TIME Research

Why Some Catholics Won’t Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Concerns raised about stem cell research

Not everyone is jumping to take part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which has gone viral and raised millions for research into Lou Gehrig’s disease. Following the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s decision to ban its schools from donating to the ALS Association and a widely read blog post by a Catholic priest, some Catholics are questioning the ethics of contributing to ALS charities that fund research with embryonic stem cells.

“We deeply appreciate the compassion, but there’s a well established moral principle that goods ends are not enough. The means must also be morally licit,” said Cincinnati Archdiocese spokesperson Dan Andriacco.

Father Michael Duffy, whose blog post on the issue has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times, said he started hearing chatter online two weeks ago suggesting that donations to the ALS Association might be used for embryonic stem cell research, which conflicts with Catholic doctrine. When he was nominated for the challenge himself, he looked into it and discovered that the ALS Association did in fact fund embryonic stem cell research.

Catholic church doctrine holds that life begins at conception. Because embryonic stem cells come from very early-stage embryos, the church holds that destroying the embryo is akin to taking a life.

ALS Association spokesperson Carrie Munk acknowledged that the organization currently funds one study using embryonic stem cells, but added that donors can ask that their money not be used for this purpose.

Duffy said that option isn’t sufficient.

“I would still have trouble with that because you’re supporting an organization that is taking someone’s life,” he said.

Instead, he suggested an alternative charity, the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which advocates for stem cell research using adult stem cells. In Cincinnati, the Archdiocese has taken Duffy’s recommendation and asked its schools to direct their funds there if they want to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Apparently, Duffy’s recommendation is working. The John Paul II organization said it has received dozens of donations per hour in recent days and that its website crashed because of the influx in traffic. Typically, the organization only receives a couple donations each day.

But despite the questions from some Catholics, the ALS Association continues to rake in cash. It’s raised $41 million since July 29, compared with just over $2 million in the same period last year.

TIME Research

Blood Transfusions Could Reduce Strokes in Kids With Sickle-Cell Anemia

Sickle Cell Anemia SEM
Under a high magnification of 8000X, this scanning electron micrograph reveals red blood cells in a 6-year-old male patient with sickle cell anemia. Media for Medical—UIG/Getty Images

The risk of a stroke can be cut by more than half

A new trial involving nearly 200 children with sickle-cell anemia found that monthly blood transfusions could reduce the chance of strokes by more than half in children who have the condition, according to U.S. News.

Sickle-cell anemia — a disorder in which red blood cells adopt a rigid, sickle shape that blocks flow, causing strokes and other complications — is most common in children of African and Central or South American descent. According to the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 1 out of 500 African-American children in the U.S. is born with sickle-cell anemia. “Silent strokes” — which lack discernible symptoms but have also been known to reduce a child’s IQ — affect 30% of those with the condition.

Researchers involved in the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, used an MRI scan to identify 196 children ages 5 to 15 with a history of silent strokes, and gave about half of them monthly blood transfusions over three years. Out of the group that had monthly blood transfusions, only six had another stroke during the study, in comparison with 14 children in the control group who had another stroke.

Allison King, a co-author of the study, explained in a statement released by Washington University School of Medicine that the blood transfusions helped to increase the number of healthy red blood cells and “lower the percentage of sickle-shaped cells in the patient’s bloodstream.”

The team stressed that all children with sickle-cell anemia — which was previously thought to be untreatable — should be regularly screened for signs of silent stroke. “Now that we have identified a viable treatment option, early detection of silent cerebral strokes should become a major focus for clinicians and families of children with sickle-cell disease,” Michael Noetzel, a chairman of the study’s neurology committee, said in a statement.

Researchers added that additional long-term studies were needed to determine whether regular blood transfusions could also prevent reduced IQ, which was not a focus of the study.

[U.S. News]

TIME Research

Humans and Neanderthals Were Actually Neighbors

Paleontologists know plenty about our nearest human cousins, the Neanderthals. They know that this highly successful species walked the Earth for some 300,000 years (we’ve been around for less than 200,000). They know the Neanderthals kept their caves surprisingly tidy; that they ate things other than raw meat; that they practiced recycling, wore jewelry and were generally much more sophisticated than their popular reputation would suggest.

Yet it didn’t take long after our own species invaded their last known outpost in Europe that the Neanderthals went utterly extinct. Now a new paper in Nature suggests it happened over a period of between 2,600 and 5,400 years or so—which is twice as fast as anyone had thought. The two groups did, evidently, coexist: “They lived in Europe at the same time,” says lead author Tom Higham, of Oxford, “although they were spatially separated. It was like a mosaic.” Agrees William Davies, of the University of Southampton, who wrote a commentary on the new research, also in Nature, “It’s not a neat story. It’s quite complex.”

The key to the new analysis was an unusually large sample of human and Neanderthal remains from 40 different sites across Europe, along with improved methods for filtering out contaminants from the samples before attempting to date them. In many cases, the remains weren’t bones but rather stone tools thought to characteristic of one species or the other—so-called Mousterian and Châtelperronian tools for the Neanderthals and Uluzzian tools for our own ancestors.

That raises, if not a red flag, then at least a sort of pinkish one, according to Davies. “In the old days, we had very few assemblages of tools, so it was quite easy to say that Mousterian tools represented Neanderthals, while tools with longer blades reflect anatomically modern humans.” But with more and more tools in their collections, paleontologists have become less sure. “The whole thing has become more blurred and less certain.”

The new analysis doesn’t depend entirely on who made what tools, however, and, says Davies, “the areas they’ve chosen to analyze are places where we can be more confident than most.” What makes the work so potentially important, he says, is that it gives a much finer-grained picture than ever before of where Neanderthals and modern humans lived and when, and how those patterns changed as Neanderthal numbers dwindled, then vanished.

That in turn will help anthropologists figure out how the Neanderthals vanished—what force or forces drove them extinct by about 40,000 years ago. “We think the Neanderthals had very low population numbers when modern humans arrived,” says Higham, perhaps in part because Europe was in the throes of an Ice Age at the time, so they were struggling against harsh conditions that couldn’t support large numbers of individuals. Modern humans, Higham observes, had been living in Africa, which was much more benign. “Modern humans also seemed to have more modern technology,” he says, “which wouldn’t have been a huge advantage, but over the long duration might have given them an edge.”

Scientists also know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred at some level, which is why about 2% of our genes, on average, are Neanderthal in origin. The details of those interactions are still completely unknown—for now, anyway. “For me,” says Davies, “the big achievement here is that we now have a way of getting much more information out of both skeletal and archaeological remains. We can look at the molecular level on genetic inheritance, movement patterns, even what they were eating.”

The mystery of when and where the Neanderthals made their last stand may be just about wrapped up. And the answer to why they disappeared might not be a mystery for much longer.

 

TIME Research

What Kids’ Drawings Say About Their Intelligence

Here are examples of children's drawings. Scores are from left to right: Top: 6,10,6; Bottom: 6,10,7. Twins Early Development Study, King's College London

The number of features a child draws into their sketch of a person may say a little something about their intelligence

A large and long-term new study shows the way a 4-year-old draws a person not only says something about their level of intelligence as a toddler but is also predictive of their intelligence 10 years down the line.

A team of researchers at King’s College London had 7,752 pairs of identical and non-identical 4-year-old twins draw a picture of a child. Every sketch was rated on a scale from 0 to 12 based on the presence of features, like legs, arms, and facial features. The kids also underwent verbal and nonverbal intelligence measurement tests.

When the kids turned 14, the researchers once again tested their intelligence. They found that a higher score on their drawing was moderately associated with the child’s intelligence both at age four and at age 14. The researchers expected to see a connection at age 4, but for the results to have consistency a decade later was surprising.

The researchers also found that the drawings of identical twins were more similar than the drawings of non-identical twins, suggesting that a genetic link was involved in drawing, though its exact mechanism was unknown. For instance the kids could be predisposed (or trained) to pay attention to detail well or hold their pencil in a specific way, the researchers say.

“The correlation is moderate, so our findings are interesting but it does not mean that parents should worry if their child draws badly,” said study author Dr. Rosalind Arden, the lead author of the paper in a statement. “Drawing ability does not determine intelligence, there are countless factors, both genetic and environmental, which affect intelligence in later life.”

The study was published Tuesday in the journal Psychological Science.

TIME Research

Having Good Neighbors Could Reduce Heart Attacks in the Over-50s

Medical Check-up
A patient has a medical check-up in Lille's Institut Pasteur (IPL) in France. BSIP/UIG—Getty Images

A study finds that participants who rate their communities the highest have an almost 70% reduced risk of heart attack

A new study by researchers from the University of Michigan appears to suggest that close community ties reduce heart-attack risk for people over 50.

Researchers say previous data shows that some aspects of a person’s neighborhood — such as the amount of violence and the prevalence of fast-food restaurants — can elevate heart-attack risk, but this is the first study that reveals the cardiovascular benefits of “neighborhood social cohesion,” reports AFP.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on Tuesday, monitored the cardiovascular health of 5,276 participants who were over the age of 50 and had never had a heart attack.

The participants, who were mostly married women with an average age of 70, were involved in an ongoing Health and Retirement Study in the U.S. Beginning in 2006, participants were asked to rate, on a seven-point scale, whether their neighbors were trustworthy, reliable and friendly, and if they felt connected to their community. During the study, 148 of the participants had a heart attack.

Although data was adjusted to account for variables such as age, race and income, the four-year study revealed that every mark-up in neighborhood cohesion on the scale led to a 17% reduction in the odds of heart disease, according to the Health Medicine Network. The study’s co-author Eric Kim told AFP that those who gave a full score out of seven had a 67% reduced risk of heart attack.

Researchers admitted, however, that the study had limitations, like a lack of access to the participants’ family histories of cardiovascular disease. “This is an observational study, so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect,” researchers emphasized.

TIME National Security

Study: Passport Officers Struggle to Spot Fake Photo IDs

Officers failed to recognize faces were different from ID photos 15% of the time in a test situation

Officials charged with issuing passports mistakenly accepted photo identification displaying a different person 14% of the time, according to the results of a study published Monday.

The study asked officials to accept or reject someone based on whether a displayed photo matched the person before them. They mistakenly accepted someone with a different photo displayed almost 15% of the time and mistakenly rejected someone whose real photo was displayed 6% of the time.

“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15% would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychology researcher at the University of York and study co-author.

Officers fared even worse on a separate test that asked them to match a current photo with identification photos taken two years prior. They matched the photos incorrectly 20% of the time, a figure equivalent to the performance of an untrained control group.

The study, which tested 27 Australian passport officers, found that training had little influence on officers’ ability to identify faces on passports correctly. The best way to address faulty identification is to hire people who are innately better at identifying faces, researchers concluded.

“This study has importantly highlighted that the ability to be good at matching a face to an image is not necessarily something that can be trained,” said University of Aberdeen professor Mike Burton, a study co-author. “It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that some people are simple more adept at it than others.”

TIME medicine

These Mummified Cadavers Helped Teach Medical Students in the 1800s

The Burns Collection consists of human cadavers from the early 1800s that were anatomically dissected and preserved to teach anatomy and surgery to medical students. For the first time this portion of the collection is on display to the public as a part of traveling exhibit "Mummies of the World: The Exhibition."

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