TIME Research

Giving Antibiotics to Infants is Strongly Related to Illness In Adulthood

Many red and transparent medical capsules, filled with yellow medicine, pouring out of a brown bottle, displayed on a white table n Wuerzburg, Bavaria, Germany in December 2014.
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By altering infant gut bacteria, the antibiotics make us more vulnerable to disease

Illness may appear in adulthood because of antibiotic resistance we develop when doctors prescribe us antibiotics as newborns and infants, researchers say.

The antibiotics may alter infant gut bacteria, which are tied to everything from allergies and obesity to infectious diseases, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Cell Host & Microbe.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that antibiotics eliminated bacteria in the gut that enabled the growth of allergen-fighting immune cells. Antibiotics were also found to alter critical gut microbiota that determine our vulnerability to a number of infectious diseases.

“Over the past year we synthesized hundreds of studies and found evidence of strong correlations between antibiotic use, changes in gut bacteria, and disease in adulthood,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Dan Knights.

Antibiotics remain the most prevalent drug prescribed to children, accounting for approximately a quarter of all childhood medications. However, around 30% of prescriptions are deemed unnecessary.

“We think these findings help develop a roadmap for future research to determine the health consequences of antibiotic use and for recommendations for prescribing them,” Knights added.

TIME neuroscience

You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish

No longer can we boast about 12 seconds of coherent thought

The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report read.

On the positive side, the report says our ability to multitask has drastically improved in the mobile age.

Microsoft theorized that the changes were a result of the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself over time and a weaker attention span may be a side effect of evolving to a mobile Internet.

The survey also confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10% of those over the age of 65.

And now congratulate yourself for concentrating long enough to make it through this article.

TIME Research

The New Science of How to Quit Smoking

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Two studies shed light on promising new ways to make kicking the habit easier, using both biology and behavior

Studies show that most smokers want to quit. So why are some people more successful at cutting out nicotine than others? The latest studies looking at the brains and behavior of smokers may provide some explanations.

Some people may be hardwired to have an easier time giving up their cigarettes, suggests one new trial described in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. It turns out that some smokers start out with a particularly rich network of brain neurons in an area called the insula, which regulates cravings and urges and communicates cues: like seeing a cigarette or smelling tobacco smoke, then wanting to light up. Joseph McClernon, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, ran MRI scans of 85 smokers who puffed more than 10 cigarettes a day. The smokers were then randomly assigned to continue smoking their brand or to smoke low-nicotine cigarettes, along with nicotine replacement therapy, for 30 days. All of the people in the study were then told to stop smoking and given nicotine replacement for 10 weeks.

MORE The Best Way to Quit Smoking Isn’t E-Cigs

Those who relapsed during that time tended to have lower activity in the insula, particularly in the connections between the insula and other motor areas that translate cravings into action, while those who successfully kicked the habit showed more robust activity in this brain region. The pattern remained strong despite how many cigarettes the smokers smoked.

“We’ve known for a while that some people seem to be able to quit and other people can’t,” says McClernon. “This gives us a better sense of what neural mechanisms might underlie those differences.”

The results suggest that it might be possible to identify people who may have a harder time quitting—a quick MRI scan of their brains would reveal how much activity they have in their insula—and provide them with more support in their attempts to quit. “Some smokers might benefit from more intensive, longer duration or even different types of interventions to stop smoking,” says McClernon. “They might need a higher, different level of care to help them make it through.”

But how much this system can be manipulated to help smokers quit isn’t clear yet. Previous studies show how potentially complicated the insula’s connections may be—smoking patients who have strokes and damage to the insula suddenly lose their desire to smoke and quit almost cold turkey. McClernon believes that the richer connections may not only promote interactions between cravings and behavior, but also enhance the connections that can inhibit or suppress those urges as well. Having a more intense communication in the insula may help strengthen the ability to quiet urges and inhibit the desire to smoke, despite cues and the urge to light up.

MORE Taking Medication May Make It Easier to Quit Smoking

But even if you’re not blessed with a brain that’s wired to make quitting easy, you still have options. In another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists studied one of the oldest and most reliable ways to motivate people: money. In that trial, Dr. Scott Halpern from the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues assigned 2,538 employees of CVS Caremark to one of five different smoking cessation programs. All received free access to nicotine replacement and behavioral therapy, and some were also assigned to an individual reward program in which they could earn up to $800 if they remained abstinent at six months. Another group was assigned another individual deposit program which was similar, except they had to pay $150 to participate, which they got back if they remained abstinent. Others were assigned to group versions of the reward and deposit programs so that what they received depended on how many in their group quit successfully.

Not shockingly, more people who were assigned to the reward program (90%) agreed to participate than people who were assigned to the deposit strategy (14%), likely because most people weren’t wiling to put their own money on the line. But when Halpern looked more closely at those who did enroll, the smokers in the deposit programs were twice as likely to be abstinent at six months than those in the reward group and five times as likely to be smoke-free than those who received only free counseling and nicotine replacement.

MORE Paying People Could Help Them Quit Smoking

That’s not entirely surprising, says Halpern, since having some of their own money at risk provided more motivation for the smokers to quit. When it comes to incentivizing smoking cessation, “adding a bit of stick is better than having just a pure carrot,” he says.

Finding the perfect balance of stick and carrot, however, may be more challenging. Halpern believes that from the perspective of an employer, insurer or government, offering even higher rewards than the $800 in the study and lowering the deposit slightly might still provide benefits to all parties. Smokers cost an average of $4,000 to $6,000 more each year in health services than non-smokers, he says, so offering even as much as $5,000 can still result in cost savings for employers, many of whom are now dangling financial incentives in front of their smoking employees to motivate them to quit.

How the financial carrot is proffered is also important, says Halpern. Now, most employers or insurers reward quitting in more hidden ways, with bonuses in direct deposit accounts or with lower premiums. While helpful, these aren’t as tangible to people, and humans respond better to instant gratification. “They’re rewarding people in ways that are essentially blind to the way human psychology works,” he says. “The fact that the benefits occur in the future make them a whole lot less influential than if people were handed money more quickly. Our work suggests that in addition to thinking about the size of the incentive, it’s fundamentally important to think about how to deliver that money.”

Another factor that can make financial incentives more powerful is to make the experience more enjoyable, either by introducing some competition in a group setting or encouraging smokers along the way. In the study, smokers in the group programs were not any more successful than those in the individual regimes, but that may be because the employees didn’t know each other. Grouping colleagues in the same office might have more of an effect, says Halpern. Either way, he says, incorporating such incentives to help more people quit smoking is “really a win-win.”

Read next: The Best Way to Quit Smoking Isn’t E-Cigs

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TIME Obesity

‘Thrifty’ Metabolisms May Make It Harder to Lose Weight

File photo dated Thursday October 16, 2014. of a young girl using a set of weighing scales as slimmers should forget what they have been told about avoiding rapid weight loss in favour of slow but sure dieting, according to new research.
Chris Radburn—PA Wire/Press Association Images File photo dated Thursday October 16, 2014. of a young girl using a set of weighing scales as slimmers should forget what they have been told about avoiding rapid weight loss in favour of slow but sure dieting, according to new research.

The study marks the first time lab results have confirmed the widely held belief

Losing those love handles may be easier for some people than for others, says a new study that confirmed the theory that physiology plays a role in a person’s ability to lose weight.

According to a press release, researchers at the Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch studied the metabolisms of 12 obese men and women undergoing a six-week 50% calorie-reduction experiment. After measuring participants’ energy expenditure after a day of fasting and then re-examining them during the caloric-reduction period, researchers found that the slower the metabolism works during a diet, the less weight the person loses.

Coining the terms “thrifty” vs. “spendthrift” metabolisms, the experiment marks first time lab results have confirmed a widely held belief that a speedy metabolism plays a role in weight loss.

“While behavioral factors such as adherence to diet affect weight loss to an extent, our study suggests we should consider a larger picture that includes individual physiology — and that weight loss is one situation where being thrifty doesn’t pay,” said lead author Dr. Susanne Votruba, Ph.D.

Researchers have yet to figure out if the differences in metabolic speeds are innate traits or develop over time. Also, the study was only focused on weight loss, and the team does not know if the body’s response to caloric reduction can be used to prevent weight gain.

Over one-third of Americans are obese, and it leads to some of the most common forms of preventable deaths in the country.

TIME Research

More Than a Quarter of American Adults Have Untreated Tooth Decay

American oral health could use a brush-up

New data on tooth decay and cavities among American adults reveal the sad state of our pearly whites. More than 25% of American adults ages 20 to 64 have untreated tooth decay, and 91% have one tooth — or more — that has been treated for tooth decay or needs to be.

The latest findings published Wednesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics show that while tooth decay and complete tooth loss have dropped among Americans since the 1960s, disparities still remain, and there’s room for improvement in our oral health.

MORE: The Sugar Industry Shaped Government Advice on Cavities, Report Finds

The data span 2011–2012 and reveal that Hispanic and black adults had more untreated cavities compared with white and Asian adults ages 20 to 64. Black adults had the highest rate at 42%.

About 1 in 5 adults age 65 and older had untreated tooth decay; American adults ages 20 to 39 were twice as likely to have all their teeth, compared with adults ages 40 to 64.

Though the current report only looks at adults, cavities are common among young people too. Even though cavities are preventable, tooth decay is four times more common than asthma in teens ages 14 to 17. It’s the most common chronic disease among kids and adolescents ages 6 to 19.

TIME Research

Why Autism Is Different in the Brains of Girls Than in Boys

The reasons why girls are less often diagnosed may be both biological and social

Autism, already a mysterious disorder, is even more puzzling when it comes to gender differences. For every girl diagnosed with autism, four boys are diagnosed, a disparity researchers don’t yet fully understand.

In a new study published in the journal Molecular Autism, researchers from the UC Davis MIND Institute tried to figure out a reason why. They looked at 112 boys and 27 girls with autism between ages 3 and 5 years old, as well as a control sample of 53 boys and 29 girls without autism. Using a process called diffusion-tensor imaging, the researchers looked at the corpus callosum — the largest neural fiber bundle in the brain — in the young kids. Prior research has shown differences in that area of the brain among people with autism.

They found that the organization of these fibers was different in boys compared with girls, especially in the frontal lobes, which play a role in executive functions. “The sample size is still limited, but this work adds to growing body of work suggesting boys and girls with autism have different underlying neuroanatomical differences,” said study author Christine Wu Nordahl, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, in an email.

In other preliminary research presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research, or IMFAR, in Salt Lake City, the study authors showed that when girls and boys with autism are compared with typically developing boys and girls, the behavioral differences between girls with autism and the female controls are greater than the differences among the boys. Nordahl says this suggests that girls can be more severely affected than boys.

A study earlier this year by a separate group found notable differences in symptoms between autistic boys and girls, which could be one of the reasons autism in girls sometimes goes unnoticed or is diagnosed late. Girls generally display less obvious behavioral symptoms at a young age compared with boys, the researchers found.

One of the reasons females with autism are less understood than males is that most research studies do not have equal numbers of boys and girls, says Nordahl. “This is not surprising, given that there are so many more males with autism than females,” she says. “We need to do a better job of trying to recruit females with autism into our studies so that we can fully explore differences between males and females with autism.”

Nordahl says understanding gender differences in autism affects how kids are diagnosed, as well as how they are treated. Understanding what biological differences may be at work can ultimately lead to a better understanding of autism and the best interventions for treatment.

TIME Research

How Self-Promotion Can Backfire

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There are social consequences to tooting your own horn too often

Tuesday in social faux pas news comes a paper showing that when we try to make people like us, we often come across as braggy and annoying.

We often practice a little self-promotion when we’re trying to be impressive. Turns out, it doesn’t always come across the way we want it to. New research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that people frequently overestimate how much their self-promotion works in their favor and underestimate how much it achieves the opposite effect.

“These results are particularly important in the Internet age, when opportunities for self-promotion have proliferated via social networking. The effects may be exacerbated by the additional distance between people sharing information and their recipient, which can both reduce the empathy of the self-promoter and decrease the sharing of pleasure by the recipient,” said study author Irene Scopelliti, a lecturer in marketing at City University London in a statement.

To better understand the phenomena, researchers conducted a few experiments. In the first they asked people to describe in detail a time they bragged about themselves, what emotions they felt, and how they think the person listening to them felt. Then, another group of people were asked to describe a time when they listened to someone brag about themselves, as well as what emotions they felt and how they think the other person felt. The results showed that the people who did the bragging tended to think the people who were listening to them felt happier and more proud of them than they actually did. They were also likely to underestimate how annoying the listener thought they were.

A third part of the study, where the researches asked people to make a positive impression of themselves, showed that, indeed, people tended to brag about themselves to do it. That, too, backfired.

So next time you have something to brag about, consider your audience. Your true friends and family may still want to lend an ear, but that person you’re trying to impress may just find your self-promotion irritating rather than remarkable.

TIME Research

This Fish Can Make Its Own Sunscreen

A new study shows many animals can make their own sunscreen, which could help humans down the line

Many animals, especially marine animals like zebrafish and sea urchin as well as some birds, can create their own sunlight protection compound, according to a new study. It may one day be possible to use this process to create a better method of sun protection for humans.

In a new study published in the journal eLife, Oregon State University researchers show that zebrafish can produce a compound called gadusol which protects them from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Even in the deep blue sea, marine animals can be exposed to sunlight. The researchers looked at how the zebrafish produced gadusol and were able to reproduce the process in yeast. The hope is that one day the science could lead the production of a pill or an ingredient added to cosmetics that would provide the same benefit for humans.

Their study reveals what the researchers call the “unexpected discovery” that fish can produce gadusol themselves, while previously it was believed that the compound was obtained through their diet. They found that the same pathways for synthesizing gadusol is present in other animals like birds and reptiles.

Humans don’t have the same genes that encode for the production of gadusol, but since the process can be replicated in yeast it’s possible that the science could eventually lead the creation of an ingredient that could provide humans with extra sun protection.

TIME Research

The Weird Link Between Celiac Disease and Nerve Damage

A new study on every celiac in Sweden

Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes intestinal damage when a person eats gluten, is still something of a medical mystery. But a new Swedish study adds another piece to the puzzle.

People with celiac disease have a 2.5-fold increased risk of developing neuropathy, or nerve damage, found a new study published in JAMA Neurology. In the new nationwide study, pediatrician Dr. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, professor of clinical epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and his team wanted to look at the risk of developing neuropathy in a sample of people diagnosed with celiac disease. They gathered data from every person diagnosed with celiac disease in Sweden between 1969 and 2008—28,232 celiac sufferers in all. Each of them had been tested with a small-intestine biopsy.

(Most of them, interestingly, were women. About 60% of people with celiac disease are women; more females than males are diagnosed with autoimmune disorders, Ludvigsson says, for a reason researchers haven’t yet determined.)

For every celiac patient, Ludvigsson also found five people identical in age, sex, birth year and place of residence in Sweden as controls. He followed them for an average of 10 years to see who developed a diagnosis of neuropathy.

MORE: You Asked: Do I Have a Gluten Allergy?

The researchers found that having celiac disease was associated with a significant increased risk of developing nerve damage later. “It’s quite a high figure, compared to many other outcomes in celiac disease,” Ludvigsson says. Having a diagnosis is automatically a risk factor for getting a diagnosis for any other disease, he explains, since going to the doctor for one thing boosts the chances the doctor will find something else—a phenomenon known as surveillance bias. But the increase here is too high to merely be due to bias, he says. “There is a real association between celiac disease and neuropathy…we have precise risk estimates in a way we haven’t had before.”

Previous work has shown that in the U.S., 39% of people with celiac disease also had symptoms of neuropathy. About 1% of the population has celiac disease, and that number is similar in Sweden and the U.K.

“I think this paper could actually change clinical practice somewhat,” Ludvigsson says. When a neurologist diagnoses a patient with neuropathy but finds no obvious cause, he might consider screening that patient for celiac disease, Ludvigsson says. “Some of these patients will be diagnosed with celiac disease, will have a gluten-free diet and will actually feel better and be healthier.”

TIME Health Care

How a New Study on Premature Babies Could Influence the Abortion Debate

Pro-life advocates say the research supports their arguments

A new study showing that a tiny percentage of extremely premature babies born at 22 weeks can survive with extensive medical intervention could change the national conversation about abortion, though the research is unlikely to have a major effect on women’s access to abortions in the short term.

Anti-abortion advocates said the study—which was published by the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday and found that 3.5% percent of 357 infants born at 22 weeks could survive without severe health problems if hospitals treated them—could benefit the anti-abortion movement by sparking discussion about the viability of premature babies.

“Some people are strongly committed to pro-life, some are strongly committed to the other side,” but many fall somewhere in the middle, said Burke Balch, director of the Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics for the National Right to Life Committee, the non-profit advocacy organization. “The fact that those children could survive will affect those in the middle.”

The anti-abortion movement has tried to shift attention away from women who seek abortions—as in, debates on whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest—and instead focus on the unborn baby, using the argument that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks to justify state bans on abortion after that time. Some 13 states have banned abortion after 20 weeks, according to Naral Pro-Choice America, a non-profit advocacy organization. Other states, such as Wisconsin, South Carolina and West Virginia have started debating such measures this year. The 20-week bans, Balch said, are partially designed to bring the focus back to the child—and the new data on premature babies will make that easier. “It strengthens the persuasiveness argument, even if it doesn’t impact the legal argument,” he said.

While anti-abortion advocates hope the study will shift public opinion, the fact that a small number of babies can survive at 22 weeks with extraordinary interventions will likely not have a large impact on a woman’s ability to get an abortion today, experts said.

The Supreme Court has held that states can restrict abortions if the fetus is viable—able to survive outside the womb—even if the mother’s health is not threatened by the pregnancy. But there is no strict legal definition of viability; instead, it is determined on a case-by-case basis by the individual doctor. While it is possible that the study could affect a doctor’s decision about the viability of a pregnancy, doctors would usually focus more on the details of the specific case. And few doctors and clinics offer abortions at such a late stage anyway, experts added.

“Viability has never been a set number,” said Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the reproductive health non-profit. “It is determined by each doctor based on the woman and the pregnancy and it varies. That’s what the medical community has said and what Roe v. Wade says, and that’s unchanged by this study, which is about the extremely intensive care that is provided in some places.”

Though the new research has sparked discussion of abortion, its real relevance is for expectant parents researching the medical treatment available for premature babies, particularly those who may want to find out whether their hospital provides interventions to save babies at 22 weeks.

“I think it’s important information, especially for women excited about having a baby,” says Elizabeth Nash, an expert on state laws governing reproduction at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group focused on reproductive health. “It’s much more tangential to abortion, except that abortion opponents will look to this information to try to restrict access, and that’s where we have to pay attention.”

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