Science News Digest – December 18, 2020

Hello, Premium Members!

We have an awesome collection of science news stories to share with you in this issue of the Science Digest, covering a wide range of topics, including…

The Moderna mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 virus proves safe and efficacious.
Immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus lasts six months after infection.
Higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with faster heart rate recovery.

And many other topics!

But that’s not all.

ICYMI, we released an awesome new video this week – a 3-minute crash course on epigenetics to help you understand the basics of epigenetic aging and the clocks that measure it. This video will prep you for our long-awaited interview with Dr. Steve Horvath – the creator of the Horvath epigenetic aging clock – coming soon!!

We’ve also released a new Aliquot recently, in which sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker talks about how the different stages of sleep influence your emotional and cardiovascular health. Be sure to check it out!

Finally, we’ve got another Crowdcast live Q&A coming up Saturday, January 9th, at 9:30 am PDT. The code for this event is newyear1. Be sure to sign up and submit your questions as soon as possible! Remember, you can always access the most recent event code and Q&A calendar by visiting your dashboard at

Rhonda and team

Science News Digest – December 18, 2020
Moderna mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 proves to be safe and efficacious.

The first SARS-CoV-2 vaccinations have been approved by the FDA, marking a possible turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic. These vaccines, which use messenger RNA (mRNA) to trigger the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against the virus, are faster to produce than traditional vaccines. A report published in August details the early phase trial that supported the development of the Moderna vaccine.

Traditional antiviral vaccines are created by growing attenuated, or weakened, copies of a virus inside living cells from chicken eggs or mammalian cell lines. The attenuated virus or a portion of it is then injected into humans to promote immunity. The new mRNA-based vaccines contain the genetic material to encode a single viral protein that, when injected into the body, induces antibody production against the target protein. In this case, the target viral protein is a spike glycoprotein that facilitates movement of viruses across the cell membrane. Because mRNA degrades easily, it must be encapsulated in lipid nanoparticles in order to be absorbed by cells.

The investigators gave participants two vaccines, 28 days apart, in doses of either 25, 100, or 250 micrograms per vaccine. They collected participants’ blood at multiple time points after vaccination to measure antibody titer (concentration), neutralizing ability, and immune response.

After the second injection, all three doses produced antibody titers similar to those found in the serum of people who had recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection. The antibodies were also equally effective in neutralizing the virus as those in convalescent serum. Both the 25- and 100-microgram dose groups exhibited an increase in helper T cells, but only the 100 microgram group showed an increase in cytotoxic cells, which are important for destroying virus-infected host cells. The participants reported no serious adverse events and only one participant dropped out of the trial due to effects of the vaccine.

Following this report, development of the Moderna mRNA vaccine continued and gained approval by the FDA in December 2020. The authors noted that development of a traditional vaccine may have taken years, while theirs took only two months.

Link to full report.

Immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus lasts at least six months after infection.

As the COVID-19 global pandemic enters its second year, scientists now have data on some of the long-term effects of the disease, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A new report details the efficacy of the immune response months after recovering from active infection. The paper also reports possible chronic complications from COVID-19.

The immune system utilizes both rapid-acting and long-term defenses against infection. Plasma B cells produce antibodies to fight active infections, while memory B cells circulate throughout the body for months or years after an infection has ended, ready to attack if re-infection occurs, thus providing long-term protection. However, because viruses evolve and change their genome quickly, antibodies may be less effective over time.

The investigators assessed 87 participants for approximately one to six months after infection. They collected blood from participants to assess memory B cell quantity, antibody quantity, and the ability of antibodies to neutralize the virus after infection. Participants reported symptoms using common surveys.

The number of antibodies specific for the SARS-CoV-2 spike antigen decreased significantly from 1.3 to 6.2 months after infection, and the ability of these antibodies to neutralize the virus decreased fivefold. However, memory B cell concentrations were slightly increased, leading the authors to conclude that immunity was intact 6.2 months after infection. The authors also reported that participants who experienced the most severe cases of COVID-19 were more likely to report chronic symptoms of shortness of breath, fatigue, unexplained fever, neurological abnormalities, and others.

These findings suggest that immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus lasts at least six months after infection. It is important to note that this article is in pre-print and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Link to full study.

Higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with faster heart rate recovery.

Robust evidence demonstrates that consuming omega-3 fatty acids is beneficial for heart and whole body health. Higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the blood are associated with reduced risk of sudden cardiac death. A new report demonstrates an association between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and heart rate recovery, a strong predictor of sudden cardiac death.

Heart rate recovery is defined as the decrease in heart rate at one minute after the cessation of intense exercise. Previous research has reported that an abnormal heart rate recovery (less than 12 beats per minute decrease 60 seconds after exercise) is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes even after controlling for other markers of fitness.

The authors collected data from nearly 14,000 participants between the ages of 20 and 80 years. They measured the ratio of omega-3 fats to other fats in participants’ red blood cells and categorized the concentration as low (less than 4 percent), normal (4 to 8 percent), or optimal (greater than 8 percent). Then, they asked participants to run on a treadmill at increasing incline until they reached exhaustion and measured the change in heart rate at one, three, and five minutes post exercise.

Participants in the normal and optimal omega-3 ranges had better heart rate recovery at one minute and three minutes post exercise. This association was more pronounced in women. The authors also reported that participants who were older, leaner, and had healthy blood lipid levels were more likely to have higher omega-3 levels.

This study is cross-sectional in design, meaning that a cause and effect relationship cannot be established. The authors plan to expand their research in the future to include measures of mortality for this group of participants.

Link to full report.

Glucosamine reduces risk of premature death from all causes and cardiovascular diseases.

Cardiovascular disease is a broad term that includes coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke, among others. It is the primary cause of death among people living in the United States. Findings from a recent study suggest that glucosamine reduces risk of premature death from all causes as well as cardiovascular diseases.

Glucosamine is a structural component of cartilage. It is often taken as a supplement (in conjunction with chondroitin) to alleviate joint pain associated with arthritis or activity-related joint pain, but little evidence supports this practice.

The authors of the epidemiological study drew on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data. NHANES is an ongoing program of studies conducted among people living in the United States. The present study included nearly 17,000 participants, nearly 700 of whom had been taking glucosamine with chondroitin for a year or more. The authors of the study conducted a statistical analysis to identify associations between glucosamine/chondroitin supplement intake and death.

Over an eight-year period, approximately 3,400 participants died. More than 20 percent of these deaths were due to cardiovascular disease. After taking the participants’ ages into consideration, the authors found that those who took glucosamine/chondroitin supplements were 65 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 39 percent less likely to die from all causes, compared to those who did not take the supplements.

These findings suggest that glucosamine/chondroitin supplements reduce the risk of premature death from all causes as well as cardiovascular diseases. More studies are needed to confirm these findings and elucidate the mechanisms associated with these effects.

Link to full study.

Experimental drug protocol demonstrates reversal of epigenetic aging.

The human immune system loses function with age in a process known as immunosenescence. Previous research has reported on the ability of a number of drugs to impact the aging process; however, these studies have not measured the ability to reverse epigenetic aging. Research from epigenetics expert Steve Horvath is the first to demonstrate the reversal of epigenetic aging and immunosenescence of the thymus with drug therapy.

The thymus is an immune organ necessary for the development of T cell populations. After the age of approximately 63, a process called thymic involution severely impairs T cell function and is linked to increases in cancer, infection, autoimmune conditions, chronic inflammation, and heart disease.

Nine participants between the ages of 51 and 65 years were given a drug protocol that included recombinant human growth hormone to reverse signs of immunosenescence. Because growth hormone can increase insulin production to a harmful degree, the authors used metformin, a common diabetes drug, and dehydroepiandrosterone, a steroid precursor, to control symptoms of diabetes. The investigators collected white blood cells from the participants to measure their immune characteristics and epigenetic age.

Following one year of treatment, the authors reported an average decrease in epigenetic age of 1.5 years over baseline, meaning they reversed epigenetic age by 2.5 years over the course of the study. Participants demonstrated an increase in T cell production and an increase in the leukocyte/monocyte ratio, a measure of immune cell populations that is associated with less inflammation and lower rates of several cancers. Monocytes use large quantities of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), which is an important energy source for cells. The authors suggested this decrease in monocytes and subsequent increase in NAD+ may be responsible for the reversal of epigenetic aging.

The main purpose of this pilot trial was to determine the safety and efficacy of the study treatment. Larger studies with a control group are needed to expand on these results.

Link to full report.

Watch Rhonda explain epigenetic aging in our new video!

Learn more about NAD+ in our overview article.

Maternal dietary intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids influences aspects of child psychomotor development.

Prenatal and early life nutrition are crucial to an infant’s development and lifelong health. Nutritional deficits during these periods are intrinsically linked to impaired mental and physical growth. Findings from a new study indicate that consumption of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids influences aspects of child psychomotor development.

Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are essential for human health. Evidence suggests that maternal consumption of fish and seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids improves children’s performance on intelligence tests. Having a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio may reduce the risk of many of chronic diseases.

The study drew on data from the Japan Environment and Children’s Study, an ongoing study of the effects of environmental factors on child development. The authors of the study evaluated mother-child pairs when the children were six months old (more than 82,000 pairs) and 12 months old (more than 77,000 pairs). The mothers in the study completed food frequency questionnaires that provided information about their intake of fish and omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The women also completed questionnaires about their children’s psychomotor development, including communication, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, problem-solving, and personal-social skills, at six months and 12 months of age.

The authors found that the children whose mothers consumed fish or omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy were less likely to experience delays in problem-solving at six months of age and in fine motor skills and problem-solving at 12 months of age. They found that dietary intake of omega-6 fatty acids was associated with lower risk of delays in communication and fine motor skills at six months of age and in gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and problem-solving at 12 months. However, the children whose mothers had a high dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratio were more likely to experience delays in problem-solving skills at the age of 12 months.

These findings suggest that dietary fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake have beneficial effects on children’s psychomotor development and underscore the need for appropriate dietary counseling for women during pregnancy.

Link to full study.

Possible link between COVID-19 and acute appendicitis in children.

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In adults, COVID-19 primarily manifests as a respiratory illness, but cardiovascular, neurological, and gastrointestinal symptoms have been reported. In children, the primary manifestations of the disease are fever and mild respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms. A recent report suggests that acute appendicitis is associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection in children.

The report summarizes the case histories of four children who presented with acute appendicitis at a large hospital in the United States. The children ranged in age from 11 to 17 years and were either Hispanic (three) or non-Hispanic white (one). Two of the children had obesity, and one of them had a serious underlying health condition (aplastic anemia). The children had concurrent or previous SARS-CoV-2 infection. All four children required surgical intervention, and all recovered.

The authors of the report proposed three reasons for the possible connection between SARS-CoV-2 infection and acute appendicitis: gastrointestinal symptoms of COVID-19 are fairly common in children; the SARS-CoV-2 virus tends to linger in the gut long after the initial infection; and the ACE-2 receptor (the means by which SARS-CoV-2 gains entry into cells) is present throughout the gut, including in the appendix.

They also noted that appendicitis is fairly common, especially among adolescents, so the link to COVID-19 may be coincidental. However, 31 percent of the children who presented with acute appendicitis during the study period (at that particular hospital) were SARS-CoV-2 positive, whereas the positive rate among the hospital’s general pediatric population was only 8 percent.

These case reports point to a possible link between SARS-CoV-2 viral infection and acute appendicitis in children and underscore the need for testing for the virus in children who present with severe gastrointestinal symptoms.

Link to full report.

Learn more about COVID-19 in these Q&As featuring Dr. Rhonda Patrick, released April 14 and June 10.

Antibiotic use disrupts sleep/wake cycles in mice.

Many adults struggle with daytime sleepiness and nighttime insomnia, which can impair memory, mood, and focus. Several factors regulate sleep and wake activities, including central and peripheral circadian rhythms and timing of meals. These rhythms also regulate the diurnal activities of the gut microbiota. New research reports that antibiotics, which can alter the gut microbial population, may disrupt normal sleep cycles in mice due to changes in neurotransmitters.

The human gut is an important site for the production and metabolism of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Neurotransmitters in the gut regulate digestive processes, communicate with the brain directly through the enteric nervous system, and interact with the microbiome. Serotonin is important for regulating sleep/wake cycles, and too little serotonin may decrease sleep quality.

The scientists gave mice either water containing broad spectrum antibiotics for four weeks to deplete their gut microbiota or normal drinking water. They used implantable electrodes to collect detailed sleep pattern data in the mice and measured concentrations of metabolites in the animals’ guts and feces.

The authors reported significant alterations in metabolites related to vitamin, amino acid, and neurotransmitter metabolism in mice whose microbiota had been depleted with antibiotics. These mice exhibited less time in deep sleep during the day (when these nocturnal animals should be sleeping) and more time in deep sleep during the night. They also experienced frequent transitions between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM deep sleep, an indicator of decreased sleep quality. The authors suggested this may have been caused by lower levels of serotonin in the gut due to depletion of vitamin B6, a necessary cofactor for producing serotonin.

This research could have important implications for human health. The authors noted that other research has demonstrated that some prebiotics (fiber and nutrients that are beneficial for the gut microbiota) improve sleep in humans.

Link to full study.
Learn more about the importance of sleep in this episode featuring Dr. Matthew Walker.

Microbiome signatures distinguish adults with depression from healthy counterparts.

The gut and brain communicate with each other through a bidirectional signaling pathway called the gut-brain axis, which may be dysregulated in depression. Key elements of this pathway are the tens of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that comprise the gut microbiota. Diagnosis of depression relies heavily on clinical evaluation instead of measurement of biomarkers, often leading to misdiagnosis. Authors of a new report identified specific microbial and metabolic biomarkers that are altered in patients with depression.

Changes to the microbes that live in the gut or the metabolites that these microbes consume and produce may be responsible for the development and severity of depression. Previous research has demonstrated that transplanting the microbiota of patients with depression into germ-free mice can induce depressive symptoms in these animals.

The study involved 311 participants between the ages of 18 and 65 years, roughly half of whom had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. The participants completed testing that included submission of a fecal sample to characterize the gut metagenome (sum of all DNA and RNA) and metabolome (sum of all proteins). They also completed surveys to assess depression severity, diet quality, and lifestyle habits.

The authors reported large and consistent disturbances in amino acid metabolism in participants with depression. These disturbances may disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Most of the bacterial species that were increased in patients with depression belong to the genera Bacteroides, which the authors believe is responsible for the increase in inflammatory markers found in the depression group. The authors also reported an association between select viruses in the gut and metabolites associated with depression.

Utilizing both metagenomic and metabolic data enabled the authors to identify strong associations between altered amino acid metabolism in the gut and depression. The authors noted that these findings are preliminary and require further investigation in a larger, more diverse sample.

Link to full study.

Exercise improves markers of cardiometabolic health.

Exercise exerts a wide range of beneficial effects that influence cardiovascular, metabolic, and overall health. The molecular mechanisms that drive these effects are not widely understood, however. Findings from a new study provide insights into the molecular cardiometabolic response to acute exercise.

The study involved 471 adults (average age, 54 years) enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term, ongoing study of cardiovascular disease risk among people living in Framingham, Massachusetts. The authors of the study measured levels of 588 metabolites in blood drawn from the participants before and immediately after ergometric cardiopulmonary exercise testing. They replicated these methods in a second group of 783 participants.

The authors noted changes in 508 of the metabolites. In particular, they observed changes in metabolites implicated in cardiometabolic risk, including reduced levels of metabolites involved in insulin resistance and increased levels of metabolites associated with lipolysis, nitric oxide bioavailability, and adipose browning – the process by which white adipose tissue converts to brown adipose tissue, increasing energy expenditure and improving glucose and lipid metabolism. These changes were diminished among participants with a higher BMI, suggesting that obesity (or the metabolic disturbances that accompany it) may block the benefits of exercise.

These findings provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that drive the widespread cardiometabolic benefits of exercise and support public health recommendations to engage in regular physical activity.

Link to study abstract.

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