In a piece on octopus farming, Katherine Harmon mentions a fascinating fact — octopuses don't have an adaptive immune system, the handy-dandy network of different immune-response cells that allow us vertebrates to more easily fight off infections our bodies have encountered before.
That's a problem if you're trying to raise a bunch of invertebrates in close quarters (as per a farm) because you can't immunize them against pathogens that could easily spread from one octopus to another. As a random biological tidbit, though, it's just damned fascinating. Check out this doctoral thesis for more information on how the octopus immune system does work. You should also read this story that looks at the evolution of the adaptive immune system and asks a key question — does having immune "memory" really make us that much better off than the animals that don't have it?
Image: Octopus, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from alicecai's photostream
A few years ago, Harriet Hall googled "The One True Cause of all disease", just to see what the Internet would come up with. She counted 67 One True Causes before she got bored (52 of them made it into the handy chart above).
Besides making for an amusing anecdote, this little exercise also helps illustrate why there's a problem with ideologically driven medical treatments — the sort that comes from people who are pushing a lifestyle or a philosophy along with ostensible healthcare. It's both intriguing and convenient to think that, if we just open the right secret door, we can find the thing that's actually causing all our problems. The truth, unfortunately, seems to be that our bodies and the world they inhabit are complicated and messy and that lots of of things can lead to disease (doctors typically learn to divide these things into nine different categories, Hall says). In fact, a disease we think of as a single entity can have its roots in more than one thing. All of this is pretty obvious but it's the kind of obvious that's worth rubbing our noses in on occasion. If somebody tells you that everything from obesity to bipolar disorder to allergies to cancer all stem from the same root and can be treated or prevented with the exact same treatment, there's probably good reason to question what they're telling you.
Researchers from Boston Medical Center (BMC) and Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) "studied 589 adults who screened positive for drug use at a primary care visit." They found "no differences between daily marijuana users and those using no marijuana in their use of the emergency room, in hospitalizations, medical diagnoses or their health status." — Mark
Anna Kuperberg / Google, via TIME.com
Today, Google announced the launch of Calico, a new company that will "focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases."
Former Genentech CEO Arthur D. Levinson, who is Chairman of the Board at both Genentech and Apple, is CEO and a founding investor of the new Google spinoff venture.
Noted Google+ user Larry Page posts this morning:
OK … so you’re probably thinking wow! That’s a lot different from what Google does today. And you’re right. But as we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives. So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses. And please remember that new investments like this are very small by comparison to our core business. Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.
Hey, none of this health and wellness stuff should come as a surprise to internet old-timers who recall when the "web crawler"
was named "BackRub."
Time has an exclusive, in this week's cover story at the magazine. The short version: "the company behind YouTube and Google+ is gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human lifespan."
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This article from Garry Tan reminded me of the tremendous work of Bruce K Alexander, a psychology professor who retired from teaching at Simon Fraser University in 2005. I read Alexander's first book, Peaceful Measures: Canada's Way Out of the 'War on Drugs' when it was published in 1990, and it had a profound effect on my outlook and critical thinking about drugs and the way that drug addiction is reported and discussed.
Alexander is well known for his Rat Park experiment, which hypothesized that heroin-addicted lab rats were being driven to drugs by the emisseration of life in a tiny cage, tethered to a heroin-dispensing injection machine. Other experimenters had caged rats with heroin-injecting apparatus and concluded that the rats' compulsive use of the drug proved that their brains had been rewired by addiction ("A rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin (actually morphine, to which heroin is converted in the body) on its brain.").
Alexander's Rat Park was a rat's paradise -- spacious, with plenty of intellectual stimulus and other rats to play with. He moved heroin-addicted rats into the park and found that the compulsive behavior abated to the point of disappearance -- in other words, whatever "rewiring" had taken place could be unwired by the improvement of their living conditions.
Alexander's work appears in Drugs Without the Hot Air, one of the best books on drug policy I've ever read, written by former UK drugs czar David Nutt. Both men are scientists who make the case that the our drug policy is more the product of political grandstanding than scientific evidence.
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These are the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that are thought to refer to acne. They're part of a nifty piece by Hilda Bastian that looks at the history of our understanding about zits — where people thought they came from before we knew about their relationship to hormones and bacteria. And how some of the myths that originated in that pre-scientific understanding still affect our cultural attitudes about acne and the way anti-acne products are marketed to us today.
Here's a great piece by Anahad O'Connor that looks at the dozens of studies that are supposed to link the act of eating breakfast with weight loss
— and the problems that very quickly arise when you look at them closely. The biggest issue: Most of the advice you get telling you to eat breakfast if you want to lose weight is based on observational studies — large collections of information about people's lives and health that scientists then comb through looking for correlations. Like any correlation, those associations should be thought of as jumping-off points for more research, not proof of how you should live your life. With breakfast and weight loss, the truth seems to be that the two things may not be connected at all. For every study that shows them inextricably linked, another found no relationship at all ... or even an inverse
relationship, where skipping breakfast led to weight loss. — Maggie
At Forbes, Katie Kelly Bell has an interesting look at the extremely subjective measurements happening behind the seemingly objective instruction to drink only "in moderation"
. — Maggie
I am horrifically allergic to poison oak. I am also an avid mountain biker in northern California. This not a good combination. I have tried all the soaps and wipes, but none of them really help, especially if you are out all day and can’t get to a shower soon after exposure.
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From the BBC: "A letter sent to about 4,000 retired people in Jersey asking if they still exist
has been described as offensive by some of those who received it. ... The department said it wanted to make sure money was not paid into the accounts of people who had died." [via Arbroath
] — Rob
Yesterday, a story about human experimentation
spurred an interesting discussion in the comments about patient rights — can somebody who is dying make the informed decision to accept a treatment that could lead to them dying sooner? At Scientific American today, an HIV doctor has written a moving account of dealing with a very similar question, as one of his patients made the choice to refuse food
, and her family and doctors were faced with the task of deciding whether or not to feed her through a stomach tube. — Maggie
University of Guelph researcher Emma Allen-Vercoe and her team have devised a method for creating artificial poop for use in fecal transplants, a promising therapy for people whose intestinal flora have been damaged by illness, antibiotics, or other therapies. The recipe involves a combination of indigestible cellulose and a starter culture of fecal bacteria. These are mixed in an airtight chamber and passed through a "robogut" -- a mechanical analog of the human digestive system that produces the finished turd.
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Life/Form's $186 circumcision trainers "include the foreskin, glans penis, frenulum, meatus, and coronal groove" and are "made with our soft, lifelike material, which is pliable, delicate, and realistic to the touch."
More seriously, Life/Form sells a pretty amazing range of anatomical models for training and education, including a 1lb lump of fat (also sold by the ounce and the five-weight); artificial blood by the quart; gangrenous, ulcerated feet; lifelike bedsores; obese, geriatric head/torso mixes; jars of artificial earwax, and much, much more.
Infant Circumcision Trainer, White
(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)
Kirstie Clements, a former Vogue editor, has written an horrific column for the Guardian detailing the physical privation experienced by the size-zero models used by couture designers. She tells of models who were so weak from starvation that they literally couldn't stand for an entire photo-shoot, so that some of final photos had to be contrived with the models lying down. She writes about a model's roommate who was mostly on her own, because her "flatmate is a 'fit model', so she's in hospital on a drip a lot of the time." That is, her roommate, a reference model for designers, was so starved that she was frequently hospitalized.
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The Kite Patch is the subject of a very successful Indiegogo fundraiser, and holds the promise of a lasting peace between mosquitoes and humans. It bears a compound designed by UC Riverside entomologist Anandasankar Ray that confuses mosquitoes' ability to track and follow concentration gradients of CO2, which is how they locate humans. However, the product couldn't be marketed in the USA without further testing, hence the crowdfunding campaign, which will send thousands of patches to Uganda, where they will be used as part of a wider trial in fighting malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. The actual nature of the compound is confusing: the Wired article describes it as both "toxic" and "nontoxic" and the crowdfunding FAQ calls it "nontoxic."
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