Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Post: Paging Dr. Frankenstein to Cardiothoracic Surgery... Dr. Frankenstein to Cardiothoracic Surgery.

“With how many things are we on the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.” 
― Mary ShelleyFrankenstein

When Mary Shelley published the novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus in 1818, it received mixed critical reviews at best, but became wildly successful with the public and remains one of the most widely recognized and influential horror figures to this day (along with Dracula, the Werewolf, and the Mummy). The book, which is one of my all time favorites, is analogous to the Greek myth of Prometheus who stole the knowledge of how to make fire from the gods to give to humans. Similarly, Dr. Frankenstein, supposedly using medical science, steals from God (or nature, depending on your interpretation) the ability to create life in the form of Frankenstein's monster. While the book is an excellent exercise in examining the dualistic nature of things like fire (good: brings light and warmth, bad: can burn or destroy) and knowledge (good: can bring light and warmth, bad: can burn and destroy), it is almost certainly remembered for the "monster" who was created from the body parts and organs of the dead and reanimated with the help of the electricity provided by a particularly violent lightning storm. When Shelley's book was first published, this was an incredibly radical idea (and still is), and many of her critics panned the book because the premise was so far-fetched, and "horrible, disgusting, and absurd".

Well, perhaps the book is still horrible and disgusting (something that I think adds to rather than detracts from its popularity), but absurd, it may not be. In the late 1700's and throughout the 1800's many scientists (e.g. Ben Franklin) were playing around with lightning. Toward the end of the 1800's and 1900's physiologists discovered that small electric shocks could stop a heart from beating, but more importantly that larger shocks could restart it. This led to the electric defibrillators that we still use today. BUT, as exciting as that is, restarting a heart that is alive is not the same as re-animating tissue from a dead body. The first real success in that regard came with the first organ transplants in the 1950's, where organs like kidneys and hearts were taken from recently deceased patients and transplanted into live patients where they could resume their normal functions and save lives. However, until now, the organs had to come from someone nearby and who had just died because the tissue would start dying. Keeping the organ in question on ice helped to increase time since death and distances that organs could be transported before being transplanted.  BUT, according to a press release just last week, researchers at St. Vincent's Hospital in Australia reported that they had successfully transplanted hearts into patients that had come from patients who had been dead longer and who had lived farther away from the recipient patients than ever before. How did they accomplish this impressive feat? With the help of the ex vivo organ care system (OCS) also known as the "heart in a box". By connecting the donor heart to an artificial circuit that keeps it warm and beating and perfused with a nutrient filled fluid Doctors at St. Vincent's found that they could now use hearts from donors very far away and possibly even from donors who may have been dead, or at least brain dead, for longer periods of time. If these initial results are replicated, this could mean good news for people who are on the very long wait lists for donor hearts, and maybe for people waiting for other organs as well as systems similar to the heart OCS are developed for other organs.

Although, if your cardiologist's name happens to be Frankenstein, you still may want to get a second opinion. Happy Halloween!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day: Some interesting things about love and longing

     If you happen to be spending this Valentines weekend alone, no worries. It is after all, just a made up holiday anyway. However, if your long term plan is to spend all of your weekends alone, then you may want to reconsider.  As it turns out, loneliness could be as bad for your health as smoking or obesity... at least according to Prof. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago who made several statements about loneliness and health at the 2009 conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  While being alone on Valentine's Day clearly isn't a chronic problem, or something you should even worry about, people who are regularly alone, that is, tend not to have a good social network, don't hang out with family or friends, etc., are actually more likely to suffer both physically and mentally, with increased chances for things like heart attack, stroke, or Alzheimer's disease.  Part of the problem is, if/when something like a stroke happens, people who live alone are less likely to get immediate medical attention.  So maybe this Valentines Day is a good time to get working on building that family... so later you will have someone around to call the ambulance.
     Of course, if you are now inspired to go out looking for love, maybe you should reconsider the benefits of being alone.  According to a recent study at the University of Toronto, there is a strong correlation of increased anxiety about being single with "settling for less" in relationships.  Something that, according to the survey, was reported by both men and women, who indicated that they have stayed in relationships they weren't happy in or dated people they didn't think were as good as they deserved, in part, because they did not enjoy the prospect of being single.
     But, if you find yourself in that position, I guess there might even be an upside to settling for less and/or being in an unhappy relationship. According to a recent study in the journal Motivation and Emotion, focus and cognitive control of one's self decline as passion and amorousness increase.  Which could make sense.  If, for example, you spend all of your time daydreaming about your love, how can you focus on anything else?  So, if you want to focus more at work or school, and want to have greater cognitive control, best to date someone you aren't that into, or, move as quickly as possible past that honeymoon phase, and on to taking your partner for granted and getting back to work.
     Though, while it might be good for your job or your studies if your relationship has lost some of its passion, it might also lead you to worry about your partner stepping out.  If that's the case, you might want to pay attention to how your partner sounds when they are talking to others on their phone.  According to a study at Albright College, strangers listening to snippets of people talking to either their romantic partner or a same sex friend were able to identify which person was on the other end of the conversation, sometimes after listening to only 2 seconds of sound and phrases as benign as "how are you" and "what are you doing?".  Of course, while the sound bytes weren't of affectionate calls of "schmoopy" or "lovebug", the differences may have been just as obvious simply because our pitch likely changes depending on whether or not we are talking to a member of the opposite sex.  Still if your boyfriend's voice sounds really high pitched, or your girlfriend's sounds especially deep, it's probably a safe bet they are talking to someone of the opposite sex, and I'll leave it up to you to determine what that may mean.
     Finally, if you make it through all of that, and your true love doesn't sound like he or she is in love with anyone else, you may want to consider moving far away... you know, for the sake of the relationship.
According to a study in the Journal of Communication, couples in long distance relationships are better at communicating and as a result report a greater feeling of intimacy than couples who get to see each other face to face.  But what about the age old adage: "Long distance relationships don't work"?  Well, in our modern world, that may not be true, according to another survey, unmarried couples in long distance relationships reported similar quality of relationships to those living in close proximity, with couples in long distance relationships reporting greater satisfaction in... you guessed it, communication and intimacy!  Long distance couples were also better at discussing sex, though, due to obvious restrictions, tend to have less actual sex than couples living in close proximity.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is Darwin Day!  Or, at least it was, since it is now midnight on the East Coast, but still, it's 11 PM in Memphis, so I am getting my Darwin Birthday wishes in on time!  Today Ol' Charles would be 205 years old if he were still with us, and to commemorate, Rep Rush Holt, Congressman from New Jersey put forward a resolution so that the US government would officially recognize Darwin Day.  The motion, or ones like it have been failing to get enough support since 2011, but maybe this'll be the year.  BUT, given that today is also Abraham Lincloln's birthday, and we have to wait until next week to celebrate because we couldn't afford to give both him and George Washington their own special day, I find it highly unlikely Darwin will get his own holiday.  Maybe if we combine it with Valentine's Day?  Or Groundhog day?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Holy Crap! We have achieved fusion!

Top science news story of the day, and likely to be one of the top science news stories of 2014: scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved a new milestone in nuclear fusion by recording the first fusion reaction to generate more energy than was needed to set off the reaction.  Nuclear fusion involves the fusing of hydrogen atoms, is the method by which the sun produces its vast amounts of energy, and, up until now has required so much energy or heat just to get going, that we haven't, until now been able to make a fusion reaction happen without putting more energy in than we could get out. So, good news! Though, the net energy released in this current experiment is not enough to make fusion readily available for commercial or widespread use.  Still the promise of a day when we power all of our homes, businesses, vehicles and devices using the nearly limitless and almost completely clean energy that fusion promises is one step closer, and may even happen within our lifetime.  Amazing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Olympics Re-post: Why some athletes are caught yawning right before they compete

During the last winter Olympics, I saw this story about how Olympic short track skater Apollo Ohno likes to yawn before he competes.  When asked about this purportedly peculiar tradition, Ohno replied: "It makes me feel better... It gets the oxygen in and the nerves out."
I find this little story interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, yawning in anticipation of a competitive event is not that unusual.  According to Robert Provine, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, "at track and field events, sometimes you'll find participants in the race of their life will be standing around on the sidelines or in the starting block and they may be yawning. Or before a concert, a musician may yawn to prepare for an increasingly energized state".  And this trait is not only obvious in humans.  Ronald Baenninger from Temple University reports that "lions, mandrills, and fighting fish all yawn in anticipation of metabolically expensive events such as feeding or fighting."  So, Ohno's pre-skating tradition may not be so unusual.  
But since the subject has been broached, I'm curious... In seeing the accompanying picture or in reading this post on yawning, have you felt the urge to yawn?  Maybe let one or two slip by?  Sadly, I've already yawned several times just in writing this.  So, what causes Apollo Ohno, or more generally, the rest of us to yawn?  And why are yawns contagious?

The truth is no one really knows.  Several hypotheses have been put forward over the years, with the most popular going something like this: yawning is caused by either excessive carbon dioxide or a lack of oxygen either in the lungs or in the circulation.  This idea is so prevalent, it can still be found in some medical texts.  However, in a study conducted in the 1980s by the same Robert Provine quoted above, subjects were exposed to environments that were either high in carbon dioxide or high in oxygen with neither having an effect on yawning.  So, neither low oxygen, nor high carbon dioxide are to blame for our yawns.  But how about heat? Or, rather, overheating?  The latest hypothesis to be put forward is that yawning may act to cool our overheated brains, kind of like the radiator in your car.  The more the engine works, the hotter it gets, the radiator takes the ambient air, which is cooler and uses it to bring down the temperature of the engine.  In a similar way, our brains actually increase in temperature as a result of use and fatigue, and yawning takes in cooler, ambient air, and increases blood flow in the face and head, thus carrying cooler blood past the brain.  The evidence for this hypothesis comes mainly from a single study that showed that contagious yawning could be decreased by holding a cold pack up against one's head (or by making a conscious effort to breathe through the nose, which also cools the brain).  Of course, more study will be needed to say whether or not yawning is meant to cool our brains, but it is interesting that certain diseases, like multiple sclerosis, which have a component of thermodisregulation (inability to regulate temperature) are also characterized by excessive yawning.
Regardless of whether or not cooling the brain is the end goal, it appears that the overall purpose of yawning is to help us stay awake and alert, which is why being tired or bored are the most common triggers, and why athletes will yawn before a big event as they try to get focused.
But what of the contagiousness of yawns?  Aside from the fact that a person with a cool brain seems to be less susceptible to catching your yawn, what else do we know?
Much like the function of yawning, several attempts have been made to try and explain the contagiousness of yawning. When the oxygen and carbon dioxide hypothesis was still considered valid, it was proposed that the yawns of people around you expelled excess carbon dioxide into the air you breathe, causing you to take in excessive carbon dioxide, and thus you yawn.
Obviously, there are a couple problems with this... first, yawning is not caused by changes in carbon dioxide (or oxygen) as we saw above.  Second, even if carbon dioxide levels were to blame, it has been shown that just watching video of people yawning, or hearing someone yawn, or reading about yawning can all cause people to yawn more (and since the stimulus yawn isn't even happening in the same room or at the same time, there is no change in CO2 or oxygen levels).
Okay, so what else?  Well, another hypothesis that came into vogue after it was discovered that carbon dioxide was not to blame was that yawning somehow activated the mirror neuron system.  The mirror neuron system is made up of neurons that fire not only when we perform a certain action, but when we see the same action being performed by someone else.  Many neuroscientists speculate that these mirror neurons are important for our ability to imitate others (which is how we learn to do many things like talk, write, play sports, learn a trade or craft, etc.)  However, studies published in 2005, and in 2009 that used fMRI imaging to examine the brains of people who were "catching" a yawn suggests that the parts of the brain where the mirror neurons reside don't seem to be activated in this process.
So, the latest hypothesis gets back to the now more accepted idea that yawns are meant to stave off exhaustion and increase alertness.  Examples of contagious yawning in other social animals (like baboons) suggests that there may be an evolutionary benefit to catching a yawn.  While some suggest that the contagiousness of yawns in social animals reflects empathy and a means to strengthen social bonds by synchronizing behaviors (like when to go to sleep), others have suggested that the raised awareness brought on by a yawn provides enough of an evolutionary incentive for it to "catch" on.  For example, many species of birds feed in large groups because feeding is a dangerous activity for them, one that usually involves lowering their head and eyes to the ground to pick up food.  A single bird by itself could get caught unaware by a predator whenever its head is down, but in a large group of birds, it is much more likely that when one bird has its head down, several others have their heads up, and are looking around.  Thus, each bird can feel safe pecking at the ground, confident that one of his neighbors will sound the alarm if a predator approaches.  When you have animals that live together in groups, and are likely on synchronized sleep/wake cycles (like baboons and early humans), then yawning may act as another sort of alarm.  When one in the group yawns, he or she is signifying fatigue, or a need to stay alert.  Others that follow this lead will likely reap the same arousing effect and be more likely to have the alertness and focus needed to successfully elude an approaching predator, or to have a successful hunt.  Thus contagious yawning may have evolved in our primate ancestors as a means for increasing alertness when it was needed, and yawning athletes appear to be a manifestation of this held-over trait, giving them added alertness before they enter the "hunt" for gold.

Friday, February 7, 2014

More unintelligent designs on teaching creationism

I find it ironic that groups who persist in promoting creationism seem to so completely understand that they need to fight for and promote their ideas so that they avoid extinction, but rather survive in the veritable sea of other ideas that compete for people's attention and acceptance.  And so they keep replicating these ideas, and they continues to EVOLVE over the iterations.  Where, instead of outright biblical creationism, it has morphed into "creation science" and most recently, so-called "intelligent design".  How can people who are living examples of how ideas (i.e. memes) evolve because they are subject to competition and selection the same way genes are, not get how evolution works?  One would think that if they really didn't believe that selection actually works, they wouldn't be so adamant about trying to spread their unscientific views.  And yet, in the past week or so, we have seen a highly publicized "debate" on the subject featuring Bill Nye the Science Guy and a new bill introduced in South Dakota to allow the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in that state's public schools.  Ordinarily I'd be pretty upset, but the truth is, things slowly but surely seem to be moving in a positive direction, and, hopefully, the near extinction of this particular species of nonsense will happen in my lifetime... After all, attendance at Ken Ham's Creation Museum appears to be steadily declining, and all of the other attempts to allow intelligent design into the science classroom have been overturned in the courts because of a clear violation of the establishment clause in the first amendment to the US constitution. So, hopefully the bill in South Dakota won't pass, but if it does, it'll most likely be overturned, and someday soon I might be able to by a life sized dinosaur or dragon model, complete with saddle, at the creation museum going out of business sale! :-)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Probably my favorite science news story of 2013...

Jack Andraka, a 15 year old kid from outside Baltimore, MD had a family friend die of pancreatic cancer, which raised his awareness to the fact that a good early detection system for pancreatic cancer is lacking.  Coming up with an idea for a cheap diagnostic test that uses carbon nanotubes and antibodies against a protein called mesothelin, he pitches it to a bunch of scientists at Johns Hopkins University, gets one to give him a job working in the lab, and, with lots of hard work and dedication, he develops a working prototype that he has tested on samples from mouse models of pancreatic cancer, and even on some human blood samples.  You can read the story over at The Scientist.