Health and Science Research News Briefs


Staff Reports



Mediterranean diet may decrease pain associated with obesity

Those who eat more fish, plant proteins less likely to suffer, study finds

COLUMBUS – Eating a Mediterranean diet could decrease the chances an overweight person will experience regular pain, new research suggests.

A well-established connection between body weight and chronic pain might be explained by inflammation in the body, and the study points to anti-inflammatory foods including fish, nuts and beans as a key to preventing or reducing that pain, said lead researcher Charles Emery, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“We found that a healthy diet explained the link between weight and pain and specifically that seafood and plant proteins such as peas and nuts and beans were key,” said Emery, who is a member of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

“It appears to be telling us that it’s not just the quantity of the food you eat that plays a role in pain for heavier individuals, but the quality of food as well.”

The researchers developed a model to help them determine whether components of an anti-inflammatory diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, played a role in the likelihood a person’s weight would contribute to pain.

And they found a clear pattern. Eating more fish and plant-based proteins such as nuts and beans was linked with less pain, regardless of body weight.

The study also upheld previous research showing that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to experience pain. It included 98 men and women 20 to 78 years old and appears this month in the journal Pain.

“Obesity and pain are significant public health problems. This was an attempt to take a very detailed snapshot of how they might be related,” Emery said. “We were interested in the possibility of an inflammatory mechanism explaining the connection because we know there’s a high degree of inflammation associated with obesity and with pain.”

The mediation model he and his team developed took into account weight, an analysis of self-reported dietary patterns (the Health Eating Index, a measure of diet quality based on U.S. dietary guidelines) and results of a two-question pain survey. Researchers spent three hours with each participant in his or her home.

The researchers accounted for other factors that could influence their results, including age, depression, analgesic medication use and joint pain.

And they tested the model using three different measures of weight – body mass index, waist circumference and body fat percentage. In all three cases, they found evidence that anti-inflammatory proteins may explain the link between increased weight and pain.

“For people with obesity, it’s kind of like a cloud hanging over them because they experience high levels of pain and inflammation,” Emery said.

The data came from a larger initial study that examined the home environment’s role on psychological and social functioning of obese people and people at a healthy weight.

Potential weaknesses of the study include the lack of blood samples that would allow the researchers to look at inflammatory markers and the brevity of the pain measurement. The pain evaluation provides an indicator of pain experienced during the previous month, but does not account for chronic pain of a longer duration.

Emery said his next step is to examine body fat and pain using biomarkers associated with inflammation.

“I’m interested in how our work can contribute to effective treatments for overweight and obese individuals,” he said.

Emery’s collaborators, all from Ohio State, were KayLoni Olson, Andrew Bodine, Victoria Lee and Diane Habash. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and Ohio State’s Food Innovation Center supported the study.

Written by Misti Crane.

When it comes to reading, kindergarten is the new first grade

Large nationwide study finds children learn basic skills earlier

COLUMBUS – A new nationwide study has found that children entering first grade in 2013 had significantly better reading skills than similar students had just 12 years earlier.

Researchers say this means that in general, children are better readers at a younger age, but the study also revealed where gaps remain – especially in more advanced reading skills.

The good news was that even low-achieving students saw gains in basic reading skills over this time period and actually narrowed the achievement gap with other young readers.

However, that didn’t translate into better overall reading for the less-skilled children. The research showed that the gap between low-achieving readers and others actually widened when it came to advanced reading skills.

“Overall, it is good news,” said Jerome D’Agostino, co-author of the study and professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University.

“We have evidence that the increased emphasis on learning important skills earlier in life is having a real impact on helping develop reading abilities by first grade.”

But the results also show that strategies to help preschoolers who are having trouble with language skills need to be adjusted, said co-author Emily Rodgers, associate professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State.

“We’re probably spending too much time emphasizing basic skills for the low-achieving students, when we should be giving them more opportunities to actually read text,” she said.

Their study is published in the current issue of the journal Educational Researcher.

The study involved 2,358 schools from 44 states. A total of 364,738 children were assessed during the 12 years of the study. This included 313,488 low-achieving students who were selected to participate in Reading Recovery, a literacy intervention for first-grade students. Another 51,250 randomly selected students from the same schools also participated.

All children were tested at the beginning of first grade, before the Reading Recovery students began their intervention program.

Students took a screening test called An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement. The survey measures four basic skills (letter identification, word recognition, ability to identify and use sounds and print awareness), as well as two advanced skills (writing vocabulary and text reading).

The results showed that average scores on all six parts of the test increased over the 12 years, suggesting that many children end kindergarten with the skills they used to learn in first grade.

“Children are better prepared when they enter first grade than they used to be. Kindergarten is the new first grade when it comes to learning reading skills,” Rodgers said.

In the four basic skills, low-achieving students narrowed the achievement gap with other readers. But in the two advanced skills – including actually reading text – the gap widened.

This data can’t say why that is, D’Agostino said.

“There’s a missing link between teaching low-achieving students basic literacy skills and having them actually put those skills to use in reading,” he said. “We don’t know what that is yet.”

However, he noted that while poorer readers did reduce the achievement gap in basics skills, the gap was still sizable.

“We’re getting the low-achievement students only part of the way there,” Rodgers said. “They’re doing better at learning sounds and letters and now we have to do a better job helping them put it all together and read text.”

Why have reading scores for entering first-graders improved since 2002?

D’Agostino and Rodgers said that two influential national reports released in the 2000s (the National Reading Panel in 2000 and the National Early Literacy Panel in 2008) urged changes in reading instruction.

Both of those reports, as well as the No Child Left Behind law, led to an increased emphasis on learning important skills related to reading achievement in preschool and kindergarten, the researchers said.

“These reports and legislation had at least some of the desired effect,” D’Agostino said. “But now we need to make sure that low-achieving students don’t fall further behind.”

Struggling with different work identities? Your work may suffer

Study shows good things happen when roles enhance each other

COLUMBUS – Few people are just one person at work. You may be both a manager and an employee. Or you may be a salesperson who represents two very different brands.

Now a new study suggests that how you juggle those different work identities may affect your job performance.

Employees who believe their different identities enhance each other are more productive than others, the study found. But workers who feel their identities are in conflict see a hit to their performance.

“We tend to think of our work role identities one at a time, as if they were completely separate,” said Steffanie Wilk, co-author of the study and associate professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“But this research shows that the interactions are important. The way we manage and think about our different roles could be affecting how well we do our jobs.”

Wilk conducted the study with Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard University and Nancy Rothbard at the University of Pennsylvania. Their results were published in a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

People are familiar with the concept of identity conflict and enhancement. There’s been a lot written about the tensions between the roles of women who are both mothers and employees, for example.

But this research suggests that people can have issues dealing with different identities within the workplace, Wilk said. Companies need to be more attuned to what roles they ask their employees to take on.

“If your employees feel they have to make trade-offs between different role identities in the workplace, they may not do as good a job,” she said.

That’s what the researchers found when they studied 763 employees of a company that managed customer service for credit cards associated with a number of well-known brands in retail and financial services, among others.

In this case, employees had to juggle their identities representing very different brands.

Was being a representative for a particular clothing company’s credit card opposed to – or compatible with – the work they had to do for particular bank’s credit card?

The researchers had a very good way to answer that question. Part of each employee’s job was to sell additional products and services to customers on calls. So the question was: Would identity conflict hurt their sales – and would compatibility help?

Employees were asked in a survey to name the two brands they worked with most. They then rated how much they agreed with a variety of statements. These statements measured if their identification with the two brands was in conflict (“Life would be easier if I represented only one of these brands and not another”) or if working with both brands enhanced each other (“I am a better representative of one brand because I am also a representative for the other brand”).

Results showed that employees whose responses implied identity conflict between their two brands had lower-than-average sales for the four months after they took the survey, while those who indicated their brands enhanced each other had better-than-average sales.

“There are real-world effects for not being able to successfully juggle your identities,” Wilk said. “Your performance can suffer, as we found in this call center.”

The researchers conducted two experimental studies that replicated many of the same results, and gave additional insight into how identity conflict or enhancement might work to affect performance.

The studies showed that participants who thought their identities enhanced each other showed more intrinsic motivation. In the first study, for example, they were more likely to agree with statements like “I work at this job because I think it is interesting.” And intrinsic motivation, in turn, improved sales.

The researchers also looked at how identity enhancement and conflict related to perspective-taking by participants, which was the extent to which they took on a customer’s point of view.

Perspective-taking had an effect that surprised the researchers, at least at first – it actually reduced sales in the first study. After additional studies, the researchers think they better understand why.

“We believe if you put yourself into your customers’ shoes too much, you may start to wonder if they really want or need what you’re selling,” Wilk said. “That can hurt performance.”

The bottom line is that companies need to help their employees find common elements between their different identities, Wilk said.

“There needs to be connections between the identities that make sense to your employees. If there is conflict, your employees will ruminate, take up their mental energy, and struggle with their jobs. But if the connections are there, it can help.”

Aha! Study examines people as they are struck by sudden insight

Researchers study the eyes to identify when people near epiphany

COLUMBUS – Everybody loves those rare “aha moments” where you suddenly and unexpectedly solve a difficult problem or understand something that had previously perplexed you.

But until now, researchers had not had a good way to study how people actually experienced what is called “epiphany learning.”

In new research, scientists at The Ohio State University used eye-tracking and pupil dilation technology to see what happens as people figured out how to win a strategy game on a computer.

“We could see our study participants figuring out the solution through their eye movements as they considered their options,” said Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State.

“We could predict they were about to have an epiphany before they even knew it was coming.”

Krajbich conducted the study with James Wei Chen, a doctoral student in economics at Ohio State. Their results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most decision-making research has focused on reinforcement learning, where people gradually adjust their behavior in response to what they learn, Chen said.

“Our work is novel in that we’re looking at this other kind of learning that really has been neglected in past research,” he said.

For the study, 59 students played a game on a computer against an unseen opponent. On the screen were 11 numbers (0 to 10) arranged in a circle (like a rotary phone, for those old enough to remember). The students chose one number and then their opponent chose a number. The details of how they won are somewhat complex (it had to be complex for them to have something to figure out), but essentially the optimal game strategy boils down to picking the lower number. Therefore, picking zero was always the best choice.

The participants played 30 times in a row, always against a new opponent. The researchers created an incentive to win by awarding small payments for each victory.

An eye-tracker sitting under the computer screen could tell what numbers they were looking at as they considered their options during parts of the experiment.

After each of the trials, participants had the option of committing to playing one number for the rest of the trials. They were encouraged to do so by the promise of an extra payment. Participants were then reminded what number they chose, what number their opponent had chosen, and whether they had won or lost.

The goal for the researchers was to see when players had that epiphany, that “aha moment,” in which they realized that zero was always the best choice and then committed to playing that number for the rest of the experiment.

The results showed that about 42 percent of players had an epiphany at some point and committed to playing zero. Another 37 percent committed to a number other that zero, suggesting they didn’t learn the right lesson. The remaining 20 percent never committed to a number.

The researchers could tell when a player had an epiphany.

“There’s a sudden change in their behavior. They are choosing other numbers and then all of a sudden they switch to choosing only zero,” Krajbich said. “That’s a hallmark of epiphany learning.”

These participants gave clues that they were about to have that aha moment, even if they didn’t realize it. The eye-tracker showed they looked at zero and other low numbers more often than others did in the trials just before their epiphany, even if they ended up choosing other numbers.

“We don’t see the epiphany in their choice of numbers, but we see it in their eyes,” Chen said. “Their attention is drawn to zero and they start testing it more and more.”

Those who had the epiphanies also spent less time looking at their opponents’ number choices and more time considering the result of each trial – whether they won or lost. The researchers said this suggests they were learning that their choice of a low number was the key to victory.

A key to epiphany learning is that it comes suddenly, which was evident when the researchers looked at eye-tracking results on the commitment screen. This was the screen where participants could choose to commit to zero (or another number) for the rest of the trials.

“Those who showed epiphany learning weren’t building up confidence over time. There was no increase in the amount of time they looked at the ‘commit’ button as they went through the trials, which would have indicated they were considering committing,” Krajbich said.

“They weren’t paying a lot of attention to the commit button until the moment they decided to commit,” Chen added.

Findings on pupil dilation provided additional evidence that epiphany learners were reacting differently than others.

“When your pupil dilates, we see that as evidence that you’re paying close attention and learning,” Krajbich said. Results showed those who experienced epiphany learning experienced significant pupil dilation while viewing the feedback screen (telling them whether they won or lost) before they made the commit decision. The dilation disappeared after they committed.

“They were showing signs of learning before they made the commitment to zero,” Krajbich said. “We didn’t see the same results for others.”

These results suggest that you have to look within to truly experience epiphany learning.

“One thing we can take away from this research is that it is better to think about a problem than to simply follow others,” Krajbich said.

“Those who paid more attention to their opponents tended to learn the wrong lesson.”

This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Career Grant to Krajbich.

AAA Reveals Top Green Vehicles

Electric and Hybrid Vehicles Grow in Popularity

COLUMBUS (April 18, 2017) – More than 30 million drivers will likely buy an electric vehicle for their next car, according to a new AAA study. Longer ranges and lower costs are driving more consumers to purchase electric vehicles. In honor of Earth Day, April 22, AAA unveils the top electric, hybrid and fuel-efficient cars for consumers.

Top 2017 Green Vehicles:

Overall: Tesla Model X 75D

Subcompact Car: Chevy Bolt EV Premier

Compact Car: Volkswagen e-Golf SE

Midsize Car: Lexus GS 450h F Sport

Large Car: Tesla Model S 60

Pickup: Ford F150 XLT Super Crew

SUV: Tesla Model X 75D

“Electric vehicles are poised to be a key vehicle of the future,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering. “Tesla – a standout in AAA’s evaluations – has helped widen the appeal of electric vehicles by showing they can be stylish, performance focused and filled with cutting-edge technology.”

Growing Demand for Green Cars:

Gas prices are about 40 percent lower than five years ago, but consumer interest in electric vehicles has grown.

Pure electric vehicle sales are up more than 500 percent since 2012, with nearly 85,000 sold in 2016

Plug-in hybrid sales increased 85 percent since 2012, with nearly 73,000 sold in 2016.

The number of Americans interested in an electric vehicle is now approaching the number planning to purchase a pickup truck, with 15 percent saying that they are likely to buy an electric vehicle for their next car and 32 percent saying they are likely to buy a gasoline- and battery-powered hybrid.

Consumer Interest:

Those likely to buy an electric vehicle say they would do so out of:

  • Concern for the environment (87 percent)
  • Lower long-term costs (62 percent)
  • Wanting cutting-edge technology (52 percent)
  • Access to car pool lanes (29 percent)

AAA’s survey also found that Millennials (18 percent) are more likely to consider an electric vehicle than Baby Boomers (10 percent).

Fuel economy remains a major purchase consideration for all drivers, with 70 percent rating it as an important factor in selecting any vehicle.

Conquering Range Anxiety:

More than half of Americans are hesitant to purchase an electric vehicle due to “range anxiety” – the concern over running out of charge. However, U.S. drivers report an average round-trip commute length of 31 minutes and 46 miles, which falls well within the 100 mile range of most electric vehicles.

In addition, the number of charging stations has quadrupled over the past five years, with more than 15,000 charging stations across the U.S., including 221 in Ohio. In 2016, AAA Ohio added electric charging stations to five of its central Ohio locations.

Drivers can find the closest charging station on the AAA mobile app and TripTik Travel Planner.

Additional Resources:

The Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center rates and ranks electric vehicles, hybrids, compressed natural gas-powered, diesels and high fuel economy gasoline-powered vehicles for the annual AAA Green Car Guide. Vehicles are rated on the criteria that matter most to car buyers, including ride quality, safety and performance.

Winners, detailed evaluation criteria, vehicle reviews and an in-depth analysis of the green vehicle industry are available at AAA.com/GreenCar.

As North America’s largest motoring and leisure travel organization, AAA provides more than 57 million members with travel-, insurance-, financial- and automotive-related services. Since its founding in 1902, the not-for-profit, fully tax-paying AAA has been a leader and advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. AAA clubs can be visited online at AAA.com.

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Staff Reports