Author Archives: Abigail Kennedy

About Abigail Kennedy

Hi all, I'm Abby Kennedy and I'm a junior at Penn State University's Schreyer Honors College. I've found passions in my double majors in English and Secondary English Education and in my minors in History and Latin American Studies. In spare time, I love singing in my a cappella group and working. No, I can't believe I'm halfway done. There's still so much to learn.

Can Nose Cells Fix Your Spine?

My mom’s friend Kevin from work always had new jokes and kept a few small toys in the bag on the side of his wheelchair for me and my siblings when we saw him. Kevin had been a paraplegic since he was 15 when he severed some nerves along his spinal cord. During Kevin’s life, there was no way to repair this, and eventually he died of health complications because of his injury. The other day, my mom sent me an email about a Washington Post article about this exact type of surgery, telling me she had only wished Kevin could’ve gotten.

_78392534_spinal_cord_624The surgery was the first successful transplant of nose cells to the spine. Sounds crazy, but here’s how it worked: In the nose, everyone has olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) that help constantly renew nerve fibers in the nose. Nerve fibers are integral to the sense of smell, but are constantly worn out—so OECs have to regenerate new ones. And regeneration is incredibly rare in the nervous system. In the past, disconnected spinal nerve cells couldn’t find each other and connect. OECs, Dr. Raisman first reasoned in 1969, could be the bridge.

Two years ago Professor Geoff Raisman and Dr. Pawel Tabakow, the lead neurosurgeon on the procedure, teamed up to repair the spinal nerve damage of 40-year old Darek Fidyka. Today, Darek can walk with a brace and, with physical therapy he’s been recovering from a surgery once thought impossible.imrs.php

Here’s the equivocation: this was one surgery and one success story. Even the success of Darek’s surgery really won’t be fully determined for years as researchers and doctors monitor his progress. As much as I wanted to gush over this with my mom, I wasn’t convinced yet that this was the panacea she and everyone else had always wished for Kevin. So I looked into it some more, and here’s what I found.

As it turns out, the OECs are not the only nerve cells that can regenerate. In the spine itself are Schwann cells, which act as a protective shield around spinal nerve cells and can help regenerate damaged ones. Problem is, this study says, Schwann cells aren’t as good at it as OECs, which explains why another Raisman study said that the probability for recovery from severed spinal nerve cells increased from 20% to 80% when using OECs. I looked more into Dr. Raisman’s past research, and it seems that he and his colleagues have been on the right track. They developed an idea and a potential procedure with OECs, and then first tested it many times in animal trials on rats with success.

When it came time to talk about human trials, the first concern was safety. If OECs were transplanted in the spine, would it be safe or could there be complications. So in their first human trial, they tried the concept in a modified way with a lower dose for the three males they tested. What initially bothered me about this experiment was that the OECs didn’t seem to improve the spinal nerve cells in these men. But that wasn’t the point, researchers explained. That single blind controlled 2005 experiment wasn’t the same as the procedure Darek Fidyka got and wasn’t necessary aiming to cure these men, but instead to see if it was safe—which it was. Darek Fidyka’s surgery was the first successful trial of this OEC procedure. It’s important to note that the procedure worked on an injury that was essentially a clean break. There is no evidence to suggest it could work on more complicated injuries. Still, it’s impressive. Hoping to be more impressive, they want to do ten more trial procedures to test its reliability. We know from class that the more varied studies done on a procedure or hypothesis, the more likely the positive results are not false positives. If those 10 more were to have similar results, the probability that the results could be due to chance and not OECs would be so small that the procedure could actually become the new standard of care. Maybe those next tests will show the procedure works or that it has flaws or that it has flaws but still works. We don’t know yet because we haven’t seen that part of the movie yet.

The take home message though is that while there’s no certainty that this procedure is the answer to so many people’s problems, it’s on the right track to gaining that near certainty. If it does, it could be one of the biggest surgical and medical discoveries ever.

Are Girls Better Students?

moreFirst things first: this is not a blog arguing that girls are smarter than boys. That’s just not true. Researchers have not found that either gender has better overall cognitive abilities. This blog has to do with gender differences in study habits, and is not a “girls rule, boys drool” argument at all. Okay, now that we’re back on track: At Andrew’s review session for Test 2, there were about 10-12 girls there and no guys. I remembered the picture of the first review session also only had girls. Someone commented on this and Andrew said that this was usually how it went: girls went to the review sessions more often, while guys tended to procrastinate more on the blogs and on test preparation. I wondered if this was just a coincidence or if there was any scientific validity to this study habit trend. Here’s what I found:

In “Problem-Solving Appraisal, Self-Reported Study Habits…,” (*PSA: this is the Google Scholar link, there isn’t a direct hyperlink to the study. It automatically downloads when you click on links from the search*) the researchers used the PSI survey to assess problem-solving abilities of college students, and the SSHA survey to determine their study habits. Though both are self-reporting methods, they’re considered credible. Researchers then used these results, students’ ACT scores, and their current GPA to create a composite score. First, the study found that study habits have a high correlation to academic performance. But second and more interesting, it found that female students had a higher mean score (meaning better study habits and grades) than males. With p-values less than 0.007, the study found that gender was significantly related to the grade a student received in a class, accounting for 11% of variance in scores. 11% acknowledges that there are certainly other factors in grades, but gender does play a role.

To make sure this wasn’t an outlier study, I searched more and found two other studies. Both “A Survey of Student Study Habits…” and “Relationship between Study Habits and Academic Achievement…”  noted that #1 there was a significant positive relationship between study habits and grades, and #2 that females tended to have better study habits. All of these studies considered test scores, concentration levels, note taking, time management, reading comprehension, and memory when determining what “good study habits” look like. So if in general girls tend to have better study habits, my next question is why?

Part could be gender differences in cognitive development and characteristics. Female brains tend to mature about 1-2 years faster than male brains, with the biggest differences during teen years. This matters for the prefrontal cortex (frontal lobe or PFC). The PFC is the executive functions section of the braindealing with decision-making, planning, problem solving, judgment, impulse control, and more–integral functions for the study habits mentioned. Since female brains (and PFCs) mature faster than male brains, that could explain some differences. But still, that 1-2 year gap is made up quickly and can’t explain everything.

According to a 2001 Harvard study, female frontal lobes (even after body height/weight adjustments were accounted for) were larger than male frontal lobes. Additionally, female brains have more “white matter” than male brains. White matter consists of the parts of the brain that make neuronal connections; like this article says, it’s kind of like the brain’s subway system to the different grey matter areas. This means that in general women can make faster neurological connections.

University-students-007Even if the brain component explains part of it, here’s another part to consider: society. This article discusses like many others how girls tend to outperform boys in reading and writing subjects at many different age stages. Some of this could be due to a cognitive predisposition, but another part could be that young boys are encouraged by society to be more physically active, and tend to read less. This aversion to reading can stick with boys long term. When school becomes more about reading, writing, and critical thinking (as college often does), this could explain why men are being accepted to and graduating from universities and colleges at lower rates than women.

More experiments could be done to figure out why there’s a difference in study habits by measuring PFC related abilities, gauging social attitudes, and observing study habits on a given project/test. I also acknowledge there are other things going on here like gender priming. This article and this study do a good job of explaining and examining  gender priming. Still, even with gender priming in STEM fields, women go to/graduate from universities more, and with higher grades.

Take home message: study habits are important and are linked to gender. This doesn’t mean boys can’t study well or perform well in college. Regardless of gender, if you are disinclined to studying, that could catch up with you. And for guys, maybe go to Andrew’s review sessions.

Can Positive Thinking Cure You?

MARCELA-POSITIVE-ATTITUDE-INS2Ever hear “you have to stay positive when you’re sick,” implying that positive thinking can make you better? Me too, a lot in fact. As a kid in the hospital, I heard that one plenty, so I wanted to investigate. Can positive thinking improve one’s physical health? Does the condition matter? Does stress come into the equation? First, I looked into studies that claimed positive thinking as a health benefit.

Study #1: Over five years, Steven Greer and his colleagues followed the physical and psychological conditions of 578 women who had enrolled in the study with early-stage breast cancer. Early on they classified women in “helplessness/hopelessness” or “fighting spirit” categories based on their answers to surveys. At the end, women with high “helpless/hopeless” scores were more likely to relapse or die within five years than women with a “fighting spirit.” Study #2: Next, men undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery were interviewed before the surgery, a few days after surgery, and then again months later. Researchers used the LOT (Life Orientation Test) to convert people’s statements about their expectations for their future health to scores to evaluate optimism. Men classified as “optimists” had fewer negative physiological changes in their electrocardiograms and fewer releases of enzymes into the bloodstream that could cause infections. Basically, the data showed that pessimists were more likely to suffer heart attacks during surgery. Pessimism also seemed to be related to slower recovery. Study #3: In 2001 researchers found that amongst war veterans, veterans determined by personality inventories to be optimists were less likely to develop heart disease than the veterans classified as pessimists. The researchers determined this result was independent (meaning not affected by) smoking habits.

In fact, further studies have found no significant data demonstrating that positive thinking improves health. The meta-analysis called “Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science…,” reviewed 12 studies that examined the effect of “fighting spirit” on cancer progression and survival. The ten larger studies found negative results, and only the two smaller, flawed, and confounded studies found results that supported the claim that positivity improves health. They cite another meta-analysis that says positive thinking has no significant improvement effect on cardiovascular diseases or cancer. The American Cancer Society even discounts the health benefits of positive thinking.

How can we explain the results of the three studies and many others that say there is a link? First: most studies have a potential reverse causality—instead of positive thinking improving a person’s health, a person who becomes healthier could improve their attitude. Potential confounding variables (like lower SES and education) and small sample size influenced other results.  In  “Thinking differently about thinking positive,” Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger pointed out that especially in the world of breast cancer, patients feel a lot of pressure to think positively, which could coerce subjects to report more positivity than they actually feel. The questionnaires and surveys themselves can also be ambiguous, and the coding of patients’ answers is inconsistent. In one study the phrase “I try to see it in a different light, to make it seem more positive” was coded as positive thinking while “It’s best to be positive at all times. I try not to let myself get depressed, sad, or angry when things go wrong” was coded as the less positive “Type C personality” that allegedly increased risk of cancer. Inconsistent modes of measurement of positivity mean that the results are not reliable. Some also thought that stress influenced the results of conditions like heart disease and Alzheimer’s that are connected to stress. But data shows positive people are not necessarily less stressed than negative people, nor do coping methods of stress (good vs. bad) make a significant difference in physical health.

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           My Google search this week

So why do some still believe that positive thinking cures? Here’s my thought: when I was in the hospital as a kid, I liked to think that if I behaved and stayed positive I would get better. When facing terrifying illnesses, people want to do something, doctors want to as well, and the idea that positive thinking could help is comforting and within someone’s control. There might be perceptual bias like that of the doctors mentioned in class: Believers of positivity may think if they get healthier, it’s because they were positive, and if they don’t, it’s because the disease was really tough. All of that is understandable, I’ve been there, and no one likes to feel helpless. But the ACS sums it up well: Positive thinking therapy may improve quality of life, but it doesn’t prevent or cure disease. Take home message is wishing doesn’t make it so.

Flu Vaccinations: The Odds Are Ever In Your Favor

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 10.13.10 PMSorry for the title pun. Second half of the semester, and winter is coming and so is the flu. People debate whether or not the flu vaccination is effective enough to get it. My doctors, parents, and administrators have told me plenty that generally, people should get the vaccine. Some concerns seemed valid though: The flu affects everyone differently, and the vaccine is no panacea. Since my vaccination is tomorrow, I wanted to check it out. Stick with me here.

First off, here are some things about influenza that we have to get straight. The flu, influenza, is “an infectious respiratory disease caused by type A or type B influenza viruses, which are present in the mucus membranes and secretions of the nose, throat and lungs,” according to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). People can have “flu-like” symptoms that stem from something other than influenza, so it’s common for people to mistake another virus or illness like pneumonia for influenza. The flu vaccine works only on the type A or type B influenza virus strains. Most flu vaccines cover more than one “strain.” Further the NVIC says, usually it’s a three, four, or more part cocktail that covers two type A viruses and a type B virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) have predicted will come up during that flu season.

One of the first concerns with flu vaccines is with Thirmerosal, a “mercury-containing organic compound” that acts as a preservative in some vaccines. It’s used for instance in low doses in the flu shot (although not in the nasal spray). Some small studies that showed a link between Thirmerosal and negative health consequences. But here’s the thing. Those studies dealt with unrealistic amounts of Thirmerosal, were extremely small from the 1930s (and are thus outdated when it comes to modern vaccines), and were not replicated. Here’s what the FDA says about it: #1 Any connections to allergic reactions are very rare and very mild. #2 More recent studies have found no significant negative impacts or changes in the body due to Thirmerosal, specifically brain or kidneys (areas where there were some concerns of effects). There is no connection to autism, despite what some politicians have said. For more, I recommend you read the report yourself! So: Thirmerosal is not a reason to avoid vaccines.

Another concern is that the vaccine (just like the flu itself) can affect people differently. PercentEffectivePeople with certain chronic diseases, says the CDC, “might develop less immunity than healthy children and adults after vaccination. However, even for these people, the flu vaccine still may provide some protection.” Elderly people can sometimes have a lower protective immune response” post-vaccination than younger and healthier people might have. But again, even for them, it is advisable to get the vaccine because the consequences of the flu are typically graver. Elderly people are much more likely to die of the flu or flu-related causes. Some studies the CDC cited showed for people over 50, the effectiveness of the vaccine (in reducing flu-related illnesses and hospitalization) reached near 77%. For generally healthy adults and older kids, the vaccinations tend to reduce flu-related illnesses by about 70%, says the CDC. The result is even higher for other groups. In an experimental study on giving pregnant women the flu vaccine, researchers found with 95% confidence that the vaccine reduced their infants’ risk for hospitalization for the flu by 91.5%. All of these studies have been conducted properly and have been substantiated by other research. So you improve your odds (at nearly any age) of not getting sick and not getting others sick by getting the vaccine.

FluVaccineChart

Still, it’s easy to focus on the anecdotal and think about the times the vaccine hasn’t worked and has even hurt people. But let’s look at the numbers. In the 2013-2014 flu season, by November 2013 there were about 93,000 “reports of reactions, hospitalizations, injuries and deaths following influenza vaccinations” according to the NVIC. In that same season, by November 2013 there were about 128.6 million doses of flu vaccinations distributed, the CDC reports. I calculated, and that means the chance someone was negatively affected by the virus was 0.0723%, an insignificant figure (promise there’s a blue sliver on that chart). You might worry that these are estimates, not exact numbers. See this link for why and how the CDC estimates Influenza-Associated Deaths in the US. So, don’t worry: the odds are still ever in your favor.

Still not sold on getting the vaccine? How about this: even though a college campus is like a pressure cooker for festering diseases like influenza, college students are usually ridiculously ambivalent about getting vaccinated. In 2012 when swine flu hit the US, “Although college students were among the populations that had the highest frequency of infection for H1N1 influenza, only 8% of them received H1N1 vaccine this past flu season nationwide” University of Buffalo’s Dr. Janet Yang’s research “Too Scared or Too Capable? Why Do College Students Stay Away from the H1N1 Vaccine? reported. Similar trends exist with the regular flu. Fewer people vaccinated means more people infected and more opportunities to come in contact with a person or thing with the virus. Higher risk of infection, higher reward for vaccination. e145cae5eec5e4c00b003919401f7b92-1

Take home message is this: while the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, and its effectiveness varies every year (just like the flu itself), getting the vaccine is advised. It’s advised by the CDC, most scientists and doctors in the field, and by Penn State (check your University Health Services messages). If you’re looking for other ways to make sure you stay healthy this winter at PSU, check out this list. So go to one of these times, or schedule with UHS!

Homework: A) Good, B) Bad, or C) Not Sure?

Source hereMany PSU students are feeling the crunch of homework time in midterm season. Everyone seems to be able to sympathize with the random “I just have soooo much work to do, it’s crazy.” The question is, is it crazy? Sometimes I wonder if I could learn a concept or skill just as well with less homework. At the heart of this are the questions, does homework improve academic success and how much is enough? It turns out there’s a lot of research on this.

In Harris Cooper’s meta-analysis “Does Homework…,” research demonstrated that “for students in elementary school, the average correlation between amount of homework and achievement was nearly r=0.” Even though homework doesn’t seem to improve elementary school achievement, it can have benefits such as reinforcing  study skills. For students in middle school the correlation was r=0.07, and for high school students it was r=0.25. The study does caution readers about assuming absolute causation, but says it is safe to say that as students grow older, homework can play a positive role in education. That said, says Cooper, homework does seemed to be linked with academic achievement only to a point. Researcher J.W. Lam interviewed high school students about how many hours a week they spent on homework, sorting the students into four categories (1-6 hours, 7-12, 13-20, over 20). He found that the highest achievement scores were found in the 7-12 hour category, students doing about 1 to nearly 2 hours of homework a day. In fact, the kids doing more than 20 hours of homework a week had achievement scores almost equal to the kids doing 1-6 hours a week. Again, there could be a lot of factors, but it does seem that when students have too much homework, they suffer from satiation (loss of interest because of excess), stress, and even lack of learning. Too much homework leads to increased stress, poorer health, and less time for friends, family, and extracurricular activities, according to Stanford University studies. A good rule of thumb, says Cooper in his own research, is the 10-minute rule: “all daily homework assignments combined should take about as long to complete as 10 minutes multiplied by the student’s grade level.” So by senior year of high school, students should be spending about two hours a night on homework. Take away message is this: homework is good…to a point.

But what about college students? That might be your question; it was mine. None of these studies dealt with college-aged students. It would make sense to say that the principle “all in moderation” would apply to college students too. I couldn’t find any research on the benefits (or repercussions) of the workload that college students have. But here’s something for thought: the University of Michigan-Flint’s  “Surviving College” page says that for every three-credit class (meaning it meets for a total of three hours a week), students should spend 6-9 hours studying a week. Michigan and other universities, including Utah State University recommend the same.

Accordingly, 15 credits (5 classes) means 30 and 45 additional hours of studying a week. 18 credits (6 classes) means 36-54 hours a week. Transitioning from high school into a schedule like these, at best that’s a 18 hour mark up in study time, at worst, 47 hours. Here’s a breakdown of how that looks in a typical student schedule that I calculated based on my experiences and those of my friends. [To learn about why I chose 6-7 hours of sleep and why getting 5 hours or less is harmful, read here. To learn why extracurricular obligations are essentially requirements, consider the Top Ten Things Employers Look For In New College Graduates, why the Wall Street Journal ranked Penn State students as the Number 1 graduates to hire according to recruiters, and what our Career Services says.]

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 2.24.45 PMHere’s my disclaimer: these are averages and calculations are anecdotal observations. Due to my limitations as a student with a busy schedule, I could not conduct the proper observational study with randomized student schedules. Unfortunately after extensive searching, I could not find any studies about collegiate level homework’s effectiveness and quantity like the studies for primary and secondary school. I compare the current inquiry about the costs and benefits of homework and its affect on achievement in college to the investigation into whether or not smoking is bad for you. Right now, just as in the pre-1950 smoking investigation, there are no properly designed, good experiments and observations that can lead to strong inferences–we only have anecdotal observations and parallel studies (like on primary/secondary school years).  Though I have a strong suspicion that in many classes professors can assign less work while still imparting the same quality of education on their students, the evidence on a macro-level is not strong enough to compel that costly reform across the country.

If researchers were to pursue this, I think they should measure the quantity of homework and the subsequent academic achievement in multiple fields and types of classes. For instance, researchers should conduct observational studies in classes such as math, physics, or chemistry where homework and assessment are predominantly based on problem sets. They should then look into classes such as English, communications, or international relations, where homework and assessment are based more on readings and papers. By researching in this intra-discipline way, we can learn more about what’s an acceptable and helpful amount of computational homework versus critical thinking and analysis homework.

On a micro-level, it would not be as taxing for an individual professor to experiment with homework levels to find out if students could succeed with less work, and then adjust a syllabus accordingly. Who knows, maybe even Andrew could experiment with SC 200 class to see if students grasp the scientific concepts of critical thinking, analysis, and high-level discussion with fewer blog and comment quantity requirements.

At the end of the day take away: the effectiveness of homework and the merit of different quantities in college settings are still up in the air, but in lower grades the conclusion is that homework is helpful in mediated quantities. Happy Midterms!

Does music help or hurt my studying? Yes.

Source here

Source here

Everyone has at some point has tried to study in a place (your dorm, a lounge, maybe even the library) where there’s a lot of noise and realized, “I’m not at home in my quiet bedroom anymore.” Maybe somebody’s playing music with a beat that makes the walls vibrate, the people in the hallway are chatting, or the people next to you are watching TV loudly. So you put in your headphones and listen to your own music, trying to drown it all out while you crank out some work. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself doing this a lot and the nagging question of “is this helping or hurting me” comes to mind, so I looked into it. I looked at a few different things: First, does the genre and your preferences matter? Second, does volume matter? Third, does music affect you differently when you’re doing different types of homework?

From the research I did into various studies, the most important conclusion is this: it’s (almost) always better to study in silence. In this randomized and repeated study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers found that lyrical music and unattended speech (example: people talking in regular conversation) had the worst effect on memory and cognition, followed by instrumental music. Steady noise (like from white noise or pink noise simulator) and silence had essentially equal effects on performance and seem to be the best option for studying involving memory and basic levels of computation (such as reading, counting, calculating, and reasoning). This study also showed there’s little difference between steady ambient noise and silence when it comes to memory. Though there wasn’t explanation for why steady noise and silence were essentially equal environments, I have a hypothesis: both steady noise and silence are consistent and allow your brain to focus without diverting attention to the sounds around you. Where even classical music changes pitch and tempo, and takes some of your concentration, steady noise and silence don’t. Here’s that in list form:

  • Best to Worst Conditions to Study In
    • Silence and steady noise
    • Instrumental music
    • Unattended Speech and Lyrical music

I checked out too if music preference has anything to do with academic concentration. It might make sense that if I really love listening to a certain band, I might have a harder time concentrating on my work if their music is playing. It also might make sense to say that listening to my favorite band gets me pumped and ready to roll when it comes to my work and music I dislike might distract me more (like a bad smell). This is where that whole “human intuition is lousy” concept comes in. As it turns out, many studies including this one in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal found that there was no difference in “serial recall performance” between liked and disliked music conditions…and again, these were “significantly poorer than the quiet and steady-state speech conditions.” Again, I found the study to be properly randomized with multiple experiments to replicate the findings even within the study. SO! Silence/steady noise is still the best option, and music preference doesn’t seem to affect memory recall and cognition skills.

But there’s just one more thing that I wanted to check out. All of these studies dealt with memory and computation skills, but not all homework is memory and computation. In fact, for most of us non-science majors, a lot of our homework deals with critical thinking and creative thought processes (whether it’s English Literature, Visual Arts, or Marketing). So I looked at another study on the effects of music on creative cognition. First, if you’re concerned, I think the study did a decent job of quantifying creativity. In all of the experiments, participants were asked to do a creative task (example: generate new ideas for a mattress), there was an independent panel of judges randomly selected to evaluate the creativity of their work, and the scores were then averaged for an overall “creativity score.” Though creativity is extremely subjective and hard to evaluate, I found this study to be valid. The study concluded that participants were the most creative when there was a moderate level of ambient noise and that low and high levels of ambient noise were equally worse. Why though? Basically, when there’s the noise, that noise disrupts cognitive processes and this is called processing disfluency. But when the level of noise is just right, a certain amount of distraction leads to creative thought. It’s basically a Goldilocks Theory: too little noise and your brain isn’t distracted enough to be creative, too much noise and even creative processing becomes too difficult.

Source here

Source here

But a moderate amount of noise or music (around 70 decibels) in effect shakes your brain out of its normal thinking patterns enough that you can think in abstract creative terms.

So what’s the take home message? Try to find a consistent and quiet environment to work in. If you can’t, maybe try listening to white or pink noise to “block out” the random distractions. If you’re doing “creative” homework, consider listening to medium volume music or ambient noise in order to create that “processing disfluency” that I mentioned earlier. In the end, you have to create a musical/noise environment in which you’re focusing the most on your work rather than the environment itself.

Potential Coping Method for Alzheimer’s Disease

This is my final blog on Alzheimer’s disease, the complex form of dementia that affects over five million Americans, including my Gran. To be clear, there is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s though many researchers have been diligently searching in more recent years. As I set out on my last bout of research on Alzheimer’s for this blog, I stumbled on to something called “Mindfulness,” a new coping method praised by CBS News.

See source here

See source here

When I read the article on CBS’s website, I found it vague. It didn’t explain the technique or how they tested it. So far, I was cynical of Mindfulness. So I went to the original research paper to learn more. Mindfulness, it turns out, emphasizes awareness of breathing, emotions, and communication skills, and light yoga for both Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers. Side-note, I’m in a yoga gym class myself. While I recognize the calming benefits and the physical exercise, I was wary after reading the Mindfulness description, skeptical that it could actually improve the condition of Alzheimer’s patients.

Before the study, patients and caregivers were both given cognitive tests and questionnaires that analyzed quality of life, depression, anxiety, sleep patterns, daily activities, and other aspects of patient and caregiver life. All of this was repeated after the eight-week program. In the eight-week period, patients and caregivers went to weekly group sessions on Mindfulness. In addition, patients were given 30 minute and hour long “homework” on Mindfulness practices including mild yoga exercises and breathing techniques.

So what were the results? Well interestingly enough, although the patients and caregivers expressed positive opinions about Mindfulness, concrete results were fuzzy. The results from the cognitive tests were inconclusive, not suggesting any positive impact of Mindfulness on the actual cognitive condition of Alzheimer’s. It did not improve memory or have an impact of statistical significance on daily life activity level, or sleeping patterns.

But here’s where Mindfulness did potentially succeed: outlook. Mindfulness seemed to have a positive, small yet significant impact on Quality of Life, Depression, and Anxiety in both patients and caregivers. Caregivers showed significant increases in patience and understanding in their reactions to patient problems. One caregiver remarked on Mindfulness, “Mindfulness helped me be more compassionate and thoughtful toward my elderly mother. It also helped me to live in the moment as well as reduce the adverse reaction to stress.” A patient made a similar remark: “The overload of stressors didn’t ease, but my sense that I’m coping better than I had thought (and as time went on, better than I was coping), gave me more energy and focus to deal with what I must.”

It’s difficult to tell the real impact of Mindfulness just yet. Questionnaires based on self-assessment pose a problem with Alzheimer’s patients who often struggle to organize and articulate their thoughts and memories. The study also only consisted of 37 people. Perhaps a larger study that had more objective observation of the patients before, during, and after Mindfulness could shed light on the full ramifications.

But here’s the thing: if all these people are convinced that Mindfulness reduced their stress and helped them cope, it might be worth a shot. The program appears low cost with a substantial reward. And stress is a huge component of coping with Alzheimer’s for both patients and caregivers. So many times when I’ve seen my Gran, she expresses how much stress she feels because everything is harder now; brushing her hair, putting on her shoes, using a key to unlock a door, remembering names and things to do, and so many other little things frustrate her and lead her to be more discouraged and depressed. If Mindfulness can at least alleviate some of this, I’ll see if I can recommend some of the information and practices to my Grandpop as he cares for her. To be honest with you, all of this research into the technicalities of Alzheimer’s is very selfish; I desperately want to hold on to the brilliant, beautiful, rational, loving, and talented Gran I’ve always known. As the end of this blog period comes, my last comments are that I expect a lot of innovative research into Alzheimer’s and a cure for it in the coming decades. ‘Night all.0918142243

How To Avoid Alzheimer’s (As Best You Can)

For this blog cycle, I have been writing about Alzheimer’s disease. To be upfront, I started writing this blog because I wanted to learn more about the awful disease that has started replacing my Gran with a stranger. Unfortunately, she has developed the disease in a time period where the research into treatments and cures is still too early to translate into recovery. Still, I’ve kept writing about the disease because its relative mystery is extremely interesting. I want to look at what we do know and see how my generation can avoid Alzheimer’s as best as we can.

In past blogs, I explored some genetic influences of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). But according to the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, Less than 5% of AD is caused by dominant genes that are transmitted through families.”So what does cause Alzheimer’s? Once again, the answer is we sort of might know. Here’s a list of things that the New York Times and the Alzheimer’s Association have listed as potential factors that you can influence to an extent:

  • Past Head Trauma: people who have previously sustained head injuries (including concussion) are more at risk of AD
  • Education: People with lower levels of education—or more accurately low levels of mental stimulation—are more likely to develop AD (see here)
  • Heart Health
See here for source.

See here for source.

I want to focus in on Heart Health as a potential contributor, because it has HUGE implications! According to the CDC, almost 25% of the people that die every year in the US are dying of heart disease. Further, the CDC states, about 33.5% of American adults have “bad cholesterol” and 31% have high blood pressure.

About twenty years ago–nearly the amount of time it takes for a person with pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s to develop full-fledged AD (see the alz.org for more)– Dr. Larry Sparks and other researchers found that there is a link between vascular problems and AD. I read through their 2000 summary of their second round of research. I thought the many different animal tests and human tests were conducted properly and served as valid evidence for a link. Sparks concludes essentially that bad cholesterol levels can affect a person’s metabolism of certain proteins, which leads to overproduction of b-amyloid. b-amyloid is a protein that when overproduced, builds up in plaques in the brain causing AD. And while high blood pressure doesn’t affect whether or not a person develops AD, it can affect how advanced the AD will be if they do get it.

What You Can Do: The strong evidence saying that poor vascular health can lead to AD is enough to motivate me (and hopefully you) to try to kill two birds with one stone. Advice from the New York Times and the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight (that does not mean skinny necessary)
  • Eat a low-cholesterol and low-fat diet.

Perhaps the most reflective comment on the disease as far as research and treatments go is the concluding line of Spark’s research: “Time will tell.”

Alzheimer’s Part 3: Cat and Mouse Search for good tests

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 9.54.21 AM

Courtesy of BBC News and CBS News

Right now, scientists are developing and testing many drugs to treat, ameliorate, and hopefully someday cure Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Usually learning and memory tests are the primary ways any treatment is measured and tested. Problem is, according to a review article on a study at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, these kinds of tests don’t deal with “episodic memory,” which is a person’s detailed personal memory of events, and the emotions and thoughts surrounding them. Episodic memory is most affected by AD. For a full explanation of episodic memory, I recommend looking at livescience.com or humanmemory.net. The review article claimed a new way to test episodic memory and AD treatments.

A few different ways to supposedly test this episodic memory in mice were designed and outlined in this review article. I’ll focus on one. Although the tests may seem dry and dull, it’s important to remember how important this is. If the tests can measure what they say they can, we might be able to better develop medications to treat AD. The test I want to focus on is the burrowing test. The article describes that mice will burrow, or dig through materials (such as sand, soil, gravel, etc.) to make a nest. The observers will then measure the weight of the burrow and subtract it from the original weight of the materials at the beginning. Then they do it again.

No more explanation of how this tests the episodic memory was given. I’m not sure that it does test the episodic memory. Maybe you could argue that they’re looking to see if the mice draw on their previous burrowing experience when they create new ones. But why? Is the goal for the mice to burrow through more material? To burrow faster? This isn’t made clear. Even if it was clear, episodic memory is supposed to deal with people’s recollections of past events, and the memories and emotions they associate with all of them. I think that it’s a stretch to say that this burrowing test examines the precise details and emotions of a mouse’s memory.

While I think that this review article of the research makes a great point—that we need to develop tests that deal with episodic memory and not just basic learning and memory tests—I don’t think that the experiments in this study are sufficient examiners of the episodic memory. Give me your thoughts! Do you think this test measures episodic memory? Can you find another that does? I’ll keep searching.

Alzheimer’s Part 2: A Sexist Disease?

Courtesy of Prevention.com

Courtesy of Prevention.com

This is my second blog about Alzheimer’s, one of the most complicated and pressing cognitive diseases our society faces. If you missed my first blog on the basics and the connection to sleep, you can read it here. The Alzheimer’s Association and other websites report that women are two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients. This is at minimum an eyebrow-raising statistic. Why is this disease affecting women one and a half times more than men? A recent research detailed in the Washington Post  (WP) last week tries to explain why.

Women live longer than men; that’s a common first explanation. But even when that was taken into account, says WP, the trends still showed that more women were affected. So what are the alternative explanations? One thought is the gene APOe4. I noticed that the gene is not sex-linked, meaning men and women should develop the gene at equal rates. Looking closer, the problem isn’t rate of development. The problem is, WP says, is that women with the gene are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than women without it. Men with the gene have no significantly higher rate of development than men without it.

Estrogen may be tied to this gene and be the key the gender question. Both the WP and EverydayHealth.com voiced this idea. Estrogen regulates metabolism, and when it decreases because of menopause, there are consequences. The explanation that Dr. Suzanne Craft at Wake Forest University’s School of Medicine gives in WP sums it up really well: “It’s kind of like burning rubber tires instead of propane. You’ll get heat, but you’ll get a lot of toxic byproducts as well.”

If it’s a hormone issue, hormones might be the answer. The WP detailed recent studies that have started to find that certain hormone treatments for women after menopause can decrease the chances of Alzheimer’s. At the same time, other hormone treatments actually increase the risks of the disease. Although it may be a frustrating conclusion, the reality is that the gender question is still essentially unsolved. Hopefully in the next few decades as more baby-boomers age, we will find more conclusive answers. If you, the reader, find more definite explanations, let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

Alzheimer’s Disease and Sleep

Normal brain versus brain with Alzheimer's. Courtesy of the Alzheimer's Association

Normal brain vs. brain with Alzheimer’s. Courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association

A few weeks ago, my Gran was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I wanted to learn more about Alzheimer’s. I had heard about it’s connection to sleep and decided to investigate. First, let’s cover the basics of the disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia with no cure. On the brain level, Alzheimer’s causes the brain to shrink in size with decay, but it also builds up plaque and tangles, which makes it different from other forms of dementia. Two proteins, it states, have been linked to Alzheimer’s: beta-amyloid and tau. To learn more about the basics of the disease, I suggest looking at the Alzheimer’s Association website, where I gathered this information. Now onto sleep.

People with Alzheimer’s have difficulty with regular sleep schedules and often take naps during the day, says the Alzheimer’s Association. But are the sleep problems a factor in developing Alzheimer’s or are they a result the disease? Do better sleep habits prevent Alzheimer’s? Does sleep help people with Alzheimer’s?

The November 2013 National Geographic outlines different studies on the subject. Some suggest that sleep enhances memory. Certainly most college professors know that getting good amounts of regular sleep helps students learn and retain information better—because then we’re not tired. To suggest that in the long term, proper sleeping habits help your brain’s health makes sense, but I think the studies are early and inconclusive. NG talks about a Johns Hopkins study that says there’s an association between poor sleep and the build up of the plaque found in Alzheimer’s. A more recent March 2014 study at Temple sheds more light. There, a study done on mice showed that mice exposed to more light and less sleep had more tau tangles in the brain and struggled more with memory exercises than mice exposed to less light that slept more.

Chronic sleep problems could be a cause of Alzheimer’s and it seems to certainly exacerbate those who have it. So should you adjust your college cramming sleep schedule? Should you try develop healthy sleep habits as an adult? Couldn’t hurt. I hope to keep writing about Alzheimer’s for a little while to explore the questions I have.

 

Initial Blog Entry

Hi, my name is Abby Kennedy. I am a sophomore majoring in English Literature and Secondary Education with minors in Latin American Studies and History. This course will finish my last science GenEd requirement. I’m not a science major in part because I love the subjects I’m in and in part because in high school I disliked the rote memorization and dry course material of my science classes. The experiments were always very strict and stressful because of the emphasis on right answers.

Also, I’m a Lion Scout tour guide. Here is a link to our application which is due September 19th.

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