Best and Worst of Health & Healthcare – February 2015




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From now on, we will have a monthly roundup of the best and worst in Health and Healthcare. We will try to highlight noteworthy research, mention important findings (either good or bad news), and keep an eye on less commendable studies. Obviously, these are personal opinions, and we welcome your comments. Feel free to disagree!

We will also use these monthly articles to give a shout out to notable researchers whose birthday falls on that month, both as a way to show our appreciation and to let you know a bit more about the people who work so hard to produce knowledge.

I must admit my first choice may have been slightly biased: I chose a fellow Portuguese.

Antonio Damasio was born in Lisbon, Portugal on the February 25, 1944. He studied medicine, did his neurology residency, and completed his PhD at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. He moved to the United States in 1975 and is now a University Professor, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California; he is also an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Damasio’s main research topic is neurobiology, specifically, the neural processes underlying consciousness and the role of emotions and feelings in decision-making. He is one of the most influential contributors to this field and has written a few books on the subject. As a clinician, he and his collaborators have studied and treated disorders of behavior and cognition. You can hear him talk about his work here. Happy birthday, Antonio Damasio! Better yet, parabens!

The Best

Nature introduces double-blind peer review

Nature is introducing a new peer review system. Starting in March, the journal will test double-blind peer review as opposed to the traditional single-blind peer review, in which reviewers remain anonymous while knowing the authors’ identity; the anonymity now goes both ways. There are many pros and cons to this system, as addressed in February’s Nature Cell Biology editorial, and for now it’s just an experiment open for discussion, but it’s good to see initiatives that may lead to a fairer peer review process. Better reviews lead to better science which leads to better healthcare.

Nutritional prophylaxis for psychiatric disorders

Understanding how diet may influence mental health is an emerging field of research and a really interesting one, in my opinion. Members of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research published a “Personal View” in The Lancet Psychiatry supporting the need to recognize diet and nutrition as important determinants of mental health.

The authors state that there is increasing evidence for the role of nutrition in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders. They suggest that diet should be regarded as highly in psychiatry as it is in other medical contexts such as cardiology, endocrinology, or gastroenterology.

Cheers, older adults!

A study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience analyzed the effect of light and moderate alcohol consumption on cognitive health in older adult drinkers. The goal of the study was to determine whether or not long-term moderate alcohol intake could exacerbate age-related cognitive decline. No evidence was found to support that hypothesis. Just keep enjoying your pick-me-up, if you want to. But in moderation.

MicroRNAs for the diagnostic of Parkinson’s disease

MicroRNAs are small RNA molecules with important functions in gene expression regulation. These molecules can be found in the blood and act as biomarkers for different diseases. A study published in February in Neurology profiled the expression of several microRNAs in blood from patients with Parkinson’s disease, aiming at identifying potential biomarkers for this pathology. They identified three candidate microRNA biomarkers. Although these were mostly preliminary results, it opens the door to a new and hopefully effective diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease.

Future therapies for Alzheimer’s disease

Klotho is a protein with important functions in the aging process; transgenic mice that overexpress Klotho actually live longer than wild-type mice. In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, it was now shown that Klotho can decrease premature mortality and enhance spatial learning and memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. These are promising results that show therapeutic potential for Klotho in Alzheimer’s.

The Worst

The human head transplant

First of all, isn’t it actually a body transplant?

Sergio Canavero, a neuroscientist of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group (TANG), in Italy, believes that the transplant of a human head may be feasible by 2017. He published a summary of the surgical technique that he believes will make it possible. The main goal is to extend the lives of patients with extensive muscle and nerve degeneration or whose organs are overcome by cancer, for example.  But there are so many challenges, so many technical issues, and so many ethical issues. Is this just hubris? I think so. New Scientist sums it up.

It is oxytocin, not “falling in love”, that sobers you up

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an article on the effect of oxytocin (loosely dubbed “the love hormone”, despite having so many other functions) on alcohol-induced motor impairment. The article is mostly about the interaction of oxytocin with ethanol within the GABAergic system, which is highly affected by alcohol consumption, and the results are very interesting.

However, the media have blown it out of proportion, in my opinion. Stating that research has shown that “falling in love has a sobering effect on the mind” is stretching it a bit. The study shows that oxytocin can block alcohol intoxication, but it’s not like you can be totally drunk and just go and fall in love really quickly so that you can drive home. The “worst” is for science communication, here.

Gender stereotypes promoted by science

The Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study showing that women who are more “masculine” are more likely to be non-heterosexual and report more sexual partners.

My first problem with this study is the term “more masculine”. More masculine according to what? According to femininity and masculinity stereotypes, of course. Also, they state that “homosexuality […] lowers direct fitness and yet is substantially heritable, resulting in a so-called Darwinian paradox.” Darwinian fitness is defined as a relative measure of the ability to survive and reproduce, and consequently pass genes to the next generation. I was unaware that homosexuality leads to an inability to reproduce. Probably because it does not.

A study on common sense

A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that subjects with visual height intolerance, a.k.a. acrophobia or fear of heights, walked slower at heights, and with smaller steps. The authors found that these gait changes are features of a cautious walking and that anxiety may play an important role in acrophobia. They also assessed how visual feedback and attention on gait performance could influence the way they walked and found that distraction or increasing the walking speed might be useful to reduce imbalance. Learn anything new? Me neither.

Repression and psychopathology

There are many religions that forbid masturbation and regard it as immoral. But, naturally, people still do it. The problem is that these cultural beliefs, often associated with myths, can influence sexual behavior to the point of inducing “masturbatory guilt”. And this is actually a clinical concern. The Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine published a few case studies on masturbatory guilt associated with severe psychopathology and it is a bit disturbing.

What makes this study a “worst” is not the study itself, but realizing how profoundly damaging psychological repression can be. (Brought to my attention by Neuroskeptic via Twitter).

References

N/A (2015). Introducing double-blind peer review. Nature cell biology, 17 (3) PMID: 25720957

Aneja J, Grover S, Avasthi A, Mahajan S, Pokhrel P, & Triveni D (2015). Can masturbatory guilt lead to severe psychopathology: a case series. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 37 (1), 81-6 PMID: 25722518

Bowen MT, Peters ST, Absalom N, Chebib M, Neumann ID, & McGregor IS (2015). Oxytocin prevents ethanol actions at ? subunit-containing GABAA receptors and attenuates ethanol-induced motor impairment in rats. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 25713389

Burri A, Spector T, & Rahman Q (2015). Common Genetic Factors among Sexual Orientation, Gender Nonconformity, and Number of Sex Partners in Female Twins: Implications for the Evolution of Homosexuality. The journal of sexual medicine PMID: 25711174

Dubal DB, Zhu L, Sanchez PE, Worden K, Broestl L, Johnson E, Ho K, Yu GQ, Kim D, Betourne A, Kuro-O M, Masliah E, Abraham CR, & Mucke L (2015). Life Extension Factor Klotho Prevents Mortality and Enhances Cognition in hAPP Transgenic Mice. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 35 (6), 2358-71 PMID: 25673831

Canavero S (2015). The “Gemini” spinal cord fusion protocol: Reloaded. Surgical neurology international, 6 PMID: 25709855

Moussa MN, Simpson SL, Mayhugh RE, Grata ME, Burdette JH, Porrino LJ, & Laurienti PJ (2014). Long-term moderate alcohol consumption does not exacerbate age-related cognitive decline in healthy, community-dwelling older adults. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 6 PMID: 25601835

Sarris, J., Logan, A., Akbaraly, T., Amminger, G., Balanzá-Martínez, V., Freeman, M., Hibbeln, J., Matsuoka, Y., Mischoulon, D., Mizoue, T., Nanri, A., Nishi, D., Ramsey, D., Rucklidge, J., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Scholey, A., Su, K., & Jacka, F. (2015). Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry The Lancet Psychiatry, 2 (3), 271-274 DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(14)00051-0

Schniepp R, Kugler G, Wuehr M, Eckl M, Huppert D, Huth S, Pradhan C, Jahn K, & Brandt T (2014). Quantification of gait changes in subjects with visual height intolerance when exposed to heights. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 25538595

Serafin A, Foco L, Zanigni S, Blankenburg H, Picard A, Zanon A, Giannini G, Pichler I, Facheris MF, Cortelli P, Pramstaller PP, Hicks AA, Domingues FS, & Schwienbacher C (2015). Overexpression of blood microRNAs 103a, 30b, and 29a in l-dopa-treated patients with PD. Neurology, 84 (7), 645-53 PMID: 25596505

Image via science photo / Shutterstock.

Sara Adaes, PhD

Sara Adaes, PhD, has been a researcher in neuroscience for over a decade. She studied biochemistry and did her first research studies in neuropharmacology. She has since been investigating the neurobiological mechanisms of pain at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, in Portugal. Follow her on Twitter @saradaes
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