December 29, 2015

University of Colorado at Boulder

The human gut harbors a teeming menagerie of over 100 trillion microorganisms, and researchers have discovered that exercising early in life can alter that microbial community for the better, promoting healthier brain and metabolic activity over the course of a lifetime.



This is a picture of microbes under a microscope.
Credit: Photo by NIAID



The human gut harbors a teeming menagerie of over 100 trillion microorganisms, and researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered that exercising early in life can alter that microbial community for the better, promoting healthier brain and metabolic activity over the course of a lifetime.

The research, which was recently published in the journal Immunology and Cell Biology, indicates that there may be a window of opportunity during early human development to optimize the chances of better lifelong health.

“Exercise affects many aspects of health, both metabolic and mental, and people are only now starting to look at the plasticity of these gut microbes,” said Monika Fleshner, a professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Integrative Physiology and the senior author of the new study. “That is one of the novel aspects of this research.”

Microbes take up residence within human intestines shortly after birth and are vital to the development of the immune system and various neural functions. These microbes can add as many 5 million genes to a person’s overall genetic profile and thus have tremendous power to influence aspects of human physiology.

While this diverse microbial community remains somewhat malleable throughout adult life and can be influenced by environmental factors such as diet and sleep patterns, the researchers found that gut microorganisms are especially ‘plastic’ at a young age.

The study found that juvenile rats who voluntarily exercised every day developed a more beneficial microbial structure, including the expansion of probiotic bacterial species in their gut compared to both their sedentary counterparts and adult rats, even when the adult rats exercised as well.

The researchers have not, as of yet, pinpointed an exact age range when the gut microbe community is likeliest to change, but the preliminary findings indicate that earlier is better.

A robust, healthy community of gut microbes also appears to promote healthy brain function and provide anti-depressant effects, Fleshner said. Previous research has shown that the human brain responds to microbial signals from the gut, though the exact communication methods are still under investigation.

“Future research on this microbial ecosystem will hone in on how these microbes influence brain function in a long-lasting way,” said Agniezka Mika, a graduate researcher in CU-Boulder’s Department of Integrative Physiology and the lead author of the new study.

Going forward, the researchers also plan to explore novel means of encouraging positive gut microbe plasticity in adults, who tend to have stable microbial communities that are more resistant to change.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) supported this research.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Agnieszka Mika, Monika Fleshner. Early life exercise may promote lasting brain and metabolic health through gut bacterial metabolites.Immunology and Cell Biology, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/icb.2015.113


Source: University of Colorado at Boulder. “Early-life exercise alters gut microbes, promotes healthy brain and metabolism.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 December 2015. <>.

Brain prioritises threats, especially in anxious people

December 29, 2015


New findings could help explain the apparent ‘sixth sense’ we have for danger in social situations, with the direction of a person’s gaze being a crucial cue. People with non-clinical anxiety are particularly well poised for action.



Anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain from people who are more laid-back, research shows.
Credit: © Dario Lo Presti / Fotolia



New findings by French researchers show that the brain devotes more processing resources to social situations that signal threat than those that are benign.

The results in the journal eLife may help explain the apparent “sixth sense” we have for danger. This is the first time that specific regions of the brain have been identified to be involved in the phenomenon. The human brain is able to detect social threats in these regions in a fast, automatic fashion, within just 200 milliseconds.

Even more surprising for the scientists was the discovery that anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain from people who are more laid-back. It was previously thought that anxiety could lead to oversensitivity to threat signals. However, the new study shows that the difference has a useful purpose. Anxious people process threats using regions of the brain responsible for action. Meanwhile, ‘low anxious’ people process them in sensory circuits, responsible for face recognition.

Facial displays of emotion can be ambiguous but the researchers managed to identify what it is that makes a person particularly threatening. They found that the direction a person is looking in is key to enhancing our sensitivity to their emotions. Anger paired with a direct gaze produces a response in the brain in only 200 milliseconds, faster than if the angry person is looking elsewhere.

“In a crowd, you will be most sensitive to an angry face looking towards you, and will be less alert to an angry person looking somewhere else,” says lead author Marwa El Zein from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and the Ecole Normale Supérieurein Paris.

Similarly, if a person displays fear and looks in a particular direction you will detect this more rapidly than positive emotions. Such quick reactions could have served an adaptive purpose for survival. For example, we evolved alongside predators that can attack, bite or sting. A rapid reaction to someone experiencing fear can help us avoid danger.

“In contrast to previous work, our findings demonstrate that the brain devotes more processing resources to negative emotions that signal threat, rather than to any display of negative emotion,” says El Zein.

Electrical signals measuredin the brains of 24 volunteers were analysed while they were asked to decide whether digitally altered faces expressed anger or fear. Some faces displayed exactly the same expression, but the direction of their gaze was altered. A total of 1080 trials were carried out.

It has often been theorized that elevated anxiety, even in a non-clinical range, could impair the brain’s processing of threats. However, El Zein and her co-authors instead found that non-clinical anxiety shifts the neural ‘coding’ of threat to motor circuits, which produce action, from sensory circuits, which help us to recognise faces. The researchers note that it would be interesting to determine whether the same is true for people with anxiety scores in the clinical range.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by eLife. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Marwa El Zein, Valentin Wyart, Julie Grèzes. Anxiety dissociates the adaptive functions of sensory and motor response enhancements to social threats. eLife, 2015; 4 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.10274


Source: eLife. “Being anxious could be good for you in a crisis: Brain prioritises threats, especially in anxious people.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 December 2015. <>.

December 22, 2015

Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)

The discovery of hundreds of giant comets in the outer planetary system over the last two decades means that these objects pose a much greater hazard to life than asteroids, a team of astronomers reports.



Because they are so distant from the Earth, Centaurs appear as pinpricks of light in even the largest telescopes. Saturn’s 200-km moon Phoebe, depicted in this image, seems likely to be a Centaur that was captured by that planet’s gravity at some time in the past. Until spacecraft are sent to visit other Centaurs, our best idea of what they look like comes from images like this one, obtained by the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, having flown past Pluto six months ago, has been targeted to conduct an approach to a 45-km wide trans-Neptunian object at the end of 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute



A team of astronomers from Armagh Observatory and the University of Buckingham report that the discovery of hundreds of giant comets in the outer planetary system over the last two decades means that these objects pose a much greater hazard to life than asteroids. The team, made up of Professors Bill Napier and Duncan Steel of the University of Buckingham, Professor Mark Bailey of Armagh Observatory, and Dr David Asher, also at Armagh, publish their review of recent research in the December issue of Astronomy and Geophysics, the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The giant comets, termed centaurs, move on unstable orbits crossing the paths of the massive outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The planetary gravitational fields can occasionally deflect these objects in towards Earth.

Centaurs are typically 50 to 100 kilometres across, or larger, and a single such body contains more mass than the entire population of Earth-crossing asteroids found to date. Calculations of the rate at which centaurs enter the inner solar system indicate that one will be deflected onto a path crossing Earth’s orbit about once every 40,000 to 100,000 years. Whilst in near-Earth space they are expected to disintegrate into dust and larger fragments, flooding the inner solar system with cometary debris and making impacts on our planet inevitable.

Known severe upsets of the terrestrial environment and interruptions in the progress of ancient civilisations, together with our growing knowledge of interplanetary matter in near-Earth space, indicate the arrival of a centaur around 30,000 years ago. This giant comet would have strewn the inner planetary system with debris ranging in size from dust all the way up to lumps several kilometres across.

Specific episodes of environmental upheaval around 10,800 BCE and 2,300 BCE, identified by geologists and palaeontologists, are also consistent with this new understanding of cometary populations. Some of the greatest mass extinctions in the distant past, for example the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, may similarly be associated with this giant comet hypothesis.

Professor Napier comments: “In the last three decades we have invested a lot of effort in tracking and analysing the risk of a collision between Earth and an asteroid. Our work suggests we need to look beyond our immediate neighbourhood too, and look out beyond the orbit of Jupiter to find centaurs. If we are right, then these distant comets could be a serious hazard, and it’s time to understand them better.”

The researchers have also uncovered evidence from disparate fields of science in support of their model. For example, the ages of the sub-millimetre craters identified in lunar rocks returned in the Apollo program are almost all younger than 30,000 years, indicating a vast enhancement in the amount of dust in the inner Solar system since then.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Bill Napier, David Asher, Mark Bailey and Duncan Steel. Centaurs as a hazard to civilization. Astronomy and Geophysics, December 2015, vol. 56, pp. 6.24-6.30


Source: Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). “Giant comets could pose danger to life on Earth.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 December 2015. <>.

Regions in brain that may lead to new communication tools found

December 22, 2015

Kyoto University

Rhe regions of the brain responsible for preconception have been found by researchers who have decoded what scenes people picture in their minds. The discovery helps researchers to reconstruct what we see in our minds when we navigate — and explain how we get directions wrong.



Using virtual three-dimensional mazes together with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers from Kyoto University investigated whether a person’s preconceptions could be represented in brain activity.
Credit: Kyoto University



Researchers can now reconstruct what we see in our minds when we navigate — and explain how we get directions wrong.

The brain helps us navigate by continually generating, rationalizing, and analyzing great amounts of in-formation. For example, this innate GPS-like function helps us find our way in cities, follow directions to a specific destination, or go to a particular restaurant to satisfy a craving.

“When people try to get from one place to another, they ‘foresee’ the upcoming landscape in their minds,” said study author Yumi Shikauchi. “We wanted to decode prior belief in the brain, because it’s so crucial for spatial navigation.”

Using virtual three-dimensional mazes together with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers investigated whether a person’s preconceptions could be represented in brain activity.

Participants were led through each maze, memorizing a sequence of scenes by receiving directions for each move. Then, while being imaged using fMRI, they were asked to navigate through the maze by choosing the upcoming scene from two options. In contrast to methods in previous studies, the re-searchers focused on the underpinnings of expectation and prediction, crucial cognitive processes in everyday decision making.

Twelve decoders deciphered brain activity from fMRI scans by associating signals with output variables. They were ultimately able to reconstruct what scene the participants pictured in their minds as they progressed through the maze.

They also discovered that the human sense of objectivity may sometimes be overpowered by preconception, which includes biases arising from external cues and prior knowledge.

“We found that the activity patterns in the parietal regions reflect participants’ expectations even when they are wrong, demonstrating that subjective belief can override objective reality,” said senior author Shin Ishii.

Shikauchi and Ishii hope that this research will contribute to the development of new communication tools that make use of brain activity.

“There are a lot of things that can’t be communicated just by words and language. As we were able to decipher virtual expectations both right and wrong, this could contribute to the development of a new type of tool that allows people to communicate non-linguistic information,” said Ishii. “We now need to be able to decipher scenes that are more complicated than simple mazes.”

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Kyoto University.Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Yumi Shikauchi, Shin Ishii. Decoding the view expectation during learned maze navigation from human fronto-parietal network.Scientific Reports, 2015; 5: 17648 DOI: 10.1038/srep17648


Source: Kyoto University. “Mazes and brains: When preconception trumps logic: Regions in brain that may lead to new communication tools found.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 December 2015. <>.

A recent study shows material purchases provide more frequent happiness

December 21, 2015

Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Researchers have shown that material purchases, from sweaters to skateboards, provide more frequent happiness over time, whereas experiential purchases, like a trip to the zoo, provide more intense happiness on individual occasions.



Material and experiential purchases bring happiness in two distinct flavors.
Credit: © monticellllo / Fotolia



With holiday shopping season in full swing, everyone’s looking for the perfect gift. For those who like to shop, there’s good news: Material things can bring happiness. In a recent study from the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers have shown that material purchases, from sweaters to skateboards, provide more frequent happiness over time, whereas experiential purchases, like a trip to the zoo, provide more intense happiness on individual occasions.

The majority of previous studies examining material and experiential purchases and happiness focused on what people anticipated about shopping or remembered about items and experiences. The University of British Columbia’s Aaron Weidman and Elizabeth Dunn wanted to know how people felt in the moment, say the first weeks with a new sweater or tablet computer. To answer this question, they assessed the real-time, momentary happiness people got from material and experiential purchases, up to five times per day for two weeks. Material purchases consisted of items such as reindeer leggings, portable speakers, or coffee makers, and examples of experiential purchases were a weekend ski trip, tickets to a hockey game, or spa gift cards.

By having people record their thoughts in the weeks following their purchases, as well as one month after their purchases, the researchers showed that material and experiential purchases bring happiness in two distinct flavors. Material purchases bring repeated doses of happiness over time in the weeks after they are bought, whereas experiential purchases offer a more intense but fleeting dose of happiness. Additionally, when people looked back on their purchases 6 weeks after Christmas, they felt more satisfaction about experiential purchases.

“The decision of whether to buy a material thing or a life experience may therefore boil down to what kind of happiness one desires,” says Mr. Weidman, “Consider a holiday shopper deciding between tickets to a concert or a new couch in the living room. The concert will provide an intense thrill for one spectacular night, but then it will end, and will no longer provide momentary happiness, aside from being a happy memory. In contrast, the new couch will never provide a thrilling moment to match the concert, but will keep the owner snug and comfortable each day throughout the winter months.”

As you go forth in your holiday shopping this season, either for yourself or others, think about what form of happiness you want, before making a purchase.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. A. C. Weidman, E. W. Dunn. The Unsung Benefits of Material Things: Material Purchases Provide More Frequent Momentary Happiness Than Experiential Purchases. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/1948550615619761


Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “Living happily in a material world: Material purchases can bring happiness: A recent study shows material purchases provide more frequent happiness.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 December 2015. <>.

Climate change scenarios point to widespread tree death in Southwest forests, researchers say

December 21, 2015

University of Delaware

In a broad analysis of climate change scenarios, researchers see a grim future for evergreen forests in the Southwest region of the United States. Using field reports, validated regional predictions and computer models, they project a 72 percent loss of needleleaf evergreens by 2050, almost 100 percent by 2100.



Widespread loss of needleleaf evergreens is predicted for forests in the Southwest region of the United States if climate change scenarios play out as expected, researchers say. Almost three quarters of the forests in the region could be gone by 2050, and all may be gone by 2100.
Credit: University of Delaware/Tamara Beeson



A research paper published today in Nature Climate Change predicts widespread death of needleleaf evergreen trees (NET) within the Southwest United States by the year 2100 under projected global warming scenarios.

The research team that conducted the study, which includes University of Delaware’s Sara Rauscher, considered both field results and a range of validated regional predictions and global simulation models of varying complexity, in reaching this grim conclusion.

“No matter how we investigated the problem, we got the same result. This consensus gives us confidence in this projection of forest mortality,” said Rauscher, assistant professor of geography in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

The Southwest U.S. is a semi-arid region that includes Arizona and parts of New Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah and Texas, among other states. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, it is home to 11 national forests spanning more than 20 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico, alone.

Loss of broad-scale forest cover over the Southwest could contribute additional carbon to the atmosphere, creating additional warming. This is because trees and understory vegetation, such as shrubs and bushes, sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Less vegetation means less carbon capture, which can create a negative feedback loop that can accelerate climate change, Rauscher said.

Recent droughts over the Southwest have caused substantial tree death, even among drought-resistant species. The most recent example is in 2002-03, when Los Alamos scientists and colleagues noticed a high rate of die-off in area drought resistant trees like piñon pine and juniper. This, coupled with similar reports from around the world indicating increasing tree death, prompted the current group of scientists to look at whether this was related to climate change.

“The rise in juniper mortality likelihood has alarming implications for conifers in general because juniper historically experienced far less mortality than other conifers in droughts,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

In field experiments led by the paper’s lead author, Nate McDowell, an ecologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and colleagues studied trees in a piñon-juniper woodland in New Mexico. Over the five-year study, they restricted nearly 50 percent of the rainfall from three one-mile square plots to mimic drought conditions. During the study period, 80 percent of the mature piñon pines in the three plots died, with other trees experiencing associated drought stress effects.

Concurrently, the researchers used a suite of computational models of varying complexity — from empirical statistical models to mechanistic models that use algorithms to describe how plants function, to complex global models, including those that consider dynamic vegetation — to predict how the trees would respond to drought in the future under predicted global warming scenarios.

Averaging all the models together, the study results suggest that 72 percent of the region’s NET forests will die by 2050, with nearly 100 percent mortality of Southwest U.S. forests by 2100.

Rauscher, who began working on the project while a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, and a post-doctoral scientist, Xiaoyan Jiang, designed the global climate model experiment using eight different simulations, all with different sea surface temperatures.

“We had to figure out how to make a single model behave in a way that would produce a range of future possibilities of how climate and vegetation will respond. To do this, we used sea surface temperature patterns that other models had predicted, since sea surface temperatures play an important role in shaping how precipitation may change in a warming world,” Rauscher said.

While each simulation produced different precipitation patterns, the climate model findings were always the same: widespread tree death.

According to Rauscher, the study may be one of the first examples where observational data of tree mortality is combined with results from not just one but many models of differing complexities. The simulations considered the worst “business-as-usual” scenario for greenhouse gas emissions.

“This region of the U.S. has beautiful, old forests with historic trees like Ponderosa pine that you don’t find in many other places. A treeless Southwest would be a major change not only to the landscape, but to the overall ecosystem,” Rauscher said. “There is always hope that if we reduce carbon emissions, if we continue to address climate change, then perhaps these dire projections won’t come to pass.”

The models didn’t take into account was whether the vegetation will adapt to warmer conditions or reduced precipitation levels to survive. Another possibility is the existence of refugia — areas of relatively unaltered climate — that could help some species survive until future climate changes allowed them to grow again.

Increases in the frequency and severity of wildfires, acceleration of insect populations, and failure of seedlings to take root, could also affect the projections, the researchers said.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Delaware. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. N. G. McDowell, A. P. Williams, C. Xu, W. T. Pockman, L. T. Dickman, S. Sevanto, R. Pangle, J. Limousin, J. Plaut, D. S. Mackay, J. Ogee, J. C. Domec, C. D. Allen, R. A. Fisher, X. Jiang, J. D. Muss, D. D. Breshears, S. A. Rauscher, C. Koven. Multi-scale predictions of massive conifer mortality due to chronic temperature rise. Nature Climate Change, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2873


Source: University of Delaware. “Evergreens in Southwest U.S. at risk: Climate change scenarios point to widespread tree death in Southwest forests, researchers say.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 December 2015. <>.

December 21, 2015

ETH Zurich

Cells have an infallible sense of smell that tells them which direction to grow in to move closer to the source of a scent. Now, researchers have now learned how this sense of smell works.



The polarity site (yellow traces) is a sensor, processor and motor all in one – a multifunctional instrument that controls cell growth and movement.
Credit: Graphics: ETH Zurich



A frequent problem faced by cells is that they are surrounded by a promising cloud of scent and must determine the direction of its source. Nerve cells, for example, form long extensions that are attracted to signals from other cells in order to produce the network that forms the nervous system; similarly, scavenger cells recognise the scent of harmful germs in order that they can pursue and destroy them.

But how do cells sense these scent signals, which become weaker and weaker with increasing distance from the source? How do cells ‘read’ this weakening of the signal — technically referred to as a signal gradient — in order to steer their growth or movement towards the signal’s source? How spatial signals are sensed is a fundamental question facing biology — and until now this riddle has remained largely unsolved.

Sensor, processor and motor all in one

Now, a possible solution has been presented by researchers led by ETH Professor Matthias Peter of the Institute of Biochemistry. Yeast cells have a very fine, adjustable multitool that recognises chemical signals, processes them accordingly, and initiates the correct response — growth towards the source of the signal. Yeast cells are therefore able to smell the location of potential sexual partners in their surroundings, so that they can grow towards them.

The biologists conducted their study using a combination of microscopic observations and a computer model that they developed through an interdisciplinary collaboration with researchers from the Automatic Control Lab under Heinz Koeppl (now at TU Darmstadt).

Many proteins form multi tool

If the cell suspects that a signal gradient is nearby, it assembles the multitool at a random position on the membrane. This tool is a large protein complex made up of more than 100 different components; the complex is so big that it can be seen through a fluorescence microscope. The researchers call this a ‘polarity site’ (PS) because polarised growth sets in at the location where it forms.

Using fluorescence microscopy, the researchers have now observed how the PS locates a gradient’s signal source. First, the PS moves along the membrane towards the stronger signal. Once it has identified the strongest signal — i.e. the largest amount of signal substance in the gradient — it stops moving. The PS then creates a bulge in the cell at this location, which continues to grow towards the source of the signal. Naturally, the signal is produced by a sexual partner and the two cells fuse once they have found one another.

Complex structure reduced using a model

In order to understand the molecular mechanics of this process, the researchers referred to the computer model. “This model really helped us to reduce the complexity of the PS and the process to a few essential components,” says Björn Hegemann, lead author of a study published in the journal Developmental Cell. These essential components of the machinery include a receptor that picks up and forwards the signal; others include the protein Cdc42, which carries the receptor along the membrane, and the protein Cdc24, which regulates the activity of Cdc42. “You could describe the receptor as the nose, Cdc42 as the wheel of the machinery and Cdc24 as its brake,” says Hegemann.

While the PS is moving across the cell membrane and looking for a stronger chemical signal, only a few molecules of the breaking protein Cdc24 are present in the machinery. Once it has found the signal’s maximum concentration, the PS requests additional Cdc24 molecules, which are stored in the nucleus, to bind to the complex. The more Cdc24 molecules that attach to the PS machine, the slower it becomes. However, only when Cdc24 numbers exceeds a certain threshold does the PS stop completely and start the bulge formation in the cell.

An important foundation stone

“First, we observed the polarity site’s movement using the fluorescence microscope. Then we simulated this movement on the computer, which allowed us to develop a hypothesis for how the movement could be controlled. We were then able to confirm this hypothesis experimentally through mutations and using the fluorescence microscope,” says Hegemann, who is pleased with the new findings. He says the relatively simple computer model provided an excellent basis for planning the experiments by enabling the researchers to change the components rapidly and thereby identify important aspects. This made the study simpler, he says, as it was not necessary to test everything experimentally.

Hegemann assumes that it’s not only yeast cells that use a multitool resembling the polarity site. Behaviour similar to that of a PS has also been observed in fission yeast (S. pombe) and the roundworm (C. elegans), albeit with no molecular explanation. The ETH researchers have now provided this explanation and described in detail for the first time how cells can locate a scent gradient. This work lays an important foundation stone for further studies on spatial signal perception by cells — both in yeast and in humans. According to Hegemann, currently no direct medical applications are envisaged: “In the distant future, this work might well benefit the general public. At the moment, however, it primarily represents an important advance for fundamental research.”

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by ETH Zurich. The original item was written by Peter Rüegg. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Björn Hegemann, Michael Unger, Sung Sik Lee, Ingrid Stoffel-Studer, Jasmin van den Heuvel, Serge Pelet, Heinz Koeppl, Matthias Peter. A Cellular System for Spatial Signal Decoding in Chemical Gradients.Developmental Cell, 2015; 35 (4): 458 DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2015.10.013


Source: ETH Zurich. “A multitool for cells: Understanding the sense of smell in cells.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 December 2015. <>.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to Our Loyal Readers


As we enter our 23rd year of operations, we want wish all of our friends and colleagues Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. ON TARGET now goes to over 5,600 each week and to virtually every country in the world. We know no politics when it comes to health for all, and hope that ON TARGET helps to contribute a more harmonious world.  See you next year!!!



ON TARGET is the newsletter of Target Health Inc., a NYC – based, full – service, contract research organization (eCRO), providing strategic planning, regulatory affairs, clinical research, data management, biostatistics, medical writing and software services to the pharmaceutical and device industries, including the paperless clinical trial.


For more information about Target Health contact Warren Pearlson (212 – 681 – 2100 ext. 104). For additional information about software tools for paperless clinical trials, please also feel free to contact Dr. Jules T. Mitchel or Ms. Joyce Hays. The Target Health software tools are designed to partner with both CROs and Sponsors. Please visit the Target Health Website.


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European Public Health Crisis: Sick, Desperate and Soon Freezing


Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe


Fleeing violence, millions of innocent Syrians are trapped in situations where disease and poverty threaten children and families seeking refuge in settlement & refugee camps. From Lesbos to Lapland, refugees are bracing for a winter chill that many will never have experienced before. Some will have to endure it outside

Record numbers of migrants and 1) ___ have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in October through December 2015 – just in time for the advent of winter, which is already threatening to expose thousands to harsh conditions. The latest UN figures, which showed 218,000 made the perilous Mediterranean crossing last month, and 6,000 more arrive each day to Greece, confirm fears that the end of summer and soon the end of fall, has not stemmed the flow of refugees as has been the pattern in previous years, partly because of the sheer desperation of those fleeing an escalating war in 2) ___ and other conflicts.


The huge numbers of people arriving at the same time as winter, is raising fears of a new humanitarian crisis within Europe’s borders. Cold weather is coming to Europe at greater speed than its leadership’s ability to make critical decisions. A summit of EU and Balkan states recently agreed to some measures for extra policing and shelter for 100,000 people. But well over 700,000 refugees and migrants, have arrived in 3) ___ this year along unofficial and dangerous land and sea routes, from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa and beyond. Tens of thousands, including the very young and the very old, find themselves trapped in the open, as the skies darken and the first night frosts take hold. Hypothermia, pneumonia and opportunistic diseases are the main threats now, along with the growing desperation of refugees trying to save the lives of their families.


Editor’s note: According to one of our relatives living in Germany, 1 million refugees have been admitted into Germany alone. Fights have broken out over blankets, and on occasion between different national groups. Now traffickers are following the columns of refugees, picking off young unaccompanied stragglers.


The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is distributing outdoor survival packages, including sleeping bags, blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes and shoes, but the number of people it can reach is limited by its funding, which has so far been severely inadequate. Volunteer agencies have tried to fill the gaping hole in humanitarian provisions in Europe. Human Rights Watch, has said that all along the route into Europe through the 4) ___ “there is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes, and medical assistance.“ Europe has found itself ill-prepared to deal with its biggest influx of refugees since 5) ___. It is a race against time and the elements – a race Europe is not guaranteed to win. “There is a risk of collapse,“ said Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief. “Either we take this big step and adapt or yes, we do have a major crisis.“


The fighting in Syria seems to have no end- one example of families trapped in deteriorating camp conditions, is the one in this photo.




Their infant and all relatives, have died and their home is destroyed. Only days before, their young son (on the right) fell and broke his arm. There is no pain medication or doctor to perform the surgery he needs in order to heal. Authorities will not let the family through, to start the grueling trek through Europe to a final destination until paperwork is processed. Amidst its own economic crisis, Greece’s resources are severely strained. Some refugee camps are only designed for 200, yet thousands are trying to survive in them, without adequate sanitation, food or 6) ___. These camps are becoming ticking time bombs of disaster. Pregnant women, children and the elderly, require special care and medication.


Medical Teams International’s primary goal in Middle Eastern war zones is health outreach. Basic health and dental care prevents and reduces the impact of disease on children, women, and men in refugee settlements. Additionally, they train volunteers to provide health services at mobile medical units. Missing are psychologists providing much needed counseling, treatment and medication for childhood and adult trauma victims of 7) ___. International medical teams like Doctors Without Borders, are focused on the largely unmet need of chronic and preventable problems e.g. dental, cardiovascular, respiratory, diabetes, as well as surgery. In Greece, the situation focuses on meeting the deadly infrastructure strains facing refugees in registration camps. The lack of clean 8) ___ and sanitation in crowded, makeshift settlements is an urgent concern. Diseases like cholera and polio can easily spread ? even more life-threatening without enough medical services. Mercy Corps is currently addressing the urgent needs of nearly 4 million people both inside Syria and in neighboring countries. We have the second-largest operation inside Syria, next to the U.N., reaching an estimated 500,000 people every month. Water shortages have spiked. Hospitals and schools don’t have enough water to maintain sanitation standards.


One story out of millions of similar refugee stories


According to Michael W. Doyle, who heads Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative, one problem is that all we have now is an asylum system designed at the end of World War II, to take in a few thousand citizens. This inadequate system is now confronted with an exodus of millions every year. Government aid budgets don’t extend to those amounts, and the wider aid community simply doesn’t have the means to manage so many disasters at the same time, aid agencies say. An unusual, deadly convergence of wars and 9) ___ change disasters erupting around the world, (not to mention robotics putting people out of work), pushed the number of people displaced from their homes to 59.5 million by the end of 2014. (and that doesn’t count the numbers of refugees in 2015). “We are all stretched beyond the breaking point,“ said Andrea Koppel, vice president of advocacy at Mercy Corps. “We don’t have the people, let alone the money, to meet the needs of all those who have been affected. There aren’t enough people, including 10) ___ and their assistants, with the skill sets to deploy to those places. The international donors are stretched. There just isn’t enough to go around. “And we are asking ourselves the question, is this the new normal? And if so, what do we need to do to cope?“


ANSWERS: 1) refugees; 2) Syria; 3) Europe; 4) Balkans; 5) WW2; 6) medicine; 7) PTSD; 8) water; 9) climate; 10) physicians


Asklepius, Ancient God of Healing, Precursor of Hippocrates


Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff, Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus, Greece


Western culture’s demands of integrity, sacrifice, and compassion from its physician healers have roots in the mythic traditions of ancient Greece. By understanding these traditions, modern physicians can better understand their patients’ expectations and the high expectations physicians often have for themselves.


The mythic figure Asklepios was the focus of Greek and Roman medical tradition from approximately 1500 BCE to 500 CE. As a physician-hero, Asklepios exemplified the ideal physician and the pitfalls he or she may face. With the progressive deification of Asklepios and the spread of his worship first in Greece and then in the Roman empire, Asklepios became generally recognized as the god of healing and served as an object of supplication, particularly for the poor and disregarded. Asklepian traditions for medical service provide historical insight into the role of modern physicians and their obligations to care for the underserved. Asclepius was a god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia (“Hygiene“, the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aglaea/AEgle (the goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy). He was associated with the Roman/Etruscan god Vediovis. He was one of Apollo’s sons, sharing with Apollo the epithet Paean (“the Healer“). The rod of Asclepius, a single snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today. Those physicians and attendants who served this god were known as the Therapeutae of Asclepius.


Although Asclepius was the son of Apollo, according to the earliest accounts, his mother was a mortal woman named Coronis. His mother was killed for being unfaithful to Apollo and although pregnant, she was laid out on a funeral pyre to be burned to death. As the story goes, the unborn child was rescued from her womb. Or, in another version, his mother died in labor and was laid out on the pyre to be consumed, but his father, Apollo, rescued the child, cutting him from her womb. From this he received the name Asklepios, “to cut open.“ Apollo carried his baby son, to the centaur Chiron who raised Asclepius and instructed him in the art of medicine. It is said that in return for some kindness rendered by Asclepius, a snake licked Asclepius’ ears clean and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing. To this day a species of non-venomous pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) is named for the god. Asclepius became so proficient a healer that he surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo. Asclepius was therefore able to evade death and to bring others back to life from the brink of death and beyond. This caused an influx of human beings and Zeus resorted to killing him to maintain balance in the numbers of the human population.




Asclepios with his daughter Hygieia. Wikipedia


Asclepius was married to Epione, with whom he had five daughters: Hygieia, Panacea, Aceso, Iaso, and Aglaea, and three sons: Machaon, Podaleirios and Telesphoros. He also sired a son, Aratus, with Aristodama. The names of his daughters each rather transparently reflect a certain subset of the overall theme of “good health“. At some point, Asclepius was among those who took part in the Calydonian Boar hunt. Another version of Asclepius’ death is that Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt because he, Asclepius, brought Hippolytus back alive from the dead and accepted gold for it. Other stories say that Asclepius was killed because after bringing people back from the dead, Hades thought that no more dead spirits would come to the underworld, so he asked his brother Zeus to stop him. This angered Apollo who in turn killed the Cyclopes who made the thunderbolts for Zeus. For this act, Zeus suspended Apollo from the night sky and commanded Apollo to serve Admetus, King of Thessaly for a year. Once the year had passed, Zeus brought Apollo back to Mount Olympus and revived the Cyclopes that made his thunderbolts. After Asclepius’ death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus (“the Serpent Holder“). Some sources also state that Asclepius was later resurrected as a god by Zeus to prevent any further feuds with Apollo. It was also claimed that Asclepius was instructed by Zeus to never revive the dead without his approval again.




Majestic Zeus-like facial features of Asclepius head (Melos). Wikipedia


The most famous temple of Asclepius was at Epidaurus in north-eastern Peloponnese, dated to the fifth century BCE. Another famous healing temple (or asclepieion) was built approximately a century later on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary “father of medicine“, is thought to have begun his career. Other asclepieia were situated in Trikala, Gortys (in Arcadia), and Pergamum in Asia. From the fifth century BCE onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary – the abaton (or adyton). Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation. Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners. In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes – the Aesculapian Snakes – slithered around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world.


The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods.




Asclepius – a fragment of mosaic bathroom in Kyustendil (Bulgaria). Source: Wikipedia


Some later religious movements claimed links to Asclepius. For example in the 2nd century CE the controversial miracle-worker Alexander (this is not Alexander III of Macedonia, also called Alexander the Great) claimed that his god Glycon, a snake with a “head of linen“ was an incarnation of Asclepius. The Greek language rhetorician and satirist Lucian produced the work Alexander the False Prophet to denounce the swindler for future generations. He described Alexander as having a character “made up of lying, trickery, perjury, and malice; [it was] facile, audacious, venturesome, diligent in the execution of its schemes, plausible, convincing, masking as good, and wearing an appearance absolutely opposite to its purpose.“ However, this particular religious fraud, amassed great wealth, due to his ability to convince people that he had healing powers.


In Rome, the College of Aesculapius and Hygia was an association (collegium) that served as a burial society and dining club that also participated in Imperial cult. The botanical genus Asclepias (commonly known as milkweed) is named after the great healer and includes the medicinal plant A. tuberosa or “Pleurisy root“.


Asclepius was depicted on the reverse of the Greek 10,000 drachmas banknote of 1995-2001.


Asclepius is mentioned by Hercules in the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode “Siege at Naxos.“ He is mentioned to be Hercules’ cousin who taught him how to mix healing herbs and medicines. In “The Apple,“ Hercules told Iolaus that Asclepius often said “An apple a day keeps Asclepius away“ and that he never quite knew what was meant by that. In “Centaur Mentor Journey,“ Asclepius was one of the students mentored by the centaur Ceridian. When Ceridian was dying, Hercules suggested that Asclepius might be able to help. Ceridian knew better.


In the fantasy novel The Son of Neptune, the Roman Lar Gaius Vitellius Reticulus was a descendant of Asclepius. Later, in The Blood of Olympus, a novel from the same series, Asclepius was mentioned by Apollo, his father, when Leo Valdez speaks to him. The god himself appears when Leo, Piper McLean, and Jason Grace visit his office to retrieve the physician’s cure, which can bring the recently deceased back to life. He quickly diagnoses Jason with myopia and gives him a pair of glasses. Later, he uses the Pylosian mint (the “cursed“ daisy) and the Makhai to formulate the physician’s cure and gives the trio instructions on its use.


In the short story “The Two Temples“ by Herman Melville, the narrator, hired by a lady as a personal physician, describes his job as “the post of private Aesculapius and knightly companion.“


In the manga Saint Seiya: Next Dimension, the Ophiuchus Gold Saint is loosely based on the figure of Asclepius, since it is said that he was regarded as a god and had the power to heal others, which is why the gods punished him and erased his existence.


In the “Trauma Center“, multiple protagonists of the game hold an inherited ability called the ‘Healing Touch’, which is said to be an ability originally held by Asclepius.


Asclepius is alluded to in a Mars Volta song, “Askepios.“ The song makes mention of both un-death and resurrection. In popular American culture, Asclepius was seen in Marvel Comics where he appeared in Ares #4.


Today, there is a pharmaceutical company named, Asklepion, with a fine reputation of creating products that heal. Asclepius lives on!


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