Category: Health & Medicine

Picking Sides: How Genes Help Us Decide Between Left and Right

By Sharon Moalem | April 15, 2014 8:30 am

genes of handedness

Some people call left-handers southpaws. Others call them mollydookers or corky dobbers. Scientists still often call lefties sinister, which in Latin originally just meant “left” but later came to be associated with evil.

Wondering about the medical implications of being born a corky dobber? It may surprise you that left-handed women were found to be twice or more likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer than right-handers. And a few researchers believe this effect may be linked to exposure to certain chemicals in utero, affecting your genes and then setting the stage for both left-handedness and cancer susceptibility, thus opening up another probability of nurture changing nature.

Goofy Feet

When it comes to our hands, feet, and even our eyes, most human beings are right-side dominant. Now, you might think that footedness and handedness are always aligned, but as it turns out that’s not always the case for right-handed people, and it’s even more infrequent for left-handed people. Lots of people aren’t congruent.

In board sports, being left-foot dominant is termed goofy – a goofy-footed surfer stands with her left foot on the back of board instead of her right. There are an amazing number of theories as to why some of us are goofy-footed. But the term itself is often said to have originated with an eight-minute long Walt Disney animated short, called Hawaiian Holiday, that was first released to theaters in 1937. The color cartoon stars the usual suspects: Mickey and Minnie, Pluto and Donald, and, of course, Goofy. During the gang’s vacation in Hawaii, Goofy attempts to surf, and when he finally catches a wave and heads back to shore atop its short-lived crest, he’s standing with his right foot forward and his left foot back.

If you’re wondering if you might be goofy and would like to find out before hitting the beach, then imagine yourself at the bottom of a staircase that you’re about to ascend. Which foot moves first? If you’re taking that first imaginary step with your left foot, then it’s likely that you’re a member of the goofy-footed club. And if you find out that you aren’t goofy, then you’re in the majority.

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MORE ABOUT: genes & health

Floating Away: The Science of Sensory Deprivation Therapy

By Shelly Fan | April 4, 2014 8:30 am

float tank

I tried not to panic. I was floating effortlessly in a pitch-black tank filled with salty, skin-temperature water, wearing earplugs and nothing else. Within minutes I could no longer feel the sponge in my ears or smell the musty scent of water. There was no light, no smell, no touch and – save for the gasping of my breath and drumming of my heart – no sound.

I was trying out North America’s avant garde drug: sensory deprivation. Across the continent “float houses” are increasing in popularity, offering eager psychonauts a chance to explore this unique state of mind. Those running the business are quick to list the health benefits of frequent “floats”, which range from the believable – relaxation, heightened senses, pain management – to the seemingly nonsensical (“deautomatization”, whatever that means). Are these proclaimed benefits backed up by science or are they simply new-age hogwash?

A Sordid (and Sensationalized) History

Why would anyone willingly subject him or herself to sensory deprivation? You’ve probably heard the horror stories: the Chinese using restricted stimulation to “brainwash” prisoners of war during the Korean War; prisons employing solitary confinement as psychological torture. Initial research studies into the psychophysical effects of sensory deprivation, carried out in the 1950s at McGill University, further damaged its reputation, reporting slower cognitive processing, hallucinations, mood swings and anxiety attacks among the participants. Some researchers even considered sensory deprivation an experimental model of psychosis.

However, despite popular belief, sensory deprivation is not inherently unpleasant. According to Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a pioneering psychologist in the field, these stories are rubbish. “(The prisoners) were bombarded with overstimulation – loud group harangues, beatings and other physical tortures,” he explained. Similarly, the original studies at McGill University used constant noise and white light – that is, sensory overload ­ – rather than deprivation.

In fact, an analysis in 1997 of well over 1,000 descriptions of sensory deprivation indicated that more than 90% of subjects found it deeply relaxing. To escape the provocative name of “sensory deprivation” and its negative connotations, in the late 1970s Suedfeld’s protégé, Dr. Roderick Borrie, redubbed the experience with a friendlier name: REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.

Today, the two most frequently used REST methods are chamber REST, which involves the participant lying on a bed in a dark, soundproof room, and flotation REST, which involves floating in buoyant liquid in a light- and sound-proof tank. The latter, first developed by John Lilly in the 1970s and now widely commercialized, is what I decided to experience myself.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Genetic Screening to Enhance IQ Should Be Embraced

By Julian Savulescu, Monash University | March 27, 2014 8:00 am

intelligence

A version of this article originally appeared at The Conversation.

There could be a way of predicting – and preventing – which children will go on to have low intelligence, according to the findings of a study researchers at Cardiff University presented on Monday. They discovered that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have a low IQ. This combination occurs in about 4% of the UK population.

Importantly, if you had just one of these factors, but not both, there did not appear to be an increased risk of low intelligence. These are early results, but suggest that it might be possible to treat children early with thyroid hormone supplementation to enhance their intelligence. This raises many ethical issues.

IQ and Quality of Life

A common objection is that being smarter does not make your life better. In this study, researchers were concerned with those with an IQ between 70-85. Below 70 is classified as intellectual disability but an IQ of 70 to 75 is similar to mild intellectual disability.

Even for individuals with an IQ between 75 and 90 there are still significant disadvantages. Job opportunities tend to be the least desirable and least financially rewarding, requiring significant oversight. More than half the people with this IQ level fail to reach the minimum recruitment standards for the US military. Individuals with this lower level of intelligence are at significant risk of living in poverty (16%), being a chronic welfare dependent (17%) and dropping out of school (35%) compared to individuals with average intelligence. Studies show that they also face an increased risk of incarceration and being murdered.

Linda Gottfredson, who’s undertaken much of this research, concludes that at the very least, “an IQ of 75 is perhaps the most important threshold in modern life”. So it is clear that those of low-normal intelligence, although not classified as disabled, are significantly disadvantaged.

If we could enhance their intelligence, say with thyroid hormone supplementation, we should.

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MORE ABOUT: genetics, intelligence

Personalized Cancer Treament, From Just a Blood Sample

By Lauren Gravitz | February 21, 2014 10:54 am

blood samples

Blood samples are an invaluable tool, but often they’re just the tip of the diagnostic iceberg, something that determines whether additional, more sensitive tests and scans might be necessary. But new technology may make it possible to use individual cells in a patient’s blood sample to get far more specific and actionable information. A technique being developed by San Diego–based Epic Sciences can determine whether a cancer patient is an appropriate candidate for a drug, and even whether the drug is losing its efficacy.

In research presented last month at the Personalized Medicine World Conference in Palo Alto, CA, Epic described how their technology can be used to reliably pick out rare cells from a blood sample. In the case of cancer, these rare, circulating tumor cells could one day tell an oncologist not only whether a patient’s cancer has returned, but also whether it’s growing resistant to the current treatment regimen—something only expensive scans and invasive biopsies can do with any accuracy today.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, cancer

Personalized Medicine Slogs Toward Reality

By Lauren Gravitz | January 23, 2014 2:41 pm

gene research

For years, medical researchers have been talking about the day when babies will have their whole genomes sequenced at birth, the day when genomic analysis will allow every patient to be treated not just based on her condition but on which treatment is the best match for her genetic quirks. There will be a day, they say, when we will all carry our genomes around on a thumb drive. But the hurdles, fiscal and otherwise, have proven difficult to overcome.

The DNA of one set of human chromosomes contains 3 billion base pairs—most cells are diploid and have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Sequencing these six billion base pairs, one pair at a time, is unquestionably faster and cheaper than it once was: Since its less-than-humble beginnings almost 15 years ago, human genome sequencing has dropped from $100 million to around $1000. Instead of years, it can now be completed in a day or two.

Yet while that’s incredible progress, it’s not quite enough. Not only is it still too pricey for everyday use, but once that genome has been sequenced it also has to be mapped and analyzed—the process in which the sequenced base pairs are assigned to the correct chromosome and assessed for mutations, something that can take a couple of days or more. What to do with the resulting data is another problem: The genome and its resulting analysis typically occupy about 400GB. (For reference, the 2013 laptop I’m using to write this post has a storage capacity of 250GB—my genome wouldn’t come close to fitting on it.) Securely storing data from 500 or 5000 patients—at about $1 per gigabyte—typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

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MORE ABOUT: genes & health

How the Smell of Your Home Could Be Making You Sick

By Julie Rehmeyer | January 14, 2014 12:06 pm

house mold make you sick

Joan Bennett didn’t believe in sick building syndrome. As a specialist in mold toxins, she had even testified in trials in support of insurance companies denying claims to homeowners who claimed that they had been sickened by toxins from their moldy houses.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck, Bennett’s home was flooded, and she evacuated. “A month later, as a form of psychological sublimation, I decided to travel back and sample my home for mold,” she said. Her house smelled horrendous, worse than any mold she’d ever smelled. She donned a mask and gloves and protective gear, but even so, she felt awful – dizziness, headache, malaise. She walked outside and felt better. Then it struck her: “I think there’s something in this terrible mold I’m smelling.”

But she still believed in her old arguments against the theory. She knew how much mold toxin we ordinarily get exposed to from mold in food, and she still knew that it was far greater than any we could breathe from spores in the air.

But the smell of mold was another matter. Most things we can smell are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and some VOCs are known to make people sick. “I knew that a minor theory was that sick building syndrome might be caused by the VOCs that make fungi smell moldy,” Bennett says.  And then she thought, “Ta da! Maybe there is such a thing as sick building syndrome, and maybe it has nothing to do with the fungus toxins I’ve been studying all my life!”

That moment transformed her research career. Along with her house, she’d lost her entire frozen genetic stock of fungi in the storm, because the power had gone out and everything had defrosted. She had to mostly start over anyway, and now she wanted to prove her new theory.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

A Bitter Pill: Slow Progress Toward a Male Contraceptive

By Carrie Arnold | December 26, 2013 2:30 pm

contraceptive pill

Scientists have called the contraceptive pill one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. Now, more than fifty years after the Pill was first released, contraception remains a woman’s world.

Sure, men can use condoms or have a vasectomy, but women have a much more dizzying array of options from which to choose. From pills to contraceptive vaginal rings to intrauterine devices and more, most scientists and pharmaceutical companies have focused their contraception efforts on women.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many reproductive health scientists say that we need more, not fewer, options for contraception. The problem is that virtually all contraception is being geared toward women. That’s largely because, historically, contraception was grouped in with the traditional female concerns of family and childbearing.

“There are a fair number of women who are dissatisfied with their current method of contraception,” said Michael O’Rand, a biologist and male contraception expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

The Name’s Bond, James Bond… And I’m an Alcoholic

By Guest Blogger | December 13, 2013 10:22 am

By Jo Adetunji, The Conversation

james bond

This article was originally published at The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.

James Bond might have been been more shaken than stirred if his intake of alcoholic drinks is anything to go by.

Along with his love of women, Bond also had a keen taste for martinis. And researchers have scoured the books to calculate that the MI6 spy drank over four times the recommended limit each week.

They argue that contrary to helping performance under pressure, this amount would probably have affected his capacity to perform “in all aspects of his life”. As a high-risk category three drinker, in the longer term this would put him at risk of developing alcoholic liver disease, cirrhosis, impotence and alcohol-induced tremor – not great for womanizing or sniper missions – and potentially an early death.

The researchers, who published their paper in the British Medical Journal, also discovered that Bond was often drunk at the wheel.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: movies, personal health

Is Being Tall Hazardous to Your Health?

By Carrie Arnold | November 8, 2013 11:37 am

tall and short basketball players

In many areas of life, tall people seem to get all the benefits. On average, they earn more money. They are more successful at work. Taller people are just more, er, highly regarded than their shorter counterparts.

But research is showing that short people might win out in one big way: they might be less prone to cancer, and even have longer lives, than tall people. Although the jury is still out on how much height affects longevity, it shows no signs of stopping our cultural preference for taller people.

A Tall Order

The relationship between height and cancer risk is not especially new—scientists had proposed a link between height and breast cancer in women as early as 1975. Many studies, however, have focused specifically on breast cancer. Other studies have looked at how height affects cancer risk at numerous sites, but they have failed to adequately control for variables that could be affected by height, notes epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

Measuring the link between height and health variables, Kabat says, is much more complicated than determining someone’s height and seeing if they develop a particular disease. “You really want to make very sure that you have excluded the possibility that any association you find between height and cancer is not due to the interference of some sort of other factor,” Kabat said.

For one, taller people tend to weigh more than shorter people, even if their BMI isn’t any higher. For another, poor nutrition and stress can stunt height growth, and higher calorie diets have been associated with increased height. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the psychosocial variables like increased income, education, and socioeconomic status.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: genes & health

Five Sex Research Pioneers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

By Guest Blogger | October 23, 2013 12:54 pm

By Jesse Bering

Richard von Krafft-Ebing and his wife Marie-Louise.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing and his wife Marie-Louise.

The new Showtime series Masters of Sex is shining light on two remarkable figures in the history of sexology, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Although most of us may not be aware of their colorful back-story, we have, at least, heard of “Masters and Johnson” before. Along with the famous Alfred Kinsey, they were iconic American figures in 20th-century sex research, widely known for shirking the conservative conventions that kept our forebears in the closet of erotic ignorance.

The history of sexology runs far deeper than a few charismatic figures, however. Their names may not be as familiar to us, but there were many other fascinating early sex researchers who left their own interesting legacies, and not always entirely positive ones at that. Some of these forgotten scholars were, like Masters and Johnson, angels of sexual healing; yet others were, quite frankly, bastards of bigotry.

So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to five early sexologists that you’ve (probably) never heard of… at least, not like this.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex
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