Feb 28, 2007

Andrea Quong: Move Over Prius: Here Comes the Corncob Car

In a breakthrough that could bring methane-fueled passenger cars closer to being a fixture in American garages, researchers have created a way to store methane gas in slimmer, flatter fuel tanks, obviating the need for the bulky gas compression cylinders that take up precious trunk space and tend to turn off mainstream consumers.

The technology, which was announced Friday, uses carbon briquettes made from corncobs to store methane, the main component in natural gas, at a density of 180 times their volume and at one seventh the pressure of conventional methane gas tanks. The storage system is the first to meet the U.S. Department of Energy’s storage density target of 180-to-1 by volume, set in 2000, said Peter Pfeifer, principal project leader and professor of physics at University of Missouri, Columbia.

“With this technology, we can build a flat and compact tank that can fit under the floor and make natural gas a feasible, more widely attractive alternative for passenger cars,” Mr. Pfeifer said.

A joint effort of scientists and engineers at the University of Missouri in Columbia and the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, the patent-pending technology adds methane to a growing list of alternative energy technologies that are being explored in every permutation, from ethanol generated from cow patties, algae, or switchgrass to fuels brewed from leftover restaurant grease.

Among alternative fuels for cars, methane is one of the cleaner burning options, releasing less carbon dioxide than gasoline. “While it does not solve all of the greenhouse gas emission problems people worry about, it reduces carbon dioxide output in heavy duty vehicles by 90 percent, compared with regular gasoline,” said Mr. Pfeifer.

Mr. Pfeifer and his colleagues, however, used corncobs, for the first time, to produce briquettes that are shot through with networks of molecular-sized nanopores. These microscopic pores are what enable the briquettes to store natural gas or methane at an unprecedented density, he said. The storage system also allows methane to be stored at a lower pressure of 500 pounds per square inch – the same as in natural gas pipelines—helping carmakers fashion fuel tanks in any shape. The technology is being road-tested on a pickup truck, one of a fleet of 200 natural gas vehicles operated by Kansas City, according to the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the research.

Corncobs, used to fashion the fuel storage system but not used for fuel themselves, are plentiful in the Midwest. By Mr. Pfeifer’s estimate, the state of Missouri could supply enough corncobs to fuel 15 million cars a year.

Current technology relies on large cylindrical tanks that compress natural gas to a pressure of 3600 pounds per square inch. And that can take up an entire trunk. In the United States, where some cities have invested in larger vehicles like garbage trucks and municipal buses that don’t have a space problem, methane-fueled passenger cars are few. Only Honda offers a methane-fueled passenger car, a version of the Civic, Mr. Pfeifer said. In Europe, where the consumer market is friendlier, Volvo and Fiat both make versions of methane or methane-and-gasoline hybrid passenger cars.

Such cars depend for the most part on natural gas, a non-renewable resource that’s extracted mainly from U.S. or Canadian gas fields. Renewable methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, can be produced from feedlots or landfills, where it’s already being used to generate electricity. But that depends on whether or not the U.S. government decides to throw its weight behind funding such research.

“The whole natural gas infrastructure exists already,” said Mr. Pfeifer, whose research was funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a $500,000 combined grant from the University of Missouri and the Midwest Research Institute. “I really see no obstacles, technical or any other kind, except for peoples’ attitudes that [if something] isn’t visibly broken, why fix it.”

With federal dollars flowing into hydrogen fuel cell research, industry interest, a la Toyota or General Motors, may be the best hope.

Feb 27, 2007

Andrew Stern: Garlic does not lower cholesterol, U.S. study says

Eating garlic raw or in supplement form does not lower "bad" cholesterol levels, despite widespread health claims for the pungent plant bulb, researchers said on Monday.

"It just doesn't work," said Christopher Gardner of the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California. "There's no shortcut. You achieve good health through eating healthy food. There isn't a pill or an herb you can take to counteract an unhealthy diet."

Some of the claims that garlic lowers cholesterol emanate from laboratory experiments but there is no proof it reacts in the body the same way, Gardner wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine. In test tubes and some animal subjects the compound released from crushed garlic, allicin, has been found to inhibit the synthesis of cholesterol.

But in Gardner's study of 192 subjects who had slightly elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol that tends to clog arteries, garlic had no impact.

"Our study had the statistical power to see any small differences that would have shown up, and we had the duration to see whether it might take a while for the effect of the garlic to creep in. We even looked separately at the participants with the highest versus the lowest LDL cholesterol levels at the start of the study, and the results were identical," Gardner said.

The participants' cholesterol levels ranged from 130 milligrams per deciliter of blood to 190 milligrams -- any higher and their doctors would have prescribed cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, he said. The study's funding came from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The participants were divided into four groups: one ate a clove of garlic six days a week, usually in a gourmet sandwich prepared for them; two other groups consumed the equivalent amount of garlic either in a popular garlic supplement pill or powder, one of which advertised itself as "aged" garlic that removed the bad-breath problem; and the other group consumed a placebo.

Feb 25, 2007

Gina McColl: Healthcare's sticking point

The battle to list anti-cancer vaccines highlights how commercial pressure and a new kind of political opportunism are threatening the independence of our healthcare system, writes Gina McColl.

IN APRIL, 12-year-old girls around the country will wince as they receive the first of three Gardasil shots. Added to the immunisation register in controversial circumstances late last year, the vaccine prevents infection by two strains of the human papilloma virus that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers, the second biggest killer of Australian women.

Gardasil has been widely hailed. The vaccine was developed by Parkville-based pharmaceutical giant CSL from breakthrough research by Professor Ian Frazer, who was anointed Australian of the Year for his genius. It is a story that has it all: sex and death, nationalism and money, miracle cures and kids.

But it is only half the story. Gardasil is an anti-cancer vaccine, but it also protects against genital warts, a common sexually transmitted disease (STD). In a remarkable admission, CSL has told The Sunday Age that the genital warts protection was included to make the vaccine more marketable to teenagers, raising important issues of drug safety and patient choice.

Why does Gardasil need to be made to appeal to kids? Because a competitor is waiting in the wings. Cervarix, GlaxoSmithKline's anti-cervical cancer vaccine, could be approved for use in Australia within months. When it is, Gardasil's additional STD protection will give it a point of difference — making it Coke to Glaxo's Pepsi.

Drug companies are under constant scrutiny for the ways they influence doctors' prescribing choices and medical research. The case of Gardasil reveals how systemic that influence is becoming. Not only is marketing embedded in the drug-development process, but the rigorous process by which drugs are listed in this country is also in danger of being compromised. Some public health experts see the story of Gardasil — its development, appraisal and listing — as a case that shines a spotlight on how commercial pressure and a new kind of political opportunism are threatening the independence of our healthcare system.

Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) is envied worldwide for its independence in assessing new drugs and ensuring their affordability. Its gatekeeper is the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC). This panel undertakes a thorough cost-benefit analysis before listing new drugs at a certain price, ensuring the public gets good value for money.

Feb 21, 2007

An aspirin a day keeps heart disease away

According to new guidelines released by the American Heart Association, almost all women are at risk of heart disease and doctors should consider prescribing a daily aspirin for them.

In the United States 42.1 million or just over one-third of all women have heart disease and it is the largest single cause of death among women.

The new guidelines add support to recommendations that exercise for at least an hour is important on most days of the week, as is maintaining a healthy weight, eating less fat and more fresh fruit and vegetables and quitting smoking.

Dr. Lori Mosca of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and colleagues say almost all women are at risk for cardiovascular disease, which underscores the importance of a heart-healthy lifestyle for everyone.

Mosca says since the last guidelines were developed, more definitive clinical trials have become available which suggest that health care providers should consider aspirin in women to prevent stroke.

The new guidelines recommend that women change their eating and exercise habits to control blood pressure and quit smoking.

Exercise is recommended for at least 60 to 90 minutes on most, and preferably all, days of the week, at levels equivalent to brisk walking; saturated fat intake should be lowered to less than 7 percent of calories and oily fish or some other source of omega-3 fatty acids eaten at least twice a week.

The guidelines discourage women from using hormone replacement therapy and selective estrogen receptor modulators such as the osteoporosis drug raloxifene to prevent heart disease.

They also say supplements such as vitamin E, C, folic acid and beta-carotene do not prevent heart disease and should not be taken to prevent it.

However routine low dose aspirin therapy may be considered in women age 65 or older regardless of heart risk and women with a very high risk of heart disease should aim to lower their LDL (low density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol) to less than 70 mg/dL.

Meanwhile cardiologists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are calling for an expansion of the criteria widely used by physicians to detect and assess a postmenopausal woman's chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

According to Dr. Roger Blumenthal and colleagues a family history of heart disease and blood levels of a protein tied to vessel inflammation, C-reactive protein, should immediately be added to traditional assessments of women's risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or severe chest pain (angina).

Blumenthal, an associate professor and director of the Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says doctors should intervene with lifestyle changes and drug treatment before symptoms start to appear.

Blumenthal says the best means of prevention is through early identification of those most at risk.

Such methods he believes could change the discrepancy between the death rate for men and women from cardiovascular disease, which has steadily declined for men over the last 20 years, but has remained relatively the same for women.

The new risk-factor list would strengthen existing assessment tools, including the Framingham Risk Estimate, which gauges how likely a person is to suffer a fatal or nonfatal heart attack within 10 years and calculates risk based on a summary score of such factors as age, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and smoking.

The Hopkins experts say there is clear evidence that only family history and C-reactive protein, or hsCRP for short, had significant, additional predictive value in determining women really at moderate or high risk of future cardiovascular disease.

Feb 16, 2007

Health insurance changes pass house

The lower house has given the green light to the government's shake-up of private health insurance, despite Labor fears the changes will lead to a two-tiered health system.

It comes as new figures reveal an additional 70,000 Australians took out private health insurance in the December quarter.

Health Minister Tony Abbott said the sixth consecutive quarterly increase means that more than 8.9 million Australians - or 43.3 per cent - have private cover.

But Labor on Wednesday said its concern was with the majority of Australians who were not privately insured.

Under the changes, dubbed Broader Health Cover, health insurers will be able to pay out members with hospital cover for services conducted outside hospitals.

Patients presently have to go to hospital to receive rebates on treatments such as dialysis and chemotherapy, making some procedures unnecessarily expensive.

Mr Abbott said the bill was about making a good system even better by allowing the funds to cover treatments and programs that might prevent or substitute for hospital cover.

Health insurers will be able to offer coverage for a wider range of services, including preventative treatments such as dietary guidance, exercise programs and support to quit smoking.

Labor supported the bill but said these programs, if they were as useful as the government claimed, should be offered to all patients under the Medicare system.

Jennie George said the legislation eroded the notion of universal quality health care as it would give private patients access to services and treatment options unavailable to public patients.

"If it is preferable in situations for patients to have access to chemotherapy and dialysis treatments on an outpatient basis, or in fact in their own home, why is the health minister happy to allow this for privately insured patients but not for all public patients?," she asked.

Labor was also critical of a $50 million budget allocation for health insurers to promote their services, which MPs said could be used to fund 1.5 million GP visits.

And health spokeswoman Nicola Roxon unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to introduce safeguards that would keep insurance premiums down.

Ms Roxon said the government had removed provisions that would give the insurance administration council some control over premiums.

"It's not as if a new provision has been drafted that deals with public interest or protecting consumers," she said.

But Mr Abbott said the amendments, which failed along party lines, were unnecessary because it was unlikely that premiums would increase.

"While I am certainly in no position to predict now what the next round of premium increases might be, I do think that they will be significantly lower than in recent years given the very large profits and surpluses the funds have recently made," he said.

A Senate Committee is due to report on the bill on February 26.

The changes are due to come into effect on April 1, giving the upper house just three sitting weeks to debate the bill.

Feb 15, 2007

Julia M. Klein: 'Paradigm shift' of Depression Therapy

N the fall of 2005, psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson Jr. was treating an 18-year-old college freshman whom he describes as "intensely depressed, feeling suicidal and doing self-cutting." A few years before, Thomson says, he would have interpreted her depression as anger turned inward. But instead he decided that her symptoms might be a way of signaling her unhappiness to people close to her.

He discovered that his client's parents had pressured her to attend the university and major in science, even though her real interest lay in the arts. In the course of therapy, he helped her become more assertive about her goals. When she transferred to another school and changed majors, he says, her depression lifted. Thomson based his approach on the idea that depression is not simply a disease to be eliminated, but a way of eliciting support from family and friends. It's a concept derived from evolutionary psychology, a burgeoning field that is starting to influence psychotherapy.

Evolutionary psychology sees the mind as a set of evolved mechanisms, or adaptations, that have promoted survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychopathology — abnormal psychology through an evolutionary lens — looks at what has gone wrong. The discipline is so new that "some people would say it hasn't started yet," jokes Randolph M. Nesse, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, and one of its pioneers. No one paradigm has won universal acceptance. Evolution-based therapies rely on an eclectic mix of techniques, and their effectiveness is still being tested.

Some evolutionary psychologists emphasize the benefits of what we label as disorders. For example, Edward H. Hagen, a research scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin, with whom Thomson has collaborated, has argued that depression, suicide attempts and deliberate self-harm are rational bargaining tactics to manipulate others into providing support they might otherwise withhold.

Stephen S. Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, suggests that depression results from a "mismatch" between human beings adapted for hunter-gatherer societies and the contemporary world. His therapy — which he calls "therapeutic lifestyle change" — emphasizes behavioral remedies, including getting more sleep, consuming more omega-3 fatty acids and increasing social interaction.

A third school of evolutionary thought sees mental disorders as the result of an accumulation of harmful genetic mutations — flaws in the system. Many clinical psychologists remain skeptical of all these divergent evolutionary approaches, as well as efforts to devise treatments based on them. "The idea that evolution is an important determinant of who we are as human beings is unquestionable," says Laurence J. Kirmayer, director of the division of social and transcultural psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. "The question is, what does our evolutionary history or our theories of evolution tell us specifically about the nature of human problems or about their potential solutions?"

Robert A. Neimeyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, suggests that evolutionary psychology is better at dealing with typical human behavior than with individual variations. He points out, for example, that while we are "evolutionarily wired for attachment," people grieve losses in ways that vary across cultures and individuals. And treatments must take account of those differences, he says.

The recurrence of mental disorders despite the pressures of natural selection is "really a technical question that none of us have a good answer to," says psychiatry professor Nesse, who has written widely on mood disorders. "We're not at a point where every discovery leads to another discovery. We're at a point where a bunch of people are trying to think hard about it."

In an article in the November issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Matthew C. Keller, a postdoctoral fellow at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, and Geoffrey Miller, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, address why diseases such as depression and schizophrenia persist. The answer, they say, is that they reflect the accumulation of harmful mutations.

"There are so many genes that are involved in growing a brain, and each of the genes is vulnerable to mutation in every generation," says Miller, author of "The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature." When too many coincide, illnesses result.

One critic, Joseph Polimeni of the University of Manitoba, in Canada, points out that because so many psychiatric disorders have strong environmental triggers, no single explanation can account for all of them.

Daniel Nettle, a psychology professor at the University of Newcastle, in England, says he finds the mutation theory persuasive for major disorders such as schizophrenia. But he suggests that other problems, such as addictions, may be outgrowths of the changing social environment — including modern distractions such as bars and casinos. "For our ancestors, it was quite useful to follow impulses strongly and spontaneously," he says, while today, with temptations to indulge at every turn, "suddenly, [these people] have a disorder."

Depression, the most common mental illness, has inspired several theories on its own.

"Rank theory," proposed by psychiatrist John Price, sees depression as an adaptation that originally caused losers to withdraw from conflict, avoid further aggression and accept their subordinate status. Hagen has concentrated on the link between depression and social support, while Paul Andrews, a postdoctoral fellow at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, proposes that depression evolved to help people analyze their problems after a failure.

In the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Keller and Nesse present studies backing both the Hagen and Andrews hypotheses. They show that depressions triggered by different stresses result in different symptom patterns, suggesting that each developed as a separate adaptation For instance, Keller says, "failures of effort" lead to what he calls a "despondent type of depression," with symptoms such as fatigue, pessimism, guilt, rumination and excessive sleep. "The point is really to quit wasting effort and to conserve energy when the situation has proven itself unpropitious," he says.

By contrast, social losses, including bereavement and failed romances, lead to emotional pain, crying and the desire to be with loved ones. Crying may serve as a way of attracting social support, Keller says, and the desire to avoid emotional pain may provide an incentive to care for family members.

If we're blocking the depressive symptoms — through medication for example — we could be hamstringing the body's defenses, Keller says.

As the theoretical debate continues, some researchers are developing evolution-based therapies. The backdrop to therapeutic lifestyle change, or TLC, is an increase in depressive illness since World War II, Ilardi says. "There's increasing evidence that we were never designed for our sedentary, socially isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, frenzied, poorly nourished lifestyle," he says. Ilardi combines group therapy sessions with a set of lifestyle changes, each of which has proven effective against depression: aerobic exercise; ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids; light; positive social interaction; substituting activity for rumination; and increased sleep. The goal is for patients to live more like their Paleolithic ancestors.

The results of the 14-week regimen so far have been encouraging. In an ongoing study of 79 patients, with two-thirds assigned to his therapy and the rest to a control group treated mainly with antidepressant medication or traditional psychotherapy, Ilardi reports a 74% favorable response, compared with 16% for the controls.

Rebecca Ann Foerschler, a 49-year-old homemaker in Lawrence, Kan., with three teenage children, entered the study after friends noticed that she was withdrawing from social and volunteer activities. She says she also experienced chronic fatigue.

During the therapy, she says, she "relearned how to walk my dog … in a more aerobic manner," and now on mild winter days she can "get my sunlight, get my aerobic exercise, and get my dog walked." At the end of the treatment, Foerschler reported an increase in energy and "a feeling of my brain being more clear." She describes herself now as virtually depression-free.

Two other new therapies rely on the common-sense notion that normal, adaptive functioning can go awry because of unfavorable life circumstances, including abuse and trauma.

Paul Gilbert, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby and former president of the British Assn. for Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapies, is developing a regimen he calls "compassionate mind training." Its aim is to help patients who are highly self-critical learn techniques for soothing themselves.

The therapy draws on both evolutionary psychology and attachment theory. Certain systems in the mind trigger anxiety and depression, while others soothe and provide feelings of safety — a capacity that may not develop in people from abusive or neglectful families, Gilbert says.

For a pilot study published in December in the journal Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Gilbert recruited nine volunteers already undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy for personality disorders or chronic mood disorders.

Therapists explained the evolutionary significance of attachments to the participants and helped them analyze the origins of their self-critical feelings. Participants were taught to feel empathy for their own distress, and then practiced imagining an "ideal of caring and compassion."

They kept weekly diaries of their progress. The paper reports "a significant impact on depression, anxiety, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, submissive behavior and shame" among the six who completed the regimen.

In Toronto, Leslie Greenberg, professor of psychology at York University, is testing "emotion-focused therapy," which seeks to replace unhealthy, or maladaptive, emotions with healthy ones.

In an article in the summer issue of the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, Greenberg offers a case study of a woman suffering from major depression, anxiety disorder and interpersonal problems after having been raised by emotionally and physically abusive parents.

Greenberg encouraged the woman to engage in imaginary conversations with her parents in which she expressed her feelings about their sadistic behavior.

In therapy, the anger she felt, an adaptive emotion, eventually replaced her fear and feelings of worthlessness. "She began to create a new identity narrative," writes Greenberg, "one in which she was worthy and had unfairly suffered abuse at the hands of cruel parents." That emotional rewiring left her "open to learn to love" again, he writes.

Shani Robins, president of the Institute for Wisdom Therapy in San Diego, also draws on evolutionary psychology in his therapy — a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation, training in humility, and psycho-education.

Understanding the evolutionary origin of problems can help patients put them in perspective, he says. Fear of heights, snakes and open spaces may have been useful to our ancestors, for example, even if such phobias seem excessive today.

Explaining these mechanisms "normalizes the reaction itself, and that's huge," Robins says. "When patients come in, they not only have symptoms — they're feeling pretty bad about it." In time, they learn to "self-judge a lot less."

'Paradigm shift'

Despite some progress in research, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says that not enough evolutionary psychologists are investigating mental illness, and not enough clinical psychologists "are working on developing procedures based on evolutionary understandings … and testing these out in clinical trials." Much more such testing needs to be done, he says.

Thomson, of the University of Virginia, agrees that psychiatry has been slow to adopt evolutionary models. But the situation is changing, he says, as young clinicians are trained in evolutionary psychology.

"This is a marvelous paradigm shift," he says. "I think it's affecting very few now, but in time it will affect everybody."

Feb 14, 2007

Google News breaches copyright

Google, the internet seach engine, has been told that its popular news service Google News - which assimilates articles from various newspapers and other sites - breaches copyright law.

A Brussels court has ruled in favour of a group of Belgian newspapers which argued that the site, which lists links to news stories from around the world, used material without their consent, and ordered that the articles be taken down.

Google, which says that it has removed the offending content, claimed that its service was “entirely legal” and has said that it will appeal against the decision.

There was “no exception” for Google in copyright law, the Brussels Court of First Instance said, ruling that the company must pay a retroactive fine of €25,000 for each day the content remained on the site.

Feb 13, 2007

Ben Wasserman: Afternoon nap may lower heart disease risk

Taking midday naps often may significantly reduce the risk of death from coronary heart disease, according to a new study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of Athens Medical School (UAMS) in Greece.

Subjects who took a nap regardless of the frequency and duration were one third less likely to die from heart attack or stroke than those who did not, the researchers reported in the February 12, 2007 issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine.

But some experts quickly warned that people should not rely on taking a nap to reduce their risk of heart disease. The results of the current study did not suggest that napping caused reduction of death risk from coronary events. Other factors may be involved.

Earlier studies were inconsistent. Some studies found afternoon napping was linked with reduced risk of heart disease, but some suggested otherwise.

The current study meant to establish an association between taking a nap and coronary mortality based on data from "a sizable cohort with a high frequency of napping and information on potentially confounding variables including reported comorbidity, physical activity, and diet."

The study involved 23,681 men and women living in Greece from the Greek European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition [EPIC] cohort, who had no history of coronary heart disease, stroke or cancer at enrolment or at the start of the study.

Grant McArthur: Gene hope for brain disease

FAMILIES of sufferers of an autism-like brain disorder are stunned the condition may be reversible. Scientists claim they can reverse the symptoms of Rett syndrome, the most physically debilitating of all the autism spectrum disorders. Rett syndrome affects several hundred Australians each year, almost always girls, who are often left mute and with severe physical disabilities.

Most victims die in their early teens through complications. The Edinburgh University team say symptoms disappeared in mice after the faulty gene MECP2, which is responsible for the disease, was replaced with a fully functional version, even curing rodents just days from death. Although the research is new, Rett Syndrome Association of Australia president Bill Callaghan -- whose daughter Joanne had the disease and died in 2004 -- said hope of a cure was more than he dreamed of.

"Australian families with a Rett syndrome child have been hoping genetic studies of the disorder . . . would eventually lead to a treatment that would alleviate some of the symptoms associated," Mr Callaghan said. "The possibility that Rett syndrome could be reversed was a wish.

"It's a huge maybe, but maybe that wish can come true one day." Kathy Morriss, whose nine-year-old daughter Samantha was diagnosed at 22 months, said she was inspired by the possibility of a cure. "I think it is a huge development, the biggest since they discovered the disease and gave it a name in 1983," Ms Morriss said. "For us having a young daughter with Rett it is an inspiration."

The discovery even surprised the scientists involved, including UK Rett Syndrome Research Foundation chairman professor Adrian Bird... The results of the research will be published in the February 23 issue of the journal Science.

Feb 7, 2007

Loneliness In Old Age Linked To Alzheimer's

A new US study suggests there is a strong link between loneliness and Alzheimer's in old age.

The study is published in this month's issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Risk of developing Alzheimer's in old age has been linked to social isolation before, but not with perceived isolation, or loneliness.

Social isolation is a measure of connectedness with one's social environment. It can be assessed by measuring extent and quality of social contact and relationships. Loneliness on the other hand is a more subjective variable, it can only be assessed by asking people questions like how alone, empty or abandoned they feel.

Social isolation can occur without loneliness, and loneliness can occur even when one has many social contacts. Many scientists think that increasing isolation can trigger loneliness, and there is evidence to suggest that the two covary in the same direction - that is that people with the fewest social contacts feel the most lonely.

Social isolation and loneliness tend to increase with age. For example networks of family, friends and acquaintances tend to get smaller through retirement, death of family members and friends, ill health and loss of mobility.

In this longitudinal study, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago enrolled 823 senior citizens free of dementia from centres in and around the city, assessed their level of loneliness using a 5 item scale questionnaire at the start of the study and each year thereafter for 4 years. They also monitored them for signs of dementia by testing a range of cognitive functions. An assessment of of social isolation indicators was also made.

The mean loneliness score at the start of the study was 2.3 on a scale of 1 to 5.

The researchers found that loneliness was linked to lower levels of cognitive function at the start of the study, and with more rapid decline in cognitive fuction during the follow up period, but there was no significant change in loneliness overall in the group.

During the follow up period 76 of the recruits developed Alzheimer's. The results showed that the top ten per cent most lonely people (scoring 3.2 on the loneliness scale) had 2.1 times more risk of developing Alzheimer's compared with those in the bottom 10 per cent (scoring 1.4 on the loneliness scale). And these figures were unchanged when they controlled for isolation.

In other words the people who described themselves as most lonely were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's as the ones who described themselves as least lonely, regardless of how isolated they actually were.

Postmortems were carried out on the 90 people who died during the study to quantify any physical signs of Alzheimer's in their brains. There was no link between the level of loneliness reported by the deceased and the levels of Alzheimer's associated damage in their brains.

Dr Robert Wilson, Professor of Neuropsychology at Rush University Medical Centre and lead researcher said that the study suggests that loneliness is a real risk factor for Alzheimer's and to understand this link we need to look outside the typical neuropathology of the disease, since there is no clear link there. He also said that this research provides good reasons to believe that loneliness is not a reaction to the disease.

Dr Wilson said that loneliness probably has a physical impact as well as an emotional impact on the old person at risk of Alzheimer's. Perhaps loneliness affects the brain so that as people get older they are more susceptible to the age-related decline in neural pathways.

Rachel Konrad: Gates: Secure data remains key challenge

Keeping information secure in this age of laptop-lugging workers is the tech industry's most formidable challenge, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said Tuesday.

Speaking to an annual gathering of 15,000 computer security experts in San Francisco, Gates invoked the metaphor of a medieval castle to explain the problem: Programmers build bigger moats and thicker fortress walls - but they don't bother to protect the corporate crown jewels when members of their fiefdom exit the castle and leave the drawbridge open.

"We used to think of the data center as a glass house that was very isolated," Gates said. "But if we look (at) what actually goes on - consultants come into your company, employees who are not onsite need full access - we cannot think of that glass house as the way to define what can connect to what. We need a far more powerful paradigm."

Gates repeated Microsoft's claim that Windows Vista, which launched last month, was the most secure operating system in the company's history. But he acknowledged that all software has "weak links" - particularly when thieves steal servers with confidential information, or when employees use simple, obvious passwords on multiple accounts.

Instead of passwords, Gates favors "public key certificates" - combinations of digital signatures and other identifying information such as a person's name, address, social security number and other data. He calls it the "identity metasystem."

"We all struggle to remember an ever-growing number of user names and passwords as we move between systems at work and home," Gates wrote Tuesday in a message posted on the company's Web site. "Because it is unlikely that a single digital identity system or technology will be universally adopted, a different approach is required."

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, said the software industry still views computer security in a dangerously outmoded way.

"It's like we've been in the medieval age of network protection. We build thicker walls, higher turrets, put drawbridges in front of the fortress," Mundie said at the security conference. "What we didn't see coming was the airplane and the long-range missile."

Feb 4, 2007

Daniel Engber: Survival of the Yummiest

Adam and Eve must have been a healthy pair. They got some exercise, ate lots of locally grown fruits and vegetables, and while they may not have been thin by today's fashion standards, they certainly weren't ashamed of their bodies. Now look what's happened: In just 6,000 years, we've abandoned their sensible eating habits for a high-fat, sugar-loaded diet, and turned ourselves into a nation of lard-asses. Goodbye Garden of Eden; hello Olive Garden.

Whence our fall from grace? According to Michael Pollan's essay in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the serpent wears a lab coat. For decades scientists have been analyzing the food we eat, breaking it down into component parts, and studying how each nutrient affects our health in controlled conditions. More often than not, the "expert advice" that emerged from this work did more harm than good, it seems. When the government told us to eat more low-fat foods, we ended up binging on carbs. We bought margarine when the gurus told us to avoid saturated fats; now city governments are telling us that margarine is against the law. Well-intentioned blunders like these have crowded out the ancient wisdom that once guided our culinary habits, Pollan argues.

Blame the scientists. They "need individual variables they can isolate," Pollan explains. "Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another." We'll never understand the biology of eating because it's just too hard to study in the lab. Large-scale clinical investigations won't be much help, either: There's no good way to observe or control how people eat; when doctors ask us about our diets we either misremember or make up stuff.
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That much may be true, but it doesn't mean there's an inherent flaw in the scientific method. An optimist would say the worst years are behind us. Sure, we've made a few mistakes, but the science is getting stronger every day. Just as the discovery of vitamins made it easier to treat beriberi and scurvy, so will the latest research eventually help us to vanquish coronary heart disease and diabetes. That's how science works: You keep plugging away in the lab until you finally get somewhere.

It would help me to accept Pollan's claim to the contrary if I could think of any other topic in the universe so complicated that it defies scientific investigation. Yes, there's a lot to consider when you're looking at nutrition. But is climatology any easier? Should we throw up our hands at the idea of studying global warming, simply because it reflects a wilderness of variables in complex and dynamic relation to one another? Once we might have charged psychology with the same crimes here ascribed to nutrition: The mind is too complex, and individuals too unreliable, for us ever to understand what goes on inside our heads. But surely we've now seen the benefits of opening the black box—and tinkering around with the 100 billion neurons of the human brain.

Pollan presents the food scientist as a reductionist bogeyman, trampling willy-nilly over the delicate complexities of the natural world. (The illustrations assigned to his article convey dread at the notion that a fruit might be reduced—gasp—to its constituent parts.) It's a dangerous path, he argues, since those complexities have kept us alive over the course of human history. We don't have to identify which of the three-dozen antioxidants in a sprig of thyme, for example, will protect us from cancer; if we've always been eating fruits and vegetables, then they must be good for us. It's natural selection of the human diet: Thousands of years of trial and error must have pushed us toward increasingly wholesome foods. Any unhealthy eating habits would have gone extinct along the way. Why toss out these extraordinary evolutionary data in favor of a few decades' worth of lab experiments?

Feb 2, 2007

Top consumer complaints revealed

DEFECTIVE items, misleading advertising and hidden charges relating to personal goods and services topped the list of telephone complaints to Victoria's consumer watchdog last year.

Complaints about personal goods and services including clothing, hair products and jewellery, headed the top 10 list of inquiries to Consumer Affairs Victoria's (CAV) telephone service, Consumer Affairs Minister Daniel Andrews said.

The remainder of the top 10 list, in order, included:

- computers, electronic and telecommunications goods, relating mainly to mobile phones and computers;

- automotive and transport services;

- building and renovating work;

- lifestyle and leisure services, with issues including gym contract disputes, event ticketing and misleading advertising or unsatisfactory service for travel and accommodation;

- furniture and furnishings, including poor quality, misleading advertising, refunds, trader conduct and warranty disputes;

- credit and finance services;

- household and domestic goods and services, including disputes over prices and charges, damage to property and unsatisfactory service related to dry cleaning, home maintenance, Catering and utility providers;

- domestic appliances;

- people reporting scams including dubious phone calls, e-mails, chain letters, door-to-door sales, print advertisements and fraudulent investment and employment opportunities.

Mr Andrews said telephone inquiries to CAV had increased more than 40 per cent since 1999, with more than 500,000 calls received last year.

The number of written complaints to CAV had doubled over the same period, and the number of CAV investigations had tripled, he said

Binge Eating Tops Other Eating Disorders

Binge eating tops the list of eating disorders affecting Americans, with the first-ever national survey on eating disorders finding it much more prevalent than either anorexia or bulimia.

Binge eating -- a condition where people undergo frequent, uncontrolled eating binges without purging -- affects 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men during their lifetime. The condition is strongly linked to obesity.

There have been previous studies that looked at the prevalence of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa in the population, "but for binge eating, there had been no previous studies," said lead researcher Dr. James I. Hudson, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at McLean Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"These are really the first hard numbers for the prevalence of this disorder," he said during a teleconference to announce the findings on Wednesday.

According to the new survey, binge eating is more common than either anorexia nervosa, which strikes 0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men, or bulimia nervosa, which affects 1.5 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men.

Binge eating "is associated with severe obesity and all the complications of obesity," Hudson said. "And, it's often chronic."

That said, the rates of all eating disorders have been increasing, according to Hudson. "In addition, eating disorders are related to mood disorders, anxiety disorders, impulse control disorders and substance use disorders," he noted.

More troubling is the fact that less than half of those with a history of an eating disorder said they had ever received treatment, Hudson said.

In the survey, Hudson's team collected data on almost 9,300 people from across the United States who participated in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Among those interviewed, 3,000 answered questions about eating disorders. The report is published in the February issue of Biological Psychiatry.

The researchers found that the average duration of anorexia was 1.7 years, compared with 8.3 years for bulimia and 8.1 years for binge eating disorder.

"Binge eating is a true eating disorder. It is a major public health problem," Hudson said. "There is a strong genetic component to binge eating disorder and, because of this, we might be able to treat or prevent binge eating and thereby prevent many cases of obesity."

One expert believes the survey will bring more attention to eating disorders, prompting the U.S. government to spend more dollars in research on the causes and treatment of these conditions.

"These results back up things that groups like ours have been saying for the past several years," said Marc Lerro, executive director of the Eating Disorders Coalition. "There has been relatively little definitive research done on eating disorders."

Lerro is happy to see that these conditions are getting more recognition. "People with eating disorders are compromised in how they interact in school, in the workplace," Lerro said. "For some, it's really a disabling condition that sometimes leads to death."

That binge eating is the major problem did not surprise Lerro. "The stereotype that [people with] eating disorders are just pencil-thin girls is really not comprehensive," he said.

Lerro believes the federal government should be keeping track of the number of people in the United States who suffer from eating disorders. This year, the U.S. government is spending only $21 million on research into treatments for eating disorders, he said.

"This survey is really a wakeup call for the federal government to do more, like counting the number of people who die each year due to an eating disorder, counting the number of people who are struggling with eating disorders, and funding research to determine what is effective in treating eating disorders," Lerro said.

Another expert believes that eating disorders are even more common than the survey suggests.

"Eating disorders are more common than many people realize, and the prevalence is increasing," said Dr. Ellen Rome, head of the section on adolescent medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. "If you look at all of mental health, the spectrum of eating disorders is among the most commonly found health challenges that individuals face."

Moreover, people with eating disorders also have many social problems related their condition, "from shame, guilt, denial, the egocentricity of the illness that doesn't let them see how it's affecting their lives," Rome said.

Binge eating is closely tied in with the U.S. obesity epidemic, Rome added. "We see any form of disorder eating as a maladaptive coping strategy," she said. "Eighty percent of obesity is genetic. So, genetics loads the gun. And the prevalence of binge eating goes hand-in-hand with obesity as one contributing factor. Many people use binge eating to fill up an empty space."

Rome also believes that more funding is needed to study the causes and treatments of eating disorders, including the genetic and social components of the problem and what treatments work best.

"We are just scratching the surface," she said. "We need better treatments across the whole spectrum from under-eating to obesity. There is just so much more we need to know."

Feb 1, 2007

Rachel Barron: $50M prophylactic device

Med-tech startup InnerPulse is out to develop a new breed of defibrillators for folks at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, an implantable one that’s diameter is the size of a pen. On Tuesday, InnerPulse’s CFO Benny Ward said the company grabbed $50 million in a third round of financing from a mix of venture capital and med-tech industry giants like Johnson & Johnson.

The funding could help the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina-based startup become a full-fledged player in a space dominated by three gorilla-size companies, Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, and Boston Scientific. But despite walking among giants, InnerPulse thinks it has figured out a way to not get stepped on.

“We aren’t really competing head-to-head on the defibrillator,” Mr. Ward said about InnerPulse’s efforts when compared to the standard hockey-puck size version that comes with more sophisticated offerings in terms of diagnostic and therapeutic abilities. “This is more complimentary to current technology out there,” Mr. Ward said. The technology that InnerPulse is working on can be seen primarily as a prevention tool, or a “prophylactic device,” he said.

Panasonic adds new digital cameras to Lumix lineup

Panasonic on January 31 announced a slew of new digital cameras to its Lumix series, all of which feature Panasonic's Intelligent Image Stabilization system, 6.0-megapixel-and-above resolutions, and on most, Leica lenses.

Included in the new lineup is the DMC-FX30, what the company claims is the world's slimmest digital camera with a 28mm Leica wide-angle lens. The FX30, which has a 2.5-inch LCD screen, incorporates Panasonic's Intelligent Image Stabilization (IIS) system, which automatically adjusts for camera shake and motion blur, and has a 7.2-megapixel resolution. The DMC-FX30 accepts large capacity SDHC memory cards and will be shipping in February at a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of US$349.95.

The 7.2-megapixel DMC-TZ3 and 6.0-megapixel DMC-TZ2 each feature a 28mm wide-angle Leica DC lens (equivalent to 28-280mm on a 35mm film camera). The DMC-TZ3 boasts a 7.2-megapixel resolution and a 3.0-inch LCD screen while the DMC-TZ2 has a 6.0-megapixel resolution and a 2.5-inch LCD screen. The TZ3 and TZ2 both feature 10x optical zoom. The Lumix DMC-TZ3 will be available in March 2007 at an MSRP of US$349.95.

For those wanting a little more zoom in taking pictures, Panasonic's DMC-FZ8 features a 12x optical zoom lens (equivalent to 36-432mm on a 35mm film camera) with f/2.8 brightness. The camera also has a 7.2-megapixel resolution and the Venus Engine III, Panasonic's image-processing engine that can record at a sensitivity setting as high as ISO 1250 with full resolution.

Also among Panasonic's new cameras are the entry-level 7.2-megapixel DMC-LS75, DMC-LS70 and 6.0-megapixel DMC-LS60. These models incorporate optical 3x zoom (equivalent to 35-105mm on a 35mm film camera) and LUMIX DC VARIO lenses.

Clara Pirani: Pill 'causes sleep-eating'

HEALTH authorities have warned that a sleeping pill used by 250,000 Australians is so powerful that it can cause people to eat, walk and even drive while they are asleep.
The federal Government's drug reaction committee has received 104 reports of hallucinations and 62 reports of amnesia linked to the drug Stilnox, also known as zolpidem.

It also received reports of “bizarre behaviour” including a woman who gained 23kg over seven months while taking the drug.

“It was only when she was discovered eating in front of an open refrigerator while asleep that the problem was resolved,” the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee (ADRAC) reported in its latest bulletin.

Another Stilnox user was found by a relative pulling food from the kitchen cupboards at night while she slept.

Other reports to ADRAC describe a patient who woke with a paintbrush in her hand after painting the front door while asleep and two reports suggested patients had driven while asleep.

One man said he has walked around the house like a “mad man” while asleep.

ADRAC suggests that doctors “should warn their patients about the possibility of these untoward effects, particularly if they are going to take zolpidem for the first time.”

Anup Desai, a sleep physician at the the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, said there was no research that confirmed whether Stilnox caused side effects such as hallucinations and confusion.

“But there is anecdotal evidence that points to a potential problem with the drug in this respect.

“My advice to doctors would be to be wary of these side effects and obviously if patients have them, take them off the drug,” he said.