The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

May 5, 2022

Mindfulness reduced chronic pain and opioid abuse in clinical trial

A small, four-year clinical trial in Utah involving 250 adults who were suffering from chronic pain, receiving long-term opioid prescriptions from their primary care physicians, and misusing those drugs has demonstrated that mindfulness training may be effective at reducing opioid abuse. The trial showed the superiority of an eight-week course of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), which trained the people to do things like self-reappraisals and to savor their positive experiences, compared to eight weeks of supportive group psychotherapy. After nine months, 45 percent of the people in the mindfulness group were no longer misusing their opioids compared to 24 percent of the people in the psychotherapy group—and the former also reported significant improvements in their chronic pain symptoms. JAMA Internal Medicine

Breast milk helps infant microbes stick to the gut of adults

One of the grand challenges of modifying people’s gut microbiomes to help address a variety of infectious, autoimmune, and metabolic diseases is that giving people live biotherapeutic products containing good bacteria often doesn’t work. The good bacteria fail to colonize the gut and are not retained. One possible solution is a symbiotic approach: Give people good microbes at the same time as feeding them the chemical foods those microbes need to grow. Now researchers at Prolacta Bioscience in Duarte, California, have demonstrated this approach in human and mouse studies. In one, they fed six groups of volunteers various amounts of human breast milk oligosaccharides paired with Bifidobacterium infantis, an infant intestinal microbe not typically found in the adult gut, and showed that increased oligosaccharides helped retain more bacteria. The researchers say this work is “a step toward the development of predictable and targeted microbiome therapeutics.” See our story “Hacking Mother’s Milk” for more on human breast milk. Cell Host & Microbe

Caloric restriction + time restricted eating = mice that live longer

A recent study published in NEJM found no weight-loss benefit to time-restricted eating—and the New York Times ran a headline about the study saying “Scientists Find No Benefit to Time Restricted Eating.” But longevity researchers said “hold on,” because there is plenty of promising research on its use for healthspan. For decades, we have known that mice live longer when their dietary caloric intake is restricted, and we have also known that time-restricted feeding can have a profound physiological impact. Mice fed fatty foods at night gain less weight than the same mice fed the same foods during the day. Now researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have shown the effect of combining the two approaches. Consistent with past experiments, they found restricting calories by 30 percent extended the lifespan of mice by 10 percent—but they showed that this longevity could be extended even further depending on when the calories were consumed. Putting the animals on a “circadian” fasting schedule that saw them eat only in certain windows of time in the day or night boosted this effect, helping them live up to 35 percent longer lives. Now we just need a study in humans showing that effect. Science

The case for a 20 percent reduction in beef

Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany have estimated the environmental benefits of replacing beef with fermented microbial protein. Substituting just 20 percent of per-capita global meat consumption with microbial protein by 2050 would offset increases in pasture land, save water, cut deforestation in half, and lower carbon dioxide and methane emissions. It’s a compelling case for alt proteins. Nature

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Monitoring biomarkers with wearables often involves analyzing things like changes in skin conductance with sweat. But many people produce insufficient amounts of sweat, and some areas—like fingernail surfaces or the skin behind the ears—may never sweat, so monitoring it in those places is inefficient. Now researchers at Ohio State University have developed a novel “chemo-mechanical actuator,” a film that buckles upon contact with certain chemicals, which could enable new sensors to detect on the skin trace amounts of the volatile organic compound (VOC) acetone, an industrial chemical found in nail polish remover. Detecting skin acetone could help monitor the progression of diabetic ketosis and weight loss, the researchers write. PLOS One

The gold-digger’s dilemma

Fifty years ago, during the height of the sexual revolution, evolutionary psychologists first formed the hypothesis that men and women aspire to woo partners more desirable than themselves—with women seeking high provider status among men and men seeking women whose looks smack of fertility cues. Proving this “aspirational mating” has been exceedingly hard in practice, however, because it requires longitudinal studies of real-world relationships and the ability to weigh an entire pool of prospective suitors. Researchers at the University of Missouri and UCLA have solved this challenge by visiting the remote rural plains of northwest Namibia, where they conducted hot-or-not-type surveys to establish the community-level desirability of hetero men and women in an isolated population of 1,000 semi-nomadic Himba people. What they found was that while many people do demonstrate aspirational strategies when evaluating potential mates, the actual partnerships they form tend to be with people of equal desirability. And evenly matched couples have longer, more stable, and higher quality relationships—and more sex. Science Advances

The global burden of aging, revisited

A new way of measuring the burden of aging populations worldwide could dramatically revise how we perceive young and old countries, according to researchers at Columbia University who developed it. Traditional age burdens were compared country-to-country based on a metric called the old-age dependency ratio (OADR)—basically the number of people over 65 divided by the number of working-age people (20–64). Under that purely demographic measure, Western Europe was the oldest region in the world while many countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa figure the youngest. The new metric, called the health-adjusted dependency ratio (HADR), revises this to also include a country’s disease burden. It’s a profound revision, and it suggests that Japan, the United States, and Western Europe have a lower aging burden, whereas southern Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa have a greater burden. Central African Republic, for instance, where half the population is under 20, has a larger HADR aging burden than the United Kingdom, where the median age is over 40. Lancet Healthy Longevity

Higher values indicate higher aging burden.