Brain Wave May Be Used to Detect What People Have Seen, Recognize

Brain activity can be used to tell whether someone recognizes details they encountered in normal, daily life, which may have implications for criminal investigations and use in courtrooms, new research shows.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that a particular brain wave, known as P300, could serve as a marker that identifies places, objects, or other details that a person has seen and recognizes from everyday life.

Research using EEG recordings of brain activity has shown that the P300 brain wave tends to be large when a person recognizes a meaningful item among a list of nonmeaningful items. Using P300, researchers can give a subject a test called the Concealed Information Test (CIT) to try to determine whether they recognize information that is related to a crime or other event.

This is a photo of a cordoned-off crime scene.Most studies investigating P300 and recognition have been conducted in lab settings that are far removed from the kinds of information a real witness or suspect might be exposed to. This new study marks an important advance, says lead research John B. Meixner of Northwestern University, because it draws on details from activities in participants’ normal, daily lives. Continue reading “Brain Wave May Be Used to Detect What People Have Seen, Recognize”

Gutting of campaign finance laws enhances influence of corporations and wealthy Americans

PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:
10-Apr-2014

– “This study dashes hopes for this democratic kind of interest-group influence,’

constitution-fire

PRINCETON, N.J.—Affluent individuals and business corporations already have vastly more influence on federal government policy than average citizens, according to recently released research by Princeton University and Northwestern University. This research suggests that the Supreme Court’s continuing attack on campaign finance laws is further increasing the political clout of business firms and the wealthy. Continue reading “Gutting of campaign finance laws enhances influence of corporations and wealthy Americans”

Government spent more than $16 billion on advertising, marketing in last decade

Requested Repost from Nov 2012

 

EEV: As all of us in the U.S. have experienced the barrage of dull, poorly done,  depressing, fear driven Government  during our favorite T.V. or Radio programs. For me personally the Government advertising has become so bizarre and disturbing it has forced me to stop listening. When writing the Radio stations in question, their response normally is that the U.S. government is now their largest accounts, and keeps them afloat.

However, I am willing to compromise if I can see a few Made in the U.S.A. commercials. Those would make me smile, even only if nostalgic.

Federal agencies spent more than $16 billion on advertising, marketing, PR contractors in last decade
UPDATED 0:06 AM EST, November 30, 2012  |  By Phillip Swarts, John Solomon and the Medill News Service
Why It Matters:

As America faces a massive deficit and impending budget cuts, federal agencies are spending about $1.5 billion a year on advertising, raising questions on whether promoting programs, policies and industries is really the best use of taxpayer dollars.

The government has spent more than $16 billion over the last decade on outside advertising, marketing and public relations contractors, feeding a cottage industry of inside-the-Beltway and Madison Avenue firms that help federal agencies burnish their images and tailor their messages, an investigation by the Washington Guardian and Northwestern University’s Medill News Service has found.

Many of the contracts are awarded without full competition, and some of the funding goes to foreign contractors whose names the government refuses to disclose, the review of federal spending records from fiscal years 2002 through 2012 found.

The money is above and beyond the millions of dollars a year that agencies already spend on their fulltime press, communications and media operations, and it has gone to pay for projects as varied as NASCAR and sports sponsorships, recruitment efforts for the military services, veterans benefits, welfare aid, and programs that help multi-billion dollar multinational corporations pitch their products to overseas customers, the records show.

Those on the front lines of the work say federal agencies’ reliance on advertising, PR and media firms is just one of the many signs of how much the era of instant 24/7 Internet and TV access has transformed the government’s job of communicating to Americans.

1960s Labor Department ad

A few decades ago, the government’s main advertising business focused on pitching public service announcements, like the U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey the Bear fire prevention commercials or a 1960s-era Labor Department commercial featuring the comic book heroes Batman and Bat Girl talking about equal wages for women.

Today, consultants are brought in for communication projects as targeted as recruiting translators and linguists for national security agencies and as urgent as launching advertising campaigns like the one the Obama administration rushed onto airwaves in Pakistan in September, featuring the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologizing for an Internet video that originated in the United States and offended Muslims worldwide. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” the president was quoted as saying in an ad designed to lower tensions in Islamic countries.

Some advertising campaigns identified by the Washington Guardian and Medill News Service, however, are likely to leave taxpayers and policymakers who advocate a smaller government scratching their heads. For instance:

  • The Veterans Affairs Department has spent $25 million on advertising since 2011 to encourage more retired troops to take advantage of its mental health services, luring new customers into a system that is suffering historic backlogs for the people it already tries to serve. The Washington Guardian reported earlier this month that the backlog of benefits cases has nearly doubled in the last two years alone. VA officials said they did not have any statistics to show how effective the campaign “Make the Connection” has been in getting vets suffering from mental illness to go to a Web site to enroll. But a key veterans’ mental health expert, Dr. Tom Berger, who serves on one of the VA’s oversight committees, has criticized the ad campaign, saying it lacks targeting and fails to engage those vets who are older and have limited knowledge of using technology.
  • The Labor Department spent a half-million dollars on a public relations firm to advertise the benefits of a clean energy retraining program, which the Washington Guardian reported in September missed– by far — its goals of retraining workers.
  • The Agriculture Department spent millions since 2008 on ads designed to encourage more Americans to enroll for food stamps — many in Spanish and targeted at Hispanics — at a time when the government safety net program already has record expenditures. The department ended the ads shortly before the election, after conservatives complained.

Federal agencies insist the advertising and marketing help is essential to their missions, saying the money has gone to recruit workers, sell American products overseas, advertise services and inform and educate the public about dangers as well as opportunities and assistance.

“We really want to represent America’s farmers and ranchers, and those are raw commodities.  They demonstrate a full array of the types of food that are produced here in the United States,” explained Matt Herrick, a spokesman at the U.S. Agriculture Department that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help American companies market their agriproducts overseas.

Nonetheless, the entire line of spending is likely to draw scrutiny as congressional budget-cutters look for savings to reduce massive federal deficits.

“At a time when we’re facing a $16 trillion debt and the impending bankruptcy of safety-net programs like Medicare and Social Security, spending $16 billion on advertising consultants raises troubling questions,” says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is retiring at the end of 2016 but spent years in Congress seeking elusive deals to cut spending. “Congress has an obligation to find out who made these decisions, and for what purpose, and then hold agencies accountable for any misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The Washington Guardian and Medill News Service reviewed a decade’s worth of federal spending records to provide the first-ever accounting of how much money the government spent hiring contractors to create or place ads, tailor messages, handle public relations or craft communication strategies. The computer analysis found that federal agencies awarded more than 190,000 contracts and spent more than $16.3 billion since 2002 on the various efforts — an average of about $1.5 billion annually. (Click here to see the methodology.)

That total, however, does not include the amounts spent each year by the various military services on the hundreds of promotional flyovers they stage with aircraft to wow audiences at sporting events. The Pentagon doesn’t know how much is spent on those efforts, because it doesn’t track the costs.

The biggest spenders among the agencies were the Pentagon, and the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services.  The spending on the ads and image-making appears to have peaked under President George W. Bush in 2008 at nearly $2 billion, and has fallen under President Barack Obama to $1.3 billion in 2011, the last year with full spending records available.

Though most ad and communications campaigns were months or years in the making, federal agencies frequently skipped bargain shopping that would have gotten taxpayers the best deal. At least 30 percent of the advertising, marketing and communications contracts were awarded without full and open competition, the review found.

A handful of firms around the country are the biggest beneficiaries of the burgeoning workload, hauling in significant tax dollars.  New York-based ad firm McCann-Erickson Worldwide raked in $1.3 billion in contracts since 2002.  Chicago ad firm Leo Burnett USA was also a big winner, getting $921 million in contracts, mostly from the Defense Department.

Not all of the contractors can be publicly tracked. The government — especially the Defense and State Departments — hires many foreign firms for advertising, marketing or communications work, and refuses to disclose their names. About $161 million over the last decade was awarded to “miscellaneous foreign contractors” for contracts ranging from a Fourth of July fireworks show to sculptures for embassies to expenditures for the newspaper “Baghdad Now,” the Washington Guardian and Medill News Service review found.

Sometimes, different federal agency campaigns offered conflicting messages. For instance, the Health and Human Services Department was spending millions crafting and placing ads encouraging Americans to eat healthier and be more fit, while the U.S. Agriculture Department was spending tens of millions pitching wines, popcorn, hard liquor and chocolates to foreign markets — a delicious dichotomy for sure.

The value of the government’s billion-and-a-half-dollar-a-year outside messaging machine lies in the eye of the beholder. “Advertising is one of the more effective ways of [recruitment] … advertising is one of the two resources that you can turn on and off easier,” said James Dertouzos, a former economist with RAND Corporation that published a 2009 study that concluded the Army’s ads were effective in attracting new recruits, but could be made more effective.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., sees it a different way. This summer he and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., led an unsuccessful effort in Congress to ban the military services from spending money on sports sponsorships, such as putting the National Guard’s logo on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race car or the Marines’ sponsorship of mixed martial arts competitions. Kingston’s amendment to the military’s spending bill, which would have saved taxpayers between $70 million and $80 million in 2013, was narrowly defeated in the House in July by a 216-202 vote.

But along the way, Kingston and McCollum educated their colleagues about some of the issues involved and signaled it is a fight that is unlikely to go away in an era of burgeoning debt and fiscal cliffs. For instance, they noted that only 10 percent of NASCAR fans fall between the ages of 18 and 24, an optimal recruitment age for the military. They also questioned the need for aggressive military recruitment advertising when the Marines and Army plan to cut 103,000 from their ranks.

And they noted comments made by a National Guard official to USA Today that the Guard’s $26.5 million sponsorship generated 24,800 recruitment inquiries in fiscal year 2012, of which only 20 were qualified.

“I just don’t see how seeing a logo on their favorite race car or on a fisherman’s visor is going to encourage someone to join the military,” Kingston declared during the debate.

But Kingston’s and McCollum’s efforts did appear to have an impact: This summer, the Army announced it was ending its sponsorship of sporting events.

Like Kingston and McCollum, Sen. Coburn has sought to shine light on the Agriculture Department’s Market Access Program, which since 1999 has doled out more than $2.1 billion to help American agriculture companies pitch their products in foreign markets. He issued a report this summer questioning why the government was using tax dollars to assist large agribusinesses and its industry trade groups — such as California winemakers, almond growers, candy and popcorn manufacturers and distillers — compete overseas, when combined they had billions of dollars in annual revenues.

“Despite the billions of dollars in taxpayer funds, little, if any, data exist to show how the program has had any significant impact on American agriculture’s total share of global exports,” Coburn declared in his report. “…The time has come to debate whether the federal government should be in the business of promoting private market goods to foreign buyers.”

The Republican senator may have found an ally in the Obama administration, which has tried to cut MAP and declared in its 2011 budget savings proposal that the program’s “economic impact is unclear and it does not serve a clear need.”

While bipartisan sentiments to rein in advertising and marketing spending appear to be rising, the actual job of making cuts is complicated by politics. Big contractors, major agribusinesses, trade lobbies and even NASCAR have their protectors in Congress, and thus far they have been fairly effective in warding off major cuts. And then there’s the added challenge of determining what constitutes advertising and marketing.

The Congressional Research Service’s Kevin Kosar noted in an April 2012 report that there is no official definition for what constitutes federal advertising and no central authority for approving such expenditures. He also noted that the intention of the ad often determines the public’s perception of its value.

“Americans have long been of mixed mind about advertising. On the one hand, advertising is beneficial insofar as it provides information. On the other hand, advertising (be it private or governmental) often attempts to persuade individuals to alter their behaviors,” Kosar wrote. “Unease with advertising can be magnified if the advertiser is the government, especially if an advertisement conflicts with widely held beliefs about government.”

Researchers create laser the size of a virus particle

Contact: Megan Fellman fellman@northwestern.edu 847-491-3115 Northwestern University

Miniature laser operates at room temperature and defies the diffraction limit of light

A Northwestern University research team has found a way to manufacture single laser devices that are the size of a virus particle and that operate at room temperature. These plasmonic nanolasers could be readily integrated into silicon-based photonic devices, all-optical circuits and nanoscale biosensors.

Reducing the size of photonic and electronic elements is critical for ultra-fast data processing and ultra-dense information storage. The miniaturization of a key, workhorse instrument — the laser — is no exception.

The results are published in the journal Nano Letters.

“Coherent light sources at the nanometer scale are important not only for exploring phenomena in small dimensions but also for realizing optical devices with sizes that can beat the diffraction limit of light,” said Teri Odom, a nanotechnology expert who led the research.

Odom is the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“The reason we can fabricate nano-lasers with sizes smaller than that allowed by diffraction is because we made the lasing cavity out of metal nanoparticle dimers — structures with a 3-D ‘bowtie’ shape,” Odom said.

These metal nanostructures support localized surface plasmons — collective oscillations of electrons — that have no fundamental size limits when it comes to confining light.

The use of the bowtie geometry has two significant benefits over previous work on plasmon lasers: (1) the bowtie structure provides a well-defined, electromagnetic hot spot in a nano-sized volume because of an antenna effect, and (2) the individual structure has only minimal metal “losses” because of its discrete geometry.

“Surprisingly, we also found that when arranged in an array, the 3-D bowtie resonators could emit light at specific angles according to the lattice parameters,” Odom said.

###

The Nano Letters paper, titled “Plasmonic Bowtie Nanolaser Arrays,” is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/nl303086r.

Study Reveals Impact of Public DNS Services; Researchers Develop Tool to Help

Oct 25, 2012 11:00 AM

A new study by Northwestern University researchers has revealed that public DNS services could actually slow down users’ web-surfing experience. As a result, researchers have developed a solution to help avoid such an impact: a tool called namehelp that could speed web performance by 40 percent.

Through a large-scale study involving more than 10,000 hosts across nearly 100 countries, Fabián Bustamante, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and his team found that one cause of slow web performance is a growing trend toward public Domain Name Systems (DNS), a form of database that translates Internet domain and host names into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.

DNS services play a vital role in the Internet: every time a user visits a website, chats with friends, or sends email, his computer performs DNS look-ups before setting up a connection. Complex web pages often require multiple DNS look-ups before they start loading, so users’ computers may perform hundreds of DNS look-ups a day. Most users are unaware of DNS, since Internet Service Providers (ISP) typically offer the service transparently.

Over the last few years, companies such as Google, OpenDNS, and Norton DNS have begun offering “public” DNS services. While “private” DNS services, such as those offered by ISPs, may be misconfigured, respond slowly to queries, and go down more often, public DNS services offer increased security and privacy, and quicker resolution time. The arrangement is also beneficial for public DNS providers, who gain access to information about users’ web habits.

Bustamante and his team found that while using public DNS services may provide many benefits, users’ web performance can suffer due to the hidden interaction of DNS with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), another useful and equally transparent service in the web.

CDNs help performance by offering exact replicas of website content in hundreds or thousands of computer servers around the world; when a user types in a web address, he is directed to the copy geographically closest to him. Most popular websites – more than 70 percent of the top 1,000 most popular sites, according to the Northwestern study – rely on CDNs to deliver their content quickly to users around the world.

But researchers found that using public DNS services can result in bad redirections, sending users to content from CDN replicas that are three times farther away than necessary.

Public DNS and CDN services are working to address the problem, but current users are left with two mediocre options – bad web performance through public DNS services or bad security and privacy support through private DNS services.

Now Bustamante and his group have developed a tool called namehelp that may let users have their cake and eat it, too – by using public DNS services without compromising on web performance.

namehelp runs personalized benchmarks in the background, from within users’ computers, to determine their optimal DNS configuration and improve their web experience by helping sites load faster. If it finds that a user is receiving less than optimal web performance, namehelp automatically fixes it by cleverly interacting with DNS services and CDNs to ensure the user gets his content from the nearest possible copy.

You can download namehelp today from: http://aqualab.cs.northwestern.edu/projects/namehelp.

The paper describing the research is titled “Content Delivery and the Natural Evolution of DNS: Remote DNS Trends, Performance Issues and Alternative Solutions.” The team’s findings will be presented at the Internet Measurement Conference (IMC 2012) in Boston this November. In addition to Bustamante, authors on the paper are lead author John S. Otto, Mario A. Sanchez, and John P. Rula, all of Northwestern.

 

http://www.mccormick.northwestern.edu/news/articles/2012/10/fabian-bustamante-public-DNS-services-namehelp.html

Can your body sense future events without any external clue?

Contact: Hilary Hurd Anyaso
h-anyaso@northwestern.edu
847-491-4887
Northwestern University

New Northwestern analysis focuses on ‘pre-feelings’ and ability to anticipate the near future

EVANSTON, Ill. — Wouldn’t it be amazing if our bodies prepared us for future events that could be very important to us, even if there’s no clue about what those events will be?

Presentiment without any external clues may, in fact, exist, according to new Northwestern University research that analyzes the results of 26 studies published between 1978 and 2010.

Researchers already know that our subconscious minds sometimes know more than our conscious minds. Physiological measures of subconscious arousal, for instance, tend to show up before conscious awareness that a deck of cards is stacked against us.

“What hasn’t been clear is whether humans have the ability to predict future important events even without any clues as to what might happen,” said Julia Mossbridge, lead author of the study and research associate in the Visual Perception, Cognition and Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern.

A person playing a video game at work while wearing headphones, for example, can’t hear when his or her boss is coming around the corner.

“But our analysis suggests that if you were tuned into your body, you might be able to detect these anticipatory changes between two and 10 seconds beforehand and close your video game,” Mossbridge said. “You might even have a chance to open that spreadsheet you were supposed to be working on. And if you were lucky, you could do all this before your boss entered the room.”

This phenomenon is sometimes called “presentiment,” as in “sensing the future,” but Mossbridge said she and other researchers are not sure whether people are really sensing the future.

“I like to call the phenomenon ‘anomalous anticipatory activity,'” she said. “The phenomenon is anomalous, some scientists argue, because we can’t explain it using present-day understanding about how biology works; though explanations related to recent quantum biological findings could potentially make sense. It’s anticipatory because it seems to predict future physiological changes in response to an important event without any known clues, and it’s an activity because it consists of changes in the cardiopulmonary, skin and nervous systems.”

###

The study, “Predictive Physiological Anticipation Preceding Seemingly Unpredictable Stimuli: A Meta-Analysis,” is in the current edition of Frontiers in Perception Science. In addition to Mossbridge, co-authors of the study include Patrizio Tressoldi of the Università di Padova, Padova, Italy, and Jessica Utts of the University of California, Irvine.

NORTHWESTERN NEWS: www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/

Common bronchodilator linked to increased deaths

2008 Post for filing

Contact: Marla Paul Marla-Paul@northwestern.edu 312-503-8928 Northwestern University

CHICAGO — A common bronchodilator drug which has been used for more than a decade by patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has been linked to a one-third higher risk of cardiovascular-related deaths.

The drug, ipratropium, is sold under the brand names Atrovent and Combivent, the latter a combination product that contains ipratropium.

A new study from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that veterans with recently diagnosed COPD using ipratropium were 34 percent more likely to die of a heart attack or of arrhythmia than COPD patients using only albuterol (another bronchodilator) or patients not using any treatment.

The study is published in the Sept. 15 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“This medication may be having some systemic cardiovascular effect that is increasing the risk of death in COPD patients,” said Todd Lee, lead author and research assistant professor in the Institute for HealthCare Studies at the Feinberg School.

COPD is an umbrella term for respiratory diseases that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The primary cause is smoking. An estimated 12 million people in the U.S.  have COPD. The disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. and is expected to grow to the third leading cause by 2020 due largely to an aging population with a higher historical rate of smoking.

Todd noted his study is observational and indicates the need for researchers to take a closer look at this medication, which has been considered safe for many years. The study looked at the cause of death of 145,000 veterans with newly diagnosed COPD from 1999 to 2003.

“The safety of drugs for COPD patients has flown under the radar,” Lee said. “We decided to look into the safety of respiratory medications for COPD patients because of some concerns that had been raised in asthma drugs. We were curious as to whether there were safety problems with these medications in patients with COPD.”

Todd said patients and providers should be aware of the potential risk. “When they make treatment decisions they need to weigh these potential risks against other medications that are available for COPD,” he noted

UNC researchers find MSG use linked to obesity

Re-Post 2008 for Filing
Contact: Patric Lane
patric_lane@unc.edu
919-962-8596
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL – People who use monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as a flavor enhancer in their food are more likely than people who don’t use it to be overweight or obese even though they have the same amount of physical activity and total calorie intake, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health study published this month in the journal Obesity.

Researchers at UNC and in China studied more than 750 Chinese men and women, aged between 40 and 59, in three rural villages in north and south China. The majority of study participants prepared their meals at home without commercially processed foods. About 82 percent of the participants used MSG in their food. Those users were divided into three groups, based on the amount of MSG they used. The third who used the most MSG were nearly three times more likely to be overweight than non-users.

“Animal studies have indicated for years that MSG might be associated with weight gain,” said Ka He, M.D., assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the UNC School of Public Health. “Ours is the first study to show a link between MSG use and weight in humans.”

Because MSG is used as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods, studying its potential effect on humans has been difficult. He and his colleagues chose study participants living in rural Chinese villages because they used very little commercially processed food, but many regularly used MSG in food preparation.

“We found that prevalence of overweight was significantly higher in MSG users than in non-users,” He said. “We saw this risk even when we controlled for physical activity, total calorie intake and other possible explanations for the difference in body mass. The positive associations between MSG intake and overweight were consistent with data from animal studies.”

As the percentage of overweight and obese people around the world continues to increase, He said, finding clues to the cause could be very important.

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other health organizations around the world have concluded that MSG is safe,” He said, “but the question remains – is it healthy?”

 

###

Co-authors on the study included Liancheng Zhao and colleagues from Fu Wai Hospital and Cardiovascular Institute at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing. Other researchers on this study were from Northwestern University in Chicago and the INTERMAP Cooperative Research Group.

The study is available online at: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v16/n8/full/oby2008274a.html

Note: He can be reached at (919) 843-2476 or kahe@unc.edu.

School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467, ramona_dubose@unc.edu
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596, patric_lane@unc.edu

Did the gene for ADHD help our nomadic ancestors?

Re-Post 2008

Contact: Ben Campbell
campbelb@uwm.edu
414-229-6250
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

An ADHD-associated version of the human gene DRD4 is linked to better health among nomadic tribesmen, but may cause malnourishment in their settled cousins, according to new research by a team directed by an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

A study by UWM assistant professor Ben Campbell and colleagues from Northwestern University, Boston University and UNLV shows that a particular version of the gene DRD4, appears to have completely different effects, depending on one’s environment.

The DRD4 gene codes for a receptor for dopamine, one of the chemical messengers used in the brain. Previous research has linked the gene with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-type behavior in young men – risk-taking, reward-seeking and impulsivity, says Campbell.

But people can have different versions of the gene. One variant, called the 7R allele, is associated with novelty-seeking in addition to ADHD.

The researchers conducted the study among the Ariaal population in northern Kenya – some of whom still live as nomads, while others have recently settled. The research team analyzed the body mass index (BMI) and height of the two groups, nomadic and non-nomadic Ariaal men, who had the variant gene.

They found that those with the 7R allele in the nomadic population were better nourished than their non-nomadic brethren who carried 7R allele.

The results underscore, says Campbell, the complexity of genotype on the expression of behavior. Different environments can determine whether behaviors associated with the gene, such as ADHD, are more or less effective.

“We may have difficulty understanding ADHD in part because we are considering the behaviors associated with it in only one environment – the present one,” he says. “The thinking used to be one gene, one outcome. Now we know that one gene with different environments yields different outcomes.”

Campbell says the results have implications for the relationship between a sedentary lifestyle and aging.

“This suggests that this particular allele may be beneficial in a traditional setting with high levels of habitual physical activity, but carries with it longer term costs in a more sedentary setting.”

Although the effects of different versions of dopamine genes have already been studied in industrialized countries, very little research has been carried out in non-industrial settings, says Campbell. And yet, subsistence environments are more similar to those where much of human genetic evolution took place, he points out.

 

###

 

The research, co-authored by T.A. Eisenberg, Peter B. Gray, and Michael D. Sorenson, is published this month in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology

Saturated Fats encourage the growth and invasiveness of harmful microbiota: Unsaturated fats—actually have strong antimicrobial properties

Why some fats are worse than others

All dietary fats are not created equal. Some types of fats have been linked to ailments like heart disease and diabetes, while others, like those often found in plants and fish, have well documented health benefits.

 

So why do our bodies respond so destructively to some fats but not others?

 

A new hypothesis described in latest issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology suggests the answer may lie in how different fats interact with the microbes in our guts. According to researchers from the University of New Mexico and Northwestern University, some fats may encourage the growth of harmful bacteria in the digestive system. Our bodies have evolved to recognize those fats and launch an immune response to preempt the impeding changes in harmful bacteria. The result is low-level inflammation that, over the long term, causes chronic disease.

 

“Although the inflammatory effects of [fats] are well documented, it is less well appreciated that they also influence bacterial survival and proliferation in the gastrointestinal tract,” write the researchers, led by Joe Alcock, of the University of New Mexico Department of Emergency Medicine and VA Medical Center.

 

Some fats—mostly unsaturated fats—actually have strong antimicrobial properties. They react chemically with bacterial cell membranes, weakening them. “If you expose unsaturated fats on bacteria, the bacteria have a tendency to lyse. The combination of long chain unsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, and innate host defenses like gastric acid and antimicrobial peptides, is particularly lethal to pathogenic bacteria,” Alcock said. Saturated fats on the other hand generally lack those antimicrobial properties, and in fact can provide a carbon source that bacteria need to grow and flourish.

 

And it’s these differing microbial effects, Alcock believes, that are at the root of why some fats are inflammatory and some aren’t. To test that notion, the researchers poured through years of research on both the microbial effects of fats and their inflammatory effects.

 

“We found a highly significant relationship between those fats that had antimicrobial properties and those that had anti-inflammatory properties,” Alcock said. “Fats that lack antimicrobial properties tended to be pro-inflammatory. It was a very, very strong relationship.”

 

In a sense, the researchers say, the presence of saturated fats sets off an “early warning system” in the body. When fats that encourage bacterial growth are present, the body prepares for unwelcome microbial guests with an inflammatory immune response. And while that response may help fend off infection in the short term, the constant presence of such fats could cause the body to spiral into diseases related to inflammation, like heart disease.

 

The researchers caution that while this hypothesis is well supported by current data, there’s much more research to be done.

 

“We have a pretty good idea that eating fatty foods encourages the growth and invasiveness of harmful microbiota and we know that certain fats kill off these potentially harmful species,” Alcock said. “But we’re making a bit of a leap from the Petri dish to the whole organism.”

 

“We don’t intend this to be the final word. Rather it’s a tool to generate additional hypotheses that can be tested.”

Scientists discover one of the ways the influenza virus disarms host cells

Contact: Megan Fellman fellman@northwestern.edu 847-491-3115 Northwestern University

Advantage flu virus

When you are hit with the flu, you know it immediately — fever, chills, sore throat, aching muscles, fatigue. This is your body mounting an immune response to the invading virus. But less is known about what is happening on the molecular level.

Now Northwestern University scientists have discovered one of the ways the influenza virus disarms our natural defense system. The virus decreases the production of key immune system-regulating proteins in human cells that help fight the invader. The virus does this by turning on the microRNAs — little snippets of RNA — that regulate these proteins.

The researchers, led by molecular biologist Curt M. Horvath, are among the first to show the influenza virus can change the expression of microRNA to control immune responses in human lung cells.

The findings reveal a new aspect of the interaction between the influenza virus and its host. Knowing how viruses disable the immune system to wreak havoc in the body will help researchers design therapeutics to preserve the immune response and keep people healthy. The knowledge also may be valuable for future diagnostics.

The study is published by the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The paper will appear in its final form in September.

“It’s a battle of supremacy between virus and host,” said Horvath, the senior author of the paper. “Our goal is to understand how the flu replicates in the host. Now we’ve discovered a new pathway in which the flu controls the immune response, by shutting down vital protein production. With better understanding of this mechanism, one day we may be able to customize therapeutics to target individual flu strains.”

Horvath is the Soretta and Henry Shapiro Research Professor in Molecular Biology and professor of molecular biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He also is professor of microbiology-immunology and medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

A microRNA has only 17 to 24 nucleotides, and its function is to dampen or shut down the production of proteins in the body. (Proteins are the workhorses of the cell.) There are hundreds of different types of microRNAs in animals.

It’s been known for many years that when a virus such as influenza infects respiratory cells there is an immediate antiviral response at the cellular level — the first barrier for protecting the body from the virus. Most of the changes that occur are a result of antiviral gene expression.

About 10 years ago, scientists first learned about small RNA pathways called microRNAs, which regulate gene expression. This led Horvath to want to investigate the role of microRNAs in influenza virus infection and determine what they are contributing to the antiviral response. Exactly which genes might the microRNAs be targeting?

In their current study, Horvath and his team used human lung cells, infected them with the influenza A virus and looked to see which microRNAs were activated in response to the virus. They focused on six microRNAs that were found to increase in abundance during flu infection.

The researchers found the virus activated two microRNAs that turned on the genes IRAK1 and MAPK3. This resulted in a decrease in the amount of proteins that help turn on the immune response.

Essentially, the virus uses the cell mechanisms to its advantage, disarming parts of the natural antiviral system. The flu takes over the expression of microRNAs for its own purposes. The flu increases the expression of microRNA, which decreases the amount of protein and diminishes the immune response.

Having identified a specific set of microRNAs whose expression in host respiratory cells is changed by the influenza virus, Horvath next is interested at looking at the clinical outcomes. He is working with Pedro C. Avila, M.D., professor of medicine-allergy-immunology at the Feinberg School to see if the microRNAs are disregulated in patients with influenza.

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The title of the paper is “Influenza A Virus Infection of Human Respiratory Cells Induces Primary MicroRNA Expression.” In addition to Horvath, other authors of the paper are first author William A. Buggele and Karen E. Johnson.

Northwestern scientists create chemical brain – Birth of Chematica

Northwestern scientists create chemical brain

Giant network links all known compounds and reactions to create chemical Google on steroids

Northwestern University scientists have connected 250 years of organic chemical knowledge into one giant computer network — a chemical Google on steroids. This “immortal chemist” will never retire and take away its knowledge but instead will continue to learn, grow and share.

A decade in the making, the software optimizes syntheses of drug molecules and other important compounds, combines long (and expensive) syntheses of compounds into shorter and more economical routes and identifies suspicious chemical recipes that could lead to chemical weapons.

“I realized that if we could link all the known chemical compounds and reactions between them into one giant network, we could create not only a new repository of chemical methods but an entirely new knowledge platform where each chemical reaction ever performed and each compound ever made would give rise to a collective ‘chemical brain,'” said Bartosz A. Grzybowski, who led the work. “The brain then could be searched and analyzed with algorithms akin to those used in Google or telecom networks.”

Called Chematica, the network comprises some seven million chemicals connected by a similar number of reactions. A family of algorithms that searches and analyzes the network allows the chemist at his or her computer to easily tap into this vast compendium of chemical knowledge. And the system learns from experience, as more data and algorithms are added to its knowledge base.

Details and demonstrations of the system are published in three back-to-back papers in the Aug. 6 issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Grzybowski is the senior author of all three papers. He is the Kenneth Burgess Professor of Physical Chemistry and Chemical Systems Engineering in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

In the Angewandte paper titled “Parallel Optimization of Synthetic Pathways Within the Network of Organic Chemistry,” the researchers have demonstrated algorithms that find optimal syntheses leading to drug molecules and other industrially important chemicals.

“The way we coded our algorithms allows us to search within a fraction of a second billions of chemical syntheses leading to a desired molecule,” Grzybowski said. “This is very important since within even a few synthetic steps from a desired target the number of possible syntheses is astronomical and clearly beyond the search capabilities of any human chemist.”

Chematica can test and evaluate every possible synthesis that exists, not only the few a particular chemist might have an interest in. In this way, the algorithms find truly optimal ways of making desired chemicals.

The software already has been used in industrial settings, Grzybowski said, to design more economical syntheses of companies’ products. Synthesis can be optimized with various constraints, such as avoiding reactions involving environmentally dangerous compounds. Using the Chematica software, such green chemistry optimizations are just one click away.

Another important area of application is the shortening of synthetic pathways into the so-called “one-pot” reactions. One of the holy grails of organic chemistry has been to design methods in which all the starting materials could be combined at the very beginning and then the process would proceed in one pot — much like cooking a stew — all the way to the final product.

The Northwestern researchers detail how this can be done in the Angewandte paper titled “Rewiring Chemistry: Algorithmic Discovery and Experimental Validation of One-Pot Reactions in the Network of Organic Chemistry.”

The chemists have taught their network some 86,000 chemical rules that check — again, in a fraction of a second — whether a sequence of individual reactions can be combined into a one-pot procedure. Thirty predictions of one-pot syntheses were tested and fully validated. Each synthesis proceeded as predicted and had excellent yields.

In one striking example, Grzybowski and his team synthesized an anti-asthma drug using the one-pot method. The drug typically would take four consecutive synthesis and purification steps.

“Our algorithms told us this sequence could be combined into just one step, and we were naturally curious to check it out in a flask,” Grzybowski said. “We performed the one-pot reaction and obtained the drug in excellent yield and at a fraction of the cost the individual steps otherwise would have accrued.”

The third area of application is the use of the Chematica network approach for predicting and monitoring syntheses leading to chemical weapons. This is reported in the Angewandte paper titled “Chemical Network Algorithms for the Risk Assessment and Management of Chemical Threats.”

“Since we now have this unique ability to scrutinize all possible synthetic strategies, we also can identify the ones that a potential terrorist might use to make a nerve gas, an explosive or another toxic agent,” Grzybowski said.

Algorithms known from game theory first are applied to identify the strategies that are hardest to detect by the federal government — the use of substances, for example, such as kitchen salt, clarifiers, grain alcohol and a fertilizer, all freely available from a local convenience store. Characteristic combinations of seemingly innocuous chemicals, such as this example, are red flags.

This strategy is very different from the government’s current approach of monitoring and regulating individual substances, Grzybowski said. Chematica can be used to monitor patterns of chemicals that together become suspicious, instead of monitoring individual compounds. Grzybowski is working with the federal government to implement the software.

Chematica now is being commercialized. “We chose this name,” Grzybowski said, “because networks will do to chemistry what Mathematica did to scientific computing. Our approach will accelerate synthetic design and discovery and will optimize synthetic practice at large.”

Dangerous experiment in fetal engineering (MUST READ)

Public release date: 2-Aug-2012


Dangerous experiment in fetal engineering

Risky prenatal use of steroid to try to prevent intersex, tomboys and lesbians

CHICAGO — A new paper just published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry uses extensive Freedom of Information Act findings to detail an extremely troubling off-label medical intervention employed in the U.S. on pregnant women to intentionally engineer the development of their fetuses for sex normalization purposes.

The paper is authored by Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and is co-authored by Ellen Feder, associate professor of philosophy and religion at American University, and Anne Tamar-Mattis, executive director of Advocates for Informed Choice.

The pregnant women targeted are at risk for having a child born with the condition congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an endocrinological condition that can result in female fetuses being born with intersex or more male-typical genitals and brains. Women genetically identified as being at risk are given dexamethasone, a synthetic steroid, off-label starting as early as week five of the first trimester to try to “normalize” the development of those fetuses, which are female and CAH-affected. Because the drug must be administered before doctors can know if the fetus is female or CAH-affected, only one in eight of those exposed are the target type of fetus.

The off-label intervention does not prevent CAH; it aims only at sex normalization. Like Diethylstilbestrol (DES) — which is now known to have caused major fertility problems and fatal cancers among those exposed in utero — dexamethasone is a synthetic steroid. Dexamethasone is known — and in this case intended — to cross the placental barrier and change fetal development. Experts estimate the glucocorticoid dose reaching the fetus is 60 to 100 times what the body would normally experience.

The new report provides clear evidence that:

  • For more than 10 years, medical societies repeatedly but ultimately impotently expressed high alarm at use of this off-label intervention outside prospective clinical trials, because it is so high risk and because nearly 90 percent of those exposed cannot benefit. 
  • Mothers offered the intervention have been told it “has been found safe for mother and child” but in fact there has never been any such scientific evidence. 
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has indicated it cannot stop advertising of this off-label use as “safe for mother and child” because the advertising is done by a clinician not affiliated with the drug maker. 
  • A just-out report from Sweden in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism documents a nearly 20 percent “serious adverse event” rate among the children exposed in utero
  • Clinician proponents of the intervention have been interested in whether the intervention can reduce rates of tomboyism, lesbianism and bisexuality, characteristics they have termed “behavioral masculinization.” 
  • The National Institutes of Health has funded research to see if these attempts to prevent “behavioral masculinization” with prenatal dexamethasone are “successful.” 
  • The United States’ systems designed to prevent another tragedy like DES and thalidomide — involving de facto experimentation on pregnant women and their fetuses — appear to be broken and ineffectual.
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The paper is available for free download at: http://www.springerlink.com/content/m1523l7615744552/?MUD=MP

Contact: Marla Paul
Marla-Paul@northwestern.edu
312-503-8928
Northwestern University

Understanding the links between inflammation and chronic disease (NC)

Early exposure to microbes reduces inflammation related to chronic disease later

EVANSTON, Ill. — American parents may want to think again about how much they want to protect their children from everyday germs.

A new Northwestern University study done in lowland Ecuador remarkably finds no evidence of chronic low-grade inflammation — associated with diseases of aging like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia.

In contrast, about one-third of adults in the United States have chronically elevated C-reactive protein (CRP). Acute elevations in CRP – a protein in the blood whose levels rise as part of the inflammatory response – are important for protecting us against infectious disease. But when CRP is chronically produced, it is associated with chronic diseases.

“In other words, CRP goes up when you need it, but it is almost undetectable when you don’t, after the infection resolves,” said Thomas W. McDade, professor of anthropology at Northwestern and faculty fellow at the university’s Institute for Policy Research. “This is a pretty remarkable finding, and very different from prior research in the U.S., where lots of people tend to have chronically elevated CRP, probably putting them at higher risk for chronic disease.”

McDade said the findings build on his previous research in the Philippines, which found that higher levels of microbial exposure in infancy were associated with lower CRP as an adult. Similar exposures during infancy in lowland Ecuador, where rates of infectious disease continue to be high, may have a lasting effect on the pattern of inflammation in adulthood.

“In my mind the study underscores the value of an ecological approach to research on the immune system, and it may have significant implications for our understanding of the links between inflammation and chronic disease,” McDade said. “This may be particularly important since nearly three-quarters of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease globally now occur in low- and middle-income nations like the Philippines and Ecuador.”

The new research, which was conducted as part of the Shuar Health and Life History Project (http://www.bonesandbehavior.org/shuar/), suggests that higher levels of exposure to infectious microbes early in life may change how we regulate inflammation as adults in ways that prevent chronic inflammation from emerging. Infectious microbes have been part of the human ecology for millennia, and it is only recently that more hygienic environments in affluent industrialized settings have substantially reduced the level and diversity of exposure.

A growing body of research has shown that higher levels of chronic inflammation are associated with diseases of aging like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. But current research is based almost exclusively on people living in affluent industrialized countries like the United States.

“We simply do not know what chronic inflammation looks like in places like the Ecuadorian Amazon and other parts of the world where infectious diseases are more common,” McDade said.

As a result, McDade, director of the Lab for Human Biology Research and director of Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health, and collaborators at the University of Oregon set out to investigate what factors in the environment and during development influence how people regulate inflammation as adults. The study was conducted in lowland Ecuador – in a group of 52 adults between the ages of 18 and 49.

Based on current clinical criteria, McDade and colleagues did not find a single case of chronic low-grade inflammation among adults living in the Ecuadorian Amazon. McDade said people in these places are still dying of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, but probably not through processes that involve inflammation.

In terms of population health, McDade said these findings suggest that the association between inflammation and cardiovascular disease frequently reported in the United States may only apply in ecological settings characterized by low levels of exposure to infectious disease.

“It builds on research on chronic inflammation and cardiovascular disease in the U.S. and other affluent, industrialized settings and suggests that patterns seen here may not apply globally,” McDade said. “It also suggests that the levels of chronic inflammation we see in the U.S. are not universal, and may be a product of epidemiological transitions that have lowered our level of exposure to infectious microbe