Category Archives: Science

ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was broadly introduced to the world in 1939 when the Iron Horse of Baseball Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with this progressive neurodegenerative disease. Motor neurons that reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body are affected, impairing the ability to use the hands and feet, speak, swallow, and breathe. The ALS Association website has more information.

I’ve been learning about this disease because two of my friends have been diagnosed with it recently. It feels extra shocking to me because the incidence in the general population is supposedly only 2 in 100,000, yet my town is smaller than that and there are many more in my area living with the disease.

I read the highly recommended memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Alborn, the true story of Morrie Schwartz and the weekly conversations they had together while Morrie managed his ALS diagnosis. Tuesdays is excellent because Alborn was able to capture Morrie’s hard-earned wisdom about life, death, and humanity and share it with the world.

As Alborn learned from his weekly chats, spending time with people who know they are dying brings great gifts. I am reminded to live each day more fully, to appreciate the people in my life, to be thankful for my health and circumstances, to cherish each moment in its own right, and to let go of the little things that don’t really matter. I also regret not spending more time with these friends before their diagnosis. I always thought there would be more time. All of these get thrown by the wayside while I’m rushing to and from the kid’s school and the grocery store, feeling exhausted and behind in every task.

Spending time with my friends who have ALS releases my petty disappointments and frustration with the day-to-day. The concerns melt away like sand through my fingers after only a few minutes with my friends. For their time and candor, and the clarity it brings me, I truly thank them.

What I’ve learned about ALS so far:

  • The disease is poorly understood and there is still no known cure.
  • ALS is not wholly inherited genetically. It may be affected by environmental factors and can strike anyone.
  • Most people diagnosed with ALS live from 2-10 years after diagnosis, with some exceptions.
  • A couple of drugs are in clinical trials that could slow the progression of the disease.
  • Donations can be made to support the search for a cure at The ALS Association.

If you know someone with ALS, spend time with them. Listen and learn. Cherish every person in your life and every moment. Then make a donation so that someday, ALS will just be an entry in the history books.

Genetically Predisposed to be an Egg Donor?

New research says that “niceness” may be part of our genetic make up, that we are predisposed to be kind and generous because our DNA contains genes that control the function of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, receptors for hormones that play a role in our maternal instincts, attitudes about civic duty, and responsibility to others.

I say we because this article makes me wonder if sperm and egg donors like me, and like those mentioned in the article that were more likely to be “giving blood, working for charity or going to PTA meetings,” were genetically predisposed toward donation. More than one chapter of my memoir addresses why I chose to become an egg donor, and for me, the underlying theme was generosity. I saw it as “one level up from” giving blood, with even greater impact in someone’s life.

Photo by Duncan on Flickr.

If I take my Wilde 🙂 speculation one level further, are children conceived from donor eggs and sperm statistically “nicer” because they got half their DNA from these generous people? And if so, are our populations slowly evolving toward kindness and generosity? Gosh, I hope so. I guess only time will tell.

Real Costs of Invasive Species in the Great Lakes and Beyond

In February I blogged here about the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to protect the Great Lakes from invasion by the Asian carp, which have the potential to further decimate native species and cost millions in economic losses and recovery efforts.

I’ve been drawn to the study of invasive species for many reasons. Study and management are multidisciplinary, requiring collaboration between scientists, policy makers and government, industry, farmers and fisherman, recreation, and the public. No solution is black and white and understanding must occur at both the global and microscopic level to develop complex solutions that often completely satisfy no one.

In a recent study, researchers from two American universities and one in the Netherlands have collaborated to calculate the approximate annual financial losses due not to the Asian carp that is poised to invade, but instead to other invasive species contained in the ballast water of ocean-going vessels that travel in Great Lakes water bodies. Researchers estimate that damages are $138 to $800 million annually, an underestimate that does not include Canadian costs.

Ballast water is simply fresh or sea water taken in and out of the holds and tanks of ships to manage stability and maneuverability during transport and the loading and unloading of cargo. Although ballast water discharge regulations were developed by an international convention in 2004, enforcement by the U.S. Coast Guard is imperfect. Appropriate ballast water discharge should occur in high seas (over 2000 meters in depth) or through chemical or mechanical treatment when seas are low and all discharges are to be logged.

Despite recent regulation, several invasive species have been transported throughout the world via ballast water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 30% of invasive species in the Great Lakes were introduced via ballast water discharges. At least 25 non-native fish species have been introduced to the Great Lakes via ballast water since the 1800’s. First discovered in 1988, and now widespread in the U.S. and Canada, the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) was introduced via ballast water from the Caspian and Black Seas of Asia. A single sea lamprey, originally native to the Atlantic Ocean, also kills about 40 lbs. of Great Lakes fish in its life time, preferring lake trout, salmon, rainbow trout (steelhead), whitefish, chubs, burbot, walleye, catfish, and sturgeon.

A more recent trend, scientists and economists believe that converting environmental impacts to dollar values will help policy makers in cost/benefit analysis of future policy changes, management and prevention, and mitigation efforts. Similar approaches are being used to determine the most cost-effective approaches to control and mitigate global climate change. The numbers in the above study were used, for example, to evaluate the potential benefit of switching away from shipping toward other modes of transportation, noting that the switch could pencil out in our financial favor in less than 30 to 50 years. The real question is, can we wait that long?


Crayfish photo courtesy of Examining Global Environmental Problems 2011, Lamprey on Lake Trout photo from Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

BPA Links to Infertility

When the fertility doctor broke the news to us that my husband was struggling with his fertility, our first question was, “What’s causing it?” We wanted to know how we ended up there, and whether something could be done to solve the issue. The doctor explained that rarely do families determine the actual cause of infertility issues. A few expensive tests (often not covered by health insurance) are available to check the function of a woman’s reproductive system, but for most people who suffer through it, no explanation is found and doctors are left to simply treat the symptoms with fertility drugs or, as in our case, suggest the use of egg and/or sperm donors and adoption.

My first instinct was to suspect chemical exposure through his job as an auto technician. He’s touched and breathed an array of toxic chemicals over more than 25 years to maintain other people’s cars. My initial assumption was part of a culturally pervasive idea that increases in infertility could be due in part to subtle exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment.

One industrial chemical (and subsequent environmental pollutant), Bisphenol-A (BPA), found in hard plastics and known as an estrogen-disruptor and for its negative effects on the heart and central nervous system, has also recently been linked to changes in immune response within the uterus. Because of its chemical similarity to the hormone estradiol in the body, BPA binds to proteins meant to interact with estradiol.

Many Washingtonians are familiar with BPA because it was part of a phased ban in Washington State in 2010. By July 1, 2012, no one can make or sell reusable sports bottles, sippy cups, or baby bottles containing BPA in the state. Last year, Oregon considered a similar ban that would also add baby formula containers to the list along with warning labels to consumers.

New research in the March Journal of Reproductive Toxicology shows that mice exposed to BPA in their food can experience bacterial infections in the uterus (pyometra), a condition observed in cats and dogs.

Whether a causal link exists between BPA and human uterine infertility is too soon to tell. The study focused on pathological changes and not fertility rates and uterine changes due to BPA exposure haven’t been scientifically demonstrated in humans. However, this research will continue the scientific quest to understand what role subtle environmental exposures have on human fertility rates. My guess is that once the data are finally in, the list of toxic chemicals effecting fertility will be much longer than we ever suspected.

Our Brethren: The Chimpanzee

When I decided to be Snooki for Halloween two years ago, I started watching episodes of The Jersey Shore. Originally, I wanted to perfect the costume and the accent, perhaps emulate some of her mannerisms. I was very happy with how my costume turned out (below). But once Halloween was over, I missed watching the show and I couldn’t figure out why exactly, or for that matter, why reality TV has been so successful over recent years compared to scripted shows.

I think I’ve figured out at least one reason. In sensational reality TV, whether the characters are eating unusual insects, competing to be the last person on an island, discovering paternity on Jerry Springer, or fighting in a club on the Jersey Shore, we see our ancient selves in them, our wildest nature, a more instinctual lifestyle that many of us have abandoned for more refined and civil decorum. We see the lifestyle of our ancient brethren, with whom we share 96% of our DNA, the chimpanzee.

But what makes these shows so appealing to us is that these people are living the wilder life, a life full of emotions and feelings that we still possess and feel with animal intensity, but most of us win the struggle to suppress them.

As exhibit A, I present a short clip from a BBC Wildlife documentary on chimp behavior, showing a male display of authority and dominance.

Exhibit B is a clip from the reality TV series The Jersey Shore, filming in Italy. Mike, The Situation, is fed up with Ronnie’s behavior.

I was reminded of the similarities between us and the chimpanzees when I saw this article today at Science Daily News, about how chimpanzees have policemen within their groups to help maintain social order. My first thought was, of course they do. They probably also have twenty other cultural role similarities that haven’t even occurred to us before.

As you might have heard, Snooki is now engaged and with child. She said she won’t spend the summer at the Jersey Shore because, “those days are over.” Being pregnant and engaged is changing her behavior. I haven’t looked yet, but I bet I can find a chimpanzee nature show or article that asserts that female chimpanzees participate in fewer risky behaviors when pregnant. If you find one, please do let me know.

What do you think of reality TV? Do you see any connections to your own primal nature? Which wild shows are your favorite vices? I’d love to hear your comments.

More Fertility Help On the Horizon

Although the authors of a new Swedish study suggest it will be ten years before this technology is available to the public, a new molecule Cdk1 has been discovered that can help the maturation of mammalian eggs.

Women whose bodies are unable to produce mature eggs can not currently be helped by in vitro Fertilization (IVF).

With the success rates for fertility treatments growing steadily via discovery of new technologies and greater understanding, the term “struggling with infertility” might soon become a faint memory.

Dr. Seuss Must Be Rolling

I don’t usually watch TV commercials. I have a DVR and generally fast forward through them. I LOVE movies and I respect the artistry involved in film making, including an especially creative commercial, but I also think of most commercials as subliminal messages that whisper, “You’re not good enough unless you own this (look like this, etc.).”

Last night, when the kids made me stop fast forwarding so they could watch an ad for the new movie, The Lorax, but instead we discovered a car commercial, I was sure that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) must be rolling over in his urn.

There he was, the modern cartoon Lorax, romping through a car commercial in an untouched Truffula forest, without a hint of irony. While searching for a clip of the commercial I discovered that several people had beaten me to my rant, including this article, Is the Lorax Really Just Hawking Big SUV’s? at The National Post.

The Lorax has been one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books since I was a budding environmental scientist, collecting frogs at the age of six from the corn field ditch in my back yard. For those of you that are not familiar, Seuss’ classic clearly refers to a bad guy, the Once-ler, in search of fortune, who cuts down every last Truffula tree in the forest to be made into a variety of unneccessary consumer goods, converting the land from fairytale to wasteland, forcing several dependent species to relocate or die. The Lorax has been accused over the years of being “anti-capitalist” and “blatant indoctrination of children,” and perhaps rightly so. But would Dr. Seuss approve of the Lorax appearing in a car commercial, even if that commercial mentions fuel economy?

We can’t ask him, but if you read The Lorax yourself, I think you’ll agree that this beloved author would be very disappointed. Why couldn’t the Lorax appear in commercials for taking the bus or riding bicycles, for energy conservation, or alternative energy like solar or wind power? The answer is $$. None of these environmental ventures spend (or can afford) that kind of bank on marketing the way car companies do, so the environmental movement is destined to be helmed by certainly less recognizable and dynamic cartoon characters.

A part of me is really torn on this issue. My grandfathers and my sister worked for car companies in Michigan before the jobs moved to Mexico and other countries. But if I’d written a book with as much staying power and clear message as The Lorax, leaving it behind among my greatest works for the world to appreciate some twenty years after my death, only to have its core message and ideals polluted (pun intentional) for financial gain, I think my ghost would haunt these folks who truly missed my point with Paranormal Activity proportions.

I will definitely watch the newest remake of The Lorax with my kids, at home on DVD, where we can fast forward through the commercials (for things other than movies that now grace even DVDs), and pause to discuss the global significance of Seuss’ story. Is it brainwashing? You betcha. Just like learning about Dr. Martin Luther King’s message. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes and make better choices in the future, we won’t have any natural resources left to fight over.

But please, don’t take my word for it. Reread The Lorax and decide for yourself.

Further reading:

NPR blog post The Lorax Speaks for the SUV’s

The Washington Post The Lorax Helps Market Mazda SUVs to Elementary School Children Nationwide