Video Game Helps Fight Disease: Research

Scientists combined video games and computer models to show that the spread of a deadly pig disease

Video Game, Disease, Research
Luke Trinity and Scott Merrill are part of a team of University of Vermont researchers using video games and computational models to understand human behavior. (Sally McCay/University of Vermont). VOA

Video games aren’t just for fun — they can also be used to fight disease, new research shows.

Scientists combined video games and computer models to show that the spread of a deadly pig disease can be slowed if farmers avoid risky behaviors. The authors say insights from the video games could be used to encourage people to follow rules, in the swine industry and beyond.

Since its emergence 40 years ago, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) has swept through pig farms in Europe, Asia and North America. When PEDV erupted in the U.S. in 2013, it wiped out 7 million pigs. “A thimbleful of this virus could infect every single pig in the United States,” said Scott Merrill, a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont who was second author on the study.

PEDV is especially harmful to young pigs.

Video Game, Disease, Research
Images from biosecurity video games show two risk scenarios. Players were more likely to comply with biosecurity practices when risk was presented graphically, right, rather than numerically, left. (UVM Social Ecological and Simulation Lab). VOA

“More than 90 percent of [infected] piglets would die,” said lead author Gabriela Bucini, a postdoctoral researcher.

Merrill added, “We’ve seen and had discussions where people decided that they’re not going to work in the industry anymore because of PEDV, because it was just really hard to see this many animals get sick and die.”

While PEDV remains a threat to U.S. pig populations, its incidence has dropped since 2013. The researchers attributed the decline to a change in how farmers and other members of the production pipeline implemented safety protocols, such as disinfecting vehicles, clothing and footwear that could transmit infection between farms.

It’s clear that those protocols play an important part in preventing the spread of swine diseases, but until now there hasn’t been a way to measure just how important.\

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Virtual pig farms

Bucini and her team used video games to tackle this problem.

In one game, players assume the role of pig farmers and try to complete tasks while preventing their pigs from being infected with a contagious virus. As they complete the tasks, players are reminded of the risk of infection and are given the option to obey or ignore safety protocols like disinfecting clothing when entering and exiting buildings. Complying with safety protocols decreases the odds of infection, but uses up valuable time.

The games provided insight into how people behave in the real world, which the researchers incorporated into a model of PEDV transmission to track how the disease would spread — and learn how best to contain it. One of the key variables was the number of farmers who avoided risk by following the recommended safety protocols.

Video Game, Disease, Research
Video games aren’t just for fun — they can also be used to fight disease, new research shows. Pixabay

“We did find that by nudging or shifting the population of producers toward more risk-averse positions, the disease was more under control,” Bucini said.

Even a small change could have a big effect.

The model showed that nudging just 10 percent of risk-tolerant farmers away from risky behaviors decreased the number of PEDV cases by 19 percent. However, in order to substantially slow the spread of the disease, more than 40 percent of risk-tolerant farmers needed to change their ways.

Steve Dritz, a swine specialist and professor in Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine who was not involved in the study, expressed hope that the model could be used to prevent the spread of future livestock disease outbreaks.

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“It’s a wonderful tool for when … you’re trying to figure out, ‘What are the factors that I can control to keep incursions of disease out that I’ve never seen before?'” he said.

From pigs to people

The implications of the findings extend beyond pig farming to any situation where people need to follow rules to avoid negative consequences. Using their video games, the researchers found that changing how they presented the consequences of rule-breaking influenced the likelihood that people would follow the rules — even if the consequences themselves didn’t change.

For example, conveying the risk of infection with a colorful dial rather than with percentages caused a dramatic jump in the number of game players choosing to take the time to disinfect their clothing when entering and exiting farm buildings, from 30 to 82 percent.

Merrill explained the significance of this finding using a basic hygiene practice: “If you’re getting 30 percent of the people washing their hands versus 82 percent of the people washing their hands, that can be a huge difference in how quickly and how far any sort of disease spreads.”

The research was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. (VOA)

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Exposure to Anaesthetics For Kids May Lead To Alcohol Disorder In Adolescents: Research

Early exposure to anesthetics in life may make adolescents more susceptible to developing an alcohol use disorder

exposure to anesthetics during adolescence could affect a person's response to alcohol in adulthood. Pixabay

Early exposure to anaesthetics in life may make adolescents more susceptible to developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), warn researchers. Anaesthetics are commonly used drugs in the healthcare field and are often administered to children to induce unconsciousness and immobility during surgeries.

For the findings, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the research team examined whether exposure to anesthetics during adolescence could affect a person’s response to alcohol in adulthood, especially the development of AUD.

Researchers discovered that anaesthetic exposure during adolescence may be an environmental risk factor that leads to an increased susceptibility to developing AUD later in life. Although not all adolescents who drink alcohol develop AUDs, the research team said it’s important to identify risk factors that contribute to an increased susceptibility to alcohol abuse

“This is highly concerning. Given that although the age of initiation and subsequent binging during adolescence are linked to alcoholism later in life, apart from stress, it was not clear what other environmental factors may play a role,” said study author David Werner from Binghamton University, New York in the US. During the study, researchers exposed early-adolescent male rats to isoflurane, a general anaesthetic, in short durations and tested them on various alcohol-induced behaviours later in adolescence or adulthood.

Alcohol usage
Anaesthetic exposure during adolescence may be an environmental risk factor that leads to an increased susceptibility to developing AUD later in life. Pixabay

The team found that exposure to anaesthetics in adolescence had extremely similar behavioural and neural effects as adolescent chronic alcohol exposure. In the study, the adolescent rats exposed to isoflurane had a decreased sensitivity to the negative effects of alcohol, such as its aversive, sedative and socially suppressive effects. These rats also showed an increase in voluntary alcohol consumption and cognitive impairment, and certain behaviours continued into adulthood after their initial anaesthetic exposure.

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These results further suggest that exposure to anaesthetics during adolescence, while in some cases is necessary, may have unintended consequences that incubate over time. “Apart from infancy to early childhood, adolescence can be considered the most critical developmental stage following birth,” Werner said. (IANS)

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Drinking Coffee may Keep Digestive Disorders at Bay: Study

Drinking coffee may help reduce the risk of certain digestive disorders, new study suggestes

Recent studies suggest that populations of the beneficial gut bacteria Bifidobacterium spp, increase after drinking coffee. Pixabay

Drinking coffee may help reduce the risk of certain digestive disorders, including gallstone disease and pancreatitis, a new study has suggested.

The study from the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC) also highlighted other beneficial effects that coffee consumption may have on the process of digestion, including supporting gut microflora and promoting gut motility. “Data indicates benefits against common digestive complaints such as constipation, as well as a potential reduction in the risk of more serious conditions like chronic liver diseases,” said study author Carlo La Vecchia from the University of Milan in Italy.

Gallstone disease is a common digestive disorder, caused by the accumulation of gallstones in the gallbladder or bile duct, which affects approximately 10-15 per cent of the adult population. While the mechanism by which coffee may protect against gallstone disease is not yet known, it has been observed that the risk for the condition declines with increasing daily consumption of coffee, the researchers said. Caffeine is thought to play a role in these associations, as the same effect is not observed with decaffeinated coffee.

Drinking coffee may help reduce the risk of certain digestive disorders. Pixabay

A common question among consumers and focus area for research is whether coffee is associated with heartburn or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). While a small number of studies have suggested an association between coffee drinking and GORD, the majority of studies reviewed suggest that coffee is not a major trigger of these conditions.

The report also reviewed a growing area of health and nutrition research, namely: the effect of coffee on the gut microflora (microorganism populations). Recent studies suggest that populations of the beneficial gut bacteria Bifidobacterium spp, increase after drinking coffee. The findings showed the dietary fibre and polyphenols found in coffee, support the healthy growth of microflora populations.

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Additional research findings highlighted that coffee consumption is thought to stimulate digestion by encouraging the release of gastric acid, bile and pancreatic secretions. Coffee is one of the most widely researched components of the diet, and its effect on digestion remains a growing area of research, the researchers noted. (IANS)

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COVID-19 Poses Serious Complications, Even Death Risk for Children: Research

Children at a higher risk from COVID-19

Children at high risk of complications from Covid-19. Pixabay

Researchers, including one of Indian-origin, have revealed that children, teenagers and young adults are at greater risk for severe complications from COVID-19 and those with underlying health conditions are at even greater risk of death.

“This study provides a baseline understanding of the early disease burden of COVID-19 in pediatric patients,” said study researcher Hariprem Rajasekhar from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Department of Pediatrics in the US. “The findings confirm that this emerging disease was already widespread in March and that it is not universally benign among children,” Rajasekhar added.

Published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the study followed 48 children and young adults – from newborns to 21 years old — who were admitted to pediatric intensive care units (PICUs) in the US and Canada for COVID-19 in March and April.

More than 80 per cent had chronic underlying conditions, such as immune suppression, obesity, diabetes, seizures or chronic lung disease. Of those, 40 per cent depended on technological support due to developmental delays or genetic anomalies. More than 20 per cent experienced failure of two or more organ systems due to COVID-19, and nearly 40 per cent required a breathing tube and ventilator.

At the end of the follow-up period, nearly 33 percent of the children were still hospitalised due to COVID-19, with three still requiring ventilator support and one on life support. Two of the children admitted during the three-week study period died.


Children, teenagers and young adults at very high risk of COVID-19, say researchers. Pixabay

The researchers said they were “cautiously encouraged” by hospital outcomes for the children studied, citing the 4.2 per cent mortality rate for PICU patients compared with published mortality rates of up to 62 per cent among adults admitted to ICUs, as well as lower incidences of respiratory failure.

The study noted that doctors in the New York metropolitan area are seeing what appears to be a new COVID-related syndrome in children. “The idea that COVID-19 is sparing of young people is just false,” said study co-author Lawrence C Kleinman from Rutgers University in the US.

“While children are more likely to get very sick if they have other chronic conditions, including obesity, it is important to note that children without chronic illness are also at risk. Parents need to continue to take the virus seriously,” Kleinman added.

Recently, another study, published in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics, also revealed that gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, coupled with a fever or history of exposure to COVID-19, could indicate coronavirus infection in children.

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The US currently accounts for the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths at 1,347,388 and 80,397, respectively, according to the Johns Hopkins University. (IANS)