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By Jocelyn Kaiser One of the most heralded successes of gene therapy may not be the permanent fix that many had hoped. Leaders of two clinical trials report this week that a treatment that restored some vision to blind patients begins to fade within a few years. A third group, however, says their patients, who received a different version of the therapy, are retaining their improved vision, and a company is moving ahead with efforts to gain regulatory approval for their treatment. It is not a huge surprise that the treatment effects may not last, says eye disease researcher Mark Pennesi of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who is running a similar trial. “These are complex diseases and everything that’s been done is sort of first generation,” he says. “The fact that there was biological activity at all is a milestone.” At issue is gene therapy for a rare form of inherited blindness known as Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA) that results in complete vision loss by about age 40. About 10% of cases are due to a mutation in retinal pigment epithelium 65 (RPE65), a gene that codes for an enzyme that helps retinal cells make rhodopsin. The pigment is needed by photoreceptor cells—the retina’s light-sending rods and cones—and when RPE65 is mutated, the photoreceptor cells gradually die. In 2007, in the first-ever effort to use gene therapy to treat people with blindness, three separate teams in the United States and the United Kingdom launched clinical trials for the RPE65 type of LCA. A surgeon injected one eye of each patient with a solution containing a harmless virus that ferried a good copy of RPE65 into retinal cells. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 20892 - Posted: 05.05.2015
By Kira Peikoff I draw an uneasy breath as I step into a bright purple office on the 14th floor of Boston’s Prudential Building. I am shown to a small conference table, where I take a seat and await the experiment. A palm-size triangular module is affixed above my right eye. It connects to a single-use strip of electrodes stuck onto my forehead and running down the back of my neck. This is Thync, the latest in transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. The manufacturer says the device, to come out later this year, can alter the user’s mood in minutes via electric current. With a connected smartphone app, the mood-impaired subject chooses one of two settings: “calm vibes” or “energy vibes.” I tap “calm vibes” and wait. Somehow, I am having a hard time picturing myself unwinding at home this way while my husband sips a glass of Merlot. Thync is the latest in a wave of wearable gadgets offering so-called noninvasive brain stimulation. Until recently, it was mostly hobbyists — nine-volt batteries stuck to their heads — who experimented with tDCS as a means of improving concentration, verbal and computation abilities, and creativity. But in the last few years, several companies have introduced slick consumer devices, among them Foc.us, whose headset and controller cost $298, and The Brain Stimulator, whose advanced starter kit costs $150. In January, the journal Brain Stimulation published the largest meta-analysis of tDCS to date. After examining every finding replicated by at least two research groups, leading to 59 analyses, the authors reported that one session of tDCS failed to show any significant benefit for users. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20891 - Posted: 05.05.2015
Ian Sample, science editor Brain scans of children who were born prematurely have revealed differences in the connectivity of key regions that may play a role in developmental disorders. Previous studies have already highlighted that children who are born preterm are more at risk of autism and other behavioural conditions, such as the poor attention that is associated with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The new findings could help doctors understand why preterm children are so often affected, and work out whether medications or different styles of care could help the children reach their full potential. Researchers at King’s College London scanned the brains of 66 infants on average 42 weeks after their mothers’ last period before the birth. Forty seven of the babies were born prematurely, at less than 33 weeks. The other 19 babies were born on average after 40 weeks gestation. In their final weeks in the womb, babies’ brains are building connections at an incredible rate, which makes them particularly sensitive to changes in the last trimester. If a baby is born prematurely, the crucial period of brain growth happens in the radically different environment of the neonatal unit. From the MRI scans, the scientists found that infants born prematurely had increased connectivity in only one part of the brain they tested. A region called the thalamus, a kind of neural relay station, was better connected to a part called the lateral sensory cortex, which handles signals from the mouth, lips and jaw. The result might be explained by pre-term babies breast or bottle feeding much earlier, or being given dummies while on supportive breathing machines. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News Scientists have stumbled upon one of the secrets behind the big gulps of the world's biggest whales: the nerves in their jaws are stretchy. Rorquals, a family that includes blue and humpback whales, feed by engulfing huge volumes of water and food, sometimes bigger than themselves. Researchers made the discovery by inadvertently stretching a thick cable they found in the jaw of a fin whale. Most nerves are fragile and inelastic, so this find is first for vertebrates. The work is reported in the journal Current Biology. A Canadian research team had travelled to Iceland to investigate some of these whales' other anatomical adaptations to "lunge feeding" - things like their muscles, or the remarkable sensory organ in their jaws, discovered in 2012. They were working with specimens in collaboration with commercial whalers. "It's probably one of the only places in the world where you can do this sort of work, because these animals are so huge that even getting in through the skin is something you can't do without having heavy machinery around," said Prof Wayne Vogl, an anatomist at the University of British Columbia and the study's first author. When you are working with a 20m fin whale, it's important to have the right equipment, he said. "If a heart falls on you, it could kill you." © 2015 BBC.
James Gorman If modern science is right, the great mystery of embryonic development is less about how life unfolds, and more about how it folds. Embryos of many organisms grow from two cells to four, then eight, and so on until there are thousands in a kind of ball. Then sheets of cells start to make folds or furrows as the basic shape of the creature — fly or fish or human — begins to emerge. One of the most striking examples is a moment in the development of Volvox, a kind of algae that forms one of the simplest multicellular organisms. When it is a sphere of a few thousand cells, it reaches adult size, but not adult shape. So it turns itself inside out. Scientists at the University of Cambridge in England have made a time-lapse recording of the process that shows it in three dimensions for the first time and has enough detail that researchers can check their mathematical descriptions of the transformation. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20888 - Posted: 05.05.2015
Roger Dobson Tapping your fingers on the table is usually a sign of boredom or irritation. But not all tappers are equal, it seems. Men drum their digits slightly faster than women and people in their twenties tap substantially faster than people twice their age. The results of the first study into finger-tapping speeds also found that smokers tap a little faster than non-smokers and fit people tap faster than those who avoid exercise. The research, carried out by scientists at two universities in Istanbul – Bogazici University and Fatih University – examined the tapping rates and “finger load capacities” of 148 people aged between 18 and 85. Each participant was asked to perform a one-minute tapping exercise on a keyboard at “maximum volitional tempo”. Researchers found that the index finger on the right hand of both men and women was the fastest digit, achieving a tapping rate of up to five beats a second among those in their twenties. The middle finger was almost as nifty as the index finger, but the little finger – the slowest digit in the bunch – was capable only of a sluggish 3.8 taps a second among people in the same age group. At first glance, the study might appear to be rather frivolous. But a deeper understanding of finger tapping could aid the design of computer keyboards and musical instruments. It may also aid researchers who use finger-tapping tests for medical assessment of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
By ANDREW HIGGINS OSLO — In a country so wary of drug abuse that it limits the sale of aspirin, Pal-Orjan Johansen, a Norwegian researcher, is pushing what would seem a doomed cause: the rehabilitation of LSD. It matters little to him that the psychedelic drug has been banned here and around the world for more than 40 years. Mr. Johansen pitches his effort not as a throwback to the hippie hedonism of the 1960s, but as a battle for human rights and good health. In fact, he also wants to manufacture MDMA and psilocybin, the active ingredients in two other prohibited substances, Ecstasy and so-called magic mushrooms. All of that might seem quixotic at best, if only Mr. Johansen and EmmaSofia, the psychedelics advocacy group he founded with his American-born wife and fellow scientist, Teri Krebs, had not already won some unlikely supporters, including a retired Norwegian Supreme Court judge who serves as their legal adviser. The group, whose name derives from street slang for MDMA and the Greek word for wisdom, stands in the vanguard of a global movement now pushing to revise drug policies set in the 1970s. That it has gained traction in a country so committed to controlling drug use shows how much old orthodoxies have crumbled. The Norwegian group wants not only to stir discussion about prohibited drugs, but also to manufacture them, in part, it argues, to guarantee that they are safe. It recently began an online campaign to raise money so that it can, in cooperation with a Norwegian pharmaceuticals company, start quality-controlled production of psilocybin and MDMA, drugs that Mr. Johansen says saved and transformed his life. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20886 - Posted: 05.05.2015
By Ashley Yeager The image is made using Brainbow, a technique developed in 2007 that inserts genes for fluorescent proteins into animals. When activated, the proteins illuminate some cells in a range of colors. While most researchers use Brainbow to visualize connections between nerve cells in the brain, Alain Chédotal of the Institut de la Vision in Paris and colleagues customized the technique to trace networks of cells called oligodendrocytes. These cells wrap a material called myelin, the biological equivalent of electrical insulation, around long strands of nerve cells that transmit electrical signals in the brain and throughout the body. How oligodendrocytes work together to wrap nerve fibers in myelin becomes evident in Brainbow photos of the roughly 3-millimeter-long optic nerve, the team reports in the April Glia. The myelin shields the precious link between brain and eyes. Studying interactions among oligodendrocytes as well as the cells’ reactions to various drugs may lead to improved therapies for multiple sclerosis, a disease caused by the destruction of myelin. Citations L. Dumas et al. Multicolor analysis of oligodendrocyte morphology, interactions, and development with Brainbow. Glia. Vol. 63, April 2015, p. 699. doi: 10.1002/glia.22779 © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
By Dialynn Dwyer @dia_dwyer Warning: The above video contains graphic images. Steven Keating says he fought his cancer with curiosity. The MIT doctoral student was diagnosed in the summer of 2014 with a baseball-sized brain tumor, and during his treatment he gathered his health data in order to understand the science behind what his body was going through. He even filmed his ten hour brain surgery. And though his surgery was performed and filmed last summer, it gained attention recently when Vox wrote about Keating and his surgery. Through his experience, Keating became passionate about more transparent health records. “Healthcare should be a two-way road, patients alongside doctors and researchers as a team,” he says on his website. “The future will be driven by networked healthcare, support communities, and I believe patient curiosity. I do believe learning, understanding, and access can heal.” Keating has given public talks about his experience, and he has shared all his findings, including the condensed video of his surgery, through his website for anyone to study.
Link ID: 20884 - Posted: 05.05.2015
By Nicholas Bakalar The type of sugar you eat may affect your cravings for high-calorie foods, researchers report. An experiment with 24 healthy volunteers found that compared with consuming glucose, consuming fructose — the sugar found in fruits, honey and corn syrup — resulted in more activity in the brain’s reward regions, increased responses to images of food and a tendency to choose eating a high-calorie food over a future monetary reward. The volunteers drank a 10-ounce glass of cherry-flavored liquid that contained two and a half ounces of fructose or glucose. (Table sugar, or sucrose, extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets, is a compound of glucose and fructose.) Researchers also took blood samples to measure levels of glucose, fructose and insulin, and of leptin and ghrelin, enzymes involved in controlling hunger and feelings of fullness. Before having their drinks, the participants rated their desire to eat on a one-to-10 scale from “not at all” to “very much.” Then they drank the liquids and had functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans while looking at images of food and of neutral objects like buildings or baskets. As they did so, they rated their hunger using the scale. The volunteers were then presented with images of high-calorie foods and asked whether they would like to have the food now, or a monetary award a month later instead. The study, published in the journal PNAS, found that compared with glucose, consuming fructose produced greater responses to food cues in the orbital frontal cortex of the brain, a region that plays an important role in reward processing. The fructose drink also produced greater activity in the visual cortex when volunteers looked at images of food, a finding that suggests increased craving compared with glucose. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20883 - Posted: 05.05.2015
By Gretchen Vogel BERLIN—A German neuroscientist who has been the target of animal rights activists says he is giving up on primate research. Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, says he will conclude his current experiments on macaques “as quickly as possible” and then shift his research to rodent neural networks. In a letter last week to fellow primate researchers, Logothetis cites a lack of support from colleagues and the wider scientific community as key factors in his decision. In particular, he says the Max Planck Society—and other organizations—should pursue criminal charges against the activists who target researchers. Logothetis’s research on the neural mechanisms of perception and object recognition has used rhesus macaques with electrode probes implanted in their brains. The work was the subject of a broadcast on German national television in September that showed footage filmed by an undercover animal rights activist working at the institute. The video purported to show animals being mistreated. Logothetis has said the footage is inaccurate, presenting a rare emergency situation following surgery as typical and showing stress behaviors deliberately prompted by the undercover caregiver. (His written rebuttal is here.) The broadcast triggered protests, however, and it prompted several investigations of animal care practices at the institute. Investigations by the Max Planck Society and animal protection authorities in the state of Baden-Württemberg found no serious violations of animal care rules. A third investigation by local Tübingen authorities that led to a police raid at the institute in late January is still ongoing. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By REUTERS NEW YORK — The mouse walked, the mouse stopped; the mouse ignored a bowl of food, then scampered back and gobbled it up, and it was all controlled by neuroscientists, researchers reported on Thursday. The study, describing a way to manipulate a lab animal's brain circuitry accurately enough to turn behaviors both on and off, is the first to be published under President Barack Obama's 2013 BRAIN Initiative, which aims to advance neuroscience and develop therapies for brain disorders. The point of the remote-control mouse is not to create an army of robo-rodents. Instead, neuroscientists hope to perfect a technique for identifying brain wiring underlying any behavior, and control that behavior by activating and deactivating neurons. If scientists are able do that for the circuitry involved in psychiatric or neurological disorders, it may lead to therapies. That approach reflects a shift away from linking such illnesses to "chemical imbalances" in the brain, instead tracing them to miswiring and misfiring in neuronal circuits. "This tool sharpens the cutting edge of research aimed at improving our understanding of brain circuit disorders, such as schizophrenia and addictive behaviors," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the $1 million study. The technique used to control neurons is called DREADDs (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs). Brain neurons are genetically engineered to produce a custom-made - "designer" - receptor. When the receptor gathers in a manmade molecule that fits like a key in a lock, the neuron is activated. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20881 - Posted: 05.04.2015
|By Michele Solis An individual with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is overcome with an urge to engage in unproductive habits, such as excessive hand washing or lock checking. Though recognizing these behaviors as irrational, the person remains trapped in a cycle of life-disrupting compulsions. Previous studies found that OCD patients have abnormalities in two different brain systems—one that creates habits and one that plays a supervisory role. Yet whether the anomalies drive habit formation or are instead a consequence of doing an action over and over remained unclear. To resolve this question, a team at the University of Cambridge monitored brain activity while people were actually forming new habits. Lapses in supervision are to blame, the researchers reported in a study published online in December 2014 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. They scanned 37 people with OCD and 33 healthy control subjects while they learned to avoid a mild shock by pressing on a foot pedal. Pressing the pedal became a habit for everyone, but people with OCD continued to press even when the threat of shock was over. Those with OCD showed abnormal activity in the supervisory regions important for goal-directed behavior but not in those responsible for habit formation. The finding suggests that shoring up the goal-directed systems through cognitive training might help people with OCD. The growing understanding of OCD's roots in the brain may also help convince individuals to engage in standard habit-breaking treatments, which expose a person to a trigger but prevent his or her typical response. “It's hard for people to not perform an action that their whole body is telling them to do,” says first author Claire Gillan, now at New York University. “So if you have an awareness that the habit is just a biological slip, then it makes OCD a lot less scary and something you can eventually control.” © 2015 Scientific American
By Paca Thomas Wasabi and Sriracha each activate different receptors on the tongue, both of which warn your brain of the atomic reaction to come. These key flavor receptors, TRPA1 and TRPV1, have been the subject of recent research—but why all the scientific study of hot and spicy condiments? One word: pain. The video above explains how our tongues react to heat in our food, and how that often triggers the body’s own bespoke painkiller.
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 20879 - Posted: 05.04.2015
by Jessica Hamzelou GOO, bah, waahhhh! Crying is an obvious sign something is up with your little darling but beyond that, their feelings are tricky to interpret – except at playtime. Trying to decipher the meaning behind the various cries, squeaks and babbles a baby utters will have consumed many a parent. Some researchers reckon babies are simply practising to learn to speak, while others think these noises have some underlying meaning. "Babies probably aren't aware of wanting to tell us something," says Jitka Lindová, an evolutionary psychologist at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Instead, she says, infants are conveying their emotions. But can adults pick up on what those emotions are? Lindová and her colleagues put 333 adults to the test. First they made 20-second recordings of five- to 10-month-old babies while they were experiencing a range of emotions. For example, noises that meant a baby was experiencing pain were recorded while they received their standard vaccinations. The team also collected recordings when infants were hungry, separated from a parent, reunited, just fed, and while they were playing. The volunteers had to listen to a selection of the recordings then guess which situation each related to. The adults could almost always tell whether a baby was distressed in some way. This makes sense – a baby's survival may depend on an adult being able to tell whether a baby is unwell, in pain or in danger. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Paul Oswell “Cool” is a bit of a moving target. Sixty years ago it was James Dean, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette as he sat on a motorbike, glaring down 1950s conformity with brooding disapproval. Five years ago it was Zooey Deschanel holding a cupcake. In a phone interview with Steve Quartz, the co-author of the recently published Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World, we skirted around a working definition. Defining cool turns out to be tricky even for someone who has just written an entire book examining the neurological processes behind it. Quartz’s most succinct definition was that cool is “the sweet spot between being innovative and unconventional, but not weird”. Quartz is the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. So when asked to describe what the lab does, he did not deliver a “cool” answer, but rather a precise one: it is, he said, “concerned with all the dimensions of decision making, from simple gambles and risk assessment right up to very complex reasoning and the nature of moral behaviour”. He wrote the book with his colleague Anette Asp, with whom he has long done research on “neuroeconomics” and “neuromarketing”. Those fields use imaging techniques to look at the ways our brains process the emotions and responses we have to brands and products. The results, as Quartz and Asp posit in the book, reflect primal instincts we have around ideas of status. Their technique gives results that are much more accurate about what the kids are into, these days, than traditional marketing focus groups have ever been able to give us. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
By HOWARD MEGDAL Ali Krieger has a lot on her plate this year. As a defender for the United States women’s national team, she is weeks away from the start of her second World Cup. And as one of the most prominent members of the National Women’s Soccer League, she is helping build an audience for her team and the fledgling league. On April 10, though, those roles were jeopardized when Krieger, playing for the Washington Spirit in an N.W.S.L. game at Houston, sustained a concussion after rising for a header. “Right when it happened, I had no idea why I was lying on the ground and why people were standing over me,” Krieger said by telephone last week. “And people were talking to me — I couldn’t really open my eyes at first. I was like, ‘Is this a dream?’ ” Krieger said that she lost consciousness before hitting the ground and that when she woke up, even as she lay on the grass, she quickly tried to diagnose the injury. Krieger said she believed the concussion was minor — certainly less serious than one she sustained in 2013 that took her a couple of months to recover from. But injuries like hers and the ones sustained by several other players in high-profile cases have troubled concussion activists. They say that despite clear progress in the recognition and treatment of head injuries in soccer, it is often up to the injured athlete or that athlete’s coach to determine when an injury requires removal from play. In the worst cases, the time remaining in a match and the score play a role in the decision. The ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, a former striker whose playing career was ended by head injuries, has been a vocal advocate on television and social media for better treatment of head injuries. But given the pressure to succeed at the game’s top levels, he said in an email, “I’m scared of what I still hear in 2015.” © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 20876 - Posted: 05.04.2015
By Aleksandra Sagan, CBC News In a Dutch town about 20 kilometres outside of Amsterdam, a small community lives in what at first glance seems like a real-life version of The Truman Show. Hogewey has a grocery store, a theatre and a barber shop. The only twist is that many of its 152 residents live unaware that their orderly community is actually a nursing home for people with severe dementia. "We protect our residents from the unsafe world. They do not understand the world outside this because the outside world doesn't understand them," says Yvonne van Amerongen, an employee at Hogewey who also helped develop the concept. Hogewey was officially opened in 2007, but the idea has now caught the attention of health-care professionals in Ontario and Alberta. Rhonda Desroches, who helped create a smaller-scale Hogewey in Penetanguishene, Ont., says relatives of the residents are pleased with how happy their family members seem to be in the new facility. Dementia is a growing problem. According to the Alzheimer Society Canada, one out of 20 Canadians over 65 has Alzheimer's Disease, and that figure jumps to one in four for Canadians over 85. In 2012, the World Health Organization declared dementia a public health priority. Many dementia patients move into nursing homes, where they are monitored in a safe setting. But some medical professionals want to shift patients away from unfamiliar, clinical settings and into spaces that resemble more typical surroundings. Hogewey creates a familiar, "normal" environment that dementia patients understand, says van Amerongen. The citizens of Hogewey share a house with about six others, and are classified according to one of seven lifestyles. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada
Link ID: 20875 - Posted: 05.04.2015
by Helen Thomson Giving people the illusion of teleporting around a room has revealed how the brain constructs our sense of self. The findings may aid treatments for schizophrenia and asomatognosia – a rare condition characterised by a lack of awareness of a part of one's body. As we go about our daily lives, we experience our body as a physical entity with a specific location. For instance, when you sit at a desk you are aware of your body and its rough position with respect to objects around you. These experiences are thought to form a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness. Arvid Guterstam, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and his colleagues wondered how the brain produces these experiences. To find out, Guterstam's team had 15 people lie in an fMRI brain scanner while wearing a head-mounted display. This was connected to a camera on a dummy body lying elsewhere in the room, enabling the participants to see the room – and themselves inside the scanner - from the dummy's perspective. A member of the team then stroked the participant's body and the dummy's body at the same time. This induced the out-of-body experience of owning the dummy body and being at its location. The experiment was repeated with the dummy body positioned in different parts of the room, allowing the person to be perceptually teleported between the different locations, says Guterstam. All that was needed to break the illusion was to touch the participant's and the dummy's bodies at different times. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Emily Underwood NASA hopes to send the first round-trip, manned spaceflight to Mars by the 2030s. If the mission succeeds, astronauts could spend several years potentially being bombarded with cosmic rays—high-energy particles launched across space by supernovae and other galactic explosions. Now, a study in mice suggests that these particles could alter the shape of neurons, impairing astronauts’ memories and other cognitive abilities. The concern about cosmic rays is a long-standing one, prompting NASA (and science fiction writers) to spend a lot of time discussing ways of protecting astronauts from them. (A buffer of water around the spacecraft’s hull is one popular idea.) But scientists don’t really know how much of a threat the radiation poses. It’s not feasible to study the effects of cosmic rays on real astronauts, such as those living in the International Space Station, because many variables, including the stress of living on a spaceship, can affect cognition, says Patric Stanton, a cell biologist at New York Medical College in Valhalla. It’s also impossible to control the level of radiation astronauts are exposed to, making it difficult to do rigorous experiments, he says. To overcome those challenges, several NASA-funded research groups are testing cosmic radiation on mice. In the new study, published today in Science Advances, Charles Limoli, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues took male mice to a particle accelerator at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory in Upton, New York. There, they catapulted oxygen and titanium ions down a 100-meter transport tunnel and into the restrained rodents’ brains at roughly two-thirds the speed of light. The dose of high-energy particles resembled the radiation likely to pass through the unprotected hull of a spaceship over the course of a mission to Mars, Limoli says. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 20873 - Posted: 05.02.2015