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A

  • AA

    Arachidonic Acid – one of the omega-6 series of fatty acids, its chemical formula is C20H32O2. In the human diet, AA is found in animal products such as milk, red meat and eggs, and it can also be synthesised from the essential fatty acid linoleic acid (LA). AA is an important component in the muscles, where it is converted to eicosanoids, such as prostaglandins which aid muscle growth. Consequently AA is used as a supplement by bodybuilders. AA is also essential to brain function, where it acts as a signalling molecule, and plays a key role in the biochemical processes which produces inflammation.
  • Action potential

    The primary electrical signal generated by neurons. Action potentials may also be referred to as ‘spikes’, ‘firing’, ‘signalling’ or ‘neuronal activity’.
  • ALA

    Alpha-Linolenic Acid – one of the omega-3 series of fatty acids, considered an essential fatty acid because it cannot be synthesised by the human body. Its chemical formula is C18H30O2. In the human diet, ALA is found in plant extracts, particularly in oils like linseed and rapeseed. In the body, it is converted to omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA which are critical for brain function. However, this conversion process is not very efficient, particularly in the presence of high intakes of omega-6 LA, which uses the same enzymes.
  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid

    One of the omega-3 series of fatty acids, considered an essential fatty acid because it cannot be synthesised by the human body. Its chemical formula is C18H30O2. In the human diet, ALA is found in plant extracts, particularly in oils like linseed and rapeseed. In the body, it is converted to omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA which are critical for brain function. However, this conversion process is not very efficient, particularly in the presence of high intakes of omega-6 LA, which uses the same enzymes.
  • Alzheimer’s disease

    A form of dementia, usually but not always associated with the elderly. At present incurable, it is particularly associated with memory loss and confusion, and at more severe stages, behavioural disturbances, loss of speech, and disruption of basic functions such as walking and eating. Brain scans of patients with Alzheimer's show spreading neurodegeneration, particularly in areas of the brain linked to memory, such as the hippocampus and frontal cortex. Analysis of post-mortem brains shows a build-up of two proteins, beta-amyloid and tau, though it is not yet known whether these have a causal role in the disease or are consequences of other processes.
  • Anti-oxidant

    Oxygen is very chemically reactive, and tends to form ‘free radicals’, also known as ‘reactive oxygen species’. These are highly active molecules capable of seriously damaging cell components such as proteins and DNA. Antioxidants are molecules which help protect cells by reducing the formation of free radicals or by removing them once they do form.
  • Arachidonic Acid

    One of the omega-6 series of fatty acids, its chemical formula is C20H32O2. In the human diet, AA is found in animal products such as milk, red meat and eggs, and it can also be synthesised from the essential fatty acid LA. AA is an important component in the muscles, where it is converted to prostaglandins which aid muscle growth. Consequently AA is used as a supplement by bodybuilders. AA is also essential to brain function, where it acts as a signalling molecule, and plays a key role in the biochemical processes which produces inflammation.
  • Axons

    In neurons, the axon is the large filament extending from the cell body to other neurons.  It transmits action potentials (the neuron’s means of communication) to connect with the next neuron by means of synapses, or to specialised structures such as the neuromuscular junctions, which control muscle contraction. Axons from cells in the spinal cord may reach a metre or more in length (if, for instance, their destination is the big toe). In the brain, white matter is primarily made up of bundles of axons (‘fibre tracts’), while grey matter consists of neuron cell bodies.

B

  • Bioactive

    A bioactive chemical is one which, at the dose given, exerts noticeable effects in the human body.
  • BMR

    'Basal Metabolic Rate' is the amount of energy expended daily by humans and other animals at rest.

C

  • carborundum

    This is a long definition test.  This is a long definition test.
  • Carboxyl group

    An organic compound, chemical formula COOH, made up of a carbon atom with a hydroxyl group (OH) attached by a single chemical bond, and an oxygen atom (O) attached by a double bond.
  • Carcinogen

    A factor thought to cause or contribute to cancer.
  • Catalyst

    A catalyst, in chemistry, is an inorganic substance, often a metal (i.e., in this context, usually one not containing carbon bonded to hydrogen) whose presence enables chemical reactions to happen, but which is not itself altered by those reactions. See also enzyme.
  • Cholesterol

    A form of fat, chemical formula C27H46O, obtained in human diet from animal sources such as meat and eggs. Unlike fatty acids, cholesterol has a structure made up of multiple rings, rather than a chain, of carbon atoms. Like fatty acids, cholesterol is an essential part of cell membranes. Excessive cholesterol, however, is thought to damage the body by accumulating in the arteries, contributing to cardiovascular disease. Because cholesterol is a fat, it is hydrophobic (repels water). Since blood is water-based, cholesterol thus requires a specific transport mechanism to move around the body. Specialised lipoproteins attach to the cholesterol molecule, forming particles of varying sizes which can be carried in the bloodstream. The smallest particles, formed by high density lipoproteins (HDL), are associated with healthier heart and cardiovascular function than are the larger, low density lipoproteins (LDL). Thus the cholesterol carried by HDL and LDL is often called, respectively, 'good' and 'bad' cholesterol.
  • Co-enzyme

    A substance that needs to be present in addition to an enzyme for a chemical reaction to be catalysed.
  • Co-factor (or co-enzyme)

    A substance that needs to be present in addition to an enzyme for a chemical reaction to be catalysed.
  • Cochrane review

    Cochrane reviews are rigorous systematic reviews of the scientific literature on a particular topic, widely recognised as the gold standard by researchers.
  • Cohort study

    A research study which follows a group of people (the cohort) over time. For example, researchers who hypothesise that oily fish protects against heart disease might assess cohort members’ consumption of oily fish at baseline (at the beginning of the study) and at intervals throughout the study, observe how many cohort members developed heart disease during the study, and analyse their data to see whether heart disease was more prevalent among participants with lower fish consumption.
  • Cortex

    The much folded outer layer of the brain. Traditionally, capacities like intelligence, consciousness and logical thought have been attributed to the cortex, while more basic functions such as emotions and control of breathing and heart rate were assigned to subcortical structures like the amygdala and brainstem, though this is now seen as oversimplified. The cortex is divided into two halves, or hemispheres, connected by the corpus callosum, a large bundle of nerve fibres. Each hemisphere has its own specialised functions. In most people, for example, the left hemisphere controls language. Each hemisphere is further divided into four lobes: the occipital lobe (associated with visual processing), the parietal lobe (associated with perceptions of body and space), the temporal lobe (associated with hearing, language and object identification), and the frontal lobe (associated with movement, short-term memory and reasoning).
  • Cytokines

    Small proteins which act as signals between cells. Examples include the interferons and interleukins.

D

  • Dendrites

    Branch-like filaments extending from the neuronal cell body, along which incoming electrical signals flow. The cell body integrates these inputs and may trigger an action potential as a result. Incoming stimuli may come from other neurons, or from specialised structures like the photoreceptors in the human eye, which convert light into electrical signals.
  • DHA

    Docosahexaenoic Acid. One of the omega-3 series of fatty acids, its chemical formula is C22H32O2. It can be synthesised slowly in the body from ALA, or obtained from oily fish like salmon and herring. DHA is an important constituent of neuronal cell membranes, particularly in the eye and brain, and it is also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • DNA

    Deoxyribonucleic Acid, the material from which genes are built.
  • Double-blind trial

    In clinical trials of a potential treatment, the treatment is often tested alongside a similar, placebo (dummy) treatment. Some participants receive treatment, and some placebo. For example, trials of fish oil supplementation may use another oil (e.g. safflower) as a placebo. Ideally, the treatment and placebo capsules will look and taste the same. The trial is ‘blind’ if the participants do not know whether they are getting the treatment or the placebo. It is ‘double-blind’ if neither the participants nor the experimenters who give them the capsules know who is getting what. Double-blind trials are preferred, since they reduce the chances of the experimenters’ expectations unconsciously biasing the results. Generally, participants are assigned to treatment or placebo groups at random, in an RCT (randomised controlled trial).
  • DRV

    Dietary Reference Values are a group of three or four estimated values, for each nutrient, which reflect how much of that nutrient humans need to consume. The DRVs are: the estimated average requirement (EAR), the reference nutrient intake (RNI), the lower RNI (LRNI), and the safe intake, which is given when information about the other three DRVs is not available. For most nutrients, DRVs were set in 1991 by the UK government’s Department of Health. For fats, carbohydrates and fibre, they were expressed as percentages of the total daily food energy intake. For example, the government recommended that fat should make up not more than 35% of total energy intake. See also RDA.

E

  • EAR

    The estimated average requirement is a DRV (dietary reference value). For the UK, it represents the average amount needed across the population.
  • EFA

    Essential fatty acid – a fatty acid which must be supplied in the diet, since it cannot be synthesised by the body. For humans, only ALA (omega-3) and LA (omega-6) are considered essential.
  • Enzyme

    An enzyme, in biochemistry, is an organic substance (usually a protein) which positions molecules appropriately to enable chemical reactions between them to happen, but which is not itself altered by those reactions. See also catalyst.
  • Enzymes

    An enzyme, in biochemistry, is an organic substance (usually a protein) which positions molecules appropriately to enable chemical reactions between them to happen, but which is not itself altered by those reactions. See also catalyst.
  • EPA

    Eicosapentanoic Acid. One of the omega-3 series of fatty acids, its chemical formula is C20H30O2. It can be synthesised slowly in the body from ALA, or obtained from oily fish like salmon and herring. EPA forms the basis of eicosanoid signalling molecules, which are mainly anti-inflammatory, and is considered particularly important for brain and heart function.
  • Epidemiology

    The study of where and when diseases occur. Identifying patterns of disease can point towards likely causes. Epidemiological studies by Sir Richard Doll and colleagues, for example, identified associations between lung cancer and smoking and eventually led to the recognition that smoking causes lung cancer.
  • Epithelial

    Epithelial cells cover the body's surfaces, including internal surfaces such as blood vessels. They act as a specialised barrier which allows some material through (like nutrients), while preventing access by unwanted material (like microbes).
  • Essential (of nutrients)

    A substance which cannot be made in the body, so must be supplied in the diet.
  • Essential Fatty Acid

    A fatty acid which must be supplied in the diet, since it cannot be synthesised by the body. For humans, only ALA (omega-3) and LA (omega-6) are considered essential.

F

  • Fatty acids

    Forms of fat used by parts of the human body for fuel (though not the brain, which uses glucose). Insoluble in water, they are an important component of brain cell membranes, which isolate the cell’s operating machinery from its environment and allow it to transmit electrical signals. They have the form of a chain of carbon atoms, varying in length (hence some are called long-chain fatty acids), and to which hydrogen and oxygen atoms are attached.

G

  • Glia

    Not all brain cells are neurons; indeed, glial cells are at least as numerous.  They were traditionally thought only to act as supports for neurons, but they are now increasingly recognised as playing an important role in neurotransmission and also in brain inflammation.
  • Glucagon

    Glucagon, is a peptide hormone secreted by the pancreas, that raises blood glucose levels. Its effect is opposite that of insulin, which lowers blood glucose levels.

H

  • Hyperglycaemia

    Abnormally high levels of blood sugar. Hyperglycaemia is usually associated with diabetes, but can result from other conditions such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Symptoms include thirst and frequent urination.
  • hypoglycaemia

    Abnormally low levels of blood sugar, usually associated with diabetes. Symptoms include fatigue, shakiness, and in extreme cases confusion and unconsciousness.

I

  • Inborn error of metabolism

    A genetic disorder, often involving a single gene, which impairs an important biochemical reaction and reduces the body’s ability to function. The disorders are often rare, emergent in infancy, and lethal. However, there are exceptions, such as deficiency in the enzyme lactase, which helps to digest the milk sugar lactose, and which is not lethal. People with this deficiency typically experience stomach cramps, nausea and flatulence after drinking milk.
  • Inflammation

    A set of biochemical processes which evolved to protect the body against injury and disease. When inflammation occurs acutely (over a short time) it is  generally beneficial, but chronic inflammation is a feature of many of today's commonest disorders, from obesity, arthritis, diabetes and cancer to Alzheimer's disease, atherosclerosis, multiple sclerosis and stroke. The omega-6 fatty acid AA is considered central to pro-inflammatory pathways, while omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA are thought to have anti-inflammatory effects. Some researchers have therefore proposed that typical Western diets, which have very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, may be contributing to modern diseases.
  • Insulin

    Insulin is a peptide hormone, produced by beta cells of the pancreas, and is central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body. It causes cells in the liver, skeletal muscles, and fat tissue to absorb glucose from the blood.

K

  • ketone

    A ketone is an organic compound with the structure RC(=O)R', where R and R' can be a variety of carbon-containing substituents.

L

  • LA

    Linoleic Acid. One of the omega-6 series of fatty acids, considered an essential fatty acid because it cannot be synthesised by the human body. Its chemical formula is C18H32O2. In the human diet, LA is found in animal and vegetable fats. In the body, it is converted to omega-6 fatty acids such as AA which are critical for brain function.
  • Lactation

    Breastfeeding
  • Lipid

    A biochemical term for fat.
  • LRNI

    Lower reference nutrient intake, one of the dietary reference values (DRVs). It is a minimal, baseline level, representing the amount of a nutrient needed by those members of a population who need the least amount.

M

  • Meta-analysis

    Also called metanalysis, this is a statistical technique which is used to combine data from separate studies so that their results can be directly compared.
  • Metabolism

    A catch-all term for all the chemical processes which occur in an organism in order for it to stay alive.
  • Metal chelators

    Molecules which form chemical bonds with metals, such as iron and zinc. In medicine, understanding how metals function in the body is important for many conditions, such as anaemia due to iron deficiency, and requires an understanding of how the metal chelators behave.
  • mg

    Milligram: 1/1000 (one thousandth) or 0.001 gram.
  • Micronutrient

    A chemical which is needed for the human body to function, but which is only needed in small amounts. Trace minerals such as iron, iodine, zinc, selenium and vitamins are examples of micronutrients. Fatty acids such as DHA and EPA are not strictly micronutrients because they are required in quantities of 100s of mg; nevertheless, they are often called micronutrients.
  • MRI

    Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a technique for scanning living brains which uses magnetic fields and radio pulses to distinguish different kinds of material within the skull (such as grey matter, white matter, and blood). Structural MRI scans (MRI) reveal the architecture of the brain and can be used for detecting abnormalities such as tumours. Functional MRI scans (fMRI) monitor blood flow, which is thought to reflect brain activity. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) uses MRI to trace connections between structures in the brain. These can change with experience.

N

  • n-3 fatty acids

    A series of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so-called because their carbon chains have multiple double bonds. In omega-3 fatty acids like EPA (chemical formula C20H30O2) the first double carbon bond is located between the third and fourth carbon atoms, counting from the ‘n’ end of the carbon chain – that is, the end without the oxygen atoms.
  • n-6 fatty acids

    A series of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so-called because their carbon chains have multiple double bonds. In omega-6 fatty acids like a the first double carbon bond is located between the sixth and seventh carbon atoms, counting from the ‘n’ end of the carbon chain – that is, the end without the oxygen atoms.
  • Neurodegeneration

    A collective term for destructive processes in the brain which gradually destroy brain tissue. Neurons and/or glia may be affected. The degeneration may begin with damage to synapses, dendrites and axons, but in severe cases (such as advanced Alzheimer's) large numbers of neurons die off and brain shrinkage is clearly visible on structural MRI.
  • Neuromuscular junction

    The connection between motor nerves and muscles, which uses the neutrotransmitter, acetylcholine. The NMJ is the ‘final common path’ by which the brain controls movement.
  • Neuron

    The archetypal brain cell, which generates an electrical signal, the action potential, in response to stimulation. Neurons have a central cell body (the soma), which contains their DNA and operating machinery. Signals arrive at the cell’s dendrites and pass to the soma, where signals from different sources are integrated. The result is then transmitted down the cell’s axon to synapse with the next neuron’s dendrites.
  • Neurotransmission

    The essential process by which neurons transmit signals from one neuron to the next throughout the brain and peripheral nervous system, allowing the body to react to internal and external stimuli. Electrical signals travel within each neuron and chemical signals pass across the synapses between neurons. These signals are thought to underlie all human functions, from sensation and movement to conscious experience.
  • Neurotransmitters

    Substances such as acetylcholine, glutamate, GABA, noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, used by neurons to communicate across synapses.
  • Nutriceutical

    A food or food supplement used with the aim of providing additional health benefits. The contrast is with pharmaceuticals – synthetic chemicals used purely for their health benefits.

O

  • Omega-3

    A series of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so-called because their carbon chains have multiple double bonds. In omega-3 fatty acids like EPA (chemical formula C20H30O2) the first double carbon bond is located between the third and fourth carbon atoms, counting from the ‘n’ end of the carbon chain – that is, the end without the oxygen atoms.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

    A series of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so-called because their carbon chains have multiple double bonds. In omega-3 fatty acids like EPA (chemical formula C20H30O2) the first double carbon bond is located between the third and fourth carbon atoms, counting from the methyl (‘n’) end of the carbon chain – that is, the end without the carboxyl group oxygen atoms.
  • Omega-6

    A series of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so-called because their carbon chains have multiple double bonds. In omega-6 fatty acids like AA (chemical formula C20H32)2) the first double carbon bond is located between the sixth and seventh carbon atoms, counting from the methyl (‘n’) end of the carbon chain – that is, the end without the carboxyl group oxygen atoms.
  • Omega-6 fatty acids

    A series of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so-called because their carbon chains have multiple double bonds. In omega-6 fatty acids like AA (chemical formula C20H32)2) the first double carbon bond is located between the sixth and seventh carbon atoms, counting from the methyl (‘n’) end of the carbon chain – that is, the end without the carboxyl group oxygen atoms.

P

  • Peptide hormones

    Peptide hormones are proteins that have endocrine functions in living animals.
  • Phospholipid

    A form of fat crucial to brain function, since it is a major component of neuronal cell membranes. Phospholipid molecules have a head-and-two-tails structure in which the head is chemically attracted to water (hydrophilic), while the tails are repelled by water (hydrophobic) and tend to clump together. In contact with watery environments – such as the inside of a neuron or the extracellular fluid which surrounds brain cells – phospholipids naturally form ‘bilayers’. These are membranes, two molecules thick, in which pairs of phospholipids sit with their tails close together in the membrane’s centre, while the hydrophilic heads form the membrane’s inner and outer surfaces.
  • Placebo

    A ‘dummy’ treatment, such as a sugar pill. Placebos are used in clinical trials to compare with a genuine treatment, in order to test whether the treatment is effective. By giving a placebo, researchers can control for any effects due to patient expectations (the ‘placebo effect’), such that any observed effects are due to the treatment itself, and independent of a person's awareness that they are being treated. To be effective, placebos must be as similar as possible to the treatment.
  • Polyunsaturated

    Saturated/unsaturated fat – the terms relate to the kind of chemical bonds which exist between the carbon atoms in the fatty acid carbon chain. Each carbon atom can form up to four single bonds with other atoms, such as hydrogen, and a fat where all the carbon bonds are single is described as saturated. However, carbon atoms can also form double bonds with other carbon atoms, and fats with such bonds are described as unsaturated. Unsaturated fats can be either mono- or polyunsaturated, depending on whether they have one or more double bonds.
  • Pre-eclampsia

    A condition in pregnancy, which is highly dangerous to both mother and child; its cause is unknown. It is marked by high blood pressure, protein in the urine, oedema (fluid retention, which may cause swelling, especially of the feet, hands and face), headaches and pain. It is resolved by delivering the baby.
  • Prospective/retrospective

    In research, a study of the relationship between two variables, such as fish consumption and cognitive function, may be done prospectively or retrospectively. A retrospective study might assess participants' cognitive function, and in the same session ask them to report how much fish they ate. A prospective study might assess their cognitive function and their fish consumption at baseline (initially), and then again at intervals throughout the study. Because human memory is fallible, prospective studies are generally considered more reliable than retrospective studies.
  • PUFA

    Polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • PUFAs

    Polyunsaturated fatty acids

R

  • Randomised Controlled Trial

    Regarded as the highest standard of medical research. Participants in such trials are assigned to treatment and control (or placebo) groups at random. The aim is to avoid unconscious experimenter bias and to reduce the chances of the participants’ characteristics (e.g. age, gender, educational background) differing between groups, so that as far as possible, the only difference between the groups is the treatments they receive.
  • RCT

    A Randomised Controlled Trial, regarded as the highest standard of medical research. Participants in such trials are assigned to treatment and control (or placebo) groups at random. The aim is to avoid unconscious experimenter bias and to reduce the chances of the participants’ characteristics (e.g. age, gender, educational background) differing between groups, so that as far as possible, the only difference between the groups is the treatments they receive.
  • RCTs

    A Randomised Controlled Trial, regarded as the highest standard of medical research. Participants in such trials are assigned to treatment and control (or placebo) groups at random. The aim is to avoid unconscious experimenter bias and to reduce the chances of the participants’ characteristics (e.g. age, gender, educational background) differing between groups, so that as far as possible, the only difference between the groups is the treatments they receive.
  • RDA

    Recommended Daily Allowance, the minimum amount needed to maintain a healthy body. RDAs are determined by scientific committees for the UK government. See also DRV.
  • Receptors

    Specialised proteins which sit on a cell’s surface membrane and which are activated only by certain molecules, such as neurotransmitters. When one such molecule approaches, it forms chemical bonds with the receptor which force it to change shape. That change triggers further biochemical processes within the cell. In neurons, receptors can be excitatory (their activation makes the neuron more likely to fire an action potential) or inhibitory (reducing the chance of an action potential).
  • Retrospective

    In research, a study of the relationship between two variables, such as fish consumption and cognitive function, may be done prospectively or retrospectively. A retrospective study might assess participants' cognitive function, and in the same session ask them to report how much fish they ate. A prospective study might assess their cognitive function and their fish consumption at baseline (initially), and then again at intervals throughout the study. Because human memory is fallible, prospective studies are generally considered better than retrospective studies.
  • Risk factor

    Anything whose presence is thought to make a particular disease, condition or behaviour more likely. For example, being male is considered a risk factor for violent behaviour, while being female is considered a risk factor for anxiety and depression. Protective factors are associated with reduced risk.
  • RNI

    Reference nutrient intake, one of the dietary reference values (DRVs). It is the amount of a nutrient needed by almost all members (97%) of a population.

S

  • Saturated/unsaturated fats

    The terms relate to the kind of chemical bonds which exist between the carbon atoms in the fatty acid carbon chain. Each carbon atom can form up to four single bonds with other atoms, such as hydrogen, and a fat where all the carbon bonds are single is described as saturated. However, carbon atoms can also form double bonds with other carbon atoms, and fats with such bonds are described as unsaturated. Unsaturated fats can be either mono- or polyunsaturated, depending on whether they have one or more double bonds.
  • Serum

    Blood is made up of blood cells, clotting factors, and everything else. The latter is called serum.
  • Substrate

    A general term in biochemistry for any substance on which an enzyme acts during a chemical reaction. For example, a saturated fat may be the substrate for a desaturase enzyme.
  • Substrates

    A general term in biochemistry for any substance on which an enzyme acts during a chemical reaction. For example, a saturated fat may be the substrate for a desaturase enzyme.
  • Synapses

    The tiny gaps between one neuron and another, across which a chemical transmitter is sent. When an action potential, transmitted from the cell body along the axon, reaches the synapse, it triggers the release of small quantities of neurotransmitter into the synaptic gap. These then activate receptors on nearby neurons.
  • Systematic review

    A review of the scientific literature on one particular topic or question, which aims to identify all relevant research. Each individual study is then rated on the quality of its methods, and assessed against pre-established criteria (e.g. the language of the article), to decide whether it should be included in the review. See also meta-analysis.

T

  • Trace mineral

    Chemical elements such as chromium and manganese, which are known to be needed by the human body, but only in very small amounts (of the order of mg).

V

  • Vitamin

    A micronutrient that cannot be synthesised by the body, hence its consumption is essential to human health. Vitamins are organic compounds; that is, they are built from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Some vitamins are toxic in excess.

  • µg

    Microgram: 1/1000000 (one millionth) or 0.000001 gram.

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