TIME Research

High Blood Pressure Related Deaths Are Way Up: CDC

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Hypertension is a factor in many U.S. deaths

Deaths related to high blood pressure, have risen significantly over the last 13 years, according to new federal data.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics shows the number of hypertension-related deaths increased 61.8%, from 2000 to 2013. The researchers analyzed national cause-of-death data files and defined hypertension-related death as any mention of hypertension on the death certificate. They found that over the 13 year period, the rate rose for both sexes age 45 and older.

But report also found that the proportion of deaths where heart disease was the underlying cause of death dropped by about 6%. The proportion of deaths where stroke was the underlying cause also dropped by about 5%.

“In the areas we’ve been focusing on for the last two to three decades we really have seen a reduction in deaths,” says Dr. Clyde Yancy chief of the division of cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “The lens has to increase now. This is an important message to get out that there are multiple reasons you want to get rid of hypertension, not just reducing stroke and heart disease, but minimizing the impact on diabetes and reducing your risk for cancer.” Yancy was not involved in the research.

While it is generally accepted that high blood pressure can lead to heart-related problems, studies have also shown links between hypertension and other chronic diseases. For instance, prior data has shown that hypertension can increase the risk of dying from cancer and developing the disease in the first place. The researchers report that heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes accounted for 65% of all the deaths with a mention of hypertension in 2000 and 54% in 2013.

Overall, the report shows that one out of six hypertension-related deaths was due to high blood pressure as the underlying cause. In the other deaths, high blood pressure was listed as a contributing factor.

TIME medicine

What We Learn When We Sequence the Genes of an Entire Nation

In a genetic milestone, researchers have amassed DNA data from an entire population of people. Here’s what we can learn from that information

Experts say that genetic sequencing may be the future of medicine, shaping how we understand and ultimately treat disease. If that’s the case, then the people of Iceland have a leg up on the rest of us.

In four groundbreaking papers published in Nature Genetics, scientists from Iceland describe the results of a massive gene-sequencing effort involving 2,636 people. Because the island country is relatively isolated, it’s a genetic goldmine. It enjoys a founder effect, which means that most residents can trace their lineage back to a few founding fathers, and that genetic variants have been passed down from generation to generation. That makes it possible to infer the distribution of the genetic variants found in the study’s 2,636 people to the remaining 325,000 Icelanders.

When they did that, the researchers, led by Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE Genetics/Amgen, were able find mutations linked to Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, thyroid disorders and atrial fibrillation. They also identified almost 8% of the population who have lost function of at least one of their genes and calculated the rate of mutations in the Y-chromosome among men.

In recent years, the practice of mining large numbers of human genomes by comparing people with and without specific diseases has led to a growing list of genetic culprits behind conditions such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and more. But by studying such a genetically unique population, Stefansson says, he was able to pick up even rare genetic changes that have emerged more recently and occur less frequently but might still be important contributors to disease. Those, he says, will be important clues to better understanding the biological roots of health problems, as well as finding new drugs and treatments for them. “What we anticipate is that all human diversity is going to be explained by the diversity in the sequence of the genome, either solely by the diversity in the sequence or by the interface of that diversity and the environment,” he says. “That includes the diversity and risk of disease and the ability to resist them.”

MORE: The Iceland Experiment

The mutation associated with Alzheimer’s, for example, in the ABCA7 gene, hasn’t popped up in previous searches, but the gene is involved in transporting lipids across membranes, a process that may contribute to the build up of sticky protein plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

The people who have lost function of at least one gene—called knockout genes in the genetic world—could also provide valuable hints about the pathways to disease. Even with a gene knocked out, most of these people are functioning, and Stefansson says researchers still study them in more detail to figure out how they are affected by their non-functioning genes. In animal research, knockouts are useful to see how prominent and important a gene is for health functioning. Stefansson anticipates that there may be redundancies built into the human genome to compensate for some knockouts, so finding these backup systems might be key to understanding why certain people get sicker with a disease while others remain relatively unaffected.

MORE: Scientists Identify Rare Gene Mutation that Protects Against Alzheimer’s

The sequences are also giving scientists a sharper picture of our past. The Y chromosome analysis shows that the last common ancestor sharing the Y chromosome among homo sapien men dates back 239,000 years, putting it closer to the common ancestor for the mitochondrial DNA passed down by women via their eggs. It also revealed how quickly mutations on the Y chromosome are occurring, which “gives us information about the age of our species, which is related to how diverse we are,” says co-author Agnar Helgason of deCODE and University of Iceland. “It tells us how quickly we are evolving.”

deCODE, which was acquired by the biotechnology company Amgen in 2012, is also investigating the new trove of genetic information for possible drug targets. “What this kind of work and insight into the human genome does is make approaches to influence the genome [and find treatments for disease] more rational,” says Stefansson.

How quickly that will happen isn’t clear yet, but having more information could make the process more efficient. “I’m willing to go so far as to say that there is nothing in human nature that may not have a reflection in the genome, or have something in the genome that associates with it,” he says. “We are made from the basis of the information coded in the genome.”

TIME ebola

The Red Cross: ‘Ebola Started In Silence and Will End With Our Words’

Leaders of the Red Cross reflect on the year of Ebola

A year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the mysterious disease that had earlier swept through the tiny village of Meliandou, in Guinea’s southern forested region, had been identified as a “rapidly evolving outbreak” of Ebola, affecting several districts of the country and its capital, Conakry.

Suspected cases were also being investigated in border areas of neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Ebola had started to become an emergency.

Last month, our thoughts turned to another place in Guinea: the town of Forécariah at the other end of the country, in the west. Two Red Cross volunteers had been attacked there while attempting to provide “safe and dignified burials.”

Probably the single most-important factor in driving down cases over the past year has been a reduction in unsafe burial practices in which the still-contagious bodies of the deceased are handled by bereaved relatives. Unsafe practices still continue, however, in many places.

In Guinea, Red Cross personnel have faced an average of ten verbal or physical assaults a month; Liberia and Sierra Leone have also reported some form of “refusal to comply” with public-health measures.

Our words, our actions

In the Ebola hotspot of Kono, Sierra Leone, and according to local data, many communities still prefer traditional funerals to safer alternatives.

Most medical equipment we need to stop the outbreak is now in place, and yet new cases are still occurring, particularly in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

We need more than just medical hardware to get to zero cases. Now our words must pave the way to the last mile.

Words to break the stigma against healthcare workers and survivors, words to educate communities on prevention, words of solidarity from all over the world to say to affected people and communities: We won’t let you down, and together we can end Ebola.

We are trying to change behaviors and practices, and learning along the way that the transmission of knowledge is not enough.

Let’s use the power of words to repair misconceptions, promote dialogue, heal, reconcile and engage to overcome resistance, facilitate behavioural change, and ultimately get us to zero new cases.

Let’s do it fast: the rainy season will soon be upon us, and some areas could become very difficult to access. There is still work to do, and time is of the essence.

Adapting our response

We will not just treat our way out of this disease.

In Liberia, most people – local data suggests as many as 70 percent – believe all that’s required to ward off Ebola is to refrain from eating bush meat, rather than avoiding contact with the bodily fluids of patients.

In one district surveyed by the Red Cross in Sierra Leone, 90 percent believed this, although nationwide there has been a significant increase in safe burials.

It’s easy to imagine how health-workers in full protective garb, looking like creatures from a nightmare, spraying homes with foul-smelling chlorine, might appear to isolated villagers.

There has also been miscommunication. The black body bags our volunteers and staff were using in some communities were rejected by bereaved people for whom tradition dictates that bodies should be wrapped in white, signifying respect – a vitally important word in the context of funeral rites.

We may not have listened quite as carefully to local people as we should have at the beginning. The black bags were replaced with white ones.

Walking the right path

On the Ebola response overall, the road is forking. Down one path – characterized by sustained international solidarity and yet further heroism by local volunteers and health workers – lie zero cases, stronger health systems, and eventual recovery from the wounds Ebola has inflicted on human societies.

But if complacency or fatigue marks the other path, we may find ourselves dealing with a silent disaster that will threaten the gains already made as well as recovery.

We in the Red Cross Red Crescent warn that complacency is the enemy; but we believe we are not helpless in the face of Ebola. Our words and our actions will make a difference. They will pave the last mile back to trust and resilience.

Elhadj As Sy is Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, responding to Ebola in 16 African nations; Yves Daccord is General Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has long been present in the region, particular Liberia and Guinea, due to past conflicts.

TIME ebola

Ebola Vaccine Trial Starts in Guinea

A health worker prepares a vaccination on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus.
CELLOU BINANI Cellou Binani—AFP/Getty A health worker prepares a vaccination on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus.

10,000 people will be vaccinated

An efficacy trial for an Ebola vaccine launched in Guinea on Wednesday.

The vaccine, VSV-EBOV, was developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and has already shown positive results in smaller safety trials. NewLink Genetics and Merck are collaborating on the vaccine, and the Guinean government and World Health Organization (WHO) are leading the trial, which is taking place in Basse-Guinée, a community where many Ebola cases spread.

MORE: 14 Emotional Dispatches From Key Ebola Fighters

The trial is using what’s called a “ring vaccination” strategy, which means that when a person is infected with Ebola, a group, or ring, of their contacts will be vaccinated. Some of the contacts will be vaccinated immediately, and some will be vaccinated three weeks later. The format was chosen so that everyone could get the vaccine, instead of giving some people a placebo. The hope is that the people who are vaccinated will create a “ring of immunity” from the virus, which could prevent its spread. Similar strategies have been used for smallpox, according to the WHO.

The trial plans to vaccinate 10,000 people in 190 rings in the next six to eight weeks, and all of those vaccinated will be followed for three months. The trial is voluntary, and researchers estimate that results may be available in July.

“We are committed to ending this epidemic,” said Dr. Sakoba Keita, the national coordinator of the Ebola fight in Guinea, in a statement. “Combined with control measures that we are putting in place with our partners, a safe and effective vaccine will allow us to close this trying chapter and start rebuilding our country.”

A total of 3,429 people have been infected with Ebola in Guinea, and 2,263 have died. The country recently experienced an uptick in cases.

TIME health

This Map Shows the Deadliest Counties in the U.S.

New rankings show the places in the U.S. that have largest percentage of people who die before the age of 75

Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, is the deadliest county in America, at least by one measure: it is the place where residents are most likely to die before the age of 75, which health experts consider premature death.

The new edition of County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, places the county — which until very recently was called Shannon County — at the bottom of the class in the number of people who died before age 75, a common measure of public health.

Oglala Lakota County sits inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, whose residents suffer from a number of well-documented health problems. While South Dakota has a number of counties with high rates of premature deaths, the unhealthiest region in the U.S. is arguably the heart of Appalachia, from eastern Kentucky into southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia. Many of the counties have rates of smoking and obesity north of 30% of the population.

The annual health rankings use a measure called “premature age-adjusted mortality” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of their main indicators of overall health. This factor uses statistical methods to adjust for the overall distribution of ages in a county, so that one can compare mortality in any two counties independent of whether one has an overall younger population than the other.

Across the country, the median value for this figure is 376 people per 100,000, meaning 0.38% of population will die before age 75 in a given year. (That’s all people, not just those who pass away.) The value for Oglala Lakota County is 983.4, while the lowest in the nation, in Pitkin, Colo., is 118.5.

A sufficient sample size was not available for 69 counties, colored white in this map. The 25 counties with the lowest mortality rates and the 25 counties with the highest rates are listed below.

25 Counties With Lowest Mortality Rates

County Mortality Rate
1 Pitkin, Colo. 118.5
2 Summit, Colo. 121
3 Presidio, Texas 126.3
4 Mono, Calif. 148.5
5 Eagle, Colo. 148.7
6 San Miguel, Colo. 153.2
7 Custer, Colo. 163.9
8 Teton, Wyo. 164.1
9 Hartley, Texas 167
10 Douglas, Colo. 169.3
11 Fairfax, Va. 172.5
12 Ouray, Colo. 173.6
13 Aleutians West, Alaska 173.7
14 Loudoun, Va. 176.8
15 Morgan, Utah 177.8
16 Montgomery, Md. 178.9
17 Lincoln, S.D. 179.2
18 Summit, Utah 181.7
19 Sublette, Wyo. 183
20 Leelanau, Mich. 183.2
21 Marin, Calif. 185.3
22 Howard, Md. 190.1
23 Blaine, Idaho 191
24 Carver, Minn. 191.5
25 Los Alamos, N.M. 194

25 Counties With Highest Mortality Rates

County Mortality Rate
1 Shannon, S.D. 983.4
2 Todd, S.D. 878.2
3 McDowell, W.Va. 861.2
4 Sioux, N.D. 834.5
5 Dewey, S.D. 811.4
6 Corson, S.D. 792.6
7 Union, Fla. 780.6
8 Owsley, Ky. 777.6
9 Robertson, Ky. 745.4
10 Perry, Ky. 742.7
11 Leslie, Ky. 737.5
12 Powell, Ky. 736.8
13 Wyoming, W.Va. 731.4
14 Wolfe, Ky. 724.2
15 Roosevelt, Mont. 716.9
16 Tunica, Miss. 713.8
17 Breathitt, Ky. 712.3
18 Buffalo, S.D. 711.2
19 Clay, Ky. 705.3
20 Bolivar, Miss. 702.6
21 Benson, N.D. 700
22 Knott, Ky. 696.2
23 Mingo, W. Va. 695.5
24 Harlan, Ky. 686.5
25 Floyd, Ky. 685.5

Read next: These Are the American Cities With the Highest (and Lowest) Unemployment

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TIME neuroscience

How Air Pollution Affects Babies in the Womb

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A new study finds evidence that prenatal exposure to common pollutants can contribute to hyperactivity, aggression and more in kids

It makes sense that an expectant mom’s exposure to pollutants in the air can affect her still-growing baby’s lungs and respiratory system. But there’s increasing evidence that such compounds can also harm brain development and contribute to behavioral and cognitive problems later in childhood.

In the latest study on the subject, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers for the first time pinpointed exactly which areas of the brain are affected if a baby is exposed to car exhaust and the byproducts of burning home heating oil. These polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have previously been linked to developmental delays, lower verbal IQ. signs of anxiety depression and problems with attention. But researchers haven’t been able to identify which areas of the brain are most vulnerable.

MORE: Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

In this study, they recruited 40 mothers and their children living in the inner city who were participating in an ongoing study of pollution’s effect on development. They were selected because they had low exposure to environmental factors other than PAHs that could affect development, such as tobacco smoke, lead, insecticides and other chemicals. Based on measurements of PAH in their surroundings, about half of the mothers had PAH exposures below the median of those in the larger group, and half had PAH exposures higher than the median.

“The effects were extraordinarily powerful,” says Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the study. “The more prenatal exposure to PAH, the bigger the white matter problems the kids had. And the bigger the white matter problems, the more severe symptoms of ADHD, aggression and slow processing they had on cognitive tasks.”

MORE: Mom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems

White matter is made up of the fibrous connections between nerve cells and is critical to helping neurons from one part of the brain communicate with their counterparts in other regions, and the babies with the highest exposure to PAH in the womb showed a dramatically lower volume of white matter in the left side of their brains. The entire left hemisphere, from the front to the back, was affected. “You would assume that an environmental exposure brought in by the blood and circulating to the brain would affect both sides of the brain,” says Peterson. “But the adverse effects of PAHs is located on one side; that’s surprising.”

The asymmetrical effect speaks volumes about how PAHs target brain tissue. Like other neurotoxins, they may preferentially seek out actively developing tissue. During gestation, the left side of the brain, which houses language capabilities, may be undergoing more intense structural changes in preparation for birth. This was supported by the fact that in the larger group of children in the study, those who were exposed to PAHs around age five didn’t show the same left-sided bias; in the older children, the pollutants affected both sides equally because the right hemisphere of the brain is undergoing active development at that time as well.

MORE: ADHD Linked to the Air Pregnant Women Breathe

Peterson suspects that the connection between PAHs and later behavioral and cognitive symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and slow processing speed may be due to how PAHs disrupt the normal communication between nerves in the left side of the brain and elsewhere.

The problem, he admits, is that moms-to-be can’t easily change where they live or work. And most people aren’t aware of how many PAHs they absorb on a daily basis. There are ways to minimize the risk of exposure, however. Expectant mothers can avoid secondhand smoke, a major source of the compounds. Not directly inhaling exhaust from cars on busy streets or smoke from fireplaces can also help, as can spending as much time as possible in parks or other areas free of burning fuels. It won’t eliminate the risk from living in an inner city and being surrounded by car emissions, but it can help, Peterson says. “Even if you can reduce your exposure from moderately high to moderate levels, it’s going to have a beneficial effect on the developing fetus,” he says.

TIME toxins

You Asked: Should I Dry Brush My Skin?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

There may be benefits, but reducing cellulite isn’t one of them.

If you’re wondering what dry brushing is, the practice is exactly what it sounds like: Running a dry, soft-bristle brush over your bare skin. Methodologies vary, but most practitioners and beauty blogs recommend brushing your limbs and torso, always motioning toward your heart. Do this for a few minutes every day, they say, and you’ll increase blood flow and circulation, which will help your body and lymphatic system clear away toxins. Dry brushing is also thought to reduce cellulite and exfoliate, leaving your skin softer, more toned and better hydrated.

Unfortunately, there’s not much research to back up these health claims. “I know dry brushing is popular, but the actual benefits are unclear,” says Dr. Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and a clinical professor at Georgetown University.

Alster says that rubbing the skin—with a brush, your hand or anything else—will increase blood flow and circulation, giving your skin a flushed, youthful and “slightly swollen” appearance. (The same thing happens if you pinch your cheeks.) But your skin will return to normal very quickly after you’ve stopped brushing it, Alster says. There’s no evidence this temporary surge in blood flow will help your body remove waste or toxins, she adds.

Dry brushing will clear away dead skin cells. But exfoliating isn’t necessary for those in their teens and twenties. “When you’re young, your skin’s outermost layer will automatically turn over without any mechanical help,” Alster explains. Beginning in your thirties and increasing as you age, Alster says your skin’s cells can grow “stickier,” which can lead to accumulation and a dull appearance. “Exfoliation can help remove those stuck-together cells,” she says. “But you want to do it very gently and infrequently, or you may do more harm than good.”

Brushing too frequently or vigorously—or using a brush with rough bristles—could cause “micro-cuts” in your skin that may lead to infection, Alster says. Exfoliating more than once a week could also break down your skin’s protective barriers, leaving your hide less hydrated and prone to irritation, says Dr. Marc Glashofer, a New York-based dermatologist and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. For that reason, Glashofer says people with eczema or dry skin should avoid dry brushing altogether.

Glashofer mentions a common skin condition called keratosis pilaris (KP), which consists of many small rough bumps that tend to show up on the backs of arms and thighs. Dry brushing these areas could theoretically be beneficial, he says, but there’s no evidence yet.

And when it comes to reducing cellulite, both Glashofer and Alster say there’s nothing to back up such claims. “If brushing the skin twice per day would eliminate cellulite, you would have heard a lot more about it and there’d be some scientific proof,” Glashofer says.

Of course, not everything that benefits your body is easily captured by medical research. From meditation to massage, many practices once dismissed by clinicians have recently been linked to meaningful psychological and physical benefits. It’s possible dry brushing may one day fall into this category, but that day hasn’t arrived yet.

“If you like dry brushing and your skin looks good, that’s fine,” Alster says. “But would I encourage it as a dermatologist? Definitely not.”

Read next: 25 Delectable Detox Smoothies

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TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Dangers of Buying Breast Milk Online: Study

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Experts are urging women to avoid this dangerous market

In the DIY corner of the internet, buying, selling and trading breast milk is a booming online business—and that’s a dangerous thing, according to a new editorial in The BMJ.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers decided to investigate the practice whereby new mothers buy breast milk from strangers online and feed it to their infants. It’s a practice the researchers conclude is growing—and fastest in the U.S. Some women unable to breastfeed see it as a healthier alternative to formula, and online breast milk is often cheaper than the kind you find at a regulated milk bank, where the milk is screened, collected, pasteurized and stored according to strict protocol, the authors say.

MORE: I Bullied Myself Into Breastfeeding

But the online market for breast milk is almost entirely unregulated and it can put young children at risk. There are no requirements to test sellers for diseases that may transmit by drinking breast milk, like HIV and hepatitis B and C, the piece says. In one 2013 study, a different group of researchers discovered that 21% of milk samples bought online tested positive for cytomegalovirus, a type of herpes virus that spreads through secretions and can have a long-term impact on the immune system.

The health concerns extend beyond hidden viruses, the researchers point out. Another study found that of 101 breast milk samples bought online, 92 of them had detectable bacterial growth—partly because they weren’t pasteurized, and partly because a quarter of them shipped so poorly that they arrived unfrozen or damaged. And breast milk, like most other liquids for which people pay a premium, seems to be a magnet for fraud. Cow’s milk, water and even soy milk are sometimes added as adulterants to dilute breast milk and increase its volume, says editorial co-author Sarah Steele, lecturer at the Global Health, Policy and Innovation Unit at Queen Mary University London.

MORE: 2,500 Tons of the Food We Eat Is Fake

“As our research has revealed, 75% of mothers go online when they have an issue with infant feeding,” Steele says. “They resort to the internet to find out the information, usually because they’re embarrassed, or because they feel like they’re failing their infant, or because they’re exhausted.” But even though mothers are readily discovering this alternative feeding source, doctors aren’t talking about it, Steele says.

Infants aren’t the only ones drinking breast milk. Some bodybuilding websites tout it as a “natural superfood” for adults or a drink for “post-workout recovery,” Steele says—but the same risks for virus transmission apply.

In the piece, Steele and her co-authors call for more regulation of the industry. “Even healthcare professionals aren’t entirely aware of just how dangerous it is and just how many samples are contaminated,” she says. Despite these risks, “It’s not a small industry,” Steele says. According to her data, one milk-selling website, OnlyTheBreast.com, had 27,000 members last year and gains 700-800 each month.

TIME neuroscience

Your Brain Learns New Words By Seeing Them Not Hearing Them

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Chris Ryan—Getty Images/Caiaimage

To be a really proficient reader, it’s not enough to “hear” words. You also have to see them

We start to talk before we can read, so hearing words, and getting familiar with their sounds, is obviously a critical part of learning a language. But in order to read, and especially in order to read quickly, our brains have to “see” words as well.

At least that’s what Maximilian Riesenhuber, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University Medical Center, and his colleagues found in an intriguing brain-mapping study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The scientists recruited a small group of college students to learn a set of 150 nonsense words, and they imaged their brains before and after the training.

Before they learned the words, their brains registered them as a jumble of symbols. But after they were trained to give them a meaning, the words looked more like familiar words they used every day, like car, cat or apple.

MORE: Mistakes to Avoid When Learning a Foreign Language

The difference in way the brain treated the words involved “seeing” them rather than sounding them out. The closest analogy would be for adults learning a foreign language based on a completely different alphabet system. Students would have to first learn the new alphabet, assigning sounds to each symbol, and in order to read, they would have to sound out each letter to put words together.

In a person’s native language, such reading occurs in an entirely different way. Instead of taking time to sound out each letter, the brain trains itself to recognize groups of letters it frequently sees together — c-a-r for example — and dedicates a set of neurons in a portion of the brain that activates when these letters appear.

In the functional MRI images of the volunteers’ brains, that’s what Riesenhuber saw. The visual word form area, located in the left side of the visual cortex, is like a dictionary for words, and it stores the visual representation of the letters making up thousands of words. This visual dictionary makes it possible to read at a fast pace rather than laboriously sounding out each letter of each word every time we read. After the participants were trained to learn the meaningless words, this part of their brains was activated.

MORE: An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

“Now we are seeing words as visual objects, and phonetics is not involved any more,” he says. “We recognize the word as a chunk so we go directly from a visual pattern to the word’s meaning, and we don’t detour to the auditory system.”

The idea of a visual dictionary could also help researchers to better understanding reading or learning disorders like dyslexia. More research could reveal whether the visual word form area in people with such disabilities is different in any way, or whether they tend to read via more auditory pathways. “I helps us understand in a general way how the brain learns, the fastest way of learning, and how to build on prior learning,” says Riesenhuber.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

There Might Be More Nutritious Chocolate On the Horizon

Chocolate Splash
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Researchers create a new process to make chocolate richer in antioxidants

Scientists are looking to make chocolate a not-so-guilty pleasure.

Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Ghana, and his team have figured out a new process for making chocolate that’s healthier and contains more antioxidants. Chocolate’s antioxidants are thought to be responsible for some of its health perks related to cardiovascular health and memory support. Capitalizing on those antioxidants could not only provide better nutrition, but could be of interest to the candy industry. The researchers presented their process at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Denver on Tuesday.

Afoakwa and his team showed that tweaks to the storage and roasting processes can result in chocolate with more healthy compounds, but still the same sweet flavor.

The trick is to intervene in one of the many steps before cocoa turns into the chocolate. In typical chocolate-making, pods are first taken from cocoa trees and the cocoa beans are extracted, fermented and roasted. But during the roasting process many of the polyphenols, or antioxidants, in cocoa beans are lost. To protect them, the researchers decided to add a storage step to the process. They split 3oo pods into four different storage groups: no storage, three-day storage, seven-day storage and 10-day storage. The researchers found that seven days of storage resulted in the highest antioxidant levels after roasting.

Next, the researchers experimented with the roasting process, since that’s when most antioxidant content is lost. Normally beans are roasted for 10 to 20 minutes at 248-266 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers say, but they decided to slow the process down and instead roast the beans at 242 degrees for 45 minutes. The lower temperature and longer roasting process also resulted in higher antioxidant activity compared to the beans that went through the usual roasting.

“I have been working on cocoa for some time, and my interest is on creating techniques that can enhance the flavor and the quality of the beans,” says Afoakwa. “We’re trying to find out how some of these practices can be enhanced to help farmers produce beans of higher quality.”

Afoakwa says his team recommends consumers choose dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate since dark chocolate typically has more antioxidants and less sugar. The researchers are continuing to identify changes to the chocolate-making process that could increase the candy’s nutritional content. The researchers are currently receiving funding from the Belgium government.

“We believe there will be a high benefit for confectionary industry,” Afoakwa says.

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