TIME health

12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

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You regularly ransack the house to find your keys. You suddenly can’t recall the name of your kid’s teacher. You made your six-month dentist appointment three months late. Sound familiar? Fear not: most forgetfulness isn’t anything serious, says Majid Fotuhi, MD, PhD, founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand Brain Center in Luterville, MD and co-author of The Memory Cure. Lack of sleep, certain medications, and even stress can impact your memory. “Fortunately, your brain is malleable, meaning it changes and improves,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “Memory can be boosted with simple powerful interventions.” Here are surprising things that impact your memory in both good and not-so-good ways.

A dysfunctional thyroid

When your thyroid’s out of whack, you may feel too hot, too cold, anxious, depressed—and your memory may also be lagging. “Although the thyroid doesn’t have a specific role in the brain, memory loss is the one thing a person notices when it stops functioning normally,” says Dr. Fotuhi. A butterfly-shaped gland that sits along the front of your windpipe, the thyroid reigns over almost all your body’s metabolic processes. “People with high or low thyroid levels—which are very common in women—may have difficulty with memory and concentration,” he says. Ask your doctor for a simple thyroid test to determine if it’s the culprit behind your memory problems.

Health.com: 19 Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Working Right

Hot flashes

Every time hot flashes make you you feel like sticking your head in the freezer, you may also feel a fog rolling into your brain. “The more hot flashes a woman experiences during menopause, the worse her ability to remember names and stories,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “Fortunately, hot flashes don’t damage the brain in any way. Memory improves once the hot flashes subside.” Other menopause-related symptoms contribute to memory loss, including insomnia and sleep apnea, Dr. Fotuhi says.

Lack of sleep

Last night’s late party makes it less likely you’ll remember your new coworker’s name the next day. “While some part of the brain takes a siesta when we sleep, deeper areas involved with memory and emotional response become relatively more active,” says Allen Towfigh, MD, medical director of New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine. “Individuals with sleep deprivation and sleep disorders not only suffer from impaired memory but also daytime fatigue, impaired attention, and reduced reaction time.” The standard recommendation of eight hours of sleep a night doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. If you wake up fatigued and fall asleep unintentionally during the day, then you may need more sleep, says Dr. Towfigh.

Health.com: How to Fake a Good Night’s Sleep

Anxiety and depression

Worrying about an upcoming presentation in front of the CEO may also hinder your memory, several studies show. “We don’t understand the exact link, but strong evidence indicates depression, anxiety, and bipolar disease disrupts the neural circuitry involved in developing and retrieving memories,” says Dr. Towfigh. “The severity of the memory loss often mirrors the severity of the mood disorder—severe depression brings about equally severe memory loss.” Prolonged periods of everyday stress increase cortisol levels in the brain, which causes our brain cells to lose synapses (the bridges that connect our brain cells to one another), and make it more difficult to create and retrieve memories. The good news is when memory loss exists with a mood disorder (including anxiety and depression), the memory loss is usually at least partially reversible. “As the individual’s mood improves, often so does the memory loss,” says Dr. Towfigh.

Prescription drugs

Check your medicine cabinet: many common prescription drugs can make you feel forgetful. Anxiety disorder meds like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan (which are benzodiazepines) put a damper on the part of the brain that moves events from the short-term to the long-term memory. Tricyclic antidepressants have a similar effect. Heart medicines including statins and beta blockers have also been linked to memory issues, as have narcotic painkillers, incontinence drugs, sleep aids, and even antihistamines like Benadryl. Bottom line: Don’t stop taking your (potentially life-saving) medications, but talk to your doc if you believe any drug you’re on may be messing with your memory.

Smoking

If you’re still smoking, that may help explain memory lapses. “Smoking damages the brain by impairing its blood supply,” says Dr. Towfigh. Research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry gathered from data obtained from more than 7,000 men and women found a more rapid decline in brain function (which included memory along with vocabulary and other brain functions) with age than from those who never smoked. “Furthermore, cigarette smoking promotes the accumulation of abnormal proteins which impair the brain’s ability to process and relay information,” says Dr. Towfigh.

Health.com: 15 Ways Smoking Ruins Your Looks

A high-fat diet

Greasy burgers and French fries pack on pounds and are hard on your heart—and they may also cause memory issues. One study revealed that adolescent mice had poorer learning and memory skills after being fed a high-fat diet for eight weeks, while another study on middle-aged rats found that the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory) may be particularly vulnerable to the impact of high-fat diets.

More research is needed to determine for sure whether or not high-fat diets impact human memory, but here’s what we do know: Calorically dense diets promote type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, which can all do damage to our brains, says Dr. Towfigh. “This holds true earlier in life, too. Studies link childhood obesity with a reduced attention span and impaired concentration and focus.”

Stress

A sudden emergency can make it tough to recall something as simple as your home address. A rat study published in Neuron shows that stress hormones influence an area of the brain area that controls working memory. Researchers found that repeated stress reduced receptors in the part of the brain that’s connected to thought processes Although this study involved animals, the human brain works similarly, explains Dr. Towfigh. “Repeated or chronic stress can be harmful. Regular exposure to elevated glucocorticoids (a hormone released by the adrenal gland) also causes our brain cells to reduce receptors, making brain cells less capable of responding to neurochemical (brain chemicals) cues.” Finding ways to relieve stress may help: Practicing meditation does double duty by easing stress and helping improve memory, according to a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara. College students who completed eight 45-minute meditation sessions over two weeks increased their average GRE exam scores from 460 to 520 and showed improvement on tests of working memory.

Health.com: 13 Ways to Beat Stress in 15 Minutes or Less

Germs

A nasty cold sore does more than make you feel self-conscious—it may be messing with your memory, according to a 2013 study in Neurology. Researchers found that people who exposed to many germs, such as herpes simplex type 1 (the cold sore virus), over their lifetimes were more likely to have memory problems than those exposed to fewer germs. Among more than 1,600 study participants, those with a higher “infectious burden” had a 25% increase in the risk of a low score on a cognitive test. Although there is no vaccine for the cold sore virus, childhood vaccinations against other viruses could help prevent problems later in life, the researchers suggest. In addition, regular exercise may help too—doctors think repeated infections may damage blood vessels, since a high infectious burden is also linked to a greater risk of stroke and heart attack.

Green tea

Now for some good news: chemicals found in green tea may help improve your memory, according to a University of Basel study. “Several compounds, EGCG and L-theanine, in green tea increase neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for short-term memory and learning new things,” says Dr. Fotuhi. How much green tea has not yet been determined, says Dr. Fotuhi, who recommends combining green tea with other healthy habits such as exercise for greatest memory improvement benefits.

Exercise

Regular sweat sessions also help keep memories sharp. “Physical exercise improves mood and sleep and by doing so, it invariably improves cognition and memory,” says Dr. Towfigh. An animal study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, for example, showed daily exercise increased brain cell growth after 12 weeks of conditioned running. Dr. Fotuhi recommends 45 minutes of aerobic exercise four days a week for the best memory boost.

Health.com: 20 Tricks to Make Exercise an Everyday Habit

Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of being deficient in vitamin B12, which keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. That’s because B12 occurs naturally only in animal foods: shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. In addition to fatigue, loss of appetite, constipation, and weight loss, a B12 deficiency can also lead to memory problems. If you feel your meatless diet may be affecting your memory, your doctor can give you a blood test that determines whether you should be taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Note: it’s not just veggies who are at risk for a B12 deficiency. Pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with pernicious anemia or gastrointestinal disorders like celiac disease and Crohn’s disease may need supplementation.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Healthcare

Planned Parenthood Appeals Ban on Telehealth Medication Abortions

Planned Parenthood is appealing a ban from the Iowa Board of Medicine over their telehealth medication abortion system for rural women

On Thursday, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland filed an appeal with the Iowa Supreme Court over a ban that outlaws a video-conferencing system Planned Parenthood provides for medication abortions.

The group launched the telemedicine abortion system in Iowa in 2008 so that women living in rural areas could get a medication abortion over video conferencing, a convenience that cuts down on wait time and the 500-mile round-trip drive some Iowa women must take to visit one of the state’s few abortion clinics. Planned Parenthood brought the system to several other states in the Midwest, but the majority of them banned the systems in a wave of abortion restrictions starting in 2011. Currently, 17 states have laws or regulations that specifically ban telemedicine for medication abortion, but both Iowa and North Dakota are appealing these bans. Iowa is now the only state where Planned Parenthood widely uses the system.

The procedure is very similar to an average medication abortion. Before making a decision, the woman speaks with a counselor at length about her options, including having the baby, adoption, and abortion. If the woman decides to terminate the pregnancy, she has a conversation with a physician over a secure videoconferencing system. A Planned Parenthood staff member is in the room to provide support, and the doctor reviews the woman’s medical history and answers her questions. The physician then administers the mifepristone (the first drug taken for medication abortion) by using a computer to remotely open a secure drawer within the health center and instructs the woman to take the medication while the staff member is in the room. The doctor then presents the woman with misoprostol (the second drug taken) and tells her to take it at home within 24 to 48 hours. That medication process is exactly the same as the procedure in the presence of a doctor.

The Iowa Board of Medicine investigated Planned Parenthood’s system in 2010 and deemed it safe. However, when Republican Governor Terry Branstad replaced the board in 2013, the new board reversed the decision, a move that Planned Parenthood and a former board member believe was entirely politically motivated and not based in scientific evidence.

On August 19, a judge ruled that the board was within its authority to ban the use of telehealth systems for medication abortions, and that the board cited concerns that a doctor needs to be present to perform an in-person checkup of the woman before she can take the abortion pills.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health, disagrees with the argument that a doctor is needed for an in-person assessment.”[Our studies have shown] it’s safe, that the prevalence of adverse events and complications was low, and that statistics are not different compared to women at the same affiliate who went through the procedure in person,” he said. In 2012 Grossman and a team of researchers found that remote medication abortions did not increase the number of overall abortions in Iowa and that the number of abortions taking place in the second trimester, when the risk for complications is higher, dropped slightly.

“We also found that women were more likely to recommend it compared to women who underwent an in-person procedure,” said Grossman. “In some of the interviews, women decided to go to a telemedicine site because it meant they could have it done sooner. If they waited, they would have to have a surgical abortion.”

Telemedicine is growing, and it’s long been used in even more invasive procedures, from physical exams to surgeries. Major hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic are developing their own systems to cut costs and reduce readmission rates. In 2011, the Veterans Health Administration conducted more than 300,000 remote consultations using telemedicine, and companies like Doctor on Demand even allow doctors’ appointments over video chat and cell phone.

Recently, The New York Times Magazine highlighted a growing international push to find ways for women to take the abortion pills in the privacy of their own homes, specifically a program called Women on Web which helps women get access to safe abortion pills.

According to Planned Parenthood, if the ban takes effect, only three health centers in the state of Iowa will continue to offer safe and legal abortions. “This rule would jeopardize women’s health and target women who already have the least access to medical care–all in the name of politics,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, wrote in an email to TIME. “What’s happening in Iowa is part of a dangerous national trend–politicians using underhanded tactics to impose their personal beliefs on women and restrict access to safe, legal abortion. It’s unacceptable and unconstitutional to deny safe care to women in need, which is why we are going directly to the state Supreme Court and fighting with everything we’ve got.”

TIME medicine

Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

The claim, however, may just be more unsubstantiated fuel from the anti-vaccination movement

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on between those who believe in the health benefits of vaccines – that they can prevent deadly infectious diseases such as measles and polio – and those that believe that the immunizations do more harm than good. Now one of the authors of a 2004 government study that found similar vaccination rates among children with and without autism says the study omitted some important data.

The vaccine war is being fought on social media, in social circles and increasingly in doctor’s offices, as physicians are faced with doubts and questions from parents who find themselves being recruited onto the side of skepticism. Skepticism is healthy, and the sign of curious minds, but not when it flies in the face of evidence. Especially gold standard, rigorous scientific evidence that has been accumulating for decades and shows that vaccines are not linked with an increased risk of the developmental disorder.

William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and one of the authors of a 2004 study published in the journal Pediatrics, spoke with Brain Hooker, who serves on the board of Focus Autism (which was founded to “put an end to the needless harm of children by vaccination and other environmental factors”), about the data that was not included in the final report. The study looked at both healthy children and those with autism, to see if there were any differences in their rates of being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), and found none. That suggested that childhood immunizations likely were not contributing to an increased risk of autism. Hooker and Thompson, however, discussed a subset of the 624 children with autism and 1824 without the condition who were studied and Thompson admitted that among African-American boys, the incidence of autism was higher among those who were vaccinated than among those who weren’t. But that information was not part of the paper. Thompson claims he was not aware that the discussion was being recorded, and his statements appeared in a video released on YouTube on August 22 entitled “CDC Whistleblower Revealed.”

Did the CDC cover up the data, as Hooker claims? A couple of things to keep in mind, both about the people behind the video and about how epidemiological studies like the one published in Pediatrics work (and explained in more detail in this article from Science-Based Medicine). For starters, the video was narrated by Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher responsible for seeding the questions about vaccines and autism in the first place. In 2010, the General Medical Council in the UK revoked his license to practice medicine and a year later, the journal that published his paper concluded that his findings were fraudulent.

Next, any time scientists take the original population of participants in a study, however large, and drill down to analyze trends in a subgroup – in this case the African-American boys – the power of the associations they find dwindles. That’s because the numbers get smaller, and in order to be statistically relevant – something known as statistical significance to statisticians – certain threshold numbers and confidence intervals for the connection have to be reached. In the 2004 study, the scientists looked at a smaller set of 355 children with autism and 1020 without for whom they had Georgia state birth certificates, which included additional information that might be relevant for any associations, such as birth weight, gestational age, and mother’s age, race and education. “This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence the CDC study did not present data by race on black, white or other race children form the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates,” the CDC notes in a statement responding to the video. Thompson claims that the findings were statistically significant, but results from smaller numbers of subjects still don’t hold as much weight as correlations found in the larger group.

In addition, it’s important to note that the study simply correlated age at vaccination and reports of autism, which says nothing about the direction of the connection. For example, the authors of the 2004 study note that “Case children, especially those 3 to 5 years of age, were more likely than control children to have been vaccinated before 36 months of age.” The association between vaccination and symptoms, however, was more likely due to the fact that the children had to be immunized in order to register in preschool, and doesn’t necessarily indicate that the shots contributed to the autism.

In a statement issued through his attorneys, Thompson says “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.” He calls for transparency in the data collecting and reporting process, but says that the way that the 2004 study was presented does not negate the importance of vaccination. “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”

TIME Infectious Disease

Ebola Outbreak Likely Started With One Person

Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone
A young volunteer wears special uniform to sterilize the bodies of people, died due to the Ebola virus, ahead of their burials in Kptema graveyard in Kenema, Sierra Leone on August 24, 2014. People work for 6 dollars per a day in burial and sterilizing works in Kenema where the infection of the virus is mostly seen. Mohammed Elshamy—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Findings from new genetic analysis

The Ebola virus outbreak that’s ravaging West Africa probably started with a single infected person, a new genetic analysis shows.

This West African variant can be traced genetically to a single introduction, perhaps a person infected by a bat, researchers report in the journal Science.

Their study paints a remarkably detailed picture of how the virus spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia in an outbreak that’s taken the lives of more than 1,500 people — including five of the researchers who worked on the report.
One thing is clear — it is definitely being spread by people, not by animals repeatedly infecting people, the researchers say.
TIME celebrities

Joan Rivers Hospitalized in New York City

FILE  Comedian Joan Rivers Hospitalised After She Stops Breathing Following An Operation On Her Vocal Chords
Joan Rivers attends the 2009 Mardi Gras VIP party at the Zeta Bar of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney on March 5, 2009 Mike Flokis—Getty Images

Comedian was scheduled to perform Friday in Red Bank, N.J.

Joan Rivers, the 81-year-old comedian and television personality, was rushed from a doctor’s office to a New York City hospital on Thursday morning after she went into cardiac arrest, according to the Associated Press.

“This morning, Joan Rivers was taken to The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she is being attended to. Her family wants to thank everybody for their outpouring of love and support,” Sid Dinsay, a spokesman for the hospital, said in a statement. “We will provide an update on her condition as it becomes available.”

Rivers, who rose to national fame with her 1965 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, was scheduled to perform on Friday in Red Bank, N.J. The Count Basie Theatre said in a statement on its website that Rivers’ show has been postponed and that they “look forward to hosting the iconic comedienne in the near future.”

The entertainer gave a talk on Wednesday at the Time-Life building, where TIME is based, and had told the audience she had no physical ailments — even calling herself “lucky” — according to a reporter who was at the event. Rivers said she does not restrict what she eats and joked that the processed foods and fake sugar may be what preserves the body.

With reporting by Dan Kedmey

TIME Infectious Disease

How Nigeria Is Keeping Ebola at Bay

APTOPIX Nigeria Ebola
Nigeria health officials wait to screen passengers at the arrival hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 4, 2014. Sunday Alamba—AP

Fears that Africa's most populous country would become a tinderbox for the disease have so far not come to fruition

Ebola is still running rampant in parts of West Africa. Over 1,500 people have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where authorities have risked unrest by imposing nationwide curfew and quarantine zones.

But in nearby Nigeria, the government has largely contained Ebola in a single cluster traced back to the first imported case, and reported a total of only six deaths. The death of a doctor in Port Harcourt, in the south of the country, initially raised fears of a second outbreak when it was revealed on Thursday—but it soon emerged that his infection was also linked to the first Ebola case.

Health experts say that while more Ebola cases can’t be ruled out, Nigerian authorities quickly and effectively reacted to contain the disease, tracking people who had contact with patients, conducting widespread testing and quarantining suspected victims. “The response of the government has been robust,” said John Vertefeuille, who leads the Nigeria Ebola response team of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ebola arrived in Nigeria on July 20, when Liberian-American financial consultant Patrick Sawyer flew from Liberia to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Sawyer collapsed at the airport and was taken immediately to hospital, reducing chances of infecting more people in Lagos, a city of more than 21 million people.

He infected a few people before he was isolated, as doctors didn’t initially suspect Ebola and didn’t take full precautions. All other confirmed cases were traced back to him; eight have recovered, with only one case still being treated in isolation.

When the government realized Ebola had arrived on Nigerian soil, it acted quickly to coordinate international health organizations including the CDC, the World Health Organization, and recently Médecins Sans Frontières. It invited those groups to “come to the table and… insert themselves into those structures that the government has formed,” said Vertefeuille.

The work is divided into the management of confirmed cases who are treated in an isolation center in Lagos, and epidemiology and contact tracing, key to containing the virus.

Confirmed cases are treated in isolation, while those the victims made contact with pre-diagnosis are visited daily at their homes. If they develop symptoms, they too are taken to quarantine and tested. Nigeria began its program of contact tracing with Sawyer, and currently has more than 100 people under surveillance in Lagos.

But one man slipped through the net, Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu said Thursday. A Nigerian man who had contact with Sawyer developed symptoms and evaded surveillance, traveling to the oil industry hub of Port Harcourt last month, where he was treated by a doctor for his symptoms.

The man recovered and returned to Lagos four days later, after a manhunt for him had begun. The doctor, however, had contracted the virus and died on Aug. 22. The government has now begun contact tracing for him, and 70 people are now under surveillance there.

The man who escaped surveillance was an isolated case, Chukwu said. The fact that most people being treated at hospital have survived and were soon discharged has encouraged people under surveillance to cooperate. “Initially when we started we had one or two stubborn cases, but now they’re all cooperating,” he said.

As well as taking a rapid response approach to Ebola cases, the government has also been acting to stop the spread of misinformation about the disease. It has been issuing bulletins explaining how the disease spreads, and attempting to dispel rumors about unorthodox “cures” that have spread on the streets and on social media.

Benjamin Akinola, a 65-year-old retired army officer, said he and his wife bathed with and drank water with salt after a rumor suggested it could prevent Ebola. They stopped after hearing on the radio that it led to the death of some people. “People stopped it, and this is what the government is telling us,” said Akinola.

The government has also been pushing for better personal hygiene practice. Guards at supermarkets, banks, restaurants, and clubs will often spray people’s hands with sanitizers before entering.

The public relations operation seems to be working. Lawrence Obioha, a 43 year old newspaper seller in Lagos said initially fewer people attended his Sunday church service out of fear of Ebola. “Gradually it’s picking up,” he said. “There’s a lot of relief now that they know that at least there’s a response to treatment.”

While fears that Africa’s most populous country would become a breeding ground for the disease have so far proven unfounded, officials in Nigeria are under no illusion that the virus has been stamped out. “We have not eliminated the disease. We have not eradicated it,” said Chukwu. Over 200 remain under observation, and the infection is still raging in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The battle against Ebola will continue in Nigeria for some time yet.

“This really could be a long and a hard fight,” said David Daigle, a spokesman for the CDC team on Ebola in Nigeria. “We’re optimistic, but we know that this is like a forest fire and if there’s just one ember left in place it could easily start back up.”

TIME Aging

Magnets Can Improve Your Memory

Magnet
Magnet Getty Images

A continuous jolt of magnetic pulses to the brain can improve memory a study shows

Targeting a particular part of the brain with magnetic pulses may be a non-invasive way to improve memory, a new published in the journal Science study shows.

Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have discovered that by using a procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)—which has shown potential as a non-pharmacological way to treat stubborn depression—they can change memory functions in the brains of adults. The initial goal of the study was to determine whether a memory-related brain network could be manipulated, and whether that manipulation could lead to improved recall.

The researchers hypothesized that remembering events requires several brain regions to work together with the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. If there was a way to stimulate these regions, they could sync up better, which would improve memory and cognition. “[The research] was more of a hunch than I’d like to admit,” says study author Joel Voss, a assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern, who has studied memory for years. “I am interested in this network, and whether we can actually improve this system.”

To test this, Voss and his team of researchers had 16 healthy adults between the ages of 21 and 40 undergo MRIs so the researchers could learn the participants’ brain structures. Then, the participants took a memory test which consisted of random associations between words and images that they were asked to remember. Then, the participants underwent brain stimulation with TMS for 20 minutes a day for five days in a row. TMS uses magnetic pulses to stimulate areas of the brain. It doesn’t typically hurt, and has been described by some as a light knocking sensation. The researchers stimulated the regions of the brain involved in the memory network.

Throughout the five days, the participants were tested on recall after the stimulation and underwent more MRIs. The participants also underwent a faked placebo procedure. The results showed that after about three days, the stimulation resulted in improved memory, and they got about 30% more associations right with stimulation than without. Not only that, but the MRIs showed that the brain regions became more synchronized by the TMS.

Though the improvement was relatively small, Voss says they want to test the efficacy in other populations—like those who are aging or those who are starting to deal with the first stages of memory loss. The effects may be more pronounced in an “unhealthy” person because a healthy person will have a more normal baseline to start from, and there’s not as much room for improvement.

TMS is FDA approved as a treatment for depression. The procedure is used to stimulate regions of the brain in a depressed person that are inactive and involved in mood regulation. As TIME covered in May, TMS is currently used when a patient doesn’t respond to antidepressants, but some researchers think it could be used as a first-line treatment. Voss has been involved in some research in the past involving TMS for depression, and it was looking at that MRI data that helped him piece the puzzle together for his hunch that the brain memory system could be stimulated with positive results.

The new research is still very experimental and only looked at a small population. But it’s still intriguing. “This is not a treatment that someone could ask their doctor for. It’s still in very early stages,” says Voss. “But I think it has more promise than anything developed yet.”

TIME Cancer

IBM Watson’s Startling Cancer Coup

A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on January 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, New York.
A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on January 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, New York. Ben Hider—Getty Images

For the early part of its existence, IBM’s Watson supercomputer was a bit of a carnival act. It could perform feats of computational magic, win on Jeopardy, and whip up crazy burrito recipes at SXSW. But Watson is designed to become IBM’s money-making, Big Data platform, earning its keep across a variety of industries. In New York, the company announced that a Watson-enabled group of researchers was able to speed the process of discovery to uncover new targets for cancer research.

“We’re moving from a time where Watson helps answer questions to one where it tackles the questions that don’t have answers,” says IBM vice president John Gordon, Watson’s boss.

Using a Watson app developed with Baylor College of Medicine called KnIT (Knowledge Integration Toolkit) that reads and analyzes millions of scientific papers and suggests to researchers where to look and what to look for, a Baylor team has identified six new proteins to target for cancer research. How hard is that? Very. In the last 30 years, scientists have uncovered 28 protein targets, according to IBM. The Baylor team found half a dozen in a month.

More than 50 million research papers have been published, and that is doubling every three years. “Not only are our databases growing; they are growing faster than we can interpret all the data that they contain,” says Dr. Olivier Lichtarge, a computational biologist and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor Med who is one of KnIT’s developers.

Lichtarge and colleagues used KnIT to read 23 million MedLine papers, including 70,000 studies on a protein called p53, which is a tumor suppressor. The p53 protein is associated with half of all cancers. They also looked at other proteins called kinases—there are more than 500 of them in humans—that act as switches in turning p53 off and on. In cancer, mutations cause the switching function to go haywire, which lets cancer cells run amok. Using the KnIT analytics, the team was able to identify six previously unknown kinases that affect the p53 protein.

It sounds like Google for scientists—which already exists—but Watson’s calling card is its natural language and cognitive abilities. The program doesn’t just sift through the literature and spit out the search matches—it interprets the papers, looking for previously unseen connections involving proteins, drugs and molecular mechanics. Then it builds a graphic analysis to help the researchers see those connections. “You are not looking for an answer,” says Gordon. “You are looking for a chain across the papers. If we were playing pool: you would see all the direct shots. What would be less obvious are the combinations.”

At the end of the data-mining and analyses, Watson generates hypotheses for the scientists to consider, along with the probabilities that it has picked the right targets.

To test the process, researchers cut Watson’s reading material off at 2003, and then asked it to suggest protein targets to investigate. It came up with nine. Over the next decade, seven of them were actually discovered.

For IBM, it’s a kind of road test of Watson Discovery Advisor, a cloud-based service that the company is launching. The target: some $600 billion is spent annually on research and development by large corporations. IBM sees thousands of applications in everything from finance, engineering and science to law enforcement–basically any place where data is piling up faster than humans can absorb it. Other companies are doing likewise of course, as Big Data has the potential set off another wave of expansion in cloud services.

Watson has its limits. It isn’t going to do the scientists’ homework, the nuts and bolts of research; nor is it going to replace scientific intuition. “Let me be clear that nothing replaces good critical reading, in depth, by a specialist of a research paper,” says Lichtarge. “It doesn’t tell the scientist what to do: it suggests possibility,” he adds. Watson may be recommending bank-shots in the game of medical research, the scientists are still going to have to make them.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

You’re Eating More Trans Fat Than You Think, Study Finds

Scan the grocery store shelves, and you’ll find “0 grams of trans fat” labels nearly everywhere you look. But a new study published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal Preventing Chronic Disease finds that trans fat is still present in many foods, even in those that make the ‘0 grams’ claim.

Trans fats slip into packaged foods via partially hydrogenated oils, cheap vegetable oils that prolong shelf life and contain trans fat. But even if partially hydrogenated oils appear on the label, companies are allowed to claim the product contains 0 grams of trans fat, as long as the amount is limited to between 0-0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. That’s the case for most products containing the oils, the study finds. Of the 4,340 top-selling U.S. packaged foods it surveyed, 9% of them listed partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredients, and 84% of those claimed to have 0 grams of trans fat per serving.

“It’s hard for consumers to know how much trans fat they’re consuming,” says Christine Johnson Curtis, assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Tobacco Control at New York City’s Department of Health and one of the study’s authors. Some of the foods with the most trans fat were baked goods, snacks, frozen foods, and products with seasoning in them, according to the study. In the cookies category, 35% of products contained partially hydrogenated oils.

Studies link trans fats an increased risk of heart disease, and the Institute of Medicine concluded that there’s no safe level of artificial trans fats. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it’s considering revoking the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status of trans fats.

How will trans-fat-favoring foods be affected? Every category the study analyzed had products free of partially hydrogenated oils. “That means there are always options out there that are trans-fat free,” Curtis says. You may just have to wade through a lot of partially hydrogenated oils to find them.

TIME Obesity

Obese and Pregnant: An Intervention That Works

Pregnant Pregnancy
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A new study shows comprehensive programs for weight management can help obese women have healthy pregnancies

Obesity during pregnancy is a dangerous mix for both mom and baby. A mother’s obesity during pregnancy is linked to a greater likelihood for gestational diabetes, birth injuries, miscarriage, and a higher rate of C-sections. A child born to an obese mother is at a higher risk of developing obesity down the line, too.

A new study, which is published in the journal Obesity, shows that pregnancy risks can be lowered if women partake in a motivating program to get them on a healthier lifestyle, and gain fewer pounds during pregnancy. The program uses methods that have long been shown to work when it comes to keeping health in check, and if followed, both mom and baby could be safer.

Given that about a third of adult Americans in the U.S. are obese, a significant number of women will be obese during pregnancy. That’s why the Institute of Medicine recommends that obese women gain 11 to 20 pounds during pregnancy compared to normal weight women who are advised to gain 25 to 35.

However, some research suggests that limiting the amount of weight gained for obese women even more can lower the risk for complications. On Thursday results from a study called Healthy Moms showed that if obese women instead just maintain their weight, they are increasing their likelihood for a safe pregnancy.

The study looked at 114 obese women—those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and up—and had half of the woman participate in an intensive program that consisted of regular meetings, calorie goal, weigh-ins and food and exercise diaries. The other women met with a dietitian once, and received some information about healthy eating.

The findings showed that women enrolled in the comprehensive program gained 7 pounds less than the women who did not participate in the intensive program. Two weeks after the women delivered, the women undergoing the program were about six pounds lighter than they were at the start of the study, whereas the other group of women were about three pounds heavier. Birth and delivery complications were about the same among the two groups, but a smaller percentage of women in the intervention group had babies that grew too fast in the womb compared to the other women.

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