Author Archives: Natalie Ward

Quercetin may reduce blood pressure according to a new study

A plant substance, flavonoid quercetin, could be used to treat hypertension levels in patients. A team of researchers at Dongguan People’s Hospital Dongguan Shilong, China, said they found in a new study in Nutrition Reviews that quercetin itself can have a great impact on blood pressure. They also checked for possible effects on glucose levels.

Quercetin is a substance found in various plants, including food plants such as onions, apples or even in red wine and tea. It is a plant pigment that has already been the subject of several studies in the past. It is precisely these that the researchers analyzed: they compared 17 previous studies, which analyzed the effects of quercetin on a total of 886 participants, to find that this substance reduced systolic blood pressure.

The researchers also found that those who consumed quercetin for a period of eight weeks or more showed reduced levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. However, the quercetin itself did not seem to particularly affect total cholesterol levels or fasting blood glucose concentrations.

Scientists are trying to measure its temperature of dark matter

A team of researchers at the University of California at Davis is trying to measure the temperature of dark matter, the imperceptible substance that should make up at least a quarter of everything in our universe.

Although we still don’t know what the dark matter is composed of, according to the researchers, it is possible to detect its temperature level. At least it is of this opinion Chris Fassnacht, a physics professor who, together with colleagues, is trying to analyze the distortion that happens when dark matter distorts light coming from distant objects. This is the effect called “gravitational lensing,” an effect that allows us to observe very distant objects in some cases otherwise imperceptible.

According to the standard model, dark matter should be “cold”, in the sense that it should be composed of particles that move relatively slowly, at least with respect to the speed of light. According to Fassnacht, however, this model does not work well on the scale of individual galaxies but only on the cosmic scale. Dark matter could be “hot”: the particles that compose it could be lighter and could move fast.

Analyzing the gravitational lens produced by seven distant quasars, the researchers examined the changes in the dark matter that produced the effect. The results showed a lower limit to the potential mass of a dark matter particle. This limit does not entirely exclude cold dark matter.

“We need to look at about 50 objects to get a good idea of how hot dark matter can be,” says the researcher, convinced that this study may be useful to understand the temperature level of dark matter.

Aircraft emissions have impacts on air quality even greater than those they have on the climate

A new study, produced by MIT researchers and published in Environmental Research Letters, shows that the impact of aircraft on air quality is even more serious than the impact they have on the climate. Specifically, the researchers found that the same aviation sector, now in continuous growth, is the cause of at least twice the damage to air quality compared to damage to the climate.

According to Sebastian Eastham, a researcher at the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the emissions caused by air transport represent one of the most important factors with regard to man-made climate change, a factor that can be calculated at a level of 5%.

Considering the entire flight, which also includes the take-off and landing phases, the same emissions produced by the aircraft are responsible for at least 16,000 premature deaths a year due to air pollution. This is 0.4% of the total deaths caused by air quality, a figure that almost always is not considered at all when analyzing air pollution.

As for possible solutions, the same researchers admit that reducing a type of emissions then almost automatically leads to the increase of another type.

“We could reduce NOx emissions by designing engines with lower combustor temperatures. However, the resulting loss of thermodynamic efficiency would mean that we need to burn more fuel, or more CO2. These are the types of compromises that need to be quantified and our study offers a quick way for those who have to make decisions to do so.”

Following the analysis they carried out, the researchers found that reducing CO2 emissions and aircraft contrails did not achieve the greatest net climate benefit. On the contrary, reducing NOx emissions during the flight would bring the greatest net benefits. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that aircraft emissions and air transport, in general, have an impact on air quality greater than the impact they have on the climate, an impact that is 1.7 to 4.4 times higher.

Marshes can save the world from ongoing climate change

Marshes could save the world: this is the conclusion reached in an article published in Horizon Magazine according to which peat bogs, swamps with a large abundance of slow-moving water at low temperatures, can represent an “excellent” deposit for carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is one of the most powerful and most capable of changing the earth’s climate and it is important to “sequester” it or store it so that it is not lost to the environment. There are many methods that scientists are devising to achieve this goal but more and more often we resort to the same nature that has already shown that it can perform this task perhaps even more efficiently than any method developed in the laboratory. Among the many types of natural environments that can “sequester” carbon dioxide there are also marshes: peat bogs, made mostly of decaying dead plant material, can cause carbon dioxide to deposit under this layer.

The plant material is usually broken down by the enzymes that are in turn present in the microorganisms. In peat bogs, however, there are also other compounds called phenols that stop the functioning of some of these sets and lead to a “spectacular failure of decomposition,” as Chris Freeman, biogeochemist of Bangor University, UK, explains, who is studying the swamps and their ability to store carbon dioxide. This is a somewhat precarious equilibrium: it would suffice for only one of these enzymes, called phenol oxidase, to come into action because the decomposition process starts again and the peat bogs begin to release their carbon into the environment. It is, as defined in the press release, a “delicate standstill that holds the door to climate disaster.”

Now scientists fear that this can happen with global warming and with the ever more pressing drought and for this very reason Freeman himself, together with researcher Juanita Mora-Gomez, now at the Earth Sciences Institute of Orléans, have started a new project called microPEAT to study the bogs of Wales, the Arctic and Colombia with much more detail. They took samples from these swamps and brought them to the laboratory to subject them to pressing drought conditions and to understand the resulting effects.

In fact, what was feared happened with the champions of Wales and the Arctic: with drought, the microbes in the peat changed their metabolism and began to emit carbon. However, with the Colombian champions, the same state of drought went instead to further suppress the phenoloxidase enzymes. Researchers want to understand the reason for this differentiation but already believe that there are some particular points in the peat bogs that may be more resistant to climate change than others.

Answering these questions could be very important to prevent the release of carbon into the environment and therefore the acceleration of global warming. This is a “very important possibility,” as Freeman himself explains, a sort of “plan B for the planet.”

Green spaces in the city decrease premature deaths

Green spaces in cities are important and can prevent premature deaths for any cause according to a new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health. The analysis was based on new longitudinal studies concerning seven different countries for a total of 8 million inhabitants and, as specified in the press release, “provides strong evidence of the impact of the increase in green areas on mortality.”

Considering that almost half of the world’s population lives in urban contexts and considering that in many of these areas green spaces are lacking or not enough, this research reveals once again how much this is not just “urban decoration” but a method direct and effective to improve the health of citizens. In particular, green spaces, according to researchers, reduce stress, improving mental health, and are a weapon of contrast for cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome and in general for premature deaths.

Similar studies have been carried out in the past but have focused on specific areas or have used different methods to measure citizens’ exposure to plants and general greenery. Precisely for this reason, researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), who collaborated with the Colorado State University and the world health organization, decided to focus on longitudinal studies carried out in different areas.

The researchers used a particular methodology to measure exposure to green called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) also based on satellite images. They then compared these data with those related to statistics for premature mortality for all causes. The study considered the inhabitants of areas of Canada, the United States, Italy, Spain, Australia, Switzerland and China.

The researchers discovered a link between the amount of greenery around homes with a significantly reduced amount of premature mortality. Deaths decreased by an average of 4% for each 0.1 increase in vegetation score when it was present within 500 meters of the houses.

As David Rojas, a researcher at ISGlobal and first author of the study, says, these results “support interventions and policies to increase green spaces as a strategy to improve public health.”

Very thin organic films could be used for the electronics of the future

The shrinking of electronic devices is one of the greatest technological advances of human beings. This type of progress is made possible through the use or discovery of new materials that allow the construction of electrical circuits in ever-smaller spaces.

It is precisely in this context that we introduce the discovery made by a group of scientists from the University of Chicago who collaborated with Cornell University and the Argonne National Laboratory to develop extremely thin films made of organic materials which, as explained in the study published in Science, could represent a new springboard towards even smaller electronics with new capabilities.

The film is much more efficient at the extremely high temperatures that are usually needed to produce inorganic films. Researchers have already tested this film as an electric capacitor, achieving good results, which inspires some confidence in any use in electronics. However, the same researchers think of other possible uses: nanorobots, fabrics that bend or take on a certain shape when exposed to water or light, membranes to filter water or to make batteries more efficient, sensors to detect toxins and even possible uses in the field of quantum computing.

“If you can transform materials into atomically thin layers, you can stack them into sequences and get new features, and there are some very good reasons to think that organic films can be really useful,” said Yu Zhong, one of the authors of the study. “But up to now, it has been very difficult to check the thickness of the film and make it in large quantities.”

“Intelligent” magnetic asphalt developed for electric scooters

“Intelligent” asphalt with particular magnetic properties that could be particularly useful for so-called “electric scooters” was created by a group of scientists from the University of Granada. These new materials, used as street coverings, can change their properties depending on the presence of external magnetic fields.

According to the researchers who created them, they can signal to these small electric vehicles when they have to slow down and, in a more advanced view, they could even turn off the electric motor of the vehicle in case of danger. This new asphalt could help as regards the growing use of kinetic scooters and in cities, a use that is not yet regulated also because these vehicles are not very fast so they are not compared either to classic scooters, or to bicycles.

Moreover, the city infrastructure itself does not seem to be equipped to handle “vehicles” like these. The engineers of the University of Granada have developed “coded” asphalt which contains different amounts of metallic material. This metal material is composed of magnetic particles and can be incorporated into sensitive points such as the edges of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.

Devices grafted under the asphalt can “be coded using metallic particles” and can send a code to the electric scooters. They can, for example, warn users to reduce speed or they can even trigger the engine to stop.

The project was presented at the EATA (European Asphalt Technology Association) eighth conference in Granada.

Paralyzed patient walks with an exoskeleton controlled by the brain

A French man has returned to walking after having been paralyzed following an accident thanks to a brain-controlled exoskeleton according to the scientists who invented it.

The same doctors and engineers who created the device, while admitting that a possible use for the public is still many years away, believe that this device has “the potential to improve the quality of life and autonomy of patients.”

The patient in question had an accident four years ago when he fell from a height of 12 meters. The incident severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from his shoulders down. Experts from the Grenoble Alpes hospital, from Clinatec, a company in the biomedical field, and from the CEA research center have first implanted two devices on the patient’s head connected to the brain.

These devices read the signals of the cortex motor sense and these same signals are then translated by an algorithm. The algorithm then sends the physical commands to the exoskeleton that executes them.

To “train the algorithm” the patient had to use, using the signals of his brain, a sort of avatar in a computer simulation to acquire the necessary skills.

This new system, beyond the exoskeleton, could also help to build a wheelchair controlled by the brains of paralyzed patients.

Brain stem cells transplanted into the brain of mice successfully without anti-rejection drugs

A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine states, in a work published in the journal Brain, that they succeeded in successfully transplanting brain stem cells into the brain of a mouse and without the use of anti-rejection drugs.

Just the lack of use of these drugs, if the same method can also be applied on humans, could advance the research field of brain stem cells, in particular for those therapies that are implemented on children who are born with a rare class of genetic diseases.

In these diseases, myelin, which is the protective coating of neurons, does not get to form normally. This is a rare condition that affects about one in 100,000 children in the United States. One of them is Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease.

To achieve this, Piotr Walczak, a professor of radiology and radiological sciences, injected, together with his team, into the brain of mice glial cells to independently produce the myelin sheath around neurons.

With a particular specialized camera to capture brain images of mice, the researchers found that one of the groups of rodents they treated showed that glial cells injected into the brain lasted for over 203 days, which showed that they had not been eliminated from the system immune of the mouse.

And not only were they not eliminated but they assumed their normal function of protecting neurons by populating the appropriate parts of the brain.

“We interpret this result as a success in selectively blocking immune system T cells from killing transplanted cells,” reports lead author Shen Li.

Climate change is also affecting floods in Europe

Ongoing climate change is also affecting the frequency and magnitude of flood events. This is stated by a new study produced by various international researchers led by Günter Blöschl of the Technical University of Vienna who used the data collected from different climatic stations throughout Europe.

In particular, researchers focused on floods produced by rivers, a phenomenon that can cause enormous damage. They clearly state that changes in the magnitude of flood events that have occurred in recent decades in Europe can be attributed to ongoing climate change.

However, the same study finds that these climate changes seem to have different effects depending on the geographical area. For example, in north-western Europe floods are increasing, both in intensity and in number, while in southern and eastern Europe they are decreasing.

This is important research because up to now it has never been possible to connect the current climate changes to flood events with the scientific method, also due to the lack of sufficient data.
“Now we have examined this question in great detail and we can say with confidence: yes, the influence of climate change is clear,” says Günter, leaving little room for misunderstanding.

And the effects are not only connected to the fact that a higher temperature level in the atmosphere favors a greater accumulation of water: “Things are more complicated,” reports the same researcher.

In southern Europe, floods are decreasing because climate change is causing less rainfall and higher than average temperatures that evaporate water from the soil. In central and north-western Europe, on the other hand, floods increase because rainfall increases and the soil becomes wetter.

And the increases seem significant: they range from a 23.1% decline per decade to an 11.4% increase per decade. A new reality to which the entire flood management sector will soon have to adapt.

The researchers analyzed data from 3738 stations designed to measure floods in Europe, data collected from 1960 to 2010. The study was published in Nature.