November 27, 2013
Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.
I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.
But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.
In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.
1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”
2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.
3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.
4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.
5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.
6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.
7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.
8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.
9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.
10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.
Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.
Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.
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November 14, 2013
It wasn’t much of a surprise last week when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it’s about to drop the hammer on trans fat—the by-product of the process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which brings taste and texture to a bunch of food that’s not so good for us.
Yes, in the future, doughnuts may be a bit oilier, microwave popcorn could go back to popping in butter and manufacturers of frozen pizzas will need to find another additive to keep them reasonably edible. But the FDA has had its eye on trans fat since the 1990s, when the agency first proposed that nutrition labels disclose how much of the artificial fat is inside. That didn’t happen until 2006, which was the same year New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared war on trans fat. Two years later, a ban on trans fat in the city’s restaurants kicked in.
The reason, of course, is that it’s a notorious artery-clogger, one with a double negative of decreasing good cholesterol and raising bad cholesterol.
But, as we say a not so fond farewell to trans fat, researchers keep finding out new things about fat, whether in our food or in our bodies. Here are 10 things they’ve learned so far this year:
1) Let’s start with the good news: Chocolate may actually help reduce a person’s abdominal fat. According to a European study published in the journal Nutrition, teenagers who eat a lot of chocolate tend to have smaller waists. Even though chocolate contains sugar and fat, it also is high in flavonoids–particularly dark chocolate–and they’ve been found to be good for your health.
2) But wait, there’s more: A team of scientists in Japan determined that both cold weather and chili peppers can help burn fat. Specifically, exposure to cold temperatures and consumption of the chemicals found in the hot peppers appear to increase the activity of “brown fat” cells, which burn energy, instead of storing it as “white” fat cells do.
3) On the other hand: Low-fat yogurt may be more fattening than we’ve been led to believe, at least according to researchers behind a project called the Nutrition Science Initiative. They contend that easily digested carbohydrates—such as the sugars that are added to low-fat yogurt to replace the fat that has been removed—drive weight gain by promoting insulin resistance. This signals the body to convert more sugar into fat and to hold on to more of the fat in the food.
4) Ah, the vicious circle: Based on research with mice, scientists say that one reason people can have such a hard time switching to a healthier diet is that high-fat diets can interfere in the communication between the gut and the brain’s reward center. And that can make people think they need to eat more to feel satisfied.
5) So belly fat drains the brain?: Middle-aged people with a lot of belly fat are more than three times as likely to have memory problems and suffer from dementia when they’re older, according to researchers at the Rush Medical Center in Chicago. It turns out that both the liver and the hippocampus–the brain’s memory center–need the same protein, and the more the liver uses to burn abdominal fat, the less that’s available to the brain.
6) And saturated fats lower sperm counts?: Scientists in Denmark found that young men who ate a lot of food high in saturated fat, such as rich cheeses and red meat, had a significantly lower sperm count than men who ate low levels of fat. The researchers said that might help explain why sperm counts are dropping around the world.
7) Then again, maybe saturated fats aren’t so evil: A British cardiologist says his research suggests that saturated fats aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be, and that the crusade against them has driven people to low-fat foods and drinks full of sugar. In a recent issue of the British Medical Journal, Aseem Malhotra wrote: “It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that has contributed to obesity.”
8) Fat and taxes: Another British study contends that a 20 percent tax on sodas could reduce obesity in the U.K. by 180,000 people. About one in four Britons is obese, just slightly lower than the U.S. The researchers believe the tax could reduce soda sales by as much as 15 percent and would have the greatest impact on people under 30, who are more likely to guzzle sugary drinks.
9) Taking one for the team: Here’s something you’ve probably always suspected: When a sports fan’s team loses, he or she tends to scarf down a lot of high-fat food. That’s the conclusion of a study published recently in the journal Psychological Science, which found that football fans’ saturated-fat consumption increased by as much as 28 percent following defeats and decreased by 16 percent following victories. As Pierre Chandon, one of the study’s co-authors, told the New York Times, “No one ate broccoli after a defeat.”
10) Yes, bacon rules: A comprehensive analysis by Wired.com of all of the recipes and comments on the Food Network’s website determined that meals that include bacon tend to be more popular than those with any other food. Based on its data-crunching, Wired.com found that the only foods that people felt didn’t go better with bacon were pasta and desserts.
Video bonus: Here’s a rundown of some foods that owe a lot of their popularity to trans fat.
Video bonus bonus: And how could the subject of trans fat be broached without paying homage to the greatest doughnut lover of all.
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November 8, 2013
You never hear much talk of a war on Alzheimer’s disease because, frankly, we haven’t been putting up much of a fight.
It’s been more than 100 years since German physician Alois Alzheimer first described what he called “a peculiar disease,” and while scientists are pretty certain about what causes it—a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain—they still don’t have an answer for how to prevent or cure the unrelentingly grim condition.
Last year, the pharmaceutical company Baxter International said it was discontinuing the testing of a drug called Gammagard after it proved ineffective in slowing the mental decline of Alzheimer’s patients. That followed the failure in clinical trials of an Alzheimer’s treatment developed by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, and another by Eli Lilly and Company.
This is the kind of news Baby Boomers on the cusp of old age hate to hear. Already, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to jump another 40 percent by 2025 and triple by 2050.
But there may be a glimmer of light. A team of Swiss and Polish researchers say they might have come up with a way to attack the clumps of amyloid proteins that disengage the brain. Their technique involves using multi-photon lasers that are able to distinguish the destructive proteins in the brain from the healthy ones.
The researchers found that while healthy proteins are optically invisible—meaning the laser light passes right through them—the amyloids absorb some of the light.
Eventually, they believe, doctors will be able to use lasers to not only detect the bad protein cells, but to actually remove them and cure the patient. “Nobody has talked about using only light to treat these diseases until now,” said Piotr Hanczyc at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. “We have found a totally new way of discovering these structures using just laser light.”
Currently, doctors use chemicals or surgery to remove amyloid proteins—but that can damage healthy tissue. The laser treatment, which Hanczyc feels could also help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, could greatly limit that risk.
It sounds promising, but Alzheimer’s is one tenacious foe.
When genes break bad
Still, there’s a bit more positive news on the Alzheimer’s front. Based on the largest ever genetic analysis of the disease, scientists from the U.S. and Europe have identified 11 more genes linked to Alzheimer’s, doubling the number now known to be connected to the disorder. As recently as 2009, only one Alzheimer’s gene had been identified. That study, published in the journal Nature Genetics late last month, was based on a DNA scan of more than 74,000 elderly people in 15 countries.
The more genes associated with a disease, the more potential targets for a drug to attack. As Gerard Schellenberg, a professor of pathology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s researchers, recently told the Washington Post, “Not all are good drug targets, but the longer the list of genes that you know are implicated in a disease, the more likely you are to find one that might be a good candidate for a drug.”
This too sounds promising. But Schellenberg also pointed out that it could take another 10 to 15 years to develop an effective Alzheimer’s drug therapy from what they’ve learned.
With luck, it will be worth the wait.
Here are more recent developments in laser research:
- Imagine a deer in these headlights: Engineers at BMW have developed headlights that are able to convert intense blue laser beams into tightly concentrated—but non-laser—cones of white light. The car company says those lights will make it easier for drivers to pick out objects in the dark and should reduce eye fatigue.
- That’s right, drones with lasers: DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, is funding research to find a way to arm drones with lasers. The immediate goal is to give drones a way to protect themselves against surface-to-air missiles, but some experts believe this is the first step toward using drones as an anti-missile system.
- Get real: UK scientists have developed a technique using laser printing to help detect fake merchandise. Each printed laser can be designed to give out its own unique optical signature. Because lasers can be printed on all sorts of surfaces—such as plastic, paper, metal and glass—the technique could be used to authenticate many kinds of products.
- Taking the long view: University of Michigan engineers have invented a laser that can identify the chemical composition of an object from as far as a mile away. This could help military aircraft locate different types of targets, but also could be adapted for more benign uses, such as allowing full-body screening systems at airports to better identify hidden objects.
- Well, it’s about time: Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford were able to user lasers to surgically make holes thinner than a human hair in the heads of live fruit flies, allowing researchers to see how the flies’ brains work. The researchers also successfully tested this technique on worms, ants and mice.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of a U.S. Navy ship using lasers to shoot a drone out of the sky.
Video bonus bonus: Before they fade from pop culture history, here’s one last look at the laser cats that had their fleeting moment of fame on “Saturday Night Live.”
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October 24, 2013
We have a drug problem.
Only this time we need drugs, specifically antibiotics. The problem is that more germs are becoming resistant to the antibiotics doctors have been using for a long time, resulting in “superbugs” from which even the National Institutes of Health couldn’t protect itself.
One reason, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned yet again in a report last month, is that doctors continue to be overzealous in prescribing antibiotics. Case in point: A new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of the cases where people came in complaining of sore throats—this despite the fact that only 10 percent of those patients had strep throat, the only sore throat antibiotics can cure.
On top of that, Big Agriculture aggressively uses antibiotics both to keep healthy animals from getting sick and to help them grow faster. And while all this excessive use of antibiotics is making them less and less effective, the pharmaceutical industry has dramatically scaled back research into new infection-fighting drugs because it’s not a very profitable line of business.
Some public health experts fear that unless scientists are able to develop new antibiotics soon, we could regress into pre-penicillin days, when everyday infections killed people. Even the CDC, which points out that more than 23,000 people in America die from infections caused by resistant bacteria every year, says we could be facing “potentially catastrophic consequences.”
Turning drugs off
There’s the conventional strategy to dealing with the threat—earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committed to pay the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline as much as $200 million over the next five years to try to develop new antibiotics.
But more innovative approaches are also taking shape. Consider the research of a team of scientists in the Netherlands. They’re focusing on a way to deactivate antibiotics after they’ve been used, so that they no longer accumulate in the environment, which is what spurs the development of resistant superbugs. They’ve determined that if the molecules in antibiotics can be made to change their shape, they become ineffective. And the researchers have found they can use heat or light to do just that. In short, they’re developing ways to turn off antibiotics before they break bad.
Or take the researchers at McMaster University in Ontario who argue that the typical practice of growing bacteria in a nutrient-rich lab environment doesn’t really reflect what happens when we get an infection. Our bodies can be far less hospitable than that, forcing bacteria to grow their own nutrients. The researchers did an exhaustive search of 30,000 chemical compounds, with the goal of identifying some that block the ability of bacteria to create nutrients. They honed in on three. But they feel pretty good about those three. Now the trick is to see if they can be turned into effective antibiotics.
As one scientist put it, the McMaster researchers went “fishing in a new pond.” With luck, that might be what it takes.
Here’s more recent research on the battle against bacteria:
- That inner glow: It’s not unusual for bacteria to attach themselves to medical implants, such as bone screws, and develop into serious infections before anyone notices. A team of researchers in the Netherlands, however, may have developed an early warning system. By injecting fluorescent dye into an antibiotic, they were able to see where bacteria was growing. The process could lead to a far less invasive way to check for infections with surgery involving implants.
- Thinking small: Scientists at Oregon State are taking yet another approach to attacking bacteria—they’ve narrowed their targeting down to the gene level. That’s seen as a much more precise way to battle infections, one that’s less likely to cause collateral damage. Said lead researcher Bruce Geller: “Molecular medicine is the way of the future.”
- Say no to drugs: At Duke University, scientists say they’ve developed a blood test that can identify viral infections in people with serious respiratory problems. The test, they say, could significantly reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Since it can be hard to distinguish between viral sore throats, such as those that come with a cold, and bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a lot of doctors still prescribe antibiotics that end up not doing any good. The blood test could take the guessing—and pointless antibiotics—out of the treatment.
- Now will you eat your yogurt?: It figures that one way to fight the bad side effects of some antibiotics would be by loading up on probiotics. Research published earlier this year found that probiotic supplements reduced the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by 64 percent.
- All this and super lice, too?: Public health officials in the U.S. have told doctors to be on the lookout for a new strain of “super lice” that have become immune to shampoos and medications containing antibiotics.
- Then again, they are termites: According to scientists at the University of Florida, the reason termites are so disease-resistant is that they use their own feces in building their nests. That promotes the growth of bacteria, which stifles pathogens. The researchers said that their findings could eventually result in new antibiotics for humans, but it might be better if they spare us the details.
Video bonus: Here’s another take on the superbug threat.
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October 11, 2013
It’s hard to imagine that technology could be a friend to Obamacare, given the dismal performance of its official website last week. But it turns out that the high-speed crunching of a huge amount of information—aka Big Data—could ensure that one of the principle tenets of health care reform, known as “accountable care,” can become more than a catchy phrase in a policy paper.
U.S. hospitals have begun shifting their way of doing business. It’s long been the case that the payments hospitals received from Medicare largely were based on the tests their doctors ordered and the procedures they performed. So, strangely enough, the sicker a hospital’s patients were, the more money it tended to receive. But the Affordable Care Act is designed to change that, instead providing incentives that reward positive results. And, that seems to be prompting hospitals to move from focusing solely on treating sick people to helping patients take better care of themselves in the outside world. They want their ex-patients to stay ex-patients.
It’s crunch time
Case in point is Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Not long ago it hired a 30-year-old named Jeff Hammerbacher to try to work wonders with the hospital’s new supercomputer. His previous job was as Facebook’s first data scientist, so you know he knows how much wisdom can be gleaned from mountains of information—if you have computers powerful and fast enough to make sense of it.
So far, the hospital has developed a computer model that crunches all the data it has on past patients—from why they were admitted to how many times they’ve been there to everything that happened during their stays—and from that, it’s able to predict which ones are most likely to return. But instead of just waiting for those patients to come back, Mount Sinai, like more and more hospitals, is turning proactive, reaching out to those frequent patients with follow-up calls to make sure they get to their doctor appointments or avoid the bad habits that end up sending them to the hospital. In one pilot program, Mount Sinai was able to cut re-admissions in half. If you don’t think that hospitals can put a serious dent in health care costs by slashing the number of repeat patients, keep in mind that nationwide, 1 percent of patients accounted for nearly 22 percent of health spending in 2009.
Methodist Health System in Dallas is going down a parallel track. It’s been analyzing patient data from 14,000 patients and 6,000 employees to identify people who are most likely to need expensive health care in the future, and it’s reaching out to help them take preventative measures before they develop costly ailments.
Here are a few other recent findings that have come from hospitals crunching Big Data:
- A health care provider in Southern California using data on the behavior of staff doctors found that one physician was using a certain antibiotic much more often than the rest of the staff—potentially increasing the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.
- At Memorial Care Health System in California, hospital management has begun tracking how doctors there perform on such things as immunizations, mammograms and blood glucose control in diabetic patients. That and other doctor data helped reduce the average patient stay from 4.2 days in 2011 to four days in 2012.
- Use of full-time nurses, rather than contract or temporary ones, coincided with higher patient satisfaction scores, according to Baylor Health Care System.
- Researchers in Ontario are working with IBM on a system to detect subtle changes in the condition of premature babies that could tip off the onset of infection 24 hours before symptoms appear.
- In another case, data analysis was able to determine which doctors were costing the most money by ordering procedures and other treatments. Hospital administrators reviewed the results with the costly doctors and suggested ways they could cut back on duplicate tests and unnecessary procedures.
Ultimately, hospitals hope to get to the point where, based on analysis of all the data of every patient who’s ever walked through their doors, they’ll have a very good idea of the risk facing each new patient who arrives.
To your health
Here’s a smattering of other recent research on hospital treatment:
- With luck, you’ll forget about the ICU: Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of people who spend time in a hospital’s intensive care unit suffer some level of cognitive decline. In some cases, according to the study, they can experience Alzheimer’s-like symptoms for a year or longer after leaving the hospital.
- Still need a reason to stay out of hospitals?: According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, treatment of infections people develop in a hospital adds $9.8 billion to America’s health care costs every year. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that one out of every 20 patients gets an infection while in the hospital. About a third of the cost comes from infections following surgery—they add an average of $20,785 to a patient’s medical bills.
- Here’s another: A study published in the recent issue of the Journal of Patient Safety estimates that as many as 210,000 to 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital suffer some type of preventable harm that ultimately contributes to their death. If that’s the case, it would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer.
- Must be the food: After crunching results from 4,655 hospitals, a health care economist from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the best hospitals, in terms of medical results, generally don’t receive the highest satisfaction rankings from patients. Instead, the top hospitals, which often are bigger and busier, tend to get only lukewarm ratings from people who spend time in them.
- But they found no link between moon cycles and back hair: Believe it or not, researchers at Rhode Island Hospital contend that their analysis showed that cardiac surgery, specifically aortic dissection, is less likely to result in death if performed in the waning of a full moon. They also said that patients who had the surgery during a full moon tended to stay in the hospital for shorter lengths of time.
Video bonus: Here’s another way Big Data is being used to predict human behavior, in this case, what we’re likely to do when we enter a store.
Video bonus bonus: And, in advance of Halloween, a little macabre hospital humor.
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