Archive for June, 2009

Six Future Mods For Our Minds And Bodies

Here’s some more future hotness in the pipeline for those of you that love this kind of stuff. These are ideas are actively being researched and will be part of our reality in the not too distant future.

  1. Injection molded custom organs
  2. Breed super rice to feed the world
  3. Replace suture kits with lasers
  4. Mind-meld with machines
  5. Stop blood loss with ultrasound
  6. Deploy tiny robo-docs

Go check out the article to see all the juicy details.

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Can You Get Fit in Six Minutes a Week?

The six minutes refers to the actual exercise time, not warming up, cooling down, or waiting in between sets. Also, be prepared to stray way out of your comfort zone, since we’re talking about pushing yourself to the “hard enough to vomit” level of all out action. This is based on research from the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

In one of the group’s recent studies, Gibala and his colleagues had a group of college students, who were healthy but not athletes, ride a stationary bike at a sustainable pace for between 90 and 120 minutes. Another set of students grunted through a series of short, strenuous intervals: 20 to 30 seconds of cycling at the highest intensity the riders could stand. After resting for four minutes, the students pedaled hard again for another 20 to 30 seconds, repeating the cycle four to six times (depending on how much each person could stand), “for a total of two to three minutes of very intense exercise per training session,” Gibala says.

They went through two training sessions a week. The results were surprising.

After two weeks, both groups showed almost identical increases in their endurance (as measured in a stationary bicycle time trial), even though the one group had exercised for six to nine minutes per week, and the other about five hours. Additionally, molecular changes that signal increased fitness were evident equally in both groups. “The number and size of the mitochondria within the muscles” of the students had increased significantly, Gibala says, a change that, before this work, had been associated almost exclusively with prolonged endurance training. Since mitochondria enable muscle cells to use oxygen to create energy, “changes in the volume of the mitochondria can have a big impact on endurance performance.”

Some of you are shaking your heads and thinking, “Silly monkey, long bouts of endurance exercises help me lose weight, which I can’t possibly do in only six minutes a week”.

The short, intense workouts aided in weight loss, too, although Gibala hadn’t been studying that effect. “The rate of energy expenditure remains higher longer into recovery” after brief, high-intensity exercise than after longer, easier workouts, Gibala says. Other researchers have found that similar, intense, brief sessions of exercise improve cardiac health, even among people with heart disease.

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The “Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act” gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco, and was signed by President Obama on Monday.

Obama said in signing the bill, “despite the best efforts and good progress made by so many leaders and advocates with us today, the tobacco industry and its special interest lobbying have generally won the day up on the Hill. … Fifteen years later, their campaign has finally failed. … Today, change has come to Washington.”

We have a sneaking suspicion that something isn’t kosher about this whole deal, especially since the biggest tobacco company in the United States (Altria, aka Philip Morris) supports the bill.

One health expert told Slate this bill was “a dream come true for Philip Morris,” in part because the company “protect[s its] domination of the market and make[s] it impossible for potentially competitive products to enter the market.” For one thing, effectively banning advertising won’t hurt Marlboro much, but it will crush smaller brands. And adding government control benefits those companies with the best lobbyists.

Regarding that “special interest lobbying” Obama claimed to be battling, Philip Morris is the unrivaled industry king. Since 2003, the tobacco lobby has spent $155 million. Altria spent a majority of that — $83 million. Although the rest of the industry was lobbying against this bill, most of the lobbying money was on the pro-regulation side.

Ah, it all makes sense now. Kill off the competition and the existing mega corporation continues to pay tribute to their political masters. For a candidate who campaigned on “hope and change”, particularly against lobbyists, this is deeply disappointing.

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Is there really such a thing as unconditional maternal love? A recent study says “no”.

Women are more likely than men to reject unattractive-looking babies, according to a study by researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, possibly reflecting an evolutionary-derived need for diverting limited resources towards the nurturing of healthy offspring. The findings also challenge the idea of unconditional maternal love.

“Our study shows how beauty can affect parental attitudes,” said Igor Elman, senior author of the research, director of the Clinical Psychopathology Laboratory at McLean Hospital, and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It shows women are more invested in raising healthy babies and that they are more prone to reject unattractive kids.”

The full study is available online at PLoS ONE if you would like to get involved in the full detailed methodology.

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The federal government is offering incentives ($19 billion worth) for doctors and hospitals to go electronic with their records. Given that other major industries such as the stock market and airlines have gone paperless in an effort to become more efficient and save money, we have to wonder what is really holding back the medical field.

The reason lies neither with cost nor with inadequate technology. Rather, the health-care industry’s reluctance to digitize its records is rooted in a desire to keep medicine’s lucrative business model hidden. Dangling $19 billion in front of a $2.4 trillion industry is not nearly enough to get it to reveal the financial secrets that electronic health records are likely to uncover–and upon which its huge profits depend. In those medical records lie the ugly truth about the business of medicine: sickness is profitable. The greater the number of treatments, procedures, and hospital stays, the larger the profit. There is little incentive for doctors and hospitals to identify or reduce wasteful spending in medicine.

There is not much incentive for people to adopt healthy lifestyles with the system as it currently is implemented.

An even bigger threat to the sickness industry’s business model is that by allowing automated tracking of patients over time, electronic health records would set the stage for early detection and preventive medicine. Currently, the entire industry is organized around treating sickness, rather than keeping people healthy in the first place.

It would be a step in the right direction, however, it would be ineffective unless the data gained from such a system is used to reward/punish individuals based on choices. So, you’ve got high blood pressure and refuse to take your meds – pay more. Enjoy smoking and refuse to quit – pay more. Etc., etc. One area likely to see a huge benefit is cancer screening, since earlier detection equals a better, and cheaper outcome.

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Get Smarter

For a period of 2 million years, ending with the last ice age around 10,000 B.C., the Earth experienced a series of convulsive glacial events. This rapid-fire climate change meant that humans couldn’t rely on consistent patterns to know which animals to hunt, which plants to gather, or even which predators might be waiting around the corner. How did we cope? By getting smarter. The neuro­physi­ol­ogist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition—including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead—evolved in response to the demands of this long age of turbulence.

On the scale of time used in evolution, the advancement of human intelligence happened at a breakneck pace. Sophisticated language is a uniquely human trait which no other creature on Earth possesses.

There are all sorts of doomsday scenarios for the coming century. Humanity survived until this point by being clever and we are likely so succeed in the future by using the same technique. The only difference is that we don’t need to rely on natural evolutionary processes to evolve greater intelligence. We use the tools we’ve created, such as the internet, to augment our intelligence to the next level.

There is concern that the nature of the internet has given people a sort of ADD, and that people are losing their skill to read long and in depth pieces of information.

With every technological step forward, though, has come anxiety about the possibility that technology harms our natural ability to think. These anxieties were given eloquent expression in these pages by Nicholas Carr, whose essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (July/August 2008 Atlantic) argued that the information-dense, hyperlink-rich, spastically churning Internet medium is effectively rewiring our brains, making it harder for us to engage in deep, relaxed contemplation.

Carr’s fears about the impact of wall-to-wall connectivity on the human intellect echo cyber-theorist Linda Stone’s description of “continuous partial attention,” the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections under way simultaneously. We’re becoming so accustomed to interruption that we’re starting to find focusing difficult, even when we’ve achieved a bit of quiet. It’s an induced form of ADD—a “continuous partial attention-deficit disorder,” if you will.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Scientists describe these skills as our “fluid intelligence”—the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge. Fluid intelligence doesn’t look much like the capacity to memorize and recite facts, the skills that people have traditionally associated with brainpower. But building it up may improve the capacity to think deeply that Carr and others fear we’re losing for good.

Read the whole thing, since there’s a lot more where that came from.

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The Mediterranean diet gets a lot of praise from nutritional experts as being particularly healthy. Here, some of the popular aspects of this dietary style get examined.

  1. Olive oil – rich in monounsaturated fat, meaning, it’s heart healthy. However, olive oil has just as many calories per gram as other less healthy fats. So while it may not clog your arteries, it could have an unfortunate impact on your waistline.
  2. Fruits and vegetables – we shouldn’t be forced to explain why including plenty of fruits and veggies in your diet is a good and healthy thing.
  3. Fish and seafood – healthier than other types of meat, and rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Try to avoid deep frying it.
  4. Nuts – a good source of unsaturated fatty acids, which is heart healthy. Avoid overly sweetened and salted varieties.
  5. Beans – lots of protein, fiber, iron and other nutrients. Comes in many different varieties. Flatulence included at no extra charge.
  6. Alcohol – a moderate amount of certain types, such as red wine, seem to have beneficial effects. The key word here is moderation.
  7. Cereals – the good whole grain types, not the overly sugary breakfast treats often confused with real cereal.
  8. Cutting back on dairy – very controversial, because it is wrong if most of the dairy intake is low fat. Reducing full fat dairy products makes sense, but abandoning dairy entirely has consequences such as a higher risk for osteoporosis, hip fractures, etc. due to insufficient calcium intake.

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Brooke Greenberg is the size of an infant, with the mental capacity of a toddler.

She turned 16 in January.

This is an unusual case, to say the least. Doctors and scientists are working hard to try and figure out what’s happening to Brook and what mechanisms underlie it.

Brooke hasn’t aged in the conventional sense. Dr. Richard Walker of the University of South Florida College of Medicine, in Tampa, says Brooke’s body is not developing as a coordinated unit, but as independent parts that are out of sync. She has never been diagnosed with any known genetic syndrome or chromosomal abnormality that would help explain why.

Go check it out for all the interesting details, including a video.

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New research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found substantial reductions in binge drinking since the national drinking age was set at 21 two decades ago, with one exception: college students. The rates of binge drinking in male collegians remain unchanged, but the rates in female collegians have increased dramatically.

What is it about the college environment which causes such a disparity in drinking rates between college students and their non-college attending peers?

Among 18- to 20-year-old non-college men, binge drinking declined by more than 30% over the study period, whereas it was statistically unchanged among the men in college. For men ages 21 to 23, rates of binge drinking declined just more than 10 percent but remained virtually the same in those of the same age who attended college. In women ages 21 to 23, binge drinking increased about 20 percent among non-students, but the increase was more than 40 percent among women in college.

There’s a strong possibility that setting the minimum drinking age to 21 has had the unintended effect of causing more binge drinking because the only source of alcohol for underage college students is generally at parties. Those parties are not known for encouraging drinking in moderation; if anything, the opposite is true. Individuals who aren’t in the college environment may have peers old enough to purchase alcohol for them, but it is being consumed in a low pressure, relaxed environment. More importantly, alcoholic beverages aren’t viewed as a “feast or famine” type of commodity.

College presidents have taken note of this.

Two years ago, McCardell started an organization called Choose Responsibility, which waged a national campaign to lower the drinking age to 18. The soft-spoken scholar soon found that many other campus executives felt the same way. In early 2008 he started the Amethyst Initiative, a collective of college presidents urging a public discussion about the drinking age. At press time, the Amethyst Initiative had 130 signatories, including the presidents of Duke, Tufts, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins.

Senior Editor Radley Balko at Reason Online spoke with McCardell in October.

Q: Why lower the drinking age?

A: We’ve had a law on the books for 24 years now. You don’t need an advanced degree to see that the law has utterly failed. Seventy-five percent of high school seniors have consumed alcohol. Sixty-six percent of high school sophomores have.

The law abridges the age of majority. It hasn’t reduced consumption but has only made it riskier. Finally, it has disenfranchised parents and removed any opportunity for adults to educate or to model responsible behavior about alcohol.

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Overeating is a problem affecting more Americans today than ever before, and one reason behind it is the delicious food available to us. Dr. Kessler, a pediatrician and former head of the Food and Drug Administration, discusses some of the issues.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Thanks to advancements in technology, the foods being pumped out are getting better and better.

But today, foods are more than just a combination of ingredients. They are highly complex creations, loaded up with layer upon layer of stimulating tastes that result in a multisensory experience for the brain. Food companies “design food for irresistibility,” Dr. Kessler noted. “It’s been part of their business plans.”

The controversial part of Dr. Kessler’s message is about how to deal with it.

One of his main messages is that overeating is not due to an absence of willpower, but a biological challenge made more difficult by the overstimulating food environment that surrounds us. “Conditioned hypereating” is a chronic problem that is made worse by dieting and needs to be managed rather than cured, he said. And while lapses are inevitable, Dr. Kessler outlines several strategies that address the behavioral, cognitive and nutritional factors that fuel overeating.

Some people do have a genuine problem, and Dr. Kessler may be one of them. The danger here is that others in a position of power see this research and conclude that the problem is with the food, rather than with the individuals taking responsibility for their own choices. Many people are able to eat all those delicious foods and live long, healthy lives, which has not stopped government regulators from putting the blame on the food. It’s also interesting to note that no mention of exercise as a factor occurs in the article.

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There is a lot of noise being made about patients being proactive and weeding out bad doctors. It pays to take such advice with a grain of salt since certain patients have a tendency to be “difficult” and, true to stereotype, complain the loudest.

If you do not want your doctor to hate you, avoid the following frustrations:

  1. Meddling families in the room – you are an adult, so leave your mom out of it.
  2. Keeping mum about the herbs – herbal supplements may be “all natural” but may still interact with medications you are taking. Don’t forget to mention any supplements you take to your doctor.
  3. Quitting medication without notice – bad idea, you’re not the doctor. At least chat with a physician before doing something boneheaded because there are usually consequences.
  4. Change in my lifestyle? There must be a pill for that – If you are not willing to change to prolong your life and health, your doctor is only performing triage. Don’t expect miracles.
  5. Hi there. So, I need a prescription for… – Just cause the ad promised the world and looked good on tv does not make it right for you. Discuss it with the doctor, but don’t walk in and demand like an idiot, or a spoiled child.
  6. I’ll take a CT scan, MRI, strep test, please – demanding an unnecessary and expensive exam against your doctor’s advice is pointless. Sometimes, the results do more harm than good. Where did you get your M.D. again? The internet?

Read the whole thing for more juicy details.

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Treating Lazy Eyes With A Joystick

Technology in medicine is making some embarrassing episodes of our youth into anachronisms. For example, 4% of children suffer from amblyopia (lazy eye) which normally can be corrected by wearing a patch for a total of 500 hours. Nobody wants to be the kid wearing the eye patch because no kid volunteers to get picked on.

Now Tel Aviv University’s eye and brain specialist Dr. Uri Polat of the Goldschleger Eye Research Institute has developed a computer therapy that could spare kids from the ugly eye patch, letting them enjoy themselves during therapy.

Not only can the problem be solved with a computer program specially designed for the task, it is done much more efficiently.

A leading expert in lazy eye syndrome recently assessed Dr. Polat’s invention and found that twenty hours in front of Dr. Polat’s computer treatment had the same effect as about 500 hours of wearing an eye patch.

Currently, they are taking the treatment regimen and turning into a fun interactive game so children don’t get bored going through it. This treatment plan already has the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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This is one of those “wacky but true” type of medical discoveries. Fluorouracil, a drug used to treat certain types of cancer, was found to have other beneficial properties.

Fluorouracil stops the body from synthesizing thymine, a building block of DNA, according to background information in the article. This drug is used to treat cancers of the colon, head and neck, pancreas and other organs. In early studies of patients with cancer undergoing treatment with systemic fluorouracil, clinicians noticed changes in skin appearance, which led to the development of a topical therapy for the treatment of actinic keratoses (skin lesions that may develop into skin cancer).

Before you go and run to your doctor, understand that there are consequences of playing with such powerful drugs. The patients who received this treatment for their skin had the same type of injured look which happens from laser ablative resurfacing treatments.

“For patients in whom a course of topical fluorouracil is indicated for the treatment of actinic keratoses, there will likely be the additional benefit of a restorative effect from sun damage; this may provide further motivation for these patients to undergo the rigorous treatment,” the authors conclude. “It is possible that for some patients topical fluorouracil may have an important role against photo-aging. For others, however, it may not be cosmetically acceptable given that a standard course of therapy may last two to three weeks and the ensuing reaction can persist for several more weeks.

It works by damaging the outer layer of skin which causes the body to begin a healing process including the sub-dermal layer, resulting in younger, healthier looking skin.

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This is still early stage news, so don’t get too excited. For example, the study itself had some slight flaws.

“Unfortunately, this trial was not a randomized trial, which would have been needed to be more sure that the observed changes were truly attributable to the green tea components and not to some other lifestyle change (better diet, taking vitamins, etc.) men undertook in preparation for surgery,” added Nelson, who is also a senior editor for Cancer Prevention Research. However, “this trial is provocative enough to consider a more substantial randomized trial.”

The men chosen for the study did not sit around drinking tea all day. They received measured doses of one particular compound found in green tea.

The study included 26 men, aged 41 to 72 years, diagnosed with prostate cancer and scheduled for radical prostatectomy. Patients consumed four capsules containing Polyphenon E until the day before surgery — four capsules are equivalent to about 12 cups of normally brewed concentrated green tea, according to Cardelli.

The exciting part is the actual results which were obtained.

Findings showed a significant reduction in serum levels of HGF, VEGF and PSA after treatment, with some patients demonstrating reductions in levels of greater than 30 percent, according to the researchers.

There is still much work to be done, and this seems like a good step in the right direction.

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The BMI index is widely used as an indicator of health and is seriously flawed. More on that in a future post.

“Compared to Caucasians, African-Americans of the same age, gender, waist circumference, weight and height may have lower total and abdominal fat mass,” said principal investigator and study leader Samuel Dagogo-Jack, MD, professor of medicine and chief, Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis.

A person may pay more for insurance if they are categorized as being unhealthy based on their BMI number.

National data show that blacks have higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes than whites. Dagogo-Jack and his co-workers therefore examined whether the relationship between body fat and BMI would differ by race. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Diabetes Association, they compared how close BMI was to body fat directly measured by DEXA in whites and blacks. The researchers performed the same comparison for waist circumference and abdominal fat.

So the data shows one group as suffering from higher rates of obesity – but is it because they are unhealthier? The not so surprising conclusion:

The correlation between DEXA-measured total fat and the BMI was higher in whites than blacks, the authors reported. The same was true for the correlation between directly measured abdominal fat and waist size.

Therefore, body fat is likely to be lower in blacks than in whites of the same weight and height, Dagogo-Jack said. He said their data suggest that muscle mass may be higher in blacks, which would explain the dissociation between weight expressed as BMI and measured body fat.

Many athletes and individuals in excellent shape are categorized as obese by the BMI standard. In this case, an entire group of people are falsely maligned as being unhealthy. The BMI chart needs to go the way of the dodo, fast.

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