Could coffee be the secret to fighting obesity?

Scientists from the University of Nottingham have discovered that drinking a cup of coffee can stimulate ‘brown fat’, the body’s own fat-fighting defenses, which could be the key to tackling obesity and diabetes.

The pioneering study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, is one of the first to be carried out in humans to find components which could have a direct effect on ‘brown fat’ functions, an important part of the human body which plays a key role in how quickly we can burn calories as energy.

Brown adipose tissue (BAT), also known as brown fat, is one of two types of fat found in humans and other mammals. Initially only attributed to babies and hibernating mammals, it was discovered in recent years that adults can have brown fat too. Its main function is to generate body heat by burning calories (opposed to white fat, which is a result of storing excess calories).

People with a lower body mass index (BMI) therefore have a higher amount of brown fat.

Professor Michael Symonds, from the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham who co-directed the study said: “Brown fat works in a different way to other fat in your body and produces heat by burning sugar and fat, often in response to cold. Increasing its activity improves blood sugar control as well as improving blood lipid levels and the extra calories burnt help with weight loss. However, until now, no one has found an acceptable way to stimulate its activity in humans.

“This is the first study in humans to show that something like a cup of coffee can have a direct effect on our brown fat functions. The potential implications of our results are pretty big, as obesity is a major health concern for society and we also have a growing diabetes epidemic and brown fat could potentially be part of the solution in tackling them.”

The team started with a series of stem cell studies to see if caffeine would stimulate brown fat. Once they had found the right dose, they then moved on to humans to see if the results were similar.

The team used a thermal imaging technique, which they’d previously pioneered, to trace the body’s brown fat reserves. The non-invasive technique helps the team to locate brown fat and assess its capacity to produce heat.

“From our previous work, we knew that brown fat is mainly located in the neck region, so we were able to image someone straight after they had a drink to see if the brown fat got hotter,” said Professor Symonds.

“The results were positive and we now need to ascertain that caffeine as one of the ingredients in the coffee is acting as the stimulus or if there’s another component helping with the activation of brown fat. We are currently looking at caffeine supplements to test whether the effect is similar.

Once we have confirmed which component is responsible for this, it could potentially be used as part of a weight management regime or as part of glucose regulation programme to help prevent diabetes.”

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Materials provided by University of Nottingham. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

New therapy targets gut bacteria to prevent and reverse food allergies

A new study identifies the species of bacteria in the human infant gut that protect against food allergies, finding changes associated with the development of food allergies and an altered immune response.

Every three minutes, a food-related allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room in the U.S. Currently, the only way to prevent a reaction is for people with food allergies to completely avoid the food to which they are allergic. Researchers are actively seeking new treatments to prevent or reverse food allergies in patients. Recent insights about the microbiome — the complex ecosystem of microorganisms that live in the gut and other body sites — have suggested that an altered gut microbiome may play a pivotal role in the development of food allergies. A new study, led by investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital, identifies the species of bacteria in the human infant gut that protect against food allergies, finding changes associated with the development of food allergies and an altered immune response. In preclinical studies in a mouse model of food allergy, the team found that giving an enriched oral formulation of five or six species of bacteria found in the human gut protected against food allergies and reversed established disease by reinforcing tolerance of food allergens. The team’s results are published in Nature Medicine.

“This represents a sea change in our approach to therapeutics for food allergies,” said co-senior author Lynn Bry, MD, PhD, director of the Massachusetts Host-Microbiome Center at the Brigham. “We’ve identified the microbes that are associated with protection and ones that are associated with food allergies in patients. If we administer defined consortia representing the protective microbes as a therapeutic, not only can we prevent food allergies from happening, but we can reverse existing food allergies in preclinical models. With these microbes, we are resetting the immune system.”

The research team conducted studies in both humans and preclinical models to understand the key bacterial species involved in food allergies. The team repeatedly collected fecal samples every four to six months from 56 infants who developed food allergies, finding many differences when comparing their microbiota to 98 infants who did not develop food allergies. Fecal microbiota samples from infants with or without food allergies were transplanted into mice who were sensitized to eggs. Mice who received microbiota from healthy controls were more protected against egg allergy than those who received microbiota from the infants with food allergies.

Using computational approaches, researchers analyzed differences in the microbes of children with food allergies compared to those without in order to identify microbes associated with protection or food allergies in patients. The team tested to see if orally administering protective microbes to mice could prevent the development of food allergies. They developed two consortia of bacteria that were protective. Two separate consortia of five or six species of bacteria derived from the human gut that belong to species within the Clostridiales or the Bacteroidetes could suppress food allergies in the mouse model, fully protecting the mice and keeping them resistant to egg allergy. Giving other species of bacteria did not provide protection.

“It’s very complicated to look at all of the microbes in the gut and make sense of what they may be doing in food allergy, but by using computational approaches, we were able to narrow in on a specific group of microbes that are associated with a protective effect,” said co-first author Georg Gerber, MD, PhD, MPH, co-director of the Massachusetts Host-Microbiome Center and chief of the Division of Computational Pathology in the Department of Pathology at the Brigham. “Being able to drill down from hundreds of microbial species to just five or six or so has implications for therapeutics and, from a basic science perspective, means that we can start to figure out how these specific bacteria are conferring protection.”

To understand how the bacteria species might be influencing food allergy susceptibility, the team also looked at immunological changes, both in the human infants and in mice. They found that the Clostridiales and Bacteroidetes consortia targeted two important immunological pathways and stimulated specific regulatory T cells, a class of cells that modulate the immune system, changing their profile to promote tolerant responses instead of allergic responses. These effects were found both in the pre-clinical models and also found to occur in human infants.

The new approach represents a marked contrast to oral immunotherapy, a strategy that aims to increase the threshold for triggering an allergic reaction by giving an individual small but increasing amounts of a food allergen. Unlike this approach, the bacteriotherapy changes the immune system’s wiring in an allergen-independent fashion, with potential to broadly treat food allergies rather than desensitizing an individual to a specific allergen.

“When you can get down to a mechanistic understanding of what microbes, microbial products, and targets on the patient side are involved, not only are you doing great science, but it also opens up the opportunity for finding a better therapeutic and a better diagnostic approach to disease. With food allergies, this has given us a credible therapeutic that we can now take forward for patient care,” said Bry.

Bry and Gerber, along with senior author Talal Chatila, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, are founders and have equity in ConsortiaTX, a company that is developing a live human biotherapeutic product (CTX-944). (Co-senior author Rima Rachid, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, also has equity in the company.) ConsortiaTX is preparing for a Phase 1b trial in pediatric food allergy, followed by expansion into additional allergic diseases. ConsortiaTX has obtained an exclusive global license to the intellectual property related to the microbial discoveries published in the Nature Medicine paper.

Sense of wonderment may relieve the worry of waiting for uncertain news

An induced feeling of awe, or state of wonder, may be the best strategy yet for alleviating the discomfort that comes from uncertain waiting.

Kate Sweeny’s research explores the most excruciating form of waiting: the period during which one awaits uncertain news, the outcome of which is beyond one’s control. It’s waiting for news from a biopsy, or whether you aced — or tanked — the exam. That’s distinguished from waiting periods such as when looking for a new job, when you have at least some control over the outcome.

Her research has found some clues for alleviating those difficult periods. Meditation helps, as does engaging in “flow” activities — those that require complete focus, such as a video game.

“However, meditation is not for everyone, and it can be difficult to achieve a state of flow when worry is raging out of control,” Sweeny and her team assert in their latest related research, published recently in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Sweeny, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside, has discovered what may be the best strategy yet to alleviate the most uncomfortable purgatory of waiting. That is, awe, defined in the research as a state of wonder, a transportive mindset brought on by beautiful music, or a deeply affecting film.

The research drew from two studies, for a total of 729 participants. In the first test, participants took a faux intelligence assessment. In the second test, participants believed they were awaiting feedback on how other study participants perceived them.

In both cases, they watched one of three movies that inspired varying levels of awe. The first was an “awe induction” video, a high-definition video of a sunrise with instrumental music. The second was a positive control video meant to elicit happy feelings, but not awe. The video was of cute animal couples. The third was a neutral video. In this case, about how padlocks are made.

Researchers found that those exposed to the awe-induction video experienced significantly greater positive emotion and less anxiety during the period waiting for IQ test results and peer assessments.

“Our research shows that watching even a short video that makes you feel awe can make waiting easier, boosting positive emotions that can counteract stress in those moments,” Sweeny said.

Sweeny said the research can be used to devise strategies for maximizing positive emotion and minimizing anxiety during the most taxing periods of waiting. Because the concept of awe has only received recent attention in psychology, the research also is the first to stress its beneficial effects during stressful waiting periods, opening new opportunities for study.

“Now that we know we can make people feel better through brief awe experiences while they’re waiting in the lab, we can take this knowledge out into the real world to see if people feel less stressed when they watch “Planet Earth” or go to an observatory, for example, while they’re suffering through a difficult waiting period,” Sweeny said.

Mood neurons mature during adolescence

Researchers have discovered a mysterious group of neurons in the amygdala — a key center for emotional processing in the brain — that stay in an immature, prenatal developmental state throughout childhood. Most of these cells mature rapidly during adolescence, suggesting a key role in the brain’s emotional development, but some stay immature throughout life, suggesting new ideas about how the brain keeps its emotional responses flexible throughout life.

“Most brain cells have matured far beyond this stage by the time you are born,” said study lead author Shawn Sorrells, PhD, a former UCSF researcher who is now assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s fascinating that these are some of the very last cells to mature in the human brain, and most do so during puberty, precisely when huge developments in emotional intelligence are going on.”

The amygdala is an almond-shaped brain structure located deep in the brain’s temporal lobes (you actually have two, one on each side of the brain) that plays a key role in learning appropriate emotional responses to our environment. During childhood and adolescence — long after most of the rest of the human brain is finished growing — the amygdala continues to expand by as many as two million neurons, a late growth spurt that researchers believe is likely to play a key role in human emotional development, and which may go awry in neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, this expansion is absent in children with autism, and mood disorders that frequently emerge in adolescence, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have also been linked to problems with amygdala development.

Recent studies had detected a unique group of immature neurons in a region of the amygdala called the paralaminar nuclei (PL), which could help explain the amygdala’s rapid growth, but researchers had little idea where these cells came from or what role they play in mature brain circuits — even whether they are excitatory or inhibitory, the two main functional classes of neurons.

In the new study, published June 21, 2019, in Nature Communications, researchers from the lab of Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, the Heather and Melanie Muss Endowed Chair and Professor of Neurological Surgery and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF, set out to understand the identity of these cells and their role in the amygdala’s rapid growth during childhood.

The researchers examined postmortem human amygdala tissue from 49 human brains — ranging in age from 20 gestational weeks to 78 years of age. Using both anatomical and molecular techniques to classify individual neurons’ maturity and function within neural circults, they found that the percentage of immature cells in the PL region of the amygdala remains high throughout childhood, but declines rapidly during adolescence: from birth to age 13, the number of immature cells declines from approximately 90 percent to just under 70 percent, but by the end of adolescence, only about 20 percent of PL cells remain immature.

Based on quantification of neurons in different stages of development coupled with analysis of gene expression patterns in individual neurons extracted from PL, the researchers showed that as the immature cells disappear, they are replaced by mature excitatory neurons — suggesting that the cells have taken their place in the amygdala’s maturing emotion processing circuitry. Since this is the first time these neurons have been clearly studied, scientists don’t know exactly what function the neurons serve, but the timing of their maturation suggests they may play a role in the rapid emotional development that occurs during human adolescence.

“Anyone who’s met a teenager knows that they are going through a rapid and sometimes tumultuous process of emotional learning about how to respond to stress, how to form positive social bonds, and so on,” Sorrells said. “At the same time, adolescence is when many psychiatric disorders known to involve the amygdala first manifest, suggesting that perhaps something has gone wrong with the normal process of emotional and cognitive development — though whether these cells are involved is a matter for future study.”

Notably, the researchers also found that some immature neurons appear to remain in the amygdala throughout life, and were even found in one 77-year-old brain. These results were in stark contrast to the hippocampus — a nearby structure in which the authors recently found that newborn and immature neurons completely decline to undetectable levels by adolescence.

“This is consistent with what we have seen before: that immature neurons are vanishingly rare in the adult hippocampus, but they do appear to persist in the amygdala,” Alvarez-Buylla said. “As far as we can tell, these cells aren’t being born throughout life, but seem to be maintained in an immature state from birth, though we can’t say this for sure given the techniques we’ve used here.”

In other animals, such as mice, new neurons continue to be born throughout life in the memory-forming hippocampus — and possibly at low rates in the amygdala — which researchers believe allows the brain to continuously rewire neural circuits to adapt to new experiences and environments. Following on the authors’ 2018 study showing that the birth of new neurons declines in the human brain during childhood and is very rare or absent in adults, the new study suggests that the human brain may maintain reserves of immature neurons throughout life, using these “Peter Pan” cells in a similar manner to the neurogenesis seen in other species — as new cells to be called on as needed to keep the brain’s emotional responses flexible and adaptable into old age.

“You could imagine these immature cells let the brain continue to sculpt the structure of neural circuits and their growth once you are out in the world experiencing what it’s like,” Sorrells said. “Of course, that’s just speculation at this point — one of the fascinating questions these findings open up for future study.”

Neurogenesis

Whether new neurons are born in the adult primate or human brain remains controversial. In 2018, Alvarez-Buylla, Sorrells and colleagues published results of the most rigorous search yet for new neurons in the human hippocampus, and they found that the birth of new neurons declined rapidly in childhood and was undetectable in adults.

Subsequently, other groups published data that appears to show newborn neurons in the adult human hippocampus, but Alvarez-Buylla and colleagues believe these studies rely too strongly on a small number of molecular markers for newborn neurons. They have shown that these markers can also be found in fully mature neurons and in non-neuronal cells called glia — which are known to continue dividing throughout life.

“Identifying new neurons is technically very challenging,” Alvarez-Buylla said. “It’s easy to forget that the molecular markers we use to identify particular molecules are not produced for our benefit — cells are using these molecules for their own biological needs, which are always going to be messy from the perspective of someone looking for simple classification. This is why we have endeavored to examine as many lines of evidence as possible — not just molecular markers but also cells’ shape and appearance — to make sure we are confident in what types of cells we are actually looking at in these analyses.”

The new study in the amygdala uses comprehensive single-cell gene expression techniques to sensitively detect immature neurons based on multiple lines of molecular evidence, and reinforces the group’s earlier findings in the hippocampus — showing that the precursors that divide to give birth to new neurons disappear within the first two years of life in the human amygdala, and that most immature neurons disappear during adolescence.

“Single-cell sequencing not only clearly identifies these long-lived immature neurons, but also shows that they express many developmental genes involved in axon development, synaptogenesis, dendrite morphogenesis, and even neuronal migration,” Sorrells said. “These cells could be erroneously assumed to be newborn neurons, but based on our developmental perspective, and the fact that we see few dividing cells present nearby, it looks as though they are already present at birth and decline throughout life.”

Screams contain a ‘calling card’ for the vocalizer’s identity

Human screams convey a level of individual identity that may help explain their evolutionary origins, finds a study by scientists at Emory University.

PeerJ published the research, showing that listeners can correctly identify whether pairs of screams were produced by the same person or two different people — a critical prerequisite to individual recognition.

“Our findings add to our understanding of how screams are evolutionarily important,” says Harold Gouzoules, senior author of the paper and an Emory professor of psychology. “The ability to identify who is screaming is likely an adaptive mechanism. The idea is that you wouldn’t respond equally to just anyone’s scream. You would likely respond more urgently to a scream from your child, or from someone else important to you.”

Jonathan Engelberg is first author of the paper and Jay Schwartz is a co-author. They are both Emory PhD candidates in Gouzoules’ Bioacoustics Lab.

The ability to recognize individuals by distinctive cues or signals is essential to the organization of social behavior, the authors note, and humans are adept at making identity-related judgements based on speech — even when the speech is heavily altered. Less is known, however, about identity cues in nonlinguistic vocalizations, such as screams.

Gouzoules first began researching monkey screams in 1980, before becoming one of the few scientists studying human screams about 10 years ago.

“The origin of screams was likely to startle a predator and make it jump, perhaps allowing the prey a small chance to escape,” Gouzoules says. “That’s very different from calling out for help.”

He theorizes that as some species became more social, including monkeys and other primates, screams became a way to recruit help from relatives and friends when someone got into trouble. Previous research by Gouzoules and others suggests that non-human primates are able to identify whether a scream is coming from an individual that is important to them. Some researchers, however, have disputed the evidence, arguing that the chaotic and inconsistent nature of screams does not make them likely conduits for individual recognition.

Gouzoules wanted to test whether humans could determine if two fairly similar screams were made by the same person or a different person. His Bioacoustics Lab has amassed an impressive library of high-intensity, visceral sounds — from TV and movie performances to the screams of non-actors reacting to actual events on YouTube videos.

For the PeerJ paper, the lab ran experiments that included 104 participants. The participants listened to audio files of pairs of screams on a computer, without any visual cues for context. Each pair was presented two seconds apart and participants were asked to determine if the screams came from the same person or a different person.

In some trials, the two screams came from two different callers, but were matched by age, gender and the context of the scream. In other trials, the screams came from the same caller but were two different screams matched for context. And in a third trial, the stimulus pairs consisted of a scream and a slightly modified version of itself, to make it longer or shorter than the original.

For all three of the experiments, most of the participants were able to correctly judge most of the time whether the screams were from the same person or not.

“Our results provide empirical evidence that screams carry enough information for listeners to discriminate between different callers,” Gouzoules says. “Although screams may not be acoustically ideal for signaling a caller’s identity, natural selection appears to have adequately shaped them so they are good enough to do the job.”

The PeerJ paper is part of an extensive program of research into screams by Gouzoules. In previous work, his lab has found that listeners cannot distinguish acted screams from naturally occurring screams.

In upcoming papers, he is zeroing in on how people determine whether they are hearing a scream or some other vocalization and how they perceive the emotional context of a scream — judging whether it’s due to happiness, anger, fear or pain.

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Materials provided by Emory Health Sciences. Original written by Carol Clark. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Music students do better in school than non-musical peers

High school students who take music courses score significantly better on math, science and English exams than their non-musical peers, according to a new study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

School administrators needing to trim budgets often look first to music courses, because the general belief is that students who devote time to music rather than math, science and English, will underperform in those disciplines.

“Our research proved this belief wrong and found the more the students engage with music, the better they do in those subjects,” said UBC education professor and the study’s principal investigator, Peter Gouzouasis. “The students who learned to play a musical instrument in elementary and continued playing in high school not only score significantly higher, but were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills, as measured by their exam grades, regardless of their socioeconomic background, ethnicity, prior learning in mathematics and English, and gender.”

Gouzouasis and his team examined data from all students in public schools in British Columbia who finished Grade 12 between 2012¬ and 2015. The data sample, made up of more than 112,000 students, included those who completed at least one standardized exam for math, science and English, and for whom the researchers had appropriate demographic information — including gender, ethnicity, neighbourhood socioeconomic status, and prior learning in numeracy and literacy skills. Students who studied at least one instrumental music course in the regular curriculum counted as students taking music. Qualifying music courses are courses that require previous instrumental music experience and include concert band, conservatory piano, orchestra, jazz band, concert choir and vocal jazz.

The researchers found the predictive relationships between music education and academic achievement were more pronounced for those who took instrumental music rather than vocal music. The findings suggest skills learned in instrumental music transfer very broadly to the students’ learning in school.

“Learning to play a musical instrument and playing in an ensemble is very demanding,” said the study’s co-investigator Martin Guhn, an assistant professor in UBC’s school of population and public health. “A student has to learn to read music notation, develop eye-hand-mind coordination, develop keen listening skills, develop team skills for playing in an ensemble and develop discipline to practice. All those learning experiences, and more, play a role in enhancing the learner’s cognitive capacities, executive functions, motivation to learn in school, and self-efficacy.”

The researchers hope that their findings are brought to the attention of students, parents, teachers and administrative decision-makers in education, as many school districts over the years have emphasized numeracy and literacy at the cost of other areas of learning, particularly music.

“Often, resources for music education — including the hiring of trained, specialized music educators, and band and stringed instruments — are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools so that they could focus on math, science and English,” said Gouzouasis. “The irony is that music education — multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level — can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.”

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Materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

A solarium for hens? How to increase the vitamin D content of eggs

Many people suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. This can result in brittle bones and an increased risk of respiratory diseases. Chicken eggs are a natural source of vitamin D and one way to, at least partially, compensate for this deficiency. A team of nutritionists and agricultural scientists at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) has found a new way to further increase the vitamin D content of eggs: by exposing chickens to UV light. As the team writes in the scientific journal Poultry Science, the method can be put into practice in henhouses straight away.

Vitamin D assumes many important functions in the human body. During the summer months, people are able to cover about 90 percent of their daily vitamin D requirements themselves since it forms naturally in the skin through exposure to sunlight which containts special bands of light in the UV spectrum. The remainder is ideally consumed through food, such as oily fish or chicken eggs. “However, lifestyle choices prevent many people from getting enough vitamin D. The problem increases even more in the winter months when there is a lack of sunshine,” explains nutritionist Dr Julia Kühn from MLU.

The researchers were therefore looking for a way to increase the amount of vitamin D in food, in this case in eggs. “The idea was to stimulate the natural vitamin D production of chickens. Using UV lamps in the henhouses would increase the vitamin D content of the eggs,” says Kühn. In earlier studies, the researchers were able to prove the fundamental success of their approach when they illuminated the legs of the chickens with UV light. “However, the experiments were always conducted under ideal conditions. There was only one chicken per lamp. In chicken farms, there is a much higher stocking density than here, in other words: a lot more animals,” Kühn continues. The new study aimed to test the practical feasibility of the method and therefore was conducted on two chicken farms. Comparisons were made between two different chicken breeds, assorted lamps and different durations of light exposure per day.

The researchers not only continuously analysed the vitamin D content of the newly laid eggs during the trial period, they also investigated the impact the additional light had on the animals. “Humans cannot see UV light, but chickens can. Therefore, light regimes are a critical aspect in chicken husbandry because light influences behaviour and laying activity,” explains Professor Eberhard von Borell, an expert in animal husbandry at MLU. His working group analysed the behaviour of the animals using video recordings. The researchers also inspected the chickens’ plumage for injuries by other members in order to assess their potential for activity and aggression.

The research team’s idea worked: After only three weeks of UV light exposure for six hours per day, the vitamin D content of the eggs increased three to four-fold. This value did not increase any further in the following weeks. Also, the additional UV light did not cause any obvious problems for the hens. They neither avoided the area around the lamps, nor did they act any differently. As a result, the researchers conclude that their method also works under practical conditions and that this could represent an important step towards supplying the population with vitamin D.

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Materials provided by Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Seeing the doctor? Relax, you’ll remember more

Some patients feel shame, anxiety or fear immediately before seeing their doctor, making them tense. But if they can relax and become calm, patients will likely pay attention to and better comprehend health messages, suggests a new University of Michigan study.

Researchers tested whether increasing one’s positive self through meditation can lessen the patient’s negative feelings prior to getting the health information.

“An intense negative emotion can lead to a patient to focus on only one or two pieces of information and gloss over other important details from health messages,” said Koji Takahashi, a psychology graduate student and study’s lead author.

The findings came from four studies involving nearly 1,450 adults divided in groups. Some meditated or listened to audio that instructed breathing exercises and relaxation. Others simply listened to historical information.

After completing the listening task, all participants read information about flu, cancer, HIV, herpes and gonorrhea.

Participants who relaxed reported paying more attention to the health messages, the study showed. The meditation created a positive, low arousal affect, which enabled them to retain the information, said Allison Earl, assistant professor of psychology and study’s co-author.

“A negative affect drives attention away from unpleasant or threatening information,” she said.

This doesn’t mean you won’t be scared or embarrassed in the doctor’s office, “but you’ll be able to handle the information better by being in a calmer mood,” Earl said.

The researchers recommend that people use their time wisely in the waiting room by meditating or listening to calming music, not simply watching television or playing on their cell phones.

In addition, if patients do not believe they can relax, they might consider taking a family member or friend to the appointment to take notes during the doctor’s consultation, Takahashi said.

Researchers noted that this study only focused on adults receiving written health messages; the findings should not be extrapolated beyond this without further research.

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Performance-enhancing bacteria found in the microbiomes of elite athletes

New research has identified a type of bacteria found in the microbiomes of elite athletes that contributes to improved capacity for exercise. These bacteria, members of the genus Veillonella, are not found in the guts of sedentary people.

By taking a closer look at the bacteria, the researchers from Joslin Diabetes Center determined Veillonella metabolizes lactic acid produced by exercise and converts it into propionate, a short chain fatty acid. The human body then utilizes that propionate to improve exercise capacity. The results were reported today in Nature Medicine.

“Having increased exercise capacity is a strong predictor of overall health and protection against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and overall longevity,” says Aleksandar D. Kostic PhD, TITLE., a co-author on the paper. “What we envision is a probiotic supplement that people can take that will increase their ability to do meaningful exercise and therefore protect them against chronic diseases including diabetes.”

The work began in 2015 with fecal samples from Boston Marathon runners. Jonathan Scheiman, PhD, then a researcher in the lab of George Church, PhD, at Harvard Medical School, collected samples during a time span of one week before the Marathon to one week after the Marathon. He also collected samples from sedentary individuals. Dr. Scheiman then brought the samples to Dr. Kostic, who analyzed them to determine the species of bacteria in both cohorts.

“One of the things that immediately caught our attention was this single organism, Veillonella, that was clearly enriched in abundance immediately after the marathon in the runners. Veillonella is also at higher abundance in the marathon runners [in general] than it is in sedentary individuals.” says Dr. Kostic.

They confirmed the link to improved exercise capacity in mouse models, where they saw a marked increase in running ability after supplementation with Veillonella. Next, they wanted to figure out how it worked.

“As we dug into the details of Veillonella, what we found was that it is relatively unique in the human microbiome in that it uses lactate or lactic acid as its sole carbon source,” he says.

Lactic acid is produced by the muscles during strenuous exercise. The Veillonella bacteria are able to use this exercise by-product as their main food source.

“Our immediate hypothesis was that it worked as a metabolic sink to remove lactate from the system, the idea being that lactate build-up in the muscles creates fatigue,” he says. “But talking to people like Sarah Lessard, [a clinical researcher at Joslin] and other people in the exercise physiology field, apparently this idea that lactate build-up causes fatigue is not accepted to be true. So, it caused us to rethink the mechanism of how this is happening.”

Dr. Kostic and his team returned to the lab to figure out what could be causing the increase in exercise capacity. They ran a metagenomic analysis, meaning they tracked the genetics of all the organisms in the microbiome community, to determine what events were triggered by Veillonella’s metabolism of lactic acid. They noted that the enzymes associated with conversion of lactic acid into the short chain fatty acid propionate were at much higher abundance after exercise.

“Then the question was maybe it’s not removal of lactic acid, but the generation of propionate,” says Dr. Kostic. “We did some experiments to introduce propionate into mice [via enema] and test whether that was sufficient for this increased running ability phenotype. And it was.”

Dr. Kostic and his team plan to investigate the mechanisms of how propionate affects exercise capacity in a collaboration with Dr. Lessard.

Colonies of bacteria residing in our guts have a powerful impact on our health. Exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle meant to ward off diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Many people with metabolic disorders are not able to exercise at the level needed to see such benefits. Supplementing their microbiome using a probiotic capsule containing Veillonella could give them the boost they need for effective exercise. (Direct dosing with propionate pill would not work, as the short chain fatty acid would be broken down by digestive juices before it could take effect.) Dr. Scheiman has since spun this idea off into a company targeted at athletes.

“The microbiome is such a powerful metabolic engine,” says Dr. Kostic. This is one of the first studies to directly show a strong example of symbiosis between microbes and their human host.

“It’s very clear. It creates this positive feedback loop. The host is producing something that this particular microbe favors. Then in return, the microbe is creating something that benefits the host,” he says. “This is a really important example of how the microbiome has evolved ways to become this symbiotic presence in the human host.”

Play games with no latency

One of the most challenging issues for game players looks to be resolved soon with the introduction of a zero-latency gaming environment. A KAIST team developed a technology that helps game players maintain zero-latency performance. The new technology transforms the shapes of game design according to the amount of latency.

Latency in human-computer interactions is often caused by various factors related to the environment and performance of the devices, networks, and data processing. The term ‘lag’ is used to refer to any latency during gaming which impacts the user’s performance.

Professor Byungjoo Lee at the Graduate School of Culture Technology in collaboration with Aalto University in Finland presented a mathematical model for predicting players’ behavior by understanding the effects of latency on players. This cognitive model is capable of predicting the success rate of a user when there is latency in a ‘moving target selection’ task which requires button input in a time constrained situation.

The model predicts the players’ task success rate when latency is added to the gaming environment. Using these predicted success rates, the design elements of the game are geometrically modified to help players maintain similar success rates as they would achieve in a zero-latency environment. In fact, this research succeeded in modifying the pillar heights of the Flappy Bird game, allowing the players to maintain their gaming performance regardless of the added latency.

Professor Lee said, “This technique is unique in the sense that it does not interfere with a player’s gaming flow, unlike traditional methods which manipulate the game clock by the amount of latency. This study can be extended to various games such as reducing the size of obstacles in the latent computing environment.”

This research, in collaboration with Dr. Sunjun Kim from Aalto University and led by PhD candidate Injung Lee, was presented during the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems last month in Glasgow in the UK.

This research was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) (2017R1C1B2002101, 2018R1A5A7025409), and the Aalto University Seed Funding Granted to the GamerLab respectively.

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Materials provided by The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.