Going Under: What we don't know about anesthetics

The majority of people reading this sentence will, at some point in their lives, undergo a medical treatment that requires general anesthesia. Doctors will inject them with a drug, or have them breathe it in. For several hours, they will be unconscious. And almost all of them will wake up happy and healthy.

We know that the general anesthetics we use today are safe. But we know that because they've proven themselves to be safe, not because we understand the mechanisms behind how they work. The truth is, at that level, anesthetics are a big, fat question mark. And that leaves room for a lot of unknowns. What if, in the long term, our anesthetics aren't as safe for everyone as we think they are?

The only way to know for sure is to figure why anesthetics cause unconsciousness, and how one drug differs from another. Roderic G. Eckenhoff, MD, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. He's one of the people trying to figure out what general anesthetics really do inside the human body, and how we can use that information to discover even safer drugs than the ones we already rely on today. How does he study that? By drugging tadpoles.

This week, Chemical and Engineering News published a profile of Eckenhoff and his work, written by journalist Carmen Drahl. That piece inspired me to call up Eckenhoff and find out more about what we think we know about anesthetics, why it's taking medical scientists so long to understand such a commonly used class of drugs, and why tadpoles make an ideal model animal. Read the rest

Science Saturday: Nuclear energy, melting ice caps, and human adaptation

I was on Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday this week, talking with Jessa Gamble, a science journalist and the author of Siesta and the Midnight Sun, a book about how culture and biology effect the way we experience time.

Jessa was in Japan in 1999, when an accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in the prefecture just south of Fukushima killed two workers. We started off our conversation talking about the industry lapses that led to that accident, and how government and the media responded to it. Read the rest