Friday, 27 July 2007


Posting is going to be fairly sparse until the autumn. But here are four reports which might be of interest:

1) I've mentioned research on cortisol levels in foetuses correlating with the mother's state of mind. Now it appears this may be a mechanism which disturbs infants' sleep, and this is known to have physiological consequences.

2) People may get 'real symptoms' from worrying about phone masts.
"Belief is a very powerful thing," said Professor Elaine Fox, of the University of Essex, who led the three-year study. "If you really believe something is going to do you some harm, it will."
3) Identification may be an important factor in determining obesity levels. When family members share a condition, genes are often reached for. In our book we suggest this may lead us away from thinking in terms of identification. Now, some research suggests that having an overweight friend may influence your own weight.

4) Can pets detect when people are soon to die? Strangely, the attending doctor is reported as limiting the perceptive cat's options to a 'biochemical explanation' or 'being psychic'. Can't a cat pick up behaviour?

Saturday, 14 July 2007

The Low Season

I'm busy preparing four papers at the moment, including one for a workshop on 'mathematics and narrative' in Delphi next week, along with two grant proposals. It would probably be more efficient to do this sequentially rather than in parallel, but deadlines force the issue.

So not much time for psychosomatic medicine. I'm mulling over some thoughts about this idea that paediatric medicine needs to be based on studies of children, rather than than assuming they're little adults. An appropriate thought for those adopting the psychosomatic approach too. You may recall that experimenters found it easier to remove warts by suggestion in prepubescent children rather than older subjects.

Thin pickings then, but I see the Hay Festival organisers have put material online, so you tune in to Darian and my presentation here.

Friday, 6 July 2007

After those statistics

After the observation that assessment for heart disease based on a study of an American town named Framingham overestimated the risk for men in Britain, and men and women in Germany, we now have a more accurate risk score called QRISK. The authors, however, note that
since the validation was performed in a similar population to the population from which the algorithm was derived, it potentially has a "home advantage." Further validation in other populations is therefore required.
One good place to try it out would be Hungary, which has surprisingly high rates of coronary death. 'Social distrust' and 'rival attitude' seem to be key factors.

After those statistics, try an interview with James Lynch, author of the excellent Broken Heart. One day I'll take a look at The Language of the Heart: The Body's Response to Human Dialogue and A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Genes and Disease

In our book we quote David Weatherall, the director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University, saying
When scientists announce that they have discovered a ‘gene’ for heart disease or asthma, what they really mean is that they have identified one of a number of genes that may, under certain circumstances, make an individual more or less susceptible to the action of a variety of environmental agents, some of which are known to be involved in our common intractable diseases.
It appears now that molecular biology is going through some profound changes, which will make those simplistic 'one gene - one disease' stories even less believable.
It is beginning to dawn on biologists that they may have got it wrong. Not completely wrong, but wrong enough to be embarrassing. For half a century their subject had been built around the relation between two sorts of chemical. Proteins, in the form of enzymes, hormones and so on, made things happen. DNA, in the form of genes, contained the instructions for making proteins. Other molecules were involved, of course. Sugars and fats were abundant (too abundant, in some people). And various vitamins and minerals made an appearance, as well. Oh, and there was also a curious chemical called RNA, which looked a bit like DNA but wasn't. It obediently carried genetic information from DNA in the nucleus to the places in the cell where proteins are made, rounded up the amino-acid units out of which those proteins are constructed, and was found in the protein factories themselves.

All that was worked out decades ago. Since then, RNA has been more or less neglected as a humble carrier of messages and fetcher of building materials. This account of the cell was so satisfying to biologists that few bothered to look beyond it. But they are looking now. For, suddenly, cells seem to be full of RNA doing who-knows-what.
There follows a description of the different jobs performed by RNA. Then,
...evolution is as much about changes in the genes for small RNAs as in the genes for proteins—and in complex creatures possibly more so. Indeed, some researchers go further. They suggest that RNA could itself provide an alternative evolutionary substrate. That is because RNA sometimes carries genetic information down the generations independently of DNA, by hitching a lift in the sex cells. Link this with the fact that the expression of RNA is, in certain circumstances, governed by environmental factors, and some very murky waters are stirred up...What is being proposed is the inheritance of characteristics acquired during an individual's lifetime, rather than as the result of chance mutations.
It remains to be seen though whether medical researchers take this opportunity to rethink the complexity of the human organism as a physical, personal and social being, or whether another bout of reductionism ensues.