Daily Archives: July 28, 2016

Unique Brain Exercise Shown in Study to Lower Risk of Dementia

SAN FRANCISCO, July 27, 2016 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Researchers announced breakthrough study results Monday — indicating that a particular form and dose of brain training can reduce the risk of dementia by 48 percent over a ten-year period in cognitively healthy, community-dwelling older adults.  The computerized exercise found effective in the study is currently marketed by Posit Science to subscribers of its BrainHQ online service.

Dr. Jerri Edwards of the University of South Florida revealed the results from a 10-year, longitudinal study at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto. These are the latest results reported from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, a multi-site, randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institute on Aging.

The ACTIVE Study enrolled 2,802 healthy adults aged 65 and older, who were randomized into four groups: 1) a strategy-based memory training, 2) a strategy-based reasoning training, 3) a perceptual-based, computerized speed of processing training, and 4) a no-contact control group measured at the same time as the intervention arms of the study.

Participants in the three intervention arms were asked to complete 10 hours of training over a five-week period.  To collect dosing data, a subset of participants were asked to complete additional booster sessions of training after 11 and 35 months.

Participants in the ACTIVE Study were measured on an extensive battery of standardized assessments, including primary outcomes related to speed, memory, reasoning, and functional performance, and secondary outcomes related to mood, confidence, self-rated health, predicted healthcare costs, and driving. Participants were assessed at the beginning of the study, after five weeks of training, and at one, two, three, five and 10 years after training.

Numerous journal articles have previously been published on primary and secondary outcomes at each measurement period. This is the first report of results on the incidence of dementia at the 10-year mark.

Researchers found no significant difference in incidence of dementia for the memory or reasoning training groups as compared to the control group. However, as compared to the control group, the speed of processing training group had a 33 percent reduction in risk of dementia, a statistically significant difference (p=0.012).

The researchers further saw a significant dose-response function. After adjusting for other variables indicating risk for dementia (e.g., race, sex, mental status, physical status, depressive symptoms), participants who were asked to engage in more than 10 sessions of the computerized brain training showed a 48 percent reduction in the risk of dementia as compared to the control group (p=.005).

Participants in the speed of processing training engaged in a task designed to improve speed and accuracy of visual attention, including both divided and selective attention. To perform the divided attention training task, a user identified an object at the center of gaze while simultaneously locating a target in the periphery. With each correct response, the presentation time became faster, and the targets became more similar.  At more advanced levels, distractors obscured the peripheral target, engaging selective attention.

In prior reports from the ACTIVE study, participants using this exercise have been shown to have better performance than the controls on a number of measures, including, performance in standard measures of every day activities, mood, confidence, self-rated health, predicted healthcare costs, and driving. “Clearly, the time spent on effective brain training has potential long lasting benefits for many aspects of older adults’ lives,” Dr. Edwards said.

The exercise was developed by Dr. Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama Birmingham and Dr. Dan Roenker of Western Kentucky University. It is now exclusively licensed to Posit Science Corporation, and is available as the “Double Decision” exercise of the BrainHQ.com brain training program.

“This is an exciting new study result,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, the CEO of Posit Science.  “It fits nicely with results on our exercises and assessments reported in other studies on cognition and aging, as well as with studies on clinical populations.  With the help of new and existing investors, we plan to continue our efforts to improve performance among healthy adults, while accelerating our efforts with regulatory authorities to gain clearance to market products which address cognitive diseases and disorders.”

“Brain speed has been described as the signature deficit of aging — the speed of brain processes reaches its peak in the middle of life, then in the average older individual inexorably declines decade by decade,” said Dr. Michael Merzenich, co-founder of Posit Science and recently-named Kavli Laureate.  “Processing speed is a key index of brain health status—akin, in its diagnostic value, to blood pressure measurements for cardiovascular health.”

Posit Science takes a unique and patented bottom-up approach to refining sensory and perceptual processing as the foundation to enhanced cognitive performance.  Its exercises and assessments have shown benefit in more than 130 peer-reviewed articles, demonstrating gains in standard measures of cognition (such as speed, attention, memory, executive function), as well as in real world activities (such as, driving, balance, gait, everyday tasks).

For additional information, contact:
Jeff Zimman

Meet Viserion and Drogon: the new ant species named after the Game of Thrones dragons

The island of New Guinea is home to some of the rarest animals on the planet. Among them are over 800 species of ants with a diverse range of fascinating characteristics, each well-suited to their unique island habitat. Scientists estimate that around 60% of these ants are found only in New Guinea. In many cases, a single species originally colonised the island and then developed into multiple distinct forms.

Now two new species of ant have been discovered with the help of a major technique that uses 3D imaging technology to identify insects. The ants themselves have a particularly striking appearance thanks to their formidable spine-covered exoskeletons.

Perhaps just as notable as their appearances, though, are their names, Pheidole viserion and Pheidole drogon, inspired by the fire-breathing dragons from the fantasy series Game of Thrones. While not quite in the same size bracket as their mythical namesakes, the ants do have a strong resemblance to the dragons thanks to the distinct blade-like serrations adorning their backs.

Unlike the dragons of fantasy, however, these ants are a product of evolution. So what is the point of their ornate spines? The answer can be found by looking at the social structure of their colonies. The Pheidole group of ants comprises over 40 species that are widely distributed across the island’s rainforests.

Pheidole ants also have several different types or “castes” of worker, each physically specialised for performing specific tasks within the colony. There are smaller “minor” workers and larger “major” workers, commonly referred to as soldiers due to their role in defending the colony from predators and rival ants.

The spines could be seen as a defence mechanism for the soldiers, but this may not be the full story. Soldiers are often many times the size of minor workers and have disproportionately large heads that are packed with muscle, making them formidable adversaries. Their heads are so large, in fact, that they require special skeletomuscular adaptations just to support their extra weight. Results from a kind of imaging technique known as “X-Ray microtomography” have suggested that the ants’ spines are in fact a by-product of this muscular support system, rather than a kind of armour.

This novel imaging method is more like something from science fiction than fantasy, and is opening up the possibility that new insect species could be identified and catalogued much more easily than before. The process works by scanning a mounted specimen with X-rays while rotating it 360 degrees. This produces a 3D cross-section that can then be used to make a virtual model.

Time-saving technique

In this way, X-Ray microtomography allows scientists to capture precise 3D renditions of their specimens and then easily share them with colleagues around the world. This means insects can be compared and identified without the need to send physical samples back to a lab, saving time and reducing the risk of damaging them. Even more impressively, the technique also maps the internal structures of the insects so they don’t need to be dissected for scientists to understand their physiology.

In fact, X-Ray microtomography has the potential to eliminate the laborious tasks of labelling, fixing and dissecting insect specimens that are currently commonplace in science, replacing them with a simple and rapid exchange of data files. In this case, the process also enabled the researchers to uncover new information about the anatomical structure of the Pheidole ant spines, giving them further insight into their biological function.

Classifying plants and animals is still an important tool for studying and monitoring biodiversity. New Guinea in particular holds rich potential for the discovery of new and charismatic species, as the discovery of P. viserion and P. drogon demonstrates. The island comprises just 1% of the world’s land area but is estimated to harbour 5% of all plant and animal species, half of which are yet to be formally described.

Unfortunately, terrestrial ecosystems on the island are in decline, with logging and agriculture posing particularly severe threats. But there is growing interest in safeguarding New Guinea’s biodiversity and, though much progress is still to be made, descriptions of new species and techniques for identifying them are likely to bolster these initiatives.

If nothing else, the discovery of P. viserion and P. drogon, currently known only to New Guinea, may give Game of Thrones fans a reason to appreciate conservation efforts in this often-overlooked patch of the south Pacific.

Source: The Conversation

Abuse in youth detention is not restricted to the Northern Territory

The controversy over the appalling treatment of young people in the Don Dale detention centre and the announcement of a royal commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory raises some important questions about how we arrived at this point.

On the face of it, Australia has a relatively comprehensive complaints-based system for children and young people in detention. All states and territories have various investigation, review and reporting procedures in place.

Inspection, monitoring and complaint bodies include the children’s commissioners and guardians (federal and all states and territories), Ombudsman (all states and territories), Official Visitor Schemes (New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland); and the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services (Western Australia and NSW). Many of these organisations conduct both announced and unannounced inspections of places of juvenile detention.

Since 2010 we have seen numerous reports from these monitoring bodies detailing complaints similar to the problems identified at Don Dale.

In 2010, the Victorian Ombudsman investigated allegations of serious staff misconduct at the Parkville Youth Justice Precinct, including staff inciting fights between detainees, assaulting and restraining detainees with excessive force, and supplying contraband including tobacco, marijuana and lighters.

The Ombudsman reported that the centre was overcrowded, and many of its design features were unsuitable for a custodial environment for young people and posed a number of health and safety concerns. These included:

hanging points and opportunities for self-harm;

blind spots in common areas;

roof access points;

excessive graffiti;

mouldy and unhygienic conditions; and

a high prevalence of communicable infections among detainees.

Some 36% of the staff did not have a Working with Children Check on file. The Ombudsman determined the facility was inappropriate for custodial purposes and was in clear breach of the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and a number of domestic safeguards.

Prior to its closure in 2015, the Kariong Juvenile Justice Centre in NSW was the subject of widespread criticism following a number of incidents relating to the treatment and control of detainees. A 2011 NSW Ombudsman report identified problems with the centre’s rehabilitation programs. The report also highlighted a lack of case management by detention centre staff, particularly for young people with mental health issues, and criticised the length of time detainees were kept in isolation.

In 2012 the Queensland children’s commissioner released a report into the use of force in detention centres. The report followed an investigation into six instances where young people sustained significant injuries, including fractures of the wrist, arm fractures, and a dislocated shoulder.

The commissioner found that the:

incidents highlight the potential problems with the force techniques approved for use on young people in youth detention centres.

In January 2016, it was reported that an 11-year-old Indigenous boy detained at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre was allegedly assaulted by youth officers, leaving him with two black eyes and a broken cheekbone.

In WA, the Inspector of Custodial Services raised concerns over the high number of strip-searches, inadequate visiting and under-resourced educational facilities, weak case management, and severely stretched mental health services at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre.

These reports raise important concerns about the ability of our current monitoring system to tackle institutional and systemic problems that occur to varying degrees in all states and territories. These include abuse and the use of excessive force.

At a broader level, these systemic problems negatively affect Australia’s compliance with children’s rights. One important step forward would be for Australia to ratify the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). Ratifying OPCAT would provide a system of regular inspections to places of juvenile (and adult) detention by the UN and through the establishment of a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM).

The NPM would also monitor other places of detention including mental health facilities and immigration detention centres. Australia signed the OPCAT in 2009, but is yet to ratify the protocol.

There already exists considerable support for Australia’s ratification of OPCAT. In 2014, 64 organisations signed a statement to the attorney-general endorsing Australia’s ratification of the protocol.

So, given all of this, what difference will a royal commission make? It may well assist in uncovering the truth behind the mistreatment of young people in NT detention and sheeting home some responsibility. But we are left wondering why our regulatory systems have failed, not only in the NT but throughout Australia.

There are good arguments for expanding the royal commission to include juvenile detention nationally, and also for specifically considering the dramatic over-representation of Indigenous children in detention. These need to be balanced against what we already know about both these systemic problems, their solutions, and the likelihood that an expanded royal commission could take years to complete, further delaying any action.

Source: The Conversation

South Africa: Amajimbos Romp Into the Semis of the U-17 Championships

Amajimbos, South Africa’s national u17 national men’s team romped to the semi-finals of the ongoing COSAFA Cup u17 national championships when they defeated Mauritius 2-0 to maintain their unbeaten streak in the tournament.

The Molefi Ntseki-coached side have already beaten Seychelles and Namibia and are favourites to beat Malawi in the semi-finals on Friday.

They are, together with Zambia the only side with a 100 percent record in the tournament.

The semifinals line-up is complete with the South Africans to play Group B runners-up Malawi (kick-off 13h00 local; 09h00 GMT) and Namibia to tackle Zambia (kick-off 13h00 local; 09h00 GMT).

Both matches will be played at the Stade St Francois Xavier in Port Louis.

South Africa finished their game with 10 men after a red card for Mswati Mavuso, who had earlier put them ahead in the match a minute before halftime.

But they continued to battle away and grabbed a second goal when S’miso Bophela was fouled in the box and Tyreese Pillay converted from the spot.

Like Zambia, South Africa have yet to concede a goal in the competition and those two will be favourites for Sunday’s final.

But Malawi and Namibia have both shown they can be a match for anybody and be eager to cause an upset on Friday.


Seychelles 1 (Juninho 57′) Namibia

South Africa 2 (Mavuso 44′, Pillay 74′) Mauritius 0


South Africa vs Malawi (KO 13h00 local; 09h00 GMT)

Zambia vs Namibia (KO 16h00 local; 12h00 GMT)

Source: South African Football Association.

South Africa: Fees Must Fall – but Not At the Expense of Quality Higher Education

South Africa’s university campuses are quiet – for now. There’s been sporadic unrest, but nothing like the protests that brought institutions to a standstill in late 2015 and early 2016.

This period of quietude isn’t surprising. Protesting students won their demand for a freeze on fee increases easily. Their demand for free university education has not yet been met.

The concession on fee increases for 2016 was an attempt to buy peace. There was no attempt to engage students on the implications for quality and sustainability. Instead, President Jacob Zuma established a Commission of Inquiry into the feasibility of free higher education in January 2016. The commission must complete its work by the end of August and submit its final report in November.

The commission’s timeline will make it difficult for its findings to impact on fee decisions for 2017. Universities’ budgeting processes, including fee increase negotiations with students, begin in earnest after the mid-year break and are finalised by November.

Worryingly, the commission seems to be operating far from the public eye. Now is the time to return the debate about free higher education and fee freezes to the public domain.

Financial distress

The state scrambled together most of the funds necessary to compensate universities for the shortfall in revenue from the 2016 fee freeze – R1.9 billion of the R2.2 billion needed. Universities then funded the remaining R300 million from reserves and by scaling down expenditure. The state has budgeted an equivalent amount for 2017 and 2018 but it is unlikely that universities will be able to do the same without compromising teaching and research. So what happens in the next few years?

The state and universities are apparently working on the assumption of a fee increase of between 6% and 7% in 2017, based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This would not make up for the gaping hole in university finances that will result from in-sourcing non-academic services, which was also a student demand and which has been agreed to in principle.

It is estimated by the representative body, Universities South Africa, that this will cost anywhere between R400 million and R2 billion. Baseline funding would have to be substantially increased to ensure the sustainability of the universities.

This is unlikely given the parlous state of South Africa’s economy. But even if were possible, universities would still be financially distressed: CPI is not an adequate measure of the costs of higher education. Academic books and laboratory equipment are mostly imported, which significantly increases costs as the rand keeps weakening. It is because of this and because state subsidies have been declining in real terms over the past 15 years – while student numbers have kept increasing – that fees have risen.

Hobson’s choice

The state subsidy as a proportion of institutional income remained at 40% between 2008 and 2013. This has had a direct impact on teaching and learning. While student enrolments grew by 34% in this period, permanent academic staff only increased by 22%.

Universities are left with Hobson’s choice. They can either increase student fees or do nothing, which would lead to the slow but sure decline in the quality of education that’s on offer.

The assumption of a CPI-linked fee increase is likely to come to naught if it is imposed without any prior engagement and agreement with students. This should be an elementary lesson learnt from the attempt by the authorities to impose a unilateral fee increase in 2015 – which is what set off the protest movement.

The fact that a CPI-linked fee increase is being mooted suggests there is recognition that a further freeze on fees is unsustainable. It can’t be assumed, though, that the demand for free higher education is off the agenda or that students would be willing to countenance fee increases either in 2017 or in the future.

Higher education globally is elitist

It’s an incontrovertible fact that working- and lower-middle-class students can’t access higher education without financial support.

It doesn’t follow, however, that the solution is free higher education for all. Higher education worldwide, unlike schooling, is elitist. Access is restricted to a proportion of the eligible age cohort. This advantages middle- and upper-middle-class students because of their financial means and access to quality schooling. In effect, since fees constitute a fraction of the total cost of study, their access to higher education is subsidised by low-income families.

So free higher education in the current context will further exacerbate South Africa’s already high level of inequality.

Similarly, graduates have a greater advantage when it comes to employability and the potential of higher earnings. This suggests that a bursary and loan scheme like the existing National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is a fairer way to ensure affordable access to higher education. It enables recovered loans – R5.4 billion since 1998 – to be re-injected into the scheme.

The key challenge confronting the NSFAS is insufficient funding to meet rising demand, including what’s needed to cover the “missing middle” who fall outside the scheme’s current income threshold of R120,000. The scheme is developing a new funding model that would bring the “missing middle” into the net.

The problem is not the funding model but the quantum of funds available. Increasing the number of eligible students will – unless more funding is made available – exacerbate the current crisis. The extent of the need is indicated by estimates. These suggest that an additional R10.7 million would be required annually to cover all the students (just more than 250,000) who qualify for NSFAS support.

This may well be affordable if national priorities are shifted, including addressing the huge wastage in resources because of corruption and a bloated public service. It’s easier said than done. Even if resources were freed up, there are other competing social priorities.

Wastage in higher education

Student numbers have doubled since 1994. The problem is that this hasn’t been matched by a concomitant increase in student throughput rates. About 45% of an entering undergraduate cohort drops out without obtaining a qualification.

Of those who do graduate, just under half take five or more years to do so. That’s an enormous waste of scarce financial resources and is higher education’s real crisis.

Lack of money is one of the reasons for these high dropout rates. Another factor is school leavers’ under-preparedness for higher education. This is not taken into account by the curriculum and qualification structure, which is not suited to the socioeconomic, cultural and educational background of students entering higher education.

So a key first step and priority in relieving funding pressures must be to improve the internal effectiveness and efficiency of the higher education system. This requires systemic intervention to address the knowledge and skills gap between school and university through restructuring the curriculum and qualification structure in higher education. This could be done, as a report commissioned by the country’s Council on Higher Education indicated, by adding an extra year to the traditional three- and four-year qualifications.

The council advised the minister of higher education and training in December 2014 to consider piloting a new curriculum and qualification structure along these lines. There was widespread, if qualified, support from universities. But to date there’s been no indication of a public response from the minister to the council’s advice.

Avoiding more stand-offs

Free higher education may not be desirable or feasible in the short or medium term. To achieve it in the long term, a road map must be developed. This must include finding solutions to universities’ funding challenges through an open, honest and transparent national engagement process and dialogue.

This is imperative to avoid a repeat of the stand-off between students and universities, and to secure the future of a quality public higher education system.

Disclosure statement

Ahmed Essop does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Source: The Conversation.