"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

Science is best when discussed: leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fat, Sleepy, and Stupid 

Michigan researchers have found that tyrosine kinase SH2B1 appears to act as a central modulator for body weight. The protein interacts with leptin and insulin signaling molecules in the brain, and eliminated weight gain in mice on a high-fat diet. SH2B1 knockout mice got really fat.

Women getting fat for a different reason - pregnancy - may need to cut out one less thing they love for the duration: coffee! A pretty large Danish study suggests that low-moderate (3 cups/day) coffee consumption was not related to risk of low birth weight or prematurity. Probably still better to avoid caffeine, but maybe a little would help take the edge off.

But that may be moot, because after pregnancy is over, American conservative women tend not to really care what happens to children. The latest evidence? Complaints from parents and rabble-rousers have convinced the sponsor of a Maryland bill to require school-aged girls get the HPV vaccine to pull the measure. Why? Because being absolutely sure we don't do anything that might in any way encourage teenagers to do what comes naturally to them (fool around) is more important than preventing painful and fatal diseases. No, there is no gray area here. Parents have a duty to protect their kids as best as they can, and that includes doing things that may involve your 12-year-old knowing what her bits are for.

Finally: Yes, I'm still sick. Will go to the doctor if not better tomorrow.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Toughing it out: not for the squeemish 

I'm sick. I have what a person we'll identify as TL - not because he's at innocent but because his actual initials are kinda amusing in my medicated states - called "something in the lungs, sinus, and spirit." In my case it is more aptly called a "vile affliction of the lungs and soul."

I was getting better, I thought, on Friday (the deep, wet cough appeared Thursday morning), but Saturday night brought a shallower, wheezing cough and the fever. NSAIDs have pretty much no effect on me, and I worry about immune suppression so I don't take them anyways (I just load up on vitamin C, zinc, salt gargles and other likely placebos). Fine, I got a good rest Saturday night, but woke Sunday to little improvement.

I felt better that evening, but decided to go to bed early (9:00) to shake the last bit off. Sleep would not come. The fever intensified, and I sweat like hell all night, even after the Tylenol PM I took at 3 AM kicked in. I woke this morning with the fever and cough and aches intact.

But did I skip class? Did I ask for an extension on any of my millions of assignments due this week? Of course not. Because I am stupid. Like millions of others, especially in the US. That (besides the need utilize the boyfriend substitute quality of the internets for ranting purposes) is the point of today's rant.

Our culture is to the point where, even if you have them, taking sick days is viewed as weakness, laziness, or irresponsibility. Taking sick leave can get you passed over on interesting projects, promotions, etc. And that's if you have any at all, which apparently 47% of Americans don't.

At my last job,our sick, vacation, and personal leave came from the same (14 day per year) pool. If you got sick, you kissed that second honeymoon, visit to grandmother, or mental health roadtrip goodbye. Needless to say, no it was rare anybody called in sick, unless it was something spectacular - putting everyone's health at risk, and driving up the costs of our care.

This needs to be a priority in any political party's health reform platform. /Rant.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Dance, Dance, Animation 

This is inexplicably fun and addictive. Paint your own avatar, and make it dance!

(via Boingboing)

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Good for You: Arsenic, Carbon Monoxide, Brain Damage 

But stress is still bad: women who were more stressed out while pregnant have kids who are more likely to develop ADHD, lower IQ, and other developmental/behavioral problems. The effect seems to be modulated by amniotic cortisol, and so it could be possible to block it, even if the moms won't chill.

Lots of good news for what's bad for you today. Mice with a model condition for Multiple Sclerosis showed a significant reduction in symptoms when exposed to carbon monoxide. It's not clear if the researchers tested for side effects here (there must have been a few!), and certainly the method used in mice would be lethal to humans, but it's an interesting step. It seems to work by blocking free radical production, but I wonder why then high doses of, say, vitamin C isn't effective as well. Hmm.

Patients with an rare, deadly form of cancer - acute promyelocytic leukemia - seem to do very well on a combination of radiation and chemo with arsenic trioxide. I wonder if old lace helps?

And finally, a new way to quit smoking: brain damage!!! Neuroscientists found that many patients with damage to the insula spontaneously lose the urge to smoke. The thing is that not all of them do, and it's not clear why. Also, discussion of surgical smoking-cessation techniques is frankly a bit scary: yes, smoking is amazingly bad for you, and yes it's hard to quit, but the risks (not to mention the costs!) of any kind of brain surgery is way too much to even consider, I think.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007


"Boy, that's not bad luck: you're just STUPID."
- Grim.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Guns, Germs, and SSRIs 

A large survey of American households found that in states with higher gun homicide rates, household gun ownership was higher. Or, possibly, the other way around. As much as I personally believe that allowing people to own guns is just begging for homicides, the data in this study (despite what the media are reporting) do not indicate that guns 'cause' violence. Only that, in places where guns are more readily available, they are more likely to be used in homicides.

I don't really see what use causation is in this case...removing guns would almost certainly lower the homicide rate. Another thing that can kill you is germs, and you can get those from your kitchen sponges. How do you avoid killing yourself from doing the dishes? Well, you could microwave your sponges and rags - two to four minutes on 'high' will kill most of that nasties in them!

Speaking of side effects, it seems that our old friends, the SSRIs, are prone to yet another: osteoporosis. A study indicates that seniors taking the antidepressants had lower bone density than did controls, putting them at risk for severe breaks and decreased motility. These findings are concerning, to say the least, considering how antidepressants get prescribed like candy in the US.

And finally, you know what would make me happy? Free gourmet food at work every day. I wanna work for Google!!! (admittedly, I wanted that before I knew about the food, but hey, every little bit helps!)

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pet Peeve 

I've been reading the text for my Epidemiologic Methods class this semester, and so far I really like it. First and foremost, it is so infinitely better than last semester's unedited monstrosity (which doesn't even dignify a link) that I was nearly elated to read it from the start. But then, almost 200 pages in, it begins to address one of my biggest research peeves EVER: the absolute preeminence of the P-value for absolutely everything.
...type I and type II errors arise because the investigator has attempted to dichotomize the results of a study into the categories "significant" and "not significant." Since this degradation of the study is unnecessary, an "error" that results from an incorrect classification of the study result is also unnecessary.
As one who falls squarely on the quantitative side of things - scientifically, what you think is only as interesting to me as the numbers you can show - the reliance on P irks me for just this reason. If you see 15 separate studies of, say, Drug X on T-cell counts, showing a (non-significant) p of .1, to me that's nearly as interesting as two with p=.003.

For gushier stuff than T-cell counts (like cognitive function scores or pain indexes), where measures are necessarily subjective, I would argue that such dichotomization is totally inappropriate. Sadly, that's all that gets published. Unless you're already a super-established expert with bottomless funds who's probably sleeping with the editor.

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Staying Healthy 

A treadmill-desk?? It's an idea that would probably benefit me as much as anyone - I often have to stop working and go walk, at least around the office if not outside, to regain my focus and release pent-up stress energy, but I doubt it'll ever catch on except for among the very wealthy.

NEAT sounds great, as long as you don't have to multi-task. I suppose that there are many people whose jobs can be done entirely on a computer, but all of mine have involved the need to have various books and papers handy as well. I just don't see jumping off and on a treadmill - especially during a client-phone call - as a realistic option. Especially because research indicates that we humans are not as good at multitasking as we think we are!

And, because I'm a bit brain-addled today, some quick-links:

- Yet another coalition has proposed a tax-break based health insurance plan. Tax-break based plan are just smoke and mirrors - when someone wants to sound like they're making an effort, it's what they propose. These plans only help the rich, who can afford out-of-pocket costs, never the poor, who need help.

- Alzheimer's vaccine patch shows promise in mice. Previous attacks on beta-amyloid have had severe autoimmune side-effects, but hopefully this will be different. I can't imagine why it would be, though.

- Selenium supplements may help lower HIV viral load. Cool!

- No drug, no pain cavity care? Please let this work!

- Sterilize your sponges in the microwave. Duh, I thought this was obvious!

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Brains, Muscles, and a Life 

Looking forward to the day when you can just think and have your computer type that paper for you? Or drive to work? Well, Pennsylvania researchers have developed a technology that may help get us there: they found a way to grow long (10 cm) neural 'data cables' that they think will be able to interface brains with computer boards. Sounds pretty cool, but of course having a cable is only useful if a common language can be found between brain and computer.

One of the cool uses of such a connection, of course, would be to 'back up' our memories, say in case of amnesia or Alzheimer's. But until that's possible, the best course is to not get those things, and that requires knowing how they happen. It's long been thought that Alzheimer's results from an excess of the beta-amyloid protein in the brain, but just how there comes to be that excess (and whether it is really etiogenic or just a side-effect) remained a mystery.

Well, Canadian researchers have found that Alzheimer's patients are more likely than controls to have a variant allele of the gene SORL1, which normally shuttles amyloid proteins to a safe destruction site. Variant copies of SORL1 do not properly remove amyloid, so it is broken down in the cell body, leaving the destructive amyloid-beta to wreak havoc on the system. Hopefully this work pans out, and a simple treatment can be found.

Outside the brain, Muscular Dystrophy is one of the most severe and common degenerative disorders around. Hopkins researchers have found that, in mice with the rare Marfan syndrome and the common Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (two muscle wasting diseases that affect human children), the blood pressure drug losartan seemed to reduce symptoms and reverse damage. This is really cool, but of course there's concern that athletes (and gym queens) could abuse the drug to gain extra muscle mass*.

And finally, for both the brains and muscles of Second Life players, I join in offering this proven-effective health advice: get a First Life!

* When I say "there's concern," I mean that the kind of people who think that the Drug War is more important than people's actual health (i.e., the same ones who want to ban medical marijuana, will be annoyed by this.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Puppies Better Than Kitties 

It's old news that having pets makes you healthier and happier. They provide companionship, which has health benefits of its own, and petting them releases anti-stress hormones on both human and pet. But what's the best pet to have?

A dog! British researchers have found that dog owners have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and other better health measures, than the general population, and than cat owners. So dogs are healthier than cats.

The result seems to result from a combination of dogs' need to be walked (increasing owners' exercise), dogs' generally more affectionate nature (stress relief) and, in what will bug cat owners most, dogs' neediness actually seems to make them more beneficial companions, especially for older people.

Not that cats aren't great, but give me a dog any day. Particularly one as awesome as Winston (pictured).

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Black Sheep 

This looks absolutely AWESOME!!!!

Trailer, thanks to Don.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

To Infinity and Beyond 

Via CoolHunting, we find the Mobius Shoe, crafted from a single piece of Kevlar. Even if I never actually see one, it makes me happy that such a thing exists. Why are mens shoes so boring??

Actually living infinitely might not be so appealing, but most people would like to live longer, and be healthier while they're at it. Towards something like this end, social science researchers have found a way to add about 2 years to your lifespan: win a Nobel Prize in chemistry or physics. If your strength is literature, or peace, that will probably help too. Really, it seems that the effect is that one of social status: winners lived longer than even multiple nominees.

While living longer, it's nice to be able to not lose your mind. Though not without potentially severe side-effects, it seems that taking folic acid might help. The B-vitamin seems to 'rejuvenate' the minds of women who were previously low in it. The thing is, in the US and Canada, most people are not low on folic acid, and supplementation probably won't have an effect.

And on to infinity!

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

What You Want in the Morning 

I saw this taped to my door this morning, and of course ran out to the parking lot (in my pajamas) to make sure that my car was still there, and in one piece. Luckily, it was just an annoying advertisement, and not even for a towing company. I hadn't had my coffee yet and was easily confused. Do you think this is a hint from the rental office??

While I was out there, there were lots of people having their morning cigarettes. Which, it seems, have more nicotine in them than they did nine years ago. The tobacco companies deny this, of course, but it's not a shock: their products are becoming less and less socially accepted, and so it's natural that they'd want to make them more addictive to stay in business.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

New Causes, Solutions, and Concoctions 

Multiple Sclerosis is a degenerative autoimmune disease, causing severe pain and disability in its victims. Like other autoimmune conditions, its causes are unknown and treatments are scarce. Argentine researchers are reporting the results of a small cohort of MS patients (24), some of whom showed sign of parasitic infection and some of whom did not. The parasite hosts had much less severe MS symptoms and fewer relapses than did non-hosts. Similar to previous findings that intestinal parasites relieved Crohn's, this result is in support of a 'hygiene hypothesis' of autoimmune disorders: relatively unchallenged by our germ-free modern environment, our immune systems have started 'looking' for things to attack. Such as ourselves.

On a different (and mysterious) causal chain, a large sample study has found that men with gum disease are 63% more likely to suffer hard-to-treat pancreatic cancers. One idea is that this could be due to the inflammation of gum disease 'spreading' to other parts of the body, but that seems a bit far-fetched to me, in terms of cancer. The findings are really fascinating, but I can't help but wonder if there's not a confounding factor in the mix.

In to good news: Canadian researchers have found that the old, apparently safe, off-label (read: cheap) drug dichloroacetate (DCA) may be a potent cancer killer. The compound acts by reactivating cancer cells' mitochondria, which are normally shut off in favor of cellular metabolism glycolysis in cancer cells, and which subsequently initiate apoptosis of the unhealthy cells.

Business, union, and retiree leaders in one room, agreeing on something?!?! It seems so. The group met in Washington to send a message to the politicians: the time has come for universal health care. This needs to happen, and it needs to be done right (or it'll be a disaster akin to what we have now, only even harder to fix), and it needs to be done now. Neither side of the aisle in Congress or the White House has been really willing to step up yet, but hopefully this meeting will prompt them to do so.

Finally, everything you didn't want to know about molecular gastronomy cooking-using-funny-tools-and-ingredients. I've never been to any of the places mentioned, but I get the idea, and am pretty much already bored with it. Like avant-garde art, there comes a point when you're just doing to be shocking, or contrary, or because you can.

For some I guess this is part of the fun, but for me I think it ends up detracting from the actual flavor of the food. Butterscotch bacon? Sounds awesome. Edible menus? Once, cool, twice, yawwwnnn. Soup in a pipette? No thanks.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Blind, Clumsy, and Forgetful 

Kinda like a really old dog. All of these are symptoms of aging which, except for the second one, could be prevented by applications of today's research. The research on clumsiness is less compelling.

It appears that kids with lower IQs grow up to be more accident-prone, or at least more likely to suffer accidental injury. While it appears that the authors would like to conclude that lower IQ causes injury, I would argue that it sounds more like low IQ contributes to an environment in which injury is more likely: people with lower IQs tend to have more dangerous jobs, live in less safe home environments, and may, in places like Atlanta where sidewalks are rare, have to walk to work. An interesting finding, but it appears confounded all over the place.

As we get older, many of our bits deteriorate: our memory tends to get less reliable, we can't see as well, we develop cardiovascular disease, et cetera. But there may be things we can do to help ourselves delay those effects!

Drinking tea has for some time been known to have multiple beneficial effects, especially on the cardiovascular system. A puzzling side note, however, has been that English tea drinkers do not see the benefits that Asian ones do: and research suggests that this may be because the Brits put milk in their tea. In both rat experiments and a small human trial, it appears that the caseins in milk interfere with the beneficial catechins in the tea. So, drink your tea straight kids!

While protecting your heart with tea, your eyes may start to go. Don't fret, as Missouri researchers are working on retinal implants that could someday be used to stop or reverse the blindness caused by retinitis pigmentosa. This is really cool technology, I hope it works!

Meanwhile, you don't want to go losing your mind. Researchers also suggest a way to delay dementia: be bilingual! A Canadian study found that bilingual subjects, who used both languages every day, had a significantly later onset of dementia than did monoglots. The effect is likely to stem from increased cerebral blood flow associated with all that extra language processing; the protection could be similar to that offered by daily mental exercises like doing the crosswords.

But how does memory work, in the first place? Long-term potentiation (LTP), essentially a process by which neural connections become permanently 'stronger,' is thought to be the key. Now researchers have identified a molecule - TrkB - which is key to seeing LTP happen in vivo, as opposed to just in cultured cells. Cool!

Exercise is another great way to stave off the effects of aging. Unfortunately, some people are put off by the pain associated with said gain. To thier rescue may come by best friend, caffeine! A small study of female non-caffeine-users suggests that pre-workout caffeine may reduce post-workout pain better than many painkillers. Of course, this effect may be harder to see in sane people who don't abstain from coffee!

And finally, in order to be bothered by any of these troubles, you have to survive into old age. Having HIV is not a good way to do that, at least not until we find a cure. Princeton researchers have not done that, but they may have found a hint at a way to reduce HIV's effects on infected persons. They have identified a protein cascade which seems to dictate when the virus goes into hiding, or deactivates itself. If a drug therapy could induce hibernation in HIV, its symptoms would largely disappear, which would be great.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Tomorrow and Tomorrow 

A Canadian researcher has published what he claims to be the mathematical equation that predicts how much a person will procrastinate a given task, the Temporal Motivation Theory: Utility = E x V / ΓD. Aside from the blanket futility of trying to come up with real numbers for "a person's sensitivity to delay" (D), "the value of completing the task" (V), or any of the other variables, this is a really interesting idea.

Procrastination can be a dangerous thing, leading to lost productivity and sloppy work products, as well as real losses such as from putting off getting medical treatment, etc. (since I'm fairly confident that 'productivity' is a real thing like, say, health it), and knowing more about it could inform on all sorts of aspects of behavior.

Needless to say, I saw and bookmarked this press release a few days ago.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Headin' South 

I had to bribe the puppies with toys (in Scooter Mae's case) and something to kill (a rawhide bone in Winston's case) so that they would let me leave.

They figured it out yesterday, and were super-clingey, but today they pretty much did all they could to impede my movement towards the car. So cute, how can I leave them?!?!?

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Bat Suckers, Cells, Bodies, and Marketing 

While some biologists are all a-twitter over the discovery of a new species of sucker-footed bat - Myzopoda schliemanni - in the drier regions of Madagascar, a few very important other discoveries are also happening.

Wake Forest researchers have found that amniotic stem cells can be grown into brain and other useful tissues, and may be a good source free of many ethical questions bogging down embryonic cell research. It is not, however, clear that these cells are as entirely pluripotent as the embryonic ones. ...baby steps...

Speaking of cells. University of Cincinnati researchers have added genetically modified skin cells to grafts, finding that they help impede infection. They hope to start animal testing next year; if this succeeds it could really dramatically improve lives of people, especially burn victims who need grafts.

Moving from cell to body, it seems that the eating disorder bulimia may be linked, in girls at least, to an excess of testosterone. Anti-testosterone therapy reduced or eliminated symptoms in patients, but it's not clear yet how widely applicable this is. Could be though, and it's very interesting!

And finally, the culmination of years of pharmaceutical industry marketing and lobbying: a drug for people who aren't sick! A study (funded, of course, by Glaxo SmithKline, which makes the drug) suggests that the SSRI antidepressant Paxil may be useful in treating hypochondriacs. Not to belittle people who compulsively think themselves sick, but really, this is bloody hilarious!!!

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Friday, January 05, 2007


Buffy Sing-a-Long Flyer Loft Cinema
Originally uploaded by azLee.
Like Chrisafer says, except in Atlanta too!

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Brains are important. Smart people caused the Democrats to take control of the House and Senate, electing us our first female Speaker, and scientists keep figuring out cool stuff that can make our lives better, and make us all even smarter still!

It seems that millions of people are growing up to be less smart than they could be, and much of this could be alleviated if only they had more toys. That's right: more toys. Well, that and better nutrition, but toys is so much more sensational a thing to say.

Once we get smart, of course, we want to stay that way, and the prospect of Alzheimer's is so scary in part because it takes away our hard-won intelligence and knowledge. The good news is, it seems, that doing simple 'mental exercises' could help stave off dementia, and improve our performance here and now as well.

The results of our smarter selves? Well, there's stuff like this: Johns Hopkins researchers have patented a new sugar combination to fight cancer. By binding cancer-killer butyrate to N-acetyl-D-mannosamine, it allows for quick access to target cells, and seems to effectively kill them. Though the results are only on culture so far, this is a really promising step.

With all this new information flying at us all the time, it needs storage: and smart people at Seagate claim that they've found what looks like a way to make 30+ terabyte drives available pretty soon. What comes after tera?

Finally, people who read this blog are clearly pretty smart. Not just because you're reading it, but because at least 60% of you know better than to read it using Internet Explorer! ...I'm just sayin...

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Long life, Quick Death 

The secret of long life and slower aging may be more simple than we'd imagined, but I sincerely doubt it. A major line of research for some time has been in to the relationship between education and longevity: it seems that more education, in and of itself, improves lifespan and health. One idea is that more educated people are wealthier, and have more access to care; another is that schooling helps build strong social networks, which are beneficial. Neither of these really pans out in the data. I wonder if studies have looked at whether or not the schooling has to be continuous?

Obviously, much of longevity is determined by genetics - people with certain genetic defects don't live very long, etc. But what if some genes are so toxic that they just can't exit anywhere, ever, in any living being? That's what a group of researchers are looking for: a set of 'prime' DNA sequences, that aren't found in any living thing. What an oddly cool concept!

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Anorexic Girls Kill 

And not just themselves! We learned yesterday that girls who read magazines about dieting learn to do so in dangerous ways - like purging and starving themselves - but in that case we only thought about the havoc they wreak on themselves and those who have to clean up after them.

Today we learn that extreme dieters are the number one type of 'sick' passengers who end up delaying the New York subway. Late for work on Wall Street? Blame that scrawny-assed wannabe-model-actress who refused breakfast!

As if delaying trains wasn't bad enough, it seems that men who father daughters instead of sons are more likely to have prostate cancer! Granted, this is not their daughters' fault, but segues are hard. It seems that a defect in the Y chromosome is associated with both reduced 'male' sperm viability and with prostate cancer. Interesting...

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A New Year 

Happy New Year, everyone! Kicking off 2007 right, there's all kinds of science out there, and we should take note.

Don't take too much note, however, of diet and weight-loss articles: they may be harmful! Unsurprisingly, researchers found that girls who read 'Attain your Perfect Body' articles in girly magazines are more likely to practice unhealthy weight-control habits (smoking, purging, et cetera) than were girls at a higher reading level.

Speaking of brain damage, US researchers have grown a dozen genetically engineered cattle without the gene for the prion disrupted in mad cow disease. These cattle, while not currently intended for food production, could be a fantastic proof-of-concept for future engineered livestock to be free of disease, or more nutritious. Cool!

The good news: regular, moderate drinking seems to lower your risk of a heart attack, even if you have high blood pressure. Pour me another!

Finally, a parrot has a vocabulary of almost 1000 English words, and seems to use the language as well as a human child - creating neologisms and some attempts at humor.

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