Proofs of parallel evolution between cognition, tool development, and social complexity

A study analyses the selective attention processes that determine how we explore and interact with our environment.

Researchers examined the visual response of 113 individuals when observing prehistoric ceramics belonging to different styles and societies. The ceramics analysed cover 4,000 years (from 4000 B.C. to the change of era) of Galician prehistory (north-west Iberia), and are representative of ceramic styles, such as bell-beaker pottery, found throughout Europe. The results indicate that the visual behaviour follows the same evolutionary trends as those that drive the evolution of the complex societies that built these archaeological materialities.

"We hypothesised that culture and social life influence cognition in a highly stereotyped fashion. Eye movements are the most objective proof of a parallel evolution between the cognitive process, material development and changes in social complexity," explains CSIC researcher Felipe Criado-Boado, from the Institute of Heritage Sciences, in Santiago de Compostela. This study is part of the field of neuroarchaeology, a new scientific field that combines neuroscience with human palaeontology, archaeology, and other social and human sciences.

"The visual prominence of each ceramic style produces a distinct visual response. Prehistoric ceramics comprise an important part of the material world that surrounded the individuals of that time. This is why an analysis of this kind is not only feasible, but also provides very significant results," adds Criado-Boado.

Luis M. Martínez, a researcher from the Institute of Neurosciences, in Alicante, explains that, "in our brain there are neural circuits, or maps, that represent our personal and peripersonal space. These circuits determine the way in which we relate socially, and also with the world around us. With experiments of this kind, we are demonstrating that these representations are modified by the use and making of tools and other cultural artefacts; what we are discovering is that they are quickly incorporated into these neural maps, becoming part of our body schema as if they were an extension of it. These experiments unequivocally demonstrate that there is a very close interaction between cultural changes and brain plasticity, which provides a new perspective on how the brain governs for the transmission of cultural values, beliefs and customs."

The results of this research indicate that the human visual system actively internalises the object it observes, which would demonstrate that there is a perceptual engagement between the observers and the material structures in their environment. "This is why perception cannot be separated from form. Seen from this perspective, it could be proposed that the shape of objects (pottery, in this case) and the pattern of visual exploration they produce have changed over history, and are connected with behaviour in the same way as they are with the social realm, including social complexity," says Criado-Boado.

Another of the conclusions of this study is that technology is an important factor in the mental aspects of human life. This offers a new perspective that helps to explain the processes of innovation and technological change that take place in all historical periods, including the present day. "It is believed that by 2020 there will be 100 billion sensors around the world capturing information of all kinds and processing it digitally, all connected to each other and functioning like an enormous human mind. If this prediction is fulfilled, research in the field of cognitive processes and material culture throughout history may be useful for the future, since it can show how humans rely on images that symmetrically help them to shape a collective consciousness of the world," concludes the researcher.

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Materials provided by Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Low-dose aspirin does not seem to improve survival after prostate cancer diagnosis

Low-dose aspirin use does not seem to reduce the overall risk for prostate cancer death at the population level. However, results for extended exposure periods suggest that low-dose aspirin might be inversely associated with prostate cancer mortality after 5 years from cancer diagnosis. Findings from a nationwide cohort study are published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Recent studies suggest that aspirin use may improve survival in patients with prostate cancer, but study results are inconclusive.

Researchers from the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, Aarhus University Hospital, Copenhagen University Hospital, and University of Southern Denmark used nationwide registries in Denmark to assess the association between postdiagnosis use of low-dose aspirin and prostate cancer mortality. Their analysis did not find convincing evidence of an overall protective effect of low-dose aspirin for men with prostate cancer. However, they did find a reduced risk for prostate cancer mortality with low-dose aspirin use among patients with low Gleason scores, meaning that their prostate cancer was unlikely to progress, and among those who took low-dose aspirin for an extended period of time.

The authors of an accompanying editorial from Tampere University and Tampere University Hospital in Finland speculate that improved prostate cancer-specific survival among aspirin users with low Gleason scores might be explained by inaccurate tumor grading occurring less frequently in aspirin users than nonusers. Aspirin is an anti-inflammatory drug that lowers serum prostate-specific antigen levels; however, whether this leads to accurate determination of tumor aggressiveness in aspirin users remains to be determined in further studies, according to the authors. They suggest that future research evaluate aspirin exposures longer than those studied to date and investigate the effects of aspirin exposure on disease classification.

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Materials provided by American College of Physicians. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Combining morning exercise with short walking breaks helps control blood pressure

Thirty minutes of morning exercise lowers blood pressure for the rest of the day among older men and women who are overweight or obese. And women who take brief, frequent breaks from sitting throughout the day can enhance the blood pressure benefits of morning exercise even more, according to new research published in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension.

In a study of men and women, age 55 to 80, all of whom were overweight or obese, researchers wanted to find out whether the beneficial effect of morning exercise on blood pressure was negated by long periods of sitting throughout the rest of the day. They also wanted to learn whether the benefit of morning exercise would be enhanced by taking frequent, short breaks from sitting.

"Traditionally, the health effects of exercise and sedentary behavior have been studied separately. We conducted this study because we wanted to know whether there is a combined effect of these behaviors on blood pressure," said Michael Wheeler, B.Sc., lead author of the study who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth and works at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

To conduct the study, the researchers had 67 participants (35 of whom were women) take part in three different scenarios, in a random order, separated by at least 6 days:

uninterrupted sitting for 8 hours; one hour of sitting prior to 30 minutes of exercise, followed by 6.5 hours of prolonged sitting (exercise consisted of walking on a treadmill at moderate intensity); and one hour of sitting prior to 30 minutes of exercise, followed by sitting which was interrupted every 30 minutes with 3 minutes of light intensity walking for 6.5 hours. The study was conducted in a controlled laboratory environment, and the participants ate the same standardized meals the night before and during the study. Blood pressure and adrenaline levels were measured repeatedly during each 8-hour condition.

The researchers found that average blood pressure, especially systolic blood pressure, was reduced among both men and women who took part in morning exercise, compared to when they did not exercise. There was further benefit -- a significant reduction in average systolic blood pressure -- for women when they combined morning exercise with frequent breaks from sitting throughout the day. For men, there was no additional blood pressure benefit to taking frequent breaks from sitting.

Systolic blood pressure is the first of two numbers when blood pressure is taken. It measures pressure in blood vessels when your heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure is the second number, which measures pressure between beats. Wheeler says that over age 50, higher systolic blood pressure is more predictive of cardiovascular events than diastolic blood pressure.

The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology hypertension guidelines define high blood pressure as 130/80 and above.

"For both men and women, the magnitude of reduction in average systolic blood pressure following exercise and breaks in sitting, approached what might be expected from antihypertensive medication in this population to reduce the risk of death from heart disease and stroke. However, this reduction was greater for women." said Wheeler.

The researchers do not know why there was a gender difference, but think it may be a combination of factors, including varying adrenaline responses to exercise and the fact that all women in the study were post-menopausal -- a time when women are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Breaks in sitting have been shown in other studies to have a greater beneficial effect on blood pressure among groups with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, according to Wheeler.

The researchers conclude that the benefits of exercise on lowering blood pressure can be enhanced by avoiding prolonged periods of sitting and add that future studies should specifically test for gender differences in blood pressure with breaks in sitting alone.

"Having the study participants begin with exercise was intentional," according to Dr. Wheeler, "because we wanted to focus on the novel aspect of combining exercise with breaks in sitting. However, it means that we cannot say for sure that breaks in sitting alone had no blood pressure lowering effect in men, as any effect could have been masked by the preceding effect of exercise."

Future studies would be needed to see if the same benefits would apply to younger people and those who are not overweight. But, according to Wheeler, "As the proportion of those who are overweight with higher blood pressure increases with age, adopting a strategy of combining exercise with breaks in sitting may be important to control and prevent the development of high blood pressure."

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Materials provided by American Heart Association. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Keep calm and don't carry on when parenting teens

Researchers look at how mothers and fathers control themselves (and their rising anger) in difficult interactions with their teenagers.

The field of adolescent psychology is increasingly focused on parents, with researchers asking how mothers and fathers control themselves (and their rising anger) in difficult interactions with their children. As anyone who has raised a teenager knows, parental goals often don't exactly align with those of the child. Sometimes, not even close.

"Discipline issues usually peak during toddlerhood and then again during adolescence, because both periods are really marked by exploration and figuring out who you are, and by becoming more independent," says Melissa Sturge-Apple, a professor of psychology and dean of graduate studies in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester.

Yet the developmental changes during puberty and the transition to adolescence mean that parents necessarily need to adjust their parenting behaviors, she adds. Part of that adjustment is parents' ability to think on their feet and navigate conflicts with flexibility as their teens strive for more autonomy and greater input in the decision-making processes. Sturge-Apple is the lead author of a recent study about mothers' and fathers' capacity for self-regulation as well as hostile parenting during their child's early adolescence. The study is published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

The research was sparked by an obvious deficit: more than 99 percent of parent regulation studies have focused exclusively on mothers. In this study, Sturge-Apple and her colleagues -- Patrick Davies, professor of psychology at Rochester; Zhi Li, a postdoctoral fellow at the University's Mt. Hope Family Center; Meredith Martin '14 (PhD), now an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska; and Rochester psychology graduate student Hannah Jones -- looked at how mothers and fathers regulated their stress in response to conflict with their adolescent children. They then examined how the stress response affected their discipline of the child. The researchers measured parents' physiological regulation using RMSSD, a widely used measure to assess heart rate variability. The laboratory-based assessments were spaced roughly one year apart.

Dads are more likely than moms to think that their teen was being intentionally difficult, or "just trying to push buttons."

The researchers found that those parents -- both mothers and fathers -- who were less capable of dampening down their anger, as measured by RMSSD, were more likely to resort, over time, to the use of harsh, punitive discipline and hostile conflict behavior vis-à-vis their teenager.

The scientists also measured parents' set-shifting capacity -- that is, the parents' ability to be flexible and to consider alternative factors, such as their child's age and development.

"Set shifting is important because it allows parents to alter flexibly and deliberately their approaches to handling the changeable behaviors of their children in ways that help them to resolve their disagreements," says Davies.

On average, fathers were not as good as mothers at set shifting and were less able to control their physiological anger response. As a result, they were more likely to think that their teen was intentionally difficult, or "just trying to push buttons," which in turn guided their decisions about discipline.

However, the researchers found that those fathers who were better at set shifting than others were also better able to counteract difficulties in physiological regulation. These episodes of physiological dysregulation, the team discovered, predicted over time an increase in parents' angry responses -- and that essentially, set shifting offsets this angry response tendency.

"As we learn more, these findings may have important implications for building and refining parenting programs," says Davies. "For example, there are exercises that help increase physiological regulation in ways that may ultimately reduce hostile parenting behaviors for mothers and fathers."

There's an irony in past research studies' almost exclusive focus on mothers.

"Dads are typically the enforcer in the family and this role may be difficult to override," says Sturge-Apple. "Thus, the ability to be flexible in responses may help dads, more than moms, adjust to the changes of adolescence."

The research, which included 193 fathers, mothers, and their young teenagers (aged 12 to 14), was conducted at the University's Mt. Hope Family Center, which recently garnered an unrelated multi-million-dollar grant to establish a national center to study child abuse and prevention.

The research for this study was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Climate change will even change the color of the oceans, study says

(CNN)The ocean will not look the same color in the future. It won't turn pink or anything radically different; the change will be more apparent through optic sensors than though the human eye. But it serves as an early warning sign that global warming is significantly altering the planet's ecosystems, according to a new study.

Essentially, climate change will make the blues of the ocean bluer and the greens greener. Scientists figured this out by creating a global model that simulates the growth of a tiny creature that lives in the oceans and affects the color we see. Their research was published Monday in the journal Nature Communications.

The ocean looks blue or green to us because of a combination of how sunlight interacts with water molecules and with whatever else lives in that water.
The molecules in water absorb all but the blue part of the spectrum of sunlight, and the water reflects that blue color back. That's the color we see.
The water looks greener when it has more phytoplankton, tiny, microscopic organisms that, like plants, can use chlorophyll to capture mostly the blue portions of the spectrum of sunlight. They then use photosynthesis to create the chemical energy they need to live. When there are more of these creatures in the water absorbing sunlight, they make the water look greener. Conversely, if there are fewer phytoplankton, the water looks bluer.
The creatures' growth is dependent on how much sunlight, carbon dioxide and nutrients are around. Climate change is altering the ocean currents, meaning there will be fewer nutrients for phytoplankton to feed on in some areas, so there will be a decline in their number in those regions.
Since the 1990s, satellites have taken regular measurements of how much chlorophyll is in the ocean. Those levels can change because of weather events or because of climate change. But using those images to look at reflected light alone, the researchers in the new study could distinguish what is specifically due to climate change. And they noticed that there will be a significant shift in the color of the oceans much earlier than was previously predicted, just looking at chlorophyll changes.
The study predicts that the blues will intensify, most likely in subtropical regions where phytoplankton will decrease. These are areas near the equator like Bermuda and the Bahamas that are already quite low in phytoplankton.
Regions where there are a lot of nutrients, like in the Southern Ocean or parts of the North Atlantic, will see even faster-growing phytoplankton because those waters are warming with climate change. Those waters will look greener.
Climate change will bring a color change to half of the world's oceans by the end of the 21st century, the study says. That's bad for climate change on several levels: For one, phytoplankton remove about as much carbon dioxide from the air as plants and help regulate our climate, research shows. They are also key to other animals' survival.
"The change is not a good thing, since it will definitely impact the rest of the food web," said study co-author Stephanie Dutkiewicz, a principal research scientist in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. "Phytoplankton are at the base, and if the base changes, it endangers everything else along the food web, going far enough to the polar bears or tuna or just about anything that you want to eat or love to see in pictures."
 

Poor sleep at night, more pain the next day

After one night of inadequate sleep, brain activity ramps up in pain-sensing regions while activity is scaled back in areas responsible for modulating how we perceive painful stimuli. This finding, published in JNeurosci, provides the first brain-based explanation for the well-established relationship between sleep and pain.

In two studies -- one in a sleep laboratory and the other online -- Matthew Walker and colleagues show how the brain processes pain differently when individuals are sleep deprived and how self-reported sleep quality and pain sensitivity can change night-to-night and day-to-day. When the researchers kept healthy young adults awake through the night in the lab, they observed increased activity in the primary somatosensory cortex and reduced activity in regions of the striatum and insula cortex during a pain sensitivity task. Participants in the online study, recruited via the crowdsourcing marketplace Amazon Mechanical Turk, reported increased pain during the day after reporting poor sleep the night before.

These results suggest improving sleep quality, especially in hospital settings, could be an effective approach for pain management. More generally, the research highlights the interrelationship between sleep and pain, which is decreasing and increasing, respectively, in societies around the world.

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Breakthrough in understanding male infertility

Hope has emerged for infertile men as scientists at Newcastle University have understood the importance of a gene in regulating the production of fully-functioning sperm.

For the first time, experts have identified the role of gene, RBMXL2, which is very similar to a possible infertility gene found on the Y chromosome found only in men. This provided a model for the team to manipulate as the Y chromosome itself is very difficult to analyse.

The study, published today in eLife, sheds light on why some men may be infertile as RBMXL2 has been shown to be essential to make sperm.

Faulty gene process

Scientists found that deleting the RBMXL2 gene from chromosome 11 blocked sperm production and this paves the way for further exciting research in this area.

Professor David Elliott, at the Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle University, led the 10-year international study, which involved experts from America, Edinburgh and mainland Europe.

He said: "Male infertility is a poorly understood topic, and this study helps us to understand why some men might become infertile.

"This is important since many couples suffer from infertility and it can cause psychological stress, and also have economic consequences in some countries as it can affect care in later life."

Making sperm and eggs, and then eventually the next generation, depends upon a special kind of cell division known as meiosis.

Meiosis is a hotspot for gene expression and sperm development, which involves copying long stretches of DNA into RNA.

Without the important RBMXL2 gene, other genes are not expressed properly -- they still make RNA, but this process does not replicate accurately, leading to mistakes which eventually block the production of sperm.

Important discovery

Scientists used a mouse model for their study as these mammals, like humans, have an RBMXL2 gene. Removing this single gene from mice prevented sperm from being produced.

Understanding how RBMXL2 enables sperm to be made, giving experts a clue as to how the similar infertility genes on the Y chromosome work.

Research found that the block occurred while the cells were dividing in the testes to make sperm, under the process of meiosis. This block meant that none of the cells developed into sperm cells able to swim and fertilise eggs.

A technique known as RNA sequencing was used to monitor the expression of millions of RNAs in adolescent mice.

Professor Elliott said: "The RBMXL2 gene was first discovered almost 20 years ago, but no one until now has known what it does or why it is important.

"The gene is found in all mammals, and we predict that similar problems found in mice will occur in infertile men, but we need to test this in future research."

The study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Wellcome Trust.

Aileen Feeney, chief executive of national patient fertility charity, Fertility Network, said: "Male infertility is far more prevalent than usually recognised: the most common reason for a couple to seek fertility treatment, such as IVF, is because of male fertility reasons.

"Infertility also hits men hard: Fertility Network's 2017 study looking at the impact of infertility on men revealed struggling to become a father affected men's mental health, self-esteem, relationships, sex life, masculinity, career and finances.

"Much more needs to be done to investigate the causes of male factor infertility, that's why Fertility Network welcomes this research from Newcastle University which, although in the very early stages, offers hope for a greater understanding of male fertility in the future."

Blood test shows promise for early detection of severe lung-transplant rejection

Researchers have developed a simple blood test that can detect when a newly transplanted lung is being rejected by a patient, even when no outward signs of the rejection are evident. The test could make it possible for doctors to intervene faster to prevent or slow down so-called chronic rejection -- which is severe, irreversible, and often deadly -- in those first critical months after lung transplantation. Researchers believe this same test might also be useful for monitoring rejection in other types of organ transplants. The work was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health.

The study's findings are scheduled to appear Jan. 22 in EBioMedicine, a publication of The Lancet.

"This test solves a long-standing problem in lung transplants: detection of hidden signs of rejection," said Hannah Valantine, M.D., co-leader of the study and lead investigator of the Laboratory of Organ Transplant Genomics in the Cardiovascular Branch at NHLBI. "We're very excited about its potential to save lives, especially in the wake of a critical shortage of donor organs."

The test relies on DNA sequencing, Valantine explained, and as such, represents a great example of personalized medicine, as it will allow doctors to tailor transplant treatments to those individuals who are at highest risk for rejection.

Lung transplant recipients have the shortest survival rates among patients who get solid organ transplantation of any kind -- only about half live past five years. Lung transplant recipients face a high incidence of chronic rejection, which occurs when the body's immune system attacks the transplanted organ. Existing tools for detecting signs of rejection, such as biopsy, either require the removal of small amounts of lung tissue or are not sensitive enough to discern the severity of the rejection. The new test appears to overcome those challenges.

Called the donor-derived cell-free DNA test, the experimental test begins with obtaining a few blood droplets taken from the arm of the transplant recipient. A special set of machines then sorts the DNA fragments in the blood sample, and in combination with computer analysis, determines whether the fragments are from the recipient or the donor and how many of each type are present. Because injured or dying cells from the donor release lots of donor DNA fragments into the bloodstream compared to normal donor cells, higher amounts of donor DNA indicate a higher risk for transplant rejection in the recipient.

In the study, 106 lung transplant recipients were enrolled and monitored. Blood samples collected in the first three months after transplantation underwent the testing procedure. The results showed that those with higher levels of the donor-derived DNA fragments in the first three months of transplantation were six times more likely to subsequently develop transplant organ failure or die during the study follow-up period than those with lower donor-derived DNA levels. Importantly, researchers found that more than half of the high-risk subjects showed no outward signs of clinical complications during this period.

"We showed for the first time that donor-derived DNA is a predictive marker for chronic lung rejection and death, and could provide critical time-points to intervene, perhaps preventing these outcomes," Valantine said. "Once rejection is detected early via this test, doctors would then have the option to increase the dosages of anti-rejection drugs, add new agents that reduce tissue inflammation, or take other measures to prevent or slow the progression."

In 2010, Valantine was part of a research team that pioneered the first blood test to diagnose organ rejection. The now-widely used test, called the AlloMap, analyzes the expression of 20 genes in a transplant recipient's blood sample to determine whether the patient's immune system is launching an attack. The following year, Valantine and her colleagues showed for the first time that a cell-free DNA blood test could be useful for monitoring early signs of rejection. However, those early studies of the cell-free DNA test only identified signs of "acute" transplant rejection, which is easily reversed. The current study shows that high cell-free DNA levels during the first three months after transplant predicts chronic rejection. If validated, this blood test could become a routine tool used to monitor transplant patients at very early stages of rejection, the researchers said.

This research is supported by The Genomic Research Alliance for Transplantation Study (NCT02423070), which is funded by the Division of Intramural Research of NHLBI. The research is also supported by The Genome Transplant Dynamics Study (NCT01985412), which is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through Grant RC4AI092673.

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