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Science Scoops

A Cure for the Common Cold?

Got the sniffles? Eat some chicken soup and get some rest. For years, there has been no reliable cure for the common cold, or any other viral infection. The best bet was to treat the symptoms, and hope your body’s immune system could fight it off. But the human immune system has a tough time beating dangerous viral diseases such as Ebola, H1N1 influenza, or dengue fever.

DRACO to the rescue! Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer is the full mouthful of a name given to a new drug invented by Todd Rider of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “In theory, it should work against all viruses,” says Rider.

DRACO contains a protein produced by the immune system. This protein attaches to a type of RNA that only shows up in cells attacked by viruses. Rider’s innovative idea was to add another protein to the mix—one that causes cell apoptosis, or suicide. Basically, DRACO seeks out cells containing a virus, and then makes those cells kill themselves (along with the virus).

That’s pretty genius!

Lab trials showed that the drug could kill 15 different viruses cultured in dishes outside of a living body. Rider’s team also cured mice infected with H1N1. Next step: tests on larger animals and eventually humans. Maybe future generations will have no idea what it’s like to be sick for days with a cold!

Secret Taste Cells—All over Your Body

When you chew up a piece of candy and swallow it, you can’t taste it anymore, right? Wrong! You can’t feel a yummy sugary taste once it leaves your tongue, but taste cells inside your stomach and even your intestines sense the sweetness. These secret taste cells tell other cells to start breaking down the sugar for energy. And they have other important jobs, too. When you eat something rancid or when bacteria invade your body, bitter-sensing taste cells figure out what’s wrong and sound an alarm—then you start sneezing, throwing up, or having diarrhea to get rid of the harmful, bad-tasting stuff.

“I’ll bet you that in terms of total number of cells, there are more [taste cells] outside the mouth than inside the mouth,” Thomas Finger of the University of Colorado told Science News. He first saw these secret taste cells inside a mouse’s nose. This wasn’t just any mouse: Its taste cells had been genetically modified to glow green when exposed to light. “It was like looking at little green stars at night,” Finger said. Since first looking up that mouse’s nose, Finger has studied how taste cells inside a mouse’s nose help set off the alarm when bitter bacteria invade. Bacteria that attack mice and humans are different, though. Human noses may be next for secret taste-cell research!

Your Plastic Brain on Drugs

Alcoholics can’t shake the urge to have a drink. Where does that urge come from? Yes, it comes from the brain, but it’s often triggered by places and situations. If an alcoholic has spent a lot of time drinking in a certain club, then he (or she) will be very likely to get a craving the next time he goes there. This kind of association is well known to people who have dealt with addictions, and now a scientific study shows how it works.

Alcohol and other addictive drugs cause the brain to release dopamine. This neurotransmitter signals other areas of the brain to remember where and how an experience took place — so there is a better chance of repeating it in the future. “People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it’s a learning transmitter,” says Hitoshi Morikawa of the University of Texas at Austin. His research with mice showed that a period of “binge drinking,” which releases a lot of dopamine over a period of time, could actually increase the brain’s plasticity, or ability to learn. Unfortunately, this isn’t the good kind of learning! Basically, the brain is learning how to get itself drunk again and again.

Hitoshi sums it up: “There’s a growing consensus in the addiction field that addiction is a learning and memory disorder. We learn behavior associated with these drugs too well.”

Hitoshi’s hope is to find a way to “de-wire” the addicted brain and help it unlearn these dangerous associations. Good luck!

Dopamine — A type of neurotransmitter, or chemical that carries information in the brain

Feud! When Is Neuroscience Too Much Like Voodoo Magic?

What is your brain doing when you’re happy, frustrated, or jealous? Social neuroscientists want to find out. Using techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI) social neuroscientists measure what parts of your brain activate in certain situations.

According to a controversial paper titled “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience,” there’s something fishy going on in many of these fMRI studies that try to match areas of the brain to thoughts and feelings. The author of the paper, Ed Vul, a Ph.D. student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), claims that 31 out of 54 recent neuroscience papers he surveyed used flawed statistical techniques, meaning that the results these papers reported may not be trustworthy. The “voodoo” is in the reported relationships between a brain region and a behavior — in many cases, the correlation is simply too good to be true, according to Vul.

Outraged social neuroscientists responded with a flurry of letters, blog posts, and a formal rebuttal. The details of their arguments delve into advanced statistics, but they basically want to explain why their methods are, in fact, trustworthy. Of course, these scientists want to defend their own research, but they also want to protect the integrity of their entire field. “We are worried that the whole enterprise of social neuroscience falls into disrepute,” neuroscientist Chris Frith of University College London told Nature news. Frith had authored one of the 31 critiqued papers.

Vul published a response to the rebuttal, and also changed the name of his paper to remove the word “voodoo.” The new title is “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition.” Simply changing the name of the paper isn’t likely to end the feud, though. But thanks to Vul’s criticisms, future scientists and science writers may be more careful about the kinds of correlations they report.

Butterflies Find a Cure

When you’re feeling sick, your mom or dad gets you medicine. But what does a butterfly do? The monarch butterfly, famous for its long migration and bright orange and black wings, seeks out a cure for its caterpillars by laying eggs on medicinal plants.

Wait, you might be saying, don’t butterflies only eat milkweed? You’re right, but the species of milkweed matters. These plants contain toxic chemicals called cardenolides, and tropical milkweed has more toxins than swamp milkweed. Monarchs are not harmed when they eat the toxins; instead, they build up the poison inside their bodies, making them toxic, too!

But even a toxic insect has problems. The parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha infects monarch caterpillars. The infection lasts through the transformation to butterflies, and can be passed on to future young. The more toxic a caterpillar or butterfly is, the better it will be at fighting off the parasite. So it’s a good idea for caterpillars to eat the tropical milkweed instead of swamp milkweed.

But caterpillars don’t know what’s good for them. Jaap de Roode, who heads a monarch butterfly lab at Emory University in Georgia, tried giving the caterpillars a choice between tropical and swamp milkweed, and the baby bugs showed no preference.

Of course, Mom knows best. Female monarchs infected with the parasite preferred to lay their eggs on tropical milkweed, while uninfected females didn’t care. “These very small animals have the ability to make a distinction between plants that will be good for their offspring and plants that will be bad for their offspring,” says de Roode. “Somehow, they know that they are infected, and they know what to do about it.” Pretty amazing! Those cured caterpillars will be all ready to fly to Mexico.

Dr. Camera

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the healthiest of them all?

Take a look in this mirror. It’s looking back at you, and measuring your pulse! A camera in the corner senses your face, and a computer tracks tiny differences in brightness as blood moves beneath your skin. Your pulse then displays as a number at the bottom of the mirror.

“You can imagine every day when you look into the mirror, not only do you see your physical appearance, you also get a snapshot of your health,” says Ming-Zher Poh, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who designed the system. Eventually, Poh plans to add measurements of respiration, blood-oxygen levels, and blood pressure to the device.

Using a camera to measure vital signs isn’t completely new, but no one’s done it before with an ordinary, low-resolution webcam. Plus, Poh developed new techniques for tracking faces — the system can follow up to three people at once, even if they’re moving around slightly.

Eventually, Poh’s system could be installed on a cell phone, laptop computer, or any other device with a video camera. High-risk patients could be monitored continuously throughout the day, and regular people could keep daily records of their health, which their doctor could also access through the Internet.

Here’s my question: Will the camera give out stickers after each visit?

Microgrippers Invade. . .Your Body!

A six-armed metal spider, tiny as a fleck of dust, travels through tubes and tissue to its destination: a patch of liver cells. Snap! Its arms close around the cells, and it heads back to waiting doctors to deliver the precious cargo.

Someday, surgical tests may no longer require long needles or incisions. Tiny machines could navigate the body, targeting specific cells or dropping medicines in just the right location. The story I just told about the metal spider hasn’t yet happened in a living body, but it’s been simulated at David Gracias’ lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Typical tiny medical machines run on bulky batteries or drag pesky wires behind them. Gracias’ goal was to run a microgripper without any power source. “It is hard to make something autonomous if you need batteries. You have to recharge the batteries, and making small batteries is very difficult,” Gracias told the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

How do you make something run without power? Layers and magnets. The microgripper is shaped like a six-legged metal spider; the legs are positioned just right, so they want to snap shut. The only thing keeping them open is a thin layer of polymers, which are the main ingredient of most plastics, but also occur naturally in the body. Natural biopolymers break down when certain enzymes, or proteins designed to cause chemical reactions, come close. All Gracias has to do is introduce the right enzyme at the right time and place, and the polymers holding the arms open will dissolve, letting the machine snap shut. Another specially designed layer of polymers triggered by a different enzyme opens the machine again.

Where do the magnets come in? That’s how Gracias steers his microgrippers. In a lab test, his team used a magnetic wand to successfully pilot the microgripper through fake innards to reach a piece of bird liver tissue, simulating a real liver biopsy where doctors need a sample of liver cells for testing. “We were also able to navigate the microgrippers through tight corners, and pick up a bead to drop it off deep inside a plastic model of a liver,” team member Noy Bassik says.

Of course livers are not the only destination for microgrippers and micromachines. Gracias’ team hopes to shrink them even more so they could grab a single blood or cancer cell.

Your turn! Imagine you’re a microgripper navigating through the body. Tell a short story from your perspective as you track down a cancer cell and grab it. Send your story (500 words or less) to [email protected] or mail it to: MISSION: MICROGRIPPER, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH 03458.

You can see the microgripper at work at:

Your Skin Can Hear!

You see with your eyes and hear with your ears, right? Not exactly. The body’s senses work together in mysterious ways. A 1976 study discovered that seeing a person’s mouth move affects what we hear them say. When subjects saw one syllable on a person’s lips and heard a different one in their ears, they usually report “hearing” the sound they saw or a different sound somewhere in between the two. Well, now the skin wants to get in on the hearing action: Puffs of air on the skin can change what we think we hear.

Try saying the sound “ba” with your hand in front of your mouth. Now say “pa.” Do you feel the big puff of air when you say the “p”? That’s called an aspirated sound. You should feel the same difference between the sounds “da” and “ta,” or “ga” and “ka.” Go ahead; try it! In a recent study led by Bryan Gick of the University of British Columbia in Canada, blindfolded subjects had to report what sounds they heard: ba, da, pa, or ta. While the participants listened to a voice speak these sounds, a machine sometimes blew puffs of air onto their hands, necks, or ears. Most of the participants didn’t even notice the puffs of air, but it still affected their hearing!

When there was no puff alongside any of the sounds, participants made a lot of mistakes. When the aspirated sounds came along with a puff (to any part of the body), accuracy improved by 10–20 percent. But when the puff was played with an unaspirated sound like “ba,” some subjects actually reported hearing “pa” instead. “Our skin is doing the hearing for us,” Dr. Gick told The New York Times. “People are picking up on this information that they don’t know they are using.” And it doesn’t seem to matter what part of the skin feels a puff — Gick reports that even feeling a puff on your ankle can make “p,” “t,” and “k” easier to hear. Gick hopes to use this discovery to help create better hearing aids or devices for people who work in noisy environments.

So hearing isn’t all about the ears — the eyes and skin help out, too. Gick puts it this way: “We are these fantastic perception machines that take in all the information available to us and integrate it seamlessly.”

Perception — Sensing
Integrate — Combine

Thanks to Your Twin Brother

As boys develop in the womb, they produce a lot of testosterone, the hormone that makes them develop male characteristics. But how do these doses of hormones affect a girl twin who happens to be in the womb at the same time? She doesn’t need testosterone! It turns out that these extra boy hormones do influence a girl twin’s development and perhaps even her personality later in life. These girls may be more aggressive, take more risks, and score more like boys on language and spatial reasoning tests, according to various studies by psychologists in Europe and the United States. Generally, boys tend to be better at spatial reasoning, and girls better at language. Remember, these differences don’t apply to every individual boy or girl! If you took two kids out of your class at school, it would be impossible to guess how they would act or score on a test, based on gender alone. But if you tested everyone in the whole school, you would start to see some of these differences.

You may know that girls are much more likely than boys to develop eating disorders. Most people blame this on a culture that urges girls to be skinny. But some scientists wonder if biology plays a role. A recent study led by Karen Klump of Michigan State University in East Lansing looked at data from several hundred twin pairs, girl-boy, girl-girl, and boy-boy. The girls who shared the womb with boy twins were much less likely to have eating disorders than the girls who shared the space with girl twins! So, that twin brother was good for something, right?

Boys who share the womb with girl twins, however, don’t turn out more “girly” than other boys. Why? Girls don’t need any extra doses of estrogen, the female hormone, to develop normally. In fact, estrogen is only present at trace levels in a girl during gestation. If a boy embryo doesn’t get enough testosterone, however, he can develop female characteristics. That’s because girls are the “default” state of a human baby! The fetus needs that extra testosterone to become male.

Fat + Sugar = Cheap

Fast foods and junks foods aren’t just terrible for your body; they’re tasty and easy to get. Add to that the fact that they’re cheap, and you’ve got the American obesity problem. Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington was one of the first to study the link between how much money Americans have and how overweight they are. His 2005 study, “Food Choices and Diet Costs: An Economic Analysis,” published in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that the highest rates of obesity are found in low-income households. Those oh-so-tasty but unhealthy ingredients — added sugars and fats — deliver the most energy for the least amount of money. Drewnowski pointed out that just educating people about eating healthy might not be enough. What if they can’t afford it?

“There are three things needed in order to eat healthy: knowledge, money, and time,” Drewnowski said. In 2009, he published the results of a study tracking what 164 adults in the Seattle, Washington, area ate for 15 months. The healthiest eaters were college-educated women with enough money to afford things like organic soybeans. Their diets were rich in costly nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. In contrast, participants with less money and less education ate energy-dense diets that didn’t provide as much nutrition. “As food prices go up, the natural tendency is to fill up on inexpensive sweets and fats,” said Drewnowski. “We need to make affordable nutrient-rich foods available to every American household.”

Got any ideas? How could your family eat healthier without spending more money? Send your ideas (or recipes!) to [email protected] or write to: HEALTHY ON THE CHEAP, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Watch out for Hot Ice

An unsuspecting 45-year-old man from England sat down to a meal of seemingly scrumptious grouper fish while on vacation in Antigua. He soon regretted that meal. At first, the bad fish made him horribly sick to his stomach. Two days later, the poison went to his brain. Hot tea seemed freezing cold while ice water seemed to scald his tongue. This poor tourist got ciguatera poisoning, a form of food poisoning that is actually fairly common. But not every victim suffers paradoxical dysaesthesia, the fancy name for getting hot and cold mixed up. Most reef fish, including the grouper, barracuda, and snapper, are safe to eat, but every once in a while, these fish can contain ciguatoxin, which causes a huge variety of miserable and strange symptoms. A surgeon aboard the famous explorer Captain James Cook’s ship described a case of ciguatera poisoning back in 1774. He wrote that several men had imaginary feelings of loose teeth, pain in their arms and legs, and burning sensations in their faces. Usually, these kinds of symptoms go away within a few days or weeks, and ciguatera poisoning is not deadly.

The poor Englishman who thought hot was cold and cold was hot didn’t get completely better for ten months after eating bad fish. Peter Bain, a researcher at Imperial College in London, described this unusual case in the October 2007 issue of Practical Neurology.

May 2008
Memory Erasers

You wake up one morning with blank spots in your brain. Something, or someone, is erasing your memories! Is this a science fiction nightmare, or a scientific breakthrough?

Science is still far away from erasing specific memories, but a team led by Roberto Malinow of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York found a certain molecule, glutamate receptor 1 (GluR1), that seems to be partially responsible for collecting strong, emotional memories. You probably remember that time you broke your arm, or got stung by a bee, or won a raffle, but do you remember what you ate for breakfast the first day of February last year? Emotional experiences cause your body to produce the stress hormone norepinephrine, which helps make lasting memories.

The new research discovered how norepinephrine helps attach a small molecule called a phosphate group to GluR1. The phosphate group helps GluR1 molecules move to the surface of a nerve cell faster, where they send and receive signals from other nerve cells. If those phosphate groups don’t attach, the GluR1 won’t be able to do its job.

It’s scary to think about messing with memory, but some people wish they could forget scary events. “In post-traumatic stress disorder, where you have too much emotionally charged memory, this [GluR1] could provide a molecular target for possible treatments,” Malinow told Science News.

If you’ve read Lois Lowry’s famous science fiction book The Giver, you may remember that it’s about a society where bad memories are kept by one special person, and no one else has to think about those things.

What do you think? If science finds a way to do it, would you want to erase your painful memories? How would the ability to erase memory change our lives?

Email your response to [email protected] or write to MIND TRICKS, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

May 2008
News to Zap Your Brain!

A fifty-year-old, obese man had tried absolutely everything short of surgery to lose weight. Finally, he decided to have electrodes implanted inside his brain. All he had to do was hit a button, and zap!, his hunger was supposed to disappear.

This procedure is called deep brain stimulation, and has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease. It’s not a normal treatment for obesity, but an almond-sized area of the brain called the hypothalamus helps control hunger. So neuroscientists thought they could use this procedure to help control his appetite too. While a team of neuroscientists led by Andres Lozano, of the Toronto Western Hospital in Ontario, Canada, were trying to identify the best spot on the hypothalamus to place the electrodes, they stumbled upon something amazing. When they stimulated a certain spot, the patient vividly experienced a memory from about thirty years before! The more electrical voltage they applied, the clearer the memory became. After three weeks of continuous stimulation, the patient took learning tests with and without stimulation. With the electrodes switched on, he scored three times higher. The team is now testing deep brain stimulation on patients with Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects memory.

Did deep brain stimulation cure the man’s obesity? Nope. The procedure worked — with the electrodes turned on, the man’s appetite disappeared — but he had the button to control those electrodes, and he turned them off at night, then ate to his heart’s content!

Electrodes — Tiny objects that emit electric charges

Parkinson’s Disease — A progressive nervous system disease that causes muscle tremors, movement difficulty, and weakness

March 2008
Dirty Diaper Discovery

Did you know that the number of all the human cells that make up your body is less than the number of bacteria cells that live in it? In fact, the bacteria outnumber your cells ten to one! And most of these little creatures live in your intestines, commonly called your gut.

Before birth, a baby’s gut is squeaky clean. But within just a few days, bacteria start colonizing it causing diapers to get smelly. Those poop-filled diapers are treasure troves to geneticist Chana Palmer and her colleagues at Stanford University. They spent a year poking around in fourteen babies’ diapers looking for clues as to how our teeming zoo of gut bacteria develops.

“The infant’s gut is an exciting and rapidly evolving place,” Palmer told Scientific American magazine. “Populations [of bacteria in the gut] are quite unstable over the first few months, but by a year of age they resemble each other and also resemble adult guts.” As a new baby learns to say ga-ga and roll over, his or her gut is filling up with Bacteroides, Clostridium, Ruminococcus, and other microbes. These bacteria come from contact with the baby’s mother and other family members, and are necessary for a healthy digestive system.

Palmer’s study included a pair of fraternal twins, delivered by caesarean section. The twins’ bacteria took longer to develop (perhaps because they didn’t come in direct contact with their mother’s bacteria during birth). But when the twins’ guts finally began to flourish, their poop was more similar than any other poop in the study, suggesting that genetics plays a role in what little creatures come to dwell in our intestines.

Cesarean section — A surgical incision through the abdominal wall and uterus, performed to deliver a baby

Feb. 2008
Credit: Georgia Tech/Gary Meek
Blood Power!

Your heart pumps as much as five quarts of blood per minute through the network of tiny veins in your body. What if that energy could be used to run machines? If you saw the movie The Matrix, you may be imagining rows of humans hooked up like batteries to provide power for robots. But never fear — in nanotechnology, the robots are very tiny and they’re helping you!

Zhong Lin Wang and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new nanogenerator, a power producing chip that could be used to run many different kinds of tiny technology. Nano is a prefix that means one-billionth of a unit in size. Because the nanogenerator is so small, it can’t be made with regular tools. The different parts have to be grown using chemistry!

Wang’s nanogenerator is made of a bunch of miniscule vertical nanowires that flex against a zig-zag shaped electrode in response to any movement, including the flow of blood. When the nanowires are kept in motion, the nanogenerator produces a small but continuous flow of electricity.

“If you had a device like this in your shoes when you walked, you would be able to generate your own small current to power small electronics,” says Wang.

What’s wrong with regular batteries? Most of them are too big for nanotechnology, and the chemicals that make up batteries are dangerous. Wang’s nanogenerator uses zinc oxide, which is non-toxic and compatible with the body, so it could be placed inside your body along with a device to measure your blood pressure. Maybe someday nanobots, itty-bitty robots that are still mostly science fiction, will patrol your bloodstream and destroy diseases using power generated entirely by the constant pumping of your heart.

Electrode — A component in an electric circuit at which current is transferred between ordinary metal conductors and a gas or electrolyte (a liquid that conducts electricity because it contains charged particles either in solution or in a molten compound).

What Color Is Your Blood?

Red, right? That is, of course, unless you’re a Vulcan like Mr. Spock aboard the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek. But doctors in Canada recently got a “Spock shock” when a patient they were operating on started oozing dark green blood! Yes, for real!

According to Science News and other science news sources, a 42-year-old man was admitted to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver after he developed a dangerous condition in his legs — a result of falling asleep in a sitting position. When lead surgeon Alana Flexman and her team made an incision to relieve pressure and swelling, caused by the man’s condition, they discovered dark-green blood coursing through his arteries. Flexman immediately sent the man’s blood for analysis.

Is the patient really a Vulcan? Hardly. You see, he had been taking a large dose of sumatriptan, a special headache medicine, that caused a rare condition called sulfhemoglobinaemia. The blood turns dark green because a sulfur atom gets incorporated into the oxygen-carrying compound, hemoglobin, in red blood cells.

Normally, the green color goes away once the red blood cells regenerate. In this case, the patient had surgery before that happened. Five weeks after he stopped taking the sumatriptan, he became, once again, a red-blooded Canadian.

Martians Sleep Light!

Having trouble sleeping at night? Well, an experiment designed to help astronauts live on Mars could help insomniacs on Earth.

Charles Czeisler of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard medical school in Boston, and his colleagues found that two 45-minute exposures to bright light in the evening could help people adapt to the slightly longer day (about 40 minutes longer) on Mars. That slight difference is long enough to throw most people into a state of jet lag, which, Czeisler says, interferes with the ability to learn, remember things, react quickly and to sleep.

In the study, 12 healthy volunteers aged 22 to 33 slept for eight-hours, then stayed awake for 16-hours in their homes for at least three weeks. The researchers found a wider-than-expected variation in an internal system the human body uses to keep track of days and nights. When the researchers took blood from the volunteers every hour, they found those people with the shorter internal clock released the sleep hormone melatonin four to five hours before their usual bedtimes, while those with unusually long internal days did not release melatonin until about an hour before bedtime.

So Czeisler’s team tested the volunteers in a similar way, using two 45-minute exposures to bright light for 30 days. That done, the volunteers successfully adjusted to the Martian-length day, Czeisler said.

“The results have powerful implications for the treatment of circadian rhythm sleep disorders, including shift work disorder and advanced sleep phase disorder,” Czeisler told Reuters. This could mean that light therapy might help people whose insomnia is caused by having a long- or shorter-than-normal internal body clock, Czeisler said.

Bad to the Bone?

Actually, researchers have found that obesity is bad for the bone. As reported in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (May 2007), a new studyby Hong-Wen Deng (University of Missouri-Kansas City) and colleagues found that increasing body fat mass decreases bone mass, for people of similar weight.

The findings fly in the face of a general belief that obesity increases bone mass and is therefore good for bone health. In fact, the purpose of the recent study was to reevaluate the relationship between obesity and bone disease, taking into account the effects of total body weight on bone mass in more than 6,400 healthy adults.

Deng and his team say their finding is important because proper thinking may lead now to proper intervention or treatments. The study also reaffirms the benefits of being fit. In other words, it’s true the bigger you are, the harder you fall — and the harder it will be to get back up. So think “lean, mean, healthy machine.” !

Got Stomach Flu? Hug Your Pet!

Stomach hurt? Feel nauseated? Got a fever? Well, according to a recent report in New Scientist magazine, if you have a cat or dog, you may be in luck.

You see, Jane Heyworth, a viral specialist at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, and her colleagues have found that youngsters living in homes with pets are less likely to get a stomach flu than those living without them.

The researchers reached that curious conclusion after observing 965 children (ages four to six) for six weeks during a flu season. They recorded when — and if — these children suffered from any stomach flu symptoms: nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting. The results showed that children who had a cat or dog in their household were 30 percent less likely to show flu symptoms than children who lived in homes without pets.

The results come somewhat as a surprise. “It is a commonly held view that dogs and cats are a source of gastroenteritis,” Heyworth told New Scientist “but our results do not support that.”

Indeed, some studies have shown that people who keep pets suffer fewer health problems, such as heart disease and depression — illnesses with an obvious emotional component. But the stomach flu? How can that be?

Heyworth suggests that perhaps being licked and touched by pets may allow children to develop immunity from repeated low-level exposure to the organisms that cause the flu. The question is, do you believe the results? Let us know if you think that your pet can keep you stomach flu free. Send your comments to “Lick the Flu,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. Then look for your response in an upcoming issue.

Killing Germs with a Song

It seems as if most soaps today, especially liquid soap, are labeled “antibacterial.” This means that an active chemical ingredient, usually triclosan, is added to kill germs or bacteria (but not viruses, so antibacterial soap can’t prevent a common cold).

Soap is formed from an acid and a base. Its function is to bind with dirt and bacteria that can be easily washed off a surface (your skin, for example). It can do this because part of the soap molecule is water-binding (grabbing the dirt) and the other part is water-repellent (washing it off). So even “ordinary” soap can get rid of some bacteria.

In order to work, an antibacterial soap needs to be left on your skin for about two minutes. Most people average 10 seconds when washing their hands. (So, you think that you break the Guinness Book of World Records mark for hand washing at two seconds? Good for you — and for your bacteria!) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibacterial soaps are not needed to ward-off infection, but a good 20-second wash with regular soap and warm water is. They suggest singing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice to reach the magic 20-second mark!

Another thing to consider before you purchase that cute antibacterial liquid soap dispenser is that bacteria can benefit us. “Helpful” bacteria eat our sweat and protect us against the really nasty invasive germs. Also, some pediatricians discourage parents from using antibacterial soaps on their kids because they can be drying and harsh, if used too frequently.

One final thought: Some scientists believe that the overuse of antibacterials such as triclosan can actually promote the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibacterial treatment, just as overuse of antibiotics can increase antibiotic resistance in pathogens.

Bottom line: If you don’t need antibacterial soap to be clean, do you need it at all?

Dengue Alert!

Although dengue (also know as “dandy” or “break-bone fever”) has been around since the 1700s, it is now becoming a major international public health concern. In 2006, more than 10,000 Cambodian children contracted the disease, and more than 100 died from it.

Dengue is an acute virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes. It’s found in tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including places like Hawaii, Florida, and Texas. Symptoms include a fever that can soar up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit in children, and can lead to death within 12 hours! It can cause severe joint and muscle pain that feels like bones are breaking — hence the name “break-bone fever.”

In 2005, dengue was the most important mosquito-borne viral disease affecting humans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two-fifths of the global population is at risk of contracting the disease, and some 50 million cases are reported each year. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, however, disagrees with this number and says that twice that many people are affected annually.

Here’s the real problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no dengue vaccine is currently available, and an effective vaccine for public use will not be available for 5 to 10 years. Meanwhile, it’s expected that new dengue virus strains will likely continue to be introduced into many areas.

If that sounds frightening, it is — especially for tropical areas. Fortunately, at present, there is only a small risk for dengue outbreaks in the continental United States. (From 1977 to 2004, a total of only 3,806 suspected cases of imported dengue were reported.) Right now, as with many viral diseases, the major defense we have is surveillance. By keeping abreast of reported cases of dengue, researchers can alert the public to any outbreaks and help them and physicians to take immediate action.

Just Think!

When you hear someone say, “Don’t even think about it,” think about this: A 25-year-old man, paralyzed in all four limbs, was able to move a cursor on a computer screen and control a robotic arm simply by thinking about performing the tasks.

No, this scoop is not about some kind of weird telepathy. It’s about the miracle of science at work. This paralyzed man was, in fact, the first of four paralyzed patients who tested a new brain-sensor system developed by Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems (CNS) in Massachusetts.

Called BrainGate, this sensor relies on electrodes implanted in the patient’s brain. As reported in the journal Nature, Cyberkinetics chief scientific officer John Donoghue, working with Leigh Hochberg (Massachusetts General Hospital) and a team of scientists, implanted a tiny silicon chip with 100 electrodes into the brain’s motor cortex (the area in the brain responsible for movement).

The motor cortex usually sends its signals down the spinal cord and out to the limbs to control movement. But in this case, the activity of the cells in the motor cortex was recorded and sent to the computer, which translated the commands to move the cursor and control external devices.

“This is the dawn of major neurotechnology,” Donoghue says, adding that the ability to take signals out of the brain has. . .well. . .“taken a big step forward.”

You Snooze, You Win!

It’s been known for some time that sleep can help you remember things, like a dance step or other sense-related activities. But Jeffrey Ellenbogen of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues now have evidence that getting a good night’s sleep can also help you to firm up memories of newly acquired information, such as a sequence of facts.

As reported in the Journal of Current Biology, Ellenbogen performed a study on 48 healthy adult volunteers with no sleep problems. The volunteers, who were divided into teams, had to memorize 20 pairs of random words (such as “blanket” and “village”). Half of the volunteers began learning the word pairs at 9 a.m. and returned for testing 12 hours later, with no napping in between. The other half of the test subjects began learning word pairs at 9 p.m. and returned for testing 12 hours later — after getting an average of seven hours’ sleep.

The results? The volunteers who had a chance to sleep before the test performed 13 percent better than their sleepless peers.

Ellenbogen also gave half of the volunteers in each group an added challenge: They got to learn a new set of word pairs 12 minutes before testing, and were then ordered to ignore these new words, because they would not be on the test. Despite this trick, 76 percent of those who got a good night’s sleep accurately recalled the last-minute word pairs, compared to 32 percent of their sleepless peers.

What’s more, when the researchers repeated these tests with an additional 12 participants (but doubling the time frame to 24 hours after learning), the results remained the same. So, the next time your teacher challenges you to memorize something, just tell him or her that you’ll sleep on it.

Liquid Crystal Vision

You’ve heard of LCDs (liquid crystal displays). How about LCBs (liquid crystal bifocals)? Well, seeing is believing.

Liquid crystals are substances that can exist in an odd state — one that is sort of like a liquid and sort of like a solid. You see them all the time in flat-screen displays, like those in laptop computers, digital clocks, and microwave ovens. Now, Guoqiang Li and his colleagues at the University of Arizona have devised a way to use liquid crystals in bifocals.

Bifocals are a special type of eyeglasses that allow the user to see near objects through the lower portion of each lens and distant objects through the upper portion. Benjamin Franklin created them more than 200 years ago to help compensate for the fact that our eyes lose their flexibility with age. Such inflexibility makes it difficult for a person to shift focus from a near object to a far one, or vice versa. Now, LCBs bring Franklin’s creation into the 21st century.

As explained in the April 2006 issue of Scientific American, LCBs have a thin layer of liquid crystal sandwiched between two layers of glass ringed with electrodes. Just flick a switch and the electrodes will reconfigure the focusing power of the lens in less than a second. When tested, the LCBs provided sharp images in both the both near- and far-vision modes.

Ah! But what happens if the power drains? Not to worry, say the scientists. In case of a power failure, the lenses will revert to the far-vision mode, because, the scientists argue, most people who need bifocals have little problem seeing things at a distance. This will make the glasses safe for activities like driving — you would hope.

Let us know what you think about LCBs. Would you feel safe crossing the street knowing that someone with electrical glasses was behind the wheel of a car coming at you? Send your comments to “LCB, ICU; DO UC ME?,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. Or email it to [email protected]. Look for some of your responses in an upcoming issue.

Our Nation’s New Smog Capital!

Stop the presses! This just in!

What’s the most polluted city in the United States?

Drum roll, please. . .

Based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) smog standard on 84 days during the 2005 smog season (May through September), the greater Los Angeles region in California has surpassed Houston, TX, and the San Joaquin Valley in California to take the much uncoveted title of the nation’s Smog Capital. In other words, during the smog season, the LA region — which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties — exceeded the EPA’s smog standards on 84 days.

The totals are final. No, you can’t demand a recount (this is not an election). And no applause is necessary.

Houston and the San Joaquin Valley, which in recent years rivaled or surpassed Los Angeles as the country’s smoggiest areas, ranked lower this year.

(Applause, please.)

Ah, but there is one small caveat. In 2005, the EPA switched from measuring smog over a one-hour period to measuring it over an eight-hour span. Under the old system, Houston would have edged out Los Angeles for the top spot by violating the standard on 33 days, as compared with LA’s 30 days. Oops!

Joe Cassmassi, a manager at the LA region’s main smog-fighting agency, admitted that he’s got a tough job. But, he says, you have to put these ratings in perspective: The region’s air, he says, is considerably cleaner than it used to be. . . cough!

The Sound of Music. . .in Your Head!

Ever hear music in your head? You’re not weird. It’s a natural function of your brain.

So say a group of Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) researchers who recently published a study on this phenomenon in the journal Nature. The team used a magnetic brain scanner — using what’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — to measure brain activity while test subjects listened to music. David Kraemer, a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, and his team of researchers found that if people are listening to some familiar music that stops every now and then, the subjects can call upon memories to fill in the gaps.

“We found that people couldn’t help continuing the song in their heads,” Kraemer says, “and when they did this, the auditory cortex remained active even though the music had stopped.” The findings suggest that the brain’s auditory cortex, the part that handles information from your ears, can hold on to musical memories. Of the experiment, Kraemer’s colleague, William Kelley, says “It’s fascinating that although the ear isn’t actually hearing the song, the brain is perceptually hearing it.” The findings are enough to make Kraemer ponder whether lyrics, in fact, might be the focus of our memories.

So, maybe if you don’t want to forget something, you ought to write and sing a song about it!

Got Acne?

Well, that’s good! That’s if you believe a recent British study by Bruna Galobardes (Department of Social Medicine at the University of Bristol) and her colleagues. The researchers claim that teenage boys who suffer from acne are one-third less likely to die from coronary heart disease than their acne-challenged peers.

The researchers reached that conclusion after looking at health data relating to 10,000 male students who attended Glasgow University between 1948 and 1968.

“We found that those who had acne were also less likely to smoke, but even when we ruled out this and other factors, we found a very strong correlation between acne in youth and coronary protection later in life,” Galobardes told New Scientist magazine.

What’s the link? Galobardes believes that the androgens responsible for bringing on acne may have a protective effect on the heart or somehow affect the processes involved in creating arterial plaques.

Alas, for every plus, there is a negative. While acne may prevent you from getting heart disease, the study results also showed “a 70 percent increase in prostate cancer risk.” Of course, none of this is conclusive. And it just goes to show you that health, unlike beauty, is more than skin deep.

Got Friends?

Speaking of longevity. Did you know that having close friends can prolong your life. Well, now you do!

Just ask Australian researcher Lynne Giles (Flinders University, Adelaide). She and her colleagues say that it’s friends, not family, who are the keys to happiness and a long life.

It’s long been known that having an active social life helps the elderly live longer, but no study considered whether it’s healthier to have contact with friends or family. Giles’s study, however, did just that.

Her research, based on a sample of 1,500 Australians over the age of 70, showed that those who had regular close personal or phone contact with five or more friends were 22 percent less likely to die in the decade following the start of the study than those who had reported fewer, more-distant friends. While the reasons are not clear, the presence or absence of family had no impact on their survival.

While other factors can be considered, Giles suggests that “friends are perhaps less likely to be a source of negative stress, which, for some older people, their children can be.”

Got Brain?

We all say it. When we think someone is smart, we say they have a big brain. But is there any validity to that statement?

Yes! In a new study conducted by Michael McDaniel, an industrial and organizational psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, bigger does equal smarter. “For all age and sex groups,” he says, “it is now very clear that brain volume and intelligence are related.”

McDaniel reached his conclusion after measuring the size and volume of 26 brains (imaged with high-tech instruments). He then used standard IQ tests to measure the intelligence of the owners of these brains.

But do IQ tests really reveal intelligence? McDaniel believes that they do, and there are other studies to back up that contention.

One study last year, for example, found that IQ is related to the amount and distribution of gray matter in the brain. (The brain has two primary kinds of tissue, namely gray and white matter: Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, while white matter represents the network or connections between those processing centers.) The study concluded that abundant gray matter in certain locations was strongly correlated with high IQ. The distribution of gray matter in the brain, which is different for different people, could, for instance, explain why one person with a high IQ is good in math but poor in spelling, while someone else with the same IQ has just the opposite ability.

Yet another recent study found that women have more gray matter relative to white matter than men! However, the study also showed that in the areas of the brain specifically related to intelligence, men had much more gray matter, which is typically needed for focused tasks, such as doing a math problem. Women, on the other hand, had much more white matter, which is necessary for integrating information. The point is, intelligence can be derived in different ways.

What is the bottom line? “On average,” McDaniel says, “smarter people learn more quickly, make fewer errors, and are more productive.” He believes in the use of IQ tests to screen job applicants. So, be well, do good work, and. . .exercise that brain!

Stressing Your Mom Isn’t Good for Her Health!

Some mothers age faster than other mothers, according to research conducted at the University of California at San Francisco. What makes the difference? Mothers who care for severely disabled children experience much greater stress than do mothers without such responsibilities.

When the researchers examined the mothers’ DNA, they found that the stressed-out moms had much shorter telomeres than the nonstressed moms. Telomeres are pieces of DNA found at the very ends of chromosomes that are necessary for the proper functioning of cells. As cells age, their telomeres get shorter and shorter and eventually die when they become too short. (See “The Telltale Tails of Telomeres,”).

Since the stressed-out moms had much-shorter-than-normal telomeres, they appeared to be aging much faster than normal moms. The research could not determine whether the moms’ lives were shortened, but all the same, you really should think twice the next time you start to do something that drives your mom crazy!

This Is Your Brain. . .on Smoke

Think it’s cool to smoke? Don’t answer right away, but give it some thought. Then again, if you’re a smoker, maybe you can’t.

You see, evidence is weighing in that smoking not only damages your health but also reduces your IQ. Just ask Lawrence Whalley, a Scottish psychiatrist at the University of Aberdeen, and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. That’s what they concluded after recently examining 465 people who had taken part in the 1947 Scottish Mental Survey at age 11.

About half of the participants became smokers, so the researchers wanted to see how their mental states had changed, and whether any changes were related to their smoking habits. As reported in Science News, the smokers performed significantly worse in five different IQ tests than did both former smokers and those who had never smoked.

A link between impaired lung function and reduced brain power has long been suspected, although no one knows how one affects the other. It’s possible that smoking reduces the oxygen supply to the body’s vital organs, including the brain, stressing them out. In essence, smoking may kill brain cells!

So, you see, you’d have to be stupid not to kick the habit.

British Teens Are Sick!

Now, if that last scoop didn’t make you sick, this one might: A recent report published by the British Medical Association (BMA) says that, if left unchecked, the present generation of children and teenagers in Britain will turn into the most obese and infertile adults in the history of humankind!

Wow! Talk about kids under pressure!

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, says, "Young people in Britain are increasingly likely to be overweight, indulge in binge drinking, have a sexually transmitted infection, and suffer mental health problems." Can you believe it? Is the situation really that dire?

Well, the report claims that one in 10 teenage girls age 16 to 19 has the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia, which can make women infertile. A quarter of 15- and 16-year-olds smoke. At least one in five 13- to 16-year-olds is overweight or obese. And 11 percent of 11- to 15-year-olds had used drugs in the month previous to the study.

Such behavior, Nathanson said, posed an extraordinary threat to an entire generation." (Hmmm, this does sound a bit more significant than a creepy-crawly shower curtain?!)

Again, what to do?

The report calls on government departments and agencies to work together to find solutions. It calls for more education on sex, drugs, alcohol, diet, and exercise in schools and in the community through awareness campaigns and parental guidance. But do you think thatÆs enough? Should the government play the role of a parent? What do you think will help teens in Britain get out of this statistical quagmire? Send your thoughts to "Under Pressure," ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

It’s Curtains for Killers!

One of the most suspenseful, if not terrifying, clips in motion-picture history is the now famous "shower" scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1960 blockbuster sensation, Psycho.

Okay, just in case you don’t like old movies or had to leave the planet for a few years, the scene involves someone taking a shower, a shiny knife, and a lot of screeching violins. The fact is, once you’ve seen Psycho, you probably won’t ever feel safe taking a shower again.

Now biologist Norman Pace (University of Colorado), has made shower-taking even more creepy. Never mind knife-wielding psychos. Beware, he says, of killer shower curtains!

No, he’s not out of it. You see, shower curtains can be a breeding ground for deadly disease. Billions of organisms can build up on a single vinyl curtain. Every time the shower is turned on, the water hitting the curtain throws up clouds of bacteria that can easily enter the lungs and open wounds on the body.

"Soap scum," Pace says, is the breeding ground for microorganisms that can be hazardous to people with weak immune systems.

Wash your shower curtain every day, Pace told the American Association for the Advancement of Science during a recent meeting in Seattle. If that doesn’t sound too likely, better yet, get a glass door for the shower. Then again, if you consider yourself a healthy human, you just might want to worry about something else.

How Do You Spell Relief?

How about m-a-g-g-o-t-s! That’s what some National Health Service patients might be saying in England.

As we reported in our "Medical Maggots" Science Scoop (September 2003), a Dutch physician has discovered that sterile maggots (placed in a porous-material holder the size of a tea bag) could be used to clean traumatic wounds and would, in some cases, preclude the need for amputation. British doctors were quick to respond to the news; some now prescribe maggots for patients with infected wounds.

And you know what? The research results have been confirmed! Tests at Princess of Wales Hospital showed that placing sterile maggots on wounds could make them heal faster than if they were treated with conventional medicine. Maggots not only digest dead tissue, but they also destroy bacteria.

Funny, had you lived a few centuries ago, you wouldn’t have even shrugged at the idea. That’s because before the days of antibiotics, maggots were the medicine of choice to rid wounds of decaying flesh.

Doctors today are now rediscovering the past. They’re also admitting that prescribing sterile maggots is cheaper than prescribing antibiotics. Patients can pick up their maggot prescription at the pharmacy and treat themselves at home. They just have to be careful not to confuse the maggot packs with tea bags. Eeee-ewe!

Obesity Blues

Are you antisocial, anxious, dependent, or depressed? How about headstrong, hyperactive, or withdrawn? If so, you’d better check your weight.

A new study by pediatrician Julie Lumeng (University of Michigan) and her colleagues suggests that children who are overweight are twice as likely to have behavioral problems as those who don’t.

Lumeng and fellow researchers reached this conclusion after collecting data on 755 children, age 8 to 11, whose parents had completed a questionnaire that asked about their child’s behavior.

Now, be careful how you interpret Lumeng’s findings. The study does not say that all overweight children have behavior problems. In fact, most don’t. The findings do, however, show that behavioral problems seem to be one cause of obesity (extreme overweight). It also warns that normal-weight children who have significant behavior problems are five times more likely to become overweight over the following two years.

Lumeng doesn’t know why behavior problems lead to obesity. What she does know is that the mind and body are so interrelated that you cannot ignore a child’s mental health. "If we as a country are trying to stem the tide of obesity in children," she says, "we really have to look at the root of what is triggering children’s behavior to lead to obesity."

"The critical message of our day," adds David Katz, an associate clinical professor of public health at Yale University, "is that all children are at increasing risk of obesity. Currently, nearly 80 percent of adults are overweight, and the rates of childhood obesity are rising rapidly."

Baby Fat

If you found the previous scoop a bit, well, depressing. . .(Okay, now get your hand out of that Doritos bag!). . .wait until you read this next one!

You’ve all seen it. You’ve all heard it. Your mother or father is pinching the cheek of a chubby toddler and saying something like, "Awe, it’s just baby fat!"

Well, that saying may no longer be so cute, because baby fat just isn’t as cute as it used to be. In fact, The New York Times has declared childhood obesity an epidemic. What’s more, as of 2003, pediatricians have alerted us that children are developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and setting themselves up for future diabetes!

Indeed, many American children are developing the same bad eating habits that plague the nation’s adults – namely, having too much fat, sugar, and salt and too few fruits and vegetables in their diet. But here’s the real shocker: These bad eating habits are appearing even before a child’s second birthday!

Find that news hard to swallow? Well, get this: Gerber Products Co. (a baby food maker) recently researched the eating habits of more than 3,000 youngsters and found that many infants and toddlers are downing French fries, pizza, candy, and soda. [Burp!] Up to a third of the children under 2 consumed no fruits or vegetables. And for those who did have a vegetable, French fries were the most common selection for children 15 months and older.

According to Gerber’s Feeding Infants & Toddlers Study (FITS), a child 1 to 2 years of age needs about 950 calories per day to stay healthy. But kids in this age group today are consuming 1,220 calories per day; that’s an excess of nearly 30 percent. Children less than a year old had a daily caloric surplus of about 20 percent.

Jodie Shield, a Chicago-area dietitian, has this warning for parents: "Your children are watching you; they see what you do." She also says that we are on "a very dangerous course" if parents don’t "step up to the plate" and be role models.

Obesity Gene Found!

Weight watchers take note. A team of scientists from Britain and France have identified an abnormal gene that stimulates hunger. The discovery is hailed as extremely important because researchers may soon use it to help understand how to prevent and treat obesity.

The newly discovered gene, called GAD2, speeds up the production of a chemical that transmits nerve impulses in the brain. That neurotransmitter, known as GABA, interacts with another molecule in the brain’s hypothalamus — which, in part, regulates the critical processes (like eating) necessary for maintaining life. People with the abnormal gene (GAD2) build up abnormal quantities of GABA, so they are significantly more likely to experience high levels of hunger and an inability to control their eating.

Philippe Froguel (Imperial College and Hammersmith Hospital of London), who led the research while working at the Institut Pasteur de Lille in Lille Cedex, France, cautions, however, that "genetic factors alone cannot explain the rapid rise in obesity rates in the world, but they may provide clues to preventative and therapeutic (having or exhibiting healing powers) approaches that will ease the health burden associated with obesity." According to the World Health Organization, obesity is a global problem — about 300 million people around the world are overweight.

Taking a Bite Out of Life

In case you’re wondering, there’s probably a good reason why, when you look a relative in the eyes, your thoughts are not about eating him or her.

Don’t laugh: Cannibalism still prevails in some parts of the world. And in years past the practice has led to some pretty ugly diseases. John Collinge (University College in London, England) specifically cites the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who consumed deceased relatives at mortuary feasts until cannibalism was banned in the 1950s. As a result of their practice, the Fore were devastated by a brain-destroying disease (known as kuru) between 1920 and 1950.

The Fore were not alone. "Other evidence of prehistoric cannibalism,"’ Collinge says, "includes cuts and burn marks on Neanderthal bones and biochemical analysis of fossilized human feces" (see the November 1998 "Science Scoops").

But there’s good news: Collinge and his fellow researchers have now found compelling evidence that, over time, the human body has begun to counteract the ill effects of cannibalism.

The culprit behind the brain-destroying diseases related to cannibalism, Collinge says, is a prion — an abnormal protein gene that’s missing nucleic acid. Prions cause proteins to clump in the brain, where they convert the normal cell proteins to the prion form. When the prions completely clog the infected brain cells, the cells misfire, work poorly, or don’t work at all. Ultimately, the infected prion-bloated brain cells die and release prions into the tissue. The disease, it turns out, can be spread by eating flesh contaminated with prions.

Interestingly, when Collinge studied 30 women who had participated in the Fore mortuary feasts, he found that 23 of them had a gene mutation protecting them against kuru. These protective genes, called polymorphisms, are mutant versions of the prion protein gene. Cannibalism, which could have spread the diseases, also increased pressure on the human body to develop genes that would protect it from the ill effects of cannibalism.

Wordhelp: Nucleic acid — Complex molecule found in all cells. There are two types of nucleic acids, deoxyribononucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). It controls many activities of cells, including division, growth, and energy production.

Medical Maggots

If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the thought of medieval doctors using leeches to bleed patients, cover your eyes fast — because doctors may soon be using maggots to treat stubborn wounds that refuse to heal!

Troublesome wounds often leave doctors with no choice but to amputate part or all of a limb. But thanks to a Dutch physician’s discovery, doctors around the world may soon have a last option. G.N. Jukema (Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands) found that sterile maggots placed on a traumatic wound helped clean the area and, in some cases, prevented amputation.

You see, maggots digest dead tissue and destroy bacteria. When maggots are placed on an open wound, they secrete proteins that break down dead tissue fragments, creating a soup that the maggots ingest. Maggots also release substances that help protect the injured skin from becoming re-infected, and their crawling on the wound may also encourage the growth of new tissue. To date, Jukema has used maggot surgery to treat 11 patients; nine of them recovered fully, while the other two died of other causes.

There is one problem, though. . .some of Jukema’s patients complained that they could feel the maggots biting and crawling across their wounds. Crrringe! But if the maggots are placed in a porous material the size of a tea bag, the problem is solved. Jukema believes that maggots could also be used to treat burns — which may be the best tool of persuasion of all for moms who warn their kids about never playing with matches! (Or would it be?)

Tasteless Surgery

Surgeons in Austria have performed the world’s first successful human tongue transplant. The 14-hour operation was carried out at Vienna’s General Hospital on a 42-year-old man who had a malignant tumor in his mouth, which meant his tongue had to be removed.

Until now, tongue transplant surgery has only been carried out in animals. The difficulty with tongue transplants is that the mouth, because of the food we eat, is not a sterile environment, so there is a high risk of infection. During the surgery, the nerves of the donor tongue were hooked up to the nerves stumps left in the recipient’s mouth.

As reported in New Scientist magazine, Rolf Ewers, who lead the surgery team, says he hopes that with his new tongue the patient should be able to talk and eat as normal. However, his sense of taste is unlikely to be restored. Ewers says he hopes the operation will become more routine over the next few years.

Cat Allergies: A Thing of the Past?

Professor Xiangzhong (Jerry) Yang (University of Connecticut) recently made the news by being the first person to clone a mammal in the United States – Amy the calf. Now Yang is itching to get started on a new project: creating a cat that won’t give pet owners allergies.

The idea for an allergy-free cat sprang up from his research into using "therapeutic cloning" to develop cures for human ailments like Parkinson’s disease or diabetes. But the reason he got involved with cats was that he and his family are all highly allergic and his son suffered miserably one day after being with a cat-owning baby-sitter. The fact is millions of Americans suffer allergic reactions to their pet cats. According to Dr. David Avner, founder of the Transgenic Animal Research facility, where Yang works, some 15 percent of the U. S. population is allergic to pets, with cat allergies being twice as common as dog allergies.

The problem is an allergen protein secreted by glands in the cat’s skin. Yang plans to remove the gene that produces the allergin protein and replace them with genes that do not cause a problem in humans. Yang, who is opposed to human cloning, says the genetically altered cats could be available for sale by the year 2003. How much would you pay for such a cat? Well, Yang plans on selling the allergen-free feline for $750 to $1,000 each.

A "Chip" Off the Ol’ Block

A new study is trying to link parents with their children — in a most bizarre way. For instance, are you one of those kids who will grab a giant-size bag of chips and gobble them up every time you’re sad? Well, that gluttonous behavior might have come from Mom or Dad!

At least that’s what Veronique Provencher (Laval University, Quebec) and her colleagues believe. In essence, their research proves that a family that eats together may grow thin or chubby together. If you’re prone to feeling hungry earlier than your friends, that’s probably because you grew up with parents or siblings who had the same tendency. The findings are based on interviews with 308 men and 424 women from 202 families. Provencher and her team also noted how overweight each person was, and asked about certain eating behaviors. The researchers found that the tendency of a family to adopt the same eating behavior likely influences whether children grow up to overeat in response to stress, as well as how quickly they become hungry as adults.

"We have to keep in mind the possible familial influence on eating behaviors," Provencher says. Some of these eating behaviors may leave certain families more prone to obesity than others. Understanding how an individual’s family ate while they were growing up may help health workers keep that individual at a healthy weight today. So, the next time you pick up that monstrous bag of chips, think of how you might be carrying on a long tradition. . .that you can and should break!

Chubby Children . . . Tubby Teens

Okay, drop that Big Mac right now, and just let that hot fudge sundae melt (well . . . maybe that’s a little extreme), and listen up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and guess what? It found that the number of overweight children and teens nearly doubled over the past two decades. The initial results for 1999 show 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight, up from 11 percent in a previous survey conducted from 1988 to 1994. The number of overweight teens, ages 12 to 19, increased from 11 to 14 percent in the same time period.

"Overweight children are at risk for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and other serious health problems," says Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "They are part of an epidemic of overweight and obesity that must be addressed so that they can lead healthier lives. This survey provides the critical information we need on overweight, diet, and physical activity to help develop the strategies for healthier children and families."

Does Having Boys or Girls Run in the Family?

Let’s say you are a girl who comes from a family of all girls. Does that mean that you too have a high probability of bringing a girl into the world? No. In fact, statistical theory suggests otherwise. According to Chance magazine (published by the American Statistical Association), there is no compelling evidence to suggest that family history plays a role in whether a family has male or female children.

The fact is, statistically, around one eighth of all four-child families are expected to be all-male or all-female under a chance model. And it’s possible, statistically, for families of up to ten children to be all of the same sex. There is no evidence that having boys (or girls) has either genetic or shared environmental sources of influence.

Does Music Build the Brain?

Got an ear for music? Take "note": your brain may be swelling. Recent studies of how music affects the brain has shown that musicians who started training at an early age may have more gray matter than non-musicians. That’s the latest word according to neurologist Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues, who compared the brains of 15 male professional musicians to a group of non-musicians. The researchers found that the musicians’ brains had more gray matter (volume) than those of the non-musicians.

Alas, more work needs to be done for the researchers to be certain of their results. Why? Simple, Schlaug says, "an alternative explanation may be that these musicians were born with these differences, which may draw them toward their musical gifts."

Dying to Get Your Tongue Pierced?

Well, think again, and here’s why: A young woman in Connecticut got her tongue pierced. A couple of days later her tongue became sore and swollen. She also complained of a foul-tasting discharge from the pierced region. The young woman removed the stud from her tongue and the infection healed a few days later.

But, wait . . . that was just the beginning. A month later, she suffered severe headaches, fever, nausea, and vomiting. The young woman was taken to Yale University hospital, where a head scan revealed that she had a brain abscess — a localized collection of pus — which physicians had to drain! The young woman recovered after six weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatment.

As reported in New Scientist magazine, Richard Martinello of Yale’s medical school said that "this sort of brain abscess is very serious," theorizing that the blood carried enough bacteria from the tongue infection to cause the brain abscess. Although infections from body piercings are relatively common, this is the first brain abscess linked to any piercing. The tongue is particularly vulnerable to infections, Martinello explains, because the mouth is warm, moist, and full of bacteria.

Hmm . . . so does this mean that a decision to get your tongue pierced would be a no-brainer?

Evil E. coli – Not for Long?

Imagine you’re a bacterium. How many "genes" do you own? Well, scientists have just discovered that if you’re of the stomach-churning strain of bacteria known as E. coli 0157:H7, you’ve got 1,400 more genes than your harmless E. coli cousins. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is!

You see, E. coli 0157:H7 can cause deadly food-borne illness. In fact, E. coli infects about 73,000 Americans each year, usually through undercooked contaminated ground beef. For example, you eat a steak and the next thing you know you’re hospitalized with severe stomach poisoning, which could lead to death! That’s not good. The deadly bacteria is also found in unpasteurized milk and juices, water, and even fruits and vegetables that have been exposed to the "evil strain" of E. coli through fertilizers.

But researchers now believe that the bacterium’s killer potential can be traced to some of those extra genes. By mapping the full genetic sequence of the deadly strain, researchers are learning how to stop the "bug" before it reaches humans. Thank Dr. Nicole T. Perna (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and her colleagues for discovering the genetic difference between harmless and killer E. coli strains.

The strain mapped by Perna’s team causes severe cramping and diarrhea. In some people, particularly young children and the elderly, the infection can lead to potentially deadly complications. Perna says that her team hopes to develop a vaccine for both humans and animals that will prevent the bacteria from building an evil empire in our bodies.

The Famous "Fat"inating Pizza Puzzle

Pizza lovers should know that chemists have been working hard to create what we’ve all been waiting for — a greasy, stringy, oozing mozzarella that’s good for you.

Actually, most pizzas don’t contain a lot of fat, except for the cheese. But, if you take that fat out or reduce it, pizza just isn’t the same. Low-fat mozzarella just doesn’t melt like "real" cheese, and to us serious pizza eaters, that just isn’t acceptable. So Cornell University chemists in Ithaca, New York, came to the rescue. They set their scientific goals high to see if they could make low-fat and fat-free mozzarella cheese melt and cook more like the real thing.

Michael Rudan (who, by the way, received his doctorate for this work) and colleagues studied the "meltability of mozzarella." First, they tossed some regular and low-fat cheese on a plate and baked it. The regular cheese melted into a puddle; the low-fat cheese scorched and had to be scraped off afterwards. They then moved on to the next all-important and daring step . . . melting the cheeses on the pizzas themselves. This was an important step, Rudan says, because there has been very little research into how pizza cheese melts and fuses together to make the perfect topping. Finally, after scrutinizing the melt dynamics of various cheeses, Rudan and has colleagues devised a model of the melting and associated browning (you know, the kind you see in pizza bubbles).

What they found was "fat"inating: Cheese with more fat melts better. Wow! But wait! They also learned that shredded low-fat mozzarella cheeses heat up to a grainy texture – the individual pieces forming protective skins that prevent them from melting together into that stringy mass we all love to have ooze down our chins. And that cheesy chin-action is a must! So, what to do?

The (probably by now hungry) researchers solved the problem by coating the low-fat mozzarella shreds with Pam cooking spray. And it worked . . . sort of. The cheese melted, browned, and formed large blisters, while neither burning nor getting chunky. Alas . . . the researchers admit that they don’t know exactly how much oil went on each cheese shred: Pam is made of other things such as grain alcohol and "natural flavors." They concluded that adding some oil clearly helps to make fat-free cheese taste and look better, without adding extra calories. In fact, the cooking spray adds an insignificant amount of extra fat. "We had twelve or so people taste the pizza afterwards," Rudan said. And napkins for some messy chins were in order.

Feel Sick? Smell Your Breath!

Here’s another reason to brush your teeth: A sniff of your breath can reveal if you’re sick. In fact, our breath can tell us if we are going to be sick up to a week before the symptoms appear!

That’s right, "ladies and germs." Thanks to the scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (who sniffed out this fact accidentally), we may soon have a device that can analyze our breath to see if we are sick. You see, our breath normally contains a tiny amount of nitric oxide gas — a mere five parts per billion. So detecting that level of nitric oxide tells us that we are okay. Robert Lad (University of Maine) discovered, however, that higher amounts of that gas in our breath sends up a red flag, signaling that we are sick.

Robert Lad and his collaborator, Richard Riker (Maine Medical Center), studied hospital patients suffering from a wide variety of infections and found nitric oxide levels around 50 parts per billion (10 times the normal level). He also studied schoolchildren and found that when their nitric oxide levels were elevated, they fell ill a few days later.

With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Lad’s team has developed a hand-held nitric oxide sensor that is sensitive enough to detect the gas at these levels. The team hopes the breathalyzer will help doctors decide if people are going to be well enough over the following few days to work. Aha! Won’t moms and teachers love this new tool!

Frozen Waist Land

Researchers in Southampton, England, and Chicago, Illinois, say that if you were born during a particularly cold winter, chances are that you will end up getting fatter as you get older. Aside from diet and genetics — which can either pump you up or plump you up — the environment might also have an effect on how fetuses develop.

It’s true, claim doctors David Phillips (University of Southampton) and James Young (Northwestern University). They and their colleagues examined 1,750 men and women for obesity. All their test subjects had been born in Hertfordshire, England, between 1920 and 1930, and all had lived there all their lives. To measure obesity, the researchers calculated each subject’s Body-Mass Index by dividing each person’s weight in kilograms by the square of his height in meters. (Obese people have a larger BMI.) The researchers found that there was a marked increase in BMI among men born in cold winters. The BMI difference was not as pronounced in women.

"We don’t properly understand why it occurs," Phillips admits, but the effect appears to be real.

Oh, well, just another head-scratcher for you. Meanwhile, if you have a brother born during a cold winter snap, you know what to get him for his next birthday — a gift certificate to the nearest health club.

Killer Fat

Like to eat? Like to eat a lot of different kinds of food? Of course! Variety is the spice of life, right? Well, according to researchers at the 11th European Congress on Obesity, which was recently held in Vienna, Austria, eating lots of different foods may lead to obesity.

After chewing the fat for a few days, the scientists learned several things. First, by eating a lot of different foods, we prevent our taste buds from getting tired of the same food. Is that bad? Yes. Apparently that means we’ll be more likely to overeat.

If you find that fact hard to swallow, there is supporting evidence. In reviewing 39 dietary studies, scientists from the University of Buffalo in New York found that people offered different choices in multicourse meals ate 44 percent more than those who ate the same food for each course.

The fact is, the researchers say, that about 30 to 40 percent of all cancer cases stem from excessive weight. By combating obesity in childhood, they say it’s possible to prevent up to four million cancer cases a year worldwide. Obesity, which can also cause heart disease and diabetes, leads to 300,000 deaths annually in the United States, second only to the 400,000 deaths caused by smoking.

Fine. Then let’s start eating the same food regularly. How about pizza three times a day?

What’s an E-Cigarette?

If an e-mail is electronic mail on the computer, what’s an e-cigarette? This device looks like a cigarette and acts like a cigarette without any “smoking” involved. Since there’s no e-lighter or e-fire, there’s no telltale plume of smelly cigarette smoke. The e-cigarette has three main sections: a battery, a cartridge, and an “atomizer.” The atomizer sounds like a crazy science fiction weapon, but here’s how it works. When a smoker sucks on the e-cigarette, the atomizer activates and heats nicotine-infused liquid stored in the cartridge. The liquid becomes water vapor, which the smoker inhales. The battery end of an e-cigarette has an indicator light that glows just like a real cigarette. When the battery runs out, the e-cigarette has to be plugged in and charged.

E-cigarette makers want smokers to think that their product is healthier and can help them quit smoking. Yes, e-cigarettes do contain fewer harmful chemicals, and they can help people stop smoking, according to a 2011 study by the Boston University School of Public Health. But an e-cigarette alone will not cure nicotine addiction. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided in April 2011 that e-cigarettes should be classified and regulated as tobacco products, just like the rest of the cigarette family. E-cigarette vapor contains nicotine, and that’s what’s addictive.

Maybe instead of “smokers,” e-cigarette users should be called “vaporers.”

How Many Kids Are Smoking?

Good news! The number of kids who smoke or use other tobacco products has gone down over the past ten years. Since 80 percent of adult smokers started before age 18, it’s especially important that fewer kids pick up smoking — they may never stop. This chart comes from a survey of over 20,000 kids who were still attending school (kids who have dropped out are more likely to smoke than kids still in school). Other forms of tobacco that kids sometimes use include cigars, pipes, and flavored cigarettes also called “bidis.”

Middle School Kids (grades 6–8)   2000   2009
Who uses tobacco of any kind?         15.1%      8.2%
Who smokes cigarettes?         11.0%      5.2%

Who has experimented with cigarettes?      29.8%   15.0%

High School Kids (grades 9–12)      2000      2009
Who uses tobacco of any kind?      35.4%      23.9%
Who smokes cigarettes?      28.0%      17.2%
Who has experimented with cigarettes?      39.4%      30.1%

Source: 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey

What’s in Your Gut?

Do you know your blood type? What about your “bug” type?

Did you know that everyone has a colony of microbes living in his or her intestines? In fact, about 100 trillion microbes call your body home. These “little bugs,” as scientists sometimes call them, are not actually insects at all; they’re teeny tiny life forms best known for causing disease. But not all microbes are bad for you — and you need many of the microbes in your body for survival. Your gut microbes help digest food, boost your immune system, and produce vitamins.

Now, scientists have discovered that each person’s gut microbes, or flora, seem to fall into one of three groups. “Our gut flora can settle into three different types of communit[ies] — three different ecosystems, if you like,” said Peer Bork of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany. If you share a gut type with someone, it doesn’t mean your two microbe populations are exactly equal. It just means that you both have more microbes of some species and fewer microbes of others. These three general gut types do not seem to be related to age, gender, or nationality, although people who are overweight or elderly do show variations on the basic types.

Eventually, doctors might prescribe medicine based on your gut type. Instead of giving you antibiotics, which kill off some good microbes along with the disease-causing bad guys, they may give you “probiotics” to help the good guys grow and fight back. You’ll learn to love your “little bugs.”

The Search for a Cocaine Cure

Cocaine passes from the lungs to the blood to the brain in just six seconds. That’s not much time for a cure to fight off the illegal drug. And the body’s own immune system doesn’t help. “The human immune system doesn’t naturally tag cocaine as something to be destroyed,” explains Ronald Crystal of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Crystal and his team have developed a vaccine for cocaine that worked well in studies with mice.

Here’s the brilliant idea behind the vaccine: Your immune system fights the common cold virus, but just lets cocaine sneak past. Why not attach a cocaine look-alike to the cold virus, so the immune system learns to fight against both? When trained to recognize cocaine as an intruder, the immune system starts to produce antibodies meant to seek and destroy cocaine. As the mouse experiments showed, these antibodies can stop most cocaine molecules from reaching the brain in that six-second timeframe.

“There is currently no FDA-approved vaccine for any drug addiction,” says Crystal, who hopes to start testing the vaccine on people in a few years. He’s hoping to help addicts who want to quit, but haven’t been successful.

Crystal isn’t the only one trying to cure cocaine addiction. Paul Kenny, a neuroscientist at Scripps Research Institute in Florida, approached the problem from a different angle. He found a trigger in the brain that seems to control cocaine addiction. “What we found is that a specific microRNA exerts enormous control over the response to the drug. When it is increased in the brain, it protects against addictive behavior,” said Kenny. Studies in lab rats showed that rats with higher levels of the trigger, called microRNA-212, weren’t tempted by cocaine.

The tricky part about developing this kind of therapy for humans is that microRNA-212 regulates more than just cocaine addiction. High levels can lead to depression — obviously an unwanted side effect! But rather than just blocking cocaine with a vaccine, this kind of therapy could make it so addicts don’t even desire the drug any more.

Which cocaine cure do you think shows more promise? Why? Send your ideas to [email protected] or by mail to: COCAINE CURE, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH 03458.

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