September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Themes of the last fortnight have been the growing calls for a strategy on obesity, drug experimenting and lessons from bird flight ...


Themes of the last fortnight have been the growing calls for a strategy on obesity, drug experimenting and lessons from bird flight.

Campaign obesity

Obesity is a growing problem in the UK. Recent figures show that over 23% of the population is obese at a cost to the NHS of over £5 billion a year but, despite the rising costs and increased awareness, the problem continues to grow. According to the Guardian, it’s predicted to affect 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children by 2050.

This debilitating condition isn’t restricted to the affluent west: over 900 million people in the developing world are obese (a figure that has almost quadrupled in the last 30 years) and the blame is cast on increased incomes and the homogenisation of diet across the globe.

So what’s to be done? Some are calling for campaigns similar to the anti-smoking drive to target excessive sugar use in food manufacturing. Others, such as Clare Wilson in the New Scientist, feel the approach could follow in the footsteps of the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), which has reduced the average salt intake in the UK by 15% in the last decade. Wilson points out one potential problem is that lowering salt in the diet actually causes an individual to seek lower salt foods, whereas the same hasn’t been shown to be true for sugar.

A modified strategy might therefore be necessary and advertising is a strong candidate: A National Obesity Forum report last week showed that strong health messages delivered at point of sale (ie. in the Morrisons supermarket) led to an increase in the purchase of fruit by 20-30% over a 15 week period. Studies like this show that people will listen to messages about eating healthier. Combined with experience from previous health campaigns and government action, they could help to build a tailored approach to tackling obesity.

Birds in the hand

Our feathers friends continue to be a source of information and wonder. Check out how they conserve energy during migration by flying in a V-formation. We’re also set on tracking the movement of birds from the Icarus space station in order to detect erratic behaviour as it may give early warnings of volcanic eruptions. Tracking migration could also indicate how disease might spread across continents during a bird flu outbreak. Finally, studying the gliding techniques of albatross is likely to provide new insights into how to keep drones gliding in the air for longer.

Drug squad

Experimenting with drugs has been all over the news for the last fortnight. The state of Colorado just legalised the sale of cannabis and studies are underway to trace what effect the change in law might have – will it increase or decrease usage? Will the number of people dependent on it go up or down? How will crime be affected? Unfortunately for scientists, it isn’t yet legal to track the ages or locations of Colorado cannabis smokers so a valuable line of research is missed there, but it’s still a hotbed for social science work.

A drug that sounds more fun than cannabis is a new mood-stabiliser that reawakens the child-like ability to learn. Recognising the pitch of a musical note is a skill that cannot normally be acquired after the age of about 7, so if you don’t know what middle C sounds like by then, previously you may never have known. But a new learning drug that acts on the enzyme histone deacetylase partially reopens the ability to learn rapidly like a child, including the pitch of musical notes. Tests on how taking the drug might negatively rewire your brain are now needed before general release.

Finally, new research shows that in some cases you might not need drugs at all – placebos can give similar results. When a sugar pill was taken for a migraine and the patient was told it was the real thing, the pill had a positive effect of around 50%. Likewise, when the real drug was taken but the patient was told they were taking a placebo, the positive outcome was reduced by 50%, so there was parity between these two groups. David Gorski on Science Blogs feels that talking up the effect of placebos can ultimately be dangerous to a patient who may be in a fragile physical condition, which is a valid point, but if talking up a drug and taking a harmless substitute can have a similar effect to taking the original then why not save money and hangovers by dumping cocktails for a decent chat and a mocktail?


IMAGE: VikramDeep, Flickr