TIME Research

Chin-Powered Energy Is Now Possible, Say Scientists

Can’t you just see the infomercial?

“Darn it, that hearing-aid battery went out again!”

“Never happens to me, Fred. Because I have this.” (Pulls out strap, buckles around top of head and under chin. Pops a stick of gum in mouth. Starts chewing.) “Yep, I have all the power I need, right here.” (Points to chin. Fred looks on with a mix of awe and envy.)

It sounds like an Onion piece but it’s real—and it’s really, really peculiar. A new report in the journal Smart Materials and Structures lays it out: engineers at Montreal’s École de Technologie Supérieure have created a prototype of the energy-generating chin strap and proven that it works in the lab, putting out 18 microwatts of electricity.

“Given that the average power available from chewing is around seven milliwatts, we still have a long way to go before we perfect the performance of the device,” writes study co-author Aidin Delnavaz, in a press release—which is a bit of an understatement, since that would be about a thousandfold increase in performance.

The technology behind the chinstrap power source isn’t new, mind you: it involves piezoelectric materials, which generate electricity simply by being squeezed or flexed. They’ve been used to create energy-producing kneepads (“not that pleasant” to wear, says its inventor) and boots (not that fashionable).

But the chinstrap is evidently the new state of the art. Once the engineers get the kinks out, which could take a few years, it could become commercially available, at which point, said Delnavaz, “the device could substantially decrease the environmental impact of batteries and bring more comfort to users.”

This depends on your definition of “comfort,” though. If you think strapping a contraption around your head every time you sit down to dinner and chewing against resistance is likely to be comfortable, either physically or socially, this item is for you.


TIME Research

Here’s Why You May Be Better Off Taking Generic Cholesterol Drugs

Patients with cheaper drugs tended to take their medicine more consistently

A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the cost difference between generic and brand-name drugs seems to be a big factor when it comes to sticking with a medication–especially when it comes to statins, one of the most-prescribed drugs in the country. People who got the generic versions of the cholesterol-lowering medication were more likely to consistently take it and avoid cardiovascular disorders than those who filled the brand-name kind.

“Initiating a generic versus a brand-name statin seems to be associated with lower out-of-pocket costs, improved adherence to therapy, and improved clinical outcomes,” the study said.

The study, which looked at more than 90,000 patients over age of 65, found that people taking generic drugs were more likely to stick to their medication regimen. Price played a role in this disparity, the study suggests. The average cost to fill a prescription for the consumer was $10 for generic statins versus $48 for brand names.

“Given this substantial cost difference, it is perhaps not surprising that adherence and cardiovascular outcomes were worse among patients receiving brand-name statins,” study authors wrote. Overall, people who took generic drugs had 8% fewer incidents than people who used brand-name drugs.

The study received grant support from drug manufacturer Teva Pharmaceutical (which makes both generic and brand-name drugs) and acknowledges that the results may not be generalizable for certain populations: particularly those with greater incomes or access to insurance plans that provide better coverage for brand-name drugs.

TIME Cancer

Male-Pattern Baldness Linked to Aggressive Prostate Cancer

A specific kind of baldness is linked to aggressive prostate cancer, finds a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Researchers analyzed the self-reported hair-loss patterns from 39,000 men enrolled in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial and found that men who recalled having male pattern baldness—characterized by a receding hairline and thinning hair on the crown—at age 45 had a 40% increased risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer when they got older compared to men who weren’t balding. No type of baldness was linked to a higher rate of overall cancer, and male-pattern baldness was not linked to non-aggressive prostate cancer.

Michael Cook, senior study author and investigator in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, suspects the link is due to male androgens, or sex hormones. Testosterone and an androgen derived from testosterone, called dihydrotestosterone (DHT), are linked to both male-pattern baldness and to the progression of prostate cancer, he told TIME. Genetics might also come into play. “There is some overlapping regions of the genome that may be implicated in both of these conditions, but it’s too early to say whether these are the exact same genes,” Cook says.

Up to 70% of men experience male-pattern baldness at some point, and men shouldn’t panic if they too experience hair loss. “You should not in any way be additionally concerned of your individual prostate cancer risk,” he cautions. “That’s because although these results are [interesting] and may indicate that there’s some central underlying exposure—which may be androgens—we cannot say that for certain.”

If you’re concerned, as always, talk to your doctor.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Link Between Sunny Days and Suicide

Sunshine's complex effect on suicide and depression

Sunshine seems to be linked to suicide—but not in the way you might think.

A new study published today in JAMA Psychiatry compared 69,462 suicides that occurred in Austria between 1970 and 2010 to hours of sunshine during that day. The researchers found a positive association between the number of suicides on a particular day and the hours of sunshine—meaning sunny days saw more suicides, shedding light on some popular misconceptions about what leads up to or contributed to someone taking his or her own life. (Take the myth of “holiday suicides”—the idea that more people commit suicide during the hectic holiday season. It’s not founded in stats, data shows. December actually has the lowest suicide rates of the year, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. They’re highest in the spring.)

Reasons for suicide are, of course, multifaceted, making it impossible to isolate a single risk factor, including how light affects brain chemistry. Still, researchers have some ideas.

When a depressed person first begins light therapy, for instance, their drive and motivation often improve before their mood does, says Dr. Matthäus Willeit of the Medical University Vienna, and one of the study authors. “If you have enhanced energy and motivation and drive but your mood is still very depressed, that might favor a state where you are at greater risk for suicide.” That’s similar to what can happen when someone first starts treatment with antidepressants, he says.

Another factor to consider is that exposure to light has profound effects on serotonin transmission in the brain, which influences things like mood and impulsiveness, the authors write in their paper. More light means lower serotonin-transporter binding in the brain, a decrease that encourages impulsiveness, Willeit explains. While most people have had suicidal thoughts at some point, very few act on them, and Willeit thinks impulse control is a key player in going through with it.

On the other hand, some studies show that bright light therapy is an effective treatment against depression with few side effects. And today’s JAMA Psychiatry study showed that light seems to have a protective effect against suicide in the long-term.

“It’s too early to say,” Willeit says of the relationship of sunshine to suicide. “We’re just beginning to understand what light does.”

TIME Cancer

Prediabetes Increases Cancer Risk By 15%

A new study published in Diabetologia shows a link between prediabetes–when blood sugar levels are higher than normal but don’t yet qualify as diabetes–and cancer.

More than one in three U.S. adults 20 years and over have prediabetes, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report. Even more concerning, 90% of those affected don’t know they have it. And 15-30% of people with prediabetes will develop full-blown type 2 diabetes within five years, the report says.

The meta-analysis looked at 16 studies, including data from almost 900,000 people. Researchers found a 15% higher risk of cancer associated with prediabetes, especially in the liver, stomach, pancreas, breast, and endometrium. The association stuck even after controlling for body mass index (BMI), a risk factor for both diabetes and cancer.

However, prediabetes was not associated with an increased risk of cancer of the prostate, ovary, kidney, bladder, or lung.

The study authors speculate that the consequences of high blood sugar, like chronic oxidative stress and hyperglycemia, may act as carcinogens. And factors related to insulin resistance, a hallmark of diabetes and prediabetes in which the body becomes less able to use insulin to break down sugars, may cause cancer cells to proliferate.

“Although these results are unlikely to completely explain the epidemiological association between prediabetes and site-specific cancer,” they write, “they provide a new insight into a possible direct causal link.”

TIME Research

HPV Vaccine Cut Rates of Genital Warts 61%, Study Finds

Papillomavirus Dna Virus. Hdri Image Made According To A View Under Transmission Electron Microscope, Viral Diameter 45 To 55 Nm.
Papillomavirus Dna Virus. Hdri Image Made According To A View Under Transmission Electron Microscope, Viral Diameter 45 To 55 Nm. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

The HPV vaccine is working for young women in Australia, suggests a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

Researchers analyzed a database of more than 1 million patients and found that since Australia began providing the HPV vaccine free to women ages 15-27 in 2007, the rate of genital warts fell 61% from four years before the vaccination program began.

The team from the University of Sydney saw no significant change in the rates of genital warts among other age groups not covered by the program, and other sexually transmitted infections didn’t decrease over this period. That suggests the vaccine is responsible, not a change in sexual behavior, the authors say. “Due to this reduction, some young women in Australia have been spared the distress of having genital warts and the health system spared the cost of having to treat them,” the authors wrote in the study.

Of course, the HPV vaccine helps prevent more than genital warts. It’s the only vaccine to protect against cancer (the kind in the cervix, anus, and mouth). But rates of adoption are lower in the United States, and compliance may be an issue—a recent CDC report found that only about 33% of American girls ages 13-17 got all three doses of the shot.

TIME Research

Sleeping On Animal Fur Can Lower Asthma Risk

Study says sleeping on animal fur is associated with a lower risk of asthma in infants

Animal fur might be protective against asthma and allergies, a new study finds.

The research, just presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress, examined data from 2,441 German children and found an association between sleeping on animal fur, like sheepskin rugs or throws, during their first three months and a decreased risk of asthma later in childhood, by age 10. Snoozing on fur was also associated with a lower risk of hay fever and wheezing.

Using animal fur as bedding was a common practice in Germany during the 1990s when the data was collected—about 55% of the children examined had slept on animal fur. Sheepskin is among the most popular kind, said lead study author Christina Tischer of the German Research Center for Environmental Health in an email.

The fur rugs aren’t typically treated with pesticides or strong chemical agents, she said. “We think that this animal fur might act as a reservoir for diverse kind of microbial components which [accumulate] over time within the animal fur,” she wrote.

Other studies have shown that diverse microbial environments seem to be protective against allergies, supporting the “hygiene hypothesis” that our hypersanitized lives weaken our defenses by not exposing them to enough bacteria to build proper immunity. The live kind may work, too. If you don’t have a spare bear rug in which to swaddle your infant, other studies have shown that infant exposure to pets might make infants less prone to allergies.

TIME Research

Harvard Gets Biggest Gift Ever for Public Health School

$350 million from Hong Kong group

Harvard University announced Monday that its School of Public Health has received a $350 million gift from a prominent Hong Kong group, the largest-ever single donation in the university’s 378-year history.

The university announced the donation from the Morningside Foundation, which was established by the late T.H Chan, who earned his masters and doctorate at Harvard. In honor of the gift, the school is changing its name to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The Morningside Foundation supports higher education through scholarships and professorships in both Asia and North America. Harvard said the money will support faculty and students working to reverse four different global threats: old and new pandemics from Ebola to obesity, harmful physical and social environments due to water pollution or gun violence, poverty and humanitarian crises, and failing health systems worldwide.

“This extraordinary gift from the Chan family will enable Harvard’s School of Public Health to tackle intractable health problems and to translate rigorous research into action and policy worldwide,” Harvard University president Drew Faust said in a statement. “The Chan family’s generosity sends a signal to the world: this is the public health moment.”

TIME Research

Flour Is the Main Cause of Work-Related Asthma in France

Manuel Sulzer—Getty Images/Cultura RF

Bakers, beware: flour is a primary cause of job-related asthma in France, finds new research.

Researchers analyzed 330 cases of occupational asthma, with data provided by a network of respiratory doctors, over three years. Their findings, which were presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, showed that flour was the main cause and the culprit in 20% of the cases. The next biggest asthma-inducer at the workplace were the ammonium compounds found in cleaning products, blamed in 15% of cases.

It’s not a new phenomenon and even has a name: “baker’s asthma.” Flour may irritate the respiratory system, and some of the dust and enzymes in flour can cause allergy-related symptoms, researchers think.

The data also shows that people working in food manufacturing were at a greater risk for asthma than people working in agriculture, and women were more likely to suffer from job-related asthma compared to men.

The researchers hope that their study will help inform asthma prevention efforts.

TIME Addiction

Debate Over E-Cigarettes Lights Up

The debate over the safety of e-cigarettes, and whether they will help smokers to quit, or simply make it easier for them to start or continue lighting up, heated up this week.

On one side of the disagreement are those pushing for regulation. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a review of data on e-cigarettes and based on studies conducted so far, last month recommended tighter regulation of the devices to protect consumers’ health. But in a new article published in the journal Addiction, other scientists argue that the WHO misinterpreted the data in a “misleading” way and that the group’s advice for more stringent oversight is problematic.

In the Addiction paper, the authors take issue with nine of WHO’s conclusions, some of which surround the safety of e-cigarettes, their toxin levels, and how likely younger people are to adopt them. They cite some of the same data as the original WHO review did, but interpret it differently, arguing that the benefits of e-cigarettes, especially as an effective tool in helping some smokers to quit, outweigh potential risks from the chemicals and nicotine used in the devices. Therefore, they say, e-cigarettes should be more accessible than the WHO recommendations would allow.

“…The WHO’s approach will make it harder to bring these products to market than tobacco products, inhibit innovation and put off smokers from using e-cigarettes, putting us in danger of foregoing the public health benefits these products could have,” said Ann McNeill, lead author of the paper and professor of tobacco addiction at King’s College London, in a press release. They’re not the only ones who have pushed back against the recommendations. More than 50 experts in public health signed a letter calling for a lighter approach, reported the New York Times.

Why the opposing interpretations of the same data? E-cigarettes are so new that research hasn’t had a chance to catch up with their meteoric rise in popularity. Some of the data based on earlier models of the devices, for example, might not even apply to e-cigs as we know them today, since the product has evolved so rapidly. The body of research is small. And because the devices are so new, much of it is funded by e-cigarette manufacturers.

In the latest paper in Addiction, for example, some of the work by one of the heavily-cited authors of the paper was conducted with funding from the e-cigarette industry.

On the first page in the “competing interests” section, the article discloses the following about Konstantinos Farsalinos of the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Greece (click “Get PDF” at the link):

Some studies performed by KF were carried out using funds provided to his institution (Onassis
Cardiac Surgery Center) by e-cigarette companies.

In the paper’s 45 references, Farsalinos is listed as an author in nine of them; it’s unknown which of those studies were conducted with the help of e-cigarette funding.

It’s not uncommon for someone who makes a product to then sponsor research on that product, and it doesn’t mean the findings are worthless, says Steven Schroeder, a professor in the department of medicine and head of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco. (Schroeder does not conduct research on e-cigarettes.) But it also doesn’t mean the results are entirely objective, either. The potential for bias leads journal editors such as those at the peer-reviewed Addiction to require conflict disclosures from both its authors and its senior editorial staff.

It’s not clear yet whether e-cigarettes will turn out to hurt or help smokers. It’s probable that they will contribute to a range of health effects, both positive — as a smoking cessation device — and negative — as a potential gateway to tobacco-based cigarettes or other drugs. The evidence, at the moment, points in both directions.

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