In 2005, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver convinced London’s Greenwich borough to let him remake their school-lunch system. Armed with some publicity, some private funding and some ideas about how school lunches should look, he began remaking the kitchens and training the cafeteria workers. Neat stunt, right? Tim Harford picks up the story:
What caught the attention of Michele Belot and Jonathan James, though, was the way Oliver’s project had been implemented. Belot and James – economists at Nuffield College, Oxford, and at the University of Essex respectively – noted that the campaign had created a near-perfect experiment. The chef had convinced Greenwich’s council and schools to change menus to fit his scheme; he mobilised resources, provided equipment and trained dinner ladies. Other London boroughs with similar demographics received none of these advantages – and indeed, because the programme wasn’t broadcast until after the project was well under way, probably knew little about it. The result was a credible pilot project. It wasn’t quite up to the gold standard of a randomised trial, but it wasn’t far off.
Thanks to the UK’s exhaustive school testing regime, Belot and James were able to track pupils’ performance in some detail. They concentrated on primary schools, figuring that secondary school pupils could (and probably would) avoid eating school lunches that were too worthy. (This is surely correct. My own habitual sixth-form lunch was four bars of chocolate – a pound a day well spent.)
Their answer – a provisional one, since they are still refining the research – is that feeding primary school kids less fat, sugar and salt, and more fruit and vegetables, has a surprisingly large effect. Authorised absences, the best available proxy for illness, fell by 15 per cent in Greenwich, relative to schools in similar London boroughs. And relative to other boroughs, the proportion of children reaching Level Four in English rose by four and a half percentage points (more than six per cent), while the proportion of children achieving Level Five in Science rose by six points, or almost 20 per cent.
“What astonishes me,” writes Harford, “is that it took a television company and a celebrity chef to carry out a proper policy experiment.” And what astonishes me is that it’s not being replicated. Those are huge results. It’s just one project, but the way you find out if the numbers hold is by re-creating the experiment. If something as cheap as good food can deliver something as important as better school performance, it’s time to fund some serious pilot projects.
Photo credit: By Rick Nederstigt/Getty Images
The narrow line between love and jealousy
A new study carried out at the University of Haifa has found that the hormone oxytocin, the “love hormone”, which affects behaviors such as trust, empathy and generosity, also affects opposite behaviors, such as jealousy and gloating. “Subsequent to these findings, we assume that the hormone is an overall trigger for social sentiments: when the person’s association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments,” explains Simone Shamay-Tsoory who carried out the research.
Previous studies have shown that the oxytocin hormone has a positive effect on positive feelings. The hormone is released in the body naturally during childbirth and when engaging in sexual relations. Participants in an experiment who inhaled the synthetic form of the hormone displayed higher levels of altruistic feelings, and it is supposed that the hormone plays an important role in the formation of relationships between people.
However, in earlier studies carried out by other investigators with rodents, it was found that the hormone is also related to higher levels of aggression. Therefore, it was decided to examine whether the hormone also affects negative social sentiments. The present study, which was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, included 56 participants. Half of the participants inhaled the synthetic form of the hormone in the first session and were given a placebo (a dummy drug) in the second session; the others were given a placebo in the first session and oxytocin in the second session. Following drug administration each participant was asked to play a game of luck along with another competitor, who was in fact – and without their knowledge – a computer. Each of the participants was asked to choose one of three doors and was awarded the sum of money that was hidden behind that door. Sometimes the participant gained less money than the other player, and sometimes more, creating conditions in which a person might well develop feelings of envy and gloating.
The findings show that those participants who inhaled the “hormone of love” displayed higher levels of envy when the opponent won more money and of gloating when they were ahead. Another interesting result was that as soon as the game was over, no differences between the participants were evident with regards to these sentiments. This indicates that the negative feelings were empowered only in the course of the game itself.
“Following the earlier results of experiments with oxytocin, we began to examine the possible use of the hormone as a medication for various disorders, such as autism. The results of the present study show that the hormone’s undesirable effects on behavior must be examined before moving ahead,” Dr. Shamay-Tsoory concludes.
Testosterone-status mismatch in a group is linked with reduced collective confidence
Men and women with more testosterone like to be in charge. Indeed, they can find it stressful and uncomfortable when denied the status that they crave. Similarly, people low in testosterone find it uncomfortable to be placed in positions of authority. An intriguing new study has built on these earlier findings, showing a mismatch between testosterone-level and status can have an effect on group functioning. Groups made up of people whose status in the group doesn’t match their testosterone level tend to have less collective confidence (or “collective efficacy” in the psychological jargon). This could be important given that prior investigations have shown that groups with higher collective efficacy perform better.Michael Zyphur and colleagues assigned 92 groups of between 4 and 7 undergrads to an on-going task that involved meeting twice a week for 12 weeks, and included creating a professional management-training video. Six weeks into the project the researches measured the participants’ testosterone levels via saliva samples. They also asked all members in each group to vote on each others’ status. Then six weeks after that, at the end of the project, the researchers measured each group’s collective efficacy by summing members’ confidence in their group’s ability to succeed. The key finding was that groups made up of members whose status was out of synch with their testosterone level tended to have the lowest collective efficacy. The researchers think that testosterone-status mismatch within a group probably has a detrimental effect on that group’s collective confidence. However, another possibility, which they acknowledge, is that a lack of group confidence leads to a mismatch between testosterone levels and status among group members. Co-author Jayanth Narayanan told the Digest that his team need to replicate their finding in a work setting. “Perhaps workplace settings might enhance these effects. Perhaps some types of work environments might attenuate these effects. These are open questions at this stage,” he said.
Hypothermia Research May Benefit Brain Injured Athletes
NFL players and other athletes who suffer serious or multiple concussions may benefit from ground-breaking research being conducted by scientists at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. The scientists are developing a surgical technique that involves hypothermia in specific regions of the brain.Therapeutic hypothermia is a medical treatment that lowers a patient’s temperature in order to help reduce the risk of injury to tissue. The endovascular intra-arterial cooling method being studied at Barrow rapidly preserves the injured portion of the brain and minimizes damage. Results from the studies, which are being led by Barrow’s director of Neurosurgery Research Mark Preul, MD, have been published in academic journals such as Neurological Research. “The ability to cool a specific region of the brain allows us to protect the tissue and avoid risk of damage to other organs that can occur with whole body hypothermia,” says Dr. Preul. “This work is targeted currently at severe injuries to the brain like massive strokes or trauma, but it also means we could be able to offer a less invasive and specific approach to saving brain tissue. We’re working to develop ways to be more proactive about treating brain injuries like sports concussions that may have been under-treated in the past.” The filter-cooling unit technology works similar to renal dialysis, removing a volume of blood and replacing it with a cooled crystalloid solution through a catheter in the carotid artery. The rest of the brain and body maintain a normal temperature. The cooling process quickly lowers the metabolic rate of the tissue, protecting it from stress and further damage. Results could be particularly welcome news for the NFL, which has been under fire from a House Judiciary Committee recently. The league also has been scrutinized in news reports for its medical treatment of former players who show signs of dementia and other types of mental decline. “We’re encouraged by our results in the lab, and believe it could translate into faster clinical response and improved outcomes for patients with brain injuries, including athletes, military personnel and trauma patients,” says Dr. Preul.
Better Understanding Of Synaptic Activity May Support ‘Use It Or Lose It’ Hypothesis In Huntington’s Disease
Investigators at Burnham Institute for Medical Research (Burnham), the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics and the University of California, San Diego have found that normal synaptic activity in nerve cells (the electrical activity in the brain that allows nerve cells to communicate with one another) protects the brain from the misfolded proteins associated with Huntington’s disease. In contrast, excessive extrasynaptic activity (aberrant electrical activity in the brain, usually not associated with communication between nerve cells) enhances the misfolded proteins’ deadly effects. Researchers also found that the drug Memantine, which is approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease, successfully treated Huntington’s disease in a mouse model by preserving normal synaptic electrical activity and suppressing excessive extrasynaptic electrical activity. The research was published in the journal Nature Medicine on November 15.Huntington’s disease is a hereditary condition caused by a mutated huntingtin gene that creates a misfolded, and therefore dysfunctional, protein. The new research shows that normal synaptic receptor activity makes nerve cells more resistant to the mutant proteins. However, excessive extrasynaptic activity contributed to increased nerve cell death. The research team found that low doses of Memantine reduce extrasynaptic activity without impairing protective synaptic activity. The work was led by Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging and Stem Cell Research at Burnham and professor in the department of Neurosciences and attending neurologist at the University of California, San Diego and Michael R. Hayden, M.D., Ph.D., University Killam professor in the department of Medical Genetics at UBC and director of the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the Child & Family Research Institute. “Chronic neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are all related to protein misfolding,” said Dr. Lipton. “We show here, for the first time, that electrical activity controls protein folding, and if you have a drug that can adjust the electrical activity to the correct levels, you can protect against misfolding. Also, this verifies that appropriate electrical activity is protective, supporting the ‘use it or lose it theory’ of brain activity at the molecular level. For example, this finding may explain why epidemiologists have found that ‘using’ your brain by performing crossword puzzles and other games can stave off cognitive decline in diseases like Alzheimer’s.” In the new study, researchers initially tested nerve cell cultures transfected with mutant Huntingtin protein and found that reducing excessive NMDA-type glutamate receptor activity with Memantine and other antagonists protected the nerve cells (glutamate receptors are the main trigger of excitatory electrical activity in the brain but in excess can cause nerve cell death, a process called excitotoxicity). They also found that normal synaptic activity was protective. Subsequently, they treated Huntington’s disease model mice with both high and low doses of Memantine and found that the low doses were protective by blocking pathological extrasynaptic activity, while high-dose Memantine encouraged disease progression because it also blocked the protective synaptic NMDA receptor activity. “For a long time it’s been known that excitotoxicity is an early marker of Huntington’s disease,” said Dr. Hayden. “However, now we have dissected the mechanism by which this happens, particularly focusing on NMDA receptors outside the synapse. This creates novel therapeutic opportunities to modulate these receptors with potential protective effects on nerve cells.” A small human clinical trial of Memantine for Huntington’s disease has also recently shown positive effects. Larger, international clinical trials are now being planned. Dr. Lipton is the named inventor on worldwide patents for the use of Memantine (marketed in the USA under the name Namenda®) in neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. He is credited with the groundbreaking discovery more than ten years ago of how Memantine works in the brain and for spearheading early human clinical trials with the drug.
Right-handed chimpanzees provide clues to the origin of human language
A team of researchers, supervised by Prof. William D. Hopkins of Agnes Scott College (Decatur, Georgia), studied hand-use in 70 captive chimpanzees over a period of 10 months, recording a variety of communicative gestures specific to chimpanzees. These included ‘arm threat’, ‘extend arm’ or ‘hand-slap’ gestures produced in different social contexts, such as attention-getting interactions, shared excitation, threat, aggression, greeting, reconciliation or invitations for grooming or for play. The gestures were directed at the human observers, as well as toward other chimpanzees.
“The degree of predominance of the right hand for gestures is one of the most pronounced we have ever found in chimpanzees in comparison to other non-communicative manual actions. We already found such manual biases in this species for pointing gestures exclusively directed to humans. These additional data clearly showed that right-handedness for gestures is not specifically associated to interactions with humans, but generalizes to intraspecific communication,” notes Prof. Hopkins.
The French co-authors, Dr. Adrien Meguerditchian and Prof. Jacques Vauclair, from the Aix-Marseille University (Aix-en-Provence, France), also point out that “this finding provides additional support to the idea that speech evolved initially from a gestural communicative system in our ancestors. Moreover, gestural communication in apes shares some key features with human language, such as intentionality, referential properties and flexibility of learning and use”.
Simple test could offer cheap solution to detecting landmines
Students from the University of Edinburgh have created a custom-made bacteria that glows green when it comes into contact with chemicals leaked by buried explosives.
The bacteria can be mixed into a colourless solution that, when sprayed on to the ground, forms green patches to indicate the presence of landmines.
Researchers say that the organism, which is cheap to produce, could be delivered from the air onto areas thought to contain landmines, with results available within a few hours. The bacteria is not dangerous to people or animals.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 casualties are caused each year by landmines and unexploded ordnance, according to the charity Handicap International. Some 87 countries contain minefields including Somalia, Mozambique, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scientists and engineers were able to create their bespoke bacteria with an emerging technique known as BioBricking. The tool enables bacteria molecules to be assembled from a range of tiny parts called, like a very small-scale machine.
Researchers involved in the project say that although as yet they have no plans to make their product commercial, they believe it could form a cheap, accessible and easy-to-use alternative to existing landmine sensors.
Viagra for women?
These trials were the first ever to test a therapy that works at the level of the brain to enhance libido in women reporting low sexual desire, said John M. Thorp Jr., M.D., McAllister distinguished professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and the principal investigator for North America in the studies.
“Flibanserin was a poor antidepressant,” Thorp said. “However, astute observers noted that it increased libido in laboratory animals and human subjects. So, we conducted multiple clinical trials and the women in our studies who took it for hypoactive sexual desire disorder reported significant improvements in sexual desire and satisfactory sexual experiences.
“It’s essentially a Viagra-like drug for women in that diminished desire or libido is the most common feminine sexual problem, like erectile dysfunction is in men,” Thorp said.
Studies have shown that the prevalence of hypoactive sexual desire disorder in the U.S. ranges from 9 percent to 26 percent of women, depending on age and menopausal status. Flibanserin is currently an investigational drug and is available only to women taking part in clinical trials.
Study Sheds New Light On The Nature Of Broca’s Area In The Brain
“Two central mysteries of human brain function are addressed in this study: one, the way in which higher cognitive processes such as language are implemented in the brain and, two, the nature of what is perhaps the best-known region of the cerebral cortex, called Broca’s area,” said first author Ned T. Sahin, PhD, post-doctoral fellow in the UCSD Department of Radiology and Harvard University Department of Psychology.The study demonstrates that a small piece of the brain can compute three different things at different times – within a quarter of a second – and shows that Broca’s area doesn’t just do one thing when processing language. The discoveries came through the researchers’ use of a rare procedure in which electrodes were placed in the brains of patients. The technique allowed surgeons to know which small region of the brain to remove to alleviate their seizures, while sparing the healthy regions necessary for language. Recordings for research purposes were then made while the patients were awake and responsive. The procedure, called Intra-Cranial Electrophysiology (ICE), allowed the researchers to resolve brain activity related to language with spatial accuracy down to the millimeter and temporal accuracy down to the millisecond. This is the first experiment to use ICE to document how the human brain computes grammar and produces words. Because complex language is unique to humans, it has been difficult to investigate its neural mechanisms. Brain-imaging methods such as functional MRI are generally all that are possible to use in humans, but they blur the activity of thousands or millions of neurons over long periods of time. Consequently, scientists have been unable to determine in detail whether the mechanisms used by linguistic or computational models to produce grammatically correct speech correspond to the mechanisms that the brain actually uses.