Catch-up with the latest news and insights on education in the UK.

News

Food labels should be standardized to help people make healthier choices
Tue
18
May 2021

Dr Dawn Holford, a psychologist from the University of Essex carried out a study into people’s understanding of food labels, and found people generally believed that food providing a lot of energy was healthier than food with a lot of calories. Conversely they felt low-calorie food was healthier than low-energy food. 


“Energy and calories are equivalent terms, but we found people perceived them to be different. We have known for some time that the way something is framed numerically affects how people feel about it  - so people prefer 75% lean meat, to meat with 25% fat.

“But this latest research really demonstrates the choice of terminology on food labels can also sway people’s judgement about how healthy a product is. This matters because it means people may not be eating as healthily as they think they are.

“At a time when we are all being urged to make healthy choices this loophole needs to be closed. The terminology needs to be standardised so that either energy or calories is used, so there can be no more confusion,” said Dr Holford.

In her study, Dr Holford found participants  generally viewed energy more positively than calories, but their  perception also depended on how much there was. Small amounts, such as  ‘low calories’ were seen as healthier, while large amounts such as ‘high energy’ were deemed healthier. In part participants felt manufacturers used terminology as a way of recommending a product – in effect putting a health halo on a product, to persuade people to buy it.

The paper, which was co-authored by Dr Marie Juanchich and Dr Miroslav Sirota, has been published in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making.

New research will improve the safety and quality of Heparin
Fri
14
May 2021

A new method to analyse the blood thinning drug Heparin has been developed that can pinpoint contaminants more accurately and quickly, providing greater quality control and safety.

An interdisciplinary team from the University of Nottingham’s Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine have used the latest chemical imaging technology to identify contaminants in Heparin at the nanoscale, a discovery that manufacturers could use to improve the quality and safety of this widely used anticoagulant drug. The research has been published in Communications Chemistry.

Heparin is naturally occurring glycosaminoglycan (GAG) but is also widely used widely as a medication. It is often used as an anticoagulant (blood thinner) before and after surgery but is also used in kidney dialysis and in blood processing. Pharmaceutical-grade heparin is derived from mucosal tissues of pig intestines or cow lungs. The majority of Heparin is made in China and in 2008 there were a number of deaths and illnesses caused by a contaminated batch. Continuing problems with the supply chain remain a concern.

Using a state-of-the-art chemical imaging technique called Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) the researchers developed a new analytical approach that is more than 100 times more sensitive at detecting contaminants in Heparin, whilst also being faster and requiring less material to analyse. This technique blasts high-energy beams of positive ions at the sample’s surface to produces secondary ions. These ions are then accelerated into a time-of-flight analyser and where their mass can be measured. The spectrum of ions provides a detailed measurement of the sample’s

"Heparin is particularly susceptible to contamination, commonly from other glycosaminoglycans and as they are all very similar chemically it is difficult to tell them apart using traditional analysis techniques. Whilst there are safety measures in place already to prevent contamination we saw room for improvement and using the ToF-SIMS techniques we were able to create a faster and more sensitive method for analysing Heparin that can be achieved with a very small amount of sample material."

Dr Andrew Hook, School of Pharmacy who led the research

Professor of Stem Cell Glycobiology, Cathy Merry adds: “There are many real risks to the heparin supply chain, not least of which are the increasing prevalence of animal viruses. The previous heparin crisis was linked to a reduction in the supply of porcine heparin following an outbreak of swine flu. There is a real risk this will happen again and there is now even tighter control on the international trade in animals so it is even more likely that vast numbers of animals could be destroyed if there’s another outbreak. There’s also been a huge drive to create synthetic heparin and, although this is still a way off, when it is available there will still be a need for a rapid, sensitive comparative technique to characterise the drug heparin which this technique can provide.”

This new technique is scalable for commercial use with the ability to analyse large numbers of samples at a time.

Dr Hook continues: “It is critical that safety measures are as accurate and sensitive as possible. This technique will be a cost-effective way for manufacturers to take their safety and quality control to the next level. We are also looking at how this technique could be adapted to diagnose GAG based disorders that are typically difficult to diagnose like Hunter’s Syndrome.”

New Perspective on Stress Pandemics and Human Resilience from the Analysis of COVID-19
Fri
14
May 2021

A new analysis of the effects of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the current pandemic, on the human body has provided novel insights into the nature of resilience and how we deal with stressful situations. Using COVID-19 as an example, the findings provide a new framework that may be central to managing this disease, minimise the likelihood of ferocious viral outbreaks in the future and deal with other major stresses.

“COVID-19 has been a huge burden on society at all levels. Whilst the prospects are improving in countries with efficient vaccination schemes like the UK, the virus is still present, and new variants continue to pose considerable risks. Moreover, there are sustained effects such as Long COVID and the mental health burden of the pandemic to overcome,” Martin Feelisch, Professor of Experimental Medicine and Integrative Biology at the University of Southampton explained.

“By analysing and re-ordering the information available in the literature we aimed to offer a systems-level view on the disease within a single framework that provides a coherent picture about the way this infection stresses the human body.”

The research team involving physicians, chemical biologists and an authority on human nutrition, looked at COVID from a higher level than just a disease affecting the lungs and considered how the whole body deals with the various stresses the virus causes when viewed through the lens of electron exchange (also known as ‘redox’) processes. Electron exchange reactions are the foundation of all Life on Earth, underpinning human physiology and our ability to react to changes in demand and environmental conditions. While change is healthy in principle, some people experience unfavourable consequences when a major stress such as a viral infection is added to the stresses of daily life. What happens when such stresses act together is not yet fully understood, and COVID-19 was used as an example to look at the consequences of those interactions.

“COVID can present as a severe lung infection in one person while producing only minor symptoms in others, although it may have affected several other organs by then already. Arriving at a better understanding of how the body deals with different stresses while maintaining an appropriate redox balance would put us in a better position to treat patients acutely, protect the rest of the population and control disease spread. While the current vaccination success story is encouraging, emerging virus mutants show the threat continues, and we need to be better prepared in the future.” Prof Feelisch continued.

Their analysis, published in the leading journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, revealed three key areas in the body’s ability to cope with the stress of viral infections:

Firstly, nutrition emerges to be of utmost importance in maintaining the necessary redox balance and provide one’s metabolism with the flexibility to adjust and combat the damaging effects of viral infection on cells and tissues. It also explains the greater susceptibility to disease in more deprived areas of the country because low income increases the risk for poor nutrition.

The second key finding was the importance of the endothelium – the inner lining of blood vessels that provides organs with oxygen and nutrients - in particular, a highly fragile layer on its surface that regulates nutrient/fluid exchange and protects blood cells from coming into close contact with the vessel wall. The research team have found that the crucial regulatory function performed by the endothelium has not been fully recognised in existing research and may also be essential to understanding the effects of Long COVID, where the body does not get back to its normal balance. They advise that routine monitoring of this cell layer in a non-invasive fashion, such as from under the tongue, may provide valuable insight into this and other stressful process and guide therapeutic approaches.

The final key observation was the role played by small molecules known as ‘gasotransmitters’. These are used by all cells to sense changes in their environment and adapt. These molecules are part of a body-wide system that uses circulating blood as a communication highway to inform other organs how to best respond to the mixture of stresses experienced by other parts of the body, for example how to ramp up the metabolism in the liver to deal with an infection of the lung. Of all the molecules involved, nitric oxide appears to be fundamental in protecting the overall redox system.

Professor Feelisch concluded, “We need to make best use of the opportunity the current crisis has given us to learn more about how the body and individual cells deal with stresses. Our holistic framework should be interpreted as a ‘call to action’ and encourage investigators around the world to study whole-body redox regulation, find ways to monitor redox status and identify factors that are critical for health and resilience. The next pandemic could be just around the corner and if we do not learn from current events, chances are we will face the same problems all over again.”



Having a healthier heart is associated with better problem-solving and reaction time
Fri
14
May 2021

Dr Zahra Raisi-Estabragh, BHF Clinical Research Training Fellow at Queen Mary University of London said: “Heart disease and dementia are important and growing public health problems, particularly in ageing populations.

“We already knew that patients with heart disease were more likely to have dementia, and vice versa, but we’ve now shown that these links between heart and brain health are also present in healthy people. We demonstrated for the first time, in a very large group of healthy people, that individuals with healthier heart structure and function have better cognitive performance.

“With more research, these findings may help us to establish strategies for early prevention and reduce the burden of heart and brain disease in the future.”

The brain has previously been proposed as a target for damage from heart disease, and the risk factors leading to heart disease have also been associated with both vascular and Alzheimer’s dementia. However, the mechanisms by which these associations occur are not well understood, and studies had not been carried out in large groups of people or those without disease.

The new study, published in the European Heart Journal Cardiovascular Imaging, examined links between heart health and cognitive function in over 32,000 UK Biobank participants. The team assessed heart health using measures of anatomy and function obtained from MRI scans. Cognitive function was assessed using tests of fluid intelligence (the capacity to solve logic-based problems) and reaction time.

The results show that, in this large group of mostly healthy individuals, those with healthier heart structure and function performed significantly better in tests of cognitive ability.

To investigate underlying mechanisms for the observed relationships, the team also considered whether the links between heart and brain health may be related to shared risk factors for vascular disease, such as diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure and obesity.

They found that although these factors were important in determining both heart and brain health, they did not provide a complete explanation for the observed associations. This suggests that alternative mechanism may be important in mediating interactions across the heart and brain.

For instance, other studies have shown that proteins which are abnormally deposited in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease may also accumulate and cause disease in the heart muscle. Another possibility is that poorer brain and heart health may both be a consequence of accelerated ageing.

The researchers caution that, as this was an observational study, it is not possible to make any definitive inferences about causality and it cannot be stated that heart disease causes impaired cognition, or vice versa. It is also possible that there may be residual confounding (i.e. that brain and heart health may appear to be connected due to their common association with a third factor).

Researchers received funding from the British Heart Foundation, European Regional Development Fund, Barts Charity, UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome, National Institute for Health Research and the Alzheimer’s Society.

Early biomarker warning of heart disease for diabetic patients
Fri
14
May 2021

New research has shown that people with type 1 diabetes may have features of premature heart disease induced by the condition often before they even get their diagnosis.

Early markers for this heart disease could be used to ensure patients get targeted therapies as soon as they are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes to slow down or even halt cardiovascular problems.

The findings, published today in Stem Cell Research and Therapy, show that tiny pieces of genetic material, called miR-424-5p, increased in early stages of heart disease – these could be targeted to help reduce inflammation in order to compensate for elevated risk.

"This is an exciting step forwards in the understanding of the development of heart disease in patients with type 1 diabetes and patients should be pleased to see active research in this area"

                                                                         -Dr Jolanta Weaver

Early heart disease

Dr Jolanta Weaver, from Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, said: “We were surprised that early heart disease could be starting in pre-diabetes stage before a diagnosis of type 1 is made.

“Large clinical trials have shown that people with type 1 diabetes have their life expectancy shortened by 13 years due to cardiovascular problems, so there is a need to address this issue in patients as soon as possible.

“Our data shows that miR-424-5p can be used as a biomarker for early heart disease and it has the potential to define additional therapeutic options to help patients with type 1 diabetes.

“This is an exciting step forwards in the understanding of the development of heart disease in patients with type 1 diabetes and patients should be pleased to see active research in this area.”

Almost 5 million people in the UK are living with diabetes, of which 10% have type 1. The disease occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or when it can’t produce any at all, which leads to blood glucose levels being too high.

Scientists analysed inflammation, miR-424-5p and vascular stem cells in the blood in well controlled patients with type 1 diabetes and compared those to a healthy control group.

Samples were taken from all participants after an overnight fast. A number of clinical and laboratory tests were carried out, including full blood count, liver function, HbA1c and body mass index.

The study’s findings highlighted that type 1 diabetes is characterised by significant inflammation, reduced vascular stem cells, increased levels of miR-424-5p and other features of premature heart disease, despite good diabetic control.

Acting early

Currently, type 1 diabetic patients at risk of heart disease are offered statins and blood pressure tablets to reduce their risk, but this is rarely done at the beginning of their diagnosis.

Dr Weaver added: “Our data offers the chance to find new ways to impact on the development of heart disease before it becomes too late for the patient.

“The sooner we can act to address cardiovascular disease the better the quality of life for those affected.”

Future studies will focus on the importance of monitoring miR-424-5p for premature heart disease in diabetic patients and to design new targeted treatments.

Connect with nature to improve your mental health
Thu
13
May 2021

With Mental Health Awareness Week upon us (10 - 16 May), this year’s theme of connecting with nature to benefit our mental health is something strongly advocated by Dr Neil Gostling at the University of Southampton.

As a Lecturer in Evolution and Palaeobiology, Neil is interested in all living things – past and present – and as a mental health advocate amongst his academic colleagues and students can see the benefits that communing with nature can bring to us all.

“We live lives that are totally different from the way that we’ve evolved,” says Neil. “From personal experience, I’m sitting in my bedroom which has been my office for 8.5 hours a day for over a year, sitting under an electric light – that’s not what we evolved to do and not what we should be experiencing.

“Actually getting outside can have huge benefits – it just makes us feel better,” he enthuses. “There are loads and loads of studies out there that show engaging with nature and getting outside is really good for you.”

Here are four tips from Neil to help others connect with nature in pursuit of better mental health:

1. Switch off to technology, and switch on to nature

“You need to have time away from technology – so turn your phone off as you go outside and all of a sudden you are disconnected from the rest of the world. You don’t need to send those emails right now, that could be done at any time so don’t succumb to those extra pressures.

“So, if you’re walking in the woods, and you’ve turned off your technology, you are disconnected and you’ve only got your immediate experience of your surroundings informing you as to what’s going on. It’s really rather nice just to take a step back from the world and just allow yourself to let go of the modern world and all of those extra stresses and strains.”

2. Notice and appreciate the small things nature has to offer

“For me, the thing that is most important is that nature slows you down. If you just stand and you watch a butterfly flitting around, that’s quite calming. And the closer you look at something, the more you can begin to appreciate it for its beauty as well as its place in the natural world.

“Just seeing little, tiny, weedy plants growing out of cracks in the edge of the pavement, I think about how this little plant has managed to find a foothold. It’s remarkably calming, it’s remarkably centring and you can get your little boy over, as I do, to have a chat about this insect or ‘don’t touch that fuzzy one, that’ll sting’ – even if its just five minutes and it gives you a little bit of a reset as that’s how it feels for me.”

3. Don’t go far to find nature – there is always nature around you

“You don’t need to leave a built-up area to find nature. It can be anywhere.

“Normally, we would take our students on field courses at this time of year but this year we can’t because of the pandemic. We were meant to be taking our first year students to Exmoor in Devon. Now that’s pretty isolated which is nice but we couldn’t do that so we set an alternative task and one of those things was to do biological drawings by engaging with the nature around them. Many have asked, ‘where do we find stuff, what do we do?’ but just as you walk along the street or as I do from my home, walk the 150 metres or so from my front door to the edge of Southampton Water, I found the 10 plant families that I would have needed to do the project. I also saw a dozen insects or arthropod orders so that’s more than I’d need.

“Also, getting out into nature is free and if you’re a student at the University or if you live anywhere near the University campuses you’re only 10-15 minutes away from Southampton Common and the Common’s wonderful. You can see all sorts of wildlife and plants there like little orchids there which aren’t in some sort of secluded part of the Common, they’re just there as you walk in via the top corner.

“Not only do you have the vast amount of space on the Common, you’ve got the cemetery at the bottom and cemeteries are great places for wildlife because people tend to be quiet and calm there so the wildlife there feels safer.”

4. Look up as well and down to appreciate the nature around you

“Not everyone is mobile or has ground floor access to the outside world, especially those who live in high-rise flats or other homes where there are no garden spaces where I recommend a simple solution.

“You don’t have to have a back garden to go out and appreciate the natural world. If you’re up high, you might be at eye level with sea gulls and you can see what they’re doing or you have a balcony or just a window you can put a bird feeder on and attract them to you.

“There will also be little tiny bugs, arthropods and worms crawling around in window boxes on your windowsill or on a balcony in a flat and we’re quite lucky that this is all happening at this time of year because the world is changing so much as the plants and the animals are coming back; we’ve got birds migrating and returning to the UK, we’ve got flowers and plants awakening, blossom on the trees and the leaves opening as the world comes back to life again.”

5. Use technology when you get home to share your experience with others

“I’ve said to turn your phones off when you go outside to experience nature but you might want to allow yourself to use your camera, at times, to ‘capture’ and share your experiences of nature with others.

“In early April 2020, just as the pandemic began to take firm hold in the UK, I set up a Facebook page called ‘The dinosaur in your windowsill’ to help people stay connected with nature from the safety of their own homes.

“The dinosaurs referred to in the title descendants of the ‘terrible lizards’ – the birds – who usually come to us in our gardens without us having to go and find them ourselves. Just over a year later, and the page has attracted over 4,200 followers across the world’s seven continents (including Antarctica!) with regular contributors from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India. I just set up the Facebook page for a bit of fun but it’s proven to be a real lifesaver for many people who have used the internet to stay in touch with other people – around the world – throughout the pandemic and beyond, so do please find us, and join us, on Facebook.”

Childhood abdominal pain may be linked to disordered eating in teenagers
Thu
13
May 2021

This is the first study to provide prospective evidence of an association between recurrent abdominal pain at aged 7-9 years and fasting to control weight at aged 16 years. The study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that recurrent abdominal pain, the most common gastro-intestinal complaint of childhood, may be an independent risk factor for later fasting to control weight.

Researchers at the University of Oxford, Duke University USA, and the University of Bristol, used the ‘Children of the 90s’ population cohort of 14,000 children in the UK, to explore this association.

Dr. Kate Stein, lead author on the study, Department of Psychiatry, University Oxford, said, ‘Record numbers of young people are being referred to NHS eating disorder services with more than twice as many referrals in 2020 as there were in 2017. The factors behind eating disorders are complex, but our findings suggest that for some patients, recurrent abdominal pain in childhood may precede and contribute to later problems.

‘While we cannot confirm that childhood recurrent abdominal pain increases the risk of developing an eating disorder, we suspect that some children become fearful of their pain and start to avoid foods which they associate with the pain. This could then set them on a trajectory which leads to unhelpful fasting behaviours in adolescence.’

The authors of the study outline three specific recommendations for clinicians:

  • Enquire about a history of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in patients with eating disorders
  • Assess disordered eating in patients with gastro-intestinal disorders, such as childhood recurrent abdominal pain
  • Address patients’ anxiety associated with their gastro-intestinal sensations when treating eating disorders

Dr. Stein continues, ‘By enquiring about a history of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in all patients with eating disorders, we would be able to identify patients whose childhood pain may have contributed to their food avoidance and tailor their treatment plan accordingly. Similarly, by assessing disordered eating in patients with gastro-intestinal problems, we may be able to prevent unhelpful eating patterns as they grow up.’

The study findings show an association between a child suffering from abdominal pain 3 or more times a year and later fasting for weight control at aged 16 years. However, there was no association found between childhood abdominal pain suffered 5 or more times a year and later adolescent fasting for weight control at aged 16 years.

Dr Stein, explains, ‘It could be that for childhood recurrent abdominal pain, the frequency of pain may be less important to long term outcomes than the severity of the pain, the distress caused and/or the child’s functional impairment resulting from the pain. As a doctor, I have noticed that a number of our teenage patients with anorexia nervosa suffered from painful gastro-intestinal (GI) problems in childhood (such as abdominal pain or constipation). Thus, a child’s early GI experiences could provide a key into our understanding of the disordered eating seen in so many young people today.’

Boost air quality in buildings to reduce respiratory infections
Thu
13
May 2021

Leading experts in the transmission of airborne pathogens are calling for tighter regulations to control air quality in buildings – as a way of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses.

Writing in the journal Science, the 40 scientists said: “A paradigm shift is needed on the scale that occurred when Chadwick’s Sanitary Report in 1842 led the British government to encourage cities to organise clean water supplies and centralised sewage systems.  

“In the 21st century we need to establish the foundations to ensure that the air in our buildings is clean, with a significantly reduced pathogen count, contributing to the building occupants’ health – just as we expect for the water coming out of our taps.” 

The scientists who have contributed to the analysis include Cath Noakes, Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings, based in the School of Civil Engineering at Leeds, and a member of SAGE, the body that advises the UK Government on scientific emergencies.   

Professor Noakes said: “Over the years, we have neglected the role that the air circulating inside a building plays in the way germs and viruses may spread between people. The pandemic has exposed that deficiency in our understanding and the way we seek to make buildings safer to use.     

“We need to introduce new mechanisms that keep pathogen levels in the air flow in buildings and other enclosed spaces to a minimum. That approach can be achieved with technology backed-up with a requirement to meet new standards.”   

“Action to improve ventilation to reduce exposure to airborne pathogens will bring other benefits, including reducing exposure to other air pollutants and improved performance and wellbeing.”  

Historically, public health regulations have concentrated on sanitation, drinking water and food safety, whereas the risk from airborne pathogens whether it is flu or COVID-19 is “...addressed fairly weakly, if at all, in terms of regulations, standards, and building design and operation, pertaining to the air we breathe”, said the scientists. 

Recognising the risk of aerosol pathogen spread  

Research during the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the role that aerosols play in spreading disease. When a person who has a respiratory infection speaks, coughs or sneezes, tiny infective particles are emitted from their nose and mouth. Indoors, those tiny particles are carried in the air and infect other people.  

The paper says: “...community outbreaks of COVID-19 infection in particular most frequently occur at larger distances through inhalation of airborne virus-laden particles in indoor spaces shared with infected individuals.    

“Such airborne transmission is potentially the dominant mode of transmission of numerous respiratory infections. We also have strong evidence on disease transmission, for example in restaurants, ships, and schools, suggesting that the way we design, operate, and maintain buildings influences transmission.” 

That risk of people becoming cross infected inside a building can be reduced through ventilation coupled with air disinfection and air filtration systems. However, the scientists note: “... almost no engineering-based measures to limit community respiratory infection transmission had been employed in public buildings – excluding healthcare facilities – or transport infrastructure, anywhere in the world.”   

Tighter controls  

There are ventilation guidelines and standards which architects and builders must follow, but the focus is on reducing odours and carbon dioxide levels and in maintaining thermal comfort. None provide recommendations on how to control the spread of pathogens.   

The scientists are calling for World Health Organisation indoor air-quality guidelines, which cover pollutants such as carbon monoxide and other chemicals, to be extended to include airborne pathogens. The experts say individual governments need to introduce and enforce domestic regulations.  

“None of this means that every indoor space should become a biosafety facility,” the scientists write in the paper. “It means that a building should be designed and operated according to its purpose and the activities conducted there, so that airborne infection risk is maintained below an acceptable level.”

That would mean different standards for a gym where people may be breathing heavily as opposed to people relaxing in a cinema.  

The lead author of the paper, Lidia Morawska, Distinguished Professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said: “For decades, the focus of architects and building engineers was on thermal comfort, odour control, perceived air quality, initial investment cost, energy use, and other performance issues, while infection control was neglected.”   

Costs 

The scientists challenge the argument that costs of air quality control in buildings would be prohibitively expensive. They say the monthly cost of COVID-19 is conservatively estimated at $1 trillion. Installing ventilation and air-quality systems designed to remove airborne pathogens would add about 1% to the construction bill of a typical building.   

Improving air quality in buildings would bring benefits beyond reducing sickness levels due to respiratory infections. It is likely to reduce allergens and the number of people who experience "sick building syndrome".  

Professor Noakes is a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, where she has been engaged with their COVID-19 task force supporting the engineering approaches to improving ventilation in buildings.  

Personalised pacemakers could help heart patients keep fit
Wed
12
May 2021

People living with heart failure could benefit from personalised pacemakers to help them exercise safely, thanks to a trial being carried out by a team in the School of Medicine.

About 920,000 people across the UK suffer from the condition, which prevents the heart from pumping blood around the body effectively. It can be debilitating and leads to breathlessness and fatigue – making everyday activities and exercise more difficult.

Pacemakers are often implanted in patients to help retune the heart's pumping function, and are programmed using a default algorithm to increase heart rate during exercise.

For those living with pacemakers, even modest improvements in exercise capacity and symptoms can have dramatic effects on self-confidence, independence and quality of life.

PROFESSOR KLAUS WITTE, SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

But the researchers have shown that this "one size fits all" algorithm does not always improve a person’s ability to exercise. They believe this could be because the algorithm is based on the heart rates of healthy individuals.

Now the British Heart Foundation has awarded the team almost £260,000 for a new trial to assess how this approach improves the function of the heart and exercise capacity.

The trial, which launches this month from the National Institute for Health Research Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility at Leeds General Infirmary, will involve about 100 patients

Dramatic effects

Professor Klaus Witte, Associate Professor at Leeds' School of Medicine and Consultant Cardiologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “For those living with pacemakers, even modest improvements in exercise capacity and symptoms can have dramatic effects on self-confidence, independence and quality of life.

“Our early research has found that this could also really benefit their hearts by helping to slow down deterioration of heart function.

“The findings could help guide the development of a larger, multi-centre study, which could ultimately change the way we think about treating people living with heart failure.”

The team has already discovered that by programming pacemakers to an individual’s heart rate, they can improve how well they can exercise, ensuring they get the benefit of higher heart rates during activity but that their heart is not pushed too fast, which could be harmful.

Triple test trial

The patients involved in the trial will be randomly allocated to have their pacemakers programmed in three different ways.

Members of the first group will have the standard algorithm, whilst those in the second group will have the algorithm turned off. Those in the third group will have their pacemaker personalised for their heart – all will be reassessed after six months to assess the effects.

Dr Noel Faherty, Senior Research Adviser at the BHF, said: “Heart failure is a chronic condition that has no cure, so improved treatments are needed to ensure people living with this condition can have a better quality of life.

Pacemakers are life saving, but there is a lack of guidance around how heart failure patients living with these devices can exercise most effectively. Promising early studies have shown the benefits of personalised programming, so this research could provide new answers which could help patients live well for longer.”

HOW FASTING DIETS COULD HARM FUTURE GENERATIONS
Wed
12
May 2021

Fasting diets could impact the health of future generations according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Fasting diets have risen in popularity in recent years, however little is known about the long-term impact of these diets, particularly for future generations.

New research, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals that reduced food intake in roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) has a detrimental effect on three generations of offspring – particularly when those descendants have access to unlimited food.

Lead researcher Dr Edward Ivimey-Cook, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “We know that reduced food intake increases the lifespan in many animals and can potentially improve health in humans. However, little is known about the long-term effects of reduced food intake, including time-limited fasting, on distant descendants.

“We wanted to find out more about the potential long-term impact of fasting diets.”

The team investigated the effect of time-limited fasting on lifespan and reproduction in roundworms and across three generations of their descendants.

They studied more than 2,500 worms split across four generations. The first generation of worms were placed in one of four environments, including being able to eat as much as they liked, and being on a fasting diet.

Four generations of offspring from these parents were then placed onto either full-feeding or fasting diets.

The team then assessed the effects of different scenarios on the reproduction and longevity of future generations. These included what happens when great grandparents fast, but future generations are able to eat as much as they like, and cumulative fasting for four generations.

Dr Ivimey-Cook said: “We looked at what happens in roundworms. Unlike us, they’re transparent, about 1mm long and live in the soil.

“They don’t have bones, a heart, or a circulatory system. But they’re a classic model organism for studying the ageing process in biology because they do share many genes and molecular pathways that control development with humans.

“They are also really useful because they have a short life cycle of only two weeks, so we can study their development and that of generations of their offspring in a short amount of time. Doing a similar study across humans could take a century or more!

“We found that fasting did indeed increase their lifespan and it also improved offspring performance in terms of reproduction, when offspring themselves were fasting.

“However, we were surprised to find that fasting reduced offspring performance when the offspring had access to unlimited food.

“And this detrimental effect was evident in grand-offspring and great-grand-offspring.

“This shows that fasting can be costly for descendants and this effect may last for generations.

“There has been a lot of interest in the potential benefits of fasting in promoting healthy ageing in humans. 

“A lot of the molecular pathways involved in the fasting response are evolutionarily conserved, which means the same pathways exist across a multitude of species including humans.

“So our study strongly prompts us to consider multigenerational effects of fasting in different organisms, including humans.

“This is really important because it means we need to carefully consider the long-term effects of fasting when trying to pursue healthy lifestyles – because the detrimental impact may only manifest itself in distant generations.”

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the European Research Council (ERC).

Transgenerational fitness effects of lifespan extension by dietary restriction in Caenorhabditis elegans” is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Reading, writing, and mental health – essentials from the School of English
Wed
12
May 2021

There has never been a better time to explore the ways in which literary and cultural texts represent mental wellbeing. This being Mental Health Awareness Week, Dr Eleanor Perry, Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) in the School of English, takes this opportunity to share how English modules can provide vital insight for understanding this topic. She said:

‘Kent’s School of English hosts a second-year module Perceptions, Pathologies, and Disorders: Reading and Writing Mental Health, which is a chance for students to explore understandings of mental health in depth.

‘In Perceptions, Pathologies, and Disorders, students have the opportunity to examine a range of memoirs, essays, poetry, film, television, and images, including works by writers such as Janet Frame, Claudia Rankine, and Sam Sax. An understanding of this is then furthered by studying a variety of themes through which mental health and mental illness have been represented.

‘The module is taught through a combination of creative and critical approaches, giving students the opportunity to develop the skills required to discuss issues of mental health and mental illness critically, and to reflect on these issues creatively through writing prose, poetry or a critical essay

‘The module is just one example of the School of English’s commitment to writing and mental health, with a series of student-focused workshops, originally developed in 2019, on the theme of Writing Minds.

Writing Minds is aimed at students who experienced barriers to participation linked with mental health, enabling students to explore and articulate their identity in an empowering and non-prescriptive way. The workshop activities covered a range of different approaches, including zine-making, collage, scrap-booking, textual mandalas, creative embroidery, basic print-making, sound recording, and performance.

‘During the first lockdown of 2020, the workshops became a virtual space in which students, university applicants, alumni, and aspiring writers could participate through a series of creative writing prompts centred on mental wellbeing. You can find out more about Writing Minds, and try out some of the writing prompts yourself, by visiting the project’s website.

‘Mental health is also a frequent key theme in my own creative work. My recent poetry collection, Unspeakable Patterns of the House (Saló Press, 2020), was a sequence of poems exploring mental health, abstraction, inarticulation, and the uncanny spatial syntaxes of the household.

‘Reading, writing and mental health are key concepts within the School of English. However, this all takes second place to the priority of discussion. Discussion of improving environments, for both study and working; discussion of generating greater attention to such key issues as mental health; and discussing how we are feeling and creating a space for that conversation and expression.’

Potential risk to dolphins due to unique fasting habits
Tue
11
May 2021

Dolphins could be at risk if their foraging opportunities are impacted due to man-made disturbances such as shipping, tourism, coastal development and oil and gas exploration.

Human-caused disturbance could result in the movement of prey away from dolphin foraging areas, the displacement of dolphins off of their foraging grounds, or could reduce the ability of dolphins to forage even if both dolphins and prey remain in the area of the disturbance. As a result, dolphins may spend more energy trying to catch food, catch less food, or even be forced into a fasting state because they cannot obtain food.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen, National Marine Mammal Foundation and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) studied the ‘fasting response’ in bottlenose dolphins (ie when the dolphins are unable to find food) to see how dolphin physiology changes when food is not available. They discovered that the fasting response differs from that of terrestrial mammals and other fasting-adapted marine mammals. 

When dolphins re-entered the ocean 50-60 million years ago, they had to adapt to a diet that was high in fat and protein but lacking carbohydrate. 

Dr Davina Derous from the University of Aberdeen said “Dolphins have gone through huge changes in their physiology as they evolved to adapt to life in the oceans. One of these big changes is energy storage. To avoid getting cold, they adapted a thick layer of fat around their body which acts as an insulator. So there are constraints on dolphin energy budgets that are unique to the fact that they need to maintain this layer of fat to survive. Their diet is also really poor in sugars, and so the fundamental building block of animal metabolism - a sugar called glucose - is a rare commodity in their diet.” 

While previous studies suggest that dolphin metabolism has potentially adapted to the dietary constraints of ocean prey, this new research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that the metabolic response to food deprivation in dolphins is also different to terrestrial species.  

Dr Dorian Houser from the National Marine Mammal Foundation said: “Typically, when terrestrial mammals stop eating, levels of blood sugar begin to drop and the body taps into its sugar reserves for energy. There is a gradual transition to the use of long-term energy stores, which are predominantly fat and to a lesser extent muscle. In dolphins however, blood sugar levels increase when they stop eating and they seem to move directly into a greater reliance on fat. Along with other physiological changes associated with fasting, the dolphin appears to enter a diabetic-like state.”  

“We believe the fact that the dolphin diet is almost devoid of sugar but high in protein and fat has led to some interesting evolutionary adaptations to protect glucose, a key fuel for metabolism. Once fasting, the dolphin quickly switches to a form of gluconeogenesis, which is the process of making sugar from fat and protein. We don’t quite understand the exact chemical pathways that are being used, but we suspect the process supports their ability to optimize the use of fat to meet their energy needs.” 

Using a process called metabolomics, in which hundreds of compounds within a sample of blood are measured simultaneously, the researchers were also able to show that food-deprived dolphins have a sort of metabolic “fingerprint” that shows when they are not eating. Being able to identify this negative energy state is of great interest to conservation physiologists as it could be a useful tool for determining when populations of dolphins have their opportunities to feed disrupted. The disruption of feeding due to human activity in the ocean is one of many conservation concerns for marine mammals, and the fingerprinting tool could help identify when dolphins are at risk due to things such as fishing, seismic exploration, shipping, or sonar activity.  

Professor David Lusseau from DTU Aqua added: “We hope this study can help to inform when human activities are becoming conservation threats because of the disturbances they create. This study indicates that the way we thought foraging disruption would impact the life of dolphins did not capture the speed at which their bodies respond to a lack of food. It may be that conservation threats could emerge earlier than we thought.”