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In the News, Nutrition, Research

Examining how food texture impacts perceived calorie content

Examining how food texture impacts perceived calorie content

brownies_041614The texture of a food – whether it’s creamy or crunchy – may influence a person’s overall consumption and his perception on whether the food is calorie-rich or diet-friendly. That’s according to findings recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

For the study, researchers conducted five laboratory studies during which individuals were asked to sample hard, soft, rough or smooth foods and then give calorie estimations for each food. During one of the experiments, participants were asked to watch TV ads while eating bit-sized brownies. As the Huffington Post reports:

… half of the participants were asked to estimate how many calories they thought the brownies had, while the other half were not. Within these groups, half of the participants were given brownie bits that were soft, while the others were given ones that were hard.

Among the participants who were not asked to focus on the calorie content of the brownies, they consumed more soft brownie bits than hard brownie bits. However, among the participants who were asked to focus on the calorie content, they consumed more of the hard brownie bits than the soft ones.

The study is part of a growing body of scientific evidence showing that several factors can impact whether we consider foods to be healthy or fattening and how much we eat. Past research has shown that people frequently underestimate the calories they’re eating and that many of us tend to overeat in sit-down restaurants rather than fast-food spots. Additionally, the sequence of foods may affect how we calculate calorie content, and the color of tableware can influence how much we eat.

Previously: Obesity and smoking together may decrease taste of fat and sweet but increase consumption, Cereal-eaters: How much are you really consuming?, Fruit-filled Manga comics may increase kids’ consumption of healthy food, and Can dish color influence how much you eat?
Photo by Sarah

Cancer, In the News, Patient Care

Is cancer too complex for targeted therapies?

Cancer. It’s been called “The Big C,” but the more we study it, the more it resembles hundreds of little c’s, each with its own unique molecular makeup. The differentiation exists both among patients with cancers in the same site (the various sub-types of breast cancer, for example) as well as within a single patient. This latter phenomenon is referred to as “intra-patient tumor heterogeneity,” and it has profound implications for the future of cancer treatment, including the viability of so-called “targeted therapies” receiving so much attention and hope.

Many cancer tumors tend to be chaotic mixes of different cell types, some more aggressive – and therefore more dangerous – than others. Chemotherapy and the emerging category of more specific “targeted therapeutics” work by acting on a known characteristic of a particular cancer cell type, like accelerated replication rates or a specific genetic mutation.  But in a complex tumor, not all cells will exhibit that specific characteristic, or at least not do so at the same time. Also, it is possible for cancer cells to adapt and become resistant to a particular therapy, in a partially analogous way in which evolution works on a macroscopic scale.

A recent opinion piece published online in the journal The Scientist points out that intra-patient heterogeneity can also involve treatment-relevant difference between the primary tumor and metastases, as well as among metastases. Written by Stanford Cancer Institute Director Beverly Mitchell, MD; David Rubenson, associate director for administration and strategic planning; and Daniel S. Kapp, MD, professor emeritus of radiation oncology at Stanford, the article discusses these matters in detail and lays out many of the significant scientific and clinical questions surrounding the potential for treating cancers with targeted therapies. This fall, the Stanford Cancer Institute will convene an international symposium to discuss these questions and a range of related issues.

Information on the symposium, titled “Intra-patient Tumor Heterogeneity: Implications for Targeted Therapy,” will soon be available on the Stanford Cancer Institute website.

Previously: Director of the Stanford Cancer Institute discusses advances in cancer care and research

In the News, Neuroscience, Technology

Facial expression recognition software could predict student engagement in learning

Facial expression recognition software could predict student engagement in learning

bored faceTest day approaching? Get your game face on. A study of a computer program that recognizes and interprets facial expressions has found that identifying students’ level of engagement while learning may predict their performance in the class. Computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego and Emotient, a San Diego-based company that developed the facial-recognition software used in the study, teamed with psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia State universities to look at “when and why students get disengaged,” study lead author Jacob Whitehill, PhD, researcher in UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute and Emotient co-founder, said in a release.

The authors write in the study, which was published in an early online version in the journal IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing:

In this paper we explore approaches for automatic recognition of engagement from students’ facial expressions. We studied whether human observers can reliably judge engagement from the face; analyzed the signals observers use to make these judgments; and automated the process using machine learning.

“Automatic engagement detection provides an opportunity for educators to adjust their curriculum for higher impact, either in real time or in subsequent lessons,” Whitehill said in the release. ”Automatic engagement detection could be a valuable asset for developing adaptive educational games, improving intelligent tutoring systems and tailoring massive open online courses, or MOOCs.”

Previously: Looks of fear and disgust help us to see threats, study showsProviding medical, educational and technological tools in Zimbabwe and Whiz Kids: Teaching anatomy with augmented reality
Photo by Jesús Gorriti

Autism, In the News, Pediatrics, Research

Using theater’s sensory experiences to help children with autism

Using theater's sensory experiences to help children with autism

Gesamkunstwerk, my favorite German word and a term commonly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, can be translated as a “total work of art” playing to many of the senses and synthesizing numerous art forms. The word came to mind as I read about a pilot study using theater as an environment for children with autism-spectrum disorders  to explore “communication, social interaction, and imagination skills – the ‘triad of impairments’ seen in autism,” a New Scientist piece notes, “engaging all the children’s senses at once.”

Twenty-two children ages 7-12 attended one weekly 45-minute session for 10 weeks involving improvisation exercises led by trained performers in enclosed make-believe environments such as a forest or outer space.

From the piece:

As well as looking at whether behaviours used to diagnose autism changed after the drama sessions, the researchers also assessed emotion recognition, imitation, IQ and theory of mind – the ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling. Subjective ratings were also gathered from parents and teachers and follow-up assessments were conducted up to a year later.

At the early assessments, all children showed some improvement. The most significant change was in the number of facial expressions recognised, a key communication skill. Nine children improved on this. Six children improved on their level of social interaction. The majority of these changes were also seen at the follow-up assessments.

The project’s lead psychologist, David Wilkinson, PhD, at the University of Kent, told New Scientist, ”It’s an opportunity for children to create their own narratives in an unconstrained, unfamiliar environment.” He continued, “They find this empowering, and we know from the psychology literature that individuals who are empowered enjoy increased attention skills and an improved sense of well-being.”

Previously: Making museums more inviting for autistic children and their familiesStanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autismDirector of Stanford Autism Center responds to your questions on research and treatment and A mother’s story on what she learned from her autistic son

Addiction, Health Disparities, In the News, Public Health

Menthol cigarettes: How they’re being used by and marketed towards African Americans

Menthol pic - smallHere’s a scary statistic, included in a recently published Newsweek article: “Each year, smoking-related illnesses kill more black Americans than AIDS, car crashes, murders and drug and alcohol abuse combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” And then there’s this: “More than four in five black smokers choose menthol cigarettes, a far higher proportion than for other groups… By mitigating the harshness of cigarettes and numbing the throat, menthol makes smoking more palatable, easier to start – and harder to quit.”

The article discusses advocates’ call for a ban on menthol cigarettes (all other flavored cigarettes were banned in 2009) before going on to describe the history of African Americans and menthol-cigarette use, and tobacco companies’ aggressive marketing tactics. (“The tobacco industry… positioned itself as an ally of the very community it was seducing,” writes Abigail Jones.) It also quotes Stanford’s Robert Jackler, MD, founder of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, who expresses his concerns with ads that appear in a prominent African-American publication:

…[Jackler] has analyzed Ebony magazines since the 1940s and discovered it ran 59 cigarette ads in 1990, 10 in 2011 and 19 last year.

Ebony published 21 articles about breast cancer and 11 about prostate cancer between 1999 and 2013 but did not publish a single full-length story on lung cancer in that 15-year period. “Tobacco advertising is a huge revenue stream,” says Jackler. “Ebony professes itself to be the so-called ‘heart and soul and voice of the African-American community,’ and it completely neglects smoking.”

Previously: E-Cigarettes: The explosion of vaping is about to be regulated, What’s being done about the way tobacco companies market and manufacture products, Menthol “sweetens the poison,” attracts more young smokers, Menthol cigarette marketing aimed at young African Americans and NPR’s Picture Show highlights Stanford collection of cigarette ads
Photo by Classic Film

Ethics, In the News, Sports, Stanford News, Women's Health

Arguing against sex testing in athletes

Arguing against sex testing in athletes

Testosterone does not a man – nor a woman – make. So argues Stanford medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis, PhD, in a New York Times op-ed today. She cites evidence against the scientific and ethical soundness of sex-testing policies used since 2011 by sports governing organizations including the International Olympic Committee, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association and the International Association of Athletics Federations.

From the piece:

Rather than trying to decide whether an athlete is “really” female, as decades of mandatory sex tests did, the current policy targets women whose bodies produce more testosterone than is typical. If a female athlete’s T level is deemed too high, a medical team selected by the sport’s governing bodies develops a “therapeutic proposal.” This involves either surgery or drugs to lower the hormone level. If doctors can lower the athlete’s testosterone to what the governing bodies consider an appropriate level, she may return to competition. If she refuses to cooperate with the investigation or the medical procedures, she is placed under a permanent ban from elite women’s sports.

Sports authorities argue that screening for high T levels is needed to keep women’s athletics fair, reasoning that testosterone improves performance. Elite male athletes generally outperform women, and this difference has been attributed to men’s higher testosterone levels. Ergo, women with naturally high testosterone are thought to have an unfair advantage over other women.

But these assumptions do not match the science. A new study in Clinical Endocrinology fits with other emerging research on the relationship between natural testosterone and performance, especially in elite athletes, which shows that T levels can’t predict who will run faster, lift more weight or fight harder to win. The study, of a sample of 693 elite athletes, revealed a significant overlap in testosterone levels among men and women: 16.5 percent of the elite male athletes had testosterone in the so-called female range; nearly 14 percent of the women were above the “female” range.

Karkazis concludes, “Barring female athletes with high testosterone levels from competition is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Worse, it is pushing young women into a choice they shouldn’t have to make: either to accept medically unnecessary interventions with harmful side effects or to give up their future in sports.”

Previously: Is the International Olympic Committee’s policy governing sex verification fair?, Researchers challenge proposed testosterone testing in select female Olympic athletes and Gender ambiguity gets attention

In the News, Research, Sleep

Sleep: More important than ever?

Sleep: More important than ever?

A headline today caught my eye: “It’s Time to Pay Attention to Sleep, the New Health Frontier.” (Since installing a sleep-tracking app on my phone, I’ve been playing with different bed times, forms of exercise and other factors to measure their effects on sleep time and quality.) Anyway, the piece, on Time.com, explains why sleep’s importance to health is more serious than many of us really acknowledge. And it offers this bit of historical perspective on why now is the time to pay attention:

According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 40% of Americans get less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night. While the typical person still logs about 6.8 hours of sleep per night, that’s a drop from the 7.9 Americans were getting in the 1940s.

Previously: Exploring the benefit of sleep appsSleep on it: The quest for rest in the modern hospital, Mobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Stanford doc talks sleep (and fish) in new podcast

Behavioral Science, Genetics, In the News, Research

Can procrastination and impulsivity be inherited?

procrastination_040814Do you always finish items on your to-do list in a timely fashion, or do you wait until the last minute? New research shows that the tendency to defer tasks could be inherited, and that the traits of procrastination and impulsivity could be genetically linked.

In the study (subscription required), researchers at University of Colorado Boulder asked 181 identical-twin pairs and 166 fraternal-twin pairs to complete surveys designed to measure individuals’ propensity to act impulsively or procrastinate, as well as their aptitude to set and maintain goals. Pysch Central reports:

They found that procrastination is indeed heritable, just like impulsivity. Not only that, there seems to be a complete genetic overlap between procrastination and impulsivity — that is, there are no genetic influences that are unique to either trait alone.

That finding suggests that, genetically speaking, procrastination is an evolutionary byproduct of impulsivity — one that likely manifests itself more in the modern world than in the world of our ancestors.

In addition, the link between procrastination and impulsivity also overlapped genetically with the ability to manage goals. This finding supports the idea that delaying, making rash decisions, and failing to achieve goals all stem from a shared genetic foundation.

Researchers hope that better understanding the underpinnings of procrastination will be useful in determining how these two traits relate to higher cognitive abilities.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals, The science of willpower and How your perceptions about willpower can affect behavior, goal achievement
Photo by EvelynGiggles

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Global Health, In the News, Stanford News

Through his 50-cent microscope, Stanford engineer aims to “reach society in a very strong way”

Through his 50-cent microscope, Stanford engineer aims to "reach society in a very strong way"

Manu TED imageFoldscope, the ultra-low-cost paper microscope designed to aid disease diagnosis in developing regions, is back in the news. For a story appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, writer Stephanie Lee talked with Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash, PhD, and others about the invention:

“Manu Prakash is one of the most creative scientists and engineers and his invention is really original,” wrote Luke Lee, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley who works on global health problems, in an e-mail. “His elegant microscope is not only good for global health care, but also it will be a new educational tool to see the world.”

The Foldscope was two years in the making, starting with trips that Prakash and his graduate students took through India, Thailand, Uganda and Nigeria. The team met people who were suffering from infectious diseases but couldn’t afford conventional microscopes, which cost upward of $200, to diagnose their conditions.

“It was very clear that anything we came up with, if we can’t scale it to the cost it needs to be, it doesn’t really reach anywhere,” Prakash said.

Prakash went on to tell Lee, “This is not just an academic project. We happen to be in an academic setting, but we are trying to reach society in a very strong way.”

Previously: Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas, Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope, Stanford microscope inventor featured on TED Talk, Stanford bioengineer developing an “Electric Band-Aid Worm Test and Stanford bioengineers create an ultra-low-cost oral cancer screening tool
Photo by James Duncan Davidson/TED

Imaging, In the News, Orthopedics, Research

Goo inside bones provides structural support, study finds

Goo inside bones provides structural support, study finds

As high-schoolers swarm the med school campus today, hold human brains and satisfy their taste for science, I can’t help but wish the show “You Can’t Do That on Television” still existed and that the producers would set up in the parking lot and slime each participant upon completion of the day. But a welcome alternative is news that scientists have discovered gooey matter inside human bones.

In a 60-Second Health piece, writer Dina Fine Maron explains how “a combination of imaging techniques and modeling has revealed that our bones are filled with a natural chemical goo that’s key to the bones’ function as support structures,” and that the information could be used to inform osteoporosis treatment and prevention. The researchers’ findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previously: Exploring the use of yoga to improve the health and strength of bones, 419 million year-old fish fossil may reveal origins of the human jaw and  Teen girls become orthopaedic surgeons for a day

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