Personal Health

Ponce named a 2020 Packard fellow

Carlos Ponce, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received a 2020 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. Each of the 20 Packard fellows — among the nation’s top early-career scientists — will receive a five-year, $875,000 grant to pursue research.

Ponce studies how visual recognition works in the brain. The brain remains the best visual recognition system, superior to artificial ones, partly because it may have more efficient ways to compress and represent the natural world. Scientists still do not fully understand the brain’s so-called neural code. Ponce has developed a new way to extract clues to the code directly from the living brain by presenting a series of images generated by artificial intelligence and monitoring the response of specific neurons. His work could lead to improvements in artificial visual-recognition systems used in security, medicine, transportation and other fields.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation awards fellowships to faculty members who are eligible to serve as principal investigators on research in the natural and physical sciences or engineering. Fellows must be within the first three years of their faculty careers.

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Personal Health

'Small Household Gatherings' Are Spreading COVID-19—Here's What That Term Means, and How to Socialize Safely

Cheerful male and female toasting drinks during birthday party in house

With the holidays fast approaching, party season is just around the corner. But as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise across the US, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) just warned about a worrisome source of infection spread: small gatherings, especially in household settings.

"In the public square, we're seeing a higher degree of vigilance and mitigation steps in many jurisdictions," Robert Redfield, MD, said during a call with the nation's governors on Tuesday, per CNN, describing small household gatherings as "the increasing threat."

"Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it's really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting," Dr. Redfield said during the call.

What is a small gathering, exactly?

Though Dr. Redfield specifically warned against small gatherings, the CDC hasn't put a specific number to "small." Nor has it put a limit on, or recommended, a set number of guests for gatherings that would be considered safe or low-risk. However, the CDC recently issued guidance to help keep people safe while socializing during the holidays, and the advice applies to casual meetups of any kind at any time of the year.

The CDC’s guidelines on socializing during Covid

Before you host or attend a gathering, it's important to assess the risks. First of all, indoor gatherings generally pose more risk than outdoor ones. And indoor gatherings with poor ventilation—such as a space with no windows, or closed doors—put you at a higher risk than those with good ventilation.

Shunling Tsang, MD, MPH, medical director for ambulatory quality and vice chair of the department of family medicine at Riverside University Health System in California, advises avoiding indoor gatherings altogether. "If there is a need for a small gathering, it should be held outdoors with social distancing, [and] strict adherence to mask wearing and to local and state public health guidelines," Dr. Tsang tells Health. "Indoor gatherings can pose additional challenges with air circulation and ability to socially distance, so it is best to avoid these altogether if possible."

Also crucial is the duration of the gathering. Basically, the more time you spend with other people, the greater the risk of contracting COVID-19. So shorter gatherings, like inviting a few friends over for cover or a drink, are optimal over longer ones, such as dinner parties.

The CDC also warns that gatherings with people traveling from different places are riskier than those with people who live in the same area. The levels of COVID-19 cases and community spread in the location of the gathering matter as well. "If you live in an area with a high level of community transmission (looking at the county's case rate and positivity rate), there is a higher risk of COVID-19 spread during gatherings," Dr. Tsang notes.

Another important consideration is how guests have behaved before getting together. Have they been adhering to social distancing guidelines? Have they been wearing masks in public places and washing their hands regularly? If you don't think they have—or they come out and tell you they don't usually mask up—it's probably best that you don't get close.

These infection-preventing behaviors (mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing—you know the score by now) should also be observed during the gathering itself to help reduce the spread of infection, says the CDC.

Who should avoid small gatherings altogether?

If any guests are sick or known to have active COVID-19 infection, attending group gatherings shouldn't even be an option, Dr. Tsang says. Those individuals should be in quarantine or isolation.

The CDC also advises against hosting or attending any in-person gatherings if you or anyone in your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and hasn't met the criteria for when it is safe to be around others. Here's a refresher: It's been at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared, you've had 24 hours with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medications, and other symptoms of COVID-19 are improving.

You should also stay away from gatherings if you have symptoms of COVID-19, are waiting for coronavirus test results, may have been exposed to someone with the virus in the last 14 days, or are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 (for example, you are immunosuppressed or in another high-risk group).

What kind of gatherings are the safest?

Nobody wants to cut themselves off from their friends and family any more than they have to. So what's the answer? While COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise throughout the country, Dr. Tsang explains that the ideal scenario is a virtual gathering—such as over Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangout—even if you don't have any symptoms.

"A virtual gathering will provide the safest option for everyone involved," she says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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Personal Health

Clear Face Masks Are Better for Communication — Here's Why They're Still So Rare

When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with profound, progressive hearing loss in both ears, kicking off years of speech therapy and audiology appointments. One of my least favorite parts of my regular hearing tests was when the audiologist would cover their mouth before reciting several sentences that I then had to repeat back. My hearing loss was so serious that, without the ability to rely on lip-reading, I could barely manage to get one word right. It was always an incredibly frustrating exercise, but luckily it was just that: an exercise. I was never going to be expected to communicate without lip-reading.

Fast-forward about 20 years or so and here I am, standing outside my apartment building, struggling to determine if the food the delivery guy is holding is in fact mine because I can’t see his lips through his face mask. After I explain to him that I am deaf but acknowledge that we should keep our masks on, I begin a game of 20 questions: Is it from the restaurant we ordered from? Is this the name the order is under? The phone number? I can’t understand what he needs from me. In the end, my partner comes outside to help (it is our food and the magic word that enables its release to us, he explains to me later, is our apartment number).

When COVID-19 hit the United States earlier in the year, I — like most people — assumed things would return to normal fairly quickly. Months later, I’ve come to terms with the fact that face masks are a part of daily life for the foreseeable future. I’m fortunate in many ways: I already work from home and I have a hearing partner who has taken over all of the grocery shopping and errand-running. But occasionally I will be thrown into a situation like the one I described and suddenly feel like I’ve been transported to a foreign country where I’m expected to understand the language, but don’t.

I’m far from the only one struggling right now. It wasn’t difficult to gather similar stories. Elana Powell wears a hearing aid and a cochlear implant and still struggles to communicate in masked situations at work. She is grateful to be provided with clear face masks in her current job, but discovered that they tend to fog up easily.

“It’s been a difficult internal struggle because I’ve always been one to stand up for myself, but at the same time, of course, I understand why masks are imperative at this time,” says Powell.

This is a common refrain many of us have raised during this time: the acknowledgement that, despite the difficulty it creates for them, they understand the need for face masks and don’t want to discourage others from using them.

“I want to wear a mask to help myself and others,” says Katie Sawyer, a deaf woman in the U.K., “I think the idea of [clear masks] is great as it really is so isolating seeing peoples’ mouths covered but this is a good compromise as we don’t want to endanger our health or safety of others by not wearing masks or having others remove their masks to talk to us.”

It’s not just the Deaf and hard of hearing community who can benefit from clear masks. Nathan Tamar Pautz, who also wears hearing aids, explains that some trans people are being misgendered when they go out in a face mask.

“I am non-binary and my only relief during this pandemic has been to obsessively search for a better mask,” they say. “Otherwise, I don't even want to go out in public. I have spent $350 on different ones.”

The benefits of clear face masks for the Deaf and hard of hearing community are obvious, but unfortunately, their efficacy against the spread of viruses is less certain.

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, notes the lack of significant clinical data in terms of this type of face mask. That being said, he does think clear face masks are a good option — with a few caveats. “If a clear plastic mask fits well, and the seam between the plastic section and the cloth section is tight, and the cloth part is multi-layered and tightly woven, I certainly don’t think the clear plastic masks would be worse and may even perform better at preventing the spread of droplets and aerosols [than other face coverings],” he says.

Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of USC, recommends wearing a face shield in conjunction with a clear face mask. “Three-layered cotton face masks are ideal,” she says. “However, in situations when cloth face masks cannot be worn, clear masks with the addition of a face shield can be worn.” Nanda cautions against using a face shield on its own; you should always have a mask on underneath the shield.

Allure also spoke to Cassandra M. Pierre, a physician specializing in infectious diseases and the medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, who has hands-on experience with a variety of clear face masks. Pierre reiterates the importance of a snug, gap-free fit on all sides and recommends cleaning all plastic components after every use.

Pierre cautions against the type of clear homemade mask that you may find in an Etsy shop due to the potential for poor fit, lack of breathability, and fogging. Instead, she noted that the American Sign Language team at Boston Medical Center uses the Safe'N'Clear Communicator mask, and cited the Humanity Shield as another alternative.

In a perfect world, clear face masks would be the norm in public spaces. On an individual basis, however, if you can’t afford to switch to one, that’s OK. There are plenty of additional solutions for communicating with the Deaf and hard of hearing during the pandemic. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) offers a comprehensive list of resources and best practices for communication on its website that includes solutions such as writing on paper, typing on your phone, and using a speech-to-text app such as Ava or Google Live Transcribe.

There has also never been a better time to learn some basic sign language. Even knowing the alphabet goes a long way because then you can finger-spell any word when you need to get brief messages across.

Finally, Davin Searls, the public relations director of Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. has a piece of advice that everyone can easily follow. “Regardless of what mask you are using, empathy, patience, and awareness go a long way!” says Searls. “Pandemic or no pandemic, communication is a two-way street.”

As more technological advances are made, clear face masks should become the universal standard. Until that happens, people like myself are going to be forced to get creative when it comes to safely communicating during the pandemic. Help us out in any way you can, but please remember: mask up.

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Personal Health

A Court Just Ruled That Playing 'Baby Shark' Over and Over Is a Form of Torture—Here's Why


If you have kids or spend plenty of time around children, you know that listening to “Baby Shark” on repeat can be agonizing. But now, a court has ruled that it’s actually a form of torture.

Two former employees at the Oklahoma County jail and their supervisor were charged with misdemeanor counts of cruelty to a prisoner and conspiracy this week after forcing inmates to listen to “Baby Shark” on loop “at loud volumes for extended periods of time,” per The Oklahoman. Investigators found that the employees forced at least four inmates to stand, secured to a wall and with their hands cuffed behind them, for hours and listen to the song.

Plenty of people on Twitter said they can relate to the song’s torturous qualities.

“As a preschool teacher I can definitely confirm that song is torture,” one wrote. “Friends still mention to me when my son played baby shark 10x in a row at a holiday party. It was pretty bad. This is torture,” another said. “So baby shark, while being unofficially used as a torture device for years now, has now officially been used as a torture device,” someone else tweeted.

Of course, the whole thing about “Baby Shark” is that it’s an earworm, aka a catchy song that keeps repeating in your head, even after it’s done playing. Here’s what you need to know about earworms in general, plus what, exactly, makes “Baby Shark” so annoying.

Why are earworms so catchy?

Believe it or not, earworms have been studied pretty extensively. (And for what it’s worth, they’re known as “involuntary musical imagery” to academics.)

One study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that earworms usually have the same characteristics in common: They have an upbeat tempo, they have pitch patterns that are similar to other popular songs, and they have big leaps in notes, going up and down. 

The study also broke down some of the most popular earworms, according to the 3,000 people the researchers surveyed.

Surprisingly, “Baby Shark,” which came out in 2016, didn’t make the cut.

Another study, published in the British Journal of Psychology, found that earworms aren’t usually considered “problematic” by people who are dealing with them, but that people who consider music to be important to them tend to struggle with earworms for longer periods of time and have more difficulty controlling them than people who don’t care as much about music.

“People report frequently singing along with the tune in their head so, in those cases, it is fairly obvious why the tune persists even if the reason why it popped into mind in the first place might be a little more obscure,” study co-author Philip Beaman, PhD, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Reading, tells Health.

And yet another study published in the journal Psychology of Music analyzed 333 reports and found memory triggers—seeing or hearing something that reminds you of an earworm—can start the tune on loop in your brain.

So what makes  “Baby Shark” so agonizing, it’s like torture?

There are actually a lot of reasons for this, clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Health. “The music can be hard on the ears,” he says. “Certain pitches hit the auditory receptors in ways that are physiologically painful. These are high-pitched tones and screechy elongated sounds, like nails across a blackboard.” Mayer says these can “elicit a painful reaction in the brain.”

The lyrics also come into play. “When you combine nonsensical words, insulting words, and demeaning words with bad music, you have the perfect storm for a horrible song,” Mayer says.

Overfamiliarity can make a song annoying, too, Beaman adds. “Baby Shark” is “simple enough to be catchy, and has had massive airplay,” he says. If you tend to have a strong musical memory for things you find slightly annoying at first, the additional features of “Baby Shark” can make it especially difficult to take on repeat. As a result, he says, people can have “good grounds for being annoyed” by the song.

Finally, there can be a group mentality at play. “There are songs we are predisposed to like or dislike…because it is considered OK or not by a peer group,” Beaman says. So hearing other adults say that they find “Baby Shark” annoying can also make you more likely to think the same.

FWIW: Beaman’s research has found that trying to block out an earworm isn’t all that effective at getting it out of your head. What can help, though, is accepting that it’s stuck in your head, and then trying to think of something else—just hopefully, not another earworm.

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Personal Health

California Will Ban Two Dozen Ingredients From Beauty Products by 2025

On Wednesday, September 30, Governor Gavin Newsom made beauty-industry history by signing into law an unprecedented bill. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, also known as Assembly Bill 2762, makes California the first to establish a state-level ban of 24 ingredients from beauty and personal-care products.

The bill, as of January 2025, will "prohibit a person or entity from manufacturing, selling, delivering, holding, or offering for sale, in commerce any cosmetic product that contains any of several specified intentionally added ingredients." These ingredients are dibutyl phthalate, diethylhexyl phthalate, formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde, methylene glycol, quaternium-15, mercury, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, m-Phenylenediamine and its salts, o-Phenylenediamine and its salts, and several per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their salts. The bill clarifies, "If a cosmetic product made through manufacturing processes intended to comply with this chapter contains a technically unavoidable trace quantity of an ingredient listed in subdivision and that trace quantity stems from impurities of natural or synthetic ingredients, the manufacturing process, storage, or migration from packaging, that trace quantity shall not cause the cosmetic product to be in violation of this section."

Many of the ingredients that will be banned by this bill have already been banned or restricted in Europe; however, the toxicity of these ingredients is still debated among both scientists and laypeople, especially considering that "toxic" is often just a marketing term. "Just like there is no agreed-upon [definition of] 'clean' beauty, there is no definition of 'toxic,'" cosmetic chemist Ginger King tells Allure. "A lot of these regulations are initiated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in that they have some studies on risk of cancer, allergy, or reproductive toxicity."

Cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat, Ron Robinson, says that each manufacturer defines "toxic" differently. "As new data comes out that shows that cosmetic ingredients can cause harm, most manufacturers move to quickly remove them from their products," he tells Allure.

Both King and Robinson find it interesting that isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben are banned, whereas more commonly used parabens like methyl or propyl parabens are not. They note that there is still an ongoing debate over the safety of parabens in general, and both lean toward formulating without them. "There are many other safer ingredients that can be used to replace these without compromising product performance or aesthetics," Robinson says.

David Petrillo, cosmetic chemist and founder of Perfect Image Skincare, says many of the ingredients banned by the bill are rarely used in cosmetic products anymore. "Dibutyl phthalate, for example, is used to make plastics soft and flexible, such as shower curtains, raincoats, food wraps, bowls, and many other consumer products," he tells Allure. "They historically were used in nail polishes as a plasticizer to reduce cracking and make them less brittle, but most cosmetics and personal care manufacturers have already discontinued using them in manufacturing."

But the urgency to ban is higher with a select few ingredients that are still used more regularly. "One high-profile ingredient on the list, formaldehyde, has been linked to cancer — specifically breast cancer — and is used in hair-care products for hair straightening that might disproportionately reach women of color," Robinson says.

Even without this bill, brand self-regulation and ingredient reputation already play a huge part in what ingredients do and don't get used. "If, at the end of the day, consumers don't buy, it does not matter if the materials are banned or not," King says. "The cosmetic ingredient will be driven out of the business."

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Personal Health

Joe Biden Said He’s Proud of His Son For Overcoming His Drug Problem—And the Internet Is Loving It

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: World Food Program USA Board Chairman Hunter Biden (L) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attend the World Food Program USA's Annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA)

During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, President Trump said that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was dishonorably discharged from the military for cocaine use. Though The Washington Post reports that his discharge was administrative, not dishonorable, Hunter Biden’s struggle with alcohol addiction and drug abuse has been well documented by the media.

The day after the debate, President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., referred to Hunter Biden as “Crackhead Hunter” during an interview with radio personality Glenn Beck, raising the question of whether putting the spotlight on Hunter Biden’s past drug problem is part of President Trump’s reelection strategy.

The attack on Joe Biden’s son left many Americans stunned, since political candidates’ children are typically viewed as off limits during nasty election season debates. But many people directly affected by substance abuse found hope in Joe Biden’s response to President Trump during the debate: “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

Social media users used the exchange between the two presidential candidates to speak about how their lives have been affected by substance abuse. The day after the debate, one Twitter user wrote: “Today would have been my Dad’s 55th birthday. When Tr*mp attacked Joe Biden for his son’s addiction on stage, I knew exactly what he was doing. He attacked people like my Dad, who had similar struggles in his life. I’m proud of Joe for holding his own against a bully.”

Nebraska senator Adam Morfeld wrote on Twitter: “As someone with close family members who have suffered from severe addiction, Joe Biden looking straight into the camera last night and saying he was proud of his son for overcoming it, demonstrated his decency and humanity, and why I was so proud to cast my vote for him today.”

But the response didn’t just come from those who know someone who has suffered from substance abuse. Individuals who themselves are in recovery spoke out on social media, acknowledging the importance of the interaction between President Trump and Joe Biden.

Writer Guy Hamilton-Smith shared his experience on Twitter: “I’ve had addictions of various kinds throughout most of my life and Joe Biden saying he was proud of his son for overcoming drug addiction was one of the few humanizing moments of this entire election season and I just want to express my gratitude for it.” Another Twitter user, who’s currently in recovery, wrote: “All of us addicts in recovery felt that when Joe Biden said MY son overcame and I am proud of him. This. This matters.”

Author and motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein took to Instagram to share what the conversation meant to her, writing: “On Friday I will celebrate fifteen years of sobriety. I don’t feel ashamed of my addictions, instead I’m deeply proud of my recovery. Thank you Joe Biden for bringing light to this topic when your sons addiction was under attack. No addict should be judged for their addiction.”

One user spoke about how difficult it is for so many to understand addiction and recovery, writing: “My son has the disease of addiction. I too share the same malady. We are both in recovery and are proud of each other. No one can understand unless you have lived it. #JoeBiden understands and it shows.”

Many others—some who didn't reveal whether they had been touched personally by addiction—celebrated the importance of the moment, when substance abuse wasn’t spoken about in hushed tones, but, rather, recovery from it was celebrated.

“When Joe Biden acknowledged his son’s addiction and said he’s proud of him, my heart grew so many sizes,” one Twitter user wrote, while another shared: “I appreciate the level of genuineness and vulnerability that Joe Biden displayed as he spoke about his son Hunter and how he was ‘proud of him’ for overcoming his struggle with drug addiction.”

While most people viewed the debate as whole as, in Jake Tapper's words, "a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck"—with The Commission on Presidential Debates itself acknowledging that the next debates need to be more productive—the recovery community, and those who know someone in it, agreed that Biden's fatherly words were a step in the right direction for everyone who's been stigmatized by a substance abuse disorder.

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