Antibody responses were strong and side effects were minimal in adults aged 55 and up

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Credit: NurPhoto / Getty Images

There’s good news for older adults in the Covid-19 vaccine race: Moderna’s experimental vaccine appears to work as well in people over the age of 55 as it does in younger adults. The results, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that a high dose of the vaccine produces similar antibody responses in people aged 55 and up as it does in adults aged 18 to 55.

The immune system slows down with age, which places seniors at risk for both more frequent and more severe infections, as well as hindering the development of antibodies in response to vaccines. As a result, older adults often receive boosters or special versions of vaccines to ensure they’re fully protected from viruses. …


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This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Of all the brain-exploding aspects of These Times, the thing that infuriates me the most is the unfairness of it all: who suffers disproportionately, who skates by unaffected, and who gets away with things that no one should get away with. The injustice and double standards in this world make me furious.

Turns out there’s an evolutionary reason that being treated unfairly is so rage-inducing — in fact, it’s one of the most primal sources of anger. …


Welcome back to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forwarded by a friend? Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Your brain’s response to inequality 🤬

Of all the brain-exploding aspects of These Times, the thing that infuriates me the most is the unfairness of it all: who suffers disproportionately, who skates by unaffected, and who gets away with things that no one should get away with. …


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Photo: Paul Park / Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

There are plenty of stress-reducing coping mechanisms circulating right now, and for good reason! Our “surge capacities” have been depleted; our “windows of tolerance” have been smashed. I want to recommend one more technique that might not have made it onto your therapist’s radar: looking at pictures of cute baby animals.

While it sounds a little silly, there’s real research to back up the benefit. Jessica Gall Myrick, an associate professor of communications at the University of Indiana, ran a study to find out why people watch cat videos online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that looking at adorable felines measurably boosted people’s moods. Specifically, people reported feeling more hope, happiness, and contentment; less anxiety, annoyance, sadness, and guilt; and they felt more energized afterward. Pharmaceutical executives are salivating over these effects. …


Welcome back to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forwarded by a friend? Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Your brain on adorable animals 🐶

I had a rough couple of days last week, feeling existential despair about the fires in the west, the never-ending pandemic, and the pending election. …


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Credit: Francesco Carta Fotografo/Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

One of the few universally accepted truths right now is that 2020 is a stress tsunami of a year. …


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Illustration: Derek Abella

Six Months In

You don’t have to sanitize your apples anymore, but you do have to wear a mask

This story is part of “Six Months In,” a special weeklong Elemental series reflecting on where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and what the future holds for the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, Jeffrey VanWingen, MD, a Michigan family physician, scared the bejeezus out of people and infuriated food scientists. During his 13-minute video, which went viral on YouTube and has been viewed over 26 million times, VanWingen tells people that when they come back from the grocery store, they should leave groceries outside for three days, spray disinfectant onto each product, and soak produce in soapy water. …


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Image: Francesco Carta Fotografo/Getty Images

Welcome back to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forwarded by a friend? Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Your brain, stressed out — but in a good way! 🤯

Last week, I wrote about all the bad things that can happen to your brain when you’re too stressed for too long, including seriously scary long-term consequences like depression and dementia. …


A new theory suggests masks lead to less severe infections that still offer immunity

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Credit: Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

There is mounting evidence to suggest that masks are effective at protecting people from Covid-19 both by limiting the chance someone comes into contact with the virus and by reducing the severity of the disease if they do get infected. …


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Image: Ponomariova_Maria/Getty Images

Welcome to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forward to your brainiest friend and tell them to subscribe here.

Before I was a science journalist, I was a scientist researching the brain. My fascination with our most complicated organ was sparked during a high school psychology class, and I went on to study psychology and neuroscience in college and graduate school.

I started blogging about the brain while I was doing my PhD on the neurobiology of drug addiction, and by the time I graduated, I realized that I had more fun writing about other people’s research than doing my own. Flash forward seven years, and it’s still my favorite subject to report on, so I was delighted when my editors at Elemental asked me to start a weekly newsletter that attempts to explain our modern lives through our ancient brains. …


While the data suggests a benefit from the drugs, the research was cut short

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A member of staff at a pharmacy in London holds a packet of anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone. Credit: Yui Mok — PA Images / Getty Images

In June, scientists in England trumpeted good news about Covid-19: A simple steroid called dexamethasone reduced the death rate by 36% in people with severe cases of Covid-19 who were hospitalized and on ventilation. A month later, a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine provided the data to back up the claim.

Three new studies out of Brazil, France, and the United States, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), attempted to expand upon this research and strengthen the evidence. However, all of the studies were deliberately cut short in June upon the issuance of the British press release. As a result of being ended prematurely, the clinical trials testing dexamethasone and another steroid, hydrocortisone, in severely ill Covid-19 patients show positive but statistically nonsignificant findings because they didn’t have enough people enrolled to conduct adequate comparisons. …


A new book takes science to task, and it couldn’t come at a better time

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Photo: Morsa Images/Getty Images

As a science journalist and former researcher, I was terrified by British psychologist Stuart Ritchie’s new book, Science Fictions. Ritchie lays out all of the ways in which modern science has failed, with a plethora of shocking and embarrassing examples, many involving famous studies. …


The corruption of these storied health organizations is the biggest scandal of the pandemic

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Photo by visuals on Unsplash

It’s hard to know when my faith in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) died. …


The case is one in 23 million

People wearing masks go through ticket barrier at the railway station in Hong Kong.
People wearing masks go through ticket barrier at the railway station in Hong Kong.
Photo: Li Zhihua/China News Service/Getty Images

Scientists in Hong Kong reported today the first confirmed case of reinfection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been concerns about long-term immunity to the novel coronavirus, and several possible cases of reinfection were reported in the media. But until now, none were confirmed scientifically.

The question has always been whether reports of a person testing positive, recovering from the virus and testing negative, and then testing positive again weeks or months later is because of faulty testing, “dead” viral RNA lingering in the body, a reemergence of the same infection, or a genuine instance of reinfection. …


Nasal cells dedicated to smell have up to 700 times the number of viral receptors as respiratory cells in the nose

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Photo: Julian Ward/Getty Images

Out of the numerous symptoms attributed to Covid-19, one of the most bizarre and puzzling is a loss of smell, sometimes emerging without any other signs of the disease. A new paper by researchers at Johns Hopkins University may finally provide an answer for this disconcerting missing sensation, and why it’s one of the first symptoms to appear.

Most of the real estate in the nose is reserved for respiration, but there are special regions of tissue dedicated to smell. These olfactory areas contain olfactory neurons, the odor-detecting stars of the show, as well as the neurons’ entourage, support cells called sustentacular cells. In the new study, scientists discovered that the vast majority of ACE2 receptors — the proteins on the surface of cells that the SARS-CoV-2 virus latches onto — are located in these olfactory regions, specifically on the sustentacular support cells. …


The university is the first to fall to the novel coronavirus

Safety ambassadors checking a student wearing a mask prior to entering a building at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Safety ambassadors checking a student wearing a mask prior to entering a building at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Safety ambassadors checked for masks prior to students entering buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo: Ted Richardson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

For the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), allowing students back on campus did not go well. As The Daily Tar Heel, the university’s esteemed student newspaper, put it this morning, the school “has a clusterfuck on its hands.” By this afternoon, the university of more than 30,000 students had abandoned ship, officially canceling in-person classes.

Classes started just one week ago, and during that time four outbreaks — defined as five cases or more in a single setting — emerged at three dormitories and one fraternity house. The university’s Covid-19 dashboard reported 135 new cases and a 13.6% positive test rate for the week of August 10 to August 16, up from only 10 cases and a 2.6% positive rate the week before. UNC says it has initiated contact tracing for the clusters, and infected students have been moved into a dedicated dorm to isolate. …


Young person vaping
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Photo: Paolo_Toffanin/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Early in the pandemic, one theory as to why young Americans seemed to be harder hit by the novel coronavirus than teens and twentysomethings in other countries was high rates of vaping. Now, there’s data to back it up.

In a survey of 4,351 Americans ages 13 to 24, those who used e-cigarettes were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 than those who didn’t. It’s not just an issue of displaying more symptoms like coughing — which vapers did — and consequently getting tested more — which vapers were. …


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Image: Yuri Samoilov via flickr/CC BY 2.0

Imagine if every morning before you showered you spit into a test tube, and by the time you got out, you knew if you had Covid-19. That result would dictate whether you went to work or saw friends or if you stayed home and isolated.

This technology exists, and some experts say it could be a pandemic game-changer, but critics of the idea, including the FDA, say the tests aren’t reliable enough.

The tests detect antigens, proteins on the surface of the virus that trigger an immune response. The antigen tests are faster to use and cheaper to produce than PCR tests, which look for the virus’s RNA. They could even function like at-home pregnancy tests — antigens in the saliva react with molecules in a strip of paper, changing its color to indicate a positive test. …


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Illustrations: Felicity Marshall

Americans are faced with more risk than ever. Understanding how the brain navigates this new reality can build confidence and empathy in everyday decision-making.

When people everywhere took to the streets in early June after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, Linda Rambert told her friends to stay home.

As a Black woman, and a long-time racial justice activist, the pandemic of systemic racism and police brutality wasn’t new to her. …


As politicians debate whether schools should reopen, scientists consider whether kids’ protection is biological or behavioral

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Photo: Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

One of the biggest enigmas since the beginning of the pandemic has been how kids respond to the novel coronavirus. …


When antibody levels go down, T cells have your back

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T cell rendering. Image: Design Cells/Getty Images

More than any other facet of Covid-19, the question of immunity has been a stressful source of good news/bad news whiplash.

Good news: Scientists discovered early on that most people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the official name for the novel coronavirus) create virus-specific antibodies — special proteins produced by immune cells that help fight off the coronavirus and provide immunity against future infections. This finding helped guide the dozens of vaccines currently under development.

Bad news: Those antibodies may hang around for only a couple months, a phenomenon called waning immunity. There have been anecdotal accounts of a few people potentially contracting the virus a second time, and a new preprint paper — which has not yet been peer reviewed — showed that in some recovered patients, antibody levels declined to undetectable levels after three months. These reports have caused some people to speculate that a vaccine will be largely ineffective and that we may never develop herd immunity to the virus. …


Three experts discuss why health care needs a paradigm shift — and how to get there

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A health care worker gives a Covid test to a patient in the Covid-19 Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, July 2, 2020. Photo: Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

Covid-19 has illuminated the stark racial inequities that exist in the United States’ health care system. …


‘Don’t throw caution to the wind’

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies at a hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Credit: Pool / Getty Images

The coronavirus Fantastic Four — Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Robert Redfield, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Stephen Hahn, MD, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and Brett Giroir, MD, assistant secretary for health — returned to Congress today to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about where the United States currently stands with the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are five key takeaways from the meeting.

1. We are on-track for a vaccine to be available by the beginning of 2021

Fauci confirmed that the first phase 3 trial for a vaccine for the virus, developed by the drug company Moderna, will begin in July, and if all goes well, it could begin to be administered to the public early next year. While there is still no guarantee the vaccine will work against the virus in the general population, Fauci says he is “cautiously optimistic” given the data so far. Several other vaccine options are also in various stages of development and testing, and preliminary results from animal studies are promising. …


A new study claims that the novel coronavirus is airborne, and mask mandates may have saved over 100,000 lives

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Credit: the_burtons / Getty Images

A paper published Thursday has made the strongest assertion yet that the primary way the novel coronavirus is spreading is through airborne transmission, and that masks can effectively prevent infection.

The authors of the study, published in the journal PNAS, write, “Airborne transmission is highly virulent and represents the dominant route to spread the disease… Our analysis reveals that the difference with and without mandated face covering represents the determinant in shaping the pandemic trends in the three epicenters.”

The researchers reached this conclusion by looking at the case and death curves between January and May in Wuhan, China, Italy, and New York City, and analyzing how these curves changed based on when each region implemented specific disease-prevention interventions — namely social distancing, testing, contact tracing, and masks. Based on when each intervention was introduced, the researchers tried to parse out which one contributed most to the eventual decline in cases. …


Many of the infection’s bizarre symptoms have one thing in common

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Image: MR.Cole_Photographer/Getty Images

In April, blood clots emerged as one of the many mysterious symptoms attributed to Covid-19, a disease that had initially been thought to largely affect the lungs in the form of pneumonia. Quickly after came reports of young people dying due to coronavirus-related strokes. Next it was Covid toes — painful red or purple digits.

What do all of these symptoms have in common? An impairment in blood circulation. Add in the fact that 40% of deaths from Covid-19 are related to cardiovascular complications, and the disease starts to look like a vascular infection instead of a purely respiratory one.

Months into the pandemic, there is now a growing body of evidence to support the theory that the novel coronavirus can infect blood vessels, which could explain not only the high prevalence of blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks, but also provide an answer for the diverse set of head-to-toe symptoms that have emerged. …

About

Dana G Smith

Senior writer for Elemental @ Medium | PhD in 🧠 | dsmith@medium.com @smithdanag

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