Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

By James Gorman

If an exercise wheel sits in a forest, will mice run on it?

Every once in a while, science asks a simple question and gets a straightforward answer.

In this case, yes, they will. And not only mice, but also rats, shrews, frogs and slugs.

True, the frogs did not exactly run, and the slugs probably ended up on the wheel by accident, but the mice clearly enjoyed it. That, scientists said, means that wheel-running is not a neurotic behavior found only in caged mice.

They like the wheel.

Two researchers in the Netherlands did an experiment that it seems nobody had tried before. They placed exercise wheels outdoors in a yard and in an area of dunes, and monitored the wheels with motion detectors and automatic cameras.

They were inspired by questions from animal welfare committees at universities about whether mice were really enjoying wheel-running, an activity used in all sorts of studies, or were instead like bears pacing in a cage, stressed and neurotic. Would they run on a wheel if they were free?

Now there is no doubt. Mice came to the wheels like human beings to a health club holding a spring membership sale. They made the wheels spin. They hopped on, hopped off and hopped back on.

“When I saw the first mice, I was extremely happy,” said Johanna H. Meijer at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. “I had to laugh about the results, but at the same time, I take it very seriously. It’s funny, and it’s important at the same time.”

Dr. Meijer’s day job is as a “brain electrophysiologist” studying biological rhythms in mice. She relished the chance to get out of the laboratory and study wild animals, and in a way that no one else had.

She said Konrad Lorenz, the great-grandfather of animal behavior studies, once mentioned in a letter that some of his caged rats had escaped and then returned to his garden to use running wheels placed there.

But, Dr. Meijer said, the Lorenz observation “was one sentence.”

For the experiment, the wheels were enclosed so that small animals could come and go but so that larger animals could not knock them over. Dr. Meijer set up motion sensors and automatic video cameras. Several years and 12,000 snippets of video later, she and Yuri Robbers, also a Leiden researcher, reported the results. They were released in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Gene D. Block, chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, was not involved with the paper but knows Dr. Meijer and had seen the wheel set up in her garden. He said the study made it clear that wheel-running is “some type of rewarding behavior” and “probably not driven by stress or anxiety.”

Mice accounted for 88 percent of the wheel-running events, and spent one minute to 18 on the wheel. The other animals each accounted for less than 1 percent. Frogs, though there were very few, were seen to get on the wheel, get off and get back on.

Russell Foster, a circadian rhythm researcher at Oxford University, said he read the paper and sent it out to other scientists on behalf of the Proceedings and was delighted when peer reviews from other scientists were positive.

Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado who is active in the animal welfare movement, said in an email that he thought the paper did show that wheel-running could be a “voluntary activity,” but that mice in labs may be doing more of it because of the stress of confinement.

“Wild bears will often pace back and forth,” he wrote, “but in captivity, the rate of doing it seems to be greatly heightened.”

As to why the mice, frogs or perhaps even slugs run, or move, on the wheel, Dr. Meijer said she thought that “there is an intrinsic motivation for animals, or should I say organisms, to be active.”

Huda Akil, co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan, who has studied reward systems, said: “It’s not a surprise. All you have to do is watch a bunch of little kids in a playground or a park. They run and run and run.”

Dr. Akil said that in humans, running activates reward pathways in the brain, although she pointed out that there are innate differences in temperament in all sorts of animals, including humans. Rats that do not like to run can be bred. And plenty of people do all they can to avoid jogging, cycling and elliptical machines.

Presumably, the same is true of wild mice. While some were setting the wheel on fire with their exertions, others, out of camera range, may have been sprawled out on the mouse equivalent of a lounge chair, shaking their whiskers in dismay and disbelief.

Thanks to Dr. Nakamura for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/science/study-shows-that-mice-run-for-fun-not-just-for-lab-work.html?emc=eta1

The family and followers of one of India’s wealthiest Hindu spiritual leaders are fighting a legal battle over whether he is dead or simply in a deep state of meditation.

His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj, the founder of the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan religious order with a property estate worth an estimated £100 million, died in January, according to his wife and son.

However, his disciples at his Ashram have refused to let the family take his body for cremation because they claim he is still alive.

According to his followers, based in the Punjab city of Jalandhar, he simply went into a deep Samadhi or meditation and they have frozen his body to preserve it for when he wakes from it.

His body is currently contained in a commercial freezer at their Ashram.

The late – or living – guru, who was in his seventies, established his sect in 1983 to promote “self-awakening to global peace” and to create a world “wherein every individual becomes an embodiment of truth, fraternity and justice through the eternal science of self-realisation”.

Today the group has thousands of followers around the world and owns dozens of large properties throughout India, the United States, South America, Australia, the Middle East and Europe, including its British headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex.

While he is thought to have died from a heart attack, his devotees believe he has simply drifted into a deeper form of the meditation he promotes as a pathway to self-realisation.

A statement on the group’s website reads: “His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj ji has been in deep meditative state (Samadhi) since 29th January 2014.”

According to one of his aides, who asked not to be named, “Maharaj has been in deep meditation. He has spent many years meditating in sub-zero temperatures in the Himalayas, there is nothing unusual in it. He will return to life as soon as he feels and we will ensure his body is preserved until then”, he said.

His body is held in a guarded room in a deep freezer on his 100 acre retreat in Nurmahal, Jalandhar, where only a few elders and sect doctors are allowed to enter.

Although Punjab Police initially confirmed his death, the Punjab High Court later dismissed its status report and local governmental officials said it was a spiritual matter and that the guru’s followers cannot be forced to believe he is dead.

Now his wife and son have filed a court application calling for an investigation into the circumstances of his death and for his body to be released for cremation.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/10860998/Indian-court-asked-to-rule-on-whether-Hindu-guru-dead-or-meditating.html

If you’re grilling meat this Memorial Day, you should seriously consider stocking up on Guinness.

Grilling meat is a warm-weather tradition in America, especially on Memorial Day weekend. It’s also an ancient human tradition, uniting friends and family around food and fire as long as our species has existed. Unfortunately, it also unites us around chemicals that can cause cancer.

Warnings like that can make it seem like scientists ruin everything — they already took sitting, late-night snacks and fireworks from us. But science works both ways, and now it has found at least a partial solution for this carnivore’s conundrum. According to a recent study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the secret to safer grilling has been under our noses all along.

Beer is a common ingredient at backyard cookouts, usually as a beverage. But research suggests marinating meat with beer, particularly dark beer, can curb the creation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These carcinogenic chemicals form as fat and juices drip from meat onto flames or embers, which then send smoky PAHs wafting up to coat the surface of our food.

PAHs can exist in more than 100 different combinations, some of which are found in known toxic cocktails like cigarette smoke and car exhaust. These chemicals have caused tumors, birth defects and reproductive problems in lab animals, according to the U.S. EPA, but the same effects have not been seen in humans. The National Cancer Institute says PAHs “become capable of damaging DNA only after they are metabolized by specific enzymes in the body.” Nonetheless, health concerns raised in a 2002 report have led the European Union to set safety standards for PAHs in food.

Previous studies have shown that beer, wine, tea and rosemary marinades can reduce carcinogens in cooked meat, but until now little was known about how various beer styles affect this phenomenon. And according to the recent study, the kind of beer seems to make a pretty significant difference.

To reach that conclusion, the researchers marinated pork for four hours in one of three beer types: regular pilsner, non-alcoholic pilsner or black beer. They then grilled the pork to well-done on a charcoal grill and tested its PAH levels. Black beer had the most dramatic effect, reducing eight major PAHs to less than half the amount found in unmarinated grilled pork. (The researchers chose eight PAHs that are identified by the EU as “suitable indicators for carcinogenic potency of PAHs in food.”)

The two pilsners also showed an “inhibitory effect” on PAHs, but not as much. The regular pilsner suppressed PAHs by 13 percent, and the non-alcoholic variety went slightly further with 25 percent.

“Thus, the intake of beer-marinated meat can be a suitable mitigation strategy,” the researchers say.

The study’s authors aren’t sure why beer marinade has this effect, or why dark beer fights PAHs better than pilsner does. It isn’t the alcohol, since non-alcoholic pilsner nearly doubled the PAH suppression of its boozier relative. They suspect it might be antioxidant compounds in beer, especially darker beers, since antioxidants could restrict the movement of free radicals that are required for PAH formation. More research will be needed to know for sure, but this theory could help explain why antioxidant-rich red wine, green tea and rosemary extracts also keep carcinogens in check.

Whatever you use, the American Institute for Cancer Research already recommends marinating meat for at least 30 minutes to limit both PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), another type of chemical compound that can damage DNA. It also suggests grilling fish and poultry more often than red meat or processed meats like hot dogs, which can increase the risk for certain cancers. Reducing temperature, time on the grill and smoke exposure are other options for limiting cancer risk.

And while it can’t take the place of a juicy, beer-marinated pork chop, there’s also another, even more surefire way to cut back your risk: Save some room on the grill for fruits, vegetables and mushrooms.

http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/blogs/how-dark-beer-can-make-grilled-meat-less-carcinogenic

Tastes are a privilege. The oral sensations not only satisfy foodies, but also on a primal level, protect animals from toxic substances. Yet cetaceans—whales and dolphins—may lack this crucial ability, according to a new study. Mutations in a cetacean ancestor obliterated their basic machinery for four of the five primary tastes, making them the first group of mammals to have lost the majority of this sensory system.

The five primary tastes are sweet, bitter, umami (savory), sour, and salty. These flavors are recognized by taste receptors—proteins that coat neurons embedded in the tongue. For the most part, taste receptor genes present across all vertebrates.

Except, it seems, cetaceans. Researchers uncovered a massive loss of taste receptors in these animals by screening the genomes of 15 species. The investigation spanned the two major lineages of cetaceans: Krill-loving baleen whales—such as bowheads and minkes—were surveyed along with those with teeth, like bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales.

The taste genes weren’t gone per se, but were irreparably damaged by mutations, the team reports online this month in Genome Biology and Evolution. Genes encode proteins, which in turn execute certain functions in cells. Certain errors in the code can derail protein production—at which point the gene becomes a “pseudogene” or a lingering shell of a trait forgotten. Identical pseudogene corpses were discovered across the different cetacean species for sweet, bitter, umami, and sour taste receptors. Salty tastes were the only exception.

“The loss of bitter taste is a complete surprise, because natural toxins typically taste bitter,” says zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China who led the study. All whales likely descend from raccoon-esque raoellids, a group of herbivorous land mammals that transitioned to the sea where they became fish eaters. Plants range in flavors—from sugary apples to tart, poisonous rhubarb leaves—and to survive, primitive animals learned the taste cues that signal whether food is delicious or dangerous. Based on the findings, taste dissipated after this common ancestor became fully aquatic—53 million years ago—but before the group split 36 million years ago into toothed and baleen whales.

“Pseudogenes arise when a trait is no longer needed,” says evolutionary biologist Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the study. “So it still raises the question as to why whales could afford to lose four of the five primary tastes.” The retention of salty taste receptors suggests that they have other vital roles, such as maintaining sodium levels and blood pressure.

But dulled taste perception might be dangerous if noxious substances spill into the water. Orcas have unwittingly migrated into oil spills, while algal toxins created by fertilizer runoff consistently seep into the fish prey of dolphins living off the Florida coast.

“When you have a sense of taste, it dictates whether you swallow or not,” says Danielle Reed, a geneticist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was not involved with the current work, but co-authored a 2012 paper that found the first genetic inklings that umami and sweet taste receptors were missing in cetaceans, albeit in only one species—bottlenose dolphins.

Flavors are typically released by chewing, but cetaceans tend to swallow their food whole. “The message seems clear. If you don’t chew your food and prefer swallowing food whole, then taste really becomes irrelevant,” Reed says.

http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/05/whales-cant-taste-anything-salt

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Within a few more decades, dire food shortages may lead to global-scale conflict, warned a top plant scientist in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). There may not be enough land, water and energy to sustain the potential 9 billion people who are projected to share the Earth by 2050.

“Food issues could become as politically destabilizing by 2050 as energy issues are today,” said Fred Davies, senior science adviser for tUSAID’s bureau of food security, in a press release.

Biotechnology, improved breeding and advances in farming techniques may not be capable of keeping up with the growing human population, according to Davies. Even if farm production can be increased through technology, those innovations may not trickle down to small-scale farmers, the very people who most need help to stave off starvation.

Recent history shows that even massive increases in production don’t solve hunger. In the middle of the last century, the “Green Revolution” dramatically increased crop yields. New varieties of wheat and other grains produced bumper crops, but required purchases of expensive seed, fertilizer and other materials.

Hypothetically, food abounded for all after the agricultural advances, and hunger was indeed reduced in many regions. Yet starvation continued because of economic inequalities and lack of access to food supplies. Plus, subsistence farmers couldn’t afford the new technologies or compete with the large farms that could afford fertilizers and high-yielding seeds.

Now, after less than a century, the human population has grown rapidly, fueled by the bountiful harvests of Green Revolution technology. Once again, the global food system approaches its maximum production limit, but this time, technology may not be up to the challenge, as Davies warned.

One way to partially address the challenge could be to shift farm production toward profitable horticultural crops, like chili peppers, as opposed to bulk commodities, such as corn, suggested Davies.

“A greater emphasis is needed in high-value horticultural crops,” Davies said. “Those create jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities and enable more profitable, intense farming.”

In many cultures, sociologists have observed that increasing wealth correlates to decreasing birth rates, a phenomenon known as the demographic-economic paradox. Although a wealthier nation, such as Japan, could support more children, citizens tend to actually have fewer kids.

By lifting people out of poverty, the food wars of the future could be averted, as long as those wealthier future people don’t demand the same amounts of resource-intensive foods, such as beef, that current rich populations enjoy.

http://news.discovery.com/earth/weather-extreme-events/food-wars-could-rage-by-2050-140418.htm

Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


Peanut butter dumped in New Mexico landfill after Costco refuses to sell it or let it be donated. The dumped peanut butter was deemed safe even though it came from the Sunland plant linked to a 2012 salmonella outbreak.

Nearly a million jars of peanut butter were dumped at a New Mexico landfill this week to expedite the sale of a bankrupt peanut-processing plant that was at the heart of a 2012 salmonella outbreak and nationwide recall.

Bankruptcy trustee Clarke Coll said he had no other choice after Costco Wholesale refused to take shipment of the Sunland Inc. product and declined requests to let it be donated to food banks or repackaged or sold to brokers who provide food to institutions like prisons.

“We considered all options,” Coll said. “They didn’t agree.”

Melinda Joy Pattison, executive director of the Food Bank of Eastern New Mexico, on Friday called the dumping of the peanut butter “horrendous.” She said as long as there was nothing wrong with the peanut butter, her operation would have found a way to store it, remove the labels and distribute it to the people who depend on the food bank.

“Those trucks carrying it to the dump went right by the front door of my food bank,” she said. “It wasn’t like it would have been out of the way.”

Pattison said peanut butter is a major source of protein and a staple for hungry people. Her food bank places single-serve peanut butter cups in packages it gives to children whose parents rely on its services.

“For it to just be deliberately thrown away is disappointing,” she said.

Costco officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment. But court filings indicate the product was made with $2.8 million worth of Valencia peanuts owned by Costco and had been sitting in the warehouse since the company shut down and filed for bankruptcy last fall.

After extensive testing, Costco agreed to a court order authorizing the trustee to sell it the peanut butter. But after getting eight loads, Costco rejected it as “not merchantable” because of leaky peanut oil.

Coll said “all parties agreed there’s nothing wrong with the peanut butter from a health and safety issue,” but court records show that on a March 19 conference call Costco said “it would not agree to any disposition … other than destruction.”

So instead of selling or donating the peanut butter, with a value estimated at $2.6 million, the estate paid about $60,000 to haul the 950,000 jars of nut butter — or about 25 tons — to the Curry County landfill in Clovis, where public works director Clint Bunch says it “will go in with our regular waste and covered with dirt.”

The last of 58 truckloads was expected Friday, the same day Golden Boy Foods of Canada was to close on its $26 million purchase of the plant.

Sunland made peanut butter under a number of different labels for retailers like Costco, Kroger and Trader Joe’s, along with products under its own name. But the plant was shut down in September 2012 after its products were linked to 41 salmonella cases in 20 states.

It later reopened for about five months, but shut down last October after the company’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.

Sunland processed Valencia peanuts, a sweet variety of peanut unique to the region and preferred for natural butters because it is flavorful without additives.

Sonya Warwick, spokeswoman for New Mexico’s largest food bank, declined to comment directly on the situation, but she noted that rescued food accounted for 74 percent of what Roadrunner Food Bank distributed across New Mexico last year.

“Our fleet picks up rescued food from hundreds of locations weekly and brings it back to the food bank,” she said. “Before distributing it, volunteers help label, sort or repack it for distribution to partner agencies across the state.

“Access to rescued food allows us to provide a more well-rounded and balanced meal to New Mexicans experiencing hunger.”

http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Latest-News-Wires/2014/0328/Peanut-butter-dumped-in-landfill.-Costco-blamed

The Earth may not be flat nor is it the center of the universe, but that doesn’t mean old-world intellectuals got everything wrong. In fact, in recent years, modern science has validated a number of teachings and beliefs rooted in ancient wisdom that, up until now, had been trusted but unproven empirically.

A full 55 pages of Arianna Huffington’s new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, are dedicated to these scientific breakthroughs that often confirm the power of ancient psychology and contemplative practices. On an intuitive level, we’ve known for centuries that these lifestyle practices can help us lead happy, healthy and balanced lives. But now, with the support of hard science, we can embrace these pieces of ancient wisdom and start really living them.

Here are eight ancient beliefs and practices that have been confirmed by modern science.

1. Helping others can make you healthier.

In their never-ending search for the best way to live, Greek philosophers argued over the relative benefits of hedonic and eudaimonic happiness. Hedonic well-being sees happiness as a factor of increased pleasure and decreased pain, while eudaimonic (“human flourishing”) happiness has more to do with having a larger purpose or meaning in life. A recent study from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Barbara Fredrickson may reveal which form of happiness is more beneficial for health and well-being.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, found that while both types of happiness can make you feel good, the latter could promote physical health and longevity as well. Using phone interviews, questionnaires and blood samples, the study explored how the two forms of happiness affected individuals on a genetic level. Participants with more hedonic and less eudaimonic well-being were found to have a lower production of virus-attacking antibodies, while those with more eudaimonic well-being experienced an increase in antibody production.

2. Acupuncture can restore balance to your body.

The traditional Chinese medicine technique is believed to address imbalances in a person’s qi (pronounced chi), the circulating energy within every living thing. Whether or not you believe in the existence of this energy flow, a new study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that the age-old practice may be an effective way to relieve migraines, arthritis and other chronic pains.

Analyzing previous research data from approximately 18,000 subjects, researchers found that acupuncture was more effective than sham acupuncture and standard western care when treating various types of pain, including migraines and chronic back pain.

3. We need the support of a community in order to thrive.

Traditional Buddhist teachings suggest that community is a key component in any happy, fulfilled life. A 2010 study conducted by Brigham Young University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers confirmed this belief, concluding that a healthy social life promotes longevity.

In analyzing the 148 studies — involving more than 300,000 individual participants — available on the subject, the researchers discovered that those with stronger social relationships maintained a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival. The effect of social relationships on mortality risk is even greater than the effect of exercise or obesity.

4. Tai chi can help alleviate a variety of health conditions.

This ancient Chinese martial art is based on the belief that achieving balance with one’s mind and body creates an overall sense of peace and harmony, naturally inspiring a long life. A report in the May 2009 issue of Harvard Women’s Health Watch summarized several studies confirming that this “moving meditation” practice can help prevent and treat many age-related health problems alongside standard treatment in older adults. A number of studies in the past decade have found tai chi to be helpful for those suffering from arthritis, low bone density and heart disease.

5. Meditation can help you reduce stress and discover inner peace.

Stemming from ancient Eastern origins, the practice of meditation is believed to help still the mind and reach a heightened level of awareness, improving health and well-being as a byproduct. Science is now proving the health benefits of meditation. The latest study from a team of Harvard Medical School scientists reveals how this mind-body practice can affect genes that control stress levels and immune function.

Harvard psychiatrist John Denniger and his team used neuro-imaging and genomics technology to measure potential physiological changes in each subject more accurately. After observing the high-stress individuals as they followed the study’s prescribed yoga and meditation practices, the team noticed an improved mitochondrial energy production, utilization and resiliency, which help to reduce the stress linked to health conditions like hypertension and infertility.


6. Compassion is the key to a meaningful life.

Tibetan Buddhist tradition includes a practice called metta, or loving-kindness. A 2012 study from Emory University found that compassion meditation based on this Tibetan model can effectively boost one’s ability to empathize with others by way of reading their facial expressions.

Another loving-kindness meditation study from 2011 found that, over time, this practice increased participants’ positive emotions that allowed them to find a deeper sense of mindfulness, their purpose in life, the network of support surrounding them, and their health. These components helped increase their overall life satisfaction.

7. Accepting what you can’t change is key to reducing suffering.

According to Buddhist teachings, one must accept the things they cannot change in order to reduce suffering. Now, scientists have found that this belief rings true, especially for older adults who are working through difficult life changes.

Researchers from Deakin University in Australia found that facing the realities of living with assistance and losing a degree of independence helps seniors live longer and feel far happier. Their study, which was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies last year, compared feelings of life satisfaction and perceived control of older adults living with assistance and those living in the community. Their analysis revealed that the ability to accept the inevitable (as well as maintain low-level control) in an assisted living setting was a significant predictor of life satisfaction. The researchers concluded, “In order to protect the well-being of older individuals, adaptation involves both a sense of control and the active acceptance of what cannot be changed.”

8. All you need is love.

If there is one thing that a variety of ancient wisdom traditions can agree on, it’s the value of love in maintaining a happy, meaningful life. And a group of Harvard researchers, on a mission to uncover the true roots of life fulfillment, conducted a 75-year study that reached the same conclusion.

The Harvard Grant Study, led by psychiatrist George Vaillant, followed the life trajectories of 268 male students in order to answer life’s universal questions of growth, development, value and purpose. Vaillant considers the most meaningful finding of the study to be that a happy life revolves around loving relationships. He explained that there are two pillars of happiness: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/21/8-ancient-beliefs-now-bac_n_4995877.html