Latest research news

February 1, 2006

Mediterranean diet 'reduces birth defects'
The Mediterranean diet has already been credited with increasing life expectancy levels in southern Europe. Now research has revealed that it may also contribute to the health of the unborn child in the womb. According to the first comprehensive estimate of the global burden of birth defects, France has the lowest incidence rate in the world, and researchers believe the Mediterranean diet could be the reason. A high daily intake of leafy vegetables, high in folic acid and a staple of most Mediterranean cooking regimes, ensures that France, Italy and Spain fare significantly better than other nations in avoiding defects such as congenital heart problems and spina bifida. The French rate of 39.7 babies born with birth defects per 1,000 live births is less than half that in the Sudan, which has the highest rate in the world, at 82 per 1,000 live births. The UK ranks ninth in the table, behind Spain and Italy, with 43.8 affected babies per 1,000 live births.
The Independent

Prions give boost to stem cells
Researchers have found clues to what prion proteins might be doing when they are not triggering brain disease: it seems they help certain stem cells to copy themselves. Prion proteins can take two different forms: normal, and misfolded. When warped into an odd shape, they are thought to cause a family of debilitating brain conditions including bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Researchers have puzzled over what prions do in their other, healthy form. The fact that these are found throughout the bodies of mammals suggests that they are important. But bizarrely, mice genetically engineered to lack prion proteins seem to do fine without them.
Nature, The Times

Alternative livestock drug should be used to avert bird extinctions, say researchers
Conservationists battling to save South Asia's vultures have renewed their calls for a regional ban on the widely prescribed livestock drug diclofenac, which is responsible for the fatal poisoning of millions of birds over the past decade. Their case has been boosted by new research showing that an alternative drug, with the same pain-killing effects as diclofenac, does not harm the vultures; they argue that this should be brought in as an immediate replacement.
Nature, The Independent

Cosmic rays linked to cloudy days
These high-energy particles originate in outer space and in solar flares, and can have a small but significant effect on the weather, increasing the chances of an overcast day by nearly 20 per cent. Giles Harrison and David Stephenson from the University of Reading, examined 50 years of solar radiation measurements from sites all over the country, enabling them to calculate daily changes in cloudiness. By comparing this data with neutron counts - a measure of cosmic ray activity - for the same period, the scientists have shown an unambiguous link between cosmic rays and clouds. "The odds of a cloudy day increase by around 20 per cent when the cosmic ray flux is high," says Harrison, amounting to a few extra days of cloudiness per year.
New Scientist

Fruit and vegetable menu 'reduces stroke risk by 25 per cent'
About 30,000 people could be saved from death or disability caused by strokes if they ate more fruit and vegetables, according to research to be published today. Researchers found that people who eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day reduce their risk of suffering a stroke by more than a quarter compared with those who consume less than three servings. It has been known for some time that fruit and vegetable consumption cuts stroke risk, however the latest research is the first large-scale study to quantify the reduction. If all those people who ate unhealthily changed their diets to consume the recommended amount, the lives of approximately 15,000 stroke victims would be saved and a similar number would avoid disability such as being paralysed or being unable to speak.
The Daily Telegraph

Painful memories for goldfish
Popular mythology holds that goldfish have three-second memories. Now it seems that they can remember pain for at least a day, according to research that will reopen the debate about whether angling is a cruel sport. The urban legend of the amnesiac fish has been dealt a new blow by a study which shows that goldfish can learn to avoid parts of their tanks where they receive electric shocks for at least 24 hours, probably longer. Earlier work at the University of Plymouth showed that they can be trained to remember for up to three months. The new study was conducted by Rebecca Dunlop, Sarah Millsopp and Peter Laming at the Queen's University of Belfast and is published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
The Daily Telegraph

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