Science Scoops


The Sound of Music. . .in Your Head!

Ever hear music in your head? You’re not weird. It’s a natural function of your brain.

So say a group of Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) researchers who recently published a study on this phenomenon in the journal Nature. The team used a magnetic brain scanner — using what’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — to measure brain activity while test subjects listened to music. David Kraemer, a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, and his team of researchers found that if people are listening to some familiar music that stops every now and then, the subjects can call upon memories to fill in the gaps.

“We found that people couldn’t help continuing the song in their heads,” Kraemer says, “and when they did this, the auditory cortex remained active even though the music had stopped.” The findings suggest that the brain’s auditory cortex, the part that handles information from your ears, can hold on to musical memories. Of the experiment, Kraemer’s colleague, William Kelley, says “It’s fascinating that although the ear isn’t actually hearing the song, the brain is perceptually hearing it.” The findings are enough to make Kraemer ponder whether lyrics, in fact, might be the focus of our memories.

So, maybe if you don’t want to forget something, you ought to write and sing a song about it!

Got Acne?

Well, that’s good! That’s if you believe a recent British study by Bruna Galobardes (Department of Social Medicine at the University of Bristol) and her colleagues. The researchers claim that teenage boys who suffer from acne are one-third less likely to die from coronary heart disease than their acne-challenged peers.

The researchers reached that conclusion after looking at health data relating to 10,000 male students who attended Glasgow University between 1948 and 1968.

“We found that those who had acne were also less likely to smoke, but even when we ruled out this and other factors, we found a very strong correlation between acne in youth and coronary protection later in life,” Galobardes told New Scientist magazine.

What’s the link? Galobardes believes that the androgens responsible for bringing on acne may have a protective effect on the heart or somehow affect the processes involved in creating arterial plaques.

Alas, for every plus, there is a negative. While acne may prevent you from getting heart disease, the study results also showed “a 70 percent increase in prostate cancer risk.” Of course, none of this is conclusive. And it just goes to show you that health, unlike beauty, is more than skin deep.

Got Friends?

Speaking of longevity. Did you know that having close friends can prolong your life. Well, now you do!

Just ask Australian researcher Lynne Giles (Flinders University, Adelaide). She and her colleagues say that it’s friends, not family, who are the keys to happiness and a long life.

It’s long been known that having an active social life helps the elderly live longer, but no study considered whether it’s healthier to have contact with friends or family. Giles’s study, however, did just that.

Her research, based on a sample of 1,500 Australians over the age of 70, showed that those who had regular close personal or phone contact with five or more friends were 22 percent less likely to die in the decade following the start of the study than those who had reported fewer, more-distant friends. While the reasons are not clear, the presence or absence of family had no impact on their survival.

While other factors can be considered, Giles suggests that “friends are perhaps less likely to be a source of negative stress, which, for some older people, their children can be.”

Got Brain?

We all say it. When we think someone is smart, we say they have a big brain. But is there any validity to that statement?

Yes! In a new study conducted by Michael McDaniel, an industrial and organizational psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, bigger does equal smarter. “For all age and sex groups,” he says, “it is now very clear that brain volume and intelligence are related.”

McDaniel reached his conclusion after measuring the size and volume of 26 brains (imaged with high-tech instruments). He then used standard IQ tests to measure the intelligence of the owners of these brains.

But do IQ tests really reveal intelligence? McDaniel believes that they do, and there are other studies to back up that contention.

One study last year, for example, found that IQ is related to the amount and distribution of gray matter in the brain. (The brain has two primary kinds of tissue, namely gray and white matter: Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, while white matter represents the network or connections between those processing centers.) The study concluded that abundant gray matter in certain locations was strongly correlated with high IQ. The distribution of gray matter in the brain, which is different for different people, could, for instance, explain why one person with a high IQ is good in math but poor in spelling, while someone else with the same IQ has just the opposite ability.

Yet another recent study found that women have more gray matter relative to white matter than men! However, the study also showed that in the areas of the brain specifically related to intelligence, men had much more gray matter, which is typically needed for focused tasks, such as doing a math problem. Women, on the other hand, had much more white matter, which is necessary for integrating information. The point is, intelligence can be derived in different ways.

What is the bottom line? “On average,” McDaniel says, “smarter people learn more quickly, make fewer errors, and are more productive.” He believes in the use of IQ tests to screen job applicants. So, be well, do good work, and. . .exercise that brain!

Stressing Your Mom Isn’t Good for Her Health!

Some mothers age faster than other mothers, according to research conducted at the University of California at San Francisco. What makes the difference? Mothers who care for severely disabled children experience much greater stress than do mothers without such responsibilities.

When the researchers examined the mothers’ DNA, they found that the stressed-out moms had much shorter telomeres than the nonstressed moms. Telomeres are pieces of DNA found at the very ends of chromosomes that are necessary for the proper functioning of cells. As cells age, their telomeres get shorter and shorter and eventually die when they become too short. (See “The Telltale Tails of Telomeres,”).

Since the stressed-out moms had much-shorter-than-normal telomeres, they appeared to be aging much faster than normal moms. The research could not determine whether the moms’ lives were shortened, but all the same, you really should think twice the next time you start to do something that drives your mom crazy!

This Is Your Brain. . .on Smoke

Think it’s cool to smoke? Don’t answer right away, but give it some thought. Then again, if you’re a smoker, maybe you can’t.

You see, evidence is weighing in that smoking not only damages your health but also reduces your IQ. Just ask Lawrence Whalley, a Scottish psychiatrist at the University of Aberdeen, and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. That’s what they concluded after recently examining 465 people who had taken part in the 1947 Scottish Mental Survey at age 11.

About half of the participants became smokers, so the researchers wanted to see how their mental states had changed, and whether any changes were related to their smoking habits. As reported in Science News, the smokers performed significantly worse in five different IQ tests than did both former smokers and those who had never smoked.

A link between impaired lung function and reduced brain power has long been suspected, although no one knows how one affects the other. It’s possible that smoking reduces the oxygen supply to the body’s vital organs, including the brain, stressing them out. In essence, smoking may kill brain cells!

So, you see, you’d have to be stupid not to kick the habit.

British Teens Are Sick!

Now, if that last scoop didn’t make you sick, this one might: A recent report published by the British Medical Association (BMA) says that, if left unchecked, the present generation of children and teenagers in Britain will turn into the most obese and infertile adults in the history of humankind!

Wow! Talk about kids under pressure!

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, says, "Young people in Britain are increasingly likely to be overweight, indulge in binge drinking, have a sexually transmitted infection, and suffer mental health problems." Can you believe it? Is the situation really that dire?

Well, the report claims that one in 10 teenage girls age 16 to 19 has the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia, which can make women infertile. A quarter of 15- and 16-year-olds smoke. At least one in five 13- to 16-year-olds is overweight or obese. And 11 percent of 11- to 15-year-olds had used drugs in the month previous to the study.

Such behavior, Nathanson said, posed an extraordinary threat to an entire generation." (Hmmm, this does sound a bit more significant than a creepy-crawly shower curtain?!)

Again, what to do?

The report calls on government departments and agencies to work together to find solutions. It calls for more education on sex, drugs, alcohol, diet, and exercise in schools and in the community through awareness campaigns and parental guidance. But do you think thatÆs enough? Should the government play the role of a parent? What do you think will help teens in Britain get out of this statistical quagmire? Send your thoughts to "Under Pressure," ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

It’s Curtains for Killers!

One of the most suspenseful, if not terrifying, clips in motion-picture history is the now famous "shower" scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1960 blockbuster sensation, Psycho.

Okay, just in case you don’t like old movies or had to leave the planet for a few years, the scene involves someone taking a shower, a shiny knife, and a lot of screeching violins. The fact is, once you’ve seen Psycho, you probably won’t ever feel safe taking a shower again.

Now biologist Norman Pace (University of Colorado), has made shower-taking even more creepy. Never mind knife-wielding psychos. Beware, he says, of killer shower curtains!

No, he’s not out of it. You see, shower curtains can be a breeding ground for deadly disease. Billions of organisms can build up on a single vinyl curtain. Every time the shower is turned on, the water hitting the curtain throws up clouds of bacteria that can easily enter the lungs and open wounds on the body.

"Soap scum," Pace says, is the breeding ground for microorganisms that can be hazardous to people with weak immune systems.

Wash your shower curtain every day, Pace told the American Association for the Advancement of Science during a recent meeting in Seattle. If that doesn’t sound too likely, better yet, get a glass door for the shower. Then again, if you consider yourself a healthy human, you just might want to worry about something else.

How Do You Spell Relief?

How about m-a-g-g-o-t-s! That’s what some National Health Service patients might be saying in England.

As we reported in our "Medical Maggots" Science Scoop (September 2003), a Dutch physician has discovered that sterile maggots (placed in a porous-material holder the size of a tea bag) could be used to clean traumatic wounds and would, in some cases, preclude the need for amputation. British doctors were quick to respond to the news; some now prescribe maggots for patients with infected wounds.

And you know what? The research results have been confirmed! Tests at Princess of Wales Hospital showed that placing sterile maggots on wounds could make them heal faster than if they were treated with conventional medicine. Maggots not only digest dead tissue, but they also destroy bacteria.

Funny, had you lived a few centuries ago, you wouldn’t have even shrugged at the idea. That’s because before the days of antibiotics, maggots were the medicine of choice to rid wounds of decaying flesh.

Doctors today are now rediscovering the past. They’re also admitting that prescribing sterile maggots is cheaper than prescribing antibiotics. Patients can pick up their maggot prescription at the pharmacy and treat themselves at home. They just have to be careful not to confuse the maggot packs with tea bags. Eeee-ewe!

Obesity Blues

Are you antisocial, anxious, dependent, or depressed? How about headstrong, hyperactive, or withdrawn? If so, you’d better check your weight.

A new study by pediatrician Julie Lumeng (University of Michigan) and her colleagues suggests that children who are overweight are twice as likely to have behavioral problems as those who don’t.

Lumeng and fellow researchers reached this conclusion after collecting data on 755 children, age 8 to 11, whose parents had completed a questionnaire that asked about their child’s behavior.

Now, be careful how you interpret Lumeng’s findings. The study does not say that all overweight children have behavior problems. In fact, most don’t. The findings do, however, show that behavioral problems seem to be one cause of obesity (extreme overweight). It also warns that normal-weight children who have significant behavior problems are five times more likely to become overweight over the following two years.

Lumeng doesn’t know why behavior problems lead to obesity. What she does know is that the mind and body are so interrelated that you cannot ignore a child’s mental health. "If we as a country are trying to stem the tide of obesity in children," she says, "we really have to look at the root of what is triggering children’s behavior to lead to obesity."

"The critical message of our day," adds David Katz, an associate clinical professor of public health at Yale University, "is that all children are at increasing risk of obesity. Currently, nearly 80 percent of adults are overweight, and the rates of childhood obesity are rising rapidly."

Baby Fat

If you found the previous scoop a bit, well, depressing. . .(Okay, now get your hand out of that Doritos bag!). . .wait until you read this next one!

You’ve all seen it. You’ve all heard it. Your mother or father is pinching the cheek of a chubby toddler and saying something like, "Awe, it’s just baby fat!"

Well, that saying may no longer be so cute, because baby fat just isn’t as cute as it used to be. In fact, The New York Times has declared childhood obesity an epidemic. What’s more, as of 2003, pediatricians have alerted us that children are developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and setting themselves up for future diabetes!

Indeed, many American children are developing the same bad eating habits that plague the nation’s adults – namely, having too much fat, sugar, and salt and too few fruits and vegetables in their diet. But here’s the real shocker: These bad eating habits are appearing even before a child’s second birthday!

Find that news hard to swallow? Well, get this: Gerber Products Co. (a baby food maker) recently researched the eating habits of more than 3,000 youngsters and found that many infants and toddlers are downing French fries, pizza, candy, and soda. [Burp!] Up to a third of the children under 2 consumed no fruits or vegetables. And for those who did have a vegetable, French fries were the most common selection for children 15 months and older.

According to Gerber’s Feeding Infants & Toddlers Study (FITS), a child 1 to 2 years of age needs about 950 calories per day to stay healthy. But kids in this age group today are consuming 1,220 calories per day; that’s an excess of nearly 30 percent. Children less than a year old had a daily caloric surplus of about 20 percent.

Jodie Shield, a Chicago-area dietitian, has this warning for parents: "Your children are watching you; they see what you do." She also says that we are on "a very dangerous course" if parents don’t "step up to the plate" and be role models.

Obesity Gene Found!

Weight watchers take note. A team of scientists from Britain and France have identified an abnormal gene that stimulates hunger. The discovery is hailed as extremely important because researchers may soon use it to help understand how to prevent and treat obesity.

The newly discovered gene, called GAD2, speeds up the production of a chemical that transmits nerve impulses in the brain. That neurotransmitter, known as GABA, interacts with another molecule in the brain’s hypothalamus — which, in part, regulates the critical processes (like eating) necessary for maintaining life. People with the abnormal gene (GAD2) build up abnormal quantities of GABA, so they are significantly more likely to experience high levels of hunger and an inability to control their eating.

Philippe Froguel (Imperial College and Hammersmith Hospital of London), who led the research while working at the Institut Pasteur de Lille in Lille Cedex, France, cautions, however, that "genetic factors alone cannot explain the rapid rise in obesity rates in the world, but they may provide clues to preventative and therapeutic (having or exhibiting healing powers) approaches that will ease the health burden associated with obesity." According to the World Health Organization, obesity is a global problem — about 300 million people around the world are overweight.

Taking a Bite Out of Life

In case you’re wondering, there’s probably a good reason why, when you look a relative in the eyes, your thoughts are not about eating him or her.

Don’t laugh: Cannibalism still prevails in some parts of the world. And in years past the practice has led to some pretty ugly diseases. John Collinge (University College in London, England) specifically cites the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who consumed deceased relatives at mortuary feasts until cannibalism was banned in the 1950s. As a result of their practice, the Fore were devastated by a brain-destroying disease (known as kuru) between 1920 and 1950.

The Fore were not alone. "Other evidence of prehistoric cannibalism,"’ Collinge says, "includes cuts and burn marks on Neanderthal bones and biochemical analysis of fossilized human feces" (see the November 1998 "Science Scoops").

But there’s good news: Collinge and his fellow researchers have now found compelling evidence that, over time, the human body has begun to counteract the ill effects of cannibalism.

The culprit behind the brain-destroying diseases related to cannibalism, Collinge says, is a prion — an abnormal protein gene that’s missing nucleic acid. Prions cause proteins to clump in the brain, where they convert the normal cell proteins to the prion form. When the prions completely clog the infected brain cells, the cells misfire, work poorly, or don’t work at all. Ultimately, the infected prion-bloated brain cells die and release prions into the tissue. The disease, it turns out, can be spread by eating flesh contaminated with prions.

Interestingly, when Collinge studied 30 women who had participated in the Fore mortuary feasts, he found that 23 of them had a gene mutation protecting them against kuru. These protective genes, called polymorphisms, are mutant versions of the prion protein gene. Cannibalism, which could have spread the diseases, also increased pressure on the human body to develop genes that would protect it from the ill effects of cannibalism.

Wordhelp: Nucleic acid — Complex molecule found in all cells. There are two types of nucleic acids, deoxyribononucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). It controls many activities of cells, including division, growth, and energy production.

Medical Maggots

If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the thought of medieval doctors using leeches to bleed patients, cover your eyes fast — because doctors may soon be using maggots to treat stubborn wounds that refuse to heal!

Troublesome wounds often leave doctors with no choice but to amputate part or all of a limb. But thanks to a Dutch physician’s discovery, doctors around the world may soon have a last option. G.N. Jukema (Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands) found that sterile maggots placed on a traumatic wound helped clean the area and, in some cases, prevented amputation.

You see, maggots digest dead tissue and destroy bacteria. When maggots are placed on an open wound, they secrete proteins that break down dead tissue fragments, creating a soup that the maggots ingest. Maggots also release substances that help protect the injured skin from becoming re-infected, and their crawling on the wound may also encourage the growth of new tissue. To date, Jukema has used maggot surgery to treat 11 patients; nine of them recovered fully, while the other two died of other causes.

There is one problem, though. . .some of Jukema’s patients complained that they could feel the maggots biting and crawling across their wounds. Crrringe! But if the maggots are placed in a porous material the size of a tea bag, the problem is solved. Jukema believes that maggots could also be used to treat burns — which may be the best tool of persuasion of all for moms who warn their kids about never playing with matches! (Or would it be?)

Tasteless Surgery

Surgeons in Austria have performed the world’s first successful human tongue transplant. The 14-hour operation was carried out at Vienna’s General Hospital on a 42-year-old man who had a malignant tumor in his mouth, which meant his tongue had to be removed.

Until now, tongue transplant surgery has only been carried out in animals. The difficulty with tongue transplants is that the mouth, because of the food we eat, is not a sterile environment, so there is a high risk of infection. During the surgery, the nerves of the donor tongue were hooked up to the nerves stumps left in the recipient’s mouth.

As reported in New Scientist magazine, Rolf Ewers, who lead the surgery team, says he hopes that with his new tongue the patient should be able to talk and eat as normal. However, his sense of taste is unlikely to be restored. Ewers says he hopes the operation will become more routine over the next few years.

Cat Allergies: A Thing of the Past?

Professor Xiangzhong (Jerry) Yang (University of Connecticut) recently made the news by being the first person to clone a mammal in the United States – Amy the calf. Now Yang is itching to get started on a new project: creating a cat that won’t give pet owners allergies.

The idea for an allergy-free cat sprang up from his research into using "therapeutic cloning" to develop cures for human ailments like Parkinson’s disease or diabetes. But the reason he got involved with cats was that he and his family are all highly allergic and his son suffered miserably one day after being with a cat-owning baby-sitter. The fact is millions of Americans suffer allergic reactions to their pet cats. According to Dr. David Avner, founder of the Transgenic Animal Research facility, where Yang works, some 15 percent of the U. S. population is allergic to pets, with cat allergies being twice as common as dog allergies.

The problem is an allergen protein secreted by glands in the cat’s skin. Yang plans to remove the gene that produces the allergin protein and replace them with genes that do not cause a problem in humans. Yang, who is opposed to human cloning, says the genetically altered cats could be available for sale by the year 2003. How much would you pay for such a cat? Well, Yang plans on selling the allergen-free feline for $750 to $1,000 each.

A "Chip" Off the Ol’ Block

A new study is trying to link parents with their children — in a most bizarre way. For instance, are you one of those kids who will grab a giant-size bag of chips and gobble them up every time you’re sad? Well, that gluttonous behavior might have come from Mom or Dad!

At least that’s what Veronique Provencher (Laval University, Quebec) and her colleagues believe. In essence, their research proves that a family that eats together may grow thin or chubby together. If you’re prone to feeling hungry earlier than your friends, that’s probably because you grew up with parents or siblings who had the same tendency. The findings are based on interviews with 308 men and 424 women from 202 families. Provencher and her team also noted how overweight each person was, and asked about certain eating behaviors. The researchers found that the tendency of a family to adopt the same eating behavior likely influences whether children grow up to overeat in response to stress, as well as how quickly they become hungry as adults.

"We have to keep in mind the possible familial influence on eating behaviors," Provencher says. Some of these eating behaviors may leave certain families more prone to obesity than others. Understanding how an individual’s family ate while they were growing up may help health workers keep that individual at a healthy weight today. So, the next time you pick up that monstrous bag of chips, think of how you might be carrying on a long tradition. . .that you can and should break!

Chubby Children . . . Tubby Teens

Okay, drop that Big Mac right now, and just let that hot fudge sundae melt (well . . . maybe that’s a little extreme), and listen up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and guess what? It found that the number of overweight children and teens nearly doubled over the past two decades. The initial results for 1999 show 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight, up from 11 percent in a previous survey conducted from 1988 to 1994. The number of overweight teens, ages 12 to 19, increased from 11 to 14 percent in the same time period.

"Overweight children are at risk for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and other serious health problems," says Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "They are part of an epidemic of overweight and obesity that must be addressed so that they can lead healthier lives. This survey provides the critical information we need on overweight, diet, and physical activity to help develop the strategies for healthier children and families."

Does Having Boys or Girls Run in the Family?

Let’s say you are a girl who comes from a family of all girls. Does that mean that you too have a high probability of bringing a girl into the world? No. In fact, statistical theory suggests otherwise. According to Chance magazine (published by the American Statistical Association), there is no compelling evidence to suggest that family history plays a role in whether a family has male or female children.

The fact is, statistically, around one eighth of all four-child families are expected to be all-male or all-female under a chance model. And it’s possible, statistically, for families of up to ten children to be all of the same sex. There is no evidence that having boys (or girls) has either genetic or shared environmental sources of influence.

Does Music Build the Brain?

Got an ear for music? Take "note": your brain may be swelling. Recent studies of how music affects the brain has shown that musicians who started training at an early age may have more gray matter than non-musicians. That’s the latest word according to neurologist Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues, who compared the brains of 15 male professional musicians to a group of non-musicians. The researchers found that the musicians’ brains had more gray matter (volume) than those of the non-musicians.

Alas, more work needs to be done for the researchers to be certain of their results. Why? Simple, Schlaug says, "an alternative explanation may be that these musicians were born with these differences, which may draw them toward their musical gifts."

Dying to Get Your Tongue Pierced?

Well, think again, and here’s why: A young woman in Connecticut got her tongue pierced. A couple of days later her tongue became sore and swollen. She also complained of a foul-tasting discharge from the pierced region. The young woman removed the stud from her tongue and the infection healed a few days later.

But, wait . . . that was just the beginning. A month later, she suffered severe headaches, fever, nausea, and vomiting. The young woman was taken to Yale University hospital, where a head scan revealed that she had a brain abscess — a localized collection of pus — which physicians had to drain! The young woman recovered after six weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatment.

As reported in New Scientist magazine, Richard Martinello of Yale’s medical school said that "this sort of brain abscess is very serious," theorizing that the blood carried enough bacteria from the tongue infection to cause the brain abscess. Although infections from body piercings are relatively common, this is the first brain abscess linked to any piercing. The tongue is particularly vulnerable to infections, Martinello explains, because the mouth is warm, moist, and full of bacteria.

Hmm . . . so does this mean that a decision to get your tongue pierced would be a no-brainer?

Evil E. coli – Not for Long?

Imagine you’re a bacterium. How many "genes" do you own? Well, scientists have just discovered that if you’re of the stomach-churning strain of bacteria known as E. coli 0157:H7, you’ve got 1,400 more genes than your harmless E. coli cousins. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is!

You see, E. coli 0157:H7 can cause deadly food-borne illness. In fact, E. coli infects about 73,000 Americans each year, usually through undercooked contaminated ground beef. For example, you eat a steak and the next thing you know you’re hospitalized with severe stomach poisoning, which could lead to death! That’s not good. The deadly bacteria is also found in unpasteurized milk and juices, water, and even fruits and vegetables that have been exposed to the "evil strain" of E. coli through fertilizers.

But researchers now believe that the bacterium’s killer potential can be traced to some of those extra genes. By mapping the full genetic sequence of the deadly strain, researchers are learning how to stop the "bug" before it reaches humans. Thank Dr. Nicole T. Perna (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and her colleagues for discovering the genetic difference between harmless and killer E. coli strains.

The strain mapped by Perna’s team causes severe cramping and diarrhea. In some people, particularly young children and the elderly, the infection can lead to potentially deadly complications. Perna says that her team hopes to develop a vaccine for both humans and animals that will prevent the bacteria from building an evil empire in our bodies.

The Famous "Fat"inating Pizza Puzzle

Pizza lovers should know that chemists have been working hard to create what we’ve all been waiting for — a greasy, stringy, oozing mozzarella that’s good for you.

Actually, most pizzas don’t contain a lot of fat, except for the cheese. But, if you take that fat out or reduce it, pizza just isn’t the same. Low-fat mozzarella just doesn’t melt like "real" cheese, and to us serious pizza eaters, that just isn’t acceptable. So Cornell University chemists in Ithaca, New York, came to the rescue. They set their scientific goals high to see if they could make low-fat and fat-free mozzarella cheese melt and cook more like the real thing.

Michael Rudan (who, by the way, received his doctorate for this work) and colleagues studied the "meltability of mozzarella." First, they tossed some regular and low-fat cheese on a plate and baked it. The regular cheese melted into a puddle; the low-fat cheese scorched and had to be scraped off afterwards. They then moved on to the next all-important and daring step . . . melting the cheeses on the pizzas themselves. This was an important step, Rudan says, because there has been very little research into how pizza cheese melts and fuses together to make the perfect topping. Finally, after scrutinizing the melt dynamics of various cheeses, Rudan and has colleagues devised a model of the melting and associated browning (you know, the kind you see in pizza bubbles).

What they found was "fat"inating: Cheese with more fat melts better. Wow! But wait! They also learned that shredded low-fat mozzarella cheeses heat up to a grainy texture – the individual pieces forming protective skins that prevent them from melting together into that stringy mass we all love to have ooze down our chins. And that cheesy chin-action is a must! So, what to do?

The (probably by now hungry) researchers solved the problem by coating the low-fat mozzarella shreds with Pam cooking spray. And it worked . . . sort of. The cheese melted, browned, and formed large blisters, while neither burning nor getting chunky. Alas . . . the researchers admit that they don’t know exactly how much oil went on each cheese shred: Pam is made of other things such as grain alcohol and "natural flavors." They concluded that adding some oil clearly helps to make fat-free cheese taste and look better, without adding extra calories. In fact, the cooking spray adds an insignificant amount of extra fat. "We had twelve or so people taste the pizza afterwards," Rudan said. And napkins for some messy chins were in order.

Feel Sick? Smell Your Breath!

Here’s another reason to brush your teeth: A sniff of your breath can reveal if you’re sick. In fact, our breath can tell us if we are going to be sick up to a week before the symptoms appear!

That’s right, "ladies and germs." Thanks to the scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (who sniffed out this fact accidentally), we may soon have a device that can analyze our breath to see if we are sick. You see, our breath normally contains a tiny amount of nitric oxide gas — a mere five parts per billion. So detecting that level of nitric oxide tells us that we are okay. Robert Lad (University of Maine) discovered, however, that higher amounts of that gas in our breath sends up a red flag, signaling that we are sick.

Robert Lad and his collaborator, Richard Riker (Maine Medical Center), studied hospital patients suffering from a wide variety of infections and found nitric oxide levels around 50 parts per billion (10 times the normal level). He also studied schoolchildren and found that when their nitric oxide levels were elevated, they fell ill a few days later.

With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Lad’s team has developed a hand-held nitric oxide sensor that is sensitive enough to detect the gas at these levels. The team hopes the breathalyzer will help doctors decide if people are going to be well enough over the following few days to work. Aha! Won’t moms and teachers love this new tool!

Frozen Waist Land

Researchers in Southampton, England, and Chicago, Illinois, say that if you were born during a particularly cold winter, chances are that you will end up getting fatter as you get older. Aside from diet and genetics — which can either pump you up or plump you up — the environment might also have an effect on how fetuses develop.

It’s true, claim doctors David Phillips (University of Southampton) and James Young (Northwestern University). They and their colleagues examined 1,750 men and women for obesity. All their test subjects had been born in Hertfordshire, England, between 1920 and 1930, and all had lived there all their lives. To measure obesity, the researchers calculated each subject’s Body-Mass Index by dividing each person’s weight in kilograms by the square of his height in meters. (Obese people have a larger BMI.) The researchers found that there was a marked increase in BMI among men born in cold winters. The BMI difference was not as pronounced in women.

"We don’t properly understand why it occurs," Phillips admits, but the effect appears to be real.

Oh, well, just another head-scratcher for you. Meanwhile, if you have a brother born during a cold winter snap, you know what to get him for his next birthday — a gift certificate to the nearest health club.

Killer Fat

Like to eat? Like to eat a lot of different kinds of food? Of course! Variety is the spice of life, right? Well, according to researchers at the 11th European Congress on Obesity, which was recently held in Vienna, Austria, eating lots of different foods may lead to obesity.

After chewing the fat for a few days, the scientists learned several things. First, by eating a lot of different foods, we prevent our taste buds from getting tired of the same food. Is that bad? Yes. Apparently that means we’ll be more likely to overeat.

If you find that fact hard to swallow, there is supporting evidence. In reviewing 39 dietary studies, scientists from the University of Buffalo in New York found that people offered different choices in multicourse meals ate 44 percent more than those who ate the same food for each course.

The fact is, the researchers say, that about 30 to 40 percent of all cancer cases stem from excessive weight. By combating obesity in childhood, they say it’s possible to prevent up to four million cancer cases a year worldwide. Obesity, which can also cause heart disease and diabetes, leads to 300,000 deaths annually in the United States, second only to the 400,000 deaths caused by smoking.

Fine. Then let’s start eating the same food regularly. How about pizza three times a day?

Mom’s Cold Remedy!

What’s the age-old remedy for a cold? You’ve guessed it, chicken soup. Until recently, no one really studied why that homemade broth is good for the cold and the soul. But Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska Medical Center has found why chicken soup really does help.

Cold symptoms such as a runny nose and cough are thought to be caused by immune cells called neutrophils flooding into infected areas. The neutrophils kill germs but cause inflammation in the process. But chicken soup, Rennard says, helps to reduce inflammation in the nose, throat, and lungs by countering the immune cells that cause the inflammation. Now get this . . . for his tests, Rennard used his wife’s recipe that includes onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, seasoning, and, of course, chicken!

"There is no shortage of medicinally active compounds, such as vitamins, in these ingredients," Rennard says. Alas, he has some "fowl" news . . . he doesn’t know exactly which compounds in the soup affected the neutrophils. Hmmm. Maybe he’s acting a bit like mom — holding back the secret recipe until his wife markets it under her own label.

Musical Surgery

Whenever we see an operating room on TV, it is usually full of scary sounds – like beeping monitors, tinkling surgical tools, and mumbling doctors. Well, a recent study by Swedish researchers might change all that. They found that patients who hear relaxing music while under anesthesia have less pain and discomfort after surgery.

In their study, Ulrica Nilsson (Orebro Medical Center Hospital in Sweden) and her colleagues report that patients who listened to relaxing music and sounds of ocean waves while undergoing surgery experienced less pain, needed less pain medication, and were able to sit up sooner after their operation than patients who did not listen to music. They were also less likely to feel tired when they went home from the hospital.

Apparently, the brains of patients under anesthesia remain more aware of what happens during surgery than previously thought. Patients may overhear the remarks of doctors and nurses, which could lead to anxiety and dissatisfaction after surgery. (Hey, where did that scalpel go?) The findings need to be confirmed in additional studies, but in the meantime, the word for operating room doctors and nurses is . . . Hush!

Now, THAT’S a Stretch!

You know how important it is to stretch before you do anything physically strenuous? Of course you do. Heck, everyone knows that stretching your muscles before exercise helps lengthen and relax them, which can help prevent injury. Not so, says a team of Australian researchers. In fact, they have advised the country’s army to stop stretching.

What’s scary is that the researchers aren’t pulling our legs (get it?). Army physiotherapist Rod Pope, together with a team of researchers at the University of Sydney and Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia, monitored more than 2,600 army recruits over a year to see if stretching helped them before exercise. As a control, the researchers had some of the recruits stretch particular leg muscles before exercise; the other test subjects did not. The researchers found no differences in injury rates between the two groups. Their conclusion: Stop stretching, because it doesn’t prevent injury. Pope believes that we have simply assumed it does, but no one has ever properly researched the subject before. Hmmm. Before you show this scoop to your Phys Ed teacher (who’d get a good chuckle), read on . . .

Although Pope recommends that Australian army recruits stop stretching, he then goes on to urge them to stretch their tight muscles, which could restrict the normal range of movement. Now, let me get this straight (get it?): Stretching does not prevent injury but it does help muscles perform better. Hey, isn’t that why we stretch in the first place — because our muscles feel tight? Pope also suspects that stretching after exercise could be beneficial.

So what’s going on here? Stretch but don’t stretch? Ah, never mind. Perhaps someone should stretch the gray matter between his ears. So, keep on . . . stretching!

Party Poison

Hey, summer’s just around the corner. Looking forward to those backyard cookouts? Well, the next time your folks throw together a dinner party or backyard social event, post this Scoop nearby: Dinner parties, barbecues, and other social functions are the most common cause of domestic food poisoning!

At least they are in the United Kingdom. Researchers at the U.K.’s Public Health Laboratory analyzed food poisoning reports filed between 1992 and 1999 and found that food served at social functions accounted for 88 percent of the reported cases of domestic food poisoning. The larger the group, the greater the chance of someone experiencing food-related illness. Chicken entries and foods containing raw eggs were the leading source of tummy troubles. The culprit? Salmonella bacteria.

It seems that many hosts are not used to preparing food for large numbers of people. They tend to undercook meat, poultry, and dishes containing raw eggs, and find it difficult to keep large amounts of food fresh. Poor food storage caused 39 percent of the reported cases in this study, and undercooking caused 31 percent of the illnesses.

And don’t forget those utensils! Cross-contamination caused 20 percent of the illnesses, which occurred when someone used the same knife, platter, or table surface for both uncooked and cooked meats. So, next time you’re at a barbecue, watch the cook closely and insist upon your burger being "well done, please."

Piercing Trouble

Looking for trouble? Well, look in the mirror. Do you see a young man or woman with an eye, lip, nose or other body part pierced? If so, you might have found what you were looking for.

You see, according to a new study by pediatrician Timothy Roberts (University of Rochester in New York), anyone who has pierced something other than an ear tends to have smoked, used alcohol, had sex, skipped school or gotten into fights. In other words, body piercing might lead to risky behavior. Roberts arrived at this conclusion after studying information on nearly 4,600 teens aged 12-19 taken in a U.S. government survey in 1995 and 1996.

"Females (with body piercings) were about 2-1/2 times more likely to have had sex, 2-1/2 times more likely to have smoked, 2-1/2 times as likely to have used marijuana in the past month, and almost two times as likely to have skipped school in the last year," said Roberts. (Boys with piercings were five times as likely to have skipped school in the past year, and had similarly higher risks for smoking and drinking as girls).

Body piercing is just like hairstyle, cosmetics, and jewelry, Roberts told a New Scientist reporter in a telephone interview, explaining that they are "things an adolescent uses to project an image of himself or herself to the world. They can give you a lot of clues about how an adolescent sees himself." To a teen, Roberts continues, body piercing signals rebellion. Of course, body piercing does not guarantee that a child is misbehaving but it could be a warning flag.

Poor Abe!

Ever feel sad, slightly on edge, or depressed? Well, maybe you’ll feel better knowing that these same symptoms of melancholy were experienced by the 16th president of the United States. Yup, Honest Abe Lincoln suffered through bouts of depression.

You see, before Lincoln took his oath of office, he suffered from insomnia and depression. Tim Townsend, a historian for the National Park Service at the Lincoln home in Springfield, IL, says, "People were concerned about him when he went into these bouts, but then he would come out [of them] the joking, laughing, storytelling Lincoln that they knew. It was the kind of thing that came and went."

To help him sleep and feel better, doctors prescribed a little blue pill called "blue mass." After taking these pills, Lincoln suddenly become short-tempered and irritable. Aware of these side effects, Lincoln stopped taking the pills a few months after he became president.

Good thing. Norbert Hirschhorn, a retired physician and medical historian, says that "blue mass" contained enough mercury to kill a man. The ingredients included 750 micrograms of mercury, an amount well beyond what’s considered safefor human consumption. Hirschhorn argues that Lincoln’s fits of temper were likely due to the mercury in the pills. Indeed, once Lincoln stopped taking the pills, his behavior returned to normal.

Depression is a serious disorder for which millions of people seek help each year. It strikes young and old alike, and anyone can be susceptible — even a President. The good news is that depression can be successfully treated with modern medicines. So, if you’re ever feeling down be sure to talk with a parent or friend who can help.

Schizophrenia Linked to Mother’s Lack of Sunlight

You’ve got to love science reporting. Take this news item, for instance. A recent study has shown that your chances of developing schizophrenia depend on how sunny it was months before you were even born.

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disease. People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms such as hearing internal voices, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them.

Now evidence is piling up to support a new theory that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy, caused by a lack of sunlight, can alter the development of a child’s brain in the womb. The claim is controversial, but there are some facts to back up the hypothesis.

People who develop schizophrenia in Europe and North America are more likely to be born in the spring. They are roughly four times as likely to be born to Afro-Caribbean immigrants living in England as they are to parents of other ethnic origins living in the same areas. The body needs sunlight to make vitamin D, and people with darker skin need more than paler-skinned people.

Now John McGrath (Queensland Center for Schizophrenia Research, Australia) and neurobiologist Alan Mackay-Sim (Griffith University in Queensland) have discovered that, just like humans with schizophrenia, adult rats deprived of vitamin D from conception are more startled than normal by a loud noise preceded by a soft noise. McGrath says that the rat studies clearly show that too little vitamin D "does something nasty to the brain." Then again, if you were a rat in a lab, wouldn’t you be a little jumpy?

Science Can’t Yet Explain Near-Death Experiences

Some people who survive life-threatening accidents report having a "near-death" experience. The experience often involves visions of a light or a deceased relative, flashbacks of life events, or an "out-of-body" sensation. While no one is sure exactly what they are or why they occur, Dr. Pim van Lommel (Hospital Rijnstate in Arnhem, The Netherlands), who studied these occurrences, says that science alone cannot account for them.

In past studies, researchers have developed a number of explanations for near-death experiences. Some believe that brain cells dying from a lack of oxygen help trigger the episodes, while others point to psychological factors — such as fear of death.

The problem with their approach, van Lommel argues, is that the researchers typically asked survivors to recount the events long after the experience occurred. Van Lommel tried to overcome this problem by interviewing cardiac-arrest survivors within days of being resuscitated and again two and eight years later. In his initial interviews, 62 of 344 survivors (18 percent) reported near-death experiences. All 344 had been clinically dead, meaning that they were unconscious due to a cutoff of blood and oxygen to the brain.

The looming question is why only a small percentage of patients would have a near-death experience. If "purely physiological factors" like a deprival of oxygen to the brain were at play, van Lommel notes, most of the study patients should have had such an experience. As is often the case, more research is needed to discover the truth. But there’s one thing of which the scientists can be certain — there will be no subjects eager to participate in this study.

Screaming Rubber

Quick! What’s one of the largest sources of noise on our highways? Believe it or not, according to scientists at Purdue University, it’s . . . tires! Yup. Vibrations resulting from tires rolling over asphalt cause the raucousness that (among other things) leaves commuters weary. If we want "quieter, gentler highways," we have to challenge engineers to create a quieter tire.

The problem is that not all sections of a tire vibrate the same way. This means that many sources of noise come from a single tire — not to mention the four or more tires per every vehicle. (How about all those 18-wheelers!) And there are millions upon millions of cars and trucks racing along our highways each day.

To solve the problem, Purdue researchers have designed a mathematical model that pinpoints the region of a tire from which each different vibration originates. In essence, they have made a road map of a tire’s sound profile. That done, the researchers now have to determine the noisiest areas of a tire.

When they accomplish that feat, well, then they’ll be "on the road" to creating a quieter tire.

Sick Americans

Since we’re talking about sickness, how about this report: A recent New England Journal of Medicine reveals that 80 percent of Americans feel ill each month and nearly a third of them consider seeking medical care. Twenty-two percent end up visiting a doctor.

Dr. Larry Green (Robert Graham Center in Washington) found that for every 1,000 men, women and children in the United States, 800 felt sick each month, 327 considered going to a doctor, 217 made it to a doctor’s office, 21 went to a hospital outpatient clinic, 13 went to a hospital emergency room, and 8 were hospitalized.

When Green and his colleagues compared these results with a those from a similar survey conducted in 1961, the researchers concluded that little has changed little in 40 years.

Siesta Fiesta!

Studying hard? Homework got you down? Feeling burned out? Well, take a snooze! That’s right. According to Harvard neurologist Sara Mednick and her colleagues, taking an afternoon nap can reverse "burnout" from information overload and improve your mental and physical learning.

The scientists came to this conclusion after conducting a few simple mental exercises. In one experiment, for instance, they asked trained subjects to look at a computer screen and report the direction of colored bars superimposed on other lines. What the researchers discovered is that as the day wore on, the subjects’ performances progressively worsened. Whenever the subjects were given a 30-minute nap, however, their performance levels stopped deteriorating. And a one-hour snooze restored the test subjects to their peak performance.

In another experiment, "fatigued" subjects were given a new task to perform, but one that required using a different part of the brain. The subjects’ performances were suddenly elevated as they worked on this new task. The results prompted the team to theorize that a particular set of neural connections in the brain can become saturated, and that situation (not general fatigue), can cause a decline in performance. In other words, the brain needs some "down time" to allow the data already there to be committed to memory. A nap, the researchers say, allows recently learned information to be processed and readies the mind for new knowledge.

So, got a test in the morning? Well, get a good night’s sleep. And though it may be beneficial, try not to nap between questions.

Sock Odor Skunked

Who will ever forget the aroma of a school’s locker room — that pungent, knock-you-in-the nose "perfume" of body odor mixed with sweaty socks? Well, get ready, because this scoop aims to knock your socks off.

Thanks to odorless sports socks — an invention by textile chemist Gand Sung (University of California, Davis) — locker rooms and other confined public workout areas could soon be on their way to smelling a little more pleasant.

You see, perspiration by itself has little smell. Sock odor comes from the bacteria and yeasts in clothing that break down perspiration. Because textiles make great hosts for growing bacteria, Sun set off to find a way to eliminate the microbes. By attaching chlorine-containing molecules (called halamines) to sock fibers, he learned that he could create a bacteria-killing fabric!

Sun assures us his special socks work. In fact, he tested them on his own feet for several days and could detect no obvious odors. After use, Sun’s socks need only a machine wash with household chlorine bleach to recharge the bacteria-killing fabric. The invention could also be used to make everything from odor-free diapers to hospital gowns that repel bacteria and viruses. One question remains: What do you call an odorless sock? Send your suggestions to Sock It to Me, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.


The next time your parents say, "Eat your broccoli!" you might want to listen, especially if its a hybrid called super-broccoli — a cross between ordinary broccoli and a scrawny Sicilian relative. According to a report in New Scientist, that healthy new breed of crunchy greens contains 10 times as much sulphoraphane as regular broccoli. Sulphoraphane is a substance that helps to combat cancer-causing substances that get in the gut.

Here’s how it works. When you chomp down on the broccoli and swallow it, sulphoraphane is released into the stomach, which steps up production of some powerful enzymes that can destroy cancer-causing substances in food, such as those found in heavily barbecued meat. Hey? Haven’t you ever had "beef and broccoli" at a Chinese restaurant? Now you know why that’s such a good combo. Gary Williamson (Institute of Food Research) headed the team that developed the super-broccoli, and he assures us that it will look and taste the same as ordinary broccoli. (Is that good?) But time will tell.

Trials are due to begin soon in human volunteers, who will eat either super-broccoli or ordinary broccoli. Williamson’s "gut" feeling about these trials is that the super-broccoli group will show increased concentrations of the helpful enzymes.

Surveying Sleep

Tired? Feeling sleepy all the time? Is schoolwork keeping you up late? Well, join the club. The latest Sleep Census survey shows that Americans aren’t getting the sleep they need.

Sleep Census 2000, sponsored by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories and supported by a recent Yankelovich Partners poll, showed that Americans are losing 5.8 hours of sleep per week — resulting in a weekly National Sleep Debt of approximately 1,183,101,400 hours!

Here are some eye-opening results from Sleep Census 2000:

62 percent of the Americans polled said that they have difficulty sleeping.
83 percent responded that they lose at least one hour of sleep per week.
90 percent believe that getting better sleep would improve their lives.
70 percent said that they have felt drowsy while driving

What to do? The answer is simple: Go to bed earlier and get more sleep!

. . . "Told You So!"

Well, since we’re on this morbid subject of skin cancer, I thought I’d toss in another factoid. Not only is skin cancer the most common cause of death by cancer among people ages 20 ­ 25 years old, but the number of deaths due to skin cancer has risen by about 50 percent in all age groups over the past 15 years. How do you avoid this disease? Well, guess what? All you have to do is use sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 15, wear a hat and sunglasses, and avoid sunbathing between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun is strongest. If you think you simply must be tanned, try the "spray on" kind.

When Your Brain is in Your Stomach

Cold got you down? Feeling nauseated? Are you sick of feeling sick? Well, don’t fret, because scientists are working hard at trying to get to the stem of the problem. And surprise, surprise — recent research has shown that any time you feel "sick to your stomach," it’s your brain stem that’s at fault.

That’s right, brain research conducted at the Department of Neuroscience at Ohio State University has shown that when your immune system gears up to fight foreign bodies, like bacteria and viruses, it releases a chemical with the ugly name of tumor necrosis factor (TNF). And when TNF is found in the brain stem, it appears to "talk" to the nerve cells there that are responsible for controlling digestion. Once the conversation is over, the neurons act to slow the movement of food in the digestive system. This interruption of digestive processes may cause the feeling of nausea when you are sick.

You Just Can’t Threaten Sun Worshipers

How many times have you heard that staying in the sun too long will lead to skin cancer? Well, 14 percent of 1,000 British people surveyed by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund said they would rather burn than learn. You see, they hold a firm belief that a suntan makes them look healthy and attractive. When told that sun tanning can lead to premature aging, they don’t seem to care, saying that they’re willing to risk wrinkles later in life for that bronzed glow now.

Charlotte Proby, a dermatologist at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, is concerned about "how desperate some people are for a tan." The fact is, Proby says, a suntan is not healthy. "It shows that the skin is being damaged by too much sunlight and is trying to protect itself. Sun-seeking behavior and inadequate sun protection increase the risk of the skin being sunburned, and this damage will increase the risk of developing skin cancer," she says.

According to the England-based New Scientist magazine, "Despite increased awareness about the dangers of skin cancer, which strikes 44,000 Britons each year and kills about 2,000, a quarter of 15 ­ 24 year-olds use only a low-protection-factor sunscreen and 14 percent admitted using no protection at all against the sun’s harmful rays."