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Science news digest - 2nd September 2013

In the science news this week: poverty can impair mental function, network of home computers discovers pulsars, prescription painkillers kill more people than illegal drugs, and finally, thinking about science makes people more altruistic.

Poverty impairs mental capacity

The pressure of poverty on the human mind can cause cognitive impairment, according to research published in Science. This can lead to poor decision making and mistakes, which exacerbate problems leading to financial hardship.

According to the New Scientist, sociologists have long known that people with money worries are less likely to take medicines correctly, keep appointments, or be attentive parents. "Poor people make poorer decisions. They do. The question is why," said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To examine whether poverty causes this reduction in mental performance directly, the researchers ran cognitive tests on a group of people that experience a range of financial circumstances yearly. The British, Canadian, and American team surveyed sugar cane farmers in Tamil Nadu in southern India, who receive most of their year’s income all at once, at the end of the harvest.

The team presented nearly 500 farmers with brain teasers before and after the harvest, and found that in the weeks leading up to it, when the farmers were poorest, they fared significantly worse than when they were financially secure.

"With the sugarcane farmers, we are comparing the same person when he has less money to when he has more money. We're finding that when he has more money he is more intelligent, as defined by IQ tests," said Dr Mani.

The scientists aimed to rule out confounding factors such as physical exhaustion and nutrition, according to the BBC, and took measurements of biomarkers such as heart rate and blood pressure. A control study was conducted on a group of American people to compare the results, and the researchers found a drop in IQ of roughly 13 points in those with financial problems.

The study concludes that people with financial issues spend so much time and mental space thinking about them that they have reduced capacity for other tasks. It suggests that policies for those in poverty should be made as easy to access as possible, removing any unnecessary red tape.


Pulsars discovered by huge network of home computers

Twenty four pulsars have been discovered in the Milky Way using a network of over 200,000 personal computers, according to Phys.org. The computers have helped to create a detailed map of the galaxy using archival data from the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institutes for Gravitational Physics and for Radio Astronomy led the project that has provided information that can be used to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity. A survey of the Milky Way taken from 1997 to 2001 by the 64m-wide telescope created a huge amount of information to process, and the crowdsourcing technique used in the study combines the computing power of home PCs to rival the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

"We could only conduct our search thanks to the enormous computing power provided by the Einstein@Home volunteers," says Benjamin Knispel, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hannover, and lead author of the study published in The Astrophysical Journal. "Through the participation of the public, we discovered 24 new pulsars in our Milky Way, which had previously been missed -- and some of them are particularly interesting."

Pulsars are small, dense neutron stars that are highly magnetised and rotate at high speed. Left over from large star explosions, they emit a beam of radio waves that makes them appear to flash as they rotate. Pulsars in binary systems (two stars together) present an extra challenge to detect, but can be used as a testbed for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The Einstein@Home system uses the same platform as the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI@Home), developed at University of California, Berkeley. Each computer connects to a supercomputer via the internet and is given a chunk of data to analyse. Together, the vast network has immense computing power.


Prescription painkillers claim more lives than illegal drugs in the US

More people in the US have died from an overdose of legal prescription painkillers than from abusing drugs that are illegal, according to Al Jazeera. Enough painkillers were prescribed to US patients in 2010 to medicate every American citizen for one month, and 80% of the world’s painkillers are used by US citizens.

Wealthier nations have higher levels of drug abuse, with the US, UK and Australia having twenty times as many with drug problems as poorer countries. President of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, told Al Jazeera: "According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, this is the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history. CDC has data demonstrating that around the same time doctors began aggressively prescribing these medications in the late 1990s, there have been parallel increases in rates of addiction."

The study, published in The Lancet, reports that more than half of the 78,000 deaths from illicit drug use in 2010 were caused by opioid addictions, but drawing a distinction between legal and illegal drug abuse is unhelpful, according to Dr. Andrew Kolodny.

Kolodny explains that opioid painkillers are prescribed so often that addictions can build quickly, and when those prescriptions are taken away, patients often turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative to stave off withdrawal. "The way to turn this epidemic around is for doctors to prescribe painkillers more cautiously," he said, calling for clearer drug labelling for doctors.

Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky told Al Jazeera that she "is extremely concerned about the inappropriate use" of painkillers, "which has become a major public health challenge for our nation," and the agency "is committed to ongoing efforts to address the problem and supports broader initiatives to address this public health problem, including regulatory, educational and scientific activities."


And finally...

Does thinking about science make people more moral?

Instances of fraudulent research tell us that science isn’t a morally pure activity, but a study published in PLoS ONE indicates that science does have a powerful moral influence. Scientists from University of California Santa Barbara ran a group of studies to see how attitudes to science, and thinking about science, can alter the behaviour of participants, according to Scientific American. They found a significant increase in moral behaviour and altruism in those who had high opinions of science, and also great increases in altruism after participants were asked to think about science and research. Just thinking about science made the participants more moral!


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