Medical Breakthrough – Gizmocrazed – Future Technology News Artificial Intelligence, Medical Breakthroughs, Virtual Reality Thu, 22 Mar 2018 05:32:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Brain Scanner Fits Right Atop the Head Thu, 22 Mar 2018 03:40:33 +0000 New Brain Scanner Fits Right Atop the Head

The MEG helmet. (Credit: Wellcome)

When it comes to observing the inner workings of our brains, there are a few ways we can do it. But, for most, bulky machines and carefully controlled environments are the norm. The traditional trade-off researchers face for a glimpse inside the mind is a mind that’s constrained in some fairly unnatural ways. It can make doing research on how the brain works during basic human activities difficult.

Researchers from the U.K., however, have found a better way to get inside our heads. They’ve designed a helmet equipped with sensitive scanners that they say can precisely monitor the activity of neurons in the brain, while still allowing the wearer to move relatively freely. The device should allow researchers to get much better data on children and those with disabilities, as well on a broad range of activities requiring movement they couldn’t before.

Measuring Magnetism

The helmet itself resembles an odd mash-up of medieval and futuristic sensibilities. It covers most of the subject’s head, and thick wires snake from the top, where an array of magnetic sensors is positioned. The sensors pick up on magnetic fields generated by electrical impulses in the brain, which occur when synapses fire. Measuring the strength and position of these magnetic fields allows researchers to see which regions of the brain are activated during particular activities and helps them both to diagnose problems and better understand the overall layout of the brain.

It’s a technique known as magnetoencephalography or MEG and it’s one of several tools researchers use to study the brain. Other common techniques include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG)—there are benefits and drawbacks to each. MEG is attractive to researchers because it allows for more precise imaging than EEG does, and lets researchers pinpoint the timing of brain activity with more accuracy than MRI.

Crucial to the design of the MEG helmet is a new kind of sensor that doesn’t need to be super-cooled to work. Traditional MEG machines rely on magnetic sensors cooled to less than -450 degrees Fahrenheit, and the machinery required to do so makes them bulky and immobile. It also means that the sensors must be kept away from the subject’s head, decreasing the device’s precision. Those getting an MEG must keep very still while the scan is underway — movements of even 5 millimeters can render the results useless. The end result is that scans of people doing normal activities, and of restless children and those with diseases like Parkinson’s, are nearly impossible.

Wearable Tech

The new sensor, though, is smaller and can be fitted into the helmet. It works by shining a laser through a cloud of heated rubidium isotope atoms and monitoring for dips in luminosity. The rubidium atoms are sensitive to magnetic fields, and they disrupt the laser beam ever so slightly in the presence of magnetism. The researchers published their work Wednesday in Nature.

The magnetic fields our brains generate are miniscule on the order of femtoteslas. They’re several orders of magnitude less than the Earth’s own magnetic field, and it means that protective shielding is needed for MEG machines. To make their helmet work, the researchers’ final design includes a pair of electromagnetic coils that generate a field exactly equal, and opposite to, that of the Earth’s, creating a space effectively without outside magnetism.

With the coils in place, the researchers tested the helmet on people doing a range of motions. This included everything from drinking a cup of tea to bouncing a ping-pong ball on a paddle — actions that would have been unthinkable in a normal MEG machine. Their device’s results were comparable to those from a normal MEG in a side-by-side comparison of more traditional tasks, they say, and should allow for even greater precision because the sensors are closer to the scalp.

The range of motion is still a bit limited — subjects can’t move more than a few inches in any direction, but it’s enough to greatly expand the uses of MEG devices. The researchers suggest that their helmet could, in the future, help to research neural development in children, study diseases involving physical disabilities and observe subject’s brains as they perform natural actions that were impossible while surrounded by the constricting hood traditional MEG machines utilize. This means bouncing ping-pong balls, but also things like the development of motor functions and how they break down in disease.

Are Airplanes Really a Microbial Playground? Wed, 21 Mar 2018 03:40:35 +0000 Are Airplanes Really a Microbial Playground?

(credit: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock)

Crying babies, chronic snorers — they’re the usual targets of our displeasure when we fly. But, the real villains of the sky might be germs.

Flyers are packed into a cramped metal tube for hours on end where movement is limited. It seems like a microbe’s playground. But research on the topic is a bit inconclusive, despite worrying cases involving SARS and an aggressive type of influenza. Studies suggest that caution is warranted, but researchers have so far had trouble saying exactly how air travel affects disease transmission. At the moment, public health guidelines state that anyone within two rows of an infected individual could be at risk, although other studies suggest otherwise.

Fly the Germy Skies?

Most recently, a team of researchers from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology—funded by Boeing—conducted their own boots-on-the-plane study of infectious disease transmission aboard commercial aircraft. On 10 flights from Atlanta to the West Coast and back, they took swabbed samples of various surfaces and recorded how often passengers and crew members moved around. Pairing the data with models of air movement and microbe dispersion gave them an idea of just how far a potential pathogen might travel.

Their findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that a sick neighbor is certainly something to worry about when flying. Those within a row of a sick person and within two seats to either side had an 80 percent chance of getting sick in their model, which used a fairly high assumed rate of transmission. The risk of infection drops off sharply after that, though. Those more than a few seats away had little to worry about. That’s even closer than the two row-minimum suggested by public health agencies.

A sick crew member, however, posed a little more danger. They move around the cabin more and have more contact with passengers, so the risk of transmission increases. Just one sick flight attendant infected almost five people on average in the researcher’s model. That’s a big number, but it does make some assumptions, the biggest of which is that sick crew members even come in to work. It’s more likely that they would just stay home.

Back Down to Earth

There are difficulties in modeling disease transmission rates on such a small scale like this, and this particular study wasn’t very big. They looked at just ten flights and the longest was only a bit over five hours. International flights can go for fifteen hours or longer, and involve much more movement on the part of passengers, something that could increase the risk of infection.

Their model also only looked at microbes that could be carried by droplets, which don’t travel very far. Viruses spread by smaller aerosol particles could circulate much longer and farther. This includes diseases like tuberculosis and measles. Air travel also involves extended periods of contact with other passengers at boarding gates, security checkpoints and elsewhere, and this could affect rates of transmission as well.

It’s also worth pointing out that we encounter similarly confined, crowded spaces during the course of our daily lives. Buses, movie theaters, workplaces and more pose the same sort of risks, though the authors don’t provide any measure of comparison here. Airplanes, do, however, travel long distances very quickly, something that can turn a local epidemic into a pandemic within days. That hasn’t happened yet, though scattered cases involving SARS and Ebola, among other diseases, have stoked worry.

Ultimately, a review of the scientific literature on the topic found moderate evidence that airplane cabins helped to spread influenza. This latest study doesn’t really change that, though it does reveal the danger that an infected crew member poses.

So, for flight attendants — and for all of us, really — if you’re sick, just stay home.

This Optical Illusion Could Help to Diagnose Autism Fri, 16 Mar 2018 03:40:27 +0000 This Optical Illusion Could Help to Diagnose Autism

(Credit: Turi et al., eLife, 7:e32399, 2018)

You probably see a cylinder when you look at the illusion above. But how our brains translate two intersecting sheets of moving dots into a 3D image reveals telling differences in visual perception that could perhaps help diagnose autism spectrum disorder.

It’s been shown that people with autism are better at picking out the details of complex images, at the cost of understanding what all those details mean when put together. This can mean seeing the trees, but not the forest, or the strokes of a paintbrush but not the subject of a painting. It’s a trait that’s supported by years of research, but it can be difficult to assess exactly how an individual perceives an image just by asking them questions. The cylinder illusion, applied here by a group of researchers from Italy and Australia, offers a more reliable way of telling what a subject is seeing.

Grow and Shrink

It comes down to the pupils. Our pupils are responsive to light, but they also widen and constrict in response to the notion of brightness or darkness, even if light levels remains the same. Here, the white dots are perceived as brighter, and the black dots as darker, and our pupils respond accordingly. It’s a way for the researchers to tell what parts of the illusion study participants are focusing on. They published their findings in March in the journal eLife.

The illusion itself relies on our brain’s assumptions of how a rotating cylinder behaves. The dots cross over each other just as marks on a transparent cylinder would, they even slow down at the edges to give the impression of curvature. The two colors give imply depth, though a closer look reveals that neither actually seems to be in front — some white dots cross over black dots, and some black over white. It allows us to reverse the cylinder’s apparent direction by focusing on one color over the other. Importantly for the researchers, the illusion is composed of both discrete details in the form of the dots, and a holistic image, in the form of the cylinder. Having both allows them to see which component their study participants favor.

They asked 50 adults, none of whom had autism, to watch the illusion, and while they were doing so, the researchers were watching them — their pupils at least. They wanted to see whether their pupils changed size rapidly throughout the experiment or stayed the same. If they changed size, it indicated that the participants were switching focus back and forth between the white and the black dots — i.e. they were focused on the details of the images. If their pupils stayed about the same, they were likely focused on both at once, meaning they saw the image as a whole. Crucially, both methods of perception produce the same cylinder illusion. But how they do so differs.


Before taking the test, the subjects all took the autism spectrum quotient, a self-reported questionnaire that measures various behaviors associated with autism. Higher scores indicate more correlation with autistic traits. When they paired scores on the test with measurements of pupil dilation and contraction, they saw that they were clearly related. Those whose pupils changed with greater frequency also reported more autistic traits. It was another validation of the theory that those with autism tend to focus on specific details as opposed to entire images.

Remember, none of the subjects had been formally diagnosed with autism, and none of their scores on the test indicated that they should be. In fact, the mean value of the test scores was about average. But, autism is a spectrum, and we all lie on it somewhere. Even in nominally average individuals, a tendency toward autistic traits was associated with a propensity to focus on details over holistic images. It adds further evidence that autism alters how we process visual information, and hints that it extends beyond those diagnosed with the disorder. The researchers say measuring changes in pupil size could potentially serve as another means of diagnosing autism.

The results are still a bit preliminary, so it’s too soon to draw definite conclusions based on their work. The surveys were all self-reported, for one thing, which can skew results a bit. And the study involved participants without autism, meaning that we’d need to see similar work in those with autism spectrum disorder to back up their findings.

But, with more research, the authors think their research could be used to perform assessments of those with autism who are non-verbal, which can happen in children. It would give doctors and teachers a way to get information from those who may not be able to communicate it themselves.

Fasting and Exercise: A Perfect Pair? Mon, 12 Mar 2018 03:40:27 +0000 Fasting and Exercise: A Perfect Pair?

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Athletes training for endurance competitions tend to eat a lot, especially carbohydrates, which produce glucose to fuel the muscles. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps took in 12,000 calories a day during the 2008 Summer Olympics, for example. Regimented nutrition diets are also popular among athletes. The top Mixed Martial Arts fighters employ full-time nutritionists who prepare each meal for them.

But fasting?

More bodybuilders, professional cyclists and other athletes are turning up their nose at food. Some of them fast two days a week by eating about 600 calories a day (not a fast proper, but enough to achieve its metabolic effects) and then eating regularly the other five days. In shoptalk, this is called the 5:2 diet. Meanwhile, these athletes are doing aerobics and strengthening exercises – in other words, full training.

At first this sounds odd. Exercise uses energy that needs to be replenished by food. How could fasting work into the equation? And yet an animal study released this week offers evidence that fasting and exercise work well together, even increasing endurance.

Super Mice

Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University and head of the neurosciences lab at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Md., says that, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that fasting and exercise might have a synergistic effect. Our pre-historic ancestors likely went without food for long stretches and hunted on an empty stomach, Mattson says. To catch prey, their survival depended on peak mental and physical performance.

“Individuals whose brains and bodies function well in the fasting state had a survival advantage,” says Mattson, who coauthored the study that appeared Tuesday on the website for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

In the study, mice were placed in groups: One group ate as much as it wanted and exercised 45 minutes each day on a treadmill; a second group fasted every other day and exercised 45 minutes on a treadmill; and a third group also fasted every other day but did not exercise. A control group of mice ate whatever it wanted and did not exercise. The diet was standard high carb. The study lasted two months.

The mice who fasted and exercised had better wheel endurance, in some cases up to 30 percent, than mice in all four groups. This was despite the fact that the exercising mice were taking in 10 to 15 percent fewer calories than the sedentary mice. “The key finding is that intermittent fasting during a period of daily running results in enhanced endurance,” Mattson says.

The paper mentions that a group of professional cyclists who fasted overnight (no breakfast) had better race times the following day than on the days when they didn’t fast. The paper also discusses a study of men who fasted for 16 hours a day while performing strengthening exercises regularly. The men lost body fat and gained muscle mass despite the caloric restriction. For people who regularly fast or are on a diet, strengthening exercises can prevent loss of muscle mass by increasing fatty acid oxidation in muscle cells, the paper says.

The authors of the mice study claim that during a 12- to 16-hour fast, the body depletes its energy source of glucose, or sugar, in the liver. The body switches to fatty acids for fuel. Instead of burning sugars, the body burns fat, a more efficient source of energy. This mobilizes ketone bodies.

Ketones have almost magical affects on the body and, according to some scientists, on the mind, as well. The metabolic change from glucose to ketones has been associated in human and other animal studies with better health and greater resistance to chronic diseases. Cognitive studies suggest the brain becomes sharper when ketones are activated — think ancient hunter with an empty belly chasing and outwitting quarry.

In the mice study, the exercising and fasting animals “used fats (as energy) much more than those not on intermittent fasting,” Mattson says. “Their ketones were way up. The exercise enhances the effects of intermittent fasting.”

Keto Mania

In recent years, ketone chatter has made its way into popular culture. Many celebrities — such as socialite Kim Kardashian, actress Halle Berry and country musician Tim McGraw — are on the keto diet, which consists of low carbs and high fats. Basketball stars Lebron James and Kobe Bryant have also gone keto.

The diet is thought to simulate the benefits of intermittent fasting by forcing the body to use fat as a fuel source. A low-carb diet such as the keto diet can lower glucose levels and activate ketone bodies, scientists say. Dieters get the healthful effects of fasting without actually doing it.

But studies are mixed on whether the keto diet improves endurance, and a lot of dietitians are skeptical of its nutritional profile.

Michelle Harvie, a research dietitian in Manchester, England, who co-developed the 5:2 diet, says people lose weight on the keto diet, but the diet lacks fiber and has a lot of saturated fats, which put people at risk for cardiovascular diseases.

“And there is increasing evidence that its effect on the gut microbiome is pretty adverse,” she says. “The gut microbiome is a poorly understood but potentially important part of our metabolic health.”

As for intermittent fasting, Harvie says human studies show it’s an effective way to lose weight. Mattson goes further. Besides increasing endurance, fasting for 12 to 16 hours can “increase activity in neuronal networks involved in learning and memory,” he says.

Harvie hopes for a fasting revolution. “At the end of the day, [in the U.K.] and in the U.S., there is no fast,” Harvie says. “There is just a constant graze from dusk to dawn and even in the middle of the night. So I think we need to get back to some sort of pattern or spells of not eating.”

Red Wine Could Yield a Better Toothpaste Sun, 11 Mar 2018 03:40:33 +0000 Red Wine Could Yield a Better Toothpaste

Don’t open wine like this. As my dentist says, “Your teeth are jewels, not tools.” (Credit: Shutterstock)

Red wine colors your tongue, but your teeth may not mind a little juice of the vine.

Sipping moderate—keyword, moderate—amounts of wine on a regular basis can be good for your colon, heart, immune system and mental health. Wine, after all, was at the core of the so-called “French paradox,” or the observation in 1980 that cardiovascular disease was far less prevalent among the French, despite their penchant for saturated fats, low activity levels and cigarettes. The outlier: The French also consumed more wine per capita than other nations.

It was a simple, elegant excuse to wash your indulgences down with a glass of vino. Of course, correlation isn’t always causation, and the French paradox failed to incorporate a host of other variables that contributed to good health in France. Although the paradox has faded with time, scrutinizing it led to a lot of solid research into the secrets of wine.

Scientists now know that wine is an elixir of polyphenols, which are metabolites with antioxidant qualities found in grape skins and other plant fibers. In wine, there are several hundred varieties, which all affect a wine’s flavor, taste and mouthfeel. The beneficial action from polyphenols is thought to occur as they interact with bacteria in the gut, producing useful byproducts. But that metabolic action begins as soon as wine hits your lips, where oral bacteria and enzymes in your mouth work at the beginning of the value chain. However, there hasn’t been much research into how bacteria and wine polyphenols dance together in the mouth.

The oral microbiome contains more than 700 species of bacteria, all milling about eating and pooping inside your mouth. Most bacterial species gather in dental plaque, and while many of those bacterial squatters are beneficial to oral health, others can cause gingivitis, cavities and other periodontal diseases.

Researchers focused their work on two red wine polyphenols—caffeic and p-coumaric acids—to see how they interacted with bacteria that stick to teeth. A key step in an infection is microbial adhesion to connective tissue cells in the mouth. Using cells that modeled gum tissues, they found that caffeic and p-coumaric acids reduced the ability of Streptococcus mutans, the culprit behind cavities, and Porphyromonas gingivalis, responsible for inflammation, to adhere to cells.

When researchers combined the pair of polyphenols with Streptococcus dentisani, an oral probiotic, they were even better at debilitating harmful bacteria. M. Victoria Moreno-Arribas and colleagues published their study Wednesday in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

By no means does this mean you should swap your toothpaste with Merlot. Rather, this study simply isolated two chemicals that could be interesting candidates for future oral health research. Perhaps there are more useful polyphenols in wine that could be spun into products to manage periodontal disease? Could you make a better toothpaste?

“Our study, based on an in vitro model of bacterial adherence results, is very useful as an initial approach to go deeper into the mechanisms of action of red wine polyphenols against oral diseases,” the researchers wrote in their study.

We’ll toast to that.

Daylight Saving Time Has a Dark Side Sat, 10 Mar 2018 03:40:28 +0000 Daylight Saving Time Has a Dark Side

A New York engineer is wheeled away in December 2013, after a train he was driving crashed. Lack of sleep could have been a factor. (Credit: AP Photo/Robert Stolarik)

A train hurtled around a corner at 82 mph, eventually coming off the rails and killing four passengers.

Decades earlier, faulty decision-making resulted in the deaths of the seven-person crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Years before these events, a stuck valve regulating the supply of coolant to a nuclear reactor nearly resulted in the meltdown of a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. In each of these cases, poor or inadequate sleep was one of the factors that contributed to the failure.

Even if you are not an engineer working in one of those contexts, the odds are pretty good that you occasionally get a poor night’s sleep. In fact, over one-third of American adults sleep less than the suggested minimum seven hours a night and two-thirds of American teens sleep less than their minimum recommended eight hours. Even for those with good sleep hygiene, there is one time of year when you are likely to be short on sleep – the annual shift to daylight saving time.

As an organizational psychologist at the University of Oregon, I have examined a variety of ways in which sleep affects employees. In particular, my colleagues and I investigate how circadian misalignment caused by the shift to daylight saving time leads to costly work and social outcomes.

Even with the extra daylight, the facts don’t look so good

The American public has had a love-hate relationship with daylight saving time since it first became law in 1918. Personal preferences aside, the empirical evidence for the intended benefits of daylight saving time are mixed at best, whereas the costs of the switch to daylight saving time are becoming increasingly evident.

At the crux of these costs is the effect of the time shift on our sleep patterns. When we spring forward, the clocks on the wall advance, but our body clocks do not change so readily. It generally takes a few days for us to adapt to the time change in a way that allows us to fall asleep at our typical time. The upshot is that Americans sleep approximately 40 minutes less than usual on the Sunday to Monday night following the switch.

Along with my colleague, I first examined how the shift to daylight saving time affected workers in blue-collar settings. Using a database of mining injuries from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, we discovered that the spring shift to daylight saving time resulted in a 6 percent increase in mining injuries and a 67 percent increase in workdays lost because of these injuries.

Hazards even if you work above ground

Although these findings might raise some concern, you may have more experience with computers than with mining equipment, and you are probably reading this article at work. It makes sense then to consider how the shift to daylight saving time influences workers in white-collar settings.

We set out to understand these possible effects by examining how people were using their internet access on the day following the time change. By examining internet search patterns over six years in over 200 different American metro areas, we found that searches for entertainment or related categories were much more prevalent (3.1-6.4 percent) on the Monday immediately following the time change than they were on the Mondays before and after the time change. Given that much of this search activity was conducted at work, we concluded that workers are misusing their internet access when they should be working – a behavior called cyberloafing. Such loafing on the job following the time change suggests that people are less productive when mildly sleep deprived due to the time change.


Misusing computers at work can be costly. (Credit: rawpixel/

Based solely on the findings from our two studies, along with a study showing that the time change predicts a 5 percent increased incidence of heart attacks, economists estimate that the annual spring time change costs the American economy US$434 million each year. Yet that is not where the costs end.

Daylight saving time affects our judgment

Our research has also revealed that the shift to daylight saving time influences our ability to perceive the moral features of a given situation. We again examined internet search behavior and followed up with our own experiment. In the experiment we kept half of our research participants awake throughout the night and allowed the other half to get a full night of sleep. The next day we presented them with scenarios that contained varying levels of moral content.


We found that the day following the shift to daylight saving time, or following a night of sleep deprivation, people were less able to discern when a situation involved issues of moral relevance than when they were well rested.

The time change also affects our judgment in formal settings. A recent study found that judges hand out harsher sentences — 5 percent longer in duration — the Monday following the time change, as compared to other days of the year. This means that sleep and public policy related to sleep could be influencing important decisions that should be impartial.

Judges mete out longer sentences after the time change, a study found. (Credit: Denis Simonov/

These studies are only the tip of the iceberg, with adverse consequence of the time change ranging from student test scores to stock market returns.

No matter your sentiment toward daylight saving time, accumulating evidence reveals that the costs of shifting to daylight saving time cut across society. Although the negative outcomes are varied, the singular solution seems quite simple: Rather than change the clocks, we should change public policy. Many state legislatures have taken up this cause, with statehouses coast to coast reconsidering the annual practice.

The ConversationAs the research evidence is considered, other states could end up joining Arizona and Hawaii in abstaining from the annual daylight saving time madness. As we move toward that possibility, we may find it easier to save lives and money rather than chase the daylight.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Quest for a Peaceful Death Fri, 09 Mar 2018 03:40:22 +0000 Quest for a Peaceful Death

When a cancer patient has run out of options — when her disease has returned and the latest experimental drug has failed and her oncologist hasn’t much to say — that’s when the patient would be fortunate to meet Tracy Balboni. She’s a radiation oncologist and palliative care researcher at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She works at the murky stage of care known as end-of-life, where decisions about additional treatment can be complicated by fear and pain.

Simply put, Balboni’s job is to relieve the pain and provide the highest quality of life possible. Her more conventional tool is radiotherapy. Normally radiation oncologists attack tumors with as much force as the patient can stand, in an effort to eliminate the disease. Palliative radiation oncologists like Balboni, treating advanced cases, use doses of radiation that are extremely quick. They may, for example, try to reduce a spinal tumor lest a person become paralyzed, or shrink malignant obstructions in the abdomen. “You’re using the technology to help patients live better,” Balboni says. “Today we have patients living much longer with their cancers. Instead of two months it might be 10 years. Yes, we need to cure, but in the setting where we can’t cure, we need to use these tools in a way so that patients can live well as long as possible.”

Coffee: A Most Enigmatic, Ubiquitous Beverage Thu, 08 Mar 2018 03:40:31 +0000 Coffee: A Most Enigmatic, Ubiquitous Beverage

Legend has it that coffee was discovered by a goat herder around 850 AD in what is now Ethiopia. It soon spread around the globe and is currently consumed by billions of people every day. But as the drink gained in popularity, it also gained a bad rap. From claims that coffee led to illegal sex in the 1500s, or that it caused impotence in the 1600s, to the more recent belief that it stunted your growth, history has not been kind to coffee.

In recent years, rumors have been replaced by scores of scientific studies. But reading through the research can be dizzying, as you’ll often come across a conclusion that directly opposes another you just read. In fact, it’s unlikely that any single study would yield enough evidence to convince us about the health effects of coffee one way or another. So some scientists instead focus compiling these disparate findings into mega-studies called meta-analyses. Eventually, the meta-analyses became so numerous that scientists started aggregating those into what are known as umbrella reviews to see if they could glean any general wisdom about coffee’s effects.

Two umbrella reviews were published last year (here and here), and their findings flew in the face of centuries of coffee gossip. The verdict was that coffee drinking is linked to lowered risk of myriad diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, a few types of cancer, liver disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and depression—not too shabby. Above all, coffee drinkers were less likely to die early from any cause. And with the possible exception of drinking it while pregnant, there were no negative effects to speak of.

“The key message is that with the evidence that we have up to date, we can say that coffee can be part of a healthy diet,” says nutritional epidemiologist Giuseppe Grosse at the University of Catania in Italy and lead author of one of the umbrella reviews.

Grosso also notes that the verdict could change. That’s because, for all of the studies out there, there’s still a whole lot we don’t know about the effects of coffee on our health. Here are some of the lingering questions that researchers are digging into.

What have genes got to do with it?


Although studies are beginning to converge on the benefits of coffee, it’s hard to ignore the often-opposing findings. A major culprit has been that pesky variable of genetic diversity among study participants, which surprisingly, is rarely considered.

Take the gene CYP1A2, which encodes an enzyme of the same name that breaks down caffeine. One variant of this gene produces an enzyme that does the job quickly—at least for those who inherit two copies of it from their parents. People who inherit the other form of the gene are slower to process caffeine, so it hangs around in their bloodstream for longer. It turns out that whether you’re a fast or slow metabolizer helps to determine the toll that glugging coffee will take on your body.

Heart attacks are a prime example. For a long time, drinking coffee was thought to raise the risk of heart attack. But when researchers sequenced the CYP1A2 genes of coffee drinkers, they found that the risk was only heightened for those with the slow caffeine metabolism version of the gene.

Marilyn Cornelis, a geneticist at Northwestern University who led the study, has since searched far and wide across the genome, and zeroed in on additional genes that, like CYP1A2, help govern how the body processes caffeine. She’s still on the hunt for more.

“Very few studies have actually accounted for genetic variation,” says Cornelis. This omission may explain many of the inconsistent findings reported both in scientific journals and in the news. “What’s kind of cool now is that you look at these more recent studies they finally at least note the limitation of not including that variation.”

What makes coffee good for you?


Although coffee is often equated with caffeine, the two are not synonymous. A seemingly simple cup of coffee is actually a complex blend of more than a thousand chemical compounds, including caffeine, chlorogenic acids and diterpenes.

Peter Martin, the founder of the Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies, says now that people are starting to accept that coffee has health benefits, the next logical question for scientists to ask is: How?

“Mechanistically, we don’t quite know how increased rates of coffee consumption can reduce rates of things like Alzheimer’s disease, various forms of cancer, depression, and Parkinson’s disease,” he says.

The answers may be as numerous as the diseases in question. Caffeine seems to be responsible for protecting coffee drinkers against Parkinson’s, for instance, but when it comes to guarding against type 2 diabetes, you’re just as well off if you prefer decaf. Clearly, there’s more to it than caffeine alone.

Many of the compounds found in coffee are antioxidants. That means they protect our cells by disarming dangerous molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can damage our DNA and proteins. “It’s easy to assume it’s a general mechanism, such as antioxidants, that works for practically every disease,” says Martin, but these antioxidant effects are probably just one piece of the puzzle.

How much coffee should you drink?


Coffee may have health benefits, but how many cups should you be knocking back on a daily basis?

Once again, part of the answer may lie in your genes. Those stretches of DNA that control how your body processes caffeine may explain why some people feel fine after six cups, whereas others will get jittery and anxious after just one. “I think it’s important to find out what subgroups of the population should not be consuming coffee or limit their caffeine intake,” says Marilyn Cornelis.

Fortunately, we are naturally equipped to regulate our coffee consumption to some extent, according to Cornelis’ research. She discovered that people tend to adapt their coffee-drinking habits to reach their own caffeine sweet spot—the point at which they feel good but not jittery.

Nonetheless, recent headlines have touted 3 to 4 cups per day as optimal. That number was linked to the best outcomes for multiple diseases in one of the big review articles published last year.

Taking that number as a one-size-fits-all guideline is problematic because, aside from ignoring genetic differences, there is also the issue of what ‘a cup of coffee’ means chemically. It could mean a big cup or a small cup, instant coffee or fresh brewed, and a light, medium, or dark roast. Each version of a cup contains different levels of biologically important chemicals like caffeine, yet most of what we know about coffee and health still comes from studies that measure coffee consumption in terms of cups.

How does coffee impact pregnancy?


Just about every aspect of health impacted by coffee-drinking deserves deeper study, but one in particular stands out.

“I would nominate the effect of caffeine on pregnancy as probably the most serious and tough problem to figure out,” says David Schardt, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

March of Dimes recommends that pregnant women limit themselves to 200 mg of caffeine per day, which is roughly the amount in one big cup of coffee. But they preface that number with an admission: “We don’t know a lot about the effects of caffeine during pregnancy on you and your baby. So it’s best to limit the amount you get each day.”

It’s true that little is known on the topic, and for good reason. When it comes to pregnancy, researchers rely on observational studies, which are often plagued by hidden factors that are not part of the study but still sway the results. That’s because randomized controlled studies—considered the gold standard of medicine—are out of the question for pregnant women, says Schardt.

“You would never randomly assign pregnant women to consume caffeine or not because if it turns out to be harmful, that would be unethical,” he says.

Saddled with lower-quality data, scientists have found that drinking coffee while pregnant may be linked to low birth weight, preterm birth, and pregnancy loss. Caffeine can pass through the placenta, where it gets broken down slowly because the fetus’ version of the caffeine-processing enzyme CYP1A2 doesn’t work as hard. That means when a pregnant mother drinks caffeine, the fetus gets prolonged exposure to the chemical. Still, with mainly observational data to go on, it’s hard to pin down if and how caffeine ultimately affects pregnancy.

(All images by Tevs Iuliia/Shutterstock)

Do Science With Your Loved Ones This Valentine's Day! Wed, 07 Mar 2018 03:40:32 +0000 Do Science With Your Loved Ones This Valentine's Day!

No Easy Fix Tue, 06 Mar 2018 03:40:26 +0000 No Easy Fix

A 40-year-old woman transforms her life after weight-loss surgery, only to see the pounds return and her life spiral downward.

Rebecca came to my clinic complaining of weight gain. This wasn’t my usual case. As a gastroenterologist, I typically hear concerns over weight loss, which suggests a serious medical condition. Since adolescence, the 40-year-old had struggled physically and emotionally with obesity and eating issues. About three years before she landed in my office, she had a gastric bypass procedure to help her lose weight. The surgery was an unqualified success, and Rebecca, who had weighed 280 pounds…

The full text of this article is available to Discover Magazine subscribers only.

Subscribe and get 10 issues packed with:

  • The latest news, theories and developments in the world of science
  • Compelling stories and breakthroughs in health, medicine and the mind
  • Environmental issues and their relevance to daily life
  • Cutting-edge technology and its impact on our future
Already a subscriber? Register now!

Registration is FREE and takes only a few seconds to complete. If you are already registered on, please log in.