Friday, 29 June 2007

Darker side of chocolate

mood-boosting properties of chocolate aren’t as uplifting as we hoped.
Three scientists from the Black Dog Institute in Australia have studied theories about the sweet treat and found them wanting.
Professor Gordon Parker (pictured), Isabella Parker and Heather Brotchie have not only found chocolate is no quick fix for depression; it could possibly make it worse.
The trio explored the theories that the dark-brown confectionary corrects a deficiency in the regulation of mood, that it corrects an imbalance in the diet, is addictive, is highly pleasurable and is a means of coping during a negative mood.
“Each of these theories is examined and – with the exception of the pleasurable effects of chocolate – all are found to lack substance,” they say in a research paper.
People who suffer from depression lack the neurotransmitter serotonin, but there is no evidence this is boosted by eating chocolate.
Instead, the chemical dopamine, which supports the positive reward system, including the anticipation of pleasure, is possibly activated by chocolate.
On the definitive front, the central OPOID system, which activates the sense of pleasure, is triggered by chocolate.
Their findings are simple, and sound like an advert for a confectionary company: “…chocolate is craved because of its unique sensory attributes, and eating chocolate is the only way to satisfy that craving.”
But they don’t think that “craving” qualifies as an addiction, and say that scientists the world over cannot agree on whether chocolate, or any other food, can be addictive.
People suffering from negative moods, or depression, crave carbohydrates (or sugars), not necessarily chocolate.
The Black Dog Institute scientists found that down or depressed people reach for junk food, but when they feel great tend to prefer healthy foods.
But the bad news is studies reveal that depressed people, who consume chocolate or other carbohydrates looking for a quick mood fix, actually end up going down.
While they might get temporary relief, it doesn’t last.
Carbohydrate consumption causes reduced energy levels in the longer-term and helps develop and maintain the depression.
“Furthermore, other studies have shown that resisting the craving produces a more positive emotional mood both in the short and long term,” the scientists say.
“Overall, emotional eating has not been found to have any real or lasting benefit upon a negative mood and in fact repeated emotional eating may in fact contribute to a negative mood.”

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Chocolate hot as heart food

SCIENTISTS are proving what lovers and females have known for eons – chocolate is good for the heart.
The darker the better the researchers say, because cocoa is rich with antioxidants that help prevent heart disease and strokes. These lifesaving chemicals also hunt and destroy cancer-causing free-radicals in our bodies.
New York researchers carried out a study comparison to find out the level of antioxidants in cocoa, green tea, black tea and red wine.
Cocoa won hands down. “It was almost two times stronger than red wine, two to three times stronger than green tea, and four to five times stronger than black tea,” says the Cornell University team, led by Chang Y. Lee.

“If I had made a prediction before conducting the tests, I would have picked green tea as having the most antioxidant activity,” he says.
Chang recommends having the top three in a day, with hot cocoa at breakfast, green tea in the afternoon and a red wine at night.
“Although you can enjoy cocoa either hot or cold, the hot version tends to trigger the release of more antioxidants than its cold counterpart.”
The researchers say it’s better to have the drink, with low-fat milk, than a chocolate bar. A 40-gram block contains about 8 grams of saturated fat, while a cup is just a fraction of that.
New Zealanders are switching on to the health benefits of cocoa-rich chocolate in a big way, says Whittaker’s marketing manager Philip Poole, Wellington.

The company introduced its 72% cocoa-infused block, Dark Ghana, just 18 months ago. “It’s our best-selling block now, which surprised us I must say,” he says.
Dark Ghana does not contain milk solids. “Which makes it very popular with people who have an allergic reaction to milk, and also with vegans,” he says, referring to the strict vegetarians.
Whittaker’s have also introduced its 62% cocoa blocks, Cacao and Mocha, which are also proving popular. “The dark chocolate sales have gone up 13% in the past year,” Poole says.
He puts the increase down to people becoming more discerning about what they eat and publicity about the health benefits of the side of dark chocolate.
“There are a number of studies that show the higher cocoa content, the higher level of flavanols that have these potential health benefits,” he says.
“They perhaps reduce the instance of heart disease and strokes. They have a similar effect to the ones in red wine,” he says.
Further studies from researchers from Germany and the United States have found the flavanol, epicatechin, which improves circulation, is prevalent in cocoa.
Harvard Medical School Professor Norman Hollenberg believes epicatechin is so important it should be considered a vitamin.
Hollenberg has spent years studying the Kuna people of Panama, who drink up to 40 cups of cocoa each week.
He discovered that the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes is reduced to less than 10% among the Kuna community.
“If these observations predict the future, then we can say without blushing that they are among the most important observations in the history of medicine,” Hollenberg, is reported as saying.
“We all agree that penicillin and anaesthesia are enormously important, but epichatechin could potentially get rid of four of the five most common diseases in the world.”

FREAKY FACTS... Mmmm chocolate

1) Chocolate does melt in your mouth. Its melting point is 36 degrees Celsius, which is about the temperature of your tongue.
2) By eating 42.5 grams of milk chocolate, you get the same amount of protective compounds as in a 141-gram glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
3) Chocolate manufacturers use 40% of the world’s almonds and 20% of the world’s peanuts.
4) The dull white film that appears on the surface of chocolate is called fat bloom. This is a problem of appearance only, as the chocolate is still edible.
5) About 28 grams of milk chocolate contains 6mg of caffeine, little more than the amount found in a cup of decaffeinated coffee.

Keeping eye on southern sky

A BUNCH of Taranaki amateur astronomers have landed the job of patrolling the southern sky as part of an international collaboration.
The flipside is that astronomers at the Jarnac Observatory in Vail, Arizona, will also be able to check out the sky Down Under. And vice versa.
The night watchers, including comet spotter Rodney Austin, have been donated a $13,000 telescope (pictured) by American astronomer David Levy and his wife Wendee, plus the National Sharing the Sky Foundation.
Levy is a bright star in astronomy, especially because of his comet spotting. He has found 22 of the long-tailed icy gas-and-dust trails.
Together with Eugene and Caroline Shoemaker, he discovered Shoemaker-Levy 9. That’s the comet that collided with Jupiter in 1994, producing the most spectacular explosions ever witnessed in the solar system.
Austin says the brand new 14-inch Ritchey-Chretien reflector telescope touched down about a month ago.
“It came out of the blue,” he says.
Just like the offer of the telescope, made by Meade in the US.
Last year, Levy was a keynote speaker at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand conference in New Plymouth.
“David fell in love with the place,” says Austin (pictured). “There wasn’t a cloud over the province for 10 days. We got talking one day and he said ‘we have this foundation and we would like you to have one of these telescopes’.”
From Vail, Levy tells his version.
“We were very impressed with the enthusiasm of the people there during our visit in June and July of 2006,” he says.
“And then after we returned to the US, we tried letting them have a remote observing session with our telescope here in Arizona. That also was successful. We thought that collaboration would be beneficial.”
Levy explains why. “They get a nice telescope with which they can observe the southern sky and we hopefully get to use it remotely once the details are worked out.”Using an internet programme, the Taranaki team gets the opportunity to look at the flipside of space.
“They should be able to make Northern Hemisphere observations as well,” Levy says.
Austin says the remote observing, including the practice session, is a breakthrough for Kiwi amateur astronomers.
“As a training run, during a massive thunderstorm we had here, a group of us operated David Levy’s telescope in Arizona by remote control. As far as we know that was the first time in New Zealand that a bunch of amateurs operated a telescope overseas remotely.”
The donation is another first. “There have only been four telescopes donated so far, and we are the only ones outside the United States,” Austin says.
The Taranaki telescope is to be housed at a secret location in north Taranaki. Austin says to keep whereabouts of the star-watching instrument safe, its whereabouts cannot be revealed.
But this is not a closed-scope affair.
“It’s not going to be a visual telescope – it’s going to have a camera,” he says. “It will take images. The idea of the project is we will use it to patrol the southern sky looking for new comets and asteroids, which are bits of rock in the orbit around the sun,” he says of the latter.
It was also be able to record novae and supernovae (exploding stars) and minor planets. The stargazers then go over the photographs taken, looking for changes in planets and any foreign bodies.
While it’s not officially a New Plymouth Astronomical Society project, members are involved and those who have expertise will be able to contribute, he says.
Housing for the telescope is still being built, but it’s expected to be up-and-scanning by summer. Then the universe will be at their fingertips.

FREAKY FACTS... So much space

THE universe is unimaginably huge and filled with unknown stars, planets – and who knows, even life.
Just so you get an inkling of how huge the great beyond is, think about this.
Scientists estimate there are 10 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and about 10 billion galaxies in the universe.
It’s so big in fact, that the span of space is mainly measured in light years, or how far light can travel in a vacuum in one year.
That confounding figure is 9,460,730,472,580.8km or in more readable terms, nearly 10 trillion kilometres.
Here are some more staggering statistics:

1) If you were travelling at the speed of light you could fly around Earth’s equator seven-and-a-half times in just one second.
2) More than one million Earths could fit in our closest star – the Sun.
3) About 40,000 tonnes of cosmic dust falls to Earth each year.
4) Jupiter is as heavy as 317 Earths.
5) Wind speeds on Neptune, where the atmosphere is mainly made up of hydrogen, reach 2000km/h – 10 times as fast as the strongest tropical storms on earth.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Comet discovery better than a galaxy

WHEN stargazer Rodney Austin found his first comet he shrugged it off as “just another bloody galaxy”.
The New Zealand astronomer found Comet Austin 1982 M1 (pictured) on a miserable night 25 years ago, on June 18.

With his telescope awkwardly mounted on a grass verge about 15km up a country road near the city of New Plymouth and the sky becoming increasingly hazy, Mr Austin was ready to head home.
He was making a final sweep of space, when he found something. “A fuzzy thing passed through the field and I thought ‘oh, just another bloody galaxy’.”
But when he got his low-resolution charts out, he found there was nothing marked there. He then opened his high-resolution charts, but once again found no sign of a galaxy.
With excitement rising, he headed home to his parents’ house where he battled his way through boxes stacked in his bedroom to find extensive field charts of space.
To his delight, Mr Austin found nothing marked on the documents, which meant only one thing. “It’s a comet – it can only be a comet.”
He checked comet documents to see if anyone else had found one in this area of the sky. “There wasn’t a comet within 90 degrees of it.”
Then it hit him. “It was like being punched in the stomach and I thought ‘I’ve done it, I’ve found one’. Then I thought, ‘now what do I do? It’s half-past four in the morning’.”
So he went to bed, leaving a note for his mother to wake him up because something big had happened.
“She came in and I was as white as a sheet. I sat up in bed and said ‘I found a comet’.”
Next, he got up and rang the Mt John Observatory in the South Island and told the woman on duty of his sighting. “She said ‘that’s interesting’.”
Her comment told him what he wanted to hear: “I knew I had a new comet. You see if it hadn’t been reported it was my comet.”
And it was. Three days later Comet Austin was ratified to him.
Mr Austin has found two more comets since – one in 1984 and another in 1989. The latter got a huge amount of publicity. “It was predicted to do what Comet McNaught did, but failed. If it had, I would probably still be walking on cloud nine and living on the proceeds.”

MAD SCIENTISTS - smile for the camera


COMET man Rodney Austin never assumes we are alone in the universe – and he’s extra polite just in case.
“When I go out there and set up my telescope, I always give the sky a wave because you never know who might be waving a friendly tentacle back,” the New Zealand astronomer says.
There are 236 other named planets around other stars and billions of galaxies in the universe. “There have to be planets that have life,” he says.
“Astronomy is full of nuts.”
The one the 62-year-old Taranaki man believes is most worthy of the mad scientist mantle is American astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell (1855-1916).
While earlier stargazers claimed they could see canals on Mars, Lowell took it a step further, claiming they were irrigation channels (above) built by an intelligent life form.
“He even came up with a method to communicate with the Martians,” Austin says.
Despite being an eccentric, the scientist founded the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona, and led the search for the ninth planet.
But he never saw the discovery of Pluto, because he died 14 years before it was spotted in 1930. Last year, Pluto lost its planet ranking, when it was officially re-classified as a dwarf planet.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Vaccine helps fight cancer

THERE’S a war going on against cancer in Wellington.
At the Malaghan Institute, scientists are making a three-pronged attack on the disease, which causes nearly one third of deaths in New Zealand today.
One group, led by Professor Mike Berridge, is studying cancer stem cells (pictured) where the disease begins.
Another, headed by Professor Franca Ronchese is researching the different cells of our immune system responsible for fighting cancer.
The third group is the one at the frontline battling the disease in real-life patients.
This is the vaccine research group, led by Dr Ian Hermans, which is using the body’s own immune system to clean-up tumour sites in stage three melanoma patients.
Stage three is when the cancer has spread, or migrated to another part of the body and formed a new tumour. This is called a secondary growth or metastases.
It’s time to go into war-speak for better understanding of this campaign.
Imagine our bodies as land being fought over. In this land are many good citizens, which we will call normal cells. But some of these cells turn bad, dividing uncontrollably to form a group of abnormal cells called a tumour. This can invade and destroy the good citizens, taking over the land.
This is when the troops, in the form of the immune system, need to rally.
The “sergeants” are called dendritic cells, who tell the “soldiers”, or T cells, what to attack.
But there’s a problem. Because the cancer originates from normal cells or “good citizens” within the body, the sergeants often don’t recognise the enemy as foreign invaders.
To be able to fight back, the sergeants need to be able to know who to destroy.
This is where clinical trials project manager Julie Walton (left) steps in to “train” the dendritic cells of patients to identify the enemy within.
When Walton receives a tumour biopsy with sufficient usable cells from the Wellington Cancer Centre, she begins to prepare a vaccine for the person the cancer has come from.
She first kills the tumour cells so they don’t cause further cancer when injected back into the patient. The dead cells are then fed to dendritic cells grown from the patient’s own blood. The “sergeants” digest the tumour into tiny pieces and learn that this is the enemy.
The result is the vaccine, which is injected back into the patient. This time, the sergeants can recognise the invader and can correctly instruct the T cell soldiers to hunt out and destroy the tumour.
To ensure the immune system is fully informed, each patient in the clinical trial gets 13 vaccinations.
“As far as we know, we don’t know any type of cancer it won’t work with,” Walton says.
But the vaccine is not the start of the process.
Surgery and other cancer treatments are used first, followed by the immune system rearguard action to “clean up the last little bits of tumour remaining”.
“The biggest limiting factor with this is that we believe it only works with smaller tumours,” she says.
It takes 10 days to make the vaccine, and often involves 10- to 12-hour stretches of uninterrupted lab work
Walton says the vaccine research is a collaborated effort with the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane and started in 2004.
The trial aims to put 200 volunteer patients through the treatment and is now half way through. New Zealand is covering 10% or 20 of the patients involved and is on track to do so.
Volunteers are referred to the Malaghan Institute by their surgeon or oncologist, or other hospital specialist.
Asked if the trial is proving successful, Walton says it is too early to say.
However, the institute’s website states: “Previous clinical trials run by the Malaghan Institute have proven the validity of a vaccine for cancer, which is created in the laboratory from the patients’ own immune system cells and their cancer.”
Let’s hope the good citizens win.

Horseradish enzyme may hold key


HORSERADISH is at the centre of one cancer research project in Canterbury.
This is not the concoction you might dollop on your Sunday roast, but an extract from the plant, which is a member of the brassica family.
The Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences study is looking at a possible new gene therapy approach to cancer treatment using the enzyme, horseradish peroxidase (pictured).
Researchers are observing whether the enzyme can activate the painkiller, paracetamol, into a compound that kills cells.
The school, which is part of the University of Otago, is doing other major trials into preventing, curing and treating cancer, especially leukaemia.

FREAKY FACTS... the cancer epidemic

WHILE we may one day face another flu pandemic, bird delivered or not, we are already facing a full-blown crisis.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the Western World, including New Zealand. It’s only surpassed by heart disease.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in New Zealand women. For Kiwi men, prostate cancer is the No 1 foe.
But, according to the World Health Organisation and World Cancer Research Fund, we can do our best to reduce the risks.
Eating a healthy diet with five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, not smoking, staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, can cut the risk of cancer up to 40%.

Other scary cancer facts:
1) In 2005, more than 7.6 million people died of cancer out of 58 million deaths worldwide.
2) Based on projections, cancer deaths will continue to rise with an estimated 9 million people dying from cancer in 2015, and 11.4 million dying in 2030.
3) Child cancer patients in Third World countries have only a 20% rate of survival, while their counterparts in developed countries have an 80% chance of beating the disease.
4) There are more than 100 types of cancers and any part of the body can be affected.
5) One-fifth of all cancers worldwide are caused by a chronic infection, for example human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer and hepatitis B virus causes liver cancer.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Sensor pod holds unlimited learning

MICHAEL FENTON holds a black match-box-sized box and waves it like a sword.
The Inglewood High School teacher is showing how students might play laser tag with it at lunch-time.
Or they could use the “pod”, as he calls it, to measure, well, just about anything.
This wee sensor can gauge light, sound, heart rates, moisture, vibrations and even respiration. It runs on a watch cell battery and collects information in a microchip. It sends the data to a bigger black box, about the size of a block of butter. This is called the “hub”.
The hub feeds the data into a computer, which uses the software Fenton has written to interpret the material. On screen are four different graphs, showing what has been measured.
Fenton says the pod will be able to measure eight separate elements at once and be viewed on screen.
He (left, with student) envisages it being used to monitor an experiment in a school laboratory overnight and the students being able to check progress by logging on to the school’s website.
It could also be used to measure the pH balance of liquid, count cars, activate alarms and even help schoolchildren keep fit via the laser tag.
But can it make a cup of coffee?
Fenton says yes.
The pod can be two-way. It can send out signals and receive them, so could be easily rigged to switch on a coffee machine.
This may sound far-fetched, but the Taranaki scientist has been testing his Real-world Interactive Games and Electronics Link (RIGEL) system in true-life situations.
His lab rats are his students. It’s OK, they don’t get harmed, but they do get to extend their minds, think outside the box and come up with things to measure.
One of his year 13 students, Robert McEwen (17), has been trying it out in his own time.
“He’s bought some of this stuff (equipment) to try this at home,” Fenton says.
Another student, Sam McSweeney (17), has been enjoying calculus because of RIGEL and its inventor. “He puts it into real-life problems – like using a car.”
The pod can be used to measure engine performance, a fact that has revved up the boys in his class.
Fenton hopes it does way more than that. “This truly of national significance,” he says. “It can be used for cross-curriculum learning.”
The Ministry of Education is always talking about this concept, says Fenton, who has taught biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computing and electronics to tertiary level as well as at various secondary schools.
So, after two years quietly pottering away, he’s come up with a gizmo that embraces that idea.
“I can imagine that every student in a school could be issued with the device as part of their stationery – RIGEL becomes as essential as having pens or a calculator.”
He says the pods will cost about $10 per student, which is tens if not hundreds of dollars cheaper than any sensor system now on the market.
“They (other systems) are called data loggers, so this is the Kiwi No 8 wire version, but it works pretty well I reckon.”

MAD SCIENTIST - Dr Who comes to life

TARANAKI inventor Michael Fenton grew up on a square-meal diet of science-fiction television.
He feasted on the likes of Star Trek, Lost in Space, Dr Who and Land of the Giants.
“When I became a scientist I never did any of that stuff; nobody makes you invisible by accident,” Fenton says.
He’s done his best to create a few illusions for his daughters though.
Over the years, the Dr Who fan has co-created a full-sized Dalek robot (right), which the girls can climb into and make talk.
He’s also built a Tardis, which is a time machine in the shape of a police phone box. Daughter Jamie (14) says it makes the appearing and disappearing sounds it does on the British TV show.
For Christmas presents he creates computer games for his girls, including one featuring the cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants.
So far, his daughters have not been transported to alternate universes, been turned into flies or made invisible. And he’s never had to tell wife Christine: “Honey I shrunk the kids.”