Archive for the ‘health’ Category


An argument against tax increase on alcohol (in Russia)

June 16, 2007

Now an article from New Scientist about alternatives to alcohol used in Russia. The article opens with the following:

A shocking 43% of deaths in working-age Russian men result from drinking alcohol not meant for human consumption, such as cologne and cleaning agents, according to a new study.“, which helps explaining why Russian men have the lowest life expectancy at just 59 years!

The alternatives to alcohol are cheaper and have a higher alcohol content. On the positive side, when drinking eau the cologne, burping may give a more pleasant smell… This must be an attractive feature to the women ;).

Not surprisingly, the people that drink the ‘alternatives’ to alcohol, have a much higher risk of alcohol related death.

Finally some shocking figures:

  • Russian men who drink non-beverage alcohol have a five-times greater risk of alcohol-related death (such as liver cirrhosis and alcohol poisoning) than those who do not consume these products
  • Men who drank only non-beverage alcohols had up to a 20-times greater risk of death
  • These figures are probably higher, as the research didn’t include men who lived alone, or men who lived on the streets
  • Alcohol is linked to 72% of murders and 42% of suicides in Russia, according to 2005 figures

Bring on the Soviet-Russia jokes ;).


Antibacterial soaps

June 16, 2007

In the category ‘Weird Science’ an article appeared on the site of Scientific American about antibacterial products. More and more antibacterial products are used, but to what avail?
Normal soaps wash away ‘nonspecifically’, “meaning they wipe out almost every type of microbe in sight—fungi, bacteria and some viruses—rather than singling out a particular variety.
On the other hand, after applying antibacterial products, conditions may arise which may actually help the resistent bacteria, because not all bacteria may be killed. In fact, “a small subpopulation armed with special defense mechanisms can develop“, so that these bacteria develop a tolerance and reproduce. This, in turn, may help the bacteria in growing resistant to certain antibiotics.
A problem that arises is that, at least in America, certain antibacterial compounds are found in “60 percent of America’s streams and rivers“, and may eventually end up in crops.
In the end, the advise is to wash your hands 3 times a day with regular soaps, and leave the antibacterial soaps at hospitals.


Huntington’s disease

May 6, 2007

In the April/May 2006 (Yes, it’s an oldie, but I’m just catching up) edition of Scientific American Mind, there’s an interesting article written by Juergen Andrich and Joerg T. Epplen about Huntington’s disease.

It starts with simple incidents, such as forgetting a familiar address, or dropping a cup. But they are not incidents. Not clumsiness, forgetfulness or overreaction either. At least, when you have Huntington’s disease, an inherited disease of which the mutating gene was discovered in 1993. It leads to “progressive destruction of the brain, crippling muscles and mental function“. This mutation wreaks havoc inside the brain.

A single gene on chromosome 4 (the huntingtin gene (no misspelling)) is the cause. DNA consists of 4 bases: Cytosine, Adenine, Guanine and Thymine. If the CAG sequence on this gene occurs more than 35 to 40 times (instead of the regular 28 times), this chain becomes too long and causes trouble. The longer the chain of CAG-sequences, the earlier the disease starts showing, and the more severe it gets.

The symptoms usually show up when at age 35-45, but this also depends on the length of the chain.

Saint Vitus dance, an “involuntary movement disorder“, is characterized by “brief, irregular contractions that are not repetitive or rhythmic, but appear to flow from one muscle to the next. These ‘dance-like’ movements of chorea (from the same root word as “choreography”) often occur with athetosis, which adds twisting and writhing movements.” This is also seen in Huntington’s disease. But mental symptoms often occur before the physical problems, which also leads to social problems (relatives, friends, etc.), and even suicide. Before 1993 (when the responsible gene was discovered) people were often misdiagnosed as “mentally ill or alcoholic”.

What follows is something I don’t fully understand and therefore may not be very clear, but I’ve included it nonetheless:
When the elongated protein starts binding with other proteins, the function of those proteins is in danger.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter, a chemical which helps a neuron “talk” with another cell. Synapses allow the neurons to form a network and communicate, and function as a system.
Via some complex process, some neurotransmitters won’t be removed “such as glutamate from the synapses“, resulting in “adjacent neurons continually excited” which will damage the cell.
Because of some other difficult process, it’s inpossible for the huntingtin protein to bind to the HIP-1 protein: “the neurons are driven to kill themselves.”



April 23, 2007

In the May edition of Scientific American, there’s an article about consciousness of coma / vegetable patients. It’s titled “Eyes Open, Brain Shut”, and written by Steven Laureys.

When people slip into a coma, they don’t open their eyes, but some of them may show some reflex movements of the limbs. If people come out of their coma, they can enter a vegetative state, in which they remain unconscious; they are awake, but not aware. For instance, they have sleep/wake cycles, and some form of movement which is not purposeful but only reflexive.

How do you measure the awareness of a patient? How do you diagnose a vegetative state? This may be helpful to distinguish between patients who may recover or not. A MRI or CT scan can show how damaged the brain is, but it’s impossible to see if the patient has some level of consciousness. An EEG (ElectroEncephaloGram) measures the brain’s electrical activity which is able to show the state of wakefulness, but not a reliable change in awareness.

With the use of a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanner, the metabolic activity can be viewed (measured by its consumption of glucose). In the vegetative state this metabolism is lower. When the patient is at rest, it can’t successfully distinguish between the vegetative and minimally conscious state. This changes when external stimuli like pain and spoken words are added to the equation. This makes sense, because the awareness in a vegetative state is lower then in a minimally conscious state.
Persons in a vegetative state may very well understand commands: there is a “conscious linguistic processing in the vegetative patient”. Furthermore, in some “mental imagery tasks”, the patient understood the tasks (tasks like: imagine walking through the rooms of your house). These responses were indistinguishable from that seen in the healthy subjects. However, there may be a possibility that the patient was transitioning to a minimally conscious state, in which the awareness is raised.

It’s a well written article; so if you have access to it, I’d recommend reading it.