Monday, October 29, 2007

The Odd Disorder Anarchic Hand Syndrome, or "Dr. Strangelove Syndrome"

If you've seen the movie Dr. Strangelove, you'll remember the odd character whose right hand seems to have a mind of its own, sometimes erupting into a Nazi salute, other times choking the neck of its owner.

There really is such a disorder (though not as dramatic) known as anarchic hand syndrome, or "Dr. Strangelove syndrome." The disorder is often described as hands "arguing" with each other, or with the person, making it seem as if the person has two different wills competing with each other.

The BBC has a good article for the general reader; if you're more scientifically inclined, you can also read articles from professional publications here and here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vanishing Bees Endanger U.S. Agriculture in Colony Collapse Disorder

Honeybees play a huge role in food production by pollinating plants, but honeybees have been disappearing all over the U.S. Scientists are trying to figure out why, and what's making the disappearance even more mysterious is that beekeepers aren't finding dead bees.

And bees have a sophisticated navigation system, so it's not likely that they just got lost on the way back to the hive.They are apparently either getting lost, or simply abandoning their hives.

So where are they all going? Research has recently indicated that the problem is a combination of mites and other parasites, as well as a virus which is more common in the collapsed colonies. Is the virus a cause of the disappearance, or just a marker of something else going on?

Some scientists believe that a new type of pesticide is weakening the immune system of the bees, making them more vulnerable to other disorders and damaging their nervous systems (which may account of them losing their navigation abilities).

But there aren't any hard answers yet.

Some researchers are looking into the idea of adapting other bees to be used as pollinators.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated in June that colony collapse disorder might cause as much as $75 billion in losses to the U.S. agriculture industry and economy. The USDA has announced that it's going to hold a special symposium on the problem, called "Late-Breaking Symposium: Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bees: Insight Into Status, Potential Causes, and Preventive Measures."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Chiari Malformation: Links for More Medical Information

Here are a number of links from trusted medical sources where you can find more information on Chiari malformations:

U.S. National Institutes of Health Chiari Malformation Information Page

Description of Chiari malformations, from Chiari Instititue at North Shore-LIJ Health System (Long Island, NY)

The World Arnold Chiari Malformation Association - "Information, support, and education for patients, caregivers, and health professionals"

Introduction to Chiari malformation, from the Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery, New York

Chiari Malformation: Definition, Causes, Symptoms, and More

A Chiari malformation (CM) is a structural defect in the cerebellum, the round portion of the brain at the base of the back of the skull. The cerebellum controls balance, among other things, and normally rests in an indented space above an opening to the spinal canal.

In a Chiari malformation, part of the cerebellum is located below this opening. A CM may occur when the bony space is smaller than normal, which causes the cerebellum and brainstem to be pushed down through the opening and into the upper spinal canal.

This puts pressure on the cerebellum and brainstem, which may affect a person's functions that are controlled by these areas of the brain.

A Chiari malformation may be caused by a structural defect in the brain and spinal cord arising during the development of the fetus. This can result from a genetic mutation or a lack of nutrition in the mother's diet.

Symptoms of a Chiari malformation depend on the type of CM a person has. Some people with a Chiari malformation may have neck pain, balance problems, muscle weakness, numbness or other unusual feelings in the arms or legs, or dizziness. Other symptoms can include vision problems, difficulty swallowing, ringing or buzzing in the ears, hearing loss, vomiting, insomnia, depression, or headache.

People who have a Chiari malformation often have another related condition, such as hydrocephalus (an excessive buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain); spina bifida (the incomplete development of the spinal cord and/or its protective covering); and spinal curvature.

Treatment for Chiari malformations is limited: if a person has functional disturbances or progressive damage to the central nervous system, surgery must be performed to correct the disturbances or prevent the damage from worsening.

For more information, see this fact sheet from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and...
this article for links to medical sources for more information.

CDC Tells How to Avoid MRSA "Superbug" Infections

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have posted other information on MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the so-called "superbug" that's been spreading in schools across the country.

One area of their Web site supplies facts, answers, and solutions for schools, presenting questions and answers on what exactly MRSA is, where it is found, how it is transmitted, and how schools, parents, students, and teachers can help prevent it.

While much of the recent concern over the MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections has involved high school and college athletes, the vast majority of MRSA cases occur in hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities.

The CDC has also prepared a fact sheet for the public that gives questions and answers about MRSA. Even if a person does not have an athlete or hospital patient in his or her family, the contagious nature of the MRSA staph infection means that it's wise for the public to take simple precautions.

What's the Best Way to Clean Fresh Vegetables?

Up until a few months ago, I would clean fresh fruits and vegetables by giving them a cursory quick rinse under a splash of water. But with the E. coli lettuce scare this summer and other recent food-safety incidents, I'm wondering if I should be doing more... a lot more... and I'm not alone.

Fortunately the folks at NPR news have not only thought about this issue, but have sought out someone from Cook's Illustrated magazine to test out various cleaning methods. It looks at choices including a vinegar-and-water solution, brushing, a plain-water wash, and those fancy (and expensive) commercial vegetable wash solutions.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ten at Iona College Contract MRSA Staph Infections

Stories of the spread of MRSA and other staph infections have been popping up a lot in the last couple of weeks, and yesterday brought more news.

Health officials said Friday that nine athletes and a coach in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, have contracted MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that has been called a potential "superbug" infection.
MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a strain of staph infection that does not respond to most common antibiotics, but can be treated with other drugs.

The athletes and coach are at Iona College, located in New Rochelle, and the Westchester health commissioner has reported that the outbreak is under control and that the only student who was hospitalized has been released. The Iona cases were said to be "mild" and to have been caught early.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

MRSA and Other "Superbug" Infections on the Rise

Over the last few years there have been more and more stories about emergence of infectious "superbugs" that resist treatment by most known antibiotics. The concern has grown in the last few days.

The bug is called MRSA, for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. Methicillin in a powerful antibiotic, and as the name of MSRA suggests, the drug cannot kill this staph infection.

Separate studies released Wednesday point out that MRSA has become so widespread that it may kill more people than HIV/AIDS. Close to 19,000 people in the United States died from MRSA in 2005. The bug has spread dramatically in places like hospitals and nursing homes, where it is easy for infections of all kinds to spread.

The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that MRSA infections may be twice as common as is currently believed.

MRSA is not the only potential "superbug." Update New York has reported cases of another superbug, streptococcus pneunomiae, that has been found in a number of children with ear infections. This bug is resistant to all government-approved antibiotics, researchers reported.

The United States is not the only country affected by MRSA and related infections. In Britain, infection experts are fighting a outbreak of MRSA at a hospital neonatal unit after six babies tested positive for the bug.

The neo-natal unit of the Royal Blackburn Hospital in Lancashire closed to new admissions last month when the PVL strain of the MRSA outbreak was found.

, and upstate doctors have identified a "superbug" linked to pediatric ear infections that repels all 18 government-approved antibiotics, researchers report in separate analyses Wednesday.

Monday, October 15, 2007

"Autism Speaks:" Videos Help Parents Recognize Signs of Autism

The incidence of autism among children has been growing, alarming parents who might be worried if their children are affected.

A unique new Web site has been set up with video clips that show the behavior of autistic children, contrasted with that of non-autistic kids. Some signs of autism are very noticeable, but others can be subtly different from typical childhood behavior, and this "autism video glossary" helps parents recognize signs of autism.

The new site is sponsored by two groups, Autism Speaks and First Signs. Users need to register for the site, but viewing the videos is free.

The Web site also includes a glossary of terms that describe autistic behavior.

While a child shouldn't be diagnosed as autistic simply by viewing videos, the Autism Speaks video clips are meant to help parents recognize signs and perhaps follow up with a health professional if they are concerned.

Autism is a term used to described for a wide range of behaviors of varying severity. Professionals often use the term "autism spectrum disorders" to describe the set of conditons and behaviors related to autism, which includes Asperger's syndrome. Autism Speaks was founded in 2005.

Autism Speaks has merged with two other leading autism advocacy organizations, the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), to combine their efforts.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Munchausen Syndrome and Munchausen by Proxy: Fascinating, Perplexing, Disturbing

Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy are two of the most fascinating problems in mental health, in large part because both involve willful medical and/or emotional deception. They involve people doing horrific things to themselves or others in order to gain attention from doctors, hospitals, friends, and relatives. They fall under the general category of factitious illness, which also includes hypochondria.

While most people want to be in good health and avoid doctors, tests, and the like, sufferers from these maladies invent illnesses to keep themselves (or others) in the health care system, undergoing test after needless test, and worse—including undergoing surgery.

In Munchausen syndrome, a person pretends to be sick and goes from doctor to doctor, having test after test, often intentionally injuring themselves to get treatment. In some cases people will stab or shoot themselves or ingest poison to get treatment.

As bizarre as that is, Munchausen by proxy is even more disturbing. In Munchausen by proxy a caretaker (usually a parent) deliberately and repeatedly exaggerates, fabricates, or induces a problem in a child or other loved one. The child may be forced to fake illness, or to eat things that will make him sick, or—worst of all—the parent may poison the child without his knowledge in order to gain access to medical treatment.

Sufferers and their loved ones can find information and support at Web sites like those of the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, and the women's site iVillage.

Runner's Death Puts Mitral Valve Prolapse in the Spotlight

A 35-year-old Michigan police officer, Chad Schieber, collapsed and died around the 19 mile mark of last Sunday's Chicago Marathon. An autopsy showed he died of mitral valve prolapse (MVP), the medical examiner said. So what is mitral valve prolapse?

The mitral valve is a valve between the heart's two left-hand chambers, the left atrium (upper chamber) and the left ventricle (lower chamber). Mitral valve prolapse occurs when the flap-like parts of the valve, called leaflets, bulge (prolapse) and the opening between the two chambers doesn't close properly.

According to the Mayo Clinic's Web site,, mitral valve prolapse affects just over 2 percent of adult in the U.S., and for most of them it doesn't cause any problems. In many cases a person may not even know he or she has MVP unless a cardiologist diagnoses it during an exam.

For other people mitral valve prolapse can cause a range of symptoms, some minor and some serious.

The article from the Mayo Clinic provides reliable details on mitral valve prolapse: signs and symptoms, causes, when to see a doctor, diagnosis, complications, treatment, and more.

New Health Blog at NY Times Has a Familiar Face

I was pleased to see that the New York Times was starting a new health blog called Well. When I clicked on the link to the blog, I had a pleasant surprise: the editor of the blog is none other than Tara Parker-Pope, a health writer whose for the Wall Street Journal I've been reading for several years.

Parker-Pope wrote about all kinds of topics in health and wellness for the Journal in an engaging and easy-to-understand style, and I'm sure that's why the Times has hired her. I look forward to reading Well and continuing to keep up with Tara Parker-Pope's writings.

New Drug Approved to Fight Breast Cancer

The Food and Drug Administration Friday approved the use of the osteoporosis drug Evista to prevent invasive breast cancer in some groups of post-menopausal women who are at risk for breast cancer.

"Today's action provides an important new option for women at heightened risk of breast cancer," Dr. Steven Galson, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a prepared news release. The statement cautioned that because Evista can have serious side effects, each patient should talk with her health care provider about whether the drug is appropriate.

Side effects of Evista are said to include blood clots and stroke, along with lesser symptoms such as hot flashes, leg cramps, swelling of the legs and feet, flu-like symptoms, joint pain, and sweating, according to the FDA.

The drug's maker, Eli Lilly and Company, said, "For the first time, postmenopausal women with osteoporosis will have one treatment option that can help address two leading health concerns -- osteoporosis and invasive breast cancer."

The only other drug that has been approved for reducing the chance of breast cancer is tamoxifen, which has had a controversial history due to its side effects.

Chewing Gum is Health Food

Chewing gum as a health food? Apparently so... USA Today has reported that the Wrigley company has convinced the American Dental Association that chewing gum (the sugarless variety, of course) can help fight cavities. And so Wrigley's sugar-free Orbit, Extra, and Eclipse gums will receive the much-desired ADA seal (the same one that appears on toothpaste, I'd assume).

Apparently studies conducted by Wrigley have shown that gum chewing can help reduce cavities by strengthening gums and stimulating extra saliva, which helps to reduce acids that can cause plaque.

Wrigley's products are the first chewing gums to get the seal, which notes its role in providing benefits to oral health.

Besides the inherent controversy over one manufacturer convincing the ADA to award its seal, it's been noted that the ADA charges fees to defray the cost of the ADA seal program. Wrigley has paid $12,000 for each of the three gums to submit them to the ADA for consideration, and the company will also pay a $2,500 yearly "maintenance" fee to use the seal.

IUDs Can Be Safe, Even in High-Risk Women

A new study has reported that intrauterine devices (IUDs) can be safe and effective contraceptives even for women who typically might not be considered for the device, because of factors ranging from multiple partners to a history of sexually transmitted diseases or pelvic inflammatory disease.

IUDs are implanted by a doctor or other practitioner, then remain in place, so there are no problems with forgetting to use them, as there are with condoms, sponges, etc. IUDs do not protect from STDs, however.

There are two main types of IUDS, which are typically T-shaped plastic devices. One type is wrapped with coils of copper wire; copper ions are deadly to sperm cells. The other type is coated with contraceptive hormones or drugs that prevent conception. Typically the drugs used are estrogens and progestogens.

The study, reported in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, notes that the IUD not used as commonly in the U.S. as in other countries, perhaps owing to concerns about health risks once associated with the IUD.

Female Sex Patch On Sale in Europe

Britain's National Health Service has approved a patch that is claimed to help women regain their sex drive. The BBC earlier reported on the product's pending approval.

The product, Intrinsa, is the first treatment for women with low sex drive, and is available only by prescription for women who have had an early menopause because of surgery. It uses a female-specific form of testosterone. Although testosterone is often considered a male hormone, women also produce it in the ovaries.

Intrinsa has not been approved for use in the U.S. Reportedly regulators there had concerns about the safety of Intrinsa.

Doctors said there was no quick fix for low sex drive, and medical treatment was just one part of the therapy. And they emphasized that Intrinsa should not be seen as some kind of Viagra for women.

About a million women in the UK have had an early menopause because of surgery to remove their ovaries during hysterectomy for conditions such as heavy bleeding and pelvic pain, according to Procter and Gamble, the maker of the Intrinsa patch.

Another company, BioSante, has created a product called LibiGel, which an article in CNNMoney describes as "a metered-dose testosterone gel that's rubbed into the shoulder." This product is not yet on the market; it should soon enter Phase 3 safety trials. The company is looking to get approval for LibiGel to treat women who have entered menopause after having their ovaries surgically removed.

According to BioSante's CEO, a woman's natural testosterone levels drop by half right after surgery, which causes a "drop in desire and sexual activity." BioSante is hoping that LibiGel will find use for women who've reached menpause through aging, rather than surgery.

The CNNMoney article quotes an analyst as saying that he hasn't heard if P&G will reapply to get Intrinsa approved in the U.S.

Naegleria Fowleri Amoeba, Brain-Eating Bug, Has Killed 6 in U.S.

Reports have confirmed that six Americans have been killed by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which has come to be called the "brain-eating amoeba." The microbe lives in lakes and can be inhaled, entering the brain and feeding on brain tissue.

The microbe has recently been found in water wells in Tuscon, Arizona, but officials there say there is no threat because the city chlorinates its water before distributing it.

Though the number of people killed by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba is small, health officials are concerned by the large increase in cases: the microbe has killed only 2.3 per year during the decade ending 2004.

Since the Naegleria fowleri amoeba was discovered in Australia in the 1960s, there have been only several hundred cases worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One of the victims have become infected in Lake Havasu City in Arizona. In 2007 there have been three cases in Florida and two in Texas in addition to the one in Arizona.

The FDA's "Bad Bug Book" has more information on the Naegleria fowleri amoeba and related microbes.

Though usually encountered in lakes, the microbe can be found almost anywhere--soil, water, and air--including hot springs and even dirty swimming pools.

Study Makes You Wonder: Is Your Job Making You Depressed?

A new government study ranks U.S. jobs by the rate of depression experienced by people who work in them.

"People who tend to the elderly, change diapers and serve up food and drinks have the highest rates of depression among U.S. workers," according to an Associated Press article.

The study found that 7 percent of full-time workers experienced depression in the last year, according to the report.

Among the findings:
* Women were more likely to have had a bout of major depression than men
* Younger workers experienced higher rates of depression than older workers
* The highest rate of depression was in personal care workers, which incorporates caring for children, the elderly, and seriously disabled persons

The second highest rate of depression? Well, that was among people who prepare and serve food, including cooks, wait staff, and bartenders. Hmmm, no wonder I was always cranky when I worked at my restaurant jobs as a teenager...

Third place in the depressing jobs arena was a tie between health care workers and social workers.

Which occupational category had the lowest rate of depression? It was the field that includes engineers, architects and surveyors.

You can find the results of the study one the Web.