Stem Cell Transplants May Halt MS Progression

   (NIH) - 12/31/2014 - Three-year outcomes from an ongoing clinical trial suggest that high-dose immunosuppressive therapy followed by transplantation of a person's own blood-forming stem cells may induce sustained remission in some people with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). RRMS is the most common form of MS, a progressive autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord. The trial is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, and conducted by the NIAID-funded Immune Tolerance Network (ITN).
   Three years after the treatment, called high-dose immunosuppressive therapy and autologous hematopoietic cell transplant or HDIT/HCT, nearly 80 percent of trial participants had survived without experiencing an increase in disability, a relapse of MS symptoms or new brain lesions. Investigators observed few serious early complications or unexpected side effects, although many participants experienced expected side effects of high-dose immunosuppression, including infections and gastrointestinal problems. The three-year findings are published in the Dec. 29, 2014, online issue of JAMA Neurology.
   “These promising results support the need for future studies to further evaluate the benefits and risks of HDIT/HCT and directly compare this treatment strategy to current MS therapies,”  NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci said. “If the findings from this study are confirmed, HDIT/HCT may become a potential therapeutic option for people with this often-debilitating disease, particularly those who have not been helped by standard treatments.”
   Scientists estimate that MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Symptoms can vary widely and may include disturbances in speech, vision and movement. Most people with MS are diagnosed with RRMS, which is characterized by periods of relapse or flare up of symptoms followed by periods of recovery or remission. Over years, the disease can worsen and shift to a more progressive form.
  In the study, researchers tested the effectiveness of HDIT/HCT in 25 volunteers with RRMS who had relapsed and experienced worsened neurological disability while taking standard medications. Doctors collected blood-forming stem cells from participants and then gave them high-dose chemotherapy to destroy their immune systems. The doctors returned the stem cells to the participants to rebuild and reset their immune systems.
   “Notably, participants did not receive any MS drugs after transplant, yet most remained in remission after three years,” NIAID Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation Director Daniel Rotrosen said. “In contrast, other studies have shown that the best alternative MS treatments induce much shorter remissions and require long-term use of immunosuppressive drugs that can cause serious side effects.”
  The study researchers plan to follow participants for a total of five years, recording all side effects associated with the treatment. Final results from this and similar studies promise to help inform the design of larger trials to further evaluate HDIT/HCT in people with MS.
   The work was sponsored by NIAID, NIH, and conducted by the ITN (contract number N01 AI015416) and NIAID-funded statistical and clinical coordinating centers (contract numbers HHSN272200800029C and HHSN272200900057C). The ClinicalTrials.gov identifier for the study High-Dose Immunosuppression and Autologous Transplantation for Multiple Sclerosis (HALT-MS) is NCT00288626.
   Source: National Institutes of Health

Defense Contractor to Pay $27.5 Million

  (DOJ) - 12/20/2014 - Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems (LMIS) has agreed to pay $27.5 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by knowingly overbilling the government for work performed by LMIS employees who lacked required job qualifications. 
   The settlement was announced today by Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Justice Department’s Civil Division and U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman for the District of New Jersey.
   “Contractors that knowingly bill the government in violation of contract terms will face serious consequences,”Acting Assistant Attorney General Branda said.  “The department will ensure that those who do business with the government, and seek taxpayer funds, do so fairly and in accordance with the applicable rules.”
   LMIS is a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Inc., which is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.  The alleged labor mischarging occurred on the Rapid Response (CR2) contract and the Strategic Services Sourcing (S3) contract, both issued by the U.S. Army Communication and Electronics Command (CECOM).  CECOM is located at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and at the Aberdeen Proving Group in Maryland.
   The purpose of the CR2 and S3 contracts is to provide rapid access to products and services to be provided to the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Individual task orders then are separately negotiated, based on these contracts, to quickly meet the needs of CECOM.  LMIS allegedly violated the terms of the contracts by using under-qualified employees who were billed to the United States at the rates of more qualified employees.  The overbilling allegedly resulted in greater profit for LMIS.
   “This settlement demonstrates the commitment of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) and our partners to vigorously pursue alleged violations of the False Claims Act,” DCIS Northeast Field Office Special Agent Craig Rupert said.  “All contractors doing business with the federal government are expected to abide by the acquisition rules no matter who they are.  Investigations of such allegations are necessary to protect American taxpayers and our warfighters.”
  Source: Dept. of Justice

Group Welcomes Report On CIA Torture Program

   Washington, D.C. – 12/10/2014 - Human Rights First has welcomed the release of the executive summary of a landmark Senate intelligence committee report on the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program. The report is the result of an investigation launched with bipartisan support, and the report itself was both adopted and declassified in separate bi-partisan votes in the committee.
   The report documents a program that was far more brutal and widespread than Americans were led to believe. The report also reveals that the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not produce critical intelligence gains that had previously been claimed and that the CIA systematically misled the administration and Congress about the efficacy of the program. The group said it urges Congress and the administration to examine carefully the report’s key findings and take steps to ensure that torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment is never again the official policy of the United States.
   “This is how a strong democracy deals with its mistakes. We look at what we did, however painful that is, and we take the necessary steps to make it right. America is strongest when we keep faith with our ideals and uphold the rule of law. Thanks to the Senate’s report, Americans can now see for themselves how far we fell short of that standard, how little we gained—and how much we lost—because of it," Human Rights First’s President and CEO Elisa Massimino said. "The test for our democracy now is what we will do with that knowledge. The Obama Administration and Congress should work together to build a durable consensus against torture by pursuing legislation that demonstrates bipartisan unity and fidelity to our ideals. We can’t leave room for loophole lawyering when it comes to what we stand for as a nation.
   The Senate intelligence committee’s 6,000-plus-page study of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program is one of the most comprehensive and thorough oversight endeavors in congressional history. For months Senate staff and the CIA were engaged in protracted discussions about the extent to which the committee’s report on the post-9/11 CIA torture program should be redacted.
   Former Air Force interrogator Colonel Steven Kleinman stated: “As a career interrogator, I know that the lawful, humane methods for acquiring intelligence are also the most effective. (The) report only reinforces this fact and makes it publicly available to the American people. There is no need to debate this any longer. Now it’s time to chart a new course for the future, one that will not only respect human rights, but will also keep America safe.”
   The report’s findings enjoy widespread support from political, national security, and intelligence leaders, including among Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The report was also initiated, adopted, and submitted for declassification on three independent, bipartisan votes. A nonpartisan group of retired generals and admirals who stood with President Obama in the Oval Office as he signed an executive order banning torture have tirelessly advocated for the report’s release.
   “Torture violates our laws, principles, and core foreign policy and national security interests,” said Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the Navy. “We will now be defined by the steps we take to ensure that this brutal practice never occurs again."
   Source: Human Rights First

Investor to Plead Guilty To Bid Rigging, Fraud

  (DOJ) - 12/3/2014 - A Northern California real estate investor has agreed to plead guilty for his role in conspiracies to rig bids and commit mail fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced.
    Felony charges were filed on December 2 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland against Garry Wan of Concord, California. To date, 50 individuals have agreed to plead or have pleaded guilty, as a result of the department’s ongoing antitrust investigations into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California.
    According to court documents, beginning as early as May 2008 until January 2011, Wan conspired with others not to bid against one another, and instead designate a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Alameda County. Wan was also charged with conspiring to use the mail to carry out a scheme to fraudulently acquire title to selected Alameda County properties sold at public auctions, to make and receive payoffs, and to divert money to co-conspirators that would have otherwise gone to mortgage holders and other beneficiaries by holding second, private auctions open only to members of the conspiracy. The department said that the selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in the second, private auctions. The private auctions often took place at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held.
    “While there has been a lengthy series of guilty pleas by the participants in this activity, the division’s work is not yet over,” said Brent Snyder, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement program. “We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute collusion at real estate foreclosure auctions, which allow the conspirators to profit from illegal payoffs at the expense of financial institutions and distressed homeowners.”
    The department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracies was to suppress and eliminate competition and to conceal payoffs in order to obtain selected real estate offered at Alameda County public foreclosure auctions at non-competitive prices. When real estate properties are sold at these auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached to the property, with remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner. According to court documents, these conspirators paid and received money that otherwise would have gone to pay off the mortgage and other holders of debt secured by the properties, and, in some cases, the defaulting homeowner.
    “These charges demonstrate our continued commitment to investigate and prosecute individuals and organizations responsible for the corruption of the public foreclosure auction process,” said David J. Johnson, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Office. “The FBI is committed to work these important cases and remains unwavering in our dedication to bring the members of these illegal conspiracies to justice.”
    A violation of the Sherman Act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine for individuals. The maximum fine for the Sherman Act charges may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victim if either amount is greater than $1 million. A count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The government can also seek to forfeit the proceeds earned from participating in the conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
    Today’s charges are the latest filed by the department in its ongoing investigation into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa, and Alameda counties, California. These investigations are being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Office. Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300, or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.
   Source: Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force

American Corrections System Keeps Growing

   PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS - 11/11/2014 - Explosive growth in the number of people on probation or parole has propelled the population of the American corrections system to more than 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 U.S. adults, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States. The vast majority of these offenders live in the community, yet new data in the report finds that nearly 90 percent of state corrections dollars are spent on prisons. One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections examines the scale and cost of prison, jail, probation and parole in each of the 50 states, and provides a blueprint for states to cut both crime and spending by reallocating prison expenses to fund stronger supervision of the large number of offenders in the community.  
   Most states are facing serious budget deficits,” The Pew Center Managing Director on the States Susan Urahn said. “Every single one of them should be making smart investments in community corrections that will help them cut costs and improve outcomes.”
   In the past two decades, state general fund spending on corrections increased by more than 300 percent, outpacing other essential government services from education, to transportation and public assistance. Only Medicaid spending has grown faster. Today, corrections imposes a national taxpayer burden of $68 billion a year. Despite this increased spending, recidivism rates have remained largely unchanged.
   Research shows that strong community supervision programs for lower-risk, non-violent offenders not only cost significantly less than incarceration but, when appropriately resourced and managed, can cut recidivism by as much as 30 percent. Diverting these offenders to community supervision programs also frees up prison beds needed to house violent offenders, and can offer budget makers additional resources for other pressing public priorities.
   One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections provides a detailed look at who is in the corrections system and which states have the highest populations of offenders behind bars and in the community. Key findings include:

  • One in 31 adults in America is in prison or jail, or on probation or parole. Twenty-five years ago, the rate was 1 in 77.
  • Overall, two-thirds of offenders are in the community, not behind bars. 1 in 45 adults is on probation or parole and 1 in 100 is in prison or jail. The proportion of offenders behind bars versus in the community has changed very little over the past 25 years, despite the addition of 1.1 million prison beds.
  • Correctional control rates are highly concentrated by race and geography: 1 in 11 black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults (3.7 percent) and 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent); 1 in 18 men (5.5 percent) versus 1 in 89 women (1.1 percent). The rates can be extremely high in certain neighborhoods. In one block-group of Detroit's East Side, for example, 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control.
  • Georgia, where 1 in 13 adults is behind bars or under community supervision, leads the top five states that also include Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio and the District of Columbia.

   The report also analyzes the cost of current sentencing and corrections policies. The National Association of State Budget Officers estimates that states spent a record $51.7 billion on corrections in FY2008, or 1 in every 15 general fund dollars. Adding local, federal and other funding brings the national correctional spending total to $68 billion.
   While total correctional spending figures have been available before, new data collected by the Pew Center on the States for the report provides the first breakdown of correctional spending by prisons, probation and parole in the past seven years:

  • In FY 2008, the 34 states for which data are available spent $18.65 billion on prisons (88 percent of corrections spending), but only $2.52 billion on probation and parole (12 percent).
  • For eight states where 25 years of data were available, spending on prisons grew by $4.74 billion from FY 1983 to FY 2008, while probation and parole spending increased by only $652 million. This means that while prisons accounted for one-third of the population growth, they consumed 88 percent of the new corrections expenditures.
  • The 33 states that were able to provide data reported spending as much as 22 times more per day to manage prison inmates than to supervise offenders in the community. The reported average inmate cost was $79 per day, or nearly $29,000 per year. The average cost of managing an offender in the community ranged from $3.42 per day for probationers to $7.47 per day for parolees, or about $1,250 to $2,750 a year.

   “Violent and career criminals need to be locked up, and for a long time. But our research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable in the community at far lower cost,” Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project Director Adam Gelb said. “New community supervision strategies and technologies need to be strengthened and expanded, not scaled back. Cutting them may appear to save a few dollars, but it doesn't. It will fuel the cycle of more crime, more victims, more arrests, more prosecutions, and still more imprisonment.”
   One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections provides states with a blueprint and specific case studies for strengthening their community corrections systems, saving money and reducing crime. Research-based recommendations include:
  • Sort offenders by risk to public safety to determine appropriate levels of supervision;
  • Base intervention programs on sound research about what works to reduce recidivism;
  • Harness advances in supervision technology such as electronic monitoring and rapid-result alcohol and drug tests;
  • Impose swift and certain sanctions for offenders who break the rules of their release but who do not commit new crimes; and
  • Create incentives for offenders and supervision agencies to succeed, and monitor their performance. 
Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

Approval of 'Enlist Duo' Weed Killer Criticized

   Washington, D.C. – 10/26/2014 - Officials with the Environmental Working Group said on October 15 that they were “deeply disappointed” that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had decided to approve a toxic weed killer known as Enlist Duo, despite overwhelming opposition from the scientific and public health community.
   Enlist Duo, manufactured by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, is a toxic combination of the herbicide 2,4-D and glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. The EPA’s decision means Dow can sell Enlist Duo in conjunction with its new genetically engineered products, 2,4-D-tolerant corn and soybean seeds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently approved Dow’s application to market these seeds.
   Dow has announced plans to start marketing Enlist Duo in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
   “The EPA ignored science pointing to the serious health risks – especially to children – associated with 2,4-D,” said Mary Ellen Kustin, EWG’s senior policy analyst. “Giving a chemical company the green light to bring a known harmful weed killer to market for use on millions of acres of crops puts public health and the environment in danger.”
   Last summer, 35 doctors and scientists warned the EPA against expanding the use of 2,4-D, highlighting links between pesticide exposure and health problems such as suppressed immune function and greater risk of Parkinson’s disease. Later, 50 members of Congress asked EPA and USDA to reconsider their approval of the 2,4-D-tolerant seeds and weed killer.
The USDA estimates that use of 2,4-D will triple by 2020, compared to current usage. EWG research shows that more than 480 elementary schools nationwide are within 200 feet of corn and soybean fields that could be sprayed with 2,4-D.
   “Children who are most vulnerable and susceptible to these toxic weed killers will have an increased risk of being exposed to a defoliant linked to cancer and Parkinson’s disease,” added Kustin.
   In addition to toxicity concerns, increasing the use of weed killers could further escalate the evolution of “superweeds” resistant to known herbicides.
   “This continued arms race between chemical companies and superweeds is a threat to sustainable farming and public health,” added Kustin. “EPA’s decision to up the ante of Roundup by approving Enlist Duo is unconscionable.”
   Source: Environmental Working Group

Man Pleads Guilty In Health Care Fraud Case

  (DOJ) - 10/23/2014 - A Florida managing member of a shell company pleaded guilty today in federal court in Tampa, Florida, for his role in a multi-million dollar health care fraud and money laundering scheme.
    Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III of the Middle District of Florida, Acting Special Agent in Charge Derrick Jackson of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Miami Regional Office and Special Agent in Charge Paul Wysopal of the FBI’s Tampa Field Office made the announcement.
    Gregory J. Sylvestri, 44, formerly of Lake Worth, Florida, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida to two charges related to money laundering of health care fraud proceeds. His sentencing date will be set by the court at a later date. In his plea agreement, Sylvestri agreed to the forfeiture of a $60,000 platinum and diamond engagement ring that he purchased with health care fraud proceeds.
    According to his plea agreement, from June 2010 through April 2014, Sylvestri’s co-conspirators submitted over $12 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare through three purported health clinics, Cornerstone Health Specialists of Lakeland, Florida, Summit Health Specialists P.L. of Tampa, and Coastal Health Specialists LLC of Lakeland and Melbourne, Florida. These fraudulent claims included claims resulting from illegal kickback arrangements and claims for radiology, audiology, neurology and cardiology services that were never rendered. In fact, some of the services were purportedly provided to Medicare beneficiaries who had died before the supposed date of service. Medicare paid over $2,500,000 in reimbursement on the fraudulent claims.
    Sylvestri admitted that he and his co-conspirators used bank accounts for the clinics and shell companies, including his shell company, BONB LLC, aka BioScan, to conceal and disburse the fraud proceeds.
    Four other defendants were indicted in this case on health care fraud and money laundering charges. In addition to Sylvestri, one of the other defendants has pleaded guilty. The remaining three defendants are scheduled for a jury trial in April 2015. An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
   This case is being investigated by HHS-OIG and the FBI and was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, under the supervision of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. This case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Christopher J. Hunter of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.
    Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged nearly 2,000 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $6 billion. In addition, the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.
   Source: Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force

U.S. Small Businesses See Employment Gain

   MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - (BUSINESS WIRE) - 10/2/2014 - Intuit Inc. (Nasdaq:INTU) issued its monthly Small Business Employment and Revenue Indexes on Oct. 1. Here are topline results from each of the reports:
   Small businesses added 10,000 new jobs in September, making for more than 715,000 jobs added since March 2010.     Hourly small business employees saw a 0.1 percent decrease in monthly compensation, with average monthly pay reaching equivalent of $2,753, down $3 from August.
    Hourly employees worked an average of 108.3 hours in September, down approximately 24 minutes or 0.4 percent from August’s revised figure.
   Findings come from the monthly Intuit Small Business Employment and Revenue Indexes and are based on data from Intuit Online Payroll and QuickBooks Online Payroll, covering the period from Aug. 24 – Sept 23.
   Revenues per small business grew by 0.3 percent in August, roughly 3.1 percent when annualized. Real estate revenues have grown steadily over the past five months, reflecting an increase in home sales. This index is based on data from QuickBooks Online, covering the period from Aug. 1 – 31.
    “Small business coped with additional demand in August by having its existing work force work more. In September, small businesses hired additional people and paid them more, but asked them to work less. In sum, this makes for two months of mild gains in the small business labor market,” said Susan Woodward, the economist who works with Intuit to create the Small Business Employment and Revenue Indexes. “Small business added 10,000 jobs this month after a flat previous month. We are continuing to see signs of a warming labor market. “Despite last month’s flat employment for small business, there are other signs of further employment recovery. Hours worked were up sharply in August, but down in September; compensation was up in August due to more hours being worked, while the hourly wage remained flat. That gain was only partially lost this month, and the percent of workers working full-time was sharply up last month and reversed this month. In both months the hiring rate was up.”   Geographically, all states tracked individually by the Intuit saw hours worked decline, with the exception of Nebraska. The northern prairie states, around the Great Lakes, and those in New England saw employment declines, with Michigan and Idaho seeing the biggest declines. Utah had the biggest gain.
   The real estate rental and leasing industry saw the biggest rise in revenue among the industries tracked, posting a 0.7 percent increase. The accommodation industry posted the only decrease in revenue per business, with a decline of 0.02 percent for the month.
    “The two industries that had the biggest expansion in revenues per business recently are the two that experienced the biggest hit during the recession: real estate services and construction,” Woodward said. “Real estate services revenues rose 0.7 percent in August; this is an annual rate of 8.2 percent. These figures are seasonally adjusted, so this is not just late-summer home buying.”

Study Explores the Brain's Capacity to Learn

   (NIH) - 8/29/2014 - Learning is easier when it only requires nerve cells to rearrange existing patterns of activity than when the nerve cells have to generate new patterns, a study of monkeys has found. The scientists explored the brain’s capacity to learn through recordings of electrical activity of brain cell networks. The study was partly funded by the National Institutes of Health.
   “We looked into the brain and may have seen why it’s so hard to think outside the box,” said Aaron Batista, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior author of the study published in Nature, with Byron Yu, Ph.D., assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
   The human brain contains nearly 86 billion neurons, which communicate through intricate networks of connections. Understanding how they work together during learning can be challenging. Batista and his colleagues combined two innovative technologies, brain-computer interfaces and machine learning, to study patterns of activity among neurons in monkey brains as the animals learned to use their thoughts to move a computer cursor.
   “This is a fundamental advance in understanding the neurobiological patterns that underlie the learning process,” said Theresa Cruz, Ph.D., a program official at the National Center for Medical Rehabilitations Research at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “The findings may eventually lead to new treatments for stroke as well as other neurological disorders.”
   Brain-computer interfaces seek to turn thoughts into action. With small surgically implanted electrodes, researchers can simultaneously monitor the electrical activity of hundreds of neurons. A computer converts the signals into commands to move an external device, such as a robotic arm or a computer cursor. Brain-computer interfaces are being developed to help paralyzed patients as well as to study the function of healthy brains.
   “This evolving technology is a powerful tool for brain research,” said Daofen Chen, Ph.D., a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of NIH. “It helps scientists study the dynamics of brain circuits that may explain the neural basis of learning.”
   In this study, the research team used brain-computer interfaces in two animals to examine learning in the motor cortex, a part of the brain that controls movement. The firing patterns of the neurons they recorded were used to control a computer cursor. As the animals learned to move the cursor to a designated spot on the monitor, the computer used machine learning to map brain cell activity to cursor movement. Machine learning is a method of programming a computer to learn and constantly adjust its commands based on previous data or experience. In this case, it created a feedback loop between the animal and the computer, which improved the animal’s ability to use its thoughts to move the cursor.
   “Just as Netflix uses machine learning to predict the movies we’d like to watch, we used it to characterize the activity patterns that the brain produced during learning,” Yu said.
   At first, the scientists noticed that the ensemble of neurons recorded in each animal had a small set of natural, or favored, firing patterns that were used to move the cursor, which they called the “intrinsic manifold.” After determining the intrinsic manifold, the team reprogrammed the map between neural activity and cursor movement. For instance, if a firing pattern originally caused the cursor to move to the top of the screen, then the interface would move the cursor to the bottom. The team then observed whether the animals could learn to generate the appropriate neural activity patterns to compensate for the changes.
   “It’s as if we turned a computer mouse upside down in a person’s hand and asked him to click on an icon, except the mouse is entirely within the subject’s brain,” said Patrick Sadtler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who is the lead author of the study.
   The scientists discovered that the monkeys easily relearned how to move the cursor if they could use patterns within the intrinsic manifold in new ways. In contrast, learning was more difficult when the interface required patterns of neural activity that were outside of the intrinsic manifold.
   “It appears that the brain sets constraints on the speed with which we learn new things. Characterizing those constraints might enable us to predict which skills will be quicker to learn, and which might take longer,” Batista said. He and his colleagues speculated that, for humans, thinking outside the box requires more difficult changes in neural activity.
   This work was supported by grants from the NICHD (HD071686), NINDS (NS065065, NS076405), National Science Foundation (DGE-0549352), and the Burroughs Welcome Fund. 
   For more information on brain research, visit: http://www.ninds.nih.gov
   Source: National Institutes of Health 

Lawsuit Challenges U.S. Deportation Policy

   WASHINGTON — 8/24/2014 - The American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and National Immigration Law Center today sued the federal government to challenge its policies denying a fair deportation process to mothers and children who have fled extreme violence, death threats, rape, and persecution in Central America and come to the United States seeking safety.
    The groups filed the case on behalf of mothers and children locked up at an isolated detention center in Artesia, New Mexico — hours from the nearest major metropolitan area. The complaint charges the Obama administration with enacting a new strong-arm policy to ensure rapid deportations by holding these mothers and their children to a nearly insurmountable and erroneous standard to prove their asylum claims, and by placing countless hurdles in front of them.
    "These mothers and their children have sought refuge in the United States after fleeing for their lives from threats of death and violence in their home countries," said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "U.S. law guarantees them a fair opportunity to seek asylum. Yet, the government's policy violates that basic law and core American values — we do not send people who are seeking asylum back into harm's way. We should not sacrifice fairness for speed in life-or-death situations."
   According to the complaint, the Obama administration is violating long-established constitutional and statutory law by enacting policies that have:
  • Categorically prejudged asylum cases with a "detain-and-deport" policy, regardless of individual circumstances.
  • Drastically restricted communication with the outside world for the women and children held at the remote detention center, including communication with attorneys. If women got to make phone calls at all, they were cut off after three minutes when consulting with their attorneys. This makes it impossible to prepare for a hearing or get legal help. 
  • Given virtually no notice to detainees of critically important interviews used to determine the outcome of asylum requests. Mothers have no time to prepare, are rushed through their interviews, are cut off by officials throughout the process, and are forced to answer traumatic questions, including detailing instances of rape, while their children are listening.
  • Led to the intimidation and coercion of the women and children by immigration officers, including being screamed at for wanting to see a lawyer.
   "Fast-tracking the deportations of women and children from immigration detention is an assault on due process. There is no way that justice can be served when so many people are being rushed through the system without any real opportunity to assert claims for relief. What we are seeing in Artesia is nothing less than a sham process that values expediency over justice," said Melissa Crow, legal director of the American Immigration Council.
    The plaintiffs include:
  • A Honduran mother who fled repeated death threats in her home country to seek asylum in the United States with her two young children. The children's father was killed by a violent gang that then sent the mother and her children continuous death threats. When she went to the police they told her that they could not do anything to help her. It is common knowledge where she lived that the police are afraid of the gang and will do nothing to stop it.
  • A mother who fled El Salvador with her two children because of threats by the gang that controls the area where they lived. The gang stalked her 12-year-old child every time he left the house and threatened kidnapping. She fears that if the family returns to El Salvador, the gang will kill her son. Some police officers are known to be corrupt and influenced by gangs. The mother says she knows of people who have been killed by gang members after reporting them to police.
  • A mother who fled El Salvador with her 10-month-old son after rival gangs threatened to kill her and her baby. One gang tried to force the mother to become an informant on the activities of another gang, and when she refused, told her she had 48 hours to leave or be killed.
    "The women and children detained in Artesia have endured brutal murders of loved ones, rapes, death threats, and similar atrocities that no mother or child ever should have to endure, and our government is herding them through the asylum process like cattle," said Trina Realmuto, an attorney at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. "The deportation-mill in Artesia lacks even the most basic protections, like notice and the opportunity to be heard, that form the cornerstone of due process in this country."
    The lawsuit, M.S.P.C. v. Johnson, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Co-counsel in this case includes the law firms of Jenner & Block, and Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale, LLP; and the ACLU of New Mexico, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, and ACLU of the Nation's Capital.
    "Any mother will do whatever it takes to make sure her children are safe from harm's way," said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. "Our plaintiffs are no different: they have fled their homes to protect their children, only to find that the U.S. deportation system is intent upon placing them back in the dangerous situations they left. We are filing this lawsuit today to ensure that each mother is able to have her fair day in court, and that we are not sending children and their mothers back to violence or their deaths."
   The complaint is available at: aclu.org/immigrants-rights/mspc-v-johnson-complaint

Survey: Small Businesses See Economic Rebound

   (Business Wire) - 8/14/2014 - More small business owners think we are in an economic rebound and are indicating a slight uptick in business activity since the April survey, but are more conservative in adding new products and services, according to the most recent Business Confidence Survey released by Insperity, Inc. (NYSE:NSP), a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions for America’s best businesses. Slightly more than 41 percent now plan to add employees compared to 39 percent in April and 50 percent in January; 54 percent are maintaining current staffing levels versus 57 percent last quarter and 47 percent in January; and nearly 5 percent are planning layoffs, compared to 4 percent in April.
    Insperity also announced compensation metrics from its base of 5,300 small and medium-sized Workforce Optimization clients. Average compensation for the second quarter of 2014 increased 1.6 percent over the second quarter of 2013, while bonuses were down 3.2 percent compared to the 2013 period. Average commissions received by worksite employees reflected a decrease of 2.0 percent versus a 6.2 percent increase in the second quarter of 2013. Overtime pay was 10.6 percent of regular pay, above the 10 percent level that generally indicates a need for additional employees, and up from 9.4 percent in the second quarter of 2013.
    In the survey, 79 percent of respondents expect to meet or exceed the 2014 performance objectives they set in January, the same as in April but down from 92 percent in January; 21 percent expect to do worse in 2014, again matching the last survey but up sharply from 8 percent in January. Concerning the timing of an economic rebound, nearly 42 percent think one is currently in process versus 33 percent in April; 22 percent expect a rebound in the fourth quarter of 2014 or later, and 36 percent are unsure versus 44 percent in April.
    Concerning their current profit-generating activities, 71 percent list selling new accounts and 66 percent cite increased service to existing clients, nearly the same as last quarter for each. This was followed by 46 percent who indicate adding new services or products, and 29 percent list investing in new improvements, both of which were down from April.
    “Consensus for an economic rebound is building and overtime pay is now more than 10 percent. This would normally indicate a need for additional workers, but our latest survey reveals that business owners have not become aggressive in acting on that information,” said Paul J. Sarvadi, Insperity chairman and chief executive officer. “Small business may be awaiting further leading confirmation such as an increase in average commissions, which is remaining relatively low.”
    The list of short-term concerns shifted somewhat, with hiring the right people now listed by 50 percent of respondents, while the economy dropped to second at 48 percent. Rising health care costs was third at 47 percent, while controlling overall operational costs moved into fourth place at 44 percent, displacing government health care reform. Government expansion again topped the list of long-term concerns at 57 percent; potential tax increases came in at 51 percent; the federal deficit at 50 percent; and the economy at 42 percent.
    When asked about their pipelines for new business through 2014, 56 percent of survey respondents expected sales to increase, down from 60 percent in April and 66 percent in January; 33 percent anticipate no change versus 28 percent last quarter; 4 percent predict decreasing sales and 7 percent are unsure.
    The survey results show that 28 percent plan to increase employee compensation, down from 29 percent in April and 46 percent in January; 62 percent plan to maintain compensation at current levels, up from 60 percent last quarter and 43 percent in January; 1 percent again expect decreases; and 9 percent are unsure.
    Insperity conducted the survey July 8 – 10, 2014, of chief executive officers, chief financial officers and other executives in a variety of industries from its base of approximately 5,300 Workforce Optimization clients throughout the United States. The overall sampling error of the national survey is +/- 4.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

WHO calls for drug decriminalization, reforms

   (DPA) - 7/26/2014 - In a report published earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a clear call for broad drug policy reforms, including decriminalization of drug use, harm reduction practices such as syringe exchange and opioid substitution therapy, and a ban on compulsory treatment for people who use drugs. This report by the United Nations’ leading health agency focuses on best practices to prevent, diagnose and treat HIV among key populations.
   “It’s good to see the WHO come out so strongly for decriminalizing drugs and rejecting compulsory treatment for people who use drugs,’ said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Its recommendations, grounded as they are in science and public health, drive home the need for fundamental reforms in U.S. drug policies, in particular the growing reliance on drug courts to ‘treat’ people arrested for drug possession.”
   In a section titled “Good practice recommendations concerning decriminalization”, the WHO report makes the following recommendations:
Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.
Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize the use of clean needles and syringes (and that permit NSPs [needle and syringe programs]) and that legalize OST [opioid substitution therapy] for people who are opioid-dependent.
Countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs.
   This follows on the heels of a report released in March by a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The recommendations of the working group – which included Nora Volkow, head of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – highlight that “criminal sanctions are not beneficial” in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.
   In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs (UNGASS) – an initiative proposed in 2012 by the then-president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon – in order to conduct a comprehensive review of the successes and failures of international drug control policy. Whereas the previous UNGASS in 1998 was dominated by rhetorical calls for a “drug-free world” and concluded with unrealistic goals regarding illicit drug production, the forthcoming UNGASS will undoubtedly be shaped by recommendations such as those in the WHO report.
   Last year, Uruguay followed on the heels of Colorado and Washington State and became the first country to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes. In June, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, initiated by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasango, called for drug decriminalization and for treating drug use as a health issue. This was followed by an announcement by the Jamaican Minister of Justice that the Jamaican Cabinet had approved a proposal to decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and the decriminalization of marijuana use for religious, scientific and medical purposes. And earlier this month, the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), agreed to establish a commission to review marijuana policy in the region in order to assess the need for reforms to marijuana laws.
  The WHO recommendations are consistent with the long-standing policy objectives and mission of the Drug Policy Alliance, as well as with a surprisingly broad and rapidly-emerging coalition of stakeholders who are calling for drug decriminalization, including the American Public Health Association, International Red Cross, Organization of American States, NAACP, Human Rights Watch, National Latino Congreso, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
   Source: Drug Policy Alliance

Report: Corn ethanol mandate hurting environment

   Washington, D.C. – 7/18/2014 - A proposal now being considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cut the amount of corn ethanol required in gasoline would lower greenhouse gas emissions by 3 million metric tons, according to a new report released by the Environmental Working Group.
  If the EPA reduces corn ethanol by 1.39 billion gallons as proposed, it would prevent as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking 580,000 cars off the road annually, EWG found.
  The current mandate, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard, requires oil companies to increase so-called renewable fuels in gasoline every year, from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. For the first time since this law took effect, the EPA has proposed to reduce the amount of corn-based ethanol used as fuel for the nation’s cars and trucks.
   “The Obama administration has a real opportunity to scale back the corn ethanol mandate and make a significant contribution in the fight against climate change,” said Emily Cassidy, EWG research analyst and co-author of EWG’s new report, Ethanol’s Broken Promise. “As our research shows, corn-based ethanol is actually worse for the climate than regular gasoline.”
  Click here to read the full report.
  Blending corn ethanol into gasoline has significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions because higher demand for ethanol for fuel has encouraged farmers to plow up wetlands and grasslands to grow corn. This increased agricultural activity releases more soil carbon into the atmosphere. Corn requires intensive fertilizer, which breaks down to emit nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, according to EWG’s study.
   EWG estimates that 85 million to 236 million metric tons of greenhouse gases were emitted from 2008 to 2011, when more than 23 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted to grow crops. Researchers found that most studies that claim the corn ethanol mandate reduces emissions do not properly account for the resources needed to improve crop yields and significantly underestimate the emissions from conversion of land to corn production driven by the federal ethanol mandate.
   Since President Obama took office in January of 2009, his administration has made substantial progress to combat climate change. New fuel economy standards and a 10-fold increase in solar energy production have helped reduce U.S. greenhouse gas pollution to the lowest level in almost 20 years.
   “In the absence of any real effort by Congress to address climate change, President Obama has stepped up repeatedly, doing more than any previous President to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president for government affairs, said. “If the administration stands strong against the ethanol lobby and implements EPA’s proposed ethanol rollback, it will be a huge victory for the environment.”
  Source: environmental working group

Law would ban BPA from food containers

   WASHINGTON, D.C. – 7/17/2014 - Several members of Congress are pushing a bill to better protect consumers – particularly the elderly, pregnant women children, and workers – from a known toxic hormone disruptor bisphenol-A, or BPA.
   Introduced  by long-time champion Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the Ban Poisonous Additives Act of 2014 would ban BPA from food and beverage containers. It would also grant waivers to manufacturers seeking safer replacements for BPA while requiring them to place specific warning labels on any packaging that still contains the toxic substance. The legislation would also mandate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to review the safety of all materials deemed safe for use in food and beverage containers .
   Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion bill in the House.
   “Science shows that BPA is present in the vast majority of Americans and is harmful to human health,” said Jason Rano, EWG’s director of government affairs. “It has been linked to cancer, obesity, diabetes, infertility, hormone disruption and early puberty in children. Congress is taking an important step on behalf of our most vulnerable populations to help reduce exposure to BPA.”
   BPA, a synthetic estrogen, is in the epoxy linings that coat the inside of most canned foods and beverages and ultimately leaches into those products. Some companies have voluntarily taken BPA out of the linings of their containers, and in 2012 the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and children's sippy cups.
   “It was an important step when the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, but BPA has no place in food packaging and must be replaced with alternatives that don’t pose a serious health threats to humans,” added Rano. “This legislation would help make that a reality while providing manufacturers with the additional time they need to find safer options.”
   EWG recommends that consumers limit their intake of canned food and beverages and look for products labeled “BPA-free” or packed in glass jars or cardboard cartons, not metal cans.
   Source: Environmental Working Group

Study: obesity dramatically shortens lifespan

   (NIH) - 7/11/2014 - Adults with extreme obesity have increased risks of dying at a young age from cancer and many other causes including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney and liver diseases, according to results of an analysis of data pooled from 20 large studies of people from three countries. The study, led by researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, found that people with class III (or extreme) obesity had a dramatic reduction in life expectancy compared with people of normal weight. The findings appeared July 8, 2014, in PLOS Medicine.
   “While once a relatively uncommon condition, the prevalence of class III, or extreme, obesity is on the rise. In the United States, for example, six percent of adults are now classified as extremely obese, which, for a person of average height, is more than 100 pounds over the recommended range for normal weight,” said Cari Kitahara, Ph.D., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, NCI, and lead author of the study. “Prior to our study, little had been known about the risk of premature death associated with extreme obesity.”
   In the study, researchers classified participants according to their body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of total body fat and is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared. BMI classifications (kilogram/meter-squared) are:
  • Normal weight: 18.5-24.9
  • Overweight: 25.0- 29.9
  • Class I obesity: 30.0-34.9
  • Class II obesity: 35.0-39.9
  • Class III obesity: 40.0 or higher
   The 20 studies that were analyzed included adults from the United States, Sweden and Australia. These groups form a major part of the NCI Cohort Consortium, which is a large-scale partnership that identifies risk factors for cancer death. After excluding individuals who had ever smoked or had a history of certain diseases, the researchers evaluated the risk of premature death overall and the risk of premature death from specific causes in more than 9,500 individuals who were class III obese and 304,000 others who were classified as normal weight.
   The researchers found that the risk of dying overall and from most major health causes rose continuously with increasing BMI within the class III obesity group. Statistical analyses of the pooled data indicated that the excess numbers of deaths in the class III obesity group were mostly due to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Years of life lost ranged from 6.5 years for participants with a BMI of 40-44.9 to 13.7 years for a BMI of 55-59.9. To provide context, the researchers found that the number of years of life lost for class III obesity was equal or higher than that of current (versus never) cigarette smokers among normal-weight participants in the same study.
   The accuracy of the study findings is limited by the use of mostly self-reported height and weight measurements and by the use of BMI as the sole measure of obesity. Nevertheless, the researchers noted, the results highlight the need to develop more effective interventions to combat the growing public health problem of extreme obesity.
   “Given our findings, it appears that class III obesity is increasing and may soon emerge as a major cause of early death in this and other countries worldwide,” said Patricia Hartge, Sc.D., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, and senior author of the study.
   Source: National Institutes of Health

Report: Policing becoming inceasingly militarized

    NEW YORK – 6/24/2014 - After obtaining and analyzing thousands of documents from police departments around the country, oday the American Civil Liberties Union released the report War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. The ACLU focused on more than 800 SWAT raids conducted by law enforcement agencies in 20 states and on the agencies’ acquisition of military weaponry, vehicles, and equipment.
   "We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs," said Kara Dansky, Senior Counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice. "Carried out by ten or more officers armed with assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and battering rams, these paramilitary raids disproportionately impacted people of color, sending the clear message that the families being raided are the enemy. This unnecessary violence causes property damage, injury, and death."
   The report documents multiple tragedies caused by police carrying out needless SWAT raids, including a 26-year-old mother shot with her child in her arms and a 19-month-old baby critically injured when a flashbang grenade landed in his crib.
   "Our police are trampling on our civil rights and turning communities of color into war zones," Dansky continued. "We all pay for it with our tax dollars. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice give police military weaponry and vehicles as well as grants for military equipment. The War on Drugs has failed, yet the federal government hasn’t stopped the flow of guns and money."
   The report calls for the federal government to rein in the incentives for police to militarize. The ACLU also asks that local, state, and federal governments track the use of SWAT and the guns, tanks, and other military equipment that end up in police hands.
   "Our findings reveal not only the dangers of militarized police, but also the difficulties in determining the extent and impact of those dangers. At every level – from the police to the state governments to the federal government – there is almost no record keeping about SWAT or the use of military weapons and vehicles by local law enforcement," Dansky noted.
   In addition, the report recommends that state legislatures and municipalities develop criteria for SWAT raids that limit their deployment to the kinds of emergencies for which they were intended, such as an active shooter situation.
   The report is available here: www.aclu.org/militarization
   Source: American Civil Liberties Union 

Court strikes down 'No Fly List' procedures

  (ACLU) - 6/24/2014 - In a landmark ruling, a federal judge struck down as unconstitutional the government’s procedures for people on the No Fly List to challenge their inclusion. The decision came in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit brought on behalf of 13 Americans who found themselves on the list without any notice, reasons, or meaningful way to get off it.
   The judge ordered the government to create a new process that remedies these shortcomings, calling the current process “wholly ineffective” and a violation of the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process. The ruling also granted a key request in the lawsuit, ordering the government to tell the ACLU’s clients why they are on the No Fly List and give them the opportunity to challenge their inclusion on the list before the judge.
   “For years, in the name of national security the government has argued for blanket secrecy and judicial deference to its profoundly unfair No Fly List procedures, and those arguments have now been resoundingly rejected by the court,” said ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi, one of the attorneys who argued the case.
   “Our clients will finally get the due process to which they are entitled under the Constitution. This excellent decision also benefits other people wrongly stuck on the No Fly List, with the promise of a way out from a Kafkaesque bureaucracy causing them no end of grief and hardship. We hope this serves as a wake-up call for the government to fix its broken watchlist system, which has swept up so many innocent people.”
   According to media reports, there are more than 20,000 people on the No Fly List. Their only recourse is to file a request with the Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP), after which DHS responds with a letter that does not explain why they were denied boarding. The letter does not confirm or deny whether their names remain on the list, and does not indicate whether they can fly.
   The ruling from the U.S. District Court in Oregon found, “[W]ithout proper notice and an opportunity to be heard, an individual could be doomed to indefinite placement on the No-Fly List. … [T]he absence of any meaningful procedures to afford Plaintiffs the opportunity to contest their placement on the No-Fly List violates Plaintiffs’ rights to procedural due process.”
   One of the plaintiffs in the case is Sheikh Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, who is the imam of Portland’s largest Mosque.
   “Finally I will be able to challenge whatever incorrect information the government has been using to stigmatize me and keep me from flying,” Imam Kariye said. “I have been prevented by the government from traveling to visit my family members and fulfill religious obligations for years, and it has had a devastating impact on all of us. After all this time, I look forward to a fair process that allows me to clear my name in court.”
   The national ACLU, along with its affiliates in Oregon, Southern California, Northern California, and New Mexico, filed the lawsuit in June 2010 on behalf of 13 U.S. citizens, including four military veterans. In July 2012, the 9th Circuit Appeals Court reversed the district court's dismissal of the case on jurisdictional grounds, allowing the district court to consider the case on its merits. In August 2013, the court found that constitutional rights are at stake when the government places Americans on the list.
   Source: American Civil Liberties Union

New study examines important brain cell protein

   (NIH) - 6/14/2014 - In a new study, scientists at the National Institutes of Health took a molecular-level journey into microtubules, the hollow cylinders inside brain cells that act as skeletons and internal highways.  
   They watched how a protein called tubulin acetyltransferase (TAT) labels the inside of microtubules. The results, published in Cell, answer long-standing questions about how TAT tagging works and offer clues as to why it is important for brain health.
    Microtubules are constantly tagged by proteins in the cell to designate them for specialized functions, in the same way that roads are labeled for fast or slow traffic or for maintenance. TAT coats specific locations inside the microtubules with a chemical called an acetyl group. How the various labels are added to the cellular microtubule network remains a mystery. Recent findings suggested that problems with tagging microtubules may lead to some forms of cancer and nervous system disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, and have been linked to a rare blinding disorder and Joubert Syndrome, an uncommon brain development disorder.
    “This is the first time anyone has been able to peer inside microtubules and catch TAT in action,” Antonina Roll-Mecak said.
    Roll-Mecak is an investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the leader of the study.
    Microtubules are found in all of the body’s cells. They are assembled like building blocks, using a protein called tubulin. Microtubules are constructed first by aligning tubulin building blocks into long strings. Then the strings align themselves side by side to form a sheet. Eventually the sheet grows wide enough that it closes up into a cylinder. TAT then bonds an acetyl group to alpha tubulin, a subunit of the tubulin protein.
    Some microtubules are short-lived and can rapidly change lengths by adding or removing tubulin pieces along one end, whereas others remain unchanged for longer times. Recognizing the difference may help cells function properly. For example, cells may send cargo along stable microtubules and avoid ones that are being rebuilt. Cells appear to use a variety of chemical labels to describe the stability of microtubules.
    “Our study uncovers how TAT may help cells distinguish between stable microtubules and ones that are under construction,” Roll-Mecak said. According to Roll-Mecak, high levels of microtubule tagging are unique to nerve cells and may be the reason that they have complex shapes allowing them to make elaborate connections in the brain.
    For decades scientists knew that the insides of long-lived microtubules were often tagged with acetyl groups by TAT. Changes in acetylation may influence the health of nerve cells. Some studies have shown that blocking this form of microtubule tagging leads to nerve defects, brain abnormalities or degeneration of nerve fibers. Since the discovery of microtubule acetylation, scientists have been puzzled about how TAT accesses the inside of the microtubules and how the tagging reaction happens.
    To watch TAT at work, Roll-Mecak and her colleagues took high resolution movies of individual TAT molecules interacting with microtubules in real time. They saw that TAT surfs through the inside of microtubules and although it can find acetylation sites quickly, the process of adding the tag occurs very slowly.
    In general, tagging reactions work like keys fitting into locks: the better the key fits, the faster the lock can open. Similarly, the rate of the reactions is determined by how well TAT molecules fit around tagging sites.
Roll-Mecak’s team investigated this idea by using a technique called X-ray crystallography to look at how atoms on TAT molecules interact with acetylation sites on tubulin molecules. Their results suggested that TAT fit poorly around the sites.
    “It looks as though TAT can easily journey through microtubules spotting acetylation sites but may only label those that are stable for longer periods of time,” Roll-Mecak said.
    This may help cells identify the microtubules they need to rapidly change shapes or send cargo to other places. Further studies may help researchers understand how microtubule tagging influences nerve cells in health and disease.
    This work was supported by the NINDS Intramural Research Program, the NHLBI Division of Intramural Research, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
   Source: National Institutes of Health




Investor Pleads Guilty To Bid Rigging, Mail Fraud

   (DOJ) - May 28, 2014 -- A Northern California real estate investor has agreed to plead guilty for his role in conspiracies to rig bids and commit mail fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California, the Department of Justice announced.
   Felony charges were filed in February in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland against Charles Gonzales, of Alamo, Calif. Including Gonzales, a total of 44 individuals have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty as a result of the department’s ongoing antitrust investigations into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California.
    According to court documents, beginning as early as April 2009 until about October 2010, Gonzales conspired with others not to bid against one another, and instead to designate a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Alameda County, Calif. Gonzales was also charged with conspiring to commit mail fraud by fraudulently acquiring title to selected Alameda County properties sold at public auctions and making and receiving payoffs and diverting money to co-conspirators that would have gone to mortgage holders and others by holding second, private auctions open only to members of the conspiracy. The department said that the selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in the second, private auctions. The private auctions often took place at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held.
   “The Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation has resulted in charges against 44 individuals for their roles in schemes that defraud distressed homeowners and lenders,” said Bill Baer, assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “The division will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to vigorously protect competition at the local level.”
    The department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracies was to suppress and restrain competition and to conceal payoffs in order to obtain selected real estate offered at Alameda County public foreclosure auctions at non-competitive prices. When real estate properties are sold at the auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached to the property, with remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner. According to court documents, the conspirators paid and received money that otherwise would have gone to pay off the mortgage and other holders of debt secured by the properties, and, in some cases, the defaulting homeowner.
    “The symbolism of holding illegitimate and fraudulent private auctions near a courthouse is deplorable,” said David J. Johnson, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Office. “The justice system will continue to prevail in this ongoing investigation pursuing bid rigging and fraud at public foreclosure auctions.”
    A violation of the Sherman Act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine for individuals. The maximum fine for the Sherman Act charges may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victim if either amount is greater than $1 million. A count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The government can also seek to forfeit the proceeds earned from participating in the conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
    The charges are the latest filed by the department in its ongoing investigation into bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, Calif. Investigations are being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Office. Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300, or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.
   Source: Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force; Department of Justice

Authorities Charge 90 with Medicare Fraud

   WASHINGTON - (FBI) - 5/14/2014 - Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced on May 13 that a nationwide takedown by Medicare Fraud Strike Force operations in six cities has resulted in charges against 90 individuals, including 27 doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, for their alleged participation in Medicare fraud schemes involving approximately $260 million in false billings.
   Holder and Sebelius were joined in the announcement by Acting Assistant Attorney General David O’Neil of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, FBI Assistant Director Joseph Campbell, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General Daniel Levinson, and Deputy Administrator and Director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Center for Program Integrity Shantanu Agrawal.
   The coordinated takedown was the seventh national Medicare fraud takedown in Strike Force history. The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operations are part of the Health Care Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Action Team (HEAT), a joint initiative announced in May 2009 between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.
   Since their inception in March 2007, strike force operations in nine locations have charged almost 1,900 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for almost $6 billion. In addition, CMS, working in conjunction with HHS-OIG, has suspended enrollments of high-risk providers in five strike force locations and has removed over 17,000 providers from the Medicare program since 2011.
   The joint Department of Justice and HHS Medicare Fraud Strike Force is a multi-agency team of federal, state, and local investigators designed to combat Medicare fraud through the use of Medicare data analysis techniques and an increased focus on community policing. Almost 400 law enforcement agents from the FBI, HHS-OIG, multiple Medicaid Fraud Control Units, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies participated in the takedown.
   “Medicare is a sacred compact with our nation’s seniors, and to protect it, we must remain aggressive in combating fraud,” Holder said. “This nationwide Medicare Strike Force takedown represents another important step forward in our ongoing fight to safeguard taxpayer resources and to ensure the integrity of essential health care programs. Department of Justice will not tolerate these activities. And we will continue working alongside the Department of Health and Human Services—as well as federal, state, and local partners—to use every appropriate tool and available resource to find, stop, and punish those who seek to take advantage of their fellow citizens.”
   The defendants charged are accused of various health care fraud-related crimes, including conspiracy to commit health care fraud, violations of the anti-kickback statutes, and money laundering. The charges are based on a variety of alleged fraud schemes involving various medical treatments and services, including home health care, mental health services, psychotherapy, physical and occupational therapy, durable medical equipment, and pharmacy fraud.
   According to court documents, the defendants allegedly participated in schemes to submit claims to Medicare for treatments that were medically unnecessary and often never provided. In many cases, court documents allege that patient recruiters, Medicare beneficiaries, and other co-conspirators were paid cash kickbacks in return for supplying beneficiary information to providers, so that the providers could then submit fraudulent bills to Medicare for services that were medically unnecessary or never performed. Collectively, the doctors, nurses, licensed medical professionals, health care company owners, and others charged are accused of conspiring to submit approximately $260 million in fraudulent billings.
  “Today, across the nation, scores of defendants were arrested for engaging in hundreds of millions of dollars in health care fraud,” O’Neil said. “Among the defendants charged were 27 medical professionals, including 16 doctors. The crimes charged represent the face of health care fraud today—doctors billing for services that were never rendered, supply companies providing motorized wheelchairs that were never needed, recruiters paying kickbacks to get Medicare billing numbers of patients. The fraud was rampant, it was brazen, and it permeated every part of the Medicare system. But law enforcement continues to strike back. Using cutting-edge, data-driven investigative techniques, we are bringing fraudsters to justice and saving the American taxpayers billions of dollars. Overall, since its inception, the Department of Justice’s Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged nearly 1,900 individuals involved in approximately $6 billion of fraud. We are committed to using every tool at our disposal to prevent, deter, and prosecute health care fraud.”
   In Miami, a total of 50 defendants were charged for their alleged participation in various fraud schemes involving approximately $65.5 million in false billings for home health care and mental health services and pharmacy fraud. In one case, two defendants were charged in connection with a $23 million pharmacy kickback and laundering scheme. Court documents allege that the defendants solicited kickbacks from a pharmacy owner for Medicare beneficiary information, which was used to bill for drugs that were never dispensed. The kickbacks were concealed as bi-weekly payments under a sham services contract and were laundered through shell entities owned by the defendants.
   Eleven individuals were charged by the Houston Medicare Strike Force. Five Houston-area physicians were charged with conspiring to bill Medicare for medically unnecessary home health services. According to court documents, the defendant doctors were paid by two co-conspirators to sign off on home health care services that were not necessary and often never provided.
   Eight defendants were charged in Los Angeles for their roles in schemes to defraud Medicare of approximately $32 million. In one case, a doctor was charged for causing almost $24 million in losses to Medicare through his own fraudulent billing and referrals for durable medical equipment, including over 1,000 expensive power wheelchairs and home health services that were not medically necessary and frequently not provided.
   In Detroit, seven defendants were charged for their roles in fraud schemes involving approximately $30 million in false claims for medically unnecessary services, including home health services, psychotherapy, and infusion therapy. In one case, four individuals, including a doctor, were charged in a sophisticated $28 million fraud scheme in which the physician billed for expensive tests, physical therapy, and injections that were not necessary and not provided. Court documents allege that when the physician’s billings raised red flags, he was put on payment review by Medicare. He was allegedly able to continue his scheme and evade detection by continuing to bill using the billing information of other Medicare providers, sometimes without their knowledge.
   In Tampa, Florida, seven individuals were charged in a variety of schemes, ranging from fraudulent physical therapy billings to a scheme involving millions of dollars in physician services and tests that never occurred. In one case, five individuals were charged for their alleged roles in a $12 million health care fraud and money laundering scheme that involved billing Medicare using names of beneficiaries from Miami-Dade County for services purportedly provided in Tampa area clinics, 280 miles away. The defendants then allegedly laundered the proceeds through a number of transactions involving several shell entities.
   In Brooklyn, New York, the strike force announced an indictment against Syed Imran Ahmed, M.D., in connection with his alleged $85 million scheme involving billings for surgeries that never occurred; Dr. Ahmed had been arrested last month and charged by complaint. Dr. Ahmed has charged with health care fraud and making false statements. In addition, the Brooklyn Strike Force charged six other individuals, including a physician and two billers who allegedly concocted a $14.4 million scheme in which they recruited elderly Medicare beneficiaries and billed Medicare for medically unnecessary vitamin infusions, diagnostic tests and physical and occupational therapy supposedly provided to these patients.
   The cases are being prosecuted and investigated by Medicare Fraud Strike Force teams composed of attorneys from the Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and from the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Southern District of Florida, the Eastern District of Michigan, the Eastern District of New York, the Southern District of Texas, the Central District of California, the Middle District of Louisiana, the Northern District of Illinois, and the Middle District of Florida; and agents from the FBI, HHS-OIG, and state Medicaid Fraud Control Units.
   Source: U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation

HHS Leaders Address Opioid Overdose Epidemic

  (NIH) - 5/16/2014 - A national response to the epidemic of prescription opioid overdose deaths was outlined in the New England Journal of Medicine by leaders of agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The commentary calls upon health care providers to expand their use of medications to treat opioid addiction and reduce overdose deaths, and describes a number of misperceptions that have limited access to these potentially life-saving medications. The commentary also discusses how medications can be used in combination with behavior therapies to help drug users recover and remain drug-free, and use of data-driven tracking to monitor program progress.
   The commentary was authored by leaders of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) within the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
   “When prescribed and monitored properly, medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone are safe and cost-effective components of opioid addiction treatment,” said lead author and NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “These medications can improve lives and reduce the risk of overdose, yet medication-assisted therapies are markedly underutilized.”
  Research has led to several medications that can be used to help treat opioid addiction, including methadone, usually administered in clinics; buprenorphine, which can be given by qualifying doctors External Web Site Policy; and naltrexone, now available in a once-a-month injectable, long-acting form. The authors stress the value of these medications and describe reasons why treatment services have been slow to utilize them. The reasons include inadequate provider education and misunderstandings about addiction medications by the public, health care providers, insurers, and patients. For example, one common, long-held misperception is that medication-assisted therapies merely replace one addiction for another – an attitude that is not backed by the science. The authors also discuss the importance of naloxone, a potentially life-saving medication that blocks the effects of opioids as a person first shows symptoms of an overdose.
   The article describes how HHS agencies are collaborating with public and private stakeholders to expand access to and improve utilization of medication-assisted therapies, in tandem with other targeted approaches to reducing opioid overdoses. For example, NIDA is funding research to improve access to medication-assisted therapies, develop new medications for opioid addiction, and expand access to naloxone by exploring more user-friendly delivery systems (for example, nasal sprays). CDC is working with states to implement comprehensive strategies for overdose prevention that include medication-assisted therapies, as well as enhanced surveillance of prescriptions and clinical practices. CDC is also establishing statewide norms to provide better tools for the medical community in making prescription decisions.
   “Prescription drug overdoses in the United States are skyrocketing. The good news is we can prevent this problem by stopping the source and treating the troubled,” said co-author and CDC director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “It is critical that states use effective prescription drug tracking programs so we can improve prescribing practices and help get those who are abusing drugs into treatment.”
   Charged with providing access to treatment programs, SAMHSA is encouraging medication-assisted therapy through the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant as well as regulatory oversight of medications used to treat opioid addiction. SAMHSA has also developed an Opioid Overdose Toolkit External Web Site Policy to educate first responders in the use of naloxone to prevent overdose deaths. The toolkit includes easy-to-understand information about recognizing and responding appropriately to overdose, specific drug-use behaviors to avoid, and the role of naloxone in preventing fatal overdose.
   “SAMHSA’s Opioid Overdose Toolkit is the first federal resource to provide safety and prevention information for those at risk for overdose and for their loved ones,” said co-author and SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D. “It also gives local governments the information they need to develop policies and practices to help prevent and respond appropriately to opioid-related overdose.”
   CMS is working to enhance access to medication-assisted therapies through a more comprehensive benefit design, as well as a more robust application of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.
   “Appropriate access to medication-assisted therapies under Medicaid is a key piece of the strategy to address the rising rate of death from overdoses of prescription opioids,” said co-author Stephen Cha, M.D., M.H.S., chief medical officer for the Center for Medicaid and CHIP [Children’s Health Insurance Program] Services at CMS. “CMS is collaborating closely with partners across the country, inside and outside government, to improve care to address this widespread problem.”
   However, the authors point out that success of these strategies requires engagement and participation of the medical community.
   The growing availability of prescription opioids has increased risks for people undergoing treatment for pain and created an environment and marketplace of diversion, where people who are not seeking these medications for medical reasons abuse and sell the drugs because they can produce a high.
   More than 16,000 people die every year in this country from prescription opioid overdoses, more than heroin and cocaine combined. According to SAMHSA’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health External Web Site Policy, almost 2.1 million people in the United States were dependent upon or abusing opioid pain relievers. More information on prescription opioid abuse can be found at: www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs.
   The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to inform policy and improve practice. Fact sheets on the health effects of drugs of abuse and information on NIDA research and other activities can be found on the NIDA home page at http://www.drugabuse.gov, which is now compatible with your smartphone, iPad or tablet. To order publications in English or Spanish, call NIDA’s DrugPubs research dissemination center at 1-877-NIDA-NIH or 240-645-0228 (TDD) or fax or email requests to 240-645-0227 or drugpubs@nida.nih.gov. Online ordering is available at http://drugpubs.drugabuse.gov. NIDA’s media guide can be found at http://drugabuse.gov/mediaguide, and its new easy-to-read website can be found at http://www.easyread.drugabuse.gov.
   Source: National Institutes of Health

Justice Department Clemency Criteria Praised

   WASHINGTON, D.C. -- (ACLU) - 4/23/2014 - Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced on April 23 a new set of criteria the Justice Department and White House will use when considering clemency petitions from federal prisoners. The new criteria will help the Justice Department identify federal prisoners who, if sentenced under current sentencing laws and policies, would likely have received a substantially lower sentence.
   "Our federal sentencing laws have shattered families and wasted millions of dollars," said Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director. "Too many people—particularly people of color—have been locked up for far too long for nonviolent offenses. The President now has a momentous opportunity to correct these injustices in individual cases.
   If we're ever going to see truly systemic and smart reform of the federal criminal justice, however, we need Congress to step up and pass the Smarter Sentencing Act."​
   Clemency Project 2014, a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations, wholeheartedly supports Cole’s announcement and the Justice Department's plans to restore the integrity of the clemency process.
   "The doors of the Office of the Pardon Attorney have been closed to petitioners for too long. This announcement signals a truly welcome change; the culture of "no" that has dominated that office is being transformed," said Mary Price, FAMM General Counsel. "We stand ready to assist in any way we can to support petitioners and bring their cases to the attention of the President."  
   Clemency Project 2014 launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they'd been sentenced today.
   "Clemency Project 2014 marks the beginning of the end of the age of mass incarceration. We must seize this historic opportunity to start the process of remedying decades of cruel and unnecessarily harsh sentencing policies. I call upon the nation’s lawyers, especially the criminal defense bar, to rise to this challenge in an unprecedented effort to restore hope and the prospect of an early return to freedom for the countless deserving individuals who are languishing in federal custody.," NACDL President Jerry Cox said.
   Clemency Project members will collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general. Pursuant to the criteria announced today, candidates eligible for clemency must be:
  • serving a federal sentence;
  • serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter;
  • have a non-violent history with no significant ties to organized crime, gangs or cartels;
  • have served at least 10 years;
  • have no significant prior convictions;
  • and have demonstrated good conduct.
   "Federal defenders have advocated for reform of the criminal justice system for many years, and we wholeheartedly endorse the President's commitment to lowering the sentences of prisoners who are serving unduly harsh sentences through the clemency process," said Michael Nachmanoff, Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. "In recent years, federal defenders have assisted thousands of defendants to reunite with their families through the crack retroactivity process, and we are eager to work with the other organizations affiliated with the Clemency Project 2014 to help many others serving unfair sentences that would not be imposed today."
   While Clemency Project 2014 will focus on those cases that clearly fit the broad criteria described by Deputy Attorney General Cole, the groups stress that there are many other federal prisoners whose sentences are grossly disproportionate to the crimes for which they were convicted. The groups will continue to urge the Department of Justice and President Obama to vastly expand use of the clemency power to correct widespread injustice. Similarly, each organization participating in the Project supports legislative action to curtail sentencing laws that continue to cause unjust sentences.
   Clemency Project 2014 looks forward to support and participation from other legal and community advocacy groups, and gratefully recognizes the early support of the National Action Network, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, as well as state bar associations, including the New York State Bar Association, before which Deputy Attorney General Cole first announced this initiative last January.
   Lawyers interested in volunteering for the project may do so by writing to clemencyproject@nacdl.org

Atlas details gene activity of prenatal brain

   (NIH) - 4/12/2014 - A comprehensive three-dimensional atlas of the developing human brain that incorporates gene activity along with anatomical reference atlases and neuroimaging data has released its first major report online in Nature. This National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded resource, available to the public, enables researchers to answer questions related to the early roots of brain-based disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
   This big science endeavor, which highlights the transcriptome — when and where genes are turned on in the brain — and anatomy of the human brain during mid-term pregnancy, was undertaken at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. It is the first installment of a consortium project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the NIH, called the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain, which aims to profile gene activity throughout the course of brain development.
   “Many neuropsychiatric diseases are likely the result of abnormal brain development during prenatal life,” said lead author Ed Lein, Ph.D., of the Allen Institute. “An anatomically precise molecular atlas of the brain during this time period is a first step to understanding how the human brain develops normally and what can go wrong.”
   Although animal studies have provided invaluable insights in the basic mechanisms of brain function, there are limitations that make studies based on human tissues, which are very difficult to obtain, incredibly important. One key area is the neocortex, the outermost brain region involved in higher functions such as action and thought. The neocortex is smooth in rodents; in humans and non-human primates, it is much more complexly organized, elaborately folded into grooves and wrinkles called sulci and gyri.
   Further differences in developmental compartments of this area exist between humans and non-human primates. The aim of this highly detailed atlas was to analyze all genes at this level of granularity, allowing meaningful analysis of the molecular underpinnings of human cortical development. Many psychiatric disorders show altered gene activity in the cortex, possibly highlighting changes that occurred during development of this region.
   Lein and other researchers studied four donated, intact, high-quality human prenatal brains from preterm stillbirths — two from 15–16 weeks and two from 21 weeks post-conception – as a framework for their atlas. Contributing labs provided data from a variety of genomic and imaging techniques.
   The BrainSpan Atlas aims to inspire new hypotheses regarding human brain development, and has already led to some surprising findings. For example, the study authors found significant differences between mouse and human brains in the subplate zone, a developmentally transient structure critical for proper cortical development. On the other hand, the researchers expected to find a unique molecular signature for the outer portion of the subventricular zone, an area which is not found in mice and which contains a hugely expanded pool of neuronal stem cells that give rise to our greatly expanded neocortex. Surprisingly, despite its much larger size, no significant differences were found between this zone and the inner portion of this layer that is conserved from mouse to human.
   “The BrainSpan Atlas becomes very powerful when one can understand where and when a particular gene is used — for instance, is it active in precursor cells or in the neurons derived from them?” Lein said, who gave the example that autism candidate genes are expressed very early in in the cortex. Knowledge of the time and location of these genes may lead to future treatment targets and early interventions for this brain disorder, he added.
   The BrainSpan Atlas already is making inroads in research surrounding human brain development and disease.
   “Although the many genes associated with autism and schizophrenia don’t show a clear relationship to each other in the adult brain, the BrainSpan Atlas reveals how these diverse genes are connected in the developing brain,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “Findings of what goes on early in the prenatal brain can lead to the development of biomarkers for diagnosing brain disorders and for matching patients to treatment options most likely to be successful.
   “This atlas is a clear example of the progress that can be made when the public and private sectors work together,” Insel said. “On this first anniversary of the BRAIN Initiative, we are encouraged to see the impact the BrainSpan Atlas is already making on brain research.”
   The resource is freely available for viewing, searching, and data mining for gene activity patterns as part of the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain Developing Human Brain , and can also be found via the Allen Brain Atlas data portal Allen Brain Atlas data portal .
   Source: National Institutes of Health



The Arms Debate

Not All American's Have the Right to Bear Arms

Photo by Steve Rensberry (c) 2018