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Separating Sense from Nonsense
Updated: 2 hours 25 min ago

Ebola scams are sickening

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 19:57

We’ve seen it before. A medical crisis emerges and the scam artists crawl out of the woodwork. Fearful citizens pop open their wallets and fork out hard-earned money for nonsensical “cures.” When it comes to a disease for which science cannot offer an effective treatment, quacks quickly rush in to fill the vacuum. This is just what is happening with Ebola. Claims about preventing infection, and even treating the disease, range from the laughable like eating organic dark chocolate to the totally inane recipe from a Norwegian homeopath for preparing a remedy from the body fluids of an Ebola victim. Homeopathy is based on the scientifically bankrupt notion that a substance capable of causing symptoms in a healthy person can cure those symptoms in an ill person if it is sufficiently diluted. This is nonsensical at any time, but handling the body fluids of an infected person is not a recipe for a cure, it is a recipe for disaster.

One would think that reasonable homeopaths, if such a term is ever applicable, would not support this absurd regimen. But homeopaths certainly have supported other “remedies” for Ebola, such as those concocted from various types of snake venom. Why? Because snake venom can cause intense bleeding, so in the perverse world of homeopathy, in an extremely diluted version it should be a remedy to stop hemorrhaging, a classic sign of Ebola infection. Of course the treatment is useless, but at least the only person at risk is the one collecting the snake venom. And that is unlikely to be the homeopath.

Homeopathic remedies are not the only ones being touted as effective tools in the battle against the Ebola virus. “Nanosilver” is also a hot item thanks to some clever pseudoscientific promotional lingo. Silver has been shown to have antimicrobial properties, begins the sales pitch, and then goes on to describe how silver is used in water purifiers and is even woven into socks to reduce odour caused by microbes. True enough. But deodourizing socks is a long way from destroying the Ebola virus in the body. Colloidal silver can, however, do something. It can cause an irreversible condition known as argyria in which skin colour is permanently altered by deposits of silver. Essential oils from plants won’t fare any better than silver in dealing with the Ebola virus. “Thieves oil,” a blend of cinnamon, rosemary, clove, eucalyptus and lemon oils, is hyped by some as an infection preventative. Seems like an appropriate name for a product that takes money and offers nothing in return.

Other plants, such as bitter kola, astragalus and elderberry are also said to contain compounds that can destroy the Ebola virus and are promoted by some hucksters as a treatment. They clamor for testing such herbal remedies and complain that while untested pharmaceutical products such as Zmapp are being fast-tracked, there is no will to test herbs. Yes, Zmapp is being fast-tracked because it has a plausible chance of working, backed by the solid science of monoclonal antibodies. Vague claims of herbal preparations “boosting immunity” will not do. The immune system is a complex network of organs, specialized cells, antibodies, vitamins, hormones and various other molecules. Nobody knows just what should be boosted to help fight the Ebola virus. This is not to say that herbal remedies have no potential. Honeysuckle tea, for example, has recently been shown to contain a “microRNA” that interferes with messenger RNA and is capable of silencing two genes that flu viruses need to replicate.

In Africa, there have been cases of desperate Ebola victims seeking out healers who claim to have herbal cures. There is at least one account of such a healer actually having exacerbated the problem when infected people came to be healed and ended up inadvertently spreading the disease including to the healer, who reportedly then died of Ebola.

Perhaps the greatest publicity for a supposed preventative has been garnered by vitamin C, a substance that in most minds is associated with health and justifiably so. An extreme deficiency of this vitamin causes scurvy and more mild deficiencies can lead to an increased release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol raises blood sugar, suppresses the immune system and decreases bone formation. But none of this means that it can treat an Ebola infection. Yet that is the obvious implication of a product that has seen a meteoric rise in sales recently. The cleverly named Ebola-C sells for $34.95 for 60 tablets of vitamin C, 500 mgs per tablet. This is about ten times the price of no-name brands available everywhere. There is zero evidence that Ebola-C has any effect on the prevention or treatment of an Ebola infection.

The brains behind this marketing scam is New York businessman Todd Spinelli who claims to have gotten the idea from Dr. Oz. Well, I’m not one to come to the rescue of a guy who has dispensed a truckload of questionable advice, but in this case he did not claim that vitamin C could prevent Ebola infection. He did have a show on Ebola that included a segment in which he talked about stress and how vitamin C could reduce the negative effects of cortisol but he did not link this to Ebola. Of course it may be true that Spinelli heard him prattle on about vitamin C on the same program as his Ebola discussion and that sparked a marketing idea. Some promoters of vitamin C supplements have rationalized that Ebola and scurvy have similarities in that both conditions are associated with excessive bleeding. Since vitamin C treats scurvy it may have an effect on an Ebola infection as well, they suggest. This is like arguing that since brain tumours are associated with headaches, they could conceivably be treated with aspirin. Makes no sense.

Even vitamin C supplement advocates, and there are many in the medical community, agree that small doses of oral vitamin C are ineffective in the battle against viruses. But some claim that massive intravenous doses, of the order of 30-50 grams a day, can wipe out viruses and should be tried on Ebola victims. They base this on baseless reports that large doses of vitamin C have cured victims of polio, Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever. Of course since intravenous vitamin C hasn’t been tried on Ebola patients, it is impossible to say categorically that it will not cure Ebola, but given what we know about infectious diseases, it’s a good bet that the only result of intravenous vitamin C would be diarrhea. Not the best thing for a dehydrated patient.

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Green coffee beans give science a black eye

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 22:29

Dr. Oz  didn’t mince his words when he described the wondrous effects of green coffee been extract. “Magical,” “staggering,” an “unprecedented discovery!” “Finally, a cure for obesity” he breathlessly gushed. I gasped too. Not at the results of the study that sent Oz into rapture, but at the credulity of the man. Losing 10.5% of one’s body weight and 16% of body fat in 22 weeks without any dieting or exercise? Just by taking green coffee bean extract? That would indeed be a miracle. If only the study had been properly conducted and involved more than 16 people.

But what we actually had was a study so sloppy that it was rejected by the journals to which it was originally submitted. That’s when, as the story goes, the manufacturer of the green coffee bean supplement, Applied Food Sciences, hired University of Scranton Professors Joe Vinson and Bryan Burnham to rewrite the paper to make it acceptable for publication. It seems these two had nothing to do with the research and were more or less hired guns. Obviously there is a major ethical issue here with university professors basically writing a paper about research that they were not involved in.

Granted, Dr. Oz could not have been aware of the sordid history of the publication but having been trained in science he should have known better than to tout a piece of ragged research that involved so few subjects as a “miracle.” His unbridled enthusiasm for the supplement led to skyrocketing sales but a pretty rough landing for the hopeful who bought into the easy weight loss scheme. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. didn’t buy  the outrageous claims and launched an investigation, quickly concluding that the lead investigator in the study had altered some of the data and was even unclear about which subjects had taken the coffee bean extract and which the placebo. “Sloppy” would be the kind expression, “fraudulent” the more realistic one.

The FTC doesn’t take kindly to such fiddling with data and initiated legal proceedings. The result was a fine of $3.5 million for the company and a promise to desist from false advertising in the future. By this time Vinson and Burnham were feeling the heat and have now decided to retract the paper because as they said, “the sponsors of the study cannot assure the validity of the data.” What on earth are they talking about? Being the authors of the paper, didn’t they think of verifying the data before? They relied on the manufacturer of the product being tested to check the data? Does one ask the fox to check on the welfare of the chickens in the hen house? If it turns out that Vinson and Burnham were really paid to write this paper without having been involved in the research, some sort of disciplinary action is indicated.

“Green coffee bean-gate” should be widely publicized because it is an excellent example of how a credulous TV personality, shoddy science and a curious lack of judgment by a couple of professors can result in the runaway sales of a questionable product. A black eye for science.

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Cherry Picking Cranberry Juice Data

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 10:38

Cranberry juice manufacturers are adept at cherry-picking data. Of course this is not a unique pursuit. Be it milk, or blueberries or pomegranates or artificial sweeteners or beef or turmeric or bottled water or virtually any other food or beverage that is on the market, its producers scour the scientific literature for any study that can be used as promotional material. And given the vast number of scientific papers that are published, something can always be found and relatively insignificant data can be seductively exaggerated. How about this press release cooked up by a cranberry juice company’s publicity agency. “Feeling Lovesick? Scientists Say Cranberry Juice Can Help.” Actually no scientist said that.

The twisted reference is to a study that involved subjects drinking a non-commercially available cranberry drink and donating blood from which a special type of immune cell was isolated and its proliferation in a Petri dish was studied. The researchers discovered that the immune cells isolated from the juice drinkers proliferated more quickly. But this was a study carried out in a test tube. The subjects also were asked about cold and flu symptoms and once again the juice drinkers reported reduced severity although there was no difference in frequency of illness. So how does this rather pedantic data convert cranberry juice into a love potion for a Valentine’s Day promotion? With some clever wording. “If you want to smooch, not sniffle, grab a glass of cranberry juice,” starts the enticing copy.

But if you do grab that glass, you will also be grabbing about ten spoonfuls of added sugar. That’s what you get in a soft drink or any other fruit juice. Cranberry juice producers are feeling the heat about sugar and are upping the ante about the benefits of the juice, claiming that these benefits are not wiped out by the sugar. The question of course is, what really are those benefits? In many minds cranberry juice is associated with reducing the risk of urinary tract infections and even with curing those infections. These are not rare. There are millions of urinary tract infections every year in Canada and their treatment with antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance.

It would be great if there were a simple preventative regimen, such as drinking cranberry juice. While there are some studies that have shown a marginal benefit, when all the high quality studies are lumped together in a “meta analysis,” the evidence for the prevention of urinary tract infection by cranberry juice is just too weak to recommend its consumption for this purpose. But a little more data dredging can unearth studies that suggest cardiovascular and gastrointestinal benefits. You can even find studies that imply a reduction in dental plaque with cranberry extract mouthwashes as well as inhibition of the growth of cancer cells. But these are mostly esoteric laboratory studies with little practical application. If it’s a choice between a soda pop and cranberry juice, by all means choose the juice. However, when it comes to adding it to the diet hoping to improve health, juicing the berries comes with squeezing of the data.

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We need rational discussion about pesticides, without rhetoric

Sun, 10/12/2014 - 22:58

David Copperfield performed many an illusion on his television specials with his hair blowing in the wind, tussled by an offstage fan. I was reminded of that effect by an episode of the Dr. Oz show in which the hot air so often generated by the host was amplified by a fan à la Copperfield. And Oz, too, was performing a sort of illusion if we go by the definition of the term as “something that deceives by a false perception or belief.” In this case, Oz dumped a bunch of yellow feathers on a patch of synthetic turf adorned with some synthetic plants to demonstrate pesticide drift. The flurry of feathers was meant to illustrate how neighbouring fields, as well as people who happen to be nearby, may be affected. A powerful visual skit to be sure, but a gross misrepresentation of the risks posed by pesticide drift.

The reason for the demo at this particular time was that, in Oz’s words, “the Environmental Protection Agency is on the brink of approving a brand new toxic pesticide you don’t know about.” The reference was to Enlist Duo, a mixture of the weed killers glyphosate and 2,4-D (short for 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), designed to be used on corn and soy grown from seeds genetically engineered to resist these herbicides. Fields can then be sprayed to kill weeds without harming the crops. Enlist Duo is already approved in Canada.

The need for the new combination was generated by the development of resistance to glyphosate by weeds in fields planted with crops genetically modified to tolerate this herbicide. Such resistance has nothing to do with genetic modification, it is a consequence of biology, since some members of a target species will have a natural resistance to a pesticide and will go on to reproduce and yield offspring that are also resistant. Eventually, the whole population becomes resistant. This is the same problem we face today with bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics.

Oz got one thing right. Pesticides are toxic. That’s exactly why they are used. And that is why there is extensive research about their effects and strict regulation about their application. Remember that there are no “safe” or “dangerous” chemicals, just safe or dangerous ways to use them. As far as 2,4-D and glyphosate go, there is nothing new here, since both of these have been widely used for years, although not in this specific combination. What is new is the development of crops resistant to 2,4-D, which will allow for its use to kill weeds in corn and soy fields, something that was not possible before. This has raised alarm among those who maintain that 2,4-D is dangerous and that its increased use is going to affect human health. Dr. Oz apparently is of this belief, and as the feathers were flying around the stage, he chimed in with how “2,4-D is a chemical that was used in Agent Orange which the government banned during the Vietnam War.”

2,4-D, was indeed one of the components in the notorious Agent Orange used to defoliate trees in Vietnam. Tragically, it was later found to be contaminated with tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD), a highly toxic chemical linked to birth defects and cancer. This dioxin, however, has nothing to do with 2,4-D. It was inadvertently formed during the production of 2,4,5-trichloroacetic acid, or 2,4,5-T, the other component in Agent Orange. That is why the production of 2,4,5-T, but not 2,4-D, was banned.

It is deceitful to imply that the new herbicide is dangerous because it contains the harmful compound that was used in Agent Orange. Not only does Enlist Duo not contain any TCDD, the form of 2,4-D it does contain is also different from what was used in Vietnam. Enlist Duo is formulated with “2,4-D choline” which is far less volatile than 2,4-D itself and has an even safer profile. While legitimate concerns can be raised about genetic modification, it is disingenuous to scare the public by linking the newly proposed herbicide to Agent Orange. It is also irresponsible to show videos of crops such as green peppers being sprayed, insinuating that Enlist Duo will be used on all sorts of crops whereas it would only be suitable for Dow’s genetically engineered corn and soy.

Now on to the issue of pesticide drift, which can happen in two ways. Tiny droplets of the spray can be carried by air currents, and the chemicals can also evaporate and spread as a vapour after being deposited on a field in their liquid form. These are realistic concerns especially given that some schools are located in the vicinity of agricultural fields. But these are just the sort of concerns that are taken into account when a pesticide is approved. For example, one well-designed study concluded that a person standing about 40 metres from a sprayer would be exposed to about 10 microlitres of spray, of which 9 microlitres are just water. Calculations show that the amount of 2,4-D in the 1 microlitre is well within safety limits, and of course spraying isn’t continuous, it is done a few times a year. Consider also that 2,4-D choline, which is what is found in Enlist Duo, has far lower volatility and tendency to drift than 2,4-D itself, further improving its safety profile.

While no pesticide can be regarded as risk-free, the portrayal of Enlist Duo by Dr. Oz amounts to unscientific fear mongering. His final comment that “this subjects our entire nation to one massive experiment and I’m very concerned that we’re at the beginning of a catastrophe that we don’t have to subject ourselves to” totally ignores the massive number of experiments that have been carried out on pesticides before approval, based on a scientific rather than an emotional evaluation of the risk versus benefit ratio. True, when it comes to pesticides, there is no free lunch. But without the judicious use of such agrochemicals producing that lunch for the close to 10 billion people who by 2050 will be lining up for it becomes a challenge. What we need is rational discussion, not the spraying around of feathers and ill-informed rhetoric in a deception-laden stage act. If I want deception on the stage, I’ll stick to watching David Copperfield.

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Leukemia Needs Chemotherapy, Not “Live Enzyme Treatment”

Sun, 10/12/2014 - 09:39

Do parents have a right to make a decision about how a minor’s cancer is to be treated? Or not treated? This is not just a hypothetical question, it is a very current one. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a bone marrow cancer that untreated leads to death but with appropriate chemotherapy has an over 90% cure rate. The parents of an eleven year old Canadian girl have decided to end the recommended treatment before it was completed in favour of a “natural” therapy, stating that this was more in line with their native traditions. They elected to have their child treated at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida which features alternative therapies based on the theories of Ann Wigmore, a Lithuanian émigré to the U.S. who had become convinced of the healing power of grasses after reading the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who went through a seven year period of insanity from which he apparently cured himself by eating grass.

Wigmore reflected on this story, considered how dogs and cats sometimes eat grass when they feel ill, and came up with a theory about the magical properties of wheatgrass juice. Food rots in the intestine due to improper digestion, she maintained, and forms “toxins” that then enter the circulation. The living enzymes in raw wheatgrass prevent these toxins from forming and ward off disease. So she claimed. By 1988 Wigmore, who had no recognized scientific education, was even suggesting that her “energy enzyme soup” was capable of curing AIDS and cancer. Ann is no longer with us but her “live enzyme therapy” is still a mainstay at the Hippocrates Health Institute.

The term “live enzyme” is meaningless since enzymes are not living entities. They are not composed of cellular units, they cannot reproduce, they cannot carry on metabolism and they cannot grow. Ergo, they are not alive. Enzymes are specialized protein molecules that are essential because they catalyze the numerous reactions that go on in our bodies all the time that are necessary to sustain life. But our bodies make all the enzymes that are needed and enzymes present in food are not the same as the enzymes our cells need and in any case are broken down during digestion. Claims that cancer can be cured by live enzyme therapy are bogus and dangerous. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia requires treatment that has been worked out by decades of research, not concoctions based on folklore and wishful thinking. Should authorities step in and override the parents’ wishes? If this young girl is to have a chance at survival, yes.

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Space molecules are branching out

Tue, 10/07/2014 - 21:29

In a paper published in this week’s issue of Science, astronomers from the Max Planck institute, the University of Cologne (Germany) and Cornell University (USA), announced to have for the first time detected, in interstellar space, a carbon-containing molecule with a branched structure. The molecule, isopropyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN), was discovered in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2 close to the center of our galaxy. This region of ongoing star formation is heavily scrutinized by astronomers as it has been shown to be especially rich in hydrogen-containing, carbon-bearing (organic) molecules that are most closely related to the ones necessary for life on Earth. "Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," says Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, the lead author of the paper. Previous research had revealed the presence of a variety of molecules, (including ethylformate, the molecule responsible for the flavor of raspberries!) but until now they all consisted in a backbone of straight chain carbon atoms. The branched isopropyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) is of special interest as this type of molecular arrangement is a key characteristic of amino acids, compounds associated with life

It is not only the structure of the molecule that surprised the team but also its abundance. It is almost half as plentiful as its sister molecule, normal-propylcyanide (n- C3H7CN). According to one of the coauthors, Robin Garrod, an astrochemist at Cornell University, "…the enormous abundance of iso-propyl cyanide suggests that branched molecules may in fact be the rule, rather than the exception, in the interstellar medium". The two molecules, each consisting of 12 atoms, are also the joint-largest molecules yet detected in any star-forming region.

The molecule was identified from its spectroscopic fingerprint using the newly established radio telescope station in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The area, the driest spot on earth, is especially suited for this type of observation. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), consisting of 66 radio antennas, most 12 meters in diameter, can create images that would require a 14,000 m single dish. Costing about US $1.4 billion it is the most expensive ground-based telescope on earth. It became fully operational in March 2013.

Find out more about ALMA, and interstellar science, by coming to the 2014 Trottier Symposium “Are We Alone”, Monday October 6 and Tuesday October 7th, “… it will be out of this world.”

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Antibiotics linked to childhood obesity

Wed, 10/01/2014 - 21:14

A newly published study in JAMA Pediatrics indicates that children who had had four or more courses of antibiotics by age two were at a 10% higher risk of being obese by age five.  Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Bloomberg School of Public Health examined the records of more than 64,500 children between 2011 and 2013. The children were followed until the age of five. In addition to show a link between antibiotic use and childhood obesity the study also indicated that the type of antibiotic also appeared to make a difference.  Children who were given repeated doses of broad spectrum antibiotics, that target a variety of microbes, were nearly twice as likely to become obese when compared to those who received the narrow spectrum varieties aimed at specific species. The researchers corrected their data to take into account variations in obesity risks associated with ethnic and socioeconomic factors. They also discounted the possibility that other medications given alongside antibiotics might be responsible for the weight gain.

The study confirms that the microbial gut population plays a role in obesity and that antibiotics can alter its composition to foster weight gains. A notion supported by animal studies carried out by Dr Blaser of New York University in New York  and published last August in the prestigious journal Cell. In one study three groups of mice were followed. One group was treated with low doses of penicillin in the womb. A second group received the same dose after weaning. The third did not receive any penicillin. Both groups that received penicillin showed an increase in fat mass when compared to mice not treated with antibiotic. The interesting feature though, was that the increase was higher in the group receiving penicillin stating in the womb. This suggests that mice are more prone to weight gain when receiving antibiotics early in life.

Another experiment was the carried out by determine if the weight gain was caused by the antibiotic or by altered bacterial population in the gut. Bacteria were transferred from penicillin treated mice to specially bred germ-free mice and antibiotic free mice. The researchers discovered that mice receiving bacteria from the antibiotic-treated donors became fatter than the germ-free mice inoculated with bacteria from untreated donors. This showed, according to the researchers, that the altered microbes are driving the obesity effects not the antibiotics.  It also contradicted the theory that antibiotics in farming causes weight gain in animals by reducing total microbial population and therefore the competition for nutrients.

It has been known for decades that over prescription of antibiotics could lead to the growth of resistant bacteria. Now here is another potential health effect to consider. It suggests that doctors should, as much as possible, reduce restrict their prescriptions of antibiotics in children and more specifically of the broad spectrum type.

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Goat Poop in Your Hair?

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:08

Now that we’ve got your attention, let’s talk about argan oil. Don’t worry, we will get around to the poop. Surely you’ve heard of corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and canola oil. But unless you’re familiar with Moroccan traditions, or are in the habit of frequenting trendy hair salons, chances are that argan oil has escaped your attention. So what is this oil that most people have never heard of?

Argan is a tree that grows in only one specific region of Morocco and produces a fruit that resembles a large olive. Stripping away the fleshy outside layer exposes a nut that can be dried and cracked open to reveal several kernels. Traditionally these have been roasted, mashed and squeezed to yield an oil with a nutty flavor. Because the trees are rare, and a lot of work is involved in producing the oil, it tends to be expensive. That’s why it is used sparingly, usually to flavor salads and dips. It can also be stirred into couscous. There are even health claims about lowering cholesterol and boosting the immune system, although these have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Chemically argan oil is very similar to olive oil, consisting mostly of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat. While these are deemed to be “healthy,” argan oil would rarely be consumed regularly in significant amounts to have any impact on health. Like olive oil it also contains some vitamin E, along with small quantities of other antioxidants of no practical relevance. There is somewhat more rationale for the use of argan oil in cosmetic products. At least one study suggests that a small amount rubbed on the skin can reduce sebum production and there is some hope that it may have an effect on psoriasis. But even here it is doubtful it would differ from olive oil.

Some hair dressers recommend argan oil as a conditioning agent, often citing that it is the reason why Moroccan women have beautiful hair. Actually there’s no evidence that Moroccan women have particularly beautiful hair, or that significant numbers of them use argan oil. In any case, there’s no theoretical reason to think that argan oil would work better than olive oil as a hair conditioner. But there is also a product called “Moroccan oil” that is available in better hair salons and pharmacies that actually works very well in making hair more manageable and more likely to hold its shape.

While this product does contain some argan oil, it is hardly the active ingredient. Basically it is included to allow for some hype about a rare oil. The first three ingredients are actually cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone and cyclomethicone, three very effective silicones that really can tame troublesome hair. But there are plenty of cheaper silicone products that do as good a job. However, they don’t come with the mythology that surrounds argan oil. And part of that mythology is that traditionally the oil was pressed from nuts that had passed through the digestive tracts of goats that had climbed the tree to satisfy their craving for the argan fruit. Supposedly the nuts processed by the goats were easier to crack and yielded a particularly flavourful oil. Goats do climb the argan trees, that much is true. But collecting their poop to isolate the nuts is a myth. As much a myth as the one about argan oil having magical properties.

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The new meaning of natural vanilla flavor

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 05:05

Vanilla is the most popular flavor in North America. But it is not that often that one gets the chance to taste the “real stuff”. The flavor made from the beans of the vanilla orchid is expensive. This is why 99% of the time what is found in food comes from synthetic vanillin. The compound, which is also present in natural vanilla, can be prepared from wood pulp but today most of it comes from guaiacol a substance extracted from a petroleum derivative. Recently though a Japanese chemist, Mayu Yamamoto prepared the synthetic flavor from cow dung. The process, which won him the Ig Nobel, the humorous alternate to the real prize, involves extracting the pulp from the poop, and converting it to vanillin.

Natural vanilla can cost up to 200 times as much as the synthetic derivative an there is a lot of fake on the market. The easiest way to detect the fraud is using analytical techniques to detect the presence of side products in addition to vanillin. Natural vanilla is a collage of chemicals whereas the synthetic stuff contains only vanillin. The absence of a compound such as 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde would indicate fraud. But as the counterfeiter can simply add the appropriate molecules, another more sophisticated method can be used, carbon-14 dating. Natural vanilla contains a set level of radioactive carbon-14 whose half-life is 5730 years. This means that synthetic vanillin, derived from petroleum that has decayed over millions of years, is not expected to exhibit any radioactivity.

The cost of vanilla flavor from the plant and the desire from consumers for natural ingredients has spurred the industry to search for naturally produced versions of vanillin. Two companies are in the running. A Belgian company Solvay, makes its vanillin by yeast fermentation of ferulic acid, a by-product of rice milling.  Evola, also employs yeast fermentation but begins with sugar and makes use of a genetically modified strain of baker’s yeast.  The two companies argue that their vanillin, derived from natural ingredients, and natural processes, can therefore be labeled as “natural vanilla flavor.” This even though the vanillin does not come from the plant. Also Evola claims that their process yields some of the chemicals naturally present in the plant giving it a more real taste.

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The Healing Code

Sun, 09/28/2014 - 22:10

You would think it’s a Saturday Night Live skit. And it would be funny if it didn’t have a serious side. Just picture this. Using different fingers, a man points at four specific parts of his body in a seemingly predetermined sequence. Looks like some bizarre ritual. But it’s not. It’s an attempt to rid the body of some disease according to specific instructions embodied in an epic piece of work called the “Healing Code.” Depending on the ailment, a different pattern of finger wagging is indicated. No pills or supplements to take, no scalpel to fear.

The Healing Code is the brain child of one Alex Loyd, who happens to be a naturopath. He is into what he calls the new science of “energy medicine.” I call it bunk. The basic tenet of “energy medicine” is that the human body is surrounded by some sort of energy field that is prone to becoming disturbed. Such disturbances lead to disease. Luckily, though, according to the proponents of energy medicine, these disturbances can be fixed by some sort of external energetic intervention. They are not bothered at all by the fact that nobody has ever shown the existence of such an energy field that is anything other than heat radiating from the body or that wagging fingers do not release energy.

According to Loyd you can even heal other people, and even animals, with these codes. And you don’t even have to do any finger pointing at them. You just have to state in your mind the intention that the dancing fingers are for someone else. Then you just go on and point at your own healing centers. The subjects of the healing can be anywhere, even across the world. Mind boggling. Loyd charges about $700 for a manual and a DVD to learn his system. The only thing his system energizes is his bank account.

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Weighing the benefits of tea

Sun, 09/28/2014 - 07:50

“Get in here and sit your ass down!”

Not exactly what you expect to hear when you are peacefully walking in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But the boisterous elderly Chinese gentleman seemed charismatic enough, and the establishment didn’t look like an opium den. Indeed it wasn’t. It was a tea house. But not your ordinary tea house.

We quickly found ourselves plunked down at a long counter along with a number of other tourists who had been dragged in from the street.

“It’s not for taste, it’s for health,” began “Uncle Gee,” who I was to learn was a local institution.

“Eighty-four years old,” he boasted, and “in perfect health!”

“Drink eight cups of tea a day; never coffee!”

“Tea full of antioxidants against cancer!”

Not only were we treated to a lecture on the “science” and history of tea, we were also ordered to try about half a dozen varieties.

“Never use boiling water, the tea will scream,” and so did he. “Don’t even dream about adding milk or sugar.”

“Steep for only twenty seconds!”

We sipped rosebud tea from Iran to ward off insomnia, and “puerh” for weight loss and heart problems. Next came Blue People Ginseng Oolong. I don’t know why the “blue.” I looked around and none of the people drinking it were turning blue. Everyone enjoyed that one. It was a truly different taste, with a hint of licorice, “a party-in-your-mouth tea,” we were told.

As our taste buds were partying, I glanced around at the dozens and dozens of jars, all with intriguing names.

“Monkey-picked green tea” for “cleansing the body” caught my attention. It wasn’t clear if this was to be applied to the outside or the inside of the body, or how the monkeys had been trained to pick tea. I wanted to ask if this was just monkey business, but didn’t dare. I did muster up enough courage to ask Uncle Gee about his favourite tea, the one that kept him young and so full of whatever. He quickly pointed to “Angel Green tea.”

“Good for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and detox.”

At $160 a pound, I suspect good for profits too, although there was no “hard sell.” The tea bash ended with Uncle Gee telling us that while we were strangers when we came in, we were now part of the family. How could I resist buying some Angel Green and Blue People?

We’ve been enjoying both teas ever since, but other than frolicking taste buds, I can’t vouch for any benefits. But tea leaves do contain more than 700 compounds, many with potential biological activity. It is the “polyphenols,” the “catechins” in particular, that have aroused researchers’ interest enough to generate a truckload of studies.

When rats are fed green-tea leaves, their blood cholesterol and triglycerides go down. Levels of such enzymes as superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione-S-transferase, all involved in removing foreign chemicals from the body, go up. The rats are also less prone to weight gain, apparently because of an increase in metabolism.

But in these studies, the rats consume far more tea on a weight basis than people ever can. As far as human-population studies go, some show a decrease in colon, breast, stomach and prostate cancer; but others don’t. The studies are neither consistent nor convincing, which is not surprising given that there are numerous varieties of tea, their chemical profiles depending on the type of tea, where it is grown and how it is harvested, stored and processed. Most of the epidemiological studies that have shown health benefits have focused on Asian populations, where tea consumption is much greater than in North America, and lifestyles are very different.

Laboratory studies have also been carried out with various tea components. For example, heterocyclic aromatic amines, compounds produced when meat is cooked at a high temperature, are less likely to trigger cancer in the presence of the polyphenols theaflavine gallate and epigallocatechin gallate. Such findings, along with the suggestion of increased rates of metabolism, have led to the sale of various dietary supplements based on tea extracts. Why go to the trouble of drinking tea when you can just pop a “cancer-fighting, fat-burning” pill?

But here we run into a problem. Such dietary supplements are poorly regulated; and the amount of catechins they contain can be far greater than that available from drinking tea. The high doses may indeed help to increase metabolism and result in weight loss, but the cost can be high. Just ask the teenager who walked into the emergency room at Texas Children’s Hospital with his chest, face and eyes bright yellow due to severe liver damage, after using a concentrated green-tea extract he bought at a “nutrition” store as a “fat-burning” supplement.

There was concern that he might need a liver transplant but luckily his liver, an organ that has regenerative properties, managed to recover. He did have to give up sporting activities, and will require regular liver function checkups.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case, and such cases are not limited to green-tea extracts. Recently aegeline, a compound found in the leaves of the Asian bael tree, showed up in supplements marketed as an aid in losing weight and building muscle — despite a lack of any credible evidence. But aegeline may not be without some effect. More than 50 people suffered liver damage, two had to have liver transplants and one died after consuming a supplement containing aegeline.

The multi-hospital-based Drug Induced Liver Injury Network in the U.S. has found that liver problems due to herbal and other dietary supplements have increased three-fold in the last 10 years. Conventional medications still cause far more cases of liver injury, but they also have evidence of efficacy, which is not the case for many herbals.

I suspect that Uncle Gee would have a few devilish words to say about people who might think that they can encapsulate the benefits of Angel tea in a pill. He would likely argue that supplements cannot replicate the same rejuvenating effects he experiences from his daily tea regimen.

I must admit he did look robust and way younger than 84.

But when pushed, he did tell me that he runs six miles three times a week, and can bench press 110 pounds.

So maybe it’s not only the tea that’s keeping him young.

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Thomas Donaldson and cryonics

Sat, 09/27/2014 - 22:57

Most people would like to keep their heads. But don't count Thomas Donaldson among them. This mathematician and computer consultant wanted his cut off.  And he wanted it to be done while he was still alive. In one of the most bizarre court cases in history, Donaldson petitioned the State of California to allow him to be anesthetized and then be frozen solid with liquid nitrogen. He then wanted his head removed and placed in a stainless steel thermos bottle while the rest of his body was discarded.

Donaldson was not mad, not completely anyway. In the 1970s he had become interested in cryonics, the study of the behavior of matter at low temperatures. He had read about the potential of frozen tissues to be thawed out for future use and when he heard of a company that was looking for people to be frozen with hopes of future resuscitation, he jumped. Alcor was founded in the 1970s in California, where else, with hopes of enlisting people who would be flash frozen after death and stored in liquid nitrogen until technology evolved to the degree that not only could they be brought back to life, but whatever disease they died of, could be cured. In 1975 Donaldson signed up for the program. Unfortunately, thirteen years later he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He concluded that if he waited to die, his brain would be so ravaged by the tumor that any hope of bringing him back to life at some future date would be lost. But if he were immediately frozen, the tumor would be stopped in its tracks.

Only his head needed to be kept, Donaldson maintained, because by the time he would be "reanimated" scientists would easily be able to clone the rest of his body from his cells. The only problem was that the authorities made it clear that any technician who took part in this weird experiment would be charged with murder. Hence Donaldsons's court petition to allow himself to be frozen. It was his constitutional right, he claimed, to determine when and how he would die. The court did not agree and neither did the California Superior court which denied the petition. So Donaldson grumbled and waited to die, which he did in 2006. His body was frozen and now is stored in a cryogenic container at Alcor. As far as we know his head is still attached. That’s unlike baseball great Ted Williams whose head sits in a neighbouring much smaller container...

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Bacopa Monnieri

Tue, 09/23/2014 - 23:18

Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine. When our early ancestors foraged for plants to eat, they encountered some that had benefits other than curbing hunger. Maybe it was pain relief from the mandrake root, or ginseng to boost energy, or cannabis to offer delight. By 1500 BC the Egyptians had amassed a wealth of information about medicinal herbs as documented in the famous Ebers Papyrus. It described the use of botanicals such as myrrh, cardamom, dill, fennel, thyme and frankincense for various ailments ranging from intestinal problems and breathing difficulties to crocodile bites. It also alluded to treating infections with moldy bread some 3500 years before Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. But, curiously, the Papyrus also featured magic spells to combat demons.

Then some 2000 years ago, texts of Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional form of healing in India, also described all sorts of herbal remedies, many of which are still used today by Ayurvedic practitioners. But longevity of use does not equate to evidence. That can only be arrived at through proper scientific studies. Mounting such studies is important because they can either dismiss or validate the effects of herbal remedies. As we well know, many of the drugs used today in conventional medicine were developed based upon investigations stimulated by folklore.

In Ayurvedic medicine extracts of Bacopa monnieri, a plant we know as “water hyssop,” have long been used with claims of memory and cognitive function improvement. This is of interest to researchers because of our aging population, and goodness knows, we could use some brain function improvement in the world. There actually have been several proper clinical trials carried out, all showing some signs of improvement. In the latest study, 81 healthy Australians over the age of 55 were treated either with Bacopa or a placebo. After 12 weeks, Bacopa significantly improved verbal learning and some aspects of memory on standardized tests, but that does not necessarily mean that Bacopa extracts have a significant effect when it comes to daily life. Except for one. Subjects taking the extract were more likely to suffer from increased stool frequency, abdominal cramps and nausea. Like any plant product, Bacopa contains numerous compounds, including a variety of triterpene glycosides that can enhance nerve impulse transmission and possibly affect brain function. Perhaps those that have specific activity can be isolated, standardized and used as a true memory pill. Dr. Oz has spoken favourably about the Bacopa extracts now available, but his claim that Bacopa can make you smarter is kind of dumb.

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Vitriolic attacks

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 21:21

In the Sherlock Holmes story, The Case of the Illustrious Client, a former paramour seeks revenge on the dastardly Baron Adelbert Gruner by splashing the Baron’s face with sulphuric acid, which at the time was commonly known as vitriol.  The effect was accurately described by Conan Doyle, which is not surprising, given that the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was a physician: “The vitriol was eating into it everywhere and dripping from the ears and the chin. One eye was already white and glazed. The other was red and inflamed. The features which I had admired a few minutes before were now like some beautiful painting over which the artist has passed a wet and foul sponge. They were blurred, discoloured, inhuman, terrible.”  Such vitriolic attacks are terrible indeed.

Credit for the discovery of sulphuric acid is usually attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, an Arabian alchemist of the eight century.  Our term “gibberish” supposedly derives from his English name Geber, in reference to the alchemists’ use of secret codes that to others were incomprehensible, or “gibberish.”  But it seems Jabir’s experiments with hydrated sulfate salts of iron and copper were recorded well enough for him to be credited with the discovery of vitriol.  The term “hydrated” refers to the inclusion of water in the crystal structure of these substances.  Hydrated iron sulphate or copper sulphate decompose on heating to yield sulphur trioxide and water, which then combine to yield sulphuric acid, or vitriol.  Vitreus is the Latin word for glass, and since crystals of sulphate salts have a glass-like appearance, “oil of vitriol” became a reasonable name for the acid that was derived from the heat treatment of these salts.  Indeed, copper sulphate still has the common name blue vitriol, iron sulphate is green vitriol and cobalt sulphate is red vitriol.

Sulphuric acid is an extremely corrosive substance and can cause permanent disfigurement when splashed on the skin.  Unfortunately such vitriolic attacks are not limited to fictional detective stories, they happen in real life.  An attack by extremists on girls on their way to school in Afghanistan is a recent horrific example.  Believing that girls would be polluted by education, they carried out an attack leaving some of the students scarred for life, both figuratively and literally.  Used in this way, sulphuric acid is a terrible chemical weapon.  But it is also the most important industrial chemical in the world, without which the steel, fertilizer and plastics industries would be crippled.  There are no safe or dangerous chemicals, there are only safe and dangerous ways to use chemicals.

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Streptomycin and Blueberries

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 21:13

A story is blazing around the blogosphere about a ten year old girl having an anaphylactic reaction to a blueberry pie. Physicians supposedly traced the reaction to streptomycin used as a pesticide on the blueberries. The account is spreading like wildfire with warnings about how an “antibiotic reside in food may cause severe allergies.” The reference is to a paper in the September issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, a reputable publication. But there is a problem. The September issue is not yet out. So how do we know about the case? Because the Journal has put out a press release hyping the story. Scientific journals, just like any other publication, vie for readership and subscriptions, so they do seek attention. But here we are talking about a story that has some questionable features that cannot be checked because the actual paper is not yet available.

So what are these questionable features? First of all, the use of antibiotics as pesticides is rare. In Canada, streptomycin is registered only for use against “fire blight,” a destructive bacterial disease that can strike pear and apple trees. It cannot be used on blueberries. In the U.S. it may also be used on tomatoes and is even allowed in organic agriculture because it comes from a natural source, the bacterium Streptomyces griseus. The use of streptomycin is uncommon. Any suggestion that antibiotics are widely used as pesticides is simply wrong. The press release states that “as far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides.” Since streptomycin has been allowed for decades, and this is the first time a problem has cropped up, we are not looking at a highly significant problem. If indeed the problem was streptomycin.

We’ll have to wait to see what the case report actually says about how the reaction was linked to the antibiotic. Streptomycin breaks down quickly in the environment and the prescribed pre-harvest interval for its use is long so it would not be expected to show up in any marketed food. It is worth mentioning that at one time or another traces of fifty two pesticides have been detected on blueberries, but never streptomycin. For now, the story is more along the lines of the impropriety of an alarmist press release before the details of the actual study are made available.

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A nail polish to detect drugs?

Wed, 09/03/2014 - 21:49

The press went crazy jumping all over a report that four North Carolina students invented a nail polish to detect "date rape" drugs. Just dip a finger into a drink, and watch for a colour change that is indicative of the beverage having been doctored with rohypnol, Xanax or gamma hydroxybutyrate, the classic date rape drugs. At least so goes the story.. Actually, the nail polish doesn't yet exist, it is just a concept. It is, however, a legitimate idea, given that test strips, coasters, straws and even glasses that change colour in response to the presence of certain drugs do exist.

The chemistry here is fascinating but very complex. It is based on a polymer which is cross linked after being treated with the drug that is to be eventually detected. The drug forges a space in the polymer matrix according to its molecular shape. It is then washed out leaving a cavity in the shape of the drug molecule. The same drug is then coupled to a dye and is added to occupy the spaces that have been vacated. When the polymer, which in theory could be incorporated into nail polish, is then dipped into a beverage, should any of the same drug be present, it will displace some of the the embedded molecules which after being bumped out release the dye that was attached.

Just how well the technology works still has not been properly established. There are many substances such as juices or milk that can interfere with the reaction.Furthermore there is a whole host of other potential date rape drugs like ketamine, zolpidem, barbiturates, chloral hydrate, opiods and phencyclidine that would not be detected. And of course the most widely used date rape drug is alcohol. Then there is also the issue that such products suggest that it is a potential victim's responsibility to detect the presence of a drug. As is far too common, press reports have been far too zealous in hyping this "invention."

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You Asked: Why is Canada banning citronella-based insect repellants?

Wed, 09/03/2014 - 21:43

Health Canada is set to ban topical mosquito repellants that contain oil of citronella. The oil contains methyleugenol, a compound that has caused liver tumours in rats fed in large doses, but this really has no relevance to topical application by humans While there is no evidence of harm from any topical application, other than the rare allergic reaction, no formal studies of safety have been carried out. In this case Health Canada seems to be applying the letter of the law. Insecticides, whether natural or synthetic, are regulated by Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) which is distinct from the Natural Products Directorate. The law is that any pesticide has to be backed up by appropriate safety studies and the requirements here are far more stringent than those for natural products. The required safety studies for citronella have never been carried out because the product is not patentable and no company wants to invest the necessary funds.

Contrary to arguments voiced by some conspiracy theorists, Big Pharma, producers of DEET, is not behind the ban. Citronella isn’t a significant competitor for the simple reason that it doesn’t work very well. Basically, what Health Canada is saying to citronella repellant producers is, “hey, you are claiming your product is an insecticide, then it has to be regulated as one and the same rules apply as for any other insecticide.” And since the safety studies are not available, the law says citronella cannot be sold as an insecticide.

What is disturbing here is that Health Canada has gone after what almost certainly is an innocuous product while allowing a nonsensical homeopathic mosquito repellant, Mozi-Q, to be sold, even furnishing it with a homeopathic drug identification number. This absurdity comes about because homeopathic products fall under different regulations. There is no requirement for safety or efficacy. A ridiculous situation. Especially given that Mozi-Q presents a real risk. People apply it, believing the homeopathic hype and then go out and get bitten by a mosquito that potentially injects a non-homeopathic dose of West Nile virus.

Anyone wishing to still use citronella extracts will have purchase them in the U.S. where FDA or EPA see no problems. Don’t look for citronella in Europe though, their regulations are even stricter than Canada’s. But dog owners who have been using oil citronella to condition dogs from barking don’t have to worry, citronella scents will still be allowed for the device that hangs around their pet’s neck. And citronella extract will continue to be used extensively in the perfumery industry. Nobody smells a problem there.

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You Asked: Can ASEA improve health as advertised?

Wed, 09/03/2014 - 02:52

When I first came across a “wonder” product called ASEA on the web, I thought someone had come up with a clever parody.  The Internet of course is full of of ads for supplements, drinks and gimmicks of every conceivable variety that promise to keep us out of the clutches of the grim reaper.  There are extracts of exotic berries and herbs.  There are miraculous minerals and mushrooms.  There are oxygenated and magnetized waters.  And then there is ASEA.

The product’s name derives from the word “sea” and the Latin prefix “a” meaning “from.”  From the sea!  A very appropriate name.  The ingredients on the label tell the story.  Distilled water and salt!  What we have here is sea water!  That’s why I thought this was a parody.  Selling salt water as an anti-aging regimen?  Isn’t that sort of like selling ice to Arctic explorers?  I thought someone was making fun of all the nonsensical products being sold.  But it turns out that is not the case.  This is a real product, sold for very real money.  Lots of very real money.

Asea is promoted in ads as “Time machine in a bottle,” the message obviously being that imbibing in this salt water will turn back the clock.  Of course you can’t make any such claim on the product itself because that would require some sort of evidence, so the bottle simply says, “advancing life.”  A nebulous, meaningless statement.  I suppose one could say that since salt is essential to life, it does advance life.  But if you are going to make a case for selling salt water as a rejuvenation therapy, you have to come up with something a bit more impressive than “advancing life.”  So what claim did ASEA come up with?  “The world’s only Redox Signaling supplement.”

Someone must have been reading the scientific literature and came across “redox signaling,” an interesting and evolving area of research.  Our nerve cells communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters.  Some of these chemical messengers are free radicals, which are highly reactive species that can either gain or loose electrons, or in proper terminology, take part in oxidation or reduction reactions.  The term redox signaling is used when the chemical messengers between cells are free radicals.  What this has to do with ASEA is a mystery.  And we don’t get much help from the information on the label which states that “ASEA is a proprietary blend of naturally occurring reactive molecules derived from a patented redox balance process.  This unique process rearranges the constituent components into a beneficial mixture that is critical to to proper balanced cellular chemistry enabling the immune system to function at its optimum level.”  This is nothing more than meaningless double talk.  What reactive molecules are they talking about?  The only ingredient listed is salt.

I thought that perhaps I could learn something about the mysterious chemistry involved by watching the company’s video entitled “The Science Behind Asea.”  Turned out to be nothing more than a comic series of testimonials about improved mood and energy.  Of course you can get testimonials about anything either by hiring actors to play the role of satisfied customers or by interviewing people who are experiencing a placebo effect.  I’m still not convinced that this whole thing didn’t start out as a joke by someone wondering if they could sell something as ridiculous as salt water as a health product.  They found it worked, and now they are in the business that amounts to selling hair dye to bald people.  What I have to say to people promoting ASEA is “see ya.”

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Flowers, bells, birds didn’t lift the plague from all their houses

Sun, 08/31/2014 - 19:13

Because of the Ebola crisis, the word “quarantine” is appearing with increased frequency in news reports and daily conversations.

The term derives from “quaranta giorni,” meaning 40 days, and traces back to the 14th century when the city of Dubrovnik, now in Croatia, was under Venetian rule. The Great Pestilence, or the Great Plague, as it was known at the time, was devastating Europe. As a form of protection, Dubrovnik declared that all ships and people had to be isolated for 40 days before entering the city. Later, the disease would be referred to as the Black Death — probably because of the gloom it brought, although some theorize that the “black” referred to the terrible dark bruising of the skin due to internal bleeding, a hallmark of the disease.

Between 1345 and 1360, the plague wiped out roughly half of Europe’s population. The cause was unknown, but it was clear that the disease was contagious. Once it took hold, it spread like wildfire. In Milan, doctors advised that victims should be walled up in their homes along with healthy family members — a measure that apparently worked, since Milan had the lowest death rate from the plague in all of Italy.

It would not be until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin of France’s Pasteur Institute would identify a bacterium as the causative agent while investigating an outbreak of the plague in Hong Kong. The bacterium, eventually named Yersinia pestis in his honour, is thought to have originated in Asia, where it found a hospitable environment in fleas, which would readily transmit it through their bites. Since fleas infested rats and mice, rodents that were regular passengers on ships, the disease spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.

Infection with the bacterium can take several forms, with “bubonic plague” being the most notorious. This term originates from the Greek for “groin,” due to the characteristic swellings of the lymph glands particularly in the groin, an area close to the legs, where flea bites are most likely to occur. In “septicemic” and “pneumonic plague,” bacteria enter the bloodstream and can be transmitted from person to person, especially though the coughing associated with pneumonic plague.

When science fails to find an explanation for a phenomenon, superstition and quackery rush in to fill the void. And there certainly was no scientific explanation for the plague in the 14th century. The Church decreed that the Black Death was punishment for human sin. Lepers, because of their outward signs that resembled the plague, were blamed, as were astrological alignments and volcanic eruptions.

“Flagellants” believed God’s punishment could be avoided by stripping to the waist and whipping themselves as they marched from town to town. Jews were also targeted, accused of poisoning wells. Many Jewish communities in Europe were exterminated in hopes of bringing an end to the plague. In Cologne, thousands of Jews were burned alive after being accused of starting the plague. Black cats also became victims. They were thought to be witches in an animal form, casting their spell on the population. Since cats were a natural enemy of the disease-carrying rats, hunting them actually increased the spread of the plague.

As far as treatments went, there were none. Since the plague was often accompanied by a terrible smell, people walked around with flowers under their noses hoping to ward off the stench and the disease. This, of course, did nothing. Neither did the burning of aromatic woods to purify the atmosphere. Other attempts to remedy the “bad air” included the ringing of bells and the firing of guns. Birds were released indoors so that the flapping of their wings would break up the pestilence. Bathing was thought to be dangerous, as was the consumption of olive oil. And one of the most bizarre pieces of advice given to men was that if they valued their lives, they must preserve their chastity. Apparently no such advice was given to women.

The belief that pleasant smells were of some help persisted through the 17th century, when the Great Plague once again terrified Londoners. The classic children’s rhyme about a “pocketful of posies” dates back to that time. Posies were flowers, but as the lyrics indicate, they did not do much good against the “ring of rosies,” the rose-coloured rash in the form of a ring around flea bites. The outcome of the disease was clear: “Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down.” And some 100,000 citizens of London did.

Holding garlic in the mouth, swishing vinegar or burning sulphur to get rid of the “bad air” did no good. Smoking was also thought to be protective, and even children were forced to smoke tobacco, with threats of being whipped if they didn’t.

Cases of the plague still occur today, but they are rare. The first effective treatment appeared in 1932 with the advent of the sulphonamide drugs, but today the standard treatment is in the form of such antibiotics as streptomycin, chloramphenicol, tetracycline and the fluoroquinolones.

Unfortunately, the possibility of using the bacterium as a form of biological warfare exists. Indeed, recognition of the contagious nature of the plague resulted in the first example of biological warfare in 1347, when in an attack on the Crimean city of Caffa, the Mongols catapulted the bodies of plague victims over the city walls. More recently, in 1940, a Japanese plane dropped a load of infected rat fleas over a Chinese town, causing a local plague. Today, stories circulate about various countries having developed strains of the bacterium that are resistant to all drugs as bacterial warfare agents.

But for now, our major worry is the Ebola virus, and quarantine is the most effective way to halt its spread. In this case, about 21 days after exposure to an infected person is sufficient, that being the incubation period for the disease. If no symptoms appear after this period, there is no worry about the infection being passed on. It appears that contagion occurs only when symptoms are present. But if quarantine isn’t instituted when appropriate, we may have to confront a scourge that will outdo the Black Death.

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You Asked: Is fish really brain food?

Sun, 08/31/2014 - 01:07

Is fish really brain food? P.G. Wodehouse certainly thought so. In his wonderful “Jeeves” stories, Bertie Wooster encourages his brainy butler to eat more fish whenever a particularly challenging problem arises. But to what extent does fiction mirror real life? One can make a theoretical case for fish consumption based on the fact that docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the famous omega-3 fat in fish, is the main component of brain cell membranes, and that communication between brain cells is a function of the integrity of these membranes.

There is actually some experimental evidence to support a link between fish consumption and brain health. Infants born to mothers who consumed more fish during pregnancy have been shown to have improved verbal intelligence, better fine motor skills and pro-social behavior. A study has also correlated fish intake during pregnancy with IQ in 8-year old children. It is likely that these effects are due to increased blood levels of DHA in the offspring, but as is generally the case, the scenario is complicated. When blood is drawn from umbilical cords, it turns out that the concentration of the various fatty acids depends on the genetics both of the mother and the baby. In other words, depending on genotypes, an infant may benefit more or less from fish in the mom’s diet.

What about brain function at the other extreme of life, senior citizens? To get some insight here, researchers examined MRI brain scans of 260 individuals over the age of 65 who had normal cognitive function looking for differences associated with fish consumption as determined by dietary surveys. Subjects who ate baked or broiled but not fried fish every week had larger grey matter volumes in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and cognition. Interesting, but there was no determination as to whether these increased volumes translated to any change in brain power.

Curiously, no relationship was found with omega-3 fat intake as calculated from the diet surveys, suggesting that eating fish weekly may prevent brain ageing regardless of omega-3 content. But it may also be that eating fish is a marker for some other effect. People who ate fish were more likely to have a university education than those who didn’t. So perhaps it is mental exercise that was responsible for the changes in brain volume. There is also evidence that eating fish reduces the risk of heart disease. Maybe eating fish makes people smarter and more capable of understanding why they should be following the guidelines designed to reduce the risk of heart disease.

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