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Study finds link between child's obesity and cognitive function

Published April 1, 2014
human brain

URBANA, Ill. – A new University of Illinois study finds that obese children are slower than healthy-weight children to recognize when they have made an error and correct it. The research is the first to show that weight status not only affects how quickly children react to stimuli but also impacts the level of activity that occurs in the cerebral cortex during action monitoring.

“I like to explain action monitoring this way: when you’re typing, you don’t have to be looking at your keyboard or your screen to realize that you’ve made a keystroke error. That’s because action monitoring is occurring in your brain’s prefrontal cortex,” said Charles Hillman, a U of I professor of kinesiology and faculty member in the U of I’s Division of Nutritional Sciences.

As an executive control task that requires organizing, planning, and inhibiting, action monitoring requires people to be computational and conscious at all times as they process their behavior. Because these higher-order cognitive processes are needed for success in mathematics and reading, they are linked with success in school and positive life outcomes, he said.

“Imagine a child in a math class constantly checking to make sure she’s carrying the digit over when she’s adding. That’s an example,” he added.

In the study, the scientists measured the behavioral and neuroelectric responses of 74 preadolescent children, half of them obese, half at a healthy weight. Children were fitted with caps that recorded electroencephalographic activity and asked to participate in a task that presented left- or right-facing fish, predictably facing in either the same or the opposite direction. Children were asked to press a button based on the direction of the middle (that is, target) fish. The flanking fish either pointed in the same direction (facilitating) or in the opposite direction (hindering) their ability to respond successfully.

“We found that obese children were considerably slower to respond to stimuli when they were involved in this activity,” Hillman said.

The researchers also found that healthy-weight children were better at evaluating their need to change their behavior in order to avoid future errors.

“The healthy-weight kids were more accurate following an error than the obese children were, and when the task required greater amounts of executive control, the difference was even greater,” he reported.

A second evaluation measured electrical activity in the brain “that occurs at the intersection of thought and action,” Hillman said. “We can measure what we call error-related negativity (ERN) in the electrical pattern that the brain generates following errors. When children made an error, we could see a larger negative response. And we found that healthy-weight children are better able to upregulate the neuroelectric processes that underlie error evaluation.”

Scientists in the Hillman lab and elsewhere have seen a connection between healthy weight and academic achievement, “but a study like this helps us understand what’s happening. There are certainly physiological differences in the brain activity of obese and healthy-weight children. It’s exciting to be able to use functional brain imaging to see the way children’s weight affects the aspects of cognition that influence and underlie achievement,” said postdoctoral researcher and co-author Naiman Khan.

“The Negative Association of Childhood Obesity to Cognitive Control of Action Monitoring” is available pre-publication online in Cerebral Cortex at The U of I’s Hillman, Khan, Lauren B. Raine, Mark R. Scudder, and Eric S. Drollette; Keita Kamijo of Woseda University, Tokorozawa, Japan; Matthew B. Pontifex, Michigan State University; Ellen M. Evans, University of Georgia; and Darla M. Castelli, University of Texas at Austin, are co-authors of the study. Funding was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

USDA estimates reasonably close to expectations

Published March 31, 2014

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA’s much-anticipated estimates of March 1 grain stocks and 2014 planting intentions released today contained a few surprises but no major shocks. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, March 1 corn stocks and planting intentions are a bit smaller than the average trade guess. March 1 soybean stocks were almost equal to the average trade guess while planting intentions are slightly larger than expected.

“March 1 stocks of corn were estimated at 7.006 billion bushels, about 100 million less than the average trade guess,” said Darrel Good. “The stocks estimate implies that feed and residual use of corn in the domestic market during the first half of the current marketing year totaled 3.851 billion bushels. The question is whether that level of use will result in a change in USDA’s projection of use for the year. The implied use accounts for 72.7 percent of the USDA’s most recent projection of feed and residual use for the year of 5.3 billion bushels. Use during the first half of the marketing year averaged 74 percent of the marketing-year total in the previous three years. However, first-half use in the four years from 2006-07 through 2009-10 averaged 68 percent of the marketing-year total.  In the 10 years before that, first-half use averaged 64 percent of the marketing-year total. First-half use this year relative to the USDA projection is consistent with the pattern of the past three years but is large relative to the pattern before that.  Given the most recent seasonal pattern of feed and residual use, along with the decline in the number of hogs and the number of cattle on feed, it seems unlikely that USDA will change the projection of feed and residual use for the year in the April World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report. However, reduced wheat feeding this summer, along with a late corn harvest this fall, might result in slightly larger use,” Good said.

Good continued, saying that March 1 stocks of soybeans were estimated at 992 million bushels, about equal to both the average trade guess and the level of stocks a year earlier. The stocks estimate implies that feed, seed, and residual use of soybeans during the first half of the marketing year totaled 145 million bushels. That magnitude of use is within the range of use in the previous five years and should not generate any speculation about the accuracy of the USDA’s 2013 production estimate. Over the past 10 years, there has been no correlation between the magnitude of seed, feed, and residual use of soybeans during the first half of the marketing year and the size of any subsequent revision in the soybean production estimate.

Producers reported intentions to plant 91.691 million acres of corn in 2014, 3.674 million fewer acres than were planted last year and about 1.2 million less than the average trade guess.  The largest declines are planned in North Dakota (900,000), Nebraska (550,000), and South Dakota (400,000).  Intentions in Iowa are for a 400,000-acre increase in corn acreage. 

“Compared to last year’s plantings, intentions are down 100,000 acres in Illinois and 200,000 acres in Indiana and Ohio,” Good said. “Planting intentions point to harvested acreage for grain of about 84.4 million acres. A trend yield of 163.2 bushels would result in a crop of 13.775 billion bushels, 150 million bushels smaller than the 2013 crop. A crop of that size would likely lead to only a small buildup of inventories by the end of the 2014-15 marketing year and suggests that the average corn price next year might be only slightly less than the average of $4.50 projected for the current year,” he said.

Producers reported intentions to plant a record 81.493 million acres of soybeans in 2014, 4.96 million more than were planted last year and about 300,000 more than were expected. More acres are planned in all major states, with North Dakota leading the way with a 1-million-acre increase.  Intentions exceed last year’s plantings by 700,000 acres in Minnesota and by 600,000 acres in North Dakota. Of the major production states, intentions are less than last year’s plantings only in Missouri. Planting intentions point to harvested acreage near 80.7 million.

“A trend yield of 44.5 bushels would point to a crop of 3.59 billion bushels, 300 million bushels larger than the 2013 crop,” Good said. “A crop of that size would likely lead to inventories in excess of 300 million bushels by the end of the 2014-15 marketing year and suggests that the average soybean price next year will be sharply lower than the average of $12.95 projected for the current year,” he said.

Planting intentions for all grains are 6.148 million acres less than last year’s plantings, including a 1.38 million acre reduction in sorghum. Planting intentions for oilseeds are 5.82 million larger than last year’s plantings.

“Intentions for all crops reported in the March survey, including harvested acreage of hay, are only 650,000 acres greater than last year’s plantings when an unusually large 8.3 million acres were reported as prevented plantings,” Good said. “Some northern producers may have factored in some prevented plantings for 2014 when responding to the survey, but there is some likelihood that total crop acreage will exceed intentions. Weather permitting, larger feed grain acreage seems most likely.”


Expert on controlling body weight will speak at U of I Nutrition Symposium

Published March 31, 2014
Prof. David Levitsky
Dr. David Levitsky, speaker for 2014 Illinois Nutritional Sciences Graduate Student Association Nutrition Symposium

URBANA, Ill. – Is losing weight as easy as stepping on the scale regularly and cutting calories when the number trends upward? Cornell University professor David Levitsky will answer that question in his keynote address, “The Weigh to Control Body Weight: The Only Way,” of the 2014 Illinois Nutritional Sciences Graduate Student Association Nutrition Symposium on Wednesday, April 23, from 4 to 5 p.m. in 180 Bevier Hall on the University of Illinois campus. The event is open to the public.

“It’s important that individuals take responsibility for maintaining their own healthy body weight. Regular self-weighing is the best tool we have to combat a slow but persistent gain in body weight over time,” the expert said.

Levitsky is a professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University. He came to Cornell in 1968 as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow after obtaining a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in experimental psychology. The focus of his research has always been energy balance and the control of body weight.

“His laboratory has examined the effect of skipping meals on subsequent energy intake, school feeding programs, and the effect of portion sizes on energy intake,” said Jessica Hartke, assistant director of the U of I Division of Nutritional Sciences.

Levitsky has served on the Culinary Institute of America’s Review Board, was on the Board of Directors for the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behaviors, was a member of the National Research Council from 1979 to 1982, and is currently an editor of the British Journal of Nutrition.

Throughout his career, he has received many teaching and mentoring awards, including being named a Weiss Presidential Fellow, the highest teaching award given at Cornell; the New York State Chancellor’s Award; the Innovative Teaching Award in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Excellence in Nutrition Education Award from the American Society for Nutrition; and the USDA Excellence in College and University Teaching Award.

He has also published more than 200 articles in refereed scientific journals.

A mini-symposium, “Nutrition, Cognition, and Exercise: Connecting the Themes,” featuring world-class U of I faculty researchers, will be featured before the keynote address. That event will take place from 12:45 to 2:45 p.m. in the Monsanto Room at the Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) Library, Information and Alumni Center, located at 1101 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana.

The panel will include Rodney Johnson, director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) and a professor of animal sciences; Justin Rhodes, associate professor of psychology and DNS; Neil Cohen, director of the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory and a professor of psychology; and Jeffrey Woods, professor of kinesiology and community health and DNS.

DNS graduate students will compete in an oral research presentation competition from 9:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. in the Monsanto Room at the ACES Library, and poster research presentations by DNS graduate students will be on display from 5:15 p.m. to 6:40 p.m. in the ACES Library Heritage Room. A special awards presentation will complete the symposium at 6:40 p.m.

The Nutrition Symposium is sponsored by Abbott Nutrition, Kraft Foods Group, Inc., Mead Johnson Nutrition, Pepsico, Inc., and Wrigley. Friends of the Nutrition Symposium include Campbell Soup Company, Hillshire Brands Company, Egg Nutrition Center, U of I College of ACES Office of Research, and U of I Departments of Animal Sciences, Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Kinesiology and Community Health.

“Our graduate students take full responsibility for planning and executing the Nutrition Symposium,” said Rodney Johnson, DNS director. “The event provides our students with an important professional development opportunity. I’m pleased that they have organized a wonderful program that can be enjoyed by the community.”

For more information, contact the Division of Nutritional Sciences at 217-333-4177 or or click here for the Nutrition Symposium schedule.


Palmer amaranth recommendations for 2014 growing season

Published March 31, 2014
p amaranth

URBANA, Ill. - Palmer amaranth is a weed species that must be thoughtfully and carefully managed. Simply attempting to control Palmer amaranth often leads to ineffective herbicide applications, substantial crop yield loss, and increased weed infestations, said a University of Illinois weed sciences researcher.

“If ignored or otherwise not effectively managed, Palmer amaranth can reduce corn and soybean yield to nearly zero,” said Aaron Hager. “The threat of Palmer amaranth during the 2014 growing season is very real across a large portion of Illinois.”

The U of I weed science program has developed recommendations for management of Palmer amaranth in agronomic crops. These recommendations were developed in accordance with the unique growth characteristics of this weed species. The goals of the recommendations are twofold: to reduce the potential for Palmer amaranth to negatively impact crop yield, and to reduce Palmer amaranth seed production, which ultimately augments the soil seed bank and perpetuates the species. 

Three general principles of Palmer amaranth management include:

  • Prevention is preferable to eradication. Prevention refers to utilizing tactics that prevent weed seed introduction and weed seed production.  “Palmer amaranth is not native to Illinois so any population discovered in the state originated from seed that somehow was moved into the state,” Hager said. “The myriad of ways in which Palmer amaranth seeds can be transported, however, makes preventing seed introduction extremely challenging. Once Palmer amaranth populations become established, utilizing any and all tactics to prevent seed production becomes of paramount importance.”
  • It is not uncommon for annual herbicide costs to at least double once Palmer amaranth becomes established. There are simply no soil- or foliar-applied herbicides that will provide sufficient control of Palmer amaranth throughout the entire growing season. 
  • Control of Palmer amaranth should not be less than 100 percent. “In other words, the threshold for this invasive and extremely competitive species is zero,” the researcher said. “Female Palmer amaranth plants produce tremendous amounts of seed, and in less than five years a few surviving plants can produce enough seed to completely shift the weed spectrum in any particular field.”

Recommendations based on Palmer amaranth germination and emergence characteristics include:

  • Be certain to control all emerged Palmer amaranth plants before planting corn or soybean. Burn-down herbicides or thorough tillage are effective tactics to control emerged Palmer amaranth plants before planting. Keep in mind, however, that glyphosate will not control glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth and that growth regulator herbicides (such as 2,4-D or dicamba) are most effective on Palmer amaranth plants less than 4 inches tall.  If pre-plant scouting (which is especially important prior to planting soybean) reveals Palmer amaranth plants taller than 4 inches, consider using tillage instead of herbicides to control the plants.
  • Apply a full rate (based on label recommendations for soil texture and organic matter content) of an effective soil residual herbicide no sooner than seven days prior to planting and no more than three days after planting. Many soil residual herbicides that are effective for controlling waterhemp are also effective for controlling Palmer amaranth. In soybeans, products containing sulfentrazone (Authority) or flumioxazin (Valor) have provided effective control of Palmer amaranth. Application rates of products containing these active ingredients should provide a minimum of 0.25 lb ai/acre sulfentrazone or 0.063–0.095 lb ai/acre flumioxazin.

Hager said growers should not rely solely on glyphosate to control Palmer amaranth. “Molecular assays have indicated that resistance to glyphosate appears to be relatively common among recently identified Palmer amaranth populations in Illinois,” he explained.

Recommendations based on Palmer amaranth growth rate include:

  • Begin scouting fields within 14 to 21 days after crop emergence. “We recommend this interval even for fields previously treated with a soil residual herbicide applied close to planting,” he explained.
  • Foliar-applied herbicides must be applied before Palmer amaranth plants exceed 4 inches in height. The effectiveness of most foliar-applied herbicides dramatically decreases when Palmer amaranth plants are taller than 4 inches.  Postemergence herbicides that demonstrate control or suppression of Palmer amaranth include synthetic auxin herbicides (dicamba, 2,4-D), diphenylethers (acifluorfen, lactofen, fomesafen), glufosinate, glyphosate, and HPPD inhibitors (mesotrione, tembotrione, topramezone). 
  • Consider including a soil residual herbicide during the application of the foliar-applied herbicide. A soil residual herbicide applied with the foliar-applied herbicide can help control additional Palmer amaranth emergence and allow the crop to gain a competitive advantage over later-emerging weeds.
  • Fields should be scouted 7 to 14 days after application of the foliar-applied herbicide to determine herbicide effectiveness; if the soil residual herbicide included with the post application is providing effective control; and if additional Palmer amaranth plants have emerged. 

“If scouting reveals additional Palmer amaranth plants have emerged, make a second application of a foliar-applied herbicide before Palmer amaranth plants are 4 inches tall,” Hager said.

In regard to Palmer amaranth seed production, Hager said research has demonstrated that female Palmer amaranth plants are capable of producing numbers of seed comparable to that of waterhemp (several hundred thousand to over one million). “Physically remove any remaining Palmer amaranth plants before the plants reach the reproductive growth stage. Plants should be severed at or below the soil surface and carried out of the field. Severed plants can root at the stem if left on the soil surface, and plants can regenerate from stems severed above the soil surface,” he said.

NRES Alum Participates in World Water Day in Mexico

Published March 26, 2014
Peace Corps Volunteers
Jason and other Peace Corps volunteers at the completion of the cistern and water collection system.

World Water Day 2014: Rain water collection makes a big difference in Mexico

Jason Todd Berner, BS, NRES, MS, Landscape Archictecture, tells of his work with the Peace Corps Response Project on the World Water Day 2014 project.

"For my entire career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency I have focused on storm water management needs, ostensibly for municipalities and local communities: how to harvest rainwater and how to use technology protect water resources. But instead of working on this smaller scale, I found myself working primarily on a national scale.

Finally, I decided it was time for a big change that focused on small communities.

As I pursued opportunities at EPA to work more directly with local communities, I found I loved that type of work whenever I got a chance to do it. I learned of the Peace Corps Response program and its projects on water resources management and engineering a couple summers ago. The EPA and Peace Corps had an agreement that supported EPA employees working as Peace Corps Response Volunteers so I applied for a rainwater harvesting engineering position in Puebla Mexico. It was exactly what I was looking for and the length of the project was similar to temporary reassignments at EPA. Plus, I could bring my Response Volunteer ground implementation experiences back to EPA.

I now work at a state technology institute in Zacatlan, Mexico, to train students, faculty and maintenance staff on how to design, construct and maintain rainwater harvesting cistern systems for on-campus buildings.

In Zacatlan there is abundant rainfall, but few people are using it for non-potable, or non-consumption, uses. Deforestation from timber harvesting and mining activities has caused soil erosion in the drinking watershed, and the local drinking water utility is worried about annual decreases in rainfall captured for potable water uses – especially as Zacatlan’s population grows.

The state technology institute I work at has great interests in harvesting rainwater for non-potable uses – such as flushing toilets, bathroom sinks and irrigating plants – because it is one of the largest users of potable water in town. The photo above is of the proud team of students, faculty and maintenance staff after installing their first on-campus rainwater harvesting system for non-potable uses.

I’m very excited that my training on implementing rainwater harvesting systems at the university and primary schools will have an impact even after I’ve returned to work at EPA. I have learned a lot through teaching in both the university and rural residential settings. I hope to keep enjoying opportunities to implement local rainwater harvesting projects both abroad and in the U.S. after I’ve finished my PCR project."

Jason Todd Berner works for the U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency’s Office of Water. He has a BS in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As an Environmental Protection Specialist/Landscape Architect Washington, D.C., he’s a team member of EPA’s national low impact development and green infrastructure stormwater management program. Areas of focus include water resources; hydrologic and water quality modeling; energy savings and air pollution modeling; GIS spatial analyses; cost-benefit analyses; urban environmental justice analyses; climate change mitigation strategies; urban planning community technical assistance workshops; and coordination of national university stormwater management design competitions. He enjoys bicycle riding, camping, hiking, skiing, dancing, traveling, spicy food, and live music. 

News Source:

Jason Todd Berner