Dr. Michael Schlitt, Neurosurgery

Brains Respond to Ads

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For quite some time now, media and marketing experts have long sought a reliable method of getting responses from the general population to future products and messages.  According to a recent study done by the City College of New York, (CCNY) in partnership with Georgia Tech, it looks like the brain responses of just a few individuals are a remarkably strong predictor.  By analyzing the brainwaves of 16 individuals as they watched mainstream TV content, researchers were able to accurately guess the preferences of large TV audiences, up to 90 percent in the case of Super Bowl commercials.  These findings appear in a paper entitled “Audience Preferences Are Predicted by Temporal Reliability of Neural Processing”, which was recently published in the latest edition of Nature Communications.

Mean Joe Coke

Now, measuring brainwaves allows people to determine how good commercials are.

Alternative methods such as self-reports are characterized by problems such as people conforming their responses to their own values and expectations.  However, brain signals measured through electroencephalography (EEG) can, in principle, alleviate this shortcoming by providing immediate physiological responses immune to such self-biasing.  According to Lucas Parra, the senior author of the report, explained that when two people watch a video, their brains respond similarly, but only if the video is engaging.  Popular shows and commercials draw our attention and make our brainwaves very reliable.

In the study, participants watched scenes from the TV show The Walking Dead, and then several commercials from the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowls.  EEG electrodes were then placed on their heads to capture brain activity.  The reliability of the recorded neural activity was then compared to audience reactions in the general population using publicly available social media data provided by the Harmony Institute and ratings from USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter.  Brain activity among participants watching The Walking Dead predicted 40 percent of the associated Twitter traffic.  When brainwaves were in agreement, the number of tweets went up as well.  Brainwaves were also able to predict 60 percent of the Nielsen ratings that measure the size of a TV audience.

The study was even more accurate when comparing preferences for Super Bowl ads.  For instance, researchers saw very similar brainwaves from their participants as they watched a 2012 Budweiser commercial that featured a beer-fetching dog.  The general public voted the ad as their second favorite that year.  The study then found little agreement in the brain activity among participants when watching a GoDaddy commercial with a kissing couple, which was among the worst-rated Super Bowl ads in 2012.  The CCNY researchers collaborated with Matthew Bezdek and Eric Schumacher from Georgia Tech to identify which brain regions are involved and explain the mechanisms.  With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they found evidence that brainwaves for engaging ads could be driven by activity in visual, auditory and attention brain areas.

Dr. Michael Schlitt, Neurosurgery

The Dangers of Junk Food

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People have been talking about the dangers of smoking for a long time.  However, according to a recent article, unhealthy diets actually pose an even greater risk to global health, and governments should move to tax harmful food products.  In a statement issued on the opening of the annual summit of the World Health Organization (WHO), Belgian professor Olivier de Schutter called for efforts to launch negotiations on a global pact to tackle the obesity epidemic.  Just as the world worked together to tackle the spread of tobacco, he has called for a need to come together to regulate the wide sale of unhealthy foods.

Junk Food

While tasty, junk food like this is extremely harmful to health.

Back in 2005, a UN convention on tobacco control aimed at reducing deaths and health problems caused by the product went into force after a long series of negotiations under the umbrella of the WHO.  In a report to the rights council in 2012, de Schutter claimed that a similar accord on food should include taxing unhealthy products, regulating food high in saturated fats, salt and sugar while cracking down on the advertising of junk food.  It also called for an overhaul on the system of farm subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others, and for support for local production so that consumers will have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.

In a statement made yesterday, de Schutter said that any attempts to promote better diets and fight obesity will only work if the food systems underpinning them are put right.  While governments are focusing on increasing calories availability, they have often been indifferent on what kind of calories are being offered, at what price they’re being offered, to whom they’re made available and how they’re marketed.  Such measures are necessary, in the words of de Schutter, to make sure that people are protected from aggressive misinformation campaigns.

Dr. Michael Schlitt, Neurosurgery

Cancer-Sniffing Dogs?

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Dogs have long been hailed for their noses, being used to sniff out bombs, drugs and everything in-between.  While humans have about 5 million different olfactory cells in our noses that detect different odors, dogs have approximately 200 million.  However, is it possible that dogs can sniff out prostate cancer as well?  According to a recent study published by Italian researchers, presented at the 109th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Urological Association in Orlando, specially trained dogs were able to detect prostate cancer from urine samples with an astounding 98% accuracy.

Cancer Dog

A trained cancer-sniffing dog hard at work.

Last November, a spotlight feature from Medical News Today spoke about medical detection dogs, and how they can help alert a diabetic owner to high or low blood sugar levels through being trained to detect a specific scent in their breath or sweat, as well as how dogs are currently being used for detecting various different cancers.  According to one study, trained detection dogs were able to detect ovarian cancer in tissue and blood samples by sniffing out volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Back in 2011, a study conducted by researchers at UK charity Medical Detection Dogs, such compounds could also be biomarkers of bladder cancer.  The authors of this study on prostate cancer note that back in 2010, a study revealed that specially trained dogs were able to smell VOCs released into urine from prostate cancer tumors.  However, this study only involved 33 patients.  Therefore, the Italian research team did a much larger version of this earlier study.

For this study, the team took two highly-trained dogs to see if they could detect prostate cancer-specific VOCs in the urine samples of 677 different participants.  Out of these, 320 of them had prostate cancer ranging from low-risk to metastatic, while 357 were healthy controls.  They discovered that the dogs could detect prostate cancer-specific VOCs in the urine samples with a combined accuracy of 98%.  Sensitivity to the compounds was an astounding 99% accurate, while specificity was 97% accurate.

According to Dr. Brian Stork, a urologist at West Shore Urology in Michigan, dogs are shaping up to be a promising approach to cancer detection.  While using dogs to identify cancer seems unorthodox, and so recently as ten years ago would have sounded ludicrous, “man’s best friend” very well could help save man’s life.  Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study revealing that dogs could also provide new insight into Chiari malformation in humans, while other research published in Genome Biology showed that dogs could serve as a model for OCD in humans.