31 Oct

Medical News Today: Sound perception and the importance of context

A study published this week in Nature Neuroscience takes a fresh look at how context impacts the way in which we respond to sound stimuli. The results show that the underlying neuroscience is both complex and surprising.
[Yellow neurons]
Identical sounds can be perceived entirely differently, depending on context.

During a football match, if we hear someone shouting at the top of their lungs, we might not be particularly perturbed.

However, if we heard the exact same shouting while reading in a library, our reaction is likely to be significantly more intense.

Scientists have long known that we respond to auditory stimuli in a context-specific way.

Our reaction to the sound of a car horn, for instance, elicits a different response if we hear it as we cross a busy street, compared with hearing it from the comfort of our sofa at home.

Although we understand why context matters, the neural mechanisms behind it have proven more difficult to pick apart.

Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center’s Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine in New York designed a study to investigate the neurological changes regarding context-specific sound perception.

Senior investigator Robert Froemke, postdoctoral fellow Kishore Kuchibhotla, and their team set out to map how the same sensory inputs could be perceived and coded differently in the brain.

Understanding the sound in context

Although the project has been underway for around 5 years, the most recent findings still came as a surprise to the team.

Froemke has been interested in the plasticity of the brain and its ability to assign meaning to sounds for many years. Medical News Today recently took the opportunity to ask why this field of study was so interesting to him. He said:

“I think one of the most amazing things about the brain is that it changes, and it can learn all throughout life. This makes us all individual and different from one another, allowing us to learn from our mistakes and try to be better tomorrow than we were today.”

He continued: “Words and music, the names of our romantic partners, these can be fairly simple sounds that have such powerful meaning to us, and in really interesting individual ways that drive strong emotional reactions and profoundly affect our behavior. The sound of a crying baby, for example, evokes a very different reaction if it’s your baby versus if it’s three rows behind you on a plane.”

The way in which the human mind can change its response to certain stimuli is nothing short of amazing. As Froemke says, “I couldn’t not study it.”

Hung against this backdrop of deep fascination, Froemke and Kuchibhotla set out to understand these interactions by measuring nerve circuit activity in mice.

The battle between inhibition and excitation

In the brain, roughly speaking, nerve cells can be divided into excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory nerves produce chemicals that encourage the next nerve cell to pass on and consequently amplify the message. Conversely, inhibitory nerve cells prevent the message from being further transmitted.

The balance between these two subsets is vital to ensure that information is received and understood, and neither gets ignored unnecessarily or amplified disproportionately.

[Neuron firing]
Inhibition and excitation must be finely balanced.

To process incoming sensory information, such as sounds, signaling levels are adjusted through the interplay between these two cell types.

It is thought that the brain attaches more or less importance to a particular signal by dialing up or down the excitatory or inhibitory nerve signals.

In the experiments, mice were split into groups; some were trained to expect a reward when they heard a specific musical note, while others were not trained to expect anything at the sound of the same note.

Froemke and his team examined how sets of neurons responded to sounds which they either did or did not expect to signal a reward.

They found, to their surprise, that most of the excitatory nerve cells in the auditory cortex fired less when the mice expected a reward and received one.

Conversely, a second set of excitatory neurons in the same situation, increased their activity when they expected a reward.

Froemke admits that the results were “very surprising.” He recently explained the findings to MNT:

“We [imaged] the same population of cortical neurons over days as we trained animals. But, rather than a general increase or decrease in neural activity (which is what we expected), some neurons radically changed how they responded to sounds. Basically, we played the sound A (like a key on a piano) or sound B, and some neurons respond to one or the other sound, or neither sound, just as we expected.”

“We also expected that if we rewarded sound A, the cells originally responding to A would respond even more so,” Froemke continued. “But instead, some brain cells that originally responded to B or did not respond to any sound became very responsive the moment the task began, and resumed their original lack of response when the task was over. […] Even more surprising, most of the cells originally responding to A stopped responding.”

Explaining the inhibition

On further investigation, the team found that these unexpected changes were being controlled by the activation of populations of inhibitory neurons; specifically, parvalbumin, somatostatin, and vasointestinal peptide neurons. All of these subtypes were working in concert to switch the cortical network from the “passive” state to the behaviorally “active” state.

A brain region important in focusing attention – the nucleus basalis – releases acetylcholine, which, in the auditory cortex, influences the inhibitory neurons and changes the way a sound is perceived.

To pin down acetylcholine’s role, the researchers inhibited its release in the trained mice’s brains. When this was done, the mice only responded to the reward signal half as often.

Froemke hopes that, in the future, these findings will be used to help improve learning. He told MNT that “we’ve shown how behavioral context can activate the system important for attention, which is also critical for learning (you usually don’t learn if you don’t pay attention). We’re very interested in when this system is engaged, and when it fails to be engaged, and how we can improve training procedures to more effectively control acetylcholine release to promote and enhance learning (eventually in people).”

The team plans to continue their research in this regard and investigate the roles of other important neuroactive chemicals. Froemke is particularly interested in “noradrenaline (the brain’s version of adrenaline [norepinephrine], for increasing arousal and quickly paying attention to surprising or potentially dangerous things) and oxytocin (a hormone important for social interactions and maternal care), which help us notice other things in the environment and in our social lives.”

Read how scientists have used ear implants to regrow auditory nerves.

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31 Oct

Medical News Today: How to Get Rid of a Stuffy Nose: Eight Possible Treatments

Nasal congestion is a very common condition. In fact, most people get a stuffy nose from time to time.

Nasal congestion can develop when the blood vessels inside the nose become inflamed and the nasal tissues swell. Excess mucus drainage may also occur with a stuffy nose.

This article will look at eight possible treatments for a stuffy nose.

Treatments to relieve a stuffy nose

A lady blows her nose into a tissue outdoors whilst wearing a hat, scarf, coat and under an umbrella
Nasal congestion is very common and can be treated in a variety of ways.

A stuffy nose can make people feel awful. Those who are all stuffed up often want relief quickly so that they can breathe more easily.

Fortunately, there are many treatments for a stuffy nose that range from home remedies to medications.

1. Hit the shower

Taking a hot shower can help decrease nasal congestion. The steam from the shower may help mucus drain from the nose and improve breathing.

Although the benefits of the steam may not last, it will at least provide temporary relief.

2. Try a saline spray

A saline spray may help decrease tissue inflammation in the nose and reduce stuffiness.

Saline-only sprays do not contain medication, so they are usually safe to use during pregnancy. Saline sprays are available over the counter.

3. Flush out your sinuses

There are different devices on the market, such as a neti pot, which can be used to flush the sinuses. Neti pots have been used for hundreds of years to clear the nasal passages of mucus.

People can also use a saline solution to flush the mucus out of each nostril. Distilled or previously boiled water that has cooled should be used to avoid bacteria from tap water entering the nose.

4. Apply a warm compress

A warm compress may decrease sinus congestion and that stuffy feeling in the nose and face.

People can wet a washcloth with very warm water and apply it to the face. They just need to be sure the water is not so hot that it burns the skin.

5. Try eucalyptus oil

Eucalyptus oil is made from the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. The oil has been used for hundreds of years for its healing properties.

Inhaling the oil can decrease inflammation of the nasal lining and make breathing easier. People can place a few drops of the oil in a pot of boiling water and inhale the steam.

6. Take allergy medicine

In some cases, a stuffy nose is due to an allergic reaction. Allergy medications may contain an antihistamine that blocks that reaction.

Users should be sure to read the directions on the package and be aware of side effects. Some allergy medications can cause drowsiness, so driving should be avoided.

7. Use a decongestant

A blue neti pot
A neti pot is of Indian origin and is used to flush the sinuses.

Decongestants may also be an option to decrease nasal congestion. They work by causing the small blood vessels in the nose to narrow. The narrowing decreases swelling of the lining of the nose and reduces stuffiness.

Decongestants are available in pill form and nasal sprays. Nasal sprays may work faster since they do not have to be absorbed by the stomach. Over-the-counter and prescription medications are available.

Anyone with high blood pressure should ask their doctor first if it is safe to take decongestants.

Side effects can include increased heart rate, headache, and dry mouth. Nasal spray decongestants may also cause sneezing and burning inside the nose.

8. Use a humidifier

The added moisture in the air from a cool or warm mist humidifier can thin the mucus in the nose. This makes draining easier. A cool mist may also reduce inflammation of the mucous membranes inside the nose.

It’s important to keep a humidifier clean to prevent bacteria growing. People should always follow the manufacturer’s cleaning recommendations.

Causes of a stuffy nose

In many cases, nasal congestion is only a temporary problem. So what causes that stuffed up feeling? Consider some of the following conditions that can lead to a stuffy nose:

Viral infections

The common cold, which is due to a viral infection, is one of the most common causes of a stuffy nose. There are several viruses that can cause a cold, with the rhinovirus being the most common.

In addition to a stuffy nose, a cold may also cause sneezing, sore throat, and cough.

Allergic rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is very common. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 40 to 60 million people in the United States have the condition.

Allergic rhinitis occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to a substance that is usually not harmful. Common triggers of allergic rhinitis include pollen, dust, and pet dander.

Besides a stuffy nose, symptoms may include sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes. It’s not clear why some people develop allergic rhinitis, but having a family history of allergies is a risk factor.

Occupational rhinitis

Occupational rhinitis is similar to allergic rhinitis. It can develop when someone has a reaction to a substance in their work environment.

Symptoms may include stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and coughing. People who work around chemicals, wood dust, and grain may be at an increased risk of developing occupational rhinitis.

Pregnancy rhinitis

A mother comforts her young daughter who is in bed sick
A stuffy nose should clear after 10 days. If symptoms persist, a doctor should be consulted.

Pregnancy affects many parts of the body, and that can include the nose. During pregnancy, hormones including progesterone and estrogen increase.

The rise in hormones along with increased blood flow can cause swelling of the mucous membranes inside the nose. Symptoms may include stuffy nose and sneezing.

Pregnancy rhinitis can occur at any time during pregnancy. Symptoms usually go away shortly after delivery.

Atrophic rhinitis

Atrophic rhinitis occurs when there is thinning and hardening of the mucous membranes inside the nose. The thinning tissues make it easier for bacteria to grow and lead to an infection. Crusts also may form inside the nose.

The condition is most common in people who have had multiple nose surgeries.

Accompanying symptoms and when to see a doctor

When someone has a stuffy nose, it may be accompanied by a few other symptoms. It’s not uncommon to also have sneezing and a dripping nose. Nasal congestion may also lead to a headache in some people.

Although it can be uncomfortable, a stuffy nose is nothing to worry about in most cases. Still, there may be times when it’s best to see a doctor, such as if symptoms don’t seem to be going away.

The amount of time it takes for symptoms to improve may depend on the cause. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people recover from a cold in about 10 days.

If symptoms continue for more than 10 days, it may be time to see a doctor.

Complications of nasal congestion can develop depending on the cause. If a stuffy nose is due to a viral infection, possible complications include an ear infection, bronchitis, and sinusitis.

Addition symptoms to watch for that may signal something more serious than a stuffy nose include:

  • Green mucus draining from the nose
  • Facial pain
  • Pain in the ear
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness

People who develop any of the symptoms above may want to see their doctor to rule out a bacterial infection or any other complication.

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31 Oct

Medical News Today: Prescription opioids blamed for rise in pediatric poisonings

Growing numbers of children and young people are ending up in the emergency room because of prescription opioid poisoning, often following an attempted suicide or accidental poisoning.
[boy and pills]
Widespread availability of opioids appears to have fueled an increase in poisonings.

According to a report published in JAMA, the number of cases in this age group rose by more than 200 percent between 1997 and 2012.

Prescription drug poisoning is now the number one cause of injury-related death in the United States.

In 2014, opioid use led to 18,893 deaths in the U.S., and the number of addictions and nonfatal overdoses is on the rise. Emergency department visits related to prescription opioid use are now on a par with those linked to illegal drug use.

Widespread use of opioid analgesics to treat chronic pain has been blamed for the rise. From 1999-2010, there was a fourfold increase in sales of prescription opioids, and also a fourfold increase in the number of deaths from prescription opioids among people aged 15-64 years. In the 15-24-year age group, the increase was sixfold.

Opioids are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., used in millions of households.

Prescription opioids are responsible for most drug poisonings in children under 6 years. The majority of these poisonings involve drugs prescribed for adults.

Concern about opioid poisonings among children

Previous studies have revealed a drastic increase in the number of hospitalizations for opioid dependence, abuse, and poisoning in adults, but the figures for young people were unknown.

Julie R. Gaither, of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, and coauthors wanted to know how opioid poisonings affect children aged 1-19 years.

Heroin addiction often stems from prescription opioid use. Methadone is often prescribed to help heroin addicts kick their habit. While not widely used, it has been linked to a relatively high number of poisonings. For this reason, the team also looked at overdose and poisoning by heroin and methadone in 15- to 19-year-olds.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) recent approval of oxycodone hydrochloride (OxyContin) for children in some circumstances has made the need for information more urgent.

Opioid poisoning fatal in 176 cases

The team examined hospital discharge records from 1997-2012. They found that 13,052 children and adolescents were hospitalized for opioid poisonings, including a number of poisonings from heroin among 15- to 19-year-olds.

In 176 cases, or 1.3 percent, this was fatal.

Results showed that from 1997-2012, hospitalizations for opioid poisoning increased:

  • By 165 percent in children aged 1-19 years, from 1.40 to 3.71 per 100,000 children
  • By 205 percent in children aged 1-4 years
  • By 176 percent among 15-19-year-olds.

In addition, the incidence of heroin poisoning rose by 161 percent, and methadone poisoning increased by 950 percent.

In terms of background, 73.5 percent of the children were white, and 48.8 percent had private health insurance.

Among those aged under 10 years, 16 poisonings were related to suicide or self-inflicted injury. In the 10- to 14-year age group, the rate of poisonings or self-inflicted injury due to suicide or self-injury rose from 0.62 percent in 1997 to 0.85 percent in 2012.

The number of accidental poisonings among children under 10 years rose by 82 percent, from 0.17 per 100,000 children in 1997 to 0.31 per 100,000 in 2012.

In the 15- to 19-year age group, opioid poisonings due to suicide or self-inflicted injury rose by 140 percent, while accidental poisonings more than tripled.

A need for intervention

One limitation of the study is that the codes used to collect the data are subject to error and miscoding. In addition, say the authors, the data only goes up to 2012, so the results do not give a complete picture of the current situation.

However, the authors conclude that:

“Poisonings by prescription and illicit opioids are likely to remain a persistent and growing problem in the young unless greater attention is directed toward the pediatric community, who make up nearly one quarter of the U.S. population.”

The authors call for more public health interventions into pediatric exposure to opioids and more resources to address opioid misuse in those aged 15-19 years. They also call for national practice guidelines on opioid prescription, with specific guidelines for pediatric use.

Read how 1 in 5 people who used prescription opioids share their drugs with others.

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31 Oct

Medical News Today: Parkinson's disease: Production of dopamine neurons from stem cells steps closer

Stem cell therapies for brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease are rapidly moving toward clinical trials. However, before such treatments can leave the lab, it is vitally important to be able to consistently produce high-quality stem cells for transplant into patients. Now, scientists in Sweden have identified some insights – plus a set of markers – that should help control the quality of stem cells engineered for clinical use in Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson's disease words on a doctor's tablet
The new research should help refine stem cell engineering and transplanting methods prior to testing in clinical trials of Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers – including teams from Lund University and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm – report their work in two related studies published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

In one study, the researchers take a closer look at the molecular pathways involved in the journey, from a stem cell to a dopamine neuron. In the other study, they discover some key features of dopamine cell development and what makes these cells different from other similar and neighboring neurons.

The findings should help fine-tune stem cell engineering to produce pure populations of high-quality dopamine neurons, they note.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive brainwasting condition that affects movement. The symptoms include: tremors in the hands, limbs, jaw, and face; muscle rigidity; impaired posture, balance, and gait; and speech problems.

The disease primarily affects dopamine-producing brain cells or neurons in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. As the disease progresses, these vital cells malfunction and die, leading to lower levels of dopamine, a chemical messenger essential for controlling movement.

The need to refine stem cell engineering

As the brain’s population of dopamine cells dwindle, they are not replaced. One great hope is that stem cell engineering may offer a way to transplant a pool of progenitor cells into the brains of patients so they make new supplies of dopamine cells.

Fast facts about Parkinson’s disease

  • An estimated 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s
  • Men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson’s disease than women
  • The total cost of Parkinson’s in the U.S., including treatment, social security payments, and lost income, is estimated to be nearly $25 billion per year.

Learn more about Parkinson’s

In fact, one of the teams behind the new studies thought they had got very close to such a solution. In a breakthrough study published in 2014, they showed how it is possible to make dopamine cells from embryonic stem cells and transplant them into the brains of rats with Parkinson’s disease, to replace the lost cells.

Malin Parmar, professor in the faculty of medicine at Lund, led the earlier study and is also one of the leaders of the new research. She explains the unexpected delay that followed their high hopes from the first breakthrough:

“In our preclinical assessments of stem cell-derived dopamine neurons we noticed that the outcome in animal models varied dramatically, even though the cells were very similar at the time of transplantation. This has been frustrating and puzzling, and has significantly delayed the establishment of clinical cell production protocols.”

In one of the papers, the researchers discuss how a particular complication in the use of stem cells to treat brain diseases like Parkinson’s is that you cannot just produce a population of working dopamine cells in a dish and transplant them into the brain.

While some stem cell treatments – such as those undergoing trial for the treatment of macular degeneration – can use cells fully matured in the lab, in the case of brain diseases like Parkinson’s, you have to implant immature cells that only differentiate and mature after they are transplanted into the brain.

Animal models of Parkinson’s and other brain diseases show it can take months for the cells to mature and start working properly after transplant.

Ensuring quality of stem cells before transplant

The challenge is how to ensure that the cells are of the right quality before transplant, since it is going to be very difficult to keep an eye on their development once they are inside the brain.

In the first study, the researchers used modern global gene expression techniques and undertook experiments in over 30 batches of grafted human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-derived progenitors to look at predictive markers of high quality dopamine cell yield.

They found that many of the commonly used markers did not accurately predict the yield of the desired mature dopamine cells following transplants into live animal brains. Instead, they identified a specific set of markers that offer much higher predictive power.

“Using these markers, we developed a good manufacturing practice (GMP) differentiation protocol for highly efficient and reproducible production of transplantable dopamine progenitors from hESCs,” the authors note.

In the second study, the researchers undertook – using transcriptome-wide single-cell RNA sequencing techniques – a detailed investigation of how dopamine cells develop in the brains of mice.

Among other things, they found a marker that can distinguish between developing dopamine cells and other similar neighboring cells. They suggest this should help refine current stem cell engineering methods to increase the proportion of desired dopamine precursor cells. The finding, they conclude, should “have important implications for cell replacement therapy” in Parkinson’s disease.

“We have identified a specific set of markers that correlate with high dopaminergic yield and graft function after transplantation in animal models of Parkinson’s disease. Guided by this information, we have developed better and more accurate methods for producing dopamine cells for clinical use in a reproducible way.”

First author Dr. Agnete Kirkeby, Lund University

Learn how a new protein test could help earlier diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

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31 Oct

Medical News Today: Common Causes of Scalp Tenderness and Sensitivity

Scalp tenderness is a fairly common complaint, linked with several medical conditions that affect lots of people.

Migraines, tension headaches, and autoimmune disorders like psoriasis can all cause the scalp to become inflamed, irritated, and painful. Sunburns, rashes, wounds, and insect bites also commonly cause scalp tenderness.

Most cases of scalp tenderness clear up on their own or with medication, but some are signs of an underlying condition.

Symptoms of scalp tenderness

Lady holds her hands on her head and looks to be in discomfort
Many different symptoms may be present for scalp tenderness.

Scalp tenderness is defined as pain, inflammation, tingling, numbness, irritation, itching, throbbing, or sensitivity of the scalp. Often, many of these symptoms appear together, being linked immune processes in response to a variety of conditions.

Some scalp tenderness is caused by conditions affecting the blood vessels, nerves, and tissues below or surrounding the scalp.

Often, there are no visible symptoms. Other times, scalp tenderness is painfully obvious, involving peeling, flaking, and scaling of the skin.

The prevalence of scalp tenderness is not known, but the symptoms are considered fairly common. Scalp tenderness can accompany common conditions such as headaches, allergies, psoriasis, eczema, and hair loss.

Causes of scalp tenderness

Scalp tenderness is linked with many forms of headaches. In particular, scalp tenderness is linked with headaches involving the nerves that run from the back of the neck to the forehead.

Conditions that cause these nerves to swell or restrict can result in pain that moves throughout the head, neck, and scalp. According to Johns Hopkins University, this pain can appear as hot, intense, electric-like shocks.

The scalp becomes so sensitive for some people that even a light touch can be painful. In others, the scalp goes numb. This form of nerve pain is rare and usually caused by injury or a spontaneously pinched nerve. Headaches involving these nerves are far more common, however.

Scalp tenderness is also frequently linked to a range of skin conditions including:

  • Rashes
  • Sunburns
  • Insect bites
  • Head lice
  • Psoriasis

Many of these conditions cause inflammation, pain, tenderness, flaking of the skin, peeling, and can even make the scalp pus or bleed.

Dandruff is a common complaint, affecting places of the body where natural oils collect. It can cause red, scaly patches on the scalp. While not a sign of poor hygiene or disease, many people seek treatment out of irritation or embarrassment. Rarely, dandruff can also be caused by fungal infection or ringworm.

Psoriasis of the scalp can also lead to scalp tenderness and flaking or crusting skin. Unlike dandruff, the skin is dry with a silvery sheen. Stress, hormones, dry air, or cold weather can trigger psoriasis.

Lichen planus can also cause the scalp to flake or scale. This condition is also usually brought on by periods of stress or as a side effect of medical treatments.

If extreme, many of these conditions can lead to reversible hair loss.

Alopecia and hair loss

A form of hair loss called alopecia areata can also cause scalp tenderness. In this condition, hair follicles fall out in round clumps from the scalp and sometimes the body.

Two hands cup a large amount of hair
Alopecia may be very traumatic for sufferers.

Alopecia areata presents in patches, while alopecia totalis involves the loss of all hair from the head. Alopecia universalis involves hair loss from the entire body.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) claim that most forms of alopecia are generally not dangerous to the health or a sign of nerve damage. Instead, they are often the result of immune cells attacking hair follicles.

Other factors that can cause hair loss include:

Some women also experience reversible hair loss after childbirth, during hormone therapies, or during menopause.

In some instances of alopecia, the hair will likely regrow. With other forms, the hair follicle damage is so severe that hair loss is irreversible.

Other causes of scalp tenderness

Conditions that affect the skin elsewhere on the body can also present on the scalp. These include:

  • Acne
  • Cysts
  • Allergic reactions
  • Infections of the skin cells or hair follicle shafts
  • Viral diseases that cause skin sores such as shingles and measles
  • Tight hairstyles, headbands, and helmets
  • Regular or improper use of hair products such as dyes and relaxers
  • Hair dryers, flat irons, and curlers

Brushing or rubbing the hair while it’s wet can break hair follicles, causing hair loss and scalp irritation. Over-brushing can also cause problems.

While rare, scalp tenderness can be a sign of more severe health conditions such as skin cell cancers and melanomas. These conditions normally present themselves as new or changed moles or stubborn sores.

Especially painful, severe, or prolonged cases of scalp sensitivity should also be reported to a doctor.

Diagnosis of scalp tenderness

It will normally take a few visits to resolve more persistent or severe conditions causing scalp tenderness. Doctors often begin by collecting a medical history and asking questions concerning diet, routine, prior injuries, other conditions, and recent changes.

The doctor may then proceed to examine the scalp. They may also collect a hair follicle or scalp sample to be sent for further testing. Some doctors may also check body hair patterns.

Treatments for scalp tenderness

In many cases, the conditions causing scalp tenderness go away on their own. Many also require basic cleaning and care to ensure that the area heals successfully.

psoriasis at the base of the hairline
Skin conditions such as psoriasis should always be referred to a doctor.

Home first aid ointments, creams, antiseptics, and dressing materials are often enough to treat basic cases. Long-lasting or painful scalp tenderness should be reported to a doctor.

As so many conditions are linked to scalp tenderness and sensitivity, the course of treatment for each case can vary greatly. Treating the underlying cause for scalp tenderness typically treats the symptoms.

Some form of medicated cream or ointment is likely to be prescribed to manage irritation, pain, and external symptoms alongside other treatments. Medicated washes, shampoos, rinses, and conditioners are also commonly used to help treat scalp tenderness.

In the United States, Minoxidil and laser devices are available over the counter. Finasteride, cited by the Food and Drug Administration to slow hair loss in 80 percent of cases of hereditary male balding, hair loss, or thinning caused by certain conditions. Corticosteroids are also prescribed for more general cases.

Patients should read directions fully before starting treatment.

If an infection doesn’t clear after one treatment cycle, patients should seek further advice. The same advice applies to over-the-counter dandruff treatments. Pharmacists can help with choosing treatments and address concerns before starting either treatment.

Steps to take to relieve a tender scalp include:

  • Massaging the scalp with fingertips in circular motions
  • Applying ice for 10-minute intervals
  • Using tools to manipulate the scalp like
  • Slowly letting down hair that has been held in a tight position for a long period

Stretching and relaxation techniques can also be helpful for scalp tenderness caused by headaches, muscle soreness, and tension.

Preventing scalp tenderness

Following standard care routines can prevent many cases of scalp tenderness. Some things to avoid include:

  • Spending too much time in the sun
  • Hair-damaging chemicals, dyes, or devices
  • Intense stress

To avoid contagious infections like head lice or fungus, sharing hair ties and brushes isn’t recommended, especially among children.

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31 Oct

Medical News Today: New study links autism to mutations in mitochondrial DNA

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting over 3.5 million Americans. While there is no known cure for it, there are options for treating some of its associated symptoms. A new study by a team of researchers at Cornell University has found a connection between autism and mutations in mitochondrial DNA. This could eventually lead to developing new and more effective types of treatment.
[Boy looking out the window]
A study of 903 children found a link between ASD and mitochondrial mutations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) point out that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is very wide. Learning and problem-solving abilities in children with ASD range anywhere from gifted to seriously challenged.

According to the latest statistics provided by the CDC, approximatively 1 in 68 children have been identified with ASD between 2000 and 2012.

The incidence of ASD is the same across all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Regarding gender however, boys have a much higher rate of ASD incidence than girls. A boy is 4.5 times likelier to be diagnosed with ASD.

It is not entirely known what causes ASD, but previous research has pointed to a variety of environmental, biological, and genetic factors.

ASD has been found to occur at a higher rate among patients with specific genetic disorders, such as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or Down syndrome.

What are mitochondria?

Previous research has also linked ASD to dysfunctions in the mitochondria.

Mitochondria are bean-shaped tiny parts of the cell responsible for producing energy. This earned them the nickname of “powerhouses of the cell.”

In this interactive video from the Wellcome Trust Center for Mitochondrial Research, experts explain the function of mitochondria simply:

[embedded content]

While DNA is found in the nucleus of the cell, mitochondria also contain DNA, although this DNA is much smaller than the one found in the nucleus of our cells.

This mitochondrial DNA contains information that helps the mitochondria turn fat, sugar, and protein into energy.

The connection between mitochondrial mutations and ASD

A team of researchers led by Zhenglong Gu, from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has investigated 903 children diagnosed with ASD. The researchers found a larger number of harmful mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of children with ASD compared with that of their family members, who do not have the disorder.

The results of the study have recently been published in the journal PLOS Genetics.

“The result of our study synergizes with recent work on ASD, calling attention to children diagnosed with ASD who have one or more developmental abnormalities or related co-morbid clinical conditions for further testing on mitochondrial DNA and mitochondrial function.

Since many neurodevelopmental disorders and related childhood disorders show abnormalities that converge upon mitochondrial dysfunction, and may have mtDNA defects as a common harbinger, future research is needed to elucidate the mitochondrial mechanisms underpinning to these diseases.”

Zhenglong Gu, Lead researcher

The findings confirm the conclusions of recent research. A few recent studies have been pointing to the connection between malfunctions in mitochondria and ASD, with mounting evidence that mitochondrial dysfunction is a biological subtype of ASD.

One such study pointed out a 5% prevalence of mitochondrial disease among those affected by ASD. Neuroimaging, in vitro, post-mortem, and in vivo brain studies all confirmed a high prevalence of mitochondrial dysfunction in ASD patients. Further symptoms such as developmental regression, seizures, motor delay, or gastrointestinal abnormalities were much more present among those with both mitochondrial disease and ASD.

Zhenglong Gu and team discovered a unique pattern of heteroplasmic mutations, where both mutant and normal mitochondrial DNA sequences exist in a single cell.

Children with ASD had more than twice as many harmful mutations compared with their siblings who were not affected by ASD.

As mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from the mother, researchers also note that these mutations can be inherited from the mother. They could also form spontaneously during development.

The scientists noted that the risk associated with these mutations is most pronounced in children with lower IQ and poor social behavior compared with their unaffected siblings.

Apart from developmental disorders, metabolic diseases are also associated with mitochondrial dysfunction in people with ASD. The recent findings from Cornell University might help explain such metabolic disorders.

Implications for treatment

While there is no cure for ASD or treatment for its core symptoms, there are a variety of strategies that can help individuals with ASD function better. These include behavioural therapy and dietary approaches.

There is also medication available to help manage energy levels, the ability to focus, depression, or seizures in patients with ASD.

According to the CDC, most scientists agree that genes are a risk factor in the development of ASD. So evaluating mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of high-risk families, as the Zhenglong Gu study did, may improve the diagnosis and treatment of ASD.

“Ultimately, understanding the energetic aspects of neurodevelopmental disorders may lead to entirely new kinds of treatments, and preventative strategies that would target mitochondria.”

Zhenglong Gu, Lead researcher

Learn how early intervention for parents of children with autism reduces symptoms.

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31 Oct

Medical News Today: Bat flu virus may be capable of infecting human cells

Bats sighted this Halloween may not be quite as boo-tiful as they look. Bats have long been associated with haunted houses, spooky caves, and vampires. However, their nexus with the bloodcurdling and bone-chilling is not the only reason the masses fear them; they are also reservoirs for infectious disease. Now, researchers have been successful in isolating infectious influenza viruses from bats for the first time.
[bat infected with influenza A virus]
New research suggests that potential infection in humans with influenza A-like viruses from bats cannot be ruled out.
Image source: Albert Ludwigs Universit├Ąt Freiburg

It is widely accepted that all known influenza A viruses originate from aquatic birds that serve as virus reservoirs in nature and can infect domestic poultry and other birds and animal species. While avian influenza A viruses usually do not infect humans, rare cares of human infection with these viruses have been reported.

Human infections with avian influenza viruses occur through eye, nose, or mouth contact with or inhalation of infected bird saliva, mucus, or feces. The resulting Illness in humans has ranged from mild to severe. Avian influenza A viruses have been isolated from more than 100 different species of wild birds.

While it is unknown whether additional animal reservoirs of influenza viruses exist, bats were recently identified as a potential new source of influenza A viruses.

Bat flu was first discovered in “little yellow-shouldered bats” in Guatemala in 2009 and 2010. Since then, bat flu viruses have been detected in other species of bat including fruit bats in Central and South America, where two unique genome sequences of influenza A-like viruses were identified provisionally labeled “HL17NL10” and “HL18NL11.” Comparisons between different bat flu viruses have shown considerable genetic diversity among them.

Breakthrough in isolating bat influenza viruses in laboratory

Previous preliminary laboratory research shows that human cells do not support the growth of bat flu viruses in the test tube, which suggests that bat flu viruses may not grow or replicate in humans and would, therefore, have to undergo significant changes to infect and spread among humans.

However, the discovery of bat flu was deemed important for public health, because bats represent a new animal species that may act as a source of flu viruses and a possible cause of pandemics if introduced to the human population. Flu viruses in animals – that gained the ability to infect and spread quickly in people – caused previous pandemics of the 20th century, in addition to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Some bat-borne viruses including Marburg virus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV have been able to cross the species barrier and cause severe disease in humans.

All current efforts to isolate infectious virus from bats to generate HL17NL10 and HL18NL11 by reverse genetics has previously failed. The team at the Institute of Virology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, together with scientists from Switzerland and the United States, however, now report a breakthrough in isolating a bat influenza virus by reconstituting fully functional bat influenza viruses in the laboratory. Reconstructing bat flu virus, they say, is essential for risk assessment.

The study – published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) – also unexpectedly found that the bat influenza viruses not only infected bat cells but also dog and human cells.

Scientists conducted the study by first identifying cells that are susceptible to bat flu infection – these cells need to express receptors on the cell surface for bat virus attachment and entry. The team screened more than 30 cell lines from different species to analyze their capacity to recognize and internalize bat influenza viruses, but only a few cell lines were found to be susceptible.

Human cells infected with vesicular stomatitis also susceptible to bat flu

Another virus, vesicular stomatitis virus, which can infect many cell types, was engineered to incorporate a bat influenza virus protein – typically used by the bat virus for entry into cells – on its surface.

The cell line most susceptible to the engineered vesicular stomatitis virus was used to reconstruct the original bat influenza A-like virus, starting with the known influenza-like viral genome sequences isolated from the bats.

“Infectious bat viruses were readily obtained. Interestingly, most cells, including human cells, that supported infection with the vesicular stomatitis indicator virus were also susceptible to direct infection with the reconstructed bat influenza virus,” explains Prof. Martin Schwemmle, group leader at the Institute of Virology in the Department for Medical Microbiology and Hygiene, University of Freiburg.

Schwemmle and colleagues say their finding that at least two human cell lines were susceptible to infection with HL18NL11 and HL17NL10 suggests that a potential infection in people with influenza A-like viruses from bats cannot be ruled out. Bats are natural hosts for highly pathogenic viruses, and evidence of past transmissions of Ebola and rabies from bats to humans have been shown to cause deadly disease.

Although there is no such evidence yet for transmissions of influenza A-like viruses from bats to humans, the researchers say that the new findings are a wake-up call for more investigation.

“It is too early to jump to definite conclusions on the ability of these viruses to cross the species barrier and infect humans but our studies make it possible now to conduct further experiments and analyze the risk that these viruses pose for other species.”

Prof. Martin Schwemmle

Experimental infection of bats will provide deeper insight into the viruses in the natural host and their mode of transmission. In the meantime, it may be best to avoid bats in costume or otherwise while out trick-or-treating tonight.

Read about a universal flu vaccine in development that only needs to be given once.

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30 Oct

Medical News Today: Competition is the best workout motivation, study finds

Lack of physical activity has been shown to increase the risk of chronic illness and mortality. Yet, a large part of the American population fails to meet the government’s recommendations for physical activity. According to a new study, competition might be the key to getting us to workout more.
[Men and women on treadmill at the gym]
Competition drives us to exercise more, according to a new study.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 69% of Americans 18-24 years of age failed to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity in 2014.

To remedy the situation, researchers and governments have tried to uncover key motivators for people to maintain a schedule of physical activity, as well as cost-effective strategies to increase motivation.

Teaming up with friends and engaging in physical activity routines together is thought to be good for starting a new fitness routine, as the psychological costs of changing behavior are easier to bear in companionship.

But how does social media affect our motivation? Does a friendly, supportive environment help promote physical activity? Or might competition be more effective?

Support vs. competition in social media

A new study, published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports, from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania looked at key motivators for exercise in the context of social media. The study was led by Jingwen Zhang, Ph.D.

The study involved 790 graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania who signed up for an 11-week exercise program called “PennShape.” The exercise program consisted of weekly exercise classes that included running, spinning, yoga, and weightlifting.

The program also included fitness training and nutrition advice, which were all managed through a website created by the researchers. At the end of the program, those who attended the most classes won rewards and cash prizes.

In order to see how social media affected the participants, researchers divided them into four groups of six persons each: support team, competition team, a combined team with both support and competition, and a control group.

All the groups had access to online leaderboards, but for each group, leaderboards showed different things.

The competition team could see a leaderboard of how well other teams did. Competition-driven teams were rewarded based on the average number of classes attended. The competition-driven individuals in the combined group could see how well other anonymous program members performed. They also earned prizes based on their class attendance.

In the team support group, participants could chat online and encourage their teammates to exercise. The support group did not know how well other teams performed.

The control group did not know about any social connectivity on the website.

Competition motivated participants to exercise overwhelmingly more than social support. In fact, attendance rates were 90% higher in the competition-motivated group and the combined group, compared with the other two groups that had no competition.

The average attendance rate for the competition group was 35.7, the one for the combined team was 38.5, 20.3 for the control group, and the worst rate belonged to the social support team – with only 16.8.

The social support group had no significant impact on improving the exercise rate. In fact, it might have caused participants to exercise less.

Competition and social networks

The study gives us important information about how to use social media if we want to change behaviors.

“Most people think that when it comes to social media more is better. This study shows that isn’t true: When social media is used the wrong way, adding social support to an online health program can backfire and make people less likely to choose healthy behaviors. However, when done right, we found that social media can increase people’s fitness dramatically.”

Prof. Damon Centola, senior author

Lead study author Zhang also explains why competition is such a strong motivator:

“Framing the social interaction as a competition can create positive social norms for exercising. Social support can make people more dependent on receiving messages, which can change the focus of the program.”

Prof. Damon Centola adds that “supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation.”

In the competitive groups, however, people who exercise the most inspire others to do the same.

“Competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance,” says Prof. Centola.

Competition triggers a social ratcheting-up process, he adds:

“In a competitive setting, each person’s activity raises the bar for everyone else. Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.”

The health benefits of physical activity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list several benefits of physical activity. Moderate exercise can help with:

  • Weight control
  • Reducing cardiovascular disease risk
  • Reducing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome risk
  • Reducing risk of some cancers
  • Strengthening bones and muscles
  • Improving mental health and mood
  • Improving ability to do daily activities and prevent falls
  • Increasing chances of a longer life.

Some studies have shown that as little as 92 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 15 minutes a day, can reduce the risk of all-cause mortality by 14%.

In the Lancet study from 2011, those who exercised as little as 15 minutes a day already had a 3-year longer life expectancy.

Every additional 15 minutes of daily exercise beyond the minimum daily amount of 15 minutes further reduced all-cause mortality by 4% and all-cancer mortality by 1%.

Read about how regular exercise may safeguard against memory loss.

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30 Oct

Medical News Today: Why Is My Urine Bright Yellow? Colors Changes and Causes

Normal urine should be a pale yellow color. It should be clear, without cloudiness or particle deposits.

“Why is my urine bright yellow?” is a question that can be answered if the meaning of bright yellow is clear.

This page will explain the full range of possible colors of urine and why they change. If bright yellow means neon yellow, this has a specific cause.

Why does urine turn bright yellow?

A doctor holds a urine sample in a test tube
If anyone has concerns about urine, it is recommended that they visit a doctor.

To answer the question of bright yellow urine color, it may help to cover what it means when urine is really fluorescent bright.

Neon yellow urine color signals too much intake of vitamin B, although this is harmless.

What is the normal color for urine?

Urine color is normally pale yellow, but the depth of yellowness can vary healthily.

The yellow color gets darker as the concentration of the urine gets higher. Concentration means the proportion of waste products to water in the urine.

The proportion of waste products to water increases and the urine darkens, as less fluid is taken in. This also happens if more fluid is lost by other means such as sweating.

What gives urine its healthy yellow color?

The yellow color in normal urine comes from a substance known as urochrome. Urochrome is also known as urobilin and is the result of hemoglobin breakdown.

Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that enables oxygen to be taken around the body. Red blood cells are renewed in their millions every day, so old ones must be broken down. The urochrome by-product of this process ends up in the urine as a yellow color.

Urine color indicates hydration level

The yellow color in the urine has long been known to indicate the balance of fluids in the body. It has been only recently that urine color has been proven as a reliable way to monitor hydration during exercise.

People can look at the color of their urine and use it to work out if they have taken in enough fluids or not. Darker shades of yellow suggest that the person may be dehydrated and need water.

Abnormal urine colors and their causes

A range of colors can appear in the urine, and some signal a medical problem. Many of the possible causes are below, but it is not a complete list. There may be other causes of color changes in the urine. It is best for people to take any concerns about urine to a doctor.

Orange urine

Orange urine can be caused by drugs. Examples include the antibiotic rifampicin and the pain-relief drug phenazopyridine, used for urinary bladder pain. Some laxatives and chemotherapy agents can also color the urine orange.

Diet factors behind orange urine include a high intake of carrots, because of a substance called carotene that these vegetables contain. Vitamin C, blackberries, beetroot, or rhubarb can also have an effect.

Red urine

A red color in the urine has a number of causes.

Blood in the urine is one cause, and a reason to see a doctor. Blood in the urine is known as hematuria.

A blood-related condition known as hemoglobinuria can also cause red urine, as can myoglobinuria, which is to do with muscles.

Harmless causes of redness in the urine include beetroot or blackberries in the diet.

Brown urine

A selection of different drugs in a box
Some drugs may turn the urine orange, brown, or green.

Medicines that alter the color of urine to brown include:

  • Antipsychotic drugs such as chlorpromazine (Thorazine) and thioridazine (Mellaril)
  • Antibiotics such as metronidazole (e.g. Flagyl) and nitrofurantoin (e.g. Furadantin)
  • An epilepsy drug called phenytoin (e.g. Dilantin)
  • Sennoside laxatives (Senna-Lax, Senokot)

Deep purple urine

A condition called porphyria causes urine to appear deep purple. Porphyria is a rare metabolic disorder.

Green urine

The urine can turn green because of the following:

  • Drugs and other compounds containing phenol, such as promethazine used for allergy and nausea, and propofol, a drug used in anesthetics
  • Other drugs, including the antidepressant amitriptyline, cimetidine, which reduces stomach acid, and the painkiller indomethacin
  • Dyes, including indigo-blue, indigo carmine used in kidney tests, carbolic acid, and flavin derivatives
  • Biliverdin, a bile pigment
  • Infection with Pseudomonas bacteria

Methylene blue, a dye that has also been used as a drug, can produce a blue-green color to the urine.

Medical journals often publish case reports. These tend to describe unusual cases seen by doctors. One published in 1999 in the journal Nephrology, Dialysis, Transplantation was entitled, A case of ‘green urine.’

The patient’s green urine was thought to have been caused by a bowel disease called ulcerative colitis. The authors wrote that the illness meant a food color that cannot usually be absorbed was absorbed across the patient’s diseased gut lining.

Other signs to look out for in the urine

Urine can indicate changes in the body in other ways aside from color. How it smells is one way it can change, as is how clear it is.

Cloudy urine

Cloudy urine can signal a number of possible problems. For women, it could be due to vaginal discharge. Other changes that may cause cloudiness include:

White or milky-looking urine can also be caused by infection. Another cause of this is too much of minerals such as calcium, or too much protein in the urine.

A man bends down to pick up water on a running track
Urine color may be used to work out hydration levels.

Kidney problems and excess protein can also make the urine foamy. Temporary foaminess is usually a result of an unsteady urine flow. If cloudiness in the urine lasts for more than a few days, a doctor should investigate the cause.

Urine odor

The smell of urine can change. Some changes are harmless, while others are a sign of disease:

  • Eating a lot of asparagus can make the urine smell like rotting cabbage
  • Urinary tract infections can cause the urine to have a foul smell
  • Urine that smells sweet could be a sign of diabetes

When to see a doctor about urine changes

Many of the changes to urine color are temporary or reversed when a certain product or food is no longer used. Most changes are harmless.

It is important to get medical help whenever dehydration is caused by illness, or the person is unable to take in fluids. This is especially important if there is no explanation for the dehydration or it is severe.

Dehydration can be dangerous for anyone, but especially vulnerable people like the very young or old.

A clear flag for getting medical help is red-colored urine. If there is any doubt about what is causing a change in the urine, people should see a doctor.

Some problems that change urine color are rare but serious. A tumor in the urinary tract is one example of a rare cause that needs an urgent diagnosis.

Seeing a doctor is also important if any changes last longer than 2 or 3 days. Further symptoms that cause any concern should also be looked at.

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30 Oct

Medical News Today: Mulberry compound aids weight loss by activating brown fat

A new study suggests mulberries could be key to new treatments for obesity, after finding a natural compound in the fruit activates brown fat, boosting metabolism and aiding weight loss.
[A bowl of mulberries]
Rutin – a natural compound in mulberries – could help treat obesity, new research finds.

Mulberries are the hanging fruit from deciduous trees that belong to the Moraceae family.

Sweet in taste, mulberries are believed to have a wealth of health benefits, including reduced cholesterol, improved blood sugar levels, and lower risk of cancer.

Now, researchers from China suggest that rutin – a compound naturally present in mulberries – might also help treat obesity.

Obesity has become a significant health concern in the United States; more than 1 in 3 adults and and 1 in 6 children and adolescents are obese, putting them at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer.

While lifestyle changes – such as adopting a healthy diet and increasing physical activity – are considered primary strategies for the treatment of obesity, such changes may not be enough for some individuals, highlighting the need for alternative treatment methods.

Study co-author Wan-Zhu Jin, Ph.D., of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and team set out to investigate the metabolic effects of rutin, with the aim of determining whether the compound might aid weight loss.

Rutin acts as a ‘cold mimetic’ to activate brown fat

For their study – published in The FASEB Journal – the team added rutin (1 milligram per milliliter) to the drinking water of two groups of mice.

One group of mice was genetically obese, while the other group had diet-induced obesity. Both groups of mice were fed a regular diet throughout the duration of the study.

In both groups of mice, rutin was found to activate brown adipose tissue (BAT), or brown fat, which led to increased energy expenditure, better glucose homeostasis – the balance of insulin and glucagon to maintain glucose levels – and fat reduction.

Brown fat is activated by cold, causing it to burn energy and produce heat. According to the researchers, rutin acts as a “cold mimetic” by activating a specific signaling cascade, which increases the activity of a gene called UCP1 and the number of mitochondria in brown fat.

Additionally, the team found that rutin triggered the formation of brown-like fat cells in subcutaneous adipose tissue – the fat located under the skin – in both mouse models of obesity.

Based on their results, Jin and colleagues believe rutin may offer a novel treatment approach to obesity and other conditions associated with excess weight.

“The beneficial effects of rutin on BAT-mediated metabolic improvement have evoked a substantial interest in the potential treatment for obesity and its related diseases, such as diabetes.

In line with this idea, discovery of more safe and effective BAT activators is desired to deal with obesity and its related diseases.”

Wan-Zhu Jin, Ph.D.

Read about a study that has uncovered a mechanism for fat formation.

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