Category: Health & Medicine

When Nausea During Pregnancy Is Life-Threatening

We need more – and better – research to treat HG. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Most women experience some type of morning sickness during pregnancy, but some women develop a far more serious condition.

Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), which causes severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, affects as many as 3 percent of pregnancies, leading to over 167,000 emergency department visits each year in the U.S.

Until intravenous hydration was introduced in the 1950s, it was the leading cause of maternal death. Now, it is the second leading cause, after preterm labor, of hospitalization during pregnancy.

And yet, the disease is neither well-understood nor well-known, even with the flurry of headlines when it was announced that the Duchess of Cambridge during her pregnancies suffered from the condition. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

A Brave New World of Human Reproduction

By David Warmflash | December 13, 2016 1:37 pm
(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Advances in reproductive technology may radically change the options we have for starting a family. We’re not too far from fundamentally redefining what it means to start a family.

Do you want to have children, but don’t have a partner? Do you want children with your partner, but it’s a same-sex relationship? Or perhaps you’re a woman who wants children without the burden of a 9-month pregnancy. You might opt for ectogenesis, or moving gestation to an artificial womb.

Here’s a glimpse of this brave new world of baby-making. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Lacking Funding and Data, Gun Policy Researchers Soldier On

By Nathaniel Scharping | November 15, 2016 2:18 pm
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(Credit: DmyTo/Shutterstock)

Every year, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control allocate more than $35 billion to researchers to study diseases, treatments and public health. But there’s one public health concern that hasn’t received funding in nearly two decades: firearm regulations.

Firearms accounted for more than 30,000 deaths in 2014 — about the same number as died from motor vehicle accidents. With vanishingly few studies to investigate firearm deaths, however, researchers are unable to recommend the best course of action for public health officials to take.

In 1996, Congress passed legislation that specifically prohibited the use of government funds for the promotion of of gun control. Fearing funding cuts, the government agencies that hand out grants to researchers instated a self-imposed ban on any sort of research into firearms.

The CDC has funded no studies directly related to firearms, while the NIH has been only slightly less cautious — despite a 2013 memorandum from President Barack Obama instructing both agencies to begin funding research into gun violence. More often than not, researchers rely on their own resources to conduct their work.
Read More

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

British Squirrels Are Suffering from Leprosy

By Stephen Harrison, Nottingham Trent University | November 11, 2016 1:58 pm
red-squirrel

A red squirrel. (Credit: Shutterstock)

For many people, leprosy brings to mind Biblical stories of diseased people cast out from society. It’s a condition that today is largely found in developing countries, whereas in other, mostly Western nations it’s a pestilence of the past that was eradicated decades ago. But recent research has shown the disease not only persists in Britain but, perhaps more alarmingly, is also being carried by one of our best loved and most endangered native mammals, the red squirrel.

The study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and EPFL in Switzerland found red squirrels from England, Scotland and Ireland were infected with leprosy. In particular, a group from Brownsea Island on the south coast of England had a strain of the disease virtually identical to one that infected humans in the middle ages. Read More

Is It Time for Medicine to Ditch Lab Mice?

By Nathaniel Scharping | November 1, 2016 12:13 pm
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

“Cancer has been cured a thousand times.”

So says Christopher Austin, the director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health. Austin should know — as the director of NCATS, his focus is on exactly these kinds of groundbreaking laboratory studies.

His proclamation comes with a significant caveat that will pop the bubbles in your champagne. Austin is so interested in these studies because they all happened in mice, in a lab. When the hundreds of different drugs that made mouse tumors disappear were carried forward to human trials, they went in and came out without doing what they promised. Or worse, they turned out to be toxic. Read More

Wanted: Stem Cell Super Donors

By Kim Smuga-Otto | October 24, 2016 3:16 pm
Pictured is a microscopic view of brain cells generated from induced pluripotent stem cells in the laboratory of University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. The induced cells, derived from reprogrammed skin cells, seem to have many of the all-purpose qualities of human embryonic stem cells, but a team led by Zhang, writing in the Feb. 15, 2010, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports the induced cells seem to differentiate less efficiently and faithfully than their embryonic counterparts. Used and distributed with permission by: UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: courtesy Su-Chun Zhang/Baoyang Hu, UW-Madison Date: 2010 File#: file provided 02/10

Pictured is a microscopic view of brain cells generated from induced pluripotent stem cells in the laboratory of University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. (Courtesy: Su-Chun Zhang/Baoyang Hu, UW-Madison)

Our bodies’ cells didn’t evolve to flourish in a petri dish. Even fast-growing skin cells stop dividing and turn thin and ragged after a few weeks outside the body. This natural obstacle limited the therapeutic potential of lab-grown cells – if you can’t grow the cells, you can’t use them to heal damaged tissue.

Then, a decade ago, Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka identified a cocktail of genes that, when added to mouse skin cells, transformed them into a new kind of cell that grew happily in ever expanding colonies. More importantly, these cells, dubbed “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSC), had their internal clocks set back to an earlier stem cell-like state, giving them the ability to grow into any other cell type found in the body. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Flesh-Eating Bacteria Like It Hot

By Hannah Gavin | September 30, 2016 12:05 pm
Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s spring, and I’m attending a luxurious seafood banquet. Platters of shellfish fill the tables: crab with limbs akimbo; shrimp ready to be peeled; miniature lobster-like langostino peering at my dinner plate as if knowing their fate. Raw oysters sit in the center of the platter, piled absurdly high and shimmering luminescent on the half shell.

Until now, I’ve never eaten a raw oyster. I apply a generous squirt of lemon juice and watch the white-grey flesh ripple ominously in reply. Tilting my head back, I down the shell’s contents in one shot of citrusy ocean. The gelatinous solid slides down my throat largely unchewed as I submit a silent prayer to the gods of food safety, asking not to become the subject of an ironic headline:

“Research scientist studying bacterium found in raw oysters falls ill after eating…a raw oyster.”

Thankfully, I walked away from the banquet without encountering Vibrio vulnificus, the bacterial subject of my Ph.D. Much as I want to be an academic expert on V. vulnificus, there are aspects of the microbe I hope never to attest to first-hand. But as the planet’s oceans heat up, the odds of a potentially fatal rendezvous will continue rise along with the temperature. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

When Did Sex Become Fun?

By Holly Dunsworth | September 30, 2016 10:41 am
shutterstock_416387254

The reproductive organs of a lily. (Bryan Neuswanger/Shutterstock)

(This post originally appeared in the online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

There are multiple answers to the question of where we come from: early hominins, monkeys, primordial goo, or the Big Bang, to name a few. Today’s answer, though, has probably, just a split second ago, popped into many readers’ minds. Today’s answer is sexual intercourse, a.k.a. “bleeping.” So let’s go back to the beginning, hundreds of millions of years before we invented euphemisms and censorship, and let’s ask: How in the evolutionary world did sex begin?

Algae, the green gunk that runs amok in our fish tanks, as well as the seaweed that stinks up our summer beaches, include some of the simplest sexually reproducing organisms on Earth. These lineages go back nearly 2 billion years. Algae do it. Plants do it. Insects do it. Even fungi do it. Much of this sex involves releasing sperm into the wind or the water so they can be carried to nearby eggs (as in mosses), relying on a different species to carry male gametes to female ones (many flowers), or maneuvering two bodies so that the openings to the internal reproductive organs are close enough together for fluid exchange (most insects and most birds). Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Can Doping Tests Stay Ahead of Cheaters?

By David Warmflash | August 29, 2016 11:31 am
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(Credit: Stefan Schurr/Shutterstock)

The 100-meter dash, the pole vault, a marathon, a bike race, and any other sport under the sun have one thing in common: winning depends on pushing physical performance to the max.

The pressure on athletes to push their bodies to the limit has produced a longstanding tit-for-tat between the athletes sneaking chemical agents into their blood or body cells to gain an edge and those trying to detect them.

Recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that any prospective dopers had better think twice about artificially gaining a competitive advantage. The IOC isn’t talking about traditional doping tactics like getting infusions of extra red blood cells or injections of performance-enhancing hormones. Read More

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

Can Virtual Reality Help Astronauts Keep Their Cool?

By Shannon Stirone | August 4, 2016 1:58 pm
virtual-reality

Scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

While astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year on the International Space Station, he expressed frustration with the ho-hum accommodations inside the ISS — it’s dullsville.

The temperature remains exactly the same day in and day out. The décor is a sterile mix of machines and wires. Astronauts are isolated, confined to small spaces and under a considerable amount of stress. While the vistas outside their window are no doubt spectacular, humans need a hint of nature’s greens and blues to stay happy.

columbus-laboratory

The interior of the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. You get a sense of the sterile surroundings. (Credit: NASA)

The monotony of space can fray the nerves of even the most seasoned astronaut, and psychological stress is a serious side effect of living in a habitat of connected tubes orbiting Earth. So scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel, and reduce psychological stress that astronauts experience on long duration missions.

“Things can go badly if the psychosocial elements aren’t managed properly. When you talk about longer and longer missions with a small crew it becomes really critical to have that social aspect right,” he says.

Floating in a Virtual World

Jay Buckey — a former space shuttle astronaut — is now a professor of space medicine and physiology at Dartmouth. Each space shuttle mission runs around three weeks, so Buckey’s not experienced the same monotony as Scott Kelly. Despite his pleasant trip to space, he still felt called to help. Buckey and his colleagues are using calming imagery to see if virtual scenes reduce stress levels.

“I wanted to focus on many of the issues that would serve as a barrier to long duration spaceflight,” says Buckey. “The psychosocial adaptation element is crucial to a good mission.”

His theory is that exposure to bucolic landscapes — even virtual ones — can reduce stress. To do this, Buckey and his team created two types of “escapes” for the subjects to try. The test subjects were either given a trip to the lush green hills of Ireland, or a serene beach landscape in Australia. As a control, test subjects sat in a classroom and researchers measured their heart rate and skin conductance.

“We are assuming that natural scenes will be preferred,” explains Buckey. “But, people in an isolated and confined environment might want an urban scene.”

To quantify the stress relief, Buckey’s team will measure the electrodermal activity in the skin of their test subjects to track fluctuations of psychological arousal and stress, providing insights into who is responding best to a given scene.

Buckey is also adding another twist to his experiments: shining a heat lamp on subjects viewing a beach scene to enhance their virtual experience.

“VR is an immersive world and we would like to optimize the scenes to find out what it is about these that people find the most compelling. As the tech improves and you get higher definition video you can really immerse somebody in a nature scene,” says Buckey. “Would people rather have a vista, or animals, and what other kinds of sensations would people like?”

Currently astronauts on the International Space Station use a tool called the Virtual Space Station — essentially a virtual therapy session. This VR software doesn’t provide stress reduction in the way that Buckey is exploring, but it has tools for conflict resolution, and training on how to handle interpersonal disagreements if and when they arise.

Back to Nature

Buckey’s experiments are still ongoing, so his results aren’t finalized. However, the notion that nature is good for our brain is nothing new — dozens of scientific studies back this up. In a more recent study, researchers from South Korea used fMRI to measure subjects’ brain activity when they looked at nature scenes versus urban scenes. Urban scenes activated the amygdala, which is linked to heightened anxiety and increased stress. On the other hand, nature scenes caused more blood to flow to regions in the brain associated with empathy and altruistic behavior.

VR lounge chair lamp

A study subject enjoys a scene augmented with a heat lamp. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

At the University of Verona in Italy, researchers showed that “being in” a natural setting improved cognitive functioning, and participants completed tasks more efficiently with less mental fatigue. Nature can also lower our blood pressure and heighten our mood.

The data from the Dartmouth lab won’t be published for several more months, but the team hopes its experiment will move one step closer to helping future astronauts, and other people who work in isolation, cope with stress.

If it turns out that the data from Buckey’s experiments show a reduction in stress, future astronauts could perhaps work a regimen of VR medicine into their weekly routine. So far, Buckey thinks the preliminary results are encouraging, but “these are highly individualized responses, and is very subjective.”

“It depends on the outcome of what we have. We haven’t really proven that it works that well yet so I think its important for us to show that there’s a tangible benefit to having this.”

Lessons from the Past

In 1980 a group of scientists ventured off into the cold and isolated region of Antarctica as part of the International Biomedical Expedition. The IBEA was designed to understand how the human body would acclimate to extremely cold environments, isolation and the psychological responses to this type of stress. It dramatically highlighted the need for stress reduction for team members.

As the expedition continued, crewmembers grew homesick, isolation wore them down and they grew more and more irritable. Several scientists on the team simply walked out of the experiment before it was completed, due to these stressors.

In the 1980s, psychological stress drove a rift between cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev and his commander Anatoly Berezovoy while they were living aboard the Russian Space Station Salyut 7.

Lebedev wrote a book called Diary of a Cosmonaut where he shared stories of conflicts so severe that they sometimes went weeks without speaking to each other. In space, and especially on a longer mission to Mars, communication is key. Conflicts of this scale aren’t an option. In other words, keeping stress levels low is key to planning a successful mission.

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