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Illustris Simulation of the Universe

Posted by Specola • Posted on 02/23/2020 at 12:16PM Photography See more by Specola

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

How did we get here? Click play, sit back, and watch. A computer simulation of the evolution of the universe provides insight into how galaxies formed and perspectives into humanity's place in the universe. The Illustris project exhausted 20 million CPU hours in 2014 following 12 billion resolution elements spanning a cube 35 million light years on a side as it evolved over 13 billion years. The simulation tracks matter into the formation of a wide variety of galaxy types. As the virtual universe evolves, some of the matter expanding with the universe soon gravitationally condenses to form filaments, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies. The featured video takes the perspective of a virtual camera circling part of this changing universe, first showing the evolution of dark matter, then hydrogen gas coded by temperature (0:45), then heavy elements such as helium and carbon (1:30), and then back to dark matter (2:07). On the lower left the time since the Big Bang is listed, while on the lower right the type of matter being shown is listed. Explosions (0:50) depict galaxy-center supermassive black holes expelling bubbles of hot gas. Interesting discrepancies between Illustris and the real universe have been studied, including why the simulation produced an overabundance of old stars.

Do I know I’m at risk for developing dementia? You bet.

My father died of Alzheimer’s disease at age 72; my sister was felled by frontotemporal dementia at 58.

And that’s not all: Two maternal uncles had Alzheimer’s, and my maternal grandfather may have had vascular dementia. (In his generation, it was called senility.)

So what happens when I misplace a pair of eyeglasses or can’t remember the name of a movie I saw a week ago? “Now comes my turn with dementia,” I think.

Then I talk myself down from that emotional cliff.

Am I alone in this? Hardly. Many people, like me, who’ve watched this cruel illness destroy a family member, dread the prospect that they, too, might become demented.

The lack of a cure or effective treatments only adds to the anxiety. Just this week, news emerged that another study trying to stop Alzheimer’s in people at extremely high genetic risk had failed.

How do we cope as we face our fears and peer into our future?

Andrea Kline, whose mother, as well as her mother’s sister and uncle, had Alzheimer’s disease, just turned 71 and lives in Boynton Beach, Florida. She’s a retired registered nurse who teaches yoga to seniors at community centers and assisted-living facilities.

“I worry about dementia incessantly. Every little thing that goes wrong, I’m convinced it’s the beginning,” she told me.

Because Kline has had multiple family members with Alzheimer’s, she’s more likely to have a genetic vulnerability than someone with a single occurrence in their family. But that doesn’t mean this condition lies in her future. A risk is just that: It’s not a guarantee.

The age of onset is also important. People with close relatives struck by dementia early — before age 65 — are more likely to be susceptible genetically.

Kline was the primary caregiver for her mother, Charlotte Kline, who received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1999 and passed away in 2007 at age 80. “I try to eat very healthy. I exercise. I have an advance directive, and I’ve discussed what I want [in the way of care] with my son,” she said.

“Lately, I’ve been thinking I should probably get a test for APOE4 [a gene variant that can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s], although I’m not really sure if it would help,” Kline added. “Maybe it would add some intensity to my planning for the future.”

I spoke to half a dozen experts for this column. None was in favor of genetic testing, except in unusual circumstances.

“Having the APOE4 allele [gene variant] does not mean you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease. Plenty of people with Alzheimer’s don’t have the allele,” said Mark Mapstone, a professor of neurology at the University of California-Irvine. “And conversely, plenty of people with the allele never develop Alzheimer’s.”

Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, strongly suggests having an in-depth discussion with a genetic counselor if you’re considering a test.

“Before you say ‘I have to know,’ really understand what you’re dealing with, how your life might be affected, and what these tests can and cannot tell you,” she advised.

Karen Larsen, 55, is a social worker in the Boston area. Her father, George Larsen, was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s at age 84 and died within a year in 2014.

Larsen is firm: She doesn’t want to investigate her risk of having memory or thinking problems.

“I’ve already planned for the future. I have a health care proxy and a living will and long-term care insurance. I’ve assigned powers of attorney, and I’ve saved my money,” she said. “Eating a healthy diet, getting exercise, remaining socially engaged — I already do all that, and I plan to as long as I can.”

“What would I do if I learned some negative from a test — sit around and worry?” Larsen said.

Currently, the gold standard in cognitive testing consists of a comprehensive neuropsychological exam. Among the domains examined over three to four hours: memory, attention, language, intellectual functioning, problem-solving, visual-spatial orientation, perception and more.

Brain scans are another diagnostic tool. CT and MRI scans can show whether parts of the brain have structural abnormalities or aren’t functioning optimally. PET scans (not covered by Medicare) can demonstrate the buildup of amyloid proteins — a marker of Alzheimer’s. Also, spinal taps can show whether amyloid and tau proteins are present in cerebrospinal fluid.

A note of caution: While amyloid and tau proteins in the brain are a signature characteristic of Alzheimer’s, not all people with these proteins develop cognitive impairment.

Several experts recommend that people concerned about their Alzheimer’s risk get a baseline set of neuropsychological tests, followed by repeat tests if and when they start experiencing worrisome symptoms.

“When it comes to thinking and memory, everyone is different,” said Frederick Schmitt, a neurology professor at the University of Kentucky. Having baseline results is “very helpful” and “allows us to more carefully measure whether, in fact, significant changes have occurred” over time, he said.

Nora Super, senior director of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, watched her father, Bill Super, and all three of his siblings succumb to Alzheimer’s disease over the course of several years — falling, she said, “like a row of dominoes.”

One of her sisters was tested for the APOE4 genetic variant; results were negative. This is no guarantee of a dementia-free future, however, since hundreds of genes are implicated in Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia.

Rather than get genetic or neuropsychological tests, Super has focused on learning as much as she can about how to protect her brain. At the top of the list: managing her depression as well as stress. Both have been linked to dementia.

Also, Super exercises routinely and eats a MIND-style diet, rich in vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts, fish and beans. She is learning French (a form of cognitive stimulation), meditates regularly and is socially and intellectually active.

According to a growing body of research, physical inactivity, hearing loss, depression, obesity, hypertension, smoking, social isolation, diabetes and low education levels raise the risk of dementia. All of these factors are modifiable.

What if Super started having memory problems? “I fear I would get really depressed,” she admitted. “Alzheimer’s is such a horrible disease: To see what people you love go through, especially in the early stages, when they’re aware of what’s happening but can’t do anything about it, is excruciating. I’m not sure I want to go through that.”

Gefen of Northwestern said she tells patients that “if [cognitive testing] is something that’s going to stress you out, then don’t do it.”

Nigel Smith, 49, had a change of heart after caring for his mother, Nancy Smith, 81, who’s in hospice care in the Boston area with Alzheimer’s. When he brought his mother in for a neuropsychological exam in early 2017 and she received a diagnosis of moderate Alzheimer’s, she was furious. At that point, Nancy was still living in the family’s large home in Brookline, Massachusetts, which she refused to leave.

Eventually, after his mother ended up in the hospital, Smith was given legal authority over her affairs and he moved her to a memory care unit.

“Now, she’s deteriorated to the point where she has about 5% of her previous verbal skills,” Nigel said. “She smiles but she doesn’t recognize me.”

Does he want to know if something like this might lie in his future?

A couple of years ago, Smith said he was too afraid of Alzheimer’s to contemplate this question. Now he’s determined to know as much as possible, “not so much because I’m curious but so I can help prepare myself and my family. I see the burden of what I’m doing for my mother, and I want to do everything I can to ease that burden for them.”

Kim Hall, 54, of Plymouth, Minnesota, feels a similar need for a plan. Her mother, Kathleen Peterson, 89, a registered nurse for over 50 years, was diagnosed with vascular dementia five years ago. Today, she resides in assisted living and doesn’t recognize most of her large family, including dozens of nieces and nephews who grew up with Hall.

Hall knows her mother had medical issues that may have harmed her brain: a traumatic brain injury as a young adult, uncontrolled high blood pressure for many years, several operations with general anesthesia and an addiction to prescription painkillers. “I don’t share these, and that may work in my favor,” she said.

Still, Hall is concerned. “I guess I want to know if I’m at risk for dementia and if there is anything I can do to slow it down,” she said. “I don’t want what happened to my mother to happen to me.” Probably, Hall speculated, she’ll arrange to take a neuropsychological exam at some point.

Several years ago, when I was grieving my sister’s death from frontotemporal dementia, my doctor suggested that a baseline exam of this sort might be a good idea.

I knew then I wouldn’t take him up on the offer. If and when my time with dementia comes, I’ll have to deal with it. Until then, I’d rather not know.

 Read more at KHN. This story also ran on The New York Times.

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Central Centaurus A

Posted by Specola • Posted on 02/22/2020 at 12:16PM Photography See more by Specola

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is the closest active galaxy to planet Earth. Also known as NGC 5128, the peculiar elliptical galaxy is over 60,000 light-years across. A region spanning about 8,500 light-years, including the galaxy's center (upper left), is framed in this sharp Hubble Space telescope close-up. Centaurus A is apparently the result of a collision of two otherwise normal galaxies resulting in a violent jumble of star forming regions, massive star clusters, and imposing dark dust lanes. Near the galaxy's center, left over cosmic debris is steadily being consumed by a central black hole with a billion times the mass of the Sun. As in other active galaxies, that process likely generates the radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray energy radiated by Centaurus A.

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LDN 1622: Dark Nebula in Orion

Posted by Specola • Posted on 02/21/2020 at 12:16PM Photography See more by Specola

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

The silhouette of an intriguing dark nebula inhabits this cosmic scene. Lynds' Dark Nebula (LDN) 1622 appears against a faint background of glowing hydrogen gas only visible in long telescopic exposures of the region. In contrast, the brighter reflection nebula vdB 62 is more easily seen, just above and right of center. LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard's Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion. With swept-back outlines, the obscuring dust of LDN 1622 is thought to lie at a similar distance, perhaps 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, this 1 degree wide field of view would span about 30 light-years. Young stars do lie hidden within the dark expanse and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images. Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.

Photo by Min Xie

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Trifecta at Twilight

Posted by Specola • Posted on 02/20/2020 at 12:16PM Photography See more by Specola

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

On February 18, as civil twilight began in northern New Mexico skies, the International Space Station, a waning crescent Moon, and planet Mars for a moment shared this well-planned single field of view. From the photographer's location the sky had just begun to grow light, but the space station orbiting 400 kilometers above the Earth was already bathed in the morning sunlight. At 6:25am local time it took about a second to cross in front of the lunar disk moving right to left in the composited successive frames. At the time, Mars itself had already emerged from behind the Moon following its much anticipated lunar occultation. The yellowish glow of the Red Planet is still in the frame at the upper right, beyond the Moon's dark edge.

Photo by Paul Schmit

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UGC 12591: The Fastest Rotating Galaxy Known

Posted by Specola • Posted on 02/19/2020 at 12:16PM Photography See more by Specola

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Why does this galaxy spin so fast? To start, even identifying which type of galaxy UGC 12591 is difficult -- featured on the lower left, it has dark dust lanes like a spiral galaxy but a large diffuse bulge of stars like a lenticular. Surprisingly observations show that UGC 12591 spins at about 480 km/sec, almost twice as fast as our Milky Way, and the fastest rotation rate yet measured. The mass needed to hold together a galaxy spinning this fast is several times the mass of our Milky Way Galaxy. Progenitor scenarios for UGC 12591 include slow growth by accreting ambient matter, or rapid growth through a recent galaxy collision or collisions -- future observations may tell. The light we see today from UGC 12591 left about 400 million years ago, when trees were first developing on Earth.

Argh he said,
as he wiped off his chin
with the sleeve of his arm
and that's when it begin.

He was a motley type,
his face covered with hair.
Not very quick,
or I wasn't aware.

His eyes were dark blue,
I noticed his face,
he didn't belong here,
not of the human race.

He looked right at me,
that's when I saw,
the pinkish scar
underneath his jaw.
I thought I would ask him,
what the scar was about.
I opened my mouth wide,
but no words would come out.

I wanted to know about him.
Where did you come from?
But he turned his body,
and with a little sound,
was out the door,
and couldn't be found.

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Orion over the Central Bohemian Highlands

Posted by Specola • Posted on 02/18/2020 at 12:16PM Photography See more by Specola

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Do you recognize this constellation? Setting past the Central Bohemian Highlands in the Czech Republic is Orion, one of the most identifiable star groupings on the sky and an icon familiar to humanity for over 30,000 years. Orion has looked pretty much the same during this time and should continue to look the same for many thousands of years into the future. Prominent Orion is high in the sky at sunset this time of year, a recurring sign of (modern) winter in Earth's northern hemisphere and summer in the south. The featured picture is a composite of over thirty images taken from the same location and during the same night last month. Below and slightly to the left of Orion's three-star belt is the Orion Nebula, while four of the bright stars surrounding the belt are, clockwise, Sirius (far left, blue), Betelgeuse (top, orange, unusually faint), Aldebaran (far right), and Rigel (below). As future weeks progress, Orion will set increasingly earlier. Infinite Random Loop: Create an APOD Station in your classroom or Science Center.

Photo by Vojtěch Bauer

Standing by the campfire,
so many years ago.
Trying to stay warm,
when it began to snow.
The hiss of snowflakes
into the flaming fire.
The flickering shadows,
across the ground
so white with snow.
Smelling the smoke,
now on our clothes.
Banking the fire,
going to our tent,
into our sleeping bag,
trying to sleep
until dawn
of a Winter morn.

What's it like to lose 200 pounds at home and completely change your life? This most recent post features a Q&A with Shandon Smith. It explores Shandon’s decision to have surgery, her experience, the ways she’s made sustainable changes, and the surprising non-scale-victories she’s experienced.

Working at picking up stray leaves
in the garden space.
I noticed a large branch that was
broken from a Salvia, or "Hot lips"
that was on the ground.
The cause of the break was from the
snow that we had in January.
I cut it from the main trunk,
then cut the branches so I
had a total of 4 branches.
I cut those at an angle and
the branch were green.
I placed the ends into some
Root Hormone powder
and then into pots.
Now I'll see if I have
recaptured my "green
thumb" and if I see new
growth as the weather warms.

Out to dinner last night.
She ordered a Caesar Salad.
When it came, She said,
"What is this?"
Her memory is no longer there.
After we had finished
She said, "Did you know my Mom?
Did you know my Dad?"
I replied, Yes I did and
they were very nice people.
Then she said to me,
"Tell me about your family?"
I told her about what I knew,
Realizing she no longer knows
Who I am.
Her memory loss continues to
to slip away, much to my dismay.

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