Jun 242010
 

NPR has a fascinating tale of Canadian author Howard Engel who, in 2001, woke up one morning to discover that he could no longer read:

The print on the page was unlike anything he had seen before. It looked vaguely “Serbo-Croatian or Korean,” or some language he didn’t know. Wondering if this was some kind of joke, he went to his bookshelf, pulled out a book he knew was in English, and it too was in the same gibberish.

Engel had suffered a stroke. It had damaged the part of his brain we use when we read, so he couldn’t make sense of letters or words. He was suffering from what the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls “word blindness.” His eyes worked. He could see shapes on a page, but they made no sense to him. And because Engel writes detective stories for a living (he authored the Benny Cooperman mystery series, tales of a mild-mannered Toronto private eye), this was an extra-terrible blow. “I thought, well I’m done as a writer. I’m finished.”

Watch to see the kind of amazing story of his workaround:

(If the media player doesn’t load for you, click here to watch it on the NPR page.)

The cartoon, as you may have figured, was drawn and narrated by Lev Yilmaz, of “Tales of Mere Existence” fame. We like Lev.

(via Boing Boing)

Oh, Jesuses

 Posted by on 27 May 2010  Vintage/Retro
May 272010
 

If you like this kind of thing (and I do) you’ll love the story of a 1950s psychologist who took three people — each of them convinced that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ — and made them live together.

Then, he subtly messed with them. All in the name of “science.”

Oh, it couldn’t possibly be ethical. And he didn’t learn anything — except, perhaps, that Jesusii will come to fisticuffs, the Golden Rule notwithstanding.

You can buy a whole book, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti“, or you can read about it at Slate:

Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as “Dr Righteous Idealed Dung” instead of his previous moniker of “Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” [The psychologist] interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change.

The Christs explain one another’s claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the “machines” inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are “crazy” or “duped” or that they don’t really mean what they say.

Feb 262010
 

I got up bright and early this morning, ready to face a Friday with a happy heart. As I was eating breakfast, I was browsing the news sites, as I often do, when I caught site of this headline on the New York Times:

Radiation Bills Raise Question of Supervision

Perhaps I am still a little bit asleep, but until I read the first sentence of the article, I had seen the word “radiation” paired with the word “super-vision” … and I guess I had comic book fantasies, instead of something about cancer treatment and possible fraud.

Sigh.

Jan 292010
 

Oh dear. If you believe that chewing gum (ok, gum with a natural herbal component) can increase your bust size, you may also believe, as its makers claim, that it will also improve your circulation, your hair and skin, and reduce your stress while making you look younger (as well as some nsfw help “down there”).

Yes, B2Up Bust-Up gum will do all of this.

Don’t like gum? The company also offers “F-cup cookies.”

Apparently, they contain an herbal extract from southeast Asia called pueraria mirifica, which mimics estrogen.

(Via the Daily Dose of Common Sense, which advised “Save your money, ladies.” Agreed.)

How safe is the HPV vaccine?

 Posted by on 19 October 2009  Modern Life
Oct 192009
 

So, how safe is the vaccine for human papilloma virus? The answer is “very safe.” But that doesn’t stop fear-mongers, and those who hate vaccines on principle.

That’s why I like this great visualization of just how safe it is, from the website Information Is Beautiful. (I won’t embed the image here, because it’s basically their whole post, and you just have to do one click, seriously.)

I also agree with one of the commenters, who would like to see a similar graph for all vaccines.

PS. I also think this vaccine should be offered to boys. No, we can’t get cervical cancer, but we can carry the virus, too. And really, why shouldn’t boys get immunity to genital warts?

PPS. Vaccines do not cause autism.

Tot on pot, Part 2

 Posted by on 19 October 2009  Modern Life
Oct 192009
 

A few months ago, I blogged about the mother of a severely autistic child. After having tried everything traditional — including some seriously heavy pharmaceuticals, she was about to try giving her nine-year-old son marijuana.

It wasn’t a choice that she just made willy-nilly. As she wrote then, she didn’t smoke pot herself, but she did do a lot of research, and all the research she did into marijuana made it seem like the logical choice. So, she got a certificate for medical marijuana, and gave it a shot.

The early results were promising. But they were early, and her son still had enormous difficulties.

Now, a few months later, she’s written a follow-up essay in Slate, exploring the transformation in her son’s behaviour. It’s startling — and heart-warming:

We started seeing changes in J.’s school reports. His curriculum is based on a therapy called Applied Behavioral Analysis, which involves, as the name implies, meticulous analysis of data. At one parent meeting in August (J. is on an extended school year), his teacher excitedly presented his June-July “aggression” chart. An aggression is defined as any attempt or instance of hitting, kicking, biting, or pinching another person. For the past year, he’d consistently had 30 to 50 aggressions in a school day, with a one-time high of 300. The charts for June through July, by contrast, showed he was actually having days—sometimes one after another—with zero aggressions.

That brief paragraph doesn’t begin to capture some of the longer anecdotes that she tells, but it’s best if you go and read through her full story (part 1) (part 2) for yourself.

Now, I’m not saying that pot is a cure-all for autism (it’s not) and I’m not saying that too much self-medication on anything is good — including marijuana, but also including alcohol and many pain medications.

But I do think it’s a tragedy that so little research has been done into marijuana, which, to this layman, looks to have a bunch of useful properties.

Now, were there any negative side-effects to the marijuana experiment? Yup, but they weren’t what I expected. J’s mother writes that, pre-pot, they were so wrapped up in caring for their son that they hardly ever left their house. In the neighbourhood, they were the family that kept pretty much to themselves. But the marijuana has made it possible to take J out for excursions — and now some of their neighbours have realized how different he is. And shun him.

Shame on them. I know how difficult it can be to interact with people who are severely handicapped or have extreme behavioural problems. It’s difficult and exhausting, sometimes. But it can also be exceedingly rewarding — and if you’re just the neighbour who has to make a decision to either wave and say “hi” or turn away and mutter, well, come on. Just be neighbourly.

Sep 282009
 

A new device called BrainPort created by Wicab, Inc. is a fascinating little gadget that will cause many to rethink they way they understand the functioning of the brain.

It is generally understood that the optic nerves in the eye receive visual information and move it along to the primary visual cortex where our brain interprets the world around us in a visual way.  Blindness is the condition that, more or less, interrupts this process in one way or another.

BrainPort, however, will allow many blind individuals to see by translating visual stimuli into….wait for it….taste.

visual data are collected through a small digital video camera about 1.5 centimeters in diameter that sits in the center of a pair of sunglasses worn by the user. Bypassing the eyes, the data are transmitted to a handheld base unit, which is a little larger than a cell phone. This unit houses such features as zoom control, light settings and shock intensity levels as well as a central processing unit (CPU), which converts the digital signal into electrical pulses—replacing the function of the retina.From the CPU, the signals are sent to the tongue via a “lollipop,” an electrode array about nine square centimeters that sits directly on the tongue. Each electrode corresponds to a set of pixels. White pixels yield a strong electrical pulse, whereas black pixels translate into no signal. Densely packed nerves at the tongue surface receive the incoming electrical signals, which feel a little like Pop Rocks or champagne bubbles to the user.

Scientists aren’t sure how the brain is processing this information.  Nonetheless, the functionality of the device is remarkable:

Seiple works with four patients who train with the BrainPort once a week and notes that his patients have learned how to quickly find doorways and elevator buttons, read letters and numbers, and pick out cups and forks at the dinner table without having to fumble around. “At first, I was amazed at what the device could do,” he said. “One guy started to cry when he saw his first letter.”

Although BrianPort isn’t on the market quite yet, it is expect to be available quite soon.  And even though it won’t be cheap (an estimated $10,000 price tag is being thrown about), I can’t imagine that you can put a price on regaining the ability to “see.”

This translating one sense to another boggles my mind.  Is it possible to do the same with others?  Can we allow deaf people to see sound (not subtitles)?  Can we hear smells?  Feel taste?

Sep 172009
 

Here’s a treat, thanks to Wired magazine: a series of videos from 1930 that show operating room techniques. Remember, this is 80 years ago!

Says Wired:

In this collection of silent films from the 1930s, surgeons from the British Medical Association demonstrate how to remove an enormous ovarian tumor, excise tuberculosis from the brain and deliver a baby by Caesarean section. Some aspects of the 1930s operating room don’t look so different from what you might see today — scalpels, forceps and patient draping haven’t changed much — but of course there’s no electrocautery device to stop bleeding or laparoscopic camera for minimally invasive surgery. And today you might get in trouble for dropping your surgical instruments in boiling water! The videos are part of a collection of historical images and films hosted by the Wellcome Library and recently made available to the public via their YouTube channel.

WARNING: Some of these videos are graphic, and not for the faint of stomach.

I was fascinated.

Aug 042009
 

I saw this on Slashdot, but they link to an original New York Times story: glasses with an adjustable focus could allow people to see both near and far, as the need arises:

The invention of the bifocal lens is credited to Benjamin Franklin, who was pictured wearing an unusual pair of glasses as early as 1764. Since then meaningful advances have been slow in coming. Bifocals were followed by trifocals, and then, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, by the first progressive lens, which eliminates the sharp lines associated with bifocals.

“For more than 140 years, adjustable focus has been recognized as the Holy Grail for presbyopes,” said Dr. Kurtin, referring to the roughly one-third of the population that has lost some or all ability to focus on close objects. But there is a reason that better alternatives have not emerged: “It’s a blazingly difficult problem,” he said.

On the TruFocal website, they explain how the new glasses work:

Each “lens” is actually a set of two lenses, one flexible and one firm. The flexible lens (near the eye) has a transparent distensible membrane attached to a clear rigid surface. The pocket between them holds a small quantity of crystal clear fluid. As you move the slider on the bridge, it pushes the fluid and alters the shape of the flexible lens. Changing the shape changes the correction. This mimics the way the lenses in your eyes used to perform when you were younger.

This allows you to choose the exact correction that works best for you at any distance and under any lighting conditions. The result: clear, undistorted vision over a wide field of view: no zones, no lines.

They’ve also got a cool animation:

I don’t need bifocals — or progressives, or anything — yet, and now I’m hopeful that I’ll never need to!

Aug 042009
 

In the common vernacular, “venting your spleen” is a little bit like “blowing your top”. That is, you’re losing it — getting really angry. I’m not going to try and decipher why the spleen has been associated with a reservoir of anger, but let’s accept that it’s the idiom ad move on.

In modern scientific terms, though, the spleen hasn’t gotten a lot of respect. It’s kind of like the appendix — they’re both a heck of a lot f fun to say, but their function in the body is poorly understood, and people who get them removed tend to generally survive perfectly well without them.

Except, new research now shows that the spleen (among a couple of other small functions it performs) is a huge reservoir of a type of white blood cell known as monocytes. Like, huge. They’re the cells that will rush to save your life in the event of a catastrophic event like a heart attack. There’s tons of them circulating in the blood, but an article in the New York Times describes the ones in the spleen as akin to a “standing army.” Writes reporter Natalie Angier:

The latest work also sounds a cautionary note against underestimating a body part or dismissing it as vestigial, expendable or past its prime. ….

“It was recognized that these cells are the major repair workers after a heart attack,” Dr. Nahrendorf said. “They remove dead muscle cells, they start rebuilding stable scar tissue, they stimulate the generation of new blood vessels.”

The cells make haste to cut and paste. “Within 24 hours after a myocardial infarction,” Dr. Nahrendorf said, “there are millions of monocytes” congregating around the broken heart. All of which would seem sensible, desirable, an excellent display of emergency preparedness, except that Dr. Nahrendorf and his principal colleagues were puzzled by one big unknown: Where did the rapid response team come from? The numbers circulating in the blood were simply too low. The researchers searched one organ after another, until they checked the spleen and found the monocytic mother lode. “The numbers there were huge, 10 times higher than what was in the bloodstream,” Dr. Nahrendorf said.

And you know what? I think that’s pretty great. I think that when we find out things like this — things we didn’t know, even about our own bodies — it really gives us a glimpse into just how little we understand the complete workings of very complex systems.

Plus, I’m very happy for the spleen to finally get some acknowledgment.

Jul 272009
 

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According to a report in Wired magazine, new research (that was a happy accident has) shown that a common blue food dye, when injected into rats that have suffered spinal cord injuries, can dramatically help the injured nerves heal.

The only downside is that the rats turn blue, Wired says. In humans, that might actually be kind of cool.

However — and this is a stupid side-effect of our market-based capitalist society — the researchers don’t know when they’ll be able to move on to the next stage of clinical trials:

Unfortunately, because blue food dye is so cheap, they’re not likely to find a drug company to sponsor the trials. “There’s no commercial interest because you can buy it by the pound,” Nedergaard said.

(Image from Takahiro Takano, University of Rochester Medical Center, via Wired)

Jul 212009
 

61741.strip

My favourite recent Dilbert cartoon happened to be yesterday’s. And then today, I happen across a lengthy piece on the Wired site about Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams. I remember hearing that he had lost his voice with some weird affliction, but the profile in Wired really shows off how unusual his affliction was, and how diligent and determined Adams was in trying to fix himself:

If Adams was at a party with friends, he’d open his mouth to talk, only to find the words tumbling out in a raspy, imperceptible staccato, chopping off sentences before they had a chance to form. If he tried to say, “Tomorrow is my birthday,” for example, it would morph into a weak “Ma robf sss ma birfday.”

his speech was getting worse. What began as a hoarse whisper devolved into a string of garbled, phonetic shards that sounded like he was talking through a dying cell phone …. “I’m a ghost,” he’d think.

The piece does a really great job of summing up the horrifying frustration that would come from being unable to communicate, but the worst aspect of it was its seeming randomness. You see, Adams’ lost voice was subject to crazy rules: he could speak in front of crowds, but not in front of friends. Or, he could speak in front of a video camera. For a while, he could only speak if he said a nursery rhyme first. And the rules kept changing.

Read the article for some of the strategies that he employed to find a (probable) cure — even as he kept working.

As someone who finds himself more and more having “tip of the tongue” moments with my own speech, and dreading the little voice in my head that says “this is probably pre-diagnosable, early-early-early-early-stage dementia. It’s all downhill from here!” I am glad every time I read about people investigating the brain in this way.

Honey as medicine

 Posted by on 2 July 2009  Modern Life
Jul 022009
 

An article over at CNN gives us yet another reason to be concerned about the decimation of honeybees:  honey can be a powerful medicine, even against antibiotic-resistant infections — so-called “superbugs.”

One of the investigators of the project that made this discovery, Associate Professor Dee Carter, of Sydney University’s School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, admits they don’t know quite how honey helps in fighting infectious bacteria.  I say: whatever works.

At one time, it may have been that mothers mixed medicines with honey to help their kids choke them down, but now these same honeys may become the medicines (and antibiotic creams) that need to be choked down in the first place.

May 272009
 

Answer: Because he can’t figure out the bong.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s son is autistic and has medical problems that probably leave him in serious pain. That’s “probably” because her son, whom she refers to as “J”, isn’t verbal enough to say. Lashing out at family members and caregivers, J was a challenge to deal with.

But none of the medical alternatives seemed worth the risk:

Last year, Risperdal was prescribed for more than 389,000 children—240,000 of them under the age of 12—for bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism, and other disorders. Yet the drug has never been tested for long-term safety in children and carries a severe warning of side effects. From 2000 to 2004, 45 pediatric deaths were attributed to Risperdal and five other popular drugs also classified as “atypical antipsychotics.”

So, after gradually coming around to the idea, Lee and her husband got their son licensed to use medical marijuana, bought $80 worth of pot, in various forms, and started experimenting with ways to get him to take the drug:

We made the cookies with the marijuana olive oil, starting J off with half a small cookie, eaten after dinner. J normally goes to bed around 7:30 p.m.; by 6:30 he declared he was tired and conked out. We checked on him hourly. As we anxiously peeked in, half-expecting some red-eyed ogre from Reefer Madness to come leaping out at us, we saw instead that he was sleeping peacefully. Usually, his sleep is shallow and restless. J also woke up happy.

The story doesn’t yet have a fully happy ending — the family is still in the early stages of trying out medical marijuana. But it’s still worth the read, and I was particularly intrigued by how Lee feels about the social stigma of pot.