Thursday, October 22, 2009

The internet is GOOD for brains

Some actual research upsets all the "expert" prognostications about how bad computers are for you. One hopes that the sycophantic "Baroness" Greenfield learns some proper scientific caution from this. Crawling up the backsides of the powers that be got a smart Jewish girl a British title but at the expense of her scientific integrity

Adults with little Internet experience show changes in their brain activity after just one week online, a new study finds. The results suggest Internet training can stimulate neural activation patterns and could potentially enhance brain function and cognition in older adults.

As the brain ages, a number of structural and functional changes occur, including atrophy, or decay, reductions in cell activity and increases in complex things like deposits of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which can impact cognitive function.

Research has shown that mental stimulation similar to the stimulation that occurs in individuals who frequently use the Internet may affect the efficiency of cognitive processing and alter the way the brain encodes new information. "We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," Dr. Gary Small, study author and professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a statement.

The UCLA team worked with 24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78. Prior to the study, half the participants used the Internet daily, while the other half had very little experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups.

The participants performed Web searches while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during this activity. This type of scan tracks brain activity by measuring the level of blood flow in the brain during cognitive tasks. While the study involves a small number of people and more research on this topic is needed, small study sizes are typical of fMRI-based research.

After the initial brain scan, subjects went home and conducted Internet searches for one hour a day for a total of seven days over a two-week period. These practice searches involved using the web to answer questions about various topics by exploring different websites and reading information. Participants then received a second brain scan using the same Internet simulation task, but with different topics.

The first scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the home practice searches, demonstrated activation of these same regions, but there was also activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus – areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

Thus, after Internet training at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns very similar to those seen in the group of savvy Internet users. "The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and UCLA researcher, said in a statement.

When performing an online search, the ability to hold important information in working memory and to take away the important points from competing graphics and words is essential, Moody noted.

Previous research by the UCLA team found that searching online resulted in a more than twofold increase in brain activation in older adults with prior experience, compared with those with little Internet experience. The new findings suggest that it may take only days for those with minimal experience to match the activity levels of those with years of experience, said Small.

Additional studies will be needed to address the impact of the Internet on younger individuals and help identify aspects of online searching that generate the greatest levels of brain activation. The findings were presented Oct. 19 at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, Illinois.


Fat Police Target Government's Own Nutrition Standards

On Thursday, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal with the backing of consumer advocate groups announced that he is launching an investigation into the allegedly misleading food labeling program "Smart Choices." The Smart Choices Program allows manufacturers of foods that meet certain nutritional criteria to post on their packaging a green check-mark alongside a calorie and serving count indicator.

While the program's creators say that Smart Choices is intended to help consumers make better nutritional decisions, the Attorney General and many consumer protection advocates are questioning the program's nutritional standards and decrying the program as "deceptive" and "potentially misleading"---namely because a few nutritionally suspect foods like Teddy Grahams, Kraft Cheese crackers and Cocoa Krispies happen to qualify.

Ironically, the program's nutritional standards that Mr. Blumenthal and consumer advocates are questioning are based directly on the USDA's dietary guidelines. For example, calories from fat can't exceed 35% of total calories and sodium content must be less than 480 mg per serving.

Smart Choices is exactly the kind of program that Mr. Blumenthal and consumer advocates should be in favor of since it makes nutritional information more visible to consumers. Lately, government officials have been pressuring the food industry to take a more active role in curbing obesity. Some city and state governments like New York City's have even required fast food restaurants to post nutritional information on menus. Congress has also been threatening the industry with a sugar tax. (To appease Congress, Coca Cola just unveiled a 90-calorie mini can and a plan to highlight calories on the front of nearly all products.)

The Smart Choices Program is doing exactly what government officials say that the food industry should do, but won't do on its own. But now that the industry is taking the initiative to promote healthier choices, the government wants to criminalize the industry for doing it in a marketable and profitable way. The government may want Americans thinner---just as long as the food industry's profits aren't getting fatter.


Regulation Not Worth Its Salt

Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration, working with the Institute of Medicine, has been considering a change in the regulatory status of salt. The FDA cannot currently restrict the amount of salt that can be added to processed foods, and the proposed change would allow them to do so.

Advocates of the proposed regulation, like former FDA commissioner David Kessler and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, argue that reducing the sodium in foods would improve people’s health and cut public health spending. Opponents argue that the evidence supporting health benefits of sodium reduction is by no means conclusive, and that attempts to reduce sodium intake could actually be harmful.

But a recent study by University of California, Davis nutritionists concludes that it may not even be possible to reduce salt intake through regulation. The study shows that people are naturally inclined to regulate salt intake to physiologically determined levels by unconsciously selecting foods to meet their needs.

According to the study, measurements collected from over 19,000 individuals from 33 countries worldwide indicate that daily sodium intake is confined to the relatively narrow range of 2,700 to 4,900 mg, with the worldwide average of 3,700 mg. This challenges the widely held belief that daily sodium consumption in the United States, which averages about 3,400 mg, has reached extreme levels.

The study also cites decades of research describing the specific mechanism by which the central nervous system, acting together with several organ systems, controls our appetite for salt.

In one cited study, a group of nearly 600 participants took part in what was to be a 3 year sodium intake intervention, with the goal of reducing daily intake to 1,850 mg. After the first 6 months, researchers noted that participants were unable to reduce sodium intake below about 2,750 mg per day—close to the bottom of the range the UC Davis study identified.

Another study had similar findings. In this study, subjects, through intensive dietary counseling, reduced their daily sodium intake to an average of 1,775 mg over 4 weeks. The subjects were then randomized to receive either a 2,300 mg sodium tablet or a placebo, while still receiving counseling.

When taking the placebo, average sodium intake stabilized around 2,750 mg—again very close to the bottom of the identified range. This means that subjects naturally increased their sodium intake when blinded to their treatment. When this group was switched over to receive the 2,300 mg sodium supplement, daily intake rose to only 4,050 mg, far less than the predicted 5,050 mg. This suggests that subjects naturally reduced their dietary sodium intake without consciously intending to do so.

The UC Davis study goes on to cite a number of surveys indicating that sodium intake in the United Kingdom has “varied minimally” over the past 25 years, despite a costly Food Standards Agency campaign to reduce sodium intake in the UK.

The Institute of Medicine says that daily sodium intake should not exceed 2,300 mg, and new guidelines to be released in 2010 may set the recommended maximum even lower. Any regulatory action taken by the FDA would presumably aim to reduce intake at least to this 2,300 mg level, even though it is 17 percent lower than the bottom of the range the UC Davis study identified, and a full 38 percent lower than the worldwide average.

Given the findings of this study, it seems likely that regulation restricting sodium in foods would be ineffective because people would unconsciously adjust their diets to compensate. As the study puts it, “[sodium intake] is unlikely to be malleable by public policy initiatives”, and attempts to change consumption would “expend valuable national and personal resources against unachievable goals.”


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