Archive for the 'Health' Category

The placebo pleases

Harvard Magazine has an interesting look at the study of placebos – fake medical cures that should have no effect but often do.

Two weeks into Ted Kaptchuk’s first randomized clinical drug trial, nearly a third of his 270 subjects complained of awful side effects. All the patients had joined the study hoping to alleviate severe arm pain: carpal tunnel, tendinitis, chronic pain in the elbow, shoulder, wrist. In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. And in both cases, people began to call in, saying they couldn’t get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels. “The side effects were simply amazing,” Kaptchuk explains; curiously, they were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. But even more astounding, most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill. These were exceptional findings: no one had ever proven that acupuncture worked better than painkillers. But Kaptchuk’s study didn’t prove it, either. The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study wasn’t aimed at comparing two treatments. It was designed to compare two fakes.

Perhaps most interesting: placebos work even when patients know they are placebos.

But years of considering the question led him to his next clinical experiment: What if he simply told people they were taking placebos? The question ultimately inspired a pilot study, published by the peer-reviewed science and medicine journal PLOS ONE in 2010, that yielded his most famous findings to date. His team again compared two groups of IBS sufferers. One group received no treatment. The other patients were told they’d be taking fake, inert drugs (delivered in bottles labeled “placebo pills”) and told also that placebos often have healing effects.

The study’s results shocked the investigators themselves: even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group. That’s a difference so significant, says Kaptchuk, it’s comparable to the improvement seen in trials for the best real IBS drugs.

The article lists various caveats and skepticism but overall it seems like there’s something to the placebo treatment.

Resistance to meditation

I’ve long been a part of a email list which discusses the topic of repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Whereas RSI is not much of a problem for me these days, I still follow the discussions on the list. There’s really two camps of people on the list: 1) People who believe de-stressing techniques such as meditation/yoga will alleviate RSI, and 2) People who believe RSIs are largely physical, structural problems that can be relieved via practices like massage/surgery/ergonomics/electrotherapy.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know I reside in the former group. (Truthfully, most people on the list are probably open to both ideas but they clearly have a dominant belief.)

Meditation comes up a lot on the list. Today someone was addressing an obvious question: If meditation is so great for you, why is it so hard (and often boring?) Why does our mind resist calm? His reason was sound and thought provoking.

Lots of meditation has shown me how my mind is built to resist the ‘inner journey’ of using yoga and deep relaxation to slow it down and get it to release stuff and let me see how it works. My theory is it has to be like this because if we all went after the bliss this can bring we would all have been a bunch of wimpy meditators and eaten by predators a long time ago!

It makes sense – in the world of our ancestors we had to pay attention! We couldn’t be sitting around in nirvana. Our mind resists efforts geared towards its deconstruction.

He continues on a tangent that sounds a little elitist but is probably correct.

Evolution favours diversity – only some can do this inner journey which produces the sages [who] keep us from going too crazy and destroying ourselves. Others cant and are useful for more real world things.

There’s another possible theory here. Earth is under observation by an aggressive alien lizard race who plan on conquering us. They planted the concept of meditation in our minds hoping that the practice will spread until most of humanity exists in a meditative trance. Then they will attack our planet, eat our young and rape our grandmothers!

But I’m just being silly. It’s nothing to worry about. Go back to meditating.

Fame equals death!!! (Or, I’m happy I’m an obscure loser.)

CBS has a report noting that famous people in performance fields (sports, music etc) die younger than famous people in more boring fields (business, military.) I would have guessed performance stress would be the major killer, perhaps indicated by heart attacks, but cancer seems to the be the major culprit, indicating that people in these demographics make poor health decisions (smoking, booze, etc.) Some intellectuals have theories about the psychological mechanisms at work.

Study author Richard Epstein, director of the Clinical Informatics & Research Centre at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, said in a press release that while the study can’t prove that choosing the performing arts or an athletic career means choosing an earlier death, it does bring up some interesting points.

“First, if it is true that successful performers and sports players tend to enjoy shorter lives, does this imply that fame at younger ages predisposes to poor health behaviors in later life after success has faded? Or that psychological and family pressures favoring unusually high public achievement lead to self-destructive tendencies throughout life? Or that risk-taking personality traits maximize one’s chances of success, with the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illicit drugs improving one’s performance output in the short term? Any of these hypotheses could be viewed as a health warning to young people aspiring to become stars,” he commented.

Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist who specializes in celebrity behavior, warned the BBC that there are very few celebrities so the pool isn’t big enough to really study the effects of fame on people’s lifespan. Still, she had some theories on why performance-related fame may lead to an earlier demise, including “the pressure to live up to a public image, which can lead to risky behaviors” or “particular personal characteristics predispose people to wanting a career in the public arena.”

However, there’s not a wide spread in death ages; a sports performer is, at worst, losing 5 years by choosing their vocation. And famous people still seem to live longer than the national average.

The transparent brain

Scientist have created transparent brains, the NY Times reports. (There’s some cool animations at the link.)

Scientists at Stanford University reported on Wednesday that they have made a whole mouse brain, and part of a human brain, transparent, so that networks of neurons that receive and send information can be highlighted in stunning color and viewed in all their three-dimensional complexity without slicing up the organ.

One might ask, “why should I give a shit?” Personally, I suspect this new era of deep brain visualization and research is going to reveal that personality and activity of the mind is closely tied to brain structure. As a result, people choices are essentially limited to their brain components. As an example, un-empathic people may not be simply assholes, but people missing some degree of the empathy “toolset*” in their brain. This opens up a whole well of debate about free will, choice etc. – a debate that may end up affecting our legal system.

* I’m using this term to represent the neural area or network that might be integral to a certain function like empathy.

I do think various drugs an therapies can affect people’s mental “toolsets” (postively or negatively) but I doubt we can radically alter a person’s mental function. Unless we get into some sci-fi transplanting of brain tissue. Perhaps the rich empathy section of some namby-pamby liberal’s brain could be transplanted into that of a hardened psychopath making him a lover of puppies.

Live forever!

The website io9 notes that scientists have figured out how to alter genes to extend life spans! Of, um, yeast, but what they learn could be applicable to humans.

Longo’s group put baker’s yeast on a calorie-restricted diet and knocked out two genes – RAS2 and SCH9 – that promote aging in yeast and cancer in humans.

“We got a 10-fold life span extension that is, I think, the longest one that has ever been achieved in any organism,” Longo says. Normal yeast organisms live about a week.

“I would say 10-fold is pretty significant,” says Anna McCormick, chief of the genetics and cell biology branch at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Longo’s program officer. The NIA funds such research in the hope of extending healthy life span in humans through the development of drugs that mimic the life-prolonging techniques used by Longo and others, McCormick adds.

Most interesting on the page are the comments which quickly point out the downsides of humans living a long time.

How would it affect the economy? Would money decrease in value if they had to make enough for so many people in effort to keep as little poverty as possible? How long would food last? Would we use it on cattle and pigs and chickens and other farm animals? What about fruits and vegetables? Where would everyone live? Would the entire planet turn into one huge city? Where would we grow our food? Would we just build up and up and up for housing developments? How many houses and cars would be made? With that many houses and cars being used, what would happen to our atmosphere?

etc. etc…

It’s clear that if human lifespan extension is possible, only a select few should be granted this gift. Only people of exceptional intellect, taste, ability and good looks.

You know who I’m thinking of.

Still more good coffee news!

I’m always pointing out evidence showing that things presumed to be bad for you – booze, coffee, massive internet porn consumption etc. – are actually good for you. Here’s the latest (from the NY TImes.)

People who live on the Greek island of Ikaria are known to have remarkably high life expectancies, and researchers have been studying them carefully to learn why. Now a new report suggests that one reason may be the coffee they drink.

He and his colleagues found that older islanders who drank the boiled coffee had better functioning endotheliums — the layer of cells that line blood vessels.

Of course, it’s not just the coffee. The people of Ikaria live rather chill lives.

“It has to do with their way of living,” Dr. Siasos said. “People sleep over eight hours a night, there is increased socializing, and they have much less stress than people in Athens.”

Further evidence that modern society is doing everything wrong and aliens should enslave our planet.

Short sleepers

I’ve always felt that I was possessed of greatness, that I stood out from ordinary scum. As such, when I was young, it seemed certain I would do great things in life. Of course, here I am, mid way through, and I’ve done little. Why? I blame my need for sleep. I probably need 8 1/2 hours at least to be moderately functional and I rarely get that. If I was one of these people who could get by on 6 or less hours, I would probably be king of the world or something by now.

Scientists how now determined that there is a specific gene variation for people who require little sleep.

German scientists have found a gene variant that may be responsible for some people’s short sleeping habits. Their study, published recently in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, centers on a very small percentage of the population thought to be short or light sleepers, people who require only about four to five hours of sleep a night, wake up with energy and don’t require naps or caffeine to get through the day.

This opens up an obvious question. Could normal sleeping individuals undergo some sort of gene therapy that would tweak the appropriate gene(s) to turn them into short sleepers? Could we increase the world’s productivity in one simple step?

Or would tweaking this gene cause people to become enraged cannibals who would actively seek out warm, human flesh for consumption? There’s only one way to find out.

Oxytocin: Can we be forced to feel?

Lately I’ve been reading a book titled “The Science of Evil,” written by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the actor who plays “Borat.”) The book is a look at what’s known about the brains of people who lack empathy – psychopaths, narcissists, autistics etc.

At one point in the book, Baron-Cohen mentions the recent development of an oxytocin nasal spray. Oxytocin, my erudite readers might recall, is a hormone produced by the human body and is associated with calm, loving feelings. We get a dose of oxytocin after sex or close contact; mothers get a dose during birth and while breast feeding their children (presumably this increases the mother/child bond.) It’s been termed “the cuddle drug” and there is now a nasal spray version. This article looks at the idea of troubled couples using it too smooth out their relationships.

Baron-Cohen discusses the possibility of the spray being used by people with low empathy – people who might commit some kind of hurtful crime. In essence, he’s proposing that low empathy individuals be encouraged to feel. I have to wonder whether we will see this scenario: a violent offender, perhaps a psychopath, is ordered by the court to use the oxytocin spray. Will civil rights groups then argue that, by forcing this person to feel, the law is mandating that the person change something essential about themselves, to become someone they are not? Do we have a right to maintain our essential character?

Of course how essential can our character be if it can be altered via the ingestion of a chemical? Must we confront a more disturbing possibility, that we have no essential character at all and our “selves” are merely the fluctuating interactions of the various hormones and neurotransmitters that travel throughout our body and brain?

Merry Christmas!

The wrong metrics

There is a point made on this blog post about the health of Americans that touches on something I’ve been thinking about.

As another large-scale study recently pointed out, longevity isn’t everything. The population as a whole is living longer than it was twenty years ago, but the number of those years spent in poor health are increasing as well.

It’s frequently noted that our lifespans are increasing, but I think that maybe another case where the statistics don’t tell the real story. I’ve been doing some music shows in what are essentially nursing homes as of late, and some of the people there… Jesus. They look like they’re alive in name only, and I really wonder if it’s really a service to them to keep them alive. I don’t know for certain, of course; no one does. Maybe these people are having the time of their lives inside their mental cocoon. But I do think simply measuring health by the number of years lived is a mistake.

Now, some of the people in these homes seem genuinely happy and engaged in life. Unfortunately happiness and engagement are much more difficult to measure. But maybe we should be trying.

Real men are over 40

Here’s a hilarious article noting that the advent of Internet porn has created a generation of young men so desensitized by sexual imagery that they’re incapable of being aroused by a real woman.

Exposure to lurid images and films in the new media is de-sensitising so many young people that they are increasingly unable to become excited by ordinary sexual encounters, a report said.

The result is that impotence is no longer a problem associated with middle-aged men of poor health but is afflicting men in the prime of their lives.

According to a report in Psychology Today, a respected U.S. journal, the problem is now so common that men in their 20s consider their inability to perform to be ‘normal’.

Ha ha – normal for dickless losers!!!!