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Using machine learning to track the pandemic’s impact on mental health
Textual analysis of social media posts finds users' anxiety and suicide-risk levels are rising, among other negative trends.
A team of MIT and Harvard University researchers has shown that they can measure those effects by analyzing the language that people use to express their anxiety online.
Using machine learning to analyze the text of more than 800,000 Reddit posts, the researchers were able to identify changes in the tone and content of language that people used as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, from January to April of 2020. Their analysis revealed several key changes in conversations about mental health, including an overall increase in discussion about anxiety and suicide.
"We found that there were these natural clusters that emerged related to suicidality and loneliness, and the amount of posts in these clusters more than doubled during the pandemic as compared to the same months of the preceding year, which is a grave concern," says Daniel Low, a graduate student in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology at Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the study.
The analysis also revealed varying impacts on people who already suffer from different types of mental illness. The findings could help psychiatrists, or potentially moderators of the Reddit forums that were studied, to better identify and help people whose mental health is suffering, the researchers say.
"When the mental health needs of so many in our society are inadequately met, even at baseline, we wanted to bring attention to the ways that many people are suffering during this time, in order to amplify and inform the allocation of resources to support them," says Laurie Rumker, a graduate student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics PhD Program at Harvard and one of the authors of the study.
Satrajit Ghosh, a principal research scientist at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Other authors of the paper include Tanya Talkar, a graduate student in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology at Harvard and MIT; John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; and Guillermo Cecchi, a principal research staff member at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
A wave of anxiety
The new study grew out of the MIT class 6.897/HST.956 (Machine Learning for Healthcare), in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Low, Rumker, and Talkar, who were all taking the course last spring, had done some previous research on using machine learning to detect mental health disorders based on how people speak and what they say. After the Covid-19 pandemic began, they decided to focus their class project on analyzing Reddit forums devoted to different types of mental illness.
"When Covid hit, we were all curious whether it was affecting certain communities more than others," Low says. "Reddit gives us the opportunity to look at all these subreddits that are specialized support groups. It's a really unique opportunity to see how these different communities were affected differently as the wave was happening, in real-time."
The researchers analyzed posts from 15 subreddit groups devoted to a variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. They also included a handful of groups devoted to topics not specifically related to mental health, such as personal finance, fitness, and parenting.
Using several types of natural language processing algorithms, the researchers measured the frequency of words associated with topics such as anxiety, death, isolation, and substance abuse, and grouped posts together based on similarities in the language used. These approaches allowed the researchers to identify similarities between each group's posts after the onset of the pandemic, as well as distinctive differences between groups.
The researchers found that while people in most of the support groups began posting about Covid-19 in March, the group devoted to health anxiety started much earlier, in January. However, as the pandemic progressed, the other mental health groups began to closely resemble the health anxiety group, in terms of the language that was most often used. At the same time, the group devoted to personal finance showed the most negative semantic change from January to April 2020, and significantly increased the use of words related to economic stress and negative sentiment.
They also discovered that the mental health groups affected the most negatively early in the pandemic were those related to ADHD and eating disorders. The researchers hypothesize that without their usual social support systems in place, due to lockdowns, people suffering from those disorders found it much more difficult to manage their conditions. In those groups, the researchers found posts about hyperfocusing on the news and relapsing back into anorexia-type behaviors since meals were not being monitored by others due to quarantine.
Using another algorithm, the researchers grouped posts into clusters such as loneliness or substance use, and then tracked how those groups changed as the pandemic progressed. Posts related to suicide more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels, and the groups that became significantly associated with the suicidality cluster during the pandemic were the support groups for borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The researchers also found the introduction of new topics specifically seeking mental health help or social interaction. "The topics within these subreddit support groups were shifting a bit, as people were trying to adapt to a new life and focus on how they can go about getting more help if needed," Talkar says.
While the authors emphasize that they cannot implicate the pandemic as the sole cause of the observed linguistic changes, they note that there was much more significant change during the period from January to April in 2020 than in the same months in 2019 and 2018, indicating the changes cannot be explained by normal annual trends.
Mental health resources
This type of analysis could help mental health care providers identify segments of the population that are most vulnerable to declines in mental health caused by not only the Covid-19 pandemic but other mental health stressors such as controversial elections or natural disasters, the researchers say.
Additionally, if applied to Reddit or other social media posts in real-time, this analysis could be used to offer users additional resources, such as guidance to a different support group, information on how to find mental health treatment, or the number for a suicide hotline.
"Reddit is a very valuable source of support for a lot of people who are suffering from mental health challenges, many of whom may not have formal access to other kinds of mental health support, so there are implications of this work for ways that support within Reddit could be provided," Rumker says.
The researchers now plan to apply this approach to study whether posts on Reddit and other social media sites can be used to detect mental health disorders. One current project involves screening posts in a social media site for veterans for suicide risk and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the McGovern Institute.
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All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.