Core thinking error underlies belief in creationism, conspiracy theories: study

It’s not uncommon to hear someone espouse the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or that something that happened was “meant to be.” Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on August 20 have found that this kind of teleological thinking is linked to two seemingly unrelated beliefs: creationism, the belief that life on Earth was purposely created by a supernatural agent, and conspiracism, the tendency to explain historical or current events in terms of secret conspiracies or conspiracy theories.

“We find a previously unnoticed common thread between believing in creationism and believing in conspiracy theories,” says Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg. “Although very different at first glance, both these belief systems are associated with a single and powerful cognitive bias named teleological thinking, which entails the perception of final causes and overriding purpose in naturally occurring events and entities.”

A teleological thinker, for example, will accept as true propositions such as “the sun rises in order to give us light” or “the purpose of bees is to ensure pollination,” he says. “This type of thinking is anathema to scientific reasoning, and especially to evolutionary theory, and was famously mocked by Voltaire, whose character Pangloss believed that ‘noses were made to wear spectacles.’ Yet it is very resilient in human cognition, and we show that it is linked not only to creationism, but also to conspiracism.”

In previous work, Dieguez and colleagues showed that conspiracism wasn’t explained by the tendency to assume that “nothing happens by accident.” They realized that conspiracism isn’t driven by a rejection of the idea that the world is random and complex, but that it still could be linked to the notion that events in the world are actively and purposely fabricated. They also noticed that this looked “striking similar” to creationism. If correct, they reasoned, then conspiracism, like creationism, should be associated with teleological thinking, and both types of beliefs should be correlated with each other.

To find out whether this was the case, the researchers asked more than 150 college students in Switzerland to complete a questionnaire including teleological claims and conspiracist statements, as well as measures of analytical thinking, esoteric and magical beliefs, and a randomness perception task. The survey data showed that the tendency to ascribe function and meaning to natural facts and events was significantly, though modestly, correlated with conspiracist belief scales. Drawing on a large-scale survey of people in France, the researchers also found a strong association between creationism and conspiracism.

To look more closely at this pattern, the researchers next recruited more than 700 people to complete questionnaires online. Those data again confirmed associations among teleological thinking, creationism, and conspiracism. The data also show that those relationships are partly distinct from other variables, including gender, age, analytical thinking, political orientation, education, and agency detection.

“By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events,” Dieguez says. “We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called ‘post-truth era.'”

The researchers say the findings have important implications for science educators and communicators. They may also help in formulating policies to “discourage the endorsement of socially debilitating and sometimes dangerous beliefs and belief systems.”

The researchers are now in the process of assessing the effectiveness of ongoing attempts to educate kids and adolescents about the nature of conspiracy theories and other types of misinformation. They say what’s ultimately needed is a thorough understanding of the factors that contribute to a conspiracist mindset, which is relevant to many beliefs, including global warming denialism and vaccine rejection, and they are developing a general framework to help disentangle the relevant factors.

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Rogue proteins may underlie some ALS and frontotemporal dementia cases, says study

ALS—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—is a neurodegenerative disease that attacks motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, slowly robbing its victims of their ability to walk, talk, breathe and swallow. In a cruel twist, some ALS patients also develop frontotemporal dementia, a disease that destroys an entirely different set of brain cells—cortical neurons—leading to personality changes, among other effects.

Inherited forms of both diseases have been traced to gene mutations associated with an abnormal buildup of the RNA-binding protein, TDP-43, in the brain. Now, in a study in the journal eLife, Columbia University and New York Genome Center researchers show that TDP-43 and at least three other RNA-binding proteins appear to run similarly amok in ALS and dementia patients without the mutation. Their finding suggests that the dominant form of hereditary ALS and frontotemporal dementia may share molecular underpinnings with far more common versions of ALS and dementia that have no known genetic basis.

“It turns out that if you analyze the biochemical properties of RNA-binding proteins you see it’s not just TDP-43 but several others that are also perturbed,” says Aaron Gitler, a genetics professor at Stanford University who discusses the study in the same issue of eLife. “This is a new concept in how we think about these diseases—not just as TDP-43 diseases, but as RNA-binding protein diseases.”

Normally, the TDP-43 protein helps control the expression of messenger RNA, and thus, gene behavior, from inside the cell nucleus. But in the brain cells of nearly all ALS and half of frontotemporal dementia patients, the protein accumulates outside the nucleus, eventually forming clumps big enough to see under a microscope. What causes the buildup, however, remains unclear.

In a pair of landmark studies in Neuron in 2011, researchers identified the genetic mutation responsible for most cases of inherited ALS and frontotemporal dementia. On a small section of chromosome 9, the mutation appears to cause a DNA fragment that normally recurs a handful of times to repeat itself hundreds to thousands of times. Researchers hypothesized that RNA-binding proteins like TDP-43, designed to stick to themselves and similar proteins, would glom on to the repeats and abandon their gene-expression role, eventually causing brain cells to degenerate and die.

In a 2016 study in eLife, a team led by Erin Conlon, then a Columbia graduate student, showed that the mutation triggered another RNA-binding protein, called hnRNP H, to form similar clumps that disrupted gene expression. Unlike TDP-43, these clumps were largely invisible to the eye but could be measured with a biochemical test.

On a hunch that a similar pattern might show up in mutation-free patients, who represent a majority of ALS and frontotemporal dementia cases, Conlon and her colleagues in the current study analyzed the brains of 50 people who had died with one or both diseases. To their surprise, in more than half of the brains, they found large amounts of biochemically insoluble hnRNP H and three other RNA-binding proteins —TDP-43, FUS and hnRNP A1— indicating all had stopped regulating gene expression.

“RNA-binding proteins control how much proteins a gene makes,” says the study’s senior author, James Manley, a molecular biology professor at Columbia. “This process goes seriously awry when these aggregates are around.”

Many questions remain, including what causes RNA-binding proteins, in the absence of a mutation, to go haywire in the first place. Another mystery is why the impaired proteins surface in motor and cortical neurons while other brain cells are spared.

Neurons may be especially vulnerable to toxic protein accumulations, because unlike other cells, they can’t divide or be replaced, but that doesn’t explain why motor and cortical neurons are especially sensitive, says Conlon, now a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University.

Though much more still needs to be worked out, the study suggests that a blood test or other non-invasive way to detect ALS and frontotemporal dementia could soon be within reach. The findings also indicate that ALS comes in at least two forms—one in which RNA-binding function is disrupted, and the other with a still-unknown mechanism.

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Blood cancer patients least likely to understand their diagnosis

People with blood cancer are less likely to understand their diagnosis than those with any other type of cancer, according to a new analysis by Bloodwise.

The analysis, based on NHS England’s National Cancer Patient Experience Survey, found that just 59 per cent of blood cancer patients, including those with leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma, say they completely understood their doctor’s explanation of what was wrong with them.

This is much lower than the 73 per cent average for cancer patients who say they fully understood their diagnosis. And one in 25 people (four per cent) diagnosed with blood cancer left not understanding their diagnosis at all. This is higher than for any other type of cancer

Over 40,000 people are diagnosed with a blood cancer every year in the UK. Blood cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer and the third biggest cause of cancer death in the UK. Bloodwise says that if patients have a poor understanding of what is wrong with them, it can lead to a sense of isolation and have a negative impact on their treatment.

Skin cancer patients were most likely to understand their diagnosis, with 80 per cent completely understanding the explanation they were given.

Sarah Porch, Head of Information and Support Services at Bloodwise, said: “Being told that you have cancer can be one of the most devastating experiences of a person’s life, and it is vital that people understand what they are being told. If people do not understand their diagnosis, then they are not in a position to ask informed questions about their condition or to explain their disease to their loved ones.

“This is why it is deeply worrying that only six out of 10 people with blood cancer come away from their diagnosis fully understanding what is wrong with them.

“Blood cancer is a complicated disease that is less understood than some of the other common types of cancer. So it’s important to look at ways to improve how this information is explained to make it as understandable as possible, as well as making sure that everyone is also offered written information about their cancer.”

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Chagas disease, caused by a parasite, has spread outside of Latin America and carries a high risk of heart disease

Chagas disease, caused by infection with a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi (T cruzi), causes chronic heart disease in about one third of those infected. Over the past 40 years, Chagas disease has spread to areas where it had not traditionally been seen, including the United States, according to a new American Heart Association scientific statement published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

The statement. summarizes the most up-to-date information on diagnosis, screening and treatment of T cruzi infection. Infection occurs when feces from the infected blood sucking insect triatomine enters the skin through the bite site or in the eye. Triatomine insects are found in Central and South America, where they infest adobe houses and in the Southern United States. The disease can also be passed through contaminated food or drink, from pregnant mothers to their babies, and through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

The health risks of Chagas disease are well-known in Latin America where most cases are found in countries that include Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico and El Salvador. However, doctors outside of Latin America are largely unaware of the infection and its connection to heart disease. Countries where infected individuals have been diagnosed include the United States with an estimated 300,000 cases, Spain with at least 42,000 cases, Italy, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.

“This statement aims to increase global awareness among physicians who manage patients with Chagas disease outside of traditionally endemic environments,” said Maria Carmo Pereira Nunes, M.D., Ph.D, co-chair of the committee that produced the statement. “This document will help healthcare providers and health systems outside of Latin America recognize, diagnose and treat Chagas disease and prevent further disease transmission,” said Pereira Nunes, who is a cardiologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Although 60-70 percent of people infected with T cruzi never develop any symptoms, those that do can develop heart disease, including heart failure, stroke, life threatening ventricular arrhythmias (heart rhythm abnormalities) and cardiac arrest. In the Americas, Chagas disease is responsible for more than seven times as many disability-adjusted life-years lost as malaria. However, if caught early, an infection can be cured with medications that have a 60 to 90 percent success rate, depending on when in the course of infection the patient is treated.

“Early detection of Chagas disease is critical, allowing prompt initiation of therapy when the evidence for cure is strong,” said statement co-author Caryn Bern, M.D., M.P.H., professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California in San Francisco.

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Young, healthy people still vulnerable to CVD if their LDL cholesterol is high

Young, healthy people may still face a lifetime risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease if they cannot keep their cholesterol levels in check, according to new observational research in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

Researchers in this latest study looked at associations between low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL-C) and non-high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (HDL-C) thresholds and cardiovascular disease (CVD) and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality to evaluate whether people believed to be at low 10-year risk for heart health problems should begin pursuing efforts to lower elevated cholesterol earlier through lifestyle changes, and in some cases, cholesterol-lowering medication.

Coronary heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, affecting half of all men and one-third of all women. An estimated 28.5 million Americans have total cholesterol levels of 240 mg/dL or higher. LDL is a type of cholesterol that contributes to clogged arteries which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

“High cholesterol at younger ages means there will be a greater burden of cardiovascular disease as these individuals age. This research highlights the need to educate Americans of any age on the risks of elevated cholesterol, and ways to keep cholesterol at a healthy level throughout life,” said Robert Eckel, M.D., past president of the American Heart Association and Director of the Lipid Clinic at University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Eckel has been active in developing the AHA’s Check.Change.Control.Cholesterol initiative to help providers and patients work together to identify cardiovascular health risks.

Clinical trials typically have focused on individuals at moderate or high risk for cardiovascular disease. This observational study included 36,375 young, relatively healthy participants of the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study who were free of diabetes or cardiovascular disease and were followed for 27 years. For a low-risk person, researchers discovered that LDL levels were independently associated with increased chances of dying from cardiovascular disease. Without taking into account other risk factors, researchers’ other findings included:

  • Compared with participants who had LDL readings of under 100 mg/dL, those with LDL levels in the range of 100-159 mg/dL had a 30 to 40 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease death.
  • Those with LDL levels of 160 mg/dL or higher had a 70 to 90 percent increased risk of cardiovascular death, compared with participants who had LDL readings of under 100 mg/dL.
  • Among the group (72 percent men, average age 42), there were 1,086 deaths from cardiovascular disease, such as stroke, and 598 coronary heart disease deaths.

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Ebola deaths in DR Congo rises to 49 with 2,000 feared ‘contacts’

The deadly Ebola outbreak in eastern DR Congo has now claimed 49 lives since the start of the month, the government has said, and the World Health Organization expects more cases.

The gradually increasing death toll, with a further 2,000 people feared to have come into contact with the virus, adds to the woes of a country already facing violence, displacement and political uncertainty.

First reported on August 1 in the North Kivu province, the current outbreak has killed 49 of the 90 cases reported, according to the latest health ministry bulletin on Saturday.

It said of the 49 deaths from the haemorrhagic fever, 63 were confirmed and 27 were probable. Confirmed cases are verified through laboratory tests on samples taken from patients. The cases treated as “probable” often concern sick people with a close epidemiological link to confirmed cases, but who have not been tested.

Most deaths—39—were recorded in the agricultural village of Mangina 30 kilometres (some 20 miles) southwest of the city of Beni. Three deaths occurred in the neighbouring province of Ituri.

Field teams also identified 2,157 “contacts”—people who may have been in contact with the virus—according to the health ministry.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told reporters on Friday from the UN agency’s Geneva headquarters that it “expects more cases”.

“We do not know if all the chains of transmission have been identified,” he added.

The outbreak is the 10th to strike the DRC since 1976, when Ebola was first identified and named after a river in the north of the country.

Ebola has long been considered incurable, though swift isolation and the rapid treatment of symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration has helped some patients to survive.

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Team develops new way to grow blood vessels

Formation of new blood vessels, a process also known as angiogenesis, is one of the major clinical challenges in wound healing and tissue implants. To address this issue, researchers from Texas A&M University have developed a clay-based platform to deliver therapeutic proteins to the body to assist with the formation of blood vessels.

The team is led by members of the Inspired Nanomaterials and Tissue Engineering Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. They have developed technology that introduces a new type of two-dimensional clay, also known as nanosilicates, that delivers multiple specialized proteins called growth factors into the body to stimulate new blood vessel formation. To allow blood vessels time to form, the clay is designed to prolong the release through its high surface area and charged characteristics, according to biomedical engineering assistant professor Dr. Akhilesh K. Gaharwar.

“Clay nanoparticles work like tiny weak magnets that hold the growth factors within the polymeric hydrogels and release very slowly,” Gaharwar said. “Sustained and prolonged release of physiologically relevant doses of growth factors are important to avoid problems due to high doses, such as abrupt tissue formation.”

Co-investigator Dr. Kayla Bayless from the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine in the Texas A&M Health Science Center said the clay also keeps the growth factors organized, preventing abnormal growth and moderating activity of surrounding cells.

Gaharwar said by establishing clay nanoparticles as a platform technology for delivering the growth factors, the research will have a significant impact on designing the next generation of bioactive scaffolds and implants.

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Doctors remove contact lens embedded in eyelid for years

(HealthDay)—Doctors recently removed a contact lens that was embedded in a woman’s eyelid for nearly three decades after she was hit in the eye while playing badminton. The case was highlighted in the Aug. 10 online edition of BMJ Case Reports.

The woman was 14 at the time and thought she had lost the contact lens. At age 42, she visited an ophthalmologist because her left eyelid had been swollen and drooping for about six months.

Doctors determined that the patient had a cyst. When they removed it, the cyst broke open and revealed a rigid gas permeable contact lens. The woman couldn’t recall how the contact lens got there or how long it was there, but her mother remembered that she had been hit in the eye with a shuttlecock during a game of badminton 28 years ago.

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Stress during pregnancy increases risk of mood disorders for female offspring

High maternal levels of the stress hormone cortisol during pregnancy increase anxious and depressive-like behaviors in female offspring at the age of 2, reports a new study in Biological Psychiatry. The effect of elevated maternal cortisol on the negative offspring behavior appeared to result from patterns of stronger communication between brain regions important for sensory and emotion processing. The findings emphasize the importance of prenatal conditions for susceptibility of later mental health problems in offspring.

Interestingly, male offspring of mothers with high cortisol during pregnancy did not demonstrate the stronger brain connectivity, or an association between maternal cortisol and mood symptoms.

“Many mood and anxiety disorders are approximately twice as common in females as in males. This paper highlights one unexpected sex-specific risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders in females,” said John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “High maternal levels of cortisol during pregnancy appear to contribute to risk in females, but not males.”

“This study measured maternal cortisol during pregnancy in a more comprehensive manner than prior research,” said first author Alice Graham, Ph.D., of Oregon Health & Science University. To estimate the overall cortisol level during pregnancy, senior author Claudia Buss, Ph.D., of Charité University Medicine Berlin and University of California, Irvine and colleagues measured cortisol levels over multiple days in early-, mid-, and late-pregnancy. Measurements taken from the 70 mothers included in the study reflected typical variation in maternal cortisol levels. The researchers then used brain imaging to examine connectivity in the newborns soon after birth, before the external environment had begun shaping brain development, and measured infant anxious and depressive-like behaviors at 2 years of age.

“Higher maternal cortisol during pregnancy was linked to alterations in the newborns’ functional brain connectivity, affecting how different brain regions can communicate with each other,” said Dr. Buss. The altered connectivity involved a brain region important for emotion processing, the amygdala. This pattern of brain connectivity predicted anxious and depressive-like symptoms two years later.

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Prenatal exposure to violence leads to increased toddler aggression toward mothers, study finds

Babies whose mothers experience interpersonal violence during pregnancy are more likely to exhibit aggression and defiance toward their mothers in toddlerhood, according to new research by Laura Miller-Graff, assistant professor of psychology and peace studies, and Jennifer Burke Lefever, managing director of the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families, both at the University of Notre Dame.

While it is fairly well-known that pregnant women have an elevated risk for domestic violence, much of the associated research focuses on the negative impact of that violence on pregnancy, labor and delivery. Miller-Graff and Lefever’s study, co-published with Amy Nuttall in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, examines the short- and long-term impact of prenatal violence (regardless of perpetrator) on children’s later adjustment outcomes. Nuttall earned her doctorate at Notre Dame in 2015 and is currently assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University.

“We wanted to map out how the impact of violence cascades over time,” Miller-Graff said. “Prenatal violence primarily affects kids via how it affects the mother.”

“Research has shown that many mothers who live in domestic violence situations have pretty strong parenting skills, but when violence affects their mental health, parenting can become more difficult as well. Infancy and early toddlerhood are key times for learning some of the core emotion regulation skills—so if moms struggle, kids struggle.”

Miller-Graff said the harmful impact of violence during pregnancy is profound and long-lasting, with discernible effects on the child as far out as 2 years old, even though the initial exposure is indirect.

“We measured toddlers’ aggressive behavior in the home environment, which included kicking and defiance in toddlers as reported by their mothers.”

While this finding aligned with the researchers’ predictions, they were surprised to find that interpersonal violence in pregnancy did not predict children’s aggressive behaviors toward their peers—suggesting that many children are able to exhibit resilience in social relationships outside of the home.

When Miller-Graff was in graduate school, her research focused on the impact of intimate partner violence (IPV) on preschoolers, and she wondered whether studying an earlier phase would be more effective—not only with intervention, but also with prevention of intergenerational cycles of abuse.

She said: “Although supporting IPV-exposed preschoolers is extremely important, I often felt like we were arriving to the scene too late. The period of pregnancy is an optimal point for intervention not only because you are intervening early, but also because women are often engaged in a health care system with the most regularity of their lives. This provides a unique window where women’s risk coincides with their access to support systems—a very rare opportunity.”

When there is an opportunity to put supports in place for at-risk pregnant women, the negative impact on kids is likely to significantly decrease, according to Miller-Graff. She noted that one of many potential applications of this research is better standards of screening for violence during prenatal exams.

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