TIME Infectious Disease

HIV May Be Evolving To Become Less Contagious And Deadly, Study Shows

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Illustration of the aids virus, showing protein membranes which enable it to attach itself to the host cells Getty Images

The virus is adapting to the human immune system, weakening itself in the process

HIV may be naturally evolving into a milder and less fatal virus, according to recent study at Oxford University, which found that as HIV adapts to the human immune system it not only becomes less deadly but also less infectious.

The main indicator, the scientists conducting the research said, is that HIV is taking longer to transition to AIDS. Virologists say it may eventually become “almost harmless,” reports the BBC.

The Oxford researchers came to this conclusion by comparing HIV infections in Botswana with those in South Africa, where the virus arrived 10 years later.

They found that the time from the contracting of HIV to its emergence as full-blown AIDS was 10% longer in Botswana than in South Africa, indicating that a “watered-down” version has developed in the former.

Oxford University Professor Phillip Goulder said that the time for the emergence of AIDS symptoms in Botswana may have increased to about 12.5 years from 10 years a couple of decades ago.

“A sort of incremental change, but in the big picture that is a rapid change,” he said. “One might imagine as time extends this could stretch further and further and in the future people being asymptomatic for decades.”

[BBC]

TIME Family

Breakfast: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Bob Thomas;Getty Images

New study suggests morning meal is no academic cure-all

Breakfast has long been considered the most important meal of the day, especially for elementary school students. Everyone from parents, to teachers, to cereal manufacturers have touted the importance of a nutritional morning meal, but is there evidence to back the positive effect of breakfast on academic performance? A recent study has somewhat muddied the waters on this issue.

A 2005 study by Tufts University researchers found that elementary school children who ate common breakfast foods (oatmeal and cereal) once a day for three consecutive weeks scored better on a battery of cognitive tests—particularly on measures of short term memory, spatial memory and auditory attention. But a study out on Nov. 24, also from Tufts, finds that students enrolled in Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) programs did not obtain higher math and reading standardized test scores than students in non-BIC schools.

Like the national School Breakfast Program (which provides free or low-cost breakfast to children before the start of the school day), Breakfast in the Classroom meals are available to all students regardless of income level. However, BIC is served in the classroom after the opening bell—ensuring that children enjoy a well-balanced meal without having to wake up early and get to school in time for SBP. Students in 18 states across the nation have had the benefit of a free in-classroom breakfast with their peers thanks to BIC, a huge feat considering that millions of children live in households where a healthy breakfast isn’t an option. But while the immediate nutritional value of Breakfast in the Classroom is apparent, research is ongoing as to how the program affects academic achievement.

In order to ascertain whether students in BIC programs performed better academically, Tufts researchers looked at 446 public elementary schools in urban areas that served low income minority students—189 of which did not participate in BIC during the 2012-2013 school year, and 257 of which did. While BIC schools demonstrated increased overall attendance, there was no notable difference in academic achievement between BIC and non-BIC schools—specifically regarding standardized tests in math and reading.

The results are curious, because the increased attendance at BIC schools presumably means that more students are getting more instruction on important coursework, yet the scores didn’t point to better results. It’s possible that breakfast programs aren’t the solution to narrowing the achievement gap between children whose families face poverty and those who don’t, as educators were hoping.

Tufts researchers, however, insist that the study’s failure to duplicate previous findings that breakfast increases academic performance shouldn’t necessarily cause parents to doubt the benefits of BIC —nor the importance of a healthy breakfast in general.

“These findings should not be interpreted as a definitive conclusion on whether Breakfast in the Classroom affects achievement,” says study author and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy research associate Stephanie Anzman-Frasca.”There are a number of potential explanations for the lack of differences in standardized test scores across schools with and without Breakfast in the Classroom.”

One of those explanations might be that schools often encourage parents to feed kids breakfast on test days, so students who weren’t in the program may have arrived well fed anyway. There’s also the question of whether standardized tests are an appropriate measure for academic achievement. “Given the mixed findings across studies linking school breakfast and academics, it is important to continue to conduct research in this area, with longer-term follow-ups and multiple measures of academic outcomes, before drawing definitive conclusions,” adds Anzman Frasca.

Rather than abandoning the programs, she’s calling for more research. “Collecting multiple measures of academic performance, such as test scores as well as classroom behavior and attention, would be a good way to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Breakfast in the Classroom’s impacts as research in this area continues.”

TIME India

New Delhi, the World’s Most Polluted City, Is Even More Polluted Than We Realized

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Smog envelops buildings on the outskirts of the Indian capital New Delhi on November 25, 2014. ROBERTO SCHMIDT—AFP/Getty Images

Researchers have been measuring background pollution when they should have been doing roadside readings

New Delhi has already been ranked the world’s worst polluted city by the World Health Organization, but a new study by U.S. and Indian scientists shows that the city’s air quality is far worse than previously thought.

American scientist Joshua Apte, working with partners from the University of California, Berkeley and Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology, roamed the streets of the Indian capital in an autorickshaw laden with air pollution monitors. He found that average pollution levels were up to eight times higher on city roads, the Associated Press reports.

Apte compared the readings from his road trips to readings at urban background sites, which he says are already extremely high. The levels of PM 2.5, the particle known to be most harmful to human health, were found to be 50 percent higher on Delhi’s roads during rush hour than during ambient air quality readings. Black carbon, a major pollutant, was found to be three times higher.

“Official air quality monitors tend to be located away from roads, on top of buildings, and that’s not where most people spend most of their time,” Apte said. “In fact, most people spend a lot of time in traffic in India. Sometimes one, two, three hours a day.”

India is the third largest polluting country in the world, after the United States and China — who both signed a major bilateral climate deal in Beijing earlier this month.

Its rapidly growing vehicle numbers, expected to hit 400 million by 2030, are posing a major threat that the government is well aware of.

Several steps have been taken to reduce the number of Indian automobiles running on diesel, and the country’s National Green Tribunal also announced on Thursday that it would ban any vehicles older than 15 years from New Delhi’s roads.

But far more drastic measures will be required to make a meaningful dent in Delhi’s air pollution levels, which, according to the latest WHO Ambient Air Pollution Database, are at just under 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The world’s second most polluted city, Karachi, clocks in at a little over 250, while the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, internationally notorious for their pollution, clock in a relatively fresh 120 and 80 respectively.

TIME Research

Study Suggests Banking Industry Breeds Dishonesty

Bank industry culture “seems to make [employees] more dishonest,” a study author says

Bank employees are more likely to exhibit dishonesty when discussing their jobs, a new study found.

Researchers out of Switzerland tested employees from several industries during a coin-toss game that offered money if their coins matched researcher’s. According to Reuters, there was “a considerable incentive to cheat” given the maximum pay-off of $200. One hundred and twenty-eight employees from one bank were tested and were found to be generally as honest as everyone else when asked questions about their personal lives prior to flipping the coin, the Associated Press reports. But when they were asked about work before the toss, they were more inclined toward giving false answers, the study determined.

The author of the study says bankers are not any more dishonest than other people, but that the culture of the industry “seems to make them more dishonest.”

The American Bankers Association rebuffed the study’s findings to the AP.

“While this study looks at one bank, America’s 6,000 banks set a very high bar when it comes to the honesty and integrity of their employees. Banks take the fiduciary responsibility they have for their customers very seriously,” the Association said.

[AP]

TIME Research

Firefighter Deaths Could be Linked to Poor Sleep

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Getty Images

Almost 40% of firefighters suffer from at least one sleep disorder

Sleep problems could be a major factor in explaining why more than 60 percent of firefighter deaths are caused by heart attacks and traffic accidents, a new study published in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine has found.

Researchers sampled almost 7,000 firefighters across the U.S. and examined how many tested positive for sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, shift-work disorder and restless leg syndrome, the New York Times reports.

They found that 37 percent of firefighters suffered from at least one type of sleep disorder.

“Our findings demonstrate the impact of common sleep disorders on firefighter health and safety, and their connection to the two leading causes of death among firefighters,” said lead author Laura K. Barger. “Unfortunately, more than 80% of firefighters who screened positive for a common sleep disorder were undiagnosed and untreated.”

Barber’s team found that when compared with those who had a good night’s sleep, firefighters who had a sleep disorder were more likely to crash their car or fall asleep at the wheel.

They are also more likely to report serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

[NYT]

TIME medicine

Science Says These Are the Best Ways to Swallow Pills

Human hand hold medicine
Yasser Chalid—Moment Open/Getty Images

Lean forward or lean back?

For anyone who has ever choked or spit water out while trying to swallow a pill (which, let’s face it, we all have), a new study finally has answers for you.

The study published in the Annals of Family Medicine sought to determine the effectiveness of swallowing pills with what it called the “pop-bottle method” and the “lean forward technique.” The pop-bottle method had participants place the pill on their tongue and swallow it in one motion with a drink from a plastic bottle, and the lean forward technique had subjects swallow the capsule in an upright position with their heads bent forward.

The study found that both techniques “substantially facilitated” swallowing pills, even in subjects who had previously reported difficulty. Between the two methods, people preferred the lean forward technique—88.5% of participants reported improvement with the pop-bottle technique, and 96.9% did with lean forward.

So next time you face the daunting task of swallowing a pill, try tipping your head forward.

TIME animals

You Always Knew Your Cat Was Half Wild But Now There’s Genetic Proof

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Paula Daniëlse—Getty Images/Flickr RM

That kitty curled up on your lap is only one genetic step away from jungle killer

A new study on house cats has found that our feline companions are actually only semi-domesticated.

People began domesticating cats around 9,000 years ago but DNA researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that house cats still have many of the same traits as their wild cousins. The fact that cats have retained the ability to hunt and survive effortlessly in the wild just underscores how little impact we humans have had on them.

Wes Warren, an associate professor of genomics at the university, told the Los Angeles Times, “We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.”

That’s not to say humans haven’t had any influence on cats. We originally took them into our homes to hunt rodents and rewarded that behavior with food. According to researchers, this lead to eventual changes in a group of stem cells that resulted in more docile (but not fully domesticated) felines and produced colors and fur patterns that humans liked.

“Our results suggest that selection for docility, as a result of becoming accustomed to humans for food rewards, was most likely the major force that altered the first domesticated cat genomes,” researchers wrote.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

Read next: Celebrate National Cat Day With the Most Ridiculous Cover in TIME History

TIME animals

Study Shows Bats Jam Each Other’s Sonar to Snatch the Best Prey

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Yves Adams—Getty Images

The bats reportedly block each other's frequencies to hinder their hunting ability

The use of sonar by bats for hunting has been well-documented over the years, with the nocturnal winged mammals using ultrasonic clicks to target their prey in a phenomenon called echo-location.

But a new study, published on Friday in the journal Science, reveals that bats also sabotage rivals by jamming each other’s sonar frequencies so that they can grab the most appetizing prey.

“This jamming signal covers all the frequencies used by the other bat, so there’s no available frequency to shift to,” Johns Hopkins University researcher Aaron Corcoran, who co-authored the study, told the New Scientist.

Read more at New Scientist

TIME neuroscience

Why We’re Falling Behind On Brain Innovation

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PASIEKA—Getty Images/Brand X

A series of reports explains the decline

Brain science is taking a hit, according to a recent series of papers published in a special issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.

“While the disease burden and economic impacts are on the rise, progress in the development of new therapeutics and treatment approaches has appeared to have stalled,” reads an editorial introducing the issue. “Approval for new therapeutics (whether drugs, devices, or other treatment approaches) for nervous system disorders have been declining and most of the treatments we currently have are not disease modifying.”

Large pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis have closed or downsized their brain research divisions, according to one paper, a move the study authors believe reflects a growing view that developing drugs for the brain is too difficult and time-consuming. In another report, researchers argue that there are not enough opportunities for various stakeholders to meet and collaborate on the latest research.

Still, researchers of a third paper focusing on Alzheimer’s disease argue that even though stopping neurodegeneration progression “seems daunting at the moment,” the brain and Alzheimer’s community should be encouraged by other fields that have successfully stopped disease onset with prevention efforts—like lowering cholesterol for cardiovascular disease.

The prognosis isn’t entirely dire, because the same researchers also offer their own solutions. To re-gain Big Pharma’s interest, perhaps the incentive model for brain research should change. “One way to do this that would not require upfront funding is to change the policies that regulate market returns for the most-needed breakthrough drugs,” the authors write. “The broader neuroscience community including clinicians and patients should convene to develop and advocate for such policy changes.” Others say they’ve had success in forming their own meetings of minds by pulling a variety of experts together.

There’s also the U.S. government’s BRAIN Initiative, a massive research project to map out the brain and gain a better understanding of disorders that can plague it. It’s unclear what the ambitious project, which is a little more than a year old, will end up contributing to the field. Some researchers have argued it might allocate funding away from labs not involved in the project.

Reisa Sperling, a Harvard neurologist and the lead study author of the new Alzheimer paper, tells TIME the project is a good thing for the disease, but with some caveats. “It is important to note that the BRAIN Initiative is really focused on studying basic mechanisms of how the brain works, rather than identifying disease-specific alterations that are more directly translatable into [Alzheimer’s disease] clinical research,” she says. “So I hope that there will be additional investment that will help us translate mechanistic research on normal brain function into understanding what goes wrong in the brain in early Alzheimer’s disease…to help us find an effective treatment more more quickly.”

The bottom line is that despite lack of funding for the field, the are still reasons to be optimistic. “The pace of research progress in neuroscience over recent years has been nothing short of amazing,” the journal authors write. As long as drug companies can be attracted again to the brain, the vast time spent on trying to unlock it will be well worth it.

TIME Research

Aluminum May Reduce Sperm Count According to a New Study

The study, conducted jointly by researchers from France and the U.K., analyzed semen samples from 62 donors

Aluminum may be a major contributor to male infertility and reduced sperm counts, according to a new study released on Monday.

The study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology and conducted jointly by researchers at Keele University in the U.K. and the universities of Lyon and St.-Étienne in France, analyzed the sperm of 62 donors at a French clinic using fluorescence microscopy with an aluminum-specific stain. The researchers not only confirmed that semen does contain aluminum, but found that the sperm count is lowered as its aluminum content increases.

Professor Christopher Exley, an expert on human exposure to aluminum and the lead researcher in the study, said that endocrine disruptors and other environmental factors are generally blamed for the decline in male fertility that has been taking place over the past several decades.

“Human exposure to aluminum has increased significantly over the same time period and our observation of significant contamination of male semen by aluminum must implicate aluminum as a potential contributor to these changes in reproductive fertility,” he said.

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