Electric cooker an easy, efficient way to sanitize N95 masks, study finds

Owners of electric multicookers may be able to add another use to its list of functions, a new study suggests: sanitization of N95 respirator masks.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign study found that 50 minutes of dry heat in an electric cooker, such as a rice cooker or Instant Pot, decontaminated N95 respirators inside and out while maintaining their filtration and fit. This could enable wearers to safely reuse limited supplies of the respirators, originally intended to be one-time-use items.

Led by civil and environmental engineering professors Thanh “Helen” Nguyen and Vishal Verma, the researchers published their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

N95 respirator masks are the gold standard of personal protective equipment that protect the wearer against airborne droplets and particles, such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“A cloth mask or surgical mask protects others from droplets the wearer might expel, but a respirator mask protects the wearer by filtering out smaller particles that might carry the virus,” Nguyen said.

High demand during the COVID-19 pandemic has created severe shortages for health care providers and other essential workers, prompting a search for creative approaches to sanitization.

“There are many different ways to sterilize something, but most of them will destroy the filtration or the fit of an N95 respirator,” Verma said. “Any sanitation method would need to decontaminate all surfaces of the respirator, but equally important is maintaining the filtration efficacy and the fit of the respirator to the face of the wearer. Otherwise, it will not offer the right protection.”

The researchers hypothesized that dry heat might be a method to meet all three criteria — decontamination, filtration and fit — without requiring special preparation or leaving any chemical residue. They also wanted to find a method that would be widely accessible for people at home. They decided to test an electric cooker, a type of device many people have in their pantries.

They verified that one cooking cycle, which maintains the contents of the cooker at around 100 degrees Celsius or 212 Fahrenheit for 50 minutes, decontaminated the masks, inside and out, from four different classes of virus, including a coronavirus — and did so more effectively than ultraviolet light. Then, they tested the filtration and fit.

“We built a chamber in my aerosol-testing lab specifically to look at the filtration of the N95 respirators, and measured particles going through it,” Verma said. “The respirators maintained their filtration capacity of more than 95% and kept their fit, still properly seated on the wearer’s face, even after 20 cycles of decontamination in the electric cooker.”

The researchers created a video demonstrating the method. They note that the heat must be dry heat — no water added to the cooker, the temperature should be maintained at 100 degrees Celsius for 50 minutes and a small towel should cover the bottom of the cooker to keep any part of the respirator from coming into direct contact with the heating element. However, multiple masks can be stacked to fit inside the cooker at the same time, Nguyen said.

The researchers see potential for the electric-cooker method to be useful for health care workers and first responders, especially those in smaller clinics or hospitals that do not have access to large-scale heat sanitization equipment. In addition, it may be useful for others who may have an N95 respirator at home — for example, from a pre-pandemic home-improvement project — and wish to reuse it, Nguyen said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported this work.

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REM sleep tunes eating behavior

Despite our broad understanding of the different brain regions activated during rapid-eye-movement sleep, little is known about what this activity serves for. Researchers at the University of Bern and the Inselspital have now discovered that the activation of neurons in the hypothalamus during REM sleep regulates eating behaviour: suppressing this activity in mice decreases appetite.

While we are asleep, we transition between different phases of sleep each of which may contribute differently to us feeling rested. During (rapid eye movement) REM sleep, a peculiar sleep stage also called paradoxical sleep during which most dreaming occurs, specific brain circuits show very high electrical activity, yet the function of this sleep-specific activity remains unclear.

Among the brain regions that show strong activation during REM sleep are areas that regulate memory functions or emotion, for instance. The lateral hypothalamus, a tiny, evolutionarily well conserved brain structure in all mammals also shows high activity during REM sleep. In the awake animals, neurons from this brain region orchestrate appetite and the consumption of food and they are involved in the regulation of motivated behaviours and addiction.

In a new study, researchers headed by Prof. Dr. Antoine Adamantidis at the University of Bern set out to investigate the function of the activity of hypothalamic neurons in mice during REM sleep. They aimed at better understanding how neural activation during REM sleep influences our day-to-day behaviour. They discovered that suppressing the activity of these neurons decreases the amount of food the mice consume. “This suggests that REM sleep is necessary to stabilize food intake,” says Adamantidis. The results of this study have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Long-lasting effect on neuronal activity and feeding behavior

The researcher discovered that specific activity patterns of neurons in the lateral hypothalamus that usually signal eating in the awake mouse are also present when the animals were in the stage of REM sleep. To assess the importance of these activity patterns during REM sleep the research group used a technique called optogenetics, with which they used light pulses to precisely shut down the activity of hypothalamic neurons during REM sleep. As a result, the researchers found that the activity patterns for eating were modified and that the animals consumed less food.

“We were surprised how strongly and persistently our intervention affected the neural activity in the lateral hypothalamus and the behaviour of the mice,” says Lukas Oesch, the first author of the study. He adds: “The modification in the activity patterns was still measurable after four days of regular sleep.” These findings suggest that electrical activity in hypothalamic circuits during REM sleep are highly plastic and essential to maintain a stable feeding behaviour in mammals.

It is a question of quality

These findings point out that sleep quantity alone is not solely required for our well-being, but that sleep quality plays a major role in particular to maintain appropriate eating behaviour. “This is of particular relevance in our society where not only sleep quantity decreases but where sleep quality is dramatically affected by shift work, late night screen exposure or social jet-lag in adolescents,” explains Adamantidis.

The discovered link between the activity of the neurons during REM sleep and eating behaviour may help developing new therapeutical approaches to treat eating disorders. It might also be relevant for motivation and addiction. “However, this relationship might depend on the precise circuitry, the sleep stage and other factors yet to be uncovered,” adds Adamantidis.

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Children’s pester power a future target for interventions

Children’s pester power may contribute to improvements in their family’s food environments. A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier, highlights the potential for children to influence food consumption and habits at home.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Louisiana Tech University studied classrooms that delivered weekly Together, We Inspire Healthy Eating (WISE) lessons at seven Head Start sites across two states in the southern United States. The study demonstrated that children’s pester power explained a significant portion of the variance in the residual change of children’s dietary intake and parenting practices after one school year of exposure to the WISE intervention.

“The more pester power that parents were exposed to from their children, the greater we saw changes in the desired direction for intake of fruits and vegetables and also supportive parenting practices,” said lead study author Taren Swindle, PhD, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, College of Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR, USA. “It means that children’s influence on their homes may be an underdeveloped potential target for future interventions.”

The pester power of children is well documented in marketing and advertising research and is increasingly being considered in regard to the nutritional habits and obesogenic environments of children. Future studies can provide insight into which components of educational programs specifically predict successful pester power.

“I like to think of this as hypothesis-generating work. It suggests a really promising area for future exploration,” Prof. Swindle said.

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Vitamin D twice a day may keep vertigo away

Taking vitamin D and calcium twice a day may reduce your chances of getting vertigo again, according to a study published in the August 5, 2020, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“Our study suggests that for people with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, taking a supplement of vitamin D and calcium is a simple, low-risk way to prevent vertigo from recurring,” said Ji-Soo Kim, M.D., Ph.D., of Seoul National University College of Medicine in Korea. “It is especially effective if you have low vitamin D levels to begin with.”

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo happens when a change in head position gives you a sudden spinning sensation. It’s one of the most common types of vertigo. Treatment includes a doctor performing a series of head movements that shift particles in the ears that cause the vertigo, but the condition tends to recur frequently. About 86% of people with this form of vertigo find that it interrupts their daily life or causes them to miss days at work.

The study looked at 957 people in Korea with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo who were treated successfully with the head movements. The participants were separated into two groups, intervention and observation.

The 445 people in the intervention group had their vitamin D levels taken at the start of the study. The 348 people with vitamin D levels below 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) were started on supplements with 400 international units of vitamin D and 500 milligrams of calcium twice daily, while those with vitamin D levels equal to or greater than 20 ng/mL were not given supplements.

The 512 people in the observation group did not have their vitamin D levels monitored and they did not get supplements.

Those in the intervention group who took the supplements had a lower recurrence rate for vertigo episodes after an average of one year than those in the observation group. People taking supplements had an average recurrence rate of 0.83 times per person-year, compared to 1.10 times per person-year for those in the observation group, or a 24% reduction in the annual recurrence rate.

There appeared to be greater benefit for those who were more deficient in vitamin D at the start of the study. Those who started with vitamin D levels lower than 10 ng/mL saw a 45% reduction in annual recurrence rate, while those starting with vitamin D levels at 10 to 20 ng/mL saw only a 14% reduction. A total of 38% of the people in the interventional group had another episode of vertigo, compared to 47% of those in the observation group.

“Our results are exciting because so far, going to the doctor to have them perform head movements has been the main way we treat benign paroxysmal positional vertigo,” said Kim. “Our study suggests an inexpensive, low-risk treatment like vitamin D and calcium tablets may be effective at preventing this common, and commonly recurring, disorder.”

A limitation of the study is that a large number of participants did not complete the entire study, with more people assigned to take the supplements dropping out of the study than in the observation group.

This study was supported by the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare.

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Land use changes may increase disease outbreak risks

Global changes in land use are disrupting the balance of wild animal communities in our environment, and species that carry diseases known to infect humans appear to be benefiting, finds a new UCL-led study.

The findings, published in Nature, may have implications for future spillovers of diseases originating in animal hosts.

The research team, led by the UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research, studied evidence from 6,801 ecological communities from six continents, and found that animals known to carry pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) that can infect humans were more common in landscapes intensively used by people.

The evidence was sourced from a dataset of 184 studies incorporating close to 7,000 species, 376 of which are known to carry human-shared pathogens.

The researchers say we may need to alter how we use land across the world to reduce the risk of future spillovers of infectious diseases.

Lead author, PhD candidate Rory Gibb (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research) said: “The way humans change landscapes across the world, from natural forest to farmland for example, has consistent impacts on many wild animal species, causing some to decline while some others persist or increase.

“Our findings show that the animals that remain in more human-dominated environments are those that are more likely to carry infectious diseases that can make people sick.”

Species that host zoonotic pathogens (which can jump from animals to people) constituted a higher proportion of the animal species found in human-influenced (disturbed) environments compared to the ecological communities in more wild habitats.

The same relationship is seen for animals that tend to carry more pathogens of any kind — whether or not they can affect humans.

In comparison, most other wild animal species are found in lower numbers in disturbed environments compared to natural habitats. The researchers say this suggests that similar factors may be influencing both whether a species can tolerate humans and how likely it is to carry potentially zoonotic diseases.

Co-lead author Dr David Redding (ZSL Institute of Zoology and UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research) said: “Other studies have found that outbreaks of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases appear to be increasingly common — our findings may help to explain that pattern, by clarifying the underlying ecological change processes that are interacting to drive infection risks.”

Senior author Professor Kate Jones (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research and ZSL Institute of Zoology) said: “Global land use change is primarily characterised by the conversion of natural landscapes for agriculture, particularly for food production. Our findings underscore the need to manage agricultural landscapes to protect the health of local people while also ensuring their food security.”

The researchers say that while there are numerous other factors influencing emergent disease risks, the findings point to strategies that could help mitigate the risk of further infectious disease outbreaks comparable to COVID-19.

Professor Jones said: “As agricultural and urban lands are predicted to continue expanding in the coming decades, we should be strengthening disease surveillance and healthcare provision in those areas that are undergoing a lot of land disturbance, as they are increasingly likely to have animals that could be hosting harmful pathogens.”

Dr Redding added: “Our findings provide a context for thinking about how to manage land use changes more sustainably, in ways that take into account potential risks not only to biodiversity, but also to human health.”

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