#microbiome: unraveling truth from hype

by Ella Epstein Almost every day, new research emerges on how the microbiome* will help us address obesity, protect us from disease, or shape our behavior. Recent research ties the microbial communities inside us to everything from digestive disorders to autism. Scientists are looking to harness and manipulate the microbiome to treat diabetes, malnutrition, obesity, asthma, colon cancer, and more. If that sounds like an ambitious goal, it is--scientists have not yet developed any FDA-approved drugs that alter the microbiome. Last month, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced their National Microbiome Initiative, investing over $121 million to “to foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.” As with any sweeping initiative (see the 2013 BRAIN Initiative designed to advance technologies for neuroscience research), hype and truth can often become dangerously intertwined, breeding misconceptions about science that can do serious damage to people’s health. Some people, feeling like they've exhausted the possibilities of modern science, try to hack their microbiome to improve their health. In fact, as we learn more and more about the ecosystem inside us, the number of ways to “cleanse,” “detox,” and “restore” balance in our bodies grows and grows. Take the booming,

Early fetal phase linked to cardiac risk factors

By Ilaria Ceglia Occasionally here at The Incubator, we like review an empirical article from the scientific literature that is openly accessible to all of our readers. This post reviews the following article: Jaddoe, V. W., de Jonge, L. L., Hofman, A., Franco, O. H., Steegers, E. A., & Gaillard, R. (2014). First trimester fetal growth restriction and cardiovascular risk factors in school age children: population based cohort study. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 348. The first trimester of pregnancy is critical for the development of fetal cardiovascular and metabolic organs including the heart, and may also permanently affect their structure and function throughout childhood and adulthood. However, despite a large amount of research, questions remain regarding the link between early fetal life and later development of cardiac risk factors. Fetal Crown-to-Rump Length Vincent Jaddoe and colleagues conducted a nested prospective cohort study that included 1,184 children, followed from just after conception to age six. Crown-to-rump length (a common way to measure the size of a fetus, equal to the length from the top of the head to the bottom of the buttocks) was used as a first trimester growth outcome measure in all children whose mothers had a known

Cut-up girls experience more.

written by Danielle Sonnenberg Bodies sell products. Open any magazine in America and you will see parts of bodies used to sell everything from shoes to Coca-Cola.  An advertisement for Tom Ford perfume shows a bottle of perfume between a woman’s breasts; a fashion spread for the magazine Details shows a woman being used as a table, and topless buff men sell Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. The common term for this is objectification—the act of reducing a person down to just her or his parts, and has been discussed by a range of philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Martha Nussbaum’s more modern seven attributes of objectification. image thanks to Matthew Rutledge While many have touched upon the topic, Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor at Colorado College, were the first two academics to specifically use the term objectification theory to describe how American culture encourages young girls to develop an outsiders’ view on themselves.  Basically, women begin to treat themselves as objects to be decorated rather than people with a mind and a voice who can express their ideas and opinions. Objectification means that a person is

Podcast: Menopause and Mental Health

This episode we talk with Beth Waters of the McEwen Laboratory about menopause, and how estrogen affects the brain in mice. Beth takes us through her research and its implications, not only in women, but in understanding the brain in general, and how it reacts to stress.   Photo courtesy of Elf Sternberg    

Hard Paste Problems

By Nadia Jaber Picture courtesy Paul Townsend I was 18 when I found out that I was one of millions on the path to cardiovascular disease. My high cholesterol levels left me to begrudgingly curb my cheese addiction and, even worse, work out. We all know that eating right and exercising regularly can protect our bodies, but what happens when that isn’t enough? I learned that for people like me, nature is just as big of a contributor to heart health as nurture. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a collection of diseases in which clogged blood vessels cause damage to the heart, brain, arms, legs, or lungs. CVD begins with atherosclerosis, a medical term for hardened arteries (it literally means hard paste in Greek). Cigarette smoke, high blood pressure, or elevated levels of cholesterol can cause damage to the inner lining of blood vessels. More cholesterol and other fats, as well as cells and cellular debris, become stuck at the injury site and form a mass called a plaque. The plaque will continue to grow in thickness and in area over many years, and may grow so large as to completely block blood flow through the artery. In other cases,

Butterflies in the Stomach

By Gabriel Gasque Grasshopper Taco With the first bite, the crisp pungency of chopped raw onion and the refreshing and aromatic flavor of cilantro were liberated in my mouth. You can take for granted those flavors in any street taco in Mexico City. Yet, here I was, some 2,000 miles north of the Mexican border, sitting in a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I had to bite into my taco a couple of times before the crunchy, roasted flavor of grasshoppers filled my mouth. Garlicky, limy, intense. Without fear of exaggerating, those grasshopper tacos were as good as any you can get in Mexico, if you dare to try them. While westerners mostly consider eating insects as repulsive or, if adventurous, maybe a novelty, we do still regularly consume insect products -- though much of the “insect-eating” stigmas are significantly reduced, if not altogether absent, with these products. For instance, we readily eat honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis - all obtained from honey bees (Apis melifera). We also extract the natural food color, carmine (E120), from cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), which is used as a dye for meat, sausages, poultry, surimi, cookies, icings, pie fillings, jams,

Smell Check

By Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab Taken from The Daily Doodle. My name is Maryam and i'm a congenital anosmic. I was born this way—a rare mutant with a lifelong inability to smell Anosmia literally means 'without smell. While I most certainly do have a nose (my grandmother would even say it's impressively large), it is incapable of telling my brain that it is sensing anything. When a person smells, what the nose is actually detecting is a series of tiny odor molecules in the air, which make their way through the nasal passage. There, they bind to odorant receptors located on the surface of olfactory neurons. These receptors recognize a given odor molecule by its characteristic shape and size. Once a particular receptor binds and recognizes an odor, it initiates a series of changes in the neuron. This neuron then *fires* a chemical message, setting off a chain of events—a signaling cascade—that relays the presence of that particular smell up to the brain. The average person can bind and distinguish up to 10,000 different odor molecules, which is a whole heck of a lot considering humans have a relatively poor sense of smell! I, on the other hand, have a genetic mutation—a

Get More From Your Healthcare Provider

By Michelle Lowes, MD PhD EmpowerMyHealth helping people make informed decisions in health and illness In my last post I laid out a problem: medical and health information is complicated and scattered, making it difficult to navigate the medical world. Yet, we’ve been hearing more about “patient involvement” in health care. What does this really mean? Probably different things to different people. I recently read Shannon Brownlee’s very interesting book Overtreated, which contains useful lists for the navigation process, summarized here: 1.  Find a primary health care provider that you can talk to. This is so important. Find someone you can communicate with and who can coordinate your care. Even if you change insurance, stick with them if you can. 2. Ask questions. It can be really hard to ask questions of your healthcare provider, and the more expert they are, the harder it can be to talk to them. You may need to make a separate appointment to have this conversation, but when it happens, take notes or record the it so you can get all of the important information.  It’s hard to simply remember everything! You may not have to make decisions during your appointment. You might be

Jumping species: How HIV entered our world

By Laura Seeholzer Monkey poop: a scientific goldmine Have you ever wondered what mysteries primate poop could unlock? No? Me neither. But luckily, Dr. Beatrice Hahn did. Dr. Hahn was deeply curious about the origin and evolution of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) so, naturally, her path lead to poop. Don’t see the connection? Well, during Dr. Hahn’s recent visit to The Rockefeller University, she walked us down the poop path toward some astounding conclusions. Why monkeys? When HIV was identified in 1983, researchers almost immediately suspected that the virus came from non-human primates. This suspicion was heightened when a team of researchers found AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), the fatal final stage of HIV, in a captive colony of macaque monkeys. Over the last two decades, Dr. Hahn’s team has shown that HIV originated in a sub-species of chimpanzee. But how did they solve this mystery? HIV in Humans HIV is diagnosed in humans by looking for antibodies against the virus in the blood and saliva. When infectious agents like viruses or bacteria enter our body, our immune system generates antibodies that help destroy the invaders. Importantly, each of the thousands of antibodies we make generally recognizes one type

On the Doctor-Patient Disconnect

By Michelle Lowes, MD PhD EmpowerMyHealth helping people make informed decisions in health and illness So you’ve been feeling unwell for a while, and you finally go to your doctor, who listens to your symptoms, does a physical exam and then says, “let’s do some tests.”  She doesn’t give you any idea what your aches and pains might be, but says, “call me for the results in a few days.” Nervously, you call back and speak to the receptionist, who tells you the doctor is busy and will call you back later that day. You wait for the call, which comes when you are in the middle of a meeting, so you can’t pick up. You call back again. When you finally stop playing phone tag, your doctor tells you, “Well, the lab tests are in, you have panosis [1]."  She starts to tell you what panosis is and how it’s treated, and she will call in a prescription at your local pharmacy. However, you are still trying to digest that you have panosis, and you are really not listening at all. You say “thanks” and hang up, bewildered, scared, anxious. You immediately google panosis, and check out the online