Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester
Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester

New App Analyzes Tweets to Prevent Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester
Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester

Being sick is awful, but complaining often helps. In the future, your whining may help someone else. Computer scientists have found a way to use tweets complaining about food poisoning to track and prevent outbreaks. The researchers presented their results [PDF] at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. 

Geolocation and public health have a long and storied relationship going back to the 1800s, when physician John Snow noticed a relationship between specific water pumps in London neighborhoods and the number of nearby people who died of cholera. At the time, physicians believed that cholera was called by “bad air.” Snow walked through cholera-stricken neighborhoods, talking to residents and watching where the pump from the water went. With this data, Snow was able to draw a precise map of pump usage, unequivocally proving that the water was to blame. (Unfortunately, it would take several years and many more cholera deaths before his “germ” theory was taken seriously.) 

We’ve come a long way since Dr. Snow, but contamination-related outbreaks remain a huge issue. Health departments do what they can with regular restaurant inspections, but they simply can’t be everywhere all of the time. Fortunately, there’s Twitter—and nEmesis. 

nEmesis is a cleverly named app (“emesis” is the medical term for puking) with a single purpose: to pinpoint the epicenter of clusters of food poisoning-related tweets. The researchers reviewed thousands of tweets, then compiled a list of the most common terms related to food poisoning. 

The appearance of any of those terms represents a hit. When enough hits appear in a given geographic area, the nEmesis algorithm can be pretty sure there’s a contaminated kitchen nearby. With enough data, the app can pinpoint outbreaks to a single restaurant. 

"We don't need to go door to door like John Snow did," nEmesis co-creator Adam Sadilek said in a press statement. "We can use all this data and mine it automatically."

Sadilek and his colleagues decided to test nEmesis in Las Vegas, a city that could fairly be called the buffet capital of the world. They gave the app to one group city health department workers, who used it to prioritize their kitchen inspections. A control group of workers were given an app that provided random suggestions as to which restaurants to inspect. 

The researchers collected and analyzed three months’ worth of data from nEmesis and the health inspectors who used it. About 9 percent of the randomized health inspections found citation-worthy violations. The nEmesis-suggested inspections, on the other hand, yielded a 15 percent citation rate. Some of the restaurants involved were given warnings, while others were closed altogether. 

Sadilek and his team say nEmesis likely prevented 9000 incidents of food poisoning and 557 hospitalizations.

"Adaptive inspections allow us to focus our limited resources on the restaurants with problems," communicable disease expert Brian Labus said in the press statement. "The sooner we find out about a problem, the sooner we can intervene and keep people from getting sick." 

Sadilek noted that food poisoning is just the beginning. 

"This happens to be restaurants, but the method can also be used for bedbugs," he said. "Similarly, you can look what people tweet about after they visit their doctor or hospital. We're just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible."

All images from Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester 

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]


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