This Week in Research: Apolitical College Students; Fat Pregnant Rats

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In this series, we look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!

A presidential election is a big deal, needless to say… except, that is, in the minds of today’s college students.

Researchers at the University of Maryland examined students’ consumption of political news by asking 200 undergraduates to fill out detailed, time-stamped diary entries about their political news habits. Those surveys must’ve been pretty easy to fill out, since most students reported hardly any political news watching (or listening, or talking) at all; the majority spent less than half an hour over a three-day period. And lest you think it might’ve just been a slow news day (or three), you’re wrong:  the study took place over Super Tuesday.

Some typical student responses:  “In between classes, I checked Google news,” “This morning when I woke up at 10 a.m. I had a text message from my dad asking if I was going to be watching the news later to see the results of Super Tuesday. This was the only time so far today that I talked politics for a couple of minutes,” “I have still not checked anything based on politics today, but have watched a good amount of sports-related news.”

According to Ella Powers, the study’s lead investigator, “students most commonly get their political news through the computer, followed by cell phone and word of mouth… [they] appear willing to scan political news that they stumble upon, but they don’t go out of their way to search it out.”

Young people’s site of choice for breaking news was Twitter, which served as a kind of first-alert system; relatively few turned to Facebook for political information. Despite the plethora of news platforms available to today’s teenagers, however, their most often-mentioned news sources were remarkably old fashioned:  The New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.
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For years, women have been warned to be scrupulous about their diets while pregnant so as to avoid ruining their babies lives, basically. So it’s nice that Johns Hopkins researchers have found out one thing expectant mothers can chill out about:  It seems that what pregnant mothers eat matters less than what babies eat right after birth, in terms of triggering obesity. (For rats, at least.)

Baby rats born to mothers on high-fat diets avoided rat obesity if they ate normal-fat diets right after birth. But rats in the opposite situation — normal diets in the womb; high fat diets once they were born — had a much higher tendency toward obesity after they were weaned. They also had signs of prediabetes and had lowered sensitivity to an important appetite-regulating hormone.

According to Kellie Tamashiro, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Hopkins and lead researcher on the study, “[the research]  suggests that by putting children on a healthy diet in infancy and early childhood, we can intervene and potentially prevent a future of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

Of course, pregnant mothers might still want to change their eating habits; a high-fat diet gets passed on to infants through breast milk, and eating habit changes made during pregnancy might be easier to maintain while nursing. If obese mothers switch to healthier diets during pregnancy and nursing, Tamashiro notes, they may be able to help their children avoid obesity themselves. “Obesity rates have increased threefold over the last 20 years,” she notes. “We know it’s not because of genetics because our genes don’t change that quickly. So we are focusing on the developmental environment. Obese children are developing metabolic disorders earlier, affecting their quality of life and health over the long term. Prevention is probably the best strategy we have.”

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