Rules of Better Living

Question: How do you ‘Break Though Your Set Point?’

Blackburn: It's been now almost 20 years since I published the first observation of the significance of a ten percent weight loss.  And then it just built on that that was the amount of weight that people could lose without regaining it.  So there is the stretch of the rubber band, and the amount of weight that you can lose and expect to keep off approaches ten percent of your body weight.  So that's the reset that we want to do.  We want to take that weigh on the scale and reset it, you know, with just under-eating 200 to 400 calories a day, one, two pounds per month, until you get the ten percent off.  Now the average person, you know, starts-- should be weighing 150 pounds, they actually weigh 180 pounds, so we're really looking for a ten percent or an 18 or 20-pound weight loss in this area.  And just with under-eating this little bit, getting rid of your hunger, eating slowly, will get the 20 pounds off, and lo and behold, that's the weight you can keep off.  And so we ask people to stay there for six months, get this new eating and activity lifestyle, and then you can go to add another five pounds or ten pounds from that direction.

Question: How do we find our ideal weight?

Blackburn:  To find what you should weigh is to know your actual weight in pounds and make a calculation of what's ten-percent less and go through that weight in pounds.  The body mass index helps us normalize the society in females and males.  So for scientific purposes and for medical evaluation, body mass index is a vital sign, just like weight circumference.  But for the individual it's to know your weight, that's your set point, subtract ten percent of that weight and go to that new weight and see how good you feel and how healthy you are.

Question: Should thin people lose weight?

Blackburn:  Well, the nice thing about it is that this intrinsic gut-bringing set point regulation will keep you close to your ideal weight.  So if you're already at the weight most people of your height are at age 18, if you try to lose ten percent you'll find the brakes will go on at five percent.  So you'll really be protected from losing too much weight.  But you can test that to see how you feel.  If I have more energy, more stamina, you know, I can perform better.  Some people are.  We're not all made in a cookie cutter so we're all one-size.  Some people, your height could be five pounds or ten pounds less, and some people could probably be five pounds or ten pounds heavier to be at their best performance, their best hunger control, their best fitness.

Question: How does stress affect weight gain?

Blackburn:  Almost anybody who changes weight more than one or two pounds, you know, per year can probably look back and find that something stressful happened in their life.  A new job, a new marriage, you know, a new location, illness in the family, illness in themselves, so that stress is a major contributor, and therefore it's important that we identify that in ourselves and implement a plan to understand it and then to treat it.  So that by virtue of the fact that you maintain your weight within one or two pounds year-in and year-out probably means you have manageable stress.  You may feel stressed, but the good news is, it hasn't translated into changing your appetite or your activity so you're holding to your normal weight.

Question: How does sleep affect weight gain?

Blackburn:  Sleep is a major contributor to our fighting stress and fighting fatigue, so that we know that if you are fatigued, undoubtedly you're not getting enough sleep.  First you can know if I'm not getting six to eight hours of sleep per night, then I'm probably not getting enough, and it's wearing on me.  The second thing of course if that when you wake up in the morning, if you don't feel refreshed then there was something wrong with the sleep.  Wasn't long enough, you weren't restful enough, you weren't paying enough attention to all the tight controls to make sure that you have a blackout environment, you know, the right place to sleep.  But I can't say enough about sleep contributing to the quality of life, contributing to the ability to eat healthy, to control your portions and feel good.

Question: Can we ever splurge?

Blackburn: You know, this religious, spiritual upbringing that has almost all religions take a day off, whether it's Friday, Saturday or Sunday.  And so this day, this holiday, one day out of seven where you really concentrate on the joy of living, of the giving thanks to God or to other activities that for you make you feel good.  If we don't get that once a day, it's just like not getting a sleep during the week, this works against us.  So a day off for yourself, for prayer, for spirituality, for rest, for happiness are the components that you must add to the equation of the eating right, the eating healthy, the portion control, the physical activity, and the sleep management and stress we talked about.

Question: Do you advocate gastric bypass surgery?

Blackburn:  Well, we've talked about the population on average having gained 24 pounds in the last 20 years.  Now this is on top of the pound a year that people gain from age 20 to 50.  So that instead of having 20 to 30 pounds over the 30 years of our adult life, we have 40 to 60.  so that that would be a warning sign, particularly if it was associated with diabetes or hypertensive cardiovascular disease.  But the gastric bypass is really focused on those people who gain three times too much weight.  They're 100 pounds or more overweight.  This is beyond our ability to make these lifestyle changes to lose enough weight to get healthy.  So that fortunately for, if you will, severe obesity, we have developed safe and effective surgical approaches.  But they still are just one component of the treatment.  You still have to get the right diet, you still have to get the right portion control, you still have to get the right physical activity, the sleep, the day off, the happiness.  So the surgery only helps the small component of our population.  Unfortunately five percent of the population is five or ten million people, so it's not a small number of people.  But compared to the 300,000,000 Americans, we would be talking about five or ten million people.

Question: Can food be addictive?\

Blackburn:  I think it's better to characterize food as food cravings rather than addiction.  We have some really tight definitions from drug and cigarettes and other addictions that don't exist as far as food is concerned.  But food cravings definitely exist.  And they're learned, and they require a special treatment by therapists to help you deal with food cravings.  But that's manageable in many ways a lot easier than addictions such as smoking, or alcohol or drugs.

Uncovering the secrets to a correct diet.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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