Monday, December 6, 2010

DANISH RESEARCHERS FINALLY SOLVE THE OBESITY RIDDLE

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Researchers at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE), University of Copenhagen, can now unveil the results of the world's largest diet study: If you want to lose weight, you should maintain a diet that is high in proteins with more lean meat, low-fat dairy products and beans and fewer finely refined starch calories such as white bread and white rice. With this diet, you can also eat until you are full without counting calories and without gaining weight. Finally, the extensive study concludes that the official dietary recommendations are not sufficient for preventing obesity.

The large-scale random study called Diogenes has investigated the optimum diet composition for preventing and treating obesity. The study was conducted by eight European research centres and headed by Thomas Meinert Larsen, PhD, and Professor Arne Astrup, DrMedSc and Head of Department at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) and is funded by an EU grant of EUR 14.5 million.

The results were recently published in the distinguished New England Journal of Medicine and have already attracted considerable international attention.

The objective of the Diogenes study has been to compare the official dietary recommendations in Europe, including the Danish recommendations, with a diet based on the latest knowledge about the importance of proteins and carbohydrates for appetite regulation. A total of 772 European families participated, comprising 938 adult family members and 827 children. The overweight adults initially followed an 800 kcal/day diet for eight weeks, losing an average of 11 kg. They were then randomly assigned to one of five different low-fat diet types which they followed for six months in order to test which diet was most effective at preventing weight regain. Throughout the project, the families received expert guidance from dieticians and were asked to provide blood and urine samples.

The design comprised the following five diet types:

* A low-protein diet (13% of energy consumed) with a high glycemic index (GI)*
* A low-protein, low-GI diet
* A high-protein (25% of energy consumed), low-GI diet
* A high-protein, high-GI diet
* A control group which followed the current dietary recommendations without special instructions regarding glycemic index levels

A total of 938 overweight adults with a mean body mass index (BMI) of 34 kg/sq m were initially placed on an 800-kcal-per-day diet for eight weeks before the actual diet intervention was initiated. A total of 773 adult participants completed this initial weight-loss phase and were then randomly assigned to one of five different diet types, where 548 participants completed the six-month diet intervention (completion rate of 71%).

Fewer participants in the high-protein, low-GI groups dropped out of the project than in the low-protein, high-GI group (26.4% and 25.6%, respectively, vs. 37.4%; P = 0.02 and P = 0.01 for the two comparisons, respectively). The initial weight loss on the 800-kcal diet was an average of 11.0 kg.

The average weight regain among all participants was 0.5 kg, but among the participants who completed the study, those in the low-protein/high-GI group showed the poorest results with a significant weight gain of 1.67 kg. The weight regain was 0.93 kg less for participants on a high-protein diet than for those on a low-protein diet and 0.95 kg less in the groups on a low-GI diet compared to those on a high-GI diet.

The results of the children's study have been published in a separate article in the American medical journal Pediatrics. In the families, there were 827 children who only participated in the diet intervention. Thus, they were never required to go on a diet or count calories – they simply followed the same diet as their parents. Approx. 45% of the children in these families were overweight. The results of the children's study were remarkable: In the group of children who maintained a high-protein, low-GI diet the prevalence of overweight dropped spontaneously from approx. 46% to 39% – a decrease of approx. 15%.

The Diogenes study shows that the current dietary recommendations are not optimal for preventing weight gain among overweight people. A diet consisting of a slightly higher protein content and low-GI foods ad libitum appears to be easier to observe and has been documented to ensure that overweight people who have lost weight maintain their weight loss. Furthermore, the diet results in a spontaneous drop in the prevalence of overweight among their children.

(Photo: U. Copenhagen)

University of Copenhagen

BONN PHYSICISTS CREATE A 'SUPER-PHOTON'

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Physicists from the University of Bonn have developed a completely new source of light, a so-called Bose-Einstein condensate consisting of photons. Until recently, expert had thought this impossible. This method may potentially be suitable for designing novel light sources resembling lasers that work in the x-ray range. Among other applications, they might allow building more powerful computer chips. The scientists are reporting on their discovery in the upcoming issue of the journal Nature.

By cooling Rubidium atoms deeply and concentrating a sufficient number of them in a compact space, they suddenly become indistinguishable. They behave like a single huge "super particle." Physicists call this a Bose-Einstein condensate.

For "light particles," or photons, this should also work. Unfortunately, this idea faces a fundamental problem. When photons are "cooled down," they disappear. Until a few months ago, it seemed impossible to cool light while concentrating it at the same time. The Bonn physicists Jan Klärs, Julian Schmitt, Dr. Frank Vewinger, and Professor Dr. Martin Weitz have, however, succeeded in doing this – a minor sensation.

When the tungsten filament of a light bulb is heated, it starts glowing – first red, then yellow, and finally bluish. Thus, each color of the light can be assigned a "formation temperature." Blue light is warmer than red light, but tungsten glows differently than iron, for example. This is why physicists calibrate color temperature based on a theoretical model object, a so-called black body. If this body were heated to a temperature of 5,500 centigrade, it would have about the same color as sunlight at noon. In other words: noon light has a temperature of 5,500 degrees Celsius or not quite 5,800 Kelvin (the Kelvin scale does not know any negative values; instead, it starts at absolute zero or -273 centigrade; consequently, Kelvin values are always 273 degrees higher than the corresponding Celsius values).

When a black body is cooled down, it will at some point radiate no longer in the visible range; instead, it will only give off invisible infrared photons. At the same time, its radiation intensity will decrease. The number of photons becomes smaller as the temperature falls. This is what makes it so difficult to get the quantity of cool photons that is required for Bose-Einstein condensation to occur.

And yet, the Bonn researchers succeeded by using two highly reflective mirrors between which they kept bouncing a light beam back and forth. Between the reflective surfaces there were dissolved pigment molecules with which the photons collided periodically. In these collisions, the molecules 'swallowed' the photons and then 'spit' them out again. "During this process, the photons assumed the temperature of the fluid," explained Professor Weitz. "They cooled each other off to room temperature this way, and they did it without getting lost in the process."

The Bonn physicists then increased the quantity of photons between the mirrors by exciting the pigment solution using a laser. This allowed them to concentrate the cooled-off light particles so strongly that they condensed into a "super-photon."

This photonic Bose-Einstein condensate is a completely new source of light that has characteristics resembling lasers. But compared to lasers, they have a decisive advantage, "We are currently not capable of producing lasers that generate very short-wave light – i.e. in the UV or X-ray range," explained Jan Klärs. "With a photonic Bose-Einstein condensate this should, however, be possible."

This prospect should primarily please chip designers. They use laser light for etching logic circuits into their semiconductor materials. How fine these structures can be is limited by the wavelength of the light, among other factors. Long-wavelength lasers are less well suited to precision work than short-wavelength ones – it is as if you tried to sign a letter with a paintbrush.

X-ray radiation has a much shorter wavelength than visible light. In principle, X-ray lasers should thus allow applying much more complex circuits on the same silicon surface. This would allow creating a new generation of high-performance chips - and consequently, more powerful computers for end users. The process could also be useful in other applications such as spectroscopy or photovoltaics.

(Photo: (c) Jan Klaers, University of Bonn)

University of Bonn

STUDY FINDS THAT THE SAME FACE MAY LOOK MALE OR FEMALE

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Neuroscientists at MIT and Harvard have made the surprising discovery that the brain sees some faces as male when they appear in one area of a person's field of view, but female when they appear in a different location.

The findings challenge a longstanding tenet of neuroscience — that how the brain sees an object should not depend on where the object is located relative to the observer, says Arash Afraz, a postdoctoral associate at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research and lead author of a new paper on the work.

"It's the kind of thing you would not predict — that you would look at two identical faces and think they look different," says Afraz. He and two colleagues from Harvard, Patrick Cavanagh and Maryam Vaziri Pashkam, described their findings in the Nov. 24 online edition of the journal Current Biology.

In the real world, the brain's inconsistency in assigning gender to faces isn't noticeable, because there are so many other clues: hair and clothing, for example. But when people view computer-generated faces, stripped of all other gender-identifying features, a pattern of biases, based on location of the face, emerges.

The researchers showed subjects a random series of faces, ranging along a spectrum of very male to very female, and asked them to classify the faces by gender. For the more androgynous faces, subjects rated the same faces as male or female, depending on where they appeared.

Study participants were told to fix their gaze at the center of the screen, as faces were flashed elsewhere on the screen for 50 milliseconds each. Assuming that the subjects sat about 22 inches from the monitor, the faces appeared to be about three-quarters of an inch tall.

The patterns of male and female biases were different for different people. That is, some people judged androgynous faces as female every time they appeared in the upper right corner, while others judged faces in that same location as male. Subjects also showed biases when judging the age of faces, but the pattern for age bias was independent from the pattern for gender bias in each individual.

Afraz believes this inconsistency in identifying genders is due to a sampling bias, which can also be seen in statistical tools such as polls. For example, if you surveyed 1,000 Bostonians, asking if they were Democrats or Republicans, you would probably get a fairly accurate representation of these percentages in the city as a whole, because the sample size is so large. However, if you took a much smaller sample, perhaps five people who live across the street from you, you might get 100 percent Democrats, or 100 percent Republicans. "You wouldn't have any consistency, because your sample is too small," says Afraz.

He believes the same thing happens in the brain. In the visual cortex, where images are processed, cells are grouped by which part of the visual scene they analyze. Within each of those groups, there is probably a relatively small number of neurons devoted to interpreting gender of faces. The smaller the image, the fewer cells are activated, so cells that respond to female faces may dominate. In a different part of the visual cortex, cells that respond to male faces may dominate.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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