Saturday, October 31, 2009

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Problems Associated with Low Folate Levels in Pregnant Women

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
October 28, 2009

It has long been suggested that healthy folate (the natural form of folic acid) levels in expectant mothers goes hand in hand with healthy nervous system development in their children. A study published in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry finds that low maternal folate levels is linked to the development of attention-deficit/hyperactivity problems in children at age seven to nine years.

Researcher Dr. Wolff Schlotz points out, “Our findings further support the hypothesis that maternal nutrition contributes to an individuals’ development, with potential consequences for their behavior later in life.” The long term effects of poor maternal nutrition may even branch out to the child’s ability to interact with peers or form social bonds.

The researchers also found that children born from mothers with a low folate status had a notably smaller head circumference at birth, which may indicate a smaller rate of prenatal brain growth in children adversely affected by low folate levels. This is a cause for concern among low-income populations where the nutritional health of the mother is a low priority, and women are less likely to take folate supplements in advance of pregnancy.

TV consumption predicts opinions about criminal justice system

October 28, 2009
Researchers rest their case: TV consumption predicts opinions about criminal justice system
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - People who watch forensic and crime dramas on TV are more likely than non-viewers to have a distorted perception of America's criminal justice system, according to new research from Purdue University.

"These kinds of shows, such as 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,' 'Law & Order,' 'Cold Case' and 'The Closer,' are some of the most popular programs on television today, so it's important that we understand how they might influence people," says Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies mass media effects. "We know they have inspired people to pursue careers in forensic science and law enforcement, but what are some of their other effects? We found that people who watch these shows regularly are more likely to overestimate the frequency of serious crimes, misperceive important facts about crime and misjudge the number of workers in the judicial system."


"Many people die as a result of being murdered in these types of shows, and we found the heavy TV-crime viewers estimated two and a half times more real-world deaths due to murder than non-viewers," Sarapin says. "People's perceptions also were distorted in regards to a number of other serious crimes. Heavy TV-crime viewers consistently overestimated the frequency of crime in the real world."

Viewers of crime shows also misjudged the number of law enforcement officers and attorneys in the total work force. Lawyers and police officers each make up less than 1 percent of the work force, but those surveyed estimated it at more than 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively, Sarapin says.

The viewing of crime drama also can shape opinions about the world in general, Sparks says.

"This kind of television viewing can lead to 'mean world syndrome,' where people start to think about the world as a scary place," Sparks says. "Some people develop a fear of victimization, and this belief can affect their feelings of comfort and security."


North Carolina sea levels rising 3 times faster than in previous 500 years

Public release date: 28-Oct-2009
Contact: Jordan Reese
University of Pennsylvania
North Carolina sea levels rising 3 times faster than in previous 500 years, Penn study says

PHILADELPHIA –- An international team of environmental scientists led by the University of Pennsylvania has shown that sea-level rise, at least in North Carolina, is accelerating. Researchers found 20th-century sea-level rise to be three times higher than the rate of sea-level rise during the last 500 years. In addition, this jump appears to occur between 1879 and 1915, a time of industrial change that may provide a direct link to human-induced climate change.

The results appear in the current issue of the journal Geology.

The rate of relative sea-level rise, or RSLR, during the 20th century was 3 to 3.3 millimeters per year, higher than the usual rate of one per year. Furthermore, the acceleration appears consistent with other studies from the Atlantic coast, though the magnitude of the acceleration in North Carolina is larger than at sites farther north along the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coast and may be indicative of a latitudinal trend related to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

High fructose corn syrup: A recipe for hypertension

Public release date: 29-Oct-2009
Contact: Shari Leventhal
American Society of Nephrology
High fructose corn syrup: A recipe for hypertension
Elevated dietary fructose linked to high blood pressure

A diet high in fructose increases the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension), according to a paper being presented at the American Society of Nephrology's 42nd Annual Meeting and Scientific Exposition in San Diego, California. The findings suggest that cutting back on processed foods and beverages that contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may help prevent hypertension.

Over the last 200 years, the rate of fructose intake has directly paralleled the increasing rate of obesity, which has increased sharply in the last 20 years since the introduction of HFCS. Today, Americans consume 30% more fructose than 20 years ago and up to four times more than 100 years ago, when obesity rates were less than 5%. While this increase mirrors the dramatic rise in the prevalence of hypertension, studies have been inconsistent in linking excess fructose in the diet to hypertension.


Bodybuilding with steroids damages kidneys

Public release date: 29-Oct-2009
Contact: Shari Leventhal
American Society of Nephrology
Bodybuilding with steroids damages kidneys
Bulking up with steroids harms kidneys more than obesity

IMAGE: This is Leal Herlitz, M.D., of the Columbia University Medical Center.
Click here for more information.

Athletes who use anabolic steroids may gain muscle mass and strength, but they can also destroy their kidney function, according to a paper being presented at the American Society of Nephrology's 42nd Annual Meeting and Scientific Exposition in San Diego, CA. The findings indicate that the habitual use of steroids has serious harmful effects on the kidneys that were not previously recognized.

Reports of professional athletes who abuse anabolic steroids are increasingly common. Most people know that using steroids is not good for your health, but until now, their effects on the kidneys have not been known. Leal Herlitz, MD (Columbia University Medical Center) and her colleagues recently conducted the first study describing injury to the kidneys following long-term abuse of anabolic steroids. The investigators studied a group of 10 bodybuilders who used steroids for many years and developed protein leakage into the urine and severe reductions in kidney function. Kidney tests revealed that nine of the ten bodybuilders developed a condition called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a type of scarring within the kidneys. This disease typically occurs when the kidneys are overworked. The kidney damage in the bodybuilders has similarities to that seen in morbidly obese patients, but appears to be even more severe.

When the bodybuilders discontinued steroid use their kidney abnormalities improved, with the exception of one individual with advanced kidney disease who developed end-stage kidney failure and required dialysis. Also, one of the bodybuilders started taking steroids again and suffered a relapse of severe kidney dysfunction.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Trees facilitate wildfires as a way to protect their habitat

Public release date: 28-Oct-2009
Contact: Catherine Crawley
National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS)
Trees facilitate wildfires as a way to protect their habitat

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Fire is often thought of something that trees should be protected from, but a new study suggests that some trees may themselves contribute to the likelihood of wildfires in order to promote their own abundance at the expense of their competitors.

The study, which appears in the December 2009 issue of the journal The American Naturalist, says that positive feedback loops between fire and trees associated with savannas can make fires more likely in these ecosystems.

"We used a mathematical model to show that positive feedback loops between fire frequency and savanna trees, alone or together with grasses, can stabilize ecological communities in a savanna state, blocking conversion of savannas to forest," said the study's leading author Brian Beckage, associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Vermont. The study's co-authors are William Platt, professor of biology at Louisiana State University, and Louis Gross, director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee. Beckage was a short-term visitor conducting research at NIMBioS in 2009 and will be on sabbatical at NIMBioS in 2010.

The promotion of fire by the savanna trees increases their own abundance by limiting the establishment and growth of tree species that are better competitors for resources and that might ultimately displace the savanna trees. The research results suggest that some trees may modify or "engineer" their environment, including the characteristic fire frequencies in a landscape, to facilitate their own persistence at the expense of their competitors, Beckage said.

The research proposes a scenario for the development of savannas in landscapes that would otherwise become closed forests. Examples of savanna trees that facilitate frequent low-intensity fires include the longleaf pine and the south Florida slash pine, both of which frequently shed their needles providing fodder for wildfires. The savanna tree initially invades grassland, but by facilitating frequent fires, it limits its own density and thus prevents conversion to a forest.

Low vitamin D levels explains most ESRD risk in African-Americans

Public release date: 29-Oct-2009
Contact: Shari Leventhal
American Society of Nephrology
Low vitamin D levels explains most ESRD risk in African-Americans
Future studies will tell whether raising vitamin D Levels can slow kidney disease

Low levels of vitamin D may account for nearly 60 percent of the elevated risk of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in African Americans, according to a report in the December Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (JASN). "Our study adds to previous evidence linking vitamin D deficiency to the progression of kidney disease and the need for dialysis," comments Michal L. Melamed, MD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Bronx, NY). "It also explains a fair amount of the increased risk of ESRD in African Americans." Vitamin D is obtained from sun exposure, food and food supplements.


Mannheim Steamroller!

The Monster Mash

Lack of insurance may have figured in nearly 17,000 childhood deaths

Public release date: 29-Oct-2009
Contact: Ekaterina Pesheva
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Lack of insurance may have figured in nearly 17,000 childhood deaths, study shows

Lack of health insurance might have led or contributed to nearly 17,000 deaths among hospitalized children in the United States in the span of less than two decades, according to research led by the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

According to the Hopkins researchers, the study, to be published Oct. 30 in the Journal of Public Health, is one of the largest ever to look at the impact of insurance on the number of preventable deaths and the potential for saved lives among sick children in the United States.

Using more than 23 million hospital records from 37 states between 1988 and 2005, the Hopkins investigators compared the risk of death in children with insurance and in those without. Other factors being equal, researchers found that uninsured children in the study were 60 percent more likely to die in the hospital than those with insurance. When comparing death rates by underlying disease, the uninsured appeared to have increased risk of dying independent regardless of their medical condition, the study found. The findings only capture deaths during hospitalization and do not reflect deaths after discharge from the hospital, nor do they count children who died without ever being hospitalized, the researchers say, which means the real death toll of non-insurance could be even higher.

"If you are a child without insurance, if you're seriously ill and end up in the hospital, you are 60 percent more likely to die than the sick child in the next room who has insurance," says lead investigator Fizan Abdullah, M.D., Ph.D., pediatric surgeon at Hopkins Children's.

The researchers caution that the study looked at hospital records after the fact of death so they cannot directly establish cause and effect between health insurance and risk of dying. However because of the volume of records analyzed and because of the researchers' ability to identify and eliminate most factors that typically cloud such research, the analysis shows a powerful link between health insurance and risk of dying, they say.

"Can we say with absolute certainty that 17,000 children would have been saved if they had health insurance? Of course not," says co-investigator David Chang, Ph.D. M.P.H. M.B.A. "The point here is that a substantial number of children may be saved by health coverage."

"From a scientific perspective, we are confident in our finding that thousands of children likely did die because they lacked insurance or because of factors directly related to lack of insurance," he adds.

Given that more than 7 million American children in the United States remain uninsured amidst this nation's struggle with health-care reform, researchers say policymakers and, indeed, society as a whole should pay heed to their findings.

"Thousands of children die needlessly each year because we lack a health system that provides them health insurance. This should not be," says co-investigator Peter Pronovost, M.D., Ph.D., director of Critical Care Medicine at Johns Hopkins and medical director of the Center for Innovations in Quality Patient Care. "In a country as wealthy as ours, the need to provide health insurance to the millions of children who lack it is a moral, not an economic issue," he adds.

In the study, 104,520 patients died (0.47 percent) out of 22.2 million insured hospitalized children, compared to 9, 468 (0.75 percent) who died among the 1.2 million uninsured ones. To find out what portion of these deaths would have been prevented by health insurance, researchers performed a statistical simulation by projecting the expected number of deaths for insured patients based on the severity of their medical conditions among other factors, and then applied this expected number of deaths to the uninsured group. In the uninsured group, there were 3,535 more deaths than expected, not explained by disease severity or other factors. Going a step further and applying the excess number of deaths to the total number of pediatric hospitalizations in the United States (117 million) for the study period, the researchers found an excess of 16,787 deaths among the nearly six million uninsured children who ended up in the hospital during that time.

Other findings from the study:

* More uninsured children were seen in hospitals in the Northeast and Midwest than in the South and West. However, hospitals from the Northeast had lower mortality rates than hospitals from the South, Midwest and West.

* Insured children on average incurred higher hospital charges than uninsured children, most likely explained by the fact that uninsured children tend to present to the hospital at more advanced stages of their disease, which in turn gives doctors less chance for intervention and treatment, especially in terminal cases, investigators say.

* Uninsured patients were more likely to seek treatment though the Emergency Room, rather than through a referral by a doctor, likely markers of more advanced disease stage and/or delays in seeking medical attention.

* Insurance status did not affect how long a child spent overall in the hospital.

mastering a skill makes us stressed in the moment, happy long term

SAN FRANCISCO, October 29, 2009 -- No pain, no gain applies to happiness, too, according to new research published online this week in the Journal of Happiness Studies. People who work hard at improving a skill or ability, such as mastering a math problem or learning to drive, may experience stress in the moment, but experience greater happiness on a daily basis and longer term, the study suggests.

"No pain, no gain is the rule when it comes to gaining happiness from increasing our competence at something," said Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. "People often give up their goals because they are stressful, but we found that there is benefit at the end of the day from learning to do something well. And what's striking is that you don't have to reach your goal to see the benefits to your happiness and well-being."

Contrary to previous research, the study found that people who engage in behaviors that increase competency, for example at work, school or the gym, experience decreased happiness in the moment, lower levels of enjoyment and higher levels of momentary stress. Despite the negative effects felt on an hourly basis, participants reported that these same activities made them feel happy and satisfied when they looked back on their day as a whole. This surprising find suggests that in the process of becoming proficient at something, individuals may need to endure temporary stress to reap the happiness benefits associated with increased competency.

The study examined whether people who spend time on activities that fulfill certain psychological needs, believed to be necessary for growth and well-being, experience greater happiness. In addition to the need to be competent, the study focused on the need to feel connected to others and to be autonomous or self-directed, and it examined how fulfilling these three needs affects a person's happiness moment by moment within a day.

For two days, participants reported how they spent each hour, the enjoyment and stress experienced in that hour, and whether the activity met their need for competency, connectedness to others or autonomy. A second group of participants completed a similar survey, but reported on the day as a whole.

While behaviors that increase competency were associated with decreased happiness in the moment, people who spent time on activities that met the need for autonomy or feeling connected to others experienced increased happiness on both an hourly and daily basis. The greatest increase in momentary happiness was experienced by participants who engaged in something that met their need for autonomy --any behavior that a person feels they have chosen, rather than ought to do, and that helps them further their interests and goals.

The authors suggest that shifting the balance of needs met in a day could help people find ways to cope with short term stress in the workplace. "Our results suggest that you can decrease the momentary stress associated with improving your skill or ability by ensuring you are also meeting the need for autonomy and connectedness, for example performing the activity alongside other people or making sure it is something you have chosen to do and is true to who you are," Howell said.

Relating these momentary gains in happiness to people's long term life satisfaction, the study found that those who are already satisfied with their life in the long term stand to gain most from the momentary happiness that is derived from feeling connected to others and a sense of autonomy.

"Like a wine connoisseur whose experience means they can appreciate a fine wine more than a novice, people who are already satisfied with their life may have learned how to glean the satisfaction of these needs from their daily activities," Howell said.

Pandemic flu vaccine campaigns may be undermined by coincidental medical events

Public release date: 30-Oct-2009
Contact: Nick Miller
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
Pandemic flu vaccine campaigns may be undermined by coincidental medical events
Lancet paper stresses importance of accounting for background rates of adverse events

CINCINNATI – The effectiveness of pandemic flu vaccination campaigns – like that now underway for H1N1 – could be undermined by the public incorrectly associating coincidental and unrelated health events with the vaccines.

This is the conclusion of a paper published online Oct. 31 by the Lancet and authored by an international team of investigators led by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

"Regardless of whether someone gets the vaccine, bad things happen to people every day and generally occur at fairly predictable rates," said Steven Black, M.D., lead author and a physician in the Center for Global Health and Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children's. "Identifying real safety concerns with new vaccines means we have to untangle actual safety signals from background medical events, which are those that would happen without vaccination."

The team of investigators from 13 global medical institutions and health agencies reviewed medical data from prior studies and from hospital databases to identify background rates of health events that occurred without any vaccine. Their review showed the rates of adverse events varied by year, country, age and sex of the population.

The problem the authors identified is that public concern regarding medical events can interfere with important vaccine programs, even if the vaccine is not the cause. One example they cited is the interruption of a 2006 seasonal influenza campaign in Israel, where four deaths occurred within 24 hours of immunization. The clustering of fatalities and close timing of vaccination resulted in global news coverage, public trepidation and compromised the inoculation campaign.

In actuality, the four patients who died all were in a group already at high risk for sudden death from age and underlying medical conditions. Their deaths were consistent with a cardiac cause of death, and the number of deaths was lower than would be expected normally for such a high risk population. Further analysis of the fatalities in Israel showed death normally occurs in this high risk group at a rate greater than one per 1,000 individuals in the same time period. Based on this, the researchers said 20 coincidental deaths among that group could be expected to occur by chance within 24 hours of an immunization.

The authors also revisited one of the concerns raised during the 1976-77 swine flu vaccination program. The vaccine in that campaign was associated with an increased number of Guillian-Barre Syndrome cases, in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. Guillian-Barre normally affects about one out of every 100,000 people a year. Based on this Guillian-Barre background rate, if 100 million people in the United States are inoculated in a pandemic flu vaccination campaign, the researchers said one would expect 215 new cases of the disease within six weeks of vaccine. These cases would be expected to occur whether or not the vaccine had been given.

"The reporting of even a fraction of such a large number of case as adverse events following immunization, with attendant media coverage, would likely give rise to high levels public concern, even though the occurrence of such cases was completely predictable and would have happened in the absence of a mass campaign," according to the paper.

To help address these concerns, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies have been creating systems to gather and accurately assess data on background health events when evaluating vaccine safety. The current paper presents some new data but also puts existing data into context for the public, said Dr. Black, who also serves as a pandemic flu vaccine safety consultant to the National Vaccine Program Office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"In the heat of the moment of a pandemic vaccination campaign, the public isn't good at evaluating comparative risk or realizing that obviously some people die or develop serious illnesses every day," Dr. Black said. "By putting background rate data into proper context, we want to help people make an informed decision about pandemic flu vaccinations."

Statisticians reject global cooling;_ylt=AtzAhJxjs5HF0X1LWeb8lVWs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTFlMG04OHRoBHBvcwMxMTUEc2VjA2FjY29yZGlvbl9zY2llbmNlBHNsawNhcGltcGFjdHN0YXQ-

By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, Ap Science Writer – Mon Oct 26, 5:12 pm ET

WASHINGTON – Have you heard that the world is now cooling instead of warming? You may have seen some news reports on the Internet or heard about it from a provocative new book. Only one problem: It's not true, according to an analysis of the numbers done by several independent statisticians for The Associated Press.

The case that the Earth might be cooling partly stems from recent weather. Last year was cooler than previous years. It's been a while since the super-hot years of 1998 and 2005. So is this a longer climate trend or just weather's normal ups and downs?

In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.

"If you look at the data and sort of cherry-pick a micro-trend within a bigger trend, that technique is particularly suspect," said John Grego, a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina.

Yet the idea that things are cooling has been repeated in opinion columns, a BBC news story posted on the Drudge Report and in a new book by the authors of the best-seller "Freakonomics." Last week, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 57 percent of Americans now believe there is strong scientific evidence for global warming, down from 77 percent in 2006.

Global warming skeptics base their claims on an unusually hot year in 1998. Since then, they say, temperatures have dropped — thus, a cooling trend. But it's not that simple.

Since 1998, temperatures have dipped, soared, fallen again and are now rising once more. Records kept by the British meteorological office and satellite data used by climate skeptics still show 1998 as the hottest year. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA show 2005 has topped 1998. Published peer-reviewed scientific research generally cites temperatures measured by ground sensors, which are from NOAA, NASA and the British, more than the satellite data.

The recent Internet chatter about cooling led NOAA's climate data center to re-examine its temperature data. It found no cooling trend.

"The last 10 years are the warmest 10-year period of the modern record," said NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt. "Even if you analyze the trend during that 10 years, the trend is actually positive, which means warming."

The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics and gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.

Saying there's a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers.

Identifying a downward trend is a case of "people coming at the data with preconceived notions," said Peterson, author of the book "Why Did They Do That? An Introduction to Forensic Decision Analysis."

One prominent skeptic said that to find the cooling trend, the 30 years of satellite temperatures must be used. The satellite data tends to be cooler than the ground data. And key is making sure 1998 is part of the trend, he added.

It's what happens within the past 10 years or so, not the overall average, that counts, contends Don Easterbrook, a Western Washington University geology professor and global warming skeptic.

"I don't argue with you that the 10-year average for the past 10 years is higher than the previous 10 years," said Easterbrook, who has self-published some of his research. "We started the cooling trend after 1998. You're going to get a different line depending on which year you choose.

"Should not the actual temperature be higher now than it was in 1998?" Easterbrook asked. "We can play the numbers games."

That's the problem, some of the statisticians said.

Grego produced three charts to show how choosing a starting date can alter perceptions. Using the skeptics' satellite data beginning in 1998, there is a "mild downward trend," he said. But doing that is "deceptive."

The trend disappears if the analysis starts in 1997. And it trends upward if you begin in 1999, he said.

Apart from the conflicting data analyses is the eyebrow-raising new book title from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, "Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance."

A line in the book says: "Then there's this little-discussed fact about global warming: While the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased."

That led to a sharp rebuke from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which said the book mischaracterizes climate science with "distorted statistics."

Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, said he does not believe there is a cooling trend. He said the line was just an attempt to note the irony of a cool couple of years at a time of intense discussion of global warming. Levitt said he did not do any statistical analysis of temperatures, but "eyeballed" the numbers and noticed 2005 was hotter than the last couple of years. Levitt said the "cooling" reference in the book title refers more to ideas about trying to cool the Earth artificially.

Statisticians say that in sizing up climate change, it's important to look at moving averages of about 10 years. They compare the average of 1999-2008 to the average of 2000-2009. In all data sets, 10-year moving averages have been higher in the last five years than in any previous years.

"To talk about global cooling at the end of the hottest decade the planet has experienced in many thousands of years is ridiculous," said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford.

Ben Santer, a climate scientist at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Lab, called it "a concerted strategy to obfuscate and generate confusion in the minds of the public and policymakers" ahead of international climate talks in December in Copenhagen.

President Barack Obama weighed in on the topic Friday at MIT. He said some opponents "make cynical claims that contradict the overwhelming scientific evidence when it comes to climate change — claims whose only purpose is to defeat or delay the change that we know is necessary."

Earlier this year, climate scientists in two peer-reviewed publications statistically analyzed recent years' temperatures against claims of cooling and found them not valid.

Not all skeptical scientists make the flat-out cooling argument.

"It pretty much depends on when you start," wrote John Christy, the Alabama atmospheric scientist who collects the satellite data that skeptics use. He said in an e-mail that looking back 31 years, temperatures have gone up nearly three-quarters of a degree Fahrenheit (four-tenths of a degree Celsius). The last dozen years have been flat, and temperatures over the last eight years have declined a bit, he wrote.

Oceans, which take longer to heat up and longer to cool, greatly influence short-term weather, causing temperatures to rise and fall temporarily on top of the overall steady warming trend, scientists say. The biggest example of that is El Nino.

El Nino, a temporary warming of part of the Pacific Ocean, usually spikes global temperatures, scientists say. The two recent warm years, both 1998 and 2005, were El Nino years. The flip side of El Nino is La Nina, which lowers temperatures. A La Nina bloomed last year and temperatures slipped a bit, but 2008 was still the ninth hottest in 130 years of NOAA records.

Of the 10 hottest years recorded by NOAA, eight have occurred since 2000, and after this year it will be nine because this year is on track to be the sixth-warmest on record.

The current El Nino is forecast to get stronger, probably pushing global temperatures even higher next year, scientists say. NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt predicts 2010 may break a record, so a cooling trend "will be never talked about again."

Happy Halloween

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Can you catch Alzheimer’s disease?

By Tom McGrath
updated 12:20 p.m. ET, Sun., Oct . 25, 2009


For years, physicians and Alzheimer's experts have said that the earliest symptoms of the disease typically don't appear until you're in your 60s, 70s, or beyond. But now there's reason to believe that the first warning signs may actually crop up much earlier than that, and in a seemingly much more benign way: as cold sores, those embarrassing blisters that can erupt on the lips of people who are sick or run-down.

The sores are triggered by the herpes virus — most often, herpes simplex virus type 1 (not to be confused with HSV-2, which predominately causes genital herpes). In recent years, a growing body of research, much of it championed by a British scientist, has begun to suggest a startling fact: The same virus known for sabotaging people's social lives could be responsible for the majority of Alzheimer's cases.

"There's clearly a very strong connection," says the researcher, Ruth Itzhaki, Ph.D., speaking one afternoon in her office at the University of Manchester, in northwestern England. A neurobiologist, Itzhaki has spent the better part of two decades studying the link between herpes and Alzheimer's. "I estimate that about 60 percent of Alzheimer's cases could be caused by the virus."

As viruses go, herpes is a particularly devilish bugger. The ancient Greeks were among the first to record the sores it causes (the virus's name is derived from a Greek word meaning "to creep"), and today the microbe is ubiquitous. As many as 85 percent of us have been infected by it, though experts say as few as 15 percent show symptoms. Worse, once you have it, you have it forever: After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your peripheral nervous system, occasionally flaring up during periods of stress, illness, or fatigue. You can follow these three steps to prevent a herpes outbreak, but it never completely disappears.

And it's that fact — herpes as the viral equivalent of The Thing That Wouldn't Leave — that lies at the heart of the herpes-Alzheimer's relationship. Research suggests that as we age, HSV-1 actually spreads to our brains, where in certain people, Itzhaki theorizes, it can cause the buildup of deposits — known as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles — that attack and destroy the cells responsible for memory, language, and physical functions. In short, those people develop Alzheimer's.

It's a provocative theory, one that would sound preposterous if it weren't for the steadily accumulating evidence. Last January, for instance, Itzhaki and her colleague, Matthew Wozniak, Ph.D., published a study in the Journal of Pathology in which they searched for the presence of the herpes virus in people's brains. They found that it resided in 90 percent of the amyloid plaques.

I don't see why they said it sounds "preposterous". Such things certainly not w/o precedent. Anybody have deja vu to mad cow disease?

"The link between herpes and Alzheimer's has been there for a while, but more people are starting to pay attention," says Howard Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., an expert on neurodegenerative diseases and the executive dean of the school of medicine at Georgetown University. "It's no longer just a curiosity."

Unfortunately, while the theory may be on more researchers' radar, it's perhaps becoming a blip in the one area that matters most: the fight for funding. Sure, on the surface, the possible discovery of a cause for Alzheimer's looks like Nobel-caliber news because it suggests a way forward in treating a disease that scientists have struggled — largely unsuccessfully — to understand. What's more, if a new treatment does emerge, it could be just in the nick of time: Thanks to a combination of changing demographics and longer life spans, experts are predicting nothing less than an Alzheimer's epidemic in the decades ahead.

And yet all the promise held in the herpes connection may vanish as quickly and completely as the memories of an Alzheimer's patient. That's because despite Itzhaki's nearly 20-year struggle to get her work noticed, an entrenched Alzheimer's research establishment remains skeptical. Worse, she now finds herself on the brink of having to shut down what may be the most promising avenue of investigation in ages.

"Our remaining funds are sufficient for only several more months," she says, "so unless we obtain a donation or grant, the work will then stop completely, because nobody else in the world is directly doing such research."


Itzhaki says there are two reasons why herpes became a Virus of Interest in the hunt for an Alzheimer's cause. First was the observation, almost three decades ago, that a rare infection called herpes encephalitis affects the same regions of the brain that Alzheimer's does. Like people with Alzheimer's, encephalitis patients can be plagued by memory problems. (Read about the latest research on the secrets of your brain and how to preserve your memories here.) The other factor, she says, is the prevalence of the herpes virus itself.

"Most people get it as children," Itzhaki says. "It's in your saliva, and it can easily be passed along with a kiss from a family member." She says it's not really that puzzling that most people who carry the virus never show symptoms — as she puts it, not everyone who's infected with a microbe is necessarily affected by it. "It depends on the person harboring the virus," she says. "It's probably based on genetic factors."

How might a germ you could have contracted from, say, a grandparent potentially destroy your brain when you become a grandparent?

In the early 1990s, researchers, including Itzhaki, found evidence suggesting that as we age, the herpes virus begins moving from its hideout near the bottom of the skull directly into the brain (possibly because our immune systems lose some bite). Indeed, one Journal of Pathology study found the virus in a high proportion of postmortem brain samples taken from people who'd died in their later decades, while it was absent in those from people who'd died in youth or middle age.

What effect does the virus have when it reaches your brain? The short answer: That depends. In certain people it seems to do much less damage than in others; just as some of us never develop cold sores, some of us can have the herpes virus inside our brains without any horribly ill effects. But Itzhaki believes that in other people — specifically those who carry APOE e4, a gene form, or allele, strongly linked to Alzheimer's — the virus is not only reactivated by triggers like stress or a weakened immune system, but also actually begins to create the proteins that form the plaques and tangles presumed to be responsible for Alzheimer's.

If you're looking for evidence, Itzhaki can show you a stack of it. In two studies, for example, she and several colleagues took brain samples from 109 deceased people — 61 of whom had had Alzheimer's, 48 of whom hadn't — to search for any correlation between herpes, APOE e4, and Alzheimer's. Their results: People who had both the APOE e4 gene and the herpes virus in their brains were 15 times more likely to have Alzheimer's than people who had neither. (The researchers also found, intriguingly, that people who suffered from recurrent cold sores were almost six times as likely to have the APOE e4 gene as those who didn't get cold sores.)

A decade later, Dr. Federoff, then working at the University of Rochester, administered the herpes virus to four different groups of mice, each of which had a different variation or absence of the APOE gene. He found that in mice with the specific APOE e4 variation, the virus was slower to become dormant than it was in mice with APOE e2, APOE e3, or no APOE gene, suggesting that the virus could be replicating faster in the e4 mice. "The results definitely suggest there's something different about having APOE e4," says Dr. Federoff.

Still other research shows the direct impact of HSV-1 itself. In 2007, a study by Itzhaki and Wozniak found that infecting lab samples of brain cells with the virus caused a buildup of the protein (beta amyloid) that's the primary component of the plaque clogging the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The same study also found a similar result in the brains of mice that had been infected with HSV-1.

Then there was January's study in the Journal of Pathology. In it, Itzhaki and Wozniak looked at brain samples from 11 deceased people; six had had Alzheimer's and five hadn't. While both groups had plaques (not surprisingly, the Alzheimer's group had far more) and evidence of the herpes virus in their brains, there was a crucial difference in the concentration of the virus: In the Alzheimer's patients, 72 percent of the virus's DNA was found in the plaques, compared with only 24 percent that was found in the plaques of the non-Alzheimer's brains. Not surprisingly, all but one of the Alzheimer's sufferers also carried the APOE e4 gene, compared with none of the samples from the non-Alzheimer's people.

Wozniak is confident that these last two studies point to the same conclusion: "The results strongly suggest that HSV-1 is a major cause of amyloid plaques — and probably of Alzheimer's disease."

For Wozniak and Itzhaki, the next step is to test whether antiviral drugs like Zovirax and Valtrex, both of which are used to shorten the duration of cold sores, might alleviate or slow the progression of Alzheimer's. The pair is seeking funding for two experiments with antiviral drugs — one testing them on mice, the other testing them on Alzheimer's patients.

"If the treatment is successful, it would stop progression of the disease, rather than just stopping the symptoms," Itzhaki says.

But that funding isn't likely to materialize if the rest of the research community continues to dismiss Itzhaki's theory — or ignore it altogether. When I e-mailed John Trojanowski, M.D., Ph.D., a respected Alzheimer's researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, to find out his take on the connection between Alzheimer's and herpes, he shot back a one-sentence reply: "Do not know of any connection."

When I pressed and asked him to take a look at two of Itzhaki's recent studies, he was equally dismissive. "This is an old story," he said, "so I do not think there is much new news here."

Even those more familiar with the research remain skeptical. "One of the things we see a lot in science is relationships — two things happening together," says Bill Thies, Ph.D., chief medical and scientific officer at the Alzheimer's Association. "But they often turn out to be independent events, or you can't tell which thing is causing which. It could be, for example, that there's something about amyloids that attracts HSV."

Wozniak says that the study he published with Itzhaki — in which the herpes virus caused amyloid accumulation in cells and mice — refutes that criticism. He also dismisses another critique — that he and Itzhaki haven't established the mechanism by which HSV-1 brings about that accumulation. Again, he argues, this study indicates an increase in the enzymes that are responsible for forming amyloid from its precursor protein, called APP.

"Surely, the mechanism is clear: HSV-1 causes an increase in these enzymes, which in turn causes degradation of APP, leading to amyloid formation." He pauses, and then adds wryly, "It's interesting that people raise this criticism when, until our research, no other underlying causes of amyloid production linked to Alzheimer's disease were known."

Itzhaki is more sanguine about the skepticism. "We've seen this before when a virus or bacterium is suggested as the cause for a chronic illness," she says, noting the reticence people had when H. pylori was suggested as a cause of ulcers and when the human papilloma virus was suspected as a cause of cervical cancer. Both are now largely considered medical fact. "And the Alzheimer's establishment is very conservative."

Georgetown's Dr. Federoff agrees that in some ways the theory isn't conventional enough to be embraced by many mainstream Alzheimer's researchers. "Herpes is a common virus, but in this case we're talking about it behaving in an atypical way," he notes. That said, would he like to see further research on the connection between HSV and Alzheimer's? Absolutely.

There is one matter on which the opposing camps agree: With each passing day, the stakes for Alzheimer's research grow higher. Over the past century, the only thing that has prevented the disease from becoming even more widespread and devastating is that most people passed away from something else before they were old enough to develop it.

Drop dead of a heart attack when you're 52, and Alzheimer's is one malady you probably won't have to worry about. (Actually, your biggest health worries are probably less of a risk than you think. But you should watch out for these six threats.) But the more progress we make against our most common killers — heart disease, stroke, and cancer — and the more we extend our life spans, the greater the number of Alzheimer's cases we're likely to see. Indeed, as the 33-million-plus-strong baby boom generation enters its golden years and sees its risk of Alzheimer's increase, we are potentially looking at an epidemic. By 2010, the number of cases is expected to have increased 10 percent from its 2000 total, and from there the number is projected to more than double — to more than 950,000 new cases a year — by 2050.

"Alzheimer's has always been a big problem, but it's going to be even bigger," says Thies. "And the people who are now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are the ones it's especially going to affect."


Report looks at hidden health costs of energy production

Posted on Monday, October 19, 2009
Report looks at hidden health costs of energy production

By Renee Schoof | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Generating electricity by burning coal is responsible for about half of an estimated $120 billion in yearly costs from early deaths and health damages to thousands of Americans from the use of fossil fuels, a federal advisory group said Monday.

A one-year study by the National Research Council looked at many costs of energy production and the use of fossil fuels that aren't reflected in the price of energy. The $120 billion sum was the cost to human health from U.S. electricity production, transportation and heating in 2005, the latest year with full data.

The report also looks at other hidden costs from climate change, hazardous air pollutants such as mercury, harm to ecosystems and risks to national security, but it doesn't put a dollar value on them.

"We would characterize our estimate as an underestimate," because it didn't include those other costs, said Jared Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University and the chairman of the committee that produced the report.

The report says it's impossible to put a monetary amount on all the hidden costs of energy, in some cases because of a lack of information but also because the study had limited time and resources. It focused on the costs of air pollution on health.

Coal-fired power and motor-vehicle transportation accounted for roughly 99 percent of those costs. The other approximately 1 percent of the estimate was from heating for homes, buildings and industrial purposes, mostly from natural gas.

Electricity production accounted for $63 billion of the damages that weren't related to climate change. Coal-fired plants, which produce about half of the nation's electricity, accounted for $62 billion and natural gas, which produces 20 percent, produced less than $1 billion of the damages.

The report looks at the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from 406 coal-fired plants in the lower 48 states, which produce 95 percent of the nation's coal-generated electricity. There were wide differences among plants in the amount of pollution each produced. The estimated health damages ranged from less than half a cent per kilowatt hour to more than 12 cents. The average was 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

The best use of the information is to compare it on a plant-by-plant basis with the cost of installing and running scrubbers to reduce the pollution, said Maureen Cropper, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland and the vice chairman of the 19-member report committee.

"There are plants that are very clean out there, and the cost of further controls would not be worth the benefits and you wouldn't want to do anything," she said. However, there are also dirtier plants where the health benefits would outweigh the cost of pollution controls.

The report says nuclear energy produces low damages under normal conditions but that the nuclear waste issue needs more study before any estimate can be made. Wind and solar also produce low damages, but more study will be needed as they expand, it says. For example, if solar becomes a large energy source, future studies should look at the pollution damages from manufacturing, recycling and disposing of solar equipment.

The panel looked at transportation by motor vehicles, which make up 75 percent of transportation energy use, but it didn't monetize the pollution damages from air, rail or water transportation. It estimated the pollution damages from motor-vehicle transportation at $56 billion in 2005.

The dollar amounts were mainly early deaths due to pollution, with the value of each life put at $6 million, consistent with other studies. More than 90 percent of the costs were the statistical cost of early deaths. Other costs in studies the panel examined included chronic bronchitis and asthma, Cropper said.

Total early deaths were about 18,000 to 19,000 per year, said another member of the panel, Daniel Greenbaum, the president of the Health Effects Institute in Boston, a nonprofit organization that researches the effects of air pollution on health.

The report notes that there can be large uncertainties in its estimates. The panel of scientists, engineers, economists, and law and policy experts based its findings on presentations by experts, peer-reviewed scientific literature, and federal reports and databases.

On climate change, the panel found a wide range of estimates, from $1 to $100 per ton of greenhouse gases. Cohon said the range was large because the amounts depended on two variables: the relationship one assumes between increased temperature from climate change and the damages that will result; and the "discount rate," or the rate used to put future damages in present values.

The National Research Council of the National Academies is the federal government's top adviser on science and technology. The National Academies are made up of prominent scholars engaged in research in science, medicine and engineering.

Change passwords: Crooks want keys to your e-mail

This was in the paper edition on 10/28/2009

By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY
Phishers are back with a vengeance, armed with some alarming new trickery.

Those e-mail scammers who try to fool you into typing your user name and passwords at faked financial Web pages have been around in force since 2002. They remain active, though many Web users have gotten adept at spotting, and avoiding, ruses to get their financial account log-ons.

However, after a lull at the start of this year, phishing attacks suddenly spiked 200% from May through September, according to IBM's X-Force research team. Phishers are going after log-ons to Web mail, social networking and online gaming accounts, security experts say.

In the evolving cyberunderground, valid Web mail accounts, in particular, are considered highly valuable "virgin" assets, useful for sending out viral e-mail messages likely to go unblocked by spam filters, Sophos researcher Beth Jones says.

Virgin mail accounts have become hot commodities; a valid log-on to a Windows Live, Gmail, YahooMail or AOL e-mail account can sell for as much as $2 — more than double what a stolen credit card account number fetches, says Fred Rica, principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers' security practice.

Cybercriminals are attuned to the fact that many people use their free Web mail account address to open financial, social network, travel and other online accounts. "Your e-mail account is the key to your online persona," says Henry Stern, Cisco security researcher.

And yet a recent Sophos survey found 33% of the respondents used just one password online, while 48% used just a few different ones. "The sad reality is most people use the same user names and passwords on many different websites," says Sam Masiello, threat researcher at McAfee's MX Logic messaging security section.

Finding a gold mine

With possession of your Web mail user name and password, cybercrooks can carry out a matrix of lucrative online capers, made all the easier if you use just one or a handful of the same passwords. They can send out e-mails that appear to come from you to everyone in your address book to try to get them to divulge passwords. And they can scour your e-mail folders for clues to the social networks and online banks you use, then crack into those accounts — and change the passwords so only they can access them.

Part of this is because many online services require an e-mail address to set up a Web account. Meanwhile, replacement passwords are typically sent to that e-mail address — a perfect setup for a crook who is in control of the e-mail account, says Amichi Shulman, chief technical officer of security firm Imperva.

Phishers can also sell your virgin account to specialists who will use it to send out infectious e-mails to your contacts and all across the Internet — messages that appear to come from you. Such viral messages typically carry corrupted Web links purporting to be for celebrity stories, enticing videos or fake shipping notices.

Clicking on one of these bad links can turn control of the victim's PC over to the attacker, who will then use the PC to steal data, spread promos for fake anti-virus subscriptions or hijack your online financial accounts. "Log-ons from a Web mail site can lead to a gold mine," Masiello says.

The harvesting of virgin Web mail accounts has become a cornerstone of the cyberunderground, so much so that it has evolved into an entry-level cybercrime, says Fred Touchette, senior analyst at messaging security firm AppRiver. Starter kits, complete with slick, ready-made faked log-on pages for each of the top Web mail services and social networks, are readily available — for free. A newbie phisher has only to supply a website on which to host the faked page and collect the stolen passwords.

This has become a widespread activity, one that is keeping the cyberunderground supplied with a new generation of scammers getting in on the ground floor. The crooks supplying the free tool kits have a stake in flushing out as many virgin accounts as possible. "Each account presents new opportunities to make money," Touchette says.

Demand spawns other attacks

The demand for virgin Web mail accounts has, in fact, become so robust that top-tier cybercrime gangs are going after them with other kinds of attacks as well. Some specialize in tainting legitimate Web pages, or corrupting search results, with imperceptible infections. Clicking on the tainted Web page or corrupted search result can open a backdoor on the user's PC, through which the attacker can install a program to steal keystrokes — especially those typed into a Web mail log-on form.

Another popular attack involves hacking into the databases of employment sites, shopping sites or any site that collects sensitive information, including valid e-mail addresses.

ScanSafe researcher Mary Landesman says she regularly finds caches of thousands of stolen Web mail log-ons stashed away in nooks and crannies of the Internet, often organized in a way that makes it clear an infection or database hack was used to harvest the data.

"Most disturbingly, we came across a cache of stolen credentials quite by accident posted in plain view on a now defunct website," she says. "Presumably others could have found it as well."

Security experts advise consumers to use unique passwords for each online account, and to change or rotate passwords on a regular basis. That way if your Web mail password does get stolen, it will become useless to criminals when next you change it.

Afghan girls burn themselves to escape marriage

Posted: Thursday, October 29, 2009 12:04 PM
Filed Under: Kabul, Afghanistan
By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

HERAT, Afghanistan – We watched a teenage girl die last Friday.

Seventeen-year-old Shirin had been brought to the Herat Regional Hospital Burns Unit a few days before we met her. Ninety percent of her body was covered in third-degree burns.

Her mother-in-law said Shirin had burned herself by accident. The girl was preparing a meal in the kitchen but somehow confused cooking gasoline with petrol, she said.

But Dr. Mohamed Aref Jalali, the director of the burns unit, said Shirin told him in private that she had set herself on fire deliberately after fighting with her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law.

Many girls in Afghanistan think self-immolation is the best solution for family problems, according to Jalali.

"[For these girls], it’s no good to solve the problem with the father-in-law, with the mother-in-law," said the doctor. "They think self-immolation will solve the problem."

It’s a "solution" that appears to be a major problem in Afghanistan, particularly among young women between the ages 13 and 25.

In the first seven months of this year, medical staff at the Herat’s burns unit – the only one of its kind in the entire country – said they have seen 51 cases of female self-immolation. Only 13 have survived.

The practice comes from Iran, where many Afghan refugees had fled to during the decade-long war with the Soviet Union (1979-1989) and the era of mujahedeen fighting that followed in the 1990s, said Jalali. But its popularity has spread among Afghan women, often from poor, uneducated backgrounds, where the tradition of child or forced marriages runs strong.

"The forced marriage is the best reason and the important reason, and it starts from the economic problem," said Jalali.

Often in arranged marriages, women are viewed in very stark terms.

"She is here only to wash, to clean, to give baby … and nothing more," said Marie-Jose Brunel, a French volunteer nurse at the burns unit who was full of Gallic warmth and purposeful seriousness. "If they have no freedom, no possibility to study, to be considered like nothing, it’s very, very difficult."

Shirin was married two years ago when she was 15 years old.

But another patient we found at the hospital, down the hall from Shirin, was Rezagul. Skinny and illiterate, the 13-year-old was married at 11 to a man who was almost 20 years older. He was abusive, she told us, beating her whenever she failed to do her housework. So did her in-laws. "My cruel sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and husband … they beat me," she said.

Out of frustration and homesickness for her own family, Rezagul took drastic action.

"I was in very bad condition," she recalled. "I poured gasoline on myself and set myself on fire. I didn’t want to be alive." The burns covered the lower half of her body.

It took several months for her skin to heal properly and she was currently back at the clinic because of chronic kidney pain. Jalali said he would need to finish reconstructive surgery on Rezagul but with physical therapy she would recover nicely.

On the day we visited, Rezagul looked well-adjusted and almost happy. She was no longer married. Her father had welcomed her back home. She was excited about starting to go to school for the first time in her life.

In fact, with her burns covered up, Rezagul looked the picture of health as Brunel, the nurse, teased her – a testament to the success of the burns unit.


Brunel, who is usually based in the south of France and volunteers her time at the clinic through the French non-governmental organization HumaniTerra International, has been working with the burn unit’s senior medical team since 2003.


During our visit, we checked back on Shirin every now and then. She had long ago slipped into a delirious state and was murmuring nonstop. Her mother, Hanifa Ahmadi, hovered around her, occasionally stroking her hair.

Ahmadi – a thin, handsome woman who looks more Persian than Afghan – said she didn’t understand why her daughter had set herself on fire. "Shirin is always a happy girl and gets along with everyone," she said.

Ahmadi was convinced that Shirin would soon recover and leave the hospital, but Jalali was unequivocal.

"She doesn’t have long. Maybe she has one hour, an hour-and-a-half," he said. "It’s unfortunate, but we can’t do anything. Not with 90 percent burns all over the body, third-degree burns."

Brunel agreed. "We can do nothing except … we give dignity," she said. She and an Afghan orderly had taken turns trying to make Shirin as comfortable as possible – giving her a tube to make her breathing easier, feeding her, or just straightening the blankets that covered her burnt body.

The end came later than Jalali had predicted, but come it did. Six hours after we first met Shirin, she died.

Members of her family rushed past us in the hallway, her mother, then her uncle, an aunt, and then her husband – he looked more confused than grief-stricken. They piled into Shirin’s room, wailing, walking back and forth around her bed, hands wringing; even the mother-in-law, with whom the young girl had been fighting just days before.

We stepped away quietly, gathering our things, preparing to leave and trying not to intrude.

But as we walked down the hallway one last time, I ducked my head into the room where Rezagul lay. She looked up, her eyes aglow, and she waved.

The picture of health.

A Soalin' - Peter, Paul, and Mary

Really Bad Timing

referenced the following

BY SARAH AVERY - Staff Writer

Maybe it was just lousy timing, but many customers of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina are ticked off at the mail they've received recently from the state's largest insurer.

First, they learned their rates will rise by an average of 11 percent next year.

Next, they opened a slick flier from the insurer urging them to send an enclosed pre-printed, postage-paid note to Sen. Kay Hagan denouncing what the company says is unfair competition that would be imposed by a government-backed insurance plan. The so-called public option is likely to be considered by Congress in the health-care overhaul debate.

"No matter what you call it, if the federal government intervenes in the private health insurance market, it's a slippery slope to a single-payer system," the BCBS flier read. "Who wants that?"

Plenty of people, it turns out.

Indignant Blue Cross customers have rebelled against the insurer's message, complaining that their premium dollars have funded such a campaign.


The pain of torture can make the innocent seem guilty

Public release date: 26-Oct-2009
Contact: Amy Lavoie
Harvard University
The pain of torture can make the innocent seem guilty

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., October 26, 2009 -- The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.

Participants in the study met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then "tortured" by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom. She never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be.

The research, published in the "Journal of Experimental Social Psychology," was conducted by Kurt Gray, graduate student in psychology, and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology, both in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception," says Gray. "It is as though people who know of the victim's pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it."

Not all torture victims appear guilty, however. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session—rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture—they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity.

"Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim's pain to blame," says Gray. "On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence."

The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham "torture."

The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.

Gray suggests that these results offer an explanation for the debate swirling around torture.

"Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture," says Gray. "Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods."

The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees. Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.

The case is still open on whether torture actually makes victims more likely to tell the truth. This research suggests instead that the mere fact that someone was tortured leads observers to think that the truth was found.

Music makes you smarter

Public release date: 26-Oct-2009
Contact: Steve Pogonowski
Faculty of 1000: Biology and Medicine
Music makes you smarter

Regularly playing a musical instrument changes the anatomy and function of the brain and may be used in therapy to improve cognitive skills.

There is growing evidence that musicians have structurally and functionally different brains compared with non-musicians. In particular, the areas of the brain used to process music are larger or more active in musicians. Even just starting to learn a musical instrument can changes the neurophysiology of the brain.

Lutz Jäncke, a member of Faculty of 1000 Medicine, proposes using music in neuropsychological therapy, for example to improve language skills, memory, or mood. In a review for Faculty of 1000 Biology Reports, an online publication in which leading researchers highlight advances in their field, Jäncke summarizes recent studies of professional musicians.

The brain regions involved in music processing are also required for other tasks, such as memory or language skills. "If music has such a strong influence on brain plasticity," writes Jäncke, "this raises the question of whether this effect can be used to enhance cognitive performance."

Several studies indeed show that musical practice increases memory and language skills, and Jäncke suggests expanding this field: "Hopefully, the current trend in the use of musicians as a model for brain plasticity will continue ... and extend to the field of neuropsychological rehabilitation."

Moderate amounts of protein per meal found best for building muscle

Public release date: 26-Oct-2009
Contact: Jim Kelly
University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
Moderate amounts of protein per meal found best for building muscle
Study: 1 ounce per meal is muscle synthesis improvement 'ceiling'

GALVESTON, Texas — For thousands of years, people have believed that eating large amounts of protein made it easier to build bigger, stronger muscles. Take Milo of Croton, the winner of five consecutive Olympic wrestling championships in the sixth century BC: If ancient writers are to be believed, he built his crushing strength in part by consuming 20 pounds of meat every day.

No modern athlete would go to such extremes, but Milo's legacy survives in the high-protein diets of bodybuilders and the meat-heavy training tables of today's college football teams. A recent study by University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston metabolism researchers, however, provides evidence that strongly contradicts this ancient tradition. It also suggests practical ways to both improve normal American eating patterns and reduce muscle loss in the elderly.

The study's results, obtained by measuring muscle synthesis rates in volunteers who consumed different amounts of lean beef, show that only about the first 30 grams (just over one ounce) of dietary protein consumed in a meal actually produce muscle.

"We knew from previous work that consuming 30 grams of protein — or the equivalent of approximately 4 ounces of chicken, fish, dairy, soy, or, in this case, lean beef — increased the rate of muscle protein synthesis by 50 percent in young and older adults," said associate professor Douglas Paddon-Jones, senior author of a paper on the study published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. "We asked if 4 ounces of beef gives you a 50 percent increase, would 12 ounces, containing 90 grams of protein, give you a further increase?"

The UTMB researchers tested this possibility by feeding 17 young and 17 elderly volunteers identical 4- or 12-ounce portions of lean beef. Using blood samples and thigh muscle biopsies, they then determined the subjects' muscle protein synthesis rates following each of the meals.

"In young and old adults, we saw that 12 ounces gave exactly the same increase in muscle protein synthesis as 4 ounces," Paddon-Jones says. "This suggests that at around 30 grams of protein per meal, maybe a little less, muscle protein synthesis hits an upper ceiling. I think this has a lot of application for how we design meals and make menu recommendations for both young and older adults."

The results of the study, Paddon-Jones points out, seem to show that a more effective pattern of protein consumption is likely to differ dramatically from most Americans' daily eating habits.

"Usually, we eat very little protein at breakfast, eat a bit more at lunch and then consume a large amount at night. When was the last time you had just 4 ounces of anything during dinner at a restaurant?" Paddon-Jones said. "So we're not taking enough protein on board for efficient muscle-building during the day, and at night we're taking in more than we can use. Most of the excess is oxidized and could end up as glucose or fat."

A more efficient eating strategy for making muscle and controlling total caloric intake would be to shift some of extra protein consumed at dinner to lunch and breakfast.

"You don't have to eat massive amounts of protein to maximize muscle synthesis, you just have to be a little more clever with how you apportion it," Paddon-Jones said. "For breakfast consider including additional high quality proteins. Throw in an egg, a glass of milk, yogurt or add a handful of nuts to get to 30 grams of protein, do something similar to get to 30 for lunch, and then eat a smaller amount of protein for dinner. Do this, and over the course of the day you likely spend much more time synthesizing muscle protein."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Modified crops reveal hidden cost of resistance

Public release date: 26-Oct-2009
Contact: Amitabh Avasthi
Penn State
Modified crops reveal hidden cost of resistance

Genetically modified squash plants that are resistant to a debilitating viral disease become more vulnerable to a fatal bacterial infection, according to biologists.

"Cultivated squash is susceptible to a variety of viral diseases and that is a major problem for farmers," said Andrew Stephenson, Penn State professor of biology. "Infected plants grow more slowly and their fruit becomes misshapen."

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved genetically modified squash, which are resistant to three of the most important viral diseases in cultivated squash. However, while disease-resistant crops have been a boon to commercial farmers, ecologists worry there might be certain hidden costs associated with the modified crops.

Unlike a lab experiment, the researchers tried to mimic a real world setting during their three-year study.

The researchers then looked at the effects of the virus-resistant transgenes on prevalence of the three viral diseases, herbivory by cucumber beetles, as well as the occurrence of bacterial wilt disease that is spread by the cucumber beetles.

"When the cucumber beetles start to feed on infected plants they pick up the bacteria through their digestive system," explained Sasu. "This feeding creates open wounds on the leaves and when the bugs' feces falls on these open wounds, the bacteria find their way into the plumbing of the plant."

The researchers discovered that as the viral infection swept the fields containing both genetically modified and wild crops, the damage from cucumber beetles is greater on the genetically modified plants. The modified plants are therefore more susceptible to the fatal bacterial wilt disease.

"Plants that do not have the virus-resistant transgene get the viral disease," explained Stephenson, whose team's work is funded by the National Science Foundation. "However, since cucumber beetles prefer to feed on healthy plants rather than viral infected plants, the beetles become increasingly concentrated on the healthy -- mostly transgenic -- plants."

During a viral epidemic, the transgene provides modified plants with a fitness advantage over the wild plants. But when both the bacterial and viral pathogens are present, the beetles tend to avoid the smaller viral infected plants and concentrate on the healthy transgenic plants. This exposes those plants to the bacterial wilt disease against which they have no defense.

"Wild and transgenic plants had the same amount of damage from beetles before viral diseases were prevalent in our fields," said Stephenson. "Once the virus infected the wild plants, the transgenic plants had significantly greater damage from the beetles."

Results from the study show that over the course of three years, the prevalence of bacterial wilt disease was significantly greater on transgenic plants than on non-transgenic plants.

According to the researchers, their findings suggest that the fitness advantage enjoyed by virus-resistant plants comes at a price. Once the virus infects susceptible plants, cucumber beetles find the genetically modified plants a better source for food and mating.

Anxious pregnant mothers more likely to have smaller babies

Public release date: 27-Oct-2009
Contact: Amy Molnar
Anxious pregnant mothers more likely to have smaller babies

A new study published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology reveals that anxiety in pregnant women impacts their babies' size and gestational age. Specifically, women with more severe and chronic anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to have affected babies.

Shahla M. Hosseini, Minhnoi W. Biglan, Cynthia Larkby, Maria M. Brooks, Michael B. Gorin, and Nancy L. Day studied a sample of low-income women, half of whom were African American and the other half Caucasian. The group already had well-known risk factors such as alcohol and cigarette use. The authors demonstrated that the mother's anxiety during pregnancy impacts birth outcomes over and beyond factors such as drug use, education, and race.

Anxiety during the third trimester predicted women delivering significantly smaller babies. In the first and second trimesters, the effects of anxiety were significant only among those women who had severe anxiety.

Low to moderate levels of anxiety in women during either the first or second trimester did not significantly affect the birth outcomes, but women who are severely anxious during much of their pregnancy should be considered for anxiety-reducing interventions.

"One way to prevent health problems in children and adults is to focus care on the prenatal period," the authors note. "It is key to pursue further research which addresses interventions to ameliorate the effects that a woman's trait anxiety has on the development of fetuses."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Simple measures can yield big greenhouse gas cuts

Public release date: 26-Oct-2009
Contact: Mark Fellows
Michigan State University
Simple measures can yield big greenhouse gas cuts, scientists say
Michigan State University researcher, colleagues tap behavioral data

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- New technologies and policies that save energy, remove atmospheric carbon and limit greenhouse gas emissions are needed to fight global climate change – but face daunting technological, economic and political hurdles, a Michigan State University scientist said.

The good news: Basic actions taken by everyday people can yield fast savings at low cost, according to MSU Professor Thomas Dietz and colleagues.

Cutting consumer energy waste is a good place to start, said Dietz, a professor of sociology and environmental science and policy at MSU. Household energy consumption accounts for 38 percent of carbon emissions in the United States and 8 percent of world emissions, he said.

Activities such as home weatherization, routine vehicle maintenance and opting for the clothesline instead of the dryer could cut total U.S. carbon emissions by 5 percent over just five years and 7.4 percent in 10 years, Dietz said. That's the equivalent of France's total carbon output, or of total emissions by the U.S. petroleum refining, steel and aluminum industries.

"On the research end of things, we've invested mostly in engineering approaches -- building better technology," said Dietz, who is MSU's assistant vice president for environmental research. "But the best technology we can devise doesn't do any good if people don't use it. We can make great progress with the technologies we already have if we pay attention to behavior -- how people use the technologies they already have."

Dietz and collaborators, writing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, didn't base their estimates on a best-case consumer behavior scenario. Instead, they used the best available information to calculate how many families could reasonably be expected to take such measures if they were provided information, offered financial assistance and could interact with others doing so.

They excluded potential emissions cuts from emerging technologies and from wholesale lifestyle changes, so their estimates are at the low end of potential greenhouse gas reductions, Dietz said.

"I've seen many analyses that make wild assumptions about how hard or how easy it is to get people to change their behavior, without any basis in science," he said. "Our analysis is based on science. We look at what has been feasible in bringing about changes in energy consumption behavior."

The conservation measures the researchers analyzed have the added benefit of a "demonstration effect," Dietz said. That is, when people adopt the changes, their acquaintances are likely to do the same.

"We know from a lot of research that most people, companies and governments are most likely to change behavior when they see their peers change. So someone will weatherize their houses when they see others do it, and governments are most likely to develop policies when they see other governments doing it."

The researchers' insights could have implications for the international community as it approaches the United Nations' December climate talks in Copenhagen.

Ocean acidification may contribute to global shellfish decline

Public release date: 26-Oct-2009
Contact: Leslie Taylor
Stony Brook University
Ocean acidification may contribute to global shellfish decline
Stony Brook University researchers find elevated carbon dioxide concentrations impede growth and survival of bivalve larvae

STONY BROOK, N.Y., October 26, 2009 -- Relatively minor increases in ocean acidity brought about by high levels of carbon dioxide have significant detrimental effects on the growth, development, and survival of hard clams, bay scallops, and Eastern oysters, according to researchers at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. In one of the first studies looking at the effect of ocean acidification on shellfish, Stephanie Talmage, PhD candidate, and Professor Chris Gobler showed that the larval stages of these shellfish species are extremely sensitive to enhanced levels of carbon dioxide in seawater. Their work will be published in the November issue of the journal Limnology and Oceanography and is now online at

"In recent decades, we have seen our oceans threatened by overfishing, harmful algal blooms, and warming. Our findings suggest ocean acidification poses an equally serious risk to our ocean resources," said Gobler.

During the past century the oceans absorbed nearly half of atmospheric carbon dioxide derived from human activities such as burning fossil fuels. As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide it becomes more acidic and has a lower concentration of carbonate, which shell-making organisms use to produce their calcium carbonate structures, such as the shells of shellfish.

In lab experiments, Talmage and Gobler examined the growth and survivorship of larvae from three species of commercially and ecologically valuable shellfish. They raised the larvae in containers bubbled with different levels of carbon dioxide in the range of concentrations that are projected to occur in the oceans during the 21st century and beyond.

Under carbon dioxide concentrations estimated to occur later this century, clam and scallop larvae showed a more than 50% decline in survival. These larvae were also smaller and took longer to develop into the juvenile stage. Oysters also grew more slowly at this level of carbon dioxide, but their survival was only diminished at carbon dioxide levels expected next century.

"The longer time spent in the larval stage is frightening on several levels," said Talmage. "Shellfish larvae are free swimming. The more time they spend in the water column, the greater their risk of being eaten by a predator. A small change in the timing of the larval development could have a large effect on the number of larvae that survive to the juvenile stage and could dramatically alter the composition of the entire population."

Although levels of carbon dioxide in marine environments will continue to rise during this century, organisms in some coastal zones are already exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide due to high levels of productivity and carbon input from sources on land.

"This could be an additional reason we see declines in local stocks of shellfish throughout history," said Talmage. "We've blamed shellfish declines on brown tide, overfishing, and local low-oxygen events. However it's likely that ocean acidification also contributes to shellfish declines."

Talmage and Gobler hope their work might help improve the success rate of shellfish restoration projects.

"On Long Island there are many aquaculturists who restock local waters by growing shellfish indoors at the youngest stages and then release them in local estuaries," said Talmage. "We might be able to advise them on ideal carbon dioxide conditions for growth while larvae are in their facilities, and offer suggestions on release times so that conditions in the local marine environment provide the young shellfish the best shot at survival."

SO2 is a pollutant

I saw a mention of using sulfur dioxide (SO2) to combat global warming.
That is not a good idea.

Sulfur Dioxide
Chief Causes for Concern

SO2 contributes to respiratory illness, particularly in children and the elderly, and aggravates existing heart and lung diseases.

SO2contributes to the formation of acid rain, which:

* damages trees, crops, historic buildings, and monuments; and
* makes soils, lakes, and streams acidic.

SO2 contributes to the formation of atmospheric particles that cause visibility impairment, most noticeably in national parks.

SO2 can be transported over long distances.
SO2 and the pollutants formed from SO2, such as sulfate particles, can be transported over long distances and deposited far from the point of origin. This means that problems with SO2 are not confined to areas where it is emitted.

Short-term Peak Levels
High levels of SO2emitted over a short period, such as a day, can be particularly problematic for people with asthma. EPA encourages communities to learn about the types of industries in their communities and to work with local industrial facilities to address pollution control equipment failures or process upsets that could result in peak levels of SO2.

Sulfur Dioxide
Health and Environmental Impacts of SO2

SO2 causes a wide variety of health and environmental impacts because of the way it reacts with other substances in the air. Particularly sensitive groups include people with asthma who are active outdoors and children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung disease.

Respiratory Effects from Gaseous SO2 - Peak levels of SO2 in the air can cause temporary breathing difficulty for people with asthma who are active outdoors. Longer-term exposures to high levels of SO2 gas and particles cause respiratory illness and aggravate existing heart disease.

Respiratory Effects from Sulfate Particles - SO2 reacts with other chemicals in the air to form tiny sulfate particles. When these are breathed, they gather in the lungs and are associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.

Visibility Impairment - Haze occurs when light is scattered or absorbed by particles and gases in the air. Sulfate particles are the major cause of reduced visibility in many parts of the U.S., including our national parks.

Acid Rain - SO2 and nitrogen oxides react with other substances in the air to form acids, which fall to earth as rain, fog, snow, or dry particles. Some may be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles.

Plant and Water Damage - Acid rain damages forests and crops, changes the makeup of soil, and makes lakes and streams acidic and unsuitable for fish. Continued exposure over a long time changes the natural variety of plants and animals in an ecosystem.

Aesthetic Damage - SO2 accelerates the decay of building materials and paints, including irreplaceable monuments, statues, and sculptures that are part of our nation's cultural heritage.

If you don't love your neighbor

Tucker Station String Band

Poor in rural Oregon face 'double binds' when getting food

Public release date: 27-Oct-2009
Contact: Joan Gross
Oregon State University
Poor in rural Oregon face 'double binds' when getting food

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study by Oregon State University researchers shows that those in poverty in rural Oregon often know what kinds of foods they should be eating, but face tough choices between eating well and spending less money for meals.

Joan Gross and Nancy Rosenberger, both professors of anthropology at OSU, examined the "double binds" of rural Oregonians living in poverty by conducting in-depth interviews with 76 low-income households in two rural Benton County communities. Their paper will be published in the December issue of the journal, Food, Culture & Society.

They found that when times were tough and money tight, food became a flexible expense.

"Paying the mortgage, keeping the electricity on, making sure you have enough money for medical care, these were the priorities," Gross said.

Oregon's economic inequality is one of the highest in the nation. From the 1970s to 2005, the wealthiest 1 percent of Oregonians tripled their income while the typical family saw no income change. Rosenberger and Gross said those they surveyed did not come from generations of poverty, and most of them were working, sometimes two or more jobs. Instead, respondents were people with middle class jobs, and a health emergency or a layoff at work that made them unable to maintain their same standard of living.

"The people we talked to thought of themselves as middle class, even though they might be on food stamps and make a wage far below the poverty line," Rosenberger said. "This is what we mean by double binds – inculcated habits that do not match the changing field in social, economic and political ways."

Specifically, researchers found the low-income families they interviewed often did things against their own better judgment. Even when people knew what foods they should be eating, they stuck with food habits acquired while growing up. One man who was diabetic was aware of what he should and shouldn't be eating but admitted that carbohydrate-rich food was more comforting and familiar. Others talked about the need to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets, but said it was too expensive.

"There were three main problems that we found," Gross said. "One, people said they didn't have enough money eat to healthy foods. Two, there was a perception that boxed and processed food was always cheaper. And finally, we found that those who used food pantries or gleaning groups did not get enough fruits and vegetables in the winter, and their diet suffered as a result."

In addition, many families faced a bind of social stigma. In order to feel like they fit in with societal norms, respondents said they made sure their kids were well dressed and had other material symbols of capital, such as cars and computers.

"Food is something that fills you up but people can't see it or necessarily judge your social capital based on it," Rosenberger said. "People who have lost their economic power don't automatically lose their taste and expectations that go with being in a certain economic class."

Finally, researchers found that the respondents were reluctant to accept any government assistance. Government assistance is avoided at both household and community levels, especially by people who have lived rurally throughout their lives. In general, people felt more comfortable if they were using public assistance to support other people, such as young children. Interviewees in general were happy with WIC program and free and reduced lunch programs because they benefited children.

However, adults often felt if they used other forms of support, there was stigma attached. One woman told researchers, "My husband wouldn't use food stamps. He's got pride."

Rosenberger and Gross said the best solution to these double binds is to strengthen local food systems so that all Oregonian can feel more empowered about food buying. Both researchers have become involved in the Ten Rivers Food Web, a group dedicated to building an economically and environmentally sustainable local food system in Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties. Gross, who is president of the organization, said their vision is that 30 percent of the food consumed in those three counties is grown, processed and distributed there.

Currently, about 2 percent of the food grown in the tri-county "foodshed" (Benton, Linn and Lincoln) is consumed there. A report issued last year by Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center estimated than $400 million a year is lost by not keeping the food in the community.

"We need to start thinking of food as a human right," Gross said. "People can be more productive, healthier and more engaged if they are well fed. It benefits the body, but it also benefits our economy and our communities."