(Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)
July 02, 2013

HIV Treatment Should Start Even Earlier, WHO Says

Getting people on HIV drugs even before they get sick helps them live longer and slows the spread of virus, the World Health Organization said Sunday.

The number of new HIV infections has dropped by 20 percent worldwide since the push to expand HIV treatment worldwide began in 2002. The medications prevented about 4 million deaths from AIDS-related problems in developing countries, the WHO report says.

The impact of the antiretroviral drugs is so strong and positive that the WHO has even changed its recommendation for when to treating HIV. The new guidelines, released Sunday at an international AIDS conference in Malaysia, say that many more people should be on HIV drugs — up from 16.8 million to about 26 million, an increase of more than 50 percent.

Children under five and pregnant women should start medications immediately after they're diagnosed with HIV, the guidelines say. The same goes for anyone with an HIV-negative partner or spouse. For others, antiretroviral drugs should begin at the earliest signs of damage to the immune system.

Treating more people will, of course, cost more money – about $2.3 billion per year, or 10 percent more than the world currently spends on stopping HIV, according to the Associated Press.

Although it's unclear where this extra money will come from, the cost of the HIV drugs has been decreasing. Costs have declined by more than half since 2004, from about $1,000 per year for one person to $400 in 2011.

"These new treatment recommendations are ambitious, and needed; they're also feasible," Dr. Unni Karunakara, the president of Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement. "Now is not the time to be daunted, but to push forward with what we know works to get the best treatment possible to the most people, as soon as possible."

But other global health leaders don't think the new guidelines go far enough. The revision "gets most of the people we want on treatment, but not all," Michel Sidibe, who leads the United Nations AIDS agency, told The New York Times.

Providing even earlier treatment, he says, is critical for turning the tide on HIV. "What is holding us back is that we lack a vision for ending the epidemic," he said. "If we think we'll just manage it like a chronic disease for the next 50 years, we'll never get to the end."

The starting point for HIV treatment has been inching earlier and earlier over the past decade. In 2002, doctors waited until a person's CD4 T-cell count dropped below 200, or 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. In 2010, the limit rose to 350. And now, it's 500 – just at the bottom of the normal range.

CD4 T cells are a key component of the immune system; they are attacked by the HIV virus. When the number dips below 200, a person is officially diagnosed with AIDS and runs the risk of catching deadly infections.

Last year, scientists in the U.S. called for treating people as soon as they get diagnosed with HIV, regardless of their T-cell count.

June 24, 2013

Depression May Increase The Risk Of Dementia

Depression can have physical consequences. Research now suggests that when people get depressed in middle age and beyond, they're more likely to develop dementia in old age.

But the link between depression and dementia remains something of a mystery. Researchers are working to understand why that occurs and what might be done to prevent dementia.

Brain researcher Meryl Butters with the University of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine has spent years trying to answer this question. She asks, "What is it about a mood disorder that is relatively treatable, that people can recover from; what is it in the brain that may increase one's risk for dementia many years later?"

Dementia can be caused by different diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia, which follows a stroke or series of mini strokes. In a recent study, Butters found that the risk for both of those types of dementia nearly doubled among people who had suffered depression after the age of 50.

There are some clues as to why that may be. Depression is associated with inflammation in the body, and inflammation also appears to play a role in cardiovascular disease. Scientists are trying to figure out if the inflammation in the two disorders is linked.

The thickening of blood vessel walls in atherosclerosis makes it "difficult for blood to get through to nourish the brain and give the brain all the oxygen that it needs," Butters says, and a less nourished brain might mean greater vulnerability to dementia. Even if this theory doesn't hold up, she says, there's no harm in doing for your brain what you do for your heart: maintain a normal weight, eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly.

Butters suggests another clue that may link depression to dementia. It involves the stress hormone cortisol. When people get depressed, they produce excess amounts of cortisol. Butters says that could be problematic for a part of the brain called the hippocampus.

"It just so happens that the hippocampus has lots of cortisol receptors," Butters says. "So it may be that if you have high levels of cortisol circulating for long periods of time, they can sort of burn out, for lack of a better term, and die and then the hippocampus shrinks."

The hippocampus is responsible for learning and short-term memory. In early-stage dementia, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to show symptoms. People often forget things that just happened, like what they ate for breakfast or what they just said to someone.

One study found that women who had a long history of depression had a smaller hippocampus compared to women of the same age who didn't. But researchers have yet to prove that the brain changes seen in depression contribute to dementia later on.

Dr. Charles Reynolds, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says preventing depression could be an important defense against dementia. "I think the good news is that we can help older people and their family caregivers take steps to protect themselves from becoming clinically depressed", he says. If successful, that might ultimately help delay or prevent dementia.

Reynolds recently looked at ways to help older adults prevent depression. In his study, counselors visited people in their homes, looking for problems that could lead to depression including difficulty sleeping, lack of exercise, poor nutrition and social isolation.

Each participant met with a counselor for six to eight sessions; the counselor helped people tackle these problems themselves. As a result, the grim predictions that one in four older adults would suffer major depression just didn't pan out for this group. "Over a period of two years, incidence was reduced to about 8 or 9 percent," says Dr. Reynolds. That's down by two thirds. This was true for both black and white older adults, as well as those with low and moderate incomes.

So now the next step is for researchers to determine whether lowering rates of depression among middle aged and older people can also protect them against dementia.


man with down's syndrome
(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
May 28, 2013

Brain Cells Give Insight into Down's Syndrome

Brain cells have been grown from skin cells of adults with Down's syndrome in research that could shed new light on the condition.

US scientists found a reduction in connections among the brain cells and possible faults in genes that protect the body from ageing.

The research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives an insight into early brain development.

Down's syndrome results from an extra copy of one chromosome.

This generally causes some level of learning disability and a range of distinctive physical features.

A team led by Anita Bhattacharyya, a neuroscientist at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, grew brain cells from skin cells of two individuals with Down's syndrome.

This involved reprogramming skin cells to transform them into a type of stem cell that could be turned into any cell in the body.

Brain cells were then grown in the lab, providing a way to look at early brain development in Down's syndrome.

One significant finding was a reduction in connections among the neurons, said Dr Bhattacharyya.

"They communicate less, are quieter. This is new, but it fits with what little we know about the Down syndrome brain."

Brain cells communicate through connections known as synapses. The brain cells in Down's syndrome individuals had only about 60% of the usual number of synapses and synaptic activity.

"This is enough to make a difference," added Dr Bhattacharyya. "Even if they recovered these synapses later on, you have missed this critical window of time during early development."

The researchers looked at genes that were affected in the stem cells and neurons from two individuals with Down's syndrome.

They found that genes on the extra chromosome, chromosome 21, were increased greatly, particularly genes that responded to damage from free radicals, which may play a role in ageing.

This could explain why people with Down's syndrome appear to age quickly, although this remains to be tested, said the University of Wisconsin-Madison team.

Commenting on the study, Carol Boys, chief executive of the UK Down's Syndrome Association, said it was interesting work from an established, well-known team.

"It seems to be another step forward, giving us insight into the effects of having three copies of chromosome 21," she said.

"We are learning more all the time about the mechanisms that cause certain aspects of the condition Down's syndrome and this may ultimately result in the development of therapies for treatment."

The Observatory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
(Sean Powers/WILL)
May 22, 2013

U of I's 117-Year-Old Telescope Getting Repairs

Like anything that's 117 years old, the telescope in the University of Illinois' observatory could use a little work. This summer, it will get it.

A crew dismantled the telescope this week and is sending it to a business in Pennsylvania that will work on it.

Professor Bryan Dunne is assistant chair of the astronomy department at the university. He told The News-Gazette in Champaign on Tuesday that while the telescope hasn't been used for research since the 1960s it's still used in introductory classes and public open houses.

The observatory is a National Historic Landmark because of pioneering work done there in the early 1900s by astronomer Joel Stebbins to record the brightness of distant stars.

The restoration work will cost $54,000 and be finished by August.

May 20, 2013

ADHD In Childhood May Feed Obesity In Adults

Men who were diagnosed with ADHD as children are more likely to be obese in adulthood, according to a new study.

The men who had ADHD weighed 19 pounds more at age 41 than otherwise similar men who hadn't had ADHD as boys, the researchers found.

"It makes sense, because they're self-medicating with carbohydrates," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist in Sudbury, Mass., who has ADHD and treats adults with ADHD. "Carbs do the same thing that stimulant medications do — promote dopamine," says Hallowell, who wasn't involved in the latest study. "So you get the gallon of ice cream at midnight."

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder may affect up to 11 percent of American children, the majority of them boys.

Earlier studies had suggested that adults with ADHD may be more likely to gain weight.

That research doesn't prove that the ADHD is causing the weight gain. And this new study doesn't prove that, either. But it does provide better evidence for a potential link because it followed the same group of people over time. It looked at a group of 111 boys with ADHD at age 8. Then their weight was assessed at age 41. The men with ADHD were then compared to similar men who didn't have ADHD as children.

The men who had had ADHD weighed an average of 213 pounds, and 41 percent of them were obese. By contrast, the men who hadn't had ADHD weighed 194 pounds on average, and 22 percent were obese.

The study leaders realized that weight was becoming an an issue for their participants when some who came in for MRI scans were too fat to fit in the machine.

"In most studies you eliminate those people," says F. Xavier Castellanos, a psychiatrist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York and a co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics. Instead, the researchers started collecting information on the participants' weight and body mass, or BMI.

This study doesn't figure out why boyhood ADHD might be causing weight problems in adulthood. The weight gain could be caused by psychological factors or neurobiology, Castellanos speculates. Differences in the pathways for dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, have been found in both people who are obese and people with ADHD, he says.

Or it could be that the impulsiveness typical of ADHD makes it harder for people to say no to food. Children who take stimulant medications like Ritalin typically don't have problems with weight gain because the medications suppress appetite. But eating issues may emerge later.

Hallowell says he often sees adult patients with ADHD who struggle with overeating. "Nutrition should be part of the treatment plan," he says.

Parents of children with ADHD should take particular care to make sure their children develop lifelong good eating habits, Castellanos says. "The reality is that ADHD people can be at risk for being swayed by temptation."

This map, from the United States Geological Survey, shows the age of bedrock in different regions of North America.
(Credit United States Geological Survey)
May 16, 2013

Water Trapped for 1.5 Billion Years Could Hold Ancient Life

Scientists have discovered water that has been trapped in rock for more than a billion years.

The water might contain microbes that evolved independently from the surface world, and it's a finding that gives new hope to the search for life on other planets.

The water samples came from holes drilled by gold miners near the small town of Timmins, Ontario, about 350 miles north of Toronto. Deep in the Canadian bedrock, miners drill holes and collect samples. Sometimes they hit pay dirt; sometimes they hit water, which seeps out from tiny crevices in the rock.

Recently, a team of scientists (who had been investigating water samples from other mines) approached the miners and asked them for fluid from newly drilled boreholes.

Greg Holland, a geochemist at Lancaster University in England, and his colleagues wanted to know just how long that fluid had been trapped in the rock. So they looked at the decay of radioactive atoms found in the water and calculated that it had been bottled up for a long time — at least 1.5 billion years.

"That is the lower limit for the age," Holland says. It could be a billion years older. That means the water was sealed in the rock before humans evolved, before pterosaurs flew and before multicellular life.

As Holland announced this week in the journal Nature, this is the oldest cache of water ever found.

But how did it end up underneath that gold mine in northeastern Canada? Where did it come from?

"The fluids that we see now are actually preservations of ancient oceans," Holland says.

About 2.7 billion years ago, the landscape of small-town Timmins looked a bit different. Beneath prehistoric seas, tectonic plates were spreading, and magma was welling up to form new rock. As the rock matured under heat and pressure, water was trapped inside tiny cracks.

The rock drifted around the globe for eons, helping form continents and mountain ranges, and all the while it kept its cargo of water sealed up tight inside.

"It's managed to stay isolated for almost half the lifetime of the Earth," Holland says. It's a time capsule. And it doesn't just hold water. "There's a lot of hydrogen in these samples."

That's significant because hydrogen is food for some microorganisms. Hydrogen-eating microbes have been found deep in the ocean and in South African mines where chemical reactions in the rock produce a steady supply of hydrogen.

And that hydrogen, says Holland, "could provide the energy for life to survive in isolation for 2 billion years."

Holland's colleagues are now testing the water samples for evidence of microbes. They hope to have results within a year. If life is found, it would have evolved distinctly from the surface world and might give a unique insight into the earliest forms of life on Earth. Its discovery would also give hope to people searching for life in places that are even more remote.

Carol Stoker, a research scientist with NASA, is focused on searching for life on Mars.

"If you go back to the very early history of Earth and Mars, sort of the first billion years after the surfaces cooled, Earth and Mars looked very similar," Stoker says.

Both planets had vast surface oceans and thick atmospheres — they were good places for life to begin. On Earth, it did.

"The logic is if that happened on Earth, why shouldn't it have happened on Mars?" she says.

As Mars got colder and drier, surface life would have died off. But Martian microbes might still survive deep in the planet's crust — preserved in isolated pockets of water, just like the ones found in Canadian bedrock.


stem cell right to life protest
(Nati Harnik/AP)
May 15, 2013

Cloning, Stem Cells Long Mired in Legislative Gridlock

The news that U.S. scientists have successfully cloned a human embryo seems almost certain to rekindle a political fight that has raged, on and off, since the announcement of the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997.


"The issue of legislation on human cloning is about to get hot again," says Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School.

But it's a fight that has, over the past decade and a half, produced a lot heat and light and not a lot of policy.

Human Cloning

In fact, for all the arguing about the issue that's happened in Washington over the years, human cloning is still technically legal, at least in much of the country.

"There are already 60 countries in the world that have laws on their books banning human reproductive cloning, and this prohibition is also in a number of international agreements" says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, which is devoted to the responsible use of new genetic and reproductive technologies. "But in the U.S., we have not managed to put such a law on the books at the federal level."

At least 15 states ban cloning, either for reproductive purposes or research, or, in come cases both, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Congress has mostly fought issues of both stem cell research and cloning to a draw.

"What we saw the last time cloning was in the headlines was that the discussion really got mired in the abortion controversy," Darnovsky said.

The House passed bills banning all forms of cloning in 2001 and 2003; the Senate failed to act in both cases.

"All the other issues got completely swamped," she said. "And I really hope that doesn't happen this time."

But both the issue of cloning — for research and reproduction — and embryonic stem cell research have been mired in the abortion controversy from the start.

Stem Cell Research

About the only law that has been able to pass is language that gets added to the funding bill for the Department of Health and Human Services funding bill every year since the mid-1990s – the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, named for its original House sponsors, Reps. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. It bars the use of federal funds for research that could destroy or harm a human embryo.

The Clinton administration decided that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research using cell lines derived from embryos destroyed with private funds did not violate that law.

President Bush put that policy into force, but severely limited the cell lines available to researchers.

"I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made," he said in a televised address to the nation.

Meanwhile, over the years Congress debated several bills to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, under specific ethical guidelines, as well as legislation to ban cloning intended to make a baby. Neither, however, was able to pass both the House and Senate and get the president's signature.

When he came into office, in 2009, President Obama used his executive authority to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, while maintaining guidelines such as not paying women for their eggs.

"The majority of Americans, from across the political spectrum, and from all backgrounds and beliefs, have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research," he said.

FDA Rules

But Congress remains deadlocked over the bioethical issues. Which is not to say that there is no federal regulation.

Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the Food and Drug Administration has, from the start, said it would closely regulate anything it deemed to be human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic.

"Once you start talking about putting many of the products of these cells into people, then you get into an area where the FDA is very interested," he said.

Meanwhile, Darnovsky of the Center on Genetics and Society, says she hopes this new development might break the legislative logjam.

"This development, if it turns out to be replicable, will mean that there will be cloned human embryos in labs around the country," she said. "And we really need to make sure that no unscrupulous person would ever try to use those to produce a cloned human being."

Congress, however, has been unable to pass much of anything this year. It's unclear yet if this will rise to the level of must-pass.


Hannah Warren with her parents
(AP Photo/The Korea Herald, Kim Myung-sub)
April 30, 2013

Peoria Hospital Transplants Windpipe Using Stem Cells

A Peoria hospital is in the national spotlight after it was able to transplant a tissue-engineered bio-artificial trachea into a two-year old child. 

The Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis announced Tuesday it successfully implanted a windpipe in Hanna Warren of South Korea that was made from non-absorbable nano-fibers and her own stem cells.

The toddler was born without a windpipe and has been unable to breathe, eat, drink or swallow on her own since she was born in 2010.

Dr. Richard Pearl is the Director of Pediatric Trauma and Surgeon in Chief at the Children’s Hospital. He was also part of Hanna’s transplant team.

"I think this is the future. We're going to stop taking organs from cadavers and people, and engineer organs with these kinds of constructs and people's own stem cells, and make an organ, make a diaphragm, make a trachea, make a bladder, make a blood vessel," Pearl said. 

Pearl said Hanna’s immune system will likely not reject the transplant because no donor organ was used.

The two-year old girl is the youngest patient in the world to benefit from the experimental treatment.

Hanna will still need to go through physical therapy in the coming months to learn how to eat and drink. She may need surgery again after five years.

April 05, 2013

Scientists 'Read Dreams' Using Brain Scans

Scientists have found a way to "read" dreams, a study suggests.

Researchers in Japan used MRI scans to reveal the images that people were seeing as they entered into an early stage of sleep.

Writing in the journal Science, they reported that they could do this with 60% accuracy.

The team now wants to see if brain activity can be used to decipher other aspects of dreaming, such as the emotions experienced during sleep.

Professor Yukiyasu Kamitani, from the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, in Kyoto, said: "I had a strong belief that dream decoding should be possible at least for particular aspects of dreaming... I was not very surprised by the results, but excited."

Brain wave

People have been trying to understand dreams since ancient Egyptian times, but the researchers who have carried out this study have found a more direct way to tap into our nighttime visions.

The team used MRI scans to monitor three people as they slept.

Just as the volunteers started to fall asleep inside the scanners, they were woken up and asked to recount what they had seen.

Each image mentioned, from bronze statues to keys and ice picks, was noted, no matter how surreal.

This was repeated more than 200 times for each participant.

The researchers used the results to build a database, where they grouped together objects into similar visual categories. For example, hotel, house and building were grouped together as "structures".

The scientists then scanned the volunteers again, but this time, while they were awake and looking at images on a computer screen.

With this, they were able to see the specific patterns of brain activity that correlated with the visual imagery.

Dream machines?

During the next round of sleep tests, by monitoring the brain scans the researchers could tell what the volunteers were seeing in their dreams. They were able to assess which broad category the images were in with 60% accuracy.

"We were able to reveal dream content from brain activity during sleep, which was consistent with the subjects' verbal reports," explained Professor Kamitani.

The researchers now want to look at deeper sleep, where the most vivid dreams are thought to occur, as well as see whether brain scans can help them to reveal the emotions, smells, colours and actions that people experience as they sleep.

Dr Mark Stokes, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Oxford, said it was an "exciting" piece of research that brought us closer to the concept of dream-reading machines.

"It's obviously a long way off, but there is no reason why not in principle. The difficult thing is to work out the systematic mapping between the brain activity and the phenomena," he explained.

However, he added that a single dream-reading system would not work for everyone.

"All of this would have to be done within individual subjects. So you would never be able build a general classifier that could read anybody's dreams. They will all be idiosyncratic to the individual, so the brain activity will never be general across subjects," he said.

"You would never be able to build something that could read other peoples thoughts without them knowing about it, for example."

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