These Teens Are Listening: New App Offers Safe Space For Airing Tough Issues

These Teens Are Listening: New App Offers Safe Space For Airing Tough Issues

Using the Teen Talk app on a cellphone gives teens greater privacy and less risk of being overheard by a parent, versus using a traditional help hotline. (Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash)

By Evan T. Henerson

Sometimes it is easier to let the tech do the talking.

An innovative new app is helping teens communicate via text about the difficult issues they face.

The Teen Talk app, developed by Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, gives teens a safe space to connect with peers. The cellphone app gives teens greater privacy and lower risk of being overheard by a parent, versus using a traditional help hotline.

When volunteer Shira Schlessinger, a 17-year-old high school senior, logs on to help her peers, she knows their concerns are diverse. She could be texting with someone who had a fight with a parent, a crippling case of COVID fatigue or even someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide.

Schlessinger is trained to deal with these situations and many others.

Teen Talk App adviser Shira Schlessinger, 17, says peers feel more comfortable talking to someone their own age. (Courtesy of Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Los Angeles)

“Now, more so than ever, my generation is going through something similar. … A lot of the time, that could be my friend from school. It could be your peer. And we’re all going through something really hard. It’s really crazy how close to home it could be,” she said.

When the pandemic lockdown began in March 2020, daily posts on the app quickly increased. Over the course of the pandemic, the number of unique individuals logging in for at least five minutes daily jumped from around 100 to more than 200.  The app now averages 155-170 posts per day.

“We had not prepared for that kind of spike in usage and the app crashed,” Cari Uslan, the agency’s CEO, said of the early days of the pandemic. “We got some emergency funding and support to build up the back end to meet the growing need, increase usage and create more capacity for the app to sustain itself.”

Posts related to isolation and loneliness have remained steady. Uslan said the majority deal with users experiencing depression followed by discussions of relationships, both family and romantic.

Trained teen advisers like Schlessinger are available nightly, though teens can post anytime and will receive a response when advisers come online.

Because users post anonymously, Schlessinger and her fellow teen advisers never know how literally “close to home” the users are.

The majority of the users are in the United States and Canada, according to app administrators, though the app can be downloaded and used on Android or iOS phones from all over the world. The app, which launched in 2018, is free and nonsectarian.

The teen advisers get 50 hours of specialized training and are supervised at all times by adult mental-health professionals. Teens turn to these professionals when there is a perceived risk users might hurt themselves.

During her first day as an adviser, Schlessinger said she needed to refer a user to a suicide hotline. As she reached out to her supervisor for support, Schlessinger — who describes herself as “the therapist friend” within her circle — was struck by the enormity of the situation.

“I thought this is real. This is someone’s life. This isn’t my training anymore,” Schlessinger said. “And I remember feeling very humbled that I was being trusted literally with these kids’ lives, even though I was 16 at the time and still a kid myself.”

Self-harm is another consistent topic on the app.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34.

In the United States, 11.8 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 have serious thoughts of suicide each year. Among high school students, the prevalence is 18.8 percent according to the alliance.

Andrea Sonnenberg, an attorney and mental health advocate in Los Angeles, said the mental health crisis is “the pandemic without a vaccine.”

Young people are at particularly high risk, which magnifies the need to boost awareness and reach those in need, she said.

“Something that is innovative like this app, we can try to reach people in new ways,” Sonnenberg said of Teen Talk. “Because it’s so important for people to be connected, for people to feel not alone, to feel that other people are going through similar struggles and to learn from other people what might be working for them.”

Sonnenberg said the Gen Z generation has less of a stigma about receiving treatment for mental health. She is developing a podcast called “Getting Thru” for young people to talk about their experiences with mental-health issues and techniques that have helped them.

Her commitment is personal.

In 2017, following the death of their 21-year-old son who had struggled with mental health issues, Sonnenberg and her husband, Glenn, established the Bradley Sonnenberg Wellness Initiative at the University of Southern California Hillel to help college students confronting similar challenges.

“Because I have experience with these challenges, people have felt comfortable talking to me,” said Sonnenberg. “That’s really one of the things I feel so strongly about: the need to talk about these issues. The more we talk about it, the more comfortable we get, and the more commonplace we realize it really is.”

Carys McKenzie, a high school senior in Los Angeles, was drawn to Teen Talk after seeing notices about it at her school. The idea of speaking anonymously to a peer was appealing. For McKenzie, advice from someone her own age was more likely to be of value.

She found the experience of using Teen Talk so useful she decided to become an adviser. Being on the other side of the chat has been rewarding, she said.

She recalled an encounter at the end of a shift, after she asked the teen she had been advising how she was feeling.

“I got the most genuine response from her saying, ‘Thank you so much. You’ve been so helpful, and I had the first non-stress-related kind of cry,’” McKenzie said.

“It was so nice to hear that and to be part of that exchange.”

The Teen Talk app is available at the Apple Store and on Google Play.

Edited by Judith Isacoff and Fern Siegel

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Beware Of Parasite: Drug-Resistant Dog Hookworm Is Now Untreatable

Beware Of Parasite: Drug-Resistant Dog Hookworm Is Now Untreatable

Researchers say dog parks can be risky for your pet now that hookworms have become resistant to common deworming drugs. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Martin M Barillas

Dogs plagued by hookworms — bloodsucking parasites — may have longer to wait for relief as research has found these parasites are resistant to all drugs commonly used to treat the infection.

Ancylostoma caninum is a nematode parasite that uses its hook-like mouth to fasten itself to a host animal’s intestines. It sucks blood and tissue fluids, causing dramatic weight loss, as well as lethargy, bloody stools, anemia and other symptoms in both dogs and humans.

A team of researchers at the University of Georgia reported in a study published in the International Journal for Parasitology that 79 percent of greyhounds at racetracks are infected by multiple-drug-resistant (MDR) hookworms.

This study draws on previous research on MDR hookworms, first reported by the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2019, and delves into where the problem emerged and how widespread it has become.

The hook-like mouth of an adult dog hookworm is used to latch onto the intestines of the infected animal. (University of Georgia)

Ray Kaplan, study co-author and leader of the research team, said the infection would spread from the dogs at the racetrack to other pet dogs once they get adopted.

Kaplan, who once owned a greyhound, warned against taking pets to the dog park because of the risk of picking up the parasite. “If your dog picks up these resistant hookworms, [a cure is] not as easy as just treating them with medication anymore. Until new types of drugs [become] available, taking your dog to a dog park has to be considered a risky activity,” he said.

Dogs don’t need to ingest hookworm larvae, which live in soil, to get infected. The larvae can burrow through the dog’s skin and paws. Female dogs can also pass the parasite to their puppies through their milk. At racetracks, the researchers determined that the sandy ground easily transmits hookworms and is an ideal breeding ground for these parasites.

Currently, veterinarians use three types of deworming drugs to kill hookworms, and racing dogs are usually given deworming medicine every three to four weeks.

However, an analysis of fecal samples from greyhound adoption kennels revealed hookworms in four out of every five greyhounds tested. Those that tested negative, Kaplan said, were probably also infected because hookworms sometimes lodge in the body’s tissues and don’t reproduce or shed eggs until the infection worsens and spreads to the dog’s intestines.

The frequent deworming of racing dogs at kennels and breeding farms has led to a multi-drug-resistant hookworm that can’t currently be treated, researchers say. (Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Nearly all the fecal samples tested positive for MDR hookworms that can survive treatment with benzimidazoles, a deworming drug used in animals and humans, among other drugs.

Racing-dog breeding farms and kennels, where many infected dogs are kept, allow parasites to mutate and survive treatment. Parasites that survive frequent deworming procedures pass their drug-resistant mutations to successive generations. Over time, the resistant worms are all that remain.

MDR hookworms go undetected if veterinarians don’t perform the necessary tests on dogs during a check-up. These hookworms typically only become obvious once the infection has grown serious.

Hookworms found in a puppy. (University of Georgia)

Kaplan and co-author veterinarian Pablo Jimenez Castro found that these hookworms appear to be treatable with emodepside — a dewormer approved for use only in cats. A national task force on MDR hookworms has since been formed to investigate treatment options.

Although dog hookworms also infect people, the infection is not the same. In people, worms burrow under the skin and cause a red, itchy rash. Children are sometimes infected by walking barefoot or playing in contaminated soil. Physicians treat people with corticosteroid ointment containing a dewormer, but Kaplan believes this is ineffective against MDR hookworms.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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Afraid Of Spiders? This Augmented Reality App Could Help You Beat The Panic

Afraid Of Spiders? This Augmented Reality App Could Help You Beat The Panic

The “Phobys” arachnophobia app uses augmented reality to help users overcome their fear of spiders. (University of Basel/MCN)

Psychologists have a new kind of weapon to help people who wrestle with arachnophobia: smartphone programs that augment reality with virtual spiders.

Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed an app that has showed success during a clinical trial, one of several projects there designed to use new technologies to treat old mental health conditions.

People who used the app, called Phobys, demonstrated a reduced fear of spiders after trying it at home a half-dozen times for 30 minutes at a stretch. Users are prompted to scan a tabletop, a floor or their own arm from a few feet away. Then they tap on the screen to see a spider projected onto the surface they chose.

“It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” said lead author Anja Zimmer. She called the app approach “a low-threshold and low-cost treatment.” The research completed by Zimmer and her team was published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

The augmented reality app Phobys helps people with arachnophobia become desensitized to spiders. This red-knee tarantula is pictured at the London Zoo on January 3, 2013. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Arachnophobia is a common fear that imposes real limitations on sufferers. Fear of spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites can lead some to avoid social gatherings, limit their travel or obsessively check their surroundings for signs of menacing bugs. Even a photograph of a spider or evidence of webs can trigger screaming, fainting, sweating and heart palpitations.

Therapeutic exposure to real spiders can help reduce the effects of arachnophobia, according to the authors, but patients seldom want to expose themselves.

The team, led by Professor Dominique de Quervain at Basel, conducted a two-week clinical trial of Phobys with 66 people who suffered from a fear of spiders. Some completed six half-hour training units with Phobys, and others had no app to help them.

Subjects using the Phobys app showed significantly less fear and disgust when exposed to a real spider. Pictured is a “cerbalus aravensis” spider on the sands of Samar in Israel’s southern Arava desert region. (Yael Olek/University of Haifa/Getty Images)

The subjects approached a real spider in a see-through box before and after each treatment, but got only as close as their fears allowed. The spider drew far less fear and disgust from the group that used the app, and those people were able to get closer to the animal.

The Phobys app has 10 progressively more challenging sets of tasks that allow arachnophobes to see and interact with virtual spiders. An assessment at the end of each level measures the user’s fear and disgust. The app, not the user, “gamifies” the treatment and decides when it’s time to move to the next level.

Users get encouragement in the form of animation and sound effects. Those with mild symptoms can use the app on their own, but researchers say those with more serious problems should use it under professional supervision.

As with many mobile apps, there’s a free version and a paid version. Users can test their phobia levels at no charge by downloading it from the Apple app store or Google Play; treating their condition by breaking down their fears comes with a $4.99 fee that unlocks all the levels. More than 1,000 people downloaded Phobys in its first month.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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First Implant Of Total Artificial Heart In A Woman

First Implant Of Total Artificial Heart In A Woman

Surgeons with University of Louisville Health Jewish Hospital and the University of Louisville performed the first Aeson bioprosthetic total artificial heart implantation in a female patient. (University of Louisville)

For the first time, surgeons have successfully implanted an Aeson artificial heart in a woman facing end-stage heart failure.

The surgery was performed by doctors from the University of Louisville and the Jewish Hospital at Louisville, using an implant made by Carmat, a French company.

Carmat CEO Stephane Piat said the surgery, the third of its kind in the United States so far, allowed them to complete patient enrollment in their early feasibility study for the device. It was also the first time the device had ever been used to help a female patient suffering from heart failure, according to Piat.

The 57-year-old Kentucky woman with severe biventricular heart failure received the Aeson device during an eight-hour surgery. She had undergone cardiac surgery several years ago and was referred to the Advanced Heart Failure Therapies Program at Jewish Hospital earlier this year for end-stage heart failure. She is recovering well in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Jewish Hospital — one of only four programs in the United States approved to perform this clinical trial procedure.

Cardiothoracic surgeons Mark Slaughter and Siddharth Pahwa of the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine carried out the procedure on Sept. 14, announcing its success a week later. They also performed an implant surgery on a male patient last month, also at Jewish Hospital.

Currently, about 3,500 patients in the United States are awaiting heart transplants, of whom 900 are women.

“For the other half of the world’s population, completion of this procedure by the Jewish Hospital team brings new hope for extended life,” said Slaughter. “Size limitations can make it harder to implant artificial hearts in women, but the Aeson artificial heart is compact enough to fit inside the smaller chest cavities more frequently found in women, which gives hope to a wider variety of men and women waiting for a heart transplant and increases the chances for success.”

The Aeson artificial heart pumps blood into both the right and left chambers of the heart, unlike the current left-ventricular assist devices, which pump blood into only one chamber. There are few treatments available for patients suffering biventricular heart disease, where both the right and left chambers of the heart do not pump blood adequately.

Aeson’s sensors estimate the patient’s blood pressure level and automatically adapt the cardiac output based on that information. The bioprosthetic device is implanted as a replacement for the heart and is attached to an external portable power source.

The Aeson artificial heart system is powered by an external portable source. (Carmat)

The Cardiovascular Innovation Institute at University of Louisville tested Aeson’s autoregulation capability, which allows it to adapt the flow of blood by detecting changes in blood pressure. Researchers there have conducted tests on artificial heart components and mechanical assist devices for many years.

“The varying pumping ability of the Aeson device increases its viability [in] more patients,” said Pahwa. “While other devices are set at a fixed rate or create a continuous flow, Carmat has developed the Aeson to automatically adjust the flow, creating an improved performance to meet the body’s changing blood flow needs.”

Aeson is being tested on patients with end-stage biventricular heart failure while they wait for a permanent heart transplant. In Europe, where it has already been approved, about 20 devices have been implanted. Aeson is being tested in the United States for final approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“I am proud that UofL, Jewish Hospital and their doctors are leading the world in implanting this promising and innovative device that could offer hope and time to thousands of people, including our wives, mothers and other loved ones, in [the] coming years,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, weighing in on the new development.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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New Test Could Help Diagnose Alzheimer’s Years Earlier

New Test Could Help Diagnose Alzheimer’s Years Earlier

A volunteer, fitted with the Fastball EEG cap, takes part in the passive test developed at the University of Bath, which could diagnose Alzheimer's disease earlier than current methods. (University of Bath)

A new method of measuring brain activity may be able to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease up to five years earlier than current methods, leading to improved outcomes for patients, according to scientists at the University of Bath in southwestern England.

The Fastball EEG technology exposes patients to a series of flashing images for two minutes on a computer, while attendants measure their brain activity with an EEG app.

“Fastball offers a genuinely novel way of measuring how our brain is functioning. The person being assessed doesn’t need to understand the test, or even respond; they simply watch a screen of flashing images, and by the way we manipulate the images that appear, we can learn an enormous amount about what their brain is or is not able to do,” said neuroscientist George Stothart of the University of Bath.

Stothart was the lead researcher in a study published in the journal BRAIN, which described a technique that detects small, subtle changes in brain waves when a person remembers an image.

Currently, Alzheimer’s is diagnosed with a combination of subjective and objective reports of cognitive decline. A clinic administers memory tests, which are prone to biases such as assessment anxiety, as well as tests requiring verbal and written communication, which are ineffective for some patients.

“The tests we currently use to diagnose Alzheimer’s miss the first 20 years of the disease, which means we are missing huge opportunities to help people,” said Stothart. Despite the availability of scientific tools to test brain function, he said, none have been used to assess the brain’s ability to acquire, understand and retain information. Stothart and his team hope that Fastball will achieve that goal.

George Stothart from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology hopes the Fastball EEG will help improve outcomes for Alzheimer’s patients by detecting the disease five years earlier than current methods allow. (University of Bath)

The study’s authors say earlier diagnosis would mean earlier lifestyle and medical intervention, potentially improving the effectiveness of those interventions and leading to healthcare savings of about 3 billion pounds [$409 billion] per year in the United Kingdom.

Aducanumab — approved recently — is the first medical treatment for Alzheimer’s. With earlier diagnoses, medication can become more effective.

Alzheimer’s is the underlying cause of approximately 60 percent of dementia cases. In Europe and North America, it affects about 5–7 percent of the population.

George Stothart (left) from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology talks to a volunteer (right) about Fastball EEG — pioneering research that could increase early detection of Alzheimer’s. (University of Bath)

According to the Fastball EEG team, their technology is inexpensive and portable. Easily scalable, it relies on technology already available at hospitals. The team is currently studying the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease at the Research Institute for the Care of Older People and the Bristol Brain Centre at Southmead Hospital. Their research is funded by BRACE, a U.K.-based charity that funds research on dementia and cures.

Over time, the team hopes the Fastball EEG will become a screening tool for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, similar to the use of tests to detect high blood pressure during middle age.

The research team will continue to test the technology at earlier and earlier stages of Alzheimer’s progression and expand the types of brain functions measured, including language and visual processing. “This will help us to not only understand Alzheimer’s but also the many other less common forms of dementia,” said Stothart. “We are a long way from that, but this is a step towards that goal.”

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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VIDEO: Feline Poorly: Lions And Tigers Struck Down With COVID

VIDEO: Feline Poorly: Lions And Tigers Struck Down With COVID

Adult male African lion Luke at Smithsonian's National Zoo. Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Amur tigers are being treated for COVID-19 at the Smithsonian National Zoo. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger News).

COVID-19 is a threat to humans and animals alike.

Eight animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., are presumed to have tested positive for COVID-19. Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Siberian tigers are being treated for COVID-19 and under close observation, the zoo said.

Final confirmation of the preliminary test is expected within days.

The zoo said the public was not at risk, given the physical distance between the animals and visitors, since its “existing COVID-19 protocols restrict behind-the-scenes access in all animal areas and require use of personal protective equipment, hygiene, cleaning, employee self-screening and health management.”

Zookeepers noticed the animals were eating less, coughing and sneezing, and generally lethargic, so they took fecal samples to test for COVID-19. The big cats are being given anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea medications “to address discomfort and decreased appetite.” They are also receiving antibiotics to protect against secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia.

The National Zoo said it doesn’t have evidence pointing to exactly where the infection originated, and no other animals appear infected.

Adult female Sumatran tiger, Damai, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Several big cats at the zoo are presumed to have COVID-19. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger)

Based on available information to date, the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people is considered to be low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, people who have COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock and wildlife.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized a vaccine against COVID-19 designed specifically for zoo animals. It is made by Zoetis, an American drug company that makes vaccines for pets and other animals.

African lion at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Several big cats at the zoo are presumed to have COVID-19. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger)

Zoetis said in a July statement that it was donating thousands of doses to zoos across the country to help protect more than 100 species of mammals. The Zoetis vaccine is administered in two doses, delivered three weeks apart. Animals are considered fully protected two weeks after receiving their second dose.

This is not the first time coronavirus infections have hit big cats. Several at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive in spring 2020. All survived.

A lion died of COVID-19 in India’s Valandur Zoo in June; 10 others were being treated for the disease at the same time. And zookeepers in Sweden euthanized a 17-year-old tiger on Jan. 11 after it tested positive.

Edited by Fern Siegel and Kristen Butler

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