Of sommeliers and stomachs

From The Economist: Of sommeliers and stomachs.

Fine food sings on the palate, but pairing it with the right wine creates a chorus. Among those in the know, the plum, chocolate and spice flavours of Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Sangioveses best accentuate the rich flavours of red meats. Now, however, a group of researchers led by Joseph Kanner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has discovered that pairing red wines like these with red meat appears to be more than just a matter of taste. If the two mix in the stomach, compounds in the wine thwart the formation of harmful chemicals that are released when meat is digested. [continue]

Biblical text-writing may have poisoned monks

From discovery.com: Biblical Text-Writing May Have Poisoned Monks.

Medieval bones from six different Danish cemeteries reveal that monks who wrote Biblical texts and other religious materials may have been exposed to toxic mercury, which was used to formulate just one of their ink colors: red.

The study, which will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, also describes a previously undocumented disease, called FOS, which was like leprosy and caused skull lesions. Additionally, the researchers found that mercury-containing medicine had been administered to 79 percent of the interred individuals with leprosy and 35 percent with syphilis.

Since the monks, who were buried in the cloister walk of the Cistercian Abbey at Øm, did not have these diseases but contained mercury in their bones, scientists believe the monks were either contaminated while preparing and administering medicines, or while writing the artistic letters of incunabula, or pre-1500 A.D. books.[continue]

Coffee drinking not harmful and may help against heart disease

This is the best news I’ve heard today. From the CBC: Coffee drinking not harmful and may help against heart disease: study.

Drinking copious amounts of coffee is not harmful to your health, and particularly if you’re a woman, may actually protect you from heart disease, new research suggests.

Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid studied the effects of coffee consumption on 41, 736 men and 86, 214 women over 18-year and 24-year periods respectively. (…)

They discovered that women who drank two to three cups of caffeinated coffee per day had a 25 per cent lower risk of death from heart disease during the study’s followup period (1980 to 2004) than non-coffee drinkers. They also had an 18 per cent lower risk of dying from an illness other than cancer or heart disease during followup. [continue]

2,000-year-old seed set to bear fruit in three years

From the Jerusalem Post: 2,000-year-old seed set to bear fruit in three years.

A 2,000-year-old date seed discovered at Masada four decades ago may provide new cures to numerous ailments, Israeli scientists say, after making significant advances, against all odds, in producing fruit from the seed.

Having been germinated, astoundingly, by an Israeli team more than three years ago, and kept alive since, the "Judean date" sapling appears likely (but not certain) to yield a now-extinct species of date that was renowned in ancient times as a treatment for heart disease, chest problems, the spitting of blood, weakened memory and other medical conditions, possibly even symptoms of cancer and depression. [continue].

West Coast aboriginal community tests low-carb diet

From the CBC: West Coast aboriginal community tests low-carb diet.

A remote community off the north coast of Vancouver Island is the unlikely venue for an experiment that uses diet to try to improve the health of native communities.

Dr. Jay Wortman, a Métis, is working with aboriginal Canadians in Alert Bay on B.C.’s Cormorant Island in a bid to show a low-carbohydrate diet can mitigate health problems such as diabetes and obesity, which tend to be rampant in North American native communities.

Working for the University of B.C. faculty of medicine, Wortman is examining the theory that high-calorie Western foods are the root cause of those health problems. A CBC documentary on his study will be shown on Newsworld Tuesday evening at 10:00 p.m. (ET and PT).

Wortman, a diabetic himself, thinks the low-carb diet, dubbed "My Big Fat Diet," may benefit native people because they don’t metabolize carbohydrates well.

He set up a year-long study of the diet in Alert Bay, where 60 people agreed to live on a more traditional aboriginal diet of meat, seafood and non-starch vegetables such as cauliflower.[continue]

New hints seen that red wine may slow aging

From the New York Times, bless them: New Hints Seen That Red Wine May Slow Aging.

Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human lifespan, researchers say in a new report that is likely to give impetus to the rapidly growing search for longevity drugs.

The study is based on dosing mice with resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines. Some scientists are already taking resveratrol in capsule form, but others believe it is far too early to take the drug, especially using wine as its source, until there is better data on its safety and effectiveness. [continue]

Scientists test brain pacemakers for depression

From the Washington Post: Scientists test brain pacemakers for depression.

It’s a new frontier for psychiatric illness: Brain pacemakers that promise to act as antidepressants by changing how patients’ nerve circuitry fires.

Scientists already know the power of these devices to block the tremors of Parkinson’s disease and related illnesses; more than 40,000 such patients worldwide have the implants.

But psychiatric illnesses are much more complex and the new experiments with so-called deep brain stimulation, or DBS, are in their infancy. Only a few dozen patients with severe depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder so far have been treated in closely monitored studies.

Still, the early results are promising. Dramatic video shows one patient visibly brightening as doctors turn on her brain pacemaker and she says in surprise: "I’m starting to smile." And new reports this month show that some worst-case patients — whose depression wasn’t relieved by medication, psychotherapy, even controversial shock treatment — are finding lasting relief.

(This post used to link to a page on the Washington Post website. But alas: that page is no longer available.)

Comfort food, for monkeys

From the New York Times: Comfort Food, for Monkeys.

The ladies who lunch do not obsess about their weight in the rhesus monkey compound at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Food is freely available, and the high-status females do not pride themselves on passing it up. (…)

In fact, the dominant females ordinarily eat a little more than the subordinates. The lower status monkeys can get as much food as they want but seem to have less of a desire to eat, perhaps because of the higher level of stress hormones in their brain. The anxiety of constantly toadying to their social superiors seems to curb their appetite, researchers suspect, at least when their regular high-fiber, low-fat chow is on the menu.

But suppose you tempted them with the equivalent of chocolate and potato chips and ice cream? Mark Wilson, a neuroscientist at Emory University, and a team tried that experiment at Yerkes by [continue]

Older brain really may be a wiser brain

From the New York Times: Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain.

When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, "Progress in Brain Research."

Some brains do deteriorate with age. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, strikes 13 percent of Americans 65 and older. But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or a telephone number. Although that can be frustrating, it is often useful. [continue]

You walk wrong

From New York Magazine: You Walk Wrong.

Well, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you: You walk wrong.

Look, it’s not your fault. It’s your shoes. Shoes are bad. I don’t just mean stiletto heels, or cowboy boots, or tottering espadrilles, or any of the other fairly obvious foot-torture devices into which we wincingly jam our feet. I mean all shoes. Shoes hurt your feet. They change how you walk. In fact, your feet –your poor, tender, abused, ignored, maligned, misunderstood feet –are getting trounced in a war that’s been raging for roughly a thousand years: the battle of shoes versus feet.

Last year, researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, published a study titled "Shod Versus Unshod: The Emergence of Forefoot Pathology in Modern Humans?" in the podiatry journal The Foot. The study examined 180 modern humans from three different population groups (Sotho, Zulu, and European), comparing their feet to one another’s, as well as to the feet of 2,000-year-old skeletons. The researchers concluded that, prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet. [continue]

Parasite theory stirs a revolution

From The Boston Globe: His parasite theory stirs a revolution.

"What if I told you," Joel Weinstock said, "there were countries where the doctors had never seen hay fever?"

It is another piece of evidence, another "aha" moment in the global medical mystery that Weinstock — the chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts-New England Medical Center — has narrowed down to one chief suspect: the worms.

Weinstock, 59, specializes in studying why immunological diseases – everything from hay fever and asthma to diabetes and multiple sclerosis – are on the rise in developed countries but remain relatively uncommon in undeveloped countries. He believes these diseases, many of which were almost unheard of 100 years ago, are because of changes in our environment, a lack of exposure to something. And he thinks that something may be the worms. [continue]

More good news about booze

There I was waiting for the ferry when the Globe and Mail’s Social Studies section came along and brightened my day with this:

Drinking. Two large studies have found that although moderate drinking will not cure colds, it can help keep them at bay, reports The New York Times. One, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in 1993, looked at 391 adults and found that resistance to colds increased with moderate drinking, except in smokers.

I think I’ll go have a wee bit of grappa before bed.

The Mount Athos diet

Why settle for the Atkins diet when you can go for the Mount Athos diet instead? Yeah, just eat the way the monks do. From the Times Online: A foolproof anti-cancer diet… with just one or two drawbacks.

If you want to avoid cancer, live like a monk. That is the inescapable conclusion from research into one of the world’s most renowned monastic communities.

The austere regime of the 1,500 monks on Mount Athos, in northern Greece, begins with an hour’s pre-dawn prayers and is designed to protect their souls.

Their low-stress existence and simple diet (no meat, occasional fish, home-grown vegetables and fruit) may, however, also protect them from more worldly troubles.

The monks, who inhabit a peninsula from which women are banned, enjoy astonishingly low rates of cancer.

Since 1994, the monks have been regularly tested, and only 11 have developed prostate cancer, a rate less than one quarter of the international average. In one study, their rate of lung and bladder cancer was found to be zero.

Haris Aidonopoulos, a urologist at the University of Thessaloniki, said that the monks’ diet, which calls on them to avoid olive oil, dairy products and wine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, helped to explain the statistics. "What seems to be the key is a diet that alternates between olive oil and nonolive oil days, and plenty of plant proteins," he said. "It’s not only what we call the Mediterranean diet, but also eating the old-fashioned way. Small simple meals at regular intervals are very important." [continue]

Chocolate lowers blood pressure

From the BBC: Chocolate lowers blood pressure.

A mouthful of dark chocolate each day could reduce blood pressure, cutting the risk of stroke, research suggests.

Forty-four people with raised blood pressure were put into two groups. One ate six grams of dark chocolate daily, the other the same amount of white.

The first group saw blood pressure fall slightly, but the others saw no change, researchers wrote in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA). [continue]

African twig brushes offer all-day dental care

From Reuters: African twig brushes offer all-day dental care.

Brush your teeth every day, dentists say. In Africa, that can mean keeping your toothbrush in your mouth all day long.

Across the continent south of the Sahara, many people go about their daily business with a small stick or twig protruding from their mouth, which they chew or use to scrub their teeth.

Cut from wild trees and shrubs in the bush, this is the African toothbrush. Its users swear it is much more natural, effective — and cheaper — than the prettily packaged but pricey dental products on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets. [continue]

Fruity cocktails count as health food, study finds

What better news than this? From Reuters: Fruity cocktails count as health food, study finds.

A fruity cocktail may not only be fun to drink but may count as health food, U.S. and Thai researchers said on Thursday.

Adding ethanol — the type of alcohol found in rum, vodka, tequila and other spirits — boosted the antioxidant nutrients in strawberries and blackberries, the researchers found.

Any colored fruit might be made even more healthful with the addition of a splash of alcohol, they report in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

Dr. Korakot Chanjirakul and colleagues at Kasetsart University in Thailand and scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture stumbled upon their finding unexpectedly.

They were exploring ways to help keep strawberries fresh during storage. Treating the berries with alcohol increased in antioxidant capacity and free radical scavenging activity, they found. [continue]

Cocoa nutrient for ‘lethal ills’

From the Beeb: Cocoa nutrient for ‘lethal ills’.

A nutrient in cocoa called epicatechin appears to lower the risk of four common killer diseases, work suggests.

Among the Kuna people of Panama, who can drink up to 40 cups of cocoa per week, rates of stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are less than 10%.

The Kuna also appear to live longer than other Panama inhabitants and do not get dementia, a US scientist reports in Chemistry and Industry.

Experts stressed that genes and other lifestyle factors also play a part.

However, researcher Dr Norman Hollenberg, of Harvard Medical School, says the cocoa chemical would benefit other populations too, including the Western world, [continue]

Both wine and chocolate contain epicatechin. How much better can the news get?

Early man ‘couldn’t stomach milk’

From the Beeb: Early man ‘couldn’t stomach milk’.

A drink of milk was off the menu for Europeans until only a few thousand years ago, say researchers from London.

Analysis of Neolithic remains, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests no European adults could digest the drink at that time.

University College London scientists say that the rapid spread of a gene which lets us reap the benefits of milk shows evolution in action. [continue]

Nintendo surgeons more precise?

From Wired: Nintendo Surgeons More Precise?

If Dr. James Rosser Jr. had his way, every surgeon in America would have three indispensable tools on the operating room tray: a scalpel, sutures, and a video game controller.

Rosser looks like a football player and cracks jokes like a comic, but his job as a top surgeon and director of the Advanced Medical Technologies Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York is to find better ways to practice medicine. At the top of his list — video games. (…)

Surgeons who play video games three hours a week have 37 percent fewer errors and accomplish tasks 27 percent faster, he says [continue]

Electronic nurses

From physorg.com: Electronic nurses.

There is always plenty to do in a hospital, and more often than not, the staff is overworked. "This is where robots can be a real help," explains IAO scientist Thomas Schlegel, who is coordinating the new EU project IWARD. The abbreviation stands for ‘intelligent robot swarm for attendance, recognition, cleaning and delivery’. "These robots could take over a wide range of tasks: find the doctor, call the nurse, keep the sick-room clean, and show visitors the way. What is more, the mobile assistants can also tell when help is needed in a sick-room, for instance when a patient has suffered a fall. Then they can alert a nurse or an orderly."

Ten teams of researchers from Germany and seven other countries will collaborate on this project. They all met on Wednesday for the official project launch in Stuttgart. Over the next three years they plan to cooperate in developing a team of robots to support hospital staff. At the end of that period, the little fleet will be tested in hospitals. "What’s really new about these robots is their decentralized intelligence: Each one can act autonomously, but is also constantly in touch with its ‘colleagues’. This creates a swarm with abilities that far exceed those of each individual member," explains Schlegel. [continue]