Livin' on the MDedge

Ancient plague, cyclical pandemics … history lesson?


Even the plague wanted to visit Stonehenge

We’re about to blow your mind: The history you learned in school was often inaccurate. Shocking, we know, so we’ll give you a minute to process this incredible news.

Better? Good. Now, let’s look back at high school European history. The Black Death, specifically. The common narrative is that the Mongols, while besieging a Crimean city belonging to the Genoese, catapulted dead bodies infected with some mystery disease that turned out to be the plague. The Genoese then brought the plague back to Italy, and from there, we all know the rest of the story.

Ian Hodkinson,

The Black Death was certainly extremely important to the development of modern Europe as we know it, but the history books gloss over the much longer history of the plague. Yersinia pestis did not suddenly appear unbidden in a Mongol war camp in 1347. The Black Death wasn’t even the first horrific, continent-wide pandemic caused by the plague; the Plague of Justinian 800 years earlier crippled the Byzantine Empire during an expansionist phase and killed anywhere between 15 million and 100 million.

Today, though, LOTME looks even deeper into history, nearly beyond even history itself, back into the depths of early Bronze Age northern Europe. Specifically, to two ancient burial sites in England, where researchers have identified three 4,000-year-old cases of Y. pestis, the first recorded incidence of the disease in Britain.

Two of the individuals, identified through analysis of dental pulp, were young children buried at a mass grave in Somerset, while the third, a middle-aged woman, was found in a ring cairn in Cumbria. These sites are hundreds of miles apart, yet carbon dating suggests all three people lived and died at roughly the same time. The strain found is very similar to other samples of plague found across central and western Europe starting around 3,000 BCE, suggesting a single, easily spread disease affecting a large area in a relatively small period of time. In other words, a pandemic. Even in these ancient times, the world was connected. Not even the island of Britain could escape.

Beyond that though, the research helps confirm the cyclical nature of the plague; over time, it loses its effectiveness and goes into hiding, only to mutate and come roaring back. This is a story with absolutely no relevance at all to the modern world. Nope, no plagues or pandemics going around right now, no viruses fading into the background in any way. What a ridiculous inference to make.

Uncovering the invisible with artificial intelligence

This week in “What Else Can AI Do?” new research shows that a computer program can reveal brain injury that couldn’t be seen before with typical MRI.

The hot new AI, birthed by researchers at New York University, could potentially be a game changer by linking repeated head impacts with tiny, structural changes in the brains of athletes who have not been diagnosed with a concussion. By using machine learning to train the AI, the researchers were, for the first time, able to distinguish the brain of athletes who played contact sports (football, soccer, lacrosse) from those participating in noncontact sports such as baseball, basketball, and cross-country.

Andrea Danti/Thinkstock

How did they do it? The investigators “designed statistical techniques that gave their computer program the ability to ‘learn’ how to predict exposure to repeated head impacts using mathematical models,” they explained in a written statement. Adding in data from the MRI scans of 81 male athletes with no known concussion diagnosis and the ability to identify unusual brain features between athletes with and without head trauma allowed the AI to predict results with accuracy even Miss Cleo would envy.

“This method may provide an important diagnostic tool not only for concussion, but also for detecting the damage that stems from subtler and more frequent head impacts,” said lead author Junbo Chen, an engineering doctoral candidate at NYU. That could make this new AI a valuable asset to science and medicine.

There are many things the human brain can do that AI can’t, and delegation could be one of them. Examining the data that represent the human brain in minute detail? Maybe we leave that to the machine.


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