Jul 16, 2020

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Welcome back and thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at mental health risks for COVID-19 patients, the closest-ever images of the Sun, #ArtGenetics, and more.

Today's newsletter is 1,595 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The risk of loneliness and trauma from COVID-19

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus that's packing people in hospitals as they grapple with sometimes life-threatening complications is leading to another problem for some survivors: mental health issues, Eileen reports.

What's happening: Most hospitals require adult patients to enter without family. Their stress, loneliness and fear, sometimes magnified by invasive treatment procedures, place them at a high risk for disorders such as PTSD, some medical experts say.

Loneliness can affect all of us during a pandemic, as many people stay physically distant from each other and more than 35 million Americans live by themselves.

  • "Loneliness is about an experience and not a feeling, because loneliness is a combination of thinking, of feeling, and of behaving," says Ami Rokach, clinical psychologist and psychology teacher at York University in Toronto.
  • However, there are some indications that people's resilience plus increased use of communications technology may be helping lessen the broader impact of the pandemic on loneliness, according to Martina Luchetti, assistant professor at Florida State University College of Medicine.

But the situation is different for COVID-19 patients. With the exception of giving birth, many hospitals don't allow adults to bring a support person due to fears of infection and a limited supply of personal protective equipment.

  • Not only is it stressful to be diagnosed with a new disease with minimal treatment options, but the virus itself can affect the brain, including psychiatric and neurological complications.
  • Being alone through the prolonged treatment process can be “heart-wrenching” to watch, although nurses and doctors try to comfort them, says Martha A.Q. Curley, professor of pediatric nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Some COVID-19 survivors may experience PTSD, which can last for years without treatment.

  • Most people feel anxiety with the uncertainty of COVID-19, but some experience PTSD due to trauma and a "threat to life or threat to physical integrity," says Anthony King, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan.
  • "Clearly, the coronavirus disease is a threat to life," and the chance someone may experience PTSD may be exacerbated by patient isolation while fighting the disease, King says while cautioning further research is needed into anecdotal evidence.
  • Long-term studies of past serious outbreaks found PTSD is much higher in patients than in the general population.
  • In one study, one-fourth of 90 SARS patients had PTSD 30 months after the outbreak and 15.6% had a depressive disorder.

What to watch: There are growing calls to implement more compassionate measures in ICUs.

  • Four doctors argue in a New England Journal of Medicine perspective piece that new guidelines should enable more regular telecommunication between isolated patients and their families.
  • Curley, who is also a pediatric nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, goes one step further and suggests steps can be taken to safely allow a family member into the ICU with a COVID-19 patient. Family facilitators can help with the careful screening, preparation and support needed to undertake this goal, she says.

The bottom line: Isolated and faced with uncertainty and fear, some COVID-19 patients are at risk for trauma that experts say should be screened for and addressed at all stages of health care.

  • Some free and confidential mental health resources can be found here.
2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti, Sara Wise/Axios
  • Coronavirus cases rose in 37 states over the past week, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon report.
  • Blood type may not greatly influence someone's risk for infection and severe COVID-19, as initially reported, Carl Zimmer writes in NYT.
  • The first confirmed case of the coronavirus being passed from mother to child in the womb was reported this week. The infant recovered and doctors stress it is rare, per The Guardian.
  • Employees at a Chinese pharmaceutical company say they were given an experimental COVID-19 vaccine before it was approved for testing in humans, underscoring the stakes of the global vaccine race, AP's Sam McNeil and Lauran Neergaard report.
3. "Campfires" on the Sun

Close-up views of the Sun as seen by Solar Orbiter. Photo: ESA

A spacecraft on a mission to the Sun has beamed back new images that show never-before-seen features of our nearest star, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

Why it matters: The Solar Orbiter, which launched in February, is designed to take close-up images of the star in order to help scientists better predict its behavior. These photos represent a step forward for that work.

Details: The new photos show what the scientists behind the mission are calling "campfires" on the Sun — small flares that constantly shoot forth from the star.

  • These flares are millions of times smaller than the larger flares that occasionally shoot forth from active regions of the star, but they might help scientists piece together why the outermost layer of the Sun's atmosphere is hundreds of times hotter than its inner layers, David Long, a scientist working on Solar Orbiter, said in a statement.
  • The photos were taken in June when Solar Orbiter was about 48 million miles from the Sun.

The big picture: The Sun has been relatively quiet in recent years, but scientists think its activity might be starting to ramp up again, potentially giving Solar Orbiter and other Sun-studying spacecraft a good look at a more active Sun.

  • Other telescopes like the Parker Solar Probe in space and the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii will also keep a close eye on the Sun in the coming years to learn more about how its complex physics work.
  • Data from all three missions could one day be used to better predict space weather like solar flares that can threaten satellites in orbit and power grids on the ground.
4. Lessons for today's scientists from the first nuclear bomb test

The mushroom cloud of the Trinity atomic bomb test, 10 seconds after detonation. Photo: © Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

The Trinity nuclear test 75 years ago represented our first reckoning with a technology that could potentially destroy us, my Axios colleague Bryan Walsh writes.

Why it matters: Nuclear weapons are still with us, even as we grapple with potentially dangerous and unpredictable new technologies like gene editing and artificial intelligence.

What's happening: Emerging technologies like synthetic biology and AI present new questions of control and new challenges to our future survival.

  • Like the bomb, these technologies are a product of scientists doing what scientists do: advancing knowledge and making discoveries, with no way of fully predicting what they are bringing into the world.
  • These technologies are also dual-use, meaning the same tools can be used for tremendous good and tremendous harm.
  • And as they advance, they become easier to use for small groups and even individuals, something that has thankfully never been true of nuclear weapons.

Existential risk expert Nick Bostrom laid out the risks of these discoveries with a concept called "the vulnerable world hypothesis."

  • Imagine if the Manhattan Project had discovered that nuclear bombs could be made with basic supplies, instead of expensive and hard-to-acquire radioactive materials. If anyone could make and wield a nuke easily, the world would likely not endure long.
  • Bostrom's example is obviously counterfactual, but as synthetic biology advances, it may one day be as easy to engineer a deadly virus as it is now to program computer malware. Dangerous AI could eventually be unleashed — accidentally or on purpose — by a single company, or even a band of programmers.

The bottom line: We have to hope this generation of scientists is more cautious and more far-seeing than those of the Manhattan Project, many of whom turned against nuclear weapons only after they saw what they had done, when it was too late.

  • The good news is that scientists in AI and synthetic biology are baking ethics directly into the practice of their work.
  • Still, as Richard Rhodes wrote of Trinity's legacy in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb": "The scientific method doesn't filter for benevolence. Knowledge had consequences, not always intended, not always comfortable, not always welcome."
5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The summer of Mars (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Scientists revive damaged lungs for transplant (Gina Kolata — NYT)

Siberia’s heatwave would not have happened without climate change (The Economist)

The debate over the universe's expansion rages on (Emily Conover — Science News)

6. Something wondrous

Jan Davidsz de Heem, "Still Life with Wine, Fruit and Oysters." Photo: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The plants we eat have a long history on Earth, steered in part by human behaviors and preferences for color, taste and size.

  • A pair of researchers in Belgium is combining art history and genetics to try to link genetic mutations in fruits, vegetables and other plants to changes in their appearance, or phenotype, over time.

The big picture: The story of plants is intertwined with the history of mankind, says plant biologist Ive De Smet, co-author of an essay detailing the approach this week in Trends in Plant Science.

  • What the researchers call #ArtGenetics, "can demonstrate when and where particular varieties emerged, how common they were, and what correlation existed between food habits, trade routes, and newly conquered lands," De Smet and art historian David Vergauwen write.

The challenge: DNA from ancient specimens and written texts can help to trace the natural history of plants.

  • But there are gaps in knowledge about what plants looked like and the research can be "costly, time consuming, and often involves researchers descending into ancient cesspits and muddy wells," they write.

Instead, they propose using imagery of fruits, vegetables and other plants along with genomic information to pinpoint important changes in plants — and tie them to human forces and natural variation.

Yes, but: An artist's interpretation of food — from Picasso's abstraction of apples (case in point, I think they are apples) to Beuckelaer's season-defying market offerings — could lead to incorrect conclusions.

  • The authors say if an artist paints a building in accurate detail, one may reasonably assume the same of any vegetables. Or if a fruit is similarly represented in various paintings or by different artists from the same region, it may be a realistic depiction.
  • They propose using roses as a "non-food control" because the ways in which they've been domesticated over thousands of years are well-known.
  • The other limitation: Finding art that includes fruits and vegetables, which are often omitted from titles and descriptions, and works may be hidden in private collections.

What's next: The researchers are asking people to provide pictures of paintings to build a public database for their work.

Alison Snyder