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Tracking flu levels with Wikipedia

Can monitoring Wikipedia hits show how many people have the flu? Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, USA, have developed a method of estimating levels of influenza-like illness in the American population by analysing Internet traffic on specific flu-related Wikipedia articles.

David McIver and John Brownstein's model, publishing in PLOS Computational Biology on April 17th, estimates flu levels in the American population up to two weeks sooner than data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention becomes available, and accurately estimates the week of peak influenza activity 17% more often than Google Flu Trends data.

McIver and Brownstein calculated the number of times certain Wikipedia articles were accessed every day from December 2007 to August 2013. The model they developed performed well both through influenza seasons that are more severe than normal and through events such as the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 that received high levels of media attention.

The authors comment:

"Each influenza season provides new challenges and uncertainties to both the public as well as the public health community. We're hoping that with this new method of influenza monitoring, we can harness publicly available data to help people get accurate, near-realtime information about the level of disease burden in the population."

Following further validation, the model could be used as an automatic system to model flu levels in the USA, providing support for traditional influenza surveillance tools.

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The above story is based on materials provided by PLOS. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

 

Internet use may cut retirees' depression

Spending time online has the potential to ward off depression among retirees, particularly among those who live alone, according to research published online in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. In the article "Internet Use and Depression Among Retired Older Adults in the United States: A Longitudinal Analysis," the authors report that Internet use reduced the probability of a depressed state by 33 percent among their study sample.

Late-life depression affects between 5 and 10 million Americans age 50 and older. This new study shows that the Internet offers older Americans a chance to overcome the social and spatial boundaries that are believed to fuel depression.

The research was conducted by Shelia R. Cotten, PhD, of Michigan State University; George Ford, PhD, of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies; Sherry Ford, PhD, of the University of Montevallo; and Timothy M. Hale, PhD, of the Center for Connected Health and Harvard Medical School.

"Retired persons are a population of interest, particularly because one mechanism by which Internet use may affect depression is to counter the effects of isolation and loneliness, which are more common among older adults," the authors stated. "Also, working individuals may be required to use the Internet rather than choosing to, and may use the technology for different reasons than those not working."

The data were obtained from four waves of the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal survey collecting information from more than 22,000 older Americans every two years. The current study sample included 3,075 community-dwelling respondents observed over 4 waves of data, from 2002 to 2008, yielding a total of 12,300 observations.

The measurement of Internet use was based on a question asking participants, "Do you regularly use the World Wide Web, or the Internet, for sending and receiving e-mail or for any other purpose?" Depression was measured using an eight-item version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale.

With other factors constant, the authors found that Internet users had an average predicted probability of depression of .07, whereas that probability for nonusers was .105. Based on the difference, Internet use led to a 33 percent reduction in the probability of depression.

"Number of people in the household partially mediates this relationship, with the reduction in depression largest for people living alone," the authors wrote. "This provides some evidence that the mechanism linking Internet use to depression is the remediation of social isolation and loneliness. Encouraging older adults to use the Internet may help decrease isolation, loneliness, and depression."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by The Gerontological Society of America. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

 

Your T-shirt's ringing: Printable tiny flexible cell phones for clothes?

A new version of "spaser" technology being investigated could mean that mobile phones become so small, efficient, and flexible they could be printed on clothing.

A team of researchers from Monash University's Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering (ECSE) has modelled the world's first spaser (surface plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) to be made completely of carbon.

A spaser is effectively a nanoscale laser or nanolaser. It emits a beam of light through the vibration of free electrons, rather than the space-consuming electromagnetic wave emission process of a traditional laser.

PhD student and lead researcher Chanaka Rupasinghe said the modelled spaser design using carbon would offer many advantages.

"Other spasers designed to date are made of gold or silver nanoparticles and semiconductor quantum dots while our device would be composed of a graphene resonator and a carbon nanotube gain element," Chanaka said.

"The use of carbon means our spaser would be more robust and flexible, would operate at high temperatures, and be eco-friendly.

"Because of these properties, there is the possibility that in the future an extremely thin mobile phone could be printed on clothing."

Spaser-based devices can be used as an alternative to current transistor-based devices such as microprocessors, memory, and displays to overcome current miniaturising and bandwidth limitations.

The researchers chose to develop the spaser using graphene and carbon nanotubes. They are more than a hundred times stronger than steel and can conduct heat and electricity much better than copper. They can also withstand high temperatures.

Their research showed for the first time that graphene and carbon nanotubes can interact and transfer energy to each other through light. These optical interactions are very fast and energy-efficient, and so are suitable for applications such as computer chips.

"Graphene and carbon nanotubes can be used in applications where you need strong, lightweight, conducting, and thermally stable materials due to their outstanding mechanical, electrical and optical properties. They have been tested as nanoscale antennas, electric conductors and waveguides," Chanaka said.

Chanaka said a spaser generated high-intensity electric fields concentrated into a nanoscale space. These are much stronger than those generated by illuminating metal nanoparticles by a laser in applications such as cancer therapy.

"Scientists have already found ways to guide nanoparticles close to cancer cells. We can move graphene and carbon nanotubes following those techniques and use the high concentrate fields generated through the spasing phenomena to destroy individual cancer cells without harming the healthy cells in the body," Chanaka said

The paper has been published in ACS Nano.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Monash University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

   

New high-detail atlas offers tool to explore local environment, health

Researchers have launched a detailed atlas with environment and health maps at a fine scale across England and Wales.

The open-access atlas allows researchers, policy makers and members of the public to study the geographical pattern of 14 diseases and conditions such as lung cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, leukemia and low birth weight. Alongside this it provides maps of geographical variations of selected environmental agents such as air pollution, sunshine and pesticides.

Produced by the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU), part of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment & Health based at Imperial College London, the open-access atlas allows researchers, policy makers and members of the public to study the geographical pattern of 14 diseases and conditions such as lung cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, leukemia and low birth weight. Alongside this it provides maps of geographical variations of selected environmental agents such as air pollution, sunshine and pesticides.

This is the first time in the UK that researchers have produced these maps at such high spatial resolution. By inputting a postcode to the online version of the atlas, users can zoom into a neighborhood (around 6,000 people) and toggle between the health and environment maps for that local area. Health maps provide an indication of the health risk for the area relative to the average for England and Wales but do not represent the risk for an individual living in that area. A companion print version, with more detailed interpretive text and statistics, is being published by Oxford University Press.

Simply comparing the health and environment maps will not enable people to conclude there is a causal link between a specific environmental agent and a health condition, but it can highlight areas for future research. For example, the atlas shows that skin cancer risk is greatest in southwest England even though sunshine duration is highest in southeast England. This suggests that despite a lower level of sunlight in the southwest people may be more exposed, which could trigger further research into behavioral differences between the areas to explain this variation.

This atlas is the first in the UK to adjust for both age and deprivation as well as making statistical allowance if numbers of cases are very small. These adjustments help users to explore the geographical patterns of health risk that aren't just the result of aging populations or poverty.

Looking across all health conditions there are 33 wards that show more consistent patterns of lower relative health risks compared to only eight at the higher end of health risk. Those areas that appear to have the lowest relative risk are in central London, North Norfolk, parts of Suffolk, and Brighton & Hove. The areas with the higher relative risk tend to be in the North West, parts of Yorkshire and South Wales.

Some conditions show a lot of geographical variation that can't be explained by deprivation or aging. Examples are lung cancer, skin cancer, liver cancer, chronic pulmonary disease (a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema) and mesothelioma (a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos). In particular the risks for respiratory problems, such as lung cancer and chronic pulmonary disease are worse in urban areas. Risks of heart disease mortality are predominantly higher in the north of the country. However, the relative risks of breast cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia, brain cancer, still births and low birth weight are more similar across Wales and England.

"The atlas is a fantastic tool for researchers, policy makers and the public," said lead author Dr Anna Hansell from SAHSU in Imperial College London's School of Public Health. "It is the first publication in the UK to amalgamate data at this level of resolution on health and environment. It connects people to health and environment at a neighborhood level and provides resources to learn about these issues. It also allows us to identify the important questions that need answering about patterns of health and environment risk for future avenues of research."

The atlas uses data from the Office of National Statistics and cancer registries for 1985 to 2009. For health data, the maps illustrate relative risk -- the rates or number of cases for an area compared to the average for England and Wales -- as a long-term average. The risks have been 'smoothed' to adjust for chance fluctuations that can occur when there are small numbers of cases especially for cancers such as leukemia and brain cancer.

Alongside health risk maps, the online atlas provides a series of maps of four environmental agents: air pollution, agricultural pesticides, disinfection by-products in drinking water and sunshine duration. As neighborhood-level environmental data were not available for all years, most agents are represented by data from 2000 or 2001.

Together with the maps the research team have produced contextual information on known risk factors for health conditions and a summary of current knowledge about possible association of health effects with environmental exposures.

"Maps are a powerful way to visualize data but each map tells its own story and has its own background," said Professor Paul Elliott, senior author and Director of SAHSU at Imperial College London. "We hope everyone who uses the atlas will have an informative and insightful experience but will also interpret the maps in the light of the additional information we provide including social and historical context."

By providing such a wealth of information at a local level, the atlas is likely to provoke a range of questions. The online atlas provides a series of FAQs for the questions that may arise from users that has been developed through user testing organized by Sense About Science.

The online version of this atlas is available at: http://www.envhealthatlas.co.uk/homepage/

 

Computer program could help solve arson cases

Sifting through the chemical clues left behind by arson is delicate, time-consuming work, but University of Alberta researchers teaming with RCMP scientists in Canada, have found a way to speed the process.

A computer program developed by University of Alberta chemistry professor James Harynuk, his team of graduate and undergraduate researchers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Forensic Laboratory Services, can cut the need for extra levels of human analysis, reducing the waiting time to find out the cause of a deliberately set fire.

That means quicker turnaround on answers for fire investigators, said Mark Sandercock, manager of trace evidence program support for the RCMP's National Forensic Laboratory Services, and a co-author on the research.

"Having results back in a timely way on physical evidence can only improve an investigation," Sandercock said. "By getting the laboratory results back quickly, investigators can use this information to ask the right questions when interviewing people or evaluating other evidence, which will help them resolve the case more quickly by pointing them in the right direction."

The U of A study, published recently in Forensic Science International, is the first to use a mathematical model to successfully classify debris pulled from suspected arson scenes, going beyond research based solely on simulated debris.

Harynuk's team began working with the RCMP's forensic lab in 2008, looking to develop tools for interpreting chemical data. Arson investigation was a logical fit.

"Arson debris provides an interesting set of samples because it is uncontrolled," Harynuk said. "You never know what is going to be in the fire, or how it started. Paint thinners, gasoline, kerosene are all very complex mixtures, and we wanted to develop a tool that would be able to pick a complex signature out of an equally complex background."

Volatile compounds released in a fire can mask the vital chemical data that RCMP scientists need to pinpoint, Sandercock noted. "It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Currently, an RCMP forensic scientist examines data from a sample, which is then re-examined by a second scientist to see whether they agree on the findings -- a process that can take hours per sample. The average arson investigation yields three or four samples.

The technology developed at the University of Alberta would allow the first scientist to run findings through the computer program, getting an answer in seconds. Only if the computer gave a result different from that of the scientist would the debris sample go to a second human analyst.

For their work, Harynuk and his team focused on gasoline, the most commonly used ignitable liquid in arsons. They analyzed data from 232 chemical samples provided by the RCMP's lab services, drawn from fire debris in cases under investigation across Canada. From chemical profiles taken from burned carpet, wood and cloth, they were able to develop a computer filter that isolated the signature of gasoline in the data. This signature was then used to indicate whether or not gasoline was present in the debris sample, a possible indicator of it being used to start a fire.

"It's a system that is quite accurate and goes down a similar investigative path that a human would when looking at the data," Harynuk said.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Alberta. The original article was written by Bev Betkowski. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

   

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