Science Scanner: Why Food is Like a Drug

Posted July 6th, 2011 at 6:59 pm (UTC-4)
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“You can’t eat just one.”

That was a slogan used by a large potato chip company years ago. Turns out, it might have been scientifically correct.

Researchers in a new study say fatty but delightful snacks like chips trigger natural, marijuana-like chemicals in our bodies which make them nearly irresistible.

For a long time, craving carbohydrates was blamed for our overindulging in these goodies.

But, University of California, Irvine scientists have discovered that the foods contain fats which trigger a natural biological mechanism that drives people to over snack.

Researchers Daniele Piomelli, Nicholas DiPatrizio and their colleagues say the culprits are called endocannabinoids.

Yes, I heard cannabis (the scientific term for marijuana) in that name, too. These endocannabinoids are natural marijuana-like chemicals produced by our own bodies.

The team discovered that when rats tasted something fatty, cells in their upper gut region started producing these endocannabinoids.

Interestingly, sugars and proteins did not have this effect.

The team’s research could play an important role in the international battle against obesity. The research suggests that, by developing medications designed to obstruct endocannabinoid activity, the cravings and overindulgence of fatty foods can be reduced.

The results of the UC, Irvine team will appear this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Ouch! Why Does My Sunburn Hurt So Much?

It’s happened to most of us at one time or another – we’re outside enjoying a warm sunny day and forget to put on the sunblock.  A while later, it dawns on us that perhaps we’ve been enjoying the sun a little too much. Our skin is a bit red, tender and warm to the touch.

But that’s only the beginning, because medical experts say that, although the initial symptoms of a sunburn appear within a few hours, the full effect to your skin may not appear for 24 hours or longer.

Now, scientists in London say they’ve discovered why sunburns are painful.

Researchers at King’s College believe they’ve traced the cause to a molecule in the body which controls sensitivity to pain from UVB irradiation.

The molecule is called CXCL5 and is part of a group of proteins called chemokines. These proteins act as lures which attract inflammatory immune cells to the injured tissue, which in turn triggers pain and tenderness.

The research team says its study is the first to reveal the role CXCL5 plays in facilitating pain. The discovery could lead to new medicines to treat pain caused by other common inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.

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Atlantis Experiment to Focus on Bone Loss

Preparations continue at the Kennedy Space Center for the scheduled July 8 launch of Atlantis, the final flight of the space shuttle program.

One of the experiments the crew will conduct during this final shuttle mission involves testing a new therapy NASA hopes will build bone mass during space travel.

Astronauts lose a significant amount of bone mass during space travel.  There’s concern that this bone loss could lead to an increased chance of fractures for those who take on long-duration flights.

The research findings will not only impact space travelers,  but might also offer new insight into the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, bone fractures and skeletal fragility among those who are inactive due to aging or illness.

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Keys to the Formation of Water Found in Space

An international team of astronomers says it has found hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in space.

The formation of this compound is important to both astronomers and chemists, since it is closely linked to oxygen and water, which are critical for life.

And, since much of the water here on Earth is thought to have originated in space, scientists are anxious to learn and understand just how it is created.

Using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope (APEX), located in the Chilean Andes, scientists studied an area of space that surrounds the star Rho Ophiuchi, which is about 400 light-years away.

This area of space happens to contain very cold (around -250 degrees Celsius), dense clouds of cosmic gas and dust in which new stars are being born.

Scientists describe these clouds as being comprised mostly of hydrogen, but they also contain traces of other chemicals.

Since the APEX telescope can observe light at very small wavelengths, the research team was able to find the characteristic signature of light emitted by hydrogen peroxide, coming from part of the Rho Ophiuchi clouds.

The researchers say that this new detection of hydrogen peroxide will help astronomers better understand the formation of water in the universe.

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Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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