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Every human gut may have a unique viral composition

The first comprehensive database of the communities of viruses, or “viromes,” living in our guts reveals that they vary enormously from person to person. The database offers new opportunities to identify viruses that could potentially play a role in treating antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Share on PinterestResearch suggests that each human gut may have a unique…

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Every human gut may have a unique viral composition

The first comprehensive database of the communities of viruses, or “viromes,” living in our guts reveals that they vary enormously from person to person. The database offers new opportunities to identify viruses that could potentially play a role in treating antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Share on PinterestResearch suggests that each human gut may have a unique composition, with viral diversity being particularly high in infants.The bacteria that colonize the human digestive system are known to have a profound effect on health, but the viruses that coexist alongside them are likely to be just as important.According to the newly created Gut Virome Database (GVD) from Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, 97.7% of the viruses in our gut are bacteriophages, meaning that they use bacteria as hosts in which to replicate themselves.Early in the 20th century, scientists began to investigate the potential of bacteriophages to combat bacterial infections, but the discovery of antibiotics largely superseded their work.Now, with the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, there has been a resurgence of interest in bacteriophage therapy.Scientists have discovered a great deal about the “bacteriome” — the community of bacteria that make their home in the gut — but characterizing the virome has proved more challenging. Bacteria have certain genetic sequences in common, which makes identifying their DNA relatively easy, but there is no such universal marker for viruses.To make it easier to study the virome, microbiologists at OSU decided to establish a database dedicated to human gut viruses.The team built the GVD using genetic data from 32 studies that aimed to identify gut viruses in a total of 1,986 people living in 16 different countries. After processing the data to account for the wide variety of different methods that these studies used, they identified 33,242 “unique viral populations,” which are the viral equivalent of species.On average, each viral metagenome — the collective viral genome in a sample from an individual’s gut — contained 542 viral populations.No single viral population was present in every metagenome. In fact, the researchers found the most widespread viral population in only 39% of the metagenomes. In their new study paper, published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, they suggest that each person’s gut virome is highly personalized and most likely unique.The team will continually update the database to provide a free resource for other researchers.“We’ve established a robust starting point to see what the virome looks like in humans,” says study co-author Olivier Zablocki, a postdoctoral researcher at OSU. “If we can characterize the viruses that are keeping us healthy, we might be able to harness that information to design future therapeutics for pathogens that can’t otherwise be treated with drugs.”Looking to the future, bacteriophages (or “phages”) isolated from the guts of healthy people have the potential to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They could also help restore a healthy balance to microbial communities in the gut.“Phages are part of a vast interconnected network of organisms that live with us and on us, and when broad spectrum antibiotics are used to fight against infection, they also harm our natural microbiome,” says senior study author Matthew Sullivan. “We are building out a toolkit to scale our understanding and capabilities to use phages to tune disturbed microbiomes back toward a healthy state,” he adds.Using the new database, the researchers conducted the first survey of changes in the diversity of gut viruses across the human lifespan.They found that in Western individuals with a good health status, viral diversity was high in infants before the age of 3 years, before dropping in childhood. It then rose as people entered adulthood, before declining after 65 years of age.The authors attribute the rich diversity of viruses in infants’ guts to their weak, underdeveloped immune systems. Infants may also lack the bacteria that typically protect the lining of the gut from viral infection in later life.The researchers believe that their database will be an important tool for investigating how the gut virome changes over time and its effect on individuals’ vulnerability to particular diseases:“For example, here, we used the GVD database to uncover the age-dependent patterns of virome diversity in healthy, Western individuals. However, the GVD could also have much broader implications, including helping better classify individuals’ native gut microbiomes and viromes to determine how it affects a person’s predisposition to diseases like COVID-19.”– The study authorsInterestingly, the scientists discovered that people living in non-Western countries had more diverse gut viral populations than Westerners. Other research has shown that non-Westerners who move to Western countries lose some of their gut microbial diversity, which suggests that diet or other environmental factors may play a role in shaping the virome. In addition, the database revealed that individuals in good health had more diverse viral populations than those who were sick.“A general rule of thumb for ecology is that higher diversity leads to a healthier ecosystem,” says first author Ann Gregory, who worked on the new database while she was a graduate student at OSU. “We know that more diversity of viruses and microbes is usually associated with a healthier individual. And we saw that healthier individuals tend to have a higher diversity of viruses, indicating that these viruses may be potentially doing something positive and having a beneficial role.”The authors acknowledge that the GVD has some limitations in terms of its scope. For example, they write that its representation of different geographic regions and ethnic groups is not yet sufficiently broad.
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Vitamin D sufficiency may reduce complications of COVID-19

A recent small-scale study has concluded that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are less likely to have life threatening complications if they have sufficient vitamin D levels.A new study demonstrates that people with sufficient levels of vitamin D are less likely to develop life threatening COVID-19 complications when hospitalized with the disease.The research, published in the…

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Vitamin D sufficiency may reduce complications of COVID-19

A recent small-scale study has concluded that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are less likely to have life threatening complications if they have sufficient vitamin D levels.A new study demonstrates that people with sufficient levels of vitamin D are less likely to develop life threatening COVID-19 complications when hospitalized with the disease.The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, could be valuable for doctors attempting to reduce the mortality rates of COVID-19 in the absence of an effective vaccine.If further studies back up these findings, vitamin D supplements might offer a cost-effective way to limit the risk of severe COVID-19. It is important to note that this recent study has several limitations, which we address below.Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.Since the sudden emergence of the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease that it causes, COVID-19, scientists have paid a great deal of attention to the development of a vaccine. Experts consider a vaccine to be crucial in reducing the effects of the virus, even if it is not yet clear to what extent an initial vaccine would moderate rates of transmission and infection.Alongside the endeavor to develop a vaccine, researchers are also focusing on developing effective COVID-19 treatments. Even if none can make a person immune to the virus, treatments may be able to reduce the disease’s severity.The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved two drugs as treatments for COVID-19: remdesivir and dexamethasone.Another candidate is vitamin D. Research has suggested that it might, in theory, be effective, but corroborating this requires further efforts.Rather than analyzing the effects of vitamin D as COVID-19 treatment, the researchers behind the present study looked at the effects of a person’s vitamin D levels on the severity of the disease.To do so, they analyzed data from patients with confirmed COVID-19 who had been admitted to the Sina Hospital, in Tehran, Iran.Of the 611 people admitted with confirmed COVID-19 before May 1, 2020, there were records of the 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels, an indication of overall vitamin D levels, for 235 patients. Their mean age was 58.7 years, ranging from 20–90 years, and 37.4% were older than 65.The researchers classified the patients into two groups: those with vitamin D levels of at least 30 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) — an amount considered sufficient by the Endocrine Society — and those with lower values.They then analyzed the severity of the patients’ COVID-19 signs and symptoms using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Severe or critical disease might involve a range of issues, including shortness of breath, respiratory failure, or a significantly reduced blood oxygen level.After cross-checking the patients’ vitamin D levels with the severity of their COVID-19 symptoms and accounting for confounding factors, the researchers found that having a vitamin D level of above 30 ng/ml was significantly associated with having less severe COVID-19.Among the 235 patients with confirmed COVID-19, only 32.8% had sufficient levels of the vitamin.The researchers also found that the patients with sufficient vitamin D had higher blood lymphocyte counts and lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood — both of which indicate a positive immune response.The researchers speculate that this may have reduced the likelihood of developing cytokine storm, which can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome in COVID-19 patients, sometimes resulting in death.The findings highlight, the researchers say, that vitamin D sufficiency may be important in the eventuality that people develop COVID-19 alongside another respiratory disease, such as influenza.According to the study’s corresponding author, Dr. Michael F. Holick, director of the General Clinical Research Unit at the medical campus of Boston University, in Massachusetts, “There is great concern that the combination of an influenza infection and a coronal viral infection could substantially increase hospitalizations and death due to complications from these viral infections.”For the researchers, their findings suggest that vitamin D supplementation would be valuable. As Dr. Holick notes: “Because vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency is so widespread in children and adults in the United States and worldwide, especially in the winter months, it is prudent for everyone to take a vitamin D supplement to reduce [the] risk of being infected and having complications from COVID-19.”It is worthing noting the present study’s limitations. First, the researchers only had access to a relatively small number of patients. Before drawing solid conclusions, scientists need to carry out much larger studies.Also, various issues can influence both vitamin D status and COVID-19 severity, such as socioeconomic factors and smoking status. The scientists accounted for neither of these in their analysis.Also, because the study was cross-sectional, the researchers could not prove that vitamin D insufficiency caused an increase in disease severity. To address these limitations, the researchers call for “large-scale studies and randomized clinical trials.”For live updates on the latest developments regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, click here.
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Video gaming as a child related to improvements in memory

A new study exploring the link between video games and cognition finds that playing video games as a child can improve a person’s working memory years later on specific tasks.Video games can be a contentious topic, particularly among parents or caregivers who may be concerned about the effects of spending hours in front of the…

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Video gaming as a child related to improvements in memory

A new study exploring the link between video games and cognition finds that playing video games as a child can improve a person’s working memory years later on specific tasks.Video games can be a contentious topic, particularly among parents or caregivers who may be concerned about the effects of spending hours in front of the console.Yet, it seems that some video gaming could actually be beneficial. Recent studies have shown that playing video games could improve learning and may even protect against dementia in older adults.The authors of a recent review of the evidence on video games concluded that gaming could have benefits for both cognitive and emotional skills.In a new study, which features in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona trained volunteers to play “Super Mario 64” — a game that researchers have previously shown to induce structural changes in parts of the brain associated with executive function and spatial memory.The new study found that people who played video games as children showed greater improvements in their working memory than those who did not, suggesting that video games can have long lasting benefits for cognition.This study combined video game playing with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive form of brain stimulation that scientists have studied as a treatment for mood disorders. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use for the treatment of major depression when other approaches have failed.Studies have also shown TMS to boost cognitive performance under some conditions, with more than 60 studies reporting that the treatment led to significant improvements in cognition, including in working memory (holding and manipulating information over a short period).The researchers behind the new study wanted to find out whether combining video game training and TMS could enhance cognitive function more than either element alone.They asked 27 healthy volunteers, with an average age of 29 years, to take part in 10 video game training sessions, during each of which they played “Super Mario 64” for an hour and a half.At the end of each session, the researchers applied TMS to part of the prefrontal cortex, which is at the front of the brain and is important for complex cognitive functions, such as working memory and reasoning. The researchers assessed the cognitive function of the participants before the study started, at the end of the 10 sessions, and 15 days after this.They assessed a range of cognitive functions, including reaction time, working memory, attention span, visuospatial skills, and problem-solving.Although the results overall showed very limited changes in cognitive ability, which seemed to result only from the video game training and not the TMS, the researchers did find that participants with early experience of video gaming had improved working memory.“People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result,” explains lead author of the study Dr. Marc Palaus, Ph.D.People with prior experience of playing video games (but not the actual game in the study) also showed improvements in processing and were better able to focus on relevant stimuli during the tasks.“People who played regularly as children performed better from the outset in processing 3D objects, although these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming, when both groups showed similar levels,” adds Dr. Palaus.The results suggest that video games may induce cognitive changes that last for years after people have stopped playing.Dr. Palaus says that video games that provide motivation — making the player want to keep on playing — and also get more difficult to stay challenging require intensive use of brain resources, which makes them ideal for boosting cognitive ability.“Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing.”– Dr. Marc Palaus, Ph.D. It is important to note that this study included a small number of participants who were all healthy, young, and highly educated, meaning that the findings might not be more widely applicable.Talking about the findings of their study, Dr. Palaus stressed that these improvements only have a limited effect on the performance of other activities not linked to video gaming, as is the case with most cognitive training.
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Lax gun laws in neighboring states may increase firearm deaths

A US study suggests strong gun control regulations reduce a state’s firearm deaths, but having neighbors with more lenient laws undermines their effect.Share on PinterestNew research suggests that one state’s lax gun laws could undo the effects of its neighbor’s stricter firearm regulations.In 2017, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the United States, according…

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Lax gun laws in neighboring states may increase firearm deaths

A US study suggests strong gun control regulations reduce a state’s firearm deaths, but having neighbors with more lenient laws undermines their effect.Share on PinterestNew research suggests that one state’s lax gun laws could undo the effects of its neighbor’s stricter firearm regulations.In 2017, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the United States, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.Overall, research indicates that stronger state laws governing the sale and ownership of firearms reduce firearm-related deaths. However, some states have relatively high rates of gun deaths despite strict regulations. To investigate why this might be the case, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Boston University School of Public Health at Boston, MA, looked into the effects of firearm laws in neighboring states.They used the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System to obtain figures for firearm-related deaths in the 48 adjacent U.S. states from 2000 to 2017. There were 578,022 firearm deaths in total, including homicides and suicides, but excluding deaths due to shootings by police or other law enforcement agents. The scientists also searched the State Firearm Laws Database for laws in each state regarding:background checksgun dealer regulationsbuyer regulationsgun-trafficking lawsThe team used the number of these laws as a proxy for gun control strength in each state.If you would like to check your registration status or register to vote, we have added some useful links at the bottom of this article.Overall, stronger state gun laws were associated with reduced firearm deaths, but having a neighboring state with more permissive laws undermined this protective effect.Larger policy differences across state borders were associated with increased gun-related deaths, suicides, and homicides, though the results were statistically stronger for suicide than homicide.The authors conclude:“This study adds to the growing literature emphasizing the role played by neighboring states’ firearm regulations in addition to own-state firearm regulations in firearm deaths. Failing to account for neighboring states with weaker laws, in some instances, can make a state’s own regulations appear less effective in reducing firearm deaths.”The scientists calculate that, on average, failure to account for weaker firearm laws in neighboring states make it appear as though a state’s laws were about 20% less effective at reducing deaths than they really were.They report their findings in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.The researchers write that higher prices and strong marketing regulations can lead consumers to purchase firearms in adjacent, relatively unregulated markets. They say these are a frequent source of the guns used in crimes.They believe their work supports the case for more cooperative legislation between neighboring states and at the federal level.“I think the main message of this study is that to solve a nationwide problem we need to think of a nationwide or at least a regional-level (i.e. multistate) approach, like we may also need for the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Ye Liu, who is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at the University of Alabama and the first author of the study. “An ‘each state on its own’ approach is ultimately inadequate to address one of the biggest public health challenges in this country,” Dr. Liu adds.The authors acknowledge the number of gun-control laws may not perfectly reflect the strictness of a state’s regulations. In addition, they note states may vary in how diligently they enforce these laws.They call for further studies that might use alternative measures of regulatory strength, focus on specific categories of law, or explore the effects of regulations in more distant states. To check your voter registration status, click here to visit VoteAmerica, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout. They can also help you register to vote, vote by mail, request an absentee ballot, or find your polling place.
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