Researchers Link Autism To A System That Insulates Brain Wiring.


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Researchers Link Autism To A System That Insulates Brain Wiring.

Scientists have found a clue to how autism spectrum disorder disrupts the brain’s information highways.

The problem involves cells that help keep the traffic of signals moving smoothly through brain circuits, a team reported Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The team found that in both mouse and human brains affected by autism, there’s an abnormality in cells that produce a substance called myelin.

That’s a problem because myelin provides the “insulation” for brain circuits, allowing them to quickly and reliably carry electrical signals from one area to another. And having either too little or too much of this myelin coating can result in a wide range of neurological problems.

For example, multiple sclerosis occurs when the myelin around nerve fibers is damaged. The results, which vary from person to person, can affect not only the signals that control muscles, but also the ones involved in learning and thinking.

The finding could help explain why autism spectrum disorders include such a wide range of social and behavioral features, says Brady Maher, a lead investigator at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and an associate professor in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“Myelination could be a problem that ties all of these autism spectrum disorders together,” Maher says. And if that’s true, he says, it might be possible to prevent or even reverse the symptoms using drugs that affect myelination.

“If we get to these kids really early, we might be able to change their developmental trajectory and improve their outcomes,” Maher says.

“It’s possible to make these cells healthier,” adds Dr. Daniel Weinberger, director of the Lieber Institute and a professor at Johns Hopkins. “And it’s never been a target of treatment in autism.”

The study adds to the evidence that myelination problems are present in “several developmental disorders and in particular in autism,” says Dr. Flora Vaccarino, a professor in the neuroscience department at Yale who was not involved in the research.

It also shows how one faulty regulatory system in the brain can lead to either too much myelination or too little, she says. And that may help explain why people with autism spectrum disorders may have brains that are either unusually large or unusually small.


Pollution is killing Indians early and in large numbers.

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Pollution is killing Indians early and in large numbers.

Over 1.2 million Indians died early due to exposure to unsafe air in 2017. Air pollution is now the third-highest cause of death among all health risks, ranking just above smoking, in India. This is a combined effect of outdoor PM2.5, ozone and household air pollution. Due to this combined exposure South Asians including Indians are dying early — their life expectancy has reduced by over 2.6 years. This is much higher than the global tally of reduced life expectancy by an average of 20 months. While globally a child born today will die 20 months sooner, on average, then would be expected without air pollution, in India they would die 2.6 years earlier.

This shocker comes from the State of Global Air Report 2019 the annual tracker of global burden of disease estimates of the US based Health Effect Institute (HEI) and Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). The earlier report had estimated 1.1 million deaths in India in 2015. The report has pointed out that entire Indian population lives in areas with PM2.5 concentrations above the WHO Air Quality Guideline of 10 µg/m3, and only about 15 percent of the population lives in areas with PM2.5 concentrations below the WHO’s least-stringent target of 35 µg/m3.

A graph showing that air pollution is the third highest killer in India

Out of the 1.2 annual premature deaths 673,100 deaths were due to exposure to outdoor PM2.5, and more than 481,700 deaths due to exposure to household air pollution in India. While exposure to outdoor PM accounted for a loss of nearly 1 year and 6 months in life expectancy, exposure to household air pollution accounted for a loss of nearly 1 year and 2 months. Thus, together Indians lose 2.6 years. Also household air pollution contributes about a quarter of the outdoor air pollution in India.

In India early deaths are linked to respiratory diseases, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and diabetes that are influenced by air pollution. Exposure to ambient ozone is linked to COPD. The deadly tally broken up by diseases shows that chronic obstructive diseases due to air pollution is responsible for close to half of deaths at 49 per cent followed by lung cancer deaths at 33 per cent, diabetes and ischemic heart disease 22 per cent each, and stroke 15 per cent. It is scary how COPD, lung cancer and ischemic heart diseases dominate the dubious tally.

New spotlight

For the first time this annual tracker has tracked two new indicators — impacts of air pollution related diseases on life expectancy ie how long a person can expect to live and how much air pollution reduces life expectancy in countries around the world. And also for the first time this has accounted for risks from type 2 diabetes linked to air pollution. This emerges from the scientific evidences that have indicated this insidious link between air pollution and development of type 2 diabetes.

This has serious implications for India where type 2 diabetes has taken an epidemic form. The new report states that the economic costs of diabetes are substantial — estimated as 1.8 per cent of worldwide gross domestic product in 2015 and is a growing challenge to health care systems in countries at all levels of development. Epidemiological studies in Asia, Europe, and North America, supported by toxicology research, have provided strong evidence that exposure to ambient and household PM2.5 contributes to type 2 diabetes incidence and mortality. In the 2017 GBD analysis, exposure to PM2.5 was found to be the third-leading risk factor globally for type 2 diabetes deaths and DALYs, after high blood sugar and excessive body weight. Exposure to PM2.5 pollution contributed to 276,000 deaths and 15.2 million DALYs from type 2 diabetes in 2017 worldwide.

This burden is the highest in India, where PM2.5 exposure account for 55,000 deaths and 2.7 million DALYs. Reducing the burden of disease from type 2 diabetes and other diseases will require multipronged public health strategies aimed at reducing exposure to multiple risk factors including air pollution.

Global tally

Overall globally, more people die from air pollution-related diseases than from road traffic injuries or malaria each year. Air pollution ranks fifth among global risk factors for mortality globally, exceeded only by behavioral and metabolic factors: poor diet, high blood pressure, tobacco exposure, and high blood sugar. It is the leading environmental risk factor, far surpassing other environmental risks that have often been the focus of public health measures in the past, such as unsafe water and lack of sanitation, mentions the report. China and India together continue to remain responsible — as was found last year — for over half of the total global attributable deaths.

Overall, long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to nearly 5 million deaths from stroke, diabetes, heart attack, lung cancer, and chronic lung disease in 2017. South Asian countries — Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan — led the world as the most polluted region, with over 1.5 million air-pollution related deaths.

The State of Global Air 2019 is an annual tracker of global burden of diseases that is carried out by Health Effects Institute in cooperation with the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Texas, Austin. The Global Burden of Disease is an international effort to estimate the number of deaths and lost years of healthy life due to about 300 diseases in 195 countries, and how much of this burden is caused by 84 different risk factors, including diet, high blood pressure, tobacco smoking and air pollution.

Act now

This report is the lasting reminder of India’s health emergency and comes at the right time when the country is shaping up its electoral mandate. Addressing this health crisis has to the part of the electoral and political mandate to drive the National Clean Air programme (NCAP). India is running against time and the pollution levels and health risk must decline significantly to offset the health impacts from growing numbers and ageing — the essential part of demographic transition. The new report thus also provides the positive inducement that life expectancy can improve if air pollution is reduced. Clearly therefore, steps are needed in leaps and not in small steps.


Not A Regular Reader? 4 Strategies To Make Reading A Habit.

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Not A Regular Reader? 4 Strategies To Make Reading A Habit.

If you have trouble reading, it doesn’t necessarily end as soon as you’re out of school. Nearly 20% of adults struggle to read, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. But just because you’re not nose-deep in Dostoyevsky doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good resources out there to help.

“People who have trouble reading are not dumb. They are bright smart people but they just read differently from others,” says Manju Banerjee, the Vice President for Educational Research and Innovation and a professor at Landmark College, a school in Vermont for students with diagnosed learning disabilities. She knows what’s up.

Here are some ways that you can get started on your reading journey, especially if it’s difficult:

1. Remember: if you are a slow reader, or if you struggle to read, that doesn’t mean you’re not smart!

Reading slowly, or struggling to read happens to all kinds of successful folks — just ask Stephen Spielberg, Kiera Knightley or Whoopi Goldberg! Of course, there’s a huge range of what it means to struggle to read — please know that in this piece we’re being as broad as we can when we speak to all you smarties who struggle to read. From folks with dyslexia, folks who just can’t seem to pick up a book and all of y’all who worry that social media has effectively put your brain into the microwave. And heads up, if you think you have an undiagnosed learning disability — talk to your doctor.

We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to read quickly when we read, which Banerjee says is really counterproductive. “I see so many individuals benefit from extended time,” she says. “There is there is that pressure around if you’re not a speed reader then you’re slow and slow is associated with not being smart.” So, she says, take it easy on yourself and give yourself enough time to pick up whatever book is interesting to you and release yourself from the pressure of time.

2. Drop! Everything! And! Read! Read whatever you want, but make time for it.

Carve the time out of your day or night to stop scrolling Instagram or fretting about tomorrow and tell yourself “I’m going to do this for 30 minutes,” or whatever you’ve got time for on that particular day.

Also, reading doesn’t need to be highbrow — you don’t have to read some massive doorstopper! If the classics don’t do it for you, let ’em go. “People who do read a lot can have a little bit of snobbishness about it,” says Juanita Giles, who writes a delightful column for NPR and is also the founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. If you’re wondering what to read, just … read whatever the heck sounds interesting to you without judging it. So that dishy celeb memoir you’re reading is fine! It’s a book! And if you’re reading it, that is the point in and of itself.

“Give yourself that time at night to read. Just dedicate that time, and you’ll find if you don’t like it, the book that you pick out at first, put it down and just try another one,” she says.

3. If you want to read more, make sure you have books all over your life.

“If you have to go to the doctor’s office or if you have to go to the DMV or any place … Keep a book in the car, keep a book in your bag. Just put them all over the place,” says Giles. “I have books everywhere. You know, make them available to you. And pretty soon you’ll pick one up and you’ll start reading and then there you go your reader.”

Giles and Banerjee stressed that you don’t necessarily need a physical book — if your eyes are having trouble taking in books, try an audiobook! Or even use a program for text to speech. Banerjee says that Microsoft’s Immersive Reader software works well, especially in reading aloud, translating words in the text that are in other languages, like Latin, and in making it possible for readers to highlight text in audio. She also says that Adobe Acrobat Pro and the standard Adobe Acrobat both have a helpful feature that allows her as a teacher to embed a spoken note in the text that the student is reading.

4. Break it down with this 4-part reading strategy

We have some useful strategies from Banerjee that are rooted in neuroscience that I think can help all of us. Think of it like a little Russian nesting doll of advice for how to read:

Pre-reading: Evaluate how much time you have and how much you want to read.
Gist reading: Skim everything you’ve got and get a sense for it. I remember my mom taught me this smart trick about skimming, which is look out for numbers and bolded words, any titles and sort of move your eyes over the page.
Strategic reading: Strategic reading is all about finding the meaning in what you just read. Basically, you read slower and focus on keeping that information in your brain.
Review reading: This final step, Banerjee says, is a little more for the classroom than it is for just sitting down and reading your novel, but it’s where you go over everything you read to make sure it’s all there in your brain.

So these four steps: Pre-reading, gist reading, strategic reading and review reading are the way to get those words from the page to stick in your head. But Banerjee recommends that you can be flexible with these steps depending on what you’ve got on your plate.

Bonus Tip — Change word spacing

Banerjee highly recommends that anyone struggling to read check out the work of Matthew H. Schneps. “He’s done some very fascinating studies which show that if you reduce the number of words in a sentence and add more white space between words those who are different couldn’t read before can actually read,” Banerjee says. If this seems interesting, be sure to click around here and here to learn more about this research and the ways in which it could help you.


Abortion rates fall drastically in countries that have made birth control legal.

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Abortion rates fall drastically in countries that have made birth control legal.

Abortion rates have fallen over the past 25 years, even as more countries have made the procedure legal and easier to get, according to a new report released Tuesday.

Countries with the most restrictive abortion laws also have the highest rates of abortion, the study by the Guttmacher Institute found. Easier access to birth control drives down abortion rates, the report also finds.

The report finds about 56 million abortions occur every year — nearly 50 million of them in developing countries. About a quarter of all pregnancies end in abortion.

Because there are so many women of childbearing age, the number of abortions has gone up, but the rates per 1,000 women have fallen, the report found.

Switzerland had the lowest abortion rate at 5 per 1,000 women. The U.S. rate is 13 per 1,000 women, the same as Britain’s, the report found. Colombia and Mexico had abortion rates of 34 per 1,000 women. Pakistan’s estimated abortion rate was the highest at 50 per 1,000 women.

“Abortions take place around the world, no matter the legal setting,” the report reads. But, it adds, “Provision of abortion is safest where it has long been legal.”

“Nonetheless, some countries with broadly liberal laws have increasingly added restrictions that chip away at access to legal procedures; these include the United States and several countries in the former Soviet Bloc or zone of influence.”

Earlier this week, Mississippi’s governor signed a law banning most abortions after 15 weeks gestation, although a federal judge blocked the law Tuesday.

And the Trump Health and Human Services Department has reversed Obama era policies that made contraception more freely available and that used evidence-based approaches to fight teen pregnancy — over the objections of career health officials.

A 2012 study of more than 9,000 women found that when women got no-cost birth control, the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions fell by between 62 and 78 percent. But political appointees at HHS advocate for abstinence-only approaches, which have been shown not to affect unplanned pregnancy rates.

The report from Guttmacher, which studies reproductive health issues, found rates of both abortions and of unintended pregnancies have fallen worldwide.

“Improved contraceptive use, and in turn, declines in unintended pregnancy rates are the likely driver behind the worldwide decline in abortion rates,” Susheela Singh, vice president for international research at the Guttmacher Institute, said in a statement.

“Most women who have an abortion do so because they did not intend to become pregnant in the first place. Meeting the need for contraception is critical to bringing down rates even further.”

greatly region by region. Much of the reduction in abortions overall follows changes in the former Soviet Union, with policies encouraging contraception over abortion.

The highest abortion rates are now found in Latin America and the Caribbean, where abortion is strongly restricted legally.

“Highly restrictive laws do not eliminate the practice of abortion, but make those that do occur more likely to be unsafe,” the report reads.

The report’s findings echo those from the National Academy of Medicine last week. It found that, despite claims from some anti-abortion-rights officials, abortion care is overwhelmingly safe in the U.S. It found that abortions can be safely provided in clinics and doctor’s offices.

“In many states, regulations have created barriers to safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable abortion services,” the report reads.

“Abortion is among the most regulated medical procedures in the nation,” it adds.

“Having an abortion does not increase a woman’s risk of secondary infertility, pregnancy-related hypertensive disorders, abnormal placentation, preterm birth or breast cancer.”

The Guttmacher and National Academies reports agree that making it more difficult to get abortions forces women to get them at a later stage, when they will be more complicated, expensive and risky.

Guttmacher found when that happens to women in developing nations, they often turn to “traditional” methods which include:

  • Inserting sticks, roots, bones, wires, ground seeds or chemicals into the uterus;
  • Instilling bleach, saltwater, detergent or soap into the uterus;
  • Drinking alcohol, detergent, bleach, tea or herbs;
  • Taking aspirin, painkillers, laxatives, hormones or other medications;
  • Beating or pushing on the abdomen or jumping from heights;
  • Blowing air into the vagina or placing a hot stone on the abdomen to “melt” the fetus.

“Not only do these methods often fail, they can lead to severe complications,” the report concludes.



U.S. Court Rules Dreadlock Ban During Hiring Process Is Legal.

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U.S. Court Rules Dreadlock Ban During Hiring Process Is Legal.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled against a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Catastrophe Management Solutions, effectively ruling that refusing to hire someone because of their dreadlocks is legal.

The lawsuit was filed by the EEOC on behalf of Chastity Jones, whose job offer was rescinded by Catastrophe Management Solutions, located in Mobile, Alabama. According to the case file, Jeannie Wilson, a human resources manager for CMS, commented on Jones’ dreadlocks during a private hiring meeting to discuss scheduling conflicts, telling Jones, “they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” Wilson told Jones that CMS would not bring Jones on board with dreadlocks, terminating the job offer.

In their suit, the EEOC claimed that this was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII, arguing that dreadlocks are a “racial characteristic” that have been historically used to stereotype African-Americans as “not team players” and as unfit for the workplace. Therefore, claiming that dreadlocks do not fit a grooming policy is based on these stereotypes and inherently discriminatory, as dreadlocks are a hairstyle “physiologically and culturally associated” with African-Americans.

The court of appeals disagreed, ruling that CMS’s “race–neutral grooming policy” was not discriminatory as hairstyles, while “culturally associated with race,” are not “immutable physical characteristics.” In essence, traits in a person’s appearance that are tied to their culture but are otherwise changeable are not protected and can be used to deny job offers.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has been routinely interpreted by the courts to only protect against “immutable characteristics” and not cultural practices. In Garcia v. Gloor, the courts ruled against the plaintiff, arguing that being fired for speaking Spanish at work despite their employers English-only policy did not violate Title VII.

Restrictions against dreadlocks have also been implemented in schools. This past July, Attica Scott, whose daughter is a student at Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky, tweeted the dress code distributed by the school, which specifically prohibited “dreadlocks, cornrows, and twists.”


The Names of 1.8 Million Emancipated Slaves Are Now Searchable in the World’s Largest Genealogical Database.

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The Names of 1.8 Million Emancipated Slaves Are Now Searchable in the World’s Largest Genealogical Database.

The successes of the Freedman’s Bureau, initiated by Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and first administered under Oliver Howard’s War Department, are all the more remarkable considering the intense popular and political opposition to the agency. Under Lincoln’s successor, impeached Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson, the Bureau at times became a hostile entity to the very people it was meant to aid and protect—the formerly enslaved, especially, but also poor whites devastated by the war. After years of defunding, understaffing, and violent insurgency the Freedman’s Bureau was officially dissolved in 1872.

In those first few years after emancipation, however, the Bureau built several hospitals and over a thousand rural schools in the South, established the Historically Black College and University system, and “created millions of records,” notes the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “that contain the names of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved individuals and Southern white refugees.” Those records have enabled historians to reconstruct the lives of people who might otherwise have disappeared from the record and helped genealogists trace family connections that might have been irrevocably broken.

As we noted back in 2015, those records have become part of a digitization project named for the Bureau and spearheaded by the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose FamilySearch is the largest genealogy organization in the world. “Using modern, digital and web-based technology and the power of [over 25,000!] volunteers,” says Hollis Gentry, a genealogical specialist at the NMAAHC, the Freedman’s Bureau Project “is unlocking information from a transformative era in the history of African American families and the American nation.”

That information is now available to the general public, “globally via the web” here, as of June 20th, 2016, allowing “all of us to enlarge our understanding of the past.” More specifically, the Freedman’s Bureau Project and FamilySearch allows African Americans to recover their family history in a database that now includes “the names of nearly 1.8 million men, women and children” recorded by Freedman’s Bureau workers and entered by Freedman’s Bureau Project volunteers 150 years later. This incredible database will give millions of people descended from both former slaves and white Civil War refugees the ability to find their ancestors.

There’s still more work to be done. In collaboration with the NMAAHC, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is currently relying on volunteers to transcribe all of the digital scans provided by FamilySearch. “When completed, the papers will be keyword searchable. This joint effort will help increase access to the Freedmen’s Bureau collection and help the public learn more about the United States in the Reconstruction Era,” a critical time in U.S. history that is woefully underrepresented or deliberately whitewashed in textbooks and curricula.

“The records left by the Freedmen’s Bureau through its work between 1865 and 1872 constitute the richest and most extensive documentary source available for investigating the African American experience in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras,” writes the National Archives. Soon, all of those documents will be publicly available for everyone to read. For now, those with roots in the U.S. South can search the Freedman’s Bureau Project database to discover more about their family heritage and history.

And while the Smithsonian’s transcription project is underway, those who want to learn more can visit the Freedman’s Bureau Online, which has transcribed hundreds of documents, including labor records, narratives of “outrages committed on freedmen,” and marriage registers.



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