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Articles categorized as ‘University of Sydney Science Programs’

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

What do your music preferences say about your study habits?

It’s well known that certain human behaviours such as eating, having sex or shared social moments lead to a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“Dopamine is a very common neurotransmitter, sometimes called a feel-good neurochemical. More accurately, it is released in response to a rewarding activity, and its presence helps drive our motivation and reinforces the activity that led to its release,” says University of Sydney Professor Alais.

What do your music preferences say about your study habits?

What you listen to may affect how you study

Now music can be added to the list, since it’s been found that listening to emotionally engaging melodies also results in the release of dopamine—one of few intangible practices to do this.

Prof Alais discussed a behavioural study on rats to demonstrate the relationship between dopamine and motivation.

“Given two pathways to find a food reward, rats with high dopamine levels took the effortful path to receive twice the amount of food, while those with low levels took the easy path and received less food,” he says.

So, how does this relate to studying?

“When you are sitting down to study, boosting dopamine through music is good because it will increase your motivation levels. The satisfaction you feel when reaching your study goals will be intrinsically rewarding and reinforce your willingness to study,” Prof Alais explains.

“For the maximum dopamine boost, you should choose music that gives you a positive emotional response,” he suggests. “People who are happy and less stressed are going to feel better and therefore learn better.”

Certain music can boost memory

In neuroscience there are several networks in the brain including the executive attention network and the default mode network, the latter being more active when you are calm and inwardly focused.

“In this reflective state you are more likely to imagine and visualise things; you can find connections between information and memories. You are less focused on logical sequences and instead on broader associative connections that can help you encode things in a richer network.”

And visualisation is apparently the best way to memorise things.

Alais gives the example of how famous Roman orators from times before cue cards harnessed the power of visualisation to recite their extraordinarily lengthy public speeches utilising the default mode network of their brain.

“They would model the sequence of their speech off their house which they knew backwards. They would use this to create an order for their talk and in each room of the house they would mentally input a couple of object cues,” the University of Sydney professor explains.

“They only had to remember the sequence of their speech in global terms (e.g., the route they would take to walk around their house) and the rest of the information would flow on from there.

“The imagination is a powerful tool and it’s one that we don’t use enough.”

In order to reach this part of the brain Alais suggests we need to remove extraneous stimuli.

“In order to switch off your externally focused frontal lobe and achieve a more reflective headspace you can meditate, practice mindfulness, take a walk or listen to calming, ambient music.”

Music with lyrics and complex technical sequences is more distracting, making it harder to reach this reflective inner state as you will be focused on outside factors.

“You can’t ignore someone speaking to you, even through song; so often the logical part of your brain that you’re trying to use when you’re studying is conflicted. You’re detracting from your focus.”

Alais suggests avoiding music with lyrics or that compels you to move physically, “choose music that flows over you rather than grabbing you.”

Work over twerk, if you will.

Tunes can be even more distracting if you have a background in music, something Professor Alais can attest to having worked for six years as a live sound engineer while an undergraduate and PhD student.

“If you are musically trained, you are probably a very analytical listener. You will likely engage more with the music and analyse the rhythm, key, chord changes, instrumentation etc. Something ambient may be better for you to reach that inner default mode network. Or perhaps a genre that is outside your area of expertise.”

What about personality and music preference?

Only a small amount of research exists, but what’s there suggests people can be broadly categorised into three types: empathisers, systemisers and those considered a little bit of both.

Empathisers were found to enjoy pop music because it speaks to the emotions with lyrics and in using rhythm and beat to convey mood. This type of person enjoys the global effect of the music rather than isolating aspects of it. A systemiser, meanwhile, will be more scientific in approach and therefore enjoy complex forms of music like jazz or electronica which requires some effort to decode it.

So as you settle in for another study session, give an extra thought to the tunes you choose because it’s proven that listening to certain music can indeed help you out come exam time. For Professor Alais nothing beats the Bach cello suites.

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Find out how you can study science at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK Admissions Officer Shannon Tilston for more information at shannon@oztrekk.com.

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Students make $750 drug cheaply with Open Source Malaria team

Sydney Grammar School students, under the supervision of the University of Sydney and global members of the Open Source Malaria consortium, have reproduced an essential medicine in their high school laboratories. The drug, Daraprim, had been the subject of controversy when the price was hiked from US$13.50 to US$750 a dose last year.

Students make $750 drug cheaply with Open Source Malaria team

(L-R) University of Sydney researchers Associate Professor Matthew Todd and Dr Alice Williamson with Sydney Grammar School students and teachers Erin Sheridan and Dr Malcolm Binns (Photo via University of Sydney)

Daraprim—originally used as an antimalarial after its synthesis by Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion—is now more widely used as an anti-parasitic treatment for toxoplasmosis, which can be a dangerous disease for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems, such as those living with HIV or AIDS.

Daraprim is listed by the World Health Organization as an essential medicine.

In September 2015, Turing Pharmaceuticals acquired the market rights to Daraprim and raised the price of a dose more than 5000 percent overnight. CEO at the time, Martin Shkreli, stuck by the price, despite criticism.

To highlight the inequity of the monopoly, high school students in Sydney have been working with the Open Source Malaria consortium to make Daraprim in the laboratory using inexpensive starting materials, as part of the Breaking good – Open Source Malaria Schools and Undergraduate Program.

Scientists anywhere in the world were able to view all the data generated and mentor the students to accelerate the science under the coordination from the University of Sydney’s Dr Alice Williamson and Associate Professor Matthew Todd.

Dr Williamson from the Sydney School of Chemistry said the scientific community could provide advice and guidance to the students online in real time.

“The enthusiasm of the students and their teachers Malcolm Binns and Erin Sheridan was translated into a complete route in the public domain by the use of the Open Source Malaria platform,” Dr Williamson said.

“Anyone could take part and all data and ideas are shared in real time.”

Associate Professor Matthew Todd said the innovative open-source approach lowered the barrier to participation by researchers outside traditional institutions, such as universities and pharmaceutical companies, allowing students to work on real research problems of importance to human health.

“Daraprim may be quickly and simply made, bringing into question the need for such a high price for this important medicine,” Associate Professor Todd said.

Open Source Malaria is supported by the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Australian Government.

Research at the Sydney Faculty of Pharmacy

Postgraduate study allows interested students to gain experience and skills in research. The Sydney Faculty of Pharmacy has a rich research track record and students have the opportunity to work with world leaders in several research fields. Pharmacy qualifications offer unique career options and flexibility, combining a professional degree with research experience. Graduates may seek employment in full-time research work or choose to pursue a research-based higher degree.

Sydney Pharmacy School graduates with research experience are sought after candidates for senior roles in the pharmaceutical industry.

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Would you like more information about studying pharmacy at the Sydney Faculty of Pharmacy? Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Pharmacy Schools Admissions Officer Krista McVeigh at krista@oztrekk.com.

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Nanoscience and technology institute launching at University of Sydney

Cross-disciplinary institute and flagship $150m building cements Sydney’s place advancing frontier knowledge.

The Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, launching next month, provides a world-leading environment for scientists at the forefront of nanotechnology to address some of the biggest challenges facing society. A recent issue of the Sydney Morning Herald featured an insight into the university’s “quantum leap” into the next frontier.

The Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which launches next month at the University of Sydney, brings together in a purpose-built facility the capacity to design, fabricate, measure, test and deploy nanotechnology innovations—in an Australian first.

The new $150m Sydney Nanoscience Hub—the headquarters of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology—is among the most advanced laboratories for advanced measurement and experimental device demonstration globally built for this purpose and joins just a handful of facilities at some of the most prominent universities globally.

Available for public use will be a prototyping facility and cleanroom, which will be augmented by a bespoke electron microscope in one of the most electromagnetically and mechanically stable environments in the world.

The Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology officially launches on April 20, 2016. 

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Find out more about science and technology degrees available at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK Australian Science Programs Admissions Officer Shannon Tilston at 1-866-698-7355 or shannon@oztrekk.com.

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Forming planet observed for first time

An international team of scientists has captured the first-ever images of a planet in the making. The accumulation of dust and gas particles onto a new planet—the process by which the planet continues to form and grow—has been directly observed for the first time.

None of the nearly 1,900 planets previously discovered and confirmed outside our solar system (called exoplanets) are in the process of formation.

The findings of the scientists, led by University of Arizona graduates Steph Sallum and Kate Follette and including the University of Sydney’s Professor Peter Tuthill, were published recently in Nature.

A star known as LkCa 15, located 450 light years from Earth, has been observed exhibiting all the trappings of an expectant parent: it is surrounded by a vast disc of dust and gas, making an ideal environment for planets to grow from; the dust shows distinct signs of disturbance—something within has eaten away part of the disc.

Co-author of the paper Professor Tuthill said the images provided unambiguous evidence. “This is the first time we’ve imaged a planet that is definitely still in the process of forming.”

The photo provided the proof: “The difficulty had been that when you have indirect evidence, there are always alternate explanations that might fit the data,” Professor Tuthill said.

Researchers are just now being able to image objects that were close to and much fainter than a nearby star, thanks to specialised instruments. These include the Large Binocular Telescope, or LBT—the world’s largest telescope, located on Arizona’s Mount Graham—and the University of Arizona’s Magellan Telescope and its Adaptive Optics System, MagAO, located in Chile.

Capturing sharp images of distant objects was challenging, in large part because of atmospheric turbulence, said Professor Laird Close, Dr Follette’s graduate adviser.

“When you look through the Earth’s atmosphere, what you’re seeing is cold and hot air mixing in a turbulent way that makes stars shimmer,” Professor Close said. “To a big telescope, it’s a fairly dramatic thing; you see a horrible looking image.” The breakthrough was possible because the Large Binocular Telescope was purpose-built, incorporating a novel imaging technique to sharpen the images.

Meanwhile, Professor Close and Dr Follette used Magellan’s adaptive optics system MagAO independently to corroborate the discovery. Using MagAO’s unique ability to work in visible wavelengths, they captured the planet’s ‘hydrogen alpha’ spectral fingerprint, the specific wavelength of light that LkCa 15 and its planets emit as they grow.

When cosmic objects are forming, they get extremely hot, and because they are forming from hydrogen, those objects all glow a deep red. That single shade of red light was emitted by both the planet and the star as they underwent the same growing process, Dr Follette said.

“We were able to separate the light of the faint planet from the light of the much brighter star and to see that they were both growing and glowing in this very distinct shade of red,” she said.

Professor Tuthill said the results were only made possible because of the application of a lot of very advanced new technology to the business of imaging the stars.

“It’s fantastic to see these cutting-edge instruments now enabling us to make such exciting discoveries,” Professor Tuthill said.

University of Sydney School of Physics

The University of Sydney School of Physics is the leading physics department in the country, with outstanding staff and students undertaking world-leading teaching and research.

The university’s 100 staff and 150 postgraduate students conduct research across a vast range of interests from nanoparticles to clusters of galaxies and from theoretical modelling to laboratory experiments. With access to supercomputers, modern laboratory facilities and observatories, locally, nationally and internationally, the School of Physics is the premier environment for physics education and research.

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Find out how you can study science at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK’s Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about science programs at Australian universities. Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com.

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Koala genome reveals its secret

It has long been thought that low levels of koala genetic diversity is a reason for their declining populations and local extinctions, but James Cook University and University of Sydney researchers have found this is not the case.

James Cook University

Koalas still maintain higher levels of genetic diversity than originally thought

For the first time, the genome of the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) has been studied across the species range. Previous research has shown that many marsupials have low genetic diversity—often a sign of inbreeding and mating with kin, which is not unusual in animals with declining populations.

A new study by researchers at JCU and the University of Sydney, in partnership with the NGO Science for Wildlife organisation and San Diego Zoo, has used cutting-edge genetic technology to answer critical questions about koala conservation.

In the ground-breaking study, the group has applied whole-genome DNA sequencing to show that koalas still maintain higher levels of genetic diversity than originally thought.

JCU’s Associate Professor Kyall Zenger said the finding was very exciting, given that koala numbers have been declining to the point where they have been listed as being at risk of becoming endangered.

“To effectively manage koalas across Australia and in captivity we must understand how genetically diverse these populations are—how ‘fit’ they are,” he said.

Shannon Kjeldsen, a PhD student working on the project at James Cook University, said her research also showed that there is very little evidence for the three currently recognised subspecies of koalas.

“It’s widely thought that there are three distinct subspecies of koala inhabiting Southern and Northern Australia, respectively,” she said.

Northern koalas have been known to be smaller and lighter in colour than their southern counterparts, which are larger, darker and have thicker fur.

“We know that it would be unwise to move koalas between these regions, because they live in different climates and have adapted to different environments, but we do not know where the management boundaries lie,” Ms Kjeldsen said.

The duo is working alongside Professor Herman Raadsma from Sydney University, Dr Kellie Leigh from Science for Wildlife, and Ms Jennifer Tobey from the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research.

Associate Professor Zenger said management and implementation of a national koala conservation program was vitally important to protect this charismatic species.

“Until now there has been a lack of species-wide information to help coordinate conservation efforts,” he said.

“These results have shown the genetic diversity of the koalas sampled from all key locations on the east coast of Australia is far from being inbred, and actually is as diverse as many other wild species.”

Science for Wildlife Inc Director, Dr Kellie Leigh said: “This development is extremely exciting, in that it offers a tool to understand how all koala populations are genetically linked.”

The tool also offers exciting possibilities to better manage captive breeding populations.

Ms Tobey said, “The Australian research gives for the first time a clear view on how captive populations can be mapped to the national koala population, and to manage breeding to maximise genetic diversity.”

This project is funded and supported by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project grant, with industry funding and in-kind support from partners San Diego Zoo Koala Education & Conservation Program and James Cook University, Sydney University, and Science for Wildlife.

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Find out more about science degrees available at James Cook University and the University of Sydney! Contact OzTREKK Admissions Officer Rachel Brady at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Lambert donation puts Australia at forefront of medicinal cannabinoid research

A $33.7-million gift to the University of Sydney places Australia at the forefront of medicinal cannabinoid research.

“Our vision is to make Australia a world-leader in researching how to realise the powerful medicinal potential of the cannabis plant,” said Barry Lambert, who together with his wife Joy, has funded the Lambert Initiative.

University of Sydney Medical School

Learn more about studying at Sydney Medical School

“The experience of our granddaughter, who suffers debilitating epilepsy, has opened our eyes to the extraordinary possibility of cannabinoids treating not only her condition but a range of chronic illnesses that often don’t respond to conventional treatments.

“We believe this investment in the future of Australian science and medicine will provide the much-needed evidence to rapidly advance the use of medicinal cannabinoids in the treatment of childhood epilepsy and other serious illnesses.”

The donation is the largest gift ever made to research at the University of Sydney.

“The Lamberts’ unprecedented gift holds the promise of achieving innovative and effective new medicines to alleviate the suffering of countless numbers of people,” said Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

“It enables research across a broad range of applications from addiction, cancer, obesity, childhood epilepsy and chronic pain to dementia and mental health disorders. Their generosity recognises the university’s commitment to cross-disciplinary research that can achieve life-changing outcomes. It is our privilege and responsibility to respond.

“A world-first in the extent of its support for medicinal cannabis research, it places Australia in the front rank of countries, such as the Netherlands, the United States and Israel, leading the world in this new era of cannabinoid science.”

The Lambert Initiative funds a multi-year program to build on the university’s extensive clinical and scientific cannabinoid-related expertise to ultimately produce cannabinoid-based medicines.

NSW Premier Mike Baird has congratulated the University of Sydney on the significant initiative and applauded the generosity of the Lamberts.

“NSW is breaking new ground in terms of medical cannabis research and this major investment confirms our state’s leadership in this area,” Mr Baird said.

“The Lamberts’ investment gives our cause enormous momentum and my hope is it dramatically increases the cross-sector knowledge sharing required to ultimately produce cannabinoid-based medicines that are safe, reliable and affordable.

“I recently met with the lead investigators of the Lambert Initiative and am pleased that they are already embedded in our clinical trials.”

A priority of the Initiative will be to understand how cannabidiol (CBD) works to treat paediatric epilepsy and to explore the potential of the nine other cannabinoids, currently identified as of greatest therapeutic interest, to address the condition.

The strategy will go on to determine which of these cannabinoids hold the greatest promise in treating specific diseases and, using rigorous, high-quality evidence, move them towards human clinical trials.

From the start the Initiative will undertake medicinal chemistry to drive the creation of new highly targeted medications based on its emerging understanding of how cannabinoids treat disease. At the heart of the program will be sharing such knowledge with the public, government and medical professionals with both outreach and education.

The lead investigators of the Lambert Initiative, from the Faculty of Science and Sydney Medical School, with decades of cannabinoid research between them, are Professor Iain McGregor, Associate Professor Nicholas Lintzeris and Dr David  Allsop.

“We have all devoted our careers to cannabis science, one of the fastest moving frontiers in pharmacology. We now know there are more than 100 different compounds we call cannabinoids, many of which have incredible therapeutic properties that we are only beginning to understand,” said Professor Iain McGregor.

“The Lambert Initiative allows us to gather the key science researchers and clinicians from Australia and worldwide to work within, or in association with, the Lambert Initiative. Much of the research will happen on-site at the University of Sydney but it will also support and promote specialist researchers throughout Australia to encourage them to undertake collaborative cannabinoid-related research.

“We have also made a flying start by becoming embedded in the NSW government’s sponsored clinical trials of medicinal cannabis, offering our unique cannabinoid clinical trials expertise, including exploring its safety and effectiveness for treating paediatric epilepsy.”

With every gift to the University of Sydney, donors become part of INSPIRED, the campaign to support the University of Sydney, which aims to raise $600 million by 2017.

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Questions about studying at Sydney Medical School? Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Medical Schools Admissions Officer Sarah Bridson at sarah@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

Study wildlife from a different perspective

The Master of Wildlife Health and Population Management is an innovative program offered by the University of Sydney that provides holistic training in wildlife population management.

University of Sydney Master of Wildlife Health and Population Management

Study wildlife health at the University of Sydney

Students are taught by experts from academia, industry, and government in one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse settings in the world yet are only a short distance from the cosmopolitan and vibrant city of Sydney. Graduates will have the skills to address the increasingly complex challenges that face wildlife around the world allowing them to be employed in a wide range of wildlife-related fields or enter a PhD program.

During field work, students will encounter a broad range of native Australian birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. In the greater Sydney area it is possible to see more than 200 species of birds, including many seabirds that cannot readily be found anywhere else in the world.

Program: Master of Wildlife Health and Population Management
Location: Sydney, New South Wales
Semester intake: March and July
Duration: 1 year
Application deadline: January 31 for the March intake; June 30 for the July intake. Applicants are strongly encouraged to apply as early as possible, as offers are made on a rolling basis and places are limited.

Entry requirements

A degree of bachelor with honours or higher award from the University of Sydney, or equivalent qualification, in veterinary, animal or biological sciences; or a master’s degree in veterinary, animal or biological sciences, or completion of the requirements of an embedded graduate certificate or graduate diploma in this discipline from the University of Sydney, or equivalent qualification.

The Wildlife Masters is designed to appeal to students with a background in biology, ecology, conservation or veterinary medicine.

Apply to the University of Sydney!

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Find out how you can study wildlife health at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about science programs at Australian universities! Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Sydney vet science Eureka Prize finalists

Six teams from the Division of Natural Sciences at the University of Sydney have been named as finalists in the prestigious Eureka Prizes, known as the Oscars of Australian science.

University of Sydney Veterinary School

(l-r) Associate Professor Kendra Kerrisk, Professor Sergio Garcia, Dr Cameron Clark and Victoria Scott (Photo credit: University of Sydney)

Presented annually by the Australian Museum, the Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of scientific research and innovation, science leadership, school science and science journalism and communication. The awards dinner, where winners were be announced in August, is the largest national celebration of Australian science.

Professor Sergio Garcia, Associate Professor Kendra Kerrisk, Dr Cameron Clark and Victoria Scott, all from the Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science, with Dr Nicolas Lyons, from the NSW Department of Primary Industries, and Rene Kolbach, from DeLaval International, Sweden, were finalists in the Eureka Prize for Rural Innovation.

FutureDairy’s robotic rotary—an international first co-developed by DeLaval and the University of Sydney—is the latest in automated milking systems. FutureDairy’s research on voluntary cow traffic allows cows in large-herd dairy farms in Australia to bring themselves from the pasture to the dairy and be milked by robots without human assistance.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Sydney

Program title: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
Location: Sydney, New South Wales
Semester intake: March
Program duration: 4 years
Application deadline: January 4, 2016; however it is recommended that students apply as soon as possible as this program can fill quickly.

Apply to the Sydney Veterinary School!

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Would you like more information about Sydney Veterinary School? Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Veterinary Schools Officer Rachel Brady at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

University of Sydney astronomer helps discover Earth’s bigger cousin

On July 24, an international team of astronomers from NASA’s Kepler mission announced the discovery of a near-Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star.

Dr Daniel Huber from the University of Sydney School of Physics is part of the team which made the discovery with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

University of Sydney

Learn more about studying science at Sydney

The planet named Kepler-452b is 60 per cent larger than Earth and orbits a Sun-like star with an orbital period of 385 days.

The mere 20-day difference between the planet’s orbital period and that of Earth’s makes it the closest analogue to Earth ever discovered. It also places the planet within the habitable zone, defined as the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.

The research paper reporting the finding, led by Jon Jenkins from NASA’s Ames Research Centre, has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.

Co-author Dr Huber contributed to the characterisation of the host star which is crucial to understanding the properties of the planet.

“Kepler-452b has similar characteristics to our Sun, which makes finding a planet with an orbital period similar to Earth in this system very exciting,” said Dr Huber.

“Kepler has previously demonstrated that Earth-sized planets are common, but most planets found in habitable zones are orbiting stars which are cooler than the Sun. Kepler-452b is in many ways the closest analogue to an Earth-like planet that we know of to date.”

The newly discovered planet is located about 1,400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. Although the size of Kepler-452b is known, its mass and composition are not. Based on its radius the team estimates a better than even chance that the planet has a rocky composition.

“The system is too distant to determine whether it has an atmosphere, so we don’t know whether it has the right conditions to harbour life,” said Dr Huber. “However, discoveries such as Kepler-452b provide important clues about how abundant Earth-like planets are in our galaxy, and about the prospects for finding such planets closer to home.”

About the University of Sydney School of Physics

The University of Sydney School of Physics is the leading physics department in the country, with outstanding staff and students undertaking world-leading teaching and research.

The university’s 100 staff and 150 postgraduate students conduct research across a vast range of interests from nanoparticles to clusters of galaxies and from theoretical modelling to laboratory experiments. With access to supercomputers, modern laboratory facilities and observatories, locally, nationally and internationally, the School of Physics is the premier environment for physics education and research.

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Find out how you can study science at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK’s Admissions Officer Rachel Brady for more information about science programs at Australian universities. Email Rachel at rachel@oztrekk.com or call toll free in Canada at 1-866-698-7355.

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Starchy carbs, not a Paleo diet, advanced the human race

Published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, the hypothesis challenges the long-standing belief that the increase in size of the human brain around 800,000 years ago was the result of increased meat consumption.

The research is a blow to advocates of the Paleo diet, which shuns starch-rich vegetables and grains.

It’s okay to eat starchy carbs!

“Global increases in obesity and diet-related metabolic diseases have led to enormous interest in ancestral or ‘Palaeolithic’ diets,” said Professor Jennie Brand-Miller from the Charles Perkins Centre, who co-authored the research with Professor Les Copeland from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and international colleagues.

“Up until now, there has been a heavy focus on the role of animal protein in the development of the human brain over the last two million years. The importance of carbohydrate, particularly in the form of starch-rich plant foods, has been largely overlooked. Our research suggests that dietary carbohydrates, along with meat, were essential for the evolution of modern big-brained humans.

“The evidence suggests that Palaeolithic humans would not have evolved on today’s ‘Paleo’ diet.”

According to the researchers, the high glucose demands required for the development of modern humans’ large brains would not have been met on a low carbohydrate diet. The human brain uses up to 25 per cent of the body’s energy budget and up to 60 per cent of blood glucose.

Human pregnancy and lactation, in particular, place additional demands on the body’s glucose budget, along with increased body size and the need for mobility and dietary flexibility.

Starches would have been readily available to early human populations in the form of tubers, seeds and some fruits and nuts. But it was only with the advent of cooking that such foods became more easily digested, leading to “transformational” changes in human evolution, said co-author Professor Les Copeland.

“Cooking starchy foods was central to the dietary change that triggered and sustained the growth of the human brain,” Professor Copeland said.

Researchers also point to evidence in salivary amylase genes, which increase the amount of salivary enzymes produced to digest starch. While modern humans have on average six copies of salivary amylase genes, other primates have only an average of two. The exact point at which salivary amylase genes multiplied is uncertain, but genetic evidence suggests it occurred in the last million years, around the same time that cooking became a common practice.

“After cooking became widespread, starch digestion advanced and became the source of preformed dietary glucose that permitted the acceleration in brain size,” Professor Copeland said.

“In terms of energy supplied to an increasingly large brain, increased starch consumption may have provided a substantial evolutionary advantage.”

Co-author Karen Hardy, a researcher with the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, said: “We believe that while meat was important, brain growth is less likely to have happened without the energy obtained from carbohydrates. While cooking has also been proposed as contributing to early brain development, cooking carbohydrates only makes sense if the body has the enzymic equipment to process these.”

According to the researchers, a diet similar to that which gave us our large brains in the Palaeolithic era would be positive for human health. However, unlike the modern Paleo diet, that diet should include underground starchy foods such as potatoes, taro, yams and sweet potatoes, as well as more recently introduced starchy grains like wheat, rye, barley, corn, oats, quinoa and millet.

“It is clear that our physiology should be optimised to the diet we experienced in our evolutionary past,” Professor Brand-Miller said.

“Eating meat may have kick-started the evolution of bigger brains, but cooked starchy foods, together with more salivary amylase genes, made us smarter still.”

The study was co-authored with international researchers Dr Karen Hardy (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and Professor Mark Thomas and Katherine Brown (University College London).

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Find out more about science degrees available at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK Australian Science Programs Admissions Officer Rachel Brady at rachel@oztrekk.com or call 1-866-698-7355.