Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reconstructive memory

The term 'Rashomon effect' is often used by psychologists in situations where observers give different accounts of the same event,and describes the effect of subjective perceptions on recollection. The phenomenon is named after a 1950 film by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It was with Rashomon that Western cinema-goers discovered both Kurosawa and Japanese film in general - the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film the following year.

Rashomon is an adaptation of two short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Set in the 12th century, the film depicts the trial of a notorious bandit called Tajomaru (played by Kurosawa's frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune), who is alleged to have raped a woman and killed her samurai husband. In flashbacks, the incident is recalled by four different witnesses - a woodcutter, a priest, the perpetrator and, via a medium, the murder victim. Each of the testimonies is equally plausible, yet all four are in mutual contradiction with each other.

The film is an examinantion of human nature and the nature of reality. It compels the viewer to seek the truth. Each testimony is influenced by the intentions, experiences and self-perceptions of the witness. They all tell their own 'truth', but it is distorted by their past and by their future. Under Kurosawa's masterful direction, the characters start off happy in the knowledge that they know exactly what happened between the samaurai, his wife and the bandit. One by one, each character begins to doubt their own account of the incident. In the end, both the cast and the viewer are left in a state of confusion and bewilderment.
The idea that we do not remember things as they actually happened is usually attributed to Sir Frederick Bartlett (1886-1969), who spent much of his professional career at Cambridge University, where he became head of the psychology department. He describes the process of memory in his classic 1932 book, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology:

Remembering is not a completely independent function, entirely distinct from perceiving, imaging, or even from constructive thinking, but it has intimate relations with them all...One's memory of an event reflects a blend of information contained in specific traces encoded at the time it occurred, plus inferences based on knowledge, expectations, beliefs, and attitudes derived from other sources.

According to Bartlett, memories are organized within the historical and cultural frameworks (which Bartlett called 'schemata') of the individual, and the process of remembering involves the retrieval of information which has been unknowingly altered in order that it is compatible with pre-existing knowledge.

Bartlett's ideas about how memory works came to him during a game of Chinese whispers, in which a short story is relayed through a chain of people, each of whom makes minor retrieval errors, such that the final retelling may be completely different from the original. One of his experiments involved asking subjects to read a Native American folk story called The War of the Ghosts, and then recall it several times, sometimes up to a year later. He chose it because the cultural context in which it is set was unfamiliar to the participants in his experiments.

Bartlett found that upon recall, the subjects altered the narrative of the story to make it fit in with their existing schemata. Participants omitted information they regarded as irrelevant, changed the emphasis to points they considered to be significant, and rationalized the parts that did not make sense, to make the story more comprehensible to themselves. In other words, memory is reconstructive rather that reproductive.

Although Remembering was largely ignored upon its publication, it is today highly influential. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and law at the University of California, Irvine, has devoted her career to studying the reconstructive nature of memory in relation to eyewitness testimony.

Loftus is concerned mainly with how the recollections of eyewitnesses can be deliberately manipulated by misinformation. In extreme cases, this can lead to completely false memories of events that did not take place. One of Loftus's more famous studies addresses the use of 'leading' questions in the courtroom. In the study, students were shown film clips of a car accident, and then asked a question about the accident. Those asked "About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" gave answers which averaged about 39 mph, whereas those asked "About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?" gave answers with an average speed of 32 mph.

Loftus's research, like that of Bartlett's, shows that our memories are quite often not as accurate as we would like to think they are. The knowledge that memory is to some extent confabulation has very serious implications for the use in the courtroom of eyewitness testimonies, because if eyewitness testimonies can be unreliable, then the validity of criminal convictions based upon them is open to question.

As well as confabulating the past, the brain also envisages events that have not yet occurred. The process of anticipating oneself attending a future event probably involves drawing on past experiences to generate a 'simulation' of the future event. Daniel Schacter argues that this 'episodic-future' thinking is entirely dependent on reconstructive memory:

...future events are not exact replicas of past events, and a memory system that simply stored rote records would not be well-suited to simulating future events. A system built according to constructive principles may be a better tool for the job: it can draw on the elements and gist of the past, and extract, recombine and reassemble them into imaginary events that never occurred in that exact form. Such a system will occasionally produce memory errors, but it also provides considerable flexibility.

Most of the evidence that reconstructive memory may be essential for envisioning future events comes from amnesic patients who also have difficulties picturing themselves in the future, and now there is also some experimental evidence. For example, recent functional neuroimaging studies show that some of the brain regions that are activated when recalling a personal memory - the posterior cingulate gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus and left occipital lobe - are also active when thinking about a future event.

Amnesia in the movies

Despite occuring only rarely, amnesia (or memory loss) has featured often in Hollywood films for almost a century. By 1926, at least 10 silent films which used amnesia as a plot device had been made; more recent productions, such as 50 First Dates and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are therefore part of a well established tradition.

In a review published in the British Medical Journal in 2004, clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale of the Institute of Neurology in London points out that cinematic depictions of amnesia are consistenly inaccurate, and usually "bear no relation whatsoever to any authentic neurological or psychiatric condition".

In her review, Baxendale examines common misconceptions of amnesia found in the cinema, and suggests that knowledge of them can guide clinicians when informing patients and their relatives about diagnoses. She also points out several exceptional films which depict amnesic syndromes accurately.

In the romantic comedy 50 First Dates (2004), Adam Sandler plays veterinarian Henry Roth, who falls for Lucy Whitmore (played by Drew Barrymore) after meeting her in a cafe one morning. The two hit it off, and arrange to meet again. The following day, Roth returns to the café to meet her, but she claims to have no recollection of him. As he leaves, the owner of the café takes him to one side, and explains that Whitmore "lost her short-term memory" after a "terrible car accident". We also learn that she can form new memories during the day, which are then wiped clean during her sleep, so that she wakes up to a "clean slate" every morning.
50 First Dates propagates a number of misconceptions which are common in the films which refer to amnesia. Whitmore's amnesia is the result of a head injury incurred in the car accident; other amnesic characters may lose their memory after being assaulted, or bumping their head in some other way. In reality, memory loss rarely occurs following a head injury; it is most often caused by stroke, brain infection or neurosurgery. The idea that new memories are wiped clean at night is also unrealistic, and unlike any documented amnesic syndrome.

In many cases of cinematic amnesia, head injuries lead to loss of memory of earlier events (retrograde amnesia), but the character usually goes on to lead an otherwise normal life. Real patients who incur brain damage usually suffer from anterograde amnesia - they lose the ability to form new memories, but their memories of events that occured before the amnesia often remain intact. Often they lose memories of many important aspects of their lives - of loved ones and daily routines - and so day-to-day functioning is affected severely.

Amnesic film characters often undergo personality changes or a loss of identity. This confuses amnesia with a poorly-understood condition called dissociative fugue. It also blurs the distinction between the causes of the different amnesic syndromes, as the characters experience psychiatric symptoms, which in reality do not have an organic cause, which are attributed to neurological damage.
Personality changes after a head injury can be seen in the 1987 film Overboard, starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Hawn plays a rich and spoilt socialite who loses here memory after bumping her head when falling from her yacht. The character then undergoes a sudden transformation - she becomes warm-hearted and loving and is duped into raising the children of Russel's character as her own. Her memory loss, like that of most other characters, is readly reversible - towards the end of the film, it is cured by another bump on the head. In others, the memories return when they see a familiar object or person. Both of these scenarios are equally implausible.

Memento (2000) is a rare example of a film which depicts amnesia accurately. It is apparently inspired in part by the case of Henry Molaison (H.M.), the famous amnesic who died last December. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, who suffers severe anterograde amnesia after sustaining a head injury in an attack in which his wife is killed. Unlike most amnesic characters, Leonard retains his identity and the memories of events that occurred before the attack, but loses all ability to form new memories. The film's fragmented narrative powerfully depicts how difficult everyday life would be for a severely amnesic patient - Leonard spends much of the film frantically scribbling scraps of information on pieces of paper and, once he has estalished something to be a fact, has it tattooed onto his body.

Another accurate depiction of amnesia is found in the CGI-animated film Finding Nemo (2003). One of the characters, a reef fish called Dory, has a profound memory deficit which, to frustration of her peers, prevents her from learning or retaining any new information, remembering names, or knowing where she is going. As a result, she gets lost when left alone and is often found in a state of confusion. The exact origin of Dory's impairment is not mentioned in the film, but her memory loss accurately reflects the difficulties faced by amnesic patients and those who know them.
Realistic amnesic characters are few and far between in the cinema. Baxendale refers to only one other film, called Se Quien Eres (I Know Who You Are, 2000), containing an accurate depiction of amnesia, in the form of a patient with Korsakoff's Syndrome, the amnesic syndrome condition associated with chronic alcoholism. However, Columbia Pictures announced last month it has acquired the rights to make a film about the life of H.M., based on a book which is to be written by Susanne Corkin, the MIT researcher who worked with him for 4 years.

On a related subject is Rashomon (1950), Akira Kurosawa's masterful examination of the reconstructive nature memory Rashomon depicts a crime as seen from the perspective of four eyewitnesses. As each gives their testimony, the same event is described in four radically different ways. Each of the testimonies contradicts the others, and each of the witnesses initially insists that their version of the event is the right one. Then, as they consider each others' descriptions, something which at first seemed clear becomes utterly confusing, as all the characters and the audience begin to question the accuracy of their own memories.

Monday, November 23, 2009

* Hands-on Tech: Double Amputee Gets Mind-Controlled Arms

When Christian Kandlbauer lost both of his arms in a work accident in 2005, he thought he’d lost his independence. But thanks to amazing advances in prosthesis technology, he now has two high-tech prosthetic arms that allow him to function in many of the ways he did before his accident – and they’re controlled by his thoughts. The arms, developed in a joint venture between the Otto Bock health care company and the Medical University of Vienna, were fitted in 2007. But before they could go on, Kandlbauer had to undergo a complex procedure to re-wire the nerves in his arm stumps, a procedure that only three surgeons in the world can perform. The nerves that used to control his arms were moved to his chest to allow him to control his new bionic arms via electronic sensors.

Now, Kandlbauer moves his new arms the way he moved his old ones: he activates “muscle” movement with impulses from his brain. The prosthetic arms aren’t quite as articulate as natural arms, but they have seven degrees of movement as opposed to the three degrees of movement offered by conventional prostheses. And four years after losing his arms, Kandlbauer was able to achieve one of his biggest goals: he passed his driving test. He’s now able to drive himself around with the help of a modified vehicle, thanks to his high-tech arms.When Christian Kandlbauer lost both of his arms in a work accident in 2005, he thought he’d lost his independence. But thanks to amazing advances in prosthesis technology, he now has two high-tech prosthetic arms that allow him to function in many of the ways he did before his accident – and they’re controlled by his thoughts. The arms, developed in a joint venture between the Otto Bock health care company and the Medical University of Vienna, were fitted in 2007. But before they could go on, Kandlbauer had to undergo a complex procedure to re-wire the nerves in his arm stumps, a procedure that only three surgeons in the world can perform. The nerves that used to control his arms were moved to his chest to allow him to control his new bionic arms via electronic sensors.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A new antidepressant really turns women on

To all the men (and women) I've ever heard complain about the female libido, it's time to take the batteries out of your high-tech remote-control sex toys.

Flibanserin appears to be a highly effective libido booster in women who report low sexual desire, three new trials find.

Flibanserin, a drug originally designed to fight depression, turns out to be an ineffective antidepressant but a highly effective libido booster in women who report low sex drives, according to results pooled from three separate clinical trials. (It's long been thought that antidepressants suppress sex drives, so it makes its own strange sense that a poor antidepressant might not have the same suppressing effect.)

"It's essentially a Viagra-like drug for women in that diminished desire or libido is the most common feminine sexual problem, like erectile dysfunction is in men," reports John Thorp Jr., a principal investigator in the studies and the McAllister distinguished professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

It's not terribly surprising that flibanserin was not originally designed to boost the female libido, since this is a notoriously complicated task compared to the notoriously uncomplicated approach in men of simply regulating blood flow. More surprising is that these are purported to be the first trials ever to test a female libido therapy in the brain; one would think that all the scoffing women do about men thinking with their "other" heads would indicate women's tendency to do that sort of thinking with the head that sits on their shoulders.

Hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a bulky arrangement of syllables that risks causing the very thing it names, affects anywhere from 9 percent to 26 percent of women in the U.S., studies show. But that doesn't mean you should throw away those high-tech sex toys and run to your local pharmacy; flibanserin is still an investigational drug, available only to those women who've agreed to participate in clinical trials.

The trial results were presented by principal investigator Elaine E. Jolly from the University of Ottawa in Canada on Monday at the Congress of the European Society for Sexual Medicine in Lyon, France.

All three trials were funded by Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of flibanserin. That means until further studies are done without BIP funding, these results should be viewed with a level of skepticism; developing the first successful female libido booster could be a way for the company that designed such a poor antidepressant to save face.

That brings me to a final point: since women who do not suffer from hypoactive sexual desire disorder might be just the type to enjoy such things as sex toys and libido boosters recreationally (some women take Viagra for fun), one wonders what effect, if any, flibanserin will have on them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Best Exercises for Healthy Bones

Digital Images/Getty Images

Several weeks ago, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that should give pause to anyone who plans to live a long and independent life. The study looked at the incidence of hip fractures among older Americans and the mortality rates associated with them. Although the number of hip fractures has declined in recent decades, the study found that the 12-month mortality rate associated with the injury still hovers at more than 20 percent, meaning that, in the year after fracturing a hip, about one in five people over age 65 will die.
Phys Ed

Meanwhile, another group of articles, published this month as a special section of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, underscore why that statistic should be relevant even to active people who are years, or decades, away from eligibility for Medicare. The articles detailed a continuing controversy within the field of sports science about exactly how exercise works on bone and why sometimes, apparently, it doesn’t.

“There was a time, not so long ago,” when most researchers assumed “that any and all activity would be beneficial for bone health,” says Dr. Daniel W. Barry, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, at Denver, and a researcher who has studied the bones of the elderly and of athletes. Then came a raft of unexpected findings, some showing that competitive swimmers had lower-than-anticipated bone density, others that, as an earlier Phys Ed column pointed out, competitive cyclists sometimes had fragile bones and, finally, some studies suggesting, to the surprise of many researchers, that weight lifting did not necessarily strengthen bones much. In one representative study from a few years ago, researchers found no significant differences in the spine or neck-bone densities of young women who did resistance-style exercise training (not heavy weight lifting) and a similar group who did not.

Researchers readily admit that they don’t fully understand why some exercise is good for bones and some just isn’t. As the articles in this month’s Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise make clear, scientists actually seem to be becoming less certain about how exercise affects bone. Until fairly recently, many thought that the pounding or impact that you get from running, for instance, deformed the bone slightly. It bowed in response to the forces moving up the leg from the ground, stretching the various bone cells and forcing them to adapt, usually by adding cells, which made the bone denser. This, by the way, is how muscle adapts to exercise. But many scientists now think that that process doesn’t apply to bones. “If you stretch bone cells” in a Petri dish, says Alexander G. Robling, an assistant professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of an article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, “you have to stretch them so far to get a response that the bone would break.”

So he and many other researchers now maintain that bone receives the message to strengthen itself in response to exercise by a different means. He says that during certain types of exercise, the bone bends, but this doesn’t stretch cells; it squeezes fluids from one part of the bone matrix to another. The extra fluid inspires the cells bathed with it to respond by adding denser bone.

Why should it matter what kind of message bones are receiving? Because, Professor Robling and others say, only certain types of exercise adequately bend bones and move the fluid to the necessary bone cells. An emerging scientific consensus seems to be, he says, that “large forces released in a relatively big burst” are probably crucial. The bone, he says, “needs a loud signal, coming fast.” For most of us, weight lifting isn’t explosive enough to stimulate such bone bending. Neither is swimming. Running can be, although for unknown reasons, it doesn’t seem to stimulate bone building in some people. Surprisingly, brisk walking has been found to be effective at increasing bone density in older women, Dr. Barry says. But it must be truly brisk. “The faster the pace,” he says — and presumably the greater the bending within the bones — the lower the risk that a person will fracture a bone.

There seems to be a plateau, however, that has also surprised and confounded some researchers. Too much endurance exercise, it appears, may reduce bone density. In one small study completed by Dr. Barry and his colleagues, competitive cyclists lost bone density over the course of a long training season. Dr. Barry says that it’s possible, but not yet proved, that exercise that is too prolonged or intense may lead to excessive calcium loss through sweat. The body’s endocrine system may interpret this loss of calcium as serious enough to warrant leaching the mineral from bone. Dr. Barry is in the middle of a long-term study to determine whether supplementing with calcium-fortified chews before and after exercise reduces the bone-thinning response in competitive cyclists. He expects results in a year or so.

In the meantime, the current state-of-the-science message about exercise and bone building may be that, silly as it sounds, the best exercise is to simply jump up and down, for as long as the downstairs neighbor will tolerate. “Jumping is great, if your bones are strong enough to begin with,” Dr. Barry says. “You probably don’t need to do a lot either.” (If you have any history of fractures or a family history of osteoporosis, check with a physician before jumping.) In studies in Japan, having mice jump up and land 40 times during a week increased their bone density significantly after 24 weeks, a gain they maintained by hopping up and down only about 20 or 30 times each week after that.

If hopping seems an undignified exercise regimen, bear in mind that it has one additional benefit: It tends to aid in balance, which may be as important as bone strength in keeping fractures at bay. Most of the time, Dr. Barry says, “fragile bones don’t matter, from a clinical standpoint, if you don’t fall down.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Peril of Palatability

A former FDA chief sounds the alarm about dangerously delicious food.

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Diet, by David A. Kessler, Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books, 320 pages, $25.95

According to The Washington Post, David Kessler’s research for The End of Overeating included late-night forays into the trash bins behind Chili’s restaurants across California. From the chain’s garbage he retrieved ingredient boxes with nutritional labels that revealed the secret of dishes such as Southwestern Eggrolls and Boneless Shanghai Wings. It turned out they “were bathed in salt, fat and sugars.”

Kessler could have saved considerable time and trouble by paying a Chili’s employee to write down this information for him. Or by visiting the Chili’s website, which provides numbers for the calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and sodium in the company’s food. Or simply by assuming that food promoted as a mouth-watering yet affordable indulgence probably has a lot of fat, salt, and sugar in it. But as The End of Overeating more than amply demonstrates, Kessler is the sort of crusader who spares no effort to uncover the obvious.

Kessler, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco’s medical school, grabbed headlines as head of the Food and Drug Administration under Bill Clinton by taking on Big Tobacco. In this book he mounts an assault on Big Food, but the results are even feebler than his unsuccessful effort to regulate cigarettes without statutory authority. He combines banal observations, dressed up as scientific insights and revelations of corporate misdeeds, with presumptuous advice that overgeneralizes from his own troubled relationship with food.

Kessler urges readers to eschew pasta, French fries, bacon cheeseburgers, candy, and other “hyperpalatable” foods that he and some people he interviewed for the book have trouble consuming in moderation. Kessler wants us to know he is powerless over chocolate-chip cookies and “those fried dumplings at the San Francisco airport.” Using himself and several similarly voracious acquaintances as models, he argues that “conditioned hypereating” is largely responsible for the “obesity epidemic.” He exhorts its victims to resist the machinations of the food industry, “the manipulator of the consumers’ minds and desires” (in the words of a “high-level food industry executive”).

Kessler fearlessly accuses major restaurant chains of a crime they brag about, relying on unnamed “insiders” to reveal that comestible pushers such as Cinnabon and The Cheesecake Factory deliberately make their food delicious—or, as he breathlessly puts it, “design food specifically to be highly hedonic.” Kessler certainly has the goods on the corporate conspiracy to serve people food they like. “We come up with craveable flavors, and the consumers come back, even days later,” a “research chef at Chili’s” confesses to him. Kessler also reveals that Nabisco lures Oreo eaters through a dastardly combination of sweet white filling and crunchy, bittersweet chocolate wafers, achieving “what’s called dynamic contrast.” Or maybe it’s “what the industry calls ‘dynamic novelty,’ ” as Kessler claims in another Oreo discussion elsewhere in the book. Either way, it’s so good it must be bad.

Not only do these sneaky bastards create irresistible food; they then turn around and tell people about it. “With its ability to create superstimuli, coupled with its marketing prowess, the industry has cracked the code of conditioned hypereating and learned exactly how to manipulate our eating behavior,” Kessler writes. “It has figured out the programming that gets us to pursue the food it wants to sell.”

If Kessler hadn’t been so distracted by that plateful of chocolate-chip cookies, perhaps he would have noticed the contradiction between his description of how the food industry goes to great lengths to give consumers exactly what they want and his claim that it arbitrarily decides what products it wants to sell, then uses marketing magic to create a demand for them. The only way to deal with such logic-defying nefariousness, he suggests, is to regulate advertising and require restaurants to nag their customers with conspicuous calorie counts. He also encourages readers to “feel angry at the marketing and advertising techniques designed to get you to eat more, at the huge portion sizes served at restaurants, and at the layered and loaded food you encounter everywhere.” It’s all about “reframing seemingly well-meaning acts as hostile ones.” Thinking back on all those times my mother offered me a second helping, I now realize how much she hates me.

Kessler’s discussion of the science behind his theory of conditioned hypereating is at least as enlightening as his economic analysis of the food industry. “Palatable foods arouse our appetite,” one expert tells him. “They act as an incentive to eat.” Once he’s made sure we know what palatable means, Kessler tries to explain why some foods have this quality. It turns out that palatable foods affect neurotransmitter levels, stimulate “the pleasure center,” and activate “the body’s reward system.” Since the same could be said of pretty much everything that people enjoy, this observation is not very illuminating. It falls into the same true-but-dull category as Kessler’s discovery that “people get fat because they eat more than people who are lean.”

Kessler’s neurological reductionism gives him an excuse to talk about rat studies and MRI scans, but it does not have much explanatory power. “The food we ate for comfort has left its mark on the brain, creating a void that will need to be filled the next time we are cued,” he writes. “The result is a spiral of wanting.” Since all experiences leave a “mark on the brain,” what does this really tell us about why some people eat a few potato chips and stop, while others finish the bag and look for more in the cupboard?

It’s not clear what percentage of the population reacts to food the way Kessler and his hypereating friends do. The government says two-thirds of Americans are “overweight,” but that does not mean they routinely engage in the out-of-control gorging that Kessler describes. Then again, Kessler says “overeating is not the sole province of the overweight,” since thin people can scarf down big bowls of ice cream or M&Ms but compensate by exercising more. It does not make much sense to claim that people who burn all the calories they consume are overeating—unless, like Kessler, you’re promoting a trademarked treatment for overeating called Food Rehab™.

According to The Washington Post, “Kessler estimates that about 15 percent of the population is not affected” by conditioned hypereating, meaning 85 percent is. That seems inconsistent not only with everyday experience but with Kessler’s own analysis of questionnaire data from the Reno Diet Heart Study. He says “one-third of the study population scored high” on one or more of three factors—“loss of control over eating,” “lack of feeling satisfied by food,” and “preoccupation with food”—that characterize the syndrome he typifies.

Yet the section of the book where Kessler describes his Food Rehab™ method seems to be aimed at a general audience, which is like expecting all drinkers to follow the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I don’t offer a one-size-fits-all technique,” Kessler claims, adding that “few foods will be totally out of bounds.” Yet he lays down some pretty categorical-sounding imperatives. “Neither sugar nor refined carbohydrates that behave much like sugar in the body, such as white flours and pasta, belong in the diet in significant amounts,” he writes, calling for “a diet based largely on lean protein and whole grains or legumes, supplemented with fruits and nonstarchy vegetables.” For everyone? Just for hypereaters? Maybe both, because by this point Kessler seems to have convinced himself that his impulsive, gluttonous reaction to tasty food is a universal trait.

But what about those of us who reject Kessler’s ethic of rigidly ordered abstemiousness, which replaces hypereating with hypervigilance? Consider celebrity chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, who supplied a blurb for this book (“disturbing, thought-provoking, and important”) that suggests he hasn’t read it. As anyone who watches No Reservations, Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, can attest, his attitude toward food is about as far from Kessler’s as it’s possible to get. While Kessler says we should be wary of delicious dishes, Bourdain conspicuously consumes all manner of fatty, salty, calorie-packed food in large quantities without apology (and nevertheless keeps a trim figure). Bourdain’s fans see a man who relishes life and refuses to sacrifice pleasure on the altar of health. Kessler presumably would see a victim of conditioned hypereating who desperately needs a course of Food Rehab™.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Israeli scientists find stroke drug could help cure cancer

By Ofri Ilani, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: cancer, Tel Aviv University

Israeli scientists have identified a substance that can kill cancerous cells without harming healthy ones, paving the way for more effective cancer treatment.
The findings by researchers at Tel Aviv University and Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, were published in the current issue of the international peer-reviewed journal Breast Cancer Research.
"We actually found the Achilles heel of the cancer cell," said Prof. Malka Cohen-Armon from Tel Aviv University, who headed the research team. "As soon as you can target cancerous cells without killing healthy ones, you can produce medications that would cause a lot less suffering to the patient. We can even give a much more aggressive treatment without worrying about harming healthy tissues."

The substance identified by the researchers, which delays cell proliferation in healthy and cancerous cells, is a component of a drug developed a decade ago to preserve nerve cells and prevent them from dying after a stroke.
But while the drug causes the rapid death of cancer cells, healthy cells activate a mechanism that overcomes the delay in proliferation within hours, and those cells continue to proliferate exactly like cells not exposed to the substance.
Cohen-Armon said the drug's effectiveness in treating cancer cells was discovered accidentally.
"I'm not even a cancer researcher," she said. "But two years ago an article we published on various functions in the cell got me interested in cancer cells."
She said the scientists involved in the discovery - who include doctoral student Asher Castiel and Professor Shai Izraeli's research group at the Sheba Cancer Research Center - haven't figured out why the drug affects the cells the way it does.
"We don't even fully understand why this is happening, but we see cancerous cells die and healthy cells overcome this obstacle," said Cohen-Armon. "They somehow find a way to proliferate even in the presence of the substance."
She said the drug was tested on several types of cancer, but so far only the breast cancer tests results have been published.
The experiment has been carried out on female mice, which were injected with human cancerous cells. The substance was gradually released over two weeks. The mice that weren't treated with the substance developed malignant tumors - but in those that got the treatment, the substance either prevented or significantly stalled the development of the cancerous cells.
The experiments did not find any changes in the behavior of the mice treated with the substance.
One of the obstacles to applying the discovery to all forms of cancer is that the medicine is registered as a patent of an American pharmaceutical company. Tel Aviv University's technology transfer company, Ramot, has secured a usage patent enabling it to develop the drug to treat only breast cancer.
The future development of the drug depends on the goodwill of the American company, or on another company developing a similar substance.
"We really want to develop this drug, but there are some completely non-scientific obstacles," Cohen-Armon said. "I hope the research doesn't fade away because of that."