May 24 - 30, 2020: Issue 451

High five! It's possible to create proximity online

May 18, 2020
Despite physical distance, it's possible to create proximity between family members located in different places. This is according to a study from Linköping University that has investigated how video calls bring family members together. The results show that proximity in video calls is established mainly by way of the body and the senses, e.g. by giving a digital high five.

Touching a beloved family member, or even making eye contact, is impossible online. Still, it's possible to feel close to them. Anna Martín Bylund and Linnéa Stenliden have studied the social and emotional challenges that geographical distance can create among family members who are spread out in different countries, and how longing is expressed in video calls. Their study has been published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.

"Our study shows that in a video call, an interaction can develop where the participants feel proximity. This interaction is enacted by way of the body and the senses, as well as other means like the camera and the technology. This research has become extra relevant in these corona times, when many of us are forced to communicate digitally," says Anna Martín Bylund, senior lecturer at Linköping University's Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning.

The researchers have studied how three multilingual families who have moved to China communicate with their relatives in Europe. The researchers have analysed the family members' verbal and physical interaction in four online video calls. They see how the physical distance and the digital interface present various challenges, but that proximity is still established, in creative and to a degree innovative ways. The researchers have used recordings of the video calls from the participants' own mobile phones or computers, as well as from cameras installed in the rooms where the participants were located. With these separate cameras, the participants could be captured when they were not in view in the video calls.

Humour, creativity and memories create proximity
Previous research in the field has discussed whether it is possible to create proximity and togetherness digitally. It has shown that changing communication patterns affect how we move our bodies as well as how we move ourselves across national boundaries. In this study, the LiU researchers show that proximity is not a given, but that it can, to a degree, be re-created and modified by way of video calls. The study also shows that proximity is created primarily using the body and the senses, although spoken language also plays a part. In video calls, the room is very important -- what appears on screen and how the body is coordinated in relation to the camera lens. In the study one can see that this suits small children without a well-developed language. Their participation is facilitated when body and space can be more important than speech.

One factor that can help build emotional proximity is humour. The camera's presence contributes to this, for instance by zooming in on different parts of the body and excluding others, leading to jokes and laughter. But proximity is also created through the participants' ability to be creative and to handle the situations that arise between themselves, the person or people they are speaking to, and the technology. An example of this is the high-five that a three-year-old in China and her grandparents give each other. But instead of one palm contacting another, the experience is replaced by skin against visual impressions, speech, and the muscle memory of a high-five. This practice produces a high-five despite everything, and togetherness between the participants.

In the conversations between the children and their relatives, memories are also evoked, which they can relate to together. In one conversation, a grandmother mentions a bag that she has given to her granddaughter, which affects the girl so much that she runs out from the conversation to get it. After the conversation is over, the girl keeps her grandmother both in her memory and in her body by holding onto the bag.

"Our study contributes insights into how technological solutions are used for everyday communication, in order to overcome distance in families with roots in different countries. The families' communication is affected by the technology, which creates specific conditions for how proximity can arise," says Linnéa Stenliden, senior lecturer at Linköping University's Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning

Closer to far away; transcending the spatial in transnational families' online video calling is a small, qualitative study, and further research is required.

The researchers are taking the results from the study into their new project. Here they will investigate new challenges such as uncomfortable silence, which upper secondary teachers are faced with when using distance education in the age of the coronavirus.

Anna Martín-Bylund, Linnéa Stenliden. Closer to far away: transcending the spatial in transnational families’ online video calling. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 2020; 1 DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2020.1749643

Managing mental health with yoga: review shows moving your body helps

May 19, 2020
Movement-based yoga can significantly reduce depressive symptoms in people living with a range of mental disorders, new research led by University of South Australia and involving a UNSW medical researcher has shown.

The systematic review and meta-analysis found that movement-based yoga improves the mental health of people living with depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, anxiety, alcohol dependence and bipolar, with the benefits increasing the more yoga they practiced.

The researchers defined movement-based yoga as any form of yoga where participants are physically active at least 50% of the time, that is forms of yoga that emphasise holding poses and flowing through sequences of poses. 

Lead researcher, UniSA PhD candidate Jacinta Brinsley, says it’s a welcome and timely finding given current strict social distancing measures.

“As more and more people find themselves working from home and unable to physically catch up with their friends and family, we’re likely to see more people feel lonely and disconnected,” Brinsley says.

“Exercise has always been a great strategy for people struggling with these feelings as it boosts both mood and health. But as gyms and exercise classes of all kinds are now closed, people are looking for alternatives, and this is where yoga can help.

“Our review of available evidence shows that movement-based yoga improves symptoms of depression in people who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. So, it’s very good news for people struggling in times of uncertainty.”

The research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine today, analysed 19 studies with 1080 participants for the review part, across six countries (US, India, Japan, China, Germany and Sweden), and included 13 studies in the meta-analysis (632 participants). In all studies, individuals had a formal diagnosis of a mental disorder, including depression and anxiety.

“We found that across these studies, yoga showed greater reductions in depressive symptoms than other control groups, which included people on a waitlist for treatment, treatment as usual and attention control,” co-author Associate Professor Simon Rosenbaum from UNSW Medicine says.

“The more sessions per week people engaged in, the greater the benefit was.”

Co-author Dr Joseph Firth form from the University of Manchester, UK says that rather than just seeing yoga as a pastime or hobby, the research is increasingly showing we can 'take seriously' the real benefits it seems to confer for mental health. 

“Also, the potential for yoga to be conducted in the home makes this an attractive option for people looking for ways to preserve their mental well-being during periods of prolonged social isolation,” he says.

Co-author Prof Felipe Schuch from the Federal University of Santa Maria, Brazil says people experiencing poor mental health can experience physical and mental health benefits from yoga practice. 

“It is likely that other aspects of yoga including meditation may play an important role in overall management and recovery,” he says.

Supporting people living with mental illness
A/Prof Rosenbaum says while the results are promising, challenges remain.

“Importantly, the most vulnerable in our community are often the least likely to have access to exercise or yoga programs despite the potential benefits,” A/Prof Rosenbaum says. 

The researchers also say their review has gaps that future studies will need to address.

“To understand the mechanism by which yoga has an effect on mental and physical health,  we need more and better data on the intervention variables such as type of yoga, intensity, environment, instructor qualification, specific postures, cueing, philosophical focuses, mindfulness techniques and breathing techniques,” A/Prof Rosenbaum says. 

“But our results have significant implications and demonstrate that you don’t necessarily need to go for a jog to benefit from movement.”

Globally, around 450 million people suffer from mental health issues, with the World Health Organisation reporting that one in four people will be affected by a mental health condition or a neurological disorder at some point in their lives. In Australia, almost half of adults (aged 18-85 years) will experience mental illness. 

The study was conducted in partnership with the Federal University of Santa Maria, Kings College London and Western Sydney University and is available online.

Why cats have more lives than dogs when it comes to snakebite

May 18, 2020
Cats are twice as likely to survive a venomous snakebite than dogs, and the reasons behind this strange phenomenon have been revealed by University of Queensland research.

The research team, led by PhD student Christina Zdenek and Associate Professor Bryan Fry, compared the effects of snake venoms on the blood clotting agents in dogs and cats, hoping to help save the lives of our furry friends.

"Snakebite is a common occurrence for pet cats and dogs across the globe and can be fatal," Dr Fry said.

"This is primarily due to a condition called 'venom-induced consumptive coagulopathy' -- where an animal loses its ability to clot blood and sadly bleeds to death.

"In Australia, the eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis) alone is responsible for an estimated 76 per cent of reported domestic pet snakebites each year.

"And while only 31 per cent of dogs survive being bitten by an eastern brown snake without antivenom, cats are twice as likely to survive -- at 66 per cent."

Cats also have a significantly higher survival rate if given antivenom treatment and, until now, the reasons behind this disparity were unknown.

Dr Fry and his team used a coagulation analyser to test the effects of eastern brown snake venom -- as well as 10 additional venoms found around the world -- on dog and cat plasma in the lab.

"All venoms acted faster on dog plasma than cat or human," Mrs Zdenek said.

"This indicates that dogs would likely enter a state where blood clotting fails sooner and are therefore more vulnerable to these snake venoms.

"The spontaneous clotting time of the blood -- even without venom -- was dramatically faster in dogs than in cats.

"This suggests that the naturally faster clotting blood of dogs makes them more vulnerable to these types of snake venoms.

"And this is consistent with clinical records showing more rapid onset of symptoms and lethal effects in dogs than cats."

Several behavioural differences between cats and dogs are also highly likely to increase the chances of dogs dying from venomous snake bite.

"Dogs typically investigate with their nose and mouth, which are highly vascularised areas, whereas cats often swat with their paws," Dr Fry said.

"And dogs are usually more active than cats, which is not great after a bite has taken place because the best practice is to remain as still as possible to slow the spread of venom through the body."

The researchers hope their insights can lead to a better awareness of the critically short period of time to get treatment for dogs envenomed by snakes.

"As dog lovers ourselves, this study strikes close to home but it also has global implications," Dr Fry said.

"I've had two friends lose big dogs to snakebites, dying in less than ten minutes even though the eastern brown snakes responsible were not particularly large specimens.

"This underscores how devastatingly fast and fatal snake venom can be to dogs."

Christina N. Zdenek, Joshua Llinas, James Dobson, Luke Allen, Nathan Dunstan, Leijiane F. Sousa, Ana M. Moura da Silva, Bryan G. Fry. Pets in peril: The relative susceptibility of cats and dogs to procoagulant snake venoms. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part C: Toxicology & Pharmacology, 2020; 108769 DOI: 10.1016/j.cbpc.2020.108769

Subcellular chatter regulates longevity

May 19, 2020
As people get older, they often feel less energetic, mobile or active. This may be due in part to a decline in mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside of our cells, which provide energy and regulate metabolism. In fact, mitochondria decline with age not only in humans, but in many species. Why they do so is not well understood. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne set out to understand how mitochondrial function is diminished with age and to find factors that prevent this process. They found that communication between mitochondria and other parts of the cell plays a key role.

For their studies, the scientists used the simple roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, an important model system for ageing research. Over half the genes of this animal are similar to those found in humans, and their mitochondria also decline with age. From their research, the scientists found a nuclear protein called NFYB-1 that switches on and off genes affecting mitochondrial activity, and which itself goes down during ageing. In mutant worms lacking this protein, mitochondria don't work as well and worms don't live as long.

Unexpectedly, the scientists discovered that NFYB-1 steers the activity of mitochondria through another part of the cell called the lysosome, a place where basic molecules are broken down and recycled as nutrients. "We think the lysosome talks with the mitochondria through special fats called cardiolipins and ceramides, which are essential to mitochondrial activity," says Max Planck Director, Adam Antebi, whose laboratory spearheaded the study. Remarkably, simply feeding the NFYB-1 mutant worms cardiolipin restored mitochondrial function and worm health in these strains.

Because cardiolipins and ceramides are also essential for human mitochondria, this may mean human health and ageing can be improved by understanding on how such molecules facilitate communication between different parts of the cell. This work has been recently published in Nature Metabolism.

Rebecca George Tharyan, Andrea Annibal, Isabelle Schiffer, Raymond Laboy, Ilian Atanassov, Anna Luise Weber, Birgit Gerisch, Adam Antebi. NFYB-1 regulates mitochondrial function and longevity via lysosomal prosaposin. Nature Metabolism, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s42255-020-0200-2

Researchers go cuckoo: Antarctic penguins release an extreme amount of laughing gas

May 19, 2020
More than 1600 kilometers east of the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica lies the Atlantic island of South Georgia. Here, king penguins live in huge colonies. Their days are spent chomping on krill, squid and fish, feeding their chicks and producing 'guano', which means poo in penguin. Nothing mind-boggling about that, you might say.

However, there is something very special about the comings and goings of king penguins. Tremendous amounts of nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, are released via their guano, according to a 2019 study completed by researchers from the University of Copenhagen and their colleagues.

"Penguin guano produces significantly high levels of nitrous oxide around their colonies. The maximum emissions are about 100 times higher than in a recently fertilised Danish field. It is truly intense -- not least because nitrous oxide is 300 times more polluting than CO2," explains Professor Bo Elberling, of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management.

Besides being a strain on the climate, nitrous oxide has an effect very similar to the sedative laughing gas used in the dentist's office. Bo Elberling explains:

"After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo. One begins to feel ill and get a headache. The small nitrous oxide cylinders that you see lying in and floating around Copenhagen are no match for this heavy dose, which results from a combination of nitrous oxide with hydrogen sulphide and other gases."

How penguin poop turns into nitrous oxide Penguins' favourite foods are fish and krill, both of which contain large amounts of nitrogen absorbed from phytoplankton in the ocean.

Once penguins have filled their bellies, nitrogen is released from their faeces into the ground. Soil bacteria then convert the substance into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.

"It is clear to us that the level of nitrous oxide is very high in places where there are penguins -- and thereby guano -- and vice versa, lower in places where there is none," explains Bo Elberling.

Knowledge of how penguin droppings affect the Earth and atmosphere is highly relevant in the fight against climate-damaging greenhouse gases. Elberling continues:

"While nitrous oxide emissions in this case are not enough to impact Earth's overall energy budget, our findings contribute to new knowledge about how penguin colonies affect the environment around them, which is interesting because colonies are generally becoming more and more widespread."

He concludes by asserting that, "we should learn from this in relation to Danish agriculture, where large quantities of nitrous oxide are emitted by nitrogen fertilisers in fields. One of the things we can learn, for example, is how and when to fertilise vis-à-vis the optimal conditions for soil bacteria to produce nitrous oxide."

Peiyan Wang, Ludovica D'Imperio, Elisabeth M. Biersma, Reti Ranniku, Wenyi Xu, Qingjiu Tian, Per Ambus, Bo Elberling. Combined effects of glacial retreat and penguin activity on soil greenhouse gas fluxes on South Georgia, sub-Antarctica. Science of The Total Environment, 2020; 718: 135255 DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135255

Photo: Sophie Elise Elberling

All pumped up for new-age rubber

May 18, 2020
Imagine a self-repairing rubber, or super-adhesive made entirely from waste materials. It sounds like science fiction, but researchers have discovered a new kind of rubber and catalyst that together can be used with low energy consumption to make flexible, repairable, sustainable objects -- including car tyres.

The new rubber material, made from cheap and plentiful industrial waste products sulfur, canola cooking oil and dicyclopentadiene (DCPD) from petroleum refining, can be completely repaired and returned to its original strength in minutes -- even at room temperature -- with an amine catalyst.

The new type of rubber can be seamlessly repaired if damaged and can also be recycled, says research leader Flinders University Associate Professor Justin Chalker, whose team's breakthrough findings are described in leading international journal Chemical Science.

The amine catalyst used to trigger the reaction that causes the rubber to self-repair occurs within minutes in some cases and it is all done at room temperature, scientists say.

"This study reveals a new concept in the repair, adhesion and recycling of sustainable rubber," says Associate Professor Chalker, adding too many plastics, rubbers and ceramics are not recyclable.

Each year in Australia, the equivalent of 48 million tyres reach the end of their life, only 16% of these are domestically recycled. Around two-thirds of used tyres in Australia end up in landfill, are stockpiled, illegally dumped or have an unknown fate.

This represents both a waste of resources and creates health and environmental issues. Each passenger car tire contains approximately 1.5kg of steel, 0.5kg of textiles and 7 kg of rubber. -- Source: Planet Ark

"It is exciting to see how the underlying chemistry of these materials has such wide potential in recycling, next-generation adhesives, and additive manufacturing."

Researchers from the Chalker Lab at the Flinders University Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, with University of Liverpool and University of Western Australia colleagues, say the new rubber can be used as a "latent adhesive."

"The rubber bonds to itself when the amine catalyst is applied to the surface. The adhesion is stronger than many commercial glues," says University of Liverpool researcher Dr Tom Hasell.

"The polymer is also resistant to water and corrosion."

Rubber bricks made out of this polymer can be chemically joined by applying the catalyst.

"In some cases, the amine catalyst causes the rubber to bond in just minutes, and it can be done at room temperature," explains Flinders University lead author Sam Tonkin.

"The rubber can also be used as a latent adhesive, where it bonds to the surface of another piece of rubber when the amine catalyst is applied.

"Basically the rubber is not 'sticky' until the catalyst is applied."

In addition to the highly useful practical applications, the new paper gives detailed fundamental studies on the mechanisms of the rubber repair.

Samuel J. Tonkin, Christopher T Gibson, Jonathan Campbell, David A. Lewis, Amir Karton, Tom Hasell, Justin M Chalker. Chemically induced repair, adhesion, and recycling of polymers made by inverse vulcanisation. Chemical Science, 2020; DOI: 10.1039/D0SC00855A

Disclaimer: These articles are not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Pittwater Online News or its staff.