All posts by Phil Coleman

Better planning in the O.R. could save millions of dollars in the U.S.

Up to 30% of the money spent on health care in the United States is wasted according to an interesting new study produced by researchers at Michigan State University and Rutgers University. And there is certainly no talk of small change since billions of dollars are spent every year in the United States on health care costs.

The study was published in the Journal of Operations Management. According to the authors of the study, one of the main flaws in the system is in the waste of time that occurs during surgery.
They calculated that 5 to 10 minutes of time are added for each surgery due to problems in planning the supplies needed for the same surgery.

According to the scholars, $1,800 per year per surgery (a total of $28 million per year) could be saved by simply planning and checking more frequently all the supplies needed before surgery.
According to Anand Nair, the lead author of the study who, along with Claudia Rosales, spent several weeks observing surgeons and colleagues in hospital operating rooms, “In most hospitals, each surgeon is authorized to make his or her own decisions in terms of equipment and supplies. Surgeons feel comfortable using certain consumables because of their past experience; this increases the variance between items and the number of items that hospitals have to carry in the inventory”.

Another difficulty is that surgical teams often change team members, which also makes it difficult to communicate which instruments to use.
“Hospitals should explore ways to encourage surgeons to plan more often,” says Nair.

The birth of agriculture has also caused an exponential increase in violence.

A new study published in Environmental Archaeology shows an interesting link: the growth of agriculture has led to an increasing collaboration between human groups but at the same time has also led to an increase and peaks of violence.
Researchers from UConn, the University of Utah, Troy University and California State University, Sacramento, examined in particular the development of agricultural growth from 7500 to 5000 years ago.

The researchers came to the conclusion that agriculture has favoured new types of cooperation between human beings, which in some ways is also foreseeable, but it has also favoured the birth of an increasingly elaborate type of violence, in particular that perpetrated by groups or real organizations.
Initially, researchers did not expect a connection with the increase in violence: they were interested in understanding why human beings, at some point in their history, have moved from hunting and gathering to a system such as agriculture. An anthropological study like any other.

Then Elic Weitzel, a PhD researcher at UConn in anthropology, began collecting data on an increasingly large scale. He began to understand how individuals distribute themselves in an area and how groups begin to occupy the best positions first.
The best areas are those that facilitate access to food, water, raw materials and shelters.
The researcher noted that in the areas with the best positions there were larger groups of people and greater social conflict, which consequently led to a higher level of violence.

“If you live in a suitable area, you can claim it and prevent others from accessing what you have. This becomes a cooperative process, because one person is not as effective as an entire group in defending a territory”.
According to another author of the study, Stephen Carmody, a researcher at Troy University, agriculture was one of the transitions that had the most consequences in human history and that changed, among other things, the entire human economic situation.

Agriculture itself has led to increasingly combined efforts, between groups of people, to encourage not only harvesting but also the defence of the harvest itself and of stocks, which has increased interpersonal cooperation but has also led to greater violence.
More and more groups, in fact, aimed to acquire the harvest of other groups in cases where their harvest had failed, for example.
The increase in violence is also evidenced by the increase in the skeletons of people who have died from violent acts dating back to the very beginning of agriculture.

Himalayan wolves boast genes for breathing at high altitude: are they a new species?

A group of wolves living in the Himalayan mountains would break away, on an evolutionary level, from the classic grey wolves living in nearby areas and become what could be considered as a new species in the future.
This new species of wolves seems in fact to be able to face the thin air, the one that exists above 4000 meters of altitude, more efficiently than the more classic grey wolves.

These groups of wolves, which seem to extend in some areas of northern India, China and Nepal, would in fact be the first evidence of the existence of a species of “Himalayan wolf”.
This is not the first time that the idea of categorizing Himalayan wolves as a species distinct from wolves has been proposed. They are larger in size and have different habits.

For example, grey wolves eat mostly rodents, Himalayan wolves also feed on Tibetan gazelles.
The howls would also be different: Himalayan loops would emit howls shorter and with a lower frequency.

A team of researchers decided to learn more about this case by performing new tests and extracting DNA from the faeces of 86 Himalayan wolves. The DNA was then compared with that of “classic” wolves and dogs.
The researchers published their results in the Journal of Biogeography.

DNA analysis confirms that Himalayan wolves have specialised genes to counteract the lack of oxygen that can occur at certain altitudes, unlike grey wolves.
These are true evolutionary adaptations, similar to those found in the bodies of humans living in Tibet and their dogs.

For these reasons, considering also the genetic specialization, researchers believe that Himalayan wolves should be considered as a distinct species.
This new language would have started to be “independent”, evolutionistically speaking, already 400,000 years ago.

Cold phases of the past caused by the melting of thick Arctic ice

Huge blocks of sea ice that melted in the Arctic and then flowed into the North Atlantic contributed, during various phases in the past but especially from 8,000 to 13,000 years ago, to the development of abrupt climate change following the last ice age.
This is the opinion of researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who have published their study on Geology.

After the end of the last ice age, there were in fact several cold phases that most researchers had difficulty explaining.
In particular, a very cold period, about 12,900 years ago, known as the recent Dryas, was problematic enough to explain so much that several scientists proposed meteorite impacts or heavy global volcanic eruptions to explain the change.

Some even thought that the recent Dryas was triggered by the drying up of Lake Agassiz, a large glacial lake near the ice cap that once stretched from the south of the Arctic to the area of today’s New York City.
According to Alan Condron and Raymond Bradley, two of the authors of the study, it is the periodic ice breakage of the Arctic Sea that is known to influence the global climate and lead to these cold periods.

This melting ice would cause freshwater flooding in the seas near Greenland, Norway and Iceland, which would have happened several times between 13,000 and 8,000 years ago.
These processes would have slowed down a major ocean current called the “southern reversal of Atlantic circulation” (AMOC), which brings warm salt water to the North Atlantic and pushes cold fresh water to the South.

The amount of cold and fresh water, in particular, would have been so high during these phases that it would have triggered abrupt global cooling, such as the recent Dryas.
This quantity would be so high that it would also exceed the hypothesis of Lake Agassiz, whose amount of water would not have been sufficient to trigger a global cooling phenomenon.

“Our results show that ice from the Arctic Ocean itself may have played an important role in causing abrupt climate change in the past,” the researchers explain.
Also because in the past the Arctic Ocean was covered by much thicker ice layers than we have seen in recent decades, which have become increasingly smaller due to ongoing global warming. Freshwater quantities so large that they were able to slow down AMOC and introduce a cooler climate globally.

Bumblebees can recognize objects through sight and touch

It is a level of cognitive complexity and cross use of multiple senses never before identified in an insect that was discovered by a team of researchers who analyzed the bumblebees, insects that resemble bees that are considered among the most important pollinators in nature.

The researchers were able to demonstrate, through laboratory experiments, that these flying insects are able to recognize objects through sight and touch, a capability, called “multimodal recognition”, which was believed to belong only to a few other animals, outside of humans.

The bumblebee brain is naturally much less developed than that of a human being: with less than a million neurons, however, it is able to create mental images of observed objects just as humans do, using information that comes from more than one sense.
This means that the brain of this small insect is able to create mental representations of the world around it.

This is a “remarkable discovery”, as described by the researchers Gerhard von der Emde and Theresa Burt de Perera who carried out the study: “These small invertebrates with very different brain structures from vertebrates are able to experience an object in one sensory mode and then recognize it with another.

An example of multimodal recognition lies in the case in which a human being recognizes a backpack even if only touching it thanks to the fact that he has seen such an object before. To perform what appears to be a simple action, the brain must create a mental representation of the object based on the information obtained in the past through sight and that obtained through touch.

This ability has been recognized, in addition to humans, only in primates, mice, dolphins and a single species of fish.
This, among other things, could also explain how bumblebees find flowers to pollinate even in very dim light or even darkness.

New land snail discovered in Borneo named after Greta Thunberg

A team of non-professional researchers, collaborating with researchers from Taxon Expeditions, a company that organizes scientific expeditions, has contributed to the discovery of a new land slug.

As described in the related study published in the Biodiversity Data Journal, it is a snail that belongs to the genus Craspedotropis and to the group of caenogastropods (Caenogastropoda), land snails known to be very sensitive to drought conditions as well as to other conditions such as high temperatures and soil degradation, as explained by one of the co-founders of Taxon Menno Schilthuizen.

The animal was found near the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre, a nature park in Borneo, Indonesia.
The discoverers wanted to name the animal Craspedotropis gretathunbergae, in honor of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Worth reading:

Tadpoles form air bubbles in the mouth to breathe

Tadpoles, too weak during the early stages of their life to “break” the surface tension of the water to be able to put part of their head out to breathe, use a rather characteristic and interesting method to obtain the oxygen needed to survive.

The discovery, almost by chance, was made by researcher Kurt Schwenk of the University of Connecticut while studying salamanders in the laboratory that fed on tadpoles.
It was an even more exciting discovery when the researcher realized that this strange behavior had never been described by any previous study.

Basically the story is this: tadpoles, i.e. frog cubs, do not have gills yet developed to obtain the necessary air as adults do.
For this reason they have to get to the surface to obtain the necessary oxygen but in the first days of life they are too weak to perform this action, in particular to “break” the tension of the water surface in order to be able to drive out part of their body.

They have therefore developed a surprising method to obtain the necessary air: they form a partial bubble through a special sucking action under the surface of the water, a bubble naturally filled with air.
The tadpole is therefore able to trap this small air bubble in its mouth and push it, through the muscles in the mouth, directly into the lungs.

And since the bubble formed in the mouth contains a greater quantity of air than their lungs can contain, the tadpoles expel the unnecessary air and form other small bubbles which then float on the surface of the water for some time, which creates many small bubbles on the surface of the ponds.

Tissue model in laboratory reveals role of blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s disease

A tissue model that mimics the effects of beta-amyloid plaques, those protein aggregates are known to be a leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease, on the blood-brain barrier was developed by a group of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The scientists, who then published a study in Advanced Science, showed the damage that beta-amyloid plaques do to this area of the brain. This damage causes harmful molecules in the bloodstream to enter the brain. In particular, researchers have shown that thrombin, a coagulation molecule normally present in the bloodstream, can enter the brain and damage neurons because of this damage.

Roger Kamm, a professor of mechanical and biological engineering at MIT and one of the authors of the study, explains the results his group obtained as follows: “We were able to clearly demonstrate in this model that beta-amyloid released from Alzheimer’s disease cells can actually compromise barrier function and, once compromised, factors are released into brain tissue that can have negative effects on the health of neurons.”

Kamm and his colleagues, including Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical, began working on the project several years ago with other researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital. They grew large amounts of beta-amyloid proteins in the laboratory and at the same time developed brain endothelial cells, those cells that form the blood-brain barrier.

These two types of tissue, after 10 days of cellular growth, were connected by collagen. At this point, the researchers discovered that within 3-6 days the molecules could spread from one culture to another. In particular, the beta-amyloid proteins secreted by the neurons began to accumulate in the endothelial tissue which caused the breaking of the blood-brain barrier and allowed thrombin to pass from the blood into the Alzheimer’s neurons leading to their death.

“We were able to demonstrate this bi-directional signaling between cell types and actually solidify things that had previously been seen in animal experiments, reproducing them in a model system that we can control with much more detail and better fidelity,” notes Kamm himself, who adds that this new platform could offer new possibilities with regard to the treatment of Alzheimer’s.


Small endoscope without lenses captures 3D images of objects smaller than a cell

A self-calibrating endoscope that can produce 3D images of objects is the device created by a group of researchers at the Technical University of Dresden.

The endoscope is capable of producing images of objects smaller than a single cell and without using lenses or optical, mechanical or electrical components. With its 200 micron wide tip, this new instrument could be particularly useful for imaging within living tissue. However, the very small and thin tip, essentially the size of a needle, could allow a variety of applications not only in medicine but in research in general.

Traditional endoscopes use small cameras or light (via optical fibres) to acquire images from inside the body. It is the fiber that allows the use of very thin and small endoscopes that can therefore creep into more places.

However, these devices require quite complicated calibration processes just as the fiber collects the images. The researchers at the German institute have solved this problem by adding a very thin glass plate, which is only 150 microns thick, at the tip of a small bundle of consistent fibres.

Consistent fibers are optical fibers commonly used in endoscopy applications. The beam of those used for this new device is about 350 microns wide. When the core of the fiber is illuminated, a beam is emitted which is then reflected and can be used to measure how light is transmitted.

This function, called optical transfer, then provides the data to represent the 3D images. This new approach “allows both real-time calibration and minimally invasive imaging, which is important for in situ 3D imaging, lab-on-a-chip manipulation of mechanical cells and deep tissue optogenics in vivo,” says Czarske.

As Juergen W. Czarske, one of the researchers involved in the project, explains, this endoscope can have “minimally invasive” access as well as producing high contrast images.

Regarding possible uses, Czarske himself says: “The endoscope is likely to be particularly useful for optogenetics – research approaches that use light to stimulate cellular activity. It could also be useful for monitoring cells and tissues during medical procedures, as well as for technical inspections.”


Airborne microplastics also pollute isolated snowy areas

Pollution by microplastics does not only affect the seas and not just the more or less inhabited regions. A new study confirms that many particles of microplastics can also be found in remote regions such as the Arctic or the Alps.

According to the study, published in Science Advances and conducted by a group of researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, these particles are transported by air because they are very light and generally very small in size. The researchers analyzed various samples taken from isolated areas of Bavaria, the Swiss Alps and the Arctic and found high concentrations of microplastics in all of them.

While the enormous quantities of microplastics present in the oceans are usually transported by rivers that make them travel long distances, as many long distances they can make when they are transported by air and then deposited on the ground by precipitation. This is particularly the case with snow that seems particularly suitable for storing high concentrations of microplastics, as Gunnar Gerdts explains: “Snow is extremely efficient when it comes to washing the microplastics out of the atmosphere.”

According to the researchers, the fact that this plastic is transported by air in remote snowy regions is corroborated by the fact that pollen can travel long distances from mid-latitude to the Arctic. And the pollen grains have more or less the same size as microplastics particles. The same thing, among other things, can be done with the finest Saharan sand which, transported by air, can travel great distances.