How to read less news but be more informed, according to a futurist


You might think someone who gets paid to predict the future would be mad for gadgets and forever spouting off on social media. But you’d be wrong. Writer and futurist Richard Watson may teach London business students and Silicon Valley tech companies how to think about crafting tools for tomorrow, but he’s not even on Twitter.

A woman surfs the Internet on her smartphone in Moscow's subway, Russia, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014.

What’s more, Watson doesn’t really follow the news in any conventional way. He reads Sunday newspapers, in print, retrospectively. He’s not trying to catch up but to check and see which of the many headlines turned out to be relevant a few weeks or a month later. In other words, Watson is neutral about current events. He’s placing any given moment in a much greater context than the day or the week. Watson’s scale is grand and includes all of human history and its possible futures. In this very long view, nothing is such a big deal, although anything may become relevant eventually.

Instead of focusing on what everyone is already talking about, Watson hunts down unusual knowledge. He shared with Quartz his approach to creating a smart information filter—a net that captures what’s happening and what really matters without making you a slave to information of fleeting importance.

1. “Practice selective ignorance”

You can’t read or think about everything, so keep that in mind when choosing materials and pick quality over quantity, and try to create a wide context. In other words, triangulate between breadth and depth. The more information is available, the less we tend to digest, and people are increasingly tuning out even while they consume, so it makes sense to consume less and better data.

2. “Burst the bubble”

Watson advises that we randomly pick up books and magazines, and strike up conversations with strangers. These random acts of interest in strangers and unusual communications break your information consumption routines and expose you to unique insights.

3. Find the “tall poppies”

The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.

4. Hit the road

“Travel. But again take the path untrodden,” Watson urges. “We are herd animals and the temptation is always to follow the herd. Try not to.”

5. Find sources you trust

Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you. If the publication or person is focused on thoughtful analysis and not panic news, you’ll hear worthwhile insights. Watson especially recommends perusing weekend editions of quality newspapers.

6. Chill out

“Relax,” writes the futurist. “The important news will find you. It will.” Watson is confident that relevant information makes its way to us, and that much of what we fuss over daily is just stuff that will soon be forgotten.

7. Carve out designated reading time

“Have a think week every year,” Watson says. Microsoft founder Bill Gates takes time to reflect on the future of technology from deep in a forest, for example. He reads dozens of academic papers during a solitary and studious retreat in the woods, which helps to fuel innovative thinking all year long.

8. Embrace silence

“Learn how to look and listen deeply,” Watson recommends. “Stop talking. Start listening. Be curious all the time.” Find quiet settings that elicit a certain reverence, like deserts, mountains, and even churches, places where reflection and contemplation come easily.

9. “Get off social media”

Common knowledge is common, and there’s a glut of it online. But surprising info collected by curious oddballs is precious, valuable, and worth hunting down. Watson says, “Become cynical about trends. Watch for counter-trends. Visit the fringe.”

10. Go dark

Finally, switch communications off once a week and every evening. If you are brave, Watson says, dare to own no cellphone.

Watson’s approach is counterintuitive but consistent, and can be basically summed up in one principle: Be contrarian. Get smart by not worrying about where the crowd is going.

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New genetic clues for arthritis


Arthritic hands

 

Current treatments relieve the symptoms but not for all patients, and there is no cure

An international team of researchers has found more than 40 new areas in DNA that increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

The work is the largest genetic study ever carried out, involving nearly 30,000 patients.

The investigators believe new drugs could be developed to target these areas that could one day provide a cure for the disease.

The findings are published in the Journal Nature.

“Start Quote

What this offers in the future is an opportunity to use genetics to discover new medicines for complex diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and to treat or even cure the disease”

Prof Robert PlengeHarvard Medical School

The research team compared the DNA of arthritis patients with those without the disease and found 42 ‘faulty’ areas that were linked with the disease. The hope is that drugs can be developed to compensate for these faults.

The lead researcher Professor Robert Plenge of Harvard Medical School found that one of these areas produced a weakness that was treated by an existing drug that was developed by trial and error, rather than specifically made to correct the genetic problem.

This finding, he says, shows such discoveries could be used to design new drugs.

“What this offers in the future is an opportunity to use genetics to discover new medicines for complex diseases like rheumatoid arthritis to treat or even cure the disease,” he said.

Complex diseases

Some have argued identifying genetic weak areas for complex diseases – known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – is not useful. There is little or no evidence, they argue, that “silencing the SNPs” with drugs will relieve any symptoms.

But Dr Plenge says the fact that he has found an established drug that treats the symptoms that arise from a particular SNP for rheumatoid arthritis validates this genetic approach.

“Start Quote

There are already therapies that have been designed in the cancer field that might open up new opportunities for retargeting drugs”

Prof Jane WorthingtonDirector, Centre for Genetics

“It offers tremendous potential. This approach could be used to identify drug targets for complex diseases, nut just rheumatoid arthritis, but diabetes, Alzheimer’s and coronary heart disease”

Fast track

The study also found SNPs in the rheumatoid arthritis patients that also occur in patients with types of blood cancer.

According to Prof Jane Worthington, director of the centre for genetics in Manchester, this observation suggests that drugs that are being used to treat the cancer could be effective against rheumatoid arthritis and so should be fast tracked into clinical trials.

“There are already therapies that have been designed in the cancer field that might open up new opportunities for retargeting drugs,” she told BBC News.

“It might allow us a straightforward way to add therapies we have to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis”.

Dinosaur impact ‘sent life to Mars’


Artist's impression of Chicxulub impact
The Chicxulub impact sparked a mass extinction – but did it send life hurtling into space?

The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs may have catapulted life to Mars and the moons of Jupiter, US researchers say.

They calculated how many Earth rocks big enough to shelter life were ejected by asteroids in the last 3.5bn years.

The Chicxulub impact was strong enough to fire chunks of debris all the way to Europa, they write in Astrobiology.

Thousands of potentially life-bearing rocks also made it to Mars, which may once have been habitable, they add.

“We find that rock capable of carrying life has likely transferred from both Earth and Mars to all of the terrestrial planets in the solar system and Jupiter,” says lead author Rachel Worth, of Penn State University.

A Hitchhikers GuideEarth rocks big enough* to support life made it to:

  • Venus 26,000,000 rocks
  • Mercury 730,000
  • Mars 360,000
  • Jupiter 83,000
  • Saturn 14,000
  • Io 10
  • Europa 6
  • Titan 4
  • Callisto 1

*3m diameter or larger.

Source: Worth et al, Astrobiology

“Any missions to search for life on Titan or the moons of Jupiter will have to consider whether biological material is of independent origin, or another branch in Earth’s family tree.”

Panspermia – the idea that organisms can “hitchhike” around the solar system on comets and debris from meteor strikes – has long fascinated astronomers.

But thanks to advances in computing, they are now able to simulate these journeys – and follow potential stowaways as they hitch around the Solar System.

In this new study, researchers first estimated the number of rocks bigger than 3m ejected from Earth by major impacts.

Europa
Could life be swimming in the oceans of Europa?

Three metres is the minimum they think necessary to shield microbes from the Sun’s radiation over a journey lasting up to 10 million years.

They then mapped the likely fate of these voyagers. Many simply hung around in Earth orbit, or were slowly drawn back down.

Others were pulled into the Sun, or sling-shotted out of the Solar System entirely.

Yet a small but significant number made it all the way to alien worlds which might welcome life. “Enough that it matters,” Ms Worth told BBC News.

About six rocks even made it as far as Europa, a satellite of Jupiter with a liquid ocean covered in an icy crust.

“Even using conservative, realistic estimates… it’s still possible that organisms could be swimming around out there in the oceans of Europa,” she said.

Travel to Mars was much more common. About 360,000 large rocks took a ride to the Red Planet, courtesy of historical asteroid impacts.

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I’d be surprised if life hasn’t gotten to Mars. It seems reasonable that at some point some Earth organisms made it”

Rachel Worth Penn State University

Big bang theory

Perhaps the most famous of these impacts was at Chicxulub in Mexico about 66 million years ago – when an object the size of a small city collided with Earth.

The impact has been blamed for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, triggering volcanic eruptions and wildfires which choked the planet with smoke and dust.

It also launched about 70 billion kg of rock into space – 20,000kg of which could have reached Europa. And the chances that a rock big enough to harbour life arrived are “better than 50/50”, researchers estimate.

But could living organisms actually survive these epic trips?

“I’d be surprised if life hasn’t gotten to Mars,” Ms Worth told BBC News.

“It’s beyond the scope of our study. But it seems reasonable that at some point some Earth organisms have made it over there.”

Early Mars - artist's impression
Early Mars is thought to have been a muddy, watery world

It has been shown that tiny creatures can withstand the harsh environment of space. And bacterial spores can be revived after hundreds of millions of years in a dormant state.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

I sometimes joke we might find ammonite shells on the Moon from the Chicxulub impact”

Prof Jay Melosh Purdue University

But even if a hardy microbe did stow away for all those millennia, it might simply burn up on arrival, or land in inhospitable terrain.

The most habitable places in range of Earth are Europa, Mars and Titan – but while all three have likely held water, it may not have been on offer to visitors.

Europa’s oceans are capped by a crust of ice that may be impenetrably thick.

“But it appears regions of the ice sheet sometimes break into large chunks separated by liquid water, which later refreezes,” Ms Worth said.

“Any meteorites lying on top of the ice sheet in a region when this occurs would stand a chance of falling through.

“Additionally, the moons are thought to have been significantly warmer in the not-too-distant past.”

Moon fossils

On Mars, there is little evidence of flowing water during the last 3.5bn years – the likeliest window for Earth life to arrive.

Bacillus subtilis endospores
The first space travellers? Bacterial endospores can survive for millions of years

But what if the reverse trip took place?

The early Martian atmosphere appears to have been warm and wet – prime conditions for the development of life.

And if Martian microbes ever did exist, transfer to Earth is “highly probable” due to the heavy traffic of meteorites between our planets, Ms Worth told BBC News.

“Billions have fallen on Earth from Mars since the dawn of our planetary system. It is even possible that life on Earth originated on Mars.”

While her team are not the first to calculate that panspermia is possible, their 10-million-year simulation is the most extended yet, said astrobiologist Prof Jay Melosh, of Purdue University.

“The study strongly reinforces the conclusion that, once large impacts eject material from the surface of a planet such as the Earth or Mars, the ejected debris easily finds its way from one planet to another,” he told BBC News.

“The Chicxulub impact itself might not have been a good candidate because it occurred in the ocean (50 to 500m deep water) and, while it might have ejected a few sea-surface creatures, like ammonites, into space, it would not likely have ejected solid rocks.

“I sometimes joke that we might find ammonite shells on the Moon from that event.

“But other large impacts on the Earth may indeed have ejected rocks into interplanetary space.”

Another independent expert on panspermia, Mauricio Reyes-Ruiz of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the new findings were “very significant”.

“The fact such different pathways exist for the interchange of material between Earth and bodies in the Solar System suggests that if life is ever found, it may very well turn out to be our very, very distant relatives,” he said.

Accumulating ‘microplastic’ threat to shores.


Debris on shoreline (Image: AP)
Concentrations of microplastic were greatest near coastal urban areas, the study showed

Microscopic plastic debris from washing clothes is accumulating in the marine environment and could be entering the food chain, a study has warned.

Researchers traced the “microplastic” back to synthetic clothes, which released up to 1,900 tiny fibres per garment every time they were washed.

Earlier research showed plastic smaller than 1mm were being eaten by animals and getting into the food chain.

The findings appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“Research we had done before… showed that when we looked at all the bits of plastic in the environment, about 80% was made up from smaller bits of plastic,” said co-author Mark Browne, an ecologist now based at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This really led us to the idea of what sorts of plastic are there and where did they come from.”

Dr Browne, a member of the US-based research network National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, said the tiny plastic was a concern because evidence showed that it was making its way into the food chain.

“Once the plastics had been eaten, it transferred from [the animals’] stomachs to their circulation system and actually accumulated in their cells,” he told BBC News.

In order to identify how widespread the presence of microplastic was on shorelines, the team took samples from 18 beaches around the globe, including the UK, India and Singapore.

“We found that there was no sample from around the world that did not contain pieces of microplastic.”

Scanning microscope image of nylon fibres
The smallest fibres could end up causing huge problems worldwide

Dr Browne added: “Most of the plastic seemed to be fibrous.

“When we looked at the different types of polymers we were finding, we were finding that polyester, acrylic and polyamides (nylon) were the major ones that we were finding.”

The data also showed that the concentration of microplastic was greatest in areas near large urban centres.

In order to test the idea that sewerage discharges were the source of the plastic discharges, the team worked with a local authority in New South Wales, Australia.

“We found exactly the same proportion of plastics,” Dr Browne revealed, which led the team to conclude that their suspicions had been correct.

As a result, Dr Browne his colleague Professor Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth, UK carried out a number of experiments to see what fibres were contained in the water discharge from washing machines.

“We were quite surprised. Some polyester garments released more than 1,900 fibres per garment, per wash,” Dr Browne observed.

“It may not sound like an awful lot, but if that is from a single item from a single wash, it shows how things can build up.

“It suggests to us that a large proportion of the fibres we were finding in the environment, in the strongest evidence yet, was derived from the sewerage as a consequence from washing clothes.”

Plastic ‘a threat’ to biodiversity


Microplastics ‘pose toxic threat to marine biodiversity’

Micro plastic
An estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic is “lost” each year

Tiny particles of waste plastic that are ingested by shoreline “eco-engineer” worms may be negatively affecting biodiversity, a study says.

So-called microplastics may be able to transfer toxic pollutants and chemicals into the guts of lugworms, reducing the animals’ functions.

An estimated 150 million tonnes vanishes from the global waste-stream each year.

The findings have been published in the academic journal Current Biology.

“We are losing a large volume of plastic and we know it is going into the environment and the assumption being made by policymakers is that this material is non-hazardous, it has got the same ranking as scraps of food,” explained co-author Mark Browne, an ecologist from the US-based National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

“The research we have done really challenges that,” Dr Browne added, referring to the findings of lab work carried out by colleagues at Plymouth University, UK, led by co-author Prof Richard Thompson.

“Our findings show that the plastic itself can be a problem and can affect organisms.

“Also, when particles of plastic go into the environment what you find is that they accumulate large quantities of pollutants that are banned. So you have these particles themselves but also a load of nasty chemicals.”

Important role

The team found that the tiny bits of plastic, which measure 1mm or smaller, transferred pollutants and additive chemicals – such as flame-retardants – into the guts of lugworms (Arenicola marina).

This process results in the chemical reaching the creatures’ tissue, causing a range of biological effects such as thermal stress and the inability to consume as much sediment.

Dr Browne explained that this had consequences for the surrounding ecosystem.

“If the animals are not able to eat as much then there is a change in the function of the organisms and there is an impact on the semblance of the species found in an area,” he said.

He added that the worms had earned the nickname “eco-engineers” as a result of their ability to eat organic matter from the sediment and prevent the build-up of silt.

“Through that process, it produces burrows and changes the whole assemblage of animals that live around it,” Dr Browne observed.

“This is quite considerable because if you look at the total biomass of a shoreline, about 32% can be made up from these organisms.”

He told BBC News that it was the first study of its kind to highlight the toxic risk posed by microplastics to marine organisms.

“For about 40 or 50 years, we have been finding very large concentrations of chemicals in animals. Then they started to find animals with larger concentrations of pollutants and plastics, so researchers began to establish this correlation.

“But no-one had actually shown whether chemicals could transfer from plastic when they are eaten by animals and accumulate in their bodies and reduce important functions that maintain their health.”

Eyes cells help diagnose Alzheimer’s


Changes to specific cells in the retina could help diagnose and track the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists say.

A team found genetically engineered mice with Alzheimer’s lost thickness in this layer of eye cells.

Alzheimer's brain (left) compared with healthy brain (right)

As the retina is a direct extension of the brain, they say the loss of retinal neurons could be related to the loss of brain cells in Alzheimer’s.

The findings were revealed at the US Society for Neuroscience conference.

The team believes this work could one day lead to opticians being able to detect Alzheimer’s in a regular eye check, if they had the right tools.

“Start Quote

[This] could lead to new ways to diagnose or predict Alzheimer’s that could be as simple as looking into the eyes”

Dr Scott Turner Georgetown University Medical Center

Alterations in the same retinal cells could also help detect glaucoma – which causes blindness – and is now also viewed as a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s, the researchers report.

Scott Turner, director of the memory disorders programme at Georgetown University Medical Center, said: “The retina is an extension of the brain so it makes sense to see if the same pathologic processes found in an Alzheimer’s brain are also found in the eye.”

Dr Turner and colleagues looked at the thickness of the retina in an area that had not previously been investigated. This included the inner nuclear layer and the retinal ganglion cell layer.

They found that a loss of thickness occurred only in mice with Alzheimer’s. The retinal ganglion cell layer had almost halved in size and the inner nuclear layer had decreased by more than a third.

“This suggests a new path forward in understanding the disease process in humans and could lead to new ways to diagnose or predict Alzheimer’s that could be as simple as looking into the eyes,” said Dr Turner.

Alzheimer’s disease

A coloured CT scan image of a human brain
  • Symptoms include loss of memory, mood changes, and problems with communication and reasoning
  • No one single factor has been identified as a cause for Alzheimer’s disease – a combination of factors, including age, genes, environment, lifestyle and general health are implicated
  • One of the leading theories involves the formation of clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid, which damage and kill brain cells

Treatments developed for Alzheimer’s could therefore also be useful for treating glaucoma, he added.

But he also said that so far it was still speculation to say that retinal thinning may predict impending Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re hoping that this translates to human patients and we suspect that retinal thinning, just like cortical thinning, happens long before anyone gets dementia,” Dr Scott told BBC News.

“Human studies are needed to test this idea as a diagnostic [test]. Current leading biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease are either very costly or invasive. A retinal thickness scan – as measured by optical coherence tomography – would be both inexpensive and non-invasive.”

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease and is the most common type of dementia. The cause is still unknown and there is currently no cure. It often goes undetected for years until so many cells die that symptoms become increasingly prevalent.

But treating the disease early is believed to be vital to prevent memory loss.

Laura Phipps, at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said there was increasing evidence linking retinal cell loss to Alzheimer’s disease, and that it was “positive to see this line of research being followed up”.

“This early-stage study, which is yet to be published in full, was carried out in mice, and further research will be necessary to determine whether changes in the retina found here are also found in people with Alzheimer’s.

“Diagnosing Alzheimer’s with accuracy can be a difficult task, which is why it’s vital to continue investing in research to improve diagnosis methods,” Dr Phipps added.

E-cigarettes ‘could save millions’


Scientists say that if all smokers in the world switched from cigarettes to electronic cigarettes, it could save millions of lives.

Woman smoking an electronic cigarette

In the UK there are currently about 100,000 deaths per year attributable to smoking, worldwide it is estimated to be more than five million.

Now researchers are hopeful that an increasing use of e-cigarettes could prevent some of these deaths.

But some groups warn that e-cigarettes could normalise smoking.

An estimated 700,000 users smoke e-cigarettes in the UK, according to Action on Smoking and Health. Some users combine “vaping”, as it is often called, with traditional cigarettes while others substitute it for smoking completely.

E-cigarettes have also recently be found to be just as effective as nicotine patches in helping smokers quit.

Future hope

Rather than inhaling the toxic substances found in tobacco, e-cigarette users inhale vaporised liquid nicotine.

Robert West, professor of health psychology at University College London, told delegates at the 2013 E-Cigarette Summit at London’s Royal Society that “literally millions of lives” could be saved.

“Start Quote

Every adolescent tries something new, many try smoking. I would prefer they try e-cigarettes to regular cigarettes”

Dr Jacques Le Houezec Tobacco and nicotine researcher

“The big question, and why we’re here, is whether that goal can be realised and how best to do it… and what kind of cultural, regulatory environment can be put in place to make sure that’s achieved.

“I think it can be achieved but that’s a hope, a promise, not a reality,” he said.

A revolution

This view was echoed by Dr Jacques Le Houezec, a private consultant who has been researching the effects of nicotine and tobacco.

He said that because the harmful effects of its main comparator, tobacco, e-cigarette use should not be over-regulated.

“We’ve been in the field for very long, this for us is a revolution.

E-cigarettes
There is concern over the lack of regulation of e-cigarettes

“Every adolescent tries something new, many try smoking. I would prefer they try e-cigarettes to regular cigarettes.” Dr Le Houezec added.

Many are now calling for the industry to be regulated. An EU proposal to regulate e-cigarettes as a medicine was recently rejected, but in the UK e-cigarettes will be licensed as a medicine from 2016.

Konstantinos Farsalinos, from the University Hospital Gathuisberg, Belgium, said it was important for light regulation to be put in place “as soon as possible”.

“Companies are all hiding behind the lack of regulation and are not performing any tests on their products, this is a big problem.”

Prof Farsalinos studies the health impacts of e-cigarette vapour. Despite the lack of regulation, he remained positive about the health risks associated with inhaling it.

Healthy rats

E-cigarettes are still relatively new, so there is little in the way of long-term studies looking at their overall health impacts.

In order to have valid clinical data, a large group of e-cigarette users would need to be followed for many years.

Seeing as many users aim to stop smoking, following a large group of e-smokers for a long period could be difficult.

But in rats at least, a study showed that after they inhaled nicotine for two years, there were no harmful effects. This was found in a 1996 study before e-cigarettes were on the market, a study Dr Le Houezec said was reassuring.

Concern about the increase in e-cigarette use remains.

The World Health Organization advised that consumers should not use e-cigarettes until they are deemed safe. They said the potential risks “remain undetermined” and that the contents of the vapour emissions had not been thoroughly studied

Woman smoking electronic cigarette
E-cigarettes still divide opinion

The British Medical Association has called for a ban on public vaping in the same way that public smoking was banned.

They stated that a strong regulatory framework was needed to “restrict their marketing, sale and promotion so that it is only targeted at smokers as a way of cutting down and quitting, and does not appeal to non-smokers, in particular children and young people”.

Ram Moorthy, from the British Medical Association, said that their use normalises smoking behaviour.

“We don’t want that behaviour to be considered normal again and that e-cigarettes are used as an alternative for the areas that people cannot smoke,” he told BBC News.

But Lynne Dawkins, from the University of East London, said that while light-touch regulation was important, it must be treated with caution.

She said that e-cigarettes presented a “viable safer alternative” to offer to smokers.

“We don’t want to spoil this great opportunity we have for overseeing this unprecedented growth and evolving technology that has not been seen before, We have to be careful not to stump that.”

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.”

New invisibility cloak type designed


A new “broadband” invisibility cloak which hides objects over a wide range of frequencies has been devised.

Despite the hype about Harry Potter-style cloaks, our best current designs can only conceal objects at specific wavelengths of light or microwaves.

At other frequencies, invisibility cloaks actually make things more visible, not less, US physicists found.

Their solution is a new ultrathin, electronic system, which they describe in Physical Review Letters.

“Start Quote

If you want to make an object transparent at all angles and over broad bandwidths, this is a good solution”

Andrea Alu University of Texas

“Our active cloak is a completely new concept and design, aimed at beating the limits of [current cloaks] and we show that it indeed does,” said Prof Andrea Alu, from the University of Texas at Austin.

“If you want to make an object transparent at all angles and over broad bandwidths, this is a good solution.

“We are looking into realising this technology at the moment, but we are still at the early stages.”

Passive vs Active

While the popular image of an invisibility cloak is the magical robe worn by Harry Potter, there is another kind which is not so far-fetched.

The first working model – which concealed a small copper cylinder by bending microwaves around it – was first demonstrated in 2006.

Left: uncloaked sphere. Right:  Same sphere covered with a plasmonic cloak
The sphere on the right is “cloaked” but actually scatters more radiation than when bare (left)

It was built with a thin shell of metamaterials – artificial composites whose structures allow properties which do not exist in nature.

Cloaking materials could have applications in the military, microscopy, biomedical sensing, and energy harvesting devices.

The trouble with current designs is they only work at limited bandwidths. Even this “perfect” 3D cloak demonstrated last year could only hide objects from microwaves.

At other frequencies the cloak acts as a beacon – making the hidden object more obvious – as Prof Alu and his team have now demonstrated in a new study in Physical Review X.

They looked at three popular types of “passive” cloaks – which do not require electricity – a plasmonic cloak, a mantle cloak, and a transformation-optics cloak.

Other ways to disappear

optical camouflage, keio university
  • Optical camouflage technology: A modified background image is projected onto a cloak of retro-reflective material (the kind used to make projector screens); the wearer becomes invisible to anyone standing at the projection source
  • The “mirage effect”: Electric current is passed through submerged carbon nanotubes to create very high local temperatures, this causes light to bounce off them, hiding objects behind
  • Adaptive heat cloaking: A camera records background temperatures, these are displayed by sheets of hexagonal pixels which change temperature very quickly, camouflaging even moving vehicles from heat-sensitive cameras
  • Calcite crystal prism: Calcite crystals send the two polarisations of light in different directions. By gluing prism-shaped crystals together in a specific geometry, polarised light can be directed around small objects, effectively cloaking them

All three types scattered more waves than the bare object they were trying to hide – when tested over the whole range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“If you suppress scattering in one range, you need to pay the price, with interest, in some other range,” Prof Alu told BBC News.

“For example, you might make a cloak that makes an object invisible to red light. But if you were illuminated by white light (containing all colours) you would actually look bright blue, and therefore stand out more.”

A cloak that allows complete invisibility is “impossible” with current passive designs, the study concluded.

“When you add material around an object to cloak it, you can’t avoid the fact that you are adding matter, and that this matter still responds to electromagnetic waves,” Prof Alu explained.

Instead, he said, a much more promising avenue is “active” cloaking technology – designs which rely on electrical power to make objects “vanish”.

Active cloaks can be thinner and less conspicuous than passive cloaks.

Alu’s team have proposed a new design which uses amplifiers to coat the surface of the object in an electric current.

This ultrathin cloak would hide an object from detection at a frequency range “orders of magnitude broader” than any available passive cloaking technology, they wrote.

Nothing’s perfect

Prof David Smith of Duke University, one of the team who created the first cloak in 2006, said the new design was one of the most detailed he had yet seen.

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This does not necessarily preclude the Harry Potter cloak”

Professor David Smith Duke University

“It’s an interesting implementation but as presented is probably a bit limited to certain types of objects,” he told BBC News.

“There are limitations even on active materials. It will be interesting to see if it can be experimentally realised.”

Prof Smith points out that even an “imperfect” invisibility cloak might be perfectly sufficient to build useful devices with real-world applications.

For example, a radio-frequency cloak could improve wireless communications – by helping them bypass obstacles and reducing interference from neighbouring antennas.

“To most people, making an object ‘invisible’ means making it transparent to visible wavelengths. And the visible spectrum is a tiny, tiny sliver of the overall electromagnetic spectrum,” he told BBC News.

“So, this finding does not necessarily preclude the Harry Potter cloak, nor does it preclude any other narrow bandwidth application of cloaking.”