Bots and the spread of misinformation

Much misinformation is spread through social media by automated accounts–called “bots.”

The purpose of these fake accounts is to sway public opinion, change behavior (like voting behavior), and to generally unsettle and divide.

Can you tell if the Twitter or Facebook (or other social media) site you’re reading is genuine?  It doesn’t do any good to argue with or send biting commentary to an account controlled by a machine.  You’re never going to change its opinion or make it mad.  Being hoodwinked by a machine is no one’s finest hour.

How do you know if the post or tweet you may be looking at comes from a human being?  Can you tell the difference?

Research has identified 5 clues for spotting Twitter bots–user profile, tweet syntax, tweet semantics, temporal behavior, and network features.

Read the article to learn more (Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, July 18, 2018).


The pitch of adult voices may be largely determined in the womb

The pitch of voices–higher, lower, etc.–affects “our impressions of a person’s physical and social dominance, attractiveness, and trust.”  Voice pitch, and the impressions it creates throughout life affecting how people are treated, has real-world consequences.

A new study suggests “the pitch of babies’ cries at 4 months old may predict the pitch of their speech at age 5.”

Previous research has shown that “the pitch of a person’s voice stays basically the same during adulthood and that how we sound as adults may be determined before puberty.”  At age 7, the pitch of a boy’s voice “can mostly predict what he will sound like as an adult.”

This new research takes the time back even farther; “a substantial proportion of the difference between how we sound in adulthood may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero.”

Many important things happen to a fetus in the womb–things that can impact life even as an adult.

More research is needed to confirm these correlations.  Read the article (Matt Stevens, New York Times, July 16, 2018).


mTOR inhibitors appear to boost the immune system of older adults

A recent clinical trial found that mTOR inhibitors–two experimental anti-aging drugs–both reduced the number of respiratory infections and boosted “people’s responses to the flu vaccine.”

The trial involved 264 volunteers aged 65 and over.  Some of the volunteers received low doses of both drugs–which appeared to be the most effective treatment.  All participants were monitored subsequently for one year.

mTOR inhibitors “appear to broadly rejuvenate immune function in healthy elderly people.”  Other tests with these drugs in mice have shown that they can “extend lifespan and revitalize the immune system and organs which deteriorate in old age.”

As people grow older, their immune systems weaken.  Infections happen more frequently, and vaccines don’t work as well.  If drugs–like mTOR inhibitors–can boost the immune systems of older people, ” they could help to protect the whole population from infections.”

More research is needed; however, “this study raises the real possibility that most middle-aged adults could benefit from short-term treatments with mTOR inhibitors.”

Read the article (Layal Liverpool, The Guardian, July 11, 2018).

Nighttime temperatures are warming faster

More impact from climate change–at one point this month (July 2018), “more than 100 million people” in the United States were under heat warnings or advisories.  While high daytime temperatures and humidity were most noticeable, it was the nighttime temperatures that were having the greatest impact.

“Nationwide, summer nights have warmed at nearly twice the rate of days”; overnight low temperatures have increased an average of 1.4 degrees F since 1895; daytime temperatures have increased an average of 0.7 degrees per century.  And, nighttime temperatures have warmed faster than days in the winter, spring, and fall as well.

This pattern is expected to continue …

While the change in temperatures may seem small, the consequences are very large.

Most years, heat waves kill more people in the U.S. than any other natural disaster including floods and hurricanes.  “The combination of high daytime and high nighttime temperatures can be really lethal because the body doesn’t have a chance to cool down during the nighttime hours.”  And, “the risks are higher in places where temperatures have historically been cooler.”  Older people, the sick, young children, outdoor workers, and the homeless are particularly at risk.  In cities, where the heat island effect exacerbates high temperatures, it is often the poor and /or minority residents who are more likely to live in the hotter areas.

Yes, air conditioning can help.  But, air conditioners work by sending hot air outside–where it can add to the heat island effect in urban areas.  Plus, air conditioning is a major player in climate change globally, and increased air conditioner use during heat waves is a factor in power failures.

This is another impact of climate change that is real and is happening today–read the article, see the graphs (Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich, New York Times, July 11, 2018).

A pet medicine may protect humans against disease

Diseases like the Zika virus and malaria are spread by mosquitoes and fleas; it’s a problem worldwide especially in the developing world but also in wealthier countries as well.  To prevent the spread of Zika, malaria, and other diseases, insecticides and bed nets are currently often used.  “Vaccines are also under development … but few are approved for use.”

A recent study suggests another possible treatment–isoxazolines.  These drugs are currently approved for use in dogs to protect against fleas and ticks.

The study suggests that a single dose of 260 to 410 mg in humans could help protect against mosquito and sand fly bites for 50 to 90 days.

Isoxazolines are seen more as a rapid response option in areas where diseases like Zika and malaria are widespread.  Researchers estimate that giving doses of these drugs to a third of the people living in outbreak areas could prevent up to 97% of Zika infections and 70+% of new cases of malaria.

More research is needed to “prove the safety and effectiveness” of these drugs in humans.  The current use of isoxazolines in dogs, however, could shorten the drug development process.

Read the article (Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, July 2, 2018).


Discovering new genes behind human intelligence and mental health

Recent studies using “a new statistical method called MAGMA” to analyze the health and genetic records of over 6 million people have identified over 1,000 new genes linked to human intelligence and over 500 new genes “associated with neurotic traits.”

The analysis suggests that higher intelligence is linked with a longer life span and less chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, ADHD, or schizophrenia.  In contrast, genes linked to intelligence are also “correlated with a higher risk for autism.”

These studies provide “hard evidence of the many genes and pathways” that are involved in human intelligence and mental health.  For instance, another indication is that people who suffer from excessive anxiety inherit different genes than people who are depressed.

While it has long been known that humans can “inherit intelligence and some personality disorders from their parents,” these studies provide confirmation.  However, environmental factors like education and stress also play a significant role.

The results of these studies can potentially point the way toward “new ways to improve education, or therapies to treat neurotic behavior.”

Read the article (Ann Gibbons, Science, June 25, 2018).