Government Experts Say Supplements Don’t Prevent Heart Disease, Cancer.


Americans spend nearly $12 billion each year on vitamin supplements, hoping they will steer us away from diseases like cancer and heart attacks. But it turns out they’re just a drain on our wallets.

Should healthy people take supplements to keep them healthy? A panel of experts convened by the government, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, says that for most vitamins and minerals, there is not enough evidence to determine whether the pills can lower risk of heart disease or cancer. And when it comes to beta-carotene (found in carrots and tomatoes) and vitamin E, there is no evidence that they can protect against either heart disease or cancer; in fact, beta-carotene use contributed to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers.

That will come as a surprise to most Americans, who pop pills of omega-3 fatty acids hoping to fend off a heart attack or down vitamins C and E, which are high in antioxidants, to counteract the free-radical damage that contributes to cancer. “In the absence of clear evidence about the impact of most vitamins and multivitamins on cardiovascular disease and cancer, health care professionals should counsel their patients to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that is rich in nutrients. They should also continue to consider the latest scientific research, their own experiences, and their patient’s health history and preferences when having conversations about nutritional supplements,” task-force member Dr. Wanda Nicholson said in a statement.

(MORE: Vitamin D and Calcium Supplements May Not Prevent Fractures)

The panel based its conclusion on a review of 26 studies, conducted from 2005 to ’13, some of which involved single supplements and others that investigated multivitamins and their relationship to heart disease, cancer and death outcomes. The review built on the panel’s previous report on supplements, in 2003, in which the task-force members said that there was not enough evidence to recommend vitamin A, C or E supplements, multivitamins or antioxidant combinations to prevent heart disease or cancer. At that time, the members also recommended against beta-carotene supplements because of their connection to a higher risk of lung cancer among smokers. In the current review, the members considered additional data on other vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins B and D, as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, niacin and calcium.

The conclusions apply to otherwise healthy people who take the supplements to prevent disease, so it’s not clear how effective, if at all, the pills can be in those at higher risk of heart problems or cancer. There have been hints, however, that the pills might not be the panacea that many people hoped they would be. In 2012, for example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that omega-3 supplements, touted as a powerful weapon against heart disease, did not lower risks of heart attack, stroke, or death from heart disease or any cause. Another study published in 2011 even linked vitamin-and-supplement consumption to a higher risk of death, reporting that women who took multivitamins were 6% more likely to die over a 19-year period, compared with women not taking them.

(MORE: Hold the Salmon: Omega-3 Fatty Acids Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer)

Why the takedown of vitamins, especially if they are so prevalent in good-for-you foods such as fruits and vegetables? Experts believe that the benefits of nutrients like vitamins may depend on how they are presented to the body; some may need the help of other compounds found in their natural form that are inadvertently stripped from individual pills that try to concentrate the health benefits of specific vitamins or minerals. “[T]he physiologic systems affected by vitamins and other antioxidant supplements are so complex that the effects of supplementing with only 1 or 2 components is generally ineffective or actually does harm,” write the authors in their report, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

They recognize, however, that their conclusions are based on relatively few studies, since few trials have addressed the question of whether supplements can prevent disease in healthy people. So the results hold only until more data become available to understand the association more completely. In the meantime, the best way to take advantage of any health-promoting effects of nutrients like vitamins and minerals is to get them in their natural state, by eating a well-balanced diet high in low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.

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The Most Extreme Weather In the Solar System.


“Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars…”

Spoiler alert: the weather Earth is far nicer than on any other planet in our solar system. Sure, you might have to carry an umbrella sometimes and the bottoms of your pants get all wet, and the wind kicks around pollen which can cause pesky allergies. But then you don’t have to worry about sulfuric acid falling out of the sky, which is nice.

Our Solar System is home to some fairly extreme weather. Here’s our picks.

Mercury

Mercury almost completely lacks an atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have extreme physical conditions. As the closest planet to the sun it’s no surprise that the temperature of the planet can get extremely hot – but the lack of atmosphere means that it is unable to retain the heat and can therefore can have incredible temperature swings.

In addition to barely having an atmosphere, Mercury doesn’t have much in the way of axial tilt. Because of this, there are no seasonal changes in weather. It also rotates incredibly slowly, as it only has about three “days” every two years. When Mercury is closest to the sun, the surface temperature can reach over 800º F (approx 430º C). During the night temperatures can dip down to -290º  F (-180º  C).

If a human were to visit Mercury, he or she would either burst into flames or freeze solid depending on where the spaceship landed.

Venus

Our neighbor Venus is essentially the poster child for how greenhouse gasses can create a completely hellish environment. With a super-thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, Venus is able to trap more of the sun’s radiation than Mercury which allows it to reach (and retain) much higher temperatures. The surface temperature stays relatively consistent all year at 900º  F (480º  C). The pressure on Venus is approximately 90 times higher than sea level on Earth. In order to recreate that pressure here, a diver would need to venture 1000 meters down into the ocean.

Rain on Venus is almost purely sulfuric acid, which is extremely corrosive. Sulfuric acid can erode clothing nearly instantly and produce severe burns on flesh. However, the surface temperature of Venus is so great, the rain evaporates before hitting the ground. There is a little water in the atmosphere, which can produce violent explosions when it meets the sulfuric acid. Though Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth, it takes only four hours for the atmosphere to completely rotate around the planet. Here, it it takes about 243 days to accomplish the same task.

Even with these extremely high temperatures, there is snow on Venus. Well, not snow as we know it. It’s a basalt frost remnant of metals that vaporized in the atmosphere.

Forget what would happen if a human were to visit Venus; we haven’t even sent probes that lasted longer than a couple hours on the surface due to the intense conditions.

Mars

Mars is currently under a lot of investigation as some believe it may have harbored life in the past and could give clues to the origin of life on Earth. Because it once was home to flowing water, there must have been an atmosphere capable of holding it there. Now the surface is dry and huge cyclones of dust can tear apart the landscape.

Mars’ missing atmosphere is a mystery but there is still plenty of bizarre weather happening on the planet. The poles are covered in ice caps and there are intense snowstorms. While our snow is made of frozen water, Martian snow is actually made from frozen carbon dioxide, which we know as “dry ice.”

Like Mercury, Mars’ super-thin atmosphere has a hard time holding in heat from the sun. Temperatures at the equator can be a comfortable 70º  F. (20º  C) in the sun, but at night the same spot can dip to -58º  F (-50º  C).

Massive dust storms can take over Mars quite easily. While dust devils happen on Earth in dry areas, the ones on Mars can envelop the entire planet over the course of a few days.

As for what it might look like for a human to visit Mars, we might not have to wait too much longer. It is hoped that plans to send the first astronauts will set foot on Mars within the next few decades.

Jupiter

It doesn’t take a particularly large telescope to see that Jupiter has a lot of gigantic storms. The most famous of these storms is known as the Great Red Spot (GRS), which has been raging on like a hurricane for at least 400 years. This storm is so massive, three Earths could fit inside it easily. There is another spot known as the Oval BA which was discovered about seven years ago which is now moving as fast as its larger counterpart, and even appears to be increasing in size.

The stripes on Jupiter are caused by jet streams. Jet streams on Earth vary, though we usually only have 1 or 2 in each hemisphere. Jupiter is home to at least 30 which tear across the planet in opposite directions reaching speeds of over 300 mph (482 km/h). Two of these jet streams are responsible for holding the GRS in its present location. The clouds that appear as stripes are composed of frozen ammonia, as the temperature at that part of the atmosphere is -220 degrees F (-140 degrees C). Earlier this year, it was discovered that Jupiter can form diamonds in its atmosphere.

Europa

Some of Jupiter’s 67 moons can also have pretty intense weather. The surface of Europa is covered in a 62-mile-deep (100 km) saltwater ocean, which is enclosed in a layer of ice. Europa may even have some of the chemical compounds needed for life, which has many astrobiologists excited.

Io

Io has hundreds volcanoes on its surface which respond to gravitational fluctuations from Jupiter. While these active spots can exceed 3092º  F (1700º  C), other patches of the moon are freezing. Because of the moon’s low gravity, these eruptions can shoot as over 250 miles (402 km) above the surface. Earlier this year, it was discovered that the volcanos aren’t even where they should be, based off of temperature models.

Saturn

Like Jupiter, Saturn’s atmosphere is composed mostly of hydrogen. Wind speeds can reach as high as 1000 mph (1609  km/h) which is just about as fast as a speeding bullet. The highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth during a hurricane was in 1996, during Tropical Cyclone Cynthia when gusts reached 253 mph (408 km/h).

At Saturn’s North Pole there is an extremely cool storm going on. It isn’t circular or rounded like most extreme weather systems but it is actually shaped like a hexagon. The clearest image of this storm can be seen in a composite that was released last month. Each side of the hexagon is 8,600 miles (13,800 km) long, which is very close to the diameter of Earth.

Though the atmosphere is very thin and cold there is plenty of heat down towards the surface that can generate some extreme storms. In the northern hemisphere, there is a storm which is 10,000 km across. If that were on Earth, it would be like starting in Los Angeles and traveling due east all the way to Beijing, China.

Toward Saturn’s surface the carbon in air can be pressed into graphite. Yes, Saturn has pencil lead flying around. Even closer to the core the carbon is pressed into diamond. If a human were to travel to Saturn, the diamonds would cut through their body like countless little bullets.

Titan

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has huge lakes which initially look promising for a spring break vacation spot. However, the temperature is about -260º  F (-162º  C), and the lakes aren’t made of water – it’s actually liquid methane!

Uranus 

Uranus is the coldest planet in the solar system with temperatures hitting -371º  F (−224º  C). Uranus is quite odd in that it is tipped entirely on its side, with the North Pole facing the sun. This may have been the result of a massive collision, as its magnetic field does not align with its poles.

At first glance Uranus looks like a plain blue ball with not a lot going on, but the planet has a fairly active weather system and enormous hurricanes that can only be seen with infrared telescopes. Like Jupiter, Uranus also has diamonds raining down on its surface.

Neptune

Our most distant planet, Neptune, is home to extreme weather similar to the other gas giants. While it has storms large enough to swallow the entire Earth and bands of weather that mark the planet’s latitude, it also has the most violent wind in the solar system which can reach an astonishing 1,500 mph (2414 km/h). Because Neptune’s topography is fairly flat, there is no friction to slow down these incredible gusts of wind. Like all of the other gas planets, atmospheric carbon compresses into diamond rain.

Triton

Neptune has over a dozen moons, the largest of which is Triton. This moon has an average temperature of -315 degrees F (-192 degrees C). If you wanted to visit, the trip would have to happen in the next 10-100 million years. Triton is slowly getting closer to Neptune and will most likely be ripped up into a Saturn-like ring system.

A trip to Neptune would also include listening to the sound barrier break as the wind blows, though the visitor would freeze solid almost instantly.

Pluto

Pluto experiences MASSIVE swings in temperature due to its high elliptical orbit. When Pluto is farthest away from the sun it is completely frozen over. As it gets closer to the sun, the gas heats up and it produces a gassy atmosphere, which also hurts its planetary status, as it acts more like a comet. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “If you slid Pluto to where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate that ice, and it would grow a tail. Now, that’s no kind of behavior for a planet.”

Our solar system is home to some pretty extreme weather. Learning about how these systems work can increase our knowledge of how some of these planets were formed and even give clues about the potential for life. But when it comes down to actually spending time on the surface on some of these planets, barring major technological advances, there’s no place like home.

– See more at: http://www.iflscience.com/space/most-extreme-weather-solar-system#sthash.TN62oD5D.dpuf

Graphene the perfect material for a Lunar Elevator.


Scientists at Columbia University conducted a study which revealed that graphene retains most of its mechanical properties even when it has been stitched together from small fragments. This discovery may have been the first step toward large scale manufacture of carbon nanotubes, which could be essential in the manufacturing of the first space elevator, light – strong materials, and flexible electronics.

Lunar Elevator

At the present moment, a practical breakthrough in the construction of a lunar elevator has not been realized. However, many scientists have performed experiments which show it will be possible through use of graphene. In these experiments, they have measured the strength of the microscopic carbon nanotube and proved it can indeed support the construction of such elevators.

The space elevator ribbon is constructed out of carbon nanotubes, which are at least 100 times stronger than steel but have flexibility equal to that of plastic. Scientists will only be able to make the ribbon to be used in the space elevator if they manage to make fibers out of carbon nanotubes. In the recent experiments, the materials that were involved were neither strong nor flexible enough to form such a ribbon.

Graphene ribbons have a very high tensile strength and very high elastic modulus, theoretically they are said to make the process of building a space elevator easy. There are two major ways that a lunar elevator ribbon can be built: in the first case a long carbon tube ideally several meters long will be braided into a rope like structure, and in the second case a shorter nanotube will be placed in a selected polymer matrix.

So far graphene is the ideal material for construction of the ribbon, the carbon-carbon bond in graphene is at least 0.142 nm. Scientists have proved that two sheets of graphene are held together by much stronger van de Waals forces than bulk Graphene.

Camel tests positive for Mers virus.


A camel has tested positive for the Sars-like virus that emerged in the Middle East last year and has killed 64 people worldwide.

The animal had been owned by a person diagnosed with Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronavirus, the Saudi health ministry said.

Dromedary camel

It remains unclear, however, if camels are responsible for passing the disease to humans.

Coronaviruses cause respiratory infections in humans and animals.

It is possible the virus is spread in droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Experts believe the virus is not very contagious – if it were, we would have seen more cases.

Globally, since September 2012, there have been 153 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with Mers coronavirus.

The Saudi government statement said “preliminary” laboratory checks had proved positive.

The health ministry said it was working with the ministry of agriculture and laboratories to “isolate the virus and compare its genetic structure with that of the patient’s”.

If the virus carried by the camel and that of the patient “prove to be identical, this would be a first scientific discovery worldwide, and a door to identify the source of the virus”, it added.

The World Health Organization, which has been monitoring the global situation, says there is currently no reason to impose any travel restrictions because of the virus.

Mission to Mars moon could be a sample-return twofer.


The study helps to confirm the idea that the surface of Phobos contains tons of dust, soil, and rock blown off the Martian surface by large projectile impacts. Phobos’ orbital path plows through occasional plumes of Martian debris, meaning the tiny moon has been gathering Martian castoffs for millions of years. That means a sample-return mission planned by the Russian space agency could sample two celestial bodies for the price of one. “The mission is scheduled to be flown early in the next decade, so the question is not academic,” said James Head, professor of geological sciences and an author on the study. “This work shows that samples from Mars can indeed be found in the soil of Phobos, and how their concentration might change with depth. That will be critical in the design of the drills other equipment.”

https://i2.wp.com/cdn.physorg.com/newman/gfx/news/2013/missiontomar.jpg

The research appears in the latest issue of Space and Planetary Science.

The Russian mission will be the ‘s second attempt to return a sample from Phobos. Head was a participating scientist on the first try, which launched in 2011, but an engine failure felled the spacecraft before it could leave Earth orbit. The next attempt is scheduled to launch in 2020 or shortly thereafter.

This new research grew out of preparation for the original mission, which would still be en route to Phobos had it not encountered problems. Scientists had long assumed Phobos likely contained Martian bits, but Russian mission planners wanted to know just how much might be there and where it might be found. They turned to Head and Ken Ramsley, a visiting researcher in Brown‘s planetary geosciences group.

To answer those questions, Ramsley and Head started with a model based on our own Moon to estimate how much of Phobos’ regolith (loose rock and dust on the surface) would come from projectiles. They then used gravitational and orbital data to determine what proportion of that projectile material came from Mars.

“When an impactor hits Mars, only a certain of proportion of ejecta will have enough velocity to reach the altitude of Phobos, and Phobos’ orbital path intersects only a certain proportion of that,” Ramsley said. “So we can crunch those numbers and find out what proportion of material on the surface of Phobos comes from Mars.”

According to those calculations, the regolith on Phobos should contain Martian material at a rate of about 250 parts per million. The Martian bits should be distributed fairly evenly across the surface, mostly in the upper layers of regolith, the researchers showed.

“Only recently—in the last several 100 million years or so—has Phobos orbited so close to Mars,” Ramsley said. “In the distant past it orbited much higher up. So that’s why you’re going to see probably 10 to 100 times higher concentration in the upper regolith as opposed to deeper down.”

And while 250 parts per million doesn’t sound like a lot, the possibility of returning even a little Martian material to Earth gets planetary scientists excited. It’s a nice bonus for a mission primarily aimed at learning more about Phobos, a mysterious little rock in its own right.

Scientists are still not sure where it came from. Is it a chunk of Mars that was knocked off by an impact early in Martian history, or is it an asteroid snared in Mars’s orbit? There are also questions about whether its interior might hold significant amounts of water.

“Phobos has really low density,” Head said. “Is that low density due to ice in its interior or is it due to Phobos being completely fragmented, like a loose rubble pile? We don’t know.”

Vapours from damp buildings may trigger Parkinson’s


A vapour known as “mushroom alcohol” which is present in damp, mouldy buildings can damage the nerve cells of the brain responsible for Parkinson’s disease, scientists said.

A study has found that the compound, called 1-octen-3-ol, leads to the degeneration of two genes involved with the transport and storage of dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain that is lost in patients with Parkinson’s.

The researchers suggest that the volatile substances given off by mildew and other fungi growing in damp houses may be a significant risk factor in the development of the degenerative brain disease, which is thought to have environmental as well as genetic causes.

The study was carried out on the dopamine system of fruit flies, a recognised animal “model” of Parkinson’s disease, and the researchers calculated that mushroom alcohol was more toxic to these specialised nerves than benzene – a poisonous chemical known to cause genetic damage.

“These findings are of particular interest given recent epidemiological studies that have raised the concern of neuropsychological impairments and movement disorders in human populations exposed to mouldy and water-damaged buildings,” the scientists said in the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Increased incidence of Parkinson’s disease is seen in rural populations, where it is usually attributed to pesticide exposure. However, the prevalence of mould and mushroom in these environments may provide another plausible risk factor for the development of Parkinson’s disease.”

Until recently, the search for environmental factors that could trigger the disease has focused largely on man-made chemicals, such as pesticides. However, natural compounds could be equally to blame, said Arati Inamdar of Rutgers University.

“There have been studies indicating that Parkinson’s disease is increasing in rural areas, where it’s usually attributed to pesticide exposure. But rural environments also have a lot of exposure to moulds and other fungi, and our work suggests that 1-octen-3-ol might also be connected to the disease, particularly for people with a genetic susceptibility to it,” she added.

Joan Bennett, co-author of the study, said she took an interest in the role of fungi in health after she became ill working in her flood-damaged house in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I knew something about ‘sick building’ syndrome, because I am an expert in toxic fungi. I didn’t believe in it, because I didn’t think it would be possible to breathe in enough mould spores to get sick,” Professor Bennett said.

But when collecting samples while wearing protective gear, she fell ill. “While I was doing the sampling, I felt horrible – headaches, dizziness and nausea. I had a conversion experience,” she said.

Claire Bale, a spokesperson for Parkinson’s UK, said that the cause of Parkinson’s disease is one of the big unanswered questions.

“We already know that exposure to some chemicals can slightly increase the risk of Parkinson’s, and this is the first study to suggest that chemicals produced by fungi may play a part,” Ms Bale said.

“It is important to remember, this study was conducted using tiny fruit flies, so before we can really be confident about this new connection we need to see evidence from studies in people,” she added.

Scientists develop nanoscale ‘train set’ controlled by DNA


A nanoscale ‘train set’ powered by microscopic motors and controlled by DNA has been developed by scientists.

The system can construct its own network of tracks spanning tens of micrometres in length, and use them to transport cargo.

DNA

Researchers were inspired by the melanophore, a living system used by fish to change colour. It uses motor proteins to transport pigment along tracks that come to a central point, like spokes on a wheel. Bringing pigment to the centre makes cells lighter because the surrounding space is left empty and transparent.

Scientists at Oxford University built a similar system from DNA and a motor protein called kinesin. The kinesin molecules move along micro-tracks made from short strands of DNA. The kinesin molecules are used either as “assemblers” that move elements of track around, or “shuttles” that carry cargo molecules along the tracks. A natural fuel source called ATP, which drives cell metabolism, is used to power the system.

“DNA is an excellent building block for constructing synthetic molecular systems, as we can programme it to do whatever we need,” said Adam Wollman, who led the Oxford University team. “We design the chemical structures of the DNA strands to control how they interact with each other. The shuttles can be used to either carry cargo or deliver signals to tell other shuttles what to do.

“We first use assemblers to arrange the track into ‘spokes’, triggered by the introduction of ATP. We then send in shuttles with fluorescent green cargo which spread out across the track, covering it evenly.

“When we add more ATP, the shuttles all cluster in the centre of the track where the spokes meet. Next, we send signal shuttles along the tracks to tell the cargo-carrying shuttles to release the fluorescent cargo into the environment, where it disperses. We can also send shuttles programmed with ‘dismantle’ signals to the central hub, telling the tracks to break up.”

The experiment used green dye as a cargo, but the same technique could be used to transport other molecules. Spoke-like track systems could be used to speed up chemical reactions by concentrating necessary compounds at the central hub, said the scientists.

Using DNA to control motor proteins could aid the development of sophisticated self-assembling systems for a wide variety of applications.

Alzheimer’s patients’ brains boosted by belting out Sound of Music


Belting out classic numbers from hit musicals can boost the brain function of people with Alzheimer’s disease, according to researchers who worked with elderly residents at a US care home.

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

Over a four-month study, the mental performance of patients who took part in regular group singing sessions improved compared with others who just listened.

In the sessions, patients were led through familiar songs from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio.

The sessions appeared to have the most striking effect on people with moderate to severe dementia, with patients scoring higher on cognitive and drawing tests, and also on a satisfaction-with-life questionnaire at the end of the study.

Jane Flinn, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Virginia, said care homes that did not hold group singing sessions should consider them, because they were cheap, entertaining and beneficial for patients with Alzheimer’s.

“Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful. The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging,” she said.

Flinn’s colleague Linda Maguire worked with the residents of a care home on the US east coast. Some of the residents with moderate dementia were assigned to an assisted living group. Others, who had more severe Alzheimer’s and were kept on a secure ward at the home, formed a second group. Both groups took part in three 50-minute group sessions a week for four months, but only half in each group joined in with the singing. The rest turned up, but only to listen.

Maguire chose most of the songs to be familiar to the patients, and included classics such as The Sound of Music, When You Wish Upon a Star and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Scores on cognitive tests given before and after the four months of singing classes showed that mental ability improved among the singers. Those who joined in the singing also fared better at another task that involved drawing the hands on a clock face to show a particular time. The study was described at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

Though memory loss and a decline in brain function are hallmarks of dementia, patients often demonstrate a striking ability to remember the lyrics and melodies of songs from their past. “A lot of people have grown up singing songs and for a long time the memories are still there,” said Flinn. “When they start singing it can revive those memories.”

But the singing sessions seemed to activate a raft of brain areas. Listening sparked activity in the temporal lobe on the right-hand side of the brain, while watching someone lead a class activated the visual areas. Singing and speaking led to more activity in the left-hand side, Flinn said.

The findings are backed up by other work in the area. In September, researchers at Helsinki University looked at the impact of a 10-week singing course on patients with dementia. Compared with their usual care, singing and listening to music improved mood, orientation, and certain types of memory. To a lesser extent, their attention and general cognitive skills also improved.

The UK Alzheimer’s Society holds regular group singing sessions nationwide.

“There is much anecdotal evidence that the groups have real benefits for people with dementia,” a spokesperson said. “Even when many memories are hard to retrieve, music can sometimes still be recalled, if only for a short while. The sessions help people with dementia communicate, improving their mood and leaving them feeling good about themselves.”

Global impact of depression revealed


Depression is the second most common cause of disability worldwide after back pain, according to a review of research.

Depression

The disease must be treated as a global public health priority, experts report in the journal PLOS Medicine.

The study compared clinical depression with more than 200 other diseases and injuries as a cause of disability.

Globally, only a small proportion of patients have access to treatment, the World Health Organization says.

“Start Quote

Depression is a big problem and we definitely need to pay more attention to it than we are now”

Dr Alize Ferrari University of Queensland

Depression was ranked at number two as a global cause of disability, but its impact varied in different countries and regions. For example, rates of major depression were highest in Afghanistan and lowest in Japan. In the UK, depression was ranked at number three in terms of years lived with a disability.

Dr Alize Ferrari from the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health led the study.

“Depression is a big problem and we definitely need to pay more attention to it than we are now,” she told BBC News.

“There’s still more work to be done in terms of awareness of the disease and also in coming up with successful ways of treating it.

“The burden is different between countries, so it tends to be higher in low and middle income countries and lower in high income countries.”

Policy-makers had made an effort to bring depression to the forefront, but there was a lot more work to be done, she added.

“There’s lots of stigma we know associated with mental health,” she explained.

“What one person recognises as disabling might be different to another person and might be different across countries as well, there are lots of cultural implications and interpretations that come in place, which makes it all the more important to raise awareness of the size of the problem and also signs and how to detect it.”

The data – for the year 2010 – follows similar studies in 1990 and 2000 looking at the global burden of depression.

Commenting on the study, Dr Daniel Chisholm, a health economist at the department for mental health and substance abuse at the World Health Organization said depression was a very disabling condition.

“It’s a big public health challenge and a big problem to be reckoned with but not enough is being done.

“Around the world only a tiny proportion of people get any sort of treatment or diagnosis.”

The WHO recently launched a global mental health action plan to raise awareness among policy-makers.

Autism detectable ‘in first months’


An early indication of autism can be identified in babies under six months old, a study suggests.

US researchers, writing in Nature, analysed how infants looked at faces from birth to the age of three.

They found children later diagnosed with autism initially developed normally but showed diminished eye contact – a hallmark of autism – between two and six months of age.

A UK expert said the findings raise hope for early interventions.

In the study, researchers led by Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta used eye-tracking technology to measure the way babies looked at and responded to social clues.

“Start Quote

These early markers are extremely important for us to identify – the earlier we can diagnose a child who has one of these disorders – such as autism – the earlier we can provide intervention and development”

Dr Deborah Riby Durham University

They found infants later diagnosed with autism had shown a steady decline in attention to the eyes of other people from the age of two months onwards, when watching videos of natural human interactions.

Lead researcher Dr Warren Jones told BBC News: “It tells us for the first time that it’s possible to detect some signs of autism in the first months of life.

“These are the earliest signs of autism that we’ve ever observed.”

The study, in collaboration with the Marcus Autism Center and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, followed 59 infants who had a high risk of autism because they had siblings with the life-long condition, and 51 infants at low risk.

Dr Jones and colleague Dr Ami Klin followed them to the age of three, when the children were formally assessed for autism.

Thirteen of the children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders – a range of disorders that includes autism and Asperger’s syndrome – 11 boys and two girls.

The researchers then went back to look at the eye-tracking data, and what they found was surprising.

“In infants with autism, eye contact is declining already in the first six months of life,” said Dr Jones.

But he added this could be seen only with sophisticated technology and would not be visible to parents.

“It’s not something that parents would be able to see by themselves at all. If parents have concerns they should talk to their paediatrician.”

Dr Deborah Riby, of the department of psychology at Durham University, said the study provided an insight into the timing of atypical social attention in children who might go on to develop autism.

Autism spectrum disorders

  • Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a range of related developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • They begin in childhood and last through adulthood.
  • ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are grouped into three categories including problems with social interaction, impaired communication skills and unusual patterns of thought and behaviour

Source: NHS Choices

“These early markers are extremely important for us to identify – the earlier we can diagnose a child who has one of these disorders – such as autism – the earlier we can provide intervention and development,” she said.

Kay Hinton/Emory University

Caroline Hattersley, head of information, advice and advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said the research was “based on a very small sample and needs to be replicated on a far larger scale before any concrete conclusions can be drawn”.

“Autism is a very complex condition,” she said.

“No two people with autism are the same, and so a holistic approach to diagnosis is required that takes into account all aspects of an individual’s behaviour. A more comprehensive approach allows all of a person’s support needs to be identified.

“It’s vital that everyone with autism can access a diagnosis, as it can be key to unlocking the right support which can enable people with the condition to reach their full potential.”