Objective data using wearable tech...the future

I have worn my fitbit for 2 weeks now and I am obsessed. Each time I have to take it off to charge it, I am torn; I don’t want to lose that data. I cannot wait to see how my sleep patterns change with the seasons and how my heart rate adapts to different types of exercise; not to mention how all of those things change with age! I believe wearable technology is a great unobtrusive way to collect objective data about patients and research subjects for medical care and clinical studies, respectively. If nothing else, measurements about sleep, exercise, and heart rate can help report lifestyle data that may otherwise be skewed when self-reported. One of the first things I noticed when looking at my fitbit data is how much I had previously overestimated the amount of sleep I was getting and the time I was keeping my heart rate up at the gym. It’s definitely easy to round those numbers up or down to make yourself feel better, but the hard data forces you to acknowledge your daily habits and is a more tangible data set for research.

A recent feature in Nature brought my attention to other types of technological updates for collecting lifestyle data. The Centre for Time Use research have a collection of diaries recording people’s daily activities in 30 minutes increments. These studies were initiated in 1961 by the BBC to help design their television programming schedule with a better understanding of their audience’s daily availability. Similar daily diaries have been collected since documenting the evolving lives of the population over the past 50 years. These data are part of an enormous archive that is being used by social scientists to understand the way people are spending their days and how that has changed with time. Epidemiologists are also using these data to see how the changes correlate with chronic disease prevalence. 

The modernization of the daily diary includes an accelerometer to track activity and a wearable camera that snaps photos a few times a minute, all day, capturing images of how you are actually spending your time. Researchers are hoping this data will offer additional details that people may forget to record in the self-reported diary. Helen Pearson, author of the Nature feature, tests out this new technology and reports on her experience in a great article that I highly recommend. Although this data seems like it has the potential for subjective interpretation, it is an interesting approach to acquiring objective data describing a person’s life. I hope all the big data crunchers are ready for what they have coming to them!!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/526492a.pdf

Pearson, H. The lab that knows where your time really goes. Nature. 526; 492-496 (2015)


Isotopes Beyond PET

Being in a lab that uses short-lived radioactive isotopes to study the human brain, we sometimes forget the utility of long-lived isotopes in other scientific fields. Reading the recent report of Bell et al. that indicates a potential for life developing on Earth as early as 4.1 Billion years ago,1 I was reminded of the vast historical knowledge humans have gained through isotopic measurement. In this study, zircons from the Jack Hills in Australia, known for containing the oldest terrestrial-formed material on Earth,2 were uranium-lead dated (4.1 Ga) and analyzed for the presence of partially disordered graphite (i.e. carbon, the atom of life). Zircons with graphite were analyzed for the presence of > 40 nm cracks—thanks to synchrotron transmission X-ray microscopy—to avoid regions that may have gathered carbon-based material after zircon formation. Crack-less regions were analyzed for evidence of biogenic carbon through 12C/13C isotopic ratio measurement.3 The 12C/13C ratio found in carbon-based inclusions in the Jack Hills zircon was consistent with the known biogenic carbon signature, suggesting that life may have had its start as early as 4.1 billion years ago, 300 million years earlier than previous reports.4 If earlier development of planetary life is the norm, it would increase current estimates of the prevalence of life throughout the universe. Bring on the aliens!


1)      Bell, E. A. et al. (2015). "Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 billion-year-old zircon". PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517557112.

2)      Wilde, S. A.; et al. (2001). "Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago." Nature 409 (6817):175–178.

3)      Schopf JW, Kudryavtsev AB (2014) Biogenicity of Earth’s earliest fossils. Evolution of Archean Crust and Early Life, Modern Approaches in Solid Earth Sciences, eds Dilek Y, Furnes H (Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands), Vol 7, pp 333–349.

4)      Mojzsis SJ, et al. (1996) Evidence for life on Earth before 3,800 million years ago. Nature 384 (6604):55–59.


Consumers can expect more accessible explanation of risks in pharmaceutical advertisements 

Whether they are in print or some other broadcast medium, we are constantly bombarded with pharmaceutical advertisements. We are all too familiar with the format in which these advertisements appear: captivating images and/or compassionate and motivating speech with large text to draw your attention, convincing us that a particular agent can improve our lives in some otherwise ailing capacity. This is followed by a line of fine print, or the remaining few seconds of a commercial, rambling off a list of risks and side effects described in scientific jargon most viewers/listeners cannot understand. Even if we are able to comprehend the science, the risks are presented too quickly or in print too small to take in. Sure, most of these ads say to speak with your doctor about the risks before taking X drug, but why aren’t these risks easily and initially accessible to us? When we purchase food items, we may find printed cautions such that the food had been handled/manufactured with other products containing soy or peanuts (important for individuals with allergies or sensitivities to consider). If we as consumers are to take the drug into our bodies, then we should be fairly presented with the risks as well.

This may soon change, as the FDA is beginning to put into place regulations about how risks are displayed in direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) since the administration acknowledges that the way in which they are presented currently are not effective. The FDA proposes to use language more likely to be understood by consumers. However, there are other questions that are being raised: how to determine if the language is too technical or too simplistic for delivering information to consumers? How much information should ads contain so that they are sufficient without being too lengthy? Should all known risks and side effects be included or only those more likely to occur or those most serious? In the 30 years of DTCA, there have been a number of efforts to improve the way in which important information is conveyed to consumers. Questions such as those brought up above in addition to other issues and concerns will need to be addressed to improve message delivery in DTCA. What is clear is that companies should put in as much effort into delivering information about risks as they do into selling their products. 


Greene, J. A., & Watkins, E. S. (2015). The Vernacular of Risk—Rethinking Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Pharmaceuticals. New England journal of medicine, 373 (12), 1087-1089.



Autism and vaccines - no scientific link

There has been a recent addition in the series of studies showing no association between vaccines and autism: a study conducted in non-human primates. Gadad and colleagues investigated the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella vaccine), thimerosol containing vaccines, as well as past and current pediatric vaccine schedules and found no association with autism-like behaviors and neuropathology.

autism vaccine researchOffit wrote an interesting commentary on the study. He highlighted the fact that since the different hypotheses regarding a potential link between vaccines and autism had been put forward, they had all previously been investigated in human epidemiological studies and no association with autism was reported. Offit also discusses the fact that despite the retraction of the Wakefield study that had claimed a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, the impact that publication had could not be retracted and that until we know the cause(s) of autism there will be doubt about vaccines.



- Gadad et al., 2015, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology.

- Offit PA, 2015, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Vaccines and autism in primate model.





PDE4B demonstrates great promise as a target for regulating cognitive function and fear response

In an advance online publication of Neuropsychopharmacology, a collaboration of scientists produced a strain of knockout mice that had an interesting behavioral phenotype.  The enzyme phosphodiesterase-4B (PDE4B) is present in several areas throughout the body, including the brain. These researchers were able to knockout the PDE4B gene.  The PDE4B-inhibited mice showed increased cognitive function, while also having altered fear memory in comparison to wild type mice. The knockout mice were able to recognize familiar mice more quickly, as well as complete puzzles faster1,2. These mice also exhibited a decrease in fear response, suggesting that PDE4B may play a role in the acquisition and retention of fear-based memories.

Researchers are currently developing a brain-penetrant PDE4B inhibitor to test its effectiveness in decreasing fear response and memory retention in mice2. This protein is so compelling in part because of the current lack of effective drugs for memory and cognitive diseases. The inhibitor, if proven effective, could be a powerful therapeutic in humans for anxiety and memory related diseases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This research could also point to PDE4B as a target for other drugs for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. 


(1)   Mcgirr, Alexander et al. "Specific Inhibition of Phosphodiesterase-4B Results in Anxiolysis and Facilitates Memory Acquisition." Neuropsychopharmacology (2015): doi: 10.1038/npp.2015.240

(2)   University of Leeds. "'Brainy' mice raise hope of better treatments for cognitive disorders." ScienceDaily.