"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!!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Meet the Toyger... 

Seriously, a mini-tiger? YES PLEASE! I'm not even a cat person, but I want one of these guys so bad it hurts.

And that's not the only wonderful science brings us today.

Canadian researchers have identified a peptide, which they are calling innate defense regulator peptide (IDR-1), that appears to be able to upregulate the innate immune system without a dangerous inflammatory response, offering hope against antibiotic resistant infections (among other things).

The battle against HIV/AIDS may get some new help now, as the WHO has published its recommendation that heterosexual men in sub-Saharan African be circumcised as a preventive measure. Now, I won't re-hash all the innumerable problems with this approach and its announcement (go here for a good, if shrill, discussion), but if it has any chance of helping, I say go for it. The potential harm is minimal, especially if the media is willing to be a little, teensie bit responsible about it.* In a possibly-more-important discovery, a US-UK team of researchers have found that green tea's famous epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) could help stop HIV, by interfereing with its ability to bind to cells. The work is really preliminary, but also has tons of potential.

And possibly good news for ADD** folks (like me): MIT researchers have found that different kinds of attention seem to be governed by different areas of the brain. The executive-function type attention, which is often the thing that us ADD folks lack seems to reside in the PFC, and could perhaps be improved separately from other attention types. Interesting...

* OK, so there's a good chance this'll be a disaster.
* * I don't actually buy any of this ADD stuff. 50 or 100 years ago, people who were interested in lots of different things and didn't like to do one thing too long were called "Renaissance Men," which was a compliment. Now we get tossed on Ritalin and told to settle down, which makes no one happier.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shaking Things Up 

Or, at least, changing the way we think of them. Everyone's probably heard about this already, but I think it's so bloody cool that it merits attention here: American researchers discovered a pair of twins who aren't fraternal, aren't identical, but are semi-identical chimeras. The thought is that two sperm fertilized the same egg, which then split into two embryos. So, the kids have some body parts that are with one sperm's set of chromosomes, other parts with the other. So. Cool!

Speaking of reproduction, those-sex-shy pandas, whose reproductive behavior suggests maybe they really do want to become extinct, are being treated to panda porn, in hopes that it'll inspire them to get busy and make more pandas. I wonder if they have porn music too?

Finally, and not-really-relatedly, Samsung announced that they've developed a 64-gigabyte solid state hard drive. Damn! I knew I bought the new laptop too soon!!!

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Angry Sex and Chocolate 

No, it's not (just) what I did last night. A Leeds PhD candidate has written reveals, in her forthcoming thesis, the blindingly obvious fact that people liked porn even before the modern era (anyone surprised by this should take a Japanese art history class). Her work focused on erotic literature published in the 1700's in England, and she found that public and group readings were not uncommon, and that even the poor (who were considered illiterate because they could not write, but could read) were at least as big fans as the gentry. She also found that much of the material was, er, not especially complimentary towards women.

What they didn't have in the 18th century, on the other hand, was oral contraception. Unfortunately, it seems that modern women may also stop having that too, thanks to a 2005 Medicare-budget-slash which stopped incentives for pharmaceutical companies to provide pill discounts to school health facilities.

Once all of our current college students have their babies, they will have to worry about caring for them. Science, unfortunately, is no help there: studies indicate that good-quality child care is both good and bad for kids. I wonder what the actual research publications say (as opposed to what The Weekly ReaderUSA Today says).

What goes with sex? Anger! And testosterone. A study has found that viewing angry faces stimulate learning and cognitive performance in people with high testosterone. This really has little to do with sex, but it was fun to try and make the association.

To have sex at all, you want to be in good health. What's good for you? Chocolate!!! Another study has found that eating dark chocolate improves circulatory health, and doesn't necessarily lead to weight gain. Also, blueberries might help prevent bowel cancer. And aren't chocolate-covered blueberries an aphrodisiac?

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Watching You 

Your cell phone has GPS built in. Using your number, your location can be found. See?

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Friday, March 23, 2007

We Are the Robots 

Well, women who get boob jobs are on their way: like Sir Mix-a-lot said, "silicone parts are made for toys." Be all that as it may, the University of Florida felt it necessary to expend resources to discover that women who undergo breast enlargement get a boost in self-esteem. They also saw "improved sexuality," whatever that means. Still no cure for (breast) cancer.

Something that may actually improve your mood and/or sexual whatever is coffee. And the good news is, all that bad stuff your mother used to tell you would happen if you drank too much? Well, some of it's not true. Heavy coffee drinkers don't experience a significant increase in blood pressure, even relative to non-drinkers. Of course, research on the health effects of coffee are notoriously confounded by everything from age to profession, etc.

Finally, once you're sick, you might someday get little robots put inside you to find out what's wrong. Everyone's mentioned the film "Fantastic Voyage," and I will too, because that's what this is: Canadian researchers have successfully injected and navigated nanobots through an artery to have a look inside. Very cool!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Something in the Air 

Since September 2001, American travelers have been subjected to ever-increasingly ridiculous and ineffective 'security measures.' The most recent set of rules, which comprise TSA's War on Moisture, bans passengers from carrying any liquids or gels onto a plane, in response to a botch attempt at a scientifically impossible attack.

Now, it comes out that the rules themselves are posing a real health threat to passengers: people attempting to comply have been putting contact lens solution into smaller containers, only to inadvertently put other things in their eyes. Admittedly, doing this borders on Darwin Award territory, but due to poor general knowledge about such things as sterility, etc., it is a serious health risk and one that can be easily prevented.

Speaking of Darwin Awards, smoking should garner some sort of honorable mention. We all know how bad it is for us, but people continue to insist that they're *special* or don't care and keep smoking, dragging down everyone else's health too. And, of course, this is all more than a little bit due to tobacco companies' aggressive marketing tactics. The newest game - "potentially reduced-exposure product" (PREP) cigarettes - are claimed to be 'less likely to cause cancer,' an easy out for smokers who don't want to quit. Needless to say, there is no evidence to support these safety claims, but I doubt that will stop anyone making them.

Finally, Indian car maker Tata has licensed technology to produce an air-powered car. I don't really understand how the powertrain works, but if it does like it claims, it'll be a GINORMOUS deal: to eliminate fossil fuel burning engines (or even just reduce their use) would have incredible benefits for everyone. Except Halliburton and Exxon, so don't expect the things to be available in the US anytime soon.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Changing Shape 

Yeah, being in 'good shape' via diet and exercise is good - it may even make you smarter!* - but there are more interesting shape-changing things around today. First off, it appears that global warming may be exerting noticeable evolutionary impact already: Scottish sheep have been getting smaller as winters get more mild. If we're seeing a change in sheep, we can pretty safely assume changes in other animals as well**!

But it's possible that sheep won't need to be as big, or produce enough wool, if Philips Electronics' newest patent works out: the company has woven 'muscle fibers' into clothes, which can be activated by a power source to auto-fit them to your body (PDF). Sounds pretty cool, but I can't imagine it being comfortable. And what if you get rained on? Will you be rusted in to your clothes?!

Changing shape in the bad sense, human papilloma virus (HPV) causes cells to grow abnormally, often leading to genital warts and cancer. With an effective vaccine available to women, some attention has turned to seeing if it works on men too. I can't imagine why it wouldn't, nor can I think of a reason not to give it to us - if for no other reason than lowering the number of reservoirs in which resistant strains might develop. But, of course, this is America, and some people don't like saving lives.

Speaking of cancer - it appears that vitamin C is still good for you. It may protect against oral cancer, reducing the risk of pre-cancerous lesions. BUT! You have to get it from real food, not pills. One more reason to add more fruits and veggies to your diet!

* Like all stereotypes, the whole dumb-jock archetype isn't a myth, but also not the whole story. People who focus on one thing - athletics or academics - aren't likely to be great at the other. Similarly, his sample of neuroscience students just doesn't scream "external validity."

** It's not clear whether warm weather also makes sheep gay.

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Friday, March 16, 2007


I've got too much to do today, and there is of course so much cool science to talk about!

First, it turns out that your old CPR instructions weren't the best: a Japanese study indicates that for heart attack victims (as opposed to drowning victims or overdoses), chest compressions alone are better than compressions and mouth-to-mouth. This makes some sense, and if the word gets out in the popular consciousness (unlikely, as mouth-to-mouth is so popular on medical drama TV), it could really improve outcomes for many people.

Speaking of breathing, German researchers have developed a catalyst to mimic the part of photosynthesis where CO2 is broken up and carbon fixed for use as fuel. This could be majorly important to future fuels, and is a really big step (assuming it really works!).

Another 'troublesome' element could be zinc: UK researchers have found elevated levels of the metal in patients with age-related macular degeneration. Patients with Alzheimer's also show elevated zinc in that disease's characteristic plaques, further boosting the idea of AMD as "ocular Alzheimer's" and possibly suggesting new treatments for both.

Good news for immune disease sufferers: Japanese researchers have successfully transplanted artificial lymph nodes into mice, and got them producing immune cells. This could be a really HUGE step.

Bad news for hyperglycemics, though: it seems that hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) is linked to increased risk of cancer. The effect is strongest in women, but men see it too, and it is independent of body weight.

Finally, genetic studies have found that random gene mutations are more common in autism spectrum disorders (no, vaccines DO NOT cause this disease), and phthalates are really, really bad for you.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Solid Liquids 

Australian researchers and artists should team up with Jesus. The latter is supposed to be able to turn water into wine, and the former is turning wine into dresses. This is really a pretty cool project - they're using the cellulose film produced when wine sours to make seamless dresses, and possibly someday ones that can actually be worn.

Speaking of liquids and things you have to be drunk to understand, physicists have found that the universe appears to be what they call a "string-net liquid." That is, that the electrons and whatnot we're used to considering as fairly basic particles are actually just the 'ends' of strings, that move about all over the place like noodles in soup. This sounds incredibly cool, and herbertsmithite is a pretty cool name for a new state of matter, but I still don't really get what it all means.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Permanent Damage 

We learned last week that stress seems to be especially bad for kids - this week suggests another reason why. Illinois researchers found that when young rats were severely stressed, new brain cells they generated die off more than expected. This could lead to any number of problems later on, but may point at some kind of interventions for people after severely traumatic experiences.

Speaking of traumatizing: it appears that snowboarders, aside from being annoying what with their constant extreme this and extreme that, are stressing out alpine wildlife, and putting them at risk. I wonder if snowboarders' frequently enviro-hippie nature will persuade them to take more care, or if this just makes them feel more EXTREME.

Brain damage is, of course, a really stressful event. A French case study suggests that some help may come to the severely brain-damaged from a surprising source: the drug zolpidem (Ambien). A woman who had had severe hypoxic brain damage, leaving her unable to move, speak, or care for herself at all, was able to move and feed herself, and communicate on some levels, when treated with the drug. Trials are underway, but the presumed mechanism is zolpidem's agonism of the GABA system. This is really cool.

Finally, some really good news (maybe) comers from Manchester. Researchers there have found a possible key to TB's toughness: it contains many more P450 genes than are expected from bacteria. The upshot of this is that a class of antifungal drugs, the azoles, can kill TB by inhibiting this molecule. This is potentially a MAJOR step in finally getting rid of TB, which kills millions of (mostly poor) people each year.

UPDATE: Men stare at people and animal's crotches when watching TV, women look at faces. Yeah, this pretty much sums up gender theory. (via BoingBoing)

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mr. Winston 

Well, I'm on vacation and don't have much interesting to say, so here's Winston. He rocks.

Also, you should probably know that men don't take very good care of themselves (and the Washington Post should really tone down the trite and tired stereotypes in its editorials), and that trying to address your weight problems with surgery might lead to encephalopathy and memory loss.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Fatty McSmokesalot 

Smoking and obesity are the two biggest preventable risk factors for poor health, this we all know. The question is how do we get people to quit smoking and lose weight (or, more importantly, get some exercise)? Well, today's news offers some really bad suggestions: banning more stuff.

UNC researchers found that watching R-rated movies and lots of TV made white teens more likely to smoke, but not black teens. They aren't sure why they found this difference, but suspect it might be that more characters are white, and kids identify with people like themselves. The methods of this study are, it seems, a bit dubious - the reliability of their scales is not established, and also I wonder about external validity.

But, no doubt, certain factions will use this study to demand a ban on smoking in movies. Which will (a) never happen, and (b) have at best a marginal effect on real smoking rates. Oh well.

A review of research on diet and health has found that drinking non-diet soda on a regular basis seems to be associated with unhealthier eating habits in general, increased risk of obesity, and strikingly increased risk of The Beetis. It also seems that the strongest effects were seen in the 'best' studies reviewed, though no criteria for that judgment is given here.

The problem? Passing laws to "rein in soft drink consumption" is ridiculous prospect. Almost as bad as encouraging people to encourage kids to drink diet soda. Which, among other things, interferes with bone growth and probably causes neurological damage. The only legislative approach likely to be effective here is going after advertising...and even that's a longshot.

Finally, some good-ish news: Prevention magazine, comissioned by the American Podiatric Medical Association, has published a list of the top 100 "walkable" big cities in the US. Madison, WI comes in at the top of the list, which while I think is a nice idea, clearly has some SEVERE methodological flaws. Like, for instance, the fact that Atlanta is at number 53. Uhm, no. Oh well, I guess someone had to pay for the study!

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Fat and Robots 

Weight loss is big business. Every time we turn on the TV, or peek into our SPAM folders, we're assailed by a million-and-one advertisements, calling us fat and cajoling us to buy [insert likely placebo here] to change all that. Those TV ads are expensive, and at least a few morons seem to still click on SPAM messages (buying things seen via SPAM should be a capital crime, IMHO), so the money is clearly there.

But what works?!?!? That's the big question. Well, a Stanford study (which may or may not be published, el WaPo doesn't say or cite) of about 300 women followed for a year suggests that Atkins may not have been all wrong. From the article it's really hard to glean what the data actually say, but it seems at least that Atkins didn't have the cataclysmic effects on blood lipids expected, and that it may have been associated with more weight gain than other diets tested. But then again, big money's involved here, so who knows who was futzing with the data.

Speaking of diet and fat, Michigan researchers are trying to validate one of my biggest research pet peeves: that BMI is a terrible measure of obesity. Good work y'all! Also, Pittsburgh researchers have found that increased omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may be linked to increased grey matter, especially in areas related to mood and memory. Interesting!

We've heard all the hoopla about circumcision as a method of slowing HIV spread in Africa (see here for a good, if rather shrill, discussion on how bad the discourse has been on this so far), right? Well, it turns out that the news might not be all good (duh!): men who go back to engaging in sex before their newly-cut-penises are fully healed may be spreading HIV to their female partners at a higher rate. The data are sparse and look pretty shakey, but this is potentially a MAJOR concern, so it's worth investigating ASAP.

Speaking of ethics, South Korea is working on a Code of Ethics for robots, beginning of course with the Three Laws. Their code will expand on Asimov's model, and include rules on how humans should treat robots as well. Hopefully members of the commission have done more than watch I, Robot and Blade Runner before considering all this.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reality Imitates Life Imitates Reality.... 

School is way more like reality TV than I like (or is it the other way around?). A few times every season, we go before the judges, and some get voted off the island: we have exams. So here I sit, trying to regurgitate all I've learned so far onto paper in random order so that I can be officially judged.

My one non-take-home exam is today, in epidemiologic methods. I don't really feel like we've learned much this semester, and I certainly couldn't tell you what we learned if we did learn anything. We get to bring our own formula sheets, which is nice, but ultimately makes me further question the utility of what we're doing.

We clearly don't need to *know* these formulas. At this point a reasonably equipped pocket calculator will do most of the calculations in a fraction of an instant, and with a laptop and internet, you can do the rest of them as quickly. And yet, instead of really digging in to learning how to apply and interpret, we spend our time calculating things like 95% confidence intervals and p-values BY HAND. I mean, once or twice is an important learning tool, but it's been a semester and a half. From what I hear, it'll be the full 2 years. WHY?!?!?

I keep wondering what school has to do with reality, except preparing me for the rigors of competition on reality TV.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Good for Kids, Bad for Kids 

Nobody wanted to be the fat kid. Well, ok, there was that one boy who stole all the cupcakes every day, but he probably wasn't clever enough to make the connection anyways. But parents - another reason not to let your kids get too fat: it seems that obese girls tend to hit puberty significantly earlier than do thinner ones. This is troublesome for any number of reasons*.

Being obese is also a risk factor for more injuries, which cause pain. A Canadian study suggests that ibuprofen (what's in Advil, Motrin, etc.) is more effective at treating kids' pain than acetaminophen (Tylenol) and even codeine in emergency department trials. The trial of 300 kids might be a little small though, considering the wide age range (6-17 years) and general variability of kids. Still, an interesting find.

Speaking of causing children pain (because really, it's so much fun to do**), Stanford researchers have found that kids may be more susceptible to brain damage due to stress. The famous HPA-axis, which forms a loop controlling stress and stress hormones, among other things, can be a person's own worst enemy.

If one suffers too much stress, the axis can 'overload,' and release too much cortisol, which can damage the brain. Specifically, the hippocampus, which not only then further fails to regulate cortisol, but also can't do its other jobs like making memories or processing information. Kids, whose brains are still developing, are logically thought to be more susceptible to this effect. I had some PTSD as a kid, so I'm now blaming that for all my troubles. Yay new scapegoats!

And speaking of how the brain works, European researchers think that they've figured out how the brain's excitatory-inhibitory balance is maintained. Or, at least part of how. Looking at neocortical pyramidal cells,
the team found that Martinotti cells seem to act as a sort of 'circuit breaker' or fusebox, inhibiting transmission when other excitatory signaling goes above a certain frequency. This is some cool stuff!

* I have to admit that I nearly spewed coffee out my nose when I read that obesity lead to earlier breast development. I mean...don't fat people...have...breasts...anyways!?!?!**
** Yes, I'm going straight to hell. See ya'll there. :-)

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Grammar Police, Idiot Brigade 

So I'm a bit OCD about grammar. I was reading an article written by a fellow student, on a topic near and dear to my heart, but had to stop midway through when I encountered the following: "...as an American who's parents have no insurance..." But nothing makes me crazier than when I know I'm fucking up, but don't know why.

So this is a question for anyone out there who knows better than me: am I doing that/which correctly? I think of it this way: THAT specifies, WHICH defines - "That chair, which is red," etc. Or am I still recovering from my DCPS days?

Speaking of public schools, Virginia governor Tim Kaine is going halfway towards doing the right thing with regards to Gardasil and students in his state: he will sign a bill requiring that girls get the vaccine, but not if their parents object. Why, you ask, might parents object to their daughters being protected from a deadly disease (cervical cancer)? Well, because having the vaccine might encourage them to be sluttier, of course! There's no evidence that this will be the case - most American adults don't know what HPV is, let alone pre-teen kids. But who cares? This is America. we don't need evidence!

Sorta similarly, the death of a Maryland 12-year-old, due to a tooth infection which spread to his brain, has put the focus on poor people's lack of dental care. This is a major issue, but generally gets forgotten in discussions of health care coverage. I'm not really *that* poor, but I haven't been to a dentist in about six years, because I have no insurance, and couldn't pay for it. Another reason we need national coverage!

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Friday, March 02, 2007

So Maybe Hard Work Could Kill You 

A small study of Olympic wrestlers indicates that Hepatitis B, which can cause liver damage, failure, and death, can be transmitted through sweat. This is fairly scary - if hep-B can be transmitted this way, what about other things? As far as hep-B is concerned though, it's just more evidence that we need comprehensive vaccinations. Hepetitis B is a very stupid way to die, especially in the US where vaccine is readily available.

On the other hand, sweating isn't always a bad thing: it can be part of losing weight, for which there may be yet another good reason. A presentation at the AAAS meeting this year highlighted a growing problem of obesity in the medical arena: being really fat can make otherwise safe drugs become toxic. Acetominaphen (Tylenol) is one of the biggest problems. The data here are sketchy, but worth noting. Drugs are an important part of our lives ;-)

There is some good news on the drug front today, on both the HIV and malaria fronts. Sanofi-Aventis' neglected disease program has just released - off patent! - a tailored dose, combination pill for malaria. ASAQ combines two potent antimalarials, artesunate and amodiaquine, into one pill, with single-pill doses for adults, children, and infants. The idea is that ASAQ will be manufactured locally, making is cheaply available to poor parts of the world (where malaria does its damage). Its production could, additionally, help develop economies.

Pfizer released news this week of the first HIV drug to interact with the crucial CCR5 receptor - a goal since that protein's role in infection was discovered in the 1990's. The new drug is of course on fast-track regulatory review, and could begin use later this year, bringing new hope to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

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