behaviors, which could help explain the genitourinary hospitalizations.

The research and subsequent warning from Denham’s team are especially alarming considering the Trump administration’s fossil fuel-friendly agenda.

However, even before President Donald Trump took office, Pennsylvania was a hotbed for fracking. In 2017, the state was  second only to Texas in terms of natural gas production, with much of the drilling focused on Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania’s southwestern region.

And, as Denham emphasized, “it’s [an] important point to keep in mind that hospitalizations are for acute illness or serious exacerbations of chronic illness… So if we see strong associations with hospitalizations, it’s likely that additional cases of mild symptoms for the same illnesses have been addressed at home or in an outpatient setting, or not addressed at all.”

New Materials for Wound and Skin Healing

Good research into healing — it leverages the body’s own natural resources.

Materials are widely used to help heal wounds: Collagen sponges help treat burns and pressure sores, and scaffold-like implants are used to repair bones. However, the process of tissue repair changes over time, so scientists are developing biomaterials that interact with tissues as healing takes place.

Now, Dr Ben Almquist and his team at Imperial College London have created a new molecule that could change the way traditional materials work with the body. Known as traction force-activated payloads (TrAPs), their method lets materials talk to the body’s natural repair systems to drive healing.

The researchers say incorporating TrAPs into existing medical materials could revolutionise the way injuries are treated. Dr Almquist, from Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “Our technology could help launch a new generation of materials that actively work with tissues to drive healing.”

The findings are published today in Advanced Materials.

Cellular call to action

After an injury, cells ‘crawl’ through the collagen ‘scaffolds’ found in wounds, like spiders navigating webs. As they move, they pull on the scaffold, which activates hidden healing proteins that begin to repair injured tissue.

The researchers designed TrAPs as a way to recreate this natural healing method. They folded the DNA segments into three-dimensional shapes known as aptamers that cling tightly to proteins. Then, they attached a customisable ‘handle’ that cells can grab onto on one end, before attaching the opposite end to a scaffold such as collagen.

During laboratory testing of their technique, they found that cells pulled on the TrAPs as they crawled through the collagen scaffolds. The pulling made the TrAPs unravel like shoelaces to reveal and activate the healing proteins. These proteins instruct the healing cells to grow and multiply.

The researchers also found that by changing the cellular ‘handle’, they can change which type of cell can grab hold and pull, letting them tailor TrAPs to release specific therapeutic proteins based on which cells are present at a given point in time. In doing so, the TrAPs produce materials that can smartly interact with the correct type of cell at the correct time during wound repair.

This is the first time scientists have activated healing proteins using different types of cells in human-made materials. The technique mimics healing methods found in nature. Dr Almquist said: “Using cell movement to activate healing is found in creatures ranging from sea sponges to humans. Our approach mimics them and actively works with the different varieties of cells that arrive in our damaged tissue over time to promote healing.”

From lab to humans

This approach is adaptable to different cell types, so could be used in a variety of injuries such as fractured bones, scar tissue after heart attacks, and damaged nerves. New techniques are also desperately needed for patients whose wounds won’t heal despite current interventions, like diabetic foot ulcers, which are the leading cause of non-traumatic lower leg amputations.

TrAPs are relatively straightforward to create and are fully human-made, meaning they are easily recreated in different labs and can be scaled up to industrial quantities. Their adaptability also means they could help scientists create new methods for laboratory studies of diseases, stem cells, and tissue development.

Aptamers are currently used as drugs, meaning they are already proven safe and optimised for clinical use. Because TrAPs take advantage of aptamers that are currently optimised for use in humans, they may be able to take a shorter path to the clinic than methods that start from ground zero.

Dr Almquist said: “The TrAP technology provides a flexible method to create materials that actively communicate with the wound and provide key instructions when and where they are needed. This sort of intelligent, dynamic healing is useful during every phase of the healing process, has the potential to increase the body’s chance to recover, and has far-reaching uses on many different types of wounds. This technology has the potential to serve as a conductor of wound repair, orchestrating different cells over time to work together to heal damaged tissues.”

Drug Price Gouging in Generics

General info on prescription drugs and generic drug price gouging.

Martin Shkreli managed to make himself a household name a few years back. His claim to fame stemmed from the decision by Turing Pharmaceuticals, a company he founded and controlled, to acquire the rights to produce Daraprim. He then raised the price of the drug by 5,000 percent.

This was very bad news for the people who were dependent on the drug. Daraprim is an anti-parasitic drug that is often taken by people with AIDS to keep them from getting opportunistic infections. People with AIDS who are being successfully treated with Daraprim are not going to want to experiment with alternatives.

Daraprim was already a 60-year-old drug at the time Turing acquired it and had long been available as a generic. This meant that other manufacturers could in principle come into the market and compete with Turing’s inflated price.

Shkreli made the bet that no other drug company would take advantage of this opportunity, because even for a generic drug, there are still substantial costs for entry. Since the market for Daraprim was small, a new entrant would be unlikely to recover these costs if Turing pushed the price back down somewhere near its original level. While Daraprim was his biggest “success,” Shkreli was trying this strategy with a number of other drugs before the Justice Department put him out of business with unrelated charges of securities fraud.

Shkreli’s days of price gouging in the generic drug world may be over, but he established a model that other ambitious entrepreneurs are likely to follow. Close to 40 percent of generic drugs have only a single manufacturer. This is partly a result of the failure of anti-trust policy to stem a wave of mergers in the industry. It is also a result of the fact that many drugs simply have very limited markets where it is difficult to support multiple producers.

Most generic producers have not tried to follow the Shkreli model and jack up prices of drugs that people need for their health or even their lives, but some have. The soaring price of insulin is one important example, EpiPen, the asthma injector, is another. Both involve well-known treatments that have long been used, but the limited number of suppliers has allowed for huge price increases in recent years.

This is the context for the public drug-manufacturing corporation being proposed in a bill by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Jan Schakowsky. The idea is that the federal government should create manufacturing capacity (which could be privately licensed) that would allow it to quickly enter a market to compete with the next Martin Shkreli.

If a company tries to jack up its prices by an extraordinary amount, it would find itself soon competing with a government manufacturer that is selling the same drug for the cost of production, plus a normal profit. This is a great strategy, since simply the existence of this capacity should be sufficient to discourage the next Shkreli.

There will be little money in jacking up the price of a drug by 5,000 percent if it quickly results in the disappearance of their market. This should encourage the generic industry to keep its prices in line.

It is important to note a key difference between the generic industry and brand industry. The brand pharmaceutical companies, like Pfizer and Merck, could argue that they need high prices to pay for research. These companies hugely exaggerate their research costs and downplay the extent to which high profits just mean more money for shareholders, but they actually do research.

By contrast, the generic industry is not researching new drugs. They are manufacturing drugs that have been developed by others. In this sense they can be thought of like a company that manufacturers paper plates or shovels. They need a normal profit to stay in business, nothing more.

For this reason, the Warren-Schakowsky proposal is very much the right type of remedy for excessive prices in the generic drug industry. At the same time, we have to recognize that generic drugs are the smaller part of the problem with high drug prices.

Although generics account for almost 90 percent of prescriptions, they account for only a bit more than a quarter of spending on prescription drugs. The story of drugs costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year is almost entirely a story of brand drugs with high prices as a result of patent monopolies or related protections.

This will require a larger fix, likely along the same lines, with the government paying for research and allowing new drugs to be sold as generics. But the Warren-Schakowsky bill is a huge first step in bringing drug costs down and ensuring that people will not find themselves suddenly at the mercy of the next Martin Shkreli.

Infections During Childhood Increase Risks of Mental Disorders Developing

The connection between mind and body is further emphasized.

A new study from iPSYCH shows that the infections children contract during their childhood are linked to an increase in the risk of mental disorders during childhood and adolescence. This knowledge expands our understanding of the role of the immune system in the development of mental disorders.

High temperatures, sore throats and infections during childhood can increase the risk of also suffering from a mental disorder as a child or adolescent. This is shown by the first study of its kind to follow all children born in Denmark between 1 January 1995 and 30 June 2012. The researchers have looked at all infections that have been treated from birth and also at the subsequent risk of childhood and adolescent psychiatric disorders.

“Hospital admissions with infections are particularly associated with an increased risk of mental disorders, but so too are less severe infections that are treated with medicine from the patient’s own general practitioner,” says Ole Köhler-Forsberg from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital’s Psychoses Research Unit. He is one of the researchers behind the study.

The study showed that children who had been hospitalised with an infection had an 84 per cent increased risk of suffering a mental disorder and a 42 per cent increased risk of being prescribed medicine to treat mental disorders. Furthermore, the risk for a range of specific mental disorders was also higher, including psychotic disorders, OCD, tics, personality disorders, autism and ADHD.

“This knowledge increases our understanding of the fact that there is a close connection between body and brain and that the immune system can play a role in the development of mental disorders. Once again research indicates that physical and mental health are closely connected,” says Ole Köhler-Forsberg.

Highest risk following an infection

The study has just been published in JAMA Psychiatry and is a part of the Danish iPSYCH psychiatry project.

“We also found that the risk of mental disorders is highest right after the infection, which supports the infection to some extent playing a role in the development of the mental disorder,” says Ole Köhler-Forsberg.

It therefore appears that infections and the inflammatory reaction that follows afterwards can affect the brain and be part of the process of developing severe mental disorders. This can, however, also be explained by other causes, such as some people having a genetically higher risk of suffering more infections and mental disorders.

The new knowledge could have importance for further studies of the immune system and the importance of infections for the development of a wide range of childhood and adolescent mental disorders for which the researchers have shown a correlation. This is the assessment of senior researcher on the study, Research Director Michael Eriksen Benrós from the Psychiatric Centre Copenhagen at Copenhagen University hospital.

“The temporal correlations between the infection and the mental diagnoses were particularly notable, as we observed that the risk of a newly occurring mental disorder was increased by 5.66 times in the first three months after contact with a hospital due to an infection and were also increased more than twofold within the first year,” he explains.

Michael Eriksen Benrós stresses that the study can in the long term lead to increased focus on the immune system and how infections play a role in childhood and adolescent mental disorders.

“It can have a consequence for treatment and the new knowledge can be used in making the diagnosis when new psychiatric symptoms occur in a young person. But first and foremost it corroborates our increasing understanding of how closely the body and brain are connected,” he says.

Research Into Pain Shows That When People Expect More Pain, They Feel More Pain

A good study that’s needed to be done for a while.

Expect a shot to hurt and it probably will, even if the needle poke isn’t really so painful. Brace for a second shot and you’ll likely flinch again, even though — second time around — you should know better.

That’s the takeaway of a new brain imaging study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour which found that expectations about pain intensity can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Surprisingly, those false expectations can persist even when reality repeatedly demonstrates otherwise, the study found.

“We discovered that there is a positive feedback loop between expectation and pain,” said senior author Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The more pain you expect, the stronger your brain responds to the pain. The stronger your brain responds to the pain, the more you expect.”

For decades, researchers have been intrigued with the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy, with studies showing expectations can influence everything from how one performs on a test to how one responds to a medication. The new study is the first to directly model the dynamics of the feedback loop between expectations and pain and the neural mechanisms underlying it.

Marieke Jepma, then a postdoctoral researcher in Wager’s lab, launched the research after noticing that even when test subjects were shown time and again that something wouldn’t hurt badly, some still expected it to.

“We wanted to get a better understanding of why pain expectations are so resistant to change,” said Jepma, lead author and now a researcher at the University of Amsterdam.

The researchers recruited 34 subjects and taught them to associate one symbol with low heat and another with high, painful heat.

Then, the subjects were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures blood flow in the brain as a proxy for neural activity. For 60 minutes, subjects were shown low or high pain cues (the symbols, the words Low or High, or the letters L and W), then asked to rate how much pain they expected.

Then varying degrees of painful but non-damaging heat were applied to their forearm or leg, with the hottest reaching “about what it feels like to hold a hot cup of coffee” Wager explains.

Then they were asked to rate their pain.

Unbeknownst to the subjects, heat intensity was not actually related to the preceding cue.

The study found that when subjects expected more heat, brain regions involved in threat and fear were more activated as they waited. Regions involved in the generation of pain were more active when they received the stimulus. Participants reported more pain with high-pain cues, regardless of how much heat they actually got.

“This suggests that expectations had a rather deep effect, influencing how the brain processes pain,” said Jepma.

Surprisingly, their expectations also highly influenced their ability to learn from experience. Many subjects demonstrated high “confirmation bias” — the tendency to learn from things that reinforce our beliefs and discount those that don’t. For instance, if they expected high pain and got it, they might expect even more pain the next time. But if they expected high pain and didn’t get it, nothing changed.

“You would assume that if you expected high pain and got very little you would know better the next time. But interestingly, they failed to learn,” said Wager.

This phenomenon could have tangible impacts on recovery from painful conditions, suggests Jepma.

“Our results suggest that negative expectations about pain or treatment outcomes may in some situations interfere with optimal recovery, both by enhancing perceived pain and by preventing people from noticing that they are getting better,” she said. “Positive expectations, on the other hand, could have the opposite effects.”

The research also may shed light on why, for some, chronic pain can linger long after damaged tissues have healed.

Whether in the context of pain or mental health, the authors suggest that it may do us good to be aware of our inherent eagerness to confirm our expectations.

“Just realizing that things may not be as bad as you think may help you to revise your expectation and, in doing so, alter your experience,” said Jepma.