Author Archives: Hunter Alexander Mycek

Go outside!

Have you ever felt your melting brain dribble out of your ears after watching a few hours of TV? Didn’t think so. If you said yes, definitely get off your computer and go see a doctor. For the rest of you without liquified brains. I’m sure you’ve heard about some of the negative aspects of watching TV. I know, the Big Bang Theory is super funny but you should really go outside. Humans are not meant to spend most of their time sedentary, that means you! It has long been known that the advent of television has contributed to obesity related diseases. But does it make you dumb? There is some evidence out there that suggests just that! Before you call your mom and tell her that your bad mid term grade was Modern Family’s fault, lets check it out.

A study done by researchers at the University of Cambridge looking into this question was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. They started with 845 adolescents between the ages and 14-15 and monitored their screen time, physical activity and study time leading up to when they took the GCSE, a pseudo-equivalent to a high school diploma in the United Kingdom. They adjusted for BMI z-score, deprivation, sex, season and school before analyzing the results. After they got the exam scores back and analyzed the results they uncovered some fairly predictable trends. Those who spent an extra hour everyday watching TV or playing video game scored an average 9.3 less points. For a test that is only out of 58 points, that is the difference between and A and B. The kids who spent an extra hour every day studying scored a whopping 23.1 more points on average and the kids who spent an extra hour exercising scored an average 6.9 more points more.

Based on these results, it is clear that studying makes you do better in school (duh). We’re interested in the difference in scores between screen time and physical activity. These results do suggest that screen time is a significant factor in worse test scores. However, I don’t feel that this study did a great job controlling for confounding variables. Kids between 14 and 15 in the UK have never taken the GSCE before and based on the researchers’ methods they are getting these variances by comparing test scores across the 845 subjects. It is possible that IQ is the main determinant of GSCE score and that more or less physical activity/screen time is a non factor. It is also a possibility that if one of the subjects is inherently smarter he/she will be more inclined to spend less time playing video games and prefer to spend their time reading or playing outside. This was an observational study because the independent variables, physical activity and so, were not manipulated by the researchers in any way. Therefore, their results can only suggest a correlation at best but have means of establishing a causal relationship.

This doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting that watching copious amounts of TV is okay! In fact I urge you to do the exact opposite. Children in this country spend an average of 1,620 minutes a week watching television. That’s an incredible 27 hours or 16% percent of the hours in a week. If we assume that a child gets around 9 hours of sleep per night, that means they spend 25.7% of their waking hours watching TV. Even if the Cambridge study is only correlational, there is a definite possibility that screen time inhibits learning. For the rational person, unless you value hours spent watching TV more than higher grades in school, it is safe to say that spending more time not watching TV is worth it. Maybe it’ll keep your brain from melting too.


Everyone’s got a Secret Formula

If you don’t have trust issues, you will soon. As millennials (thats you) push western society towards healthier, organic foods, many companies are starting to publish nutrition information online and in-store. For example, my favorite place to eat in State College, Chipotle, has a “nutrition calculator” on their website that contains nutrition information on their food. But have you ever gotten the feeling that the guy in Chipotle wasn’t giving you enough chicken? Maybe the girl next to him gives you far too much sour cream… gross. Either way, making a burrito for someone isn’t an exact science and the same applies to many food establishments and prepackaged goods across the country. The question I pose to you is, do you really think all nutrition facts are accurate? Are they even close?

Diagram of a Bomb-Calorimeter – Courtesy of Hope College

The National Institute for Diabetes conducted a study in which they used bomb calorimetry, a method of determining the exact caloric content of food, to evaluate 24 different snack foods purchased from different convenience stores owned by Safeway Inc., a Fortune 500 company. What they found was pretty alarming. They analyzed everything from ice cream to cereal bars to evaluate the accuracy their nutrition facts really are. To start, they weighed the samples and found that the middle 50% of the food weighed 1.4-4.3% more than what was stated on the label. Furthermore, after using a bomb-calorimeter, they found that carbohydrate content exceeded stated amounts by 7.7% and the overall caloric content of exceed the nutrition facts by 4.3-8%. Upon analyzing their results, the variation in carbohydrate content and serving size was determined to account for 95% of the excess calories.

In a society where 35.7% of adults are considered obese, larger than stated serving sizes and food that contains more carbohydrates than people are told is problematic. Even more alarming is that the FDA actually allows this to happen; caloric content of food in the United States is allowed to be within 20% of the value companies claim. This presents a possible loophole in an industry that affects individuals’ health. What is stopping Hershey from understating the content of t Reese’s by 15% to make it seem healthier than it is?

In an “Op-Doc” piece for the New York Times, YouTuber Casey Neistat and researchers at the New York Nutrition Obesity Center partnered to analyze foods that Neistat ate on a normal day in New York City, here’s the video.

Neistat and the researchers found that a sandwich claiming to be healthy, vegan and kosher on the label contained a whopping 548.4 calories versus the 228 calories posted in its nutrition information. Also analyzed was a chipotle burrito, a Starbucks frappuccino, a muffin and a small Subway sandwich. Again using a bomb-calorimeter, the team found that all but the Subway sandwich exceeded the caloric content that was claimed. In total, the amount of extra calories Neistat consumed that day added up to the equivalent of unknowingly eating a Big Mac from McDonalds…. better stick to the $5 Footlongs.

However, the blame should not be laid entirely on Chipotle or Starbuck’s. In large corporations where serving size is determined by food scientists and management that is far detached from the actual food preparation and point of sale, some margin of human-error is to be expected. But is that acceptable? Obesity has taken somewhat of a back seat to climate change and economic turmoil in the past few years but it still exists; the average American is 24lbs. heavier today than in 1960. Additionally, the FDA’s Food Labeling Guide was published back in 1994 with small revisions in 2008, 2009 and 2013 that mostly addressed what was labeled and not how things were determined. As more and more of these nutrition fact discrepancies come to light there will be more pressure on the FDA to become more stringent in their guidelines. Your calculus professor does not give you a 20% margin of error on your midterms and the same should go for the food industry.

In addition to stricter FDA guidelines, companies like Chipotle or Starbucks should implement better education programs for new hires that make portioning less variable. Going one step further, companies need to be more transparent about what goes into their food and publish ingredient information along with their nutrition calculators. Transparency would hold large corporations such as these more accountable for what they put in their food. 

Hand it over Mr. Krabs.

Alcohol: Is it worth it?

If ever there was a true love-hate relationship, it was most likely between college students and alcohol. I’m fairly certain that I do not need to rattle off all the after-effects of a weekend in State College. Considering that Niche, a popular college ranking website, ranks Penn State 16th out of 700+ in terms of party scene, I’m sure many of you are already quite familiar with our topic. Ironically, it is that very same familiarity that prompted me to write a blog about alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism claims that 60% of college students between the ages of 18 and 22 have drank in the past month. Now I’m sure all of you fall in the 40% that don’t… right? Alcohol is a very real, natural part of the college experience and aside from the easily observable symptoms associated with a hangover, I’ve met few people who have an adequate grasp on how it affects their body (including myself). Hopefully this blog will fix that!

Alcohol and the Media

Before we jump into the science of alcohol I believe that it is important to acknowledge the amount of bias that accompanies scientific research into popular consumer goods, like alcohol. Many people and organizations have very negative viewpoints on alcohol and sites such as post non-scientific articles (like this) claiming that alcohol is in fact the most dangerous drug in the world. It is articles such as these that pollute the internet with speculation and make unbiased scientific research harder to find. However, bias is not a one-way street. Dr. Babor of the University of Connecticut looked into how the alcoholic beverage industry is involved with alcohol science and after “…extensive review of organizational websites, newspaper articles, journal papers, letters to the editor, editorials, books, book chapters and unpublished documents” he uncovered some unsettling facts; he discovered that the alcoholic beverage industry is not only involved in the financing of research organizations but it also finances university-based scientists and helps publish industry-beneficial findings. To be honest, none of this came as a surprise to me. Once we acknowledge bias in scientific research we can more aptly find research of merit, and that is exactly what we’re going to do.

Alcohol and Your Body

Like all liquids, when you consume an alcoholic beverage it finds its way to your stomach where 20% of the alcohol is absorbed by blood vessels and carried to the blood stream. The remaining alcohol is then absorbed by the small intestine and also finds its way to the blood stream. Eventually, enzymes break down the alcohol in your liver at around 1oz./hour or one drink per hour. When you consume more than one drink an hour, as often in college, your system becomes saturated and the alcohol collects in your blood and body tissue until it can be metabolized. This accumulation is can be defined as blood alcohol content (BAC) and the mental and physical at each “level” of intoxications are well known. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can actually cause your brain go into coma-like states where people pass out. It is believed that this passing out is a result of your bodies attempt to get you to stop drinking; if you’re “passed out,” you can’t drink any more alcohol. Unfortunately, there is a flaw with the mechanism. Alcohol does not enter the bloodstream immediately after you consume it, there is a delay. During this delay it is possible that the individual could consume even more alcohol before the body can shut itself down.

All of the above information courtesy of Brown University

The Cost of Alcohol

It has long been known that prolonged heavy drinking can take a toll on your body. In fact, this article published by the School of Public Health at Harvard University outlines some of health issues related to heavy drinking. Some of the repercussions include inflammation of the liver and eventually even scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), which can be fatal. On top of that it can lead to high blood pressure and can damage heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). If those weren’t scary enough for you, alcohol has been linked to cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, breast, and colon and rectum in men.

For the ladies, a meta-analysis conducted at Harvard University looked at 6 different studies that assessed over 320,000 women over 11 years. The research team concluded from their findings that, “Alcohol consumption is associated with a linear increase in breast cancer incidence in women over the range of consumption reported by most women.” Upon reading this study I immediately texted my mom and sister passing it along to them. However, after a little deliberation a few flaws with this study come to mind. Of course, we have to anticipate some amount of bias due to the file-drawer problem; it is likely that there are other studies that failed to find any association and were not published as a result. Additionally, taking into account what Dr. Babor found in his review of alcohol science and industry involvement we cannot immediately rule out that those who oppose the alcoholic beverage industry do not participate in the same research financing practices. Because this meta-analysis is on pub-med, the funding/grant information is included at the bottom of the page. After googling the grant number, I found that the study was financed by two grants from the National Institutes for Health, a branch of the U.S. Department for Public Health & Human Services. One would hope that there is no bias in this study due to the fact that it was government funded. However, there are people on the other end of those grants and we are not privy to their motives.

The Verdict.

This is for you to decide. The unfortunate truth is that there are so many studies out there analyzing the short and long-term effects of alcohol. To really capture all that is going on I would need to write a book, not a blog. Unfortunately, the more of these blogs I write the more I realize that science is imperfect and that money can do a lot of the talking. In the end, it is your body and your life. To really decide if alcohol is worth it to you you must weigh the benefits and the numerable healthy risk associated with it… not to mention the legal ramifications of under-age drinking. My guess would be that out there, amidst all the bias, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and that moderation is key.

No Whey!?

Yeah yeah, I know the title is a tad corny…. but now you’re reading my blog, so I guess it worked, huh? We’re gonna talk about whey protein today; I’ve spent too much money on this stuff to not know whether or not it’s actually beneficial. If you’ve ever been inside a GNC store I’m sure you’ve seen the massive (over-priced) containers of whey protein and maybe you’ve even encountered the often pushy GNC employees who’ve told you that whey will “change your life.” If there is one thing I’ve learned in SC 200, it’s that we put quite a lot of stuff into our bodies and not all them are entirely good for you. So before any of us go drop $40+ on another container of whey, lets see if our GNC friends really know what they’re talking about.

Whey Protein

There are two kinds of protein in milk, whey and casein. Both proteins can be found in bodybuilding supplements but whey protein is more commonly used. Whey can be separated from the casein in milk but it is also a by-product of making cheese. Considered a complete protein, whey contains all 9 of the essential amino acids and is extremely low in lactose content. Most whey protein supplements are 90% protein and are made of “whey protein isolate (WPI)” which has had all fat and lactose removed. It is believed to help with muscle protein synthesis and improve growth of lean muscle mass. Additionally, some possible health benefits are that it may have anti-cancer properties, aid in weight loss and lower cholesterol.

All of the above courtesy of

Whey and Muscle Protein Synthesis

Three researchers from the University of Bonn, located just outside of Cologne, Germany, conducted a meta-analysis of 25 studies that examined how the supplementation of whey protein affects protein synthesis in the muscle of their subjects. After analyzing all of the studies the researchers concluded that whey protein may increase muscle protein synthesis but, “…the evidence for a clinical efficacy is not strong enough to make final recommendations with respect to a specific dose and the duration of supplementation.” Although the researchers did not go very in depth in their conclusion, I think it is important to recognize that they did in fact observe some increase in muscle protein synthesis. However, the lack of “evidence for a clinical efficacy” communicates that the data may not be strong enough to definitively state the overall efficacy of whey protein in promoting protein synthesis.

Furthermore, because this is a meta-analysis, we have to acknowledge the possibility of the file-drawer problem. For such a widely available consumer product, there are sure to be more than just 25 studies analyzing whey protein and its effect on protein synthesis. It is likely that there are just as many studies that have not been published (especially if the results in this meta-analysis are weak) that fail to reject that whey protein has no effect on protein synthesis, the null hypothesis. Due to the fact that this is a consumer good, the likelihood that there are unpublished studies that fail to reject the null hypothesis is very high. The incentive for corporations to fund studies that support the efficacy of whey protein is a result of the myriad economic benefits that positive results provide. However, if these industry-funded studies do not provide results in favor of whey protein, there is no reason for the corporation to publish them. This bias may also manifest itself in the work of the researchers themselves. When your paycheck is coming from the whey protein manufacturer, you’re likely to want to please them.

Whey Protein and Fat Loss

Five American researchers conducted a 12-week, double-blind study in which both the control and experimental group had their caloric intake reduced by 500 calories. In addition to that, the experimental group consumed a whey protein beverage before breakfast and after dinner; the control group did the same with a non-whey isocaloric beverage. Blood tests were conducted before and after the study and every 4 weeks body measurements were recorded. At the conclusion of the study it was noted that those in the experimental and control group had actually lost, on average, the same amount of weight. However, those who were given the whey protein drink lost “significantly more body fat” than those who did not. In addition, the amount of lean muscle mass lost in the experimental group was considerably less than what was lost in the control group. The researchers noted in their conclusion the practical significance of whey protein supplementation because subjects who took whey protein experienced a 6.1% loss in body fat and a reduction of 5% has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity related diseases, for example, heart disease.

A little light research into the researchers that participated in this study reveals that two of the five researchers are employed by Glanbia Research and Development. 7 of the 10 partners on Glanbia’s partners list are manufacturing companies that operate in industries directly associated with nutritional products and/or supplements. Therefore, in regards to this study, there is a strong possibility for bias. This does not mean that the results of this study are definitely bias or skewed but it does communicate that there may be some underlying incentives for those 2 researchers to analyze or state their conclusions in a way that would benefit Glanbia’s partners.


Personally, I drink a whey protein shake almost every day and since I’ve started drinking them I have seen a noticeable difference in my own muscle growth. Now this is only anecdotal but it is congruent with the results in both of these studies. Almost everyone I’ve talked to that works out regularly recommends whey protein and many of them take it themselves. So either these companies are doing a fantastic job marketing their product or the bodybuilding community is really on to something. Either way, for the rational individual who isn’t crazy about turning into Arnold Schwarzenegger, drink milk or eat some cheese. Whey protein can cost upwards of $50 and is nothing more of a supplement; for college students, $50 can be a week of groceries. The strong possibility of bias in whey protein research makes the truth somewhat cloudy at best.


Turkey Daze

Now that Thanksgiving break is over and we’ve all moved up a notch on our belts (rightly so), it’s back to the sleep deprived college lifestyle. Fortunately, many of us gained a few extra hours of sleep on Thursday during the post Thanksgiving dinner nap… or at least your dad passed out right after dinner like all dads do on Thanksgiving. You’re also probably familiar with how those who nap after the meal blame it on something called tryptophan. Maybe you yourself took a little cat nap this year, I know I did. This time around, I was the one to bring up tryptophan and my girlfriend was quick to say that tryptophan is not actually the reason America naps after turkey dinner. As with many of my blog posts this semester, lets find out what is really going on with something else we put in our bodies, Turkey.


Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Chicago

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is found in many foods including turkey, eggs, chicken, fish, peanut butter and cheese. It is crucial for healthy growth in infants and is important for maintaining appropriate nitrogen levels in adults. Additionally, your body converts tryptophan into niacin and serotonin; serotonin is an important neurotransmitter responsible for healthy sleep and promotes stable moods. However, being an essential amino acid, our bodies cannot produce tryptophan on its own. Most people do not have an issue getting enough tryptophan but it is clear that it is an important macronutrient… but is it the culprit for our “thanksgiving nap?”

All of the above information courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine

So why am I so sleepy??

Many attribute the “turkey daze” we feel on thanksgiving to an increase in serotonin due to the tryptophan found in turkey. This hypothesis does pass the sniff test, because as we found earlier, serotonin has long been associated with sleep and tryptophan is the primary precursor to serotonin in our bodies. Serotonin is created through biosynthesis that occurs after tryptophan has crossed the blood-brain barrier and interacts with the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase in our neurons creating serotonin ( However, according to an article on Scientific American’s website, it turns out that turkey is not actually responsible for “turkey daze.” Like any protein rich food, there are many amino acids found in turkey and tryptophan is actually one of the scarcest of the bunch. In fact, cheddar cheese, gram for gram, actually contains more tryptophan than turkey does (LiveScience). After thanksgiving dinner there are many amino acids circulating your bloodstream and for them to enter your brain they must cross the blood-brain barrier via the same transport proteins. Due to the fact that tryptophan is scare relative to the five other amino acids found in turkey, it must compete for the same transport proteins and it more often than not gets left behind says David Wurtman, a former professor at MIT (ScientificAmerican). He also goes on in the article to say, “Paradoxically, what probably makes people sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner is…dessert, eating carbohydrates increases brain serotonin in spite of the fact that there is no tryptophan in carbohydrates.” Furthermore, it may just be the sheer amount of food that we consume on this holiday that makes us so sleepy. “Studies have indicated that stretching of the small intestine induces sleepiness and a protein–fat loading of the stomach induces sleepiness,” says biologist H. Craig Heller at Stanford University.

So… whats the deal?! 

Based on my own research, which includes eating a ton of turkey and then napping a week ago and a little over an hour of online reading and searching, I have found mostly speculation as to what is causes the post thanksgiving meal drowsiness. There seems to be a dearth of studies looking into the matter, which is understandable because science likely has more important issues to look into. But like all things, I imagine that it is a combination of things that are taking place to cause the drowsiness. Although the tryptophan is relatively scarce in our bloodstreams after eating turkey, it is still in our bloodstream and some of it is sure to cross the blood brain barrier as the other amino acids in turkey find their way across and become less concentrated in our blood stream. So, eventually serotonin biosynthesis should take place and that combined with the carbo overload and stretching of the small intestine would surely cause some turkey daze. However, if we were to conduct a study, it would need a single-blind randomized control trial where we have people eat identical thanksgiving dinners and then measure serotonin levels in the hour or two following the meal. It should be single-blind so that that we, or the researchers, do not know who ate the turkey and who didn’t to eliminate bias. This way we could isolate the effect of turkey on serotonin levels in the experimental (turkey) group and use the control (no turkey) group as a benchmark. In a study such as this it would be important to only test one dependent variable to steer clear of the sharpshooter problem. Moreover, randomization of both groups would allow for an accurate representation of how turkey or no turkey affects the average person.

In the end, turkey daze really isn’t an issue but more of an interesting phenomenon that takes place after thanksgiving. I couldn’t help but think as I was sitting around Thursday evening when I saw 5-6 people in the same room as me all asleep watching football that the turkey daze would make for a thought provoking blog post. It always interesting to learn a little of the science taking place behind things like this. Gobble Gobble.





Violent Video Games and You.

Ok so, admittedly, I have a soft spot for video games (depending on the game) and occasionally
I’ll completely abandon my homework and shirk all responsibilities to play the latest blockbuster video game. Unfortunately for my school work, one of these very games, Fallout 4, came out last week and I’ve been… you know, playing it. Fallout 4 is an exceptionally violent video game, not to my surprise, and within 15 minutes of playing I found myself with the ability to essentially freeze time and dismember and/or decapitate anyone who looked at me funny. Personally, I would be horrified if I walked in on my hypothetical child blowing some poor guy’s head off on the TV so I decided to actually explore the effects of violent video games on our brains. So, let’s find out if all those years spent playing video games messed me up.

Fortunately, the American Psychology Association (APA) established a task force to review the effects of violent video games. They found that 90% of all American teenagers play some sort of video game and when you look at 14-17 it is an astonishing 97%. As a result, the task force was asked to assess if a new meta-analysis would be required to come to a conclusion. To evaluate the data, the task force utilized a 3 step process for analyzing data:

  1. Identify relevant literature
  2. review the literature’s findings systematically
  3. synthesize the findings into coherent conclusions and recommendations

After extensive research, the task 4 identified 4 meta-analyses that were sufficient; the analyses cumulatively reviewed more than 150 reports. All 4 meta-analyses detailed an adverse effect of violent video games on aggressive behavior. However, the task force went on to highlight the issues with these analyses. They found that the studies only included results for people aged 18 years and older and therefore it is hard to extrapolate that their findings apply to minors. Additionally, the task force made a point to acknowledge that the lack of consideration for gender differences in the meta-analyses makes it impossible to establish differences in effects between men and women. In light of these issues, the task force decided to review some newer literature to get a better idea as to what is really going on. After establishing a far more rigorous screening process for the studies they were to include, they settled on 31 independent studies published 2009 and on to examine. They then split these studies up into categories based on what effect(s) they measured and conducted meta-analyses on these subgroups.

In the end, the task force’s concluded that, “the research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.” Furthermore, they concluded that the effects of violent video games persist over “some time spans.” I guess that means I could still be messed up, huh? That aside, the task force still failed to find a study examining gender differences in the newer literature. Due to the fact that all of their conclusions came off the backs of meta-analyses, it is pertinent to consider the effects of the file-drawer problem; the task force should not disregard that there may be unpublished studies that failed to reject the null hypothesis.

All of the above information courtesy of the American Psychology Association Task Force on Violent Media’s Technological Report on the Review of the Violent Video Game Literature

A study that examines gender differences with regards to violent video game exposure may provide an alternative solution as to why violent video games affect individuals in the way the task force concluded. The effects of testosterone on human aggression have been highly debated in recent years, as evidenced by this article on Nature’s website. A study that measures testosterone levels in males and females before and after exposure to violent video games along with the traits analyzed by the APA’s task force may provide insight into both issues. The researchers could look for potential testosterone concentration spikes during exposure. If these spikes coincided with increased aggression at all or differently between men and women the scientists would need to be extremely careful in making sure that the the video games are not a confounding variable. There is a possibility that the video games would be causing both the testosterone spike and the increased aggression. If the researchers were to isolate each variable well enough, some conclusions may be drawn.

In the end… I’m probably still going to play violent video games because the enjoyment I gain from playing the outweighs my fear of increased aggression. However, if a certain individual is prone to violent behavior, a violent video game could act as a sort of trigger for exceptionally violent behaviors. As a result, video game manufacturers should be required to state on their packaging that the game may increase aggression. To make this more palatable to these companies it would be wise to establish violence thresholds that require such disclaimers. Ultimately, the ability of parents to use discretion is the best tool for protecting the youth and disclaimers would assist parents to do so.

Cannabis Sativa – Marijuana

So…. marijuana. I’m probably the umpteenth person on this blog to write a post exploring this topic. Considering the fact that new marijuana legislation has began to pop up all over the country and a good few states have either legalized it in some capacity or begun the decriminalization process, I personally think it is a good thing that so many people are looking into it. This semester I’ve made an effort to use these blog posts to question the things that we put into our bodies and I intend to approach this with the same skeptical eye. If marijuana could potentially be legalized for medical or recreation use across the nation in our lifetimes, we should know what it is and what it does.

What is it?

The scientific name for marijuana is cannabis sativa but it goes by many names a few of which are mary jane, pot and weed. There is also another species of marijuana known as cannabis sativa L which is more commonly known as hemp, a non-psychoactive; hemp is used to produce oil, cloth and fuel (livescience). According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) “deamuseum” website, the oldest record of marijuana consumption comes from a Chinese emperor and dates back to 2727 B.C. It was used in the Islamic empire and in 1545 A.D. it was introduced to the western hemisphere when the Spanish imported it to Chile where it was used to make rope, clothing and paper. However, cannabis sativa is better known for its use as a psychoactive drug. The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that marijuana is abused by smoking it in marijuana cigarettes or by using marijuana paraphernalia. It also states that an alternative method of abusing marijuana is the consumption of “marijuana edibles” which can range from brownies to tea.

How does it work?

Posted below is a very informative and well made YouTube video published by SciShow, a youtube channel that discusses science news, history and concepts.

Cannabis Sativa and American Society

The DEA and the United States government classifies drugs into five categories (schedules) based on dependency tendencies and medical uses. The DEA classifies marijuana as a “schedule 1 narcotic” alongside heroine, lysergic acid diethyl-amide (LSD), ecstasy and peyote. As defined by the DEA, “Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” They also state that all schedule 1 drugs have “no accepted medical use.” Despite the DEA and the Federal Governments’ standpoint on marijuana, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form. Of these, 4 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Cannabis Sativa and the Mind

A team of researchers from Northwestern University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical school conducted an observational study to evaluate the neurological effects of casual marijuana use in people aged 18-25. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brains of 20 marijuana users and 20 non-users over the course of three months. They reported that the nucleus accumbens was larger and altered in shape compared to the non-users; the nucleus accumbens is a region of the brain associated with reward processing. Additionally, the researchers observed changes in the amygdala, a part of the brain known to be associated with emotion. In an article published on the Society for Neuroscience’s website cites on of the lead researchers, Hans Breiter, MD, as saying, “This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.” The same article also states that this study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. When evaluating this study it is very important to note the considerable amount of potential bias the researchers may have had when receiving funding from such organizations. Also, as it is an observational study, it is impossible to establish a causal connection between marijuana usage and alteration of the amygdala and nucleus accumbens. Finally, with such a small study size it is reasonable to assume a decent margin of error in their findings.

Cannabis Sativa and YOU

I was actually fairly surprised by the seemingly few studies I found when researching this topic and I was disappointed by the amount of bias I found across the board. I want to stress that I did not only find bias of the dissenting viewpoint. For example, here is a long article that cites parts of multiple studies that support that marijuana has many economic and medical benefits. The article is published on a website funded by NORML, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt foundation that is in favor of marijuana legalization. Whereas the medical and neurological benefits of marijuana consumption seem to be clouded in bias, it is clear that more, unbiased research is badly needed on this issue. Marijuana is the most used drug in the United States ( and is becoming increasingly legal across the nation. Due to the relative uncertainty of the effects of marijuana it would be rational to limit or eliminate marijuana usage entirely if you engage in casual use.

What makes you… you?

Recently, I’ve found myself citing the nature versus nurture debate in a few of my comments on others’ blog posts. So, I decided maybe it would be worth looking in to. After some light research I think it could turn out to be a decently interesting blog post… or at least I’ll have fun researching it! As one of the oldest and highly studied issues in the realm of psychology there is sure to be a myriad of studies exploring the issue.

So, what is this nature vs nurture thing?

To start, we need to understand what psychologists mean by nurture and nature. An informational page for a Sociology class given at UC Santa Barbara explains, “Nature refers to all the evolutionary factors that have shaped the genetics that we have inherited from our parents and ancestors.” Additionally, the page defines nurtures as, “…all the things that have influenced us since we began to develop (from the moment we were conceived).” The nature vs. nurture debate stems from the issue of trying to determine which, nature or nurture, has a greater influence on human behavior and ultimately, who we are as people. A greater understanding of how these two things influence human development could potentially help psychologists better understand they way they approach psychology.

Where is the debate now? The Twin Study – May 2015

For a long time, psychologists have used identical and fraternal twins alike to study the nature vs. nurture issue. In a study recently published in the journal Nature Genetics, researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute and the University of Amsterdam conducted a meta-analysis of studies done on over 14 million twin pairs from January 1900 to December 2012 across 39 different countries. When identifying relevant studies, the researchers ran 2 different searches on PubMed which yielded a whopping 4,388 studies; after they eliminated irrelevant or unquantifiable studies they were still left with 2,748 studies of which they were able to receive the full text for 2,743 of the 2,748 (99.8%). They also controlled for bias due to their belief that studies with extraordinary results would be more likely to be published that those with “modest results.” Finally, before analyzing these studies, they classified the traits of the twins using a the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ICF classification tool. They meta-analysis returned some pretty interesting results. The researchers reported that heritability and genetics accounted for 49% of the majority of  traits analyzed (69%), leaving the other 51% of to be determined by the environment. These findings created some pretty big ripples in the world of psychology. In articles such as this, journalists use the results to support their claim that the debate was over and that nature and nurture both play an equal role in human development. However, we have to be careful interpreting these results. Of course, they are astonishing in the respect that nature and nurture both seem to hold equal weight in determining our traits but 31% or traits studied in the meta-analysis did not exhibit this 49/51 relationship. Additionally, as we learned in class, meta-analyses have a tendency to be affected by the file drawer problem. Though it does seem the researchers did an adequate job of eliminating bias in the studies PubMed brought back to them, there is a chance that there are a significant number of studies that were not published due to their modest results. All else aside, this is the most comprehensive and well known study that explores this Nature vs. Nurture debate. After reading what was published in Nature Genetics I found myself struggling to find things wrong with this study and for the time being, these are the most comprehensive and definitive results.

Genetics and IQ

IQ has long been believed to be very closely related to genetics. I remember learning in myhigh school AP psychology class that genetics are the main indicator with respect to intelligence. In the spirit of SC 200, I decided to figure this one out for myself as well. After a few different google searches I found two studies published in Nature 8 years apart (study 1, study 2) that both support that intelligence is highly inheritable. Even more interesting, in the second study, the tendency for people mate with others who share similar genotypes/phenotypes (assortative mating) affects the genetic transfer of intelligence because people mate with others of the same intelligence. Here is a short video narrated by Morgan Freeman that discusses intelligence in respect to the nature vs. debate. Who doesn’t love Morgan Freeman?

What does this all mean?

For now it seems that the psychology community has settled on the fact that nature and nurture both share an equal role in human development in behavior. Now, it seems that it is now “nature nurture” instead of the previously accepted “nature vs. nurture.” However, the story seems to be different when we look at genetics and intelligence. Perhaps a meta-analysis of studies that assess intelligence and genetics could shed some more light on this. Overall, a basic knowledge of this debate is important even when asking scientific questions that relate to human behavior and the way things are. The twin study demonstrates the importance of examining the environmental effects as well as the effects of genetics on human centric scientific questions.

Oklo: Nature’s Own Nuclear Reactor

Humanity’s ability to conduct nuclear fission is both one of the greatest and most dangerous discoveries in the history of science. The build up of WMDs during the Cold War created almost palpable tension between the USSR and the USA and ironically these ridiculously dangerous nuclear weapons may have been been the reason the Cold War remained cold. Without the mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the two super powers, who knows were we’d be now.

However, it seems that Earth had already beaten us to the punch and figured out nuclear fission two billion years earlier. In 1972 a worker at a French nuclear fuel processing plant noticed something strange in the ore he was analyzing. The ore in question was from the Oklo uranium mines in the small African country of Gabon. He had noticed that the anticipated levels of Uranium 235 in the ore was .003% less than what they should have been. This seemingly small difference meant that there was about 200 kilograms of uranium missing, possibly enough to build one of those aforementioned WMDs. The cause of the missing uranium remained a mystery to the scientific community until somebody remembered a prediction published 19 years prior by George Wetherill of UCLA and Mark Inghram of the University of Chicago that explored the possibility of naturally occurring nuclear fission reactors. Like the scientific community always does, scientists from all around the world started to explore what the conditions for such a thing would need to be. Paul Kuroda, a chemist from the Univeristy of Arkansas, calculated the exact conditions needed for natural fission to have occurred.

1.The size of the uranium deposit needed to be longer than the average length that a fission-inducing needs to travel (about 2/3 of a meter).

2. Uranium 235 must have accounted for at least 3% of the deposit’s total composition.

3. There needed to be a whats known as a “moderator” to slow the neutrons given off by fission enough for them to react with other uranium 235 nuclei.

All previous information courtesy of Scientific American

In an amazing display of nature, these conditions came together 2 billion years ago in 16 different locations in Oklo. It was determined that groundwater had flooded the uranium rich deposits. The water served as a catalyst for fission and the energy released by the ensuing nuclear reaction would then heat the water until it boiled off. When the deposits eventually cooled down, groundwater would again flood the area, restarting the process. Experts examined the levels of xenon isotopes (a byproduct of nuclear fission) found in the surrounding rocks and in doing so were able to determine that these reactions would occur about every two and a half hours. Scientists estimate that this process went on for hundreds of thousands of years until the uranium 235 was depleted to the level it is at today.   Information courtesy of Atlas Obscura

If you find things like this interesting (I sure do) you should really check out SciShow’s YouTube channel. I mentioned them in my initial blog post and they continue to be one of my favorite media sources. They actually have a fantastic video explaining the Oklo phenomenon. Check it out!

Who knows what else our planet is capable of. Something like this also serves to remind us that there are many things about science and the natural world that we are still ignorant of. The process of scientific discovery will continue to be a global effort to answer the questions we don’t have answers to… yet.



Your Brain and Sugar

I’ve never been one for sugary drinks or food, but for some reason this semester I’ve developed an affinity for sugary drinks. I don’t know why and I’m not proud of it. Sugar can affect your body in many ways. Namely, you can get fat. Fingers crossed I shake the habit before that happens. But why do I keep reaching for the Kickstart or sugary Starbucks coffee-drink? Why do I find myself doing that now when I never did as a kid? Lets explore.

Sugar is Addictive!

Lets start with naming a few drugs… Marijuana, cocaine, adderall, heroine, caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Yes, sugar. In 2008, a team of Princeton researchers conducted a well known study using rats to look at the behavioral and neurochemical effects of sugar intake. The team tried to establish a scientific definition of addiction using the neurological traits of withdrawal, tolerance and dependence and then relate that to the neurological and behavioral changes found in rats that consumed excessive amounts of sugar. They found that rats given access to a sugary solution and food on intermittent intervals demonstrated both the behaviors and brain changes found in rats that were given the ability to self administer drugs. Their control group was a group of rats that were fed regular chow. The brain changes they observed in the experimental group were parallel to those observed in a similar Princeton study done in 2001 that showed that excessive intake of sugar sensitized specific dopamine receptors in the hypothalami of rats in the same way as some abusive drugs. Using this information, they concluded that there was a “striking” correspondence between the neurological changes in the rats and people with bulimia. Finally, the researchers stated that their evidence was in fact enough to establish that sugar can be addictive.

Now, as with any study, it is up to other scientists to evaluate and criticize what they found. Their conclusion is dependent on how their peers view the validity of their definition of addiction as a result. Either way, it could be enough to make me think I need a sugar intervention!

Can Sugar Make You Stupid??

A study done at the University of California in Los Angeles was detailed in an article for the UCLA Newsroom website. The author, Elaine Schmidt, of this article claims that the study found that a diet high in fructose can impair our learning ability and memory. Similar to the first study, the UCLA researchers used rats in their experiment. They used two groups of rats, each fed a fructose solution in place of drinking water for six weeks. Both groups were fed a normal diet of rat chow; the only difference was that group 2 was given Omega-3 fatty acids to supplement their diet. Before starting these diets, the mice were trained twice a day for five days on the same maze. After six weeks of the experimental diet, the two groups of mice were tested on their ability to navigate the maze. To their surprise, the rats that were not given Omega-3 fatty acids took much longer to navigate the maze and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. The lead researcher, Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, attributed the decline in synaptic ability to how increased levels of insulin (due to a fructose rich diet) interfere with the way that the brain stores and uses sugar. He explains that the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in Omega-3 fatty acids actually protected the brain cells of the rats from the higher insulin levels.

Based on this study, I think the author of this article incorrect to say that a fructose rich diet can impair human learning and memory based on the research. To start, the study did not include a group of rats that were fed a normal drinking water and not given a fructose solution. What is to say that the Omega-3 fatty acids are not the catalyst for the difference in memory and learning and not the fructose.  Also, it is hard to definitively extrapolate the neurological findings of rats to the human brain. However, it is extremely interesting that Omega-3 fatty acids can potentially have a positive effect on learning and I think more studies should focus on this potential relationship.

In the end, it is safe to say that you should pay close attention to your sugar intake and maybe resist that urge to grab a coke at lunch. It may be a little early to say that sugar will make you dumber but it definitely is an interesting question. And on a side note, I may start taking some Omega-3 fatty acids to make me smarter…. maybe my blogs will be more interesting!

“Diet” Soda?

So, if you’re like me, you crave a soda now and then. You also probably go back and forth for a few seconds before you decide to grab a diet or normal Coke, right? Well today I grabbed a throwback Mountain Dew in the HUB and I was horrified when I saw that there are 73 grams of sugar in this 20oz. drink. I immediately regretted not getting the diet Mountain Dew that was sitting right next to it. But should I?

If you take all the sugar out of soda it would just be artificially colored, carbonated water. But somehow, all those diet sodas you see in pretty much every mini mart on campus (thanks PepsiCo) taste almost the same as the normal sodas but without ANY sugar or calories. We can thank artificial sweeteners for that. Unfortunately, these “diet” sodas might actually be worse for us in the long run than the sugary alternatives.

Holly Strawbridge of Harvard Health Publications wrote an interesting article exploring some of the side effects of artificial sweeteners. One of the more interesting things she mentioned was that only a minuscule amount of artificial sweetener is needed in comparison to the amount of sugar to create the same sensation of sweetness. This can lead to overstimulation of sugar receptors and eventually lead to intolerance of more complex, less sweet foods, like vegetables. However, she supports this point with the quote of one doctor. To really make a statement about this she should cite a supporting study or additional experts with congruent viewpoints.

In Strawbridge’s article she does point to a very interesting and concerning study titled, “Diet Soda Intake and Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA)*.” This study followed the amount of incident type 2 diabetes and incident metabolic syndrome reported by individuals participated in a food frequency questionnaire up until 5 years after the completion of the survey. Shockingly, they found that daily consumption of was associated with a 36% greater chance of metabolic syndrome and a 67% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. The researchers do note that because of the observational nature of this study that they cannot establish causality. To derive causality they should conduct a double-blind randomized control trail. Even so, with results like these, it is rational to consume less diet soda.

A study published September 27th, 2014 in Nature found that non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) actually create a glucose (a natural sugar) intolerance through the alteration of gut microbiota in adult male mice and humans. The researchers found that this glucose intolerance affected the susceptibility to metabolic disease. Although there was not randomization among the human subjects, all of the testing was done ethically with informed consent and reported to the proper authorities. Among their 381 subjects (44% male, 56% female), they found positive correlations between an increase in weight and waist-to-hip ratio and the consumption of NAS; both symptoms related to metabolic syndrome. They also noted a correlation between NAS consumption and symptoms related to glucose intolerance. This study seems to have been conducted properly because it would have been hard to have a double-blind procedure when it comes to someones diet and health. Despite that it was not double-blind, the findings and methods seem to be sound.

Considering both of these studies I am going to steer VERY clear of diet soda. Any guilt I felt when drinking that mountain dew is now out the window. In fact, I would say it might actually be better to consume drinks with real sugar (but we’ll explore that in another blog post). It is concerning that there are studies such as these and you can still buy as many artificially sweetened as you want on Penn State’s campus. Ignorance to the negative health effects of such drinks potentially speaks to the power of corporations like PepsiCo. They exclusively provide all of the drinks you see around campus due to their corporate sponsorship with the University. Without a shadow of doubt, more attention and more research needs to be done to bring this to light.

Feeling SAD?

Andrew may have been right. Now is the time of year where the excitement of being back in State College or being here for the first time is waning. On top of that, you are now coming to terms with the large workload and looming mid terms are starting to get to you. While you have your nose crammed in different textbooks, the weather is changing and we all know once winter starts in central PA, it doesn’t end until May. All of this can easily cause some depression; I’m depressed just talking about it. But it turns out that it may be the weather, not your Chemistry exam, thats causing your depression.

The depression you are beginning to feel now might actually be a result of a form of seasonal depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression caused by the lack of sunlight that results from the shorter days of fall and winter. And yes, the acronym for this disorder is the source of my bad pun of a title… it’s been a long week. However, SAD is not anything to laugh about. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with SAD each year and symptoms include fatigue, depression, hopelessness and social withdraw. Fortunately, it seems these symptoms end when the seasons change but months of depression is not fun no matter how you spin it.

Light therapy is one way of treating seasonal affective disorder. Logic would say that if a lack of sunlight is the cause of SAD, then a reasonable cure would be more sunlight, right? Michael Miller, Senior Editor for Harvard Health Publications states that, “Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms.” But before you go out and buy a $200 light box (yikes), lets see if it’s actually worth it.

A double-blind, randomized control trial was conducted over three winters to compare the effects of light therapy and the antidepressant fluoxetine when it comes to treating SAD; the findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. They found that there was a quicker response in those treated with light therapy than those treated with antidepressants but the overall effectiveness of both treatments seemed to be the same. Additionally, there was a lower rate of the adverse effects one can experience while taking fluoxetine. Now, it’s important to take into account that they only used 93 subjects over 3 winters as their sample size for this experiment. Because it was a randomized control trial, we can assume that each group was, on average, a good representation of the full 93. On the other hand, as we saw earlier, the Mayo Clinic cites that approximately 3 million people are affected by SAD yearly. It is hard to extrapolate the findings of a sample size of 93 without anticipating a decent margin of error.

Luckily, another study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that synthesized 28 years (1975-2003) of randomized control trials that filled their predisposed credentials that looked at the effects of light therapy for mood disorders. They found that many of the studies they looked at did not have rigorous study designs and only 13% of them fit their criteria. But in the studies that did qualify, they found that light therapy was effective in decreasing the severity of depression symptoms. Even more interesting was that they found that using light therapy and antidepressants together did not yield any more reduction in these symptoms.

Based on these two studies I think it is safe to say that more randomized control trials need to be conducted with rigorous study designs. Additionally, the first study has an interesting premise. It would be more useful to medicine to know if light therapy was more effective than antidepressants but a larger sample size is a must if they were to redo that particular experiment.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should at that light box to your Christmas list quite yet. I would suggest going outside and enjoying the fall. Maybe go on a hike! Because before you know it, that dorm room is going to become more of a prison than a bedroom!

Vita What?

Over the past year coconut water has exploded into the commercial market. Marketed for being potassium rich and an energy boosting natural means of hydration, coconut water has quickly become available in most convenience stores. It has carved out market share as a refreshing recovery drink alternative and I’m always looking for a healthy choice to replace sugary drinks like gatorade. However, I remember falling for the Naked Juice craze only to find out PepsiCo bought it and turned it into another one of their sugar saturated beverages. So before we all waste our money on this overpriced water, lets take a look and see if coconut water is all its cracked up to be.

My favorite brand of coconut water is Vita Coco. I don’t have a reason for that other than that it is more widely available than most other brands. Nice work Vita Coco. If you look at the nutrition facts of Vita Coco’s plain coconut water, two things will stand out; each serving contains 100% of your daily vitamin C requirement and 470mg of potassium. Thats a lot of vitamin C and potassium considering that there are 2 servings in each standard 500ml container. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State, Vitamin C can treat and prevent UV- induced photo damage and its antioxidant properties make it crucial to skin health when it comes to preventing wrinkles. Additionally, on the same website is a page on potassium that discusses how crucial it is to the human body. It elaborates on how potassium is a crucial electrolyte in the human body and “normal body function depends on tight regulation of potassium concentrations both inside and outside of cells.”

With 920mg of potassium and 200% of your daily vitamin C requirements, things are looking pretty good for coconut water. One the other hand, is coconut water really that much better?

Jennifer Koslo wrote an article for Kaplan University’s health and wellness website exploring how coconut water compares to traditional sports drinks when it comes to rehyration. In her article she cites how coconut water directly from the nut has more sodium in it than the commercialized versions we buy in store. This becomes important when you compare coconut water to traditional sports drinks which have lower levels of potassium and higher levels of sodium. Koslo found that the formulas uses by sports drinks companies have optimal levels of sodium for absorption and retention of fluids.

“Through years of research, sports drinks are specifically formulated for athletes with the amount of electrolytes and carbohydrates at the levels found to promote optimal hydration.”

-Jennifer Koslo

Koslo concludes that coconut water taken directly from the coconut is just as effective as the traditional sports drinks when it comes to rehydration. So unless you plan on harvesting some coconuts anytime soon, it seems Gatorade is still king when it comes to recovery drinks.

Koslo’s study was one of few academic inquiries to the health benefits of coconut water. The dearth of scientific research and content on coconut water suggests to me that there needs to be more studies done to really assess the nutritional aspects of coconut water. A controlled and unbiased (not paid for by Vita Coco or O.N.E) study that compares coconut water to other beverages is needed to be conclusive. I would suggest that it includes athletes and normal people randomly distributed between two groups.

Coconut water is surely very healthy and if you can afford pay around $2.59 for one of them, it is clearly a better alternative to Mountain Dew or a Red Bull. But at the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with water!

Caffeine: A wonder drug?

In high school, I rarely drank coffee or consumed caffeine to wake me up. I may have had a cup of coffee here or there throughout the week but I never really needed it. However, about 4 weeks into my first semester of college I was drinking coffee or grabbing an energy drink before class almost every day. This was a result of the workload we are responsible for as college students and I never thought twice about it. Now, being a health conscious person, I started to wonder what this drug I was putting in my body was really doing to my brain so I did some light research. Most people consume caffeine with impunity and with caffeinated beverages being served all over campus it is easy to not think twice about it. Before you go get that “nonfat no-whip frap” from Starbucks, lets think twice about it.

Caffeine isn’t addictive, right? Actually, there is a debate going on within the scientific community on whether or not caffeine is actually addictive by definition. This is an important issue considering 80% of Americans consume caffeine on a daily basis according to the FDA. A quick google search on caffeine addiction will bring up dozens of articles with differing standpoints on the issue. This is a manifestation of the anti-authoritarian aspect of the scientific community and it drives more research. With many different facts pointing to different answers, the debate will continue until conclusive evidence comes to light. The Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University has a fact sheet that covers what they call “caffeine dependence.” Their studies show that a consumption of caffeine greater 100mg a day can “lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms upon withdrawal.” They sited observed withdrawal symptoms ranging from a mild headache to depression and anxiety. Shockingly, one “tall” cup of Starbucks “Pike Place” coffee contains a whopping 235mg of caffeine, according to their website. Considering that is the smallest size listed at most Starbucks I’ve been to it is even more concerning that they have a “Venti” size that contains 410mg of caffeine. At 4x the caffeine intake required for caffeine dependence as cited by Johns Hopkins , it is no wondering Starbucks has a cult following. By the way, you can order that Venti Starbucks coffee in not one but 3 places in the HUB on campus.

From Caffeine Informer’s website

Brown University’s Health Promotion website states that coffee causes insomnia. I myself have experienced this too many times and it is very easy for anyone to consume enough caffeine to cause insomnia. Lack of sleep due to caffeine can result in an unfortunately ironic cycle of caffeine dependence as well. Think, if you are tired from lack of sleep due to caffeine the easy fix is another cup of that monster Starbucks coffee with its 410mg of caffeine. Before you know it, you become another one of the many college students reliant on caffeine.

A wonder drug? It frightens me how much America’s affinity for caffeine reminds me of its very similar, and still somewhat present, nicotine addiction. Blaming sleep deprivation and related issues on work demands and school work seems awfully reminiscent of the notion that increase in lung cancer in the mid 20th century was due to industrialization and pollution. Work demands and school work may be putative confounding variables for caffeine consumption and sleep deprivation along with other issues associated with caffeine consumption.

I’m not saying we should all stop consuming caffeine (I had a Red Bull this morning). But it only took me an hour of light research to uncover some things about caffeine that are a little unnerving. I think if there is one thing we should take from this class it should be a skeptical outlook on the world. The science is there, we just have to make ourselves aware of that. Who knows, it could save you some sleep!


Can we use Stress to our Advantage?


We all know what it is and with one year of college under my belt I have a decent grasp on the concept of stress. I experienced both positive and negative stress in my first year at Penn State. The negative stress normally rearing its ugly head the few weeks leading up to finals week. You want to do your best to avoid negative stress because of what it can do to your body and mind. Now, positive stress is another story; some amount stress can do great things for you. I’ve seen family members land themselves a hospital stay due to stress and I want to take this opportunity to explore what exactly stress is and how it affects us all.

Merriam-Webster defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” So, if next week you have a cold, it could be because you waited until this Thursday night to do all your blog posts! The American Institute of Stress has some interesting information on stress. Originally the term “stress” was used in physics to describe elasticity. “Stress” was coined by Hans Selye in 1936 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” His definition attempts to identify and explain a human phenomenon we all experience. Stress is very hard to explain because it affects everyone in a unique way. To a certain extent, it can actually make you more productive (positive stress), but after a point you start to experience the affects of negative stress that we all aim to avoid. And that point of “too much stress” is different for everyone. The key is to operate in the “good stress” section of this graph found on The American Institute of Stress’s website


As you can see, once you reach the “hump” things start to go rapidly downhill. If you reach the exhaustion and ill health levels of stress you can quickly find yourself in the emergency room. Chronic Stress, in particular, can take you to these points fairly easily. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep problems, weight gain and even heart issues.

However, finding that happy medium of stress that leads to higher performance is what we want to accomplish as college students. In college, stress will come naturally due to the amount of assignments and information we are responsible for. The key to finding this “happy place” is managing our stress and responsibilities and in turn maximizing our performance. The American Psychology Association suggests that identifying the causes of stress (stressors) and developing a plan to combat them can greatly reduce stress. For example, with SC 200, a plan for dealing with stress could be to set aside time each week to do your blog posts.

Stress can be caused by many different things and manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Positive stress could result in you studying a little more for you next exam or, if improperly managed, negative stress could be your ticket to the ER. Stress is a part of every day life but with a little time management you can keep it in check.

Don’t Overcomplicate It.


Technology makes everything better, right? Well when it comes to taking notes the answer  might be no. Aside from the fact that technology, in this case laptops, can be highly and frustratingly unreliable, recent findings have shown that taking notes by hand is actually better for subject retention and long-term comprehension. Some professors are even using it as a reason to ban laptops in their lectures. While this may be a bummer for the frat guy watching SportsCenter in your forum class, it may be the reason you get an A on your SC 200 final.

We all know that typing is quicker and easier than writing most of the time. With that, I know very few people who can write faster than they can type. Typing allows us to capture almost verbatim what our professors are saying in a fast paced class. However, an article published in the Scientific American cites a study conducted by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer that examined the paradoxical finding that more notes does not always mean a higher grade. They assigned half a classroom to take notes by hand and the other half take notes on a lap top. Afterwards, they tested the students’ memory, conceptual understanding and ability to synthesize the information. Although the students who used laptops had more notes, the students who had taken their notes by hand,

“…had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.”

-CIndi May, Scientific American

Huh? Why would more notes be worse for your learning? To further explore this question Mueller and Oppenheimer analyzed notes taken by hundreds of students from Princeton and UCLA. They covered a wide array of topics that included everything from bread to economics. They found that notes taken on laptops were more or less direct transcriptions of the lecture. They reported that these notes were mindlessly copied with little analysis. Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand actually requires different kinds of cognitive processing than those required in taking notes on a computer. One reason they believe greater learning to be associated with handwritten notes is the fact that you must be more selective with what you write down; often times professors move through information faster than students can copy their notes. Instead of copying your professors every word, instead you have to assess the information and choose what is most crucial. This action of selecting what is important is what the researches believe engages the cognitive processes believed to have a higher impact on factual retention and conceptual understanding. 

Hey, so if you really love taking notes on your laptop and this post is upsetting you, think about how light your backpack would be with a notebook and not a laptop and charger!

Personally, I can’t take notes on a laptop because I know that I will get distracted halfway through the lecture and find myself on twitter or doing work for other classes. Now I used to think (like everyone else) that I was the best multitasker in State College. It turns out that none of us are good at multitasking. An interesting NPR story I read explores the science behind multitasking and how it is technically impossible for the human brain.

“As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that we can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it’s still a myth — and they have the data to prove it. Humans, they say, don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.”

-Jon Hamilton, NPR

The moral of the story is that we should leave our laptops to Netflix and doing work outside of classes. In this case, our parents and grandparents may have gotten it right. Now while the research is still inconclusive as to why hand writing notes facilitates better learning but it is rational to assume that breaking out that college ruled notebook could be worth a shot. When it comes to lectures, don’t overcomplicate it.

The Neurological Benefits of Exercise.

As a kid, my parents relentlessly stressed the importance of exercise and a healthy diet to my brother, sister and I. My mother, a personal trainer and fitness instructor, was especially explicit that I should be exercising. Naturally, I paid zero attention to their advice and, of course, I was a pretty chubby kid when I was younger. However, when I got to high school I decided that hey, maybe my parents knew what they were talking about! I started exercising regularly and it turns out they were right. Exercise is now one of my biggest hobbies (if not the largest). Now I promise I’m not gonna berate you with reasons why you should look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or why whey protein is the best thing since sliced bread. But I am excited to have this opportunity to explore the neurological benefits that accompany regular exercise.

We, as humans, were never meant to spend most of our days sitting. Watching TV, spending hours sitting in a class and doing homework or just plain being lazy goes against what we evolved to do. Our ancestors spent hours and hours each day hunting and gathering. Now, obviously, our standards of living are much higher nowadays and there is much less of a need to hunt/gather our own food. However, under no circumstances does this mean that we should be lazy; we need exercise. After a little research I learned that exercise has benefits that go beyond getting that beach body… It just may help you with your grades as well!

Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Mild Cognitive Impairment, a study done at the University of Washington School of Medicine showed that after 6 months of aerobic exercise 33 people diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) experienced improved processes of multitasking, cognitive flexibility, information processing efficiency and selective attention. This study is interesting to me because something as simple as a little aerobic exercise improved the living conditions of 33 people who suffer from a cognitive disability. Improved information processing efficiency is something we could directly benefit from as college students. Just don’t be the jerk who rides their bike on the sidewalk! 


One thing that disappointed me about this study is that there was no mention of their subjects’ diets. From my experience with exercising I have learned that a healthy diet can be just as important as exercise when it comes to experiencing the benefits of working out. It is possible that their subjects’ diets could have been a confounding variable. Fortunately, the rest of study involved rigorous testing that supports their findings.

Another really astounding thing that happens when you exercise is that it actually accelerates the birth of new nerve cells. Physical Exercise Beefs Up the Brain, an article from the Society for Neuroscience cites a study done on mice that found that mice who had been running had double the number of new nerve cells in a region of the hippocampus involved with learning and memory. The mice who had not been running did not experience the same benefits.

Of course, with any study done on animals you have to consider that maybe the effects are not exactly the same for humans. I think it would be beneficial for a study that focuses on the changes in the hippocampus of humans to be conducted. However, if you’re feeling cloudy or are having a hard time grasping a topic in one of your classes, exercise! At the very least, it may be a way to relieve stress and clear your head before returning to the task at hand!

If you’re having a tough time thinking about what to write about for your next SC 200 blog, go get some exercise. If you want to avoid the bodybuilding types found at the White Building maybe just go for a walk/run. The above studies are just few of many others that support the benefits exercise has cognitive functioning. Don’t forget that neurological improvement is only one half of the benefits we experience when just get a little exercise (I’m not chubby anymore). Maybe I should have listened to my parents a little sooner.




Welcome Blog

Hey guys, mine name is Hunter and I’m a sophomore studying business and economics. So… science doesn’t get a lot of attention in my classes. However, I’ve always had an affinity for science and technology in particular. On one hand I am taking this class to fulfill my gen ed requirement and on the other I find this kind of stuff very interesting.

I am not planning to major in science because chemistry in high school didn’t go too well for me. Business and economics are both very stimulating to me and the idea of owning my own business or being an investor is something that I aspire to do. So I plan to pursue a degree in business. Now, if either of those things happened to happen in the scientific field, I wouldn’t be upset.

For my link and picture I want to post two unrelated things. One of my main interests is cars so this is my favorite car (for now). A Porsche GT3 RS.

Also, a youtube channel that I like a lot that covers a wide array of scientific topics is SciShow. They go through and answer questions about every day things and explain them with science. Here’s a link to a video where he talks about malaria, check it out.