Health

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It’s Dementia Action Week. Reading researchers are tackling the problem of dementia on all fronts, from investigating its causes to how we can improve care and quality of life for those it affects. Today we speak to Professor Arlene Astell, who uses sound and video to trigger long-term memories in people with dementia and get them talking again.

“People with dementia often withdraw from social interactions, lose confidence and feel embarrassed about their condition – their world shrinks. We want to find ways to stimulate their mind and memories and improve their quality of life,” explains Arlene Astell, who is Professor of Neurocognitive Disorders in Reading’s School of Psychology and Language Sciences.

“One of the questions we’re asking in our research is ‘What makes life more enjoyable for people with dementia – what are the activities and pastimes they can do that give them the same pleasure and satisfaction that they had before?’”

Arlene and colleagues are doing this through the use of technology. Working with the BBC to use their sound and TV archive they have developed touch-screen software, called the Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid (CIRCA). The software uses audio and video clips of evocative sounds, music and images from the past – such the whine of an electric milk float, a picture of a 1950s street scene or a recording of Winston Churchill speaking on the radio.

 

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The language the oil industry uses to talk about climate change has altered over time as it attempts to distance itself from culpability, says linguistics specialist Dr Sylvia Jaworska in a new post for The Conversation.

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Academics have a duty to speak to the media, especially in tragic and complex cases, argues Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager at the Science Media Centre.

“How many more Charlies and Alfies must be paraded in front of us before we realise that keeping quiet only makes things worse?”

In July 2017 the story of Charlie Gard, a baby with incurable mitochondrial disease, played out across the media. By April 2018 we all knew the name Alfie Evans, another little boy with another untreatable condition. In both cases the medical teams and the courts agreed nothing could be done.  Both children have since died. There’s nothing enjoyable or satisfying about these stories. They are profoundly sad.

Nine months after Charlie Gard, and the rest of us watched as Alfie’s Army demonstrated outside Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and his parents were locked in bitter dispute with the medical team. For a second time, a battle over the life of a child none of us knew had become major news, and the need for expert voices to be heard in the media and by the public was as strong as ever. Yet with a few notable exceptions, the rest of the medical profession once again failed to show up, allowing misinformation around Alfie Evans to take hold. Nine months after Charlie Gard, and we have dismally failed to learn any lessons.

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It’s 65 years since Watson and Crick published their world-changing paper on the structure of DNA – a discovery they and Rosalind Franklin made using a technique called X-ray diffraction. To mark the anniversary we spoke to Dr James Hall, who uses the same technique today to study molecules which light up when they detect damaged DNA. This could pave the way for future diagnostic tests for diseases such as cancer.

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It’s World Parkinson’s Day. To mark it, we look at Reading research on wearable sensors that help people with Parkinson’s avoid falls.

Image credit: David, Bergin, Emmett and Elliott, CC-BY-2.0. Original image cropped.

Parkinson’s disease affects 1% of people over 60. It’s a degenerative brain disease which causes problems with movement including tremor and difficulty with walking. Elderly people with Parkinson’s disease are prone to falling which can lead to injuries and a downward spiral of deteriorating health. What’s more, falls are estimated to cost the NHS over £2 billion a year.

Here at Reading’s School of Biological Sciences, Professor Simon Sherratt is leading research into wearable sensors which detect movement and monitor ‘near-fall events’ in Parkinson’s patients.

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Colonialism has a lingering influence in modern scientific research – and scientists and historians must work together to  ‘decolonise’ science, says Dr Rohan Deb Roy in a new post for The Conversation.

Sir Ronald Ross at his lab in Calcutta, 1898. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, CC-BY-4.0

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We’re Open – but should we be more open?

By Dr Phil Newton, Research Dean 

The University wants to open up all elements of research at Reading.

But open research is controversial, and there are many different views on it. To some, open research is the future and leads to better studies, more collaboration, and greater impact. To others, it risks giving away your best ideas without clear benefits.

That’s why we need your views now on Reading’s draft Vision for Open Research. You can have your say by completing a short online survey.

Find out more about our consultation or complete the survey now.

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The effect of clouds on global warming, a ‘light switch molecule’ to diagnose disease and the entanglement of malaria with colonialism were among the research topics that have won University of Reading academics prizes.

Left to right: Dr Ariane Kehlbacher (Food theme winner), Lord William Waldegrave of North Hill (Chancellor), Dr James Hall (Health theme winner), Dr Tim Vlandas (Prosperity and Resilience theme winner), Sir David Bell (Vice-Chancellor), Dr Paulo Ceppi (Environment theme winner), Professor Steve Mithen (Deputy Vice-Chancellor), and Dr Rohan Deb Roy (Heritage and Creativity theme winner).

The five academics, one from each research theme, were honoured with a Research Output Prize for Early Career Researchers at University Court, the showcase annual event for the University community, on 19 March.

Professor Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, said: “This year’s winners were drawn from a very strong field. All have made significant academic achievements at an early stage in their careers and I warmly congratulate them. Their achievements are testament not only to their talent and hard work, but also to the University of Reading as a place where research excellence is nurtured and supported.”

The winners from each theme were:

Food theme

Dr Ariane Kehlbacher, from Agri-Food Economics and Social Science, whose research showed that taxing foods based on the greenhouse gas emissions they produce would hit poorest households the hardest. That is because lower income households spend a larger share of their food budget on emission-intensive foods – such as meat – than their wealthier counterparts. Less well-off households also tend to buy cheaper products which means they would see a greater price hike on their weekly shop if emissions-based food taxes were to be introduced.

The judges described the paper as “a rigorous and methodologically novel analysis on a very topical subject relating to ‘polluter pays’ taxation policy” and “a very policy-relevant output”.

Full paper: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-016-1673-6

 

Prosperity & Resilience theme

Dr Tim Vlandas, from Politics and International Relations, for an article exploring the idea that ageing leads to lower inflation. When societies age, the political power of ‘grey voters’ increases which puts pressure on political parties to pursue policies that lead to lower inflation. Countries with a larger share of elderly people therefore end to have lower inflation than those with younger populations, his paper argues. Judges were impressed by the “originality and significance” of the research question and praised the “impressive scope of the empirical research.”

Full paper:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0010414017710261

 

Environment theme

Dr Paulo Ceppi, from Meteorology, for a paper which explains why global warming is accelerating as time passes. Paulo’s research has shown that as rising CO2 levels warm the atmosphere, changes to the surface temperature of the sea are having a knock-on effect on the cloud cover over a large area of the Pacific Ocean, allowing more sunlight to be absorbed. The relationship between sea surface temperature and cloudiness is similar in both real-life observations and in models of climate change. This lends further confidence to models whose projections are used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Warming. Judges described the findings as “world leading” and “of international significance in climate science.”

Full paper: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1714308114

 

Health theme

Pharmacy researcher Dr James Hall has discovered how a light-emitting molecule can bind to DNA in five different ways, each with a different brightness, like a ‘dimmer switch’. This is a critical step towards developing molecules that can detect different DNA structures – such as those linked to different diseases. Deemed to offer “significant applications for future diagnostics” the judging panel also noted that the article had already been cited 10 times, despite only having been published recently, and was therefore already making an impact in the field.

Full paper: https://doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkw753

 

Heritage & Creativity theme

Dr Rohan Deb Roy, from History, for ‘Malarial Subjects’ – a book exploring malaria within the context of British imperial rule of India and the entanglement of colonialism with mosquitoes, quinine and cinchona plants. Judged by the panel as “a work of exceptional originality and significance” the book explores connections between humans and non-humans, and science, medicine and empire.

Further detail: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/malarial-subjects/00BEE3F5FAD80653C99B6674E2685D4D

 

More details on each of the research projects, including video of each of the winners will be published over the next few weeks on this blog.

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