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Scientists May Have Finally Figured Out Why Fiber Is So Good For Us 

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From grandmas to general physicians, plenty of people extoll the virtues of fiber. Research shows that a fiber-rich diet—with plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains—could stave off conditions like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, but nobody knows exactly why dietary fiber (the indigestible portion of plant foods) is so good for us. Now, The New York Times reports that scientists think it could benefit the gut microbiome, which in turn affects our immune systems.

Our bodies don't produce enzymes that break down roughage, but some types of bacteria in our guts do. This prompted scientists to hypothesize that the gut microbes are intrinsically linked to fiber's wellness benefits. Two separate studies, both of which were recently published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, put this theory to the test by examining mice on low-fiber diets.

The first study, led by Georgia State University scientist Andrew Gewirtz, looked at mice on a low-fiber, high-fat diet. In the second study, which was led by University of Gothenburg biologist Fredrik Bäckhed, the mice were transitioned from a high-fiber to a low-fiber diet.

In both studies, the mice developed unhealthy imbalances of different gut bacterial strains, shrunken intestines, and thinner protective mucus layers in their colons. This newly permeable membrane allowed bacteria to invade the organ, which in turn caused an immune reaction. And in addition to colon issues, the mice in Gewirtz's group ended up gaining weight, developing high blood sugar and insulin resistance, and experiencing severely reduced gut bacterial levels.

In contrast, when both groups gave mice doses of a type of fiber called inulin, the rodents ended up developing healthier guts, and were also healthier overall. This wasn't a coincidence, experts say.

"Diets that lack fiber alter the bacterial composition and bacterial metabolism, which in turn causes defects to the inner mucus layer and allows bacteria to encroach, something that triggers inflammation and ultimately metabolic disease," says Gunnar C. Hansson, a senior researcher who worked alongside Bäckhed, according to Science Daily. Yet another reason why it's important to kick leftover holiday cookies to the curb and start eating more leafy greens.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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Aflac
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Aflac's Robotic Duck Comforts Kids with Cancer
Aflac
Aflac

Every year, close to 16,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer. That news can be the beginning of a long and draining battle that forces kids and their parents to spend large amounts of time with medical providers, enduring long and sometimes painful treatments. As The Verge reports, a bit of emotional support during that process might soon come from an unlikely source: the Alfac duck.

The supplemental insurance company announced at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that it has partnered with the medical robotics company Sproutel to design and manufacture My Special Aflac Duck, a responsive and emotive sim-bird intended exclusively for children undergoing cancer treatment.

When a child cuddles the fuzzy robotic duck, it can cuddle back. It reacts to being cradled and stroked by quacking or moving its head. Kids can also touch special RFID chips emblazoned with emoji on the duck's chest to tell it how they’re feeling, and the device will mimic those emotions.

But the duck isn’t solely for cuddling. In “IV Mode,” which can be switched on while a child is undergoing IV therapy, the duck can help the user relax by guiding them through breathing exercises. Accessories included with the toy also allow children to "draw blood" from the duck as well as administer medication, a kind of role-playing that may help patients feel more comfortable with their own treatments.

Aflac approached Sproutel with the idea after seeing Sproutel’s Jerry the Bear, a social companion robot intended to support kids with diabetes. Other robotic companions—like the Japanese-made seal Paro and Hasbro's Joy for All companion pets for seniors—have hinted at a new market for robotics that prioritize comfort over entertainment or play.

My Special Aflac Duck isn’t a commercial product and won’t be available for retail sale. Aflac intends to offer it as a gift directly to patients, with the first rollout expected at its own cancer treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia. Mass distribution is planned for later this year.

[h/t The Verge]

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