Did you know that today is Mardi Gras? French for “fat Tuesday,” the celebration of this day is rooted in Roman Catholic tradition. It is the last day before Ash Wednesday, a somber observation that marks the penitential season of Lent. Because Roman Catholics were formerly required to forego most animal products during Lent, Mardi Gras was marked as a last day to indulge in rich foods and lush celebration.
Mardi Gras: Facts and History
The French brought the tradition of Mardi Gras with them when they began exploring and settling in North America, and two different Gulf Coast cities claim to be the first place Mardi Gras was celebrated in America. Mobile, Alabama was founded in 1702; proud Mobilians assert that Mardi Gras celebrations were held in the French settlement there as early as 1703. By contrast, they say, New Orleans was not settled until 1718, and so could not possibly hold a claim as the birthplace of American Mardi Gras.
New Orleanians counter Mobile’s claim, saying that the first American Mardi Gras was observed on March 3, 1699 by French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Sieur de Bienville when they landed near present-day New Orleans, Louisiana. Their celebration was small, but they commemorated it by naming their landing spot Point du Mardi Gras.
Mobile has to admit that it owes at least a little nod to New Orleans; after the Civil War, Joe Cain, the “father” of modern-day Mobile Mardi Gras, was inspired to revive the parade traditions in his city after seeing the celebrations in the Big Easy.
Before we get on with the news of the world, here are a few facts about Mardi Gras you might not have known.
- Mardi Gras is preceded by an entire season of celebration that begins on January 6 (Epiphany or Twelfth Night). In many places, “king cakes,” a sweet, ring-shaped loaf of bread filled traditionally with cinnamon, is served with a tiny doll or a coin tucked into the cake. Whoever gets the slice with the baby or the coin is expected to throw the next party of the season in some communities.
- In English-speaking countries, Mardi Gras is sometimes referred to as Shrove Tuesday or “Pancake Day.” Why pancakes? Requiring milk, eggs, and butter, they became the thrifty housewife’s valediction to foods that the household could not eat during Lent. British pancakes are less like American pancakes and more like a smaller, thicker French crepe. They’re traditionally served with lemon juice and powdered sugar.
- In Italy, Mardi Gras (as well as the preceding season of celebration that begins on January 6) is known as Carnivale; the word is thought to be derived from the Latin phrase ‘carnem levare’ or ‘carnelevarium–’ to take away meat. Some say it derives from ‘carne vale,’ Latin for ‘farewell to meat’. Either way, it works!
- The beads thrown from floats in the Mardi Gras parades of New Orleans and Mobile are colored purple, gold and green, colors that respectively represent justice, faith, and power. Other “throws” include stuffed animals, plastic or metal medallions, and, in the case of Mobile, Moonpies.
Whether you are observing Lent or not, take Fat Tuesday as a day of indulgence. Cut a slice of king cake or make a batch of pancakes and look forward to spring’s arrival next month.
Onto the news! We have some new insights about “Motherese” and what it means for children with autism. We also have an astonishing new discovery about a neutron star collision that occurred in 2017 and a newly-identified correlation between the gut biome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Lastly, we learn whether a popular spice might boost our immune system.
Is There a Relationship Between Baby-Talk and Autism?
Almost everyone has noticed the tendency of mothers to speak to their babies in a high-pitched voice with exaggerated tonal changes and slow enunciation; some people dismiss this speech style, which exists in all languages, as meaningless “baby talk.” The speech style serves a purpose, however–called “infant-directed speech,” “parentese,” or “motherese,” it is associated with augmented language acquisition, stimulation of attention, and emotional reactivity.
So what does that have to do with autism? Children with autism often show delayed responses to auditory stimulation–it may take them longer to respond to speech, or they may not respond when their name is called. In one study, 70% of children with autism spectrum disorder preferred computer-generated speech to motherese.
Researchers Autism Center of Excellence, Department of Neurosciences, University of California San Diego, La Jolla decided to investigate whether response to motherese could either diagnose ASD or predict a future diagnosis. The results of their study, published in the February 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that it could.
The researchers compared the eye movements of children without ASD to the eye movements of similarly-aged children with an ASD diagnosis. The children in the non-ASD group responded almost uniformly to motherese; it commanded around 80% of their attention. Interestingly, the response in the ASD group varied widely, ranging from 0% attention to 100%.Children showing the least interest in motherese tended to have the lowest language and social abilities.
The researchers concluded that attention to motherese speech plays an important role in children’s development, and that their attention to motherese can be rapidly measured using eye tracking.They say that their results suggest that toddlers showing little interest in motherese might benefit from early ASD screening. Furthermore, such testing might help doctors and therapists develop more precise therapeutic targets.
A Perfect Sphere?
I remember being told that perfect spheres are a rarity in the universe. A neutron star collision that occurred in 2017 seems to have come awfully close to making one, according to recent analyses.
After examining the data from the collision, scientists were astonished to find that it had resulted in an explosion that was completely symmetrical all the way around–a nearly perfect sphere.
“No one expected the explosion to look like this,” said Astrophysicist Darach Watson of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark. “It makes no sense that it is spherical, like a ball.”
Nevertheless, he says, the calculations “clearly show that it is.”
Watson says that the phenomenon suggests that all the theories developed about neutron star collisions over the past 25 years “lack important physics.”
Neutron stars are made up of extraordinarily dense matter, and the shape of an explosion is determined by the properties of that matter. According to all previous models, the explosion created by the collision observed in 2017 should have been flat and asymmetrical.
The spherical shape suggests that a tremendous amount of energy blew out from the center of the explosion, forcing the explosion cloud into a smooth, symmetrical shape. The analysts had not expected the core of the collision to contain that much energy.
Neutron star collisions are not often observed. The 2017 explosion, named GW170817, was the first on record. Scientists learned a lot from GW170817: such collisions are sources of gamma radiation (the most energetic light in the Universe), they discovered.
They also found that the explosions resulting from these collisions produce elements such as gold and platinum. There’s plenty more to be learned; the data collected from GW170817 are so extensive that scientists will be analyzing it for a long time yet to come.
Gut Biome Links to ME/CFS
For the 2.5 million Americans living with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), the struggles are many, while answers are few and far between. The disorder frequently arises after an infection, and it can leave sufferers ill for decades. The symptoms include pain, cognitive difficulties (“cog fog”), severe fatigue, and almost complete debilitation after exertion.
No two cases of ME/CFS are alike, and the causes are often impossible to pinpoint. This has led to endless frustration in diagnosis and treatment. Two recent studies have excited ME/CFS specialists, though; both studies show a strong connection between the disorder and specific changes to the gut biome.
Sponsored by the National Institute of Health (NIH), the studies have not established that gut biome disruption causes ME/CFS; however, they do suggest that the gut biome could be a useful measure to aid in the diagnosis of the disorder. Furthermore, the research might possibly yield future advances in the treatment ME/CFS. While a link between ME/CFS and dysbiosis of the gut had been suggested by previous studies, the microbes that might be involved were not identified.
The studies were conducted at the Jackson Laboratory, Farmington, Connecticut, and Columbia University, New York, respectively.
Researchers at the Jackson Laboratory examined abnormalities in the microbiome at different phases of ME/CFS. They found that people whose symptoms began four years ago or earlier had less diverse microbiomes than both healthy subjects and people who had been diagnosed ME/CFS much earlier.
Their findings suggest that the disruption of a previously healthy gut microbiome occurs early in the disease. The gut microbiome seems to restabilize after a while; however, while long-term ME/CFS have healthier gut biomes than people new to the disorder, their symptoms tend to be much more severe.
In the study at Columbia, researchers conducted genomic analyses on the microbes found in the guts of ME/CFS patients as well as healthy volunteers. People with ME/CFS were found to have abnormally low levels of many different bacterial species. Among these were Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (F. prausnitzii) and Eubacterium rectale, both of which ferment non-digestible fiber in the GI tract. The fermentation process produces a nutrient called butyrate (the Jackson study had also found changes in several butyrate-producing species).
The analyses done at Columbia established an association between the reduction of these bacteria and reduced butyrate production in ME/CFS patients.
Butyrate is an important energy source for cells that line the gut, providing 70% of the energy they need. It also supports gut immunity.
The researchers at Columbia also found abnormally high levels of microbes linked to autoimmune and inflammatory bowel diseases in the guts of ME/CFS patients. They established an inverse relationship between high levels of of F. prausnitzii in the gut andfatigue severity in ME/CFS.
These results might not have given us a definitive cause for ME/CFS, but they represent some progress in untying the knotty, multifactorial complexities of the disorder.
For decades–perhaps centuries–multiple claims about the amazing, immune-stimulating properties of the spicy ginger root have been made. Ginger ale is pushed on women with morning sickness and kids with upset tummies. In Northern Europe, it’s a popular ingredient in many of the foods associated with the virus-laden winter season. Does ginger deserve this reputation? A German study says it very well could.
Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich (Leibniz-LSB@TUM) found that one of ginger’s pungent compounds seemed to activate white blood cells; a receptor that plays a role in the perception of painful heat stimuli and the sensation of spiciness in food is apparently involved in this process.
Thirty to sixty minutes after consuming a liter of ginger tea, the researchers found, significant amounts of ginger compounds enter the blood. Gingerol levels were especially high. Gingerol stimulates the TRPV1 receptor; located on the surface of nerve cells, this ion channel responds to painful heat stimuli and to “spicy” compounds found in capsicum peppers and ginger. Some studies suggest that the TRPV1 receptor is also present in white blood cells, so the researchers examined how gingerol affects these cells.
They found the TRPV1 receptor on neutrophil granulocytes, which make up about two-thirds of white blood cells. They provide important defenses against invading bacteria. In their experiments, the research group found that even low levels of gingerol seemed to make these cells more responsive. Compared to cells that hadn’t been exposed to the gingerol, the cells that were exposed to gingerol responded more strongly to bacterial infection–their response was about 30% stronger, in fact.
Consuming a liter of ginger tea could theoretically provide the same concentration of gingerol as that used in the experiment. On their face, the results seem to support the folk wisdom. As always, though, immunity is a complex issue, and assumptions should not be made about the efficacy of ginger against bacterial infections.
Sip some ginger tea along with your king cake or your pancakes today and “laissez les bons temps rouler” (let the good times role), as they say in New Orleans.
- Zula Elwood