April 7 - 20, 2024: Issue 621

There are new flu vaccines on offer for 2024. Should I get one? What do I need to know?

Allen Cheng, Monash University

Influenza is a common respiratory infection. Although most cases are relatively mild, flu can cause more severe illness in young children and older people.

Influenza virtually disappeared from Australia during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic when public health restrictions reduced contact between people. Since 2022, it has returned to a seasonal pattern, although the flu season has started and peaked a few months earlier than before 2020.

It’s difficult to predict the intensity of the flu season at this point in the year, but we can sometimes get clues from the northern hemisphere. There, the season started earlier than usual for the third year running (peaking in early January rather than late February/March), with a similar number of reported cases and hospitalisations to the previous year.

Influenza vaccines are recommended annually, but there are now an increasing number of different vaccine types. Here’s what to know about this year’s shots, available from this month.

What goes into a flu vaccine?

Like other vaccines, influenza vaccines work by “training” the immune system on a harmless component of the influenza virus (known as an antigen), so it can respond appropriately when the body encounters the real virus.

Influenza strains are constantly changing due to genetic mutation, with the pace of genetic change much higher than for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID). The strains that go into the vaccine are reviewed twice each year by the World Health Organization (WHO), which selects vaccine strains to match the next season’s predicted circulating strains.

All current influenza vaccines in Australia contain four different strains (known as quadrivalent vaccines). One of the strains appeared to disappear during the COVID pandemic, and the WHO has recently recommended dropping this strain from the vaccine. It’s expected trivalent (three strain) vaccines will become available in the near future.

What’s different about new flu vaccines?

There are eight brands of flu vaccines available in Australia in 2024. These include egg-based vaccines (Vaxigrip Tetra, Fluarix Tetra, Afluria Quad, FluQuadri and Influvac Tetra), cell-based vaccines (Flucelvax Quad), adjuvanted vaccines (Fluad Quad) and high-dose vaccines (Fluzone High-Dose Quad).

Until recently, the process of manufacturing flu vaccines has remained similar. Since the development of the influenza vaccine in the 1940s, influenza viruses were grown in chicken eggs, then extracted, inactivated, purified and processed to make up the egg-based vaccines that are still used widely.

However, there have been several enhancements to influenza vaccines in recent years.

A senior man sitting on a couch using a tissue.
Flu can cause more severe symptoms in older people. Jelena Stanojkovic/Shutterstock

Older people’s immune systems tend not to respond as strongly to vaccines. In some flu vaccines, adjuvants (components that stimulate the immune system) are included with the influenza antigens. For example, an adjuvant is used in the Fluad Quad vaccine, recommended for over 65s. Studies suggest adjuvanted influenza vaccines are slightly better than standard egg-based vaccines without adjuvant in older people.

An alternative approach to improving the immune response is to use higher doses of the vaccine strains. An example is Fluzone High-Dose Quad – another option for older adults – which contains the equivalent of four doses of a standard influenza vaccine. Studies suggest the high dose vaccine is better than the standard dose vaccine (without an adjuvant) in preventing hospitalisation and complications in older people.

Other manufacturers have updated the manufacturing process. Cell-based vaccines, such as Flucelvax Quad, use cells instead of eggs in the manufacturing process. Other vaccines that are not yet available also use different technologies. In the past, manufacturing issues with egg-based vaccines have reduced their effectiveness. Using an alternative method of production provides some degree of insurance against this in the future.

What should I do this year?

Given indications this year’s flu season may be earlier than usual, it’s probably safest to get your vaccine early. This is particularly important for those at highest risk of severe illness, including older adults (65 years and over), those with chronic medical conditions, young children (six months to five years) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Influenza vaccines are also recommended in pregnancy to protect both the mother and the baby for the first months of life.

Influenza vaccines are widely available, including at GP clinics and pharmacies, while many workplaces have occupational programs. For high-risk groups, four of the vaccines are subsidised by the Australian government through the National Immunisation Program.

A pregnant woman talking to a nurse.
Flu vaccines are free for pregnant women. MilanMarkovic78/Shutterstock

In older people, a number of vaccines are now recommended: COVID and influenza, as well as one-off courses of pneumococcal and shingles vaccines. In general, most vaccines can be given in the same visit, but talk to your doctor about which ones you need.

Are there side effects?

All influenza vaccines can cause a sore arm and sometimes more generalised symptoms such as fever and tiredness. These are expected and reflect the immune system reacting appropriately to the vaccine, and are mostly mild and short-term. These side effects are slightly more common in adjuvanted and high dose vaccines.

As with all medications and vaccines, allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis can occur after the flu vaccine. All vaccine providers are trained to recognise and respond to anaphylaxis. People with egg allergies should discuss this with their doctor, but in general, studies suggest they can safely receive any (including egg-based) influenza vaccines.

Serious side effects from the influenza vaccine, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological complication, are very rare (one case per million people vaccinated). They are thought to be less common after influenza vaccination than after infection with influenza.The Conversation

Allen Cheng, Professor of Infectious Diseases, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Days are getting shorter and colder. 6 tips for sticking to your fitness goals

Philip Ackermann/Pexels
Juliana S. Oliveira, University of Sydney; Anne Tiedemann, University of Sydney; Cathie Sherrington, University of Sydney, and Leanne Hassett, University of Sydney

Daylight saving ends this weekend. The days are shorter and getting colder. It’s less appealing to cycle to work, walk after dinner, or wake up early to hit the gym. But we all know daily physical activity is essential for our health and wellbeing.

Physical activity releases feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, which help to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. It also helps prevent diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Regular physical activity can prolong life and improve overall quality of life.

However, many of us find it difficult to achieve the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week. In fact, three out of ten Australians and half of Australians aged 65 and over are inactive.

So, what can you do to stay motivated and keep moving regularly through the darker months? Here are some tips.

1. Nail those goals

Goals can provide us with a sense of purpose, meaning and direction. But just aiming to “get fit” is less likely to cut it than goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

Specific goals are based on an observable behaviour or activity, such as step count, yoga, or competing in an event.

Measurable goals can be tracked, so you can easily tell whether you have ticked them off.

Achievable goals are realistic and based on your current fitness and abilities. But they can and should still be challenging. If you’ve only ever run 5 kilometres, it won’t be realistic to aim for a half marathon in the next month. But you could aim for 10 kilometres.

Relevant goals hold personal meaning for you. Articulating why it’s important will help motivate you to do it.

Time-bound goals include a target date for achieving them. You can always revisit your deadline if you’re ahead of schedule or if it’s too unrealistic.

An example of a SMART goal could be: “I will walk 10,000 steps every weekday within a month.” Then you can break it down into short-term goals to make it more achievable. If you currently walk 6,000 steps each day, you can increase steps by 1,000 every week to reach 10,000 by the end of the month.

2. Keep track

More than 90% of Australians own a smartphone and more than two in ten own a fitness tracker or a smartwatch. These devices can help you track your goals and activity, keep you accountable and increase your motivation.

A 2021 systematic review suggests fitness trackers and smartphone apps can assist people to increase their step count by up to 2,000 steps per day. Our research demonstrated fitness trackers can also be helpful in increasing physical activity among older people. If you don’t have a fitness tracker, you can buy low-cost pedometers or track your activity times using paper and pen.

two people walk on beach with warm clothes on
A winter walk can be an excuse to catch up. Shutterstock

3. Plan for success but prepare for barriers

Take some time to think about the potential barriers that could prevent you from being active and plan solutions to overcome them.

For example, if the cost of physical activity is too high for you, try to find options that are free, such as walking or running. You can also consider free online programs or streaming videos.

If you find it difficult to fit exercise into your busy schedule, try exercising early in the morning before you start your day and laying out your workout clothes the night before. You could consider joining a gym with flexible timetables. A good strategy is to try to fit physical activity into your daily routine, such as walking or cycling to work.

If you are living with a chronic health condition or disability, consider seeking guidance from a health professional such as an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist. Start slow and gradually increase your activity and find something you enjoy so you are more likely to keep doing it.

4. Team up with a workout friend

Physical activity can be more fun when you do it with someone else. Studies show working out with friends can be more motivating and enjoyable. It can also help with accountability, as some people are more likely to show up when they have a workout partner. So, find a friend who supports your goal of being more active or maintaining your current activity levels.

5. Plan yourself a little treat

Make an appointment with yourself in your diary to exercise. Approach it as just as important as meeting a friend or colleague. One idea is to delay something you’d rather do and make it a reward for sticking to your activity appointment. If you really want to go out for coffee, do a hobby, or watch something, go for a walk first.

Research shows incentives can dramatically increase physical activity levels.

Man in active gear checks phone in outdoor setting
Tracking your activity can help reach and surpass fitness goals. Shutterstock

6. Find a coach

If you want more support, health coaching might be an option.

Trained professionals work one-on-one with people, sometimes via telehealth, to find out what’s reducing their motivation to make healthier choices, such as exercise. Then they employ behaviour change techniques to help them meet their health goals.

Our recent research suggests health coaching can improve physical activity in older people and those with chronic pain. In New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, these sessions are government-subsidised or free.The Conversation

Juliana S. Oliveira, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Physical Activity, University of Sydney; Anne Tiedemann, Professor of Physical Activity and Health, University of Sydney; Cathie Sherrington, Professor, Institute for Musculoskeletal Health, School of Public Health, University of Sydney, and Leanne Hassett, Associate Professor in Physiotherapy, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

AMA calls for digital black-out on junk food ads

March 29, 2024
The AMA is calling on the Australian Government to put the health of children ahead of the profits of harmful industries by urging for tougher laws on unhealthy food and drink advertising. 

AMA President Professor Steve Robson said an online marketing ban would help establish healthy food consumption habits from a young age.

"Limiting junk food advertisements and marketing is about nurturing health in our children, providing them with the opportunity to make healthy choices well into adulthood,” he said. 

In a submission to the Department of Health and Aged Care, the AMA has highlighted the preventive health benefits of a digital black-out on junk food adverts along with heavy restrictions on television advertising, sponsorship, and new promotion and placement rules in the retail sector.

“Eating habits start young, when kids are highly susceptible to marketing ploys,” Professor Robson said. 

“Junk food marketing at the sports field, in the shops, on tv or online gives the wrong message by making unhealthy food feel completely normal.” 

The AMA submission calls for restrictions on all junk food marketing across media platforms and outlets between 5.30am and 11pm.

The AMA is also urging the government to implement tight restrictions on unhealthy food sponsorship of sports, arts and cultural events.

“Children should be able to play sport, watch their favourite sports stars play and go to art and cultural events without being bombarded with marketing for unhealthy food,” Professor Robson said.

The submission strongly opposes retaining the status quo where industry regulates itself.

“Allowing the processed food and advertising industries to set their own rules does not effectively protect children from exposure to unhealthy food marketing,” Professor Robson said.

“We need to restrict placement and promotion of unhealthy food within retail environments, and we want a policy to extend beyond traditional media and include parts of our daily lives where children are influenced.”

The submission also highlights some of the challenges for government including the affordability of healthy foods.

“It is critically important that the Australian Government also introduces policies to increase the affordability and accessibility of healthy foods across Australia,” Professor Robson said.  

Who invented the flat white? Italian sugar farmers from regional Queensland likely played a big role

Wikimedia/State Library of Queelsand
Garritt C. Van Dyk, University of Newcastle

Australia’s coffee culture – a source of great national pride – is usually associated with the wave of Greek and Italian migrants who settled in Melbourne and Sydney following the second world war. But it was very likely in regional Queensland that one of Australia’s favourite brews first took root.

This is the story of how Italian sugar growers in the Sunshine State are said to have inspired the “invention” of the flat white – a drink that would go on to become a global sensation.

Tracing this history shows a different side to how European tastes were imported to Australia beyond the capital cities. It also reminds us big trends can come from small towns, and that multicultural influence can be easily taken for granted in something as basic as your daily cup of coffee.

The Little Italy of Northern Queensland

Popular conceptions of Italian migrants in Australia are often focused on the wave of migration to the capital cities in the 1950s, overlooking the many migrants who were already settled in regional areas.

In 1891, immigration agent and businessman Chiaffredo Venerano Fraire organised a scheme to recruit cane cutters on behalf of the Queensland government. More than 300 Italians came to the region as a result, prompting chain migration and concerns about their ability to assimilate.

North Queensland became an even more popular destination in the 1920s, after the United States introduced quotas for Italian migrants. By 1925, Italians owned 44% of the sugar farms in the Herbert River area.

The Macknade sugar plantation viewed from the Herbert River, Ingham, in 1874, with men from the plantation in the rowboat. Wikimedia/State Library of Queensland

These Italian communities expanded further after WWII, as did their cultural influence. The Australian Italian festival, established in 1995 by the Italian community in Ingham and Hinchinbrook shire, celebrates and preserves the legacy of Italian culture in the district.

What’s in a name?

There are many claims regarding the origin of the flat white, from England to New Zealand. But the best case for coining the term comes from Sydney cafe owner Alan Preston, who details his reasoning extensively online. While the origin debate rages on, Preston’s argument has the most solid historical evidence to back it.

The exact phrase “flat white” appeared on the coffee menu in Preston’s cafe, Moors Espresso Bar, in 1985 in Sydney’s Chinatown area. Preston claims he was the first to use the term on a menu, and has documented this use through photographs.

He says he brought this style of espresso-based drink to Sydney from Far North Queensland, where he’s originally from. The drink was supposedly popular in cafes in sugar-producing towns as it catered to the tastes of wealthy Italian growers and their families.

According to Preston, these cafes had the best espresso machines available at the time, imported from Italy. There would be five coffee options on offer. The black options were the short black and long black, and the white options were the cappuccino, Vienna and the “flat”. On his own menu, Preston changed the last one to “flat white” as a more efficient moniker.

After Moors Espresso Bar, Preston opened five more cafes with flat whites on the menu, popularising the name and style. In 2015, global coffee giant Starbucks added the flat white to its menu – a testament to its universality. Google is a fan too, and made the flat white its doodle of the day on March 11 2024.

Why is the flat white so popular?

The flat white’s widespread appeal comes down to its balance of textured (steamed) milk and espresso. The sign of a quality espresso is in its “crema”, the caramel-coloured emulsion of hot water and coffee bean oils.

Two small coffee cups with espresso in them are laid on saucers.
The crema is the thin golden emulsion that sits atop a quality espresso shot. Shutterstock

A flat white blends the natural crema of an espresso shot with a thin layer of microfoam at the cup’s surface. Without the thicker foam of a latte or cappuccino, or the distraction of chocolate sprinkled on top, the flat white delivers a stronger coffee flavour with a unified creamy texture.

Preston says a properly prepared flat white should leave “tide marks” on the sides of the cup, showing the level go down with each sip.

Regional varieties

Perth’s unique “long mac topped up” and the enigmatic Melbourne “magic” are two more examples of how regional influences have given rise to different coffee preferences across Australia.

The West Coast’s long mac topped up has a milk to coffee ratio of 1:4 in a 180ml serving. It’s like a strong flat white where the coffee is no longer just “stained” by the milk (but somehow “double-shot flat white in a smaller cup” doesn’t roll off the tongue).

Similarly, the Melbourne magic is made with a double ristretto (a shorter, more robust espresso shot) and textured milk, and served in a 148ml (5 oz) cup. So it’s an even stronger flat white, in a smaller cup. The name “magic” may not reveal anything about the contents, but the proof is in the drinking.

Déjà brew

The presence of coffee in Australia is as old as the First Fleet, wherein plants imported from Rio de Janeiro were grown on Norfolk Island in 1788. Reflecting on its long and nuanced history reminds us of the contributions multiculturalism has made to the nation, and why new iterations of old things ought to be welcomed.

The story of the flat white, along with its regional variations, reflects a dynamic coffee culture that will continues to evolve to cater to new tastes. For now, we can thank the Italian migrants of sugar country.The Conversation

Garritt C. Van Dyk, Lecturer in History, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From where we work to what we spend, the ABS knows more about us than ever before: here’s what’s changing

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

How much were prices rising in January when Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor said inflation was “rampant”?

The prices that give us a good steer on inflation were falling, by 0.4%.

That’s the change that month in what the Bureau of Statistics calls the consumer price index “excluding volatile items”. The items it excludes (because they are often affected by supply disruptions) are fruit, vegetables and fuel.

Apart from that, the measure of prices I just quoted is the best monthly measure of the prices of everything that households buy in the proportions they buy them.

Not all prices were falling. The price of alcohol was up, the price of bread was down, the price of rent was up, and the price of tourist accommodation was down. It’s only on balance (excluding volatile items) that prices fell.

This is the sort of thing we wouldn’t have known about until just a few years ago. Up until late 2022, the consumer price index was calculated only four times a year, and even that was a herculean feat.

A ten-fold increase in data

The bureau had to collect what used to be 100,000 separate prices for each of those four surveys – a huge number collected in person, either over the phone (“hello, can you tell me your current price for…”) or in stores via handheld devices.

The cost to the bureau, and the number of staff involved, was enormous – big enough to make a monthly measure impossible, as important as that would have been to a Reserve Bank that set interest rates monthly and needed a monthly read on inflation.

But in the last few years the use of supermarket scanner data, “web scrapping” to collect online prices, and data feeds direct from the computers of rental agents and all sorts of other businesses have cut costs enormously and increased the number of prices collected each quarter almost ten-fold to 900,000.

The bureau says the monthly index isn’t as comprehensive as the quarterly index yet, but it will be by the end of 2025, at which time the bureau will use it to replace the quarterly index, delivering something of the same quality 12 times a year.

That’s just one of the ways in which an explosion of previously-inaccessible data is transforming the way the bureau goes about its job and is set to make statistics that used to be only fairly reliable suddenly very reliable.

Retail figures set for the chop

For more than half a century, every month since April 1961, the bureau has published an update on retail spending – how much we are spending in shops.

The survey used to be quite useful. Back when it started, we did more than half our spending in shops. These days it’s only one third, the rest is on services.

And the retail survey was always a pretty rough-and-ready way to find out what we spent in shops. Each month the bureau surveys about 700 large businesses and 2,700 smaller businesses selected at random. It uses phone calls and paper forms.

Meantime, in part due to the national emergency created by COVID, it’s been given access to something better. Australia’s big four banks agreed to give the bureau de-identified card and transaction data to enable it to quickly get a handle on how much we were spending early in the pandemic, and they’ve kept providing it.

It turns out to be very good indeed. It covers far more retail outlets than the retail survey ever did, as well as spending on services and spending overseas, and it divides spending into categories based on the type of merchant.

It doesn’t directly cover what we spend in cash, but there’s a lot less of that than there used to be. It'llreplace the retail survey from the middle of next year.

Millions instead of thousands

The mammoth monthly employment survey of 24,000 households remains in place, as do the doorknocks that begin each household’s eight-month turn at completing the survey, but alongside it the bureau is developing a far more comprehensive measure using payroll data submitted to the tax office.

While payroll numbers can’t tell us everything the employment survey does (they can’t yet tell us the hours people work and whether are looking for work) they cover millions of Australians instead of thousands, and come out weekly.

The bureau is doing the same sort of thing almost everywhere. For more than a century it has surveyed farmers to find out what they are growing. It’s begun supplementing that with data from satellites and the machines used on farms.

The ultimate goal of all of these changes, gathered together under the banner “Big Data, Timely Insights” is to ask as few questions as possible. Why run a survey, when you can find out directly?

Big data, timely insights

It’s far harder than it looks. A lot of the so-called administrative data provided to banks and other organisations isn’t sorted in a way that makes it useful. That’s where the bureau is concentrating its efforts. The more it succeeds, the less it will need to bother us and the better the information it will produce.

In the meantime, here’s an update on those inflation figures, the ones that come out monthly. In February, the consumer price index excluding volatile items did not change, meaning in that particular month, inflation was zero.

Even better, adding the past six months together (and multiplying by two) gives you an annual inflation rate of 2.5% – slap bang in the middle of the Reserve Bank’s 2-3% target band, suggesting things are moving in the right direction.

It’s too early to declare victory over inflation that was at one stage heading towards 8%, but at the moment the monthly figures show things moving in the right direction.

If the direction changes, the bureau will tell us, quick smart.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s time to give Australian courts the power to break up big firms that behave badly

Allan Fels, The University of Melbourne

Australian authorities have never had the power to break up big businesses that behave badly.

It’s a power available to courts in the United States and elsewhere, but not here – at least not unless the Greens succeed with a bill now before the Senate.

The so-called Competition and Consumer Amendment (Divestiture Powers) Bill would enable courts to break up firms that misuse their substantial market power under section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act.

The Coalition is reported to be examining the same sort of thing, with the breakup powers limited to supermarket chains that abuse their market power.

Section 46 prohibits firms with a substantial degree of power in a market from engaging in conduct that has the purpose, effect, or likely effect of substantially lessening competition in that market.

The new power proposed by the Greens would enable courts to direct corporations that contravene Section 46 to sell assets or do whatever else was necessary to reduce their power within a period of two years.

I recommended such a power earlier this year in my report to the Australian Council of Trade Unions on price gouging and unfair pricing practices.

Australia’s approach to such powers has always been unbalanced.

With one exception, our courts can’t break up corporations

It has long been recognised (and acknowledged in most economics textbooks) that competition doesn’t work well in markets where only one or a few big firms dominate.

Concentrated markets can lead to overpricing, the squeezing of suppliers and outcomes very different from markets with higher competition.

But rather than take action against the cause of many of these problems – market concentration – Australia’s approach has been to merely take action against the problems it creates. With one exception.

That exception is mergers. In cases where firms merge without obtaining the prior approval of the Competition and Consumer Commission and the commission finds the merger contravened the Competition and Consumer Act, it can apply to the courts (within three years) to have the merger undone.

While this power is useful – and effective in getting firms to seek prior approval for mergers – it only allows authorities to stop markets from becoming more dominated. It gives them no power to make markets less dominated.

Overseas, divestment orders are rare but effective

In the United States, courts are able to break up dominant firms that abuse their market power.

Such orders are rare, for the same reason Australian divestment orders relating to mergers are rare. Once the power is in place and has been used, firms at risk of such orders become very careful.

One of the first US divestment orders related to Standard Oil in 1911. After finding that it used aggressive pricing to eliminate competition, US courts ordered it to be broken up into what became 34 companies. Competition improved as a result.

In 1974, US authorities filed a breakup suit against the telecommunications giant AT&T, arguing it had a monopoly on telephone lines. The eventual settlement led to AT&T giving up control of its regional operating companies, so-called “Baby Bells”. This allowed the new firms to compete with each other and lowered the prices of connections and calls.

In 2001, US authorities won a court order to break up Microsoft. It would have created one firm that built operating systems and another that built applications for operating systems. The order, however, was overturned on appeal.

Two decades later, in 2020, a court ordered the Facebook owner Meta to sell Instagram and WhatsApp, which was also overturned on appeal.

Divestment has been considered against Google over the behaviour of its business in the advertising market. It would also be an option in the Department of Justice’s current case against Apple for alleged abuse of market power.

Divestment isn’t the best solution in every case. Fines are often a more practical way to address misuses of market power.

But divestment is a useful tool in an authority’s armoury. The fact US authorities have only used it every few decades says more about the effectiveness of divestment than any lack of effectiveness. Once firms know the power exists, they behave better.

From Kennett to Howard, we’ve broken up public monopolies

Australia is no stranger to divestment. When the Kennett government privatised Victoria’s State Electricity Commission in the 1990s, it broke it up into several sometimes-competing generation, transmission and distribution businesses.

And when Australia’s Howard government privatised airports in the 1990s, it sold them separately in order to avoid market dominance, effectively breaking up the Federal Airports Corporation.

I don’t think Australian authorities should be able to break up corporations just because they don’t like the shape of a market, and I don’t think that breakups of Australia’s big two supermarket chains are likely to be a good idea. They rely on the efficiencies that come from scale.

But I think that where market power is being abused, breakups should be available as one of a number of possible sanctions. It’d keep big businesses on their toes.The Conversation

Allan Fels, Professorial Fellow, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Rock-wallaby bite size ‘packs a punch’

March 27, 2024
Australian rock-wallabies are 'little Napoleons' when it comes to compensating for small size, packing much more punch into their bite than larger relatives.

Researchers from Flinders University made the discovery while investigating how two dwarf species of rock-wallaby are able to feed themselves on the same kinds of foods as their much larger cousins.

Study leader Dr Rex Mitchell also coined the idea of 'Little Wallaby Syndrome' after examining the skulls of dwarf rock-wallabies to discover they can more than compensate for their size.

“We already knew that smaller animals have a harder time eating the same foods as larger ones, simply because their jaws are smaller. For example, a chihuahua wouldn’t be able to chew on a big bone as easily as a German Shepherd,” says Dr Mitchell, from the Morphological Evo-Devo Lab at Flinders University.

“If I were a vegetable, I would not mess with a pygmy rock-wallaby. They totally have ‘Little Wallaby Syndrome’.”

The new study, published today in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, delves deeper into the marsupials’ superpowers.

Co-author of the new study, Flinders University Associate Professor in Evolutionary Biology Vera Weisbecker, says some tiny species of rock-wallaby, such as the nabarlek, are able to eat similar foods as relatives that are eight times larger.

“We therefore suspected that something happened in the evolution of their jaws to allow them to stick to these diets,” she says.

To investigate, the researchers scanned the skulls of nearly 400 rock-wallaby skulls, including all 17 species to compare the features of their skulls.

The results confirmed the team’s suspicions. Aside from typical differences in brain and eye size that are usually seen between bigger and smaller animals, there were also differences in the features of the skull used for feeding.
Another co-author Dr Mark Eldridge, from the Australian Museum, adds: “We found clear indicators that both dwarf rock-wallabies have adaptations to harder biting: they had shorter, rounder snouts and teeth positioned at the back of the jaw where they are more effective at harder bites”.

But the researchers also found some surprising differences in the teeth between the dwarfs and larger species. They found that some of the teeth of the dwarfs were much larger, for their size, than any of the bigger species.

“This makes sense, because many animals that need to bite harder into their foods tend to have bigger teeth for their size,” Dr Mitchell says.

As well, dwarf wallabies had another surprise for the researchers: The two dwarf species had different teeth that were the biggest. One species has the biggest molars, while the other has the largest premolars.

These potentially indicate different adaptations to vegetation types. Larger premolars are better at slicing through leaves and twigs of shrubs, while larger molars are better for grinding up grass and other plants that are closer to the ground.

The species with the largest molars, the nabarlek, is the only species of marsupials known to continuously grow new molars throughout its life.

The findings show that dwarf species of rock-wallabies have skulls that are better at biting than larger species.

Dr Mitchell says the findings are important because the functional effects of skull size on skull shape are often ignored because differences in size are not generally considered to be related to feeding adaptations.

But the research team has shown that some differences in the skulls are related to how hard a skull can bite, and that smaller animals need to have harder-biting skulls than larger animals if they want to eat the same kinds of foods.

D. Rex Mitchell, Sally Potter, Mark D. B. Eldridge, Meg Martin, Vera Weisbecker. Functionally mediated cranial allometry evidenced in a genus of rock-wallabies. Biology Letters, 2024; 20 (3) DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2024.0045

This study was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage grant (CE170100015). VW was also supported by ARC Future Fellowship FT180100634.

Specimens for the study were provided by the Museum and Art Gallery NT, WA Museum, SA Museum, Australian Museum, Queensland Museum and the Australian National Wildlife Collection.

A dwarf species of rock-wallaby, the nabarlek. Image: Ian Morris

Universal brain-computer interface lets people play games with just their thoughts

April 1, 2024
Imagine playing a racing game like Mario Kart, using only your brain to execute the complex series of turns in a lap.

This is not a video game fantasy, but a real program that engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have created as part of research into brain-computer interfaces to help improve the lives of people with motor disabilities. More importantly, the researchers incorporated machine learning capabilities with their brain-computer interface, making it a one-size-fits-all solution.

Typically, these devices require extensive calibration for each user -- every brain is different, both for healthy and disabled users -- and that has been a major hurdle to mainstream adoption. This new solution can quickly understand the needs of an individual subject and self-calibrate through repetition. That means multiple patients could use the device without needing to tune it to the individual.
"When we think about this in a clinical setting, this technology will make it so we won't need a specialised team to do this calibration process, which is long and tedious," said Satyam Kumar, a graduate student in the lab of José del R. Millán, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Chandra Family Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Dell Medical School's Department of Neurology. "It will be much faster to move from patient to patient."

From left to right: Satyam Kumar, Hussein Alawieh and José del R. Millán.

The subjects wear a cap packed with electrodes that is hooked up to a computer. The electrodes gather data by measuring electrical signals from the brain, and the decoder interprets that information and translates it into game action.

Millán's work on brain-computer interfaces helps users guide and strengthen their neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to change, grow and reorganize over time. These experiments are designed to improve brain function for patients and use the devices controlled by brain-computer interfaces to make their lives easier.
In this case, the actions were twofold: the car racing game, and a simpler task of balancing the left and right sides of a digital bar. An expert was trained to develop a "decoder" for the simpler bar task that makes it possible for the interface to translate brain waves into commands. The decoder serves as a base for the other users and is the key to avoiding the long calibration process.

The decoder worked well enough that subjects trained simultaneously for the bar game and the more complicated car racing game, which required thinking several steps ahead to make turns.

The researchers called this work foundational, in that it sets the stage for further brain-computer interface innovation. This project used 18 subjects with no motor impairments. Eventually, as they continue down this road, they will test this on people with motor impairments to apply it to larger groups in clinical settings.

"On the one hand, we want to translate the BCI to the clinical realm to help people with disabilities; on the other, we need to improve our technology to make it easier to use so that the impact for these people with disabilities is stronger," Millán said.

On the side of translating the research, Millán and his team continue to work on a wheelchair that users can drive with the brain-computer interface. At the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals this month, the researchers showed off another potential use of the technology, controlling two rehabilitation robots for the hand and arm. This was not part of the new paper but a sign of where this technology could go in the future. Several people volunteered and succeeded in operating the brain-controlled robots within minutes.
"The point of this technology is to help people, help them in their everyday lives," Millán said. "We'll continue down this path wherever it takes us in the pursuit of helping people."

Satyam Kumar, Hussein Alawieh, Frigyes Samuel Racz, Rawan Fakhreddine, José del R Millán. Transfer learning promotes acquisition of individual BCI skills. PNAS Nexus, 2024; 3 (2) DOI: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgae076

‘A blind and deaf mind’: what it’s like to have no visual imagination or inner voice

Max4e Photo/Shutterstock
Derek Arnold, The University of Queensland and Loren N. Bouyer, The University of Queensland

Look at these pictures. Can you see a cube on the left and a face on the right?

Wireframe drawing of a cube (left) and photo of mop that looks a bit like a person's face (right).
What do you see? Derek Arnold / Adobe Stock

Can you imagine seeing things in your mind? Can you hear an inner voice when you think or read?

One of the authors, Loren Bouyer, cannot do any of these things. To Loren the left-hand image looks like a jumble of two-dimensional shapes, and she can only see a mop on the right.

Loren cannot imagine audio or visual sensations, or hear an inner voice when she reads. She has a condition we describe as “deep aphantasia” in a new paper in Frontiers in Psychology.

‘A blind mind’

Both authors are aphantasics – we are unable to have imagined visual experiences.

Aphantasia is often described as “having a blind mind”. But often we cannot have other imagined experiences either. So an aphantasic might have a blind and a deaf mind, or a blind and a tasteless mind.

We are often asked what it’s like to be aphantasic. Some analogies might help.

People have multilingual minds

Most people can experience an inner voice when they think. You might only speak one language, so your inner voice will “speak” that language.

However, you understand that other people can speak different languages. So, you can perhaps imagine what it would be like to hear your inner voice speak multiple different languages.

We can similarly imagine what your thoughts must be like. They may be diverse, experienced as inner visual or audio sensations, or as an imagined sense of touch or smell.

Our minds are different. Neither of us can have imagined visual experiences, but Derek can have imagined audio sensations and Loren can have imagined feelings of touch. We both experience thoughts as a different set of “inner languages”.

Some aphantasics report not having any imagined sensations. What might their experiences of thought be like? We believe we can explain.

While Loren can have imagined sensations of touch, she does not have to. She must choose to have them and it takes effort.

We presume your imagined visual experiences are similar. So what’s it like when Loren thinks, but chooses not to have imagined sensations of touch?

Our subconscious thoughts

Most people can choose to pre-hear their speech in their minds before they speak aloud, but they often don’t. People can engage in conversation without pre-hearing themselves.

For Loren, most of her thoughts are like this. She writes without having any pre-experience of the written content. Sometimes she will pause, realising she is not yet ready to add more, and recommence when she feels prepared.

A photo of a person's hands holding a pen and writing on paper.
Most people can ‘pre-hear’ language before they speak or write – but not everybody. Jaririyawat/Shutterstock

Most of the operations of our brains are subconscious. For example, while we do not recommend it, we suspect many of you will have experienced driving while distracted, only to suddenly realise you are heading for your home or office instead of your intended destination. Loren feels most of her thoughts are like these subconscious operations of your mind.

What about planning? Loren can experience that as a combination of imagined textures, bodily movements and recognisable states of mind.

There is a feeling of completion when a plan has been formed. A planned speech is a sequence of imagined mouth movements, gestures and postures. Her artistic plans are experienced as textures. She never experiences an imagined audio or a visual listing of her intended actions.

There are vast differences between aphantasics

In contrast to Loren, Derek’s thoughts are entirely verbal. He was unaware, until recently, that other modes of thought were possible.

Some aphantasics report occasional involuntary imagined sensations, often of unpleasant past experiences. Neither of us have had an imagined visual experience, voluntary or involuntary, during our waking lives.

This highlights diversity. All we can do is describe our own particular experiences of aphantasia.

Frustrations and the humour of misunderstandings

Aphantasics can be frustrated at others’ attempts to explain our experiences. One suggestion has been that we might have imagined visual experiences, but be unable to describe them.

We understand the confusion, but this can seem condescending. We both know what it is like to have imagined sensations, so we believe we can recognise the absence of a particular type of imagined experience.

The confusion can go both ways. We were recently discussing an experiment. The study was too long, and had to be shortened. So we were considering which imagined visual scenario to cut.

A photo of a black cat faintly distinguishable from a black background.
Can most people imagine a black cat with their eyes closed? Aphantasics were surprised to learn the answer is yes. Watson Images/Shutterstock

Loren suggested we cut a scenario asking people to imagine seeing a black cat with their eyes closed. We thought it might be hard to see an imagined black cat against the blackness of closed eyes.

The only person in the room who could have imagined visual experiences started laughing. Apparently it’s easy for most people to imagine seeing black cats, even when their eyes are closed.

Deep aphantasia

Researchers believe aphantasia happens when activity at the front of the brain fails to excite activity in regions toward the back of the brain. This “feedback” would be necessary for people to have imagined experiences.

Loren seems to have a form of aphantasia that had not been described. Unsuccessful feedback in Loren’s brain seems to result in atypical experiences of actual visual inputs. So she cannot see the cube at the top of this article, or the face instead of a mop, or have a number of other typical experiences of visual inputs.

We coined the term “deep aphantasia” to describe people like Loren, who not only are unable to have imagined sensory experiences but also have atypical experiences of actual visual inputs.

Our goal in describing our experiences is to raise awareness that some aphantasics might have unusual experiences of actual visual inputs, like Loren. If we can identify these people, and study their brains, we may be able to understand why some people can conjure imagined sensory experiences at will, while others cannot.

We also hope that raising awareness of the different experiences people have when they think might encourage tolerance when people express different thoughts.The Conversation

Derek Arnold, Professor, School of Psychology, The University of Queensland and Loren N. Bouyer, PhD Student, Neuroscience, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Businesswoman and women’s advocate Samantha Mostyn to be Australia’s next governor-general

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia’s next governor-general will be businesswoman Samantha Mostyn, succeeding David Hurley on July 1.

Announcing Mostyn’s appointment on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Mostyn was a “modern and optimistic leader for our modern and optimistic nation”.

“Her leadership reflects our enduring Australian values of equality, fairness and responsibility to build a better future for the next generation,” he said.

Mostyn is the second woman to hold the post, following Quentin Bryce who was appointed by the Rudd Labor government.

Trained as a lawyer, Mostyn has had extensive experience in business, especially in telecommunications and insurance locally and globally.

Her non-executive board roles have included the boards of Transurban, Virgin Australia, and chairing Citibank Australia.

She presently is chair of AWARE Super and Alberts Music Group and is on the Mirvac board.

She was president of Chief Executive Women from 2021-22.

She was a commissioner of the Australian Football League – the first woman to be a commissioner – helping develop its Respect and Responsibility policy, and a driver of the AFL (Women’s) (AFLW).

She has also chaired many not-for-profit bodies, including Beyond Blue and Australian Volunteers International.

Mostyn has been a strong advocate on climate change and on women’s issues and has long had strong Labor connections.

She was a policy adviser for former Labor ministers Bob Collins and Michael Lee and a senior communications policy adviser to former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

In 2022 the Albanese government appointed her to chair its Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, charged with developing a national strategy to achieve gender equality. The committee reported late last year.

Albanese told a joint press conference with Mostyn she was an “exceptional leader”.

Mostyn said she was “ready to serve with integrity, compassion and respect”.

The governor-general designate told the news conference she wanted to “introduce myself to those who do not yet know me.”

Born in Canberra, “like most people, and certainly most people in Australia, my fundamental values were set early by my parents and our family life.

"Along with my three younger sisters, I grew up in an army family, our father a Royal Military College Duntroon graduate who served Australia with distinction for almost 40 years, supported by the generosity, love, care and selflessness of our late mother.

"In my very early years, my dad’s military service took us to the United States and Canada before returning to Australia and living in Adelaide and Melbourne, including time spent with my grandmother when my father served in Vietnam. We learned to be resilient.

"By the early 1970s, we had returned to Canberra, where I was the beneficiary of the public education system and then later completing an arts law degree at the Australian National University while working as a researcher for the Chief Magistrate of the Australian Capital Territory.

"My memories are of deep service, community involvement, education and learning, sport and music, volunteering and engaging in the disability sector. I also clearly and fondly recall our annual attendances at Anzac Day dawn services and marches and standing patiently with my sisters in the crowds on Dunrossil Drive at Yarralumla, waiting to catch that glimpse of Her Majesty The Queen on her visits to Canberra in the 1970s.

"My parents instilled in us the values that they lived so consistently. Generosity, care for others, respect, curiosity, being of service to society and always humility. Millions of Australians know this to be true, that being of service is what often provides a person with their greatest happiness and sense of purpose.

"That is certainly the case for me and I can think of no greater purpose, Prime Minister, than to serve this country I love as Governor-General, particularly at a time in our history when the challenges and opportunities we face are large and complex.

"In the past 40 years, I hope my career and contributions reflect these values. I’ve worked in the highest levels of many Australian companies and spent time working globally. I’ve also had the privilege of advising governments of all persuasions across the country.

"Alongside my broad business career, I’ve forged a strong connection with many other aspects of Australian life, including in sport, civil society, arts and culture, First Nations reconciliation, sustainability in the environment, policy development, mental health, gender equality and young people.

"My connections to this country and people have come in so many forms, from contributing to governance around executive investment and board tables, to cheering at the footy, to being moved and inspired sitting in the audience at our extraordinary arts and music events, or simply packing food boxes in my local community.

"I’ve had engaging discussions with farmers about the challenges of climate change, listened deeply to young people talking enthusiastically about civics and democracy and intergenerational fairness. I spent time listening carefully to single mothers and domestic violence survivors, and shared coffees and stories in men’s sheds.

"My legal training, including time spent in courts from the Magistrates Court here in Canberra to the Court of Appeal of the New South Wales Supreme Court, ensures that I understand and deeply respect our institutions, the rule of law and in particular the democratic will of the Australian people when it comes to our constitutional arrangements.

"It is this that will guide me in carrying out the duties of this office.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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