Saturday, May 31, 2008

Scientists reveal dangers of older fathers

Children are almost twice as likely to die before adulthood if they have a father over 45, research has shown.

A mass study found that deaths of children fathered by over-45s occurred at almost twice the rate of those fathered by men aged between 25 and 30.

Scientists believe that children of older fathers are more likely to suffer particular congenital defects as well as autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. The study was the first of its kind of such magnitude in the West, and researchers believe the findings are linked to the declining quality of sperm as men age.

A total of 100,000 children born between 1980 and 1996 were examined, of whom 830 have so far died before they reached 18, the majority when they were less than a year old.
Article continues

The deaths of many of the children of the older fathers were related to congenital defects such as problems of the heart and spine, which increase the risk of infant mortality. But there were also higher rates of accidental death, which the researchers believe might be explained by the increased likelihood of suffering from autism, epilepsy or schizophrenia.

Most research into older parents has, until now, focused on the risks passed on by older mothers. But the new study, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, was adjusted to take account of maternal age and socio-economic differences.

The research also found higher death rates among children of the youngest fathers, especially those below the age of 19. However, the study said these differences were explained by the risks of teenage motherhood and poorer diet and lifestyle.

Previous research using the same data found that older men were four times as likely to father a child with Down's syndrome, while other studies have found that the genetic quality of sperm deteriorates as men age.

More than 75,000 babies in Britain are born to fathers aged 40 and over each year, or more than one in 10 of all births. This includes more than 6,000 born to fathers aged 50 or over. The average age of fathering a child in this country is 32.

Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology – the medical specialty dealing with male reproduction – at the University of Sheffield, said: "A lot of people know that there are risks for the child that come from having an older mother, but children of older fathers also carry an increased risk. These sorts of results provide another good reason to have children early, when possible."

Dr Pacey, who is secretary of the British Fertility Society, said scientists were unsure exactly what impact the ageing process had on the quality of sperm, making it impossible to detect defects before conception.

Dr Jin Liang Zhu, from the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre, which carried out the research, said: "The risks of older fatherhood can be very profound, and it is not something that people are always aware of."

The mother's age still has the bigger impact on child health, however. About one in 900 babies born to women under 30 have Down's syndrome – a figure which reaches one in 100 by the age of 40. The number of over-40s giving birth in Britain each year has doubled in the past decade to 16,000. The risk of miscarriage rises sharply with age.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Energy drinks linked to risky behavior among teenagers

Health researchers have identified a surprising new predictor for risky behavior among teenagers and young adults: the energy drink.

Super-caffeinated energy drinks, with names like Red Bull, Monster, Full Throttle and Amp, have surged in popularity in the past decade. About a third of 12- to 24-year-olds say they regularly down energy drinks, which account for more than $3 billion in annual sales in the United States.

The trend has been the source of growing concern among health researchers and school officials. Around the country, the drinks have been linked with reports of nausea, abnormal heart rhythms and emergency room visits.

In Colorado Springs, several high school students last year became ill after drinking Spike Shooter, a high caffeine drink, prompting the principal to ban the beverages. In March, four middle school students in Broward County, Florida, went to the emergency room with heart palpitations and sweating after drinking the energy beverage Redline. In Tigard, Oregon, teachers this month sent parents e-mail alerting them that students who brought energy drinks to school were "literally drunk on a caffeine buzz or falling off a caffeine crash."

New research suggests the drinks are associated with a health issue far more worrisome than the jittery effects of caffeine — risk taking.
Blog: Tara Parker-Pope on health
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Today in Health & Science
Mindfulness meditation: Lotus therapy
Energy drinks linked to risky behavior among teenagers
Red flags for hereditary cancers

In March, The Journal of American College Health published a report on the link between energy drinks, athletics and risky behavior. The study's author, Kathleen Miller, an addiction researcher at the University of Buffalo, says it suggests that high consumption of energy drinks is associated with "toxic jock" behavior, a constellation of risky and aggressive behaviors including unprotected sex, substance abuse and violence.

The finding doesn't mean the drinks cause bad behavior. But the data suggest that regular consumption of energy drinks may be a red flag for parents that their children are more likely to take risks with their health and safety. "It appears the kids who are heavily into drinking energy drinks are more likely to be the ones who are inclined toward taking risks," Miller said.

The American Beverage Association says its members don't market energy drinks to teenagers. "The intended audience is adults," said Craig Stevens, a spokesman. He says the marketing is meant for "people who can actually afford the two or three bucks to buy the products."

The drinks include a variety of ingredients in different combinations: plant-based stimulants like guarana, herbs like ginkgo and ginseng, sugar, amino acids including taurine as well as vitamins. But the main active ingredient is caffeine.

Caffeine content varies. A 12-ounce serving of Amp contains 107 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 34 to 38 milligrams for the same amount of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Monster has 120 milligrams and Red Bull has 116. Higher on the spectrum, Spike Shooter contains 428 milligrams of caffeine in 12 ounces, and Wired X344 contains 258.

Stevens points out that "mainstream" energy drinks often have less caffeine than a cup of coffee. At Starbucks, the caffeine content varies depending on the drink, from 75 milligrams in a 12-ounce cappuccino or latte to as much as 250 milligrams in a 12-ounce brewed coffee.

One concern about the drinks is that because they are served cold, they may be consumed in larger amounts and more quickly than hot coffee drinks, which are sipped. Another worry is the increasing popularity of mixing energy drinks with alcohol. The addition of caffeine can make alcohol users feel less drunk, but motor coordination and visual reaction time are just as impaired as when they drink alcohol by itself, according to an April 2006 study in the medical journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"You're every bit as drunk, you're just an awake drunk," said Mary Claire O'Brien, associate professor in the departments of emergency medicine and public health services at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

O'Brien surveyed energy drink and alcohol use among college students at 10 universities in North Carolina. The study, published this month in Academic Emergency Medicine, showed that students who mixed energy drinks with alcohol got drunk twice as often as those who consumed alcohol by itself and were far more likely to be injured or require medical treatment while drinking. Energy drink mixers were more likely to be victims or perpetrators of aggressive sexual behavior. The effect remained even after researchers controlled for the amount of alcohol consumed.

Energy drink marketers say they don't encourage consumers to mix the drinks with alcohol. Michelle Naughton, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo, which markets Amp, said, "We expect consumers to enjoy our products responsibly."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Obesity fuels growing ‘boy-boob’ problem

Obesity has been blamed for the growing problem of “boy-boobs” – cases of teenage boys with breasts so well developed that surgery is needed to reduce them.

Doctors at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool say that they are seeing dozens of teenagers every year with gynaecomastia, the condition in which males develop breasts.

Christian Duncan, a plastic surgeon specialising in obesity-related surgery, said that in the past 12 months he had performed at least 20 breast-reduction operations on young boys who had developed the condition.

Mr Duncan is treating others who do not yet qualify for surgery by encouraging them to make changes to their lifestyle, such as starting a healthy diet or beginning an exercise programme. He believes that the condition is becoming more common among teenage boys in Liverpool, and that it can cause “terrible damage” to their lives and their self-esteem.

While some boys are simply fat, giving the appearance that they have breasts, those who develop gynaecomastia face a greater problem: the growth of firm female breast tissue under the nipples, Mr Duncan said. This condition is caused by a hormone imbalance during adolescence and in many cases resolves itself naturally. There is some evidence that the imbalance can be triggered by obesity.

Mr Duncan said: “This is different to someone just being overweight. These are firm female breasts, something that any woman would be proud of. There isn’t one month that has passed in the past 12 months where I have not seen a new patient with this condition. It used to be much less common and I am afraid it is a sign of the growing problem of childhood obesity.

“We try to teach these boys about making lifestyle adjustments, like getting them to go to the gym, but they just won’t go. They become very self-conscious and it can start to affect their ability to socialise and concentrate at school. Often they are bullied. To rectify the problem for them we basically use liposuction to remove the glandular and breast tissue and fat from around the chest to give a flatter appearance.”

Mr Duncan said he believed that the boys’ poor diet was causing an imbalance in their hormones, resulting in their developing breasts.

He said: “Both men and women have breast tissue but there is something about obesity that triggers hormone imbalances and causes an unnatural growth in these boys.

“If nothing is done to stop the growing tide of childhood obesity in the city I expect to see more cases year-on-year.”

More than one cause

— Breast reduction operations in men have increased sharply in recent years. Whether this increase is because of a greater incidence of gynaecomastia or a greater availability of cosmetic surgery is unclear

— In men the condition can have a number of causes, including body-building drugs, recreational drugs, cancer, diseases of the liver or kidney, and obesity. It may affect one breast, or both

— Some doctors have blamed increased levels of female hormones, or chemicals that mimic their effect, that are in the environment. In boys, the condition is very common but usually resolves itself without treatment as the hormone balance in the body stabilises at the end of adolescence

Monday, May 19, 2008

MPs back creation of human-animal embryos

The amendment to ban all admixed embryos was defeated by 336 votes to 176. The prohibition on true hybrids was defeated by 286 votes to 223
Mark Henderson and Francis Elliott

British scientists will be allowed to research devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s using human-animal embryos, after the House of Commons rejected a ban yesterday.

An amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would have outlawed the creation of “human admixed embryos” for medical research was defeated in a free vote by a majority of 160, preserving what Gordon Brown regarded as a central element of the legislation.

The Government is braced for defeat today, however, on a separate clause that would scrap the requirement that fertility clinics consider a child’s need for a father before treating patients. MPs will also consider amendments tonight that would cut the legal limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 22 or 20 weeks.

A second amendment, which would have banned the creation of “true hybrids” made by fertilising an animal egg with human sperm, or vice-versa, was also defeated yesterday by a majority of 63. Another free vote last night was expected to approve the use of embryo-screening to create “saviour siblings” suitable to donate umbilical cord blood to sick children. Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, moving the amendment to ban all admixed embryos, said that mingling animal and human DNA crossed an “ultimate boundary”. He said that exaggerated claims were giving patients false hope and that the dangers of the research were unknown. “In many ways we are like children playing with landmines without any concept of the dangers of the technology we are handling,” he said.

Mark Simmonds, a Shadow Health Minister, who moved the amendment to ban “true hybrids”, said that there was no compelling evidence of their research usefulness.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, challenged those who accepted admixed embryos in principle but rejected “true hybrids” to explain the ethical difference between an embryo that was 99 per cent human and one that was 50 per cent human.

Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, agreed: “Once we go down that road it seems illogical to oppose a particular mix.” Ms Primarolo said that the shortage of human eggs was the biggest barrier to embryonic stem cell research. The Minister admitted that the Bill was not a promise that cures for diseases could be found. “It is an aspiration that it may,” she said.

The amendment to ban all admixed embryos was defeated by 336 votes to 176. The prohibition on true hybrids was defeated by 286 votes to 223.

The main kinds of admixed embryo permitted by the Bill are “cytoplasmic hybrids” or “cybrids”, which are made by moving a human nucleus into an empty animal egg. These are genetically 99.9 per cent human. As well as true hybrids, it also allows chimeras that combine human and animal cells, and transgenic human embryos that include a little animal DNA.

The most immediate implication of the Commons vote will be to allow teams at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and King’s College London, which already hold licences to create cybrids, to continue their research. Though they were cleared to start these experiments by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in January, their licences would have been rescinded had MPs voted for a ban.

Cybrids could carry the DNA of patients with genetic conditions to create stem-cell models of these diseases for studying their progress and testing new treatments. Human eggs could be used but are in short supply because of risk to donor women.

It is legal to culture admixed embryos up to 14 days and illegal to transfer them to a human or animal womb.

The decision will also encourage a third team, which plans to use admixed embryos to study motor neuron disease, to apply for a licence. The group, led by Professor Chris Shaw, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, had been waiting for the vote.

Professor Shaw said: “It will allow us to forge ahead on all fronts in our attempts to understand and develop therapies for a huge range of currently incurable diseases. Cures may be some years off, but this vote does mean we can use hybrid embryos, in addition to adult stem cells, in our search to understand what causes Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease.”

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the National Institute for Medical Research in London, said the vote would aid understanding of normal embryonic development and of genetic disease: “This understanding will ultimately give us the best chance of developing therapies for these diseases, for infertility and for a range of other medical conditions”.

Simon Denegri, chief executive of the Association for Medical Research Charities, said: “MPs have clearly listened to the strong arguments put forward by medical research charities, patient groups and scientists of the importance of this research to advancing our understanding of diseases and conditions that affect hundreds of thousands of people in the UK.”

A majority of women say they should have the right to an abortion at between 20 and 24 weeks of their pregnancy and want the law to stay as it is. A poll of women of childbearing age, conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Marie Stopes International found that 61 per cent say that there should be access to late abortion services for a wide range of circumstances.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Orgasmic Mind: The Neurological Roots of Sexual Pleasure

Achieving sexual climax requires a complex conspiracy of sensory and psychological signals—and the eventual silencing of critical brain areas

By Martin Portner

When a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent.

Key Concepts

Principles of Pleasure

* Sexual desire and orgasm are subject to various influences on the brain and nervous system, which controls the sex glands and genitals.
* The ingredients of desire may differ for men and women, but researchers have revealed some surprising similarities. For example, visual stimuli spur sexual stirrings in women, as they do in men.
* Achieving orgasm, brain imaging studies show, involves more than heightened arousal. It requires a release of inhibitions engineered by shutdown of the brain’s center of vigilance in both sexes and a widespread neural power failure in females.

She did not often have such strong emotions. But she suddenly felt powerless against her passion and the desire to throw herself into the arms of the cousin whom she saw at a family funeral. “It can only be because of that patch,” said Marianne, a participant in a multinational trial of a testosterone patch designed to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder, in which a woman is devoid of libido. Testosterone, a hormone ordinarily produced by the ovaries, is linked to female sexual function, and the women in this 2005 study had undergone operations to remove their ovaries.

After 12 weeks of the trial, Marianne had felt her sexual desire return. Touching herself unleashed erotic sensations and vivid sexual fantasies. Eventually she could make love to her husband again and experienced an orgasm for the first time in almost three years. But that improvement was not because of testosterone, it turned out. Marianne was among the half of the women who had received a placebo patch—with no testosterone in it at all.

Marianne’s experience underlines the complexity of sexual arousal. Far from being a simple issue of hormones, sexual desire and orgasm are subject to various influences on the brain and nervous system, which controls the sex glands and genitals. And many of those influences are environmental. Recent research, for example, shows that visual stimuli spur sexual stirrings in women, as they do in men. Mari­anne’s desire may have been invigorated by conversations or thoughts about sex she had as a result of taking part in the trial. Such stimuli may help relieve inhibitions or simply whet a person’s appetite for sex.

Achieving orgasm, brain-imaging studies show, involves more than heightened arousal. It requires a release of inhibitions and control in which the brain’s center of vigilance shuts down in males; in females, various areas of the brain involved in controlling thoughts and emotions become silent. The brain’s pleasure centers tend to light up brightly in the brain scans of both sexes, especially in those of males. The reward system creates an incentive to seek more sexual encounters, with clear benefits for the survival of the species. When the drive for sex dissipates, as it did with Marianne, people can reignite the spark with tactics that target the mind.
Also in this issue of Mind

Sex in Circles
Biologists identified sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone in the 1920s and 1930s, and the first studies of human sexuality appeared in the 1940s. In 1948 biologist Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University introduced his first report on human sexual practices, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which was followed, in 1953, by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. These highly controversial books opened up a new dialogue about human sexuality. They not only broached topics—such as masturbation, homosexuality and orgasm—that many people considered taboo but also revealed the surprising frequency with which people were coupling and engaging in sexual relations of countless varieties.

Kinsey thus debuted sex as a science, paving the way for others to dig below statistics into the realm of biology. In 1966 gynecologist William Masters and psychologist Virginia Johnson—who originally hailed from Washington University before founding their own research institute in St. Louis—described for the first time the sexual response cycle (how the body responds to sexual stimulation), based on observations of 382 ­women and 312 men undergoing some 10,000 such cycles. The cycle begins with excitation, as blood rushes to the penis in men, and as the clitoris, vulva and vagina enlarge and grow moist in women. Gradually, people reach a plateau, in which they are fully aroused but not yet at orgasm. After reaching orgasm, they enter the resolution phase, in which the tissues return to the preexcitation stage.
In the 1970s psychiatrist Helen Singer Kaplan of the Human Sexuality Program at Weill Medical College of Cornell University added a critical element to this cycle—desire—based on her experience as a sex therapist. In her three-stage model, desire precedes sexual excitation, which is then followed by orgasm. Because desire is mainly psychological, Kaplan emphasized the importance of the mind in the sexual experience and the destructive forces of anxiety, defensiveness and failure of communication.

In the late 1980s gynecologist Rosemary Basson of the University of British Columbia proposed a more circular sexual cycle, which, despite the term, had been described as a largely linear progression in previous work. Basson suggested that desire might both lead to genital stimulation and be invigorated by it. Countering the idea that orgasm is the pinnacle of the experience, she placed it as a mere spot on the circle, asserting that a person could feel sexually satisfied at any of the stages leading up to an orgasm, which thus does not have to be the ultimate goal of sexual activity.

Dissecting Desire
Given the importance of desire in this cycle, researchers have long wanted to identify its key ingredients. Conventional wisdom casts the male triggers in simplistic sensory terms, with tactile and visual stimuli being particularly enticing. Men are drawn to visual erotica, explaining the lure of magazines such as Playboy. Meanwhile female desire is supposedly fueled by a richer cognitive and emotional texture. “Women experience desire as a result of the context in which they are inserted—whether they feel comfortable with themselves and the partner, feel safe and perceive a true bond with the partner,” opines urologist Jennifer Berman of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Yet sexual imagery devoid of emotional connections can arouse women just as it can men, a 2007 study shows. Psychologist Meredith Chivers of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and her colleagues gauged the degree of sexual arousal in about 100 women and men, both homosexual and heterosexual, while they watched erotic film clips. The clips depicted same-sex intercourse, solitary masturbation or nude exercise—performed by men and women—as well as male-female intercourse and mating between bonobos (close ape relatives of the chimpanzee).

The researchers found that although nude exercise genitally aroused all the onlookers the least and intercourse excited them the most, the type of actor was more important for the men than for the women. Heterosexual women’s level of arousal increased along with the intensity of the sexual activity largely irrespective of who or what was engaged in it. In fact, these women were genitally excited by male and female actors equally and also responded physically to bonobo copulation. (Gay women, however, were more particular; they did not react sexually to men masturbating or exercising naked.)

The men, by contrast, were physically titillated mainly by their preferred category of sexual partner—that is, females for straight men and males for gay men—and were not excited by bonobo copulation. The results, the researchers say, suggest that women are not only aroused by a variety of types of sexual imagery but are more flexible than men in their sexual interests and preferences.

When it comes to orgasm, simple sensations as well as higher-level mental processes probably also play a role in both sexes. Although Kinsey characterized orgasm in purely physical terms, psychologist Barry R. Komisaruk of Rutgers University has defined the experience as more multifaceted. In their book The Science of Orgasm (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), Komisaruk, endocrinologist Carlos Beyer-Flores of the Tlaxcala Laboratory in Mexico and Rutgers sexologist Beverly Whipple describe orgasm as maximal excitation generated by a gradual summing of responses from the body’s sensory receptors, combined with complex cognitive and emotional forces. Similarly, psychologist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has described sexual pleasure as a kind of “gloss” that the brain’s emotional hub, the limbic system, applies over the primary sensations.

The relative weights of sensory and emotional influences on orgasm may differ between the sexes, perhaps because of its diverging evolutionary origins. Orgasm in men is directly tied to reproduction through ejaculation, whereas female orgasm has a less obvious evolutionary role. Orgasm in a woman might physically aid in the retention of sperm, or it may play a subtler social function, such as facilitating bonding with her mate. If female orgasm evolved primarily for social reasons, it might elicit more complex thoughts and feelings in women than it does in men.

Forgetting Fear
But does it? Researchers are trying to crack this riddle by probing changes in brain activity during orgasm in both men and women. Neuroscientist Gert Holstege of the University of Gro­ningen in the Netherlands and his colleagues attempted to solve the male side of the equation by asking the female partners of 11 men to stimulate their partner’s penis until he ejaculated while they scanned his brain using positron-emission tomography (PET). During ejaculation, the researchers saw extraordinary activation of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a major hub of the brain’s reward circuitry; the intensity of this response is comparable to that induced by heroin. “Because ejaculation introduces sperm into the female reproductive tract, it would be critical for reproduction of the species to favor ejaculation as a most rewarding behavior,” the researchers wrote in 2003 in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The scientists also saw heightened activity in brain regions involved in memory-related imagery and in vision itself, perhaps because the volunteers used visual imagery to hasten orgasm. The anterior part of the cerebellum also switched into high gear. The cerebellum has long been labeled the coordinator of motor behaviors but has more recently revealed its role in emotional processing. Thus, the cerebellum could be the seat of the emotional components of orgasm in men, perhaps helping to coordinate those emotions with planned behaviors. The amygdala, the brain’s center of vigilance and sometimes fear, showed a decline in activity at ejaculation, a probable sign of decreasing vigilance during sexual performance.

To find out whether orgasm looks similar in the female brain, Holstege’s team asked the male partners of 12 women to stimulate their partner’s clitoris—the site whose excitation most easily leads to orgasm—until she climaxed, again inside a PET scanner. Not surprisingly, the team reported in 2006, clitoral stimulation by itself led to activation in areas of the brain involved in receiving and perceiving sensory signals from that part of the body and in describing a body sensation—for instance, labeling it “sexual.”

But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment—a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.

Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a depression of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. “Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain,” Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”But that lack of emotion may not apply to all orgasms in women. Komisaruk, Whipple and their colleagues studied the patterns of brain activation that occur during orgasm in five women with spinal cord injuries that left them without sensation in their lower extremities. These women were able to achieve a “deep,” or nonclitoral, orgasm through mechanical stimulation (using a laboratory device) of the vagina and cervix. But contrary to Holstege’s results, Komisaruk’s team found that orgasm was accompanied by a general activation of the limbic system, the brain’s seat of emotion.

Among the activated limbic regions were the amygdala and the hypothalamus, which produces oxytocin, the putative love and bonding hormone whose levels jump fourfold at orgasm. The researchers also found heightened activity in the nucleus accumbens, a critical part of the brain’s reward circuitry that may mediate orgasmic pleasure in women. In addition, they saw unusual activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, two brain areas that Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher has found come to life during the later stages of love relationships. Such activity may connect a female’s sexual pleasure with the emotional bond she feels with her partner.

Pleasure Pill?
Disentangling the connections between orgasm, reproduction and love may someday yield better medications and psychotherapies for sexual problems. As Marianne’s case illustrates, the answer is usually not as simple as a hormone boost. Instead her improvement was probably the result of the activation or inactivation of relevant parts of her brain by social triggers she encountered while participating in an experiment whose purpose centered on female sexual arousal. Indeed, many sex therapies revolve around opening the mind to new ways of thinking about sex or about your sexual partner.

Companies are also working on medications that act on the nervous system to stimulate desire. One such experimental compound is a peptide called bremelanotide, which is under development by Palatin Technologies in Cranbury, N.J. It blocks certain receptors in the brain that are involved in regulating basic drives such as eating and sex. In human studies bremelanotide has prompted spontaneous erections in men and boosted sexual arousal and desire in women, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has held up its progress out of concern over side effects such as rising blood pressure.

Continued scientific dissection of the experience of orgasm may lead to new pharmaceutical and psychological avenues for enhancing the experience. Yet overanalyzing this moment of intense pleasure might also put a damper on the fun. That is what the science tells us anyway.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Nanohealing Gel

A new material developed by Arch Therapeutics can stop bleeding almost instantly.

The material consists of naturally occurring amino acids that have been engineered to form peptides that spontaneously cluster together to create long fibers when exposed to salty, aqueous environments, such as those found in the body. The fibers form a mesh that serves as a physical barrier to blood and other fluids.

The first application will be for surgery. When bleeding occurs during an operation, time can be saved by pouring the material on instead of searching through the blood to cauterize vessels. Emergency personnel may also be able to use it for accident and battlefield wounds. The body will break it down eventually, so it doesn’t have to be removed after use. Clinical trials will begin soon.

Faulty Powers

The human brain is a less-than-perfect device. A new book explains how our minds work … and sometimes don't.
Raina Kelley
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 4:41 PM ET May 8, 2008

Despite the fact that humans have been known to be eaten by bears, sharks and assorted other carnivores, we love to place ourselves at the top of the food chain. And, despite our unwavering conviction that we are smarter than the computers we invented, members of our species still rob banks with their faces wrapped in duct tape and leave copies of their resumes at the scene of the crime. Six percent of sky-diving fatalities occur due to a failure to remember to pull the ripcord, hundreds of millions of dollars are sent abroad in response to shockingly unbelievable e-mails from displaced African royalty and nobody knows what Eliot Spitzer was thinking.

Are these simply examples of a few subpar minds amongst our general brilliance? Or do all human minds work not so much like computers but as Rube Goldberg machines capable of both brilliance and unbelievable stupidity? In his new book, "Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind," New York University professor Gary Marcus uses evolutionary psychology to explore the development of that "clumsy, cobbled-together contraption" we call a brain and to answer such puzzling questions as, "Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts?" and "How can 4 million people believe they were once abducted by aliens?"

According to Marcus, while we once we used our brains simply to stay alive and procreate, the modern world and its technological advances have forced evolution to keep up by adapting ancient skills for modern uses--in effect simply placing our relatively new frontal lobes (the home of memory, language, speech and error recognition) on top of our more ancient hindbrain (in charge of survival, breathing, instinct and emotion.) It is Marcus's hypothesis that evolution has resulted in a series of "good enough" but not ideal adaptations that allow us to be smart enough to invent quantum physics but not clever enough to remember where we put our wallet from one day to the next or to change our minds in the face of overwhelming evidence that our beliefs are wrong. "Evolution is conservative and stingy," Marcus tells NEWSWEEK. "It uses what it has. It doesn't start over--as a statistical matter, something is much more likely to evolve if it involves tinkering."

A kluge (rhymes with "huge") is defined as a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem. Marcus's finest example is the contraption used by the Apollo 13 astronauts to get home after their CO2 filters began to fail--using a plastic bag, cardboard box, some duct tape and a sock, they were able to cobble together a new filter and get home safely. Despite the fact that it worked, NASA has never been tempted to incorporate that design into its space projects.

In his attempt to define the "klugey-ness" of the human mind, Marcus would have us look no further than our memories, which he describes as "the mother of all kluges." Unlike computers, we cannot readily recollect all that we've remembered. Turns out, our memory is driven by cues. We need hints and context to remember where we put our purse ("Retrace your steps"). To free associate from one memory to the next may, Marcus writes, "lead depressed people to seek out depressive activities, such as drinking or listening to songs of lost love, which presumably deepens the gloom as well."

Yet another problem with our contextual memory is that memories tend to run together and are prone to contamination. I clearly remember being 5 years old and watching my mom hit my dad in the face with a Boston cream pie. The only problem is that it never happened. It was a dream that, for some reason, I remember as fact. Marcus believes our memory evolved in this way in an attempt to prioritize memories since our brains are much slower than the memory system available to computers and our neurons cannot keep all our recollections at hand for immediate retrieval. It's a workable system but one that doesn't allow us the time or ability to check memories for accuracy as a computer would be able to.

If visions of tearing your apartment apart looking for that receipt you saw five minutes ago aren't enough to convince you of the klugey-ness of our minds, take a minute and read your horoscope. Mine says: "Because of financial gains lately, you could fall into a new way of thinking and spend money too quickly. Be aware of this and take an attitude of easy-does-it." That actually means something to me despite its bland generality (I just got paid!) and odds are that your horoscope will somehow also carry a ring of truth. For some reason, the more general or vague a descriptive statement is, the greater the human tendency to believe that it is specifically about us. Late-night infomercials and used-car salesmen also use this weakness to sell us things we don't need or cars that don't work.

And why are humans so prone to believe absolutely anything from the existence of the Loch Ness monster to Atlantis? Marcus explains that "evolution has left us distinctly gullible … the systems that underlie our capacity for belief are powerful, they are also subject to superstition, manipulation and fallacy. Beliefs, and the imperfect neural tools we use to evaluate them, can lead to family conflicts, religious disputes and even war." Again, he argues our brains didn't evolve in a way that allowed us to thoroughly evaluate how well our beliefs represent reality.

Our older subconscious brain moves reflexively ("We're hungry, eat that mushroom now"), while our newer prefrontal cortex struggles to catch up with other alternatives ("Check your guidebook to see if it's poisonous or wait until we get to camp and eat some gorp"). Marcus theorizes that "the human tendency to most clearly remember information that seems consistent with our beliefs [or emotions] makes it very hard to let those beliefs go." So the next time you get into an argument with your spouse and he or she snaps, "You only hear what you want to hear," you can reply, "We all do. We've evolved that way."

But before you despair that humans are doomed to a life of lost keys, irrational beliefs and false memories, Marcus does supply us with a whole host of ways to trains our brains to act more rationally. My personal favorite is his first, "Whenever possible, consider alternative hypotheses." He recommends forcing yourself to come up with a list of alternatives even if you are absolutely certain that your husband is breaking drinking glasses out of spite and not because the sink is a little too deep for its intended purposes. Some of his other tips also involve forcing your brain to get out of the habit of relying on its more instinctual (and less reliable) thought processes and practice using our more conscious frontal lobes. This kind of advice may seem obvious when you read them but try and think about the last time you actually took advice such as, "Whenever possible, don't make important decisions when you are tired or have other things on your mind." Or "Always weigh benefits against costs."

Sounds easy but as Marcus notes, few of us rarely consider what else we could be doing that's of more value (spending time with your partner or family, calling up an old friend, writing a thank-you note) than watching a "CSI" marathon on TV. And if worst comes to worst, and you lose your keys and are late to work because of it, you can simply tell your boss, it's my brain's fault.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

UCI studies woman who can't forget

The "human calendar."

That's what some people call the woman who contacted UC Irvine neurobiologist Jim McGaugh six years ago and said, "I have a problem. I remember too much."

She wasn't exaggerating. McGaugh and fellow UCI researchers Larry Cahill and Elizabeth Parker have been studying the extraordinary case of a person who has "nonstop, uncontrollable and automatic" memory of her personal history and countless public events.

If you randomly pick a date from the past 25 years and ask her about it, she'll usually provide elaborate, verifiable details about what happened to her that day and if there were any significant news events on topics that interested her. She usually also recalls what day of the week it was and what the weather was like.

The 40-year-old woman, who was given the code name AJ to protect her privacy, is so unusual that UCI coined a name for her condition in a recent issue of the journal Neurocase: hyperthymestic syndrome.

"I have studied learning and memory for over 50 years, and I had never read of or even heard about a person who has a comparable ability to remember," McGaugh said. "However, we do not know whether she is unique or whether there may be others with comparable remembering ability who have not as yet been identified."

McGaugh answered dozens of questions about AJ last week. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: How would you describe AJ's autobiographical memory?

A: Her recollections are quick and seem to be automatic. When asked how she knows an answer, she says, sometimes with frustration or impatience, that she "just knows." She says she can see the event in her mind and relive it, like she's watching a movie. When asked about a particular day, she immediately gives the day of the week it fell on and describes some activity she engaged in, such as taking an exam, having lunch with a particular friend. She gives an inordinate number of details and is deliberate and calm as she recalls the sequence of events.

Q: AJ says she remembers too much. Is this a problem?

A: Her memories seem just to come pouring out, and she can't turn off the flow. She's sometimes forced to remember things that she doesn't want to think about. But she doesn't want to lose this capability because she enjoys it. It's a talent that she can talk about with friends.

Q: How have you confirmed the accuracy of her answers?

A: The significant public events are a matter of record; we fact-checked. We are able to check her personal experiences against a diary she kept from the age of 10 to 34. And her mother verified some things. She doesn't guess. On the rare occasions that she does not recall an event, she simply says that she does not remember.

Q: You put AJ through neuropsychological testing. What did that involve?

A:She was given many standardized psychological tests that assess various mental capabilities. She was asked to remember meaningful and meaningless information, visual data, things she did or did not say. She performed quite well. In some cases, she was perfect. These tests are usually given to people who might have an impairment.

Q: Your Neurocase paper says some people have "superior memories." What does that mean, and does that sum up AJ's "gift"?

A: Some people have trained themselves exceptionally well to remember specific kinds of information, such as a string of digits presented only once. Other individuals (only two published cases) appear to have the capacity to remember novel information, such as rows and columns of numbers that were presented only once, and remember them for a long time. AJ's ability is different; she has extraordinarily strong memory of daily personal experiences as well as public events. The odd thing is she hated studying history. And she's not especially good at rote memorization.

Q: Do you find that odd?

A:Yes. That is one reason we've spent dozens of hours over many years studying her.

Q: Have you examined the anatomy of her brain?

A:Not yet. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to study her because she's so unique. But we plan to do an MRI of her brain, probably within the next six months.

Q: At times, AJ has struggled with depression and has taken antidepressants. Is it possible the drugs affected her memory?

A:We do not know, but we think it unlikely. Antidepressant drugs are more likely to impair memory.

Q: Do you consider AJ's special abilities to be a gift or a burden?

A: From our view, it would appear to be an ability of considerable value. She does not generally regard it as such. However, although it clearly bothers her to be remembering a myriad of details on a routine basis, she says that she would not like to lose this ability.

Q: Is there anything in particular she remembered that just amazed you?

A:Yes. She readily and accurately recalled the specific dates, and days of the week, of every day she spent with us for the many interviews (over almost 6 years), as well as the weather on each day and many details occurring at the times of the interviews.

Q: With a memory like this, would AJ do well on the TV program "Jeopardy"?

A:Yes, but only on topics that interest her. She could probably make a lot of money.

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep: Boy Stayed Awake 24 Hours for Years

Rhett Lamb, 3, Stays Awake Nearly 24 Hours a Day

May 10, 2008 —

Rhett Lamb, 3, is often irritable, but it's not just the routine growing pains of a toddler's life that has affected him. It's the fact that Rhett can't sleep.

"We went to the doctor after he was born, and I kept telling him something was wrong. He didn't sleep. They thought I was being kind of an anxious mom, and we went back and forth," Rhett's mother, Shannon Lamb, said. "Finally, they [were] starting to realize now that he really doesn't sleep at all. But we've had a lot of different diagnoses and nobody really knows."

His sleep deprivation caused made him very irritable.

"That's going to have a great impact on his behavior during the day -- his irritability, his ability to eat -- and I'm sure it also impacted the parents tremendously," said Marie Savard, an ABC News medical consultant.

Rhett is awake nearly 24 hours a day, and his condition has baffled his parents and doctors for years. They took clock shifts watching his every sleep-deprived mood to determine what ailed the young boy.

After a number of conflicting opinions, Shannon and David Lamb finally learned what was wrong with their child: Doctors diagnosed Rhett with an extremely rare condition called chiari malformation.

"The brain literally is squeezed into the spinal column. What happens is you get compression, squeezing, strangulating of the brain stem, which has all the vital functions that control sleep, speech, our cranial nerves, our circulatory system, even our breathing system," Savard said.

In order to relieve the pressure on Rhett's brain stem, doctors performed surgery this week that they hope will allow him to sleep properly for the first time in his life. Surgeons made an incision at the base of Rhett's skull to the top of his neck and removed the bone around the brain stem and spinal cord, which produced more space.

"Doing the decompression, relieving that pressure, should absolutely improve those symptoms," Savard said.

Still, doctors said the Lambs may not see major changes for several months or possibly even a year. But Rhett's parents hope their son will be able to get some rest and be normal.

"There is a 50-50 chance that the sleep will improve," Shannon Lamb said. "Once the sleep improves, we can work on the behavioral stuff. He's very irritable all of the time.

"I would love to see him play and have a good time and be happy," she said.


Not long ago, saying goodnight to his mom and dad was nearly impossible for 3-year-old Rhett Lamb. In a case that baffled doctors, Rhett was awake nearly 24 hours a day.
"His body would give out but his mind wouldn't; he'd still be awake," said Rhett's mom, Shannon Lamb. "He'd still be alert. It was extremely scary." One of the side effects of Rhett's lack of sleep was bad behavior. "He was in a bad mood all the time," Lamb said. "He couldn't play, he didn't interact with other children. His frustration level was so high, and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. He couldn't communicate with anyone. It was heartbreaking." Rhett's temper got so bad he would hit his mother, even giving her black eyes. "He would hit you, he would bite you, he would head butt you and anything else around him, and you didn't know from one minute to the next what was going to happen," she said. Rhett's dad David Lamb said, "It was like he was losing his mind and there was nothing we could do to help him." The Lambs, who live in St. Petersburg, Fla., arranged opposite work shifts so one of them could stay home and take care of Rhett.
Mystery of Sleepless Boy Solved
Three-year-old Rhett Lamb was awake nearly 24 hours a day until he was diagnosed with a brain disorder, chiari malformation, and survived a risky operation.
The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep Watch Video
Treatments for Insomnia: Rewiring Your Brain Watch Video
Solutions for Women With Sleep Apnea Watch Video
"You get to the point where you can't function anymore and you can't think straight, and you get up in the morning and you take a shower to go to work and you drive to work and you're a robot," Shannon Lamb said. "You are an absolute robot. And then you dread coming home 'cause you know it's the same thing."

Finally, a Diagnosis

After dozens of doctors' visits and years of conflicting opinions, Rhett was finally diagnosed with a rare brain condition called chiari malformation.
Chiari malformation is a neurological disorder in which the bottom part of the brain, the cerebellum, descends out of the skull and crowds the spinal cord, putting pressure on both the brain and spine, causing a number of symptoms, including sleeplessness. Once diagnosed, doctors were able to perform a risky surgery that offered a 50-50 chance Rhett would be able to sleep normally for the first time.

Rhett Up to Speed

Dr. Gerald Tuite, a pediatric neurosurgeon at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersberg, made an incision from the base of Rhett's skull to the top of his neck to remove bone around the brain stem and around the spinal cord, producing more space and reducing the pressure.
The surgery was a success. Rhett was finally able to sleep through the night, and his behavior improved dramatically.
Because of the disease, he was functioning at the level of an 18-month-old and couldn't even speak. But in a matter of months, he has almost caught up to his peers, and for the first time in his life, he is interacting with other children. It's a time the Lambs thought would never come. "You couldn't give him a hug or touch him or anything, and now he walks through the door and wants a big hug," Shannon Lamb said. "And it's heartbreaking at this point because you just look at him and think, 'This is something I never thought I would have.'"

Friday, May 9, 2008

No Idol advice about what singing can do to your vocal cords

Listen up, all you American Idol/Hannah Montana wannabes. If not done right, singing pop music can can permanently damage fragile teenage vocal chords.

And unfortunately, new research suggests it's often not done right. Just take a gander at the American Idol castoffs on the audition shows. There's a whole lot of shrieking going on, says Celia Hooper, who used clips from the show when she taught a course on voice disorders.

Cooper, a professor of communications sciences and disorders at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and grad students Nathan Waller and Beverly Vaughn wanted to see exactly what was going on in the throats of adolescent singers. So they brought 20 middle and high school students into their lab and asked them to sing opera, gospel and a pop tune: "Tomorrow" from the Broadway show "Annie."

The researchers watched the singers' vocal cords in action with a camera scope and, via the wonders of computer technology, visualized and measured 22 features--such as "roughness" or "screechiness"--of each voice during each song. They had expected that the gospel song would prove to be most stressful on the vocal cords, but "Tomorrow" won that title. Hooper explained to me that gospel as sung by a school chorus might not be as intense as gospel sung in church, "where you would really let it rip."

Hooper hasn't had time to watch much "Idol" this season. But she notes that previous winners Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia both have "rough" singing voices suggestive of strained vocal cords. As far as this year's finalists, Brooke White, who was voted off last week, sounded the roughest to Hooper.

"They're OK now because they're young," Hooper says. "If they plan to have a long career, they need voice lessons from a singing teacher." If belters don't learn proper technique, she says, they can end up losing the ability to hit high notes and turn up the volume.

Fortunately, Hooper says, music education majors these days take anatomy and physiology, so they can train young students how to sing without screwing up their vocal cords.

Of course, she notes, Rod Stewart lost his high notes long ago because of vocal stress and the resulting nodules on his cords, and look where it got him.