Catch-up with the latest news and insights on education in the UK.


Exploring wildfire through art
May 2021

A new artistic collaboration launches between researchers from King’s Geography Department and artists to explore ways of representing, questioning and interpreting wildfire.

The Exchange in the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy is pleased to announce a new collaboration between researchers from the King’s Geography Department at the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society and the Arts Cabinet to shed light onto this critical issue by forging creative exchanges between artists and scientists.

An online editorial ‘Seeing Fire’ has been published, showcasing research projects and art works presented by artists from all around the world. Over the coming months, the Arts Cabinet will produce a second editorial of experimental outputs of these collaborations which aim to bring to the fore innovative ways of representing, questioning and interpreting wildfire.

The Exchange will convene an online Learning Lab with the artists and scientists on 14 and 15 July to share their findings and engage wildfire and climate practitioners, artists, researchers, students and other learners. To RSVP please go to the Eventbrite page.

The King’s Researchers involved in the collaboration are Professor Martin Wooster, Dr Mark Grosvenor, Vissia Didin Ardiyani and Kapil Yadav, from the Department of Geography who are interested in exploring how the ‘hidden world’ of wildfire can be represented through art. Kapil talks about his experiences in the video below.

Smartphones have led to the ‘death of proximity
May 2021

The most in depth study ever to look at how adults use smartphones reveals how we are ‘homeless’ when we lose them because they are where we increasingly express our personalities, interests and values. We adapt them to our needs and have swapped face to face time with family, friends and colleagues for hours spent ‘at home’ on our smartphones.

A team of 11 anthropologists spent 16 months documenting smartphone use in nine countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, with a particular focus on older adults. Their analysis is published in The Global Smartphone: Beyond a youth technology, a new book by an international team of researchers led by Professor Daniel Miller (UCL Anthropology) whose previous project on social media, Why We Post, saw more than a million downloads of the open access books that detailed the findings.

Describing smartphones as devices that facilitate ‘perpetual opportunism’, this new research shows how the creativity of users to mould their phones to meet their needs has far greater impact on their experience than the way the device adapts to them, through the algorithms or artificial intelligence that supposedly makes them “smart”. This observation is defined as ‘smart from below’.

Professor Daniel Miller said: “Our unique study comprehensively reveals how people of all ages across the world, and in particular older people, are creatively adapting smartphones to work for them, and the social, economic, cultural, educational and health benefits this brings.

“We also show how the smartphone is no longer just a device that we use, it’s become the place where we live. The flip side of that for human relationships is that any point, whether over a meal, a meeting or other shared activity, a person we’re with can just disappear, having ‘gone home’ to their smartphone. 

“This behaviour, and the frustration, disappointment or even offence it can cause, is what we’re calling the death of proximity. We are learning to live with the jeopardy that even when we are physically together, we can be socially, emotionally or professionally alone.

“At the same time, the smartphone is helping us create and recreate a vast range of helpful behaviours, from re-establishing extended families to creating new spaces for healthcare and political debate. It is only by looking at the vastly different uses and contexts that we can fully understand the consequences of smartphones for people’s lives around the world.

“We hope that everyone, not least politicians and policy makers, will learn from The Global Smartphone, which is part of UCL’s Ageing with Smartphones initiative. We need everyone to build on the positives while urgently addressing the increasing discrimination and inequality that persist when people anywhere in the world are digitally excluded.”

Whether it is access to health information in Ireland and Chile, the use of mobile money in Cameroon and Uganda, visual communication in China and Japan, or the differing ways older people in Italy, Brazil and Al Quds/East Jerusalem use their smartphones, there is evidence that smartphones are far from devices that create homogeneity.

Other findings suggest that rather than seeing something called smartphone addiction, we would do better to observe the way smartphones facilitate addiction to quite diverse forms of content and activity. 

The study also highlights how the different ways ‘track and trace’ has been rolled out during COVID-19, exposes the fine line between care and surveillance, which largely determines its success or failure. This is an example of smartphones’ potential for unique harm or good in different contexts.

The Global Smartphone reveals other ways in which smartphones are changing the way we live and behave: 

  • The extent to which the visual – through emojis, gifs, images etc – has extended human communication beyond the spoken or written word – whole conversations can now take place through images
  • The creation of a new genre of ‘functional photography’, where we take pictures to record and store information
  • Social media is no longer limited to discrete activities on specific platforms – it is a thread running through a constellation of apps 
  • A shift in how we operate as families – the trend towards nuclear family units is being reversed as smartphones allow us to reincorporate our extended families into our lives and participate and ‘live’ in larger family groups
  • We may no longer feel old – in many regions of the world the smartphone has helped change the experience of ageing, so people feel continuity with youth, feeling old is delayed and associated with frailty rather than age
  • At the same time, smartphones have changed the dynamics of intergenerational relations as older people become dependent on the knowledge of younger people, often resulting in new tensions 
  • Learning from how people are currently adapting ubiquitous apps like WhatsApp to support their health could provide a valuable alternative to formal mHelath initiatives.

Findings and outputs from the project around the world include:

  • In Uganda, mobile money remittances enable people to send money home to older relatives living in rural areas, contradicting the notion that smartphones are causing younger generations to neglect people in their old age.
  • In Cameroon the smartphone is helping the middle class create a new public sphere for the discussion of politics
  • In Chile and Italy, smartphones allow migrants to ‘be’ together with both people from their home country and where they live now, in the same `transportal home’
  • In Ireland, smartphones have helped invigorate older people’s lives around a plethora of activities, as the average period of retirement has increased 
  • Observations in Brazil have led to the creation of a 150-page manual of best practices for using WhatsApp for health 
  • While many people may have smartphones, in the Palestinian field site of Al Quds/East Jerusalem, there are many other ways in which a digital divide remains based on language, different accessibility and other factors.
  • In Japan, adding a visual component to digital communication has helped people to maintain social relations and care at a distance that is sensitive to local conversational etiquette/norms
  • While in most countries older people struggle with smartphones that they see as a youth technology, in China many older people positively identify with smartphones in support of a national drive to help China leapfrog other advanced economies through embracing new technologies

There is a growing appetite for in depth information on how we are taking control of our smartphones from policy makers and health and education bodies worldwide, as well as commercial interest.

The Global Smartphone: Beyond a youth technology is written by Professor Daniel Miller (UCL Anthropology), Laila Abed Rabho, Patrick Awondo, Maya de Vries, Marília Duque, Pauline Garvey, Laura Haapio-Kirk, Charlotte Hawkins, Alfonso Otaegui, Shireen Walton, and Xinyuan Wang.

It is accompanied by a series of books called Ageing with Smartphones, which includes Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland and Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy also published by UCL Press. All three are offered to download for free as an open access PDF, or to purchase in hardback or paperback.

To coincide with the research and publications, a free online course has been launched on the FutureLearn platform called The Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health.

UCL’s Anthropologies of Smart Phones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

One in nine adults struggled with mental health during a pandemic, find researchers
May 2021

One in nine adults consistently had very poor or deteriorating mental health during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic according to new research.

Those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods along with ethnic minority groups were the most affected say the team based at The University of Manchester, King’s College London, Cambridge, Swansea and City University.

However, two thirds of adults were in groups whose mental health was largely unaffected by the pandemic finds the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

The team analysed monthly surveys between April and October 2020 on 19,763 adults to identify typical patterns of change in mental health, revealing five distinct groups.

The unaffected groups were more likely to be older, white, and from the least deprived areas, with men being especially likely to have consistently very good mental health. According to the research:

  • 12% of the sample were in a group that experienced initial declines in their mental health at the beginning of the pandemic then recovered over the summer. Women and parents of school-aged children were particularly likely to be in this group, experiencing significant improvements in mental health around the time schools’ reopened.
  • 7% of the sample experienced a sustained decline in their mental health.
  • 4% of the sample had mental health that was consistently very poor throughout

The groups experiencing a sustained decline or consistently very poor mental health were more likely to have had pre-existing mental or physical conditions. They were also more likely to be Asian, Black or mixed ethnicities, and live in the most deprived areas.

The researchers also found that infection with COVID-19, local lockdown, and financial difficulties all predicted a subsequent deterioration in mental health.

The research team analysed the UK Household Longitudinal Study from the University of Essex and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Matthias Pierce, is lead author and research fellow from the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at The University of Manchester.

He said: “It’s clear from this study that in terms of mental health, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on minority ethnic groups, those living in deprived areas, others experiencing financial difficulties and those who already had poorer mental health.

“But also we find a large proportion of the population has remained resilient to the effects of the pandemic.”

He added: “The data we used are superior to other surveys because the UK Household Longitudinal Study uses a high quality representative random sample and includes groups such as the digitally excluded who might not otherwise participate.

“Other surveys, especially those which use social media, are often unrepresentative and can lead to unreliable results.”

Senior author, Professor Kathryn Abel from The University of Manchester said: “We are increasingly aware that social and economic advantages have an important influence on how well people are able to cope with challenges that appear to have affected everyone equally.

“The health and social inequalities we already know about for women and for people in poverty relate to different burdens of stressful life events and different resources to deal with them.

“These remain relevant and are important reasons for the differences we are seeing in the mental health trajectories across the pandemic.

Sher added: “For people in ethnic minorities, their experience of the pandemic has meant dealing with both existing discrimination and inequalities alongside higher risks of severe illness, disability and, of course, death.

“This represents a devastating landscape for their mental health borne out in our findings.

“We must respond by making sure services are aware of these disparities and that their offerings are culturally sensitive and appropriate for the complexity of unmet need.”

‘Causal’ blood pressure genes found in the human kidney
May 2021

An international team of scientists led by The University of Manchester have discovered 179 kidney genes responsible for high blood pressure.

High blood pressure, known as “silent killer”, is one of the most common human diseases and remains the key risk factor for strokes and heart attacks.

High blood pressure - or hypertension- runs in families but the exact mechanisms through which genes influence individuals’ predisposition to hypertension is not clear.

The discoveries published in Nature Genetics, one of the world’s leading journals, shed new light on our understanding of genetic predisposition to high blood pressure.

The study, supported primarily by the British Heart Foundation and Kidney Research UK, was possible through access to huge datasets of human DNA and RNA from possibly the world’s largest repository of human kidney tissue-based “omics”.

The team led by Professor Maciej Tomaszewski at The University of Manchester characterised how information inherited in DNA translates into genetic predisposition to high blood through changes in activity of certain kidney genes.

These studies included comprehensive analyses conducted at various molecular “levels” of kidney tissue combining together DNA, RNA and other “layers” from the same set of kidney tissue samples.

They also used a statistical method –- called Mendelian randomisation – to screen for evidence of causal associations between thousands of variables and millions of genetic variants using the high-performance computing resources hosted at the University of Manchester.

Around 80 per cent of 179 genes discovered by the team have never before been associated with high blood pressure before. Some of these genes can be targeted by existing medicines creating new opportunities to treat high blood pressure.

Principal Investigator Maciej Tomaszewski, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and University of Manchester and a Consultant Physician said: “Hypertension is a key driver of coronary heart disease and stroke and the single most important cause of disability and premature death worldwide.

“Yet, our understanding of the role of genes in development of this condition has been incomplete.”

Professor Tomaszewski is also a member of Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC), a partnership between academia and NHS organisations in Greater Manchester to drive health research, improve health education and transform patient care.

Professor Fadi J Charchar, a senior author from Federation University, added: “Our studies filled an important gap in our knowledge through uncovering new genetic variants, kidney genes, molecular mechanisms and biological pathways of key relevance to genetic regulation of blood pressure and inherited susceptibility to hypertension.”

Professor Andrew Morris, from The University of Manchester, commented: “Through our unparalleled access to the kidney tissue resource, we provide evidence for the role of the kidney as the mediator of common genetic effects on blood pressure and a potentially causal role of blood pressure in the development of renal disease.”

First author: Dr James Eales from The University of Manchester said: “By explaining the molecular mechanisms of hypertension embedded in the kidney, our study will ultimately lead to advancements in patient-centred diagnostic accuracy in hypertension.

Professor Tomasz Guzik, from the University of Glasgow, said: “These exciting discoveries uncover a range of new possible mechanisms of hypertension some related to blood vessels, kidneys but also – body immune defences and pave the way for the development of novel genetic therapies for blood pressure.”

Professor James Leiper, Associate Medical Director at the BHF said: “We have known for many years that the kidney is a major regulator of blood pressure, but our understanding of precisely how the kidney controls blood pressure is incomplete.

“The identification of this large set of genes that appear to directly affect blood pressure fills in an important missing piece of that puzzle. The researchers have also found a subset of these genes that are a potential new target for the treatment of hypertension.

“This is important because many people taking existing medications still struggle to control their blood pressure. If doctors have more tools to work with then it will help stop thousands of lives being lost each year from this potentially preventable condition.”

Professor Jeremy Hughes, kidney doctor and chair of trustees at Kidney Research UK said: "High blood pressure is both a cause and consequence of kidney disease and we need better treatments to protect patients from harm such as strokes and heart attacks. 

“This innovative study harnesses the power of a kidney tissue biobank and state-of-the-art genetic analysis to identify novel genes that link the kidney to high blood pressure. We hope this new knowledge will eventually lead to new treatments that benefit kidney patients."

How To Save Our Planet: The Facts
May 2021

How to Save Our Planet: The Facts, published today (6 May 2021), is packed with easily digestible facts and figures on everything from the history of the Earth to the power of the individual and government solutions to tackle the climate crisis.

The book has already caught the attention of Virgin Radio DJ Chris Evans, who told Professor Maslin how both he and his children “love it!”

Interviewed by Chris on his breakfast radio show, Professor Maslin said: “I got really frustrated reading lots of these worthy books on climate change. The big, thick ones, the doom and gloom, and I have to confess that I’ve written a couple myself!

“I went, ‘How do I write something that my mates down the pub, or who I play football with, would want to read and actually get something out of?’ Suddenly, this book came to me, where I used single sentences, double sentences, and made it all very factual and hopefully really easy to read.

“You can dive into any chapter you want. You can read it backwards. It’s just more user-friendly than most other books.”

Professor Maslin is a global expert on climate science. He has a particular interest in understanding climate change historically as well as the major challenges it presents for humanity now and in the future.

Amongst the facts he finds most shocking in his book are:

  • There are now more Lego mini figures than people on the planet – and there are 7.8 billion of us - all made of non-recyclable plastic
  • We've cut down 3 trillion trees – that is half the trees on the planet 
  • We've made enough concrete to cover the whole world in a layer 2 mm thick
  • We make 300 million tonnes of plastic – which is found in all oceans – including 7 miles deep in the Mariana trench in the NW Pacific 
  • Greenhouse gases are now higher than they have been for the last 3 million years
  • Weight of land mammals: 30% humans, 67% livestock and pets - only 3% is wild animal

Professor Maslin explained to BBC Radio 5Live’s Rick Edwards how the punchy, accessible format for his new book was inspired by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

“This book, is two-and-a-half thousand years old and the US Marine Corps and the British Army still use as their go-to text for how to run a war; it is full of bullet points like, ‘have more spies than the enemy.. do not attack unless you know you can win..’ really pithy things like that, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I just write a whole book like that?’”

The result: compelling content that Mark hopes will inform high quality debates on climate change everywhere from “Parliament, to dinner parties (if we’re ever allowed to have them again), the boardroom or the pub”.

On the idea that technology rather than behaviour shifts will save the planet, Professor Maslin told Rick Edwards: “What’s true is, it’s a bit of both. Technology will not fix this completely. One of the biggest things that people don’t realise is it’s our consumption – the amount of stuff that we actually buy, use and throw away. At the moment, we could not have all 7.8 billion people consuming the same amount as the average American. We just wouldn’t have any planet left!”

Every fact in the pocket-sized paperback is referenced, offering the reader a wealth of new information to explore and continue to learn from. It also lends itself to well informed posts on social media and fans are already sharing pictures of their favourite facts.

So, what are the things we can all do now to make a difference, Chris Evans asked Professor Maslin, after the Virgin Radio production team dubbed him ‘Mother Nature’s favourite son’!

“The first thing is to talk about it. It is the greatest threat to humanity and we all have a role to playing in fixing it. The second thing is we need to move to a more vegetable based diet, because it’s basically healthier for us but also helps to save the planet. And the other thing that everybody can do straight away is switch to a renewable energy tariff, because it’s probably the same price and is not going to cost you anything but sends a really big message to the energy companies that we want them to change. There are many more suggestions in the book”.

May 2021

A length of steel pipe and a heart monitor are the unlikely tools underpinning new research which suggests that trees may work together to form resource-sharing networks, helping the group collectively overcome environmental challenges.
The findings, laid out in a paper published today in Communications Biology, offer fresh insight into how forests around the world might adapt to the increasing environmental stresses of climate change.
Researchers from universities in the UK, Germany, France and Mexico partnered on the project, which investigated how mangrove trees form networks of root grafts in a Mexican coastal lagoon.
Root grafts are physical connections between tree roots which can allow them to exchange water, carbon and mineral nutrients. Trees with less access to sunlight have been shown in previous studies to survive by sharing resources supplied from root grafts with better positioned neighbouring trees. Very little research has been conducted into resource-sharing in more extensive networks, however, because mapping root grafts between trees requires costly, time-consuming and difficult excavation work.
The research team set out to gain a broader understanding of how root grafts are formed in larger networks of trees in resource-challenged environments. To do so, they studied black mangrove trees, a coastal species which plants shallow roots in soft underwater sediments, in the La Mancha lagoon, in the Veracruz region of Mexico.

For most of the year, the lagoon is separated from the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico by a sandbar which closes off a narrow inlet between the two bodies of water. However, during spring, fresh water runoff eventually overcomes the sandbar, bursting it open within one day and seawater from the Gulf floods into the lagoon. The Gulf waters add salt to the freshwater lagoon, doubling or sometimes even tripling the salinity of the sediments during the dry season – lasting several months each year-.  
The shifting cycle of salinity makes it more difficult for the mangrove trees to consistently draw water and nutrients they need to survive from the earth. The researchers hypothesised that this salt stress could spur mangrove trees into forming root grafts across groups of trees, known as stands. Active root grafts could allow stands to spread resources across a network of separate trees to help keep each one alive, but even non-functional grafts could help to make the group more stable against tides and high winds, providing a yet uncalculated contribution to forest resilience when it comes down to coastal protection services.
Dr Alejandra Vovides, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, is one of the authors of the Communications Biology paper. Dr Vovides was able to map out the roots of A. germinans, one type of mangrove tree found in the lagoon.
Dr Vovides said: “Mangrove trees make good candidates for mapping root grafts because their roots are shallow – you can reach into the sediment and follow them with your hands excavating locally. We initially started off our work that way, but when the forest became unexpectedly flooded due to an early closure of the sand bar, we ended up having to improvise a solution to keep our heads above water. We used a length of metal pipe to strike through the sediment and gently tap the roots. Then, we bought a doppler ultrasound monitor from a local store and attached to the stems of the trees to amplify the taps, helping us work out which tree each root belonged to. It was low-tech, but it worked!”
Their unusual method allowed them to painstakingly trace the root graft networks of A. germinans stands across eight different 900-square-metre sites around the lagoon. In addition to tracing the connections between trees, they also measured each tree’s height and the diameter of their stems, and the salinity levels of the water.
Detailed analysis of the ratios between the trees’ stems and heights, the differences in slenderness between trees which had root grafts and those which did not, and the salinity of their environments provided the researchers with a wealth of new information.
They found that more than three-quarters of the tallest trees had root grafts, and that grafted trees were generally taller than non-grafted trees. In the higher-stress environments of salty water, the trees were more likely to form root grafts with other trees, but in smaller groups than in less stressed environments. The researchers suggest in their paper that larger groups were less likely to form in higher-stress environments to ensure that the smaller group had sufficient resources to survive through their root graft network.
Dr Vovides said: “Around 200 species of trees around the world are known to form root grafts, but the processes and circumstances under which the grafts happen are not well understood. The evidence we’ve collected strongly suggests that the more dominant mangrove trees do indeed provide resources to help smaller trees prosper, which challenges some of the established theories of evolutionary biology. It’s less about ‘survival of the fittest’ and more about the mutual gains of existing in a network.
“One intriguing aspect of our findings is that they align with theoretical models of both natural system evolution and human societies on the cost benefits of co-operation. From those models, we’d expect to see small networks creating more stable gains than larger groups, and that’s just what we’ve seen here.
“The non-invasive method we used to map the mangrove trees’ root grafts makes it impossible for us to know for sure that the grafts were actively sharing resources, but the findings suggest that there is indeed some underlying mechanism which regulates optimal group size. Further research to learn more about exactly what is going on in the roots could teach us a great deal about how forest stands co-operate, not just in mangroves but in all 200 species of trees which we know are capable of root grafting.”
The research project brings together colleagues from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, the University of Glasgow, University of Montpellier in France, and the Instituto de Ecología, A.C. in Mexico. Collectively, they form the  Grafted Roots Interaction Networks project.
The research was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation under their “off-the-beaten-track” programme for extraordinary projects,  and is also supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The team’s paper, titled ‘Cooperative root graft networks benefit mangrove trees under stress’, is published in Communications Biology.

Reusable facemasks made using smartphones and 3D printers
May 2021

Bespoke, reusable facemasks made using smartphones and 3D printers could help better protect people during future epidemics or further waves of Covid-19, new research suggests.

Engineers have devised a system to create personalised facemasks for healthcare workers that include 3D-printed components designed using photos taken with smartphones.

The approach could offer a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to single-use facemasks, which do not always fit properly and were in short supply during the first wave of the pandemic, researchers say.

Hospital settings

The team – which also includes plastic surgeons, speech therapists and virologists – designed their system to utilise 3D scanners and printers available in hospitals.

Researchers carried out a pilot trial with 66 volunteer healthcare workers from NHS Lothian.

Mask production

The team generated 3D images of participants’ faces using either a precision scanner or three pictures taken with a smartphone. Using a computer programme, this information was then used to create moulds that precisely matched the contours of individuals’ faces.

The moulds were 3D-printed and used to make mask components made of silicone. The team assembled the final product using additional plastic parts and a filter section.

While masks could be made using scanners or smartphone images, being able to capture pictures remotely would be beneficial during a pandemic when social distancing and remote working is commonplace, the team says.

Effective protection

Researchers found that their masks provided the same level of protection as available single-use versions. Bespoke masks also tended to fit better, with almost 90 per cent of volunteers wearing them passing a face fit test, compared with only 76 per cent of those using single-use masks.

Further tests showed that the reusable facemasks could be safely decontaminated using common household detergents – such as washing-up liquid – and cleaning materials used routinely in hospitals.

The trial was funded by the Chief Scientist Office (CSO)’s Rapid Research in Covid-19 programme.

"With this funding from the CSO, our team was able to design a new custom-fit and reusable facemask, to conduct a clinical trial, and to run virology assays for disinfection protocols. This project lays the groundwork for reusable PPE products that reduce the environmental impact from masks going to landfill, that enable resilience in the UK supply chain, and that meet the highest FFP3 standards as required by front line healthcare workers. This team drew on our expertise from engineering, clinical practice, and the private sector and we have developed, rapidly, a proven technology that could prove vital in saving lives and protecting the planet."

Dr Adam StokesSchool of Engineering
Ancient Plagues: How did the Romans respond to pandemics?
May 2021

Introducing the Department of Classical and Archaeological Studies’ ‘Ancient Plagues’ series, Lecturer in Roman History Dr Christopher Burden-Strevens presents us with a valuable reminder of how healthcare and social policy advances have transformed our responses to plague outbreaks. He said:

‘Roman responses to disease were similar to our own in a few ways, but were of course primitive. The Romans understood the relationship between disease and heat: the Senate shut every summer and its members, wealthy senators, took themselves to the country (especially gentle seaside regions like Campania, literally ‘the countryside’). This tendency lives on in cities with easy access to coasts, such as Paris and Zagreb, from which thousands commute to the seaside for summer— now for the purpose of leisure rather than disease prevention. That change alone is a mark of human development.

‘The Romans also generally understood the relationship between health and cleanliness. They believed, at least, that their famous sewers and aqueducts were almost as old as the city itself.  Baths, too, were practically a public service: widespread and extremely cheap.

‘Despite these measures, outbreaks of plague were annual. Malaria was endemic: seasonal flooding of the Tiber would periodically inundate the lower-lying regions of Rome, and the stagnant water was a paradise for malarial mosquitoes. The thermal water of public baths was emptied rarely and only by hand, creating a breeding-ground for bacteria.

Infant mortality was appallingly high: you could expect to live to your 60s or 70s if you made it to 18, but accounting for all those who did not, the mean average life expectancy was closer to 30.

‘This fact led to attitudes that would horrify us today. Osteological evidence suggests boys were prioritised for breastfeeding over girls; it was also common for unaffordable infants to be abandoned. Disease was inescapable and routine: tens of thousands died of malaria and cholera in the city of Rome every year. This was considered typical, so much so that our ancient sources, like the historian Cassius Dio, only noted outbreaks if they were of extraordinarily greater magnitude.

‘One such outbreak was the decade-long Antonine Plague, beginning approximately in 165 AD. The more radical estimates suggest that it obliterated Rome’s population, killing over half the Empire’s inhabitants. If anywhere near accurate, that is tens of millions of people. Working from home, self-isolation, and lockdown were not feasible options. Herbalists and physicians such as Galen and Celsus were active within Rome in the first and second centuries AD. They left evidence of ancient treatments ranging from the innocuous, such as herbal remedies, to the invasive: primitive surgery and even burning away infected areas through a process known as cautery. Only a tiny minority could hope for professional medical treatment: for the majority, home remedies, amulets, and prayer were their only options.

‘It is a grim and sobering picture, yet this explains (as our ‘Ancient Plagues’ video series shows) why ancient Greeks and Romans placed such an emphasis on coping with suffering. Lucretius wrote on the consolation of friendship. The people of Greek states such as Athens and Figaleia dedicated temples in thanksgiving for their survival. The earliest Christians held up models of strength in suffering such as Saint Sebastian. These examples encourage us to hope and to resilience today too. Rome and its people lived on. If the ancient Romans did it, so can the modern world.’

The Department of Classical and Archaeological Studies’ ‘Ancient Plagues’ series can be viewed here.

Can bad weather really cause headaches?
Apr 2021

In this article, Professor Amanda Ellison explores the connection between headaches and the weather, and explains how to reduce the impact that headaches have on our daily lives. 

We all know somebody who claims they can predict the weather with their body. Whether it’s your arthritic relative who knows rain is on the way when their knees ache or your lifelong pal who gets a headache when a storm is approaching. Having written a book on headaches, I hear a lot from people I meet about headaches that are related to the weather. But as it turns out, there actually is a scientific basis for why some people are able to sense changes in the weather by the headaches they cause.

While it’s difficult to say how many people actually suffer from weather-related headache, research shows over 60% of people who suffer from migraines think they’re sensitive to the weather. In 2015, researchers who collected daily sales figures of a headache medication in Japan showed that sales peaked significantly when average barometric pressure decreased. This often happens before bad weather.

But why do these headaches happen? There are two mechanisms of action here.

One is related to the sinuses – the four small air-filled cavities in the bones of the face. Just as people’s ears “pop” when air pressure changes, atmospheric pressure changes can create an imbalance in sinus pressure causing inflammation and pain. This feels different depending on which sinus is most affected, ranging from forehead pain, pain between and behind your eyes, pain in your face, or a more diffuse headache in the front or back of your head. Which you are more prone to depends on the individual structure of your head.

The other way this type of headache happens is related to the way in which pressure changes alter blood flow in the cerebrovascular system – which controls how blood is circulated around your head. Blood is highly toxic to neurons and so it’s very important that blood is kept separate from the brain. The blood vessels of the cerebrovascular system have receptors that activate if blood vessels widen too much, acting as an early warning system that something isn’t quite right. We perceive this activation as pain.

Both of these will at the very least cause a generalised headache in those who are sensitive to pressure changes. But even small drops in pressure have been correlated with increases in migraine episodes in sufferers.

Falling pressure associated with bad weather isn’t the only thing that can affect us. Rising humidity can also cause headaches through our sinuses. This is because high humidity can increase the amount of mucus produced by the lining of the sinuses in order to trap allergens, dust and pollution particles that are plentiful in the dense, moist air. This can cause congestion, inflammation and discomfort in the sinuses – often leading to a sinus headache.

Medicines and other remedies

There’s little any of us can do about the weather. So outside of locking ourselves in pressure-regulated chambers, painkillers and decongestants are probably the only way to remedy your pain until the weather outside passes through.

It’s also worth noting, however, that headaches rarely happen due to one trigger alone – and changes in atmospheric pressure may not always cause a headache. Bad posture and inflammation in the body (usually the result of stress) may both cause headaches. Muscles that are contracted over long periods time need more blood flow to deliver oxygen and other nutrients – and this is the hallmark of inflammation over time. Stress increases the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in our body, which can also cause inflammation and widen the blood vessels in your head – leading to headaches and pain.

Proper posture and reducing stress may help prevent headaches. Staying hydrated and eating a varied diet containing essential minerals and vitamins, and avoiding trigger foods and drinks (if you know them), will also help.

When bad weather is impending, vigorous chewing (such as with chewing gum) can help the pressure equalise in your sinuses through your mouth, nose, and Eustachian tube (which runs from the middle ear to the throat and is really important in equalising pressure) – and may ward off a pressure headache. And choosing sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol may also have the added benefit of stopping nasty respiratory bugs from sticking to your mucus membranes by changing their cell wall structure, according to one study.

Boosting our natural painkillers, such as serotonin and dopamine, is important too. These neurochemicals block the pain signal on its way to our brain and so can lessen how much pain we feel. They are also intimately involved in our mood, so it’s no wonder that low serotonin concentrations are triggers for migraine, and we often experience this as a low mood. It’s why in the days preceding a migraine episode people often crave chocolate (which contains a chemical that turns into serotonin in our body) and intimacy, which boosts serotonin, dopamine and the bonding hormone, oxytoxin – which is also a powerful painkiller.

Keeping these neurotransmitters topped up by doing things we like – be it chatting with friends or listening to music – will ensure good hormonal hygiene, and reduce the impact headaches, even barometric ones, have on our daily lives. So when the weather outside is bad, settling down to watch a movie with a loved one and some chocolate to eat may be as good a remedy as any.

Study shows how lockdown has increased mental health difficulties for vulnerable children
Apr 2021

The pandemic increased mental health problems among vulnerable children, with financial strain on parents a major factor, a study by Cardiff University has found.

During the pandemic, researchers interviewed 142 five to 10-year-olds who had been identified by schools as “at risk” for mental health problems, and they then compared this to pre-pandemic data.

Mental health problems, particularly anxiety, increased “significantly”, the study found.

There was a strong link between financial stress and mental health problems in parents, which was in turn associated with worsening mental health issues among children, the researchers discovered.

Families whose financial circumstances have been seriously impacted by lockdown need monetary support and extra mental health support, they concluded.

Lead author Professor Stephanie van Goozen, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said: “To our knowledge this is the first study to highlight the severe impact of COVID-19 on already vulnerable children and families.

“Our analysis shows how the financial stress caused by the pandemic is associated with – and possibly responsible for – increased mental health problems in children through its impact on parental mental health.

“The findings make for distressing reading, especially when seen in the context of continuing economic uncertainty. It is vital that these families get the extra support they need – both financially and emotionally.”

The children, along with one parent, were interviewed via videocall between July and September 2020. The researchers compared this to data collected prior to the pandemic as part an ongoing study.

The parents and children took part in validated interviews and questionnaires to assess various aspects of child and parent mental health and to understand financial strain and their living circumstances.

Of the families who took part, 57% were living in poverty or reported to have experienced loss of employment, loss of income, struggled to pay bills, were at risk of eviction or loss of accommodation, unable to afford sufficient food, or had to use emergency loans or foodbanks during lockdown.

The key findings were:

  • Increasing levels of mental health problems in already vulnerable children during lockdown (69% compared to pre-pandemic 61%);
  • 57% of parents reported high levels of anxiety and 44% reported high levels of depression during lockdown;
  • There was an increase in anxiety and panic symptoms in children, as well as school anxiety, but no changes in problematic behaviour.

Professor van Goozen said: “Many children and families have seen a huge change in their lives, in education, employment, physical activity and social contact. Parents have had to balance work commitments – or losing their work – with managing their children at home and this has no doubt caused significant stress.

“Plans that are currently being developed to support children in general will not be sufficient for those who are more vulnerable, who live in poverty and who have parents with mental health problems. Vulnerable children will need a sustained and multi-faceted approach to support their recovery.”

Professor Stephan Collishaw, co-director of Cardiff University’s Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health, which focuses on research to help reduce anxiety and depression in young people, said: “The study shows the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on already vulnerable families.

“There is an urgent need to provide support to families most impacted by COVID-19, and as we move out of the pandemic to focus on children’s longer-term educational and mental health outcomes.”

The research, which was carried out in Wales, was funded by UK Research and Innovation as part of its COVID-19 response.

Apr 2021

A ground-breaking trial, which uses digital avatars to represent the auditory hallucinations experienced by people with psychosis, has launched in Scotland.

The AVATAR 2 trial – led here by the University of Glasgow – uses the unique therapy to help those with psychosis increase power and control over the voices they hear and reduce their distress.

The trial – developed by King’s College London, UCL and UCL Business – is being launched in Glasgow with an online event which will celebrate the first full quarter of running the AVATAR2 trial in Scotland.

The therapy trial is also being extended to sites across the country including University of Manchester, as well as King’s College London and University College London.  

The open event will be of interest to clinicians working with people who hear voices in NHS Scotland, people with lived experience of hearing voices and their supporters. Anyone with an interest in in novel psychological therapies, digital health or improving care for people who hear voices will also find the event interesting and useful.

It will include an introduction to the AVATAR2 trial and demonstrations of AVATAR therapy software by the trial team at the University of Glasgow. There will be a panel Q&A session at the end of the afternoon.

This trial builds on a previous clinical trial, led by King’s and hosted by South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, which showed in 2018 that the therapy resulted in a rapid and substantial fall in frequency and associated distress of voices, when compared with supportive counselling alone at 12 weeks.

The AVATAR2 trial has two clear aims:

  • To test two different forms of AVATAR therapy comparing each with a treatment as usual control and to find out which might be most helpful for people. People will be offered either six sessions (brief AVATAR therapy) or twelve sessions (extended AVATAR therapy), delivered weekly.
  • To learn more about how AVATAR therapy may work, how it can be tailored to the individual and how best to deliver the therapy in clinical services.

The University of Glasgow’s Psychosis Research Group, led by Professor Andrew Gumley has been at the forefront of developing new therapies for people with experiences such as distressing voices (also referred to as auditory hallucinations).

Professor Gumley said: “We are delighted to launch the AVATAR2 Trial today. The University of Glasgow’s Psychosis Research Group has been at the forefront of developing new therapies for people with distressing voices. This includes digital therapies to promote recovery, wellbeing and empowerment in people who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

“AVATAR therapy is a new digital therapy that can help people change their relationship with distressing auditory hallucinations. People with distressing voices have had poor access to talking therapies in Scotland. If this trial is successful it could be a game changer in terms of enabling access to psychological therapies for people with distressing voices.”

Jane [name has been changed to protect anonymity] said of her experience of receiving AVATAR therapy during AVATAR 1: “I would like to say since I’ve been unwell, I have had many Psychological therapies. I can honestly say that AVATAR therapy has helped me the most. Listening back to the Mp3 is like having therapy in my pocket. It has helped me gain back control of the voices.

“Being face to face with the avatar was very hard for me at first, especially the first session, but after a while I became more confident. It was easier for me to talk back to the avatar. At times it was very challenging but I was very well supported during all of my sessions . I think it’s hard for people like me to try new therapies, but it has helped me so much in my recovery.”

Does your cat feel empathy for you? A new study aims to find out
Apr 2021

he age-old question about whether cats feel empathy for their owners – or whether they just see them as useful providers of food and shelter – may soon be one step closer to finding an answer. 

Researchers at the University of Sussex are recruiting cat and owner duos to take part in a study which looks at whether cats ‘catch’ yawns from their owners.  

In human psychology, it is well established that yawns are contagious between people who see each other as part of the same social group.  Previous research has shown that dogs can ‘catch’ yawns from their owners, and evidence of contagious yawning has been found between other social animals such as budgerigars, rats and chimpanzees. Recent research has also shown that lions communicate with each other by yawning.  

Karen Hiestand is leading the experiment. She is a doctoral researcher in the Mammal Communication and Cognition Group who specialises in anthrozoology within the School or Psychology at the University of Sussex. Karen said: 

“It’s clear that some cats have a special bond with their owners, but does empathy play a role in that bond?  

"Contagious yawning has been linked to empathy in humans and this claim has also been debated for dogs that ‘catch’ human yawns 

“Domestic cats have evolved from a solitary ancestor whereas dogs are highly social and have socially evolved capacities. I hope this study will help us understand more about our relationships with these two species and their evolution into our most common animal companions.”   

Cat owners keen to participate need to first fill out a short online survey.  Then, following guidance, owners can try the experiment at home with their own cat, in their own time. Participants should send video recordings of the experiment to the researchers for behaviour analysis. Find out more via the website.  

The researchers are looking to recruit 100 cat and owner pairings between now and May 31st 2021.