Chocolate on My Mind

April 10, 2015

By Medical Discovery News


Peanuts creator Charles Schulz once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” New research shows he might be right. In one study, certain compounds in cocoa called flavanols reversed age-related memory problems.

Flavanols, found in a variety of plants, are potent antioxidants that help cells in the body deal with free radicals. Free radicals arise from normal cellular processes as well as from exposure to environmental contaminants, especially cigarette smoke. Unless your body gets rid of free radicals, they can damage proteins, lipids, and even your genetic information. You can get flavanols from tea, red wine, berries, cocoa, and chocolate. Flavanols are what give cocoa that strong, bitter, and pungent taste. Cocoa is processed through fermentation, alkalization, and roasting among other methods, which can influence how much of the good flavanols are lost. Among the products made from cocoa, those with the highest levels of flavanol are cocoa powders not processed by the Dutch method, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate and semi-sweet chips, then milk chocolate, and finally chocolate syrup contained the least.

In the latest study, a cocoa drink specially formulated by the Mars food company to retain flavanols was compared with another drink that contained very little flavanols. The study asked 37 randomly selected adults aged 50 to 69 to take one of the drinks. One group consumed 900 milligrams per day of flavanols and the others consumed only 10 milligrams per day for three months. Brain imaging and memory tests were administered before and after the trial.

Those who consumed the high levels of cocoa flavanols had better brain function and improved memories. Before the study, the subjects on average demonstrated the memory of a typical 60-year-old person. At the end, those who consumed more flavanols exhibited the memory capabilities more closely resembling a 30- to 40-year-old. Unfortunately, the average candy bar contains only about 40 milligrams of flavanol, so you would have to eat 23 of them a day to equal the amount of flavanol used in the study, which would lead to other health problems like obesity and diabetes.

Other studies have similarly revealed that high-flavanol cocoa beverages cause regional changes in the brain’s blood flow, suggesting that it could be used to treat vascular impairments within the brain. Flavanols have also been reported to reduce blood pressure and other factors that lead to cardiovascular disease, improve insulin sensitivity, modulate platelet activity thereby reducing the risk of blood clots, and improve the activities of the endothelial cells that line our blood vessels. The Kuna indians living on the San Blas Islands near Panama, who consume a type of cocoa rich in flavanol on a daily basis, have unusually low rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

These studies need to be repeated with larger groups to confirm the benefits of consuming flavanols and to ensure that there are no negative effects. Still, if a cocoa beverage high in flavanols could be mass produced and marketed, we could improve human health in a very tasty way.

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Bear-ly Understanding Diabetes

May 30, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

What can studying grizzly bears reveal about human diabetes?

While they are some of the largest bears on earth, Grizzly bears aren’t usually accused of being fat. Regardless, these animals are helping scientists discover new and better treatments for human obesity and diabetes.

Grizzlies spend the late summers consuming more than 50,000 calories per day. As a comparison, a moderately active 50-year-old human female is recommended 2,300. Grizzlies then hibernate for up to seven months, relying on the pounds of stored fat they accumulated before winter. While hibernating, bears do not eat, urinate, or defecate. 

Scientists wondered if all the weight and fat bears gain results in diabetes like it does in humans. Overweight people face an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, in which the body does not make enough of the hormone insulin or cells do not respond to it. Insulin helps move a type of sugar called glucose from the blood into cells, where it is used for energy and as a precursor for other molecules the body needs. If sugar levels in the blood remain elevated and the body doesn’t have enough insulin, cells are starved for energy, leading to damaged eyes, kidneys, nerves, and hearts. 

Interestingly, Grizzly bears can actually control their insulin responsiveness. When they are the fattest, they are most sensitive to insulin, thereby keeping their blood sugar levels healthy. Soon after going into hibernation, they switch to complete insulin resistance, meaning they develop type 2 diabetes. But unlike humans, their blood sugar levels remain normal. When they awaken in the spring, their insulin responsiveness is restored. Bears do this not so much to regulate their blood sugar levels as to regulate their storage and utilization of fat. So how do bears control their insulin responsiveness? And could it lead to new treatments for type 2 diabetes in humans?

PTEN is a protein that regulates cells’ sensitivity to insulin. Scientists know exactly when Grizzlies increase or decrease PTEN activity, they just don’t know how. People with a PTEN mutation have a metabolism similar to Grizzlies’.  These people have an increased risk of obesity and cancer but a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes because they are more sensitive to insulin.

Grizzlies have also evolved to the ability to accumulate large amounts of fat only in their adipose tissue, just below the skin so it doesn’t interfere with the rest of their bodies. In humans, on the other hand, fat can accumulate in many places like the liver, in muscles, and around other internal organs, which are all highly unhealthy places to keep fat. Bears can also have elevated levels of cholesterol without the serious consequences of cardiovascular disease.

During hibernation, the Grizzly bears’ kidneys shut down. But despite the high levels of toxins that accumulate in the blood without working kidneys, they don’t die or even suffer from it like a human would. When they wake up, their kidney function is restored with no permanent damage.

After millions of years of evolution, Grizzly bears and other animals have developed solutions for biological challenges humans still face. Studying them is a new approach that has the potential to create treatments for many human conditions.

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What Killed Lenin?

By Medical Discovery News

Aug. 11, 2012

Like many notorious figures who had gone before him, Lenin’s death remains shrouded in mystery. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who later changed his name to Vladimir Lenin, ushered in the era of Soviet communism that ruled until the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991.

Yet, the presumptively healthy Lenin didn’t last long in power. He died just before his 54th birthday of a massive stroke and possibly poison. Hoping to resolve Lenin’s cause of death, neurologist Harry Vinters and Russian historian Lev Lurie poured over the ruler’s medical history. Afterward, they presented their findings at the University of Maryland’s yearly conference investigating the deaths of famous people.

Lenin’s health troubles began when someone tried to assassinate him in 1918. He was shot twice, with one bullet passing through a lung before resting in his collarbone. The other lodged in the base of his neck. Both bullets were not removed, and his health began to suffer.

Four years later, he was hit with the first of three debilitating strokes. The last, a massive stroke, occurred at 6:50 p.m. on January 21, 1924, and he died hours later. For years, historians have speculated what brought on the strokes at his relatively young age. An autopsy revealed almost complete blockage of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. But Lenin did not have the traditional risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption. He also exercised regularly.

Notes from the autopsy further detailed extremely hardened blood vessels in his brain, which some medical experts had initially interpreted as evidence of a syphilis infection. While the sexually transmitted disease can cause hardening of cerebral arteries, Vinters didn’t find conclusive evidence of this in the autopsy records. He also didn’t find any writings describing Lenin suffering from other symptoms of syphilis.

The researchers believe family history played a big role in Lenin’s strokes. His father died at 54 from cerebral hemorrhage. His three siblings who lived into adulthood had evidence of cardiovascular disease. So, it’s reasonable to conclude Lenin inherited a tendency to develop extremely high cholesterol, and great stress can further exacerbate the disease.

However, this does not explain the seizures Lenin experienced hours before his death. Seizures are not usually associated with strokes, but can be brought on by many types of poison. During his lifetime, Russia was a place of great political intrigue and Joseph Stalin was Lenin’s main obstacle in maintaining control of the Soviet Union.

Starting in 1921, Lenin began to experience a series of health problems including insomnia and severe headaches. Historians speculate Stalin poisoned Lenin with cyanide. Interestingly, even though toxicology tests were typically a part of autopsies, it was withheld on Lenin.

Lenin’s body was embalmed and is on display in Moscow’s Red Square. Although it’s been suggested a brain tissue sample might reveal whether he’d been poisoned, it’s not likely to happen.

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