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Sleeping Like a Baby

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Everyone knows newborn babies sleep a lot. At least, that’s what the books say–although many sleep-deprived parents might disagree. But why?

Scientists have mounting evidence to support the idea that sleep is necessary for effective learning and memory functions. Other research links lack of sleep to increased risks for different types of mental disease.

Now new research adds additional support for the broader idea that researcher Howard Roffwarg and his colleagues suggested as early as 1966–that infant sleep might help in the structural maturation of circuits in the central nervous system.

The new study shows those circuits aren’t limited to those needed for learning and memory. Moreover, the effects of sleep deprivation could last much longer than we think. Amita Sehgal of the University of Pennsylvania presented the research at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2014 annual meeting.

Sehgal first described how fruit flies are a useful model for sleep research. For starters, they’re practical. Fruit flies are cheap to use and breed in large numbers.

Second, fruit flies have many of the same behaviors that mammals do. And yes, fruit flies actually sleep.

Fruit flies have a simpler anatomy than mammals, however. As a result, it’s easier for researchers to do dissections and identify interactions in their central nervous systems.

And beyond all of this, fruit flies are useful for forward genetics work. They have distinct mutant phenotypes with less redundancy and compensation. Modify the genetic makeup, and the fruit fly usually won’t be able to make up for the change with other mechanisms. With these factors in mind, researchers have developed several specific strains of fruit flies to have particular characteristics.

The research team explored how differences in fruit flies’ neurotransmitter levels affected different aspects of sleep, such as difficulty in arousing them from sleep or “rebound” after a period of sleep deprivation.

Researchers also looked at fruit flies’ behavior. In particular, the team found that particular scent pathways that are necessary for effective courtship behavior did not function properly in mature flies if they had been deprived of sleep after being newly hatched.  Sehgal and her colleagues Matthew Kayser and Zhifeng Yue published the research in the journal Science in April 2014.

Last month, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) ranted about NIH funding research “to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” Sehgal said yes, her group’s research was what Rand was referring to.

But the study wasn’t about sex, she stressed. And while the study was done with fruit flies, their importance as an animal model means that human researchers can learn a lot from the results.

Bottom line: Much more happens in newborn sleep than we realize. And scientists now have measurable evidence to document some of what’s going on.

Of course, much more work remains to be done. Maybe some of today’s newborns will one day add to the growing body of scientific knowledge and understanding about the brain.

And maybe their parents will get to catch up on some sleep.



What’s for Lunch?

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

What’s on your child’s lunch tray? It depends on whether your child packs lunch or buys the full meal deal available under the National School Lunch Program.

Either way, the meal probably meets nutrition standards “almost entirely,” says Alisha Farris, lead author of a new study at Virginia Tech. The report appears in the November/December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier.

Lunches brought from home were more likely to exceed recommendations for fat and saturated fat. They were also more likely to have dessert items, savory snacks, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The researchers examined both types of school lunches for kids in preschool and kindergarten after implementation of the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program standards. The results are mostly consistent with earlier studies that compared school lunch program and packed lunches for different grade levels.

“This is consistent with what we have seen,” says Beth Spinks, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the Berea City School District in Ohio.

Yet while packed lunches on average came close to meeting nutrition standards, there was still a lot of variation in what was in those lunches. At one point Spinks asked a grad student to evaluate packed lunches brought by fifth graders in that school district.

“They were all over the place in nutrients,” Spinks says. Indeed, some lunches packed by students themselves “just had chips and cookies.”

To the extent school lunches fell short in the Virginia Tech study, it was generally on the energy and iron recommendations. When it comes to calories, kids don’t have to take all the items offered by school meal plans, and researchers were focusing on what kids actually had on their trays.

Just having food on their trays isn’t enough, though. Kids actually have to eat the food to get the nutritional value, and the Virginia Tech team recognized this as a limitation in their study. Thus, one recommendation it makes for future studies is to gather food waste data and compare consumption for packed and school lunches.

Spinks agrees this would be worthwhile.

“When we watch the garbage cans, we see a lot of food from both the packed and purchased lunches being thrown away,” she says. “We need to figure out why. Planning a great lunch does nothing if the child does not eat it.”

Meanwhile, the study could be helpful to promote school meals and give parents suggestions for packing lunches, she notes.

And nutrition isn’t the only thing parents should focus on if they pack lunches for themselves or children. Food safety matters too, stresses Spinks.

Now there’s another topic for research….



Creative Minds in Medicine

Karen Bowersox of Downs Designs shows the "Dip Down" jeans her company designed for people with Down Syndrome. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Karen Bowersox of Downs Designs shows the “Dip Down” jeans her company designed for people with Down Syndrome. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

What do the arts and medicine have in common? More than you might think.

This week’s Creative Minds in Medicine conference in Cleveland brings together a wide range of experts from both the artistic and medical communities. Presented by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the program spotlights some of the many ways art can contribute to better health outcomes and how health issues are influencing art.

Different forms of art therapy have been practiced for decades, but innovation continues. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a prime example. Founder Gary Glazner led the packed conference room through a spirited session using call-and-response, stories, and on-the-spot composition. The session showed how the project uses poetry to improve the quality of life for patients with memory loss.

Deforia Lane’s presentation on the healing power of music showed how and why music therapy is helping people of all ages dealing with mental and physical disease and disabilities. Lane directs art and music therapy at University Hospitals Case Medical Center’s Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland. Her rousing session had participants singing along, clapping, and even hand-dancing. (You had to be there.)

Research results support these and other forms of art therapy. But more is needed, stressed Sunil Iyengar of the National Endowment for the Arts. Toward that end, his office offers some grants and is partnering with other government agencies to increase funding opportunities for researchers.

But art doesn’t just help patients directly. It can help health professionals too—enabling them to serve patients better.

Toward that end, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Vital Signs program for healthcare professionals brings medical residents and students into the museum for focused programs. Rather than spending just a few seconds in front of an artwork, groups focus on them for about 20 minutes. They discuss pieces of art together, and questions help them see and appreciate different perspectives.

Artists and designers are producing products and services that help the medical community too. A design and innovation panel showcased mobile apps, custom-designed skull plates, and even adaptive clothing.

The program continues today in Cleveland. And artists and designers in Ohio and elsewhere will continue to innovate and contribute to medicine and other fields that touch our lives everyday.



Can Religion Reduce Risks of Suicide?

Teen suicide is always a tragedy. Sadly, it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States for young people between the ages of 10 and 24, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And beyond the 4,600 young people who die from this preventable cause each year, another 157,000 in that age group wind up at emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.

Torahs at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Torahs at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

While these figures are just for the United States, teen suicide is a concern for countries around the world. Now a new study from Tel Aviv University provides some interesting insight.

Researchers Gal Shoval and Ben Amit found that observant Jewish teens displayed 45 percent less suicide risk behavior, including attempted suicide, than Jewish teens who did not actively practice their religion. The study appears in the journal European Psychiatry.

Previous studies of Christian teens had also found lower risks for suicidal behaviors among those who actively practiced their faith versus those who didn’t. However, Shoval and Amit believe the explanation for the lower risks are different for the two groups.

As Amit explained in the press release from Tel Aviv University:

Using statistical tools, we demonstrated that the protective effect of the practice of Judaism was not associated with a decreased risk of depression. Instead, it enhanced effective coping mechanisms. This stands in direct contrast to studies of religious Christian teenagers who reported feeling less depressed than their secular peers. According to our study, religious Jewish teens appear less likely than secular ones to be at risk of suicide even though they are still likely to be depressed.

Shoval suggests that practicing their religion might provide Jewish teens with a source of hope, even if they continue to suffer depression:

We know from working with suicide survivors that even when they were 99 percent sure they were going to kill themselves, they still sought hope. Jewish faith and community may be their most important source of hope.

This raises some questions and challenges for everyone, regardless of which faith they may follow or not follow. For starters, what can everyone who cares about teens do to spread hope, both at and outside of a church or other religious community?

Beyond that, how can we address continuing problems of depression for all teens, both as a society and in our individual lives? Even if a teen is not suicidal, living with depression is not a happy situation.

Access to mental health services and support for getting help are crucial. After all, someone’s life may depend on it.




Read, Plan, Prep, and Indulge

Large dinner salad with steamed clams, drizzled with citrus balsamic olive oil. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Despite lots of local stores hawking Halloween candy, my husband and I are continuing our healthy eating habits from summer into fall. And no, I’m not viewing this as a diet. Rather, it’s an adventure in living the good life.

Fortunately, there are lots of awesome fresh fruits and vegetables still available at both groceries and local markets. Better still, today’s food stores carry a wide array of foods from around the world.

So, yes, I am reading labels–a lot. In particular, I’m checking out sodium, carb, sugar, and calorie info.

Especially for sodium, it’s clear that the best way to stay within recommended guidelines is to cook more meals from scratch at home. Doing that helps keep refined sugars and calories in check too.

On the other hand, life gets busy. To do things most efficiently, I try to plan ahead. I cooked twice as much salmon today at lunch so I could save some to top a salad tomorrow or Friday. A couple of chicken breasts roasted next to them at the same time, to make sandwiches or other meals through the weekend.

I don’t plan too much, though. When it comes to cooking styles, I might read recipes for ideas or basic info, such as how long meat or fish should generally cook or how to handle a whole bulb of fennel or a blob of celery root.

Beyond that, though, I mainly improvise. Among the nutritional gatekeeper cooking styles described by Cornell University’s Brian Wansink, I’d count myself among the 19 percent who are “innovative cooks.”

Wansink, who heads up the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, surveyed hundreds of domestic cooks. All were ranked as “great cooks” by themselves and at least one other adult family member.

The resulting study, published in 2003, identified five different styles of cooks: giving cooks, healthy cooks, innovative cooks, methodical cooks, and competitive cooks.

Wansink’s point was that knowing about the different styles could lead to tailoring nutrition education. The information could also provide clues about who might be early adapters when it came to trying and promoting different types of food.

But the best part of this whole innovative healthy food lifestyle isn’t the planning and prep. It’s the eating!

And tonight for supper, I had a large low-sodium, low calorie, and thoroughly yummy salad topped with steamed clams and drizzled with a tablespoon of citrus balsamic olive oil. As Julia Child and Julie Powell would both say, “Bon appetit!”

Math model can help fight HIV

A new mathematical model may help scientists develop effective drugs to not only treat, but actually cure HIV. HIV is Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and it causes AIDS—Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Current antiretroviral medicines attack cells that act as active virus factories to mass produce and spread the virus so it can infect more cells. However, any cure for HIV must deal with latently-infected cells.

AIDS orphans from Cambodia. By, Beth Kanter from Massachusetts, USA (HIV Kids) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

AIDS orphans from Cambodia. By, Beth Kanter from Massachusetts, USA (HIV Kids) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead of actively reproducing, the virus in these long-lived CD4+T cells is basically resting. And virus in those cells can survive, even after patients have been taking HIV medicines for years. Think of the latently-infected cells as sitting on the bench and waiting at some point to get into the game, as it were.

Unfortunately, HIV and AIDS are no game. Roughly 35 million people are living with HIV, reports the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). AIDS-related causes killed about 1.5 million people last year, and the total death toll since the 1980s is 39 million.

Research is underway on latency-reversing agents, or LRAs. Until now, though, it’s been hard to say how strong those drugs would have to be to have a real cure.

“For HIV, a cure means being able to stop taking all drugs, without a risk of the virus growing back to high levels,” says Alison Hill, a researcher in evolutionary dynamics at Harvard University.

Now Hill and other researchers have developed a computer model to gauge how effective a medicine must be to really tackle those latently-infected cells. The team includes scientists from Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins universities in the United States, the Howard Hughes Medical Center, and the Institute of Integrative Biology in Zurich, Switzerland. PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is publishing the research.

As with any computer model, the researchers use math to see what might happen under different scenarios. Programming includes detailed algorithms—sets of instructions that tell the computer what to do with data.

The team found that a latency-reversing agent would have to reduce the number of infected cells by about 2,000-fold in order to let a majority of patients skip antiretroviral therapy, or ART, for one year. After that time, however, rebound could occur suddenly.

“We were able to determine that a 90%, 99%, or even 99.9% reduction in the latent pool is unlikely to lead to a cure,” notes Hill. “We predicted that if patients stop their drug cocktails after this type of reduction, they may appear to be cured for many months, but the virus is very likely to eventually reappear.”

“This means we likely need drugs much stronger than anything tested so far in the lab,” Hill continues. In order to prevent rebound altogether, the research team concluded, treatments would have to reduce infected cells by more than 10,000-fold, the team found.

That sounds like a daunting task, and it is. Moreover, the team’s results predict there would be large variation in when patients would rebound.

Nonetheless, the model can ultimately help speed up the search for a cure.

“This study was important because using math, we could help answer an important medical question that cannot yet be answered experimentally,” Hill says. “It may hopefully save researchers and patients from clinical trials that are unlikely to be successful.”

The research also helps explain why some apparent cures, such as treatment immediately after birth or bone marrow transplants, were not in fact permanent, Hill notes.

The more scientists can understand about HIV and what the challenges in fighting it are, the closer we all are to winning the battle against AIDS.



5 Things I Really Don’t Need To Know

An item on Yahoo! Shine today tempts readers with the headline “5 Things You Need to Know About Prince George’s New Nanny.” The article is reprinted from The Bump.

Who do the editors think they’re kidding?

I really don’t need to know anything about Prince George’s new nanny. Nor do more than 99.9 percent of the people likely to see the headline. We won’t be meeting and interacting with her. We’re not likely to consider hiring her after she leaves the British royalty’s employment. And we’re certainly not considering kidnapping the little baby—in which case Maria’s Tae-Kwon Do and stunt driving could foil our attempt.

Even readers who are considering hiring a nanny right now probably aren’t looking for those skills. They want someone who will engage and stimulate their children while caring for them safely. They want someone who will be reliable and trustworthy when it comes to showing up on time and following parents’ instructions. And they’d like someone who can be flexible—adjusting to the children’s needs and the demands that parents’ jobs can place on them from time to time.

In short, the editors’ headline is nothing more than a grab for attention. It may get some gullible folks to read the article. But then they’d find there’s nothing there they need to know.

Headlines about x things you need to know are nothing new. They provide an easy format for both the writer and reader. And they tempt readers to follow up. “Hmmm, what are those 5 things I need to know?” they might ask.

But then the body of the article is supposed to have information that people really do need to know. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some excellent examples.

5 Things you can do to lower your child’s lead level” offers five practical steps parents can take. If I had young children and lived in an area where lead poisoning was a possibility, I’d get started on those steps right away.

5 Things You Need to Know about Tuberculosis (TB)” does cover basic facts in a helpful Q&A format. With one-third of the world’s people being infected with the bacteria that cause the disease, this really is information we all should know. “Almost 2 million deaths worldwide occur each year from TB,” reports the CDC. TB is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, and it affects people around the world—including thousands in the United States.

When headlines don’t deliver on their promise about “things you need to know,” that’s a problem. The editors of Yahoo! Shine and The Bump might not care about their credibility. But readers are then likely to be skeptical about whether other news articles really will offer news points they need to know.

I probably wouldn’t have been in a snit if the headline had read, “5 Fascinating Facts about Prince George’s New Nanny.” I might or might not find all of them fascinating. But at least I’d have been fairly told that I was basically going to read trivia.

And yes, I realize Yahoo! Shine and The Bump are not noted for being pinnacles of journalism. But the more often hype like this gets used, the worse it is for both writers and readers.