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Scientists Have Found a Possible Cause of Severe PMS

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There’s no two ways about it: premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is awful. But for people with severe PMS (also known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD), “awful” is an understatement. Now scientists at the National Institutes of Health say they may have found the root of the problem: abnormal gene expression. They published their findings in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Experiencing PMDD symptoms is like having the volume turned up on the emotional elements of regular PMS. These extreme bouts of depression, anger, and anxiety can be so deep and persistent that they interfere with work or school, home, or relationships.

PMDD is not common; scientists estimate that it affects 2 to 5 percent of people who menstruate. But for those who have it, it can be disabling, and it sure would be nice to know what’s causing it.

Previous studies in the '90s concluded that people with PMDD appear to be hypersensitive to ordinary, menstrual-related fluctuations in steroid hormones like estrogen and progesterone. They still couldn’t tell us where this hypersensitivity came from, but they kept looking.

Fast-forward to 2015. Technology has advanced in ways that would have blown our minds 20 years ago. Behavioral endocrinologist Peter Schmidt, who led the earlier studies, teamed up with experts in neurogenetics and psychiatry to try a new approach.

They recruited 67 women between the ages of 18 and 48. Some of these women had been diagnosed with PMDD, while others said they had no trouble with severe PMS. One subgroup of participants with PMDD were given drugs that turned off their production of estrogen and progesterone. Their symptoms abated. When the researchers stopped the treatment, the women’s symptoms returned. These changes supported the theory that even normal changes in hormone levels could trigger big emotional changes for women with the condition. In other words, PMDD is quite literally PMS on steroids.

Next, the researchers extracted cell samples from 48 participants (24 with PMDD and 24 without) and sequenced their genetic code, looking for differences. They found them, all right: A large group of genes called the ESC/E(Z) complex was working overtime in women with PMDD. This makes a lot of sense, the researchers say, as the role of the ESC/E(Z) complex is to tell our genes how to respond to changes in our internal and external environment. Hypersensitivity there could definitely cause dramatic overreaction to hormonal changes.

The authors say these findings strike at the myth of the fragile, overly emotional woman. “This is a big moment for women’s health,” co-author and neurogeneticist David Goldman said in a statement. "It establishes that women with PMDD have an intrinsic difference in their molecular apparatus for response to sex hormones—not just emotional behaviors they should be able to voluntarily control.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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