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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August 20, 2013
It’s the time of year when learning seems remarkably possible. Students are excited, teachers are motivated–let the learnfest begin.
But by next month, it will become clear once again that the teaching/learning routine is a tricky dance, that all kinds of things, both in our heads and in our lives, can knock it off balance.
Fortunately, scientists have kept busy analyzing how and why people learn. Here are 10 examples of recent research into what works and what doesn’t.
1) Flippin’ it old school: The latest thinking has it that the most effective way to get students to learn these days is to flip the old model and instead have students first watch videos or read books, then do projects in the classroom. Au contraire, say researchers at Stanford University. They contend that you need to flip the flip after finding that students are much more likely to understand those videos and books if they first do hands-on exercises in class that tap into their prior knowledge of a subject, say to solve a problem. Only then, the researchers said, are students able to fully grasp more abstract concepts.
2) Such as “three idiot drivers”: Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Missouri found that preschoolers who have a hard time estimating the number of objects in a group were more than twice as likely to struggle with math later in life. Those researchers concluded that it has to do with a child’s inability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities. They suggest that parents should take advantage of opportunities to show how things in the world can be expressed in numbers.
3) Give that machine a timeout: Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario say that laptops in classrooms distract not only the students using them, but also those sitting nearby. They gave laptops to some students and asked them to perform certain tasks during class. They also asked classmates using only #2 pencils to complete the same tasks. Guess who performed worst: the kids with laptops, plus the people sitting next to them.
4) Like clockwork: Young girls need to stick to a regular bedtime if they want to help their brains develop. So says a study from University College, London, which found that girls under seven years old who had erratic bedtimes scored lower on IQ tests than girls who went to sleep around the same time every night. Inconsistent bedtimes also affected young boys, but the effect seemed to be temporary. The researchers also determined that when girls went to bed didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as whether they did so at the same time every night.
5) Let’s give them a big mazel tov shout out: One of the keys to learning a second language is the ability to pick up patterns, according to a recent study at Hebrew University. The scientists determined that American students who were better at learning Hebrew also scored particularly high on tests in which they needed to distinguish regularities in the sequence in which they were shown a series of shapes. Being able to spot patterns proved to be a very good predictor of who would have the best grasp of Hebrew after a year of study.
6) Not to mention, they can now sing in Hungarian at parties: It apparently also helps to sing the words of another language. In a study published last month in the journal Memory & Cognition, scientists said that people who sang back phrases they heard in a foreign language were considerably better at learning it than people who simply repeated the phrases in spoken words. In fact, research participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as those who learned by speaking the phrases. The study required English speakers to learn Hungarian, which is a particularly difficult language to master.
7) Brains are just so smart: Another recent study, this one by German scientists, determined that even under stress, humans are able to learn because certain receptors in the brain help us move from conscious and to unconscious learning. People in a study who were given drugs to block those receptors had more trouble learning in a stressful situation because their brains couldn’t make the switch.
8) Reading minds: Thanks to researchers at M.I.T., it may soon be possible to diagnose dyslexia in young children before they start trying to read. Using a type of MRI brain scan, the scientists discovered a correlation between the size and organization of a certain region of the brain and a child’s ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language. By having a biomarker for dyslexia before they try to read, kids may be able to avoid some of the psychological stress they suffer when they struggle to understand written words.
9) Kids who can hand jive are off the charts: Turns out that it may a good thing for small children to talk with their hands. A study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, concluded that preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control. The gestures seemed to help the kids think things through, according to the researchers, who said the hand movements had a stronger correlation to successful performance than age.
10) Strangely, however, they are unable to hear parents: If you have kids in middle school or older, they’ve no doubt told you countless times how good they are at multitasking, that they can watch a video, text their friends and study for a test without breaking a sweat. But, according to a study published in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior, they’re probably not learning much. Not only were researchers surprised at how often kids in the study multitasked–even when they knew someone was watching– but they also found that their learning was spottier and shallower than those who gave studying their full attention.
Video bonus: Math was always a lot more fun when Abbott and Costello did it.
Video bonus bonus: Forgive me if you’ve seen or heard Kenneth Robinson’s lecture on changes in education, but his insights, along with the clever animation illustrating them, make it worth an encore.
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To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes
August 12, 2013
Not many people want to live to be 120.
That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.
Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.
Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?
Live long and prosper
Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?
For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”
As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.
A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.
And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.
None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.
Out with the old
Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:
- Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
- Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
- In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
- Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
- This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.
Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.
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June 21, 2013
For a long time, memories were thought of as the biochemical equivalent of 3 x 5 cards kept in a file cabinet. And the words on the cards were written in ink, scientists thought, because, once created and stored in the brain, a memory didn’t change. It might be vivid, but it was static, as fixed as a photograph of a remembered moment.
But in recent years, that theory has been flipped on its head. Now, leaders in memory research don’t think that’s the way the mind works at all. Instead, they’ve come to believe that memories actually are fluid things, subject to alteration every time they’re retrieved. When a long-term memory is recalled, it becomes temporarily fungible and goes through a rebuilding process known as reconsolidation. Which suggests that memories, even terrible ones, can be changed during that period when they’re once again unstable.
Several studies published last fall reinforced this notion. One, from researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, found that a fear memory could be neutralized if the reconsolidation process is disrupted before the memory can solidify. Another, carried out by scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, concluded that even if a memory isn’t truly erased, it can be made to feel less personal or painful.
Changing the story
The latest evidence that memories can be manipulated came in a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Without using drugs, electroshock or any other invasive procedure, two researchers at Iowa State University, Jason Chan and Jessica LaPaglia were able to tamper with the memories of their study subjects.
Here’s how they did it. They asked those participating in the study to watch an episode of the old TV drama “24.” One of its more evocative scenes showed a terrorist on an airplane jabbing a flight attendant with a hypodermic needle to knock her out. A bit later, some of those in the study were given a quiz about what they had watched, the goal of which was to make them retrieve their memories of the show.
As their reconsolidation process began, however, they were asked to listen to an eight-minute audio recap of the program–except that several of the facts were inaccurate. For instance, they were told that the terrorist had used a stun gun, not a hypodermic needle to disable the flight attendant. When they were retested later, only 17 percent of the people in that group correctly identified the needle as the weapon of choice.
Meanwhile, 42 percent of another group got the weapon question right when they took the same test. They, too, had listened to the recap with the bogus information. But they hadn’t taken the first test the other group had; instead they played a computer game.
So why did people in the first group have such serious recall problems when they retook the test?
Chan and LaPaglia believe that by taking a test after watching the show, those subjects were forced to retrieve their memories of it, and it was during the rebuilding process that they heard the audio recap. And, the thinking goes, that’s what caused their temporarily vulnerable memories to muddle the story.
Chan noted that there are several key factors in reshaping memories. First, the disruption needs to happen soon after the memory is called up–for now, scientists seem to have settled on a six-hour window. Wait much longer and the changes don’t take. Also, any alterations need to fit into the context of the original memory. If they don’t make sense in the story that structures the memory, they’re not likely to have much effect in changing it.
This is a pretty dramatic shift from the old file cabinet notion. To appreciate how far thinking on the subject has evolved, consider the perspective of Daniela Schiller, one of the world’s leading memory researchers. “My conclusion,” she says, “is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings.
“Your memory is who you are now.”
You must remember this
Here are more conclusions scientists have made about memories in the past few months:
- Side effects may include memories of bad breakups: According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, people who take the sleep drug Ambien are more likely to remember bad memories. The human brain is built to remember negative memories more clearly than pleasant ones, says University of California Riverside researcher Sara Mednick, and her study found that Ambien seemed to ratchet up this tendency.
- My memory told me about people like you: Scientists at Harvard have found more evidence that memories of the past play a big part in how we predict how other people will behave in the future. The study reinforces the belief that memory is closely linked with imagination and is a tool used by the brain to weave past experience into thoughts about the future. Which could explain why people with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.
- Unfortunately, they also started leaving the toilet seat up: While one recent study supported the belief that women suffer some memory loss during menopause, another one, presented earlier this week at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, determined that postmenopausal women had sharper memories after they had a testosterone gel rubbed into their skin. This is potentially big news since there currently is no effective treatment to prevent memory loss in women, who are at higher risk of dementia than men.
- They even remember the blank look on men’s faces: Two more studies found that women overall have better memories than men. The first study, from McMaster University in Canada, found that women tend to focus on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they just met and, as a result, are better at remembering faces than men. The second study, done at Cornell, concluded that women are also better at remembering past events than men. The key, according to the researchers, is that women focus more on relationships and social interactions when recording an event in their mind and that enables them to retrieve more details about it later.
- Don’t forget to brush your teeth: It turns out that the fewer teeth you have, the greater your chances of losing memory. So says a new study published in the European Journal of Oral Sciences, which offered a few possible explanations for the tooth loss/brain decline connection. One is that reduced sensory input from our teeth results in fewer signals to our brain. Another is that chewing increases blood flow to the brain, and if you can’t chew, you can’t get the flow going.
Video bonus: Daniela Schiller talks about her memory research and what her father’s refusal to talk about the Holocaust had to do with it.
Video bonus bonus: And a little slice of how Hollywood views memory-erasing: Jim Carrey turns to “science” to literally get Kate Winslett out of his mind in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
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