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In the News, Research, Sleep

Sleep: More important than ever?

Sleep: More important than ever?

A headline today caught my eye: “It’s Time to Pay Attention to Sleep, the New Health Frontier.” (Since installing a sleep-tracking app on my phone, I’ve been playing with different bed times, forms of exercise and other factors to measure their effects on sleep time and quality.) Anyway, the piece, on Time.com, explains why sleep’s importance to health is more serious than many of us really acknowledge. And it offers this bit of historical perspective on why now is the time to pay attention:

According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 40% of Americans get less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night. While the typical person still logs about 6.8 hours of sleep per night, that’s a drop from the 7.9 Americans were getting in the 1940s.

Previously: Exploring the benefit of sleep appsSleep on it: The quest for rest in the modern hospital, Mobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Stanford doc talks sleep (and fish) in new podcast

Behavioral Science, Genetics, In the News, Research

Can procrastination and impulsivity be inherited?

procrastination_040814Do you always finish items on your to-do list in a timely fashion, or do you wait until the last minute? New research shows that the tendency to defer tasks could be inherited, and that the traits of procrastination and impulsivity could be genetically linked.

In the study (subscription required), researchers at University of Colorado Boulder asked 181 identical-twin pairs and 166 fraternal-twin pairs to complete surveys designed to measure individuals’ propensity to act impulsively or procrastinate, as well as their aptitude to set and maintain goals. Pysch Central reports:

They found that procrastination is indeed heritable, just like impulsivity. Not only that, there seems to be a complete genetic overlap between procrastination and impulsivity — that is, there are no genetic influences that are unique to either trait alone.

That finding suggests that, genetically speaking, procrastination is an evolutionary byproduct of impulsivity — one that likely manifests itself more in the modern world than in the world of our ancestors.

In addition, the link between procrastination and impulsivity also overlapped genetically with the ability to manage goals. This finding supports the idea that delaying, making rash decisions, and failing to achieve goals all stem from a shared genetic foundation.

Researchers hope that better understanding the underpinnings of procrastination will be useful in determining how these two traits relate to higher cognitive abilities.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals, The science of willpower and How your perceptions about willpower can affect behavior, goal achievement
Photo by EvelynGiggles

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Global Health, In the News, Stanford News

Through his 50-cent microscope, Stanford engineer aims to “reach society in a very strong way”

Through his 50-cent microscope, Stanford engineer aims to "reach society in a very strong way"

Manu TED imageFoldscope, the ultra-low-cost paper microscope designed to aid disease diagnosis in developing regions, is back in the news. For a story appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, writer Stephanie Lee talked with Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash, PhD, and others about the invention:

“Manu Prakash is one of the most creative scientists and engineers and his invention is really original,” wrote Luke Lee, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley who works on global health problems, in an e-mail. “His elegant microscope is not only good for global health care, but also it will be a new educational tool to see the world.”

The Foldscope was two years in the making, starting with trips that Prakash and his graduate students took through India, Thailand, Uganda and Nigeria. The team met people who were suffering from infectious diseases but couldn’t afford conventional microscopes, which cost upward of $200, to diagnose their conditions.

“It was very clear that anything we came up with, if we can’t scale it to the cost it needs to be, it doesn’t really reach anywhere,” Prakash said.

Prakash went on to tell Lee, “This is not just an academic project. We happen to be in an academic setting, but we are trying to reach society in a very strong way.”

Previously: Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas, Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope, Stanford microscope inventor featured on TED Talk, Stanford bioengineer developing an “Electric Band-Aid Worm Test and Stanford bioengineers create an ultra-low-cost oral cancer screening tool
Photo by James Duncan Davidson/TED

Imaging, In the News, Orthopedics, Research

Goo inside bones provides structural support, study finds

Goo inside bones provides structural support, study finds

As high-schoolers swarm the med school campus today, hold human brains and satisfy their taste for science, I can’t help but wish the show “You Can’t Do That on Television” still existed and that the producers would set up in the parking lot and slime each participant upon completion of the day. But a welcome alternative is news that scientists have discovered gooey matter inside human bones.

In a 60-Second Health piece, writer Dina Fine Maron explains how “a combination of imaging techniques and modeling has revealed that our bones are filled with a natural chemical goo that’s key to the bones’ function as support structures,” and that the information could be used to inform osteoporosis treatment and prevention. The researchers’ findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previously: Exploring the use of yoga to improve the health and strength of bones, 419 million year-old fish fossil may reveal origins of the human jaw and  Teen girls become orthopaedic surgeons for a day

Genetics, In the News, Research, Science, Stanford News, Technology

Policing the editor: Stanford scientists devise way to monitor CRISPR effectiveness

Policing the editor: Stanford scientists devise way to monitor CRISPR effectiveness

edited paperAs a writer, I think a lot about editing. Will this sentence work here? Maybe I should change this word. Argh – a typo! But I’m not alone. Biologists also appreciate the power of editing, particularly when it comes to modifying genes in cells or organisms.

Recently a powerful new technology has emerged (called CRISPR) that allows researchers to make small, precise and permanent changes in the DNA of animal and human cells. It builds on the concept of genome editing that is key to generating cells, cell lines or even whole animals such as laboratory mice, containing specific genetic changes for study. With CRISPR, however, researchers can generate in days or weeks experimental models that usually take months or years. As a result, they can quickly assess the effect of a particular gene by deleting it entirely, or experiment with repeated, tiny changes to its DNA sequence.

According to a recent New York Times article, scientists roundly agree that CRISPR is revolutionary. At least three companies have been launched in the mere 18 months since the first results were reported by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Umea University in Sweden, and more than 100 research papers based on the technique have been published. But, although it’s highly specific, it’s (sadly) not perfect. According to the New York Times piece:

Quick is not always accurate, however. While Crispr is generally precise, it can have off-target effects, cutting DNA at places where the sequence is similar but not identical to that of the guide RNA.

Obviously it’s important to know when (and how frequently) this happens. Unfortunately, that’s been difficult to assess.

Enter researchers in the laboratory of pediatric cancer biologist Matthew Porteus, MD, PhD. Porteus’s lab is interested in (among other things) learning how to a particular type of genome editing called homologous recombination to treat diseases like sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, hemophilia and HIV. They’ve devised a way to monitor the efficiency of genome editing by CRISPR (as well as other more-traditional genome editing technologies) that could be widely helpful to researchers worldwide. Their technique was published today in Cell Reports. As postdoctoral researcher Ayal Hendel, PhD, told me:

We have developed a novel method for quantifying individual genome editing outcomes at any site of interest using single-molecule real-time (also known as SMRT) DNA sequencing. This approach works regardless of the editing technique used, and in any type of cell from any species.

Continue Reading »

Health and Fitness, In the News, Obesity, Public Health

In Boston, doctor’s orders may include discounted bike-share memberships

Some Boston docs are delivering a dose of preventive care the old-fashioned way. Encouraging physical exercise under the city’s new “Prescribe-a-Bike” program, physicians at Boston Medical Center can refer low-income patients to a $5 bike-share membership, complete with helmet.

Common Health reports:

“Obesity is a significant and growing health concern for our city, particularly among low-income Boston residents,” BMC President and CEO Kate Walsh said in a statement. “Regular exercise is key to combating this trend, and Prescribe-a-Bike is one important way our caregivers can help patients get the exercise they need to be healthy.”

Previously: A bike helmet that doubles as a stress-o-meter and Modest increases in bike ridership could yield major economic, health benefits

Cardiovascular Medicine, In the News, Stanford News, Surgery

Looking at aortic valve replacement without open-heart surgery

SM heart imageSome patients with aortic stenosis undergo open-heart surgery to replace a constricted heart valve in an attempt to stave off heart failure. But others, such as elderly adults, aren’t candidates for this type of surgery. In 2011, the FDA approved a non-surgical alternative procedure called TAVR, or transcatheter aortic valve replacement, but the new method, as discussed in the New York Times earlier this month, also carries certain risks.

In the current issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, my colleague Tracie White digs into the surgery-or-TAVR debate and follows the story of one aortic stenosis patient who was treated by the newer method. Maryann Casey, at 62, is younger and healthier than the average TAVR candidate, but she had faced an increased risk for complications during open-heart surgery because of radiation treatment for breast cancer decades ago.

From the magazine piece:

Casey was lucky. Her Stanford oncologist, Frank Stockdale, MD, PhD, the Maureen Lyles D’Amrogio Professor of Medicine Emeritus, was well-informed about treatment options for aortic stenosis, a calcification of the heart valve. This new nonsurgical approach to valve replacement involves placing an artificial heart valve, made of cow tissue supported by a stainless steel mesh frame, inside the damaged valve. Referred to as “transcatheter aortic valve replacement” or TAVR, the procedure is designed for patients with severe, symptomatic aortic stenosis who have health conditions that make the preferred treatment, open-heart surgery, very high risk.

On Oct. 16, 2012, Casey became one of the more than 120 patients that year at Stanford to undergo the TAVR procedure. The first catheter-based aortic valve transplant was in 2002 in France. It has been approved for use for the past six years in 40 other countries including most of Europe, with a total of 45,000 procedures conducted worldwide.

In the United States, institutions such as Stanford, the Cleveland Clinic, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania have been leaders in introducing the new procedure and determining its effectiveness through the clinical trials.

Careful patient selection is key to the successful use of the procedure, says [D. Craig Miller, MD, the Doelger Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery], and that sometimes means not recommending TAVR for a patient who is too old or too sick with other illnesses to benefit from the device.

“That’s a very sobering point,” says surgeon Miller. For patients who are too old or ill, undergoing the procedure may not increase their quality of life or life expectancy; Miller says that the boundary line between TAVR “utility and futility” is still being defined.

Previously: Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questionsAsk Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about heart health and cardiovascular research and Major advancement for once inoperable ailing heart valves
Art, which originally appeared in Stanford Medicine, by Pixologicstudio

Autism, In the News, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Inspired by his autistic son, a Stanford researcher works to understand the biochemistry of autism

Inspired by his autistic son, a Stanford researcher works to understand the biochemistry of autism

dolmetschIn a Q&A published today in the New York Times, Stanford neurobiologist Ricardo Dolmetsch, PhD, tells reporter Claudia Dreifus that his immediate reaction to learning his son was diagnosed with autism was, “We’re not going to leave any stone unturned to help him.”

Leaving no stone unturned included changing the focus of his research to better understand the biochemistry of autism and leading an effort to create a technique that involves reprogramming skin cells from autistic children into neurons. As reported previously on Scope, this approach allows scientists to better study brain function in children with autism.

Dolmetsch, who is currently on leave from Stanford and working at Novartis, tells Dreifus that his main goal is to develop new pharmaceutical therapies for autism. When she asked him how he identifies patients to participate in his research, he responded:

Through social media. We’re often interested in groups or families who have specific kinds of mutations. Some of them are rare — 5,000 people worldwide.

So we have a committee that decides what’s the next mutation we’re going to work on. Then we find children with it. It used to be we’d spend half of our budget locating people. Now, we go to the families with a Facebook page for people with X, Y, or Z mutation. Then I’ll post a call. Parents will come forward.

The aim is to develop a database of the mutations we think are causative of the neuropsychiatric diseases. If we can get samples through stem-cell-derived neurons and create a library of them, we could change the way the diseases are diagnosed.

Previously: Using stem cells to advance autism research, Stanford Magazine spotlights scientists’ efforts to untangle the root causes of autism and Research on autism is moving in the right direction
Photo by Steve Fisch

Health and Fitness, In the News, Orthopedics, Stanford News

Watching your phone or tablet while working out may diminish form

Watching your phone or tablet while working out may diminish form

skeletonSnow White’s dwarves whistled while they worked. With the advent of the Walkman, runners could listen to music as they ran. Now, some people watch TV or movies on a mobile device while they hit the gym. Though all make a demanding physical task more entertaining, looking down at your smartphone in text-head position could harm your skeletal alignment, as Michael Fredericson, MD, professor of sports medicine at Stanford and team physician for several of the school’s sports teams, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle.

From the article:

Although [Frederickson's] in favor of anything that gets people to exercise more, he warns that running while you look down at a screen is poor form, and the distraction prevents you from focusing on your body.

“When you lean forward, you create an arch and hyperextension in your neck,” he says. “You may get a good cardio workout, but when you get off, you’ll be stiff in your upper body.”

Listening to music while you exercise might be a better option. Unlike TV or streaming video, many studies show that music can benefit a workout by distracting people from fatigue and elevating mood.

Fredericson said he even encourages people in his community running clinic to align their running cadence with songs that have 90 beats per minute. But he adds that the most serious runners, like those he works with on the Stanford track team, don’t train with media distractions. “They’re very focused on their bodies and the experience,” he said. “They have a goal in mind for every workout.”

Previously: Walking-and-texting impairs posture – and walking, and texting
Photo by Jim, the Photographer

In the News, Neuroscience, otolaryngology

Say that again? Tone deafness is inherited, study finds

Say that again? Tone deafness is inherited, study finds

singing2Can’t carry a tune? Don’t spend all your money on music lessons: Turns out tone deafness is an inherited non-talent.

Leonard Bernstein (no, not that one) writes in The Checkup:

Finnish researchers say they have found genes responsible for auditory response and neuro-cognitive processing that partially explain musical aptitude. They note “several genes mostly related to the auditory pathway, not only specifically to inner ear function, but also to neurocognitive processes.”

“Humans have developed the perception, production and processing of sounds into the art of music. A genetic contribution to these skills of musical aptitude has long been suggested,” the researchers note in the study. Using a genome-wide scan, researchers evaluated 767 individuals “for the ability to discriminate pitch (SP), duration (ST) and sound patterns (KMT), which are primary capacities for music perception.” The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry.

Previously: Music that comes straight from the soul…er, DNA
Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

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