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Premature babies in Brazil are feeling the effects of coronavirus—even when they’re covid-free



Premature babies in Brazil are feeling the effects of coronavirus—even when they're covid-free

His denialism has left medical professionals without support, floundering to care for patients without the proper resources for either prevention or treatment. Brazil has seen more than 16.7 million cases throughout the pandemic, and the daily death rate currently sits at roughly 2,000. Although that’s down from daily highs of 4,000 in April’s second wave, it’s still one of the highest in the world. 

While quality and availability of health care can vary across a country as large as Brazil, even the country’s best medical facilities have been brought to the brink of collapse, and only well-off areas such as São Paulo have seen any rebound. 

And six months on from the oxygen crisis in Amazonas,  mothers and babies are still feeling the effects. 

Care complications

Each year, around 340,000 babies in Brazil are born prematurely—before 37 weeks. That’s double the rate for Europe and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the 10th-highest number of preterm births in the world. Many crucial methods of care for these babies, including early breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with their parents, remain on hold at hospitals around the country despite evidence that this puts their growth, development, and even survival at much higher risk than covid-19. 

While the number of preterm births in Brazil for 2020 has yet to be released, experts such as Denise Suguitani—founder and director of nonprofit Prematuridade, the only national NGO in the country to support premature babies and their families—suspect there will be an increase over previous years.

Prenatal care could prevent many mothers from delivering prematurely, but covid-19 has made expectant parents much more likely to skip those doctor’s visits. According to a study conducted by the Brazilian Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics Associations in July and August of last year, 81% of obstetrician/gynecologists consulted said their patients were worried about contracting covid-19 during prenatal appointments.

“When the mom has covid and ends up with breathing problems, the baby could go into asphyxia in utero.”

Rossiclei Pinheiro, Federal University of Amazonas

“It’s during prenatal appointments that risks of premature births are identified,” Suguitani says. “So if a pregnant woman skips an appointment or an exam, there’s a possibility that a problem in her pregnancy that could lead to a preterm birth will go undetected.”

Contracting covid-19 during pregnancy can also be a factor in preterm births. According to Rossiclei Pinheiro, a pediatrician and neonatologist at the Federal University of Amazonas, early labor can start when the inflammatory reaction brought on by the coronavirus—or any other type of infection—manifests itself in the amniotic membrane, causing it to rupture prematurely.

In other cases, babies whose mothers have covid-19 have had to be delivered early on purpose.

“When the mom has covid and ends up with breathing problems, the baby could go into asphyxia in utero,” Pinheiro says. 

The dangers of limiting contact

During the pandemic, hospitals have limited NICU visitors, and some staff have even stopped parents from touching their babies. Pinheiro and other experts say this is the wrong approach. 

A particularly important form of skin-to-skin contact involves newborns resting chest-to-chest on top of a parent. It’s called kangaroo care, and it has been shown to reduce infant deaths by 40%, hypothermia by more than 70%, and severe infections by 65%. In a March study, WHO and partner researchers found that kangaroo care made babies born to covid-infected mothers far more likely to survive, and the benefits far outweighed the small risk of dying from the virus. 

Carla Luana da Silva, a 27-year-old woman from the state of São Paulo, was not just prevented from practicing kangaroo care with her extremely premature baby—she was blocked from having any contact with her whatsoever. Da Silva says it was one of the hardest parts of the baby’s 81-day stay in the NICU. 


IBM wants to build a 100,000-qubit quantum computer



The Download: IBM’s quantum ambitions, and tasting lab-grown burgers

Quantum computing holds and processes information in a way that exploits the unique properties of fundamental particles: electrons, atoms, and small molecules can exist in multiple energy states at once, a phenomenon known as superposition, and the states of particles can become linked, or entangled, with one another. This means that information can be encoded and manipulated in novel ways, opening the door to a swath of classically impossible computing tasks.

As yet, quantum computers have not achieved anything useful that standard supercomputers cannot do. That is largely because they haven’t had enough qubits and because the systems are easily disrupted by tiny perturbations in their environment that physicists call noise. 

Researchers have been exploring ways to make do with noisy systems, but many expect that quantum systems will have to scale up significantly to be truly useful, so that they can devote a large fraction of their qubits to correcting the errors induced by noise. 

IBM is not the first to aim big. Google has said it is targeting a million qubits by the end of the decade, though error correction means only 10,000 will be available for computations. Maryland-based IonQ is aiming to have 1,024 “logical qubits,” each of which will be formed from an error-correcting circuit of 13 physical qubits, performing computations by 2028. Palo Alto–based PsiQuantum, like Google, is also aiming to build a million-qubit quantum computer, but it has not revealed its time scale or its error-correction requirements. 

Because of those requirements, citing the number of physical qubits is something of a red herring—the particulars of how they are built, which affect factors such as their resilience to noise and their ease of operation, are crucially important. The companies involved usually offer additional measures of performance, such as “quantum volume” and the number of “algorithmic qubits.” In the next decade advances in error correction, qubit performance, and software-led error “mitigation,” as well as the major distinctions between different types of qubits, will make this race especially tricky to follow.

Refining the hardware

IBM’s qubits are currently made from rings of superconducting metal, which follow the same rules as atoms when operated at millikelvin temperatures, just a tiny fraction of a degree above absolute zero. In theory, these qubits can be operated in a large ensemble. But according to IBM’s own road map, quantum computers of the sort it’s building can only scale up to 5,000 qubits with current technology. Most experts say that’s not big enough to yield much in the way of useful computation. To create powerful quantum computers, engineers will have to go bigger. And that will require new technology.

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How it feels to have a life-changing brain implant removed



How it feels to have a life-changing brain implant removed

Burkhart’s device was implanted in his brain around nine years ago, a few years after he was left unable to move his limbs following a diving accident. He volunteered to trial the device, which enabled him to move his hand and fingers. But it had to be removed seven and a half years later.

His particular implant was a small set of 100 electrodes, carefully inserted into a part of the brain that helps control movement. It worked by recording brain activity and sending these recordings to a computer, where they were processed using an algorithm. This was connected to a sleeve of electrodes worn on the arm. The idea was to translate thoughts of movement into electrical signals that would trigger movement.

Burkhart was the first to receive the implant, in 2014; he was 24 years old. Once he had recovered from the surgery, he began a training program to learn how to use it. Three times a week for around a year and a half, he visited a lab where the implant could be connected to a computer via a cable leading out of his head.

“It worked really well,” says Burkhart. “We started off just being able to open and close my hand, but after some time we were able to do individual finger movements.” He was eventually able to combine movements and control his grip strength. He was even able to play Guitar Hero.

“There was a lot that I was able to do, which was exciting,” he says. “But it was also still limited.” Not only was he only able to use the device in the lab, but he could only perform lab-based tasks. “Any of the activities we would do would be simplified,” he says. 

For example, he could pour a bottle out, but it was only a bottle of beads, because the researchers didn’t want liquids around the electrical equipment. “It was kind of a bummer it wasn’t changing everything in my life, because I had seen how beneficial it could be,” he says.

At any rate, the device worked so well that the team extended the trial. Burkhart was initially meant to have the implant in place for 12 to 18 months, he says. “But everything was really successful … so we were able to continue on for quite a while after that.” The trial was extended on an annual basis, and Burkhart continued to visit the lab twice a week.

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The Download: brain implant removal, and Nvidia’s AI payoff



A brain implant changed her life. Then it was removed against her will.

Leggett told researchers that she “became one” with her device. It helped her to control the unpredictable, violent seizures she routinely experienced, and allowed her to take charge of her own life. So she was devastated when, two years later, she was told she had to remove the implant because the company that made it had gone bust.

The removal of this implant, and others like it, might represent a breach of human rights, ethicists say in a paper published earlier this month. And the issue will only become more pressing as the brain implant market grows in the coming years and more people receive devices like Leggett’s. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

You can read more about what happens to patients when their life-changing brain implants are removed against their wishes in the latest issue of The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

If you’d like to read more about brain implants, why not check out:

+ Brain waves can tell us how much pain someone is in. The research could open doors for personalized brain therapies to target and treat the worst kinds of chronic pain. Read the full story.

+ An ALS patient set a record for communicating via a brain implant. Brain interfaces could let paralyzed people speak at almost normal speeds. Read the full story.

+ Here’s how personalized brain stimulation could treat depression. Implants that track and optimize our brain activity are on the way. Read the full story.

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