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Science Square (Issue 118)
Jul 1, 2017

Tomatoes Might Be a Key to Preventing Skin Cancer

Cooperstone JL et al. Tomatoes protect against development of UV-induced keratinocyte carcinoma via metabolomic alterations. Scientific Reports, July 2017

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. A new study suggests that nutrient rich tomatoes may be an effective tool in the fight against skin cancer. Tomatoes are already known to be a good remedy for sunburn. Dietary carotenoids are pigmenting compounds that give tomatoes their color. Lycopene, the primary carotenoid in tomatoes, has been shown to be the most effective antioxidant of these pigments. In the study, the researchers fed a group of mice a daily diet made up of 10% tomato powder for 35 weeks. They then exposed these mice to ultraviolet light. In comparison to those mice not given tomato powder, the male mice given tomato powder showed a 50% decrease in skin cancer tumors. Interestingly, there was no significant reduction in tumors for the female mice.

This study emphasizes once more the importance of sex when designing preventive strategies for cancer. In addition, lycopene administered from a whole tomato appears more effective in preventing redness after UV exposure than the synthesized supplement, suggesting other unknown compounds in tomatoes may also play a role. Finally, researchers underline the simple fact that foods are not drugs, but they can possibly, over a lifetime of consumption, impact the development of certain diseases.

New wearable sensor worn like a second skin

Miyamoto A et al. Inflammation-free, gas-permeable, lightweight, stretchable on-skin electronics with nanomeshes. Nature Nanotechnology, July 2017.

Wearable electronics are smart electronic devices that are designed to provide humans with digital assistance about everyday tasks. These devices are rapidly increasing, and it is estimated that within five years there could be half a billion devices strapped onto, or even embedded in, human bodies. Today, the most popular devices are health/fitness trackers and smart watches, which monitor health and provide ready access to online health services. These technologies promise to transform medicine, as these wearables can manage care and ultimately treat symptoms of various diseases.

The current technology is pushing hard to replace bulky health sensors with super-thin wearables that can record data through skin. The first generation of devices for skin monitoring have been bulky and impractical, restricting natural movement. Now a group of researchers have developed an innovative solution, one that seems almost out of a science-fiction movie. They demonstrated that a flexible, mesh-like structure of metallic nanofilaments successfully integrates with the skin on human fingers without irritation or interruption. Each nanofilament is about 300-500 nm in diameter and coated in a thin layer of gold. The mesh-like film sticks to the skin thanks to an ultra-thin layer of polyvinyl alchohol (PVA), a reagent commonly used in contact lenses and artificial cartilage. PVA showed exceptional performance in hypoallergenic tests when compared to conventional plastic and elastomer films. 

This newly designed device allows for very precise, long-term monitoring with minimal disruption to the carrier, facilitating active, body-worn sensors sensitive to touch, temperature, and pressure. These next-generation wearables greatly exceed those of traditional wristband-mounted devices and the technology could even have potential applications on internal organs.  In the near future, there will be devices that alert people with epilepsy to incipient seizures, help prevent anxiety attacks, and enable blind people to navigate.

Generosity sparks happiness in the brain

Park SQ et al. A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nature Communications, July 2017.

Philosophers, psychologists, and economists have spent hundreds of years contemplating what drives or inspires humans to perform acts of generosity.
In attempts to answer this question, some have speculated that giving satisfies a desire to boost one's social standing in a group. Others have suggested it promotes tribal cooperation and cohesion, a key element in human survival. Another group of researchers claimed that we give only because we expect to receive something in return. The real answer, a new study suggests, may be much simpler: Giving makes us happy. To explore the connection between generosity and happiness, researchers divided 50 participants into two groups – experimental and control – who were each told they would be given 25 Swiss francs ($26)  per week for four weeks.

While the experimental group were asked to commit to spending their money on other people by buying gifts or taking them to dinner, the control group were told to spend the money to spoil themselves. After committing to spending, the participants were asked to answer a questionnaire while their brains were being scanned with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Participants in the experimental group were found to make more generous choices in an independent decision-making task and showed greater increases in self-reported happiness when compared to the control group. In addition, brain scans revealed that generous decisions engaged the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) in the experimental group, and the TPJ subsequently activated neurons in the ventral striatum, which is associated with happiness.

This study provides behavioral and neural evidence that supports the link between generosity and happiness, and it has implications for education, politics, economics, and public health. But many interesting questions remain to be explored: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? Does the effect last when it is used deliberately – that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier? Can a lack of generosity have the opposite effect, stimulating negative brain processes?