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Study Finds Premature Babies Harbor Drug-Resistant Bacteria

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Bacteria have gotten a lot of press in the last few years, in part because we’re rapidly learning just how powerful they can be. Researchers have recently learned that premature babies are already infected with drug-resistant bacteria. The results of their study were published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

You have microbes all over your body, inside and out. The name for your personal collection of bacteria, fungi, and viruses is the microbiome. A healthy microbiome is balanced and diverse, and helps keep your body running.

As you’ve probably heard, some bacteria species are better for you than others. Scientists and doctors are particularly worried about drug-resistant bacteria—species that have evolved a resistance to antibiotics. It’s a sort of arms race in which humans attempt to develop drugs faster than bacteria develop resistance to them.

A large part of the problem is our overuse of antibiotics. The more antibiotics we ingest, the more our bacteria can adjust and learn to overcome them. And we’re ingesting a lot of antibiotics. Public health officials worry about what they call “nightmare bacteria,” which infect more than 2 million Americans each year. 

Among the infected are some of our most vulnerable: preterm babies. Researchers collected more than 400 fecal samples from 84 preemies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. They found that the babies’ gut microbiomes were dominated by drug-resistant bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Klebsiella, and Enterobacter. Sequencing the DNA of these bacteria revealed 794 different genes that boost antibiotic resistance. Of those genes, 79 percent had never before been associated with antibiotic resistance. 

Pablo Tsukayama

How and why were these babies infected so quickly and so thoroughly? Drugs. Current medical protocol for premature infants often involves giving them a number of antibiotics, regardless of whether or not the babies actually have bacterial infections. The medicine is supposed to keep them safe, but it may be having the opposite effect; the babies who had been given the most medication were the ones with the least-diverse gut bacteria. Taken as a whole, the premature babies studied had 10 times less bacterial diversity than babies born at term.

The prevalence of harmful bacteria in their bellies could explain why preemies are so often sick. 

"Our study demonstrates that even well-studied bacteria—the ones that we know cause disease or their close relatives—have many genes associated with antibiotic resistance that have not been characterized before," senior author Gautam Dantas said in a press statement. "Premature babies do not always get bacterial infections that need treatment, but we have known for a long time that they are at higher risk for infection than babies born full term. Now, we know that preterm-infant guts are attracting exactly the wrong kinds of bacteria."

"Extremely preterm infants often have multiple medical problems, with symptoms of prematurity overlapping with other conditions like infection," added co-author Barbara B. Warner. "The conventional wisdom has been antibiotics can't hurt and they might help. But our new study demonstrates that wide-scale use of antibiotics in this population does not come without cost." 

Dantas envisions a shift from outright antibiotics to aiming for drugs that disable the bacteria's disease-causing properties. "If we can stop these bacteria from producing toxins, rather than kill them outright, we won't see the same selection pressure," he said. "We don't necessarily need to kill these bacteria; we just need to stop them from killing us."

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science
New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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Food
A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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