New anatomical study of the human precuneus with geometric models

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has just published a paper on the morphology of the precuneus in adult humans, which concludes that the variations in its length, height and thickness in the cerebral cortex are independent, suggesting that different cortical areas are involved in its growth, as well as in the differences between individuals that can be observed.

These differences are apparently related to the development of the cortical surface of the brain itself, and not to a deformation of the cranial cavity due to spatial constraints on the cranium. In the paper, this evidence is discussed within the framework of possible anatomical correspondences between human brain areas and the same areas described in other primates, whose functions and similarities still remain to be clarified.

To conduct this analysis, magnetic resonance scans of 50 individuals of both sexes and spatial models of cerebral geometry were used.

More developed in humans

The precuneus is the most medial region of the superior parietal lobules. It is particularly variable in its shape and size among adult individuals, and is much more highly developed in humans than in other primates. “The corresponding areas are also better developed in our species when we compare ourselves with other extinct hominids,” states Bruner.

At the cognitive level, the precuneus is principally involved in integrating the somatic information of the body with visual information, coordinating the body at the physical, chronological and social levels, and generating a virtual space involved in the imagination and the capacity for simulation.

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US hoping for two Covid-19 vaccines by end of November

Two American companies expect to apply for emergency approval for their COVID-19 vaccines by late November, welcome news as the US hits a third surge of its coronavirus epidemic and approaches its eight millionth case.

Pfizer said Friday it hopes to move ahead with its vaccine after safety data is available in the third week of November, a couple of weeks after the November 3 presidential election.

The announcement means the United States could have two vaccines ready by the end of the year, with Massachusetts biotech firm Moderna aiming for November 25 to seek authorization.

“So let me be clear, assuming positive data, Pfizer will apply for Emergency Authorization Use in the US soon after the safety milestone is achieved in the third week of November,” the company’s chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said in an open letter. The news lifted the company’s shares two percent in the US.

But experts warn that even when vaccines are approved, it will take many months until they are widely available.

In any case, they are unlikely to be a good substitute for mask wearing, social distancing and other recommended behavior to curb transmission because we don’t know how effective they will be.

Indoor gatherings in colder weather

After falling numbers throughout the summer, the country hit an inflection point in its coronavirus outbreak around the second week of September—with a new daily case average of more than 50,000 according to the latest figures, and the trajectory is upward.

With a shade under eight million confirmed infections and more than 217,000 deaths, America is the hardest-hit country in the world.

The US never came close to returning to its baseline after its first wave in spring, meaning the current spike can be more accurately termed a third surge.

Geographically, the major hotspots are in the Upper Midwest and parts of the Rocky Mountains in the west, while parts of the Northeast that were hit hard in spring are seeing their outbreaks starting to rekindle.

Harvard surgeon and health policy researcher Thomas Tsai told AFP there were multiple factors behind the rising cases—from under testing in the Midwest to authorities failing to monitor the reopening of bars and restaurants and dialing back when necessary.

What’s more, “from the contact tracing reports from various municipalities and states, the worry is that the spread is driven now, by indoor social gatherings in people’s homes,” he added, as the focus of social life shifts from public to private spaces in the colder weather.

One bright sign is that COVID-19 treatments have improved markedly, and since the cases are more spread out than before, hospitals aren’t being overwhelmed.

Widespread mask use might also mean that when people do get infected, they have less virus in their body which makes them less sick.

‘No magic bullet’

While vaccines are a crucial tool against the virus, experts have warned they can’t be a substitute for behavioral measures like masks and distancing.

“It’s welcome news that there will be one more thing that can help prevent COVID transmission,” said Priya Sampathkumar, an infectious disease doctor and professor at Mayo Clinic.

“But I think we need to be cautious and understand that a vaccine isn’t a magic bullet,” she added.

Pfizer and Moderna, both funded by the US government, launched Phase 3 of their clinical trials at the end of July, and both were producing their doses at the same time.

They aim to deliver tens of millions of doses in the US by the end of the year.

Both are “mRNA vaccines,” an experimental new platform that has never before been fully approved.

They both inject people with the genetic material necessary to grow the “spike protein” of SARS-CoV-2 inside their own cells, thus eliciting an immune response the body will remember when it encounters the real virus.

This effectively turns a person’s own body into a vaccine factory, avoiding the costly and difficult processes that more traditional vaccine production requires.

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New developments for the treatment of muscle spasticity after stroke and nervous system defects

Chronic muscle spasticity after nervous system defects like stroke, traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and painful low back pain affect more than 10% of the population, with a socioeconomic cost of about 500 billion USD. Currently, there is no adequate remedy to help these suffering people, which generates an immense medical need for a new generation antispastic drugs.

András Málnási-Csizmadia, co-founder of Motorpharma Ltd. and professor at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary leads the development of a first-in-class drug candidate co-sponsored by Printnet Ltd. MPH-220 directly targets and inhibits the effector protein of muscle contraction, potentially by taking one pill per day. By contrast, current treatments have low efficacy and cause a wide range of side effects because they act indirectly, through the nervous system.

“We receive desperate emails from stroke survivors, who suffer from the excruciating symptoms of spasticity, asking if they could participate in our research. We work hard to accelerate the development of MPH-220 to alleviate these people’s chronic spasticity,” said Prof. Málnási-Csizmadia.

The mechanism of action of MPH-220 and preclinical studies are recently published in Cell. Dr. Máté Gyimesi, CSO of Motorpharma Ltd. highlighted: “The scientific challenge was to develop a chemical compound which discriminates between skeletal and cardiac muscle myosins, the motor proteins of these contractile systems. This feature of MPH-220 makes it highly specific and safe.”

Prof. James Spudich, co-founder of Cytokinetics, MyoKardia and Kainomyx, all companies developing drugs targeting cytoskeletal components, is also very excited about MPH-220 as a possible next generation muscle relaxant. “Cytokinetics and MyoKardia have shown that cardiac myosin is highly druggable, and both companies have potential drugs acting on cardiac myosin in late phase clinical trials. Skeletal myosin effectors, however, have not been reported. Motorpharma Ltd. has now developed a specific inhibitor of skeletal myosin, MPH-220, a drug candidate that may reduce the everyday painful spasticity for about 10% of the population that suffers from low back pain and neurological injury related diseases,” said Professor Spudich, former chair of Stanford medical school’s Biochemistry department, a Lasker awardee.

Drug development specifically targeting myosins is becoming a distinguished area, as indicated by last week’s acquisition of MyoKardia by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. for 13.1 billion dollars in an all-cash deal, in the hope of marketing their experimental heart drug targeting cardiac myosin. This business activity shows the demand for start-up biotech companies such as Myokardia or Motorpharma.

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Bisexual adults less likely to enjoy health benefits of education

Education has long been linked to health—the more schooling people have, the healthier they are likely to be. But a new study from Rice University sociologists found that the health benefits of a good education are less evident among well-educated bisexual adults.

“Education and health: The joint role of gender and sexual identity” examines health among straight, bisexual, gay and lesbian adults with various educational backgrounds. Authors Zhe Zhang, a postdoctoral research fellow at Rice, Bridget Gorman, a professor of sociology at Rice, and Alexa Solazzo, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, were particularly interested in bisexual adults, since they may experience distinctive health vulnerabilities.

The researchers found that while having at least a bachelor’s degree was linked to better health among bisexual adults, they received less benefit than heterosexual and gay or lesbian adults with similar education. This effect was especially true for bisexual women.

“The health benefits of education are well established—so much so that anything we do to promote and improve public education should really be viewed as health policy,” Gorman said. “It’s that impactful on health and well-being. That our analysis showed less health benefit associated with education among bisexual adults compared to heterosexual, gay and lesbian adults is concerning.”

While the researchers could not pinpoint the exact cause, they theorized the problem might be social stigma and additional anxiety among women due to gender discrimination, Zhang said.

“Discrimination of any kind can take a heavy toll on health,” Zhang said. “While we cannot say with certainty that is what is happening in this study, it’s a very real possibility.”

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Cell-type mapping used to identify cellular substrates that underlie two types of thirst

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology, Nankai University and the University of California, Berkeley, has found that the cellular substrates that underlie two types of thirst could be identified using a certain kind of cell-type mapping. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group outlines their study of thirst and the way it is processed by the brain.

Prior research has shown that our brains process at least two main kinds of thirst: Osmotic and hypovolaemic. Osmotic thirst is what we feel when we need more water. Hypovolaemic thirst is what we feel when we need minerals and water to replenish blood supplies. The researchers note that this can be easily observed—when people are just thirsty, they will be satisfied with a glass of water. But when they have been working out, they need water with added minerals. This is because we lose minerals through sweat. In this new effort, the researchers wanted to learn more about how the brain processes both types of thirst.

Prior research has shown that circumventricular organs located in the lamina terminalis are the parts of the brain that process the two kinds of thirst, but how they do so has not been clear. To find out, the researchers used stimulus-to-cell type mapping which involved the use of single-cell RNA sequencing. The goal was to figure out which of the cellular components were involved with processing thirst types. They then forced test mice to experience either of the two types of thirst. That allowed them to see which cells were responding to which type of thirst. They also used optogenetics, in which the cells were engineered to respond to a light source. Shining a light on the cells then produced one kind of thirst or the other depending on how they had been engineered as evidenced by the water source the mice chose to use—one that was just water, or one that contained minerals, salt and sugar.

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It’s Tough to Change the Minds of ‘Vaccine-Hesitant’ Parents, Study Finds

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 14, 2020 — When parents have concerns about the safety of childhood vaccinations, it can be tough to change their minds, as a new study shows.

The study involved “vaccine-hesitant” parents — a group distinct from the staunch “anti-vaxxer” crowd. They have worries about one or more routine vaccines, and question whether the benefits for their child are worthwhile.

Even though those parents are not “adamantly” opposed to vaccinations, it can still be hard for pediatricians to allay their concerns, said Jason Glanz, lead researcher on the study.

So Glanz and his colleagues looked at whether giving parents more information — online material “tailored” to their specific concerns — might help.

It didn’t. Parents who received the information were no more likely to have their babies up to date on vaccinations than other parents were, the study found.

The news was not all bad. Overall, more than 90% of babies in the study were all caught up on vaccinations.

So it may have been difficult to improve upon those numbers, according to Glanz, who is based at Kaiser Permanente Colorado’s Institute for Health Research in Aurora.

But, he said, it’s also possible the customized information reinforced some parents’ worries.

“It might have done more harm than good,” Glanz said.

That’s because among vaccine-hesitant parents, those who were directed to general information that was not tailored, had the highest vaccination rates — at 88%.

The findings were published online Oct. 12 in Pediatrics.

Childhood vaccination rates in the United States are generally high. But studies show that about 10% of parents either delay or refuse vaccinations for their kids — generally over safety worries.

Routine childhood vaccines have a long history of safe use, Glanz said, but some parents have questions. They may have heard that certain ingredients in vaccines are not safe, or worry that their baby is being given “too many” immunizations in a short time.

And during a busy pediatrician visit, Glanz said, it can be hard to address all those questions.

So his team tested a web-based tactic to augment routine checkups. They randomly assigned 824 pregnant women and new parents to one of three groups: One received standard vaccine information from their pediatrician; another was directed to the study website for additional, but general, information on immunizations; and the third received tailored information from the website.

That tailoring was done with the help of a survey that asked parents about their vaccine beliefs and concerns.

In the end, however, the targeted messaging flopped. It made no difference among parents overall: Across the three groups, between 91% and 93% of babies were up to date on vaccinations at 15 months of age.

And among the 98 parents who were deemed vaccine-hesitant, the tactic seemed to backfire: Only 67% of those babies were up to date compared to 88% of those whose parents received general vaccine information. The rate was 75% in the standard-care group.

Dr. Edgar Marcuse, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, wrote an editorial published with the study.

Like Glanz, he speculated that the targeted content may have “fanned the flames of doubt,” rather than quelling them.

It’s also possible, Marcuse said, that these types of questions are better addressed face-to-face than by “one-way” communication.

The question of how to sway vaccine-hesitant parents is always important, Marcuse said. And it has an added layer now, he noted, as health experts may encounter a wary public if and when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.

That vaccine would be brand-new, with only short-term data to back it up. But for routine childhood vaccinations, Marcuse said, the evidence supporting their effectiveness and safety is “overwhelming.”

Both he and Glanz urged parents to take any vaccine concerns to their doctor, rather than relying on what they find online.

Social media can be an especially powerful source of misinformation, Glanz noted.

“Your pediatrician is the best source of vaccine information — much better than social media,” he said.

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NIH launches trial of antibody drugs against COVID-19

(HealthDay)—A study to assess whether certain approved or experimental drugs are effective against COVID-19 and warrant testing in large clinical trials has been launched by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The research will largely focus on monoclonal antibody medications. These types of drugs garnered headlines last week as President Donald Trump credited one such drug cocktail, made by Regeneron, with helping him recover from his coronavirus infection.

However, the therapy is not yet approved against COVID-19 and is still considered experimental.

“The goal here is to identify as quickly as possible the experimental therapeutics that demonstrate the most clinical promise as COVID-19 treatments and move them into larger-scale testing,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

According to the NIH, the new phase 2 study will enroll adults hospitalized with COVID-19 at as many as 40 U.S sites and is being conducted by NIAID.

The study will assess the approved monoclonal antibody risankizumab in conjunction with the antiviral drug remdesivir, compared to a placebo plus remdesivir. It will also test the experimental monoclonal antibody lenzilumab with remdesivir, compared to placebo and remdesivir.

Remdesivir has shown benefits for patients with severe COVID-19—so severe they needed supplemental oxygen—and is now considered standard of care for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, the NIH said.

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory versions of proteins naturally produced by the immune system in response to invading viruses or other pathogens. Some are already approved for non-COVID uses: Risankizumab received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2019 for the treatment of severe plaque psoriasis.

Lenzilumab is currently being tested separately in a phase 3 COVID-19 study, and in a phase 1b/2 study as sequenced therapy along with CAR-T treatments.

About 100 volunteers will be assigned to each study arm, with each of the study sites testing no more than three treatments at once.

The new study “aims to streamline the pathway to finding urgently needed COVID-19 treatments,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins explained in an NIH news release. That might be accomplished “by repurposing either licensed or late-stage-development medicines and testing them in a way that identifies the most promising agents for larger clinical studies in the most expedient way possible,” he said.

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More humans born with an extra artery as part of ‘microevolution’ phenomenon

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Humans are undergoing a “microevolution” resulting in babies being born without wisdom teeth and with an extra artery in their arm, according to Australian researchers.

The scientists believe humans are evolving faster than at any point in the past 250 years — with more babies coming out with shorter faces, smaller jaws and extra bones in their legs and feet.

The scientists believe humans are evolving faster than at any point in the past 250 years — with more babies coming out with shorter faces, smaller jaws and extra bones in their legs and feet. (iStock)

The stunning findings were part of a study in the Journal of Anatomy.

The extra artery is a median artery that’s first formed in the womb and serves as the main vessel that supplies blood to the forearm and hand, according to Sky News. The median artery vanishes once the radial and ulnal arteries develop, though now one in three people keep it for life.

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There’s no health risk associated with the extraneous body part, which provides increased blood supply to the hand.

“This is ‘micro evolution’ in modern humans,” said the study’s author, Professor Maciej Henneberg. “The median artery is a perfect example of how we are still evolving because people born more recently have a higher prevalence of this artery when compared to humans from previous generations.”

The study said people born 80 years from now will all have a median artery if the trend in microevolution continues, BBC’s Science Focus reported.

Wisdom teeth may be a thing of the past, too. Smaller faces means there’s less room for teeth — though the lack of wisdom teeth can be attributed also to an increased ability to chew food.

“This is happening in time as we have learned to use fire and process foods more,” Dr. Teghan Lucas from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told Science Focus. “A lot of people are just being born without wisdom teeth.”

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To get their findings, researchers tracked the rate of retainment of certain parts of the body and analyzed corpses of people born in the 20th century.

They found that some people were also born with extra bones in their arms and legs or with unusual connections of two or more bones in their feet.

“A lot of people thought humans have stopped evolving. But our study shows we are still evolving — faster than at any point in the past 250 years,” said Lucas.

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People in Soweto told us about their fears in the first weeks of South Africa’s lockdown

South Africa’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak was swift and assertive. The country quickly instituted testing, tracing, and quarantining those affected with COVID-19. But the financial and social effects of quarantine hit people, who were already struggling, especially hard. Racial and economic inequalities were amplified in South Africa, as elsewhere, through the new coronavirus threat.

In March, the government introduced extreme lockdown restrictions barring South Africans from leaving their homes except to buy essential goods and seek medical care. We conducted a study to capture how people were coping during lockdown in Soweto, a large conglomerated urban area southwest of Johannesburg. Psychological assessments were done between April 2019 and March 2020; and again in the first six weeks of the lockdown.

We called 957 adults living in Soweto who had been enrolled in existing studies on the epidemiology of syndemics, or synergistic epidemics. We spoke to them about how they perceived and experienced lockdown and COVID-19. A large majority of our sample were female, middle aged (average age was 43 years old), and shared a room at home. Nearly 91% of adults in our sample reported having at least one underlying health condition or more—a potential risk factor for COVID-19 infection.

We already had some information about them, such as early childhood trauma and current mental and physical health as they are already participants in research we are currently undertaking. We also conducted a brief mental health questionnaire on the phone during lockdown.

Our results show that people who viewed their risk of COVID-19 infection to be higher than others in their community exhibited greater depressive symptoms. Furthermore, people who reported histories of childhood trauma had worse depressive symptoms as a result of their perceived risk of getting COVID-19. These findings confirm existing research that shows that people who face more adversity during childhood may be more vulnerable to the effects of stress and trauma in the future—such as the stressors of the pandemic.

We found a strong relationship between COVID-19 risk perceptions and depressive symptoms. But an overwhelming majority (74%) of respondents didn’t think that their life under lockdown and wider pandemic conditions affected their mental health. This discrepancy potentially highlights the ever-present stigma and lack of awareness around mental health in Soweto and the country at large. Our study reemphasises the importance of prioritizing and providing accessible mental health services for resource-limited communities in Soweto and across South Africa.

Public perceptions

Many people called it a “virus that kills” and suggested they feared the virus in some way. This most likely inspired people to say that they frequently used preventative measures, such as “I wash my hands and stay home” or “wear a mask” or “keep my distance from people.” Many described feeling some anxiety because they are “always thinking about it.” Most worried about those with preexisting conditions, like HIV, diabetes, or heart disease. They considered these community members most at risk.

Social challenges were common. Many had already lost their jobs and worried about putting food on the table. Others worried because “since lockdown, movement is very difficult.”

Residents were scared to leave the house. One participant was scared because a neighbor’s house was bulldozed and his family had nowhere to go.

Few cases of COVID-19 were detected in Soweto during the first month of lockdown, although many people still perceived their risk to be high. Many described deep anxiety and fear over personal well being, and caring for those they love.

We found people perceived their own risk for COVID-19 infection differently relative to others in their community. About 58% of adults thought they were at lower risk of COVID-19 than others, while 29% reported having the same risk, and 14% having more risk. This risk perception was unaffected by personal characteristics such as age, finances, education, or household density. Greater knowledge of how to prevent coronavirus transmission and to keep their families safe was associated with lower perception that they were at risk of infection.

One in three people in South Africa is expected to experience a common mental disorder like anxiety or depression in their lifetimes. During lockdown, most did not think that COVID-19 had affected or could hurt their mental health. Nevertheless, we found a variety of stressors that caused deep worry, anxiety, and rumination (“thinking too much”) in approximately 20% of adults.

We found that those who perceived their risk for COVID-19 to be higher had more depressive symptoms and more severe histories of childhood trauma. This was true regardless of people’s mental health before lockdown, what they knew about COVID-19, how they coped, and their family and financial backgrounds.

But these measures were collected simultaneously. So we don’t know if these adults were depressed because they felt at risk, or whether they felt at risk because they were depressed. Because we controlled for recent psychiatric status in the first wave of our study before COVID-19, we can be more sure that COVID-19 risk and depression are tightly linked regardless of people’s mental health going into the pandemic.

Finally, we found preliminary evidence that the depressive effects of COVID-19 risk were worse among adults with histories of childhood trauma. In other words, those with greater childhood adversity exhibited worse psychological outcomes during the first six weeks of the lockdown compared to those with fewer accounts of childhood trauma.

Research has shown that adversity during childhood can increase risk for major depression later in life. More childhood trauma also may influence the severity of adult depression and increase how people respond emotionally to future stressors like the coronavirus.

Urgent need for services

Childhood trauma is well-known to influence how severely and for how long people experience depression.

This study shows how those who have experienced social adversity growing up may be struggling more than others in this current moment.

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Spain considers state of emergency for virus-hit Madrid

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is holding an emergency Cabinet meeting on Friday morning to consider declaring a state of emergency for Madrid and its surrounding region in order to impose stronger anti-virus restrictions on the reluctant regional governors.

The meeting comes a day after a Madrid court struck down a national government order that imposed a partial lockdown in the Spanish capital and its suburbs. The ruling sided with regional officials who had appealed the application of stricter measures against one of Europe’s most worrying virus clusters.

The judges said that travel restrictions in and out of the cities might be necessary to fight the spread of the coronavirus, but that under the current legal framework they were violating residents’ “fundamental rights.”

The national government said late Thursday night that Sánchez had spoken by telephone with Madrid regional chief Isabel Díaz Ayuso and gave her an ultimatum. Sánchez told Ayuso that if she did not quickly tighten measures or make a formal request for his national government to declare a state of emergency, then his government would go ahead and declare it anyway.

A state of emergency gives the national government extraordinary powers in time of crises to temporarily limit the constitutional rights of citizens. In this case, it would limit their freedom of movement by restarting perimeter controls on Madrid and some nearby towns also suffering from high contagion rates.

A much stricter nationwide state of emergency that began with home confinements was applied by the government from March until June to successfully rein in Spain’s first wave of the virus that causes COVID-19. Since it ended, the regions have regained control of health policy and their responses to controlling outbreaks has varied. Some have applied perimeter lockdowns around areas or towns with viral clusters.

The Madrid region has a 14-day infection rate of 591 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, more than twice Spain’s national average of 257 and five times the European average rate of 113 for the week ending Sept. 27.

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