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 Research

The Viral Ice Bucket Challenge Has Raised $15.6 Million For ALS

The ALS Association raised $50,000 in the same period last year

The extremely viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has led to record donations to the ALS Association, raising some $15.6 million in contributions to the group and and its national affiliates since July 29 — compared with less than $50,000 in the same period last year.

“It’s huge. It’s a game changer for the ALS Association,” said ALS Association President Barbara Newhouse.

The $12 million figure represents more than half of the funds raised in all of 2012, when the national organization brought in $19 million in contributions.

The total has been boosted by a flood of celebrities participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, in increasingly creative ways. Project ALS, another charity dedicated to combatting Lou Gehrig’s disease, said it experienced a surge in fundraising after Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais took the Challenge and asked people to contribute to that organization specifically. The charity raised $96,000 over a single weekend, compared to just a few thousand dollars in the first weeks of August 2013.

What to do this unexpected windfall? Newhouse said the money will allow the ALS Association to “think outside the box.

“We need to take some time to make some very clear decisions about how best to spend this money,” said Newhouse, who said she will consult a number of people including the families that started and popularized the ALS challenge.

One clear priority will be research, on which the organization currently spends more than $6 million a year. Project ALS says all the money the organization receives will go toward innovative research and “staffing up.”

Both organizations said that no matter how the money is spent, the Challenge has brought invaluable awareness to their cause.

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."

TIME Research

Here’s How the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Actually Started

More than $15 million later, looking back at the origins of a viral sensation

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has quickly gone from a fundraising campaign to a viral Internet sensation, raising $15.6 million so far for the ALS Association to research Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But how did a campaign that has drawn in celebrities from Oprah and LeBron James to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg actually start?

Chris Kennedy, a golfer in Sarasota, Fla., was nominated by a friend to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, which at the time, had nothing to do with ALS. The campaign was not tied to any specific charity, and participants would select a charity of their choice for donations. Kennedy’s friend had selected a charity that benefits a young child with cancer in the area. Kennedy, passing the challenge along, then selected ALS because a relative is suffering from the disease. Kennedy nominated his wife’s cousin Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband Anthony is the one suffering from ALS. Kennedy posted this video on July 15—what appears to be the first instance in which the Ice Bucket Challenge and ALS were linked.

“My cousin Chris sent me a message telling me to check my Facebook,” Jeanette Senerchia told TIME. “He nominated me as a joke because we bust each other’s chops. I was just going to donate money.” Instead, Senerchia, not to be outdone by Kennedy, accepted the challenge and posted the video on her Facebook page on July 16, nominating more people. In the beginning, they used the hashtags #takingiceforantsenerchiajr and #StrikeOutALS to support a newly-formed non profit and baseball tournament to honor Anthony.

Senerchia said their town of Pelham, N.Y., is small and the challenge started to spread like wildfire among everyone including their families and even high school friends. Soon, they couldn’t keep track of the number of videos. Eventually, it reached another man with ALS, Pat Quinn from Yonkers, N.Y. Quinn and Senerchia had a couple of mutual Facebook friends, and the campaign had spread to his online community. Quinn was diagnosed with ALS in March 2013.

Eventually, Quinn’s social network connected with Pete Frates in Boston, who has an especially large network of supporters, and is very involved with the ALS community. Frates was diagnosed a year before Quinn, and since the two had a lot in common (Frates was a former captain of the Boston College baseball team and professional baseball player in Europe) Frates has become a friend and mentor to Quinn. “Pete has been a mentor to Pat because he is a year ahead of him in progression,” said Nancy Frates, Pete’s mother.

When asked how Pete Frates gained such a large following, Nancy says, “If you met Pete you would know.” Frates has maintained friendships with people he’s met throughout his life, and they’ve all become part of his support network. Frates posted his own video on Facebook on July 31, using both the hashtags #StrikeOutALS and #Quinnforthewin—and that’s when the campaign really went viral.

The ALS Association says it started seeing an unexplained uptick in donations on July 29, and on Aug. 4, it was clear something was really taking off. The organization said Monday that it’s received more than $15 million from existing donors and 307,598 new donors. Nancy Frates said her family has received emails from other smaller ALS groups who have said their donations are also up. “Everyone is being made aware of this disease and the reality of it,” Frates said.

“What started out as a small gesture to put a smile on Anthony’s face and bring some awareness to this terrible disease has turned into a national phenomenon and it is something we never could have dreamed of,” Kennedy said.

TIME Research

Here’s How Much Money the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Has Now

Nearly 150,000 have donated so far, including some high-profile names

More than a week after the Ice Bucket Challenge first went viral, people keep dumping ice on their heads, and the ALS Association keeps collecting money. The organization’s national office has received $5.5 million for Lou Gehrig’s disease research since July 29, compared to $32,000 in the same period last year.

ALS Association spokeswoman Carrie Munk said earlier this week that the organization is “thrilled and completely amazed” at the sum they continue to raise and the public awareness the campaign has generated. Nearly 150,000 new donors have given to the cause as of Thursday.

The challenge, if you haven’t seen it already, features people dumping cold water on their heads and then nominating friends to do the same. If nominees don’t accept the challenge, they’re asked to donate money instead. A number of high profile figures have dumped ice on their heads, like Chris Christie and Mark Zuckerberg. Others, like President Obama, opted to donate instead.

TIME Research

There May Be a Neurotoxin in Your Skin Cream

Hand lotion
Getty Images

Scientists are finding methods to quickly screen products for unsafe metals

Scientists are ruining everything about your morning routine this week.

First, researchers reported that they had found a way to detect fillers like twigs, wheat, soy and corn in your coffee—a practice that has apparently become more common due to coffee shortages. Now, researchers presenting at the same conference, the annual American Chemical Society, are reporting a new way to filter out metals from skin cream. Yup, that’s right, there’s toxic mercury in some face lotion.

The researchers report that while the U.S. limit on mercury in products is one part per one million, they have found that some face creams contain levels up to 210,000 parts per million. Though some mercury in creams provide a skin lightening effect, which can fade scars and hyperpigmentation, mercury exposure has also been linked to a long list of negative health consequences including headaches, kidney damage and altered cognitive functioning.

In their presentation, the researchers report that by using a new machine that uses a method called total reflection X-ray fluorescence, they can effectively and quickly screen products for mercury. “Using the new instrument, I can run through 20 or 30 samples in a day quite easily. By identifying those products that contain mercury, we can direct people to remove them and clean up their households,” study author Gordon Vrdoljak of the California Department of Public Health said in a statement.

The FDA has warned consumers about mercury exposure from skin cream in the past. You can read tips for how to protect yourself, like reading labels, here.

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