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Global Health, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Using video surveillance to gain insights into hand washing behavior

Using video surveillance to gain insights into hand washing behavior

13715-handwashing_newsSimply washing your hands can reduce the reduce respiratory illnesses, such as colds, in the general public by 21 percent, cut the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31 percent and lower diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite these compelling facts, and many years of global awareness campaigns, hand-cleaning rates remain far below full compliance — particularly in low-income, developing world settings. But using video surveillance to observe hygiene practices can offers insights that may help improve design, monitoring and evaluation of hand-washing campaigns, according to a new Stanford study.

For the study, researchers installed video cameras at the washing stations outside latrines of four public schools in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Teachers were informed in advance and parents and administrators granted their permission for the experiment. Their findings were highlighted in a Stanford News article published yesterday:

  • Both video observation and in-person observation demonstrated longer hand cleaning times for hand washing with soap as compared to rubbing with sanitizer.
  • Students at schools equipped with soap and water, instead of sanitizer, were 1.3 times more likely to wash their hands during simultaneous video surveillance and in-person observation when compared with periods of in-person observation alone.
  • Overall, when students were alone at a hand-cleaning station, hand cleaning rates averaged 48 percent, compared to 71 percent when at least one other student was present.

Based on their findings, study authors recommended the following approaches for boosting hand washing:

  • Placement of hand cleaning materials in public locations
  • Scheduling specific times for bathroom breaks between classes
  • Designating specific students to be hand hygiene “champions”
  • Formation of student clubs to demonstrate and promote hand hygiene to classmates

Previously: Examining the effectiveness of hand sanitizers, Survey outlines barriers to handwashing in schools, Examining hand hygiene in the emergency department, Good advice from Washyourhandsington and Hey, health workers: Washing your hands is good for your patients
Photo by Amy Pickering

Autism, In the News, Pediatrics, Research

Using theater’s sensory experiences to help children with autism

Using theater's sensory experiences to help children with autism

Gesamkunstwerk, my favorite German word and a term commonly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, can be translated as a “total work of art” playing to many of the senses and synthesizing numerous art forms. The word came to mind as I read about a pilot study using theater as an environment for children with autism-spectrum disorders  to explore “communication, social interaction, and imagination skills – the ‘triad of impairments’ seen in autism,” a New Scientist piece notes, “engaging all the children’s senses at once.”

Twenty-two children ages 7-12 attended one weekly 45-minute session for 10 weeks involving improvisation exercises led by trained performers in enclosed make-believe environments such as a forest or outer space.

From the piece:

As well as looking at whether behaviours used to diagnose autism changed after the drama sessions, the researchers also assessed emotion recognition, imitation, IQ and theory of mind – the ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling. Subjective ratings were also gathered from parents and teachers and follow-up assessments were conducted up to a year later.

At the early assessments, all children showed some improvement. The most significant change was in the number of facial expressions recognised, a key communication skill. Nine children improved on this. Six children improved on their level of social interaction. The majority of these changes were also seen at the follow-up assessments.

The project’s lead psychologist, David Wilkinson, PhD, at the University of Kent, told New Scientist, ”It’s an opportunity for children to create their own narratives in an unconstrained, unfamiliar environment.” He continued, “They find this empowering, and we know from the psychology literature that individuals who are empowered enjoy increased attention skills and an improved sense of well-being.”

Previously: Making museums more inviting for autistic children and their familiesStanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autismDirector of Stanford Autism Center responds to your questions on research and treatment and A mother’s story on what she learned from her autistic son

Behavioral Science, Ethics, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News

Breaking down happiness into measurable goals

Breaking down happiness into measurable goals

sunflowersSo you want to be happy. Can you be more specific? A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that concrete, rather than abstract, goals for happiness tend to be more successful. Jennifer Aaker, PhD, Stanford social psychologist and marketing professor, and colleagues performed six field and laboratory experiments and found that participants who performed specific acts of kindness – such as recycling or making someone smile – reported greater happiness than participants whose prosocial goals were less precise – such as helping the environment or people more broadly.

From a Stanford News article:

The reason is that when you pursue concretely framed goals, your expectations of success are more likely to be met in reality. On the other hand, broad and abstract goals may bring about happiness’ dark side – unrealistic expectations.

Acting directly and specifically in service to others brings greater happiness to the giver, the study found. The piece continues:

For example, an experiment involving bone marrow transplants focused on the whether giving those who need bone marrow transplants “greater hope” – the abstract goal – or giving those who need bone marrow transplants a “better chance of finding a donor” – the concrete goal – made a giver more happy.

The answer: Helping someone find a donor resulted in more happiness for the giver. This, the researchers wrote, was driven by givers’ perceptions that their actual acts better met their expectations of accomplishing their goal of helping another person.

Previously: Study shows happiness and meaning in life may be different goalsAre you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeing and Stanford faculty and students launch social media campaign to expand bone marrow donor registry
Photo by Iryna Yeroshko

Aging, Genetics, Men's Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer’s risk for women but not for men

Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer's risk for women but not for men

brain cactus - smallSince the early 1990s, when Duke University neurologist Allen Roses, MD, first broke the news, it’s been known that a person carrying the gene variant known as ApoE4 is at elevated risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. To this day ApoE4 is the strongest known single genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s, a progressive neurological syndrome that robs its victims of their memory and reasoning ability.

But only now is it looking certain that the increased Alzheimer’s risk ApoE4 confers is largely restricted to women. Men’s fates don’t seem to be altered nearly as much by the genetic bad penny that is ApoE4, according to a new Annals of Neurology study led by Mike Greicius, MD, medical director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders.

Accessing two huge publicly available national databases, Greicius and his colleagues were able to amass medical records for some 8,000 people and show that initially healthy ApoE4-positive women were twice as likely to contract Alzheimer’s as their ApoE4-negative counterparts, while ApoE4-positive men’s risk for the syndrome was barely higher than that for ApoE-negative men.

What the heck is ApoE4 for, anyway? In my release on the new study, I wrote:

The ApoE gene is a recipe for a protein important for shuttling fatty substances throughout the body. This is particularly important in the central nervous system, as brain function depends on rapid rearrangement of such fatty substances along and among nerve cell membranes. The ApoE gene comes in three varieties — ApoE2, ApoE3 and ApoE4 — depending on inherited variations in the gene’s sequence. As a result, the protein that the gene specifies also comes in three versions, whose structures and fatty-substance-shuttling performance differ. Most people carry two copies of the ApoE3 gene variant (one from each parent). But about one in five people carries at least one copy of ApoE4, and a small percentage have two ApoE4 copies. Numerous studies … have confirmed that ApoE4 is a key risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, with a single copy of ApoE4 increasing that risk twofold or fourfold. Carrying two copies confers 10 times the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Early hints in the medical literature that the ApoE4 variant exerted differential effects on women’s versus men’s brains were largely ignored until now, says Greicius. He says that’s because most of the seminal ApoE4/Alzheimer’s genetics research was conducted as case-control studies: The ApoE4 gene version’s frequency in people with Alzheimer’s was compared to its frequency in people without the disease. (About half of those with Alzheimer’s, but only about 15 percent without it, are positive for ApoE4.)

But that method has limitations, says Greicius: “About 10-15 percent of ‘normal’ 70-year-olds will develop Alzheimer’s if you wait five or ten years.” Their lurking in the “normal” group dilutes the results. Moreover, Greicius says,“these kinds of genetic studies are looking for needles in a haystack, so they require large numbers of subjects – thousands – to achieve statistical significance. If you want to further examine male/female differences, you have to double the sample size.” That’s costly.

And that’s how come the large government- and industry-supported repositories to which Greicius and his team resorted are such a great idea.

Previously: Estradiol – but not Premarin – prevents neurodegeneration in women at heightened dementia risk, Common genetic Alzheimer’s risk factor disrupts healthy older women’s brain function, but not men’s, Hormone therapy halts accelerated biological aging seen in women with Alzheimer’s genetic risk factor and A one-minute mind-reading machine? Brain-scan results distinguish mental states
Photo by Sean Michael Ragan

Cancer, Genetics, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Gene panel screens for dozens of cancer-associated mutations, say Stanford researchers

Gene panel screens for dozens of cancer-associated mutations, say Stanford researchers

Stanford scientists have shown that it’s possible to simultaneously screen for dozens of cancer-associated mutations from a single blood sample using a multiple-gene panel. The research is published today in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (subscription required).

As I describe in my release:

Gene panels allow researchers to learn the sequences of several genes simultaneously from a single blood sample. It stands to reason that screening for mutations in just a few select genes is quicker, easier and cheaper than whole-genome sequencing. The technique usually focuses on fewer than 100 of the approximately 21,000 human genes. But until now, few studies have investigated whether homing in on a pre-determined panel of suspects can actually help people.

The researchers, medical oncologists and geneticists James Ford, MD and Allison Kurian, MD, used a customized 42-gene panel to investigate the presence of cancer-associated mutations in 198 women with a family or personal history of breast or other cancers. The women had been referred to Stanford’s Clinical Cancer Genetics Program between 2002 and 2012 to undergo screening for mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. They found that the panel was  a useful way to quickly screen and identify other cancer-associated mutations in women who did not have a BRCA1/2 mutation. From our release:

Of the 198 women, 57 carried BRCA1/2 mutations. Ford and Kurian found that 14 of the 141 women without a BRCA1/2 mutation had clinically actionable mutations in one of the 42 genes assessed by the panel. (An actionable mutation is a genetic variation correlated strongly enough to an increase in risk that clinicians would recommend a change in routine care — such as increased screening — for carriers.)

Eleven of the 14 women were reachable by telephone, and 10 accepted a follow-up appointment with a genetic counselor and an oncologist to discuss the new findings. The family members of one woman, who had died since giving her blood sample, also accepted counseling. Six participants were advised to schedule annual breast MRIs, and six were advised to have regular screens for gastrointestinal cancers; many patients received more than one new recommendation.

One woman, with a history of both breast and endometrial cancer, learned she had a mutation that causes Lynch syndrome, a condition that increases the risk of many types of cancers. As a result, she had her ovaries removed and underwent a colonoscopy, which identified an early precancerous polyp for removal.

The study shows that gene panels can be a useful tool that can change clinical recommendations for individual patients. It also indicates that patients are willing and eager to receive such information. As Ford explains in the release:

Gene panels offer a middle ground between sequencing just a single gene like BRCA1 that we are certain is involved in disease risk, and sequencing every gene in the genome. It’s a focused approach that should allow us to capture the most relevant information.

Previously: Whole genome sequencing: the known knowns and the unknown unknowns,  Assessing the challenges and opportunities when bringing whole-genome sequencing to the bedside and Blood will tell: In Stanford study tiny bits of circulating tumor DNA betray hidden cancers.

Global Health, Pediatrics, Public Safety, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls

Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls

Adolescent girls in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, are frequent targets of sexual harassment and assault: Nearly one in five of them is raped each year. When these crimes are perpetrated against Nairobi’s teen girls, they’re often expected to react with shame and silence.

But a small non-governmental organization, No Means No Worldwide, has a strategy to change that. The co-founders, Jake Sinclair, MD, and Lee Paiva, an American husband-and-wife team, developed a curriculum of empowerment training to teach girls that it’s OK to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances. The training also gives girls specific verbal and physical skills to defend themselves, as well as information about where to go for help after a rape or other sexual assault.

The results are impressive. Stanford researchers who work with Sinclair and Paiva report today in Pediatrics that the empowerment training cut annual rates of rape by more than a third. Among the group of 1,978 girls trained during the study, more than half used their new knowledge to fend off attempted rape, and 65 percent stopped instances of harassment, halting hundreds of incidents.

From our press release about the research:

“Clearly, girls should never be placed in these situations in the first place,” said Clea Sarnquist, DrPH, the study’s lead author and a senior research scholar in pediatrics at Stanford. Changing males’ attitudes and behavior about assault is an important area for the team’s current and future work, she said. “But with such a high prevalence of rape, these girls need something to protect them now. By giving them the tools to speak up and the knowledge that ‘I have domain over my own body,’ we’re giving them the opportunity to protect themselves.”

The video above, one of a series of testimonials that No Means No Worldwide has collected from Nairobi girls, shows the power of that sense of domain over one’s body. In the video, a schoolgirl named Catherine tells how she stopped a male student from harassing her. When the video begins, it’s impossible not to notice how young and vulnerable she seems. But then she recounts how, when this boy followed her and demanded sex, she remembered her self-defense classes.

“I stood and maintained eye contact,” she says in the video. “I warned him that day and told him he should never in his life dare follow me.”

As she says the words, her demeanor transforms: She draws herself up straight, looks directly in the camera, and raises her index finger in a gesture of commanding attention.

Maryanne Wangui, a young Kenyan woman who recorded many of the testimonials, said something to me that resonates with Catherine’s account and sticks in my mind: “If you give girls the right skills, they know what to do. It doesn’t matter the age of the girl or the size of the girl; they’re all powerful inside.”

Previously: Self-defense training reduces rapes in Kenya
Video courtesy of No Means No Worldwide

Research, Science, Stanford News

Getting a glimpse of the shape molecules actually take in the cell

Getting a glimpse of the shape molecules actually take in the cell

Working at a medical school, every day I talk to scientists who are discovering ever more intricately detailed information about our bodies and our cells. With these daily amazements about what we do know, it’s always good to be reminded of how much is still unknown.

Case in point, I recently talked with Xuesong Shi, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of biochemist Dan Herschlag, PhD. He has been trying to understand the many configurations and structures molecules and complexes of molecules take on. This may seem a bit abstract, but what the molecules look like – how many different shapes they fold into and how they interact with each other – can provide information that explains both how molecules behave normally, and also why they fail to work properly in some diseases.

For a long time now most of the information we have about the shape and structure of molecules came from turning those molecules into crystals of rigidly packed, identical structures. That’s a technique called X-ray crystallography, which people at Stanford carry out using the powerful X-ray beams at SLAC.

Herschlag points out that X-ray crystallography has been extremely valuable for helping scientists understand the molecules that make up our cells. But the crystals don’t necessarily give the whole picture. For example, molecules are thought to take on many different shapes when forming complexes, not just the single shaped found in a crystal. “The idea is that molecules have many forms in solution,” Shi said. Some molecules also don’t form crystals well.

Shi has been tackling this problem using an X-ray interferometry technique developed in the lab of biochemist Pehr Harbury, PhD, who collaborated with Herschlag and Shi on the work. It involves attaching tiny gold particles to known locations on molecules – in this case a snippet of DNA. Then, by using X-rays to look at where the gold particles are in relation to each other, scientists can piece together the myriad shapes the molecules take on when freed from a crystal lattice.

Shi was first author on a paper published online March 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describing this technique. He told me that although that paper investigated the structure of DNA, he hopes to use the technique to better understand a variety of molecules where knowing the myriad shapes the molecule takes on is essential for understanding its function.

Humor, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Looking at how a child’s sense of humor takes its shape

Looking at how a child's sense of humor takes its shape

girl2Where does a child’s sense of humor come from? That depends on how you define humor and where you look to find it. A recent blog post from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society reports:

Humor can be a very complex and hard concept for some kids to grasp, said [Jessica Black, PhD,] of the Graduate School of Social Work Boston College, speaking yesterday about her poster on this new work at the CNS meeting in Boston. It requires people to both detect and resolve incongruities and to find amusement – involving many regions of the brain, including those that process cognitive computations and those that process emotions.

Black and others, including Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s director, and Pascal Vrticka, PhD, both of Stanford, studied how different brain regions were activated as children watched a video with funny, positive or neutral content. Twenty-two children ages 6 to 13 were asked to rate their ability to create and appreciate humor. Then, researchers examined their brain activity using fMRI scans.

The CNS blog post continues:

In general, the researchers found greater brain activity in children who rated themselves low on the sense of humor scale. The systems related to detecting incongruities and those involved in language and working memory had to ramp up to process the funny videos, as did the arousal network that is usually more active when processing negative emotional information. Interestingly, the brain activity related to social processing was lower in these children, suggesting perhaps more difficulty in being able to think about the mental state of others.

Their results suggest that children with a low sense of humor may require more cognitive effort to process humor, Black said. The data also imply that children with a low sense of humor may experience stress and increased levels of arousal during social interactions involving humor.

Previously: A closer look at the way our brains process humorHumor as a mate selection strategy for women? and Making kids laugh for science: Study shows how humor activates children’s brains
Photo by Maria del Carmen Gomez

Autism, Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Videos

Building a blueprint of the developing human brain

Building a blueprint of the developing human brain

In an effort to identify and better understand how genes turned on or off before birth influence early brain development, scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science have created a comprehensive three-dimensional map that illustrates the activity of some 20,000 genes in 300 brain regions during mid-prenatal development.

A post on the NIH Director’s blog discusses the significance of the project, known as the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain:

While this is just the first installment of what will be an atlas of gene activity covering the entire course of human brain development, this rich trove of data is already transforming the way we think about neurodevelopmental disorders.

To test the powers of the new atlas, researchers decided to use the database to explore the activity of 319 genes, previously linked to autism, during the mid-prenatal period. They discovered that many of these genes were switched on in the developing neocortex—a part of the brain that is responsible for complex behaviors and that is known to be disrupted in children with autism. Specifically, these genes were activated in newly formed excitatory neurons, which are nerve cells that send information from one part of the brain to another. The finding provides more evidence that the first seeds for autism are planted at the time when the cortex is in the midst of forming its six-layered architecture and circuitry.

In the above video, Ed Lein, PhD, an Allen Institute investigator, talks about the atlas and explains how it will allow researchers to examine genes that have been associated with a range of neurodevelopmental disorders and pinpoint when and where that gene is being used.

Previously: NIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative, Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiatives and Co-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience institute

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

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