Science Now
Discoveries from the world of science and medicine
For most chronic pain, neurologists declare opioids a bad choice

Patients taking opioid painkillers for chronic pain not associated with cancer -- conditions such as headaches, fibromyalgia and low-back pain -- are more likely to risk overdose, addiction and a range of debilitating side effects than they are to improve their ability to function, a leading physicians group declared Wednesday.

The long-term use of opioids may not, in the net, be beneficial even in patients with more severe pain conditions, including sickle-cell disease, destructive rheumatoid arthritis and severe neuropathic pain, the American Academy of Neurologists opined in a new position statement released Wednesday.

But even for patients who do appear to benefit from opioid narcotics, the neurology group warned, physicians who prescribe these drugs should be diligent in tracking a patient's dose increases, screening for a history of depression or substance abuse, looking for signs of misuse and insisting as a condition of continued use that opioids are improving a patient's...

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Yikes! This cloud on Saturn's moon Titan is made of icy poison

A strange cloud that NASA's Cassini spacecraft spotted on Saturn’s moon Titan two years ago appears to be made of icy hydrogen cyanide, a poison that on Earth has been used to kill everything from rats to whales.

The toxic cloud, described in the journal Nature, defies expectations for where and how clouds form on the Saturnian satellite and may force scientists to adjust their understanding of what goes on in the Titan's atmosphere.

The large spinning cloud appeared in Titan’s southern hemisphere in May 2012, high in the atmosphere, about 200 miles above the surface. The cloud, which is still going strong, spins faster than the moon itself, taking nine hours to complete a rotation while Titan takes about 16 Earth days.

Using data from the Cassini spacecraft’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, the researchers looked at the spectrum of light coming from the cloud and found the chemical signature of hydrogen cyanide ice. This was a surprise, because the spot where the cloud sits,...

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Study: Good access to birth control prevents teen pregnancy, abortion

Birth control prevents teenage pregnancies and abortions -- when teens know about it and are able to use it.

Of 560 young women deemed at high risk for pregnancy who were given free access to hormonal implants and copper IUDs as part of a study, not a single one became pregnant during the years they were tracked, according to a report that appears in Thursday’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Among all 1,404 teens who took part in the Contraceptive CHOICE Project between 2008 and 2013, the average annual pregnancy rate was 34 per 1,000 teens. That was 41% lower than the pregnancy rate for all American teens, which was 57.4 per 1,000 in 2010.  

Nearly all of the St. Louis-area teens who took part in CHOICE were sexually active (97% of them had already lost their virginity when they enrolled in the program, and 99% had done so by the end of their first year in the program). When compared only with American teens who were sexually experienced, the young women in the...

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When babies eat first gluten doesn't change chance of celiac disease, study says

Parents with celiac disease often jump through hoops over breastfeeding and when to give children their first bread or other food containing gluten, but a study published Wednesday suggests it doesn’t matter much in terms of whether the child will develop celiac disease.

However, delaying the first taste of wheat, barley or rye in infants who are at risk of celiac disease could delay the age at which they get it, and that could mean they’re healthier during those phases, according to one of two studies about gluten and celiac disease published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said Levy was diagnosed 40 years ago. She was diagnosed 30 years ago.

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“These are very important studies, very wonderful studies” involving many children in randomized trials, said Dr. Peter Green, who wrote an editorial about them in the journal. They should provide relief for many parents, said Green, director of the Celiac Disease...

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Genes reveal answers to monarch butterfly migration mystery

A variation in a single gene may explain why some monarch butterfly populations developed a marathoner’s efficient physique, while some muscled up and settled down, according to a new study.

A genome analysis of 101 monarchs from around the globe also suggests that the granddaddy of Danaus plexxipus may not have come from tropical latitudes, but arose in the U.S. Southwest or northern Mexico.

The results, published online Wednesday in the journal Nature, appear to upend long-held assumptions about the monarch, including how it generates a color pattern evocative of a stained-glass sunrise.

“The reason we did so many different analyses in our paper was because some of the coauthors of the paper took so much convincing,” said Marcus Kronforst, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago.

Most butterflies in the genus Danaus are tropical and nonmigratory, including monarchs in Central and South America. That led scientists to assume that populations from more temperate climates...

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Researchers see 35,000 walruses on Alaska shore -- and no sea ice

An estimated 35,000 walruses packed a stretch of Alaskan shoreline late last month, a phenomenon that's being chalked up to diminishing sea ice and alarmingly warm ocean temperatures.

The animals were spotted near Point Lay, Alaska, on the shores of the Chukchi Sea during NOAA's annual aerial survey of Arctic marine mammals. The research flight that saw the walruses noted that no sea ice was evident in the area.

Pacific walruses have been hauling out on land in Alaska in the last six to eight years as summer sea ice has retreated, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Walruses must regularly pull themselves onto ice or rocks to rest. Because of the lack of sea ice, they're simply hauling out on shore -- especially female walruses and their calves, USGS says.

In these on-shore haul outs, young walruses are more likely to be trampled, the USGS says. And all of the walruses may be negatively affected by having to use near-shore feeding areas rather than hauling out on ice amid rich...

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Mars rover Curiosity getting a taste of the base of Mt. Sharp

After two years of roving the Martian surface, NASA’s rover Curiosity has finally drilled its ultimate target: Mt. Sharp, the 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater. The robotic explorer is set to get a taste of Martian rock Tuesday night when the rover feeds its sample to the laboratory in its belly.

“It feels great. It’s been a long time coming, but I think we’re going to find that it was worth the drive,” said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory (as Curiosity’s mission is known). “There was a reason we came here.”

Last week the rover drilled about 2.6 inches into an outcrop on the base of Mt. Sharp and pulled out a sample of powdered rock. The rock was one of the softest yet drilled, Vasavada said – a good sign because scientists will be looking for clay-rich material that could hold signs of past water on the Red Planet.

The drilling marks the start of a new period in Curiosity’s career on Mars. The rover took a detour soon after its...

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First Ebola case diagnosed in U.S.: Here's why you don't need to panic

With officials confirming the first Ebola case diagnosed in the United States, and the first case diagnosed outside of Africa during this outbreak, some Americans continue to express fear that the deadly disease -- which is believed to have killed at least 3,091 people in West Africa -- could spread in the United States.

If you're one of them, you can calm down. Health officials say there is virtually no danger to the public. Here’s what you need to know about the virus:

What’s the likelihood of a major Ebola outbreak happening in the U.S.?

Remote, according to officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now that an Ebola patient has been diagnosed in Texas, the first human case ever diagnosed in the United States, health officials say the American health system will work to contain the disease and the likelihood of it spreading is very low.

Once an Ebola patient is identified here, says CDC Director Thomas Frieden, protocols allow doctors and health officials...

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Check out this gorgeous Mars picture, courtesy of India's orbiter

Hello Mars! You're looking lovely this week!

The Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, has released a handful of images of Mars taken by its Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, in the last few days, and while they are all beautiful, this one showing the orb of the rust-colored planet floating against the inky black of space is our favorite. 

(A close second is a 3-D version of the planet just released on Twitter. You will need 3-D glasses to enjoy it, however.) 

The image above was taken on Sunday, just four days after the spacecraft completed its nine-month journey to the Red Planet.

That smudgy looking stuff at the top left of the image is a regional dust storm kicking around Mars' northern hemisphere. To give you a sense of scale, the round crater just slightly below the center of the image and to the right is about 285 miles wide.

Dust storms are not unusual on Mars. In fact, a new study published Tuesday in Nature Communications found that despite the planet's super thin...

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BRAIN initiative is underway, funding new ways to map cells, circuits

Scientists will aim to capture the workings of the human brain in comprehensive recordings, to watch the brain while in motion and to reimagine the world's most complex biological organism as a buzzing network of interlocking circuits with the award of $46 million in study grants announced Tuesday.

The announcement marks the first concrete steps taken under the Obama administration's BRAIN Initiative, short for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Unveiled in April 2013, the initiative is a planned 12-year effort to spur new understanding of the brain in sickness and in health by improving technologies used to map, record, probe and stimulate its workings.

President Obama has sought $110 million for the BRAIN initiative in 2014 and $200 million for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins on Wednesday, with future years' funding to be worked out. He has likened the initiative to the Human Genome Project, which has dramatically deepened understanding of the roles...

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Laser-guided 'sea monkeys' hint at secrets of ocean's motion

Could tiny sea creatures, a few millimeters in length, be partly responsible for the large-scale motion of the ocean?

That’s the finding from a pair of Caltech researchers, who used lasers to herd brine shrimp around a tank and track their effects on the water’s movement. The results, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, show that ocean currents may be a function not only of large-scale physical phenomena like wind and tides, but also of living things.

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FOR THE RECORD

Oct. 1, 6:22 a.m.: An earlier version of this post indicated that brine shrimp live in the ocean. They live in saltwater lakes.

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Study coauthor John Dabiri, a Caltech fluid dynamicist, latched on to the idea a few years ago while studying how jellyfish move. He noticed something strange: As the jellyfish swam, they appeared to be carrying a lot of water with them.

Dabiri wondered if the same was true of smaller animals that fill the world’s oceans, including krill and copepods. Such animals...

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Ebola outbreaks in Senegal and Nigeria now under control, CDC says

The Ebola outbreaks in Senegal and Nigeria appear to be under control, with no new cases reported in more than 21 days, according to reports issued Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As international health officials scramble to stop the exponential spread of Ebola in in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, CDC researchers say quick work by officials and medical personnel in neighboring West African nations appears to have stopped the disease in its tracks.

The incubation period for the Ebola virus is 21 days. If a nation sees no new cases after that period of time, an outbreak is said to be under control, according to Dr. Barbara Knust, a CDC epidemiologist.

If no new cases occur in 42 days, the outbreak is said to be over.

"That's how the World Health Organization determines that an outbreak is over and that there's no more human-to-human transmission," Knust said. "But even then it's important for all countries to be vigilant, because there's still ongoing...

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