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How people really judge politicians, and more ...

How people really judge politicians; Good vibrations for a leaner body; How blind brains compensate; Delayed dementia

How people really judge politicians

Voters often make sweeping judgments about politicians based on a split-second reaction to their appearance, a new study found. When researchers asked 300 people to glance at the faces of two actual gubernatorial candidates that they didn’t know for just a quarter of a second, “people had no trouble telling us who they thought was more competent,” Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov tells LiveScience.com. These instantaneous reactions, Todorov found, reflected the choices that real voters made at the polls 64 percent of the time, indicating that how candidates look often trumps their policy positions, their experience, or any other factor. “When we ask ourselves, ‘Who should I vote for?’” said Todorov, “this shows we sometimes resort to our first impressions.”

Good vibrations for a leaner body It sounds like a silly infomercial pitch, but it’s real science: Researchers have discovered that by placing young mice on a vibrating platform for 15 minutes a day, they can prevent the development of fat cells. High-frequency vibrations, the State University of New York study says, seem to mimic muscle activity and thus signal the body that new stem cells should be devoted to building a stronger, leaner bdy. Growing mice that spent 15 minutes a day on the platform developed 28 percent less fat, using available calories to form muscle and bone. Researchers pointed out that the study did not address whether mice that were already fat would become leaner on vibrating platforms, so they remained skeptical of those “fat burning” belts or the Power Plate vibrating platform sold through TV commercials. “We’re not burning fat or taking fat mice and making them skinny,’’ researcher Clinton Rubin tells National Geographic News. “We’re taking mice who are growing and influencing the decision of stem cells [not to] become fat cells.’’ Nonetheless, obesity experts said the finding about vibrations and fat cells was intriguing and may drive further research.

How blind brains compensate It’s an old saw that blind people compensate by developing more sensitive hearing. A new study finds not only that this is true, but that to accomplish this transformation, the blind reorganize their brains, assigning a region usually reserved for sight to the sense of hearing. When Alexander Stevens of Oregon Health and Science University played audio signals for people who had been blinded early in life, the blind subjects’ medial occipital brain regions—usually reserved for sight signals—lit up with activity on brain scans. The blind, says Stevens in the Journal of Neuroscience, apparently experience “a dramatic alteration in the way the world is perceived,” with other senses getting more processing space in the brain. This finding, he says, explains how blind people can hear and feel things the sighted cannot.

Delayed dementia’s downside The most educated people are the last to develop dementia, says HealthDay.com. But when cognitive decline finally does take place, a new study indicates, the educated patient’s deterioration is faster and more pronounced. The now-popular “cognitive reserve hypothesis” holds that people with more education are better able to compensate for the physical deterioration of their brain tissue, masking symptoms for some time. For every extra year of education, it seems, the elderly get an average of two and a half extra months of mental clarity. But after that, says study author Charles Hall, the drop-off in brain function is severe—about 4 percent faster than for a less educated person. When the dementia comes on quickly, it can be more painful to witness, says Hall. “Family members, parental caregivers, and clinicians need to know that in people with a lot of education, it is possible that the disease may progress at a more rapid rate than they would expect.”

The sleeping-pill illusion Popular sleeping pills provide only about 15 minutes more sleep each night, but people who take them think it’s far more, says a comprehensive analysis of several studies. Sleeping pills such as Lunesta, Ambien, and Rozerem—with a price of $3 per pill—enable users to fall asleep about 12 minutes faster and to sleep for 11 to 19 minutes longer, according to studies. But when asked how much more sleep they got, people said almost an hour more than usual. “Sleeping pills do not increase sleep time dramatically,’’ sleep expert Dr. Karl Doghramji of Thomas Jefferson University tells The New York Times. “Despite these facts, we do find patients who have a high level of satisfaction.’’ Apparently, the pills induce a sort of temporary amnesia, so that people wake in the morning having forgotten the time they spent waiting for sleep the night before. “If you forget how long you lay in bed tossing and turning, in some ways that’s just as good as sleeping,” said sleep disorders specialist Dr. Gary S. Richardson. For the Americans who spend $4.5 billion per year on sleep drugs, the illusion of rest seems to be reason enough to keep taking the pills.

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