A study found brief exposure to diesel exhaust fumes altered functional connectivity in a human brain in ways researchers suggest could affect cognitive function..Depositphotos
Researchers in Canada have, for the first time ever, demonstrated how acute exposure to traffic pollution can immediately impair human brain function, offering unique evidence of the connection between air quality and cognition. Healthy adults were exposed to diesel fumes before having their brain activity imaged in a fMRI machine.
Air pollution in urban environments has long been associated with poor cardiovascular, respiratory and brain health. But connecting the dots between air quality and human health has been challenging for researchers. It’s difficult to accurately quantify a person’s exposure to air pollution beyond associating rates of certain diseases in geographical areas of high pollution.
Plenty of cell and animal studies can demonstrate how air pollution affects organisms. But as we know, there can often be a huge chasm between the effects of toxins on a mouse in a lab and chronic exposure to a human in the real world.
So perhaps the final missing piece in the puzzle for researchers has been direct human exposure studies. Of course, it’s not exactly ethical to expose volunteers to high levels of toxic fumes just to watch what happens, so these kinds of experiments, unsurprisingly, have been lacking.
This new research used a model of human exposure to diesel exhaust fumes developed over a decade ago. The technique delivers controlled and diluted concentrations of diesel exhaust particulate matter to human subjects at levels deemed to be representative of real-world exposure but also proven to be safe. In a lab setting, 25 healthy adults were exposed to either diesel exhaust, or filtered air for two hours and had their brain activity measured using fMRI before and after each exposure.
The main focus of the study was on the impact of this kind of traffic-associated air pollution on what is known as the default mode network (DMN). This is a set of inter-connected cortical brain regions that play a crucial role in cognition, memory and emotion.
The findings revealed brief exposure to diesel exhaust caused a decrease in DMN activity, essentially yielding a drop in functional connectivity between different brain regions, compared to what was seen when subjects were exposed to filtered air. Jodie Gawryluk, first author on the study, said these kinds of DMN alterations have been linked to depression and cognitive decline.
“We know that altered functional connectivity in the DMN has been associated with reduced cognitive performance and symptoms of depression, so it’s concerning to see traffic pollution interrupting these same networks,” said Gawryluk. “While more research is needed to fully understand the functional impacts of these changes, it’s possible that they may impair people’s thinking or ability to work.”
Alone, these new findings are not particularly meaningful. No evaluations were performed in the study to suggest the observed DMN changes impacted cognition. But alongside a growing body of epidemiological and preclinical studies linking air pollution with a number of neurodegenerative diseases, these findings may be much more significant. They effectively demonstrate the acute effects of air pollution on the human brain in a way never before shown.
According to senior author on the study Chris Carlsten, it is unclear what long-term effects this kind of pollution exposure will have on a human brain. On the positive side of things the researchers did seen DMN brain activity return to normal relatively soon after the diesel fume exposure. So Carlsten is only able to hypothesize what the impact of more chronic, continuous exposure could be.
“People may want to think twice the next time they’re stuck in traffic with the windows rolled down,” said Carlsten. “It’s important to ensure that your car’s air filter is in good working order, and if you’re walking or biking down a busy street, consider diverting to a less busy route.”
Rich has written for a number of online and print publications over the last decade while also acting as film critic for several radio broadcasters and podcasts. His interests focus on psychedelic science, new media, and science oddities. Rich completed his Masters degree in the Arts back in 2013 before joining New Atlas in 2016.
Heard of the phrase: range of motion? This term, which is often shortened to ROM, refers to how much joint and muscle movement you have.
How much flexibility you have in your joints will differ from person to person, with one study conducted by the CDC (opens in new tab) revealing that your ROM can be influenced by your gender, age and lifestyle. If you’re trying to improve your ROM, massages, stretching and using some of the best foam rollers can help you work towards increasing your overall flexibility.
Along with helping you complete daily tasks, like bending down to tie your shoe, your ROM can also help to reduce the feeling of joint stiffness, improve muscular function and help you live a better quality of life.
So, to discover how to increase your ROM we decoded the science and spoke to certified fitness trainer Nicole Thompson from the American Council on Exercise (opens in new tab) (ACE) and Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and Pilates instructor at Complete Pilates (opens in new tab).
What does range of motion mean?
Thompson says: “Range of motion can be defined as ‘the number of degrees through which an articulation will allow one of its segments to move’.”
But to help understand this term a little more, Thompson recommends thinking about the meaning of flexibility, as the two concepts are closely related. “Flexibility is the ‘ability to move joints through their normal full ranges of motion’,” Thompson tells us. “So typically, the more flexible you are, the better your range of motion. Essentially, ROM is a reflection of flexibility.”
How do you know whether you have a good ROM? “There is an ideal length of muscle fiber in which the muscle will function optimally,” Thompson says. “However, if the fibers are too short (or sometimes too long) that can cause stiffness in the muscle and therefore limit the range of motion a joint will have. If the muscle fibers are at an optimal length and have enough elasticity, the muscles will allow the joint to move to optimal degrees.”
Nicole Thompson is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Medical Exercise Specialist, Group Fitness Instructor, and Health Coach as well as an ACE Senior Fitness Specialist and Fitness Nutrition Specialist. She holds an M.A. in Sport and Performance Psychology and studied Fitness Instruction/Exercise Science at the University of California, San Diego. Her love of health, fitness, and learning landed her at the American Council on Exercise in 2015 where she continues to cultivate those passions.
Why is range of motion important?
As we’ve seen, maintaining good flexibility is super important, especially as we age. And the best flexibility exercises can help you stay on top of your ROM.
As Thompson explains: “Range of motion is the result of flexibility. And flexibility is an essential component of fitness and one’s ability to perform activities of daily living. A flexibility routine can help improve ROM, reduce stiffness and injury, improve muscular function and can even improve your mood.”
But not staying on top of your flexibility can lead to health and wellbeing problems later down the line. Thompson tells us: “If there are muscle imbalances, as a result of altered muscles lengths/length-tension relationships around the joint, that alters the joint mechanics, which result in postural misalignments, faulty loading, and ultimately pain, injury, and/or compensation.”
How can you improve your range of motion?
1. Massage can help with your range of movement
If done consistently and by a professional, massages can help increase your ROM. Thompson says: “Massage can help relax muscles by increasing blood flow to muscles, decreasing knots (which are believed to be inflammation or microtrauma to muscle fibers that can restrict ROM), and can help fascia be more pliable. Fascia is a connective tissue that covers all the body’s compartments like a web.”
And research backs this point up. The Journal of Physical Therapy Science (opens in new tab) published a study which looked into the effect of massage therapy on the range of motion of the shoulder and concluded that massage therapy ‘significantly improved the shoulder range of motion, especially the flexion and abduction’. While a second review, published in Frontiers in Physiology (opens in new tab), concurred, stating that even with just 15 minutes of massage some increases in ROM were spotted.
2. Use of a foam roller
Foam rollers are a form of self-myofascial release technique and can be adopted as part of a warm up or recovery program.
According to one review published in Frontiers in Physiology (opens in new tab), foam rollers can also be used to ‘increase your ROM’ by performing simple back and forth movements over the roller to ‘exert mechanical pressures on soft tissues via the weight of the body (or the force of the upper limbs)’.
And Thompson agrees, adding: “Myofascial release, whether done by foam rolling or massage, attempts to relieve tension and thus improve flexibility.”
3. Drinking more water
We all know that drinking water is important to our overall health. But it’s believed that guzzling down some H2o can also work towards increasing your ROM.
“Since water is present and needed in tendons, ligaments, and muscles — proper hydration can help optimize muscle performance,” Thompson says. “Water can also help lubricate joints and tissues so they can be more elastic.”
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics (opens in new tab) revealed that collagen fibers are influenced by hydration levels and might be responsible for the cause of stiffness.
Thompson adds: “Conversely, it’s common to get muscle cramps (involuntary contracting/shortening of the muscle) when you are dehydrated. Muscle cramps usually indicate to endurance athletes that they need water and electrolytes. Which further supports the idea of water contributing to muscle pliability.”
One of the best ways to improve your ROM? By having a first-class stretching routine. According to Thompson, flexibility programs should include various forms of stretching such as:
Static stretching (which involves stretching a muscle to near its furthest point and then holding that position for at least 15 or 20 seconds).
Wondering where to start when it comes to your stretches? O’Leary recommends adding the below to your routine to hit different areas of your body.
Helen O’Leary is a chartered physiotherapist and Pilates instructor/director of Complete Pilates (opens in new tab) in London. She graduated from Birmingham University in 2008 and in 2010 completed her Polestar Pilates Rehabilitation course and began to teach both mat and equipment Pilates. At Complete, O’Leary works with clients before and immediately after surgery to optimize their recovery.
Bouncing roll down. This will help you touch your toes easier. O’Leary says: “Roll down towards the floor and let your arms hang, accepting that you probably aren’t touching the floor. Let one knee bend and keep the other straight to reach towards the floor. Lift your body up a little, switch knees and bounce back down again. Keep repeating 10 times before letting yourself hand and slowly coming back up. Try to keep the bounce smooth and not force anything.”
Cat cow. This will stretch out your spine. O’Leary explains: “Get on all fours, tuck your tailbone under and allow your spine to arch towards the ceiling. Press into your hands to encourage your mid back to lift as well. From your tailbone, open your sit bones and let your spine go the other way into extension. try to keep pressing into your hands so that you don’t sag between them and lift your chest up and towards the ceiling. Keep your gaze somewhere in front of you so that you aren’t overextending your neck.
Banded dislocations. This stretch will tackle your shoulders and chest. O’Leary adds: “Hold onto the ends of a long band. The longer or lighter the band the easier the movement will be. Take your hands up in front of you, pull apart and then go towards the ceiling and back behind you. Reverse the movement bringing them back up towards the ceiling and down in front of you. The more you pull apart the more you are likely to get round so make sure you find a place that is a challenge but possible without you bending your elbows.”
Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.
For decades the corporate HR department was seen as a back-office function, a cost center focused on mundane administrative tasks such as managing compensation and benefits plans. But over the past 15 years Ellie Filler has noticed a dramatic change. Filler, a senior client partner in the Swiss office of the executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry, specializes in placing chief human resources officers (CHROs) with global companies. For years many of the HR chiefs she recruited reported to the COO or the CFO and complained that they lacked real influence in the C-suite.
Today, she says, they often report directly to the CEO, serve as the CEO’s key adviser, and make frequent presentations to the board. And when companies search for new CHROs, many now focus on higher-level leadership abilities and strategy implementation skills. “This role is gaining importance like never before,” Filler says. “It’s moved away from a support or administrative function to become much more of a game changer and the person who enables the business strategy.”
To investigate the CHRO role within the C-suite, Filler worked with Dave Ulrich, a University of Michigan professor and a leading consultant on organization and talent issues. In looking at several sets of data, they found surprising evidence of the increasing responsibility and potential of CHROs.
First, in order to understand the importance of the CHRO relative to other C-suite positions, including CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, and CIO, Filler and Ulrich looked at salaries. To identify the best performers, they found the top decile of earners in each role. Then they averaged the annual base compensation of each group. No surprise: CEOs and COOs are the highest-paid executives. But CHROs are next, with an average base pay of $574,000—33% more than CMOs, the lowest earners on the list. “Great CHROs are very highly paid because they’re very hard to find,” Ulrich says.
The researchers also studied proprietary assessments administered by Korn Ferry to C-suite candidates over more than a decade. They examined scores on 14 aspects of leadership, grouped into three categories: leadership style, or how executives behave and want to be perceived in group settings; thinking style, or how they approach situations in private; and emotional competency, or how they deal with such things as ambiguity, pressure, and risk taking. The researchers then assessed the prevalence of these traits among the different types of executives and compared the results.
Their conclusion: Except for the COO (whose role and responsibilities often overlap with the CEO’s), the executive whose traits were most similar to those of the CEO was the CHRO. “This finding is very counterintuitive—nobody would have predicted it,” Ulrich says.
Mapping Leadership Styles
The researchers analyzed 360-degree assessments of thousands of leaders in six C-suite functions—CEO, CFO, COO, CIO, CHRO, and CMO—in which each executive was ranked on 14 aspects of leadership on a scale from one to seven. The surprising result: The traits of CHROs matched up closely with those of CEOs.
The discovery led Filler and Ulrich to a provocative prescription: More companies should consider CHROs when looking to fill the CEO position. In the modern economy, they say, attracting the right talent, creating the right organizational structure, and building the right culture are essential for driving strategy—and experience as a CHRO makes a leader more likely to succeed at those tasks.
The advice comes with some caveats. First, Filler and Ulrich studied only the best performers, so they’re pointing to a small subset of CHROs as having corner-office potential. They don’t see a path to the top job among people who have spent their careers in HR; instead, they are touting the prospects of executives who have had broad managerial experience (and P&L responsibility) that includes a developmental stint running the HR department. They emphasize that any CHRO who aspires to become a CEO must demonstrate capabilities in a host of skills required of top leaders.
“The challenge for CHROs is to…acquire sufficient technical and financial skills, in early education and in career steps along the way, if succession to CEO is a desired outcome,” they write in a white paper about their research. Indeed, some companies, including Zurich Insurance, Nestlé, Philip Morris, and Deutsche Bank, do put high-potential executives through a developmental rotation in a high-level HR job. (For one view on facilitating such developmental opportunities, see “It’s Time to Split HR,” by Ram Charan, HBR, July–August 2014.)
“It’s Still Relatively Rare, But It Shouldn’t Be”
Bernard Fontana has served as CEO of the Swiss cement company Holcim since 2012—and earlier in his career he spent three years as the chief human resources officer at ArcelorMittal, a 320,000-employee global mining and steelmaking company. He spoke with HBR about why a stint as CHRO is great preparation for becoming CEO. Edited excerpts follow.
Did you always aspire to work in HR?
No. But when I was 30 I was working for a French company, and I traveled to Hong Kong with the CEO. During the trip he talked about how at one point in his career, he’d been asked to be the head of HR. “It’s not something to do all your life, but one day if you have this opportunity, I’d advise you to take it,” he said. “You’ll learn a lot, and it will be useful if you become a CEO.” He was right.
Why was serving as CHRO an important experience?
Leadership is about transforming an institution, and if you want to have a sustainable transformation, you need to develop leaders who will continue the journey after you. HR is an essential part of that kind of generative leadership. My predecessor as CEO had been here for 10 years, and the board was looking for an outsider with this characteristic—the ability to develop people and generate new leaders.
As more companies do mergers or reorganizations, are HR skills a bigger part of a CEO’s skill set?
Yes. Those transformations are times of opportunity for a company, but they’re also times of uncertainty for employees. That’s something you need to acknowledge and turn into a strength. With HR experience, you’re more aware of certain situations. You pay attention to the way you say things. During those times questions of company identity, values, and behavior matter a lot.
Do you put many of your up-and-coming stars into HR roles?
In HR you need a mix of experts who will spend their careers there and people who will go there for a short time for development and then return to running businesses. I do put executives into those jobs, but those development roles are the minority in any HR department.
Should more boards consider hiring CHROs as CEOs?
Yes. It’s still relatively rare, but it shouldn’t be. The ultimate responsibility of CEOs is to make sure that what they initiate will continue and that they develop the men and women who will carry on the work. So for me, it’s very logical to have former CHROs as CEOs, because they have experience developing people.
Filler and Ulrich highlight two examples of prominent CEOs who had developmental stints in HR earlier in their careers. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, served as the carmaker’s vice president of HR for 18 months, and Anne Mulcahy, Xerox’s CEO from 2001 to 2009, ran that company’s HR operations for several years in the early 1990s. It’s no coincidence that both are women: According to the researchers’ data, 42% of high-performing CHROs are female—more than double the share in the CMO position, the next highest (16%). One implication: If more companies envisioned CHROs as potential CEOs, the number of female CEOs could dramatically increase.
In their white paper Ulrich and Filler also report on what CEOs and CHROs have to say about the changing nature of the top HR role. Several CEOs see the CHRO as C-suite consigliere. “It is almost impossible to achieve sustainable success without an outstanding CHRO,” says Thomas Ebeling, the CEO of the German media company ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG and a former CEO of Novartis. “[The CHRO] should be a key sparring partner for a CEO on topics like talent development, team composition, [and] managing culture.”
Peter Goerke, the London-based group director for HR at Prudential, agrees with Filler and Ulrich that although deep skills in marketing or finance might once have given CEO aspirants a significant competitive advantage, today a broader set of people-focused skills can be more useful. “Succession to a CEO role requires a balance of technical and people skills,” he says. “For all C-suite roles, and often at least one level down, there has been a gradual shift in requirements toward business acumen and ‘softer’ leadership skills. Technical skills are merely a starting point.”
In spite of the historic bias against the CHRO function, the rising status of HR leaders is not entirely surprising. Over the past 20 years Jim Collins and other management theorists have focused on talent strategy as the prime determinant of corporate success—an idea Collins popularized in phrases such as “Get the right people on the bus” and “First who, then what.”
In her work recruiting CHROs, Filler has seen a growing recognition that those aphorisms hold true. “If you don’t have the right people in the right places—the right talent strategy, the right team dynamics, the right culture—and if you don’t proactively manage how an organization works from a culture and a people perspective, you’re on a serious path to disaster,” she says. Conversely, a top-notch CHRO can help a company plot a more successful future.
A chief human resources officer (CHRO) is an executive-level position that oversees human resources management for a business or organization. The CHRO—sometimes referred to as the chief people officer (CPO) or executive vice president of human resources—directs the HR department and carries out HR policies. Some of the HR functions that CHROs oversee include talent acquisition and retention, performance management, and employee engagement. As the chief HR officer, a CHRO also helps to develop the workplace culture and supports business goals and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
As a leadership role, the CHRO job description includes overseeing the HR directors and HR team carrying out the company’s employee-based initiatives. The CHRO reports directly to members of the top C-suite executive team—often the chief executive officer (CEO) or chief operating officer (COO)—and works to align the HR strategy with the company’s strategic plan and business objectives.
A few of the responsibilities of a CHRO include:
Benefits and labor relations management: A CHRO oversees the implementation of HR software to streamline healthcare and retirement programs, government compliance requirements, and employee relations. They explore partnerships to offer employees new benefits such as wellness programs or professional development opportunities.
Guides company culture: This role in HR leadership includes helping to define and develop company culture for the workforce, executive leadership team, and other stakeholders. Maintaining employee engagement and productivity through incentives, clearly defined career paths and equitable compensation packages, and a commitment to diversity in hiring practices are core components of this human resources function.
Oversees talent recruitment and retention: Talent management is another cornerstone of human capital management and the CHRO role. A CHRO develops and adopts a talent strategy that outlines how to recruit, hire, develop, and retain employees. The talent strategy includes offering equal opportunities to all candidates, employee training initiatives, career development programs, and succession planning, which is a strategy to identify potential leaders when companies change management.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw huge increases in searches for immunity boosters, including for things like supplements claiming to improve immune function. But even before COVID-19 scared people into their nearest supermarket aisle, “wellness” through supplements was a multi-billion dollar industry.
Celebrities and influencers across social media platforms regularly advertise and promote a myriad of supplements to improve health and the immune system. However, there are some major problems with these claims — namely, vitamin companies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as drugs, and many supplements don’t work as claimed.
Unlike pharmaceuticals, which must undergo clinical trials that are reviewed by the FDA for the product’s safety and efficacy, dietary supplements have a less stringent path to market shelves. Even though they are most often found in or next to the store pharmacy, dietary supplements are regulated as food, not as drugs. This means that they have not been evaluated or proven effective.
Furthermore, while the manufacturer must prove the ingredients are “reasonably safe”, none of these products are formally “approved” by the FDA. But these supplements are not always inherently harmless options for people trying to live a healthy lifestyle. A 2015 study concluded adverse effects from dietary supplements caused an “estimated 23,000 emergency department visits in the United States every year.”misperception
Despite these risks, there has been an unfortunate absence of expert voices contesting supplement company claims with real data. “There needs to be a more robust response from the science community in the face of pseudoscience and misinformation,” says Tim Caulfield, a professor of health law at the University of Alberta, who has worked on studies and books examining ads and posts claiming to support the immune system on social media.
He explains that supplement marketing often builds on the common misperception that if the right amount of a vitamin is good for you, more is better. “That’s not the case at all,” he says. On the topic of supplement misinformation, Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, says, “The main problem is that the law permits companies to promote supplements as if they have important benefits for health even if there has never been a single study in humans to study the product’s efficacy or safety.”
Indeed, dietary supplements are not required to be reviewed by the FDA before they are distributed because they are not considered medications. Vitamins say right on the bottle that their claims “have not been reviewed by the FDA.” Instead, they are predominantly regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, which monitors the claims the labels make; however, this is limited to ensuring that the supplement makers are not explicitly claiming the product can be used as a treatment.
The FTC does allow companies to suggest a range of benefits their products provide, which may be why up to 70 percent of adults in the United States take at least one dietary supplement daily, with the most common reason being to try to maintain or improve their health. While some individuals with specific vitamin deficiencies may benefit from these products (under a doctor’s supervision), most of us do not. However, those marketed as “immune boosters” or “immune boosting” are more problematic.
Despite suggestive labels, there is no way to “boost” the immune system. The immune system is a complicated and dynamic network of cells, proteins, hormones, and other biological components. Even if it were possible to ratchet up such a complex system, you wouldn’t necessarily want to, because the immune system operates primarily by inducing inflammation. This alerts various immune cells to mobilize and fend off danger.
In moderation, this is perfectly healthy, and the system has a braking mechanism all its own. But if a product were to truly “boost” the immune system, this mechanism would be amplified. We know what too much inflammation looks like: autoimmune disorders, inflammatory disease, and allergies.
Ironically, in some cases, products heralded to improve immune function can actually suppress it. Take vitamin D, touted for its ability to enhance “immunity.” While it may increase the inflammatory response, it has been shown to actually reduce the activity of other cell types—namely T cells, which are critical in forming long-term memory. The same is true of many other popular supplements, such as zinc, when a person takes substantially more than the recommended daily amount.
Supplements can be actively harmful in other ways too. Since supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, they aren’t evaluated for safety in the same way as pharmaceuticals. Of course, the manufacturers cannot knowingly use or include compounds that are known health hazards — legislation from 1994 dictates that ingredients used in supplement products must not have been shown to cause harm.
But that doesn’t mean these products aren’t without yet unrecognized risks. “I think one of the biggest things that gets overlooked is the potential for a drug-drug interaction,” says Dr. Kathryn Nelson, a medicinal chemist at University of Minnesota. Physicians need patients to disclose what supplements they are using, including multivitamins, because they might interact with prescribed medications.
From inactivating a pharmaceutical prescription, to dangerously exacerbating its effects, these products can have significant consequences. Yet many patients do not disclose or discuss their supplement use with their healthcare providers, due to their misguided perception that vitamins are safe or not worth mentioning.
Additionally, the active ingredient in vitamins must be either be purified from a natural source or synthesized in a lab, and both methods have the potential for carry-over from compounds used in these methods. Such contamination is called “residual complexity,” Nelson says.
This is particularly concerning when heavy metals are used and possibly present in the final product. In pharmaceutical drugs, these compounds would usually go to clinical trials, and any potential introductions of heavy metals removed in what’s called “process chemistry” to gain FDA approval. But the purification process of supplements are not reviewed by the FDA. This has opened the door for potential contaminants-heavy metals as well as other drugs and even pathogens-into these products.
Given all of this negative and even contradictory information about these products, why is the supplement market a multi-billion dollar industry? Much of the answer lies in its advertising. Companies often collaborate with social media influencers, who talk up how great the product is. And despite thousands of scientists across the country with expertise in nutrition and immunology, experts rarely publicly contradict these statements.
Science communication is an important part in the scientific process. However, more often than not, important conversations happen only with other scientists at scientific conferences, or in journals behind paywalls. As a result, the larger non-expert community is left in the dark. Daniel Pham, the associate director of the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy, wrote an essay in 2016 which detailed the lack of support for science outreach by scientists, and an absence of communication training.
Almost five years later, he says, “The same issues have resonated with me even more in the times of COVID. I feel like there’s a bigger sense of the need for improved communication of science to the public. But the tools we’re using are just woefully inadequate.” The evidence of his statement can be seen in a recent study by Arizona State University, which showed the majority of scientists believe that it is important to inform and engage the general public about science topics.
However, when asked about their personal interest or intentions of doing this, the answers are less enthusiastic. Often scientists are not encouraged or even rewarded for public outreach, which doesn’t aid securing funding, publishing, or gaining tenure. One possible solution might be to reform the funding and promotion institutions so they reward researchers for this kind of public service.
However, scientists should also not anticipate their feedback will be immediately accepted based on their resumes. As Nelson points out, the first step in improving the public’s access to verified information is building trust with experts. That includes breaking down the stigmas surrounding what it means to be a scientist, and making expertise more accessible.
A recent example is the initiative Science on Tap, where a scientist describes their research in general terms to patrons at a local bar or venue. Pham has also started a similar effort at Johns Hopkins University, called Project Bridge, bringing small, introductory science demonstrations to public spaces such as farmer’s markets. Specific tactics to counter supplement marketers could also include partnering with influencers who are willing to share verified research, as well as lobbying for legislative reform.
The supplement industry is a prime example of the dangers of misinformation, which is damaging to both science and the public at large. Cohen notes that the next steps are to urge the FDA and FTC to enforce existing laws prohibiting the promotion of products with disease claims, in an attempt to get them off the shelves. In the long-term, he notes the existing law on these products needs to be reformed so that “all products [are] registered with the FDA.”
Scientists and researchers have the expertise to get information to the public and enact policy change. But it will require getting creative. “A lot of the misinformation really has become a social media story,” Tim Caulfield says, “so we need to go to where the misinformation resides.” Scientists, he adds, “need to find their own voice.
But scientists are still trying to unravel how and why swimming, in particular, produces these brain-enhancing effects.
As a neurobiologist trained in brain physiology, a fitness enthusiast and a mom, I spend hours at the local pool during the summer. It’s not unusual to see children gleefully splashing and swimming while their parents sunbathe at a distance – and I’ve been one of those parents observing from the poolside plenty of times. But if more adults recognized the cognitive and mental health benefits of swimming, they might be more inclined to jump in the pool alongside their kids.
Until the 1960s, scientists believed that the number of neurons and synaptic connections in the human brain were finite and that, once damaged, these brain cells could not be replaced. But that idea was debunked as researchers began to see ample evidence for the birth of neurons, or neurogenesis, in adult brains of humans and other animals.
In studies in fish, scientists have observed changes in genes responsible for increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels as well as enhanced development of the dendritic spines – protrusions on the dendrites, or elongated portions of nerve cells – after eight weeks of exercise compared with controls. This complements studies in mammals where brain-derived neurotrophic factor is known to increase neuronal spine density. These changes have been shown to contribute to improved memory, mood and enhanced cognition in mammals. The greater spine density helps neurons build new connections and send more signals to other nerve cells. With the repetition of signals, connections can become stronger.
But what’s special about swimming?
Researchers don’t yet know what swimming’s secret sauce might be. But they’re getting closer to understanding it.
In one study in rats, swimming was shown to stimulate brain pathways that suppress inflammation in the hippocampus and inhibit apoptosis, or cell death. The study also showed that swimming can help support neuron survival and reduce the cognitive impacts of aging. Although researchers do not yet have a way to visualize apoptosis and neuronal survival in people, they do observe similar cognitive outcomes.
One of the more enticing questions is how, specifically, swimming enhances short- and long-term memory. To pinpoint how long the beneficial effects may last, researchers trained rats to swim for 60 minutes daily for five days per week. The team then tested the rats’ memory by having them swim through a radial arm water maze containing six arms, including one with a hidden platform.
Rats got six attempts to swim freely and find the hidden platform. After just seven days of swim training, researchers saw improvements in both short- and long-term memories, based on a reduction in the errors rats made each day. The researchers suggested that this boost in cognitive function could provide a basis for using swimming as a way to repair learning and memory damage caused by neuropsychiatric diseases in humans.
Although the leap from studies in rats to humans is substantial, research in people is producing similar results that suggest a clear cognitive benefit from swimming across all ages. For instance, in one study looking at the impact of swimming on mental acuity in the elderly, researchers concluded that swimmers had improved mental speed and attention compared with nonswimmers. However, this study is limited in its research design, since participants were not randomized and thus those who were swimmers prior to the study may have had an unfair edge.
Another study compared cognition between land-based athletes and swimmers in the young adult age range. While water immersion itself did not make a difference, the researchers found that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity breaststroke swimming improved cognitive function in both groups.
Kids get a boost from swimming too
The brain-enhancing benefits from swimming appear to also boost learning in children.
Another research group recently looked at the link between physical activity and how children learn new vocabulary words. Researchers taught children age 6-12 the names of unfamiliar objects. Then they tested their accuracy at recognizing those words after doing three activities: coloring (resting activity), swimming (aerobic activity) and a CrossFit-like exercise (anaerobic activity) for three minutes.
They found that children’s accuracy was much higher for words learned following swimming compared with coloring and CrossFit, which resulted in the same level of recall. This shows a clear cognitive benefit from swimming versus anaerobic exercise, though the study does not compare swimming with other aerobic exercises. These findings imply that swimming for even short periods of time is highly beneficial to young, developing brains.
The details of the time or laps required, the style of swim and what cognitive adaptations and pathways are activated by swimming are still being worked out. But neuroscientists are getting much closer to putting all the clues together.
For centuries, people have been in search of a fountain of youth. Swimming just might be the closest we can get.