Transcranial stimulation to prevent fear memories from returning

A research group from the University of Bologna has succeeded in modifying the negative effect of a returning memory that triggers fear, and developed a new non-invasive experimental protocol. The result of this study, published in the journal Current Biology, is an innovative protocol that combines fear conditioning—a stimulus associated with something unpleasant that induces a negative memory—and the neurostimulation of a specific site of the prefrontal cortex.

This process alters the perception of an unpleasant (aversive) event so that it will no longer induce fear. “This experimental protocol combining transcranial stimulation and memory reconsolidation allowed us to modify an aversive memory that the participants had learned the day before,” explains Sara Borgomaneri, a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study. “This result has relevant repercussions for understanding how memory works. It might even lead to the development of new therapies to deal with traumatic memories.”

Can memories be altered?

The primary focus of the research group is the process of reconsolidation. This process maintains, strengthens and alters those events that are already stored in long-term memory. “Every time an event is recalled in our memory, there is a limited period of time in which it can be altered,” explains Simone Battaglia, researcher and co-author of this study. “The protocol we developed exploits this short time window and can, therefore, interfere with the reconsolidation process of learned aversive memories.”

Researchers used TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) to “erase” the fear induced by a negative memory. With an electromagnetic coil placed on the head of the participant, TMS creates magnetic fields that can alter the neural activity of specific brain areas. TMS is a non-invasive procedure that does not require surgery or any action on the participant and for this reason, is widespread in research as well as in clinic and rehabilitation programs.

“With TMS, we could alter the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which proved to be fundamental in the reconsolidation process of aversive memories,” says Sara Borgomaneri. “Thanks to this procedure, we obtained results that, until now, were only possible by delivering drugs to patients.”

The trial

The research group developed this protocol through a trial involving 98 healthy people. Every participant had learned an aversive memory and the next day underwent a TMS session over the prefrontal cortex.

“First, we created the aversive memory by combining an unpleasant stimulation with some images,” explains Borgomaneri. “The day after, we presented a group of participants with the same stimulus, which, in their memory, was recorded as aversive. Using TMS immediately afterwards, we interfered with their prefrontal cortex activity.”

To test the effectiveness of the protocol, other groups of participants underwent TMS without their aversive memory to be recalled (no reconsolidation was triggered), and some other groups were stimulated with TMS in control brain areas, not involved in memory reconsolidation.

At that point, the only thing left to do for researchers was to evaluate the effectiveness of TMS. They waited for another day and once again tested how the participants reacted when the aversive memory was recalled. And they obtained encouraging results. Participants who had their prefrontal cortex activity inhibited by TMS showed a reduced psychophysiological response to the unpleasant stimulus. They remembered the event (explicit memory) but its negative effect was substantially reduced.

“This trial showed that it is feasible to alter the persistence of potentially traumatic memories. This may have crucial repercussions in the fields of rehabilitation and clinical medicine,” says Professor Giuseppe di Pellegrino, who coordinated the study. “We’re dealing with a new technique that can be employed in different contexts and can assume a variety of functions, starting from treating PTSD, which will be the focus of our next study.”

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In nation’s 2 largest metros, Blacks and Latinos are more likely to die from COVID-19

A study published today by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative found that Latino and Black residents of Los Angeles County and New York City are roughly twice as likely as white residents to die from COVID-19. The research also revealed that high-poverty neighborhoods in both regions have the highest rates of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19–related deaths.

Sonja Diaz, founding director of the policy initiative, said two significant reasons for those trends are that low-income Black and Latino people in both regions tend to have a greater need to work outside of the home and a greater reliance on public transportation, both of which put them at a greater risk for exposure to the coronavirus.

“We are now seven months into the pandemic, and we are starting to have clear information about the disproportionate health and economic impacts that communities of color are facing,” Diaz said. “It’s time to address the specific ways that COVID-19 hurts Latino and Black families and to protect our most vulnerable communities as the virus surges across the nation.”

In Los Angeles County, the age-adjusted death rate was 54 per 100,000 for Latino residents and 46 per 100,000 for Black residents, compared to 23 per 100,000 for white residents; in New York City, the age-adjusted death rates were 247 per 100,000 for Latino residents, 237 per 100,000 for Black residents and 120 per 100,000 for white residents.

The authors recommend that six measures be implemented immediately in cities with large populations of vulnerable communities:

  • Increase testing for low-income communities of color.
  • Provide access to health services and healthy food in low-income communities.
  • Add protections on public transportation, including providing hand sanitizing stations and free masks.
  • Expand access to health care and paid sick leave for essential workers.
  • Increase access to telehealth for low-income residents and the uninsured to bridge the lack of medical care.
  • Ensure that accurate race and ethnicity information is being collected so that elected officials and public health experts can understand the impact of COVID-19 in communities of color.

The researchers analyzed data from Los Angeles County and New York City, two areas that have been hard-hit during the pandemic and are home to large Latino and Black populations. They found that residents who didn’t have health insurance, lived in overcrowded housing conditions and had limited access to the Internet will encounter inequitable access to health care during the pandemic.

In addition, the authors found that people between the ages of 18 and 40 have the highest rate of infection in Los Angeles County; in New York, people over age 45 are most affected. Men in both regions have higher rates of infection than women.

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Why people of color are suffering more from COVID-19

The statistics are shocking. As of mid-June, Black Americans have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 at a rate about five times that of white Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Other people of color have experienced much higher hospitalization and death rates than whites as well.

A recent report indicated that if people of color had experienced the same mortality rate as whites, as of late May, more than 14,000 Black Americans would still be alive, along with 1,200 Latino Americans and 400 indigenous Americans.

Tufts experts in public health and community health said they are not surprised by these numbers. “Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already in a public health crisis,” said Adolfo Cuevas, an assistant professor of community health in the School of Arts and Sciences. “More than half of Black individuals have a chronic health condition” such as diabetes or high blood pressure, he said, which predisposes people to suffer from the COVID-19 virus. “The racial difference is striking already.”

Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, an associate professor of public health at the School of Medicine, said, “I think the mortality and morbidity that we’re seeing in COVID-19 is directly related to decades of systemic racism and the impact of racism on communities of color. Racism plays out in the rationing of equipment for people who are testing positive for COVID and even in back room decisions about who is eligible to get tests.”

A number of factors contribute to the health disparities highlighted by COVID-19. Black Americans are more likely to be essential workers, who must work and interact with other people—delivery drivers, grocery store employees, transit workers. They also are disproportionately low-wage workers, unable to afford to not work, said Amutah-Onukagha.

“They don’t have the luxury of working from home and shifting their livelihood to a virtual environment,” she said. “They are still going to have to deal with people face to face.”

Blacks also shoulder a higher burden of chronic disease, with up to 40 percent higher rates of high blood pressure and up to 60 percent higher rates of diabetes than white Americans, she said. Both conditions are increase risk for serious illness from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Cuevas, whose research focuses on obesity, noted that about 40 percent of individuals nationally has the condition, a risk factor for increasing complications from the coronavirus. But about half of Black Americans have obesity compared to about 40 percent of whites. “So, the racial difference was already alarming,” he said. “What COVID-19 basically has done is exacerbate these racial disparities even more.”

Stress is a risk factor, too. “We know that when you put people in racially charged situations, their blood pressure goes up and their cortisol levels goes up,” said Amutah-Onukagha, who has done research on maternal health among women of color. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, and heightened levels of it increase the frequency of preterm birth, low birth weight, and infants and mothers dying, she said.

The body’s physiologic response to stress “is really having an impact front and center for African Americans,” said Amutah-Onukagha.

Cuevas, who trained as a psychologist, agreed that stress has a physical and emotional effect. “Racial and ethnic minorities report experiencing a wide range of stressors day-to-day—financial strain, relationship problems, discrimination,” he said. “That accumulates over time to adversely affect both the mental and physical health of the individual.”

Add that to the lack of access to health care and to healthy foods and vegetables—and living in communities that are high in environmental toxins and pollutants—”it becomes a really bad soup that contributes to high rates of all these diseases,” he said.

Living conditions matter, too. “Black and brown populations, who have already been suffering from chronic conditions, live in areas that do not facilitate social distancing,” said Cuevas. That in turn causes the virus to spread at a quicker rate and suffer disproportionately from the virus.

Many of the current living conditions arose out of discriminatory policies from the past, Cuevas said. He pointed to government-supported neighborhood redlining from the 1930s to the 1960s—a practice that kept Black communities from building wealth

“Even after the 1960s laws prohibiting redlining, the effects of these practices persist,” he said. “The systematic denial of services limited people’s opportunities to get decent jobs and education, which some scholars suggest led to an overrepresentation of Black people in poverty and working menial labor jobs, which are two factors preventing many from staying at home.”

Likewise, it’s more difficult for people to practice social distancing in these neighborhoods, because residents tend to live in small apartments and with a sizable number of other individuals, he said. “Once you place more of the historical perspective into it, all of these health disparities make a lot more sense.”

Overcoming all these systemic deficits, which lead to health disparities that are especially vivid with the COVID-19 pandemic, is vital—and difficult, Amutah-Onukagha and Cuevas said.

“There is an opportunity here for community health scientists and elected officials to really change the social and public health landscape of the United States,” Cuevas said. “There needs to be real radical change to actualize equal opportunity for all. As community health scientists and elected officials, we must continue to highlight and address the social determinants of health disparities. As citizens, we must engage in local civic and political action to achieve equity near us.”

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HBO is Removing All Guns from 'Looney Tunes Cartoons'

Earlier this month, HBO Max rolled out new Looney Tunes Cartoons shorts, a show that hasn’t released any rebooted episodes since 1969. But, a lot has changed in the last 51 years, which is why the series executive producer, Peter Browngardt, decided to omit an iconic visual often seen in the classic show. “We’re not doing guns,” Browngardt told The New York Times

Quintessential characters like Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam won’t be carrying firearms but they’ll still be carrying explosives, scythe, and other violent items — which, by the way, is not necessarily any better. Some people see it that way, but others are upset about the change in Warner Bros.’s classic show. 

“The looney tunes remake with Elmer Fudd not having a gun is ridiculous. The whole premise of the cartoon was him hunting for BB and Daffy with a gun. What is he going to have a camera to take pics with. Chuck Jones must be turning over in his grave along with Mel Blanc,” one commenter wrote, referring to Warner Brothers’ animator and voice actor.

Still, there are fans of the show who are happy their children won’t be subjected to violence on kids’ TV shows. Those same fans would probably agree that toy guns should be banned — there’s even a 2010 study that found toy guns do increase aggressive behaviors. 

So, whether it be toy guns, guns on kids’ TV shows, or even a water gun emoji, it’s worth thinking about the impact it’ll have on kids’ behavior. Some might argue that we’re making progress since the pistol emoji has been removed or that guns have been removed from the new Looney Tunes Cartoons, but we still have ways to go 

In addition to HBO Max, here are the different streaming services you’ll need this year. 

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Individualized mosaics of microbial strains transfer from the maternal to the infant gut

Microbial communities in the intestine—also known as the gut microbiome—are vital for human digestion, metabolism and resistance to colonization by pathogens. The gut microbiome composition in infants and toddlers changes extensively in the first three years of life. But where do those microbes come from in the first place?

Scientists have long been able to analyze the gut microbiome at the level of the 500 to 1,000 different bacterial species that mainly have a beneficial influence; only more recently have they been able to identify individual strains within a single species using powerful genomic tools and supercomputers that analyze massive amounts of genetic data.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham now have used their microbiome “fingerprint” method to report that an individualized mosaic of microbial strains is transmitted to the infant gut microbiome from a mother giving birth through vaginal delivery. They detailed this transmission by analyzing existing metagenomic databases of fecal samples from mother-infant pairs, as well as analyzing mouse dam and pup transmission in a germ-free, or gnotobiotic, mouse model at UAB, where the dams were inoculated with human fecal microbes.

“The results of our analysis demonstrate that multiple strains of maternal microbes—some that are not abundant in the maternal fecal community—can be transmitted during birth to establish a diverse infant gut microbial community,” said Casey Morrow, Ph.D., professor emeritus in UAB’s Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology. “Our analysis provides new insights into the origin of microbial strains in the complex infant microbial community.”

The study used a strain-tracking bioinformatics tool previously developed at UAB, called Window-based Single-nucleotide-variant Similarity, or WSS. Hyunmin Koo, Ph.D., UAB Department of Genetics and Genomics Core, led the informatics analysis. The gnotobiotic mouse model studies were led by Braden McFarland, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology.

Morrow and colleagues have used this microbe fingerprint tool in several previous strain-tracking studies. In 2017, they found that fecal donor microbes—used to treat patients with recurrent Clostridium difficile infections—remained in recipients for months or years after fecal transplants. In 2018, they showed that changes in the upper gastrointestinal tract through obesity surgery led to the emergence of new strains of microbes. In 2019, they analyzed the stability of new strains in individuals after antibiotic treatments, and earlier this year, they found that adult twins, ages 36 to 80 years old, shared a certain strain or strains between each pair for periods of years, and even decades, after they began living apart from each other.

In the current study, several individual-specific patterns of microbial strain-sharing were found between mothers and infants. Three mother-infant pairs showed only related strains, while a dozen other infants of mother-infant pairs contained a mosaic of maternal-related and unrelated microbes. It could be that the unrelated strains came from the mother, but they had not been the dominant strain of that species in the mother, and so had not been detected.

Indeed, in a second study using a dataset from nine women taken at different times in their pregnancies showed that strain variations in individual species occurred in seven of the women.

To further define the source of the unrelated strains, a mouse model was used to look at transmission from dam to pup in the absence of environmental microbes. Five different females were given transplants of different human fecal matter to create five unique humanized-microbiome mice, which were bred with gnotobiotic males. The researchers then analyzed the strains found in the human donors, the mouse dams and their mouse pups. They found four different patterns: 1) The pup’s strain of a particular species was related to the dam’s strain; 2) The pup’s strain was related to both the dam’s strain and the human donor’s strain; 3) The pup’s strain was related to the human donor’s strain, but not to the dam’s strain; and, importantly, 4) No related strains for a particular species were found between the pup, the dam and the human donor. Since these animals were bred and raised in germ-free conditions, the unrelated strains in the pups came from minor, undetected strains in the dams.

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