June 13, 2008
NIH Podcast Episode #0060
Balintfy: Welcome to the 60th episode of NIH Research Radio with news about the ongoing medical research at the National Institutes of Health--the nation's medical research agency. I'm your host Joe Balintfy. Coming up in this episode, how researchers have seen for the first time what parts of the brain are involved in social status. And, insight to long life, and a study of people 100-years-old and older. But first, how one high school student won some money from science. That's next on NIH Research Radio.
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High Schooler wins First-ever NIDA Scholastic Addiction Science Award
Balintfy: More than a thousand students from countries around the world competed for cash awards recently. Wally Akinso reports on the winner, and the importance of learning about the science of addiction.
Akinso: A Texas high school senior has won the first-ever National Institute of Drug Abuse Scholastic Addiction Science Award. The student Kapil Ramachandran received top honors in the new Addiction Science category at the Intel International Science and Engineer Fair, the world's largest science competition for high school students. The young winning scientist determined that when a specific protein is deleted in fruit flies, the flies may lose their tolerance to alcohol. Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of NIDA, discusses the possible impact that this fair may have on high school students.
Volkow: This highlights the importance of science and how to educate and make science accessible to high school students. Because it is there that we have an opportunity to engage them in choosing a career that is devoted to science research and is devoted to health related aspects.
Akinso: This year, nearly 1500 students from more than 40 countries competed in the competition, which took place in Atlanta, Georgia. Winners of the Addiction Science Award received cash awards in a ceremony, with a $2,500 scholarship provided by Scholastic for the first place honoree. This is Wally Akinso at the National Institutes of Health Bethesda, Maryland.
Human Brain Appears “Hard-Wired” for Hierarchy
Balintfy: In this next report, we learn that the human brain appears to be “hard-wired” for hierarchy. Human imaging studies have, for the first time, identified brain circuitry associated with social status.
Zink: It was quite striking. Very exciting.
Balintfy: Caroline Zink is a Ph.D. researcher with the National Institute of Mental Health’s Genes Cognition and Psychosis Program. She explains that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order, or social hierarchy.
Zink: We’ve known behaviorally how important social hierarchies are when virtually everything we do; they basically define normal behavior – the way you act towards your boss is probably different than the way you act towards your best friend. But we’ve just never known what parts of the brain are processing this information and handling this information.
Balintfy: NIMH researchers created an artificial social-hierarchy in which volunteers played an interactive computer game for money. The players were assigned a status, that they were told was based on their skill. While their brain activity was monitored by a functional-MRI, the players intermittently saw pictures and scores of inferior and superior “players” who they thought were in other rooms. Dr. Zink says the study showed that looking at a superior individual, elicited a profound brain network of activations in areas related to attention and value, and social emotion.
Zink: And basically all the activity was always greater when looking at someone higher than you compared to lower than you. And we also showed that when we made it so the hierarchy was able to change, so throughout the game if the participant started doing very, very well they could move up in the hierarchy, and if they started performing worse they would move down in the hierarchy.
Balintfy: Although they knew the perceived players’ scores would not affect their own outcomes or reward – and were instructed to ignore them – participants’ brain activity and behavior were highly influenced by their position in the implied hierarchy. For more information on this and other NIMH studies, visit www.nimh.nih.gov.
Balintfy: When we come back, an interview about the fastest growing segment of the American population.
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Balintfy: The National Institute on Aging leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging, and to extend the healthy, active years of life. With people age 65 and older now making up the fastest growing segment of the American population, Research Radio talked with Dr. Winnie Rossi, Deputy Director of the NIA’s Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology. We started off with some of the statistics. First, Dr. Rossi, how many people are there that are 65 and older?
Rossi: Currently there are about 37 million people in the United States who are 65 and older, and by the year 2050 that number is expected to probably double to more than 71 million, which is a huge increase, and that will make that about 20 percent of the total population of the U.S. that would be over age 65.
Balintfy: And how about for people over 100 years?
Rossi: Currently there are about 55,000 centenarians, which is a ten-fold increase over the last 40 years, and by the year 2050 that number could get as high or higher than 800,000 in the United States.
Balintfy: Dr. Rossi, how would you characterize this trend, this change?
Rossi: Well, there’s something called the epidemiologic transition that’s taken place over the last century where we’ve had improvements in treatment for infectious disease and elimination of things like infant mortality and death of mothers in childbirth and improvements in sanitation, in nutrition and in prevention of infectious disease, like vaccines and other medicines, so that automatically made people live longer. And then what happened is people then began to live longer with chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes. And what we are seeing now, though, is tremendous improvements in treatment for heart disease, such as lipid lowering drugs, which contribute to better cardiovascular health, as well as cancer treatments. And so, we have people living longer and living better in many cases, and that has improved life expectancy a great deal.
Balintfy: So is it genetics, is it environments, is it lifestyle? What are the different things that are helping people live so much longer?
Rossi: Well, that’s a major focus of our research at the National Institute on Aging. We’re actually starting a big study called the Long Life Family Study that’s examining these questions. And recent work that’s been conducted by recent researchers funded by NIA has shown us that centenarians as a group tend to live better than their counterparts in the population. So, for example, for people who were born in the same year as a centenarian, say 1900, some of those people died, say, at age 73, but others lived to over 100 years and the people that lived over 100 years tend to have lived healthier than their counterparts. And then what we found out as well was that brothers and sisters of centenarians tend to live better than their counterparts in the population as well and, in fact, brothers of centenarians have a 50 percent mortality advantage throughout their adult lifespan against their counterparts in the population.
Balintfy: So, it sounds like it’s a combination of a healthy lifestyle and genes?
Rossi: Well, we know that there are family patterns of it because in addition to centenarians and their siblings, we also know that the children of centenarians compared to their counterparts in the population tend to live longer and healthier, and so we know that there’s a family pattern. We suspect that it’s a combination of environmental and lifestyle factors. We are now collecting families in the United States and in Denmark that have large numbers of long-lived individuals in them and we’re collecting information on lifestyle, on behavior, on health and trying to assess what might be shared environmental things, and we’re also collecting some blood to see if we can find out what genetic contributions there might be.
Balintfy: How many people will participate in the Long Life Family Study?
Rossi: Well, we’re looking for as many families as we can possibly get because the more families we have, the more total number of people we have and then the more robust results we can get to say something about this very special group of people who seem to live exceptionally well.
Balintfy: Has the study already started?
Rossi: Yes. We’ve been in a first phase of the study for about a year. We went into the field to get some initial data to see how our data collection was going and to see if we were on the right track, and now we’re gearing up to go full phase into the field to try and collect as many families as possible. So, the point of the work is just to really engage people and get them interested because it’s a positive study. As opposed to something that’s normally more focused on disease in our work at the NIH, we’re here asking people why have you aged so well, what’s so good and how can we learn about living as healthy as possible, as long as possible no matter how old we live to be.
Balintfy: So is there an ideal candidate family that you’re looking for?
Rossi: So, what we’re looking for, we have three study centers in the United States, at the University of Pittsburgh, at Columbia University and at Boston University. The best type of families that we’re looking for are the bigger the better. The more longer-lived people, the more valuable, the more informative they can be to this study. So, we are trying to get the word out around the country even though we’re focused in three areas that if there is a family that has a large number of long-lived people in them, we do have the capability to go out and meet them, but they have to be fairly large in order for us to do that, to make the best use of our resources.
Balintfy: Again, where are the resource centers, Dr. Rossi?
Rossi: University of Pittsburgh, Boston University and Columbia University in New York.
Balintfy: We’ll get to some contact information at the end, but before we wrap up. What are some good tips to live a long life?
Rossi: So, what we know are really things that we hear all throughout our lives, things that our mother told us as we were growing up, things like eat fruits and vegetables, don’t smoke, exercise several times a week, get enough rest, monitor your health and see the doctor regularly to keep things in check. Those are things we know for sure that work.
Balintfy: Terrific. Is there anything else you’d like to add, perhaps about healthy aging in general?
Rossi: I think it’s a very prominent focus at the National Institute on Aging that we’re really trying to learn how we can help all people live as healthy as possible no matter how old they are and that we can find very useful and informative information from people who live extremely long and extremely well and that we really encourage people to join us for this very positive effort in an effort meet our public health goals.
Balintfy: Thank you very much, Dr. Winnie Rossi from the National Institute on Aging. For more information on the Long Life Family Study, visit www.longlifefamilystudy.org. Again, that’s “longlifefamilystudy” (all one word) dot o-r-g. You can find more details about the study and an invitation to participate. You can also call to participate at 1-877-362-2074. And for more information on healthy aging in general, please visit the National Institute on Aging website at www.nia.nih.gov.
Balintfy: That’s it for this episode of NIH Research Radio. Please join us again on Friday, June 27th when our next edition will be available for download. I'm your host, Joe Balintfy. Thanks for listening.
NIH Research Radio is a presentation of the NIH Radio News Service, part of the News Media Branch, Office of Communications and Public Liaison in the Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services.