April 2009

Swine Flu Outbreak

The ongoing swine-flu scare strikes to the heart of why, as a nation, we need to fund federal disaster and health planning organizations. The CDC and FEMA provide the resources—both human and material—that serve on the front lines in the event of a true pandemic. It's neither civilized nor acceptable for a society to simply tell its citizens, "good luck with that, Jack, you're on your own" and it's not practical, either.

Brain Doping: Greatest Thing Ever, Or Just Foolish?

The New Yorker is carrying a long, in-depth look at neuroenhancing drugs and their users, by Margaret Talbot. The three primary drugs Talbot studies are:
  • Adderal, "a stimulant composed of mixed amphetamine salts" which is commonly prescribed for ADD and ADHD.
  • Ritalin, a stimulant derived from amphetamine.
  • Provigil, a stimulant (modafinil) marketed by Cephalon for the treatment of narcolepsy.
  • It should first be noted that none of these medications are exactly what you would call a brain enhancing magic wand. They are stimulants, and just like better-known stimulants such as meth and cocaine, they "encourage" hyper-focus and the ability to go long periods of time without sleep. Talbot describes the affects of Adderal, Ritalin, and Provigil in depth, including information about patient performance during clinical trials. People on these drugs were better able to remember sequences of numbers, and were able to spend more time focusing on a small, boring thing. Scintillating! (I wonder what the clinical trial data would say about meth and cocaine?

    Horses Cure Autism: Beware The Carpetbaggers

    There are two ways to look at Rupert Isaacson's upcoming book "The Horse Boy." You could see it as the uplifting tale of a family on a journey to discovery, who ultimately find enlightenment and an autism breakthrough thanks to Mongolian shamans and horses. Or you can see it as a calculating attempt to cash in on a medical condition which is expensive, difficult, and very high profile. Here are the facts: Rupert Isaacson is a travel writer and former horse trainer whose son, Rowan, suffers from autism. Two years ago he came up with a plan to take his son to Mongolia, where he could interact with both horses and traditional Mongolian spiritualists. Before he went on the trip, he contacted a publisher and cemented a book contract. After the trip, Isaacson reported that his son was greatly improved by the experience.

    Asthma Mystery Solved

    For many years, scientists have been puzzling over clusters of childhood asthma, which correlate strongly with poverty. As the New York Times puts it, "Up to one-third of children living in inner-city public housing have allergic asthma." Many theories have been advanced, from nutritional explanations, to the higher rate of smoking among residents of inner-city housing projects, to the fact that most children in public housing spend more time indoors (for safety reasons) than their suburban counterparts. A team of scientists from the Boston University School of Medicine decided to solve the debate once and for all. Forsaking the standard bench tools of genetically modified mice and proteins from homogenized egg white cultures, they traveled to several housing projects with a vacuum cleaner. They sucked up actual dust bunnies from actual low income houses, and returned to the lab with a canister full of the actual allergens. It's hard to believe what a revolutionary move this was. It seems so obvious in hindsight.

    Swedish Scientists Find Link Between Vinyl Flooring And Autism

    A group of Swedish researchers were asking Swedish families about the physical components of their homes, in an attempt to study the correlation between indoor air pollutants and allergies. To their surprise, they stumbled across a correlation between autism and four home life indicators: " Vinyl or PVC floors " Smoking on the part of the mother " Family economic problems " Condensation on windows, indicating poor home ventilation Out of the 4,779 children between the ages of 6 and 8 included in the survey, 72 had autism. Although the study was originally intended to focus on childhood allergies and asthma, the researchers realized they might be on to something. The link between low income and asthma is fairly sturdy here in the United States, although studies have not previously correlated autism incidence with family income levels. Interestingly enough, a recent study did find that having an autistic child severely reduced a family's income, presumably because parents were forced to make choices like reducing their work hours in order to care for their child.