Saturday, 30 April 2016

Processed food bad, natural food good? We’ve got it so wrong

The trend of demonising all processed food is misguided and will only doom attempts to persuade busy consumers to eat a balanced diet, says Anthony Warner via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Worsening depression 'link to dementia'

Increasing symptoms of depression in older age could indicate early signs of dementia, say scientists. via BBC News - Health Read More Here..

Friday, 29 April 2016

Let people most affected by gene editing write CRISPR rules

At a human gene editing summit in Paris today, scientists, ethicists and lawyers made the case for those affected by gene editing to call the shots via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Ebola virus does a total shutdown to hide before a fresh strike

Evidence that Ebola can lie dormant for over a year suggests that 17,000 survivors of the disease in West Africa could yet spread the virus to many others via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Statement on attacks on medical facilities and personnel in Syria

UNICEF and WHO urge all parties to the conflict to end all attacks on health facilities, personnel and ambulances and to allow the provision of health services to the many innocent civilians in desperate need. Thousands of lives are at stake. via WHO news Read More Here..

Muscular dystrophy is tragic, but patients aren’t always right

A US panel has rejected a new drug for muscular dystrophy. It was the right call, says Clare Wilson – it’s a myth that ground-breaking drugs are being kept from us via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

First US Zika death in Puerto Rico

The first known death in the US to the Zika virus is recorded in Puerto Rico where a 70-year-old has died, say health officials. via BBC News - Health Read More Here..

The teenager who can’t help speaking in a French accent

Scanning the brain of a boy who has foreign accent syndrome has revealed that we use the cerebellum, a primitive region of our brains, to plan speech via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Neurological Basis of Altruism

Altruistic behavior is often seen as a hallmark of civilized person. Defined as a selfless concern for the well-being of others, or action/behavior that benefits others at someone’s own expense, altruism was, for very long time, viewed from two opposite perspectives.

Some would argue that altruism is an integral part of human nature, something that is written in our genes. Others would say that altruism is a product of civilizing influence which start to appear in human society with the development of culture and/or religion. The question appears to be mostly philosophical rather than scientific, and indeed it was mostly discussed and analyzed in philosophical and theological circles. Surprisingly, more definitive answer to this question may come from neuroscience. Indeed, recent research findings provide convincing evidences that, to a certain degree, we are biologically programmed to be good and caring of each other.

Altruism is not an exclusive domain of human culture –animals are known to be altruistic. Animals fearlessly defend their youngsters, even when knowing that the offspring belong to other members of the species. Many researchers do not view parental behavior as real altruism, though. In a more convincing experiment, scientists were giving electric shocks to a rat each time when its neighbor was eating food. The neighbor eventually stopped eating! Should we view this as an example of higher level of intelligence and brain development? Neuroscience provides a remarkable answer to this question.

Altruism and charity

In their seminal work published in 2006, Moll and co-authors investigated the human brain activity using functional MRI when participants were making decisions on charitable donations with real money. Anonymous charitable activity is universally seen as an example of pure altruism since individuals donating money can hardly ever expect any benefits, favors or financial gains come back to them.

The main theme of this experiment was to construct a map of the neural pathways involved in the decisions based on self-interests or any kind of altruistic behavior. The participants were provided with the list of charitable organizations and their mission statements, and were asked to donate small amount of their sum to organizations of their own choice so that scientist could study their brain activities. But the experiment involved an additional unusual feature: the money that were not donated would be given to participant as his/her personal monetary reward. Thus, there was a conflict between decisions to donate or to oppose the cause.

Most of the participants made consistently costly decisions donating, on average, 40% of money. Participants also took longer time making costly decisions than non-costly, showing that such decision involves moral emotions in judgment. Activity in different regions of the brain was observed according to the decision of the participant, either involving self-interest or selfless decisions.

Midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA), dorsal striatum and ventral striatum were activated by both pure monetary rewards and decisions to donate. Donating to social causes activates two regions: VTA and striatum mesolimbic network. This suggests that both donation to societal causes and money earning activate anatomical system of reward reinforcements and expectancy.

The subgenual area (Brodmann’s area 25) was highly specific for decisions involving donations. This area plays an important role in social attachments. Unlike the midbrain VTA, this area was activated in situations where monetary rewards were not expected. The ventral striatum (with adjoining sepal’s region) was seen to be more active for donations rather than pure monetary rewards. The anterior prefrontal cortex was involved in decisions purely involving the benefits of others.

Leaving this anatomical description aside, what these findings demonstrate? The areas of brain that were lighting up during altruistic donations are actually the same ancient parts of the brain that are activated in response to food, sex and material gains. The results suggest that altruistic behavioral traits are hard-wired in the brain, and they are even pleasurable.

Altruism in the pre-frontal cortex

There are many areas in the brain that are responsible for decision making and reasoning. They include the amygdala, somatosensory cortex, anterior insula and prefrontal cortex. The combined effect of processes happening in these areas influences our altruistic behavior. Some areas are more important for decision making while others are involved in empathy, the sympathy for pain and feelings for others. But the most important area of them all was shown to be the prefrontal cortex.

Recent experiments have showed that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for behavioral changes and controlling impulses. In one study, researchers aimed to find out if certain areas of the prefrontal cortex might be involved in blocking the altruistic impulses.

The study participants were subjected to a noninvasive procedure called theta-burst Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). This procedure temporarily dampens activity in specific regions of the brain, thus allowing to observe what happens when a specific part of brain is not active.

Those participants in whom the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was dampened tended to be generous to people with higher income, i.e. those who wouldn’t be in much need of handouts. And in those participants in whom the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex was dampened, there was a tendency to be more generous towards everyone. The findings demonstrate once more that altruism is really encoded in our brain. By nature, we are very altruistic indeed.

Apart from answering the deeply philosophic question about our nature and morality, neuroscience appears to suggest potential new avenues for increasing empathy. This can have far reaching practical applications, particularly for treating people who have experienced desensitizing situations, such as war experience or a period of staying in prison. I won’t be surprised if one day we will have some pills aimed at modifying our character to the better.

References

Baumgartner, T., Knoch, D., Hotz, P., Eisenegger, C., & Fehr, E. (2011). Dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex orchestrate normative choice Nature Neuroscience, 14 (11), 1468-1474 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2933

Christov-Moore, L., & Iacoboni, M. (2016). Self-other resonance, its control and prosocial inclinations: Brain-behavior relationships Human Brain Mapping, 37 (4), 1544-1558 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.23119

Mathur, V., Harada, T., Lipke, T., & Chiao, J. (2010). Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation NeuroImage, 51 (4), 1468-1475 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.03.025

Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (42), 15623-15628 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0604475103

Post SG (2005). Altuism, happiness, and health: it’s good to be good. International journal of behavioral medicine, 12 (2), 66-77 PMID: 15901215

Image via HeatherPaque / Pixabay.

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Revealed: Google AI has access to huge haul of NHS patient data

A data-sharing agreement obtained by New Scientist shows that Google DeepMind's collaboration with the NHS goes far beyond what it has publicly announced via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Many Manly Men Avoid Needed Health Care

Gender stereotypes can have dangerous consequences, research suggests
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Some Smart Yet Easy Ways to Shield Yourself from Skin Cancer

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Coffee, Wine Good for Healthy Gut, Sodas May Be Bad

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Teen Birth Rate At Record Low in U.S.

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Mild Air Pollution of Concern in Pregnancy

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Two Genes May Raise Odds for Fraternal Twin Pregnancies

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Are People with Rosacea At Higher Risk for Alzheimer'S?

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Births of Triplets, Quadruplets on Decline in U.S.: Report

Improvements in infertility treatments led to fewer risky multiple births by 2014, experts say
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Got Unwanted Pills? Drug Take-Back Day Is April 30

National effort coordinates drop-off sites to keep prescriptions out of the hands of abusers

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Building Muscle Could Boost the Body's Most Important Muscle

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Equality watchdog says junior doctors' contract 'discriminatory'

Equality and Human Rights Commission says contract is potentially illegal

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Obesity in England continues to rise

Public health chiefs forecast 26 million obese adults by 2036

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Four in ten nurses threaten to quit London

They want new London mayor to stop crippling housing costs from pricing them out

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'Secret of youth' in ginger gene

Scientists say they have made a leap in knowing why some people retain their youthful looks while others age badly. via BBC News - Health Read More Here..

On The Pulse - April 2016

Signs that inequalities in health are lessening
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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Coma brain scans predict if a person will ever recover awareness

Detecting brain circuits that switch back and forth give a good indication of whether someone with brain damage is ever likely to recover full consciousness   via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Your choice of chocolate and contraceptive affect your gut bugs

The largest ever study of microbiomes reveals 69 factors that affect the bacteria that live in your gut, including diet and everyday medicines via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Short bursts of intense exercise 'as good' as endurance training

"Researchers have found that short bursts of intense exercise produce similar results to traditional longer-duration workouts," the Mail Online reports.

Researchers compared two types of exercise programme over a 12-week period with a control. The two programmes were:

  • a 10-minute "intense" workout, three times a week (referred to as Sprint Interval Training)
  • a 50-minute moderate intensity workout, once a week

At the end of the study, they found similar improvements in reliable fitness markers in both groups, such as the body's response to insulin, peak uptake of oxygen and the functioning of muscle cells. However, it is uncertain that the changes seen would have an effect on cardiovascular disease risk and outcomes in the long term.

The study was also quite small (just 25 young men), and the results ideally need verifying in a larger trial, including a study of wider population groups, such as women and different age groups. The study showed no effect on the men's weight or body mass index (BMI), and did not include information about any adverse effects or risks.

The message that your health may benefit from a 10-minute workout is welcome for anyone who struggles to find time to exercise. However, the researchers warn that very high-intensity exercise is not suitable for everyone.

There are also questions over its safety. Famously, in 2013, the broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr blamed high-intensity training for triggering his stroke.

If you think you are very unfit, it is probably best to build up your fitness gradually, rather than trying to go all-out straight away.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from McMaster University in Canada and was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and McMaster University.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Library of Science (PLOS) One on an open access basis, so it is free to read online.

The Mail Online's headline that you only need a "minute of exercise" is a bit disingenuous, as the intervals of high-intensity exercise were within a 10-minute session, which included a warm-up and warm-down, and was done three times a week. However, the full text of the story quickly makes that clear, and reports the study reasonably accurately.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a randomised controlled trial (RCT), which is a good way of finding out if a treatment works. Researchers wanted to know whether very short, high-intensity exercise could improve health measures as much as moderate-intensity exercise, when compared to a group who did a "no exercise" programme.

 

What did the research involve?

Researchers recruited 27 men (two later dropped out) who did little exercise and whose average age was 27. They matched them for similar age, BMI and peak oxygen uptake. They were then randomly assigned to either high-intensity sprint interval training (SIT), traditional moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT), or to a control group which was not given an exercise programme.

They carried out a number of tests on their cardiovascular and metabolic health at the start, during, then again after they finished the 12-week programme. They then compared results of the two exercise groups to the control group.

The tests included:

  • peak oxygen uptake (VO2 peak), measured through a mask worn while cycling on an exercise bike – high oxygen uptake shows the heart and lungs are working efficiently
  • insulin sensitivity index (CS1) measured by monitoring how quickly the body clears glucose from the blood, after it's been infused into a blood vessel – poor insulin sensitivity can lead to type 2 diabetes
  • muscle mitochondrial content, measured by taking a muscle biopsy – mitchondiral content gives an indication of how efficient the muscle is at using energy

Both exercise programmes were carried out using exercise bikes and included a two-minute warm-up and three-minute cool-down, cycling at low intensity. For the SIT programme, men cycled three 20-second bursts of "all out" effort, separated by periods of two minutes of low-intensity cycling, adding up to 10 minutes in total. For the MICT programme, they cycled for 45 minutes at approximately 70% of maximal heart rate, adding up to 50 minutes total.

 

What were the basic results?

Both exercise groups improved on the three tests, while the control group did not show much difference on any test.

Maximum oxygen uptake improved by about 19% for both exercise groups. Insulin sensitivity improved by 53% for men in the SIT programme and 34% for men in the MICT programme, while the measure of mitochondrial content in muscle cells rose 48% after the SIT programme and 27% after MICT.

None of the men showed much change in their weight or BMI, although body fat percentage decreased for men on either exercise programme.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said their study showed that a weekly exercise programme of 30 minutes, including three minutes of intense intermittent exercise, was as effective as 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, continuous training on three measures of cardiovascular and metabolic health.

"Considering that a large number of individuals do not meet the current physical activity recommendations, there is value in exploring the potential benefits of exercise strategies that involve reduced time commitment," they say. However, they warn that, "this type of exercise requires a very high level of motivation and is clearly not suited for everyone."

 

Conclusion

The idea that a 10-minute workout could have the same benefits as spending 45 minutes in the gym is tempting. The researchers found it may improve specific markers of health, in one group of young men.

However, this is a small study in a specific population, and we don't know whether it would have comparable effects in older people or women. Also, we don't know the long-term effects of this type of training programme on people's health.

Studies that look at the effects of an intervention, whether it's exercise, diet or medicine, on health measures such as insulin resistance and oxygen uptake, can only give us a short-term, partial picture. What we really want to know is whether an intervention will reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or of getting diabetes, or dying earlier. Unfortunately, that information can only come from very long-term studies, which are expensive.

One gap in the study is assessment of safety or negative effects of this type of exercise. High-intensity exercise has been linked in the media to the risk of stroke, especially after broadcaster Andrew Marr suffered a stroke shortly after completing an intense session of exercise.

This study doesn't report any adverse effects, nor does it address safety issues. It is probably too small and of too short a duration to be able to detect any. Ideally, some comparison of the risks of strokes or heart attacks with different types of exercise would be needed. However, this would require a large trial and with long enough duration to identify differences. 

There's no doubt that most of us need to do more exercise than we do, and that exercise has many health benefits. If you're concerned about the safety of a new exercise programme, it's best to talk to your doctor. You might need to start slowly and build up the amount and intensity of exercise you do, especially if you already have a medical condition. 

Government guidelines recommend that adults in the UK should do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, as well as exercise to strengthen muscles. Read more about health and fitness.

Links To The Headlines

Is a MINUTE of exercise all you need? Researchers find 60 seconds of hard work in the gym can be as beneficial as a 45 minute endurance session. Mail Online, April 28 2016

Links To Science

Gillen JA, Martin BJ, MacInnis MJ, et al. Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. PLOS One. Published online April 26 2016

via NHS Choices: Behind the headlines More READ

Gene therapy reverses sight loss

A genetic therapy improves the vision of some patients who would otherwise have gone blind. via BBC News - Health Read More Here..

Antibiotics apocalypse: Tales from fighters on the front line

Our hospitals could one day be brought to their knees by antibiotic-resistant superbugs – doctors and scientists are seeing the first glimpse of such a world via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Processed food bad, natural food good? We’ve got it so wrong

The trend of demonising all processed food is misguided and will only doom attempts to persuade busy consumers to eat a balanced diet, says Anthony Warner via New Scientist - Health Read More Here..

Gotta Minute? Get a Good Workout

Study found 60 seconds of intense exercise as effective as 45 minutes of moderate exertion

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Gotta Minute? Get a Good Workout

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The 7 Deadliest Emergency General Surgeries

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U.S. Health Report Card Finds Racial, Ethnic Disparities Persist

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Processed food bad, natural food good? We’ve got it so wrong

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Juniors’ contract concerns about far more than pay

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Use of total hip replacement inconsistent and unfair

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