All mothers would want to know for sure that their unborn baby is healthy and will come into the world without any complications. As much as technology has advanced, there are still some conditions that are difficult, or even impossible, to detect inside the womb, and Down syndrome definitely makes the cut.

A more recent study, however, might bring some new assurances to younger mothers with low-risk, who can take a Roche blood test that determines whether or not their unborn baby suffers from Down syndrome.

Dr. Mary Norton from the University of California, San Francisco said this test should be taken with a grain of salt, because it doesn’t detect everything and it shouldn’t be considered a clear diagnostic.

This study used data collected by previous researches on how to perform fetal DNA tests. They involve getting DNA fragments from the placenta that circulates the mother’s blood. This is truly an accurate method of detecting Down syndrome, and it also tests for two other chromosomal abnormalities that can occur in pregnancies of high-risk women (older than 35 years).

The average age of the almost 16,000 women participating in the study was 30, and what they did was to put Roche’s Harmony test in contrast with the standard prenatal examination for Down syndrome. Both techniques give diagnosis based on biomarkers found in the blood and on fetal ultrasound results.

The Roche test was able to diagnose 38 Down syndrome cases, in contrast with the standard examination, which detected 30 cases. The new test had also a much lower rate of false positive cases (0.06 percent), a significant decrease from the standard screening’s rate – 5.4 percent.

As much as 500 pregnant women participating in the study had trouble, as the fetal DNA in the mother’s blood was not enough for performing the new test. With additional testing, Norton’s team found that 2.7 percent of the fetuses presented chromosomal defects, including some left undetected by the new fetal DNA method.

Unfortunately, the test is still pending U.S. FDA approval outside clinical trials, and those who did get a chance to participate should not rely on this diagnosis alone. What is really important for anyone undergoing a procedure with the new DNA test is that physicians strongly discourage the decision of pregnancy termination because of the results of such screenings.

Second and third opinions about the baby’s health are recommended, as well as taking the well-regulated tests; pre-approved studies are not to be used as definite sources for termination decisions.

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The most widespread Ebola epidemic in history is showing slow, but sure signs of dying out, as two out of the three West African countries that still have an active outbreak are making significant progress towards getting rid of it. However, this doesn’t mean that the virus isn’t still claiming its victims by the numbers in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

In Sierra Leone, streets of major cities will mostly be empty throughout the weekend, as president Ernest Bai Koroma ordered a full lockdown for the country’s six million people, which started Friday at 06:00 AM local time and will end Sunday at 06:00 PM. During this period, the only ones allowed on the streets will be healthcare workers, who will also try and discover hidden cases of infection with the virus. Exceptions for the lockdown will be made for religious prayers/church services.

The lockdown comes as 33 new Ebola cases were discovered last week throughout the country, a sharp rise after a couple of weeks in which numbers of new infections were at their lowest since the start of the epidemic in late 2013. As such, the lockdown was put in place out of fear that the virus might regain its former deathly rate.

On the other side, the last known sufferer from the disease in Liberia died on Friday while being at a treatment center, as stated by the country’s ebola response team chief Francis Ketteh. Reports suggest that the woman may have contracted the disease sexually. At any rate, if no other cases appear in the country over the next forty-two days – representing double the time needed for the virus to end its incubation period – then Liberian government officials may declare the country Ebola-free.

As the epidemic has its highs and lows, international boasting about merits seems to be the name of the game in China. The Chinese official press agency Xinhua posted an article on the English version of its site in which it praises the country’s implication in the Ebola fight as being exemplary. The news agency pointed out China’s aid to Sierra Leone in particular, stating that it was one of the first to offer aid to the country when the epidemic start, and that the most important part of it was that the help came with “no strings attached”.

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A genetics study published Thursday in the Science journal claims that the current version of the deadly Ebola virus has very low chance of mutating into a more dangerous version, possibly transmissible by air or immune to current vaccines.

The researchers reached this conclusion by comparing Ebola mutations since the late 2013 outbreak in Western Africa with smaller past outbreaks, observing that the virus is transforming itself at the same rate as in those past cases. While the study acknowledges some degree of genetic difference, it isn’t considered significant enough to warrant more dangerous mutations of the disease anytime soon.

The study was comprised by a mixed team of researchers from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a number of universities, research centers and World Health Organization branches from Mali and Burkina Faso. If confirmed, it effectively ends fears that its current iteration is a super-virus that could become impossible to contain given enough time.

Many feared that the disease – responsible for more than 10,000 deaths from nearly 25,000 cases since the epidemic started in December 2013 – could evolve to be transmissible by air, which would have catastrophic effects on the poorly prepared African countries, and might even make it spread outside of the area. Currently, the virus can only be caught after having contact with someone already infected.

Meanwhile, batches of a Canadian experimental vaccine have been delivered to Guinea – one of the three Western African countries where the outbreak is still ongoing, alongside Liberia and Sierra Leone – with it being expected to slow the spread of the disease, which killed more than 2,200 people throughout the country. 95 new cases of Ebola have been confirmed in Guinea this week alone.

Also, the unknown US volunteer health-care worker infected with the virus in Sierra Leone, who was flown to Washington two weeks ago, has seen his condition lowered from critical to serious.

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A new study published in the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory journal seems to suggest that taking short 45-minute naps will help with memory, while also making you less stressed or moody and more productive.

The research was published a team of scientists from the German Saarland University, which extracted from a test involving 41 students. The participants were asked to memorize 90 single words and 120 pair words – with no little to no association between them – after which they were split into two groups: the first was shown an educative video to help them memorize the words, while those from the second were allowed to sleep for a maximum of 90 minutes.

The students were then given two tests – one that tested associative memory and the other that tested individual item memory – and both were taken twice: once before watching the video or napping, and once again after. The results on the individual item memory worsened between tests for both groups, but surprisingly the power nap group was the only one that remained constant and even scored better when taking the second test on associative memory. The other group performed about five times worse in comparison

Researchers concluded that this had to be attributed to the role that a part of our brain called hippocampus plays in associative memory. The hippocampus is responsible for transforming freshly acquired information to our memory storage, and electroencephalogram tests performed on the napping patients seemed to point out that sleeping enhances this capacity.

“Further studies will be required to unravel by which mechanisms the brain distinguishes between information that is retained or forgotten by sleep, but a short nap at the office or in school is enough to significantly improve learning success” said neuropsychologist Dr. Axel Mecklinger, researcher at Saarland and lead author of the study.

This comes in the context of insufficient sleep being a widespread issue nowadays, with a 2014 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study noting that most American adults sleep an average of 6 hours per night, which translates in roughly 40 percent falling asleep unintentionally at their workplace at least once per month. Only 6 percent of US businesses accommodate their employees with sleeping or napping areas.

A recent study published in the JAMA Dermatology journal shows that a significant percentage of patients following treatment for acne tend not to abide by them, especially if prescribed two or more different medications.

The study was done on 143 individuals that had various levels of medication prescribed for acne by dermatologists, with more than a quarter of them overall failing to acquire the prescribed medicine in full.

If those that had only one medication prescribed mostly acquired and took it as they were told, with only 9 percent failing to do so, the problem appeared in more serious cases where two or more different medications were prescribed. About 40 percent of those that were recommended two did not respect the dermatologist’s prescription, while in the case of those with three or more different medicines the treatment was not respected by 31 percent of acne sufferers.

“Non-adherence is a pervasive problem in all of medicine, particularly when treating chronic conditions such as acne. A previous study reported a 10 percent primary non-adherence rate for acne patients, so we were surprised that what we found was more than twice that” commented lead study author Dr. Steven Feldman, professor of dermatology at North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The study also showed that patients that were recommended pill based prescriptions were more likely to adhere to it than those recommended other types of treatment, such as lotions or creams. The causes for non-adherence in those that were prescribed multiple medications are mostly backed by financial reasons, with some of the products not being covered by health insurance, as most companies consider it a cosmetic issue rather than a medical condition.

According to acne-resource.org, about 60 million American citizens suffer from active acne, with rates being 85 percent in case of teenagers and 20 percent of adults. About a third all acne sufferers in the U.S. present more severe cases that threaten to leave them with longtime scars. Despite this, only few over ten percent of all of them seek help from dermatologists, with most either not doing anything or buying over-the-counter medication on their own from drug stores.

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In a study whose results were presented at the 64th Annual Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology, researchers compared a new, less invasive heart-valve technique called TAVR (transcatheter aortic valve replacement) to traditional heart surgery methods. The study was conducted over two years and it showed that patients with aortic stenosis (a clinical condition manifested in the narrowing of the aortic valve opening) who underwent TAVR had a continued survival advantage over patients who underwent normal surgery.

The TAVR procedure is particularly useful in cases of older or physically weaker patients, whose health profiles would not easily allow a traditional surgical valve replacement. Until now, the standard operation was performed on aortic stenosis patients, because the risks of leaving them with a dysfunctional valve were too great (the smaller blood-flow forces the heart to work harder for the same results, which can lead to heart failure in time).

Within the experiment (called CoreValve US Pivotal High Risk Trial), patients whose heart surgery death risks were high were required to undergo either TAVR or the standard surgical procedure, according to a randomized distribution system. In the first year, death rates were considerably lower for the 390 patients who had TAVR than for the 357 patients who underwent open-heart surgery.

Medical Doctor and Cardiovascular Research Professor at Huston Methodist Hospital Michael J. Reardon, the study’s lead author, concluded that “survival is statistically better with TAVR”, deaths of any cause being 4.8% fewer among the TAVR batch of patients in the first year, and 6.4% fewer than the deaths of standard surgery patients in the second year. Other indicators also proved TAVR to be more efficient than the standard procedure: the rate of strokes was 10.9% (compared to 16.6% for surgery patients), while the rate of major adverse cardiovascular or cerebrovascular events was 29.7% in TAVR patients and 38.6% among surgery patients. Professor Reardon mentioned that another concern for cardiologists is usually the durability of replacement valves, but TAVR also fared better on this test – “effective valve orifice and mean pressure gradients (…) were statistically superior with TAVR”, the researcher said, which means that there are no indications of valve deterioration.

The only test where the standard procedure still surpasses TAVR in results is paravalvular leakage. Although severe paravalvular leakage was only 6% with TAVR in the two-year test, and it did not correlate with increased mortality, the lead-author of the study says that TAVR is recommended especially as an alternative to surgery, in the case of aortic stenosis patients who are at a high risk of not resisting heart surgery. Since the CoreValve High Risk Trial is a five year study, these are only early results and need to be confirmed.

image source: American Heart Association

During her fourth appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show on Thursday night, Mrs. Obama announced that on April 6, for the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House, she and the All Stars from “So You Think You Can Dance” will organize a dance session and teach everyone to perform the “GimmeFive” dance. This event is part of the celebration of the fifth anniversary of Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood-obesity campaign called “Let’s Move”.

To promote the campaign, Mrs. Obama told Ellen DeGeneres, she has launched an initiative known on social media as “#GimmeFive”, asking both celebrities and ordinary people to state five things they are doing to improve their physical condition and work towards a healthy lifestyle. From Beyonce, Ryan Seacrest, or Nick Jonas to the astronauts on the International Space Station, a lot of celebrities joined the campaign. Michelle Obama helped schoolchildren plant beetroots and other healthy vegetables, an event which was also included in the #GimmeFive initiative. She also participated in sport competitions with high-school girls. Five ways to stay healthy can include workout routines or eating habits, but also styles of relaxation or ways of practicing ecological agriculture.

The full video of Ellen DeGeneres’s show will be broadcasted on Monday, but the producers have already released a fragment of that video yesterday, showing Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres, along with a troupe of backup dancers, perform the “GimmeFive” dance, to the tune of “Uptown Funk”, a hit song played by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.

Although it’s hard not to joke when you’re around Ellen DeGeneres – and Michelle Obama did display a strong sense of humor – the First Lady seemed to take her exercise routine very seriously. She and Ellen DeGeneres spoke of a push-up competition – of which pictures were shown during the filming – and the dance too was staged as a sort of I-dare-you-to-do-this contest between the two famous women. When asked how intensely she has been working out, Michelle Obama jestingly warned Ellen DeGeneres not to make her take off her jacket.

The First Lady’s trip to Burbank, California, where the Ellen DeGeneres show is filmed, was a surprise one. Her office had not previously announced it. Although President Barack Obama also travelled to California on the same day, to appear on the Jimmy Kimmel Live talk-show, their schedules didn’t overlap and they flew separately. Michelle Obama was back in Washington on Friday, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

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Even when patients with AIDS do not have the herpes virus, taking Valacyclovir (a drug that is prescribed normally for genital herpes) can improve their condition, by reducing the levels of HIV viruses in their cells.

The lead author of the study, Leonid Margolis (head of the Section of Intercellular Interactions at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US), pointed out that the results are highly encouraging and the test should be repeated with larger groups of patients. If new tests confirm the findings so far, Valacyclovir could be included in the drug combination used to neutralize the HIV virus, especially in cases where the virus has become resistant to other kinds of drugs – Leonid Margolis declared on Friday.

The results of this study were published by Margolis and his team in the British journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases. Experts from four centers (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Washington, Case Western Reserve University, Emory University, and the Civic Association for Health and Education in Peru) were involved in the research.

Previous studies had already shown that Valacyclovir is efficient in decreasing HIV levels in patients who suffered from both AIDS (caused by the HIV virus) and genital herpes (caused by the herpes simplex virus 2 – HSV-2). But it was believed that the lower HIV levels were due to the smaller numbers of immune cells which could carry HIV, which in its turn was explained by Valacyclovir’s action against HSV-2. Now, the researchers tested the hypothesis that reduced HIV levels in patients treated with Valacyclovir are due directly to the medication’s effect against HIV’s reproductive mechanism.

To verify that this is the case, the specialists studied 18 patients in whose cells the HIV virus was present, but the HSV-2 virus was not. 9 patients took the drug twice every day in the course of three months, while the other 9 were administered a placebo. The two groups were switched after half a month, and the placebo group was given Valacyclovir, while the first group received a placebo. The HIV virus levels in the patients’ blood increased and decreased considerably according to whether they were on placebo or on Valacyclovir – the patients who took the drug in the interval when they were tested had less HIV viruses than the patients who were on placebo. This indicates that Valacyclovir has a direct impact on HIV levels, regardless of the presence of HSV-2. Scholars hope that further study will confirm the discovery, in order to improve the lives of the 35 million people currently living with AIDS.

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A recent study published in the Hippocampus journal concludes that those who used cannabis frequently in their youth have a higher chance of suffering from poor memory than non-pot smokers.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Northwestern University of Chicago and confirms a previous 2008 Australian study that linked heavy-marijuana use to development of an abnormal brain structure.

The study was done on 97 participants, both with or without mental illnesses and a heavy pot-smoking history. The marijuana users were selected on the basis of not having consumed other drugs and had used the substance daily in age periods between 16 and 20. Participants were also selected from those that had reported not using the drug in the past two years.

They were required to take a “narrative memory” test, where they were asked to recall as many details as possible from short stories they were told 20 to 30 minutes prior.

Former pot users scored on average 18% worse than their marijuana-free counterparts, with participants diagnosed with schizophrenia having scored 26% worse if they used to be heavy pot smokers. The research also confirmed past study that indicated heavy marijuana users display an abnormally structured hippocampus, a part of the brain which is very important for the ability to remember specific events. This might suggest the neuron and axons inside that part being damaged by heavy pot use.

The degrees of abnormality in hippocampus shape were higher for those who admitted to the longest term of frequent marijuana use.

However, the study is inconclusive as it stands, as while various degrees of marijuana use seem to match corresponding degrees of abnormal brain structure, the relation between the two can only be implied. A study done on a longer time period would be the only one capable of proving the link between pot smoking and poorer memory.

Marijuana use is increasing in the United States and several states have already legalized it for private use. The latest debate concerning the legalization of THC based smoking substances has the country capital’s District of Columbia stand-off with the Republican-led Congress, with an overwhelming popular support being gathered by legalize campaigns.

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The Indian National Institute of Virology has released a statement Thursday afternoon in which it denies claims brought by a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study, which states that the swine flu virus has acquired deadlier mutations in the Asian country.

The MIT study initially published on Wednesday suggests that the virus has mutated to become more virulent and immune to known vaccines since its worldwide outbreak in 2009. The study was done by analyzing genetic sequences of two Indian swine flu strains form 2014 accessible through a public database.

But the Indian government agency has responded Thursday night to this by declaring the results of the MIT study, done by two researchers of Indian origin, to be incorrect. They said the current form of the virus in India bears no difference when compared with the one that started a global pandemic five years ago, claiming more than 280.000 lives.

This hardly explains why the number of H1N1 related deaths in India during 2015’s first two and a half months are higher than in the past four years combined. Indian government officials have admitted towards the end of February that the current 21 laboratories country-wide that could analyze swine flu strains are too few to keep up with the pace of the rapidly spreading virus, while also promising efforts are underway to supply this number.

Over 1,500 Indian citizens have succumbed in 2015 to the H1N1 virus, which already represents six times the total number of deaths related to swine flu in 2014. This has also caused concern in several experts from neighboring Pakistan, who fear that the epidemic will cross the Indian-Pakistani border.

One of the paper’s authors, Dr. Ram Sasisekharan, responded to claims that his research was incorrect in an e-mail to Indian newspaper The Indian Express, by stating that the two virus strains analyzed were the only ones publicly available. He also asked Indian authorities to make available more information about the disease, including samples of the current strain affecting the country.

Whether the sharp increase in deaths is caused by poor prevention strategies and lack of vaccines to some areas or it can actually be attributed to the virus mutating into a deadlier form, Indian authorities still seem to keep the façade that everything is under control, even in the conditions of a death toll rising by the day in the nation.

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