Scottish girl is world’s youngest deep brain stimulation patient

Two-year-old has had brain surgery to treat spasms, raising hopes for other children

A two year-old girl from Glasgow has become the youngest person in the world to undergo brain surgery that doctors say could help limit severe disability among children afflicted by uncontrollable body movements.

Viktoria Kaftanikaite was just 32 months old when she had deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat a condition called dystonia, which caused her arms and legs to flail about and her mouth to twitch constantly while she was awake.

The rare genetic disorder left her screaming in unbearable pain, stopped her from eating and also affected her ability to breathe. “Viktoria had out of control movements all the time. Her arms and legs wouldn’t move normally and she was pushing her head down and her belly up,” said her mother, Patrycja Majewska.

“We noticed that from a young age she couldn’t hold anything in her hands, such as toys, and had trouble keeping her head up because it was falling from side to side. She wasn’t able to do anything, until now.”

Doctors who treated Viktoria hope the fact that someone so young has been able to cope with deep brain stimulation will lead to it becoming a procedure to help reduce severe muscle spasms in children who have cerebral palsy, have been born prematurely or have suffered an injury at birth.

“In operating on Viktoria our neurosurgeons have broken the sound barrier in neurosurgery, by offering DBS at such a young age,” said Dr Jean-Pierre Lin, the consultant paediatric neurologist for the complex motor disorders service at the Evelina children’s hospital, in London. She was flown there from an intensive care unit in Glasgow, her home city, in May and had the procedure soon after.

“Over the past 15 years we have offered DBS to increasingly young children with dystonia due to minimal brain injury, with the aim of reducing the risk of their bodies being broken by deformity,” said Lin. “We first offered DBS to children over the age of 15, then over the age of 10, then over the age of five, and then to five-year-olds.

“I’ve had a five-year-old boy who has cerebral palsy and deafness who after having DBS was able to walk unaided, which is amazing for someone with cerebral palsy. He later began dancing and became quite athletic,” added Lin, who coordinated Viktoria’s treatment with staff from Evelina children’s hospital, nearby King’s College hospital and Glasgow’s royal hospital for children.

Viktoria’s operation lasted four hours. Patrycja and her partner, Martinas Kaftanikaite, said their daughter’s illness, caused by a rare mutation in the GNA01 gene, meant she was difficult to look after and that they felt helpless, especially as doctors took two years to diagnose her dystonia. About 90,000 people in the UK of all ages have the potentially life-threatening condition, of which the most severe form has a 10% mortality rate. Viktoria would have died without the surgery, Lin said.

The operation involved drilling two holes, each the size of a 5p piece, into the top of the skull, and then implanting two electrodes into an area deep in the brain called the globus pallidus internus, which is targeted in DBS because it harbours what Lin calls “the off switch” that controls the body’s movement. DBS is also used to relieve the symptoms of some people with Parkinson’s disease.

The four contacts on each electrode send fast electrical pulses 130 times a second into the brain, which over time help reduce the person’s uncontrollable movements and, if the procedure works, help them lead a more normal life. The left electrode works on the right-hand side of the body, and the right one does the same on the left. They are powered by a pacemaker-type device, which is inserted into the stomach in a child and near the collarbone in an adult.

Viktoria is now recovering in the ICU in Glasgow. “Her chances of being free from various disabling and painful movements have been greatly improved and she has the possibility – as yet to be mapped – of better future developmental progress,” said Lin.

The youngest patient to undergo DBS before Viktoria was a three-year-old boy who developed intractable, painful dystonia at 18 months. As a result of Viktoria’s case “knowing we can safely deliver DBS at two and a half years means we can relieve suffering and perhaps improve the chances of useful motor recovery to these young children, including some selected forms of cerebral palsy”, said Lin.

There is a debate in neurosurgery about using this form of “neuromodulation” in such young children, because of concerns their skulls are not yet thick enough to tolerate the platform that is put on top of their head to guide the surgeons as they drill and then implant the electrodes.

But for Lin, the fact that a child’s brain is at its maximum plasticity – when it has the most ability to change and reorganise itself – up to the age of five means more very young children, if they are suitable candidates, should have DBS.

“Viktoria’s case is exciting and potentially very significant because it may offer an opportunity for children with early movement disorders to benefit from DBS and have a better future,” he said.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/10/scottish-girl-worlds-youngest-person-to-be-treated-with-deep-brain-stimulation

The Guardian view on the climate emergency: a dangerous paralysis

The closer the prospect of disaster becomes, the less the government manages to do

The difference between speed limits and speed cameras is that speed cameras work. They arouse fear and frustration, but they are in the end obeyed. Speed limits, on the other hand, are generally treated as moralistic exhortations which no one ought to take literally. The distinction between exhortation and enforcement is fundamental to understanding what governments intend when they announce a policy; and the latest report to parliament of the government’s Committee on Climate Change makes it clear that the government’s commitment to mitigating the effects of the climate emergency is still very much at the stage of announcing speed limits: targets and exhortations without any enforcement or real effects on behaviour. As a result, there is a smashup coming. A global rise of 4C in mean temperature is equivalent to the entire rise in temperature since the last ice age, and whereas the preceding rise was spread out over 10,000 years, this one will be a compressed into a century.

The committee’s language is remarkably blunt: “Targets do not themselves reduce emissions”, the report says – any more than speed limit signs make drivers slow down – but even the targets are badly placed; “There are no areas where the government is planning properly”; and, from the former chairman of the Conservative party, Lord Deben, “the whole thing is run by the government like Dad’s Army … this ramshackle system … doesn’t begin to face the issues. It is a real threat to the population.”

Of the 25 targets announced last year, one has been met; work on 10 has not even started. The number of civil servants working directly on policy has been slashed since 2013, and central funding for services to help businesses and regions adapt to the coming changes has disappeared. At the same time the problem has grown larger and more urgent. Few people now believe that we can restrict the global rise in temperature to two degrees; virtually no one believes that the Paris target of 1.5 degrees is realistic; but 4 degrees, which the latest report urges we should be planning for, promises to be catastrophic.

The sea level might rise over time by 10 metres; even the much lower mid-range of predictions would see Scunthorpe, Doncaster and Lincoln in the UK become coastal cities; most of Cardiff would vanish, along with the South Bank in London. Amsterdam and Rotterdam will be inundated along with large parts of the Netherlands. The Danube, the Mississippi, and the Murray-Darling rivers in Australia, on which millions of people depend, will shrink by up to 40%. At least 300 million people will become climate refugees; China and the USA will lose coastal cities. Resource wars are a possibility; famine and epidemic disease are a certainty. There is no simple technological fix: in fact, technological progress can make societies more vulnerable, because they become more complicated.

All this is a realistic prospect by the end of the century and possibly 40 years earlier. These are not crank predictions. They are official estimates, derived from the best scientists the government has available. The inaction and frivolity of the state’s response is breathtaking. It is now 11 years since the then chief scientific adviser to Defra, Professor Bob Watson, warned about the prospect of a four degree rise, which in those relatively optimistic days looked like a worst case scenario. It is past time to plan seriously and to act on these plans. Dad’s Army won’t muddle through this global emergency. However painful real change may be politically and economically, waiting for the inevitable will be worse.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/10/the-guardian-view-on-the-climate-emergency-a-dangerous-paralysis

How to survive the fake news about cancer

The internet is awash with ads for costly but bogus treatments – and claims that scientists are suppressing a cure for the disease

For Eileen O’Sullivan, being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 was the catalyst for a deluge of distinctly unscientific and frequently dangerous advice. An investment manager with a analytical mind, she began seeking information to better understand her potentially life-altering condition. But from the moment Eileen starting searching online, misinformation was unavoidable: “This is when all the suggestions start rolling in,” she says. “Before diagnosis, I had never heard of crank treatments for cancer: herbs, supplements, diets, juicing, clean eating, homeopathy, essential oils, nor adverts for overseas alternative cancer clinics. I certainly didn’t go looking for them, but I got endless prompts based on keywords such as breast cancer. I was also inundated with relatives and friends coming out with crackpot therapies – and even from other patients in chemo wards and waiting rooms.”

As a cancer researcher deeply involved in science outreach, I can attest that few subjects provoke quite the emotional response that cancer does. There is not a family in the world untouched by the disease, and the word itself is enough to induce a sense of fear in even the hardiest among us. Cancer is oppressive and all-pervasive: half of us alive today will experience a direct brush with it. But despite its ubiquity, it remains poorly understood and falsehoods around it can thrive.

Online, dubious claims about cancer are rife, from outright “cures” to assertions of a conspiracy to suppress “the truth” about it. In 2016, more than half of the 20 most shared cancer articles on Facebook consisted of medically discredited claims. And this goes far beyond Facebook – the Wall Street Journal recently revealed that YouTube was hosting accounts with thousands of subscribers that promoted bogus cancer treatments. O’Sullivan’s scepticism gave her some immunity to the lure of empty promises. But having lost her mother to breast cancer, “fear left me more vulnerable to pseudoscience than I would care to admit”, she says.

She is now a passionate patient advocate, steering others away from damaging falsehoods – a problem she sees as unrelenting. This grim assessment chimes with the observations made by Dr Robert O’Connor of the Irish Cancer Society: “Practically all patients are exposed to misinformation, [coming] from well-meaning but misinformed loved ones to a plethora of exploitative and profiteering sources on social media”.

A quick web search reveals ostensible treatments ranging from the vaguely scientific-sounding to the profoundly esoteric. The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) non-exhaustive list of debunked claims numbers more than 187, while Wikipedia’s list of bogus cures run from “energy-based” to “spiritual healing”. Other claims involve hyperbaric oxygen therapy,cannabis oilshark cartilage, ketogenic diets and baking soda.

There is increasing concern that such fictions risk eclipsing reputable information. Macmillan Cancer Support recently appointed a nurse specifically to debunk online stories, prompting the Lancet Oncology to comment: “How has society got to this point, where unproven interventions are being chosen in preference to evidence-based, effective treatments? Unfortunately, disinformation and – frankly – lies are widely propagated and with the same magnitude as verified evidence.”

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are dismissed by charlatans as poisons, imperilling lives

Similar concerns are echoed by Cancer Research UK as well as the Wellcome Trust. New patients in particular are often targeted by those pushing cancer “cures”, and while some of these are well meaning but misguided, others are commercially driven. Sonya Canavan, another cancer survivor, noted: “In the breast cancer patient forum I used to post on, I often saw ‘patients’ posting about all kinds of quackery, who turned out to be salespeople trawling for business.”

That pseudoscience is being hawked to vulnerable patients isn’t a new problem – cancer scams have existed for decades, and combating them was the impetus behind the 1939 Cancer Act. The substantial difference now is the ease with which falsehoods can be disseminated. Cancer surgeon David Gorski, professor of surgery and oncology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan and managing editor of the online journal Science-Based Medicine, notes that cancer misinformation is “way more prevalent now for the same reason other misinformation and conspiracy theories are so prevalent – because they’re so easily spread on social media.”

Whether born out of a desire to help, or naked charlatanism, the net impact of such misinformation is overwhelmingly negative. Patients engaged with unproved treatments for cancer are more likely to reject conventional treatment, or delay life-saving interventions. This comes at a terrible cost; patients who subscribe to alternative approaches are more than twice as likely to die in the same period as those who rely on conventional therapies. Worse again, it is not uncommon for promoters of dubious information to resort to scaremongering over conventional therapy. Both radiotherapy and chemotherapy are frequently dismissed as “poisons”, imperilling lives. Cancer is frightening, and promises of simple cures can be alluring.

Stanislaw Burzynski in 1997
 Stanislaw Burzynski in 1997 at the federal courthouse in Houston, Texas, where he faced 34 charges of mail fraud, which were dismissed, and 41 of violating FDA regulations, upon which the jury failed to reach a verdict. Photograph: Pat Sullivan/AP

All false claims betray the same basic misunderstanding, however: cancer is not a monolithic entity, but a family of more than 200 known diseases. Arising from mutations in a patient’s cells, cancer is extremely complex and diverse. It is highly unlikely that a single “magic bullet” could treat cancer in all its forms. The idea of a panacea is attractive, but woefully misguided, and a klaxon warning of dubious science. Unscientific interventions can nevertheless come with substantial price tags.

Based in his Texas clinic, Stanislaw Burzynski claims to cure cancer with a unique “antineoplaston” therapy. Despite operating for decades, according to the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) “other investigators have been unable to duplicate these results”. Since its inception, the clinic has been the subject of numerous FDA warnings yet continues to promote itself as capable of curing patients. And it does not come cheap – the US NCI warns patients that treatment costs upwards of $7,500-$10,000 monthly (£5,600-£7,580) and says: “The evidence for use of antineoplaston therapy as a treatment for cancer is inconclusive. Controlled clinical trials are necessary to assess the value of this therapy.”

Despite negative publicity, it’s business as usual for Burzynski. If anything, crowdfunding may have made his clinic more popular. In lieu of scientific evidence, it relies on gushing testimonials to lure new customers, though in some cases, these come from patients already deceased – a fact absent from the promotional material.

This is contemptible, but in no way unique – there is an abundance of dubious clinics worldwide promising the impossible at eye-watering prices. Last year an investigation on Irish television probed clinics in Istanbul that were claiming huge successes with unconventional therapies. Patients were charged more than €130,000 (£116,000) and given the all-clear in Turkey. According to the programme, patients discovered their cancers had progressed markedly when scanned after returning home. Germany, too, is home to several effectively unregulated clinics, presented as luxury spas but promising cures. These are backed by fawning testimonials pitched at international customers, with treatments costing hundreds of thousands of euros – despite no evidence for their efficacy.

Such exploitation goes far beyond the immediate victims, with crowdfunding typically used to meet their exorbitant prices. A paper in theBritish Medical Journal last year, based on figures collected by the Good Thinking Society, found that at least £8m had been raised since 2012 in the UK alone for unsubstantiated or discredited cancer treatments. As Good Thinking Society project director Michael Marshall explains: “Sums raised through crowdfunding are just the tip of the iceberg, with many patients taking out loans, mortgaging their houses, and spending their life savings. When these supposed cures turn out to offer no benefit, families have been left coping with huge debts when they are grieving for their loved one.”

To explain the paucity of evidence for their claims, purveyors of quack remedies accuse the medical and scientific community of suppressing cures for cancer. This is not a mere fringe belief – 37% of Americans believe the FDA is doing just that. But the claim is nonsense. It would require a vast conspiracy of hundreds of thousands of scientists and doctors to sustain – a scenario unlikely to endure.

Plus, if there were such a conspiracy, wouldn’t those who work in the cancer sphere be just as susceptible to its malignant influence as anyone? We all lose loved ones to cancer, and succumb to it. Conspiracy claims foster distrust between patients and healthcare teams.

The rise in cancer misinformation is part of a wider problem with online falsehoods. Like the equally dangerous explosion in anti-vaccine myths, cancer untruths have an impact on both our physical wellbeing and on the public understanding of science and medicine. In a sea of sound and fury, discerning between the reputable and the repugnant isn’t always easy, but there are excellent resources available for patients and their families. Well-researched guides by Cancer Research UKand the US National Cancer Institute are enlightening and authoritative.

Like anti-vaccine sentiment, cancer myths thrive on social media. There is a strong argument that these platforms have a moral obligation to remove groups and individuals propagating misinformation. As O’Sullivan notes, “Facebook, YouTube and Twitter lead a patient down a rabbit hole, with many thinking this is ‘doing their research’. I don’t think we can stop those making false cancer claims, but maybe we can insulate patients and regulate those making cancer claims as well as holding social media platforms accountable.”

In the wake of a measles resurgence driven in part by online anti-vaccine activism, several social media platforms have promised to massage their algorithms to reduce “fake news” on cancer. But this filtering is easily bypassed. Social media business models thrive on engagement rather than veracity, and a cynic might think they have little reason to regulate such content, beyond appearing to be concerned. Whether the problem is absence of ability or inclination, health misinformation remains widespread. It’s imperative we improve our ability to assess the avalanche of medical claims: our continued wellbeing depends on it.

Dr David Robert Grimes is a cancer researcher, physicist and science writer. His first book, The Irrational Ape: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk, and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World, will be published by Simon & Schuster in September

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/14/cancer-fake-news-clinics-suppressing-disease-cure

Brain implant restores partial vision to blind people

Medical experts hail ‘paradigm shift’ of implant that transmits video images directly to the visual cortex, bypassing the eye and optic nerve

Partial sight has been restored to six blind people via an implant that transmits video images directly to the brain.

Some vision was made possible – with the participants’ eyes bypassed – by a video camera attached to glasses which sent footage to electrodes implanted in the visual cortex of the brain.

University College London lecturer and Optegra Eye Hospital surgeon Alex Shortt said it was a significant development by specialists from Baylor Medical College in Texas and the University of California Los Angeles.

“Previously all attempts to create a bionic eye focused on implanting into the eye itself. It required you to have a working eye, a working optic nerve,” Shortt told the Daily Mail.

“By bypassing the eye completely you open the potential up to many, many more people.

“This is a complete paradigm shift for treating people with complete blindness. It is a real message of hope.”

The technology has not been proven on those born blind.

The US team behind the study asked participants, each of whom has been completely blind for years, to look at a blacked-out computer screen and identify a white square appearing randomly at different locations on the monitor.

The majority of the time, they can find the square.

Paul Phillip, who has been blind for almost a decade, says that when he wears the glasses to go on his evening walks with his wife, he can tell where the pavement and grass meet. He also can tell where his white sofa is located.

“It really is amazing to be able to see something even if it is just points of light for now,” Phillip said.

Study leader and neurosurgeon Daniel Yoshor said his team was “still a long way from what we hope to achieve”.

“This is an exciting time in neuroscience and neurotechnology, and I feel that within my lifetime we can restore functional sight to the blind,” Dr Yoshor said.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/13/brain-implant-restores-partial-vision-to-blind-people

Ketamine-like drug for depression could get UK licence within the year

Esketamine could initially become available through private clinics but potential side effects raise concerns

A ketamine-like drug that could be licensed in the UK as soon as November could transform treatment for severe depression, one of the country’s leading psychiatrists has said.

The drug, called esketamine, which is administered through a nasal spray, would be one of the first “rapid acting” drugs for depression and the first drug in decades to target a new brain pathway.

Unlike conventional antidepressants, which take weeks or months to take effect, ketamine has been shown in some patients to have enduring effects within hours.

Prof Allan Young, director of the Centre for Affective Disorders at King’s College London, said that for the substantial portion of patients who do not respond to conventional drugs, ketamine-based therapies could offer new hope.

“We haven’t had anything really new for 50 or 60 years. What’s particularly exciting is the arrival of a new type of treatment and that’s ketamine,” he said. “It’s got a different pharmacology. It’s not just the same old steam engine, it seems to work in a different way and it seems to work more quickly.”

However, other experts have raised questions about the overall effectiveness of the drug and say there could be serious safety risks associated with taking ketamine over long time periods.

The European Medicines Agency and the UK health regulator will make a decision in November on licensing the drug, which Johnson & Johnson sells in the US under the brand name Spravato. If approved, esketamine would become available through private clinics. Nice are scheduled to make a decision on whether to approve the drug for NHS use in March next year.

Young believes the drug could prove to be an important alternative for the roughly 2.7 million people in the UK who suffer from chronic depression and have not responded to conventional drugs.

The most commonly used drugs, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), work by stopping the brain mopping up the chemical serotonin. They typically take six to eight weeks to have an impact on symptoms.

Ketamine appears to act on a different brain chemical called glutamate, and in animal studies has been shown to restore connections between brain cells that are thought to shrink back during prolonged periods of depression.

Prof Carlos Zarate, head of experimental therapeutics and pathophysiology at the US National Institute of Mental Health, who conducted the first clinical trial of ketamine for depression in 2006, said: “Ketamine is now the prototype of the future generation of antidepressants that will have rapid robust effects within a few hours and are long lasting.”

In the nasal spray form, it is given in far lower doses than the street drug ketamine.

However, the side effects that patients experience, which can include hallucinations, dizziness and feelings of anxiety mean they need to be supervised in a clinic for two hours after each weekly dose of the drug. The huge amounts of clinical supervision involved could be a barrier to it being made widely available.

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US licensed the drug for treatment resistant depression. The decision was controversial because the FDA relaxed its usual rules for approving drugs on the basis of clinical need. Trial results have been mixed and mostly short-term, and some say the drug is not worth the $32,400 (£25,808) per patient per year that is charged for the drug in the US.

There are also questions about the long-term safety of taking ketamine-like substances, including whether patients could develop tolerance to it and whether, for some, it could act as a gateway into illegal drug-taking, as seen in the opioid crisis.

Rupert McShane, a consultant psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Oxford who has treated hundreds of patients with chronic depression with intravenous ketamine, is calling for a registry to help monitor the effectiveness and any unexpected side effects if the drug is made more widely available.

There are also concerns that hype around the potential of ketamine to treat depression could lead some people to seek out the drug illegally and self-medicate.

“The potential for harm with long-term use is simply unknown,” McShane said. “It’s a drug, not a miracle,” he added. “Ketamine, in my experience, and esketamine, according to the data, are potent and potentially transformative antidepressants.”

Wes Boyd, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, said it was of concern that some clinical trials had not shown significant benefit compared to placebo and that another trial suggested that only some patients benefited.

“The cost of esketamine is dramatically high and comes with a very large and scary side-effect profile,” he said. “It is so potentially dangerous that clinicians are required to sit with patients for two hours after they are administered the drug. There is no other antidepressant that I know of that requires one hundredth of that kind of observation after administration. The upshot is that the drug is an over-hyped ripoff.”

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/12/ketamine-like-drug-for-depression-could-get-uk-licence-within-the-year

Sahara was home to some of largest sea creatures, study finds

Scientists reconstruct extinct species using fossils found in northern Mali from ancient seaway

Some of the biggest catfish and sea snakes to ever exist lived in what is today the Sahara desert, according to a new paper that contains the first reconstructions of extinct aquatic species from the ancient Trans-Saharan Seaway.

The sea was 50 metres deep and once covered 3,000sq km of what is now the world’s biggest sand desert. The marine sediment it left behind is filled with fossils, which allowed thescientists who published the study to build up a picture of a region that teemed with life.

Between 100m and 50m years ago, today’s arid, boulder-strewn northern Mali “looked more like modern Puerto Rico”; the sun shone on some of the earliest mangroves, and molluscs lined the shallow seabed, according to Maureen O’Leary, the palaeontologist who led the study.

The study also formally named the geological units, literally putting the area on the geological map for the first time, showing how the sea ebbed and flowed over its 50m years of existence, and building up information about the K-Pg boundary, the geophysical marker of one of Earth’s five major extinction events, in which the non-avian dinosaurs became extinct.

With 1.6m catfish, 12.3m sea snakes and 1.2m pycnodonts – a type of bony fish – O’Leary and the other scientists developed the idea that in the late Cretaceous and early Paleogene period, the animals were experiencing gigantism.

Evolutionary biologists have long talked about the phenomenon of island gigantism, where species that live on small islands can sometimes develop very large bodies, possibly because they have more resources or there are few predators, or both.

“We put out the idea that maybe this island gigantism can pertain to islands of water,” O’Leary said. “If you get a sea that’s moving in and going out, maybe it’s leaving behind pockets of water in which new variables are taking place that control the body size.”

Reconstruction of sharks feeding on a dyrosaurid crocodilyform.
 Reconstruction of sharks feeding on a dyrosaurid crocodilyform. Photograph: American Museum of Natural History 2019

Though considerably less watery and verdant today, there is no shortage of human life in the Sahara – people for whom the presence of ancient sea creatures is not news, as the team found during their expeditions in 1999, 2003 and 2009.

“The Sahara is full of people. Sometimes we would be working in what seemed like the most remote desert, and someone would just drive up on a moped. It’s a very alive environment,” said O’Leary, who is from Stony Brook University in the US. “The local people … knew that the sea had passed, and they would talk about the shells that they found and know that they’re marine shells.”

People in northern Mali have been living through a “security nightmare”, particularly since Tuareg rebels and then jihadis occupied it in 2012. While this has prevented O’Leary and the 10 other scientists – from Mali, the US and Australia – getting on the ground since 2009, it also forced them to compile their findings and come up with a comprehensive picture.

Reconstruction of an extinct lungfish from the study of the Trans-Saharan Seaway.
 Reconstruction of an extinct lungfish from the study of the Trans-Saharan Seaway. Photograph: American Museum of Natural History 2019

When setting off on their fourth expedition in 2009, the team got as far as Gao when they received calls urging them to abandon their trip. They did so, but it was only years later, reading the Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s book on being kidnapped with an aide by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, that O’Leary realised what the trigger for those calls had been.

She said significant paleontological riches were buried under the sands of northern Mali, and there was also extensive archaeological work to be done, but the security situation that had left so many Malians dead or displaced meant this work would be on hold indefinitely.

Fossil teeth of chondrichthyes and reconstructions of the animals from which they came: shark, sawfish shark and electric ray.
 Fossil teeth of chondrichthyes and reconstructions of the animals from which they came: shark, sawfish shark and electric ray. Photograph: American Museum of Natural History 2019

“This is such a terrible thing to happen to such an interesting country with such a rich legacy. I hope that by telling our scientific story, it gets the word out that there’s many important and interesting things to be known about Mali that are probably not that well understood. There’s a tremendous amount of scientific work to be done there and it’s impossible.”

The study builds on the work of British expeditions to Mali in the 1980s which, among other things, had discovered but not written about a large turtle shell and an important collection of fossils.

The collected fossils remain Mali’s property, but are on loan to the American Museum of Natural History for scientific study.

O’Leary said the fact that the Sahara was once under water showed there was a precedent for climate change and sea level rises that should give climate deniers pause for thought.

“Hopefully, by understanding these historical examples, in the current dialogue people can be more accepting that what scientists are telling them is true, and that not only is it true, but there are historical examples of much greater magnitude where the planet has changed,” she said.

“Perhaps talking about human-induced climate change seems like ‘Oh, is this the first time’. It’s not the first time. There’s been a lot of change in Earth’s history. And understanding those examples may make it more palatable to people, set their expectations differently.”

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/12/sahara-was-home-to-some-of-largest-sea-creatures-study-finds

What Seinfeld can teach us about science

From micro pigs to the doping dangers of a poppy seed bagel, life may be imitating the US sitcom

When Jerry Seinfeld starts his UK tour, listen out for a science joke. From early on in his TV career, the comedian poked fun at science. In his 1981 HBO debut, he said of weather forecasts: “And then my favourite part, the satellite photo. This is really helpful. A photograph of the Earth from 10,000 miles away. Can you tell if you should take a sweater or not from that shot?”

His eponymous 90s sitcom is also packed with nuanced references to science, with the storylines of some of the most famous episodes centred on it: George Costanza pretends to be a scientist in The Marine Biologist, while in The Abstinence he becomes a boffin after swearing off sex. In The Non-Fat Yogurt, Kramer has a romantic fling in a lab and inadvertently spoils an experiment testing whether the frozen snack is as healthy as it sounds.

Academics have written volumes about the sociology and philosophy of Seinfeld, but the role of science has been left relatively unexplored. In an attempt to redress this, I have recently published a peer-reviewed paper on the subject in the Journal of Science and Popular Culture.

Researchers have brought science and Seinfeld together in other ways: in 2014, mathematicians from the University of Vermont quantified the sitcom’s happiest characters and seasons (Kramer and season 5 respectively). In 2017, Seinfeld fan and freelance scientific editor John McCool exposed the murky practices of a predatory journal – one that offers publication without proper peer review in exchange for payment. The journal accepted a paper he submitted under the name of Dr Martin van Nostrand, a pseudonym used by Kramer when impersonating a doctor, on the topic of uromycitisis – a fake medical condition invented by Seinfeld. And a popular US dermatologist and a TV star calls herself Dr Pimple Popper, inspired by the derogatory name Jerry uses for a doctor he’s dating.

Some viewers have gone to great lengths to find out whether the science in Seinfeld stands up. The Film Theorists YouTube channel examined whether it’s really possible to die from exposure to toxic glue on old envelopes, as George’s fiancée Susan did in the series (reassuringly, they say, it’s not). And what about Elaine failing a drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel? This was exactly what happened to one Pennsylvania mother, whose baby was taken away by welfare authorities until the mistake was cleared up.

A lot of the science in Seinfeld comes from Jerry’s standup acts within the show. “Somebody, I assume, genetically engineered these ponies,” he says in The Pony Remark. “Do you think they can make them any size? I mean, could they make them, like, the size of a quarter, if they wanted? That would be fun for Monopoly, though, wouldn’t it?” The suggestion is absurd, but in a case of life imitating fiction, scientists are now using gene editing to create miniature animals, such as micro pigs, to sell as pets.

In the opening standup scene of The Mango, Jerry says: “How about that seedless watermelon? What an invention, scientists are working on this. You know, other scientists devote their lives to fighting cancer, Aids, heart disease. These guys are going: ‘No, I’m focusing on melon. Oh sure, thousands of people are dying needlessly. But this [makes spitting noise], that’s gotta stop.’” While the diseases Jerry mentioned still haven’t been cured, scientists today are still engaged in the quest to engineer seedless fruits, including tomatoes.

Jerry Seinfeld at a standup performance
 Jerry Seinfeld at a standup performance Photograph: Netflix

A lot of Seinfeld’s standup skits show how some scientific ideas had become common knowledge. Seinfeld casually references BiosphereDian Fossey, and tungsten or wolfram, and breaks with the TV cliche of scientists as socially awkward singletons. Jerry dates a political scientistKramer falls for an FDA chemist, and George gets a date by pretending to be a marine biologist.

At the same time, the show makes us laugh at misconceptions about science, like Kramer’s theory that the government has created a pig-man, that there’s such a thing as “quoning” or that fat molecules in frozen yoghurt change when it melts.

In The Abstinence, lack of sex turns George into an intellectual who would rather talk about science than his career with the Yankees. He ventures on to the baseball field to teach Major League players how to improve their game: “Hitting is not about muscle. It’s simple physics. Calculate the velocity, v, in relation to the trajectory, t, in which g, gravity, of course, remains a constant.” He then hits a home run and says: “It’s not complicated.”

George was ahead of his time; data analysis and sports science have become a bigger part of sport than ever before.

Ultimately, science is also George’s undoing. He reverts to his former stupid self after having sex with a Portuguese waitress. “I calculated my odds of ever getting together with a Portuguese waitress,” he says. “Mathematically, I had to do it, Jerry.”

Whether the science in Seinfeld works is a mixed bag. There’s no evidence that abstinence can make you smarter; in fact, the opposite may be true. But if you were wondering about the science behind shrinkage? That one stands up.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2019/jul/12/seinfeld-teach-science

My poker face: AI wins multiplayer game for first time

Pluribus wins 12-day session of Texas hold’em against some of the world’s best human players

Rack up another win for the machines. An artificial intelligence called Pluribus has emerged victorious from a marathon 12-day poker session during which it played five human professionals at a time.

Over 10,000 hands of no-limit Texas hold’em, the most popular form of the game, Pluribus won a virtual $48,000 (£38,000), beating five elite players who were selected each day from a pool who agreed to take on the program. All of the pros had previously won more than $1m playing the game.

What counts as a beating for humanity ranks as a milestone for AI. No computer program has ever achieved superhuman performance against multiple poker players. A forerunner of Pluribus named Libratus made its name two years ago by trouncing top human players, but that program only played one-on-one.

“It’s the first time AI has achieved superhuman performance in a multiplayer game,” said Tuomas Sandholm, who developed Pluribus with his PhD student Noam Brown at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The ability to beat five players at a time in such a complex game of bluff and hidden information opened up new opportunities for AI to tackle real world problems, he said.

According to Sandholm, the algorithm has potential in applications ranging from investment banking and negotiation strategies to wargaming and deciding how much US political candidates should spend advertising in various media in different states. In his laboratory, research is underway to use the algorithm in treatment plans that marshall precise populations of immune cells to fight specific diseases. The work was part-funded by the US Army Research Office.

A round of Texas hold’em in which the AI program Pluribus competed.
 A round of Texas hold’em in which the AI program Pluribus competed. Photograph: Handout

To master Texas hold’em Pluribus adopted some surprising, and distinctly non-human, strategies which have already been adopted by the professionals it played. It used wildly differing bet sizes, a strategy humans seem to find hard to do. And while humans usually avoid so-called “donk betting” – the practice of ending the first round of betting with a call and opening the next with a bet – Pluribus embraced the tactic. The received wisdom in poker is that donk betting is a weak move that rarely makes sense. Pluribus found otherwise. “I don’t understand it, but Pluribus understands it,” said Sandholm.

In another computer v human challenge, the program beat two professionals, Darren Elias, who holds the record for the most World Poker Tour titles, and Chris Ferguson, who has won six World Series of Poker tournaments. The defeats came after each played 5,000 hands against five copies of the AI. “Pluribus is a very hard opponent to play against,” Ferguson said. “It’s really hard to pin him down on any kind of hand.”

Artificial intelligence has already surpassed humans at games such as chess and Go, but in these games players can see the positions of all of the pieces; there is no information that is hidden from them. In poker, players have only partial information and a cast of potentially bluffing opponents, making it a far tougher AI challenge.

Pluribus learned poker by playing copies of itself. Starting from scratch, and playing randomly at first, the program steadily improved its performance. After eight days, it had devised a “blueprint strategy”, which it uses for the first round of betting. For subsequent rounds, Pluribus looks ahead to hone its strategy. It aims to be unpredictable to wrongfoot its opponents.

The program runs on two Intel Haswell processors and uses a modest 128GB during play. In games against itself, Pluribus takes about 20 seconds to play a hand, making it twice as fast as a typical professional, the scientists write in the journal Science.

Sean Ruane, one of the players who took on Pluribus, found the program a tough opponent. “In a game that will, more often than not, reward you when you exhibit mental discipline, focus, and consistency, and certainly punish you when you lack any of the three, competing for hours on end against an AI bot that obviously doesn’t have to worry about these shortcomings is a gruelling task.”

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/11/poker-ai-wins-multiplayer-game-for-first-time-plurius-texas-holdem

Scientists turn to ‘laser accurate’ model to test Stonehenge acoustics

Salford team explores sound qualities of ancient Wiltshire monument using 1:12 replica based on data from scans

A diminutive model of Stonehenge could help crack the acoustic secrets of the ancient site, according to scientists who have built a version of the megaliths at a 12th of their size.

The team say the 1:12 model, with a stone circle spanning 2.6 metres, has an edge over other replicas of Stonhenge, such as the full-scale one near Maryhill,Washington, for being based on laser scan data. The data collected by Historic England allowed the team to produce a highly accurate representation.

“The problem with the other models we have is that the stones aren’t quite the right shape and size, and how the sound interacts with the stones depends critically on the shapes,” said Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford and part of the team. “Those blocks at Maryhill are all very rectangular, whereas real Stonehenge, when you look at it, they are all a bit more amorphous because they are made out of stones that have been hand chiselled.”

The new model also allows the team to remove or replace stones and see how the acoustics of the site would have altered. “We are taking out the stones in phases so we can look at what effect each individual element has on it,” said Cox.

The team used insights from archaeological work by other experts to reproduce the set-up of the pre-historic monument as it would have looked about 4,000 years ago, including stones now missing. While fewer than 100 stones remain today at the Wiltshire site, the team’s model has 157.

While construction of the model could not compare with the building of the real Stonehenge, it was nonetheless a bit laborious, said the team. “You 3D print them and then you make silicon moulds out of them, and then you cast them in a plaster-polymer mix, and then you paint them in car paint,” Cox said. “I ruined my dining room floor.”

Prof Trevor Cox with the scale model of Stonehenge.
 Prof Trevor Cox with the scale model of Stonehenge. Photograph: Andrew Brooks/University of Salford

The team conducted tests with the model set inside an acoustic chamber, looking, for example, at speech intelligibility and air resonance. Preliminary data had already given interesting results – while the reverberation time for high- and mid-frequency sounds appeared similar to results obtained from Maryhill, low-frequency sounds showed shorter reverberation times. “If you were to talk in a cinema, that is probably roughly the acoustic we are getting,” said Cox.

He added that as well as being visually striking the auditory environment of Stonehenge would have been unusual to prehistoric people of the time less familiar with reverberant spaces unless, for instance, experiencing such effects in a cave. “There would have been a sonic wonder in the past,” he said.

While the purpose of Stonehenge has fuelled much debate, Cox says he thinks the acoustics were a byproduct of the structure which were then exploited. “If you were going to hold a ceremony, and you had a lot of people to talk to, doing it outside the stones would be a lot harder than if you did it inside the stones [circle],” he said.

At about 40cm high, the model megaliths are almost exactly the same size as the Lilliputian props featured in the famous Stonehenge scene in the film This Is Spinal Tap. They are also at similar risk of being crushed underfoot. “You have to be careful when you stand over this thing you don’t kick the lintels off, which I have done once already,” said Cox.

Cox said plans for where the team’s mini megaliths will end up remain unclear. “It would be nice to find a permanent home for it, maybe in a museum somewhere,” he said. “The boring answer is in the short term it will go back in boxes to be stored very carefully.”Topics

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jul/11/scientists-turn-to-laser-accurate-model-to-test-stonehenge-acoustics

Jacky Pallas obituary

My partner Jacky Pallas, who has died of a brain haemorrhage aged 54, was head of e-research at King’s College, London, and at the peak of a successful academic career. Jacky was an advocate for diversity, as a senior out lesbian and supporter of women in Stem careers. She was a feminist, scientist and ally to many.

Jacky was born in Consett and grew up in County Durham. After her parents separated, she was brought up by her mother, Maureen, and her stepfather, Frank. Her early life included operations for spina bifida when she was four.

Her family, who knew her as Jacqueline, were incredibly important, in particular her grandparents, who were a big part of her life and taught her to read, sparking her lifelong passion for books.

She went to St Robert of Newminster Catholic school near Chester-le-Street, and then studied biochemistry at Glasgow University, graduating in 1988 and receiving her PhD in 1992. This was followed by a fellowship in the US, spending 18 months in San Diego at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and 18 months in Ardmore, Oklahoma, at the Noble Foundation. She built up a network of friends who are now spread across the globe and loved hiking and camping in the desert.

Once back in the UK Jacky moved to Leeds University, working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the biochemistry and molecular biology department(1995-98), and volunteering at Leeds Lesbian Line, a support service.

This was important at a time when the internet had yet to achieve the reach it has today. Answers to questions about coming out, relationships and places to go were found through newsletters and services like this. Jacky and I met at a Leeds Lesbian Line social in 1996.

She worked in industry from 1998 to 2004, at Zeneca (which then became Syngenta), based at the Jealott’s Hill research centre near Bracknell, Berkshire, and then moved to University College London, becoming director of research platforms.

In 2017 she moved to King’s College London, where she set up the e-research function for the university and more recently extended her role, taking on responsibility for strategy and business development across all of King’s core research platforms.

Jacky was regarded as a national leader in this area and her advice was widely sought by other universities and industry. She was always supportive, kind – someone people came to for wise counsel.

She had many passions outside work: the allotment at Park Hill, near our home in Croydon, Charlie the parrot, her love of films.

She is survived by me and by her mother, sister, Andrea, niece, Danielle, and nephew, Lee.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jul/11/jacky-pallas-obituary