Sunday, July 31, 2005

Response to advertising, the new frontier

This entry is back to my usual pursuits - how the brain works.

I stumbled on a new company that uses brain response measurement to aid the marketing industry. I am not promoting this company's services, but I am intrigued with the new twist.

Called Neuroco, this United Kingdom-based company launched to the marketing communications industry by combining brain science with conventional qualitative research.

The Neuroco web site says it is "a pioneer in the use of modern Electroencephalography (EEG) technology to measure human response to a broad range of marketing stimuli. Neuroco's leadership in the new science of Neuromarketing is due in large part to its in-house development of patented software capable of analysing and benchmarking brain patterns."

The company's execs say that by "totally re-assessing how consumers think, act, and behave towards brands, and delivering new and deeper layers of insight to guide marketing strategy, the new technology can transform the effectiveness of a company's marketing communications."

And this comment from its leadership intrigues: "To date, most Neuromarketing activity has used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). To my mind this is a deeply flawed approach to monitoring brain function for Neuromarketing purposes. The environment is uncomfortable, noisy, and completely unnatural. Further the images produced represent only a snapshot of the brain's response at a specific moment in time. This significantly limits the understanding of what is happening across time, for example when watching a television commercial. In contrast, modern EEG equipment is small, light, unobtrusive, and easily portable, providing freedom to measure human response in a wide range of environments. It allows us to record and analyse brain activity on a second by second basis and so gain a remarkable insight into what's going on in people's minds."

The future looks like it will be filled with more biological examination of consumers' brains and discovering their wants and needs!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Web site describes lab tests

I found a new web site today that is about lab tests and has very credible scientific groups partnering to present the information. Lab Tests Online is an excellent site, one to bookmark for the future.

The About This Site section reads: "The work of the clinical laboratory professional - who analyzes chemical indicators in the body to provide the doctor with a clearer picture of a patient's health - has long been an unseen aspect of health care. Yet, clinical lab tests often provide the link between the patient's presentation of symptoms and the doctor's diagnosis of and prescribed treatment for a particular condition or disease.

"Through preventative screening, lab tests also aid in the early detection of potentially fatal conditions, and in so doing, lead to early treatment. In short, lab tests can help both to save lives and to improve the quality of life."

Lab Tests Online has been designed to help patients and caregivers to better understand the many clinical lab tests that are part of routine care as well as diagnosis and treatment of a broad range of conditions and diseases.

Check it out!

Friday, July 29, 2005

Blue Brain Project: modeling the neocortex

Back to the topic of artificial intelligence - this is a new tweak to the saga.

IBM and The Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne are collaborating on a major joint research initiative, called Blue Brain Project, to use the huge computational capacity of IBM’s eServer Blue Gene supercomputer to create a detailed model of the circuitry in the neocortex – the largest and most complex part of the human brain.

By expanding the project to model other areas of the brain, scientists hope to eventually build an accurate, computer-based model of the entire brain, the press statement says.

And the project's relationship to future medical discovery: "Relatively little is actually known about how the brain works. Using the digital model scientists will run computer-based simulations of the brain at the molecular level, shedding light on internal processes such as thought, perception, and memory. Scientists also hope to understand more about how and why certain microcircuits in the brain malfunction – thought to be the cause of psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and depression."

Stay tuned!

Ice oceans reveal new life

Explorations of "ice oceans" and discovering never-before-seen life - I just had to look closer at this story released this afternoon - even though I am off on a science tangent not all that related to medical discovery.

A historic expedition of Census of Marine Life explorers to the earth's most northern reaches has revealed a surprising density and diversity of Arctic Ocean creatures, some believed new to science, the scientists report.

Sheltered for millennia under a lid of ice currently one to 20 meters thick, unexpectedly high numbers and varieties of large Arctic jellies, squid, cod, and other animals have been found thriving in the extreme cold.

Scientists sailed aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy and "returned to port with thousands of specimens from the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the Canada Basin, a vast bowl walled by steep ridges and lidded with ice," say the Census of Marine Life explorers.

“Modern technology has opened a window on this amazing world for the first time,” says scientist Dr. Russ Hopcroft of University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The imagery obtained of the mid-water and seafloor shows many life forms, such as soft bodied zooplankton, deep sea cucumbers and soft corals. The few explorers in this area before us had no adequate tools to collect or see these creatures."

This story has alot to do with marine evolution and something to do with concerns about the affects of global warming, as these scientists who traveled to the Artic say the planet's polar regions are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of global climate change.

And, again, catching the excitement from a scientist: "What continues to facinate and motivate us all is the chance to record species never known before, to accurately map their range and understand their rapidly-changing habitat."

Be sure to check out the link above for more fantastic photographs.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Focus: is it tissue or is it snot?

I like the creative way this was communicated, so I decided to cover "Chronic sinus infection thought to be tissue issue, Mayo Clinic scientists show it's snot."

Mayo Clinic researchers have found that the cause of chronic sinus infections lies in the nasal mucus not in the nasal and sinus tissue targeted by standard treatment.

The findings will soon be published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, according to the Mayo Clinic press release.

The researchers say that physicians might need to take not only the tissue but also the mucus into account when trying to understand what causes chronic sinus infections and probably other airway diseases.

Chronic sinus infection is one of the most common chronic diseases in the United States, affecting 32 million adults, according to the National Center of Health Statistics. Chronic sinus infection produces nose and sinus problems characterized by stuffy nose, loss of sense of smell, postnasal drip, nasal discharge, and head and face pain lasting three months or longer.

"This has far-reaching implications," says lead researcher and Mayo Clinic ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Jens Ponikau. "This suggests a beneficial effect in treatments that target primarily the underlying and presumably damage-inflicting nasal and sinus membrane inflammation, instead of the secondary bacterial infection that has been the primary target of treatments for the disease."

I really enjoy the enthusiasm each researcher has for her or his own work. So, today sinus tissue and snot take center stage!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Species-specific chromosomes after dinosaurs

Here's a quick note on an National Human Genome Research Institute discovery reported in Science - another gene story, but this one is animals and the knowledge will be translated to humans.

Researchers at the NHGRI have discovered that mammalian chromosomes have evolved by breaking at specific sites rather than randomly as long thought - and that many of the breakage hotspots are also involved in human cancer.

By aligning and comparing the mammals’ genetic material, or genomes, the team determined that chromosomes tend to break in the same places as species evolve, resulting in rearrangements of their DNA.

Chromosomal breakages, also referred to as translocations, are thought to be important in terms of evolution. In addition to their evolutionary implications, chromosomal translocations are known to contribute to the development or progression of many types of cancer.

Here is the part I am facinated with: Based on an analysis that included a computer-generated reconstruction of the genomes of long-extinct mammals, researchers found the rate of chromosomal evolution among mammals dramatically accelerated following the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

Okay, so....

Says the NHGRI, "Before the sudden demise of dinosaurs and many other types of animals, which is thought to have resulted from a massive comet or asteroid striking Earth, mammals shared fairly similar body plans and also fairly similar genomes. Researchers speculate that the mass extinction opened new ecological niches for mammals, spurring their diversification and the emergence of new mammalian orders. This situation would have facilitated opportunities for the isolation of mammals into more distinct breeding groups, speeding the development of species-specific chromosomes."

“This study has revealed many hidden secrets on the nature and timing of genome evolution in mammals, and it demonstrates how the study of basic evolutionary processes can lead to new insights into the origin of human diseases,” says Harris A. Lewin, director of the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Corn takes a new (old) shape

I wanted to share this story even though it really is not about medical discovery, but it is about genetics. I loved the photo, so I thought I would cover this. You can find more information at Eurekalert in a press release.

The story goes: "In 1909, while harvesting a typical corn crop (Zea mays) in Illinois, a field worker noticed a plant so unusual that it was initially believed to be a new species. Its "peculiarly shaped ear" was "laid aside as a curiosity" and the specimen was designated Zea ramosa."

Due to the alteration of a single gene, later named ramosa1, both the ear and the tassel of the plant were more highly branched than usual, leading to loose, crooked kernel rows and to a tassel that was far bushier than the tops of normal corn plants.

Now, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York have isolated the ramosa1 gene and shown how it controls the arrangement and length of flower-bearing branches in corn, related cereal crops, and ornamental grasses.

The study indicates that during the domestication of corn from its wild ancestor (teosinte), early farmers selected plants with special versions of the ramosa1 gene that suppressed branching in the ear, leading to the straight rows of kernels and the compact ears of modern-day corn on the cob.

Dr. Robert Martienssen, who led the study, says, "The ramosa1 gene appears to be a key player in the domestication of corn, and we've shown that it acts by signaling cells to form short rather than long branches."

The findings are described in the journal Nature.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Alzheimer's finding promises

I keep finding stories related to the brain and how it functions, this just seems to be my favorite topic. Today I am looking at a news item that reflects the promise the future holds for bringing basic science into treatment.

The exciting news today, communicated on Eurekalert, is about three molecules scientists have discovered out of 58,000 compounds that appear to inhibit a key catalyst of Alzheimer's disease.

Each of the three molecules they found protects the protein called "tau," which becomes amazingly tangled in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's.

The scientists say that the neurofibrillary tangles of neurons in the brain, along with senile plaques, characterize Alzheimer's disease. The tangles are made of "tau," a protein that is also present normally in the brain.

In terms of future directions, Ken Kosik, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says "There is lots to do here, lab testing, testing in animals, etc. But we have made an important step forward toward developing treatments for this disease."

More information on this finding can be found in the journal Chemistry & Biology.

Honestly, once this gets into more detail I cannot keep up with the science, but I am facinated with the kind of knowledge the researchers gain and the level of detail of these molecular findings. I appreciate the patience scientists have and the amount of time spent in the lab to dig this deep.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Medical device approved for depression

I thought I would mention that a pacemaker-like treatment for depression finally made it through a lengthy approval process by the FDA.

The Cyberonics' vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, device for what is called "treatment-resistant depression" is the first implantable device approved in the US for treatment of depression.

The FDA has approved this device for chronic depression for adults who are experience a major depressive episode and have not had a good response to four or more antidepressant treatments, according to the press statement.

This device is actually implanted just under the skin in the left chest area. It sends mild, intermittent electrical impulses through a wire to the left vagus nerve, which in turn sends signals to the brain.

The cost is about $20,000 for the device and implantation. The device is already approved for epilepsy and has been implanted in over 30,000 patients.

Experts say this type of device will help with treatment adherence, which can be a challenge for depressed patients.

Implantable devices for various medical problems have been in use for decades, and this technology has final found a place for helping treat depression.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Sleeping Beauty" helps find cancer genes

I wanted to cover this story for a couple of reasons, and one of them is the use of common language to describe a scientific concept. I love the term "Sleeping Beauty" in relationship to scientists finding genes that have a cancer connection.

The finding really is significant, and reported in the science journal Nature.

Researchers have discovered a new method that could accelerate the way cancer-causing genes are found and lead to a more accurate identification of the genes.

The gene identification method uses a piece of jumping DNA, called Sleeping Beauty.

Jumping genes, or transposons, insert themselves into or between genes and can activate or inactivate a gene’s normal function.

Now stick with me to follow how it came to be called Sleeping Beauty, as it is intriguing.

The scientists say, in an NIH press release, that related transposons are natural to the genetic makeup of humans, animals and fish, but through millions of years of evolution, most transposons became inactive dead-ends.

A few years back researchers took defunct jumping genes from fish and made the genes jump again. This research had reactivated the element in jumping genes from millions of years of evolutionary sleep, and thus the name Sleeping Beauty, the NIH states.

Researcher David Largaespada says, “Current cancer gene identification methods, such as microarrays, give correlations typically of thousands of genes, and it’s hard to know from the correlations which genes relate to cancer and which do not. By comparison, the jumping gene has attached itself to cancer genes in the tumors we studied and thereby allows us to focus in on smaller numbers of genes - genes that we know are important to the genesis of tumors. The result is a quicker, more efficient, and accurate identification of cancer-causing genes.”

Says Largaespada, “About 300 human cancer-related genes have thus far been reported in the scientific literature. There may be as many as 1,000 or more cancer genes that still need to be identified.”

Researcher Nancy Jenkins says, "The outcome of the new Sleeping Beauty method could be a major leap forward in understanding cancer’s weak points and subsequently lead to thousands more cancer patients joining the ranks of survivors.”

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Circadium rhythm likes serotonin

More on darkness, serotonin, and circadium rhythm...

This week researchers report how serotonin decreases the body’s sensitivity to light and that exposure to constant darkness leads to a decrease in serotonin levels in the brain of fruit flies.

Remember, scientists study fruit flies alot because they provide the model system for examining "entrainment," the synchronization of the internal clock to the environment.

They say the findings suggest that serotonin may play a role in maintaining circadian rhythm, as well as modulating light-related disorders such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

The body’s 24-hour (circadian) clock controls cycles of wakefulness and sleep, as well as the rhythm of other physiological functions, such as body temperature and blood pressure. Although the body functions on roughly a 24-hour schedule, this cycle is capable of being reset by environmental disturbances.

Senior author Amita Sehgal, at Penn and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, reports her findings in Neuron.

“In humans, a light pulse in the early evening delays rhythm-if it stays light later, you stay up later,” says Sehgal. “Disturbances in the late evening advance the body clock-an early dawn leads to an early rise. You do not want your clock to be so supersensitive to light that small fluctuations are going to throw it out of whack. Serotonin appears to modulate the response of the body clock to light.”

There is no doubt about serotonin being a good thing!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Vitamin E may not help women's hearts

The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) is an awesome study in that it has turned out alot of useful information for women over the past few years.

This week, WHI researchers report that Vitamin E supplements do not protect healthy women against heart attacks and stroke.

The vitamin E results of the WHI study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also say that there was no effect of vitamin E on total cancer or on the most common cancers in women — breast, lung, and colon cancers.

The press statement at the National Institutes of Health states that the WHI study was conducted between 1992 and 2004. The participants were 39,876 healthy women age 45 years and older who were randomly assigned to receive 600 IU of Vitamin E or placebo and low-dose aspirin or placebo on alternate days. The participants were followed for an average of 10.1 years.

In fact, the statement says, the aspirin results published last March found no benefit of aspirin (100 mg every other day) in preventing first heart attacks or death from cardiovascular causes in women but did find a reduced risk of stroke overall, as well as reduced risk of both stroke and heart attack in women aged 65 and older.

The results from this study, and other studies that look at protecting women's hearts, can be somewhat confusing when you want to apply the findings to your own particular situation. This is when it is really helpful to have your own physician look at your medical history and help you interpret what steps to take.

You can also check out the NIH press release for more information from the study.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Lose weight, gain wealth?

You will have to check out this study in the journal Economics & Human Biology (go to the abstracts section on the right, then go to articles in press). I am even intrigued with the name of this journal, so I am taking a look.

The Ohio State press release says overweight Americans who lose a lot of weight also tend to build more wealth as they drop the pounds.

Jay Zagorsky, author of the study and a research scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research, says the "data in this study can't tell us whether a person's wealth affects obesity, or whether obesity affects wealth. However, it is more likely that weight influences wealth, states the press statement.

“The typical person who loses or gains a few pounds had almost no change in wealth, but those who lost or gained large amounts of weight had a more dramatic change,” Zagorsky says. Zagorsky emphasizes that participants in this study had to lose quite a bit of weight to show strong improvements in wealth.

White women who dropped their body mass index score (BMI) – a standard measure of obesity – by 10 points saw a wealth increase of $11,880. White men saw an increase of $12,720 for a similar drop, while black women increased wealth by $4,480.

He says that if weight does affect wealth, there is also the question of how it does so. One possible explanation would be that overweight and obese people are discriminated against in the workforce, and don't earn as much money as normal weight people. Women, particularly white women, may be held to particularly high standards for beauty, which could explain why they gained more wealth compared to men as they lost more weight.

The findings of this study certainly support what some have theorized before.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Half of mental health problems start in early teens

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is taking an aggressive approach to asking the right questions about mental health in the US and then trying to find solutions.

The NIMH reports results from a new study that says half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and that despite effective treatments, there are long delays - sometimes decades - between first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment, according to a report in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

“These studies confirm a growing understanding about the nature of mental illness across the lifespan,” says Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH. “There are many important messages from this study, but perhaps none as important as the recognition that mental disorders are the chronic disorders of young people in the US."

Unlike most disabling physical diseases, mental illness begins very early in life. Half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14; three quarters have begun by age 24. Thus, mental disorders are really the chronic diseases of the young, the NIMH states. For example, anxiety disorders often begin in late childhood, mood disorders in late adolescence, and substance abuse in the early 20’s.

Treating cases early could prevent enormous disability, before the illness becomes more severe, and before co-occurring mental illnesses develop, which only become more difficult to treat as they accumulate, according to the study researchers.

Learn more about this study and the results at the NIMH.

Friday, July 01, 2005

What were you up to in high school?

This is a interesting study. It seems like a stretch, really, but I cannot help but cover this one.

The headline in the press statement reads: "Study links adolescent IQ/activity levels with risk of dementia."

Scientists report that "your IQ and extracurricular interests as a teenager may forecast your memory and thinking abilities decades later."

Okay, so we are all thinking back to those days now, right, and wondering how we would be categorized.

This study is issued from a credible bunch at the University Memory and Aging Center, affiliated with Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals of Cleveland. They found that persons who were more active in high school and who had higher IQ scores, were less likely to have mild memory and thinking problems and dementia as older adults.

"The Case researchers used historical data from high school records and yearbooks from the mid-1940s to create a picture of the students' abilities and interests as teens," the statement says.

"In 2002, interviews with the graduates, now in their 70s, and their family members were conducted to learn about the adult cognitive status of each subject. The research team reported on data collected from nearly 400 graduates," the researchers say.

The scientists note that a "particular strength of the Case study is the use of objective measures of cognitive ability (IQ) collected in the teen years. Also, no study has yet reported on associations between teen activity levels and dementia risk using objective measures (i.e., extracurricular activity participation)."

And the best part: "It's a safe bet that being intellectually engaged, physically active, and socially connected has many health benefits across the lifespan and is to be recommended."

Find more about this study at web site Eurekalert.