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Why Beauty is Better

A new psychology study at Penn has shown that looks really do matter.

In order to determine whether people’s preference for beauty is hard-wired, psychology professor and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience researcher Ingrid Olson paired with Christy Marshuetz, a Yale professor, to conduct three experiments.

First, Olson and Marshuetz determined how quickly beauty can be assessed. They displayed various faces on a computer screen for .013 seconds and asked people to rate each face’s attractiveness. Since beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, the researchers chose faces that were either very ugly or very pretty. Despite the short glimpses they received, participants’ ratings were accurate.

In another experiment, participants saw a face—which they were told to ignore—displayed quickly on the screen. They were then asked to rate words as good or bad. While participants classified “good” words more quickly after viewing an attractive face, in another experiment, the researchers found that flashing photos of attractive houses did not produce similar results.

The researchers claim their findings have several implications: “Whether or not someone is beautiful is assessed rapidly and automatically, forming the basis of a first impression that may bias subsequent evaluations of that person,” Olson says.

Good on Salad and Inflammations?

A team of researchers from Penn and several other local science organizations has discovered that extra-virgin olive oils contain a non-steroid anti-inflammatory agent similar to that found in ibuprofen.

The newfound compound, oleocanthal, inhibits the activity of cyclooxygenase enzymes. The same inhibition occurs in ibuprofen and similar anti-inflammatory products.

Gary Beauchamp, a biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, first observed fresh extra-virgin olive oil’s unique properties in Sicily. While sampling a newly pressed oil, Beauchamp noticed that it stung the back of his throat in the same way ibuprofen did.

A team of scientists eventually isolated the compound responsible for this stinging sensation and named it oleocanthal.

The finding is a significant one, for it “holds great promise for the potential development of oleocanthal and related analogues for biomedical use in such diverse medical areas as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease,” says Amos Smith, a Penn chemistry professor and co-author of the study.

MRI Useful For Diagnosing Schizophrenia

Current research at Penn’s Health System has resulted in new findings on the diagnosis of schizophrenia, a disease often responsible for severely decreased social and mental functioning.

By using computer readings of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers have been able to detect the subtle patterns of abnormality found in schizophrenic patients’ brains. So far, scientists have been able to analyze this structural MRI data with a predictive accuracy of up to 91 percent. “This is the first time this level of predictive power of MRI for classification of schizophrenia is demonstrated in a study of this magnitude,” explains Christos Davatzikos, director of the section of biomedical image analysis in Penn’s Department of Radiology.

In most patients schizophrenia does not surface until late adolescence or early adulthood. With this new method of detection through MRI scans, a diagnosis may be possible before the disease manifests clinically, and early intervention could decrease or delay its effects.

—Compiled by Molly Petrilla C’06

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