USC Viterbi research to streamline robot delivery


USC Viterbi Research to Streamline our Robot Delivery Future

USC Viterbi Research to Streamline our Robot Delivery Future

A new study into optimized symbiotic vehicles for use in warehouses and for robot deliveries has been funded by Toyota’s University Research Program.

John Carlsson can’t wait for a future where robots roam the streets, seamlessly darting back and forth from larger delivery vehicles to bring us our food, goods, mail, and medicine at lightning speed. A future where automation can help make the world more accessible for people with mobility issues, with fewer vehicles clogging our roads on time-consuming errands that add to the carbon footprints of cities.

Carlsson, the Kellner Family Early Career Chair and associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, has just been awarded $200,000 to develop optimization techniques to help make this bold new future possible, with Toyota’s Raymond Corporation announcing him as one of just three recipients in their University Research Program. Over the next year, he will design a framework to show how fleets of “helper vehicles” such as automated ground-based robots or aerial drones can work quickly and effectively in tandem with a larger delivery vehicle in settings such as automated warehouses, or for deliveries in urban centers.

It’s a system that he calls “symbiotic vehicle routing.”

“Imagine in Africa we see a hippo with a bird sitting on it, picking off food and cleaning its teeth — there’s a big lumbering thing, and then a tiny, little thing helping it out. They’re both benefiting from each other,” Carlsson said. “Symbiosis is a good biological metaphor for what we’re doing — showing how big things are good at some things and small things are good at others.”

Carlsson and his team will first examine how this can be applied in a warehouse setting, an area where he has previously worked on optimization solutions to allow automated robots to navigate effectively around the aisles of massive unmanned warehouses. Carlsson’s prior research led to his induction as an Edelman Laureate by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

“There have been a lot of cool developments in warehouse research in the last 20 years because we have AI that can keep track of where everything is, and there is so much data available. This offers a whole new way of thinking about how you can move things around,” Carlsson said.

“In a symbiotic system, you could have a big forklift driving around alongside little robots on the ground that carrying individual items and dropping them where they need to go,” he said.

Carlsson and his research team will be using an algorithm to enable the symbiotic routing system in which a large host vehicle in a warehouse can move an entire rack shelf while being assisted by a fleet of automated guided vehicles (AGV) “helpers” that pick individual items. The algorithm, which has already been designed, will be harnessed by the team in real-world experiments to find the most effective routes between the host and the helpers.

The symbiotic approach would speed up the processing of goods and free up storage space, offering customers the potential of same-day delivery of goods, which could be useful for urgent deliveries of medication, such as insulin.

“If the big vehicle is capable of handing things off to the small thing, we want to know how much we can benefit — the dollar amount, the time amount,” Carlsson said. “Can we go from overnight to same-day delivery?”

The team will also be examining the potential of harnessing these fully automated systems in city settings, for direct-to-customer deliveries.

Delivery robots are already starting to emerge in cities for short-distance local errands, often piloted by a remote operator who steers the vehicle with the aid of cameras. Residents of urban centers like downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco may have already stumbled across these friendly local bots wheeling about town delivering their goods. Swiss Post has similarly introduced small autonomous vehicles to deliver mail to communities in Switzerland.

“People have built the hardware. We have some version of this technology already, but as far as using them efficiently and the actual optimization of these systems — that’s very uncharted territory,” Carlsson said.

In Carlsson’s vision, these fleets of smaller “sidekick” robots, drones, or small vehicles could work with a delivery van, such as Amazon’s vans, to quickly offload goods and deliver them locally, allowing the van to continue its journey. He said that optimized symbiotic routing does not necessarily mean that the helper robot fleet is working for the one host vehicle.

“Maybe you have a robot that picks up a package from van number one, and then it drops it off, and then it goes to van number two,” Carlsson said. “It makes a lot of sense to do things that way, because a robot is just moving along the sidewalks not cruising along a highway. Your robot may pick up a package from a van and drop it off, but by the time the robot is free again, that van is in another part of town.”

Carlsson said he believed there would be a future where symbiotic vehicles were an important part of everyday life, and his project’s goal in the first instance was to determine whether these systems could be helpful and workable.

“We’ve proven it from a theoretical perspective, but this is going to be much more simulation-driven and much more algorithmic,” Carlsson said. “We want to have more than just the mathematical proof of this. We want to know; does it actually work?”

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A new use for platinum: Improving the quality of water


Going Platinum: A Non-Toxic Catalyst for Clean, Re-Usable Water

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Going Platinum: A Non-Toxic Catalyst for Clean, Re-Usable Water
Learn how USC researchers identified a new treatment for harmful chemicals in wastewater.

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Platinum has set a new “gold standard” in jewelry, and now it’s about to upscale the quality of your water.

As wastewater treatment for potable – drinkable – reuse becomes a more viable and popular option to address water shortages, the question of what harmful byproducts might form in treatment and how to address them looms large. One group of these chemicals, aldehydes, are known to stubbornly persist through treatment. Toxic to humans, aldehydes will be at the top of the list of regulated byproducts in forthcoming reuse regulations, USC researchers believe, and require sustainable methodology to be removed from our drinking water.

In research published in Environmental Science & Technology, USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers introduce platinum to help clean even the most stubborn toxins from wastewater. Platinum, the same metal used in catalytic converters to clean up air pollutants in car exhaust, can serve as a catalyst, said Dan McCurry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, speeding up oxidation to transform once-toxic aldehydes into harmless carboxylic acids.

When wastewater is recycled, McCurry said, the resulting water is “very pure, but not 100 percent pure. There’s still a tiny amount of organic carbon detectable and these carbon atoms could be attached to molecules that are very toxic or completely innocent.” This has perplexed people for years, he said, particularly because the carbon is able to make it through so many treatment layers and barriers.

A study conducted by UC Berkeley researcher David Sedlak revealed that “one-third to one half” of these molecules are present in the form of aldehydes, McCurry said. Aldehydes are chemical compounds characterized by a carbon atom that shares a double bond with an oxygen atom, a single bond with a hydrogen atom, and a single bond with another atom or group of atoms. They are also generally toxic to humans, meaning that their long-term consumption could result in a variety of chronic and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Catalytic oxidation of organic pollutants in water, without electrochemistry, addition of electron-accepting oxidant chemicals, or photochemistry, has not been sustainably demonstrated to date, McCurry said. Until now.
A Solution for an Upcoming Problem

McCurry recalled learning about oxidants used for synthesizing molecules in an organic chemistry course he took while he was a graduate student at Stanford University. “The TA was going through a list of oxidants used by synthetic chemists and platinum catalysts caught my eye. Not only is it one of the few oxidants that is non-toxic, but it can utilize the oxygen in water to catalyze a reaction abiotically (without the use of microbes).”

“It was really exciting to me,” McCurry said, “because it’s always been frustrating in water treatment that water is full of oxygen, but it doesn’t really do anything.”

There are about eight milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen in water, McCurry said. While it’s a potent oxidant from a thermodynamic perspective, McCurry said, the reaction is slow. With platinum, the process speeds up. For a while, McCurry and his team of researchers used platinum to oxidize different pharmaceuticals as a matter of experimentation.

“We knew we could oxidize certain things, but we didn’t have a clear application in mind for this catalyst,” McCurry said. Ultimately, their hope was to find an impactful application for their work. Eventually, after a year of experimenting, the idea came to him while riding his bike home from Stanford’s campus. “What if we could use platinum in water treatment to oxidize contaminants?” he said. “It would happen essentially for free, and because the oxygen is already in the water, it’s the closest you could get to a chemical-free oxidation.”

McCurry acknowledges that platinum is expensive, but also notes that the cost, like for a car’s catalytic converter, is relative. “Your car probably has between one and 10 grams of platinum in it. The amount isn’t trivial. If it’s cheap enough to put in a Honda Civic, it’s probably cheap enough to put in a water treatment plant,” McCurry said.

The breakthrough, McCurry said, is not as relevant for most existing water reuse plants, as many of them favor “indirect potable reuse.” This is where, after all the water treatment and recycling processes are complete, water is pumped back into the ground–so they are essentially creating new groundwater. “Once they are in the ground, it’s likely some microbe will eat the aldehydes and the water will be cleaned that way,” he said.

“But more and more people are talking about direct potable reuse,” he said, “where we are talking about a closed water loop where water goes from the wastewater treatment plant to the reuse plant and then either to a drinking water plant or directly into the distribution system into homes and businesses.”

In these cases, aldehydes could potentially reach consumers, McCurry said. While they are currently unregulated, McCurry suspects that the presence of aldehydes in recycled wastewater will soon attract regulatory attention. “This is the problem we didn’t realize we had a solution for, but now we know, this catalyst, which we had been using to oxidize random pharmaceuticals for fun, works great on oxidizing aldehydes–and would allow for direct potable reuse water to meet future regulatory guidelines and safety standards,” he said.

The team did a preliminary experiment using platinum in batch reactors on a few gallons of water. The experiments were successful, but McCurry says for this to catch on at a mass production level, additional research would need to be done regarding how long the catalyst remains active. The team is looking into how to potentially regenerate the catalyst, as well. McCurry says it will also be important to test the system with dirtier water, which can foul up the catalyst and make it less effective.

The process, for which the team has a patent pending, will look to be more sustainable than alternative methods which might require introduction of additional chemicals and energy, McCurry said.

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Willingness to give away money among older adults linked to cognitive profile of early Alzheimer’s

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Willingness to give away money among older adults linked to cognitive profile of early Alzheimer’s disease

A new study from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, one of the first to test the relationship using real money, showed participants who gave away more money scored significantly lower on cognitive tests known to be sensitive to Alzheimer’s disease than those who gave less.
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To help protect older adults from financial exploitation, researchers are working to understand who is most at risk. New findings from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, published this week in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggest that willingness to give away money could be linked to the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sixty-seven older adults who did not have dementia or cognitive impairment completed a laboratory task where they decided whether to give money to an anonymous person or keep it for themselves. They also completed a series of cognitive tests, such as word and story recall. Those who gave away more money performed worse on the cognitive assessments known to be sensitive to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our goal is to understand why some older adults might be more susceptible than others to scam, fraud or financial exploitation,” said the study’s senior author, Duke Han, PhD, director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine and a professor of family medicine, neurology, psychology and gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine. “Trouble handling money is thought to be one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and this finding supports that notion.”

Earlier research that tested the link between altruism and cognition relied on self-report measures, such as asking older adults whether they would be willing to give money in certain scenarios. The present study used real money to examine the link.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the relationship using a behavioral economics paradigm, meaning a scenario where participants had to make decisions about giving or keeping actual money,” said Gali H. Weissberger, PhD, a senior lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and first author of the study.

Giving and cognition

The researchers recruited 67 adults for the study, with an average age of 69. They collected data about participant demographics and controlled for the effects of age, sex and education level in the final analysis. Participants were excluded from the study if they met criteria for dementia or cognitive impairment.

In the lab, each participant was told they had been paired with an anonymous person who was completing the study online. They were then given $10 and instructed to allocate it however they wished, in $1 increments, between themselves and the anonymous person.

The older adults in the study also completed a series of neuropsychological tests, including several that are commonly used to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages. The tests included story and word recall tasks where participants are asked to remember information after a short delay; a category fluency test that involves listing words on a specific topic; and several other cognitive assessments.

Participants who gave more away scored significantly lower on the neuropsychological tests known to be sensitive to early Alzheimer’s disease. There were no significant performance differences on other neuropsychological tests.

Clarifying the link

More research is needed to confirm the nature of the relationship between financial altruism and cognitive health in older adults, including with larger and more representative samples. Future studies could also collect both behavioral and self-report data on financial altruism to better understand participants’ motivations for giving.

Han, Weissberger and their colleagues are now collecting data for a longitudinal study using the same giving task, which could help determine whether some older adults are becoming more altruistic over time.

“If a person is experiencing some kind of change in their altruistic behavior, that might indicate that changes are also happening in the brain,” Weissberger said.

Clarifying these details about the link between altruism and cognition could ultimately improve screening for Alzheimer’s disease and help people protect their loved ones from financial exploitation. It can also help researchers distinguish between what represents healthy giving behavior versus something that could signify underlying problems.

“The last thing we would want is for people to think that financial altruism among older adults is a bad thing,” Han said. “It can certainly be a deliberate and positive use of a person’s money.”

About this study

The study’s other authors are Laura Mosqueda, Annie L. Nguyen and Aaron C. Lim from the Department of Family Medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC; Laura Fenton from the Department of Psychology, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and Anya Samek from the Department of Economics, University of California San Diego.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health [R01AG068166, T32AG000037] and the Elder Justice Foundation.

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Groundbreaking study shows substantial differences in brain structure in people with anorexia


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Groundbreaking study shows substantial differences in brain structure in people with anorexia

New findings from the largest study to date by an international group of neuroscience experts show significant reductions in grey matter in people with anorexia nervosa.
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Eating disorders are often misunderstood as lifestyle choices gone awry or oversimplified as the unfortunate result of societal pressures. These misconceptions obscure the fact that eating disorders are serious and potentially fatal mental illnesses that can be treated effectively with early intervention. Mortality rates for people with eating disorders are high compared to other mental illnesses, particularly for those with anorexia nervosa, a condition characterized by a severe restriction of food intake and an abnormally low body weight. People with anorexia can literally starve themselves, causing severe and potentially fatal medical complications. The second leading cause of death for people with anorexia is suicide.

Now, a groundbreaking new study by a global team of researchers led by the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (Stevens INI) has revealed that individuals with anorexia demonstrate notable reductions in three critical measures of the brain: cortical thickness, subcortical volumes, and cortical surface area. These reductions are between two and four times larger than the abnormalities in brain size and shape of individuals with other mental illnesses. Reductions in brain size are particularly concerning, as they may imply the destruction of brain cells or the connections between them.

Equipped with these results, the research team is calling attention to the pressing need for prompt treatment to help people with anorexia avoid long-term, structural brain changes, which could lead to a variety of additional medical issues. Anorexia can be successfully treated with healthy weight gain and cognitive behavioral therapy. Ongoing work by the same group shows that successful treatment can have a positive impact on brain structure.

“By comparing nearly 2,000 pre-existing brain scans for people with anorexia, people in recovery and healthy controls, we found that for people in recovery from anorexia, reductions in brain structure were less severe,” says Paul M. Thompson, PhD, associate director of the Stevens INI. “This implies that early treatment and support can help the brain to repair itself.”

In addition to researchers from the Stevens INI, the research team includes neuroscientists from the Technical University in Dresden, Germany; the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; University of Bath, UK; and King’s College London. The researchers came together under the ENIGMA Eating Disorders working group (ENIGMA-ED), a part of the ENIGMA Consortium, co-founded and led by Thompson. ENIGMA is an international effort to bring together researchers in imaging genomics, neurology, and psychiatry, to understand the link between brain structure, function and mental health.

Through advances in neuroimaging, researchers are gaining a better understanding of the link between serious mental health disorders and brain abnormalities. By demonstrating the effects of anorexia on brain structure, ENIGMA-ED has underscored the severity of the condition and the need for early intervention, while paving the way for the development of more effective treatments.

“The international scale of this work is extraordinary. Because scientists from twenty-two centers worldwide pooled their brain scans together, we were able to create the most detailed picture to date of how anorexia affects the brain, “says Thompson, professor of ophthalmology, neurology, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, radiology, pediatrics and engineering. “The brain changes in anorexia were more severe than in any other psychiatric condition we have studied. Effects of treatments and interventions can now be evaluated, using these new brain maps as a reference.”

“This study exemplifies why the work at the Stevens INI is so essential,” says INI Director and longtime colleague of Thompson, Arthur W. Toga, PhD. “The goal of the ENIGMA Consortium is to bring researchers together from around the world so that we can combine existing data samples and really improve our power to examine the brain and detect the subtle brain alterations associated with a given illness. At the Stevens INI we apply this goal to all our large-scale studies. We are committed to participating in large studies with diverse research cohorts and sharing data to advance the entire scientific community.”

Access the full study ‘Brain Structure in Acutely Underweight and Partially Weight-Restored Individuals with Anorexia Nervosa – A Coordinated Analysis by the ENIGMA Eating Disorders Working Group’ published in the Journal Biological Psychiatry. Other USC co-authors contributing to the study include Neda Jahanshad, PhD, associate professor of neurology and biomedical engineering, and Sophia Thomopoulos, BS, consortium manager for the ENIGMA study.

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Discovery of significant reductions in the brain structure of anorexia nervosa patients by a @KECKSchool_USC study reinforces the urgent need for early intervention and treatment of the mental illness.
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Brain Shrinkage in Anorexia: Compiled from worldwide brain scans in the largest study to date, these brain maps show (in warmer colors) brain regions with gray matter deficits–abnormal tissue reductions–in anorexia. Deficits are less strong in partially-w
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Is recycled wastewater the answer to California’s water shortage?

An exceptional drought season means California enters the summer under mandatory water use restrictions for the first time since 2015. Increasingly light snowfall sends less fresh water to be treated and distributed as fully drinkable water, making new methods of purifying water a vital priority. In fact, nearly 60% of the state is suffering from “extreme drought” conditions, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Enter Dan McCurry, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. McCurry is an environmental engineer who specializes in wastewater reuse and drinking-water treatment. We spoke with him about the water restrictions, the different types of wastewater and whether he meets the new state requirements for personal water use.

What is environmental engineering?

Environmental engineering is somewhat confusingly named. People tend to think that it involves building habitats for the spotted owl or something like that. Really the main goal is to control and remediate environmental pollution for ecological and human health reasons, and primarily the latter. It used to be called sanitary engineering until the 1960s, when they realized they had a marketing problem because that term sounds gross.

What do you research?

Environmental engineering is primarily split between air and water researchers — I work on the water side. My research is specifically about water reuse and the process that we use to take treated wastewater and turn it into something that is usable as a drinking water source. I study the chemicals in wastewater and how they interact with our treatment processes. These include all kinds of things like industrial solvents and stuff that gets flushed down the drain, like pharmaceuticals. Two-thirds of my research is focused on how well those chemicals are removed during the treatment process and understanding the chemical mechanisms of that. And the other third of my research is on developing new treatment technologies that might be able to get rid of some of those chemicals more efficiently or in a better way.

How does recycling wastewater work?

If you imagine a river going past a city, raw water comes in and is turned into tap water. We take water out of a river or the ground — or in the case of Los Angeles, we actually import it from hundreds of miles away — and treat it to make tap water and send it to people’s homes and businesses. It then becomes sewage and is treated as wastewater — it’s not clean enough to drink but it’s safe to discharge back into the river. With water reuse, we’re trying to close that loop by taking the treated wastewater and running it through a third plant and turn that into a new source for drinking water.

How is recycled wastewater used?

There are three flavors of water reuse — non-potable reuse, indirect potable reuse and direct potable reuse. Non-potable reuse is just recycling water to use on things like grass or golf courses, and also crop irrigation and industrial purposes — places where the water quality doesn’t bother people very much. You see this all over the place in Southern California. Anytime you see a purple pipe on the side of the freeway or in a median, that indicates that it’s using recycled water.

When you put water into the ground, it’s assumed you are getting a bit of treatment for free from nature.

Dan McCurry, USC Viterbi water researcher

Moving into potable reuse, the overwhelming majority of reused wastewater is being used for indirect use. The treatment plant in Orange County is a good example of this — once it’s recycled, it’s put into what is called an environmental buffer or environmental barrier. What that means 99% of the time is that the treated water is injected back into the ground where it essentially becomes new groundwater. It’s considered lower risk than direct potable use because when you put water into the ground, it’s assumed you are getting a bit of treatment for free from nature. Anything we missed with engineered processes will hopefully get filtered out by the ground.

OK, but what about water we can drink?

Direct potable use means closing the loop fully: Water coming out of the recycling process is run directly to the drinking water plant or refills a reservoir. Imagine something like a plant recycling water and then pumping it up to reservoirs like Castaic Lake or Pyramid Lake in the mountains north of L.A. There’s a lot of excitement about direct potable reuse, but right now it’s not legal in California but should be soon. The bar is much higher for direct use reuse because you sacrifice the filtration given by the environment. The good thing is that it ends up being a bit cheaper because you’re not pumping water out of the ground, which consumes an enormous amount of energy.

How close are we to having this technology available widely?

The short answer is we’re already there. There’s a couple dozen full-scale water reuse plants around the world and we have the biggest one in the world in Fountain Valley in Orange County. When fully operational, it will be able to process 100 to 130 million gallons per day — it is able to process 100% of Orange County’s reclaimable wastewater into water suitable for indirect potable reuse.

What impact will the new water restrictions have?

This isn’t a one-time thing. The water use restrictions are needed, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that a short-term fix will solve the problem. There was a big call for voluntary water usage cuts followed by a conservation mandate during the last drought in 2015, and it worked, but only for a year and then water use went right back up. It’s the kind of thing you can get people to do for a little bit but then they get sick of it. In the long term, we need to produce more reliable local sources of water.

Are you following the restrictions?

I was looking at my water bill the other day because I’ve been interviewed by the media a few times recently and wanted to make sure I’m not using more than I should. Thankfully, I am already using less than the future restricted amount. In fact, we ripped out most of our backyard when we got our house about a year and a half ago, replacing most of it with native plants and leaving a little 10-by-10 patch of grass for the dog to roll around in. That’s to say your yard doesn’t need to be a barren wasteland — you can have a bit of green landscaping and still easily comply with the restrictions as long as you’re sensible about it.

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Stress accelerates aging of immune system, study finds

Stress — in the form of traumatic events, job strain, everyday stressors and discrimination — accelerates aging of the immune system, potentially increasing a person’s risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and illness from infections such as COVID-19, according to a new USC study.

The research, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help explain disparities in age-related health, including the unequal toll of the pandemic, and identify possible points for intervention.

“As the world’s population of older adults increases, understanding disparities in age-related health is essential. Age-related changes in the immune system play a critical role in declining health,” said lead study author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral scholar in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “This study helps clarify mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”

As people age, the immune system naturally begins a dramatic downgrade, a condition called immunosenescence. With advanced age, a person’s immune profile weakens, and includes too many worn-out white blood cells circulating and too few fresh, “naive” white blood cells ready to take on new invaders.

Potential problems relating to stress and the immune system

Immune aging is associated not only with cancer, but with cardiovascular disease, increased risk of pneumonia, reduced efficacy of vaccines and organ system aging.

But what accounts for drastic health differences in same-age adults? USC researchers decided to see if they could tease out a connection between lifetime exposure to stress — a known contributor to poor health — and declining vigor in the immune system.

They queried and cross-referenced enormous data sets from University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, a national longitudinal study of the economic, health, marital, family status, and public and private support systems of older Americans.

To measure exposure to various types of social stress, the researchers analyzed responses from a national sample of 5,744 adults over the age of 50. They answered a questionnaire designed to assess respondents’ experiences with social stress, including stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination.

Blood samples from the participants were then analyzed through flow cytometry, a lab technique that counts and classifies blood cells as they pass one-by-one in a narrow stream in front of a laser.

As expected, people with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out white blood cells. The association between stressful life events and fewer ready-to-respond, or naive, T cells remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, drinking, BMI and race or ethnicity.

Some sources of stress may be impossible to control, but the researchers say there may be a workaround.

T-cells — a critical component of immunity — mature in a gland called the thymus, which sits just in front of and above the heart. As people age, the tissue in their thymus shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue, resulting in reduced production of immune cells. Past research suggests that this process is accelerated by lifestyle factors like poor diet and low exercise, which are both associated with social stress.

“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging wasn’t as strong,” said Klopack. “What this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.”

Stress and the immune system: Impact of diet and exercise

Improving diet and exercise behaviors in older adults may help offset the immune aging associated with stress.

Additionally, cytomegalovirus (CMV) may be a target for intervention. CMV is a common, usually asymptomatic virus in humans and is known to have a strong effect accelerating immune aging. Like shingles or cold sores, CMV is dormant most of the time but can flare up, especially when a person is experiencing high stress.

In this study, statistically controlling for CMV positivity also reduced the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging. Therefore, widespread CMV vaccination could be a relatively simple and potentially powerful intervention that could reduce the immune aging effects of stress, the researchers said.

In addition to Klopack, other authors include Eileen Crimmins, a University Professor and the AARP Chair in Gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School; and Steve Cole and Teresa Seeman of UCLA.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging (P30AG017265, U01AG009740).

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The Earth moves far under our feet: New study shows Earth’s inner core oscillates

USC scientists have found evidence that the Earth’s inner core oscillates, contradicting previously accepted models that suggested it consistently rotates at a faster rate than the planet’s surface.

Their study, published Friday in Science Advances, shows that the inner core changed direction in the six-year period from 1969-74, according to the analysis of seismic data. The scientists say their model of inner core movement also explains the variation in the length of day, which has been shown to oscillate persistently for the past several decades.

“From our findings, we can see the Earth’s surface shifts compared to its inner core, as people have asserted for 20 years,” said John Vidale, co-author of the study and Dean’s Professor of Earth Sciences at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “However, our latest observations show that the inner core spun slightly slower from 1969-71 and then moved the other direction from 1971-74. We also note that the length of day grew and shrank as would be predicted.

“The coincidence of those two observations makes oscillation the likely interpretation.”

Analysis of atomic tests pinpoints Earth core rotation rate and direction

Our understanding of the inner core has expanded dramatically in the past 30 years. The inner core — a hot, dense ball of solid iron the size of Pluto — has been shown to move and/or change over decades. It’s also impossible to observe directly, meaning researchers struggle through indirect measurements to explain the pattern, speed and cause of the movement and changes.

Research published in 1996 was the first to propose the inner core rotates faster than the rest of the planet — also known as super-rotation — at roughly 1 degree per year. Subsequent findings from Vidale reinforced the idea that the inner core super-rotates, albeit at a slower rate.

Utilizing data from the Large Aperture Seismic Array, a U.S. Air Force facility in Montana, researcher Wei Wang and Vidale found the inner core rotated slower than previously predicted, approximately 0.1 degrees per year. The study analyzed waves generated from Soviet underground nuclear bomb tests from 1971-74 in the Arctic archipelago Novaya Zemlya using a novel beamforming technique developed by Vidale.

The new findings emerged when Wang and Vidale applied the same methodology to a pair of earlier atomic tests beneath Amchitka Island at the tip of the Alaskan archipelago — Milrow in 1969 and Cannikin in 1971. Measuring the compressional waves resulting from the nuclear explosions, they discovered the inner core had reversed direction, sub-rotating at least a tenth of a degree per year.

This latest study marked the first time the well-known six-year oscillation had been indicated through direct seismological observation.

“The idea the inner core oscillates was a model that was out there, but the community has been split on whether it was viable,” Vidale says. “We went into this expecting to see the same rotation direction and rate in the earlier pair of atomic tests, but instead we saw the opposite. We were quite surprised to find that it was moving in the other direction.”

Future research to dig deeper into why Earth’s inner core formed

Vidale and Wang both noted future research would depend on finding sufficiently precise observations to compare against these results. By using seismological data from atomic tests in previous studies, they have been able to pinpoint the exact location and time of the very simple seismic event, says Wang. However, the Montana Large Aperture Seismic Array closed in 1978 and the era of U.S. underground atomic testing is over, meaning that the researchers would need to rely on comparatively imprecise earthquake data, even with recent advances in instrumentation.

The study does support the speculation that the inner core oscillates based on variations in the length of day — plus or minus 0.2 seconds over six years — and geomagnetic fields, both of which match the theory in both amplitude and phase. Vidale says the findings provide a compelling theory for many questions posed by the research community.

“The inner core is not fixed — it’s moving under our feet, and it seems to going back and forth a couple of kilometers every six years,” Vidale said. “One of the questions we tried to answer is, does the inner core progressively move or is it mostly locked compared to everything else in the long term? We’re trying to understand how the inner core formed and how it moves over time — this is an important step in better understanding this process.”

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Alumna Clare Yarka’s passion drives her career in research

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Where are they now? Stem cell master’s program alumna Clare Yarka, a Scientist at Instil Bio
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Most people who have Clare Yarka’s job title–Scientist at Instil Bio–also have a PhD. But Yarka entered industry immediately after earning her master of science degree in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine from USC, and never looked back.

“I was super deliberate about each step,” she said, “but I was also given incredible opportunities.”

Science runs in Yarka’s family. Her parents were both petroleum geologists, and her grandfather was also a geologist and Vice Chancellor of Syracuse University. Growing up in Denver, Yarka remembers taking road trips where her parents would read aloud from the Roadside Geology of Colorado and Roadside Geology of Utah.

“I was constantly barraged with geology,” Yarka said.

Naturally, she rebelled and declared a biology major at the University of Notre Dame. The course load was challenging, and Yarka jokes: “I was one of the biology students that probably should have dropped it and become a business major, just because my grades weren’t spectacular. But I was stubborn about it, and I knew it was what I was passionate about.”

She became even more passionate about her chosen major when she joined the retinal regeneration lab of David R. Hyde, who studies how zebrafish regenerate lost neurons as a model for ocular or neurodegenerative diseases. Asking questions and designing experiments came naturally to her, and she knew that she belonged in research.

Hyde encouraged her to apply to PhD programs, but she wasn’t accepted into any. Undeterred, she took a job as a research tech studying cellular signals in the lab of Lea Goentoro at Caltech, before being accepted into the master’s program in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC.

During the master’s program, she met her first role models in the biotech industry through the course Bringing Stem Cells to the Clinic. She also met patients while working in the lab of Stephen Gruber, who was the director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I was translating a lot of their genomic surveys from Spanish, so I got this patient connection,” she said. “And that’s what flipped the switch for me: how can I be working in research, but also be directly impacting patients? I lost the desire to get my PhD, because I didn’t want to get further away from making this impact, I wanted to get closer.”

Inspired to help develop clinically relevant therapies, she applied to a research associate position at Kite Pharma, and got the job. She worked with the team to file six INDs–investigational new drug applications–to get permission from the Food and Drug Administration to start human clinical trials for cancer immunotherapies.

She was promoted to Senior Research Associate, and then to Associate Scientist. After Kite Pharma was acquired by Gilead Sciences, it became obvious that there wouldn’t be an opportunity to buck the traditional requirement of having a PhD in order to be promoted to the next level: Scientist.

“I definitely met that ceiling very concretely,” she said. “So that’s when I left to join Instil Bio.”

In September 2020, Yarka started her job as a Scientist at the cancer immunotherapy company, which is still in an early and exciting phase of its growth. Between work and wedding planning–she’s getting married in Park City, Utah this fall–life is busy, but she loves the fast pace at Instil Bio and finds it similar to the very early days of Kite.

“I thrived in this early phase at Kite, and I knew I was jumping into that type of environment at Instil,” she said. “It’s extremely aggressive timelines. The priorities change at the drop of a hat. So it’s always benefited me to be really flexible, and to say, ‘Yes, that’s fine. You can put me on a different project.’ It’s only ever helped me.”

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Study find links between inflammatory bowel disease and depression

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New study shows bidirectional link between inflammatory bowel disease and depression
Link also extends to siblings of patients with inflammatory bowel disease or depression
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LOS ANGELES — Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic condition involving inflammation of the digestive tract, affecting some 1.6 million Americans. Depression affects more than 16 million Americans.
A new study from Keck Medicine of USC shows that patients diagnosed with IBD were nine times as likely to develop depression than the general population. In addition, their siblings who did not suffer from IBD were almost two times as likely to develop depression.
Conversely, patients with depression were two times as likely to develop IBD, and their siblings without depression were more than one and a half times as likely to develop IBD.
“This research reveals a clinical overlap between both conditions, and is the first study to investigate the two-way association between IBD and depression in siblings,” said Bing Zhang, MD, a gastroenterologist with Keck Medicine and co-lead author of the study.
Zhang and his fellow researchers analyzed the data of more than 20 million people from Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database, which contains comprehensive medical information on more than 99% of Taiwanese residents.
For 11 years, they tracked patients with either IBD or depression and their siblings without either condition, comparing onset of depression or IBD with a control group of people without either condition, but with similar age, sex and socioeconomic status.
Zhang hypothesizes that many factors may contribute to the bidirectional nature of the disorders, including environmental stressors, the gut microbiome (consisting of bacteria, fungi and viruses) and genetics.
“The finding that people with IBD are more prone to depression makes sense because IBD causes constant gastrointestinal symptoms that can be very disruptive to a patient’s life,” he said. “And the elevated depression risk among siblings of IBD patients may reflect caregiver fatigue if the siblings have a role in caring for the patient.”
What surprised researchers was that patients with depression were prone to IBD. Zhang speculates that this discovery may have to do with what is known as the gut-brain axis, a scientifically established connection between the gastrointestinal system and the central nervous system, which consists of the spinal cord and the brain.
For example, he said, inflammation of the brain, which plays a role in depression, may be linked to the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, a hallmark of IBD.
The researchers are not sure why siblings of patients with depression are more likely to be diagnosed with IBD. Zhang surmises that there may be a shared genetic susceptibility for either disease that presents differently in family members.
Zhang hopes that the study findings will encourage health care professionals to take both family history and the relationship between gastrointestinal and mood disorders into consideration when evaluating or treating patients with either IBD or depression.
Through more research and better understanding of the gut-brain axis, he envisions leveraging the newfound connection between the conditions to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of IBD and mental disorders.
The study was supported by grants from the Taipei Veterans General Hospital and the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan.

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Social dissatisfaction predicts vulnerability to financial exploitation in older adults

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Social dissatisfaction predicts vulnerability to financial exploitation in older adults

Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC led the first study linking interpersonal problems to financial vulnerability over time.
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Researchers who study elder abuse have long believed that when older adults face loneliness or relationship problems, they are more likely to fall victim to monetary scams and exploitation. But the field has only studied the link retrospectively, looking back in time to see whether a connection exists, and has yet to establish a firm link.

Now, a team of researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC has collected longitudinal data showing that an increase in interpersonal dysfunction, defined as loneliness or dissatisfaction with relationships, predicts subsequent vulnerability to financial exploitation. The results were just published in the journal Aging & Mental Health.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study showing that the quality of older adults’ interpersonal relationships has an impact on their financial vulnerability at a later time,” said the study’s senior author, Duke Han, PhD, director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine and a professor of family medicine, neurology, psychology and gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine.

The findings underscore that social connectedness, which is already known to enhance physical health and psychological wellbeing among older adults, may also be a key protector against financial abuse.

“This study points to a specific factor–social functioning–that could allow us to predict, and ultimately prevent, vulnerability to financial exploitation before it happens,” said Aaron Lim, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Han’s research lab and first author of the study.

A spike in vulnerability

The participants included 26 adults, aged 50 and older, with an average age of 65. At the beginning of the study, researchers evaluated each participant’s overall health, cognitive functioning, depression and anxiety symptoms and prior history of financial exploitation and controlled for these factors in their statistical analyses.

Then, for six months, the researchers collected data at two-week intervals. They measured each participant’s interpersonal dysfunction by asking how frequently they had argued with someone, felt rejected, felt lonely, wished their relationships were better and wished they had more friends. They also assessed participants’ vulnerability to financial exploitation during the past two weeks with questions such as “how confident are you in making big financial decisions?” and “how often has someone talked you into a decision to spend or donate money that you did not initially want to do?”

“When a person reported a spike in problems within their social circle or increased feelings of loneliness, we were much more likely to see a corresponding spike in their psychological vulnerability to being financially exploited two weeks later,” Lim said.

In addition to the effects within individuals, there was also a significant effect between participants: Those who had higher interpersonal dysfunction compared to other participants tended to report greater vulnerability to financial exploitation.

Preventing exploitation

The study’s results offer insight into how to counteract common financial scams that target older adults, including phishing emails, investment schemes and the “grandparent scam,” where an older adult receives a call from someone about a grandchild in urgent need of money.

At the individual level, Lim suggests that people watch for social upsets in their parents’ and grandparents’ lives–such as the death of a close friend or an argument with a family member–as risk factors for financial vulnerability in the immediate future. At the community level, organizations that support seniors can also provide additional opportunities for social connection.

Because the study’s sample was small, the results need to be replicated in larger and more diverse samples, Han said. The research team also plans to build on the findings with a follow-up study to investigate the connection between social dysfunction and actual incidents of financial exploitation, not just vulnerability.

About this study

In addition to Han and Lim, the study’s other authors are Laura Mosqueda and Annie L. Nguyen from the Department of Family Medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC; Tyler B. Mason from the Department of Population and Public Health Science, Keck School of Medicine of USC; Laura Fenton from the Department of Psychology, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; Gali H. Weissberger from the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, Bar-Ilan University; and Peter Lichtenberg from the Department of Psychology, Wayne State University.

This work was supported by the National Institute on Aging [1RF1AG068166, T32AG000037, K01AG064986] and the Elder Justice Foundation.

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