Tim Spector, a physician and professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, wants to debunk healthy-eating mantras. Spector decided to rethink his eating habits after a skiing accident left him with high blood pressure, and to investigate the role played by gut microbes in maintaining our health. He draws on his research on microbes, genetics and diet to explore our relationship with food, and to investigate how we can nurture a healthy microbiome1 by eating according to science.
WIRED: In your book The Diet Myth, you refer to the "myth of modern diets". What is this?
Tim Spector: There are many myths: the first one states that if everybody follows the same calorie control and does some exercise, then they will lose weight. Another myth states that by restricting and reducing certain items you will lose weight and be healthy. This is the trend of fad diets where people pick on one group of food and avoid others – whether that be gluten, grains, dairy, fat or meat – at all costs. Another fallacy is that grazing rather than gorging is better to maintain our blood glucose levels, and help us lose weight.
Why are myths around food so toxic for our health?
If people have followed advice in the past 30 years, they would have mainly followed low-fat diets – switching from butter to margarine, avoiding nuts and high-fat dairy products like cheese and either selecting low-fat yoghurts or avoiding them completely. The whole idea limits the range of foods that people consume, so that not only do we eat an unbalanced diet with no real nutrition but it is much lower in fibre now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The artificial sweeteners inside processed foods – which we thought were harmless – also induce our microbes to produce inflammatory and metabolic chemicals that make you more likely to put on weight or get diabetes. It's the double whammy of all the chemicals in these processed foods, plus the lack of fibre that hit our gut microbes hard.
Gaining access to tools that could provide insights into an individual's cognitive functions like memory and decision-making have typically been expensive, and limited to those given by a medical professional or clinician. Savonix is bent on changing that, with what it says is the first mobile and clinically-valid cognitive and brain health assessment tool in the world.
The Savonix assessment tool is a mobile app available for either iOS or Android devices. It was developed by a team of Stanford University healthcare professionals, using published data gleaned from past clinical research results involving cognitive assessments.
Such assessments have been used for decades to determine changes in brain function caused by diseases like Alzheimer's, or by brain trauma from accidents. Savonix says its cognitive assessment tool is quicker and less costly to administer than currently available tools, but that it will be just as accurate.
With the capacity to stem severe bleeding within around 20 seconds, the XStat sponge-filled syringe could be a real game-changer when it comes to medical care. It has just proved its worth in the most testing of environments, with battlefield surgeons successfully using the device to plug a soldier's gunshot wound for the first time.
The syringe, which was first approved for battlefield use in 2014, works by filling a wound with small cellulose sponges. These are made from wood pulp and covered in chitosan, an antimicrobial compound found in crustacean shells. This not only fights off bacteria, but also causes blood clotting that combines with the expanding sponges to apply pressure and quickly stop arterial bleeding.
When a coalition forces soldier received a gunshot wound to the left thigh, opening up the femoral artery and vein to leave a gaping cavity, doctors were unable to stem the residual bleeding even after around seven hours of surgery.
The team then called on the XStat syringe to fill the wound, applying a single syringe to the cavity which almost immediately stopped the flow of blood. The soldier then became stable and was moved to a definitive care facility.
"The first-in-human experience with XStat is the culmination of tremendous effort on the part of both RevMedx and our military collaborators," says Andrew Barofsky, president and CEO of RevMedx. "We are pleased to see XStat play a critical role in saving a patient's life and hope to see significant advancement toward further adoption of XStat as a standard of care for severe hemorrhage in pre-hospital settings."
University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered that a gene called Oct4 — which scientific dogma insists is inactive in adults — actually plays a vital role in preventing ruptured atherosclerotic plaques inside blood vessels, the underlying cause of most heart attacks and strokes.
The researchers found that Oct4 controls the conversion of smooth muscle cells into protective fibrous “caps” inside plaques, making the plaques less likely to rupture. They also discovered that the gene promotes many changes in gene expression that are beneficial in stabilizing the plaques. In addition, the researchers believe it may be possible to develop drugs or other therapeutic agents that target the Oct4 pathway as a way to reduce the incidence of heart attacks or stroke.
Could impact many human diseases, regenerative medicine
The researchers are also currently testing Oct4′s possible role in repairing cellular damage and healing wounds, which would make it useful for regenerative medicine.
Oct4 is one of the “stem cell pluripotency factors” described by Shinya Yamanaka, PhD, of Kyoto University, for which he received the 2012 Nobel Prize. His lab and many others have shown that artificial over-expression of Oct4 within somatic cells grown in a lab dish is essential for reprogramming these cells into induced pluripotential stem cells, which can then develop into any cell type in the body or even an entire organism.
“Finding a way to reactivate this pathway may have profound implications for health and aging,” said researcher Gary K. Owens, director of UVA’s Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center. “This could impact many human diseases and the field of regenerative medicine. [It may also] end up being the ‘fountain-of-youth gene,’ a way to revitalize old and worn-out cells.”
The traditional problem suffered by older men of having to relieve themselves several times a night could be treated by eating more tomatoes, scientists believe.
Researchers found that a nutrient called lycopene, which gives tomatoes their red colour, could potentially ease the affliction suffered by millions.
A review of 67 research studies, published in the journal Oncology and Cancer Case Reports, suggests that the nutrient can be used to slow down the enlargement of the prostate, which causes the embarrassing condition.
With age most men suffer an unexplained expansion of the prostate, which is wrapped around the urinary tract.
The prostate constricts the tube and may block it altogether, causing a condition called benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH).
Professor Hiten Patel, from Bart’s and the Royal London Hospital, led the team which reviewed the research.
“We knew lycopene seems to slow down the development of prostate cancer, but now it seems it can slow down the enlargement of the prostate and development of BPH as well,” he said.
“We need to do more research before we can say it should be recommended routinely for everyone, but the outcome of this review is very promising.”
The findings appear to corroborate previous studies conducted in China where traditional diets include a much higher intake of fruit and vegetables and lower rates of BPH were found
Other research by Bristol University showed that those who ate the most tomatoes had an 18% risk of prostate cancer.
Dr Athene Lane, lead author of the Bristol study, said: “There is definitely something in lycopene to be investigated further so we can understand how the mechanisms works.”
Despite identifying lycopene as a potentially helpful factor in controlling prostate expansion, treatment may be more complicated than simply eating more tomatoes.
This is because lycopene is not easily absorbed into the blood unless processed in some way.
However, researchers believe this problem can be circumvented by administering the nutrient in the form of a supplement pill LactoLycopene.
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The significance of grit in helping us reach success has been greatly overstated, according to a new meta-analysis of existing research on the topic.
In fact, Marcus Credé, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, and colleagues found no evidence that grit is a good predictor of success.
While some educators are working to enhance grit in students, Credé says there’s no indication that it’s possible to boost levels. And even if it were possible, it might not matter.
Grit is defined as perseverance and commitment to long-term goals. The research—often associated with University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth who first studied grit—is relatively new compared to the decades of work on performance indicators such as conscientiousness and intelligence.
Credé says his team’s analysis of 88 independent studies representing nearly 67,000 people shows that grit is really no different than conscientiousness. The findings will appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Scientists have come up with an explanation for why some teenage boys go through a clumsy phase.
Research suggests the brain struggles to cope with the body's change in height during a sudden growth spurt.
The boys walk clumsily for a while as their brain adjusts, say Italian scientists.
Adolescents who grow slowly and steadily remain more coordinated, a team at the University of Bologna found in a study.
Lead researcher Dr Maria Cristina said a sudden increase in height affects the body's ability to control established motor skills, such as walking.
"Adolescents tend to show previous control of the body when growing up, but the motor control behaviour is organised on the body's dimensions," she said.
"Following a growth spurt, the body needs time to adjust to changes to the periphery, during which time a teenager may walk awkwardly, while teenagers who grow steadily are able to handle growth modifications better and so maintain smoothness and regularity when walking." Motor skills
The researchers studied 88 teenage boys aged 15.
They divided them into two groups - boys who grew more than 3cm over the three-month study period and those who grew only 1cm or less.
They then analysed aspects of gait, including balance, the ability to walk smoothly and regularity of stride.
The boys walked back and forth along a corridor with wireless sensors strapped to their backs and legs, and were asked to perform a mental arithmetic task while walking.
Boys who had not had a growth spurt walked more smoothly and their stride was more regular compared with the other group, the scientists found.
The research is published in the open access journal BioMedical Engineering OnLine.
In 2014, I walked into a dispensary in Boulder and emerged with something truly surreal: a receipt. For weed. Two years earlier, Colorado had voted to legalize recreational marijuana—reflecting a seismic shift in American attitudes toward the drug. In just two generations, the portion of the population that supports legalization went from 12 percent to 58 percent. Along the way, we’ve seen emerging marijuana markets, new technologies, and the normalization of experiences that were once taboo.
At the same time, though, Americans are succumbing to the dangers of other drugs in ever greater numbers. Substance-use disorders now affect more than 21 million Americans. Drug overdose—especially from heroin and other opiates—is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. And nearly a third of all vehicle fatalities are alcohol-related.
On the one hand, we want to feel good. On the other, we need to do more to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Scientists and entrepreneurs are working on new products and technologies that promise to make drugs and alcohol both safer and more satisfying. Here’s what the future of getting high might look like.
An ingestible origami robot designed to patch wounds, deliver medicine or remove foreign objects from a person's stomach has been developed by researchers from MIT, the University of Sheffield and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
The robot is swallowed in a capsule and unfolds once in the stomach as its container dissolves. Unlike its creators' previous ingestible robots, the new device is made largely of meat in the form of a type of dried pig intestine used in sausage casings.
In a video demonstration of the robot's capabilities, the team uses a mock-up of a stomach, moulded from that of a pig and made of silicone rubber, with a mixture of water and lemon juice to simulate stomach acid. The robot is sent down the oesophagus in a capsule made of ice and tasked with removing a button battery that's become embedded in the stomach wall.
The next time dandruff dots your shoulders, you might want to reach for yogurt, not shampoo. The latest study into scaly scalps has found that nurturing particular bacteria on the skin could keep the white flakes at bay.
Researchers in Shanghai took on the dandruff problem with an unprecedented investigation into flaky scalps and the ecosystem of microbes that set up home on the human head, feeding on the lavish menu of dead skin and oily secretions called sebum.
Menghui Zhang at Shanghai Jiao Tong University invited 59 people aged 18 to 60 years old into the lab and gathered dandruff from eight different areas on their heads. All had washed their hair two days before turning up at the centre.
Zhang separated the volunteers into “healthy” and dandruff groups, depending on the amount of visible skin flakes in their hair. He then looked to see how the populations of scalp bacteria and fungi differed between the two groups, and with individual’s sex, age and physiology.
The researchers found that sebum secretions rose through the teenage years, peaked at 15 to 35 years old, and then declined as people got older. Meanwhile, dandruff became worse as people aged, with the over 40s having more severe dandruff than the younger participants. Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the authors note: “Sebum is an important food source for the growth of fungi and bacteria.”
A treatment now pending approval in Europe will be the first commercial gene therapy to provide an outright cure for a deadly disease.
The treatment is a landmark for gene-replacement technology, an idea that’s struggled for three decades to prove itself safe and practical.
Called Strimvelis, and owned by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, the treatment is for severe combined immune deficiency, a rare disease that leaves newborns with almost no defense against viruses, bacteria, or fungi and is sometimes called “bubble boy” disease after an American child whose short life inside a protective plastic shield was described in a 1976 movie.
The treatment is different from any that’s come before because it appears to be an outright cure carried out through a genetic repair. The therapy was tested on 18 children, the first of them 15 years ago. All are still alive.
“I would be hesitant to call it a cure, although there’s no reason to think it won’t last,” says Sven Kili, the executive who heads gene-therapy development at GSK.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way. The practitioner learns to avoid dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. This can be difficult, especially for people suffering from anxiety and depression, but, if achieved, it can bring lasting relief.
NHS mental health services are increasingly offering a therapy called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which is, as the name suggests, based on mindfulness skills. MBCT is an evidence-based group therapy. It combines training in mindfulness skills and practices with cognitive therapy (learning about managing and changing one’s negative thought patterns). MBCT seems particularly effective in reducing the risk of relapse for people who have had three or more episodes of depression.
Research on MBCT is improving in quality and scale, and we are starting to learn how mindfulness practices and therapy work in alleviating depression symptoms. Despite this, some people remain sceptical of mindfulness in general and MBCT in particular.
Remembering to take a pill once daily can be hard enough, but it gets particularly challenging when you have to take several doses throughout the day – especially if you're taking multiple types of medication. To make things easier, scientists at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed a new technique that uses a 3D printer to combine multiple doses of different medications in a single time-release tablet.
First of all, it should be noted that other researchers have previously created 3D-printed time-release tablets, which were built up in a printer a layer at a time. According to the university, however, these tablets are limited both in the strength of dosages, and in how continuously they dispense medication once ingested. The NUS system reportedly has neither of these drawbacks, plus it should be relatively quick and inexpensive to use.
Here's how it works – or at least, how it would work in a clinical setting …
The doctor starts by indicating on a computer program what medication(s) the patient needs to take, in what doses and how often. This information is used to generate a computer model of a small multi-pronged template, such as the one being picked up with the tweezers in the photo at the top of the page.
It is almost 40 years since the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born. While this amazing breakthrough was highly controversial at the time, IVF is today commonplace. So how is conception and childbirth likely to change over the next 40 years and beyond?
The rapid pace of research in the areas of fertility and reproduction raises some mind-boggling questions about the future. Will we conceive and grow babies entirely in laboratories – making sex and pregnancy a thing of the past? And will all future babies be “genetically designed”?
One of the real game changers will be women’s ability to preserve their fertility and have children later in life. The procedure of freezing eggs was once fairly unsuccessful. But these days 80-90% of the eggs survive and women have a 97% chance of having a baby if they freeze 40 or more eggs before they turn 35. Another option is for women to freeze ovarian tissue at a young age, which can be thawed and put it back in the body several years later. This is still being researched but babies have been born using this method, and it is only going to get better with time.
Scientists have also successfully created sperm from stem cells and there is no reason why the same cannot be done for eggs. So in 40 years, women will most likely have several viable options to help them preserve their fertility. Hopefully, this will also be socially accepted and an affordable thing to do by then – empowering women to have children when they are ready.
But will these changes result in IVF taking over as the main way of reproduction? Despite an enormous amount of research, only a third of women are able to have a baby following IVF today – something that is unlikely to change in the next 40 years. This is partly down to age and the fact that even the healthiest-looking embryo has around a 30% chance of having an abnormal genetic make-up, which can cause miscarriage or genetic defects. Genetic screening before implantation is already used to identify these embryos, but future, improved “non-invasive” testing of the fluid the embryo has grown in will significantly boost IVF rates. Indeed, a century from now IVF is highly likely to be the “normal” way to conceive, making those who conceive naturally look like radical risk takers.
Thirty years of official health advice urging people to adopt low-fat diets and to lower their cholesterol is having “disastrous health consequences,” a leading obesity charity warned yesterday.
“Eating fat does not make you fat,” argues a new report by the National Obesity Forum (NOF) and the Public Health Collaboration, as they demanded a major overhaul of official dietary guidelines.
The report says the low-fat and low-cholesterol message, which has been official policy in the UK since 1983, was based on “flawed science” and had resulted in an increased consumption of junk food and carbohydrates.
The document also accuses major public health bodies of colluding with the food industry, said the misplaced focus meant Britain was failing to address an obesity crisis which is costing the NHS £6 billion a year.
The authors call for a return to “whole foods” such as meat, fish and dairy, as well as high-fat healthy foods like avocados.
Some of us are more ticklish than others, but nearly everyone is unable to tickle themselves. The answer is tied to how we see and how we perceive movement.
To get to the bottom of why we can’t tickle ourselves, let’s first examine another phenomenon. Close one eye, and then carefully push against the side of your other (open) eye, moving the eyeball from side to side in its socket. What do you see? It should appear as if the world is moving, even though you know it isn’t.
Now put your hand down and scan your environment. Your eye moves in similar ways as when you pushed it, but the world remains stable. Clearly the visual information gathered by the eye is the same in both cases, with images drifting across the retina as the eye moves around, but your perception of how things were moving was only false when you poked your eye.
This is because when you move your eyes naturally, the brain sends motor commands to the eye muscles and, at the same time, something called an “efference copy” of the commands is sent to the visual system so that it can predict the sensory consequences of the movement. This allows the visual system to compensate for the changes on your retina due to the eyeball’s motion and your brain knows that changes in the image (that look like things have moved) are in fact due to the eye’s own movement.
So you’re able to dart your eyes around the room, taking in every detail, without feeling like you’re whizzing around like a wild hornet. When you poked your eye, no such prediction had been made, and so no compensation took place, resulting in weird motion perception.
At any given moment, you have somewhere between 10 trillion and 100 trillion microorganisms inhabiting your gut — that’s more microbes in your bowels than there are cells in your body. If that isn’t impressive enough, consider that collectively these microbes have about 150 times as many genes as your own genome. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly which microbes make up the human microbiome, but it’s estimated to contain more than 1,000 species and 7,000 distinct strains of bacteria. Your gut is never alone.
It’s also not working in isolation. What’s becoming more and more clear is that the microbes in the gut are crucial for the brain and mental health. Ted Dinan is an expert in this field, and he became so almost by accident. It was the early 2000s, and he’d recently taken a position at University College Cork, a place that he said was “known for its heavy-hitting microbiologists.” Some of these microbiologists were talking about a type of bacteria they described as “probiotic” — conferring some kind of health benefit. As a psychiatrist, Dinan thought it would be interesting to see what happened when he fed these probiotics to some rats he was studying in an experimental model of mental health. Lo and behold, rats given the probiotics expressed fewer signs of anxiety and depression. Dinan and his colleagues would go on to coin the term “psychobiotics” for microbes that can benefit the brain or behavior.
As researchers work to understand the human genome, many questions remain, including, perhaps, the most fundamental: Just how much of the human experience is determined before we are already born, by our genes, and how much is dependent upon external environmental factors?
Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross the answer to that question is complicated. "Biology is not destiny," Mukherjee explains. "But some aspects of biology — and in fact some aspects of destiny — are commanded very strongly by genes."
The degree to which biology governs our lives is the subject of Mukherjee's new book, The Gene. In it, he recounts the history of genetics and examines the roles genes play in such factors as identity, temperament, sexual orientation and disease risk.
Magic mushrooms have lifted severe depression in a dozen volunteers in a clinical trial, raising scientists’ hopes that the psychedelic experiences beloved of the Aztecs and the hippy counter-culture of the 1970s could one day become mainstream medicine.
A clinical trial, which took years and significant money to complete due to the stringent regulatory restrictions imposed around the class 1 drug, has found that two doses of psilocybin, the active substance in the mushrooms, was sufficient to lift resistant depression in all 12 volunteers for three weeks, and to keep it away in five of them for three months.
The size of the trial and the absence of any placebo means the research, funded by the Medical Research Council and published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal (pdf), is a proof of principle only.
The scientists, from Imperial College London, said they hoped the results would encourage the MRC or other funders to put up the money needed for a full trial. However, the use of a placebo control, comparing those who use the drug with those who do not, will always be difficult, because it will be obvious who is having a psychedelic experience.
In spite of the outcome, the researchers urged people not to try magic mushrooms themselves.
The lead author, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, said: “Psychedelic drugs have potent psychological effects and are only given in our research when appropriate safeguards are in place, such as careful screening and professional therapeutic support.
Oh vagina, how do I name thee? Let me count the ways. From private parts to lady bits, clunge to chuff, fanny to minge, yoni to yum yum, the list of names given to female genitalia is seemingly endless and often verging on the ridiculous.
With vaginal metaphors and euphemisms depicting female genitalia as scary, ugly or off limits, it’s not surprising a large number of women and girls struggle to identify parts of their own genitalia – with just half of women surveyed able to correctly locate the vagina on a diagram of the female reproductive system.
But our recent research is hoping to change all this. We have designed a phone app called Labella, which combines a piece of underwear and a mobile phone – allowing the user to get to know their own anatomy through the medium of a smart phone.
Initially designed with a wide range of women in mind, future developments will be aimed at young women, providing them with an educational tool which will enable them to get to know their bodies in a way that feels comfortable and knowledge driven.
Last week, Nature, the world’s most prestigious science journal, published a beautiful picture of a brain on its cover. The computer-generated image, taken from a paper in the issue, showed the organ’s outer layer almost completely covered with sprinkles of colorful words. The paper presents a “semantic map” revealing which parts of the brain’s cortex—meaning its outer layer, the one responsible for higher thought—respond to various spoken words. The study has generated widespread interest, receiving coverage from newspapers and websites around the world. The paper was also accompanied by an online interactive model that allowed users to explore exactly how words are mapped in our brains. The combination yielded a popular frenzy, one prompting the question: Why are millions of people suddenly so interested in the neuroanatomical distribution of linguistic representations? Have they run out of cat videos?
The answer, I think, is largely the same as the answer to why “This Is Your Brain on X” (where X = food, politics, sex, podcasts, whatever) is a staple of news headlines, often residing above an fMRI image of a brain lit up in fascinating, mysterious patterns: People have a fundamental misunderstanding of the field of neuroscience and what it can tell us.
But before explaining why people shouldn’t be excited about this research, let’s look at what the research tells us and why we should be excited.
Disrupting brain activity in sleeping mice, specifically during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, can stop the animals remembering things they learned that day, a study suggests.
It is the clearest evidence to date that REM sleep is critical for memory.
By switching off certain brain cells, the researchers silenced a particular, rhythmic type of brain function - without waking the mice.
If they did this during REM sleep, the mice failed subsequent memory tests.
The research is reported in the journal Science.
REM sleep is the phase during which, at least in humans, dreams take place - but the question of whether it is important for settling new memories has been difficult to answer.
Recent studies have tended to focus on deep, non-REM sleep instead, during which brain cells fire in various patterns that reflect memory consolidation and "re-play" of the day's experiences.
During REM sleep, while our eyes flicker and our muscles relax, exactly what the brain is doing is something of a mystery. But it is a type of sleep seen across the animal kingdom, in mammals and birds and even lizards.
Especially in animals, REM phases can be quite fleeting. This and other complications have made it difficult to test what effect such sleep has.
Simply waking up humans or animals when they enter the REM phase, for example, causes stress and other problems that can confound any memory tests.
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