. Scientific Frontline

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

How new motion-sensing technology may help standardize back-pain care

William S. Marras Professor Neurological Surgery, Orthopedics, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
 Credit/Source: Ohio State University

Digital health systems can tell clinicians when someone’s heart-disease risk calls for a drug to lower cholesterol or whether insulin shots are warranted for a person with type 2 diabetes.

But for millions of low-back pain sufferers, care decisions rely heavily on subjective measures of patient discomfort – often leading to expensive tests and treatments (back pain is the third-highest U.S. health care expenditure, after diabetes and heart disease) that don’t necessarily offer a permanent solution.

Ohio State University engineering and medical researchers are developing a digital health system approach designed to enhance back-pain clinical decision-making. After completing a series of studies testing precise, objective measurements they’ve perfected in the lab, the team aims to apply the data-driven practices to the assessment and repair of back problems brought on by dysfunction in the spine.

In a recent study published in Clinical Biomechanics, researchers combined self-reported pain and disability measures with data from a wearable motion-sensing system to evaluate low-back function in lumbar fusion surgery patients. While post-operative pain relief and lower disability were self-reported within six weeks, the objective metrics didn’t detect actual functional improvement in the spine for at least six months after surgery.

Researchers complete first comprehensive threat assessment of all U.S. trees

 Saplings of Endangered Q. Oglethorpensis at The Morton Arboretum
Credit: The Morton Arboretum

For the first time, researchers have completed threat assessments for all 881 native tree species in the contiguous United States, resulting in a comprehensive checklist and synthesis that will serve as a critical baseline to guide future tree conservation efforts.

The new assessment of U.S. trees reveals that 11-16% of tree species in the contiguous 48 U.S. states are threatened with extinction, with the most common threat being invasive and problematic pests and diseases. According to Abby Meyer, executive director of Botanic Gardens Conservation International-U.S. (BGCI-US), a partner on the project, “These results lay the groundwork for U.S. tree and ecosystem conservation efforts that will contribute to achieving critical international conservation goals, including the United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration and the Global Tree Assessment.”

Murphy Westwood, Ph.D., vice president of science and conservation at The Morton Arboretum and senior author of the report, noted that much of the world’s biodiversity depends on trees, which offer food and habitat for countless plant, animal and fungal species while providing invaluable benefits to humans. “Understanding the current state of trees within the U.S. is imperative to protecting those species, their habitats and the countless communities they support,” she said.

Faster Fish Tracking Through the Cloud

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed a receiver that can transmit near-real-time information on fish tracking to inform decisions about dam operations that support fish passage. 
 Credit: Composite photo by Cortland Johnson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The fastest way to track a fish is to use the cloud, figuratively speaking. A new acoustic receiver developed by researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and published in the journal IEEE Internet of Things, sends near-real-time fish tracking data to the digital cloud, providing timely information to dam operators and decision-makers about when, where, and how many fish are expected to pass through dams. Instead of relying on seasonal estimates of fish migration from previous years, these data from tagged fish support more informed decisions about dam operations that affect fish passage.

“This receiver provides up-to-the-hour data to dam operators to assist in making informed day-to-day decisions in support of fish passage, like adjusting water flow when it’s clear that a large group of juvenile fish are approaching the dam,” said Jayson Martinez, a PNNL mechanical engineer who co-developed the receiver.

Hydropower dams are an important source of dependable renewable energy, generating about six percent of total electricity in the United States. Helping fish navigate them safely is a key part of reducing dams’ environmental impact. The new receiver is a critical piece of the puzzle in the ongoing endeavor to improve fish passage.

Unearthing the secrets of plant health, carbon storage with rhizosphere-on-a-chip

Scientists at ORNL have created a rhizosphere-on-a-chip research platform, a miniaturized environment to study the ecosystem around poplar tree roots for insights into plant health and soil carbon sequestration.
Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have created a miniaturized environment to study the ecosystem around poplar tree roots for insights into plant health and soil carbon sequestration.

The rhizosphere-on-a-chip platform builds on the lab’s history of constructing lab-on-a-chip devices, in which tiny channels and chambers are etched on a microscope slide so that fluids can be introduced and studied for biochemical separations research and testing.

In this case scientists are mimicking soil on the chip, sprouting poplar trees in the fluid and studying the environment around their roots, known as the rhizosphere. Scientists observe how microbes interact with chemicals within the artificial soil to influence plant health and gain a better understanding of the processes governing carbon storage.

The rhizosphere is one of the most complex systems in the world, in which plant roots take up water and nutrients, create a unique physical and biogeochemical environment for microbes, and emit atmospheric carbon into the soil. There may be hundreds of different bacteria that are growing near plant roots or are influenced by the rhizosphere. ORNL researchers are particularly interested in how microbes like bacteria and fungi interact with plant roots to help plants grow faster and survive threats like drought, wildfire, disease and pests.

Reduce alcohol consumption by exercising

Photo Credit: KoolShooters
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet present new findings on reduced alcohol consumption through exercise. The three related publications, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, present results from the randomized controlled trial, FitForChange.

Alcohol consumption is the seventh leading risk factor for both deaths and functionally adjusted years of life globally - this new study can help improve global public health by broadening the range of effective non-stigmatizing treatments available to people with alcohol abuse.

Common barriers to seeking help

Most people with alcohol abuse never seek or receive treatment despite negative consequences for both mental and physical health. According to the researchers, perceived stigma and dissatisfaction with available treatments are common barriers to seeking help. Therefore, more effective and non-stigmatizing treatments for alcohol abuse are needed.

Current treatments include psychological therapies and medication. These are effective, but relapse rates remain high, and these treatments do not directly address the somatic health problems commonly seen in those with AUD. To address this, we invested the effects on alcohol consumption of aerobic exercise - which is recommended for general health - and yoga, an increasingly popular form of exercise which may be suitable for people with AUD, says Mats Hallgren, Project Manager, Department of Global Public Health.

No Fib: NIST Unmasks a Superfast Process for Nanoscale Machining

NIST researchers have demonstrated that a focused ion beam (FIB) can fabricate microscopic devices with fine resolution and without sacrificing high speed. Left: The conventional FIB process requires a narrow, low-current ion beam to fabricate a miniature version of a lighthouse lens in silica glass with fine resolution. Because the beam has a low current of ions, the method is time consuming. Right: Placing a protective layer of chromium oxide over the silica glass enables machinists to use a much higher-current ion beam, allowing them to fabricate the same lenses 75 times faster. 
Credit: Andrew C. Madison, Samuel M. Stavis/NIST

Cutting intricate patterns as small as several billionths of a meter deep and wide, the focused ion beam (FIB) is an essential tool for deconstructing and imaging tiny industrial parts to ensure they were fabricated correctly. When a beam of ions, typically of the heavy metal gallium, bombards the material to be machined, the ions eject atoms from the surface—a process known as milling—to sculpt the workpiece.

Beyond its traditional uses in the semiconductor industry, the FIB has also become a critical tool for fabricating prototypes of complex three-dimensional devices, ranging from lenses that focus light to conduits that channel fluid. Researchers also use the FIB to dissect biological and material samples to image their internal structure.

Machine learning algorithm predicts how to get the most out of electric vehicle batteries

Credit: (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay 

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, say their algorithm could help drivers, manufacturers and businesses get the most out of the batteries that power electric vehicles by suggesting routes and driving patterns that minimize battery degradation and charging times.

The team developed a non-invasive way to probe batteries and get a holistic view of battery health. These results were then fed into a machine learning algorithm that can predict how different driving patterns will affect the future health of the battery.

"This method could unlock value in so many parts of the supply chain, whether you’re a manufacturer, an end user, or a recycler, because it allows us to capture the health of the battery beyond a single number"
Alpha Lee

If developed commercially, the algorithm could be used to recommend routes that get drivers from point to point in the shortest time without degrading the battery, for example, or recommend the fastest way to charge the battery without causing it to degrade. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

The health of a battery, whether it’s in a smartphone or a car, is far more complex than a single number on a screen. “Battery health, like human health, is a multi-dimensional thing, and it can degrade in lots of different ways,” said first author Penelope Jones, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “Most methods of monitoring battery health assume that a battery is always used in the same way. But that’s not how we use batteries in real life. If I’m streaming a TV show on my phone, it’s going to run down the battery a whole lot faster than if I’m using it for messaging. It’s the same with electric cars – how you drive will affect how the battery degrades.”

Revealed missing step in lipid formation could enable detection of past climate

A team from Penn State and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has determined the missing step in the formation of a molecule called GDGT, which is a promising candidate for use as an indicator of past climate. The team determined the X-ray crystal structure of an enzyme that facilitates this process called GDGT/MAS—shown here bound to additional cofactors.
Credit: Booker Lab | Pennsylvania State University

The missing step in the formation of a lipid molecule that allows certain single-celled organisms to survive the most extreme environments on Earth has now been deciphered. This new understanding, uncovered by a team of biochemists from Penn State and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, could improve the ability of the lipids to be used as an indicator of temperature across geological time.

The lipid, called glycerol dibiphytanyl glycerol tetraether (GDGT), is found in the cell membrane of some species of archaea, single-celled organisms that were originally thought to be bacteria but now are considered a separate group. This lipid provides the stability for some species to thrive in environments with extremely high temperatures, salinity or acidity, like thermal vents in the ocean, hot springs and hypersaline waters. The unique stability of GDGT also allows it to be detected hundreds or even thousands of years after the organism dies. Because these organisms tend to produce more GDGT at higher temperatures, it is considered a promising candidate for estimating temperature over geologic time.

“For GDGT to be accurately used as a proxy to reconstruct changes in geological temperatures, scientists need to better understand how it is made, what genes code for it, and which species can create it,” said Squire Booker, a biochemist at Penn State, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and leader of the research team. “But, until now, there has been a missing step in the formation of this lipid. We used imaging techniques coupled with chemical and biochemical methods to deconstruct the chemical pathway for this missing step.”

COVID-19 pandemic fallout worse for women

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, Lead author
Credit: University of Queensland

Researchers from The University of Queensland have found the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia has had a greater financial and psychological impact on women than men.

A study conducted by the UQ Business School shows women have experienced more significant impacts on their overall employment, hours of work, domestic labor and mental health and wellbeing.

Lead researcher Dr Terry Fitzsimmons said one reason was the over-representation of women in industries most affected by lockdowns.

“Women are also more likely to be casual, part-time or contract workers which were among the first to lose their jobs as businesses struggled in response to lockdown,” Dr Fitzsimmons said.

Additionally, the study found women were less likely to be considered ‘essential workers’, so bore a greater share of caring responsibilities including home schooling, when schools and child care centers closed.

“Women either reduced their work hours or stopped working altogether and took on more domestic labor than their male counterparts while at home with their children,” Dr Fitzsimmons said.

Researchers develop the first AI-based method for dating archaeological remains

Credit: Unsplash

By analyzing DNA with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), an international research team led by Lund University in Sweden has developed a method that can accurately date up to ten-thousand-year-old human remains.

Accurately dating ancient humans is key when mapping how people migrated during world history.

The standard dating method since the 1950s has been radiocarbon dating. The method, which is based on the ratio between two different carbon isotopes, has revolutionized archaeology. However, technology is not always completely reliable in terms of accuracy, making it complicated to map ancient people, how they moved and how they are related.

In a new study published in Cell Reports Methods, a research team has developed a dating method that could be of great interest to archaeologists and paleognomicists.

“Unreliable dating is a major problem, resulting in vague and contradictory results. Our method uses artificial intelligence to date genomes via their DNA with great accuracy, says Eran Elhaik, researcher in molecular cell biology at Lund University.

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