Author Archives: C

Suicide in the Animal Kingdom

Today’s lesson about the feasibility of a zombie virus began with a series of gruesome videos in which organisms invaded other organisms. While watching the especially awful video of wasp larvae in a caterpillar, I couldn’t help but wonder if the caterpillar knew what was going on. Granted, the larvae eventually took over its brain, but did it ever realize that another organism was inhabiting its body? And if it did, wouldn’t it try to kill itself before the invader did? That question led me to the biggest question of all-do animals have suicidal tendencies? This subject is a very interesting one that has many societal and religious implications. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine both determined that suicide “was an unrepentable sin” on the grounds that it was not natural. This kind of logic is similar to the argument that homosexuality is not natural either. However, based on our discussion in class it appears as though that argument is not valid, as might be the case in regards to suicide.

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It is important to note that there is very little research and data on animal suicide. In fact, nearly all evidence that it exists is anecdotal. Though observational experimentation is feasible, a randomized control trial on organisms other than bacteria and possible rodents would be unethical. Discovery News published an article in 2010 about the topic. As the article explains, “Animal suicides were often seen as acts of abuse, madness, love or loyalty-the same causes then given for human suicides”. This certainly gives a new perspective on the matter, perpetuated in research published in 2010 by the British journal Endeavour. Sadly the article is only available in print in the university library, but luckily one of the authors, Edmund Ramsden, offered commentary in the Discovery News article. He explained the significance of research on animal suicide, stating that “You begin to challenge the definition of suicide…it’s not necessarily even a choice”.
One example of suicidal behavior in animals is the case of the pea aphid, an insect that, as the article in Nature explains, is known to explode itself thereby sacrificing its life in order to protect its surrounding relatives from predators such as the lady bug. Worker ants are also known to die in order to protect the colony. There is also folklore and anecdotes that reference animal suicides.
While suicide in the animal kingdom is a fascinating issue, it’s difficult to draw any clear conclusions on the topic. Most of the occurrences are anecdotal, which of course does not follow the scientific method whatsoever. However, more research on the topic could have some interesting implications about human suicide and how to prevent it. Is it really possible for an animal to consciously end its life for the same reasons as people? Do you think more research should be done on the topic? Or is this something that will simply remain a part of folklore for a long time to come?

The Antioxidant Delusion

I was recently going through my previous blog entries trying to get some inspiration for new topics. I noticed one word that came up a few times in my entries and comments-antioxidant. The first and second time I read it, I glazed over the word. After all, it’s thrown around in general health and diet news all the time. But by the third and fourth time I spotted the word, I realized I knew very little about antioxidants besides the fact that they’re in blueberries. What are they? What do they do? And most importantly-do they live up to the hype?

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The first definition of antioxidants I read was from the National Institute of Health, which describes them as “substances that may protect your cells against the effects of free radicals”. This only raised more questions. What does “MAY protect cells” mean and what are free radicals? Luckily, the latter question was subsequently answered. Free radicals as “molecules produced when your body breaks down food, or by environmental exposures like tobacco smoke and radiation”. The article went on to list the possible effects of free radicals which include heart disease and cancer.
With a definition in hand, I went on to look for more information about how antioxidants affect our bodies. The Harvard School of Public Health published an article all about the antioxidant issue, aptly titled Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype. One interesting fact that the article cleared up is the fact that referring to antioxidants as a substance is deceiving, as it is in fact a chemical property. The article also discussed the rise in popularity of antioxidants in the 1990s before research had even proven their benefits. Instead the media and health industries jumped on the trend and stocked shelves with antioxidant-packed supplements and foods. Of course I was immediately reminded Trofim Lysenko fraud case we discussed in class in which he told the media his “results” before the study was complete. The only difference being between these cases is that there is probably not fraud in the antioxidant research considering most of the antioxidant-based studies have not yielded the anticipated/desired results that show they are beneficial.
A study is currently being performed by researchers at the University of California-San Diego on the effect of antioxidant pills on Alzheimer’s suffers. A randomized control trial was performed on “78 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease who were divided into three groups and given supplements for 16 weeks”. The independent variable was the type and amount of antioxidant pills given to participants and the dependent variable was the protein levels of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which serve as markers for the onset of Alzheimer’s. At the completion of the 16 weeks, none of the groups showed improvements in the Alzheimer’s-related CSF markers. The article’s author is critical of the study for many reasons. Not only was the sample size small, the duration was very short and only one dependent variable was measured (or published). The more visible progression of the disease (changes in memory and thinking skills) was seemingly disregarded.
Though the research on antioxidants and disease prevention has been inconclusive thus far, does this mean we as consumers should focus less on incorporating them into our diet? Not quite yet, the Harvard article claims. It explains that the short duration of most studies and the fact that most of them have been done on people with existing diseases (cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.) as reasons for the inconclusive data. However, this article and another one from the Mayo Clinic stress the importance of eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables. This way, you will satisfy your body’s need for a range of nutrients and antioxidants.
Have you-like me-been led by the media to believe that antioxidants are the ultimate cure-all? Did you do any other research before grabbing for that high-antioxidant food or supplement? If so, will you continue to incorporate them into your diet until long-term research publishes more conclusive data?

Do Tomatoes Prevent Strokes?

It seems as though every week there’s a new magical property of some fruit or vegetable that promises to cure every ailment under the sun. In October, BBC News published an article that called tomatoes “stroke preventers”. But how much merit do these findings have? Is there causation, or just correlation? Will eating tomatoes now help us all prevent strokes in later life?

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The observational study cited in the BBC article was conducted in Finland and was published in Neurology (you can read the abstract here) in October 2012. The participants consisted of 1,031 middle-aged men with no history of stroke. Researchers initially measured carotenoid levels as well as LDL, HDL, blood pressure, body-mass index (BMI) and blood pressure. They also assessed various risk factors such as smoking, diabetes and alcohol consumption. The researchers found that while some carotenoids such as retinol, a-carotene, and β-carotene are not associated with a decreased risk of stroke, lycopene is. Lycopene is a carotenoid high in antioxidants that, according to the Mayo Clinic, “reduced incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and macular degeneration”. Lycopene is what gives tomatoes their bright-red color and can also be found in other fruits and vegetables including red carrots, watermelons and papayas.
The men were split into four groups based on their blood carotenoid levels. At the conclusion of the experiment, 67 men had suffered a stroke. Out of the 258 men in the low-lycopene group, 25 had suffered a stroke compared to 11 strokes in the 259 men with high-lycopene levels. On a 95%-confidence interval, the p-value was 0.036, leading to the conclusion that “the risk of stroke was cut by 55% by having a diet rich in lycopene”. The low p-value and length of time this study (men were followed for an average of 12.1 years) certainly support the idea that lycopene reduces a middle-aged male’s risk of stroke.
Though the sample size of this study seemed appropriate, I question the validity of the conclusion based on the statistics. Out of over 1,000 men, only 67 strokes occurred. In a way, this decreased the sample size to 67, causing one more or one less stroke in the high- or low-lycopene group to make all the difference. I wonder if comparing lycopene levels in men who’ve had a stroke to those of men with the same age/risk who have not suffered a stroke would yield more conclusive results. Based on the article and this blog, do you think the results of this study have established a correlation between blood lycopene levels and stroke risk? Do you think consuming more tomatoes is a reasonable action for someone who is at high risk/has suffered a stroke? Or should more resources be allocated to perform more studies need to be done on the subject?

Is Spell-Check Making Us Stupid?

All throughout school, my teachers emphasized the need to reread, revise and edit everything. Of course, spell-check or auto-correct on Microsoft Word and smart phones usually caught the obvious mistakes-using an “a” instead of an “i” in definitely, writing “teh” when we meant to say “the”, etc. However, more subtle errors often went unnoticed. Sadly for many of us, spell-check often neglects to pick up on human errors like writing “to” instead of “too” and using the incorrect form of “their/there/they’re”. Being the perfectionist that I am, these errors do not cease to irritate me, causing me to delete many a misspelled Tweet or go back and edit my SC 200 blogs until they are error-free. But in reading other blogs, I have found too many frustrating spelling and grammar errors that seriously interfere in my understanding of what the person is trying to communicate. Often these blogs remain only half read, as the three or more errors in the first paragraph makes finishing and commenting on the blog almost unthinkable. So what’s to blame-a lack of revision, an absence of/low quality spell-check or just sheer laziness? Probably a combination of all those factors, but the so called “Grammar Nazis” want answers. And so of course, I went searching.

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The claim that spell-check is making us stupid has been the topic of plenty of articles and 11 o’clock news segments. In fact, the general idea that technology is dumbing us down is of popular interest. Whether it’s GPS, video games or technology in general, it appears are though our cognitive abilities as a population are at risk. An article published by BBC News in 2012 referenced a survey that appears to support the hypothesis that spell-check is “making us dumb”. The survey was commissioned by Mencap and found that out of the 2,000 Britons surveyed, approximately one-third of participants could not spell “definitely” and two-thirds failed to identify the correct spelling of “necessary”. Only 9% of the participants claimed to never use spell-check. The director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, Ian McNeilly, commented that “If people are blindly writing things and expecting automated programs to address all of their inaccurate spellings, that’s a concern-because they won’t” (BBC News).
An article published by the Atlantic Wire  in the same year argues that while the conclusions of the Mencap survey hold some validity, “it is hardly a sudden development” (The Atlantic Wire). The article referenced two previous studies, both indicating that bad spelling was a problem long before Microsoft Word. A Stanford University study assembled students’ papers in 1988 and again in 2008 and ranked the most common errors. Within the twenty-year span, the frequency of the use of the wrong word and misspellings jumped dramatically. A 2005 study done by Harvard University on 65 graduate and undergraduate students “at a major northeastern U.S. university” (Harvard study)  found that when spell-check was on, participants made more mistakes than when it was turned off.
The conclusion that the Atlantic Wire came up with from these results was that “Computer spell-check, an invention of the 1970s has been making us worse at spelling for at least 25 years” (The Atlantic Wire). Based on the variety of these studies, I find this to be a logical conclusion. A double blind placebo trial isn’t reasonable in this kind of experiment, so the variety and scale of observational studies is critical. These studies have not only tracked the changes in spelling as a result of spell-check over time, but in regards to the Harvard study, the independent variable has been manipulated to see if it has an effect on the dependent variable. While technology has its merits, there are also downsides to consider. Do you find yourself dependent on spell-check when you draft assignments on a computer or smartphone? Are the number of spelling mistakes you make in hand-written notes as frequent as the ones you make on the computer?  Would you ever try replicating the Harvard study by turning spell-check software off and seeing how your spelling and grammar is without the threat of those squiggly red lines?

Early Puberty In Girls-Why It’s Happening & What We Should Do

During the first blogging period I wrote a post about the menopausal whale conversation we had in class. In my blog however I asked whether or not the age at which women begin going through menopause has changed in recent years. While my research on that topic yielded few answers, there is a related topic that I see in the headlines far more often.

As you’ve probably heard, girls are going through puberty earlier and earlier. The rapid change in the average age of puberty has caused difficulty for girls and parents alike. Girls are experiencing physical changes before their parents even have the chance to explain why these changes happen. In March of 2012, The New York Times published an article about the topic entitled Puberty Before Age 10 – A New “Normal”?. The article discussed many avenues of the subject, from methods of slowing down the process to why it’s happening to what it means for girls psychologically.
Studies done in the past few decades have suggested that puberty is increasing earlier and earlier. Though African American girls tend to hit puberty earlier in general, girls of all races are going through puberty sooner. A 2010 study led by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that by age 7, 10.4% of white girls, 14.9% of Hispanic girls and 23.4% of African American girls had begun to develop breasts. The percentages in white and African American girls had risen significantly since a similar study in 1997, showing that the change in the population is undeniable. 
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Probably the most important question discussed here is why. The article focused on the story of Ainsley, who at 9 years-old was the tallest in her class and had very mature curves among other things. While conventional doctors couldn’t identify any medical issues based on x-rays and blood tests, an applied kinesiologist suggested that it wasn’t her ovaries producing excess estrogen, but rather xenoestrogens. A person’s level of xenoestrogens are a result of one’s environment. Though this is the explanation offered by the applied kinesiologist, scientists have also offered this as an explanation after animal testing on the subject. Of course, animal testing is the only way to ethically perform a study on the topic, though observational studies are still in the realm of possibility. As with any observational study, the data would always come with the risks of reverse causality and confounding variables. Doctors offer other possible contributing factors including family stress and weight. For example, overweight girls are most likely to begin puberty before thin girls. Researchers now believe that it is fat tissue that can cause the body to mature, rather than strictly weight.
There are many ethical and social issues that surprisingly arise from early puberty in girls. In addition to questions about earlier sex education and a changing gender dynamic at a younger age, there are also differences between the girls who develop much earlier than other girls their age. These girls are more likely to drink and lose their virginity earlier, in addition to higher incidents of depression, self-esteem issues and eating disorders. Ethical issues arise from the option of giving girls hormone injections that slow the process of puberty. Is it right to prevent the body from doing the “natural” thing with a monthly injection? Or is it in a young girl’s best interests to slow the process? If your daughter was going through puberty at 6 years-old, would you try to artificially slow it? Finally, when will the younger puberty stop and what long-term connotations of these changes on the female population? Clearly this issue raises plenty of questions and isn’t going away any time soon.

Organic Cleaners-Just As Worthless as Organic Foods?

There have already been a couple blogs about the health effects (or lack thereof) of eating organic foods. But I had to wonder if organic cleaning products suffered from the same misconception that they are somehow better for us than the standard-quo.

“Green” products, specifically household cleaners, carry the label of being better than commercial cleaning products in all respects. There are certainly problems with these commercial cleaning products and the chemicals they contain that should not be ignored. For example, phthalates (often added to cleaning solutions as a fragrance) are known to cause disruptions in the endocrine and reproductive systems. Standard cleaning products also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which the EPA says can cause cancer in animals and possibly humans. The ingredients in cleaning products can also threaten the environment and water quality, as they become more toxic as they break-down.
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We can avoid all these dangers by switching to organic cleaning products, or so I thought. An article published by The Hindustan Times in 2008 shared some not-so-reassuring findings from a study done by the Organic Consumers Association. A Minnesota-based research team found that out of 100 organic/natural cleansers tested (including soaps, shampoos and cleaning products), 47 of them contained 1,4-Dioxane, a cancer-causing compound. The FDA discourages the use of the compound and the state of California classifies it as “cancer-causing”.
So are these products worth it? I’m sure most consumers who buy these organic cleaning products don’t bother to look at the ingredient label, but assume it is safe simply because of the “green” or “organic” label. Sales have decreased in the past few years thanks to the recession and the massive price differences between standard and organic cleaning products. If you’re someone who considers yourself a diehard consumer of organic goods, will you continue to use these products? They appear to be better than standard products in most respects but they certainly don’t come without their share of risks.

Deep Reading and Running Uses the Same Brain Regions? Apparently So.

I’ve made my knowledge of celebrity and pop culture no secret in these blogs, but today my obsession has truly paid off. Today while perusing the Daily Mail homepage, I bypassed the articles about Snooki’s post-baby body and Jennifer Aniston’s massive engagement ring in favor of more, ahem, intellectual material. Being an avid reader, I was immediately interested when I saw an article entitled ‘How Reading Jane Austin Can Exercise Parts of the Brain Usually Associated With Touch and Movement’. Quite the title, but the story was certainly worth the read.
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The article itself referred back to a segment that originally aired this morning on NPR Morning Edition. Natalie Phillips, a professor from Michigan State University who specializes in 18th- and 19th- century literature, decided to conduct a study based on the concept of distractibility, a theme common in Jane Austen’s novels. For the study, Phillips teamed up with a group of neuroscientists at Stanford University to assemble a group of volunteers who were asked to lie in a brain scanner and read excerpts from Mansfield Park. It is my understanding that the experiment had a matched pairs design in which the participants acted as their own match. Each participant was asked to read an excerpt “as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis” and to also “browse, as they might do at a bookstore”. Brain activity was monitored during each of these readings. Computer programs within the scanner also monitored the speed of the participants’ eye movement across the page, as well as their breathing and heart rate. Finally, they were asked to write a short essay about the passage at the end of the experiment.
Though Phillips was warned by the Stanford neuroscientists that the neurological differences in each reading style would be subtle and minute, the findings were a surprise to everyone. Close reading actually transformed and activated all parts of the brain, including those usually involved in touch and movement. This research ties into “literary neuroscience”, a new, interdisciplinary field. While the experiment is ongoing, it certainly has some interesting implications. It might explain why some people get so engrossed in a novel that their surroundings seem to fade away. Would this research affect the way you study or read a text book? For example, if you were asked to read a textbook “as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis”, do you think you would retain the information better and possibly get a whole new understanding of the material? I think it’s certainly worth a try!

Why Yelling Isn’t Always The Answer

I’m sure plenty of us have had to take care of a child who acts out to the point that we just want to yell at them. Or we’ve seen a parent screaming at his or her child in the mall, at the grocery store or the playground. But what long-term effects do raising your voice at a misbehaving child really have?

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Some parents see it as a necessary part of child-rearing, but repeated screaming at a child has some fairly serious effects. I first stumbled upon this topic on Yahoo, which had published a Good Housekeeping article on the topic. According to the article and a professor from the Wright Institute in Berkley, children whose parents verbally express a lot of anger towards them tend to be more aggressive and less empathetic as they get older. Though the article didn’t reference the basis of these conclusions or how this study was conducted, I have to wonder how these variables are measured. Obviously an experiment would be completely unethical in this situation. However, an observational study in the form of a survey also causes me to have doubts about this study. How honest will parents actually be about how often they yell at their child? Also, I wonder how the person/group conducting this study measured levels of aggression and empathy in a child or young adult.
These conclusions were also referenced in a 2004 article published in the New York Times. This article offered much more specific insight into the studies it referenced. In a study of nearly 1,000 families conducted in 2003, 88% of them admitted to shouting, yelling or screaming at their child in the last year. One interesting component that researchers mentioned was the fact that the content and context of the yelling mattered and that the effects of the yelling could be made better or worse by the tone, word use and frequency.
Another study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in July 2001 found that “emotional abuse was the most significant predictor of mental illness, more so than sexual and physical abuse.” Yelling can also affect a child’s future relationships. These are some pretty interesting conclusions with very serious implications. Luckily, there are simple ways to curb your anger and frustration as a parent or caretaker that can minimize the effects of yelling at a child. But what do you think? Is yelling at a child just another way to “toughen them up”? Are there times when scolding a child is acceptable or are there better ways to handle disciplinary issues?

Another Celebrity Health Trend

Last week, we started talking about how a lack of science can kill. One of these examples included blood-letting, either through Benjamin Rush’s methods or the thousand-year-old practice of leeching. Of course, being someone who watches way too much E! News and reads the Daily Mail’s entertainment section religiously, I immediately thought of Demi Moore‘s confession of her affinity for leeching back in 2008. I then thought about the other “celebrity medical trends” of the moment. But do these therapies have any merit? Do they really improve health and quality of life in such a way that the Average Joe (or Jennifer) should take note?
One of these trends is cupping therapy that has caught on with public figures such including AnnaLynne McCord, Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow. Cupping is an Arabic form of alternative medicine that uses glass cups to create local suction on different areas of the body to promote circulation. The suction is created by using a hand pump or heating the air within the cup before applying it to the skin. According to the British Cupping Society (BCS), cupping can be used to treat a variety of conditions including blood disorders, skin problems, fertility and rheumatic diseases. It is also claimed to improve “general physical and psychological well-being”.
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The practice of cupping therapy dates back to 3000 BC, but is it effective for those in favor of alternative medicine in today’s world or just a load of rubbish? According to a study published in The Journal of Pain in 2008, cupping therapy seems to be a reasonable approach to treating certain conditions. The study was an open randomized clinical trial with 52 participants, all of whom were suffering from neurologically confirmed carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). The experimental group received a single treatment of wet cupping and a subsequent bandaging of the wound to hide the tell-tale cupping welts that are a result of the suction. The control group on the other hand simply received local heat application on their shoulder. With these two groups, participants could at least be partially blinded. After 7 days, the patients were followed up on. The severity of CTS symptoms in the experimental group was significantly reduced, whereas the symptoms of the control group remained relatively the same. On a 95% confidence interval, the p-value was less than .001, leading to the conclusion that “cupping therapy may be effective in relieving the pain and other symptoms related to CTS”. Another article published by The Journal of Pain in 2009 addressed the  merits of the 2008 study because of the presence of a control group. The author made a valid point saying, “All too often, we seem to either accept traditional treatments because “they have stood the test of time” or reject them untested as “old wives tales”. Neither of these attitudes is advancing our knowledge.”
So maybe Gwyneth, Posh and AnnaLynne all have the right idea about covering their backs in suction cups. Celebrities are often leaders when it comes to the latest fashion, exercise and diet, but what about alternative medicine? Would you ever try a health treatment popularized by your favorite celebrity? Or more importantly, would you do your research to make sure it’s valid?

The French Effect

While researching my last blog, I stumbled across something I found fascinating. It was a name for something I didn’t know had a name but had always thought existed. It’s not some mysterious constellation nor is it an obscure and complex scientific or biological mechanism. It’s the so-called French Paradox.

The presence of a paradox was first addressed in a 60 Minutes segment in 1991. The video addressed the observation that despite the high consumption of cheese and wine, the French have a relatively low frequency of coronary heart disease. One researcher claimed that milk, not cheese, was the enemy in regards to the dangers of dairy and heart health. He believes that this is due to the nature of calcium in milk versus cheese. Because of the fermentation in cheese, the calcium may neutralize the fat, allowing it to be excreted from the body rather than absorbed. He drew these conclusions based on an experiment where he had two groups of rats, one milk-fed group and one cheese-fed group. While the cheese-fed rats had eliminated most of the dairy fat in their waste, the milk-fed group had not. The milk-fed rats were also found to have clogged arteries after being dissected.
The average French person consumed far more butter, cheese and animal fat daily in comparison to the average American, however death rates from coronary heart disease were far lower.
However, there may be a concrete explanation to this paradox. First, there is a high consumption of red wine in France. The red wine affects blood platelets, which help remove platelets from the artery walls. 
There are also lifestyle differences which contribute to the paradox. While statistically the French consume more butter, cheese, animal fat and alcohol per capita than Americans, their overall lifestyle and eating habits could lead to better overall health. The French not only eat less, but they also eat more slowly than Americans. They also snack less, walk more and eat fresher foods. These overall lifestyle differences could explain the differences in coronary heart disease. A 2009 study comparing dietary factors such as the consumption of saturated fats and the risk of coronary heart disease concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish a causal link between the two.
So we know French women don’t get fat, that they raise better-behaved children and dress well, but there’s no need to fret if you’re not French! In short, the so-called French Paradox has some very concrete explanations that we can all apply to our lives, but we don’t have to rely on Brie and Bordeaux to avoid coronary heart disease.
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