Stories tagged Human Organism

Jun
11
2010

Life with Asperger Syndrome: I just read this book, loaned to me by the mother of another Asperger syndrome boy I cared for.
Life with Asperger Syndrome: I just read this book, loaned to me by the mother of another Asperger syndrome boy I cared for.Courtesy Jesse Saperstein
When my nephew was an infant, he would not crawl, and he would flap his arms like a bird. I ended up doing daycare for him (and his brother) until they started school. I also noticed they would often say things twice, the second time softer to themselves. Years later I learned about Asperger Syndrome (AS). Asperger syndrome is a mild form of autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Diagnosing autism is not simple

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorders vary and require trained professionals to diagnose. You can listen to Dr. Susan Levy for an explanation.

New research may lead to a simple urine test for autism diagnosis

According to research published in Journal of Proteome Research, children with autism have a different chemical fingerprint in their urine than non-autistic children.

The researchers reached their conclusions by using H NMR Spectroscopy to analyse the urine of three groups of children aged between 3 and 9: 39 children who had previously been diagnosed with autism, 28 non-autistic siblings of children with autism, and 34 children who did not have autism who did not have an autistic sibling.
They found that each of the three groups had a distinct chemical fingerprint. Non-autistic children with autistic siblings had a different chemical fingerprint than those without any autistic siblings, and autistic children had a different chemical fingerprint than the other two groups. ScienceDigest

Early detection of autism can change lives

According to AutismSociety.org the advantages of early detection and intervention cannot be overemphasized. Children who receive intensive therapy can make tremendous strides in their overall functioning and go on to lead productive lives.

Jun
07
2010

Why does this baby appear so well-adjusted?: Difficult to say.
Why does this baby appear so well-adjusted?: Difficult to say.Courtesy Manda
A recently published, 25-year study suggests that children raised by two lesbian parents may actually be behaviorally and psychologically better adjusted than their peers.

The study tracked mothers from pregnancy or insemination, interviewing them and their children multiple times over their development, until the kids were 17 years old. The kids were asked questions focusing on their psychological adjustment, peer and family relationships, and academic progress. The research found that despite occasionally being stigmatized for their parents’ sexuality, the kids tended to rate higher than the average in “social, academic, and totally competence,” and displayed less problem behavior (rule-breaking, aggression, etc.).

The researchers behind the study propose that the difference may have to do with the fact that lesbian couples often choose to become pregnant later than most people, and, being older, are more mature and better prepared for parenting. Growing up in households with “less power assertion, and more parental involvement” is tied to healthier development, and more mature parents may fit this model better.

The research was funded by a variety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, which some people consider to be evidence against its validity. Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, “a group that supports biblical values,” says that the source of the funding “proves the prejudice and the bias of the study.”

Wendy Wright is, of course, wrong. There may or may not be aspects of the study that are biased or invalid, but the source of the funding doesn’t prove that at all. She’s seeing a causal relationship where there is none. Consider the following: JGordon buys a plum. Does this prove that JGordon will be eating a plum? Nope. Plums are frequently acquired for the purpose of being eaten, but there’s nothing about my getting a plum that necessarily means I’m going to eat it. Perhaps I will give it away. Or I might just be adding it to my plum collection.

The mystery of what JGordon does with all his plums, however, has far fewer social implications than a study on what makes for good parenting. So it’s important that we consider what actually “proves” what here.

Mrs. Wright also claims that the outcomes of the study “defy common sense and reality.” Common sense, though, may not be the best standard for judging scientific results. And, as for “reality,” how exactly do we figure that out? Careful observation, I suppose.

The study may still need more scrutiny, but it’s an interesting piece of potential evidence in the discussion of what constitutes a good environment for raising kids.

What do y’all think?

May
30
2010

Allergic to peanuts?
Allergic to peanuts?Courtesy texnic

What is food allergy?

Food allergy is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the body’s immune system. Symptoms include itching, a rash, vomiting, difficult breathing, and lowered blood pressure.

While almost 30% of Americans think they have food allergies, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) found that

food allergy occurs in 6 to 8 percent of children 4 years of age or under, and in 3.7 percent of adults.

Better testing for food allergies needed

Diagnosing food allergies is described on the Mayo Clinic website. The procedures take time and money and, according to many, yield unreliable results.
"MIT chemical engineer Christopher Love believes he has a better way to diagnose such allergies. His new technology, described in the June 7 issue of the journal Lab on a Chip, can analyze individual immune cells taken from patients, allowing for precise measurement of the cells’ response to allergens such as milk and peanuts.

To perform the test, blood must be drawn from the patient, and white blood cells (which include T cells) are isolated from the sample.

The cells are exposed to a potential allergen and then placed into about 100,000 individual wells arranged in a lattice pattern on a soft rubber surface. Using a technique known as microengraving, the researchers make “prints” of the cytokines produced by each cell onto the surface of a glass slide. The amount of cytokine secreted by each individual cell can be precisely measured. MITnews

May
14
2010

Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?

Apr
27
2010

Cat in a pot: imagine the heartburn and a hair ball!
Cat in a pot: imagine the heartburn and a hair ball!Courtesy Zoe
Yeah, I said it! Does the mere thought make your skin crawl? Or are you more inclined to daydream of a light mushroom sauce with parsnips and leeks? If you are the later, you may wish to hold your tongue. Recently, an Italian food show host got himself into hot water discussing his love of the feline meat as a “delicacy”. Later, he back stepped to say he only remembers these dishes from when he was a boy during the 1930’s and 1940’s. This cultural blunder still caused him to get sacked. Take a look at the video clip.

Indeed, this would not be a singular account of such ravenous behavior during the Second World War. Food shortages were a common issue that can become intensely exaggerated during times of conflict. Stories from England speak of ‘roof-rabbits’ when discussing the consumption of cats. Similar accounts abound from Bulgaria, Romania, Germany and Poland. Nor should this particular conflict be extraordinary. Diaries from U.S. Civil War prisoners speak directly to purchasing a dressed cat to supplement the meager rations of internment. Placed under the circumstances of starvation, a human being can resort to eating almost anything for sustenance. We need not revisit the fate of the Donner party.

So why all the moral outrage over the recollections of an aging Italian chef? The issue seems to come down to one major factor: culture. Thankfully, there is still a wide variety of culture and tradition across the globe that has not been homogenized. Western culture has cultivated the relationship with our cats and dogs to the point of companions. While most Asian cultures refrain from cat or dog consumption, it is not uncommon practice in poor or rural areas. The beliefs of Judaism and Islam prohibit the eating of any carnivore. Hindus would be aghast at American treatment of cattle. Eating of cats occurs in parts of Africa, including Ghana. Australian Aboriginals are known to roast them over an open fire. Incidents dot the globe like a wild season of the Amazing Race. Korea… Switzerland… Peru… Malaysia… Denmark… China… Kuwait… Brazil… Italy. There are many views on “friend or food”.
Cow legs in an African market: could you bring yourself to eat these?
Cow legs in an African market: could you bring yourself to eat these?Courtesy bthomoso

Simply, not all people view cats in the same light. We may not either if we get hungry enough. It is unfair to condemn others in their attempt to feed themselves. Americans, for the most part, are well removed from the processing of their food. No eyelashes or tails wagging under the shrink-wrap. Our diets have become less exotic than those of our ancestors. The stalls of food markets in other countries may shock us. The plates of the world’s indigenous peoples, I’m sure, are never graced by the double cheeseburger with fries and a shake. Yet, we are entertained vicariously by modern media. Shows such as Bizarre Foods walk us through eating habits of fellow humans across the earth. Should we find ourselves lost or stranded, Man vs. Wild subconsciously questions our resolve to eat in the wilderness. Here is to hoping it never comes to that!

I, for one, am content to not stew the cat. I’ll continue to nurture that mutually beneficial relationship we have, with her minding to the errant stray pest wandering indoors. I wish you the fortune of never being so hungry to consider a feline fricassee. Bon Appétit!

Apr
16
2010

Is this house a biogeochemical hotspot?
Is this house a biogeochemical hotspot?Courtesy monkeyc.net
To ecologists who study the environment, cities and suburbs are fascinating places. For one thing, they're full of people, and people take-up space, consume materials and energy, and create waste every single day. When people do this together in concentrated areas like cities and suburbs, they create what scientists call "biogeochemical hotspots" - places where chemical and energy reaction rates are much faster than in surrounding areas.

Individual houses are also hotspots. A group of scientists at the University of Minnesota, led by researchers Sarah Hobbie and Kristen Nelson, are trying to understand more about urban ecosystems and how chemicals and energy cycle through different people's homes.

They've begun to study a small group of people whose homes are here in Minnesota - asking them questions about their behavior and taking surveys and samples on their property.

What they've found might surprise a few people. It turns out that not everyone uses energy and chemicals the same way. Small numbers of individuals and families consume and waste much more than others - creating a bigger footprint in their ecosystem.

So who are these disproportionate polluters? There is a lot that scientists still don't know, especially about why people make the choices they do, but one thing seems to be clear - generally speaking, the more money that a family makes, the bigger their ecological footprint.

These bigger impacts come from a few behaviors that wealthier Americans tend to exhibit more than their less-wealthy counterparts. Flying in airplanes, buying a much larger home, having more pets and driving a car more often all contribute to a family's impact on their ecosystem.

While studying the role individuals play in urban ecosystems, another thing these scientists found to be true was that small individual actions - for example, turning down the thermostat in the winter just a few degrees, or using less chemicals on lawns, did have a significant impact on the environment.

You can see a recording of two of the researchers involved this study .

Apr
08
2010

Guffaw with a cat? Giggle on a train. Even in the rain. No seriously, I was reading an Associated Press article last week about the topic of laughter and it did include rats that laugh. Science takes laughter very seriously. Just doing a Google search on science+laughing gave me more than 26 million hits! The rat guy intrigued me the most. I found his video available here.

Despite an ethological background of my own, I’m not sure I’m on board yet with Dr. Panksepp and his work. However, not only have researchers tickled rats and listened to them laugh, but other scientists have looked into like behavior in monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, and possibly even dolphins. Perhaps laughter is a trait more primitive than the lineage of humans. It strikes me that, like humans, all the aforementioned animals would be considered social animals. There clearly is a social aspect to the behavioral benefits of this kind of expression. Some science has even looked at the evoluntionary effects of laughter.

Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”. It turns out that studies have delved into a multitude of health effects from laughter. Proponents tout its benefits. It can relax the muscles of the body, alleviate stress, trigger the release of certain hormones, lower blood pressure, and even protect your heart. This isn’t the first time Buzz has looked into the health effects of laughter. Despite studying its many effects, science still doesn’t quite understand the full mechanism of the physiological process. You can take a look at some of the best works here…
How Laughter Works.
Laughing with your Brain.
How we laugh
.
There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each day
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each dayCourtesy Extra Medium's

While not everyone laughs the same, we all learn to laugh early and often. Children ages 4 to 5 laugh more than 400 times a day. As adults, we manage only 15 times a day to enjoy some humor. Since it is reasonably accepted that laughter is contagious, maybe we only need to promise to pass one good joke a day to bring a smile to a fellows face. If that doesn’t work you can always try this audacious little feline.

Laugh a little!

Apr
02
2010

Understandable: Somebody did just say "shinbone," after all.
Understandable: Somebody did just say "shinbone," after all.Courtesy *punkinator
Check it out, crybabies: words can hurt. Like, literally.

Not all words hurt, of course. Like, when we make fun of the way you run, or the way you say “caravan,” or the way you let your parakeets perch on your lip and eat out of your mouth… well, I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive about all of that, but the tears are all your fault. Buck up, little cowboy.

But when we say things like, “when the jagged chunk of metal lacerated through the skin and severed the tendon, the resulting sensation was excruciating,” that really does hurt. Or, at the very least, it causes the pain of your lacerated skin and severed tendons to be that much more excruciating.

It turns out that pain-related words or phrases stimulate an area of the brain known as the “pain matrix,” even when there is nothing else causing physical pain in the body. If real pain is on the way (like after you hear, “this will only hurt for a second”), the pain will be intensified, because your brain is ready for it in a bad way.

Researchers think that the response may be an evolved characteristic that reinforces our aversion to things that can hurt us; when you hear a phrase like “this may pinch a little,” an intense pain memory is activated, removing any doubt from your mind that that’s something you should avoid.

Anyway, I thought I’d leave you with a few tried-and-true pain matrix stimulators:
Excruciating
Pinch
Grueling
Tormenting
Plaguing
Gunnysack
Tortuous
Compound fracture
Incision
Brachiopod
Ruptured eardrum

Mar
30
2010

Are you into the white stuff? Or are you a corn man?: Don't answer that.
Are you into the white stuff? Or are you a corn man?: Don't answer that.Courtesy Andrew_B
About a month ago I fell off my bicycle and got a brain injury. Can you imagine? The doctor called it a “corncussion.” I was thinking I would do a Science Buzz post on corncussions, but I couldn’t find any information on the condition. What gives, Google? Did I invent the corncussion? I don’t think so.

What I did find, however, was also pretty interesting: this new research on corn syrup.

Don’t run off! Corn syrup is interesting! And it’s relevant! On my desk, for instance, I see three food-related items: a half-full pack of m&m’s, a Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper, and an apple. Of these items, only the apple doesn’t have any “high-fructose corn syrup” in it. High fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for lots and lots of food in this country (check your kitchen), and it has been for decades. It’s cheap, it’s really sweet, and it’s made from corn (we like making things from corn in these parts), so what’s not to like?

Lots of things, according to some people, and nothing, according to other people. The problem is that the above disagreement usually goes something like this when it is discussed:

“Corn syrup is horrible! Why? Because, like, it’s not like regular sugar, and your body doesn’t… your body treats it, like… it’s different and bad! Chemistry! Biology!”
-or-
“Corn syrup isn’t bad, it’s awesome! It’s made from corn, and corn is natural, and when has anything natural been bad for you?”

And both sides, frankly, are pretty dumb. Because in the former’s case, people usually aren’t really saying anything. What you sort of heard from a friend who might have read something about how the body treats corn syrup differently or something doesn’t count as solid scientific backing for your position. Be honest—it’s just your way of saying that you shop at Whole Foods.

On the other hand, it’s not like we’re sprinkling kernels of fresh corn on our food when we’re using high-fructose corn syrup—lots of fancy refining goes into making that sweetener, which may or may not be a good thing. And, in any case, being “natural” doesn’t make something healthy. You know what else is natural? Syphilis, arsenic, and getting punched in the face.

The thing is, there seems to be an association between the rise in obesity rates (and related diseases) and the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup (let’s call it “HFCS” from here on) to American diets about 40 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that there really is a link between the two—we don’t know exactly how HFCS would cause obesity, and we don’t know if it was for sure HFCS that made us all fatter, or if it was some other widespread lifestyle change. Or if it was a combination of things.

The issue is complicated by stuff like research that indicates that drinking too much pop can raise your risk of cancer. Is that because too much of a sweet drink is bad for you? Or is it because lots of soft drinks use HFCS as their sweetener?

It’s confusing, and we’ve never really been able to definitively say, “HFCS is/is not bad for you.”

And we still can’t.

However, yesterday I read an interesting article about a study that seems to reinforce the connection between HFCS and obesity, even if it doesn’t show a causal relationship. (That is, it seems to show that something really is happening, but it can’t say why.)

Researchers at Princeton studied two groups of rats. One group got regular rat-chow, and water sweetened with HFCS. The other group got the same amount of rat-chow, and water sweetened with regular sugar from sugar cane or beets (this sugar is called sucrose). All the rats consumed the same amount of calories each day, no matter what their beverage was.

The researchers found that some of the rats eating regular sugar gained weight, and that some of them gained no weight. However, all of the rats eating HFCS gained weight (from body fat), and showed an increase in blood fats called “triglycerides.” The researchers pointed out that even rats given a high-fat diet don’t show such consistent weight gain.

The next part of their experiment tracked the long-term effects of a high HFCS diet on the rats. These rats all showed signs of a condition known (in humans) as metabolic syndrome. They had lots of blood fat, and gained lots of weight, especially around the belly. In fact, they gained 48% more weight than rats eating a normal diet.

What about that?

Well, the Corn Refiners Association has something to say about it: They think it was a misleading study. In their response to the research the CFA points out that there was no regular sugar control for the second part of the study—HFCS-eating rats were only compared to rat-chow-eating rats, not to rats eating regular sugar. So it would be like comparing weight gain between someone who just ate candy bars, and someone who just ate granola, instead of between a candy bar-eater and an ice-cream eater. (Does that sentence make any sense?) I don’t know if the original study really did lack that control, or if there was a reason they felt it wasn’t necessary. The CFA calls it a “gross error,” but it could be that it was just outside the intended scope of the research.

The CFA also thinks that the portions of HFCS given to the rats constitute a “gross error.” According to them, a proportional amount given to a human would be about 3000 calories from HFCS a day. They point out that adults eat only 2000 calories a day, from a variety of sources. It’s a good point, but not a great one, I think. That 2000 calorie figure is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended diet (you know, the label you see on the back of everything you eat), and how many people stick exactly to the recommended diet? A 3000-calorie/day diet would definitely not be out of the question for lots and lots of people. And, sure, those calories are supposed to come from many food sources, but, again, go check your kitchen, and see how many items in there us HFCS. (Lots do.)

Keep in mind, though, that just because the people that make HFCS are arguing that it’s safe doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not safe. Of course they want to defend their product. Not everything is a global corporate conspiracy.

But the Princeton study sure does make it look like there’s something about HFCS that causes it to contribute to obesity more than regular sugar. The study just doesn’t show how it might do that. That’s the causal relationship we talked about earlier. They have some ideas, though.

The CFA claims that “a sugar is a sugar, whether it comes from cane, corn or beets. Both sugar and HFCS are handled the same way by the body. Maybe, but sugar and HFCS aren’t totally identical. Both sweeteners are made up of two kinds of sugar molecules, called glucose and fructose. Regular sugar is about 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS, on the other hand, has more fructose (about 55%), less glucose (about 42%), and a small amount of larger sugar molecules called saccharides (3%). The way these molecules are put together in the difference sweeteners differs too: in regular sugar, each fructose molecule is bound to a glucose molecule, but the process of making HFCS causes its fructose molecules to all be “free and unbound.”

Some scientists think that because the fructose in HFCS is free, it is more easily metabolized (used by your body) and is more quickly turned into fat. The extra step needed to separate the fructose from the glucose in regular sugar might cause it to be metabolized differently, with more of it being stored in the liver or muscles as carbohydrates.

But, once more, that part is what people are uncertain about.

It’s a tricky issue, because there are a lot of dogs in the fight—I’m sure the manufacturers of regular sugar are just as defensive about their product (and just as likely to be very selective about which studies the promote) as the corn refiners are. But what about us poor norms? All we want is to sit and eat sweet things all day, while gaining as little weight as possible. I mean, we could just consume sweeteners in moderation until science proves who’s really right, but… where’s the fun in that?

It’s something to consider. Choose wisely, and stuff.