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A team of researchers from Cardiff University has used neuroscience for the first time to explore the impact doll play has on children.

In an 18-month study, the team monitored the brain activity of 33 children, aged between four and eight, as they played with dolls.

They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Furthermore, they saw far less activation of this part of the brain when the children played with tablet computers on their own.

The findings of the study are published today in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Lead author Dr Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science, said: “This is a completely new finding. The fact that we saw the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) to be active in our study shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic.”

Dr Gerson and colleagues used an emerging neuroimaging technology - functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) - to scan brain activity while the children moved freely around.

They found that the pSTS, a region of the brain associated with social information processing such as empathy, was activated even when children played with dolls on their own, regardless of gender.

“We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,” said Dr Gerson.

“Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.”

The study, conducted with Mattel, the makers of Barbie, is the first time neuroimaging data has been used to highlight how the brain is activated during natural doll play. As such, the researchers say it is a step forward in developmental science’s understanding of this type of play.

In the study the play was split into different sections so the Cardiff team could capture the brain activity relating to each kind of play separately - playing with the dolls on their own; playing with the dolls together with another person (a research assistant); playing with the tablet game on their own and playing with the tablet game along with another person (a research assistant).

The dolls used included a diverse range of Barbies and sets. Tablet play was carried out using games that allow children to engage with open and creative play (rather than a rule or goal-based games) to provide a similar play experience to doll play.

The study found that when children played alone with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the pSTS as they do when playing with others. When the children were left to play tablet games on their own there was far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games involved a considerable creative element.

The researchers say the study is the first step towards understanding the impact of doll play and further work is required to build on these initial findings. Dr Gerson and the Cardiff University team, along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.

A small number of social media users could be responsible for amplifying and boosting a disproportionate amount of Covid-19 disinformation, a report says.

Academics at Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute investigated people’s activities on social media in five countries – the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain - via a survey conducted between 18 March and 30 April.

The team has identified a group they label as “super-sharers”, who amount to 6% of social media users and were much more likely to have shared Covid-19 disinformation. These individuals possess a number of common traits: They have admitted to sharing any form of disinformation in the past month, either knowingly or unknowingly; they share political news on social media at least once a day and have checked social media every day across three or more platforms. They also use social media to stay up-to-date with the news.

People who didn’t fall into the super-sharer category were statistically much less likely to have shared Covid-19 disinformation.

When examining the data from all respondents across the five countries, those who had seen Covid-19 disinformation were more likely to believe that it affects trust in scientists, experts and health policies “to a great extent”.

Professor Kate Daunt, who led the analysis, said: “Our research provides insights into the factors that make a person more likely to share disinformation about Covid-19, as well as the central role social media plays in people’s lives."

The research also shows a third (31%) of those from the UK who had shared Covid-19 disinformation and fake news in the past admitted to having “unknowingly” shared ‘news’ on social media that seemed accurate at the time of posting but they later discovered was “exaggerated”. Italy had the lowest percentage at 20%.

By contrast, the largest percentage of sharers of coronavirus disinformation and fake news who had “knowingly” shared “exaggerated” content was in Spain (31%) compared to the smallest group (11%) in Italy.

UK citizens were most likely to “never” fact check news before sharing it with others (28%). Italian citizens were most likely to “always” fact check (47%).

The UK also had the lowest percentage of people who said they had seen fake news relating to Covid-19 – at 51%. Spain had the highest at 87%, with Italy at 84%, France at 72% and Germany at 58%.

Professor Daunt added: “There are distinct differences in terms of how people in these five European countries identify and understand fake news. There was a significant relationship in all countries between people who had not seen Covid-19 disinformation and those who “never” fact check. It’s therefore highly likely that while the UK had the lowest percentage of people who said they had seen fake news online, a much higher number may have been exposed to disinformation without realising it.”

The study involved 3,696 citizens from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK (700+ people per country), who were surveyed about disinformation and fake news between 18 March – 30 April 2020.

High levels of air pollution are forcing people inside to consume more electricity, subsequently causing even greater environmental problems by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

This is according to a new study from researchers at Cardiff University who have shown that the effects are seen more in lower-income families and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The team say the results should encourage decision makers to think about how policy can prevent inequality from widening in terms of both health risks and financial hardships.

The study, which has been published in the journal Nature Energy, examined the energy consumption of over 4,000 residential buildings and 17,000 commercial buildings in the city of Phoenix, Arizona between 2013 and 2018.

The Phoenix metropolitan area has the highest air pollution levels in the United States, with pollution being generated from both natural sources, such as dust storms, and human activities such as energy generation and transport.

The energy consumption data from the buildings in Phoenix was compared to levels of pollution in the area, allowing the researchers to tell whether households with distinct income levels or from various ethnic groups responded to air pollution differently.

The results showed that higher levels of pollution were associated with higher electricity consumption in residential buildings, with increases mainly happening in the daytime.

Higher pollution levels also resulted in higher electricity consumption in commercial buildings in the retail and recreation industries.

“Our results indicate that when air pollution levels are high, people tend to reduce travelling and shift to indoor activities, which lead to more electricity consumption in general, whether it be from heating, cooling and lighting or the increase use of appliances” said lead author of the study Dr Pan He from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

The researchers also examined the impact of high levels of air pollution on energy supplies, specifically solar panels.

It is believed that solar panels can lose their efficiency as air pollution not only absorbs and scatters the sunlight in the air, but also gets deposited on the surface of the panels which hampers their power generation.

Indeed, the results showed that air pollution reduced the power generated by solar panels in both the residential and commercial buildings, with the latter less affected potentially because the panels are better maintained and cleaned.

“Our findings show the importance of considering the interactions and feedbacks of consumer behavior and solar energy systems to air pollution issues,” Dr He continued.

“A cost-benefit analysis when accounting for the damages presented in this paper could produce larger welfare gains from pollution control policies. Meanwhile, it is critical to reduce the socio-economic vulnerability in adapting to air pollution, which can be achieved by improving the energy efficiency in the homes of specific income and ethnic groups.”

An innovative scheme piloted by Barnardo’s Cymru could form the basis of improved support for children affected by trauma, a report from Cardiff University says.

The Gwella project was a pilot for the Gwella approach – an intervention developed and run by Barnardo’s Cymru across North and South Wales. Gwella was a four-year, Welsh Government-funded research and practice project, operated in partnership between Barnardo’s Cymru and Cardiff University.

Gwella’s main aim was to reduce the risk of vulnerable children and young people experiencing Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) or demonstrating Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB), through the development of a prevention model for use in social care.

Working with 31 families over two years, Gwella practitioners used play-based activities to help develop stronger relationships between children and their parents or carers and improve their wellbeing.

Parents and kinship carers who took part in the subsequent evaluation of the project were universal in their praise for it and the changes that had occurred for them as a result.

Fifteen of those interviewed spoke of having made a bond with their children, of feeling more confident in their ability to parent, and of understanding how to play and meet their children’s needs. Three parents set the significance of this against having previously had their children removed from their care. As a consequence, they had high levels of anxiety and a lack of trust in their ability to parent.

The children involved in the research also gave positive responses about the Gwella project. The majority spoke of all the games and activities they liked to do and of missing their worker once the sessions ended. Seven of the children said their practitioner had helped them to feel calmer and less worried. Parents also marked significant improvements in their children’s wellbeing and behaviour.

Dr Sophie Hallett, based in Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences said: “Our evaluation of the Gwella project demonstrates the value of this kind of focused and relationship-based work with families. Giving children and parents or carers an outlet to express their worries or anxieties, while building up confidence in their abilities and having support to deal with challenges, is key to improving their wellbeing.”

Dr Hallett’s academic research and an evaluation of the pilot Gwella model will now be used to create practice guidance for social care practitioners.

Pat Duke, Assistant Director for Barnardo’s Cymru, said: “We are delighted with the evaluation findings, particularly the evidence of improved life chances for children.

“Barnardo's have long been aware of the prevalence of unreconciled abuse and trauma in the early childhood history of the adolescents and young adults we support.

“We hope early intervention inspired by the Gwella approach will prevent children from experiencing further abuse or engaging in risky behaviours in future.”

An international team of scientists, including from Cardiff University, has identified genetic evidence that suggests both smoking and obesity can increase the risk of severe Covid-19.

The researchers also found the same was true for the risk of developing sepsis, a dangerous inflammatory response faced by many patients with other infections.

The findings, published in the journal Circulation today, highlight that stopping smoking and losing weight are likely to be effective interventions for reducing the risk of developing severe Covid-19 and sepsis.

The study looked at data from 3,199 patients with severe Covid-19 and 10,154 patients with sepsis and examined genetically-predicted exposure to risk factors such as Body Mass Index (BMI, a measure of obesity) and smoking. The researchers were able to assess whether the presence of these genetic signposts were related to an increased likelihood of severe Covid-19 or sepsis.

Dr Mark Ponsford, a Welsh clinical academic trainee at Cardiff University, and first author on the study, said: “Observational studies can be vulnerable to bias – for instance because of confounding factors such as how patients are recruited or data are collected. We used an approach known as ‘Mendelian Randomisation’, a technique that harnesses our knowledge of how our genetic make-up predisposes to a greater BMI or smoking. This approach is generally less affected by these confounding factors.

“Studying large publicly-available genetic datasets from well-characterised UK and Norwegian populations, we found that smoking and obesity increased the risk of developing sepsis. Applying this approach to genetic association studies of severe Covid-19, we found the same outcome. This adds to the growing body of evidence that reducing smoking and obesity are important for public health, and highlights the importance of research exploring the links between the immune response and these traits.”

Dr Dipender Gill, a clinician scientist and senior author on the paper from St George’s, University of London and Imperial College London, said: “While it’s already known that smoking and obesity increase the risk of many serious health conditions, including heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer, our findings highlight that the implications of smoking and obesity are exacerbated in the current Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our work supports that something can be done to reduce risk of severe Covid-19, and in particular that losing excess weight and stopping smoking can make a difference.

“Now, more than ever, it’s essential that campaigns highlighting the benefits of losing excess weight and stopping smoking remain central to public health strategies.”

Cardiff University is to offer coronavirus (Covid-19) tests to staff and students who are showing no symptoms.

The University is among many Russell Group universities working to establish a large-scale Covid-19 screening service for the new academic year.

All campus-based University staff and students will be invited to request a test for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, after arriving on campus.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Riordan said he hoped it would send a clear message that the University wanted to “keep everyone safe” and urged staff and students to participate in the free, voluntary programme.

Students who are not showing any symptoms will be asked to book an appointment at one of three dedicated University testing stations, based at the Hadyn Ellis Building in Maindy, College House at Heath Park and Talybont Social Centre. The University will also run a collection/drop off point for home testing and a mobile collection service for staff and students as the service rolls out.

The test involves giving a saliva sample which will then be analysed on site, with the aim to provide results within 48 hours. Those who test positive must self-isolate - along with all other household members - in accordance with the latest public health guidance and they must seek a confirmatory test via the NHS.

Meanwhile, those with symptoms on arrival in Cardiff should self-isolate and book a test through the Welsh Government’s testing scheme.

Professor Riordan said: “We are encouraging all asymptomatic staff and students who come to campus regularly to take advantage of our free coronavirus testing service.

“Our aim is to detect any infections, clusters or outbreaks at the earliest possible stage so that we can take action to prevent spread. This is not a substitute for all of the other measures that we have put in place - but it will give us added comfort that we will be able to react swiftly if we do see a rise in prevalence in our University community.

“Cardiff University is a truly global institution and we are eager to send out a clear message to our prospective students all over the world that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe."

The programme will test the University’s entire campus-based community from late September onwards. Staff and students working or learning in clinical settings offered testing first, along with those living in halls of residence, will be prioritised for testing at more regular intervals.

The University has the capacity to carry out thousands of tests per week at a purpose-built laboratory at the School of Biosciences. Following initial screening of the University community, there will also be a programme of regular testing throughout the academic year to monitor the situation.

The service is one of a raft of protective measures being put in place by the University, including:

  • Strict guidance on the number of people on campus to ensure social distancing is followed;
  • Strict 2m distancing (even if the Welsh government guidance changes to 1m);
  • Use of face coverings inside University buildings;
  • One-way walking routes around campus;
  • Additional handwashing facilities and cleaning;

Testing programme lead Professor Andrew Westwell, who is Dean of Research and Innovation in the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences, said: “Building a Covid-19 virus testing platform in these extraordinary times is part of a significant investment in the health and wellbeing of our University community."

Claire Morgan, the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education and Students, said: “The testing service will not only allow us to provide greater reassurance at the start of the academic year, but it will also provide continued monitoring throughout the year.

“We are working closely with the NHS to provide additional support should it be required.

“Hopefully, by having this early-warning system in place, alongside all our other measures, we can all start to look forward to the year ahead with renewed vigour and excitement.”

The screening service will start at the end of the month when all campus-based students and staff will receive an email invitation to participate. For students this will be shortly after enrolment.

Alesi Surgical has struck an exclusive deal with Olympus to distribute the company’s Ultravision surgical smoke control system in the United States.

Alesi – which began as a Cardiff University life sciences spin-out – developed Ultravision to remove surgical smoke – a byproduct of tissue treated with electrical surgical devices for cutting, cautery and other uses.

Ultravision, which suppresses the aerosolisation of surgical smoke and mist, is already cleared for use in laparoscopic and open surgery in the US. The deal has been welcomed by the Development Bank of Wales.

Two US states have passed laws mandating that hospitals install local exhaust ventilation systems in procedure rooms to control smoke and reduce the risk of staff exposure, with other state legislation pending.

"Ultravision is the only technology that rapidly and continuously clears the smoke from the visual field without requiring CO2 exchange and filtration. It is the only product that provides maximum view with minimum carbon dioxide exposure," said Dominic Griffiths, chief executve of Alesi Surgical.

"Given the immense resources and expertise of Olympus, this exciting partnership will greatly accelerate the ability of US hospitals to access Ultravision and provide its benefits to staff and patients."

Olympus is a leading global manufacturer of optical and digital precision technology. Ross "Rusty" Segan, chief medical officer for Olympus Corporation, added: "Using an effective surgical smoke management device is essential to minimizing the risk of exposure for surgical teams in the operating room.

"Healthcare professionals are rightly concerned about risks posed by bioaerosols, especially during the pandemic.  However, we must find safe ways to continue performing surgical procedures using minimally invasive techniques because of the significant clinical benefits this type of surgery offers patients. With its unique and highly characterized mode of action, Ultravision offers an innovative means to control bioaerosols during laparoscopic surgery."

Philip Barnes, investment executive at the Development Bank of Wales, said: “We're excited by this latest development for Alesi, this is a significant branch into international markets, with clear benefits for the health and medical sectors. We look forward to supporting them as they continue to grow."

A project to reintroduce eagles to parts of Wales has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help it continue its work through the pandemic.

Eagle Reintroduction Wales (ERW), which is backed by Cardiff University, Wildlife Trust Wales and Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, hopes to restore golden and/or white-tailed eagles to rural Wales. They have been extinct here since the mid-1800s.

The coronavirus pandemic has left ERW without funding – and the project is now seeking public support to help continue its work to return the birds of prey to the wild.

Sophie-lee Williams, 28, who manages the Eagle Reintroduction Wales project at Cardiff University, said: “We had discussions about funding agreements with several high-profile backers ahead of the pandemic but as soon as lockdown hit it became clear that this money would sadly no longer be available.

“Until government and conservation funds open back up, we are asking for the public’s help and support to continue our pioneering work to bring these cultural and iconic species back to Wales.”

Species restoration is hugely complex and involves many different facets – from extensive feasibility studies and painstaking research to identify the best habitats and suitable release areas in Wales, to extensive wide-scale public consultation with communities and stakeholders. The work must adhere to strict, highly-regulated licensing processes set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

Most recently, ERW, mapped the historic distribution of the two species in Wales – a vital pre-requisite to their reintroduction.

Wildlife experts believe the ERW project has the most realistic chance of several projects to successfully restore both native eagles. Experts have described ERW’s efforts as exemplary, extremely professional and well-organised.

ERW is aiming to raise up to £50,000 to help fund a full-time researcher for the project.

“We hope this appeal will help to keep our project moving forwards even during the uncertainty of the pandemic,” said Sophie-lee.

“We have already carried out three years of painstaking work - but there is still a lot more work to do to meet requirements before we will see eagles soaring in Welsh skies once again.

“Any donation big or small will help us to continue to gather the crucial evidence we need to restore these spectacular species to Wales. The more we raise the more secure the ERW project will be during the pandemic.”

Funding will enable ERW to initiate and complete the following IUCN requirements:

  • Extensive public, community and stakeholder engagement;
  • Ecological risk assessments;
  • Prey availability and density assessments;
  • The selection of the best release sites for both eagles in Wales;
  • A project steering group to guide the next steps in this work;
  • The practical plans and translocation methods leading to eagle restorations

A link to the Crowdfunder can be found here.

Cardiff University is officially Wales’s top ranked university according to The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021.

Whilst Cardiff UK’s ranking remains the same at 34th, other changes means it takes over at the top spot.

Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and Students, Claire Morgan said: “I’m delighted we’ve regained our status as the number one ranked university in Wales in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021.

“This means in recent weeks we’ve retained our spot as number one university in Wales in The Complete University Guide 2021 and seen, albeit small but important, rises in both the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (up to 191st in the world) and Guardian University Guide (37th in the UK) – which includes being ranked first in Wales for career prospects.

“The last year has unquestionably been one of the most challenging for our staff and students – and continues to be so.

“To witness sustained performance as well as improvements is testament to the commitment and expertise of our staff and means that we continue to move in the right direction.

“However, we’re not complacent. We know that we still have work to do and are keen to deliver improvements. We will continue to work with our staff and student community to ensure we do everything possible to deliver the best teaching and learning outcomes for all.”

The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide is made up of nine indicators including student satisfaction with teaching quality and their wider student experience, research quality, graduate prospects, entrance qualifications held by new students, degree results achieved, student/staff ratios, service and facilities spend, and degree completion rates.

Sensors which detect micro-defects in materials are being developed by the Compound Semiconductor Centre – Cardiff University’s joint venture with IQE.

Funded by Innovate UK under the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, two new collaborations will translate quantum science into UK-based manufacturing.

CSC has initiated a new £1.9M project with partners including CST Global, Cardiff University, INEX Microtechnology, National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the University of Nottingham to develop a novel sensor.

Known as a compact laser-pumped atomic magnetometer, it works by correlating the interaction between alkali-metal atoms and an external magnetic field to infer minute changes in surface structures.

This allows the detection of micro-defects in materials and objects that are not visible or hidden from view under protective coatings.

Applications for the technology include:

  • Detection of corrosion under insulation which costs £4trillion globally in downtime and repairs
  • In-line material characterisation and quality control across the >£1.5billion steel industry
  • Accurate detection of underground assets to reduce excavation time and cost during repairs and maintenance– such as transmission lines, gas and water pipes

CSC Project Manager, Denise Powell, said: “The global Non-Destructive Test market is worth £7bn annually, and higher sensitivity in-line sensor solutions are desperately required to help meet the net-zero greenhouse gas target by 2050 via reducing fugitive emissions in aging infrastructure, and increasing materials production efficiency.”

CSC is also working on a new £5.5m project with nine industry and academic partners, led by British battery manufacturer AMTE Power.

CSC’s focus is to develop high performance, compound semiconductor laser sources for quantum magnetometers, to enable extremely high sensitivity magnetic field measurements to grade new batteries leaving the factory and reduce the time taken for the ageing process from weeks to days.

This new quantum sensing technology will cut the cost of production and provide additional capability in grading the quality of batteries for electric cars and other uses in the electrification revolution.

An immediate application is integration in UK efforts to build a Gigafactory for battery production in the next few years, in anticipation of 50% of UK vehicle production being wholly or partially electric by 2030.

CSC Project Manager, Ali Anjomshoaa said: “We need radically new methods of battery assembly, testing and screening to enable truly high-volume battery manufacture to meet the demands of electrification of transport. This project is a great example of the application of UK derived quantum science to address real-world problems and drive the future of the British automotive, transport and energy industries.”

Dr Wyn Meredith, CSC Director, added: “These two projects are the latest in a portfolio of innovative technologies that are translating quantum science into UK based manufacturing to address new global opportunities. It is essential that we continue to focus on exploitation of our word-class research to keep the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future.”

The Compound Semiconductor Centre (CSC) was formed in August 2015 as a joint venture between IQE plc, the world leading supplier of advanced compound semiconductor wafer products, and Cardiff, one of the Britain's leading research-intensive universities.