New study shows that artificial light at night can be harmful to ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health
- Life Sciences
A new study from Tel Aviv University's School of Zoology tested the impact of prolonged low-intensity light pollution on two species of desert rodents: the diurnal golden spiny mouse, and the nocturnal common spiny mouse. The findings were highly disturbing: on two different occasions, entire colonies exposed to ALAN (Artificial Light At Night) died within days, and reproduction also decreased significantly compared to control groups. According to the researchers, the results show clearly for the first time that light pollution can be extremely harmful to these species, and suggest they may be harmful to ecosystems, biodiversity, and even human health.
"According to latest studies, about 80% of the world's human population is exposed to ALAN, and the area affected by light pollution grows annually by 2-6%. In a small and overcrowded state like Israel, very few places remain free of light pollution." Hagar Vardi-Naim
Humans Changed the Rules
The study was led by Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor, Chief Scientist of Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection, and PhD student Hagar Vardi-Naim, both from TAU's School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. The paper was published in Scientific Reports.
"We have been studying these closely related rodent species for years. They both live in Israel's rocky deserts: the golden spiny mouse (Acomys russatus) is diurnal [active during the day], and the common spiny mouse (A. cahirinus) in nocturnal [active during the night]," explains Prof. Kronfeld-Schor. "The two species share the same natural habitat but use it at different times to avoid competition. By comparing closely related species that differ in activity times, we gain new insights into the biological clock and its importance to the health of both animals and humans."
Hagar Vardi-Naim notes that, "in most species studied to date, including humans, the biological clock is synchronized by light. This mechanism evolved over millions of years in response to the daily and annual cycles of sunlight – day and night and their varying lengths that correspond to the change of seasons. Different species developed activity patterns that correspond to these changes in light intensity and daylength and developed anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations suitable for day or night activity and seasonality."
"However, over the last decades, humans have changed the rules by inventing and extensively using artificial light, which generates light pollution. According to latest studies, about 80% of the world's human population is exposed to ALAN, and the area affected by light pollution grows annually by 2-6%. In a small and overcrowded state like Israel, very few places remain free of light pollution. In our study, we closely monitored the long-term effects of ALAN on individuals and populations under semi-natural conditions."
"We had seen no preliminary signs (…) We assume that exposure to ALAN had impaired the animals' immune response, leaving them with no protection against some unidentified pathogen [organism causing disease to its host]." Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor
Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor
Dramatic Turn of Events
In the study, the researchers placed 96 spiny mice, males and females in equal numbers, in eight spacious outdoor enclosures at TAU's Zoological Research Garden. The enclosures simulated living conditions in the wild: all animals were exposed to natural environmental conditions, including the natural light/dark cycle, ambient temperatures, humidity, and precipitation. Each enclosure contained shelters, nesting materials and access to sufficient amounts of food. The experimental enclosures were exposed to low-intensity ALAN (like a streetlamp in urban areas) of different wavelengths (colors) for 10 months: two enclosures were exposed to cold white light, two to warm white (yellowish) light, and two to blue light, while two of the enclosures remained dark at night and served as controls. All animals were marked to enable accurate monitoring of changes in behavior and physical condition. The experiment was conducted twice in two successive years.
"The average life expectancy of spiny mice is 4-5 years, and our original plan was to monitor the effects of ALAN on the same colonies, measuring the effects on reproductive output, wellbeing and longevity," says Prof. Kronfeld-Schor. "But the dramatic results thwarted our plans: on two unrelated occasions, in two different enclosures exposed to white light, all animals died within several days. We had seen no preliminary signs, and autopsies at TAU's Faculty of Medicine and the Kimron Veterinary Institute in Beit Dagan revealed no abnormal findings in the dead spiny mice. We assume that exposure to ALAN had impaired the animals' immune response, leaving them with no protection against some unidentified pathogen. No abnormal mortality was recorded in any of the other enclosures, and as far as we are aware, no similar event has ever been documented by researchers before."
"Our findings show that light pollution, especially cold white and blue light, increases mortality and disrupts reproduction, and thus may be detrimental to the fitness and survival of species in the wild. This adverse effect can have far-reaching consequences at the current wide distribution of light pollution." Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor
Other findings also indicated that exposure to ALAN disrupts the reproductive success of spiny mice: "In the wild both species of spiny mice breed mainly during summer, when temperatures are high, and the newborn pups are most likely to survive," shares Hagar Vardi-Naim. "Artificial light, however, seemed to confuse the animals. The common spiny mice began to breed year-round but produced a lower number of pups per year. Pups born during winter are not expected to survive in nature, which would further reduce the species' reproductive success in the wild."
"The reproduction of golden spiny mice was affected in a different way: colonies exposed to ALAN continued to breed in the summer, but the number of young was reduced by half compared to the control group, which continued to thrive and breed normally. These findings are in accordance with the fact that in seasonal long day breeders the cue for reproduction is day length."
Additional tests revealed that exposure to ALAN caused physiological and hormonal changes – most significantly in the level of cortisol, an important stress hormone involved in the regulation and operation of many physiological pathways, including the regulation of the immune system. Lab tests indicated that exposure to blue light increased cortisol levels of golden spiny mice, while white light reduced cortisol levels of golden spiny mice males in winter.
"Our findings show that light pollution, especially cold white and blue light, increases mortality and disrupts reproduction, and thus may be detrimental to the fitness and survival of species in the wild. This adverse effect can have far-reaching consequences at the current wide distribution of light pollution. Our clear results are an important step toward understanding the impact of light pollution on biodiversity and will help us promote science-based policies, specifically with regard to the use of artificial light in both built and open areas. In future studies we plan to investigate what caused the extensive deaths in the enclosures exposed to ALAN, focusing on the effect of light pollution exposure on the immune system," concludes Prof. Kronfeld Schor.
Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause for loss of eyesight at an advanced age
Researchers at Tel Aviv University identified a new genetic risk factor for the complex eye disease AMD (Age-related Macular Degeneration), a leading cause for loss of eyesight at an advanced age. For the first time, the researchers identified proteins that play a key role in the development and functioning of the tissue affected by the disease, found their exact sites in the genome, and discovered the connection between variations in these genomic regions and the risk for AMD. The researchers: "The new discovery enhances our understanding of the previously unknown function of genomic regions outside the genes. The method we applied may enable the deciphering of additional genetic mechanisms involved in various complex genetic diseases."
"Comparative studies have identified whole genomic regions that are probably related to the disease but were unable to pinpoint any specific feature in these regions and define it as a risk factor. Our study addressed this problem." Prof. Ran Elkon
Decoding Mechanisms of a Complex Disease
The study was led by Prof. Ruth Ashery-Padan and Prof. Ran Elkon and their research teams, Mazal Cohen Gulkar, Naama Mesika, Ahuvit David, and May Eshel, from the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University. The paper was published in PLOS Biology.
Prof. Ashery-Padan explains that "one of the greater challenges in genetic research today is decoding the genetic mechanisms of complex diseases caused by a combination of several different genetic and environmental factors (rather than an identifiable defect in a single gene). Diabetes, bowel diseases, and various mental illnesses are just a few examples. In our study we chose to focus on AMD, which causes degeneration of the central retina - a major cause of loss of vision at an advanced age in developed countries."
Prof. Elkon adds: "AMD has a significant genetic component. Studies comparing the genomes of people with and without AMD (as well as a range of other complex genetic diseases) have found differences in several genomic regions, probably associated with risk factors for the disease. However, these differences were not detected in any specific gene, but rather in the extensive regions that stretch between the genes, whose functions and modes of operation are still largely unknown. In fact, comparative studies have identified whole genomic regions that are probably related to the disease but were unable to pinpoint any specific feature in these regions and define it as a risk factor. Our study addressed this problem."
The study focused on the cells of a layer of tissue called retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE), which supports photoreceptors in the retina, and is essential for their initial development as well as their survival throughout an individual's lifetime. According to the researchers, this tissue is affected right from the earliest stages of AMD.
Prof. Ruth Ashery-Padan
"Our findings provide new insight into a previously unsolved issue: the functions and mode of operation of genomic sequences located outside the genes, and how they are involved in complex genetic diseases." Prof. Ruth Ashery-Padan
Novel Research Methodology
"First, we wanted to understand the genetic mechanism that activates and regulates the specific activity of pigmented epithelium cells," says Prof. Ashery-Padan. "Through a series of experiments, knocking down different proteins in both a mouse model and human cells, we identified two key proteins, LHX2 and OTX2, which together dictate the expression of many genes unique to this tissue. The proteins act as transcriptional activators - binding to specific regulatory sites in the genome to determine which genes will be expressed in a particular cell."
The next challenge was mapping the precise locations of the two proteins in the genome. The researchers used the innovative technology ChIP-seq – a DNA sequencing method that identifies binding sites where proteins bind to the DNA.
"We found that the binding sites of the two proteins were quite close to each other," explains Prof. Elkon. "Moreover, these same sites had previously been identified as related to risk factors for AMD (namely, sequences that showed differences between people with and without AMD). We assume that due to changes in DNA sequences in these genomic regions, transcriptional proteins cannot easily find and bind with their binding sites. This reduces the expression of the nearby gene regulated by the transcriptional proteins, which encodes an ion channel known as important to eye function. The decrease in the gene's activity affects the entire tissue, increasing the risk for development of AMD."
Prof. Ashery-Padan sums up the study: "In our study we identified two proteins related to risk factors for the complex genetic eye disease AMD. In addition, for the first time, we were able to map the exact genomic sites of these proteins and found that they operate in a region previously identified as related to risk factors for AMD. Our findings provide new insight into a previously unsolved issue: the functions and mode of operation of genomic sequences located outside the genes, and how they are involved in complex genetic diseases. We believe that our novel research methodology will enable the identification and mapping of many other genetic mechanisms related to AMD and other complex genetic diseases."
Political orientation can be predicted by measuring brain activation while watching campaign-ads
- Social Sciences
A first-of-its-kind study scanned the brains of dozens of politically involved participants while they watched campaign-ads and speeches by parties from both ends of the political spectrum, just before one of the last rounds of elections. The participants, half right-wing and half left-wing, were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a method that measures brain activation. Surprisingly, political-dependent differences in the brain response emerged already in early brain regions, such as regions involved in vision and hearing, and in fact the response in these regions was enough to predict an individual's political views.
Great Minds Think Alike
The study was led by Noa Katabi, a research student in the lab of Dr. Yaara Yeshurun in The School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
During the study, participants watched video-clips, including a neutral (in terms of political characteristics) video-clip and different political campaign-ads and political speeches by politicians from both blocs, Right and Left. The researchers were surprised to discover widespread partisanship-dependent brain activation and synchronization when Right-wing individuals watched the videos of their political bloc, or when Left-wing individuals watched the videos of left-wing politician.
Interestingly, the researchers found that such partisanship-dependent differences in brain synchronization was not limited to "higher" areas of the brain, associated with interpretation and abstract thinking, as was previously found. Rather, these differences occurred already in regions responsible for sight, hearing and even touch.
"This is the first study to show political-dependent brain activity in early sensory and motor areas, and it can be said that at the most basic brain level, rightists and leftists in Israel literally (and not just metaphorically) don't see and hear the same things." Dr. Yaara Yeshurun
Dr. Yaara Yeshurun
Rightists and Leftists Experience Things Differently
"The research clearly showed that the more the subjects were politically aligned with a certain group, the more their brain response was synchronized, including in motor and somatosensory areas, that is, those areas of the brain that are active when we move or feel things with our senses," explains Dr. Yeshurun. "In fact, just by the brain’s response in these primary sensory areas we could tell if a certain individual was left or wight wing. Intriguingly, it was not necessary to examine the activity in 'higher' brain areas - areas that are involved in understanding why a certain character did something, or what that character thinks and feels - to predict participants' political views, it could even be done by examining an area of the brain that is responsible for seeing or hearing.”
The researchers think that this surprising finding is due to the fact that the participants they chose were politically involved, and also due to the timing of the experiment - a few weeks before the elections, when the political atmosphere in Israel was very present and emotional.
"This is the first study to show political-dependent brain activity in early sensory and motor areas, and it can be said that at the most basic brain level, rightists and leftists in Israel literally (and not just metaphorically) don't see and hear the same things. I think that if we try to understand how people who hold opposite political views to ours experience the world, we might be able to conduct a slightly more effective public discussion that can hopefully attenuate the current political polarization,” adds Dr. Yeshurun.
Right or left? "If we try to understand how people who hold opposite political views to ours experience the world, we might be able to conduct a slightly more effective public discussion (…)"
Findings contradict prevalent belief that people on the autism spectrum are 'indifferent to pain'
A new study examined the pain perception among people with autism and found that they experience pain at a higher intensity than the general population and are less adaptable to the sensation. This finding is contrary to the prevalent belief that people with autism are supposedly 'indifferent to pain'. The researchers expressed the hope that the findings of their study will lead to more appropriate treatment on the part of medical staff, caregivers, and parents toward people with autism, who do not always express the experience of pain in the usual way.
The study was funded by the Israel Science Foundation and was led by four researchers: Dr. Tami Bar-Shalita of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University who initiated the study, Dr. Yelena Granovsky of the Technion and Rambam Medical Center, and Prof. Irit Weissman-Fogel and Prof. Eynat Gal of the University of Haifa. This study constitutes a framework for the theses of PhD students Tzeela Hofmann and Mary Klingel-Levy, and three articles based on it have already been published or approved for publishing. The present study has been published in the prestigious PAIN journal.
"We know that self-harm could stem from attempts to suppress pain, and it could be that [people with autism] hurt themselves to activate, unconsciously, a physical mechanism of 'pain inhibits pain'." Dr. Tami Bar-Shalita
Self-harm Not Proof of Indifference to Pain
"Approximately 10% of the general population suffer from sensory modulation dysfunction, which means sensory hypersensitivity at a level that compromises normal daily functioning and quality of life. These people have difficulty, for example, ignoring or adapting to buzzing or flickering of fluorescent lights, humming of air conditioners or fans, or the crunching of popcorn by someone sitting next to them in the cinema," explains Dr. Bar-Shalita.
"In previous studies in the lab we found that these people suffer from pain more than those without sensory modulation dysfunction. Since it is known that sensory modulation dysfunction occurs in people with autism at a rate of 70-90%, it constitutes a criterion for diagnosing autism, and is associated with its severity. We were interested in exploring pain perception in autism, so we asked: do people with autism hurt more than the general population? This question was hardly studied in the lab before we got started."
According to the researchers, for many years the prevalent opinion was that 'people with autism hurt less' or that they were 'indifferent to pain'. Actually, 'indifference to pain' is one of the characteristics presented in the current diagnostic criteria of autism.
The proof of this was, supposedly, their tendency to inflict pain on themselves by self-harm.
Dr. Bar-Shalita: "this assumption is not necessarily true. We know that self-harm could stem from attempts to suppress pain, and it could be that they hurt themselves to activate, unconsciously, a physical mechanism of 'pain inhibits pain'."
"The results of our study indicate that in most cases, the sensitivity to pain of people with autism is higher than that of most of the population, while at the same time they are unsuccessful at effectively suppressing painful stimuli." Dr. Tami Bar-Shalita
Dr. Tami Bar-Shalita
Contributing to Advancement of Personalized Treatment
This study is a laboratory pain study approved by the ethics committee of the academic institutions and Rambam Medical Center. The study included 52 adults with high-functioning autism (HFA) and normal intelligence – hitherto the largest reported sample in the world in studies on pain among people with autism. The study made use of psychophysical tests to evaluate pain, commonly used in the area of pain study. These methods examine the link between stimulus and response, while the researcher, using a computer, controls the duration and intensity of stimulus and the examinee is asked to rank the intensity of the pain felt by him on a scale of 0 to 100.
The findings have proven beyond doubt that people with autism hurt more. Furthermore, their pain suppression mechanism is less effective.
The researchers conducted a variety of measurements, aimed among other things at examining whether the hypersensitivity to pain derives from a sensitized nervous system or from suppression of mechanisms that are supposed to enable adjustment and, over time, reduce the response to the stimulus. They found that in the case of people with autism, it is a combination of the two: an increase of the pain signal along with a less effective pain inhibition mechanism.
Dr. Bar-Shalita concludes: "our study constituted a comprehensive, in-depth study of the intensity of pain experienced by people with autism. The prevalent belief was that they are supposedly 'indifferent to pain', and there are reports that medical and other professional staff treated them accordingly. The results of our study indicate that in most cases, the sensitivity to pain of people with autism is higher than that of most of the population, while at the same time they are unsuccessful at effectively suppressing painful stimuli. We hope that our findings will benefit the professionals and practitioners handling this population and contribute to the advancement of personalized treatment."
In additional articles soon to be published, the researchers have examined the brain activity of people with autism during pain stimuli, and sub-groups within this population concerning their perception of pain.
Findings may contribute to development of treatments to enable normal expression of genes essential for brain development in people suffering from the syndrome
- Social Sciences
Williams syndrome is a relatively rare, multisystem genetic syndrome that causes disorders in brain development. A new study by the Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University found that abnormal processes lead to disruption in the expression of genes essential for brain development in people suffering from the syndrome. The researchers believe their findings may contribute to the future development of targeted treatments that will enable normal expression of the affected genes identified in the research.
Looking Beyond Chromosome 7
The research was led by Dr. Boaz Barak from the School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University and Dr. Asaf Marco from the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the Hebrew University. Also participating in the research were Dr. Sari Trangle, Mr. Gilad Levy and Ms. Ela Bar from Dr. Barak's laboratory, and Dr. Tali Rosenberg and Ms. Hadar Parnas from Dr. Marco's laboratory. The research findings were published in the prestigious journal Molecular Psychiatry from the Nature publishing group.
"We wanted to examine whether the Williams Syndrome is also characterized by defects in the genomes contained in brain cells which prevent the proper expression of essential genes." Dr. Boaz Barak
Dr. Barak: “Williams syndrome is a rare, multisystem genetic syndrome that includes disorders in brain development that lead to heightened social interactions, mental retardation, and other characteristic features. Past research has revealed that twenty-five genes are missing from the DNA on chromosome number seven of people with Williams syndrome, and the study of the syndrome to date has mainly focused on those missing genes and their functions."
"We wanted to examine whether the syndrome is also characterized by defects in the genomes contained in brain cells which prevent the proper expression of essential genes. Specifically, we asked: ‘Is it possible that certain genes are not expressed properly in the brains of people with Williams syndrome due to the phenomenon of methylation - when a molecule known as a 'methyl group' is located on a certain gene that is present in the genome, preventing it from expressing itself properly?".
To illustrate the phenomenon of the missing genes, Dr. Barak took an instruction book in which some of the pages were torn out. As a result of the missing pages, anyone following the instructions would make mistakes. Similarly, hiding some of the letters in the pages left in the book with a black marker would result in instructions being corrupted, just like methylation on an existing gene disrupts its expression.
Methylation is in many cases a normal mechanism in the cells of the body, as its role is to prevent expression of certain genes when appropriate. However, when there are disruptions in the correct application of methylation, the abnormal expression of the genes may lead to impairments in cell function, and subsequently cause damage to various organs, including to normal brain development.
Dr. Boaz Barak from the School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University
Uncovering New Factors
The researchers examined human brain tissues taken from adults with and without Williams syndrome who died of causes unrelated to the syndrome and donated their brains to science.
“We focused on samples from the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that is responsible for brain functions such as cognition and decision-making," Dr. Barak explained. "In a previous study, we located in this area damage to the characteristics of the nerve cells and the cells that support nerve cell activity in people with Williams syndrome. In this study, we examined all the genes in all the cells of the frontal lobe to determine whether there are genes in people with Williams syndrome that have undergone abnormal methylation processes, i.e., increased or decreased gene silencing compared to a brain with typical development.”
"We uncovered significant information about the defective expression of genes in people with Williams syndrome. While these genes are fully present in the genome of the brain cells, until now it was not known that these abnormally regulated genes are involved in the syndrome." Dr. Asaf Marco.
The researchers found that indeed in people with Williams syndrome abnormal methylation does exist in this area of the brain, resulting in disruption of the normal expression of many genes related to the normal development of the brain's neural functions, such as regulation of social behavior (people with Williams syndrome are known to be overly friendly), cognition, plasticity of the brain, and cell survival.
“We uncovered significant information about the defective expression of genes in people with Williams syndrome. While these genes are fully present in the genome of the brain cells, until now it was not known that these abnormally regulated genes are involved in the syndrome," says Dr. Marco.
"Building on our findings, it will be possible to focus future efforts on the development of targeted treatments that will reach the disrupted sites that we identified in the study in order to 'correct' the defective expressions." Dr. Boaz Barak
Next Step: Target Disrupted Sites
"In addition, one of our main findings is that the disruptions in methylation do not have to appear near the gene whose function is impaired, and sometimes the disruptions are located far away from it. This information is critical because it allows us to better understand the spatial organization of DNA and its effect on gene control."
He adds that, "since we know of enzymes that are able to remove or add methyl molecules, the next challenge will be to precisely direct those enzymes to the disrupted sites identified in our research, with the aim of allowing the genes to be properly expressed.”
Dr. Barak concludes: "Our research revealed new factors related to the disabilities that characterize Williams syndrome. Instead of focusing on the effects of the missing gene, as has been done until now, we shed light on many more genes that are expressed in a defective manner. Building on our findings, it will be possible to focus future efforts on the development of targeted treatments that will reach the disrupted sites that we identified in the study in order to 'correct' the defective expressions.”
In a scientific first, a robot can “smell” using a biological sensor
- Life Sciences
After having developed a robot that hears through the ear of a locust, researchers from Tel Aviv University have succeeded in equipping a robot with the sense of smell, using a biological sensor. The sensor sends electrical signals as a response to the presence of a nearby odor, which the robot can detect and interpret. The researchers successfully connected the biological sensor to an electronic system and using a machine learning algorithm, were able to identify odors with a level of sensitivity 10,000 times higher than that of a commonly used electronic device. The researchers say "The sky's the limit," and believe that this technology may also be used in the future to identify explosives, drugs, diseases, and more.
WATCH: The first robot with a biological nose. Only at Tel Aviv University.
“Man-made technologies still can’t compete with millions of years of evolution. One area in which we particularly lag behind the animal world is that of smell perception (…) When they want to check if a passenger is smuggling drugs [at the airport], they bring in a dog to sniff him." Dr. Ben Maoz and Prof. Amir Ayali
Technology Lags Behind Evolution
The biological and technological breakthrough was led by doctoral student Neta Shvil of Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, Dr. Ben Maoz of the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Prof. Yossi Yovel and Prof. Amir Ayali of the School of Zoology and the Sagol School of Neuroscience. The results of the study were published in the prestigious journal Biosensor and Bioelectronics.
Dr. Maoz and Prof. Ayali explain: “Man-made technologies still can’t compete with millions of years of evolution. One area in which we particularly lag behind the animal world is that of smell perception (…) When they want to check if a passenger is smuggling drugs [at the airport], they bring in a dog to sniff him."
"In the animal world, insects excel at receiving and processing sensory signals. A mosquito, for example, can detect a 0.01 percent difference in the level of carbon dioxide in the air. Today, we are far from producing sensors whose capabilities come close to those of insects.”
The researchers point out that, in general, our sensory organs, such as the eye, ear and nose – as well as those of all other animals – use receptors that identify and distinguish between different signals. Then, the sensory organ translates these findings into electrical signals, which the brain decodes as information. The challenge of biosensors is in the connection of a sensory organ, like the nose, to an electronic system that knows how to decode the electrical signals received from the receptors.
Dr. Ben Maoz and doctoral student Neta Shvil
“Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should take advantage of that." Dr. Ben Maoz.
10,000 Times More Sensitive to Smell
“We connected the biological sensor [to the electronic system] and let it smell different odors while we measured the electrical activity that each odor induced," explains Prof. Yovel. "The system allowed us to detect each odor at the level of the insect’s primary sensory organ."
"Then, in the second step, we used machine learning to create a ‘library’ of smells. In the study, we were able to characterize 8 odors, such as geranium, lemon and marzipan, in a way that allowed us to know when the smell of lemon or marzipan was presented. In fact, after the experiment was over, we continued to identify additional different and unusual smells, such as various types of Scotch whiskey. A comparison with standard measuring devices showed that the sensitivity of the insect’s nose in our system is about 10,000 times higher than the devices that are in use today.”
“Nature is much more advanced than we are, so we should take advantage of that," says Dr. Maoz. "The principle we have demonstrated can be used and applied to other senses, such as sight and touch. For example, some animals have amazing abilities to detect explosives or drugs; the creation of a robot with a biological nose could help us preserve human life and identify criminals in a way that is not possible today. Some animals can detect diseases. Others sense earthquakes. The sky is the limit.”
What's next? The researchers plan to give the robot a navigation ability to allow it to localize the odor source and later, its identity.
Will he be able to retire soon? A working dog searches for hazardous materials at the airport
Israeli researchers find that medical clowns contribute significantly to the achievement of medical therapeutic goals
You see them stroll around in the hospitals' toughest wards with their red noses, colorful clothes, and unwavering smiles, spreading laughter and cheerfulness wherever they go. They are the medical clowns: trained professionals whose goal is to change the hospital environment through humor.
A new study tested and categorized the skills of medical clowns and found that their importance goes far beyond contributing to a patient's good mood. The researchers identified 40 different skills of medical clowns, including establishing an emotional connection and creating a personal relationship with the patient, expressing the patient's frustrations and difficulties to the medical staff, increasing the patient’s motivation to adhere to medical treatment, distracting the patient from pain, and creating a joyful atmosphere.
Medical clowns working alongside other therapists (Photo: The Dream Doctors Project, Medical Clowning in Action)
Not Just for Entertainment Purposes
The research was conducted under the leadership of Prof. Orit Karnieli-Miller, with Dr. Lior Rosenthal, both from the Department of Medical Education at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, in collaboration with Ms. Orna Divon-Ophir, Dr. Doron Sagi, Prof. Amitai Ziv and Ms. Liat Pessach-Gelblum from the Israel Center for Medical Simulation (MSR). The study was published in Qualitative Health Research, a leading journal in the field of health.
The researchers show that not only do medical clowns help the patients and their family members, but also the medical team and the achievement of treatment goals.
Through use of different communication skills, clowns make it easier for the patient to cooperate with various treatments. The medical clowns work in a team with other therapists, know how to intervene and help whenever an argument or crisis should arise to advance treatment.
"From the moment they enter the room, the clowns form a bond with the patients, strengthen them, and give them power and status within the medical system." Prof. Orit Karnieli-Miller.
Decoding their "Secret Magic"
Studies conducted throughout the years have shown the clowns’ positive influence on the hospital environment through humor, as well as helping patients deal with pain. However, no studies have empirically mapped the skills they use and their therapeutic goals to help understand their “secret magic.” In addition, there was a lack of broad understanding of how clowns can help children, teenagers, and their parents in various challenging situations of distress and difficulty, as well as how they can help patients and medical teams achieve treatment goals. This lack of appreciation of the potential benefits of utilizing the services of medical clowns meant that patients and medical teams would occasionally be reluctant to cooperate with them.
As part of the new study, the researchers focused on qualitative, in-depth systematic identification of the skills of medical clowns through observation and analysis of their actions in challenging encounters with adolescents, parents, and medical staff.
Medical clowns help patients and medical teams achieve treatment goals (Photo: The Dream Doctors Project, Medical Clowning in Action)
The team analyzed videotaped sessions of medical clowns in various simulated situations and conducted in-depth interviews with expert medical clowns. The researchers identified 40 different skills used by the medical clowns to achieve four therapeutic goals:
1) building a relationship and connecting to the needs and desires of the patients
2) dealing with emotions and difficulties
3) increasing the patient’s motivation to adhere to the treatment plan
4) increasing the patient’s sense of control and providing encouragement to patients
The clowns examined in the study were trained and recruited by the "Dream Doctors Project”, a non-profit association that employs medical clowns as part of the paramedical system in Israeli hospitals, and trains them to work within multi-disciplinary teams. The Tel Aviv University researchers collaborated with the Israel Center for Medical Simulation (MSR), which created a simulation-based workshop focused on developing the skills of experienced medical clowns.
"From the moment they enter the room, the clowns form a bond with the patients, strengthen them, and give them power and status within the medical system," explains Prof. Karnieli-Miller. "They do this through an initial connection to the patients’ voice, and even to the patients’ reluctance to implement therapeutic recommendations - an emotional connection that often results in the patient changing their position and cooperating with the medical staff."
Providing the patient with an increased sense of control and courage to face their challenges (Photo: The Dream Doctors Project, Medical Clowning in Action)
According to Prof. Karnieli-Miller the medical system is hierarchical, and it is not always easy for patients to navigate. Therefore, one of the skills of medical clowns is to place themselves in the lowest position in the medical setting. By doing so, they empower the patients by giving them a sense of power and control, including the choice of whether to allow the clown to enter the room as well as to dictate the nature of the patient’s role vis-à-vis that of the clown. This provides the patient with an increased sense of control and courage to face their challenges.
The researchers emphasize that the clowns are very aware of the emotional difficulty associated with staying in a hospital and dealing with an illness. To help deal with these issues, the clowns sometimes distract the patient by using props, humor, and imagination. Other skills include allowing the patient to direct their frustrations towards them, away from medical staff or parents.
Depending on the situation the clowns may also use a comforting touch, soothing music, empathetic listening, or a reinforcing statement to provide an environment where the patient feels comfortable to express their feelings. A patient’s ability to gain legitimacy is important and is strengthened by the clowns.
Prof. Orit Karnieli-Miller
"Mapping the skills and goals of the medical clowns improves their understanding of their role and may help other health professionals appreciate their work methods and the benefits of incorporating these methods into their own practices when faced with similar challenges" Prof. Orit Karnieli-Miller.
Learning from Medical Clowns' Methods
"Mapping the skills and goals of the medical clowns improves their understanding of their role and may help other health professionals appreciate their work methods and the benefits of incorporating these methods into their own practices when faced with similar challenges,” adds Prof. Karnieli-Miller.
"This research is important because it allows the clowns to enhance their training program and refine their diverse skills to achieve the various therapeutic goals appropriate for different patients, as well as helping health professionals collaborate with the medical clowns. If professionals in the healthcare field gain a clear understanding of how and when to cooperate with the medical clowns, they will be able to help patients overcome challenges, and at the same time they may be more tolerant of the clowns' ‘disruption’ of the hospital care regimen. This appreciation of the clowns’ contribution will provide the clowns with the time and space to connect with patients and help and encourage patients to become more active participants in their treatment plan,” she concludes.
Tel Aviv University researchers monitored the physiological data of close to 5,000 Israelis over two years
In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at Tel Aviv University equipped close to 5,000 Israelis with smartwatches and monitored their physiological parameters over two years. Of those monitored, 2,038 received the booster dose of the coronavirus vaccine, allowing the researchers to objectively compare measures before and after the participants took the vaccine, and confirm its safety.
In addition, in collaboration with the Kahn Sagol Maccabi Research & Innovation Center (KSM - the research and innovation institute of the Israeli Maccabi Healthcare Services), the researchers examined the safety of the booster by analyzing the medical files of 250,000 members of Maccabi Health Services anonymously (without identifying details) and with the approval of the Helsinki Committee. From the analysis of this large amount of data, the researchers were able to evaluate the safety of the vaccines from three perspectives: subjectively - what the participant reports, objectively - what the watch detects, and clinically - what the doctor diagnoses.
"We saw clear and significant changes after administration of the vaccine (…) and then we saw a return to the participant’s baseline, i.e., the pulse levels after vaccination returned to their previous levels after six days. Hence, our study confirms the safety of the vaccine." Prof. Dan Yamin
Confirming the Safety of the Vaccine
The research was carried out by PhD student Matan Yechezkel under the supervision of Prof. Dan Yamin, Head of the Laboratory for Epidemic Research and led in collaboration with Prof. Erez Shmueli, Head of the Big Data Laboratory, all from The Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering at Tel Aviv University. Other collaborators were Dr. Tal Patalon and Dr. Sivan Gazit, Director and Deputy Director, respectively, of KSM, as well as Dr. Amichai Painsky and Ms. Merav Mofaz from Tel Aviv University. The results of the research were published in the prestigious journal, Lancet Respiratory Medicine.
As Prof. Yamin explains: "We wanted to test the safety of booster vaccines against the coronavirus. We conducted a large-scale, two-year clinical study during which we equipped 4,698 Israelis with smartwatches. The smartwatches were used to monitor several parameters such as heart rate, variation in heart activity, quality of sleep, number of daily steps taken, and more. In addition, the participants were asked to fill out daily questionnaires about their health status in a customized application that we developed. Finally, we analyzed data on potential unusual events from the medical files of a quarter of a million randomly selected, anonymous, insured members of the Maccabi Health Services."
Since the medical file contains the date the booster vaccine was administered, researchers were able to compare the condition of the vaccinated patient with his/her baseline condition from 42 days before receiving the vaccine to the condition of 42 days after receiving the vaccine. The data was obtained from the questionnaires, smartwatches, and records of the Maccabi Health Fund.
Prof. Dan Yamin
"We saw clear and significant changes after administration of the vaccine, such as an increase in heart rate compared to the pulse rate measured before vaccination," says Prof. Yamin, "and then we saw a return to the participant’s baseline, i.e., the pulse levels after vaccination returned to their previous levels after six days. Hence, our study confirms the safety of the vaccine."
"The research also allowed us to compare subjective and objective indicators and medical diagnosis of the same participant who received the first booster and a few months later the second booster," explains Prof. Yamin and adds, "We found no difference in the physiological response recorded by the smartwatches and that reported by the participant in the app."
"The smartwatch sensors 'felt' that the vaccine was safe, the vaccinee himself reported that the vaccine was safe, and finally, the doctors determined that the vaccine was safe. The results of the study have far-reaching implications regarding objective testing of vaccine safety in the future." Prof. Dan Yamin
In the medical literature, twenty-five unusual side effects attributed to the Corona vaccine were reported, and the researchers paid special attention to look for rare cases of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) and pericarditis. Prof. Yamin and his colleagues checked the frequency of these unusual side effects among a quarter of a million Maccabi members and found no increase in serious incidents of any kind associated with vaccination.
Prof. Yamin concludes: "If the watch reports any minor changes in the muscles, and the participant reports only significant changes he feels, the medical file tells us about unusual events diagnosed by the doctors as well as hospitalizations that may be related to vaccinations, with an emphasis on cardiac events. We did a comprehensive analysis of all those twenty-five unusual side effects, and we did not see an increase in their incidence among those receiving the booster. We found the vaccine to be safe to use. The smartwatch sensors 'felt' that the vaccine was safe, the vaccinee himself reported that the vaccine was safe, and finally, the doctors determined that the vaccine was safe. The results of the study have far-reaching implications regarding objective testing of vaccine safety in the future.”
Tel Aviv University researchers successfully identify new viruses, even specify which organisms they are likely to attack
- Life Sciences
A groundbreaking Tel Aviv University study has discovered about 100,000 new types of previously unknown viruses – a ninefold increase in the amount of RNA viruses known to science until now. The viruses were discovered in global environmental data from soil samples, oceans, lakes, and a variety of other ecosystems. The researchers believe that the discovery may help in the development of anti-microbial drugs and in protecting against agriculturally harmful fungi and parasites.
Most Viruses Not Harmful to Humans
The study was led by doctoral student Uri Neri under the guidance of Prof. Uri Gophna of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research in The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University. The research was conducted in collaboration with the US-based research bodies NIH and JGI, as well as the Pasteur Institute in France. The study was published in the prestigious journal Cell, and comprised data collected by more than a hundred scientists around the world.
Viruses are genetic parasites, meaning they must infect a living cell to replicate their genetic information, produce new viruses, and complete their infection cycle. Some viruses are disease-causing agents that can cause harm to humans (such as the coronavirus), but most viruses do not harm us – some of them even live inside our bodies without us even being aware of it.
"One of the key questions in microbiology is how and why viruses transfer genes between them. We identified several cases in which such gene exchanges enabled viruses to infect new organisms." Prof. Uri Gophna
Harnessing Viruses for Use in Medicine and Agriculture
Uri Neri says that the study used new computational technologies to mine genetic information collected from thousands of different sampling points around the world: oceans, soil, sewage, geysers, and more. The researchers developed a sophisticated computational tool that distinguishes between the genetic material of RNA viruses and that of the hosts and used it to analyze the big data. The discovery allowed the researchers to reconstruct how the viruses underwent diverse acclimation processes throughout their evolutionary development to adapt to different hosts.
In analyzing their findings, the researchers were able to identify viruses suspected of infecting various pathogenic microorganisms, thus enabling viruses to control them. “The system we developed makes it possible to perform in-depth evolutionary analyses and to understand how the various RNA viruses have developed throughout evolutionary history," explains Prof. Gophna. "One of the key questions in microbiology is how and why viruses transfer genes between them. We identified several cases in which such gene exchanges enabled viruses to infect new organisms."
"Furthermore, compared to DNA viruses, the diversity and roles of RNA viruses in microbial ecosystems are not well understood. In our study, we found that RNA viruses are not uncommon in the evolutionary landscape and, in fact, that in some respects they are not that different from DNA viruses. This opens the door for future research, and for a better understanding of how viruses can be harnessed for use in medicine and agriculture.”
Israeli researchers developed innovative device designed to prevent harm caused to flying animals, in particular bats
- Life Sciences
Every year, wind turbines around the world kill millions of bats and other flying animals that fly into the turbine's blades. A new study by Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa offers an original solution to the biological challenge of wind turbine operation and helps prevent harm caused to flying animals, in particular bats: a unique drone-mounted technology that transmits a combination of ultrasonic signals and lights. This deters the bats and leads them to fly at a higher altitude, outside the danger zone, thereby allowing the turbines to continue to operate efficiently and continuously.
"Our study was the first in the world to combine these technologies – RADAR, LIDAR and high-altitude acoustic recorders – to track bats." Yuval Werber
Innovative Bat Tracking and Signaling
The study was conducted under the leadership of doctoral student Yuval Werber of the Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at the University of Haifa and his two supervisors, Prof. Yossi Yovel, head of Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and faculty member of the School of Zoology, and Prof. Nir Sapir, the Head of the Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at the University of Haifa, and in collaboration with the company WinGo Energy and the entrepreneur Gadi Hareli. The article was published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, and the study was funded by a research grant from the Israeli Ministry of Energy.
“Wind turbines are considered a promising technology in the field of renewable energy, but their operation involves a variety of biological challenges," explains Prof. Yossi Yovel. "Today, the only solution to prevent the death of bats is to stop turbine activity at times when the bats are expected to be particularly active. But such interruptions reduce the turbines’ efficiency and the amount of energy they can produce."
"The advantage of the drone is that it is in constant motion and transmits a combination of visual and acoustic signals designed specifically for bats, warning them of danger. When signals are stationary and constant, animals tend to get used to them and eventually ignore them.”
Yuval Werber shares that, “the study, which is part of my doctoral thesis, was conducted in the Hula Valley, an area with a lot of bat activity. We operated the drone at a height of 100 meters – the average height of the center of a wind turbine, and in motion along a path of about 100 meters, back and forth."
"To track the bats’ activity, we used RADAR located on the ground, which allowed for tracking at a height of 100 meters and above, and we added a LIDAR device – a laser-based tool that is used to detect objects at short distances, mainly in the automotive industry – for tracking at a lower height. At the same time, we made acoustic recordings of the bats in flight, using receivers placed at three different heights: one meter, 150 meters, and 300 meters. We used a blimp to elevate the receivers. Importantly, our study was the first in the world to combine these technologies – RADAR, LIDAR and high-altitude acoustic recorders – to track bats.”
"On the one hand, it prevents the killing of bats, and on the other hand, it enables the operation of the turbine and the production of green energy in a safe, continuous and efficient manner." Prof. Yossi Yovel
Effective Bat Repeller
Using a variety of monitoring methods, the researchers compared the bats' normal activity with their activity in the presence of the drone carrying the deterrent device. The findings were unequivocal – the device succeeded in keeping the bats away. With the drone’s presence, the bats’ activity underneath it decreased by about 40 percent, at a distance of up to about 400 meters. On the other hand, their activity increased above the drone’s altitude of 100 meters, up to 800 meters.
“It appears that the device is effective in repelling bats from its immediate environment – the bats sense the visual and ultrasonic signals it emits and choose to fly over it, as we had hoped,” says Prof. Yovel.
“We hypothesize that if the device is activated near a turbine, it will lead the bats to fly over the turbine and out of harm’s way. This is an effective and easily-implemented solution that is reasonably priced, with great benefit to all parties: on the one hand, it prevents the killing of bats, and on the other hand, it enables the operation of the turbine and the production of green energy in a safe, continuous and efficient manner. We intend to carry out a follow-up experiment on a wind turbine site, in order to test the efficiency of the device under these conditions.”
Tel Aviv University researchers develop new technology for efficient encapsulation and release of biomaterials
- Life Sciences
In a world first, researchers found a way to control the encapsulation and release of molecules by exposure to UV light. The technology will advance the development of controlled release delivery systems for drugs and biomaterials.
Efficient encapsulation of molecules is considered a major technological challenge. The new technology, which allows for efficient encapsulation and high loading capacity of molecules, might address this need. The researchers estimate that the technology will lead to further development of delivery systems for controlled release of biomolecules and drugs in the body by external stimuli, using light.
Inspired by Measles
The research was led by PhD student Itai Katzir and supervised by Dr. Ayala Lampel from Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University The study was published in the prestigious journal “Advanced Materials”.
The researchers explain that the new technology is inspired by viral compartments formed by the measles virus. Following infection of the host cell, the virus forms compartments that host all the reactions involved in the formation of new viral particles, a process which gives these compartments their name: viral factories. Recent studies show that these viral factories are in fact dynamic and liquid-like structures that are formed inside the host cell through a process called liquid-liquid phase separation.
Inspired by the viral protein, which is responsible for the formation of these factories, the researchers designed a "peptide" (= a short minimalistic protein) which forms compartments that resemble viral factories for encapsulation of biomolecules.
In addition, the researchers incorporated a unique element to the peptide sequence that enables a control of the encapsulation and release of molecules by irradiating the compartments using UV light.
"This technology opens opportunities for biomedical and biotechnological applications including encapsulation, delivery and release of drugs, protein, antibodies or other therapeutic molecules." Dr. Ayala Lampel
Opens Opportunities for Biomedical and Biotechnological Applications
“Our goal was to engineer liquid-like compartments from a complex of peptide and RNA molecules that will enable efficient encapsulation of various biomolecules while keeping their native structure," explains Dr. Lampel.
"The designed peptide and RNA form liquid-like compartments that resemble viral factories. We further developed these compartments to be stimuli-responsive by incorporating a protecting group to the peptide sequence that is cleaved following UV irradiation. The peptide with the photocleavable protecting group forms compartments with RNA, that have higher encapsulation efficiency for various molecules compared to compartments without the protecting group. We showed that by exposing the compartments to UV light and releasing the protecting group, we can control the release of encapsulated biomolecules.”
“Another unique property of this system is the high permeability and loading capacity of the encapsulated molecules, which is limited in part of the current technologies," adds Dr. Lampel. "Thus, this technology opens opportunities for biomedical and biotechnological applications including encapsulation, delivery and release of drugs, protein, antibodies or other therapeutic molecules.”