For a Healthier 2018!

Dancing together is good for your health!


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD


Social dancers know the amazing feeling that a synchronized dance could bring. When your follower or leader is connected and it feels like you are one mind and body following the music, it is mystical and magical… Well, it turns out that synchronized dancing is also good for your health. I started dancing salsa because a good friend was going crazy about it and she recommended it, this inspired me to join a class. At this point I was a solitary belly dancer only following in team dances where you have choreography and if you are coordinated enough you feel this celestial connection with the other dancers…but without any physical contact.

On the other hand, in social dances like salsa, bachata, tango, zouk or swing, the connection is the base of a good dance. Nobody wants to be the person stepping to the left when 5 other dancers moved to the right while performing in a stage in front of hundreds of people, as well as nobody enjoys turning to the wrong side for misreading your dance partner lead, or watching how a follower does a completely different step that the one the leader indicated. Furthermore, being “in sync” with the group or your direct dance partner may help to improve your health, science says. In a nutshell, a recent study found that synchronizing with others while dancing raised pain tolerance and encouraged people to feel closer to others.

This year, Dr. Burzynska et al., at Colorado State University, separated 174 healthy adults, 60s to 79 years old, who had no signs of memory loss or impairment, into 3 activity groups: walking, stretching and balance training, or dance classes. The activities were carry on for 6 months and three times a week, those in the dance group practiced and learned a country dance choreography. Brain scans were done on all participants and compared with scans taken before the activities began. Not surprisingly, the participants in the dancing group performed better and had less deterioration in their brains than the other groups. Their most recent study published in November: “The Dancing Brain: Structural and Functional Signatures of Expert Dance Training” showed that dancers’ brains differed from non-dancers’ at both functional- and structural-levels. Most of the group differences were skill-relevant and correlated with objective laboratory measures of dance skill and balance. Their results are promising in that long-term, versatile, combined motor and coordination training may induce neural alterations that support performance demands.” (link 2)

Moreover, It is well established that dancing-based therapies are providing outstanding results in the treatment of dementia, autism and Parkinson’s. Indeed, dance therapy improves motor and cognitive functions in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Dancing was suggested to be a powerful tool to improve motor-cognitive dual-task performance in adults. Dance movement therapy has known benefits for cancer patients’ physical and psychological health and quality of lifeAnother study by Domane and collaborators, working with a cohort of overweight and physically inactive women, showed that Zumba fitness is indeed an efficacious health-enhancing activity for adults. Park also concluded that “a 12-week low- to moderate-intensity exercise program appears to be beneficial for obese elderly women by improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease”.

Dancing helps generate positive connections with others and this is one of the evolutionary reasons you are “called” to the dance floor when a song you like starts playing, and probably you will start your dance by coordinating with or copying others. Probably this behavior signaled tribe membership for early humans and also got couples together in a more romantic way, creating emotional bonds. Coordinated dances are as old as music, and distributed in a lot of different cultures, for example, the nowadays Hakka, used by rugby players, was a native group dance that intimidates rival tribes.

Talking about the chemistry of dancing, as any other exercise, it releases endorphins (the hormones of happiness and pain relief). For example, a study from the University of London were anxiety-sufferers enrolled in one of four settings: exercise class, a music class, a math class and a dance class, showed that only the last group displayed “significantly reduced anxiety.”

In the most recent study done in the same London University by Tarr and collaborators, the researchers used pain thresholds as an indirect measure of endorphin realize (more endorphins mean we tolerate pain better) for 264 young people in Brazil. The volunteers were divided into groups of three, and they did either high or low-exertion dancing that was either synchronized or unsynchronized. The high exertion moves were standing, full-bodied movements, on the other hand, in the low-exertion groups did small hand movements sitting down. They measured the before and after feelings of closeness to each other via a questionnaire and their pain threshold by attaching and inflating a blood pressure cuff on their arm, and determining how much pressure they could stand.

Most of the volunteers who did full-bodied exertive dancing had higher pain thresholds compared with those who were in the low-exertion groups. Most importantly, synchronization led to higher pain thresholds, even if the synchronized movements were not exertive. Therefore when the volunteers saw that others were doing the equivalent movement at the same time, their pain thresholds increased.

The results also showed that synchronized activity encouraged bonding and closeness feelings more than unsynchronized dancing. Therefore, “Dance which combined high energy and synchrony had the greatest effects. So the next time you find yourself in an awkward Christmas party or at a wedding wondering whether or not to get up and groove, just do it”, claims Dr. Tarr.

Coming back to the dance floor, I had reached out for an opinion about the wellness of dancing to the best Bachata DJ: Brian el Matatan: “I enjoy the dancing for a few reasons. There’s the enjoyment & challenge of using what I’ve learned; socially as well as choreographed performance. Also, there is the rush of endorphins similar to “runner’s high”. There’s also the socializing aspect of dancing. It’s like having a conversation without speaking.” Well said DJ!
He also offered some advice for followers: dance with many different types of leaders if you’d like to improve your following. There are many different leads, and there is an experience to be gained in social dancing that would not be gained via dance class. Also, feel free to ask a leader to dance, & be courteous in how you decline a dance. Most importantly- communicate. Don’t “lead” a leader into thinking their lead is better than what it really is- for your sake & that of your fellow followers. For example, if he almost ended your life with that risky move, let him know so that he doesn’t try it on you or anyone else again (at least not without figuring out how to do the move properly). And some advice for leaders: be VERY  courteous in how you ask for a dance, try to not take rejection personally, be patient with follows who may not be on the same skill level as you, & don’t almost end her life with risky moves.

Lastly, I asked for the most sensual dancer, scientist, and project manager –  Debbie McCabe – for her advice for followers. She commented “The lady’s job is to surrender and connect to her partner…it is a 3-minute love affair and energy exchange. I love Bachata because I can get out of my head and just feel, express my sensuality, be playful and connect… it balances out my left brained day job.”

More than 20 years ago, scientists found a connection between music and enhancement of performance or changing of neuropsychological activity involving Mozart’s music from which the theory of “The Mozart Effect” was derived. The basis of The Mozart Effect lies at the super-organization of the cerebral cortex that might resonate with the superior architecture of Mozart’s music. Basically listening to Mozart K.448 enhances performance on spatial tasks for a period of approximately 20 min.

So dear reader, please stop complaining and making excuses and just dance! Or at least listen to music, as the outstanding jazz singer Tamar Korn once told me when I was in distress “music heals”.


This post was originally published on Dec 30, 2015 and was updated with new research on Dec 12, 2016 and on Dec 19, 2017.

The Gut-Brain Connection


Robert Thorn

In my last post, I talked about some interesting developments in the study of the gut microbiome and the effects changes in the gut environment can have on human health and development. As more work is done in the field of gut microbiomes more links are found between human disease and the types of bacteria that are present in the gut. A recent paper in Cell has found a new link between the neurodevelopment disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a change in the microbiome. In addition to the cognitive impairments that are associated with ASD, many of those affected by ASD also have gastrointestinal problems. This correlation between ASD and gastrointestinal problems prompted the researchers to see if there was any link between the gut microbiome and ASD.

The researchers decided to focus on one specific type of ASD, called maternal immune activation (MIA)-associated ASD. There is a correlation between activation of a mother’s immune system by an infection at some point during pregnancy and an increased risk of ASD in the child. The researchers in this study take advantage of the ability to mimic MIA-associated ASD using a mouse model where they activate a pregnant mouse’s immune system. They go on to show that the offspring of the immune activated mice show similar gastrointestinal defects to those correlated with human ASD. The researchers investigate the type of bacteria that are colonizing the gut of the MIA offspring and they found that the MIA-associated ASD mice have a similar imbalance in the gut microbiome as those seen in humans with ASD. This result shows that the MIA offspring closely resemble ASD not only neurologically and behaviorally, but also gastrointestinally.

After characterizing this imbalance, they aimed to correct it by introducing good bacteria into the mice. They treated MIA offspring mice with human commensal bacteria, B. Fragilis, to fix the imbalance. They find that the treatment with B. Fragilis was able to rescue much of the gastrointestinal problems. Surprisingly, they also find that many of the ASD associated behaviors were ameliorated by the treatment with B. Fragilis, showing improvements in behaviors associated with anxiety, repetition, and communication. Although the treatment ameliorated some of the behaviors, the mice still show some hallmarks of ASD such as sociability and social preference defects. Upon further investigation, the researchers are able to link this rescue to serum levels of metabolites. They find that increases in serum levels of metabolites from the gut are associated with an increase in anxiety like behavior and that these serum levels are normalized by B. Fragilis treatment. This finding is important in linking the mechanisms of both gastrointestinal problems with some of the autism-related behavioral abnormalities.

With the prevalence of ASD rising to about 1 in every 88 live births in the US, this research is making important steps towards finding ways to alleviate some of the symptoms of ASD. In addition to helping further the treatment of ASD, they were also able to show a link between the gut microbiome, serum metabolites and distinctive behavioral defects.

Leafing Through The Literature

Thalyana Smith-Vikos

Highlighting recently published articles in molecular biology, genetics, and other hot topics


Aging is inherited maternally


Credit: Bob AuBuchon (Flickr)
Credit: Bob AuBuchon (Flickr)

Ross and colleagues investigated how mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, which are exclusively maternally inherited, can contribute to aging. The researchers found that these mutations result in mild aging in otherwise wild-type mice, while decreasing fertility and accelerating premature aging in respectively heterozygous and homozygous PolgA mutants with increased mtDNA mutations. Additionally, maternal and somatic mtDNA mutations also resulted in brain developmental disorders. The authors posit that aging tissues may arise from the rapid expansion of mutated respiratory chain factors as mutated mtDNA replicates.


MicroRNAs regulate micro food portions

Vora et al. have identified a conserved microRNA (miRNA), miR-80, which regulates dietary restriction in C. elegans. Similar to dietary restriction-mediated effects, these mir-80 mutant worms are long-lived and maintain a healthy state for a prolonged period, regardless of the presence of food. Transcription factors DAF-16 and HSF-1 and transcription co-factor CBP-1 are required for these mir-80 mutant phenotypes. Expression of this miRNA is decreased when worms are subjected to a restricted diet, resulting in increased levels of CBP-1.


A fatty reward

Credit: Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr)
Credit: Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr)

Researchers have proposed that lowered dopaminergic function from a high-fat diet leads to obesity by promoting excessive food intake to restore this food-reward relationship. Tellez et al. further investigated how a high-fat diet can affect dopamine levels. The authors identified an intestinal lipid messenger, oleoylethanolamine, which is normally suppressed under a high-fat diet but can restore dopamine release upon administration. Additionally, administration of oleoylethanolamine increased consumption of low-fat foods, indicating that this signaling molecule may be responsible for promoting reward of low-fat foods.


Pathogen-host relationship therapy

C. albicans can exist as part of the non-pathogenic gastrointestinal microbiota or can be pathogenic to mammals. Pande and colleagues report that, while this pathogenic switch is due to the host’s suppressed immune system, a microbial genetic program is also at play. The researchers found that passage of C. albicans through the gut results in a switch to commensalism, driven by the transcription factor Wor1. These C. albicans cells that have transitioned into a commensal state are phenotypically different and express a unique transcriptome. The findings suggest that disrupting this genetic program results in reversion to a pathogenic state.


Breakthrough in wheat stem rust resistance

A highly resistant race of wheat stem rust, Ug99, has been plaguing wheat production areas all over the world for a number of years. Saintenac et al. report that the Sr35 gene cloned from T. monococcum provides near resistance to Ug99 and similar races, and the gene can be successfully transferred to polyploidy wheat. Periyannan et al. similarly identified a resistance gene, Sr33, which was cloned from another wild relative, A. tauschii. Both Sr33 and Sr35 encode coiled-coil, nucleotide-binding, leucine-rich repeat proteins that resemble other pathogen resistance proteins.


Transcribing autism genes

King and colleagues have provided a link to a recent correlation between mutated topoisomerases in individuals with autism and other autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The researchers showed that a topoisomerase inhibitor, topotecan, reduces the expression of ASD-associated genes in a dose-dependent manner. Intriguingly, these ASD candidate genes are substantially longer than other genes on average. Topectan specifically prevents transcriptional elongation of extremely long genes (>200 kb), which was also achieved by knocking down topoisomerase 1 or 2b in neurons.