Tag Archives: Development

What made the development of the COVID-19 vaccine unique in history

To say that 2020 has revolved around the pandemic would probably be quite true. But 2021 is shaping up to be all about our answer to the virus, in the form of a vaccine. At least one vaccine has been approved for use in the EU and, although there are many candidates in the works, none of these were developed in what you’d call a ‘traditional’ timeline. We’ve had to wait a whole year, but that’s still a record-breaking speed for this class of substances.

Army Spc. Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. Image credits Lisa Ferdinando / Department of Defense.

So let’s take a look at this pace of development. How exactly was it that the vaccine got developed so quickly? Does it say anything about how reliable the compound is? Can we trust it?

How vaccines are made

First of all, we should take a brief view on how vaccines are produced so we have a good idea of the process we’ll be discussing today.

A vaccine basically works by giving our bodies the opportunity to see and study a viral threat in a controlled manner. This experience lets it develop its own biochemical weapons against the virus (which are much, much better than our pharmacological tools for the job). In very broad lines, there are four ways to produce such a substance:

  • Viral attenuation. This involves altering a virus’s structure or genes in such a way that it becomes hard for it to replicate. This uses a technique called cell culture adaptation, which involves re-adapting the virus to grow in specialized cells inside the lab, and not in the normal cells they’d meet in our body. While impaired, there’s still a small chance that such viruses can replicate inside the body, which is why they’re referred to as ‘live’, ‘weakened’, or ‘attenuated’ viruses. The measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella vaccines are made this way.
  • Destruction of the viral genes. This is safer than the previous approach to an extent, in the sense that a virus’s genes are completely destroyed so it can’t replicate — these are referred to as ‘killed’ vaccines. A virus’s genetic material is exposed to the chemical formaldehyde during the process, which destroys them permanently. The polio vaccine is produced this way.
  • Physical breakdown of the pathogen. In this case, the virus or bacterium in question is physically broken apart, and certain elements of it are then used to produce the vaccine. This is also a very safe approach as there isn’t any genetic material in the vaccine, so there’s no way for an infection to set in. Still, from studying the bits that do make it into the final vaccine, our immune system learns how to spot and then attack the threat. The vaccine against hepatitis B is produced this way.
  • Toxoid vaccines. For those pathogens that don’t directly make their host sick, but use toxins (weaponized proteins) to do it, we have toxoid vaccines. Bacteria like diphtheria or tetanus function this way. To make a vaccine against them, the toxins are isolated, purified, and then chemically neutralized. Toxoid vaccines also don’t pose any risk of infection as they carry no genetic material.

Typically, the process of developing a vaccine takes 10 to 15 years on average. Obviously, this process used to take a lot longer before, but we’re getting better at it, thanks to our modern know-how and technology. Apart from the COVID-19 one, the fastest-developed vaccine in history (from the time the virus was isolated to the finished product) was the mumps vaccine in 1967, which took 4 years. In contrast, the influenza virus was first isolated in 1933, but an effective vaccine was only licensed in 1945.

Infographic: Influenza Milestones 1917-2009
Am infographic that depicts the ravages caused by influenza and out steps to fight it throughout the last century.

So that’s our reference timeframe for the development of a vaccine. During this time, researchers have to isolate the threat, decide on the best approach for turning it into a vaccine and then go about it, and test their compound on every step of the way. Human trials tend to be the most visible steps of vaccine development, but they’re the tail end of this process; extremely few candidates make it this far into development.

Those who wonder why we didn’t have it sooner should keep in mind that this is the fastest-ever developed vaccine. It might seem like a long time when you’re stuck inside waiting for it, but in relative terms, we got it blazingly fast.

Wasn’t that too fast?

Here, then, comes the other side of the coin. I sometimes get asked regarding the safety of the vaccine after explaining that it’s been developed at breakneck speeds — surely, then, some corners had to be cut? Well, not really. All the data we have available for the two most promising vaccines (the Pfizer and Moderna ones) show that both are highly effective and quite safe. While the development process was streamlined as much as possible, critical steps such as testing for side-effects were not skipped or cut short. So, then, how did we pull it off?

Well, governments around the world did step up and do their best to help bring a vaccine to completion (such as the US’ Operation Warp Speed). The fact that the world was facing a scary, ruthless, and highly-contagious virus probably also helped light a fire under all kinds of people involved in the process, too.

Researchers as well as the public understood the need for such a vaccine, so volunteers stepped up quickly to help test it. Each vaccine candidate goes through three steps, or ‘phases’, of human trials. These are meant to determine if they are safe to use, and how best to do so. Phase 1 checks for side effects using a small number of participants, generally 30 at most. It starts with some of them receiving a small dosage, which increases in subsequent groups if everything goes well. Phase 2 determines what quantity of the vaccine to use for best effects, and Phase 3 compares its safety and efficacy to the current standard treatment. Phase 3 also typically employs placebos for more accurate results.

A graph showing drug development phases and timelines for various approaches — data visualization by Wikimedia user Kernsters after “Faster Evaluation of Vital Drugs” published in Scientific American.

The latter two steps use more participants, between 25 to 100 for Phase 2 and several hundred or thousands for Phase 3. Moderna’s Phase 3 trial ran with “over 30,000 participants in the U.S”, while Pfizer’s trial included some 43,500 people, which is quite sizeable. The trials tracked the candidate vaccines’ efficacy over time and any side-effects. Both found these to be mild to moderate, “short-lived”, and “generally resolved within two days”. Apart from a low incidence of fever in the Pfizer trial (16% for younger and 11% for older volunteers), these side-effects seem to typically be mild rather than worrying.

Data from current vaccination campaigns in Europe and the U.S. support these results, with relatively few cases of severe reactions to the vaccine. 

Well if they didn’t cut any corners in the safety department, how did they pull it off so fast? By far the largest deciding factor was financial.

Money matters

Piggy Bank, Money, Finance, Banking, Currency, Cash
Image via Pixabay.

We like to pick on Big Pharma for profiteering from people’s misfortunes. To an extent I definitely agree and join in on that — nobody should have to pay to avoid suffering, disease, disability, or death. It’s revolting when profits become more important than the lives this industry should protect.

But at the same time, we have to face the truth. No matter how well-intentioned a drug company is, it can only function as long as it can pay for it. It has to play within the rules of the systems that are already set in place, and for now, that means they need to turn a profit or they’re toast.

Historically speaking, vaccines have not been profitable for either the pharmaceutical industry nor medical professionals. A study published in 2009 found that “the variable costs of vaccine administration exceeded reimbursement from some insurers and health plans” for medical personnel, meaning that your doctor is probably losing money for every vaccine they administer. A darker way to look at it is that vaccines cost the healthcare sector twice — once in the cost of development, production, and administering it, and then in the profits they lose in the long term from preventing disease.

So as callous as it sounds, it does very much come down to money. Vaccine development is expensive. For every candidate that reaches the human trial phase, countless others were scrapped along the way (after heavy expense). Furthermore, vaccines are a risky product. Once a company has developed a safe, efficient vaccine, it needs further investment to ramp up production capabilities and storage sites (which often need to be refrigerated, so they incur a high running cost). The doses need to be stored until needed, which could happen tomorrow or 20 years from now. They might even go bad before they’re needed.

All of this adds up to make vaccines, in general, a very expensive and risky investment for producers. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, one thing that helped tremendously was that governments around the world came to shoulder some of that risk. In the US, for example (although they are not at all the only country to do so), the government moved huge sums of money to guarantee to pharmaceutical companies that any successful vaccine candidate would be bank-rolled for production. Contracts were also signed ahead of time for millions of doses.

Keep that in mind. Without even knowing if a vaccine will work or not, governments guaranteed that they would pay for its production and that they would buy a pre-known (and significant) quantity of doses. This essentially removed the risk from the equation: producers knew that their vaccine would be paid for and the minimum quantity of doses they would sell ahead of time. If you’re familiar with the whole Steam vs. Epic Games situation, you know how attractive this business model can be from the producers’ side.

Assured that they won’t bankrupt themselves, pharmaceutical companies started work on the vaccine extremely quickly. In March, five days after the WHO declared a global pandemic, Moderna was already starting safety trials for its vaccine candidate. In the end both them and Pfitzer used this opportunity to develop what was previously a theoretical vaccine production method — mRNA vaccination.

Instead of relying on traditional vaccination approaches (due to time constraints and the associated risk of using live viruses in the case of COVID-19), an mRNA vaccine uses messenger RNA (the counterpart of DNA) to teach our bodies about the virus. Researchers first isolated the part of the viral genome that encodes its spike proteins — these are the ‘keys’ the virus uses to enter our cells — and copied it into a messenger RNA strand. Our cells’ own molecular machinery then turns this into finished spike proteins, and from here on it works like any other vaccine.

Its biggest advantage is also its largest disadvantage: how unstable RNA molecules are inside our body. It makes the delivery of the vaccine way more complicated (doses need to be kept at such low temperatures to prevent the mRNA from breaking down), but it also means that any side-effects set in and are overcome quickly.

All this wouldn’t have happened if governments (and thus, society) hadn’t taken the risk off the hands of those developing the vaccine. It’s a good reminder that while the chase for profits can damage the greater good, companies have no option but to ensure they remain profitable — sometimes, making sure they have the money they need is to everyone’s benefit. It’s also a reminder that we have the ability to solve many of the world’s problems if only we were to shoulder the financial cost.

Experiencing wilderness keeps us happy, so we should protect it even in cities

Experiencing wilderness is particularly important for physical and mental health finds new research led by the University of Washington (UW).

Lighthouse at the Discovery Park, Seattle.
Image credits Michael Camilleri / Flickr.

We’ve gradually lost touch with nature as our cities grew wide and tall around us. The luckier among us city dwellers might live close to a park, or on a green-roofed building, giving us some access to natural areas; but wild ones are virtually non-existent. A new study reports that exposure to wilderness is an important factor for human physical and mental health, especially so in urban landscapes, even compared to other types of natural areas.

Wild at heart

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” said lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

The study focused on the Discovery Park in Seattle, the largest in the city (roughly 500 acres in size). The park is situated about 20 minutes by car from Seattle’s downtown areas, and has faced the same development pressures as others in cities with growing populations, the team explains. The research was prompted by the park’s advisory board, which asked the team to find out which elements are most important for park-goers in order to better inform decision-makers.

Despite focusing on this single park, the team is confident that their findings hold over well for most other major cities and beyond.

“We looked at Discovery Park, but this is about the entire planet,” said senior author Peter Kahn, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and psychology. “Everywhere, development is chipping away at wild areas. Humanity has caused so much destruction and there’s no stopping it — unless we stop.”

“We’re trying to show that if you’re going to develop an area, you at least need to understand the human costs.”

The team asked several hundred visitors to the park to submit a written online summary of a meaningful interaction they had at Discovery Park, obtaining 320 submissions. Then they set about coding these experiences into several categories (which the researchers call “interaction patterns”) to allow for better handling of the data. For example, an account stating “we sat and listened to the waves at the beach for a while” was assigned to the categories “sitting at beach” and “listening to waves.”

They found that six categories were consistently rated as important to visitors. These included encountering wildlife, walking alongside a body of water, enjoying the view, or following an established trail. They further looked at how the wilderness component factored into these experiences, finding that it had a role to play in nearly every interaction the visitors reported on. For example, “spotting bald eagle” references a relatively wild bird, and “watching birds perched on an old-growth tree,” denotes a wild habitat.

Additionally, the researchers looked at whether the park’s relative wildness was important in each visitor’s most meaningful experiences in the park. They defined “relatively wild” as including Discovery Park’s varied and relatively unmanaged land, its high levels of biodiversity, its “big nature” like old growth trees, large open spaces, expansive vistas, and people’s experience of the park’s solitude and removal from civilization.

The team explains that it’s important to know what these interactions are and what makes them valuable to us, so that we may better recognize and engage in them. Walking along the water’s edge on a weekend may be very fulfilling, but it’s not really an option most of us have on a busy weekday — but more ‘tame’ versions of it, such as walking along a fountain or other water feature to unwind, are.

“We’re losing the language of interaction with nature and, as we do, we also lose the cultural practice of these deep forms of interaction with nature, the wellsprings of human existence,” Kahn said.

“We’re trying to generate a nature language that helps bring these human-nature interactions back into our daily lives. And for that to happen, we also need to protect nature so that we can interact with it.”

It’s definitely an interesting study, and I do personally like the idea of mixing in more natural spaces in our lives. But as out cities become ever more crowded and space ever more expensive, there’s bound to be intense pressure to turn parks and recreational areas into more ‘productive’ landscapes. Studies such as this one go a long way towards reminding us that efficiency and profit aren’t the only ingredients of a good life; sometimes, happiness is as simple as sitting down and looking at an old tree.

The paper “Relatively Wild Urban Parks Can Promote Human Resilience and Flourishing: A Case Study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Human brain.

Research identifies a gene that makes our brains (and those of primates) unique

Research has identified one gene that makes primate brains unique — including our own.

Human brain.

Image credits John Beal / Department of Cellular Biology & Anatomy, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Shreveport.

Great apes and humankind owe their high-achieving brains to a single gene. Called PLEKHG6, this gene drives certain aspects of brain development in a different direction in primates as compared to other mammals, the team reports.

Bigger, better, faster brains

“Broadly speaking, this gene can be thought of as one of the genetic factors that make us human in a neurological sense,” says Dr. Adam O’Neill, lead researcher on the study.

The study aimed to determine if primate brains develop differently from those of other animals. The hypothesis was that this leads to higher cognitive power and increased size, but also potential issues tied to the organ’s increased complexity. More to the point, these genetic differences would predispose humans and primates to neurological or psychiatric conditions that other animals are just too simple to develop.

“Such genes have been hard to find,” O’Neill explains, which is why they decided to study sick, rather than healthy, brains. They looked at the genomes of children with a certain brain malformation called periventricular nodular heterotopia. This condition sees a subset of neurons fail to move to their correct spot in the brain as the organ develops, resulting in a range of symptoms such as epilepsy or delayed development.

“We found a ‘damaged’ genomic element in a child that had the attributes of such a primate specific genetic factor,” he explains.

The team used cultured “mini-brains” to study the condition. This technique involved coaxing harvested skin cells to transform into tiny brain-like structures in the lab. All in all, the team found that a particular genetic change in PLEKHG6 which disables one of its components altered the gene’s ability to support the growth and development of stem cells in the brain.

It was previously known that these cells behave differently in primates than other animals, but not which gene regulated their activity, says professor Stephen Robertson, who supervised the research — O’Neill carried it out as part of his Ph.D. at the University of Otago. The present study shows that a particular component of the PLEKHG6 is the regulator and that it was acquired relatively recently in our evolutionary history.

Dr O’Neill says there are very few primate-specific elements in our genome. This discovery adds to a very short list of genetic factors that, at least in one sense, make us human. The work also helps provide more information about the list of genes that are altered to cause this particular type of brain malformation.

“Such an understanding positions us to better understand how a brain builds itself- knowledge that will add to our ability to design strategies to repair the damaged brain, especially early in infancy where there are still lots of stem cells around,” he says.

“Personally, I also think it does underscore how it is very subtle nuanced differences that separate us from other animals. Our anthropocentrism could be a whole lot more humble.”

The paper “A Primate-Specific Isoform of PLEKHG6 Regulates Neurogenesis and Neuronal Migration” has been published (PDF link) in the journal Cell Reports.

Farmer pesticide.

Researchers call for ban on a widely-used pesticide: it impairs brain development

Organophosphates can impair our children’s neurological development — it’s time to ban them, new research says.

Farmer pesticide.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers from the University of California (UC) Davis says there’s enough evidence available to warrant a ban on organophosphates, a widely-used class of pesticides. Prenatal exposure to the compounds put children at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, they explain, calling for immediate government intervention to phase out these products.


“There is compelling evidence that exposure of pregnant women to very low levels of organophosphate pesticides is associated with lower IQs and difficulties with learning, memory or attention in their children,” said lead author Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences, director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center and researcher with the UC Davis MIND Institute.

“Although a single organophosphate — chlorpyrifos — has been in the national spotlight, our review implicates the entire class of these compounds.”

Organophosphates are very, very good at killing pests. The compounds work by blocking nerve signaling. Essentially, they bind to and inactivate the chemical compound that neurons use to send signals to one another. Today, this pesticide class is used to control insects in a variety of settings — farms, golf courses, even shopping malls and schools.

Given their popularity, environmental levels of organophosphates are quite significant. They’ve been detected in the vast majority of U.S. residents, according to Hertz-Picciotto, who come into contact with the pesticides through food, water, and the air they breathe.

This is a problem, the team explains. There are limits set in place to reduce exposure to organophosphates but it’s not nearly enough. Drawing on over 30 epidemiologic studies, scores of experimental studies with animal models, and cell cultures, they report that prenatal exposure to the chemicals — even at ‘safe’ levels — is associated with poorer cognitive, behavioral and social development.

“It should be no surprise that studies confirm that these chemicals alter brain development, since they were originally designed to adversely affect the central nervous system,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

Part of why these chemicals remain in use — despite recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — may be because low-level, ongoing exposures typically don’t cause visible, short-term clinical symptoms, the team explains. Since people can’t see a definite effect from interacting with these substances, many simply assume they aren’t dangerous, says Hertz-Picciotto.

“Acute poisoning is tragic, of course, however the studies we reviewed suggest that the effects of chronic, low-level exposures on brain functioning persist through childhood and into adolescence and may be lifelong, which also is tragic,” Hertz-Picciotto explained.

Beyond the findings, the team also offers a few recommendations that should help dramatically reduce organophosphate exposure:

  • Removing organophosphates from agricultural and non-agricultural uses and products.
  • Proactively monitoring sources of drinking water for organophosphate levels.
  • Establishing a system for reporting pesticide use and illnesses.

Until a ban is set in place, the team recommends offering medical staff more in-depth education regarding the substance, to help them improve treatment for and patient education on avoiding exposures. They also believe that teaching agricultural workers how to properly handle and apply organophosphate pesticides would help limit exposure — such courses should be held in the workers’ native language, they add. Finally, increasing use of other, less-toxic alternatives should help prepare farmers for an eventual ban.

The paper “Organophosphate exposures during pregnancy and child neurodevelopment: Recommendations for essential policy reforms” has been published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

Skull and brain.

One genetic change 3 million years ago made our brains big — and won us the world

Two research teams have uncovered the gene family that allowed us to evolve our impressively large brains.

Skull and brain.

A human skull overlaid with an illustration of the human brain.
Image credits Fiddes et al. / Cell

Compared to other organisms on the planet, our globs of gray matter are unusually big. That’s actually quite a fortunate turn of events since we owe them our success as a species today. But why we have such big brains is a different question altogether — one that two recently-published papers attempt to answer.

The two teams identified a genetic family christened NOTCH2NL as the likely catalyst for the evolution of our brains over the last 3 million years. The gene, which is located in a part of the genome previously linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, seems to play an important role in human cortex development by delaying stem cell specialization into neurons — in the long run, this results in more overall neurons being developed. The gene is also exclusive to humans (lacking even in our closest relatives), and is heavily expressed in stem cells in the cerebral cortex.

Moving up a notch

“Our brains got three times as big primarily through the expansion of certain functional areas of the cerebral cortex, and that has to be a fundamental substrate for us becoming human. There’s really no more exciting scientific question that I can think of than discovering and decoding the mysterious genetic changes that made us who we are,” says bioinformatician David Haussler, co-senior author of one of the papers.

Haussler’s team was busy comparing genes expressed during brain development in humans and macaques when they discovered that only human cells sported NOTCH2NL. Further testing revealed that orangutans also lacked this gene and that our closest living relatives — gorillas and chimps — only carry incomplete, inactive versions. After piecing together as much of its evolutionary history as they could, the team believes that it was borne out of a process known as gene conversion. They write that the process was likely applied to repair a non-functional version of NOTCH2NL, which itself first emerged as a partial duplication (i.e. a mutation) of the neurodevelopmental gene NOTCH2.

The team believes this repair took place some 3 to 4 million years ago — which is right around the time that we see human fossils with increasing brain sizes. After it was repaired, but before we diverged from our common ancestor with Neanderthals, NOTCH2NL was duplicated two more times, the team adds.

The other team, led by developmental biologist Pierre Vanderhaeghen found NOTCH2NL while searching for human-specific gene activity during fetal brain development.

Brains gains

“One of the holy grails of researchers like us is to find out what during human development and evolution is responsible for a bigger brain, particularly the cerebral cortex,” Vanderhaeghen says. “Given the relatively fast evolution of the human brain, it is tempting to speculate that newly evolved, human-specific genes may help shape our brain in a species-specific way.”

Because the genes Vanderhaeghen’s team was searching for are generally described known and hard to distinguish from the variants in other species (which are more common), the team developed a new RNA sequencing analysis method for specific and sensitive detection of human-specific genes in fetal tissue. They uncovered 35 genes unique to us that are active during fetal brain development — including the NOTCH2NL family.

What set it apart from the rest is the important hole NOTCH2 plays in controlling whether cortical stem cells produce neurons or regenerate more stem cells, they explain. Artificially expressing NOTCH2NL increased the number of progenitor stem cells in the brains of mice embryos. Further tests with an in-vitro cortical development model based on human pluripotent stem cells revealed that NOTCH2NL can substantially expand the number of cells in the culture, which then generate more neurons.

“From one stem cell, you can either regenerate two progenitor cells, generate two neurons, or generate one progenitor stem cell and one neuron. And what NOTCH2NL does is bias that decision in a slight way towards regenerating progenitors, which can later go on to make more neurons. It’s a small early effect with large late consequences, as often happens with evolution,” Vanderhaeghen says.

When NOTCH2NL was removed from the genomes of human stem cells used to grow patches of tissue, differentiation occurred faster but resulted in fewer final neurons.

“If you lose NOTCH2NL, it leads to premature differentiation of cortical stem cells into neurons, but at the same time the very important stem cell pool gets depleted,” says Jacobs.

There is still a lot of things we don’t understand about NOTCH2NL. Haussler’s team notes that they were only able to look at the genomes of a small sample of patients and that their models couldn’t address the later stages of cortical development — when NOTCH2NL might become even more important.

For now, however, it seems clear that NOTCH2NL had a key role to play in the evolution of the human brain. And, in a way, it could offer part of the answer to that age-old question. We’re here, in part, because a gene mutated a few million of years ago — and it made us smart.

The papers “Human-Specific NOTCH2NL Genes Affect Notch Signaling and Cortical Neurogenesis“, and “Human-Specific NOTCH2NL Genes Expand Cortical Neurogenesis through Delta/Notch Regulation” have both been published in the journal Cell.

Air pollution exposure during fetal life linked to brain abnormalities in children

A new study suggests that unborn babies exposed to ‘safe’ levels of air pollution are prone to developing brain abnormalities that might contribute to cognitive impairment later in life.

Via Flickr/wissenschaftsjahr

Scientists from the Netherlands have observed that exposure to fine particles during fetal development is linked to a thinner cortex — the exterior layer of the brain that regulates self-control over impulsive behavior. Such cognitive impairment at early ages could have significant long-term consequences.

“We observed brain development effects in relationship to fine particles levels below the current EU limit,” lead author Dr. Mònica Guxens, of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Spain, a center supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation, and Erasmus University Medical Center, the Netherlands, said in a statement.

Other recent studies have associated acceptable air pollution levels with other complications such as cognitive decline and fetal growth development.

The team of researchers used a population-based cohort in the Netherlands, which observed pregnant women and their children from fetal life onward. The researchers assessed the levels of home air pollution during the fetal life of 783 children and collected data by air pollution monitoring campaigns, measuring levels of nitrogen dioxide, coarse particles, and fine particles.

Scientists also scanned the brains of children between the ages of six and ten and discovered abnormalities in the thickness of the brain cortex, the precuneus and rostral middle frontal region. That’s despite the fact that the levels of fine particles and nitrogen dioxide measured in their homes were acceptable by EU standards.

“Air pollution is so obviously bad for lungs, heart, and other organs that most of us have never considered its effects on the developing brain,” Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, said in a statement. “But perhaps we should have learned from studies of maternal smoking that inhaling toxins may have lasting effects on cognitive development.”

The paper suggests that the fetal brain is very vulnerable during pregnancy because it hasn’t yet developed the mechanisms for removal of, or protection against, environmental toxins.

“Although specific individual clinical implications of these findings cannot be quantified, based on other studies, the observed cognitive delays at early ages could have significant long-term consequences such as increased risk of mental health disorders and low academic achievement, in particular due to the ubiquity of the exposure,” Guxens added.

The study was published in Biological Psychiatry.

17 Charts and Figures that show the US is not as developed as you’d think

The US was traditionally regarded as the world’s richest nation, the leading economy, the home of leading businesses. But is it really so nowadays? These charts seem to suggest otherwise and really leave us wondering. In many essential ways, the US fares much worse than all other developed countries.


The first thing that strikes you is the social inequality in the US. For a country so rich, it seems bizarre and unexplainable that so many people are poor. The poverty line is defined as the bare minimum with which one can survive, and apparently, the income of 1 in 6 Americans falls below that line. The rich are definitely rich, but the poor are really poor.

It might seem that it’s not a big difference to other developed countries such as Spain and Greece, but at the point of this statistic, the two countries had an unemployment rate over 20%. The US managed to top them with a much lower unemployment rate which means that even if you are working, there’s a chance you’re below the poverty line.

Actually, the US is the developed country with the highest income inequality, faring closer to China or African countries than countries like Norway or Germany.


This is where things start to really get rough.

This time, the difference is much more striking. With only 2.9 beds per 1,000 people, the US falls way below other developed countries. France and Germany more than double that figure, whereas developed Asian countries are in a completely different league.
To confirm that this is not some anomaly, a similar trend exists for physicians per 1,000 people. Not only does the US not have enough hospital beds, it also doesn’t have enough doctors.

Ironically, this happens despite the US spending much more money per capita in terms of health. So not only is the US providing insuficient health coverage, but it’s doing this for more money.

Again, there’s a big disparity between the US and other developed countries. What this tells us is that although the country spends enormously on healthcare, this expenditure is extremely inefficient. Also, consider that many Americans aren’t even insured — something which doesn’t happen in the other developed countries on this list, where everyone is insured by default.

Together, this indicates that the US spends a lot of money, insures few people, and is an overall extremely inefficient system. Many argue that not insuring your citizens loses more money than it saves in the long run. This isn’t something related to recent events, this is a trend that has been evident for a few decades already.

Americans also aren’t healthy. In a ranking of the world’s healthiest countries, the US was again mediocre, coming at #34th, behind Cuba, Lebanon, and Costa Rica; just above Croatia, Qatar, and Brunei.

Much of this can be attributed to an unhealthy diet. More than 1 in 3 Americans are obese, more than any other developed country in the world. More youth are obese than anywhere else in the world too, indicating that the country’s position as a “leader” in obesity will carry on in the future.

Gender equality

The land of all possibilities? Maybe… but especially if you’re a man. Few places in the world if any ensure true gender equality but the US seems to be especially bad. It’s notoriously difficult to advance through a company if you’re a woman. Just have a look at the percentage of women on the boards of public companies. Just 1 in 6 board members are women.

But that doesn’t even begin to say just how hard it is to be a woman in the US. There are just two countries in the world that don’t provide a paid maternity leave: Lesotho and (you’ve guessed it) the US.

Although the difference isn’t quite as striking, women in the US are also more likely to be a victim of violence than anywhere else in the developed world.


Education is another problematic aspect. In terms of literacy, the US fares just above average compared to other OECD countries, whereas in Advanced literacy, it fares below average.

The fact that teachers in the US are drastically underpaid doesn’t really do much to help the problem.


This is another aspect where the US fares dismally. This chart only begins to reveal the problem.

No other developed country comes even close to the US when it comes to gun-related violence. Sure, you can pick countries like Swaziland or Brazil and make the US look good by comparison, but if you look at the developed world, it’s not a pleasant sight. The chart above makes a lot of sense when you understand that most assaults are carried out with a gun, and all other countries on the list have much stricter gun laws.

When it comes to incarceration rates, the US is also a distant leader. You can compare the incarceration rates with the Seychelles and Turkmenistan, but when it comes to the developed world, there’s no rivaling it. Not even close. The US incarcerates almost 7 out of every 1,000 citizens, compared to 1 in 1,000 in France or 0.7 in Germany.

You might think that this is somehow due to the large number of assaults, but that’s not really the case; this happens, to a large extent, due to incarceration for minor crimes, especially drug related issues, and due to the fact that much of the prison system in the US is private. This gives prisons an incentive to keep people in prison (because they make money) instead of rehabilitating them.

Image via Wikipedia.

Car accidents are also a reason for concern, though in this case, South Korea takes the cherry. For the US — this represents another dent in personal safety.

Renewable energy

President Trump boasted that the US is a leader in renewable energy, but the figures seem to say otherwise. The US simply fares worse than other countries. Unlike the rest of the world, the US also largely overlooks wind energy, which President Trump considers to be ‘ugly.’

Things aren’t getting better

It’s also interesting to note that these areas, in which the performance of the US is mediocre at best, are largely the areas from which Trump is withdrawing funding — to invest more in the military spending.

To sum it up, we’re not saying that the US isn’t a developed country — quite the opposite. We’re signaling that despite it being a developed country and especially, despite having enormous wealth and economic potential, the country has a dismal performance in many crucial aspects. When your education, your health, and your social and physical security is mediocre, then what’s the point of being a rich country?

Children can become closer to pets than to siblings, study finds

Children may feel closer to their pets than to siblings, a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests.

Image credits Unsplash / Pixabay.

Researchers have found out more and more about how pets influence child development lately. A new paper from the University of Cambridge now adds to that growing body of literature showing that children gain more satisfaction from relationships with pets than those with brothers and sisters. The close quality of this bond, as well as the availability of companionship and disclosure could have a positive effect on children’s social skills and emotional health.

The paper comes as part of a larger study conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and led by Prof Claire Hughes from the Center of Family Research. The team surveyed 12 year old children from 77 different families with more than one child who owned one or more pets of any type on the quality of their relationships.

”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says lead author and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry Matt Cassels.

“We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

The children reported strong ties to their siblings (no surprises there), but they reported their relationships with pets were just as strong. Dog families also reported lower overall levels of conflict and greater owner satisfaction compared to other kinds of pets.

One other surprising finding was that pets were rated on the same level of disclosure as siblings. Cassels believes this comes down to the fact that while pets can’t understand or respond to us, “they are completely non-judgmental.” Their inability to hold dialogue might even help in this respect, he adds.

The study also found that while boys and girls reported to be equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more getting more disclosure, companionship, and conflict out of the relationship compared to boys. It goes against the grain of previous research, Cassels adds, which usually found that boys form stronger ties to pets. Girls, their results suggest, “may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.”

Overall, the paper adds further evidence to the case of pets shaping children for the better and improving human quality of life.

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study.

“The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

The full paper “One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings” has been published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.